Thursday, April 29, 2021

April Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern Some people like to write long individual review posts and some do shorter reviews for a monthly round-up. Both types of posts have their pros and cons. Some people feel that not much analysis is possible in these round-ups, which is true. However,there is blog post fatigue associated with multiple reviews a month. My blog is already miniscule; with multiple posts, it will get further diluted in terms of people reading it.

Given the number of ARCs I read, from which text quotations are disallowed, that style of reviewing has fallen out of my reviewing style. For most of the books reviewed for publication, I do have links to longer reviews where I do more analysis and only put the bare bones of the plot here. For books that I don't review for publication, I do bigger reviews to support why I liked or did not like the books. I do realize that this means longer monthly posts, which could lead to skiming and online reading fatigue and thus skipping, but this style of blogging is what I am most comfortable with at this moment in time.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I read Jalaluddin’s début book Ayesha At Last with such joy two years ago, and I have been waiting ever since for her second book. To her new book, Jalaluddin brings a maturity and keener eye to emotional nuance. Rich with cultural texture, replete with social nuance, and brimming with humor, it is a delight from the first word to the last. Her talent is in allowing her characters to recount their own stories, whether they are the main characters or the secondary ones. No one gets short shrift in the attention she pays to creating whole, complex people. Jalaluddin’s signature style is in her social commentary on the lives led by Indian Canadian Muslims, the immigrants and the first generations. She had started this conversation with the reader in Ayesha At Last, and she continues on that conversation in Hana Khan Carries On.

This is a book that you need to spend some time immersed in. Jalaluddin’s lyrical prose brings to life a story in subtle shades of meaning and expression as the characters share with you their deepest secrets and dreams. Long-buried family secrets and hate-motivated attacks add to the complexity of the narrative. The book can be read is multiple ways: as Hana’s life journey, as Aydin’s character growth, as romantic love between the protagonists, as being Muslim in Canada, and so on. In this review, I have chosen a few of those strands that make up the narrative. You will have to read the book to discover them all. I cannot express how much Jalaluddin’s books please me; I hope they bring you joy as well. My review is here.

Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: mental illness, anxiety, social anxiety] Hogle has won me over with her back-to-back lovely stories. I would recommend both of her books, You Deserve Each Other and Twice Shy.

Maybell Parrish is restless and unhappy in a dead-end job, constantly thwarted in succeeding in it by her coworker. Still, it’s a step-up, in her mind, from her former housekeeping job at the indoor waterpark, so she works d. She’s a killer baker, and constantly daydreams of a life as a baker with her online friend as a future spouse. So when she finds out that she has inherited her great-aunt, Violet’s, mansion, Falling Stars, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, she dumps her job and walks away. While she had hoped, she would go out with a bang, her meek, people-pleasing nature only allows her to ghost her employer.

Wesley Koehler is a decidedly grumpy, decidedly reclusive groundskeeper of Violet’s estate. While she lived, he had persistently offered to care for her mansion and make it habitable. But the old lady had an indomitable nature and was adamant that nothing should be changed, and all he could do was offer her a place to stay in his small cottage. So when she passes away and he finds out that he has inherited Violet’s mansion, he immediately sets about planning what he will do to fix the mansion that has good bones and only needs thoughtful renovation. He also wants to build an animal sanctuary.

Plot twist! Maybell and Wesley are not the sole inheritors of Violet’s estate. Rather, they are co-owners. My review is here.

Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have found Sally Thorne’s stories always entertaining and well-paced to hold my interest from beginning to end. I find her a versatile writer. She has written three entirely different books in: The Hating Game, 99 Percent Mine, and now, Second First Impressions. The voice, the style of writing, the choice of words, the type of people, the very narrative—they are all different and unique to the stories she is telling. I know she has received hate for books 2 & 3 by readers who just wanted her to reiterate The Hating Game over and over again.

Ruthie Midona is someone who does not like surprises. She had been bullied as a child and unloved by her family. As a result, she is at pains to always be in control of herself, because when your life is out of control, all you can control is yourself. She is the acting manager of a luxury retirement community, where everything is just as it should be. She is dedicated to her job of caring for the quirky and opinionated denizens of the Providence Villa. Her boss is out for the nonce, and she is in charge.

Teddy Prescott fits the stereotype of a spoilt rich man who doesn’t like to bestir himself for anything involving work. He wants life to be easy and in constant motion, or at least that is what he projects to everyone. In reality, he dreams of owning a tattoo parlor, but he has to first convince his demanding father. Ruthie and Teddy meet when he shows up at the villa expecting to be in charge. My review is here.

The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Jessica “Jess” Davis’ has three people in her life whom she loves with every fiber of her being: her daughter and her grandparents. She is a freelance statistician working constantly to stay afloat as she financially supports her loving grandparents and largely-absent mother every once in a while, runs a house, and struggles to provide her daughter with the comforts, activities, and school involvement she believes every child should have.

When Jess loses a big client because she refuses to compromise her ethics in fudging data, she is forced to become a barista at her favorite coffee shop. For months on end, she was at the front of the counter, now she is behind it. Her humiliation is complete when the person she surreptitiously admires for his gorgeousness but thinks is surly and taciturn comes to order his customary drink and leaves her a big tip.

Dr. River Peña is that grumpy tipper and also a highly regarded biotechnology researcher, who has focused his research on a DNA-based matchmaking app. Along with his mentor, he has founded a company, which he would soon like to take to IPO, based on the research he completely believes in. My review is here.

Waiting for the Flood by Alexis Hall
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: What a stunning story! This was my first Alexis Hall story, and I now get his fame. The writing is...chef's kiss—delicate, unusually perceptive, and imaginative, in emotions and also in the usage of language. Gosh, if you've not read Hall, I'd urge you to give him a try. Do note that this is a slow story and reads like a short novel, despite being only 96 pages long. To me, this is its strength. You can luxuriate in the feelings of the protagonists to the fullest without feeling rushed or feeling like the story is moving to an outline.

Edwin is a book restorer. At the Bodleian in Oxford and at home, he restores all kinds of books that have suffered untold damage. He lives alone in a big house which he used to co-own with his then boyfriend of ten years. The ending of that relationship has been devastating for Edwin. As it is his stuttering has always been the cause of his low self-esteerm, this loss further erodes his self-confidence.

Due to heavy rains, the river close to his house floods his street and his house. It brings Adam, a city engineer, into his life. You would think that a hearty broad-shouldered man wouldn't be in tune with his emotions. But that is not true at all. In Hall's skilled hands, both men come to life in their individual ways and learn to share their sorrows and joys with each other. While is clear in his intentions and feelings, Edwin has to learn to trust and let Adam into his life.

Again, I sound like Hall's publicist, but this is a book worth savoring.

Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: "Indians," "blacks," racism] There was no reason to include these words or the racism that goes with them. They add nothing to the story other than to attempt to show that the heroine grew up poor and lived on the wrong side of the tracks and how her father sent her to the right side for school. Other than this racist backstory, there is no more racism in the book, because the book is only populated with white characters. This is a book written in 1995, so not that long ago, and I can't imagine how the writer was so racist even then.

If you are able to set the racism aside, this is a fabulous story. I would give it an 'A.' It is a gentle story of uncommon actions and reactions, large and small. What could've been clichéd is not because of the little twists and turns in the story that keep you guessing. What is very sweet about the story is that the hero acknowledges to himself and to the heroine that he is in love with her before the halfway mark. The rest of the book is of him waiting patiently for her to love him, then giving up in despair, and then her bringing him back into being alive by her love.

The setting is a daytime soap studio in Brooklyn. It's a scrappy, low-budget half-hour soap set in the Regency. The network execs were reluctant to part with even the small amount of money they did for it, but surprising everyone, the show took off and drew in rating higher than any of the hour-long soaps. It was a case of the engine who could. This was all because of Jenny cotton, the head writer. It all came from her head and she spent countless hours seven days a week working and reworking the stories, sometimes, making changes even the day of the taping. Luckly, her directors and producer were adept at finding good, professional actors who could adapt and act.

Alec Cameron is a well-known daytime soap actor. Since his childhood when he took care of his sister who died of leukemia, he is used to being the responsible person in the cast. If there was a crisis, he would step in and help fix things. However, right from the begining, his respect for Jenny's brilliance has him stepping aside to let her take the lead. He is fascinated with her right from the begining even though she is living with her boyfriend of fourteen years. Of course, he makes no moves on her other than to tell her that he in love with her. It is only when her boyfriend cheats on her and marries someone else that Alec makes clear that he is interested in marriage and only marriage with Jenny. But Jenny does not love him.

I really liked that Seidel does not have Jenny wallowing in her betrayal. She grieves, she plots some mild revenge, she works through her emotions, and she emerges stronger and more optimistic than before. Wonderful characterization there. Then Alec thinks she would fall in love with him. But there is no such automatic, clichéd response from Jenny. And this is the heart of the story, how she gets to love—at first, it was only the show she loved, now she could love Alec and the show.

After All These Years by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Even though the above book is the fourth book in the series and this is the first, I read Again first, fell in love with it, and went looking for more of Seidel's work. And while this was not as great as Again, it was still good. However, it is a different book, more a story of a family than a straightforward romance, even though it does follow some of the genre conventions about building a central love story to a HEA climax. However, a fair bit of the second half of the book is in the POV of the teen son of the heroine, which has nothing much to do with the romance and much to do with his own growth. It does go towards the character reformation of the hero, but given that it is from the boy's POV, it's about his growth arc as well.

Three children, two boys and a girl, were born days apart and lived in nearby houses in the South Dakota countryside outside a small town. The three families were close, supposedly, and despite tragedy robbing the kids of some of their parents, the kids grew up happy and wild and incredibly close to one another. Curry, Tom, and Huck made a blood bond to always stay true to each other and always tell each other the truth. As they grow up, first Tom dates Curry, but he is too intense with her, and she gravitates naturally to the sunny-tempered Huck and they marry at 18 and have a child. Tom and Huck are all fired up to join Vietnam, and only Tom returns home, not to South Dakota and only to marry someone else. He doesn't see Curry for 16 years.

That they love each other is a given. But can they build a life together? Curry is rooted into the South Dakota soil for generations. Tom is a footloose historic homes restorer of some repute who travels constantly, job to job. Curry built a flourishing paint business in town, raised a boy, and took care of her grandmother, who raised her, and her mother-in-law. Tom was an absentee husband and an absentee father to his daughter, whom he loves but rarely sees. Curry is building a life for herself for the future when her chick wiill fly the nest and she will have nothing to do. So she is going to college to earn a degree to teach history in school.Tom wants to continue his aimless life forever.

The story of the book is in the emotional growth of both characters, but especially Tom. What I loved this story is that Seidel does not make Tom renounce his work and live in the small town. Most small town stories are where the folks from the big city always give up their life there completely to move to the small town and remake their life from ground-up. It is a rare book that allows me to believe in future happiness for that person. In this book, both characters give a little and take a little and share a lot. Perfect HEA!

The Heiress Hunt by Joanne Shupe
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book is in a voice and style unlike Shupe's former books. The author has had help with this book, and I wonder if that has affected how the story was written and how it reads. It is disappointing. And...I had really been looking forward to it.

Maddie Webster is a high society girl in 1895 New York City. Used to attention and adulation all her life, Maddie is a strong, confident young woman. She convince her parents not to expect her to marry in her first season, but to give her three seasons or so to indulge in her love of tennis. Now, she's become a national championship player and is at the height of her sports career. However, she knows, that despite her parents indulging her wish for a few years, her only job is to get married. So she sets her cap at the biggest prize of the season, the British Duke of Lockwood, and he is slowly warming up to her. While he hasn't proposed, a proposal is imminent.

Into this lovely situation steps her old, beloved friend, who'd abandoned her in her first season and rushed away to Paris for three years. She had been heartbroken that he had completely broken away from their friendship.

Harrison Archer has been in love with Maddie for years. But one night, he overhears her confiding to her friend about him. Stung, he runs away to Paris, and throws himself into amassing a fortune and living a hedonistic life. He is fond of his delightful mistress, but parts with her when he decides to return to NYC when his father dies. His family had abused him as a child, always treating him as a worthless second son, so now, he is back to bankrupt them and ruin their standing in society. Oh, and now that he is back, he is determined to marry the love of his life, Maddie.

This entire characterization of Harrison is strange. Instead of rushing off to Paris, he could've had a clarifying conversation with his closest friend in the world, Maddie. For all that he claims to love her and her being his best friend, he does not even trust her enough to have one mature conversation. Of course, in that case, the book would've never been. Upon his return, he could've had that conversation, and yet, he never does. He could've have returned at any point in the three years he was gone if he was so much in love with her, but he never does. But now that he is back to wreak revenge, as a side benefit, he is going to pursue Maddie and win her. And while the romantic shenanigans are going on, the revenge plot is put on hold. Towards the end of the book, their relationship hits a stumbling block, and they decide to separate for a bit, and immediately, Harrison gets in touch with his mistress. Right.

At no point did Maddie think to talk to Harrison before he left or after he returns or send letters asking him why he had left so precipitously. Does she not want to solve the obstacle in the friendship with her best friend? She just accepts his abandonment. And then despite his having abandoned her and lived a hedonistic life, the minute she sets eyes on him upon his return, her previous friendship morphs into romantic interest. It's like a switch was thrown; there was no build-up to the new feelings. Maddie's behavior in the breakup of their relationship—the requisite clichéd black moment of the book—is immature at best. I think this was a major peeve of mine: the protagonists' immaturity and inability to have an adult conversation with each other.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

March Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern I am continuing apace with my exploration of audio books. As mentioned earlier, listening in the car works best for me. Sitting in a chair to listen, inevitably puts me to sleep. Before I started listening to books, I had no idea how vital a narrator is to how interesting a book is. The writer's skill matters of course but the performer's is just as important.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This book has been a fascinating read thus far. I am in two book clubs for the same book, and depending on the composition of the book group, different aspects of the readings have been highlighted. For me, comparing and contrasting the caste system in the US with the caste system in India has been an interesting exercise. People forget how much privilege they have until they have to grapple with something like this, and realize that so much of what goes on right in front of your nose, you are compeltely impervious to and do not notice its effect on others. I have listened to the author talk in a couple of talks. Brilliant thinker and brilliant book. It should required reading for all incoming college freshman.

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: self harm, anxiety] Grace Porter has a newly minted doctorate in astronomy from Portland. Eleven years of dogged hard work and weekends and summers sacrificed to research and achieving new and newer heights in her pursuit of perfection have left her burnt out. Job search has been heartbreaking as she realizes that the field of her dreams is rejecting her Black heritage. Whereas her father, the Colonel, has pushed and prodded her and expected perfection from her emotionally and academically, her mother only wants her to be happy and fulfilled in whatever she chooses to pursue.

Grace wishes she could disappear in the orange groves of her childhood home in Florida. Problems don’t disappear even if you choose to hide, but taking a break is definitely called for every once in a while, before you splinter into tiny particles and get scattered among the stars. In a bid to shore her spirits up, Grace goes off to Las Vegas with her dearest friends. And there, one night, she meets a girl with stars in her eyes and roses in her cheeks; they get drunk; they get married; and they buy a lock together with matching keys and rings. After a night together, the girl leaves behind a love note to her Honey Girl with a calling card and a photo.

Yuki Yamamoto is a Japanese American child of immigrant parents living in NYC. She is a medieval history major who waitresses for her living needs and assuages her lonely soul and those of others in a late night radio show called Are You There? My review is here.

Careless Whispers by Synithia Williams
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: miscarriage, wealthy tobacco company] Parenting has such an impact on how a child grows up into the adult the world sees. One child in this story was brought up to be tough as all heck and giving no way to any softness, and the other child was brought up in a loving family where all feelings were allowed to have free rein. Both adults are driven to succeed, but for one adult, there is never any other way of life, whereas the other one has realized that a fast-paced life is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Elaina Robidoux was trained from birth to one day assume control of Robidoux Tobacco and Robidoux Holdings. From leading boardroom meetings of directors to orchestrating her politician brother’s events, from being a socialite to a ruthless businesswoman, Elaina does it all. Growing up, she had been starved of love and acceptance by her parents, and in her adulthood, she finds herself seeking connections that ultimately fail to give her the love she is attempting to find. As a result, she considers herself unlovable and incapable of loving, pathetic and lonely. She is tired of being strong all the time, but being strong is all she knows.

Alex Tyson has joined his large family in Jackson Falls in a bid to slow down his life. His pedal-to-the-metal way of life leads to him having a heart attack at a very young age. It serves as a wake-up call that his life in New York City is killing him. So he packs everything up and heads south to Jackson Falls to become head of research and development at Robidoux Holdings. Unfortunately for him, he proceeds to clash with Elaina on a regular basis. My review is here.

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: [CW: Previously enslaved character and mention of enslavement. References to emotional and financial abuse of spouses and children.] KJ Charles continues to write book after book of near perfection. Every time I think, she can’t get better, she does.

Sir John Hartlebury “Hart” is a baronet, a prosaic member of the Upper Ten Thousand with a good-sized property, and also a tradesman efficiently managing his sister’s brewery. He is a large man with a large voice, who cannot be bothered to temper his views or mind his manners when in company. He retains an avuncular interest in the future of his niece, wanting her to acquire some town bronze, while safeguarding her fortune from the hands of fortune hunters.

Robin Loxleigh is a gazetted fortune hunter. He and his sister, Marianne, make no bones about them being down on their luck and from a small village in Nottinghamshire, here in London to make advantageous marriages. They charmingly cozen everyone into thinking them to be harmless, so Society casts a benign eye over their machinations.

Robin and Hart meet when Robin inveigles himself into the notice of Hart’s niece. Hart is instantly suspicious of Robin’s background and motives and sets detectives into digging up dirt on him. In town, he keeps an eagle eye on him and his doings. Deciding to corner Robin into a tight spot, Hart destroys him over a game of piquet to the tune of four thousand odd pounds. The next day, Robin arrives at Hart’s house penitent and defiant over his inability to pay. He leaves with an unholy bargain: his body for a month in exchange for forgiveness of his debt. That entire scene of negotiation is a master class in the subtle use of words juxtaposed with the shifting undercurrents of the unsaid. My review is here.

Cranford Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Prunella Scales
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I abandoned this book partway through. I just couldn't stand the performer. There are many characters in this story and so much of the story is all in conversation, and Scales just isn't up to the heft of this book. I have read the book and watched the miniseries, so I am familiar with the story, and yet, I was bored by Scales' characterization and had a difficult time figuring out who was who. Scales has a bland voice for the omniscent narration and has a tendency to mumble toward the en of sentences. In addition, she did not have much animation and differentiation in the tone and color and style of voices for the different characters. All in all, a disappointing narration.

One thing that listening to the story as opposed to reading the book or watching the miniseries brought up for me was Gaskell's peculiarity, or perhaps it was in literature in the Victorian times, in how her characters' perceive death and their lack of sensibility or emotions surrounding it. There is some sadness, some shock, but life as usual moves on pretty quickly. People died, and ho hum. I found this true in North & South by Gaskell as well, and I find it off-putting. Perhaps there is extreme sensibility in the unsaid that I am supposed to get and am not. Perhaps this is an incorrect reading of Gaskell. Anyway. It didn't work for me.

Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachael Joyce, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Historical Literary Fiction
Comments: What a decided pleasure to be listening to Juliet Stevenson read this book. I chose this book primarily because of her, and then also because the story reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I loved. I am about a third of the way through and thanks to Stevenson am following along really well. Stevenson is a treasure.

A middle-aged woman decides to throw in the towel and leave the teaching job she hates and the modest circumspect life she is leading to travel halfway around the world to New Caledonia in this post WWII story. She is on the search of the elusive golden beatle that she's been fascinated with since she learned about it at her father's knee. Her dream has gotten tarnished over the years, but never abadoned. Now she drags it out, spiffs it up with spit and polish, throws all her money at it, and finds herself on a ship steaming away to New Caledonia with an improbable and suspicious assistant and a stalker with PTSD.

This book embodies the type of heroine with whom I have some difficulty. I saw her type in Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant as well. These are taciturn, very emotionally subdued women, by circumstance, for whom we are supposed to feel sorry and have sympathy. In general, my interest is immediately peaked by the quiet ones, because they usually have much more going on for them, especially because it is not visible. However, the protagonists of both these books assume that the other protagonists have to give and give while they take and take. The little they do give is to be received with gratitude and be considered sufficient. This is the dynamic that both the authors set up for their protagonists. While both Joyce's and Grant's stories are marvelously written and the heroines are superbly drawn, I find that my sympathies are with the other protagonists, not the heroines. Those other protagonists deserve more from life than what the heroines are handing to them. Anyway. Despite these misgivings, I am going to continue on with the book to see where it leads.

Forbidden by Jo Beverley
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I am now part of a new Twitter book club called The Saturday Book Club with @willaful, @janetetennessee, @regency_gal, @growlycub, and @emmelnie. Forbidden is our first book. We are JoBev fans, so this was an enthusiastic choice. You can tell the caliber of the writer JoBev was from the opening pages. This is a re-read for me, but it has been so long since I last read it, as part of a binge-read of all of JoBev's works, that I have forgotten most of the story other than hazy recollections. We've had two rousing discussions for chapters 1-6, and I look forward to discussing the rest of the book in April, three chapters a week.

The Bluestocking Duchess by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a disappointing Justiss novel. Usually, I really like her work, but not this one. There was far too much navel-gazing and retreading of the same concerns throughout the novel without much forward movement. Another issue I had with the book was lack of sexual tension even though there was constant noticing of the facial charms of the other. The anticipation of a kiss or no kiss was used as sexual tension, but again a lack of forward motion there made the anticipation deflate for the reader. Here are the main issues concerning the protagonists.

She is an ancient Greek scholar but believes that no one knows of her expertise. She think she manages to even fool her father and brother despite actually doing a fair bit of the translation work. She is convinced that marriage would mean the end of her scholarship. So she is determined to be a spinster lady's companion. I was not sure how this would enable her to continue the work that "defines her." As a result, while she really wants to kiss the hero, she really does not want to marry him.

He has been newly elevated to a duke's heir. He really wants to kiss her but that would be dishonorable. Marrying her has never occurred to him because despite being attracted to her, his one brush with romance in the past has turned him off romance, even though it seemed like a rather innocuous experience to me. As a duke's heir, he is expected to marry well, and the daughter of the duke's librarian ain't cutting it. He wants to do his duty to the title and let the duke choose his bride but he really wants to kiss her.

Every time they think of wanting to kiss the other person, they retread the above. And frustratingly, I didn't get much of a look into their thoughts—how are they changing how they look at their lives and what they can to get what they want. Yes, of course, there's a HEA at the end of the book so there is forward progress in their relationship towards the end but they stay mired in these ruminations for far too long. Disappointing! I look forward to Justiss' next book because I really like her writing.

Dial 'A' for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I had been looking forward to reading this book ever since I first read the back cover copy. The author's introduction/author's note at the beginning of the book solidified my impression that this was going to be a good book. I enjoyed the dual timelines between the heroine's college life and current life, both progressing along in the story, and I enjoyed the prologue setup, though it was entirely telling rather than showing. On to the story and what caused me to rate it two stars.

I was uncomfortable with how after graduating from college, Meddie breaks up with the love-of-her-life (and the hero of this story) Nathan. She has made up her mind that she cannot abandon her mother and aunts and move away from home. So when Nathan gets the job in NYC, she tells him that she has stopped loving him, all so he wouldn't sacrifice his NYC job for her. He is utterly shocked. It is one thing to be self-sacrificing, but quite another to lie like that and break his heart. Why did she not opt for an honest conversation where she lays out all the reasons she cannot move? Instead, she chooses to break up with him in the worst way possible. He had hoped to marry her. I thought she was very insensitive to his feelings and immature in how she handled the situation.

My belief in her immaturity was solidified by what happens with her ill-fated date with Jake.

Yes, Jake is totally behaving like a creep and a threat to her in the car, and she is justified in being scared by his behavior. But tasering him while he is driving fast is a surefire way to getting both of them badly hurt or killed. Luckily for her, despite the car wrapping around a tree, she is OK and her car is dented but OK, but Jake is so badly hurt that she thinks he is dead. I was then horrified that instead of using his phone to call 911; or walking to get help; or somehow maneuvering him out of the way on the roadside, driving to get help, and returning with the help, she stuffs him in the trunk of her car.

Then she drives home to her mother and lets her mother and aunts take care of her and the situation. She shows no maturity even at 26, no remorse, and no conscience. I read in horrified fascination as she, her mother, and her aunts all eat and joke and laugh while Jake lies unconscious or dead in the car trunk. Then they drive him over and put him in a cooler, which the next day, gets put on a boat to an island, and so on.

I know we are supposed to be laughing along with all these shenanigans, but my sympathies were all with Jake and none with Meddie. I kept on hoping Jake would wake up soon and go on home, chastened by what has happened to him. Instead, the horror kept going on. I had hoped so much from this book. The author paints a wonderful picture of her aunties at the beginning, and I had hoped they would do madcap stuff, which they did, except, I did not want them do to it with a "dead" body. That was just not funny.

(BTW for a 5'2" petite girl to lift a deadweight grown man, who outweighs her by a lot and is much taller than her, is impossible. So that whole thing of her moving him from the driver's seat into the trunk is completely unbelievable. I know we're supposed to suspend disbelief at this point, but it is a bridge too far for me. Implausible things I can take in stride, but this is impossible.)

Thursday, February 25, 2021

February Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern i can't believe two months of the new year have whizzed past. Life for me has been tranquil these past few days, and I am immensely grateful. Routine is great. Boring is good. It leaves me time to think, to write, to dream a bit. To hope.

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: As I was finishing up with this story, I found myself getting more and more impatient with Margaret. I was shocked how little she mourns the death of both her parents and her godfather. She is more disturbed by the lie she told Mr. Thornton and ruminates on it and castigates herself endlessly, instead of being grief-stricken over those deaths. Ultimately, despite all the good and caring work she did in Milton, I found that she was undeserving of Mr. Thornton's love because she is unfeeling.

People could read her character as someone who feels deeply but hides it well because she doesn't know how to express it. However, her thoughts rarely roam to those she has lost, which I would suppose would happen if she cared deeply for them. People could read that as her mind protecting her from deep sorrow by not allowing her to dwell on them. Other than worrying about the lie she told Mr. Thornton and his opinion of her character, I never saw her even think to herself that she held him in affection or even love. My reading could be the "wrong" reading of the work, but I stopped sympathizing with Margaret towards the end. She did not deserve Mr. Thornton.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Prunella Scales
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Listening to Cranford narrated by Prunella Scales in the car these days. I am about half an hour into it, and while Scales is not bad, she just isn't as good as Juliet Stevenson. She gets rather lost on long sentences and tries to go fast and far on one breath and peters out.

The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I loved this enemies-to-lovers book. It is such a breath of fresh air in that it infuses the enemies to lovers trope with tenderness and softness and wonder as a contrast to the initial animus.

Shay Goldstein is Caucasian Jewish American and a producer at a public radio station in Seattle. She secretly yearns to be a host of her own show, but in ten years of taking crap from her sexist boss, she hasn’t made much progress in that direction. She still cannot get over the death of her beloved father from whom she got her love of public radio. Now, her mother has moved on and found a new love, and suddenly, Shay finds herself planning for her mother’s wedding when her mother should’ve been planning for hers. Shay finds herself disheartened and living alone in an echoing house.

Dominic Yun is Korean American and has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He is intent on making his mark in serious journalism. Inexplicably, he chooses to do so at a radio station despite his fear of public speaking, because he sees that as a springboard to journalism greatness.

Shay and Dominic’s animosity towards each other fuels great banter between them. Everyone around the station enjoys their snarky comments and brush-offs. So when Shay suggests a new show to draw more listeners in, their boss immediately thinks of them working together. The show’s premise is that a couple who has had a flaming falling out gets together to banter on their show, and while doing so, brings in experts to offer relationship advice and explore all different facets and psychology of relationships.

But Shay and Dominic haven't had a romantic relationship much less had it break up. So now they have to get to know each other in order to lie about a broken relationship. Life quickly becomes complicated for them. My review is here.

Then There Was You by Mona Shroff
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: miscarriage, school shooting, death of child, mourning loss of child, racism]

Annika Mehta is a rebel according to her traditional Indian American parents. She does not go to medical school, nor does she get a fabulous, high-paying job. Instead, she is a kindergarten teacher. It is a job she loves and at which she is really good. But to her parents, she is not achieving success. They are forever trying to set her up with good Indian boys, but Annika has a way of slipping out of the wide matrimonial net they have cast. Her parents and the wider gossiping South Asian community are aghast when Annika gets engaged to a Caucasian man, gets pregnant by him, and then gets dumped by him. Luckily, according to them, she loses her baby. The most traumatic experience of her life evinces not much empathy from her community. Her parents love her but want her to move on and come back into the fold as a “good” Indian daughter who listens to the counsel of her parents. In addition to being a teacher, Annika moonlights at a bar.

Daniel Bliant is an ER nurse practitioner who is passionate about his job. Five years ago, he lost his precious daughter to a senseless tragedy where a gunman shot up her school — the very school at which Annika teaches. Daniel is inconsolable at his loss and cannot move on. When his wife suggests having a second child, he is incandescent with rage, and they divorce. He even cannot see his nephew, because the boy is the same age as his girl had been. He tries to repress all feelings by working every minute he can — all he wants to do is work and sleep and allow life to pass him by. In addition to being an ER nurse practitioner, Daniel moonlights as a helicopter medic.

Daniel meets her when she is unconscious in the hospital, but they officially meet at the bar. Both have so much pain they're carrying from their pasts. Shroff sensitively portrays Annika and Daniel’s soul-deep sense of bereavement at the loss of their children. How to then have them move on and move together into a romantic relationship is where Shroff's skill comes in. My review is here.

Make Up Break Up by Lily Menon
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have loved Sandhya Menon’s YA contemporary romance novels (When Dimple Met Rishi and From Twinkle, With Love), so I was curious how she would make the transition to adult contemporary romance under the pen name Lily Menon. With this book, Menon has a winner on her hands.

Annika Dev is the CEO of Make Up, an app to help estranged people find love again. Annika and her smart alec developer have worked hard to make their prototype. They are seeing excitement among beta testers, but have, as yet, failed to convince investors of the long-term success of their app. Their cash cushion has run out, and they are facing eviction soon. Annika has pinned her hopes on the EPIC conference, where she hopes to woo and impress investors about how vital her app is for how technology can be used in interpersonal spaces for success in romantic relationships. Her father wants her to become a doctor, but she knows with every particle of her being that she is a creative entrepreneur, and her future lies with Make Up.

Hudson Craft is the CEO of Break Up, an app that helps people break up relationships that have become stagnant or burdensome. Hudson and his team have made a huge splash on the startup scene and seen their app downloaded a million times. Hudson’s reputation is of an up-and-coming CEO who’s a visionary, a genius. Hudson is planning to pitch his app at the EPIC conference to woo and impress investors so he can take his app to another level. Hudson had always dreamed of becoming a sculptor, but he needs to make money so he can help his parents, so for now wealth is what he is pursuing. And he is satisfied with what he has achieved with Break Up.

Annika and Hudson have history together. At a conference in Vegas a few months ago, before either of their apps were anything but a dream, they had hooked up for a blissful weekend. They meet in the present when Annika realizes that Break Up has moved into the office next to hers and is competing neck-to-neck with Make Up. My review is here.

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I loved this book to pieces. I alternated between enthusiasm and delight as I read this book: enthused by the craftmanship of the characters and delighted by their story. There is food and friendship, vulnerability and defenselessness, affection and aloofness, birth family and found family, betrayal and the requisite expiation. And above all, there is love and laughter.

Heron draws on her own Indian Tanzanian Canadian Muslim heritage to write these wonderful characters full of heart and warmth. It is in the small, small details that you get to see this — in the dishes where the Gujarati Indian food has an East African twist, in the occasional comments about what is allowed or disallowed in Islam, in the Canadian-ness of the heroine’s outlook to life, in the longing the hero has for the beauty of Dar es Salaam and the spices of Zanzibar. Culture is not a mere backdrop to the book, but rather an intrinsic aspect of who these characters are; their story could not possibly be told by divorcing it from the culture.

Reena works in finance, a field she despises. It is a field she chose in defiance of her parents’ wishes to work in their real estate business. She wants to stand on her own two feet as far as possible. As it is, she is living in a low-rent apartment in a building her family owns, the last thing she wants to do is work for them and be completely owned by them. And yet, paradoxically, the career she chose is not one at which they would laugh. But in her heart of hearts, she wants to be a baker, a bread baker. She has already learned how to do it well, but she wants to attend an institute to learn how to be a better one.

Nadim has come to Toronto from Dar es Salaam via a graduate degree from the London School of Economics. He is blessed with a posh English accent and a well-developed body. He is easily seduced by bare feet and bread. But, and this is a big stumbling block for Reena, Nadim works for her dad and is the chosen one “from the Muslim Bachelors “R” Us warehouse” for her hand in marriage by both sets of parents. My review is here.

Love at First by Kate Claybourn
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The authorial voice and writing style of Clayborn's Chance of a Lifetime series are very different from the deeply introspective Love Lettering (my review is here) and are different once again for the angst and humor of Love at First. Clayborn has the remarkable ability to adapt her writing to fit the story, rather than requiring the story to work around her craft. Having said that, I loved Love Lettering much more than this.

Nora DeAngelo Clarke is a freelance web designer, who loves her work. She grew up spending her summers with her Nonna (grandmother) in her small apartment building, and all the neighbors became her extended family. When her Nonna dies, Nora inherits the apartment and moves in and makes it her own. Her attachment to her Nonna transfers over to her attachment to the building and a desire to keep things exactly as they are in perpetuity.

Clayborn has paid a lot of attention to fully developing Nora’s “found family” of other apartment owners. They are quirky and sweet and crochety, each with their own motivations and insecurities, but all are united in their affection for Nora. They are always in Nora’s corner. And she cares of their wellbeing just as much as her Nonna did.

Will Sterling is an extremely busy emergency room doctor who has inherited his estranged (and reviled) uncle’s apartment. He can’t wait to unload the unit for its associations and also for its ugly interior, but there is a stipulation that he has to own it for one whole year. So he is working with an agent to renovate it and have it rented out.

And that is where he runs up against the building association president, Nora. She is adamant in her refusal to allow short-term renters because it will spoil the current ambience of long-term ownership and emotional investment on her part and the others living in the building. He will destroy the character of their sanctuary forever by having strangers trooping in and out at all hours of the day and night. My review is here.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

January Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern The image on the left is a Regency morning gown and is an 1813 print from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts. The image is copyrighted by author and collector extraordinaire Candice Hern. I will be using this image for some of my monthly reading notes this year.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This is an ongoing read for my book club. Last spring, we read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. In the summer, we read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and professor Ibram X. Kendi and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by professor Brittany Cooper. This fall, we read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. In the winter, we've started reading Caste. This book examines the caste systems of India, the Nazi Reich, and the US, comparing and contrasting how the caste system manifests itself differently given the history, culture, and philosophy of those three countries.

We read section one (first three chapters) of the book for this month. In our discussions, I realized how difficult it is for Caucasian Americans to see "caste." Caucasian Americans like to believe that we are all about upward mobility and movement between classes in our country. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is what this country is about. But they fail to grasp how caste anchors people down where they are, sometimes, with no recourse to better things, or sometimes, requiring superhuman effort and a great deal of luck to be able to break free. For February, we are reading section two (chapters 4-9).

Unexpectedly Wed To The Officer by Jenni Fletcher
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Set in Bath, this is a lovely quiet story between a shopkeeper and an officer of the navy who is the grandson of a duke. They meet in a dramatic fashion in the middle of the night when she breaks his nose and knocks him on his backside. Surely, they were meant to fall in love?

Henrietta Gardiner runs the biscuit shop that has been in the Fortini family for two generations. Her beauty has led her into tricky situations with unscrupulous men and suspicious women, so she is wary of men who compliment her. Her family life brings her great sorrow. Instead of devoting his life to his young sons after his wife’s death, he is devoting his life to drinking. As a result, she is doing two jobs: running the shop and caring for the children in the evenings. One day, she finds out that he has run away and left the boys in her care.

Sebastian Fortini has recently left the Royal Navy and returned to dry land after many years, only to find that his mother and sister have fallen into the embrace of the much-hated aristocracy. His sister is now a countess. His mother has returned to her uncle’s house where her mother, the dowager duchess, resides. All his life, Sebastian has hated his mother’s relations for disowning her after she ran away with a footman turned baker. And now, he is bemused that his mother has reclaimed her heritage and expects him to visit there. My review is here.

Happy Singles Day by Ann Marie Walker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: How would you give a professional organizer an anti-vacation? Have her be housebound with the most disorganized person she has ever met. She is revolted and thinks he’s a slob. He is disgusted and thinks she’s uptight. But there is one thing on which both agree: the other is hot.

Paige Parker is a certified Professional Organizer. Everything in her life has a place and is in place. She is pleased to be single, living in a big city, and in charge of her flourishing business, Chaos Control. Everything is flawless, except… she hasn’t had a vacation in years. On the goading of her assistant, she books a room at the beach-side Copper Lantern Inn on Aurelia Island, a no-car island off the coast of North Carolina. It looks perfectly charming on the website and the best way to commemorate Happy Singles Day — she certainly doesn’t need a man to make her happy.

Lucas Croft is a single father in thrall to his four-year-old daughter and barely hanging on to his now-defunct, derelict inn. His wife and he had bought it together with such joy and hope for their future. And with her death, he can’t bear to relist it for guests. At the same time, bills have a tendency to come at regular intervals, and with managing his daughter and taking on odd jobs in carpentry, money is in short supply. Luckily, Lucas is blessed with a bossy, managing sister, who does what younger sisters do best: plague their brothers… and take care of them. Unbeknownst to him, she revives the listing for the B&B and books him a client. My review is here.

Shipped by Angie Hockman
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Visiting the Galápagos islands has been a lifelong dream of mine, so when I spotted this book about the islands by an author who had been there, I jumped at the chance to read it. And it was such a rewarding experience. Hockman has done a fabulous job with Shipped. The book provides the reader a front row seat in experiencing the magic and wonder of the Galápagos as the protagonists explore the islands. And even as they discover the beauty, the beauty has an effect on them and their relationship. In some books, the setting is a backdrop; in this book, the setting is as much a character as the protagonists.

Henley Rose Evans is not one to make waves as a marketing manager at Seaquest Adventures, a global adventure cruise travel company based in Seattle. She works tirelessly, and bookings for Pacific cruises have done up every quarter since she joined the company. However, her ambition to make director before the age of thirty is being thwarted by a sexist boss. Henley also moonlights as a graduate student in business administration, and as if she isn’t busy enough, she skimps on sleep to work on her never-ending task list.

Graeme Crawford-Collins, AKA Graham Cracker in Henley’s head, is the social media manager at Seaquest and works remotely from Michigan. He joins in business meetings from his home over a tinny phone line. This is in pre-Zoom days. He has a tragic backstory that has made him unable to work in a high-powered job. His fear of public speaking and being uncomfortable in large groups further compounds his isolation. So even though the Seaquest job is a step-down for him, it suits him. My review is here.

Beginner's Luck by Kate Clayborn
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Comments: This is the first book of Clayborn's highly popular series Chance of a Lifetime. I am reading it three chapters every week for the Sunday Book Club on Twitter with Mary Lynne (@emmelnie), Kay (@miss_batesreads), Ros (@ros_clarke), Rohan (@rohanmaitzen), and Joanne (@regency_gal). We meet every Sunday at 2pm ET (7pm UK) for a rousing and rapid-fire discussion. So far, we've read two Cecilia Grant, one Lucy Parker, and one Balogh. We have established a good pace and enjoy each other's company.

This book builds slowly. Having read Clayborn's Love Lettering, I knew that was her style, and I enjoy it. It is like she draws the outline in the beginning chapters and slowly starts coloring it in. I love her voice: no hyperboles, no eye-rolling leaps of faith. Just good, engrossing storytelling. My issue with this book doesn't have anything to do with Clayborn's writing, which I love, but has to do with her protagonist Kit.

I find Kit unusually mealy-mouthed and self-effacing to the point of being tiresome and unbelievable. I find how she goes about her career very frustrating and unbelievable. Why all this self-sacrificing? I understand instability in her childhood, but I would’ve thought that she would seek more and more financial security and not less. And one can build a home anywhere. By her doggedly holding on to her home in this very town where the hero has a history of being a delinquent and ran away from is thoughtless at best and cruel at worst.

The only thing she reaches out and takes is sleeping with the hero, which goes from fabulous sexual tension and a single kiss to jumping between the sheets. It is too abrupt and involves a huge spike in trust without any build-up of scaffolding underneath. I wish contemporaries did a slow build-up to the sleeping together; they are always in such a rush to get their protagonists there.

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I continue to be fascinated by the story through Stevenson's narration. I am not driving as much these days, and I only listen to the audiobook in the car, so the story is moving along slowly despite how gripping it is. I hope to be able to finish it next month. I have five hours left to go. I have another Stevenson book cued up for February.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Happy New Year 2021

Yet another year has drawn to a close. This was a year of such turmoil for everyone the world over. Many people battled loneliness, despair, fear, hatred, and exhaustion. Doing any task felt like an endeavor, and people's resources—financial, mental, physical—were stretched thin. Some people thrived in solitude and discovered familial closeness and joy. Some, like me, suffered great heartbreak. My mantra for the past year was Samuel Beckett's quote: "I can’t go on. I’ll go on."

All we can say about 2020 is that we each got through the year to the best of our abilities. We survived. We managed. We coped.

And now, I look to the dawn of a new year with hope and with gratitude. I am here. I matter. And I'm going to set foot in the new year with intention. My words for this year are: Grace & Hope & Laughter, and I hope to shape the coming days with those in mind.

I did a fair bit of reading last year on solitude and resilience, and I'd like to carry these two quotes by philospher Maria Popova into the new year with me:

"Build pockets of stillness into your life. Seek out what magnifies your spirit."

"Be Like a Tree: May we face the coming year with the steady serenity of a tree—that supreme lover of light, always reaching both higher and deeper, rooted in a network of kinship and ringed by a more patient view of time."

Whatever may be your way of thinking of the new year, my wish for you, dear readers, is that it brings you happiness, because after all, what can be a better measure of success than happiness?

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My December Reading

Two sets of my children's picture book reviews were published in two issues of the International Examiner newspaper this month. Established in 1974, the Examiner is the oldest and largest nonprofit, pan-Asian Pacific American publication in the Northwest. I've been enjoying writing for them this year.

Merry Measure by Lily Morton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Lily Morton was a wonderful bookish discovery for me this year. She writes generous-hearted characters with such heartwarming humor, that you’re transported into their stories from the first page. Arlo Wright and Jack Cooper meet in the wintry environs of beautiful Amsterdam to celebrate Arlo’s brother’s proposal to his boyfriend. The cold days leading up to Christmas make for cozy times of discovery together. Arlo believes coffee is the nectar of gods and Jack believes green tea is very good because it gets rid of toxins. Their choice of drinks is emblematic of how vastly different the two men are. How is their romance to flourish? What we have in this book is a lot of soul-deep pining.

Arlo is a self-professed, absentminded klutz, younger brother to the confident older brother whose best friend is the stuff of dreams. To Arlo, Jack has retained his unattainable, incredible hotness through all the years he’s known him. He is also convinced that to Jack, he is nothing but an overgrown colt and perpetual younger brother. But he wants to be so much more. To Jack, Arlo is the one who unfailingly makes him smile every time he is in his company. And relax the rigid control he has habitually imposed on his life. His parents brought him up under unrelenting pressure to succeed and to be perfect. Dreamy Arlo shines light in his dreary, arid world. Arlo’s demonstrative affection and ready laughter are a balm to his soul after his parents’ standoffishness. My review is here.

Forever and a Duke by Grace Burrowes
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Burrowes is one of my favorite historical romance authors. I invariably fall into the world of her stories and regret when the stories come to a close. Eleanora "Ellie" Hatfield is a whiz at math and works at a bank keeping schemers at bay. I really liked how independent, dependable, and capable she is. She is at pains to distance herself from her scandalous past. The Duke of Elsmore is looking financial ruin in the face. In a bid to avert scandal, he seeks Ellie's help in finding the person responsible for the missing funds. I really like how Burrowes turns the usual trope of the take-charge duke on its head in this story, by having her duke be a strong man with the humility to admit his weakness in managing his finances and being open to a female auditor to solve his problems.

This is a wonderful cross-class romance. Burrowes does an excellent job of showing how bridging class divides in 19th C England was difficult. This to me was the heart of the romance. Burrowes builds up the protagonists' worlds first and then brings them together and has them struggle with the chasm, because chasm it is. Many romances gloss over class struggles and have their protagonists jump over the divide like it is a ditch. Burrowes has the protagonists do so in a believable manner by making them work at it. This is a romance that will make you sigh with pleasure at the tenderness that the duke brings to their romance. Ellie is all sharp angles; he's the charmer, the gentle one. They are both surprised at how much they like each other, and I was charmed by their delight. I really enjoyed it.

A Lady's Dream Come True by Grace Burrowes
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: How I loved this story! Burrowes’ True Gentleman series is truly fabulous. Self-published at an astonishingly rapid rate, the books have been very popular among historical romance readers. A Lady’s Dream Come True has a special place in my heart because it is the story of a dreamy artist who comes into his own. His growth from self-involvement into a dashing, caring man and an artist of integrity is lovely to watch.

Verity "Vera" Channing is the widow of a famous artist. She has invited Oak Dorning to evaluate the art in her home to sell so she can make ends meet. She wants to preserve the estate for her son and to dower her stepdaughter. All throughout her marriage and especially since her widowhood, she's been used to standing on her own two feet. However, this is the first time, Oak has ventured off on his own away from his family—his first paying gig. He's an earl's son but he doesn't want to fritter his life away; he is interested in making his mark on the art world. His ambition is to become a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

This book has so much going on. There's Oak's growth arc. There's their growing relationship. And then there's the intrigue about Vera's husband's legacy and dirty goings-on at the Royal Academy. Burrowes writes a fast-paced story that feels unhurried in how it explores all facets of the story. For some people, the romance might feel a bit shortchanged because of the focus on the intrigue but it worked for me.

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I am probably the last person on earth who didn't read this book in 2019. It was featured on so many Best Books of year lists that I've been meaning to read it all year, but never got around to it. Now, thanks to publisher Flatiron, I received an eARC just in time for their January reprint.

The premise is delicious: Leon Twome is a palliative care night nurse at a hospice and Tiffany (Tiffy) Moore works as an editor at a niche publishing company. Leon's brother has been wrongly incarcerated in a prison for a crime he did not commit. In order to pay for his lawyer fees, Leon needs to generate more cash than his salary pays. So he comes up with the harebrained, brilliant idea of sharing his flat with someone with a day job.

Tiffy has once and for all broken up with her on-and-off boyfriend and needs a living situation stat. Unfortunately, she, not only owes her ex a lot of money, but her job pays her a pittance. So she needs someplace cheap, and over the misgivings of her friends, she is taken with the idea of a flatshare. The deal is negotiated by Leon's jealous girlfriend, and the hours are strictly set of who is supposed to be at the apartment when. The book employs a beloved romance trope: only one bed. But O'Leary turns this on its head by having the protagonists sleep in it when the other is not there.

I laughed when I first read the setup. It is so crazy; how will it even fly? But O'Leary not only makes it work, but shows herself to be a highly skilled storyteller. My review is here.

The Lost Letter by Mimi Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is a wonderful Beauty and the Beast and Second Chance story. (Note caveat to its "wonderfulness" below.) The protagonists had an understanding that they were in love when they met for a few halcyon weeks before he was sent off to soldier in India. Sylvia wrote Sebastian a hundred letters full of thousands of kisses in which she poured her heart out to him. He never wrote back.

In the meantime, her father gambled everything away and shot himself, and she was left destitute. No one took her in, and she was forced to become a governess. It took her months of effort to come to terms with her new station in life in service and the realization that her beloved had repudiated her. Fast forward to present day, she has discovered contentment in her job as a governess. She now laughs easily, her old life almost forgotten. She is such a resilient spirit. There is the oft-spoken cliché: "bloom where you grow" which she truly embodies. But into this contentment steps Sebastian's sister pulling Sylvia back to Sebastian with the pretext that she found him weeping with Sylvia's lock of hair in his hand and that he kept a loaded pistol in his bedside table.

All the love that Sylvia had suppressed for Sebastian comes pouring out of her, and she rushes over to save Sebastian from himself. But he is now badly scarred in face and convinced he is unlovable. He also hates Sylvia for her faithlessness in not even reading his letters, forget about writing him letters. Seeing her now, he is ovecome with cynicsm that she was now here because he was now earl in his elder brother's stead. He assumes she is mercenary and looking to better her station in life. Matthews does not do a dashing scar or two: His disfigurement is truly hideous. And that is what makes the tender scenes so touching. This story is very romantic with quiet gestures, passionate requests, drama, and high emotions. And, don't forget, tenderness.

Do note that this book has the colonial attitude that the Indian sepoys who revolted against the rightful British conquerors were the bad ones. Not much is explored about this history, other than to have a battle in the time the story is set in, so that the hero is forced to leave the heroine behind in England and return with his face badly injured. The date of the mutiny is also stated as 1858, but the Jhansi rebellion was in 1857. While mild, the colonial attitude from Matthews is grating.

Love All Year: "Making up with Eid Bae" & "The Sweet Spot" by Farah Heron & Felicia Grossman
Category: Romance Shorts
Comments: What started off my interest in this anthology was a Twitter conversation—don't all important book convos happen on Twitter these days?—between Farah Heron and I where I said that I would love to read a Ramadan-Eid book with the couple canoodling over iftars. Heron then told me she had an Eid story in this anthology, so I immediately rushed over to Amazon to buy it.

Making up with Eid Bae by Farah Heron
I really enjoyed this sweet story set during the Eid-ul-Adha festival between two Canadian-Indian Muslim protagonists. It's a second chance, childhood sweethearts story, where they discover what had sundered their relationship when they were teens and how much they still had in common and how quickly the old, dormant feelings could rise up again, tempered now with an adult awareness. I really like Heron's writing. I enjoyed her The Chai Factor very much and she brings that same voice here.

The Sweet Spot by Felicia Grossman
Since I had the anthology already and having heard how popular Grossman's first two books were, I decided to give her short story a try, but it was less successful than Heron's story. The premise was very interesting. The woman is the rabbi and the man is the cantor and five years younger than her. He naturally plays second fiddle to her, and yet, that aspect of their professional relationship doesn't bother him, and thus, doesn't have an impact on their personal relationship. What sank this story was the "romance" that wasn't romantic. We hear how they are attracted to each other without actually seeing the attraction on the page. The way they decide to sleep with each other after a coffee and before she has to prepae her semon for the Rosh Hassanah ceremony in the evening is perfunctory at best. This story did not fly.

It's a Wonderful Regency Christmas: "It's a Wonderful Christmas" by Edith Layton
Category: Regency Romance Short
Comments: This was bananas!! I have found Layton's work to be rather uneven: the good is really good and the bad is really bad. The premise for this story was interesting. The protagonists have been married for many years now. Their eldest son is now away at school, so I'm assuming a young teen. The heroine has always had very low self-esteem. She thinks no one would miss her if she were gone. She feels incredibly lucky every single day of her married life that the hottie of the area married her. He had never had time for her before, but he came back from the war, wounded and irretrievably changed. Theirs was a summer romance resulting in marriage. They have now reached a comfortable married state where their days fit around each other but frissons of attraction are still alive and well.

Then the story jumped the shark. It's Christmas season, and they have a houseful of guests. When her son returns home from school with a schoolmate, he is no longer the sweet boy who left. He is now independent and more interested in his friend, and she feels slighted and unloved. At one of the evening parties, an unexpected guest arrives. She's a vision of loveliness and turns out used to be engaged to her husband, who never told her about it. As you can guess, our heroine's self-confidence just tanks. And she behaves in rather immature ways, even going so far to go to the village magical wishing well screaming that she wish she had not been born.

The wishing well does its job and grants her wish. We then have a few perfectly gothic scenes where the heroine realizes how much worse her life is now. And so when she screams at the well to bring her old life back, and it does, she is incredibly grateful and happy with her former life and realizes that she was an important part of that former life. And the cherry on top? The husband tells her how very pleased he is to have sent his ex on her way and is very apologetic that he never mentioned her. That whole gothic parts? Bananapants!

Truth, Lies, and Second Dates by MaryJanice Davidson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a romantic suspense story including horror elements (which are not evident at all in the back cover copy and you only find out when you read the Author's Note). In her Author's Note at the beginning of the book, Davidson tells the reader that she loves tropes. Then she goes on to explain in many detailed paragraphs what tropes are. This is what she to say about her books: "Romance novels that pay respect to romance novels, where the readers are in on the joke. Unless you skipped my Author's Note, in which case you're not in on the joke and you think I hate romance novels and I cannot help you."

She then proceeds to remind you that there is a list of tropes she's used in her story in the back of the book, "...for those of you in a hurry. This is partly to make it easier for my readers...". So naturally, I went over there to look. She had pages of notes where in excruciating detail she laid out all the tropes she's used or subverted in her book, starting with "tropes are tools" and including things, such as "bald is evil (subverted)," "alibi," "mystery magnet," "they look like everyone else," "breakups are always brutal (subverted)," "motive rant," "clueless mystery subverted (there are clues, but not many; the few there are don't resemble clues; and Ava and Tom don't piece them together until the end)" and so on and so forth.

As you can see, there's not much else you want to know about the story after reading this. No reader wants to be condescended to and have everything explained in triplicate. There is the joy of discovery, which is why readers read.

Notorious by Minerva Spencer
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book was not my cup of tea for these reasons: a couple who simply could not communicate with each other outside the bed and whose relationship did not improve except suddenly towards the end of the book, too much external drama thrown in to make up for lack of resolution of internal tension, lots of backstory details and people which all did not jell together to form a cohesive story, power imbalance with the power all in his court, she is the one who needs to change significantly while he not much, his committed threesome with his mistresses, wife expected to house mistresses, wife expected to look after a kid who could be his or his brother's (the mother is his former wife), mother and son discussing their sex lives, and so on. This is a book whose premise had all the ingredients for an engrossing read for me, but whose execution was an entirely different story from the one promised.

A Marquis in Want of a Wife by Louise Allen
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: The premise sounded interesting: An outsider marquis, AKA the East End Aristocrat because he was born in the rookeries and is a privateer by trade, is in urgent need of a mother for his baby, and so eschews mourning to marry a ruined bluestocking whose passion is ancient Greek and Latin translations. This was an uneven book. There were also some craft issues, such as head-hopping.

There were aspects of the story that made for unusual characterization and refreshing candor among these participants in a marriage of convenience. However, what sank the story was that heroine gives and gives and the hero takes and takes. She is the one who extends the olive branch the most, and she is the one who forgives him over and over again for all his transgressions, even when he verbally hurts her deliberately at the 90% mark. When much was made of her translation work at the beginning of the book, I expected to see her actively engage in it, but it was surface characterization, not a core part of her.

She comes off as alternately mature and immature with a sensible approach to the marital contract she has made with him and too-stupid-to-live (TSTL) behavior, such as haring off to a war zone to rescue him and then not really rescuing him as having him fall into her lap as she is rescued by others. I realize that this is meant to show us her indomitable, independent, and loving spirit, but the way it is written, she comes across as TSTL.

As part of her marriage contract, her job is supposed to be a mother to the baby. We see the baby immediately enamored of her even as a stranger, and we see her going up to him once in a while to scoop him up in her arms and laugh with him, but we don't see her actually spending much time with him. The baby spends most of his days with his nurse and wet nurse, so I don't see how she is fulfilling the only requirement of her marriage contract. Overall, a disappointing book.

A Touch of Forever by Jo Goodman
Category: Western Romance
Comments: [CW: domestic abuse, self harm] This is another book is Goodman's Jo Goodman Cowboys of Colorado series set in Frost Falls with railroad expansion as the backdrop, not gunfights or cattle stampedes. New Yorker Roen Shepard is a jack-of-all-trades and his reserved personality makes him unpopular with his high-society family. He is happier leaving his old life behind and is now working as a surveyor for the Northeast Rail Company, which is planning on putting a track directly through the town of Frost Falls. Lily Salt is a single mother of four precocious children. She had been physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive by her now mercifully dead husband. When his vengeful ex makes it into town, in order to escape her, Roen proposes a marriage of convenience to Lily.

A fiery woman, an introverted man, secrets and trauma in the past, and you have the makings of a marvelous Goodman tale. Goodman sensitively and realistically portrays Lily's PTSD trauma from the abuse she suffered as well as her tendency to self-harm. I loved how the people of the town band together to protect her. In Roen, she has the perfect mate. He is strong and capable while also caring for her deeply and working hard to heal her. For an introvert, he really has to work up to stepping into the role of a big family as a father and husband. We see Goodman's characteristic nuanced characterization in this story. The ex turns out to be a one-dimensional evil villain, which is a small quibble. I was pleasantly surprised to see Goodman tackling racism in the small town against its largely Chinese railroad workforce. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough in its exploration. These two issues aside, this was an enjoyable story.

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra
Category: Mainstream Fiction
Comments: This is a modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and tells the story of Jo and Meg. The second book in the series will tell the story of Beth and Amy. Meg and Jo is told in alternating POVs of the two older March sisters. Kantra has supposedly thrown in many literary references to Alcott's other works, but I am not familiar with her other stories. Kantra has reset the nineteenth-century New England classic story in modern-day North Carolina. While Little Women was a coming of age story of girls in their late teens, this story is about young adults in their twenties.

Meg has given up her career to be a stay-at-home mom to her twin toddlers and Jo is trying to make it as a food blogger and a prep cook in a professional kitchen in New York City. Kantra has retained Jo's impulsivity and edginess, just as, she has retained Meg's people-pleasing personality. Meg is struggling through the challenges of mommy-dom and wondering if her life is what she had planned it to be or if she has given her personhood away. She is trying to retain a sense of herself as she juggles the needs of her children, husband, and aging parents. Kantra has done an excellent job adapting the classic to the modern world, while also retaining a semblance of the same sorts of inner struggles of the two women in their emotions, responsibilities, and relationships. Ultimately, they come to recognize and treasure the importance of love and family. If you are a fan of Little Women or Alcott's work in general, this will be a fascinating read.

The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly by Kerri Maher
Category: Mainstream Fiction
Comments: I picked this book up because Grace Kelly's name immediately invokes beauty, elegance, and a rarified living far above my own—a fairytale life. She was so graceful and gracious as a person that it was only natural that she would marry a prince. This is the stuff of dreams for romance readers. At once historical fiction and biography, this book is a fictionalized account of Grace’s life and gives us a supposed glimpse into her world of friendships, complicated relationships, rise to fame, career, and famous marriage. Despite Grace's public personna of allure and poise, her inner life was far from serence or as blissful as outsiders imagined it to be. Whose life is? Yet, Grace struggled to portray exactly that while inside, she was conflicted and longed for personal fulfillment and recognition. She subsumed herself into her role and her personhood fell away from her. Maher has done a splendid job of seamlessly stitching together fact and fiction to tell a compelling tale. If you're a royal watcher or a fan of Kelly (from the outside), you will enjoy this book.

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I am a committed Juliet Stevenson fan now. Given my fledgling audio listening skills, AKA my mind wanders when I listen, my success in listening while I drive to a book I have read before is working. My listening to Austen's Persuasion was a success. So I abandoned Gaskell's Mary Barton till next month and substituted Gaskell's North & South instead. And it is turning out to be a good decision. I have read the book and watched the miniseries a couple of times, so I am able to picture the scenes and the people as I listen to the conversations.

This story uses a protagonist from a small village in southern England to present and comment on the perspectives of mill owners and workers in an industrializing city. The novel is set in the fictional industrial town in the north of England. More on the story here.

Every format (reading, watching, listening) brings forth different aspects of a book. This time, I was much struck by Mr. Hale, the protagonist Margaret's father, and how selfish, irresponsible, and profoundly unaware of others he is. His inability and refusal to predict the ramifications of his actions is careless in the extreme. As Caroline Russomano said in reply to my tweet about Mr. Hale, and I paraphrase here: His head is so in the clouds, and he is extremely self centered and impractical and oblivious to how he makes it gradually more and more impossible for people around him. Why have some 19th century authors (in books such as: Emma, Pride & Prejudice, North & South) been compelled to write such selfish men in order to show how strong the women are, and yet, who have to be wily enough to massage the man's ego while getting things that need to be done, done?

Kind of Hindu by Mindy Kaling
Category: Nonfiction Essay
Comments: This is the first essay from Mindy Kaling's collection Nothing Like I Imagined. I listened to Kaling read this 21-minute essay. This was an interesting look into an American-born desi girl's life and how being Indian and Hindu look like to her and her daily experience. Vera Mindy Chokalingam, known professionally as Mindy Kaling, is a Hollywood actress and producer.

In this book, Kaling has narrated how her parents are from different parts of India and met in Lagos, Nigeria, before moving to the US. Kaling was born here. She was brought up speaking only English, eating Indian food, and attending some Indian festivals decked out in Indian clothes. She was told she was a Hindu since birth, but never thought of herself as such, especially after she left home. It is only when her daughter, Katherine "Kit," was born that she wondered how she wanted to bring her up and how much of the Indian culture did she want to impart to her. It is interesting that she fixated on the mundan, shaving off her baby's hair, a common ritual on her dad's side of the Indian culture. Much of this story is about that. I wonder how much of the Indian culture she has imparted going forward from there to her two children.

Category: Children's Picture Books
My reviews are here.

Lali's Feather by Farhana Zia, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman
Comments: This is a story of fascination with the seemingly simple, oft overlooked things in life that are given significance through our attention.

The Night Gardener by Terry & Eric Fan
Comments: My praise for the Fan brothers’ art is going to be effusive. Combining traditional and contemporary art styles by mixing pen and ink drawings with digital techniques, the artists have created minutely detailed and utterly brilliant illustrations. You can lean back and take in the larger drawings, and then you can lean in for the intricate style and treatment of the decorative features.

Child of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana, illustrated by Raul Colón
Comments: This book has a fascinating concept: How is one small child related to the immense complexities of the universe? Where does the life of one tiny human fit into billions of years of cosmic evolution? Child of the Universe is the story of an astrophysicist imparting his fascination with the physical, scientific, and poetic origins and diversity of the universe to a young child.

Tiny Feet Between the Mountains by Hanna Cha
Comments: This is a story that shows how everyone is capable of doing grand things; all they need is opportunity. Cha has penned a tale of such encouragement that is sure to bring comfort to those children who do not quite fit the norm of their peers and are ostracized for being different. This story conveys that if you persist and don’t give up, your courage will be rewarded.

Feast of Peas by Kashmira Sheth, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Comments: This is a generous-hearted tale of friendship and forgiveness much like Aesop’s Fables. What brings the story to life is Ebbeler’s artwork. It is beautifully researched and beautifully rendered, bringing to mind illustrations found in Indian books, such as Panchatantra Tales and Amar Chitra Katha.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur
Comments: This is the true story of a man who has lived a modest life and gone on to do extraordinary things. His start in life is slow, but the belief of his mother in him is everything: You know yourself, Fauja, and you know what you’re capable of. Today is a chance to do your best.

Category: Children's Picture Books
My reviews are here.

Chirri & Chirra is an utterly charming series of children’s picture books by well-known Japanese writer and illustrator Kaya Doi. They have been translated from Japanese and published in English by the quintessentially indie children’s publisher, Enchanted Lion Books. These whimsical stories are low on the angst scale and high on the charm meter, featuring two rosy-cheeked best friends, Chirri and Chirra, and their magical adventures in the natural world. The girls love riding their bicycles, frolicking with animals, and eating delicious food that will have your mouth watering. One of the quirkiness of the two girls is that they are identical except that they each have one detail that is of a different color from the other, whether it is buttons on their outfits, a side pocket, or a crossbody purse.

Chirri & Chirra by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by Yuki Kaneko
Comments: This is the first book in the series, and it introduces us to Chirri and Chirra. “What a perfect day,” says Chirri as this story begins, and it turns out that she is absolutely right.

Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by Yuki Kaneko
Comments: Children love playing in the snow. As soon as the first snow of the season starts to fall, Chirri and Chirra head out on their bicycles. Around them is a winter wonderland filled with frozen ponds and leafless trees limned with white gold snow.

Chirri & Chirra: On the Town by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Comments: One a warm, breezy summer day, Chirri and Chirra decide it is the perfect day for a bicycle ride. As they ride through the forest, the woodland around them is awash in color. When they cycle through the old town, the yarn shop they discover reflects the outside colors in their flower-dyed yarn bundles, and the girls cannot resist choosing their favorites. Every shop in town has goods in a rainbow of colors celebrating the season.

Chirri & Chirra: Underground by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Comments: Sometimes adventures begin when you see something intriguing and follow along on a hunch. What most people consider a dark, dank place, the underground can also be a fascinating place full of color and mystery. Our intrepid explorers, Chirri and Chirra discover just that.

Chirri & Chirra: Under the Sea by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Comments: Chirri and Chirra are never daunted by the unknown. “Let’s take a look, Chirri.” That is the courageous spirit with which they live their lives. And when their curiosity gets them in sticky spots, like in this story, they don’t panic. Instead, they keep looking for solutions to their problems, always with the confidence in their own ability to figure things out. They go where the current takes them.