Monday, January 1, 2024

Happy New Year 2024

Rang out the old year and rang in the new year in Japanese Buddist style. So grateful I had the opportunity to participate in this tradition and hope to do so every year. I reached there around 11pm New Year's Eve to line up in front of this bronze friendship bell gifted to our city from a sister Japanese city. A Buddhist priestess was in attendance who sang an invocation, before allowing us to step up to the bell one-by-one. She anointed our hands with incense to inhale it deep into our bodies and wash our whole bodies in it. Essentially, we acknowledge that we, as humans, are flawed and need to symbolically eliminate all the possible (up to 108) imperfections that we may have. Then we ring the bell to start the new year afresh.

Wishing you, dear readers of my much-neglected blog, a very HAPPY NEW YEAR! May 2024 bring you joy, silliness, fun, and lots of laughter. My wish for you is Health and Happiness, in that order. Everything else is unimportant. Thank you for sticking with me month after month. There is a Japanese saying that I love: "Which is more important, the journey or the destination? The company." You. You, dear readers, are the company I am grateful for.

*This copyrighted image is from the immensely talented British illustrator: Yuval Zommer. (Used with permission.)

As my last update indicated, 2023 was an EXECRABLE year for me and my family. Ill health has dogged every single one of us. But it didn't leave me defeated. I coped with the bad and appreciated the good. Despite everything, I was a happier person in 2023. I focused inside myself and indentified just three things that would improve my life and put them into action. And made progress. I am immensely grateful.

The New Me Project

(I am the one in red.)
This is the energy of The New Me Project that sustained me in 2023 and that I will carry into 2024.

Words That Really Speak To Me

"It is never too late to make new choices, to change your perspective, to take risks." Helen Garner: "I'm not going to spend what's left of my life hanging around waiting for happiness. I am going to settle for small, random stabs of extreme interestingness—moments of intense awareness of things and of gladness that they exist."

Things from 2023 I will carry forward: Deepen Friendships; Go on Adventures, no matter how small; Focus on Health Plan; Walking...oceans & forests

My Word for the Year: "Beginning"

Goal for the Year: "Health"

Reading Goals: Read Everyday; Read One Book a Week

Writing Goals: Write Everyday...notebook & letters; Write Letters for Charity. What I will not be doing, alas!, is reguarly writing this blog. (For now.)

Favorite Books of 2023:

First Pile of Books of the New Year

Monday, June 19, 2023

An Update...

It has been nearly four months since my last post. I kept on hoping that my fibromyalgia brain fog would evaporate SOON and I would be able to start reading more and be able to muster up the energy to write my usual short review roundups. However, the reading is hardly happening and the inclination and attention span to do the short reviews is non-existent. So I have finally decided to let myself formally announce that I am taking a blogging break this year. I have taken a break from my journaling and my Morning Pages this year as well. And I have taken a break from almost all professional book reviewing work.

All my days are spent at the doctors or on the couch, when I am not running errands, doing household chores, or chivving and cajoling the family. Pain is my constant companion. It never forsakes me, even in the night. However, every few days, I do make myself go out and do fun things either by myself, with my family, or with friends. I draw so much energy from being around other people. As a result, social media remains as strong a force in my life as ever. And I continue to be so grateful to Zoom, Eventbrite, and other online video events that many organizations here in the US and abroad offer. I may never ever be able to go see these events or travel to these places in person, but at least I can see photos, videos, and live walks of places and people.

On another positive note, I have acquired a new hobby, or rather, I have expanded on an existing hobby: handwritten letters and postcards. I now send at least a handful of letters and/or postcards every week to people all over the world. I have always loved sending and receiving letters, ever since I started writing to my grandparents and my first penpal from at ten. I moved cities and countries, got jobs and got married, had children and had severe health issues, but through it all, I never stopped writing. Right now, my correspondence is at its highest, and through this hobby, I have made new local friends and new friends across the globe.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb Reading Notes

AHEM! So I've FINALLY gotten around to writing my reading roundup post for the months of September, October, November, December, January, and February. At the end of every month since September, I planned to write up my usual mini reviews, but things kept sliding away in a brain fog of pain, lassitude, and inability to focus. I have not written Morning Pages or in my Live Journal, both things I truly enjoy, or rather, enjoyed in the past. Neither have I kept up with my handwritten letter correspondence with dear friends, which I am really sad about. I'm sure they've been really worried. All I have been capable of is casual comments on social media every once in a while and endless scrolling of who-knows-what. I have barely been able to focus on reading.

Since October, chronic pain has had me whipped. Physical Therapy including massage three times a week is holding me together, body and soul. No answers from the doctors yet. I have further scans and tests and appointments scheduled as everyone hunts for an answer. In the meantime, I am spending quality time in bed, or on the couch on a better day, when I absolutely cannot force myself to be out and about and cheerful. Health is my only focus for this new year.

Now, it is the end of the second month of the new year, and I am finally mustering up the energy to get this post out. As a result, the post is rather on the longer side with reviews of fiction and romance.

The Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. Moore
Category: Historical Fiction
Comments: Moore truly knows how to set the stage on which her tale of historical fiction, based on true people and events, unfolds. Her deep research and skillful storytelling immerse you into the Victorian era and life in Queen Victoria's household. The story is mainly about Princess Louise, the sixth of Victoria's nine children, and it is as much about Louise as it is about Victoria and their private family life. [My Review]

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This small book was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. I was pleased that the Booker Committee recognized the value of small books with modest stories among the doorstoppers and grand epics as worthy of the Prize. I was awed by Keegan's writing chops, and how smoothly and almost unknowably, she constructs a complex story, moving seamlessly from observant details to deep ideas. Set in Ireland in the 1980s, this is a story of a town controlled completely by the Catholic Church, and how the village folks are determined to walk on the right side of religion, despite horrific things happening under their noses. Amongst these, lives a man who was born to an unwed teenage mother who was taken in by one of the town's wealthiest of people and given a good education and start to life. The protagonist never forgot how lucky he and his mother had been, and chooses to do the right thing in spite of his wife's and townspeople's disapproval. Such emotional writing even though the protagonist is outwardly quite stoic.

Foster by Claire Keegan
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: My fascination with the above book led me to immediately buy this Ireland-set book from Book Depository, since the US version was going to be released later on. And I was amply rewarded for my impatience. It is likewise a small, initimate book, in which a monumental change happens in the life of a child, while on the surface, the child moves through each day filled with seemingly banal things. The inciting incidence is that an unwanted girl in a poor family with many children, a pregnant mother, and a wasteral of a father, is shunted off to the mother's sister's house for a few months. That is when she realized what it means to be brought up by a caring family. Beautiful writing!

A Dream Life by Claire Messud
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Another small book of towering reputation from a fabulous writer, who the New Yorker calls one of our "greatest contemporary writers." In the 1970s, a middle class NYC family of modest means moves to Sydney because the man is ostensibly given a promotion, but in reality, is being sidelined by his company. His wife was vehemently opposed to the move, but their family of four has no choice. The story of their glittering socialite life then unfolds to the woman's utter disbelievement. She tries hard to fit in, to be one of them, but knows that the high class society only tolerates her. This gem of a book is her story and her choices in her new life in Sydney.

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Razia Mirza is a Pakistani American growing up in 1980s Corona, a conservative, immigrant Muslim community in Queens surrounding the first Sunni mosque built in New York. Rehman’s masterful prose, peppered with Urdu phrases, evokes rich emotional and social nuances regarding a particularly sensitive divide between generations in a community of immigrants trying to hold on to their culture even as they make new lives for themselves in a new country. This was a brilliant book in how she constructed the story, the twist to Razia's story in the end, and above all, in what minute detail she brought twi. This is a YA story, but Rehman has written Razia's adult story in the book, titled Corona. [My Review]

Independence by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Divakaruni’s latest brilliant novel coincides with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the independence of India from British rule and its partition into India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). With great attention to detail regarding the political and religious upheaval this caused and its impact on ordinary citizens, Divakaruni tells a highly nuanced tale of a Hindu Bengali family living in the village of Ranipur near Calcutta (Kolkata). Divakaruni is superb in this book. She had always been a great storyteller, but in this highly emotional tale about a cause that is so dear to her, her writing really shines. [My Review]

Do You Take This Man by Denise Williams
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In this book, Williams has crafted a fun enemies-to-lovers tale set in Asheville, North Carolina, featuring a no-nonsense divorce attorney who moonlights as a wedding officiant and a wedding planner who used to be a pro-football events manager. I really enjoy Williams' writing, especially, her characterization. This one quite up to the high benchmark she set in her earlier book.

Never Rescue a Rogue by Virginia Heath
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Heath is carving a name for herself in historical rom-coms. I enjoyed her first book. This one is a frenemies-to-lovers story of an illegitimate duke and a clandestine journalist. Claiming to be a copyeditor at a newspaper, she is actually the anonymous Sentinel who sniffs out the illegal shenanigans of powerful people and brings them to justice through the power of her words. Gentle and kind, Giles Sinclair is the new duke of Harpenden, a hated title he associates with his late father, who always hated him. [My Review]

A Cosmic Kind of Love by Samantha Young
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In Young’s (Fight or Flight, 2018) sweep-you-off-your-feet, tender-hearted romance, pink-haired Hallie Goodman loves her job organizing high-profile events all over New York. Her people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding ways have her constantly appeasing her selfish parents during their acrimonious divorce, while her ex’s scathing words still rankle. After a stint on the International Space Station, astronaut Captain Christopher Ortiz is back in New York. ince birth, his estranged, domineering father has kept him from his Mexican heritage, which he now wants to explore. This was an unusual story with characterization and plot. I recommend it.

The Rewind by Allison Winn Scotch
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This was such an unusual book. I had never read anything like it before. It is a second-chance rom-com set on a snowbound New England college campus at the turn of the millennium and told mainly through the internal monologues of the protagonists; actual dialogue is sparse. College sweethearts Frankie Harriman and Ezra Jones broke up before graduation and put the breadth of the country between them. Ten years later, they’re back on campus to celebrate the wedding of mutual friends. On the surface it is straightforward story, but it is the two protagonists' backstories and vulnerabilities where this book shines. [My Review]

Georgie, All Along by Kate Clayborn
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I could wax lyrical for eons about Clayborn's Love Lettering. I found her next, Love At Sight, quite interesting, and this third one as well. Clayborn is a very good writer with great character work, but I kept feeling like her latter two books were crowdsourced or she was consulting people she had not consulted in her first book. I know most people loved all three of these books, but for me, the first one was so good, that my expectations were set high, and the other two didn't quite match that level of excellence. This is a story where two misfit protagonists grow up in a small town. She leaves for the glamor of Hollywood for work, and he scrapes together a successful business through the kindness and care of a benefactor. Now, she is back, and these two completely opposite strangers work on their past difficulties to forge a strong future together.

So This Is Christmas by Jenny Holiday
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Holiday follows her popular Christmas books—A Princess for Christmas and Duke, Actually—set in the tiny, fictitious German-speaking alpine country of Eldovia with this story of the cupid behind those tales. This is a gentle romance between a strait-laced, traditional European man and a gregarious, ever-changing New Yorker. He is the royal equerry whereas she has been brought in to fix the problem of the main export company of Eldovia bleeding money. Clash? Of course, they do.

Where We End & Begin by Jane Igharo
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have loved all of Igharo's books. She is a talented writer and incorporates her Nigerian culture to go effect in setting stories in North America and Nigeria. Her stories are always complex and involve intricate emotional pitfalls for her two protagonists. They can, at times, flirt with the line between romance and women's fiction. This is romance and is a second-chance story between a Yoruba Nigerian boy/man and an Igbo girl/woman. They were sure they were destined to be together. And yet, when the girl goes off to America for college, he breaks off the relationship, staying back in Nigeria. Twelve years later, when she returns, life has completely changed for both of them, and yet, that old magical pull is still there. A memorable book. [My Review]

Lady Ludmilla's Accidental Letter by Sofi Laporte
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This self-published author was one of my surprise finds in 2022. These days, I rarely take a chance on unknown self-pubbed authors, but the premise seemed too irresistible, and I am so glad I went with my gut feeling. Written in a trad Regency style with farcical and serious elements intermingled with laugh-out-loud moments, this was a wonderful book, and I shall be reading more of this author's work, in particular, Lucy and the Duke of Secrets. A lonely spinster deals with the circumestances of her dreary existence by a letter correspondence with someone who has become a dear friend with whom she has fallen in love, sight unseen. (Here is a fabulous case made for handwritten letters.) She decides to meet him and goes to London. And to her horror, she discovers that he is an inverterate rake.

The Candid Life of Meena Dave by Namrata Patel
Category: Fiction
Comments: This author was a surprise find of 2022 as well, thanks to a discussion about South Asian writers that I was following on Twitter. I am looking forward to her next book Scent of a Garden coming out in June. I'm not fond of the term "women's fiction," but this is about the heroine self-discovery and features some romantic elements towards the end. I would label this simply as "mainstream fiction." This was a debut book, but reads like a novel by an assured writer. She is a photo-journalist of repute, leading a roving, rootless life around the world. But her life is turned upside down when she inherits an apartment in Boston. And there begins her interactions with the quirky (to the nth degree) residents of the large Victorian house split into ownership apartments. They surround her with affection and are up in her business 24x7. At first, she balks at this encroachment into her privacy and is anxious about this house anchoring her down. But gradually, she changes and starts to build tentative roots.

Part of Your World by Abby Jimenez
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is one of the best books I read in 2022. I have enjoyed every single one of Jimenez' books. Her characters are so emotionally mature that they are able to calibrate themselves and empathize with others with a great degree of nuance. I can hardly wait to read her next April book. In this book, Jimenez has her characters truly grapple with small town versus big city living. Most of such type of books, gloss over the difficulties and has the city person move happily into the small town. But this book has them both contemplating life in the other person's milieu. She is an ER doctor in a big city, belonging to a wealthy family of high profile surgeons who have been involved in the same hospital for generations. Her father is disappointed that she only wants to be an ER doctor and not a surgeon and/or the board chairman. He is a talented carpenter and artist in wood who lives in a modest life in a small town, not far away from the big city. He is also ten years younger, which he is fine with but she isn't. Can she bring him into her world? Can she move into his world? Such a fabulous story. Highly recommended!

Love, Theoretically by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I started the year off with a bang with a book that is going to be one of the best of 2023 for me. Hazelwood's writing just clicks with me with her alternately quirky and serious characters, the tenderness and trust and understanding between them, and their unfailing support for each other. I know, last summer, when I read her entire backlist back-to-back, while I loved each book individually, I felt that the characterization was a bit repetitive, but I had also suspected that time and distance would make the next book exciting to read. And it turned out to be true. I enjoyed this book thoroughly. This book is a clash between a theoretical physicist adjunct professor and an experimental physicist tenured professor, set in Cambridge (Boston). He disapproves of theoretical physicists and has recommended another experimentalist for the dream job she is gunning for at MIT. Since her paycheck as an adjunct in non-existent, she supplements her income by offering her services as a fake girlfriend. This book contains more science than her previous books; that actually was a draw for me. Untangling their vulnerabilities and deep-seated views of self is where Hazelwood shines. Highly recommended!

Attribution by Lisa Moore
Category: Mystery
Comments: This is a very interesting art history-mystery novel. The author is an expert art collector and former fine art gallery owner. The art history discussion and how the provenance (or attribution) of a piece of art is established is fascinating. The book cover art is by Spanish Baroque artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez of the early 17th century. This is a contemporary book with an art history mystery at its base, which is fascinating. Overall, I wished the writing could've been better—debut book published by a vanity press that needed substantive editing—but it had good bones. I look forward to reading her next book.

Speechless by Lindsey Lanza
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Selfishness sounds the death knell for a character because they are in it for themselves. When it is the heroine, the reader is expected to empathize with her despite her selfishness, and I cannot. This book started off brilliantly enough. She is a writer who found herself suddenly divorced. She has always felt left behind by the people in her life, and the resulting insecurity and low self-esteem coupled with crippling endometriosis, is sucking the joy out of her life. She survives her chronic illness through the love of her service dog and the glorious music of one composer. When her best friend from college asks her to move to LA to live with her, she jumps at the chance. And guess who is her seatmate? None other than the composer, who is extremely gorgeous and is afflicted with crippling social anxiety. They are so wonderful to and for each other in the first sections of the book. It all sounds good so far, but then it goes pear shaped. He pours all his love into her and gives her anything that she might possibly need, materially and emotionally. And she blows hot and cold constantly and takes and takes. The worst is after they make love, and it is amazing, she simply runs out of his house and disappears for two days. Yes, she has some emotional stuff to work on, but why doesn't she talk to him?? Instead, she goes to her friend's house and drowns her sorrows in drink and binge-watching for two days without a thought for him even though she knows his feelings are very much engaged. In the meantime, he has been frantic with worry wondering if she had an accident, where she was, etc. When she swans back, she is nowhere near as contrite as she should've been. This is unforgivable.

Rich in Your Love by Pippa Grant
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The premise of this story is a common one in contemporary romance. To wit: Highly accomplished big city girl comes to small town and meets local man doing small town things and decides to throw in her lot with his. How that comes about is where the story is. This plot has been done remarkably well this year by a few authors already—that is why this book had to stand out, but, in fact, it stays mired in its trappings. It is trying to be chick-lot/rom-com, but the levity required for that (with its matching gravitas) is entirely missing. What comes across instead are ill-thought-out plot details that are summarily put down by the author and don’t make logical sense. Of course, romance is chockful of bonkers plots but those plots are coherent within the context of their stories. They make sense. This one doesn’t because the pieces don’t cohere into a whole. The biggest example of this is the heroine, who is the main POV character. The author tells you again and again how amazing she is, but the person on the page is an immature person whose left hand doesn’t quite know what her right hand is doing.

Courtiers: The Hidden Power Behind the Crown by Valentine Low
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I was intrigued by the title and curious about the behind-the-scenes tea. There was that, of course, and detailed explanations of how things work. It was interesting, but it was also boring and repetitive. I also felt manipulated at times, like I was supposed to buy in to his agenda that I found more about out when I read about him the web. However, it is a book royalists will enjoy—in small doses.

[Some of these books are eARCs from NetGalley and the others are either borrowed from the public library or I've bought them.]

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Happy New Year 2023

Wishing everyone a joyous, peaceful, and healthy new year. May it bring you what you most wish for and may you be happy through it all.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Review: In the Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. Moore

Moore truly knows how to set the stage on which her tale of historical fiction, based on true people and events, unfolds. Her deep research and skillful storytelling immerse you into the Victorian era and life in Queen Victoria's household.

The story is about Princess Louise, the sixth of Victoria's nine children. The story starts out when she is a shy twelve-year-old understood only by her eldest brother, Bertie, the Prince of Wales. She is the typical middle child, oft forgotten and expected to be uncomplainingly dutiful. She is a creative who enjoys sketching and painting, but her true passion is sculpture. She longs to express herself in art and in politics, but she is perpetually cowed by her domineering, strong-willed mother.

This story is as much about Louise as it is about Victoria and their private family life before and especially in the aftermath of Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert's untimely death. Recounted in a sequential fashion from when Louise was twelve to twenty-three, much of the story involves the severe restrictions placed on her and her siblings' lives by Victoria’s overwhelmingly exacting mourning. She is such a feared tyrant that marriage is the only way for her daughters to escape her oppressive presence.

When she marries, Louise is very lucky to have a loving husband who gives her all the freedom to be who she wants to be. Her flourishing in her marriage after all the repressions of her austere childhood is superbly shown by Moore.

Through the story and the extensive front and back matter of a family tree, detailed chapter notes, foreword and afterword, and so on, you truly get an in-depth look at Victoria and Louise's personalities, court life, British and European politics, and how the Victorian society was crafted.

[Note: Louise's art is on display in the UK even now and her notable contributions to society are a matter of public record.]

[Also Note: I received a print ARC from the publisher.]

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Summer Reading Notes

I have sorely neglected this blog, so instead of getting a post every two months, you're getting a giant four-month one. Lots of romance. Lots. As many of you know, I suffer from chronic pain, and the pain is getting worse. So lots of romance reading in an effort to soothe and sweep me away.

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner
Category: Historical Fiction
Comments: Jenner follows upon the success of her hugely popular Jane Austen Society with the 1950s London-based story, Bloomsbury Girls, about three shopgirls, a century-old bookshop, and much feuding between the male staff and the female staff to take ownership of the shop. The servant girl, Evie Stone, from Jane Austen Society is now all grown up with a degree from Cambridge and a fondness for giving visibility to forgotten women writers. She has found her home among the rare books of Bloomsbury Books & Maps. The story is about the lives of the three shop girls and the men they love. Jenner is a superb writer—keenly observant and alive to emotional nuance. [My Review]

News To Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist by Laurie Hertzel
Category: Nonfiction Memoir
Comments: This was my second read of this book, and it was just as fascinating as the first time around. Hertzel writes with an earnestness and deprecation, which makes her spare prose and great sense of storytelling so compelling to read. It is the story of her first job, which was at the main newspaper in Duluth, MN. I was fascinated by all the details of the goings-on in a big, busy newsroom. I enjoy memoirs where people talk in detail about their jobs. This book is a treasure.

Ewaso Village: Poems and Stories from Laikipia County, Kenya by Chip Duncan
Category: Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry
Comments: One of the best books of the summer for me. Something very different from what I usually review. Photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Chip Duncan’s sensitive book focuses on the Kenyan Maasai community of Ewaso village, capturing them through photographs, history, stories, and poems. Duncan first visited Ewaso village in 2012 and was welcomed into its society. Since then, he has returned annually, drawn by the community’s kindness, generosity of spirit, and easy acceptance of him. This book conveys his deep care and respect for the community and their culture. Recording both events and conversations, the book captures moments in the lives, families, traditions, and rituals of the Maasai people. [My Review]

Every Leaf a Hallelujah by Ben Okri, illustrated by Diana Ejaita
Category: Children's Fiction
Comments: This is a fantastic book by Booker Prize-winning and hugely influential Nigerian-British author, Ben Okri. This is his first book for children, and the talented artist's illustrations greatly enhance the reading experience. This book is meant for children who will inherit the climate crisis and for those of us who care about the environment. If you are a tree hugger, this book is for you. The story features an array of extraordinary Nigerian trees, each with its own personality and voice. The great baobab is the chief tree, and he takes us on a journey around the world to see what happens when we don't listen to nature. Forests are vanishing, climate is changing, and yet, no one is listening. Gorgeous book.

I Am Able to Shine by Korey Watari, illustrated by Mike Wu
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Inspired by her experience growing up Japanese American, debut picture book author Korey Watari has teamed up with her husband, Pixar artist and creator of the Ellie series, Mike Wu, to create I Am Able to Shine, the joyful story of Keiko, a young Japanese American girl with a big heart and big dreams. Every night, young Keiko wishes to her paper crane, “I wish to change the world and shine.” And yet, everywhere she goes she feels invisible. The book is about how Keiko overcomes adversity to seize the future she wants. She does this by being true to herself and in so doing achieves her dreams. [My Review]

Goodnight Ganesha by Nadia Salomon, illustrated by Poonam Mistry
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: With rhymes patterned on Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, this is a picture book that celebrates the beloved nightly rituals of two children visiting their grandparents’ home in India. The artwork in this book is outstanding. Delicate filigree work reminiscent of the art and architecture of ancient India fills every page with color. Despite the pieces being predominantly hand-drawn, you would need to take a magnifying glass to see all the minute details. A book worth savoring. [My Review]

Revenge: Meghan, Harry, and the War Between the Windsors by Tom Bower
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Gossipy book. I was so curious what it was all about and why it made such a huge splash in the UK. And I don't know what to believe anymore. It is very detailed, and he has clearly done a ton of research and talked to a ton of people. But it is also very biased and one-sided.

Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is one of my best romances of the year. A brilliant and wildly creative young woman with sharp corners and sharper tongue discovers the softer side of life through the love of a kind young man in this dazzling debut romance. It is set at a small university in England and features two Nigerian-British protagonists. On the surface, it is a typical enemies-to-lovers college romance, but it is Babalola's distincctive voice and writing style that elevates it to memorable. [My Review]

Thank You For Listening by Julia Whelan
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The author draws on her experience narrating audiobooks in this poignant and charming novel about two famous audiobook performers who fall in love during their dual narration of a romance novel. Much of the novel is epistolary, through anonymous emails and text messages. I love such books where protagonists fall in love with each other's personality even before they set eyes on each other. [My Review]

To Catch a Raven by Beverly Jenkins
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: In the last book of her highly popular Women Who Dare series, Jenkins tells a complex, nuanced story of a courageous, enterprising woman from New Orleans who lives by her wits and a wealthy, philanthropic tailor from Boston. I have really liked all the books in this series. [My Review]

Wedding Bells at Villa Limoncello by Daisy James
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a warmhearted, small-town, slow burn story, which is a love letter to Italy that starts off the U.S. debut of Daisy James’ Tuscan Dreams series. This is a continuity series, where the protagnoists' happy-for-now story continues in the next two books. They meet when he runs her Vespa off the road with his Spider.

Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams writing as Selena Montgomery
Category: Contemporary Romantic Suspense
Comments: This is a reissue of the second-chance romantic suspense novel about two brilliant minds recruited from graduate school by a shadowy extragovernmental intelligence agency to lead a peripatetic lifestyle around the globe. It is a tightly-paced thriller with a tender romance set in the fictitious Mediterranean island of Jafir, whose culture is the confluence of the Middle East and Africa. Abrams a fabulous writer and really knows how to write romantic suspense. Definitely worth a look.

Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Guillory's best book so far. The story is set among the verdant vineyards of Napa Valley, where she immerses you in the nitty-gritty of the wine business. The heroine is the rare black co-owner of a vineyard, and the hero is a tech whiz whose burned out on the intense pressure and racism of Silicon Valley. They meet over a one-night-stand, and lo and behold, the next day, he walks in as her new employee. Eek! [My Review]

On Rotation by Shirlene Obuobi
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I totally geeked out over all the medical school details in this story by a Ghanaian-American cardiologist. The heroine is Ghanaian-American and the hero is Caucasian. In addition, he is not a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, but gasp! an artist. He’s also got “wasteman” practically tattooed across his forehead. A no-no to the heroine's family. But in reality, he is really a sweetheart. Excellent characterization of two dissimilar people who grow and learn to appreciate how the other one clicks. Obuobi is a writer to watch. This was her debut book.

In a New York Minute by Kate Spencer
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What a fun paean to New York City! Spencer loves the city, and it shows. The story opens with the heroine getting fired from her interior design startup and worried about how she was now going to subsist in the hideously expensive city. The hero is this uptight wealthy heir to a business with his bespoke suits. The hero is kind and wonderful. She is sassy and artsy. Chalk and cheese. They meet on the subway, when the back of her dress gets caught in the doors and rips straight down her back. He jumps in to the rescue with his suit jacket. Their whole interaction is caught on a stealth video that becomes a hashtag viral sensation. Someone finds their identity, and they are thrown together again and again. A quick, light read.

The Lost Letter by Mimi Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Having greatly enjoyed Matthews' recent books, I decided to check out her earliest romance, and it is a delightful Victorian in the traditional style. It's a second-chance, Beauty & the Beast, governess & peer of the realm romance elevated by Matthews wonderful prose, superb research, and immersive period feel. In their youth, they met in London's ballrooms, he, an officer in the army and she, a young miss. They were in love but hadn't quite acknowledged it to the other. Suddenly, he is called away to India. While they both write to each other, neither gets the other's letters, and they feel that they have been betrayed and abandoned by the other. In the meantime, her worthless gamester father dies, leaving her in penury, so she has to make a living as a governess in a merchant's home in London's insalubrious environs. He returns badly injured and is hiberating on his estate, when his desperate sister finds her and blackmails and cajoles her into paying a visit. Like I said, not an unusual story, but Matthews really knows how to map the emotional terrain of her characters. Definitely worth a read.

Field Rules by Carla Luna
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I totally took a chance on this author, never having read her or heard about her and despite seeing the low ratings on her other three books. But she's an archeologist and this story is set on a dig in Cyprus, so I thought at least there would be much geekery to be had. And it sure does. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the characters. It deserves a much higher rating than only 20 five stars on AMZ. She's an archelogy PhD student who buries her head in academia after one disastrous dig in her undergrad with her fellow student, who was her lover and whom she promptly ghosts. However, now at this stage in her academic career, she needs to earn some street creds, so she decides to take a chance on a dig, only to discover that her ex is the expert on the dig. He abandoned grad school and became a "shovel bum," someone who lives a roving life traveling from dig to dig bringing in his field experience in exchange for money. Great backstory for him and great characterization for him. She needed a little bit more. Good overall story.

Her Fake Date Until Midnight by Eve Pendle
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [I received an eARC from the author.] I have read and enjoyed a couple of Pendle's historical romances, so took a chance on this contemporary, and it was lots of fun. She has an entertaining British contemporary voice. He is a citified billionaire. She's a small town, almost broke veteranian working in her ex's father's clinic. Her ex is getting married, and her boss wants her to go. How can she without a plus one? The hero is a harried workaholic billionaire who has been charged by his sister to take a mental health break by rusticating at a manor house in the country. Lo and behold, a pregnant dog ends up unconscious on his doorstep, and he has no clue what to do. First things first, he takes the dog to the local vet, and asks (demands) that she take charge of the dog. They make a trade: he attends the wedding as her plus one and she will help him find the owner. Many hijinks ensue. Pendle keeps a light hand on the emotions and a tight rein on the plot, allowing the characters to shine without getting bogged down by over-the-top emotional excess that plague many billionaire romances. Definitely an author to check out.

Once Upon a Bride by Jenny Holiday
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Having enjoyed other of Holidays books, I chose this one. But it was less successful than some others of this type: he's the successful, wealthy, repressed, man of the world; she's the down-on-her-luck, creative, free spirit. Beneath that stern exterior, he's a sweetheart. Beneath her bubbly exterior, she is hiding childhood emotional scars. He is her employer because he hired her to do the interior decoration at his firm. They do everything but avoid any intimacy till the very hour the job is done. Holiday has a light, banter-filled hand, but somehow, neither the characterization nor the plot really take off. It is a competent story from a good writer, but that's it.

Below Zero by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: My first Ali Hazelwood story, and I totally get why her debut book Love Hypothesis has 4.6 stars from 45k+ readers on Amazon. She is a superb writer and tells an entertaining, fast-paced story of nerdy NASA engineers and scientists geeking out over code and Mars rovers and engaging in great derring-do in the brutal wilds of Svalbard, Norway. The heroine is prickly and thinks very poorly of herself. She believes men are only interested in hookups with her and would be turned off if they got to know her. He thinks she is fabulous and falls in love with her at their first meeting. He is a total cinnamon roll, kind and sweet and earnest. I loved all the tech in the book—you get the feeling that Hazelwood has really researched it all in great, authentic detail. And who does not have stars (ha!) in their eyes over NASA?

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Another story set in the rarefied atmosphere of NIH and NASA. I totally geeked out about all the details of a neuroengineering research project that adds performance enhancement technology through neurostimulation to astronauts’ helmets. Light espionage, some derring-do, and an unexpected villain are just some of the delights. [My Review]

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Hazelwood's books are about people in STEM, academia, and research, which I absolutely love, and she has the chops to pull it off. In addition to romance, she is the writer of peer-reviewed articles about brain science. Pulling off a strong power imbalance relationship between her protagonists as a debut book takes courage, and Hazelwood has it in spades. The heroine is a graduate student in the same department as the hero who is a professor. He is not her advisor nor is he on her PhD thesis committee, but it is still a power imbalance situation. With clever and yet seamless plot and character maneuvering, Hazelwood employs a cracking pace, witty banter, and fully accessible complex people to make it easy for the reader to take the leap and believe that this is a healthy, solid relationship. Highly recommended.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: When I first read the premise, I rolled my eyes. Such a trite contemporary romance plot, but I decided to give it a try, because it's a Hazelwood. And I'm glad I did. This is a tender STEMinist novella. They've both been left a house in DC by someone they both love: her mentor and his aunt. But she didn't warn them about it beforehand. So now they are yoked together and are as different as can be in temperament and job. She's an environmental engineer at the EPA and he is a big oil lawyer. And...boy, do the sparks fly. Lovely character work as before, and despite it having to move along quickly since it is a novella, the relationship story does not feel shortchanged.

Stuck with You by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is the weakest of all of Hazelwood's books. Because I read them all in one go, I started noticing author "tells," and how this story rehashes much of the characterization of her other books even down to how the hero and heroine look and behave and speak. If you space her books out, one a year, you may very likely not notice this. Which is to say that in a year or two, I'll be drawn to her new book once again.

The Make-Up Test by Jenny L. Howe
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Competence porn is real! Both the characters are great students, and the academic discussion scenes are wonderful. The hero and heroine meet at Brown, where she's a sophomore and he's a senior. The fat rep for her is superb as is the characterization of the hero who is far from the romance novel hero norm. What Howe brings to the table is that the only thing that matters is that they each find the other very attractive. They spend a good few months together, but then he betrays her and dumps her. Surpise, surpise! When she lands in graduate school, guess who is also a first year in the same department and vying to be the advisee of the same famed professor? He ruined her life in undergrad; is he now going to do the same to her grad school and future academic aspirations? Good examination of the people they were in undergrad versus the people they have grown up to be now. Good growth opportunity for both people, which is what I look for, but as is more and more en vogue in contemporary roms these days, the hero has more work to do.

Before I Do by Sophie Cousens
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This book is quite unusual in that every chapter is in a different time, before and after, the main event, which is the disastrous wedding of the hero and the heroine. I loved the way Cousens executes this multi-timeline approach. The story is mainly from the heroine's POV and is set in England. She is someone who flitted about different majors (courses) at university and finally dropped out. She does odd jobs here and there to scrape together a living. While she feels stuck several years behind her friends who have steady jobs, house mortgages, marriages, etc.—;i.e., the usual trappings of life of people in their twenties and thirties—;she is not very motivated to try to change her life. She is suffering from trauma and that leads her to live a risky, careless life. The hero is sweet, kind, responsible, loving, and upstanding. Just the best, and he loves her unconditionally. I did not like the heroine's attitude to life and how she simply takes from everyone around her, including her fiancé. He does all the work, and yet he is shown to be grateful to her just for her presence in his life. The author tries to give the heroine a character update towards the end of the book, but it was too little, too late for me.

The One That Got Away by Zee Monodee
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This was a DNF, which was a huge pity. It's by Love Africa Press, and I try to read their books as and when I can. I was so excited by the premise: A second-chance multicultural romance set in Mauritius and based on Mauritius cultural and societal norms. It started out very promising but quickly went awry because of the poor writing. While it is in dual POVs, the heroine's is primary, and I found her very inconsistent. The author tells us over and over again how talented she is and what an important job she has, but instead of a successful, mature woman in her thirties, we get a thirty-plus-going-on-twenty with all the immature reactions and actions inherent therein. I persisted for a while because I still retained hopes of the story coming together after a rough start, but had to eventually nope out.

The Decoy Girlfriend by Lillie Vale
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This was a DNF as well. I had heard the buzz about Vale's first book, so I was eager to try this one out, and it was disappointing in multiple ways. The author wanted to write in first person present, but you have to construct the story differently as opposed to writing it in first person past. Vale couldn't pull it off, so there were constant tense changes, which got tiresome. The heroine is very shallow and gives very little as opposed to all that everyone around her, especially the hero, gives her. The hero is a true cinnamon roll, despite being extremely hot and a famous actor. Her only claim to fame is a bestseller she wrote in her late teens. She is not making any progress with her second book and is unemployed because, well, she is writing (or at least pretending to be), but everyone around her is bending over backwards to pretend that she is a "real wrier." There is plenty of preaching from her to the hero of how a writer thinks, all of which makes him admire her. The premise is that she is the doppelgänger of a famous Hollywood golden girl, and she gets lots of perks, including free jewelry, from pretending to be her...till she gets caught. Then her doppelgänger has her really pretend to be her, which involves being closely involved with her showmance boyfriend, who doesn't feel a thing for the star but falls instantly in lust and love with our writer.

[Some of these books are eARCs from NetGalley and the others are either borrowed from the public library or I've bought them.]