Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year 2020

And so another year draws to a close and a new year begins. With the passage of time, I have found that I look forward to every year bathed in the hope for a better future for myself—a chance to put my best foot forward and to know that it will be enough, that I will be enough. So I spend a lot of time in the second half of December in contemplation and in writing my goals. These are not esoteric, high-falutin', aspirational goals, but rather practical, measurable goals that will add up to a year of satisfaction and success and peace.

Clearly, I don't always achieve all that I set out to do. So I tinker with them as the year goes on, frequently reminding myself of my hopes at the beginning of the year and tempering them with reality. Yet, I believe in entering the new year with intentionality, not just allowing myself to be swept along with the tide. Quite a few people find goals oppressive. To me, goals are comforting. I have done my thinking and now I have concrete steps set out to achieve what I hope to achieve.

In addition to goals, I choose a word or two that will help me shape the year. Given all the heartbreak and turmoil of last year, my words for this year are: Grace & Hope. And my highest aim for this year is to Be Like A Tree, according to Maria Popova, one of the keenest modern-day intellectual: "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?

Saturday, December 28, 2019

My December Reading

It is rare for me to read Christmas stories these days, so it's surprising that I read SEVEN this year. I usually shy away from Christmas stories because they usually end up being schmaltzy and saccharine and improbable. But these stories are surprisingly sweet and believable, even in the short story format.

This year, I read 164 books in total: romance, children's picture books, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction. The bulk of my reading, of course, was romance with most of them for review for Frolic Media. I look forward to continuing to review romance for Frolic next year. I also have an iron in the fire for children's picture books, but more on that when I have a publication to link to.

It's a Wonderful Regency Christmas: The Duke's Progress by Edith Layton
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: This is a curious story. Much of the narrative is spent on scene-setting, display of research, and development of the hero, but it all charmed me. The story is only incidentally a romance. It is more a hero's journey, the eponymous "progress"—travel through fellow peers' country estates—for Christmas.

The duke is as famous for his dueling skills as he is for his cutting tongue and icy demeanor, making him an uncomfortable companion at best, but still a highly sought-after guest at balls and country parties for his title and wealth. For all his popularity, the duke is lonely and bored. Layton has made him so nuanced in his outer appearances and behavior and his inner values that even his friends don't know him completely. In all his years so far, he has had held a deeply hidden, passionate hope for love and romance. But such did not come to pass. He now figures he has to get married for the succession and so decides in a fit of melancholy to give in to the Season's Incomparable's machinations. Luckily, on a scant chance that he almost misses, he meets the love of his life and discovers a fun-filled life worth living.

Miss Dominguez's Christmas Kiss and Other Stories: A Ciudad Real Holiday Anthology by Lydia San Andres
Category: Contemporary Romance Short Stories
Comments: Set in Ciudad Real in the early 1900s, the women in these stories are all connected with a boarding house run by Doña Genoveva, where they all reside. It is such a microcosm of society, this boardinghouse—there is so much interpersonal emotions and activities going on, all within the bounds of Doña Genoveva’s rules. My review is here.

"Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss" is a story of a young woman discovering love for the first time and the more experienced young woman guarding the other’s innocence and introducing her to the joys gently and with care. Despite having her own family to celebrate with, Marisol returns early from her holiday to spend Christmas with Lourdes, thus showing her how very much she treasures her. She even talks about taking her to visit her family the next time she goes home.

"Mrs. Gomez’s New Year’s Surprise" is a experienced businesswoman. With New Year’s holiday bearing down on them, their thoughts naturally turn into a reflection of their life so far and with what intention they want to step into the next year. They are both lonely and are finding is at a standstill, so instead of being mired in bitterness, they decide to take a stab at finding happiness...with each other.

"Miss Weiss’s Reyes Present" is a story of love growing by lingering exchanged glances and smiles — for both the other is sweet and solicitous of their feelings. This is also a story of forgiveness. Circumstances can cause a person to fail to keep their word, to let another down. But Letitia giving him the benefit of the doubt and being willing to listen to him explain shows maturity and thoughtfulness towards him and consideration of his feelings, while also honoring the connection between them. Happiness is not transient because both of them believe in it and are willing to resolve their differences to make it happen for them.

A Snowy Little Christmas: Missing Christmas by Kate Claybourn
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: A Snowy Little Christmas is an anthology of three Christmas stories: “Starry Night” by Fern Michaels, “Mistletoe and Mimosas” by Tara Sheets and “Missing Christmas” by Kate Clayborn. I was only interested in Clayborn’s novella.

He has been working very closely with her for years, spending hours of time in her company at work, outside work, and while traveling for work. They are very close, but as work confidantes and friends—just not the kind of closeness he desperately seeks. He is a stickler for rules, and one of the rules is no personal emotions muddying up professional relationships. Besides, she isn’t interested in him that way, and he does not want to take the risk to find out. He would never survive the loss were she to go away.

Little does he know, she has likewise buried her attraction and affection for him under layers upon layers of professionalism. She values how close and in sync they are, how they can communicate silently through body language, and almost read each other’s thoughts where work is concerned. And yet, where his personal emotions go, she draws a blank.

One day, elated after a spectacular win at work and frustrated from holding back her attraction for him, she demands almost questioningly that he kiss her. And despite his habit of restraint, despite his misgivings, despite the warning bells tolling in his head about romancing her...he does! And life changes. For them both. What are they to do? My review is here.

One Bed for Christmas by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Lau's books just work for me. The hilarity, the warmth, the tenderness, the seriousness, the implausibility, and The Food. He met her when she hit his head with the classroom door and knocked him to the floor in an undergrad calculus class. He fell hard on the floor and hard into love with her once his head stopped spinning. And for twelve long years, he has hidden his love for her but given her unstinting friendship. He knows that she is meant for better things than him and he doesn’t deserve her.

When the story opens, she is the CEO of a popular online dating app, while he is a freelance graphic designer and makes money on the side by dancing to the tunes of an elderly barbershop quartet in an inflatable T-Rex costume. The gulf between them is vast and unbridgeable. And yet, they are friends, see each other casually, and spend time together, and it is always fun. But then she leaves, not to be heard from till the next time. He is lonely. Little does he know that she is lonely in her life as well. My review is here.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I read this book with a smile on my face from beginning to end. Playful and sweet with undertones of maturity and seriousness, this is a lovely romance to bring alive the magic of Christmas. Unlike some Christmas romances, this story doesn’t descend into schmaltziness with mawkish grand gestures. It retains the integrity of story with the genuine emotions of two adults in their fifties finding a second chance at friendship and love.

She is a dedicated social worker in Oakland, CA. She loves working with patients and enabling the people she comes in contact with find solutions to better lives for themselves. On a whim, her daughter pushes her to take a break from all her hard work to travel with her to England. He is the first black private secretary to the Queen, a position he is proud of and has worked hard to achieve and maintain. But lately, he has found himself feeling slightly bored and restless despite the unceasing work, which he enjoys. His sister and nephew fill his need for family, but there is still a void in him that he is unsure how to fill.

And then he lays eyes on her at Sandringham and he finds himself instantly charmed. She carries herself with a refreshing forthrightness, a strong joyful sense of self, and an easy acceptance of those around her. She, in turn, is fascinated with this man with kind eyes and instant smiles, who goes out of his way to be considerate to everyone he meets and is so solicitous of her. My review is here.

The Night of the Scoundrel by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the last—and the best in my opinion—story in Bowen’s Devils of Dover series. It tells the story of the mysterious, almost menacing, all-knowing, overarching figure of King and the woman who is perfect for him. There is nothing of the underbelly of society that he hasn’t had his ruthless hands in. And yet the highest of the nobility flock to his mansion whenever he has an exclusive auction of prized objects pried from unwilling or questionable sources. King holds all the power in his dealings with these unscrupulous, covetous people.

And yet, he is powerless in his fascination of the sight he witnesses in a darkening alley one evening: a black-clad angel whose twin blades are extensions of her arms routing three assailants with great precision, skill and lack of effort. When he spies that same woman the same night in his study robbing him of a priceless sapphire, his fascination turns into unwilling attraction. The need to decipher her become all-consuming. Madness! Bowen writes with such precision of expression and emotion. And also versatility. Her words fit the story she tells, and I love her voice and style. My review is here.

Open House by Ruby Lang
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The two protagonists in this story approach each other from opposite sides of an illegal community garden in Harlem—she is the real estate agent tasked with selling the land, and he is the organizer of the garden. This book is all about “community”—finding your own, creating your own, and appreciating what you have.

It was interesting to see how the protagonists fit into their families and how that has informs on what they think of themselves. It was also interesting to see how differently each perceives the other and how they grow in confidence from this new look at themselves. This is the essence of romance to me: A person growing into their better self because someone sees them as worth much more than they’d previously thought.

He sees her as dedicated and capable of taking on a task and finishing it. She thinks she’s a screw-up because she has flitted from career to career. She sees him as a passionate supporter of the garden and the old ladies who work in there—they are his friends; they trust him; and their passion has become his passion. He, on the other hand, sees himself as a footloose, fancy-free person with no roots and no cares. Seeing themselves from the other’s lens is the making of them. My review is here.

Sweet Adventure by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I gave this an "A" for being charming and engrossing with a busy plot and a wonderfully complex heroine. While Burchell's heroines always have agency and active roles, this is the first book where the heroine dominates the story completely with her competence, common sense, and compassion.

The story is a mystery. The heroine is on her first motoring trip when she finds herself in a cottage with a dead woman and her young daughter. She immediately takes the girl to the police to report the death, and there she runs into the girl's uncle (the hero) who is on the lookout for his sister. The girl and the heroine form an instant bond, and so at the urging of the uncle, she goes to stay with their family and look after the girl for a few days. In the meantime, there's a villainous father, a younger uncle who's run up against the law, a dominating matriarch, and fine country estate. And of course, our smart, independent heroine and the dead woman. It all ties up into a fun book.

Gilded Cage by KJ Charles
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: It is no exaggeration on my part to say that Charles pens near-perfect historical romances. This is a story of a childhood romance turning sour through betrayals, lies and threats. But when the protagonists meet up seventeen years later (in 1895), they discover the wrongs done unto them, and instead of being mired in bitterness, they choose to have faith in their original positive assessments of each other and embark on a second-chance romance. Much water has passed under the bridge since their youth, filled with regrets, missed opportunities, and life-altering experiences, and thus Gilded Cage is a story of great courage on part of the protagonists to choose to trust once again.

Charles has her characters walk a careful line between what is acceptable criminality and what is out-n-out villainy. As a reader, I had to constantly hush up my sense of right and wrong and consider each situation from the characters' moral framework, which is of their time, their personalities, and their backgrounds. This is where Charles truly shines as a writer -- this grappling of morals and ethics is a commentary on her historical research and philosophical thought.

Any Old Diamonds (review here) and Gilded Cage (review here) are part of the Lilywhite Boys series.

How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: My mind just exploded when I turned the pages of this book. The artwork is outstanding and damaging to your eyeballs: clashing loud colors, patterned letters all over the place, pull-outs and fold-outs, multidimensional art, and so on. It's like an illustrator went batshit crazy on the page, but the resulting book is as eye-catching as it is eye-popping (and hard to read).

However, I persisted in deciphering the words since I will read anything that Kwame Alexander writes, and the effort was rewarding. Alexander takes us into an immersive experience about reading a book. First, find a tree—a black Tupelo or a Dawn Redwood will do—and plant yourself. He then likens opening the book to be akin to peeling the skin of a clementine. He carries the metaphor further when he instructs kids to dig their thumbs at the bottom of each juicy section and pop the words out. Page by rustling page. One of his last instructions is to get cozy between the covers and allow your fingers to wonder as they wander. The words are gentle and lovely. The art is what it is. They don't go together, in my opinion; I really wonder what Alexander thought of it.

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a beautiful book that tells the story of Aidan who is transgender. Lukoff is also transgender and that makes him tell Aidan's journey with sensitivity, awareness, and empathy. Aidan was born a girl, but he knows that he is meant to be a boy. He rejects all his parents' girl-trappings: dolls, pink, lacy, braids, dresses, and on and on. Luckily for Aidan, they really listen when he tells them how he feels and who he really is. I loved Aidan's parents for the love and understanding they show and how they allow their child to lead in determining his life and be just a happy kid. So when his mom is going to have a baby, he tells everyone how excited he is to be a big brother, and he always makes it a point to not let others pre-decide who the baby should be, gender or otherwise. I was glad to see that Juanita depicted Aidan as biracial—making this book an #OwnVoices book for both the writer and illustrator. However, the artwork is uninspiring and does not match the intensity of Lukoff's prose.

My Papi has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I always read author's notes first in every book I take up, and they are always rewarding and frame the book really well. This one is stellar. Quintero says the book is the story of her father and of Corona, California. This is a book where the illustrator was able to read the writer's heart and mind and pull out details from her childhood and accurately depict them. Unlike the above two books, the words and pictures are a perfect match, and it really makes this story sing. The protagonist's father is a carpenter and builds homes. But no matter how tired he is when he comes home, he always makes time to take his daughter for a spin on his motorcycle. He is a man of few words and emotions, but it is how he behaves with his daughter shows her how much she is loved. They go on familiar roads in town where she gets to visit all the places she usually goes with her Mamí, now with her Papi, and she sees the world anew.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Best Romance Books of 2019

My detailed list of best romance books of 2019 is published on Frolic Media. Here are the titles in alphabetical order:

—American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera
—Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Charles
—Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
—Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole
—Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston
—Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra
—Man vs. Durian by Jackie Lau
—Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss and Other Stories by Lydia San Andres
—The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
—The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss
—The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
—The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
—The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet
—There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon
—Work for It by Talia Hibbert

Sunday, December 1, 2019

My November Reading

You can chart my emotional tenor from the books I read. This month was a hard month, and among other books, I read traditional Regencies and vintage contemporaries, which included top faves: Mary Burchell, Mary Balogh, and Joan Smith.

There were a few days in November that were awash in the Sarah Dessen kerfuffle. If you are unaware of it, you can find more information: here, here, and here. In short: a college student from a small college in a small town criticized millionaire author Sarah Dessen's work. When Dessen found out about it, she ranted about it on Twitter to her huge platform, who dug out the small newspaper and the student's name and harassed her and heaped abuse on her. Among the verbal abusers were big-name authors: Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, N.K. Jemisin, Meg Cabot, Angie Thomas, Celeste Ng, and Roxanne Gay among others. Instead of merely voicing support of Dessen's feelings and Dessen's work, these people harassed the student. When big media outlets like WaPo and Slate came out against them, they backed down and issued non-apologies. I was particularly disappointed in Roxanne Gay and N.K. Jemisin and Dessen, herself—she replied positively to abusive tweets.

My first reaction was, "I am never going to read a Sarah Dessen novel." Well, the joke's on me. I have her The Rest of the Story sitting on my Kindle for review. Do I refuse to read and review it? In that case, you would be totally justified in accusing me of being a hypocrite. Only last month, I was out there on my soapbox about giving fictional characters and real people second chances. What Dessen did was reprehensible, but just perhaps, she has learned from all the backlash because her apology was well-done. I will give her another chance and read her book. I will, however, not be giving Jemisin or Roxanne Gay another chance, because they have done this "jumping on persecuting bandwagons" before and when faced with the backlash this time, they were unrepentant.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Our school has taken DEI very seriously this year. It is part of their strategic plan and they have incorporated it into their curriculum, admissions, faculty and staff hiring, and parent education. As part of their efforts, they are doing a community read of Oluo's book. This is going to be an ongoing read for me for the next couple of months. We've already had one group discussion, and we have another discussion coming up in January followed by Oluo's visit. My main interest in this month's reading was the chapter on "intersectionality." I have seen that word around social media for a few months now, but Oluo's explanation of it puts into context the issues facing people with multiple marginalizations. For that chapter alone, I would recommend the book. I will comment on this book further later this month. At our discussion in November, I was disappointed that among 25 people, almost all were women and all but three were Caucasian women. This constrained the discussion in ways that were sub-optimal to the issues the book brings up. I hope we have a more diverse group in January for a more robust discussion.

Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life by M.J. Ryan
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I borrowed this book from my parents when I visited back in February. It is only now that I cracked it open to read. Many years ago, I was advised by a wise human being that I should develop an attitude of gratitude. Sorrowfully, he passed away before he could explain what he meant in detail. And now, serendipitously, this book has fallen in my lap that tries to explain what is gratitude, the gifts of gratitude, the attitudes, and finally, the practices of gratitude answering the question: How should I do it to bring it into my life? The book is full of platitudes and simplistic solutions, but it is the first I have read that doesn't deal merely with esoteric ideas, but rather delineates concrete implemental steps. Tell me what to do, and I will try to do it, and let the effects be what they are purported to be. This is a complete departure from how many people approach philosophical or spiritual ideas, but since I have struggled with this for a while, I am going to start with these building blocks, which will later allow me to tackle more Big Idea approaches.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, I discovered this book. The printed book was converted to digital by a community of volunteers and self-pubbed on AMZ for free in 2012. It felt like it was a small enough book that I would be able to easily read it on the Kindle, but it hasn't proved to be the case. I need a print book where I can linger on the page, underline things, write marginalia, and put in post-it notes. So once the physical book arrives, I'll re-read it. As a child, I lived in a nature preserve, and went on long walks every evening by myself. There was always so much to see, so much to think about, and I returned refreshed and soothed from the bullying I otherwise faced in my neighborhood. Over the decades, I have forgotten how wonderful walking can be, and this book reminds me of its wonders. Granted, I don't have hours like Thoreau did or easy access to forest trails like Thoreau did—somehow driving somewhere to walk seems to defeat the purpose. So this month, I plan to walk out of my door and in my neighborhood. I will see what comes out of a few circles around. We rarely have walkers or joggers, so it wouldn't be a case of constantly running across chatty neighbors.

The Carrying by Ada Limón
Category: Poetry
Comments: It was a case of curious coincidences. I found two of Limón's poems one week that really spoke to me, and then in my discussion of them on Twitter, I discovered a third. Here it is: "Instructions on Not Giving Up" from the perspective of the cherry blossom trees. Nature never ever gives up—all that is sorrowful, it seems to say, passes with hope just around the corner. That is how I view the start of the new year and the beginning of longer days—Hope is such a sweet word and such a comfort to me.

Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I'll take it, the tree seems to say; a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I'll take it all.

A Match Made for Thanksgiving by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A Jackie Lau book always makes me smile. Her writing, pacing, and characters are so lively and warm and fun that her books are unputdownable. They also leave you hungry for all the foods mentioned—wouldn’t it be fun to go food adventuring with Lau, you wonder. Written for the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, this first book of the Holidays with the Wongs series is a tender romp. I enjoyed a look into the first- and second-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant families whom Lau showcases in her story. She strikes just the right note with the complexity of their heritages and cultural and social attitudes. In her protagonists, Lau has created giving, thoughtful individuals, who are open to stepping outside their comfort zones into new experiences that they never imagined before they would like to try. Lau is a prolific writer, and I am always looking forward to her next story. My review is here.

Work for It by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Olu Keynes is a sharp-tongued man who has been numbed emotionally since childhood due to continual trauma by his abusive father and ex. He’s often overcome by self-loathing and anxiety before disappearing into an icy deadened state. Griff Everett thinks he is big and ugly and the locals treat him like a pariah, so he has become a loner. Griff and Olu meet at Fernley Farms, where their job is to work with plants. Those who love the BBC series Cranford will love Hibbert's small English village atmosphere, with its gossipy neighbors, small-minded, supercilious villagers, and strict social class. Griff and Olu have serious emotional scars from their tough lives, but there is a thread of hopefulness that runs in their lives that allows them to reach out to each other. Hibbert is one author whose work just keeps on getting better—however, her gritty books are not for everyone.

Tell Me My Fortune by Mary Burchell
Pay Me Tomorrow by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: These two books are identical in their basic plotline, but overall, they are very different stories. This is because their protagonists are such different people, in terms of personalities, motivations, backgrounds, and values. In writing these two books, Burchell has thumbed her nose at critics who say romance novels are formulaic and repetitive. It takes a master craftsman to provide bare plot guidelines and then allow her characters to live their lives and own their story.

The premise is that the heroine's family is in expectation that a near relative will die and leave them a sum of money. All their life decisions are in abeyance until that happy event. Unfortunately, they discover that the money has been left elsewhere. What are the families to do? Yes, the heroes are rich and the impoverished heroines are interested in them because they are rich. How mercenary, you think. Well, of course. But these gold-diggers redeem themselves to their own, their heroes', and our satisfaction. The best part of Burchell's characterization are mature people who believe in taking bad news on the chin, sitting with the distress, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and above all, talking it out with each other.

I liked Pay Me Tomorrow a smidge over the other one, because of the hero. He has been in love with the heroine for months before she even really "sees" him. And he so vulnerable that he is willing to be taken advantage of for his money if only he can have her in his life. So the end of the book is just wonderful, where she shows him how much she values him and how that affects him, and the effect on her when she realizes how very much he loves her. That power differential between them may never fully equalize, but she is now aware of her power over him and is at pains to show him that she treasures him.

Just a Nice Girl by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: For a young woman, who is often overlooked and known only as a "nice girl" with no accomplishments, being courted by two handsome, competitive, well-established men is quite the ego boost. This was a forgettable novel, in my opinion, especially following the above two books. It is competently, and at times, superbly written, but the characterization is patriarchal and colorless—Burchell's heart just wasn't in it.

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I loved this book so much, I bought it in print as well. As always, when I love a book to pieces, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why I loved it so much. It is laugh-out-loud funny with complex characters. The hero is quite hapless but also masterful and capable is some situations. The heroine is quite managing and yet wants a future husband who she will not be able to dominate. What a delightful combination, isn't it, to have two such opposing characteristics in the same person?

Their meet-cute happens when she descends in an avenging fury with a black umbrella to route three thugs who are beating up the hero. The hero tenders suitable thanks, and since he has had his purse stolen, he goes on his way while promising the innkeeper that he will send the requisite blunt. Well, she decides to do him a good turn and pays his shot, his one-night-stand, and his gambling partner. What stays in a small town inn, does not stay in that small town inn, but gets spread all over London. While she is congratulating herself on her largesse, he is drowning in humiliation and ridicule. He is very much a proper young man who is conscious of what is due to his consequence; she is a free spirit, happy and content with life. What they both have in common is that they like getting their own way.

Bath Scandal by Joan Smith
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This was another book full of rollicking good humor; not as funny as the one above, but rife with Smith's characteristic humor without descending to farce. The hero's fiancée is a managing woman who has battened on to him and is battering all his freedoms. On her insistence, he even sends away his teen step-sister to someone he had coincidentally met at her wedding and to whom he had been attracted. The widowed heroine soon realizes that she's been taken for a ride and been lumped with bringing a hoyden into fashion without the leavening benefit of having the hero to husband. Despite it all, she finds herself liking the girl and succeeds in her task. In the mean time, the hero has an attack of conscience and descends on Bath to check on the heroine, and thus they meet. He is a rigid, proper sort of gentleman, set in his ways. She is an adventurous, chic woman with her circle of admirers. He is aghast at her unseemliness; she rolls her eyes at his starchiness. It is inevitable that a growing attraction springs up between them, only to be bruised with the advent of the jealous fiancée.

Friday, November 1, 2019

My October Reading

I started off this month in fine reading fettle, but then life went south and so did my reading.

His Defiant Princess by Nana Prah
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: If you’re a fan of Alyssa Cole’s The Reluctant Royals series, you will enjoy this story. Published by Love Africa Press that celebrates all things African in romantic fiction, Prah’s novel follows the age-old questions of lovers separated by an ocean: Who should give up their established life to move? Are friends and family and career more important than the love of your life? How to sacrifice one for the other? Since these are difficult questions that people struggle with in real life, so it was interesting to see how Prah has her fictional characters deal with it. Now imagine, she is a princess of a fictional African country and he is a dentist from Vermont. What does their future hold for them? Contemplation of marriage between the protagonists is fraught with political maneuvering and emotional manipulation by the people around them and between themselves. It does not automatically follow that he should give up his life because his social capital is perceived as much lower than hers—I really liked that Prah did not take this shortcut to solve their dilemma. My review is here.

The Write Escape by Charish Reid
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a charming vacation story set in a small village in Ireland far removed from all the mod-cons of big city life. Reid takes two protagonists who are at a low point in their lives and puts them together in a small place where they cannot but be in each other’s space to see what would happen. They’re mature people in their thirties who have dealt with ups and downs in life, but they still have things they need to learn and to work on. I liked that Reid doesn’t have her characters too set in their ways and not willing to make concessions to another person. They're perspicacious and forthright, so unpleasant views get aired and dealt with. I found it charming how she supports his scholarly work in African American history, her history, while he supports her romance novel writing by reading romance novels, a genre he had never thought he would like as a professor of literature with a capital 'L.' My review is here.

The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I am so delighted to have found a Traditional Regency written in 2019. Justiss is a marvelous writer and has penned a tight plot with historically accurate details and courageous characters. It's a story of warmth and stalwart seizing of their futures by the horns. They both start out insecure and uncertain where life is going to take them, but through hard work and belief in each other, they emerge stronger in themselves and thus stronger together.

She is saddled with the moniker Homely, he with Incomparable. She's a diehard member of the reform movement; he's a charming wastrel. She is determined not to wed a rake and deal with infidelity; he thinks he is incapable of fidelity. Neither wants to marry. However, the only enlivening aspect of their social evenings is the acerbic comments and astute observations of society and each other they make in each other's company in ballrooms across London. Jovial banter and laughter punctuate their conversation. Their interest in each other beyond friendship creeps up on them by degrees—so slowly in fact that they are taken unawares. My review is here.

The Lord's Inconvenient Vow by Lara Temple
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Who hasn't read one of the most beloved speeches in romance novels from As You Desire by Connie Brockway? The hero says to the heroine with anguish and passion: "You are my country. My Egypt. My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, verdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining."

This is the same heart-wrenching emotion I kept feeling from the protagonists as I read The Lord's Inconvenient Vow. Ever since their childhood in Egypt, they have been in each other's company, she plaguing and teasing him, he scolding and berating her. But under their levity, ran a current of serious intent, awareness and care. They trusted each other. They had each other's back. They understood each other like no one else could. But then they part ways to marry other people.

When they meet again in Egypt—the place where all their good memories are etched on their hearts—eight years later, they realize that time has not banished their regard for each other. They discover that they are—still—uncomprehendingly attracted to each other. Both are now widowed and searching for a place to put down roots, to build a family, to have that one person in their life who they trust completely, who makes their soul sing.

The setting is superbly done. You get a good sense of the country and culture of Egypt at the time of British Imperialism in the Regency era. I liked that Temple shows her English characters to be respectful of and have great affinity for the people, culture, religion, language, lands and treasures. Egypt was home to them, where they were most themselves, and, yet, they trod there lightly, ever cognizant that they were guests. This is such a contrast to reality that it is notable how Temple handles it. My review is here.

The Royal Treatment by Melanie Summers
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Reader, I DNF'd it. 1706 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.5 stars. I thought this book would be a slam-dunk. People said it was very funny, and I was in the mood for humor. Unfortunately, the humor is rather mean-spirited. It makes fun of people and is homophobic, misogynist, and laughs at childbirth. I laughed exactly once, but kept hoping it would improve, till I finally gave up at 20%. Definitely not for me.

The premise is delicious: Passionate blogger hates the royalty and regularly lampoons them in her blog. Prince is concerned that the popularity of royalty is massively slipping in the polls. So what better idea than to invite his worst critic to the palace to charm her into writing flattering pieces about him, in particular, and royalty, at large?

There's humor that works for me; most doesn't. What works? Act Like It by Lucy Parker. The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Category: Children's Picture Poetry
Comments: Alexander wrote this poem in 2008 for his newly-born daughter so she could understand how an African American became president of the United States by showing her the facts of American history that are always overlooked. His poem addresses the accomplishments of black Americans. In his notes, he mentions the greats and the well-known, such as Jesse Owens, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Trayvon Martin, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, and so many others. He also talks about the Civil Rights Movement and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. His constant message is that "Black. Lives. Matter. Because we are Americans. Because we are human beings." He quotes Maya Angelou: "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose."

Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Category: Children's Picture Memoir Poetry
Comments: Herrera was a child of migrant workers from Latin America. When he was young, he helped his parents at their various jobs, but every time he settled in and made friends, he had to uproot his life and move on. Those early childhood lessons remained with him as he explores in this poem: Who might he be? Imagine... Herrera finally became an American and went on to become Poet Laureate of USA, and read aloud his poetry on the steps of the Library of Congress.

"If I gathered
many words and many more songs
with both of my hands
and let them fly
over my mesa
and turned them into a book
of poems,

Imagine what you could do"

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

My September Reading

October is already well under way, and I am just now getting to my September reading blog post. The Romance reviews are towards the end of this post. I also have "thoughts" on the current notion that we should not read anything we find offensive. Those are at the bottom of this post as well as a short review of the Edith Layton book that inspired them.

My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys by Sherman Alexie
Category: Song Lyrics
Comments: I have always claimed a love of white westerns like Jo Goodman, Jodi Thomas, et al. Never before have I felt such distress over my favored choice as when I read Alexie's song lyrics.

Did you know that in 1492 every Indian instantly became an extra in the Great American Western?

Indians never lost their West, so how come I walk into the supermarket and find a dozen cowboy books telling How The West Was Won?

Every song remains the same here in America, this country of the Big Sky and Manifest Destiny, this country of John Wayne and broken treaties.

Arthur, I have no words which can save our lives, no words approaching forgiveness, no words promising either of us top billing. Extras, Arthur, we’re all extras.

About my distress, Rohan Maitzen said: "It’s a powerful poem, isn’t it? I think one reason it is so powerful is that it acknowledges the appeal of the very narratives it condemns: a lot of us probably have had the paradoxical experience of being drawn to or really enjoying something in popular culture that we also find morally or ideologically problematic or unacceptable. it is not as easy as just hating it: it’s also about that push and pull of different reactions." Rohan has pinpointed exactly what my amorphous thoughts were struggling to articulate.

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
Category: Essay
Comments: A New York Times article castigating Trump's poor grasp of English led me to the discovery of George Orwell's 1945 essay Politics and the English Language.

In that, Orwell laments the loss of beauty of the language and how it is in general collapse much like our civilization. There are always critics who say that languages evolve. In fact, Orwell says they say, "Any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. While the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of an individual." This is in opposition to the NYT article that claims that Trump's poor use of language is causing "lexicographers and grammarians to worry about the permanent effect on language". But the article is on point when it quotes this from the essay: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." And that is what the linguists are afraid of from Trump's tweets.

An aside: Orwell seems to be lambasting authors of purple prose here: "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." ::wince:: Then he goes on to explain in great detail, with specific examples, various ways by which the "work of prose construction is habitually dodged."

Another aside: These days in the romance genre world, authors are facing accusations of their books becoming too political and using bad words. Take comfort in Orwell's opinion: "All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer."

Both the article and the essay are worth reading.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N.K. Jemisin
Category: Sci-Fi Short Story
Comments: I read this book on Willa's recommendation when she mentioned that Jemisin's story is influenced by Ursula Le Guin's famous Omelas story from 1973. I do not think I can do this wonderful Jemisin story justice, so please bear with me. I highly recommend you read it for yourself to find out exactly how the story unfolds.

The city of Um-Helat is filled with joy. This is no dystopian place where people are forced to confirm; in fact, people of different races and ages all mingle together in peace and harmony—even the homeless are cared for and protected. "The city's purpose is not merely to generate revenue or energy or products, but to shelter and nurture the people who do these things." Jemisin is telling the story directly to the reader and striving to explain how astonishing the city is. She even assures you that it doesn't have the dark overtones of Omelas. And then, after paragraph after paragraph of praise lulling you into believing in this harmless city of goodness, comes the first hint that all is not rosy in this world. Ah!

World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: The premise of this book is that making time for creativity is not trying to squeeze another thing on your overflowing ToDo list. In fact, it is the opposite. It is slowing your life down and dropping some of the balls you are juggling in order to invite creativity and contemplation into your life. This is the type of book you can read cover to cover, but would probably get more out of if you read chapter by chapter and even section by section and ruminated some on it. Not unlike the Slow Food movement, this is a Slow Time movement. There is spirituality, poetry, history, literature, and practical advice in this book from the author and also from a wide variety of people, dead and alive. At the end of each chapter, the author has you do a couple of activities and thought exercises that reflect on what she has covered in the chapter. This book is going to be an ongoing read for me, and one I will return to again and again, because there is so much rich material here that I cannot absorb in one reading.

A Study in Scandal by Caroline Linden
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I reviewed this book and the one below by Caroline Linden together because they are linked by the Duke of Rowland. He is the father of the two heroes and I was fascinated by the role he plays in the two books. I was delighted to note that he is very much alive and that the heroes have no quibbles about asking for his help. Usually in romance fiction, in order to make the hero more heroic, alpha, in charge, titled, what-have-you, fathers are killed off—as if a man cannot become fully a man until his father is dead. These books turn that notion on its head. Not only is the hero of this book a decent man—kind, hardworking, and very much in charge of his own life—he is heroic in his rescue and defense of the heroine and loving in his care of her. Despite the heroes' father being a powerhouse among his peers, in his family life, he is an affectionate father, and he helps his sons without belittling or infantilizing them. And the sons accept his help without feeling small. Thus, the heroes retain their heroism while being a part of a loving family. My review is here.

When the Marquess was Mine by Caroline Linden
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This book highlights that it is possible for people to change, to grow, to become better people, and that people are not doomed to be endlessly repeating their unenlightened selves. We all fall into bad habits that we can’t seem to get ourselves out of until something happens that snaps us out of apathy and allows us to examine our life anew. This is an independent book and stands alone despite the character connecting this book with the above book. Linden has been a new discovery for me with these two books, and I am so pleased. I look forward to her next books.

He is a, what else?, rake; she is a feisty innocent. He does A Bad Thing but then suffers amnesia, ends up under her care, and becomes a transformed man. And when he recovers his memory, he realizes that she misrepresented herself and repeatedly lied to him. So far, the plot follows the amnesia trope. What should come next is the hero decamping in high dudgeon and a Big Misunderstanding. However, Linden challenges the usual plotline. The hero and heroine take time to think through their respective situations while keeping in mind their attraction for each other. They weigh their values and desires and choose to act in thoughtful ways. My review is here.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: “Good morrow and well met” is a standard greeting every year I go to our local medieval faire. I have considered joining a Renaissance faire group as an active participant, so I fell in love with this book from the first meeting the heroine has with her small town’s Faire group. DeLuca’s expertise with how the Faire performances go and her love of all things Renaissance shows through in this book.

She has just been dumped by her boyfriend who she supported through law school by giving up her education and working two jobs. The deal was that when he became a lawyer, he would support her and she would finish her education. But this newly-minted lawyer skedaddles out of town. Heartbroken and at loose ends, she moves to this small town to help her sister out because her sister has been in an accident. There she meets up with the Renn Faire's head honcho, who is hell-bent on shoehorning everyone into their roles and making sure everything runs perfectly. People being people, his temper flares sky high on a regular basis, and her laissez-faire attitude annoys the heck out of him. My review is here.

Highland Jewel by May McGoldrick
Category: Highland Regency Romance
Comments: This book covers the rarely known Radical War of 1820. When you say Regency, people think balls and pretty gowns. But the Radical War in the Highlands is a time of brutality and beauty.

The heroine and her family have found shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, the place at the heart of the resistance in the Royal Highlander series by May McGoldrick. She is committed to Scotland’s fight for freedom. For every success, betrayal is biting at her heels. Six months earlier, she had been the picture of docility, quiet and compliant in the eyes of her family. To her activist friends, however, she is a fearless crusader for women’s rights. In the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, she and a friend had founded the Edinburgh Female Reform Society, and she had carried the banner for universal suffrage. Caught up in the wave of her enthusiasm, she never expects to fall in love with the man who saves her life during one of their protests.

He is a hero of the wars and a decorated officer of the Royal Highland Regiment. He is battle weary and searching for stability in his life. A fierce warrior by training and a poet at heart, he walks away from the shining career that lies ahead of him, to the dismay of his superiors. Beautiful explanation towards the end of the story—dealing with British Imperialism—why he left the British Army and chose to join the resistance.

Scandalous by Minerva Spencer
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This was not a story that appealed to me and the entire reason lies with the protagonists, especially the hero's behavior towards the heroine.

I loved the setup of the story: He is an ex-slave who ran away from his oppressors in New Orleans and became a privateer on behalf of the British crown. He is independently wealth and commands his own ship along the African coastlines to rescue slaves and destroy slave ships. She's a white missionary who grew up in an Africa and was taken aboard a slave ship along with other villagers. He rescues her and that is how they meet. Marvelous premise, isn't it? And yet...the story falls on itself.

He is a promiscuous man, who is most comfortable in a brothel, despite his past as an ex-whore. He falls hard for the plain missionary and cannot explain to himself why he is so fascinated. He is constantly angry at her despite her taking on the task of teaching him to read. He is also a jealous alpha. The way the author shows the hero's fidelity is by having him repeatedly visit brothels and stay nights there, and despite being manually and otherwise manipulated, not be able to do the deed. This shows his devotion to the heroine. Naturally, she is devastated every time she finds out. But in the next breath, the author tells us the heroine is sexually and otherwise in thrall to the man and cannot "help herself."

While the author does a good job of showing that the hero is a very damaged individual, his poor behavior towards the heroine goes on for too long, and by the time he finally does start to show a bit of maturity and makes a dramatic change, it’s too little too late. I could not believe in their HEA or in its long-term stability.


These days, there is much conversation in Twitterverse that bloggers and reviewers should stop reading a book if they read something offensive, because it causes harm to them. The thinking is that they can and should review the partially-read book and state why they stopped reading it. Anyone saying that the blogger's critique is invalid because they didn't finish the book to the end is wrong. There is no requirement that the blogger should read to the end to check whether the book redeems itself. Finishing an offensive book presumably protects the author, not the reader. If even a smidgeon of offensive material shows up, you should give up, because if there is a smidgeon, there is a plethora. You do not owe the author the emotional labor of finishing their book.

This is interesting to me on a number of levels, and I am totally going out on a limb to say this—I may face evisceration by the Twitterverse. On one hand, I totally agree with the above. For instance, if you are a rape victim, and there is no content warning on the book that there is a rape in it and you come across it on the page, you would immediately shut the book and declare it irremediable. This I fully understand. What I have a little harder time understanding are things like misogyny. A character could, in theory, exhibit these attitudes at the beginning of the book and have changed their attitude 180-degrees by the end. Is a person not to have this chance in a fiction novel or in real life to redeem themself? Is a racist always a racist? That defeats the purpose of education. Twitterverse loudly proclaims that people should educate themselves and change their attitudes. But then they give characters no chances to redeem their values even if that is the exact purpose of that character's growth arc.

We, in the reading world, loudly decry book banning. And yet, books have been banned because some people were deeply offended by those books that have challenged existing thinking. But education is all about challenging established norms. Finishing or not finishing a book gives the author nothing. Once the book is in your hands, it is all about you and your engagement with the text. If you find something offensive, should you give up, or should you wrestle with it and in so doing expand your thinking? Twitterverse would say that you should give up, because offensive material does not expand your thinking, just causes harm.

An example of an "offensive" romance novel is An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley. What I am about to say is a spoiler, so beware. There is a point in the story, where the hero slaps the heroine hard, and presumably, the hero is redeemed by the end of the book. This is a hotly debated book with readers falling on all sides of acceptability: Do they believe in his redemption? Why/Why not? This is precisely why JoBev wrote the book: to challenge the reader's thinking of what they will or will not allow in a person and if they will or will not believe that people can overcome faults in their characters. I once had a long, passionate, and civil discussion on Twitter with many people about this book. People vehemently disagreed with each other, but no one said this book should be banned or not read. That conversation was the point of the book. It brought up a social issue that was then debated in society—it set everyone thinking. The best books always make you think and puzzle things out; whether or not you agree with the author is besides the point.

"Summer's Fruit" from A Love for All Seasons by Edith Layton
Category: Regency Romance Long Story
Comments: All of the above is really a preamble to this Edith Layton novella. By the first few pages, I wanted to throw the book at the wall. No way, no how was I going to finish it. But then I went back to it and did finish it, because I have read other books by Layton and trust her as an author and also because I was curious: Why would someone write a romance with such a character? As the book progresses, the hero of the book does improve, does make changes in his attitudes, does self-reflect, does atone. The change is significant but that initial attitude still rankled for me, and I couldn't quite reconcile myself to him, but I was glad to see him mature and become self-aware of his failings.

The hero and heroine married young. They had fallen in deep lust and a quick love with each other and impulsively decided to marry two weeks before he was called away to war. They spent the two weeks of their honeymoon madly doing what you would expect them to do. They continue their besotted bliss through frequent letters during his months away. She describes in detail what's going on with her life and her pregnancy. His memories of their honeymoon save his sanity from the ugliness of war. He is soon compelled to return home when he ascends to his title of viscount.

Then comes his appalling reaction when he first sets sight on her: He is disgusted by how big she is. Some women show early as did she, and as he had visions of her slender lissome form in his mind, he is greatly taken aback when he sees her. She is devastated and furious. Not only has she been fighting body dysmorphia, but now seeing his reaction, she is convinced of her ugliness. On one hand he is repelled by her body, on the other hand, he loves her and wants to hold her, but fears her rejection and doesn't want her to think he has no restraint over his desires. She, in turn, wants him to hold her and sleep with her. But their emotions are too tangled to speak about.

As the days go by, his initial reaction fades as he adjusts to reality and impending fatherhood. But now, he and she are completely out of sync. Even if he does something out of consideration, she misunderstands because she does not trust him, and it compounds her misery. For example, he does not want her to go out to a party because he feels she might find it hard. She takes it as he is ashamed of her, and that she is no longer a person who can make amusing, interesting conversation.

How Layton takes this couple from point non plus to a viable marriage where they esteem each other again makes for a compelling story. For some readers, the ending will be satisfying, but for others, the hero will be irremediable. For all my reservations about the hero, I am glad I read the book, only to see how the talented Edith Layton handled the story.