Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My December Reading

These days, it is rare for me to venture forth with new-to-me authors, and this month I did it with two: Kelly Bowen and Sonali Dev, and I loved both their books. Bowen writes historicals and Dev contemporaries. Bowen's story is set in Regency England, whereas Dev's story is set in Mumbai, India. Two very different kinds of stories, but with wonderful writing apiece.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This is such a charming book about Queen Elizabeth II and the subversive power of reading. Alan Bennett is one of England's foremost writers, and while this short novel is a departure from his usual fare of plays, he certainly has the flair for quiet, amusing, and sharply observant tales. One fine morning, out in one of the yards of Buckingham Palace, the Queen found the City of Westminster traveling library. When the startled librarian-driver asks her, "What does Your Majesty like?", the Queen is at a loss since she'd never before taken much interest in reading. Reading to her was a passive activity, and she was a doer. She assiduously devoted herself to all her duties of a monarch. But she borrows a book, nevertheless, and that starts her off on an adventure that has far-reaching consequences for herself, personally, and for her public duties. I loved this book so much! Go forth and read it! My review is here.

Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly
Ravished by Amanda Quick
The Duke's Wager by Edith Layton
Category: Regency and Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: These three stories are hero's journeys where from the depths of despair, it takes them tremendous courage to overcome their circumstances and vulnerabilities to grasp happiness with the heroines of their choice. My brief reviews are here.

The British Knight by Louise Bay
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Thanks to a wonderful friend, I received this book as a gift. She loved it, as did I. However, at the beginning I was doubtful where it was going, primarily because of the heroine's characterization. She, of the summa cum laude degree from MIT, is waitressing instead of pursuing a high-flung career. The story is that her college boyfriend cheated on her intimately and also stole their startup business from her. So what does this bright young lady do? She has short-term sex-only relationships and waits tables. I'm sure I sound like an elitist snob when I say, really? A computer sciences degree from MIT leads to that? But there you have it—I could not buy that someone would throw away that fabulous chance at a good life away.

So now you're thinking, wait a minute, Keira, you said you loved it. And I did. And the reason is that once Violet King moves to London, she changes completely. Leaving her old life behind breathes new life into her priorities and her outlook to her future. Watching this transformation as she starts on a path to realizing her potential was simply wonderful. While this is a romance, most definitely, the heroine's journey is the most rewarding aspect of the story. The romance between a grumpy workaholic barrister and this woke woman is tender, considerate, and confidence-boosting to both. They are so good together and so good for each other. There's hot sexual tension but there's also a kindliness between them, which makes for a sigh-worthy read.

The Lady in Red by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was my first Bowen book, and I fell in love from the get-go, and the feeling did not lessen as the story progressed. With one novella, this author has become an auto-buy for me. Lady Charlotte Beaumont is a painter with immense talent who is almost completely self-taught. She's grown up in seclusion, and there was no one to stop her from painting in vivid oils, in a time, when ladies only painted insipid watercolors. Charlotte has arrived at a point in her life where she's determined to carve out her own destiny and to follow her one dream.

So with the help of well-placed people, she becomes Charlie Beaumont, a youthful painter, who is installed as the assistant to the great painter Flynn Rutledge for the monumental task of painting the ceiling of a well-established cathedral. There are no coy hints from the author that the hero really knows that the heroine is a woman. Instead, we have Flynn and Charlie developing a fast friendship, where each becomes the other's champion, each shoring up the others' low esteem, and each showing that they believe in and trust the other. And out of this powerful friendship comes an astonishing love. A book not to be missed.

(I really want Bowen to write a story of King, the mysterious wealthy (gentle?)man, who's a powerful shadowy figure in the story.)

A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is my first romance story set in India and my first by Dev, and I was charmed—charmed by the writing and charmed by the protagonists. In Rahul's POV: Earlier that morning, Kimi had sent him a test message saying: We need to talk—those four words had never in the history of humankind ever led to anything good. This is a modern-day retelling of Rapunzel, a friends-to-lovers romance, and the setting suits the story very well. There's even a true Bollywood gangster endangering the heroine's life. Can you tell, I loved the story? My review is here.

Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Khepri lives in the Egyptian New Kingdom c. 1550-1070 BCE, when the famous pyramids at Giza were already more than a thousand years old. One day in the cold light of dawn, before my Lord Sun, the scarab Khepri, his namesake, starts sailing his barge across the sky, Khepri's father takes Khepri away from all he knows. Silently down the Nile river, redolent with the smells of fish, rope, and mud, the father poles his son across to the great town of Thebes.

Then my father clasps me to himself
and lets me go
and turns and makes his way
down the crowded street,
back to the river and home,

Khepri is moving into the next phase of his life, leaving his carefree childhood behind to become a scholar and a scribe. As he stands outside the courtyard of his new school listening to the boys inside laughing and reciting their studies, he is hit with nostalgia for the feel of the net and weight of a good catch of fish. It is a touching story that brought tears to my eyes at the thought of this young boy, forging his own destiny, alone. But this is how we all are at the cusp of new beginnings, before we make new connections with strangers.

A World of Cookies for Santa by M.E. Furman, illustrated by Susan Gal
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a multicultural, informative book that is utterly festive and delightful! As Santa goes around the world in the dark of the night, he gets to eat yummy goodies in different households across the world. He starts off in Kiritimati, AKA Christmas Island, in the Pacific, which is the first place in the world to welcome Christmas Day. He's welcomed there with sweet, chewy coconut macaroons. From there he heads over to New Zealand and Anzac biscuits.

He travels from there to Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Malwawi, Bethlehem, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, Norway, France, Spain, Great Britain, Ireland, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, United States, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii.

He travels by sleigh, donkey, and foot. He comes down chimneys, through doors, and through windows. Some children leave hay and carrots for his reindeer and other animals who help him. Some children have stockings, and others, shoes. Sometimes, he gets milk, other times, beer and wine. But above all, he is beloved. (The back of the book has recipes of many of the treats.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

In my wanderings through different neighborhoods searching for creative Christmas decorations and lights, I came across this one that I just had to share on my blog.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Why Are Medievals Less Popular Than Regencies?

This post was first published on Heroes & Heartbreakers on April 19, 2011. It is archived here. I have posted my original piece unchanged despite my views having undergone a change in the past eight years. This was a controversial post and the comment section shows a vigorous discussion — read the archive.


I adore medievals. I read them. I write them. I consume them.

And yet, the honest part of me admits that there are reasons why medievals are not as popular with readers as Regency-set historicals. says that the synonyms for le bon ton, the Regency nobility, are: civility, correctitude, restraint, decency, decorum, good breeding, orderliness, properness, rightness, seemliness, fashionable, high life, and smart set.

If I were to likewise write the synonyms for the medieval period, they would be: honor, loyalty, tradition, fierceness, oaths, fealty, passion, valor, battle prowess, strife, God, and kingmaking.

Life in medieval times was brutally short. Men and women, even the knights and the nobility, grew up fast and lived hard, swift, intense lives. In that short time, they managed to eke out a long life’s worth of living. All life revolved around warriors and battles, even after the widespread advent of the chivalric code.

Life in the Regency for the nobility, on the other hand, was relatively cushier and sheltered. As a result, life was slower-paced and there was much time for revelry and enjoyment. Of course, wars still happened, battles lost, lives maimed. But the society at large went about without much impact.

In Regency stories, it’s possible to avoid any mention of wars, weapons, and the fallout from battles. It is nearly impossible to write a medieval story without those three elements. For example, in Just One of Those Flings by Candice Hern set in 1813, there’s barely any mention of the Napoleonic wars or the activities of the East India Company.

The settled nature of lives in the Regency means that the authors have more time to explore the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and witty repartée. Given the restricted societal rules, the Regency hero and heroine had to become masters of subtlety. Much was conveyed in a single look. For example, in Pride And Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy walks down the center aisle at the Assembly Rooms of Meryton, in one quick glance, that he just as quickly corrects, he notices Lizzy Bennet and she him, and their mutual interest in each other is born.

The Middle Ages, on the other hand, was a freer time for men and women. There were fewer restrictions and rules on what they should do and what they couldn’t do. For example, in One Knight Only by Julia Latham, it was acceptable for a knight to pull a lady onto his lap in the midst of the revelry following the tournament. He might get his throat cut, but he wouldn’t be forced to marry her; her reputation likewise would remain intact.

Whereas the Regency hero was concerned with being decorous and seemly, the medieval hero was brimming over with life. The Regency hero needed to overcome his restraint in order to demonstrate his passionate side to the heroine, while the medieval hero had to temper his passionate side to show tenderness towards  the heroine.

Royalty did not hold their nobles’ lives hostage in the Regency, whereas fealty to the liege lord controlled all actions in the Dark Ages. The kings had vast powers and used them, sometimes indiscriminately. As a result, the king is an essential character in most medieval stories, whether he’s explicitly present or implicitly so. For example, The Chief by Monica McCarty ends with this: “The ten warriors formed a circle around their king. Swords raised above his head, they cried out, ‘Airson an Leomhann!’ For the Lion. A cry that would come to strike fear in men’s hearts.” On the other hand, Prinny shows up once in a while, in Regencies, as comic relief.

The nobility in the Regency, the dukes, marquesses, and earls, sat in the House of Lords during a period of major political activity, but they had lives that revolved around their estates as well. So it’s possible to write stories that have nothing to do with the politics of the day and everything to do with the other aspects of their lives. Whereas, politics was a part of the fabric of medieval life, so it was impossible to divorce the two. For example, in Lord of My Heart by Jo Beverley, the heroine must wed one of the trio of lords offered by her king. To refuse such an edict was unthinkable.

Medieval noble men and women were expected to do physical work in addition to supervising the provisioning, safety, law, and order of the castles’ many dependents. Regency women, on the other hand, had fewer responsibilities towards their smaller households. Regency men were not required to be magistrates and soldiers for their estates. As a result, Regency men and women had more time to spend in society.

Religion comes up again and again in the early medieval stories, because the Church was just getting a foothold in some parts of England and Scotland, and sometimes, converts reverted to their pagan ways and had to be re-churched.

The presence of God and talk about godliness was a constant conversation. Whereas in the Regency, the Anglican branch of Christianity was such an established tradition that it was a non-issue, garnering only brief mentions of attending Sunday services. For example, in Ransom by Julie Garwood, mentions of the One True God and paying a penance and confessing of sins is brought up again and again, while in An Unlikely Countess by Jo Beverley, the toughest part of the Sunday church service for the heroine is facing the local nobility and gentry and their comments and slights.

For all these reasons, medievals are not as popular as Regencies. It is also precisely for these reasons why they are so near and dear to my heart.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My November Reading

Over the past many months, I have been reviewing children's picture books here, in addition to YA and adult fiction and nonfiction. Thanks to the advice of a wonderful children's librarian whom I met over Twitter, Angela Reynolds, I have had the opportunity to read many memorable books, and I have come to appreciate the thought that goes into the words and illustrations of these books. They are each unique — I have not come across a series in picture books — in thought and focus with the words and pictures so intertwined in a joint message that one would be bereft without the other.

Perhaps it is the very nature of the books that their audience is the very young who sit in the arms of their parents while being read to in the safety and security of their homes that allow the books free range to explore all sorts of topics and all sorts of emotions. And it is the latter that is so close to the surface. While I find these picture books are far more enlightened in the types of topics they cover as compared to many adult books or older children's books, it is the fact that they approach these difficult, controversial, radical, and uncomfortable topics through emotions and humanism that makes them memorable. It is a rare book that fails to move me; to a one they draw an emotional response from me. To all those writers and illustrators and publishers, my thanks from the bottom of my heart. You've opened up my life and the lives of my children through your books.

Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell
A Soldier's Heart by Kathleen Korbell
Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela Morsi
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I was utterly charmed by Music of the Heart, book 6 of the Warrendar Saga. This was my second Burchell, and I have enjoyed both of them, and so if you're new to Burchell, I highly recommend you pick this one up. Korbell's book is one I return to from time to time. It offers a nuanced, thoughtful approach to the PTSD suffered by returning veterans, soldiers and nurses. Korbell, herself was a nurse, and it's telling in the careful navigation of the mind and the empathetic approach to the hero and the heroine. I love Morsi's early work. She gets Americana like no one else, and writes the gentlest stories that deal with deeply-felt emotions. I loved all three of these stories, and my short reviews are here.

A Texas Christmas Past by Julia Justiss
Category: Western Historical Romance
Comments: As you all know, I'm a fan of Julia Justiss's work and westerns, but this juxtaposition of the two just didn't work. I don't know if it was the novella size that threw off her style, but there is a lot of telling, rather than showing, and worse of all, a ghost who tells us what the hero is feeling, rather than us seeing what the hero is feeling or hearing it in his internal monologue. The ghost also manipulates the hero and heroine into a relationship by compelling some of the action and thoughts. The relationship thus did not feel organic to the couple at all, but rather a puppet-puppeteer relationship. My review is here.

A Perfect Match by Rachel Knowles
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Written in modern times but in the traditional Regency style, this is a meticulously researched book by a well-known authority of Georgian and Regency history. While there is an unexpected surprise in the last quarter of the book and some inconsistencies, I chalk it up to début book issues of not knowing how to seed the black moment early on as well as lack of writerly skill. Overall however, the historical authority with which the book is written, including the dialogue, makes up for the imperfections. My review is here.

In Your Hands by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: When you are newborn, I hold your hand and study your face. I cradle you as you drift to sleep. While napping, you crack a smile. I have big, bright dreams for you.

This is a book of a mother's dreams for her son as he grows up under her care and then out in the wider world, where she cannot hold him under her wing, but where she has to trust that she has poured all the wisdom she can into him and he can be safe and flourish on his own.

Then I will hold you in my heart and ask God to hold you in His hands.

But this mother's concern is more than just a concern of a mother of a teenager, a young man. This is the concern of a mother of a black young man. And her anguish and worry are writ large on the page.

I will pray that the world sees you as a child of God not a figure to be feared. I will pray that missteps bring lessons and are forgiven and that you be granted second chances.

Tears your heart, doesn't it? This should be a given. No mother should have to ask this of others. All children are precious.

Gorilla Gardener: How to Help Nature Take Over the World by John Seven and Jana Christy
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A chaotic, colorful book that has a proselytizing message. The story features a friendly gorilla who goes around seeding the city with seeds and growing gardens: chinks in buildings, cracks in sidewalks, rooftops of skyscrapers, and so on. He wants to build a jungle city where people will be happy, live outside, and enjoy each others' company. He is extreme in his views:

A huge field of flowers replace the city streets. Roots from plants break up concrete and asphalt. Cars can't move, but who cares? Goats and chickens move in.

This book is based on the philosophy of Guerilla Gardening that started in England in the 1600s. Despite being hounded out of towns, sued in courts of law, and subject to violence, guerilla gardeners spread their ideas all over the world. America's most famous conservationist gardener was Johnny Appleseed, who roamed the country with his ideas in the 19th century. These ideas are still popular to this day with guerilla gardens in many large cities.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Manly Men in Red High Heels: Avon and Rothgar Bring It

This was my first post for Heroes & Heartbreakers on March 1, 2011. I have archived it here, but for future reference, I've posted the content below as well. Do visit the link to the archive, since it has captured all the original comments, which are probably more interesting reading than my post.


All fictional stories involve world building. Historical stories require world introduction, the conveyance of a sense of place and time that the characters are going to inhabit. The further you go back in the mists of time, the more imaginative the knitting together of the bare (and barely available) facts needs to be to make the world seem plausible. Take the Georgian period, which for the purposes of the historical romance novel is the mid- to late 18th century to 1811. The glittering world of the nobility in Georgian England was symbolized by lavish fashions for men and women, culinary marvels, soaring architecture, and every other excess imaginable.

Into this world, Georgette Heyer dropped her Alistair, Duke of Avon, from the story These Old Shades. He wore red-heeled shoes, carried a scented lace handkerchief in his hand, sprinkled jewels on his cravat, and powdered his hair. But no one reading the novel would mistake him for a fop. Avon was a formidable hero of strength, character, intelligence, and strong will.

Just as Jo Beverley’s Beowulf, Marquess of Rothgar, éminence noir of England was formidable. As the story Devilish shows, there was nothing of the mincing dandy in Rothgar. He may have moved in languid hauteur, allowed no emotion to mar the tranquility of his face, worn elaborate clothes fashioned from the cloth of gold, traveled in a sedan chair to court, and yet to the heroine: “He was a man who had to be engaged mind, body, emotions, and soul” in order to truly be reached.

Both Rothgar and Avon are examples of men who were ascetic in their mannerisms and behavior yet who dressed and moved about in keeping with their peers. They were both physically strong and skilled at fighting with swords and with their fists and had the wherewithal to use them. However, they rarely used physical force, because a cutting word, a chilling look, a measured tone were intimidating enough. They were alphas in their milieu.

The incongruity of a foot massage from Rothgar to Diana and of Avon allowing Léonie to jump up on a chair in front of his family notwithstanding, both men had a ruthless streak that was in keeping with their redoubtable reputation. While they were both clearly more indulgent with their heroine than with anyone else, even their siblings, there was always a part of them that was inviolate, that made them strong men who were not pushovers. “I am yours to command in all things,” Rothgar said. “My body and heart want you. Only my cursed will reminds me of other things.”

Heyer’s hero isn’t shown to be doing work for his vast dukedom, whereas Beverley’s hero is clearly involved in all aspects of the business of his marquessate. This is a stylistic difference between the authors. Beverley tries to portray more realistic characters, which has her hero doing his “job” in addition to his relationship with the heroine. Heyer, on the other hand, doesn’t let up on the focus on the hero and heroine and their relationship. Outside events influence Beverley’s characters just as they influence external events. Heyer’s characters focus on influencing outside events by and large. And yet, in every instance of the story, the reader is fully immersed in the society and culture of the time period.

Both Rothgar and Avon were clever, astute, indurate, yet always honorable men. They lived sumptuous lives and were actively engaged with their Georgian society. But the authors’ greatest achievement was to humanize them.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Heroes & Heartbreakers is No More

As Wendy Crutcher reported and the site editor Jenn Proffitt explained, the romance site Heroes & Heartbreakers by Macmillan Publishers will be closing its doors at the end of the year.

I am really sad to be losing that platform to express my views and find new reads. Some of the op-eds and articles on that site have been thoughtful and eye-opening, and I really hope, those writers find another platform, because it'd be sad to lose their voices in our collective known as Romancelandia.

I am not sure if Macmillan will leave that website up in perpetuity or the site will be taken down. Since I do not want to lose most of that content (some of the reviews are extremely dated), I will start reposting them on this blog once a week.

UPDATE: From Jenn Proffitt to all H & H writers: "Rights are reverted back to you as the copyright is with the original writer and H&H simply agrees to license the material. So you are free to repost it on your own blogs (and I strongly encourage you to do so) and yes, I at the very least would suggest backing it up."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My October Reading

After last month's prodigious reading, this month's was more modest, more in keeping with my usual reading speed.

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Imagine my delight when I found out that three of Heyer's short stories that were first published in the 1930s are finally being made available again for reading. The rest of the collection is what was in Pistols for Two. I love Heyer's books, and she's converted me over to liking romance in a short story format as well. A must read for a Regency Romance fan! My review is here.

The Rake and The Reformer by Mary Jo Putney
Lady Cat by Joan Overfield
Miss Lacey's Last Fling by Candice Hern
Category: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: This month's books included two lesser-known titles, however, Mary Jo Putney's book needs no introduction. Anyone who has been reading historical romance for years is well aware what a gem The Rake is. I have enjoyed many of Hern's and Overfield's books as well, so I wanted to bring them to the notice of newer readers. Within the bounds of Regency Romance, writers used to write riskier books in the olden days. My short reviews are here.

Hamilton's Battalion by Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, Alyssa Cole
Category: American Historical Romance Anthology
Comments: This is a complex set of stories very well-told. I loved the book very much. It had such heart, such sincere striving, and much clever writing. The binding narrative to the stories is Colonel Alexander Hamilton and the soldiers serving under him in 1781. Years later, around 1820, Mrs. Eliza Hamilton is collecting the reminiscences of the people who served under her husband in order to put together his biography. My review is here.

A Midnight Feast by Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Who doesn't get stars in their eyes at the thought of NASA? When I found out that this story is about an astronaut, I grabbed it without needing to know more. I went into the story cold with no information and loved it. The authors have done their research and used their considerable writing skills to craft a great story. One of my abiding interests in romance is how a couple negotiates their marriage, and this book is a second-chance love, where the marriage has soured over time, but the couple wants to make an effort to save it, because underneath all the angst and sorrow is love, and that love is very important to them. My review is here.

Artistic License by Elle Pierson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A soft, darling of a book about two social misfits who think the other is wonderful and perfect for them. The humor just jumps off the page precisely when Sophy is the one making those quips. It’s such a huge departure from her usual shyness around people that it’s a joy to see her step out of her shell and be so at ease with Mick that she can joke with him. He, in turn, thinks he's ugly and repulsive, but Sophy loves his looks and tells him so repeatedly. While he rescues her from danger, she provides emotional succor to him. Each is strong and courageous in their own way—and loyal. (Elle Pierson also writes as Lucy Parker whose sharp biting humor can become a hard-to-break habit.) My review is here.

Scandal and Miss Markham by Janice Preston
Category: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: The contrived setting of this road travel story, with a spot of cross-dressing, is off-putting, but is partially redeemed by engaging characters, who despite their ludicrous, ostensibly terrifically earnest endeavor, behave with decorum and maturity. Thea Markham is a glassmaker Cit's daughter who's been worrying in silence over her brother, Daniel's, absence. Her parents despise her and blame her for their financial misfortunes and her father's ill-health. Enter one Lord Vernon Beauchamp, a polished, booted, spurred peer of the realm, who is bored with the rarefied atmosphere of his life. He enthusiastically offers to help Thea find Daniel, and they embark on their ramshackle adventure, which has shades of Heyer's travel stories, but without its leavening humor.

Baabwaa & Wooliam by David Elliott, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Category: Children's Picture
Comments: I loved this book. While the story is very simple, the language is most certainly not. The humor passes over the head of the very young, but leaves the parent in stitches. And hilarious illustrations add to the enjoyment. Wooliam and Baabwaa are sheep. They are friends and live together. Wooliam loves reading and Baabwaa loves knitting. One day...

"I've been thinking," Wooliam said to Baabwaa.
"Thinking is good," Baabwaa answews. "Or so I've heard."
"We should have an adventure of our own."
"Agreed! There are only so many sweaters one sheep can knit."

And so they set off on a perfect day.

The sun was shining.
The birds were singing.
This last bit—about the birds—was especially good because adventures usually involve some kind of trouble, and it's nice to have a little birdsong to help you through it.

And two friends walk and walk and they run into a wily wolf in sheep's clothing, to whom they show such kindness that he relents and doesn't eat them. But just to keep his hand in it, he chases them around the pasture every day. Wooliam teaches the wolf to read, Baabwaa knits him winter clothes, and the wolf keeps the sheep trim with all his chasing.

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët
Category: Children's Picture
Comments: This is a gorgeously designed book with fabulous illustrations—such a wonderful landscape for Malala's story.

"Do you believe in magic?" Malala asks of the reader. Her younger self certainly did. On TV, she watched a show where a young boy uses his magic pencil to draw a bowl, which turns into a real bowl of curry to feed the homeless, and to draw a police officer to protect people who need help. He was a hero. And Malala would go to bed imagining what all she would do if she had a magic pencil. She would draw a soccer ball for her brothers, beautiful dresses for her mother, and school buildings for her father.

One day, she sees a small girl picking through garbage at the town dump. Malala runs home to her father very disturbed, and he tells her the truth about some girls in Pakistan not being allowed to go to school and also having to work to support their family.

School was my favorite place. But I had never considered myself lucky to be able to go.

That night she thinks about girls' futures in her part of the country, how they wouldn't be allowed to become what they dreamed of becoming. Even though her father had claimed, "Malala will live free as a bird", she knew her future would be like these girls. Then she dreams about how she would go about erasing this injustice and draw in a better, more peaceful world if only she had a magic pencil. And those thoughts lead into a solidification of what her duty for the future should be: She would speak for all the girls who couldn't speak for themselves.

One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. (Malala's famous speech at the United Nations General Assembly.)

In the afterword, Malala writes: "I hope that my story inspires you to find the magic in your own life and to always speak up for what you believe in. The magic is everywhere int he world—in knowledge, beauty, love, peace. The magic is in you, in your words, in your voice."

I cannot emphasize enough how lovely this book is—a keeper for your bookshelf.

The Land Beyond the Wall: an immigration story by Veronika Martenova Charles
Category: Children's Picture
Comments: This is a true story of the writer born behind the Iron Curtain who achieves her dream of living in the West and becoming an artist.

The story starts with how the world was divided by a BIG wall, where on one side it is dark and dreary with barren fields and towns and people are afraid of each other. Emma lives there. On the other side, the sun shines, the pastures are green, and children laugh and play. One day, when Emma comes home from school, she sees that her parents are listening in at the wall and enjoying what is happening on the other side. The next day, her parents are captured and Emma goes to live with her joyless aunt who makes her work, work, work.

"When I grow up," she dreamed, "I want to be an artist. Then I will paint the sky blue and flowers in all colors of the rainbow."

One night, in despair, she goes up to the attic to cry her loneliness and sorrow to the rafters. Suddenly, a doll speaks up in the barely-lit space and says that she used to be Emma's mother's and Emma can talk to her. One day, a strange ship helmed by a fantastically-dressed man sails into their harbor. And so begins Emma's courageous adventure, where she pins her hopes on achieving her dreams with the doll's constant encouraging companionship. As she travels to a distant but fabulous land, Emma has to learn everything from the ground-up, even learning to speak. This is beautiful and touching story of immigration and learning to find your footing in a new country.

Monday, October 2, 2017

My September Reading

I set about correcting my zero accounting of books for August with a vengeance this month. I read a whopping 19 books, which, for those who know me, is stupendous. I read at most 3-7 books—I would like to be reading more, but that's a number I can comfortably manage. Now if I were to read something difficult like Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, I would get nothing else read that month. Speaking of challenging books, I did manage to read ONE book from the Booker longlist.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Brilliant and harrowing. Whitehead's spare prose makes the story he relates stark and compelling. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her grandmother was kidnapped and brought to America from Africa. One day, Cora takes up a fellow slave's suggestion to use the Underground Railroad to make her escape North. What follows is a grotesque tale of escape and pursuit, hatred and violence, degradation and depravity, hope and despair. And through it all, you see Cora's indomitable spirit shinning through. According to Michiko Kakutani, "[The book] possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s." Through Whitehead's literal implementation of tunnels, stations, tracks, and trains, Cora is able to travel to different places along her journey through the history of race and slavery in America. I found this literary device so imaginative, because it provides a magical and relatable way for the reader to navigate history. This would have been impossible to do in a normal book. It was a difficult read, and I had to put it down and pick it up a lot, but I'm so glad I read it. It has won the National Book Award and the Pulizer Prize and has been longlisted for the Booker.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander
The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Category: General Fiction
Comments: My first Romance in Fiction column for Heroes and Heartbreakers comprises these three books. In each of them, the protagonists come from such disparate backgrounds that their love is a miracle. And yet, at no point do you doubt their sincerity to compromise and sacrifice to make it be forever. In Major Pettigrew, he's a Christian soldier of the British Raj born in Pakistan. She's a Pakistani Muslim born in England. They defy convention and tradition in a bid for happiness. In Sardinian Sky, she's a small village seamstress who's been nowhere. He's a world-traveled American soldier. And yet, they dare to love in the face of familial ostracization. In Wicked City, she's a party girl with a love of gin and laughter. He's a Prohibition officer involved in intrigues and closed off emotionally. They fall in love despite themselves. My short reviews are here.

Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith
The London Season by Joan Wolf
Knaves' Wager by Loretta Chase
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Three books make up my second Oldies and Goodies column for Happy Ever After. I have read and re-read these books so many times. I can't thank Amazon enough for making these books easily available in print and digital. Other than haunting used bookstores, I would've had no recourse. My short reviews are here.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: It is set in London of the 1920s, but could've easily been a contemporary story. In just ninety pages, Zen Cho builds a larger than life portrayal of Jade Yeo, her motivations and her shortcomings. The powerful message of this story is that love is accepting and love is kind. Even if you make a mistake, love does not judge you. Rather than beating readers over the head with this epiphany, the book illustrates it with wry humor and restrained emotion, thus making the revelation all the more impactful. My review is here.

Gideon and the Den of Thieves by Joanna Bourne
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: What can I say? It's a BOURNE! Joanna Bourne's fascinating; her books are riveting. I didn't read this novella when it was first published in the anthology Gambled Away before the publication of Beauty Like the Night, but recently, author Rose Lerner gifted me with a copy of the anthology. So far, this is the only story I've read, but I'm looking forward to the entire anthology. In this story, we get our first look at Hawker at his youngest—lethal even at twelve. This is when he was Lazarus's Hand. However, even then, we see glimpses of how Hawker was going to grow from a conscienceless killer into a man of justice for the greater good. It takes a great deal of skill to be able to convey a deep immersion into the characters and plot in the short format of a novella. It's a story not to be missed.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Pretty Face by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: ALI is one of my top romances of 2017, but both are wonderful: snappy dialog, wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, all of it so detailed and well-tuned. Parker's talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don't feel rushed or smoothened out. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There're no deus ex machine events that magically get characters out of the tight spots they put themselves in. I laughed and laughed as I re-read them; my husband laughed and laughed as he read them. We're very fond of Lucy Parker in our household, and we can't wait for Carina Press to drop the third book in the series. My review is here.

Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: First published in 2009, it will be re-released in October. (Can I fangirl for a moment? I have a rare signed copy! Ahem.) This is a Hathaway Sisters story featuring Pandora. I have liked every book of this series, but I especially like this one, because it is a simple story of trust, belief, and making do. Pandora wants a commonplace, gentle life in the countryside, yet she finds herself in a marriage to a driven man living in a hotel in London. How is she to reconcile her dreams with her reality? How is she to find love and forge a new beginning with what life has handed to her? How can this girl brought up in sunlight reconcile herself to life with a stranger used only to the darker side of life? My review is here.

Secret Lessons with the Rake by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a much-awaited book for me, after reading the first three in the Hadley's Hellions series. It's a story of the taming of the rake by a courtesan, aided by reforming and improving lessons on polite society by her. Mr. Christopher Lattimer is the titular son of Lord Vraux, but is largely believed to be begetted by one of his mother's legion of lovers. While mother and son have a fond relationship, his childhood experience of being cruelly taunted has led him to spurn his heritage by turning his attentions to the demimonde. It is there that he meets Ellie Parmenter. He's met her on and off for a number of years and has known her to be an aging peer's young mistress. Now that he's dead, she's free to start afresh with a vocational training school for girls with no other recourse than the streets. Now that Ellie has turned respectable, how is Christopher going to behave towards her? Both are equally aware that they desire each other greatly. But he's a rising Member of Parliament and needs to marry a respectable girl. She, too, wants to lead a virtuous life for her own self-respect. But their craving for each other is ever-present in their minds and hearts. Wonderful character build-up makes you root for their HEA and believe in it when it happens.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a DNF. Alas! I have never gotten the hype surrounding the book, and a re-read ten years after the first read, brought racism to light before my older, more discerning eyes. The constant references to the Marquess of Dain's dark looks (he's Caucasian but with a tanned skin and black hair and eyes) resulting in his being treated as a lesser being or even the devil's spawn was disturbing. Given that many of the Regency nobility were involved in the slave trade, this attitude was more than merely unpleasant. The book never calls it out to be so, merely implies that the others were being unjust to Dain. And somehow the way the story moves forward, Jessica saves him despite himself. I do realize that redemption of the hero by the heroine is often a theme in romance and can work very well, however, in this case, the racism combined with the white savior makes the story unpalatable. I know, I know. I'm aghast at my temerity in criticizing the great Loretta Chase. And I'm in the extreme minority here—people overwhelmingly love the story.

Billionaire Boss, M.D. by Olivia Gates
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: This was my first foray into the Harlequin Desire line, and I think I came up against the sub-genre conventions. Right off the bat, this billionaire being described as a world-class plastic surgeon and the founding member of a global juggernaut of a company was a bit of an eye-roll for me. How can one person do two such intensely time-consuming jobs? But, OK, I accepted that and moved on. Then came this description of him (easily discernable at first glance): a body suited to a world-class athlete, jaw-dropping assets, masterpiece of bone structure, leonine forehead, patrician nose, slashing cheekbones, powerful jaw, sculpted lips, amazing shape and startling blueness of the eyes of a scientist in which you could read many things (amusement, austerity, curiosity, superiority, astuteness, calculation), and on and on. I almost DNF'd the book there and then. But I thought that Ms. Gates comes across well-recommended, so I stolidly trudged on to the end. The book was certainly not my cuppa tea. In this short format, there were multiple love scenes and big emotional showdowns between the protagonists. I'm of the opinion "less is more" and this was a book where "more and more and more" was the norm. I do believe what I was up against was sub-genre conventions rather than Gates's writing style per se.

Her Kind of Doctor by Stella Bagwell
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I experimented with another category romance, a Harlequin Special Edition. This book started off really well. I enjoyed the work tension between the domineering ER doctor and his overworked, patiently suffering ER nurse. For three years, this was their professional life, until one day, she blows up and transfers out. Well, the book went downhill from there. On the turn of a dime, he transforms from a fierce lion into a tame cat. They start going out, she transfers back, and their work life together is never mentioned again. Emotionally, this book should've been a single-title, but it's compressed in this shorter format requiring leaps of emotional development to make the HEA work. But my biggest beef with the book came towards the end where instead of the two of them compromising and coming together, she gets exactly what she wants, while he sacrifices much on different fronts for her. From being a couple of equals, they descended to grovel upon grovel on his part. To me, their HEA was unbelievable at that point, because human nature being what it is, he would've resented her sooner or later. Again, I believe I was up against sub-genre conventions rather than Bagwell's writing style.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author and illustrator are very well-known for publishing stories from all over the world and in various countries, taking on subjects from various cultures. Gonzales's portfolio also includes 3 TED stages. This book is a celebration of multiculturalism and social harmony in lyrical beautiful writing. "Dear little one, ...know you are wondrous, A child of crescent moons, a builder of mosques, a descendant of brilliance, an ancestor in training." I've read Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, and Yo Soy reminds me of similar themes from that book, but this is better in its tender writing and gorgeous illustrations. There are questions this work will ask. What are you? And where are you from? And there will come a day when some people in the world will not smile at you." How many young children in our country have faced just this othering? How many have felt betrayed and ashamed? How many have tried to hide their heritage in a desperate effort to blend in? "Tell them this: Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time. I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams. Mi abuelo worked the fields. My ancestors did amazing things and so will I."

Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: We chuckled over this delightful Italian folktale. (Ever heard those deep belly laughs of the very young? Make my day so much sweeter.) "In a town of Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant 'Grandma Witch.'" And so begins a story, which involves potions, silly hotheaded young men, small village life where everyone is in everyone else's business, and a magic pasta pot. Whenever, Strega Nona sang a special ditty to the pot, the pot would bubble and boil and fill with steaming hot pasta. Another ditty (and three secret kisses) would subside the pot's production. Unfortunately, the man-of-all-work Big Anthony only heard the ditties. You can guess what happens next. One day, when Strega Nona was out, he called all the neighbors over and asked the clay pot to make everyone dinner. But the pot wouldn't stop making pasta, which soon filled the streets and upset the mayor and everyone called for Big Anthony's blood. Finally, Strega Nona had to come rescue him.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
Category: Children's Fiction
Comments: It's an iconic pre-teen book from the 1970s. To my daughter, who also read the book at my behest, the protagonist, Margaret, was childish, naïve, and immature. I have self-aware kids, and so Margaret's behavior was a turn-off for both my daughter and I. Margaret's self-absorbed and selfish and turns on her closest friend just as easily as the perceived "other" person. There are no manners corrections from the parents and she never apologizes. She may confess her wrongdoings to God in her conversations with Him, but that doesn't translate into her being thoughtful or remorseful enough to take corrective action. Kindness and empathy, if not innate, needs to be actively inculcated. I was also taken aback at how provincial this girl from The Big City is despite all the cultural exposure her grandmother gives her. On a positive note, her ongoing conversation with God is sweet—it is where she reveals her innermost feelings and fears. It is comforting for her to have someone with whom she can be completely honest and feel they're in her corner.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My July Reading

I have neglected my blog shamefully in the past few weeks. I had hoped to cover my accounting of my reading in July in my usual monthly post, but I didn't have a chance to get that post written. So I thought I would do a joint post for July and August.

Well, lo and behold, August brought with it a meltdown at my daughter's school and sending us scrambling to find an alternate school as well as participate in parent activism to shore up the school it could start on time. To cut a long story short, we succeeded very well. The school opened its doors a week late but with a strong teacher presence. The students are back in school, the administration is trucking along, etc. etc.

However, in all of this, my reading suffered. I got not a single book read in August. Not a one. I can't remember the last time this has ever happened. Not a day goes by when I have not read a book; not a week goes by when I have not finished a book. And yet, here, a whole month went by with nary a page read. So I come to you with only the short list of books that I read in July.

The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes
Category: General Fiction
Comments: Sarah is a fourteen-year-old girl living in one of the projects of London with her grandfather, Henri. Boo is her horse, whom she loves with every particle of her being. Henri is training Sarah to become one of the écuyers of Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, and this involves intense concentration and unrelenting perfectionism for both Boo and Sarah. In the meantime, Natasha Macauley is a solicitor-advocate, speaking up for the rights of children, whether they are teenagers seeking asylum, young hoodlums, or little children caught in the middle of acrimonious divorces. Her career, by its very nature and by her own ambitions, is all-consuming, leaving very little time for her husband, Max. How Natasha and Max resolve their differences and how Sarah's path crosses theirs is a story written with great finesse. I love Moyes's work—her storytelling and writing style really speaks to me. My review is here.

Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Jo is a delight, online and offline. I enjoyed talking to her about her writing—her replies are so refreshingly honest, modest, and funny. And her books floor me every time I pick a new one up. I would rate every one of them among my most prized collection. While Black Hawk remains my most favorite, Beauty Like the Night, has a new fan. Comte Raoul Deverney is a vintner and a sometimes jewel thief, while Séverine de Cabrillac is a French aristocratic ex-spy and now a private detective in Regency London. Deverney hires Sévie, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, his former wife's daughter, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Together, they search for Pilar with growing urgency while Sévie's past rises up to engulf her. My review & interview are here.

Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Wychwood-on-Lea is a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, is insecure and barely surviving and definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea. Along with her 11-year-old daughter, she has decided to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds, away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents. Ellie's new boss, Dr. Oliver Venables, is a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other. I saw "Oxford" and "village" in the book description and I bought the book, and I was delightfully rewarded. My review is here.

The Nearness of You by Dorothy Garlock
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Comments: I simply can't recommend this book. It had such promise: a hard-bitten photographer who travels to the world’s hotspots in pursuit of newsworthy photographs, is swept away by a small-town gal who’s seen nothing of the world. Despite that interesting start, the story falters almost immediately, brought low by overwriting and clichés. My review is here.

Lord Carew's Bride by Mary Balogh
Emily and the Dark Angel by Jo Beverley
All Through the Night by Connie Brockway
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is my first column covering three traditional Regency historical romances for Happy Ever After. All three of them I have read and re-read many times and consider them as among the top keepers of my collection. My brief reviews are here.

The 5 Misfits by Beatrice Alemagna
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a story about five creatures who have something wrong with them and don't fit in society at large. Then along comes this perfect being who asks them what are they doing in their house. And they say nothing, because they mess everything up. The Perfect One then tells them that they need to "find a purpose, a plan, an idea! You are good for nothing. You are real nobodies", says and punctures their already-low self esteem. But in discussing themselves further with him, each of the misfits discovers their good qualities: one doesn't get upset, one always has happy thoughts, and so on and so forth. Then they realize, they're great all by themselves and they do not need the Perfect One. This is a book for preschoolers but displays the difference between British and American style of writing with its sophistication of language.

I am a Unicorn by Michaela Schuett
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Why be a frog when you can be a unicorn? Well, that is what this one green frog thought. He stuck a horn on his forehead and a bunch of sparkly foil strings on his butt and called himself a unicorn. But his friend the goat was not impressed. Frog tries to convince Goat of all the ways he is a true unicorn by displaying all that he can do, including: "I eat flowers and toot rainbows." After a lot of frustrated haranguing, Goat convinces Frog that all he had was a good unicorn costume, Frog's can of Magical Unicorn Sprinkles burst open and transforms the green frog into a bonafide purple unicorn. He may still say "Ribbit," but he has a genuine horn and swish his genuine tail to the fascinated horror of Goat. Dreams do come true if you believe in them hard enough. This book is meant for the very young; preschoolers remain unimpressed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No More #TBRChallenge Posts from Me for 2017

I'm sorry to be writing that I won't be participating in the 2017 TBR Reading Challenge any more this year. I have too much reading to do for the commitments I have recently made, as a result, I can't fit any more books in. I'm really sad to withdraw from the challenge that I've been participating in for a few years now. Hopefully, I'll have a better handle on my commitments in 2018 and can resume the challenge then. In the meantime, I will continue to read everyone's posts like I always do every third Wednesday of the month.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some News...

I'm branching out a bit in my writing. In addition to continuing to review for All About Romance, I will be writing a column for USA TODAY's Happy Ever After and two columns for Macmillan Publishing's Heroes and Heartbreakers. So do watch out for me in those spaces as well. I love writing for All About Romance, and now I get to share my love of books in two more places!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Meet Me at Willoughby Close
Author: Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Small-Town Light British Romance
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Series Catch-Up

I cheated with this book. It met the theme of the month but not the spirit of the challenge. The book spent one week on my TBR.

Last year, I read Hewitt's A Cotswold Christmas that sets up Wychwood-on-Lea, a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, in Meet Me at Willoughby Close , we meet Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, insecure and barely surviving, definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea.

Ellie is a divorced, single mom of a pre-teen who decides to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds. She wants to move away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents, who've always been so very helpful in her times of difficulty but have also been so disappointed with her life choices. Ellie has been cowed by them.

Ellie's 11-year-old daughter Abby has been bullied for three years in her primary school in Manchester, which has had a deleterious effect on her personality and body language. Ellie hopes that Oxfordshire will prove to be a fresh start for Abby also, helping to restore her self-confidence and optimism.

Their beginning is inauspicious. Abby continues to shy away from being friendly with the kids in her new school and they, in turn, leave her alone. However, Abby forms an unprecedented bond with the elderly Lady Stokeley of Wychwood Manor, their landlord, which turns her life around and brings her out of her shell. The two understand each other in a way that is unfathomable to Ellie, who feels uncomfortable and unwelcome in Lady Stokeley's presence.

In the meantime, Ellie has met her boss Dr. Oliver Venables, a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other.

Nothing much happens between them in the first half of the book, which is devoted to the setting up of their respective storylines. Their paths begin to converge more and more past the halfway mark.

I will admit, I spent the first half of the book hating it. I couldn't stand Ellie and thought her whiny and ungrateful. I'm a huge fan of competency: either inherent or learned. Ellie has neither. She doesn't try hard enough and feels entitled that things should go swimmingly for her all the time. Her ingratitude towards her family, who bailed her out multiple times despite her own bad choices, is a testament to her lack of appropriate recognition of it.

However, once Oliver's and her relationship starts developing, Ellie matures, and her growth arc then makes her more responsible and compassionate. I started liking the story thence—however, I never quite got over my initial dislike—Oliver's proficiency has a tempering effect on her, and she has to rise up to meet his level and it's to her benefit. Hewitt has done an excellent job of showing this character growth.

Hewitt's light touch with humor is well-done. So if you like the English village setting and a humorous bent to the story, this may be for you.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Black Angel by Barbara Samuel

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Black Angel
Author: Barbara Samuel
Category: Georgian Romance with the Marriage of Convenience trope
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Favorite Trope

My most enlightening moment while reading The Black Angel was when Samuel showed that a person can have two good sexual relationships in their lifetime. The first one doesn't have to be bad in order for the second one to be good. What an empowering sex-positive outlook in a book written in 1999! I wish more modern-day historicals would emulate this point of view.

It is true that the first man did turn out to be a cad at the end of the relationship by publicly spurning her and shaming her in front of her peers, but while their relationship was going strong, it was a satisfying intimate connection. Malvern was not abusive or stingy with sexual favors, and Adriana enjoyed herself fully, while not becoming too involved emotionally with him.

Five years ago, Adriana St. Ives, daughter of the Earl of Albury, decided to take Lord Malvern, Baron of Wye and bastard son of the King's brother's mistress, as her lover. Having just returned from Martinique for her first season in the Georgian court of the 1780s, Adriana was ardently pursued by Malvern. She resisted for many months, but finally gave in. She was well aware that Malvern did not offer marriage, only carte blanche, but she accepted anyway. She was heedless of the harm to her reputation and to that of her father and siblings. Friend and acquaintances labeled her as headstrong and selfish.

However, Malvern's bad behavior at the end of their relationship caused Adriana's oldest brother, Julian, to call him out, and the resulting duel ended in Malvern's death and Julian and his brother Gabriel's being labeled as outcasts and banished from England's shores. Adriana's father died heartbroken, his daughter's reputation in tatters and his sons languishing in foreign lands.

Fast forward five years, and penury leads Adriana to accept the suit of Tynan Spenser, the wealthy Earl of Glencove from Ireland. In return for her political influence, he would provide the estate with the cash infusion it sorely needs.

Their wedding day is the first time either of them claps eyes on each other and while Adriana is dazzled by Tynan' beauty, Tynan is disappointed by her lack thereof. Adriana is determined to resist her desire for Tynan, ever mindful of her weakness for the sensual arts. For five years, she's buried herself in the country and kept herself inviolate from storming emotions. Tynan tears her safe world apart by compelling her to come alive again.

The day after the wedding, Julian and Gabriel charge up to the estate from their exile in an attempt to save Adriana from her marriage, only to realize that it's too late. Julian's presence back in England makes him vulnerable again to the scandal of the duel. Malvern's mother, mistress to many in the House of Lords, refuses to let the scandal die. Through her influence, many are determined to make an example of the young earl in outlawing dueling, and Julian is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Julian's incarceration and impending trial is the background on which Adriana's and Tynan's romance unfolds.

I must draw attention to the multicultural cast of characters here. Adriana's father's mistress in Martinique is a freed slave from whom he has two children. What is unusual is that Lord Albury raises these children in Martinique along with the three children from his deceased wife. And he brings his multicultural family back to live in England in a society full of prejudice. I loved Albury for bringing his children up as equals and I loved that the children all love each other equally. (I so wish Samuel would've written all of their stories, so we could see what Georgian society looked like from their eyes and how they managed to make their way in life.)

I had a few issues with some of the motivations in the story.

The whole, buying a seat in the English Parliament to influence the Irish Protestants to be kinder to the Irish Catholics, idea seems far-fetched and misguided. It is the main driving force of Tynan's story in the book and it's a thin pretext to bring him to England. It is true that he admits as much towards the end, but for a supposedly intelligent, level-headed man, he should've never thought this a viable plan. Also inexplicable is how a beleaguered Adriana tarnished by her scandal can provide the political capital that will allow Tynan to buy the parliamentary seat.

The influence Adriana's father wielded over young Tynan seems rather tenuous and incomprehensible. Why would the Earl of Albury choose a young Irish earl as a consort for his eldest daughter? Samuuel explains how the two corresponded and built up a mentor-mentee relationship, but how did this get started in the first place? After all, Albury spent years in Martinique and then was submerged in the scandal perpetuated by Adriana.

The end was rushed given how important it is to Tynan. Somehow, Adriana's life choices and challenges take up so much real estate in the story, that Tynan's are only worried over at the edges of the story. It is true that Julian's life is at stake, but so are the lives of dozens of Catholic men and women on Tynan's estates and surrounding villages in Ireland. Surely, his thoughts and actions should've been aimed more there than with saving Adriana's reputation and her brother's life.

And yet, despite the issues mentioned above, I read this book with the enjoyment and appreciation that comes from reading a complex tale by a great author. Samuel does not shy away from the tricky emotional and moral decisions her characters need to make at different points in the story. None of her characters are required to be likeable at all points in the story. It is okay for the characters to be people, by degrees unaccountable, impenetrable, and foolish, while also displaying uncommon bravery and goodness. Ambiguity is not a negative. Samuel simply asks the reader to have faith in her ability to show her main characters growing into people with integrity and grit and maturity even if the growth is not a smooth curve.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Interview with Vassiliki Veros

The ever amazing and fellow romance and children's books enthusiast, Vassiliki Veros, did a fun interview of me for her blog Shallowreader: barely scratching the surface. Here's the transcript.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My June Reading

I continued my foray into Traditional Regency Romances with a lot of Balogh and a touch of Overfield. I also read Julie James as a palate cleanser. Balogh's trads have storylines that over the years have become tropes, so it was great to see what the original plots looked like.

Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander
Category: General Fiction
Comments: Sometimes a family's deepest silences hide the most important secrets. What an evocative story, redolent with hidden passions and a deep abiding love rising from the ashes of mistrust, despair, and duty. Set in a small town of Sardinia in the 1950s, native resident and gifted seamstress Carmela Chiringoni meets American Captain Joe Kavanagh. While Carmela is engaged to a jealously possessive fiancé, Joe is married. She is hired as his interpreter and so begins their relationship. My review is here.

A Temporary Wife by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is one of those perfect romances, where the emphasis is on romance rather than a lot of extracurricular activity. And within the scope of the category-sized story, Balogh delivers a master class on writing a Marriage of Convenience plot. My review is here.

The Ideal Wife by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Someone told me not to read The Ideal Wife right after The Temporary Wife, because of the similarity of the plot. So I proceeded to do exactly that: examine how an author works almost the exact same premise twice. This iteration was less successful than Temporary, because the characters felt more caricature than heartfelt. In the above book, I could understand the characters' motivations and why they did what they did; in this book it felt more on a whim and tedious.

The worst aspect of the book was the heroine's predilection for unnecessary volubility. It was cute at first, because the last thing the Earl of Severn wanted was a managing talkative wife. Guess what kind of female cousin he rescues from impoverishment? She looked meek and submissive at first glance, but turned out to be a loquacious virago after the wedding. I spent most of the book feeling sorry for him, because Abby quickly began to grate on my nerves. After reading a few paragraphs of her speech, I started skipping every time she spoke, which didn't bode well for her character development. I'd give this one a miss, if I were you.

A Promise of Spring by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Fabulous story of a young ingénue, a marriage of convenience, and a spouse ten years older—only that, the hero is the young innocent and the heroine the older experienced. This book is a true commentary on how a couple, who've known each other peripherally but are now yoked together, negotiates marriage. Powerful, powerful story with moments of such tenderness. A must read! My review is here.

A Chance Encounter by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The story starts with a "Netherfield Park has been let at last," kind of a storyline. Mr. Mainwaring is Mr. Bingley here and comes with his Mr. Darcy-like friend, the Marquess of Heatherington. Both men create a stir in the countryside neighborhood and set many young hearts pitter-patter. Among them is a stoic spinster in her mid-twenties, Elizabeth Rossiter, working as a governess-cum-companion in a prominent gentleman's household.

SPOILER: Unbeknownst to everyone, Heatherington is Elizabeth's husband. For six years, they have set aside their marriage and refused to speak to each other. Distance has only served to embitter them. Little did either of them know that they would be in the same neighborhood at the same time and be forced to be civil to each other. When young Heatherington and Elizabeth had been deeply in love, Heatherington's uncle was dead set against their marriage and sought to wreck it and succeeded.

This story is the classic Big Misunderstanding. I'm usually not a fan of it at all, but this time, I considered it as one of the first instances of a storyline that has now become a trope, and it's a Balogh, so I persisted with it. At one point I tweeted, I'm at 92% mark in my digital book and the H/H haven't reconciled yet or are even in the same county. But Balogh makes the story work.

The Sinister Spinster by Carolyn Madison / Joan Overfield
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I picked up this book because it involved foreign diplomacy with a spot of spying and detecting. While there are a plethora of Regency historical romances involving spying by the nobility, diplomacy is an under-utilized plotline. An alliance with Russia in 1814 in the wake of Napoléon’s destructive path through Europe was of crucial importance to international relations, so I was hoping to see more politics and not the murder mystery that this book focused on. Ultimately, this proved to be its weak point. It tried to do too much in the beginning and so set the story up with a complexity that failed in the execution. By the end, even the mystery failed to satisfy and the heroine's behavior towards the hero was a big no-no. My review is here.

The Thing About Love by Julie James
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In recent years, Julie James's books have received much acclaim from critics and readers. I really enjoyed her first two books, but was meh about a couple of the other ones. However, this book was much touted, so I decided to give James a go again, and the results have been mixed. James has gotten better and more assured over the years. She does good characterization and plotting—I liked the story.

My problem with James is the voice. I enjoy her humor, so it's not her comedic voice that doesn't go over well, but it's the hyper-contemporary, deliberately-breezy style that doesn't work for me. This book will be dated in five years, not only for the frequent popular culture references, that are not momentous enough to have a long shelf life, but also for the writing style that is so reflective of Twitter-style. Don't get me wrong: She's not writing in sound bites or the compressed tweet-style of sentencing, but rather employs frequent use of slang that you find only online, but is not in common parlance.

The other problem I had with this book, that I don't remember if other books had, was the repeated mentions of the protagonists' motivations—in this case, their joint past and why the hero decides to choose this new job he does. These motivations don't have to be replicated over and over again. And then after having set up why the hero chooses to go away from the heroine forever, his change-of-heart comes about too conveniently and unconvincingly.

In general, I don't see why one character has to give up what they love to do in order to win the love of the other. Yes, sacrifice and compromise do exist in real life, but abandoning a career, they had agonizingly professed over and over again they love, is so unnecessary. It immediately raises the specter of future disenchantment in their HEA.

Caring for Your Lion by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Troy Cummings
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Congratulations on your new lion! We know you ordered a kitten, but we ran out of those. Luckily, a lion is practically the same thing! Caring for your lion is easy. Just follow this handy guide." Are you dismayed? The boy in the book sure was when he saw the huge box outside his front door. The only accessory the lion came is a feather, so that in case the lion swallows you, you can tickle him in the tummy, till he throws you up. Yeah! It's very much a book meant to induce giggles.

T.Veg: The Story of a Carrot-Crunching Dinosaur by Smriti Prasadam-Halls, illustrated by Katherina Manolessou
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This darling dinosaur could roar, stomp, gnash, and leap with the best of them, but he did not fit in at mealtimes with his dinosaur friends. While others munched on juicy steaks, he ate crunchy carrots, broccoli, grapes, and greens. Everyone laughs at him all the time, and so finally, he runs away from home hoping to find better friends who will understand him more. On his journey, he looks for herbivore dinosaurs. When he finds them, he's delighted, but they flee in terror. What is he to do?

Over in the Ocean In a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Jeanette Canyon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a gorgeous book for the very young with ceramic concentric circle designs of the ocean floor with detailed and highly colorful drawings of sea animals on top. It's a counting book with repetitive rhymes that explains the characteristics of different sea creatures. For example, octopi squirt, parrotfish grind, and pufferfish puff. We have read this book over and over again.

Monday, June 5, 2017

My May Reading

I have read so much Romance this year as compared to previous years, that I'm convinced that the political situation is to blame for this. I crave comforting and soothing in my reading, even as I foam at the mouth and determinedly pursue activism through my work with a local organization and on local candidates' campaigns.

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Lorette Chase
Categories: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: I loved this book from start to finish. This is Chase at her finest, and now I have a new addition to my list of Favorite Books of All Time. I say this often but it bears repeating: I adore characters who resolve their differences in frank conversation and display maturity and manners. I abhor flouncing, sulking, and big long misunderstandings because the characters refuse to talk to each other. This book has honesty and directness sprinkled liberally with intelligence and humor. Competency is so attractive! I recommend you read this book just for the dialogue if not for the story as well. My review is here.

It's You by Jane Porter
Categories: General Fiction with Romantic Elements
Comments: I have loved Jane Porter’s women’s fiction since I read the almost autobiographical Flirting with Forty and Odd Mom Out. I also like Porter herself for her kindness and generosity, both characteristics that are prevalent in her characters. It’s You is a story within a story, one set in contemporary Napa Valley about a dentist from Scottsdale and the other in Berlin during World War II about a language translator for the American Embassy. The book tells of two bright, strong American women torn apart by tragedy and surviving to find a second chance. My review is here.

Dating the Millionaire Doctor by Marion Lennox
Category: Medical Category Romance
Comments: This was my first medical category romance, and the medical details acted as a strong undercurrent to the story and really drew me in. Set in the gorgeous Australian bush, it was interesting to see how an Australian country veterinarian and a high-powered urban anesthesiologist from Manhattan find common ground and love. I look forward to reading more medical romance by Lennox. My review is here.

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian
Category: m/m Historical Romance
Comments: In a bid to read outside my usual norm, I chose this much-lauded book—playing it safe there. And I was not disappointed. Sebastian gets the historical period right and the Beauty and the Beast romance right. Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, thinks he is mad. The people in the village believe he is mad. In reality, he's merely eccentric and a brilliant inventor and researcher. Georgie Turner is a handsome thief and confidence artist posing as a secretary. When he took up the post, little did he realize that Penkellis and Radnor would wake up a latent conscience and sense of duty in him. I loved how sensitively, Sebastian handles the two men's characters, their growing attraction, and how they open up to each other in all their vulnerability. My review is here.

Glitterland by Alexis Hall
Category: m/m Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a noteworthy book, and I’m glad I read it. However, I found it a difficult read, mainly because we’re told the story from Ash’s POV, which wasn't unreliable per se, just variant depending on the manifestation of his mental illness symptoms. I would’ve liked to have seen some of the scenes from Darian’s POV; in fact, it would’ve been interesting to have seen a few of the same scenes from both their POVs to have provided a better feel for the disparity in their characterizations.

There's a big grovel scene towards the end. While as a general rule, I’m not fond of grovels, because it puts one character with more power over the other, in this book's case, Ash truly needed to atone. However, I would’ve liked to have seen a longer time spent in the reconciliation and togetherness part of their relationship, so that I could believe in the longevity and sincerity of their HFN.

Miss Westlake's Windfall by Barbara Metzger
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Ada Westlake doesn't consider herself a fool, though as her age to whistling a handsome, titled, wealthy man down the wind is nothing short of foolishness. But she believes that she's not the bride for Viscount Ashmead, and if she steadfastly continued refusing his proposals, he will look elsewhere for a more suitable bride. As is inevitable, his mother invites a whole passel of demure misses to tempt him, much to Ada's dismay and secret jealousy. This is a delightful romance, witty and charming, and I enjoyed Ashmead's gentle beta-ness.

Miss Lockharte's Letters by Barbara Metzger
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Miss Rosellen Lockharte is a penmanship teacher at Miss Merrihew's Select Academy for Young Females of Distinction. She's very sick with the influenza that swept through the school and believes herself to be dying. In her last hour, she wants nothing more than to settle a score with half a dozen individuals, which does by wielding her pen as a sword, and without mincing words, she manages to impale all her victims those who brought her grief. One such individual was Viscount Stanford, the brother of her student and fried, Susan Alton. Susan convinces Rosellen that he would be willing to take her away with them so as to offer her a new lease on life and an opportunity to meet her own eligible parti. However, unthinkingly, he rescinds Susan's invitation, thereby crushing Rosellen's every hope.

This story was perhaps less successful than the one above, because of its tendency to sometimes descend to farce where the Merrihews were concerned. However, the opening chapters are strong, distinctive, and very enjoyable. The romance is perhaps tepid by modern historical romance standards, but it appealed to me. One caution I have is that other than that earlier five-minute meeting, Rosellen and Stanford's story together truly doesn't begin until the 40% mark. While this bothered me not a whit, it might not be the same for others.

Desperate Measures by Candice Hern
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Short Story
Comments: Set in 1810, this is a romance that takes place in one evening at a ball. Young Lydia Bettridge is suffering from the pangs of unrequited love. She’s desperate to have her brother’s friend, the Golden God, Geoffrey Danforth notice her, so she and another of her brother’s friends, Phillip, hatch a plot to make Geoffrey jealous. What follows is a story of young but mature, sensible protagonists and a slightly-hotter-than-usual trad. I enjoyed seeing how Lydia grew in confidence from the beginning of the evening to the end—good romance arc for a short story. My review is here.

Lady Ann's Excellent Adventure by Candice Hern
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Short Story
Comments: I loved this book! It is one of the best traditional historicals I've read. Over the course of one long day, these two affianced-since-the-cradle strangers meet under assumed names and become fast friends. Both the Earl of Evesham and Lady Ann of Gloucester had been reluctantly determined to do their duty to the other and their families. And yet, over the course of this day, they can't help falling in love with each other as plain Will and Annie. This discovery of beauty, of wonder, of specialness is what great romance is all about. My review is here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase

Loretta Chase has written a few books that fall in my "favorite books of all time" list and have brought me hours of reading and re-reading pleasure. Dukes Prefer Blondes is the newest addition. I was leery of picking up such a highly-praised book, however, I decided to trust the reviews and go for it. And I am so glad I did! Dukes Prefer Blondes is vintage Chase with frank, witty dialog and a deeply emotional connection between the characters.

Oliver "Raven" Radford is part of the laboring branch of the Radfords despite being the grandson of a duke; to wit, he is a barrister prosecuting criminals even as he mingles with them to prepare his cases. "The beau monde and I are not well acquainted, for obvious reasons, I should think, they spending little time in criminal courts, and I being gainfully employed therein."

Lady Clara Fairfax is a diamond of the first water, being feted by the ton and regularly proposed to by her beaus. In other words, she is bored. So she volunteers at the Milliners' Society for the Education of Indigent Females started by the former Misses Noirot, who are now related to her by marriage. She is most concerned about the welfare of fifteen-year-old Bridget Coppy, whose brother has been impressed into a gang of boys from London's stews.

Radford and Clara meet when he rescues her from a gig about to run her down. "I daresay you noticed nothing about him?" he asked. "But why do I ask a pointless question? Everybody flies into a panic and nobody pays attention. Well, then. Not injured, my lady? No swooning? No tears? Excellent. Good day." And he turns away. But he is brought up short by her extremely acute descriptions of the scene, the driver, the tiger, and the carriage. She has taken him by surprise, but to her surprise, he doesn't labor under the assumption that women have no brains to speak of. He's pleased with her detailed observations and she, in turn, is pleased with his casual "Well done" that is praise and acceptance of her talent as commonplace.

As the story moves forward, both of them realize that they'd met before in their childhood. He was a friend of her brother's and they had once spent an entire day together when he decided to entertain her to ward off her disappointment in her brothers' indifference. That day had ended when she flew into a fight on his behalf and chipped her tooth. And to this day, she continues to champion those whose voices have been flattened by society.

The entire romance between Clara and Raven unfolds from these twin threads: the dialog and the work. Put two bright, intelligent, "with it" people together, stir in some antagonism and reserve, and watch the mixture bubble and hiss and spit articulately and humorously. Chase uses language so sparingly and purposefully, it makes the lean ripostes crackle with wit and pointed observations. "Women had to overlook men's personality flaws, else nobody would ever wed or reproduce & the human race would come to an end."

I liked how passionate both Clara and Raven are about their duties. It was very interesting to look into the daily doings of a barrister in Regency London and to see how a missing child may be found in the East End. (You have to believe in the soupçon of luck required, of course.)

Some unfortunate shortcuts, such as repeatedly describing Clara's maid, Davis, as a bulldog in looks to match her loyal tenacity could've been avoided, but overall, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise overwhelmingly fabulous story. I first borrowed this book from the library, but now I have my own copy for future re-reads.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Lawrence Browne Affair
Author: Cat Sebastian
My Categories: m/m Historical Romance
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Something Different (outside your usual reading)

This is my first m/m story, and I'm so glad I débuted with Cat Sebastian. She gets the Regency era just right, and she does a true Beauty and the Beast story.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, thinks he is mad. The people in the village believe he is mad. In reality, he's merely eccentric and a brilliant inventor and researcher. He has a touch of agoraphobia and an extreme shyness with people that makes him hide away in his disgusting, crumbling manor at Penkellis at the mercy of the handful of diehard servants. In a bid to save this lord, the Reverend writes a letter to his friend in London, begging him to send Radnor a secretary.

Enter handsome thief and confidence artist posing as a secretary. When he took up the post, little did Georgie Turner realize that Penkellis and Radnor would wake up a latent conscience and sense of duty in him. Of course, being wildly attracted to the large, gorgeous earl acts as a good prod to said conscience. In London, Turner was a thief who's on the run from a colleague out for his blood. In Cornwall, Turner is a hardworking secretary with patience and good organizational skills.

I loved how sensitively, Sebastian handles the two men's characters, their growing attraction, and how they open up to each other in all their vulnerability.

With a single, menacing forefinger, Lawrence touched Turner's chest. He had meant for the gesture to be intimidating, but it felt strangely intimate. Before he knew what had happened, Turner had taken hold of Lawrence's large, calloused hands in his own fine ones. Lawrence didn't know if the man was motivated by kindness or self-defense, but he found that he was holding hands with a person for the first time since he was a child.

While Radnor is no virgin, yet his experience is limited, and in recent years, nonexistent. So he is very susceptible to Turner's advances. I felt such tenderness for Radnor as he assumes his every moment of desire for Turner is a sign of incipient madness. Turner, in turn, is the experienced one but affection and admiration had never before been part of his dealings with his partners, and he is flummoxed by what Radnor brings out in him.

These two men from such disparate backgrounds come together as such equals—I loved that about this book. Neither disdains the other for who they are, what they do, or their past. They're concerned with who they are with each other. The Lawrence Browne Affair is such a romantic tale! Not to be missed.