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.