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.