Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My January Reading

Two years ago, I had consciously read poetry, but last year got away from me. So this year, I'm once again making time in life for beauty. I find that I'm most enchanted with the British Romantic poets, though Frost is a favorite, too. My earliest memories of studying poetry come from memorizing heartfelt words and reciting them in school. Diction and emotion that brought the words to life were emphasized by our teachers. I regret the loss of memorization, recitation, and study of poetry in schools these days.

So, why learn Spanish?
Because of the beauty of the words of poets,
and if I don’t know Spanish
I can’t read them.

—Ursula Le Guin

Various poems by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Poetry
Comments: Ursula Le Guin's death was a shock to me. A light has blinked out in the world and we will forever be the poorer for it. She was a fantastic writer, no doubt, but she was also one of the great thinkers of our modern times, in my opinion. More than her fiction, it was her activism through letters and articles that really spoke to me. I read some of her poetry that is published here this month.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Short Story
Comments: My daughter recommended I read this since she studied it in school this year and loved it. I loved it as well. It's a short story from A Wind's Twelve Quarters collection and is available on AMZ as a standalone. I simply cannot do the work justice with my paltry words, so all I can say is: go, read it.

Tempest by Beverley Jenkins
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: What a remarkable story! The best yet of her Old West series, and I'm really sad that the series has come to an end. This is a mail-order-bride western story of a wealthy, adventurous, free-spirited woman with heart full of caring and a dedicated doctor with a willingness to treat anyone and everyone even if they pay him in vegetables. Their romantic and sexual chemistry is marvelous as is the tenderness and caring between them and their desire to always look forward and resolve their differences calmly and quickly. My review is here..

Wallflower Most Wanted by Manda Collins
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Collins writes lovely books with humor, tenderness, and suspense. The premise of her Studies in Scandal series is fun: an eccentric lady plucks four young women living in trying circumstances, but with a gift for unusual pursuits, and makes them benefactors of her estate with the proviso that they have to stay together for a year with all expenses covered in order to gain their inheritance. The women become fast friends as they pursue their passions, fall in love, and solve mysteries. Wallflower Most Wanted is the third in the series with a Grantchester-like vicar and a very talented and creative painter. My review is here.

A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Every book that I have read by Alyssa Cole has been wonderful. She writes such different books, not just different time periods, just different types of books. I'm blown away by her talent and eagerly looking forward to catching up with the books I have missed. This is a fairytale romance about an African prince of a make-believe kingdom and his lost betrothed, now a very independent American woman. How he beguiles her as an ordinary man, then loses her when she finds out about his true status, then wins her back again could've been a clichéd story but is elevated by Cole into a magical story. Not to be missed. My review is here.

Tulips For Augusta by Betty Neels
Hell or High Water by Anne Mather
Bond of Hatred by Lynne Graham
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Betty Neels, Anne Mather...these are the names of my early 20s, when I ventured into contemporary romance after binging on Heyer and Garwood and Coulter. Lynne Graham came later. Of these three, Betty Neels holds a special place in my heart for her sweet stories of a courtly time that never grows old. My brief reviews are here.

Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a fictional story based on true fact. There are many Canadian women of First Nations who will never return home, and this has devastating effects on their families and their children who are left behind. These indigenous women are missing or have been murdered with no justice for their families and no repercussions to the perpetrators.

Missing Nimâmâ is a Cree story. Kateri is a young girl living with her nokhôm (grandmother) whose nimâmâ (mother) is lost. Despite the love and care, her grandmother shows her kamâmakos (little butterfly), Kateri talks about her mother and dreams about her all the time. Half of each page is in Kateri's point of view, and the other half is in her ghostly mother's POV, where we see her thinking about and looking over Kateri and her own mother living their lives. And she is grateful they have each other and that they share a love and an unbreakable bond, even if she cannot be there with them.

"Taken. Taken from my home. Taken from my family. Taken from my daughter. I fought so hard to get back to you, Kateri. I wish I could tell you that. And when I couldn't fight anymore, I closed my eyes. And saw your beautiful face."

I cried as I read this book, cried for its beauty and its tragedy.

If you would like to find out about this growing problem of the lost aboriginal women of Canada, visit the No More Stolen Sisters site at Amnesty International.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon AKA Frida Kahlo was born in the early 1900s and lived in Coyoacán, the land of Aztecs, near Mexico City. She was born to a mestiza mother and a German-Hungarian father. Frida's life was fraught by illness (polio) as a child and an accident as a teenager, both of which involved being bedridden for months with only her imagination for company. During her second incapacitation, her mother encouraged her to paint, and her life was transformed by her magical creativity. She painted herself and her beloved pets, her constant companions in the journey life fraught with continuous health problems. Parra's artwork is evocative of Kahlo's style and adds greatly to the beauty of this book. Brown has made this complex biography simple by telling the story of how Kahlo connected with each of her pets with their imaginative names and personified characteristics.

The Blue Hour by Isabelle Simler
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Everything in this book is in shades of blue. I was fascinated by the widely variant brilliance of Simler's palate. The theme of the story is that the period of time between sundown and nightfall, when the sky turns a gorgeous blue, commonly known as L'Heure Bleu, life starts to settle down for the night. Every pair of pages has a description and a finely drawn depiction of blue flora and fauna: jay, poison dart frog, songbird, vulturine guineafowl, damselfly, racer snake, and many others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

All the Books I Read in 2017

I may be a tad obsessive about my reading. Not only do I love reading books, I love recording what I have read. And this is not a mere handwritten record. It's a full-featured spreadsheet with all kinds of data. Here are the links to all the books I read in 2017. Lists 1-6 are pieces of one chronological list of 105 books from my Excel Reading Spreadsheet. Click on each image to embiggen to read it.

List One

List Two

List Three

List Four

List Five

List Six

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Being Schooled on What I Should Be Reading

There was a recent discussion on Twitter about romance genre readers being schooled by authors and reviewers/readers on what readers should read. To which, I add, readers are also being schooled on how they should react to what they're reading. Instead of expanding, our world of romance is contracting. What those voices in Romancelandia slamming and shaming readers are failing to recognize is that reading tastes vary. And that is okay. No one has to like All Things. And that is okay.

My absolute favorite sub-genre in romance is traditional Regencies, which are completely monochromatic. My other sub-genre loves are primarily historicals and some contemporaries, and therein, I enjoy reading stories by #ownvoices authors about #ownvoices characters, in addition, to authors and characters of the dominant culture. However, I refuse to bow to the dictates by reading paranormal, urban fantasy, sci-fi, and erotic romance among other sub-genres—they are just not interesting to me.

In a bid to expanding my horizons and experiencing different worlds and points-of-view, I am trying to diversify my reading in different avenues. Where adult general fiction goes, and especially children's picture books go, I am eager to experiment with ideas and cultures widely divergent from my lived experience. As my Best Books list for All About Romance shows, my romance reading is fairly monochromatic, but as my Overall Best Books list for my blog shows, I'm more apt to be exploratory with general adult fiction and children's fiction.

Diversity to me means books by #ownvoices authors about #ownvoices characters, but it also means male authors since I primarily read women. If I don't seek out poetry, I would ignore it, and that would be a loss. Every time, I read a philosophical text or a biography, I come away with ideas I hadn't conceived of before, and despite knowing this, if I didn't make a special effort, I wouldn't pick these books up. Glitterland by Alexis Hall was an emotionally tough read, and I had to persevere with not giving up partway through, but at the end, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to read it. If I followed my inclination, I would only read romance, so I plan out my reading months in advance to be sure to include books that are in common parlance, but not something I would normally pick up.

There is no one definition of diversity, since it is subjective. Each reader has their own notion of what it means to them based on their own prism of awareness. Diversity then broadly means that readers are willing to be uncomfortable in their reading choices so as to experience disparate ideas.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Best Books of 2017

When I first put this list together, it was twice as long, and I was unwilling to prune it. "I love this," I thought as I went down the list. But my goal was set—eleven in the main list and one best of best, an even dozen—so I had to strike books off, one painful entry after another. Eventually though, what has emerged is a true picture of the books I loved best and which will stay with me long after this year has been put to bed.

A caveat: All these books were not published in 2017, but I read them in 2017, hence their presence on the list.

Another caveat: For All About Romance, I wrote up my best romances and romantic fiction, all of them published in 2017, some of which are in the below list as well.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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. 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 numerous prizes this year: the National Book Award, the Pulizer Prize, and the Booker longlist.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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!

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

Set in the waning days of the British Empire in Kenya, it's a tale of great sophistication and nuance. I read this book thrice this year, every time teasing out more of that emotional layering that McVeigh is so skillful at creating. At heart is the forbidden relationship between a white English girl and a black Kenyan. But having grown up together on that farm since childhood, the two protagonists cannot imagine a different life for themselves, yet political forces like the Mau Mau are creating rifts between the indigenous peoples and European settlers. The heroine also has to contend with how her late teen years spent in England, the death of her mother, and her father's new family have irrevocably changed her. It was fascinating watching the protagonists try to capture their past relationship and try to overcome the socio-political struggles to transform it into a mature relationship of permanence.

The Horse Dancer by JoJo Moyes

Moyes's writing really speaks to me, and I’m engrossed in her stories from the first paragraph. They’re visceral, descriptive, and tangible. Her prose is lean and direct, with no recourse to metaphors or flowery language, thus making it accessible and relatable. This book is a story of awesome responsibility and awful choices. The protagonist has an all-consuming, perfectionistic connection with her horse. When one trains with a Selle Français horse at the level of admittance to Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, excellence is a given and so is devoting every atom of one’s body and mind towards that excellence. She has no time for emotions, rules, duties, academics, or people other than her grandfather. This is the driving force behind this book.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

The author and illustrator of this children's picture book are very well-known for publishing stories from all over the world and in various countries, taking on subjects from various cultures. This particular 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 Muslim 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." What beautiful words to empower your child with. What encouraging thoughts to equip your child with as they journey through this rough jungle of a world we find ourselves in.

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

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. 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. 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.

We're the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid

These are twenty-six of President Obama's greatest speeches and cover his two inaugurals, the first election night speech, after Sandy Hook, at the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, among others. As I read through the collection, I was reminded again what a thoughtful, compassionate, articulate, erudite person he is. He knew how to read people and negotiate emotions adroitly, whether in a church or at the United Nations, whether stumping in a small town or speaking in front of cheering crowds in Europe. I feel privileged to have borne witness to his presidency; may I have the privilege of seeing him in person before I shake off this mortal coil.

Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne

Bourne is currently my favorite historical romance writer. I, not, only love her books, but I also enjoy her online presence on Twitter and when I interviewed her earlier this year. Her writing, so delicately nuanced like a finely-honed, well-balanced blade, has captured my imagination like no other romance ever has. How does she envisage such intricacy of emotion and personality for her characters, such complexity of plot, and above all, such precision in language? Comte Raoul Deverney, a vintner and a sometimes jewel thief, hires Séverine de Cabrillac, an ex-spy and a private detective, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, the daughter of his former wife, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Along the way, they're assisted by Lazarus's feral children as they fight to stay ahead of Sévie's enemies from her spying days. Their romance is one of shifting shadows, at once, a chimera and a force to be reckoned with.

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase

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. This book is the newest addition. How I loved this story. The hero is part of the laboring classes 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. 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 a home for the indigent. 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.

A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran

I consider Meredith Duran one of the finest historical romance authors writing today. Given any storyline or any romance trope, she makes it fresh and new and interesting. The characters’ reactions are never commonplace, the plots are never tired and predictable, and the writing is always to the point and yet lovely at the same time. This book features an amnesia trope that is handled so well. It's a political Victorian story involving a Member of Parliament, a woman raised in a political family, and a mystery they must unravel else their lives are at stake. At heart, this is a story of trust: Can a woman trust her instincts when it comes to the most important person in her life -- her husband? The book is a fascinating study in how fragile and malleable trust is and how easily it can be abused or even bruised.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas

At long last, we get to see St. Vincent from Kleypas's famous book Devil in Winter in print again. This time, he's the duke and his son, Gabriel, is St. Vincent. With this book, it feels like Kleypas has returned to her historical roots. She's found her feet again, and her voice is assured, her comedic wit balanced, and her characters tender and big-hearted. Despite various naysayers, I liked the heroine and how, with her imperfections, she's such a perfect foil for the glossy urbane hero. I enjoyed seeing how she struggles to assert herself and her rights as an entrepreneur in a Victorian society where a woman becomes the property of her husband after marriage and anything and everything she owns becomes his by right. What stood out for me is how much he respects her business acumen and innovation in the face of her other bumbling qualities and works to resolve her business issues and workaround the day's existing laws.


Act Like It by Lucy Parker

This contemporary romance is my best book of the year. I re-read it a couple of times, and every time, I laughed and laughed till my sides hurt. Seeing this, my husband wanted to read it, too, and he laughed through the entire book as well. What a fabulous book: snappy dialog, biting wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, and 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. The book has a breezy irreverent tone to it that belies the serious nature of the choices the characters have to make. Actress Lainie Graham has a lead role in a play running at the Metronome Theatre in London. The other leading man, Richard Troy, comes from wealth and the upper classes and has an overly-developed sense of self-importance to go with it. His temper tantrums and bad behavior have been affecting his public image and starting to affect the box office, so his publicist and the director ambush Lainey to convince her to commence a faux relationship with him so that her London's Sweetheart image will burnish his image. What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reading & Writing Goals 2018

Reading Goals

A new year means a fresh look at reading goals for the year. I really like doing this, because it sets an intention to my reading that I then try to live up to as the year goes on. It means that I do less meandering, less glomming, and instead do more directed reading.

This is not to say there're no on-the-spur-of-the-moment books inspired by recommendations from sources I trust. I'm forever fiddling with my spreadsheet moving stuff around to make room for new stuff, but directed reading allows me to also read some the books I've always said I wanted to read. Sometimes, these books have a tendency to get lost under the allure of the ooh-shiny-new.

As a result, I have already planned out my reading through August. I had to spreadsheet everything in order to get through the books I have for review with deadlines attached to them and reading the books that I have had on my list for a while.

I will continue to maintain my detailed Spreadsheet of Joy. See my 2016 book sheet here. Last year, I didn't do a detailed data analysis of my reading like in 2016, but I hope to do it this year for my 2017 books.

I maintain a catalog of all the books I own on Library Thing and was an early adopter and a life member. I will continue to add new books there, including ARCs, that I keep on my shelves. I have become rather choosy of which books I keep, after taking a hard look at my shelves last summer and donating nine (!!) boxes to my public library.

Hundreds upon hundreds of books still remain on my shelves. My home library houses all the nonfiction. The study upstairs houses all the adult fiction and children's books. I can't bear to cull the nonfiction, since many of them have been collected with care from around the world. I need to be more ruthless in culling my fiction, especially the books that I haven't read in years, and buy fewer books. I spent $170 on books last year, and I hope to spend less this year and read more from my TBR and the library.

(One thing that I have forgotten to do, and need to catch up on, is including all the eBooks I own on my Kindle. Since I don't have physical evidence of those books, I seem to have missed cataloguing them.)

Writing Goals

I'm going to continue reviewing romance fiction and general fiction with romantic subplots for All About Romance. I will also continue writing my monthly Oldies & Goodies romance column for USA Today's Happy Ever After. In addition, I'm going to be recommending one new historical romance every month in my column Romancing the Past.

My blogging has changed over the years from a primarily writerly and history blog, to a commentary on the publishing industry, to a reader blog these days. I will continue to write my monthly round-ups of my reading with brief reviews. I am happy that in 2017, I wrote short reviews of every single book I read, including children's picture books. In addition to these round-ups this year, every month, I will be re-publishing one of my pieces that I wrote for Macmillan's Heroes & Heartbreakers over the years.

On a personal note, I plan on continuing to handwrite my dawn Morning Pages along with my Canadian friend Angela Reynolds. I enjoy the meditative aspects of the writing habit, which also gives me the opportunity to indulge in my obsession with fountain pens and inks and fine papers.

One of the mainstays of my past few years has been the maintenance of an online Gratitude Journal on Live Journal—I must be the last hold-out of a life membership there. Every day, I write down at least one good thing that has happened to me that day. As the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate the fact that every single day, no matter how bad, holds at least one minute moment of joy. Of course, on some days, I have nothing to say other that "it was a quotidian day," and that is okay, too. A routine day is a neutral day, one that isn't a bad day.

And so on to 2018...and a year of joy, angst (hello! politics!), sorrow, and happiness...and many wonderful books and writing opportunities.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year!

Wishing you, dear readers, a very happy new year! May this year bring you peace and joy and many successes. I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for continuing to read my blog. Blog readership has been going down everywhere, and while my blog is a very small one, my readership numbers have grown this past year. I appreciate you making the time out of your busy lives to read about my bookish adventures.