Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Belgravia by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes now as an Episodic Series

In the summer of 2016, Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes, released a widely acclaimed novel, Belgravia, set mainly in 1841 England. The story begins on June 15, 1815 at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball in Brussels and moves to London of 1841. I reviewed this book for All About Romance then.

Here is how I described it: "What a delightful, gossipy book this is. Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia has all the tightness and subtlety of the movie Gosford Park. It is written with the soaring arc of a saga and the delicacy of shifting emotions. At its core are two intense love stories spanning two generations and class boundaries. The women in this story, through their love for their men, shake up early 19th century aristocracy. It goes to show that people of all walks of life will do anything for the ones they love. If one were to ascribe a theme to the book, then it would be the exploration of the early Victorian English class system. As you read along, you appreciate the subtleties of class in society and how much of an impact it had on piddling day-to-day matters and grand dynastic changes, on life and death, on life’s choices and restrictions, on behavior and dress… on everything of any import. It is meticulous research rendered superbly well."

This year, the book is being released by the company, Serial Box, as a series of eBook and audio episodes, the first of which was released on March 1. Here's a brief excerpt of the first episode.

Serial Box releases serials through an app, their website, and third party retailers in both e-book and audio formats. Each new ~40-minute episode of the serials releases every week and serials typically run for seasons of 10-16 weeks. Individual episodes are $.199, but serial subscribers get the discounted rate of $1.59 for both the text and audio DRM-free versions of each new episode. A season's pass, paid upfront, for all the episodes is discounted further. The episodes get added to "My Library" and can be accessed from the iPhone app.

"Releasing Belgravia in app form was a step into the unknown for me, and so it’s very gratifying that, less than two years later, there is now a whole platform dedicated to serialized stories," says Julian Fellowes. "Serial Box is opening books for a whole new audience, which is something we can all celebrate."

When I first read the book, I noticed that Fellowes wrote his book in an episodic format, which has naturally lent itself to being serialized by Serial Box. The book’s divided into eleven episodes with scene breaks in each episode but no chapter breaks. So the usual chapter arcs, which break-up the narrative into small chunks, are missing, which I think is the strength of this novel. The longer episodic arcs work better for the narrative.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag: An Excerpt

I talked about the book Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag in yesterday's post on my February reading. For completeness sake, I'm including it here as well.

Here's what I wrote:

I discovered this book thanks to Liz McCausland, and I cannot praise it highly enough. The original story is in Kannada (one of the languages of southwestern India) and is set in Bangalore. It is told by an aimless, shiftless young man who resides in a complex, interdependent, joint family situation with his parents, wife, sister, and uncle. The uncle runs his own spice trading business, which has become quite profitable, and is the sole earner of the family. The family, in turn, caters to his every want and desire, even before he realizes he needs it. The story starts with them living in a modest lower-middle-class house and then moving up to a fancy two-storey house. Once prosperity enters their house, so do untold troubles. Shanbhag does a masterful job of teasing out the turmoil in this tightly psychological novella through his protagonist's observations, actions, and reactions.

Partway through the story, the protagonist, let's call him Vikram, has an arranged marriage with a young woman named Anita. Arranged marriages are usually where a family friend or relative will introduce the boy's side of the family to the girl's side of the family. In this story, Vikram and his family drive from Bangalore to Hyderabad to meet Anita and her family. Over cups of tea and snacks, while the families are getting acquainted, Vikram and Anita are given a few hours of alone time to talk and see if they're compatible. That's it. Everyone decides they will suit and the wedding is arranged before Vikram and his family return home.

To historical romance readers, this sounds very much like a marriage of convenience plot, doesn't it?

Shanbhag handles that moment when the newly wedded husband and wife, who are strangers to one another, are finally alone with a sensitivity and acuity that I wish more historical romance writers would do. Here it is, and I quote:

I had on a white kurta bought specifically for the night. My mind swirled with the possibilities that lay ahead as we made our way to the room. I found it hard to even look at her. I tried to act casual as I closed the door behind us. When I turned around she was standing by the bed. The light switch was next to the door and I turned it off. The room was now faintly lit by the haze from the streetlamp outside. I walked up to her. I could smell her scent now. I didn't know what to do next, and I paused for a moment. Then I raised my right hand and placed it on her shoulder. One thing alone gave me the courage to touch her: we were married now. My hand lowered itself along her arm and stopped at her elbow. My left hand went to her waist and drew her closer. She moved toward me as well and we embraced. Her touch, her smell, the fragrance from the flowers she was wearing, the press of her chest on mine, her lips against my neck.

That single moment's intensity hasn't been matched in my life before or since. A woman I didn't know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind. Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of traditional marriage—a complete stranger is suddenly mine. And then, I am hers, too; I must offer her my all. I want her to wield her power over me as an acknowledgment of my love. The rush of feelings all at once is too much to describe. Language communicated in terms of what is already known; it chokes up when asked to deal with the entirely unprecedented.

Similar feelings must have welled up in her, too. Her face was buried in my chest. Her arms tightened around me. I could feel the bangles on her arms pressing into my back. Through touch, through the giving, yielding closeness of our embrace, this unknown woman began to be known to me. I've often longed for a comparable experience, but there seems to be none. That sense of strangeness, surrender, dependence, compassion, entitlement, and a hundred other sentiments bundled together cannot possibly be relived.

I held her tighter still, then relaxed. I raised her face and through her lips gained my first taste of her world.

Wonderful, isn't it? Evocative and nuanced, it fair snags your attention.

[Please note: I'm not sure if it is alright for me to quote so much text from the book. If it is not okay, I will take it down. If that happens, you can buy/borrow a copy and turn to pages 74 & 75 to read it.]

Monday, March 5, 2018

My February Reading

This was a stellar reading month for me, because I spent less time online. I call this a win. I read, I reviewed, I journaled, I wrote my morning pages, I worked, and I watched the Olympics. Nothing like watching our young athletes work so hard, believe in themselves, and achieve unprecedented success to make me believe that life can be good despite the ever-present negative reality.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention those brave kids, who're showing through their activism what fantastic human beings they are. I'm awed at their clear-sightedness, at their strength of purpose, at their resilience, and their courage. They shame us adults into remaking our lives into ones with meaning and purpose.

While unheard of for me these days, I disengaged from politics of all stripes this month to a large extent. This is not to say that I was not well-informed, but that I didn't allow the outrage machine to consume me. This afforded me the space to cogitate on how I want to positively engage going forward. Where do I want to spend my time? What do I want to be concerned about? I don't wish to expend my anger uselessly on a wide array of topics, but rather focus it on a handful of things where I can make a difference.

On to my reading...

Various poems by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Poetry
Comments: Like last month, I continued reading more of Ursula Le Guin's poetry.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: Over the years, I have loved reading and re-reading Hirsch's poetry collection Special Orders. It's a treasured volume in my personal library. So once I was done with Le Guin's online poetry collection, I decided to try out more of Hirsch's work. I'll continue to read from it a little at a time over the next few months. Lately, I have been plagued by insomnia, so this really spoke to me: Silently / you confront the blue-rimmed edge / of outer dark / denied warmth, denied rest, / denied earth's sleep and granite.

She Unnames Them by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Short Story
Comments: Like The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which I read last month, my daughter recommended I read this. Like her, I loved it as well. The background of the story is the Biblical book of Genesis, in which Adam names the animals, but Le Guin subverts this by having Eve unname the animals. The story is in two parts: one part describes how the animals feel about the unnaming and the second part describes how the narrator (Eve) feels about the unnaming.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
Category: General/Lit Fiction
Comments: I discovered this book thanks to Liz McCausland, and I cannot praise it highly enough. The original story is in Kannada (one of the languages of southwestern India) and is set in Bangalore. It is told by an aimless, shiftless young man who resides in a complex, interdependent, joint family situation with his parents, wife, sister, and uncle. The uncle runs his own spice trading business, which has become quite profitable, and is the sole earner of the family. The family, in turn, caters to his every want and desire, even before he realizes he needs it. The story starts with them living in a modest lower-middle-class house and then moving up to a fancy two-storey house. Once prosperity enters their house, so do untold troubles. Shanbhag does a masterful job of teasing out the turmoil in this tightly psychological novella through his protagonist's observations, actions, and reactions.

Making Up by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: While I am not going to say too much here since it's a May release, I do want to say that I loved it. It was my most anticipated read of 2018 since I loved both her previous two books, and it has exceeded my expectations. If you enjoyed Act Like It and Pretty Face, you will enjoy Making Up.

With This Ring by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This story may be in the traditional style, but this is hardly a typical Regency romance, and it is a breath of fresh air. I like how some trad writers took such risks with their stories unlike the Regency authors of today. The protagonists in With This Ring are clearly from the upper classes but the story is of them as ordinary, even impoverished, people. Major Samuel Reed, the Earl of Laren, Northumberland is injured badly from the war. He and his suffering cavalry battalion are housed in an abandoned church in squalor. It has become en vogue for the upper crust to traipse into this makeshift hospital and gawk at the wounded and leave without having made any attempt to help, physically or monetarily. The Cinderella in this story is Lydia of Devon who accompanies her spoiled sister Kitty on one such contemptible outing. There, her heart is wrung from the despair and need that she sees among the soldiers, and she boldly offers to help. Her newfound independence gives Lydia a much-needed boost to her self-esteem. Over time, seeing how poorly her family treats Lydia, Sam offers to marry her and take her away. Then comes the really unusual part of this marriage of convenience where he goes about enabling her to stand on her own two feet and to believe she can become somebody with purpose and a sense of place. However, the Sam of the latter quarter or so of the book makes questionable decisions that put me out of charity with him.

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: I loved Duran's last book in this series, A Code of Misconduct, but this one is even better. We first see Lockwood in the Duke of Shadows, Duran's début book. That book hinted at Lockwood's mysterious past that we see here fully fleshed out. Anna is the Countess of Forth in Scotland in her own right. She needs an heir to secure her earldom and access rights for her island of Rawsey. The Earl of Lockwood has inherited debts and decrepit estates from his father. Both need to marry and decide to do so, but despite their practical decision, they find tenderness and attraction welling up between them. However, on their wedding night, Lockwood is kidnapped and thrust on a ship to the penal colony New South Wales where he suffers untold horrors, humiliations, and brutality. In the meantime, Anna thinks he has abandoned her. Lockwood returns four years later, a completely changed man, traumatized in body and psyche. How these two strong-willed people reconcile their differences, adjust to Lockwood's PTSD, and forge a strong bond with each other is a thing of beauty. My review is here.

A Duke in the Night by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: This is a fabulous read! This is the first book in her The Devils of Dover series, whose prequel novella The Lady in Red I loved. And this is even better. It's rare that I have auto-buy authors—I gave up on giddy fandom as I aged into my new decade—but Bowen has made me a convert. August Faulkner, the Duke of Holloway, is a wealthy, powerful peer, who is known for his brilliance, ambition, and ruthless business practices. Clara is the headmistress of an elite finishing school in London for the daughters of the nobility and wealthy cits. She also runs an unusual school for select students in the summer to empower them to become independent women, free to pursue their passions. They had met ten years previously and their one dance had been imprinted on their minds. Now they meet again at Clara's summer school, where unbeknownst to him his sister is a student and he's there to charm Clara and her brother into selling their failing shipping business to him. My review is here.

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye
Category: Regency Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This is a novella from the Scandal at the Christmas Ball duology. The stories are intertwined with shared characters, and I'm always fascinated by how writers make this work, especially since Marguerite told me that they were writing simultaneously. Lots of planning and lots of communication most likely, but still a feat to pull off. The premise is that both the hero and the heroine have irrevocably blotted their copybook, but have been given a chance to forge a better future. In order to protect the reputation of her pupil, governess Joanna sacrifices her own reputation and is branded a thief. Doors are permanently shut to her as a governess, and she's forced to seek a position as a lowly teacher in an impoverished school. Drummond was a high up officer in the army. During the initial charge at the start of the Battle of Waterloo, an ensign under him turns tail and runs back, dropping their regimental flag in the process. What he must do is clear—shoot the soldier—but he is unable to do so and is stripped of his medals and epaulettes. And the soldier is shot anyway. Society's and the army's doors are shut to him. They are at the Duke of Brockmore's estate over the twelve days of Christmas to scrub their reputations. And the one thing they cannot do is get involved with each other, both being an eminently unsuitable match for their futures. Good story overall, though fell short a bit in execution, because it was a bigger story that felt compressed into a novella. It needed a novel's real estate to be fully fleshed out.

Heaven's Fire by Patricia Ryan
The Shattered Rose by Jo Beverley
Saving Grace by Julie Garwood
Category: Medieval Romances
Comments: SIGH, Garwood! What can I say? I have loved her since her very first medieval book, and Saving Grace is one of her best. Strong and gentle Gabriel and courageous and gentle Johanna make a marriage of convenience in the Highlands—a Scottish story before they became clichéd. Medieval illuminated manuscripts and Oxford scholarship—I needed no other reason to read Heaven's Fire, and it is a wonderful story of female agency in a time when women had few rights. I adore JoBev's medievals and of them, The Shattered Rose is my favorite. Hero goes off to the Crusades to ask God for a son, returns to find that a son had been born to him, had subsequently died, and his wife had started living with his rival after presuming him dead. How in the world are the hero and heroine to return from this ruin of their lives? This is a complicated story not made easy with platitudes and the commonplace. JoBev allows it to remain complicated and uncomfortable for the reader. My brief reviews are here.

Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That would be the advice I would give to the protagonists of this tale. These two have a wonderful marriage of equals and closeness, fulfilling jobs, a comfortable home, and adorable twins. But one day, they're told that they're so healthy, they're going to enjoy sixty eight years of married bliss. And their hearts stutter. Sixth Eight years! How is the world are they going to keep their marriage fresh and prevent it from going stale for that length of time? And so begins their efforts to re-jig their lives and expectations, which sets off a chain of events that nearly unravels their marriage, but which through growth and maturity, they manage to save. This is a wonderful look at marriage and the work it takes even when two people are well-matched. My review is here.

Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: Not as great as Devil in Spring, this book is still worth a read for Dr. Garrett Gibson. I've been waiting for her story for a few books now, and I wasn't disappointed. In Ethan Ransom, ex-detective, now-spy, and all around rascal, the proper doctor has met her match. How they reconcile their different backgrounds, stations, and life goals is a journey of discovery. This is the grittiest of Ravenel series, but I liked it all the more for it. And the elephant in the room is the gratuitous colonialism that pops up with no warning and for no reason; to wit, Ethan learns fighting and sexual techniques in mysterious India. Kleypas could just as easily have had him learn his prowess elsewhere and thus avoid this Orientalism. My review is here.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Multiracial Romance
Comments: This is a story of a deep-seated connection and a building of trust between two people who don't have a history of longevity in their relationships. Is this going to last? is a question they constantly grapple with. Alexa Monroe is a lawyer and the chief of staff of the mayor of Berkeley. Dr. Drew Nichols is a pediatric surgeon from Los Angeles. The meet-cute happens in a stuck elevator and they hit it off from the get-go. While it is billed as a rom-com, this isn't a witty tale, but has a rather breezy, sexy, modern vibe. The couple starts out with a sex-only hookup with weekend flights up and down the coast. While the tenderness and connection between them is very well done as is a long-distance relationship, the emotional immaturity shown by the people, who're well in their thirties is rather off-putting. My review is here.

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Like Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence that I read lsast month, this is a First Nations Cree story. A young girl lives with her Nókom (spelt as Nokhôm in the previous book, and also kókom, all meaning grandmother) and observes details about her grandmother, like her colorful dresses, her long braided hair, the language she speaks, and the frequent visits of her brother. The grandmother then tells the girl stories from her childhood when she was taken from her Cree village and forcibly sent to a boarding school where her freedom was curtailed. She had to wear black uniforms, had her hair hacked off, was required to only speak in English, and was torn asunder from her siblings. Her stories also talked about the little bits of rebellion that she and other Cree girls in her school enacted in secret, but these particles of joy were few and far in between an otherwise lonely and frightening childhood. So now that she is grown up and owns her own house, she wears colorful clothes, has long hair, speaks Cree, and frequently meets with her brother.

Feather by Rémi Courgeon, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Paulina has always been called Feather by her rough and clumsy (read: clueless) family consisting of her dad and three older brothers. She was not like her Russian immigrant dad, nor did she share the sporting enthusiasm of her brothers. She, on the other hand, was small and girly and loved to play the piano. She is constantly on the receiving end of chores and menial tasks as she struggles to assert herself. One day, after a black eye, she decides enough was enough. She was quitting piano and taking up boxing. With her brothers' laughter ringing in her ears, she enters the gym, determined to learn and learn well. She trains hard and becomes stronger every day. She starts winning more fights against her brothers, which means fewer chores for her, which means more time for training. I loved this story of a plucky girl who has a problem, and instead of sitting moping in a corner, sets out to change her world. Eventually, she earns her brothers' respect, hangs up her boxing gloves for good, and returns to playing piano, but with an increased sense of self and her ability to do anything she set her mind to doing.

Dumpling Dreams by Carrie Clickard, illustrated by Katy Wu
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the story of Chef Joyce Chen who is famous for popularizing Chinese food in the northeastern United States. Liao Jia-ai (Joyce) was born in Beijin in 1917. Her favorite treat is dumplings, and that is the first thing she learns to cook. Over the years of her girlhood, she learns many traditional dishes from their cook. She marries in 1943 and moves Hangzhou. Constant war and unrest take its toll, and Joyce and her family set sail for San Francisco in 1949 and eventually settle in Cambridge. Whenever, Joyce feels homesick, she cooks and cooks and invites homesick Chinese students and expats over to dinner. Over the years, through the urging of her neighbors and friends, Joyce opens her first restaurant. The success of her restaurant turns Joyce into a teacher instructing other chefs in Chinese cooking. As her fame spreads, she writes cookbooks and has a cooking show on TV. In 1984, she's invited to dinner at the White House with Ronald Regan. In 2014, Joyce is immortalized in a US postage stamp.