Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My June Reading (and Music)

It is a joy these days when I discover new authors who become favorites. I have become a jaded reader as I've gotten older and what used to entertain me then, no longer does. I examine books with an increasingly critical lens leading to a general dissatisfaction with the usual array of books being published. That is why I am particularly delighted to have come across Lucy Parker, Kelly Bowen, Katharine Ashe, Alyssa Cole, Cat Sebastian, and Elizabeth Kingston over the past year.

Here are some of the highlights of my musical journey this month.
——Traditional Music by Thomas Ladonne (Democratic Republic of Congo & Republic of Congo)
——Gjallarhorn (Finnish) — I saw them a few years ago at one of the folk festivals and fell in love with their sound and with Nordic music in general
——Garmarna (Swedish) — I discovered them through a Nordic Roots Northside album of various Scandinavian groups
——Edda (Icelandic Saga) — I love Sequentia's sound and I have a few of their albums. They do authentic medieval music from all over Europe using correct pronunciations and period instruments
——Beethoven's Wig — Charming CDs of excerpts of famous classical pieces set to hilarious, irreverent words. And once you hear those words, you will never forget them; even in symphony halls where silence is paramount, you will soundlessly shake with laughter

Poetry of Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin, illustrated by Jim Burke
Category: Poetry
Comments: I'm going back to my poetic roots this month with a 19th C. poet. He's American, not British, but displays the same lyricism and beautiful turns of phrase. "Song of Myself" is Whitman's first poem of his first book wherein the imagery of grass and hay is used to symbolize the never-ending process of life and death.

A child said "What is the grass" fetching it to me with full hands;
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

"Pursuit of Honor" in No Dukes Allowed by Kelly Bowen
Category: Late Georgian Historical Romance
Comments: I try not to miss a Kelly Bowen, if possible, and I have not been disappointed so far. This amuse bouche of a story has Bowen's signature tenderness of romance between the protagonists. On the surface, the premise is nothing new. Childhood playmates, who correspond when away from each other, discover that they're truly in love with each other when they meet. The wrinkle in this common trope is that Oliver has been engaged to Diana's best friend since childhood on the dictates of his family and Diana had gotten married to someone much older to her on the dictates of her family. When they meet, Diana is widowed, but Oliver is still engaged, and they are head over heels in love with each other. How they untangle their encumbrances and build on their years of trust and friendship was a joy to read.

The Antagonists by Joan Wolf
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Told in the first perspective of the heroine, Dinah, the story starts when she is eleven. The sixteen-year-old Hugh Lydin "Thorn", who has just become the Earl of Thornton, and his eleven-year-old sister, Caroline, have just become orphaned and Dinah's mother arrives at Thornton Manor in Derby to chaperone them. Dinah and Thorn instantly become antagonists. He calls her Red and she calls him many unflattering names. Even as they grow older and both mature into respectable, responsible adults, their bickering does not stop, despite remonstrances by Dinah's mother to Dinah. But when Dinah makes her come-out at eighteen and is determined to marry before the season is out so she's not a burden on Thorn, he is beset with jealously. Wolf writes childhood to adulthood romances really well, and I adore her characters. She's one of my favorite authors.

A Lady Becomes a Governess by Diane Gaston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: The heroine is the daughter of an earl who is being forced into an arranged marriage by her step-brother to a much older baron. She only feels revulsion for him, but feeling she has no choice, she journeys across the Irish Sea to London. On the packet boat, she meets a governess who is her exact double. They are so close in looks that they exchange clothes and mannerisms with each other for a lark, and no one on the boat notices. When a ferocious storm crashes over their boat, most of the people are presumed drowned. She is saved but is assumed to be the governess, so she takes on that role to escape her marriage. Her employer, the viscount, has been left with two young nieces after the death of his parents, brother, and sister-in-law, and he comes over to check on the heroine and escort her home. Along the way they discover a deep attraction to each other.

Bed of Flowers by Erin Satie
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Satie's Sweetness & Light series. The flowers in question here are orchids, the most fastidious and temperamental of flowers. The Earl of Loel is shunned in the village, because his youthful mistake caused many prosperous businesses to burn down, including Bonny Reed's father's. Loel was disinherited by the former earl and only left the entailed estates to manage. He survives by growing orchids from the world over and selling them at auction. Bonny and Loel meet again when, on am impulse, she visits him to solicit a donation of books for her circulating library. They are both extremely wary and distrustful of each other. But when Bonny accidently knocks over one of his precious orchids, she promises to visit every day to help it grow to full bloom. And so begins their journey into trust and thence into love. My review is here.

Devilish by Jo Beverley
Ransom by Julie Garwood
Category: Medieval and Georgian Historical Romance
Comments: While Devilish is the fifth book in Beverley’s famed Mallorens series, it was my first, and I was immediately captivated by the Beowulf, the Marquess of Rothgar. His mental strength, his political acumen, his business astuteness, his emotional acuity and his loyalty toward his family were instantly attractive. He does not put a foot wrong in his dealings with people, and despite this shrewdness, he is completely undone by Lady Diana, the Countess of Arradale, who is a countess in her own right. She rules her northern estate with an iron but skilled hand and is staunchly autonomous, seeking advice from none but giving succor to many.

Garwood’s Highlands’ Lairds series is much beloved by fans of medieval historicals. Ransom is the second book in the series, but it was my very first Garwood book and remains one of my favorites to this day. Bravery is not just for warriors, but also for maidens, as Lady Gillian amply shows in this book. She bravely defends a small boy from the brutality of an English baron and escapes with him to his home in the Scottish Highlands. Help comes to her in the form of Brodick, Laird of the Buchanans. He is a hard man; a skilled warrior, second to none, he is quick to anger and slow to trust, but his loyalty once given is for life. This stern man is completely undone by sweet, earnest Gillian, whose bravery he admires deeply and whose comeliness he desires wholly. My brief reviews are here.

The Highlander's Promise by Lynsay Sands
Category: Medieval Scottish Romance
Comments: This is a beauty and the beast story set in the Scottish Highlands between a laird and a gently-born lady. While the premise is not uncommon—an amnesiac heroine discovers love and passion with a strong alpha hero—the execution is poor. The characters are uninspiring and unimaginative and the interesting actions of the story are being done by others, even though the protagonists are on the page so much. The hero seems to have no sense of honor where the heroine is concerned. And he is petulant and immature to boot. I saw nothing of the leader in him in this story. He's easily led by what others say. The standard heroine—innocent in everything but hot in bed—plays out here, too, but with an even larger disparity between the two unconvincing halves of her persona than is usual for historical romances. I found her insipid and lackluster, and she behaves like a dim-witted person, easily led by the stronger women around her, and the only animation she shows is lust for the hero. My review is here.

Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Amnesty International (written by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono, translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann)
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Few books come along that catch you at the right moment that you're poised to receive them. This is one such book. Commissioned by Amnesty International for its educational programming, this is a book about immigration, about hope for a better future in the new land, hope that is destroyed by reality, and then about hope being rebuilt by forging a new identity through hard work and innovation. The message is timely in our current political climate where immigrants are being "othered" and seen as "users" of the current society/culture/benefits and not as "contributors" to a better future together. Amnesty International hopes to convey that defending and protecting the basic human rights of all people is a responsibility that belongs to all of us. (The 30 articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights document make for fascinating reading.)

One family with small children decides to leave their country because they see no future for their children there. "Fear! War! Prison!" these are the words the children hear their parents use and they see lines appear on the parents' foreheads. When they first arrive into their new country, they are all happier. But as the days go by, lines appear on the faces of the parents again. They had left their warm country for a country that is cold with uniformity and conformity everywhere they can see: gray shoebox buildings, brown adult clothes, and sweaters available in only solid colors of gray, green, and orange for the children.

So the mother decides to take matters into her own hands. She unravels all the wool sweaters, and reknits them into sweaters of all three colors with stripes, zigzags, diamonds, and borders on them. She sits in public parks knitting away while her children play with other children in these colorful clothes. Soon other children are curious about the clothes and soon other parents show up to parks with knitting needles. And before the mother realizes, she's started a revolution through clothing.

This story is based on the story of a Portuguese family that fled dictatorship in Portugal in the late 1960s and lived in exile in Algeria, Romania, and finally in, what is now, the Czech Republic. While the book speeds up the process of Communism to Democracy, in reality, the family only found freedom from Communism's oppressive rule in 1993.

Sakura's Cherry Blossoms by Robert Paul Weston, illustrated by Misa Saburi
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A young Japanese girl named Sakura (cherry blossom) loves spending time with her obachaan (grandmother). They especially love picnicking under cherry blossom trees in the spring with family and friends. But the day comes, when Sakura has to say goodbye to her grandmother as her family journeys to America to begin a new life there.

In the beginning, Sakura struggles with learning a new language, getting used to a huge city, and making friends. She misses her grandmother terribly. Luckily, a boy next door befriends her. He teaches her to rise above her loneliness to the beauty of the sky as seen through his telescope. She, in return, teaches him to appreciate the beauty around him at ground-level.

A few months later, her grandmother falls gravely ill, and Sakura is rushed to Japan. Both she and obachaan are delighted to see each other again, but their time together is short. Sakura grieves deeply when she returns home to America. Deciding to cheer her up, her friend takes her one fine spring morning to the far reaches of the city where many cherry trees grow and gives her the gift of her homeland as they both admire those beautiful blossoms.

Not only is the story lovely and its art, but so is its craft. Each page is written as a tanka poem of five lines. The first three lines are a haiku with a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables, and the last two lines each have 7 syllables, for a total of 31 syllables in the poem. The first tanka poem was composed in the 7th C.

Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, illustrated Ho Baek Lee
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I have read Linda Sue Park's books before and I have really liked them and this one is no different. She writes with such tenderness and cultural awareness that the characters come alive for you. Bee-bim Bop is a traditional "mixed-up" Korean dish that is very popular with Koreans. The story is written in a song-like, scurrying tone of a young child as she goes with her mother grocery shopping and then watches her cook the dish. The book includes a detailed recipe with instructions on what a child can do and what a grownup can do to make the dish together.