Thursday, August 9, 2018

My July Reading

Have you ever met (or seen) a person and known that you will revere them forever? That was my experience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I saw him across a stadium from the nose-bleed section with binoculars, but it didn't matter that I wasn't within ten feet of him. The impact was just the same. That cheerful smile, those frequent chuckles, and his way of explaining things that cut right through the flattery and overuse of complex psychological mumbo-jumbo by the other guests on the stage made a profound impression on me. I have since read multiple books by him, followed his live teachings from Bodh Gaya in India, and read articles about him. He is the one person I want to meet before I die.

The Dalai Lama's Book of Wisdom
Category: Nonfiction Spiritual
Comments: I have read this little book many times over the years, and every time, I see something new that I need to think over. On the surface it would seem that a focus on happiness and compassion, love and forgiveness is simplistic and not very cerebral or revolutionary. But his teachings are not about what you should not do but more about what you should do. It is a prescription for life out of darkness into the light, which is what Buddha's teachings were about. He prefaces this little book of profundity with this humble paragraph:

"I am a Buddhist and my whole way of training is according to the Buddhist teaching. Although I speak from my own experience, I feel that no one has the right to impose his or her beliefs on another person. I will not propose to you that my way is best. The decision is up to you. If you find some point which may be suitable for you, then you can carry out experiments for yourself. If you find that it is of no use, then you can discard it."

Poetry of Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin, illustrated by Jim Burke
Category: Poetry
Comments: I continued reading Whitman's poetry that I started last month. I adore the following poem; to me, it is reminiscent of Wordsworth's word painting.

O the gleesome saunter over fields and hillsides!
The leaves and flowers of the commonest weeds, the moist fresh stillness of the woods,
The exquisite smell of the earth at daybreak, and all through the forenoon.

—"A Song of Joys"

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really liked Cole's first Reluctant Royals book, A Princess in Theory (my review is here), and this second book as well. I've enjoyed the fairytale nature of both these stories with their gleeful departure from pertinent societal rules and norms, while staying true to the characters' emotions and the integrity of storytelling. I liked the first story better than this one, because a fanciful kingdom with detailed worldbuilding but no sense of an actual place makes that leap of faith easier than a made-up town near well-known Edinburgh with actual historical landmarks like Holyrood and actual people like QEII.

The heroine in A Duke by Default is a wealthy socialite from among the upper upper crust of New York City. The hero is a medieval swordmaker in a small town of Scotland. Portia has ADHD, but it's only partway through the book that she realizes that for herself, and it was a joy to see that bone-deep relief at finally understanding herself. So far in her life (she's nearly thirty), she has internalized the constant message that she's a screw-up, she can't see things through, she's a mere social butterfly.

Tavish, on the other hand, comes from a very close, loving family, so emotionally, he is secure. He is also secure in his line of work: making swords for sale and teaching swordsmanship classes to students, but especially the struggling low-income kids. However, he does have an unknown skeleton in his closet, which Portia unearths through her marvelous sleuthing skills. His biological father was a duke and the dukedom has been in abeyance for a lack of a direct heir, however, as Portia discovers, Tavish has been the heir all along. (And here comes that big leap of faith—a bastard inheriting—among other such leaps.) My review of is here.

Wish with the Candles by Betty Neels
Tabitha in Moonlight by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I love Neels. Her doctor-nurse books always work for me, because she knows how to write great characters. In Wish with the Candles, British surgical nurse Emma Hastings and Dutch cardiothoracic surgeon Justin Teylingen meet in The Netherlands when she rear-ends his expensive Rolls-Royce Cornische convertible with her modest and barely-functioning Ford Popular. When they part ways, she decides to put the matter behind her. So imagine her surprise, when she returns to work at her Southampton hospital, she finds out that he is going to be a visiting professor of surgery there and that she's been assigned to his cases. In Tabitha in Moonlight, Tabitha Crawley is a nursing sister of the orthopedic ward where Marius van Beek arrives as a consulting orthopedic surgeon from The Netherlands. His sleepy and laidback manner with the patients on the ward belies his quickness and assured skillfulness in the operating room.

At work, both Emma and Tabitha are confident in their abilities, work hard and efficiently and manage their team of nursing staff with authority and compassion. Outside of work, however, they are both self-effacing, beset with doubts and allow their families to run over them. My brief reviews are here.

Forbidden Night with the Prince by Michelle Willingham
Category: Medieval Romance
Comments: This is the third book in the Warriors of the Night series of stories set in medieval Ireland. Joan has had three men die on her upon her betrothal to them. She and the others in father's castle are convinced that she is cursed. Her future lies ahead of dreary and shunned and without a family of her own. She fiercely wants to have a child of her body to mother. It is her one driving passion and dictates her actions for much of the story.

At a mutual acquaintance's castle, she meets an Irish Prince on the run, who is looking for allies to help him overthrow the usurper to his father's throne. Joan's brothers promise to loan him men-at-arms on the condition that they wed Joan. Joan, afraid for his life, refuses. Ronan has no desire to marry under duress nor does he want to ever father a child due to tragedy in his past, so tries to finagle a way to have enough fighting men at his back without having to marry Joan.

But they have a strong attraction to each other. Joan doesn't see that Ronan has much choice other than to marry her, so she wants to break the curse and prevent him from dying, and she also desperately wants a child. So with the aid of love potion from a wise woman, she seduces him...and falls pregnant. My review is here.

It takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was my second Sebastian book, and like The Lawrence Browne Affair (my review is here), I thoroughly enjoyed it. She really knows how to write emotionally-charged, tender romances, where the protagonists treat under with such care and respect that it makes for enjoyable reading. It Takes Two to Tumble is the first book for her new Seducing the Sedgwicks series about a group of siblings from a ramshackle, unconventional family featuring their father, his wife, his mistress, and various guests (read: sycophants). The eldest son, Benedict, is the vicar of the parish of St. Aelred’s in Cumberland. He is compassionate and sensitive and keenly feels the loss of a kindred companion in his life. He also wants a conventional life that he never had growing up. When a grumpy naval captain used to command takes up residence at nearby Barton Hall, sparks fly between Philip Dacre and Benedict.

Master of Grex by Joan Wolf
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Given that this is a Joan Wolf and I have a huge collection of her traditional Regencies, I was very pleased that she was writing historicals again. But ultimately, I found this disappointing—perhaps because of my high expectations.

This book should've seen an editor, not just for copyediting issues but basic developmental editing to rein in its rambling aspects and focus it more on salient points when the narrative moved away from the protagonists to events happening around them. Many of Wolf's books have been political, which I have enjoyed, but I have always felt that the stories were tightly executed and every detail carefully chosen. This story has a long-windedness that was a letdown. The other issues I had with it were shades of colonialism, exotification of India, and also where a spot of research would've done the trick. For example, she refers to India's national language as Hindu (the religion) instead of Hindi (the language); they are not interchangeable.

Other than these issues, the marriage-of-convenience part the story was engaging. She is the daughter of an earl, brought up in gentility, but despised by her father and brother, both hardened gamblers. In a bid to get money to support their habit, they break the entail and sell their home, Grex, to a wealthy by-blow of an earl, who was brought up in poverty. She desperately wants to keep her home and restore the dilapidated structure, and he desperately wants to become Master of Grex and prove to his biological father that he was a man worth reckoning. So they marry.

Stolen Hearts by Michelle Martin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Martin has written fabulous traditional Regencies, so I was eager to see what she would do in a contemporary setting. In this book, she shows that she has a very different but just as sure of a voice.

Tess Alcott has been trained to be a jewel thief from the tender age of eleven. For a few years before that she was in a foster home, where abuse was common, but she learned to survive since she had no other recourse. She has no recollection of her early childhood and how she came to be in the foster home. While Tess has great aptitude in being a jewel thief,as she gets older, she realizes that it is wrong, and she turns herself in to the country's primary law enforcement agency. She decides to atone for her past by helping them to capture thieves and people conning innocent folks into parting with their hard-earned money.

But when the brutish, menacing thug who taught her the thieving trade makes a return, she cannot say no. He now has the ultimate job for her: Con the ancient proprietor of the most prestigious auction house in the world into thinking that Tess is her long-lost heiress granddaughter in order to steal the most fabulous necklace on the planet. However, as Tess now works for the investigators themselves, how is she going to negotiate between her two opposing roles?

When Tess goes to meet the old lady, the grande dame is outwardly sweet and welcoming, but inwardly shrewd and alert. However, her lawyer, Luke Mansfield, is openly hostile to Tess, convinced from the get-go that she is out to con her supposed grandmother. While both Tess and Luke are instantly attracted to each other, they are both just as horrified by it. After all, they're enemies. He's out to prove her to be a fraud and she's out to beguile his client into declaring her as her heiress.

As time goes on and both Luke and Tess learn more about each other and start to trust each other, they start to wonder if she is truly the lost heiress or is she an imposter who many believe is the lost heiress? No one knows for sure, but Tess and Luke are determined to uncover the truth. Can their love survive the unmasking?

I love how much of a complex Japanese puzzle box Tess is and how patient Luke is in understanding her. The mystery of Tess's true identity is very skillfully handled. Since the reader knows more than the protagonists about each other, since each character reveals details of their thoughts to the reader but not to the other character, the reader watches with bated breath: when is who going to know about what?

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: In this touching book, the world-famous ballerina, Copeland, shows a young girl how she, too, can become a ballerina, she, too, can become the Firebird, Copeland's signature role with the American Ballet Theater. Copeland's activism derives from the hope that young people will feel empowered to be whatever they want to be. To feel that they have no limits, just endless dreams that are reachable.

A little girl tells her, "You are the sky and clouds and air; your feet are swift as sunlight. Me? I am gray as rain, heavy as naptime, low as a storm pressing on rooftops. The space between you and me is longer than forever."

So Misty tells the girl that her beginning has just begun. She, too, used to be a girl with dreams. It was only through a thousand leaps and falls and blisters and torn slippers, she slowly soared higher.

"Even birds must learn to fly. Like me, you'll grow steady in grace, spread an arabesque of wings and climb. You'll become a swan, a beauty, a firebird. We'll make the moon our silver spotlight as we spin across the planets pirouetting tightly as the curls on our heads."

Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Nelle Harper Lee was an adventurous girl, more at home in overalls, climbing trees, and watching her father try cases in the courtroom. But above all, she loved words and books. So when life took her in the late 1940s, from Monroeville, Alabama all the way to New York City, she wrote and revised stories every spare minute she could get. All the while, she waited for the story she was born to tell. And when it came to her, she wrote a masterpiece, helped along by a brilliant editor. The book was published in 1960 to wide acclaim, but Nelle remained an enigma to the world at large.

"You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
—Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Ganesha's Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes, illustrated by Sanjay Patel
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Ganesha is a roly-poly Indian God with the head of an elephant and a mouse on whose back he cruises around. He loves sweets, especially laddoos, which are round balls of deliciousness. In a departure from Hindu mythology, this story says that Ganesha breaks one of his tusks on an especially giant jawbreaker of a laddoo. Mr. Mouse tries to console him that his friends will still love him, even though he looks lopsided.

Distraught, Ganesha flings his broken tusk at the moon, but it lands instead on the head of the wise Vyasa, a renowned Vedic poet, who is the composer of one of the world's longest epic poems, the Mahabharata. Vyasa explains to Ganesha how special his tooth is—it is superior to all the pens in the world. Vyasa and Ganesha come to an agreement: So long as Vyasa can continuously narrate the epic, Ganesha would continuously write; he could eat as many sweets as he wants, so long as he understands every word he is writing. And so they go on to gift history with a hundred thousand verses of one of the greatest pieces of literature.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: What a delightful story of the connection between a grandfather and his grandson told through the highly exaggerated and dramatized stories of his childhood. I'm glad the author included a glossary of the Hindi words used in the book; it allowed me to appreciate the story so much more. Dada-ji (grandfather) used to be a very strong boy in his childhood, and the villagers all marveled at his feat. Calls of arre waah! (well done!) rang out around the village. The reason for his power were the fluffy-puffy rotis his mother used to make for him on the hot, hot tavva (pan) and the tongue-burning spicy mango pickle she served with them. Hunh-ji! (Yes, sir!) Aneel is all fired up with his dada-ji's story, and seeing how frail he has now become, Aneel decides to make rotis for him to bring him tiger-like strength. Hunh-ji!