Saturday, December 28, 2019

My December Reading

It is rare for me to read Christmas stories these days, so it's surprising that I read SEVEN this year. I usually shy away from Christmas stories because they usually end up being schmaltzy and saccharine and improbable. But these stories are surprisingly sweet and believable, even in the short story format.

This year, I read 164 books in total: romance, children's picture books, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction. The bulk of my reading, of course, was romance with most of them for review for Frolic Media. I look forward to continuing to review romance for Frolic next year. I also have an iron in the fire for children's picture books, but more on that when I have a publication to link to.

It's a Wonderful Regency Christmas: The Duke's Progress by Edith Layton
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: This is a curious story. Much of the narrative is spent on scene-setting, display of research, and development of the hero, but it all charmed me. The story is only incidentally a romance. It is more a hero's journey, the eponymous "progress"—travel through fellow peers' country estates—for Christmas.

The duke is as famous for his dueling skills as he is for his cutting tongue and icy demeanor, making him an uncomfortable companion at best, but still a highly sought-after guest at balls and country parties for his title and wealth. For all his popularity, the duke is lonely and bored. Layton has made him so nuanced in his outer appearances and behavior and his inner values that even his friends don't know him completely. In all his years so far, he has had held a deeply hidden, passionate hope for love and romance. But such did not come to pass. He now figures he has to get married for the succession and so decides in a fit of melancholy to give in to the Season's Incomparable's machinations. Luckily, on a scant chance that he almost misses, he meets the love of his life and discovers a fun-filled life worth living.

Miss Dominguez's Christmas Kiss and Other Stories: A Ciudad Real Holiday Anthology by Lydia San Andres
Category: Contemporary Romance Short Stories
Comments: Set in Ciudad Real in the early 1900s, the women in these stories are all connected with a boarding house run by Doña Genoveva, where they all reside. It is such a microcosm of society, this boardinghouse—there is so much interpersonal emotions and activities going on, all within the bounds of Doña Genoveva’s rules. My review is here.

"Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss" is a story of a young woman discovering love for the first time and the more experienced young woman guarding the other’s innocence and introducing her to the joys gently and with care. Despite having her own family to celebrate with, Marisol returns early from her holiday to spend Christmas with Lourdes, thus showing her how very much she treasures her. She even talks about taking her to visit her family the next time she goes home.

"Mrs. Gomez’s New Year’s Surprise" is a experienced businesswoman. With New Year’s holiday bearing down on them, their thoughts naturally turn into a reflection of their life so far and with what intention they want to step into the next year. They are both lonely and are finding is at a standstill, so instead of being mired in bitterness, they decide to take a stab at finding happiness...with each other.

"Miss Weiss’s Reyes Present" is a story of love growing by lingering exchanged glances and smiles — for both the other is sweet and solicitous of their feelings. This is also a story of forgiveness. Circumstances can cause a person to fail to keep their word, to let another down. But Letitia giving him the benefit of the doubt and being willing to listen to him explain shows maturity and thoughtfulness towards him and consideration of his feelings, while also honoring the connection between them. Happiness is not transient because both of them believe in it and are willing to resolve their differences to make it happen for them.

A Snowy Little Christmas: Missing Christmas by Kate Claybourn
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: A Snowy Little Christmas is an anthology of three Christmas stories: “Starry Night” by Fern Michaels, “Mistletoe and Mimosas” by Tara Sheets and “Missing Christmas” by Kate Clayborn. I was only interested in Clayborn’s novella.

He has been working very closely with her for years, spending hours of time in her company at work, outside work, and while traveling for work. They are very close, but as work confidantes and friends—just not the kind of closeness he desperately seeks. He is a stickler for rules, and one of the rules is no personal emotions muddying up professional relationships. Besides, she isn’t interested in him that way, and he does not want to take the risk to find out. He would never survive the loss were she to go away.

Little does he know, she has likewise buried her attraction and affection for him under layers upon layers of professionalism. She values how close and in sync they are, how they can communicate silently through body language, and almost read each other’s thoughts where work is concerned. And yet, where his personal emotions go, she draws a blank.

One day, elated after a spectacular win at work and frustrated from holding back her attraction for him, she demands almost questioningly that he kiss her. And despite his habit of restraint, despite his misgivings, despite the warning bells tolling in his head about romancing her...he does! And life changes. For them both. What are they to do? My review is here.

One Bed for Christmas by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Lau's books just work for me. The hilarity, the warmth, the tenderness, the seriousness, the implausibility, and The Food. He met her when she hit his head with the classroom door and knocked him to the floor in an undergrad calculus class. He fell hard on the floor and hard into love with her once his head stopped spinning. And for twelve long years, he has hidden his love for her but given her unstinting friendship. He knows that she is meant for better things than him and he doesn’t deserve her.

When the story opens, she is the CEO of a popular online dating app, while he is a freelance graphic designer and makes money on the side by dancing to the tunes of an elderly barbershop quartet in an inflatable T-Rex costume. The gulf between them is vast and unbridgeable. And yet, they are friends, see each other casually, and spend time together, and it is always fun. But then she leaves, not to be heard from till the next time. He is lonely. Little does he know that she is lonely in her life as well. My review is here.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I read this book with a smile on my face from beginning to end. Playful and sweet with undertones of maturity and seriousness, this is a lovely romance to bring alive the magic of Christmas. Unlike some Christmas romances, this story doesn’t descend into schmaltziness with mawkish grand gestures. It retains the integrity of story with the genuine emotions of two adults in their fifties finding a second chance at friendship and love.

She is a dedicated social worker in Oakland, CA. She loves working with patients and enabling the people she comes in contact with find solutions to better lives for themselves. On a whim, her daughter pushes her to take a break from all her hard work to travel with her to England. He is the first black private secretary to the Queen, a position he is proud of and has worked hard to achieve and maintain. But lately, he has found himself feeling slightly bored and restless despite the unceasing work, which he enjoys. His sister and nephew fill his need for family, but there is still a void in him that he is unsure how to fill.

And then he lays eyes on her at Sandringham and he finds himself instantly charmed. She carries herself with a refreshing forthrightness, a strong joyful sense of self, and an easy acceptance of those around her. She, in turn, is fascinated with this man with kind eyes and instant smiles, who goes out of his way to be considerate to everyone he meets and is so solicitous of her. My review is here.

The Night of the Scoundrel by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the last—and the best in my opinion—story in Bowen’s Devils of Dover series. It tells the story of the mysterious, almost menacing, all-knowing, overarching figure of King and the woman who is perfect for him. There is nothing of the underbelly of society that he hasn’t had his ruthless hands in. And yet the highest of the nobility flock to his mansion whenever he has an exclusive auction of prized objects pried from unwilling or questionable sources. King holds all the power in his dealings with these unscrupulous, covetous people.

And yet, he is powerless in his fascination of the sight he witnesses in a darkening alley one evening: a black-clad angel whose twin blades are extensions of her arms routing three assailants with great precision, skill and lack of effort. When he spies that same woman the same night in his study robbing him of a priceless sapphire, his fascination turns into unwilling attraction. The need to decipher her become all-consuming. Madness! Bowen writes with such precision of expression and emotion. And also versatility. Her words fit the story she tells, and I love her voice and style. My review is here.

Open House by Ruby Lang
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The two protagonists in this story approach each other from opposite sides of an illegal community garden in Harlem—she is the real estate agent tasked with selling the land, and he is the organizer of the garden. This book is all about “community”—finding your own, creating your own, and appreciating what you have.

It was interesting to see how the protagonists fit into their families and how that has informs on what they think of themselves. It was also interesting to see how differently each perceives the other and how they grow in confidence from this new look at themselves. This is the essence of romance to me: A person growing into their better self because someone sees them as worth much more than they’d previously thought.

He sees her as dedicated and capable of taking on a task and finishing it. She thinks she’s a screw-up because she has flitted from career to career. She sees him as a passionate supporter of the garden and the old ladies who work in there—they are his friends; they trust him; and their passion has become his passion. He, on the other hand, sees himself as a footloose, fancy-free person with no roots and no cares. Seeing themselves from the other’s lens is the making of them. My review is here.

Sweet Adventure by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I gave this an "A" for being charming and engrossing with a busy plot and a wonderfully complex heroine. While Burchell's heroines always have agency and active roles, this is the first book where the heroine dominates the story completely with her competence, common sense, and compassion.

The story is a mystery. The heroine is on her first motoring trip when she finds herself in a cottage with a dead woman and her young daughter. She immediately takes the girl to the police to report the death, and there she runs into the girl's uncle (the hero) who is on the lookout for his sister. The girl and the heroine form an instant bond, and so at the urging of the uncle, she goes to stay with their family and look after the girl for a few days. In the meantime, there's a villainous father, a younger uncle who's run up against the law, a dominating matriarch, and fine country estate. And of course, our smart, independent heroine and the dead woman. It all ties up into a fun book.

Gilded Cage by KJ Charles
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: It is no exaggeration on my part to say that Charles pens near-perfect historical romances. This is a story of a childhood romance turning sour through betrayals, lies and threats. But when the protagonists meet up seventeen years later (in 1895), they discover the wrongs done unto them, and instead of being mired in bitterness, they choose to have faith in their original positive assessments of each other and embark on a second-chance romance. Much water has passed under the bridge since their youth, filled with regrets, missed opportunities, and life-altering experiences, and thus Gilded Cage is a story of great courage on part of the protagonists to choose to trust once again.

Charles has her characters walk a careful line between what is acceptable criminality and what is out-n-out villainy. As a reader, I had to constantly hush up my sense of right and wrong and consider each situation from the characters' moral framework, which is of their time, their personalities, and their backgrounds. This is where Charles truly shines as a writer -- this grappling of morals and ethics is a commentary on her historical research and philosophical thought.

Any Old Diamonds (review here) and Gilded Cage (review here) are part of the Lilywhite Boys series.

How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: My mind just exploded when I turned the pages of this book. The artwork is outstanding and damaging to your eyeballs: clashing loud colors, patterned letters all over the place, pull-outs and fold-outs, multidimensional art, and so on. It's like an illustrator went batshit crazy on the page, but the resulting book is as eye-catching as it is eye-popping (and hard to read).

However, I persisted in deciphering the words since I will read anything that Kwame Alexander writes, and the effort was rewarding. Alexander takes us into an immersive experience about reading a book. First, find a tree—a black Tupelo or a Dawn Redwood will do—and plant yourself. He then likens opening the book to be akin to peeling the skin of a clementine. He carries the metaphor further when he instructs kids to dig their thumbs at the bottom of each juicy section and pop the words out. Page by rustling page. One of his last instructions is to get cozy between the covers and allow your fingers to wonder as they wander. The words are gentle and lovely. The art is what it is. They don't go together, in my opinion; I really wonder what Alexander thought of it.

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a beautiful book that tells the story of Aidan who is transgender. Lukoff is also transgender and that makes him tell Aidan's journey with sensitivity, awareness, and empathy. Aidan was born a girl, but he knows that he is meant to be a boy. He rejects all his parents' girl-trappings: dolls, pink, lacy, braids, dresses, and on and on. Luckily for Aidan, they really listen when he tells them how he feels and who he really is. I loved Aidan's parents for the love and understanding they show and how they allow their child to lead in determining his life and be just a happy kid. So when his mom is going to have a baby, he tells everyone how excited he is to be a big brother, and he always makes it a point to not let others pre-decide who the baby should be, gender or otherwise. I was glad to see that Juanita depicted Aidan as biracial—making this book an #OwnVoices book for both the writer and illustrator. However, the artwork is uninspiring and does not match the intensity of Lukoff's prose.

My Papi has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I always read author's notes first in every book I take up, and they are always rewarding and frame the book really well. This one is stellar. Quintero says the book is the story of her father and of Corona, California. This is a book where the illustrator was able to read the writer's heart and mind and pull out details from her childhood and accurately depict them. Unlike the above two books, the words and pictures are a perfect match, and it really makes this story sing. The protagonist's father is a carpenter and builds homes. But no matter how tired he is when he comes home, he always makes time to take his daughter for a spin on his motorcycle. He is a man of few words and emotions, but it is how he behaves with his daughter shows her how much she is loved. They go on familiar roads in town where she gets to visit all the places she usually goes with her Mamí, now with her Papi, and she sees the world anew.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Best Romance Books of 2019

My detailed list of best romance books of 2019 is published on Frolic Media. Here are the titles in alphabetical order:

—American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera
—Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Charles
—Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
—Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole
—Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston
—Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra
—Man vs. Durian by Jackie Lau
—Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss and Other Stories by Lydia San Andres
—The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
—The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss
—The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
—The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
—The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet
—There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon
—Work for It by Talia Hibbert

Sunday, December 1, 2019

My November Reading

You can chart my emotional tenor from the books I read. This month was a hard month, and among other books, I read traditional Regencies and vintage contemporaries, which included top faves: Mary Burchell, Mary Balogh, and Joan Smith.

There were a few days in November that were awash in the Sarah Dessen kerfuffle. If you are unaware of it, you can find more information: here, here, and here. In short: a college student from a small college in a small town criticized millionaire author Sarah Dessen's work. When Dessen found out about it, she ranted about it on Twitter to her huge platform, who dug out the small newspaper and the student's name and harassed her and heaped abuse on her. Among the verbal abusers were big-name authors: Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, N.K. Jemisin, Meg Cabot, Angie Thomas, Celeste Ng, and Roxanne Gay among others. Instead of merely voicing support of Dessen's feelings and Dessen's work, these people harassed the student. When big media outlets like WaPo and Slate came out against them, they backed down and issued non-apologies. I was particularly disappointed in Roxanne Gay and N.K. Jemisin and Dessen, herself—she replied positively to abusive tweets.

My first reaction was, "I am never going to read a Sarah Dessen novel." Well, the joke's on me. I have her The Rest of the Story sitting on my Kindle for review. Do I refuse to read and review it? In that case, you would be totally justified in accusing me of being a hypocrite. Only last month, I was out there on my soapbox about giving fictional characters and real people second chances. What Dessen did was reprehensible, but just perhaps, she has learned from all the backlash because her apology was well-done. I will give her another chance and read her book. I will, however, not be giving Jemisin or Roxanne Gay another chance, because they have done this "jumping on persecuting bandwagons" before and when faced with the backlash this time, they were unrepentant.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Our school has taken DEI very seriously this year. It is part of their strategic plan and they have incorporated it into their curriculum, admissions, faculty and staff hiring, and parent education. As part of their efforts, they are doing a community read of Oluo's book. This is going to be an ongoing read for me for the next couple of months. We've already had one group discussion, and we have another discussion coming up in January followed by Oluo's visit. My main interest in this month's reading was the chapter on "intersectionality." I have seen that word around social media for a few months now, but Oluo's explanation of it puts into context the issues facing people with multiple marginalizations. For that chapter alone, I would recommend the book. I will comment on this book further later this month. At our discussion in November, I was disappointed that among 25 people, almost all were women and all but three were Caucasian women. This constrained the discussion in ways that were sub-optimal to the issues the book brings up. I hope we have a more diverse group in January for a more robust discussion.

Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life by M.J. Ryan
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I borrowed this book from my parents when I visited back in February. It is only now that I cracked it open to read. Many years ago, I was advised by a wise human being that I should develop an attitude of gratitude. Sorrowfully, he passed away before he could explain what he meant in detail. And now, serendipitously, this book has fallen in my lap that tries to explain what is gratitude, the gifts of gratitude, the attitudes, and finally, the practices of gratitude answering the question: How should I do it to bring it into my life? The book is full of platitudes and simplistic solutions, but it is the first I have read that doesn't deal merely with esoteric ideas, but rather delineates concrete implemental steps. Tell me what to do, and I will try to do it, and let the effects be what they are purported to be. This is a complete departure from how many people approach philosophical or spiritual ideas, but since I have struggled with this for a while, I am going to start with these building blocks, which will later allow me to tackle more Big Idea approaches.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, I discovered this book. The printed book was converted to digital by a community of volunteers and self-pubbed on AMZ for free in 2012. It felt like it was a small enough book that I would be able to easily read it on the Kindle, but it hasn't proved to be the case. I need a print book where I can linger on the page, underline things, write marginalia, and put in post-it notes. So once the physical book arrives, I'll re-read it. As a child, I lived in a nature preserve, and went on long walks every evening by myself. There was always so much to see, so much to think about, and I returned refreshed and soothed from the bullying I otherwise faced in my neighborhood. Over the decades, I have forgotten how wonderful walking can be, and this book reminds me of its wonders. Granted, I don't have hours like Thoreau did or easy access to forest trails like Thoreau did—somehow driving somewhere to walk seems to defeat the purpose. So this month, I plan to walk out of my door and in my neighborhood. I will see what comes out of a few circles around. We rarely have walkers or joggers, so it wouldn't be a case of constantly running across chatty neighbors.

The Carrying by Ada Limón
Category: Poetry
Comments: It was a case of curious coincidences. I found two of Limón's poems one week that really spoke to me, and then in my discussion of them on Twitter, I discovered a third. Here it is: "Instructions on Not Giving Up" from the perspective of the cherry blossom trees. Nature never ever gives up—all that is sorrowful, it seems to say, passes with hope just around the corner. That is how I view the start of the new year and the beginning of longer days—Hope is such a sweet word and such a comfort to me.

Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I'll take it, the tree seems to say; a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I'll take it all.

A Match Made for Thanksgiving by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A Jackie Lau book always makes me smile. Her writing, pacing, and characters are so lively and warm and fun that her books are unputdownable. They also leave you hungry for all the foods mentioned—wouldn’t it be fun to go food adventuring with Lau, you wonder. Written for the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, this first book of the Holidays with the Wongs series is a tender romp. I enjoyed a look into the first- and second-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant families whom Lau showcases in her story. She strikes just the right note with the complexity of their heritages and cultural and social attitudes. In her protagonists, Lau has created giving, thoughtful individuals, who are open to stepping outside their comfort zones into new experiences that they never imagined before they would like to try. Lau is a prolific writer, and I am always looking forward to her next story. My review is here.

Work for It by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Olu Keynes is a sharp-tongued man who has been numbed emotionally since childhood due to continual trauma by his abusive father and ex. He’s often overcome by self-loathing and anxiety before disappearing into an icy deadened state. Griff Everett thinks he is big and ugly and the locals treat him like a pariah, so he has become a loner. Griff and Olu meet at Fernley Farms, where their job is to work with plants. Those who love the BBC series Cranford will love Hibbert's small English village atmosphere, with its gossipy neighbors, small-minded, supercilious villagers, and strict social class. Griff and Olu have serious emotional scars from their tough lives, but there is a thread of hopefulness that runs in their lives that allows them to reach out to each other. Hibbert is one author whose work just keeps on getting better—however, her gritty books are not for everyone.

Tell Me My Fortune by Mary Burchell
Pay Me Tomorrow by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: These two books are identical in their basic plotline, but overall, they are very different stories. This is because their protagonists are such different people, in terms of personalities, motivations, backgrounds, and values. In writing these two books, Burchell has thumbed her nose at critics who say romance novels are formulaic and repetitive. It takes a master craftsman to provide bare plot guidelines and then allow her characters to live their lives and own their story.

The premise is that the heroine's family is in expectation that a near relative will die and leave them a sum of money. All their life decisions are in abeyance until that happy event. Unfortunately, they discover that the money has been left elsewhere. What are the families to do? Yes, the heroes are rich and the impoverished heroines are interested in them because they are rich. How mercenary, you think. Well, of course. But these gold-diggers redeem themselves to their own, their heroes', and our satisfaction. The best part of Burchell's characterization are mature people who believe in taking bad news on the chin, sitting with the distress, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and above all, talking it out with each other.

I liked Pay Me Tomorrow a smidge over the other one, because of the hero. He has been in love with the heroine for months before she even really "sees" him. And he so vulnerable that he is willing to be taken advantage of for his money if only he can have her in his life. So the end of the book is just wonderful, where she shows him how much she values him and how that affects him, and the effect on her when she realizes how very much he loves her. That power differential between them may never fully equalize, but she is now aware of her power over him and is at pains to show him that she treasures him.

Just a Nice Girl by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: For a young woman, who is often overlooked and known only as a "nice girl" with no accomplishments, being courted by two handsome, competitive, well-established men is quite the ego boost. This was a forgettable novel, in my opinion, especially following the above two books. It is competently, and at times, superbly written, but the characterization is patriarchal and colorless—Burchell's heart just wasn't in it.

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I loved this book so much, I bought it in print as well. As always, when I love a book to pieces, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why I loved it so much. It is laugh-out-loud funny with complex characters. The hero is quite hapless but also masterful and capable is some situations. The heroine is quite managing and yet wants a future husband who she will not be able to dominate. What a delightful combination, isn't it, to have two such opposing characteristics in the same person?

Their meet-cute happens when she descends in an avenging fury with a black umbrella to route three thugs who are beating up the hero. The hero tenders suitable thanks, and since he has had his purse stolen, he goes on his way while promising the innkeeper that he will send the requisite blunt. Well, she decides to do him a good turn and pays his shot, his one-night-stand, and his gambling partner. What stays in a small town inn, does not stay in that small town inn, but gets spread all over London. While she is congratulating herself on her largesse, he is drowning in humiliation and ridicule. He is very much a proper young man who is conscious of what is due to his consequence; she is a free spirit, happy and content with life. What they both have in common is that they like getting their own way.

Bath Scandal by Joan Smith
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This was another book full of rollicking good humor; not as funny as the one above, but rife with Smith's characteristic humor without descending to farce. The hero's fiancée is a managing woman who has battened on to him and is battering all his freedoms. On her insistence, he even sends away his teen step-sister to someone he had coincidentally met at her wedding and to whom he had been attracted. The widowed heroine soon realizes that she's been taken for a ride and been lumped with bringing a hoyden into fashion without the leavening benefit of having the hero to husband. Despite it all, she finds herself liking the girl and succeeds in her task. In the mean time, the hero has an attack of conscience and descends on Bath to check on the heroine, and thus they meet. He is a rigid, proper sort of gentleman, set in his ways. She is an adventurous, chic woman with her circle of admirers. He is aghast at her unseemliness; she rolls her eyes at his starchiness. It is inevitable that a growing attraction springs up between them, only to be bruised with the advent of the jealous fiancée.

Friday, November 1, 2019

My October Reading

I started off this month in fine reading fettle, but then life went south and so did my reading.

His Defiant Princess by Nana Prah
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: If you’re a fan of Alyssa Cole’s The Reluctant Royals series, you will enjoy this story. Published by Love Africa Press that celebrates all things African in romantic fiction, Prah’s novel follows the age-old questions of lovers separated by an ocean: Who should give up their established life to move? Are friends and family and career more important than the love of your life? How to sacrifice one for the other? Since these are difficult questions that people struggle with in real life, so it was interesting to see how Prah has her fictional characters deal with it. Now imagine, she is a princess of a fictional African country and he is a dentist from Vermont. What does their future hold for them? Contemplation of marriage between the protagonists is fraught with political maneuvering and emotional manipulation by the people around them and between themselves. It does not automatically follow that he should give up his life because his social capital is perceived as much lower than hers—I really liked that Prah did not take this shortcut to solve their dilemma. My review is here.

The Write Escape by Charish Reid
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a charming vacation story set in a small village in Ireland far removed from all the mod-cons of big city life. Reid takes two protagonists who are at a low point in their lives and puts them together in a small place where they cannot but be in each other’s space to see what would happen. They’re mature people in their thirties who have dealt with ups and downs in life, but they still have things they need to learn and to work on. I liked that Reid doesn’t have her characters too set in their ways and not willing to make concessions to another person. They're perspicacious and forthright, so unpleasant views get aired and dealt with. I found it charming how she supports his scholarly work in African American history, her history, while he supports her romance novel writing by reading romance novels, a genre he had never thought he would like as a professor of literature with a capital 'L.' My review is here.

The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I am so delighted to have found a Traditional Regency written in 2019. Justiss is a marvelous writer and has penned a tight plot with historically accurate details and courageous characters. It's a story of warmth and stalwart seizing of their futures by the horns. They both start out insecure and uncertain where life is going to take them, but through hard work and belief in each other, they emerge stronger in themselves and thus stronger together.

She is saddled with the moniker Homely, he with Incomparable. She's a diehard member of the reform movement; he's a charming wastrel. She is determined not to wed a rake and deal with infidelity; he thinks he is incapable of fidelity. Neither wants to marry. However, the only enlivening aspect of their social evenings is the acerbic comments and astute observations of society and each other they make in each other's company in ballrooms across London. Jovial banter and laughter punctuate their conversation. Their interest in each other beyond friendship creeps up on them by degrees—so slowly in fact that they are taken unawares. My review is here.

The Lord's Inconvenient Vow by Lara Temple
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Who hasn't read one of the most beloved speeches in romance novels from As You Desire by Connie Brockway? The hero says to the heroine with anguish and passion: "You are my country. My Egypt. My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, verdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining."

This is the same heart-wrenching emotion I kept feeling from the protagonists as I read The Lord's Inconvenient Vow. Ever since their childhood in Egypt, they have been in each other's company, she plaguing and teasing him, he scolding and berating her. But under their levity, ran a current of serious intent, awareness and care. They trusted each other. They had each other's back. They understood each other like no one else could. But then they part ways to marry other people.

When they meet again in Egypt—the place where all their good memories are etched on their hearts—eight years later, they realize that time has not banished their regard for each other. They discover that they are—still—uncomprehendingly attracted to each other. Both are now widowed and searching for a place to put down roots, to build a family, to have that one person in their life who they trust completely, who makes their soul sing.

The setting is superbly done. You get a good sense of the country and culture of Egypt at the time of British Imperialism in the Regency era. I liked that Temple shows her English characters to be respectful of and have great affinity for the people, culture, religion, language, lands and treasures. Egypt was home to them, where they were most themselves, and, yet, they trod there lightly, ever cognizant that they were guests. This is such a contrast to reality that it is notable how Temple handles it. My review is here.

The Royal Treatment by Melanie Summers
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Reader, I DNF'd it. 1706 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.5 stars. I thought this book would be a slam-dunk. People said it was very funny, and I was in the mood for humor. Unfortunately, the humor is rather mean-spirited. It makes fun of people and is homophobic, misogynist, and laughs at childbirth. I laughed exactly once, but kept hoping it would improve, till I finally gave up at 20%. Definitely not for me.

The premise is delicious: Passionate blogger hates the royalty and regularly lampoons them in her blog. Prince is concerned that the popularity of royalty is massively slipping in the polls. So what better idea than to invite his worst critic to the palace to charm her into writing flattering pieces about him, in particular, and royalty, at large?

There's humor that works for me; most doesn't. What works? Act Like It by Lucy Parker. The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Category: Children's Picture Poetry
Comments: Alexander wrote this poem in 2008 for his newly-born daughter so she could understand how an African American became president of the United States by showing her the facts of American history that are always overlooked. His poem addresses the accomplishments of black Americans. In his notes, he mentions the greats and the well-known, such as Jesse Owens, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Trayvon Martin, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, and so many others. He also talks about the Civil Rights Movement and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. His constant message is that "Black. Lives. Matter. Because we are Americans. Because we are human beings." He quotes Maya Angelou: "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose."

Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Category: Children's Picture Memoir Poetry
Comments: Herrera was a child of migrant workers from Latin America. When he was young, he helped his parents at their various jobs, but every time he settled in and made friends, he had to uproot his life and move on. Those early childhood lessons remained with him as he explores in this poem: Who might he be? Imagine... Herrera finally became an American and went on to become Poet Laureate of USA, and read aloud his poetry on the steps of the Library of Congress.

"If I gathered
many words and many more songs
with both of my hands
and let them fly
over my mesa
and turned them into a book
of poems,

Imagine what you could do"

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

My September Reading

October is already well under way, and I am just now getting to my September reading blog post. The Romance reviews are towards the end of this post. I also have "thoughts" on the current notion that we should not read anything we find offensive. Those are at the bottom of this post as well as a short review of the Edith Layton book that inspired them.

My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys by Sherman Alexie
Category: Song Lyrics
Comments: I have always claimed a love of white westerns like Jo Goodman, Jodi Thomas, et al. Never before have I felt such distress over my favored choice as when I read Alexie's song lyrics.

Did you know that in 1492 every Indian instantly became an extra in the Great American Western?

Indians never lost their West, so how come I walk into the supermarket and find a dozen cowboy books telling How The West Was Won?

Every song remains the same here in America, this country of the Big Sky and Manifest Destiny, this country of John Wayne and broken treaties.

Arthur, I have no words which can save our lives, no words approaching forgiveness, no words promising either of us top billing. Extras, Arthur, we’re all extras.

About my distress, Rohan Maitzen said: "It’s a powerful poem, isn’t it? I think one reason it is so powerful is that it acknowledges the appeal of the very narratives it condemns: a lot of us probably have had the paradoxical experience of being drawn to or really enjoying something in popular culture that we also find morally or ideologically problematic or unacceptable. it is not as easy as just hating it: it’s also about that push and pull of different reactions." Rohan has pinpointed exactly what my amorphous thoughts were struggling to articulate.

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
Category: Essay
Comments: A New York Times article castigating Trump's poor grasp of English led me to the discovery of George Orwell's 1945 essay Politics and the English Language.

In that, Orwell laments the loss of beauty of the language and how it is in general collapse much like our civilization. There are always critics who say that languages evolve. In fact, Orwell says they say, "Any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. While the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of an individual." This is in opposition to the NYT article that claims that Trump's poor use of language is causing "lexicographers and grammarians to worry about the permanent effect on language". But the article is on point when it quotes this from the essay: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." And that is what the linguists are afraid of from Trump's tweets.

An aside: Orwell seems to be lambasting authors of purple prose here: "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." ::wince:: Then he goes on to explain in great detail, with specific examples, various ways by which the "work of prose construction is habitually dodged."

Another aside: These days in the romance genre world, authors are facing accusations of their books becoming too political and using bad words. Take comfort in Orwell's opinion: "All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer."

Both the article and the essay are worth reading.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N.K. Jemisin
Category: Sci-Fi Short Story
Comments: I read this book on Willa's recommendation when she mentioned that Jemisin's story is influenced by Ursula Le Guin's famous Omelas story from 1973. I do not think I can do this wonderful Jemisin story justice, so please bear with me. I highly recommend you read it for yourself to find out exactly how the story unfolds.

The city of Um-Helat is filled with joy. This is no dystopian place where people are forced to confirm; in fact, people of different races and ages all mingle together in peace and harmony—even the homeless are cared for and protected. "The city's purpose is not merely to generate revenue or energy or products, but to shelter and nurture the people who do these things." Jemisin is telling the story directly to the reader and striving to explain how astonishing the city is. She even assures you that it doesn't have the dark overtones of Omelas. And then, after paragraph after paragraph of praise lulling you into believing in this harmless city of goodness, comes the first hint that all is not rosy in this world. Ah!

World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: The premise of this book is that making time for creativity is not trying to squeeze another thing on your overflowing ToDo list. In fact, it is the opposite. It is slowing your life down and dropping some of the balls you are juggling in order to invite creativity and contemplation into your life. This is the type of book you can read cover to cover, but would probably get more out of if you read chapter by chapter and even section by section and ruminated some on it. Not unlike the Slow Food movement, this is a Slow Time movement. There is spirituality, poetry, history, literature, and practical advice in this book from the author and also from a wide variety of people, dead and alive. At the end of each chapter, the author has you do a couple of activities and thought exercises that reflect on what she has covered in the chapter. This book is going to be an ongoing read for me, and one I will return to again and again, because there is so much rich material here that I cannot absorb in one reading.

A Study in Scandal by Caroline Linden
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I reviewed this book and the one below by Caroline Linden together because they are linked by the Duke of Rowland. He is the father of the two heroes and I was fascinated by the role he plays in the two books. I was delighted to note that he is very much alive and that the heroes have no quibbles about asking for his help. Usually in romance fiction, in order to make the hero more heroic, alpha, in charge, titled, what-have-you, fathers are killed off—as if a man cannot become fully a man until his father is dead. These books turn that notion on its head. Not only is the hero of this book a decent man—kind, hardworking, and very much in charge of his own life—he is heroic in his rescue and defense of the heroine and loving in his care of her. Despite the heroes' father being a powerhouse among his peers, in his family life, he is an affectionate father, and he helps his sons without belittling or infantilizing them. And the sons accept his help without feeling small. Thus, the heroes retain their heroism while being a part of a loving family. My review is here.

When the Marquess was Mine by Caroline Linden
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This book highlights that it is possible for people to change, to grow, to become better people, and that people are not doomed to be endlessly repeating their unenlightened selves. We all fall into bad habits that we can’t seem to get ourselves out of until something happens that snaps us out of apathy and allows us to examine our life anew. This is an independent book and stands alone despite the character connecting this book with the above book. Linden has been a new discovery for me with these two books, and I am so pleased. I look forward to her next books.

He is a, what else?, rake; she is a feisty innocent. He does A Bad Thing but then suffers amnesia, ends up under her care, and becomes a transformed man. And when he recovers his memory, he realizes that she misrepresented herself and repeatedly lied to him. So far, the plot follows the amnesia trope. What should come next is the hero decamping in high dudgeon and a Big Misunderstanding. However, Linden challenges the usual plotline. The hero and heroine take time to think through their respective situations while keeping in mind their attraction for each other. They weigh their values and desires and choose to act in thoughtful ways. My review is here.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: “Good morrow and well met” is a standard greeting every year I go to our local medieval faire. I have considered joining a Renaissance faire group as an active participant, so I fell in love with this book from the first meeting the heroine has with her small town’s Faire group. DeLuca’s expertise with how the Faire performances go and her love of all things Renaissance shows through in this book.

She has just been dumped by her boyfriend who she supported through law school by giving up her education and working two jobs. The deal was that when he became a lawyer, he would support her and she would finish her education. But this newly-minted lawyer skedaddles out of town. Heartbroken and at loose ends, she moves to this small town to help her sister out because her sister has been in an accident. There she meets up with the Renn Faire's head honcho, who is hell-bent on shoehorning everyone into their roles and making sure everything runs perfectly. People being people, his temper flares sky high on a regular basis, and her laissez-faire attitude annoys the heck out of him. My review is here.

Highland Jewel by May McGoldrick
Category: Highland Regency Romance
Comments: This book covers the rarely known Radical War of 1820. When you say Regency, people think balls and pretty gowns. But the Radical War in the Highlands is a time of brutality and beauty.

The heroine and her family have found shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, the place at the heart of the resistance in the Royal Highlander series by May McGoldrick. She is committed to Scotland’s fight for freedom. For every success, betrayal is biting at her heels. Six months earlier, she had been the picture of docility, quiet and compliant in the eyes of her family. To her activist friends, however, she is a fearless crusader for women’s rights. In the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, she and a friend had founded the Edinburgh Female Reform Society, and she had carried the banner for universal suffrage. Caught up in the wave of her enthusiasm, she never expects to fall in love with the man who saves her life during one of their protests.

He is a hero of the wars and a decorated officer of the Royal Highland Regiment. He is battle weary and searching for stability in his life. A fierce warrior by training and a poet at heart, he walks away from the shining career that lies ahead of him, to the dismay of his superiors. Beautiful explanation towards the end of the story—dealing with British Imperialism—why he left the British Army and chose to join the resistance.

Scandalous by Minerva Spencer
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This was not a story that appealed to me and the entire reason lies with the protagonists, especially the hero's behavior towards the heroine.

I loved the setup of the story: He is an ex-slave who ran away from his oppressors in New Orleans and became a privateer on behalf of the British crown. He is independently wealth and commands his own ship along the African coastlines to rescue slaves and destroy slave ships. She's a white missionary who grew up in an Africa and was taken aboard a slave ship along with other villagers. He rescues her and that is how they meet. Marvelous premise, isn't it? And yet...the story falls on itself.

He is a promiscuous man, who is most comfortable in a brothel, despite his past as an ex-whore. He falls hard for the plain missionary and cannot explain to himself why he is so fascinated. He is constantly angry at her despite her taking on the task of teaching him to read. He is also a jealous alpha. The way the author shows the hero's fidelity is by having him repeatedly visit brothels and stay nights there, and despite being manually and otherwise manipulated, not be able to do the deed. This shows his devotion to the heroine. Naturally, she is devastated every time she finds out. But in the next breath, the author tells us the heroine is sexually and otherwise in thrall to the man and cannot "help herself."

While the author does a good job of showing that the hero is a very damaged individual, his poor behavior towards the heroine goes on for too long, and by the time he finally does start to show a bit of maturity and makes a dramatic change, it’s too little too late. I could not believe in their HEA or in its long-term stability.


These days, there is much conversation in Twitterverse that bloggers and reviewers should stop reading a book if they read something offensive, because it causes harm to them. The thinking is that they can and should review the partially-read book and state why they stopped reading it. Anyone saying that the blogger's critique is invalid because they didn't finish the book to the end is wrong. There is no requirement that the blogger should read to the end to check whether the book redeems itself. Finishing an offensive book presumably protects the author, not the reader. If even a smidgeon of offensive material shows up, you should give up, because if there is a smidgeon, there is a plethora. You do not owe the author the emotional labor of finishing their book.

This is interesting to me on a number of levels, and I am totally going out on a limb to say this—I may face evisceration by the Twitterverse. On one hand, I totally agree with the above. For instance, if you are a rape victim, and there is no content warning on the book that there is a rape in it and you come across it on the page, you would immediately shut the book and declare it irremediable. This I fully understand. What I have a little harder time understanding are things like misogyny. A character could, in theory, exhibit these attitudes at the beginning of the book and have changed their attitude 180-degrees by the end. Is a person not to have this chance in a fiction novel or in real life to redeem themself? Is a racist always a racist? That defeats the purpose of education. Twitterverse loudly proclaims that people should educate themselves and change their attitudes. But then they give characters no chances to redeem their values even if that is the exact purpose of that character's growth arc.

We, in the reading world, loudly decry book banning. And yet, books have been banned because some people were deeply offended by those books that have challenged existing thinking. But education is all about challenging established norms. Finishing or not finishing a book gives the author nothing. Once the book is in your hands, it is all about you and your engagement with the text. If you find something offensive, should you give up, or should you wrestle with it and in so doing expand your thinking? Twitterverse would say that you should give up, because offensive material does not expand your thinking, just causes harm.

An example of an "offensive" romance novel is An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley. What I am about to say is a spoiler, so beware. There is a point in the story, where the hero slaps the heroine hard, and presumably, the hero is redeemed by the end of the book. This is a hotly debated book with readers falling on all sides of acceptability: Do they believe in his redemption? Why/Why not? This is precisely why JoBev wrote the book: to challenge the reader's thinking of what they will or will not allow in a person and if they will or will not believe that people can overcome faults in their characters. I once had a long, passionate, and civil discussion on Twitter with many people about this book. People vehemently disagreed with each other, but no one said this book should be banned or not read. That conversation was the point of the book. It brought up a social issue that was then debated in society—it set everyone thinking. The best books always make you think and puzzle things out; whether or not you agree with the author is besides the point.

"Summer's Fruit" from A Love for All Seasons by Edith Layton
Category: Regency Romance Long Story
Comments: All of the above is really a preamble to this Edith Layton novella. By the first few pages, I wanted to throw the book at the wall. No way, no how was I going to finish it. But then I went back to it and did finish it, because I have read other books by Layton and trust her as an author and also because I was curious: Why would someone write a romance with such a character? As the book progresses, the hero of the book does improve, does make changes in his attitudes, does self-reflect, does atone. The change is significant but that initial attitude still rankled for me, and I couldn't quite reconcile myself to him, but I was glad to see him mature and become self-aware of his failings.

The hero and heroine married young. They had fallen in deep lust and a quick love with each other and impulsively decided to marry two weeks before he was called away to war. They spent the two weeks of their honeymoon madly doing what you would expect them to do. They continue their besotted bliss through frequent letters during his months away. She describes in detail what's going on with her life and her pregnancy. His memories of their honeymoon save his sanity from the ugliness of war. He is soon compelled to return home when he ascends to his title of viscount.

Then comes his appalling reaction when he first sets sight on her: He is disgusted by how big she is. Some women show early as did she, and as he had visions of her slender lissome form in his mind, he is greatly taken aback when he sees her. She is devastated and furious. Not only has she been fighting body dysmorphia, but now seeing his reaction, she is convinced of her ugliness. On one hand he is repelled by her body, on the other hand, he loves her and wants to hold her, but fears her rejection and doesn't want her to think he has no restraint over his desires. She, in turn, wants him to hold her and sleep with her. But their emotions are too tangled to speak about.

As the days go by, his initial reaction fades as he adjusts to reality and impending fatherhood. But now, he and she are completely out of sync. Even if he does something out of consideration, she misunderstands because she does not trust him, and it compounds her misery. For example, he does not want her to go out to a party because he feels she might find it hard. She takes it as he is ashamed of her, and that she is no longer a person who can make amusing, interesting conversation.

How Layton takes this couple from point non plus to a viable marriage where they esteem each other again makes for a compelling story. For some readers, the ending will be satisfying, but for others, the hero will be irremediable. For all my reservations about the hero, I am glad I read the book, only to see how the talented Edith Layton handled the story.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

My August Reading

I have always maintained that the real edgy social fiction is happening in children's books. I have been reviewing children's picture books for a few years now, and not only do they not shy away from difficult topics, they approach them honestly and in human terms that little children can understand and to which they can also relate. Books for the young are written so that even if the subject material may be above their heads, the emotions are accessible, because they feature young children and animals, and children can identify with them. Books dealing with social issues build empathy and acceptance, and that is the focus of the writers. So I was very pleased to see a mid-grade book addressing a social issue—immigration—through the feelings of a ten-year-old girl. This was written during the Obama years, so it does not deal with the horrors of today.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Category: Children's Mid-Grade
Comments: Winner of the National Book Award and a Newberry Honor Book, Inside Out & Back Again is a story in verse. Like Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (which I reviewed HERE in 2015), the paucity of words and the silence of white space makes the story all the more powerful. Like the Woodson, this has got to be one of the most gorgeous books I have ever read. And I mean beauty—beauty of words, beauty of thought, beauty of emotions, beauty of relationships, beauty of images—and I luxuriated in it. It is billed as a middle-grade book, but it is a book for all ages with everyone taking something different away from it.

The story follows the author's experience of a refugee, fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to America. The little girl in this book chronicles her year of change so movingly. It has its funny moments, tears-crowded-in-the-throat moments, and the ordinary made extraordinary because of the girl's newness to those experiences. For a child only knowing life in Vietnam, the American way of life is scary, sorrowful, overwhelming, and exhilarating all at once. s

Man vs. Durian by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I love Jackie Lau's books—her sense of humor really tickles my fancy. Her characters are always spunky, funny, and sweet with their immigrant, Asian, and Canadian cultures all rolled in together.

“You are much better than a durian” is the highest compliment she can pay him.
“You are like a durian. Because you’re spiky on the outside and mushy on the inside and utterly delicious” is the highest compliment he can pay her.

Durian, you ask? Yes, I am talking here about that spiky fruit that smells extremely strongly of natural gas, rotten onion, and vomit. And from this improbable aphrodisiac, Jackie Lau has built a sweet romantic tale in Man vs. Durian.

Their meet-cute happens over—you guessed it—durian, when she spills the odorous ice cream all over his shirt. He is appropriately horrified, and yanks his shirt off, even as he admires her and is amused by her. Even though, she, too, admires his body, she sees not boyfriend material in him, but fake boyfriend material to appease her demanding mother. My review is here.

Marry in Secret by Anne Gracie
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: [CW: miscarriage / loss of a child]

I have been hooked by Anne Gracie's writing ever since I read The Gallant Waif all those years ago. I haven't always followed all her books, but whenever I dip in and out, I find something I like. Marry in Secret is how a couple formerly in love but separated by supposed death face the fact that they still are married and have to go on with their lives. Should they take a leap of faith and work towards making their marriage a success or should they give up and seek an annulment? They have changed irrevocably in the intervening years, can they (should they?) overcome that?

What I liked best about this story is the heroine's positivity and belief in the marriage they had made. She does not take her vows lightly. She made them in good faith and in love, and while the hero and herself have both changed significantly and irrevocably, she is willing to believe that they can seek new common ground and grow together through patience and understanding. Despite being so young, they had both been able to see below the superficial surface of each other to the real person beneath. She is of firm belief that such a love does not die and can grow back stronger than before through the care and deliberate thought of two mature people. She is firmly convinced of this and is willing to work hard to save her marriage. She simply has to persuade him to rise above his despondency to fight for them also.

I am fascinated by how two people contract marriage and how they make it work, and this is a wonderful look at the dedication it takes to make a marriage work and that, “I Love You” is just the beginning. My review is here.

Prep & Prejudice by Miren B. Flores
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Set in Manila and a decadent island in the Philippines, this is a story of a clash between vastly different classes. (While Flores uses an existing place, San Enrique, I wasn't sure which of the two actual San Enrique places she means, or if it is a wholly made up place of that name.)

The heroine has always felt herself to be on the fringes of the über rich. Her mother closely works for one of the monied classes, and as a result the heroine comes in contact with many of the rich kids. She does make a close friend among one of the girls, but she never truly fits in and carries a huge chip on her shoulder about their decadence and breezy self-confidence. In addition, despite her success in her adulthood, she is dogged by low self-esteem.

The hero was obnoxious to her in their teen years, so the switch between that (detailed thoroughly in flashback chapters) and their attraction to and sleeping with each other when they meet many years later is sudden to say the least and requires a leap of faith that wasn't quite plausible.

I can understand the feeling of inadequacy and resentment that the heroine grew up with, but even as she is drawn into a relationship with the wealthy hero, she cannot shake it off. She now suffers from Imposter Syndrome and is only waiting for the shoe to drop; as a result, she quickly jumps to the wrong conclusion when a certain something happens and runs away. By this time, I was tired of her and couldn't figure out why the guy was putting up with being put down constantly by her for something he could not control: his inherited wealth.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a romance between two princes: one, a member of the British royal family, and the other, the son of the POTUS. They move in the same widely influential monied circles, but in reality, they hate each other's guts. They cause an international situation when they get into a bit of a tug-of-war and fall into the $75k cake at the royal prince's brother's wedding. Oops! Then starts the publicity blitz to showcase their true bromance...which eventually leads to a true romance. But the two are separated by a large pond. How is their romance to flourish?

People have either loved this book or dismissed it—I lie with the former group. This was a fun romp of a rom-com, not to be taken seriously in the least, especially when real politicians show up in ignominious and inventive ways or characters have names of real people but behave vastly differently. This is not a historical or a true contemporary romance where real people act like real people. I mean, the premise is utterly fanciful. For example, the fact that a college student has wide access to senators and representatives in Congress and is able to see political trends and suss out secrets that loads of staffers and aides haven't while attending college is definitely worthy of a hard eye-roll. But that is precisely the charm of this book. You let go off all preconceived notions of how such a story exists and unfolds and go with the flow.

How to Love a Duke in Ten Days by Kerrigan Byrne
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: [CW: rape on page, PTSD from rape, murder]

She is brutally raped at her finishing school in Switzerland. Despite her horrific experience, she retains enough presence of mind to kill her rapist to prevent further depredations and with the help of friends buries him. By dint of superhuman effort, she rises above her trauma to get a doctorate—a rare achievement in Victorian England—and successfully travels to excavation sites at far reaches of the globe. The hero likewise has a love of travel, but he has also suffered trauma. On the surface, these two have a lot to deal with, and you would think they would rub each other raw. But in fact, they are both able to see the other person and their difficulties with compassion. I admired that about these two very much.

The love scenes in the book are sensitively done. The author does not magically sweep away the heroine's trauma through one introduction to the magic wang. Their progress in the intimacy department is a case of two steps forward, one step back, despite both of them wanting it very much. This story is one of hope, an affirmation that no matter the circumstances of your life, happiness is within reach. The book has a compelling mystery as well. The reveal at the end of the book is very satisfying with an excellent build up. My review is here.

Bringing Down a Duke by Evie Dunmore
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This is a book worth savoring—it is going to feature on my Best Books of the Year list. I loved it for its bright and intelligent observations, nuanced emotions, smart pacing, and engaging writing.

Dunmore has built an unforgettable protagonist in the duke. He reminded me again and again of Jo Beverley's Marquess of Rothgar in his intelligence, integrity, self-confidence, sense of self-worth, power over people around him including royalty, and quiet vulnerability beneath the seemingly unbreakable armor of his personality. And she is the perfect foil for such a man with her intelligence, confidence, and self-esteem that successfully hide her own vulnerabilities. I enjoy books where the protagonists have deep, abiding interests and passions other than spending time in each other's company. His involvement in political maneuvering and Annabelle's immutable belief in women's rights makes them complex, interesting people.

But alas, in Victorian England, class did play a big role in how society worked. He cannot consign his politics, his life's work, and his hereditary title to the flames in order to marry a nobody. He desperately wants to; she desperately wants him to. How Dunmore makes the HEA happen is masterful. My review is here.

A Wicked Kind of Husband by Mia Vincy
Category: Regency (?) Romance
Comments: I am an outlier with this story. It featured on many Best Books list last year, but I could barely finish it.

The beast in this Beauty and the Beast story is truly beastly towards the heroine. I can understand someone having rough manners because they had to scramble to survive and had a difficult childhood. But a lack of courtesy isn't the only thing that turned me off him—rather, it is how hurtful and selfish he is to her even as he perceives the hurt he is causing and how she takes it and puts a smile on it. His conscience does not smite him for long or severely enough because his own grievance and loss in the past are more relevant—her loss, her loneliness, her desperate straits do not elicit enough sympathy. I could not forgive him for it, and did not buy his redemption in the end. Even though she has continually forgiven him all through the book and found him amusing and was always kind to him despite his rejection of and unkindness towards her, I did not buy their HEA. Not a whit. She gave, he took, for most of the book.

The only good thing about this book is its occasional flashes of clever humor, and I like clever humor, never the silly sallies that are the usual fare of fluffy books. To be sure, this is not a fluffy book.

For Ever & Ever by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: The heroine, a former nurse, is a secretary of the secretary of a great poobah, who gets selected to accompany the poobah's daughter on a trip to Australia. The purpose is to get the girl away from a suitor, she is in love with and he is in disfavor of. So as a companion to the rich girl, our heroine of modest means gets to experience of modest means. The hero is the senior surgeon on board the ship, and unfortunately, for our heroine, the very man her charge was supposed to keep away from is the assistant surgeon. Thus she spends most of her journey in anxiety over her the girl's future with this unprincipled wastrel.

"Never before had she attempted to measure against someone unscrupulous and quick-witted." And despite it, and her intense dislike of scenes, she stands her ground because of her deep desire to help the girl in her charge. She was willing to have her character ripped into shreds to prevent that girl from having her life ripped into shreds. I really like how Burchell has her heroines step up with courage in times of stress, and do it gracefully and carefully.

Like last month's Burchell book, The Journey Together, this book is an examination on how travel changes a person. Little by little, we see the heroine growing up and her outlook on life broadening. Eventually, she starts to wonder how she will fit back into her old life, her job, her family. While she has moved forward and away from it all, those things have stayed the same. Along with this change of outlook, has come independence and assertiveness.

Interesting look at depression with the knowledge of science of Burchell's time. According to Burchell, having a sense of purpose and knowing that someone cares what happens to them is one of the best ways to lift someone out of melancholy. (Clearly, this is for borderline depression, not major, clinical depression.)

The Girl in the Blue Dress by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: The premise is lovely. The hero has lived with the portrait of a young girl for many years, and she brings him joy and peace and challenges him in his day-to-day living. He's gotten used to talking to her. I love how Burchell has the fine arts provide solace and excitement to her protagonists in her various books. So when the hero meets the real-life, grown-up girl, our heroine, he is charmed by her. But he is engaged elsewhere, and wishes to continue with that engagement and marry that girl. At no point does he transfer his affections to the heroine, who, in the meantime, gets engaged to someone else. Though she really likes the hero, at no point, does she fall in love with him; in fact, she had been in love with her fiancé for years and wants to marry him.

The big issue with the book is pacing—I know for a Burchell, this is rare. But this book really needed to be a longer book in order to make the end work. The story arc is much bigger than the 180+ pages assigned to categories of that time. As a result, at page 132, she finds out that Franklin's engagement was broken off by his fiancée; at page 151, she is still welcoming Geoffrey's kisses and is reassured of his love; by page 152, she has acknowledged to herself and Geoffrey that he is really in love with someone else and she is heartbroken; and by page 185, she and Franklin are saying their I-Love-Yous to each other.

There needed to be room in the book for the hero and heroine's romantic arc. The earlier part should have been sped up, the first engagements to the "wrong" people needed to have been broken off sooner, and the building awareness among these two needed to have be shown sooner and stronger in order to fit in the 180+ pages. This is so totally not like Burchell that it was a disappointment. This is not to say that the characters themselves are not interesting or the plot isn't well done, it's just that the structure of the story needed to be different.

The Promise of Happiness by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Fellow Neels' fan, Barb in Maryland, highly recommended this book, and it is wonderful! The heroine is really downtrodden: She's running for her life from her cruel relations in pouring rain and cold, when the doctor hero stops to give her ride. A trained nurse reduced to backbreaking housework not of her own choosing—that is what she'd been reduced to. But he gives her a new start in life, not through charity which would've been oppressive, but by instilling pride in herself by employing her to do what she enjoys doing and is good at: nursing. He calls her a "thin mouse," and in the beginning, that is true of her physical self from starvation and of her mental self from the abuse. But as the story moves on, you see her gaining weight as a metaphor for gaining an appreciation for how she looks, and speaking up with authority as a metaphor for being grounded in herself, her self-worth, and her confidence. As with the Burchell above, competence and a sense of purpose are what turn her away from despondency in life into fully participating in life.

Read this wonderful review to know all things about the book. One excellent comment they make, which is why I like this Neels heroine very much, is: "She may be thin and small but when she fell in love she didn't lose her backbone." Huzzahs! Some Neels heroines do tend to be doormats when the hero's influence grows in their life. Not this heroine! Huzzahs! And it was great to see the arrogant doctor be vulnerable and unsure. This is a rare Neels hero who isn't completely in charge with an amused smile all the time. He suffers doubts, unrequited love, jealousy, frustration—in short, he is normal. Huzzahs!

A side note the above review also makes is that Neels always describes the food in her books in great detail. Her characters tend to eat plenty of delicious meals, which she describes in full. And drink gallons of coffee and tea. A pot of tea before sleeping. Cup of coffee before bed. Egads!

One Night for Seduction by Erica Ridley
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is a story of a wallflower bringing a duke to heel. Ridley has spun the "matchmaker falling for the match-makee" trope on its head by making the duke the matchmaker with a string of successes to bolster his belief in being able to find a match even for a wallflower. Well, the wallflower is not all that she seems. She swoops in to save ordinary people being scammed by corrupt businessmen. I liked how smart and independent the heroine is—this is a great story of feminism thriving under the shackles of patriarchy. I also really liked how thoughtful and respectful the duke is to everyone around him—no doubt his humble beginnings account for his lack of a top-lofty attitude. Ridley plays fast and loose with historical accuracy and some of her plot points require a large leap of faith that I was not always capable of making, but overall, this was an enjoyable read, which Ridley always delivers.

Unbreak Me by Michelle Hazen
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: rape, PTSD from rape, racism, trauma from Katrina]

This is not a book I can recommend overall, despite some parts that are beautiful. The protagonists, in themselves, are lovely people, and their slow-build friendship is likewise lovely. The author does a good job of showing how the heroine has survived her trauma by making her life very small and how the hero is a man of sensitivity and care, whether it comes to spooked horses or traumatized women. Some of their moments together are really sweet. However, the two protagonists have so much stacked against them, that the fact that they're dealing with so much and yet managing a love story is admirable. And yet, the author doesn't convincingly show how they're successfully overcoming their trauma and arriving at their HEA.

Here are some of the other problems in the book:
–Lyndon B. Johnson was a racist. No Black parent would name their child for him. This is not plausible..
–There was some confusion on part of the author about Haitian and Creole culture and the Haitian Creole language and conflation of the two.
–Calling Lupus backwards AIDS is offensive. While, yes, the way the autoimmune diseases react are different from each other, but they are not related and that depiction is a bad choice.
–Rape survivors suffer from PTSD and it takes years of gradual recovery. Nothing happens in one fell swoop, not even exposure therapy, which is how some authors show it with sex scenes between the heroine and hero. One sex encounter isn't going to do it.
–The overall tenor of how the white heroine deals with being in primarily black neighborhoods of NOLA leave a bad taste in the mouth and borders on racism.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This is an eloquently argued essay based on her TEDxEuston talk of the same title. In it, Adichie talks about how "feminist" has become a dirty work of extremism in our culture, one thrown out as an accusation rather than a laudation. It is neither. It is simply as its definition says: A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

"If we do/say/see something over and over again, it becomes normal. We internalize ideas from our socialization." (Who doesn't believe this in today's political atmosphere?) Nigerian culture, as does American culture, privileges men and their fragile egos over the wishes and dreams of women and proceeds to erase women and make them invisible. "We raise our girls to shrink themselves, make themselves smaller, compromise, and cater to the male ego. You can ambition, but not too much; you can be successful, but not too much; otherwise, you will threaten the man."

Adichie acknowledges the biological differences of men and women, while also noting that centuries past, when physical strength was required to lead, it made sense of men to lead. But now, when intelligence, knowledge, experience, creativity, innovation are the criteria for success, the different between men and women do not exist. However, our normal still privileges the male gender; girls still examine their lives and choices through the male gaze.

Adichie says that at the same time, "we do boys an injustice in how we raise them. We define masculinity very narrowly—to be hard men, Nigerian-speak—and we teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability, of being their true selves. We are raised to expect so little of men that the idea of men as savage beings with no self-control [in the case of rape] is acceptable."

Some men say that they neither notice nor think about gender. (How many times in recent years have we heard this about race?) By not thinking about gender, they assume things are better now for females and do nothing about it, even when they see injustice happening. They're self-congratulatory in not being sexist, but their passivisity is sexism itself.

Once she wrote an article about gender differences and was accused of being angry, and she agrees it was angry, because "gender differences are a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change."

This is where I depart from the great Adichie. Is all the anger and vitriol visible on Romance Twitter really bringing about social change, or is it merely setting people's backs up? Isn't there a more intelligent way of debating to get your point across? Most people are resistant to change if change is crammed down their throats. More success will be had by appealing to their humanity. I will be vilified on Romance Twitter for saying this, but I needed to say this in my space. (After all, Gandhi was famous for his non-violence movement that not only brought about great social change but also independence for India. Martin Luther King Jr was greatly influenced by Gandhi, though his approach was different.)

Little known fact about Adichie: She is a huge fan of Mills & Boon! #MYPEOPLE

Siuluk the Last Tuniq by Nadia Sammurtok, illustrated by Rob Nix
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Sammurtok was born in and lives in Nunavut, Canada and is passionate about preserving the traditional Intuit way of life and the Inuktitut language. The story of Siuluk, one of the last of the Tuniit living in Nunavut, has been passed down generation after generation in Sammurtok's family and community.

The Tuniit were said to be the gentle giants of the North. Siuluk was often told that he was the last tuniq (very strong) man alive. Siuluk was a friendly man who preferred to live quietly alone, not far from an Intuit village. Unfortunately for Siuluk, unkind people from the village often teased him unmercifully about his size, his way of life, and his strength. One day, Siuluk decided to prove his tuniq to them. There was a huge slab of rock outside the village. He asked each man to life it, but they couldn't. When he lifted it, they were humbled and embarrassed and vowed never to tease him again. Siuluk chiseled into the top of the rock: "If you are as strong as I am, move the rock." Generation after generation of men tried and were humbled and embarrassed and Siuluk's legend continued on.

My takeaway from this story is: Instead of being defensive, prove other people wrong—it is easier to make your point this way.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

My July Reading

I read an amazing feminist book this month, which included translated fiction stories by one Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, an upper class lady from a secluded zenana in Eastern India in the early 1900s, her fascinating life history, and literary criticism of her work. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Every person who contributed to the book is brilliant, and Rokeya, is fascinating and wildly inspirational. She's the model of which activists are made. More on her below.

I came across this lovely print on the internet somewhere, without provenance or copyright, and liked it so much that I stole it for my blog. Isn't it beautiful?

A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings translated & edited by Coleman Barks
Category: Poetry
Comments: I have mentioned before that whenever I approach Rumi trying to understand him, he anticipates me and my situation and has something to tell me. I had just started reading a philosophical book World Enough & Time by Christian McEwen about slowing down your life in order to savor it, when the very same day, my Rumi reading brought me this poem, "The Treasure's Nearness":

A man searching for spirit-treasure
cannot find it, so he is praying.
A voice inside him said, You were given
the intuition to shoot an arrow.
You were told to draw the bow
with only a fraction of your ability.
Do not exhaust yourself
like the philosophers who strain to shoot
the high arcs of their thought-arrows.

More on World Enough & Time next month when I've read more into it.

Sultana's Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Author), Roushan Jahan (Editor), Roshan Jahan (Translator), Hanna Papanek (Afterword)
Category: Nonfiction Essays, Fiction Stories
Comments: This is a gem of a book! It's on ongoing read, so I'm just going to comment on the essay by Roushan on the AMAZING Rokeya this month.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in Pairabad, a small village in the Bengal region of India (now in Bangladesh) under British rule. She was born into a wealthy Muslim zamindar (landowning) family who observed strict purdah: the women were completely veiled in public and confined to the zenana (women's quarters) at home, while the men had the freedom to move from the mardana (men's quarters) to the zenana. Rokeya's mother's strict observance of purdah gave Rokeya a life of strict seclusion, a life condemned to illiteracy and no rights, a waste of human potential.

Luckily for Rokeya, her eldest brother taught her English and Bangla in secret, but it was only after her marriage that she truly came into her own. She was beyond blessed to marry a man of liberal attitudes who wanted from his wife not the traditional duty and obedience but love and empathy—he not only loved her, he was also proud of her. He supported her in whatever she set out to do and whoever she mingled with. She met with women of all classes and religions and learned how they navigated the world and what freedoms and restrictions they had. Rokeya was passionate about educating girls—I wonder if Malala has heard/read about her—and she had her husband's full support. Unfortunately, he passed away early. In his memory in 1911, she opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School in Calcutta, which is still functional to this day.

Stiff opposition from wealthy influential Muslim men made Rokeya aware of the need to organize women, so in 1916, she founded the Muslim Women's Association. She was a tireless activist in recruiting women of all classes to her organization and showing them a better way of life forward. Her organization also offered financial assistant to poor widows, rescued and sheltered battered wives, helped poor families to marry their daughters, and helped poor women to achieve literacy.

And through it all she wrote articles and essays in noted newspapers and magazines about her experiences and her philosophy of women's education and the impact of it on the larger society. She also wrote fiction based on her philosophical principles. (More on that next month.) Rokeya is jaw-droppingly AMAZING, isn't she? To come from where she did to become who she did is a journey of such courage and conviction. It's awe-inspiring.

Gratitude by Dr. Oliver Sacks
Category: Nonfiction Essay Collection
Comments: I re-read this book many times, because it reminds me to slow down and find gratitude in my heart no matter my life situation. This book was part of the impetus to turn my Live Journal from a regular journal into a daily gratitude journal. That I had nothing to write in it for the past two months is a testament to how I was feeling. So I felt it was time for a re-read to remind myself that no matter how terrible a day, a week, a month is going, something good is also happening, no matter how small. This re-read reminded me to resume recording my daily appreciations.

This book is a collection of four of Sacks' essays: Mercury, My Own Life, My Periodic Table, and Sabbath. Written in the last two years of his life, I was struck by the grace and clarity of vision with which he was facing death and contemplating the quality of his life and the world around him. I discovered the collection only upon his death in 2015 when I found it mentioned in one his obituaries.

Sacks first came to my notice upon the publication of his op-ed essay My Own Life in the New York Times. He wrote the essay in mere days after learning in the winter of 2015 that the cancer in his eye, detected in 2005, had now spread to his liver and was terminal. The outpouring of support the piece received was a source of solace to him that he had lived a life of a lettered man and that he had a legacy he was going to leave behind.

Sacks was a fan of philosopher David Hume's work. In Hume's brief memoir, My Own Life, I see the bones of Sacks' essay of the same title. One thing that Hume wrote struck me as the epitome of how Sacks saw himself, to wit: "Notwithstanding the great decline of my person, [I have] never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company."

Sacks never allowed himself to descend into despair over life's many disappointments. He was what he described as immoderate in his passions—even in the last few months of his life, he felt intensely alive, worked on deepening his friendships, wrote, traveled, said his farewells, and strove to "achieve new levels of understanding and insight.'

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is an excellent retelling of Pride & Prejudice with the focus on the romance. Set in Canada with Indian-Canadian Muslim protagonists and cast of characters, it was a delight from the first word to the last—rich with cultural texture and social nuance, it was laugh-out-loud funny in parts.

While staying true to the broad strokes of P&P, Jalaluddin has gone one step further than Austen by introducing religion into the maelstrom of Indian-Canadian cultural norms and societal mores. This adds a complexity to the novel that Austen sidestepped. Not only do the protagonists both feel like they're part of both worlds—India and Canada—yet part of neither, they feel the same about Islam. How Muslim are they? Jalaluddin allows them to guide their natural impulses and struggle with their human feelings and align them with what the holy Qur'an ascribes as being a good person.

I loved the depictions of the Indian-Canadian immigrant community of Toronto. All the harkening back to the old country, the adopting of modern Canadian cultural mores, the shocking of the old folks, the horrifying of the young generation—it is all done humorously and authentically. Lovely!

This was my best fiction read of the month. My review is here.

Men of Valor: His Treasure by Kiru Taye
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: Set in South-Eastern Nigeria before the colonization by the British, this is an excellent story of yearning and what marriage means to a proud man and woman. She is a spoiled daughter of a wealthy man who is caught with a man and thus married off in a hurry to another man who desires her for his wife. She will have nothing to do with him and tells him so on their wedding night. He is in love with her, but too proud to force her—as would've been culturally appropriate for him—he wants her to come to him of her own free will. A year later, they are still living chastely, and he still yearns for her.

The author paints a picture of Nigeria that is confident and evocative. The country’s old ways are very much in evidence here, and it’s testament to her skill that I came away with the impression that this story could not possibly have been set anywhere else. The characters’ motivations, decisions, and actions stem from their culture and yet, in crucial ways, deviate from it; and where they diverge is a product of the individuality of the two protagonists. My review is here.

Desire and the Deep Blue Sea by Oliva Dade
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is a low-conflict, cream puff of a story. Dade's hero is the epitome of a Cinnamon Roll Hero—a term that Dade has coined—and a great foil for the prickly heroine. They are work buddies who pretend to be in a relationship in order to participate in an island adventure for a reality TV show. He is in love with her, but he causes her great anxiety because of his behavior at work, in other words, she hates him.

Dade understands women very well, and in Thomas, she has created the perfect mate. Thomas offers understanding, acceptance, companionship, respect, and affection all wrapped up in a sexy package. Thomas really listens to what Callie is saying and changes his behavior accordingly. A man who takes feedback and gives the woman the respect of knowing her own mind is incredibly attractive. Dade gave Thomas the patience to wait for Callie to discover her feelings for him and the perseverance to not abandon his love for her as unrequited when faced with her resistance. My review is here.

A Debutante in Disguise by Eleanor Webster
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was an excellent story. The manuscript that I wrote many years ago featured just such a heroine: one who wants to be a doctor and defies society to be so by disguising herself and leading a double life. So I was naturally drawn to this book, and Webster has done a marvelous job with the storyline (far better than my poor offering). Webster pairs the heroine with a conservative hero who is aghast that the heroine is being so unwomanly. While he repudiates her, she offers him acceptance and compassion for his physical injuries and mental torments. The beauty of the story is how he gradually changes his opinions the more he gets to know her and understand her integrity, passion, and brilliance. This story got an 'A-' from me. My review is here.

A Highlander Walks into a Bar by Laura Trentham
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a fun, light-hearted story with two warm, tender romances and is a perfect beach read. Most Highlander stories are historical romances set in Scotland. While there are tartans aplenty in this book, this is a modern-day story of Scottish Highlanders unfolding in America. There are two stories in this book: the heroine and a half-English-half-Scottish heir to a castle and the heroine's mother and a Scottish Earl, the uncle of the heir. And there are two estates: one in Highland, Georgia, with its fetish for all things Scottish, and the real deal in the Scottish Highlands. Which couple is going to live where? Who is going to give up which lifestyle and move where? For all its lightheartedness, it's not a rom-com. And it is very much a modern romance, just a quiet one. My review is here.

Falling for a Rake by Eve Pendell
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: One is a perfect rake and the other a perfect lady, and they come together in a hole in the ground. Surely, they are meant to be. And they are. But how they get from a stolen kiss at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft to a marriage of love, trust, and respect is what makes this book interesting. She is a daughter of a duke and a spinster with Pteridomania, a passion for ferns. In childhood, she was a free-spirited girl, but in her adulthood, she has reigned in her emotions and wishes so tightly that she lives a half unfulfilled life, but she has convinced herself that she is leading an exemplary life of virtue and keeping her family free from scandal. He was a ne’er-do-well in his misspent youth but graduated to full rakehood in early adulthood. They both believe they are bad for the grievous wrong they did as young adults. This book, ultimately, is about forgiveness, about how you can do wrong, make reparations for it, and forgive yourself. And you can stop judging others. It is written in great emotional depth, and despite the surprise reveal that did give me pause, I felt the forgiveness arc worked. YMMV. My review is here.

A Love for All Seasons: Spring's Promise by Edith Layton
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: I picked up this collection on the strength of Layton's name, and this first novella was very promising and springy (har!). Layton skillfully based the rakeshame hero on Damerel of Heyer's Venetia, though the heroine is no Venetia. Like Damerel, Layton's hero is well aware of his well-deserved disreputable reputation and also firmly set on not corrupting the impulsive beauteous young miss who is so bent on scandalizing country society. Their prearranged dawn riding meetings away from the scrutiny of society's sticklers allows them to form a friendship that is honest and without stylized posturing. And he falls hard for her. He's never had a friendship with a female before, and even though he loves females and everything to do with them, there's been no female before who understands him like the heroine does. So much of being in love with someone has to do with being comfortable with the one who "gets" them. And while these two are leagues apart in experience and background, they "get" each other. The success of this first novella augurs well for the rest of the collection.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: After my conversation with Willaful in the comments of last month's reading round-up, I decided to read this book again. The last time I read it was in October 2015, and this is what I thought of it then. But fast-forward four years, and I have a radically different opinion of the story. After having read so much of Burchell's work last month and Betty Neels' as well, I have a more nuanced view of the time period when these stories were written and a finer appreciation of Burchell's writing style and voice.

The heroine is not a doormat. In fact, she is one of Burchell's independent heroines, who knows her own worth and knows how to navigate her life with confidence. This is paired with looks and a practical honesty, which charms whoever she meets. Burchell is fond of innocent ingénues, but they still manage to manage their lives without needing someone else to manage it for them.

The hero is described as: a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy. In today's version of alpha heroes, he would be laughed at by readers. But make no mistake, he is an alpha through and through: dictatorial, ruthless, always wants his way, and not always nice.

What draws him to her is that she doesn't knuckle under his dominance. Such a simple thing, really. She stands up to him at her own peril—he is the haute couture Parisian designer, she's a British débutante model—she has no power in the relationship because he could easily fire her. And yet, yet she stands firmly on her principals, and in so doing, makes him capitulate. She grabs power by not giving in to him; he accedes power by respecting her upper hand. Burchell is a master at power in relationships as I discovered reading the Warrender Saga last month.

Read the late Miranda Neville's wonderful blog about this. Miranda was very fond of fashion and classical music—no wonder Burchell hit the sweet spot for her time and time again.

The Journey Together by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Burchell has continued to be an 'A' to a 'B' read for me. While this one was not as fabulous at the one above, it was still a solid read. That is why I am so fascinated by Burchell's work, and I'm reaching for her books time and again since May. Current difficulties in life mean a desire for comfort reading. By comfort, I don't mean low conflict and cozy necessarily, just reliably good. I enjoy how lighthearted and practical her heroines are—gamine is the word for them—at the same time, they take their responsibilities seriously and have a verve for adventure and some risk-taking. I find their positivity wholly attractive, and I draw comfort that someone somewhere is taking their knocks in life with resilience.

Our heroine has been recruited to act as a secretary to the head of the travel firm on his convalescence trip to Austria and Italy with his wife. She is delighted beyond belief. Growing up shy and of modest means, she never dreams she would even be able to have a trip like this. She is determined to enjoy herself and work hard. Accompanying them is our hero, a relative of her employer, who also works for the firm, because both men have business in each of the cities they're visiting, in addition, to vacation time. He is not as alpha as Burchell's usual heroes, but is still sufficiently take-charge, to set her back up. Her growth from diffidence to assertiveness is done superbly well.

Beautiful rumination on what it means to have purpose in life and how that is necessary and also attractive. She is romanced by a care-for-nothing sophisticated fellow but eventually prefers the solid, hardworking, honest gentleman—competence is so enticing.

Emma's Wedding by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I had been warned by Ros Clarke that Neels' non-nurse romances would not work for me, because the heroines tend to be pushovers. Still I decided to chance it, and this story started out strong, so I was feeling good about then, but then at the halfway mark, it descended into "helpless damsel in need of rescue." Sigh!

When the heroine's father passes away, she and her mother realize that he left behind huge debts. So they have to give comfortable lifestyle in Richmond and move into a small cottage in a small seaside village. The heroine now has to get two jobs to make ends meet, but her mother is utterly clueless in knowing how to save money. Emma is saddled with all the household tasks as well as working, while her mother plays bridge and goes to cafes. She is a millstone around our stalwart heroine's neck.

Enter an über wealthy Dutch doctor, who takes one look at her and falls hard. But for most of the book, he takes great care not to rush her. He wants to fall in love with him on her own timeline. All well and good. But as her feelings for him grow, so does her helplessness, and worse, passivity. I think it's the latter that was more irritating than the former. She behaves like a doll allowing him to move her around, do things to her, have her do things, and she acquiesces without a murmur. This is not a HEA I can get behind but I guess they would be happy in their way, with him in the active, decision-making role on every small thing and she happily agreeing to it all.

Henrietta's Own Castle by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: In a delightful change from the previous book, I discovered this great Neels book, thanks to Kay. I loved how Neels paired her usual alpha hero with an alpha heroine with both having some beta qualities as well. In this story, Neels also has bits from the hero's POV and an omniscient POV to show us how the hero is feeling—so everything isn't filtered from the heroine's perspective. That made for a richer story, and I liked both characters very much. And...there is no mocking from the hero. A decided plus!

While the heroine is a Sister, the medical matters are minimal in that, the story does not unfold in a hospital setting, though she is required in her nursing capability a few times in the book. The heroine is a hardworking, independent spirit, who move to a new country, settles there, and makes a place for herself in Dutch society by mingling with the village folk, helping to nurse patients during a plane crash, aiding two lovers to come together, and learning Dutch. This last detail is a departure from other Neels' heroines who refer to Dutch as an incomprehensible foreign language. Our heroine makes an effort to make a success of her new life. She's even willing to climb a tall ladder and fix her leaking roof when the hero, her landlord, is being a boor by not sending someone to help her. From the way the story ends, I get the feeling that our indomitable heroine is going to continue working part-time as a nurse even after her wedding. Go, girl!

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The pedigree of the writer and illustrator is why I picked up this book. It's a curious book for Graves to write. He was known for historical novels, such as I, Claudius and translations of Apuleius, Suetonius, and others. A children's picture book from one such as he is highly unusual. The prose is a bit stilted, more formal, and the imagination is quite like what one would think a child would think like as opposed to what a child would really think like. There is also an element of glee at misfortune that is odds with the tenor of current children's picture books. Having said all that, the story is entertaining. And the illustrations are simply WOW! They're pen and ink illustration with great detail and emotional expressivity—Sendak is truly exemplary.

A young boy lives with an aunt and uncle, of whom he is not very fond, but who are fond of him, as the reader realizes over the course of the book, but the boy fails to realize. One day, he finds a dusty big green book in the attic and is delighted to discover that it is a book of magic spells. If he draws a line around him in the ground with a stick and take three deep breaths while holding on to the book, he can become whoever he wants to be, even disappear. So he takes on the guise of a very old man and tricks his aunt and uncle and their dog mercilessly and makes them feel very silly, because they don't know who he is. At the end of the day, he assumes his usual guise without revealing his tricks. He has a good chuckle over it, and he goes on to excel at school and other things, thanks to the book.

I am sure kids will laugh over his antics as well, but the end of the story is not quite what we would like our children to learn these days.

Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids by Thomas Kersting
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: A poorly formulated, poorly written, and poorly edited "book" by a self-aggrandizing "nationally renowned" psychotherapist, who needs help writing his own bio. I would never have picked it up if it hadn't been a book that our school chose as their inaugural book for their summer reading program for parents and students. I would like to take the person/people in charge of this book selection and shake them. What. Utter. Rubbish.

While he is absolutely right that the amount of time kids spend on social media these days is detrimental to their mental health, his data and conclusions about total screen time is from a study from 2008. As a result, it makes no allowance for how much computers are used in kids' daily school life with in-class and at-home usage. Most families these days aren't watching as much TV. His number is that 64% are together as a family, which is incorrect. And so on. I DNF'd the book when he quoted a New York Post (RIGHT?! That piece of junk?!) article that said that "many NYC students are so tech-oriented they can't even sign their own names." And with no sense of irony, he takes it as gospel and expounds on it. Apparently, using smartphones is reducing their fine-motor skills.