Sunday, February 10, 2019

My January Reading

This month's reading roundup has been a long time coming. We've had many snow days here, which means, everyone has been at home, and I've been the default entertainment center. On to my blog post...

This month's children's books were selections sent to me by my friend in India. She's the founder of the NEEV Literature Festival for children's and young adult books and the festival's corresponding awards. The festival attendees and awardees are Indian authors, writing about Indian children, and published by Indian publishers.

"The NEEV Book Award recognises outstanding writing that leads to a fuller understanding of India, Indian lives, and Indian stories. The award spotlights stories that offer Indian children reflections of their own lives and experiences. It also invites children around the world to explore and better understand India. We hope that this award will encourage and promote Indian children's literature globally. The award winners are chosen from a shortlist of literature that illuminate a changing India. The authors give voice to India's evolving characters and the challenge her children face. An independent jury selected three books after months of deliberation, and the awards were given out on September 29 at the NEEV litfest."

See below for my thoughts on three children's picture books.

A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings translated & edited by Coleman Barks
Category: Poetry
Comments: This is going to be an ongoing read: a day-by-day poem-after-poem read throughout the year.

The Scoundrel and I by Katharine Ashe
Category: Pre-Victorian Historical Romance
Comments: Every review of an Ashe book should include: "A! Go read it!" Honestly, she writes stellar books, and this novella is no different. This is a story of a girl born of humble origins who is raised into the ton by an ardent suitor. She is truly downtrodden, dreaming of happily-ever-after while working at a low-paying job at a printing press and looking after an ailing grandmother and watching the lonely years pass on by. The hero enters into her life in a hurricane of aristocratic insouciance that changes to genuine concern and on to attentive romantic interest. He wants to lift her up to his life, but she is an independent soul who will not be bamboozled by his wealth and rank. Convincing her of allowing him to help her is a Herculean task. I liked how strong both characters are and how encouraging and supportive they are of each other. I also liked the cast of secondary characters.

The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sherri Cobb South
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The hero is a true low class hero with a low class accent and ill-fitting, though expensive, clothes. He moves on the outer ton circles because of his vast wealth. After being bought from the workhouse to work in a cotton mill, he is raised up the chain of command to the very top through his hard work and smarts. And yet, despite his keen intelligence, he falls hard for a supercilious duke's daughter and succeeds in buying her from the duke in a marriage of convenience. How she comes to recognize his worth and he hers is a tender romance. But right to the end, the hero retains his accent and his connection to trade. He will be a tradesman and Cit all his life, but he will have the love of his high-born wife.

The Storybook Hero by Andrea Pickens
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: The hero is a wastrel to the nth degree—that is, a rake who truly behaves like a rake. He's a gambler and a promiscuous alcoholic. It took to freezing his arse off in the Russian countryside in the dead of winter to come to the realization that maaaybe, just perhaps, this was not the fastest way to put a period to his existence. Unless he wanted to eat the business end of a pistol, he was better off shaping up. And he sure cleaned up nice. The hero became a wastrel when he was unable to save his oldest brother from drowning and was then made to feel like he should've been the one to die by his family. Lovely family! Anyway. In order to jerk him out of his hellish ways, his uncle sends him off to Russia to rescue a young orphaned male relative whose life is in danger.

In the meantime, the heroine is on her way to Russia to be a governess because hard circumstances, in the guise of a vengeful, sexually-thwarted owner of the house where she works, means there is no other option open to her. She's going to be teaching a young orphaned girl. As coincidence would have it—and in romance novels, they always do—the hero and heroine meet on the boat from England to Russia. Then they part ways.

They don't meet again till chapter 8. This may bother some people who like their protagonists to be in regular contact after the meet-cute. However, to me, the strength of this book is how much time it spends in individual character-building so that when they meet again, you already know who they are. It makes their interactions all the richer, because the basics are out of the way, and the author gets into more of the complexity of the characterization. Russian winter is beautifully shown in this book. It is one of the highlights of the story.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
Category: General Fiction
Comments: This is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice set in Pakistan. It is so clever and so witty, while also being tender and heartwarming. Kamal’s writing is smart, bright, and fresh with wonderfully well-placed humor and a deep dive into contemporary Pakistani society and culture. Like a musical refrain, Kamal returns again and again to the Pride & Prejudice text to build a filigree of interconnections between it and Unmarriageable. Where the two stories march together is just as fun as when the stories diverge allowing Pakistan to shine through the fabric of the book.

Kamal’s comprehensive and thorough understanding of Austen’s Regency-era culture and social norms and those of Pakistan’s today, allows her to draw many parallels between the two—how in essence, the women have the same concerns, anxieties, triumphs, sacrifices, compromises, and limitations. Their lives are just as hemmed in today as they were two hundred years ago. Marriage is the culmination of womanhood and a woman is nothing without that status—whether she is happy in that union or not is immaterial. Like Austen, Unmarriageable is not a romance genre novel. It is a sharply observant and witty commentary on Pakistani society and culture and the myriad relationships among the people who live in it. My review is here.

Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles
Category: Late Victorian Romance
Comments: Charles' books are near-perfection! I know you're rolling your eyes at my hyperbole, but I can't think of saying it in any other way. The juxtaposition of menace and affection, control and submission in this book are as exquisite as they are irresistible.

Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, the second son of the Duke of Ilvar, is now known simply as Mr. Alec Pyne. He has come rather down in the world and works as a lowly sketch artist for illustrated papers and books, toiling in his studio under London’s skylights. On this late Victorian June evening, he is at the Grand Cirque presumably to attend a performance, but in reality, to meet the Lilywhite Boys AKA professional jewel thieves. He wants to commission the theft of an obscenely expensive diamond parure gifted by the Duke of Ilvar to his duchess.

This is how the book starts. The story unfolds as Alec and one of the thieves embark on a relationship while setting up the heist. The story is told with Charles' characteristic precision of detail and economy of words. The details and the twists and turns—oh, there are a few of those—are too delicious to spoil. My review is here.

99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Those readers who loved Sally Thorne’s début The Hating Game and expect a similar style of story told in that same authorial voice will find this second book, 99 Percent Mine, a totally different story. While I enjoyed that first book, I liked this one very much. The first book was everything writ large, whereas this novel looks inward. It is all about the inner growth of Darcy from insecurity to confidence. It is a tale of how a person can grow up surrounded by love yet feel not worthy of it. How is such a person to be convinced that not only are they deeply loved but that they can love deeply in return?

The charm of this book for me was that they are both so outwardly self-assured and capable, but within the privacy of their twosome, they feel uncertain of every step they take. They know they love, but are they loved in return? This anxiety changes as the book advances to: The other person loves me, but are they willing to be in a forever loving relationship with me, because one does not follow the other? In most books, the I-Love-Yous are immediately followed by marriage vows, but that progression is completely uncertain in this story. My review is here.

Three Little Words by Jenny Holliday
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What is a relationship? And what constitutes a good relationship? There are infinite varieties of human connections, and in this book, Holiday gives her protagonists the onus and latitude to explore the depth and breadth of these two questions and how they pertain to the two of them. Gia Gallo and Bennett Buchanan are bridesmaid and best man, respectively, in their best friends’ wedding. This is the only tie they have.

Their lives couldn’t be any different. Gia is a super model with no fixed home. She lives out of a suitcase in fabulous locations all around the world — her exceptional beauty translating into wealth. Bennett is a Southern transplant to NYC with deep roots in Charleston. He is a celebrated chef serving superbly crafted Cajun food in his restaurant to high-paying and non-paying clientele. She does not know what to do with her riches; he does not know how to pay for his dream of opening a charitable restaurant. You would think that this would be the meet cute of their relationship. But nothing by Holiday is as obvious as that. My review is here.

Trailblazer by Anna Schmidt
Category: Victorian Western Romance
Comments: It is a tender, gentle tale of love blossoming between two people who’re not searching for it. Someday… oh, sure, someday, they want that special someone in their lives who will bring them joy and companionship, someone with whom they will walk side-by-side on the road of life. But at this moment in time, they are not looking for marriage. They are not even looking for love. And yet… love catches them by surprise.

Grace Rogers decides to move west to earn her living as a Harvey Girl at the Harvey Eating Houses along the Santa Fe Railroad. She is yearning for adventure away from the loneliness and poor prospects eking out a living at her family farm in Missouri. She also wants a good job that will allow her to send money back to her parents to aid their impoverished circumstances.

Nick Hopkins is a foreman at a cattle ranch in Juniper, New Mexico. He enjoys the trust and respect of his employer, but he dreams of owning his own land and his own ranch. He has been saving every penny he can so that one day he can turn his aspiration and ambition into reality. He has already staked out the land that is going to be his.

On the train from Kansas City to Juniper, Grace and Nick chance to meet. My review is here.

Our Incredible Cow by Mahasweta Devi, translated from Bengali by Devi, illustrated by Ruchi Shah
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a cute story of a naughty cow called Nyadosh, who was a family's cow but considered herself a pet. She would boldly enter the house, and she loved to chew up and digest the children's books. One day, Nyadosh discovered the taste of fish, and she was all over it. In vain, the lady of house remonstrated with her that cows don't eat fish, but Nyadosh refused to eat her regular food. She loved chicken and developed an über-sophisticated taste for lobster and crab.

Raiding the kitchen wasn't her only misdemeanor. She loved to go to the banks of the River Ganges and push any policeman who loitered around there into the water. Nyadosh was possibly the only cow in British-ruled India to have police cases lodged against her. And so on and so forth—the story talks about all the naughty doings of this cow.

I Will Save My Land by Rinchin, illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This won the New Book Award 2018 and is a beautiful story of how a girl and her grandmother stand up for a woman's right to work. Little Mati loved to help her father, Ba, and grandmother, Ajji, work in their potato farm. But Ba doesn't allow Mati to do much in fear that she will spoil the crop. So Mati asks for her own plot of land to plant her own crop.

When Ba demurs, Ajji speaks up strongly in support: "How much I had to fight to keep my land. Just to plough it I had to go against the whole village. They used to laugh at me. It has taken me so long to get my rights. And now you say things like this? You, who have been brought up alone by your mother?"

Ajji went to court and fought the upper caste villagers for her farm, and now she is pleased that her granddaughter has inherited her spirit and stubbornness. Seeking advice from Ajji, Mati grew all kinds of vegetables in her successful doli-khet farm. She also attended meetings with Ajji about village politics and rich people usurping land. Great story of strong women standing against the depredations on their livelihood.

Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendra, illustrated by Satwik Gade
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the true story of one of India's famed social workers who was also a beloved teacher and respected lawyer. Little Bhim was a mahar, of the untouchable class—a shameful practice that continues to this day in this highly striated society of classes and castes. As a child, Bhim was ostracized from participating in all the ordinary activities of other children. He was not allowed to drink from the same pot or sit with the other children or plays with them. Yet, he did not allow himself to be discouraged.

He was an intelligent child, a hard worker, and kept a positive attitude. His diligence paid off, and after college, he won a scholarship to study in America. There, he finally found freedom from his caste. He could sit anywhere, drink from the same glasses, and go everywhere. But when he returned to India, the oppressive stigma of his caste pressed down upon him again. After getting a degree in law from London, Bhim returned to India determined to seek justice for his people. He worked very hard and advocated for equality among the classes. After India became independent, he became India's first Law Minister.