Sunday, April 28, 2019

My April Reading

Life as a reviewer for USA Today Happy Ever After used to be chaotic since my two columns (for historical and contemporary romance) had no deadlines and would run whenever I was done reading the books and writing them up. Thus I'd end up having some blah days and some days when I was rushing to catch up. With Frolic Media, I have a weekly commitment to one or two reviews. As a result, some order has been brought on my reading and writing, and instead of having a whole month of reading to do, I have weekly goals with deadlines. This has not only allowed me to plan my reading (all the way through December!!) but also to intersperse it with personal reading as opposed to just review reading.

A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings
Category: Poetry
Comments: As I mentioned before, Rumi's poems seem to show up for me exactly when I need them. This poem was a good reminder to let go of my anger before it twists me up inside and turns me bitter about that particular person. Easier said than done, of course, and it's a work in progress, but reminders like this snippet from "Wax" are perfect.

I must have been incredibly simple or drunk or insane
to sneak into my own home and steal money,
to climb over my own fence and take my own vegetables
But no more. I have gotten free of that ignorant fist
that was pinching and twisting my secret self.

Day of Love by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Anthology
Comments: Balogh has put together three of her Valentine's Day novellas in this collection. If nothing else, this anthology has convinced me what a master storyteller Balogh is. I know, water is wet, but honestly, it's in her trads that she shines, and these novellas are top-notch. The stories are complex and complete in and of themselves without feeling rushed despite the obvious short form.

Golden Rose is set in Bath where the Master of Ceremonies seeks to enliven the dreary winter days with a masked ball on February 14. Each gentleman is encouraged to send a valentine to the lady of his choice with the request that she carry some favor of his to the ball to be reclaimed at the end of the evening. In the true spirit of the festival, the card is to be anonymous. A twelve-year-old boy decides to take matters into his own hands and delivers his rakish cousin's valentine and favor—golden roses—into the hands of a destitute companion of their aunt's instead of the bored beauteous widow who is the valentine's original intent. Surprise at the unmasking! And the start of a relationship.

A Waltz Among the Stars is about two souls finding Valentine's Day the most unbearable of days in the year, because the day is a celebration of love and both have lost their loves, one to death in childbirth and the other to the Battle of Talavera. The heroine has been ostracized from her family for having lain with her lover on V-Day before he headed off to war and died, leaving her with child. She lives in the dower house at her father the duke's mercy, shunned and forgotten.

The hero has been invited to a house party at the duke's manor house to propose marriage to the younger daughter. There the hero and heroine meet on the grounds of the estate. The two are drawn to each other, partly because of attraction and partly because only they can understand what the other has lost and what it means to survive the loss and move on in life. Such a quiet story of intense feelings.

The local spinster has been hurriedly called in to replace an unexpected no-show at a house party in The Substitute Guest. She knows that the hostess has a reputation for being fast, but she is determined to grasp at this one chance in a lifetime to have a short adventure to enliven her declining years. Unfortunately for her, the crowd she finds herself in is rather risqué, and she does not know whether she should turn tail and run or stay and try to enjoy herself. Luckily for her, she is rescued by a bored duke who decides to set himself the challenge of seducing a virginal spinster. But he is rather shocked how fast his feelings for her change and how protective he is of her innocence and reputation. Thus the seducer is seduced.

An Unacceptable Offer by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This story is warm and tender and...just perfect. Best of all, the two little girls in the book are not plot moppets. They're integral to the story and go towards the characterization of both the protagonists. In fact, that is true of the four major players. The cast of secondary characters is small—only three—and their roles are minor. This is a trad in the best sense because the focus is on the people and on characterization rather than plot.

She fell in love with him five years ago, but he had eyes only for another. Now he's widowed and back in town for a wife. She realizes she still loves him but he now has eyes only for her beauteous cousin. So she's taken by surprise when he proposes to her and angered when she realizes that he proposed marriage because she was sensible, conversable, and good with children. She rips up at him in tears, "I am not a footstool. I am a person. My happiness matters to me." Marvelous scene! When she turns around and accepts his best friend, he is thrown first into the sullens (he's never been refused by a woman before) and then into the doldrums (too late, he now realizes he loves her).

A Chance Encounter by Gayle Buck
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The story starts out with a very interesting premise. Our hero is drunk and driving his phaeton recklessly along the North Road when he rounds a corner sharply and throws a woman into the ditch. He rescues her with the right amount of contrition, but then recklessly abducts her with the purpose of marrying over the anvil at Gretna Green. He would much rather marry a down-on-her-luck stranger who remonstrates with his behavior, than do his duty to a dynastic marriage arranged since his short-coat years to an imperious miss. After much persuasion, she perceives that marrying this stranger is better than trying her hand at being a governess.

So they marry at an inn and he proceeds to take her off to his grandmother to rehabilitate their reputation, avoid scandal, and make the marriage palatable to his parents. All right and good and rollicking fun so far. But when the threesome go to the family seat, the rapid pace of the novel slows down and is taken up by a whole slew of people. The loud protestations to the marriage, anger, hysterics, and jealously are all well and good, but what is sacrificed is the romance of the two. Pity!

Meet Cute by Helena Hunting
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Going from a pep talk about visualizing success to lying flat on her back hugging her teen idol and fangirling all over him is not how Kailyn Flowers thought her first morning of law school would go. Unfortunately for her, this does not prove to be the case where the most embarrassing moment of her life can be locked up and the key thrown away. Her Embarrassment is in every class of law school, and he enjoys debating and competing with her.

They meet again five years later, when she sets up a trust for his much younger sister. Both are lawyers now, she odes trusts and wills, he's an entertainment lawyer. A few months later, they meet again when both his parents die in a horrific car crash, and he finds himself as a guardian of her young teen.

What I loved best about this book is how Hunting balances bone-deep grief with growing love. Humans are meant to be happy, according to the Dalai Lama, and Hunting shows that beautifully in this book. My review is here.

The Takeover Effect by Nisha Sharma
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is another story with lawyers. He is very much a take-charge man and she is a take-charge woman, so I wondered who would be the alpha in the relationship. It was very interesting to see how they actually manage it between them. They pass the baton back and forth between who is in control and who is acquiescent. It was wonderful to see that someone who is used to getting their own way doesn’t always have to have it that way. They can cede control and take it back depending on the circumstance.

What I really liked about this book is the language and cultural history they have in common that allows them to instinctively understand each other without having to explain with words. They appreciate that aspect of their relationship very much as it brings not only them closer, but also their families. Sharma has highlighted the immigrant outlook to life very well — what is important to them as a family and at work, how they relate the culture of the old nation to the new country, and what they inspire in their children. My review is here.

Unlaced by the Highland Duke by Lara Temple
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: The Lochmore Legacy series of books is about the Lochmore Castle through the ages and a bitter feud between the Lochmore and McCrieff clans. The castle has been a witness to it all: the battles, the betrayals, the weddings, the wild passions… The four books telling its stories are: His Convenient Highland Wedding by Janice Preston (set in the Victorian era), Unlaced by the Highland Duke by Lara Temple (Regency), A Runaway Bride for the Highlander by Elisabeth Hobbes (Tudor), and Secrets of a Highland Warrior by Nicole Locke (Medieval).

I read the Temple book for Frolic, and my review is here. I will be reading the Locke book for All About Romance in a couple of months.

The widowed current Duke of Lochmore is in need of a companion for his young son. A windowed destitute relation of the Uxmores is urged to take up one more job of usefulness by becoming a governess to her dead cousin's husband Lochmore. What starts out as servitude quickly becomes a relationship of equals. This is a story of how a mousy woman becomes a fierce advocate for herself and what she believes in when shown respect, equality, and trust. Lovely story!

The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This is an exquisite story of torment—the torment of doing the right thing and the torment of being right and unable to do anything about it. In a bid to hide his extramarital affair, a duke has his orphaned by-blow wrongfully imprisoned in a mental "hospital" in Yorkshire. There, in the care of a barbarous doctor and a sadistic nurse, Helen has endured a harrowing existence for ten years. When Dr. Will Carter arrives, she is on the ropes of despairs.

Where he is all consideration and understanding, ten years have made her mistrustful and manipulative, always looking for an advantage. The more he gets to know her, the harder he falls in love with her. But she does not know how to interpret her emotions any more. What is she feeling? Should she be feeling something? The beauty of the book is in how Bennet navigates the power imbalance between them—he is her doctor after all—and how she equalizes that power and also how Helen learns to trust again—herself and Will—and thus discover that she can receive and give love again. My review is here.

The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Parker's fourth book in her London Celebrities series. I have loved every one of her books. Her characterization, her voice, and her sense of humor work perfectly for me. A bubbly, sassy, perennially optimistic actor is paired with a dour, curt, glacial theater critic—how fun! And Parker spins this into an edge-of-the-seat, rollicking tale with drama, intrigue, and a soft, tender romance.

A soft, tender romance with someone whose scathing review calls her an "overexposed, chronically confused crowd-pleaser who's built a career riding on her family coattails"? Yes, indeed. He has hidden depths of loyalty and empathy and affection, which she has to drill down to discover, and to my enjoyment, she did it with self-possession and a protective concern for him. These two really fancy each other, and Parker proceeds to convert the reader's "no way" to their relationship to "of course." My review is here.

Fumbled by Alexa Martin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: From tragedy to intimacy, from distrust to tenderness, from anger to love, Fumbled has it all. Ultimately, this story is all about joy—the joy of living and the joy of loving.

Poppy Patterson is a teen mom who has survived ten years on her own by working nights at a club while dedicating her waking hours to raising her son. TK Moore has spent those same years following his dream in becoming a football star in the big leagues and making pots of money. They were high school sweethearts, till a misunderstanding drove them away from each. Now ten years later, a chance meeting makes them realize that the magic between them is still there and just as strong as ever. But they are now adults with careers and responsibilities…not to mention a son.

You would think that acrimony and past hurts would've made them bitter and the book would be full of angry exchanges between them. But the strength of these characters is their ability to transcend the past and focus on who they are now as people and on the son they have in common. And to focus on happiness in life. My review is here.

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Category: Children's Picture Book Memoir
Comments: This book has gorgeous artwork! Morales was born and raised in Mexico and immigrated to the United States to be reunited with her son's father, who is a US citizen. She spoke no English when she arrived, but through the amazing world of the public libraries of San Francisco, she not only learned the language of her new country, but she mastered it and honed her artistic talent. She has put together fabulous children's picture books, which have gone on to bring her many accolades and awards. The title of this book doesn't refer to the political term dreamers, but rather for dreamers of the world who immigrate to new countries: migrantes soñadores.

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: What is a name? A name is powerful, a link back to your ancestors and the heritage you bring into your life. This little girl's name is Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela, and she despaired of having such a long name to write everywhere till her daddy tells her the story of her name: who she is linked to and who they were. Sofia for her grandmother, Esperanza for her great-grandmother, José for her grandfather, Pura for her great-aunt, and Candela for her other grandmother. And Alma just for her—she will make her own story.

As a child, the author herself thought she was stuck with the most old-fashioned, harsh, ugly, and way-too-Spanish name in all of Lima, Perú, where she grew up. Nut now that she is in United States, it feels unique and reminds her every day where she came from.

Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, illustrated by Chiara Fedele
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A lovely tale of friendship that celebrates their differences and finds commonality in thought and action. Yaffa, a Jewish woman, and Fatima, a Muslim woman, are neighbors who are friends with each other while also leading their own religious and communal lives. They share their joys and their lives with each other. So when tragedy strikes in the form of a failed date harvest, which is essential for their living, their thoughts are not on their own hunger and their own future, but on the other's hunger and her future. Thus, they are friends in plenitude and in strife.

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Set in Muslim Mauritania, this is a story of a young girl's longing to wear a malafa (long veil), the ultimate symbol of beauty, fashion, mystery, empowerment, tradition, religion, and adulthood to her. But she is considered still too little by her society to wear it. So she asks the women of her village: Why do they wear it? The women all tell her their reasons and how the malafa is everything she thinks it is and much more. I loved how this story seeks to shift the misguided assumptions that the veil is all about the oppression of women to how integral it is to the women's identity.

The book has some Hassaniya (an oral Arabic dialect) words along with a glossary. I love books with other languages in them—I am fascinated by their sounds. I had always hoped that one day, I would be able to add many more languages to my six. But alas! Not yet. But when I next have a chance, Arabic, especially, classical Arabic is at the top of the list. Zaiyn (good)!