Wednesday, May 29, 2019

My May Reading

Over the last year and a half, I have read many books on immigrant experiences and about people from different cultures, and I have enjoyed learning about the cultures, the food, and the languages. Google has been my friend as well as various friends as I looked to understand the books at a deeper level. When you read a book like this, there is one story where you treat the characters as just American, and then there is the other story, where the characters are hyphenated Americans with their cultures and histories and background just as much a part of them as their Americanness. I looked to read the latter story which was richer and far more meaningful to me.

Snow Angel by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: In a sudden spate of interest in traditional Regencies, I've been diving into the Baloghs that are newly available in digital.

Lady Rosamund Hunter is a recent widow of a baron. She married at 17, by choice, to a man 30 years older and never regretted it. Theirs had been a fulfilling marriage. Now nine years later, she's being coerced by her brother to marry a younger man of the cloth, who Rosamund finds boring. In a fit of pique, she steps from their carriage into a snowstorm only to be stranded with Julian , the Earl of Wetherby, in a hunting box.

Wetherby had planned to arrive in the wilds of Northhamptonshire with his mistress, who had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. Now Wetherby and Rosamund find themselves at loose ends and strongly attracted to each other. It is a time out of time. They have only given each other their first and last names, not their titles, and no other personal details—they don't plan to see each other ever again. They have a marvelous fling—his last before his betrothal to a young girl, her first with a young man. Both are irrevocably dazzled with each other. Then they part ways...

...only to meet a month later at a house party as the aunt of his betrothed. Mayhem ensues. Balogh keeps the suspense right through to the end whether they will end up together. (I mean, of course, but still, the suspense is well done.) Aiding the couple is Wetherby's best friend, but Wetherby cannot honorably cry off from the betrothal arranged from his salad days; only his betrothed can.

Christmas Collection by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Short Stories
Comments: Every time I read a Carla Kelly traditional, I fall in love with her stories all over again. This is a collection of her short stories previously published in other anthologies.

I love Kelly's Oxford-set stories. The Christmas Ornament is one such tale. The hero is a brilliant scholar at All Souls College but hapless and untidy with low esteem in his dealings with women. She is a brilliant scholar of geometry but chafing at being surrounded by unintelligent people who think she's an oddity. They are set up by their parents. Being told that the other is the right person for them creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy to all their interactions. She is forever forgiving his bumbling manners and he is forever forgiving her managing ways. I enjoyed seeing this beta, even gamma, hero and awkward heroine achieve their HEA.

Make a Joyful Noise is all about the choir. The hero is charged in finding good singers for their parish's dismal choir and she is the perfect soprano to cross his path. This is a story of such tenderness from him to her, her to him, and them to his children. He's a marquis with a large estate, but he calls himself a farmer and labors from morn to night. What I liked best about him is how grateful he is for the life he has even if he misses having a wife dreadfully. He is grateful for his children, for his land, for his health, and for his mother's help. The heroine is a pregnant widow who has helplessly battened herself on her dead husband's family. She has no recourse but to put up with their abuse. There is music, including my favorite Handel's Messiah, and the magic of Christmas. The lone sour note is Kelly's depiction of the Welsh race being composed of naturally-talented singers and the hero managing to serendipitously collect them all for his choir.

An Object of Charity is a travel story about a much-decorated but now furloughed navy captain and his dead first mate's orphaned wards. He decides to convey them to his mother's house, because as a bachelor he has nowhere else to take them to. He has been estranged from his family since he was fourteen, all of them mired in despair and bitterness. His brother's hatred of him and his father's unbending pride in his lineage made him a pariah to his family despite his repeated pleading as a teenager to be allowed to return home. He is now set on a collision course with his family and to deal with the objects of his bitterness. She is a person of sunny disposition, always ready to look on the bright side of things despite her desperate situation. Who is the object of charity? She, because of her destitute situation, or he, because of his failure to make peace with his soul. Who is taking pity on whom when they fall in love? Or is neither? They bring out the best in the other. This story has two unfortunate stereotypes about the Scots and the Indians with a dose of Orientalism.

The Three Kings has an authentic look and feel of the war of 1812. The hero and heroine are fleeing with the French army in hot pursuit. She feels it is because of the astounding scholarly discovery of Columbus that she made in Salamanca and he, because, as a Spanish spy, he is carrying vital strategic information for the British. Their story unfolds while they're on the run to the British army situated in Ciudad Rodrigo. This story was unfortunately disappointing. The story started out well enough, but ultimately ran out of steam and had to wrapped up hurriedly off-page with an unconvincing declaration of love. For most of the story, the hero waxes eloquent over his now dead wife and how much he misses her. At one point, he finally says, he now misses her less. But at no point, do I see any attraction between the hero and heroine or any romance. The HEA was thus a bolt from the blue.

Love & War by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Short Stories
Comments: After the success of the above collection, I decided to try another one of hers. This was less successful. Perhaps it was the tenor of the stories—they felt underdeveloped, hurriedly dashed out, and somewhat disappointing. Talent leashed is the best way to describe them.

The Light Within is a lovely story about a Quaker widow and a British lord. Whether one of them converts in the end is left to the reader's imagination. They meet when he mistakes her for his older brother's light-o-love. He certainly comes to earth with a thud when he meets her and realizes his mistake. But on the basis of that misunderstanding their connection begins. He helps her get redress from the British Admiralty; she impresses him with her industry and sound business sense. He quickly realizes that a life trying to corral the excesses of his older brother is not one worth living, and he decides to follow his heart across the Atlantic Ocean.

A Hasty Marriage was the least satisfying of the collection. I just didn't see the romance developing. She's a spinster lady living in her family home who has only one ancient marriage prospect, so like a debutante, she runs away from home to her governess. There she meets an American merchant ship's captain with grown adult children (who could any day bring him home wives) and a small child. The child draws the two together, but I just didn't see what he sees in her beyond that or what she sees in him beyond his enterprising and commanding ways.

In Something New, an artillery major and a war widow bond over a French war orphan he brought back from Badajoz to England. He has accompanied his lieutenant to be married to her sister. The sister turns out to a shrew with no compassion for an orphan because she was a camp follower's child, but the heroine is all understanding and sweetness towards the child, just as, after two years, he cannot bear to put the four-year-old in any old orphanage he passes by in the English countryside. How they both come to realize that really the best thing for both of them and for the child is for them to marry is the where the story is. One of the sweetest moments is when she whispers a thanks to her previous husband: "Your grace in love gives me the confidence to try again."

The Background Man is a tender story of a shy son of a vicar in his 40s, who is used to being overlooked. He secures his place in the world by being useful and working hard. He is currently the manager of a wealthy hotel in London. His past claim to fame was the time he spent with Wellesley (later, Duke of Wellington) in India. Into his hotel comes a quiet lady of thirty, whose father was also a vicar, and who refuses to be a maiden aunt and a burden on her family, so she's seeking out a life as a governess. But before she embarks on that life, she's giving herself a week's holiday in London taking in the sights and living in comfort. While not quite Remains of the Day circumspection—our hero is a little more daring and dashing by comparison—this is a story of nuance and shadows and wry, quiet observations and sweet romance. The first time the hero meets the heroine:

He knew he should say something, but he continued instead to helplessly smile at her while his brain protested somewhere inside his skull that he was looking stupider by the half second. Oh, please, don't let her be encumbered with something as distasteful as a husband. I will have to remember how to shoot and then call him out. I wonder if she smiles at every man like that. A man can only fight so many duels in one lifetime.

My biggest disappointment with this collection is the Orientalism that is not on the characters but on the author herself. Here is what happened in The Background Man. The hero is contemplating why he didn't marry in India:

Clerking for the East India Company had plunked him down in a corner of the world that while exotic offered little opportunity for matrimony with a proper British lady. And come to think of it, the Hindi women hadn't been eager to give him any of their time, either. The Mogul ladies? They were only a rumor, shadows on the street in their head-to-toe wraps, and otherwise kept behind high walls like mad uncles in England. India wasn't the place to find a wife; he might as well have lived on the moon.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is my best book of the year so far. Hoang writes the neurodivergent character and immigrant experience with such sensitivity and nuance. It's an arranged marriage by an expat between a Vietnamese woman and her Vietnamese-American son. The hero is an utter delight. His constant feeling of WTF when dealing with the two women is hilarious to read, and yet, he is respectful of his culture and loyal to them. The heroine, a teen mom, attacks the golden opportunity she's been given to make a new life for herself in America with determination and optimism. Her eventual empowerment towards the latter part of the book as she realizes that she doesn't need someone else to forge a good life for herself had me cheering. The hero's journey in the last third of the book is heartbreaking as you see him struggling with the negative stereotype he's internalized about himself: Because he is autistic, he cannot feel anything. I loved how much care his brother shows in teaching him how what he is experiencing is not the flu but grief and love and loss, and that he is capable of loving and being loved. My review is here.

There's Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon
Category: YA Romance
Comments: I love Menon's voice and style of writing. Her books are joyous and optimistic with characters who are resilient and overcome their difficulties with a strength of purpose. Many adult romance characters could take notes from Menon's teenage characters.

Sweetie Nair is a Malayali-Indian-American girl, who’s a star track athlete at Piedmont High. She’s also crafty and talented in making decorative boxes and arrangements for her mother’s famous Indian sweets business. Her squad of three multicultural friends have been close for a number of years and share a talent for making music together. Despite her immense gifts, Sweetie has been dogged for years by fatphobia from people who think she is less than them because of the way she looks. She is not at all ashamed of her body—in fact, she is proud of her athletic prowess—but she is deeply hurt by her mother’s attitude towards it. Amma’s one purpose in life is for Sweetie to lose weight so she thinks she will be acceptable to society and dateable.

Ashish Patel is an Indian-American boy, who’s a star basketball player at Richmond, a prep school for the über rich. He and his group of three multicultural friends have been close since grade school, and I thoroughly enjoyed how their personalities meshed and differed. Ashish is recovering from the loss of his girlfriend, who cheated on him. He had been in love with her, despite their differences in experiences and personalities, and he has now lost his mojo and confidence in his dealings with girls and on the basketball court. My review is here.

A Prince on Paper by Alyssa Cole
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What I like about Cole's writing is her ability to seamlessly stitch together reality and fantasy, thus making for a very believable fairytale. The first book of her Reluctant Royals series, A Princess in Theory made my Best Books list last year.

Nya Jerami is the much-maligned daughter of a criminal, who has imprisoned for poisoning Naledi, the future princess of Thesolo, a small country in Africa. After her father's arrest, Nya fled to NYC in defiance to lead a life on her own terms. Now she is very reluctantly journeying to Thesolo for Ledi's wedding to Prince Thabiso, because as Ledi's cousin, she is part of the wedding party. She is filled with dread, because under the guise of being concerned for her and guilting her over the death of her mother in childbirth, Nya's father has always talked down to her and controlled her.

Johan Maximillian von Braustein is the stepson of the king of Liechtienbourg, a European Principality, and a playboy prince known for his attractive looks, jet-setting parties, fancy cars and a revolving door of supermodels. Despite the intervening ten years, Johan has continued to be devastated from the loss of his beloved mother and has vowed never to love again. Better to lead a superficial life than to make yourself vulnerable. My review is here.

The Key to Happily Ever After by Tif Marcelo
Category: Women's Fiction
Comments: This is a story of adversarial sisters and their romantic interests. Marcelo has a keen understanding of the relationship space of sisters, how birth order affects that space, and how personal and professional emotions overlap when you have to work with your relatives.

Filipina-American sisters Marisol, Janelyn, and Pearl de la Rosa are co-owners of a preeminent wedding boutique, Rings & Roses, in Old Town Alexandria near Washington DC. The shop had been their mother's baby, but upon retirement, she settled a third on each of her daughters. With their mother's safety net of experience and expertise whisked away, the sisters are now on their own. Mari likes to be in charge, and with her formidable organizing skills, is the main planner of their top clients' weddings. As the logical, even-keeled middle sister, Jane has to always keep the peace between Mari and Pearl in their tempestuous relationship.

And this relationship is the central thrust of the story. I was disappointed that for most of the story, their relationship does not change and thus there is no forward drive to the story. There are love interests for both of them, which are some moments of grace in the story, but otherwise there is constant bickering and acrimony with no self-reflection. Thus, despite the good writing, the book was a letdown for me. My review is here.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev
Category: Women's Fiction
Comments: To some, this book will read as a contemporary romance, but to me it read as women's fiction with a large romance sub-plot. The romance isn't the point of the story, rather it is the heroine's journey as outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell and author Christopher Vogler—from estrangement with a call to action to challenges to a black moment to atonement, and finally, to reconciliation and acceptance. This book is all about relationships: her sister (caring), her cousin (generous and accepting), her grandmother (loving), her brother (distant), her mother (complicated), her father (hostile), and the hero (also hostile). Dev does a splendid job contrasting how confident Trisha is as a neurosurgeon versus how unsure she is as a member of her family. However, her arrogance, unknowingly, comes to the foreground where the chef hero is concerned. How she resolves all the negativity surrounding some of her relationships is where the heart of the book is. My review is here.

Best of Luck by Kate Clayborn
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Imagine, a world-class photojournalist who's been in every hot spot in the world capturing unimaginable images and stories is now helping a woman learn how to use a camera and take her first shots. Now imagine, a hospital social worker with serious health issues of her own and with great compassion for people in need is now urging the intrepid world traveler to seek help with his panic attacks. These two are coming at life from such different angles and lenses. And yet, their one focal point, his sister who is also her best friend, serves as the pivot around which they build their relationship.

Clayborn's story is all about textures and light and filters, much like a photograph. The filter through which one views someone one is attracted to changes when there is a tear in the fabric, and then changes again when the seams are sewn up. Our conception of who the people around us is varying all the time. Clayborn does a great job of showing shifting expectations and assumptions and growing understanding and acceptance between the hero and heroine and also between them and their friends and families. As people come and ago in the hero's and heroine's lives, they illuminate or darken different facets of their personalities. Clayborn's skill as a storyteller is for the reader to feel like they're on an exciting scavenger hunt to uncover the hero's and heroine's characters.

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Ken Min
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A beautiful book of an older brother of a neurodivergent boy. Benji is used to Sammy getting far more attention that he does. But one day, he has a bad day and is desperately in need of some loving attention. But Mother is busy with her work and Sammy is hiding in his box house because he is feeling overwhelmed. Benji's bad day continues at home, and when he spills milk is trying to get a snack, he bursts into noisy tears of despair. And then comes the beautiful part of the book. Sammy creeps out of his house and gives Benji a hug and swaddles him up in a blanket because Sammy knows what makes him feel better. The love of his brother rights Benji's world.

Don't Let the Beasties Escape This Book! by Julie Berry, illustrated by April Lee, commissioned J. Paul Getty Museum
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A gorgeous book on medieval manuscript artwork by the Getty Museum. The book drew its inspiration from the museum's exhibit "Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World" and features illustrations from their collections.

The main story is sure to delight young children. The story is fun and fresh, and the artwork is beautiful—detailed, colorful, and mimics medieval scribal techniques. For older children, the book has a section on medieval life in a castle and the medieval bestiary with actual illustrations of beasts and explanations as to their meaning. As a fan of children's picture books and an amateur student of medieval manuscripts, this was a book after my own heart.

The whimsical story follows an ordinary peasant boy dreaming of life as a valiant knight in the Late Middle Ages (thirteenth century): Sir Godfrey the Gallant, Sir Godfrey the Glorious, Sir Godfrey the Goodhearted. His favorite book is about medieval bestiaries but filled only with pictures. He is hoping that when the castle scribe ultimately finishes the book, it will tell a heroic tale of a bold, brave knight. As he goes about his chores, his imagination takes flight, and the mischievous animals walk out of the pages of the book, causing him to flex his knightly skills. Some of the beasts help him with his chores and interact with the regular farm animals.
[Pub date: September 2019]

Livi & Grace by Jennifer Lynch, illustrated by Missi Jay
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: What a lovely story of hope, joy, and acceptance. It features Lynch's daughters, Olivia and Grace. The two girls are sisters and best friends, but they are completely different from each other. This is a book of acceptance of differences and of love that recognizes that the other person is just as valuable despite being different from you. You can be you, your own unique self, and there will always be someone who will treasure you, who will celebrate who you are.

Livi and Grace feel mystified that people feel that they should be the same because they are sisters. The reality is that they consider themselves and each other to be special in their own way—they are who they are, and they feel free to be who they are because they are confident that they are loved for who they are. What makes these girls so happy with themselves and each other? It's a secret: Our differences are beautiful—they're blessings through and through. There's no one way that's best to be, so be the you that's you!
[Pub date: June 2019]

Punctuation Celebration by Else Knight Bruno, illustrated by Jenny Whitehead
Category: Children's Nonfiction Poetry Picture Book
Comments: This is a much-loved book in our house. Punctuation and its uses are explained through poems and whimsical illustrations.

"Quotation marks come two by town.
Use two before, two when you're through.
Enclosed are words said by another,
Like, "Clean this messy room!" yelled Mother.


"Alas, the poor apostrophe
Has two big jobs, it seems to me.
In order to help words possess,
It tags along and adds an 's."
(Like Mickey's mess or Della's dress.)
And when one word, not two is better,
It happily replace letters.
Whatever's left is not a fraction.
We'll call the new word a contraction.
(Like can't or we'll or it's or she'll.)