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.