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.