Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My December Reading

Two sets of my children's picture book reviews were published in two issues of the International Examiner newspaper this month. Established in 1974, the Examiner is the oldest and largest nonprofit, pan-Asian Pacific American publication in the Northwest. I've been enjoying writing for them this year.

Merry Measure by Lily Morton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Lily Morton was a wonderful bookish discovery for me this year. She writes generous-hearted characters with such heartwarming humor, that you’re transported into their stories from the first page. Arlo Wright and Jack Cooper meet in the wintry environs of beautiful Amsterdam to celebrate Arlo’s brother’s proposal to his boyfriend. The cold days leading up to Christmas make for cozy times of discovery together. Arlo believes coffee is the nectar of gods and Jack believes green tea is very good because it gets rid of toxins. Their choice of drinks is emblematic of how vastly different the two men are. How is their romance to flourish? What we have in this book is a lot of soul-deep pining.

Arlo is a self-professed, absentminded klutz, younger brother to the confident older brother whose best friend is the stuff of dreams. To Arlo, Jack has retained his unattainable, incredible hotness through all the years he’s known him. He is also convinced that to Jack, he is nothing but an overgrown colt and perpetual younger brother. But he wants to be so much more. To Jack, Arlo is the one who unfailingly makes him smile every time he is in his company. And relax the rigid control he has habitually imposed on his life. His parents brought him up under unrelenting pressure to succeed and to be perfect. Dreamy Arlo shines light in his dreary, arid world. Arlo’s demonstrative affection and ready laughter are a balm to his soul after his parents’ standoffishness. My review is here.

Forever and a Duke by Grace Burrowes
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Burrowes is one of my favorite historical romance authors. I invariably fall into the world of her stories and regret when the stories come to a close. Eleanora "Ellie" Hatfield is a whiz at math and works at a bank keeping schemers at bay. I really liked how independent, dependable, and capable she is. She is at pains to distance herself from her scandalous past. The Duke of Elsmore is looking financial ruin in the face. In a bid to avert scandal, he seeks Ellie's help in finding the person responsible for the missing funds. I really like how Burrowes turns the usual trope of the take-charge duke on its head in this story, by having her duke be a strong man with the humility to admit his weakness in managing his finances and being open to a female auditor to solve his problems.

This is a wonderful cross-class romance. Burrowes does an excellent job of showing how bridging class divides in 19th C England was difficult. This to me was the heart of the romance. Burrowes builds up the protagonists' worlds first and then brings them together and has them struggle with the chasm, because chasm it is. Many romances gloss over class struggles and have their protagonists jump over the divide like it is a ditch. Burrowes has the protagonists do so in a believable manner by making them work at it. This is a romance that will make you sigh with pleasure at the tenderness that the duke brings to their romance. Ellie is all sharp angles; he's the charmer, the gentle one. They are both surprised at how much they like each other, and I was charmed by their delight. I really enjoyed it.

A Lady's Dream Come True by Grace Burrowes
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: How I loved this story! Burrowes’ True Gentleman series is truly fabulous. Self-published at an astonishingly rapid rate, the books have been very popular among historical romance readers. A Lady’s Dream Come True has a special place in my heart because it is the story of a dreamy artist who comes into his own. His growth from self-involvement into a dashing, caring man and an artist of integrity is lovely to watch.

Verity "Vera" Channing is the widow of a famous artist. She has invited Oak Dorning to evaluate the art in her home to sell so she can make ends meet. She wants to preserve the estate for her son and to dower her stepdaughter. All throughout her marriage and especially since her widowhood, she's been used to standing on her own two feet. However, this is the first time, Oak has ventured off on his own away from his family—his first paying gig. He's an earl's son but he doesn't want to fritter his life away; he is interested in making his mark on the art world. His ambition is to become a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

This book has so much going on. There's Oak's growth arc. There's their growing relationship. And then there's the intrigue about Vera's husband's legacy and dirty goings-on at the Royal Academy. Burrowes writes a fast-paced story that feels unhurried in how it explores all facets of the story. For some people, the romance might feel a bit shortchanged because of the focus on the intrigue but it worked for me.

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I am probably the last person on earth who didn't read this book in 2019. It was featured on so many Best Books of year lists that I've been meaning to read it all year, but never got around to it. Now, thanks to publisher Flatiron, I received an eARC just in time for their January reprint.

The premise is delicious: Leon Twome is a palliative care night nurse at a hospice and Tiffany (Tiffy) Moore works as an editor at a niche publishing company. Leon's brother has been wrongly incarcerated in a prison for a crime he did not commit. In order to pay for his lawyer fees, Leon needs to generate more cash than his salary pays. So he comes up with the harebrained, brilliant idea of sharing his flat with someone with a day job.

Tiffy has once and for all broken up with her on-and-off boyfriend and needs a living situation stat. Unfortunately, she, not only owes her ex a lot of money, but her job pays her a pittance. So she needs someplace cheap, and over the misgivings of her friends, she is taken with the idea of a flatshare. The deal is negotiated by Leon's jealous girlfriend, and the hours are strictly set of who is supposed to be at the apartment when. The book employs a beloved romance trope: only one bed. But O'Leary turns this on its head by having the protagonists sleep in it when the other is not there.

I laughed when I first read the setup. It is so crazy; how will it even fly? But O'Leary not only makes it work, but shows herself to be a highly skilled storyteller. My review is here.

The Lost Letter by Mimi Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is a wonderful Beauty and the Beast and Second Chance story. (Note caveat to its "wonderfulness" below.) The protagonists had an understanding that they were in love when they met for a few halcyon weeks before he was sent off to soldier in India. Sylvia wrote Sebastian a hundred letters full of thousands of kisses in which she poured her heart out to him. He never wrote back.

In the meantime, her father gambled everything away and shot himself, and she was left destitute. No one took her in, and she was forced to become a governess. It took her months of effort to come to terms with her new station in life in service and the realization that her beloved had repudiated her. Fast forward to present day, she has discovered contentment in her job as a governess. She now laughs easily, her old life almost forgotten. She is such a resilient spirit. There is the oft-spoken cliché: "bloom where you grow" which she truly embodies. But into this contentment steps Sebastian's sister pulling Sylvia back to Sebastian with the pretext that she found him weeping with Sylvia's lock of hair in his hand and that he kept a loaded pistol in his bedside table.

All the love that Sylvia had suppressed for Sebastian comes pouring out of her, and she rushes over to save Sebastian from himself. But he is now badly scarred in face and convinced he is unlovable. He also hates Sylvia for her faithlessness in not even reading his letters, forget about writing him letters. Seeing her now, he is ovecome with cynicsm that she was now here because he was now earl in his elder brother's stead. He assumes she is mercenary and looking to better her station in life. Matthews does not do a dashing scar or two: His disfigurement is truly hideous. And that is what makes the tender scenes so touching. This story is very romantic with quiet gestures, passionate requests, drama, and high emotions. And, don't forget, tenderness.

Do note that this book has the colonial attitude that the Indian sepoys who revolted against the rightful British conquerors were the bad ones. Not much is explored about this history, other than to have a battle in the time the story is set in, so that the hero is forced to leave the heroine behind in England and return with his face badly injured. The date of the mutiny is also stated as 1858, but the Jhansi rebellion was in 1857. While mild, the colonial attitude from Matthews is grating.

Love All Year: "Making up with Eid Bae" & "The Sweet Spot" by Farah Heron & Felicia Grossman
Category: Romance Shorts
Comments: What started off my interest in this anthology was a Twitter conversation—don't all important book convos happen on Twitter these days?—between Farah Heron and I where I said that I would love to read a Ramadan-Eid book with the couple canoodling over iftars. Heron then told me she had an Eid story in this anthology, so I immediately rushed over to Amazon to buy it.

Making up with Eid Bae by Farah Heron
I really enjoyed this sweet story set during the Eid-ul-Adha festival between two Canadian-Indian Muslim protagonists. It's a second chance, childhood sweethearts story, where they discover what had sundered their relationship when they were teens and how much they still had in common and how quickly the old, dormant feelings could rise up again, tempered now with an adult awareness. I really like Heron's writing. I enjoyed her The Chai Factor very much and she brings that same voice here.

The Sweet Spot by Felicia Grossman
Since I had the anthology already and having heard how popular Grossman's first two books were, I decided to give her short story a try, but it was less successful than Heron's story. The premise was very interesting. The woman is the rabbi and the man is the cantor and five years younger than her. He naturally plays second fiddle to her, and yet, that aspect of their professional relationship doesn't bother him, and thus, doesn't have an impact on their personal relationship. What sank this story was the "romance" that wasn't romantic. We hear how they are attracted to each other without actually seeing the attraction on the page. The way they decide to sleep with each other after a coffee and before she has to prepae her semon for the Rosh Hassanah ceremony in the evening is perfunctory at best. This story did not fly.

It's a Wonderful Regency Christmas: "It's a Wonderful Christmas" by Edith Layton
Category: Regency Romance Short
Comments: This was bananas!! I have found Layton's work to be rather uneven: the good is really good and the bad is really bad. The premise for this story was interesting. The protagonists have been married for many years now. Their eldest son is now away at school, so I'm assuming a young teen. The heroine has always had very low self-esteem. She thinks no one would miss her if she were gone. She feels incredibly lucky every single day of her married life that the hottie of the area married her. He had never had time for her before, but he came back from the war, wounded and irretrievably changed. Theirs was a summer romance resulting in marriage. They have now reached a comfortable married state where their days fit around each other but frissons of attraction are still alive and well.

Then the story jumped the shark. It's Christmas season, and they have a houseful of guests. When her son returns home from school with a schoolmate, he is no longer the sweet boy who left. He is now independent and more interested in his friend, and she feels slighted and unloved. At one of the evening parties, an unexpected guest arrives. She's a vision of loveliness and turns out used to be engaged to her husband, who never told her about it. As you can guess, our heroine's self-confidence just tanks. And she behaves in rather immature ways, even going so far to go to the village magical wishing well screaming that she wish she had not been born.

The wishing well does its job and grants her wish. We then have a few perfectly gothic scenes where the heroine realizes how much worse her life is now. And so when she screams at the well to bring her old life back, and it does, she is incredibly grateful and happy with her former life and realizes that she was an important part of that former life. And the cherry on top? The husband tells her how very pleased he is to have sent his ex on her way and is very apologetic that he never mentioned her. That whole gothic parts? Bananapants!

Truth, Lies, and Second Dates by MaryJanice Davidson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a romantic suspense story including horror elements (which are not evident at all in the back cover copy and you only find out when you read the Author's Note). In her Author's Note at the beginning of the book, Davidson tells the reader that she loves tropes. Then she goes on to explain in many detailed paragraphs what tropes are. This is what she to say about her books: "Romance novels that pay respect to romance novels, where the readers are in on the joke. Unless you skipped my Author's Note, in which case you're not in on the joke and you think I hate romance novels and I cannot help you."

She then proceeds to remind you that there is a list of tropes she's used in her story in the back of the book, "...for those of you in a hurry. This is partly to make it easier for my readers...". So naturally, I went over there to look. She had pages of notes where in excruciating detail she laid out all the tropes she's used or subverted in her book, starting with "tropes are tools" and including things, such as "bald is evil (subverted)," "alibi," "mystery magnet," "they look like everyone else," "breakups are always brutal (subverted)," "motive rant," "clueless mystery subverted (there are clues, but not many; the few there are don't resemble clues; and Ava and Tom don't piece them together until the end)" and so on and so forth.

As you can see, there's not much else you want to know about the story after reading this. No reader wants to be condescended to and have everything explained in triplicate. There is the joy of discovery, which is why readers read.

Notorious by Minerva Spencer
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book was not my cup of tea for these reasons: a couple who simply could not communicate with each other outside the bed and whose relationship did not improve except suddenly towards the end of the book, too much external drama thrown in to make up for lack of resolution of internal tension, lots of backstory details and people which all did not jell together to form a cohesive story, power imbalance with the power all in his court, she is the one who needs to change significantly while he not much, his committed threesome with his mistresses, wife expected to house mistresses, wife expected to look after a kid who could be his or his brother's (the mother is his former wife), mother and son discussing their sex lives, and so on. This is a book whose premise had all the ingredients for an engrossing read for me, but whose execution was an entirely different story from the one promised.

A Marquis in Want of a Wife by Louise Allen
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: The premise sounded interesting: An outsider marquis, AKA the East End Aristocrat because he was born in the rookeries and is a privateer by trade, is in urgent need of a mother for his baby, and so eschews mourning to marry a ruined bluestocking whose passion is ancient Greek and Latin translations. This was an uneven book. There were also some craft issues, such as head-hopping.

There were aspects of the story that made for unusual characterization and refreshing candor among these participants in a marriage of convenience. However, what sank the story was that heroine gives and gives and the hero takes and takes. She is the one who extends the olive branch the most, and she is the one who forgives him over and over again for all his transgressions, even when he verbally hurts her deliberately at the 90% mark. When much was made of her translation work at the beginning of the book, I expected to see her actively engage in it, but it was surface characterization, not a core part of her.

She comes off as alternately mature and immature with a sensible approach to the marital contract she has made with him and too-stupid-to-live (TSTL) behavior, such as haring off to a war zone to rescue him and then not really rescuing him as having him fall into her lap as she is rescued by others. I realize that this is meant to show us her indomitable, independent, and loving spirit, but the way it is written, she comes across as TSTL.

As part of her marriage contract, her job is supposed to be a mother to the baby. We see the baby immediately enamored of her even as a stranger, and we see her going up to him once in a while to scoop him up in her arms and laugh with him, but we don't see her actually spending much time with him. The baby spends most of his days with his nurse and wet nurse, so I don't see how she is fulfilling the only requirement of her marriage contract. Overall, a disappointing book.

A Touch of Forever by Jo Goodman
Category: Western Romance
Comments: [CW: domestic abuse, self harm] This is another book is Goodman's Jo Goodman Cowboys of Colorado series set in Frost Falls with railroad expansion as the backdrop, not gunfights or cattle stampedes. New Yorker Roen Shepard is a jack-of-all-trades and his reserved personality makes him unpopular with his high-society family. He is happier leaving his old life behind and is now working as a surveyor for the Northeast Rail Company, which is planning on putting a track directly through the town of Frost Falls. Lily Salt is a single mother of four precocious children. She had been physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive by her now mercifully dead husband. When his vengeful ex makes it into town, in order to escape her, Roen proposes a marriage of convenience to Lily.

A fiery woman, an introverted man, secrets and trauma in the past, and you have the makings of a marvelous Goodman tale. Goodman sensitively and realistically portrays Lily's PTSD trauma from the abuse she suffered as well as her tendency to self-harm. I loved how the people of the town band together to protect her. In Roen, she has the perfect mate. He is strong and capable while also caring for her deeply and working hard to heal her. For an introvert, he really has to work up to stepping into the role of a big family as a father and husband. We see Goodman's characteristic nuanced characterization in this story. The ex turns out to be a one-dimensional evil villain, which is a small quibble. I was pleasantly surprised to see Goodman tackling racism in the small town against its largely Chinese railroad workforce. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough in its exploration. These two issues aside, this was an enjoyable story.

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra
Category: Mainstream Fiction
Comments: This is a modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and tells the story of Jo and Meg. The second book in the series will tell the story of Beth and Amy. Meg and Jo is told in alternating POVs of the two older March sisters. Kantra has supposedly thrown in many literary references to Alcott's other works, but I am not familiar with her other stories. Kantra has reset the nineteenth-century New England classic story in modern-day North Carolina. While Little Women was a coming of age story of girls in their late teens, this story is about young adults in their twenties.

Meg has given up her career to be a stay-at-home mom to her twin toddlers and Jo is trying to make it as a food blogger and a prep cook in a professional kitchen in New York City. Kantra has retained Jo's impulsivity and edginess, just as, she has retained Meg's people-pleasing personality. Meg is struggling through the challenges of mommy-dom and wondering if her life is what she had planned it to be or if she has given her personhood away. She is trying to retain a sense of herself as she juggles the needs of her children, husband, and aging parents. Kantra has done an excellent job adapting the classic to the modern world, while also retaining a semblance of the same sorts of inner struggles of the two women in their emotions, responsibilities, and relationships. Ultimately, they come to recognize and treasure the importance of love and family. If you are a fan of Little Women or Alcott's work in general, this will be a fascinating read.

The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly by Kerri Maher
Category: Mainstream Fiction
Comments: I picked this book up because Grace Kelly's name immediately invokes beauty, elegance, and a rarified living far above my own—a fairytale life. She was so graceful and gracious as a person that it was only natural that she would marry a prince. This is the stuff of dreams for romance readers. At once historical fiction and biography, this book is a fictionalized account of Grace’s life and gives us a supposed glimpse into her world of friendships, complicated relationships, rise to fame, career, and famous marriage. Despite Grace's public personna of allure and poise, her inner life was far from serence or as blissful as outsiders imagined it to be. Whose life is? Yet, Grace struggled to portray exactly that while inside, she was conflicted and longed for personal fulfillment and recognition. She subsumed herself into her role and her personhood fell away from her. Maher has done a splendid job of seamlessly stitching together fact and fiction to tell a compelling tale. If you're a royal watcher or a fan of Kelly (from the outside), you will enjoy this book.

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I am a committed Juliet Stevenson fan now. Given my fledgling audio listening skills, AKA my mind wanders when I listen, my success in listening while I drive to a book I have read before is working. My listening to Austen's Persuasion was a success. So I abandoned Gaskell's Mary Barton till next month and substituted Gaskell's North & South instead. And it is turning out to be a good decision. I have read the book and watched the miniseries a couple of times, so I am able to picture the scenes and the people as I listen to the conversations.

This story uses a protagonist from a small village in southern England to present and comment on the perspectives of mill owners and workers in an industrializing city. The novel is set in the fictional industrial town in the north of England. More on the story here.

Every format (reading, watching, listening) brings forth different aspects of a book. This time, I was much struck by Mr. Hale, the protagonist Margaret's father, and how selfish, irresponsible, and profoundly unaware of others he is. His inability and refusal to predict the ramifications of his actions is careless in the extreme. As Caroline Russomano said in reply to my tweet about Mr. Hale, and I paraphrase here: His head is so in the clouds, and he is extremely self centered and impractical and oblivious to how he makes it gradually more and more impossible for people around him. Why have some 19th century authors (in books such as: Emma, Pride & Prejudice, North & South) been compelled to write such selfish men in order to show how strong the women are, and yet, who have to be wily enough to massage the man's ego while getting things that need to be done, done?

Kind of Hindu by Mindy Kaling
Category: Nonfiction Essay
Comments: This is the first essay from Mindy Kaling's collection Nothing Like I Imagined. I listened to Kaling read this 21-minute essay. This was an interesting look into an American-born desi girl's life and how being Indian and Hindu look like to her and her daily experience. Vera Mindy Chokalingam, known professionally as Mindy Kaling, is a Hollywood actress and producer.

In this book, Kaling has narrated how her parents are from different parts of India and met in Lagos, Nigeria, before moving to the US. Kaling was born here. She was brought up speaking only English, eating Indian food, and attending some Indian festivals decked out in Indian clothes. She was told she was a Hindu since birth, but never thought of herself as such, especially after she left home. It is only when her daughter, Katherine "Kit," was born that she wondered how she wanted to bring her up and how much of the Indian culture did she want to impart to her. It is interesting that she fixated on the mundan, shaving off her baby's hair, a common ritual on her dad's side of the Indian culture. Much of this story is about that. I wonder how much of the Indian culture she has imparted going forward from there to her two children.

Category: Children's Picture Books
My reviews are here.

Lali's Feather by Farhana Zia, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman
Comments: This is a story of fascination with the seemingly simple, oft overlooked things in life that are given significance through our attention.

The Night Gardener by Terry & Eric Fan
Comments: My praise for the Fan brothers’ art is going to be effusive. Combining traditional and contemporary art styles by mixing pen and ink drawings with digital techniques, the artists have created minutely detailed and utterly brilliant illustrations. You can lean back and take in the larger drawings, and then you can lean in for the intricate style and treatment of the decorative features.

Child of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana, illustrated by Raul Colón
Comments: This book has a fascinating concept: How is one small child related to the immense complexities of the universe? Where does the life of one tiny human fit into billions of years of cosmic evolution? Child of the Universe is the story of an astrophysicist imparting his fascination with the physical, scientific, and poetic origins and diversity of the universe to a young child.

Tiny Feet Between the Mountains by Hanna Cha
Comments: This is a story that shows how everyone is capable of doing grand things; all they need is opportunity. Cha has penned a tale of such encouragement that is sure to bring comfort to those children who do not quite fit the norm of their peers and are ostracized for being different. This story conveys that if you persist and don’t give up, your courage will be rewarded.

Feast of Peas by Kashmira Sheth, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Comments: This is a generous-hearted tale of friendship and forgiveness much like Aesop’s Fables. What brings the story to life is Ebbeler’s artwork. It is beautifully researched and beautifully rendered, bringing to mind illustrations found in Indian books, such as Panchatantra Tales and Amar Chitra Katha.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur
Comments: This is the true story of a man who has lived a modest life and gone on to do extraordinary things. His start in life is slow, but the belief of his mother in him is everything: You know yourself, Fauja, and you know what you’re capable of. Today is a chance to do your best.

Category: Children's Picture Books
My reviews are here.

Chirri & Chirra is an utterly charming series of children’s picture books by well-known Japanese writer and illustrator Kaya Doi. They have been translated from Japanese and published in English by the quintessentially indie children’s publisher, Enchanted Lion Books. These whimsical stories are low on the angst scale and high on the charm meter, featuring two rosy-cheeked best friends, Chirri and Chirra, and their magical adventures in the natural world. The girls love riding their bicycles, frolicking with animals, and eating delicious food that will have your mouth watering. One of the quirkiness of the two girls is that they are identical except that they each have one detail that is of a different color from the other, whether it is buttons on their outfits, a side pocket, or a crossbody purse.

Chirri & Chirra by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by Yuki Kaneko
Comments: This is the first book in the series, and it introduces us to Chirri and Chirra. “What a perfect day,” says Chirri as this story begins, and it turns out that she is absolutely right.

Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by Yuki Kaneko
Comments: Children love playing in the snow. As soon as the first snow of the season starts to fall, Chirri and Chirra head out on their bicycles. Around them is a winter wonderland filled with frozen ponds and leafless trees limned with white gold snow.

Chirri & Chirra: On the Town by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Comments: One a warm, breezy summer day, Chirri and Chirra decide it is the perfect day for a bicycle ride. As they ride through the forest, the woodland around them is awash in color. When they cycle through the old town, the yarn shop they discover reflects the outside colors in their flower-dyed yarn bundles, and the girls cannot resist choosing their favorites. Every shop in town has goods in a rainbow of colors celebrating the season.

Chirri & Chirra: Underground by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Comments: Sometimes adventures begin when you see something intriguing and follow along on a hunch. What most people consider a dark, dank place, the underground can also be a fascinating place full of color and mystery. Our intrepid explorers, Chirri and Chirra discover just that.

Chirri & Chirra: Under the Sea by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
Comments: Chirri and Chirra are never daunted by the unknown. “Let’s take a look, Chirri.” That is the courageous spirit with which they live their lives. And when their curiosity gets them in sticky spots, like in this story, they don’t panic. Instead, they keep looking for solutions to their problems, always with the confidence in their own ability to figure things out. They go where the current takes them.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Review: The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary made a huge splash when it came out in 2019. And I missed the boat on that book and have kept on meaning to read it since then. I finally got the perfect opportunity to read and review it this month since it is being reprinted in early January.

The premise is delicious: Leon Twome is a palliative care night nurse at a hospice and Tiffany (Tiffy) Moore works as an editor at a niche publishing company. Leon's brother has been wrongly incarcerated in a prison for a crime he did not commit. In order to pay for his lawyer fees, Leon needs to generate more cash than his salary pays. So he comes up with the harebrained, brilliant idea of sharing his flat with someone with a day job.

Tiffy has once and for all broken up with her on-and-off boyfriend and needs a living situation stat. Unfortunately, she, not only owes her ex a lot of money, but her job pays her a pittance. So she needs someplace cheap, and over the misgivings of her friends, she is taken with the idea of a flatshare. The deal is negotiated by Leon's jealous girlfriend, and the hours are strictly set of who is supposed to be at the apartment when. The book employs a beloved romance trope: only one bed. But O'Leary turns this on its head by having the protagonists sleep in it when the other is not there.

I laughed when I first read the setup. It is so crazy; how will it even fly? But O'Leary not only makes it work, but shows herself to be a highly skilled storyteller. She really sells this story of how these two protagonists build a relationship, drawing ever closer to each other, without ever seeing each other. They become friends long before attraction plays a part in their relationship. I love that Tiffy and Leon handwrite notes to each other. Such an old-fashioned way of getting to know the other person. Just as Leon learns that Tiffy is quirky, colorful, warm, and kind, so does the reader. Just as the reader learns that Leon is patient, thoughtful, dependable, and loyal, so does Tiffy. And just as they're becoming friends, so is the reader befriending them.

O'Leary does a fantastic job showing the PTSD Tiffy suffers as a result of the trauma of her ex's emotional abuse. The helplessness, the irresistible tendency to give in to his controlling ways, the drowning doubt of self-worth, the pull of believing his version of events, the flashbacks, the trembling...all make the reader choke up over Tiffy's suffering and feel anger towards the one who has dimmed her light and made her kind soul suffer. O'Leary skillfully shows the escalating abusive arc of Tiffy's ex as one of the driving forces in the second half of the book.

By contrasting Leon's innate decency, warmth, and caring ways to Tiffy's ex's insanely possessive ways, O'Leary shows Tiffy what a good relationship looks like. She realizes that her self-worth is invaluable and that she deserves to be with someone who thinks her incomparable, one worthy of respect and thoughtfulness. Her sense of self grows in proportion to how much Leon prizes what she brings to his life: a sense of fun, impulsiveness, warmth.

And loyalty to him, and thus, by extension, loyalty to his brother. When Tiffy is in, she is all in. She embodies what is one of my top goals in life: "flow with the go." She marvels that her relationship with Leon is one of equals. Given how much Leon's mother suffered abuse at the hands of the men she dated, Leon has always been very clear from the start of his relationship with Tiffy: equality, consent, and respect will always rule the day.

O'Leary's conversational writing style is part of her storytelling charm. But that style does take some getting used to. There are sentence fragments, quirky punctuation, and grammatical liberties taken in service of the artistic voice. However, the story is so entertaining and tugs on your heartstrings so, that you focus on the emotions that the author is so good at conveying.

Having read this book, I can well believe why it featured so prominently on so many Best Books lists in 2019 and has eleven thousand 4.5 star ratings on Amazon. I loved the story!

[I received a digital advanced review copy from the publisher, Flatiron Books, via Netgalley.]

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Best Romance Novels of 2020

It's that time of the year again when I compile my Best Romance Books of the year list. Most newspapers and magazines start putting together their lists in October, but I like to wait until at least December so the fall books don't get shafted. This time, like last year, I had fifteen books on my list. Here are all the details of the books with links to the full reviews. Just the titles and author names are below.

–Malcolm's List by Suzanne Allain
–Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
–If a Lady Lingers by Anna Harrington
–Here to Stay by Adriana Herrera
–Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho
–Ties that Tether by Jane Igharo
–The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
–The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
–Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras
–Claiming his Bollywood Cinderella by Tara Pammi
–Headliners by Lucy Parker
–The Rakess by Scarlet Peckham
–The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
–Marriage by Arrangement by Sophia Singh Sasson
–The Return of the Disappearing Duke by Lara Temple

Friday, November 27, 2020

My November Reading

This is the eighth year where I've maintained a spreadsheet of the books I've read that year. This is what I record: Title, Author, Series Grade, Categories, Publisher, Publish Year, Number of Pages, Format, Month Read, Own or Library New Price, Re- Read, Where Reviewed, Comments. Do any of you do this?

Tara Books
Thanks to my editor of the Arts & Culter section of the International Examiner newspaper, I discovered the Indian book publisher, Tara Books, and their children's picture books. I am in love with their handmade books. Here is a video (the top one) of how they handmade the book Creation. The book is produced in their fair trade book making workshop. Watch how each page of every book is carefully screen printed on handmade paper and expertly bound by hand.

Austen Adaptations These are the ones I've found by searching Netflix, Amazon, and the All About Romance blog post. Which ones have you seen?

Pride & Prejudice: 1940 movie (seen), 1980 miniseries Elizabeth Garvie (to see), 1995 miniseries (seen), 2003 movie (no way), 2004 Bride&Prejudice movie (to see), 2005 movie (seen), 2013 movie (no way), 2020 musical (no way)
Persuasion: 1971 movie (no way), 1995 movie (to see), 2007 movie (seen)
Sense & Sensibility: 1981 miniseries (to see), 1995 movie (seen), 2008 miniseries (to see)
Emma: 1972 miniseries (no way), 1995 Clueless movie (seen), 1996 movie (seen), 2009 miniseries (seen), 2020 movie (to see)
Mansfield Park: 1983 miniseries (no way), 1999 movie (seen), 2007 movie (to see)
Northanger Abbey: 2000 movie (no way), 2007 movie (to see)
Sanditon: 2019 miniseries (seen)

Pride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters' Correspondence, Written and Folded by Hand by Jane Austen, curated by Barbara Heller
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This book was a brilliant find, and thanks to fervent accolades from Laurel Ann Nattress (@austenprose), I decided to acquire it and am thoroughly delighted with it. This edition brings to life the nineteen letters exchanged by the characters. Glassine pockets placed throughout the book contain removable replicas of the letters, such as Lydia's announcement of her elopement, Mr. Collins's obsequious missives, and of course, Darcy's painfully honest letter to Lizzy. Each letter is re-created with gorgeous calligraphy—with different handwriting for every character—and hand-folded with painstaking attention to historical detail. This would make an excellent Christmas gift for your Austen fan.

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I hadn't read this book in print before, so Stevenson was my first introduction to Gaskell's debut book. I loved it, and I believe it was largely due to Stevenson's excellent narration. Her characters are distinct with voices, accents, and speaking styles. What talent! This is not an unknown book, so I'll simply point to the Wiki for the plot.

This is a contemporary story set in Manchester between 1839 and 1842 and deals with the issues faced by the Victorian working class. Gaskell does an excellent job of showing the real, daily drudgery of life and its myriad difficulties. Life and death balance on razor's edge, and people accept life and death with stoicism. Life carries on, no matter how hard. I have no idea how most people didn't succumb to depression in rainy, dark, industrial ugly England. And yet, in the midst of this dreary life, there are flashes of joy leavening their days and love flourishes vigorously. This book show how complex life is: difficult and endearing and all shades in between.

If you were to read the Wiki plot, you would be mistaken in thinking that the novel itself is dreary. But that is not so. The novel is made wonderful by Gaskell's finely nuanced characterization. While the plot provides forward movement to the story, it is besides the point to some extent. You have to get into the psyche of the characters in the story, primary and secondary, to be fully invested in the story.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I am fledgling audio listener, i.e., my mind has a tendency to wander when I listen. However, having read this book a couple of times, it was easy to follow the story along in audio. As with Mary Barton, I found Stevenson a superb performer. She really brings to story to life in all their complexities, which are easily discernable to the ear. I recommend the audio highly.

A Granted Prayer by Edith Wharton
Category: Literary Fiction Short Story
Comments: This was a bit of a disappointment. There was a point to the story, but you could see it come a mile away and there was nothing original about the way the story rushed to the perfunctory end. I expected some particular revelation of character, a twist in the tail, an insight, something to give this story meaning beyond the obvious. But perhaps what is in the story is the point, and I'm missing it by expecting more.

The family consists of a university professor, his two unmarried sisters, his elder daughter, and three sons who have left home and gone on to live their disappointing lives. The women agree that the boys were a sore disappointment to the father. They wished that the boy who had died in childbirth would've survived to become the apple of their father's eye. And then providentially, he becomes the guardian of just such a boy.

Editor’s Note: While doing postdoctoral research for a project on Edith Wharton’s short fiction, Sarah Whitehead, an independent scholar in London, came across the typescript of an unpublished story, titled "A Granted Prayer," in the Wharton archive at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. This satire of genteel stuffiness, which takes comic aim at contemporaneous debates about the role of environment, biology, and free will in human development. Link to the Story.

If a Lady Lingers by Anna Harrington
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This book is going to be on my Best Books of 2020 list. I was charmed. Charmed by the characters, charmed by the story, charmed by the hand that created this book.

Daisy Daring has a secret. She’s the daring architect and interior designer behind her ailing father’s architectural fame these days. She yearns to sign her own name on her designs and dreams of receiving recognition for her hard work and talent. But she knows, Society is not ready for a woman architect. She’s been condescended to and patronized and dismissed enough times to know that the only way she can see her designs built is to sign her father’s name on them. The ache of losing her mother when she was young has never gone away, and the constant thwarting of her passion has led to someone who lives in the shadows. She is constantly conscious what everyone thinks of her.

The huge grin on his face competes for the brightest spot on Hugh Whitby’s person with his wildly colorful and flamboyant clothes. He is very tall and very slender with narrow shoulders. He smiles from sunup to sundown, laughs loudly, and is enthusiastic about all that life has to offer him. While wealthy and the son of a baron, Whitby has none of the airs and arrogance of high rank. He uses his wealth to provide for a day school that educates children, feeds and clothes them, and trains them for a life that will lift them out of poverty. Despite his joy in the world, inwardly, he still mourns the mother he lost when he was young. In her memory, he wears clothes of every hue, no matter how clashing. He cares not a whit what others think of him.

Daisy and Whitby meet when he comes to visit her father with a commission to have a house built for himself and a group of children who will be boarding with him. My review is here.

A Timeless Christmas by Alexis Stanton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The book was released in 2018, and it has been made into a movie by Hallmark Channel, which was released on November 15. In my piece for Frolic, I reviewed the book and also interviewed Alexis Stanton, who also writes as Eva Leigh and Zoë Archer. A Timeless Christmas is a time travel tale set in the early 1900s and 2018.

Megan Turner has been working as a tour guide of the Whitley-Moran Mansion by impersonating as Rosie, the housekeeper. Located in Cutter Springs in upstate New York, the mansion was built by Charles Whitley in 1902 for his fiancée. A self-made man and brilliant inventor and entrepreneur, Charles grew up poor and acquired vast wealth and influence through determination and hard work.

Megan has a PhD in American History and has been fascinated by Charles’ story. She has read all the extant manuscripts and documents she’s been able to find on him and by him, and she cannot bear to look away from his portrait every time she sees it. All in all, she is halfway in love with a man who mysteriously disappeared in 1902, a week before Christmas. My interview and review are here.

Gentleman Jim by Mimi Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: [CW: sexual assault attempt] Following in the grand old tradition of the Signet Regencies, this is a tightly focused story of young love getting a second chance at forever more. Matthews is a splendid writer. This story has all the right ingredients for an excellent romance: ardent love, soul-deep tenderness, loyalty, steadfastness, honesty, pining, and lives moving from darkness into light, all spiced with a rousing mystery and much derring-do. It is a fun paean to Heyer and to Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo.

John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare, née Nicholas Seaton is a lowly groom and the bastard son of a highway man and a scullery maid in Somersetshire. In his young life, he suffered much pain, and his only solace, the only person who has ever loved him, is the squire’s daughter. They both know that one would be bereft without the other in their life. And yet, one night when Maggie finds Nicholas beaten badly, fearing for his life, she helps him escape. Despite Maggie owning every millimeter of his heart, he only wants to escape the misery of his existence in Somerset. “Wait for me, Maggie. When I make my fortune, I’ll come back for you.”

Margaret “Maggie” Honeywell has waited ten years. She has been raised as a pampered heiress of a wealthy estate and dotes on her father. It is only when he dies that she realizes that from the grave he means to dictate her life by showing her that he never truly thought of her as a son who could independently run an estate. He wants her to marry a man he has decided upon, who has been the bane of her existence since her girlhood. She has given up hope that Nicholas will ever return to her and is almost resigned to make the marriage her father has set upon her. A chance meeting with St. Clare brings back all her yearning for Nicholas.

The heart of the story is Nicholas' psychological journey from groom to viscount to Maggie's husband. Matthews has done a goodjob showing this. My review is here.

Running Away With the Bride by Sophia Singh Sasson
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I loved Sasson’s first book in the Nights of the Mahal series and this second book is just as wonderful. Cross-cultural currents and interracial relationships are never easy. But in Sasson’s stories, under the seeming differences, people connect with universal commonalities that allows them to make sacrifices and compromises so they can have a life together.

Divya Singh comes from a traditional family in India. Trained as a lawyer, she works in her family’s global business of topnotch hotels catering to the well-heeled. Divya feels entirely stifled by her family’s expectations and also entirely in tune with what her duty is towards her family. Despite exhibiting flashes of independence, eventually, she buckles under the weight of their presuppositions and agrees to an arranged marriage to an Indian American.

Through his software business, Ethan Connors has amassed wealth beyond his dreams and beyond what is comfortable to him in his heart given how he grew up: “I have more money than I can spend in my lifetime. It’s meaningless to me.” His wealth has erected a barrier between him and his lower middle-class family. He wants to buy them everything that they cannot afford, but they have their pride. Since his mother remarried when he was young and had a son with his stepfather, Ethan has felt like an outsider with his nose pressed up the glass of a happy family. They tried their very best to make him feel that he belonged, but he never quite fit in in his mind, and now, his wealth has created a yawning gap.

Divya and Ethan meet when he crashes her wedding in Vegas thinking that the bride is the person he had a prior relationship with and who he should be marrying. Without knowing who in heck Ethan is, but seizing the uproar as an excuse to abandon the traditional plan her parents have set up for her, Divya runs away with Ethan. My review is here.

Just The Way You Are by Adite Banerjie
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is a self-published story set in India by an Indian author based in India. It was recommended by Ros Clarke. This is a wonderful story between a young, wealthy, famous playboy and an older divorced woman with a child. They have a one-night stand at the wedding of his sister where she's the makeup artist. But then she disappears. She's not interested in anything more. And he cannot forget her. Every overture he makes, she thwarts. But he shows that he has the patience to wait for her, for when she is ready to trust in love and happiness again. The hero pines and waits. What elevates this story from ordinary to memorable is how skilfully Banerjie sketches her characters, their interactions, and what they each notice about the other.

Christmas Under the Northern Lights by Annie O'Neill
Category: Contemporary Category Medical Romance
Comments: Annie O’Neil is a popular name in the medical romance category, and this was my first, and possibly, last book by her. The premise is good. A few weeks before her Christmas wedding, she finds her playboy surgeon fiancé cheating on her. In despair, she runs from London to the farthest island town in Scotland she can find. She decides to return to her calling to be a district nurse, that is a nurse who makes house calls, as opposed to working in a hospital or a clinic.

He is from this tiny island, but couldn't wait to leave town. His parents had been the town's lushes and they died drunken deaths. His grandmother raised him, but the shame followed him all through his teen years. The minute he could, he lit out of town to Glasgow, and eventually became an emergency room doctor. He loved the fast life and excitement of working in the ER. But his allergy to the town of his childhood meant that he didn't return in time to realize how ill his beloved grandmother was. She died, and he is wracked by guilt, and he is back in town helping the local elderly doctor out.

Both protagonists are suffering from heartbreak, and they bond as they spend their days making house calls on patients. Interesting premise, right? What sank it was the constant navel gazing of the protagonists. Over and over, they retread the ground of their past angst. How they should've done something different, been different, etc. etc. The first couple of times felt authentic; after that, when it was the same old thing with no new intuition or action on their parts, it got tiresome.

I also felt that the story's conclusion was unbelievable. I understand this is a small town story and a Christmas story. So I do get that the conclusion of the story would be that the protagonists would wholeheartedly choose to stay on the island and practice medicine there. However, in a romance story the HOW is what matters. And the author failed to convince me that a London nurse and a Glasgow emergency room doctor would be content puttering around in a small town far removed from the big city. I wanted the author to sell it to me, and she didn't.

Kisses, She Wrote by Katharine Ashe
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This is the first book in Ashe's wonderful The Prince Catchers series. Every time I read an Ashe book, I discover anew how much I like her historical romances. She'd stopped writing for a while, but she's going to be coming out with historical fiction, which she called (in a tweet to me) "dramatic love stories with history and adventure and a little mystery," in 2021 or 2022.

This book has a delicious premise. A prim and proper and oh,so,innocent princess of an imaginary kingdom is due to wed where her brother pleases in a matter of weeks. But in the meantime, she fantasizes about her brother's friend, the wicked, beauteous earl. He never notices her, because she is plain and mute in his presence. But, oh, can she write in her secret diary about him. In it, she is bold and hedonistic and commands him to seduce her in every which way. One day, he chances on her diary and is hooked. He can't stop reading it and ducks in and out of his friend's house so he can sneak a peek at her diary. She, in beguiling herself, beguiles him. The more he notices her in real life, the more she notices him noticing her, the more confident she becomes, the more she starts becoming like the woman in the diary. Delicious!

A Love for All Seasons: "A Love for All Seasons" by Edith Layton
Category: Historical Romance Short Story
Comments: This is a delightful short story about a couple in the their late thirties who have recently and without warning stepped up into the nobility and are having to learn to navigate life in the upper classes and their new milieu: London under the critical eyes of the ton. The couple is in London to not only establish themselves in Society but also to launch their daughter in Society and marry her off to her doting fiancé. But they are rustics from the country who were childhood sweethearts, and over the years, have settled into a comfortable life. London jolts them out of their complaisance and the fast, sophisticated life and people make them question their life choices and their relationship. Layton has surpassed herself in building a complicated story in such a short format. Not only are the main characters and story emotionally complex, but the secondary characters shine as well in memorable ways. The final advice that the mother gives her daughter about love having its seasons and how to stay the course of love even in its lows and its highs, is just brilliant.

A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is an ongoing read of our Sunday Twitter Book Club. We started on November 15 and have been reading three chapters a week.

We have had a lively—a bit too heated last time with an all-caps shoutiness—discussion all three times we "met." I found that both the hero and heroine start in a pretty low place in their relationship arc. He's a poor aristocrat who has to marry a Cit for money and despises her because he believes she is marrying him for the title. She despises him because she think he's a wastrel and marrying her for her money only so he can continue his wasteful ways. The way the story moves is reminiscent of Heyer's A Civil Contract. I had forgotten that but Ros Clarke and Lara Temple reminded me of it. In general, this is a plot that's been used so much that it feels like a tired plot.

But Balogh's version really does a good job, because she is not afraid to make her characters unlikeable at the outset. She trusts that readers will stay with her as her story unfolds. I really enjoy marriage-of-convenience plots, because they show characters at their worst and their best. Since I am not afraid of unlikeable characters when I see glimmers of hope for a future reconciliation and that there is a balance of power in the relationship, I have not minded this story so far at all and have stayed with Balogh from the beginning. I know that the payoff from her is coming—she is a trusted author. I know that there will be a point in this story when it will take a definite turn and the characters will stop resenting each other to the point where they will be willing to really see each other and work with each other. I look forward to seeing what December readings will bring.

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: Pico Iyer remains one of my absolute favorite writers. Everything I have read by him is wonderful, be it a reported article, an essay on grammar, a travelogue, fiction, or his spiritual journeys.

In this book, he says that sitting still is how we get what we most crave and need in our accelerated lives, which is a break, and he finds that it is the only way to sift through the slideshow of his experience to make sense of the future and the past. Sit still long enough to find out what moves you the most, to recall where your truest happiness lies, and to remember that sometimes, making a living and making a life point in opposite directions. So much of our life takes place inside our heads, that if we really want to change our lives, we have to change our minds. Sitting still leads to not just clearer thinking, but also, emotional intelligence. It allows you to bring stillness into the motion and commotion of the world.

When you take in sights, it is only sitting still that allows you to turn those sights into insights. The Stoics reminded us that it is not our experience that make our life; it is what we do with it that matters. He touts taking an Internet Sabbath for 24 hours every week, to go offline to gather the resources you need for when you go back online. Get a second home in time (if you can't afford one in space) just by taking a day off. He finds that only by going to a place quiet for a while that he will have anything fresh or creative or joyful to share with his loved ones, once he returns. Walk, read, write, look at the stars, and experience the freedom from the clatter and chatter of the modern world—it will remind you who you really are.

In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant motion, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

Mindfulness Essentials: How to Relax by Thích Nhất Hạnh
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: Mindfulness Essentials are a set of five, beautifully bound books in pristine condition that were such a find at my library's book sale last November. A year later, I have finally gotten around to reading one of them...and have discovered a treasure. This is my first experience with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh's work.

The other night, via Facebook Live, I listened to His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaching about the Sanskrit concepts of shamata and vipashyana. So I was pleased that in my reading of How to Relax, Hạnh also talks about those two concepts and how they relate to meditation. Vipashyana or Vipassana is looking deeply within to understand the true nature of things, to truly "see" yourself. Shamata or Kshamata means stopping being caught in our worries of our past or future to live deeply in each moment, a practice of concentrating. So understanding and concentration form the basis of meditation.

The book talks about many other things, such as how experiencing joy takes cultivation and practice of the habit, how simply breathing is beneficial for body and mind healing (with body healing taking priority), how to let go of ideas of happiness that are causing suffering in order to be truly happy in the present, how to value unstructured time, and so on.

How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I attended a lecture by her offered by our school district and so decided to buy her book. She is a very impressive person in her depth of knowledge and depth of understanding. Here are some of brief notes:

Don't be overprotective or rescue your children: This is a short term gain with a long term pain. Our help is depriving children TO BE their own self. If we set their life path, they will be constrained to follow it. We are getting there for them, so they feel like they were forced to make it happen a certain way. It's a win for us because they're successful. We have handled everything. But this win for us is a short term win, but a loss for them. Knowing that they have not achieved their success is psychologically damaging. Children have to know their own mind. They have to know: self-advocacy, agency, and sense of their own existence. "I acted, there was an outcome. I made that happen." It shows them that they exist, that they are a rational thinking being. Self advocacy is "I do therefore I am."

The ARC of becoming successful: Agency (undermined by rescuing), Resilience (undermined by fixing everything for them), Character (undermined by dropping everything as adults for the children, self-sacrificing, treating them as above ourselves, and then resenting them—this is not modeling good character, which is where everybody gets what they need in the family).

Maintain Psychological Distance: If your life is theirs and theirs is yours then it is WRONG!

You have to always Empathize and Empower: Evince confidence that with time and effort they will get over a hurdle. Teach them to do more and more for themselves. Overparenting depletes executive functioning.

The Wishing Tree by Roseanne Thong, illustrated by Connie McLennan
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This story is based on a local legend about a real wishing banyan tree in the village of Lam Tsuen in Hong Kong. (This is not part of the story, but is important to know: The banyan tree is considered a sacred tree among those who practice Buddhism because Buddha gained enlightenment under it.) A wish is written on five sheets of a special red and gold paper, rolled up into a scroll, tied up with a special string, weighted with a mandarin orange, and flung over the branches of the tree. Some of the wishes wished on the Lam Tsuen tree have really come true.

During the Lunar New Year and on the 1st and 15th of every month, people come from near and far to toss their wishes on the trees many branches and roots. Other villages also have their own wishing trees but the one in Lam Tsuen is the most famous. This story is of a little boy and his grandmother and the wishes they make every year together. When the boy's grandmother falls sick, the tree is unable to save her, and she dies, and the boy refuses to wish on the tree for a few years, until he realizes all that the tree has unknowingly given him. McLennan has done a superb job with her culturally-sensitive, vibrant artwork of acrylic on watercolor paper.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti, book design by Jonathan Yamakami, 17th C English poem
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail is a well-known folk poem from 17th C England. This is an absolutely brilliant book in the way it conceives the poem. The artwork and the book design are what make this an unforgettable book. See the book being paged through and read in a video (penultimate).

The poem is a form of a trick verse. Read it in a straighforward manner and it sounds interestingly surreal. But if the lines are broken up in the middle, everything falls into place. In this version of the classic poem, language, art, and design come together to play with these inversions. They reveal and conceal, brilliantly mirroring the shifting ways in which poetry creates meaning. At the simplest level, it is a lesson on grammar and punctuation. But is the difference between fantasy and reality largely grammatical? Or are these inversions the very essence of poetry, by turns meaningless and profound, which overturn our habitual ways of perception?"

Here is the straightforward version...
I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy circles around
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground [...]

Here's the trick version...
I saw a peacock | With a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet | Drop down hail
I saw a cloud | With ivy circles around
I saw a sturdy oak [...]

Alone in the Forest illustrated by Bhajju Shyam, text by Gita Wold & Andrea Anastasio
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Shyam is a Gond tribal artist from central India. The Gond used to be a community of forest dwellers not that long ago. According to Tara Books, the publisher, "Their art derives from the decorative patterns painted on the mud floors and walls of their houses." While the minutely detailed art purely for esthetic reasons is the point of the book, the story is also interesting. It delves into the psychology of fear for children. The art enhances the emotions the boy feels: the optimistic beginning of the story, how he descends into terror, the mental and physical manifestation of fear, and the euphoria when he comes out of it. Like the above book, if you get a chance to read the book, grab it.

Friday, October 30, 2020

My October Reading

Due to various reasons, I have moved to doing only one romance review for Frolic Media every week. I am hoping this will give me more time to read other things that I have been putting off this year, because of personal reasons as well as doing a lot of work for Frolic. Poetry, essays, nonfiction, and non-romance fiction have gotten the shaft as well as my children's picture book reviews for a newspaper. I would also like to dive into making a dent in the unread books on my Kindle and bookshelf. I, um, have my spreadsheet set up through the end of 2021. ::hides face in embarassment:: More and more, I am Zooming to lectures, interviews, panels, and events all over the country and abroad on a wide variety of topics. For my birthday, my brother gave me a gift for MasterClass, so that is on my list of things to do as well. As a result...I am excited that I have gotten out from under the load of work for Frolic and am having the freedom to stretch a bit.

Claiming his Bollywood Cinderella by Tara Pammi
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: This is Pammi's first book in her Born into Bollywood series. In it, she has created a thoroughly entertaining story of the one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world.

Naina Menon is a personal secretary to the great Vikram Raawal’s grandmother. She is conscious of the honor of her position, and she genuinely enjoys working for the feisty old lady living in a centuries-old mansion steeped in Raawal history. In her personal life, Naina feels a great sense of responsibility towards her flighty stepmother and bright but irresponsible stepsister. She is the only sensible one who is working to hold the family together and keep them financially afloat while the other two pursue their dreams. Giving up her own half-finished PhD in the history of film and getting a high paying but not intellectually stimulating job are her only options. By not allowing Naina to wallow in self-pity, Pammi has created a character who is mature and moving forward in life. And yet…she is lonely.

Hot looks and hot moves combined with sharp business acumen and old and new money make Vikram Raawal a Bollywood legend and a force to be reckoned with. But along the way, success has become a shield and a wall that keeps everyone at arms’ length. Everyone wants a piece of him without valuing the man behind the success. His childhood was one of chaos at the mercy of his immature and temperamental parents. Their very excesses have led him to value a life of strict control, and he not only brings up his brother and sister under that principle but also runs his business and private life in that fashion. And…he is lonely. My review is here.

He's Come Undone by Emma Barry, Olivia Dade, Adriana Herrera, Ruby Lang, Cat Sebastian
Category: Contemporary & Historical Novellas
Comments: He’s Come Undone is an anthology of five stories sharing a simple premise: The hero is very much in control of all aspects of his life…till he meets his partner and comes undone and is redone. I was fascinated by how the five authors took the theme and innovated on it to write five unique stories. All content warnings are in the review.

Barry's story is between a virtuoso concert pianist, who is suffering from panic attacks and stage fright, and a virtuoso piano tuner, who has been in love with her over the years and has secret yearning to be a concert pianist. Dade's story is about a buttoned-up head of the math department at a high school, who's been asked to mentor the new art teacher Poppy Wick who thrives on chaos. Herrera's story is about a major league baseball player who has been in love with his best friend forever, but doesn’t think he feels the same about him.

Lang's story had me in tears—it is about rheumatologist with starched shirts and perfectly creased trousers, who falls in love with a former office manager at a large medical practice who have given all of that up to return home to become a caregiver for her mother with dementia. Sebastian's historical story with two timelines where the now mathematics teacher at a private college prep boarding school for boys feel in love with his larger-than-life roomate who it seemed returned his love but went on to marry; now they're meeting up again. My review is here.

Ten Things I Hate About the Duke by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second book in Chase's Difficult Dukes series about three duke friends called Their Dis-Graces. I have not read her first, so I cannot tell you whether this second book follows in much the style as the first one. However, this book is not in the same fabulous style as Dukes Prefer Blondes. It is a more conventional Regency romance that I, nevertheless, found satisfying.

Miss Cassandra Pomfret is the eldest daughter of Lord deGriffith, the terror of Parliament. In her recent past, at her debut, she instigated more than one sensation — even had the Riot Act read to her. So her father packed her off to the Continent, only allowing her to return when it was time for her younger sister’s debut. Unfortunately for her father, no sooner had she returned, than she caused a uproar about a bill in the House of Commons, and her father becomes a laughingstock. He thus issues an ultimatum: Until she marries, her sister will not be allowed to go out to events that a debutante usually attends for her successful launch on the marriage mart. Cassandra does not want to marry and doesn’t think anyone would want to marry The Gorgon. But she does want a brilliant match for her sister. What is she to do?

Lucius Wilmot Beckingham, the Duke of Ashmont, also known as Luscious Lucius, is a wastrel. Oh, he is solvent and doesn’t lay waste to his estates, but otherwise, he is an unsteady fellow up to all pranks along with his close ducal friends and drinking like a fish. He does not lift a finger to help anyone (or so it seems). Not a redeemable bone in his body, according to Cassandra. He agrees that he is an arsehole and is not arsed to change an iota of his life. My review is here.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Parker's London Celebrities series, and it was my first book by Parker, and it remains my most favorite. Parker is a beloved author—I find Parker breathlessly funny—and I am happy to report that she will have more than one book out next year. I read this book for our Sunday Twitter Book Club with Mary Lynne (@emmelnie), Kay (@miss_batesreads), and Ros (@ros_clarke) (and sometimes, Joanne (@regency_gal)). We will finish this book up on Sunday, November 1, and then we'll be launching into a traditional holiday Regency A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

My September Reading

After the personal tumult of August, September was relatively quieter. I cautiously breathed deeper each day with gratitude in my heart each night. With a wee bit more time on hand, I attended a few events happening in my city and one in DC. Two of the most memorable ones were the Pongo Poetry Project's celebration with keynote by the sublime Naomi Shihab Nye and the National Book Festival organized by the Library of Congress.

Naomi Shihab Nye was my new discovery in August, and since then, I have picked up a few of her poems here and there, hoping to pick up one of her many collections. Pongo's mission is to take poetry into spaces for troubled youth: detention centers, transition houses, etc. in the hope that poetry will allow them self-expression to help them process their pain and their situation. I was delighted to find that I knew two of the speakers: one was my oldest's middle school English teacher and the other I know from a writing class we took two decades ago. Nye, the Young People's Poet Laureate, is well-known for working with troubled youth so her talk about her work and her poetry was especially meaningful to me.

The best events at the book festival were the interview of children's book author Mo Willems by the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden and the talk by YA author Jason Reynolds. I read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Reynolds, adapted from Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, this July and was blown away by the stories and the prose. So it was exciting to listen to Reynolds, the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, talk at the festival. He is an even better orator than writer and that is saying something. I transcribed his talk in full and was fascinated by his facility with language and thought to create images in your mind. He's a persuasive storyteller, and it showed.

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: Past abuse, assault, body image, kidnapping, nightmares, panic attacks, war PTSD]

Katrina King-Arora, a Thai American former model, is now an angel investor and a recluse. She had escaped her abusive father, who used to also be her manager, by marrying an older, kindly man who has now left her widowed. She has always struggled with anxiety her whole life due to her father, but her mental health struggles became more intense after being kidnapped a few years ago. As a result, she considers herself lucky to have a coterie of female friends, her “found” family, who get her and support her.

Katrina is highly circumspect about her privacy, but one day, she drops her guard at a crowded café and allows a stranger to share her table but repeatedly refuses to go on a date with him. Unbeknownst to her, someone falsely livetweets her interactions as a budding romance under the hashtag #cafebae, which quickly catches the attention of the denizens of Twitter. This lands her in physical danger, and her latent panic disorder rears its ugly head.

Jasvinder “Jas” Singh, with a mixed Punjabi Indian and Mexican ancestry, is a former soldier who now uses his considerable skills in his work as a bodyguard. Behind the scenes of his new job, he struggles to overcome the PTSD he suffers from his time in the military. Currently, he is Katrina’s bodyguard. To escape the fallout from the twitterstorm, Jas suggests that he and Katrina retreat to his family’s remote farm in Northern California to lie low for a while and hope people’s short-term memories will allow the stay to be short as well. Katrina seizes on this chance to escape the limelight.

Rai has done an excellent job of portraying how these two people suffering from severe mental health issues work through them and learn to manage them even as they lead fulfilling lives. Rai’s characters’ positivity towards their illnesses and normalization of therapy in their everyday lives allows readers dealing with these issues to feel “seen,” while offering hope for a better future for themselves. To me, the sensitivity and delicacy of Rai’s portrayal of these aspects of her protagonists’ lives is the heart of the story. My review is here.

Ties that Tether by Jane Igharo
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: "He’s my everything. He’s my lifeline," the heroine says to the hero. "You’re the light of my world," the hero says to the heroine. What can be more heartfelt declarations of love than these?

Nigerian-Canadian Azere Izoduwa works at Xander in Toronto, North America’s top advertising agency. She was born in a Nigerian village and immigrated to Canada with her mother and sister at the age of twelve. Spanish Canadian Rafael Castellano is in the process of moving back to Toronto from NYC where he spent a few years. His time in NYC is something that he adamantly refuses to speak about with anyone, even his close family. Azere and Rafael meet when Azere escapes another date setup by her mother and ends up in the hotel bar feeling out of sorts and a bit reckless. Some conversation and a hot kiss later, their instant connection translates into a one night stand. Only...Azere ends up pregnant. And Rafael ends up working for Xander.

The best part of this book for me was Azere and her mother’s relationship. It is so fraught with the immigration experience. Her mother wants to hold on to what she knows, the memories and experiences with which she came to Canada and which she is so afraid her daughter will forget. And in forgetting the culture, she will forget her father and lose all that made Azere Izoduwa an Edo Nigerian. But her mother has never understood how difficult the first few days and weeks and months were for Azere when she first immigrated to Canada. At that age, acceptance of her peers meant having to conform to the cultural norms. She had to adopt new customs, behave in new ways, and think of herself differently, all of which were threatening to her mother. My review is here.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: former abusive relationship, abandonment by people, chronic illness not taken seriously, racism.]

Jamaican-British Chloe Brown comes from money but has left that world behind. She is now a freelance web designer and loves her job. But her job is made difficult by her fibromyalgia — her life changed significantly when her symptoms began in her 20s and doctors and friends dismissed her illness. She suffers tremendous pain, fatigue and insomnia with their attendant mood issues, and so despite having the support of a loving and close family, she feels that her life has been severely limited and she is stagnating.

I really liked how Chloe Brown takes a near-miss car accident as a wake-up call to really live life. She doesn’t wallow in her fear, but instead decides to jumpstart her life into something that she really wants to look back upon and say, yep, she really achieved what she set out to do. So how do you achieve things? Make a list! List-making is a profoundly philosophical activity. Ask Plato.

Redford “Red” Morgan used to be a talented painter, but he abruptly left the London art world and now spends his days as a superintendent of a building. He suffers from PTSD after suffering emotional abuse and domestic violence in his previous relationship.

Chloe and Red meet when he is ready to rejoin the art world and needs a website that Chloe is willing to code up for him. My review is here.

The Rakess by Scarlet Peckham
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: [CW: death, alcoholism, addiction, stillbirth, abuse, wrongful imprisonment, loss of innocence]

Inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, Seraphina “Sera” Arden is a passionate liberalist and feminist whose core values are helping other women, who’ve run afoul men and have their lives ruined, and championing rights for women. Despite her beliefs coming under fire from all directions, she stands steadfast by them. Privately, she lives a hedonistic life of drinking and casual sex. She is answerable to no one and responsible to no one. She is a rakess in the true sense of how historical romances view rakes.

Adam Anderson, on the other hand, is abstemious and fastidious. He has a large capacity for empathy, thoughtfulness and caring and generously shares of himself with others. He is a widower whose wife died in childbirth, and he is raising their children on his own. He is an architect who sees politics in his future. Thus, if he were to marry again, he needs someone of exemplary character. Sera and Adam meet on a Cornish cliffside where he is engaged in assessing the architecture of a structure and she mistakes him for her erstwhile lover.

Many romance novels have damaged heroes who are healed by heroines. It is a rare novel that features a truly flawed heroine who has agency to heal herself and is helped along the healing process by the hero. Peckham unflinchingly allows Seraphina to be deeply flawed and still deserving of love and capable of loving. This book is a triumph of the human spirit and draws a bold line under “there is someone special for everyone.” My review is here.

Weekend Fling with the Surgeon by Janice Lynn
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: This was my first medical category romance, and I liked it. Pediatric cardiologist Dr. McKenzie Wilkes has been dumped one too many times and is heartbroken. Adding salt to the wound, she was supposed to show up to her glamorous cousin's wedding with a fiancé in tow. To save face, she starts searching for escorts. She is caught at it by none other than pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Ryder Andrews, who cannot stand the sight of her (or so she believes). To her horror, her mouth asks him if he would be her pretend boyfriend. To her further horror, he says, yes. And so, they're off to Nashville for a weekend of wedding shenanigans.

It's a tender romance with instant attraction but a slow build to the relationship. I enjoyed it. I also liked Ryder and McKenzie's back stories, especially, why Ryder decided to become a heart doctor. I will admit, I had hoped for more medical situations and terminology. We are told about what amazing doctors they are but I would've liked to have been shown more about it. The amount of medical stuff may be toeing the sub-genre line—I don't know that since I am new to the sub-genre—but, personally, medical matters fascinate me, so I had hoped for more. Oeverall, good first medical. I have a second for an official review later this year.

American Love Story by Adrianna Herrera
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the third book in Herrera's Dreamers series. I really liked her first book—it was on my Best Books list last year—so I was looking forward to this one, but this was less successful. It has many of the hallmarks of Herrera's books: found family, characters interested in social justice, and some politics.

Haitian-American Patrice is first generation immigrant and an economics professor who joins Cornell's faculty. He is aware that part of his reason for accepting this post is that his summertime hookup, assistant district attorney, Easton, also lives in Ithaca. Easton is interested in picking up where they left off, but Patrice shuts him down initially. How can his research and activism in systemic racism and racial justice be compatible with dating a Caucasian prosecutor. "I have literally spent the last ten years of my life studying and writing about how the system that Easton works every day to uphold is weaponized to keep people like me in chains. How do I reconcile that?"

So while they're dancing around their relationship even as they keep meeting up at friends' houses, when Patrice tells Easton that he’s having trouble finding a permanent place to live, Easton offers him an apartment in the building he owns. So far so good. Herrera has sketched out very interesting characters, and the story is off to a great start. What unfortunately sank the story was the navel gazing and back-n-forth "I want him / I want him not" both characters indulge in over and over again. Some of it is a given in romance as in real life, but this is a large part of the book, which made it tough to read because you want the characters to move on and grow and mature. While the other stakes in the story are really high—immigration, racial profiling, and police harassment—the romance is not as well developed as I usually expect of Herrera.

Governess Gone Rogue by Laura Lee Guhrke
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book is the third book in Guhrke's Dear Lady Truelove series. I haven't read a Guhrke in a long time, and what I had read in the past I had liked, so I picked this one up. It is uneven and makes certain jumps and leaps that made is less successful for me.

Amanda's father wanted a boy and reared her as such by giving her a fine education and sending her to Oxford. Teaching is her love and joy in life—living by her brain is what she wants to do. So she'd been happy teaching at a respectable girl's school until she innocently fell for a bounder, lost her reputation and lost her job. Now she's on the edge of destitution, when she sees an advert for a male tutor. Naturally, she cuts her hair, binds her breasts, and off she goes to tutor twin hellions. Her disguise is 100 percent successful: her employer, his sons, and his servants are all fooled. The boys, who had previously routed all nannies and tutors, start minding her. All of this is fun and pure Guhrke.

Then one day, she's asked to valet his lordship, and when her hand grazes his chin, he feels instant lust and then after staring at her realizes she's a woman. He instantly fires her, because, by God, a tutor, no matter how good, cannot be a woman, and She.Lied.To.Him., so he cannot trust her. But everyone pleads her case, and he hires her back.

By 50% of the book, he still thought of her as a man. By 67%, he is lusting after her and they are calling each other by their first names. And the remainder of the book then follows along a tried and true governess-nobleman path with increasing lust leading to feelings. Ho hum! Not Guhrke's best. If you wish to try out Guhrke's work, read her older books.

A Rogue of One's Own by Evie Dunmore
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I'm going to talk at a high level about this book. I loved Dunmore's first book; it was on my Best Books list last year, so I was eagerly looking forward to this book. The characterization is very good, and exactly what I expected of Dunmore. The chemistry between the protagonists is well done. The heroine is very interesting and her story is about suffrage, women rights, feminism, class differences, and equality. Now if the book was purely about the heroine, I'd say this is good book.

However, the biggest problem with this book is its colonialism and "exotic" fetshization. The hero, a white viscount, has a tattoo of a four-armed, blue-skinned, and naked South Asian dancer on his chest done by a white man.

In Hello, Stranger, Lisa Kleypas had a couple of paragraphs of the Kama Sutra "exotic" stuff. SBTB ran a scathing review that led Kleypas to apologize and to change the content in her subsequent editions. I know this because I helped her and her editor work on this. However, in Dunmore's book the offensive portion is extensive and a major plot point. There is no way to "fix" this book. While Dunmore has done research on Hindu mythology and Indian history, she shows a lack of basic understanding of the impact of colonialism on the Indian psyche and what appropriation of a Hindu god means to Hindus. I wish this othering trope of "Indian culture is erotic and exotic" would go away.

Tempestuous April by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I was looking for a low-conflict easy book, and this hit all the right buttons...except, well, except, there wasn't much story. She's British and a nurse in a London hospital. She goes on a holiday to The Netherlands at a friend's house and meets a rich doctor. From the first glance, they both realize that the other is The One, but they don't get enough screentime. Despite it, they fall for each other. In so many ways, he tells her he loves her. I really liked how creatively tender he is. Unfortunately, despite being a nurse, she is immature and that does not improve. The hero takes her as is.

It's been a while since I read a Neels book, and I had forgotten how much telling there is with very little showing. I do realize that Neels' stories have the same in broad strokes, but it is in the minutiae that they're different, and that is where the story is. A couple of Neels' stories have worked well for me, but this one didn't. The romance felt cursory, like the author's heart wasn't into it. However, don't take my word for it—it is well-received on Amazon.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the third book of our Sunday Twitter Book Club with Mary Lynne (@emmelnie), Kay (@miss_batesreads), and Ros (@ros_clarke). This month we read the first four chapters. I know the deal is that you're supposed to read only the chapters you are disucssing, but I find this book addictive, and once I start reading it, I cannot stop. I read it through and laughed myself silly through it all. I adore Parker's sense of humor and the witty one-liners that her protagonists crack, especially the heroine. Snark is extremely tricky to carry off—in many contemporaries, it verges on the mean from the heroine to the hapless hero, while he is a cinnamon roll. In this book, both protagonists are on par, and he takes what she dishes out on the chin, and she never hits below the belt. Unlike the Grant book below, the power is balanced between them from the beginning to the end, even though he does a lot more work than she in the story. He has problems, but he isn't a problem.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I commented in last month's post about this book, the second of our book club reads. I just could not get behind this heroine, despite her having done a tremendous amount of work. I greatly admired Grant's ability to present such a tough protagonist to the reader and then allow the reader to watch her struggle to overcome her worst impulses and qualities to become a person worthy of her own approval and that of someone who starts becoming important to her. I felt sorry for the hero from the begining to the end, but also realized that he is more because she is she. She believes in him, and he grows into his own because of her belief in him. They complement each other, though I would've wanted an easier heroine for him. The power between them will always be imbalanced in her favor, though not as severely imbalanced as in the beginning.

Friday, September 4, 2020

My August Reading

I did the poetry #TheSealeyChallenge on Twitter this month, and I loved it. It was started by poet Nicole Sealey as a way to get people to start buying and reading poetry. I started seven days late, but then posted every day. The challenge was to post a snippet of a poem you've read from a book or chapbook you own while naming the poet, the title of the poem, and the book; tagging the writer; and adding the hashtag and day of the month. There was also a requirement to post the cover of the book and an image of the full poem, but I didn't do that.

Poems for the Moon: Vol 1 by J.R. Rogue
Category: Poetry
Comments: This was an interesting book by Rogue. Instead of his usual full poems, this book contains vignettes—almost like an ideas journal, where they tried out poems or saved stuff they might want to develop later on.

For August 10, for the #TheSealeyChallenge, I had the following entry:

Can we, for tonight,
just be the moon?
Curve into me like that
cheshire grin in the sky?
Press your heart into my back.
Let me forget my own.
–J.R. Rogue @jenR501 Poems for the Moon

Falling Stars by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: The setup is lovely—pure traditional Regency. If you're looking for a low-conflict story full of the warmth of the season and familar characters and settings, then this is the story for you. But for me, it lacks the vivacity of a Chase trad with quirky characters.

They have history. They had been madly in love when they were very young. He had an unsavory reputation then and hadn't dared to approach her honorably because he knew her father and the people around her would've rejected his suit. So in desperation, he'd suggested she elope with him. However, at the last minute, she decided against doing this, and to save her reputation and stood him up. He was grief-stricken but over the years, managed to recover and build a life worth reckoning for himself. She married security and wealth almost immediately following her repudiation of his offer and now has twin girls.

They meet at his brother's house for Christmas. She is his brother's wife's friend. I enjoyed his character development into a man who discovers that he likes children, whether they're his nephews or her daughters. I enjoyed watching her becoming more assertive of her likes and wants as the story moves on. While she honored her husband during her marriage, since her widowhood, she has not forgotten her first love. Their meeting rekindles the spark of attraction like the intervening ten years had never occurred.

Chase writes in her afterword that this was her first Christmas story, and it was inspired by a photograph she saw of an elaborately fanciful gatehouse. (In this story, the gatehouse is where the ill-fated couple were to meet to embark on their elopment.) In this book, Chase definitely shows her fetish for white skin, over and over again in varying ways, and it was discomfiting.

The Wrong Mr. Darcy by Evelyn Lozada & Holly Lőrincz
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What could a small-town sports reporter and a highly paid professional basketball player have in common when her job is to report on the games and the scandals of the team?

Hara Isari is a biracial (African-American and Japanese-American) beat reporter at a small-town paper, dreaming of making it to the big leagues as a sportswriter. Thanks to her father, she has gained a love of sports, particularly, basketball, as well as a deep understanding of the ins and outs of the games and how to report on them. She knows she faces an uphill task being a woman in a man’s world—imagine, female reporters making their way into male locker rooms after the games for the chance of an off-the-cuff remark.

Derek Darcy comes from a lot of money. While his father is not quite part of the old-monied class of Bostonians, he is right up there with his snootiness about what is due to his family and class. He despises Derek’s choice to play pro-basketball. He feels that instead of going into a prestigious job, he is falling into the clichéd profession of a black man in sports. Derek is the close childhood friend of a basketball legend, and Hara and Derek meet when she wins a contest to interview the interview-shy legend. My review is here.

You had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: From the cover to the last word, this is pure entertainment theater. The high drama, the intense emotions, the impassioned familia, the close-knit relationships, humor and a sexy romance all add up to a satisfying whole.

Jasmine Lin Rodriguez is a soap opera actor who has just landed a lead role in a hot bilingual telenovela called Carmen in Charge. She wants to prove to her family that acting is her dream. Just when she should be celebrating her success, she is dumped by her famous boyfriend and finds herself splashed across the tabloids. Furious, she gets with her cousins to come up with the Leading Lady Plan: leading ladies “don’t need a man to be happy,” they are “whole and happy on their own,” and they are “badass queens making jefa moves.”

Angel Luis “Ashton” Suárez is a man of secrets, and he wants to protect his privacy at all costs. He is also one of the rising stars of telenovelas, and coincidentally, Jasmine’s abuela’s favorite telenovela star. He had been despondent over being killed off his last show, so he was delighted to be cast in the happening Carmen in Charge. He is nearing forty and hopes that this show will finally help him get bigger and better roles.

Jasmine and Ashton meeting on the set of Carmen in Charge in New York sets the story in motion—their meet cute where he spills coffee on her is funny and sweet. My review is here.

The Return of the Disappearing Duke by Lara Temple
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: For some books, you know within the first few pages as you sink into the story that it is going to be very good. Compared to Temple's other books, this is a deeply philosophical book, especially those scenes in the Egyptian desert.

Colonel Raphael, the Duke of Greybourne AKA Mr. Rafe Grey, ran away as a teen from his abusive father and stern, indifferent mother to the army. From there, he became a wanderer and mercenary for hire. At one point he did return to England to support his younger brother and his newborn son. But the death of his nephew sent him out wandering again. At the moment the story begins, he is on the trail of his brother who has disappeared in Egypt.

Cleopatra “Cleo” led a circumspect life until her teen years with her loving mother and largely absent father. When her mother died, her father’s absence put her and her younger brother in the orphanage for a year, before he sent for his son. But Cleo disguised herself as a boy and went with her brother to her father, who was not best pleased to be saddled with a girl in his global nomadic exploration of antiquities—real and fake—to sell to the highest bidders. His indifference towards his children makes for an unusual upbringing and accounts for much of Cleo’s mistrustful personality. She never knows when someone will betray her and seeks to be on guard at all times.

Cleo and Rafe meet when Cleo propositions Rafe—offering to pay him with an emerald—for his offices in getting her from Syene to Cairo. My review is here.

Here To Stay by Adriana Herrera
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: With this book, Herrera brings a fresh and fun look at workplace romance with an enemies-to-lovers theme. And as with all her books, what seems light on the surface has deep and serious undercurrents, such as verbal abuse and the deportation of immigrants. Herrera continues to wow me with her stories of complex fully-formed characters, found family, Latinx family relationships, starting over in new places, and success and happiness despite the odds.

Dominican American Julia del Mar Ortiz leaves behind her familia to follow her boyfriend from NYC to Dallas to her dream job of running a charitable foundation for a big department store. Unfortunately, her feckless boyfriend ends up ditching her to hightail it out of Dallas, leaving her behind with an expensive apartment and car to pay for and to fend off loneliness.

Herrera’s skill is in writing characters who are passionate about and dedicated to the work they do. Julia cares deeply about the people she helps through her work for the Foundation. Her commitment and no-nonsense attitude stand her in good stead when dealing with her work duties as well as working with her colleagues.

But her fiery personality makes for spectacular clashes with fellow New Yorker, Rocco Quinn. Rocco is the talented consultant hired by the Foundation’s CEO to move the store into public ownership. This could result in Julia’s job being eliminated. Her and Rocco’s conflict arises between their opposing desires for the head of the Foundation because of the impact that position would have on their respective lives—each stands to lose something important to them. My review is here.

Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Malaysian author Lauren Ho’s debut book and is set in Singapore. I really liked this book for its deeper examination of Singaporean society and what it demands of its young. Using humor, the author makes the painful, palatable. An assured debut.

Chinese-Malayasian-Singaporean Andrea Tang is in her early thirties and laser-focused on her career in a successful law firm. She is a senior associate aiming to make law partner before too long. Her chic condo and chic friends and their high-living life have been enough for her so far. And yet, she dreads the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration that always brings out nosy relatives, who opine on her unmarried and child-free life and bring her deeply hidden insecurities about her future to the surface. She knows she is supposed to want a husband and children, that a woman isn’t considered complete without being married, that her social capital is at a low ebb as a single woman&8212;these are the challenges of Singaporean society.

So when her mother with over passive-aggressive tendencies finds out that Andrea is being courted by wealthy entrepreneur Eric Deng and she is over the moon, Andrea takes comfort that she is finally being the dutiful daughter and taking an interest in life beyond work. She parrots out loud how rich, handsome and successful Eric is and thus perfect for any woman, especially her, and she would be crazy to refuse to marry him.

And yet...there is Indian-Singaporean Suresh Aditparan. On one hand, he is supremely irritating and with whom she is vying to make partner; on the other hand, she can’t stop thinking about him. She is completely conflicted. On one hand, Eric is the politic choice, which will please her family and hush up her critics, on the hand, there is Suresh’s seductive charm. My review is here.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is an ongoing read for our Sunday Twitter Book Club with Mary Lynne, Kay, Ros, and Willa. We are reading three chapters every week. The discussions for this book have been robust, and not everyone is in agreement at all times, which makes for interesting conversation. This book is about the protagonists' growth arcs, particularly, the heroine's. The others have read this book before, but this was my first read. I feel that for the others, their overall impression of her is coloring how they view her in the beginning chapters. Since I was coming at the book with fresh eyes, I found her character difficult to read or understand, much less empathize. But now that we're beyond chapter 10, I am beginning to see glimmers of her promise. The hero I have found reasonable and logical and sympathetic right from the start. But in order for the story to work, you have to understand the heroine, and it takes effort to stay the course till chapters 9 or 10. I can well see why this was a polarizing book—some people really liked it and others didn't. It's certainly not an easy book, and I wonder if I would've continued on with it if I hadn't been reading it for the book club and knew that the other members of the club had read it and enjoyed it.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed
Category: Contemporary YA Fiction
Comments: This is a dual-timeline, YA romantic suspense that didn't quite take off. The premise is very interesting. The author Alexandre Dumas was friends with the painter Eugène Delacroix in early 19th century. Alexandre, a known womanizer, was fascinated with a woman with long black hair. This is Leila, whose name Dumas doesn't mention. What is also little known is that Dumas was biracial with a white French grandfather and a black slave grandmother and was discriminated in his life because of it.

Our modern-day teen, Khayyam (yes, of that famous poet's name) is an American, French, Indian, and Muslim teen. She has a Caucasian French father and an Indian Muslim mother, both professors at a well-known university in the US. Of her heritage Khayyam writes (and I loved): "I'm not a passport that everyone gts to stamp with a label of their choosing. People look at me and try to shove me into their own narrative to define who and what I am. But I'm nto a blank page that everyone else gets to write on. I have my own voice. I have my own story. I have my own name. It's Khayyam."

Her dream is to study art history at the college adjoining the Art Institute of Chicago, which requires that she write an original research essay. She submits one on the possibility that Delacroix secretely gave Dumas one his famous paintings. The judge returns the essay with a scathing opinion. Khayyam embarks on her annual family trip to Paris in a glum mood but determined to redeem herself. Lo and behold, one of the first people she meets is the great-great-many greats-grandson of Alexandre Dumas who has a character sketch by Delacroix in his parents' apartment.

Very promising start to the story, no? But it is the writing and Khayyam's lovelorn characterization that sinks the story. It isn't that teens aren't lovelorn. But YA authors, such as Sandhya Menon, write such characters with a light hand, sprinkling lots of humor with some emo. Khayyam has only one setting to her: gasping over the new Parisian boy with a lot of silliness and self-deprecation minus the humor. This is all a huge pity. I really wanted to like the book, because the mystery is well done.

A note: I enjoyed the loving relationship between Khayyam's parents. Bright intelligent people who enjoy each other intellectually and romantically and who love their child unconditionally and provide her with the support, challenge, and independence she needs. This is what marriage is about. I wanted to read their story.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I took a writing webinar on the beauty of rage in the personal essay this month led by a brilliant professor of journalism and fantastic essayist. This book is a good example of the beauty of rage and its effectiveness. Far too often, Black women have been deemed as angry women and dismissed as irrational. However, we have seen the rise of eloquent women expressing rage in public spaces with great effectiveness: Serena Williams, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Audre Lorde, and so many others. Drawing on Lorde's experiences, Cooper has in turn explored rage in the context of Black females starting from when they're little girls. In many ways, this was a hard book to read, because the emotions are right on the surface, so much so, that a careless glance could dismiss it as a chip on the shoulder. But if you stay with the text and really listen to what she is saying, she is showing us how expressive rage can be and how empowering.