Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Reading in the Time of Coronavirus

I am sure, Gabriel García Márquez would've been rolling his eyes at the title of this post if he were alive.

Living in the eye of the storm, or rather, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus has altered my current life immeasurably and my future irrevocably. Life as we knew it will never be the same again because the virus will have ravaged our bodies, our relationships, our economies...our very civilization. (People are stealing toilet paper from other people's garages. o_O)

For me personally, this has involved juggling work, online coursework, and homeschooling, and I am sitting at the kitchen table with the kids all day while my beautiful new home office setup languishes upstairs. As a result of homeschooling, my work has suffered even though I am part time, and I am behind on my online course even though it is self-paced. I have no clue how full-time working parents with young kids are managing.

Having said that, we are very lucky that our schools were able to swiftly pivot from in-person to online teaching. They sent home prepared packets and iPads and laptops all set up ready to go. From day one, it has been full bore. This is the upside of social isolation. The downside is that, while older kids are more autonomous, the younger ones and their parents have struggled with the technology and all the work, and parents have struggled getting their kids to listen to them and sit at the table. I have always admired teachers, but now, my respect knows no bounds. How in the world do they keep a class of 20 wiggle worms sitting on chairs doing work for hours a day?

Speaking of Romance...

Two years ago, I had a marvelous conversation with the lovely Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer’s official biographer, for USA Today Happy Ever After. I am delighted that the podcast Heyer Today by Fable Gazers featured that INTERVIEW on their blog.

I find contemporaries sometimes a harder go than historicals. This could be because I usually go with tried and true authors and some new-to-me authors for historicals, but I am more adventurous when it comes to contemporaries by going for debut, indie, unknown, and big-name authors alike.

Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a hug of a book—it fills the heart to the brim with its tenderness, warm-heartedness and kindness. With some books, you know from the very beginning how wonderful the characters and their story are going to be and that feeling only grows with every page you turn.

She is a celebrity social media influencer with a hugely popular blog and partnerships with many successful people and organization. She lives in New York City but is considering a move to Miami to work on a clothing line. Despite her success, within her family, Sara has always felt underappreciated and misunderstood—an outsider almost—in their coterie of doctors. That persistent anxiety of not belonging had led her to make maladaptive choices in her young years.

He is a firefighter paramedic of steely resolve and steely muscles. He is a Conch, a Cuban American, living in the Florida Keys. For his reaction to an incident at work, his Captain has given him a week off to recuperate. He is smarting at the enforced time off, which, in his family of fire-fighters, is a mark of disgrace. So he is at disgruntled loose ends.

They meet near the airport when Sara discovers that her loser boyfriend has stood her up when she needed him the most—to attend her family gathering so her family feels Sara is settled into a stable relationship. His calm, helpful demeanor and instinctive desire to want to help people allows her to trust him on a whim. And so, she begs him to be her fake boyfriend for the week her family is on vacation on the Florida Keys to pull the wool over their eyes. He cautiously acquiesces, though secretly, he thinks, “Coño, what a harebrained idea!” But he rolls with it, because he has time to kill after all. My review is here.

Forever My Duke by Olivia Drake
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: What starts out as a series of volatile encounters between two wildly opposing personalities mellows into tenderness and a vibrant passion that makes you sigh in satisfaction of a wonderfully well-written romance.

The duke has been brought up to be high on his consequence and expect everyone’s obeisance as his due. He deals with the world with chilly hauteur and cool deliberation and orders his life with decorum and emotionless precision. She is an American who has killed a man, hacked her way from the frontier to the coast and crossed an ocean to bring a small boy to the only relatives left to him. She is fiercely independent and believes passionately in the equality of all people—she despises the British class system and its profligate nobility.

The most interesting sections of the story are their conversations about his rank and responsibilities and her opinions about the heredity class system where vast wealth and wretched poverty are merely an accident of birth. The beauty of this book is how these such disparate people attentively listen to each other, contemplate what has been said even if they are violently opposed to that opinion, and then proceed to make adjustments and compromises to their thinking. Mature and intelligent characters are a thing of beauty in a book. My review is here.

Secret Heir Seduction by Reese Ryan
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: She, a diamond heiress and daughter of a US Senator, is a highly sought-after jewelry designer for celebrities. He is the founder and chief designer of a rapidly growing performance wear company and is taking his clothing line to LA Fashion Week shortly. They meet in a small town where he is there to collaborate with a health and lifestyle company to create a line of athletic wear and she is there to meet her affianced clients for design consultations for their wedding rings and other jewelry pieces.

Five years ago, in graduate school, they had been passionate lovers and very much in love. And yet, inexplicably, he had lied to her and cut ties. Now that they are back in each other’s company, the attraction is still very much there, but it is tempered by his past behavior How can she trust him again? He had broken it—what she then thought, irrevocably—and yet, inexplicably, she finds herself teetering on the cusp of trusting him again. My review is here.

Chasing Cassandra by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This book is one of the highlights of The Ravenels series, and it is all because of the hero. Kleypas tends to be a hero-centric writer, and over the years, she has created wonderful male leads.

He is incredibly wealthy and owns a vast empire of companies that he has built through sheer dint of hard work, a punishing work ethic and the force of his personality and charm. His childhood was one of deprivation of creature comforts and affection. That experience has hardened him into severely repressing all emotions—he claims to have exactly five feelings. Naturally, he has convinced himself that he is unable to love another.

All throughout her life thus far, she has thought she is a quiet person with modest ambitions—a cozy life in the country, dogs, children, and a husband who loves her and whom she loves. After meeting the hero, she suddenly realizes that she truly hankers after the uncontainable and, possibly, the unreachable. This should scare her, but with him, and only with him, she is more than she had ever envisioned herself to be.

He never allows her to put herself down or to think less of herself. He believes she can do anything she sets her mind to. He sees more potential in her than she could’ve imagined for herself. As a result, her growth in confidence and assertiveness throughout the second half of the book, but especially towards the end, is wonderful to see as is also how exciting and fulfilling that is for both of them. My review is here.

My One True Cowboy by Soraya Lane
Category: Contemporary Western Romance
Comments: Every time a discussion of westerns comes up, I am always bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough, historical or contemporary. So when this book crossed my desk, I jumped at the chance to review it.

She is a trust-fund baby, born on a wealthy ranch in Texas. She is determined not to use her trust fund, and starting from scratch, she builds up a tremendously successful company in LA and gets her name talked about as an entrepreneur to watch out for. Now she is back in Texas, ostensibly for Father’s Day, but in reality, because she lost her business and she is financially broke and heartbroken; she’s even planning on selling her dream home. She is ashamed of her failure and is extremely reluctant to tell her family about it, because to them she is the golden child, the go-getter, the high achiever.

Logan Brody grew up on a neighboring ranch to Angelina. He was very popular in high school with the girls whom he charmed and with the boys who were his pals. He was an extrovert and the life of a party. After high school, he went off to war with great optimism and patriotism, but returned broken in mind, spirit, and body. A recluse now, he works on his parents’ ranch, from sunup to sundown so that he does not have to think about what happened. Lane does a good job of showing the effect war has on healthy young people. He has significant trust issues. My review is here.

Bride by Arrangement: My Darling Echo by Gayle Wilson
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: I give this book high marks for an unusual premise and an unusual unfolding of that premise. It came across highly recommended—'an 'A' read for two people—but it was a 'B+' read for me, primarily because of the execution of the middle of the story. While the romance is slow, and I really like slow, there are moments in the middle where it almost stalls, before it picks up again.

He became visually impaired in battle before he was required to assume an earldom. But he is a proud man, and through sheer hard work and a decision not to indulge in self-pity, he has made a success of his estate and title, and he pursues his seat in the House of Lords with dedication and purpose. In order to help him with all the work he accomplishes every day, he has hired a reader, a woman he chose because he liked her voice. And over the course of two years, he has fallen in love with the voice and what the voice allows him to do, even though he doesn't know much more about her.

She is a young widow with dependents—her young child and an elderly woman—and she is one step above penury. So when the earl proposes marriage, she is floored and by turns feels that she is so far beneath him that she should turn him down and that here is a solution to all her worries and cares. She has great respect for him and is attracted to him. But what he is proposing is a marriage of convenience, a business proposition: she would be easily available to him whenever he needed a reader, she would be able to bring up her son in security and comfort.

His valet is the one egging both parties on and trying to engineer a love match. While the leads are no slouches, he quite steals the show.

Duke Darcy's Castle by Syrie James
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: I have liked James's Austen books, so I was curious about her historical romance. The premise was interesting: He is the new impoverished duke of an ancient Cornish castle and she is an architect sent down from London to design improvements to the interior of the castle, architecturally as well as interior decoratively. Unfortunately, what was a promising beginning, was sunk by the writing. The story did not feel like it was unfolding organically from the characters, but rather the author's dictates.

The heroine's inner monologue did not match her actions. The hero behaved like a true-to-form rake but without the depth to explain her fascination. Given that she struggled through architecture school in Victorian times where she was the lone female in a sea of men and graduated at the top of her class, I did not see the strength and determination in her that it would've taken for her to achieve what she did. The story was inexorably pulled to the end without allowing for complex character or plot development. But the worse part was the language. This was no wallpaper historical. Instead, it was an American contemporary in period dress.

Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon
Category: YA Contemporary Romance
Comments: I had read all of Sandhya Menon's books till this one and I had loved them, but this one was so different. I really tried to like the book, starting and stopping multiple times thinking perhaps it was my mood, but it just didn't appeal to me. In all the previous books, her voice was fresh and light and very funny while the characters were mature and the emotions were real. The premise of this book was flimsy, and the characters were bland and overwrought, and their emotions were a bit silly. There was none of the humor of Menon's previous books. While I am not tied to likeability of characters in the books I read, in this book, it felt like Menon was trying hard—too hard?—to make them likeable and not succeeding.

Jaya Rao is a princess from Mysuru, India. Her family and an earl's family, the Emersons, in England have had a generational feud over a ruby that her family claimed was stolen from them. Over the years, there has been a lot of bad blood between the two families, culminating in the public disgrace of Jaya's younger sister and subsequent banishment of the two princesses to a boarding school in Aspen. There, Jaya meets Grey Emerson, who she suspects is behind her sister's disgrace. She decides to engineer a revenge by having him fall in love with her and then breaking his heart. He, in turn, is haunted by the ruby pendant she is wearing, where every fall of a ruby means his death is that much closer—it is something he had been brought up to believe in. This is the flimsy gothic premise, which Jaya and Emerson don't quite make into a fully-fleshed out story.

Undercover Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The problem with some of the books like these lies with the label "rom-com" being synonymous with immaturity on the page. I can't abide pettiness, sitting in each other's pockets, hugely exaggerated emotions, bickering without having an adult conversation—in general, acting like immature twenty-somethings when you're supposed to be thirty plus and very responsible and successful at your job (I am told this over and over but never see it). The romantic comedy sub-genre is iffy for me. The best books like Lucy Parker's books do a superb job, but many tend to be so over-the-top and in-your-face with a decided lack of subtlety that the characters almost become stereotypical as the story is told in tropes.

She is a superb pastry chef. He is a very wealthy man with a string of nightclubs and bars to his name. They meet when he is out on a date with a gorgeous woman at a very expensive restaurant where she is the pastry chef. He orders their $1000 cupcake and while ceremoniously handing it over to him, she drops it. Her boss, a famous celebrity chef wants to chew her out, but when she goes up to his office, she catches him sexually molesting a fellow restaurant worker. She gets fired for her plain speaking and is determined to expose him to the world, which never sees this side of him.

The hero is her sister's husband's good friend. So they know each other. Both these friends, with other very high profile men, are in a romance reading book club together, hence the title. Our hero gets everyone involved in the shenanigans to out the celebrity chef—going against the heroines explicitly-stated wishes. She and he have a very contentious relationship for no good reason I could fathom. She has sharp corners and he is a softie and keeps trying to make nice with her. They are fighting. Then they're banging. And eventually, they are loving. This book was a miss for me—pity, because it was heavily touted as one of the top books of the year.

Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Category: Children's Early Chapter Book
Comments: This is a 1988 book by Le Guin and the illustrations in this 2006 reprinted book are the original ones. This is the first in the Catwings series, and is the story of four cats who are born underneath the city dumpster. They are ordinary kittens in every which way except that they have wings. After they are barely grown, their mother urges them away from the dangerous alley into better climes. They fly away only to land in a forest. Now these city cats are suddenly faced with creatures of the forest against whom they have no defense. The book ends when they befriend two kind children. I had no idea that Le Guin wrote stories for the really young as well. This quartet of stories is just lovely!

Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This debut book combines well-known poems with the stellar artwork by JooHee Yoon. Some of these poems, I learned in my childhood, when memorization and recitation was a requirement; as a result I still remember them. I have always marveled at poetry for its ability to capture thoughts and emotions using just a handful of words. Yoon's art brings to vibrant life sixteen poems about non-human creatures, real and imagined, and as varied in sentiment and sensibility as Lewis Carroll’s playful The Crocodile, D.H. Lawrence’s homage to the hummingbird, Christina Rossetti’s celebration of the butterfly metamorphosis, and William Blake’s bright-burning ode to the tiger.

The words are brought to life through Yoon's imagination. Trained as a printmaker and fascinated by the traditional, industrial techniques of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, Yoon uses only three colors—cyan, magenta, and yellow—on flat color layers, which she then overlaps to create a controlled explosion of secondary colors. She is able to produce a kaleidoscope of emotion through these few colors, much like poets are able to build a plethora of stories with a few words. A gorgeous book—with gatefolds and thick-thick paper—that definitely deserves a look. One caution is that this is for older children and adults—those who can appreciate the poems.

Kiki & Jax by Marie Kondo, co-written & illustrated by Salina Yoon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Kiki and Jax are the best of friends even though they are quite different from each other. Whereas Jax enjoys sorting, Kiki enjoys collecting. Jax’s house is always neatly organized. Kiki, on the other hand, does not like to throw away things and stashes them willy-nilly everywhere till she can’t find anything when she is looking for them. She is always running late, and sometimes, she misses playdates with Jax altogether. And she is simply unable to enjoy being in her house—she finds it overwhelming.

The inspiration for this story is of course Marie Kondo’s KonMari system of organization. A tidy house is a source of comfort and peace, and when you regularly practice tidying up, it itself can be a fount of joy and accomplishment. When Kiki eventually confesses her problem, Jax decides that the best way for him to be Kiki’s friend is to help her organize her home and also show her how to stay organized. It’s that last bit that is the most important part of any organization system as Kondo will tell you.

Nian: The Chinese New Year Dragon by Virginia Loh-Hagan, illustrated by Timothy Banks
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the perfect book to explain the Chinese New Year traditions to children.

Mei is a young girl living with her mother in a village on the edge of sea. She hates the first day of spring, because Nian, the fierce evil dragon who lives under the mountain in the sea, loves to come out to eat little girls and boys. Mei is scared. Her whole village is scared. But help was at hand. On the eve of the first day of spring, a magical warrior visited Mei in her dreams. He says to her, "Hundred of years have passed and new year is coming. Nian’s power grows stronger. And my spell grows weaker each year. You must defeat Nian in fifteen days or Nian will be free forever."

And so begin's Mei's quest to best the dragon. She takes on the mantle of responsibility and comes up with innovative ways to defeat the dragon again and again. Such is her leadership and command of the villagers, they are willing to do whatever she says despite her being so young. Eventually, she is victorious. The Lunar New Year is celebrated for fifteen days and follows this story. The author added a twist in her story by making the fighter female.