Monday, June 22, 2020

Updated Recommended Books and Links

I have updated the Recommended Links section of the sidebar by removing broken links and adding a few new ones. I have updated the Recommended Books section of the sidebar by adding many more books to the romance, other fiction, and nonfiction lists and adding poetry and children's picture book lists. I will be slowly addings books to the picture books list since I have so many to recommend there.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

My May Reading

I really like this quote by Anna Quindlen: "We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciounsness in someone else's mind." Most of my reading is done in the evening in bed. This summer, I hope to get more reading done than I have in the past two months, and that means, reading more in a chair, because even I cannot lie in bed during the day. With my daughter's health in such constant turmoil, the pandemic, homeschooling, and now, protesting, I have only done comfort reading. For the second month in a row, all I read were traditional Regencies.

This post is so delayed, almost mid-June, instead of the start of the month like usual, but I have been in a brain fog. I seem to be recovering my spirits. I polished off four reviews for Frolic Media and am now writing up these reviews. First up is a poetry collection, then a nonfic book and a children's picture book, and then the romance books.

Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
Category: Poetry Collection
Comments: The world looks the other way while Kashmir burns. India and Pakistan have fought over this gorgeous Himalayan state since partition and independence in 1947. They routinely send their soldiers to alternately rile up the Kashmiris and subjugate them. The beauty of this region has been bathed in blood and fire for years, and has been forever ruined. We, Americans, are protesting a few weeks of lockdown? Imagine years of deprivation. Agha Shahid Ali was the son of a prominent highly-educated family from Kashmir. He was an American poet who wrote wrenching verses about the desecration of his homeland. Here are excerpts from a couple of his poems from this collection.

"The Country Without a Post Office"
Again I've returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed.
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel blank stamps
in that archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty.

"I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight"
"Don't tell my father I have died," he says
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
Category: Audio Nonfic
Comments: I read the book two years ago right when it came out. Then this spring, my daughter and I decided to listen to the audio. And it was an amazing experience. Listening to her book in her own voice felt like she was sitting at the kitchen table with you telling you her story. She has such a calm, measured tone as she tells, what to her, is a story of ordinary people on an extraordinary journey. But as I listened, I felt I was in the presence of an extraordinary person (actually, people, because she tells Obama's story as well) who is leading an extraordinary life with extraordinary grace in the teeth of acute racism and unmitigated hate. I have always admired her, but now, my admiration knows no bounds. How can two people be so amazing?! If you get a chance, do listen to her tell her story.

Stormy by Guojing
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a heartwarming wordless book about friendship, compassion, and belonging by illustrator Guojing. A little pup is lost outdoors. He lives wild and scrounges around for food. One day, he sees a woman approaching a bench near him and runs away. From afar he observes her as she observes him. The next day, she shows up again but with a ball for him, but he is scared of this stranger. He only plays with the ball after she has left and allows it to comfort him in the night. After many days, her patience is rewarded when he comes close enough to her to play with her. He has deemed her safe. Not everyone can trust right away when offered a treat. Trust takes time to build. My review is here. (You'll have to scroll the post a bit to find the review for this book.)

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I gave this an 'A+' when I read this last year, and I still agree with the grade upon a re-read. It reminds me of The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin in how funny it is. Neither books descend to a farce. They are carefully calibrated to be witty while also having serious elements. Whereas Umbrella is more tightly woven around the couple, Hoyden has a secondary plot.

The heroine is a redoubtable lady in her mid-twenties, convinced that she is on the shelf and thus suitable of being a chaperone to her younger, beautiful sister. She has rather managing ways, which have stood her in good stead, since she's been managing her father's estate and the house for years given the irresponsible parents she's had. She is also a do-gooder who sometimes doesn't realize the consequences of her actions, nor is she aware of others' opnion of her. She allows no one to gainsay her as she hies off to London to her aunt's house without informing her—just the two young ladies without even a maid or a companion to lend them countenance.

The hero is a viscount of exacting ways who is very conscious of his own consequence and the dignity of his rank and likes things just-so. At an inn on the road to Bath, his purse is stolen and he is in the process of being beaten up badly by the innkeeper's goons, when into the fracas descends our intrepid heroine in a white nightgown, shoeless, hair unbraided, and armed with a gentleman's umbrella, with which she proceeds to route the unsavory fellows beating up the hero. The hero is mortified to be saved by a woman and makes his escape by promising the innkeeper that he will send money to cover his cost.

Having rescued him, she is determined to help more and pays his shot, his gambling debt, and the barmaid, his bedmate for the night. You can imagine how he feels when he—and all of society—finds out! The young women arrive in London to find their aunt out of the country and having to rely on the outraged hero's non-existent kindness.

It is not only her age and lack of looks (so she thinks) are what have convinced her that she is unmarriageable. It is that she is a very managing person, and she should rule any man she married and promptly despise him. The heart of this story is how the hero, who has firm boundaries and knows when to exert them and when to give in, unknowingly establishes himself as a person of ntoe

The Last Waltz by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This is a very quiet book of two people who were very much in love in their young days and are now finding a second chance at love in the midst of a house party. She was in her first season and he, not much older than her, discovered that they were so attuned to each other as to be unable to think of anyone else when they were together and even when they were apart. And yet, overnight, she changes her alliance from an agreement to marry him to getting engaged to his cousin. He is utterly devastated and precipitously departs to the wilds of Canada to escape the pain.

Now, he is back, because his cousin is dead and he is the earl with its attendant duties to look after. He hates her so much and it shows. And it wounds her again and again as much as she knows she deserves it. Her life with his cousin had been one of horror. She is parched for kindness but cannot leave off years of learned strictures.

He perceives the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of his independent self. And yet, he shows such kindness to her and her girls leaving himself vulnerable to her barbs and cold-shouldering. He is kind inspite of his long-held hatred of her as the cause of his unhappiness and despair. But the old love has not died, merely buried under layers of bitterness. It only takes her presence to peal off that scab to reveal the love that had lain fallow all this time.

As the dowager countess, she and he live in the same house along with two female relatives. So while this is not a typical marriage-of-convenience, there is forced proximity that gives rise to changing emotions and a resurgence of desire. The heart of the story is the unraveling of his feelings of her betrayal, the reasons for her then change-of-heart, her marriage with her former husband, and their growing trust in each other. The latter is so wonderful to see—Balogh explores this beautifully time and time again in her books.

The Ungrateful Governess by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I didn't quite know what to make of this story. The story is unusual enough, but it was the reactions of the protagonists, particularly the heroine, that had me going back and forth about what I felt about the book, right to the end. That is what made the book interesting. My conclusion was that right towards the end, I got a bit fed up with the heroine. Until then, I had felt she had a point and was making it well.

She is beautiful. Naturally. But she is working as a governess suitably clad in gray and being self-effacing. He is a rake, and so, of course, notices the diamond in the rough, and finding her in the library one night in her nightgown and hair down—this is a contrivance that always elicits an eye-roll from me—propositions her for the night. He is soundly refused, but they are caught being alone. Since she is a servant, he gets away scot-free, but she is summarily dismissed without a character. I didn't know what to make of this. It sounds like Balogh being true to unpalatable historical more.

When he finds out, he is wracked with guilt and gives her carte blance as his mistress. She agrees and they're at almost all in (har! har!), when she say 'no.' He immediately stops—Balogh does respect and consent so well—and asks her to apply to his grandmother for help in finding a new position. His grandmother (of course!) recognizes that she is the spitting image of her grandfather, a marquess, and so decides to bring her into fashion. The heroine had a battle of wills with her grandfather and so instead of applying to him for help when she is orphaned but unmarried, she instead chooses to become a governess. You just have to accept this eye-rolling life choice.

Pride! She is suffused with it, and you have to accept this as part of her character. This makes her decision towards the end of the book more logical, but had me impatient with her. The story is all about how he proposes to her multiple times and how she leads him into more and more introspection of his feelings, moving him from a superficial rake to a man of maturity. This is what I liked best about the story. What I liked least is how much self-reflection she makes him do without doing it much herself.

Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This, to me, is one of Kelly's best books, if not, the best. He is a true profligate, truly reprehensible. He drinks to excess, to the point of her once finding him covered in his own vomit. He is heartless and concerned solely about himself and thinks lifting a finger to help anyone is too much exertion. He is rude. He is a boor. He hates the Irish because they killed his beloved father in battle and blinded him in one eye. She is Irish. An indentured servant to his American cousins. She is meek with her employers, but displays a streak of boldness in opinions with him. And he finds himself increasing fascinated.

Kelly never does anything in one fell swoop. Hers is a slow build up of change-of-heart. How can the heroine fall in love with him, you imagine, after how she finds him? She initially finds him a loathsome person, and yet, she decides to serve out her indenture, which he has bought, by reforming him. That he agrees, kicking and screaming, is a miracle, and the making of him. He employs her as his secretary because she is good at it. She is virtually re-moulding his life, and thus, making him see that there is something there within him for him to be proud of.

Kelly masterfully shows them slowly progressing first towards respect, then towards liking and thoughtfulness, and thence to trust and love. On the surface, this seems of like what most romance novels are made out of. However, this book is far from the commonplace. His shifting perception of Emma despite her Irishnesses and managing ways, her recognition of his worth and what makes him tick, his thoughtfulness of her happiness, her thinking the best of him...all makes for a lovely story. There is no more I can say about this complex book, other than: Hope you read it!

A Double Deception by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: Only Wolf can turn a tragic tale into one of hope. Both the hero and heroine have suffered greatly in their first marriages. They are filled with shame over it, and yet, they were young and innocent and trusting and were betrayed. The secret behind the failure of his first marriage is shocking, and it is courageous of Wolf to take her story there.

Wolf is an author who truly makes you like her protagonists. They are innately such good people. He is a brilliant scientist, and I really enjoyed all the passages that show him working at something he is truly passionate about. After the sudden suicide of his wife, he had returned to the navy, unable to sustain life at home. He left behind a baby. Luckily, his beloved aunt steps in and invites the heroine, who is suddenly a widow, to look after the boy. She is eager to leave her home and the dominance of her parents, and prizes her independence in caring boy with whom she is utterly in love. She becomes the de facto head of the household, overseeing the house, consulting with the steward, and maintaining a social life.

And then the hero returns. The little boy acts as a glue and a reason for them to come together and to make decisions jointly for his benefit. You would think that the story is now running along predictable tracks, but Wolf has a great second half of the story that makes everything complicated. Someone is trying to kill the heroine and everyone is suspicious that it is the hero. This situation allows both the characters to shine and really is the making of the story. How they rise up to the challenge of solving the issue through caring and trusting each other is wonderful to see. Wolf's strength is in inter-personal interactions.

Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: The setting of this book is an unusual one in traditional Regencies. They meet in Africa at a private slave auction, where he is sitting among the Arab buyers and she is the scantily-clad houri being auctioned off. He recognizes that she is British, like him, and brings her home. He wants to send her back safely to her grandmother in England. He is intensely attracted to her, but knows that his adventuring ways make him a lamentable husband. She is intensely attracted to him, but she is so done with unreliable, selfishly independent men after her father dragged her through Africa on missionary work.

What they have in common is a love of Africa. A love of travel. And passionate love for each other just as they are. No one in Regency Society can understand them like they can each other. She is a misfit among Regency misses; he is a misfit among his noble peers.

The story is about how they each change their ideas about themselves, their values, and their notions of how life should be, and is, to fit their lives together. I said in the above review that Wolf's strength is in inter-personal interactions. And that is so true in this book. Wolf also does passion and romantic tenderness between her protagonists so well that it is palpable to the reader. This is why I read romance, not for the plethora of sex scenes.

The Rebellious by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This is a May-December, nobleman-ward romance, which may not work for everyone because the protagonists meet when she is not even ten and he is almost twenty and already a duke with its attendant responsibilities. She loves him from from the start. He has no romantic feelings for her, only filial love. He spends hours of his time with her when he is home and away from his duties and they become very close.

He first notices her when she turns sixteen-seventeen, and he realizes that she is not a child anymore. He is extremely circumspect and incommunicative of his growing feelings for her, convinced that she would be better off married to a husband towards whom she feels romantic love. He is certain that she has no interest in him in that way. She loves him intensely, but she is also certain that he is indifferent to her.

They are knuckleheads over it for most of the book. There is much pining. Much unrequited angst. This is not a book about romantic tenderness, but about passionately-felt love held in check. All the feelings are internal. But just as intense as the love expressed in the book above. How extraordinary is that? The entire romantic relationship happens inside each other, not openly towards each other. Yet, they are so attuned to one another that when the reveal comes, they instnatly know, that is a forever kind of romantic love.