Friday, July 3, 2020

My June Reading

Listening to Hamilton as I write this piece. I read mostly romance this month as I caught up on my review books and other books on my Kindle. I have a weakness for Jane Austen books, and I read a great one this month.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Category: Historical Fiction
Comments: When I heard that The Jane Austen Society was billed as a book for fans of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I knew this was a book for me. As it turns out, The Jane Austen Society is the best historical romantic fiction book I have read this year so far. Jenner writes the story of her memorable characters with deep sensitivity, great imagination, and wonderful prose.

Set mainly in the 1940s, the book is about individuals from the small insular English town of Alton, who, along with a few people around the world, are brought together by their love of Jane Austen’s work. Together, they form a society for the preservation of all things Austen, including her cherished former home in the village of Chawton near Alton in Hampshire. And in so preserving Austen’s legacy, they find hope, love and solace in their own lives, which have been overlooked by society and undervalued by themselves.

Living in the shadow of Austen’s home, these people love her books—identify with her characters more than their neighbors sometimes—and regularly quote from them. One of the joys of this book is the perceptive analysis of Austen’s novels as the characters freely discuss them while conversing with each other. Some of the subplots and scenes even have Austenesque stories embedded in them. The delight in reading this book was their discovery. And yet, The Jane Austen Society is not a derivative book by any means. It stands alone on its merits as an engrossing story well told. My review is here.

The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a book that truly makes you believe that a romance is possible for everyone even if you were previously a non-believer. The book begins with sorrow. As an author, it takes guts to start a romance novel with a grieving main character. Jimenez does an absolutely wonderful job showing how grief upon the death of a beloved takes you. How you sleepwalk through your days, how caring about anything is an overwhelming effort, and how coming out of it seems insurmountable and doesn’t seem to be worth it. From this nadir of her life, the heroine rises like a phoenix to lead a rich life filled with laughter and romance.

The meet cute is not between the heroine and the hero, but between her and his dog. They meet over the airwaves between California and Australia when she tries to find the dog's owner. Initially, she’s like finders-keepers because she feels he’s a careless owner, but then they both realize how much they both love the dog, so they decide to be kind and adult and share him. I was sold on these two people right then and there for their maturity and thoughtfulness.

A lot of their initial romance is through their phone conversations. This was the other aspect of the story I liked so much. Since appearances were initially out of the picture, they “like” each other first before “lusting” after each other. I am not a fan of insta-lust, and I need to see friendship and liking first before I can believe in the promise of their HEA. The strongest part of the book for me was not the falling in love aspect of the characters but how they work to fit their lives together. My review is here.

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The Boyfriend Project was a fun book from beginning to end with some serious exploration underlying it. Farrah Rochon is a new author for me, and now I can’t wait to read the next book in this new contemporary series. In this book, Rochon explores the struggles of Black women in the workplace, particularly in the tech industry, with sensitivity and empathy, and it was the strongest aspect of the novel for me. Being a woman in tech is never easy, but being a double minority, and a Black woman at that, takes an act of courage every single day.

She is a brilliant software engineer who is a go-getter and loves her work. She thinks she’s in an interesting relationship, when she discovers, to her horror, that her boyfriend is cheating on her with two other women, each of whom thinks he’s exclusive to her. From this atrocious beginning comes a close friendship as the three women come together to for their Boyfriend Project: a pact to spend the next six months investing in themselves. What this means that there will be no men and no dating allowed. Samiah uses their pact of working on something that makes them happy as the impetus to finally finish developing the app she’s always dreamed of creating.

Into this determination, steps Daniel Collins, a biracial man (Korean-American and African-American), who investigates financial crimes. On the surface, he is a tech worker just like Samiah. But unknown to her, he’s actually working undercover for the federal government, and it is not something he can divulge to anyone, not even her. As their relationship goes from fun to flirty, he is torn about his secret. My review is here.

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This story revolves around Strong Knits, a Harlem neighborhood knitting shop, run by the Strong matriarch, Mama Joy. Jesse Strong is the youngest of Mama Joy’s four foster-adoptive sons. He is someone who has always been popular with the ladies — he loves them and they love him. Kerry Fuller is a part-time employee in the shop and has known Jesse’s mother and his brothers for a while now. Unbeknownst to Jesse, she is madly in love with him, but unrequited love seems to be her future, because Jesse has never paid her any notice.

Then, unfortunately, Mama Joy passes away. Plunged into grief, Jesse has to nevertheless figure out what to do with the shop. His brothers are all for selling it and washing their hands off it. But Jesse wants to keep Mama Joy’s legacy going because the store has evolved into a bit of a community center in the neighborhood—I really enjoyed the small town feel of this story.

The shop is the making of both the protagonists. The hero starts out as under his brothers’ shadow, but gains confidence in himself as the shop takes off. At the start, she is quiet and self-effacing. She likes being useful and is always there helping everybody around her. As their relationship progresses, she gains more confidence in herself as someone who can achieve things, and also as someone who can attract a man who lives life at large. My review is here.

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Layla Patel has returned home to her parents after disaster overtakes her career in New York. She plans to ground herself in her childhood home, above their Michelin-starred restaurant, and launch her own recruiting agency. But all is not well at home and the coveted peace, she had hoped for, is nowhere to be found. Her father has a heart attack, and she discovers that the restaurant is in financial difficulty. And to compound the difficulty, the supposed rent-free office her father gave her already has an occupant with whom she is supposed to share. Sam Mehta is the CEO of a corporate downsizing company, and he, too, is not happy to share an office.

The juxtaposition of Layla’s involved family and Sam’s totally uninvolved one is very well handled. Layla’s dad is a hoot. His well-intentioned but totally interfering and dominating methods to secure a husband for Layla were over-the-top and perfect for the story: He sets up a secret online dating profile for her and then scans hundreds of profiles and curates a list of ten men for her of whom he approves. He even sets up dates with them. The only thing he doesn’t do is go on the dates with Layla. (Sam does instead—to great comedic effect.) My review is here.

Marriage by Arrangement by Sophia Singh Sasson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Sasson’s Nights at the Mahal series, and I just fell in love with her world.

The heroine has been languishing as a junior architect at RKS Architecture in Las Vegas. She has been dangling on the promise of a promotion for two years. And she finally has a shot at it with her design ideas for a new hotel by a rising hotel group based in India. The hero is heir to a dynasty of hoteliers whose headquarters are in Rajasthan. He is also known as India’s hottest hottie with all its attendant adulation from the female half of the population. While his family is content to conquer the hoteling market in India, Arjun has his eye on a global empire. He has set his sights on Vegas as the first venture.

The last quarter of the book was the strongest section for me. It is easy to fall in love, but it is difficult to make a marriage. It is difficult to fit two lives together and set that within two families. The heart of this book is Rani and Arjun figuring out what they want to take a stance on, what they are willing to compromise, who will give what to whom, and who will decide what they cannot give up. What I also really liked about this book is that Sasson shows how they consider both of their families at large. Sasson has skillfully used their exploration of what their parents and traditions mean to them to build character. They are who they are because of their families and culture. And so, marriage between them has to involve their families—in other words, everyone has to agree that this is a good match. My review is here.

Scandal at the Christmas Ball: Dancing with the Duke's Heir by Bronwyn Scott
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second novella in the Scandal at the Christmas Ball anthology. The first story was by Marguerite Kaye that I read a couple of years ago. If you love Christmas and truly love the Regency era, this is the story for you. Scott pulls out all stops in lovingly detailing Christmas decorations and traditions, the grand house interior and exterior, clothes and food. It is a feast to those of us who love traditional Regencies. The duke and duchess of Brockmore invite a bunch of the upper class young people every year for the twelve days of Christmas and shamelessly, and successfully, match-make. They even mediate in romantic troubles, patiently sheperding various couples together.

The hero is the extremely reluctant heir to Brockmore, and after four years, still in mourning for the heirs before him: his father and older brother. He is a prominent anthropologist and his speciality is the Sami people of Lapland. She is the outrageous daughter of an earl who is determined to make herself unmarriageable so she can be free to travel the world. They both love to travel, but little do they know that they have this in common when they first meet. He thinks she's an attention-seeking trollope and she thinks he's a self-righteous prig. Clearly, they could have nothing in common. From this premise comes a lovely story of how they are the only ones who truly understand each other. She's calmer and more thoughtful when she's with him; he's more alive in her presence than he has ever been. Their coming together is a story of great tenderness and hot passion, but mostly the slow and careful uncovering of each other's qualities. Lovely.

Don't miss reading Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Kaye's joint Author's Note.

This Earl of Mine by Kate Bateman
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Bateman's Bow Street Bachelors series and requires some suspension of disbelief. The heroine learned about her family's shipping business from her father and is now in charge of it. She is in a quandary: Her cousin wants to trap her in marriage to wrest control of the business, but in order to escape him if she marries someone else, she will still lose her business. So she embarks on a plot to marry a convicted felon who is in line to get his neck stretched real soon. As his widow, she will be independent. (Why she assumes that her unscrupulous cousin won't force her again to marry is left unexplored.) Unfortunately for our heroine, her felon dies before she can marry him. So she sets her sights on a sailor due for transportation to ends of the earth. This is an even better solution, because now her cousin cannot force her to marry him, and with this husband out of the way, the business is safe in her hands. (Like I said, the plot is a tad implausible.)

The implausibility is further stretched by the hero's back story. He is a of the aristocratic class who is an agent of the government who is working on exposing a group of smugglers who want to liberate Napoléon from St. Helena. Unfortunately for him, he is arrested and imprisoned with the smugglers and is set for transportation. He cannot claim his upper class rank because that would blow his cover. So he is in prison, waiting to discover more of the plot. He thinks the woman approaching him with money to marry him is cuckoo but he is game. This is a marriage-of-convenience plot.

There were a couple of reasons this book refused to take off for me. I like when characters are shown—not just told—to be competent at their work and then also shown to be engaged in that work. We are told that the heroine is good at running the shipping business, but other than a cursory telling of the things she does, we are not shown details. The hero's motivation for getting married is questionable. The other thing I found unpalatable is not really fair because it exists in a lot of the historical romance oeuvre: He is a rake who is not a rake. I really like rakes to be, well, rakish on the page, not in the past—I like to see redemption. Despite the good banter and flashes of humor and a reasonable MOC plot, the book ultimately didn't work for me.

To Catch an Earl by Kate Bateman
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second book in Bateman's Bow Street Bachelors series. Bateman does banter reasonably well in the beginning but that falls away when the characters get caught up in the story. I hoped it would be a theme underlying all the seriousness. The premise is that she is a clever jewel thief, called Nightjar, who steals from wealthy wives of visiting diplomats leaving behind a black feather so they know she had been there. Emma is known for her mastery of disguise, given how many people she has fooled so far. Inexplicably, she wears a unique perfume every time she goes jewel hunting.

He is the Bow Street runner who is in hot pursuit. In reality, he is Alexander Harland, the Earl of Melton, and she is Emmy Danvers, also known as Emmeline Louise d’Anvers, the daughter of France’s most sought after jewel thief. There is much attraction between the two leaving the hero conflicted. There's intrigue in the story about Bonaparte and Napoleon and how someone is hunting her, but the plot overall is lackluster, and despite its promising beginning, the characters then fall into predictable lines.