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