Thursday, April 29, 2021

April Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern Some people like to write long individual review posts and some do shorter reviews for a monthly round-up. Both types of posts have their pros and cons. Some people feel that not much analysis is possible in these round-ups, which is true. However,there is blog post fatigue associated with multiple reviews a month. My blog is already miniscule; with multiple posts, it will get further diluted in terms of people reading it.

Given the number of ARCs I read, from which text quotations are disallowed, that style of reviewing has fallen out of my reviewing style. For most of the books reviewed for publication, I do have links to longer reviews where I do more analysis and only put the bare bones of the plot here. For books that I don't review for publication, I do bigger reviews to support why I liked or did not like the books. I do realize that this means longer monthly posts, which could lead to skiming and online reading fatigue and thus skipping, but this style of blogging is what I am most comfortable with at this moment in time.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I read Jalaluddin’s début book Ayesha At Last with such joy two years ago, and I have been waiting ever since for her second book. To her new book, Jalaluddin brings a maturity and keener eye to emotional nuance. Rich with cultural texture, replete with social nuance, and brimming with humor, it is a delight from the first word to the last. Her talent is in allowing her characters to recount their own stories, whether they are the main characters or the secondary ones. No one gets short shrift in the attention she pays to creating whole, complex people. Jalaluddin’s signature style is in her social commentary on the lives led by Indian Canadian Muslims, the immigrants and the first generations. She had started this conversation with the reader in Ayesha At Last, and she continues on that conversation in Hana Khan Carries On.

This is a book that you need to spend some time immersed in. Jalaluddin’s lyrical prose brings to life a story in subtle shades of meaning and expression as the characters share with you their deepest secrets and dreams. Long-buried family secrets and hate-motivated attacks add to the complexity of the narrative. The book can be read is multiple ways: as Hana’s life journey, as Aydin’s character growth, as romantic love between the protagonists, as being Muslim in Canada, and so on. In this review, I have chosen a few of those strands that make up the narrative. You will have to read the book to discover them all. I cannot express how much Jalaluddin’s books please me; I hope they bring you joy as well. My review is here.

Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: mental illness, anxiety, social anxiety] Hogle has won me over with her back-to-back lovely stories. I would recommend both of her books, You Deserve Each Other and Twice Shy.

Maybell Parrish is restless and unhappy in a dead-end job, constantly thwarted in succeeding in it by her coworker. Still, it’s a step-up, in her mind, from her former housekeeping job at the indoor waterpark, so she works d. She’s a killer baker, and constantly daydreams of a life as a baker with her online friend as a future spouse. So when she finds out that she has inherited her great-aunt, Violet’s, mansion, Falling Stars, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, she dumps her job and walks away. While she had hoped, she would go out with a bang, her meek, people-pleasing nature only allows her to ghost her employer.

Wesley Koehler is a decidedly grumpy, decidedly reclusive groundskeeper of Violet’s estate. While she lived, he had persistently offered to care for her mansion and make it habitable. But the old lady had an indomitable nature and was adamant that nothing should be changed, and all he could do was offer her a place to stay in his small cottage. So when she passes away and he finds out that he has inherited Violet’s mansion, he immediately sets about planning what he will do to fix the mansion that has good bones and only needs thoughtful renovation. He also wants to build an animal sanctuary.

Plot twist! Maybell and Wesley are not the sole inheritors of Violet’s estate. Rather, they are co-owners. My review is here.

Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have found Sally Thorne’s stories always entertaining and well-paced to hold my interest from beginning to end. I find her a versatile writer. She has written three entirely different books in: The Hating Game, 99 Percent Mine, and now, Second First Impressions. The voice, the style of writing, the choice of words, the type of people, the very narrative—they are all different and unique to the stories she is telling. I know she has received hate for books 2 & 3 by readers who just wanted her to reiterate The Hating Game over and over again.

Ruthie Midona is someone who does not like surprises. She had been bullied as a child and unloved by her family. As a result, she is at pains to always be in control of herself, because when your life is out of control, all you can control is yourself. She is the acting manager of a luxury retirement community, where everything is just as it should be. She is dedicated to her job of caring for the quirky and opinionated denizens of the Providence Villa. Her boss is out for the nonce, and she is in charge.

Teddy Prescott fits the stereotype of a spoilt rich man who doesn’t like to bestir himself for anything involving work. He wants life to be easy and in constant motion, or at least that is what he projects to everyone. In reality, he dreams of owning a tattoo parlor, but he has to first convince his demanding father. Ruthie and Teddy meet when he shows up at the villa expecting to be in charge. My review is here.

The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Jessica “Jess” Davis’ has three people in her life whom she loves with every fiber of her being: her daughter and her grandparents. She is a freelance statistician working constantly to stay afloat as she financially supports her loving grandparents and largely-absent mother every once in a while, runs a house, and struggles to provide her daughter with the comforts, activities, and school involvement she believes every child should have.

When Jess loses a big client because she refuses to compromise her ethics in fudging data, she is forced to become a barista at her favorite coffee shop. For months on end, she was at the front of the counter, now she is behind it. Her humiliation is complete when the person she surreptitiously admires for his gorgeousness but thinks is surly and taciturn comes to order his customary drink and leaves her a big tip.

Dr. River Peña is that grumpy tipper and also a highly regarded biotechnology researcher, who has focused his research on a DNA-based matchmaking app. Along with his mentor, he has founded a company, which he would soon like to take to IPO, based on the research he completely believes in. My review is here.

Waiting for the Flood by Alexis Hall
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: What a stunning story! This was my first Alexis Hall story, and I now get his fame. The writing is...chef's kiss—delicate, unusually perceptive, and imaginative, in emotions and also in the usage of language. Gosh, if you've not read Hall, I'd urge you to give him a try. Do note that this is a slow story and reads like a short novel, despite being only 96 pages long. To me, this is its strength. You can luxuriate in the feelings of the protagonists to the fullest without feeling rushed or feeling like the story is moving to an outline.

Edwin is a book restorer. At the Bodleian in Oxford and at home, he restores all kinds of books that have suffered untold damage. He lives alone in a big house which he used to co-own with his then boyfriend of ten years. The ending of that relationship has been devastating for Edwin. As it is his stuttering has always been the cause of his low self-esteerm, this loss further erodes his self-confidence.

Due to heavy rains, the river close to his house floods his street and his house. It brings Adam, a city engineer, into his life. You would think that a hearty broad-shouldered man wouldn't be in tune with his emotions. But that is not true at all. In Hall's skilled hands, both men come to life in their individual ways and learn to share their sorrows and joys with each other. While is clear in his intentions and feelings, Edwin has to learn to trust and let Adam into his life.

Again, I sound like Hall's publicist, but this is a book worth savoring.

Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: "Indians," "blacks," racism] There was no reason to include these words or the racism that goes with them. They add nothing to the story other than to attempt to show that the heroine grew up poor and lived on the wrong side of the tracks and how her father sent her to the right side for school. Other than this racist backstory, there is no more racism in the book, because the book is only populated with white characters. This is a book written in 1995, so not that long ago, and I can't imagine how the writer was so racist even then.

If you are able to set the racism aside, this is a fabulous story. I would give it an 'A.' It is a gentle story of uncommon actions and reactions, large and small. What could've been clichéd is not because of the little twists and turns in the story that keep you guessing. What is very sweet about the story is that the hero acknowledges to himself and to the heroine that he is in love with her before the halfway mark. The rest of the book is of him waiting patiently for her to love him, then giving up in despair, and then her bringing him back into being alive by her love.

The setting is a daytime soap studio in Brooklyn. It's a scrappy, low-budget half-hour soap set in the Regency. The network execs were reluctant to part with even the small amount of money they did for it, but surprising everyone, the show took off and drew in rating higher than any of the hour-long soaps. It was a case of the engine who could. This was all because of Jenny cotton, the head writer. It all came from her head and she spent countless hours seven days a week working and reworking the stories, sometimes, making changes even the day of the taping. Luckly, her directors and producer were adept at finding good, professional actors who could adapt and act.

Alec Cameron is a well-known daytime soap actor. Since his childhood when he took care of his sister who died of leukemia, he is used to being the responsible person in the cast. If there was a crisis, he would step in and help fix things. However, right from the begining, his respect for Jenny's brilliance has him stepping aside to let her take the lead. He is fascinated with her right from the begining even though she is living with her boyfriend of fourteen years. Of course, he makes no moves on her other than to tell her that he in love with her. It is only when her boyfriend cheats on her and marries someone else that Alec makes clear that he is interested in marriage and only marriage with Jenny. But Jenny does not love him.

I really liked that Seidel does not have Jenny wallowing in her betrayal. She grieves, she plots some mild revenge, she works through her emotions, and she emerges stronger and more optimistic than before. Wonderful characterization there. Then Alec thinks she would fall in love with him. But there is no such automatic, clichéd response from Jenny. And this is the heart of the story, how she gets to love—at first, it was only the show she loved, now she could love Alec and the show.

After All These Years by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Even though the above book is the fourth book in the series and this is the first, I read Again first, fell in love with it, and went looking for more of Seidel's work. And while this was not as great as Again, it was still good. However, it is a different book, more a story of a family than a straightforward romance, even though it does follow some of the genre conventions about building a central love story to a HEA climax. However, a fair bit of the second half of the book is in the POV of the teen son of the heroine, which has nothing much to do with the romance and much to do with his own growth. It does go towards the character reformation of the hero, but given that it is from the boy's POV, it's about his growth arc as well.

Three children, two boys and a girl, were born days apart and lived in nearby houses in the South Dakota countryside outside a small town. The three families were close, supposedly, and despite tragedy robbing the kids of some of their parents, the kids grew up happy and wild and incredibly close to one another. Curry, Tom, and Huck made a blood bond to always stay true to each other and always tell each other the truth. As they grow up, first Tom dates Curry, but he is too intense with her, and she gravitates naturally to the sunny-tempered Huck and they marry at 18 and have a child. Tom and Huck are all fired up to join Vietnam, and only Tom returns home, not to South Dakota and only to marry someone else. He doesn't see Curry for 16 years.

That they love each other is a given. But can they build a life together? Curry is rooted into the South Dakota soil for generations. Tom is a footloose historic homes restorer of some repute who travels constantly, job to job. Curry built a flourishing paint business in town, raised a boy, and took care of her grandmother, who raised her, and her mother-in-law. Tom was an absentee husband and an absentee father to his daughter, whom he loves but rarely sees. Curry is building a life for herself for the future when her chick wiill fly the nest and she will have nothing to do. So she is going to college to earn a degree to teach history in school.Tom wants to continue his aimless life forever.

The story of the book is in the emotional growth of both characters, but especially Tom. What I loved this story is that Seidel does not make Tom renounce his work and live in the small town. Most small town stories are where the folks from the big city always give up their life there completely to move to the small town and remake their life from ground-up. It is a rare book that allows me to believe in future happiness for that person. In this book, both characters give a little and take a little and share a lot. Perfect HEA!

The Heiress Hunt by Joanne Shupe
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book is in a voice and style unlike Shupe's former books. The author has had help with this book, and I wonder if that has affected how the story was written and how it reads. It is disappointing. And...I had really been looking forward to it.

Maddie Webster is a high society girl in 1895 New York City. Used to attention and adulation all her life, Maddie is a strong, confident young woman. She convince her parents not to expect her to marry in her first season, but to give her three seasons or so to indulge in her love of tennis. Now, she's become a national championship player and is at the height of her sports career. However, she knows, that despite her parents indulging her wish for a few years, her only job is to get married. So she sets her cap at the biggest prize of the season, the British Duke of Lockwood, and he is slowly warming up to her. While he hasn't proposed, a proposal is imminent.

Into this lovely situation steps her old, beloved friend, who'd abandoned her in her first season and rushed away to Paris for three years. She had been heartbroken that he had completely broken away from their friendship.

Harrison Archer has been in love with Maddie for years. But one night, he overhears her confiding to her friend about him. Stung, he runs away to Paris, and throws himself into amassing a fortune and living a hedonistic life. He is fond of his delightful mistress, but parts with her when he decides to return to NYC when his father dies. His family had abused him as a child, always treating him as a worthless second son, so now, he is back to bankrupt them and ruin their standing in society. Oh, and now that he is back, he is determined to marry the love of his life, Maddie.

This entire characterization of Harrison is strange. Instead of rushing off to Paris, he could've had a clarifying conversation with his closest friend in the world, Maddie. For all that he claims to love her and her being his best friend, he does not even trust her enough to have one mature conversation. Of course, in that case, the book would've never been. Upon his return, he could've had that conversation, and yet, he never does. He could've have returned at any point in the three years he was gone if he was so much in love with her, but he never does. But now that he is back to wreak revenge, as a side benefit, he is going to pursue Maddie and win her. And while the romantic shenanigans are going on, the revenge plot is put on hold. Towards the end of the book, their relationship hits a stumbling block, and they decide to separate for a bit, and immediately, Harrison gets in touch with his mistress. Right.

At no point did Maddie think to talk to Harrison before he left or after he returns or send letters asking him why he had left so precipitously. Does she not want to solve the obstacle in the friendship with her best friend? She just accepts his abandonment. And then despite his having abandoned her and lived a hedonistic life, the minute she sets eyes on him upon his return, her previous friendship morphs into romantic interest. It's like a switch was thrown; there was no build-up to the new feelings. Maddie's behavior in the breakup of their relationship—the requisite clichéd black moment of the book—is immature at best. I think this was a major peeve of mine: the protagonists' immaturity and inability to have an adult conversation with each other.


willaful said...

Your first Hall! You have so many pleasures in store for you!

I'm reading the Thorne right now. My feelings are mixed. I love her prose, but the characters aren't gelling for me. I'm kind of enjoying it, but I don't *believe* it.

Keira Soleore said...

I can't believe it took me this long to get on the Alexis Hall wagon.

I'd love to know what your thoughts are on the Thorne. Are you unable to believe these such different people can have a believable relationship together?

willaful said...

I wound up liking it much more than I expected. I can see rereading it as a comfort book. There was still something a bit off, that I can't quite place. It felt like fan fiction, if that makes any sense.

willaful said...

Ah, I think I know where that feeling came from. Thorne is so excellent at writing on a detailed scale, but she often leaves out the larger picture. I didn't notice it with THG but many others commented on feeling like they didn't know where it was set and not believing the characters worked in an office. I felt it here and that's probably why it felt like fan fiction to me, because that often comes with built-in knowledge and assumptions that the author doesn't bother to expound on.

Vassiliki said...

I like your review style. I like that people choose to review in the way that suits them best. I'm building back up to reading. Maybe the next step will be reviewing too. But that fatigue keeps holding me back.

I feel like an outlier but the only Hall book I have read is Glitterland and I was underwhelmed. At only 96 pages, I am more than happy to give him another go.

As for Thorne, I adore her writing but I feel very put out by her amorphous, Whitelandia pretend settings.

Keira Soleore said...

Willaful and Vassiliki, both you are making an interesting point. Usually, I make a big deal over settings, but somehow the non-setting of her books have worked for me because I have been so engrossed in the emotions and her characters that I haven't missed it. But now that you've said this, I'm totally seeing this. "Amorphous Whitelandia" is a great way to describe it. Interesting comment about it feeling like "fan fiction" because the worldbuilding is absent. I wonder why she makes this choice. Saleability? Acceptability by the Caucasian demographic? Less controversial?

I have not read Glitterland. I admit that its high reputation made me reluctant to pick it up. Also, the one review I read did not make it sound appealing. With this one, I felt like 96 pages was a low commitment, and it totally worked for me.

willaful said...

I think that's why she's not being as successful with her later books. THG was so hilarious and riveting, most readers weren't bothered by it. But the style didn't wear well in her second, which IIRC was more serious.

I don't know if it's necessarily a conscious choice, maybe just how she likes to write? Or playing to her strengths?

Keira Soleore said...

I wonder about the success of books 2 & 3, whether the lack of sense of place is so much more glaringly obvious, or people just wanted the lighthearted THG, and these are much more serious books, especially the second. I like the second book the best, precisely because of its exploration of character and quiet, introspective nature of the narration. This third book tries to lighten up the load. I remember her comment on my review of the second book that very few people are getting her book. So she may have taken all the criticism to heart for the third book.

Vassiliki said...

I wonder if her lack of setting is because she is an Australian and her publishers didn't want her books set in Oz and that it isn't some deep and meaningful, stylistic decision. Anyway, it annoys me in the same way Harlequin made up countries annoy me. That said, I enjoyed her first two books, so I am happy to overlook the annoyance and read this one too :)

willaful said...

So far this one is getting better ratings and reviews than the second, though whether that will translate into sale, I couldn't say. I do hope she succeeds, because I think she really has something special. As an avid romance reader, I do get very tired of the same phrases and expressions used over and over.

Keira Soleore said...

I think that her not being heavily connected on social media may have an influence on her original ideas. I have this theory that lately, some people are tending towards group-think on their newest books.

willaful said...

Oh, so much! I hate that social-media bleed through I see so often.

Cordelia Sandra said...
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