Tuesday, August 31, 2021

My Summer Reading Notes (Long)

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern I moved this summer. As a result, my time was not my own. Between all the culling, donating, packing, shipping, moving in, unpacking, and arranging my worldly goods, not to mention selling our house and renting a new one, I was exhausted from morning to night and had no energy to do any writing. I did do some reading and reviewing, as you can see below, but that was it. I stopped writing my Morning Pages and had only short updates for my journal. But now, I feel I have a better handle on things, so, hopefully, I will be able to return to writing Morning Pages and detailed journaling.

It is mindblowing to me how people move every few years. Perhaps, you acquire fewer things, only those you absolutely need and absolutely love, rather than so many things that look interesting in the moment but turn to crap long-term. I was in my old home for 21 years. I still remember how few things I brought into that home from my apartment. And I regret, how very many things I brought into my current home. Given that this house is much smaller, and despite the innumerable donations (and literal junking of things), right now, there are quite a few boxes in the garage. Luckily, the garage has storage. Given that I am renting right now, there are more moves in my near future. Woe! Perhaps I should donate boxes wholesale if I haven't opened them in this next year. But, oh, I loathe to part with my books—many of those boxes are of books. As it is, I reluctantly gave away hundreds before I moved, and that was wrenching. The only consolation was that out of the many boxes of books I donated, a close friend of mine got four.

In reviewing news... Frolic Media changed its direction at the end of June to mostly audio-video contribution as opposed to written. As a result, my 2.5-year-old review column Book of the Week went bye-bye. They had given me all the freedom in choosing the books I wanted to review, and I was allowed to develop my own style of reviewing. I'm incredibly grateful to them for believing in me and supporting me all these years. As a result of my departure from Frolic, in the midst of the move, I was frantically DM-ing people I know and cold-writing to editors. Luckily for me, American Library Association's Booklist, BookPage, Washington Independent Review of Books, and Foreword Reviews took me up on my promise to be able to write for them. I will, of course, continue to write for the Independent Examiner.

Interview with author Lucy Parker
Ever since Carina Press published Act Like It, I have been a fan of Lucy Parker’s books set in the theater world, and the her fans are legion. Parker pairs keen observations about modern London life with a quirky sense of humor and spicy language. Her latest published this month, Battle Royal, is the first in a new series centered around the monarchy.

Interview with author Marguerite Kaye
Her Heart for a Compass, which came out earlier this month, was the most anticipated royal historical novel of the year. Authored by Sarah, Duchess of York, in collaboration with Marguerite Kaye, the story is a fictional account of the life of the duchess’ great-great-great-aunt Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, who was a close acquaintance of Queen Victoria. The book is Ferguson’s first adult novel. The Scottish Kaye, however, is an award-winning romance author of more than 50 books.

The Layover by Lacie Waldon
Category:Contemporary Romance
Comments: On some level, this is a rom-com where two protagonists meet on a plane and discover that they have much in common with each other than they had previously thought. Spending time together with periods of intense self-revelatory explorations convinces them that they’re compatible on multiple levels. However, such a breezy précis does this introspective book a disservice. There is psychology at play in this story. It is a wonderful meditation on the conscious and subconscious mind, traumas of childhood, and the separation of the adult from the child. And Waldon does it all with the light hand of a rom-com. My review is here.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
Category:Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: prejudice and violence against queer people, death, homophobia, anti-Asian hate crimes] How do you romance someone on your subway commute? Especially when, she is lost in time and trapped on a train? And especially, especially when you want to help her return to her time in the 1970s? One Last Stop is a new adult, queer, magical realism spin on Kate & Leopold. Life circumstances have made Caucasian American August Landry a cynic. She arrives in New York with her entire life in a few boxes. She moves into an apartment with people who are wildly different from each other. And yet, they meld together in one close, wisecracking family. August meets Asian American Jane Su, in her ripped jeans and leather jacket, on the Q train. From the first, August is entranced and hopes she can meet Jane again and again. And she does...until she realizes that Jane is actually a time traveler from the 1970s stuck on the Q train. The book cover is fabulous and has such tiny-tiny details from the story. My review is here.

First Love, Take Two by Sajni Patel
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: racism, colorism] This was my first review for Booklist. The story is set in the same circle of friends as Patel's debut book, The Trouble with Hating You. An Indian American woman fell in love with a Black man back in college, but pleasing her parents caused her to repudiate him. He was devastated. Now they're back in touch and just as much in love. Will they fight their parents for their right to love each other? Since my review was published for the magazine, I don't have a link to the full review.

The Sweetest Remedy by Jane Igharo
Category: Contemporary Women's Fiction
Comments: This was for Booklist as well, and I don't have a link to the full review. I loved Igharo's debut, Ties That Tether (review here), so i was eagerly looking forward to her next book. While the first book was more romance, this is more women's fiction with a strong romance sub-plot. The heroine is biracial and had been abandoned by her Nigerian father because he already had a family of his own in Nigeria. Upon his death, his will stipulates that she travel to Nigeria and meet up with his family. And she discovers a new family there and a new love. Igharo is Nigerian Canadian, and her Nigerian setting feels authentic and well-researched.

A Duke Worth Fighting For by Christina Britton
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is the last book in Britton's Isle of Synne series. It is a classic Beauty and the Beast tale, where the circumspect widow of a Waterloo veteran is challenged with aiding a battle-scarred, socially inept, virginal duke with his matrimonial prospects. Unknown to them, their meeting on the Isle of Synne has been engineered by a Machiavellian matchmaker, the dowager viscountess who is the widow’s grandmother. My review is here.

The Scoundrel's Daughter by Anne Gracie
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is an excellent start to The Brides of Bellaire Gardens series by Anne Gracie. The book does an excellent job of developing both of its romances equally, which is rare. Usually the secondary romance is tied up in a quick, neat bow. But here, Gracie gives sufficient page time to interleave the development of the two romances, while retaining the primacy of one. There's an abusive husband, handsy lords, army discipline and integrity, widowers, cute girls, cuter kitten, curricle race, a bold goose and a bolder goose girl, young love, old love, hard-to-get prickly women and patient loving men, and Gracie's lovely writing. My review is here.

Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma
Category:Contemporary Romance
Comments:This book was fabulous! I read it on KJ Charles' recommendation, so I went in with the hope of a good read, and it did not disappoint. It is set among the politics of the British House of Lords and is a clash between a senior civil servant attached to a baroness "Minister" and her special advisor whose father is a peer of the realm and former member of the Lords. I loved, and wallowed, in all the political details of getting their alternative energy items attached to a bill through the committee and full vote in the House. There is a ton of politics, and I was surprised to find myself a political wonk. Their relationship starts out adversarial, moves to attentive, then sexual, then loving. And the progression is gradual and organic and the characters are memorable. The book may only be 80 pages, but the story is much larger than that. Sharma is a gifted writer, and I wish she would write more.

Special Interests by Emma Barry
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really wanted to like this book. I really like the author, and folks I know on Twitter really like this book. But I didn't. It is a debut book, and it shows. It needs more introspection and character growth from that introspection. For the most part, the heroine is static. Her inexplicable reactions to the hero swing wildly between being pissed at him and wanting to jump his bones and nothing in between. I understand wanting to show conflicting feelings in a character but the extremes didn't work for me. However, it was the hero who sank the ship for me. It is a case of opposites attract. She propotions him. Twice. Both times he turns her down with a "it is not you, it is me" line. She is humiliated but every time he gives her a crumb of attention, she comes to him. He's patronizing, self-absorbed, and not very nice to her in thoughts and comments. Other than his looks, I don't see what he has going for him. The political details, unlike the book above, are light—they do convey a sense of DC but not in the depth that would've made the story shine. I read Barry's mission statement about her books with interest. Special Interests follows that definition of the basic structure of all her stories accurately. I wonder how Barry can make book after book original give these guidelines. (This book needed a copyeditor. I am surprised Carina Press put out a book with elementary errors.)

Mr. Hotshot CEO by Jackie Lau
Category:Contemporary Romance
Comments:[CW: depression] I have read four of Lau's books, and the first one made it to one of my Best Books of the Year list. But upon reading this book, I realized that Lau has one story to tell, and she rehashes it in every book I have read. Yes, the meet-cutes may differ and some of the turning points or crises may as well, but the bones of the stories are the same. While this is an interesting exercise in how an author can craft seemingly news stories from a confining structure, I was disappointed with this book. What lifts the book up from mediocrity is Lau's depiction of the heroine's depression. Lau discusses it with a degree of authenticity and depth that speaks of personal experience. She is open about it on Twitter, so I never questioned her depiction of it as I read along. How the heroine handles the illness, her role in it, other people's roles in it, and how she relates to other people is where the story is. This can be very triggering for some readers, uplifting for some, and fascinating for some. It is handled sensitively.

Marian's Christmas Wish by Carla Kelly
Category:Historical Romance
Comments: I loved this book. Vintage Kelly is always a hit for me. It is a typical Christmas story where good things are wished for and succeed in occuring as part of the spirit of the season. However, the characters elevate the story from the ordinary to memorable. Marian's father, a squire, has just died from an ill-advised ride in the countryside after he had been drinking. As a result, Marian and her family are about to lose their family home. Given how eccentric Marian is, all hopes for a lucrative match to save their family rest on her beautiful sister. Trouble is, her sister is in love with a poor curate. Enter an earl with who has had an arid life and is charmed by Marian's madcap schemes and unconventional foibles. She entertains him and he rapidly falls for her; she takes a while to arrive at the conclusion that she has loving feelings for him and that he feels likewise for her. This is a delightful traditional Regency.

The Duke's Regret by Catherine Kullman
Category:Historical Romance
Comments: The Saturday Book Club finished discussing this book with a flourish. Lovely, quiet book of second chances for protagonists in their mid to late thirties. This author is such a find! I talked about this book in some detail in my May review roundup. The biggest discussion of our club centered around why and how does the duchess decide to move forward with her relationship with the duke after two decades of neglect by him? How much and how does he atone in order to move forward in their relationship? Has he done enough? Is she too forgiving? And what about his relationship with the children he has neglected? This is a novella, and while at times it felt a little more exploration would've been warranted, overall, the pacing and details were very well done. A book to definitely pick up.

A Comfortable Alliance by Catherine Kullman
Category:Historical Romance
Comments: Given how much I loved Kullman's book above, my anticipation was high for her latest book. So I was crestfallen when I was underwhelmed by it. Frankly, I was bored. There were no stakes in the book. They meet. They like each other. They have a good intimate life and get along very well outside of it. While their marriage was based on respect and tepid affection, they fall into deep affection and into love from the get-go. Their life together is good—each does their part to make their marriage and their external life work well. The only fly in the ointment is that she constantly compares him to her lost youthful love; she is convinced that what she felt then was love with a capital 'L,' and what she feels for her husband is only affection. And she ruminates on it on and on. The book keeps bowling along as though narrated by an omniscent narrator, and frankly, I was bored. No stakes, no story. And it has the unsexiest sex scene I have ever read. Kullman should stick with closed door.

An Embroidered Spoon by Jayne Davis
Category:Historical Romance
Comments:This is the third book of The Saturday Book Club read. The author was recommended by Willa. Alas! Our book club decided to abandon this one part way through. The story started out bold and interesting. There is a stuck-up, rich beauty banished to a small village in Wales to live with her supposedly poor spinster aunt as a punishment for not accepting eligible suitors that her father put forward. She is spoiled and mistakes the hero for a local yokel and treats him as such. He's a tradesman from the Borders who ventures up there to buy the goods necessary. He's a sharp businessman and is fluent in Welsh and English. So the book starts out strong, but the heroine's about face from imperious to easygoing, from uppercrust to aweshucks was too sudden. There was no story left partway through the book, and I felt like the author was pulling the characters along, rather than the story being organic to the characters.

Miss Lattimore's Letter by Suzanne Allain
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I loved Allain's Mr. Malcolm's List (review here) last year. Filming is under way with screenplay by Allain and Sam Heughan as Mr. Malcolm. The day my review published, Heughan RT'd my review!!!!!, thus, making my day/week/month/year. Miss Lattimore's Letter is likewise excellent. Allain has a keen ear and eye for conveying an immersive Regency setting. The book has two interweaved romances—one is Miss Sophronia "Sophie" Lattimore's with Sir Edmund, and the other is her cousin Cecilia's. While the secondary romance does not overshadow the main one, it does get sufficient page time to not be a pat thing that Allain wraps up in a cute bow. Sophie is a matchmaker by happenstance. She spies two unhappy couples and pairs them up through an anonymous letter, which becomes public, thereby raising Sophie's status from an unwanted spinster relation to a young woman worthy of notice. She then proceeds, reluctantly, to aid other couples with their troubled relationships and finds she has a knack for it. The heart of the story is Sophie's jilted past informing on her present choice of Sir Edmund's laidback and cautious courtship and her old beau—who rejected her for a woman with money—actively and ardently pursuing her. Who will she choose? Allain has done a good job of making the choice equitable, and not one the obvious non-choice.

The Shaadi Set-Up by Lillie Vale
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a second-chances romance with lovely prose and tender feelings. Rita runs a furniture refurbishing business that is getting noticed more and more. But she is also perennially cash-strapped. Her boyfriend, Neil, is handsome and successful and a mama's boy who talks big about settling down but will never ever oppose his mother's will. The Bollywood-style plot twist is that Rita's mom had been rejected by Neil's grandparents as a bride for Neil's father. Rita's mom is still miffed about it and would never, ever, over-her-dead-body consider Neil for Rita. Enter Rita's old fling whom she had loved, loved, loved from when she was fifteen till their senior year in college. He had loved her back just as much...till, he broke them up over his grades and parents and...Now, Milan is back, just as handsome and cocky as ever and rich and successful to boot and wants Rita back in his life in her professional capacity (as interior decorator and stager for his realtor business) and on personal terms as well. Rita is CONFLICTED! The word "shaadi" means "marriage" and comes from the fictional Indian American matrimonial/dating site MyShaadi.com where Rita, Neil, and Milan have profiles. Rita tries to wrangle hers and Neil's profiles so they can be matched as fated mates to be presented to her mom as fait accompli, but instead, she and Milan get matched up. Oops! While the beginning half is stellar, the other half gets bogged down by rehashing of Rita's old feelings and not enough development of their second-chance "new" relationship. I wanted to see what the grown-up Rita and Milan brought new to the table and not merely as a continuation of their "never fell out of love" relationship.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Category: Nonfiction Essays
Comments: As mentioned in these blogs before, I belong to an antiracism book club in one my kids' schools. We started reading this book last month because it was AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) month, and until then, we'd read books by Black Americans but hadn't branched out to other marginalized authors. From the premise of the book on Amazon and reviews of the book, I was excited to read it. However, I ended up being disappointed by the poor writing. The essays were incoherent. I am used to personal essays being tightly formatted with thoughts (ideas, theories, and annecdotes) laid out in orderly thoughts with an overarching theme and progression towards an understanding. These essays meandered all over the place and at the end I was not sure what the points were. In our group discussions, we were all befuddled and didn't know how to critique the book. We didn't want to be prejudiced against the essence of the book despite the writing and especially because it was so touted by respectable review outlets. However, I feel no such caution. Bad writing is bad writing because bad writing does not convey what the writer thinks they're conveying and confuses the reader.


Victoria Janssen said...

Adding Parker and Britton to my library list!

Keira Soleore said...

Britton was a welcome surprise for me. This was my first book by her. I have read all of Parker's other books, so I was really looking forward to this one. I really liked it. More about it in my September reading notes.

willaful said...

The Jayne Davis I read _The Two McMkinnons_ was quite good, I swear! ;-)

I was going to say I'm sorry about Frolic, but as you seem to have had no trouble finding other gigs, I guess I don't have to! I hope you'll be settled in soon and able to keep with everything.

Keira Soleore said...

Is this "The Mrs. MacKinnons" by Davis? I just looked it up on AMZ, and it looks good. Given that our club book started out strong then petered out, I am willing to give Davis another chance.

Thank you, Willa. I feel so grateful to have found other review outlets. They exercise different reviewing muscles so that is good. I am learning a lot.

Wendy said...

I've got that Kelly buried in the TBR...somewhere. It sounds delightful!

Keira Soleore said...

@Wendy: It is delightful! Hope you'll move it up your TBR.

Cordelia Sandra said...
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