Monday, December 27, 2021

November & December Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern I realized a week before Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, that Diwali was next week and I had a children's picture book on Diwali. I hurriedly emailed my editor and asked that if I could have the review to her by that evening, would she pretty please cherry on top print it in the newspaper next week? She was immensely kind and said she would squeeze it on to the paper. And she did!

I am really enjoying doing author interviews. Here are the ones for November and December: interview with Sarah MacLean and interview with Cat Sebastian. I also interviewed a picture book author, Rajani LaRocca, Lucy Parker, and Marguerite Kaye earlier this year. In the new year, I plan to interview a prominent Asian American author, which will be challenging because I'll be stepping out of my realm of expertise with that piece into the world of K-pop!

HERE is the list of my best romance novels for this year.

On to the reviews for November and December...

Love at First Spite by Anna E. Collins
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a debut fast-paced novel set in Seattle. The opening scene has an unforgettable image of the heroine in a paintball-splattered white wedding gown. She's just been dumped, weeks before the wedding. But instead of wallowing in grief, she decides on detailed revenge against her ex. She buys a plot of land next to her ex's house and plans on ruining his peace and view by building a monstrosity, peopled with loud people. Only the stick-up-his-backside architect at her firm agrees to design her this house. There are plenty of laughs in this book and some outlandish doings in the heroine's "hastily decided upon but refined upon at leisure" plan. [CW: Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder]

The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This a story of someone falling in love with a person who helps them feel strong and want to be stronger. This is not a story about weight loss or a paradigm shift to find love, but about learning to love who you are. He is the CEO of FitMe Fitness, a hugely popular, individualized, body positive lifestyle app. Through its clever matching algorithm, FitMe teams up each client with a professional coach who helps them meet their goals. She is a curvy woman whose goals are to jump out of a plane and to look and feel good naked. She refuses to allow being fat to define her. She teams up with a coworker to write immensely popular, dueling blog posts for the lifestyle magazine she works for about the entire fitness experience with two competing apps, FitMe and HottrYou. [CW: eating disorder, fatphobia, one instance of disordered eating and over-exercising putting someone in the hospital]. [My review is here.]

Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is Balogh’s last novel in her fabulous Westcott series. The story is about two people, coming from very disparate backgrounds, who connect at an unanticipated and deeply emotional level. It is a master class in trust and fairness and honesty. How do you trust uninhibitedly, even in the face of opposing, seemingly true, facts? What does it mean to continually strive to bring light and joy to the other’s soul? Heart-to-heart, frank conversations is how their relationship develops, even when he proposes to her, and she refuses, and then he warns her he is planning to propose to her again. Their relationship is bracketed by the two proposals. [My review is here.]

Somewhere Above It All by Holli Fawcett Clayton
Category: Contemporary Romance Adventure
Comments: This is a debut book on grief and the indomitable courage it takes to come to terms with it. Even scaling Tanzania’s 19,341-foot treacherous Mount Kilimanjaro feels easier for the heroine. Writing with an assured hand, the author charts the emotional landscape as well as physical landscape with deep sensitivity and poignant detail. Ravaged by grief at the death of her dream of married life by the suicide of her opioid-addicted husband, the heroine is determined to put herself first after many years of despair. She is resolute in doing something that she could’ve never imagined herself doing—a grueling climb up to the oxygen-deprived Roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro. He is lead counsel for a pharmaceutical company and a rugged outdoorsman. He is grieving the suicide of his beloved older brother, who was also his best friend. Challenging the mountain is a way for him to get a grip on his grief. Leaving the past behind isn't easy for either of them. Yet, the mountain brings them closer together. This is not strictly a romance, more a heroine's journey, but the romance is a huge sub-plot.

Once Upon a Winter's Eve by Tessa Dare
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Dare's Spindle Cove series is touted by fans as her best, so I decided to dip my toes into Dare's writing with this novella. Her writing style is reminiscent of the old Julia Quinn novels: frothy, fun, with modern sensibilities, requiring large dollops of suspension of disbelief, but ultimately, satisfying and entertaining. Like Quinn, Dare quickly became very popular with readers, and now is a huge name in romance. Her Twitter presence has also garnered her more fans. I remember when she was a fledgling aspiring author. We were on the same Eloisa James message board and participated in a writing contest by Avon, possibly, the only contest they did. Many of today's current authors participated in that contest and were on that message board, including Courtney Milan, Jackie Barbosa, Manda Collins, Elyssa Patrick, and so many more. Many known readers and bloggers were also there. I don't know where Eloisa James found the time to manage her teaching career, her book career, and a message board, not to mention house and family. She did have some help from an author's assistant and a research assistant, but still, she made her presence felt on the board, and she was generous with her advice. I loved that board.

Spindle Cove is a place for bluestockings, spinsters, and those women with unusual interests. The heroine in this book is a talented linguist, speaking six languages fluently with the knowledge of others. She had been thwarted in love by her childhood friend who'd made love to her and departed England's shores with a curt note and no further communication. Now at the Christmas Ball a stranger crashes at her feet speaking a Celtic language that only she can decipher. As the night wears on, she realizes that he is a spy and her long, lost lover. What is she to do? Aid him or turn him in?

Royally Ever After: The Jilting of Lord Rothwick by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: As with all Chases, the minute you start her book, you sink into familiar Regency milieu of cultural and societal norms as established in the traditional Regencies. This short story is an oldie but a real goodie. He has been refused by her. For him, it is destitution with the baggage of his father's debts, the estate, and all the dependents upon his shoulders. For her, it is the heartache of loss of love. She loves him; she assumes he doesn't love her; but he does love her. The story takes place in the course of a day. The backstory is that they met when he decided that she was rich enough to tow him back from River Tick, so he started paying serious court to her, in the process defeating all her other suitors to win her hand. In the process, they both fall in love with each other, but each is certain their feelings are not returned. The story in the present is how they discover their feelings. Beautifully written!

The Earl Who Sees Her Beauty by Marguerite Kaye
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Another author whose books feel true to the historical feel of the traditional Regencies I enjoy. And this one is beautifully written like the Chase above. She was heavily scarred as a young child diagonally across her back and diagonally across one cheek from forehead to mouth. She is considered an abomination by one and all, and she lurks in the shadows, covering her face with her hair and wearing a wide-brimmed bonnet and, sometimes, even a veil. She is mechanically brilliant and built a number of improvements in the former earl's house. The new earl wants nothing to do with the earldom; in fact, he wants to divest himself of all his responsibilities, sell everything, and donate the monies. When he spies her, he is struck by her beauty and she, by his. He truly always only sees her and the scars as part of her, not as obscuring a nondescript face, but as part of who she is. He accepts her wholly. The backstory to the earl is set in Greece and unusual. Impeccable research by Kaye and superlative writing. [I have to say that my fulsome praise is not coerced by my friendship with her by any way, but there you have the information anyway.]

Lizzie & Dante by Mary Bly AKA Eloisa James
Category: Mainstream Fiction
Comments: Like the kiss of a butterfly’s wings on a flower, Mary Bly has written this book with such tenderness. So much of the story mirrors Bly’s lived experience as a Shakespearean professor at Fordham University in New York, marrying an Italian man, and suffering the pain and indignity and fear of cancer. [CW: disordered eating, cancer, dying, death, funeral] This is not a romance, despite the title, but the novel has a large romance sub-plot. This novel is about Lizzie deciding how to live given her diagnosis of terminal cancer. Should she give up? Should she try one more round of experimental treatment? Should she do it for the men in her life? For herself? This book is all about asking deep, searching questions and discovering for herself who she wants to be. A beautiful, beautiful book. [My review is here.]

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This is the best book I read this year. It won a Pulitzer prize, and I can see why. Erdrich brings her Native American heritage to bear in crafting a story where no detail is spurious, no emotion extraneous. It is based on an Indian (Erdrich uses this word) reservation and the driving force is the white government's desire to evict the residents and bring settlers in. The poverty on the reservation is horrifying and the lives lived are so desperate and so out-of-step with the rest of American culture and society. And yet, the beauty and dignity in the Native American culture and beliefs are not to be found elsewhere in the larger America.

According to this WaPo review: "Erdrich read a cache of letters written in the middle of the 20th century by her grandfather Patrick Gourneau. He had been chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee during the tribe’s modern-day fight for survival. The threat at that time was legal but as potentially disastrous as earlier assaults: In 1953, the U.S. House passed a resolution declaring that a number of tribes should be rapidly “freed from Federal supervision.” Beneath that glorious promise of emancipation lurked the government’s true plan: the unilateral abrogation of treaties, the wholesale termination of tribes’ rights and the abandonment of Native Americans already impoverished by centuries of genocidal policies. Reminded of that dark era and her grandfather's heroic role in saving the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, Erdrich knew she had found the inspiration for her next book."

Mangoes, Mischief, and Tales of Friendship by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy
Category: Children's Chapter Book
Comments: Replete with humor and drama, this book is a collection of short stories reminiscent of stories of the 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and his advisor and confidant Birbal. The protagonists are two 10-year-old mischievous and precocious boys who courageously use their intellect to solve tricky problems in the king's court. The book is divided into two previously published smaller books: A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice. Each book has four stories of the boys' adventures in meting out justice and reprimands when the king is busy tending to other matters of his kingdom. [My review is here.]

Binny's Diwali by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Bright fairy lights, warm oil lamps, colorful powder designs, new clothes, sparkling jewelry, delicious sweets, savory snacks, and firecrackers...all make the season of Diwali a joyous occasion. While the multiday festival has Hindu religious notes, it is also a secular cultural celebration in which Indians of all faiths participate. Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of good over evil, of hope over darkness. It is a reminder to observants to be good, kind, and brave. There are many legends associated with Diwali with roots deep into Indian mythology of thousands of years ago. Binny’s Diwali celebrates an Indian American girl’s desire to share her culture with her classmates, none of whom know about this festival. [My review is here.]

Category: Children's Picture & Board Books
Comments: A comfortable chair. A warm fire. Hot chocolate. Cuddles. And the perfect book. Here are stories perfect for cozy reading over the holidays. [My reviews are here.]
Sheepish (Wolf Under Cover) by Helen Yoon
The Smile Shop by Satoshi Kitamura
If I Were a Tree by Andrea Zimmerman, illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong
David Jumps In by Alan Woo, illustrated by Katty Maurey
From Maybe to Forever: An Adoption Story by M.L. Gold and N.V. Fong, illustrated by Jess Hong
The Little One by Kiyo Tanaka, translated by David Boyd
Baby Raccoon illustrated by Yu-Hsuan Huan
Baby Fox illustrated by Yu-Hsuan Huan
Paper Peek: Animals by Chihiro Takeuchi
I Can Be Anything: Guessing Game Book by Shinsuke Yoshitake