Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Manly Men in Red High Heels: Avon and Rothgar Bring It

This was my first post for Heroes & Heartbreakers on March 1, 2011. I have archived it here, but for future reference, I've posted the content below as well. Do visit the link to the archive, since it has captured all the original comments, which are probably more interesting reading than my post.


All fictional stories involve world building. Historical stories require world introduction, the conveyance of a sense of place and time that the characters are going to inhabit. The further you go back in the mists of time, the more imaginative the knitting together of the bare (and barely available) facts needs to be to make the world seem plausible. Take the Georgian period, which for the purposes of the historical romance novel is the mid- to late 18th century to 1811. The glittering world of the nobility in Georgian England was symbolized by lavish fashions for men and women, culinary marvels, soaring architecture, and every other excess imaginable.

Into this world, Georgette Heyer dropped her Alistair, Duke of Avon, from the story These Old Shades. He wore red-heeled shoes, carried a scented lace handkerchief in his hand, sprinkled jewels on his cravat, and powdered his hair. But no one reading the novel would mistake him for a fop. Avon was a formidable hero of strength, character, intelligence, and strong will.

Just as Jo Beverley’s Beowulf, Marquess of Rothgar, éminence noir of England was formidable. As the story Devilish shows, there was nothing of the mincing dandy in Rothgar. He may have moved in languid hauteur, allowed no emotion to mar the tranquility of his face, worn elaborate clothes fashioned from the cloth of gold, traveled in a sedan chair to court, and yet to the heroine: “He was a man who had to be engaged mind, body, emotions, and soul” in order to truly be reached.

Both Rothgar and Avon are examples of men who were ascetic in their mannerisms and behavior yet who dressed and moved about in keeping with their peers. They were both physically strong and skilled at fighting with swords and with their fists and had the wherewithal to use them. However, they rarely used physical force, because a cutting word, a chilling look, a measured tone were intimidating enough. They were alphas in their milieu.

The incongruity of a foot massage from Rothgar to Diana and of Avon allowing Léonie to jump up on a chair in front of his family notwithstanding, both men had a ruthless streak that was in keeping with their redoubtable reputation. While they were both clearly more indulgent with their heroine than with anyone else, even their siblings, there was always a part of them that was inviolate, that made them strong men who were not pushovers. “I am yours to command in all things,” Rothgar said. “My body and heart want you. Only my cursed will reminds me of other things.”

Heyer’s hero isn’t shown to be doing work for his vast dukedom, whereas Beverley’s hero is clearly involved in all aspects of the business of his marquessate. This is a stylistic difference between the authors. Beverley tries to portray more realistic characters, which has her hero doing his “job” in addition to his relationship with the heroine. Heyer, on the other hand, doesn’t let up on the focus on the hero and heroine and their relationship. Outside events influence Beverley’s characters just as they influence external events. Heyer’s characters focus on influencing outside events by and large. And yet, in every instance of the story, the reader is fully immersed in the society and culture of the time period.

Both Rothgar and Avon were clever, astute, indurate, yet always honorable men. They lived sumptuous lives and were actively engaged with their Georgian society. But the authors’ greatest achievement was to humanize them.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Heroes & Heartbreakers is No More

As Wendy Crutcher reported and the site editor Jenn Proffitt explained, the romance site Heroes & Heartbreakers by Macmillan Publishers will be closing its doors at the end of the year.

I am really sad to be losing that platform to express my views and find new reads. Some of the op-eds and articles on that site have been thoughtful and eye-opening, and I really hope, those writers find another platform, because it'd be sad to lose their voices in our collective known as Romancelandia.

I am not sure if Macmillan will leave that website up in perpetuity or the site will be taken down. Since I do not want to lose most of that content (some of the reviews are extremely dated), I will start reposting them on this blog once a week.

UPDATE: From Jenn Proffitt to all H & H writers: "Rights are reverted back to you as the copyright is with the original writer and H&H simply agrees to license the material. So you are free to repost it on your own blogs (and I strongly encourage you to do so) and yes, I at the very least would suggest backing it up."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My October Reading

After last month's prodigious reading, this month's was more modest, more in keeping with my usual reading speed.

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Imagine my delight when I found out that three of Heyer's short stories that were first published in the 1930s are finally being made available again for reading. The rest of the collection is what was in Pistols for Two. I love Heyer's books, and she's converted me over to liking romance in a short story format as well. A must read for a Regency Romance fan! My review is here.

The Rake and The Reformer by Mary Jo Putney
Lady Cat by Joan Overfield
Miss Lacey's Last Fling by Candice Hern
Category: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: This month's books included two lesser-known titles, however, Mary Jo Putney's book needs no introduction. Anyone who has been reading historical romance for years is well aware what a gem The Rake is. I have enjoyed many of Hern's and Overfield's books as well, so I wanted to bring them to the notice of newer readers. Within the bounds of Regency Romance, writers used to write riskier books in the olden days. My short reviews are here.

Hamilton's Battalion by Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, Alyssa Cole
Category: American Historical Romance Anthology
Comments: This is a complex set of stories very well-told. I loved the book very much. It had such heart, such sincere striving, and much clever writing. The binding narrative to the stories is Colonel Alexander Hamilton and the soldiers serving under him in 1781. Years later, around 1820, Mrs. Eliza Hamilton is collecting the reminiscences of the people who served under her husband in order to put together his biography. My review is here.

A Midnight Feast by Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Who doesn't get stars in their eyes at the thought of NASA? When I found out that this story is about an astronaut, I grabbed it without needing to know more. I went into the story cold with no information and loved it. The authors have done their research and used their considerable writing skills to craft a great story. One of my abiding interests in romance is how a couple negotiates their marriage, and this book is a second-chance love, where the marriage has soured over time, but the couple wants to make an effort to save it, because underneath all the angst and sorrow is love, and that love is very important to them. My review is here.

Artistic License by Elle Pierson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A soft, darling of a book about two social misfits who think the other is wonderful and perfect for them. The humor just jumps off the page precisely when Sophy is the one making those quips. It’s such a huge departure from her usual shyness around people that it’s a joy to see her step out of her shell and be so at ease with Mick that she can joke with him. He, in turn, thinks he's ugly and repulsive, but Sophy loves his looks and tells him so repeatedly. While he rescues her from danger, she provides emotional succor to him. Each is strong and courageous in their own way—and loyal. (Elle Pierson also writes as Lucy Parker whose sharp biting humor can become a hard-to-break habit.) My review is here.

Scandal and Miss Markham by Janice Preston
Category: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: The contrived setting of this road travel story, with a spot of cross-dressing, is off-putting, but is partially redeemed by engaging characters, who despite their ludicrous, ostensibly terrifically earnest endeavor, behave with decorum and maturity. Thea Markham is a glassmaker Cit's daughter who's been worrying in silence over her brother, Daniel's, absence. Her parents despise her and blame her for their financial misfortunes and her father's ill-health. Enter one Lord Vernon Beauchamp, a polished, booted, spurred peer of the realm, who is bored with the rarefied atmosphere of his life. He enthusiastically offers to help Thea find Daniel, and they embark on their ramshackle adventure, which has shades of Heyer's travel stories, but without its leavening humor.

Baabwaa & Wooliam by David Elliott, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Category: Children's Picture
Comments: I loved this book. While the story is very simple, the language is most certainly not. The humor passes over the head of the very young, but leaves the parent in stitches. And hilarious illustrations add to the enjoyment. Wooliam and Baabwaa are sheep. They are friends and live together. Wooliam loves reading and Baabwaa loves knitting. One day...

"I've been thinking," Wooliam said to Baabwaa.
"Thinking is good," Baabwaa answews. "Or so I've heard."
"We should have an adventure of our own."
"Agreed! There are only so many sweaters one sheep can knit."

And so they set off on a perfect day.

The sun was shining.
The birds were singing.
This last bit—about the birds—was especially good because adventures usually involve some kind of trouble, and it's nice to have a little birdsong to help you through it.

And two friends walk and walk and they run into a wily wolf in sheep's clothing, to whom they show such kindness that he relents and doesn't eat them. But just to keep his hand in it, he chases them around the pasture every day. Wooliam teaches the wolf to read, Baabwaa knits him winter clothes, and the wolf keeps the sheep trim with all his chasing.

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët
Category: Children's Picture
Comments: This is a gorgeously designed book with fabulous illustrations—such a wonderful landscape for Malala's story.

"Do you believe in magic?" Malala asks of the reader. Her younger self certainly did. On TV, she watched a show where a young boy uses his magic pencil to draw a bowl, which turns into a real bowl of curry to feed the homeless, and to draw a police officer to protect people who need help. He was a hero. And Malala would go to bed imagining what all she would do if she had a magic pencil. She would draw a soccer ball for her brothers, beautiful dresses for her mother, and school buildings for her father.

One day, she sees a small girl picking through garbage at the town dump. Malala runs home to her father very disturbed, and he tells her the truth about some girls in Pakistan not being allowed to go to school and also having to work to support their family.

School was my favorite place. But I had never considered myself lucky to be able to go.

That night she thinks about girls' futures in her part of the country, how they wouldn't be allowed to become what they dreamed of becoming. Even though her father had claimed, "Malala will live free as a bird", she knew her future would be like these girls. Then she dreams about how she would go about erasing this injustice and draw in a better, more peaceful world if only she had a magic pencil. And those thoughts lead into a solidification of what her duty for the future should be: She would speak for all the girls who couldn't speak for themselves.

One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. (Malala's famous speech at the United Nations General Assembly.)

In the afterword, Malala writes: "I hope that my story inspires you to find the magic in your own life and to always speak up for what you believe in. The magic is everywhere int he world—in knowledge, beauty, love, peace. The magic is in you, in your words, in your voice."

I cannot emphasize enough how lovely this book is—a keeper for your bookshelf.

The Land Beyond the Wall: an immigration story by Veronika Martenova Charles
Category: Children's Picture
Comments: This is a true story of the writer born behind the Iron Curtain who achieves her dream of living in the West and becoming an artist.

The story starts with how the world was divided by a BIG wall, where on one side it is dark and dreary with barren fields and towns and people are afraid of each other. Emma lives there. On the other side, the sun shines, the pastures are green, and children laugh and play. One day, when Emma comes home from school, she sees that her parents are listening in at the wall and enjoying what is happening on the other side. The next day, her parents are captured and Emma goes to live with her joyless aunt who makes her work, work, work.

"When I grow up," she dreamed, "I want to be an artist. Then I will paint the sky blue and flowers in all colors of the rainbow."

One night, in despair, she goes up to the attic to cry her loneliness and sorrow to the rafters. Suddenly, a doll speaks up in the barely-lit space and says that she used to be Emma's mother's and Emma can talk to her. One day, a strange ship helmed by a fantastically-dressed man sails into their harbor. And so begins Emma's courageous adventure, where she pins her hopes on achieving her dreams with the doll's constant encouraging companionship. As she travels to a distant but fabulous land, Emma has to learn everything from the ground-up, even learning to speak. This is beautiful and touching story of immigration and learning to find your footing in a new country.

Monday, October 2, 2017

My September Reading

I set about correcting my zero accounting of books for August with a vengeance this month. I read a whopping 19 books, which, for those who know me, is stupendous. I read at most 3-7 books—I would like to be reading more, but that's a number I can comfortably manage. Now if I were to read something difficult like Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, I would get nothing else read that month. Speaking of challenging books, I did manage to read ONE book from the Booker longlist.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Brilliant and harrowing. Whitehead's spare prose makes the story he relates stark and compelling. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her grandmother was kidnapped and brought to America from Africa. One day, Cora takes up a fellow slave's suggestion to use the Underground Railroad to make her escape North. What follows is a grotesque tale of escape and pursuit, hatred and violence, degradation and depravity, hope and despair. And through it all, you see Cora's indomitable spirit shinning through. According to Michiko Kakutani, "[The book] possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s." Through Whitehead's literal implementation of tunnels, stations, tracks, and trains, Cora is able to travel to different places along her journey through the history of race and slavery in America. I found this literary device so imaginative, because it provides a magical and relatable way for the reader to navigate history. This would have been impossible to do in a normal book. It was a difficult read, and I had to put it down and pick it up a lot, but I'm so glad I read it. It has won the National Book Award and the Pulizer Prize and has been longlisted for the Booker.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander
The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Category: General Fiction
Comments: My first Romance in Fiction column for Heroes and Heartbreakers comprises these three books. In each of them, the protagonists come from such disparate backgrounds that their love is a miracle. And yet, at no point do you doubt their sincerity to compromise and sacrifice to make it be forever. In Major Pettigrew, he's a Christian soldier of the British Raj born in Pakistan. She's a Pakistani Muslim born in England. They defy convention and tradition in a bid for happiness. In Sardinian Sky, she's a small village seamstress who's been nowhere. He's a world-traveled American soldier. And yet, they dare to love in the face of familial ostracization. In Wicked City, she's a party girl with a love of gin and laughter. He's a Prohibition officer involved in intrigues and closed off emotionally. They fall in love despite themselves. My short reviews are here.

Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith
The London Season by Joan Wolf
Knaves' Wager by Loretta Chase
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Three books make up my second Oldies and Goodies column for Happy Ever After. I have read and re-read these books so many times. I can't thank Amazon enough for making these books easily available in print and digital. Other than haunting used bookstores, I would've had no recourse. My short reviews are here.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: It is set in London of the 1920s, but could've easily been a contemporary story. In just ninety pages, Zen Cho builds a larger than life portrayal of Jade Yeo, her motivations and her shortcomings. The powerful message of this story is that love is accepting and love is kind. Even if you make a mistake, love does not judge you. Rather than beating readers over the head with this epiphany, the book illustrates it with wry humor and restrained emotion, thus making the revelation all the more impactful. My review is here.

Gideon and the Den of Thieves by Joanna Bourne
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: What can I say? It's a BOURNE! Joanna Bourne's fascinating; her books are riveting. I didn't read this novella when it was first published in the anthology Gambled Away before the publication of Beauty Like the Night, but recently, author Rose Lerner gifted me with a copy of the anthology. So far, this is the only story I've read, but I'm looking forward to the entire anthology. In this story, we get our first look at Hawker at his youngest—lethal even at twelve. This is when he was Lazarus's Hand. However, even then, we see glimpses of how Hawker was going to grow from a conscienceless killer into a man of justice for the greater good. It takes a great deal of skill to be able to convey a deep immersion into the characters and plot in the short format of a novella. It's a story not to be missed.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Pretty Face by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: ALI is one of my top romances of 2017, but both are wonderful: snappy dialog, wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, all of it so detailed and well-tuned. Parker's talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don't feel rushed or smoothened out. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There're no deus ex machine events that magically get characters out of the tight spots they put themselves in. I laughed and laughed as I re-read them; my husband laughed and laughed as he read them. We're very fond of Lucy Parker in our household, and we can't wait for Carina Press to drop the third book in the series. My review is here.

Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: First published in 2009, it will be re-released in October. (Can I fangirl for a moment? I have a rare signed copy! Ahem.) This is a Hathaway Sisters story featuring Pandora. I have liked every book of this series, but I especially like this one, because it is a simple story of trust, belief, and making do. Pandora wants a commonplace, gentle life in the countryside, yet she finds herself in a marriage to a driven man living in a hotel in London. How is she to reconcile her dreams with her reality? How is she to find love and forge a new beginning with what life has handed to her? How can this girl brought up in sunlight reconcile herself to life with a stranger used only to the darker side of life? My review is here.

Secret Lessons with the Rake by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a much-awaited book for me, after reading the first three in the Hadley's Hellions series. It's a story of the taming of the rake by a courtesan, aided by reforming and improving lessons on polite society by her. Mr. Christopher Lattimer is the titular son of Lord Vraux, but is largely believed to be begetted by one of his mother's legion of lovers. While mother and son have a fond relationship, his childhood experience of being cruelly taunted has led him to spurn his heritage by turning his attentions to the demimonde. It is there that he meets Ellie Parmenter. He's met her on and off for a number of years and has known her to be an aging peer's young mistress. Now that he's dead, she's free to start afresh with a vocational training school for girls with no other recourse than the streets. Now that Ellie has turned respectable, how is Christopher going to behave towards her? Both are equally aware that they desire each other greatly. But he's a rising Member of Parliament and needs to marry a respectable girl. She, too, wants to lead a virtuous life for her own self-respect. But their craving for each other is ever-present in their minds and hearts. Wonderful character build-up makes you root for their HEA and believe in it when it happens.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a DNF. Alas! I have never gotten the hype surrounding the book, and a re-read ten years after the first read, brought racism to light before my older, more discerning eyes. The constant references to the Marquess of Dain's dark looks (he's Caucasian but with a tanned skin and black hair and eyes) resulting in his being treated as a lesser being or even the devil's spawn was disturbing. Given that many of the Regency nobility were involved in the slave trade, this attitude was more than merely unpleasant. The book never calls it out to be so, merely implies that the others were being unjust to Dain. And somehow the way the story moves forward, Jessica saves him despite himself. I do realize that redemption of the hero by the heroine is often a theme in romance and can work very well, however, in this case, the racism combined with the white savior makes the story unpalatable. I know, I know. I'm aghast at my temerity in criticizing the great Loretta Chase. And I'm in the extreme minority here—people overwhelmingly love the story.

Billionaire Boss, M.D. by Olivia Gates
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: This was my first foray into the Harlequin Desire line, and I think I came up against the sub-genre conventions. Right off the bat, this billionaire being described as a world-class plastic surgeon and the founding member of a global juggernaut of a company was a bit of an eye-roll for me. How can one person do two such intensely time-consuming jobs? But, OK, I accepted that and moved on. Then came this description of him (easily discernable at first glance): a body suited to a world-class athlete, jaw-dropping assets, masterpiece of bone structure, leonine forehead, patrician nose, slashing cheekbones, powerful jaw, sculpted lips, amazing shape and startling blueness of the eyes of a scientist in which you could read many things (amusement, austerity, curiosity, superiority, astuteness, calculation), and on and on. I almost DNF'd the book there and then. But I thought that Ms. Gates comes across well-recommended, so I stolidly trudged on to the end. The book was certainly not my cuppa tea. In this short format, there were multiple love scenes and big emotional showdowns between the protagonists. I'm of the opinion "less is more" and this was a book where "more and more and more" was the norm. I do believe what I was up against was sub-genre conventions rather than Gates's writing style per se.

Her Kind of Doctor by Stella Bagwell
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I experimented with another category romance, a Harlequin Special Edition. This book started off really well. I enjoyed the work tension between the domineering ER doctor and his overworked, patiently suffering ER nurse. For three years, this was their professional life, until one day, she blows up and transfers out. Well, the book went downhill from there. On the turn of a dime, he transforms from a fierce lion into a tame cat. They start going out, she transfers back, and their work life together is never mentioned again. Emotionally, this book should've been a single-title, but it's compressed in this shorter format requiring leaps of emotional development to make the HEA work. But my biggest beef with the book came towards the end where instead of the two of them compromising and coming together, she gets exactly what she wants, while he sacrifices much on different fronts for her. From being a couple of equals, they descended to grovel upon grovel on his part. To me, their HEA was unbelievable at that point, because human nature being what it is, he would've resented her sooner or later. Again, I believe I was up against sub-genre conventions rather than Bagwell's writing style.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author and illustrator are very well-known for publishing stories from all over the world and in various countries, taking on subjects from various cultures. Gonzales's portfolio also includes 3 TED stages. This book is a celebration of multiculturalism and social harmony in lyrical beautiful writing. "Dear little one, ...know you are wondrous, A child of crescent moons, a builder of mosques, a descendant of brilliance, an ancestor in training." I've read Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, and Yo Soy reminds me of similar themes from that book, but this is better in its tender writing and gorgeous illustrations. There are questions this work will ask. What are you? And where are you from? And there will come a day when some people in the world will not smile at you." How many young children in our country have faced just this othering? How many have felt betrayed and ashamed? How many have tried to hide their heritage in a desperate effort to blend in? "Tell them this: Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time. I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams. Mi abuelo worked the fields. My ancestors did amazing things and so will I."

Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: We chuckled over this delightful Italian folktale. (Ever heard those deep belly laughs of the very young? Make my day so much sweeter.) "In a town of Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant 'Grandma Witch.'" And so begins a story, which involves potions, silly hotheaded young men, small village life where everyone is in everyone else's business, and a magic pasta pot. Whenever, Strega Nona sang a special ditty to the pot, the pot would bubble and boil and fill with steaming hot pasta. Another ditty (and three secret kisses) would subside the pot's production. Unfortunately, the man-of-all-work Big Anthony only heard the ditties. You can guess what happens next. One day, when Strega Nona was out, he called all the neighbors over and asked the clay pot to make everyone dinner. But the pot wouldn't stop making pasta, which soon filled the streets and upset the mayor and everyone called for Big Anthony's blood. Finally, Strega Nona had to come rescue him.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
Category: Children's Fiction
Comments: It's an iconic pre-teen book from the 1970s. To my daughter, who also read the book at my behest, the protagonist, Margaret, was childish, naïve, and immature. I have self-aware kids, and so Margaret's behavior was a turn-off for both my daughter and I. Margaret's self-absorbed and selfish and turns on her closest friend just as easily as the perceived "other" person. There are no manners corrections from the parents and she never apologizes. She may confess her wrongdoings to God in her conversations with Him, but that doesn't translate into her being thoughtful or remorseful enough to take corrective action. Kindness and empathy, if not innate, needs to be actively inculcated. I was also taken aback at how provincial this girl from The Big City is despite all the cultural exposure her grandmother gives her. On a positive note, her ongoing conversation with God is sweet—it is where she reveals her innermost feelings and fears. It is comforting for her to have someone with whom she can be completely honest and feel they're in her corner.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My July Reading

I have neglected my blog shamefully in the past few weeks. I had hoped to cover my accounting of my reading in July in my usual monthly post, but I didn't have a chance to get that post written. So I thought I would do a joint post for July and August.

Well, lo and behold, August brought with it a meltdown at my daughter's school and sending us scrambling to find an alternate school as well as participate in parent activism to shore up the school it could start on time. To cut a long story short, we succeeded very well. The school opened its doors a week late but with a strong teacher presence. The students are back in school, the administration is trucking along, etc. etc.

However, in all of this, my reading suffered. I got not a single book read in August. Not a one. I can't remember the last time this has ever happened. Not a day goes by when I have not read a book; not a week goes by when I have not finished a book. And yet, here, a whole month went by with nary a page read. So I come to you with only the short list of books that I read in July.

The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes
Category: General Fiction
Comments: Sarah is a fourteen-year-old girl living in one of the projects of London with her grandfather, Henri. Boo is her horse, whom she loves with every particle of her being. Henri is training Sarah to become one of the écuyers of Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, and this involves intense concentration and unrelenting perfectionism for both Boo and Sarah. In the meantime, Natasha Macauley is a solicitor-advocate, speaking up for the rights of children, whether they are teenagers seeking asylum, young hoodlums, or little children caught in the middle of acrimonious divorces. Her career, by its very nature and by her own ambitions, is all-consuming, leaving very little time for her husband, Max. How Natasha and Max resolve their differences and how Sarah's path crosses theirs is a story written with great finesse. I love Moyes's work—her storytelling and writing style really speaks to me. My review is here.

Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Jo is a delight, online and offline. I enjoyed talking to her about her writing—her replies are so refreshingly honest, modest, and funny. And her books floor me every time I pick a new one up. I would rate every one of them among my most prized collection. While Black Hawk remains my most favorite, Beauty Like the Night, has a new fan. Comte Raoul Deverney is a vintner and a sometimes jewel thief, while Séverine de Cabrillac is a French aristocratic ex-spy and now a private detective in Regency London. Deverney hires Sévie, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, his former wife's daughter, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Together, they search for Pilar with growing urgency while Sévie's past rises up to engulf her. My review & interview are here.

Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Wychwood-on-Lea is a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, is insecure and barely surviving and definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea. Along with her 11-year-old daughter, she has decided to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds, away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents. Ellie's new boss, Dr. Oliver Venables, is a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other. I saw "Oxford" and "village" in the book description and I bought the book, and I was delightfully rewarded. My review is here.

The Nearness of You by Dorothy Garlock
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Comments: I simply can't recommend this book. It had such promise: a hard-bitten photographer who travels to the world’s hotspots in pursuit of newsworthy photographs, is swept away by a small-town gal who’s seen nothing of the world. Despite that interesting start, the story falters almost immediately, brought low by overwriting and clichés. My review is here.

Lord Carew's Bride by Mary Balogh
Emily and the Dark Angel by Jo Beverley
All Through the Night by Connie Brockway
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is my first column covering three traditional Regency historical romances for Happy Ever After. All three of them I have read and re-read many times and consider them as among the top keepers of my collection. My brief reviews are here.

The 5 Misfits by Beatrice Alemagna
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a story about five creatures who have something wrong with them and don't fit in society at large. Then along comes this perfect being who asks them what are they doing in their house. And they say nothing, because they mess everything up. The Perfect One then tells them that they need to "find a purpose, a plan, an idea! You are good for nothing. You are real nobodies", says and punctures their already-low self esteem. But in discussing themselves further with him, each of the misfits discovers their good qualities: one doesn't get upset, one always has happy thoughts, and so on and so forth. Then they realize, they're great all by themselves and they do not need the Perfect One. This is a book for preschoolers but displays the difference between British and American style of writing with its sophistication of language.

I am a Unicorn by Michaela Schuett
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Why be a frog when you can be a unicorn? Well, that is what this one green frog thought. He stuck a horn on his forehead and a bunch of sparkly foil strings on his butt and called himself a unicorn. But his friend the goat was not impressed. Frog tries to convince Goat of all the ways he is a true unicorn by displaying all that he can do, including: "I eat flowers and toot rainbows." After a lot of frustrated haranguing, Goat convinces Frog that all he had was a good unicorn costume, Frog's can of Magical Unicorn Sprinkles burst open and transforms the green frog into a bonafide purple unicorn. He may still say "Ribbit," but he has a genuine horn and swish his genuine tail to the fascinated horror of Goat. Dreams do come true if you believe in them hard enough. This book is meant for the very young; preschoolers remain unimpressed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No More #TBRChallenge Posts from Me for 2017

I'm sorry to be writing that I won't be participating in the 2017 TBR Reading Challenge any more this year. I have too much reading to do for the commitments I have recently made, as a result, I can't fit any more books in. I'm really sad to withdraw from the challenge that I've been participating in for a few years now. Hopefully, I'll have a better handle on my commitments in 2018 and can resume the challenge then. In the meantime, I will continue to read everyone's posts like I always do every third Wednesday of the month.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some News...

I'm branching out a bit in my writing. In addition to continuing to review for All About Romance, I will be writing a column for USA TODAY's Happy Ever After and two columns for Macmillan Publishing's Heroes and Heartbreakers. So do watch out for me in those spaces as well. I love writing for All About Romance, and now I get to share my love of books in two more places!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Meet Me at Willoughby Close
Author: Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Small-Town Light British Romance
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Series Catch-Up

I cheated with this book. It met the theme of the month but not the spirit of the challenge. The book spent one week on my TBR.

Last year, I read Hewitt's A Cotswold Christmas that sets up Wychwood-on-Lea, a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, in Meet Me at Willoughby Close , we meet Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, insecure and barely surviving, definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea.

Ellie is a divorced, single mom of a pre-teen who decides to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds. She wants to move away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents, who've always been so very helpful in her times of difficulty but have also been so disappointed with her life choices. Ellie has been cowed by them.

Ellie's 11-year-old daughter Abby has been bullied for three years in her primary school in Manchester, which has had a deleterious effect on her personality and body language. Ellie hopes that Oxfordshire will prove to be a fresh start for Abby also, helping to restore her self-confidence and optimism.

Their beginning is inauspicious. Abby continues to shy away from being friendly with the kids in her new school and they, in turn, leave her alone. However, Abby forms an unprecedented bond with the elderly Lady Stokeley of Wychwood Manor, their landlord, which turns her life around and brings her out of her shell. The two understand each other in a way that is unfathomable to Ellie, who feels uncomfortable and unwelcome in Lady Stokeley's presence.

In the meantime, Ellie has met her boss Dr. Oliver Venables, a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other.

Nothing much happens between them in the first half of the book, which is devoted to the setting up of their respective storylines. Their paths begin to converge more and more past the halfway mark.

I will admit, I spent the first half of the book hating it. I couldn't stand Ellie and thought her whiny and ungrateful. I'm a huge fan of competency: either inherent or learned. Ellie has neither. She doesn't try hard enough and feels entitled that things should go swimmingly for her all the time. Her ingratitude towards her family, who bailed her out multiple times despite her own bad choices, is a testament to her lack of appropriate recognition of it.

However, once Oliver's and her relationship starts developing, Ellie matures, and her growth arc then makes her more responsible and compassionate. I started liking the story thence—however, I never quite got over my initial dislike—Oliver's proficiency has a tempering effect on her, and she has to rise up to meet his level and it's to her benefit. Hewitt has done an excellent job of showing this character growth.

Hewitt's light touch with humor is well-done. So if you like the English village setting and a humorous bent to the story, this may be for you.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Black Angel by Barbara Samuel

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Black Angel
Author: Barbara Samuel
Category: Georgian Romance with the Marriage of Convenience trope
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Favorite Trope

My most enlightening moment while reading The Black Angel was when Samuel showed that a person can have two good sexual relationships in their lifetime. The first one doesn't have to be bad in order for the second one to be good. What an empowering sex-positive outlook in a book written in 1999! I wish more modern-day historicals would emulate this point of view.

It is true that the first man did turn out to be a cad at the end of the relationship by publicly spurning her and shaming her in front of her peers, but while their relationship was going strong, it was a satisfying intimate connection. Malvern was not abusive or stingy with sexual favors, and Adriana enjoyed herself fully, while not becoming too involved emotionally with him.

Five years ago, Adriana St. Ives, daughter of the Earl of Albury, decided to take Lord Malvern, Baron of Wye and bastard son of the King's brother's mistress, as her lover. Having just returned from Martinique for her first season in the Georgian court of the 1780s, Adriana was ardently pursued by Malvern. She resisted for many months, but finally gave in. She was well aware that Malvern did not offer marriage, only carte blanche, but she accepted anyway. She was heedless of the harm to her reputation and to that of her father and siblings. Friend and acquaintances labeled her as headstrong and selfish.

However, Malvern's bad behavior at the end of their relationship caused Adriana's oldest brother, Julian, to call him out, and the resulting duel ended in Malvern's death and Julian and his brother Gabriel's being labeled as outcasts and banished from England's shores. Adriana's father died heartbroken, his daughter's reputation in tatters and his sons languishing in foreign lands.

Fast forward five years, and penury leads Adriana to accept the suit of Tynan Spenser, the wealthy Earl of Glencove from Ireland. In return for her political influence, he would provide the estate with the cash infusion it sorely needs.

Their wedding day is the first time either of them claps eyes on each other and while Adriana is dazzled by Tynan' beauty, Tynan is disappointed by her lack thereof. Adriana is determined to resist her desire for Tynan, ever mindful of her weakness for the sensual arts. For five years, she's buried herself in the country and kept herself inviolate from storming emotions. Tynan tears her safe world apart by compelling her to come alive again.

The day after the wedding, Julian and Gabriel charge up to the estate from their exile in an attempt to save Adriana from her marriage, only to realize that it's too late. Julian's presence back in England makes him vulnerable again to the scandal of the duel. Malvern's mother, mistress to many in the House of Lords, refuses to let the scandal die. Through her influence, many are determined to make an example of the young earl in outlawing dueling, and Julian is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Julian's incarceration and impending trial is the background on which Adriana's and Tynan's romance unfolds.

I must draw attention to the multicultural cast of characters here. Adriana's father's mistress in Martinique is a freed slave from whom he has two children. What is unusual is that Lord Albury raises these children in Martinique along with the three children from his deceased wife. And he brings his multicultural family back to live in England in a society full of prejudice. I loved Albury for bringing his children up as equals and I loved that the children all love each other equally. (I so wish Samuel would've written all of their stories, so we could see what Georgian society looked like from their eyes and how they managed to make their way in life.)

I had a few issues with some of the motivations in the story.

The whole, buying a seat in the English Parliament to influence the Irish Protestants to be kinder to the Irish Catholics, idea seems far-fetched and misguided. It is the main driving force of Tynan's story in the book and it's a thin pretext to bring him to England. It is true that he admits as much towards the end, but for a supposedly intelligent, level-headed man, he should've never thought this a viable plan. Also inexplicable is how a beleaguered Adriana tarnished by her scandal can provide the political capital that will allow Tynan to buy the parliamentary seat.

The influence Adriana's father wielded over young Tynan seems rather tenuous and incomprehensible. Why would the Earl of Albury choose a young Irish earl as a consort for his eldest daughter? Samuuel explains how the two corresponded and built up a mentor-mentee relationship, but how did this get started in the first place? After all, Albury spent years in Martinique and then was submerged in the scandal perpetuated by Adriana.

The end was rushed given how important it is to Tynan. Somehow, Adriana's life choices and challenges take up so much real estate in the story, that Tynan's are only worried over at the edges of the story. It is true that Julian's life is at stake, but so are the lives of dozens of Catholic men and women on Tynan's estates and surrounding villages in Ireland. Surely, his thoughts and actions should've been aimed more there than with saving Adriana's reputation and her brother's life.

And yet, despite the issues mentioned above, I read this book with the enjoyment and appreciation that comes from reading a complex tale by a great author. Samuel does not shy away from the tricky emotional and moral decisions her characters need to make at different points in the story. None of her characters are required to be likeable at all points in the story. It is okay for the characters to be people, by degrees unaccountable, impenetrable, and foolish, while also displaying uncommon bravery and goodness. Ambiguity is not a negative. Samuel simply asks the reader to have faith in her ability to show her main characters growing into people with integrity and grit and maturity even if the growth is not a smooth curve.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Interview with Vassiliki Veros

The ever amazing and fellow romance and children's books enthusiast, Vassiliki Veros, did a fun interview of me for her blog Shallowreader: barely scratching the surface. Here's the transcript.