Tuesday, January 23, 2018

What Are Morning Pages?

I first posted this piece on Jan 26, 2016. But it bears repeating. I have found this writing practice to be an integral part of my life, and I want to share how wonderful it is so that maybe it could be a part of your life.


A few of us have been reporting in on Twitter every day after we've written our Morning Pages. There is camaraderie and accountability in doing so. This has spurred some interest in others to likewise do them and the question came up: What, after all, are these Morning Pages?

So I turned to their creator Julia Cameron and her book The Artist's Way where she talks about them.

Morning Pages are handwritten pages of approximately 750 words written strictly in a stream-of-consciousness style in the morning as close to waking up as possible.

There's no wrong way to do the Pages. These scratchings aren't meant to be art or writing even. They're not supposed to sound smart or clever. Doing Pages is the mere act of moving a pen across a page and writing whatever comes to mind, be it petty, silly, whiny, weird, self-pitying, fragmented, negative, babyish, angry, or.... No one other than you will ever know what you've written within the pages of your notebook. MC Richards says, "Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance." So you keep doing your Pages no matter what you write in your book.

We have all internalized this perfectionist, which Cameron calls the Censor, who critics our every move in life. Well, the Censor is there to criticize your Pages as well. So Cameron says, "By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor. Because there is no wrong way to write the Morning Pages, the Censor's opinion doesn't count."

If you want to do the Pages, you have to commit to doing them faithfully. You have to be all-in. The Pages are non-negotiable. Do not try to skimp or skip writing them. Whether or not you're in the mood is irrelevant. The Pages have to be written, and in so doing, you will learn that you can write whether you're angry, upset, sorrowful, depressed, ecstatic, tired, or downright bored. Write about your emotions. And if you have nothing to say, write "I can't think of anything to write about today" till you've filled three pages or 750 words. You will find that within a few lines of this, your creative mind will kick in and you'll be writing about something other than being unable to write.

In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg gives this insight about her writing: "This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don't want to run and you resist every step of the way, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don't wait around for inspiration. It'll never happen. If you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it."

Another way to look at this: The Pages are like meditation. Pish-posh, you say. How can writing about the mundane be spiritual? They're a valid form of meditation because "they give us insight and help us effect change in our lives," according to Cameron. "The Pages are a pathway to a strong and clear sense of self." You come at the Pages from a negative standpoint and in writing your heart out, a solution may present itself or a coping mechanism. Chekhov advised, "If you want to work on your art, work on your life." To which, Cameron says, "In order to have self-expression, you must have a self to express." Writing as a meditative practice will help you find your self.

You've been nodding along, agreeing with everything that I've written, but you ask: What if I am not a writer? Well, you don't have to be one. You can be a lawyer, a dancer, a painter, what-have-you. Picasso famously said, "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary." In fact, it's writers who have the hardest time with these Pages, because they attempt to write them instead of merely doing them. There's a difference. The former has an agenda, the latter is a free-form exercise where you let it all hang out. As a result of doing these Pages, what you will discover is that this free and expansive aspect of your personality that you've cultivated on the Pages will come out in other areas of your life.

So if daily Morning Pages sounds like something you'd be interested in doing, join me in Paging. Tweet me every morning and let me know you've Paged.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

All the Books I Read in 2017

I may be a tad obsessive about my reading. Not only do I love reading books, I love recording what I have read. And this is not a mere handwritten record. It's a full-featured spreadsheet with all kinds of data. Here are the links to all the books I read in 2017. Lists 1-6 are pieces of one chronological list of 105 books from my Excel Reading Spreadsheet. Click on each image to embiggen to read it.

List One

List Two

List Three

List Four

List Five

List Six

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Being Schooled on What I Should Be Reading

There was a recent discussion on Twitter about romance genre readers being schooled by authors and reviewers/readers on what readers should read. To which, I add, readers are also being schooled on how they should react to what they're reading. Instead of expanding, our world of romance is contracting. What those voices in Romancelandia slamming and shaming readers are failing to recognize is that reading tastes vary. And that is okay. No one has to like All Things. And that is okay.

My absolute favorite sub-genre in romance is traditional Regencies, which are completely monochromatic. My other sub-genre loves are primarily historicals and some contemporaries, and therein, I enjoy reading stories by #ownvoices authors about #ownvoices characters, in addition, to authors and characters of the dominant culture. However, I refuse to bow to the dictates by reading paranormal, urban fantasy, sci-fi, and erotic romance among other sub-genres—they are just not interesting to me.

In a bid to expanding my horizons and experiencing different worlds and points-of-view, I am trying to diversify my reading in different avenues. Where adult general fiction goes, and especially children's picture books go, I am eager to experiment with ideas and cultures widely divergent from my lived experience. As my Best Books list for All About Romance shows, my romance reading is fairly monochromatic, but as my Overall Best Books list for my blog shows, I'm more apt to be exploratory with general adult fiction and children's fiction.

Diversity to me means books by #ownvoices authors about #ownvoices characters, but it also means male authors since I primarily read women. If I don't seek out poetry, I would ignore it, and that would be a loss. Every time, I read a philosophical text or a biography, I come away with ideas I hadn't conceived of before, and despite knowing this, if I didn't make a special effort, I wouldn't pick these books up. Glitterland by Alexis Hall was an emotionally tough read, and I had to persevere with not giving up partway through, but at the end, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to read it. If I followed my inclination, I would only read romance, so I plan out my reading months in advance to be sure to include books that are in common parlance, but not something I would normally pick up.

There is no one definition of diversity, since it is subjective. Each reader has their own notion of what it means to them based on their own prism of awareness. Diversity then broadly means that readers are willing to be uncomfortable in their reading choices so as to experience disparate ideas.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Best Books of 2017

When I first put this list together, it was twice as long, and I was unwilling to prune it. "I love this," I thought as I went down the list. But my goal was set—eleven in the main list and one best of best, an even dozen—so I had to strike books off, one painful entry after another. Eventually though, what has emerged is a true picture of the books I loved best and which will stay with me long after this year has been put to bed.

A caveat: All these books were not published in 2017, but I read them in 2017, hence their presence on the list.

Another caveat: For All About Romance, I wrote up my best romances and romantic fiction, all of them published in 2017, some of which are in the below list as well.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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. 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 numerous prizes this year: the National Book Award, the Pulizer Prize, and the Booker longlist.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

This is such a charming book about Queen Elizabeth II and the subversive power of reading. Alan Bennett is one of England's foremost writers, and while this short novel is a departure from his usual fare of plays, he certainly has the flair for quiet, amusing, and sharply observant tales. One fine morning, out in one of the yards of Buckingham Palace, the Queen found the City of Westminster traveling library. When the startled librarian-driver asks her, "What does Your Majesty like?", the Queen is at a loss since she'd never before taken much interest in reading. Reading to her was a passive activity, and she was a doer. She assiduously devoted herself to all her duties of a monarch. But she borrows a book, nevertheless, and that starts her off on an adventure that has far-reaching consequences for herself, personally, and for her public duties. I loved this book so much!

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

Set in the waning days of the British Empire in Kenya, it's a tale of great sophistication and nuance. I read this book thrice this year, every time teasing out more of that emotional layering that McVeigh is so skillful at creating. At heart is the forbidden relationship between a white English girl and a black Kenyan. But having grown up together on that farm since childhood, the two protagonists cannot imagine a different life for themselves, yet political forces like the Mau Mau are creating rifts between the indigenous peoples and European settlers. The heroine also has to contend with how her late teen years spent in England, the death of her mother, and her father's new family have irrevocably changed her. It was fascinating watching the protagonists try to capture their past relationship and try to overcome the socio-political struggles to transform it into a mature relationship of permanence.

The Horse Dancer by JoJo Moyes

Moyes's writing really speaks to me, and I’m engrossed in her stories from the first paragraph. They’re visceral, descriptive, and tangible. Her prose is lean and direct, with no recourse to metaphors or flowery language, thus making it accessible and relatable. This book is a story of awesome responsibility and awful choices. The protagonist has an all-consuming, perfectionistic connection with her horse. When one trains with a Selle Français horse at the level of admittance to Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, excellence is a given and so is devoting every atom of one’s body and mind towards that excellence. She has no time for emotions, rules, duties, academics, or people other than her grandfather. This is the driving force behind this book.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

The author and illustrator of this children's picture book are very well-known for publishing stories from all over the world and in various countries, taking on subjects from various cultures. This particular 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 Muslim 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." What beautiful words to empower your child with. What encouraging thoughts to equip your child with as they journey through this rough jungle of a world we find ourselves in.

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

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. 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. 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.

We're the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid

These are twenty-six of President Obama's greatest speeches and cover his two inaugurals, the first election night speech, after Sandy Hook, at the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, among others. As I read through the collection, I was reminded again what a thoughtful, compassionate, articulate, erudite person he is. He knew how to read people and negotiate emotions adroitly, whether in a church or at the United Nations, whether stumping in a small town or speaking in front of cheering crowds in Europe. I feel privileged to have borne witness to his presidency; may I have the privilege of seeing him in person before I shake off this mortal coil.

Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne

Bourne is currently my favorite historical romance writer. I, not, only love her books, but I also enjoy her online presence on Twitter and when I interviewed her earlier this year. Her writing, so delicately nuanced like a finely-honed, well-balanced blade, has captured my imagination like no other romance ever has. How does she envisage such intricacy of emotion and personality for her characters, such complexity of plot, and above all, such precision in language? Comte Raoul Deverney, a vintner and a sometimes jewel thief, hires Séverine de Cabrillac, an ex-spy and a private detective, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, the daughter of his former wife, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Along the way, they're assisted by Lazarus's feral children as they fight to stay ahead of Sévie's enemies from her spying days. Their romance is one of shifting shadows, at once, a chimera and a force to be reckoned with.

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase

Chase has written a few books that fall in my "favorite books of all time" list and have brought me hours of reading and re-reading pleasure. This book is the newest addition. How I loved this story. The hero is part of the laboring classes despite being the grandson of a duke; to wit, he is a barrister prosecuting criminals even as he mingles with them to prepare his cases. Lady Clara Fairfax is a diamond of the first water, being feted by the ton and regularly proposed to by her beaus. In other words, she is bored, so she volunteers at a home for the indigent. Put two bright, intelligent, "with it" people together, stir in some antagonism and reserve, and watch the mixture bubble and hiss and spit articulately and humorously. Chase uses language so sparingly and purposefully, it makes the lean ripostes crackle with wit and pointed observations.

A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran

I consider Meredith Duran one of the finest historical romance authors writing today. Given any storyline or any romance trope, she makes it fresh and new and interesting. The characters’ reactions are never commonplace, the plots are never tired and predictable, and the writing is always to the point and yet lovely at the same time. This book features an amnesia trope that is handled so well. It's a political Victorian story involving a Member of Parliament, a woman raised in a political family, and a mystery they must unravel else their lives are at stake. At heart, this is a story of trust: Can a woman trust her instincts when it comes to the most important person in her life -- her husband? The book is a fascinating study in how fragile and malleable trust is and how easily it can be abused or even bruised.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas

At long last, we get to see St. Vincent from Kleypas's famous book Devil in Winter in print again. This time, he's the duke and his son, Gabriel, is St. Vincent. With this book, it feels like Kleypas has returned to her historical roots. She's found her feet again, and her voice is assured, her comedic wit balanced, and her characters tender and big-hearted. Despite various naysayers, I liked the heroine and how, with her imperfections, she's such a perfect foil for the glossy urbane hero. I enjoyed seeing how she struggles to assert herself and her rights as an entrepreneur in a Victorian society where a woman becomes the property of her husband after marriage and anything and everything she owns becomes his by right. What stood out for me is how much he respects her business acumen and innovation in the face of her other bumbling qualities and works to resolve her business issues and workaround the day's existing laws.


Act Like It by Lucy Parker

This contemporary romance is my best book of the year. I re-read it a couple of times, and every time, I laughed and laughed till my sides hurt. Seeing this, my husband wanted to read it, too, and he laughed through the entire book as well. What a fabulous book: snappy dialog, biting wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, and 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. The book has a breezy irreverent tone to it that belies the serious nature of the choices the characters have to make. Actress Lainie Graham has a lead role in a play running at the Metronome Theatre in London. The other leading man, Richard Troy, comes from wealth and the upper classes and has an overly-developed sense of self-importance to go with it. His temper tantrums and bad behavior have been affecting his public image and starting to affect the box office, so his publicist and the director ambush Lainey to convince her to commence a faux relationship with him so that her London's Sweetheart image will burnish his image. What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reading & Writing Goals 2018

Reading Goals

A new year means a fresh look at reading goals for the year. I really like doing this, because it sets an intention to my reading that I then try to live up to as the year goes on. It means that I do less meandering, less glomming, and instead do more directed reading.

This is not to say there're no on-the-spur-of-the-moment books inspired by recommendations from sources I trust. I'm forever fiddling with my spreadsheet moving stuff around to make room for new stuff, but directed reading allows me to also read some the books I've always said I wanted to read. Sometimes, these books have a tendency to get lost under the allure of the ooh-shiny-new.

As a result, I have already planned out my reading through August. I had to spreadsheet everything in order to get through the books I have for review with deadlines attached to them and reading the books that I have had on my list for a while.

I will continue to maintain my detailed Spreadsheet of Joy. See my 2016 book sheet here. Last year, I didn't do a detailed data analysis of my reading like in 2016, but I hope to do it this year for my 2017 books.

I maintain a catalog of all the books I own on Library Thing and was an early adopter and a life member. I will continue to add new books there, including ARCs, that I keep on my shelves. I have become rather choosy of which books I keep, after taking a hard look at my shelves last summer and donating nine (!!) boxes to my public library.

Hundreds upon hundreds of books still remain on my shelves. My home library houses all the nonfiction. The study upstairs houses all the adult fiction and children's books. I can't bear to cull the nonfiction, since many of them have been collected with care from around the world. I need to be more ruthless in culling my fiction, especially the books that I haven't read in years, and buy fewer books. I spent $170 on books last year, and I hope to spend less this year and read more from my TBR and the library.

(One thing that I have forgotten to do, and need to catch up on, is including all the eBooks I own on my Kindle. Since I don't have physical evidence of those books, I seem to have missed cataloguing them.)

Writing Goals

I'm going to continue reviewing romance fiction and general fiction with romantic subplots for All About Romance. I will also continue writing my monthly Oldies & Goodies romance column for USA Today's Happy Ever After. In addition, I'm going to be recommending one new historical romance every month in my column Romancing the Past.

My blogging has changed over the years from a primarily writerly and history blog, to a commentary on the publishing industry, to a reader blog these days. I will continue to write my monthly round-ups of my reading with brief reviews. I am happy that in 2017, I wrote short reviews of every single book I read, including children's picture books. In addition to these round-ups this year, every month, I will be re-publishing one of my pieces that I wrote for Macmillan's Heroes & Heartbreakers over the years.

On a personal note, I plan on continuing to handwrite my dawn Morning Pages along with my Canadian friend Angela Reynolds. I enjoy the meditative aspects of the writing habit, which also gives me the opportunity to indulge in my obsession with fountain pens and inks and fine papers.

One of the mainstays of my past few years has been the maintenance of an online Gratitude Journal on Live Journal—I must be the last hold-out of a life membership there. Every day, I write down at least one good thing that has happened to me that day. As the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate the fact that every single day, no matter how bad, holds at least one minute moment of joy. Of course, on some days, I have nothing to say other that "it was a quotidian day," and that is okay, too. A routine day is a neutral day, one that isn't a bad day.

And so on to 2018...and a year of joy, angst (hello! politics!), sorrow, and happiness...and many wonderful books and writing opportunities.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year!

Wishing you, dear readers, a very happy new year! May this year bring you peace and joy and many successes. I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for continuing to read my blog. Blog readership has been going down everywhere, and while my blog is a very small one, my readership numbers have grown this past year. I appreciate you making the time out of your busy lives to read about my bookish adventures.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My December Reading

These days, it is rare for me to venture forth with new-to-me authors, and this month I did it with two: Kelly Bowen and Sonali Dev, and I loved both their books. Bowen writes historicals and Dev contemporaries. Bowen's story is set in Regency England, whereas Dev's story is set in Mumbai, India. Two very different kinds of stories, but with wonderful writing apiece.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This is such a charming book about Queen Elizabeth II and the subversive power of reading. Alan Bennett is one of England's foremost writers, and while this short novel is a departure from his usual fare of plays, he certainly has the flair for quiet, amusing, and sharply observant tales. One fine morning, out in one of the yards of Buckingham Palace, the Queen found the City of Westminster traveling library. When the startled librarian-driver asks her, "What does Your Majesty like?", the Queen is at a loss since she'd never before taken much interest in reading. Reading to her was a passive activity, and she was a doer. She assiduously devoted herself to all her duties of a monarch. But she borrows a book, nevertheless, and that starts her off on an adventure that has far-reaching consequences for herself, personally, and for her public duties. I loved this book so much! Go forth and read it! My review is here.

Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly
Ravished by Amanda Quick
The Duke's Wager by Edith Layton
Category: Regency and Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: These three stories are hero's journeys where from the depths of despair, it takes them tremendous courage to overcome their circumstances and vulnerabilities to grasp happiness with the heroines of their choice. My brief reviews are here.

The British Knight by Louise Bay
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Thanks to a wonderful friend, I received this book as a gift. She loved it, as did I. However, at the beginning I was doubtful where it was going, primarily because of the heroine's characterization. She, of the summa cum laude degree from MIT, is waitressing instead of pursuing a high-flung career. The story is that her college boyfriend cheated on her intimately and also stole their startup business from her. So what does this bright young lady do? She has short-term sex-only relationships and waits tables. I'm sure I sound like an elitist snob when I say, really? A computer sciences degree from MIT leads to that? But there you have it—I could not buy that someone would throw away that fabulous chance at a good life away.

So now you're thinking, wait a minute, Keira, you said you loved it. And I did. And the reason is that once Violet King moves to London, she changes completely. Leaving her old life behind breathes new life into her priorities and her outlook to her future. Watching this transformation as she starts on a path to realizing her potential was simply wonderful. While this is a romance, most definitely, the heroine's journey is the most rewarding aspect of the story. The romance between a grumpy workaholic barrister and this woke woman is tender, considerate, and confidence-boosting to both. They are so good together and so good for each other. There's hot sexual tension but there's also a kindliness between them, which makes for a sigh-worthy read.

The Lady in Red by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was my first Bowen book, and I fell in love from the get-go, and the feeling did not lessen as the story progressed. With one novella, this author has become an auto-buy for me. Lady Charlotte Beaumont is a painter with immense talent who is almost completely self-taught. She's grown up in seclusion, and there was no one to stop her from painting in vivid oils, in a time, when ladies only painted insipid watercolors. Charlotte has arrived at a point in her life where she's determined to carve out her own destiny and to follow her one dream.

So with the help of well-placed people, she becomes Charlie Beaumont, a youthful painter, who is installed as the assistant to the great painter Flynn Rutledge for the monumental task of painting the ceiling of a well-established cathedral. There are no coy hints from the author that the hero really knows that the heroine is a woman. Instead, we have Flynn and Charlie developing a fast friendship, where each becomes the other's champion, each shoring up the others' low esteem, and each showing that they believe in and trust the other. And out of this powerful friendship comes an astonishing love. A book not to be missed.

(I really want Bowen to write a story of King, the mysterious wealthy (gentle?)man, who's a powerful shadowy figure in the story.)

A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is my first romance story set in India and my first by Dev, and I was charmed—charmed by the writing and charmed by the protagonists. In Rahul's POV: Earlier that morning, Kimi had sent him a test message saying: We need to talk—those four words had never in the history of humankind ever led to anything good. This is a modern-day retelling of Rapunzel, a friends-to-lovers romance, and the setting suits the story very well. There's even a true Bollywood gangster endangering the heroine's life. Can you tell, I loved the story? My review is here.

Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Khepri lives in the Egyptian New Kingdom c. 1550-1070 BCE, when the famous pyramids at Giza were already more than a thousand years old. One day in the cold light of dawn, before my Lord Sun, the scarab Khepri, his namesake, starts sailing his barge across the sky, Khepri's father takes Khepri away from all he knows. Silently down the Nile river, redolent with the smells of fish, rope, and mud, the father poles his son across to the great town of Thebes.

Then my father clasps me to himself
and lets me go
and turns and makes his way
down the crowded street,
back to the river and home,

Khepri is moving into the next phase of his life, leaving his carefree childhood behind to become a scholar and a scribe. As he stands outside the courtyard of his new school listening to the boys inside laughing and reciting their studies, he is hit with nostalgia for the feel of the net and weight of a good catch of fish. It is a touching story that brought tears to my eyes at the thought of this young boy, forging his own destiny, alone. But this is how we all are at the cusp of new beginnings, before we make new connections with strangers.

A World of Cookies for Santa by M.E. Furman, illustrated by Susan Gal
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a multicultural, informative book that is utterly festive and delightful! As Santa goes around the world in the dark of the night, he gets to eat yummy goodies in different households across the world. He starts off in Kiritimati, AKA Christmas Island, in the Pacific, which is the first place in the world to welcome Christmas Day. He's welcomed there with sweet, chewy coconut macaroons. From there he heads over to New Zealand and Anzac biscuits.

He travels from there to Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Malwawi, Bethlehem, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, Norway, France, Spain, Great Britain, Ireland, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, United States, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii.

He travels by sleigh, donkey, and foot. He comes down chimneys, through doors, and through windows. Some children leave hay and carrots for his reindeer and other animals who help him. Some children have stockings, and others, shoes. Sometimes, he gets milk, other times, beer and wine. But above all, he is beloved. (The back of the book has recipes of many of the treats.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

In my wanderings through different neighborhoods searching for creative Christmas decorations and lights, I came across this one that I just had to share on my blog.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Why Are Medievals Less Popular Than Regencies?

This post was first published on Heroes & Heartbreakers on April 19, 2011. It is archived here. I have posted my original piece unchanged despite my views having undergone a change in the past eight years. This was a controversial post and the comment section shows a vigorous discussion — read the archive.


I adore medievals. I read them. I write them. I consume them.

And yet, the honest part of me admits that there are reasons why medievals are not as popular with readers as Regency-set historicals.

Thesaurus.com says that the synonyms for le bon ton, the Regency nobility, are: civility, correctitude, restraint, decency, decorum, good breeding, orderliness, properness, rightness, seemliness, fashionable, high life, and smart set.

If I were to likewise write the synonyms for the medieval period, they would be: honor, loyalty, tradition, fierceness, oaths, fealty, passion, valor, battle prowess, strife, God, and kingmaking.

Life in medieval times was brutally short. Men and women, even the knights and the nobility, grew up fast and lived hard, swift, intense lives. In that short time, they managed to eke out a long life’s worth of living. All life revolved around warriors and battles, even after the widespread advent of the chivalric code.

Life in the Regency for the nobility, on the other hand, was relatively cushier and sheltered. As a result, life was slower-paced and there was much time for revelry and enjoyment. Of course, wars still happened, battles lost, lives maimed. But the society at large went about without much impact.

In Regency stories, it’s possible to avoid any mention of wars, weapons, and the fallout from battles. It is nearly impossible to write a medieval story without those three elements. For example, in Just One of Those Flings by Candice Hern set in 1813, there’s barely any mention of the Napoleonic wars or the activities of the East India Company.

The settled nature of lives in the Regency means that the authors have more time to explore the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and witty repartée. Given the restricted societal rules, the Regency hero and heroine had to become masters of subtlety. Much was conveyed in a single look. For example, in Pride And Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy walks down the center aisle at the Assembly Rooms of Meryton, in one quick glance, that he just as quickly corrects, he notices Lizzy Bennet and she him, and their mutual interest in each other is born.

The Middle Ages, on the other hand, was a freer time for men and women. There were fewer restrictions and rules on what they should do and what they couldn’t do. For example, in One Knight Only by Julia Latham, it was acceptable for a knight to pull a lady onto his lap in the midst of the revelry following the tournament. He might get his throat cut, but he wouldn’t be forced to marry her; her reputation likewise would remain intact.

Whereas the Regency hero was concerned with being decorous and seemly, the medieval hero was brimming over with life. The Regency hero needed to overcome his restraint in order to demonstrate his passionate side to the heroine, while the medieval hero had to temper his passionate side to show tenderness towards  the heroine.

Royalty did not hold their nobles’ lives hostage in the Regency, whereas fealty to the liege lord controlled all actions in the Dark Ages. The kings had vast powers and used them, sometimes indiscriminately. As a result, the king is an essential character in most medieval stories, whether he’s explicitly present or implicitly so. For example, The Chief by Monica McCarty ends with this: “The ten warriors formed a circle around their king. Swords raised above his head, they cried out, ‘Airson an Leomhann!’ For the Lion. A cry that would come to strike fear in men’s hearts.” On the other hand, Prinny shows up once in a while, in Regencies, as comic relief.

The nobility in the Regency, the dukes, marquesses, and earls, sat in the House of Lords during a period of major political activity, but they had lives that revolved around their estates as well. So it’s possible to write stories that have nothing to do with the politics of the day and everything to do with the other aspects of their lives. Whereas, politics was a part of the fabric of medieval life, so it was impossible to divorce the two. For example, in Lord of My Heart by Jo Beverley, the heroine must wed one of the trio of lords offered by her king. To refuse such an edict was unthinkable.

Medieval noble men and women were expected to do physical work in addition to supervising the provisioning, safety, law, and order of the castles’ many dependents. Regency women, on the other hand, had fewer responsibilities towards their smaller households. Regency men were not required to be magistrates and soldiers for their estates. As a result, Regency men and women had more time to spend in society.

Religion comes up again and again in the early medieval stories, because the Church was just getting a foothold in some parts of England and Scotland, and sometimes, converts reverted to their pagan ways and had to be re-churched.

The presence of God and talk about godliness was a constant conversation. Whereas in the Regency, the Anglican branch of Christianity was such an established tradition that it was a non-issue, garnering only brief mentions of attending Sunday services. For example, in Ransom by Julie Garwood, mentions of the One True God and paying a penance and confessing of sins is brought up again and again, while in An Unlikely Countess by Jo Beverley, the toughest part of the Sunday church service for the heroine is facing the local nobility and gentry and their comments and slights.

For all these reasons, medievals are not as popular as Regencies. It is also precisely for these reasons why they are so near and dear to my heart.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My November Reading

Over the past many months, I have been reviewing children's picture books here, in addition to YA and adult fiction and nonfiction. Thanks to the advice of a wonderful children's librarian whom I met over Twitter, Angela Reynolds, I have had the opportunity to read many memorable books, and I have come to appreciate the thought that goes into the words and illustrations of these books. They are each unique — I have not come across a series in picture books — in thought and focus with the words and pictures so intertwined in a joint message that one would be bereft without the other.

Perhaps it is the very nature of the books that their audience is the very young who sit in the arms of their parents while being read to in the safety and security of their homes that allow the books free range to explore all sorts of topics and all sorts of emotions. And it is the latter that is so close to the surface. While I find these picture books are far more enlightened in the types of topics they cover as compared to many adult books or older children's books, it is the fact that they approach these difficult, controversial, radical, and uncomfortable topics through emotions and humanism that makes them memorable. It is a rare book that fails to move me; to a one they draw an emotional response from me. To all those writers and illustrators and publishers, my thanks from the bottom of my heart. You've opened up my life and the lives of my children through your books.

Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell
A Soldier's Heart by Kathleen Korbell
Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela Morsi
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I was utterly charmed by Music of the Heart, book 6 of the Warrendar Saga. This was my second Burchell, and I have enjoyed both of them, and so if you're new to Burchell, I highly recommend you pick this one up. Korbell's book is one I return to from time to time. It offers a nuanced, thoughtful approach to the PTSD suffered by returning veterans, soldiers and nurses. Korbell, herself was a nurse, and it's telling in the careful navigation of the mind and the empathetic approach to the hero and the heroine. I love Morsi's early work. She gets Americana like no one else, and writes the gentlest stories that deal with deeply-felt emotions. I loved all three of these stories, and my short reviews are here.

A Texas Christmas Past by Julia Justiss
Category: Western Historical Romance
Comments: As you all know, I'm a fan of Julia Justiss's work and westerns, but this juxtaposition of the two just didn't work. I don't know if it was the novella size that threw off her style, but there is a lot of telling, rather than showing, and worse of all, a ghost who tells us what the hero is feeling, rather than us seeing what the hero is feeling or hearing it in his internal monologue. The ghost also manipulates the hero and heroine into a relationship by compelling some of the action and thoughts. The relationship thus did not feel organic to the couple at all, but rather a puppet-puppeteer relationship. My review is here.

A Perfect Match by Rachel Knowles
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Written in modern times but in the traditional Regency style, this is a meticulously researched book by a well-known authority of Georgian and Regency history. While there is an unexpected surprise in the last quarter of the book and some inconsistencies, I chalk it up to début book issues of not knowing how to seed the black moment early on as well as lack of writerly skill. Overall however, the historical authority with which the book is written, including the dialogue, makes up for the imperfections. My review is here.

In Your Hands by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: When you are newborn, I hold your hand and study your face. I cradle you as you drift to sleep. While napping, you crack a smile. I have big, bright dreams for you.

This is a book of a mother's dreams for her son as he grows up under her care and then out in the wider world, where she cannot hold him under her wing, but where she has to trust that she has poured all the wisdom she can into him and he can be safe and flourish on his own.

Then I will hold you in my heart and ask God to hold you in His hands.

But this mother's concern is more than just a concern of a mother of a teenager, a young man. This is the concern of a mother of a black young man. And her anguish and worry are writ large on the page.

I will pray that the world sees you as a child of God not a figure to be feared. I will pray that missteps bring lessons and are forgiven and that you be granted second chances.

Tears your heart, doesn't it? This should be a given. No mother should have to ask this of others. All children are precious.

Gorilla Gardener: How to Help Nature Take Over the World by John Seven and Jana Christy
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A chaotic, colorful book that has a proselytizing message. The story features a friendly gorilla who goes around seeding the city with seeds and growing gardens: chinks in buildings, cracks in sidewalks, rooftops of skyscrapers, and so on. He wants to build a jungle city where people will be happy, live outside, and enjoy each others' company. He is extreme in his views:

A huge field of flowers replace the city streets. Roots from plants break up concrete and asphalt. Cars can't move, but who cares? Goats and chickens move in.

This book is based on the philosophy of Guerilla Gardening that started in England in the 1600s. Despite being hounded out of towns, sued in courts of law, and subject to violence, guerilla gardeners spread their ideas all over the world. America's most famous conservationist gardener was Johnny Appleseed, who roamed the country with his ideas in the 19th century. These ideas are still popular to this day with guerilla gardens in many large cities.