Thursday, April 28, 2016


My April Reading: The Romance Version


April was a banner month for romance-reading for me in a long time. I read TWELVE of them. The Martins and Wolfs were all re-reads. I also read three very interesting children's picture books.

The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: This is one of my top romances ever. I LOVE the laugh-out-loud humor in the story and it is all in conversation with quick ripostes, great timing, and wonderful play on words. This is my kind of humor. Michelle Martin wrote very few traditional Regencies and that is to my everlasting regret. Mistakes over aristocratic titles aside, you read her books for the people in her stories. They're so alive: breathing, laughing, living.

Kate Glyn has declared a great desire to remain a spinster all her life because she finds men ultimately disappointing She's similarly unimpressed by the haut ton, who treated her very badly her first season and since then has bored her season after season. With painstaking care, she's built up a reputation of respectability despite her sharp tongue and unpopular humor and tendency towards bluestocking pursuits.

This season, she's chaperoning her best friend, who's five years younger than her, through her first season. Her friend is an Incomparable, whose social success causes jealousy to burn in the breast of the Perfection Incarnate. The Incarnate's jealousy gets an added reason because the marquess she wants to marry seems to prefer Kate's laughing company to her more stoic, elegant one.

There's a lot of sturm und drang with various people trying to exact revenge on various other people and who foils whom. But in the end it all shakes out and Kate and her friend find the loves of their lives.

If you haven't read a Michelle Martin, you've got to read this one.


The Butler Who Laughed by Michelle Martin
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: Sarah Thorndike is an heiress and a duke's daughter, a timorous girl who's completely dominated by her parents. In this book, her marriage has been arranged to a Tulip of the First Stare of Fashion. Neither can abide the other and are completely dismayed upon first being introduced to each other. They want out and put their heads together to make it happen. In the meantime, there's some skullduggery going on to retrieve an incriminating letter (read: ill-thought impassioned letter to an opera dancer) from a blackmailer.

The setting of the story is very Agatha Cristie: a house party in a country manor. The blackmailer, Sarah's family, and some other members of the nobility have been invited. Despite her exalted position, Sarah has an egalitarian approach towards the help. She was raised by her nannies, the groom, the kitchen cook, etc. and she's closer to them than to her parents. Naturally, she gravitates to the butler, who's nice to her and is also fascinating.

Now the butler is a knight in disguise who's helping the Tulip to unmask the blackmailer. (I never claimed this story didn't have its fantastical elements.) In the meantime, his demeanor, his looks, his erudition are winning Sarah over. Of course, she knows that her love is hopeless. A duke's daughter cannot marry a butler. It's just not done.

The interesting part of the story is not how they fall in love but how they resolve their HEA.


The Rebellious Ward by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: There is not one Joan Wolf traditional Regency (or historical fiction) books that I have that I have not liked. This was a re-read of a book I've read often before. And it is so achingly lovely. Wolf does people really, really well.

The story begins with Catriona as a ten-year-old and continues through her come out at eighteen. Somewhere along the way she falls in love with her guardian, who's eleven years older than her, and he with her. The whole coming-of-age is done tenderly and sensitively. Catriona is like a flame and gets into her share of scrapes. He's the serious Cambridge student and a very responsible duke. But they share laughter and common interests. The maturation and opening up of their personalities to each other is lovely to watch. I enjoy watching two people fall bit-by-bit in love on the page.


Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: One thing I really love about Wolf's stories are how well-researched they are. I always learn something new. And this is not just surface sprinkling—the characters care deeply about the issues, are well-informed, and can discuss them intelligently.

These two people Julianne and John are so different from each other. Her wild teen years following the restless adventurous company of her father has made her crave security, safety, and domestic ties. His stifling childhood has made him wild for the freedom of living as he chooses. And yet, they have Egypt in common. Both love Africa and adventure is in their blood, reluctantly in hers and passionately in his. Julianne sees Africa through a writer's eyes, meticulous and creative. John sees Africa through an opportunist's eyes, where he makes money by applying his intelligence. Neither one cares for English society and the rules and strictures that cage guide the ton.

Best line in the book: "I would hardly call Egypt uncivilized. There was a civilization on the Nile before England was ever heard of."

The story's about her realizing who she really is and what she really cares about, and then reaching out for what she really wants.


A Double Deception by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: This is a story of trust and how trust plays one of the most important roles in marriage. I loved this book for the maturity shown by the hero and heroine in how they conducted their lives through their first unhappy marriages, in the interim, and how they do so after they meet. We read a lot of marriage of convenience plots in Romance where the hero and heroine labor under jealousies and misunderstandings and come to an understanding after external circumstances remove those doubts. In this story, when trouble strikes, the heroine assesses her situation intelligently, sees a pattern of behavior on part of the hero, and then makes the decision to trust him implicitly. The hero made up him mind to trust her from the day he married her. This allows them to resolve the mystery as a team rather than fighting each other and seeking outside validation. Trust came before love in this story. Such a refreshing story to behold.


Fool's Masquerade by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: There are some stories that you simply fall into and love to pieces. This is one of them. On the surface, it's not usual: She's an orphan and to survive, she dresses up as a boy and works in his household. She's eventually unmasked. He discovers she's of genteel blood who's been living unchaperoned in his castle, so he offers her marriage.

But she refuses him and runs away to her grandparents. She's in love with him but not he with her. She refuses to obligate him and ruin his life. However, they had become friends when she was a boy and he misses her. He makes everyone's life miserable in his castle, while she learns the graces of a young woman of genteel birth. When she goes to London for the Season, he goes off in hot pursuit. And that is where he falls in love with her as the woman she is now. She's still the friend she always was, but now she's also the woman who makes his heart race.


Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: I was sent a print ARC by Neville and my commentary is here. For a great dual review of the book, visit Dear Author.


Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper by India Grey
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Category
Comments: When I read the following on Susanna Kearsley's blog I knew immediately that I had to read this book. She highly recommended it.

It was a mechanical model of the solar system, showing everything in its relative position. There was something soothing about watching how the moons and planets followed their own unwavering path, each one taking its own specific place in a dance so intricate it was almost beyond human comprehension. Galileo had understood it, even though it went against everything he'd been brought up to believe.

I was glad my local library carried it. I loved it. This book has some improbabilities in it, but it's surrounded by excellent character-building, complex emotions, and a believable storyline. I enjoyed the story so much that I have now bought two of Grey's novels.

Lorenzo is a film director who's in love with a late author's sole travel poetry-prose book. However, all his attempts to option the book for a movie are rebuffed by his penniless daughter, Sarah. When said daughter shows up at his home due to said improbable circumstances, he becomes enamored of her and her daughter so much so that he's reluctant to bring up the book, which is painful to her. Of course, the book hangs over him like the Sword of Damocles and of course the Sword falls on his neck, but he saves his neck with élan.

I'm sensitive to how children are portrayed in books. Many times, they're shown to be interfering precocious twits and totally unbelievable. I have two kids, so I know what I'm talking about here. However, in this book, Lottie is done exactly right.


Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire's Pleasure by India Grey
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Category
Comments: The title and back cover copy are execrable and have nothing to do with the story at hand. This was another hit for me as far as Grey is concerned. I didn't love it as much as I loved the story above and it had more improbable elements, however, it was still a good read.

Rachael is a concert pianist and is about to be railroaded into marriage with a conductor who had raped her previously. She meets the hero Orlando and is so taken up with him that she runs away from her wedding to his estate, where, um, none of her wedding party ever finds her, though the manor is down a country lane road. Other than playing the piano, she's thoroughly inept at everything from cooking to driving to taking care of a baby.

OK, so you're wondering what it is I was smoking when I said I still liked this story. Nothing. I liked this story, because of what Grey does with such an improbable beginning of the story. Grey's strength is in the characterization.

The cutest moment is when Rachael calms the infant down by playing Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor to him. The worst moment is when she gives up being a concert pianist in order to be a wife and mother of Orlando's baby.


Emily and the Notorious Prince by India Grey
Categories: Contemporary, Romance, Category
Comments: This, unfortunately, did not work for me. An improbable plot combined with OTT writing made me realize that I'm not the correct market for this type of book. I mean, this is India Grey, whose above two novels I liked. But this was written in a different style that is popular with a lot of people, just not for me.

Luis is the playboy prince of a Portuguese-speaking kingdom. Emily is the heiress of a wealthy English father. They meet at the annual grand charity ball on her estate. He's interested in her but considers her still too young for him. She, on the hand, finds her first kiss a mind-blowing experience and is smitten.

Fast-forward a year, Luis is now the crown prince, since his brother and sister-in-law die in a helicopter crash. His father, the king, is ailing and he has sole custody of his very young niece to whom he's not close. In the meantime, Emily's mother, to whom she was very close, has passed away from a long illness and Emily has discovered that her father had a brief affair the night before his marriage and has a daughter from that union. Emily feels so betrayed by her father that on the night of her mother's funeral, with no warning or preparation, she decamps for London.

There she lives, undetected, for many months in a nasty bedsit and supports herself by working behind a bar in a lap-dancing establishment. Luis discovers her at a community center dance in a mean suburb of London that he's attending to burnish his image of a serious crown prince, not a playboy second son. He informs her father that he has found her, and then he hies her off to his country to teach ballet to his niece.

From Emily's immatureness to Luis's bossiness, from repeated phrases in successive or the same paragraphs to exoticizing the Portuguese language and Portuguese men, from detailed descriptions of Luis's sexual prowess to his physical magnificence, and so on, I realized that my not liking the book is certainly not the fault of the book. None of this style of storytelling is uncommon and is in fact quite popular, but this type of book is not for me. I liked India Grey's above two books and will perhaps like some of her other books.


If Wishes were Earls by Elizabeth Boyle
Categories: Regency, Romance
Comments: I have liked silly heroines before as well as implausible plots. Silly heroes, on the other hand...Yes, I have double standards. It takes quite a bit for a hero to carry off being silly. Heyer does it remarkably well. However, in this story, the hero wasn't trying to be silly. He was in fact in deadly earnest—trying to keep the heroine away from him because there was someone who had it in for him. His is not a courtesy title; he's a peer of the realm and I saw no evidence to support that other than him being referred to the earl and deferred to as My Lord. A case in point of immaturity was how he takes the innocence of the heroine, a lady, and then almost proposes marriage to another woman all in the guise of trying to keep the heroine away from him because of the dastardly plot against him. This was a story that just didn't work for me. I know when this book came out, it did very well, so it's a popular book by a very popular author.


False Angel by Edith Layton
Categories: Regency, Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Willaful. I have enjoyed other Edith Layton books, and I consider her The Duke's Wager one of my top books ever. However, this book was less successful for me. A majority of it is told in narrative. Quite a bit of the action happens off-stage and we hear about it when the heroine tells us about it, supplementing it with her thoughts. I simply couldn't sustain my interest in finding out what happened next to her. From the way the hero and heroine's characters are set up, I know I would've liked them and would've liked to have known their story. But the style of the book was against my enjoyment of it.


The Amazing Travels of Ibn Battuta by Fatima Sharafeddine
Categories: Children's, Picture
Diversity: Features people from Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, India, and China
Comments: I borrowed this book ostensibly for my kid, but really, for myself. I had heard so much about Ibn Battuta, the intrepid adventurer of the medieval world that I had to discover, at least in brief, his life's story. It was a fascinating book.

At twenty-one, this brave young man set out from Tangier, Morocco and traveled across Northern Africa, all over the Middle East, into Turkey, India, and China, and down the eastern African coast. He was a religious man and went thrice to Mecca on the Hajj. Everywhere he went he met with sultans and sheikhs, governors and legal scholars, and theologians and students. He carefully documented all his travels and all that he observed. He was warmly welcomed everywhere he went for all the foreign tales of adventure he brought to everyone.

He finally returned to Fez, Morocco at age 50 and settled down to being a judge at the sultan's behest and writing down his memoirs. His writing style was wry and humorous. Of China he wrote:

"When I reached the seaport of Quanzhou, I was amazed to see that even the poorest people in China wore silk. They also had porcelain pottery decorated with the finest artwork. I was even impressed by the hens, which were bigger than the geese in my country!"

A Masterpiece for Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of New Sights and the Marvels of Traveling is one his most famous books. The modern-day edited version of that book is The Travels of Ibn Battutah. Before tackling this dense book, I plan on reading Travels with a Tangerine: From Morocco to Turkey in the Footsteps of Islam's Greatest Traveler, the first of a three-book coverage of Battuta's travels by historian and British Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith.


Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane
Categories: Children's Picture
Diversity: It's set in Mauritania, West Africa
Comments: The story is of a little girl wanting to grow up and wear the malafa [moo-lah-fuh] of the older girls and women of her village. A mulafa is a beautiful, colorful cloth that some Muslim women in Mauritania wear to cover their clothing and heads when they go out in public and when they pray.

In her quest to find out more about the mulafa, the little girl questions her mother, her grandmother, her older sister, her cousin, and the women of the village. They all tell her what a malafa isn't and in so doing they let her figure out what a malafa signifies in a woman's life. They say it's not for beauty, it's more than a mystery, it's more than all the gold on a bride's crown, it's more than being a grown-up, it's more than old tradition, and so on. Ultimately, the girl approaches her mother:

"Mama, more than all the dates in an oasis, I want a malafa so I can pray like you do."

And her mother realizes that her little girl is now ready for her own malafa. A malafa, the author explains in her note, is to keep the wearer's attention not on outer appearance of the body but on the inner, spiritual connection with God.

I loved this story because through this little girl, the reader discovers why Muslim women wear the veil. And in so doing, the story demystifies the western notion that it's a symbol of female repression, which it isn't. It's an expression of reverence to God and is synonymous with the men wearing the turban.


The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart
Categories: Children's Picture
Comments: In the ninth century, an Irish Benedictine monk wrote down the poem Pangur Bán in rhyming couplets in Old Irish. In it, the monk describes his beloved companion, a white cat who shares his small room. Both of them are seeking something: the cat's looking for mice, the monk's looking for knowledge and enlightenment in his books. Bogart says the poem was written at Reichenau Abbey in southern Germany and is now part of the book Reichenau Primer.

Pangur does not disturb me at my work, and I do not disturb him at his. We are each content with all we need to entertain us. Ours is a happy tale. He feels joy at catching his prey. I feel joy as I find, at last, the answer to my puzzle. In our tiny home, Pangur finds his mouse... and I find light in the darkness.


Friday, April 22, 2016


Picture Day Friday: The Milkmaid by Vermeer


The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer
c. 1660
oil on canvas
h 45.5cm × w 41cm

From the Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands:
"A maidservant pours milk, entirely absorbed in her work. Except for the stream of milk, everything else is still. Vermeer took this simple everyday activity and made it the subject of an impressive painting – the woman stands like a statue in the brightly lit room. Vermeer also had an eye for how light by means of hundreds of colourful dots plays over the surface of objects."


[Image copyrighted by the Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands.]


Wednesday, April 20, 2016


#TBRChallenge Reading: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park


2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: A Long Walk to Water
Author: Linda Sue Park
My Categories: Children's, Contemporary
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Contemporary

This is a contemporary children's true story that's been partially fictionalized. It's set in 2008 and 1985 Sudan. It was recommended by my daughter.

As I read this book, my heart ached for the two children whose life story this is. They're so very young and have so much hardship in their lives.

The little girl, Nya's only job is to walk eight hours to the water hole every single day to fetch water for the family. She does nothing else other than that and occasionally has to cart a younger sister along with her on the journey. This is the story set in 2008.

The boy, Salva's story, set in 1985, is one of utter displacement from family. Under fire of an incoming battle, he is forced to run away from school and away from his family and village. Miraculously at some point on this walking journey across the plains and desert of Sudan to Kenya, he meets up with his uncle and makes a friend thus alleviating some of his loneliness. But like everyone he has loved, they, too, die.

While exhaustion and boredom are Nya's constant companions, exhaustion and fear are Salva's. And yet through superhuman effort almost, these children persist and survive. Salva goes on to survive the war, to move to America, and thrive. He returns to Africa digging wells all over Sudan. And it is because of a well, Nya and Salva meet. Two such different lives following such different trajectories come together over life-affirming water.

I cried over this story and even now as I'm typing this, my heart's so full. Go, read this story. It's short but so beautifully written. Sometimes, the best of stories don't need too many words to convey a wealth of meaning.


Monday, April 18, 2016


Commentary: Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville


I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I'm a huge fan of classical music and opera (and sing in choirs) so this musical book hit all the right notes for me. Neville is clearly knowledgeable of the Regency era opera scene and the life of famous singers. I enjoyed how authoritatively the story was written. We don't get "research"; we get competence and rich historical details.

I liked Max and Tessa's gentle love story—I'm fond of quiet tales. I bought into how their young love changed to suspicion and hurt feelings, then anger and resolution, and finally to genuine adult love. Neville does a wonderful job showing how Max and Tessa change and adjust to the events around them and how they make change happen instead of always being reactive. I like to see characters having agency.

I'm not fond of Le Big Mis (misunderstanding) trope. But Neville's sophisticated storytelling does not devolve to a clichéd retelling of a tired tale. Max and Tessa do go through the initial motions of being deeply hurt by the other, but they eventually get to a point where they talk and thrash out what happened in the past. And then they move on from there. They build on the embers of their young love. Max is the first one to fall in love all over again; Tessa is more cautious. Her experience with her faithless husband makes her leery of jumping in with both feet.

I enjoyed seeing how Tessa connected with her extended family and the joy it brought her. I liked seeing how her character matured in this short section. She had this picture in her mind about what she might want, but reality forced her to re-examine what was really important to her. And she came away being surer of herself and what she needs from life.

I had a tough time reconciling Tessa's tendency to throw things when agitated to the rest of her character. The way it's written, she feels anxiety coming on and relieves it by throwing ceramic and porcelain things. She was encouraged into this habit by her then husband, Domenico, to promote a diva-like persona. However, now that her husband is dead, she's ashamed of those tantrums and is trying to control them once by hitting a high note and other times by deep breathing. The times in the story, Tessa has felt the urge to throw things, i.e., the times she felt this acute anxiety happen is often enough, that I had to wonder if she needed therapy. Blaming Domenico for encouraging her is not explanation enough. That she feels such anxiety over not very stressful situations is the root cause.

She also has these genuine nightmares and terrors because of what Domenico did to her before he died. I can understand those panic attacks and her extreme reaction to them. However, the resolution of these terrors is very pat. Given how deeply-seated the fears are—there's an excellent scene between Max and Tessa about this—the one short sex scene that magically resolves this issue once and for all rings false. I would expect the impact lessening over time rather than in one fell swoop.

These quibbles aside, I enjoyed this musical story with its rich historical background very much.

For an excellent review of this book, visit All About Romance here.

[Please note: I received a print ARC of the book from the author.]


Thursday, April 14, 2016


Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part Four


This post covers sessions four and five of the Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference.

ROMANCE SESSION FOUR
Diversity in Historical Romance

This session was devoted to Diversity in Historical Romance and featured a panel of authors: Rose Lerner (Jewish), Alyssa Cole (African-American), Lori A. Witt (LGBTQ, Ace), and Kianna Alexander/Eboni Manning (Gilded Age and Antebellum South African-American).

Diverse historical romance books have been written for a long time but visibility is a big issue. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: Believing that they're not going to sell, publishers don't buy them. Well, the audience is there as self- and indie-publishing is demonstrating. NY Publishers are showing ignorance of what readers are interested in reading. A lot of diverse romance is being published as self-pub.

Diversity in romance needs positive representation: where diverse characters don't die but find love and life.

Diverse historical characters don't always have to have social issues to be the central part of the conflict and plot. [See Talk Sweetly To Me by Courtney Milan. Disclosure: I was one of the editors for the book.]

The challenge of writing diverse historical characters and storylines is that when people don't know something about history, they assume it never happened. Or they think it is niche. Instead of making sweeping judgments of all people, know that individuals led unique lives. All things are possible. Diverse romances tell hidden stories that have never been told.

One author said that for historical research, she finds that old newspapers on microfiche convey thoughts, tone, and social culture much more accurately than books. [As an aspiring writer, I find this fascinating. Most of us gravitate towards books, rarely newspapers.]

In reference to that book, audience question: Are there any periods or settings that are no-go zones? All the authors said no. The answer was: Be sensitive about how what you write will affect the reader, since even hypothetically, it could happen.

Audience question: How much research do you do? All authors: Depends on the story.

Audience question: If there's no HEA, is it romance? All authors: No.

Audience question: Is the rom genre rule of HEA, restrictive or freeing? All authors: Freeing. Because the end is known, the process of getting there is where all the creativity lies.


ROMANCE SESSION FIVE
Tropes, Traditions, and Transformations

The Other (Wo)Man: The Use of Doubling in Young Adult Supernatural Romance by Meghanne Flynn

From the abstract: [This paper] explores the genre subversive figure of the double in Young Adult Supernatural Romance novels. [It] aims to display ways in which the figure of the double is removed from the marginality to be given voice, desire, and autonomy.

I have no notes.


Lady Catherine's Descendents: Examples of the Older Other Woman in Romance Fiction by Olivia Waite

The older, other woman in romance is in the guise of evil stepmother or fairy godmother. Catherine de Bourgh from Pride & Prejudice is both: evil to Lizzie and benevolent to Mr. Collins.

She has a superpower—she says what she wants to and other people have to listen. Rules of propriety and courtesy are not relevant for her. She has the wherewithal to effect radical transformation in those around her.

She's the ultimate example of women's agency. She has a network of informants (through placing of governesses, running the parish, etc.) who keep her upraised of all that is going on.

Lady Cat is the one most instrumental in bringing Darcy and Lizzie together: first at Rosings and then in the end.

Lizzie now has a role model of power in front of her after her marriage.

Lady Danbury in Julia Quinn's Bridgerton books is an example of Lady Cat.

Do these powerful older other women lack sexuality? Do they have to give up sexuality in order to gain power? Yes! They're never depicted as happily married in the books. They're widows. [They cannot be spinsters, because spinsters lack money and title.]


A Short Inquiry into the Gothic Romance by Angela Toscano

Gothics emerged in 1790s; their heyday were in the 1950s and 1960s. Not popular these days since the 1980s.

Gothics are not paranormals, mysteries, or horrors.

Gothics are books featuring domestic scenes where the heroine is trapped in a house or a castle. She's being confined by location, means, or social rules. The stories revolve around a big secret and other things that the heroine doesn't know (antagonist unknown). There potentially can be lots of unknowns. Is there a threat? There's a mystery about whether there is a problem. There's no accumulation of knowledge like in a mystery story. However, the heroine works like a detective to uncover the secret that gets more and more secretive. Gothic terror is predicated on personal violence or the threat of violence.

Gothics are on the threshold of known/unknown, natural/supernatural—ambiguous duality in relations and personality.

Why were the Gothics popular in the 19th century and then in the mid-twentieth century? From Rose Lerner and Olivia Waite: Sexual repression and family privacy in those times gave rise to the Gothics as a place of freedom to explore. Nowadays, with the rise in erotic romance romance, we have a place for writers and readers to talk about tough things, so now the gothics are no longer needed.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part Three


This is session three of the Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference.

ROMANCE SESSION THREE
American Romance, Then and Now

"Lifting as We Climb": Iola LeRoy and the Early African-American Romance by Pamela Regis

Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted was published in in 1892 by African-American novelist Frances E.W. Harper. This, according to Regis, is one of the earliest African-American romance novels.

Here, pregnancy implies society is made more orderly and productive. And yet, the novel challenges society-defined essential elements of romance.

The heroine, Iola, is African-American but is fair, blue-eyed. This novel is about racial identity in the era of the civil war and slavery and passing. It is about her heroine's right to both desire and democracy and the right to choose her own hero. The novel advocates female agency, self-sufficiency, and independence as Iola rejects her ability to pass as white and embraces her black heritage.

Regis made some reference to Beverley Jenkins's Indigo, but other than it being set in the era of slavery, I missed the connection.


Making It American: Epic Romance and the National Myth by Maryan Wherry

American literature is comprised of four parts:

Epic Literature: quest, calamity, single action, beginning/middle/end, exaggerated heroic journeys, moral ideas/taboos of dominant culture, maturation of hero/heroine, learning that love is more valuable than wealth in life.

Grand Narrative (1950s): consensus school of historiography, national myth, equates what makes one American with what makes one male (vigilante/outlaw hero and rugged individualism).

Second Wave of Feminism: strong heroine, her failings (abuse books, physically weaker, etc.) due to society repressions not inherently hers.

Revisionist History

Heroic quest for heroine in bodice rippers: naïve, unschooled, sexual object, all kinds of abuse, awakened in many ways, her self-image is important not the HEA, allowing women to be written into the Grand Epic American literature.

The Antebellum South and the Wild Wild West are the most romanticized periods of American history.


You Say Anal Like It's A Bad Thing by Meagan Gacke

Considers Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rodgers as one of the first of contemporary romance novels. Her other well-known one is Wicked Loving Lies. They're in the grand old style of bodice rippers and underscore patriarchal rules and lack of women's agency.

The Sheik by E.M. Hull brought orientalism and sexuality into American consciousness. It does not adhere to a western sexual script. It uses orientalism to engage in different sexual, envelope-pushing acts. Initially, the heroine is kidnapped by the sheikh and is repeatedly raped. However, in time, she comes to enjoy sex. (This book buys into the Stockholm Syndrome.) The normal sex act is not as pleasurable as anal sex to the heroine, but is set up as the ideal goal. It is not deviant like anal. Heroine enjoyed deviant sex in the East, and initially tries to enjoy the ideal when she comes back to the western world. But she ends up bringing her eastern sexuality to the west. Her new hero learns to pleasure her in the new way. And thus, she's no longer an acted upon object. She has claimed her subjectivity.


Muslim Love American Style: Islamic-American Hybrid Culture and Romance in Muslim Fiction by Layla Abdullah-Poulos

This was the most fascinating paper of the session, partly because I had not thought about this and partly because the presentation was excellent.

Abdullah-Poulos talked about Muslim love, American style, specifically, native African-American Muslims featured in Islamic-American Romance fiction. It's an amalgamation of American and Islamic ideals in romance. These books are referred to as Native Born American Black Muslim Romantic Fiction. Abdullah-Poulos used NbA as the acronym.

[During audience questions, I asked whether these stories are like Christian inspirationals or like stories featuring Black Muslim characters. I also asked if they're like Arab-Muslim romances. Abdullah-Poulos said these are inspies, where religion and conversion plays an important role. Religion is like the third aspect of the rom, as important as love and marriage. As a contrast, in Arab-American romances, Islam is more a cultural aspect than a religious aspect.]

In Eurocentric white books, class and social structure keep the hero and heroine apart. In NbA, structure brings them together.

NbA books focus more on anti-Muslim hate than on racial bigotry. So the focus is more on them being Muslim, than on them being black. Thus, the microaggressions in African-American romance versus NbA romance are different.

Hijab covering and uncovering and the politics and societal reactions to that feature prominently in the narratives.

Fact: 90% of Black Muslims are converts. So conversion is a huge part of NbA rom. Non-Muslims cannot marry Muslims, so before they can get together, the non-Muslim has to convert. Islamic faith can serve as a unifier and also as a barrier to the rom. Islamic but interracial marriages are not discussed.

Polygamy is very common in NbA rom and communities. For example, read Real Muslim Wives of Philly by Elle Muslimah.

The hero and heroine in NbA stories are successful business people, professional, and upwardly mobile.

There are references to colorism in the narratives, where writers potentially defer to white hegemony. Mulatto women with long hair are seen as more desirable.

The Muslims in these stories are strictly practicing Muslims, so no physical contact, chaperoned dating, and a lot of use of technology and social media for communication.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part Two


This is session two of the Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference.

Please note that I'm a romance reader, not an academic. So these notes will be a lay analysis at best.

ROMANCE SESSION TWO
Romantic Masculinities

Poldark As Anti-Antihero: Rebooting Romantic Masculinity for an Age of Crisis by Kyle Sclabach

From the abstract: "Poldark’s charisma lies entirely in his ability to adopt, with chameleon-like perfection, any necessary guise from the entire catalog of nineteenth- and twentieth-century romantic male archetypes: stalwart soldier, bare-chested-laborer, heroic doctor, crusading lawyer, swashbuckling smuggler, self-made entrepreneur, paternalistic husband, doting father."

The 1970s Poldark series is second after the 1995 Pride & Prejudice series in popularity.

Polark's resurrection is like that of the Count of Monte Cristo. He's a charming rogue-like Indian Jones, Byronic Hero, Rochester (brooding, noble, secretive, morally ambiguous but with his heart in a good place), omni-competent, handsome, male protagonist under siege on every front. He has power, prestige, privilege, and some wealth, i.e., he's part of the nobility but he protects his tenants (lower orders) and interacts with investors (middle class). He's the idea paternalistic figure, worthy of his elite class status.

The thrust of the paper is that these days masculinity is under crisis from neoliberalism and progressive social change. So that is why Poldark, whose character reasserts all the concepts of the olden days, is so popular.

The romance between Poldark and Demelza follows the eight steps of romance as stated by Pamela Regis. (I display my ignorance here by being unaware of what those are. They're outlined in A Natural History of the Romance Novel.)


All Around Great Guys, Mostly: The Evolving Romantic Hero in Literary Webseries by Margaret Selinger

A literary webseries is a YouTube vlog episodic show with transmedia elements made for young people by young people. It adapts well-known literary classics and is a DIY low-budget film that's produced quickly to react to viewer response. The arc of a webseries follows a typical genre romance arc: a love story with a happy ending. Even Shakespeare's tragedies are adapted to end happily. Another characteristic of a webseries is that it defines what being "romantic" in the modern era entails and also includes romantic subplots featuring queer, multi-sexual, and pan-sexual characters having happy endings.

One of the first, and wildly popular, literary multiplatform webseries is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Just as this is an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, the webseries Nothing Much To Do is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.


Alpha, Beta, and the Ambiguous Omega: The Diversity of Heroes by Veera Mäkelä

Mäkelä talked about alpha, beta, and omega heroes.

[I have talked about gamma heroes before, the quieter ones who unlike beta heroes do not display alpha tendencies in highly stressful, highly emotional situations but retain their quiet competence. Mäkelä's omega heroes are distinctly different from these gamma heroes.]

Mäkelä made references to Maya Rodale's Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained and Sarah Wendell's Beyond Heaving Bosoms. She uses Wendell's definition of alpha, beta, and omega. [I have not verified this.]

An omega hero is one who is a blend of the hard and soft traits and shifts as the situation demands. Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew’s Bride, and The Famous Heroine are examples of omega heroes. Balogh sets up these heroes with various tropes in initial evaluations and then contradicts or subverts them. For example, in Dark Angel, the male hero cries over the relationship.

The definition of a good relationship is when beta characteristics are directed within the relationship and alpha characteristics are directed outside the relationship (like towards the villain).

According to Jayne Ann Krentz in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, betas need to exhibit an alpha core, where the alpha traits are: head and protector of family and core of steel.

Mobility between social classes can be an omega trait.
[Hmmm. So an earl marrying a cit's daughter for her money to save his bankrupt estate is a sign of his omega-ness? It's a sign of desperation, and to me, it's an alpha trait as defined by Krentz.]


Constructing Black Masculinities in Romance Fiction by Julie Moody-Freeman

While the abstract says that the paper discusses romance book and magazine covers for representation of black masculinities and compares publications by various publishers, the talk did not cover that. It covered depictions of black masculinity within the stories.

Romance books break societal norms of black masculinity to recreate men who sustain the inner lives of romantic heroes.

Who is a good black man? He's one who is TDH (tall, dark, and handsome), responsible, loving, strong, autonomous, and professional. He loves and advocates for himself and for his community. He's a person of good character as seen by the black community and by other people. He's continually challenged by the heroine and the community—challenges are the norm for black masculinity. Such a hero is not just a provider with money but he has to man-up, show up for his family and his community.

Romance novels have templates of black professions, which are respectable and marriageable. For example, a hero writing music is subverting a typical alpha male hero.

These stories are by African-American writers writing for African-American readers. They're an uplifting of race through fiction.


Monday, April 11, 2016


Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part One


The Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference was on Tuesday, March 22 in Seattle. I attended five of the seven sessions in the Romance Area, which was chaired by Eric Selinger of DePaul University.

(Next year, the Romance area will be chaired by Heather Schell of George Washington University and Jodi McAlister of University of Tasmania.)

Here are my notes from the first session. Notes from the next four sessions will be in successive blog posts.

Please note that I'm a romance reader, not an academic. So these notes will be a lay analysis at best.

ROMANCE SESSION ONE
Readers, Authors, and Real-Life Lovers

"Novel" Representations of Female Sexuality in Popular Fiction Across Cultures by Claire Watson

Comparing Jane Austen's work to Zane's, Watson says how Austen promoted female empowerment and sexual agency and could be considered an intellectual ancestor of Zane. (FYI...Zane's sexually explicit, female-oriented plots empower black women to take agency in their sexual lives.)

Austen subverted the dominant culture—heroines created agency under patriarchal repression. One way they did this is by engaging in adventurous sexual relations with husband within the confines of respectable marriages. Thus sexuality was explored in Austen in a coded fashion, under love and marriage. However, even though the heroines appeared liberated on the surface, but in reality they were dominated by the sexual attitudes of society.

Lizzy and Jane from Pride & Prejudice experienced more freedom and respect because they operated within the confines of decorum, unlike, say, Lydia. Similarly, decorum allowed Lizzy and Jane to experience agency in their courtships, a revolutionary idea by Austen.


Aspirational Labor in the Creative Industries: Becoming a “Real” Romance Writer by Jen Lois

This paper by sociologist Lois was the most fascinating paper of the five sessions I attended. She and Joanna Gregson conducted 400 hours of fieldwork researching how to become a real romance writer. They also conducted 55 in-depth interviews. Overall, they covered 43 writers of which three were men, 11 POC, and 3 LBGTQ. (Hmmm...rather low on diversity.)

In the creative industries, self-actualization is a cross between artistic talent and business acumen.

For a romance writer (or any writer), the prolonged state of aspiration is a challenge for job satisfaction. Aspiring writers experience a calling, an epiphany ("what I was meant to do"), followed by discovery narratives, emotional connections (to the work and to the people in the industry), and emotional confirmations (via contest wins, acceptance from agents, fellow writers, etc.) These convince them that they're pursuing their dream career, which is the intersection of a calling and getting paid work.

However, despite the early optimism, it is hard to sustain morale over the long tail of aspiration. Reality checks in the form of rejections, constant need for outside validation, having to manage doubt and demoralization is difficult. Writers sometimes counter these negative messages via emotional labor, i.e., inspirational quotations and accolades from friends and fellow authors. Self-publishing is another form of emotional labor and it has helped ameliorate some of the dejection. It has been transformational.

Thus, the intersection of calling and getting paid work is also emotional labor AKA aspirational labor. This is defined as the emotional process of validating one's authentic identity through paid work.


Analyzing Dan Savage's "Monogamish" Claim by Shaun Miller

Is monogamy the preferred choice or by default?

According to Dan Savage, we are bad at monogamy. We should embrace polygamy.

What is important in a good sexual relationship? G G G. Good (skilled, being good); Giving (generous, enthused, enjoying); Game (up for anything, exploring within reason).

For flourishing in the sexual sphere, it matters in its own right but mainly without it families break apart. Sexual fulfillment is a basic need in order to flourish in a relationship. Partners have a moral obligation to help each other to find sexual fulfillment. Therefore if one is not G.G.G., one must be sexually flexible in one's relationship and partners should seek fulfillment outside the relationship.

Monogamy vs. Sexual Fulfillment
Monogamy is sexual fidelity, honest relationship, so be G.G.G. without judgment.
Sexual Fulfillment is more important so don't be sexually exclusive.

Lack of sexual fulfillment dooms a relationship because the people wouldn't flourish, i.e., lead a good life.


Audience Comments

McAllister quoted by Schell: Popular romance is characterized by compulsory demi-sexuality i.e., monogamy is the end all and be all of real love. Fidelity, i.e., not attracted to anyone else.

[I also think that the hero and heroine experiencing mind-blowing sex with The One for the first time in their lives adds to the compulsion towards fidelity.]

Pamela Regis: Is sexual desire a sexual need? Flourishing can happen within a relationship and within the confines of a relationship even if sexual fulfillment is not possible.


Saturday, April 9, 2016


My March Reading


March was a fog of the parents visiting for the month, the flu, and the passing away of one of the most wonderful men I've ever known—I was close to him and he was my brother in all but blood. As a result of this fog, my reading suffered. Nothing entertained. Nothing sustained. But in the interstices of the fog, I managed to read some good books.

Oreo by Fran Ross
Categories: Literary Fiction
Diversity: African-American and Jewish characters
Comments: This was a tough book to read, not so much for the content but for the style. The style is a hodge-podge collection of narrative jumps and stylistic weirdnesses. It's a book with a cult status and is acknowledged as being very influential to African-American literature. But I persevered with it and was richly rewarded. The heroine, Oreo, is widely different from anybody I've ever met or read about. She's brilliant and profane and smart and funny and she looks at the world upside down and sideways. Under the guise of setting out to look for her deserter father as her life's quest, Oreo sets about tilting windmills. Oreo was recommended by Liz McCausland and her excellent review is here.

Against Hasty Marriage: I & II
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Deciphering Middle English took a bit of work and consultation with a dictionary
Comments: The Trials and Joys of Marriage (2002) edited by Eve Salisbury is a collection of Middle English poems/lyrics from the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. These were my readings for World Poetry Day on March 21.

Against a hasty marriage, the author suggests caution. Know or thow knytte; prove or thow preyse yt. Before you leap into it and praise it, make sure you have proof of it being a good relationship. I'm assuming by proof, he means of the entire relationship, not just the carnal side of it.

For, the author laments: For "had y wyst" commeth to late for to lowse yt. For "had I known" comes too late in order to loosen the nuptial bond.

I think the author speaks from a bad experience. Even before the wooing, he warns that marriage is a "longe wo."

Admonitions against widows are not a Georgian/Regency societal norm as romance novels would have you believe. They go far back.
Wedowis be wol fals, iwys,
For they cun bothe halse and kys
Til onys purs pikyd is,
And they seyn, "Go, boy, goo!"

Apparently, widows seek remarriage under false pretenses, i.e., not for love, but for financial or sexual reasons. They will hug and kiss till they pick your purse then they'll discard you.

Even of maidens, this misogynistic author writes that they're false and fickle.
Of madenys I wil seyn but lytil,
For they be bothe fals and fekyl,


If he had his way, no one would enter into the state of holy matrimony.

The Lady Hellion by Joanna Shupe
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: This Regency romance was my TBR Challenge book for this month and my comments are here.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Categories: nonfiction, fiction, children's
Diversity: Sudanese children
Comments: In this partly fictionalized account of actual events, Park tells the story of two Sudanese children from 1985 and 2008 whose lives have widely variant trajectories but who come to a common meeting point at the end of the book. It's a shocking story of pain and hardship for such little ones in war-torn Sudan. A beautiful book. It's my TBR Challenge book for April. [Edited to add a link to the review here.]

A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross
Categories: Mystery, Regency
Comments: I read this with Sunita and Liz and our discussion post is here.


Friday, April 8, 2016


Discussion: A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross


Earlier in March, Sunita, Liz, and I read A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross, a Julian Kestrel Regency mystery. We will be discussing the book in the comments section of this post.

A Broken Vessel is the second book of the short four-book series by Kate Ross. I love this series so far and wish there were more books. If you're interested in historical mysteries and/or the Regency era, I highly recommend these books. Ross does the Regency so well—nothing overt but with complete immersion.

We read the first book Cut to the Quick in December, and that discussion is here.

While CTTQ was set in a country manor, ABV is set in London. In it, we're introduced to Sally, Kestrel's valet Digger's sister. She's a lady of the night, who is content with her lot and lifestyle. Due to her propensity for thieving from the coat tail pocket of her clients ("flats"), she comes across a letter which is a confessional note by Mary, a lady who made a mistake and was now labeled a harlot. She has sought refuge in a reformation house but feels herself watched and denigrated all the time. In time, Mary's murdered and this is her story.

In the meantime, one of Sally's flat injures her badly and in that state she enters Kestrel's life. Kestrel is angered and disturbed by what has happened to her. And this is where the best part of the book for me took off. There's of course the unfolding of the mystery and busy to-ing and fro-ing of Kestrel and Sally in search of clues. However, Kestrel's and Sally's burgeoning relationship from those improbable beginnings to an amicable coming together is superbly and sensitively handled. At no point is there any slut-shaming or a miraculous turning away from her lifestyle for Sally.

Before meeting Sally, this was Kestrel's opinion of prostitutes.

"I was subjected to interesting and indecent proposals by what Dipper calls public ledgers."
"Public ledgers?"
"I suppose because any man may make an entry."


This was Kestrel's first opinion after he meets Sally. In conversation with Digger:

"You know, I could help her find work. One of my friends would give her a character."
"That's good of you, sire, but I don't think she'd stick it. Why, sir, she can earn more blunt in a night, seeing company like she does, that she could in a month as a moll-slavey, or in one of them factories. And the works ain't so hard, and she's got more liberty, like. What's being on the square got to offer, compared to that?"
"Self-respect," suggested Julian doubtfully.
"Self-respect's a fine thing, sir, but you can't eat it, nor drink it, nor put a red feather on it and tie it under the chin."
Julian had no answer to this.


Sally expresses her interest in Kestrel but is rebuffed gently.

He regarded her thoughtfully. "Why have you been telling me all this?"
"'Coz you was blue-deviled, and I wanted to cheer you up. If you was any other cove, I'd've found better ways to do it than by talking, but you al'ays stalls me off when I make up to you. So I thought I'd talk about Dip, 'coz he's somebody you and me have in common, see?"
"Yes, I see. That was very kind of you, Sally."
"There ain't much I would've do for you, Lightening—if you'd let me."
"You've done more than enough. Would you think me rude if I asked to be alone for a while?"
She glared at him and got up. "Some folks," she said darkly, "wouldn't know a good think if it was to bite 'em in the cods!"


Despite his conversation with Digger, Kestrel tries to approach her directly about helping her to begin a new life.

"I'm proper grateful to you, I'm sure." She curtsied mockingly.
"I didn't mean to offend you. I only thought, if I can be of some use—"
"Well, you can't!" Her face closed up. "I don't want to talk to you no more."
"Wait, Sally, I don't want us to part like this."
"Well, maybe you won't get everything you want. Then you'll know what it's like."
"Would you mind telling me what we're quarrelling about? Just so that I can argue my side properly."
Heh!

Over time, Kestrel's view of her changes.

"I really did make up my mind from the beginning to keep you at arm's length for Dipper's sake. The trouble was, you'd got under my skin more than I realized—after you left, I couldn't stop thinking about you. And the strangest thing is, I was forever asking myself what I saw in you. I don't know how I could have been in doubt. You're clever and courageous and wholly adorable. What I see in you is what any man with eyes, ears, and blood in his veins would see."

Her opinion of him also changes.

"I used to think a gentleman was a cove with swell togs and carriages, and a handle to his name. Now I knows different. A gentleman is just what it says: a cover as is gentle. Kind to people, treating 'em decent—'specially them as is weaker than you."

After their night of passion...

"If you tell me once more that you can take care of yourself, I'll lock you in the hall cupboard till the investigation is over."
"That's how it al'ays is with coves," she complained. "Lift your heels for 'em, and they thinks they owns you."
"I'm not going to argue with you about this. Do you think I could let anything happen to you, after last night?"


Another interesting aspect of ABV is the relationship between MacGregor, the doctor-surgeon, and Kestrel. They met first in CTTQ and their relationship was rather involved there. Here, there's just some bits of it, but what's there is good.

"Julian smiled and said quietly, "My dear fellow, than you for that lecture. You've proved that not all strengthening elixirs come out of bottles."

And so I turn over the comments to Sunita, Liz, and any of you who'd like to participate.


Friday, April 1, 2016


Picture Day Friday: Tulips


This past weekend, we went to the northern part of Washington State to bask in its annual acres of tulips.




Friday, March 25, 2016


Picture Day Friday: Vigée Le Brun


The portrait of the Marquise de Pezé and the Marquise de Rouget with her two children was painted in oils in 1787 by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. It's displayed at the National Gallery of Art and was a gift of the Bay Foundation in memory of Josephine Bay Paul and Ambassador Charles Ulrick Bay. Vigée Le Brun was famous for her portraits of the royal court before the French revolution and was a favorite of Marie Antoinette. She was France's most famous painter of the 18th century and often had a waiting list. She painted more than 800 (!!) portraits in her lifetime and is most known for her life-like depictions of women and children.


Monday, March 21, 2016


#TBRChallenge Reading: The Lady Hellion by Joanna Shupe


2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Lady Hellion
Author: Joanna Shupe
My Categories: Romance, Regency
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Recommended Read

This book was recommended by Sarah MacLean in her Best Books of 2015 in WaPo.

The meet cute is very cute. Lady Sophia saunters into Lord Quint's life after months of separation to ask him to act as her second in a duel. Quint naturally is flabbergasted.

And this is how Quint becomes embroiled in Sophie's quest to find justice for women whose bodies were washing up on the shores of the Thames with missing right hands. They were all women of the night for whom no one cared to find justice. Sophie goes from clue to clue dressed as Sir Stephen, entering gaming hells and brothels. Her questions endanger her again and again. She gets stabbed once; she's threatened with gang rape once. And yet Sophie continued undaunted.

Unbeknownst to Quint, Sophie had saved his life many months ago as he lay dying from an infected stab wound. He recovered, but as a result of that stabbing, he becomes housebound with post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia. He despises himself at his, what he terms, "cowardice," because he was unable to help or protect Sophie. He believes that like his father, he is slowly going mad. That is why he refuses to marry Sophie, even when they become intimately involved.

Sophie helps him to slowly overcome his agoraphobia. In the end, when Sophie is taken by the killer, Quint comes through with the help of his friends. What I really liked about this long scene is that Quint doesn't magically get over his diseases and become the alpha hero that's usually the norm for such situations. He has his issues; he knows his limits; and he leans on his friends to help him. And together as a team, they rescue Sophie and dispatche off the villain.

Quint doesn't fully recover at the end of the book, far from it. However, Quint is willing to risk his health for the love of his life, and both Quint and Sophie are committed to helping him recover little by little.

One quibble I had with the book was that once Quint and Sophie have sex for the first time, the pacing of the book became uneven. The main storyline ground to a halt as page real estate was devoted to love scenes and they followed one after the other for a bit with the story not making much forward progress. Once those were out of the way, the story picked up again.

Overall, it was an unusual storyline that was well-told.


Friday, March 18, 2016


Picture Day Friday: A Church Inside a Tree


Well, alright. The church is not exactly inside the tree but the two yew trees flanking the north door of the church make it seem like the church is part of the trees. St. Edmund's parish church is a medieval church that's in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, England. It's one of the dozens of Grade 1 listed buildings in the Cotswolds district.


Friday, March 11, 2016


Picture Day Friday: Spanish Medieval Costumes


Spanish clothing circa 1400, according to Costumes of All Nations (1882)


[Image copyrighted by Medievalists.net.]


Friday, March 4, 2016


Picture Day Friday: Staircase of Book Titles


Isn't this book staircase simply marvelous?


[Image courtesy of CarolinaReader.]


Tuesday, March 1, 2016


My February Reading


In my January Reading post I discussed poems and pictures books and had a lot of fun doing it, so I've decided to continue to do them in my monthly round-ups.

This month's big idea that came out of my reading was "stillness"—sitting still going nowhere as a daily practice. The benefits are myriad from bringing calmness and contentment into your life to allowing you to process the stimuli you receive daily. It's an adult timeout from constant engagement with the world. Such a simple notion. Sit there. Do nothing. Every day for a few minutes. And just like that, you reap immeasurable healthful benefits.

One fact I learned this month is that children love books of all kinds, and they can process sophisticated ideas and facts even at very young ages. So there is no reason to feed them only simplistic fiction. Introduce books of all kinds, the more varied the better. You may think it's above their heads in the beginning, but you'll be surprised by what they can come back with after they've contemplated the material.

One other fact that was borne home to me was that raising children—all children of every disposition and inclination—devoid of expectations is a virtually impossible task and yet so necessary.


Island Fling by Ros Clarke
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Short Story
Comments: Recommended by Kelly. This is the first romance short story I've ever read. I had assumed that I would not believe in a HEA in such a short form. But this second-chance story works really well. And it's the skilled writing that makes it so.

Here's an example. This is their first love scene after their separation seven years ago.

It ought to feel hurried, urgent, after so long without her. And yet there was a glory in the slow languorous loving that she offered him. Patience that forced him to pleasure in each moment without always rushing on to the next. There would be more and it would be better and deeper, but there was also now and that held its own perfection. So he let her set the pace with her tender kisses that held so much healing. They weren't just making love with their bodies tonight, they were making peace and reconciliation.

Lovely, isn't it? For a short story, it has such a leisurely approach to the storytelling, a place to dream, a place to believe. I loved it. My detailed review is here at All About Romance.


The Innocents by Margery Sharpe
Categories: Literary fiction
Diversity: Features a child on the autistic spectrum
Comments: Recommended by Willaful. This book really made me think and feel. Oh, mostly feel. With such a deft, delicate hand Sharp navigates the mind and circumstances of a girl on the autistic spectrum and through it all she opens this innocent child to our understanding. We learn about her personality, what she values, what she needs, and most importantly, what she gives to those around her.

This is not a saccharine look at autism as Hollywood has it. It is a quiet look at a human being in all her complexity despite her paucity of years. And it is a quiet look at the adult human being in her twilight years who has an enormous capacity for patience, understanding, and caring to bring up a child in comfort and security and respect.

That last word is important: respect. She treats the child with a lot of respect for who she is just the way she is without expectations. I can't imagine how enormously difficult that must've been. Yet, this woman succeeds, because she doesn't think of herself but rather of the child. This is how parenting should be regardless of who your child is.

The child's mother has deposited her three-year-old with this woman, who's also the narrator. The first World War separates them—between New York City and East Anglia—for five years, though the narrator suspects the mother exaggerated the danger of the crossing. It is with sorrow that the narrator shows how the child's mother returns to fetch her like a parcel but instead of getting to know her, she is willfully and neglectfully convinced that psychotherapy, speech therapy, and nannies would help fix the child up in no time. She blames the narrator for unfortunately cossetting the child and getting her to this state. The mother is shown as a flighty, shallow beauty, more concerned with herself and the attention showered on her by others than a caring of those around her.

The book moves at a measured pace, set in a small village in the English countryside. It isn't slow by any means, but it definitely speeds up and becomes suspenseful towards the end. And...Egad, the end. It would be a huge spoiler to even allude to it, so I'll end these thoughts here.


Baby Makes Three by Molly O'Keefe
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, #SuperMonth
Comments: Recommended by Miss Bates, SuperWendy, and SonomaLass. Does O'Keefe take you through the wringer! It was one of those rare books these days where I stayed awake till 1 o'clock and then resumed again at 6 o'clock till I was done. O'Keefe does emotions really well. She truly can enter into her characters' feelings (all of her characters, primary and secondary) and to choose words with care to show them to the reader. The heroine's interaction with a troubled youth was brilliant as was showing how her life experiences had scarred her and her path to recovery from that. What was a stumbling block for me was that the end was rushed so I didn't see a similar maturation of the hero's feelings to where I believed in the complete stability of their second-chance HFN. Given that the hero and heroine had been married, had divorced, and were giving their relationship another go, I really needed to see more of an exploration of that HFN. But gosh, I'm really enjoying exploring O'Keefe's œuvre.


Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: Recommended by Bill Gates and his mini review is here. This was the first time one of his recs haven't worked for me. It was a total DNF. The font's miniscule and light gray-blue so very hard to read. The book's imitating a blueprint. However, I've read many far more legible blueprints than this. Each page, or a pair of facing pages, explains simple to complicated facts using diagrams. The complicated diagram to explain something simple like a bridge (called cutesily "tall roads") is ridiculous. Ditto for boxes that make clothes smell better (washers and dryers) and others. He also uses the sample style and complexity of diagrams to explain a fuel rocket, which would've been great to learn about if only I could've read it. Given Munroe's pedigree (he's the author of a science question-and-answer blog called What If? and the author of the comic xkcd), I had high expectations of this book. So it was a disappointment not to be able to appreciate its quirkiness.


The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
Categories: Nonfiction
Diversity: Indian-American writer. Book features people from all over the world
Comments: As you know, I'm a huge fan of Iyer's work. I haven't met a book or article he's written that I haven't instantly fallen in love with. Something about his Oxbridge style of confessional writing really appeals to me. This book extolls the virtues and benefits of taking timeouts from the world to be still. I wrote about the book in detail here as my TBR Challenge post for this month.


When Falcons Fall by C.S. Harris
Categories: Mystery, Regency
Note: I received a print ARC from NAL for review
Comments: I have always enjoyed Harris's Sebastian St. Cyr series. I consider them among the top few historical mystery series. My review will be available at All About Romance in March. [Edited: The review is here.]


Lotem Abdel Shafi by Aharon Shabtai
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Israeli poet. Poem in translation from Hebrew
Comments: Recommended by Eric Selinger. This poem is taken from the poetry collection J'Accuse. Shabtai is an Israeli Jewish professor living and working in Israel. In "Lotem Abdel Shafi," he holds his nation accountable for what he perceives is complete dominance over the Palestinians. He yearns to reach out to the Palestinians, to make them his own.

The heart dies without space for love, without a moral horizon:
think of it then as a bird trapped in a box.
My heart goes out with love to those beyond the fence;
only toward them can one really advance, that is, make progress.
Without them I feel I’m half a person.


Shabtai writes that he's a disciple of Shakespeare, not of Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. He hopes his daughter will marry the grandson of Haidar Abdel Shafi, a physician and a Palestinian political leader. Shabtai feels betrayed by his own country. He had a vision of what Israel would be like, what its future would be like in that part of the world, and the reality shocks and horrifies him. He had hoped that it would be...

our Land as a whole, belonging equally to all of its offspring,

I'm taking a risk writing about this poem here. I could simply have read it and not posted about it, but I feel that's not being honest with the intent of these monthly recap posts. They're there for me to learn from recapping my thoughts and to share them. I will have to weather accusations of being cruel and unfeeling. I freely admit that as a non-Jewish, non-Arab American living in America, I have very little clue of what reality is like on the ground. But it is only through the words of the great thinkers and writers of the region (Mahmoud Darwish also comes to mind), will I gain a modicum of understanding. So I offer the poem here and my brief commentary on it as my attempt to understand.


Exodus by Taha Muhammad Ali
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Israeli Arabic poet. Poetry in translation from Arabic
Comments: Recommended by Eric Selinger. This is a poem of such heartbreak, such sorrow. This is what it feels like to be in Palestine. I have no words of my own to share. My fingers are leaden, my stomach is in knots. Here are some words from the poem.

No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it’s already risen.
We will not leave!

[...]
The shields of light are breaking apart
before the rout and the siege;
outside, everyone wants us to leave.
But we will not leave!

[...]
Outside they’re blocking the exits
and offering their blessings to the impostor,
praying, petitioning
Almighty God for our deaths.



In Poetry’s Emergency Room and Avantgardists by Kim Seung Hee
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: South Korean poet. Poems in translation from Korean
Comments: In Poetry’s Emergency Room, the poet writes: Poetry is emergency room, poetry is oxygen tent and also one of your poems, a steaming bowl of rice. Poetry encompasses all life, large life-changing events, such as the birth of a child and deep sorrow, and also the minute grains of rice and small paddy fields. Poetry also has the ultimate power and influence over life: I am saved, you are saved.

In Avantgardists, the poet is trying to explain the boundaries of what an avant-gardist means to society. They have to be evanescent like butterfly wings and soap bubbles, because not doing so would feel obsequious. But they also have to be stalwart like the wind and the waterfall that does not turn but causes others to turn. Avant-gardists are fierce and they're lonesome as they [draw] a line between heaven and earth with a very sharp knife.

They have to stand on the gold thread known as a one-off.
There must be no reserves or repetition in courage. Choice
is seen as a form of suicide



If Only We Had Taller Been by Ray Bradbury
Categories: poetry
Comments: According to Brain Pickings, "On November 12, 1971—the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet—Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke sat down for an extraordinary conversation about the future of space exploration and the perennial spirit of discovery." Bradbury read this poem of his during that conversation.

He talks about his hope for humankind's great achievements in space exploration. And he wishes that when God sees what we have achieved He will think us good and accomplished, that He will be pleased.

Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!



Go Not to the Temple by Rabindranath Tagore
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Indian Poet
Comments: I believe this poem was written in English and is not in translation from Bengali or some other Indian language. I have read Tagore's work before and always come away with a deep appreciation of the lyrical beauty of his words and the pictures he paints. What a gifted writer!

This poem to me is very Buddhist. God resides within and it is in your power to become more and more God-like through perseverance and patience and humility. You have to strive to achieve God's grace and the way you do so is by working on yourself, your thoughts, your personality, your behavior within and without.

Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen...
Go not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin from your heart...


I have a funny story about Tagore. In my first year composition class as a freshman undergraduate, my instructor compared my essay to Tagore's writing. (Imagine that!) But wait. He was not praising it, but rather, denigrating it. He thought Tagore's writing was rather clichéd. (Imagine that!) An English graduate student at a second tier university had the arrogance to call Tagore's writing clichéd. He told me that instead of writing about the rising sun in colorful and musical language, I should compare it to a blonde waitress waking up for breakfast. There was much, MUCH I wanted to say, but I kept it all behind my teeth. All I did was nod. And then went back and changed nothing.


Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
Categories: Poetry
Comments: The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.


In this poem, Arnold is comparing the sea to religious faith. Like the waves surge and ebb against the pebbles of the shore in a melancholy cadence, so is the depressing ebb and struggling flow of the status of religion in people's hearts and minds.

...on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,


The light of faith is blinking out while the cliffs of pain and sorrow and struggle stand stalwart. He tells his love let us be true to one another, because while they may think that a land of dreams awaits them in the years to come, reality...

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain


And this is because religious faith is at an all-time low in society. Fewer and fewer people are believing in it as deeply as before.


Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora
Categories: Fiction, Children's Picture Book
Comments: The story is that one day, the Bunny family returns home to find a baby in a basket on their front doorstep. Mama and Papa fall instantly in love. But their daughter Dot is horrified. He's a wolf and she shouts: "He's going to eat us all up!" But the Bunny parents care not a whit for that and lavish their love equally on Wolfie and Dot.

As much as Dot resents and fears Wolfie, that much he adores her and follows her around. One day, they run out of carrots and the two kids are sent to the Carrot Patch to buy some. Dot grudgingly allows Wolfie to tag along behind her. They get to the store and the Bear shopping there takes one look at Wolfie and shouts: "Dinner!" and grabs Wolfie.

Now this was Dot's chance to run away home to her Bunny family and never see Wolfie again. But what does tiny Dot do. She goes toe-to-toe with the Bear and shouts: I'll eat you all up!" The Bear and Dot have an intense exchange with increasing threats from Dot and bewilderment, and fear, from the Bear. Finally, the Bear drops Wolfie and runs away.

Wolfie is so delighted that his hero saved him. Then Dot says to him: "Come on, little brother. Let's go home and eat." And she holds his paw and this tiny bunny and the towering wolf go home.

Such a beautiful, tender story of family and love. It doesn't matter what your loved ones look like, all that matters is that you love them. And you'll do anything for them.


Water is Water by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin
Categories: Nonfiction, Children's Picture Book
Comments: This book is about the cycle of water in nature: how it moves, how it changes. It starts out as a cup of water, which becomes steam when it heats up and becomes condensation when it cools up high. Page after page the book describes: fog, rain, puddles & streams, ice, snow melt, and so on until we return to a glass of liquid that we drink. While the concepts are hard-hitting, they're told through very simple words and few words per page that are beautifully and realistically illustrated with a lot of children in motion.


Friday, February 26, 2016


Picture Day Crisis: A Book Having an Existential Crisis


Courtesy of the Des Plains Library...


Thursday, February 25, 2016


Meme: Coffee & Book Pairings


Memes don't seem to be as popular these days. In the old days of LiveJournal's heyday, new memes cropped up every day. So I was excited to this bookish coffee meme. Here are my coffee/tea and book pairings.

Black Drip: A series that’s tough to get into but has hardcore fans

Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series have legions of fans but the bar for entry is rather high. I found that I couldn't get into it, the first time I tried reading it, because there are a lot of references to books, people, and events about which I knew nothing. Then I tried listening to it, but the cast of characters is so large, it was confusing at times to know who was saying what. So then I went with a three-prong approach: I got a companion guide to explain all the references, listened to the audio for the characterization, and read the book to put it all together. What a rewarding way to read The Game of Kings. After this, it made the rest of the Lymond series go easier.

Peppermint Mocha: A book that gets more popular during the winter or a festive time of year

Romance novels are always popular in February. Romances during Christmastimes are always popular during December. Beach romances are popular in the summer. For me, it's organizational or motivational books in January. This year's book was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Hot chocolate: Favorite children’s book

I loved the first book of a series by Maud Hart Lovelace called Betsy Tacy. Such an engrossing book about girlish friendships. Every girl dreams of having a close friend like this living in her neighborhood, going to the same school, and sharing a close friendship where they share virtually everything.

Double shot of espresso: A book that kept you on the edge of your seat from start to finish

The Cuckoo's Calling was an exciting start to a mystery series by JK Rowling's pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The characterization was detailed and real as was the mystery.

Starbucks: A book you see everywhere

If I see a book everywhere, I rarely read it right then. Ennui sets in and I'm afraid the book will never meet all the expectations raised in me by all the comments and reviews and word-of-mouth praises. In spite of these reservations, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. And every word of praise and all the awards fell short of reality. It was my best book of 2015.

That hipster coffee shop: A book by an indie author

Last year, I read a funky nonfiction-fiction memoir The Travelling Parsi self-published by Kamal Sunavala. It's a real account of life among the Parsis, India's ancient Zoroastrian community. It was laugh-out-loud funny in parts, eye-rolling in some, and merely angsty and ridiculous in some. Thoroughly entertaining.

Oops! I accidentally got decaf: A book you were expecting more from

With a title Secret of the Templars, who wouldn't expect great historical adventure and mystery? Well, the book as written by Paul Christopher was false advertising where the Templars made nary an appearance except for one reference in passing. And far from being an engrossing intricate mystery, it was a thriller where characters showed up on page merely to die a few pages later; no one's life was sacrosanct; and not much happens after all.

The perfect blend: A book or series that was both bitter and sweet but ultimately satisfying

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande about the state of geriatric medicine was a terrible thing to read. That is what awaits every one of us unless something miraculously changes about how the medical world and society at large views old age. This was such an important book to me and what made it accessible and eminently readable was Gawande's elegant prose and storytelling skills.

Green Tea: A book or series that is quietly beautiful

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson immediately comes to mind. It's a sorrowful book about childhoods rent by racism but it's also about hope and about the triumph of the spirit. And it's written in gorgeously lyrical prose. I read it slowly, luxuriating in the words and word paintings.

Earl Grey: A favorite classic

Gosh, so hard to narrow it down to just one. Austen's Pride & Prejudice is too easy a choice. Instead, I'm going to go with a book I loved as a kid: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

Chai tea: A book or series that makes you dream of far off places

I'll again reach back into my childhood for books by the beloved British author Enid Blyton. I loved all her books, especially her magical ones where the children met all kinds of fairy folk and went on all kinds of adventures. Such fun derring-do. But the best part of all of Blyton's books were the depictions of typical British homes, foods, rituals, and customs. As a child, I dreamed of going to be there on that green isle and living those lives.


Friday, February 19, 2016


Picture Day Friday: Sumela Monastery, Turkey


Sumela Monastery is a Greek Orthodox monastery devoted to the Virgin Mary at Melá Mountain in the Trabzon province of Turkey. Those mountainsides are steep and high: nearly 3,900 vertical feet. I wonder how the monks managed to climb up from the village with their supplies.

According to Wikipedia, the monastery was founded in AD 386 during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375 - 395). Despite it falling into disrepair and disuse many times, it's been restored and rebuilt many times over. Currently, it's a big tourist attraction in that ancient region of Trabzon.

Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey, has been on the world map since 700 BCE. It was a major port city on the Silk Route and a gateway to Iran and the Caucasus region.


["Sumela From Across Valley" by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (own work http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.]