Category: reading

SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for January (and Harlequin TBR #513): The Taming of Mei Lin

I decided to join Wendy the SuperLibrarian’s TBR Challenge this year, since reading from the TBR is my main 2019 reading goal. And I do have my towering TBR of Harlequins to get through. January is always short reads, to ease us into the year. I knew I had books in Harlequin’s various short-story and novella lines, and I found a Jeannie Lin short from the Historical Undone line. It is the prequel to her debut novel for Harlequin, Butterfly Swords. I finally read that last year, so The Taming of Mei Lin sounded like a perfect follow-up.

This story is about 40 pages, more of an amuse-bouche than anything, but it packs a nice romance into its brief wordcount, complete with some sexy romantic scenes as well. Mei Lin is the grandmother of Ai Li, the heroine of Butterfly Swords, and her romance with the stranger who comes to town, Shen Leung, provides the ancestral backstory for the novel.

Mei Lin is an orphan who lives with her uncle, aunt, and cousin. She has resisted being married off as the third wife to the local magistrate, Zhou, which displeases both her uncle and Zhou. Mei Lin is adept in the use of butterfly swords and has decreed that she will only marry someone who can best her in a swordfight. Zhou can’t, and the emissaries he sends can’t either. But then Shen arrives. They are a well-matched pair in every way, and Mei Lin thinks this is a best deal she can probably get, but Shen doesn’t seem to want to claim his prize.

Their battle of swords turns into a battle of something more, as Mei Lin continues to fight Zhou’s thugs and Shen tries to stick to his plan to continue his solitary life. The attraction between them is convincing and well depicted, and the sex is integral to the story (as is always the case with Lin’s fiction, in my opinion).

As I said, this is a very quick read but a rewarding one. The cultural milieu is established well despite the word count constraints. If you haven’t read Butterfly Swords, start with this prequel, and if you have, read this for the backstory.

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Recent Reading: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

My first book of 2019 is from my regular TBR, an ebook I probably bought because it was on sale. I own three books by Fitzgerald but I’ve never read any of other work despite being a fan of mid-century UK women authors. I picked this one because people were discussing it as part of a Booker-themed reading project at The Mookes and the Gripes GR group. Readers, I loved it.

Offshore 2014 cover

The story is set among barge-dwellers on the Battersea Reach of the Thames River in the early 1960s. Nella is a wife and mother of two daughters who is separated from her husband. She still seems to love him very much but he won’t live on the boat with her and she refuses to talk to him or visit him in north London, so they are at an impasse. Nella’s river community includes Richard, whose boat is shipshape and whose wife hates living in it; Maurice, a rent-boy who befriends Nella and her daughters and in whom Nella confides; Willis, an aging artist whose boat is barely staying above waterline; and Woodie, who lives half the year alone on his well-maintained boat and half the year on land with his wife. Nella’s children, the frighteningly adult and clear-eyed Martha and the born-to-water Tilda, move among the boats and people constantly and avoid attending their convent school as much as possible.

This is a world of liminality. Everyone is in an in-between state of one kind or another, and while it seems as if nothing is going on, lives are moving and changing, almost imperceptibly. Willis is getting ready to sell his boat, which sets off a chain of related and seemingly unrelated events. Richard’s wife reaches the end of her tether, which changes Richard and Nella’s relationship and brings buried feelings to the surface. Nella’s sister, who lives in Canada and who hovers in the background for much of the story, sending visitors who never arrive, shows up in London at the same time that one of her promised visitors actually arrives at Nella’s barge. The dangers of the rent-boy life finally catch up with Maurice and those around him. After three-quarters of a novel in which things barely seem to happen, everything comes to a melodramatic head.

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2018: The reading year in numbers

For the last few years I’ve maintained a file of spreadsheets that track my reading challenges and overall reading for the year, categorizing books by obvious and maybe not so obvious characteristics.

Total books read: 120. This is the most I’ve read since … well, at least since I was mainlining Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, and other Harlequins quite a while ago.

Total books written by women: 60/120. Reading half women pleased me because I was afraid that reading more lit fic would mean reading far fewer women. Obviously it’s fewer than when I read primarily romance, but it’s still a good number. My non-romance TBR is probably skewed toward men, but my romance TBR is overwhelmingly by women, so this proportion shouldn’t change much in 2019.

Total books written by new-to-me authors: 74/120. This is more than I expected. It’s probably a consequence of reading awards longlists and also “it” books, since they’re often by authors I’ve heard of but not read. I’m glad to have found a lot of new authors, and my TBR has grown as a result (of course!).

Own voices authors: 30/120. This is OK but not great. I struggled with this category in terms of how to define it. Last year I used AOC, but I wanted to capture how many authors I read who were writing about their own cultures and experiences. I only had a handful of non-white authors writing about non-white cultures that were not their own, and I didn’t include those; it would have raised the number by a few but not significantly. I also had a handful (more than a handful, maybe?) of white authors writing POC, and breaking out own voices allowed me to get a better handle on that distinction.

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2018: An overview of my year in reading

It is almost time to see the back of 2018 and the end cannot come too soon. If only I could have faith that 2019 will be better, but at long as it’s not worse I suppose we’re ahead of the game. Maybe.

The political year may have been full of not-great things, but my reading year was very rewarding. I read more books than I have in a very long time and I enjoyed a lot of them.

Challenges

I completed all my set challenges: PopSugar, Bookriot’s Read Harder, and Mt. TBR at the 24-book level. I enjoyed them for the most part. I was surprised at how few TBR books I read organically, since the only social media I participate in now for book talk is Goodreads, and I’m not nearly as active there as I used to be on blogs and Twitter. But I guess even a little bit of social reading is enough to get me to pick up plenty of shiny new books. On the plus side, that participation made fulfilling the non-TBR challenges easier. I had them both basically done by August.

Awards reading

I did a ton of longlist and shortlist reading this year, more than ever before. I read a number of books off the Tournament of Books longlist and shortlist in the winter. Then, in the summer I tackled the Booker Prize longlist, reading 12 of 13 despite having to order some of them from overseas. I really enjoyed reading them one after the other; unlike previous years I didn’t find it a burden as I went along. By the time the shortlist came out I only had a couple of them to go, which meant that the beginning of the school year didn’t derail me the way it often does.

I also read all the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist. That continues to be my favorite award and the one where I am most likely to find novels that are personally rewarding. There are also always new-to-me authors, and this year I discovered and loved Gabriel Josipovici and Will Eaves.

I read a handful of the Giller Prize longlist, with some of the books making it to the shortlist. As usual, I found a buried treasure: Our Homesick Songs, which didn’t make the shortlist but which was a lovely story about a fading culture in eastern Canada and how its inhabitants cope with the changes. I still have a couple of books in the TBR and look forward to reading them in 2019.

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Recent Reading: Harlequin TBR #514 and more

I do love plane flights for letting me catch up on my reading. I managed two TBR books and a recent release; two of the three were quite short but all were enjoyable.

Harlequin TBR #514: The Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels

Vicars daughter cover

Another Neels in my Harlequin ebook TBR that I remembered nothing about, but someone in my Goodreads feed reviewed it positively and I wanted a Christmas read so I read it out of order. As I read, I placed it as a late-era Betty that I didn’t enjoy that much. But this time around it was different. Like most of the newer ones it was shorter than the older ones in terms of wordcount, which meant that the tropes were all there but more sketchily presented. In spite of this, though, the plot point which brings our plain-but-with-beautiful eyes heroine together with her massive-Dutch-Doctor hero was written so effectively that it carried the rest of the story and had me believing in the HEA.

Margo is indeed a vicar’s daugher and lives in a small village where she does vicar’s daughter-ish things and will probably marry a local farmer becasue that’s her best option. Then Gijs van Kessel enters her life and when a tragedy brings them closer together, they embark on a marriage of convenience. There are all the requisite Betty touches: lashings of cream, Margo getting lost and being rescued by Gijs, a Big Mis that delays their mutual declarations of love, and Christmas celebrations. It’s a slight book overall, but it has a couple of scenes that elevate it above the average.

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Midweek links

Remember when every blog had a regular links post feature? Now no one does them because everyone gets their links from Twitter and Facebook. But since I’m not hanging out there, I decided to revive the links, at least occasionally. 

The Columbia Journalism Review writes that book coverage is increasing in major US publications. Which is great! Until you read the article and realize that “coverage” is an amorphous category ranging well beyond reviews and analysis. For the New York Times this means:

“In the past, when a book came into the Book Review, the question we would ask is, ‘Does this book deserve to be reviewed? Should we review this?’” Paul says. “Now the question is, ‘Does this book merit coverage? And if so, what does that look like?’”

For New York magazine the new direction sounds even grimmer:

[The] strategy, which cuts across Vulture, the Cut, Daily Intelligencer, Grub Street, and The Strategist, incorporates far less “up and down” reviews, opting instead for highly specific recommendations, debate-inciting rankings, and reviews that take into account a reviewer’s personal point of view and say something more about the culture.

This sounds closer to book industry hype than it does to talking about what is between the covers and in the text. 

This New Yorker article gets at what I mean in an article about the English-language debut of Dutch-origin dwarsliggers, or Tiny Books. These are very small books, about palm-sized, with small print on onion-skin paper. The first English release is of John Green’s YA oeuvre and is presumably perfect for holiday gift-giving. Overall Waldman is kind of positive, but she gets at the non-reading aspect of the format’s appeal:

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2018 Reading Challenges

Stack of books and ereader

The year isn’t quite over, but I’m done with all my reading challenges except one, so I might as well report the results. I took on three challenges this year. I did the PopSugar and Mt. TBR challenges for the third year in a row and the Bookriot Read Harder challenge for the first time. In addition, I’ve kept a spreadsheet of all my reading for the year. 

2018 PopSugar Challenge

I did the main and the “advanced” challenges for a total of 50 books. I completed all but one of the categories by August, and I only sort-of cheated on one to get there: “A book that was being read by a stranger in a public place.” Readers, I looked and looked, on planes, trains, buses, park benches, you name it. But either I couldn’t see the book title or it was a book that I would rather stab myself with a fork than read. (No, I am not going to read The Shack.) I turned in despair to the Goodreads group and found that people were fulfilling the prompt via photos of people reading books. Success! 

My only unfinished prompt was “A microhistory.” As a social scientist who does a lot of historical work, I’m familiar with this term. However, the way reading challenges define microhistory is weird and inaccurate. Both Bookriot and PopSugar consider books like Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, i.e., books about a single commodity, to be microhistories. They aren’t. A microhistory is a study of a person, event, or locality that is not “important” but which sheds light on larger processes and trends. In other words, it’s anti-famous-person, anti-global, anti-sweeping. But don’t tell the PopSugar and Bookriot people that. As far as they’re concerned, Empire of Cotton fits the category despite having “empire” and “global” in the title. 

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Harlequin TBR #515: A Convenient Gentleman by Victoria Aldridge

I apparently bought this book in 2012. It’s a backlist historical by Harlequin/M&B, originally published in 2004. Victoria Aldridge published half a dozen category romances, all historicals set in New Zealand. This book has a Marriage of Convenience (MOC) trope, an unbelievably naïve heroine, and a hero with some unusual qualities. If you’ve been looking for non-wallpaper historicals, this is one for you. 

A Convenient Gentleman cover

Caroline Morgan wants nothing more than to run the family farm and other holdings when her father steps aside, but Ben Morgan refuses to consider a woman for the job. The eligible son of the property adjoining theirs in New South Wales is smitten with Caroline and Ben is pushing for a personal and business union. Caroline, who is naïve and feisty in equal parts (not my favorite combination in a heroine) refuses and runs away to New Zealand, where she hopes to find her mother’s sister, Charlotte. 

She does indeed find Charlotte in Dunedin, a bustling city that serves the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. Charlotte is the owner of the large and luxurious Castledene Hotel, which she inherited from her recently deceased husband. But the hotel is in disrepair, the staff aren’t being paid, the debts are mounting, and Charlotte, who cares nothing about the hotel, is in thrall to the oily and lecherous Mr. Thwaites. Thwaites runs the adjoining bar and makes a healthy profit on it but pays no rent to Charlotte. Caroline knows she can turn the hotel around, but she needs money, and the banker holding Charlotte’s notes won’t lend to a woman. 

Enter our hero. Caroline needs a husband and fast, so she pays Leander Gray, a drunk she finds in Thwaites’ bar, to marry her. Of course Leander turns out to be More Than He Seems, and together they start putting the hotel to rights. Plot developments send Charlotte and Thwaites off-page (separately), and the first half of the story has our MOC’d couple working together and getting to know each other. They’re getting fond of each other and Leander has cleaned up nicely, but we still have half a book to go. 

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Taming the Harlequin TBR

Harlequin logo

Downloading my purchased Harlequins made me nostalgic for the days when I read a lot of categories and there were multiple online venues to talk about them with like-minded reader friends. Sadly, there aren’t as many anymore (either Harlequins I want to read or venues I want to hang out at). BUT! I have hundreds of them in my TBR, and now they’re reminding me of their presence. So I have hatched a plan to read them. 

My main reading device is a Kobo Aura H2O 2, and I like it very much. I like Kobo’s e-bookstore, I like being able to sync my library books to it, and for the most part I like the larger screen. But I still had my Nook Glowlight Plus in a drawer, and it’s a great travel ereader because it’s smaller and the cover doesn’t bulk it up too much. It occurred to me: why not charge it up and transfer all my Harlequins to it? So I did.

I deleted the books that I could immediately identify as ones I had read, which got me down to about 550.* I’m sure there are at least another 50 that will turn out to be familiar, probably more. Which still leaves me with so many books. And how do I choose the next one? 

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Recent Reading: Romances

I don’t read as many romance novels as I did a few years ago, but I never fully stop reading them. And a heavy dose of literary fiction almost demands some palate cleansers, in my case mysteries and romance with the occasional SFF novel thrown in. I usually turn to auto-buy authors or something in the TBR that’s been recommended by someone whose tastes align with me. This time it was Sarah Morgan, one of my favorite authors, who is now writing women’s fiction, and Kate Hewitt, who writes UK-set and UK-style romantic novels. They’re both still recognizably romances, but they have a larger cast of characters, fewer pages devoted to sex scenes without being necessarily closed-door, and characters who are older or at least not usually on their first relationship. 

The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan

Christmas Sisters cover

I’m always a sucker for Christmas stories from Morgan, and this one is set during the holidays in a remote village in Scotland. Three sisters gather at their parents’ house, two coming from New York and the third from down the road (she never left home). All three have family and relationship issues to deal with, as well as a shared trauma in their past that they’ve never really resolved. The trauma resurfaces in an unexpected way, shaping their interactions with each other as well as their romantic choices. This is an intergenerational story, with the parents’ history and contemporary circumstances getting equal billing with their adult childrens’ concerns. 

Many romance readers haven’t been thrilled with the shift to women’s fiction, but I haven’t minded it. I’ve always enjoyed books that straddle that boundary, and in the case of UK writers, the books remind me of the types of romantic novels that don’t always make it across the water. There is still enough focus on romance for me to enjoy the stories for that element, but there’s also more going on, and you can have lots of characters without feeling like they’re being set up for their own installments in a multi-volume series. 

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