Category: reviews

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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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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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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Harlequin TBR Review (TBR Book #516)

The first of my Harlequin TBR reviews is a Harlequin Romance by a new-to-me author, Jennie Adams. I used to buy a lot of HR because I liked the fact that the heroes and heroines were more or less ordinarily people and the settings weren’t over the top. There are a lot of babies in this line, which I prefer in moderation, and I probably picked this because it was baby-free. 

It wasn’t a great read. But I read the whole thing, and I get to cross one off the list. 

Surprise: Outback Proposal by Jennie Adams

Surprise Outback Proposal cover

This is an Australian-set romance in the regular Harlequin Romance line. The main trope is older woman-younger man, with workplace romance and road trip as secondary tropes. Sadly, I found the heroine unbearable and I couldn’t believe in the HEA. Jayne is 35, outwardly successful in her career, and attractive. She’s working in the family company and trying to persuade her father, the boss, to promote her to partner, but he’s fixed his eye on a young new male hire as his heir apparent (picture the ambitious shark played by James Spader in Baby Boom but with less charisma). The father is basically a selfish, sexist jerk whose first wife (Jayne’s mother) walked out on him, leaving Jayne and her sister behind. Since then he’s gone through several wives, with each being younger than the last. This upbringing has made Jayne pathologically insecure and distrustful of all relationships. She has no friends we can discern, either. She “socializes” with men to go to events, but these are all entirely chaste encounters so the men don’t stick around.

The hero is Alex, who has his own sad backstory: he was abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage by his mother and he only learned her name and circumstances when he received a posthumously mailed letter from her. He joined forces with two other boys at the orphanage and made a found family, but he’s also wary of attachment. So we have two damaged people.

Given that, it’s a bit disconcerting that the story opens with Jayne and Alex having an introductory business meeting about a potential contract and half of the exposition and internal monologuing is about how hot they find each other. And in Jayne’s case, how unattractive she must be, given her ancient age. My eyes, they could not stop rolling. There are all kinds of problems that can come with a 10-year age gap between a 25YO and a 35YO, but the obvious one of maturity is brushed aside quickly. No, it’s because Jayne is a cougar and Alex can’t possibly want her.

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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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Washington Black wins the Giller Prize

The Giller Prize was awarded last night and the winner was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (my review is here). This is Canada’s biggest fiction award at $100,000, and it’s the second time Edugyan has won it. 

I thought the Giller longlist was interesting but I wasn’t thrilled with the shortlist. I decided not to read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, having had enough autofiction for the year, and the other two books I read didn’t impress me. Here are my reviews, cross-posted from Goodreads:

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

This is my first novel by DeWitt and probably not a good place to start. I found this very disappointing. There are flashes of wonderful writing, but the novel doesn’t hang together at all. It starts out as a wickedly satirical take on the obscenely wealthy and ends up as a sentimental fable. I went with the complete unreality of the first part because the writing was deft and I was impressed by DeWitt’s apparent commitment to creating characters who were unlikeable yet interesting (Malcolm was interesting despite being a complete blank in many ways). I didn’t really believe that someone as unpleasant as Frances could be so charismatic, but again, I was willing to buy the setup.

But when the setting shifted to Paris, the satire softened and we were confronted with psychic phenomena, uncomfortable scenes set in a reality that was much harder to hand-wave away as funny (a riot and police action against homeless immigrants in a park, watched by the wealthy and bored, from the vantage point of the latter? Why?), and redemption for people who had done absolutely nothing to get to that point, let alone earn it. The symbolism was on-the-nose (Frances buys Malcolm a bicycle), the coincidences started to pile up, and the characters became imbued with attitudes and beliefs that, had they had them from the beginning, would have saved them from their various fates. This is billed as a “tragedy of manners” but I’m not sure what’s tragic about people reaping what they have very clearly sown, despite more opportunities than most people have to take other paths. Unless the messages are that (a) money doesn’t buy happiness; (b) childhood trauma happens to the rich and the poor; and (c) friends are important even when you’re wealthy. No kidding.

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Review: Godsend by John Wray

This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times. 

Godsend cover

Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.

The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections. 

You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.

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TOB Longlist and Award Announcements

It has been a busy week. Oh, wait, I was supposed to be talking about awards and longlists. On Monday the Tournament of Books published its 76-book longlist, from which 16 books (plus two additional for play-in rounds) will be chosen for the tournament. The longlist is an amalgam of TOB regulars’ suggestions and books put forth by the TOB powers-that-be. 

I’ve been following the TOB for about 5 years, I think? I’ve known of it for at least a decade (this is its 15th year) but didn’t pay much attention unless I was reading a specific judge’s decision or looking for the winner. Then I started following the tournament closely over the two weeks it takes place, then I discovered the longlist, etc. etc. For the last couple of years I’ve picked up books from the longlist and read them over the course of the year, and I’ve found some real gems. I have fared less well with the actual tournament. I enjoy rubbernecking in the comments section, but the literary sensibilities of most of the judges and the regulars don’t overlap that much with mine. The choices try to reflect a broad range of Anglophone and a few translated novels and short stories, but they tend to be NYC/MFA in their approach. In other words, they’re definitely the books that are talked about in New York publishing, but not necessarily books that are finding audiences in the UK or Europe. And the Canadian selections rarely range beyond the obvious. 

This sounds grumpy, and I don’t want that to be the dominant tone. I’ve loved the sense of discovery I get from perusing the longlist, and while I am not much of a horse-race literature award/contest reader, I like reading the judges’ verdicts and readers’ reactions to them. I find new books and authors, which is the most important and fun thing. 

This year, thanks to reading so many awards-nominated books, I’ve managed to read 16 books on the longlist (definitely the most ever by a lot):

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NBA Longlist quick reviews

The NBA shortlists come out on Wednesday, October 10. I’ve read 5+ of the 10 books at this point. Here are three brief-ish reviews of books that were worth reading but not at the top of my list, and one DNF.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads cover

This is a debut collection of short stories, some of which have been published elsewhere. It’s uneven but well worth reading. The first and last stories deal with black men shot by police and the effects on those around them. They involve more than that, but I found it interesting that we begin and end the collection with those, because most of the stories have very different emphases. It’s as if the author was saying that we can’t escape that reality, and she’s right. Both are gut-punches in expected and unexpected ways, and I found them very effective.

The other stories that worked really well for me were the ones that featured Fatima, a young black girl and then woman who is one of only two black students in her majority-white private school in Southern California. We are introduced to her indirectly in an epistolary story in which the two mothers engage in escalating one-upmanship and hostility. I found this clever, but much more cruel than funny. But Fatima’s own stories are fully of empathy, nuance, and complexity.

There is one other pair of connected stories which felt more like vignettes than full stories. The characters aren’t well developed and they seem more designed to make a point than to illuminate the people in them. I found that to be a recurring issue in the rest of the collection. The author does write young women well; older women and men, not so much.

The writing is assured and stylish. It occasionally has that workshopped feel (one story’s ending is shocking as you read it and then completely predictable in retrospect), but these stories were workshopped. I read in an interview that Fatima’s stories began as a novella, and perhaps that’s why they worked so well for me. There’s just more there to engage with.

3.5 stars at Goodreads.

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