historical romance

Flames of Glory- Patricia Matthews

Okay, so a while back, I posted about reading an article asking romance readers, “What was the book that got you into reading romance in the first place?” And of course, my answer to that was a big fat, “Uh…I can’t remember the title. Or the author. Or much of what happened in it.” Which is all super helpful information when you try to find a book, right? The universe smiled upon me, however; about two weeks or so after I read that article, I just so happened to find The Book, which turned out to be Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews (Thomdike Press, 1982). I’m still not over the fact that I actually found that book- I didn’t even really look at it at the used book sale, just kind of shrugged after I thought it might be it (because I had to leave; other errands to run!), then stuffed it in my bag. And it was so, so it!

Despite the florid description on Goodreads (complete with OCR scan typo), the book’s style wasn’t actually as overwritten as I expected and turned out to be a mostly pleasant read, generally speaking. Let’s start by picking apart the back cover copy (I’ll tidy up that scan error):

SHE WAS TORN FROM THE ARMS OF LOVE AND IMPRISONED IN THE HOT EMBRACE OF PASSION…

Sultry Tampa, crossroad for gallant soldiers of the Spanish-American War, was the beloved home of young Jessica Manning. Her elegance and delicate beauty entranced the most valiant men, but fate gave her the most ruthless–hot-blooded Brill Kroger. Ignited by selfish passion, Brill abducted Jessica, then swept his anguished prize on a blazing seaward quest for Aztec gold. Through it all, Jessica clung to one aching wish–a return to her glowing moments of surrender in the strong arms of dashing Rough Rider Lieutenant Neil Dancer. Neil’s heart burned wildly for his lost Jessica, and his fury now drove him to pledge his very life to rekindle the flames of their glorious love.

EGADS. Is that not the fussiest back cover copy you’ve ever read? Were all 80’s romance novels described like this??? The actual writing of the book is nothing like this and reads pretty close to what I would expect out of any decently-written book on the shelf today, so I’m not sure what the goal was with that mess.

There’s a brief scene at the beginning when Jessica is just fourteen years old, out with her parents and in awe over the grand opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Flash forward another seven years, and Jessica, whose greatest and sole personality trait is being beautiful (unless having sunshiny blond hair is also a personality trait, then that too, I suppose), is so utterly bored with life (ONLY BORING PEOPLE ARE BORED, JESSICA) that she’s practically cheering the start of the Spanish-American war, because it means that Tampa is filling up with soldiers, particularly Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Despite a prickly start, she and Lieutenant Neil Dancer (who has lightning-quick outdoor sex with Jessica’s skeezy friend Dulcy that lasts all of a brief paragraph forty-four pages into the book) spend a maximum of four or five hours together before sailing off on a day trip, getting marooned on a deserted island, declaring instalove, and engaging in what I imagine as being gritty, uncomfortable, sand-filled beach sex.

But back up a little bit from that image. The new man in town is Brill Kroger, which is quite possibly the worst romance villain name I’ve ever heard (you can practically hear the mustache twirling, can’t you?). Ostensibly, he’s there to help plan a ball to raise money for the soldiers, but thanks to a multiple narrative that allows us into his head, we know he’s really a con man who’s planning to run off with the money, but not before using (and abusing, because this was published in the early 80’s) a few Tampa women. While he hooks up with Dulcy several times, his vicious sites are mostly set on Maria Mendes, a Cuban-American woman who works at the hotel (and whose POV we also get to enjoy), and then, after she scorns and embarrasses him, Jessica. He’s a creep of the highest order, and oddly enough, he’s probably the most well-developed character.

As soon as Neil leaves with the Rough Riders, a head injury sends Jessica into the throes of- you guessed it- AMNESIA (because of course! This book checks so many romance novel boxes), wiping all her memories of Neil: their instalove, the sex on the beach, their secret engagement. When she doesn’t show up to visit Neil on the docks (that good old military hurry-up-and-wait in action!), he gets alternately pissy and worried, while back at home, amnesiac Jessica begins to swoon over Ramon, Maria’s brother (a plot point that served mainly to help the time pass, as far as I could tell). Neil is injured not long after the actual fighting starts in Cuba, and despite his love and worry about Jessica, he still gets naked with Margarita, a woman from the rebel camp who tended to his wounds. Bet he’ll never tell Jessica about that!

Back home (and there’s a content warning here), in the land of the 1890’s written in the 1980’s, Brill rapes and murders Dulcy out of a combination of fury from rejection by Maria and annoyance at Dulcy as a person. Tampa is mostly yawning over the war and so Brill’s idea of a benefit ball won’t work, but being the skilled con man he is, he changes it to a ball benefiting the local victims of a fire (Jessica’s amnesia-inducing head injury came from helping out here with the Red Cross). On the night of the ball, things go south fast, and in order to escape with the money, Brill abducts Jessica, flees to Mexico with her, and then loses his mind and thinks she’s his beloved mother, a tactic that really only makes sense because it was the only way for Jessica to remain alive and solely touched by Neil’s still-in-use-during-this-break-and-somehow-magically-not-full-of-syphillis johnson.

Long story short, Jessica doesn’t develop much personality while in captivity. Upon his return to Tampa, Neil learns of Jessica’s abduction and teams up with Maria and her soon-to-be fiancรฉ-then-husband Tom to travel to Mexico to bring Jessica back. Which they do, and of course Brill meets an untimely end, while Neil and Jessica and Maria and Tom live happily ever after, until, I assume, someone dies in childbirth and someone else dies due to lack of antibiotics, because this is the 1890’s and those things happen (this is where my brain goes when I read historical fiction).

So.

This actually wasn’t terrible! Despite Neil and Jessica lacking in the personality department and Brill being a little overwritten, the setting- 1890’s Tampa at the start of the Spanish-American war- really made this novel come alive. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else set during this time period, at least not in Tampa (which is probably why that stuck in my memory as one of the very few things I recalled about the book before finding it again), and I very much enjoyed reading all the historical facts and bits of trivia that Ms. Matthews wove into the story. I kept running back to Google while reading this, checking to see if certain bits were real, and from what I can tell, Flames of Glory is well-researched. In my opinion, it’s worth the read for the setting and period interest alone.

The characters…ehhhhhh. Jessica had about as much personality as a limp dishrag, and Neil wasn’t much better. There’s no description of what they love or even like about each other, most likely because neither of them actually have personalities or actual character traits, and they spend about ten seconds together with minimal conversation before getting down in the sand on that deserted island. Maybe that’s why Dulcy was so annoyed by Jessica and pissed off by Neil choosing her. Dulcy was every stereotype of the bad girl possible- she’s nasty and two-faced to Jessica, she sleeps around, she gets raped and murdered as punishment for her behavior- but at least she was interesting to read. Jessica, not so much. *yawn* Neil at least manages to come to the conclusion that maybe war isn’t all that great, after getting shot and watching his buddies get killed and maimed, so good for him on that, I guess (but facepalm for it taking his friends dying in front of his eyes for him to figure that out. Seriously, dude?). Dulcy doesn’t last long enough to grow as a character, Brill just gets worse in every way, and Jessica is as bland at the end as she is at the beginning…but Maria! Maria is strong and intelligent; she’s thoughtful and caring, cunning in all the right ways- a good thing, since it helps her evade Brill several times- and she goes from a young woman expecting to live a safe life in Tampa, to a grown woman who falls in love and is willing to put her life on the line to save a friend. She’s by far the most enjoyable character in the entire story.

Along with content warnings for a rape and murder scene, there’s one cringeworthy scene where Jessica is noticing the local Mayan people in Mexico; her descriptions of them are less than flattering and seemed unnecessary and unfair. The rest of the book seemed to me to be okay, but that one paragraph had my eyebrows way, way up there.

It’s funny; I first read this book when I was about twelve years old, but as I read it this time, I found myself remembering lines from upcoming paragraphs, and when I turned the page, sure enough, there would be the line I remembered. The human brain is a crazy thing. I can’t remember why I went into the kitchen half the time, but lines from a romance novel I read in 1992? WHY NOT!!!

One thing I didn’t remember about the book: when Brill drags Jessica to Mexico, he’s on the hunt for gold, and thanks to his interpreter, he learns that a great place to find gold is in a well in Chichen-Itza, used for sacrifices by the Aztecs to their rain god. The well is connected to a cenote, a deep, water-filled sinkhole connected to underground rivers. My husband and I honeymooned in Cancรบn and had the privilege of swimming in a few cenotes, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since. I had a huge smile on my face when the word appeared in the book!

A few cenote pics:

Most likely not the same cenote in which Brill Kroger met his untimely (or, let’s face it, timely, because he was a serious creep) end- I’m assuming he was hunting in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza because it fits the description in the book- but still pretty amazing. And yes, we both jumped from the ledge (at the top of those stairs) into the water, which was about a ten-foot drop, maybe more. I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I left without doing that, no matter how scary the first jump was! If you ever get a chance to swim in a cenote, DO IT. Seriously one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

All in all, while this wasn’t the greatest read of my life, I’m glad I got the chance to read it again, and that I was in the right place at the right time to find this book. I’m not sure what about it appealed to me as a kid, other than it was the first book I ever came across that included sex scenes- I mean, I was twelve, that may very well have been it! But because of this book, I’ve picked up plenty of other romances that I adored, so for that, I’ll always be grateful to Patricia Matthews and Flames of Glory.

Patricia Matthews passed away in 2006 at the age of 79. You can learn more about her at her Wikipedia page here.

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Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: June 2019

Once again, a month is ending, and I’m sitting here going, “Holy crap, where did it go???”

No big surprise. I was sick for so long that quite a few months blew right past me. Thankfully, I’m feeling MUCH better lately, and because of that, my reading time has definitely gone down, as I’ve been busy playing catch-up with all the many things I wasn’t able to do when I was sick or taking care of my sick kiddo. And there’s a LOT of it, but that’s okay. Everything in good time. ๐Ÿ™‚

We had a nasty start to the summer, weather-wise. Rain, rain, more rain, and weirdly chilly temperatures- up until about 9 days ago, I still wore a cardigan when I went out to do the grocery shopping. And just like that, the weather turned this week and we now need the air conditioner on, because the temps have gotten into the low 90’s. Make up your mind, Midwestern weather!!!

But let’s get down to the more important business at hand: BOOKS.

Books I Read in June 2019

  1. American Prison: An Undercover Reporter’s Journey Into the Business of Punishment- Shane Bauer

2. Big Rock- Lauren Blakely

3. Second Chances- Lauren Dane

4. The Idea of You- Robinne Lee

5. The Solace of Water- Elizabeth Byler Younts

6. Living More With Less- Doris Janzen Longacre

7. Mandy- Julie Andrews Edwards

8. Muslim Girl: A Coming-of-Age Story- Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

9. Tikka Chance on Me- Suleikha Snyder

10. Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith With the Poor Clares- Kristin Ohlson

11. Raising the Griffin- Melissa Wyatt

12. On the Outside Looking Indian: How My Second Childhood Changed My Life- Rupinder Gill

13. Ramona Forever- Beverly Cleary (no review, read out loud to my daughter)

14. How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids- Jancee Dunn (no review)

15. The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Just Trying to Fit In- Ayser Salman

16. Flames of Glory- Patricia Matthews (review to come)

17. Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life- Amber Scorah (review to come)

I figured my reading would slow down once summer picked up, and sure enough, this is my slowest month of the year so far. Still not bad, but that’s what happens when you’re finally able to crawl off the couch and start hosing down the house and working on projects you’ve been putting off for months due to being sick. Not necessarily a bad thing, though. ๐Ÿ™‚ Eight fiction, nine non-fiction; that’s more non-fiction than I expected, especially given that I end up reading more fluffy stuff when I’m feeling crummy.

Reading Challenge Update

I’m not currently participating in any reading challenges. It’s a reading free-for-all!

State of the Goodreads TBR

I’m adding this as a new category here this month in order to be better accountable for my reading!

Goodreads is where I keep my TBR list; it’s so convenient to be able to hit that want-to-read button. Currently, my Goodreads TBR list stands at 81 books. It seems impossible to get it below 80; the second it gets close, all the other book bloggers conspire against me and start posting amazing reviews and I’m all, “Oooooooh…”

Books I Acquired in June 2019

Slow month for buying books, but I’m okay with that, as I also need to focus on reading things from my own shelves. I did, however, win a copy of If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann, from a blog tour (and dang it, I seem to have deleted the email that reminded me which blog it was! If it was yours, let me know in the comments and I’ll give you credit and link back to you. Thank you!), so that was awesome! I love the cover.

Bookish Things I Did In June 2019

Would you believe not much? I had a scheduling conflict with the library book club, so that was out. There was a used book sale, but the more I thought about it, the more I figured I didn’t really need to go. I already have a zillion books on my own shelves that I desperately need to read, so I saved money, saved gas, saved wear and tear on the car and the environment, and I stayed home. I did grab my son and his best friend and make them walk to the library with me one night, though. It’s about a 3 mile walk, round trip, so that was good exercise for all of us, plus both the boys checked out books (my son’s friend recently got a library card for the first time- he apparently really got into reading The Martian by Andy Weir, to the point where he was excitedly texting my son with updates on what he’d read, which is awesome, and he decided he wanted a library card! It always makes me happy to hear about someone finding a book that makes them enjoy reading. Rock on, Seth!).

I did participate in TheWriteReads’ Ben Galley blog tour, a first for me! If you missed my first chapter review of Bloodrush, check that out. ๐Ÿ™‚

I’ll miss the library book group discussion in July as well, since we’ll be out of town. I’m halfway through my fourth sheet of ten books for the summer reading program (you can only fill out five!), so hopefully I’ll finish this next month. Must find more time to read!!!

Current Podcast Love

I’m still digging Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. This past month, I’ve enjoyed interviews with Thien-Kim Lam from Bawdy Bookworms, Alisha Rai, Bea & Leah Koch of The Ripped Bodice, Beverly Jenkins, Jennifer Lohmann of NoveList (check your library website for access!), and two absolutely hysterical live shows recorded at the Romantic Times convention. There’s always something fascinating in this podcast; three of the authors I read this month came from suggestions mentioned in one or several episodes. (It’s a TBR killer, for sure!)

Real Life Stuff

Busy, busy month. In the beginning of the month, I was still in recovery from the sinus infection that wouldn’t die (I ended up needing two rounds of antibiotics to finally send it packing; I’ve still got the accompanying cough), and then I had an easily-fixable-but-still-painful issue with my left ear the next week! I’m just going to pack up and move into my doctor’s office; it would make life a lot simpler… Fortunately, we’re all on the mend right now. I’ve gotten a little bit of energy back and have done a few projects around the house that I’ve been putting off due to feeling like garbage, so that’s a start. I’ve got two blog posts to write up yet that I missed out on when I was sick, so to the people to whom I owe posts, they’re coming!!!

My daughter had her pre-kindergarten eye exam and we found out that she’ll need glasses to correct the astigmatism in her left eye. We had to visit a different optometrist to get her fitted with properly-fitting frames, since her head, face, and nose are so narrow, but they’re in and we’ll be picking them up this morning!

My son was away from home for over a week, attending both his Madrigal retreat and then getting dropped off at a week-long summer music program at a university downstate. He celebrated his birthday (17!!!) while at the Madrigal retreat, and the concert his group put on when my mother and I picked him up from the music program was beyond phenomenal. One of the kids who had a solo in one song is apparently going to be on America’s Got Talent, from what my son said. My son seems to have learned a lot from the session, and I’m so thrilled that he had the opportunity to go (I’m also happy he’s home, I missed him!).

July’s going to be another busy month. We usually attend the 4th of July parade in my sister’s town, and at the end of the second week, the kids and I are traveling with my mom to Branson, Missouri for a week. We usually go somewhere with her every summer, and Branson is a new destination for us. My mom loves to get out and explore new places, so this will be a fun trip. That will also mark the cut-off point for my daughter: no more naps! She still naps in the afternoon most days, mainly because she’s often up before 6 am and we all need a nap after that! But with full-day kindergarten coming up, she’s got to learn how to function without a nap, so we’ll have a month to adjust before she’s off to school.

And that’s it for June! How did you do this past month???

memoir

The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman

Another book from my wandering-the-library-with-no-list day! The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman called out to me right away from the New Arrivals shelf- with a title like that, how could it not? We’ve all felt like we’ve been sitting at the wrong end of the table at one time or another in our lives, as Ms. Salman points out; I’ve definitely been there (#socialanxiety #awkward #thisiswhyIstayhome), and so this jumped off the shelf and into my book pile. ๐Ÿ™‚

Ayser Salman was born in Iraq.. Her family moved to the US when she was three for her parents’ jobs (as well as to flee the growing fascist regime), living first in Ohio and then moving to Lexington, Kentucky, which did have a small Arab community (very small, from the sounds of it). Ms. Salman never felt like she fit in with the other kids: the food she ate was different, her religion was different, her hair was different, her family’s customs were different, even her name was different from those of her fellow classmates. There’s no angst, no whining or woe-is-me style of writing here; on the contrary, Ms. Salman displays a level of humor and good-natured acceptance of her far-too-often outsider status in her youth that would be difficult for most to achieve. When her family spends a few years in Saudi Arabia, though some things ring familiar (she’s finally with people like her!), there are still plenty of times she remains on the edges.

Ms. Salman covers a variety of topics from her life, from her primary education, her love life (and occasional lack thereof, which isn’t always a bad thing!), her parents (you’ll love her mother) and her relationship with them, siblings, her work life and her struggle to get where she is, how September 11th affected her community, and much more. Over the course of these many essays, she grows from a child who can’t quite find the place where she’s supposed to fit in, into a woman who’s fully able to forge her own path, create her own place, and embrace all that her history and her culture mean to her.

The Wrong End of the Table is a fun read. Ms. Salman’s comical way of explaining her childhood antics had me smiling as I turned the pages, her relationship with her mother charmed me to pieces, and the family’s move to Saudi Arabia, coupled with her fear, fascinated me. I’d read accounts of adults moving there, but never that of someone who moved as a child, so this book was worth the read for that alone, to better understand what that experience is like.

She does get into politics a little, including the Muslim ban; I don’t think there’s any way for that particular subject to be avoided these days, nor should it, especially since it affects Ms. Salman’s community and most likely affects people she knows personally. Her tone is optimistic, more so than I would have been, and so I’m only mentioning this so that you keep it in mind when you’re choosing what you can handle reading. There’s an awful lot in the news that I’m currently not handling well at all; I’ve had to put a few books down because I’m not in the right headspace to be able to carry the emotional weight of those books as well as everything else right now. (And that’s not to say that I won’t ever go back to those books at a different time.)

So this was a great modern take on living in the US as a Muslim immigrant, by a woman with a gift for storytelling. I enjoyed reading such a refreshing take on American life through Ms. Salman’s eyes.

Visit Ayser Salman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction

Blog Tour: Bloodrush by Ben Galley

Hey guys! I’ve got something pretty wild up on the block today: I’m part of TheWriteReads and TheWriteReads OnTour blog tour for Ben Galley’s Bloodrush (BenGalley.com, 2014). If you’re not familiar with Ben Galley, fear not! Check out this bio:

Ben Galley is an author of dark and epic fantasy books who currently hails from Victoria, Canada. Since publishing his debut The Written in 2010, Ben has released a range of award-winning fantasy novels, including the weird western Bloodrush and the epic standalone The Heart of Stone. He is also the author of the brand new Chasing Graves Trilogy.

I love helping to promote these hardworking authors (writing books is no joke!), and as I wasn’t sure if Bloodrush would be in my wheelhouse, I signed up to do a first chapter review. Opening the book on my kindle was, much to my surprise, a fascinating and nostalgic trip back to my childhood, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s discuss what’s going on in these beginning pages.

Following a brief yet creepy prelude about how the old magic and old darkness still exists today, barely covered by our ego-filled technology and new-world shininess, Bloodrush begins with death- the death, the murder, of Lord Karrigan Bastion Hark, that is, Prime Lord of the Empire of Britannia, perpetually disappointed father of thirteen-year-old Tonmerion. Merion is posturing among the adults in the room, attempting to cover his lack of confidence with the surgeon and the constable, until the bastard lawyer Witchazel shows up to drop a bomb about Father’s will. To his shock, Tonmerion won’t be inheriting his father’s assets until his eighteenth birthday; instead, he’s being exiled to his aunt’s. Lilian Rennevie, an undertaker, lives in the New Kingdom, in middle-of-nowhere Fell Falls, Wyoming, forty miles from the nearest town.

As one might expect, Merion is less than thrilled, but his friend, Rhin, an armor-wearing, winged faerie with over two hundred years of life experience under his belt who has been on his side since Merion was 9, is more optimistic. Rhin is up for adventure, and it’s his friendship and trust that Merion clings to as he grimly acquiesces and turns toward this unexpected future in America.

author Ben Galley

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began clicking my kindle buttons to open Bloodrush. Even the title sounds outside my usual reading norms, but I’ll give anything a try, and I’ve got to say, this book is deeply intriguing. Ben Galley placed me smack in the middle of that macabre first scene, with Merion’s father lying dead, and Merion confused, unsettled, frightened, and desperate to seem more grown up and in control than he truly feels. His writing flows beautifully; even as I paused to take notes, I never once left the world Galley had constructed, and the first chapter left me wanting to know more about Merion’s future. What kind of adventures will he and Rhin find in America? Who IS this Aunt Lilain? Who killed Merion’s father, what will the repercussions of that be, and what’s going to happen when Merion turns eighteen?

Back when I was younger, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper was a perpetual favorite. I read this book, along with the others in the series, over and over again, and this first chapter of Bloodrush flooded me with a wave of nostalgia for these books of my childhood: both are stories of young boys learning their lives have changed in an instant, both are stories of young boys on journeys of sorts, both stories have magical undertones. It’s not often that I pick up a book that makes me feel the same awe I felt reading a favorite book as a kid, and although it’s been years since I lost myself in a fantasy novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of this book. Faerie-infused Old West? Much like with Sarah Gailey’s saddled hippos in the American South, I’m intrigued.

Ben Galley’s Bloodrush seems to be, from the first chapter, solidly written fantasy (one scene in particular caught my attention, where Tonmerion stares at his father’s blood drying on a set of stairs, while clutching tickets for his passage to America. What a striking visual contrast between his past and his future. This was an image that I sat with for a few moments, and to which I keep returning for its poignancy ). At some point in my future, I’m definitely going to work the rest of this book into my reading schedule, because I need to know what happens next. From the title, I expected blood and gore from the beginning; instead, I found a captivating story of a young boy set upon an unexpected new path, one rife with uncertainty, but with plentiful adventure ahead.

If epic and/or dark fantasy is your bag, baby (or if you’re looking to expand your reading genres!), check out Ben Galley’s other books:

Huge thanks to TheWriteReads and Ben Galley for including me on this epic blog tour!!!

Check out Ben Galley’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

On the Outside Looking Indian: How My Second Childhood Changed My Life- Rupinder Gill

Last week, I ordered four books via interlibrary loan. Two of them came in; I’m still waiting for the other two, and so I ordered four more yesterday. I try to read mostly adult titles during my library’s Summer Reading program- in the past, the sheet has said that only adult titles count, not YA. It doesn’t say that this year, so I’m letting one or two slip in there, but I’m mainly trying to keep to the spirit of it all. That said, most of the books at my library left on my TBR are YA, and I haven’t had a chance to head to an out-of-town library, which means *cue ominous music* I was left to wander the stacks without a list of books.

GASP.

That’s not a bad thing, but sometimes I just wander and wander and get so overwhelmed by all the choices that I have no idea what to choose. And wandering the stacks was how I came upon On the Outside Looking Indian: How My Second Childhood Changed My Life by Rupinder Gill (Riverhead Books, 2011).

Rupinder’s parents were strict, so strict that she and her three sisters spent most of their childhood cleaning and watching TV, unable to leave their basement and participate in school activities or visit with friends. Dance lessons, field trips, class camping trips, piano lessons, sleepovers, all requests were denied for reasons both cultural and economic, leaving Rupinder and her sisters feeling alienated from their classmates for more than just being the only Indian faces in town. Turning 30, Rupinder begins to realize how few chances she had taken throughout her life, how small her life had become. Making a list of all the things she’d wanted to do during her childhood but hadn’t been able to, she sets forth to finally tackle some of those things.

Tap class. Swimming lessons. Getting a dog. A Disney vacation, a move to a big city, attending camp and a sleepover. Rupinder’s life slowly fills throughout the year, and she begins to bloom with newfound self-confidence and understanding of some of her parents’ past reasoning. It’s not perfect: swimming is scary, she comes to the conclusion that maybe her parents were right about getting a dog (no worries here, the majority of her dog experience comes from dogsitting her sister’s dog, not getting her own and then regretting it. Getting a pet is something she puts a lot of consideration into, moreso than most pet owners, I think!), and she takes a few leaps that will change everything, but it’s worth it. Reliving the childhood she never had forces Rupinder out of the box she’d become far too comfortable in.

This was fun! I really enjoyed reading about the Gill family dynamics and what their particular version of two immigrant Indian parents and a passel of Indian-by-heritage-but-more-culturally-Canadian children looked like. While I was allowed to visit friends’ houses and attend sleepovers when I was young, I wasn’t allowed to join softball or take karate, two things I very much wanted to do, so I could definitely relate to her frustration there. Her joy (and occasional discomfort) at learning new skills like tap dancing and swimming and the major leaps she took (the move, her job, emailing someone at Disney about free tickets) were a pleasure to read and made me wonder what I’m missing out on by not trying.

There were a few parts where this skipped around in time and threw me off, particularly a description of a trip to India with Ms. Gill’s mother, which left me flipping pages and wondering if this was taking place in the present or the past. There’s no major final conclusion to the end, no life-changing realization or calming sense of closure earned by finally being able to participate in such long-denied activities, but Ms. Gill seems satisfied by the path she’s started down, and it seems to have worked for her: throughout the course of the book, she decided that she wanted to leave her career as a television publicist and instead write for TV. As I was doing a Google search to find her online, I learned that she’s one of the writers for Schitt’s Creek, which I watched and very much enjoyed earlier this year. Well done, Ms. Gill!

While this wasn’t my favorite memoir of all time (and I think a lot of the Goodreads reviews are a little too harsh), it was relaxing reading, although at times wistful and occasionally saddening when it came to the racism Rupinder and her sisters experienced (seriously, people? CAN WE NOT ACT LIKE THAT???). I admire anyone who has such follow-through, and as Schitt’s Creek will end with its sixth season, I’m thinking we’ll see more awesome things from Rupinder Gill down the road.

What are some things you weren’t allowed to do when you were young? Have you ever considered doing them now??? (I have zero desire to play softball these days, and I’m not sure my back could handle any kind of martial arts, so I’m good there. The dream of one day attending Concordia Language Villages is still there, however…)

Follow Rupinder Gill on Twitter.

fiction · YA

Raising the Griffin- Melissa Wyatt

I’ve been working my way through my TBR lately (which I *cannot* seem to get below 80 books! I read and read and read, and then you guys post about super interesting books, and it just fills right back up again! It’s the best problem to have, I think), and Raising the Griffin by Melissa Wyatt (Wendy Lamb Books, 2004) is another one that’s been sitting on the list since I first began compiling a TBR, probably around 2004 or 2005 (yikes!). Thank goodness for interlibrary loan!

Alex Varenhoff has always known his family’s story: royalty from the country of Rovenia, his grandfather should have been king, but the country was taken over by the Soviet Union, and his family has lived in exile in England ever since. Alex, born Alexei, hasn’t ever even stepped foot in Rovenia. Tucked away at boarding school, he doesn’t hear the news until his parents send for him and he finds out: post-revolution Rovenia has voted to reinstate the monarchy, and Alex’s father has made the decision to return to his ancestral homeland to rule.

Alex is less than thrilled about this; uprooting his life, leaving his school and friends and horse, and stepping into the spotlight in order to become a prince and future king, wasn’t exactly in his life plans. His handler, a cranky man named Count deBatz, is all over him, all the time, in order to turn him into the kind of young man Rovenia needs at the helm, but Alex is having none of it. Despite forging a friendship with another family employee’s daughter, Sophy, Alex can barely stand to be in the castle or in his role as prince; the first chance he gets, he sneaks off with a fellow royal with a bad-girl rep. After finally understanding the error of his ways, tragedy strikes Alex in a big way, and life may never be the same again, for him, his parents, and maybe even Rovenia.

Long before Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series, there was A Royal Pain by Ellen Conford, and it was with that book that I developed a love for the ‘Wait, you mean I’m royalty???’ trope- that’s how Raising the Griffin ended up on my TBR list in the first place. Overall, this book was just okay for me, not bad, but not spectacular, either. Alex is a bit on the spoiled side and occasionally acts like a jerk, but his entire life has just been upended (in a way that his parents didn’t handle well at all), so I was able to cut him some slack for his attitude. His parents, who sent him away to boarding school in order to get him out of the way so that they could deal with and make decisions about Rovenia’s asking them to return, aren’t even present when he’s told that his whole life will be changing. They have endless tasks to complete in order to assume the Rovenian throne, and while they tackle their massive to-do list, Alex is tossed aside and expected to adjust solely with the help of his assigned handlers. It’s ultimately Alex who pays the price for their decision to return to Rovenia, and I wish there would have been more remorse shown on his parents’ part for how their choices affected their son. Even after the tragedy, they left him behind, and while I get that they had responsibilities, I was often left feeling cold about them and wondering how realistic their actions really were.

(Something else that stuck out to me: Alex mentions that his family spoke Rovenian at home, but also mentioned that his mother was Danish. He never mentioned where/when/how his mother learned Rovenian- a language from a small country- well enough in order to be able to converse fluidly with her husband and feel comfortable enough with in order to use this language with her child. Why would she speak Rovenian with him and not Danish? As someone who understands her husband’s first language but who knows that, not being a native speaker, I very much run the risk of teaching my daughter all my grammatical errors and unnatural ways of using the language and thus usually speak with her in English, I want to know!!! I do switch to French if I want some conversational privacy; it’s nice being able to privately ask your child if they need to use the bathroom, or if they’re warm enough/had enough to eat/ready to leave, etc, right out in the open, but it’s not something I use with her on a daily basis.)

Some of this felt a little rushed, especially the last quarter, post-tragedy. I would’ve liked to have seen more of how Alex heals and how he mends bridges with Sophy and corrects his former bad attitude; unfortunately, the way it’s set up left me wanting a little more, emotionally. However, it’s not a bad story; it makes a fun addition to the ‘suddenly royal’ trope booklist, and it’s the first I’ve read that’s narrated by a male character, so that’s definitely a plus. The way it ends, the author could have returned with a sequel, but since this was published in 2004, that’s unlikely at this point.

(Content warning for gun violence, discussion of war and revolution and all that entails, and some mild allusions to sexual conduct.)

Do you enjoy stories where characters learn, to their shock, that they’re actually royalty? Got any suggestions?

Visit Melissa Wyatt’s website here.

nonfiction · religion

Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares- Kristin Ohlson

Another one bites the dust!

Another book that’s had a longtime place on my TBR list, that is. Fitting right in with my fascination with cults and closed groups is a fascination with nuns. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. We were taught by regular teachers, but our school librarian was, until she retired after my third grade year, a nun (Sister Grace!), whom I loved- I even wrote her a goodbye letter and cried a little when she left. She was a dear, sweet lady. The only other nun we had at school worked in what I think was the religious education office, and she was…not so sweet. I was never, ever interested in becoming a nun, but as an adult, I’ve definitely been interested in their lives, and thus Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson (Plume Books, 2003) ended up on my TBR list (and, uh, stayed there, for far too long).

One Christmas, when her children were visiting their father, Kristin Ohlson finds herself longing for…something. Something she can’t quite name. A lapsed Catholic, she decides to attend Christmas mass and ends up at St. Paul’s in downtown Cleveland, home of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, an order of cloistered nuns whose mission it is to pray around the clock. She develops a deep fascination with the sisters, and though it takes some time, she’s able to gain access in order to write a newspaper magazine article on them, which becomes the basis of this book,

One by one, Ms. Ohlson interviews the aging sisters, whose order is shrinking. The sisters have faith, though; the Poor Clares have seen tough times before, and they know they’ll bounce back. Alongside her interview and writing, Ms. Ohlson involves herself in the life of St. Paul’s, attending mass, volunteering for different events and happenings in the parish, and contemplating her own faith- or lack thereof- the whole time. Ms. Ohlson isn’t quite a believer: she’s trying, and she hopes that her involvement with the sisters will help. Although she never quite reaches the level of true believer, the message from the sisters rings loud and clear to her: sometimes, you just have to keep showing up, even when the faith isn’t there.

Boy, this was captivating. It’s been a while since I read anything about nuns, and though I was a little nervous at the beginning about this being the right book at the right time (have you ever just not been able to read a book you really wanted to read, and it sent you into a reading slump? My brain’s been a little wonky lately, so I’ve been living in fear of this), but Ms. Ohlson’s light, yet informative style was exactly what I needed. Being able to slip behind the grates and listen to what life is like as a cloistered sister, living communally with vows of poverty and chastity, hearing about their struggles, their crises of faith, their difficulties living with one another, how they spend the majority of their days in silence, all of this had me absolutely riveted, and I blew through the book in less than two days.

Ms. Ohlson is honest about her struggles to believe; as someone who is fascinated by and drawn to religion as a whole without fully believing either, I found this refreshing and honest. She comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have in regards to the practice of faith (so far, that is; who knows what the future will bring?), but I enjoyed reading her journey and how she reached this place. I don’t have to share someone’s faith journey to appreciate and respect what they believe and how they come to believe it; reading about different beliefs never fails to keep me in a state of awe at what a wondrous place the world is. ๐Ÿ™‚

If you’re interested in closed-off groups, this is a great read, and along these same lines, I highly recommend Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. This book covers many different orders of nuns, from the ones so service-oriented that they hardly find time to sleep or eat, to those who are so cloistered that they can barely manage to refuse an interview. I read this book back in…somewhere around 2005 and still think of it often.

Are you interested in closed-off, secretive groups? Do nuns fit into that category for you? As a child, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be a subject of interest for me as an adult, but, well, here I am. ๐Ÿ™‚

Visit Kristin Ohlson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

romance

Tikka Chance on Me- Suleikha Snyder

Is there any better feeling than the one you get when your phone signals an email, and you check it and it says, “Your library book has automatically been downloaded to your account”??? This is the second time this year that I’ve gasped, loudly, in sheer, unadulterated excitement due to one of those emails. I’d been on the waiting list for Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder (published by Suleikha Snyder, 2018) for…probably over a month, although it was on my TBR list for longer than that. I never mind waiting for library books; it makes me happy that other people are reading and enjoying the book as well, but I was reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally looking forward to this. So when it showed up in my email, I had to squee more than a little!

Pinky Grover came home to work in her family’s middle-of-nowhere Indian restaurant when her mother got sick, but now that Mom is better, Pinky is…still there. She bides her time fantasizing bout bad boy Trucker Carrigan, head of the dangerous Eagles motorcycle gang, who comes in constantly to eat with his crew at the restaurant and make eyes at Pinky. On the surface, they’ve got nothing in common and both of them know they should stay away from the other, but the chemistry between them is incendiary. Trucker’s not quite what he seems, and after Pinky figures out his secret, she’s even more all-in, even though she knows the only destination for the two of them is heartbreak in the extreme. Trucker and Pinky ride it out (literally…) as far as their fledgling relationship can go, but when the time comes to say goodbye, how can either of them move on?

Whew, this is spicy and delicious! (Much like my favorite local Indian restaurant, which I haven’t been too in far too long and where I could eat every single day of my life. Indian food is my favorite of all the cuisines.) This is about as far away from a chaste romance as you can get, so choose something else if you prefer that genre. Pinky as a character is an absolute delight; she’s dutiful to her parents but still determined to be her own person and live her own life. Her goals are, for now, on hold, but she hasn’t abandoned them. Trucker (whose real name is Tyson), is an enigma with a surprisingly enchanting center, a not-*quite*-so-bad boy with a heart of steamy, molten-lava sexiness. They’re two people from two entirely different worlds, but Suleikha Snyder has crafted some scorching chemistry between the two of them, and Pinky and Trucker are instantly believable as a couple.

Ms. Snyder has absolutely gained another fan with Tikka Chance on Me. I’m so looking forward to reading more from her. Not only do I admire her writing, she’s so open and honest on Twitter about suffering from anxiety and depression. There have been a few conversations lately between different writers, talking about their struggles, and, as someone who has dealt with lifelong anxiety as well as bouts of major depression that started when I was thirteen (which went mostly ignored by my family, since it was 1993 and no one really knew what to do about such a problem where I lived at that time), seeing people discuss their issues so openly is still such a balm to my soul. I hate that Ms. Snyder has to deal with this, but I’m so, so grateful that she uses her voice to heighten awareness and make others, including me, feel not so alone. It really does help.

To sum it up, Tikka Chance on Me combines the sweet and the spicy in a way that will warm every last cell in your body, and leave you craving both more from the author as well as a plate or twenty of tikka masala (make mine tofu, please).

Visit Suleikha Snyder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story- Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

During the month of Ramadan, BookRiot came out with a list of memoirs by Muslim women, and, always eager to learn more about the world and my neighbors (we have a good-sized Muslim community in my town and the surrounding towns), I pored over the list, adding several to my Goodreads TBR. Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh (Simon Schuster, 2016) sounded interesting, and I was happy to find that my local library branch had in on the shelves (though not in stock; I had to return several times before it was available. As a reader, you’d think that that would be frustrating, but honestly, I’m not ever frustrated by that- I’m happy that my fellow townsfolk are reading, and they’re reading the same awesome books that I want to read! I live amongst great people, you guys).

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of MuslimGirl.com, but before she began to change the internet and make its first real space for young Muslim women, she was a nine-year-old girl whose entire world changed the day the Twin Towers fell. Life for American Muslims altered dramatically that day; while Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh does recount a few positive experiences with kind people offering support, she and the members of her community were collectively assigned blame for horrors perpetrated a group of individuals who shared little more than their label. For a while, she and her family returned to Jordan, but ultimately came home to the United States, where she found she needed a deep sense of courage and self to even leave the house some days (and not without reason; a quick Google search is showing me multiple stories about Muslims, both men and women, pushed onto subway tracks and down subway stairs, while being called terrorists).

Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh recounts the lack of self-confidence she had growing up, and how that began to change as she matured. Founding MuslimGirl.com, first on LiveJournal and then moving it to its own domain, changed her life and launched her as a public personality, able to speak out for young women who work incredibly hard to make places for themselves in a society who, far too often, view them only as a single story.

Muslim Girl is a slim tome, but it speaks volumes, and I’m grateful to Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh for sharing her story. Despite living in such a diverse community, my world is pretty small right now (home, driving kids and husband places, running errands, and that’s pretty much it). Now that my daughter will be going to school soon, I’m hoping to be able to become more involved in my community (although I’m not yet sure how; my terrible back limits my abilities), but until then, it’s important to me to read books written by people who have experienced the world differently than I have, and this book absolutely fits the bill. I’ve known that the Muslim community has suffered terrible treatment since September 11th; I’ve read the news stories and been horrified, but this is the first first-person account I’ve read of the discrimination they’ve endured. I’m saddened, I’m angered, I’m bewildered that so many people, instead of learning and understanding, lash out in ignorance. Why aren’t we better than that?

I always feel a little out of place reviewing books by marginalized authors. My job as a random white woman blogger who has read and enjoyed this book, I feel, is merely to amplify the existence of Muslim Girl. Don’t read my words; read Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s. Hers are the important one here, hers and those of others that are routinely pushed to the side and ignored or shouted over; listen and work to understand to what she has to say, because it’s the only way we’re going to achieve a more compassionate and accepting society, where everyone can thrive.

Visit MuslimGirl.com here.

Follow Amani Al-Khatahbeh on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Mandy- Julie Andrews Edwards

One of the best parts of having kids is getting to reread my childhood favorites. I don’t believe in ‘girl books’ or ‘boy books,’ just different books for different kids. That said, Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards (HarperCollins, first published 1971) (and yes, THAT Julie Andrews! The hills are alive with the sound of beautifully written children’s books, y’all!) wasn’t something that would have appealed to my son when he was young, so I was delighted that I was able to share it with my daughter. Hopping back into the world of a favorite childhood book is always a little scary; will it have held up? Will there be cringeworthy moments that have you wincing and thanking the literary gods that we’ve moved on from that? I’m happy to say that Mandy, fortunately, has stood the test of time.

Ten-year-old Mandy has lived almost her entire life in an orphanage, under the care of Matron Bridie and the other staff. Despite the obvious affection of the people tasked to care for her, it’s a comfortable but emotionally barren life, and Mandy often finds herself falling into depression, desperate for something to call her own. An adventure over the orphanage wall and into the woods leads to the discovery of a long-abandoned cottage, and Mandy is elated. Here is the place she can turn into her very own refuge, a place of quiet and solitude amongst her life lived with so many other children.

Mandy immediately sets out to turn the cottage into a home, clearing the garden of weeds, planting flowers using money she earns working Saturdays at a store in town, and cleaning away years of dust and grime. It’s not always easy to get away- although she’s allowed more freedom than most girls, she still has to account for her time and constantly give her best friend the slip. More and more, she’s finding it difficult to live a double life, but it all comes to a head when notes begin appearing at the cottage from AN ADMIRER, and Mandy comes down with a terrible chest cold. Tragedy is barely averted, but the outcome will change Mandy’s life forever.

Mandy has remained a delightful read. After the first few chapters, I turned to ask my daughter what she thought of it. Eyes wide, she whispered, almost reverently, “I love it.” We sat in our giant reading chair in the living room, sometimes reading for nearly an hour at a time, she enjoyed it so much. Mandy is a plucky little girl: she works hard to turn her run-down cottage into a place of calm and comfort, sneaking away, engaging in some petty theft (which she feels terrible about and eventually owns up to), and she’s a fabulous problem-solver. Julie Andrews Edwards doesn’t shy away from going heavy on the emotions in this story; Mandy is described as falling into dark funks from time to time, and though she’s only ten, ultimately the word ‘depression’ is used, which is pretty amazing for a book that was first published in 1971. Mandy is desperate for closeness and a sense of family, and Andrews Edwards masterfully suffuses Mandy’s every action with these desires, making Mandy an incredibly sympathetic character.

I was a little worried my daughter would find Mandy’s orphan status upsetting (there is a mention of her parents dying, but only one; Mandy remembers nothing but the orphanage her whole life, so there are no tragic or distressing death scenes), but she handled it just fine, though she did require an explanation of what an orphanage is. I seem to remember reading a lot of books set at orphanages when I was younger, but I can’t put my finger on any more titles…

If you’re looking for a lovely middle grade book with a determined female character searching for a sense of home, Mandy makes a fabulous choice, and I hope there are still little girls (and boys!) out there who find their way to this book. I’m so happy that it retained the charm I remember it having during my own childhood.

Visit Julie Andrews Edwards’ page at HarperCollins here.