Enjoying more romance novels

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than by telling you about the latest romance novel series that I’ve been enjoying? London Celebrities is a romance series about stage cast and crew members who are thrown together in various ways and have various relationships, and, of course, have swoony happy-ever-after endings.

Act Like It is the first book, and the two leads are persuaded by the people running their production to fake a romance in order to help his reputation and keep ticket sales high. Pretty Face is the second, and an older director falls for a young up-and-coming actress (they talk a lot about how cliche it is). Making Up is about two people, an actress and a makeup artist, who initially dislike each other – and have since high school – but, you know, they’re thrown together and things change.

The books are charming, the romances are fairly believable, and overall, they were lovely stories. I listened to two of them as audiobooks and the narrator did a good job reading them.

Recommended.

World building is important

King of Scars is the highly anticipated (by me, anyway) next book that takes place in the Grisha universe that Leigh Bardugo has so beautifully created. She writes YA fantasy novels that take place in a fictionalized Russia and beyond where some people are magical and those people are called Grisha. (This is a terrible explanation, I know. But it gets the point across.)

There’s a secondary character in those books, Nikolai Lantsov, who the author, much of the fanbase, and me finds very glamorous and charming. King of Scars is the book she finally wrote about him.

It was never going to live up to the hype in my own head – because glamour depends on mystery and writing a book about a glamorous character necessarily means explaining that character, and will ergo make him less glamorous and more mundane. That is not my quibble with the book. She navigates that tightrope as well as can be expected and certainly better than I could have done.

No, my quibble is with the second half of the book where Nikolai and two of his partners in crime are suddenly thrown into a magical netherworld. Everyone else is dealing with the fact that these three people are suddenly gone.

Look, it’s YA fantasy and the author has explained the world in the following way: Grisha are people who interact with natural forces in a way others can’t. This ability gives them rejuvenating energy when they practice it, so they live longer than non-Grisha. This is all basically world building along the lines of: it’s the real world, but with a few tweaks. The previous five books in this world have confirmed and deepened this understanding.

This whole other netherworld thing feels very out of left field and much more fantastical than the rest. Like, this is a nice little bungalow house you have here, where does this door go to, oh look it’s an olympic sized swimming pool that dwarfs the rest of the house. It was jarring.

That said, I enjoy her books and I entrust her world-building and story-telling. King of Scars is part one of two and I’m definitely going to give her the benefit of the doubt and keep going. Besides, Nikolai is still awesome. I want to find out how this ends.

A book for next Halloween

Melmoth is based on an Eastern European myth about a woman who is cursed to walk the world forever. She’s lonely, and so keeps taking people to walk with her, eg disappearing them and maybe turning them into ghosts.

The book was fine. It was darker than I wanted it to be – I’d just read another book about a woman as anti-hero, which is what this is – but I enjoyed that it was primarily about women and how women interact and both support and don’t support each other.

If you’re going to read Melmoth, I would recommend that you read it during Halloween season, when you’re in the mood for something a little darker and a little scarier. It was initially published last October, and that was probably the best time for it to come out.

Growing up and figuring out who you are

Guy Branum’s My Life as a Goddess was funny and charming and wonderful. It’s his memoir about how his childhood was awful, how it screwed him up, how depression probably runs in his family, and how he eventually became happy. Or at least happy-adjacent.

To a degree, growing up is about figuring out who you are and how you fit into the world. His story is that, but on steroids. He extra doesn’t fit in and takes an extra long time to figure out that he’s gay (or at least that’s the impression you get reading the book) and it resonates. I mean, it’s his story and it’s specific, but it’s specific in that way that makes it also feel very relatable and like everyone goes through something similar, if not this specific story.

And since I like a good YA story – also about growing up and figuring out who you are – this one is also good. Very funny and highly recommended.

Horrors told lightly

Get Well Soon was a delight of a book. I very much enjoyed reading about all of the ways nature has tried to kill humanity over the years, from the virus that indirectly brought down the Roman Empire to the Bubonic Plague to the Spanish Flu of 1918, with an epilogue about AIDS.

And while I enjoyed the author’s flippant writing style as a way to offset the horrors of millions of people dying, I would understand if someone else thought it inappropriate or unsuited to the task.

Overall, Get Well Soon is a good way to learn a little bit more history than you knew before.

Myth and romance

I loved The Song of Achilles. It’s a retelling of the Iliad and some other related Greek myths through Patroclus’ eyes. It’s his view of history, his love of Achilles, their relationship, what it was like for them to grow up together, what it was like to go to war together, and what it was like in the camp.

But mostly: it was just a gorgeous love story. I’m a sucker for them, really. And Madeline Miller told this one so well. It’s highly recommended.

Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.

Not for Kates

Oh, #fashionvictim, I wanted to like you. I really did. I liked your over-the-top-ness and showing just how ruthless the world of fashion can be by incorporating actual death and the satire was lovely. But the first-person-ness of sympathizing with a mentally ill murderer was a step too far. I’d just finished another book about women being terrible to each other and couldn’t read another one.

I know your audience is out there. It’s just not me.

Enchiladas Verdes

I enjoy enchiladas verdes: the bite of the tomatillos, the yummy cheese, the unexpected radish garnish… It’s a medley of delicious flavors. It’s a weekend dish, though, not something to make on a weekday unless you really, really like cooking.

Enchiladas Verdes

4t vegetable oil (not olive oil, please)
1 onion chopped
3t minced garlic
0.5t ground cumin
1.5c chicken broth
1lb chicken breasts
1.5lbs tomatillos, husks and stems removed
3 poblano chiles
1t sugar
0.5 chopped fresh cilantro leaves
8oz pepper jack cheese, grated
12-6″ corn tortillas
2 scallions
radishes

  1. Set oven to broil setting. Heat 2t oil in saucepan over med heat, once shimmering, sauté onion for 6-8 minutes. Add 2t garlic & cumin, cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in broth, add chicken. Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes (chicken should be 160F). Transfer chicken to plate to cool, remove 0.25c liquid, reserve remaining liquid for a different purpose (it makes a delicious soup base if you’re looking for something to save it for).
  2. Meanwhile, toss poblanos and tomatillos with 2t of oil, arrange on foil-lined baking sheet with poblanos skin side up. Broil 5-10 minutes, until veggies soften and begin to blacken. Cool, remove skins from poblanos, and transfer poblanos and tomatillos to food processor. Decrease oven temp to 350F and discard foil from baking sheet.
  3. Add 1t sugar, 1t salt, 1t garlic, reserved 0.25c liquid to food processor, process until sauce is slightly chunky, about eight 1-second pulses. Taste, add additional sugar and salt to taste.
  4. Pull or cut cooled chicken into small bite-sized pieces. Combine chicken with cilantro & 1.5c cheese (you should have another 0.5c of cheese to sprinkle on top).
  5. Smear bottom of 9″x13″ pan with 0.75c of tomatillo sauce. Place tortillas on baking sheet, spray with cooking oil, bake for 2-4 minutes, until soft & pliable. After removing them, increase oven to 450F. Place tortillas on countertop, and spread 0.33c filling down center of each tortilla. Roll tightly and place in pan, seam side down. Pour remaining tomatillo sauce on top, using spoon to spread to make sure it fully coats all tortillas. Sprinkle with remaining 0.5c cheese and cover pan with foil.
  6. Bake 15-20 minutes, until cheese is melted and enchiladas are cooked through. Uncover, sprinkle with scallions & thinly sliced radishes. Serve immediately.

Sometimes romances go south for the right reasons

The romances in It Ended Badly all have bad ends – go figure. Though many (most?) of them work out for the best in the end. Five of the 13 are relationships with political implications, which, honestly, does anyone expect to live happily ever after? The remaining 8 are both fun historical gossip that also show how not to have a healthy relationship.

My favorites? I’m never, ever going to turn away an explanation of how Eleanor of Aquitaine left the King of France for the King of England (or tell you that you should go watch The Lion in Winter to see how that worked out for everyone involved).

There were two, though, that I found the most enlightening. First was the chapter about Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. I only knew the bare outlines of the story, and this fleshed it out more. Second was the chapter about the whole Debbie Reynolds/Eddie Fisher/Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton fiasco. But here’s what I learned: Debbie Reynolds was awesome. She’d already realized that Eddie Fisher was a putz before he left her for Elizabeth Taylor – she’d asked him for a divorce not once but twice. AND Debbie and Elizabeth became good friends again in their old age (they’d been friends prior to the whole affair, and then things had understandably fallen apart). There are a couple of quotes that make you realize just exactly how Carrie Fisher got to be such an awesome writer.

So if you are looking for a light-hearted romp through some history, or need a post-breakup relationships-are-terrible-ideas book that won’t make you too depressed, let me recommend It Ended Badly. I enjoyed it.