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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for September: A Spanish Affair by Helen Brooks

I read this at the very beginning of the month and had planned to read something else for the challenge, but work keeps intervening and I’m way behind on all my non-required reading. Luckily, this entry on the Harlequin TBR fit September’s challenge, which is “Kicking It Old School,” i.e., a romance published ten or more years ago. A Spanish Affair was first published in 2001, so it definitely qualifies. I like Brooks’s Presents books as a rule; they mix sweet and steamy in a way that works for me. The heroes and heroines tend to fit the Presents formula but are not OTT. This particular novel falls on the sweeter side, by a lot, and it felt almost Burchell-like in terms of the plot, characters, and romance.

Cover of A Spanish Affair

Georgie has left her job to come and take care of her recently widowed elder brother Robert and his two young children. Robert’s business was neglected during his late wife’s final months and it’s now teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Georgie is combining PA and other office duties with childcare, and she’s in the office when a badly needed client comes in. The client, our hero, is Matt de Capistrano, who gets off to a bad start with Georgie when he overhears her disparaging him before she’s even met him. But to give him credit, he sets that aside and deals straightforwardly with Robert and the potential business deal they are considering. Matt makes some calls which enables Robert to continue taking on customers and Georgie swallows her initial reaction to help out her brother.

Matt finds Georgie charming despite her hostility, as one does when one is a Presents hero. He works with her and also pursues her, and she rebuffs him, as one does when one is a Presents heroine. But they continue to be thrown together, including by Robert, who befriends Matt, and by his children, who find him as charming as George eventually will admit he is.

The story cooks along in a workplace-romance, getting-to-know-you way. Then there is a sharp turn and acceleration to the romantic storyline, which is precipitated by Matt’s need to go to his family home in Spain (he is half Spanish, half English). Georgie learns more about his background and family, Matt deals with his feelings for Georgie, etc. etc. All too quickly they have their realization, retreat, return to each other, and HEA.

Overall I enjoyed this quite a bit. There’s nothing terribly unusual happening, Georgie is one of those sensible, pretty, and quietly competent heroines, and Matt’s Spanish-ness is quite dialed down from the usual “Latin Lover” approach, which I appreciated. It was just the timepass I needed when I read it, and it reminded me of how often Helen Brooks writes satisfying categories.

A Spanish Affair is #373 on the Harlequin TBR.

SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for August: Juggling Briefcase and Baby by Jessica Hart

This month’s challenge prompt was “anything goes” and I decided to pick a book that was recommended by both Wendy and Miss Bates. I have a number of Jessica Hart’s Harlequins in the TBR and she’s recommended by people with similar tastes to mine, so I’m not sure why I haven’t read her before. Probably the usual “too many books, too many choices” problem. Anyway, this one sounded good to me: opposites attract and a focus on emotions rather than contrived setups. For that I’ll put up with the baby being front and center, especially when it’s a baby that could definitely exist outside the pages of a romance.

Jessica Hart cover

Romy and Lex had a passionate fling in Paris 12 years ago, when they were much younger and starry-eyed. They had known each other growing up and then suddenly and unexpectedly fell for each other. Lex was smitten enough to want to marry Romy but she turned him down and went off to explore the world. Now, at 30, she’s back in London with a baby in tow, working at a temporary job in Lex’s company. They (re-)meet cute in the opening chapter when Romy subs for her boss on a business trip to negotiate a major deal. She joins Lex on his jet to Scotland with baby Freya in tow. Lex is aloof, driven, and completely uninterested in babies and all the real and metaphorical baggage they bring with them. He also had no idea Romy was back, let alone a mother.

The three of them journey to Scotland and stay with the businessman they’re hoping to do the deal with. He’s a widower and fond of children and happy couples, so Lex and Romy rashly decide to be one. This keeps them together and bonded both at work and outside it while the deal is finalized, which leads them to confront feelings they thought were long gone and buried.

The main conflict in the relationship is internal: Romy is afraid of commitment and Lex is allergic to disorder and unpredictability. Romy hasn’t even told Freya’s father about her existence (Hart manages to do this as well as she could and I get it for the setup, but I’m so not a fan of this trope). The personality and history obstacles to Lex and Romy are more believable in the past than the present, but overall they are well depicted. And I really appreciated that there are no bad guys or women in this story, just two people who haven’t learned how to build lives with other adults. Actually, that was a somewhat striking aspect to this story. I’m used to romances where the main characters are socially isolated, but these two don’t seem to have any friends (except for one convenient one near the end, who functions entirely as a plot device and never appears on page). And it’s not addressed at all, which I found equally odd. The backstory traumas are all discussed in terms of how they affected Romy and Lex’s relationship.

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Booker longlist review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

This is the fifth longlist choice I’ve read and the second by a Nigerian author. I haven’t read Obioma’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago. This novel has received generally positive reviews from book critics and more mixed reviews at GR, so I wasn’t sure how I’d do with it. And it did take me a little time to get into the rhythm, because it’s a more ornate style of writing than I generally read.

The protagonist of the novel is Chinonso, a poultry farmer in a smallish city. Chinonso’s parents have died and his sister married an older man, moved to Lagos, and became mostly estranged from her family. Chinonso’s closest relative is his uncle, who lives in a different city but visits occasionally. The narrator of the novel is Chinonso’s chi, or spirit, who inhabits his body and communicates with him but cannot direct his behavior. The novel’s beginning and major sections are bracketed by the chi’s appeals to the gods to have mercy on Chinonso in the afterlife because the bad deeds he committed need to be understood in the larger context of his life and its trials.

That life is fairly uneventful until Chinonso prevents a beautiful woman from throwing herself off a bridge. She drives away but he doesn’t forget her. In the meantime he meets other women and starts to think about life beyond the chicken coops and vegetable rows. When Ndali comes back into his life they begin a relationship that is fraught from the beginning: Chinonso is a modest chicken farmer who never went to college, while Ndali is the daughter of a Chief and is studying to become a pharmacist. When their relationship progresses, Ndali brings him home to meet the family, with predictable results. Chinonso is not ashamed of who he is, but he knows it’s not enough for her ambitious and haughty father and brother, so he resolves to turn himself into someone they will accept. Ndali worries about the ramifications of his choice, but she knows it will be nearly impossible for them as things currently stand.

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Booker Longlist Review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This is the fourth book I’ve read from the longlist. I had read Luiselli’s previous nonfiction work, Tell Me How It Ends, which describes her experiences as a translator for children apprehended at the border, and I thought it was excellent. This is a much longer and more complex work of fiction, with multiple storylines and themes. It may have too much going on, but its ambition should not be held against it.

This novel falls squarely within the current trend of autofiction and combines a road trip, a marriage that is ending, and twin stories of children becoming lost in the southern Arizona desert. As I said, there’s a lot going on. The characters in the main storyline comprise a blended family of four who are traveling from New York to southern Arizona on a long, fairly leisurely automobile journey. The husband and wife are documentary sound specialists, by which they mean scholars and artists who record all kinds of sounds that help them understand and illuminate the built and natural worlds in which we live. The father is embarking on a new project set in Apacheria, the part of the United States that was the home of the Apache nation before they were massacred by Americans (and previously Mexicans) and relocated to reservations. The mother is continuing a project that records the sounds of unaccompanied children and southern border migration. Their two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged ten, are with them on the trip.

The family road trip aspect of the novel is structured by the journey and their work, which is contained in seven bankers’ boxes in the back of the station wagon. They contain supplementary material, including archival resources, and also the children’s selections for the journey (toys, books, photos). Along the way the mother reads from a book, Elegies for Lost Children, which tells the story of seven unaccompanied children who are riding La Bestia, the train to the US border, and that journey serves as something of a parallel roadtrip. The two storylines are brought together in the last section of novel, which is told from the son’s point of view; all the preceding narrative has been from the mother’s perspective.

The mother’s narrative ranges far and wide, from mundane and not-so-mundane observations of people and places along the road, to recollections and quotes from scholarly and creative books she’s read, to internal monologues about her husband and marriage. The husband is present as the driver and fellow artist, but he’s almost entirely silent, except for a few times when he talks directly to the children and less often to her. Luiselli namechecks many writers and thinkers, which fit into the flow of the story for me because I knew who most of them were. But if you aren’t as familiar with this literature it could be distracting or annoying. Some readers found it self-conscious and pretentious. I enjoyed it.

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Booker Longlist Review: The Wall by John Lanchester

This is my first book by Lanchester, although I’ve been meaning to read his novels for ages. I’ve read his journalism regularly for years. This is very prescient, obviously, not just because of the wall that dominates the story, but also because of the intersection of climate change and the displacement of vast populations. The wall surrounds an island nation which is obviously Britain in the near or not-so-near future. Every young citizen is required to serve two years guarding the wall, except for the offspring of the very elite, who somehow escape this duty. Our narrator, Kavanagh, is just taking up his post when the story opens, and the first section of the novel chronicles his experiences as a Defender.

Being a Defender is relatively dull, but the consequences of failure are profound. Defenders are trained to prevent people called Others from successfully scaling the wall and entering the fortified nation. Although everyone is chipped, and therefore Others are fairly quickly discovered and apprehended, the penalty for Defenders who fail to prevent entry is to be put to sea in small boats, on a one-for-one ratio. In other words, if fifteen Others enter the country then fifteen Defenders and other culpable people must be sent away.

The first sections are taken up with the quotidian aspects of Kavanagh’s new life. He learns the procedures to follow, gets to know some of his fellow Defenders, goes back to see his parents on his off-rotation time, and generally settles into a set routine. The language is simple and Kavanagh doesn’t have particularly interesting thoughts. If Lanchester was aiming to portray military boredom through the writing style, he does so fairly effectively. I didn’t find it boring (although I’m sure some readers will), and while the world-building is minimal you do get a strong sense of how circumscribed people’s lives are. There is a generational divide between the older people who remember a time before the Change which brought about the wall and the younger people who have only known the time since.

The second and third sections are much more action-filled. I don’t want to spoil the book for people who haven’t read it, because I thought it worked well for me to go into it without much background. You can probably guess what happens. Kavanagh develops a romantic attachment which continues through the story, and we learn more about Others and the world beyond the wall. Other readers have observed similarities with Exit West, which I can kind of see, especially in the structure, but beyond that and the fact that they are both dystopian novels set in a recognizable future, I don’t see the parallels.

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