Interview with Namrata Patel

The Book

Namrata Patel’s writing “recipe” blends complex heroines, Gujarati food, and global families—a meal in three delicious courses. I have sampled several of Nam’s unpublished manuscripts, as well as her home cooking, and they have all been delicious—but it is her published debut, The Candid Life of Meena Dave, that is the book feast you have been waiting for.

A woman embarks on an unexpected journey into her past in an engrossing novel about identity, family secrets, and rediscovering the need to belong. Meena Dave is a photojournalist and a nomad. She has no family, no permanent address, and no long-term attachments, preferring to observe the world at a distance through the lens of her camera. But Meena’s solitary life is turned upside down when she unexpectedly inherits an apartment in a Victorian brownstone in historic Back Bay, Boston. Though Meena’s impulse is to sell it and keep moving, she decides to use her journalistic instinct to follow the story that landed her in the home of a stranger. It’s a mystery that comes with a series of hidden clues, a trio of meddling Indian aunties, and a handsome next-door neighbor. For Meena it’s a chance for newfound friendships, community, and culture she never thought possible. And a window into her past she never expected. Now as everything unknown to Meena comes into focus, she must reconcile who she wants to be with who she really is.
Get your own copy at a bookstore near you.

The Candid Life of Meena Dave is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Audible, and elsewhere. It will be released on June 1, 2022, by Lake Union Publishing. It is marketed as women’s and Asian American fiction, not romance, but there is an achingly perfect love interest. (And I think you’ll love Sam as much as I do!)

The Interview

Thank you, Nam, for coming here to the History Ever After blog. I am going to be geeking out on history with my questions, but that won’t surprise you or anyone else.

1. What inspired you to write Meena’s story?

It was the early days of the pandemic, and we were all trying to navigate this unknown event in our lives. For many of us, we were doing it alone. Overnight, our world shrunk to what was within the four walls. And we were all experiencing some of the same in terms of living inside versus out. For me, I wanted to write about things that I couldn’t quite resolve. This story came from that, especially around what does “community” mean? I used to define that word very broadly in terms of cultural identity, ethnicity, professional networks, family, friends—a catch-all for the people in my life. During the early days of isolation, the scope of that definition changed, narrowed. Through that, this story was born. What if a person felt alone in the world because they define community in a very narrow and perhaps literal sense (e.g. family)? What would it take for them to notice that you can build one, be invited, and find a sense of belonging? Usually what helps inspire a story is something that I’m trying to work through myself.

Boston Back Bay brownstone houses.
Setting of The Candid Life of Meena Dave: the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, as photographed by Rick Berk from the 33rd Floor of the Hancock Tower.

2. Can you tell us a little of the history that inspired the Engineer’s House?

Oh my gosh, yes! I’ve always been fascinated by my Gujarati American identity and history. Growing up, I was only exposed to it by my parents who told stories about their lives—my father was born right before the Partition, so he’d lived under British rule of India for a bit. I didn’t get much of that in history classes, which are usually taught through an American and/or western lens, even world history.

In college and later grad school, I leaned into diaspora, dual-cultural identity creation, and anything that helped me understand my place in this country. Most of what I’d learned was generalized desi American experiences. Post grad school, I continued to stay current through non-fiction books and academic papers. 

A few years ago, I learned about Ross Bassett, a history professor who cataloged every Indian graduate of MIT from the beginning to 2000. He published a paper MIT-Trained Swadeshis: MIT and Indian Nationalism, 1880–1947. When I read through it, a short paper by academic standards, I was floored. It was a part of my history that I never knew. Over a 100 Gujrati Indians came to MIT and studied here before the Partition in order to go back to India and rebuild its infrastructure. I tried to learn as much about them as possible, but there wasn’t a lot. Most of my hyphenated history is around the major immigration of Indians and other desis in the eighties and nineties. This was well before that.

Photo from the Economic Times of India's article, "How Gandhi's India created Indian techie & how at least 100 of them received degrees from MIT before 1947."
Photo from the Economic Times of India’s article, “How Gandhi’s India created Indian techie & how at least 100 of them received degrees from MIT before 1947.”

I kept thinking of what it must have been like for them, to be brown, to not have access to their familiar culture like food, language, ability to worship, and all that gives us a sense of community. 

That’s when the premises of the Engineer’s House emerged for me. What if there were (fictional, of course), a few who were the constants? What if two or three desi men—they were all men by the way—stayed to welcome each new class and wave off those who graduated? Then they built families here, stayed on, and assimilated to America. Each subsequent generation that followed had more of a connection and a sense of place to this country than India. 

So I created the Engineer’s House as a place where they would have lived, became hyphenated, and lived communally. One reason, of several, I chose to set the house in the Back Bay area of Boston is because this is still a very white space historically, and I wanted to put a brown community within it because these aunties had come from wealth in India and continued to live as such by building their own status and wealth here. 

I’ll stop here—but as you can imagine, I can talk about this for pages!

3. I know from personal experience that you are a talented Gujarati cook. Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite dishes in the book?

I had fun thinking about food in this novel. One thing that happens to food when immigrants move to a new place is fusion—it’s not just for chefs. Women (mainly) create with what’s available, and the original traditional diet/cuisine evolves as part of assimilation.

My mom does this. I grew up eating desi lasagna which has cumin, coriander, and other traditional spices. Tomato soup came out of a can, but then was mixed with veggies and spices to change the flavor. 

So I kept thinking, how and what would the aunties have learned—especially from parents and grandparents who brought spices over in suitcases because Patel Brothers wasn’t a thing yet? That’s where tandoori turkey and fish curry came from. Gujaratis are agrarian and vegetarian, but in the States, we’ve assimilated. I mean I love a good steak once in a while! So the aunties doctored up Thanksgiving and made it their own. 

I will say the scene with the sabudana kichdi is my favorite because that is a traditional dish that has stayed the same for generations. As with a lot of desi cuisine, each family makes it their own, and this is my mother’s recipe. However, NYT Cooking offered up one a few years ago, which comes close. I wanted to make sure the book conveyed what changed and what was kept, culturally, via food.

Authentic Gujarati style of sabudana khichdi.
Authentic Gujarati style of sabudana khichdi featured on JCO Cooking Odyssey.

4. Is your second book a part of this same world? Have we met any of the characters yet?

No. The second book is a stand-alone about a perfumer who loses her sense of smell and actively tries to get it back. In the process, she learns how to adapt and discovers that you can have more than one passion. It’s set in northern California and also examines the history of Indian hotel owners in the US.

A big thank you to Namrata Patel for answering my pesky questions. And grab your copy of The Candid Life of Meena Dave today.

Brave Crossing: Interview with Maria Alvarez Stroud

From the back cover: This coming-of-age saga is told through the eyes of Ricardo, a young Spanish-Filipino, as he voyages to America in 1916. He embarked on his journey thinking he was leaving behind war, rampant disease, unspeakable deaths, and family secrets only to find a country on the cusp of race riots, World War I, and a global pandemic. He learns that each of these events has the power to define who he is and who he will become. To succeed, he'll need to face memories of his past life of privilege, grapple with his own culture, and come to peace with the loss of his parents. He'll also need to confront his many attackers. His future depends on it.

Brave Crossing: A Journey In-Between is a powerful epistolary immigrant story set during a turbulent and harrowing period of virulence, violence, and racism in the United States. It was also a wonderfully human story in which the main character Ricardo was challenged, blundered, and was redeemed—and that was what kept me reading far too late into the night.

I met the author, Maria Alvarez Stroud, at the 2021 Historical Novel Society conference, and she agreed to answer a few questions for readers of this blog. Thank you, Maria!

Brave-Crossing-Maria-Alvarez-Stroud

JH: The main character follows the external signposts of your own father’s journey quite closely: they share a name as well as a path through university, medicine, and marriage. How closely would you say that the book hews to his internal journey?

MAS: Ahhh, I love this question. More than digging deep into the research of all of the major catastrophes, both in the Philippines and in the United States, I labored over what was going on within the heart and soul of the main character. More than anything, I wanted his journey to mirror what I believed my father went through.

The recognized historian of our Filipino clan helped immensely as he had known my father as a young boy. Visiting his hometown, Santa Cruz, as well as all the neighborhoods where he lived here in the United States was beneficial. I took long walks to literally imagine what it was like to walk in his shoes. Sometimes I’d find myself lost, far away from any planned destination. I talked with siblings, especially my brother who always said he was too much like our father. With every scene I tried to imagine what he felt, being alone in a foreign country, struggling to find his way, when so many obstacles stood before him. I won’t say it was easy, but I did the best I could to capture his internal journey.

author-Maria-Alvarez-Stroud

JH: In a related question, how much did your father talk with you or anyone in your family about his early years in Chicago and the racial discrimination he faced?

MAS: He didn’t talk about those years hardly at all, which is why I had such a desire to discover what life in the early 1900s was like for a Filipino coming to America, especially to a city of 2 million+ with fewer than 300 Filipinos. There were bits and pieces he mentioned: like flunking English several times, and being assigned the only other non-white student as a lab partner. Knowing the circumstances he was living under, I relied on research and read any account I could get my hands on about what non-whites experienced, from Angel Island to the general public dance halls.

Yearbook-photo-Ricardo-Alvarez
The real Ricardo’s 1924 yearbook photo (p. 34), courtesy of the Hilltop at Marquette University Archives

JH: Was there a real José (Ricardo’s friend who enlists to fight in the Great War)?

MAS: No, José was a fictional character based on research. There was one other Filipino attending the University of Chicago at the time Ricardo went, and there were Filipinos who fought in World War I. Knowing the University wasn’t that large at that time, it was highly likely they would have met and become friends. I took the liberty to have his future play out the way it did, to emphasize the sense of aloneness the character must have experienced and the plight of veterans of WWI.

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“Galesville’s Dr. Alvarez” from the 7 November 1974 issue of the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune, page 9.

JH: Though you did not write a romance, readers of my books will want to know lots more about Hazel. Anything you can share? (I did dig up an article, above, that described the scene: “They were married at 5 in the morning in a little church on a hill in Galesville, by a priest who left right after the ceremony for a funeral in Mineral Point.” Tell us more!)

MAS: From what I have heard from many of my siblings, as well as from my mother, it was love at first sight. Hazel was a second-generation Norwegian who grew up on a farm an hour away from the nursing school she attended and the hospital where she met Ricardo. Once she told me her favorite pet growing up was a baby lamb that she raised to an adult. My guess is that she had seen few darker-skinned people before she met Ricardo. Moreover, she was raised Protestant, and he a devoted Catholic.

JH: What has been the best part of writing Ricardo’s story?

MAS: Getting to know my father, the man behind the title, has been the best part. I wouldn’t have been able to even say this without doing all the research about his life growing up, the circumstances of his childhood, and what life was like as an immigrant in this country. It is an immigrant story after all, and a story of hope that is much needed today.

Thank you, Maria, and congratulations on your new release! Readers, Brave Crossing is out today, August 1st. Happy book birthday!

Brave-Crossing-Maria-Alvarez-Stroud

Content guidance: includes depictions of racism, colorism, and classism; suicide (off-page); infant mortality; death of mother; death of father; combat trauma; and epidemic disease. No significant sexual content. Note for my readers that this book is NOT a romance.

One of the 10 Best Historical Romances with Sports!

I’m so thrilled that Sugar Moon made this list from Joanna Shupe and Frolic. There are some amazing books on that list, and it is an honor to be included. The ones I’ve not yet read are now tops of my TBR.

Frolics-Best-Historical-Romances-with-Sports-Sugar-Moon
Thrilled to keep this company on Frolic’s 10 Best Historical Romances with Sports.

The list celebrates Shupe’s latest release, The Heiress Hunt, featuring a tennis-playing heroine based on “Suzanne Lenglen, a Frenchwoman who dominated in the early 20th-century with her aggressive style of play,” as Shupe writes. “The unconventional Lenglen pioneered “sportswear” attire for women, drank cognac during her matches, and was unapologetic about her superior skills on the court. (Seriously, where is this woman’s biopic??!)” I’m game!

Joanna-Shupe-Heiress-Hunt
Get your copy of The Heiress Hunt</> at your favorite vendor. Links here on Joanna Shupe’s website.

Shupe wrote why she had chosen each book for the list. Here’s what she said about Sugar Moon:

Set in the Philippines in the early 1900s, this richly layered romance is filled with vivid details of a location not often found in historical romance—including a historical baseball game! The hero, Ben, is suffering from what we now know as PTSD from the war, and he struggles with his self-worth. When he meets the fiercely independent schoolteacher Allegra, their chemistry turns this into a heart-tugging and wonderful journey of redemption.

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Sugar-Moon-sports-romance-historical-baseball-teaser

Yes, that’s a proposal scene! There are two baseball scenes, both related to courtship, in Sugar Moon because Ben is a dedicated player—and fortunately his sister has already brought the game to the hacienda. Everyone comes out to see if Ben can win his lady’s hand with athletic prowess.

Sugar-Moon-review-five-stars-read-fast

My Favorite Medical History Podcasts

In addition to an extensive list of memoirs, biographies, and research texts on medical history that I have read for background research on Sugar Communion, I have also spent a lot of time walking the dog and listening to podcasts. Here’s a photo of Wile E. and me on the way to the trail, just because:

Wile-E-Dog-and-Jen-COVID-masked
Heading out to the trail and hoping we’re the only ones on it. Listening to medical podcasts during COVID is on-point.

My heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, M.D., is one of many young women who became physicians or surgeons at the turn of the twentieth century. Many? Yeah! I mean, not a flood but enough to say that it was a viable career path for quite a few. In romance novels, the introduction of a female doctor character is often presented as something truly exceptional: “the only female physician in England,” one says, which is sorta lousy history. (Is it good marketing? I suppose so.) The aforementioned heroine was loosely based on the first female physician licensed in England, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson—not counting James Barry, who was assigned female at birth. By 1876, the year this other novel takes place, Dr. Anderson was already training female doctors by the class-full in the medical school she had opened—women who could have applied for licensure just like hers. Also, Scotland not England was really the “scene of the first major attempt by British women to break into the exclusively male world of medicine.”

Sugar-Sun-series-Pinterest
Check out my Pinterest pages for all my inspirations and visual research. Liddy will grow up in a medical family: her father and two brothers are both physicians of the eclectic school and operate a hydrotherapy sanitarium (think Kellogg‘s Battle Creek sanitarium for more frugal customers). She will go against her family’s wishes—not in becoming a doctor but in studying the new microbiological, laboratory-based field, which they regarded as a threat.

Women in the US probably had an easier road, with several coeducational and women’s medical schools existing in the Gilded Age, especially in the midwest. At the University of Michigan, for example, women made up a quarter of the class. The school turned out country doctors—a difficult, smelly career that these Gibson girls were welcome to try. Michigan was a better school than most, but in general medical education was not really stellar for either men or women. For example, there were no written examinations at Harvard Medical School at the beginning of the Gilded Age. None. In fact, that would have been impossible, one professor complained, because half of his students “could barely write.”

Ohio-Medical-University-Protestant-Hospital-Goodale-Ohio-State
Ohio Medical University was one of the predecessor institutions of the eventual Ohio State University Medical School, and the affiliated Protestant Hospital would eventually become Riverside Methodist Hospital. This original campus was at Goodale Park. Postcard courtesy of Historical Reflections, the Ohio State Medical Heritage Center Blog.

During the Gilded Age, doctors went from being considered “butchers” and “bleeders” to people who could actually diagnose what was wrong with you. Obviously, this is a great advance—though, before antibiotics and safe anesthesia, odds on treatment, care, and recovery were still not great.

It was the improvement in the status of doctors that led conservative elements of American society to decide that medicine was not an appropriate career for women, often because a woman doctor would be taking a “good job” from a man. The publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 is credited with creating the modern scientific medical school system in the US, but it also directly or indirectly caused the closure of many medical schools for women and African Americans. Those that had been coeducational reduced their admission of women, partly because they had a rise in male applicants. One study calls an unintended consequence of Flexner’s report “the near elimination of women in the physician workforce between 1910 and 1970.” It is the post-Gilded Age lack of women in medicine that makes us think that women have always been uniformly shut out of the field.

1896-fashion-plate
Sugar Communion’s heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, as inspired by an 1896 fashion plate at the Met. (She will borrow the dress.)

(Side note: Johns Hopkins, the model of a modern medical school for Mr. Flexner, only managed to operate because of the patronage of four women: Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, and Mary Gwinn. According to Johns Hopkins: “They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Reluctantly, the men agreed.” Unfortunately, the legendary founder of internal medicine at Hopkins, Dr. William Osler, was less enthusiastic about the role of women in the field, and the numbers of female students would dwindle before growing again decades later.)

My character Liddy needs to be a good doctor, yet one appropriate to her time period. I had to understand the world of medicine she was a part of. Better than studying it, I had to immerse myself in it. For that task, I did use some good books, but mostly I listened to podcasts. Let’s talk about a few of those:

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Bedside Rounds

I happened upon Bedside Rounds first and have since listened to every single episode. Dr. Adam Rodman is engaging and informative—so informative, in fact, that members of the American College of Physicians can earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) and Maintenance of Certification (MOC) credit for just listening to these episodes and taking a quick quiz! But, trust me, we general listeners need not worry about the test, nor are we left behind. Dr. Rodman’s intention was to model his podcast on Radio Lab, and his delivery is just as compelling and digestible (health-related pun?) as that popular program. There were times when I did backtrack 15 seconds or so just to let some point wash over me a second time, but keep in mind that I was taking mental notes for my book. A casual listener can easily stay on pace, though Rodman doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. His presentations do have lighter moments but never get silly. Listening changes the way you view medicine, mostly by making you realize how young the field really is. (Note: The COVID-related episodes, including an in-depth treatment of previous coronaviruses and the 1918 flu, are very good.)

This podcast will kill you

Two immediate advantages of This Podcast Will Kill You are (1) the incredibly impressive epidemiologist-and-disease-ecologist-presenter-duo, Erin Welsh, Ph.D. and Erin Allmann Updyk, Ph.D.; and (2) the structure of each episode into separate segments on biology, history, and modern epidemiological issues related to each chosen disease. (They also have a Quarantini—or, if you prefer, a non-alcoholic Placeborita—for each episode, and this was before we were all quarantining.) “The Erins” (their label, though I prefer “Dr. Erins”) have just begun their fourth season, and that is a lot of episodes to catch up on, but you will be glad you did. Until I listened to TPWKY, I did not truly understand sickle cell disease, for example, or dengue—not even while I lived in the Philippines, which is embarrassing.

The Dr. Erins deal with diseases that other podcasts do not cover, like rinderpest, the bovine form of measles, which will have to be another glossary post on this blog because it comes up a few times in my books. (The Philippines lost 90% of their carabao population during the Philippine-American War period, which added greatly to the suffering of the people.) TPWKY also has episodes on cholera, malaria, and other diseases that have made an appearance in Under the Sugar Sun and, in particular, Tempting Hymn. Upcoming in Sugar Communion, TPWKY has been instrumental in my understanding of syphilis (don’t worry, I will stick to the chronotope), as well as smallpox and the history behind vaccinesaspirin, and caffeine. Relevant to the whole nineteenth and early twentieth century periods, there are episodes on typhoid fever and yellow fever and so much more! The more I listen, the more I love this podcast. I think they are having lots of (appropriate) fun too.

(Note: TPWKY also put out a series of excellent COVID episodes, as you might expect. They are broken down by different facets of the pandemic, along with a December 2020 update.)

the history of medicine

I have only listened to the first half of the first season of The History of Medicine podcast, but what I like about it is the deep dive into a narrative history of one big medical invention at a time. The first season is all about antibiotics—yay, penicillin! The show on plague (Yersinia pestis) is an excellent short backgrounder for all history teachers. A final advantage is that each episode here is very short. A possible disadvantage is that host and producer Kirby Gong is not a practicing physician—he only (ha!) has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering—but, actually, I call his perspective an advantage. He investigates medical inventions in a more procedural way. This podcast is the lens of an engineer, and I find that fascinating.

this won’t hurt a bit

This Won’t Hurt a Bit was a lot of fun, but sadly you will quickly run out of episodes. The two ER physicians who are the main hosts here, Dr. Mel Herbert and Dr. Jess Mason, are so busy with saving lives and producing other educational modules for ER docs that they are not actively creating many new releases. (Note: They do have a few COVID episodes that I have not gotten to yet. I am more interested in everything non-COVID right now. Go figure.) Though these doctors are not exclusively focused on history, usually each episode touches upon the historical approach to a disease or treatment in some way. They also teach you a lot about being a good patient, including when you might want to go to a hospital yourself! Dave Mason, Jess’s non-MD husband, is also one of the hosts, and he provides banter and asks the questions you really wanted to know. What I appreciate about Dave, though, is that he is not entirely silly, and he does not derail Mel and Jess when they are delivering information. This podcast is very well produced and engineered, with additional asides and definitions that you appreciate not dread.

sawbones

Sawbones is probably the most popular podcast of all the above, at least by the size of the live audiences that they have performed in front of (pre-quarantine days). This podcast is billed as “A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine,” and that is because the show is based around the relationship of the medical host, Dr. Sydnee McElroy, and the comic relief, her husband Justin McElroy. (And they published a book too!) Most of the background medical history research is done by Sydnee—or maybe I’m underestimating Justin?—and fortunately she brings her A-game. Her episode on hydrotherapy was quite useful for my research. Dr. McElroy is also living and practicing in Huntington, W.V., which is where my grandparents and aunt lived (and therefore I spent a lot of time growing up)—and I feel connected to the McElroys that way too. (Surprise, surprise, they have several COVID episodes that I have not listened to yet, and they have also done an important set of podcasts on the history of medical racism inspired by recent protests.)

[Edited to add: The most recent episode on “Physician Burnout” is essential listening for all of us, physicians and patients alike. If you work in another “helper” profession, there are many parallels you will relate to.]

[just added!] maintenance phase

Maintenance Phase, a podcast that bills itself as “Wellness & weight loss, debunked & decoded,” started as a friend’s recommendation. She suggested the “Olestra” episode because I have family members who were involved in that indigestible chapter of history. This show has quickly become one of my favorites for general listening, though. I am one of those people who have been constantly in one diet cult or another my whole life, and counterprogramming is a challenge. The hosts of this podcast are not just scientifically informed, they are so much fun to listen to. In terms of medical history, their “Snake Oil” episode is one of my absolute favorites.

[just added!] the curious clinicians

The Curious Clinicians is sometimes too much for me, the writer who had not taken biology since freshman year in high school. This podcast is hosted by doctors and lab researchers for a similar audience, and so they do not explain every term or concept for the non-biologists in the room, and I recommend that we humanities folk out here choose our episodes wisely—but not shy away altogether. One episode that is amazing for everyone, especially if you are a foodie, is: “Episode 9: Why is umami so delicious?” A runner-up is “Episode 4: Why did Van Gogh paint with so much yellow?” Currently, I am learning about how fevers are actually useful, which is why almost all animals and even plants use them to fight infections!

stuff you missed in history class

For a history podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class touches on medical topics a lot. There is even a good episode on the Flexner report, mentioned above. I think this is because the hosts, Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson, show a real concern for the daily lives of past people. One of their other stand-out episodes for me was on the “Orphan Trains,” which is a footnote of history you might also see in Sugar Communion. [Update: I don’t know anymore. I have to do a lot of cutting.] There is a deep backlog that I plan to dive into once I’m finished with some of my medical questions.

the others you see on my player

There are more podcasts that I have not yet gotten around to, like the History Chicks, the Revisionist History podcast, and This Land. Other titles are related to my professional interests. I highly, highly recommend the first season of Blowback about the Iraq War. I do not think that I can say that enough times. There are other podcasts in my favorites that I have listened only to a few episodes of, like Casenotes. (Nope, not the true-crime podcast, but the medical history one. It is a fortnightly podcast from the Physicians’ Gallery at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Essentially it is just the audio of lectures given by doctors and epidemiologists for other highly-degreed people. It can be very good, depending on the speaker, but it is like listening to a conference, not a highly-produced podcast.)

You may have also noticed Book Thingo on my Stitcher account because it’s the best romance podcast out there, and I’m not just saying that because they were willing to talk to me. Kat Mayo is also the originator of the #UndressAndres hashtag, so I owe her a lot. [Edited to add: Did you know I was interviewed for a podcast on Balangiga too? Check it out!]

If you know of more stuff I should be listening to—especially anything relevant to Sugar Communion—please let me know. My dog always needs walking.

What Kind of Day: Resistance romance gone global

Resistance romance has gone global. It makes sense: idealists everywhere are being squashed under the steamroller of corporate and government interests. Women suffer silently in “toxic workplaces that reward mediocre men,” to quote Naya Llamas, the heroine of What Kind of Day. These women need their HEA, too.

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Take note, though: there will be no alpha billionaire to save the damsel in distress here. The “damsel” in question, Naya, is not in distress. In outrage? In frustration? Those are closer to the mark. Naya would tell Mr. Billionaire to fuck right off, thank you very much. In fact, her “rage-quit” speech to her former boss (which she recycles on a sitting Philippine senator!) would send a lesser man spiraling into his own mid-life crisis. Naya needs a fellow idealist hero with a hot bod and a quick mind. Enter Ben Chaco, Esquire: a former speechwriter for the aforementioned senator. Ben is in a mid-career crisis somewhat of his own making, but mostly not. And he has hot abs.

Naya has an “income-generating hobby” running boutique culture tours under the name of See This Manila. Naya’s video background has helped her carve out a presence online, and her customers pay a premium to be shown her favorite exhibits, the best sunsets, and the most unlikely ice skating shows. When stuck in Manila’s notorious traffic—which, yes, is really that bad—she dispenses “mentory” advice to her younger admirers (and to Ben, who has literally jumped into her van).Location-9-Intramuros

I loved the tour guide (and trip fling) theme of the book, and you do not even have to know Manila to appreciate the places she takes her customers. And, if you do know Manila, the book forces you to reconsider your view on the city.

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The destruction of the old Spanish walled city of Manila, or Intramuros, after the Battle of Manila, 1945. Uncredited photographer from the Office of the Surgeon General.

Remember that Manila was once the “Pearl of the Orient,” and what has happened to it since is not entirely its fault. You knew there would be a historical aside to this review, didn’t you? Well, this is my blog, and I am a historian so deal with it. The Americans bombed the city to bits in 1945—the necessity of which is still debated—and they did not stick around long enough to rebuild it. Instead, they gave the Philippines its independence in 1946, on schedule, and left.

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Sunset along Roxas Boulevard in downtown Manila. Photograph by Rolandave Bola used under Creative Commons License 2.0

Mismanagement since 1946 is a long and political story, and this part of Naya’s struggle. She rage-quits her job in official tourism because she wants to show the real Manila to foreign heads-of-state:

“So I quit because I was deployed to do touristy videos during one of the summits. And I wanted to be assigned to Manila, because I thought it would be a good chance to show the inequality, what life is really like even on the days when they don’t hide the shit from delegates traveling from the airport to wherever. I thought if I did it with some compassion, and with help from the communities themselves, I’d be able to create something and the summit would be the right platform for it. Because that’s what it’s for, right?”

“Oh, God,” Ben said, realizing where this was going. “You had a dream, too.”

Yep, What Kind of Day is the story of two dreamers. It is quintessential Mina V. Esguerra—and yet it is also enough of a departure to justify a new series. Let’s start with the latter. According to the author’s website, Ms. Esguerra did not wish to redeem the anti-hero anymore. (But she does it so well! Love Your Frenemies is one of my absolute favorites of the Chic Manila series.) True to the author’s intentions, Naya and Ben are both uncompromisingly honest, good people throughout the book—and what a relief!

Chic-Manila-Mina-V-Esguerra
Featured image is a trilogy of sorts: Iris After the Incident builds upon characters introduced in Love Your Frenemies, which builds upon a character you love to hate in My Imaginary Ex (that is also in this three-book set).

Of course, this is also exactly what makes the book fit into the MVE opus so well. Ms. Esguerra takes two people who have been burned—and burned by a similarly cruel aspect of the world—and helps them find each other. To me, this has the same feel as Iris After the Incident, which you probably know I loved. (Also, Iris is going to be released as an audiobook sometime in the near future. Yay!)

Okay, Jen, but what about the sex? The sex is also classically MVE: hot, memorable, and perfectly suited to the characters. It is a little odd to say “classically MVE” since Ms. Esguerra began by writing closed-door romance, but her recent books have all had very sensual, very imaginative love scenes. Naya and Ben’s first time could be a workshop in making consent and sex-positivity zing—which, frankly, I think is just the point in a book that is about fighting the Old Boys Network. It is perfect.

Finally, as with all the #romanceclass books I have read, What Kind of Day is a smart, fast-paced, beautifully-crafted novel. This book is both on brand and a trend-setter at the same time. I would recommend it to romance readers (M/F dual-POV with strong HFN), women’s fiction readers (strong growth arc in take-charge heroine), and general fiction readers (because, honestly, it’s just a freaking good book, no matter what you like to read). Enjoy!