Courtney Milan – The Duke Who Didn’t

How awesome is this book? Let me count the ways.

First, the barebones: Jeremey’s in love with Chloe, but he hasn’t told her he’s actually the Duke, and basically owns her village. Chloe doesn’t want to admit she’s in love with Jeremy. She knows he’s rich – he’s known as “Posh Jim,” after all – and if she could see a future where she’s more than a dalliance to him (doubtful), she certainly can’t see one where she can be with him without losing who she is.

This is the stuff from which a fine romantic comedy can be spun, and this is a fine romantic comedy. Chloe and Jeremy’s verbal sparring is delightful. Milan’s sentence-level craft is superb; the village of Wedgeford is vividly portrayed.

But there’s so much more going on that enriches and adds depth to this novel. Perhaps like the complexity (forgive me) of a really good sauce.

Because that’s another thread: Chloe and her father are planning to launch a sauce empire. There’s just one little problem to amp up the comic drama: it’s the eve of launch day, and they are still calling it “Unnamed Sauce.”

Why is the launch day so important? Because Wedgeford is host to an annual village-wide sporting event, loosely based on the Atherstone Ball Game (not, as thought at first, on the similar Kirkwall Ba’) which draws the biggest crowds of the year (and provides more opportunities for hijinks, not to mention a large and entertaining background cast).

Adding depth (but not weighing down either the romance, or the sauce-launching plot): Chloe and Jeremy are both of Chinese extraction, which challenges their lives, in late Victorian England, in different ways. “Unnamed Sauce” emerges as a metaphor for diaspora (and the future sauce business represents sweet revenge on cultural imperialism, not to mention predatory business practices). Wedgeford, owing to an accident of changing trade routes, is an exuberantly diverse community; and Milan suggests powerfully that the existence of such communities at that time would be virtually inevitable. The evolution of Chloe’s relationship with her father hinges, in part, on aspects of Chinese languages that are subtle, but I felt that I could follow them (without being talked down to).

It’s a very rich and satisfying mixture indeed, and I look forward to what’s next for Wedgeford and its denizens.

Note: I was provided an advance reading copy with the expectation that I would write a review.

Elia Winters – Hairpin Curves

This book was a tiny bit slow to grab me, but once the actual roadtrip got going I was all in.

The logistical details of getting from place-to-place were credible and anchored the story for me. Winters’ prose is light on physical description, so I found the portrayals of the places they visited evocative more than vivid, but I also thought that suited the mood of the story well. Like, having never been to the Grand Ole Opry myself, I didn’t know what it looked like or sounded like, but I felt the emotional impact of the visit on the characters. But when they go somewhere I’ve been myself, the details felt right, even if they were sparing.

But what really worked about this for me was the sense of timelessness and disconnection from the world outside of the roadtrip. The enforced proximity and boredom were a very effective way to surface the tensions between the protagonists.

Winters uses a limited third-person omniscient view that switches between letting us into Megan’s head and into Scarlett’s head, quite often multiple times within the same scene. I found myself wondering how different the book would have been with alternating first-person; I think I would have appreciated having distinct narrative voices, and it might have been clearer how the way the women see each other is changing through the course of the book. But then again, that might have made it too clear; one of the things I think this book is really good at is portraying is how the characters really aren’t sure what they want or what they’re feeling.

The spoken dialogue and internal monologues both have some big lumps of getting-it-out-all-at-once, and it’s a bit hermetic – there are a few supporting characters, but they mostly seem there for the protagonists to react to. But as soon as I finished this I bought more of the author’s books.

Skye Kilaen – Glorious Day

“Glorious Day” takes some fairy-tale-ish elements – a wicked king and a scheming courtier, an innocent (at least in some ways) princess, a noble-hearted guard – adds a lot of realistic emotional complexity, gives it a futuristic veneer, queers it, and remixes it all into an unusual, slow burn FF romance (with just a dash of second-chance trope).

What I liked best about was the subtly shifting balance of what characters are capable of and what other characters assume they’re capable of (physically, emotionally, intellectually). I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that ableism plays a significant role in the story, but it’s really interesting how ableism and other forms of under-estimation drive both the romantic arc and the narrative plot in different ways.

And there is definitely a plot (besides the romantic arc), with more on-page violence than I usually expect from a romance – the author does provide cautions, so take note if that is a concern.

The setting is lightly sfnal, with mention of a spaceport and happenings off-world, but mostly current/near-future tech. I might liked to have seen a bit more of the universe beyond the monarchy where the the story is set, but that really wasn’t the focus.

Eager to read more from Skye Kilaen!

(I don’t know if I need this disclaimer or not, but I’ve commented on Skye’s reviews on Goodreads and vice versa.)

V.E. Schwab – A Darker Shade of Magic

I feel a little mean for not liking this more.

I liked the general mood of derring-do, and I liked the two principal characters (especially after they met and started interacting directly). There are some fun set pieces (many of which feel like they would translate well to film).

But I found the relationship of world-building to narrative a bit frustrating. A bunch of the magical system is worked out with some rigor – there are rules about who can open doors between or within worlds, and how such doors can be opened. And then there’s also a theme of manipulating the traditional greek elements. In battles, wizardy types throw air, water, fire, etc. at each other; fine. But beyond that, there’s a whole bunch of other magic that doesn’t have the rigidity of the door rules, but also doesn’t have an elemental underpinning. We learn about one of these in the very first paragraph, a magic coat that can be turned inside-out multiple times with many somewhat non-deterministic results.

Maybe this will be the subject of later books in the series, but here the effect of this is that it wasn’t clear to me what was or wasn’t possible at any given point. That undercut the narrative stakes for me, because it always seemed possible for the characters to just use a new type of spell to overcome a particular plot obstacle. (Certainly not unique to this book; that bothered about Harry Potter too, so take my criticisms with the necessary quantity of NaCl).

Beyond that, I thought many of the characters slotted a little too neatly into familiar tropes, (especially the villains).

For the first volume of a trilogy, I thought this wrapped up quite solidly (although I also thought the protags made a really questionable decision that I assume leads to trouble in book two).

Rep note: One of the supporting protagonists is identified as bisexual.

Farrah Rochon – The Boyfriend Project

Really enjoyed this. Liked that the friendship between Samiah, London, and Taylor got nearly equal billing with the romance plot. I also loved the portrayal of a Black woman crushing it in tech. (Rochon really nails the vibe of late-stage startup software shop culture, if not all the code-slinging details). As romances go, I thought this did an unusually good job of building up the obstacles to the relationship, so much so that the wrap-up felt not only a bit rushed to me, but also strained my credulity a smidge. But any nits don’t detract from my wanting to spend more time with this trio of friends in future novels.

Ruby Lang – House Rules

I’m going to out on a limb and guess that Lang’s brief for herself with the “Uptown” series was to write using core romance tropes, but consciously alter some standard pillars of each. So the first portrayed a not-quite fake relationship and the second featured not-really-enemies-to-lovers, and here we have a nonstandard second chance (They were married! They got divorced! Whoa, high stakes!) with a side-order of one-bed (but not really one-bed, just one sharply constrained living environment).

This one seemed tonally different to me – more gravitas. I read the others in a single day each, but lingered over this, partly because work-week, but also partly because I was dreading the inevitable “pit of dispair” leading into the final act. And that was because this one really got its hooks into me – I found the delicacy with which Lang depicted Lana and Simon re-learning about each other very moving.

Looking back, I realize I haven’t mentioned how effectively Lang uses food in these linked novellas, to reflect the characters’ culture, to demonstrate the characters’ passion and craft, and also to give the characters a non-sexual but still very sensual dimension in which to interact. And also, apparently, to inspire me to support some local restaurants as best and safely as I can in the middle of a pandemic. Food is very important to this novella in particular, since Lana is actually a chef.

I mentioned that the wrap-ups of the previous novellas felt a little compressed to me. I didn’t have that sense at all with “House Rules.” The pivotal moments of the story didn’t divide themselves evenly by chapters, but this time the characters’ emotional journeys felt complete and not rushed.

I will definitely be looking out for more from Ruby Lang!

Ruby Lang – Playing House

Delightful. The title suggests a fake relationship trope, and while that’s not completely inaccurate, it’s also a bit of a feint. And I really liked that about this book, it feels less like it’s executing romance tropes, and more like the lives it depicts have resonances with those tropes. Lots of great details make this a stand-out. I believed that Fay and Oliver know more than architecture than I do and at least as much about urban planning, but also enjoyed meeting their families and friends (including queer rep).

I understand why some commenters would have preferred a more plot complications or higher stakes, but I thought it worked very well at this length.

My first Ruby Lang. Won’t be my last!

P.S. one additional thing I appreciated, in her Acknowledgements, Lang recommends other Harlem-situated romances by Rochelle Alers and Alyssa Cole, which I think is a pretty classy way to roll.

Ruby Lang – Open House

I liked that “Playing House,” the first short novel in this series didn’t slot too neatly into the “fake relationship” trope, and “Open House,” similarly, isn’t quite “enemies to lovers” – the protagonists have and acknowledge an immediate attraction, but their roles place them in conflict: Tyson is helping out with a community garden, and Magda is the real estate agent who needs to sell the property. (Magda is one of the real estate agents that Fay and Oliver toured houses with in the first book, and we get to see one of their open house visits from her perspective in this one, in a way that dovetails like expert cabinet joinery.)

As with “Playing House,” a lot of the plot conflict also derives from tension between the protagonists’ families and friends, and this one also features not only Tyson’s struggle to save the garden but also Magda’s quest for a buyer for an over-improved and over-priced property.

I don’t usually mention sex scenes specifically, but having just read two of Lang’s books back-to-back, I think it’s really noteworthy how extraordinarily well she models consent (especially in a couple’s first time together) without sacrificing heat. I sometimes cringe at “alpha” protags who (arguably) assault first and establish consent after the fact. I think a lot of dudes, frankly, could really benefit from reading and internalizing Lang’s depiction of people negotiating what they want to do, and then having a really good time as a result.

I did think the series of epiphanies that led the protagonists to an emotional place where they could be able to commit was a bit too on-the-nose. (One scene in particular between siblings felt more like things you might say to a therapist than to the person you talk to the therapist about.) I probably would opt for 4 1/2 stars if I did star ratings here.

And I also thought the wrap-of this one felt a little truncated. I usually think the “6-months later” or “a year later” epilogue is a bit cheesy, but I kinda wanted one here (even more than in “Playing House,” which also had a fairly brisk finale).

I will settle for hoping for a glimpse of Magda and Ty and/or Fay and Oliver in the third volume. Which I have already started!

Seanan McGuire – Middlegame

I’m fascinated by unintended connections. I bumped “Middlegame” up my TBR because I’m trying to read as many of the Hugo Nominees as I can, and (skirting spoilers you can’t get from just reading the list of chapters( it has surface-level congruencies with some of them. Like “The Ten Thousand Doors of January,” it offers non-linear chapter heads and some book-within-book moments; like “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” there are some malleable time shenanigans.

In some ways, it even more resembles another book I read recently, Blake Crouch’s “Recursion,” but with almost everything I didn’t like about that novel subtracted.

“Middlegame” reminded me of one of my favorite fantasists, Tim Powers, partly because it strikes a balance between big, philosophical ideas about the nature of reality, and fast-moving, breathless action sequences. But also in tonal variation – this novel gets dark-verging-on-horror for some of its set pieces – and in sentence-level craft, (not to mention intricate plotting).

It’s not quite a home run for me. There’s one lump of exposition in the final act that was hard for me to swallow, mostly because it spells out for some of the characters a bunch of things the reader will likely have worked out for themself. And, also in the final act, the scope of characters’ magical powers grew unsatisfying for me; sometimes constraints seemed present because the narrative structure demanded them, not because they made in-world sense.

Overall, I liked it quite a bit. And sort of hope someone tries to film it.