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.

Jasmine Guillory – The Proposal

Every time I watched a wedding proposal on the Jumbotron at a Red Sox game, I wondered: is this going to be the one that doesn’t go as the proposer intends? Cause it seemed like awfully high stakes, and a weird environment to make a life-altering decision in, if there was any decision-making involved.

That’s how “The Proposal” opens, and that provides the meet-cute for Nik and Carlos (who you might remember as Drew’s supportive friend from “The Wedding Date”).

As I’ve mentioned before, I like it when a romance has substantial conflict and character growth aside from getting the protagonists to the point where they can be together. I particularly appreciated the sub-plot here with Nik, and her friends Dana and Courtney, taking a self defense class, and in general the well-developed network of friends and relatives that both protagonists have is pretty great.

I see that lot of reviewers didn’t buy the simmering attraction between Nik and Carlos, and a lot of reviewers have sentence-level concerns about prose and dialogue.

I didn’t have any concerns with how the romance evolved, if felt credibly supported to me (and sufficiently romantic for my taste). And there was only one sentence I stumbled over a little bit. My only real criticism is that I thought the denouement was a tiny bit abrupt – I would have preferred a little less of the third-act angst fest, and little more post-angst joy – but overall I found this delightful, and am looking forward to seeing more of Nik, Carlos, et al as I make my way through the series.

Lucy Score – The Christmas Fix

Enemies-to-lovers + Reality-show-hijinks + Christmas = OMG

The set-up is already in catnip territory for me, but this is very well executed. The protagonists’ burgeoning mutual attraction evolves naturally and credibly despite the friction their roles impose on them. The book has a large and likable supporting cast, very warm tone overall, but not treacly. Seems eminently film-able, and I found myself hoping it’s under option/in development.

I really liked that Cat and Noah are both good at their jobs, and that their jobs are believable. I like romances with well developed subplots, and the help-the-town-recover-from-the-hurricane subplot here certainly qualifies.

I got a teeny bit impatient for the protags to find their way around the final obstacle to HEA, coz the solution had a large blinking “obvious” sign for me, but they did eventually get figure it out.

Rep: major supporting character is black, queer couple walk-on

Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Absolutely stunning. “Ten Thousand Doors of January” uses the familiar trope of hidden doorways to another worlds to tell a story about the power of creativity to disrupt oppressive power structures (like white supremacy).

Although it has some serious things to say, it’s also terrifically entertaining, and emotionally involving, with some twists I foresaw, and some that completely blindsided me.

It’s carefully paced and intricately structured – it offers a beautifully executed book-within-book experience – and has some slippery use of narrative voice. There are also some innovative re-imaginings of events from our world, and grace notes for lovers of fantasy to find (for instance I particularly liked how E. Nesbit’s “lost” (perhaps not sadly – according to one account I found, it is likely fundamentally racist) novel “Secret of the Kyriels” is re-invented as “The Door to Kyriel”).

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow

Both the 1920’s Mexican setting and the underpinning of Mayan myth set “Gods of Jade and Shadow” apart from the vast majority of fantasy fiction; the combination lends this novel firmly in “not like anything else I’ve ever read” territory. Even when the bones of the plot feel (appropriately!) familiar, the way it unfolds is surprising (and I didn’t know how the novel would resolve its conflicts until I got to the end).

Moreno-Garcia’s prose is rich and atmospheric; she’s particularly good at depicting the intrusion of otherworldliness into naturalistic settings.

I was a tiny bit distracted by the narrative voice, mostly third-person omniscient, it occasionally verges on an authorial “I.”

I’m impatient now for the upcoming “Mexican Gothic!”

Chi Yu Rodriguez: No Two Ways

From other reviews, this short novel seems very polarizing: A bisexual woman and and a bi-phobic lesbian negotiate a mutual attraction. I found KJ Charles’ review very helpful; he praises this book not so much for its exploration of sexual identity but for not punishing its protagonists for hookup culture or binge drinking. Perhaps because I came to it from this angle, it didn’t give me all the proverbial “feels,” but I did feel like I learned something about the perspective of a particular person who looks at the world in a very different way from me.

I also appreciated how AJ (the sole viewpoint character here) also explores how her initial realization of her bisexuality impacted the heterosexual relationship she was in at the time, and I liked that her job – an infosecurity manager – plays against gender stereotypes, and was believably described. I thought the makeover reality show subplot was fun (if a little long on coincidence).

Andrea Beatriz Arango: Westwood Monster Patrol

I really enjoyed Andrea Beatriz Arango’s modernized take on “A Christmas Carol,” and I was eager to read anything else I could get my hands on, enough to read a little out of my comfort zone. And I’m glad I took a chance on this, it’s completely unlike any other supernatural-themed YA I’ve read.

The “big bad” draws on a folklore tradition that is not at all overexposed. No vamps or werewoofs here. The characters were believable, likably flawed, and oh yes, multicultural. The language is a bit saltier than a lot of the YA I’ve read, and there’s a lot of moral complexity.

Like Arango’s other story, there are a lot of fun pop culture references, and knowing a bit of Spanish won’t hurt. (One little detail I really liked, actually, is that some of the characters don’t speak Spanish, so if you don’t understand every line of dialogue, you’re sharing an experience with the character – but also, there’s always Google Translate if you need it. And I did, a few times.)

I would welcome a sequel, but I’m also happy to meet whatever other characters Arango wants to introduce me to.