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.

Grady Hendrix: Horrorstör

The physical design of this book is fantastic. The faux-Ikea descriptions and illustrations are pitch-perfect, right up to the point they turn sinister and twisted. I enjoyed the earlier, funnier, half more than the second, but a lot of that is due to my personal preferences. I wanted the protagonists’ economic stresses to play into the horror aspect, with the Orsk organization itself being the source of the (maybe cosmic?) evil, and that’s just not how it goes. Also it had somewhat more graphic descriptions of injuries than I’m comfortable with, especially when male writers are describing women being hurt – not to a torture porn level or anything, but unpleasant for me. Still, overall, it was a hoot. How has this not been filmed? 

Lucy Score: The Worst Best Man

I loved Mia Sosa’s book of the same title so much that I read a bunch of reviews, looking for other readers as enthused about it as I was … and I stumbled on one that mentioned also really liking this novel.

And I did, eventually, really like this too. What won me over primarily is that it’s actively working to subvert alpha-billionaire tropes, and it’s a bit nuanced about it: Frankie doesn’t want to be swept off her feet, but it is hard to resist a nice dress; Aiden has to learn to rein in his desire to reduce Franchesca’s financial pressures. I appreciated that the depiction of the business side of Aiden & co. didn’t strain my credulity much, and I liked Frankie’s collisions with the society-column set. Also, skirting spoilers, someone’s dastardly scheme goes slightly awry in a way I found very satisfying.

Didn’t like so much: the book shifts tone quite a bit, it starts out rather madcap (no spoilers, but someone gets kidnapped), and then it gets more serious. Wasn’t sure of the book’s politics at first, with rich people partying on Barbados, and some not-entirely-convincing attempts to depict life outside the resort bubble, but by the end I felt in safe territory. It felt maybe a little long to me, too? Although I’m not sure what I would suggest cutting out.

My first from Lucy Score, but certainly won’t be the last.