This Week, I Read… (2020 #50)

#176 – A Kiss for Midwinter, by Courtney Milan

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I didn’t know I needed a short romance between a slightly grumpy and relentlessly honest doctor, and a determinedly cheerful but painfully in denial young society woman. Their banter made me laugh, occasionally broke my heart a little, and in general gave me life, watered my crops, cleared my skin, etc.

I also value this for being a Christmas-adjacent story without making “the magic of Christmas” its central tent pole. I found it refreshing to have this set in a time period where Christmas traditions were actually changing and the story could address, in small ways, what people thought of that. It wasn’t completely without Christmas spirit, but neither was it cloying or saccharine as contemporary Christmas romances so often are.

I’m glad I’ve come back to this series, because I so rarely find Regency/other historical romances engaging, when they’re usually focused on how external obstacles–the strictures of society in particular–might prevent the romance from happening, and after a while I don’t find that particularly interesting. Milan always manages to make the conflict about something else, and here, society at large isn’t at all standing in the way of Lydia and Jonas–their issues are entirely personal, and I think that’s a great fit for both my personal tastes and also the short length of the story.

#177 – Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

  • Mount TBR: 153/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I felt some of the same pacing issues were present here that I had with book two–for the first half of the wandering story I was anxious to forge ahead and find “the good stuff,” and then when I got there, it was over so quickly in a string of high-adventure shenanigans.

But somehow those shenanigans also made time for a brief examination of gender roles and nonbinary/trans identities–I’m hesitant to choose between those terms for Heali’i when neither are used in the story–and also the barest hints of a possible future romance. Whatever frustrations I have with this book, I was never on the verge of giving up the series, but if I had been, I’d still want to stick around to see if Suhail is the future second husband that Isabella occasionally refers to but never names. Their friendship grows organically from their situation and the hardships they endure together, but from Isabella’s perspective, at least, there’s chemistry between them as well, despite the numerous societal obstacles that would undoubtedly plague such a match. Not gonna lie, I ship them, Suhail was my favorite new character.

I’m less sure about Jake and his presence in the story. On the one hand, I like the slowly-growing rapport he and his mother are developing; on the other, I dislike that for large stretches of the narrative, Isabella seems to forget he even exists. I suppose it’s difficult to sympathetically portray a woman who was never particularly interested in having children as a mother, and benignly/occasionally neglectful is far, far better than actively resentful. But at times I genuinely had difficulty seeing Jake as anything more than a plot device, because the mere fact of his existence made his presence on this journey mandatory–Isabella goes into that at the beginning at sufficient length–but the story never really gives him anything worthwhile to do, and his governess even less. (The narrative also forgets about her for whole chapters at a time, and that lack made me miss Natalie as a female presence in Isabella’s life.)

Some of my complaints, both those detailed here and others too minor to mention, may be an artifact of middle-book syndrome, as this is the third of five in the series. The ending feels as abrupt and unsatisfying to me as the end of the second book did, if for different reasons. Yes, it’s the end of the voyage, which was the point of this memoir, but it’s as if she dusts her hands together and says “that’s that, then,” while barely devoting any time to the fallout, both political and personal, of her journey.

#178 – Back with the Stuntman, by Amanda Horton

  • Mount TBR: 154/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Yikes, DNF at 10% of the file, which apparently is stuffed with filler at the back end, because another reviewer says the actual book ends at 36%. So I thought I was reading 10% of the story but I actually read almost a third? Which just makes this seem even worse to me, because from where I left off, it didn’t feel like we’d covered much ground.

So I was immediately put off by the constant punctuation errors, poor grammar, and the tone of the characters’ conversation, which was flatly stating everything they’re thinking, to the point where they’re clearly expositing the story in a way that real people generally don’t speak to each other.

That was all before the end of the first chapter, but I didn’t give up yet. I wanted to at least meet the hero in the second chapter.

I found a serious red flag soon after the story switched to his POV. I knew he was a single dad from the blurb. What I was shocked by was that I was introduced to that fact in-story with this sentence:

“After the death of Shaun’s mom I wasn’t interested.” [in long-term dating]

So Shaun’s his son, I guess, but neither his name nor his existence had actually be mentioned prior. And I’m beyond horrified by introducing a dead woman who had some kind of relationship in the past to the hero, not by name, but by her motherhood. WHY DOESN’T SHE GET A NAME? And why, on top of that, is she only defined as the kid’s mom? Wasn’t she the hero’s wife, or at least his girlfriend at some point? Was she truly nothing more than the person who incubated and birthed his child?

But I kept going, and somehow it actually got worse. Not long after the two leads met up again in person after their many years apart, they have a reasonably good chat and feel reconnected–and we finally learn the name of the hero’s son’s dead mother, who was actually the hero’s wife, don’t understand why that wasn’t made clear immediately. At the end of the night, the hero gives the heroine a long “bear” hug (which apparently he’s “notorious” for) and gets turned on enough to just proposition her right then and there. I was disgusted, and fortunately so was the heroine, who got pissed and left. But he’s the hero! They’re supposed to get together, and he’s acting like this early on? I’m not rooting for this guy, he’s a jerk!

No, just no, to all of it.

#179 – A Duke by Default, by Alyssa Cole

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’ll throw in an extra half star for solid adult ADHD rep, because I’m in a similar boat to Portia and only recently wondering if that condition is the root of my problems. And overall I feel like it was better than the first book, which I also gave three stars. But like the first book, this one also has a lot of problems.

I know very little about how peerage works in the UK in modern times, but even without a solid foundational knowledge, the sudden and nearly painless fight to get Tavish recognized tested my suspension of disbelief. Other reviews I have skimmed point out the flaws with this part of the plot in far more detail than I could myself, but I see it, I acknowledge it, once again the “royal” part of the “reluctant royal” theme is questionable at best.

I felt like Portia and Tavish had good chemistry, though the push-pull, will-they-won’t-they phase seemed to last a long, long time. I’m a sucker for a tough exterior with a marshmallow center, so I liked Tav well enough even when his excessive Luddite tendencies seemed unrealistic. Portia’s emotional journey sold me on her even when I couldn’t empathize with her rich-socialite attitude towards certain aspects of life. Their personalities weren’t the problem in this romance–the constant back-and-forth of the plot was, especially the accelerated pace of events at the end, which I thought was weak. Both Portia and Tavish flip-flop constantly about what they want (or at least what they admit to wanting) and their relationship devolves into a garbled series of miscommunications worsened by outside interference. The ending tried to tie up all those ends, but it felt abrupt and even slightly unsatisfying–at one point late in the story, things had gotten so bad between them that even though I liked them both, they were doing each other more harm than good and I almost stopped rooting for them, thinking maybe they really were better off apart, that the obstacles between them were too great to overcome. And if I’m not rooting for the couple to get/stay together, what’s the point of reading romance?

So it started with a strong premise and good chemistry, I got some bonus ADHD rep along the way that resonated with me, but it mostly fell apart by the end and I was left frustrated by a rushed conclusion.

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