Emotionally-Complex Romance Summer

I completed my vaccination at the end of June and looked forward to a summer of COVID dwindling down. Sadly, my hopes were dashed. While other people were trying their best to make Hot-Girl Summer and No-Mask Summer and whatever else the world wanted from their summer happen regardless of the Delta variant, I mostly stayed at home and did a lot of comfort reading. Meaning I reached for many books with romance at the core, because I wanted happy endings resulting from people making good choices for themselves. But as with everything I read, I have high standards. I demand great prose, great characters with interesting and complicated motivations and emotional landscapes, solid plotting, and interesting themes. It’s hard to find books that do it all and deliver the happy ending.

I did find several books that met my criteria and were romance-centered or romance-adjacent. I didn’t keep up with posting reviews for the past several months, so please enjoy this round-up of my Emotionally-Complex Romance Summer reading:

I finally started The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love Bujold, and these were really solid books. I haven’t felt the urge to pick up the rest of the series yet, but when I need more fantasy romance comfort reading, I’ll return to Fawn and Dag’s adventures.

Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Loved the Western flavor, the subtle magic, the adventure-turned-domestic-drama. This is a true fantasy romance, emphasis on the romance. Looking forward to reading more, and following the characters from the mundane world where they’ve solved Fawn’s difficulties into Dag’s magical world, where more drama and more magic awaits.

Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Serious Tamora Pierce vibes. Difficult to read about Dag’s family turning on him and being racist toward Fawn. Satisfying to read about people solving problems and making decisions to break with old habits that don’t serve anymore and set out on an adventure. I like romance stories that intersect with a character realizing they need to make a significant personal change, because their family, professional, or personal life doesn’t serve anymore. The Sharing Knife series is turning out to be a coming-of-all-ages story where Dag and Fawn, who are at very different points in their lives, make choices about how the rest of their lives are going to be, by choosing each other and embracing the consequences of that choice.

As promised in my review of “St. Valentine , St. Abigail, St. Brigid,” I went on a C.L. Polk binge and read all four of her novels in three weeks. I was riveted and delighted from start to finish!

The Kingston Cycle

Witchmark by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Snappy and inventive use of the Edwardian period for a secondary-world gaslamp fantasy. World-building and themes went hand-in-hand, as we explored the impact of modern warfare on soldiers, emergent technology and the adjacent social ills it creates or brings to light, how poorly society treats veterans, slavery, systemic social injustice and inequity, the right to self-determination, and how difficult it is to separate from a toxic family. Utterly refreshing to read an emotional male character who gets a romantic happy ending, instead of the big-bad-magical-powers/chosen one narrative.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
More political intrigue! More magic! More romance! A true pleasure to get more of this world and these characters. Love how hard Grace works to fix her own perspective and the world around her, using her power and privilege for good. The thing I love most about her character is also the most frustrating: her unapologetic intelligence is balanced by a destructive naivety. It makes the character very real, but gets her in trouble again and again.

Soulstar by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book packs a punch. Polk finally takes us from the powerful upper echelons of society down to the working class clans and families struggling within the systemic abuses of power our more privileged protagonists from Witchmark and Stormsong have been trying to escape and dismantle. Robin’s political, social, and personal journeys to repair what’s broken in her country, her community, and her long-paused marriage was extremely satisfying to read. She worked for it; it was hard; nevertheless, Robin persisted.

And Polk’s standalone latest novel:

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bridgerton, with magical scandal instead of sex scandal. Blatantly and unapologetically feminist (no subtext here!). Thank you to C.L. Polk for including different takes on feminist thinking, including multiple women from different levels of societal privilege and representation, and a man in the process of becoming a feminist. Compulsively readable and delightful, with moments of dreadful tension leading to a very satisfying happy ending. Escapist fantasy on many levels.

I don’t usually go for contemporary romance, but I was enjoying pushing my romance comfort button so much, I picked this up on a recommendation from a friend. Really glad I did. Turned out to be one of the best reads of my summer:

Beach Read by Emily Henry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Made me laugh out loud (the book club purse wine!) and then gave me all the feels (emotionally devastated characters crossing paths as they sort out the wreckage of their lives!). I will have all of this, please. Henry effectively blends the rom-com and serious-drama modes, all while blatantly critiquing the publishing industry’s treatment of not just romance but most fiction written by women. I am happy to say I do not regret lifting my ban on reading stories about writers for this book.

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Lingering SAD-ness and Stress, or Where I’ve Been for the Past Six Weeks

You’ll notice I haven’t posted any book reviews since mid-May. It’s not because I haven’t been reading, but I haven’t felt like writing reviews for anything I’ve finished. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and I had a bad year. On top of the usual loss-of-interest depression I experience every winter, I overextended myself at work and burned out. My writing ground to a halt (like it does every winter), and my volunteer position on a fan-run convention committee became so stressful I nearly quit. I only saw my commitment through because I don’t like dropping the ball and there was no one to hand the work over to.

In April, I started writing again on a mini-retreat with some members of my amazing writing group, and just as I was starting to pick back up – the days got longer and sunnier, if not warmer (thanks, New England), and I was feeling good and fantasizing about an easy summer – I got surprise slammed with a large, months-long, highly stressful project at work that derailed me completely for the past six weeks. I’ve been in a stress shutdown almost as bad as the middle of winter.

The project is opening some career development doors for me, and I’m whipping it into shape, but I just couldn’t muster up the energy to write reviews for any of the books I’ve read since mid-May. However, it’s summer now. I’m up with the sun every day and this is the time of year I feel my best and most energetic. If you are one of the few people that follow this blog, you are about to get bombarded with reviews! I’m writing them up today and scheduling them to post this week and next.

I will always say fall is my favorite season because of the colors and the crispness and leaves and apples and snuggly sweaters and hand warmers, but fall also heralds the dark season. November is the cruelest month. Summer is when I feel good. Here’s what I’ve done for myself in the past six weeks:

  • Read a shit ton of fan fiction
  • Cut off my shoulder-length hair into an asymmetrical pixie
  • Drank milkshakes and ate ice cream
  • Took an impromptu long weekend to visit my husband’s family in sunny Florida
  • Bought books (even though I already have an entire to-read bookcase) and actually read them right away!
  • Built a LEGO Parisian Restaurant
  • Started a short story AND a novel

Self-care and self-kindness are important, and I’m always learning new ways of taking care of, motivating, and forgiving myself. I wish I was confident that I can maintain my energy through the next winter, but I can’t hope too hard for that only to be disappointed. I will enjoy the now, the sunshine, the long days, the heat and the energy. My creative juices are flowing. I’m writing again. I’ve already well exceeded my goal for today. I’ll ride this train ‘till I run out of fuel.