A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

#SnowInLoveBingo shorts

Square: Five Star Prediction. All Over the Place by Geraldine DeRuiter.

This square is the anti-me. There is not a writer in the world I think so highly of I would predict their book would be a five star read for me. No, not even K.J. Charles.

So I interpreted this square as “book I expect to enjoy.” And since I’d just read this piece (and if you’re even on the Internet, you probably have too) I had reasonable expectations of enjoyment, which were definitely met. This is a well-named memoir (why is there no book challenge prompt of “pun in the title this year?!) of the author’s life after losing her job and becoming a travel blogger. It’s funny, well suited to the overall challenge because she and her husband are ridiculously in love, and even (I bet she would gag if she read this) inspirational at times.

I’m probably the perfect audience for this book, because I’m happily married and it reminds me so much of me and my husband (like DeRuiter, I’m the anxious, controlling one and he’s the laid-back one, but sometimes we have to switch) so I didn’t find it annoyingly mushy as some readers did. Also, I’m struggling with depression right now (long story) and some hopeful words about finding what you need when you’re lost really hit the spot.

Square: Cozy. His Quiet Agent by Ada Maria Soto

I’ll sometimes see people complaining about the lack of aromantic romance and I confess, I find this very baffling. But this struck me as possibly filling the bill? It’s definitely an asexual romance — steam level 0, the author warns — and though the main characters are undoubtedly in love it’s all expressed very… well, quietly. The lovely thing about the book is that it somehow hits all the beats for a satisfying romance anyway. It falls under the hurt/comfort trope, with Arthur taking care of his coworker Martin, who has literally no one else to take care of him (though there are people he cares about, we learn) and very gently and carefully inviting him into a relationship of home cooked meals and movies.

This also hit me in a personal way because it reminds me, not of my relationship with my husband, but of my long-time best friend. I’m pretty sure now that’s she’s autistic, but as with Martin in this book, it’s hard to know for sure whether it’s definitely autism and/or a trauma response that made them so closed off. It was work, but rewarding work to be her friend. (And probably the other way around, too. Another connection that just occurred to me — I had a very restricted diet and she was the person who got me to try new food. I’ve been wishing and hoping for someone to come along to do that for my daughter.) We’re both straight, but I was always a little bit in love with her and I could see us ending up like Arthur and Martin, if our lives had gone in a different way.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading December 2021

Women running marathons for self-empowerment and finding grand gestures at the finish line.

“Princess Bride” quotes.

Flying cups of coffee. (Not literally.)

Found families with ghosts.

Florida.

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TBR Challenge: Brutal Game by Cara McKenna (SPOILERS)

Content notes for book: consensual rape role-play, miscarriage, depression

The Theme: Festive!

Why This One: Just wanted to read it. I thought I was going about as far off-theme as possible, but there actually is a celebratory party at the end. This is also my #SnowInLoveBingo book for square: Established Relationship

Brutal Games is a rare sequel/couple follow up that might even be better than the first book. I don’t remember a lot about Willing Victim — my memory of it was so off, in fact, that I thought Laurel was the one with the rape-fantasy kink — but looking at my past review, I’d say this shares the qualities that made it good, plus taking them a step further.

As the book opens, the HFN of the previous book is going extremely well. Laurel hasn’t yet agreed to move in with Flynn, but I love yous have been exchanged, and role-play sex is still being enjoyed. But then Laurel gets pregnant, and — before she’s anything like ready to make a decision — miscarries. The experiences are challenging for them both but unexpectedly so for Flynn, who doesn’t think he has the right to have feelings about either situation, but really, really has them.

Odd plot for an erotic romance, no? But it actually makes perfect sense. In a lot of erotic romance, people’s kinks synch up perfectly — for obvious reasons, I suppose. What McKenna does so wonderfully here is exploring the authentic give and take and negotiation and compromise of kink and expanding that into the give and take of any relationship. (Although not a major plot point, Laurel’s fears that her depressive episodes make her burdensome are another issue for them to work through.) And she shows how tension and discomfort can exist within sex between two people who love each other, without making that horrifying.

It would be fascinating to read an AU version of this book in which the miscarriage didn’t happen, though I would settle for anything new from McKenna. Her voice is sorely missed.

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The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams

#SnowInLoveBingo square: “Holding Hands”

CN for book: drug addiction, slurs about the main character’s weight, discussion of eating disorders

Some people like to plan their bingo boards out ahead of time. Me, I love the synchronicity of a random book just falling perfectly into a square. This could go in “all the tropes”: there’s forbidden love, evil other woman, secrets, fake dating, only one bed, a touch of grumpy/sunshine. It could go into sparring, since the love interests are a personal trainer and his client and they playfully spar a lot. It has several delightful romantic gestures (and a past one that went excruciatingly wrong.) I could even make an argument for “dessert,” because the hero’s name is Wes and I don’t care if the author says he has dark hair, to me he is undoubtedly the hunk of deliciousness from “Nailed It.”

But as soon as I got to this line, I knew where the book had to go: “that night began a lifelong love of hand-holding.” And the theme continues. Although Wes and Britta are resisting each other for much of the book (ethical concerns on both sides) and don’t have many official boyfriend/girlfriend moments, his hand is always there to catch hers when she needs it.

“Let’s stretch,” I said, hurriedly reaching a hand to help her up again. In the sterile, muted colors of the gym, she was full of color and life, and the moment her hand was in mine, things felt right.

I mostly really liked this. Wes is very sweet, trying painfully hard to be a better man than the father who abandoned his family, and Britta is totally relatable with her efforts to love her large body. They’re adorable together, and I laughed so hard at this scene from their brief stint of fake dating:

“You’re an easy fake girlfriend to love.”

My breath stuttered at his words. “Whoa cowboy. Love? You’re moving a little fast, aren’t you? We’ve been fake dating for less than six hours.”

“When you pretend to know, you know.” His low chuckle shook the mattress enough to put my body on a delicious edge. “And after defeating your aunt, I’m feeling confident.”

“Fair, And, I’ll admit, the pretend sex is good–“

“Good? C’mon girl. I rock your imaginary world.”

There’s some good stuff about self-love and self-care, and those grand gestures are worked in so well thematically, I wound up feeling more positively overall about the book than I expected to. The thing that put me off was the personal training aspect. Wes co-owns a coaching app, and has worked very hard to make it one that is positive, supportive and not weight focused. And I really appreciated that we see Britta fall into the trap of over-exercising and undereating, with pretty dire results. I’ve been there, and it’s not talked about enough. But I’m really skeptical about a lot of the “science” of physical education and nutrition, to say nothing of “healthy living” fads that are all just diets under another name. Despite Wes and the author’s best intentions, I guess I found this a little triggering.

Still, the scenes in which he’s helping her train are very tender. And Britta has a really good arc, learning to love herself and reach her dreams, both personally and professionally. I do hope it’ll all continue to be good for her.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading, November 2021

Significant physical/mental disabilities.

Heroes who read romance.

Miracles on 34th Street.

Pranks.

People named Paul. Or not named Paul.

Petrifying parental puppet shows.

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#SnowInLoveBingo 2021-2022

I’ve been doing these bingo games on Twitter for about a year now and I just remembered how much fun it used to be to blog my bingo choices. Description of the visual is below.

(credits at the bottom — I had to screenshot the board)

Row One: Black Love (Definition: Written by a Black author and featuring Black love interests), ‘Tis the Damn Season (an illustration of a Methodist Church with a car parked beside it and then a school on the other side, and garland over the full illustration), Found Family, Adventure (illustration of a map and a compass), and 20th Century Vibes
Row Two: Romantic Gesture (illustration of a dog holding out a bouquet of roses), Job You Want(ed), Cozy (illustration of an armchair by a fireplace), Established Relationship, and Wolves (illustration of a cute wolf)
Row Three: Dessert (illustration of a pie and a cake), Author You Want to Try, Happy Holidays, Backlist Title, Five Star Prediction (illustration of five stars)
Row Four: All the Tropes, Winter Wonderland (illustration of a snow globe with reindeer inside), Indigenous Author, Holding Hands (illustration of a red heart with a brown hand and dark brown hand holding hands), Swoonies Rec
Row Five: Sparring, Star, Hotel/Inn (illustration of a hotel), Non-Binary or Trans Rep., and MC’s Name Stars with an A/D/J
Created by: @ardentlyaarya, @danis_bookshelf, and @graciouslyjen
Artwork by: @sarbethart with the Instagram logo beside it

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How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom by S.J. Goslee

I wound up really like this YA book, which reminded me of “Booksmart,” my absolute favorite depiction of High School. (Not counting the absurd magic of Don’t Care High.) It took a while to get there. Although the writing is instantly engaging, it’s also instantly confusing, with a huge cast of characters casually mentioned. And Nolan, our narrator, seems to passively drift through life, bullied by everyone including those closest to him. Drawings of dicks on his locker are a daily occurrence since he came out as gay at fourteen, as is getting deliberately bonked in gym class. (At one point, his gym teacher is literally, albeit humorously blackmailed with threats of a lawsuit.)

But perhaps the worst is his “soul-twin” and adoptive sister Daphne, who absolutely knows what’s best for him, including forcing him into a ridiculous “prom-posal” to the boy he has a crush on. Utterly humiliated, Nolan is rescued from an unexpected source: Ira Bernstein, “Bern,” who casually accepts the proposal. Although previously mentioned as low-key harassing Nolan after he came out, Bern is completely unfazed by the idea of being Nolan’s date or even faking a relationship.

As Bern and Nolan’s cross-clique dating begins to expand his high school world — previously limited pretty much to his best friend Evie and their Secret Awesome Sacred Art Club, and Daphne’s circle of friends, all of whom he thinks are unutterably evil — Nolan makes some surprising discoveries. For one thing, he’s seen at school as an “asshat hipster wannabe.”

“Which, for the record, I am nothing like a hipster at all. I have an appreciation for art that sometimes includes the absurd, but my outfits are born out of incredible laziness, not any sense of style. All my ugliness is a side effect of being too tired to care.”

For another, all of Bern’s friends are worried he’s going to break Bern’s heart. Because, apparently, he already did: Bern had asked him out freshman year, and Nolan assumed it was bullying and yelled at him. (Ouch, I felt this one. I’ve been there.)

This is where it started to feel like “Booksmart”: the discovery that things weren’t like the main character thought amidst offbeat high school fun going on. Rope ladders to the bathroom roof. Drunken games of spoons. Face painting with possibly toxic art supplies. Wild and crazy nights singing songs about math. And it shared with the movie a sense of underlying… safety. Even when Nolan is getting massively drunk on booze that smells like apples and gasoline — “Go with God,” the drink mixer says — I never really worried about him. (Oh! It’s almost another big queer party!)

The main flaw of the book is that I don’t think the author quite pulled off the very necessary first-person-romance skill of showing what the other person is thinking. I had to go back and reread sections to feel like I had some idea of what was going on with Bern. And Nolan isn’t just an unreliable narrator from self-absorption, but because he’s, as he puts it, “not good at feelings.” He tells us virtually nothing about his life before being adopted as a teen, and there are just a few clues that it’s left profound emotional scars, despite the fact that his adoptive family is just about ideal:

“This is bad. Daphne and I always get along. It’s how our family works. I don’t do any stupid shit, and Daphne and Marla and Tom all love me for it.”

I was sorry that there wasn’t more about this insecure attachment, especially not more disproving of it. I usually complain about books not being subtle enough, but I needed more here.

But overall, it was really a good time. Now I wanna go watch “Booksmart” again.

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TBR Challenge: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

The theme: Competition

Why this one: I read it, I loved it, I felt like writing about it, and it fit the theme! The fact that it’s a new book didn’t seem so important. 🙂

“Honestly, who even cast last season? Was the network trying to make it a queer party?”

I’m pretty sure the author was trying to make this book a queer party, and she did a great job. Comparisons to Casey McQuinston’s work are quite apt, not only because of the quality of the writing, but because of the time spent in effortlessly delightful queer space.

Dev Deshpande would be thrilled to know that he’s a character in an interracial gay romance. Ever since he was a little boy and declared that he wanted to marry Aladin, he’s been in love with love, making him one of the best possible “handlers” for competitors on the reality show “Ever After.” Dev genuinely sees his job as helping people fall in love, and when faced with a miserable, stammering, vomiting Prince for the latest season, he assures him, “You can do this. I believe in you.”

It’s not so easy to make tech superstar Charlie Winshaw into reality show Prince material. He has significant mental health issues, doesn’t like to be touched, and has never really felt sexual attraction. He’s so far from believing he could have a happy ending, he doesn’t even want to try; his only goal is to appear publicly “normal” so he might be able to work in tech again. Dev diligently works to understand Charlie’s needs and help him feel comfortable and relaxed, succeeding well enough that the Charlie is able to start bonding with his potential Princesses. (Who are treated with great sympathy throughout the story.) But the only one he really wants to kiss is… Dev.

As you can probably guess from that synopsis, there’s a lot of not-great stuff happening here. Dev is absolutely not allowed to get involved with a cast member, and he has mental health problems of his own. Charlie is often put into uncomfortable/humiliating situations. And they spend a lot of time pretending around their feelings. But countering this are gorgeously written falling-in-love scenes, which are most tender when they focus on what each thinks are their weaknesses: Charlie relishes “scrawny” Dev’s sharp points digging into him. Dev is enchanted by Charlie’s constant blushes and awkward vulnerability.

And then there’s that big queer party. The times when Dev and Charlies and their friends and co-workers, all varieties of LQBTQA+++, drink, dance and have fun, and stop worrying about who’s supposed to fall in love with whom.

“Men flock to Charlie, and Charlie tries to introduce the men to Dev, but it’s impossible to see anyone else when Charlie’s around, hulking and blond and sweating in the flashing lights… He wonders how many nights like this Charlie Winshaw has had in his life. Permanent smile, completely out of his head, not worried about being weird and being totally, unapologetically weird as he thrusts his hips to Lady Gaga. Has Charlie ever had a night like this? Has he ever just let himself be? Charlie dances like his skin is a pair of stiff jeans he’s finally broken in, like for the first time, he fits.”

There’s so much joy in this story, and the bleaker parts are all so thematically important and well integrated, that it was pretty much a charmer from beginning to end.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading, Spooky October Edition

Characters haunted by their dead spouses. Not literally. Mostly.

Taliesin.

Horrifying mind control, magical and technological.

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In Want of a Wife by Jo Goodman

I don’t really want to review this — it was okay, but not especially captivating — but I did find it interesting when compared to my reaction to the first book in the series, TBR Challenge DNF: The Last Renegade by Jo Goodman. This also had some very grisly elements, in the pasts of both main characters, but though they didn’t make me DNF, I found them curiously… meaningless. They didn’t add anything to the story — there’s no real healing process — but almost felt as if they were just inserted because they’re Goodman’s trademark.

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