A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Caprice by Amanda Carpenter (aka Thea Harrison)

The theme: Starting Over

Why This One: I didn’t have the theme in mind when I started, but it kind of fits. As a romance reader, I hope it fits.

From the Goodreads reviews this isn’t a fan favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s almost no plot — all vibes, as the kids say. And the vibes aren’t all that good.

Caprice is the name of our heroine and she doesn’t know herself whether it’s “a case of the name predicting the personality, or the personality fitting itself to the name.” She’s whimsical, capricious, manipulative and an inveterate flirt, and she’s starting to realize that she’s in perhaps in a trap of her own making. She’s not a terrible person by any means, and many of her ploys throughout the book are for the benefit of her friends, though she’s never truly let those friends in. But her socialite lifestyle is shallow and she has no desire to change it, even while realizing something is missing.

In typical Harlequin fashion, Caprice’s feelings are upended by an attractive man named Pierce — another descriptive name, I just realized — and it scares the hell out of her.

She felt an inner lurch, and then was frightened. Foolish, foolish, for this man was a stranger and he didn’t matter any more than the others mattered. She shouldn’t fear him. He didn’t know her, couldn’t know her. She was glittering brightness, she was cool fire, she was laughter and gaiety, and malicious gentleness, she was Caprice. Underneath that, she was untouchable.

These thoughts happens right after Pierce tells her “everyone has a basic reason for doing something. Sometimes, with the more twisted or fanatic mind, you need to search deeper for the reason, but it’s always there, deep, underlying actions and thought like the still waters under the surface of this lake.” Which makes a lot of sense in terms of her character, but sets the reader up for disappointment, because we expect some powerful reason for Caprice’s behavior, some trauma, and we don’t really get one. (Though on the other hand, yay for avoiding that particular romance cliche?)

Pierce finds Caprice about as frustrating as you’d expect, but nonetheless courts her in spite of her hot and cold reactions, and in the end manages to make a pretty good argument for how their opposite attracts relationship could work. I still have my doubts about their ultimate happiness, and I wish there could have been more progress in Caprice’s understanding herself better and moving closer to other people in her life, to help create a happy ending. Instead it comes out more as “she just needed a good shagging” quite literally ala “Gone with the Wind.” The second half of the book is less interesting than the first.

It’s hard to believe this was published in 1986, because it feels like a time capsule — those who enjoy loving descriptions of clothes will be happy — but more like 1960 than the 1986 I knew. (Though coincidentally enough, I was just about Caprice’s age then, and it’s the year I met my husband.) The feel is so old-fashioned, I kept being surprised when Caprice could go off with a young man without a chaperone or be caught kissing him without a scandal. Were rich people really having innocent house parties in 1986?

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Progress Report: Kinda Sucky

I’m just so discombobulated. I don’t want to use Habitica anymore but I haven’t settled in with a new system. And I feel like I’m spending even more time on the computer, even though I have less to do. And I never feel like I’ve had a productive day, no matter what I’ve done.

It occurs to me that I may need to do a form of “deschooling,” which IIRC is what unschoolers call a period of time after leaving school in which the child just needs to hang out and do whatever until they’re ready to engage with learning. Today I’m in bed with the heat on, trying to work up the energy to have a shower. Maybe that’s enough.

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2023 Goals

Okay, the biggest one: do not get emotionally involved in social media ever again.

(Which could seem a bit tricky, since I have my own mastodon instance — romancelandia.club, all romance fans welcome! — but actually, that is helping me grow a thicker skin and take things less personally.)

This is only partially about twitter, which I’ve been divorcing myself from since the muskrat’s offer was accepted months ago. It’s also about habitica, which has been my social media safe place for 8 years now, and can be no more.

Along with sadness though, is also some relief. I think my reading habits were being much too influenced by habitica and the challenges I loved there. And that I wasted time which could have been spent more productively. I did establish good habits but also let a lot of tasks go.

Which leads into the next goal: I want to stop playing numbers games about books. Read what I want to read and give myself time and space to read chunksters. Keep reading challenges minimal.

I’m still doing faranae’s challenges because they’re so fun and generally work with my regular reading, as well as making me stretch some in good ways. (https://harpgriffinbooks.wordpress.com/2023/01/01/happy-new-year-welcome-to-2023/). I also borrowed a habitica nonfiction reading challenge that makes me read more widely (mastodon hashtag #KIR for Keeping it Real.)

I’m on litsy now (https://www.litsy.com/web/user/willaful) and it’s so just overwhelming with challenges and games – to the point that I don’t think I’ll get too sucked in. But I love that there are readers there who enjoy the sorts of old fashioned books I do, so I’m going to allow myself some participation.

Mostly, I want to read and I also want to… get on with my life.

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TBR Challenge: Hitting the Wall by Cate C. Wells

The theme: Festive

Why this one: Well, it ends with a holiday parade, which of course I knew when I started reading it!

After actually indulging in a few Christmas romances this month, and finding them unbearably samey, I’ve been in the mood for some good ole angst. This filled the bill nicely, while also being surprisingly complex and interesting.

At 17, high school student Shay Crowder found herself pregnant after a drunken night with her crush Kellum Wall… who subsequently hung up on her when she tried to tell him, and blocked her calls. When Kellum’s father and uncle, the wealthiest and most important men in town, arrive with the local sheriff to investigate a clearly, obviously untrue rumor, Shay is easily intimidated into leaving the area.

Six years later, Shay is living with a mother who “has all the advice in the world, but not an ounce of patience,” and her daughter Mira is being exposed to drunken men at home and physical abuse in a special education program at school. Shay decides she has to risk returning to Stonecut County, where she has an opportunity for cheap housing and is unlikely to run into any of the Wall family again. Except she does… and Kellum, now Deputy Sheriff, recognizes both her and Mira, who looks exactly like his sister Dina as a child.

Honestly, I didn’t know how the author could redeem Kellum, especially considering he’s also 7 years older than Shay. (!) Perhaps that’s why we first meet him in the story risking his own life to rescue an infant, to quickly establish his good guy cred. But there were also a number of extenuating circumstances, and he had no idea about Shay’s age, her pregnancy or his family’s visit, so when he immediately sets out to take responsibility for his mistakes, I was able to accept him as her hero. Shay finds it much more difficult to do so though — and she’s not exactly wrong.

A constant theme in the book is the entrenchment of power and how it protects itself. Shay is brave, fierce, and a realist; her cynicism is entirely earned. She can’t put her trust in a man who loves and admires the very people who destroyed her life. And Kellum, one of those powerful people himself, is too close to see it:

In this moment, I hate him.

He’s the most honest and upstanding man I’ve ever met, and I can’t trust him. He simply can’t fathom a world that doesn’t arrange itself for him so he’ll never understand the danger Mia and I are in.

In addition to its social commentary, Hitting the Wall won me with the depiction of Shay and Mira’s relationship. Mira doesn’t have a diagnosis, something difficult to get when you don’t have reliable medical care, but is pretty clearly on the autism spectrum. Shay loves her wholeheartedly and respects her needs, with tremendous insight into Mia’s inner world:

Mia’s not a brat. She picks up after herself. She does what she’s told. But when she gets into something that speaks to her, it’s like she rearranges the whole world. That thing–watching tadpoles or lining up critters or whatever–becomes the tent pole holding up everything in her world.

Life is fine and wonderful, and then I come in and say “In five minutes, I’m gonna yank this pole and pull everything out from under you, turn your day topsy-turvy, and most likely also loud and unpleasant and there’s not a damn thing you can do. Five minutes.”

And folks want me to whup her on top of that when she doesn’t act with perfect grace? No. I give her time to mourn the way she wants. Folks can get bent.

After all this, the ending seems almost too easy and perfect; I feel like I’d never want to live in Stonecut County again. Then again, corrupt power is everywhere and Shay is nothing if not a realist. I do believe in her HEA.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading Oct/Nov 2022

Characters who didn’t know they had been adopted.

Characters trying to be different from their terrible parents and often overcorrecting.

Panty ripping. (Always in Christmas romance. An attempt to mitigate the general sap?)

Untreated generalized anxiety disorder.

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TBR Challenge: Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

The theme: Lies

Why this one: Lucky coincidence

This is basically a rom-com movie in book form, even including a more family Christmas-sy version of a gratuitous karaoke moment. And for a while I was afraid that it really wasn’t going to work for me. It starts out so dismal and depressing, with a heroine who hates her life, hates herself, and is a martyr to her exceedingly horrible mother. Oh, how I loathe fictional martyrs! But I persisted and it was worth it.

It’s mainly a queer “While You Were Sleeping,” though I also noticed a touch of “Gilmore Girls.” The narrator is Ellie, who agrees to a convenient engagement with wealthy Andrew because she’s really in dire straits. And a part of her hopes it will turn out like all romance readers would expect, with them really falling in love. If only she could get over the one-night stand she had with an incredible woman named Jack last Christmas…

Going to Andrew’s family Christmas with him, she discovers he has the kind of warm and loving relatives she always wanted for herself, and they’re thrilled to make her part of the family. Unfortunately, she also discovers that one of those relatives is his sister Jack.

(For those who worry about these things, Andrew and Ellie never do more than kiss.)

The Christmas section is just about holiday romance perfect. There’s awful sweaters and tree-trimming and mistletoe, and the author does a great job of incorporating the classic “we’re accidentally touching and oh my God” moments of the rom-com genre, with almost palpable attraction and tension. The only things that didn’t work for me was I was a bit skeptical about a very wealthy family being so down-to-earth, and with what seemed like an attempt to smush in the “big queer party” atmosphere of The Charm Offensive. It was awkward.

And there’s a lot of drinking. It made me a uncomfortable, how much of the action happened while people were drinking.

Lovely romance though, and effective character growth arcs for Ellie, Jack and Andrew.

(Personal story: I told my husband about the book and he found it very strange that Andrew wasn’t in a coma, since that was such a big movie plot point. Then I read the author notes, in which she thanks her agent “for talking me out of so many bad ideas (including the coma.”) 😂)

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Murder While You Work by Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild)

I was thrilled to hear that Furrowed Middlebrow Press was bringing back a bunch of Streatfeild adult novels, but honestly, this one could have been left to moulder in obscurity without much loss. If Streatfeild had stuck with the main characters — Judy, who’s working in a munitions factory and Nicholas, who’s doing some top secret, highly dangerous weapons work –and expanded on their relationship, it would have been a nice wartime romance with some interesting sources of tension. (I enjoyed how frank the book is for an old romance — although Nick and Judy don’t get up to anything beyond a kiss, the notion that they could and people certainly do is right out there. Very different from an old Harlequin!)

Instead, the romance struggles under the weight of a deeply depressing mystery/suspense plot, with an obvious, implausibly theatrical villain, the murder of some likable characters, and a hefty side order of ableism. (The original Furrowed Middlebrow review even mentions a use of the R word, which they have eliminated from the new addition. But there’s too much embedded into the story to be cut out.) It’s really not what I wanted to be reading right now… or probably any time, really.

It does seem from the reviews that this is atypical of the Scarlett novels, so I’ll certainly try another.

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TBR Challenge: Against a Wall by Cate C. Wells

CW: death of a parent, violent threats, fights. Pretty mild in practice.

The theme: Dangerous to Know

Why This One: Just felt like reading it. The hero is pretty much dangerous not to know.

I enjoyed this while also being kind of aggravated by it. It’s an interesting take on the popular new adult “bullying” theme, because the bullying isn’t really dark, as it often gets in romance. It’s more of a teasing kind — making the inevitable “he did it because he liked her” storyline much more plausible.

The darkness in the story comes from the Glenna’s position as a target for hate — her journalist father wrote an article exposing a local hero as a traitorous thief — and from her loss of her mother at a young age. Young Cash Wall, thick as a brick, had no idea that his teasing originally drove her away from her friendship with him and his twin sister Dina, and that his continued pranks afterwards hit her in an especially vulnerable place.

As a suspense book, this doesn’t have much payoff. (Incidentally, it is linked to several much darker books, but you don’t need to have read them.) It’s mostly about the romance, though there’s also a pretty good arc of self-discovery for Glenna

What I liked: Cash is a classic romance Himbo, and quite a good one, as long as you take care not to wonder about his politics. (Dude has truck nuts, don’t tell me they’re anything good.) He’s the family blockhead, but of course he’s also incredibly competent, chivalrous, loving and devoted, and genuinely remorseful when he learns how much he really hurt Glenna. Glenna thinks “we don’t make sense,” mainly because Cash is so conventionally attractive and she isn’t, but there’s also their very different backgrounds and that she’s an introvert and he’s the life of the party. But the author makes it work.

What I didn’t like: The “wimpy other man” motif. Glenna’s ex, we learn, is pretty terrible and there’s really no need to also set things up so he comes off as pathetic and unmanly next to Cash. You don’t have to spit on skinny women to show a fat heroine is a good thing, and you don’t have to put down vegetarians or pacifists to show that a redneck hero is fine. Just… make him fine.

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Who’s That Girl by Mhairi McFarlane

CW: suicide

This started out well for me, lively, funny and relatable, and ended pretty well too. (Until the very end. Let’s just say that if you’re going to refer to your characters as “hero” and “heroine” in your author’s notes, you should deliver a less ambiguous ending.) It maybe redeemed the rest for me?

The story is from the pov of view of Edie, who’s the extremely uncomfortable guest at the wedding of her co-worker Charlotte to her co-worker Jack — whom Edie’s been having an emotional affair with over text. When all hell breaks loose at the wedding, Edie finds herself labeled a Scarlet Homewrecker Tart all over Facebook, and doesn’t feel she can ever face the office again. Her boss, who doesn’t want to lose her, sends her on assignment to her home town of Nottingham, to be a ghostwriter for actor/heart-throb Elliot Owen.

The whole “dogpiled and bullied on social media” element of the plot might have worked better for me if the author hadn’t used it again so recently, in Mad About You, which I didn’t love. There’s a lot of similarities in the plots and it made me uncomfortable in the light of recent events with She Who Will Not Be Named; writing about “keyboard warriors” nudges my bullshit meter. And the same set-up of two poor beleaguered woman being so cruelly treated by a bunch of cartoon villains… it’s just a lot and seems to primarily exist for the purpose of letting the woman grow a spine and get her own back.

Thankfully the book is about more than that, which I can’t really say about Mad About You. Edie has some good character growth, including making peace with her family, which has never been the same since her mother’s suicide when she was nine. I was very touched by this section in which Edie and her sister discuss their mother’s death for pretty much the first time:

“I read an analogy of depression,” Meg said, as they steadied, wiping under her eyes with a floppy cuff. “About how killing yourself is like jumping out of a tall building when it’s on fire. You don’t want to jump out, but bit by bit, it becomes impossible not to because you’re so scared and in so much pain. No one thinks anyone jumping out of a building on fire wants to do it.”


“Every time I think that Mum chose to go, I’m going to remember that,” Edie said. “I know in my heart that she didn’t choose it, but sometimes when it’s hard to bear, being angry is easier.”

The slow burn (also closed door) friendship to romance with Elliot is pleasant, and I was pleased that what seemed like a really obvious and dumb lead-up to a third-act-breakup scenario didn’t actually happen. But the lengthy “is he or isn’t he into me” section bothered me by seeming so much like what Edie had already gone through with Jack, where there are constant clues that maybe he might like her that she’s always trying to decipher. It made it harder to like Eliot and to root for them as a couple, though he finally won my heart by being exceptionally twitterpated.

There are also some enjoyably over-the-top characters, like Elliot’s director, a pithy Dorothy Parker in a permanent state of utter outrage. And Edie reunites with her two closest friends. for much fun and laughs. The “questions” section for this book on GoodReads is entirely people begging for a follow-up, because of the noncommittal ending, but I would also really like to catch up with the friends again and also see them happy.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading, Sept. 2022

The “first time” after the loss of a long-time partner.

Men whose entire playlist is Taylor Swift.

The aftermath of revolutions.

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