A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Tales of Much Too Old

This month has been a real lesson in why I don’t read historicals much anymore, aside from the fact that the current popular prose style isn’t to my taste.

I decided to combine this month’s TBR challenge, “tales of old,” with another one, of picking a random TBR book — pretty simple, because my print historical TBR is separate from my (much smaller) contemporary and fantasy piles. My first random book was Prairie Moon by Maggie Osborne, which turned out to be set in the south, post Civil War. I probably don’t have to go into why I DNF’d it. My second random book was September Moon by Candice Proctor… set in the early days of colonizing Australia. For crying out loud! The third, Fall from Grace by Megan Chance, yet another post Civil War South story. I may yet finish this one, for next month’s theme, but it’s been a bit of a slog.

Fourth was Chase the Heart by Maggie Osborn, which has the advantage of being an Elizabethan setting, but also the disadvantage of being an Elizabethan setting.

A long way of saying I have no TBR Challenge book this month. 😦


Did We Read the Same Book?

I just finished The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams, which was very sweet and touching. The way the books I knew were discussed in the story kind of threw me at times, though, especially Pride and Prejudice. It reminded me of what Alexis Hall has been writing about in his blog lately: “the 1995 adaptation really doubled down on Pride and Prejudice as primarily a romance and that’s kind of what it’s been (and to an extent what Austen’s been) ever since.”

If it were just one character, it could be considered an individual response, but it’s so universal throughout, I got the feeling that Adams doesn’t much like P&P herself and certainly doesn’t know it very well.

Various quotes:

“So, Mr. Darcy, he likes Elizabeth Bennet, and she clearly likes him, but she spends most of her time being rude to him and vice versa.”


“From the first moment you meet Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth, you know that they’re meant to be together. The rest of the book is just the author trying to keep them apart for our entertainment.”


“Isn’t it basically nineteenth-century smut?” Vritti laughed, sitting down at the table.

Mukesh’s face blanched. “Smut? Really? I am only a quarter of the way through. I haven’t seen smut yet.”

“Just you wait,” Vritti winked.

I suppose, since this is a religious family, this could referring to Lydia having sex outside of marriage? But it’s never addressed again and we have no idea how Mukesh felt about it when he got there. So, mostly No.

“Bossy Mrs. Bennet wants to marry her daughters off to rich men. But one of her daughters, Elizabeth Bennet, she wants to marry for love, not money,” he explained to Priya.

Okay, he’s talking to his young granddaughter, so maybe we’ll let that one pass.

Aleisha couldn’t tell if she was hungry or her stomach was actually doing somersaults. Elizabeth Bennet and her standoffishness would not be impressed with her.


Mukesh could see all the characters he’d met along the way. There was Pi and his terrifying tiger, very out of place. Elizabeth Bennet, still playing hard to get, with Darcy a few steps behind.



TBR Challenge: No Place to Run by Jane Donnelly

The theme: location, location, location

Why this one: I’ve been on a bit of a Donnelly glom and this one fit nicely.

CW: Use of “gypsy,” somewhat stalkery hero, and heroine who berates herself for saying no to sex after being “criminally provocative” by, you know, kissing someone. (He, unlike many a Harlequin hero, gives her no hassle about it at all.)

Despite the title and a rather perturbing opening, in which Lucy gets a magazine cutting of herself and her fiancee marked, “So that’s where you’ve been hiding,” this isn’t romantic suspense, but a story with a largely internal conflict. As the book opens, Lucy has just gotten engaged to Mr. Right and is resolutely stifling any memories of her time on a Scottish island, when she met a man named Matt and… sort of married him.

“For a few years before the clearances the young folk were forbidden to marry unless they emigrated, so they married with the ring of rock. Like gypsies jumping hand in hand over the campfire.”

She said “Well, thank you for bringing me here,” and she put her hand through because it was irresistible, gasping when his fingers closed over hers. He loosed her within seconds and they both laughed and the singing cave took up their laughter.

As they spent more time together, this little ritual became meaningful for them both. But Lucy, the child of an aggressively unhappy marriage, desperately wants safety and security. Which seems perfectly embodied in Giles, her town’s Most Eligible Bachelor. Lucy’s life is perfect — except for the persistent fear that Matt might show up and ruin everything.

And then he does show up and does ruin everything… not in so much in deliberately stirring up trouble, but because somewhere inside, Lucy knows she’s doing the wrong thing. A conversation with Giles:

“I’ll see you this evening. I love you.” He added, “There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

“Now what could be possibly be wrong?” It was a lovely day. “Bye, then; I love you.” She put down the phone and sat looking at it for a moment. “I love you,” she said softly again. “Oh, I do hope I love you.”

This isn’t a popular book; a lot of readers find Lucy annoyingly wishy-washy. But Donnelly’s voice makes it work for me, and I think Lucy gets a good arc — not just throwing her cap over the windmill for love, but because she realizes that her life with Giles would be utterly stifling. And though I’m not usually a big fan of woo-woo, something about the connection between Lucy and Matt, that mystical pull deeply rooted in harsh history, enchanted me.


Love Wins

This post by K.J. Charles reminded me of a piece I’d written for “Heroes and Heartbreakers,” so here’s a repost.

Romances have a happy ending, that’s a given—no arguments, dammit!—but those endings in older books can seem pretty whack to someone reading them now. In the early days of Mills and Boon/Harlequin, sometimes all you needed to demonstrate an HEA was a marriage proposal: no matter what hero awfulness came before, that proof of commitment was enough. This often went along with the assumption that the heroine’s life would be absorbed into the hero’s; her primary job becomes wife and mother, and love is all she really needs.

Modern romances are still about love conquering all, of course, but they also acknowledge that women have ambitions and dreams, that actions have consequences, and that matching up the lives of two distinct people might not always be so simple. Lately, I’ve been enjoying a trend towards plots relying less on grovels or grand gestures and more on conversations, compromises, and life changes. The best of these books feature heroes and heroines who genuinely want the ones they love to achieve their dreams and are willing to cooperate.

Cooperation is initially a challenge for Evie and Carter in Christina Lauren‘s Dating You/Hating You: their fledgling relationship hits a huge snag when they’re set up to compete for the same high-pressure job. It could have been curtains for love, but intellectual honesty and integrity save the day.

It’s time for us to cut the shit. I don’t know what kind of game Brad is playing. But I get that I’m coming out favored because I’m a guy. And that’s fucked up. I like you. I liked us. I don’t know how to manage this weird competition. I need you to tell me how I can fix this.

Carter is not so much Evie’s knight-in-shining-armor here as someone waking up to his own complicity:

“I went to Brad to talk about how things went down with you and him.”

I groan. “Carter, you don’t have to fight my battles for me.”

“I know this…. But… I had to say something. I couldn’t not. The way he acted was completely unacceptable.”

Well. He gets a kiss for this.

Going Nowhere Fast by Kati Wilde is a bit more Cinderella-ish: Aspen is seriously broke and Bram is seriously rich. He can (and does) easily solve many of her problems with money, and offers her a future in which his wealth will continue to grease the wheels. But it can’t solve his lack of trust, or his tendency to lash out at her. When he realizes he’s badly hurt Aspen, he has to do more than apologize; he has to seriously work through his issues with professional help so he can offer her a genuine relationship, not just a piggy bank.

Counseling is also one of the answers for Helen in Ruby Lang‘s Hard Knocks : her trauma and anger over her father’s brain injury are tearing her apart and destroying her relationship with hockey player Adam. For his part, Adam also needs to do some thinking and make changes, realizing that his dreams of being a sports success have very little to do with what he actually wants out of life — especially a life that includes Helen.

Dealing with conflicting dreams in romance is sometimes as simple (or as complicated) as realizing that things can be different than you expect. In Roan Parrish‘s In the Middle of Somewhere , Daniel has a chance at the job of his dreams, but he finds it hard to believe that his boyfriend Rex could love him enough to leave a cherished cabin in the woods for a city. Daniel grew up so deprived of love he has to ponder what the words even mean after they’ve said them:

Maybe the point of I love you is that it is a tether. A connection so you can find your way back to someone even when shit seems huge and unmanageable on your own.

Daniel accepts their love and finds faith in it. As the book ends, we don’t even know yet where they’ll wind up, but we know they’ll find a way to stay together.

In Live by Mary Ann Rivers, Destiny’s lover Hefin has a long journey he has to make, but she feels bound to her home by numerous threads of love and responsibility:

“I want to be two places at the same time. With you, and with where I understand myself the best…. I can’t decide which one I would grieve less. And I’ve done so much grieving, I can’t stand to do any more… In my most selfish moments, I demand that you stay here and just stop this decision from happening. But then I would grieve that too.”

The story almost ends with a “Gift of the Magi” ending: lovelorn Hefin is just about to give up and return to Destiny in Ohio, when she arrives in Wales, having realized that,

…everything she needed was already all down inside of her, no matter where she went. Her name in the concrete of a threshold of a small brown house, her family carved into relief for generations by the man whom she loved, the people she’d known her whole life who smiled when a navy blue limousine drove down the street. All of that, all of it, wasn’t pinned to a map she would have to leave behind; it was already inside her, all the time. It’s why she cared about it so much.

I particularly enjoy seeing these kinds of relationships in a series, because we can follow how the couple continues working things out. In Sarina Bowen’s Bittersweet, Audrey makes what seems like a conventional choice: she leaves the job that could lead to her having her own restaurant to stay with Griff on his family’s apple farm. But that decision has more to do with being on the wrong path than giving up her dream; in later books we see her leaving for a time to pursue a prestigious cooking course, while Griff uses the time apart to build her a new kitchen in their home. It’s such a perfect moment for a modern romance, one in which lovers still have autonomy, support each other, and don’t fear temporary separation because they know they will always come back together. After all, it’s built into their HEA.


The Mistletoe Motive by Chloe Liese

My track record with Liese is spotty — one book I really liked (Ever After Always) and two I DNF’d. But I can never resist a “Shop Around the Corner” story. (Yeah, yeah, even I could tell this one is “You’ve Got Mail.” Just let me live in my own little world, okay?) It’s also amusingly over the top with its Christmas theme, pitting charming, independent Bailey’s Bookshop against the evil chain Potter’s Pages, and our Christmas-adoring narrator Gabby Di Natale against even more aptly named Jonathan Frost. (If that level of whimsy annoys you, just don’t even try this one.)

Jonathan was brought in as co-manager of Bailey’s because while Gabby is fantastic at hand-selling books and making the store cozy and inviting, she was having trouble coping with other managerial obligations. Gabby is autistic, and feeling sensitive about her shortcomings made Jonathan the enemy to her, something his curt manner did nothing to help. Now it looks like the struggling bookstore will only be able to keep one of them, and Gabby is determined that it’ll be her. Luckily, she has her daily conversations with her book loving penpal to keep her happy, no matter how annoying Jonathan is.

It was cool to read a grumpy/sunshine romance featuring an autistic character who is the sunshine. In fact, analytical, terse Jonathan is much more like the autistic stereotype than sensitive Gabby. (I half expected him to turn out to be autistic too, and was just a little disappointed he didn’t.) They make an effective opposites-attract couple.

But I was disappointed that in a book with a demisexual character (also Gabby,) the physical aspects of the romance were so… samey. She’s all about his muscular arms and long legs and broad shoulders, and he sends her into a puddle of lust like she’s never felt before. Sure, an author’s gotta eat and maybe this is totally how it works for some demisexual people, and I don’t identify as demisexual, so what do I know. Nonetheless, I hoped for something more about emotional connection than physical, and I felt let down.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a book that feels like “Santa’s workshop and the Abominable Snowman had a baby and it just threw up all over the place,” have at it.


Recurring Themes in My Reading, March 2022

American girls alienated from the family’s culture of origin

Kids grossed out by parents kissing. (I don’t think this ever happened with my kid. We hug and kiss her, we hug and kiss each other, it all makes sense.)

Try and fail and try again

Complicated love triangle aftermaths

Dead moms and alcoholic dads, sometimes relatedly

Best friends & roommates to lovers

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My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger

If Kluger was attempting to get feel-good Musical Comedy vibes in an epistolary YA (?) novel — and let’s face it, of course he was — he did a great job. This is such a sunshiney charmer of a story, very similar to Almost Like Being In Love. (Unfortunately, a bit too similar.)

Told in chat messages, emails, cast lists, civil-rights focused theatre reviews, and diary entries, this primarily focuses on high schooler T.C., his brother from another mother Augie (their chosen brotherhood is so thoroughly accepted by their families, they each have their own bed and desk in the other’s room), and T.C.’s crush Alé, an ambassador’s daughter who’s hiding a disreputable passion for song and dance. Also in the mix are their parents, T.C.’s guidance counselor, and Hucky, a young, orphaned, deaf boy that T.C. tries to create magic for, as his mother once did for him. And there’s Andy, Augie’s first love, who finally makes him realize he’s gay.

AugieHwong: What would you say if I told you I think I like boys? I mean LIKE boys. I mean the way you like Alé.

TCKeller: “Duh”?

T.C.’s diary entries are addressed to his dead mother, Alé’s to her heroine Jacqueline Kennedy, and Augie’s to his chosen “Diva of the Week,” so you can see why this wasn’t a real shock to anyone. In one of the book’s sweetest moments, Augie’s dad describes them having an important conversation about Augie’s love for Andy and only realizing afterward “we’d never had the ‘I’m gay’ conversation. Has this generation made it superfluous? If only.”

So we have the baseball loving jock and the OTT theatre nerd — it’s very similar to Almost Like Being in Love, except that they’re not in love with each other. The format is also very similar, as is the lack of much differentiation between the voices. Everyone is wry and funny and similarly toned, adult or child. Which begs the question: who is this book for? It’s published for young adults, but I suspect the extreme innocence and sentimentality won’t fly that well with a lot of them. For adults — this adult, anyway — the pop psychology commentary on heterosexual relationships gets jarring, as does the apparently endless amount of money, time and space everyone seems to have. “Booklist” may have gotten it best when it listed at as for 8-12s. The loving passion the characters have for sports, performance, social justice goals and each other would make anyone look forward to high school.

Or perhaps a better way to think of it would be that it’s a coming-of-age story, and thus, in a way, for just about anyone. As one succinct GoodReads review put it, “This is an absolutely ridiculous book and I smiled the entire time I was reading it.”

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The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir, illustrated by Amber Padilla.

Browsing through this before reading, I was initially iffy about it. I see the appeal of a modern graphic novel version of The Secret Garden that eliminates the racism, colonialism, classism and especially ablism of the original, but in making everyone so nice, it seemed like a lot of the emotional power of the original was lost.

That original impression wasn’t exactly wrong, but thankfully the book does have other things to offer. Perhaps the best one is the New York City setting; instead of a lonely moor, Mary discovers museums and parks filled with art and nature. (There are also some cute in-jokes, like her spotting “Pizza Rat” on the subway.) The surly gardener is a kind man who runs a bodega and sells plants, and the friendly robin becomes a bodega cat. The garden is a rooftop garden.

The illustrator did a lovely job making modern versions of the characters. Dickon and Martha are instantly recognizable. Mary and Colin are Black in this version, so their physical characteristics have changed, but Mary’s care-nothing expressions that morph into interest and wonder are on point. Colin is the least like the original, losing his autocratic nature and mostly just being small and lonely. (His disability is a severe panic disorder.) He does get to stand up for himself when the adults get overprotective, though.

The friendship between the three is lovely, and, though very much not in keeping with the original, I was glad that orphaned Mary is given a chance to rediscover a bond with her own parents. Most of the additions to the story are successful, I think. Which doesn’t mean that something isn’t lost… the mystery and wonder of the walled garden, the spookiness of the house, the baffling, sometimes cruel behavior of the adults, Mary’s appalling yet refreshing awfulness, her giving Colin what-for. The depth of the importance of secrets. I especially missed Mary caring for the garden herself before Dickon gets involved and shows her how to do everything.

Still, I closed the book feeling mostly happy and satisfied, and I’m glad it’s available for modern kids. And it’s quite possible that, for those readers, it will have at least some of those qualities I found missing.

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TBR Challenge: The Astronaut and the Star by Jen Comfort

the theme: grumpy. This is what a GoodReads list calls a “reverse grumpy,” in that the heroine is the grumpy one. (Do we really need to get this specifically gendered in this day and age? With so much queer romance available? Sorry, this is my personal ponderings about my book tagging issues leaking through.)

Why this one: just luck, really.

In thinking about my reaction to this book, I’ve decided it’s a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Because there are lots of parts I was really not fond of and yet somehow I wound up feeling very warmly about it anyway.

Our grump is Reggie, an astronaut focused on her career to the exclusion of anything else. (She allows herself no-strings sex and one friend, Katya, a cosmonaut who is therefore not a rival.) Women in competitive, male-dominated fields always have to work extra hard, but Reggie’s focus has her at a disadvantage in a world that also favors personableness and social media draws. In order to show she’s capable of teamwork, she volunteers for a project to train an actor to perform in a space movie.

Reggie starts out with many likability strikes against her for most readers, and her refusal to even really try to do what she promised was another one, for me. Especially when the actor, Jon Leo, is a total creampuff of a guy who’s doing his best to help her, despite her frequent digs at his intelligence.

A classic romance Himbo, Jon is also suffering from undiagnosed ADHD, and this was another sticky point for me. The portrayal is based on the author’s own experiences, which is inarguable, but she kind of stacks the deck against him with just so much ineptitude. I hated Reggie for being mean to him but also, though I’m embarrassed to say it, found him a bit cringey at first. He’s a kind of subby and uxorious man — I guess the current term is “wife guy” — which I normally love in romance (I married that guy, after all) but the combo of all this brought them perilously close to the “woman + wimpy” couple from Matt Groening’s Love is Hell.

Luckily, as is the nature of the classic romance Himbo, Jon has hidden depths: a warm heart, great social intelligence, flexibility, a willingness to color outside the lines. As these are allowed to come out, Reggie learns to appreciate him. Especially when he rescues her from her Antarctic-level cold parents.

I always find it most interesting when opposites attract pairings have unexpected traits in common. In this case, both characters have ambitions that center around their parents. Reggie’s parents are distant and demanding, and nothing she does will ever be good enough for them, but she’s never stopped trying. Jon is the illegitimate son of huge movie star, who didn’t acknowledge him until he was an adult, and his dream is to reward his mom (and show his dad) by becoming a “serious” actor and winning an Oscar. (His claim to fame is a low-budget cult classic called “Space Dude.”) Both characters have learning to do and adjustments to make, though I was disappointed that Jon’s arc happens off-page.

This might well be a me problem, or possibly a looks around at everything problem, but the book was almost too tense for me at times. If you’re having similar reading problems, just remember the romance guarantee; everything will be okay.

I’ve been talking a lot about what I didn’t like… so what did I like? Well, as grumpy/sunshine pairings go — or as Reggie puts it, “neurotic queen of darkness/human ray of fucking sunshine” — it’s a very effective one. I.E. I don’t always love this trope, but when it works, it works. And as you might have noticed, it’s funny. There’s some great banter and good call-backs, and Katya provides some wonderful dead-pan commentary on the action.

And I couldn’t resist the way Jon absolutely insists on loving Reggie, no matter how awful she thinks she is.

He began marching back to the rover, ignoring the burning sensation beneath his chin, where her eyes were undoubtedly staring laser beams of vengeance through his flesh.

“I can walk on my own.”

“I know,” he said.

“Then why are you carrying me?”

He finally glanced down at her, and that strange band around his ribs tightened at the sight of her curled in his arms, her arms clasped tight to her chest like a little animal. How could one woman be so ferocious yet so huggable? “Because. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to. We’re a team, right? You said it yourself–out here, we only have each other to count on. Since I’m not currently suffering from a scorpion bite–“

“Sting,” she corrected.

“–I’m happy to carry you. And when I inevitably injure or maim myself… and I assure you, it could be any second now… I’ll expect you to do the same for me.”

Jon is huge and Reggie is small, so he’s not being literal here; he’s showing her a world she has never experienced, in her prison of self-sufficiency and transactional relationships. And it’s quite lovely to see them find their way into this world, together.


Graceling, The Graphic Novel adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds

I tweeted a bit about this and @AztecLady asked me to elaborate.

First here are my original comments on Graceling by Kirstine Cashore:

I feel like I’m going to turn off every single reader friend I have with this statement, but Graceling was the most disappointing book I’ve read since The Duke of Shadows.  Again, a fantastic first half, and a lousy second half. [Note: I’ve reread DoS since I read this and now think it’s fantastic overall. So maybe I should try Graceling again.]

Katsa and Po were wonderful characters; it’s still very rare to see a fictional woman who’s so incredibly powerful, and a fictional man who has no problems with that. Things are carefully set up to provide some balance, but even so, Katsa will always be the more powerful. But the second half of the book is all survival adventure, which I found so tedious.  Something about the character Bitterblue really rubbed me the wrong way (I hope this issue won’t survive into her book.) [Note: she got two books, and it didn’t.] And I thought it utterly sucked that the plot put Katsa in the mothering position she had always vehemently rejected — complete with major sacrifice — even if only temporarily.

The prose was always a bit on the flat side — this made itself really obvious when I was initially listening to the audiobook, all the sentences in a row that start “she did this, she did that.” I didn’t mind when I was reading about Katsa and Po, but it failed in making the Katsa and Bitterblue sections interesting to me. [Note: I don’t recall any issues with the prose in other Cashore books. I recommended Fire without reservations.]

I wasn’t aware when I wrote this about another strike against Graceling, disability representation issues. You can read more about that here (with book spoilers.) In summation, Cashore responded very positively to the criticism, and tried to mitigate the problems with magical cures in the sequels. I don’t feel able to say whether this significantly improves them, but Hinds does credit a sensitivity reader in the acknowledgements..

So… I don’t want to try and compare apples to oranges here. A novel and a graphic novel are two different mediums, and the original undoubtedly had much to offer that was lost in the adaptation. That said, I was pleased at how well the adaptation overcome the problems I had with the original book. The streamlining of the prose had its advantages, and the survival adventure doesn’t overwhelm the book. And though of course Katsa is protective of the younger Bitterblue, they felt more like companions. Most importantly, everything good about the book in its portrayal of a girl discovering and owning her own agency is still there. (IMO, of course.)

Everything else aside, I’m really glad this is available in another format, because it is scarily relevant today. The power of the villain is “A Grace [inherent magical power] that replaces truth with a fog of falseness… a fog that spreads like a disease… could there be anything more dangerous.” As I think we’ve seen… no.

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