A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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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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Recurring Themes in My Reading August 2022

Men confronting their fathers about their terrible parenting.

Mental breakdowns caused by papparazzi stalking.

Solitaire as a metaphor.

Math lovers.

Heroines rescued from dangerously high trees by their heroes.

Heroines running into abusive exes they were very much hoping not to run into.

Forbidden lovers sneaking around.

Shared baths.

Human descendants using the detritus of our consumer culture.

Meet cutes involving susperstitious food consumption.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

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TBR Challenge: Don’t Forget to Smile by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

CN: Use of “g” slur, mild disordered eating, maybe some ableism? I’m not sure.

The theme: Blue collar

Why this one: My TBR has several Seidel books and she seemed likely to have a good option.

An extremely vague and not particularly accurate blurb indicated this would be a good blue collar read: a romance between Tory, who owns a bar catering to loggers in Oregon and Joe, who’s from a logging family. It turned out to be more complex than that, but even more interesting for it.

Joe, previously just another of the Brigham clan, comes to Tory’s attention when her bar is held up by two armed and unnerved kids who have not thought things through at all. Thanks to his good sense and calm manner, everyone escapes unscathed and the hapless robbers are caught. Joe begins using Tory’s bar to conduct delicate union talks and the two strike up a friendship, which leads to more. But Tory is dismayed when Joe decides not to move to Portland to further his career — he won’t leave his young son, who lives with his ex-wife — and even more dismayed when he asks her to marry him.

Tory and Joe are perhaps both blue collar with an asterisk. (Lol! I spelled this “asterix” and didn’t understand why spellcheck thought that was wrong.) Tory is a former beauty queen who was “the perfect Southern coed–and now one hell of a fine bartender. Other people might think that was coming down in the world, but Tory didn’t. Not even close.” Having spent her life being a dress-up doll for her mother and then a trophy wife, Tory relishes her independence and success. She has also, without exactly realizing it, created a new family with her employees.

Joe is one of a large family who all have pretty much the same name and the same life. But having gone from logging to mill work to being a financial secretary for the union, he’s just starting to realize that he has the skills to move much further. And that can easily make him in outsider, or at least an outlier, in his community. It already cost him his marriage.

“It was the union business–how involved he was getting. It took all his time. He was on every committee there was, and then they started sending him to Portland for these deals–leadership training seminars, they called them. He would be gone a couple of days, and Marianne really didn’t think that was right. I couldn’t figure it out myself. She never said a word about hunting trips and still doesn’t if Dennis goes on them now. I can’t say that I see the difference between going hunting and going to Portland, especially if someone else is paying for Portland.”

Tory smiled as if she agreed, but she didn’t. She could see the difference. This was a blue-collar town. Most people still thought of life as a struggle; work and family life took enough out of a man, why take on more? Lots of women around here didn’t think people ought to stick their necks out; it was asking for trouble. Joe’s wife probably worried that his union work would somehow all end terribly, with him out of work, them poor, and their baby going to sleep hungry.

Such attitudes kept the town the way it was–pleasant, safe, and, to a half-outsider like Tory, unspeakably bland. No one sunk, no one soared.

This is one of the main themes of the story–getting the tools to soar, if you want to. It can easily be interpreted as classist or snobbish, but I found it layered and understanding enough. Part of Tory’s journey is understanding Joe’s point of view and his desire to stay connected to his family.

It can also be easily interpreted as mischaracterized as romance. Joe and Tory’s relationship definitely takes a back seat during the last section of the book, which is about her family relationships. And the earlier section concentrates much more on his feelings for his ex-wife than many readers will be comfortable with. But I found it rich and interesting and not the same-old story. And a pro-Union hero to boot! They should reissue the cover with a “Jorts-approved” badge.

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