What We Find

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What We Find coverJust like Sleepless in Manhattan, What We Find, from Robyn Carr, is a 2016 mirabooks imprint from Harlequin, and first in a series. However, What We Find is drama, not comedy. No worries about too much rom-com here. Instead, I found the book alternately frustrating and wonderful.

Maggie is a thirty-six-year-old neurosurgeon in Denver. She’s facing a malpractice suit, and various legal and financial complications from a collapsed group practice. She’s been dumped by her boyfriend of three years, after an accidental pregnancy followed by a miscarriage. Needing a break, she heads for her father’s rural campground, but her planned one week break extends into months after her father has a heart attack. Though it is early in season, the campground already has a resident of several weeks, a mysterious stranger named Cal.

The story is almost 400 pages, and gets off to a slow start. The opening chapter has multiple flashbacks to fill in various aspects of Maggie’s back story, and the plot occasionally detours to dwell on some aspect of character, or introduce characters who I suspect will turn up in later stories.

Once our couple have met, and are thrown together, things get more interesting. Maggie and Cal begin a relationship based largely on mutual sexual desire, and I like that Maggie is a woman who has enjoyed her share of sex, unlike many romantic heroines. I’m also amused that she’s long found the campground a good source of temporary male company, in part because my own Romance One heroine runs a campground, and takes the same pleasure in it.

The casual relationship that becomes something more is a common approach, but it requires a good explanation as to why this person, why now? Too often there is something magical about the other person that is never satisfactorily explained, but in this case it’s not just the other person, but the characters arriving at a point in their lives where they are ready for a more serious relationship and better able to choose a partner.

In this middle portion of the story, the driving question is how this relationship with Cal will go, complicated by the related questions of:

  • Who is Cal, where is he going, and will he come back?
  • What will happen with the malpractice suit?
  • When will Maggie go back to work?

This part of the story works really well, and I enjoyed reading it. But as matters started to get resolved, I became frustrated again. I’m not sure whether it was too many colourful characters, or too many plot detours, but the last straw was the discovery that a minor character’s back story included getting a free house. That’s when it dawned on me that everyone in this story is very rich.

Maggie is a neurosurgeon, and though bankruptcy is occasionally mentioned as a threat she faces, she never seems short of cash, and is able to leave work for an indefinite period to mull over her life. Family money paid for her education, so she never had the burden of student loans. The campground wasn’t the source of family wealth – she has her small-town hard-working simple life father to give her life advice, but also has a wealthy urban step-father, to give her money (and more life advice).

The campground isn’t poor though. It provides a comfortable living, to the point that the uninsured costs of a heart attack warrant no more than a mention that it’s costly. Then there’s Cal, who is also able to take months off to mull over his life, again thanks to unearned money, and, like Maggie, is able to return to the workforce on his own terms. Cal’s background, like Maggie’s, manages to combine wealth and homespun roots.

I’ve nothing against wealthy characters, but when they haven’t earned it, and a significant part of their character growth is deciding to slow down and enjoy life, because it’s the simple things that matter, I’m more exasperated than sympathetic. Maggie and Cal are wounded people with serious problems, but they are also extremely privileged, and they are blind to that.

What We Find is great romantic fantasy, with strong believable characters, but it’s also pastoral fantasy, supported weakly, and in any event a contradictory notion. A relationship is a particular and personal social contract, in that you exchange personal authority for other benefits. It is the opposite of the state of nature, the antidote to a life which Hobbes tells us is not just “nasty, brutish, and short,” as often mentioned, but also “solitary.” What We Find is trying to have it both ways, celebrating both the tamed and the untamed.

It’s unfortunate that the medical and legal realism, and the gritty tragedies of the characters lives, are undercut by their fantastical wealth. Apart from that significant flaw (and the sometimes leisurely pace), this is an enjoyable and well crafted story.

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Sleepless in Manhattan

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Sarah Morgan’s Sleepless in Manhattan is another recent (2016) Harlequin that is discreet about its publisher. Like Lord of the Privateers and its Mira Books imprint, this one’s www.hqnbooks.com site redirects to Harlequin. This book is also part of a series, though the first, and it’s another second chance romance.

As the title suggests, this is a contemporary, set in New York City. In Morgan’s Forward, she notes that she loves New York, and that when she visits, “I always feel as if I’m walking onto a film set” because so many of her favourite movies are set there. I’ve never visited, but from seeing New York in so many movies it’s hard to believe it’s anything other than a film set, so I like her take on the city. And she says the setting worked liked another character. So I had high expectations for the portrayal of the city, but unfortunately they were not met.

Cities, especially New York, have both magic and grit. In Wish Me Tomorrow, I got a strong sense of that, particularly in the character’s residences. The heroine lives in a small shared apartment; the hero has a decent place in a building with a cranky elevator and power outages. The New York of Sleepless in Manhattan has the magic, but not the grit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the residences.

The hero, Jake, lives in a modern Manhattan apartment where floor to ceiling windows provide a fabulous view of the Hudson River and the Brooklyn bridge. Paige lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, renovated into three apartments and owned by her brother, Matt, who lives in the upper two floors. Paige and her friend Eva share a one floor apartment, and their friend Frankie lives in the lower unit (and they all work together). The three women and Matt routinely get together on the lush rooftop garden for movie nights (often joined by Matt’s best friend – you guessed it – Jake). I’m sure places like these exist, but this is the New York of movies and dreams and very very rich people. A brownstone in Brooklyn is at least a couple of million dollars, and it’s questionable that Matt’s bought and renovated the place on his landscape architect salary (2017 average $56,738).

The cozy living arrangement, and limited use of other locations, gives the story a small town feel at odds with the setting, and weakens the romance story line. There are eight million stories in the naked city, but this one is about two people who met as teens, are already in love, already know all about each other, and see each other socially.

Just in case you are wondering where the eight million stories is from…

Since I’m going over what disappointed me about the story, I’ll also mention that the usual suspects were present – hero frequently has meaningless sex to distract himself from woman he really loves, heroine has minimal relationships while hoping to land the man she really loves, and there’s fantastic first time sex (hampered only by the hero’s apparently large penis). Matt and Jake both came from nothing to amass great wealth, especially Jake, and Paige’s new business becomes fantastically successful – after a money-is-no-object boost from Jake.

With that out-of-the-way, there were enjoyable aspects. The tone is light, and every chapter starts with a witty epigram from one of the characters. The plot starts with a wonderful dark note – Paige is expecting a promotion, but she and her friends are fired – and the writing is sharp. Despite the job loss and struggles to find new work, there is never any serious threat of poverty, and never any doubt that the couple will get back together.  The tension, such as it is, consists of wondering when Paige and Jake will get back together, how, how steamy and frequent the sex scenes will be (steamy, but not excessively frequent) and what might cause the climactic hiccup in the relationship. It’s enough to keep the story moving along, and the starting a business subplot dovetails with the starting a relationship plot.

Paige does get rescued by Jake, in that he suggests the three women start their own business, and he helps get the business going, but she’s independent enough to do it, and skillful enough to succeed once the business gets customers. There’s character growth too, mostly on Jake’s part, and it integrates well with the plot.

In Morgan’s afterword, she acknowledges receiving a 75 published titles recognition from Harlequin, and thanks her readers. Perhaps it’s all the references to movies, made by the author and the characters, but this story would be great as a romantic comedy film. That I can imagine these characters and the plot events as a film is a tribute to Morgan’s great story telling skills. However, for me, this story was a little too rom-com.

#amwriting update 3

DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (source)

As promised, another update on the progress of Romance 1. Almost 1/3 through the year, and I’m still doing my hour a week – sometimes late Sunday night, but it’s getting done. Earlier this week I passed 14,000 words, which is still not the 20,000 of an earlier version, but these are better words, if I do say so myself. The early chapters are underwritten, so on revision it will be longer.

I am sticking to my outline for the timeline and most events, but fixing secondary character and setting issues as required. For example, my hero is engaged (to the wrong woman), and I had him receiving demanding phone calls from her, as well as his demanding boss. This was getting redundant, and I was having problems justifying why he ends the engagement, and quits his job. The solution was to make his girlfriend and his boss the same character. That solved both the redundancy and the motivation problems.

For this week’s chapter, I had to decide if my heroine and hero go to bed. It didn’t make any difference to the heat level, as I was not planning to write a sex scene if they did. Whether or not they went to bed was important – the mechanics of what they did, if they did, were not. The choice was between some heavy kissing in the hall, and then they go into her room, or some heavy kissing in the hall, and then they go to their separate rooms. They went into her room.

The first consideration was whether or not going to bed together would be in character for them. For her, yes. In a minor act of rebellion against too many heroines, even in contemporary romances, that lead sheltered sex lives while their lovers have enjoyed many casual flings, my heroine has had her fair share of fun. For him, yes, primarily because it’s a chance to throw plot rocks at him. He’s engaged, and starting to think he’s made a mistake. He has, but after going to bed with her, he feels guilty, which is going to push him back to the wrong woman and make the Happy Ever After harder to resolve.

The second consideration was how going to bed together might affect the plot. The next morning, she finds out that he lied about who he was, what he was doing, and that he was engaged. It’s a major betrayal of trust, but it’s so much worse if they’ve just slept together. I couldn’t resist the temptation to heighten the betrayal.

By the way, if you are wondering why he’s in her house in the first place, his truck was destroyed when the road washed out (and trapped them together).  I may be having too much fun with this….nah. No such thing. Hopefully it will be fun read, too.

Lord of the Privateers

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Lord of the Privateers cover imageStephanie Laurens’ Lord of the Privateers is a 2016 Harlequin from their Mira Books imprint. Mira appears to be a premium line for established authors. Although the web address (www.mirabooks.com) redirects to Harlequin, the book does not mention that it is a Harlequin. This particular story is a historical romance, but I’ve got another Mira Books title in my to-be-read pile, and it appears to be a contemporary. Lord of the Privateers is the concluding volume of quartet of stories, which means the hero has three brothers, all recently engaged. It works well enough as a standalone story, though it may have greater appeal for readers who want to find out what happens next with the other couples.

As this is a recent publication, I’m going to say spoiler alert right here, for those who feel such warnings are required. Come back after you’ve read it, and let me know if you agree with my comments.

I’ll confess starting with a bad feeling about the story, since it begins with a 7 page character list, and 3 pages of maps. Laurens is certainly a skilled writer, as far as the mechanics of writing go, and the heroine is the strong and independent type I like to see, but the plot was too drawn out and did not work for me.

It’s a second chance romance, with the couple getting back together after eight years. They were hand-fasted and planning to marry, but he went away on a government mission for months longer than expected, was unable to contact her, and when he did finally return she refused to see him. So the separation was based on a simple misunderstanding. Okay, I’ll buy that.

Royd runs a merchant ship, and Isobel is the hands-on heir to a shipyard – and they’ve been business partners for the last eight years. Wait, what? They’ve been working together for the last eight years, and haven’t cleared up that misunderstanding?

Royd is asked to go on another government mission, to rescue people kidnapped to work in an African diamond mine, and Isobel wants to come as she has a relative among the missing. As their ship leaves, they discover a stowaway – Isobel’s eight year old son. Royd had no idea. Huh? She’d wanted and managed to keep that a secret from him,  despite working with him, and moving in the same social circles? Now you’re starting to bug me.

(I sometimes do editing work for stories. Here, I’d suggest eliminating the child, and shortening the time apart. That would be more believable, and allow for more suspense about whether or not the couple will get back together. With the child being eight, and introduced as a stowaway, I was certain he’d be in peril later in the story, but nothing of the sort ever happens. His main plot purpose seems to be more motivation to bring the couple together, which isn’t needed given the minimal obstacles.)

The couple talk things over, all is forgiven, and we get a couple of steamy, detailed, multi-page sex scenes. I suppose I can’t complain about great sex on the first meeting, since they’ve enjoyed each other’s company before, but I can complain about the revelation that she’s been celibate since they parted, while “he certainly hadn’t been.”

There’s still some uncertainty on both parts, especially hers, wondering if she can truly trust him. And by now the plot is moving along in a quest structure, as they are enroute to rescue the kidnapped mine workers. So I keep reading, expecting for that trust to be tested. Nope. Doesn’t happen. The rescue goes almost exactly as planned, they travel back to England without incident (except for more sex scenes), and then there’s a second quest plot, as they arrange to entrap the masterminds behind the mine kidnappers.

By now the story seems more boys adventure than romance (except for the sex scenes and a couple of mission planning scenes I dozed through). Adventure stories are fine – I like Clive Cussler in small doses – but the adventure here is not suspenseful or risky enough to carry the story, especially in the absence of romantic suspense.

Despite the title, there’s no privateering in the sense of boarding ships and waving swords about. The mine rescue sequence could be exciting, but for the most part lacks suspense, and it’s very late in the story when some weaponry and heroics turn up. When the story finally ends, 500+ pages later, I feel like I’ve made it to the end of a disappointing date.

Counterfeit Princess

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Raye Morgan’s Counterfeit Princess, from 2003, is a contemporary romance featuring royalty from a pair of small fictional European kingdoms. Based on my experiences with this sub-genre (The Prince She Never Forgot, Accidental Princess), I was expecting a fun story, and this one started that way.

Shannon is a Texas waitress, working to pay off her mother’s medical bills and her art history training, so she’s happy to pick up a part-time job impersonating foreign princess Iliana, cutting ribbons while the real Iliana is partying in Vegas. The job becomes more intense when Prince Marco arrives to meet his diplomatically selected new bride, and the propinquity effect kicks in when Shannon must take refuge in Marco’s hotel suite to avoid the press.

So far, so good. Exactly why Iliana is in demand in Texas, to the point that she must be impersonated, is perhaps a plot hole, but we’ll let that slide. One might also question why no one seems to have noticed a popular princess partying in Vegas. When it comes to British royalty, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

Shannon’s secret is revealed relatively early, and she becomes the woman Marco cannot fall in love with, because of his agreement to marry Iliana. However, there is very little suspense over the outcome, because Iliana has already been revealed as completely unsuitable. To complicate matters, Marco is a widow, with two children by his deeply missed late wife. This adds cute kids and pathos, and means Marco must not only choose the right woman, but get over his late wife. The real princess shows up, and if there isn’t already too much going on, we toss in the wise servant, the all-knowing aunt, and some hard-to-accept coincidences that leave Shannon finding out that she’s actually royalty, a member of the same family as the missing princess. Shannon, feeling as manipulated as the reader, takes off.

The last chapter has Shannon arriving in the kingdom of her former lover and his fiancé, to take a job in her field. At least, that’s what Shannon apparently thinks, though why anyone, including the reader, would believe this, is a mystery.

Lots of nice moments here, good romantic tension, and sensuality without sex, though  sometimes overwritten. When he kisses her, she thinks, among other things, “He tasted like thick buttery caramel. Well, not really, but the effect was the same.” This may have inspired the Fifty Shades of Grey line “His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.” However, after a strong start, there are too many coincidences and too much going on, and character growth is lost in the confusion.

Awful Eighties Book

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I’m not going to name this book or the author, because as much as I dislike the book, it’s thirty years old, so I don’t need to warn anyone away. Also, the author is a prolific writer, a best-seller in several genres, and this was from early in her career. I assume she was writing to meet the trends of the time.

I haven’t read many romances from the 1980s, but those I have read tend to feature realistic characters and situations, and, compared to 1970s stories, stronger women and less dominant men. There’s usually overt reference to condom use, and less emphasis on the heroine’s virginity. These are all things I like. I was hoping for another Lucky in Love, from the Temptation imprint. However, there were a lot of imprint categories in the 1980s, and obviously not all of them got the modernization memo.

Our couple have a well written meet, at a night class, with delicious erotic tension. We’re off to a good start. He offers her a ride home, there’s some mutual flirting, and he turns into a dominant obsessive jerk. She runs a home business, which he mocks, while he is fabulously wealthy from a job that doesn’t require any of his time. He insists that they will sleep together, regardless of what she wants. The first half of the book is her saying no, and him pushing, and this was not pleasant reading. He kidnaps and isolates her (barely justified by a suspense subplot), and eventually she gives in. Of course it’s the best sex either of them have ever had – or at least it is for him. Her virginity is implied (and there’s no mention of a condom or any birth control). After sex, he declares that she belongs to him. At the climax, he defends her from a weak subplot danger, then informs her that they are getting married, and warns her that he’ll be even more demanding. And we never do learn why either of them were in the night class.

There must have been a market for stories where pushy rich men mock and coerce younger women, and I suppose there still is, but it’s not something I enjoy. Usually the back cover blurb is enough to warn me away, but in this case it was misleading.

PS. Still on track for an hour a week working on my romance (featuring a strong woman, who is not a virgin, and a man who falls for her but doesn’t expect to own her). This month I’m also taking an online course, working on character growth, which is helping my understanding of the relationship between plot and character. We all know that every character has to want something, but why they want it is material for both the character and the plot.

Safekeeping

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Safekeeping CovelSafekeeping is a 1994 Harlequin by Peg Sutherland. It’s part of the Dangerous to Love series, a set of fifty books each set in a different American State. This is #46, Virginia. It’s also part of the Women Who Dare series, and it’s no longer in print or available electronically. Sutherland wrote for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, under that name and others, and now writes creative non-fiction and poetry.

The meet is a little forced. Quinn, eight months pregnant, goes into the mountains with two under-privileged pre-teen girls, for an afternoon stroll in the woods. They get trapped by a snowstorm, and seek shelter in an isolated cabin. The cabin is home to Whitney, an ex-con, hiding from the police as well as toughs working for corrupt government officials.

Roughly the first half of the book is the couple and children trapped in the cabin. The confined space is a great setting for various tensions as everyone comes to terms with the arrangement, and the couple become attracted to each other. Then Whitney manages to get the children home, and starts investigating how he can resolve his predicament. Quinn, unable to walk thanks to a narratively convenient twisted ankle, remains at the cabin, and goes into labour early. Fortunately there are no complications, and Whitney is an experienced midwife, having helped his grandmother deliver babies in the same cabin. The action moves to town, more characters and settings come into play, and the second half, more thriller than romance, is faster paced.

At about 300 pages, this is longer than a typical Harlequin, and grittier than some of the romantic-suspense genre. Quinn had a rough childhood in Los Angeles, including losing a brother to gun violence, another to prison, and losing a baby from a teen pregnancy. Her big city background is offered as an explanation for venturing into the woods before a snowstorm. She moved to Virginia years ago for a better life, but just a few months ago the father of her baby, a policeman, was killed when he tried to stop an armed robbery. Whitney also had a rough childhood, which led to his involvement in an armed robbery where someone was killed. Prison brutality has left him with emotional scars. The hoods and government officials after him have killed one person already, and are prepared to kill more.

I love the characters. They’re realistic, wounded, and strong. Neither is in need of rescue, and they balance each other well. Quinn may not be woods smart, but she’s tough and street smart, and can take on the bad guys when necessary. Whitney is a quietly masculine hero, at home in the woods, good with children, home remedies, and computers. Sutherland contrasts his authentic masculinity with the false masculinity of street gang toughs and rich pretty boys. Quinn and Whitney both have public service office jobs, value education, and enjoy helping others.

The story-telling is rich, with flashbacks that deepen the character growth in the course of the story. The plot has a few contrivances, and the mid-novel tone shift is a little awkward, but overall this is a solid romance read that effectively balances sentimental and nostalgic moments with harsh modern realities.

Plain Jane’s Man

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Book coverSometimes I think I need to stop reading old Harlequins I get from the 3 for $1 shelf at my local used bookstore. These twenty-year-old books won’t help me become familiar with the current product trends. But they’re 3 for $1! If I drop them in the tub (where I love to soak and read), it’s no loss, they are even easier on the budget than the 99 cents eBooks, and it supports the store. And some of the authors are still at work.

Kristine Rolofson, author of Plain Jane’s Man, wrote it in 1994. At that point she’d been writing for Harlequin for eight years, and her most recent publication is a contribution to Winter Wedding Bells in 2015. Her Harlequin bio contains plot elements fit for a romance (married at 18 to her high-school teacher, started writing when the Mount St. Helen’s explosion closed the road to her gift shop) as well as reminders about the work of writing: She spent five years studying over 200 romances before she was able to sell one.

Plain Jane’s Man is from the Temptation line (1984-2005). This line featured relatively ordinary people, in relatively ordinary relationships, including sex. The slightly hotter version of these, Blaze, eventually replaced Temptation. I like the heat level here – attraction, a period of sexual tension, and eventually sex as a comfortable part of the relationship.

Comfortable describes the whole story. It starts with an organic meet cute, and the couple date for a several weeks. She lives in an idyllic small town, and he’s there on business. That business involves her, and her eventual reaction to learning about it is the only significant complication, but it’s enough to drive the plot as the intensity of their relationship and his business increase. Rolofson cheats a little in developing and resolving that complication, but only enough that one feels amused (and faintly touched), not robbed.

Jane is not particularly plain, but she’s divorced and reluctant to get into another relationship. She works hard, and while not wealthy, she doesn’t need rescuing or saving. I like the independence, but she lacks any goals for herself. Neither she nor Peter have to give anything up to be together – which is comfortable, if unrealistic.

The stakes are low, and the passion is quiet, while nothing about this story particularly excited me, nothing annoyed me either. There was enough passion to make this a comfortable read for a few tub soaks.

Vampires, Saints, and Lovers

jpsmithVampires, Saints, and Lovers is a 2014 self-published novel by Julia Phillips Smith. It was previously published under the title Saint Sanguinus in 2011, and is the first of a trilogy, referred to as the Dark Ages Vampire trilogy or the Brotherhood of Blood Trilogy. If this sounds like a work in progress, that’s because it is. Book two has not been released yet – and I’m eagerly awaiting it.

I have mixed feelings about the vampire genre. I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for its structure and strong undercurrent of sexuality. Unfortunately, many other interpretations of vampire mythology dwell more on the aspects of horror, or, as in the case of Twilight, manage to miss both the horror and the sexuality (it’s supposed to be dangerous, not safe). Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire left me cold. The structure, a weary vampire telling his life story, weakens the passion. Vampires turn up in paranormal romances, such as Kiss Me Deadly, but few paranormals are willing to go deeply into the implications of vampires. Smith is willing to go there.

In dark ages Wales, Peredur is dying on the battlefield. Full of regret for losing his lover Tanwen, he curses God, and that act summons a demon, who offers another life. Peredur accepts, and finds himself a vampire of sorts, in a brotherhood dedicated to stopping those they consider true vampires. The brotherhood feed on people, like the true vampires, but otherwise lead an ascetic and devout life, serving a saint. One night Peredur visits Tanwen, desperate to see her again, yet also driven to tell her that she must find another, as “I am no longer fit to be the lover of a woman who deserves to be loved.”

Tanwen, dealing with family pressure to be married off, flees to a man she thinks can help re-unite her with her lover: Cavan, the unpopular son of the village wise woman. Cavan has the power to help her, and the desire, but his solution is not exactly what she expected. By the mid-point of the book, we have a love triangle of vampires in warring groups, and while Tanwen fully enjoys the unbridled sexuality of her new life, she still yearns for Peredur. Smith has just the right amount of detail to create a fabulous erotic tone in some scenes, and manages to portray Tanwen as both devoted and sexually indulgent.

The story-telling is superb in other respects. The setting is accurately and appropriately rendered, and rooted in historical figures and situations. The structure is also impressive. Initially the chapters alternate between the separate paths of Peredur and Tanwen. Once the characters and circumstances are well established, Cavan’s point of view is also brought in, flashbacks deepen our understanding of the two men, and the pace of the story increases towards the anticipated confrontation where individual and group loyalties will be tested.

As this is book one of a trilogy, the conclusion resolves some issues, but leaves others open, and raises new questions. I’m looking forward to reading more of this story.

#amwriting update

Two weeks ago I promised to work on my Romance One story for at least an hour a week.

So far, so good. The second week was easy. This past week was a little harder, thanks to work and other writing projects. Today was the deadline, and this evening I just did not feel like writing. However, I’m happy to say that I forced myself into it, eventually picked up steam, and made some progress. A relatively dull conversation over tea has been partly written, and, more importantly, livened up.

One writing project I have not completed this week is a review, but I have two books ready to write about. One was okay, and one was amazing. Maybe next week – but the hour of writing takes priority.

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Some days you just want to sit in the tub.