Christmas Reads: Love in a Castle

BookRiot’s Read Harder 2019 list was released on Wednesday!  It doesn’t matter that I am still chewing my way through 2018’s list either!  I even watched the Youtube video released and wrote it down before I could find the list I was so anxious to know what the next year’s lineup was to be.

Plotting my next year projects get me through the doldrums post Christmas and the prospect of the rest of the winter going by without all the Christmas lights twinkling on my way home from work.  Christmas lights are entirely too short lived.

I love the 2019 list.  I can’t tell you that I know how to find all of these books but it is better than the prospect of another celebrity memoir.  I am delighted to say it will be the first memoir free year in many.  Even if I hit Popsugar.

I’d rather hunt for an award winner of color, a non binary or prison author than read about white people ascending to an even more exalted status, even if white people problems will always hold a certain appeal to this Apple product loving, bangs wearing white girl.

Also white people romances in castles at Christmas, which was the intent of this post before the miracle of the new Read Harder list being released.

I lied last week when I said there are no witches in my Christmas romance lineup.  I didn’t know that Scottish time travel romances would involve a meddling magic hub in the form of a woman:

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Morna’s Legacy Christmas Novella Collection:  Scottish, Time Travel Christmas Novellas from Morna’s Legacy Series

I mean, Scotland, Christmas and time travel.  Coming from someone who enjoyed the first in the Outlander series, this was a no-brainer.  Outlander is a little more hard core on the Scottish history, which I loved in the first one but I haven’t read the rest because I heard the sex decreases and the anxiety increases, and, despite the historical accuracy of  it, it’s not enticing reading.

Morna is considerably lighter and these three books are compiled I think to appeal to a wide range of ages.   Two of the three are about older couples falling in love, kind of a second chance you really aren’t too old for this sort of thing and the other one is about traveling back in time to fix a breakup in a young couple just starting out.  Hope that last bit wasn’t a spoiler.  And they all center around the season of love and light, and being with family and finding family at Christmas.

These romances also include some mildly graphic sex, but it is love sex, not hookup sex.  It is like, soulmate sex. These are happily evers for three sets of lovers that, in the beginning, weren’t headed toward that.  It’s wish fulfillment without obstacles that are too harrowing.

All three of these stories were less than ten hours of listening on audio, and audio is always the way to go when you are listening to stories with Scottish characters. Real narrators who can do the accent but still have it understandable.   A decent price. Good background listening to a nice walk or gift wrapping.

I’d love to check out Scotland someday, even though I have heard that it is easy to underestimate how cold the place can be.

In other news, cookie baking was the seasonal activity of the weekend. And getting my husband to score me some massage gift cards for Christmas.  I wasn’t sad I didn’t have to freeze my butt off for a parade and a tree lighting like I did last weekend.

Next week is another holiday foray into a mega famous author’s works again for what I think will be the last Christmas reads post of the season.  I snuck in another read that doesn’t fit in with next week’s post but it might get tossed in anyway if I finish it in time to blog about it.  I’m really enjoying it, so I hope I finish it.

Then it’s my last two Read Harder reads.  Yes, I have three weeks to go and I haven’t finished all my reads and squeezing in the last few reads to make my Goodreads challenge goal.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And I am already the cheater scoping out the internet for my 2019 plan.

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Bust out the Christmas Reads!

Even though my family was a two weeks before Christmas get the live tree kind of family, I am now part of a fake tree up the weekend after Thanksgiving kind of family.  It confuses my son a little, who thinks Santa should come the moment the thing is up and then has to wait another month for the presents to magically appear.  Even though it always takes a month for Santa to come.

The snow is finally seasonally appropriate, however.

My elf isn’t coming out until December because I have more control over that one.  I can leisurely take my last week in November.

Also I realize that I read Christmas novels the way many watch Hallmark Christmas movies, which I didn’t even know existed until about 12 years ago in grad school when we had a roommate that put up a tree in the apartment even though no one had any kids.  I know sometimes these books get made into Christmas movies too.

The first Christmas cozy novel happened!  And I am not alone because the Christmas audiobooks at the library were already checked out. So there are some other local library patrons right now who were not judging me one bit.

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Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses, Jenny Hale

So here it is, the quintessential clean Christmas romance, a rags to riches story to warm your Christmas heart. I am enjoying the romance genre more than I did.  I can’t do the really sexy stuff, but this one was good.  And it isn’t sexy. It was predictable, the obstacles not too high for the couple to overcome to be together.  I know that low stress and predictable are requirements for some people, so if that’s you, read this.

Nick, the love interest, only had a little bit of emotional development to do to make the reader happy that they work out as a couple in the end.  He wasn’t like a super dark narcissist with an abuse history or something that you know can’t be resolved by a month of courting.   And I did like that Abbey, the main character finds more actualization than just in her getting a guy who has enough money so she doesn’t have to work or struggle. She is looking to have a business that is her true heart and calling. I am sure there are plenty of modern day wish fulfillment narratives where women marry into the kind of money that will just make her problems go away and then she can lead a life of leisure.  I say modern day because I have read plenty of classic literature where the whole point is to get to be idle, but that’s not today’s world and I, for one, am happy that it is no longer like that.

I am working on more for the Christmas season, but this is as far as I have gotten.  I have made a good dent in the shopping and planning, but not in the reading.  I made my addictive cracker toffee and earned all the praises for Thanksgiving. I read another book in the middle that didn’t get blogged about.  So those are my excuses.

More Christmas reads next week though, so stay tuned.

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Wharton and McKay’s Witches in New York

I love my Scary Reads series so much that I read and posted most of the month of October before September was over.  And what a lucky thing that I did.

I got my son’s cough a week before my half marathon, and all the money and time spent training for this event was not going to be wasted on a cough, so I ran it anyway.  I was good for about week until it bloomed into what I am pretty sure was sinusitis, which is bad enough in that it is gunky, but I lost my appetite and my energy plummeted to the point where I did nothing but the bare minimum at home and at work.  I had one more race to run that I didn’t run.  I have a list of house stuff and personal projects I am trying to get through and I have late paperwork at work I have to spend time working on today.  It’s time to make serious holiday plans and prep.  I can’t believe how much energy I normally run on and it’s even harder to believe how fast it disappeared.  I went from putting down 13 mile runs to my chest hurting standing up too long. I might have fallen behind on posting if I had not already been ahead.

But I am on the other side.  I still feel like exercising won’t leave me enough energy to do my day, but I can post on what little reading has gotten done.  I didn’t even have the mental energy to focus on reading.  I binged on Netflix.  I never binge on Netflix.  No offense to people who do so to relax, but I feel it is a waste of time.

I decided to combine these two books that I read for very different reasons into the same post.  As I reflected on them, they were actually about the same thing. They both deal with women grabbing up what power they can inside and outside the confines of their lives and conventions and interestingly have two very different takes on New York City in the late 1800s.  They are both witches in their own right, if we are defining a witch as a woman who influences her world rather than being controlled by it.

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The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

This was for BookRiot’s book you read for school but hated/never finished.  I finished this one and begrudgingly wrote a feminist critique on it for my senior project in high school. It was begrudging for many reasons:  one, I have never found a Wharton novel uplifting (I’m still not sure how I have read three of them) and two, all the seniors not in the advanced class could do their senior project on whatever they wanted.  Anything.  Any senior even in the advanced class had traditionally done whatever they wanted in other years.  My sister did hers on old time movie stars.  My class was given a list of literature to choose from and then we had to do a literary critique on it.  I don’t still have a copy of it.  I don’t remember feeling it to be, even at the time, my magnum opus.

I was still interested to revisit it twenty years later, to see what my new eyes would show me.  And to fully explain my thoughts I have to spoil the end, so if you are thinking of reading it and you don’t want to know, read it and then come back to this post.

I believe in the paper I said that May Welland/Archer was not the innocent that she would like to project, that her moves were also calculated, despite it looking on the outside that she was the innocent victim, nearly getting the short end of the stick by playing by all the rules, the lovely, quintessential affluent female, the crown jewel of NYC’s gilded age high society.

In my second run through, one almost feels badly for May, playing by all the old rules when clearly the context is changing and women are getting more freedoms, and it looks like she could be bested by a woman who personifies the new world and way of thinking.  Newland proposes to an old school version of the desirable bride, but then realizes he wants a woman who isn’t so sheltered who can be more his equal than marriages that he sees in his contemporaries.  May is the old world and Ellen is the new, and the old world, like it does, finds a way to win out.  May makes all the rules work for her when for Ellen, the old rules very much don’t.  May is powerful in her own right.  May keeps her man and Ellen decides to save her pride by returning to Europe but still living on her own terms.  She almost steals Newland in the process, but she doesn’t.  I can’t say that Ellen ends up unhappy, at least she doesn’t go back to her husband, but if the goal is to keep your man and your status, which is clearly what May wants, May wins the day.   Like she meant to all  along.  Even when she offered to release Newland from the engagement before they are married, even if she thinks it is because of feelings toward an ex.  I didn’t know at what point she figures his relationship with Ellen.  Maybe she tries to release him because of Ellen all along.  But it is a beautifully calculating and self sacrificing move.  How could Newland give that up? Guess what.  He never does.  And through her life, she clings to the conventions that worked out for her in her youth.

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The Witches of New York, Ami McKay

I read this one just because I wanted to.  I didn’t intend on a witches post because I did so many last year, but this was too compelling.  It was my dessert. And it was everything I have ever wanted in a magical novel: ghosts, magic, fortune telling, romance, some madness, NYC in the 1880s.  A young woman striking out on her own to discover a magic in herself that she never knew she had.

May Welland Archer lived in the other part of town, playing by all the rules in the center of society, while these women inhabited the fringe.  Growing up half parentless and unconventional themselves, these women are more obviously witches who perform magic and see ghosts and fortunes and help women to take control over their lives in the guise of a tea shop.  They pretend to live in the lines with a respectable business and are patronized by women of means, but they are independent and enjoy being so.

I was intrigued by the world of the very rich when I first read Wharton but I am now more intrigued by the fringes of the world than I am with the circumscribed security of the rich.  I liked the talking bird and the description of how life was lived on Blackwell’s Island, the ghosts who only allude some characters. The darkest of antagonists and more life threatening situations than challenging of the old way of doing things and the possibility of one’s husband absconding to Europe with your scandalous cousin.

We never get a peek into May Welland’s mind but I am assuming that she believed herself to be powerful by being the opposite of these women who also believe themselves to have as much control over their world as possible.  May plays and wins the game from the inside, these witches play from the outside, and even though they have different outcomes, they all are victorious in the way they want to be.   Same time, same place, different witches.  Different definitions of victory and happiness.  I wish I had been able to compare these both feminist texts when I was in high school.

I’m two books away from completing the BookRiot challenge with 8 weeks in the year to go.  The rest of the year is going to sweep right along anyway, with preparing Christmas for a small child.  And then planning my projects in a new year.

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Re-tellings continued: Austen Project #3

I can hardly believe that I have arrived at the end of my son’s kindergarten year.  It felt like eons before he could even enroll in public school, even though I did so as soon as he was old enough, on the cusp of turning five with some behaviors that were equally on the cusp.  I had a few weeks of concern over his adjustment, but then, after he turned five, he was magically fine.  Something clicked.

My son appears to experience distinct leaps in growth.  The first one involved two night terrors a night apart, after which he emerged sleeping through the night, walking, and never having another night terror at fifteen months.  Every August I feel that he has turned the next age in his maturity, when his birthday hovers around Halloween.   Facebook reminds me every year with bringing back posts on different years where I captioned, “a lot of growth this month!”

And now here he is with a kindergarten musical this upcoming Friday and here I am talking about the Jane Austen re-telling that I feel is the most about growing up than all her major novels…

 

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Emma (The Austen Project #3), Alexander McCall Smith

I really liked this one. Emma might be my favorite Austen novel now.  I loved Pride and Prejudice first, once I had gotten enough understanding of the plot. At the time in my life I fell in love with the story I was hoping for some secret rich guy to fall in love with me from the wings.  I needed it to happen back then before I met my husband when I was floundering around in relationships that were frustrating and confusing in the impecunious years of youth and school and very little stability.  Pemberley?  Just because I am my feisty self?  Whaa?  I watched my favorite Pride and Prejudice movie after I got married and it didn’t give me the same hope.  Because I didn’t need it anymore.  I had created my own stability.

Anyway.

The author beat me to the punch on this one with the age difference.  Mr. Knightley is is established early on as being already established in the world and a bachelor to boot, but he specifically discusses how a fourteen year age difference didn’t impede the couple’s growing regard.  He talks about how they care about each others opinions and slowly begin to find the other interesting. I think them ending up together was less of a surprise in this one than in the original.  Also, with my own writing instruction and my love of  and familiarity with this plot, which extends to the movie Clueless, I could easily spot the setup in the conversations Emma had with her governess that set up the growth that she was about to experience through her actions in the rest of the novel.   Maybe it isn’t that I am better at picking these things out, it might just be Smith’s artistry.  But I liked it.

This one felt truly modernized, not just the same plot with some cell phones, texting and social media tossed in there, like Sense and Sensibility felt like.  There was the classic useless parent, this time a father, who doesn’t move her growth along nearly as much as her governess.   I like that she makes the active choice to stop being idle and trying to arrange people’s lives from her pedestal and learns that truly helping others more than just telling them what to do is the true fulfillment. This combined with having her own occupation and contribution also helped make it seem more modern to me.  Her contribution in the original one is just to get married, which a happy marriage is the highest they can aspire to back then, but with her choosing a real direction with her life was much more modern and satisfying.

So, Emma grows up, and my boy is at a milestone.

I don’t know where my next post is coming from. I need to re-read a classic for my novel and I have a BookRiot book post waiting for use, but neither of those go on my retelling streak and I have not completed all my books that are re-tellings of classics.  So, I am not sure.  And being that it is summer, I need to start posting every other week again, to give me time for other writing.

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Re-Tellings, Continued: The Austen Project #2

Happy Memorial Day weekend!  The unofficial kickoff to summer! The green of the brand new leaves in May is my absolute favorite green.  It’s invigorating to see it in all the trees.

And, because I am married to a vet I’m not losing sight of the reason for the season, which is to honor the fallen.

I usually spend Memorial Weekend with my parents because they are up for the summer, and I get another writing instruction session Monday morning because I have the time and its not actually a holiday in South Africa, where my writing instructor lives.  I need that time with her, as I hammered out a second draft in a month and there are lingering pot holes that I thought of after I emailed it to her and she said let her see what she can do.  Because writing instructors are wholly magic people!

This week’s classic retelling is not a book that needed any redemption.  Not only due to how I read it the first time, but it deserves mention: I have the Jane Austen omnibus from Barnes and Noble, back in the pre e-reader days when I was collecting classics and actually paying money for them.  The giant book with the tissue thin pages with the eensy print to fit it all on the pages.  I read this one on my loveseat on a second story glassed in porch during a rainy spring weekend and reveled in my solitude.  I was renting two rooms in a house in Poughkeepsie, I was in my graduate internship, I was not constantly hammering out graduate work nor tending to a long term relationship in my immediate space.  I just read a classic novel over the weekend, because I could.  It was the beginning of a glorious space in my life where my time was neither consumed with endless graduate work or the wonderful but endless responsibility of motherhood.  When I need time to myself I look wistfully back on that weekend as the paragon of what I once had. That and there was also a funny day trip to Ikea with my close friends where we spent hours in the store and were so tired when we were leaving that we laughed uncontrollably when we briefly lost the driving friend in the parking garage and couldn’t really understand why it was so funny.

But the book…well, I guess the book was good too.  *insert tongue in cheek here*

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Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid (The Austen Project #2)

Like I said when I reviewed Eligible, it is a tall order to ask established writers to go in for a Jane Austen retelling, and not only that, to make them more accessible to today’s teens.  The ratings suggest that this is another layer people just won’t go in for.  I can’t even find a suggestion of Persuasion or Mansfield Park even having authors chosen for them online, the last Austen Project updates I can find being for Eligible in 2014/2015.  There’s no hard evidence that the project has been canned, but I am losing optimism that it will be completed.

Also, I cheated a little and listened to the radio dramatization of the original first just to freshen up on major plot points. I remember the rain and the love seat and the paper thin pages and a couple of my beefs with the story but I felt I would do better with the retelling with a rehash first.

So, I liked this.  I liked that she is going to Scotland to be in the theater and social scene there.  It is more fun than the original.   I wanted to know how she was going to pull off the Gothic novel obsession in a modern context and I almost thought Catherine would be really into TV,  but I felt her choice of vampire novels and then comparing the Tilneys to Edward and his clan in Twilight (although she is never that explicit, I read Twilight to catch every reference) was a good one.  Especially since the few minutes of the movies that  I have been able to sit through have been kind of atmospheric in a Pacific Northwest kind of way which could be similar to Scotland’s, although I have been neither place.  Sadly.  So, well done.

(A brief sidebar:  Someone put the collection of the original Gothic novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey on Amazon, Northanger Horrid Novels, complete with Radcliffe.  I read The Mysteries of Udolpho because of this book and someday I will read the other Gothic novels in the collection.  You know how I love my Gothic reads)

I also liked that the reason Catherine gets randomly cast out makes more sense in the modern world and is more fitting to a teenager’s understanding. There are fortune hunting characters but we are not such in a fortune hunting world anymore.  Parents have considerations for their children that can extend past money and I am glad she did something else with that.

I wish that Catherine Morland had been made a little older, as seventeen was a respectable age to get a husband back in the day but now it’s just barely legal for consent (at least in NY) and the age difference between couples at this age needs to be smaller to not be creepy.  Like, who can’t love Henry Tilney, but I don’t know anyone who is getting started after law school that would develop more than friendship feelings for a 17 year old who really knows nothing of the world.  They would not have enough in common to really develop a relationship. We are no longer in that time period where being completely naive is an attractive quality in men looking for a life partner and an equal rather than a wife.  I know she has to be naive in the story to make it work, but there can be too much in order to make the couple seem implausible, which is what is happening here.  I guess maybe I also spend more time with 17 year olds than many other people.

But there was one change to the relationship that she made that I did like.  It still eludes me why Jane Austen saw fit in the original to comment that Henry only marries Catherine out of gratitude and because she loved him first.  I don’t know why they couldn’t just love each other.  I felt badly for Catherine in the end because she was being married somewhat against the Captain’s wishes and then only because her husband was grateful.  In this one they really do just love each other, even though I feel that she should have been made a little older to help.

Like I said, it is a tall order to work on the Austen Project and the more I read them the more this becomes apparent.  I can better respect the challenge that McDermid was up against.

So, I am reading more retellings, because I love them, mixed in with the BookRiot challenges.  Rolling into summer and seeing if I need to space out the posts like I did last summer because I am busier in the season I can actually go places.

And the second draft of my novel is done?  I started writing in late January.  I feel good about that, even if my brains are on the blink because I am making them do all the things.

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All the fun with a little less cringe

I am a little disappointed in myself for how long it actually took me to read the book I am posting about today.

My only excuse is that it was always expensive on Kindle and I have a hard time taking books seriously when they have recipes in them.  I don’t know, I always expect that it will make the book maudlin. The high recommendation combined with the recipes made me think, oh yea, this one will rot my teeth for sure.

Even though it is Latin American Magical Realism, which I should have known by now is always tempered with tragedy, loss and longing.  And this one was no different:

A Classic of Genre Fiction:

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Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel

This one is always near the top of the list for classic Magical Realism.  I would describe it as 100 Years of Solitude Lite.  All the taste and half the fat. All the same themes, time and place, and family imbroglios without the constant cringe worthy incest, which definitely raises it in my estimation.

A young woman refused permission to marry her one true love in the world, and instead he marries her sister in order to be closer to her, and then all the mess that that creates, along with an overbearing and abusive mother with her own closet full of skeletons.  Throw in some babies that she is denied, political upheaval that flirts occasionally with the plot line, some family ghosts and supernaturally charged sexual desire (that is NOT toward relatives!) along with the recipes and you have it.  The only element it doesn’t share with 100 Years of Cringes is the Biblical length lifespan of the characters.  People live around as long as they are supposed to.  Oh yeah and there isn’t treasure hidden in the yard.

And the food part with the recipes does not make it maudlin.  The protagonist’s feelings are communicated through her usually perfect cooking:  her devastation, her elation, her bitterness.  And she is full of it.  Esquivel jerks her protagonist around enough to make plenty of recipes that don’t come out just perfect.  And the ending is not satisfying to boot.  Just so you all are aware.

I have two other magical realism books on the list dealing with food, The Cake Therapist and Chocolat, and I will be interested to see if food is the same vehicle for communicating feelings as it is for this one. Also, I really need to get to Borges and his Ficciones, which predates Marquez, Allende, and Esquivel.

If you love the Magical Realism genre, specifically the South American brand, you can’t miss this.    I see some reviews up of people who just don’t have a taste for the random and intense plotting.  Maybe the ones who not only expected this to be maudlin but wanted it to be.  I didn’t want that.

So, even though it has been awhile since I have been on my magical realism bent, it’s still here and it continues to be a goal.  They are still on my TBR, whether it is Northern European magical realism or the original examples of the genre.  My instructor says the novel I am drafting is magical realism.

I intentionally am posting this on a Saturday because I hope people are enjoying Easter Sunday with their families.

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My V Day Read

I promise that this entire post won’t be griping about noveling, like the last two posts have been.  It’s not novel writing, it’s noveling:  thinking, wheels turning, researching, bouncing ideas off a friend who lets me know when I’ve missed the mark and when I look a hot mess.

But I first want to mention that I had different ideas for my Valentine’s Day post.  First of all it would have been better last weekend, before the holiday, and second, I wanted it to feature like three books of YA love that are waiting for me, like any true love will, on my kindle.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the romance novel I did read, and that I am not slowly giving romance more and more of a chance as I expand my reading horizons.  But it would have been more of the things with the stuff and some ampersands.

I am doing short Read Harder books until the bulk of my noveling is out and down.  I have some categories that I really want to read something that demands more time and brain space ( ahem, The Master and Margarita) and they are also on hold like the books I would have ideally liked to do for this post. But I want to be a writer of fiction too, not just a blogger, so both siblings need their time.

A Romance by or About a Person of Color:

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The Duchess War, Courtney Milan

Now, this one was recommended by BookRiot staff as a contender for this category.  I peeped in Ms Milan’s author bio and she is a well rounded, learned woman of science and law, which explains some of the major plot pieces in this novel, sedition.  It has a lot to say about social class and the offenses that the powerful commit against the powerless.  It reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South a little bit, and of my own plotting, where my educational background determines the plots I do come up with and the tools at my disposal.

But, to make mention of the plot, a plain woman, Minnie, with a scandalous secret past attracts the attention of a duke looking to change the world and is the first to figure out that he is printing handbills encouraging workers to unite/unionize.  She intrigues him with her ability to conceal her talents behind a mousy, biddable exterior to fit in and find someone to marry her so she can be taken care of.  They have a store of secrets against each other that become exposed in the cringing way that romance novels have to to move the plot forward.  There is an Austen esque moment, and I thought that before Austen was referenced, where his mother shows up and offers her money to betray him and not marry him.  The Duke wants to be loved in the way that he never was and Minnie needs to be accepted for who she is, which is far from the checklist of desired wifely qualities, and she doesn’t have the money to do what she wants on her own.  As in life a good romance novel involves characters healing one another, and there is healing, and what we in therapy call corrective emotional experiences.

Plus the sex is decent, I think it is more realistic than in some of the romances I have read, and I like that their first time together is a plot point rather than gratuitous sex.  It gives detail but its not too much and everyone is consenting which is huge for me.  I don’t like romances where the guy persists on a girl who needs to be convinced to like him and I hope that is becoming less common in the genre as consent becomes more of a thing in the popular eye.  Like if I don’t like you don’t do things to make me feel like I have to give you a chance.  No.

I wanted to read Beverly Jenkins for this one, but I was going to read her book for a Western, but I started a different short book that counts as a Western that I have been meaning to read.  I have her novel Tempest on my library wish list.  I am intrigued as to how she writes African American characters in the American West.  Even though the West had more flexible rules than the East it was still a racist nation as a collective.  It’s an arranged marriage trope and it’s the third in her old West series…

So I did it. I did not spend the post complaining about the hell of really committing to getting a novel down in a short period of time.  I could have been noveling the whole hour that it usually takes me to turn out a decent post, but the writing projects need variety, right?

If winter could be shorter without making me anxious that the planet would burst into flames I would be okay with that, too.

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