Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Jennie

http://dearauthor.com/author/jennie/

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

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REVIEW:  You Make Me (Blurred Lines, Book 1) by Erin McCarthy

REVIEW: You Make Me (Blurred Lines, Book 1) by Erin...

youmakeme_300Dear Ms. McCarthy,

Let me say right off the bat that I had a hard time grading this book; its ultimate grade was not a reflection on the writing, plot (well, mostly not) or characterization, but rather my dissatisfaction with the ending. I am not sure I can say a lot without getting into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say that this is a romance, and it has an HEA, and that’s what I was not happy about. Based on the story and the actions of the characters, I didn’t think the HEA was appropriate.

Caitlyn Michaud is a starting her junior year at the University of Maine as a Business major. She’s well-liked, a member of a sorority, has a best friend (Aubrey) and a steady boyfriend (Ethan; he happens to be Aubrey’s brother). Her life is well-nigh perfect, and the night of the Homecoming Dance she reflects on how far she’s come from where she grew up.

Cat (as she was known before coming to UoM) was raised on a small and remote island of Maine; her family was poor and somewhat notoriously dysfunctional. Cat’s mother was mentally ill and permanently disabled due to electroshock treatments she’d received for her illness when Cat was a baby; her father was a fisherman who lost a hand on a lobster boat and afterwards went on disability. Cat’s only sibling, her brother Brian, is a ne’er-do-well and alcoholic. Growing up, Cat’s family took in a succession of foster children; the income helped support the family and hold the dilapidated family home together. Cat was a lonely little heathen for much of her childhood, unkempt and friendless. Her life changes at 15, when the family welcomes a new foster, 17-year-old Heath. Heath and Cat become friends and then more, but right after they make love for the first time, Heath disappears. The only explanation Cat is given is that Heath is now 18, and has aged out of the foster care system, but she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t hear a word from him, after all they had shared.

Cat goes to college, becomes Caitlyn, and puts the past behind her. Her father dies; her mother is confined to a nursing home, and Cat no longer speaks to Brian after his disgraceful, drunken behavior at their father’s funeral. The night of the Homecoming Dance, Ethan proposes to Caitlyn in front of all of their friends and assembled sorority and fraternity members. It’s as she accepts that Cat sees a familiar face in the crowd. Yes, Heath has returned.

It turns out that Heath has been in Afghanistan, among other places, and has only just gotten back to Maine. And oh, he wants Cat back. His explanation for leaving without a word is not very strong (later revelations don’t make it much more defensible, IMO). He’s not happy to find Cat engaged to another guy, but really, what did he expect? She didn’t know where he was, and didn’t know if she’d ever hear from him again. Still, he declares his intentions to fight for her, and Cat doesn’t entirely discourage him.

Not a lot really happens in this book; most of the focus is on Cat’s internal struggle. Ethan is a mostly good guy who seems to really love her; I kept expecting him to lapse into predictable villainy, but he never does. He does let Cat down, which in some ways makes her decision a lot easier (and thus less dramatic, and less of a choice at all).

The central problem with You Make Me is that it doesn’t work as a romance. Cat’s conflict is set up as very black or white: Ethan and upper-middle-class respectability and a finance job OR Heath and a return to an island she really doesn’t seem to care for (Heath wants live there and be a fisherman). The central Ethan v. Heath conflict is pretty much a no-brainer, from a romance perspective, anyway. Ethan is safe and boring and Heath is Cat’s “other half” – exciting and a little dangerous. But the reality of Heath is that he:

  • Left Cat without a word for four years
  • Tells Cat he wants her back but still flirts with and hooks up with other girls while he’s waiting for her to come around
  • Does something very morally questionable late in the book, but justifies it because it was done to an unsympathetic character (Cat’s brother) and that he did it partly for Cat’s benefit (though he doesn’t tell her about it, of course; she finds out from Brian)
  • Expects Cat to live the life that *he* envisions for her – the Cat that’s interested in living in a city and working in finance isn’t the “real” Cat (i.e. the Cat he knew when she was 16)

It’s not that Heath is a villain – he’s really not. He’s someone who has had a hard life, even moreso than Cat, and is after all still very young (about 22 or 23, I think). I definitely think he acts like a jerk sometimes – the same could be said for Cat herself and for Ethan. It’s realistic in a way, but it points up the problem with trying to tack an HEA on a NA story, especially one about young people who are already kind of screwed up. None of these people are stable or mature enough to marry, and why do they have to be? If they were real 20- and 22-year-olds, I’d tell them to date around, have some flings, spend some time alone. But the strictures of romance and the conventions of “one true love” stories dictate that Cat has to make a choice, and that choice has to be made within the confines of the story and has to be for all time (the “ever after” part of “happily ever after”).

I don’t know; maybe this is a problem I’d have with all romances if I thought about it too much. But in historicals, where characters are expected to marry younger, and presumably not to divorce, it’s just not something I question. In contemporaries where the characters are 10 years older – hell, even five years older – the shakiness of the HEAs just don’t feel as glaring. In a story with characters this young, and with as many signals that both the hero and heroine have issues that need to be worked out before they can be in a healthy relationship – the HEA feels both unlikely and just plain inadvisable. For that reason, I’m giving You Make Me what feels like a harsh grade – a D. It’s not badly written and it held my interest, but as a romance it just doesn’t work.

Best regards,

Jennie

P.S. Proving that I’m a hypocrite and/or a glutton for punishment, I have already bought the sequel, which deals with Tiffany, a foster child who lived with Cat’s family for a time and is a friend of Cat’s (she appears briefly in You Make Me). I was drawn in by the excerpt at the end of the first book, in spite of the fact that it sounds like this one could be even more problematic. It pairs 20-year-old Tiffany (who in You Make Me is 17 and apparently looks much younger) with a 30-year-old playboy millionaire who is apparently still married (I think?) to his evil estranged wife. This sounds more like a Harlequin Presents than a New Adult novel, and I have no idea why I want to read it, but I do.

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Dear Author

REVIEW: My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Given the current (rocky) state of my relationship with historical romance, I approached your latest book with a certain amount of trepidation. When I’m in a slump, I’m always afraid that my mood will extend to the next book and jinx it somehow (while of course simultaneously hoping the next book will *break* the slump). I did have some hope in this case, though. If my issue with historical romance is at least in part that it all feels so same-old, same-old, I thought I was in safe hands here; a Sherry Thomas book is never boring.

The story opens with an action-packed prologue set on a ship crossing a storm-tossed ocean: Catherine Blade is waiting out the gale in her cabin when she hears an unusual noise, goes to investigate and finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Reynolds, bloodied and beaten. Mrs. Reynolds implores Catherine to go after her sister, Mrs. Chase, who has fled their attacker to the deck.

Catherine, who is more adept at dealing with mysterious assassins than your average Victorian heroine, vanquishes the villain on the deck and saves Mrs. Chase. In the course of a cinematic battle involving flying doors and improbably high vertical leaps, Catherine recognizes the attacker as Lin, an enemy whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. Catherine had believed Lin dead – beheaded – years before. Lin disappears over the side of the ship, presumably swallowed by the sea. (Am I spoiling anything if I add a skeptical “yeah, right?” Probably not.)

The next scene is marginally less dramatic, at least on the surface. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase are being met in London by Mrs. Chase’s daughter, her daughter’s fiance and the fiance’s brother. Catherine is with them when she recognizes the fiance, Captain Leighton Atwood, as someone she’d known years before – a man she believed dead because she thought she’d killed him. (The first chapters of the book really give the impression that Catherine is really bad at knowing when people are dead, but it’s just a coincidence, I guess, that she happens to encounter two such people in quick succession.)

The story then switches to flashbacks. When Catherine and Leighton first meet, she is known as Ying-ying, though she does not actually give him that name or any other. Both are pretending to be someone else when they meet in a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan. He sees through her male disguise and finds himself intrigued and attracted; they travel together for a short time, in spite of her wariness of him. They part, then meet again, eventually giving into the devastating attraction between them. But the differences between them and the secrets they keep from each other lead to distrust, a resolve on Leighton’s side that they must part, and finally Catherine’s admittedly somewhat rash decision to try to kill her lover.

Catherine began life in China as the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman who died before she was born. She is raised by her amah after her mother dies, and eventually by Da-ren, her stepfather and a high-ranking member of the Chinese royal family. She is in England (in the present storyline) on behalf of Da-ren hunting for two jade tablets, part of a triptych that are believed to contain clues to a hidden treasure (I wasn’t hugely fond of this rather silly aspect of the story). Catherine has been trained in certain arts that make her well-suited to the search. Further, the last possessor of one of the tablets was her beloved, murdered English tutor. She hopes to connect somehow with her memories of him while in England, as well as fulfilling her stepfather’s wish. She never expects to meet a ghost (never mind two) from her past.

As with most (all?) of the Sherry Thomas books that I’ve read, My Beautiful Enemy switches back and forth between two time periods, in this case 1883 and 1891. I recall being surprised to learn that many romance readers don’t like this device (of course, I was also surprised, once upon a time, to discover that a lot of romance readers HATED first-person narratives; I rather like them, at least if I like the narrator). I have to say, I’m not sure I quite get what the objection to flashbacks is. I think they function well in intertwining the meatiest parts of a story with the more prosaic parts, so that there aren’t many lulls in the dramatic tension. I don’t know; flashbacks usually work for me, especially the way this author does them.

The prologue of My Beautiful Enemy put me off slightly, for a couple of reasons. For one, I felt dumped into a chaotic scene with very little context (which may well have been intentional on the author’s part): we are introduced to a heroine who is unusual, to say the least, and shortly she encounters a mortal enemy whom she’d thought dead and we find that she’d lost a child in a horrendous way. It was a lot of pretty heavy information to have dumped on me as a reader before I’d gotten my bearings (and before I felt any connection to the characters). Also, I really didn’t love the martial arts fight Catherine engages in with Lin; it felt stagy and unrealistic, more suited to a fantasy-tinged kung fu film than to the sort of romance I favor (dramatic but rooted in reality). As well, it felt a little stereotypical: our heroine is (part) Asian; of course she’s trained to kill a man with her bare hands and her ingenuity.

But I came to realize that even if Catherine has some elements to her character that somehow manage to feel to me both high-concept and clichéd, she really is a unique and fully realized character. She was born into a world where her sex marked her as worthless, and her whole life is about proving her worth to those she loves: her mother, her amah, her tutor Gordon, Da-ren, Leighton. She has as strong a sense of duty as any romance protagonist I can think of. Once she was willing to give up everything for love, and that ended badly for her and it’s marked her life ever since.

Leighton feels a bit less finely drawn for much of the book; he’s closed up in both his past and present incarnations and even when we get his perspective it’s pretty opaque. For this reason, and a couple of others, I was firmly Team Catherine when they parted for the first time (even if her trying to kill him was clearly an overreaction).

One aspect of the story that I found strange was the role that Catherine’s racial heritage does (or rather doesn’t) play. There is no indication that Ying-ying’s being half-English/half-Chinese has any effect on her status in the household that she grows up in in China. I know nothing about that time/place/culture and so can’t say for certain that it would or should have been an issue, but it feels odd that it’s never even remarked upon. After her arrival in England, as far as I could tell, none of the people she meets are even aware that she’s half-Chinese, which again, struck me as odd. I sort of wondered – why make her biracial and then do nothing with it?

While we get plenty of flashbacks between the earlier meeting and the present day story, the details of both characters’ pasts only come out in dribs and drabs and really sort of have to be put together by the reader in the end; even then some holes remained. I have mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, I appreciate not having everything spoon-fed to me (when there is a bit of an info-dump concerning the reason for Lin’s enmity towards Ying-ying, it felt awkward and out of place). On the other hand, sometimes it almost felt like My Beautiful Enemy was a sequel to another book that better explained the h/h’s pasts. For Leighton, there is a lot of business having to do with his father, mother, uncle and brother, and I think I only ever understood half of it. For Catherine, there’s her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with Da-ren, her amah (who apparently had some unique talents and a violent death that I didn’t really get), her tutor (his death was similarly murky), and an evil, lecherous stepbrother whose actions actually play a rather large part in Catherine’s life but who is otherwise only barely referenced a few times.

My Beautiful Enemy had some strong parallels to one of my favorite Laura Kinsale books, The Dream Hunter. Both concern an English hero in foreign lands meeting a heroine disguised as a boy, and switch back and forth between the past and a present in which the h/h must reconcile their misperceptions of each other with reality.  For reminding me of the Kinsale book (and not paling terribly in comparison), it qualifies as a strong success. My grade for this book is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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