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

About John Jacobson

http://dreaminginbooks.blogspot.com

Ever since a good friend brought him a copy of Johanna Lindsey's Gentle Rogue, he has been hooked on the romance genre. Though he primarily reads in young-adult, he loves to spend time with paranormal, historical, and contemporary adult titles in-between books. Now, he finds himself juggling book reviews, school band, writing, and finding time to add to his TBR pile.

Posts by John Jacobson:

REVIEW:  Suicide Watch by Kelley York

REVIEW: Suicide Watch by Kelley York

Dear Ms. York,

I picked up your book because I saw a Tweet about its release that indicated a book that could fit into the NA category while containing an LGBTQ protagonist and/or romance within the story.  Your debut novel, Hushed, also contained these qualities – I haven’t read it, but aim to after Suicide Watch.  This book was impressive and completely different from other NA books that I’ve read recently.  Its characters are no rock stars or introverted college students getting introduced to The Wonder of Good Sexytimes.  They are damaged individuals that are on the cusp of legal adulthood, if not already there, that struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.  Suicide Watch is what I’ve wanted to see in NA since it began.

Suicide Watch by Kelley YorkEighteen and ready to leave high school for good, Vincent Hazelwood is one more guy screwed over by a life in foster care.  Caring about grades and a social life seems pretty pointless when you’re used to being juggled from one house to another.  Eccentric Maggie Atkins is the best thing to happen to Vincent; she has actually given him a home to love and a chance to finish high school and do something for himself.  Vincent hasn’t known a lot of love in his life, but Maggie is a wonderful exception.

Her death, caused by a sudden heart attack, sends him into a spiral.  He only has a little bit of time to find an apartment.  She leaves him all of her assets so that he can make a life for himself and hopefully pay for some kind of college education.  Maggie’s death gives Vince the chance to see just how much Maggie cared for him, yet he’s paralyzed by her absence.  No matter how much she loved him while she was alive, it seems like she was preparing to die without telling him.  Now, Vince is alone, and he can’t cope with it.

Around this time, Vincent comes across a website dedicated to those fascinated by the act of suicide.  The website includes an active forum filled with members of all types and a section where people have actually submitted pictures of live feeds that ran during the suicide attempts.  It’s morbid, yet Vincent finds a certain amicability in conversing with people that understand where he’s at emotionally.  He is unsure of suicide; he is sure about having the desire to do it in his current state of affairs.

Vincent soon makes friends on the website: Casper, a girl suffering from cancer that is tired of getting endless treatments without a moment of health in sight, and a boy that sends lyrics to his favorite songs as a way of communication.  Vincent was long abandoned by his few close friends, so Casper’s presence in particular is a welcome respite from his lonely thoughts.  They even dare to meet in real life, bringing their friendship to a dangerous level of reality.  Casper even introduces Vincent to Adam, the boy of the song lyric messages that is surprisingly cute and painfully shy.  The three misfits become friends as Vincent starts to become independent, moving into an apartment and finding a small bit of life outside of his depression.  Each of the teens finds that depression and suicidal tendencies still rear their ugly heads in every which way.  Loving each other may not be enough to help get them through, especially if they are truly done with their lives.

This book reminds me of a snippet of lyrics from a Panic! at the Disco song that uses the phrase “beautifully depressing”.  That is Suicide Watch.  It isn’t a romance in the traditional sense; there is no focal point of Adam and Vincent finding love and an appreciation for an adult sexual relationship.  Well, there is, but it’s not the main point of this book at all.  This book is more about friendship and dealing with the complexities of having depression and being suicidal, and I’m okay with that.  If anything, I think that NA needs to focus on these things more because they are a big part of life in any context.  Suicide Watch just addresses it in a way that is not preachy or focused on the message – it addresses it as something that can occur gradually, in a variety of environments, as something that can be a universal experience.

Vincent’s narration spoke to me because it is simple but, at the same time, exceptionally detailed.  It focuses on the events that go on in his life without a boatload of introspective bullshit; he doesn’t spend hours upon hours detailing his depression and suicidal thoughts like they are the only thing going on in his mind, like this book is just one giant homage to just-graduated teens that get overwhelmed by life’s sadder moments.  Vincent feels alone, and it’s easy to see how that feeling is created after Maggie dies and he is confronted with living by himself.  His former best friend doesn’t have the time to talk with him.  Maggie’s lawyer tries to act like a caretaker but comes across as being yet another adult that’s trying too hard while bringing news that leaves Vincent anything but confident and collected.  Finding Caspar and Adam is a huge, bright moment in Vincent’s life, and it starts a character arc that is subtle and beautifully expressed as he comes out of his shell piece by piece.  Vincent learns to live life again as the people around him contemplate dying.

This character arc is why I loved Vincent as a narrator and a main character.  He’s sensitive, articulate, concise, but manages to weave a lot of subtext into what he says.  I could tell he suffered from depression without being told.  He represented something that I had seen and experienced a lot: a person silently dealing with their depression.  Teenagers are so often silent about it that it would make sense to turn to the internet and to avoid discussing it even with peers who understand it.  There’s so much more to it than angsty writings, self-harm, and botched suicide attempts.  It’s never quite so obvious as the more message-y books make it out to be.

Oddly enough, your other characters feel just as real as Vincent.  It’s rare – in YA, NA, or category-length romance novels – to have a feeling that every character is well-rounded.  Caspar was probably the most beautiful characters that I’ve read about in ages.  She’s visceral, aggressive, and intense about living her life until she’s ready to end it.  She doesn’t use her cancer as a crutch for her emotions, just as an explanation for how she got to her current emotional state.  There’s  a barrier between her and her friends, yet the reader still gets to know her well.  Readers going in expecting a Lurlene McDaniel-like twist of total-tragic-death will be surprised at how the arc is handled.  It’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s also not the usual way of doing things.  You don’t pull punches with Caspar’s character; I appreciated that even when I was utterly shocked at what happened.

There’s something to be said for Adam, too, and what both he and Caspar represent.  As much as Vincent’s experiences are used as a reference point for his emotional loneliness and dependency, Adam and Caspar both come from more privileged backgrounds and still manage to be depressed.  There isn’t a class divide or a sense of one character’s issues being more important.  They all mutually discuss their emotions as a singular type of emotion rather than grade them based on personal tragedy.  Adam’s mother is awful and emotionally removed from him while Caspar’s parents are extremely loving.  That level of removal is what drive’s Adam’s depression.  What I also love is that both Adam and Vincent are LGBTQ without stressing that as a point of depression.  LGBTQ teens do struggle with it more than most, yet it’s never something boldly connected as a cause.  Both teenagers are comfortable in their sexuality to a fair degree.  In Adam’s case, it’s the way his sexuality is perceived by his mother that gives him some problems.

How do I convince people to read this book when it’s so sad?  Sure, it’s real, but readers like me that normally enjoy romances with clear endings may find the undercurrent of tragedy in this book too depressing.  I think that this book’s inherent beauty is the reason to check it out, more so than the LGBTQ characters or the unusual plot for an NA novel.  The writing drives to the heart of the matter in a way that is unfailingly honest.  Adam and Vincent grow to love each other without pomp and circumstance and create a romance that the reader believes in; the three characters have individual struggles with the same general emotional problem, never once feeling like author-controlled messages; the book moves along at a pace that is perfect and quick.  My only real issue with the novel from a writing perspective was the way that the subplot with the website admin faded in and out without much direct connectivity to the rest of the story.  It wasn’t silly or perfectly tied up, but I think it would have helped to make the motif of periodic emails and posts from the admin a bit stronger throughout the narrative.

Suicide Watch is just a gem.  It’s a quick read that packs a bigger emotional punch than I would have ever anticipated.  I can’t recall the last time that a book about so many dark issues has truly captured my every emotional facet.  Vincent’s a great narrator, and the strong focus on friendship and mutual understanding of suicide is unlike anything I’ve read in New Adult.  I wish that every issue book tackled things with this much honesty and understanding.  The only downside is that this book is very sad in its beauty.  Even when it’s hopeful, the reader is reminded of the events that allowed that hope to grow.  This book was beautiful; it made me cry.  A

All my best,

John

REVIEW:  His Roommate’s Pleasure by Lana McGregor

REVIEW: His Roommate’s Pleasure by Lana McGregor

Dear Ms. McGregor,

His Roommate’s Pleasure caught me with the blurb. The college setting is something that I’ve been wanting to read more of in romance because of the New Adult label; it’s something that I get particularly excited about with non-heterosexual romance because of the lack of popular LGBTQ New Adult books. While your book is more straight-up erotic romance than New Adult, the setting and the conflict matches a lot of heterosexual New Adult romances, and I think it does a good job of doing what those books also attempt to do: showing the exploration of a more complex sexual relationship. The trouble is that the novella feels more like an attempt at writing a Beginner’s Guide to BDSM.

His Roommate's Pleasure by Lana McGregorThe gist of it is that Adam and Josh have been roommates at university for some time. Adam was considered a nerd in high school for being the out-and-proud gay kid. Josh, who went to a different high school, was the obvious jock. Their lives in college aren’t that much different. Adam studies a lot and hangs out with two very good friends; Josh hangs out with guys on his sports teams, playing video games together and going to keggers like it’s their last day to live. They’ve never been close roommates, but they are comfortable enough with each other to respect boundaries. That is until Adam stumbles across something on Josh’s computer during an emergency essay submission.

Josh is in the closet. One wrong click and Adam opens that closet door wide open, and there are leather collars dangling from the clothes hangers. Picture after picture on Josh’s computer shows different levels of BDSM sex. Guys are tied up, humiliated, collared and forced to beg for sex. It’s not something that Adam, a virgin who’s only ever kissed one guy before, has ever researched or considered before. It turns him on just as Josh comes in the room, paving the way for a really awkward talk about Josh’s sexual preferences.

Awkwardness seems to melt into eroticism as Josh admits that he’s gay and that BDSM turns him on. Adam’s own excitement over the idea of submitting ignites something in Josh that has him asking if Adam would like to explore some of the things in the photographs. Slowly; not as if they are dating, but just to explore a mutual sexual interest. At the first command, Adam finds himself kneeling next to Josh and wanting to be the guy wearing the blindfold and the collar. His college roommate survey never asked the question if he was dominant or submissive – now, Adam finds himself well-matched. When Josh begins to seem less of a fuck buddy and more of a boyfriend, Adam can’t help but worry that things will take a turn for the worse even as their sex lives get hotter and hotter.

My biggest issue with the beginning was the way that Adam accidentally “clicked” into Josh’s porn folder. It was described in a vague manner, and most teenage boys who are afraid of coming out hide their porn folders reasonably well, especially since they are of the generation to actually know how to hide things. Assuming that Josh wasn’t paranoid enough to password his file, he would have at least hidden it in such a way that accidental clicking probably wouldn’t do much for it. While it wouldn’t have given the best impression of Adam, I would have preferred that Adam snooped through Josh’s files after. He could have even discovered porn in Josh’s browsing history or bookmarks. It just rung false to me when it felt like there were too many reasons why something so accidental would have been improbable.

Out of the two roommates, Adam is more along the lines of a focus character. His impressions of jocks from high school have him detesting those kinds of people, yet he realizes that Josh is a complex individual and find his dominance sexually stimulating. I found that Adam’s character gave up his trust to Josh very easily; it felt like there wasn’t a lot of resistance or concern over that aspect of the D/s relationship between them. Even if it’s sexual and both people consent, there’s a lot of psychological reasoning as to why someone would want to give up that control, and I didn’t really get a sense as to why Adam felt the need to do that. Was it because of his being bullied? Was it because he enjoyed his stereotypical “nerd” role to some degree? That part of Adam’s character never felt explained to me, and I had trouble picturing Adam being so gung-ho about his desire to be the submissive as a result of it.

Josh is kind of in the same boat. We learn less about him save for the fact that he likes sports and has a soft, slightly nerd-y side with his choice of favorite films. Aside from that, we learn about him being in the closet and being into a dominant in sex. Both he and Adam have very little sexual experience, so the engine running their relationship for a majority of the book is their discovery of this D/s sexual relationship. It’s very slow going – no anal penetration until the end of the novella – but does signify some degree of increasing trust and affection between the two boys. Yet, we are still met with a character that doesn’t get delved into a lot psychologically. I never felt like I knew a lot about what made Josh tick in terms of his kink, and, while kinky sex doesn’t need to be an everyday occurrence, it’s obvious that these two characters find a lot of solace in the D/s sexual relationship. The sex felt very cut-and-dry in its progression because of the lack of emotional depth of the characters’ sexual psyches.

There were some aspects of this story that really did work for me. McGregor’s side characters were very realistic. I could believe the varied responses from Josh’s friends RE: his sexuality, yet I was simultaneously troubled by how Josh ignored Adam’s discomfort with jocks due to his past bullying experiences. Yes, not every jock is a bully, but several of Josh’s friends displayed problematic behavior, hence why Josh was afraid to come out to them. I did appreciate one character, Nate, who is actually likable because he respects women and gay people despite his ingrained societal preconceptions. That part of the story was well-addressed. I also enjoyed Adam’s two close friends – both PoC characters that I would have liked to read more about.

This story got a lot of criticism from me, but I didn’t find it bad in theory. It would serve as a very solid introduction to BDSM sex for a reader who may not be familiar with it. It deals with paddling, spanking, and a few other kinks that aren’t too intense. Amateur BDSM. Josh also repeatedly asks Adam to make sure he has permission to do things, which I appreciated, although I would have liked more concentration on the characters’ levels of comfort and how that negotiation was a big part of starting out a BDSM relationship. It’s really all the book is, however, and I don’t think there’s enough depth in the characters or their sexual encounters to really make me believe that this stands out in a sea of books attempting to cover BDSM, though it may be just the thing for readers who like the BDSM-lite books but want to see some different sexualities within them. My grade on this is a C.

All my best,

John

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