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

E.K. Blair

REVIEW:  Freeing by E.K. Blair

REVIEW: Freeing by E.K. Blair

freeingDear Ms. Blair:

I read books #1 and #3 in the Fading series, Fading and Falling, last year. The two books essentially told the same story from the perspective of the two main protagonists, Candace and Ryan. Book #2, Freeing, covers much of the same time period but focuses on Candace’s best friend, Jase, and his romance with Mark, a musician and fellow student at the University of Washington.

Surprising (to me, anyway) admission: I don’t think I’ve read a m/m romance before. I’ve read plenty of books with gay secondary characters, and some erotica featuring m/m pairings, but I can’t remember ever reading a straight (no pun intended) romance that was m/m. It’s probably not an accident that I haven’t joined the m/m romance craze. With all due respect to fans of the genre, who I know are numerous, there’s something about straight women reading m/m fiction that feels exploitative to me, particularly when that fiction written by another straight woman. I can’t get over the sense of “othering” that the subgenre gives me. I’ve read various pieces on the reasons women read and write m/m romance, but the reasons given don’t entirely assuage my concerns. (I especially don’t like the “two men are sexier than one” argument, because it feels vaguely to me like what’s really being said is “I like it better when there are no icky girls to read about”, which I find problematic in a whole ‘nother way.)

Anyway, on to Freeing – Jase is a fourth year architecture major, originally from San Diego. Back at home, in high school, Jase was deeply closeted and dealt with his shame over being gay by screwing his way through the female population of his high school. His home life was painful after the death of his beloved older sister in a car accident – his parents pretty much shut down, and Jase felt that they were three strangers simply existing in the same house, rather than a family. Add to this the confusion over his emerging sexuality, and his sure belief that his parents will not accept having a gay son, and going away to college was as much an escape for Jase as anything else. He’s managed to build a life in Seattle; he’s out (more or less; more on that in a moment) and he’s found a best friend in another student, Candace. While she can’t replace his sister, of course, Candace does fill that place in his life that his sister’s death left empty, and the two are extraordinarily close.

Jase’s relationships in college have mostly been of the one-night or at least extremely casual variety. He has sex with men, but he’s much warier about forming actual emotional attachments. Why, exactly, isn’t ever entirely examined, but it’s clear that Jase continues to have issues with being gay. He still hasn’t told his parents, and he’s very uncomfortable with outwardly showing affection to another man in public. When he runs into Mark, whom he knows from class (Mark is also an architecture major), at a club one night, Jase is attracted and pleased to discover that Mark is gay and also interested in him. Something tells Jase right away that he doesn’t want to treat Mark like just another hookup, so they start dating, taking things slowly.

But Jase still has all of the emotional baggage he brought from California, and he deliberately sabotages the budding relationship, a move he almost immediately regrets. While he’s trying to decide if he wants to try to get Mark back and really try to have a real relationship, Jase also has to deal with Candace’s devastating rape, as detailed in Fading and Falling.

I believe Freeing is novella-length (e-readers have made it impossible for me to tell how long a book is, but according to Amazon, Freeing is 294 pages, compared to Fading’s 458 and Falling’s 541).  So a lot of story gets packed into a relatively small space. Since some of the same ground was covered in the other two  books, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the same time I felt like there could have been more character development on some fronts.

Jase’s parents, for instance, are given no real personalities to speak of – I guess they had a happy family at one point, before his sister died, but there’s no sense of what they were really like. Now they are just cold and cardboard. Jase’s eventual coming-out scene felt stilted and cliché (“I’m your son!” “No. You’re not. Not anymore”), with his mother making a reference to his eternal damnation or some-such, which sort of came out of left field as there had been no previous indication that the family was religious.

Jase’s and Mark’s relationship is…nice, I guess. Even though they break up early on and then get back together, as a couple they are pretty low-conflict. Mark pushes Jase a bit to let Candace stand on her own two feet, both for her benefit and for the sake of their relationship (since when she’s staying with them they frequently sleep all three to a bed, which is, let’s face it, weird).

But really most of the conflict is Jase’s internal one. I felt sympathy for it but it never quite came alive for me. I sort of wished it had been dug into deeper, but I’m not sure there *was* much depth there. Jase seemed like he was basically a young and somewhat immature, even shallow guy who had internalized some pretty macho and backward attitudes. At one point he laughs about Mark being “emasculated” by doing girly stuff with Candace (mud masks, etc.); I can’t tell you how much the very concept of “emasculation” infuriates me. It goes without saying that Mark is no less a man for painting his nails (which I guess he does to bond with Candace, but if he just wanted to paint them, that would have NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM BEING A MAN). Sorry, I just hate hate hate the word “emasculate” and variations thereof.

Since I bitched about it in Falling, I’ll mention that here in Freeing there is also some pretty stale gender stereotyping. When Jase and Mark go to visit Mark’s family for Thanksgiving, there’s lots of “the wimmins do the cooking while the mens put up Christmas lights.” It’s not a big deal, but it still bothers me; I’d like at some point to move beyond the same old “girls do x and boys do y” hoary clichés. Also, Mark’s 18-year-old twin sisters are depicted as giggly, boy-crazy featherbrains who won’t be allowed to go to a party (again, they’re 18) unless chaperoned by Mark and Jase.

I actually feel a little weird about evaluating the Jase/Mark relationship, and it goes back to my unease with m/m romance, as well as my unfamiliarity with it as a genre. I don’t really have any inside knowledge on such relationships IRL, of course, and I don’t assume that they have to be different in some fundamental way that m/f relationships. Actually, I think I feel uneasy assuming either way: if I say that it feels like Jase and Mark’s relationship could be m/f (with some small modifications, chiefly having to do with Jase’s ambivalence about his sexuality), is that a good thing or a bad thing? I would mostly say it’s a good thing, because really, what is so different about a same-sex loving relationship? But I wonder if it means that the depiction is somewhat watered down; both Jase and Mark are fairly conventionally macho (Jase particularly). They aren’t involved in “gay things” like the Pride parade, and they don’t appear to have any gay friends.

Should that bother me? I don’t know. I mean, I can see that I might be irritated if the author did shoehorn in Pride references and Judy Garland worship; that would feel cartoonish and disrespectful. Rather than compare Jase and Mark to the gay men I know (while I know quite a few, and they run the gamut, I don’t think they constitute a large enough sample size to serve as anything other than anecdotal examples) I think of them in contrast to Mitchell and Cameron from ABC’s Modern Family. Mitchell and Cam are uber-gay; they’re culturally and socially gay. Their friends (at least most of them) are gay. I know some people (including some gay men) who find them too broadly drawn. Which is fair, though Modern Family being a network sitcom, I’d argue that all of the characters are broadly drawn.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that most of my gay friends are closer to being Mitchell and Cam than Jase and Mark. Maybe this is because I, like Homer Simpson, “prefer my homosexuals flaming”? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s because the former couple is a lot closer to my age than the latter; generational differences could be a part of it. All I know is that if I’m going to read about a gay couple, I want them to feel like a gay couple to me, and Jase and Mark never quite did.

Ultimately, though, a lot of the issues that I’m talking about are probably at least semi-unique to me, and may well not affect other readers’ enjoyment of Freeing. I would say that if you’re a fan of the other two books in the series, it’s worth reading, if only to get a more complete picture of all of the main characters and what they are going through during the time period covered in the story. My grade for Freeing is a C+.

Best regards,

Jennie

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  Falling by E.K. Blair

REVIEW: Falling by E.K. Blair

FALLINGDear Ms. Blair,

I read and reviewed the first book in this series, Fading last year. When I heard that there would be a sequel from Ryan’s POV, I was intrigued. I am a bit cynical about romance sequels that tell the same story over from the hero’s perspective, but having liked Fading so much, I was interested enough to want to know what was going on in Ryan’s head during the events in that book (particularly because the storyline had Ryan keeping a secret from Candace for the better part of Fading, albeit one that was pretty obvious to the reader).

The story opens with a prologue; Ryan Campbell is still a teen, and though he doesn’t know it yet it’s the last night of his despised father’s life. Ryan leaves a party where he has taken drugs and hooked up with a random girl and rushes home; he feels that it’s his responsibility to protect his mom from his abusive dad. When he arrives Ryan finds his father beating his mother; in the ensuing altercation, Ryan is actually stabbed and ends up in the emergency room. His drunken father flees in his car, drives into a tree and dies.

The story proper opens on Ryan in the present day – 28 years old and a successful club owner in Seattle. While his career is going great, Ryan’s personal life isn’t so hot – while he has given up his teenaged drug habit, he continues to engage in random hookups with women he doesn’t care about and has only superficial friendships. He’s only too aware of his fear that he might turn out like his father. It’s why, even though he’s close to his married cousin Tori and dotes on her children, he can’t imagine settling down and having kids of his own.

Ryan’s world is upended the night that he hears a woman screaming in the alley outside his club, long after it has closed. He rushes to the alley and finds a man assaulting a naked, bleeding woman. He fights off the attacker, who escapes, and calls 911. The victim is unconscious at this point; Ryan covers her with his shirt and waits for paramedics to arrive.

In the weeks after the attack, Ryan is shaken up by what he’s witnessed. It makes him rethink the meaninglessness he perceives in his own life. He even fears that he is similar in some ways to the rapist; after all, he just uses women. He finds himself halting a quickie with a pretty bartender when memories of the assault flash through his mind.

While he’s working his way through these feelings, Ryan meets Candace, who is working at a coffee shop he stops by one night (the Seattle setting is well represented – everyone drinks a LOT of coffee). He is struck by the barista’s superficial resemblance to the alley rape victim – both are small and brown-haired – but shakes off the eerie feeling, telling himself that it would be too much of a coincidence.

Ryan meets Candace again after he develops a friendship with Mark, whose band plays at Ryan’s club. Candace is best friends with Mark’s newish boyfriend, Jase. Ryan finds himself inexorably drawn to Candace, in spite of the fact that she’s very self-contained and even skittish.

From there, the two develop the same very slow, tentative relationship that readers of Fading will recognize. Honestly, the story is not hugely different as told from Ryan’s POV. The reader does get an insight into what Ryan is thinking during this slow semi-courtship, but none of the thoughts are radical or unexpected.

As he indicated in the previous book, Ryan only became aware that Candace *was* the same person as the alley rape victim when he recognizes the small heart tattoo on her hip. Which may or may not be credible; on the one hand, I understand that it seems like an unlikely coincidence. But on the other hand, so much about Candace – particularly her fear of intimacy and Jase and Mark’s repeated warnings to Ryan that she’s “been through a lot lately” – should spark Ryan’s memories of the initial connection he made between Candace and the rape victim. His inability to make that connection made very little sense. I finally had to put it down to a subconscious refusal to even think about the possibility on Ryan’s part.

Anyway, the discovery that Candace was raped causes Ryan, understandably, a lot of anguish. Not only the knowledge of the trauma that the woman he’s falling in love with has suffered, but his uncertainty about whether to tell Candace who *he* is, and that he was there in the alley. He feels stuck between a rock and a hard place – he knows he’s lying to her (if only by omission), but he also knows that telling her the truth will hurt her.

I could understand why Ryan was so unsure about what to do. It wasn’t like Candace was even remotely open about the rape; when she does eventually tell Ryan about it, he’s only the third person in her life (the other two being Jase and Mark) that knows.

I recall kvetching about Ryan’s attitude towards women in Fading, and it’s an issue for me here, too. Early on, before he meets Candace, he flip-flops between being not too bad, for a lothario, and really kind of ugly. On the one hand, he does show concern about the possibility of a casual hookup becoming too attached; he doesn’t want to lead anyone on. But at other times he characterizes the women he sleeps with as “ditching (their) self-respect”, which I think goes too far. He doesn’t know these women well enough to know why they are having sex with him (maybe they just want sex), so he really doesn’t need to be making moral judgments. He has some crappy, outdated ideas about women and sex that are never really examined, and I wish they had been.

I can often accept ugly attitudes better from a first-person perspective than a third-person one; even if it’s the same character’s POV, first person reinforces for me that it’s a flawed, fallible human being with baggage whose opinions we’re getting, and so I’m a little more forgiving. Third person feels more like the author is making those judgments, and that sometimes bugs me.

At times the stereotypified gender roles aggravated me. Ryan’s Thanksgiving with his family features the women cooking and the men watching football. Later the ladies excitedly get together to plan their Black Friday shopping. Ryan just shakes his head in amusement. Seriously? In any news coverage of Black Friday shoppers I’ve ever seen, men are just as prominently represented as women. But in the somewhat black-and-white world of gender roles in Fading, women just love to shop.

Also, Ryan does go on at length about how tiny and fragile Candace is. Now, this makes a certain amount of sense and is sort of relevant – Candace is a ballerina – but, still, I didn’t need to hear about it all the damn time. She’s small; I get it.

Though I was interested in Falling for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I was also a little hesitant about reading the same story over from a different POV – might it be boring? I would say no, but honestly it did lag a bit in the middle. Once Ryan’s personality and thoughts are established, and the reader gets a sense of what he’s feeling at some of the key moments we’ve already read once in Fading (and again, there weren’t really any surprises there, not that there had to be), then there isn’t a lot to look forward to.

Events in Falling do extend beyond the ending of Fading, and that was both a good thing and a bad thing. It wrapped up Ryan and Candace’s romance with a definite HEA, and that was fine (there’s even a probably slightly-too-saccharine, kids-and-all epilogue). It showed us the development of Candace’s career, which was nice given that I had some reservations about the choices she made at the end of Fading. After feeling conscious, for much of the book, of the fact that we were treading familiar ground, it was nice to read new material. But it goes on for a bit too long and features what feels like several natural stopping points, only to continue on.

Ultimately, this was a satisfying companion piece to Fading, but not one that I think I just *had* to read. My grade for Falling is a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle