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REVIEW: After Hours by Cara McKenna

Dear Ms. McKenna:

After Hours is a gritty romance. It’s set in the economic wreck that is much of the state of Michigan. The protagonists work a “high security ward designed specifically for men who suffered from persistent, disruptive psychotic episodes.” The story contains poverty, violence, and people who just barely make it through each day. The hero and heroine share a relationship that, in the first half of the novel, some may deem abusive. As I read it I so did not want to be anyone or anywhere in the book. It made me grateful for my cushy, safe life. It reminded me how protected I am. It made me, at times, uncomfortable. It is a harsh tale well-told and I like it so much I’ve read it three times in the past month.

Erin Coffey is a twenty-nine LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) who has just come off of six-year stint of being the live-in caretaker for her grandmother who suffered from dementia. She’s taken a job in Dillon, a “shithole” of a town in southeast Michigan, at a psychiatric facility called Larkhaven in order to live near her younger sister Amber and her nephew Jack. Here’s how Erin describes herself:

“…little old me, the LPN who’d had exactly one real patient in her entire so-called nursing career. And I was little. An inch or two shorter than average, plus after a few years on what I called the Social Security Diet—a lot of beans and toast and soup to stretch the pathetic amount of money the government deemed adequate to keep me and my grandma warm and fed and clothed—I didn’t cut a very authoritative figure. I had a baby face and round blue eyes to match, too-soft light brown hair that defied all promises made by thickening shampoos. Once on the ward, the most intimidating thing about me would surely be the syringe in my hand.”

Her first day on the job, she notices Kelly Robak, a huge guy who works at Larkhaven as an orderly. Also on her first day, a severely schizophrenic patient named Lonnie lunges at her with a pizza crust as he screams obscenities. Afterward, as Erin tries to pull herself together in the staff room, Kelly comes in, asks if she’s OK, and tells her he’s taking her out for a drink after work.

“Oh jeez. I better not. I’m really tired, and I have to be up at six again tomorrow.” I hadn’t even unloaded my car or set foot in my new apartment. I wanted to change into my familiar pajamas and reread a few nursing textbooks’ chapters on paranoid schizophrenia, try to figure out how I could have handled myself better with Lonnie.

Kelly shook his head. “Get changed and meet me in the lot. You can follow me in. You living in town now?”

“I’m staying here. In the transitional housing.”

He gave me skeptical look, the most judgment I’d seen from him.

“Just temporarily,” I added.

“I’ll drive you, then. You can leave your car.” And then he disappeared, giving me the distinct impression that his invitation was as negotiable as a hostage taking.

I was pooped. I obliterated my name from the duties board, dropped off my paperwork, and changed, tossing my scrubs in the hamper. The day had done the same to me—wiped me clean out and wadded me into a rumpled heap.

Though Kelly was surely only trying to be helpful in his bossy way, I resented being ordered around, especially by a man. Like I needed rescuing. I didn’t want to be rescued—in my family, I did the rescuing.

If I suddenly needed assistance, who in the hell was I?

But it was good, I decided as I buttoned my sweater—an invitation to grab a quick drink with Kelly. I was in over my head, and he’d have advice to help me stay afloat. He’d had a first day once, too. We’d talk and it’d push the incident a bit further back in my head, so it wouldn’t be the only thing running through my mind as I tried to fall asleep in a strange room. That voice, those words; that accusing pizza crust pointed like a switchblade at my face. As I left the locker room and headed down the hall, I felt that corset sensation again. Only it wasn’t from the scare. Every step I took toward the exit, closer to Kelly, tighter, tighter. Funny how my body reacted to him the same way it did to the thought of getting assaulted by a patient.

Erin hasn’t misread Kelly; he is a man who likes to be in charge. Erin tries to tamp down her libido for despite finding Kelly sexy as hell, she’s sure he’s the kind of asshole her mom and sister hook up with, the kind of guy Erin has spent a lifetime resenting.  Erin’s will-power is no match for Kelly’s seduction and within a week of meeting him, he’s got his hand down her pants and is telling her when they actually fuck, she’ll be pleading for his dick. The following day, over another round of drinks, he asks her, the next time they both have the same two days, off to come to his place and let him take her the way he wants.

“I’m inviting you to come over so we can explore the thing that’s between us. I know you feel it, same as me. I’m offering you a chance to shut your brain off for a weekend, so we can spoil each other’s bodies rotten. Let me boss you around and I promise you’ll find out I give twice as good as I get. I’m not gonna try to fuck your ass or dress you up like a hooker—”

“Be still my heart. Kelly Robak, you charmer, you.”

“There’s four things a real man has to be able to do for a woman.”

“Exactly how many man-lists do you have?”

He let my wrist go and ticked the items off on his fingers. “Fix her car. Grill her a steak. Kick the ass of any guy who makes her cry. And fuck her so hard she wakes up half-crippled.”

After Hours by Cara McKennaAfter thinking about it for a week, a week where dealing with her stressful job and her irresponsible sister has worn Erin thin, she agrees to two days with Kelly. It’s a hell of a two days. They have almost constant sex, exchange verbal challenges and some serious slaps. He makes her beg for his cock and she makes him beg for her to make him come. Erin has never had sex anything even close to what she does with Kelly and when the weekend’s over, she wants it to happen again even as her brain tells her Kelly’s a nail and bail kind of guy.

Kelly is, of course, far more complicated than Erin first believes. He likes strong women and they usually, after a week or two of his “bossy” behavior, take a hike. He grew up with a drunk for a dad and, as an adult, has stayed emotionally disengaged from the world. When he first hooks up with Erin he tells her “A man needs meat, sleep, and pussy, to keep from going insane.” More than that, well, that’s not on his list.

If I had to label After Hours, I’d call it an erotic romance. Ms. McKenna devotes a large portion of the book to graphically detailing the sexual encounters between Erin and Kelly. These encounters are combative and caring; they work to show the fragile bond that Erin and Kelly build almost in spite of themselves. Erin and Kelly are only truly comfortable when they are in charge. They are care givers not care takers and neither can easily accept support from the other. Both are good people, human, but good. I admired them both for the jobs they chose and for the compassion they show those they tend to at Larkhaven.

In After Hours, the work they do is dangerous, difficult, hard–twelve-hour shifts on a rotating schedule–, and emotionally wrenching. They earn enough to support themselves but not to do much more than that. Erin lives in crappy on-site housing with shared a bathroom and kitchen. Kelly lives in Dillon, in a one-story ranch “on a tired-looking residential block” with “fewer boarded windows” than Erin had “expected.” Erin watches her nephew whenever her sister needs her to and dreams of getting more education, of maybe going for her RN, or when she really dreams big, of becoming a psychiatrist. She and Kelly are the type of people who show up even when they’re exhausted and burned out. They do that proverbial right thing when no one praises them or, most of the time, even appreciates it. Their world (this world) is full of people who don’t think about the orderly walking the patient back to his room or the nurse making sure she’s dispensing the right meds. Ms. McKenna doesn’t portray them as heroes but she does make the reader powerfully aware of how valuable the work they do is.

Ms. McKenna is a decisive and strong writer. Her descriptions of the patients and the employees at Larkhaven are unsentimental and clear. She accurately depicts the pecking order–from the physicians down to the kitchen workers–that exists in every medical institution. She manages to show each of her characters as complex. In the world she creates, there are no stereotypes, no easy to peg personas. She writes with compassion, humor, and intelligence; I can’t imagine anyone faulting the picture she paints of psychotic patients and their caregivers.

There isn’t much of anything to fault in this novel. (One small thing: it would be the very rare nurse who’d never heard of Reye’s Syndrome.) The barriers to Erin’s and Kelly’s happiness are real and not easily overcome. The ways that they (and Amber) change are incremental and feel true. By the novel’s end, the promises Kelly and Erin make to one another are blunt, beautiful, and believable. They’ll still get up each morning, go to work, serve the patients at Larkhaven, and argue about who’s paying for what. They’ll come home each night, and if they’re not too beat, bone each other’s brains out. Erin will probably go back to school, maybe on-line. At some point, they might buy a bigger house, maybe even have a kid or two. Maybe. Whatever they do, they’ll be happier doing it together than if they’d done it apart. That’s love in the very real world of After Hours. B+

Sincerely,

Dabney

 

 

 

 

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I loved romances when, back in the mid 70's, in junior high, I read every Barbara Cartland novel I could check out from the library. Then, thanks to a savvy babysitter, I got my hands on the hot stuff. To this day I can remember how astonishingly steamy I found Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. I abandoned romance when I went to college and didn't pick one up again until 2007 when I got my first Kindle. Since then, I’ve read countless romances; loved many, liked more, hated some. Most of what I read is historical and contemporary romance, but I’m open to almost any genre. I like my books to have sizzle, wit, and plots that make sense. I’d take sexy over sweet any day. I’m a sucker for smart heroes and smart-mouthed heroines. When not reading or writing about reading, or wishing I could rule the world, I'm meddling in the lives of my kids--I have four, ages 17 to 21--, managing my husband's practice, doing bossy volunteer work, and hanging out with Dr. Feelgood.

29 Comments

  1. Darlynne
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 11:13:17

    We talk about stories being real and here is a very powerful example of what that means. I like the voice I hear from the excerpts you provided, and am simultaneously afraid to go any further. But it feels–and I hope this doesn’t sound too, too weird–that Erin and Kelly’s story … nuts. I’ve edited this twice now and can’t figure out how to say they deserve our attention without my sounding like an idiot or, worse, pejorative.

    ETA: One last time, I’ll try. I love how very real this relationship sounds. I love that the end appears to be satisfying emotionally without rainbows and puppies and big bank accounts to make it all easier. It matters.

  2. CG
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:38:55

    The hero and heroine share a relationship that, in the first half of the novel, some may deem abusive.

    Can you (or anyone else) elaborate on this? Realistic romances that feature an everyday hero and heroine facing the difficult times many of us face at some point in our lives are pretty rare so I’m very tempted, but I really don’t want to read about anything abusive.

  3. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:45:15

    @CG: There’s some mutually desired hitting. They says things to each other that fail the “always be kind” test. Now I’m thinking I overstated the case. When I read it the first time, there were a couple of interactions between them that made me pretty uncomfortable but there’s nothing in there like pseudo-rape or unwanted physical interaction.

  4. Ridley
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:51:20

    @Dabney: What would “pseudo-rape” be?

  5. Molly O'Keefe
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:53:04

    sold.

  6. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:54:51

    @Ridley: It’s my poorly picked short hand for when a romance hero forces sex on a heroine who says no but means yes. Dumb phrase on my part.

  7. Ridley
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:57:10

    @Dabney: Forced seduction’s the term you’re looking for.

  8. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 13:58:34

    @Ridley: No. TO ME “forced seduction” doesn’t imply significant violence.

  9. Ridley
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 14:05:18

    So violent sex when the heroine’s clearly said no, but the reader consents for her? That’s rape fantasy, no?

    (I could take this to twitter if it’s too derailing. I was just curious what you meant.)

  10. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 14:08:11

    @Ridley: Yes in that when the action takes place the reader consents, but, afterward, the heroine makes it clear she’s happy the action took place.

    Nothing like that happens in this book, however. I love this book and don’t want to overstate the relationship between Kelly and Erin.

  11. CG
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 14:11:38

    @Dabney: Thank you, I think I’ll give it a shot.

  12. Ridley
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 14:12:54

    @Dabney: Cara’s generally good at creating characters who push boundaries without crossing any lines. They’re people I might not want to date or hang out with, but I wouldn’t stage an intervention if one of my friends was with them.

  13. Christine
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 14:29:20

    I haven’t read this book yet but I agree that Cara McKenna is an extremely talented writer under both her pen names. She is not only unafraid to tackle sensitive subjects and issues she doesn’t hesitate to make her heroines flawed as well. A lot of writers will give the men leeway to be jerks or do jerky things but the women have to be Mary Sue sweet. I also appreciate that in her world people can have “blue collar” jobs, or just jobs that don’t make you a millionaire. I also think she is one of the most talented people working right now when it comes to writing believable modern dialogue . This is they type of book that if I just heard the bleak outline would not tempt me to buy it, but knowing the author’s skill, it will likely end up on y kindle. Thanks for the thorough and nuanced review,

  14. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 14:39:39

    @Christine: Increasingly I think of fiction falling into two general camps: “fictiony” and “real.” The former is fun but when you read it you think there’s no way in hell that stuff could ever happen. In the latter, the people and their outcomes seem as though they could occur in this world. This book is wonderfully “real.”

  15. Bronte
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 17:41:08

    I generally love Cara McKenna, but I have to ask how much of a role the psychiatric hospital plays in the story? I grew up with my Mum in and out of psych wards and it can trigger me. I really want to read this but would appreciate any info/warning.

  16. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 17:51:03

    @Bronte: A fair amount of the story takes place on the ward. With the exception of the scene I mentioned, however, much of that description is about low key interactions with the men.

  17. ducky
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 18:03:53

    This sounds really promising. I like working class romances if they are well-written by someone who knows what they are writing about. Which Cara McKenna does. Her “Willing Victim” is a favorite novella of mine, so her grittier stuff always has my automatic good-will.

  18. Diana
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 19:44:31

    Sounds like a good book — how rare is it to see ordinary, average people in a romance novel? So refreshing that the Greek billionaires and their sheltered, virgin secretaries stayed home for this one.

    I have to take a pass, though. I used to work as a social worker in a forensic treatment center, housing people who had been accused of serious felonies, but were deemed too mentally ill to understand the legal process or what was happening to them. It was a combination of a prison + a psychiatric ward. “Horrific” is too…soft a word to describe what went on in there. From the review, it sounds like reading this book would hit a touch too close to home. :(

  19. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 20:00:21

    @Diana: I worked in a major medical center and I hear you. But, this book made me see all the good work and the good patients in such places. It didn’t hit too close to home for me. It made me feel good about what care can do.

  20. Deljah
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 21:43:50

    Dabney – what kept this book from being an A (to whatever degree) for you? In my rating scheme and with my TBR pile, there’s no way I could re-read a B+ book three times in the same month.

  21. Dabney
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 22:53:10

    @Deljah: The very short answer to that is I am a very speedy reader. I reread books constantly. I rarely review a book without reading it twice.

    “A” books for me are books that blow me out of my life and into bliss. This one is great but not quite that.

  22. Ruthie
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 06:21:25

    I am a close friend of Cara’s and was a beta reader for this book, so my opinion is certainly biased, but I think this book is one of her best. She gets so deep into the characters’ psychology, what their lives consist of, what they offer each other — I just love it.

    I’d classify all Cara McKenna’s work (as distinct from her alter ego Meg Maguire’s) as “erotica” rather than “erotic romance,” but the distinction gets muddy when the erotica is romantic, which Cara’s books are. I swapped a few tweets with Dabney about this, and I think I’ll pull together a Wonkomance post about these categories sometime, inviting some discussion of how writers and readers see the distinctions.

  23. Lia
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 15:21:19

    Ok, completely off-topic, and since I’m not a native English speaker, it IS probably me, but Kelly to me really is a girl’s name. It puzzles me why an author would pick such a name for a male lead unless it’s necessary for plot purposes.
    A little while back I read a Presents, whose Italian hero was named Andrea. Now, I know that in Italy Andrea is a proper male name, I believe that in English-speaking countries (as well as in Holland, where I live) it is merely used as a girl’s name. Am genuinely curious if an editor doesn’t bring these things up, since it can be confusing to readers.

  24. Dabney
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 15:42:05

    @Lia: In the 1980’s, in the US, it was the 250th most popular boy’s name. It’s one of those last names that became first names for boys. I’ve always known at least one guy named Kelly.

    That said, the heroine thinks it’s a girls name too. The hero is so massive and so manly, it’s kind of like counterpoint.

  25. Little Red
    Apr 08, 2013 @ 15:25:20

    Sold.

  26. Estara Swanberg
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 13:10:27

    I really liked your nuanced review – especially because the book isn’t my cup of tea at all and the excerpts made that clear.

  27. Wendy
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 01:11:52

    Thank you for the review. I read Willing Victim by Ms McKenna and really enjoyed it. I will be adding After Hours to my TBR list.

  28. Review: After Hours by Cara McKenna | Smexy Books
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 13:59:37

    […] Reviews: Fiction Vixen – A- Romance Around the Corner – 4.5/5 Dear Author – B+ […]

  29. Unbound by Cara McKenna (a mini review) | the passionate reader
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 11:31:34

    […] love Ms. McKenna’s latest book. This surprises me because her After Hours (reviewed by me here) is a gritty, startling, good read. Though I found it interesting, this book, Unbound, never drew […]

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