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REVIEW: Finding Zach by Rowan Speedwell (with bonus short story)

Dear Ms. Speedwell.

I considered this book when it first came out in May, but I read the first bit of the excerpt and decided it was just a bit too much, too over the top, so didn’t request it. But, well, flattery will get you at least a reading. Thankfully, what I read, I loved, even if I still think it’s a bit over the top.

The book opens with a rescue. A group of US soldiers stage a rescue of hostages from a camp of a paramilitary group in Venezuela. After the gunfight is over, they discover the leader dead in his office and a filthy, naked, obviously abused man cowering in the corner. The man will only bark or whine like a dog. In a move that was a bit too pat for me, the soldiers figure out who the man is: Zach Taylor, son of the owner of a company that I think is supposed to be a cross between Microsoft and Nintendo. Zach was kidnapped five years previously, when he was 15, when he visited his aunt in Costa Rica, so he’s been physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually tortured (abuse isn’t strong enough) for five years. (And readers beware: some of the descriptions are pretty graphic and very stomach-turning.)

Ignoring some inaccuracies (Zach would NEVER be taken to the “civilian hospital” by Fort Bragg. Trust me, I had my second child there. There is just no way. He’d be taken to Walter Reed or Bethesda, or to a DC hospital, or to Womack, the hospital on Bragg, or, at a stretch, to the Duke or UNC hospitals), we then skip ahead two years. Zach is back home in Colorado, living with his parents. The wonders of money are indeed wondrous: they all do group therapy every day, while Zach has an extra therapy session each day. At one point Zach says “The last couple of years had made him hyperaware of his emotional state from moment to moment” and this is what makes the book believable. Because these people talk. They talk about every emotion that even thinks of crossing their mind or heart.

I decided not to read this book when it released, because I’m very VERY wary of books in which love magically cures extreme emotional trauma (review of Kersten’s book). Zach had been tortured. For five years. You don’t magically get over that. Ever. And I didn’t want to read a book that implied that one could. This book, however, does not try to imply that you could. This book does a really good job of showing how devastating something like that would be. Zach is moody, temperamental, quick to anger, unable to feel normal or normally, unable to sustain a sexual relationship. You show how hard it would be to try to establish any sort of normal relationship with a man like that. And you do, to my mind, as good a job as one could do in romance fiction, in which the narrative, by its very nature, insists that Zach has to get over it enough to have his HEA.

And he finds his HEA with David, his childhood friend. David is three years older then Zach and the child of Zach’s parents’ housekeeper. They literally grew up together. At 15, Zach kissed David, which started the ball rolling that gets him sent to Costa Rica to visit his aunt, where he is kidnapped. Zach has refused to see David since he returned (for very good reasons that are a part of his emotional recovery), but David has been unable to sustain a relationship with anyone else because his heart has always been Zach’s. David returns to Colorado after another failed relationship because he needs to come back home. He tried to avoid Zach, convinced that Zach doesn’t want to see him. They meet, however and of course, and quickly become a couple.

Quickly, but not easily. No one tries to downplay the difficulties of a relationship with Zach, least of all Zach or David. It is also best to remember that these men are 22 and 25 and that Zach has never had a romantic relationship, has never had consensual sex except for bar pickups. Above and beyond the trauma, David has to teach him how to have a boyfriend. They have many misunderstandings and what I loved about how you wrote this book was that the misunderstandings never lasted longer than them talking with each other. Well, except for the mutual “he only wants to be friends even though I luuuurve him” that makes up the middle of the book that I just ATE UP. I *adore* that particular trope. The lovely lovely angst. Nomnomnom.

Anyway, Zach is much as you’d expect someone to be who suffered that type of trauma but has access to the best shrinks that money can buy. And the fact that he HAS has 24/7/365 access to the best shrinks that money can buy for two whole years makes the constant talking about their feelings realistic. And yet, they’re still guys. They still jump to the wrong conclusions about each other. They still fuck up and misread each other. They still go off half-cocked. But misunderstandings never turn into The Big Misunderstanding. Instead, they’re used as stepping stones to Zach’s self-actualization and recovery and the building blocks of their relationship. And that’s extremely deftly done, especially for a first book.

Every now and then, there are scenes which a more ruthless editor, or a more ruthless focus on the relationship, would have cut: scenes between Zach’s parents, or Zach’s parents and David’s mother, or following the reporter who instigates the final black moment. On the one hand, they were unnecessary and could VERY easily have been trimmed and mentioned instead in passing. On the other hand, it was nice to read a thorough handling of the situation, nice to see everything that happens. But really, I think if this book were NY-pubbed, many of these scenes would have been chopped.

The book is sometimes a little episodic. Everything’s fine, then whoops! Another Black Moment. But you do a good job of having something always be a little off, some secret not told that needs to see the light of day, some fly in the ointment of the HEA that needs to be resolved (to mix my metaphors) before the HEA can be real. And you never lose sight of what Zach needs to heal, even, perhaps, at the expense of the relationship. And that is Good. Zach’s trauma is never dealt with lightly. These guys WORK at this relationship. They work HARD.

So, I’m glad I was flattered into reading this book (this is not always true–I have read books before that I desperately wanted to like…but not so much). I will very much be looking forward to your next one. If it has half the emotional intensity and the deftness of character construction as this one, it should be pretty good.

Grade: B+

Best regards,

-Joan/Sarah F.

P.S. There’s a short story spinoff that improbably pairs Brian, the reporter of Finding Zach, and Jeff, David’s ex-boyfriend, a few years after the end of FZ. They get together and improbably solve all of Brian’s deep-seated psychological problems in less than 24 hours. That improbability aside (and it’s a big aside), it’s a sweet little story, told from Brian’s first person point of view. He’s funny and his character is strong, which I liked a lot. Jeff, on the other hand, is little more than a pop plot psychologist, there to straighten out (harhar)  Brian’s problems. But the black moment of the ending is angsty and delicious (“Please don’t leave. Please don’t leave”) and it was a cute follow on to FZ. Grade: C+

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

7 Comments

  1. RowanS
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 09:11:25

    Sarah, thank you SO MUCH for this wonderful review. I really appreciate that you were able to take the time for this!!

    BTW – it’s not flattery when it’s the TRUTH!! LOL

    Regards,
    RowanS

  2. jayhjay
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 10:50:30

    I read this book a few months ago and really loved it. I enjoyed the story and that it was so different from the typical contemporary romance plot. The first parts detailing Zach’s abuse were hard to get through emotionally, but the book is definitely worth the read and the HEA makes up for it.

  3. jayhjay
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 11:36:39

    I forgot to mention that one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me is that Zach has basically fallen off the face of the earth for 5 years. He returns to life having missed 5 years of technology, world events, and most importantly, any kind of normal human interaction.

    This is even more key b/c he was gone for basically his whole transition from adolescence to adulthood and has to attempt to learn all those things that most of us go through during that period. It isn’t until he reconnects with David that I think he actually starts to have normal interactions again with people other than his parents and a few others in his close circle. I really liked the way that his relationship with David helped Zach along in the process of learning to interact normally with others as well.

  4. Sirius11214
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 14:40:31

    I liked this one and thought that building romance was believable for one of participants was so traumatized. I liked that there was no magical recovery as well, however it really bothered me that from the moment Zach returns we are treated to two years fast forward. So to me the most painful, the most horrifying aspects of Zach’s recovery are skipped. I did not like that. Yes of course even two years later he is very far from being well, but I wanted to see it at all if that makes sense.

  5. The December Birthday Party is now beginning in the kitchen… | Rowan Speedwell vs. the Universe
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 15:59:44

    [...] comes out, and by the way, send her Zach, too. And I did, and she reviewed it, and you can see it here.  The short story in question is the followup to Zach that I wrote for the Dreamspinner Press [...]

  6. Merrian
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 19:41:11

    My feelings on reading about this book are so mixed. It is the sort of story I want to support. On one hand it takes injury and loss of self seriously and on the other, it sounds like all the things I normally dislike in romances with the HEA almost guarunteeing a ‘cure’ of the afflicted are completely absent. Although it takes the magic of the family’s money to provide the in-depth support Zach needs to recover; without that I wonder what would have happened to him?

    It sounds like it is in many ways a story about hope because recovery always needs that in order to begin and go on and I love that. My ‘but’ is that I’m not sure I can read about the level of abuse and trauma implied in the review/synopsis.

    @ jayhjay – I have a friend who disappears to work for long periods on remote pacific islands and she is like this when she returns to Australia. All her cultural references are skewed or out of the norm. It can be simple things like green tea appearing from nowhere to seeming ubiquitous (green tea latte anyone?) to shifts in community values.

  7. Janet H
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 20:34:55

    Sarah,
    Thanks for the review. I wasn’t sure about Zach’s story. I really have to read it now.

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