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REVIEW: Hold on Tight by Serena Bell

hold on tight1Dear Ms. Bell,

Hold on Tight is a secret baby contemporary but you made it believable and kept the heroine sympathetic while doing so.

Mira Shipley was 18 when she met 20 year old Jake Taylor at a bowling alley.  Jake had just finished his training and was one month away from deployment to Afghanistan.  He’d been told by his fire team leader not to get attached when on leave – that would only distract him when he was deployed and make it more dangerous for him and his team.  Jake is gun-shy about relationships anyway; his mother is an alcoholic and his father is abusive – coping poorly after a work injury left him permanently disabled.  To him family is toxic and he doesn’t want to have one of his own.  (He has a brother and a sister and appears to get along well with them, so this is not completely true but still, Jake never plans to get married or have children.)

But then he meets Mira and what was going to be a one night fling turned out to be a relationship where they talked and laughed and connected.

Mira was raised by an over-protective father and at 18, she was having a night of rebellion when she met Jake.  It was obvious to Jake that Mira was a virgin and he didn’t want to be the guy who pressured a girl so he let her set the pace of their relationship.  He also made it clear that it was just for when he was stateside and it all ended when he left for Afghanistan.  Nonetheless, feelings developed between the two and one night, a week before Jake is due to leave, she offers Jake sex. It is a bit of a disaster – Mira finds it very painful and Jake stops before much happens.  However, before he got the condom on, there was some touching of the relevant body parts and, unbeknown to either of them at the time, it was enough to get Mira pregnant with Sam.  After the disastrous sex, Mira confesses she has feelings for Jake.  Remembering the advice of his fire team leader and his own resolve not to have a family, Jake says nothing in return – which is answer in itself and they don’t see each other again until they bump into each other eight years later at a physiotherapist’s office.

When Mira realised she was pregnant, she resolved to tell Jake so he could decide how involved he wanted to be.  She felt he had a right to know.  She tried hard to find him and I think the book does well in showing this was the case and why, for believable reasons, she did not succeed. Nevertheless, she promised herself if she ever did see him, she would tell him straight away.  So, that worked for me.  It made sense and it wasn’t a situation of Mira withholding anything from Jake or either of them being jerks.

When Mira and Jake do meet again, the reveal isn’t the very first thing out of her mouth but she does tell him promptly, even though it was hard and even though Jake was being a bit of an asshole at the time.

At some unspecified time before they meet, Jake had been in an IED explosion.  His best friend had died and he had lost a leg above the knee.  It was probably some months, maybe a year before? But if it said in the book, I missed it.  Jake has recovered enough that his residual leg (which he calls a stump) has healed well and he’s walking with the aid of a prosthetic. I don’t know how long that all takes but it takes a while I think.  In any event, he was not newly injured.  He was still deep into rehabilitation however and was learning how to run and keep his balance when he stumbled and how to get to ground level and back up again and all those things that are easier with two legs.  He does feel grief and anger at the loss of his leg. He does feel useless.  Being a soldier was what defined him and he’s lost that.

He didn’t want any kid to have him for a father. Ex-soldier. Ex-person. A guy, like his own father, who occupied a chair and sucked the life out of a room, out of the world.

But it becomes clear that the thing which is most messing with his head is the death of his friend and what Jake perceives as his responsibility for it. And that is the heart of his loss.

Even when he’d enlisted, he hadn’t known for sure that it would feel like he’d found his purpose. That being a soldier would feel like him. But once he fought, he knew. He was meant for it.

That part of him was dead now, a much neater and keener incision than the mess that the bomb blast had made of his foot and lower leg. He’d lost his sense that there was meaning in what he was doing, his conviction that he was doing the right thing, his willingness to trade lives for lives. The man he’d fought beside was dead, and he would never again be certain that what they’d done was worth what they’d lost.

Mira has recently moved to Seattle to take a job with a company which sells shoes online – she had a passion for art but after falling pregnant, she moved in with her father and stepmother who live in Florida and took online classes to learn how to be a programmer. She created an app which sounds really cool – you take a picture of yourself in an outfit you have, no shoes and then upload the pic and the app will show you how the shoes go with the clothes, making online shopping more customer friendly.   Her father has supported her but his love is cloying and Mira feels the need to stand on her own two feet.  She wants to be independent and her move to Seattle is all about that. Unfortunately, because reasons, Sam needs childcare and her babysitter has fallen through.  She’s already put off starting her job but her new boss has drawn firm line – turn up on Monday or don’t come at all.

When Mira and Jake meet, he thinks he’s a solution to her problem and this gives him something to do and a chance to get to know Sam.

Of all the unexpected emotions he’d felt yesterday in their presence—attraction to Mira, curiosity about Sam—the most unexpected of all had been the pure will he’d felt to claim this new possibility that had presented itself. Jake was so distant from the notion of wanting something that he almost didn’t recognize it at first.

Jake has never been good at trusting his feelings.  Emotions like love feel inherently untrustworthy to him.  The central conflict between he and Mira once they meet again is that he doesn’t stay.  Mira needs to be able to trust him to stick around and Jake’s not confident enough in himself to do it.   But the chemistry is there again and he finds himself opening up to her more than anyone, including sharing what happened on the day he was injured.

Jake’s relationship with Sam is great.  I thought the child was a little precocious – he seemed to be very advanced in his speech, even though the ideas behind the words are age-appropriate.  When Sam wants to race with Jake, Jake tries to run.  He finds it awkward but he’s better at it than he thought he would be.  Eventually, he goes to a specialist prosthetic maker and gets a running leg, a biking leg and a swimming leg and starts to train for a triathlon (I don’t know how he paid for any of these by the way).  Jake is good at running and the theme of him running (both away and to clear his mind) is a repeated motif.

Essentially, Jake had to get his head together before he could consider himself a worthy partner for Mira (and his physical disability was only a part of that). He had to decide whether he was going to try to get back to active service (and if so, this put the kybosh on a relationship because he’d be gone) or if not, what he was going to do instead. And he had to process a lot of things before he was ready to decide anything.  I found this believable and understandable. It also made me think the HEA was solid.

Mira, for her part, is concerned that if she relies on Jake she is not being independent.  That she would merely be trading her father for Jake, so she is wary about getting into anything serious.  But the chemistry and connection they have won’t be denied.  I thought Mira’s change of heart made sense and the way she altered her thinking around herself and recognised strengths within herself was positive too.  Jake also gives Mira a lot of credit for the job she’s done raising their son and he has great respect for her which helped too but it made Jake seem a little too perfect at times.

Mira is very accepting of Jake and isn’t fazed by his residual leg, but sex is problematic at first and they have to talk their way through what went wrong and make a plan to get it right.  This is something that doesn’t come easy for Jake at all but it is the beginning of him “staying”.

I felt like Jake, through the course of the book, came to accept his altered body but also to realise that that he remained very able.  My sense was that the disability was neither here nor there for Mira or Sam, and by the end of the book, Jake had adapted so that his disability was a thing he had to manage but not something which ruled his life. That seemed realistic to me.

I thought the ending was a little saccharine and in some respects undid some of the good work you had done not romanticising Jake’s disability – because it felt a little Lifetime movie-ish, especially Mira’s “project”.

I was engaged and entertained and glad to see Mira and Jake and Sam get their HEA.  Grade: B.

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

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Kaetrin started reading romance as a teen and then took a long break, detouring into fantasy and thrillers. She returned to romance in 2008 and has been blogging since 2010. She reads contemporary, historical, a little paranormal, urban fantasy and romantic suspense, as well as erotic romance and more recently, new adult. She loves angsty books, funny books, long books and short books. The only thing mandatory is the HEA. Favourite authors include Mary Balogh, Susanna Kearsley, Joanna Bourne, Tammara Webber, Kristen Ashley, Shannon Stacey, Sarah Mayberry, JD Robb/Nora Roberts, KA Mitchell, Marie Sexton, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, just to name a few. You can find her on Twitter: @kaetrin67.

7 Comments

  1. Ridley
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 13:20:04

    “He didn’t want any kid to have him for a father. Ex-soldier. Ex-person. A guy, like his own father, who occupied a chair and sucked the life out of a room, out of the world.”

    *grabs the gasoline can*

    Bell wasn’t satisfied with appropriating undocumented immigrant experiences and decided to come for disabled ones too, I see. Someone needs to stay in her lane.

  2. Sunita
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 16:18:39

    I’m getting the same feeling from these excerpts that I had from Bell’s previous book, which I reviewed, where the heroine is an undocumented immigrant. The combination of self-loathing and horrible-parent backstory is really unpleasant to me. Amputations and loss-of-limb injuries are so common in warfare over the last decade because of the type of combat soldiers face. I have no trouble believing that it is difficult to come to terms with, but this character seems to be experiencing it as if he and his buddy are the only ones he knows it to have happened to.

    I made it through the previous book, but it made me angry and I only finished it because I felt I had to review it. This would be a wallbanger for sure.

  3. Kaetrin
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 19:01:07

    @Ridley: When Jake was released from the hospital, he was suffering from depression and feeling very guilty about the loss of his best friend (for reasons I won’t spoil here) and he was drinking a lot. When he was a child, his father had an injury at work and did not cope with the changes this wrought and he became an abusive alcoholic. It’s been a while since I read the book so I can’t remember whether a problem with alcohol pre-existed the work injury. As someone who has worked in the work injury arena, I have seen that kind of reaction (although it is not very common) so I was able to accept that it was possible, as one of the many reactions that can happen. I read Jake’s reaction to his dad not as about his dad’s *disability*, but his *reaction to it*. Jake’s dad wasn’t in a wheelchair – he sat in front of the tv and drank most of the time and that’s what Jake was referring to in the quote. Jake was very determined not to end up an alcoholic like his father but at the same time, he actively had to struggle against it (which made sense to me because, as I understand it, alcoholism can be hereditary).

    I think this might be one of those issues where accumulation plays a part (at least for me)? I have read relatively few books featuring disabled characters and you have read many more. So I can react to this book more as ONE stand-alone book. (Whether you think the volume of books which miss the mark regarding disability contributes to your anger about this book is a question only you can answer.) For me, *I* could see Jake’s dad as an individual character who had a reaction to injury which was within the realm of the possible and not one who perpetuated a stereotype.

    Of course, you and I approach books which have disabled characters in them from different perspectives. As an able-bodied person, my reactions come from a completely different and far more privileged place. I have worked in the injury management arena but I’m not disabled and that makes a very big difference.

    I tend to be a somewhat oblivious reader anyway but I am working on being more sensitive and aware. Even so, I will gloss over individual sentences that you will probably want to set on fire simply because when we read we focus on different things.

    I think you will hate the ending because the thing I found a bit cringeworthy and “Lifetime movie-ish” will probably result in a far more extreme reaction from you. You might want to have wine handy.

    @Sunita: I didn’t read the previous book. I had no trouble believing that Jake had difficulty coming to terms with his injury and with the loss of his best friend. In the context of the book, I felt that the thing Jake was *most* reacting to was the loss of his friend and what he saw as his responsibility for it. I didn’t see him as reacting as if he was the only one it had happened to at all. In the book he has a fair bit of interaction with other disabled vets and it is quite obviously not the case that he thinks he’s alone in this experience.

    I don’t have the same reaction to “self-loathing and horrible-parent backstory” that you do obviously. There were individual elements which I found problematic and I freely admit my lens regarding disability is imperfect, but overall, I liked it. (I may well feel guilty about things I missed when I see Ridley’s own review at LiTM but I can only review based on my own reactions, as imperfect as they are.)

  4. Ridley
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 19:20:46

    @Kaetrin: I’m trying to read it now, and it’s going VERY poorly for me.

    My issue is less about whether his father’s behavior is believable, because anything is possible, than with how the book uses his father’s suffering/struggle to create a victim out of Jake and his mother. Book after book tells me that the real victims of disability are the families and spouses of disabled people, and it’s really disgusting. That and “bitter cripple learns to be happy again with a non-disabled person’s love and acceptance” is cliched and problematic as all get out.

    Eh, I’m probably going to finish and review it, because I’m a masochist with strange hobbies, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

  5. Sunita
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 19:23:22

    @Kaetrin: Self-loathing was probably the wrong term. It’s more that in the previous book the character is defined (negatively by herself and others) by her immigration status, and in this one it sounds as if the character is defined by his disability. Obviously since I haven’t read the book I could be entirely wrong, but it was something that bothered me in the first book and the excerpts and summary you posted made me think it was front and center again.

    In both stories, one of the main characters embodies a critical contemporary issue in ways that don’t ring true for me. It’s not that they *couldn’t* think that way, it’s that the choice to have them represent that particular experience and point of view seems designed to amp up angst as much as to explore the issue in a complex and thoughtful way.

  6. Kaetrin
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 19:55:36

    @Ridley: well, for what it’s worth the “bitter cripple learns to be happy again with a non-disabled person’s love and acceptance” isn’t what I thought happened. *mild spoiler* Actually, he takes some time away to get his head together separately from Mira and gets to self-acceptance pretty much on his own. (Which was why I trusted it.)

    I’d be happy to read your review. I’m sure it will give me things to think about and consider and not just in my future reading.

    I can’t stress this enough Ridley – you are really really going to hate the end. Put delicate things well away from you. I didn’t love it – as I said in the review I felt it undid some of the good work she had done. Given that your perspective is likely to be that no good work was done at all, it might just cause you to want to smash something.

    @Sunita: I didn’t think Jake was characterised by his disability in this book. He was still dealing with the loss of his leg at the start so it made sense to me that he had things to work out but by the end, I didn’t think he defined himself by his disability at all. So I probably failed in my reviewing-fu there because I didn’t intend to convey that.

    And I did think the loss of his leg was the least of it – the big issue was the responsibility he felt for the death of his friend. *trying not to be spoilerish* He was BFFs commanding officer (? that might not be right – he was in charge of him in any event but I can’t remember the rank) and didn’t do something which, he felt, led directly to the incident which caused the BFFs death and his own disability. So, much of the angst in the book was about the thing he didn’t do which he felt he should have done. And actually, it turns out, he was right and he should have done it so it wasn’t like he was angsting over nothing.

    That’s not to say you’d like it if you read it of course.

  7. Ridley
    Jul 26, 2014 @ 23:30:04

    @Kaetrin: “Given that your perspective is likely to be that no good work was done at all, it might just cause you to want to smash something.”

    Now I need to see how bad it is.

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