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REVIEW:  Fat by Saranna DeWylde

REVIEW: Fat by Saranna DeWylde

fat dewyldeDear Saranna DeWylde:

You and I both know that I’m a fan of your work – from the “How to…” series to the Desperate Housewives – I love them all. I was both thrilled and curious to see that you were coming out with something a little bit different, something that might even be considered a touch controversial – body image. This divisive topic is one that can be amazing if handled well, or utterly disastrous. To pair that with a contemporary romance is a somewhat risky proposition. It’s my not so humble opinion that you not only handled it well, you blew it out of the water.

fat dewyldeMeet Claire, the healthy, beautiful fashionista entrepreneur who just so happens to be larger than the media says is acceptable. All of her life she’s heard the standards, from “you’ve got such a pretty face,” to “you’re pretty, for a fat girl.” If there’s been a way to draw attention to weight and body size, Claire’s heard it. While she’s happy sharing a dwelling and companionship with man-whore exotic dancer Kieran, it’s not the intimacy of a romantic relationship. It takes Kieran’s night with Claire’s best friend, April, to open Claire’s eyes to the fact that she’s got romantic feelings for her roommate. But is it too late? Kieran’s introduced Claire to his coworker, slightly vertically challenged nice guy, Brant – and he’s really not as bad as she’d imagined. April’s had a ride on the Kieran-pony, and she’s now the one with the bit in her mouth (metaphorically, I promise). Can there be a chance for love when two people who are certain they’re broken collide? Can Claire take a leap of the heart as she’s taking a leap with a new business?

Sometimes, the hardest thing we can do is take a good, long, hard look in the mirror at ourselves and our preconceived notions. It doesn’t matter the size or gender, people are bombarded daily with ideas of what they “should” look like – in the stores, on television, on the side of a passing bus. And even those who find themselves on the more extreme ends of “don’t fit the stereotype,” those who feel marginalized, can be just as guilty of falling into the generalization trap. “Fat” does a beautiful job of not only reflecting that back, but also applying the soothing balm to that decided discomfort afterward. If I had to distill the message down to something simple, it would be “be you.” That’s it – it’s that simple.

I adore the secondary characters and loved following their stories right along with Claire’s. Kieran is one of my favorites. Those who work in the adult entertainment industry, whether it be on the pole or on camera, tend to be sensationalized as the ideal, physically. They’re perfect. They’re desirable. They’re for sale to the highest bidder. Kieran doesn’t do anything at all to disprove these notions and serves as an almost perfect foil for Claire. Claire is the woman who hides her insecurities with laughter and a glorious, outrageous sense of fashion. Kieran is the man who hides his (feelings and … other things) in every woman he comes across. It’s as though, while he’s unashamed, he realizes that his behavior is a coping mechanism. Here is this supposedly perfect man – and he’s in pretty much the same boat as Claire. April is another character who seemed to have it all – beauty, brains, men falling at her feet. Yet she, too, was struggling. I looked at April and went “I know her!” There were some eerily familiar notes resonating throughout the book that had me putting it aside to do some serious thinking.

But, lest you think I’m going to focus just on the “hard” parts of the book – never fear! The thoughtful parts were well balanced with witty, snappy dialogue, glorious clothing descriptions (I’m in no way, shape or form fashion-conscious, and even *I* wanted to head to the Chubbalicious website to order clothes – I’m so sad it’s not real), and the sense of fun and wonder that comes with a journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t just Claire’s journey – it was mine, as well. You managed to drag me out of my own world and drop me squarely in Claire’s – you made me care.

And that, to me, is worth the price of admission anytime. A-

Your Devoted Reader and Critic,

Mary Kate

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CLASSIC REVIEW:  A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel

CLASSIC REVIEW: A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel

Cleo is an artist, designer and avid reader. She’s been reading romance for more than thirty years. She reads almost every type of romance, except those with vampires, serial killers or jerky heroes.

kathleen korbel a soldier's heart

Dear Ms. Korbel,

When I read Jane’s call for reviews of classic romances, I knew that I wanted to review your book, A Soldier’s Heart. I read it in the mid 90s and it stayed with me. I finally tracked it down and re-read it last year and was impressed with how well it held up. It’s the first romance with protagonists with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that I ever read. Twenty years, and many PTSD romances later, I still think it’s one of the best I’ve read.

The book opens with a prologue – an unnamed army nurse saves the life of an unnamed marine sergeant in an evac hospital during the Vietnam War. The story begins some twenty years later, with the marine, Tony Riordan, working up the courage to go introduce himself to Claire Maguire Henderson, the nurse who saved his life. Seeking out Claire is part of Tony’s healing – he’s spent years laying to rest his ghosts from Vietnam. He unintentionally sets off a crisis for Claire, who hasn’t dealt with her past trauma yet. Tony realizes that his appearance brought up repressed emotions that Claire’s not quite ready to deal with, so he comes up with a way for him to stay in town and help if possible. Claire’s renovating an old inn, and he just happens to run a construction company, and offers to do some of the renovations at cost. I liked Tony so much that I was willing to accept the convenient coincidence. He’s upfront with Claire, and everyone who wonders what he’s doing, that he’s there primarily to help her heal. He’s also honest with himself that he’s attracted to Claire.

Most of the story takes place over a period of several weeks, while Tony works on the inn. There’s not a lot of external conflict – most of the story is about Claire facing her past while falling for Tony. I loved reading about two adults cautiously, and then not so cautiously, start a new relationship. Tony and Claire are both forty-something single parents, with careers, support networks and responsibilities, and they act like grown ups. There’s a sub-plot involving Claire’s older child, 17-year-old Johnny, who’s learning to fly and wants to enlist in the Air Force. The story’s set during the UN intervention in Somalia in 1993 or 1994, and the build up of US troops in Somalia triggers both Johnny’s desire to join the military and Claire’s PTSD symptoms. While the main story arc is Claire moving from denial to asking for help with her PTSD, it’s not a dark story. It’s emotional, but there’s also humor and sweetness.

I really like the portrayal of PTSD, which is almost a separate character. I have PTSD (from childhood trauma, not military service). I can only speak for myself, but this book rang emotionally true. The focus of the story is on Claire. We see her dealing with nightmares, flashbacks, and rages. We see her telling herself that she has no right to be upset, and that she’ll be fine as long as she keeps busy. We get hints of Tony’s past struggles too, but he’s further along in his healing, and it’s not really his story. I suppose I could be annoyed by the fact that the story is set up so that the man knows more than the woman, at least about dealing with PTSD. But Tony’s character is written in such a way that he doesn’t feel like an overbearing romance hero, who knows what the heroine needs better than she does. He doesn’t come across as thinking that he has all the answers, either for her or for himself. I love that he seeks out help for Claire almost immediately, but waits until she asks before telling her about the resources he’s found for her. As he says, “I’m like the library Claire. Information’s all there for the asking. But I’d never walk into your house and demand that you read.” (p 181) I’ve played variations of both Tony’s and Claire’s roles in my life, as the giver and receiver of help recovering from trauma, and they both resonated with me.

Treatment for PTSD has changed in the past twenty years, so before I re-read A Soldier’s Heart, I wondered if it might seem dated. Because the story focuses on Claire’s feelings, and on her journey from denial to asking for help, rather than on her actual treatment, I didn’t find it outdated. Some of the discussions about women and PTSD, however, did strike me as old-fashioned. Tony’s surprise that women who served in Vietnam also had PTSD made me roll my eyes. For example, here’s a passage from Tony’s first conversation with his vet center counselor about Claire and his concerns about how to help.

He’d somehow always thought of the victims as men. The men had suffered and the women had soothed. The women had appeared like a gift in Nam, bright-eyed and brash and smelling like Dove soap. A reward for having survived the time back in the boonies, a reminder that somewhere in the world there was still grace and compassion.

He hadn’t considered, all these years, that the women had brought home their own nightmares home.

Well, he thought it now.

Tony sighed, wished he were a lot smarter. A lot.

“We’re stupid, aren’t we?” he finally countered….“I really screwed it up, man. Tell me what to do.”

“Same thing you do with any of the guys you’ve run across. Just be there until I can get you extra help.” (pp. 48-9)

The thing that made it work for me is Tony’s self-deprecating sense of humor and the fact that he’s helped other, male, vets before. This isn’t just about saving the poor little woman. I also really liked that once Claire admits she needs help and finds someone at her local vet center to work with, Tony consciously backs off and lets her heal without becoming a crutch for her.

A few things bothered me as I was re-reading it for this review that I don’t remember noticing the first two times I read it. I thought the beginning was slow and the initial set up requires a suspension of disbelief – if I didn’t know that Tony was a romance hero, I’d worry that he was acting like a creepy stalker. Some of the supporting characters seemed one dimensional or cartoonish, particularly Peaches, Claire’s overprotective, ex-con pastry chef. And the writing style isn’t to my taste. It reminds me of Nora Roberts, particularly 1990s era Nora Roberts. I’m not sure how to characterize it except that I find it a bit choppy and distancing. Here’s an excerpt.

Claire turned her attention to her surprise houseguest. He was a dangerously good-looking man, filling out that apron and T-shirt with disconcerting effect. Well-honed muscles and long, lean lines. The glint of a well-worn chain and medal around his neck, worn for purpose rather than decoration, betraying his lack of pretension. The kind of man any sane woman would want in her kitchen cooking her pasta. (pp. 58-9)

But while I noticed some problems, I didn’t really care about them, because I LOVE THIS BOOK. I was completely emotionally invested in the characters and swept away by the story. I love the two main characters. I love their honesty, vulnerability, and subtle humor. I love how Tony helps Claire face her past and begin to heal so they can have a future together. Hell, I even love Tony’s mustache. I completely believe that they’ll live happily ever after. I’m not a crier and A Soldier’s Heart had me crying in public.

I’ve read quite a few romances with characters with PTSD in the past 20 years, some good and some really bad. In my opinion, they can go bad in two ways – either by taking the PTSD much too seriously or not seriously enough. Either the past trauma completely defines and overwhelms the heroine’s or (more often) the hero’s identity to the exclusion of everything else, or it’s magically cured by true love and/or hot sex. A Soldier’s Heart avoids both pitfalls. Re-reading it reminded me why I keep reading PTSD romances, despite the duds that I’ve encountered, because when they’re done well, the emotional payoff is incredibly rewarding. This is a lovely book. Thank you for writing it. My grade is an A-.

Sincerely,

Cleo

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