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REVIEW:  Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

REVIEW: Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

This is a second in a series of books reviewed by authors.  This is an open invitation for any author to submit reviews of books that get very little attention but that he or she liked very much. In issuing the invitation, I’ve asked the authors to review books authored by people they have no real contact with – they aren’t in the same RWA chapter or they aren’t critique partners. I hope that this is one way we can bring an authorial reviewer voice to Dear Author without the conflicts. So if you are an author, editor, publicist, etc. and there is a book you think deserves more attention, send me a review!

A lot of bad things happened to Beverly last year. Now she’s living a life without friends. It’s a lot easier that way.

Then Derek comes into her life, just by chance. Bit by bit, Beverly opens up to Derek and begins to trust him. She can tell him anything. Or almost anything.

There’s just last year standing between Beverly and Derek – the one thing he said he couldn’t forgive. Maybe it will ruin everything if she talks about it.

And maybe it will ruin everything if she doesn’t.

Every time I try to write about Ellen Emerson White’s Live Without Friends, I feel as if I’m drifting between an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet and one of my daughter’s old bedtime stories (Rossetti-Shustak’s I Love You Through and Through). Derek, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. I love your  jeans jacket and your Red Sox cap, I love your gentle side, your cocky side, I love your nerves when you’re trying to be James Dean cool. I love your jokes about ducks and the crick in your neck from falling asleep on the steps, and your happy smile, and the way your run gets a little clumsy when your “girl”  comes to watch your baseball game. I love your patience, and the way you pet puppies, and the flex in your muscles when you’re trying to get that cute, nerdy girl on the bench to notice you. I admit it, I have it bad: I think I even love the way you say “yo” and “like”. Yes, Derek, I love you through and through.

Life Without Friends, by Ellen Emerson WhiteIt is, in fact, perhaps, just a tad excessive that as a grown woman in Boston for a major academic conference, I ducked out of sessions so that I could go see where Derek and Beverly met in the Public Gardens and find the paddle boats for myself. Heartbreak Hill, Old North Church, the Granary Burying Ground . . . and Derek and Bev.

Because I love Beverly, too. She’s the smart, uptight, alienated teenage girl whose difficult past helps serve as a catharsis for our own sense of not-belonging as a teenager, our own sense of not being good enough or being judged, an embodiment of our classic rite of passage struggles to find our way into society. In YA, of course, these struggles almost always seem to need an event, a past, that dramatizes them, just because literature sometimes needs crutches and excuses to reach at that fragile teenage spot inside of us. As if, without the excuses, everyone will just shrug and say, “Well, get over yourself. I had to.” But while the YA heroine who struggles with issues may represent some of us who really had those issues, for most of us her excuses simply allow our empathy—for her, and through her for ourselves and other people. We may not have had a mother who committed suicide or a boyfriend who murdered two people and beat the crap out of us in the meantime, we may not be internalizing guilt about those things, but her shame and self-loathing and struggles to regain a right to live in her society are ones with which we can identify nevertheless. That’s why rites of passage stories are so powerful.

She’s the us who gets to have Derek, the cute, adorable guy who puts his jeans jacket around us when we’re cold and keeps getting us milkshakes because we’re not eating enough. (Ellen Emerson White’s heroines have chronic intense stomach/eating issues. An ulcer in this case. This and uptight, repressed families with high IQs and almost non-existent EQs—incapable of expressing emotion without significant therapy—are her thing. What I would call her story. It works particularly well in this book when the hero is so patiently and adorably reaching through those barriers of the heroine’s and thus, on both a symbolic and real level, integrating her into life, love, and society.)

A serendipitous conjunction of Jane’s request about doing a guest author review, Kati’s post on comfort reading, and some Twitter conversations with Angie who, it turns out, loves Derek as much as I do, got me re-reading Life Without Friends again for the first time in a few years. And as soon as I was done with the first read, I thought: Ha, I’m reviewing this book, so I get to re-read it right over again. And then, after the second time, well, let’s be thorough and go back through the favorite parts one more time. But there are so many favorite parts that I basically had to re-read the whole book yet again—three times in a weekend.

To me, it is a quintessential comfort read, not only for Derek, but for Beverly, who, for all her sarcasm and hang-ups (or, really, because of them), is an utterly relatable and likeable heroine. I said to Angie on Twitter that this book is the standard, to me, of what YA/NA books could be. It is definitely Ellen Emerson White’s best work. Scenes between Beverly and her family, Beverly and her psychiatrist, and Beverly and Derek are interwoven with such a perfect balance as she comes to terms with what has happened and opens up again, thanks primarily to three people: her stepmother, her psychiatrist, and, of course, Derek. The dialogue is sarcastic, funny, insightful. And I’m always intrigued by a certain spare quality to Ellen Emerson White’s writing. In other books, she often has characters read Hemingway as a shorthand for their intelligence. Despite my impatience with this literary self-consciousness*, I do think we can see her own liking of Hemingway in what can often be the simplicity of her writing. A marshmallow doesn’t swell up in Bev’s throat (as I might say); no, her throat just tightens, or closes. And that’s enough. Reading Ellen Emerson White is a reminder to me of the power of simplicity.

It is, in its way, a very simple story. One I finish every time with a happy smile.

And a sigh because it’s over, wishing for a bit more Derek.

You might say I had to start writing books in the first place because I wanted more Derek.

[*I am impatient because I’ve personally not only read but studied at a graduate level a very broad spectrum of literary classics in four major languages. A colleague here has an international reputation for her work with neuroscience and story, so I’ve gleaned a thing or two from those “neuroscience and the humanities” talks, and I would love to see an MRI throwdown on reading Hemingway versus, say, Laura Kinsale. Without in the least trying to dismiss Hemingway’s quality, my bet for brain activity is on Laura Kinsale. This is not me being flippantly, knee-jerk defensive of romance. Brain activity seems to be based on factors such as reader engagement with/enjoyment of the story as well as coming across new ways of evoking things—an unexpected turn of phrase that captures an emotional reaction or makes us think, for example. So imagining the MRI match-up between Old Man and the Sea and For My Lady’s Heart makes me grin every time.]


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 Laura Florand compilation

Laura Florand 
is the award-winning author of the Amour et Chocolat series (The Chocolate Thief, The Chocolate Kiss…), where sexy Parisian chocolatiers woo the women they love with what they love best – romance you can taste. Her books have been translated into seven languages, received the RT Seal of Excellence and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and been recommended by USA Today, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and Dear Author, among others, and twice been selected as Sizzling Book Club Picks by Smart B*, Trashy Books. They’ve even been selected for the infamous (legendary? notorious?) DABWAHA! She was born in Georgia, but the travel bug bit her early. After a Fulbright year in Tahiti, a semester in Spain, and backpacking everywhere from New Zealand to Greece, she ended up living in Paris, where she met and married her own handsome Frenchman, a story told in her first book Blame It on Paris.  Now a lecturer at Duke University, she is very dedicated to her research into French chocolate. For a glimpse behind the scenes of some of that research as well as recommendations for US chocolate, make sure to check out her website:


REVIEW:  Unbound by Cara McKenna

REVIEW: Unbound by Cara McKenna

Dear Ms. McKenna:

Lately, a number of erotic romance authors (Charlotte Stein and Abigail Barnette, for example) have been writing books that deliberately use the basic trappings of Fifty Shades of Grey to subvert its themes and reclaim the genre. I don’t know if it was intentional, but this novel struck me as accomplishing a very similar goal by going in a completely opposite direction. It’s a dark, intense, very surprising and unexpectedly brilliant story.

Unbound by Cara McKennaNote: I knew very little about the male protagonist of this story going in, and even if you read the blurb, it’s deliberately vague. Therefore I got to experience learning about Rob’s inner life from intriguing hints, always just one step ahead of Merry, and frankly, that was awesome. I would hate to ruin that experience for anyone, but I don’t see how I can discuss the book in any meaningful way without revealing Rob’s secrets. So I’m going to have a large spoiler section and leave it up to readers how they want to proceed. I’ll have a spoiler-free wrap up at the end; read the comments at your own risk.

Unbound is what I classify as a “cabin-fever” romance: there are really only two characters (I don’t think any secondary characters even get spoken dialogue except in memory) and almost everything that happens is about their interactions in one particular space. It’s far from a claustrophobic-feeling read though — both characters are very physically active throughout the story, and it’s set in beautiful, demanding wilderness.

Merry sets off on a three-week hiking trip in the Highlands, partially as an homage to her dead mother, partially to process the significant changes that have been happening in her life. She’s lost 100 pounds, a really crappy lover, and quite possibly her best friend, and gained a new perspective on herself. Now she’s trying to figure out where to go from here, while loving how it feels to get away from the obsessiveness of dealing with her weight:

Out here, her body wasn’t a collection of desirable parts and shameful ones, a thing to be tricked and punished and outsmarted, outwilled. It was merely a vessel for food and water and sunshine, a structure of muscle and bone, a capable and ready thing.

When her hike is interrupted by a debilitating attack of gastritis, she just manages to make it to a lonely cabin she’d spotted. There she is somewhat reluctantly aided by Rob, an Englishman who’s lived as far from humanity as possible for two years, relying on his routines, hard work, and solitude to control his raging alcoholism. He can’t turn her away, but having company makes him uneasy, especially since he feels incapable of socializing without the lubricant of alcohol.

Merry, intrigued by Rob’s shyness, “manly” lifestyle, and understated good looks, gently and carefully seduces him. But then their encounter goes in an unexpected direction.


“You feel so…” Rob couldn’t seem to find an adequate word, and abandoned the search. “Tell me what you like.” He swallowed again, eyes glassy and drunk. “Tell me what to do.”

There was something more to that final request. She could taste it on her tongue, simply watching his lips form those words. Tell me.

Hints about Rob have been unfolding in thrilling bits and pieces and now we’ve almost reached one part of the puzzle: he’s sexually submissive. But there’s so much more going on in what he calls his “neurological rat’s nest”:

“Are you into that? Bondage and that kind of thing?”
He shut his eyes tightly, but he couldn’t hide from the question. “I suppose.”
“That doesn’t bother me.”
When he opened his eyes, he found her smiling down at him, the gesture seeming to brighten the space between them, though he couldn’t feel its warm. Not yet.
“That nearly comes standard, these days,” she offered lightly.
“It’s not that I’m into it. It’s not that I just like it. It’s…”
She lay down and wrapped her arm around his middle, taking his hand and holding it at his heart. He didn’t think he’d ever felt so perfectly suspended between comforted and disturbed.
She squeezed his fingers. “It’s what?”
“It’s the only thing I like, nearly.” The admission tumbled out like a rock, juddering up through his throat and lodging itself between them. But once it cleared, he found the depths of his lungs, the relief of a full breath, the ability to swallow.
“How interesting.”
He laughed sadly. “No, it’s really not.”

Rob has fetishes, and his kinks are mostly not cute, mainstream or glamorous — not just bondage, but ropes, pain, humiliation and cock worship. And like his alcoholism, there are no halfways about it — he can’t get off without somehow involving his kinks or retreating into his own head, which of course has been very emotionally draining on his previous lovers. But Merry is in exactly the right head space to take a dominant role, and she discovers how exciting it is to be able to totally blow Rob’s mind. And Rob discovers for the first time that he can harness his compulsions in order to be truly present with Merry, and give her what she desires as well.

I’ve never encountered such a raw, visceral, genuine portrayal of fetishism in erotica. For much of the sex scenes we’re inside Rob’s head, and the intensity of his feelings as he finally gets what he most needs is overwhelming. The complicated balance between two partners when they’re wired so differently is also captured here, and the story honestly shows Rob’s deeply internalized shame without shaming him.

Merry is less obviously intriguing, but I was impressed with her character as well. The experience of having lost a lot of weight hit the mark with me: the physical hangovers like sagging breasts, the tedious obsessiveness with calories, exercise — “fucking numbers” — the happiness at having changed coupled with resentment at not having been good enough before, and the lasting insecurity that comes from feeling unseen and unappreciated as you were.

I also thought Merry embodied a desire that may be at the heart of romance for many readers, the desire to be fiercely wanted:

He lowered to his forearms, nose brushing hers. “What do you want to feel? The way I always want to feel degraded — what do you want to feel with this man? With me?”
“Desired. Like, cherished.” She mumbled the final word, looking sheepish. “Just like the way guys look at girls in stupid romantic movies.”
A deep sadness rose in Rob, to imagine her fantasies were made of such stuff. Did this mean she felt denied those simple things in her waking life? This kind, affectionate, beautiful woman?
You’re the last man on earth who should think he can fulfill those needs, said a hateful voice.
But perhaps the only man who’s yet bothered to offer. That alone made him feel worthy of the task.

Many people theorize that this longing to be desired is what’s behind the love of dominating, obsessive romance heroes. I don’t know if there’s truth in it or not — I myself enjoy almost all kinds of heroes — but I loved seeing the dynamic playing out with a man who’s pretty much literally as far from the alpha stereotype as you can get, and for whom this has previously been an area of utter failure.


The relationship that ensues is confined not only by space but by time; Merry has to return to California for her father’s wedding. (An event especially hard to miss since he’s finally legally able to marry his boyfriend.) As the inevitable parting approaches, the suspense about what will happen between them builds — particularly as Rob has yet to tell Merry about his alcoholism, and how impossible he feels it is for him to return to regular society. Waiting for that axe to fall was brutal – the longer it took, the worse I knew it was going to be.

I really hope this book will find its audience.  It’ll inevitably make its way onto lists of favorite bad sex scenes in romance, and the relationship conflict, arising out of Rob’s shame and fear, is very affecting, but readers who heavily favor traditional romance conventions probably won’t go for it. And it’s certainly not perfect. Rob’s self-loathing gets wearying (though for a dry drunk, I don’t think it’s at all exaggerated) and as in a previous McKenna book, the characters smirk so often, I wanted to reach into my ereader and force a different expression onto their faces. I’m a little iffy on the ending as well, which is kind of an uneasy mix between realism and fantasy, with quite a lot happening offstage.

None of those quibbles was significant enough to outweigh how beautifully written and brilliant the book is in general.  It won’t be for everyone,  but if you’re looking for nuanced portrayals of complicated characters I can’t recommend it enough. A



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