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REVIEW:  Hold on Tight by Serena Bell

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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REVIEW:  Homecoming (Southern Honor, book 1) by Meredith Daniels

REVIEW: Homecoming (Southern Honor, book 1) by Meredith Daniels

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Home is where his heart is…once he recognizes what’s in his heart.

Southern Honor, Book 1
Broken in body, mind and spirit after a botched mission in Kuwait, elite Special Forces operative Jack Dresden returns to Devotion, Georgia, both dreading and longing to face his past. He left town on the receiving end of a wicked right hook thrown by the only person who ever made him feel he was right where he belonged.

Dillon Bluff was never good at pretending. Coming out right after high school, it hasn’t been easy dealing with the stigma of being gay in a small, Southern town. When he stumbles across Jack in the throes of a panic attack, one touch reignites the smoldering, hidden torch he’s always carried for his former best friend.

Jack knows he’s messed up, and the last thing he wants to do is hurt Dillon again. But Dillon is determined to take control and show Jack’s heart the way back home.

Product Warnings
Contains a sexy, scarred Delta Force hero with the hots for his tattooed photojournalist prone-to-skinny-dipping ex-best friend. Threats of creative rope use and plenty of manly loving may leave the reader craving a cigarette—and a man in uniform.

Dear Ms. Daniels.

REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS.

I think I can imagine what story you wanted to write in this book. I think it was supposed to be a touching story about a badly wounded warrior coming back to his home town and reconnecting with his first love. If written convincingly I can eat up the stories about wounded soldiers coming back, trying to adjust to peaceful life and of course finding love, with a spoon. I want to see as many of them as possible coming back alive – both in fiction and reality and I am always seeking to read a story which deals with it. Unfortunately I cannot say that your story was written convincingly for me. I can see of course that the blurb indicates that this is book 1, and it is possible that the second book will address at least some of the issues that bothered me so much. However I can only review the book which is in front of me now and I cannot even be sure that the second book will have the same characters, because this one ends in the way a stand- alone story could end. Although since Jack’s relationship with his father is not quite resolved at the end of the story, I can at least see that there is some potential for a second book.

Jack left his home town ten years ago and never looked back. He know that he is gay and he broke up with the girl he was dating (who was also a sister of his best friend and that best friend was apparently his real love – as Jack eventually recognized). Jack was also afraid that his parents, especially his father, would not accept him if he came out. So he went and became part of the Delta team (not sure whether he made all these life changes too fast, but that question bothered me the least in light of some other things).

One of his assignments ended very badly (he was tortured for months till he was freed), and he now has a severe case of PTSD. And his father is very ill, so he finally comes home on leave to see his parents and probably patch things up with his best friend. They had had a fight before Jack left town because Dillon was not happy that Jack broke up with Stacie.

I want to talk about Jack’s PTSD before anything else. He was hurt *badly*, and he has plenty of physical scars to show for it as well as a lot of emotional ones. He has nightmares, panic attacks, at some point he tells himself that he should be grateful that he does not have flashbacks. However I am not sure whether I believe Jack when he says it. I mean maybe he does not have the flashbacks in the technical sense (meaning that he does not relieve the specific moments of his torture), but at the same time he sure thinks about it, so I wonder if he is an unreliable narrator in that sense, or he just thinking about his torture in a bit more detached sense. And here comes the best part – apparently after spending some time in the hospital healing his physical damage, Jack has his psych evaluation cleared. I guess that means that after he is back from his leave he can just go back to his regular duties in team Delta whatever those duties would mean – back to the missions, etc? And how did Jack manage to have his psych evaluation cleared with his nightmares and panic attacks going on? Apparently he just “did not tell them everything” – I assume that by them he meant psychologists and/or psychiatrists whom he had to talk to.

I am sorry, what? Now I know nothing about the military, and I am willing to assume that maybe a regular soldier who has go through psych evaluation for whatever reason can fake some things. Because in my mind during the regular evaluation it might be possible that the doctor fails to catch anything out of the ordinary that the soldier is experiencing, since the doctor may have no specific reason to worry and may just let it go if the soldier’s answers are not in depth (or maybe not). But Jack is in the hospital recovering after *months* of horrific torture and I am supposed to believe that a military shrink worth their while would not take extra care to go through things with him in depth? Like maybe a psychiatrist would assume that Jack has a severe case of PTSD and just see whether evaluation would prove him wrong? There are several specific psychological tests which are specifically designed to evaluate people who may have PTSD. Such tests have many questions – often you have to write the answers and while Jack may be able to fake some answers, surely he would slip somewhere? In any event, no matter what takes place I did not buy the scenario of Jack faking psych evaluation at all and it was already a huge problem for me, but unfortunately my problems have not ended with that.

Back to the plot. Jake meets with Dillon and Stacie when he comes home, and eventually he and Dillon acknowledge their feelings and have a passionate reunion. Although maybe passionate reunion is the wrong word since they never acknowledged to each other how they felt ten years ago – so I am not sure what to call it? Jack coming out to Dillon I suppose. And this was my next issue, although this one was more of my issues rather than the book’s issue. Of course it is a common theme in romances to have lovers (or potential lovers) reunited after many years apart, I get that. However for me as a reader it is always a problem, when they spend that many years apart, that they have only had each other on their minds. I guess it is just a matter of degree – I can see how you can remember your high school crush for years, but I do not see how the boy with whom you never even slept would be on your mind when you are having sex with other people. Of course it is on a case by case basis, but I know in this story I could not buy them being ten years apart and not being able to ever move on to other people for real – like being able to fall in love with somebody else. I would say that two – three years is the maximum amount of time I can tolerate before I can start rolling my eyes. I can see how other readers can find it romantic, but I just could not.

After a scene where Jack and Dillon have passionate sex, Jack decides that Dillon is better off without him and sneaks out in the middle of the night. I wanted to ask whether he thought about whether Dillon was better off without him before he decided to have sex with him, because I just do not see a real person acting that way. I do suspect that the writer wanted me to see that this was Jack’s PTSD that made him behave in such erratic, bizarre manner, but then can somebody please tell me why it is never mentioned *not once* mind you that Jack needs a lot of therapy and fast before he is ready to start any relationship? Why does Dillon never suggest it since he is the one who saw the most of Jack’s pain? He needs therapy, maybe years of it and the word is absent from the book?
There is a happy reunion.
I cannot recommend it.
Grade D.

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