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REVIEW:  Beyond Repair by Charlotte Stein

REVIEW: Beyond Repair by Charlotte Stein

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Dear Ms. Stein:

I had trouble getting into this at first, because it seemed too obviously a romantic fantasy. By around three fourths of the way in, I concluded it was actually a love letter to romantic fantasy, saying in novella form, “no matter who you are, yes, it’s okay to want all these things, to dream of all these things.”

Very much a “cabin romance,” although not set in the woods, the story is intensely focused on just two people from the moment the agoraphobic Alice finds movie star Holden Stark od’d on her living room floor. It’s an abrupt beginning, and the story is abrupt in other ways: Alice succeeds in saving Holden (though rather appallingly, she puts his “career and his image” ahead of his life by not calling for help) and then he just… stays. It’s not that it’s not believable that this suicidally unhappy person would stay with a stranger; as he touchingly tells her, ‘I know you saved my life. I know you trusted me when I shouldn’t be trusted. I know you hugged me when I didn’t know I wanted to be hugged.’ I just would have liked to see the process a little more.

Alice has been though something huge, and she’s self-conscious about her disabilities and scars, as well as her lack of romantic experience. But she easily wows Holden with her humor, adorkable geekiness, and ability to show him to himself as someone other than a movie star:

‘Bernard Horganblaster,’ she said, and watched as his eyes slowly drifted closed. It was in the good way though, this time. The way that reminded her of blissful things, like biting into a bar of chocolate after a long period of near starvation.

‘Oh yeah. I could be a Bernard.’
‘And your friends call you Bernie.’
He gave her two gleeful, triumphant fists.
‘Yes! Yes, exactly like that. I have friends just like you, and you call me Bernie.’

[...]

‘…you kind of sound like you’d rather I stayed over here?’
‘Just ignore my voice. There’s a frightened nun living in my throat.’
He went to answer and had to stop to make room for the most awesome laugh. It was all surprised and full of joy, and it followed through into his words.
‘Who are you? I must be dreaming you. Did I die, and this is my reward?”

The balance of this story felt different from other Stein books, where the erotic tends to carry the romance. There are certainly some intense sex scenes; I enjoyed Alice’s realization that people who are gentle and considerate can still let themselves go in bed. “Dear God, she could have died over him saying, Fuck yeah, suck me off. It was too crude for the kind of guy she’d come to know.” But the sexual side of the story is really an outgrowth of their feelings, which are beautifully tender:

‘You don’t seem like a crazed fan for fuck’s sake. I wish you seemed more like a crazed fan because good goddamn am I a crazed fan of yours. For once in my life I’m the one who wants to write someone’s name on my fucking pencil case and it’s killing me, it’s absolutely killing me.’
Dear Lord in heaven, had he really just said that? She had to double check, just to be sure.
‘You want to write my name on your pencil case?’
‘I do, I really do,’ he said, tone so wistful she could hardly stand to hear it.

But I was tripped up, not only by how idyllic the fantasy is — their tastes match so completely, they would be shoo-ins on “The Newlywed Game” — but how precise:

‘Here, take my hand. I’ll pull you through like Morten Harket from A-ha in that music video where he takes her out of the real world and into a drawing,’ he said, which made it both worse and better all at the same time. Now she was close to swooning, but at least her power to make normal words was back.
‘Good God, I don’t think you could have said anything more perfect if you’d lived to be a hundred.’

That level of studied detail took me out of the world of the book.

The story is told in a limited deep third point-of-view that’s very similar to typical Stein stream-of-consciousness first person. As always, there’s a hilarious way with imagery:

She hadn’t taken into account that he didn’t have any clean clothes to put on. She’d somehow imagined him coming down in a fabulous outfit live from the red carpet, as though his skin spontaneously grew tuxedos.

I’m not sure how to evaluate Alice as a portrayal of a disabled person. (In addition to agoraphobia, she has some physical limitations.) Themes of brokenness and healing through love can be really iffy when coupled with actual disabilities. Definitely a plus: Alice’s physical issues don’t magically disappear during sex, and they find ways to work with them.

There was so much that was good here, and so much that didn’t quite work. Although I was touched by the overall message about believing in happy endings, I didn’t feel the story was developed enough for me to completely buy into the situation. And even with the whole healing-power-of-love thing, I’m uncertain about a happy ever after for a hermit and a movie star, much though I hope for one. Weighing everything, my grade is a fond B-.

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  At Any Price by Brenna Aubrey

REVIEW: At Any Price by Brenna Aubrey

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Dear Ms. Aubrey:

I enjoyed the short story “the Love Letter,” so decided to try this debut novel, despite not being a big fan of contemporary trilogies about innocent virgins and billionaire tycoons. As it turned out, I liked it… except for the innocent virgin/billionaire tycoon parts. There might be a lesson in that.

Mia, a struggling pre-med student and online role playing games blogger, has decided to take advantage of the bizarre value society places on female virginity by auctioning hers off. With the reluctant help of her best friend Heath, a careful auction with many safeguards and stipulations is held; the winner is unbearably handsome software prodigy Adam Drake.

This is a challenging set-up for a romance, because it’s a pretty unsavory situation on both ends. Adam’s side is more readily sympathetic: it’s obvious that getting into Mia’s pants is not his primary motive, although that’s not revealed to Mia for some time. It’s harder to accept Mia’s reasoning, and justifiably so — her tendency to lie to herself makes her something of an unreliable narrator.

In many ways this was a typical New Adult story. First person by female narrator, check. Heroine with a traumatic history of sexual abuse, check. Rescue from assault by the hero, check. Gay best friend — no wait, that’s a different subgenre; New Adult male friends are supposed to be straight so you can have a love triangle. I actually really liked Heath: he’s not written as a “fabulous” or sassy stereotype, but because he’s far more forthright and clear thinking than Mia, he gets many of the book’s best lines. (When Mia tells him she’s been reading Cosmo, he retorts,  “Stop right there. If you get your sex education from Cosmo then you are in for a world of hurt—or he is.”) And another way in which the book defies stereotype: although Drake does get into a little bit of icky virginity worship, it’s overall blessedly free of obvious slut-shaming.

Since Mia deeply distrusts men — I guess being gay scores Heath a pass — the deal is supposed to be just one night and no future contact, but the story goes in some unexpected directions and creates powerful emotions as Mia and Drake try to navigate what becomes an untenable situation. I personally would have preferred it if the story hadn’t tried to do everything: the basic plot is perfectly fine without all the fantasy accoutrements of Drake buying Mia expensive clothes and makeovers, taking her on trips, and “loaning” her expensive gadgets. (Readers who are more heavily into Cinderella stories certainly might disagree with me.) Mia’s responses to this treatment are inconsistent, and I didn’t always understand her motivations. The fact that she didn’t always understand them herself wasn’t enough to make her character completely work for me.

I also didn’t get much of an authentic geek vibe from her or Adam, except that the fact that Adam used his wealth to spend time on the International Space Station rang very true. The love scenes had a certain distance to them, as did Mia’s constant harping on Adam’s perfect hotness; in both cases, she seemed to be describing more than truly reacting. The best part of the book may be the plot: its bare bones summary sounds both generic and skeevy, but (much like On the Island by Tracy Garvis-Graves) what actually happens is meaningful, and reveals a lot about both characters.

At Any Price doesn’t have the feel of a professionally edited book. There aren’t any execrable errors, but there are some continuity issues and grammar flubs that could have been cleaned up. I was still absorbed by the storytelling, and though it happily does not end on a cliffhanger, there are enough genuine complications in Mia and Drake’s relationship to make me interested in the next book. Though I was disappointed that the series turned out to be a trilogy… especially since I was hoping for a book for Heath. C

Sincerely,

Willaful

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