2 Mini Book Reviews: HIM and DEATH IS NOT ENOUGH

HIM - Clare Empson.
Published: August 2018 - Orion.
Genres: Romance / contemporary / suspense / thriller
Pages: 352.
Triggers/Content Advisory: Sex scenes / bad language / theme of rape / substance abuse
Format: Paperback.
Source: Thank you so much to Jonathan Ball SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.

It all started with ... HIM.

Catherine has become mute. She has witnessed something so disturbing that she simply can't speak - not to her husband, her children, or her friends. The doctors say the only way forward is to look into her past. Catherine needs to start with Him. Lucian. Catherine met the love of her life at university and was drawn into his elite circle of privileged, hedonistic friends. But one night it all falls apart and she leaves him, shattering his life forever. Still, fifteen years later, Lucian haunts every one of Catherine's quiet moments, and when they are unexpectedly reunited, their love reignites with explosive force. But they can't move on from what happened all those years ago. In fact, uncovering the truth will cause their lives to implode once again. This time, with disastrous consequences.

I was in love with Empson’s writing just from reading the synopsis on the back of the book. The style echoes that of the book, and it’s a style I love: sophisticated language, crisp short sentences, and intimate first person present tense. The only tiny thing I’m not loving is the dialogue; it’s a bit on-the-nose.

The story is slow. It doesn’t even feel like a thriller. It’s extremely character driven and relationship driven. It’s about the relationship between Lucien and Catherine, about the relationships in Lucien’s group of friends, how everyone is sleeping with everyone else and how they’re all hiding secrets and getting drunk over failed marriages and screwed relationships, and it’s all very Gatsby in that sense. The characters are vivid and tantalising – and so are their relationships. It’s sad, because they’re all so rich and spoilt and their lives are wrecks amidst drugs and drinking and sex, but it’s also extremely fascinating and entertaining.
It may not be a thriller, but it keeps you reading. It’s about love and loss and relationships. It’s about pain and heartbreak and abuse and power dynamics and perceptions of people. And personally, I love that. I just drank it up. If you’re a character-driven reader, you’ll enjoy it too.

SPOILER WARNING: DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED (although honestly I found this spoiler aspect predictable so it might also not be a big deal to you, just FYI):

The big thing that happens to Catherine, the thing that’s tied to the other other big thing that she witnesses and makes her go into shock, is the rape she suffers. For me, there’s just something off about the way the author writes that incident into the story. It’s too much of a plot device. It’s a catalyst for what happens between Lucien and Jack, and honestly, it’s kinda overshadowed by Lucien’s response to the incident and how he deals with it in Catherine’s behalf. Even that is kinda unsettling, because when he confronts Jack, the focus is more on “hey you did that to my girlfriend and that’s the reason we’re apart”, more than it was about Catherine’s pain and how she’s dealing with it.
Overall, I just feel like the author veered off track a bit when it came to the rape. Lucien and Catherine’s love story almost alleviates the gravity of the incident, and that doesn’t sit right with me.

DEATH IS NOT ENOUGH (Baltimore Series #6) - Karen Rose
Published: May 2018 - Headline.
Genres: Romance / suspense / action thriller / contemporary
Pages: 608.
Triggers/Content Advisory: Explicit sex scenes / violence / strong and triggering mentions/descriptions of incidents of rape.
Format: Paperback.
Source: Thank you so much to Jonathan Ball SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.

Gwyn Weaver is as resilient as anyone could be. Having survived an attempted murder, she has rebuilt her life and reclaimed her dignity and strength. She's always known about her feelings for defence attorney Thomas Thorne, but as her friend and a colleague there could be no chance of anything more... or could there? Thorne has known violence and pain all his life. He's overcome the hardships that have been thrown at him thanks to his own steel, and the love of his loyal friends. Now he's thinking it might finally be time to let his guard down, and allow himself to let in the woman he's always admired from afar. Then Thorne's whole world is torn apart — he is found unconscious in his own bed, the lifeless body of a stranger lying next to him, her blood on his hands. Knowing Thorne could never have committed such a terrible crime, Gwyn and his friends rally round to clear his name. But this is just the beginning — the beginning of a brutal campaign to destroy Thorne, and everything he holds dear...

You know when you read a book and think, yeah this has issues but it's also got positive aspects, and then you get to a part in the book where you're like, okay I can't take this anymore the negative outweighs the bad and suddenly, in your mind, there are no positive aspects anymore because the negative aspects are just too big?
I don't know if that made any sense to you. But that's my situation with this book.

I always make an effort to keep my reviews balanced, so let's get the teeny, tiny positive aspects out of the way: The writing is not terrible, the story is fast-paced and action-packed, and the dialogue isn't bad. There. Done. Now let's get the less than serious negative aspects out of the way: the story is cheesy, filled with James Bond-esque cliches (the villain all but does that classic evil laugh, and he's basically your typical cliche mob boss who has all the cheesy catch-phrases and dramatic threats and we've seen him in almost every terrible action thriller), and the characters are stereotypical, boring, and oh so perfect. Yawn. 

Now for the rant. Thorn and Gwyn's relationship is revolting and problematic. First of all, Thorne is your stereotypical alpha-male whom every woman fawns over and every man looks up to. He's ridiculously idealised, and his treatment of Gwyn is unhealthy. He treats her like his property, and, wait for it, he pays hundreds of dollars to the guys she's asked out so that they won't go out with her because, prepare to swoon (#not) he wants her for himself. WHAT THE FREAKING HECK?? When Gwyn hears about this, she's justifiably angry, but as soon as she hears that Thorne only did it because he likes her and doesn't believe she's ready to date again (he implicitly calls her "unbalanced", because of the trauma she suffered years ago), all is forgiven. I AM JUST SO SICK SICK SICK OF THIS RUBBISH BEING CALLED ROMANCE BECAUSE IT'S SO FREAKING NOT: IT'S TOXIC, IT'S POSSESSIVE, AND IT'S INEXCUSABLE. Who the heck does Thorne think he is making those kinds of choices for her?? Who the HECK does he thinks he is deciding she's not ready to date yet??!! It's messed up!!

But it gets worse. To provide some background: almost every woman in this story has either been raped, abused, or killed, and basically all of those incidents happened to further a man's story. That's just trashy - and sexist - writing. There's also the fact that Gwyn's and multiple other women's rapes are used as plot devices. To take it a step further, Gwyn's trauma is basically only in the story to supposedly show that she's "a strong woman", and to provide emotional angst in her relationship with Thorne. It's all about them, how he wants to protect her and "fix her", and it's all extremely messed up. To repeat: RAPE IS NOT A PLOT DEVICE. You don't, as this author does, throw it in left right and centre to make your female characters "appealingly broken" and now "strong". It is so, so, so, SO wrong.

This book romanticises rape.

There's more where that came from. Roundabout page 349 comes one of the most shocking scenes I have ever read - one that literally made my jaw drop. I'm still not over it; it was triggering and extremely uncomfortable. It's traumatising, for all the wrong reasons. 
I've also been back and forth about quoting passages from the awful scene in question, but I just can't bring myself to do it. It's too shocking and insensitive and embarrassing. If you really don't believe me and want proof, then I'll message you the passages privately. But they're not going up here. 
The best I can do is relay the scene to you. 

This is what happens in the scene: Gwyn is telling Thorne about the rape she suffered four years earlier. Stemming from terribly written characters and problematic inclusion of such an incident in the first place, it's already in a bad place, but the author takes it a gigantic leap further by romanticising the whole incident. Throughout the scene, we as the reader are forced to watch Thorne's reaction and to see him get all angry/protective of Gwyn. But hey: there's a line between a guy getting protective of his girlfriend who's been attacked and an author who's including the incident just so that the guy can get protective of his girlfriend. Karen Rose crosses that line. It's infuriating, because it's not about Thorne and it's certainly not about how swoony his protectiveness of Gwyn is. That just negates the seriousness of the assault. It's wrong.

The author also uses ridiculous language and phrases to get romantic drama out of the incident. While it makes me sick typing "drama", unfortunately that's how it's written. The author is clearly not aware of the gravity of what she's writing about, and that's most obvious when the dialogue starts; it is extremely romanticised and blithe, to the point where I literally could not believe what I was reading. It's so clueless and insensitive. It's a mess.

This was a hard review to write and I hope I've managed to make some sense. 

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