Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Anything but Broken by Joelle Knox

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger Warning: This book touches on suicide and bipolar disorder. It deals directly with mental and emotional abuse, anxiety disorder, and alcoholism. The word "crazy" is also used a great deal.

A harsh reality of adolescence is not all of us make it out alive. Those of us who do survive often carry the weight of those lost lives with us, along with a fair amount of survivor’s guilt. This is one of the quintessential New Adult experiences that I rarely see explored in any genre of fiction, much less with this much care, thoughtfulness, and raw honesty.

Hannah Casey has come home to deal with the aftermath of a car accident that resulted in the death of her father and hospitalization of her mother. As the only living member of her family Hannah is forced to take on real adult responsibilities, and return to a town she hasn’t seen since she was fifteen. While she faces the ghosts of her past, she runs into Sean Witlow, her first crush, and her (dead) sister’s ex-boyfriend. Tragedy brings them together, but it’s love and the possibility of a second chance at happiness that draws them closer. If only those the secrets that have haunted Hannah will stay in the past.

I went into this book with the expectations of a well written, steamy romance intensified by a personal tragedy. While all of this elements are present, Anything But Broken elevates them far beyond my wildest expectations. From the opening scene of the book the skillful storytelling blew me away. In that scene, where Hannah returns to her childhood home, there was a tangible the sense of foreboding that gave it the feel of a contemporary gothic horror, only instead of ghost and castles it had memories and a home gym. That oppressive sense of impending dread that mirrors Hannah's own mental and emotional state felt like a living breathing entity that hung over me while I read. It’s made me tense and anxious to keep reading, in anticipation of the prevail shoe that was destined to drop. And when it did, though I thought I was ready for it, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for how realistic and how emotionally it was, for me.

The writing is flawless. It reads so smoothly, but also lavish in it's world building. I know, that seems like a strange things to say about a contemporary story, but in this case it fits. Hurricane Creek feels like a real place. You fell the humidity of a Georgia summer night, and almost taste the sweet smell of fresh peaches. More importantly,  I feel like I know all these characters. I’ve traveled with them through the backroads of Hurricane Creek, seen them at their highest and lowest. That kind of emotional investment doesn't just happen by accident.

On the surface Hannah looks like your typical romantic heroine. In reality, she is anything but. This girl is a very flawed and deeply damaged young woman. She makes a lot of mistakes, but she also learns from them and grows over the course of the story. Hannah is a beautifully complex young woman, a refreshing mixture of courage, recklessness, and vulnerability that feels so on the spot for being just shy of 21. It meant a lot to me personally to see a young woman allowed to come back from a big fall. I think we often forget how girls are pressured to be perfect to the point that they many fear being written off forever for being human.

As for the romantic leading man, Sean Witlow. WOW! He too seems to be all the classic Alpha male tropes wrapped in a hot mechanic/racer, but he is so much more. It is wonderful to see a young man understand and respect consent, who loves and forgives, but who is also goes through his own character arc. He is actually allowed to process guilt and grief, while growing and learning. He is still a delightfully sexy romantic fantasy, but also a very believable working class man who truly appreciates and respects women.

Hannah and Sean’s relationship is a perfect balance of sweet romantic fantasy and realistic depiction of how tragedy can intensify attraction. I was really impressed with how much time was give to the development of their relationship.  Trust is the foundation of their relationship that carries them into some of the hottest sex scenes I have ever read, even the ones that never involve penis-in-vagina sex. The slow building sexual tension never lets up even when the story reaches both its literal and thematic climaxes. This is top notch erotic romance, and some of the most subversively feminist I’ve ever read. Even within the throws of a sex act that is one of the most classic symbol of masculine dominance the focus is on Hannah’s pleasure and power, and this prioritization of Hannah’s pleasure is emphasized by Sean himself.

The story also has a strong ensemble cast of distinct and endearing characters, who I hope to see get their own spotlights in the rest of the Hurricane Creek series. Gibb and Evie being two of my personal favorites, both are just as complex as Hannah and Sean while having fascinating backstories of their own. I especially love how we watch Hannah’s own view of Gibb changed over the course of the story as she came to know him better. This double duty character development, that felt so organic while reading, is what I'm mean when I say the storytelling blew my mind.

As for the contents of the trigger warning, this story isn’t about suicide or mental illness, so much as it is about the devastation of alcoholism. It is really a story for families of addicts, exploring that painful awakening we all go through at some point in our lives when we realize just how much destruction addiction has done to us and those we love, but also how we could succumb to it someday too. It also unpacks the psychological damage that children of alcoholics deal with, in this case anxiety. Anything but Broken deals with each of these topics with unflinching honesty and understanding that resonated with me on a very personal level.

I cried a great deal while reading this book, both happy tears and very painfully personal ones. I share this not just to applaud the novel, but to further warn other readers who may share some of these traumas. I love this book, and will read it again. But it is very honest and raw, which might trigger reactions with readers who relate a great deal with Hannah's childhood/family dynamics.

I honestly could writing a hundred essays on every detail of this book, and I still might, but for the sake of this review I will just say it is a great, very steamy romance with an honest heart and realistic portrayal of some of the hardest parts of growing up.

Anything But Broken by Joelle Knox buy it on Amazon and Kobo now.

Note about the authors: Joelle Knox is the pen name of Donna Herren and Bree Bridges, the talented writing duo behind the dystopian erotic romance Beyond series as Kit Rocha and they’ve penned dozens of paranormal novels as Moira Rogers.


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