Friday, July 27, 2018

Jen's Review: Unraveled

Whiskey Sharp: Unraveled by Lauren Dane
Publisher: HQN Books (February 1, 2018)
Series: Whiskey Sharp, 1
Genre: Contemporary Romance

The sharpest ache comes from wanting what you think you can't have

Maybe Dolan has lived independent, free-spirited and unattached since leaving home at sixteen. Whiskey Sharp, Seattle's sexy vintage-styled barbershop and whiskey bar, gave her a job and a reason to put down roots. Cutting hair by day, losing herself drumming in a punk rock band by night, she's got it good.

But a longtime crush that turns into a hot, edgy night with brooding and bearded Alexsei Petrov makes it a hell of a lot better.

Maybe's blunt attitude and carnal smile hooked Alexsei from the start. Protecting people is part of his nature and Maybe is meant to be his even if she doesn't know it. Yet. He can't help himself from wanting to protect and care for her.

But Maybe's fiery independent spirit means pushing back when Alexsei goes too far. Still, he's not afraid to do a little pushing of his own to get what he wants her in his life, and his bed, for good. Maybe's more intoxicating than all the liquor on his shelf and he's not afraid to ride the blade's edge to bind her to him.

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Jen's Review:

It’s so much easier and satisfying to gush about books I love on Twitter, so a book has to really present some sort of thorny dilemma in order for me to gear up for a blog post. I am most interested in books that get me thinking about the craft of romance: What works? What doesn’t? And why?

This time around, I’ve been thinking about the HEA, and how books that focus on the relationship are so different---and maybe less satisfying, but now I feel bad about myself?!?--- than the books that center on the romance. To clarify, in the latter, I’m referring to the classic M/F romance novel, usually contemporary, where most of the book describes the couple going through trials and problems and ends with the HEA/HFN. But lately, I’ve seen more M/F contemporary novels where the couple “get together” quickly with very little conflict, and the remainder of the book shows them working together to solve external conflicts and crises.

Exhibit 1: Whiskey Sharp Unraveled by Lauren Dane. In this book, a brief prologue shows barber Maybe Dolan inviting herself to work at Whiskey Sharp, some sort of hipster bar/barbershop owned by Alexsei Petrov. The novel opens up two years later with both Maybe and Alexsei finally ready to explore the long-simmering attraction between them. They go out on a date or two, have sex, and decide to be exclusive. By the 25% mark, Maybe thinks,

He was totally her boyfriend and shit. One date and that was it. She just felt it in her gut and Maybe always trusted her gut.

Meanwhile, Alexsei thinks,

This was his woman...It was right at that exact moment that he felt totally and utterly sure about the path he was on. 

Maybe and Alexsei have found each other, they’re together, and they’re happy; there is so little internal conflict that Maybe doesn’t even mind that he smokes! They’re likable characters, but their relationship was settled and I didn’t have an urgent need to keep reading. At that point, I continued on like I was on a research mission: What keeps a romance novel going when the romance is over? The other 75% of the book is Alexsei and Maybe dealing with  two major sources of external conflict: Maybe and her sister Rachel have persistent and ugly drama in their family of origin, and Alexsei’s former fiance is difficult and controlling.

At first, I was sort of...bored? Annoyed? I wasn’t sure how to *read* this as a romance. Eventually, I started to enjoy what Lauren Dane was doing to show their development as a couple. In other words, Whiskey Sharp Unraveled is mostly EA (ever after). But I’m not sure I would say I truly enjoyed it as a romance. It’s complicated! The Dolan family drama is pretty over the top considering Maybe and her sister are in their late 20s. Would this “relationship romance” have been as effective if it was more typical couple drama: sharing a living quarters and splitting bills?  I wanted more of Maybe and Alexsei learning to be with each other, and less outside drama. Even some flashbacks to the escalating tension in the two years between her being hired and the start of the affair. Something!

I’d like to point you to a very interesting chart in this review of Claiming the Highlander’s Heart from Love in Panels. Margrethe Martin, the reviewer, makes this pretty amazing “angst” chart. To me, angst is all about the emotional drama that happens between a couple. If I am reading and I’m making that face, that OHMYGODWHATAREYOUDOING and WHYDIDYOUSAYTHATYOUIDIOT face, that’s angst. But I think there’s another needed axis, one that judges external conflict, and I’m going to call that low/high stakes. A work of romantic suspense is “high stakes” because their lives are in danger, but that same couple can be low angst if they are working together to defeat that threat. Figuring out how to share a bathroom is “low stakes” and my guess is that if a couple is high angst, then the book must contain low-stakes drama or our hearts will explode. In the case of Whiskey Sharp Unraveled, if Lauren Dane didn’t have some high-stakes external drama, the book would have just drifted away contentedly like bathwater.

I think every reader has their own personal danger zones, where the combination of angst and stakes is either too much or too little. I don’t typically enjoy romantic suspense, and it’s always been hard for me to put my finger on why, but my chart helps me. I like angsty emotional conflict more than I like external conflict. But super over the top angst doesn’t really work for me, either. It’s too claustrophobic. Nothing happens. I’m fucking Goldilocks over here, wanting it *just right.*  I liked Whiskey Sharp Unraveled for the characters, but I prefer more emotional conflict and relationship drama! And someone direct me to romantic suspense that is both medium stakes and medium angst, please and thank you.

One last idea, because maybe this is just one big old “I mean, of course there is internal and external conflict in every book, what else is new?”  Somehow, the words "angst" and "stakes" capture my feelings as a reader better than the word "conflict." So when I talk about "conflict" I'm talking about the author's choices. When I talk about "angst and stakes" I'm talking about my response. It’s useful for me to have different words for describing what the author is doing than what the reader is doing.

Tl;dr: Whiskey Sharp Unraveled gets 3 stars from me. But if you are into low-angst medium stakes books with very likable characters, it might be for you! 


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Source: Bought

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Thanks for the review, Jen! 


Until Next Time,

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