Dare You To by Katie McGarry

Why I read it: I picked this one up from NetGalley.  I loved Pushing the Limits last year and was so looking forward to where this author would take Beth… and Isaiah.  I had read the first chapter in the back of Pushing the Limits so I had a fair idea that Isaiah wasn’t the hero.  He’s the hero in the next book.  Cannot Wait.
What it’s about (from Goodreads):  “I dare you…”If anyone knew the truth about Beth Risk’s home life, they’d send her mother to jail and seventeen-year-old Beth who knows where. So she protects her mom at all costs. Until the day her uncle swoops in and forces Beth to choose between her mom’s freedom and her own happiness. That’s how Beth finds herself living with an aunt who doesn’t want her and going to a school that doesn’t understand her. At all. Except for the one guy who shouldn’t get her, but does….Ryan Stone is the town golden boy, a popular baseball star jock-with secrets he can’t tell anyone. Not even the friends he shares everything with, including the constant dares to do crazy things. The craziest? Asking out the Skater girl who couldn’t be less interested in him.But what begins as a dare becomes an intense attraction neither Ryan nor Beth expected. Suddenly, the boy with the flawless image risks his dreams-and his life-for the girl he loves, and the girl who won’t let anyone get too close is daring herself to want it all….

What worked for me (and what didn’t): I loved this.  On Goodreads, it says the book is just over 300 pages but on my reader it was showing up at just over 600.  Who knows why.  But regardless of the actual length, the book was a pleasure to read.  I really like Ms. McGarry’s writing style.  I like the alternating POV chapters, from both Beth’s and then Ryan’s perspectives.   The present tense fit the immediacy of the book too.

Why fade to black doesn’t work for me. Except when it does.

I finished Susanna Kearsley’s The Shadowy Horses a few days ago and I started thinking about “fade to black” or “bedroom door closed” books.  As a generality, I prefer my fictional bedroom doors wide open and the lights left on.  But I started to wonder why that was – and why some books which do fade to black work really well for me.  And here’s what I came up with.

I think there are two aspects at play during a sex scene in a romance (as opposed to erotica) – there is (often) something physically arousing about it and there is something I’m going to call, emotionally arousing.  I can’t say I’m immune to the physical “symptoms” of a well written sex scene but for me, the bigger payoff is in the emotionality.  I think very often the sex scene creates a “shortcut” to the emotional arousal I’m seeking – the heightened emotions which are often present being key here.
Fade to black books, with only kisses (and few kisses) do not usually give me the emotional arousal I’m seeking when reading romance.  What causes this emotional arousal?  Well, it can be kissing or handholding, the hand on the small of her back as they walk, her hand in his (or his in his for that matter).  It might be internal dialogue or conversation (conversation is the better of the two) where the couple’s emotional connection resonates (“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’-ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”  Jamie to Claire in The Fiery Cross – although The Fiery Cross is in no way a fade to black book of course.).  In a sex scene it can be the desperation of one to physically connect to the other, the primal claiming of “mine”, a more tender or reverent loving after a crisis perhaps, the delight one partner takes in the body of the other, the care taken in ensuring his/her satisfaction – the physical display of the emotional connection.
I read the gamut from fairly tame to the erotic.  Susanna Kearsley’s books are on the “fairly tame” end of the scale.  I’ve read (well, listened to) 3 of her books at the time of writing this post and in each book, the emotional payoff for me has improved.  The Rose Garden was the first I read – I enjoyed it quite a bit but I thought that the romantic relationship was a bit rushed and underdeveloped – in other words, there was not enough of that emotional arousal I’m seeking.  In Mariana, there was more, but it was mostly toward the end of the book.  In The Shadowy Horses, the romantic aspects began early in the book and I found it much more satisfying.  (There are other reasons I read.  I have come to be a big fan of Ms. Kearsley’s books and nothing here is intended as criticism of her writing style as such – it is more that I’m exploring my reactions to it and why.  Susanna Kearsley writes beautiful lyrical prose usually with detailed (but never boring) historical information which fascinates me.  Frankly, I don’t think explicit love scenes would fit within the books she writes – so I’m not asking her to start writing them.)In thinking about The Shadowy Horses in particular, I pondered why that book held more emotional resonance for me than the earlier ones.  They are all pretty much fade to black – certainly not explicit.  But in The Shadowy Horses in particular there was a satisfying amount of touching, kissing, longing, even a bit of desperate clinging to one another – which caused my emotional arousal to spike in that satisfying “red zone”.  The zone where my heart rate speeds, there’s a little “zing” in the pit of my stomach and my romantic heart sighs a little.    Where a book can fade to black or be less than explicit but still give me the emotional climax I’m after, I tend to enjoy it.  Where it is lacking, I do not.
Sean Kennedy’s excellent Tigers and Devils is a m/m romance between a closeted gay AFL (Australian rules) football player and an out and proud gay man set in Melbourne.  It is not in the least explicit –  but emotionally, I found it entirely satisfying.  There was plenty of affection – verbal and physical and the emotional payoff level was very high.
I said in my recent review of Katie McGarry’s Pushing The Limits that the is no consummation of Noah and Echo’s physical relationship.  There are no explicit scenes.  There is plenty of making out and of Noah respecting Echo’s boundaries no matter how much he desires her.  The reader sees his desire in his physical interactions with her and also in his speech and thoughts.  This is another book where I found my emotional arousal satisfied.
Kristan Higgins’ Catch of the Day is a book where this didn’t occur.  I enjoyed the book but there was nowhere near enough of the emotional payoff for me.  As a comedic contemporary fiction piece it worked very well.  But as a romance?  Not so much.  There is barely any of the hero, Malone.  He hardly speaks and, as the book is told in the first person POV of the heroine, we don’t know what’s going on in his head either.  For much of the book, the couple aren’t together so there isn’t the physical affection, loving looks or courting conversation that I look for.  (Others of Ms. Higgins books have worked much better for me as romances however.)
On the other hand, Shannon McKenna writes very steamy explicit books.  They are like crack to me.  The plots are generally over the top and the villians pretty one dimensional  and super-eeeevil but the heroes are devoted to their heroines and their devotion leaps out of the page.  The sex scenes in a McKenna novel can be physically arousing as well, but the emotional payoff comes from the hero’s total devotion, his admiration of her beauty, even, strangely, how he gets hard and stays hard for hours and hours because SHE turns him on so much.   Lisa Marie Rice books have the same kind of thing.
KA Mitchell writes m/m romance.  The sex is explicit and frequent.  But, the sex serves the emotional story arc. The characters develop and deepen their emotional connection through physical intimacy.  It’s just hotter. (oh, boy, is it).  But it is as emotionally satisfying to me to read a KA Mitchell book as a Sean Kennedy.
In Cara McKenna’s Curio, Caroly and Didier bond almost entirely through sex.   But the emotions conveyed in those encounters warm the cockles of this little romance reader’s heart.
In some ways, I think books containing more explicit sex scenes more easily satisfy my emotional arousal requirements – I’m looking for evidence they can’t live without each other (or at least, don’t want to).    In a romance novel where the couple don’t spend much time together, I’m unlikely to get that emotional payoff unless there’s some explicit sex (where I might get a big punch of it – which *might* satisfy).  The fade to black books which have worked for me are generally ones where the main characters are frequently in each other’s company and there is plenty of (taken) opportunity for the author to show me the developing emotional connection between them.  Another factor which usually weighs in is the length of the book (- how much time to I have to reach my peak? :D).  In the examples I’ve mentioned here the bedroom door closed books are long – over 400 pages, which means there is more time for the emotional punch to develop.In many of the tamer romances I’ve read, there isn’t enough of that emotional connection for me and the book therefore fails to satisfy as a romance.  I have not come across all that many fade to black books which do satisfy me but the ones that do, do so because they are able to convey that emotional connection in other ways and frequently enough in the course of the book that I’m able to reach “emotional climax”.

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

Why I read it: Jane from Dear Author has been tweeting about how good this book is and she talked about it on the latest DBSA podcast. I’m not usually a YA reader, but I was intrigued enough about the story to request this from NetGalley.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  “I won’t tell anyone, Echo. I promise.” Noah tucked a curl behind my ear. It had been so long since someone touched me like he did. Why did it have to be Noah Hutchins? His dark brown eyes shifted to my covered arms. “You didn’t do that-did you? It was done to you?” No one ever asked that question. They stared. They whispered. They laughed. But they never asked.  

So wrong for each other…and yet so right.

No one knows what happened the night Echo Emerson went from popular girl with jock boyfriend to gossiped-about outsider with “freaky” scars on her arms. Even Echo can’t remember the whole truth of that horrible night. All she knows is that she wants everything to go back to normal. But when Noah Hutchins, the smoking-hot, girl-using loner in the black leather jacket, explodes into her life with his tough attitude and surprising understanding, Echo’s world shifts in ways she could never have imagined. They should have nothing in common. And with the secrets they both keep, being together is pretty much impossible.  Yet the crazy attraction between them refuses to go away. And Echo has to ask herself just how far they can push the limits and what she’ll risk for the one guy who might teach her how to love again.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  This story sucked me right in from the beginning and even a Thailand holiday couldn’t tempt me away.  I read it almost non stop on the plane and then stayed up late that first night to finish it.  Yes, it is set in a high school, with characters who are just about to turn 18, but it felt very adult to me. Both Echo and Noah were dealing with grown up problems and, for the most part, in a grown up manner (yet it still felt authentic to their actual ages).  Told in the alternating first person POV from both Echo and Noah, the story starts when Noah and Echo are both assigned to have mandatory counselling with Mrs. Collins, a new school counsellor who is part of a special funding programme.    Mrs. Collins is a little too good to be true but she does have some fun quirks which make her very likeable and not just a prop.   
Noah’s parents were killed in a house fire and he and his young brothers were placed in foster care.  When Noah punches the biological father (his first foster father) who was beating his own son, he is labeled a risk and separated from his brothers.  By the time the book starts, he has managed to regain supervised visits of them at a visitation centre for 2 hours per month.  He is not allowed to know where they live or what the last name of their foster parents are, and his own experience in foster care is such that he is very mistrustful that they are being treated well.  His driving ambition is to graduate high school, get a job and gain custody of his brothers so they can be a family again.  
Echo is a little harder to understand at first – she has repressed memories of the events which led to her scars.  Because she doesn’t know what happened, we don’t either, and the reader takes the journey with her to find out.  Echo’s previous efforts to remember have led to severe mental consequences and so, while being desperate to know, she is also terrified of what it may do to her.   She is also somewhat of an unreliable narrator and as the book progresses, the reader sees how her views of the people around her change as she gains insight.  I actually like this quite a bit.    It made sense and felt true to the journey I was taking with Echo.
For me (and no-one who reads my reviews regularly will be all that surprised by this), Noah was the highlight of the story. (There is a reason all of my highlights were from Noah’s POV.) I loved his sense of humour, like here
“You know a lot about math,” I said. You know a lot about math? What type of statement was that? Right along of the lines of “Hey, you have hair and it’s red and curly.” Real smooth.

and here

Because of the warm April night, she’d pulled her shirt up a few inches to expose her skin. At least that was the reason she gave when her fingers inched the material of her blue tank away from the small of her back. Personally, I think she did it to drive me insane 

I love how he thinks.

It had been so long since I’d let myself fall for anybody. I gazed into her beautiful green eyes and her fear melted. A shy smile tugged at her lips and at my heart. Fuck me and the rest of the world, I was in love.

Noah made me smile.  And Noah made me cry.  His love for his brothers, his feelings for Echo and how he tried to reconcile the two, how he grew and sacrificed and forgave and accepted was just wonderful.  I was glad Echo had such a wonderful hero because after all she’d been through, she certainly deserved a champion.  And, that’s what Noah is for her.  
I completely believed in the HEA.  I’m hoping to see glimpses of them in the next book which features Beth, Noah’s foster sister, but this is one romance where even though the main characters are only both 18, I believed they could be together for the long haul. 
I liked how they didn’t rush into any long term commitment or even into an intimate physical relationship until they were ready (Noah is a real gentleman).  That said, the scenes where they were making out were very sensual.  For a book which pretty much keeps it clean, it was very sexy and, much to my surprise, it was very satisfying for me.
Noah (and the author) understand grief.  And I liked this description – which I think is 100% accurate.
“It doesn’t get better,” I said. “The pain. The wounds scab over and you don’t always feel like a knife is slashing through you. But when you least expect it, the pain flashes to remind you you’ll never be the same.”
One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of YA is that I prefer adult themes but this book, even though it features young adults, is very much about adult themes and the heat level is both appropriate and steamy at the same time.
I did think the end resolution for Noah was neat, but I was just so pleased that I didn’t care.  Noah and Echo had been through so much that I wanted them to have their chance.
What else? I am finding that I’m far more interested in reading “new adult” stories than I was before this book.  If there are more books out there like this one, I’d had to miss out.   If you don’t usually read YA, I’d urge you to give this one a go anyway – it’s just that good.  You might find, like I did, that the chance is totally worth your while.  Thanks to Jane for the recommendation.
Grade:  B+/A-
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