BOOK REVIEW: The Caroline & West Series by Robin York

by - July 25, 2014

I didn't actually have any intention of doing book reviews on this blog... and certainly not reviews for my most favorite guilty pleasure reads - New Adult novels. I'd rather seem highbrow. Or something. The New Adult genre is pretty saturated with really, really shitty books as far as I'm concerned and I had actually somewhat given up on finding new books that I wouldn't want to hurl across the room in a fit of rage. However, these are two books that have really done it right, in my opinion. They are most certainly a pair, but I believe the author has the good sense to end at two rather than jumping the shark to try and capitalize further on these two characters. Very good sense that a lot of other authors, in my opinion, lack.

Now, here's the DISCLAIMER. I'm an unabashed long time romance fan, from back in the day when I was sneaking my mom's Harlequins and blushing over the dirty scenes, and I'll verbally fight to the death anyone who discounts the entire genre based on their preconceptions about it. I feel like I've seen it all and I think I've become a little bit of a snob at this point. Ask any romance reader and she'll have pet peeves with many a book in the genre and she'll have tropes that she absolutely loves, so I tend to look for those things in other people's reviews. Those are personal, but you'll likely find my peeves and loves in this review. 

WARNING: This review may contain spoilers, though I'll try to keep them to a minimum!

NOW. Onto these books.

DEEPER - Carlonline & West Part 1
"When Caroline Piasecki’s ex-boyfriend posts their sex pictures on the Internet, it destroys her reputation as a nice college girl. Suddenly her once-promising future doesn’t look so bright. Caroline tries to make the pictures disappear, hoping time will bury her shame. Then a guy she barely knows rises to her defense and punches her ex to the ground.

West Leavitt is the last person Caroline needs in her life. Everyone knows he’s shady. Still, Caroline is drawn to his confidence and swagger—even after promising her dad she’ll keep her distance. On late, sleepless nights, Caroline starts wandering into the bakery where West works.

They hang out, they talk, they listen. Though Caroline and West tell each other they’re “just friends,” their feelings intensify until it becomes impossible to pretend. The more complicated her relationship with West gets, the harder Caroline has to struggle to discover what she wants for herself—and the easier it becomes to find the courage she needs to fight back against the people who would judge her.

When all seems lost, sometimes the only place to go is deeper."
The subject matter of this book was actually the thing that almost kept me from reading it. Deeper is about revenge porn. For anyone who isn't familiar, revenge porn is becoming more and more common and is essentially the sharing of sexually explicit material without the consent of the subject and with the intention of embarrassing, shaming, or harming that individual. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) While I do absolutely think that this subject matter has merit, I was pretty skeptical as to whether or not the author would handle it in a realistic and responsible way. After reading it, I believe that she did, which I think is important to note since I think a lot of people would and do probably have the same concerns that I did. 

The story is told in a shared first person perspective of the two main characters, although I definitely came away feeling like this story was really about the female protagonist, Caroline. Caroline is the victim of revenge porn when she decides to break up with her long term boyfriend. His revenge is to post explicit photographs of her online and to continue uploading them as Caroline fights to get them removed. One of the things that instantly got my thumbs up about this book is the way that Caroline's shame is portrayed. Oftentimes in books I find that people wear their shame too loudly, when ultimately I think shame is a very isolating feeling. Caroline has drawn into herself and carries her shame with her constantly, feeling judged and at fault in everything she does. Her response is to fight to get her old life back, believing that if she can remove the photos from the internet and stop the comments on them she can get back to who she used to be.

This may seem like so many of the other books in the New Adult genre where the book begins with the main character being so emotionally damaged by something from her past that she can barely function and certainly isn't capable of opening herself up to love. It's been done a thousand times and it's boring. And cliché. And getting to the point where I genuinely wouldn't be surprised if an author tried to convince me that the character was an emotional disasterpiece because she broke her arm when she was 12 and the box next door was mean to her about it. I mean, really. Luckily, this book didn't do that. The level of emotional struggle felt realistic for what the character had been through, and the growth that she then made felt well paced and real. Overall, I think that's what really drew me to this book. It was a complex and difficult issue with a lot of emotions involved, but it managed to never stray into a place where I felt like it was too much. New Adult is pretty rife with too-much-ness.

While this may look like your standard romance novel involving university aged characters, I feel like it's so much more than that. I feel like it's a coming-of-age story. This is a story about a young woman finding strength, overcoming betrayal to learn to trust again, battling her own shame and ultimately really realizing her own self worth, and ultimately realizing that she doesn't have to navigate the world alone. And yes, there's a love story with a male character that I really enjoyed. More on West later, though, because this book is all Caroline to me.

One big testament to the strength of Robin York's storytelling in this book is the fact that, even when at first I didn't realize that there was going to be another book, I was completely satisfied when this book ended without a happy ending for the main couple. I don't even think I really felt like it cliffhanged. I felt weirdly comfortable with the story ending without happily ever after - Not because I didn't want the characters to end up together, but because I felt weirdly like it was completely okay for the character that I loved so much if she didn't end up with the guy. As far as I'm concerned, that's a huge win.

Overall, I loved this book (Can you tell??) and when I did find out there was going to be a sequel, I put a reminder in my phone of the release date so that I could get it as soon as it came out. I never, ever do that.

HARDER - Caroline & West Part 2
"Caroline still dreams about West. His warm skin, his taut muscles, his hand sliding down her stomach. Then she wakes up and she’s back to reality: West is gone. And before he left, he broke her heart.
Then, out of the blue, West calls in crisis. A tragedy has hit his family—a family that’s already a fractured mess. Caroline knows what she has to do. Without discussion, without stopping to think, she’s on a plane, flying to his side to support him in any way he needs.
They’re together again, but things are totally different. West looks edgy, angry at the world. Caroline doesn’t fit in. She should be back in Iowa, finalizing her civil suit against the ex-boyfriend who posted their explicit pictures on a revenge porn website. But here she is. Deeply into West, wrapped up in him, in love with him. Still.
They fought the odds once. Losing each other was hard. But finding their way back to each other couldn’t be harder."
This book deals with some pretty heavy subject matter as well, I must admit, and perhaps a few notches more dramatically than the first book. Maybe more than a few notches, but not necessarily in a bad way. Amongst the issues that this book delves into, there's addiction, domestic abuse, child neglect, violence, and again quite a bit of shame. These situations are well set up in the first book, so West's situation doesn't come out of nowhere and it feels like a natural continuation of the story and a necessary journey for his character to take.

First off, I will say that I was almost soured from reading this book after I saw a couple of really bad reviews. I didn't want to taint how much I loved the first one, which absolutely would have happened if Caroline had turned into the doormat that a couple of reviewers believe she did. I couldn't disagree more, to be honest, and I think this book did an excellent job of carrying forward the growth that Caroline made in the first book and building on the strength that she gained. I will acknowledge, though, that I can understand how some people could see it differently.

In the beginning of this book, West has quit school and moved home to continue to take responsibility as a caregiver for his younger sister after his mother takes back his abusive father. The family dynamics in this book are incredibly difficult, but I actually feel like they're represented in an unfortunately realistic way. In recent years, I've learned a lot about family dynamics surrounding addiction and abuse and I feel like Robin York did a really good job of presenting them here. It is dramatic, as these kinds of life situations tend to be, but there's also the reality that you have to keep pushing through and trying to make your life work. There's no magic cure or instant fix and love doesn't conquer all - but we do need those people in our lives to help us through difficult times. I think that's a balance that's difficult to strike in fiction sometimes and it's where a lot of authors who try to attack it end up failing.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but I feel like I have to address the plot point that I think has led to the division of opinions about this book. West does something early on in this book that a lot of people feel the book never comes back from and I can understand where they're coming from. However, I definitely do not think that Caroline's choice to forgive that action by West makes her a doormat. Instead, I think that it shows an incredible strength of character on her part. She doesn't scream and rail against him or make him beg for her forgives, but instead actively chooses to try to move past that hurt. I don't think Caroline ever let him get away with anything. In fact, I think that it was her determination that she wouldn't let him get away with anything that helped him to grow, to forgive himself, and ultimately to allow himself to hope in a way that he never had before.

Like Caroline's journey in the first book, I think that this book is about West's journey in overcoming his situation and choosing a brighter, fuller future for himself. I also feel like this is an excellent companion to the first book and that they pair well together, never feeling separate from each other even though each character is taking an individual journey.

Buy Harder by Robin York

Each of these books is a story about having to overcome circumstances outside of your control. Both of these characters are deeply effected by the actions of others that directly effect them and have to overcome feelings of shame and hopelessness. It would have been easy, and perhaps a little bit cliché, for them to somehow save each other in some grand, fairy tale type fashion, but I know that I would have been a hell of a lot less satisfied with these stories if they had been approached that way. Instead, these books strike a balance that we all need in our real lives. We need people in our lives who are a support system, people we trust and who can encourage us to find our own strength and choose our happiness. These characters acted as partners for each other, knowing when to call out each other's bullshit but also when to offer quiet support. 

As far as the love story is concerned, I can't say enough good things. I like that there's an intense instant attraction between these two and I think that it's written well. This isn't love at first sight, it's attraction at first sight, and it never goes to that creepy, obsession place that so many of these novels do. Also, I like that neither of these characters are perfect, but that they each see the value in each other for things that are actually present in the characters as they're written. I'm sick of seeing characters expound on the virtues of another character, but never actually seeing those qualities represented in that character through the course of the story. That's lazy, incompetent writing as far as I'm concerned.

I raise my glass to Robin York on the accomplishment of these two books, which I feel she handled in a way that a lot of authors in this genre would have irreparably flubbed, and I can't wait to read whatever she puts out next.

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