Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese...

Hard Time - Cara McKenna
I’m not afraid of you, I wanted to tell him.
I’m afraid of me. What I’m capable of.

I started writing a review for Hard Time right around the 35% mark. In that review I added this to my favourites shelf. I kinda still want to, especially with the first half of this book. Now I haven’t been reading much erotica nowadays so my spidey sense for these things can very well be rusty but I don’t think I’ve ever started writing a review midway through a book because of the feels that I can’t handle anymore. That was definitely a first. I just wanted to shove this down everybody’s throats as fast as I can. 

I still want to by the way. 

But unfortunately, this was 310 pages long instead of 155 and somewhere beyond the halfway mark, right when the tension of Cousins Correctional Facility was removed from the equation, it lost a bit of its claws for me. Only to gain back its footing towards the end thanks to Kristina.

Librarian Annie Goodhouse meets convict Eric Collier through Cousins Correctional Facility’s outreach program. They begin to have an erotic, epistolary affair knowing the barest minimum about each other: Eric doesn’t know that she was physically abused five years ago by her last boyfriend and Annie doesn’t know that he’s in prison for assault with intent to maim. The walls and bars of prison seemed to be a sufficiently safe buffer for Annie to rediscover her femininity through this man who’s all sorts of wrong for her, yet every time he asks her to wear a certain colour for the day, she just can’t say no. That was until he went up for parole. 

Maybe I was a bit caught unaware, I liked Willing Victim but that catered a little more to the BDSM crowd. And let’s be honest, it IS entitled Hard Time after all and there’s a washboard torso in its cover, an impressive storyline is probably the second to the last box in my checklist when it comes to erotica. But this just pulled so many unexpected but welcome surprises one too many times, I can’t believe it’s butter! Sure there was insta-lust and it still suffers from unbelievably cheesy dialogue when the sexy times come rolling in but that wasn’t even my biggest issue with the book.

”Take me. Take me like this is your birthday - like you can have anything you want.”

I mean, it’s understandably par for the course in erotica, but I can only take so much. 

But cheese aside, this is one of the better steamy contemporary romance books I’ve read in a while. One that pits two of the most ill-paired protagonists I can think of. And yet, this made that work. It didn’t skirt the issue and instead tackled that very conflict head on while being completely sensitive to the plight of both characters in equal measures. The wariness, the plausible concerns, the push and pull between Eric and Annie were all done very well with careful consideration that lent their story the credence I wasn’t expecting. I was even so pleasantly surprised how very empowering this book was for women without the cloying feel of feminazi soapboxing. I appreciated how this portrayed women learning how to want a man instead of needing them to define or protect her. 

Imagine that.

I liked both characters and how each’s issues were explored when they embarked on a relationship together. I did like the tension better when Eric and Annie were corresponding by letters (Eric’s first letter to Annie was swoon… and I don’t swoon easily) than when they got around to making good in their promises (which they did A LOT). There were no hokey plot twists, no out of nowhere love triangles and no secret babies thrown in the mix just to force grand gestures of love and passion. Their issues and motivations were believable relative to their backgrounds and it was nice to see a couple work out the kinks in their… er, kinky relationship in a manner that shows both their good and bad sides to the reader.

Well maybe just some of Annie’s bad side because Eric just came across a little too perfect for this story, so much he’s bordering in Urban Fantasy territory. I mean, a convict who went way for assault just happens to write great, almost polite erotica whose nice enough to do shirtless push-ups and pull-ups in the prison yard as you watch on during lunch break? Where is this Cousins Correctional Facility and why am I not a librarian, gaddameeeettttt????

Everything’s so hard in here. And mean and ugly and loud. I know you want to hear dark things, but what I say about the romantic stuff I want to do with you, I want that so bad I can’t tell you. I want to be in a room with you, so quiet I can hear your breathing and your heart. A place so clean I could smell your skin.

I mean he fantasizes about candles and soft sheets and believe me, he made good on that promise. With classical music and back rubs to boot! which is very interesting considering the context of his character. He grew up in a loving but harsh environment, from a place where “American dreams went to die” and I was really curious how someone like him comes out of prison after 5 years all fluffy, huggable and Olaf-y.

How do people like him happen? But this, instead, dumps that package of perfection on your lap without much explanation so while I love how unexpected Eric’s character turned out to be, it felt a little hollow for me to appreciate completely. 

Unless the take-away message of this book is that the only way an abuse victim and a man convicted of assault can make it as a couple is within the realm of fantasy... In which case, game, set, match to McKenna.

Humor was resonant, particularly with Annie. She had a sardonic way of looking at certain situations and her thoughts had a certain dark wit that sadly didn’t translate as often as I’d liked in her conversations with Eric. And as a if that’s not enough to draw you in, McKenna’s prose was evocative in their simplicity. There were certain turns of phrases that were simple at first glance but had some elegant imagery weaved between them. 

My coat, then his draped on top.
Gloves, his hoodie and hat, my scarf - a big rumpled heap of the two of us.
Two pairs of boots leaning into one another like weary travellers.

Annnnnd with that I’ve reached my quote quota.

I’m usually wary of contemporary romance, warier with erotica and just outright spring hives when it’s a contemporary romance erotica with noting but 4 and 5 stars in the book’s goodreads book page. 

Yet this book hasn’t stopped surprising me from page one.

ARC provided by Penguin InterMix thru Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.