The Wednesday Review: HARD TIME by Cara McKenna

The Wednesday Review is my pick for the book you absolutely, positively have to read this month. They run the gamut from literary fiction to romance, but they all have something in common: beautiful language and a story that sinks its claws in and won’t let go.

I have been waiting for this book since last July. Ever since I stood in front of Cara McKenna’s table at the Literacy Signing at the national RWA conference and she told me she was working on a book about a convict and a librarian. I waited with the same anticipation I had for Heart of Obsidian.

It was worth the wait.

Annie Goodhouse, newly minted librarian, rolls into Darren, Michigan, determined to Make A Difference. As part of her work rotation, she spends one day a week as the librarian at Cousins Correctional Facility, a medium security prison. She conducts classes, leads a book group discussion, and helps inmates prepare resumes, fill out job applications, and write letters.

Eric Collier approaches her to help him write a letter. A pretty fucking personal letter. One that makes her squirm with discomfort even as it rouses her dead libido. He keeps writing, the letters growing more and more intense, until the day everything changes: he’s released on parole. Early.

Now what?

First, I have to say Hard Time is nothing like I expected it to be. Well, not nothing. I expected it to be intense and dark and raw, and I was right. It was all of those things. Annie, with her charming Southern accent, was sweet and proper on the outside, afraid of looking like a slut or a whore (thanks, Mom, for drilling that in), dropped the occasional f-bomb without flinching, and conjured some pretty dirty images, courtesy of Eric’s letters.

Eric was the surprise.

What he was sent away for was violent, and he’d do it again in a heartbeat. But he reminds me of something one of my college profs said. A former parole officer, he said the inmates who deserved to be caged below the prison were the thieves, because they’d almost never reform. In contrast, the felons convicted of manslaughter were among the most remorseful ones he was charged with looking after – and they had the lowest recidivism rate.

That’s about as much as you can say about Eric without giving too much away about the story.

Annie has issues, problems from her past that make her skittery and hesitant to trust again. Eric’s release brings those to the forefront, and even after their relationship evolves, they never really go away. They’re addressed with the gravity they deserve, but they aren’t something that can just be tied up or cured in a few weeks.

Once he’s released, Annie has to find a way to reconcile the Eric she’s gotten to know in his letters with the Eric who’s been released – and has a job, a family, and a sense of loyalty and duty she can’t quite wrap her head around. The forward progress their relationship made through the letters they exchanged comes to a grinding halt.

For his part, Eric’s not shy about telling Annie what he wants, and what he wants from her. His bluntness helps calm some of her fears, and their fire-hot attraction does the rest. Their sex is intense, close and sweaty, but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly dirty. It’s the sex of two people who have been denied for years, starved for sensation and ready to gorge until they’re bloated with it.

By the end, you get the sense you’ve intruded on the opening days of a deep and fiercely strong relationship, holding your breath as Annie navigates the crooked steps of being with Eric, an Eric without the limitations set by a prison. We don’t know what their future holds, but we know they’ll figure it out.

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