April 24, 2017

DNF Review: His Custody by Tamsen Parker

Cover description: close up to a man and a woman embracing. She's wearing a lacy black bra, he's shirtless.Source: Review copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Content Warning: graphic descriptions and discussion of self-harm. 

Keyne is a happy, privileged 17-year-old girl whose life changes abruptly after she becomes the sole survivor of an accident that kills her parents, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s parents. The two families were incredibly close, and now the only survivors are Keyne and Jasper, her boyfriend’s older brother who wasn’t on the boat that day. She has an aunt and uncle, but they are sketchy and she only feels safe with Jasper, so thanks to the magic of creative liberties, Jasper is awarded custody. He is 32.

A couple of days before I saw this book on NetGalley, I re-read Craving Flight. Ms. Parker is an incredibly talented and compelling storyteller. Her voice is lovely and although BDSM Romance isn’t my jam, I loved that book. I guess I was in the right mood to make the wrong decision, because I did not pay attention to the blurb. So, disclosure, I’m not the best match for this trope, but also, Jesus Christ, book, go sit in a corner and think about what you’ve done.

Where do I start? I already told you that Jasper ends up Keyne’s guardian, a position he’s utterly unqualified for. First, he’s a billionaire workaholic with an unstable personal and professional life. Second, he’s a drug user and an alcoholic, but he kind of quits those through the mighty power of the alpha male’s willpower--a willpower that isn’t mighty enough to keep him from lusting after, and eventually fucking, his underage ward, but more on that later. And he also has a girlfriend who, of course, is vocally against his decision to take care of Kayne, yet she’s nothing but a soon-to-be ex, so she goes away to join Romance’s Army of Evil Exes of Books Past, and next Christmas she will come back to remind us that internalized sexism is alive and well in our genre.

 Keyne is deeply traumatized by the accident and she’s having trouble coping with all the grief. She’s depressed, she can’t sleep, she won’t eat, she won’t speak; it’s pretty bad. And to be fair, Jasper recognizes that he’s in over his head. She sees a therapist, but we mostly hear about this from his point of view, and it’s something mostly mentioned in passing.

Jasper is in rough shape as well, after all, he also lost his family, but he doesn’t do anything about it, and the progress he makes is because Keyne is in his life. This is a common genre character arc in which one of the protagonists (or all of them) finds solace and emotional healing through their love story. But the emotional and mental health issues these two are going through seem insurmountable without professional help, and that, among other more obvious things, renders the romance unviable to me as a reader.

At first, their relationship develops slowly. This is not an insta-lust story, but things get inappropriate quickly when Keyne, who has nightmares and trouble sleeping, goes to Jasper’s room in the middle of the night and next to him finds enough peace to sleep.

Keyne was standing there in sleep shorts and a camisole, hugging herself and weeping. He knew this might happen. She’d been taking sleeping pills for the past couple of months and they’d decided with her doctor and her therapist maybe she shouldn’t anymore.  
“Bad dream?”  
She nodded and flung herself at him, making him glad he’d put on a shirt. Judge Pollard wouldn’t be excited about his attire, but it was better than nothing. Keyne’s hands fisted in the worn cotton at his back, her small frame heaving with violent sobs. He hesitated for a split second but then hugged her back. Of course he did. What kind of human being wouldn’t offer comfort to a sobbing girl?  
“Okay,” he murmured into the top of her head. “You’re okay.”  
When her keening had turned less convulsive, he pet her hair. It was soft and it smelled good. It had been a long time since anyone had let him hold them like this. Sarah wasn’t affectionate, and though he had hugged his family when he saw them, including the O’Connells, it hadn’t been like this. A quick, greeting squeeze, not a prolonged embrace. The longer he held her and the calmer she became, the more he became aware of her body pressed against his.  
Which was flat-out unacceptable. She’s a kid, Andersson. A child who woke up from a bad dream and sought out the only person who was around to offer her comfort because everyone else was dead.
He is aware of how wrong the situation is, but of course, that’s not enough to keep him from eventually acting on his feelings. Yet those feelings never felt romantic as much as a mix of lust and emotional need. She makes him feel grounded and needed, and as her caregiver, why wouldn’t he feel that way? But because this is an erotic romance, we need courtship and sexual desire, so we get twisted versions of common courtship tropes, like the hero and heroine forced to spend the night on the same bed, and the hero suffering through it with lusty thoughts and morning wood, except that this time, the heroine is 17.

There's more. Keyne self-harms, and Jasper is furious, worried, and even considers bringing it up with her therapist. But then again, when presented with the possibility that she might be hurting herself, this is his immediate reaction, which to be fair, could be a form of panicked denial, but, well, you be the judge:

“I went to replace Miss O’Connell’s linens, and her door was closed. I knocked and she told me to come in. She happened to be getting out of the shower, but told me to do whatever I needed to do. I was hanging up some towels when she dropped her comb and when I picked it up . . .” The woman took a deep breath and set her jaw. What the hell? 
“When I picked it up, I noticed a cut on Miss O’Connell’s leg.”  
The gears in Jasper’s mind were turning, but not quick enough, they weren’t up to speed. He did his best to come up with a reasonable explanation. “She had just showered, right? She could have cut herself while she was shaving.”  
The image of Keyne soaking wet, gliding a razor up her calf and then to her thigh while one foot was propped up on the bench in the shower was enough to derail his mind again. Jesus, Andersson, shut that shit down. Where the hell was this even coming from? It made him want to dig his own brain out of his skull and send it through the garbage disposal. Knock it the fuck off, you sick bastard. 

It’s not surprise that he ends up handling the issue himself, because he doesn’t seem to know the difference between self-harm and blood play:

The thing was, it wasn’t so much the act of cutting that bothered him. It was the motivation. He’d been with a few women who liked blood play and one of his girlfriends had been really into it. It wasn’t his favorite, but she loved it, so he’d indulge her on special occasions. Happy birthday, kitten. I’m going to cut you.  
He understood what she liked about it; the rush she got from him holding her life in his hands while he teased her by running the flat of the blade all over her body before selecting his sites: the underside of her collarbone, below her breasts, along the peak of her bottom ribs so the rivulets of blood would run down the slope of her solar plexus and pool in the hollow of her belly. She’d liked her inner thighs, too, and the memory made him acutely ill.

And how does he handle it? He gives her his blood play kit, and tells her to do it in front of him:

“I’m not going to stop you. I don’t know how.” Not without physically restraining her or getting her locked up in a psych ward, neither of which he was going to touch with a ten-foot pole. “So here’s the deal. You want to cut yourself? You’re going to do it in front of me.”

He doesn’t offer much of a rationalization for this, but I assume he wanted to be there to keep her safe and maybe make her stop. And it works:

“I mean, I’m done. I won’t do it anymore.”  
His breath caught in his chest and then he did turn around. “Okay.”  
Tears welled in her eyes and her voice shook like she was about to lose it. “I—I just wanted to feel something that wasn’t that. It didn’t matter if it hurt or felt good but nothing felt good enough. I wanted to know I could feel something, that maybe, someday I’d be capable of feeling something other than empty, other than sad, other than hopeless.”  
Her breath shuddered out and she put her head in her hands, her wet hair spilling forward around her face. “If I . . . if I feel like doing that again, will you tell me not to? I think I could stop, if you told me not to do it anymore. I don’t want to keep cutting myself, but I . . .”

I will be the first one to say that I’m not familiar with the subject, as my depression doesn’t manifest this way, but is this not an irresponsible portrayal of self-harm? Is this scene supposed to signal that this is not about mental health but about her budding kink? I found this part incredibly upsetting.

I DNF’d the book about the halfway mark, which is when they finally have sex, a month or so after she turns 18. I found the narrative contradictory at times. On the one hand, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on how mature and strong Keyne is; Jasper remarks how mismatched she and his gentle, immature brother were, and when she goes back to school she struggles with how different she feels from her peers and how she has trouble bonding and connecting with them at their level. But on the other hand, there are some elements that infantilize her: Jasper calls her Tinker Bell, her childhood nickname; every time she goes to his bed she acts like a little girl visiting a parent (until she wakes up and thinks about erections); and when they have sex, she’s a virgin, and he’s gentle, a bit patronizing and borderline didactic. That was my breaking point.

I don’t know what the eventual dark moment will be or what happens after. Maybe they get separated and reunite years later. I hope the book gives Keyne time to grow and have healthy experiences, so that the decisions she make feel truly informed. But I don’t plan to stick around and find out. I don’t know if this is a trope that’s possible to pull off convincingly, at least not to me. At times I felt complicit, because she is the one who initiates that first sexual encounter, he feels like a sick fuck (his words) most of the time, and she really likes and needs him, so that, to me, read like the book working hard for the reader to know that she had agency, that she consented, thus making it okay for me to consent and to go along with the romance.

I’m going to leave it here, because this has gone on for long enough and I didn’t really intend to write a rambly review. I see that the guardian/ward trope is having a bit of a comeback (by which I mean this is the second book I’ve heard of), and I confess that I don’t really remember ever reading one until now, but taboo romance has become popular and I guess this book counts as one. I don’t know, friends, I was already unhappy about Catholic priest Romances, but at least in those everyone is a consenting adult and there’s no power imbalance (I hope).  Anyway, insert your own thoughtful closing thoughts here, because I’ve ran out of those.

Grade: DNF
Purchase: Amazon

From the USA Today bestselling author of School Ties and the Compass Series
He needs to be a better man for her sake, but she makes him want to be so bad...
Keyne O’Connell leads a charmed life. She has a caring family and a terrific boyfriend. Her senior year is about to begin, and her future looks bright. But one dark summer night robs her of everyone she loves, thrusting her into the care of her boyfriend’s intimidating, much older brother. 
Dark and brooding, Jasper Andersson is not a good man. His business dealings are barely legal. He’s a womanizer and a casual drug user. He has no interest in becoming Keyne’s guardian, although given her limited options, he doesn’t have much of a choice. He knows he must protect her at whatever the cost. 
But living in close quarters soon stirs up feelings inside them both that are far from platonic. Keyne needs a firm hand to keep her in line, but what she desires could lead Jasper into trouble...

His Custody by Tamsen Parker
Intermix. March 21, 2017.


  1. LOL! Great review. I also loved Craving Flight but have had issues with some of her other books. This sounds like it would trip my ick meter.

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