Title: Controlled Burn
Author: Erin McClellan
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Length: 293 Pages
Category: Contemporary, New Adult
At a Glance: My feelings about Erin McLellan’s debut novel, Controlled Burn, are definitely mixed. I was glad I read it, it kept me engaged, but the melodrama and inconsistencies kept it from being as good as I hoped it would be.
Reviewed By: Jules
Blurb: At eighteen, Joel Smith’s life fell to pieces. His boyfriend died in a car crash while reading a sext from him, the local newspaper outed them both in the aftermath, and his parents got a divorce. Joel did everything possible to outrun his past: he moved to Oklahoma for college, legally changed his name, and started over.
Since then, he hasn’t let anyone get close—not his classmates, not his roommate, and definitely not his hookups. The strategy has served him well for over three years. Why would he change it now?
But Joel doesn’t plan on the articles about his boyfriend’s death being used as a case study in one of his classes. And he doesn’t plan on Paulie McPherson, who is sweet and giving and fun. In Paulie, he finds a home for the first time in years.
But love isn’t simple, and lies have a tendency to get in the way. Joel must figure out if he’ll allow his grief to rule him, or if his connection with Paulie is worth letting all of his walls come tumbling down.
Review: My feelings about Erin McLellan’s debut novel, Controlled Burn, are definitely mixed. There were some things I really, really liked, and some things I found problematic. Overall, I would still say it was a pretty impressive debut, but there were those few issues that detracted from the story for me.
What I liked most about the story were Paulie and Joel, both individually and together. Paulie even more so, if I’m being honest and picking a favorite. Joel is a passionate history student who wants to escape the mistakes of the past and move on with his new life in Oklahoma. And, Paulie is just a total love. Raised as part of the Quiverfull movement, Paulie is recovering from that upbringing, and from being rejected by his overzealous, conservative parents. Since his parents didn’t believe in homosexuality…I know…he went to live with his aunt as a young teenager. His aunt, who is also fabulous, encouraged him to be himself, and gave him the freedom to do so.
Paulie is attracted to Joel from the moment he sees him in the class they share. But for Joel, the attraction takes longer for him to acknowledge, and certainly longer to act on. As the blurb tells us, Joel is dealing with the ghost of his high school boyfriend, Diego. This memory of Diego, and the regret that Joel lives with every day, are basically crippling for him. He is unable to form any sort of meaningful romantic relationship, and the strain of the incident’s aftermath led to his parents’ divorce, and his semi-estrangement from them.
Paulie and Joel were wonderful together. That is, when Joel wasn’t letting Diego get in the way of his happiness. I’ve got to be upfront with you guys, I did NOT like how big a role Diego played throughout the entire book. To me, Diego was this extremely unlikeable and unwelcome third character who kept causing issues for the other players. I don’t want to downplay the horrible, horrible thing that happened to Joel when he lost his boyfriend, and what felt like his entire town turned on him in the wake of the accident, how unfair it was, or that the effects of something like that can be far-reaching. But, I had a difficult time believing that Joel would have been letting it completely rule him as much as he was three years later.
Part of the issue, I think, were the inconsistencies in the story with regard to how Joel felt about their relationship and how Diego’s character was portrayed. There were moments where he remembered Diego not seeming that into things between them, not always being that kind, never telling Joel he loved him back. Joel even said he felt like a ‘consolation prize’ and would be ‘cut loose’ as soon as Diego found something better. But then, Joel also recalled their relationship with a sort of first-love reverence that felt unrealistic because of the unflattering characterization of Diego, and how he acted toward Joel. If the Diego factor had been slightly less intrusive, I think McLellan could have still told the story she wanted to tell, and less joy would have been leeched out of Joel’s falling in love with Paulie, and how amazing they were together.
Aside from that, and a moment toward the end where Paulie acts so incredibly out of character that it left me incredulous and threw me out of the story for a moment, I enjoyed both main characters a ton. I loved Joel’s passion for his project about the plains people in Oklahoma, and how beautifully written some of the passages and descriptions of the scenery were. I loved Paulie’s joie de vivre and how kindness flowed out of him despite the adversity he had to overcome in his life. And their chemistry was truly so, so good.
So, like I said, mixed feelings. I was glad I read it, it kept me engaged, but the melodrama and inconsistencies kept it from being as good as I hoped it would be.
You can buy Controlled Burn here: