Bitterness and Lies Between JUST FRIENDS–A Review

just-friends-blitz-bannerHi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a dark contemporary YA romance form best-selling author Monica Murphy. JUST FRIENDS explores the dynamics between several high school seniors, and how their friendships are altered by sex.

just-friends-coverAbout the book:
It’s the end of summer. Just before I start senior year with my two best friends in the whole world. Dustin and Emily are everything to me. We’ve been inseparable since middle school, and when we’re together, nothing can go wrong.

But things aren’t always what they seem. Em’s turned into a drunken mess who parties too much. Dustin and I have hooked up a few times—and now he’s ready to take our relationship to the next level. Yet I’m not sure I want things to change. I’m scared if I take it any further with Dustin, our friendship will be ruined forever. Then there’s Ryan. The new guy. He’s hot. He flirts way too much. And Em has totally set her sights on him.

So when my best friend betrays me in the worst possible way, guess who’s there to help me pick up the pieces of my broken heart? Ryan. But he’s so confusing. Annoying. Sweet. Sexy. I want to trust him, yet he makes it so hard. What I really want is for everything to go back to the way it was before.

Before I found out that best friends make the worst kind of enemies.

My Review:
This is a rather dark contemporary YA romance that features a lot of manipulation, fair amounts of drugs and alcohol, and some sex on the page between high school seniors.

Olivia, Dustin and Emily are three best friends growing up in an upscale California town. Olivia and Dustin had been having a casual physical relationship that Dustin wants to escalate, but Olivia’s worried it’ll upset Em. Also, Olivia is conflicted regarding Dustin. She loves him, but isn’t sure if she can really date him. She leaves for an extended summer visit in Oregon with her father. Over the weeks Olivia’s gone lots of changes happen between Em and Dustin, and Em in particular. She begins drinking more heavily, and invites over more popular kids to party at her house while her parents leave her unattended for days on end. There is lots of getting high, and getting wasted and getting horizontal–especially for Em and new boy Ryan.

Ryan’s made it clear: he only wants Em for a casual hook-up, and has no real feelings for her. He’s not the only boy Em hooks up with, though, and the revelations send shock waves through what seemed an unshakeable friendship between Em, Olivia and Dustin. I think this part was really easy to relate to, as betrayal is a touchstone emotion. I must say that the guys in this book are so ridiculous. It’s as if they are all running a bizarre sexual Catch-22, where the more a girl gives, the less they desire her–and that felt cruel. The Just Friends distinction was openly false, with some people pretending to “use” their users. I seriously wanted to smack some people, maybe everyone. There’s back-biting, and cat-fighting and actual fighting, though it’s not always front-and-center. Em’s jealous that not only Dustin, but Ryan, seem to want Olivia, and it’s rough to experience how they all fall apart over he said/she said and these false distinctions regarding attacment and attraction. That was unfortunately terrifyingly believable, those little digs and cuts people make to hurt those with whom they are closest, and really brought home the subtle slut shaming that is just as pervasive as open slut-shaming.

Ryan is the ultimate player, and he doesn’t mind twisting any situation to his advantage. He seems a consummate narcissist, and he wants Olivia. Because reasons. Is he playing her to get Em to give up more? Or is he jsut flirting? Or, does he want to build a real relationship? None of this seems clear to Olivia, who is rightfully suspicious and cautious. Ryan sees no problems with the way he’s treated other girls, notably Em, and I get that he feels blameless there, but it’s a hollow sort of acceptance for the reader. In general, I didn’t like Ryan, and never found an affinity for him. I had a real intuition that he’d play Olivia, and while it doesn’t seem that happens, the book ends with a set-up for a sequel. So, heartache may still loom.

The book is rife with drama and angst, as Olivia unwinds her feelings for Em, Dustin, and Ryan. Plus, she’s got a creepy dude dating her mom who seems to be a developing problem. I’m encouraged that Olivia’s new friend, Amanda, will be a bigger part of the next book, as she seemed like a nice girl and one I’d like to see have a real love. I’m not so sure I’m interested in Olivia’s life, except as one stands by, horrified, watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. Gonna be lots of collateral damage, I’m sure.

Interested? You can find JUST FRIENDS on Goodreads, Amazon (US, UK, Can, and Aus), Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo.

About the Author:
Monica Murphy is the New York Times, USA Today and #1 international bestselling author of the One Week Girlfriend series, the Billionaire Bachelors and The Rules series. Her books have been translated in almost a dozen languages and has sold over one million copies worldwide. She is a traditionally published author with Bantam/Random House and Harper Collins/Avon, as well as an independently published author. She writes new adult, young adult and contemporary romance. She is also USA Today bestselling romance author Karen Erickson.

She is a wife and a mother of three who lives with her family in central California on fourteen acres in the middle of nowhere, along with their one dog and too many cats. A self-confessed workaholic, when she’s not writing, she’s reading or hanging out with her husband and kids. She’s a firm believer in happy endings, though she will admit to putting her characters through many angst-filled moments before they finally get that hard won HEA.

Catch up With Monica here:

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Caught in the UNDERTOW

Undertow (Dragonfly, #2)What can a person confide in wholeheartedly, without censure? A private journal.

Through it a reader sees the author’s bold hopes, petty machinations, and outright manipulations in stark relief.

I’ve just completed reading an advance copy of UNDERTOW, book two in the Dragonfly Series by Leigh T. Moore, and it wasn’t what I expected.

I’ve rambled before about expectations and how it’s nice to upset them. Mix things up. Make bold moves.

Well, UNDERTOW is a very bold move.

It moved the Dragonfly Series right out of YA and squarely into women’s fiction.

How could that be? you ask—firmly reminding me that the protagonist, Anna, is a high school senior.

99% of the time a high school age main character = YA, right?

Sure. I’d lay money on the table with those odds, but UNDERTOW isn’t actually about Anna—it’s about big plans, bigger lies and life-changing secrets.

This tale is really an intimate look at a troubled marriage written from three points of view, and the speakers are old journals. The voyeur in me was intrigued, but as you can guess, it was raw.

Yes, Anna is the reader, but she is a prop in the scheme.

We pick up the story with Anna being on her own after Christmas reading the three journals given her by Bill Kyser, Jack and Lucy’s father, at the end of DRAGONFLY. She begins with Meg’s journal—all shiny and bright with hope over her impending wedding to Bill—a marriage she secured by an ‘oops’ pregnancy (PSA: Don’t try this at home!) She assures Bill she’ll be able to manage housekeeping while he overloads on college coursework to get his foothold in business. See, Bill wants to develop the Alabama gulf coast. It’s his big dream, and Meg wants a comfortable life—with Bill. Now.

Yes. It is a setup for doom, kids.

Meg’s journal is anguish. Missing her husband as he works long, long hours, doubles up on classes to finish school in 2.5 years instead of 4. She tries to be happy, and fails—particularly wanting to have more babies to fill her days when their first boy goes off to school. Along the way she confides in Lexi/Alex LaSalle—her BFF. (For those who need to catch up, Lexi/Alex is also mother to Julian, Anna’s good friend who wants more.) Completely against Bill’s express wishes Meg tries for a second OOPS! And she succeeds, in both getting pregnant and completely alienating Bill. Especially problematic with twins, Jack and Lucy, on the way.

Bright, shiny Meg knows she’s wrong, but she is as selfish as any. Eventually Bill thaws, but things are never the way they were—yet Meg is finally realizing all of her dreams. Big house, beautiful family, and suddenly Lexi/Alex is pregnant—no Daddy to be found. Still she’s excited to have her friend join the Mommy club. Her journal ends with the revelation that Julian is not entirely fatherless—really.

Lexi/Alex’s journal is a study in naïveté. She embarks on her college studies in art and is promptly picked up by the resident scumbag painting instructor as his freshman plaything. Broken from that experience she moves to Atlanta to work in commercial art, but is worn by the long work days and inspiration-crushing competition. So, when Bill Kyser asks her to become the creative consultant for his real estate development company, she agrees to return home. She jumps into the job with both feet, working tirelessly with Bill on the interior and exterior concepts of the projects.

Surely nothing can go wrong spending countless hours with your best friend’s husband.

Right.

In truth it isn’t sordid, only sad. Sad that relationships change and people grow past their first love. Sad that decisions made in the half-aware high school world can affect so many loved ones later.

Bill Kyser’s journal is regret, plain and simple. Regret that his girlfriend is pregnant. Regret that he’s getting married following high school graduation. Regret that he has no time to be a father. Regret that he can’t realize his dream fast enough to be the husband and father he always wanted to be. And, eventually it is regret that he can no longer connect with the wife he never knew. He tries—and is blindsided by Meg’s ‘accidental’ pregnancy. Again.

To Bill this deceit is unforgivable. And, along the way he’s realized that he has serious feelings for Lexi/Alex. The kind he’d set all his big plans aside for, in fact. One quick tryst, and he’s ready to separate—not that Lexi/Alex will let him abandon Meg. She’d run first, to his great regret.

The climax comes three times in this story. Through all three points-of-view we experience Meg’s discovery of Bill and Lexi/Alex’s betrayal. It is cutting and acute and ends with a rash and final act that guarantees no happiness for the survivors.

Maybe.

Because time has passed. Nearly twenty years.

And Anna is now recruited to help bridge the chasm between Bill and Lexi/Alex. But what can she do? And, how will she keep these dark secrets inside when Julian is ready to move out of The Friend Zone?

UNDERTOW reveals much about life.

The danger of an undertow is how it can swiftly and silently take you under and steal your life away. One misstep and BAM!! your life is forever changed/altered/over, as you knew it.

Reading the close first-person accounts in UNDERTOW is not simply slowing for a peek at a wreck on the highway. It is understanding that a wreck is going to happen. It is watching the cars line up and begin their travels, hearing the songs playing on their radios, checking the texts the drivers won’t ignore, and then seeing each and every driver’s careful maneuvers collapse into a fiery catastrophe.

So, not really a beach read. And, not really YA, IMHO. There are some sexual references/situations, naturally, but (to me) its themes are out of the realm of what most teens would gravitate toward.

For the record–This advice is for MALES AND FEMALES alike: Do not get pregnant to ‘trap’ a partner or ‘save’ a marriage. Ever. This is the exact WORST thing to do—it complicates a relationship in a thousand different ways that you cannot predict and that may not be overcome. Having a baby is a life-altering event for, if no one else, the mother. Do so with eyes wide open.
(This is my final PSA for the week.)

Is UNDERTOW at good story? Yes. In fact: YES! says it better. If it wasn’t written so close-to-the-bone we’d never feel it so deeply. Truly, there are so many people in this world who start out exactly like Bill and Meg and end up a broken couple. Probably someone you know, or did know back in high school…maybe even you?

For me, UNDERTOW is a lesson in “How not to structure a relationship.” Because, as Bill Kyser puts it to Anna, “The truth is always the right thing.”

I’ve given up more details about this story than usual—mainly because it is so unexpected.

What I didn’t expect in the reading? That I’d be eagerly awaiting the next installment—WATERCOLORS later this year—wherein Anna and Julian attempt a relationship. Guess that one will be more YA.

Other series books that had a raw, gut-wrenching, second novel? Diana Gabaldon’s DRAGONFLY IN AMBER from the OUTLANDER series—which is also told in flashback. And Suzanne Collins’ CATCHING FIRE is another prime example.

So, yeah. UNDERTOW is intense. It steals your breath away. It will be available July 18th and I’d set it on your TBR if you’re into TBR’s that is…

Perhaps WATERCOLORS will be as gentle as the name sounds…but, honestly, I wouldn’t expect it. Looks like Ms. Moore’s going to tear my heart out again.

It’s okay, I can take it. 🙂