“No way was I slowly falling out of lust with my boss. Equally, no way was I falling in love with Jack.”
In a word: Maybe read the thing. I really wanted to like this one. The summary got me hooked and I was a bit excited, but even in the first paragraph I realized that I probably wasn’t gonna like this one much. First-person point of view is often very hit and miss for me, and this one was a definite miss. There were some things that I liked about the book, but they were mostly outweighed by all the things I didn’t like. One of the biggest issues I had was that I didn’t like the writing, and that really impacted the way I felt about the story overall because I just couldn’t get away from the writing style. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t really get into the characters. Jack is fine enough, but Blair is way too whiny and needlessly self-deprecating for my tastes. Another thing that irked me is that I didn’t feel like the story I ended up reading was the story I was promised in the book’s summary. We don’t even get anything from Jack’s point of view, and the subplot with Travis got very dramatic very quickly. All in all, this book isn’t awful by any means, and it’s a quick read if you’re looking for something dramatic and soap opera-ish, but I can’t say I liked it all that much.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains mentions of bullying, mentions of sexual assault, physical abuse, mentions of sexual harassment, vomiting, self-deprecation/self-hate, and verbal abuse.
The Couple: Blair Clark is our narrator. He’s currently going through a very rough patch as he was fired from his job and the stain it left on his record has prevented him from finding a new one so that he’s had to move back in with his mother. None of this is helped by his abusive relationship with his friend-with-benefits (or something), who Blair is, in turns, attracted to and terrified of. Things start to turn around when he finally lands a job with Jack Ross‘ firm as a secretary. Jack is a handsome man, but he’s had a lot of problems in his personal life due to the cruelty routinely inflicted on him because of the large port-wine stain on his face, and that’s left him with internal marks as well. The book’s summary makes it seem like these two have to jump through hoops before they finally settle into a relationship with each other. That would be wrong. The summary also makes it sound like we’ll also get some chapters in Jack’s point of view. That would also be wrong. Stained is written in Blair’s first-person point of view and it drove me right up the wall. I’m gonna say right now that I wasn’t too fond of Blair’s character. Not that he was a bad guy or anything, he wasn’t, but he just rubbed me the wrong way at times. Though that is mostly likely down to the writing style (which I hated). Blair himself is kinda pitiful; he has insanely low self-esteem, probably due to all the bullying and teasing he went through as a child and all the bad relationships he’s mentioned getting into as an adult. A lot of the narrative is full of him putting himself down, which got really tiring after a while, especially because it was the same thing over and over. Another thing about Blair is that he sort of came off as if he’d originally been written as a woman. There’s just something about the way he views himself and the way that others treat him that gives me the impression of a stereotypical Harlequin heroine, or something. It’s weird. Jack didn’t annoy me as much as Blair did, but I didn’t really connect much with him. His character feels kind of distant to me; and I’m gonna blame that on the writing. Jack very quickly becomes protective of Blair and tends to take care of him, which is great for the hurt/comfort scenes; outside of that it’s a bit weird, especially since they haven’t known each other long. There was also this thing where Blair has difficulty eating sometimes and Jack really quickly got invested in that and I found that really creepy and inappropriate (mostly because it reminded me of Christian Grey from the 50 Shades series and I find pretty much anything to do with that creepy and off-putting).
The Stains: The title, Stained, is a reference to two things: Blair’s employment record and Jack’s port-wine stain. Blair was forced to leave his last job because he accused his boss of sexual harassment and no one believed him (he had gone to the police with evidence, but it ended up disappearing). It’s something that now follows him around when he tries for new jobs, making it virtually impossible to get hired anywhere. It’s something that’s greatly impacted his life since being unemployed for so long has made it impossible to keep living on his own and so he’s had to move back in his childhood bedroom at his mother’s place. It’s a great background, and suitably dramatic, but the effect of it was kinda ruined for me by the way that Blair and Jack got together so quickly. I’m not saying that Jack sexually harassed Blair, he didn’t, sort of? I mean, Blair and Jack never really acted like an employer and an employee should have. The way they got close and the way their romance progressed wouldn’t be much to write home about if Jack weren’t Blair’s boss. Like, there was a shoulder massage at one point, not long after Blair started working. That’s probably crossing a few lines. It just rubbed me the wrong way the way it all played out, especially considering that the bulk of the story takes place over a few weeks, maybe a month. Speaking of Jack, his stain, unlike Blair’s, is virtually impossible to hide. He’s got a port-wine stain that covers a large part of the left side of his face. It’s a very obvious mark and instantly noticeable. Jack has suffered over the course of his life because people are cruel and there are stares and awful comments that follow him wherever he goes. We don’t really get much on Jack’s struggles with his face, since everything is written in Blair’s point of view. There’s a scene where Blair and Jack go get lunch and nearly everyone in the restaurant are making comments and rudely staring and even taking pictures and laughing. I’d say it was a little over the top, but for all I know this is something that actually happens. Because people suck. There’s also a brief mention about the tension Jack has with his mother because his mother wants him to get rid of the stain but Jack doesn’t want to because he’s accepted it as a part of himself now. It never really comes up again so it ends up being kind of a non-issue. Jack was a bit hesitant about starting things with Blair, but Blair is apparently the only person he’s had a romantic interest in that had no problems with his face (he kinda stops noticing the stain after a while).
The Ex: This would be Blair’s crush, Travis (if he had a last name I’ve forgotten it). Travis worked in IT at Blair’s old job. He’s a fucktrumpet. Also he ends up being an insanely more dramatic villain than how he started out. We meet him in the first scene of the book, and I instantly took a disliking to him. The summary mentioning that he ‘uses’ Blair doesn’t even do the situation justice. Blair and Travis are fuckbuddies without the buddy part, really, because Travis is a terrible person and definitely does not behave in a friendly way toward Blair. He treats Blair like shit. He mocks Blair, he belittles him, he lets his friends treat him like shit in his presence, and he demands that Blair keep their ‘relationship’ a secret. Travis isn’t out to anyone and doesn’t seem to have any interest in actually being with Blair, just in controlling and fucking him. He also threatens Blair quite a bit, and he scares him enough that when Blair suddenly comes to his sense (pretty much out of nowhere) and decides to break things off with Travis, Blair is afraid for his mother’s safety. Then Travis just tips right off the deep end by emailing a video he took of him and Blair having sex (without Blair’s knowledge) and emailing it to nearly everyone in Jack’s company. I found that the way that all resolved itself was a bit too clean and convenient, but I will admit that I didn’t see any of it coming. I don’t even want to imagine what other shit Travis would’ve pulled if this book had been any longer. Dude’s majorly unhinged.
The Family: The story is fairly contained with Blair and Jack’s romance and there aren’t really a lot of side characters. There is really only one of note and that’s Blair’s mother… whose name I’ve forgotten, if it was ever mentioned. Blair is currently living with his mother, who is wheelchair-bound but does live on her own in a modified apartment (I’m assuming). She seems to be Blair’s main source of support and comfort, and maybe companionship because Blair doesn’t seem to actually have any friends (Travis absolutely does not count). Blair is pretty close with his mother, even if they do get on each other’s nerves at times. I really did like their relationship, it was sweet. What I didn’t really like much was Blair’s relationship with his older sister, Brooke. Brooke isn’t in the story much and really only shows up near the end, after everything with Travis has gone down, and when she does show up she’s a source of comfort for Blair (she was his protector when he was bullied as a child). I didn’t have a problem with that. What I did have a problem with was the way it came across that she pretty much dictated Blair’s feelings and was convinced that her take on things was the best way. Maybe it was because of the poor writing, or I was just reading into things the wrong way, but she really came across as just another person who took pleasure in running roughshod over Blair’s life and choices, whether Blair liked that or not, and that it was okay because she’s his big sister. I found that aspect of her character hard to get past and it just made me dislike her. We don’t see much of Jack’s family at all; it’s just his father that actually appears. Jack’s father, Paul Ross, was the previous owner of the firm and he shows up with lawyers on his heels after Travis’ email goes out. I really liked Paul’s character; he seemed like a good man and a nice guy. Blair got along well with him too. Aside from Paul, Jack also has a mother and two younger siblings. Jack’s mother is apparently very unlikeable and is always needling her children to the point where they don’t want to spend any time around her (she’s apparently very critical about Jack’s port-wine stain), so maybe it’s a good thing she doesn’t show up. Jack’s siblings (a brother and a sister) aren’t really very interesting to hear about, but we still get exposition about them anyway (I think one of them is into horses, or something?).
The Sex: Hoo boy. Two sex scenes in this, both between Blair and Jack (there are some mentions of sex between Blair and Travis, but it was mostly to highlight how bad the relationship was). The writing sucks so they’re both pretty bad (the word ‘channel’ was used, that was the moment I knew for sure I was never reading this book again). The first one takes place in the office, and it was just mutual hand jobs on the couch, but it takes place right after the police leave the office after Blair presses charges against Travis for assault and emailing the video and right before Jack’s father shows up with the lawyers. I feel like the timing for a shag on the office sofa was a bit inappropriate. I mean, Blair is a mess to the point where he’s vomiting from the stress and anxiety. How can he even be thinking of sex right now? Is this a thing? Anyway. The other sex scene happens the next day, I think? Jack and Blair go to Jack’s apartment and have sex. I didn’t think anything about the scenes themselves really stood out, except that the writing was bad (channel) so I spent more time nitpicking and complaining than just enjoying the moment. It certainly didn’t help that I wasn’t really connecting to the characters, or really caring about them or their romance.
The Writing: Bad. I’m sure some people find this kind of writing appealing or enjoyable; I am not one of those people. There was nothing really wrong with the grammar or spelling (that I noticed), but the writing style just drove me up the wall. It’s written in first person prose, as if Blair is talking to us, and it’s not good. The language was odd for a normal man living in the present time. Also it read like it was written by someone trying too hard. Big words and fancy-sounding phrasing. It didn’t work. Also the dialogue was horrible and it made everyone sound formal and distant and a bit creepy (in Jack’s case). There was a lot of exposition-type info-dumping going on in the dialogue, which rarely works for me. It happened quite a bit in the narrative too and since that is technically Blair talking to the reader it didn’t work there either. I have a few issues with the romance happening too quickly considering the situation, and the way some of the scenes play out was a bit too over-dramatic for my tastes, but that probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did if it wasn’t for the writing.
[Stained was published June 1, 2016, by Dreamspinner Press, it is only available as an ebook]