Review: Controlled Burn by Erin McLellan

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.

Ever have one of those reading experiences where everything just clicks? When all the words and sentiments expressed feel like a shared secret? That makes you reminisce on those conversations you've had in the middle of the night when it seemed easier to share all those random things that whirl around in your brainpan, so simple yet somehow profound?

That was this read for me.

I started reading the excerpt on Riptide's site just to see if it would suit me and within the first chapter I started to have that feeling. I tried to hold out once I got the ARC, wait to read and review it until closer to release day but it had its hooks in me and I needed to know.

Controlled Burn is told entirely through Joel. It's about him letting go of his grief and guilt and learning to live and love again. He'll never be the boy who was in love with his team's first baseman that had dreams of walking on the team at University of Nebraska together. He'll never be Jared again. But he can start again, be someone new, live an honest and open life with someone thoroughly unexpected. If he'll give himself a break and stop being so stubborn. 

Joel, at first glance, struck me as the prototypical protagonist who's suffered a terrible loss-closed off, only looking for anonymous sex to lessen the pain of losing his first love-but as this story unfolded so did his layers.

The complexity of not just his emotions but his behaviors resonated. He's not predictable nor is he perfect but his vulnerability spoke to me. He's put Diego and their halcyon days together on a pedestal which I think many are wont to do with someone who dies unexpectedly and so young. He's found comfort in this routine and created a life for himself albeit an isolated one. And then came Paulie.

He looked like home, and nothing had looked like home in a very long time.

Paulie is everything Diego wasn't. He's femme, out and proud, demonstrative, sassy and a bit audacious. He has a presence, makes no apologies for who he is nor does he hide how he feels about Joel. He has his fair share of baggage in the form of a hyper-religious family that wanted him to pray the gay away then ousted him at 14. Paulie is so strong in so many ways but just beneath the surface lies an innocence, a fragility. He's whatever the male version of a steel magnolia is.

Joel is in equal measures crazy in love with Paulie and terrified of what that means.

Theirs is an all consuming love but there is a secret that the longer it's left unspoken, the greater the risk is it will blow them apart. For a romance addict like me there were so many quiet moments between them that were superbly written emotionally yet happen in such realistic and austere ways that made them accessible and will undoubtedly lead to a reread in the future. Both the showing of their connection and the caliber of the exposition of these characters were top-notch.

Even if I didn't have the balls to say it, I could press my love into his skin like a tattoo, burn it into his memory so he would never forget it.

Sex is an integral part of their relationship. For me, it wasn't about the sex so much as it was about the emotionality of it and what it means for both of them. Why they have an insatiable need for the physical connection and a compulsion to leave their marks on each other. There are a couple of scenes that are memorable for their intimacy, but by and large what I will remember is the overpowering tenderness, the withholding and the unspoken yet utterly heartfelt emotions all corkscrewed together with a fiery passion.

In a weird way Diego is what brings them together and what could tear them apart. His loss is a sore than needs lancing in the worst way, and I appreciated that nothing about doing so was easy for Joel. Diego was his first love and even though he loves Paulie with every part of himself that doesn't diminish what he had with Diego. All too often it seems the norm to minimize past relationships so it was refreshing to see the road less traveled taken here.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the secondary characters. First and foremost, the Midwest. Both Joel and Paulie are born and raised in the Nebraska/Kansas area and they're going to school in Oklahoma. As a fellow red state dweller, I appreciated the atmosphere McLellan created, how important it is to both of them to stay because in spite of the politics and the redneckery it's still their home and has a beauty they both can't imagine living without.

And then there's Travis and Alex and David McDavid and Aunt Ruth and Daria all of whom got under my skin. Even their parents as much as I abhorred their parenting, they weren't made into villainous caricatures, just human. I was so happy to learn of a sequel with Travis and (hopefully) his ginger cowboy. May there be much spanking! 

Simply put, I loved it and if any of the above gibberish speaks to you then give Controlled Burn a try and hopefully it'll make as much of an impression on you as it did me.

An ARC was provided by NetGalley.


  1. Great review Cupcake. I'm definitely adding this. Acknowledging the previous relationship is a big yes for me. Somehow if you love someone later in life all that came before must be somehow belittled. I don't get it. Also something I consciously work on is seeing people in so called Red States as just people who live, love and exist as us Blue State folks. It sometimes becomes easy or short hand to dismiss a whole swath of people.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Lisa! I wish my state were bluer but I just keep doing what I do, try not to write people off & hope people realize change isn't always a bad thing.

  2. I had this as a strong maybe - now a definite buy! Thanks, great review