Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Sarah Frantz

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

Posts by Sarah Frantz:

REVIEW:  Out in the Field by Kate McMurray

REVIEW: Out in the Field by Kate McMurray

Dear Ms. McMurray.

I picked up your book because of a recommendation by someone whose taste I trust and because I liked the excerpt. The story was cute, but the flaws outweighed the cuteness for me.

OutintheFieldCoverThis is a book about Being a Gay Athlete. This was NOT a romance. Oh, it had a love story in it and the love story had an HEA, but that HEA was never threatened. There was no barrier, no conflict, no tension integral TO the love story. The barrier/conflict/tension was all located in the Being a Gay Athlete story.

First up: I know nothing about baseball. Nothing. I actively dislike baseball, in fact. So I mostly skimmed details about the games. I’ve invited Sunita to comment on those aspects of the story in particular (but also on whatever else she wants to say).

The story is thus: Matt Blanco is a Hall-of-Fame worthy first baseman with the Brooklyn Eagles in his fourteenth season. His knee hurts, a lot. And he’s very very closeted. Ignacio Rodriguez is the Hot New Thing who has just been traded to the Eagles as their new third baseman. Matt might be fifteen years older than Iggy, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t appreciate precisely how hot Iggy actually is. There’s a little bit of lust for a chapter, then they both figure out the other’s gay in chapter 2. Which seemed a bit quick to me. Then they quickly get together.

The book takes place over four years and includes Matt’s coming out post-retirement and Iggy’s while still playing. Like Sunita (see below), I thought both of those were well done (except in that Matt wrote a book and the day before the book released in stores was when he came out for the first time. I just don’t believe that the secret would have been kept to that point). I like that the book doesn’t try to schmoosh everything into one season. I like that a lot.

However, I was frustrated by many things in this book. The “gee, shucks, little ole me?” stuff from both men got old pretty quickly. Both of them have obscene amounts of money and obscene endorsement contracts, and they just “want to play ball”:

Iggy rubbed his head. “This was easier when the hardest decision I had to make was whether or not I’d pose holding a bat in my baseball card photo.”

“I know, but these are all excellent opportunities. You’ll gain more visibility with fans, which puts more of those fans in the stadium, which gets you more favorable treatment from the Eagles front office. Everything is linked.”

“With money.”

Chris scoffed. “Don’t be like that. It’s part of the game, Ig. You signed your name on that contract knowing that.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m really grateful for all this. It’s just completely overwhelming.” Although, now that he’d said it, he wasn’t sure “grateful” was really the right word. He supposed he was happy enough that people wanted to give him money. And really, if having too much money was his only problem, he was happy to take it.

“You’re kind of a sex symbol, you know,” Chris said. “You could be cultivating your female fans.”

Iggy sighed. “Is it a cliché to say I just want to play baseball?”

Yes, in fact, it really really is. And just seemed utterly disingenuous to me, on the writer’s part, not on Iggy’s. The character has to be sympathetic, so god forbid he actually be money-aware. Just easier to make his aw-shucks-y instead.

The telling, not showing was most frustrating for me, though. At one point, Matt’s knee gives out on him during sex. The next day, he’s thinking about it:

 Matt still regretted having to put the brakes on their session the night before, but it couldn’t have been helped. He was embarrassed, too, that Iggy now knew about the knee. He hadn’t wanted Iggy to know, hadn’t wanted to lose face in front of him. He’d wanted to be a whole man for Iggy, a strong man. He wanted to live up to the image Iggy had worshipped for years. But now Iggy had seen his weakness. [ . . . ] Matt dug his sneakers out of his locker and eavesdropped on the conversations around him. A few more players trickled in and roamed around, some idly talking about plans for the evening. Matt mostly wanted to go home and ice his knee. And, he found, he wanted Iggy to come with him. Not even for sex—Matt didn’t think he could make his knee work well enough for that anyway—but just to hang out and talk with. The cat was really out of the bag now. It was kind of a relief not to have to pretend with Iggy that everything was hunky-dory.

Really? This could have been…so much better done. This was rarely hinted at in the lead-up to the scene, and it could have been a site for serious tension between Iggy and Matt until Iggy assured Matt that of course he cared that Matt was injured, but only in so far as he wanted to be able to help and support him…or something similar. Instead, it’s a throwaway couple of paragraphs and then ignored.

And then there’s the fact that the whole thing was about Being a Gay Athlete. EVERYTHING had to do with this. Every scene, every tension, every decision, every discussion, every plot point, almost every sex scene, it seemed. It got tiring and a bit boring. But if readers like that sort of this, then this is the book for them.

If I were to compare this book to anything, it’d be Amy Lane’s The Locker Room (basketball, not baseball), but I think that book did a much better job of making the tension of being closeted into something that almost tears the heroes apart. This book tries to, but doesn’t quite get there.

One thing I will say, boy, you can write great sex scenes. The writing soared during the sex:

Iggy dug his fingers into Matt’s back. Matt thrust his hips forward, and their cocks rubbed together. God. God. Goose bumps broke out everywhere, and Matt groaned, his heart rate and anticipation mounting. He knew sweet release would come disastrously fast, but he didn’t care much. This was so damn good, and Iggy seemed to be right there with him, grunting and biting now.

Except for the unnecessary “sweet” here, I loved this scene. Most of the sex was very well done.

Overall, this book could have been so much better. The characters themselves were great. I really enjoyed watching them have dates together, to be honest, when they were just talking. But the book as a whole never really gelled for me, mainly because I could see the potential there and was frustrated with what was should have been there, rather than with what existed.

Grade: C


Sunita: This book is a great example of how two readers can see entirely different things in a story. My grade is not that different from Sarah’s, but for very different reasons, and I would recommend this book for certain readers.

First, the baseball. I know the author is a big baseball fan (she talks about it in the front matter of this book, among other places), and so I was looking forward to a romance that got the sports right. In some parts she succeeds, but in others, not so much. The camaraderie of professional athletes is really well done. I enjoyed the locker room scenes with the other members of the team, and a later scene in the hospital was just terrific, in part because the author took it in a totally different direction than I expected. But I had two gripes about other aspects, as well as a third I share with Sarah. The shared gripe is that their salaries are barely mentioned. These dudes are really rich. We all know what star athletes get paid, and even the MLB minimum is nothing to sneeze at. So can we please not pretend that they’re anything other than totally loaded? Make it something Iggy is getting used to, but don’t treat it as unimportant.

My big complaint is that the protagonists don’t seem to concentrate very much when they’re in a game, or in the late season and playoffs. They wind up in the ALCS, but they’re thinking about their romance. When they walk up to the plate, they’re thinking about each other or something related. When they’re in the field, they’re making eyes at each other. Really? Once in a while, okay. But it happens over and over again. It really detracted from the verisimilitude of some of the scenes. Pro athletes spend their entire lives preparing to get to the top. That takes a very high level of focus and compartmentalization (for most of them).

My small complaint is that the strategy within the games, which is sometimes important for the plot, sometimes doesn’t make sense. When Matt hurts his knee, it’s when he breaks from third to home. On an infield popup with one out. That kind of boneheaded running play would get you chewed out in Little League, let alone MLB. And there are other descriptions of play that had me shaking my head. It’s tough to satisfy both baseball aficionados and those who don’t care, and mostly the author does a good job. Perhaps because of that, the little things stood out.

OK, the romance. Unlike Sarah, I definitely thought this was a genre romance. Maybe it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been, but I saw both internal and external conflicts. The problems of being a gay athlete are analogous to external conflicts in historical romances, e.g., class, race, religion, and another similarity is the way in which external issues create internal conflicts to be resolved.

One of the reasons sports settings work so well in m/m is that the closet is a requirement, not an option, in most (male) professional team sports. The fear of being discovered, the fear of your teammates turning on you, all that is very real and ever-present. And I thought the age difference and the fact that they were at opposite ends of their careers made for an interesting internal conflict, giving it a Star Is Born quality. The internal conflict wasn’t as well developed as it could have been, and I would have liked to see more of Matt’s post-baseball issues and how they affected the couple. I did think the two big coming-out scenes were really well done. I’ve read two earlier books by this author, I felt these scenes were far better integrated here.

Matt and Iggy were thoroughly appealing characters, which again is a feature of this author’s books (I have liked every one of her main characters). They could have been a little less loveable, to be honest. And a couple of the supporting characters verged on stereotypes (please, authors, middle-aged mothers do not have to be From Hell or From Heaven).

I can see why so many readers loved this book. Once I got over my baseball-related niggles and there were more interactions with the other baseball team members, I quite enjoyed the story.

Grade: B-



REVIEW:  A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

REVIEW: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

(This one is addressed to readers, not the author) Dear Readers:

As we all know, it’s impossible to be objective about a review. And this is fine, as long as we can be honest about the sources of our lack of objectivity, if we know them. This book has flaws, even major flaws that have been pointed out to me by other really astute readers, and I will talk about these flaws. But I was and am utterly unable to be aware of these flaws as I read this book, no matter how many times I read it — and I’ve read it at least three times by now. This book ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, put it back, then did it again, only harder.

A Private Gentleman by Heidi CullinanI need plot summary to explain my particular and specific non-objectivity: The story is set at some point during Victoria’s reign — gas lighting and indoor plumbing exist, for example. Lord George Albert Westin, or Wes to his very few friends, is the second son of a very powerful Marquess, painfully shy, reclusive, a brilliant botanist, completely gay, a stammerer, and addicted to heroin that was first prescribed to him by a doctor to control his panic attacks. Michael Vallant is a first class whore, beautiful, and the victim of rape at the age of twelve by none other than Wes’s father. I am giving nothing away by saying this because it’s all revealed very early in the story.

My utter lack of objectively arises from the fact that I was sent the ARC of this book a week after the Penn State/Sandusky story broke. The situation at Penn State broke my heart and made me furious, in turn/together. So the first time I read this book, all I could think of was Sandusky’s victims, who seem to have been lost in the circus of all the other “more important” players of the “scandal.” The most recent time I read this book (for this review) was about two weeks after a very close friend told me about how their heroin addiction destroyed their life and how they’ve struggled to piece it back together. So I have no ability to separate from this book. I haven’t the slightest hope of viewing it with anything close to objectivity or even impartiality. This book is real people to me, desperately vulnerable people and/or people I care about deeply.

This book, if you couldn’t tell, is utterly over the top. Everything that happens, every character, every plot point, every sentence, is designed specifically to rip your heart out and stomp on it. Being the glutton I am, I love this. I’m a Romantic (Big-R, literary movement Romantic) at heart, as well as a romantic (small-R, people falling in love romantic), so I go for the grand gestures, always have. I love Over The Top. This book, therefore, utterly worked for me. But I know that’s what exasperated some of my astute reader friends who read it.

For instance, the stock characters: the villain (Wes’s father) is evil incarnate. He’s not like Sandusky was — everyone’s best friend and buddy. Daventry is only after power. You get the impression he isn’t even really a pedophile; rather, he just gets off on the utter power of “owning” a boy and doing exactly what he wants with him. He’s evil and horrible and that’s the point. Then there’s the pimp with the heart of gold: Michael’s mother (an aging courtesan) sold Michael to Wes’s father when Michael was 12. After the week with Daventry was over, Michael ran away and was saved by Rodger, who was 16 at the time and — of course — a master thief and pimp. Rodger’s basically controlled everything about Michael’s life since then, with Michael’s full permission. He knows all, sees all, controls all. But he loves Michael and wants what’s best for him. And there’s also Penelope Brannigan, the American “social worker” (an anachronistic term I’m using here just to make a point) with the horrible past that’s the reason she’s trying to save the world, one addict at a time.

While these characters are completely from Stock Central, and therefore annoy other readers, they completely worked for me because of their layers. Yes, they’re stock, but stock characters exist for a reason, and really, any representation of a pimp has become a stock representation, ditto a social worker with tragedy in her past that spurs her to do her good work. Cullinan doesn’t leave them at that, though. Rodger comes to realize his mistakes in dealing with Michael and the interaction between them is so well done. Penelope helps Wes overcome his addiction and control his stutter, but at cost to herself. And honestly, people with Over The Top issues like this do actually exist in real life. I know a surprising number of them, in fact. So it doesn’t actually seem over the top to me.

However, the ONE issue I had with this book was with Wes’s brother: if any character was cardboard, it was him, parroting their father’s estimation of Wes, focused on his son as “the heir,” not as a boy. That did bother me and seemed too OTT, even for this book. His about-face acceptance of the relationship between Wes and Michael at the end of the story (remember, this is a historical, so “sodomy” is a crime, etc.) bothered other readers I talked with, but I bought it, considering the specific circumstances (that are spoilerish so I will comment no more).

But really, the love story between Wes and Michael is strong enough that it allows me to say words which might seem unbelievable, but here I go: addiction and child rape aside, this book is about Wes and Michael, two very damaged souls, finding each other and becoming both weaker and stronger together. As always, Cullinan delivers the goods (for me). For instance, Wes (whom Michael calls and thinks of as Albert) is trying to convince Michael to wear his much-needed glasses:

Albert only smiled wryly and held out the spectacles, dangling them from his fingers. “Wh-Wh-Why will you n-not wear them? You p-p-prefer not to see?”

Michael’s cock was pounding as hard as his pulse now, and as he knew neither would get release, he lost his temper. “My lord, I make my living by my looks. How many whores have you met with glasses thicker than most windowpanes?”

He doubted he’d have been able to read Albert’s face even if he could see it. It made him angry, and he would have stormed out, but he couldn’t leave his glasses. He’d fallen asleep before he’d finished the Dickens.

“Wh-Wh-Why d-did you ask m-m-me to k-k-kiss you?” Albert asked at last.

“Because you haven’t kissed me all week,” Michael shot back.

Albert’s reply was measured, careful. “You w-w-wanted me to?”

“Yes.” Michael folded his arms over his chest. “I did.”

Albert took a step forward, his blurry form coming into partial focus. “H-How m-many c-clients h-have y-you m-met with s-s-s-such a c-c-clumsy st-st-ststammer?”

Heat raced up Michael’s cheeks. “You’re different,” he whispered.

“S-S-So are you,” Albert whispered back.

Don’t fall in love with him. Rodger’s words rose up in faint echo, a last warning.

Too late, Michael admitted, frozen in place as Albert lifted Michael’s glasses and arranged them carefully on his face.

The impetus for the story is that Wes and Michael meet by accident at a not-quite-ton party. Michael is there to find tricks (which in retrospect seems odd, considering how much he stays at the brothel during the rest of the book), but is instead being harassed by a rejected customer; Wes is there to see a rare orchid (he’s a botanist) but is unable to control his social anxiety enough to ask his hostess to see it. Wes and Michael are trapped together by Michael’s irate former customer and “talk” to each other on Wes’s notepad, allowing them to have a conversation without consideration for Wes’s stammer. They have a sexual encounter which sends Michael into an unaccountable tailspin of flashbacks to his abuse at the hands of Wes’s father. Unable to earn his keep anymore, Michael asks Rodger to find Wes, hoping that another encounter with Wes will fix him (Michael), just as the first one messed him up. It doesn’t, but after Michael’s panic attack, Wes buys a month of Michael’s time, during which they spend every afternoon together, learning each other, falling in love, and struggling with what life has thrown them.

Cullinan’s writing is brilliant, as usual. Michael and Wes are amazing characters; their relationship is perfect for them. They don’t cure each other. There’s no insta-cure in this book for heroin addiction or for PTSD flashbacks to child sex abuse. But their love for each other makes them want to try to be better, however much they stumble along the way. But I also love how the characters don’t just strengthen each other — they weaken each other as well; their relationship makes things worse for them as well as better. It’s brilliantly done.

Once again, I feel like my review doesn’t begin to do justice to the book. Honestly, yes, the book is over the top and if that’s not your thing as a reader, then this book will NOT work for you. But, you know what, every now and then I’m confronted with the fact that some people’s lives are like this: maybe none of Sandusky’s victims will end up with a recovering heroin addict for a partner, but both deserve happiness just as much as anyone else (except Sandusky himself, of course). Sometimes the love story should be about the victims, the non-Alphas, the ones who are left behind, the ones who aren’t strong — but of course, are the strongest of us all. That is this book. And I adored it.

Grade: B+ (Recommended Read for February)

Best regards,