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REVIEW: Games People Play by Shelby Reed

Dear Ms. Reed,

Your blurb caught my attention. The book held it.

Sydney Warren is a successful painter of erotic landscapes—just the artful fantasies of a woman whose own life has been stripped of passion. Though she has stayed loyal to her boyfriend, Max, he’s unable to ignite the sparks they once shared, leaving Sydney wanting. Then comes the stranger, a work of art himself, and everything changes.

With chestnut hair, mesmerizing green eyes, and the perfect body, Colm Hennessy is every woman’s fantasy. He too is aroused, and more intrigued by the beautiful artist than he expected to be—because it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. For there’s something about Colm that Sydney doesn’t know…

Colm is only pretending to be a model. He’s been hired by Max to seduce her—a twisted scheme to test her fidelity. But Max never imagined that Colm would feel something real. As Sydney and Colm’s intimacy grows, as passions neither expected are unleashed, the stakes in a cruel game are raised—and desire isn’t the only thing set to spiral out of control.

The blurb intrigued me because the hints of infidelity make even the blurb subversive as a romance. I really thought it was women’s fiction mislabeled, but it didn’t matter. I love contemporary books set in an art world or have some kind of art involved. I also like the deceit angle because it just cranks the angst way high. I half expected a non-HEA, and would have been okay with that if the story supported it, so I had no qualms picking it up.

The story is fairly straightforward and told from both points of view, in third person. The prose is quiet, with moments of pure poetry, that still manages to ramp up the angst. The ambiance of each scene was well drawn even with few words and the emotion between the hero and heroine felt genuine.

Sydney is 28 and involved with a much older man (Max) who, being her agent and art broker, is more her mentor/Pygmalion than a true life partner. (In fact, it reminded me of the relationship between Celine Dion and her husband René Angélil.) Their relationship, however, went off a cliff when Max did and, as a result, required the use of a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Sydney was prepared to care for him and love him and maintain their relationship after the accident, but Max has been using his disability as just another manipulative weapon in his arsenal.

Max is a bastard. He’s always been a bastard. His paraplegia doesn’t change him. It just changes how Sydney sees his behavior, one piece of which is that he withholds physical intimacy from her.

Every part of every day the same. Every morning, the same poached egg and toast on his plate, the same grapefruit he never ate but insisted Hans serve him. Why did he waste the fruit? Because he could. Why did he waste her? Because he could.

“Max,” she said from behind her hand. “When did I become the grapefruit?”

The clang of his juice glass bumping the side of his plate made her jerk. “What?”

“The grapefruit.” She let her fingers slide away from her face. “You never touch it. It sits in its bowl in front of you. You look at it. Maybe you think about tasting it, but you never do.”

I was annoyed for the first three or four chapters with what I thought was shaping up to be yet another longsuffering martyr heroine. And then it occurred to me we all have to start somewhere, and I hoped this book was Sydney’s starting point. It wouldn’t be the first book I’d ever read where the hero was the catalyst and savior of the heroine in emotional distress, but I don’t mind those.

What I wasn’t expecting was that the hero was neither. The heroine, however broken (and she is), sees to her own empowerment in an orderly, swift manner once she sees the truth of her situation. She gives the hero credit for causing her to see her situation, not for causing her to do something about her situation. And he definitely wasn’t her savior. It was refreshing.

In fact, the way the hero and heroine deal with each other and their associated secondary characters, this book was just one pleasant surprise after another. They were adults. They talked. The deceit was, I thought, well handled because, given the hero’s constraints, it was a tough spot. There was no good out. But the resolution was mature and thoughtful.

There were a couple of clichés that annoyed me. The boyfriend was a bastard, which makes the infidelity angle easier to swallow. From the blurb, you get that he’s a bit of a jerk to set something like this up in the first place, but to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever is convenient. The hero’s motives for his deceit was also a tried-and-true-and-tired device.

But you handled it all very well, with grace and maturity and some very understated, lovely prose. There are also two (possibly three) leitmotifs woven through that added another layer of depth I appreciated.

There are two characters in this book who require the use of wheelchairs and they couldn’t be more different. I can’t tell if their characterizations were “authentic” or not (“authentic” being problematic in and of itself), but I thought they were well written.

For those of you who need to know more about the infidelity angle:

[spoiler]The heroine fights her attraction to the hero admirably while she is still with Max, except for a couple of instances that never go beyond a hand job, once. She was already emotionally and sexually done with Max before meeting the hero, but when she leaves Max, she also leaves the hero behind. It’s not until later that they get back together.

But then we have the other side of it, with the hero being a prostitute. His servicing other women while all this was going on was a bit too glossed over for my taste. I really needed them to actually work though this instead of just a lightbulb moment on her part that pisses her off.[/spoiler]

Naturally, for a deceit plot, one expects a comeuppance and grovel. My normal gripe is that the heroine doesn’t grind it in nearly enough, but here, the heroine ground it in (although I think she could have taken it a little farther). She did not find out his motives and then sigh and go, “Oh well. I forgive you in that case.” She took care of her own revenge, albeit with a bit of squeamishness at its end.

One thing about this book puzzles me and that’s, why is this a Berkeley HEAT book? It didn’t find it any more explicit than, say, Louisa Edwards’s books, which are pretty par for the course in contemporary romance. It had a decent level of sexual tension and the love scenes were lovely, but I didn’t find them especially erotic or extra-hot.

In the end, what we have here is a straightforward story populated by mature, fairly well-rounded adults, told lovingly. (I was going to say “told in a lovely way,” but then “lovingly” slipped out and I thought that fit better.) And because the situation was difficult, because they acted like adults, and because there was so much doubt, it was an angsty read, too. HEA.

Recommended read. A-~July

ADDENDUM: This does read a bit more “women’s fiction” than genre romance, but long ago in my reading history, my line between the two got a bit blurry. Jane felt a romance reader might not feel satisfied by the relationship and its end, and while it didn’t bother me personally and I really enjoyed the unique aspects of it, I agree with her assessment.
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July

July reads a lot.

26 Comments

  1. DB Cooper
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 13:23:57

    Wow, this sounds refreshingly different. (?)

    I usually keep my mouth shut about this sort of thing, but infidelity is one of those kinks that actually drives my interest in a subject. And I say “kink” instead of trope because it’s an interest that extends past the borders of romance stories where we’re expecting HEA, “THE ONE” and “THE BIG GROVEL” and other established tropes.

    Plus, I really understand people not enjoying reading about that thing.

    Also: deceit? manipulation? check and check.

    The fact that you thought it was handled maturely surprises me, pleasantly. Adults acting like adults, who would have figured? especially when infidelity is often played to angst up a book.

    Also, I didn’t quite catch the thing about the hero (and what he does) until you mentioned it in the spoiler….and I thought “oh, what a great way to make a logical extension about him” instead of making him just a cardboard cutout designed to serve one role. Alas, it sounds like its too bad the bundled complications sort of get glossed over.

  2. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 13:29:24

    @DB Cooper:

    Alas, it sounds like its too bad the bundled complications sort of get glossed over.

    It was more like fridge logic. I DID notice it while I was reading, but it didn’t bug me until I wrote the review.

    Now, I originally gave this a B+ because of that. But as time passed from the writing of the review (1? 2? months ago) I haven’t been able to let go of this story. So I changed it to an A- a few days ago.

    Basically, it didn’t take any of the turns I, as a jaded romance reader, expected. And I was willing to forgive a whole lot just for that.

  3. Jane
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 13:43:02

    I didn’t really like this book as much as July did. It wasn’t the infidelity that bothered me but that the emotional positions of the characters, particularly at the end of the book, didn’t seem like they were ready for a relationship.

    The “revenge” that she got at the end seemed kind of odd, as well, with an almost homophobic tint to it.

    Overall, I thought the book was intriguing but it didn’t work as a romance. Neither character seemed ready at the end of the story to be in a real relationship. I felt the story either started too late or ended too early for a believable HEA. I would have given it a C.

  4. Janine
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 13:57:16

    Love your avatar, July. And welcome to DA!

  5. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 14:02:23

    @Jane:

    The “revenge” that she got at the end seemed kind of odd, as well, with an almost homophobic tint to it.

    I noticed that, too, but it didn’t bother me for reasons that would be spoilerish, but suffice it to say he had his preferences (see: James Deen’s professional boundaries) and I didn’t begrudge him that.

    Overall, I thought the book was intriguing but it didn’t work as a romance.

    And since I went into it not actually expecting an HEA, whether they actually make it or not past the end of the book was immaterial to me.

    @Janine, thank you and I’m happy to be here!

  6. Ducky
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 14:54:30

    I remember liking THE FIFTH FAVOR by Shelby Reed. This sounds interesting. The price is high. I downloaded the sample.

    Thanks for a lovely review and glad to have you here.

  7. Ridley
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 15:37:40

    Wow, this sounds like a minefield of disability cliches. I can’t really pass judgment without reading it, but I’m really exasperated with how the genre continues to portray disability so negatively. If they’re not bitter jerks removed from the picture to pave the way for a heroine’s HEA (Broken, Me Before You) they’re sad, pitiable waifs waiting to be rescued by a hero (every disabled heroine ever.)

    I don’t know, maybe the book’s fine in a vacuum, but when you add up all the portrayals of disability in the genre, the dehumanizing pattern that emerges isn’t pretty, and this looks like it fits that pattern.

  8. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 15:46:50

    @Ducky: Thanks, Ducky, and glad to be here!

    @Ridley, as I am not disabled and don’t see many disabled characters, I don’t know what is or is not a cliche, but I looked at it this way: A) There are plenty of able-bodied assholes and plenty of able-bodied waifs in need of rescuing both in real life and in fiction. Why should the proportion be any different in the disabled population? B) I was very careful to point out that the asshole was an asshole before he was paralyzed and was no different afterward. I’m curious to know what you might have thought if his accident had cured his personality and made him a born-again nice person?

    I personally find it odd to pass judgment on a book I haven’t read, but I realize there’s a Monday-morning quarterbacking component to it, and that’s always fun.

  9. Ridley
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:17:53

    @July:

    A) There are plenty of able-bodied assholes and plenty of able-bodied waifs in need of rescuing both in real life and in fiction. Why should the proportion be any different in the disabled population?

    Well, that’s the thing. The proportion *is* different. When the characters are disabled, they are almost always portrayed in the ways I mentioned, and since those ways mirror ableist stereotypes, it becomes A Problem.

    B) I was very careful to point out that the asshole was an asshole before he was paralyzed and was no different afterward. I’m curious to know what you might have thought if his accident had cured his personality and made him a born-again nice person?

    I mean, I get that he was always an asshole, and lots of disabled people are, in fact, assholes. And a personality transplant post-injury would have been as stupid as it would’ve been unrealistic. But, like I said, what might be okay in a vacuum can look awful in context. This book, based on your review, created a character who conforms to a common negative stereotype and uses him as a catalyst for the able-bodied heroine’s character growth. You did say he has no redeeming qualities, after all. She could have made him a complex character, but she didn’t, and it looks to me like she was using his disability to amplify how he was holding her back. That says to me that he’s a prop, and I’m just tired of seeing disabled characters as props.

  10. jmc
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:21:51

    @July:

    I would not presume to speak for Ridley, but framing the issue this way

    There are plenty of able-bodied assholes and plenty of able-bodied waifs in need of rescuing both in real life and in fiction. Why should the proportion be any different in the disabled population?

    is the problem for me. Maybe in real life that distribution is seen, but in fiction it is not – the disabled characters seems pretty uniformly either in need of rescuing or to be assholes. There are few disabled MCs in romance fiction who aren’t one or the other. It’s like always having the villain be gay or a PoC.

    ETA: and I see that while I was typing Ridley responded in a much more coherent and thoughtful manner. *backs away from the keyboard*

  11. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:25:36

    @Ridley: FWIW, I didn’t see him as a prop in the context of his disability. I saw him as the evil [soon-to-be-]ex that is common in romance, yes. However, “no redeeming qualities” isn’t analogous to “prop.”

  12. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:26:43

    @jmc:

    Maybe in real life that distribution is seen, but in fiction it is not – the disabled characters seems pretty uniformly either in need of rescuing or to be assholes. There are few disabled MCs in romance fiction who aren’t one or the other. It’s like always having the villain be gay or a PoC.

    I understand. Would it be fair to say the problem is not enough people writing disabled characters in toto?

  13. Ridley
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:34:55

    @July:

    FWIW, I didn’t see him as a prop in the context of his disability. I saw him as the evil [soon-to-be-]ex prop that is common in romance, so in that respect, yes, it was a cliche.

    That he may be, but that doesn’t negate the possibility for disability to have been used in a cliched, problematic way as well. If a portrayal conforms to negative stereotypes and there’s no pushback against it in the narrative, that’s generally a good indication of thoughtless, problematic appropriation.

  14. Jane
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:50:34

    @July – sure but this is a romance and the story is framed as one so I would be very leery of recommending it to other romance readers without a lot of caveats. I’m not sure I even bought the story arc completely but different strokes and all.

  15. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 16:52:38

    @Jane: I can add a caveat, as it did read more “women’s fiction” to me.

  16. Maili
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 18:49:47

    @July:

    Would it be fair to say the problem is not enough people writing disabled characters in toto?

    That, and some authors’ failure to recognise the social model of disability. They tend to view disability through the lens of the medical model of disability, which irritates just about every person with disabilities. :D

  17. jmc
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 18:57:49

    @July: I think it’s related to that. And also the way that disability is seen in a monolithic way — only people with visible, physical disabilities are ever addressed (in a heavyhanded manner) when disability is addressed at all. The “invisible” disabilities seldom appear at all. When that’s piled on top of almost entirely negative portrayals in fiction, well, it’s pretty pejorative and discouraging to the members of the audience who live with disabilities of all types on a daily basis.

  18. July
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 19:14:42

    @jmc: I really do understand. I have come across romances with what I thought were positive portrayals of disability, but of course, how would I know whether they were positive or patronizing? I wouldn’t. I realize that that is your point, and I respect that.

    But, only two people in this thread have read the book. I gather my answer was taken as dismissive, yet I felt it was dismissive to conflate one unread book with the shortcomings of a whole genre. Yes, it was acceded that the book may be fine in a vacuum, but each book *is* a vacuum, and I had no intention of arguing the whole genre. There’s a lot of preconception going on here, and I can’t but help feel that that is dismissive in itself.

  19. Jane
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 20:00:24

    I guess I felt that given that there were two individuals who were disabled and one was portrayed as perfectly healthy of mind and spirit and capable despite what her brother thought and one was not, it didn’t come off as ableist or oppressive.

  20. Jane
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 20:01:30

    It should also be noted that the husband was an ass before the accident. He was a man who had hurt her before and after.

  21. Ridley
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 20:21:30

    I don’t understand this urge to feed my criticism through a validity prism. It very well could not have struck you guys as ableist, but I was talking about my reaction, not yours. This looks like a book that would give me fits regarding disability. I’m glad you liked it, or it didn’t bother you, but that’s sort of beside the point.

  22. Janine
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 13:57:24

    @Ridley: I think I recommended it before, but it’s worth repeating that Sebastien Japrisot’s World War I/1920s mystery, A Very Long Engagement, has a terrific heroine who happens to disabled. It’s not a romance, but it is a romantic book.

  23. Ridley
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 16:07:43

    @Janine: That’s been on my list for a while on your recommendation. It’s only available in paper, though, and paper books are a chore for me now with my hands. Thanks for the reminder.

  24. Jayne
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 03:18:27

    @Ridley: I see that it’s available as an audiobook from Amazon. Strange that there’s no ebook out.

  25. Janine
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 01:31:02

    @Ridley I know, I wish there were an ebook — I would purchase it in a heartbeat. I keep clicking the “Tell the publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle” link at Amazon, to no avail.

    @Jayne: I wonder if the audiobook came out before ebooks took off. The book was a big bestseller in France and later made into a movie (the film downplayed the heroine’s disability though) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the audiobook came out around that time.

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