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.
This 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.”
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.
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.