JOINT REVIEW: Double Blind by Heidi Cullinan
Dear Ms. Cullinan.
Joan/SarahF: I reviewed your Special Delivery and adored it. I also said at the end that the sequel was out and I was looking forward to reading it. I have to admit I tried to read it once, but it was too…busy? for that point in my mental health, or maybe I was just too full of the characters from Special Delivery to focus on the characters from Double Blind, so I put it aside, figuring I’d come back to it.
Recently I’ve been on a contemporary m/m reading kick, so I opened Double Blind again and just couldn’t put it down. It’s intense, the characters are incredible, the story while slightly implausible was gripping. I lost hours to this book and I loved it so much, it made me go back and reread Special Delivery just so I could stay in the world with the characters.
Sunita: I read Double Blind before Special Delivery and then had to go back and read Special Delivery and then Double Blind again. So I guess you could say I liked it quite a bit!
Joan/SarahF: Randy (secondary character in Special Delivery) is hanging out at his second job at a casino. On one of the security monitors, he watches a man doggedly betting on black on the roulette wheel, again and again, and losing again and again. Randy “reads” the man’s sad story (lover left him, taking all his money) from his movements and actions, and his boss, who is an ass, bets Randy that he’s wrong. So he goes down to the casino floor to meet the guy, to figure out his story, and to see if he pegged him or not. He gets to the floor just as Ethan bets his last dollar, loses, and realizes that he doesn’t want to go to his car and blow his brains out, as had been his plan. But he’s paralyzed by the fact that there’s nothing else for him to do. Randy and Ethan engage each other, alternately annoying, boring, and intriguing each other. After Ethan tells Randy he’s wrong (he left his lover, rather than being left), they establish another side bet that Ethan will kiss Randy before the night is over, and then Randy begins to teach Ethan how to play poker.
And that’s just the first two chapters. This is a long book, over 340 pages. But it’s worth every word. And every word is worth reading. In general, the story is about Randy teaching Ethan to play poker, drawing him into his Vegas world, and them falling in love in the process. But it’s more about Ethan and Randy finding who they are, individually and as a couple.
One of the things I admire in this book is that it actually pulls off the “he’d never acted like this before” trope. Most of the time, when I read the make-over trope, in which a character decides to be a different person from their normal, usually drab and boring self, I’m unconvinced because I only ever see the make-over, I don’t see the original. So I don’t buy that it’s a complete change because I never actually see the turn. But showing the character as normal, drab, and boring is difficult because, well, it’s boring. (Linda Howard just about pulls it off in Open Season with Daisy’s makeover, but only just.) But you manage to do it here. I see Ethan in the depths of his despair, as the safe, ordinary, normal person who is devastated to the extent that he’s suicidal. And then we watch him change. I think the reason it works is that he changes because of outside forces and circumstances as much as internal impetus and because he changes slowly. He backslides into his old self. He freaks out about it a lot. He experiments with his new persona, trying it on gradually. The nuance and control you had to create a character who actually changes internally throughout the text is amazing. And it’s equally amazing because you manage to have the change grow from strengths he has to begin with.
Sunita: Ethan grabbed me before Randy did. Randy had to grow on me, but I was fascinated by Ethan from the beginning. His progression as a person through the novel is terrific. The amount he learns, develops, and changes could have felt like authorial manipulation, but you did it so well I totally bought it.
Joan/SarahF: Randy is dialed down a bit from his outrageousness in Special Delivery, but he’s still Randy, crass, annoying, and self-confident. But, again, you’re pitch-perfect on character construction, and because the story is told from both Ethan and Randy’s third-person perspectives, we can see into Randy’s growth and development as a character.
And that’s why I loved this book so much. Because as frenetic as the plotting is (and I haven’t even touched on a quarter of it in my summary above), the core and the main focus of the story is Ethan and Randy and Ethan&Randy. And that’s why I read romance. I read it for character development, psychological realism, and relationship growth. And you build all three with subtlety, sincerity, and painstaking devotion.
Sunita: I wasn't entirely on board with Randy at the beginning, even though I found him interesting as a character. But as his backstory emerged I found him more engaging. And his self-awareness and self-deprecation as he's falling in love with Ethan is wonderful. It makes me believe in the HEA, which at first I thought was going to be impossible to pull off (I would have been fine with an HFN, but the HEA is icing on the cake).
Joan/SarahF: One of the main storylines in the emotional trajectory of the characters is Ethan and Randy figuring out that they’re both switches sexually and then experimenting with how it works for them. The sex is super-hot (and there’s sex with Ethan and Randy, Ethan and Randy and Sam, and Ethan and Randy and Sam and Mitch [Sam and Mitch are the heroes of Special Delivery]), but proportionate to the story, there’s not actually that much of it. But it has one of the best descriptions of the will to submit I’ve ever read:
And this, here-‘this was the really hard part, the part that Randy could not have explained if his life depended on it. Not out loud. Because what held him up was always this: The Look. . . . Crabtree had it. Shit, Crabtree had The Look from across a room. Hard and strong and determined. Complete self-possession, complete control. He looked at you, told you he wanted you, and there was this huge space, like his great big arms extended, and you could go in there and let it all out. That was why it was hot. That was why Randy was always happy to be the gangster's piece on the side. It was the only place really he could let go like that.
But he wanted that with [Ethan]. They'd stumbled into it a few times, but that might have been an accident. Could they do it now? Here?
And then Randy made his eyes meet Ethan's, and he went still.
Ethan had it. He absolutely, totally had it.
He had the control. He had the conviction. Randy tried to push at it, because how, how could he have it when Ethan had been the guy with a gun under his front seat just a few days ago, who kept melting down? But then, actually, that made sense. The guy who could drive down to Vegas and so single-mindedly lose all his money and then gird his loins to go out and blow his brains out was in control. And he was in control now too. He barely knew what the roles were, but he was an ace, the ace of aces. He had Randy's chin in his hand, and he was figuring it out. He had it completely figured. He was waiting for Randy to catch up, actually.
Fair warning: there’s LOTS of kinky sex in this book, without the characters necessarily being kinky. They smoke pot once. They drink a lot. They are sometimes not very nice people. But I didn’t care. I was totally along for the ride. I totally bought into anything you wanted to throw at me because they were REAL. OMG, were they real.
Sunita: There IS a lot of sex. But it really serves the story, just as it did in Special Delivery. If you had dialed it down, the characters would be less well-delineated, and we wouldn't understand their relationship as well (or the journey they took to get to where they wound up).
Joan/SarahF: I read this book as a stand-alone because I didn’t really remember Special Delivery (hence the reread), but the main characters from Special Delivery play a very large role in Double Blind. Sam from SD and Randy go to therapy together (yes, indeed, the book totally goes there). Sam and his husband Mitch get it on with Randy and Ethan. Sam and Mitch are, in fact, vital to the relationship between Ethan and Randy, but that doesn’t detract in the slightest from the fact that this is Ethan and Randy’s story. It just builds a community around Ethan and Randy.
Sunita: Yes! Community is exactly the word I was thinking of. Randy and Sam and Mitch are a family, and if Ethan is going to be with Randy he has to connect with Sam and Mitch as well. So we really do need that storyline. I also appreciated understanding Sam from a different point of view, since in Special Delivery we only get his POV, and Sam from Randy's and Mitch's POV is different in important ways. But as I said before, I read and enjoyed Double Blind without prior knowledge of them, so readers can definitely start here.
Joan/SarahF: I also love how Las Vegas is a character in this story. You managed to describe poker in a way that I understood (I know NOTHING about poker). Ditto roulette and craps. You managed to make me enjoy a city I have zero interest in going to see, to the extent that I’m at least vaguely interested in visiting now, which, considering my violent antipathy toward the very idea of Las Vegas, is quite a feat. I love the sense of place in the book and how the characters are revealed by their attachment to buildings, sights, and particular aspects of Vegas.
Sunita: You gave us the Las Vegas that is recognizable to people who live there, as opposed to the one tourists identify with, while still giving us the tourist bits. You weave the two aspects together really well. Like Joan/SarahF, I am not a fan of touristy Las Vegas, but this is a place that I would love to visit. I got a little lost in some of the card stuff, but that's probably due to my inability to concentrate on anything relating to games of chance.
Joan/SarahF: The book continues with an improbable plot about mobsters and Ethan coming to run a casino within a month. But you make it work. I could recognize that it was a bit silly, but I was still drawn into it, desperate to know how it would turn out. It wasn’t a suspense plot so much as character development. I keep saying that, don’t it? But these characters were SO brilliantly constructed, so well depicted, that I couldn’t put them down. And you use EVERYTHING in your quest to draw these characters.
Sunita: I went along for the ride, but I thought this was the weakest part of the book. I figured out the Crabtree subplot, but I thought his transformation from threatening to not-so-threatening was a bit clunky.
Joan/SarahF: I’m not doing the book justice, because in some ways it’s utterly epic in scope, while in other ways it’s just about two men (plus two) figuring out how to love themselves and each other. But I can’t recommend it highly enough. If readers want a book to sink their teeth into that has emotional truth, lots of angst, and stunning character construction and development, this is where to go.
Sunita: This is a well-written, richly imagined romance with wonderful characters. It's obviously not for people who don't enjoy m/m, or who prefer books with a lower sex-scene content. But while it is long, the pacing is quite good, and the context is beautifully realized.