DUELING REVIEW: Any Man of Mine by Rachel Gibson
Dear Ms. Gibson,
I’ve been reading your books for so many years and have enjoyed enough of them that when I hear a new one is coming out, I automatically make room in my reading schedule to at least look at it. And since the books with sports heroes are usually ones I like, the fact that this book features a hockey hero got me excited.
Sam LeClaire knew that he’d see his ex-wife Autumn Haven at the wedding she helped to arrange for Ty and Chinooks team owner Faith. He expected fireworks since the two hadn’t gotten along in years, not since their quickie hookup and marriage in Las Vegas six years ago, but surprisingly things went well between them. A baby sitting snafu ends up with their son Conner staying with Sam while Autumn finishes overseeing the wedding. Sam begins musing on how little he’s been in his son’s life but it takes a comment from Autumn, about how hurt Conner has been in the past when Sam has canceled at the last minute, to get Sam to think about his own absentee father and how he never wanted to be like that.
With that in mind, Sam starts to see Conner, and Autumn, more. And both remember back to how they first met in Vegas and began a whirlwind affair which led to a wedding. Then had to pick up the pieces after Sam fled from their hotel room the morning after. Can Sam prove to Autumn that he’s changed? And does he have a chance to win back the woman he never understood why he fell for in the first place?
It is part of the Chinooks series and a few past characters show up. Ty and Faith marry. Chelsea and Bo are planning their weddings through Autumn’s business but they neither take over this book nor, I think, would irritate newbies who don’t know them from Adam’s housecat.
The book has a sports hero but the ice action is peripheral to the romance relationship. It shows a part of who Sam is but doesn’t influence Autumn that much since she doesn’t know or follow the sport and didn’t know he was a hockey player when she met him. The actual sports stuff seems okay but since I don’t follow hockey passionately, I could be wrong. If readers don’t know/follow it, it’ll probably do but if hockey is their life – I honestly don’t know if they’d find it accurate or annoying.
We see Sam doing a little of his hockey thing as well as Autumn running her business. Instead of sitting around waiting for the child support checks, she’s built security for herself and Conner which I and Sam both like. She’s usually a great mother, good friend and all around somebody who is moving forward and ahead with her life. She still does her lists – I love the chapter subheadings – and is a version of how she was in Vegas. Another thing I like is that in Vegas she didn’t fall immediately for Sam. She held something back for a while since this is part of her personality too. But Sam overwhelmed her in Vegas and made her fall for him then broke her heart. She hasn’t forgotten that even if she doesn’t dwell on it 24/7. Oh, I also appreciate that Autumn hasn’t sworn off all men – she’s still a romantic at heart.
After reading the blurb, I was expecting a hook up in Vegas followed by a falling out then some cool off time then a reconciliation – just like I’ve read many times in other books. But here, it starts in the present day and Sam and Autumn’s flash romance/marriage is long over. Even the residual hate is over and Autumn has not only got on with her life, she’s put what Sam did behind her and doesn’t hold a “I just can’t get on with my life” grudge. Heroes and heroines who can’t seem to move on AT ALL since the past relationship that went south make me question whether or not they’re ready for this new(er) relationship. Here Autumn isn’t stuck dwelling on the past. There are issues to be dealt with – some really painful ones – but she acts as if five years have passed.
Both were in a low point of their lives then, and in Vegas, and not acting as they normally would. Their marriage – at the time – was a mistake. Plain and simple. Feelings were there but these two didn’t know each other. And let’s face it, Sam did three shitty things – leaving Autumn the day after their marriage with no good-bye, filing for divorce and then requiring a paternity test. But he had some reasons – the anniversary of his sister’s death made him act out and get drunk, he did feel something for Autumn but felt that he’d made a mistake, he’d just signed a multi million contract and didn’t know if Autumn would take him to the cleaners. Okay he still acted like a shite but the reasons are more legit than some I’ve seen.
And now he sees where he went, and is going, wrong, he shapes up as a parent due to his memories of his own “out of touch” father. And it’s through his increased contact with their son Conner that Autumn comes back into his life. Neither one is looking for a relationship -Autumn even consciously avoids one – and time is taken to clear the air and clear the boards before any advancement is made in getting them back together. Because issues needed to be dealt with, forgiveness sought and given and the awful things that were said and done aren’t the sort of things swept away with a few hot kisses that lead to instant “I love yous.” I like that this time is allowed and that it isn’t instalust leading to twue lurve. One thing I don’t like about this aspect of the book is how clueless Sam is about Conner and why Autumn waited so long to jerk a knot in Sam for the way he was neglecting their son? She knew how much it was hurting Conner and, even though Sam should have known better, she should have told Sam he was being a putz.
Okay so do I believe Sam and Autumn’s growing relationship? Yes. It starts with them interacting over Conner – though with caution then proceeds to them beginning to talk about their lives, where they are now and broaching the past. They get to know who the other is now and then something of what drew them together six years ago then pulled them apart. Neither mistakes the sex they start to have with love and it’s Sam who caves first and admits to himself, then to Autumn, that he wants more – that he can feel the difference between simply great sex and expressing love through sex. While Autumn realizes that she’s fallen for the man Sam is now instead of clinging to what she felt for the man he was then. They are friends as well as lovers and now he’s man enough to own up to what he did and offer his apologies while Autumn has moved forward enough to forgive what he did.
The book has a slower feel – I guess partly due to the past being told as flashbacks rather then quickly touched upon or info dumped on us. Sam starts out living on the surface but has to dig deeper to uncover why Autumn is the one for him despite the past while Autumn has to drop the protective shield she’s built around her heart and take the risk to believe that Sam has changed. I enjoyed the slowly uncurling petals of the growing relationship and watching these two reach a stage where everything finally meets up and syncs together. And Conner, with his questions about life, is a darling, too. B
And now for a different point of view
Dear Ms. Gibson,
Oh, dear, where to start? I had a rather strong reaction to this book. To be fair, my reaction is probably partly rooted in some stuff that’s been bumping around my brain for a while about romance, sexism and gender roles. I’ve had some issues with several books I’ve read lately, so it may be that I was primed to take offense. Whatever the case, I find Any Man of Mine difficult to grade. I usually grade mostly on how well a book entertains me, rather than on literary merit (though literary merit often, but not always, informs how well a book entertains me). But that becomes problematic when a book entertains me but also pisses me off. And this book pissed me off, a lot.
The story: pro hockey player Sam Leclaire and event planner Autumn Haven run into each other at the wedding of the Seattle Chinooks owner and the team’s manager (I believe their story was told in an earlier book). Sam is there because he plays for the Chinooks, while Autumn planned the wedding and is there overseeing all the details. Sam and Autumn have a history together. In fact, they have a child together, five-year-old Conner. But they haven’t actually seen each other for a couple of years; apparently their relationship was so bad that after a particularly nasty fight witnessed by Conner, they decided to have Sam’s assistant handle all of the pickups and drop-offs on the relatively rare occasions that Sam saw Conner.
After their semi-civilized encounter at the wedding, Sam decides that he wants to be a better father, and he not only begins spending more time with Conner, he begins to handle the custody exchange himself, thus reconnecting with Autumn. The story of how Sam and Autumn met is told in flashbacks sprinkled through the first half of the book. Sam was partying in Las Vegas with his hockey buddies when he came across Autumn, a small-town girl vacationing by herself. Autumn had been having a tough time; she had recently lost her mother after nursing her through colon cancer, and the trip to Vegas was a treat to herself. She ends up caught up in a whirlwind romance with Sam against her better judgment, and one drunken night they are married by an Elvis impersonator. They celebrate back in Autumn’s hotel room by having unprotected sex (they have already had sex, but had used protection). The next morning, Autumn wakes up, alone, and finds out that Sam has gotten cold feet and checked out of the hotel. She tracks him down months later to let him know he’s a father, and Sam, through his lawyer, demands a paternity test. Things don’t really improve any time in the next five years before the story starts; we’re not given explicit details but led to believe that Sam is an affectionate but neglectful and selfish parent.
So, what we have is a pretty simple story of two people who dislike each other (Autumn with good reason; Sam because Autumn makes him feel guilty) who slowly become closer when Sam (rather arbitrarily) decides to change. Autumn is understandably wary, but Sam becomes more and more determined to do right by his son, and also becomes increasingly intrigued by his ex-wife.
Sam and Autumn both have traumatic pasts. Autumn had a father who ran out on the family, and a mother who turned to religion for comfort. She has an older brother, Vince, who looks out for her (and consequently hates Sam, though he seems to share many characteristics with him). It’s indicated that Autumn and Vince were raised by their mother to be unforgiving – I guess this is supposed to explain why Autumn has trouble trusting Sam, thought the fact that he was a huge asshole also might have had something to do with it.
Sam’s backstory is even sadder – he grew up in Canada, the son of a local cop who was well-respected on the job but who ignored his kids and never went to Sam’s hockey games. He died when Sam was a teenager, and Sam felt responsible for his younger sister Ella. When she was 24, Ella was killed by an abusive boyfriend. I guess this tragedy is supposed to be at the heart of Sam’s commitment issues, but I never quite got the connection. It seemed more like Sam enjoying being a selfish, shallow, self-centered, egotistical jackass. The majority of the story takes place when Sam is 35 years old. In my opinion, that’s about 15 years past the age at which his behavior is at all acceptable or understandable.
So, there you have it: my first, last, major and minor objection (and everything in between) to this book is Sam. Well, to be fair, I have issues with how Autumn’s chastity is contrasted with Sam’s promiscuity, but it’s a detail that would’ve niggled less if Sam had not been so awful and sexist.
Some choice quotes from Sam:
She was a wedding planner or, as she always insisted, an “event organizer.” Although, really, what was the difference? Wedding or event, it was the same damn circus. But it was typical of Autumn to make a big deal out of something little.
Yes, there goes that stupid Autumn, wanting some respect for her profession. I wonder if Sam would mind being called a baseball player? Same thing, really – uniforms, teams, sticks, etc.
Sam sometimes worried that Autumn raised his son like a girl. Made him wimpy. Good to know that he thought like a boy.
Of course, Sam hasn’t heretofore worried enough to tear himself away from his own entertainment and spends more time with his son, or anything crazy like that. (He also at one point “jokes” to his son that men are smarter than women. So, men: smarter and stronger; women: dumber and wimpy. Good to know.)
The Ford F-250 was still running, and he thought about turning it off, but he figured he wouldn’t be much longer and left it on. A guy didn’t buy an F-250 because he worried about gas consumption. He drove it because of the payload and because it hauled serious ass. Although he never hauled anything heavier than his sports bag, it was good to know it had the power if he ever decided to tow twenty four thousand pounds.
Okay, now you’re just screwing with me. I’m not even that avid of any environmentalist, but do I have to have Sam’s selfish conspicuous consumption shoved in my face? It’s like an attempt is being made to make Sam as unlikable as humanly possible. He’s basically a hot Rush Limbaugh, and I don’t see Rush Limbaugh as appealing hero material, even if he were hot (actually, I’m making myself queasy here).
I have so many pages of this book dog-eared to note instances of Sam making an ass of himself. I feel like I have to limit myself to a few before I turn into the crazy lady ranting in the corner.
(Okay, just one more: Sam can’t be friends with Autumn because, “he didn’t have women friends.” Shocker.)
All of Sam’s troglodyte behavior is portrayed as somehow cute in the book, but he is simply a misogynst. He dates (well, sleeps with) skinny supermodels, though he doesn’t seem to like them much. One of these models is featured in a few scenes in the book. Sam internally criticizes her for being narcissistic and rude, for not eating enough, and for being superficial and shallow. I am really quite sick of romance heroes who don’t appear to like women. There is no way I can respect a 35-year-old man who consistently seeks out unlikable women just for sex.
Autumn is an unobjectionable if uninspired character, for the most part. There were things about her that bugged me, but they mostly bugged me because of how uber-masculine Sam was set up to be. Of course Autumn works in a traditionally feminine profession. Of course she doesn’t dress sexy like the other women in Sam’s life. (A detail that is dwelt on far too much in the book – Autumn doesn’t wear sexy pajamas, she wears cutesy ones; Autumn doesn’t wear sexy Halloween costumes, she wears wholesome ones. Why not just put a burqua on her and be done with it?) Of course she’s been without any sexual partners (or even casual romantic interests) since parting from Sam. She’s a mother, you know. No time for dating or men (who aren’t Sam). I respect single mothers who protect their children from attachments to men who may not remain in their lives. But that’s not a reason not to make any attempt to have a relationship. Not that I even judge that, in real life – it just drives me nuts in the context of the story, when we’re told repeatedly that Sam humps anything that stands still long enough. I guess it bothers me in general in contemporary romances, because in real life, women, even women who’ve been hurt and who have children they need to consider first, do date. They have relationships. This has become sort of a corollary to the virgin heroine in contemporary romance – it’s not reading about any single one that is problematic, it’s that when there are so many that it seems that authors are trying to make a point about what makes a character heroine material. I know that romance novel tropes about “true love” dictate that the hero and heroine in contemporary romance usually do not have serious romantic relationships before meeting each other (or re-encountering each other, in reunion romances such as this one). I understand the reason for this, though I wish the community would be more open to the idea that a person can love more than one person in a lifetime, and that even if the first love doesn’t work out, the HEA for the h/h aren’t necessarily compromised. And I wholeheartedly object to the double standard that allows the hero to have casual sex while the heroine just makes do with her vibrator (though I guess the heroine even having a vibrator represents a step forward?).
Another reason this scenario bugs me is because it puts the heroine in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the hero to notice her, or in Sam’s case, get his act together. What if it had taken another five years? Another 10? What if it never happened? Well, then I guess the heroine would just stay chaste and throw herself into her work and her child. Again, I’m not criticizing those choices IRL, but in the context of a romance novel they bother me, because they require a heroine to be so passive. I read Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child years ago and that aspect of the story still bugs me.
For the longest time, I really thought Sam wasn’t going to apologize at all for what he’d done to Autumn in Las Vegas. He really shows very few signs (aside from a little guilt that he mostly turns back on Autumn) that he knows he did something wrong. He does, very late in the story, express a tepid apology, but even then he’s mostly of the opinion that Autumn should just get over it. He’s changed! It’s been three months and look how well he’s behaving himself! How is it possible that she still doesn’t trust him?! It must be because she’s insecure and uptight and neurotic. He never does express any remorse over his crappy parenting to date. Early in the story, Autumn tells Sam of the times Conner cried himself to sleep after Sam cancelled on him, something we’re given to understand happened pretty often. Conner has obviously not been a priority for Sam for the past five years, yet we see no evidence of resentment or uncertainty on Conner’s part, no regret on Sam’s part, and Autumn’s misgivings about her son’s relationship with his father are portrayed as being the same as her concerns regarding her own relationship with Sam. In other words, she needs to get over it, he’s changed, etc.
We never see any epiphany on Sam’s part that explains the change. It’s more about what he wants. He’s decided that he wants a family, that he wants to be a parent, that he wants Autumn. Forgive me for not caring so much about what Sam wants – Sam seems to have that pretty much taken care of.
Often, even if a book is cliched or boring or problematic in some other way, by the end I am convinced of the HEA and that fact along makes me bump the grade up a bit. That wasn’t the case in this book – maybe Autumn loves Sam, though I don’t know why she would. Sam’s feelings about Autumn seem to be evenly divided between lust (musings on how he “didn’t get enough of her” in Las Vegas all those years ago) and contrasts between her purity and the sluttiness of all the other women he knows. Not really the basis for a long and happy marriage, IMO.
Any Man of Mine was one of those books that makes me examine what I expect out of a romance. I can’t claim to be terribly consistent, because with really good writing and characterization, most of the rules fly out the window for me. That said, most of the time, I like heroes and heroines who are flawed, and who need to overcome some obstacles (preferably internal v. external) before they are ready to be together. I don’t really want to read about a hero or heroine who is perfect to start with, and I don’t require them to become perfect in the course of the story. Nor do I want love to be the thing that heals them or makes them whole – at least not entirely. I like it when the h/h are catalysts for change in each other’s lives, not necessarily the entire impetus.
In Any Man of Mine we have a hero that really needs to change, and to make amends for his past mistakes. And it just doesn’t happen. His path changes – he becomes, if you believe the HEA, a one-woman man and a responsible parent – but it doesn’t seem to be connected to any increase in maturity. Again, it’s simply because Sam decides it’s what he wants.
My grade for Any Man of Mine is a D.