REVIEW: Down By Contact by Santino Hassell
Dear Santino Hassell,
I recently listened to Illegal Contact, the first book in your Barons series and *loved* it. Down By Contact is the second book in the series. I *think* it would stand alone okay but the first book is so good I’d recommend readers start there anyway and it does provide the background to (spoiler alert) how Simeon Boudreaux, one of the main characters, comes out publicly as gay.
Simeon is the quarterback for the fictional New York Barons NFL team. He was originally drafted by the New York Predators but never made the starting lineup there. After he transferred to the Barons his career really took off. There is a passionate rivalry between the Predators and the Barons (and their fans) and some of the Predators’ team believes (falsely) that Simeon shared their playbook with his new team when he first transferred.
Adrián Bravo is a linebacker for the Predators. He and Simeon were teammates for a while and they were on their way to becoming friends when Simeon left the team. Adrián and Simeon have been trash talking each other on the field and over social media for years.
Near the end of Illegal Contact, Simeon came out and since then, Predators fans and players (including Adrián) have been overtly and slyly making gay slurs to him. Simeon is a big guy and doesn’t take any shit so when the Predators and Barons meet for a preseason game, he confronts Adrián and queries whether perhaps the gay slurs are hiding Adrián’s own queerness. This gets a predictable result and after they are both suspended for six games, their respective agents come up with a plan for Simeon and Adrián to work together coaching football to a group of 13 year olds at Brooklyn summer/after school program.
While both books are different, they also have some things in common. Namely, they are both romances which rely on forced proximity and they’re both enemies to lovers. Of the two, I preferred Illegal Contact. I think I liked Noah a little better and of course the stellar narration of the audiobook helped me connect to the characters as well. I still enjoyed Down By Contact, just not quite as much.
One of the things I’ve noticed about your writing, having read/listened to four of your books fairly close together, is that you use colloquial language/urban slang fairly liberally in your stories. I admit there were a number of words I had to look up in the Urban Dictionary (this has been true of all of the books so far – who says romance cannot also be educational! :D). The language used works, generally, to enhance your characterisations and in particular in Down By Contact, to show the ethnicity of the protagonists. Simeon is a half African American/half Creole man and Adrián’s family are from Puerto Rico. (The cover isn’t quite Simeon – he has auburn hair and his skin is lighter than that on the cover model. This is where I appreciate a cover model in a football romance book being African American and also where I wish stock photography had a wider range of African American models). While there is an abundance of football romance, it doesn’t seem to me that there are anywhere near as many brown or black heroes (in either m/m or m/f romance) and of course, that doesn’t represent the actual NFL at all so I was extra happy to see such representation here. Adrián and Simeon use a different syntax when they’re speaking than I’m used to. I’m glad I listened Illegal Contact to be honest because hearing it helped me become familiar with its rhythm. It’s by no means impenetrable. It’s not hard to understand or to relate to but it is different to what I’m used to reading and hearing. (I’m also Australian and there is something of a difference between US English and Australian English anyway. So, readers: don’t be put off if you come across some differences in expression. It’s not difficult. It’s just a little different). I think language is easier to parse (for me at least) in a medium like TV/movies or on audio because I can hear the rhythm of it but once I identified the particular music/flow, it was easy to follow on the page. And actually I appreciated those dialogue cues to keep me firmly grounded in the story and the characters. It’s not particularly a race book. Their ethnicities aren’t a major focus of the story. But things like food, culture and language kept these characters in my mind as strongly who they were – which means those things did their job well.
Down By Contact was slower to start for me than Illegal Contact. It took a while for me to see attraction and romance blossoming between Simeon and Adrián and believe it. They engage in a game of “gay chicken” where Simeon does his best to make Adrián “uncomfortable” and Adrián does his best to be cool with all the things. It’s obvious to Simeon (and the reader) early on that Adrián is bisexual but it takes quite a while for the penny to drop with Adrián. (Even when Simeon gives Adrián a blowjob, Adrián is still in massive denial.)
“How you think I feel? I just figured out I’m probably not straight.” He stumbled over the words, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Another athlete finding his queer wings. “I probably should have figured it out before . . . back when I found an excuse to talk to you at training camp and then hounded you until you’d come out with me.”
It made sense within the context of the story but I had a little personal discomfort with the… aggression (?) of their “game”. It felt mean-spirited – Simeon was openly after teaching Adrián a lesson – and revenge is not my favourite trope. I hasten to add there was no issue with consent or anything like that. But there was a definite flavour to the “enemies” part of “enemies to lovers” that I didn’t always completely enjoy.
However, once Adrián accepted (and it was pretty fast) that he was bi, their relationship was more romantic and it was then I became fully engaged and on board with the story. I love a guy who isn’t afraid to show his feelings and both Adrian and Simeon are big marshmallows once they open up to one another.
I’d have liked a little more about Adrián’s family’s journey to accepting him as bisexual, especially given it was a big deal in the book and it did seem that the team was a little too okay a little too fast with queer football players but I also loved the representation that it didn’t have to be all homophobia all the time so I continue to demonstrate my contrariness.
Simeon’s mother is the bomb and I continued to enjoy his friendship with Marcus and Gavin. Adrián didn’t really appear to have any friends until he was assimilated into Simeon’s group, which, felt a little strange now that I come to think about it.
I loved that the best player on the community center’s team is a girl and that neither Adrián nor Simeon bat an eyelash at it. I loved that Marcus, the third musketeer of the group is straight and in a happy relationship and mixing all different kinds of relationships (and ethnicities for that matter) is represented as normal – because it totally is.
From what was a very rocky start indeed and for all it was a little fast, I did fully believe in their HEA. Adrián and Simeon talk to one another and they clearly prioritise their relationship too, which made me confident in them lasting for the long haul.