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REVIEW: Games People Play by Shelby Reed

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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REVIEW: The Brahms Deception by Louise Marley

REVIEW: The Brahms Deception by Louise Marley

Dear Ms. Marley,

You hardly need my review, as you seem to be a fairly well-known and well-selling author—in scifi/fantasy. Certainly, I had never heard of you until I stumbled across your book at my library, which sports a lovely, romance-novel-type cover.

The Brahms Deception by Louise MarleyThat’s right. This is a case study in covers telling the reader what genre it is and successfully suckering a long-time romance reader jaded to all the subgenres. Because the cover had all the cues, I assumed certain things from the blurb.

Music scholar Frederica Bannister is thrilled when she beats her bitter rival, Kristian North, for the chance to be transferred back to 1861 Tuscany to observe firsthand the brilliant Johannes Brahms. Frederica will not only get to see Brahms in his prime; she’ll also try to solve a mystery that has baffled music experts for years.

But once in Tuscany, Frederica’s grip on reality quickly unravels. She instantly falls under Brahms’ spell—and finds herself envious of his secret paramour, the beautiful, celebrated concert pianist Clara Schumann. In a single move, Frederica makes a bold and shocking decision that changes everything…

When Frederica fails to return home, it is Kristian North who is sent back in time to Tuscany to find her. There, Kristian discovers that Frederica indeed holds the key to unraveling Brahms’ greatest secret. But now, Frederica has a dark secret of her own-one that puts everyone around her in devastating peril…

I’m a little embarrassed to admit the extent to which I was suckered. I was about halfway through the book when I realized this was not a romance. I didn’t know what it was, but I liked it.

I looked you up later to find out you are a scifi/fantasy author, which then made everything click. What can I say? I’m slow. Especially when the cover and blurb scream historical romance.

Clearly, this is a time-travel novel, which I don’t normally care for, but the premise of observing the past instead of interacting with the past was palatable for me. It also features artists of some kind, and I love artist stories.

It begins with the unlikely (at least, to a romance reader) scenario where the first character mentioned in the blurb and the book proper is actually not the protagonist. There are three points of view, all told in third person.

Frederica was a homely girl who has grown into a homely woman. She is also rich, spoiled, and ambitious—none of which is shown until about halfway through the book, which makes what she actually does in 1861 rather jolting to the reader. At the risk of spoilage, I will only say that she invades Clara Schumann’s personal space in rather more than a personal way. At first, the reader is sympathetic with Frederica, knowing her lifelong struggle with her ugliness, but as Frederica’s ambition ramps up, one loses any sympathy at all.

The real protagonist in this novel is Kristian North, whose name I read all the way through as “Kristin.” Really, “Kristian”? Now, while writing this review, I realize that at times, he read like a woman. He was too quick to take blame for his (justified) anger and apologize for it, which I don’t feel a man would have done after having been cheated of a position he’d earned by an indulgent (and very rich) father of a spoiled, ambitious woman. Money talks.

He is a sympathetic character, though, and his unprivileged ambition pays off in the end. There is a hint of romance with a secondary character, which was very sweet.

The main conceit of the book can be boiled down to this: Frederica had had a lifelong fascination with Brahms and, lacking any social life at all outside her immediate family, had a crush on him the way any other girl would have a crush on a rock star. By happenstance, Kristian was in the same position of having a crush on Clara Schumann. My only beef with this was that Kristian never seemed to understand that he and Frederica shared this personality trait.

The characterization of Clara Schumann was done very well and, though I don’t know how true to life it was, how 19th-century characters might have acted with somewhat more formal decorum, even when conducting a very secret affair, even in bed.

I can’t say much more about the relationship between Clara and Brahms during this time period because of spoilerage, except to say that the premise of historical research using observation time travel (where the travelers are essentially ghosts and cannot interact with the past) had not been tested thoroughly enough for the powers that be to know that the past could be changed via a specific (and despicable) mechanism.

I had other minor quibbles with the book, such as the ending feeling simultaneously rushed and too drawn-out. There was one particular act Frederica committed that was never explained how she did it.

The descriptions of scenes, landscapes, and ambiance were well done. Historical facts about Brahms and Clara were narrated from Clara’s point of view as if in flashback, so it didn’t feel like infodump. The explanation of the mechanism of time-travel made sense to me and it seemed you covered all the logical bases. Likewise, descriptions of the side effects of Kristian’s time-traveling made me about as dizzy as they made him, which is a definite win.

There was one line that made me laugh. Frederica, who despises children (and who is jealous of Clara’s relationship with Brahms), wonders about the nature of Clara’s lovemaking:

And she didn’t know if Clara—who had years of experience and a revolting flock of babies to show for it—was bold or shy. Modest or demonstrative.

I was mildly annoyed that I got suckered by the cover, which led me to assume things about the blurb. There was a bit of heavy-handed points made about morality (time-travel and illicit sex, to be specific). But I read the book in one sitting, so in spite of its flaws (and mine), it kept my attention. B-/C+.

~July

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