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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