REVIEW: Shut Out by Kelly Jamieson
Trigger warning: Suicide, sexual assault and rape culture are all discussed in the book and in the review below.
Dear Kelly Jamieson,
I’ve had a bit of a mixed reaction to your books. Some of them have been excellent and some… not so much. Still, the wins have been well worth it and I’m always interested in what you write. So, when I saw you had a New Adult, college-set, hockey-themed book on NetGalley I requested it quick-smart. The very beginning of Shut Out was a little uneven but the novel ended up being an absolute winner. Given when I’ve been critical, I’ve been really critical, it’s only fair that you get the other side of the coin this time.
And, speaking of critical, I was also very critical of The Fifteenth Minute by Sarina Bowen. (I adore the author and the book was well written with engaging characters but the premise was distasteful to me and I couldn’t separate it out from the rest. I left the book ungraded as a result.) Shut Out deals with similar subject matter, but from a slightly different point of view and a different sensibility. For me, it made all the difference.
(Note to readers: I want to preface my review by saying outright that I consider myself a junior grade feminist. I’m not always the most sensitive of readers – often things have to be pointed out to me. Once seen however, I can spot them again in other books fairly easily. That said, my thoughts here about rape culture and how it is handled in the book are far from expert. I’d be happy for other, more experienced, feminist readers to chime in with their thoughts.)
Jacob is a Canadian who plays for the junior majors. At the start of Shut Out he is being informed by his coach that he has been cut from the team (and just before the playoffs too) for what is obviously an indiscretion of a sexual nature involving two other teammates and a girl. The first thing the reader knows is Jacob is adamant he “didn’t do it”. Uh-oh I thought. At that point, I was a little worried it would be a book about a guy accused of rape who was trying to clear his name. I’m glad I persisted because it wasn’t that book. The exact nature of the offence is not detailed until later on in the piece. While I find it a little frustrating to be teased with information (or lack of) like that, it made sense in the context of the book to hold off. There are distinct differences however in what happened in Jacob’s situation and what happened in The Fifteenth Minute and, in more ways than one. (I should probably say here that any comparison to the Sarina Bowen book stops right here, just to be clear.) Other than one which I won’t spoil here, there is the fact that Jacob did suffer a serious consequence and the potential loss of his NHL career as a result of what happened and, as is made clear later in the book, Jacob comes to understand his actions and inactions in new ways, to the point where he takes responsibility for them all. He is changed as a result of these events and not in a “I was falsely accused and now I feel really angry” way and more in the “I’ve had a wake up call” kind of way.
Jacob gets a second chance though – he moves to upstate New York and attends Bayard College as a sophomore and the story picks up there in chapter two. He joins the Bayard hockey team and will have another shot at the NHL draft at the end of the following season. He has to keep up at least a C average grade, attend an Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness course which is mandatory for all new and transferring students and keep out of trouble. But, if he does all that, he just might be able to get his life back on track.
Skylar is also a sophomore at Bayard College. She is doing pre-med studies because of family expectation (her sister is studying medicine at Harvard – Skylar tries but will never measure up to her brilliant sister). The previous year, she and her two BFFs from high school, Ella and Brendan, started at Bayard. Part way through the year, Brendan committed suicide and thereafter, Skylar’s grades tanked and she failed two classes. She is feeling an extra sense of responsibility and guilt for letting her parents down this way – she knows they are paying a lot of money for her education.
After Brendan died, Skylar sought help from a local counseling group and ended up volunteering with the program herself. She wanted to give back something after having received so much help herself. She is one of the facilitators of the pilot training program for sexual assault prevention and awareness.
Of course, Jacob and Skylar meet at the training, but before that, they encounter each other at a party. There is an instant chemistry between them and they start to make out but Jacob has decided to swear off women for the year in order to help with the keeping out of trouble thing. He calls a rather abrupt halt to their amorous adventure, turning Skylar down when she invites him to further intimacy. When they meet again at the sexual assault prevention and awareness course, it is awkward at first but they power through. Before long, Jacob finds himself suggesting a “fake relationship” (I love this trope – it is the modern marriage of convenience). For him it will keep (most of) the girls away from him and make it easier for him to focus on his studies and hockey. For Skylar, it will give her an excuse with her friends for not going out much – “study dates” with a boyfriend are much more acceptable than hanging out in the library alone. Of course, in tried and true romance genre fashion, the line between “fake” and “real” blurs and pretty soon the only thing keeping Skylar and Jacob from a real relationship is the label.
Over the course of the story, Jacob develops his empathy skills and mans up in a lot of important ways. Skylar, for her part, comes to grips with the events of the prior year and with what future she wants for herself, while navigating complicated family dynamics. And, of course, Jacob and Skylar fall in love – not without some complications (it wouldn’t be entertaining genre romance without them!) – and have lots of hot sex. And the sex is hot. And plentiful. I’m not complaining.
Jacob came across to me initially as a bit of an ass. He was a little too entitled and a little too cocky. But I decided to persist and actually, what was revealed as the book progressed is a guy whose cocky bravado hides human vulnerabilities. As for the entitled bit – he learned and he changed and it was awesome. He also treated Skylar well (except for the black moment where he was a bit of an ass but that is to be expected and he gave good grovel). His care and respect for Skylar went a long way with me.
Skylar felt very relateable as well. At first I thought the girl Jacob spotted at the party at the beginning of the story was someone other than Skylar – the characterisation was a little sketchy for me about then. (As I said earlier, the start of the book was a little uneven.) But things improved after that first chapter or two. I understood Skylar’s sense of obligation to her parents and her feeling of never being able to measure up to her big sister. I also understood that sometimes these things are matters of perception rather than reality.
I liked that Skylar took it upon herself to make new friends and put herself out there when existing friendships seemed to be failing her. She didn’t wait for things to happen – she made them happen herself. I also liked that Skylar wasn’t all about Jacob – her college major, her close friendships and her family were all prominent storylines within the book and through this, she seemed like a well-rounded and savvy girl I’d like to know in real life.
On it’s own, Shut Out is an entertaining read. The love story is believable and sweet and sexy and the characters were sympathetic and came across as believably young. There is also just the right mix of humour in the book, which balances out some of the heavier aspects well.
“I’m kind of . . . turned on.”
His head whips around, then turns back to the windshield. “From meeting my parents?”
I choke. “No! God no.” I wheeze. “From watching you drive.”
He shoots me an amused look. “Babe. Seriously?”
But Shut Out is also something more. It manages to be an issues book which isn’t overly preachy. For the most part, it treads that line between didactic text and engaging story very nimbly.
For those who have called out some of the language in hockey themed books, there’s this:
“Uh-oh. Did you just become a puck bunny?”
“No! Well, maybe.”
“No, no, I don’t think you meet the definition.”
I slide her an amused look. “There’s a definition?”
“Yeah. A puck bunny is only interested in hockey players because they’re hockey players. Since you started seeing Jacob before you ever saw him play hockey, and you don’t even like hockey, that’s not the case.”
“Truth.” I nod. “Plus the term ‘puck bunny’ is a little demeaning and slut-shamey.”
It’s not perfectly done – there are some later instances of “puck bunny” being used. Still, credit where credit’s due and all that.
At around the time I was finishing this book, I stumbled across this series of tweets by Hillary Monahan. I found it valuable as a reader even though it is directed to authors and aspiring authors. I tried to look at this book through the lens of those tweets. I think it holds up well. Then again, I haven’t been sexually assaulted so I can’t say I’m an expert.
At least some of the sexual assault prevention and awareness course seems to be based on the Step UP! program and Skylar’s and Jacob’s time there is used to illustrate certain points about rape culture and its prevalence in society and the impact of sexual assault within college campuses. Bystander intervention is discussed and Jacob is particularly convicted by these lessons. The program has more work to do than just be moral guidance and that helps with the “not being too preachy” thing. Above all, a romance novel should tell a romance story yes? But it seemed to me that the broader message of the book was a positive one and an exemplar in the genre (albeit that I haven’t, of course, read everything in the genre). Kudos, Ms. Jamieson, for addressing sexual assault, rape culture and taking responsibility for one’s own actions in such a positive way and making it engaging.
It also struck me that you knew your hockey. I only know what I’ve read in books but it seemed authentic.
Franco on the right wing plays the same kind of gritty game I do, we both go in hard on the forecheck and drive the net, and the three of us all seem to read each other and find each other.
When Jacob first moves to Bayard College, he is nervous about his acceptance within the team and worried they all hate him. I liked the building camaraderie between the players, particularly the ones he lived with, and their banter , and how you showed Jacob’s assimilation via things such as in-jokes.
Given that the book seems to be #1 of the Bayard Hockey series, I’m hoping to see more of Skylar and Jacob in the future. As is perhaps fitting for a new adult book, while the couple are on the right track at the end of the story, there are a few things still up in the air and I’d like to know what happens. Will Jacob get drafted the next year? How will he and Skylar manage a long distance relationship if so? Or, will Jacob stay in college? I’m also hoping that Skylar’s friend, Ella, will be a heroine in a future book. After my experience reading this one, I’d very much like to see where you take her and what hero you would pair her with.
All in all, Shut Out was a big win for me. Grade: A- and recommended.