REVIEW: Big Stick by Kelly Jamieson
Dear Ms. Jamieson:
This is book number seven in the Aces Hockey series. For some reason I didn’t start reading the series until book five; I still need to go back and read the first four (plus book 1.5, a novella). I’ve talked before in previous reviews about how it’s weird that I’ve somehow become a habitual reader of contemporaries featuring hockey players, given that I don’t read many contemporary romances as a rule, and am not much of a hockey fan. But there’s something comfortingly predictable (I swear, I mean that word in a complimentary way!) about this series.
Jodie is the best friend of Kendra from Slap Shot. Actually, the two work together; they own a sex toy business. Jodie is an engineer by training. (As with Kendra, I liked that Jodie had a “different” sort of degree and profession from the average romance heroine. You don’t come across engineer heroines in romance every day.) She’s also a single mother to two-year-old Zyana; she uprooted her life in New York to follow Kendra to Chicago after Kendra fell in love with a pro hockey player and moved there to be with him. Jodie and Zyana are settling in, but when the book begins, she is still staying with Kendra and her fiance Max; she’s having a hard time finding a place in Chicago that meets her and Zyana’s needs.
At a party at Kendra and Max’s, Jodie meets several of Max’s teammates. One who stands out is Nick Balachov, but not for the best reasons. Jodie finds Nick surly; Nick thinks Jodie is too chatty and perky. Later that night, Nick drunkenly stumbles into the room Jodie is staying in, and ends up seeing her stark naked.
It’s not the most auspicious start, but Nick and Jodie (and Zyana) quickly get thrown together again. Nick has a newly renovated, empty carriage house behind the house he’s living in and slowly rehabbing. Max and Kendra come up with the idea that Jodie and Zyana can move in there, at least until Jodie can find something appropriate on a more permanent basis. Nick, of course, balks at first – he’s presented early on as quite the grouchy misanthrope, so it’s no surprise that the idea of a perky woman and her adorable moppet moving in next door would trigger him. But he eventually relents and Jodie, though she has her own concerns, can’t turn down an opportunity that is perfect in most ways just because she thinks Nick is rude.
Of course, Nick’s not the one-dimensional grump he first appears to be. Rather, he’s the product of a tough childhood and recent loss, over which he’s still grieving. His younger brother Aleks – also a player for the Aces – died three years before the story begins, and Nick is nowhere near over his death. Losing Aleks has reinforced some of Nick’s anti-social tendencies; these days he mostly plays hockey and, in his free time, restores old furniture.
Jodie and Zyana quickly disrupt Nick’s lonely routine. And Nick finds that he doesn’t mind it as much as he thought he would. Further, he’s attracted to Jodie. (Well, of course he is! This is a romance, after all.)
Jodie had a hard childhood as well; she never knew her father, and her mother died when she was 12. After that she was in foster care; she worked hard in school to get into a good college. As an adult, she made the decision to have a child by herself to gain the family she’d always wanted.
This is presented as a reasonable choice on Jodie’s part, but I had my doubts. Given her background, having a child to essentially fill a void seemed a little unhealthy. It seemed particularly odd given that Jodie is not that old (I don’t think? I never caught her age, but I don’t think she was older than 30). It’s not that I disliked her character (I liked Jodie a lot) or even the choice she made, and she’s a good mother, of course. It just seemed weird that a fairly young woman would choose to have a baby on her own, in the apparent belief that she’d never settle down with a partner. I’d have liked to have that choice/belief explored, but it never really was.
Nick, Jodie and Zyana are forced into even closer proximity when a snowstorm hits Chicago, knocks out the power, and essentially strands them all together in Nick’s house for a couple of days. Nick and Jodie’s relationship starts to grow from there. He opens up about his brother’s death and begins to bond with Zyana (previously Nick claimed to “hate kids” but that appeared to just be code for “not used to being around them and a little afraid of them”).
There’s not a whole lot of conflict for most of Big Stick. There’s the initial “Nick is a jerk” plotline, but Jodie’s never really that put off by him, and he’s not *that* bad. Later on, the mild conflict centers around his fear of giving up his lone-wolf persona and her concerns about trusting a man and letting him into her world with Zyana. I generally like a little more conflict in my romances but I’ve come to expect from the previous two books that the series is pretty low-conflict and not terribly angsty (though there are dark and serious elements – death and grief – in both this book and Slap Shot). Anyway, not every romance I read is going to be full of angst and melodrama, and that’s okay.
Nick is scarred by his childhood and the loss of his brother, but he’s self-aware about it. He’s not in denial, and for the most part he works to deal with it in healthy ways. I’d have liked to have known more about Jodie’s childhood – her characterization would’ve had more depth if her past had been fleshed out a bit. I don’t see the point in giving a character a rough past if it doesn’t seem to inform who they are in the present. I’m not saying she had to be tortured; maybe it’s just that we get a lot of Nick’s angst over his past and it highlights the weirdness of not focusing on Jodie in the same way. (I guess she could be totally okay with losing her mother at 12, never knowing her father and having to live in foster care. But even if that *were* the case I’d have liked to have seen it addressed somehow.)
As an aside, one thing I like in this series is that the hockey players, while obviously all great players (I mean, you have to be elite to even get near the pro level), aren’t all the biggest stars on the team. They’re contributors, and sometimes they play great and other times they have off days. Nick worries about contributing enough and going up against another team’s best players as the playoffs approach. I like the realism of that. In general the books in the Chicago Aces series feel very grounded in reality, for all that they feature professional athletes (who are invariably incredibly hot and apparently not missing all the teeth that I understand actual NHL players generally are?).
Overall, this was an enjoyable and satisfying read. I gave the previous two books B minuses, I think because overall the stories just didn’t wow me. I’m tempted to give Big Stick a B but I think it caught me at just the right moment when I needed a comforting read; thus I will give it a B+.