Kristen Callihan is a hot name in NA, for her Game On series, which are football romances between the athlete heroes — all of whom are as astonishingly dedicated to academic/intellectual pursuits as to football — and heroines who are very outspoken about how little they are impressed with the formers’ football fame. The books tend toward insta-lust that becomes love *quite* quickly. I’m not bothered by insta-lust/love unilaterally, but if you read too many of that type of story in a row, the heat loses some of its effect. Taken on their own however, Callihan clearly knows how to write a steamy story with smoldering chemistry between the leads. The Game On books are hot.
The Hook Up features Drew Baylor, quarterback, and Anna Jones, just an ordinary gal who has a class with Drew. He’s instantly smitten with her, and from the beginning of their meeting feels like there is something special about Anna and wants to find a way to get to know her better and form a deeper connection with her. Anna was bullied or ignored in high school, and though she is attracted to Drew and even likes him a little, she wants nothing to do with being in the orbit of someone as popular as him, with all the scrutiny that would fall on her for being attached to him. She concedes initially their sexual attraction and agrees to a casual relationship of that nature with Drew, but refuses to commit to anything more serious. A fairly straightforward premise, The Hook Up works both because of Callihan’s aforementioned prowess with chemistry between the two, and because of the depth she brings to their backgrounds. Anna’s reticence and trust issues come from a place of not having experienced a lot of examples of a loving, respectful relationship, and Drew lost his parents when he was very young so he’s looking for people who can be part of his family.
The Friend Zone is the one that reforms the ‘rake,’ in this case Gray Grayson, the team player who sleeps with a new woman (sometimes, women) every night. I’ve said this before and I don’t have a logical reason for it, but in contemporary romance, I don’t really enjoy reading about a guy who has had throwaway sex with that many women. I know that as long as the sex was safe and consensual it’s not really my business what anyone’s “number” is, but a guy who sleeps around THAT much and also has a healthy, functioning respect for women is kind of a unicorn IRL. The way the trope of the male “player” works is that by necessity, every single one of the dozens or hundreds of women who had come his way previously were “not the one”, and so the heroine has some particular appeal that all of those other women didn’t. The reason this doesn’t work for me very well is that these heroines aren’t always these uniquely developed characters — the hallmarks of any NA heroine are that she’s fiesty/snarky, and is either inexperienced, or is not a stranger to lust but is guarded with her heart. So the thing that *really* distinguishes the heroine from other women is that even though she’s cute enough that the hero could conceive of sleeping with her, their first interaction is platonic. She merely DOESN’T throw herself at him, and doesn’t immediately appear to fall for his charm. There is nothing else in this book that characterizes Ivy in a way such that I couldn’t point out her many similarities to a ton of women I met throughout my college years, which makes her a perfectly serviceable audience stand-in and “relate-able person”, but: if Ivy is so generally likeable and a fairly simple sketch of an average college woman, what makes her so special to Gray, other than the fact that she didn’t immediately try to seduce him, as every other woman in this book seems to do? What is his problem that he couldn’t conjure up a single female friend in all of his years of existence (for real: he tells Ivy she’s his first female friend), prior to Ivy?
I don’t mean to make it seem like I hated The Friend Zone particularly, because it’s not the only or the worst example of this. Gray isn’t an overt misogynist or a a bad guy in this book, but I overanalyze everything and this trope just brings this out in me. As a point of fact, in and of itself, I really enjoyed The Friend Zone. Ivy and Gray are a cute couple and, again, the smolder is off the charts. So enough of that!
The Game Plan fell a bit flat for me in comparison to the others. Ethan Dexter is an extremely devoted hero, completely besotted with Fiona from the very beginning — in his own words, “waiting years for [her] to see [him].” The full force of his emotion is a lot for Fiona, who likes him quite a bit, but who has no interest in the media circus around being attached to a popular professional athlete (as an aside — a charming feature of so many of these sports romances is the serious inflation of the status of, like, every member of the team. Dex’s football position is center. This is not exactly one of the high-status skill positions that tends to get players a lot of name recognition, and even with the known, “famous” players, they’re generally famous among sports fans, not the general population. A big part of the plot revolves around Dex being individually famous enough that the media hounds him around the specific question of his relationship status and his virginity, and it’s just .. silly. An NFL center is not an A-lister. The most well-known player is the quarterback, and even the biggest name quarterbacks in history are arguably not A-listers, even if most people know who they are.) Anyway, Fiona is still figuring out exactly what she wants to do, and with a potential big job in New York (i.e. not where Ethan is located) on the horizon, she’s unsure if she should close the door on that opportunity when she’s not sure what her next one will be. Their relationship was… fine. I’m cranky for a different reason, which is that I don’t like plots where the women need to decide whether or not they should move (for a job or any other reason) and the decision is based on where the man is. It’s a personal problem. I don’t care if it’s a perfect happy ending with some remarkable resolution that completely solves every problem and the heroine doesn’t actually have to sacrifice anything. It’s just too real that the majority of emotional labor around a decision like that falls to the woman, and getting a happy ever after doesn’t take away from the stress of reading about it for the majority of the book.
Interlude where I apologize that this review, like so many of my reviews, has turned into a series of rants. Maybe I’m not as great at reviewing books as I am about wandering off into vaguely related tangents. Maybe romance in general isn’t as easy for me to read as it used to be because there are a lot of feminist “issues” living in my brain now that makes it hard to separate the fantasy from what it’s actually like between men and women in meatspace. It’s tiresome, man. Anyway — onward!
Finally we get to The Hot Shot, featuring Finn, the QB behind Dex. Finn and his teammates are roped into doing a nude charity calendar, shot by a photographer named Chess, who they are surprised to learn is a woman. Finn and Chess get off to an antagonistic start when Finn tries to work his usual cocky charm on her and she does not go for it, but being very good at her job, she still manages to coax some vulnerability out of him when shooting him, and gets a series of great shots. Attracted to Chess but also confused and impressed by her depth of emotional perception, he finds himself wanting a deeper connection with her in spite of what would have been a one-off professional encounter. Then, her loft apartment and studio are lost to a fire, and, having built enough of a tentative friendship for Finn to make the offer, Chess moves into his place while she gets back on her feet.
This one was cute. It had a little bit of the same thing I complained about earlier with Finn being reformed from a major player, and it takes a few shots at women who have the gall to be attracted to him by setting them up as bitches jealous of Chess. But, and you wouldn’t know by reading this combo review, I actually read all of these months apart from each other, and I must have been in a better overall mood because I was more receptive to this one. I think it helps that Finn and Chess are past being college-aged, so there’s a little extra maturity that I can theoretically credit to a man choosing to settle down, having experienced the fullest potential of casual relationships and wanting to progress to a new stage of life, versus a player magically deciding to stop sleeping around because he happened to discover the first girl in the world worth paying deeper attention to.
In all, these are satisfying romances that fulfill a basic purpose of lifting the mood. The very best romances, in my opinion, also make you think and can even enhance and change your perspective on the world by shining light on how interpersonal relationships are a product of society and culture at large. These books aren’t really that: they lean on the side of fluff. But fluff has its place in the world and this particular fluff has been a soothing balm in a time that has been weird and upsetting, to say the least.