I felt a little bruised and battered by some of the books I’ve read recently. I have a bunch of books I’m really excited to read, and a bunch of books that are my happy place, but none of them were working for me. I saw several people raving about Scottie in Kristen Callihan’s Managed. What I remember about Scottie is that I loathed him. I thought it might be worth revisiting him, but obviously I would have to reread Idol first, because I couldn’t remember it at all other than the early drunk driving incident. I had not realized that somewhere along the way I had picked up all 4 of the VIP series books. I hadn’t read the last two. So anyway, I inhaled all 4 like a bag of mixed snacks. And then I went back and read three of them again.
Idol (VIP 1)
Kill John, the world’s biggest rock band, has been blown apart by the front man’s almost successful death by suicide. We occasionally visit the night in question in various character’s flashbacks, but mostly we see the reverberations in the 4 books of the series. When Idol opens, Killian James is still struggling with having found his best friend almost dead. He hasn’t been able to play music and has largely cut himself off from his band mates. Liberty Bell (yes, that’s her real name) has cut herself off from the world too, reeling from the death of her parents a year before in a drunk driving accident. She is extremely unamused when she finds a stranger passed out in her yard having apparently drunkenly crashed his motorcycle into her fence. He pukes on her and ends up sleeping it off in her bed.
I liked Idol much more on the third read. Killian and Libby start off leisurely, slowly building a friendship after their decidedly un-cute meet. Mostly, they become friends because Killian keeps hanging around. Gradually, they bond over music, beginning to sing and write songs together.
It’s a messy book with a lot of fractured relationships and understandably poor communication skills between characters who have little experience at adult relationships. In context with the rest of the series, I had more patience for Killian’s big feelings. I do love that Libby and Killian want what is best for the other so much that they are willing to let themselves be unhappy.
I most definitely could have done without the descriptions of the nameless women around the band. The “gritty kitty” bit should be killed with fire. I hope to never ever see it again.
- Meet cute: not cute, but memorable
- Sacrifice for the other’s happiness: they both do, and honestly I loved it
- Grand gestures: they both make them, but Killian botches his and Libby gives him a chance to get it right
CW: drunk driving, past death of parents, alcoholism, sexual assault, discussion of women as sexual objects, remembered suicide attempt
A few words on Managed (VIP 2)
I reviewed Managed a few years ago, so just a few words on rereading. When I first read it, I hadn’t yet gone no contact with my father, and had strong feelings about men who would make the kinds of emotional demands Scottie makes of Sophie. I didn’t hate it as much and I actually finished it this time. I still consider Scottie a red flag parade. Hated it less shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement. Fuck that guy. On to the next rocker.
Fall (VIP 3)
In Fall we really get to know John “Jax” Blackwood. We are seeing him a couple of years out from his suicide attempt. He’s had a lot of therapy, but still struggles with low moods, self loathing, and making connections with the people around him. John and Stella meet while they are each preparing to be snowed in, each trying to claim the last carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Stella surprises John with a kiss and steals the ice cream from his basket. After some shenanigans, Stella becomes John’s neighbor, luckily landing a pet sitting gig when her rent controlled apartment goes condo, making her homeless.
The mental health representation and the John and Stella’s loneliness felt very relatable to me. I’ve gone through some intense periods of depression and they do leave wreckage in their wake – isolation, anger and guilt. I did like the way Callihan portrayed John’s mental health process.
For the first part of Fall, there were endnotes and the end of each chapter. I loved those and whished they continued. I thought they were particularly well deployed when explaining why Callihan gave John chlamydia. I still don’t love the way women around the band are discussed, but since the band isn’t touring, there’s much less of it. I liked how the STD storyline was handled.
There were two things I didn’t like so much in Fall. I was so uncomfortable with the whole “is Stella a sex worker?” storyline. There’s a power differential because Stella is employed by John’s best friend and bandmate. And in the context of the way John thinks of his sexual activity with countless nameless women, it feels icky to me. I also didn’t love the resolution of the bleak moment. It felt a bit shallow, skirting the issue that the bleak moment raises.
- Meet cute: yes, very cute
- Sacrifice for the other’s happiness: much messier and done badly on John’s part
- Grand gestures: I would argue the grand gesture actually comes from the friends.
CW: depression, bad parents, discussion of past suicide attempt, sexually transmitted disease and discussion of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
Exposed (VIP 4)
In the timeline of the real word, there have been a few years between Idol (2016), Managed (2016), Fall (2018) and Exposed (2021). I think Exposed benefits from that gap in time. It is easily my favorite of the books. Killian, Scottie and Jax are coupled up and settling down. John’s suicide attempt continues to impact the band, but the reverberations are gentler. The band has reached a point where it seems like they are more present and adult in each other’s lives. Through the first 4 books, Rye and Brenna have been sniping at each other. It is known that Rye has a thing for Brenna, but no one sees it as a possibility.
There is a lot of pining and yearning. I love pining and yearning. There is also a secret sex pact, and I love a good secret sex pact.
Rye and Brenna have been locked in a pattern of irritation and antagonism for years. One night Rye overhears Brenna talking about wanting an intimate sexual relationship without the demands of a romantic relationship and he volunteers. Brenna does not accept. She has no interest in being vulnerable with someone who has proved untrustworthy in the past. Rye, though, is focused on Brenna. He is willing to be vulnerable for her, he sincerely apologizes for past behavior and respects her boundaries.
- Meet cute: no, we don’t see them meet
- Sacrifice for the other’s happiness: yes, Rye is willing to let Brenna go
- Grand gestures: yes, Brenna’s is spontaneous and appropriate for the setting
CWs: continued impact of suicide attempt, bad parents
I critique because I love. I really do enjoy Kristen Callihan and she delivers the emotional arcs of her books in a way that’s engrossing and satisfying. These are romance, so the romantic relationship is central, but Callihan never makes the romantic relationship a replacement for professional satisfaction. Each partner has a life and relationships outside of the romantic relationship. Through the series, Callihan pieces the band and the friendships central to the band back together while weaving in romantic relationships that give stability to a found family unit. I liked the series better as a whole than as individual parts. I can see how Callihan has started her series with the band blown apart, and then she puts them back together happies and healthier.
One of the reasons I rarely read rock star romances is the way the people around the bands are discussed. The women are almost always nameless providers of sex, in contrast to the female main character who is a full person, and usually not like the other girls. Kristen Callihan isn’t as bad, but the bar is in hell on this issue.
I am hoping that someday Callihan writes a book for Whip. Because for all the complaints and issues I have, I still really enjoy reading her books (mostly) and will continue to read them.