One Last Shot by Alexandra Warren (2019)
Heat Factor: Nonchalantly hot.
Character Chemistry: They have great banter and they push each other. It’s cute.
Plot: Selena’s going for the championship. Dre’s going for a second chance. There are many factors that seem like they might get in the way.
Overall: With all the opportunities for problems to arise, it’s pretty incredible that none of them really do.
Love Becomes Her by Donna Hill (2006)
Heat Factor: Just the highlights.
Character Chemistry: Barbara has better chemistry with Elizabeth than with Michael.
Plot: Four friends have major life upheavals and decide to open a spa together.
Overall: Two out of the three Smut Reporters DNFed.
What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting One Last Shot?
Ingrid: It has a slow pace until 75% of the way through, but those last game descriptions were pretty good. And I felt personally that there wasn’t a lot of romantic tension.
Erin: If you have ever worked in a supervisory position or in HR, this book will give you sweats. Unless you weren’t trained properly.
Holly: The first chunk of the book sets up several potential sources of tension: maybe there’s going to be a love triangle, maybe there’s going to be some problems with the boss and their work relationship, maybe there will be an injury. But none of that happens. I really enjoyed the second half of the book despite the lack of tension playing out.
Erin: We should probably note that this is an accidental pregnancy book. Twist!
What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Love Becomes Her?
I: I read far enough to figure out what the pivotal plot point would be, and then it became clear that it was smut adjacent at best—I feel more confident calling this women’s lit—so I DNFed because I have more than enough books on my plate.
E: I also DNFed for similar reasons though I’m not sure I could tell you what the plot issue was. I really struggled with the fact that the supposed love interest was introduced one time for about four paragraphs in the 13 chapters that I read. And I didn’t love the head-hopping—the POV shifting did not work for me at all.
H: The salient information is that this is really a book about four women who are middle aged and going through a big transition in their life, so in that sense it is much more women’s lit. There is a love story but it is not central to the plot, such as it is. The romance part that’s good is: as a story of Barbara’s sexual awakening, the story is really well done.
These are both low-tension romances, and we struggled with this week. Why do you think they were so low tension?
I: I think that if you pick apart how things unfold, there should be plenty of situational tension in these books. In OLS we have: they’re heading for a championship, she has daddy issues, he has a history of addiction, he has mommy issues, they have forbidden love, there’s maybe a love triangle. Any one of these would drive tension pretty easily, but they aren’t really unpacked in a tantalizing way. We got some tension when Dre disappeared to deal with his family issues, but it was easily resolved and neatly tied up with a bow, so it felt kind of…too easy. Even the fights were pretty lighthearted. It’s not like the characters aren’t processing things emotionally though—the best answer I could come up with in this case for why we don’t feel tension we should be feeling, was that the rhythm of structure didn’t change as we shifted through moments of tension and moments of resolution. The sentence style didn’t change—we were just told things—action, feelings, whatever. When she was worried about him not texting her back, the wording didn’t get frantic. It was described, but it didn’t provoke a similar reaction in the reader.
In LBH, she gets hit by a car and finds out she might have breast cancer all at the same time—you could tell that it was an emotional moment for Barbara, but it didn’t feel tense to me. When she tells her friend not to tell Michael, her friend was like, “Too late, he’s already bought a ticket.” She’s a woman dating a younger man with a big-shot career who is dropping everything for her. She’s already a flight risk, here. She has been unsure about this relationship, and in this really high-stakes moment she has a huge moment to push tension, but it’s sort of passed over without much fanfare. I expected her to backslide on her progress, push him away in fear, etc. I would have understood, “I can’t deal with that, it’s too much!” but she was just like, “Okay, well, that’s how that goes.”
E: I think that was my struggle with getting connected with it in the first few chapters of both books. In the case of LBH, I was forced to somehow connect with the significant emotional struggles of four women—all having completely different struggles—and the tone was so much the same and the head-hopping was so frequent that I didn’t have time to connect. I don’t even know what exactly it was in the case of OLS. I think Ingrid is right, though: there was no ramping up of tension, so I didn’t come down ever. They had a talk with the owner of the franchise, who warned them no funny business, but they never internalized that stress. They were just like, “Whatever.” They never sneak around. Even when they first have sex in the hotel, and the people they should be most concerned about overhearing them are on either side of his room, they’re like, “shh (but not really)”. And that carried through in all aspects of the story. Every point of tension introduced wasn’t necessarily made into a problem as things played out, and I think that can be okay, but only when there was tension in the expectation of things going wrong.
I: Ok yes so I completely agree. There’s a lot of fun in having that feeling of, “what’s going to be the sticking point here?” and I think as a reader that can help stir tension—the author is playing with the reader. But in both of these books, I felt as the reader I was guessing, only to have it resolved in an informational way. The author wasn’t playing back with me. It was frustrating. Normally it’s fun and playful, but in these cases the tension wasn’t quite there.
Why do some low-angst character-driven romances really work then?
I: I think both of these could have been low-angst, character-driven romances, but they were situationally driven. In OLS—all of the situations they deal with are from outside tension. It’s not like “should we or shouldn’t we”. There’s very little tension about whether or not they will keep fooling around. Low-angst books tend to involve more pondering and ruminating in my experience–there’s a lot of processing because the plot revolves around a question that needs an answer and it’s within the main characters. It’s not pressure on the characters from external forces, from actions taken against them. When it’s inside, “Shall I accept his proposal” doesn’t have the same level of intensity as “WE HAVE TO DIFFUSE THIS BOMB IF WE WANT TO MAKE IT TO OUR WEDDING”.
H: So. I think I disagree. Because you can have these internal, character-driven romances that are very very angsty. But Erin’s question is about the combination of low-angst and character-driven, and I think the issue is that these both are low-angst and plot-driven. The characters are not super developed in either book.
E: That ties into the pacing issue. Because when you’re reading books with a lot of external forces like “We’re going to win the tournament!” the sentence structure all plays into the energy that’s created there. And in OLS, the sentence structure is not changeable no matter where you are in the book.
I: I cannot wait to unpack this in my writing series. The length of sentences and the way you structure paragraphs. The actual structure of the sentences influences how a reader actually feels. Short sentences pack a punch. Long expository sentences are languid and slow.
Thoughts about this writing style in One Last Shot where she starts with one character dialoguing and then segues into the other character dialoguing:
“Extremely,” I breathed, not feeling all that relieved about it when he pressed, “But you did it anyway. For me?”
E: It makes sense the way she’s writing it, as in it’s not designed to be broken into two sentences…but it’s confusing.
I: I think this was why it took me so long to read. I understand why it’s like that conversationally, but there was one point where it went from Selena to Dre and it seemed like it went to his perspective, but it was her chapter. I had a really hard time following along.
H: I was just like, “Okay. This is what we’re doing. I’m going to read it like it’s poetry.”
Let’s talk about these books as sports romances.
I: OLS was a pretty tried and true sports romance between a coach and a player. Playing the sport together is part of their flirtation and courtship. Basketball was entwined in everything they did. I thought she did a fantastic job with the games. I felt the most tension here – I didn’t know how she was going to pull off the championship because the author sets it up like two ways could have worked as an HEA for Selena. I liked it, I thought that part was pretty good.
In LBH, I beg to differ that it’s a basketball romance.
H: I also thought that the contrast of the WNBA and NBA was really interesting in OLS. That was one of the lines of conflict that carried throughout the whole book. It wasn’t a big part of it, but I felt like it was there, pushing at them, the whole time.
In LBH, there is a thing at the end where Michael is being sued for not paying child support for this child he had out of wedlock, and Barbara gets really upset about this, and Michael is like, “It’s not my kid, she’s shaking me down because I’m a famous basketball player. That’s how we get treated.” But other than that and the fact that he’s on the road a lot, which is an enormous source of stress for Barbara as she contemplates a serious relationship with Michael, there’s not much about him being a basketball player. If the story had been focused on just Barbara and Michael, there would have been space to develop these storylines, and that, I think, would have been enough for me to buy this as a sports romance, even if we didn’t get into detail about Michael’s training regimen.
How did One Last Shot square with your expectations for a player/coach romance?
I: I am a real sucker for that “we mustn’t” dynamic, and I didn’t get that. They just jumped in with both feet. I want that tantalizing forbidden fruit situation, and I was disappointed because that dynamic was lacking.
E: So, I think this is where my stress comes in, because I agree with you Ingrid. But there’s no reason for them not to, exactly, because literally everyone is behaving inappropriately (for a workplace) in this book from the first page. Including the manager-owner person! She’s not approaching the flirtation situation appropriately. So, on the one hand, why would Dre and Selena care that it’s forbidden? They have absolutely no reason to because there are absolutely no guidelines for appropriate intra-office (as it were) relationships. Everyone is talking about genitals and hooking up from the first page! Not just a couple of people. All the people. So why would they think it was inappropriate? Even when they get caught in the locker room, the other player is just like, “Cool, no worries!!!” That office is a hot mess! The only thing that’s compelling them to be apart is the boss telling them that it wouldn’t be an appropriate relationship, except that has no teeth because she also isn’t handling the situation appropriately. Which, to be fair, my response might be a bit nit picky because of my past employment. But my thoughts are: why would they care!? NO ONE DOES. The inherent tension in that trope that derives from our social expectations of what the power dynamics should be like were not really present.
Love Becomes Her is much more focused on female friendship than the romance. Do you think Harlequin marketed this correctly?
H: This had me thinking. There’s all this stuff on the Twitter about these fights about what’s really a romance—when the sex needs to happen, and when books are really “women’s fiction”, and so on. We’re doing a whole series on these questions. My point is, maybe back in 2006, when LBH was published, an author could write a series about women and friendships and sex and since there’s an engagement at the end, and it was okay to call that a romance. I haven’t read a lot of older Harlequins, but in older bodice ripper romances the stories were often a hot, sprawling mess and had multi-generational stories and wild plots. Skye O’Malley went through four husbands in a single book! But they were still romances; I don’t think anyone was arguing in 1980 that Bertrice Small wasn’t writing romances. So maybe it’s a sign of space narrowing.
I: That’s a really good point.
E: I definitely noticed how my expectations of the structure of a narrative has shifted. I was definitely reading romances in 2006, and there are ways that POV is not often used now that was used pretty regularly then. Or sometimes authors would take several chapters to put the characters on the page together, and that was fine. Whereas now I’m like, “How many chapters do I have to go through to get to the meat of the plot; why haven’t you told me why I’m reading?” So I think there is a modern imperative to get a character’s problems and relationship struggles started on the page as early as possible now. And that’s not what happened here.
I: I would be curious about doing some buddy reads on some of these outliers or smut-adjacent reads. That would be really interesting, I think. Because maybe we’re tossing the baby out with the bathwater with some of these restrictions, but it would be interesting to examine why.
H: Donna Hill wrote a note at the beginning of the book saying that she hoped the reader enjoyed meeting all four of these ladies and that then we’ll be seeing more from these women down the line. So my theory is that this might be one of those cases where if you shuffled the four books in the series together and then separated them out, you’d get four romances. But I don’t know.
E: I mean, maybe the question isn’t “did Harlequin market it correctly”. Maybe, because we found it on a list of sports romances, other people aren’t marketing it correctly. We’ve indicated that it’s 1. Not very sportsy, and that 2. It might not even be romance-y.
H: If you look at the blurb, it looks like it’s a romance between a hot, young basketball player and his older physical therapist. I’m pretty sure the blurb is part of Harlequin’s marketing.
E: That is absolutely true. Okay fine.
Be honest: how much did you want to be someone who would join a geriatric dance team that performs before ball games?
I: I would never want to be on any dance team ever again. And I don’t want to be around a lot of people. I did that in HS, don’t need to do that again.
E: I feel like I’d want to do it because it’d be like one of those things: “What are the cool old people doing?”
E: I’m gonna be a cool old person! I’m not gonna care any more. I’m gonna be like, “I finally figured out how to twerk.”
I: The kids will be like, “What’s twerking?”
I: I sincerely don’t think it was these books, I just don’t think basketball translates great for me. I’m not into it. It’s too fast in real life and it felt kind of the same to me on the page. IDK.
E: These also were really slow going for me. Obviously, we had a DNF. I’m glad you didn’t argue that we do basketball for the entire month of March.
H: I think you guys are being too hard on basketball romances, and I look forward to our discussion of Kennedy Ryan next week.
Okay, so we’ve tried on for size the (arguably) three most popular sports in America. Next week, as we conclude this smashdown, we’re taking a step back to look at two of the really big books in this sportsball romance space.