Dueling Review, March Smashness

March Smashness: Heavy Hitters in Sportsball Romance Week

Nobody’s Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (1997)

Heat Factor: Explicit but euphemistic. What sorcery is this?

Character Chemistry: Shouting makes them horny.

Plot: Objects in motion will stay in motion unless stopped by a deceitful pregnancy and forced marriage.

Overall: We were happier than a 90s tween getting a Delia’s catalog.


The Long Shot by Kennedy Ryan (2018)

Heat Factor: Scary hot. No, really. Scary. And sometimes hot.  

Character Chemistry: Basically fated mates.

Plot: Iris is in a relationship she can’t leave but is drawn to August in spite of herself.

Overall: 🚨 A very difficult read 🚨

For each week this month we’ve been asking what we know about sports. Now we’ve read a bunch of sportsball romance, what do we know about sports romance?

Holly: As the person who arguably had the most to learn, I would say that I learned that it seems like the athlete archetype is more than just a hot rich guy. There are some pieces to the archetype that differentiate the athlete from other celebrities, both in terms of character traits (focus, dedication to teamwork) and the kind of worries they have about their careers. 

I also learned about myself that surprisingly, I kinda like learning about weird sports details if I learn them from romance novels. 

Erin: I have read a TON of sports romance, and maybe more than 50% of that is queer sports romance? And also more than 50% of it is hockey romance? And so what I have learned is that the primary struggle in queer sports romance tends to center on coming out unless it’s a new adult college romance which is a whole other thing; whereas, M/F sports romance tends to be more centered on social differences or troubles similar to what we see in other celebrity romance. Also, I learned that I, for some inexplicable reason, because I have never in my life seen real hockey, find hockey to be the single most intriguing kind of sports romance that there is. And, like Holly, I have found that the details specific to the archetype (worries about losing their career to an injury, performing at a high level as an athlete) are slightly different than other celebrity romances. 

Ingrid: I think that this is a really broad genre and that for people who haven’t delved into it yet, they shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if they don’t like the first one they read. There’s a sport and a trope for everyone—you just need to find your thing and you’re happy.

H: I will say in response, now that I’ve read ten sports romances instead of one, I probably still won’t be reading a lot of sports romances.

I: You haven’t read Kulti yet.

What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Long Shot?

I: I feel like the author had a magic-8 ball of content warnings, and periodically, she shook the magic-8 ball and went with it. This is the book that’s throwing my theory of what makes a good romance for a loop, because it technically passes, but…I didn’t like it, it was difficult for me to read, but when I look at it with my reviewer goggles on, I have a hard time saying it’s not good. Ingrid was tormented. 

E: As Holly said in our text chat, the content warnings are no joke, and I say that considering that I have a really high tolerance for almost anything. On-page violence. Problematic content. But I could not finish this book. I draw a hard line at raping women with guns. So I did not find it a pleasurable read at all, and when I got to that point I decided that no matter how the book fell out in the end, it wasn’t worth it to me to continue. 

Also, content note for folks like me: I faint if people describe compound fractures, and I was listening to the audiobook, and I almost passed out in the car.

H: Everything I knew about Long Shot was basically that it’s about an abused woman but it ends up being a really amazing romance. And I think it’s not actually an amazing romance? I think if you get past the part where Iris is being abused you’re so relieved that things are actually going better for her that as a reader you just like, don’t notice all the other issues with this book. 

What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Nobody’s Baby But Mine?

H: Nobody’s Baby But Mine is fucking delightful, but there is some problematic shit in there. When I was reading it I thought, “This reads like a highlander romance. But with computers.”

I: That are so big you have to ask a football player to move them for you!

H: It’s really fun, and it has everything in it that I love about bonkers old school romances, including things that some modern readers would probably find pretty off-putting.

E: This book is totally a comedy. The protagonists are almost a caricature-ish rendition of the archetypes, with the awkward, near-virgin physicist-geek lady and the quarterback who is obsessed with his machismo and youth. There is problematic content, for sure, and some of it is simply problematic, no asterisk. But there are some places that I felt like Phillips was acknowledging that the content was problematic, and we were all just going to go along with it because that’s where these characters were. So that was really fun.

I: There were absolutely some fairly major “this is not ok” things in this book. 

I actually laughed out loud multiple times, and not just because it was peak 90s. The descriptions of him admiring her outfits…What’s with the tortoiseshell headbands? H-A-W-T. It’s so 90s.

Thoughts on these books as sports romances?

E: Long Shot seemed more invested in the sport like some of the other books we’ve read this month, where we said “Oh, we liked this better as a sports romance because they actually did the sport.” We see the characters going to the games, being on the court. (In terms of where the story went after he was injured, I can’t speak to that.) 

In NBBM, it pretty much all took place in the off-season, so there wasn’t the on-field context. But the fact that Cal’s identity was so tied to being “The Quarterback,” plus frequent references to the sport still made it feel like a sports romance to me. He’s very clearly an active player, not just a guy who happens to be an athlete who’s not thinking about sports in the off-season.

H: After reading all these sports romances, Cal was a very familiar archetype. He felt very similar to Dom from Scoring off the Field by Naima Simone, which we read earlier this month.

In terms of LS, it’s not just that sports is a big deal for them; basketball becomes a central metaphor for the relationship between August and Iris. In what is arguably one of the swooniest moments in the book, August tells Iris that he would play her in the 5 position, which is his way of saying that she would be the center of his life.

Let’s talk about the synergy between these books.

I: I found that there were some interesting threads relating to consent and boundaries within a relationship.

E: I noticed the same thing—the books are tonally oppositional: Long Shot is pure drama. It’s not happy, it’s not playful, it’s very centered in fate not working out until it eventually does. And then by contrast, NBBM, as I said earlier, is comedy. It starts out as comedy and just frolics along for the whole thing. BUT the two books contain a few similar beats, as Ingrid said, relating to consent and boundaries. And, choosing (or not choosing) to get pregnant…which I guess counts as consent and boundaries.

H: We paired these two books as standouts in the genre of sports romance. Phillips is cited as a trailblazer in the subgenre, and Ryan won a RITA for LS. But it was really jarring to read them side by side.

I: Jarring is exactly the word I would use. I read LS first and NBBM second. If I had read them in the other order, I may not have noticed how egregious some of the stuff in NBBM is.

Both books include similar moments where a man is physically overpowering a woman—in one it’s treated as not insurmountably problematic or dangerous, and in the other it’s extremely violent and upsetting. Let’s talk about problematic content being entertainment versus indicative of a toxic relationship.

H: For context, Cal discovers Jane is pregnant with his child and forces her to marry him by threatening legal action to get custody. When the story of their marriage breaks, he takes her to an isolated town where she knows no one, to a house that’s also isolated and where she doesn’t have transportation. In terms of her social support system, he basically treats her the same way that Caleb (bad guy) treats Iris in Long Shot: severing her from her social network and threatening to take away the child that she really wants. 

I: For me, in NBBM it helped me mentally, understanding that I was reading a book from the 90s. Jumping back in the memory bank, some of the stuff that happened there (her purposely trying to get pregnant without his consent, which is rape; him locking her in his house)—I don’t think that we as a culture had a good understanding what those things really do to a person if they’re present in a toxic relationship. I just put a big asterisk on it and put it into the context of the 90s.

H: You talking about Jane trying to get pregnant without Cal’s consent made me think of the first Bridgerton book, though a key difference is that Jane knows that her actions were unforgivable, and that’s precisely why she goes along with all of Cal’s demands. But just generally, the dynamic between Cal and Jane felt very familiar, because these are beats that I remember from old bodice rippers.

E: For me, this really stood out because I read LS before NBBM. I think if I had read it the other way, I probably would have not been specifically triggered about those actions because I also would have been thinking bodice ripper context first, not social awareness and safety first. And that’s one of the places where I felt that, as with a bodice ripper, SEP is taking us along for a ride that is not particularly strange for a 90s romance and that’s part of the fun of reading those books. It’s a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes.

H: A key difference is obviously how the authors are treating what’s happening and how the characters are responding to what’s happening. Jane and Iris are both upset and angry about what’s happening and how they’re being treated, but Iris is more scared than pissed. Jane is never afraid of Cal, she’s just angry. 

I think SEP diffuses some of the tension by having Jane respond to Cal’s actions by doing things like removing every single marshmallow from Cal’s Lucky Charms, which is so petty that it makes it feel like his actions are petty also.

I: I agree with what you said, and I also think that for me the key difference was safety. The difference between the bodice ripper feeling vs. Long Shot is the potential. At no time does Jane ever think that she is at risk of violence, but you can feel Iris’s fear that something will happen to her, and of course it does. Jane has no fear that something will happen to her when she spends four hours taking all those marshmallows. She’s delighted by it, and by his response. 

E: That’s a good point. The characters are driving the narrative here, and I think that resolves the weird feeling I had that I could be enjoying the problematic content in one place and so disturbed that I refuse to keep reading in the other. The way the authors have the characters responding to these similar actions changes the ways we react. Good storytelling makes feelings happen.

Is Long Shot trauma porn?

E: I read up to 36% and definitely felt like everything was terrible. It felt like it was all about everything being terrible.

I: It gets worse. There have been a couple books where I’ve gotten kind of sick reading, and this was the worst, hands down. In most cases, I really don’t think you can come back from that feeling as a reader. A character processing those feelings and trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces was a daring choice. Present tense. It’s happening now, not a flashback. She meets two men and chooses the wrong one. Oof. As the reader, you’re empathizing and worrying for this character, and those feelings don’t just disappear because something gets resolved. You take those feelings with you into the resolution. I had a hard time believing that she was going to get from that trauma to a happy ending that would work for a romance novel. It takes until 60% for Iris to get out of the abusive relationship. That’s more than half the book as currently-being-inflicted trauma. 

H: It felt titillating almost. Not like I was supposed to be aroused by it because what was going on was clearly horrifying, but it was still described with all this detail. Ingrid’s point about the present tense is apt. It was very present and visceral. I can understand from a narrative perspective why you would want to include some of the details of her abuse in order to make the narrative pack a bigger punch. In the first half of the book when she’s with Caleb, she and August meet four times, (maybe?) and each of those scenes includes this heightened tension because in the background she’s in this terrible relationship, so each of those scenes is fraught with meaning. But then in the second half of the book, which is about her relationship with August rather than the contrast between her interactions with August and her interactions with Caleb, it felt kind of flat. There wasn’t space for her relationship with August to be interesting anymore, and, I would argue, the relationship doesn’t develop all that much.

I: At that point the reader has been through so much emotionally. I would argue that there is tension there–she’s not telling him what really happened, he wants to get married and she’s not sure if she can commit in that way. These issues look small and like they’d be easily resolved after what they’ve been through, and that’s when the story ramps back up again, the file gets released, and Caleb enters the picture again. It’s disturbing again. I want to be clear- I didn’t enjoy this book. I never want to read it again. I don’t want to read any books like it again. But as for the lack of tension and the development of the relationship, I would argue that I don’t think the relationship fails to develop, they both evolve separately during that tension and are getting things dialed in as a couple during that lull. It just unfolds differently.

A question from Holly: Do you think we could have had an effective abuse/escape from abuse story that was less horrifying to read if Caleb were less of a sociopath? For example, if his abuse consisted of physical violence but didn’t progress to rape with a gun.

I: I absolutely think that’s the case. I even think if you’d taken all that stuff with Caleb and put it in a prologue, you could have had a very satisfying romance, and I think we do see that more frequently. I get that there are people out there who think this is a sweeping, intense, dramatic romance, and that’s where I struggle with my own opinion of it. Because I can understand that it heightens the awareness and tension and satisfying ending, but I hated it. For some people that’s really satisfying.

H: For me, the most effective part of the first half of the book was before Caleb went full-on awful, when there was this ominous dread of something bad is going to happen, and that she’s in a relationship with this guy who is really controlling. Especially in contrast with the scenes with August, where they have this connection, but she’s with Caleb. At the start, it was a juicy love triangle.

E: She was so determined to be independent and savvy and she didn’t seem to have a basic understanding of abuse red flags, but the fact that she had literally no money of her own. And then she sat down with Caleb after he’d demonstrated that he was horrible like she could have a rational conversation with him. I kept having to remind myself that she was unable to see her own choices impacting her own life, because from the beginning she is so determined to be independent and more savvy than her mother, but she also had no understanding of pretty basic abuse red flags, which was really frustrating to read. BUT there was also that moment where Iris could see the possible bad outcomes of Lotus’s choices, which was a good mirror to the reader.

I: The author really does sit there and craft this dynamic carefully. I mean, Iris’s own mother sells her out. By her grandmother’s funeral, she knows her mother is aware of what Caleb did to her, and Iris knows that her mother is still being paid by Caleb. Of course the mother didn’t understand how bad her situation was–the author covers all the bases with why she couldn’t get away, where her vulnerabilities were, her blind spots. I thought it tracked.

E: The part where she thought she could get in the car and drive away with no money. Oof. She was so unprepared. I wished she’d said, “I have to get out of this but I have no money, I have to play it cool until I can do that.”

I: How often when we’re reading books like this we’re like “Why didn’t you just leave?” And the author makes clear that she did try, and it’s not a moment of “Oh, I had a realization and golly gee I must change my life.” When you have a baby in a situation like that, you want to get your baby out of there as fast as possible. And that’s what she tried to do.

H: Speaking about the abuse, Ryan explicitly states that she wrote this book in part to shed light on why a woman might not leave intimate partner violence. And as part of that project, Ryan includes a bunch of abuse statistics throughout the book, and she puts those statistics in Iris’ mouth. It was a data dump, and I understand why Ryan would want to include that information, but putting those numbers in Iris’ mouth—when Iris is not leaving an abusive partner—felt heavy-handed and clunky.

Who is the audience for this book? 

E: During my MC romance phase, I read some really fucked up books. And this is the same energy.

H: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the fucked up stuff that happens in MC romance is between the hero and the heroine? 

E: Yes, usually the fucked up stuff happens between the Hero and Heroine but it’s more on the level of NBBM. He’s not listening and she’s reacting to that. The ones I’m thinking of are Undeniable by Madelaine Sheehan and The Dark Light of Day by T.M. Frazier. In both of those books the heroine is raped by a man who is not the hero on the page. In the case of Undeniable she ends up in an abusive relationship that she can’t easily get out of. And in the case of the other one he goes away for Reasons, she gets raped by a guy in town who’s the kid of a super powerful family, then the hero comes back and and dumps her. A lot of traumatic energy because you wonder how the heroine is going to get herself out of this horrible situation: no money, no job options, ends up having a kid, recovering from a lot of trauma. So those were pretty intense. Not just your standard violence.

I: This is actually the first romance I’ve read where there’s rape at all. So the best I could compare it to was the dark vampire books where there tends to be violence and stalking and constant pervasive feeling of doom, but this was so much worse because Iris is very relatable. She’s not a vampire. She’s a person going to college with hopes and dreams and career plans and that’s what made it a gut punch for me.

E: The interesting thing for me about my observation regarding LS is that the readership wouldn’t be the same as the readers for the other two books I listed, but it taps into the same tension and anxiety and presumably the same satisfaction in the resolution as the other two books. So. I guess there is a widespread group of readers who a) do want dark romance or b) don’t want full blown dark romance but who derive satisfaction from overcoming the trauma.

Final Thoughts

E: Sports romance is awesome. I had a lot of fun reading NBBM and I will probably read more bonkers 90’s SEP romance. And Long Shot was 100% not for me.

H: Multiple people told me that Long Shot was really touching, get my tissues…but the romance I cried reading was NBBM. Just gotta be honest. When they finally got it together? Oh boy. These bonkers books just do it for me. 

I: Holly, when he broke into the hardware store to buy her fucking wallpaper, and she was like, “What are you doing? But this seems really important to you so you must really love me.” I died.

H: Yep.

I: LS threw me for a loop. Can’t say I want to read one like that again in the future. I may have found my hard pass with that. NBBM was so ridiculous, and I swooned for the clothes and the fact that she was distracted by his distressed acid-washed jeans that were so tight they “left little to the imagination”. Anyway, it was so worth it; I laughed so hard. I just did it for me. 

And that’s a wrap, folks! What do you think – will you be reading more sports romance?

Buy Now: Nobody’s Baby But Mine | Long Shot

3 thoughts on “March Smashness: Heavy Hitters in Sportsball Romance Week”

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