Dueling Review, Recommended Read

Dueling Review: Big Bad Cowboy by Carly Bloom (2018)

Once Upon a Time in Texas, Book #1

Holly’s Take

Heat Factor: I found the sexting shockingly effective

Character Chemistry: Maggie is in lust with the Big Bad Wolf, and moving from animosity to friendship to love with Travis. Except they’re the same man—and she doesn’t know it.

Plot: Maggie and Travis have mindblowing, slightly kinky sex as anonymous strangers at a costume party. And then Travis discovers that they’re neighbors slash she thinks he’s destroying her business. Too bad the sexting is so fun.

Overall: There were a few rough patches at the beginning, but I ended up really enjoying it.

Ingrid’s Take

Heat Factor: I’d definitely say it borders on a slow burn IF you don’t take the sexting into consideration.

Character Chemistry: There are a lot of relationships going on and they all had pretty good chemistry. Maggie and Travis seemed to sync really well.

Plot: Maggie and Travis hook up in disguise at a costume party—Travis knows Maggie’s identity, but Maggie is in the dark. When they end up at odds as neighbors and work competitors, they end up finding a deeper connection.

Overall: It was a cute cowboy-to-be book that felt realistically small-town.

Erin’s Take

Heat Factor: It starts early and doesn’t really slow down if you count all the sexting, but I wanted the story to get on with it because all the character interactions were more fun

Character Chemistry: I was more invested in the all the dynamics of the small town characters than in the romantic relationship between Maggie and Travis

Plot: business competitors, antagonistic anonymous neighbors, anonymous hookup, forced to work the same contract, sexting deception, custody battles, and liens

Overall: If we hadn’t agreed to buddy read it, I probably would have DNFed by 25% simply for all the gender essentialism, BUT I think it was maybe Trying To Do Something, and, as Holly said, it turned out pretty cute in the end.

What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Big Bad Cowboy?

Erin: I found this book because someone had said “OMG, this is such a good cowboy romance!” And another reader said, “Well, this is more of a small town romance.” And I agree with the second reader: it’s more of a small-town romance that happens to be set on a ranch. And also there’s a lot of small town gender essentialism that was making me grit my teeth. And I think it was Doing A Thing, but it also didn’t get answered. 

Holly: The first quarter of the book is pretty rough. For me, it was pulled off in the end—but there’s a lot of nonsense you have to power through to get to the point where the story actually gets going.

Ingrid: I thought it was cute as hell. It’s kind of like a dirty Hallmark movie; that’s what this book feels like.

How does Travis fit (or fail to fit) the cowboy archetype?

Ingrid: I have a real hard time when characters are named after people that I know. For some *mysterious* reason, Travis is just a no-go for me. 

Holly: This book is actively playing with the cowboy archetype because Travis doesn’t have his shit together. He moved into town onto this ranch because he had to, and he started doing manual labor that he doesn’t have the right equipment for, and people are hiring him because they feel sorry for him, and the book is about him figuring out how to come to terms with his responsibilities. Like there’s the tax issue (the property taxes for the ranch haven’t been paid for years), and there are several times when he gets the envelope and avoids it. Unlike the standard cowboy, he is not hyper competent. He can dig a hole or swing a hammer, but he doesn’t know how to manage the cattle that he has. It’s with his relationship with Maggie and the secret identity that he takes on, of this dominant kind of person, that allows him to take on some of that responsibility in his real life. 

Erin: I felt like it was ultimately a kind of “making of a cowboy” story. Travis has this history of being a social outcast in part because his father and brother were disasters and in part because he was this awkward nerd as a kid. So he’s coming back to his hometown with all that baggage, and even though he was in the military and must have been somewhat successful because he then had a job offer in Austin, he doesn’t feel successful until the neighbor/father figure Gerome fosters this idea in him that maybe who he thinks he is isn’t actually who he is, and maybe the ranch is in his blood. Instead of him being a cowboy, he’s becoming a cowboy.

I wanted to say this just because it’s so great: I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition that we have JD, and everyone loves him around town, and he’s a COWBOY. He never takes his hat off, he never wears anything but jeans. Maggie mentions how he communicates with his hat. And that’s just so opposite from how Travis is—he’s just scrambling to figure out how to deal with all the loose ends in his life.

Ingrid: I agree that it’s a “becoming a cowboy” archetype situation, and I liked how Travis coming into his own turns the archetype on its head a little bit. Like, he thinks about how his dad told him not to cry and he doesn’t want to raise his nephew that way. And he has pride, but he doesn’t let it stand in his way. Cowboys are lone wolves (hehe), but in this case, Travis succeeds by connecting to the larger community, which makes it feel a little more modern. It just takes a traditionally “tough masculine” role, but through Travis it feels a lot more vulnerable and accessible.

For real though, how did the gender essentialism not make you ragey? Real question: did the gender essentialism do what it was supposed to do?

Erin: I felt like we’re hitting some more modern notes with various ways that the characters are accepting of each other, based on some of the things they talk about. Like, in some ways the erotic book club thing was sort of how you’d think that would go in a small town and in some ways it went a lot better? Or like making jokes about dressing like a hipster to fit in. Or Ingrid, you mentioned the way Travis makes mistakes with his nephew Henry, but he also corrects himself in really positive parenting ways. So there’s this modern outlook, but then the whole first third of the book is about how Maggie is too mannish, and “one of the guys,” and people think that she’s a lesbian because she’s not “feminine enough”. And yet, she’s like a miniature little pixie with a pixie haircut that’s long enough to blow in her face attractively in the breeze. And although it became less of a thing later in the book, it doesn’t completely go away, and nobody at any point…ok there was one point where she says something about how “just because I wear pants doesn’t mean I’m a lesbian”…but no one says “that’s not how that works.” And I think it was trying to do something, like, showing how Travis and Maggie were the right fit for each other so that Maggie could see herself in a more positive light? But I’m not sure it got there.

Ingrid: So I actually think it was pretty effective and I’m going to tell you why. The whole premise of this book is that Maggie had a good reputation, but people read her superficially and so she never really felt seen. On the other hand, Travis had a bad reputation because of his family, but he left, changed, and is now trying to build a life back home where everyone has preconceived ideas about who he is. That’s how small towns are—you’re viewed by what your uncle did in second grade, and it’s hard to reinvent yourself. So there’s this parallel thing between the two about self-invention and how they’re been conceived, which felt really realistic for a small town. The biggest stumbling block preventing these characters from having what they want in life is the narrative in their heads about what’s real (for themselves and each other), and no one is pausing to reevaluate whether that narrative is actually (still) true or ever was.

So the author calls this out in the end of the book to tie it all together in a nice neat way to show why this isn’t healthy. Maggie admits that she started out with the same preconceived ideas about Travis, and that if the Big Bad Wolf situation hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have given him a chance. 

You see the characters supporting each other and—more importantly—defending each other against the narratives that others in the town are telling. For example, Maggie supports Travis as a parent for his nephew; there’s never any focus on her wanting to step in because the kid needed a mother. Instead, she knew that Travis had it covered. The rigidity in the beginning was really important to set up the slow unraveling of these judgments and preconceptions, which allowed for greater intimacy to build up to a satisfying ending.

That’s what makes small town books so good: it’s not just the couple seeing each other, it’s the whole small town see the couple for who they really are–and usually the change and acceptance ripples outward.

TLDR: The gender essentialism got resolved as part of the whole small town changing. 

Erin: I like what you’re saying. I agree with it, because I liked the end significantly more than the beginning. My hang ups: 1) Holly is like, “I’m not gonna read any more Psy-changeling because of the gender essentialism” and I’m like “BUT YOU LIKED THIS BOOK???!!!!?” and 2) the comments slowed down and stopped but there were a few moments where people didn’t call people out. For example, Henry didn’t want to wear “girl clothes”, and no one said anything. So for things like that, if it’s something I care about, if no one addresses it, then it’s harder for me to read.

Ingrid: It sounds like, for you, the thing that would have taken this from lingering discomfort to thoroughly charmed might have been one or two more gentle call-outs. It’s uncomfortable when you see stuff like, “only girls wear girl clothes” in books.

Holly: I’m going to be brief because Ingrid is very smart about relationships and how people interact in books and reality and she really nailed this. 

For me, the moments of uncomfortable gender essentialism were in their role-play space.By taking on the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood personas, Travis and Maggie could tap into what they thought of as desirable, traditional masculine and feminine roles. Maggie as LRRH thinks of herself as sexy and desirable in ways that she doesn’t normally, and Travis thinks of himself as in charge in ways that he doesn’t usually. In the first scene it was kind of gross because they didn’t have context going in, but by the end it was a place that they could enjoy some of their fantasy. In the end, Travis gets to gently parent his nephew and build community and enjoy growing his organic turkeys on the ranch, and Maggie is a total boss at her landscaping business and Travis thinks she’s sexy in her jeans and boots and in her LRRH role.

Travis is a Hunkle. Did this book play with that trope or not?

Holly: I want to say that the scene where Travis tells Henry that he’s being a little shit and that he wishes his life were different too… I was just like, OMG, this is so real, and I have never seen anyone brave enough to put that in a romance novel.

Erin: I thought that Travis’ interactions with Henry were almost all pretty real. Travis is overwhelmed, he didn’t go to any parenting classes, sometimes he does the wrong thing, sometimes he’s mean, and he doesn’t deal with a tantrum the right way and it gets worse. But he corrects to a kind and caring way of parenting on his own in the end every time stuff happens. He apologizes when he says Henry is being a little shit, and then he lets Henry swear. It’s a really great growth moment for both of them. 

There’s that scene at the beginning when Henry has a tantrum Maggie sees but doesn’t have context for, and Travis apologizes to Henry for not handling it better and they’re able to reconnect and move on. Usually with single parent books, the kids are either unrealistically angelic, or the parent doesn’t know what to do and the partner acts as interpreter and rescuer, and I was a little worried that was going to happen with Maggie, but that’s not what happened at all. She was supportive and stayed out of his way and let him be the dad. It was really cool.

Ingrid: I agree. The scene that Holly referenced just about blew me out of the water. There’s a lot of pressure in these books to show this well because having a character mistreat a child could sour a reader in an instant, but it ended up feeling so real. I liked that everything was going to shit, and the things going on with Henry didn’t have to be a huge crisis. It was so fresh! And the fact that Maggie didn’t have to be the rescuing angel felt healthy. It felt healthy that she respected Travis as a person so much that she didn’t feel the need to get involved. He respected her enough not to get into her stuff. They had boundaries. It made him a hunkier hunkle because he gosh darn tried so hard. 

This might be part of a bigger conversation, but can we talk about Travis and Maggie’s non-fight about Maggie hiring people to help Travis?

Erin: I added this question because it bugs me more than just in this book. There’s a moment when Maggie wants Travis to hire more people to get their job done faster, but Travis can’t afford to pay more people, and Maggie brings two extra guys to the site without talking to Travis, and he gets really mad. She eventually goes to apologize, and Travis is so in love with her that he tells her that there’s nothing to apologize for. And I wish the author had taken the opportunity to say “There’s stuff going on in my life that you don’t know about, and you put me in a position where I didn’t have a choice, and I didn’t like that.” And it could have been an emotional growth opportunity, but we spent all of the emotional growth in the sexting that this one was brushed off.

Ingrid: Let’s say that they had had a good dustup over this. Maggie apologized, she was in the wrong. And then she goes and gets super pissed about the Big Bad Wolf thing, and that would be one conflict after the next. If they have a dust-up and then resolve it with him forgiving her, but she doesn’t forgive him later, how would you have felt about that? 

Erin: I mean, I kinda hate deception plots.

Ingrid: Deception plot conflict gets really annoying. I think the reason you don’t like deception plot conflict, Erin, is this: there’s usually a preliminary plot hitch, and then there’s the main plot hitch. It’s like the authors need to do a switch-o-change-o—like both protagonists have to be at fault. So one partner gets mad and then easily forgives, but then the other partner gets mad and it blows up then it feels unbalanced, like one person can apologize and be forgiven but the other one can’t.

In this case, the first argument was small and not resolved, which showed the reader that they’re not communicating well yet, which sets the scene for the bigger fight when the deception was revealed.

Holly: I think for me what made that bit work was that ultimately Travis kinda doesn’t mind when Maggie takes control and makes decisions in their life when it’s for the good of their project. What he’s mad about was not the power move that Maggie made, it was relating to other issues relating to his financial situation. And once his financial situation became clear to everyone, she knew not to do that again. 

They have a conversation in the end when he says that he likes that she’s a boss in the streets and gets jobs done and knows how things should be done when it’s not applied to their home. 

Ingrid: And he admits that he did need the help. He would have been in a lot of pain if he hadn’t had the help. He wasn’t prioritizing the right things. They weren’t intimate with each other in that way yet, but at the end it kind of is tied up because it’s gently addressed when he goes to pay for the steaks—she’s aware of his feelings and needs better because they’ve finally gotten on the same page.

Erin: It’s interesting what you guys are focusing on vs what I’m focusing on. Holly you’re focusing on the power dynamics. Ingrid, you’re focusing on Travis’s priorities. But my hang-up is: yeah, she made an executive decision without involving him and that happens. Yeah, he maybe wasn’t making the right decision for himself. But money problems can absolutely torpedo a relationship. She made an executive decision about his job that she did not communicate with him about (including the fact that she was planning on paying the guys), and it doesn’t matter to me who was in the right or wrong, what matters to me is that we start to see them communicating in a better way. I wanted to see him tell her to talk to him first before she makes decisions instead of brushing it off. This is something that happens in romance a lot, and it makes me completely ragey. It happens so often where one character (usually the hero) says, “No we don’t need to talk through this miscommunication because I love you so much.”

There’s a deception plot central to this story; did it pan out in a satisfactory way?

Ingrid: There is nothing that gets my stomach up in my throat like a deception plot. I hate them. I have a base level anxiety that is simply too high for this plot device. However, this one was kind of dumb and frivolous, so it made me laugh. It wasn’t that high stakes. If it had been related to his life that would have been different, but it wasn’t so I enjoyed it. She went in thinking it was going to be a one night stand. He didn’t deceive her on purpose. And then she had all her friends saying, “When exactly was this not going to be awkward for you?” Which is exactly what I was thinking.

For me, the conflict hierarchy in this book went: Travis losing the ranch, then Henry’s custody, then the deception. I wasn’t as worried about the deception because I was more worried about the other things.

Holly: I don’t mind deception plots except sometimes I’m like, “Wow, you’re being totally irrational about this.” In this case though, I thought it was really well done because it made sense for him to not tell Maggie what was going on. Then also, Maggie’s hurt in the end also made sense! I think basically what worked about it is that I could relate to both character’s positions. For Maggie it was probably fucking mortifying. I think you’re right though, Ingrid, because the stakes just weren’t that high. Normally the deceived person is like, “I don’t know who you really are,” but in this case she does know—she knows he’s the same person, she’s just so embarrassed by the whole thing.

Erin: I agree with all of that. And I think that with how Maggie had processed herself for the whole rest of the book it made a lot of sense that she was very much centering herself in that situation. I would just really love to read a story with a deception plot in which the deceived protagonist maybe has a moment and has their feelings and then takes a deep breath and asks, “Ok. You say this. Explain it to me.” Instead of running off. 

I love the runaway. The runaway is my favorite thing. /sarcasm

Final Thoughts:

I: I could probably talk to Erin about this for three hours and not get tired of it, because I really love feeling out hints of problematic content, but on the whole I thought this book was really well done. I liked it a lot and thought it was such a heartwarmer. And more importantly, I was really rooting for Maggie and Travis the whole time, I thought they were really cute and I wanted them to have their HEA on their ranch.

H: I enjoyed it. I think I really appreciated this conversation because it made me see more things in it that I didn’t see when I first read it. So thanks, team!

E: I obviously had the most hangups about this book, but I was charmed by the ending. I was more invested in the relationships among all the characters than I was necessarily by Maggie and Travis’ relationship, but I ended up really enjoying the read, and I will very possibly read the next book in the series. 

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

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