What it’s about: (from Goodreads) When sensible schoolteacher Ella Lucas rides into her home town on a Harley and seduces the resident football hero, Jake Prince, she figures she can be forgiven and move on. After all, she’s just buried her mother. Two years later, back in the city, their paths cross again but this time Jake is in the process of destroying her favourite dive bar.
With her home facing a wrecker’s ball, her school being closed down and her 15-year-old brother hell bent on self-destruction, it’s the last straw. Throw in a dominatrix best friend who is dating a blue ribbon guy so straight he still lives at home with his mother, it’s no wonder the sanest person in Ella’s life is a dog.
With all this to contend with, the last thing Ella needs is Jake back in her life. But, as fate would have it, Jake is the only chance she has to save her school.
As the school football season heats up, old secrets threaten to surface and Ella takes on greedy developers, school boards and national tabloids. But can she save not just her home, her school and her brother, but also the reputation of the man she’s never been able to forget? And, more importantly, does she want to?
What worked for me (and what didn’t): This book is set in Queensland, so it probably shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to realise that “football” in this story means “rugby league” and not Aussie Rules (which everyone knows is the only true football :P). It is a sport book but actual game play doesn’t feature strongly in the story. That is, I don’t think one needs to understand the game to enjoy Holding Out For A Hero. Similarly, I don’t think one will understand the game all that much better by reading it. It does make an interesting backdrop and bookend to a tale about identity, forgiveness, and fighting the good fight as the underdog.
Ella and Jake came from the same small Queensland town of Huntley. Jake’s dad was the town drunk (and he had a gambling problem) and Ella’s mother was the town bike (everyone can ride – for a fee). Ella was smart and pretty but her mother’s reputation meant that she was never invited to birthday parties or included in school games and she didn’t have any real friends. She had plenty of propositions which became increasingly lewd and vile as she grew up. Ella always felt that she and Jake had something in common – the embarrassment caused by their parents made them both outcasts.
The book begins two years before the main action of the story. Ella rides back into town on a Harley, to bury her mother who had died suddenly from a heart attack, and where, Ella discovers she has a teenage brother she is now reponsible for. Ella left when she was seventeen and hadn’t been back since so she didn’t know that everyone believes she ran away with the high school principal. Jake is in town temporarily, ostensibly recovering from a rubgy injury (I refuse to call it football). Ella decides to finally live up to her reputation and makes a very public play for a fast and furious hookup with Jake. Despite his best intentions, he is not proof against Ella’s will.
Fast forward two years and Ella is back in Brisbane, the acting principal of a high school in a low socio-economic area, facing closure at the end of the year if truancy and enrolments do not improve markedly. To add insult to injury, the house Ella is living in with her brother Cameron, her best friend Rosie and Rosie’s two older aunts, Daisy and Iris, is under threat from developers. Drowning their sorrows at their local pub one Friday night, Ella and Rosie bemoan that even the pub has changed hands and turned into some techno-sportsbar instead of their old familiar dive. Of course, who should be the new owner of the bar but Jake? The only man ever to give Ella three orgasms in less than an hour.
Rosie’s boyfriend has the brilliant idea that Jake should coach a rugby team from Ella’s school to the School’s Cup (a kind of Superbowl between public schools and private schools). The prestige of winning such a trophy would surely be enough to keep the school open. Jake has to be cajoled and coerced to take up the role but once he does, he throws himself into it with gusto. The turnaround in the school community, the pride they take in their team, makes the school a much better environment for all and has profound effects on some of the team members, in particular, Cameron.
Ella has a difficult relationship with Cameron. It is certainly improved by the end of the book but unfortunately I didn’t see it happening – mostly it was told. There wasn’t enough room or time in the story to give this aspect much more than passing attention. I was glad, however, it was not portrayed as all rainbows and butterflies because that would not have been realistic and I was also glad that even though things had improved by the end of the book, they hadn’t miraculously been fixed – they had merely progressed to a point where they were actively working together to make things better.
Cameron’s girlfriend Miranda, is keen to start a cheerleading team to support the Demons and after initial misgivings and with some strict rules around it, Ella, decides to let her at it. I really liked the cheerleading team. They were inclusive, there to support the team and school pride and they stood for something in their own right too. I think I have demonstrated here often enough that I am no expert on feminism, but I think it was a really positive feminist take on cheerleading and I liked it very much.
Jake and Ella have such amazing chemistry that it is no surprise when they quickly rekindle their brief fling from two years before. However, pretty soon, a misunderstanding drives them apart. Fortunately, there is a time jump in the story that meant the big misunderstanding didn’t last long for me as reader which was a saving grace. The big misunderstanding is my least favourite trope.
The thing which is really keeping Ella and Jake apart is Ella’s vow never to go “backwards” and she feels that Jake, with his connection to Huntley, is going backwards. During the course of the book, she begins to come to terms with her conflicting feelings over her mother – these bits were particularly well written and poignant I thought and captured the dichotomy of many fraught relationships – and this gives her a new appreciation of the benefits of a relationship with Jake.
There is an element of the fairy tale to the story – a school which has never even had a rugby team has to play well enough to win not only against other public schools, but against the top private school with money to burn on state of the art equipment and loads more experience. But I’ve always been a fan of the underdog and I can’t say I was at all disappointed with the finale.
What else? Rosie is a wonderful character – in fact, she kind of stole the book for me. There is a delightful and fun secondary romance involving Simon, who is a blue-ribbon strait-laced political royalty type and Rosie who is an outspoken and unashamed goth chic. I would happily have read more about Simon and Rosie and their developing relationship. There was a point in the story where it jumps forward about six months. While I understood the reason for it from a narrative perspective, I did feel a little sad that it meant that I missed out on Simon and Rosie falling in love.
Daisy and Iris are compared to Selma and Patty from The Simpsons – they certainly have the heavy smoking down pat, but they are actually very kind. Rosie’s family were all carnies and they are all a bit eccentric. For both Rosie and Ella, the only place they have ever felt at home, is the house they live in with Daisy and Iris, so losing that is a big deal to them all. I saw the answer to their woes fairly early on, but it wasn’t until late in the book that the necessary pieces were in place for it to all come together neatly. I enjoyed the sense of family that Rosie, Ella et all had created for themselves and the friendship between the two women was something special too.
Holding Out For A Hero is a fun sexy contemporary with an Australian flavour and setting which will feel familiar to the locals but is not so very different as to be a barrier to international readers. It’s sexy without being all sex all the time. In fact, the best parts of the book for me, were intimate scenes which were either pre- or post-sex – either with Rosie/Simon or Jake/Ella. The casual intimacy, the hungry touches and lazy kisses as they lay in bed together conveyed the deep connection of the characters. There was something familiar and romantic about those moments which gave me confidence in both HEAs.