What it’s about: (from Goodreads) Mal Ericson, drummer for the world famous rock band Stage Dive, needs to clean up his image fast—at least for a little while. Having a good girl on his arm should do the job just fine. Mal doesn’t plan on this temporary fix becoming permanent, but he didn’t count on finding the one right girl. Anne Rollins never thought she’d ever meet the rock god who plastered her teenage bedroom walls—especially not under these circumstances. Anne has money problems. Big ones. But being paid to play the pretend girlfriend to a wild life-of-the-party drummer couldn’t end well. No matter how hot he is. Or could it?
What worked for me (and what didn’t): The first book in this series, Lick, made my Favourites of 2013 list and not just because I had a “cameo” as a slutty (in the sex-positive way of course) groupie in it either. I think I liked Play a little better than Lick even though I ended up at the same grade. There was really only one thing that gave me pause in Play – and actually, I fully expect to see it worked out in future books of the series.
Anne Rollins is a 23 year old bookshop assistant in Portland Oregon. She lives next door to Lauren and Nate (Evelyn’s brother and her BFF whom we met in Lick). As the book begins, Anne’s room-mate Skye, has taken off, leaving Anne with no money and a bill for back rent. Basically, she’s had a Very. Bad. Day. Anne doesn’t have anything by way of savings – she helps to support her younger sister Lizzie, who is in college and she’s been helping Skye out since the latter lost her job. Anne has had a crush on her boss and best friend Reece for the past two years. Reece is a bit of a manwhore – he’s got an eye for the ladies and he doesn’t seem to have any getting them into bed. Anne kind of vaguely thinks that maybe Reece will settle down one day and realise that she, Anne, is right there. It’s not pathetic. In many ways, Anne doesn’t want Reece to be ready for a relationship yet. I got the impression she uses the idea of a relationship with him as a kind of comfort and as a means of self-preservation. Daydreaming about being with Reece is “safe”.
But that all changes when Lauren and Nate invite her to Ev and David’s place for a party and she ends up face to face with her high school crush, Mal Ericson.
I giggled like a vapid schoolgirl. A noise that pretty much made me want to shoot myself on principle.
Mal is hilarious. He’s wild and kind of manic a lot of the time, a whirlwind of energy, like a kid with ADHD hyped up on too much red cordial. He’s seriously hot and very funny. There’s something going on with him which has caused the other band members to be worried lately but he’s not talking. He covers up the something that is clearly causing him pain with booze and jokes and other manic behaviour. When he meets Anne, he decides he likes her and after overhearing her talking to Reece on the phone, he also knows that she’s broke, about to be evicted and that people who are supposedly her friends have a way of walking all over her.
I suppose in many ways, it could be said that Mal does some quite a bit of walking over Anne of his own. Certainly, when Cyclone Mal enters her life, things get shaken up. But he also encourages her to stick by her boundaries, to stand up for herself and be okay with it. And, over the course of the book, she does. The thing is, Mal, while he is high maintenance, no doubt about it, is also delightfully honest and open. He proposes a fake relationship for reasons which aren’t entirely clear at first but which have something to do with whatever is bothering him. That’s the only subject that’s off limits. Because Anne’s mother/childhood is a subject which is off limits for her, Anne respects Mal’s privacy. But other than that, he’s pretty much an open book. He checks in with her and when it becomes apparent early on that their fake relationship has turned into a real one, he tackles the subject head on. He does it a lot in the course of the book – sometimes (mostly) in funny ways (the conversation with Anne’s vagina is hilarious), but always with that core of honesty and priority.
Mal: Bored again
Mal: Ben’s coming over to play Halo
Anne: Great! But you don’t have to tell me everything you do, Mal.
Mal: Davie says communication’s important
The thing that Mal is dealing with is huge. He’s trying desperately to escape something from which there is no escape and, with the help of Anne and some other close friends and family, he does learn to cope in healthier ways.
When, after the first time Mal kisses her, Anne shrugs it off as “nice”, Mal is driven to prove his prowess.
With the gleam in his eye, I should’ve known. His lips descended, pressing against mine. His arms wound around me, hauling me up against him. My gasp of surprise was just the entry into my mouth he needed. Turned out he knew how to evil laugh and kiss me senseless at the same time. I shouldn’t have been surprised about that either. Despite that, the kiss was soul-shatteringly gentle. He kissed me sugar sweet until my head spun and my heart pounded. My knees knocked and my girl parts cried mercy. And still he kissed me.
“How was that?” he asked eventually, staring into my undoubtedly dazed eyes. “Better?”
He breathed out through his nose, his brows drawn tight. “Shit, I’m still not getting it right. I’m going to figure this kissing thing out. I am. We just gotta keep trying. Never say die!”
I was done for.
The book is chock-full of this kind of glorious interplay between the couple – I went a bit mad with the highlight function of my reader.
“You’re such a nice girl, Anne,” Mal projected for the sake of our neighbors. “I really like you a lot.”
“Seriously? That’s your version of sex talk?”
“Let’s hear you talk dirty, then. C’mon.” I shut my mouth. It stayed shut.
“Coward.” Mal turned his face to the wall we shared with Nate and Lauren. “You taste so fucking good.”
“Like what?” I asked breathlessly, thigh muscles tightening. The man was lucky I didn’t just attack him with my vagina. “What do I taste like?”
“Well, like honey and cream and … I dunno, bread?”
I scrunched up my nose. “Bread?”
“Yes. Sexy bread that I could eat all the time because you are so delicious and full of wholegrain goodness.”
My one reservation in the book is that it is really too soon for a HEA for this pair. If you take the ending as a hopeful HFN, it works really well. For myself, I need to see Mal and Anne together a bit longer, to trust that they can go the distance. Which is fine. The book takes place over a very short period of time – mere weeks. In that time, there is much emotional upheaval for both characters – a bit of “calm” time to bed down their relationship is a good thing. I think readers will get to see it in future books as the series plays out. I do think that Anne and Mal have what it takes to succeed – Mal adores Anne and she is head over heels for him, the speak each other’s language and are very compatible.
I leaned over him, setting my hands on the back of the chair, getting close. “Hey.”
“Hi,” he said, gripping my upper arms. Despite the feeling of not wanting to be touched, something in me unwound at the contact. At his nearness.
“I need a kiss.”
“Do you, now? Then you’re in luck. For you, I have an endless supply.”
He loosens her up a bit and she calms him down a bit but neither cages the other. And their sexual chemistry is off the charts.
“You know, you talk tough,” said Mal, “but inside, you’re all soft and wet and really quite tasty.”
They speak openly and frankly about their feelings and their relationship and it is that more than anything that gives me confidence, that with time, they will have their HEA.
I’m not quite there yet, because I’d like to see what “normal” looks like for them. There’s a teensy niggle that if Mal can’t cope with “normal”, Anne might just get exhausted by him. I don’t really think that’s going to happen (I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to romance) but I needed a little more to convince me they’d be okay for the long haul. I don’t mind getting those answers in future books but I can’t say that their story is entirely “complete” in this book. (By the same token, I also absolutely understand that “normal” and “okay” lacks sufficient tension to hold a reader’s attention; so I know why they weren’t present here.) Regardless, that’s why, for me, this book is an A- rather than an A.
What else? I’ll be honest, I hadn’t thought Mal would take over as my favourite member of the band, but he kind of has. He’s sweet and vulnerable, sexy and brash and very, very funny.
And Anne, is awesome as well. She had to practice using those boundaries of hers on him a lot but she does. She stands for herself and she doesn’t let herself get pushed around. Maybe it took Mal’s pushiness and boldness to bring that out in her but whatever the case, she has clear limits of what is and isn’t okay, even with Mal and she sticks by them.
I liked very much that Reece didn’t become a third in a love triangle and he wasn’t demonised in order to do it. His timing was off and he let a good thing get away. I wonder if we will ever get Reece’s book? Maybe a spinoff series? I’d like to see what happens with Reece – I think he’s taken a good hard look at himself now and I expect he sees himself differently now.
Apart from the bit where I was crying, I basically had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading and there were many laugh out loud moments for me. It was a real feel good book with some serious moments which were neither overplayed nor underdone. I loved it.
“Why does everyone insist on being heavy all the fucking time? Life’s too short for all this oversharing. You’re here. I’m here. We can help each other out and have a good time while we’re at it. That’s all that matters.” He spun on his heel to face me, arms out wide. “Life’s a song, Anne. Let’s play.”
AMAZON KOBO BOOK DEPOSITORY
UPDATE:The publisher sent me a soundclip of the audio version, narrated by Andi Arndt which is now available. Check it out.