Back in Play by Lynda Aicher

Back in PlayWhy I read it:  I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley. The blurb just hooked me – a bit unusual and very intriguing; it lived up to its promise.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  For Minnesota Glaciers captain Scott Walters, skating on a bum knee—and self-medicating to keep skating on it—is all part of the game. That the painkillers he’s eating prevent him from having meaningful relationships is just one more sacrifice in a lifetime of them. He’s worked too hard to let his image be ruined by injury or dependency, so he hides the pain and fakes the rest—a girlfriend would only complicate matters.

High school teacher Rachel Fielding never needed a man in her life, but she also never intended to grow old alone. When she meets Scott while visiting her brother, she’s intrigued to find herself wanting him in her bed. For hours at a time, as often as possible. Scott is a giver, and just the memory of his attentions is enough to drive her crazy. Anything long-term is out of the question, though—the pills she finds in Scott’s house indicate he’s struggling with a lot more than growing older in a young man’s game.

When what starts out as a what-the-hell weeklong fling turns into Scott and Rachel exploring each other outside the bedroom, Rachel hesitates. But Scott asks for her support to break his addiction, and hearing him admit his secrets has her ignoring her own rules—until he breaks her heart. With the Glaciers refusing to renew his contract and his future with Rachel uncertain, Scott has some big decisions to make and a lot to prove—especially to himself.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I haven’t read the first book in the series (yet) but I think this one works well as a stand-alone. The story begins at the wedding of what I assume to be book one’s hero and heroine.  Scott Walker, the Glaciers captain is in attendance. He was the best man.  His knee is very sore and he’s popping pain pills but is being careful not to mix them with alcohol.  He’s been hiding or downplaying the pain in his knee for so long and he’s desperately tired.  He’s also desperate to keep playing.  It’s the end of the season and the Glaciers have just missed out on winning the cup. He wants one more shot at it before he retires.  His contract is up and the Glaciers have been coy about renewal.  He’s 34 and he knows he’s nearing the end of his career. Is he already past his use-by date?

At the reception there is a very attractive woman Scott hasn’t seen before.  This is our heroine, Rachel Fielding, the sister of a friend of the groom.  She is in town visiting her brother Rock (short for Rockford) and his partner Carter, for the summer.  Scott and Rachel are beyond attracted to one another but Rachel is going home in a week.  It seems any potential relationship is doomed.

However, their attraction is so strong, Rachel ends up spending most of the rest of that week with Scott.

Scott has been hiding many things as a result of his problem knee and his pain pill addiction.  He can get it up but he can’t come.  This is a real thing which can happen (not just with pain pills – it’s a fairly common side effect of some anti-depressants too, for example) but it’s the first time I’ve come across it in romance.  He hasn’t had that many sexual encounters since the problem became apparent but even so he’s become adept at faking it. Tiring the lady out with multiple orgasms and the safe-sex use of condoms both help him there.  There is no magic hoo-ha in this book and this alone was enough to make this story a win.

I admit I was a little bit underwhelmed by the very beginning of the book.  It wasn’t bad, just.., it didn’t quite grab me.  But by the time Scott and Rachel are basically shacked up together for a week, I was hooked and things were getting interesting.  The owner of the Glaciers has told Scott he knows he has a drug problem. Even though Scott has never failed a test and he has no evidence, he knows (he’s right so I was prepared to go with it). There was a player who died from a drug overdose some years before (I gather this may have been covered in a previous book??) and which led to significant changes in the league rules and team processes.  The owner tells Scott that he won’t have Scott’s death on his conscience.  If he can’t clean up and still play, he’s out. The Glaciers don’t offer him another contract and Scott’s world is imploding.

It was a great examination of the end of a pro athlete’s career. (Or the nearly-end anyway). Their job is very much about their physicality – their performance is always personal. There is a mix of the personal and the professional in all of this – business decisions and personal betrayals all play a role in Scott’s reactions.  He wants to keep playing, ideally with the Glaciers. Most of all, he wants a shot at the Stanley Cup.  He doesn’t want to play with a team who can’t get to the playoffs.  He believes the Glaciers are poised right on the edge of the pinnacle of success.

His knee pain is very bad. As a pro athlete, Scott is used to playing with a degree of pain but this is beyond the usual aches and soreness.  At his age, he can’t afford to miss games and further surgery, he’s been told, won’t help if he plans to continue to play.  He is not an athlete who is going out on his own terms. He hasn’t prepared himself to finish his career.  All of these things are going on in the background and then there’s his pain pill addiction.

By the end of the week, Rachel has found Scott’s stash and he has finally admitted to himself he has a problem.  Something he has not admitted to anyone before.  She convinces him to go to rehab and he does, very quietly.

After rehab, they spend another week together at her home but then conflict arises – I had a whole paragraph in here about it but I decided this occurs too far in the book for me to talk about in any detail without being overly spoilerish.

I think the book did a great job of showing that both had valid concerns and fears and reasons to be upset and angry with the other and showing the path to the solution.  The story also didn’t gloss over the very real struggles Scott had and the power of true love didn’t solve any of their problems.  For the most part, Scott and Rachel are straight shooters who communicate well.  Particularly Rachel. She’s 35 and knows herself and what she wants.  She doesn’t want to pussyfoot about.  At first, of course, Scott is evasive about his knee and his pain pill addiction and the consequences of it.  But he gets clean and comes clean about these things and I thought both of them were basically mature individuals dealing with some difficult things.

This is a book where if there’s any rescuing at all, it’s Rachel rescuing Scott. (How refreshing is that?) But even then, Scott has to be able to stand on his own and the book makes that clear also.  He can’t be clean just for Rachel. He has to do it for himself.

If Scott and Rachel had’ve spent more than a measly two weeks together I think I would have bought into the conflict a bit more fully and been more sympathetic to Rachel’s point of view. Even so, I was definitely thinking she had a point.  The book’s flaw is in the timing.  Even after the epilogue, they haven’t actually been together very long.  I admit I believed in the HEA because I liked their chemistry and they were mature, smart people who were actively dealing with their problems and issues together but I also admit that part of it was that I wanted to buy into the fantasy. I’m a romance reader after all.  Because there’s a fair amount of time spent in the book showing how Scott and Rachel are together in those two weeks, it felt like longer and that helped. But it was pretty darn quick.

Especially with some of the other things which have been going around the internet lately (Jon Ronson anyone?) it was interesting to me to read a book where the guy was suffering a crisis because he was facing the loss of his career and, as a result his sense of self-worth.  I thought the treatment of this topic felt very realistic and the resolution was also. I was glad of that.  My day job field is injury management (work related) and I see people having to deal with being unable to continue in a job (even a job they don’t like) due to an injury, or having a career truncated due to injury and it’s a thing which affects people deeply. A pro athlete who spends so much time in the public eye, who is constantly told by the media and their own team management, in many ways, that their worth is contingent on their ability to play? It’s a big deal. Sure, he has loads of money but it’s not about money. Scott, throughout the book, has to redefine himself, He has to redefine success and happiness.  Those are big ideas and I thought the book did them justice, albeit that it told one story of the many stories which could be told.

There is one little thing:  in the novel, there is repeated use of the word “haggard” in a way I haven’t seen it used before and I don’t think it fit that well.  I’m talking; “he took a haggard breath” type usage. I think the author was going for “ragged”? I suppose it’s a little thing but it jarred, particularly because the rest of it was so well done.

What else? It is true that the part of the book which fascinated me the most was the way Scott had to deal with his drug dependence and the looming end of his career.  I liked how his team mates dealt with the subject too and, as I said before, I felt it was an authentic portrayal.  It got into the psychological issues a real person would have to deal with.  That it wasn’t glossed over or fairy-taled up was even better.   But, there was great chemistry between Rachel and Scott too and the sex was pretty hot.  Given that Scott is trying to hide that he can’t come for a good part of the book, the sex is pretty female-centric too and I’m not going to complain about that either.  I also liked that the sex scenes had a purpose to drive the plot and weren’t there merely for titillation.

The book didn’t grab me by the throat from the first page but it did hook me after the first 20 pages or so.  If they had spent a little more time together, I think it would have made the believability factor increase but as it was, it was a really enjoyable book and I loved the way the possibly career-ending injury was handled here.  In contrast with the (spoiler alert!) Kate Willoughby book which dealt with that kind of issue a little bit near the end, I think this book did a better job.  But, to be fair, it was the subject of Back in Play from the start, rather than just the black moment (as it was in the Out of the Game).

Grade: B

(and for the hockey stuff B+)

BUY IT:
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4 comments on “Back in Play by Lynda Aicher

  1. Nicola O.

    I just love how detailed and thoughtful your reviews are. I was thinking that Aicher was a different subgenre; I will give her another look.

  2. Kaetrin

    @Nicola O.: Oh, thank you. that’s very nice of you to say. *blushes*

    I read a review of the first book in this series and bought it but haven’t read it yet. I definitely plan to read more. I really liked the style and voice.

  3. Claudiagc

    Loved your review! My only little niggle about this book was that I would have liked a bit more show than tell. Especially when Rachel showed Scott that there is a world outside hockey. I was actually looking forward to this and then the author just told us what they did in some sentences.
    Btw, the wedding Rachel and Scott are attending at the beginning is the couple from Bonds of Courage (a book from another series of the author). It’s a very well done femdom story. But I also loved Game Play! I think you should read it. 😉

  4. Kaetrin

    @Claudiagc: Oh, I didn’t know that! Thx 🙂 *makes note to look up Bonds of Courage*

    I have Game Play on the TBR and based on this book, I’m sure I’ll like it.

    I agree with you re the showing not telling – although I probably phrased it a bit differently in the review.

    The whole romance was a bit too short for some of her later demands IMO. I mean, they’d been seeing each other for a VERY short time and she expected him to run his career plans by her first? To me, that seemed presumptuous. They weren’t at the stage in their relationship where she had that authority I didn’t think. On the other hand, I did understand her reasoning and her upset and the later revelations about his previous relationship added to that sense but it didn’t quite fit for me given the (short) length of their association to that point. If they’d been seeing each other for a few months, then yes, absolutely but they had only spent, like 2 weeks actually together. If you count the time he was in rehab. that makes it a little longer but it’s hard to count that because they didn’t really communicate much in that time.

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