Desert Isle Keeper
It’s hard for me to write a review that is as enthusiastic and upbeat as this book deserves, because things are so tough everywhere right now. But that means when I tell you it transported me out of my home and made me extremely happy for a few hours of coronavirus social distancing, you should take it as even stronger of a recommendation. I’m harder to distract and relax now than ever, and it’s great praise to say Julianna Keyes’ Bench Player thoroughly accomplished both.
Connor Whitman was on top of the world as the right fielder for the Charleston Thrashers – at least, until an ignorant stock deal landed him in jail for two years for insider trading. Now he’s out again, but a thirty-four-year-old ex-con isn’t exactly prime baseball material. Connor needs an image rehab.
Allison Whyte is the PR manager for the Thrashers, and the latest victim of blame-shifting by the idiot GM Kimball Dean, who has inherited his dad’s team. In a Hail Mary to save her job, Allison tells him she can do the impossible and get Connor’s poll numbers up. Although Kimball sends her to try, it’s with the guarantee that Connor isn’t up for a spot on the team. Spring Training is the best he can hope for – which Allison decides not to tell Connor.
The author tells this story in alternating first-person perspective chapters, and this is the rare case where it doesn’t just work, but actively enhances the story. We first meet Allison from Connor’s point of view, and she is utterly awful. I could not imagine how this woman could turn out to be the heroine. Then we get a couple of chapters from Allison’s point of view, and not only was I suddenly completely empathetic to her, but now I wanted to shake Connor for his stubborn resistance to her advice. Over the course of the book, their perspectives gradually converge, until each point of view shows the other as appealing and attractive. That’s remarkable writing.
Allison’s deal with Kimball is of course the looming Big Mis, but Keyes surprised and delighted me by pulling the trigger on that storyline early and making Allison and Connor work their way back from it. I also loved the sex scenes. Connor is one of those grumpy, taciturn heroes who are utterly focused on their partners, and yeah, that’s a weakness of mine.
I appreciate an older character written to be a person in their own right, not just to push the plot for younger people, and in this capacity. I loved Allison’s grandfather Biff, a legendary baseball player of the 1950s. Yes, Biff helps Connor get perspective, but given the rarity of major league ballplayers, that makes sense. Other supporting characters, like the flashy Ibanez or a behavior-challenged rival for Connor, are also well developed and credible.
I also love a well-developed setting. The author is clearly a huge baseball fan, and she makes sure Connor acts like a pro athlete, working out and watching his diet. She understands the nuances of the process of making a team, and how the American MLB works, with its minor league affiliates and seasonal schedule. Although her protagonists so far have been white Americans, she has a diverse supporting team, which is accurate to the league (I want to read about both Ibanez and the South Korean pitcher, Jae Hwa Kim, who talks smack through his locker room interpreter). Similarly, Allison’s PR world is developed, and I liked the idea of the whole team living in terror at the click of her shoes in the hallway.
What could be improved? While I understood that Connor is supposed to have completely accepted his guilt and worked through it, a man coming out of prison could have had at least one scene where he expressed opinions on/anger at the system (he got two years for insider stock trading but, say, Brock Turner got three months for felony sexual assault, and sentences for people of color for minor marijuana offenses can be over a decade). I like to think that once he got his career back on track, Connor became involved with employment advocacy for ex-cons.
Also regarding the ending – for a very long time, I wasn’t actually sure how the story was going to end, and I really enjoyed that suspense. The ending that Keyes settles on is satisfying, but maybe a bit too neat.
Bench Player is the second book in the Charleston Thrashers series. I hadn’t read the first, Team Player, but it didn’t matter for my reading experience. Despite the fact that the protagonists of that book are planning their wedding in this one, their reappearance isn’t saccharine and purposeless, which is rare in sequels. That being said, I immediately bought Team Player after reading this and since it’s excellent, you might as well go and get it and read them in order.
This was my first Julianna Keyes, and the fact that I followed it within an hour with my second should tell you how much I enjoyed it. I strongly recommend both books in the Charleston Thrashers series.