The first book I ever read by Kelly Jamieson, Shut Out, didn’t sit very well with me. I’m happy to say that the second book in the series, Cross Check: A Bayard Hockey Novel, is an improvement, but there are still some aspects that simply grated on me.
Ella Verran has made some bad choices in the past, choices that have put her on academic probation at fictional Bayard College, have created a rift between Ella and her best friend, Skylar, and have earned her the reputation of campus party girl. She’s determined to turn her life around before her overprotective parents swoop in and take over. Despite the fact that Ella knows she’s far from perfect, she has no trouble judging hockey player Ben Buckingham to be an arrogant, stuck-up snob who cares only about dressing sharp and looking down on others. When Ella finds herself thrown together with Ben because Skylar is dating Ben’s teammate, Jacob, Ella doesn’t bother to hide her disdain.
Ben knows Ella by reputation – she’s a party girl, drinks too much and is an easy score – but he’s hyper focused on breaking free of his disadvantaged past by getting drafted into the NHL and doesn’t think too much about her. However, when he and Ella are forced to spend time together, he begins to understand why so many guys are attracted to her. She’s really hot.
Despite the fact that the two really don’t like each other, they give in to some lightning-hot moments of attraction and find themselves engaging in what Ella designates a ‘hate-fuck’. Ben has other thoughts about their intense connection, and he forces Ella to admit that there is something deeper there than just dislike. The two begin to really get to know each other, and what they discover is that their initial perceptions couldn’t have been more wrong.
There are definitely some good things about this book. I’ll start there.
Ella recognizes that she has a lot of problems, and in a refreshing change from so many NA books, she actually seeks help. She meets with a counselor, works on her problems, takes action to solve them and to fix herself, and she really grows as a character. She develops an interest in mental illness and a passion for helping college students who suffer from depression and other psychological problems, and this all happens naturally and rounds her out as a whole person.
I also like how Jamieson forces her characters to have conversations rather than stewing about misunderstandings. After Ella calls their encounter a ‘hate fuck’, Ben doesn’t brood about it for more than a day before confronting her and insisting that she is wrong, and they end up having a genuine conversation that begins their real relationship. Sure, there are a few frustrating moments when each character mistakenly attributes bad intentions to the other, but at least they recognize where they’ve made mistakes and deal with them.
If you have any interest at all in the sport of hockey, Jamieson offers a very complete picture of the experience of a college hockey player as he prepares to potentially go pro. Her depiction of hockey games is intense and thorough, and I like that she keeps Ben focused on his game rather than falling into the trap of having him lose his concentration and risk his career once he becomes involved with Ella. He has his moments of distraction but he always comes back to the game and his goal of getting drafted. Ben is not a one-dimensional guy who only thinks about his hot girlfriend but rather a realistic athlete who has his own life. On the other hand, if you don’t like hockey, you will find yourself skimming quite a bit.
I do wish that writers of fictional colleges would stop putting these institutions in the same ranks as the Ivy League schools. Ben and his team play against Yale and Dartmouth because, presumably, Bayard is right up there with Harvard and Princeton and Cornell. Thing is, not a single one of the characters in her book resembles the kind of kid who would end up at these highly, highly selective schools. Ella is on academic probation and her roommate is simply happy to get D grades because they mean she passed. They are in no way driven enough to be seen as Ivy League types, so it makes no sense that they would be attending such a school.
In the beginning, Ella’s judgement of Ben gave me a headache. She hates him for no other reason that I could figure other than he dresses well. She’s never spoken to him or interacted with him in any way, yet she has all of these preconceived notions that he was a stuck up snob who was judging her and I wanted to smack her. Perhaps there were scenes in the first book that gave Ella reasons to dislike him, but I shouldn’t have to count on having read Shut Out to accept this open hostility. For his part, Ben does judge Ella based on her general reputation, which, to be fair, she actually earned by being a party girl. His offense isn’t nearly as annoying as hers.
Jamieson continues to treat her stories as an opportunity for some pretty heavy-handed PSAs (that’s public service announcements for those non-American-TV watchers out there). This installment continues the first book’s treatise on the evil that is campus sexual assault (and it IS evil), adding on sermons about how slut-shaming is wrong and how it’s not fair that guys who engage in lots of meaningless, casual sex are considered studs while girls who do the same are labeled sluts.
The problem, once again, is that Jamieson talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Girls named Tawny, Brandi and Tiffany (I kid you not) show up in the book to throw themselves at the hockey players like… well, sluts. They exist purely as sex objects both to make the hockey players studly – these guys can’t have lots of sex with themselves – and to play the bad girls against the book’s heroine and her friends (who have names like Skylar, Ella, Natalie and Brooklyn). Maybe it’s not fair to judge a person who has tons of meaningless sex, male or female. But in Jamieson’s world, the guys who have tons of meaningless sex and talk about a girl who “sucks cock like a popsicle on a hot day in July” are sympathetic, hunky dudes whom any girl would love to date, while the girls who chase after them are one-dimensional, mean, sycophantic groupies. In one paragraph, Jamieson chastises society for labeling “easy” women as sluts and in the very next she offers characters who fully embody that cliché. Lampshading this by having two male characters discuss the objective unfairness of the situation does not excuse perpetuating the message by including stereotypical characters.
This story includes lots of descriptive sex and dirty talk, which I personally find a turn-off while others might love. But the relationship between Ben and Ella is solid and built on the couple truly getting to know each other which is a huge improvement on so many stories that offer only insta-love and ‘she’s/he’s so hot’ as the glue binding the hero and heroine together. As such, Cross Check is a step ahead.