Trick Up Your Sleeve
Grade : B+

I came across this little gem thanks to the recommendation of a GR friend. Trick Up Your Sleeve is the first book in the Swan Reunion Tour series, and is a charming second-chance romance between two former members of a famous rock band who were lovers in the heady days of success and whose break-up ultimately led to everyone going their separate ways.

Patrick Reed is doing fine. Fifteen years after he left Swan, he’s comfortable in his relative obscurity and makes a good living as a songwriter and/or song-tweaker/producer for other artists. He’s also a single dad to three tween daughters, aged ten, twelve and thirteen, his wife having walked out on them some years earlier, saying only that this wasn’t a life she wanted to live any more. Her departure has made Patrick realise just how much of the parenting she’d left to him anyway, and he’s also just coming to understand how much he came to rely on Kylie, as the eldest and big sister, to help him out, and is feeling more than a bit guilty about that.

After the divorce, Patrick moved them all to a fixer-upper on the New England coast, and on this particular day, he’s taking a break from DIY disasters and having a walk along the beach when a voice calls out to him, and he turns to see a woman of around his own age carrying a squirming puppy. She – Rachel – asks if the dog is his, and when he says no, she gives him a flyer with her name and number on it. Of course, the minute Patrick’s daughters see the flyer, the campaign to become puppy owners begins, but unfortunately, however, it’s not to be, because the dog’s owners are found. But the visit to Rachel’s luxurious home does at least give Patrick the chance to play her – woefully out of tune, as it turns out – Bösendorfer piano, and opens up the possibility of a friendship. It’s been quite a while since Patrick has had that.

Matt Usher was Swan’s lead singer and the other half of the band’s hugely successful songwriting duo. After the split, he had a successful solo career for a while, followed by a few years of aimlessness, and now he’s back in the spotlight as a mentor and judge on a popular reality TV show. To his surprise, he’s discovered he likes being busy (not to mention the fact that the TV gig gave him somewhere to live that wasn’t the past), so he asks his manager, Lilah, to find him something else to do. Lilah signs Matt up with a New England-based publicist who specialises in “rehabbing reputations”, and after spending a couple of weeks dodging calls, Matt decides to hop on a plane and visit her in person.

Patrick arrives at Rachel’s for their ‘piano date’ – Rachel has invited him over to play the Bösendorfer now it’s been tuned – and is stunned to see Matt Usher sitting at the keyboard. For a brief second, Patrick thinks he’s hallucinating, but when Matt’s fingers slip from the keys and he turns to face him, Patrick knows he’s not – and the shock on Matt’s face tells him this isn’t a set up or one of Matt’s schemes.

Matt’s sudden reappearance in Patrick’s settled existence is as unsettling for the reader as it is for him. Matt is one of those larger-than-life types who is used to getting by and getting his way courtesy of a surfiet of charm and entitlement, and he just kind of explodes into Patrick’s life like a grenade. Patrick can’t help the surge of attraction and affection that rush over him on seeing Matt again, but I really liked that, once the initial shock begins to abate, those feelings are tempered by maturity and experience and Patrick pulls himself together and acts like the sensible adult he is. His rose-coloured glasses are well and truly consigned to the past; he knows Matt, knows what he’s like and knows he (Patrick) can’t afford to just let him waltz back into his life if he’s only going to waltz back out again on a whim. It took everything he had to walk away from Matt fifteen years ago – he doesn’t think he has the strength to do it a second time.

Contrary to what Patrick believes, Matt has kept track of him over the years. Patrick might have moved on to a whole other life and career Matt isn’t a part of and not given him a second thought, but Matt always sat up and took notice when he heard a song Patrick worked on. The pull he always felt towards Patrick is as strong as it ever was, but seeing him like this – happy, confident, successful – in a life he’s made without Matt is really hard.

I liked a great deal about Trick Up Your Sleeve and am impressed with the way the author has taken a well-worn trope and freshened it up courtesy of genuinely witty dialogue, richly drawn and engaging characters and a thoughtful exploration of their emotions. What she does very well is to have Matt and Patrick behave like adults who have learned and grown during the fifteen years they’ve spent apart, and not revert to who they were back then and go through all that late-teen/twentysomething drama. Patrick is much clearer-sighted about Matt and sticks to his guns about what he wants, and Matt both acknowledges the failures that led to Patrick walking away from him and realises he wants – needs – to do so much better by him now. I also loved the way the author shows the two men coming together through their music and lyrics – writing a song together and sharing physical space (the piano stool) – and how the lyrics from the songs they wrote together serve as subtle (and not-so subtle) flirting. The domesticity of Patrick’s family life is really well depicted, too, and I liked that the author shows us that he’s happy with the way his life has gone – even if he still regrets what happened with Matt – and isn’t pining for the road not taken. One of the best things about the book is the depiction of the loving relationship between Patrick and his daughters; they read like real kids rather than precocious plot-moppets, and there’s clearly a lot of affection and respect running between them all.

The issue I mentioned is with the speed at which the romance takes off. Patrick decides to give Matt a second chance within days of his arrival, and soon,they’re falling into bed and talking about making things work for real this time. Because the connection the author creates between them is so strong, that wasn’t quite as problematic as it could have been, but still, I’d have liked a little more time for them to work things through. That’s my only quibble really – because this is book one in the series, I imagine we’ll see more of that once the tour gets underway and that perhaps we’ll learn a bit more of their backstory, which is only vaguely outlined here.

A delightful story about two people trying to work out if their intense, youthful passion can be translated into something that fits who they’ve become fifteen years later, Trick Up Your Sleeve appears to be Ainsley North’s début, and it was a complete joy to read. The book ends on a satisfying HFN, and I definitely plan to read the next in the series.

Reviewed by Caz Owens

Grade: B+

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : November 21, 2023

Publication Date: 09/2023

Recent Comments …

  1. I read Ulrich’s book several years ago,it was excellent. American Experience on PBS did an adaptation of the book, it…

Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :)I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres.And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
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