I usually stick to young adult fare (more on that later), but I’ll always make an exception for one of my favorite authors, Jennifer Echols. While most of Echols’ books to this point have been young adult, her new-ish Stargazer series is adult romance – something I don’t normally read, which is probably important to know when it comes to my thoughts on the second book in the series, Playing Dirty.
Despite being a “second” book, it’s not necessary to have read the first book in the series, Star Crossed, to appreciate Playing Dirty. The story focuses on Sarah Seville, a former tomboy public relations agent who adopted a powerful, sexy new persona after divorcing her cheating husband. With her career in a bit of trouble after a tumultuous attempt to rescue the career of notorious rock star Nine Lives, Sarah is aiming for redemption when she is assigned to keep popular country group The Cheatin’ Hearts from breaking up before finishing their new album.
There is actually quite a complex background to this story that I’m not going to explain in detail; suffice to say Sarah takes a shine to The Cheatin’ Hearts lead singer, Quentin, despite the fact that part of her job actually involves reuniting Quentin with Erin, a fellow Cheatin’ Hearts member who he romanced in the past. And if you think that sounds tricky, that’s just one of many obstacles in this story.
If you’ve read Star Crossed, you’ll notice the setup on Playing Dirty is similar, and there are a lot of familiar elements throughout the story. Aside from the romance, there’s an element of deception or charade, with characters pretending to be something they’re not or putting on a performance – this is, I suppose, perfectly rational for a story about PR. There’s also a threat or danger hovering over the main character in both books, which adds yet another layer beyond the romance at the core. While I appreciated the consistency between the two books, I could have lived without the “danger” part of the story in Playing Dirty. While it is worked into the plot in such a way that it is relevant to moving the story forward, it still felt a bit unnecessary to me. These characters had enough to deal with without a threat to life and limb being added to the pile. It was just one too many things to keep track of in an already complex story.
Still, Playing Dirty chugs along nicely despite its many plot threads. Echols writes very readable books – she manages to make even the most mundane situation feel interesting and entertaining, and that keeps the pace from faltering. She also consistently delivers with her characters’ dialogue. While Sarah and Quentin may not have the charisma of some of my favorite Echols characters, they do have engaging inner and outer dialogue, giving the third person narration some necessary spice. It’s no secret I’m not generally a friend of third person narration, but Echols gives Sarah and Quentin unique voices that helped maintain my connection to the characters without actually being in their heads.
Here’s the part where my personal taste and reading experience comes into play. As someone who does not read romance novels, I did find it a little awkward how quickly Sarah and Quentin connected – necessary for the plot, yes, but for two people not technically in a relationship, they were hot and heavy really quickly. It kind of threw me a little, but I also recognize that this is kind of the point of this style of book. It wasn’t an issue as far as my overall enjoyment of the book, but it did take me out of certain moments. I did appreciate, though, that the hook-ups were worked in to the story rather than the story being worked in to the hook-ups.
Playing Dirty really takes its time letting readers get to know all the characters. Sarah, Quentin, and all the other members of The Cheatin’ Hearts felt like old friends by the time I finished reading the book, and even more minor characters like Sarah’s mother are given life and dimension. Another thing I loved was how a story that is actually pretty absurd was presented in a way that made it feel believable, and I think that’s largely due to the care in crafting the characters. Because I cared about these characters, and because they didn’t take themselves too seriously, the soapy plot had much more immediacy and realism.
Playing Dirty is an escape. It’s meant to be a little campy and a lot of fun, with romance and adventure to spare. It also had the interesting effect of making me feel really glad I’m not a PR agent and simultaneously feel envious of how exciting Sarah’s work days are! Playing Dirty delivers on what it promises, and while it may not be in my preferred genre, I absolutely enjoyed my time stepping out of my comfort zone and into the crazy world of Stargazer Public Relations.