Title: Dirty Games
Author: Barbara Elsborg
Length: 323 Pages
At a Glance: While this book didn’t work for me, I can see where it would work for other readers, without a doubt.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: The last thing Linton needs when he arrives home after three months in the States, is to find his beautiful flat is a squat, complete with his younger brother Dirk, who’s lying in Linton’s bed with a couple who’ve paid him for sex. Dirk isn’t even supposed to have a key. But after Linton throws Dirk out, life slams in hard and if his brother is to have any hope of a future, Linton has to play dirty. Or at least pretend to. What he hasn’t factored in is having to play the game to the bitter end.
Film star Thorne Morrisey has everything. Good looks, charm, seductive magnetism and a voice that could charm a snake from its basket. He can also be a real shit and yet people still love him – though he’d rather not have the love of his ex. Owen’s a suicidal wreck after Thorne dumped him in a very public and humiliating way and Owen’s wealthy brother has his own reasons for wanting revenge on Thorne. Max’s weapon of choice is his employee, Linton.
Linton and Thorne are on a collision course and in for the game of their lives. But who’s playing who?
Review: We talk a lot about chemistry in romantic fiction, that intangible and often undefinable connection between characters that reaches out and grabs us and draws us into their story. For me, it’s often great dialogue combined with layered characterizations and the way the author makes the protagonists interesting as individuals that allows me to buy into their potential as a couple. When it doesn’t work, though, it can be difficult to pinpoint precisely where things went wrong, and I can only imagine there’s little more annoying for an author than someone saying, “I really wanted to like this book, but…” To be fair, I can say there were some high points in Dirty Games, but in the end, I wasn’t wowed the way I hoped to be.
Dirty Games opens with a hodgepodge of characters to keep track of—a who’s who of siblings, ex-lovers, best friends, ex-friends, and a talent agent thrown into the mix. Organizing the degrees of separation and connection between them made for a slow but not entirely uninteresting beginning, especially when Linton Williams comes home to find that not only has his drug addicted brother been squatting in his apartment for the past three months, but that Dirk, said brother, was also having sex for money—in Linton’s bed. I still shudder. After discovering his apartment in a shambles, a three-way in progress in his bed, and then throwing Dirk out on the streets, one wouldn’t think things could get much worse for Linton. Until, of course, they get much worse.
With a not insubstantial debt owed to a Turkish drug dealer, and the need to get Dirk into rehab before he ends up dead, it leaves Linton in a vulnerable position and ripe for coercion, which is precisely what Linton’s boss, Max Devere, capitalizes on when he pays Linton to seduce and then publicly humiliate actor Thorne Morrisey. It’s the perfect, not to mention convenient, win-win—a means to exact revenge, and the answer to Linton’s financial woes. So, while Linton may have some pangs of conscience about the deal, desperate times do call for desperate measures.
The long con and, in this case, the inherent moral ambiguity, always provide for some nice fodder in atypical character construct. It’s the plan to avenge Thorne for breaking off his engagement to Owen Devere—Linton’s childhood friend, Max’s brother, and the character most in need of therapy—that throws Linton into a mucky drama soup which I liked, in theory, for its soap opera melodrama. In practice, however, this plotline faltered due in large part to my feeling that Max’s motivations were not only over-the-top but were thready at best.
I do love a good antihero, I also love a good villain, but rather than a good construct of either archetype, it seemed that most of the characters in Dirty Games were just dysfunctional. Cheating, lying, attempted suicides, past rape/a present rape/a near rape, and emotional blackmail were sprinkled liberally throughout this novel. Added to this is Linton’s distrust of bisexual men, a wholly irrational prejudice that I didn’t feel was clarified early enough, at all, which also plays as a handy obstacle since Thorne is bisexual. There is a lot of conflict thrown into this novel, much of which tried my patience, and while there were some lovely romantic moments written for Linton and Thorne as they navigated their way around the unstable foundation of their relationship, the joy-killer was that I simply didn’t fall in love with either of them, or buy into their romance.
While I don’t mind a predictable story—who doesn’t read a romance and expect the happy ending, regardless of what paces the author has put their characters through to get them there—a few surprises would have been nice here. Though, I must say that in an entirely unexpected twist, the best outcome was that I ended up liking Dirk a lot and wish it’d been his romance with his shepherd that I’d read instead. I also must say that I enjoyed Thorne’s brother, River, quite a lot and wish he’d been a more fully realized character who played a greater role in the story. So, score one each for the brothers.
Even though Dirty Games was a rare and unfortunate miss for me, there is no doubt it could and will be someone else’s perfect angsty cuppa.
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