Rating: 3.75 stars
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Before I start the review, this story deserves a bit of a preface. Picks & Pucks is more complex than I would have thought, based on the cover or the blurb. I was expecting hot athletes and hotter sex and, although I did get those, I also got a look at the effect that guilt, anger, and unresolved issues have on figure skater Justin Corrin, and how his behavior impacts his family, friends, and lover.
Justin is wracked by guilt and haunted by the death of his mother and has not been able to move on. He returns to his hometown with a dual purpose: training for the National figure skating championships and facing his internal demons. Justin is alienated from father and brother and ends up staying with his sister, Janae, who happens to be renting a room to hockey player Danny Jackson, Justin`s former lover. Justin is still attracted to Danny and, against his better judgment, hooks back up with Danny. But Danny is still closeted and afraid of being discovered because hockey is his life, and hockey players can’t be gay. When Danny moves out of Janae’s house, he ends things with Justin again. Danny, like every bad stereotype of a closeted jock, wants what he won’t allow himself to have.
Justin is weighed down by guilt of past events, and as a result, expects the worst from everyone. Justin`s negativity and anger cause discord in others. Colton (CJ) Daly, a transfer student, ends up taking over Danny’s room and the sparks fly. CJ has demons of his own and, although he is on the hockey team, CJ is not the typical jock, as he uses hockey as a means to an end and not the end itself, and is more honest about himself and his desires.
Once home, Justin discovers that dynamics have changed between those he left behind when he fled to California, and Justin feels left out in the cold. Justin focuses his energy on his skating in the pursuit of his Olympic dream and refuses to address the guilt, pain, and anger that fuel his demons. CJ and Justin get to know each other and discover that they are both harboring pain from their pasts and the two men find that with their friendship and non-sexual intimacy, their personal demons weaken. As Justin and CJ’s relationship grows, Justin manages to let go of some of his pain, and his skating takes a turn for the better as Justin feels more inspired and begins to hope for more than what he has. Justin comes up with new programs and sees them as a part of moving forward with his life.
Things take a turn for the worse, however, when CJ’s past comes back to haunt him, putting both he and Justin in danger. CJ foolishly decides to distance himself from Justin in the hopes of protecting him, but only ends up hurting Justin, which leads to depression and surprisingly, a renewed determination to succeed at the one thing he has control over, his skating. Under the strain, Justin’s health takes a turn for the worse, putting his goals at a gold medal at the National skating competition at risk. All the while, Justin keeps hope alive for his relationship with CJ but once the puck is in CJ`s rink, will he shoot back and salvage their fledgling relationship?
So, let’s talk about Justin. He is surprisingly narrow minded and adjectives like abrasive, unpleasant, and self-centered are good descriptors for him. Justin admits to always thinking the worst of everyone and is selfish, but slowly realizes that everyone, including himself, has their own personal demons to deal with. Justin describes the demons like a physical manifestation, similar to puppies or birds that follow him around, circling and chattering. The demons represent people lost, betrayals, and life events gone wrong. It is a little disconcerting that the damn things talk to him at times, but it is clear that Justin needs to let go of the guilt, resentment, and pain.
I did find it funny that someone so contrary could still be so likeable. I can personally relate to Justin’s lack of “brain to mouth filter” and it saddened me that something as small as a few kind words from CJ would be enough to weaken the hold Justin’s demons have on his psyche. This, to me, confirmed that he has been hiding his true feelings and pain and has not really had anyone there for him. I liked seeing Justin’s gradual self-realization and growth, which felt organic and natural. I also liked that Justin tried hold off having sex with CJ because he feared it would be another mistake, similar to his failed relationship with Danny. As Justin and CJ become friends, Justin learns to appreciate and like the non-sexual intimacy he has with CJ, thus paving the way for a healthier physical relationship. In the meantime, Danny still wants Justin but still refuses to come out of the closet and Justin finally realizes CJ is the future, Danny is the past, and with this realization he frees himself from some of his demons. The change in Justin is apparent when Justin focuses his energy on his skating and with the help of his sister Janae and best friend Eli, the three come up with a new long and short routine that speak to Justin. The creation of the new routines were all Justin, inspired by music chosen by Eli, and are a clear indication that he is beginning to free himself of past guilt.
I was also impressed with how Loy gradually built up Justin and CJ’s relationship by showing that the two men need each other emotionally and eventually, physically. They definitely bring out the best in each other and a testament to how much CJ eventually means to Justin is that Justin begins to think of CJ first but sadly, because of his experiences with Danny, Justin tries to shove CJ in the closet in an attempt to try and protect CJ. Interestingly enough, we get a pretty good idea of what CJ wants but since Justin is quick to presume to know what others want and CJ won’t communicate, we get a stalemate, of sorts.
The theme of poor communication is prevalent throughout the book, whether it is Justin’s relationships with family, or his perceptions of events of the past, since no one will talk about their feelings, progress towards Justin’s goal is not made. When information about CJ’s past comes to light, it shows just how little Justin knows his lover and how their avoidance of their pasts may cause things to fall apart, a classic lack of communication whenever Justin is involved.
For the little we saw of Justin’s father, Jaime, I really liked him, in particular when he lets Justin fight his own battles. You can tell it is partly because he is still very uncomfortable with their precarious relationship but also because he realizes that Justin is an adult and that interfering would do more harm than good. Jamie’s acceptance of Justin, both regarding his sexuality and choice of figure skating, was slow going but felt natural and authentic. Justin’s estrangement from brother Jack was due to his jealousy of Justin’s hockey skills and at the time, Jack also disapproved of Justin being gay and blamed Justin for his failures in life. In the end, so much animosity and pain had been dumped on Justin that he believed that all of the things that went wrong in the past were his fault and so Justin thinks that everyone hates him.
I found that the use of flashbacks and the demons for back story were effective and the writing and editing were solid. The story was easy to read and I had no problem differentiating the different characters, which was impressive considering the Corrin family all have names that start with the letter J and that there were a pretty significant number of secondary characters as well. Since the bulk of the story was centered on Janae’s house and the ice rink, we were able to get a very clear, albeit limited view of the character’s world. I will say that Loy’s constant referral to demons makes the flow a bit challenging and I think that Loy took the metaphor too far when “the demons set up a few tables to play cards” or better yet “spoke to him.” I can suspend my disbelief for many things, but these were a bit too extreme, and skirted serious mental illness issues, which I did not feel was the goal of the story.
Picks and Pucks did end up meeting my expectations for hot men and hot sex, but also gave me a monster dose of angst and some sweet romance too. More importantly, it showed me triumph over adversity, love, healing, and ultimately growth and peace. I found this story to be compelling enough that the constant references to the character`s demons throughout the book, including the repetitive use of the word, while initially irritating could eventually be overlooked and in the end, I truly enjoyed the story and characters.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.