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Her Secret Fling, by Sarah Mayberry

After reading so much praise of Ms Mayberry’s work, it was inevitable that I would grab the next one of her novels that crossed my path—and this Blaze title, released in June 2010, was it. (Which means, kmont, Kristie(J) and SLWendy, that I am a Mayberry-virgin no longer). Her Secret Fling follows Australian swimming star Poppy Birmingham as she starts to build her life-after-the-Olympics. This entails finding a paying job—no matter how good the endorsement contracts, no money lasts forever when one has to eat, right? And for a former Olympic athlete, the offer to become a sports columnist for the Melbourne Herald is really too good to pass up.

Here is the much-better-than-average back cover blurb:

Talk about office politics!

Jake Stevens—start reporter and celebrated literary genius—is a snake. How else to explain the way he turns Poppy Birmingham’s hero worship into loathing with a single conversation? So what if she’s got a lot to learn about journalism? Aren’t they coworkers now? On the same team? Jake can take his attitude and…

Then during a job-related road trip, their relationship goes from antagonistic to hedonistic in no time flat. And suddenly Poppy can’t think of anything more delicious than having a secret fling with Jake. But with all this intensity, can she really keep it no-strings-attached?

Why much better than average?, you may ask—and it would be a good question. Read it again, carefully.

Got it?

No?

Okay, I’ll tell you: it’s all about Poppy. Her feelings, her reactions, her perspective.

Mind, the author does an excellent job of showing us Jake’s perspective as well, but the blurb beautifully avoids the… well, the cheesy-ness that afflicts many a category back cover blurb. So yay for that!

Due to a shoulder injury, Poppy Birmingham has retired from swimming. Given that she’s in her early thirties, this is not as much of a tragedy as it would have been ten or even five years earlier, but it’s a hurdle nonetheless. For someone who has never known anything but the discipline of world-class athletic competition, civilian life can be pretty daunting—there is no coach to guide you through the bumps and bruises.

Still, there is light at the end of that particular tunnel, in the form of a job offer: to become a sports columnist for the city’s largest newspaper. The only problem? While Poppy is an avid reader, writing has never been what even the most generous soul would call her forte.

Jack Stevens doesn’t feel very generous towards the new hire. As far as he’s concerned, “… Poppy Birmingham doesn’t deserve to be here,” as he oh so discretely lets all the department know (page 21). A noted columnist and award-winning novelist himself, he believes that Poppy is trading on her celebrity and that other people will have to pull her weight along with their own.

And so the battle lines are drawn—though not quite where Jake believes them to be.

Poppy is very much aware of her own inadequacies outside of a swimming pool. It is not only that she struggled to finish high school, but that only one member of her family ever supported her in her dreams of Olympic gold: her uncle Charlie. Oh, it’s not that they don’t love her, it’s simply that neither her parents nor her brother understand her at all. So, more than trying to earn Jake’s approval (and really, who cares what The Snake thinks, after all?), Poppy is striving to prove to herself that she can succeed at this—that with enough effort, she can overcome all obstacles and come on top.

Things would have stayed that way if Fate, in the guise of a baggage handlers strike, hadn’t intervened to throw these two together in a small car for oh, close to two thousand kilometers (twenty four hours, give or take a few rest stops).

Predictably, once Poppy and Jake start talking, they discover that there’s more to each other than lousy first impressions—nothing like actual conversation to take the blinders off, right? Also predictably, neither of them is comfortable with their mutual attraction. Further into cliché territory, Poppy is convinced that “sex is for men. … You get off on it more, so you’re more likely to be idiots about it.” (page 59).

(If that is not a dare for Jake to try and prove to her just how wrong she is, I don’t know what would be, by the way.)

What is neither cliché nor old is Ms Mayberry’s writing. She takes these elements and weaves an engrossing story, making both of the leads likable and complex, without falling into stereotyping. For example, it’s evident that Poppy’s family truly loves her—the conflict comes from her feeling out of place, the proverbial duckling amongst swans. For his part, Jake is not simply a judgemental asshat—he struggles with demons of his own, the legacy of his marriage and subsequent divorce, and Ms Mayberry once again avoids the pitfall of making his ex-wife an evil ball-busting bitch.

There are shades of grey to all the characters and to their circumstances, which make the novel work all the better, lending realism to what could be called ‘fairy tale.’ In fact, I liked this book so much I feel kind of petty, mentioning the one thing that bothered me about it—but since it did bother me quite a bit, here it is: what happened to Poppy’s grief? Without going into too much detail (trying to avoid spoilers here): about half way through the book, she suffers a terrible loss. We are shown just how overwhelming her loss is, how crippling her grief, and then…

Nothing.

Not another reference is made, that I can recall.

Her Secret Fling gets 8 out of 10

10 Comments »

  • LMAO… man, you really are on a reviewing roll aren’t ya?

    ReplyReply

  • Should I be sheepish? 😉

    ReplyReply

  • Sheepish? Why?

    You’re doing me a service by adding to my TBR. Of course, right now I’m going through Barry Eisler’s backlist, so I still haven’t touched a romance novel. (I’m not counting SEP’s Glitter Baby because it’s women’s fiction and the Judith Krantz-like tone traumatized me.)

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  • Janet W
    July 20
    11:38 pm

    Still a Mayberry virgin here: I really need to get to a huge UBS and go a bit wild!

    ReplyReply

  • I’m a fan of Sarah Mayberry’s books and Her Secret Fling is one of my favourites.

    ReplyReply


  • Randi
    July 22
    2:18 pm

    @Ann,

    “I’m not counting SEP’s Glitter Baby because it’s women’s fiction and the Judith Krantz-like tone traumatized me.”

    OK, dish. You can’t just make that kind of statement and not follow up on it!

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  • @Randi: A LONG novel spanning two generations of women and the heartwarming themes of pedophilia, pseudo-incest, rape, sadism, domestic abuse…should I continue?

    I had to read a thriller where people are mercifully killed to lift my spirits.

    To be fair, the second half of the book shows a glimmer of the SEP I know and love today.

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  • Randi
    July 23
    3:55 pm

    @Ann:

    Sounds like VC Andrews. Or Jackie Collins. That doesn’t sound like SEP at all. Do you suppose she was experimenting?

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  • @Randi: Glitter Baby is a revised version–but not revised nearly enough–of one of SEP’s early works, when I think she was under the influence of Judith Krantz, Sydney Sheldon, and Jackie Collins. In fact, the heroine in the latter half of the book reminded me of Lucky Santangelo.

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  • jenreads
    July 28
    3:51 pm

    Spoiler: Just finished this one last night and Uncle Charlie is mentioned several times towards the end of the book. For example, she thinks about him while at a family dinner. Great review of a very good book.

    ReplyReply

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