Jaci Burton’s Perfect Play (Berkley, 2011) is a trifecta of awesomesauce, but not just for what’s going on inside the book. The awesomesauce is actually found both in and out (ha) of the book.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books uncovers all you need to know about digital reading, the good and the bad

First, let’s start with the obvious. HAVE A LOOK AT THAT COVER WHY DON’T YOU.

I spend a lot of time talking about romance novel covers and what an absolute crazyfest of insane crap they can be. This cover is just epic goodness, from the composition to the image to the composition of the person IN the image.

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I’ll be shallow, with no shame: that is one beautiful sculpture right there. (Yes, of course, I am talking about the football).

Many readers who don’t usually go for the beefy covers with posed manchest on display stopped at this one and said, “Ok, that’s...wow.” It’s eye-catching because it’s so different from most of the manchest you see on a romance cover. For one thing, it’s a logical, natural human pose. This man isn’t holding his shirt unbuttoned but still tucked in (Why do they do that on so many covers? I have NO idea) and he’s not posing with all pecs flexed toward the reader. The model on the cover (his name is Jed Hill and he is, in fact, a former football player) is faced away from the reader, he looks somewhat exhausted, and he’s dirty, sweaty and clearly athletically inclined. The realism is eye-catching.

So yeah, the cover is awesome. But check out what happens next. Awesomesauce ingredient No. 2: when Jaci Burton found out that people who purchased the e-book version of the book received a digital file that did not include the cover, she took action. She let readers know that if they wanted an oversize postcard of the book cover, she’d be happy to mail them one if they sent in a postal address. No adding people to her mailing list, no soliciting for additional contacts, no sleazy marketing ploy. You didn’t get the cover? You can have your own copy—a big shiny postcard size cover to place wherever you want.

What is hilarious is how many people I have run into who have that postcard and show it to people. At a recent conference that had absolutely nothing to do with romance, I met a librarian who had asked for one—and been sent a pack of 10 because, of course, she’s a librarian and librarians are awesome. The librarian in question was showing her friends the cover because, well, did you see point one about how amazing the cover is?

I have to tell you—no matter who I’ve shown this cover to, the reaction is similar: “Oh...WOW.”

So imagine yourself the author of a book with that type of eye-catching cover and knowing that anyone who buys the digital version, through no fault of the author’s, doesn’t get a copy of that cover for their own. A shame, right? But Burton steps up, takes the responsibility of making sure anyone who wants a copy of the cover can have one, no stamps or self-addressing required. To date, Burton estimates she’s sent out over 1,500 of her postcards to bookstores, reading groups and readers who have requested a cover card of their own.

I personally think that this type of generosity goes a long way in establishing a solid and positive reader relationship. Mad props to Burton for that.

So, the third ingredient in the awesomesauce? Does the book live up to the cover? Yup. It does. Here’s a microreview.

Football player Mick Riley enjoys the life of a professional athlete, but when he meets Tara Lincoln, an events planner who was the mastermind behind a team-related party Mick attended, his perspective changes in a real hurry. Mick and Tara have a delicious one-night stand, and Tara’s ready to walk away with no strings attached—while Mick wants more. Tara’s a single mom of a teenager, and she’s very protective of herself and her son, so she wants little to do with Mick’s rich/famous/crazy life, even though she’s having a hard time putting Mick out of her mind.

One of the challenges in writing contemporary romances is coming up with realistic obstacles to keep the protagonists apart so that they can overcome the problems between them to earn their happy ending. Readers grow tired of relationship problems that are completely unrealistic (ANOTHER serial killer, for example) or demeaning to their characters (ANOTHER big misunderstanding, for example). Burton adds truly realistic conflict between Tara and Mick, and obstacles appear that are even more difficult as the two of them grow closer. From her past to her son to his secrets and his family, to their mutual unwillingness to risk too much of themselves despite being tempted to do just that, the challenges are compelling, real and inspire a lot of empathy.

Plus, and this is a big plus, Mick and Tara are both very likable people.

The part I had the most trouble with, frankly, was the sex scenes. There was an abundance of emotional sensitivity to Mick and to Tara, what with all the hidden vulnerabilities they were reluctant to reveal to one another. So when the language of the sex scenes went straight to hot and somewhat crude, I found it very jarring. I am fine with frank and spicy bedroom talk in a novel, but after their relationship was somewhat established, I found the bedroom dialogue contrasted way, WAY too much with the nuances of their dialogue when they weren’t getting busy. Their expressions of emotion or private connection to one another switched rapidly to I TALK LIKE A PORN STAR NOW. WANNA HEAR? It was really confusing to me, and while I wished for different dialogue, the sex scenes remained static in their emotional impact.

Despite Burton’s tendency to overstate details, or repeat them employing commonly used romance phrases, Mick and Tara’s story is absorbing and powerful. The book is also a twist on a common motif: usually it’s the girl who chases the guy, who is patently unwilling until Circumstances Force Them Together. In this book, Tara is resistant to the idea of a relationship for very valid reasons I could empathize with, and Mick was the persistent one who kept trying to break through her reasons and fix them. His focus and determination are consistent with his profession and the mentality required for professional football, and even his way of handling his own emotions fit his character. Both Tara and Mick are, in effect, well drawn.

Just like the cover.