Pandora's Box

Don't Look Down

Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
2006, Fiction
St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312348126

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

We are working on a database improvement to accomodate the need for two grades per book, but until then, the two PB columnist's grades will be averaged together. In this instance both grades are B-.

Lucy Armstrong, a successful director of television commercials, has supposedly been given her big break to direct the filming of the last four days of action shots for the movie Donít Look Down. Few directors would want to finish up someone elseís movie, but the money is too good to pass up. Also, since Lucy's sister is working on the shoot, she will be able to spend some much needed time with her sister and her niece. Lucy knows that working with ex-husband Connor Nash, the movieís stunt coordinator, will be a trial, but plans to keep her distance.

Captain JT Wilder, a Green Beret, has agreed to some quick money himself and accepted an offer from movie star Bryce McKay to act as his military consultant and stunt double for the last four days of filming his latest movie. Connor has no desire to have JT around and makes his feelings clearly known on the subject. Also possessing a background in Special Forces training, Connor begins a campaign of intimidation to rid the set of JT. But something is very wrong with the stunts, the script, and the grave lack of common sense involved in finishing the film. Within a day of arriving for his consulting job, the CIA contacts JT with yet another angle on the strange film and JT finds himself doing double duty.

Linda: This month AAR reviewer Lea Hensley is joining me to discuss Don't Look Down, by the writing team of Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer. DLD is an interesting combination of romance, action, and suspense with a military hero, J T Wilder and a strong independent heroine, Lucy Armstrong. I was impressed with how Crusie and Mayer worked together and loved the different perspectives they brought to the book. Especially the authentic military element that must have been from Mayer, a former Green Beret. How did you like this book and did their different perspectives work for you, Lea?

Lea: My like or dislike of the book was based on my expectations. Once I prepared myself for not reading a romance, I found I enjoyed the book. As for the action/adventure aspect, it was above average, especially when compared to the scenarios we see in romantic suspense – comparisons readers are sure to make. The details about the guns and how a character held one, the tactical considerations as one of the characters walked through the swamp or jumped from a helicopter all had an air of authenticity. I believed the writer definitely knew what he/she was writing about and I have to assume it’s Mayer’s skills at work here.

Linda: Like you, I really enjoyed the authentic military detail in the book and as a devoted fan of Suzanne Brockmann's Navy SEAL's, I did have a few giggles over the respectful rivalry between the Army Rangers and the SEALS and JT's thoughts of them as "stud muffins who couldn't function outside the water." In fact, all of JT's interior monologues on the service and the actions he needed to take were very realistic. With all of the negative news about the CIA, his epithet of Clowns In Action also made me giggle. But, what made all this manliness work for me was Crusie's contributions that I think softened JT into a wonderful romantic hero even if this book is not a strictly a romance. Did Crusie's and Mayer's styles mesh for you Lea?

Lea: I couldn't detect a change from one writer to another so I considered their writing fairly seamless. The shift from the male POV to the female was smooth but I thought both Lucy and JT’s characters were reserved emotionally. It may have been their personality styles but nevertheless, I noticed the lack of outward emotion as well as internal thoughts early on. But, I could go on and on about the effectiveness I thought Mayer brought to the hero's part – I thought he did a terrific job writing a romance hero whether he intended to or not.

Linda: The only other book I have read by more then one author was a Christmas anthology of sorts featuring several romance authors. It worked as well as this one because they knew each other's styles. I've never read an individual book written by a writing team, although I have read a number of Harlequin's continuity series. In those there have been terrible dips and character drops that make the series very uneven, even after a strong beginning.

It was a real treat reading a male action hero who was so believable, but the male perspective also created my major problem with the book. I am a true romantic and once the hero and heroine meet, I don't like either of them sleeping with anybody else. Early in the book, the movie's sexy co-star Althea shows up in JT's bed, and he succumbs to her charms. But, I suppose since this is general fiction, perhaps male readers will love this fantasy of finding a hot young actress naked in their bed and ready for action. LOL. Then too, JT was so special otherwise I was able to forgive that lapse.

Lea: I never really got over that - I usually don't find the hero sleeping with another woman at the beginning of the book all that bothersome, but given the short time frame of four days, I found it disturbing, although it was such a man thing. It also made me less sure of a HEA, but I have to wonder if it was meant to have a resounding HEA.

Linda: As a reader I picked it up expecting romantic suspense, based on Crusie's name and the cover blurb. I was definitely satisfied with DLD's romance aspect. Even though this book is definitely a love-at-first-sight story, I bought JT and Lucy's instant attraction and also thought that their personalities would provide a future together, even if their HEA is only implied. It is mentioned from the beginning that although he's had his share of difficult missions, JT is now teaching at Ft. Bragg. This seemed a little bit of a cop out for me, since the armed services are full of happily married men whose brave wives await their returns from dangerous missions. Why couldn't JT continue the missions he is so expert at and still have a HEA?

Lea: I don’t expect romantic suspense from Crusie as much as character driven romance, so I was disappointed in the suspense plot at first. And JT’s reasons for not being married did not appear to me as a cop out at all since he has been married twice before. I actually found it quite refreshing to read about a hero with two failed marriages as well as the fact that he was not damaged by the experiences or unwilling to try again.

And back to the HEA, it was warm and fuzzy enough to satisfy me but was overshadowed by JT sleeping with another woman in the given time frame.

But most important to me as I began reading DLD were the inevitable comparisons I made to other Crusie books. Her signature humor was missing as well as the witty repartee I have grown to expect from her. I didn't think Lucy was the lovable, funny, imperfect heroine Crusie has trained me to expect in her books and although there was still a level of humor here and there, the self-deprecating humor that made me laugh out loud was missing. But once again - was it meant to be there? This is a new type of Crusie.

On the other hand, JT was a more realistic hero than I remember from other Crusie books. Her Welcome to Temptation is my all time favorite contemporary romance, with Sophie ranking among my favorite heroines. And although I found its hero, Phin, to be as sexy as all get out, his character did not come close to reality for me. I think if a man said those things to me that Phin said to Sophie early on, I would have refused to give him the time of day - permanently.

But I never experienced those feelings with JT - this guy thought about what he said, tried to be considerate in his interactions, and always seemed real. It wouldn't have taken much for him to walk off the page.

Linda: Yes, JT rang very true and perhaps his lapse with Althea was also realistic for a male character written by a male author. What surprised me was that my real character problem was with Lucy and not JT! Lucy wears, metaphorically speaking, a large sign saying "co-dependent enabler" for most of the book. She constantly tries to "fix" her sister and has a plan for her sister's life without even asking what the sister wants to do. Also, she takes on a load of guilt for everything that goes wrong on the set and with the lives of the people working there. She's a major control freak, which was a little off-putting. She also over-indulges her niece with Wonder Woman gifts, out of guilt for feeling she's neglected her.

JT tries talking to her about her tendency to take on a load of guilt over things that aren't her fault...perhaps it's expecting too much to have true emotional growth in a book set during a four day period. But, this gal seriously needed counseling to stop taking responsibility and assuming guilt for everything and everybody. I found myself wanting to shake her a time or two. And, finally, Lucy does something at the end of the book that I can't explain here because of spoilers, but which reminded me of nothing so much as the actions of an old cliched series romance heroine rather than that of a modern woman.

Lea: Lucy’s enabler tendencies were not only in the silliness category but the boring one as well. When her thoughts started in that direction, I wanted to say “yeah, yeah, yeah, now let’s get on with the story.” But I saw it more as a character flaw because she did need counseling and nothing was going to change about that within four days and I, as a reader, wouldn’t have believed it if it did.

What bothered me more than anything about Lucy was her overindulgent attitude towards her five-year-old niece, Pepper. Then again, all of the many working adults on the set of the movie accepted this child's interference with love and patience because she was just so adorable. I found her presence to be annoying, although I did enjoy some aspects of her character. But in a work situation, I definitely would not want a child under foot as was Pepper constantly and I find it a stretch that all adults found her so irresistible as well.

Linda: I liked Pepper too, but as you said, it wasn't realistic that she was always underfoot. Also, I disliked Lucy's salving her conscience for having been away from her for a while by buying Pepper everything she asked for at the comic store. But, I loved the party with Lucy, her sister, and Pepper in their Wonder Woman garb. The three girls dancing, talking, and eating in Lucy's motor home was just a delight and served to humanize Lucy a little bit from the dynamic Amazon image she presents to the world. Lucy's sister precipitates Lucy's going to look for JT at his campsite for a night of hot sex after the party. I loved the free and fun tone of that whole scene and totally bought their bonding as a family. I am nearly a Crusie virgin - I've only read a couple of her early series books. Getting Rid of Bradley is the only one I remember at all and that's because everyone raved about how funny it was and I didn't have the same reaction. But, I found plenty of humor here and found myself laughing out loud when Lucy went to JT's camp - "Where are the smores?" had me giggling a lot.

Lea: I too enjoyed the whole Wonder Woman aspect which I thought gave the book a comic book feel at times. Wonder Woman’s antics were referenced throughout the book and I thought they tied well into another male fantasy - JT's perception of Lucy as an Amazon woman and that he found her physique and size a definite turn on.

Now, when I think of Crusie humor, I think of Bet Me and Welcome to Temptation, and not her earlier series books. Both of these books had laugh out loud moments for me. But in respect to the funniest aspect of Don't Look Down, it’s Bryce McKay, the star of the movie Lucy is directing. His was a case of true hero worship as he held on to everything JT said and attempted to copy his every action he could gather the nerve to do. The scene with Bryce's tiger-stripe fatigues and specially made "big" knife was very amusing, especially since JT had to dress in the identical costume. Bryce represented many of the more humorous moments in the book for me.

Linda: Yes, he was kind of fun, but now that I think about it, all the men in the book had the same problem - they were all promiscuous. I especially disliked the scene in the strip bar with JT's friend Rene, who is getting his jollies from all of the strippers and investing in fake boobs for one of them. Rene is introduced as the Chopper pilot who ferried JT to the film site and it is obvious they have been in some tight situations together. Rene is a hound, but is otherwise such a likable and charming guy, I wouldn't mind seeing in his own book. But this side of him just turned me off completely. I guess this was one area where the male perspective was just not to my liking - I have always found strip club environments sad and men who go there regularly pathetic. I was really glad that JT did not particularly enjoy it and thought Rene was a bit off with his investment.

Lea: Yeah, Rene ran hot and cold for me but I do see future hero potential in him. After reading DLD, I am convinced that men really do fixate on women's breasts as much as it is rumored. How many of us, as women, really want to be seen as large Amazon women? More of us might want to if it pleases men so much. I thought this definitely had to come from the male side of the writing team.

Linda: Let's talk a little more about the romance, and in specific, the love scenes. The love scene in the campground was effective...my guess is that Crusie wrote most of it. There was a switch to the male perspective that did jar me - when JT grabbed her "ass." My feminine sensibilities kicked in and I would have inserted hips, buttocks, bottom...almost anything but ass. But, I guess ass would be what a male like JT would say.

I recently had an interesting experience with this male/female sex scene perspective while I was listening to the audio CD of JAK's All Night Long. The book is read by a male and female team (and extremely well done) but at one point a love scene is read completely by the man from the hero Luke's perspective. I found it an unsettling and interesting experience to hear a man reading these intimate details from a man's perspective. I had a similar reaction to the love scene here - not distasteful or off putting, but just feeling a bit of added interest.

Lea: Now, I found the entire ass thing as well as what I thought was a distinct male perspective to be very sexy. My biggest problem with their first love scene was where it occurred. I knew evil swamp man was out there somewhere and it was very disquieting. And although I think Crusie contributed to the love scenes, these seemed to be written from more of a man’s view with fewer spoken words from the hero. But they were gentle scenes as well even when domination was briefly introduced later in the book.

Linda: One thing that drew me into the book immediately was Lucy's observations as JT and Nash squared off in the opening scenes. Their "mine is bigger then yours" pissing contest was hilarious and I loved it when she thought "why don't they just pull them out and measure?" This was hilarious and realistic too, LOL. I read the book in one sitting and I didn't find any part of it lagged.

My grade for it is a B-...what's your grade, Lea?

Lea: It had me chuckling as well and I knew we were off to a great contest of male egos although I knew from the beginning that JT didn’t think there was much of a contest except in Nash’s mind. And although I am not a fan of action/adventure books, overall this story worked for me. My grade, at B-, matches yours. That must be qualified by the fact that I knew it was not a romance. Had I gone in expecting a romance, the grade probably would have differed.

Linda: I think that the jacket blurb did a good job of setting up proper expectations for me. But, even though we didn't get to see a lot of emotional development in Lucy and JT, the book met my expectations of a "road" or "action" romance, as I generally assume in those books that the emotions are going to be in shorthand and not deeply delved into.

Lea: The romance did work for me but only in a qualified manner since it was secondary to the action. I am one who prefers romance to be front and center. Although I have mentioned several things I liked about DLD, my favorite aspect was clearly JT. I found it entertaining to read of his inner struggle, as he knew he should say something but didn’t know exactly what or if he really wanted to make the effort. And when he did try to say the right thing, he often bumbled it but, gentle man that he was deep inside, he kept on trying without ever seeming the least bit wimpy. Just as I would expect from a man, he regularly gave his efforts to say the right thing a break, not overly urgent to say the right thing at that very moment - he could always come back to it later. The reality of JT's character was the best part of the book.

I have to ask myself, would I buy another book from this writing team? And the answer is - not in hardback, but I probably would in paperback.

Linda: I don't buy a lot of hardback, but I definitely would buy this team again in paperback. I found the book very enjoyable and I really loved JT. I do think it would be fun to see Rene take the big fall and I would love to meet the woman who brings him to his knees. Rene is an old fashioned guy who would have been a Rake hanging out in brothels in a Regency, but I think it would take more then a sweet young miss to bring this guy down.

Lea: I don't know future plans for Rene but couldn't help but think as he flew off in the sunset with yet another woman hanging at his side that it should have said "...to be continued..."

Linda: Yes, I had that feeling too. Thanks for joining me this month, Lea, and I'm glad we both found DLD an enjoyable and interesting read.

Lea: Thanks for inviting me - it has been a lot of fun.

--Linda Hurst and Lea Hensley, for

-- Pandora's Box

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