A guest review by Kassa
Summary Review: A familiar contemporary story that didn’t work for me but may for the right reader.
He looks good on a horse, but it’s hard to love a man with a big ego and a small alibi.
Paul King’s inheritance is named Serenity Stables, but for him it’s far from serene. He has one plan for the crumbling facility: unload it as fast as possible. But two months on the market, and he’s still mucking stalls and dreaming of his old life back in San Francisco.
It doesn’t help that he seems to have misplaced a horse. Not just any horse—Tux, a million-dollar Warmblood who, despite lacking opposable thumbs, has an Olympic medal to its name. So does its Brazilian trainer, Estevan Souza, a man whose darkly sexual, smoldering glances almost make Paul forget his horse phobia.
Intriguing as Paul finds Estevan, distractions are piling up. The boarders are picky. The arena roof is leaking. His drunken cousin is wreaking havoc. Tux’s owners are threatening to sue. On top of that, a bucket of blood points to possible murder.
Suddenly, Estevan’s glances are looking more suspicious than sinful. And, if Paul can’t come up with a plan to save Tux, he could lose not only his chance with Estevan, but his life.
I guess readers are fickle since while I adored Love Ahead by Astrid Amara, I found Half Pass to be totally devoid of the same charm and warmth. This story relies on a weak pseudo mystery, circumstance, and an equally tepid happy ending between characters that I simply couldn’t connect to on any meaningful level. There are several good areas of tension introduced, yet the story and characters go nowhere with the possibility. Instead most of the issues are resolved too easily and I never could appreciate the romance dynamic between the main men.
Paul is going through a life change. He broke up with his lying, philandering boyfriend, who happened to be his boss, and was the sole recipient of the company’s “downsizing.” Out of work and home, Paul heads to the Pacific Northwest to handle the sale of his late aunt’s horse boarding business. Yet the business is nearly bankrupt, the work is piling up, Paul’s openly hostile cousin may be sabotaging the barn, and now a million dollar horse is missing. Paul is not having a good time right now. Between all his problems and lack of solutions, sexy pretentious trainer Estevan comes riding into the muck.
Told in first person point of view from Paul’s perspective, the story relies on a lot of telling and less showing right from the start. Most important details are offered in internal monologues and heavy dialogue with very little action. Although Half Pass begins with a lot of coincidences and some obvious manipulation to get all the right players where they need to be, this isn’t such a big stretch. The initial setup of the circumstances and Paul’s trust issues are nicely incorporated and the edgy feeling to the business is established early on. This is a business on the verge of total collapse and only Paul’s hard work and increasing confusion about why he’s even there hold the duct taped mess together. This is also important since the story spends considerable time reminding readers that Paul has trust issues. The truth is a big deal to him and he refuses to lie in any way, no matter how small.
Unfortunately this is also a major problem I had with the story and Paul in particular. Throughout the story many, many, many people lie to Paul. From small lies to rather big, essential manipulations, Paul is rarely ever told the truth. Yet these lies – which are all exposed – never really factor into the story or cause much tension. When female employees lie to Paul, his main concern is he made them cry; not that his employees are lying to him and potentially causing harm and problems for his failing business. Nor does Paul’s supposed near obsession with the truth come into play when he’s being lied to. Since the story spends so much time reminding us that Paul hates lies, why isn’t it an issue when people lie to him?
Although I’m going to attempt not to give any spoilers, a similar event occurs towards the end of the story with the missing horse issue involving lies and manipulations. Instead of feeling betrayed and angry, perhaps a near breaking point, Paul is only concerned with the liar’s feelings and motivations. Sure this makes sense given that Paul is a rational, logical person understanding that reasons are important. Yet the emotional aspect is almost completely absent and again I’m left wondering why the story makes such a point about Paul’s love of honesty when it never factors into issues in any significant way. No matter how big these lies are, no matter how damaging, Paul gets over them almost immediately. This really kept me from connecting with the character on any meaningful level since he seems to have no great depth of emotion. He rarely gets angry or even that passionate, he’s almost too easy going. Whenever the tension would build and I expected Paul to get upset or angry, he never did and instead left me confused about the character and his motivations.
Likewise Estevan, the eventual love interest, is too mysterious. Paul spends considerable time chasing Estevan and seducing him, likening Estevan to “a scared mouse.” In fact this description is so apt I couldn’t really feel any chemistry between the two nor an engaging dynamic. When Estevan later changes his personality and becomes open and affectionate, I was left wondering what happened and what I missed. The two men are the only gay men in the story and seemingly in the area so I guess it makes sense to be together but their relationship feels more like circumstance than a passionate and instant connection.
Another jarring note is the resolution at the ending. The finances of the barn are an important aspect of the story and one family is the sole reason the barn can stay open. This family apparently pays quite a bit of money to house their horses yet when that money disappears, the barn seems to be the same financially. Oh it’s bad and barely hanging on still, but the sudden withdrawl of money, which should have forced the barn to close, isn’t referenced again. If this detail is important enough to be a main element in the pseudo mystery of the missing horse and that resolution, then I imagine it’s important enough to tie up the loose end in how the barn will survive now without it.
Unfortunately Half Pass left me with the feeling of thinking the book is “ok” but I can still imagine other people will be interested. There are familiar elements of the story that have it fitting well within the genre and those looking for a story they know well may really enjoy this despite its problems. The themes and tropes used are ones readers are likely to recognize and thus will appeal to the right reader. Astrid Amara is a good writer and though Half Pass didn’t work for me, chose for yourself.