Review: Below the Belt, by Sarah Mayberry

Sarah Mayberry is a Blaze author I really enjoy, and Below the Belt (2008) is no exception. I have a Blaze audio subscription, and Gabra Zackman, who narrates all the Mayberry Blazes, did her usual great job with this one. One word of caution, though: Zackman is a New Yorker, and she voices the Mayberry characters with Australian accents. I think anyone with less of an ignorant ear than mine for accents might not be thrilled with this.

It’s no secret on this blog that while I like all kinds of romances, I have a special affection for romances that play with gender stereotypes.

Let’s see if you can guess whether it is the hero or heroine described below:

  • Seeks to restore the tarnished family name in the boxing ring
  • Named Jimmie
  • Initiates sexual relationship
  • Wants no strings attached sex
  • Gets wasted in a bar and has a brawl in the parking lot

All of those describe the heroine, Jamie Sawyer (also called “Jimmie”), whose father, a former heavyweight champion and Australian sports legend, threw a fight, went to prison, and then committed suicide.  She’s beautiful, tough, extremely talented athletically, and deeply wounded by her past, not just her father’s tragic end, but by an unscrupulous boyfriend who took advantage of her when she was at her most vulnerable. Jamie is the character who needs to grow the most in this book, and it is her story in every way: her athletic achievements, her recovery from past trauma, and her fledgling ability to give her heart to Cooper.

It’s too bad that in this case the cover image doesn’t resemble most women boxers, certainly not at the heavier weight class Jamie is supposed to be.  The cover model doesn’t appear to be able to lift a soup can judging from her twiggy arms. Check out photographer Delilah Montoya’s photo essay on women boxers to compare. That quibble aside, I loved the boxing matches and the portrayal of the sport, one I had had zero interest in previously.

The hero, Cooper Fitzgerald, is a recently retired (due to an eye injury) successful heavyweight boxer starting his own gym. He’s not one of those athletes who has trouble adjusting to civilian life. He’ll miss the ring, but overall, he’s ok with his retirement. After some initial strong reluctance (he has disdain for women’s boxing — something he overcomes a little too quickly to be convincing) he decides to take Jamie on. Cooper is in the “Rourke” mold of heroes. He’s nearly perfect, inside and out, but he’s still human (whenever he says “I’m no saint”, prepare yourself for some steamy pages. Mayberry excels at writing very intense love scenes). I happen to love heroes like that, but if you go for more angst, you might not enjoy this book.

I thought this was a terrific story. I was wrapped up in Jamie’s quest, in her matches, and in Cooper’s struggle with his growing feelings for a fighter he’s supposed to be training. Very romantic (yes, despite the relationship taking place in sweaty gyms and seedy towns), very sexy, very exciting, and, at times, very heartbreaking. Highly recommended.

I find Mayberry’s Blazes to be unexpectedly emotionally gripping and dramatic. I have often wished she wrote longer books, and to my delight I see she has a SuperRomance out, Her Best Friend, which I have already downloaded (for $3.98) to my Kindle.

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