Book Review: Playing for Keeps, by Carla Kincaid

by Brittany B. | 08/12/2020

Softball. It’s been a stereotypical lesbian staple for as long as I can remember. Playing for Keeps, by Carla Kincaid, is a book that addresses how softball plays a role in bringing two women together when only one of them is actually a softball player:

Kate Warner has never had time to think about love — at least not the romantic kind. Her focus, for the past fourteen years, has been on making sure her daughter Dana has everything she needs. After losing her own mother at an early age, Kate vowed never to let her daughter feel that kind of loneliness — even if that means missing out on the love Kate truly desires.

Joy Sizemore has been living the dream. As one of the top professional softball players in the world, her life is filled with great times on the field, exotic travel, and more than her fair share of post-game fun. But all of that changes when she suffers what might be a career ending injury.

Forced to return home to her parent’s house to recover, Joy tries to forget her sorrows in the bottom of a bottle — with nearly tragic consequences.

When Kate and Joy’s lives unexpectedly collide they both have to decide whether they’ll give up on the game of love or stay on the field and try Playing For Keeps.

Playing for Keeps is an interesting story that navigates the dual perspectives of Kate and Joy. These dual perspectives initially are intriguing, as they weave the narrative plot thread of conflict between the two nicely as their individual stories unfold alongside each other, giving the reader insight to their recent past and strongly foreshadows how conflict between the two women will eventually unfold. The way that Kincaid crafted the bulk of the plot was interesting and kept me attentive as a reader, waiting for the big climactic conflict to occur.

I enjoyed how softball was the gateway to allow this story to happen. Joy made a name for herself by playing in Japan’s fast pitch softball league and is a household name for fans of the sport. Kate doesn’t play herself but her adolescent daughter, Dana, has a promising softball pitching career ahead of her. Dana is only 14 and is already playing with a high school softball league during a summer program before she’s technically started high school herself. The two women meet because Kate’s family has a small mother-in-law apartment that they rent out through Airbnb which Joy happens to rent for several weeks for her stay in Hersh Falls (which I believe is a fictional town, said to be in the lowlands of North Carolina and a forty-five minute drive from Charlotte) and become close because of Kate’s daughter, who immediately recognizes Joy.

How the two women re-meet (because they technically meet for the first time on the side of the road while Kate’s truck is broken down and Joy offers to give her life, which Kate declines) is sweet and Dana is integral to the two women becoming close, as Kate often watches her daughter’s interactions with Joy through the kitchen window. Joy eventually helps Dana’s softball team with their practices and a weekend tournament and quickly finds a place where she feels like she belongs and enjoys herself and doesn’t feel the need to drink – which is the reason she’s in Hersh Falls, seeing a therapist about her drinking problem.

Kincaid does a good job too of showing the juxtaposing sides of rural small-town America – that of the unwavering loving and supportive family versus that of the homophobic and heteronormative conforming family. This is most noticeable when looking at Kate’s father against Kate’s ex, and father of her child, Sam. Kate’s father is a wonderful character. He has that paternal instinct and knows before Kate does that Joy makes her happy and that, ultimately, that’s all that matters in life. He is a wonderful character who is grounded and true to family values. Because Kate’s father is so loving, the juxtaposition of Sam is all the more apparent – Sam wants Dana to be into things that are more “girly,” like dance or cheerleading and Sam loathes Joy because she encourages Dana with softball. Where Kate’s father encourages and nurtures the connection between Kate and Joy, Sam actively tries to sabotage it. Kate’s father is also made all the more heartwarming when contrasted against Joy’s own father. Where Kate’s father is nothing but supportive, Joy’s father refuses to talk about his daughter’s orientation and lets his religion rule how he views homosexuality – sinful.

Kincaid introduces the right amount of characters and ensures that every character introduced has a different part to play throughout the story and furthers the story in some way. There weren’t any extraneous characters or interactions in the book, which I appreciated. It was one area that the book felt really tight on with the exception of one character, who was pivotal in the resolution of the book who wasn’t given enough time on the page for their role to be all that believable in the end. And that’s where the book begins to fall flat.

Playing for Keeps ultimately falls flat because it reads like a first draft. There is a substantial amount of misused words (e.g., using road when rode should have been used), misspellings, extra or missing quotation marks, and more. Playing for Keeps is a Kindle exclusive release that was published on January 22, 2019 and I’ve looked on the Kindle app to see if there are updates to fix some of these errors, but I haven’t seen an update available as of this posting. On top of the grammatical and punctuation issues, the plot itself doesn’t live up to expectation once the reader gets about half way through the book. Much of the budding relationship and attraction between the two women is completely glossed over and there are times where the narrative would allude to how the women were enjoying their time together but the reader had hardly seen any of that time together. The scenes that the reader does get of them together feel rushed and incomplete, like it’s only the beginning of the scene or a summary of events. Most noticeably, though, is that the major conflict that the narrative heavily foreshadows isn’t as climactic as it should have been. Where the narrative could have had a fight, it pans away and the women go their separate ways before regrouping later and the argument that ensues is too quickly over. There’s no trying to justify what’s happened or how things have changed. It happens and the night ends with them both upset and Joy gone in the morning. That climactic moment, like their budding attraction, felt extremely rushed through and glossed over.

Does Playing for Keeps actually have a happy ever after?

I have no idea. And that doesn’t sit well with me as a reader.

The book ends almost immediately after Joy is asked to be the first draft pick for the new Charlotte Chargers, a Women’s National Fast Pitch Softball team and Kate is asked to be the team’s chef. They both accept but there isn’t any follow up. Immediately prior to that happening is where Kate and Joy finally reunite after their initial fallout over the aforementioned conflict that the story builds up to. The two women last saw each other a month ago and haven’t spoken since – no calls or texts explaining their actions or offering of apologies. Joy comes back to Hersh Falls to help coach Dana’s softball team for their final tournament for the summer and both women know the other is around but effectively avoid each other. They finally talk to each other after Dana’s team wins the tournament, but, like… immediately after. Kate doesn’t celebrate with her daughter who may very well be the MVP of the entire tournament, but rather goes to have an awkward conversation with a woman who has made no effort to explain herself or mend their relationship instead (a relationship that felt more like a fling if I’m being honest). The culminating scene is where they apologize to each other but they don’t kiss or even embrace and it is super awkward, not to mention rushed. They barely get a chance to apologize to each other before an announcement about the Charlotte Chargers.

Normally I am not the biggest fan of epilogues to wrap up a story but this is a book that is in dire need of one. An epilogue set a few months down the line where the reader gets a scene of Joy coming over to the Werner household for dinner or something to give their relationship some sense of togetherness and closure to their conflict would have given the reader some sense of happily ever after or closure to the story. But as it is, the reader doesn’t get that. The reader gets a rushed ending where far too much has to be assumed.

Playing for Keeps will scratch the readers itch for a sports light romance story, but I think it will leave the reader wanting a lot more when they’ve finished. Ultimately, Playing for Keeps had really good bones and has the potential to be a really stellar story. Kincaid shows that they know how to craft an interesting narrative while using two individuals as perfect foils for each other and shows that they know how to use side characters effectively. Playing for Keeps just needed another round of edits and a beta reader or helpful editor to help flush out some of the scenes that devolved into summary and to help craft a more satisfying ending.

2 out of 5 Rainbows

Recommended Reader: Anyone who can enjoy a book that has errors and is looking for a sports light story with mature women who are flawed in their own way, coming together through their mutual love of a child’s love of sports.

You can find more from Carla Kincaid on her Amazon author page.

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