Rating: 1.5 stars out of 5
Jay Wells is a sales/promotional manager for a British beverage company that produces Side Line, a beer advertised as being a Sports aficianado’s beer. When his boss tells him that the company wants him to go to Bahrain to promote their beer and makes sales to the city’s bars, he is less than enthused. But his boss is sure than Bahrain is the next market to expand in and want Jay and his team to go.
During a beer promotion, Jay meets closeted Marine, Damon O’Connor, an encounter that goes wrong immediately. Damon refuses to admit he is gay but his actions tell a different story. When their attraction turns while hot, Damon’s refusal to admit his homosexuality and Jay’s impulsiveness threaten not only themselves but Jay’s business in Bahrain as well.
Never have I read a book so disconnected from its blurb from the publisher. My expectations for this story was that it centered around a US Marine named Damon O’Conner, now overseas and ready to ship out for a tour of duty. He meets cute little Brit selling beer in Bahrain and love ensues. That is the story I expected and wanted to read, certainly not the mess that unfolded in Side Line. That story is told from the pov of Jay Wells, gay British top beer salesman for a brewery that puts out a beer called Side Line, a beer marketed towards the sports minded. It’s his story, and that of his beer promotions that take up most of the storyline. Certainly not Damon’s, at least not until almost the middle of the story.
This story takes place on Bahrain during the Iraq war, known also as The Third Persian Gulf War (2003-2011). While a more liberal Arab state than the others, Bahrain still has rigid rules regarding homosexuality, womens rights and the use of alcohol. A disregard for those laws (while giving them casual lip service) and the culture that created them is pervasive throughout the story to my astonishment. And that is only one of my issues with this story.
From the beginning, the story had an odd, disjointed feel to it. Here is Jay and crew arriving in Bahrain:
THE plane landed in a dark and very humid Bahrain in the early hours of the morning. Despite visiting the Middle East before, I was still unnerved by the sight of so many police and security guards, who patrolled the airport and looked at each person who passed with blatant suspicion. They all had wiry, slim builds, with dark features and a scruffiness about them that made them look as though they had just rolled out of bed unwashed and unshaven. The current climate of war in the region made them seem nervous and jumpy, which didn’t help when you saw that they held their guns with their fingers barely inches from the triggers at all times.
We are starting with Arab stereotypes? Where is the sweetness and innocence from Noah? It goes downhill from there as Jay sets up his local contacts and dates for his promotional acts. Jay’s company wants to open up the market in Bahrain, selling its beer in venues that target service personnel. Jay has a group of beer girls, The Side Line Girls, who promote the beer by wearing cheerleader outfits, with skimpy underwear that is revealed in their routines. The “girls” are composed of every known stereotype, including one so dumb that when their chaperone mentions “stoning” she believes that they are talking about weed.
“Also,” Jackie continued, “since we are in the Middle East, there are certain cultural differences that you should observe and adhere to at all times.”
“Yeah, women still get stoned for sex around some of these places,” Siobhan offered.
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve been stoned and had sex loads of times,” Emma said, as if it were no big deal.
“That’s not what she means,” the twins said in unison. It sometimes creeped me out when they did that.
“Thank you for your confession of drug use, young lady,” Jackie said sternly. “But I think Siobhan is referring to the fact that, should a young lady take a lover outside of her marriage, or is considered a whore within someone else’s marriage, she could be sentenced to be stoned to death.” Jackie saw that Emma was still confused, so she explained, “It means they throw rocks at her, dear, until she perishes in the street.”
Emma looked horrified.
“However, that isn’t in Bahrain. That usually happens in places like Saudi Arabia,” Jackie continued.
“Which is just a stone’s throw away,” I added, punctuating the point Jackie was trying to make.
The author then has the girls put on their Daisy Dukes, tight Side Line t-shirts and head out the door to the bar to sell beer. For me, this was just one more example of what I disliked about this story. From the dumb blonde cliche to the line about Saudi Arabia being “a stone’s throw away”, Side Line was turning sour and fast.
Another odd facet to this book is that there are pages and pages of descriptions of the girls, their routines on the stage, the reactions of the men in the crowd, that I began to wonder if Damon was ever going to make an appearance. So much of this story is occupied with the beer promotions and girls that the romance is supplanted by pom poms and free beer. This annoyed me at first, but by the time I did get to the “romance”, I speedily wished for a return to the beer games and “Girls Gone Wild” portion of the plot.
I am not sure the author knew which war all the service personnel were shipping off to. Ryder says its the Third Gulf War but then has this exchange between Jay and Damon:
“What do you do? In the military, I mean,” I asked.
“I’m a staff sergeant in the Marines.”
I laughed. “I’m not surprised a big fella like you is a Marine. Those Iranians haven’t got a hope against you guys! Have you been serving long?”
Ryder seems to think that Iran and Iraq are interchangeable. Throughout the story, the characters make mention of “the majority of you are heading on to Afghanistan or Iran”. If you can’t get such a simple thing right as to where the war was fought, then I should have expected the rest of the nonsense that followed.
That lack of attention to detail carries through the length of the story, including his portraits of Marines and Navy Seals. I don’t think Ryder knows anything about the Marines or Seals, especially their codes of honor and behavior. Instead he portrays the Seals as undisciplined young buffoons, aggressive and unruly. Seals are not your ordinary soldiers but the author seems unaware of that fact in his descriptions of their actions such as drunken brawlers in a bar.
The main characters too are problematic. The only character I connected with and enjoyed was Jackie, Jay’s assistant and good friend. She was delightful and the only bright spot in this story. Unfortunately, the book was not about her. The character of Damon O’Connor is the one I had the most issues with. A Marine Staff Sergeant, he is deeply closeted, aggressive to a fault, self delusional, a totally dislikable person. He is responsible for an abduction, then forcing a person to commit several sexual acts (including one without a condom), and we are supposed to like him? Feel a connection to such a thug? I can’t begin to think of anyone who would find this man engaging, other than the author. And Jay of course. But the author has made Jay a complete doormat, just right for a thug such as Damon. Their “romance” as such is unlikely, unsexy and off putting.
I know there is supposed to be a connection between Noah and Side Line but I can’t think of one as the two stories seem so far apart in tone and substance. One was a sweet and endearing romance (Noah) and the other an offensive mess (Side Line). I know a book is in trouble when my list of issues goes beyond two or three. What is all adds up to a book I cannot recommend on any level and that surprises me because I enjoyed Noah so much. N0ah and Side Line are part of a series but if Side Line is any indication of the direction the series is taking, I am stopping here and you should too.
Cover design by Paul Richmond is the best thing about this story.