Book Review

Sex, Straight Up by Kathleen O’Reilly

There are two things you need to know about this book: you like tortured, healing heroes who are genuinely good guys? Go find this book. O’Reilly’s mastery of the incredibly sexy, almost-three-dimensional man continues in this book.

Second, I was unfortunately predisposed to dislike it. I knew that Daniel is a widower whose wife died in the World Trade Center. And so when I read the first sentences:

Since the summer he turned eleven, Daniel O’Sullivan woke up every morning the same way. With an aching hard-on. After he was married, the first light of dawn became his favorite time. He’d roll over, impatient hands searching for his wife. After making love to her, he’d shower, shave, and together they’d take the subway to work. What more could any guy want?

But then one September morning seven years ago, bright sunlight mocking in the sky, that all exploded, along with two airliners, two buildings and two thousand, seven hundred and forty people—one of whom was his wife.


For the next five years he rolled over to look for her, impatient hands searching blindly, and she wasn’t there. And so the hard-on stayed.

The morning wake-up call evolved, the change coming so gradually that initially he didn’t notice it. In those beginning moments of wakefulness, when his brain was more than half-unconscious, he stopped looking for his wife, impatient hands no longer reaching for someone who wasn’t there.


Daniel was starting to forget.

…my inner monologue was as follows: Nooooo! You cannot start talking about hard-ons in reference to 9/11! Nooooo! Do not want!

Silly, silly Sarah. As I kept reading and got to know Daniel, it made perfect sense.  Of course that’s the frame of reference for the hero, Harlequin Blaze or not. While the people who died in 9/11 are memorialized in so many different ways, and the families who mourn them are examined in equal number of ways, the basics aren’t usually part of that discussion. What’s the most simple response to death? Sex, of course. And in losing his wife, Daniel lost not only someone he loved, but someone he made love to, and the deep abrupt tragedy of her loss makes his sleepy, semi-unconscious reachings for his wife, Michelle, that much more painful for him.

Jayne, in her review, and Jane, in an email to me, both pointed out the extraordinary external force acting against the Daniel and Catherine: the entire city of New York will not let Daniel forget his wife. It’s true.

More than that: strange voyeurism that allows anyone to find out anything about 9/11 victims. Daniel’s late wife is not just a former wife; she’s memorialized online, in multiple sites, and because she died on September 11th, she’s called a victim and a hero. Thus it’s easy for the heroine to find out more about her, to find her picture, to find snapshots of her short life. Her life, and her death, are matters of public record and display, and by extension, the end of Daniel’s marriage.

O’Reilly did two very smart things in regards to Daniel’s first wife: one, she didn’t allow Catherine to indulge in nasty, pointless jealousy, or allow anything to taint the memory of Daniel’s wife. It’s an old cliche, to highlight the strength and attractiveness of the heroine at the expense of the hero’s past relationships by comparison, but to do so in this case would have cheapened the significance of Daniel’s moving on into a new relationship. In a lot of widower romances that I’ve read, the former wife is a spectre hanging over both parties, either as a formidable nemesis, even from the grave, or as a source of guilt for one or both parties. Not so here.

Secondly, O’Reilly created a heroine who


complemented Daniel as he is now: quiet, reflective, and deeply loyal, who understands his desire for simplicity and clarity, and who serves as a compliment to his current personality, and a catalyst for him to leave the stark, mournful pattern of his life. If anything was going to spur Daniel into changing his life after Michelle died, it would be irresistable attraction, which is not only one of my very favorite plot devices, but is used in this plot in particular to reveal more about both characters. Neither one is pleased to be removed from their comfort zones, particularly when they realize the many, many reasons that their relationship could be uncomfortable.

Additional “whodunit?” conflict is taken care of off stage, which is kind of a let down – I think I said out loud on the bus, “Wait, that’s it?!” but it is absolutely realistic. Daniel is an accountant investigating potential financial shenanigans at Catherine’s family’s antiques auction house, and he’s not going to ride a white horse into the boardroom and slay the wrongdoers, or have some showdown in the stairwell that might involve firearms or some crap like that. He’s going to write a report and submit it to the folks who do things. That’s his job.

I do wish more screen time could have been granted to Daniel’s brothers when they meet the heroine for the first time, because I would have loved to have seen/read their initial reactions to the woman who brought Daniel back to living again.

And I wish that in one scene, Catherine would not have been chasing after a black market faux designer bags, as their sale and distribution has been linked by Interpol to terrorist activities. It seemed a poor choice of activity for Catherine, particularly since she is so attentive to detail and quality as she vets antiques. Terrorist ties or no, counterfeit bags are usually craptastically cheap and fall apart easily – to say nothing of the dye that comes off on Catherine’s hands at one point.

Brothers and handbags aside, I come away from this book with the following conclusions: Kathleen O’Reilly is an author name that will immediately pop out at me from the Harlequin rack, as her men are simply wonderful. This book supports my suspicion that O’Reilly writes men of Nora Roberts quality, which is high praise from me, as I love just about all of Nora’s heroes.

And finally: if there had to be a book I read that was the first in my experience to deal with 9/11 as a part of a character’s backstory, I am glad it was this one. O’Reilly handled with deft sensitivity an issue that could easily have been overdrawn and overwrought, and she deserves mad props for the effort.

Looking for independent book sellers? This book is also available from Powells.

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Sex, Straight Up by Kathleen O'Reilly

April 1, 2008

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jackie says:

    WOW. That was one hell of an excerpt.

  2. 2
    sherry thomas says:


    I picked this book at JoAnn Gerbig’s store last Saturday when I signed there.  Can’t wait to read it!

  3. 3
    closetcrafter says:

    I have read this one already.  I was so excited by Sarah’s review of the 1st on, I bought both.  LOVED the first one ut this one left me a little meh, I thought the inner voice of the heroine was not as authentic. And I thought the scenes that were supposed to be funny fell a litlle flat.

    Looking forward to the next one, because I always like to see the player get his comeuppance and I’m also looking forward to seeing what everyone thought of this one.

  4. 4

    And in losing his wife, Daniel lost not only someone he loved, but someone he made love to, and the deep abrupt tragedy of her loss makes his sleepy, semi-unconscious reachings for his wife, Michelle, that much more painful for him.

    Sounds wonderful and very real.  I love tortured widow heroes (is it wrong to wonder if my husband would mourn me as deeply?) and can’t wait to try out this author.

  5. 5
    Brit Blaise says:

    I need to make a trip to the book store… No wait, I’m too friggin’ behind to read right now. The good ‘ol day, when I could read at will.

  6. 6
    Jane says:

    I loved the 9-11 references and wondered what a New Yorker would think.  There’s a line in the book which I will be mangling but it is something like – how can Daniel move on from his loss when the city won’t let him.

    I thought that Catherine’s love for the cheap was explained, albeit kind of weakly, by the idea that it was fake.  A total opposite of her real life and love.

    I too wished for the scene with the brothers as you did because the dynamic between the brothers was wonderful.

  7. 7
    Carrie Lofty says:

    I read this on the train home on Sunday, all in one sitting—which is rare for me. I’m such a bloody slow reader. Anyway, I loved it. It had a lot more emotional depth than the other O’Reilly I enjoyed, Beyond Breathless. I liked how Daniel equated his subconscious moving-on (he didn’t reach for her first thing in the morning) as a weakness, as a betrayal, so he worked all the harder to stay true to her in his waking hours, perpetuating his misery.

    My fave scene to show his mental process was when he sorted through the photographs for his MIL. He found himself putting too many in her pile, his subconscious brain moving on, but then he started again and made both piles equal—that he should miss her as much as his MIL did. Trying to make grief into something orderly. I love male POV-heavy books, so this one was a good fit for me.

    I also appreciated how Catherine wasn’t a wundergirrrrrrl. She got tongue-tied and intimidated around her grandfather. Couldn’t stand up to him for the longest time. And he wasn’t a villain or anything, just an intimidating guy. She was loyal to him, but she couldn’t get past that shyness to become what he wanted. No ugly duckling scenario, no uberwarrioress scenario. Just real life. Really, really good stuff.

    Oh, and pretty damn smokin’ hot. Loved it. But I do agree that the wrap-up to the accounting plotline was a bit quick.

  8. 8
    Beth says:

    I’m thrilled to read this review, because I couldn’t agree more. I had recently read Shaken and Stirred, which I thought was very good, but Sex Straight Up blew me away (well, everything but the title). What a wonderful, touching, sexy story about two real, interesting, and mature adults. I have already pre-ordered the third installment!

  9. 9
    Mac says:

    I love this intro.  I love it’s reality and lack of… beatification, I guess?  It’s human and real. (I am a New Yorker—my cousin died in the attacks.)

  10. 10
    Chicklet says:

    Yes, yes, yes. I really liked this book; I suppose I should blog about it ASAP so people have a minute chance of picking it up before the next month’s Blazes hit the stands.

    I thought there was a lot of depth to this story—or at least way more than I would expect from a 200-page novel. Also, I am so with Catherine in re: red velvet cupcakes. *g*

  11. 11
    kaetchen says:

    I’m sorry, but I can’t not do this…

    Secondly, O’Reilly created a heroine who complimented Daniel as he is now: quiet, reflective, and deeply loyal, who understands his desire for simplicity and clarity, and who serves as a compliment to his current personality, and a catalyst for him to leave the stark, mournful pattern of his life.

    I think you may mean ‘complement’ – something that fills up, completes, or makes perfect(according to Webster) and not ‘compliment’ – an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration (same).

    Kat (the obsessive-compulsive proofreader)

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    Mac: I’m sorry about your cousin.

    I totally agree with you, also, about the tone. The humanity and reality of the writing, without the beautification – and banalification – that tends to get dripped all over anything pertaining to 9/11, obscuring the starkness of that reality.

  13. 13

    What a beautiful review!

  14. 14
    Robin says:

    What baffled me about the fake purse thing was the prominence it seemed to have in such a short novel.  Yeah, I understood the symbolism (fake v. authentic, surface v. substance as themes of the novel), and forgive me for being reeeaaaaalllllly cynical about the “suggestion” of terrorist links to just about EVERYTHING, but I just thought the scene could have been much briefer and still effective.

    One of my favorite things about this book is the way O’Reilly didn’t rely solely on the “he’ll never love me,” “I’m not good enough for her” blues to amp up the emotional conflict when we know perfectly well these two will end up together.  I have become almost viscerally hostile to that trick, and O’Reilly could have stooped to it many, many times but didn’t do so too often. 

    And yeah, the undeniable/uncontrollable attraction trope is perfect for this story, and done extremely well, IMO.  And I really liked this line:  “The cool gray [of his eyes] darkened two shades to midnight, and her nipples tightened two shades to easy.” Of course the fact that Catherine had a relatively healthy relationship to her sexuality made lines like this funny to me rather than sad.  And her moments of self-pity were thankfully few.

    One small thing, though, is that I found a number of typos in both this book and the last one.  In fact, the last one, which I got in ebook, shocked me (some of the sentences didn’t even make sense to me), while this one, which I got in paper, wasn’t nearly as bad but still had some noticeable mistakes.

  15. 15
    Esri Rose says:

    I’ll add this one to my list. It sounds really sweet.

  16. 16
    Chicklet says:

    One small thing, though, is that I found a number of typos in both this book and the last one.  In fact, the last one, which I got in ebook, shocked me (some of the sentences didn’t even make sense to me), while this one, which I got in paper, wasn’t nearly as bad but still had some noticeable mistakes.

    I hear ya, Robin. I’d never read categories before this O’Reilly series, and I kept noticing typos and homophone errors. I realize that the manuscripts go through many hands, so the chances of errors going unnoticed, or noticed but unfixed, is high, but dang. I expect that from fanfic, not a professional publishing house.

  17. 17
    GrowlyCub says:

    I just finished it this morning and it’s fab!  I’m not sure how to describe it but it felt real in a ‘this could real happen’ kinda way.  Wonderful story. 

    Interesting on the typos. I’m usually a real picky reader and I didn’t notice anything at all and I usually bore my friends to death bitching about the lack of proofreading.

    I haven’t read Gabe’s story yet, but right now I can’t see how it can be better.  This was just a fabulous, emotionally engaging read!

    Mad props or something like that. :)

  18. 18
    Carrie Lofty says:

    I didn’t catch any typos either. Am I that bad as a proofer? Or maybe different versions?

  19. 19
    Kate says:

    Hey, props for the Powell’s plug…no, I don’t work there but I love them and love getting to buy independent too.

  20. 20
    Kathleen O'Reilly says:

    Thanks for the review, and thank you for the people that bought and read it.  I apologize for the typos, don’t know the story there, but didn’t notice a lot in the print version, but to be fair, when you read a manuscript four times through, it’s easy to read what words you THINK opt to be there. 

    There’s a story behind the handbag thing.  A friend of mine is a CFO for a brokerage house in Dallas.  Used to work as an auditor for one of the Big 10, Big 8, Big 6?? firms, and she gave me all the stuff on audit jobs and what it would be like.  She’s a great person, very nice, upstanding, with a marvelous sense of fashion, and every year when she comes to NY, she heads down to Canal Street with her co-worker, and they love to bag shop.  I listened to her Canal Street stories for about an hour, and was fascinated by that aspect of her personality.  A very nice, upstanding person who loved the kitschy-esque knock-off-bag shopping.

    I sorta liked that dichotomy of someone who is basically good, but has this weakness for things that aren’t so good for her, like cupcakes, like knock-offs, like Daniel. 

    Sarah is correct on the more unsavoury aspects of the knock-off bag trade, and to be honest, I thought my editor would nuke that particularly unheroic aspect, but she didn’t, so I left it in.  :)

  21. 21
    Jessica says:

    I took this on vacation, and lugged it through 4 airports and 8 hotels.  Loved the hero, but, but I couldn’t stand this phrase (and it’s progeny) repeated three or four (or more?) times in the book – “blood-pumping, bedpost-shaking, hoo-haw-busting sex.”  The first time I could over look, the third or fourth? I wanted to toss the book over the balcony.

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