Keepin' It Real
by Leslie Esdaile, contemporary (2005)
Dafina, $6.99, ISBN 0-7582-0859-6


I flinch whenever romance authors tackle reality TV shows because it's all about the cosmic rule where women aren't allowed to be famous in show business because Hollywood is Evil and Shallow. That's the main reason, the other being most romance authors just cannot portray a reality TV show halfway decently. Keepin' It Real is a romance story revolving around the filming of a reality TV show and it presents a nearly credible setting. The author also doesn't overdo the soapbox so this book should have been that rare book set in showbiz that makes sense. So what went wrong?

Natasha Ward is a TV producer who is about to embark on a career make-or-break moment: she'll be supervising the production of her brainchild, a ten-episode date/game reality TV show called Keepin' It Real where ten men vie for the attention of five women on a cruise ship. This show has scenery, since the contestants are on a cruse to the Caribbean. However, Natasha encounters a snag: one of the contestants, Tyrell Ramsey, has eyes only for her. Tyrell wants the money to help save his ailing independent record company Off Da Meter Records and to give the musical acts under his label some publicity while he's on the show. The money is pretty good, unheard of even (and therefore unrealistic): all contestants are paid twenty-five grand upfront and gets an extra ten grand every week he makes the cut. Bewilderingly enough, this also means that it's a $25,000 prize money for the couple that make it to the end. Therefore, Keepin' It Real is a befuddling concept: it pays contestants at an unheard of sum just for participating, but for a game show, the prize money at the end is pitiful.

Oh well, but that's the least of this book's problems. The premise of the TV show is pretty interesting and unlike many reality TV shows concocted by romance authors, Keepin' It Real is one I may just watch if it's real. The author also acknowledges issues like production tampering by the producers and edits for the sake of creating drama, while presenting a credible scenario of the logistics and set-up involved in creating such a TV show. However, maybe in the name of creative license, Ms Esdaile ignores issues like confidentiality statements by having friends and families of the contestants interacting with the contestants and the producers. She also presents drama in a reality TV show as something negative and undesirable. Natasha talks about how her bosses will love it when the show has drama, for example, but Ms Esdaile also makes sure that someone gives Natasha's conscience a kick whenever she wants to leave some drama into the final version of an episode for the sake of drama. Also, this show is shown on TV at the same time that the contest is taking place. This isn't Big Brother where part of the big business is the sale of live feeds, so there is no way Keepin' It Real can make its debut on TV even when production of the show is still going on.

I know, I know, you're telling me now, "Oh dear, do you know how much you come off like one of those creepy no-life Laura Kinsale fans out there constantly going on and on about how a book sucks because the author addresses so-and-so using the wrong title? Who cares about real life? This is fiction! How's the romance?"

I'm sorry to say that Natasha and Tyrell have very little time alone. They are, after all, in a cruise ship with the cameras rolling and five women and ten men fighting for space and the limelight at the same time. The romance, as a result, is underdeveloped. All I know is that Tyrell thinks Natasha is beautiful and she thinks he's gorgeous and funny. That's all there is to the relationship depicted in this story and the one moment Ms Esdaile manages to squeeze in a love scene feels gratuitous.

The secondary characters are one-dimensional in a predictable and therefore not very good way. The most beautiful woman is of course the most superficial one. The rich men and women from working class roots are often the "real" ones, the "good guys", while those who aren't are portrayed as shallow and even nasty. You can always count on the salon owner as the "good" person, for example, while of course the lawyer is a boor. None of the author's deft hand at realistic characters is evident in this book. As for me, I actually find the "good women" in this book supremely obnoxious because they think they are "keepin' it real" by saying everything that enters their head without applying any filter and then get upset and even defensive when someone calls them on it. If they can't take what they dish out, then they'd best stuff it, that's what I always say.

Tyrell is a solid guy at first. He's a nice guy who wants to make his business a success. But because this story barely develops him as a character, he ends up being just this very nice guy with great abs who gives it good to his lady in bed. Natasha, however, is the biggest disappointment to me. As a heroine, she's very weak. It's bad enough that she has very little sense of humor and her role in this story sees her reacting so often to Tyrell by frowning in disapproval that she comes off as rather boorish. However, when things spiral out of control, Natasha either does not know what to do or has her decisions overridden by her underlings. Now, I'm all for a democratic TV producer but when Natasha ends up following their suggestions as much as she does in this book, she comes off as pretty incompetent and unfit to be a TV producer. Fortunately, the author allows the heroine to make a correct decision that saves her own career as well as those working under her so Natasha is somewhat redeemed by the end of this book.

Ms Esdaile also seems a little confused at times though during the story because sometimes she has Natasha moaning about how terrible it is to manipulate people on a reality TV show but on the other hand, she rewards Natasha with great success in that same business by the end of the book. I wonder which is which, really, because Ms Esdaile is sending some mixed messages through Natasha.

Ultimately, Keepin' It Real should have been good but the main characters are underwritten and their romance all but trampled completely by five couples - many of these couplings include really loud and obnoxious women that distract me from the main couple - fighting for space with their antics. The ending is really rushed and hits me out of the blue. Keepin' It Real should have kept it simpler and the character count lower. Or, if you ask me, make Natasha a contestant rather than the producer because at least then Ms Esdaile will have more space devoted to the main romance and the romance will also be more believable.

Rating: 74


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