Review: Playing It Cool by Joaquin Dorfman

Playing It Cool Book Cover Playing It Cool
Joaquin Dorfman

Sebastian Montero is famous around town as a problem solver of the subtlest kind. Want a date with the girl of your dreams? Bastian can make it happen. Have a friend threatening suicide? Baz can talk him off the ledge. With his elaborate network of favors and debts, Sebastian is calm, composed, and untouchable.

But all of that was before.

Before he left his home turf for the unfamiliar town of Wilmington. Before he switched identities with a desperate and high-strung friend. Before he met dark-haired, cold-shouldered Christina. And before he matched wits with Dromio, the man who has all of Wilmington in his back pocket – and who just might hold the key to the one nagging doubt that Sebastian hasn’t been able to silence.

In a world of quid pro quo, everything comes with a price. And Sebastian’s about to raise the stakes.

Review:

I think I liked this book, but I’m not really sure.

I’ve spent the entire afternoon trying to decide how I feel about Playing It Cool, and that’s the closest I’ve come to a conclusion. The plot is interesting, and I had a hard time putting the book down, but there’s something about this novel that just feels off.

Take the main character, for example. In theory, Sebastian Montero should be my dream protagonist. He’s a schemer, his mind always working a mile a minute. He can solve just about any problem and charm his way out of any situation. He is always wheeling and dealing, always one step ahead of the game.

The problem, though, is that he’s so cool and efficient that he doesn’t feel like a teenage boy – he feels like an unapproachable, high-power CEO. He’s too smooth, too aloof, too crisp, too…much.Rather than swooning after him, as I have other clever scamps in fiction (Eugenides, Locke Lamora, Dodger, etc.), I simply admired him, and only at a distance. I wish he could be both brilliant AND relatable.

There are a few lucky moments when Dorfman manages to make Sebastian feel a little more human, and these moments, combined with an interesting plot, got me through the book.

I liked that there’s little to no down time in this novel. The action starts on page one and doesn’t slow down until the conclusion. There isn’t really an intro in which the characters are formally introduced or the background is laid out; you just get dropped in the middle of the story and figure out the personalities and set-up as you go. It’s very effective.

Something that I didn’t like is that the writing is a little pretentious for my taste. Part of this could be to match Sebastian’s suave demeanor, but whatever the reason it just made me roll my eyes at times. The book reads almost like the narration in an old black and white noir film. When I read certain sections I couldn’t help imagining a smoky-voiced private eye speaking the words while melancholy saxophones played in the background. I think this has something to do with Dorfman’s diction – there are lots of short, choppy sentences and matter-of-fact observations. For example: “Train whistle in the distance. All the deceptive makings of a small town in North Carolina. I got out of the car, shut the door to the passenger’s side. Jeremy got out of the backseat. Headed for the house.” Strange, no?

Something else that bothered me is that I’m not sure what my reaction is supposed to be now that I’ve finished this novel. I feel like there’s a message Dorfman wants the reader to get, but I have no idea what that message is. Am I supposed to admire Sebastian? Be wary of him? Are there characters in the book that I should consider good role models? Bad ones? I’m a little confused, and I don’t like feeling that way.

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