In Australia last weekend, we had the Bathurst 1000. I guess it's like our Daytona 500, except with a much better shaped track, and the added complication of potentially hitting a kangaroo. (No joke, Google it). I usually have it on in the background as I go about my day, but I watched it more closely this year since I was with people who actually knew its intricacies, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It also reignited my love of racing romances, and I remembered that I never got around to finishing Audra North's Hard Driving series about stock car racing, despite really enjoying the first one.
So I picked up Shifting Gears, the second in the series. It features Grady Hart, who has been running the family-based Hart Racing since his father died. But it's not a natural fit, and he's happy to be able to hand over a lot of the responsibility to his future brother-in-law, Ranger Colt (Ranger and Grady's sister Kerri are the couple of Book #1), and to start his own business making carbon fibre car parts. But first, he and Ranger have two positions to fill: team manager and crew chief.
Annabelle Murray has returned home to live with her mother after the breakdown of her marriage. After years of her ex-husband and her mother tearing her down, she's decided that she wants to be someone - and do something - significant, and when Grady's mother puts her forward for one of the jobs at Hart Racing, she has the chance she's been waiting for. Grady and Annabelle are both trying to make something of themselves, and the sparks that are flying have the potential to get in the way.
My favourite part of Shifting Gears was Annabelle's characterisation. Raised as a Southern belle, she took over her alcoholic husband's garage by necessity and realised her long-time desire to work with cars. Her self-esteem has taken a serious hit from her no-good husband and old-fashioned mother, but she challenges the negative thoughts she has about herself and endeavours to be independent and assertive.
As much as I loved Annabelle and her character arc, her negative self-perception drops off quite drastically quite early on, and I'm acutely aware that it's not that easy to shake. I wish that the we'd been able to see her struggle with it for longer, or that her fight against self-doubt had featured more strongly. Instead, they just kind of fade away without comment, and the focus switches to her fear of dependency.
But, as with the other two books in the series, North depicts the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated environment very well, and this was another highlight (or the same one, perhaps, since it still centres on Annabelle). Grady's impulse was to intervene in scenarios where Annabelle was being treated differently because of her gender, and I liked watching him learn to manage this. I haven't spoken much about Grady, but he had his own stuff going on, particularly feelings that he failed his family and the team while he was managing Hart Racing.
However, while Annabelle and Grady each had plenty of internal conflict, none of it went external until the very end. Then everything is cleaned up again quite quickly and, before you know it, we're in the epilogue. So, loved the racing aspect, liked the characters, but there were a few elements that could have been drawn out a bit more.