Friday, 10 October 2014

Books About Boys Who Love Sport and Other Boys.

A funny thing happened on the way to the rest of my life – I skipped being a teen. Not the awful bit where you hide in your room lonely and scared, terrified if anyone discovers the real you they’ll turn away in disgust. Every teen feels that to varying degrees. I’m talking about the other bit; the having crushes and telling your closest friends about those crushes, bit.

I know a lot of teen crushes end in tears, humiliation or crippling bouts of unrequited love, but it’s still part of the teenage experience, unless you’re so repressed you hide your true feelings from even yourself.

That’s where I was until I was seventeen. I was so repressed the idea of being gay genuinely never crossed my mind. I was just a bit disappointed in love; it seemed completely overrated. It was before a time when anyone dared suggest a gay person shared any characteristics with a straight person.

The gay men with 'out profiles' that we usually get to see, certainly on film and TV, have always tended to be loud, comic and therefore unthreatening to the straight community. This is slowly changing, but it's taking a long, long time.

So when I had a dream about a naked Luke Halprin, the young twink from the original Flipper series, lying naked next to me in my bed, my hand brushing his perfect arse, it caught me by surprise.

I was seventeen and I woke feeling more alive than I’d ever felt. Then my mind caught up and I realised what this uncensored dream meant. I instantly found all of society’s negative, shameful, and often subtle forms of contempt, ridicule and disrespect about being gay crashing down on me.

It’s funny to look back on such an innocent dream as a pivotal moment, but that’s how I finally realised, or at very least suspected I was gay. I was in my second last year of high school. The next six weeks felt like every step I took was through shattering glass. Surely every one could tell? I have no memory of anything from that time for months after except fear, desperation and confusion.

I failed that year and had to repeat. No one knew I was struggling. I just got grief for not working hard enough. I threw myself into football and became fearless on the field to prove a point to myself. I went through five years of denial, hiding so far within even I didn’t know how to find myself. Things only changed when I was twenty two because a young man pursued me, not because I found the courage to be myself on my own. I’ve already blogged about that to some extent in another post here.

That’s the ‘Readers Digest’ version of my coming out experience and how I jumped from being sixteen to twenty two with only secrets, stealth and solitude in between.

Maybe that’s why I’ve spent the last few months travelling back in time, in an emotional sense, to regain, recapture and vicariously relive those lost experiences through a number of coming out/coming of age novels.

And I thought I'd blog about it and list the books I'd read because I'll never forget how hard those lost years were and I understand why some young men and woman don't make it through - but sharing experiences really does help. It helps to know you are not alone and maybe that first step can be a book, maybe an anonymous stranger online - anything is better than feeling you are totally alone.

I first stumbled onto a story about a sportsloving gay boy coming of age with ‘Barracuda’ a new book from Christos Tsiolkas, one of my favourite authors – and that made me go out and search for novels in the coming of age/coming out genre, with a particular slant towards sports loving gay men trying to find themselves.

It seems only fair to review all I read for others who may enjoy or be seeking the same type of story or those needing an emotionally healing experience. If you’re at that between stage – the “I’m never acting on my feelings and never telling anyone about them” stage – and you’re worried being spotted reading such a book or even having it found on you may unwittingly ‘out’ you, then download the audio book, change the file name and quietly listen on a player or phone without anyone ever knowing.

Just be warned, all of these, to some extent, are empowering and inspiring stories that may leave you with the courage to stand up and let others know who you really are with a defiant, unapologetic attitude.

Talk to someone or at very least read!

These books are not in order of my favourites, rather in the order I read them, but I will put them in order of enjoyment at the end of the post. All of them have plenty to offer and will be related to and liked by everyone in a different order. I’ll do my best to outline the good and bad within each without giving away any important spoilers. 

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas:

Christos Tsiolka is a great Australian writer and someone I have come to rely on to excite or annoy me, but never leave me apathetic to his writing. He is probably best known for his books, “Head On”

– about a young Greek man coming to terms with his sexuality - also made into a film, along with,

 And his book “The Slap” – recently made into an Australian TV mini-series.

Barracuda is the story of Danny Kelly, the first born son of an Irish truck driver and a Greek mother who struggle to support their family. Danny displays outstanding athletic ability as a swimmer and is given a scholarship to an elite school and a top level coach.

Tsiolkas likes to shock and he does it well and truly with Barracuda. From calling the elite scholarship school, “Cunt’s College”, to extraordinary raw and animalistic sex scenes between an older Danny and his male lover. Sometimes it feels like he’s shocking for shock’s sake and not as a product of story, but it’s written with such a visceral realism towards sex that while often raw and brutal, you end up being forced to admit this is an accurate description and not the sanitised romantic version portrayed in so many books and films.

Danny’s plight can really only be fully understood if you are from a country where elite swimmers are idolised. Perhaps in other countries football, baseball or any other elite sport that an entire nation stops to watch and that many young people spend their lives trying to qualify for would be more appropriate to draw as a parallel.

In Australia swimming makes millionaires of the successful and gives them a life-long sports idol status. You train at club level and then advance through state, national and finally international competitions. International is then divided into regional, Commonwealth, World Championships and Olympic Games. Fail at any one of these levels and all those years of training, getting up at four, sacrificing social life, dieting, hours in a gym, studies to improve technique and on and on it goes – are forfeited in a moment and the young athlete is forever reduced to a failure or a footnote.

Even many minor medalists at major international events are quickly forgotten. This is the backdrop to Barracuda; what happens to a young man who is told by so many he is the best; who believes he is the best and dedicates his youth to that imagined future and then fails?

At such a young age he has no way to cope with this unexpected, public and sudden failure. It’s a remarkable story, realistic to a terrifying degree as a psychological study of a driven teenager promised and told by so many he’s feted – only to fall short. And we know he fell short from page one as time shifts deliver our end at the beginning. Danny’s failure is not the story here - it’s how he picks himself back up and reconciles his life.

The parallels to so many young people in a world touting success as a right in a world that seems to promise every single one of us attention from the earliest age are clear. We raise the hopes of our young and make them think fame is the norm, rather than the exception and this is where Barracuda becomes a modern parable in so many ways.

Danny’s gayness never appears as a young man. He’s surrounded by physical perfection in locker rooms and pools, naked male flesh and near naked speedo clad boys of all ages clutter his world for so many years, but his focus at that age is only ever about success; he has no time for distractions, like sex.

Tsiolkas jumps back and forward in time and sometimes into the middle of Danny’s journey as we get pieces of Danny’s life from his successful schoolboy swimming career, to his lost transition years after his failure and his final current day self as an angry gay man desperately trying to work through his pain and loss. Danny has a primitive drive in him to love and be love and he finds a purpose in life looking after other young men who have come to be trapped in handicapped or mentally impaired bodies after illness or injury. Ironically it is his swimming that saves him.

Barracuda left me feeling desolate and lonely. It’s not a pick me up book, but for anyone who wants to purge regret or journey promise towards an understanding of true personal success, this is a good place to begin. It will leave you unsettled, but its residual will have you unravelling transformative revelations towards life for months to come. 

A Better Place, by Mark A Roeder

A Better Place, is unashamedly about love; schmaltzy, melodramatic, all encompassing love. Brendan is the captain of the football team and Casper is the anonymous, braniac waif who has cultivated a skill to go unnoticed.

There’s good and bad to talk about here – if you like melodrama, if you’re a fan of big emotional twists rather than any skilful revealing of character depth then you’ll enjoy this book. The biggest twists come from outside the characters, a sexually abusive brother, two students driven to suicide through bullying before we ever hear of them, homophobic, alcoholic parents living lives of regret at squandered promise and gay curing clinics that torture and allow patients to be abused by carers – this has it all and more.

By the time I got to the boys who had suicided I must admit to an eye roll or two, but the driving love story of two boys who need to be together and school friends who are unexpectedly, most anyway, accepting – makes this a fun read through a world that is scattered with attitudes raging from old fashioned intolerance to total acceptance of two boys who fall in love and must defy parents and authorities to stay together.   

Temptation University, by Mark A Roeder

Temptation University continues the story of Casper and Brendan. That makes it like revisiting old friends, but it doesn’t have a great deal to say beyond being a feel good, titillating exploration of young love. It twists itself back in story terms to arrive where we began, Brendan and Casper in love having withstood the temptations of a long distance relationship.

This book, unlike the first, changes points of view from the two lovers. A Better Place swapped between accounts of Brendan and Casper’s journey, but here we swap between Brendan and a second gay couple set up in the first book. So rather than exploring a long distance relationship between the protagonists of the first book, we now share half of that story and begin another through the eyes of Casper’s good friend.

Regardless, the book stays true to its title, offering lots of temptation for boys in their prime and now comfortable with their sexuality.

The Geography Club, by Brent Hartinger

The Geography Club is another high school star athlete meets geeky boy love story. Here the sparks fly through a series of four books. Brent Hartinger does a great job of telling a hopeful tale of being a gay teenage boy battling to come out and be accepted while still at school. It’s closer to reality than similar tales in that it’s not always a smooth journey, but it’s still slightly sanitized compared to reality, but that's only to preserve the overall feel good, uplifting message.

Russell is cute but geeky. Kevin is the star of the baseball team. This is Russell’s story because Russell is the braver of the two. Maybe he’s also the one more likely to be called out as gay and therefore more likely to stand up and admit it. Often young men hiding behind a traditionally straight activity like athletics, take longer to come out because it’s easier for them to hide – and this is the journey these two leads take in this series of books. Russell pushes to be himself, often taking risks that could lead to the relationship with his closeted jock boyfriend being outed. Kevin pushes back and finally walks away, giving Russell up rather than risk being found out.

The book has also been made into a film - there are some changes but it's still worth watching.

Rent it on Itunes!

The Order of The Poison Oak, by Brent Hartinger - (Russel Middlebrook series, book #2)

This second book adds a confronting and unexpected twist that forces Russell into a situation where he has to accept people who are different. As the counsellor in a children’s burns victim camp, Russell is suddenly one of the ‘normal’ people who must treat his emotionally and physically scarred kids as regular people and not victims or people to pity. It’s a really clever piece of storytelling to force Russell to see how ignorance and judgement of people on a superficial level is such an easy thing to be guilty of. Of course Russell learns many lessons and eventually emerges as a far better person and with a new boyfriend. 

Double Feature. Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (Russel Middlebrook series, book #3), by Brent Hartinger.

The third book in the Russell Middlebrook series is split into two halves with each half narrated by a different character, the first by Russell, the second by his BFF gal pal Min. Double feature is set against the making of a low budget B grad horror movie and it allows Russell to reconnect with Kevin and learn how hard he’s taken losing Russell from his life. (Don’t we all wish ex’s came to that revelation?)

The lengths Kevin is willing to go to in an effort to win Russell back are extreme and just when he has Russell ready to leave his new boyfriend, Kevin inexplicably turns into a complete douche bag and reveals he doesn’t really love Russell at all. He just wanted to see if he could get him back, like some sort of game – which he did, so he wins. It doesn’t feel right in storytelling terms or in character terms... it’s just not the character of Kevin we’ve come to admire across three books - but that’s the point.

The second feature is Min’s story, travelled alongside Russell’s and intersecting at all the pivotal moments, but now with explanations of what was really happening and why people behaved or acted as they did.

By the end of the book Russell is still with his new boyfriend, but Kevin, now revealed to be badly pining for him, is redeemed as the prince we always knew he was and worthy of Russell’s love, even if Russell now hates him for what he thinks he’s done. But given what we know that Russell doesn’t, we so want these two to get back together!

The Elephant of Surprise, by Brent Hartinger. (Russel Middlebrook series, book #4)

The Elephant of Surprise is where it all comes together and Russell painfully learns all the pain Kevin’s been through, emotionally and physical. Pain Russell ignored while caught up in his new life. When he discovers the truth the long overdue reunion of the two original lovers is worth waiting for.

It completes Kevin’s rocky coming out journey that’s taken him from most popular jock in school to ‘that gay guy’, but he ends up knowing his friends, the ones who stuck by and supported him are real friends and not just hangers on. My only criticism of the entire series comes in this, book #4, where Russell and his friends get caught up with some environmentalists and thwart an act of environmental terrorism. It just felt a little famous five ala “The comic strip presents” – “Blah, blah, blah, terrorists, blah, blah, blah, the old water tower, blah, blah, blah, explosives!”

My gut feeling is the story of the boys getting back together may not have sustained a whole book so an exciting plot involving outside influences was added. It’s still a very good series, titillating while never losing a G rating, but empowering to anyone, masculine or not, sporty or not, who is looking for something they can relate to and help them feel better about themselves and smile for a while.

Out of the Pocket, by Bill Konigsberg.

Bobby Framingham is the best quarterback his school has ever seen. He wants to go to a college on a scholarship and then on to play pro. But recently he’s been having dreams and thoughts about other guys. Thoughts and feelings he can’t stop. Unable to deal with being trapped in his closet, he tells his most trusted friend. That friend tells his most trusted friend and so on until the school reporter gets hold of the story and outs the star.

This is a more realistic coming out story and one I’ve heard many times, minus the superstar athlete as the lead character. But many people are outed before they’re ready and this is a really thoughtful telling of how this young man deals with everything that comes after.

It’s an emotional coming out and coming of age journey and one that doesn’t concentrate at all on romance or sex. This is about an internal struggle that becomes public before it should have. Incredibly uplifting and empowering and hits all the right beats, the story could possibly be better categorised as the making of a gay activist.

Out of the Pocket concentrates on a positive coming out story while raising all the appropriate issues concerning friends, family and the public at large that can make the journey seem harrowing. Ultimately it leaves you demanding the right for everyone to be allowed to be who they really are and thankful to those brave enough to lead the charge. 

Out of Position, by Kyell Gold.

Dev is a football player at Forrester University and he’s good. The team captain, the quarterback and the reason the team wins. He’s the big man on campus. But his teammates have a history of being homophobic and causing Lee’s good friend and first boyfriend to drop out and flee the university in fear. To get back at the team and to get some sort of revenge, Lee dons his ladyboy personae and lures Dev into bed. It’s a great setup and takes a whole book to explain all the intricacies of what comes next, but Dev and Lee fall head over heels and activist Lee jumps back into the closet to allow Dev’s secret to remain hidden.

Kyell Gold is a great writer, writing in a fairly obscure niche market. Furries are a type - a fetish, often sexual, sometimes not, where the person becomes an animal they feel paired with. I have met dogs of various breeds and a wolf, but here we have a fox and a tiger.

There is a mental jump you have to make if you are not a furry and want to enjoy this book, but, take out the full-on sex scenes and I found it no different to any of the anthropomorphic stories, such as Watership Down, Animal Farm or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In fact, after the first few chapters, once I had bought in, the different breeds lend themselves perfectly to athletes as types – some svelte fast and sleek, some rugged and ferocious. I saw in each species people I knew or knew of, from the enormous, dim witted, but gentle bears to stallions trained to race at speed.

If you relate to being an animal or already have your selected furry gear in your wardrobe, rejoice! If you need to make the leap and equate specie types to humans then you may need to prepare yourself for some very explicit descriptions of animal sex. The knots are tying, the sheaths distending and fur is flying at every opportunity in very raw, x rated scenes. The skill of the writer means that none of it seems out of place as Dev and Lee’s relationship rings true with smooth and rough waters navigated alike and a few ridiculously trivial niggles that blow up into major relationship threatening moments that those in relationships would recognise only so well.

I won’t give away any more of the story, but it’s an emotional moment that comes close to the final scene from the movie Rudy – a scene any sports fan should know and love. It’s the same, but completely different and here it’s the culmination of the journey of a gay man finding the courage in the last bastion of the masculine world to think itself void of gay men – football.  

Something Like Summer, by Jay Bell

Something Like Winter, by Jay Bell

Something Like Summer/Winter is the story of a teenage romance between two boys, Ben and Tim. Ben is the cute, anonymous kid at school that should be popular but isn’t and Tim is the new kid from another school who arrives at the beginning of the final year. He’s a jock and instantly clicks with the cool kids, but he has no history at this new school so he’s free to be who he wants to be. Of course both boys share a secret – they’re gay and a chance encounter delivers them the opportunity to explore those feelings in privacy without anyone else ever knowing.

The two books are the same story told from the perspective of each of the main characters and for once I think this choice works. The story follows each character over a twelve year period. At some points the characters fall out of each other’s orbits for years at a time and then reconnect years later and it is this that makes the two sides of the narrative work so well. We are not simply getting the same story twice, but a story that intersects and is shared before going off in wildly different directions.

The themes here are regret, missed opportunity and the rewards and costs of personal bravery.

The initial coming together and closeted love and sex between a young man willing to admit he’s gay and another adamant that he isn’t, rang true and is mirrored in many first gay experiences. The charm of this book is in a couple who should have been together from high school but gave in to pressure and split rather than reveal themselves as openly gay.

This is a well written tear-jerker with a great story and great characters. The final major plot twist is a little on the nose. You can see it coming a mile off, but you forgive it because you know it’s the only way the couple you want to be together can be together. There are some other moments concerning Tim’s attempts to win Ben back that feel foreign to the character, but the author does a good job of explaining these away as results of deep personal regret for past decisions and desperation to halt a life spinning out of control.

Something Like Winter does contain one of the best and most believable platonic love stories between an older and younger man and highlights the quality of the writing and the depth of the relationships being explored.

The ‘Something Like’ series has a third and forth instalment that I will get to in time and add reviews, but the first two were a joy to read and delivered a feel good ending to a point, (those on team Jace will know what I’m talking of), but it is still well worth the effort and a very emotionally powerful read.  

Tales from Foster High, by John Goode.

Tales from Foster High is a story that feels more like high school. Kids who come out get bullied and beaten. The cool kids sit at the cool table in the middle of everything and geeky kids get relegated to weird alcoves so they can hide and eat their lunch in peace. Kyle is the smartest nerd at Foster and Brad is the kid every other kid wants to be. When Brad seeks Kyle out for some help with schoolwork Kyle is shocked the king of all students even knows his name, but he’s in for a much bigger surprise when they get alone in a bedroom together.

Tales from Foster high ticks a lot of boxes that seem to be shared within the niche of the jock/nerd coming out/coming of age story. The popular jock is abused by the neglect of rich parents who are too busy to notice or care properly for their son, giving that character two masks, the first being the Jock who has everything at school and nothing at home, the second mask being closeted and the geek comes from a broken or abusive home and does everything possible to go unnoticed.

Tales from Foster high does something slightly different after the initial coming out journey is travelled - it teams the young boyfriends up as activists to fight the decision by the parent/teacher association to remove Brad from the team.

This gives ‘Tales’ a mystery/sleuth type format as the two join forces and gather evidence to argue and win their case, but it also delivers a triumphant ending that finally allows some neglectful parents, living lives of regret at their own failures, to rise to the occasion and reclaim some hero status. Tales from Foster High is lighter than some others, but it still has powerful moments and delivers a message that coming out, despite any initial hardships, really does make your life better.

My personal order of enjoyment:

1/            Out of Position, by Kyell Gold.
2/            Out of the Pocket, by Bill Konigsberg.
3/            The Geography Club, by Brent Hartinger
4/            Something Like Summer, by Jay Bell (You really have to read this and                     ‘Winter’ together)  
5/            Something Like Winter, by Jay Bell
6/            Double Feature. Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of                         the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (Russel Middlebrook series, book #3),              by Brent Hartinger.
7/            Tales from Foster High, by John Goode.
8/            The Order of The Poison Oak, by Brent Hartinger - (Russell                                      Middlebrook series, book #2)
9/            A Better Place, by Mark A Roeder
10/         The Elephant of Surprise, by Brent Hartinger. (Russel Middlebrook                            series, book #4)
11/         Temptation University, by Mark A Roeder

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas doesn’t get onto the list because I can’t really place it within young adult coming of age/out fictions. Barracuda is certainly a coming of age story and a beautifully written, gut wrenchingly real story about a young, violent and angry protagonist – who happens to be gay.

The story is really nothing about his coming out journey. I’d still encourage it be read, but if you read it for a sports/coming out tale you’d be disappointed. On every other level it’s worth reading and would have to, in all honesty, go straight to the top of my list.


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