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REVIEW: Never A Hero by Marie Sexton

Dear Ms. Sexton:

When Sarah Frantz stopped reviewing for Dear Author and took a new position as editor at Riptide Publishing (where she is now Acquisitions Editor), we instituted a one-year moratorium on reviewing books from Riptide. The moratorium ended earlier this month, and a Tucker Springs book seemed like a great way to reacquaint myself with the Riptide list. I’d really enjoyed the Dark Soul series, and while the Tucker Springs books are very different, they are squarely within my preferred m/m sub genre, the contemporary. I wish I could say that my reading experience lived up to my hopes, but there were too many hot buttons and problematic moments for me to enjoy Never A Hero.

Never A Hero cover

The book is narrated in the first person by Owen, a shy, housebound man in his late 20s who is extremely self-conscious about his physical disability. Owen was born with a congenital amputation of his right arm and lacks a hand and forearm (his arm ends a couple of inches below his elbow). The stares and curiosity of strangers have been exacerbated by his mother’s distaste and her unending criticism, which became even more severe in Owen’s teens after she discovered that he was homosexual. Owen’s father was more supportive and loving but he did little to stem the tide of verbal and emotional abuse. Owen escaped by going to college in Tucker Springs and stayed in town after he graduated. He has a computer-based job he does from home, he has his food delivered, and he avoids contact with other people.

When the book opens, Owen is watching his downstairs neighbor, Rachel, move out. Owen has fantasized about Rachel because he thinks that if he is straight and finds a girlfriend his life will improve, and Rachel is right there. Rachel barely knows who he is and doesn’t even know his real name, calling him Erwin when she drops off the extra keys. But Owen is not much better; for all his fantasizing and nights spent listening to Rachel play the piano, he only realizes when he sees her at his door that she is older than he thought and has gray hair. She isn’t a person to him at all, just a symbolic representation of a hypothetically better life.

Rachel moves out and Nick, a handsome, studly veterinarian moves in. The friends who help Nick move are apparently all stars of their own Tucker Springs installments, but I didn’t have any trouble making sense of this book because it focuses almost exclusively on Nick and Owen and their families (there is a third character, Nathan, who appears to be in line for his own book). Providentially, Nick has a sister with the same congenital amputation as Owen, so he is able to ignore Owen’s keep-off-the-lawn signals fairly easily and the two become friendly and flirtatious.

Up to this point I found Owen’s situation a bit over the top in places, but given Tucker Springs is clearly a fantasy world, I tried to go with it. I found it hard to understand how Owen had had the gumption to get out of his home town of Laramie, Wyoming and away from his mother but then didn’t become even a little more sociable and comfortable around people after ten years in Tucker Springs. I also found it hard to believe that someone who has been missing a hand and forearm since birth never found a wallet that he can operate one-handed, never learned to talk to small children about his arm, never learned to eat one-handed. He lives in a state with its share of veterans with amputated limbs, but in a decade he has not made any effort to find a prosthetic that he’s comfortable with. Clearly this setup is designed to let Nick be The One, which made me uncomfortable, but I read on. I’m not a fan of the setup where a disabled person overcomes a belief in his or her unlovability through the love of a non-disabled person, but this book takes a slightly different approach with the introduction of Nick’s sister, June.

June, is your basic Manic Pixie Dream Girl type, adapted for the m/m environment. Whereas Owen shies away from engaging with people or showing his arm in public, June is lively, outgoing, and in-your-face about hers. When a child stares, she tells him it’s the result of a shark attack. She talks Owen into taking piano lessons so that they can learn to play a piece written for one performer as a duet. Meanwhile, Nick persuades Owen to go out to dinner and a party, and Owen slowly starts to emerge from his self-imposed exile.

Unfortunately, when Nick and Owen ‘fess up to their attraction to each other and start to get a little physical, the book goes off the rails. You see, Nick also has a Big Issue, one he has kept secret and which inhibits him from moving forward in a romance with Owen. I’m putting my discussion under the spoiler cut because it is a turning point in the book and potential readers will want to avoid this.

[spoiler]

Nick is HIV-positive and has been for five years. It’s the result of a week-long encounter during a Cancun vacation where the condoms ran out and he and his partner barebacked (apparently Cancun had a condom shortage at that time). Nick feels horribly guilty about his reckless behavior, which has made his family fear for his life and caused his wonderful mother to age ten years.

I found it somewhat problematic that Nick was so obsessed with his own guilt. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, but we all take risks that don’t pay off; it doesn’t mean we deserve it if something bad happens to us. Nick beating himself up for contracting HIV is like a woman who gets raped blaming herself for walking down the “wrong” street. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying all the consequences of those mistakes are deserved is blaming the victim and sends a terrible message, in my opinion.

But that’s not even close to the worst thing about this part of the storyline. First, Nick is a veterinarian, which means he went through a demanding medical-school training. And yet, when he tells Owen the big secret, he first tells him he has AIDS. Then he says that he’s HIV-positive. Throughout the book, HIV and AIDS are used interchangeably, as in sometimes people call Nick’s condition AIDS, sometimes they call it HIV-positive. The idea that in 2012/2013 a gay man who is a doctor of veterinary medicine doesn’t know the difference is astounding to me. It certainly ramps up the angst and causes conflict, but it’s false and misleading to do it this way. Many men live with HIV for years, even decades, without developing AIDS.

Nick can talk about his viral load, but he conflates the difference between a virus and a disease? I sure as hell wouldn’t trust my pets with a veterinarian who makes this kind of error; no wonder he’s keeping it a secret.

Second, Nick gives Owen a blow job before he tells him about his HIV status. This is absolutely a No Go. The fact that he knows his viral load is low and that the risk of transmission is low is beside the point. It’s Owen’s risk to assess, not Nick’s.

Third, there is a scene that feels uncomfortably like the Oppression Olympics when Owen refuses to interact with Nick after the latter tells him about his HIV status. June berates him for being unsupportive:

“You suddenly decided you couldn’t be friends with him because he has HIV? You think you’re too good for him now?”

“No, but I think he should have told me sooner.”

“You have any idea what his privacy means to him? Have you even considered what it’s like for him, being ‘that guy with AIDS’?”

“Maybe a bit like being ‘that guy with one arm.’”

“Yeah, except nobody treats you like you’re contagious.”

I hung my head again, even more ashamed than before.

As a reader, am I supposed to gather from this that having AIDS (actually HIV, which is not immediately visible) is worse than being an amputee? Why is this comparison even being made? Presumably for plot reasons, because Owen gets the message, feels guilty, and makes up with Nick.

[/spoiler]

After this, I had very little interest in whether Owen and Nick overcame their individual and collective traumas and found their HEA, especially since I couldn’t fathom how two such screwed up people could create a healthy, loving relationship. Had it been up to me I would have required psychological counseling for both of them, with an extra dose of anti-narcissism treatment, and then let them reconvene after they made substantial progress. Maybe.

Of course, they do get their HEA, but not before Owen’s Evil Mother and Ineffectual Father show up for their turns on the stage. Owen’s mother is not only as bad as he made her out to be, she’s worse. Take every negative female characterization you’ve seen in an m/m and roll it into one person, and you’ve approximated what is on the page here. It was so extreme a caricature it was almost amusing, except I don’t find one-dimensional, un-nuanced women in m/m amusing. They’re almost always plot devices, ways to ramp up the conflict and bring the main characters together, and that’s the role Evil Mother plays here. Ineffectual Father is mostly pathetic; his Big Secret apparently makes him unable to think of any but the most trivial ways of connecting with his son and deflecting the abuse.

And just in case Evil Mother and Manic Pixie Dream Girl Sister didn’t set my teeth on edge enough, the last paragraph of the book brings back Rachel, only to insult her. Presumably the exchange was supposed to be funny, but with everything that had gone before, it didn’t read that way to me at all. I closed the book feeling as if I’d participated in a pile-on of my gender, which is the last thing I want from a romance, m/m or otherwise. Grade: D

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

12 Comments

  1. cs
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 11:15:55

    Marie Sexton is a hit and miss for me, but all the books in this “Tucker Springs” series has been borderline awful. I have this on my kindle and couldn’t get past the 10% mark. I am also glad I didn’t bother, because this “lets make as many female characters awful” in m/m books has reached a point of no return with me.

  2. Sirius
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 11:31:59

    I graded it higher than you (3.5-4) but mostly because I liked them together. Every single situation that bothered you bothered me as well – what was under spoiler cut kind of infuriated me because I do enjoy this writer’s works a lot and I did not expect that at all. Really and truly not much research is needed to fix that. Mother – Gah do not get me started on her. I kind of felt bad about mother because as much as I hate characters like hers in mm fiction I usually feel that as long as there are other female characters to balance her, I should respect that. I mean evil, abusive women do exist in real life – it is when the only woman in the story is evil and abusive I start seeing red. But she was so very over the top I still hated her. And June who was supposed to balance her was so very annoying in her own right – omg every time she started talking I wanted her to stop.

  3. jeayci
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 11:58:44

    I tend to love Marie Sexton, but agree with cs that the Tucker Springs books – at least the ones I’ve read – have been disappointing. I love all the authors writing it, but I have yet to see why I love them when reading these books. :(

  4. Mary
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 12:36:09

    The one thing that really stood out to me from this review was that Owen was from Laramie, Wyoming. Umm…the same Larmie, Wyoming where Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, brutally beaten and left to die? Because to me Laramie is so closely associated with homophobic violence that it seems like an odd choice of a random town in Wyoming to use for a m/m romance…unless the author mentions it at some point? Am I weird for thinking this is weird?

  5. Sunita
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 13:23:32

    @cs: My tolerance is just about gone as well, and as I wrote on my personal blog a while back, one of the reasons I don’t read as much m/m romance anymore is because when I don’t know the author, I can’t be sure to avoid these kinds of depictions. Nick’s female relatives are positively depicted, but they’re overwhelmed (both in terms of intensity and book focus) by the others.

    @Sirius: I was surprised and disappointed. I’ve heard such good things about other books by the same author that I wasn’t expecting the things that bothered both of us here.

  6. Sunita
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 13:31:04

    @jeayci: It’s a great premise for a series, and I really appreciated that I could come in midway and not feel lost. I wish the execution had worked for me.

    @Mary: It’s only brought up once, when Owen and Nick are exchanging personal information. My eyebrows did go up at the mention of Laramie, because the Shepard murder and the play/movie about it, “The Laramie Project,” are probably what most people know it for now. I wondered if it was also selected because the University of Wyoming is in Laramie, so being from a university town would reinforce how badly Owen needed to get away from home. The other, related tidbit is that Nick is from Grand Junction, which has had a couple of anti-LGBT incidents in the last few years. So maybe it was a way to emphasize that both characters were coming to gay-friendly Tucker Springs from unwelcoming home towns. Or maybe it was just a coincidence.

  7. cleo
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 19:04:20

    I enjoyed this one more than you did but I agree with all the problems you pointed out. This is a book that I like less the more I think about it. The spoiler section was almost a deal breaker for me. I couldn’t believe Nick’s lie of omission was treated so casually. And Owen drove me nuts after that. I’m not a big fans of books where one mc keeps telling the other what they need/feel/want.

    Tucker Springs has been hit and miss for me. In general most of the books have taken on BIG ISSUES but were kind of light weight. But I keep reading them. My fave so far is Dirty Laundry. The initial set up requires a huge suspension of disbelief but the romance worked for me.

  8. Sunita
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 08:30:38

    @cleo: I can totally see how people can enjoy this, because the writing is smooth and there are some nice interactions between the characters. But you’ve nailed my problem with it: if a book is about big issues and doesn’t execute well, that makes me even more frustrated than a light and fluffy book that is set in a fantasy world.

  9. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 08:58:06

    Yikes. I don’t understand how the illness-related mistakes described under the spoiler tags got through the editing process. It doesn’t speak well for any author or publisher of GLBT fiction.

  10. Kaetrin
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 00:00:05

    The evil mother did me in here. I don’t disagree with anything else you said but that was the straw that broke my back. And I didn’t understand why Ineffectual Dad got a pass for letting her get away with it for so long.

    I was annoyed at both Nick and Owen over Nick’s big secret. Nick, for keeping the secret and not sharing with Owen before being intimate with him and also Owen after the fact. To me, Owen’s focus was more on the risk to himself (which with the low viral load, I understand to be (according to studies) “vanishingly small”) rather than that Nick had kept it from him. I didn’t want to see Nick vilified because of his status, but I did want him to get that he should not have kept it from Owen.

    I’ve enjoyed other Tucker Springs books but this one was not a success for me.

  11. Sunita
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 22:21:11

    @Jill Sorenson: I had an early ARC, so I wondered if that aspect was reconciled in the final version, but other reviewers had the same problem. Also, it would have been difficult to fix it and retain its function in propelling conflict.

    @Kaetrin: I agree that Owen’s attitude was less than satisfying, but that seemed to fit with his general difficulty in dealing with real-life stuff. I couldn’t forgive Nick, though; if you want me to respect a main character, he can’t behave like this.

  12. Liz H.
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 01:57:24

    Marie Sexton has always been hit or miss for me, and although Heidi Cullinan (other Tucker Springs author) is usually far more hit, the entire series has primarily been miss.

    I thought that it could be realistic that Owen had social and other anxiety problems as an adult, that he wasn’t comfortable with his amputation or any prosthetics, and that certain daily tasks (wallet, etc.) were difficult when he became stressed. And I read his interaction with Rachel as an immaturity and shallowness that could be “corrected” via character growth as a the story progressed. Unfortunately, that latter wasn’t the case at all. As for the former, although it was *potentially* realistic, how he attended college while dealing with those issues wasn’t addressed, and his almost immediate and miraculous recovery was hugely unrealistic and insulting to those with mental health issues. And failing to deal with his amputation as a separate issue, albeit with mental health impacts, demonstrates again how poorly researched this book was.

    Edited to note- I completely agree with your problems with Nick and the mother.

    As you said, books that take on heavy issues and then deal with them lightly, or not at all, are far worse than light and fluffy books that don’t take on anything at all.

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