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REVIEW: I Just Play One on TV by A.L. Turner

Dear Ms. Turner.

I read your book back in August and loved it, but it’s taken me a while to get back to it for review. Reading it a second time, I still loved it and it surprised me anew with its complexity and how much I loved the characters.

I Just Play One on TV by A.L. TurnerThe story is told from Vince’s first person perspective. And he’s just wonderful. He’s in LA as an aspiring actor and interviews for two roles in one day: the “straight” man on a horrible sitcom, and a character in a high-concept sci-fi show with a multicultural ensemble cast. He auditions with Alex for the sci-fi show, things click on the stage and personally, but they’re both convinced they won’t get the roles. They have an out-of-character-for-both-of-them one night stand after the audition and are shocked weeks later when they find themselves working together. The problem is that Alex is deeply in the closet professionally and personally and Vince isn’t. And Vince doesn’t do one night stands (much). So despite their mutual attraction and Vince’s huge crush on Alex, they don’t get together and don’t get together. And don’t get together. And they channel all their tension and frustration into their characters who are really close “friends” that Vince and Alex play with a strong gay subtext. These characters don’t get together and don’t get together as well.

Vince and Alex finally get together a quarter of the way through the book. This is NOT an erotic romance, by the way. It’s certainly a m/m romance, but it’s not erotic at all. Most of the sex scenes are fade to black and close the door and come back after it’s all over. Which is actually rather frustrating, considering the sexual tension that Vince and Alex (and their characters, James and Matt) create and sustain for so long.

Once they’re together, the tension comes from their differences about being in or out of the closet. Vince goes back into the closet for Alex — much to the very vocal disgust of his friends and family — but it’s a constant tension in their actual relationship, as we see when Vince invites Alex to go home to Chicago with him for Christmas. Alex agrees, then freaks out in the airport when they’re recognized by another actor. He eventually makes it to Chicago and Vince forgives him, but the tension is real and Vince just doesn’t GET why Alex insists on the closet so strongly, while at the same time Vince wants to push the gay subtext in the show to text because he believes its Important.

One of the joys of this book for me, especially reading it the second time, was really seeing how Vince came to understand Alex’s viewpoint on the closet. Alex has a horrific coming out story that just gets more and more damaging every time he tries to come out. Whenever he tries, it’s been awful for him, and as Vince stays with him (and the story takes place over more than a year), Vince comes to understand and even agree with Alex’s perspective, against his own political and personal beliefs. Readers shouldn’t worry, though, because Alex comes to understand Vince’s perspective as well and they get their HEA when Alex blows the doors off his closet in about as public a way as possible.

The closet issue also means, maybe counter-intuitively, that this book is incredibly complex emotionally. The heroes get together, break up, get back together, break up, and then finally get back together again, completely remade. And this isn’t the “I love you, I hate you, I love you” of bodice rippers and Harlequin Presents. This is deep commitment to the relationship that’s torn apart by two personalities that need very different things, who are then unable to stay apart because they need each other more, who are then torn apart again by different choices and issues, who finally find their way back to each other in ways that will sustain the relationship.

I also really REALLY love the writing. I loved Vince because he’s so open and honest. I loved Alex because he’s so confused and scared. And the writing itself is sparse and perfect:

We cleaned up the mess we’d made of the apartment and then showered — together — kissing and touching and cleaning each other. Once we were out, he tied his towel around his waist and went back out into the living area, turning on the stereo system low and turning out most of the lights. I stood in the living room, naked, and watched him, wondering if he wanted me to leave.

When he saw me, he went still, becoming nothing but a shadow in the dimness of the night lights and streetlights and the blue glow of the stereo control screen. He finally moved — to set down the remote — and walked towards me. I didn’t let myself back away or hide myself. If he wanted to regret this, if he wanted to be horrified by it, that was his problem, not mine. Better I know now than have to wonder.

He stopped just inches away, his eyes on mine, his expression motionless.

I didn’t say anything.

Then he unknotted his towel and let it drop to the floor, and he slid his hands up my arms to my shoulders, slowly curling around as he went, savoring the caress. My whole body shuddered and he whispered, “Stay tonight?”

Definitely,” I said. Forever, I thought.

He pushed his fingers deep into my hair and touched his forehead to mine, softly and more intimately than a kiss. I could feel his breath on my face as he said, “Good. That’s good.”

He led the way up to his loft bedroom. Up here, the bedside lamp was on. The covers were folded back, showing inviting white sheets. Alex had speakers up here, so the low-key music purred in the background. Candles, unlit, stood on the nightstand.

He stopped by the nightstand and turned, watching me take in the room, his expression tight and unhappy. “It’s too much, right?”

“No,” I said. “No, it’s…” Ridiculously, amazingly, shockingly romantic. For once, though, I was literally lost for words. Even as I screamed for joy inside, my heart broke at how afraid he was, and how uncertain. What he must have been thinking about, worrying about.

He took it the wrong way. “Sorry, I know it’s — I don’t know what I was thinking — I mean, I haven’t ever — You’re a guy, I’m a guy, it’s stupid — ”

He was picking up the candles as if to stash them away when I reached him and caught his hands, pushing them down until the candles were back where they’d started and he’d let go of them. Now I had his attention again.

“Alex,” I said, “Stop. Take a deep breath.”

He did, and I felt him relax. I kissed him, first with just my lips, lightly and quickly across the seam of his mouth, then deeper, exploring him, taking my time, not letting him pull away or hasten things. I kept kissing him until I could feel him understanding it and relaxing into it, savoring the languid sensuality.

I didn’t know how to explain it to him, all of that crap about gender stereotypes, and expectations, and romance. I didn’t know how to tell him how thrilled I was without sounding pacifying or patronizing.

For possibly the first time in my life, I realized that the best thing to say may be nothing at all.

I lit the candles and turned off the lamp before I joined him in his bed.

My one quibble is that after watching these men through so much, the ending was very abrupt. I wanted to see them enjoy being back together, even for just a little epilogue. The final image is beautiful, sure, but there’s been so much angst and heartache and time apart, so much finality to their split, and so much careful dealing throughout the rest of the book with fallout of decisions, that I wished for a glimpse of them beyond that night just to make sure they were doing okay.

As I said back in August, I couldn’t figure out if this was fanfic with the serial numbers filed off — I *never* watch TV, so I’m really bad about figuring this stuff out. You assured us it wasn’t. And honestly, I really think it’s TOO self-conscious about the slash angle to be fanfic. Vince follows the slashfic about their characters online. The characters go to conventions and meet fans who show them explicit slashpics. Vince convinces the show’s creator to make the subtext between James and Matt overt, which precipitates changes on the show because of how it affects Alex in real life. Even if it is fanfic without serial numbers, its very self-consciousness makes it fascinating to me. And the writing is amazing enough that the story was real to me, no matter its origins.

I really loved this book both times I read it and I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

Grade: A-

Best regards,
-Sarah

P.S. God, I hate hate hate the cover for this book. Yuck. Title’s not great, either.

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

23 Comments

  1. etv13
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 15:00:51

    I need to give a spoiler warning, because I want to talk about the ending — so MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD; PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
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    I liked this story a lot and found it very emotionally involving (i.e., I cried a lot), but I agree with you that the ending was abrupt and I found it very unsatisfying in that it ended with Vince’s career in ruins while Alex is winning an Emmy. Yes, it’s lovely that he came out in such a spectacular way, but it still feels very unbalanced to me that Vince paid such a heavy price (and that it arose out of a situation Alex was much more responsible for than Vince) and it also leaves me with the worry that Alex’s career will be ruined, too. I like that the story doesn’t minimize the costs of what Vince does, which is all the more heroic for being so costly, but all the same, it bothers me that he suffers so disproportionately. I would have preferred if he had ended up with something more than essentially a volunteer job that doesn’t involve acting — something that offers at least a promise of a not-spectacular but decent film or theater career.

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  2. Evelyn
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 16:00:41

    Loved the book as well and agree – the cover is hideous!

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  3. jeayci
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 18:34:24

    Great review, it reminds me how much I loved this story! I may even have to re-read it now. :)

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  4. SarahF
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 18:51:38

    @etv13: MAJOR SPOILERS HERE TOO!! BE WARNED!!!!
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    I got the impression that Vince was in a better place, emotionally, having left acting. He’s getting his social work degree, he’s going to work with At Risk youth–he seems to have found a way to make his work COUNT in the ways he wanted it to without some of the bullshit politics of acting (although we all know that every career has its own bullshit politics). So I was okay with that. But yes, I agreed with you that I wanted to see the fallout for Alex’s career, because he’d done such a good job convincing Vince (and me!) that there WOULD be fallout, I wanted to see how they handled it. And I felt that Alex had suffered–we see that in his ability to cry for the camera–but we didn’t SEE it, we didn’t see him suffer for it. So, yeah, I love that final image, I really do, but…I needed a bit more, just to assure me of their ability to survive.

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  5. Brie
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 18:58:54

    This is exactly how romance novels should be. A realistic portrayal of relationships, love is not enough, you need to work on your relationship, and common goals, priorities and personalities are as important to a relationship as love. So it’s good to see a book where the main couple has to deal with their very real issues and put a lot of effort into their romance. Just because something is real doesn’t make it less romantic. I think there’s nothing more reassuring than overcoming obstacles, and because I see how much hard work it took for them to get there, then I can believe that will live happily ever after.

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  6. Merrian
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 19:38:24

    I am intrigued by two things about the book from this review:
    1. love doesn’t solve everything
    2. Our relationships and love are shaped/influenced by the social world as well as by ourselves.

    I think in the romance genre generally, these are two things that are the elephant in the room. The fantasy is that love remakes everything and that we are the only two people in the relationship. I wonder if we are more likely to see these sorts of stories in m/m or BDSM because of higher consciousness about the capacity of the wider world to impact on personal lives?

    spoilers
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    Regarding the ending. We see Vince with a committed and fulfilling role but what if it wasn’t? What if he mourned his lost acting career? Could this then be a romance story if there were such costs?

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  7. A. L. Turner
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 20:31:51

    Thanks so much for this review! I’m so glad you liked it. :)

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  8. Las
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 21:00:30

    I’ve been looking for more m/m this sounds great. Except it seems to only be available at Amazon and Kobo.Any idea if B&N or Sony will be carrying it?

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  9. jeayci
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 21:04:35

    @Las: You can get it at AllRomanceEbooks in a variety of formats.

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  10. Sirius
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 21:23:34

    I enjoyed this story as well, thank you for the review.

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  11. Sirius
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 21:29:41

    @Merrian: I really think it depends on what exactly love solves and does not solve in the story, you know? In this one, if Vince was not happy at the end with his work, I am not sure if I would still consider it a romance, because Alex would be at fault for it, does it make sense? I am not sure about it, I am basically thinking about it as I am typing, so make adjustments for it.

    However, if there were some external unsolved things at the end of the story, often enough I would consider it realistic, or at least believable enough and still think of it as a romance. For example, I cringe every time when I read the story where one of the guys have PTSD and at the end he is magically cured by love. Sorry, no, does not happen. I in fact *prefer* to see the romance where meeting your other half makes it easier to deal with PTSD, but it does not magically go away at the end, you know? That is one of the reasons I love “Whistling in the dark” so very much actually, I believe that both guys will have it easier now, when they have each other, but they are not magically cured by love.

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  12. Mary G
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 21:48:56

    Hi Sarah
    I hate reading your reviews because you always make me umm help me spend more money on books lol.
    Good job!

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  13. Kaetrin
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 22:56:28

    what Mary G said. :D

    Just picked it up at Amazon. Thx for the rec.

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  14. Mary G
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 22:58:26

    LOL me too Kaetrin. Lined up to read already.

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  15. etv13
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 00:06:48

    @Merrian obligatory spoiler warning:

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    I think there were substantial costs, even though Vince finds his new work satisfying; he almost turns down Alex’s invitation to the Emmy’s because he finds the thought of being back in the world of television too painful. That’s why I found the ending unsatisfying and unbalanced. Nonetheless, I think this story still works as romance, simply because Alex’s gesture at the end is so spectacular.

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  16. Jane Davitt
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 07:54:40

    Sounds intriguing; just bought it. I wrote a book last year where I had to invent a TV show for my characters to star in and it was more fun than kittens dreaming it up so I can’t wait to see what the TV show in this book is like.

    I’m a sucker for any story with an acting background, no matter what the genre. Even if my own acting experience is limited to a walk on in a Shakespeare play at school.

    I like the idea that the ending isn’t neat and 100% happy, because that adds a nice dash of realism.

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  17. SarahF
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 08:05:37

    @Jane Davitt: Someone mentioned at another review website that the show sounded very much like Torchwood. Or at least what happens to Vince’s character is close to what happened to Ianto. I’m not sure I really buy it, but still, I think it’s a closer match than any of the other suggestions I’ve heard.

    I think I read that book of yours…I think I even Recommended it here and then never got around to writing the review. ::adds to To Do List:: I very much enjoyed it, I do remember that. :)

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  18. Jane Davitt
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 08:21:26

    @SarahF:

    Jack/Ianto broke me into little pieces so I’m glad the two here at least end up alive, no matter what happens to their TV characters.

    Thanks! I really loved writing Hourglass, especially the snippets of scripts and such for the chapter headings. They were fun.

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  19. Sunita
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 12:14:39

    I am about halfway through this and finding it to be a very frustrating read. I’m pretty ignorant about specific fandoms, RP or otherwise, so the main characters don’t set off alarms for me. And frankly, I don’t care whether the book started as fan fic or not (I’m not in that world, so I don’t have a stake in that fight).

    But the entire setup is a mashup of various SFF TV shows (and perhaps movies), to a degree that makes it difficult for me to stay within the world of the novel. The scary female showrunner with the earlier paranormal hit; the middle-aged annoying veteran actor; the spunky, South Asian, ingenue actor; the lesbian, not-thin, black friend. They feel like they’ve been either plucked from central casting or various show-specific usenet groups.

    I love novels set in Hollywood or drawn from real-life Hollywood (I think my first was Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon). But when they make me think of the real-life context they’re drawing on rather than what this particular author is doing with it, they lose me.

    And BTW, I could be entirely wrong about the specific textual references. But the fact that I’m thinking of the references while I’m reading means the author hasn’t succeeded in creating her own world, at least for me.

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  20. Meagan
    Oct 29, 2011 @ 02:26:34

    Just finished this (bought it based on this review) and loved it! Like others, the ending was perfect but not perfect, and I also felt the tv show was a little off-kilter (I watch A LOT of SFF, so I know these things), but for the most part, the book was amazing. The characters were extremely real–funny, awkward, angry, angsty, in love. I much prefer books where the “villain” is an internal conflict, rather than a man in black cackling in his lair.

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  21. Maura
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 13:42:57

    This does sound an awful lot like Torchwood fan fiction. Still, it’s intriguing enough I might give it a try.

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  22. orannia
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 20:19:07

    Normally I would read all comments carefully before adding my thoughts, but I saw the word spoiler and since I really want to read this book all I want to say is thank you Sarah for your review – I can’t wait to read this book :)

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  23. Lasha
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 21:25:21

    @SarahF:

    The Torchwood “review” was me. I couldn’t get into this book, despite my love of TV stars coming out. However, happy other people liked it.

    ReplyReply

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