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REVIEW: Mark Cooper Versus America by Lisa Henry & J.A....

MarkCoopervAmericaDear Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock,

I enjoyed your Good Boy books, so I was keen to review this book.  In many ways this is a far more light-hearted, non-serious book than the earlier stories (except for one aspect which I will discuss later). I had an idea about the main characters from the emails, letters and text messages you posted on your respective blogs in the lead up to Mark Cooper versus America’s release. Those things definitely informed my expectation that this book was more comedic in nature – and certainly there were a few laugh-out-loud moments for me (most particularly in relation to Blake who has a bad habit of becoming locked in toilets. Really).

Mark Cooper is an Australian, from Bundaberg in Queensland, where the weather is warm and tropical and there is never ever any snow.  His mother married Jim, an American and they all moved to Pennsylvania.  Jim is wealthy and is paying for Mark to attend prestigious Prescott College, his old alma mater, and is more than keen for Mark to join the Alpha Delta fraternity (something Jim did when he was at school and which he regards as incredibly valuable and worthwhile).  Alpha Delt (as it is called colloquially) has changed a lot since Jim’s time and it is no longer devoted to community service as it once was.  In fact, the guy in charge of the pledges, “Bengal” is dangerous (more on that later).

Mark is… prickly.  When he first meets Deacon, the other hero, Deacon thinks of Mark as an “angry bunny”.  Mark uses anger/aggression/defensiveness and/or humour as self-protection mechanisms.  He is alone, out of his depth and he doesn’t want anyone to know how isolated he feels.  If he doesn’t want them, they can’t reject him.

His plan when rushing the fraternity is to be so obnoxious that they will kick him out and he will be able to say to Jim, “hey, I tried”.  Jim is largely absent from the book but he is consistently described as “nice”.  He is perfectly nice but again, Mark has kept his distance and holds Jim at arm’s length.  Over the course of the book, Mark does learn to let some people in and he does mature.  That said, he is just turned 18 and he felt authentically that age.

Deacon is 21, a Junior at Prescott.  He is a member of the Phi Sigma fraternity, an academic/service based frat which is more about studying and playing Risk for long stretches.  The fraternity houses are next door to each other, even though Mark meets Deacon at the bar he works at to help pay for college.  There is a Romeo and Juliet vibe – well more than a vibe – it is overtly played up in the story as Alpha Delt and Phi Sig are enemies.

Jackson is Jim’s nephew and a member of Alpha Delt.  He makes an effort to befriend Mark, but Mark doesn’t make it easy for him.  By the end of the book, I think they are headed there.  Mark makes another friend, Brandon at college.  Brandon is wicked smart and has an eidetic memory.  He has a deeply held belief that he is nothing if he is not in a fraternity and he urges Mark not to quit as a pledge.  The friendship between Mark and Brandon is kind of sweet and it was nice to see Mark struggling with being a friend who can be leaned upon, as opposed to always (in his view at least) being the leaner.

The romance between Deacon and Mark is sweet and sexy, with a bit of kink thrown in.  Between them, they discover a previously unknown fetish for women’s underwear (Mark wearing it, Deacon fucking him while Mark’s wearing it) and they explore some more extreme “arse play” (coughfistingcough).   This might be a little much for those who prefer their m/m less explicit.  I coped okay but I admit to cringing in sympathetic pain in some parts.  The stuff with the underwear was quite well done I thought – it seemed to me to be very sexy and masculine even while they were playing with gender norms. That doesn’t make much sense does it? Sorry, I can’t explain it any better.

I enjoyed seeing Mark bloom and mature in the time he spent with Deacon and I liked the way he remained himself while he did it.

“So, uh…” Mark swallowed. “I can’t promise you much. I’m not a hopeless romantic, and sometimes I forget that people generally like it when you do nice things for them. I’ve never been anyone’s boyfriend. And I probably could, in my own way, out-douche a lot of the Alpha Delts.” He turned his head slightly and pressed his face against Deacon’s chest. “But I…” He turned again so he wasn’t speaking into Deacon’s T-shirt. “But you don’t have to be afraid to tell me anything. Because I won’t judge you for it. And you don’t have to worry about not seeming like a good guy in front of me. Because I guarantee I’ve been a worse guy. And if you need anything from me, just ask. I’m not the best at figuring out what people need on my own. But if you tell me, I’ll try to give it. That’s what I can promise you.”

Deacon has his own problems too – his mother has severe OCD and he has a brother in Afghanistan.  Deacon is level-headed and very much the protector.  During the course of the book he reflects on this and realises that he does have a need to be needed.  But he also realises that’s okay.  One of the things that make he and Mark a good pair is that Mark helps him remember to be young and have fun and Deacon helps Mark be a bit more responsible – as concept they name as “reasonably stupid”.  Deacon is very aware he’s not Mark’s dad and he doesn’t want to be so it always seemed to be a healthy balance to me. I thought the way the story captured Deacon’s complicated feelings about his brother coming home was wonderful and spot on. I could definitely relate.  I also thought his mother’s OCD was handled well.  It was a depicted as a serious and debilitating illness but his mother wasn’t helpless or unable to be his mother.  And Deacon’s complicated feelings about his mother’s illness made sense to me too.

 And his thoughts about his mother were often far from selfless. He’d told her to call him anytime she felt worried. What he’d meant was Please don’t need to call. Please just be okay.

Deacon’s family situation and Mark’s isolation are of course, serious matters.  But they didn’t make the book feel heavy and I felt the overall tone was upbeat and sweetly fun.

That said, there is a more serious aspect to the story.  I confess I’m having trouble deciding what I think about it. In part I think it’s because the rest of the book is fairly light-hearted and comedic and in part because most of the bad stuff happens off page or at somewhat of a distance.  The hazing that Bengal puts the Alpha Delt pledges through is… not okay.  In particular, there is something involving Brandon (who has his own particular vulnerability) which goes beyond that  (ie it is not legal).  (And, just because Brandon is a bit more vulnerable than the other pledges, it wouldn’t have been acceptable  if it were done to others and not to him. That is; whoever it was done to: totally not okay.)

On the one hand, the narrative clearly states that this is NOT OKAY.  Mark urges Brandon to go to the college authorities (at the least) about it but Brandon refuses. Mark feels guilty because he doesn’t take any action himself but he’s torn between doing the right thing, keeping a confidence to a friend at that friend’s specific request and the pledge of secrecy made to the fraternity.  Even though he thinks most of the fraternity stuff is bullshit, he still gets kind of caught up in it.  (And, in the end, Mark finds value and brotherhood in the fraternity – although never with Bengal.)

The other thing is that the pledges have the choice of walking away and quitting.  Does this mean they volunteer for mistreatment?  I don’t think so.  And peer pressure is a huge thing.  Plus in Brandon’s case as well, it’s a massive deal to his dad that he get into a fraternity.  It’s not that the pledges are “forced” exactly.  But I’m uncomfortable where the line is between willing participant and victim of crime. And by that, I mean it seems to me that the members of Alpha Delt had a great deal of trouble working out where that line was and I don’t think they got it right. With at least with the lesser stuff, Mark explicitly states that he allowed it.  Brandon feels this too.  But there is a tension between this and the acknowledgement of just about everyone as well as the narrative, that humiliating people is not a good thing and at least some of it is downright illegal.

Bengal does get a comeuppance – I don’t think it was enough though and, more disappointingly, it comes as a result of something which I felt was less severe than what happened with Brandon.  Perhaps it was meant to be a more cumulative thing but frankly, (and even Mark says this earlier on in the book) what he’d already done was way past enough.  No-one in the fraternity likes Bengal but he’s allowed to get away with increasingly bad behaviour and mistreatment of the pledges. And no-one else in the fraternity wore any consequences for their inaction at all.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person to comment on this because I’m Australian and I have virtually no idea about fraternities/sororities.  The whole hazing thing just seems silly and ridiculous to me and I don’t know why anyone would want to put themselves through it.

There are perhaps broader questions too (questions to which I don’t have answers).  Does a book have an obligation to provide the ideal moral/legal outcome in a story?  Does it merely have to be believable? Or show an experience in a believable manner?  What obligation does a book have in the wider social context when it comes to things such as hazing? (I have deliberately chosen to use the term hazing so has not to give away spoilers.) Is it enough to merely show it exists and/or that life is messy and often far from ideal and/or allow the reader to make up his/her own mind?  Or is it obliged to show a path of moral good leading out of it?  Is “obligation” even the right word?

Maybe I should have reacted more strongly to this aspect of the book.  Maybe others will.  I’m still trying to parse all the things.  When I focus on the hazing (which I did not like – but I don’t think I was supposed to) I am uncomfortable and feel like I ought to be feeling more outrage than I currently do (and that somehow I should be ashamed about not being more upset by it).

I enjoyed the book. I thought Mark and Deacon were sweet and I liked Brandon and Blake (who is the stereotypical dumb jock – he really does get stuck in toilet cubicles a lot – but he also doesn’t bat an eyelash when Mark comes out to him either so he’s not entirely stereotypical) and I liked that generally, the people in the book were very accepting of homosexuality.

I loved the Australian v. America stuff.  How in America you can’t order a “flat white” coffee (which, for those who don’t know, is an espresso coffee with milk, no foam, but not a latte which has way more milk) and how “football” is gridiron in the US and football here is, depending on which state you live in, either Rugby League (Queensland, New South Wales) or AFL (South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria).

Mark sighed, pulling some bills out of his wallet. “Jesus, all your money is the same color, and I never know what to tip.”

“Fifteen percent usually covers it,” Brandon said.

Mark rolled his eyes. “Bran. I just ate half a pizza and a whole garlic bread. The only thing stopping me from curling up and falling asleep like a happy fat puppy is the fact that I have to have smoking-hot phone sex in a minute.” He smiled at the lady in the next booth. “I cannot be expected to do maths at a time like this.”

“Nobody’s expecting you to do maths. Math, maybe.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Why would you add an s to math?”

“Because that’s how you say it.”

Brandon picked up one of the bills and passed it back to him. “You are the weirdest person I know.”

The vernacular is used very well – I assume Lisa Henry wrote those bits, being as you are Australian. This fish-out-of-water story had moments of both humour and poignancy (especially the conversation about the stars).

I liked it. It made me laugh and it made me think.  Grade: B.

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

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Kaetrin started reading romance as a teen and then took a long break, detouring into fantasy and thrillers. She returned to romance in 2008 and has been blogging since 2010. She reads contemporary, historical, a little paranormal, urban fantasy and romantic suspense, as well as erotic romance and more recently, new adult. She loves angsty books, funny books, long books and short books. The only thing mandatory is the HEA. Favourite authors include Mary Balogh, Susanna Kearsley, Joanna Bourne, Tammara Webber, Kristen Ashley, Shannon Stacey, Sarah Mayberry, JD Robb/Nora Roberts, KA Mitchell, Marie Sexton, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, just to name a few. You can find her on Twitter: @kaetrin67.

18 Comments

  1. Andrea T
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 08:56:15

    Based on the cover, I would’ve passed this book over, so I’m glad I paused to read your review. I think the Australian vs. American angle would be a lot of fun to read, and I like how you’ve shown the relationship between Deacon and Mark. The quotes included were great.
    Thanks for the really helpful review!

  2. Kate Hewitt
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 10:25:47

    You wrote: Does a book have an obligation to provide the ideal moral/legal outcome in a story?

    I have often pondered what my moral obligation is as an author, but I think it would be a weird form of censoring, not to mention unrealistic, if books had an obligation, moral or otherwise, to provide only ideal outcomes to any moral or legal dilemma.

  3. Sunita
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 10:37:59

    I agree with Kate that authors shouldn’t be expected to write books that provide only ideal outcomes. But if this book treats hazing as kind of a problem but not a big deal at the same time that it uses illegal and dangerous behavior as a plot device, that would be a wallbanger for me. Hazing is illegal in at least some states and is prohibited on many campuses, and hospital visits and deaths from hazings occur regularly. There are plenty of ways to pledge new members without abusing them or committing illegal acts, and unless the characters’ dilemmas are explored with seriousness and the underlying issues really grappled with, I think it’s doing the topic a disservice. It’s like using any other serious issue as a plot device; do it carefully and thoughtfully and go all the way where it takes you, or don’t do it.

  4. Sirius
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 10:49:11

    @Sunita: Yeah I agree. Excellent review Kaetrin – but this specific point would be a definite wall banger to me if it is not explored in depth. I am not saying it should provide any specific outcome, just in depth exploration IMO.

  5. Willaful
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 12:22:55

    This made me think of a YA book I thought highly of, Slot Machine by Chris Lynch. A friend of the narrator is subjected to a truly ghastly form of hazing, which he submits to in order to fit in. It’s been many years since I read it, but I think it’s taken very seriously, even though (IIRC) there’s no particular punishment for the perpetrators.

  6. Kaetrin
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 19:34:17

    @Andrea T: Thank you :) The Australian v American stuff was really fun. Let me know what you think?

  7. Kaetrin
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 19:49:22

    @Kate Hewitt: That was one of the questions I asked. There was a first chapter posted here almost exactly a year ago and it drew a lot of criticism because there was a sexual assault in it (not by the hero). There was discussion then (IIRC) that it (the assault) had been treated badly in the book and the hazing stuff in this book brought it to mind. In True, questions were raised by commenters as to why the police weren’t called and how social consequences for the guy were insufficient. There is a parallel here I think. Bengal suffered social consequences. They were perhaps more signficant than in the other example but were they enough? Is it not a case of obligation (as I also asked) but something else and if so what? @Sunita: poses that issues such as these need to be dealt with carefully and thoughtfully. I agree but I also think that readers are going to vary wildly on what that actually is. (Can there be an objective measure for this?) For some readers “carefully and thoughtfully” might necessitate police involvement for example or official College sanctions.

    The hazing in the narrative was presented (IMO) as juvenile and (potentially) dangerous and unnecessary. For example, Phi Sig don’t do any of it. Some of the hazing I guess might be okay (it sounds silly to me but I guess having the pledges shine shoes for the frat (for example) doesn’t really hurt anyone). But I don’t know where the line is exactly. There are things which are definitely over the line for me, but some things I wasn’t sure about. In part that may have been because Mark reacted to them like they were stupid but basically harmless. (I’m not sure he’s right. He might be. I don’t know.)

    It wasn’t spelled out but I imparted that the College didn’t want any trouble and was more concerned about appearances than really finding out what was going on. My take was that the College officially banned out-of-hand hazing and would take a very hard line if it officially found out. But it also didn’t seem to me to be terribly active in trying to find out what was actually going on in the fraternities. That said, none of the pledges complained to the College so all they had were rumours and whispers. I don’t know enough about Colleges to know whether they ought to have done more or whether they were doing all they can in the circumstances, so my view may be totally erroneous.

    As to whether it did the topic a disservice? I don’t know. I’m still grappling with these things myself. I think the book treated hazing seriously and asked some serious questions about bystanders, but at the same time, the bystanders didn’t seem to really reap any consequences either so… I’m conflicted.

  8. Kaetrin
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 19:51:47

    @Sirius: @Willaful: I think the topic does explore the issue in depth but whether it is explored sensitively enough? Whether that exploration was taken far enough? I’m uncertain. In part this is because I don’t know enough about the US college system.

  9. Kate Hewitt
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 05:50:30

    I suppose it is a difficult question as to what kind of moral obligation authors have to present any issue with sensitivity and depth, because people have different views on issues depending on their own experience, values, culture, etc. By expecting authors to handle a certain issue (whether it’s hazing or something else) in a certain way, the reader is assigning a moral stance to the author that he/she might not share. It’s certainly something I think about a lot as a writer; I never want to treat a serious or controversial issue with lightness or disrespect, and yet I might do so inadvertently. I’ve always said that an author’s world view will shine through his or her writing, no matter what. I’m not talking about being preachy, but more the reality that your values and beliefs will always inform your writing, even the most fantastical fiction.

  10. Tam
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 06:31:14

    I probably have an irrational (?) distaste for fraternities/sororities. They are much less popular in Canada. When I was in university I’m not sure we even had any at my university. They do exist now, my daughter’s roommate joined one and is now regretting it but if she quits she gets shunned by all the members. Um. WTF? It comes across as way too cult-like and I’ve heard too many stories about abuse to ever be comfortable with them. I know universities are more aware and have a low tolerance, but only if they know what is going on, which most often they don’t. I think most fraternities (more so than sororities) who do this sort of thing do get away with it. So that part of the book is probably realistic, but I know I would have difficulty reading that. Mostly because I know it really happens.

  11. Sunita
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 06:42:19

    @Kaetrin: I agree that everyone might not agree on exactly what constitutes thoughtful and serious, but I also think the range of dispute is fairly narrow. Some might think that any amount of humiliation/embarrassment is too much while others won’t, but abuse is abuse. If you google “fraternity hazing deaths” you get an idea of what some of us are reacting to.

    I don’t require that the author write a moral solution into the story, and I don’t want characters giving speeches about the evils of fraternity life. But if the plot involves illegal and abusive activities, I want some kind of resolution, whether it’s a learning process on the part of a character, or the bad guy getting his due, or a recognition that not doing enough is going to allow the situation to continue in the future. If the main character fails to take action, or the university fails to take action, I want that to be seen as problematic in some way, not just dropped or glossed over when the plot doesn’t need it anymore. Or, if a character is OK with the hazing, or decides he can live with it despite his doubts, I want that to be thoughtfully done in the text. I don’t want to feel, as a reader, that I’m supposed to get caught up in a story about abusive behavior and then forget about it when the text doesn’t need it anymore.

  12. cleo
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 12:51:26

    @kaetrin – I thought of True while reading your review (was it really a year ago?). Thanks for such a thoughtful review.

  13. Kaetrin
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 18:36:45

    @Kate Hewitt: Perhaps it is a “cute” distinction to separate “book” from “author” in this instance but I did try and not make it about the author. I think, that books can have an influence long after the author is dead and gone and when we talk about many famous books from history, I get the sense* that we tend to talk more about the book. I was trying to see whether/if/where a book may fit into the wider social construct. It wasn’t intended to be anti-author at all, just to clarify.

    (*I could be wrong on this because I tend to watch these discussions rather than participate and I certainly don’t see all of them.)

  14. Kaetrin
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 18:41:31

    @Tam: It’s interesting too because it raised questions (to me) about what our responsibility is. If you are the friend of someone who is an adult and who is abused by fraternity hazing (to use this as an example) is your first loyalty to the friend who asks you to say nothing? (That this aligns with “loyalty” to the fraternity could be something which makes this either easier or more difficult). Or, do you override your friend’s wishes for the greater good? Does that help your friend? Or, does it only serve to exacerbate his loss of power, autonomy and self-determination, (something which the assault did in the first place?) What is the right thing to do here? (I told you this book made me think!)

  15. Kaetrin
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 18:54:53

    @Sunita: In this case, I’m not sure it went far enough. I felt that the moral stance of the book was clear without being preachy or speechy – Mark thought the hazing was at best stupid and at worst, illegal. He questioned the senior fraternity members more than once about what they were allowing to happen, about their responsibility as “bystanders”. The reason he didn’t speak up on Brandon’s behalf, was because Brandon requested he not do that and Mark made a value judgement, which, I thought, in the circumstances, was fair enough. That said, Mark still struggled with it, which I appreciated. So all of that was very organic to me.

    Mildy spoilerish things follow:

    Buried Comment: Show

    At the end, Bengal gets kicked out of the fraternity but not directly because of what he did to Brandon. The fraternity is going to be watched closely by the college for at least the next academic year because of rumours and whispers they’ve heard about the hazing which has gone on. The other fraternity members, because they kick Bengal out, come to some realisation that what has happened was wrong but I didn’t see any real consequences for them. I do think they had learned a lesson but I also wondered whether it was the “right” one? Bengal was kicked out of the fraternity. That’s as far as the text went. I don’t know, for example, if that necessarily means some kind of academic sanction too? It didn’t seem so to me on merely readng the book. He lost his friends and his social group but was that enough? I’m not sure how big a deal (in terms of ongoing consequences, getting a job etc.) it is to be kicked out of a fraternity. Is that a big deal but I didn’t realise it?

    So that’s where I’m conflicted. Because on the one hand, I can see that’s a very serious social consequence. But on the other, it is not stopping him from continuing his education, he’s not been reported to the police etc. (And really, if he was being reported, should not the other senior fraternity members also be reported? Because they knew what was going on and did nothing?) So I can see people varying widely on whether it went far enough, whether the book, as you say “just dropped or glossed over [it] when the plot doesn’t need it anymore”, or whether, in the circumstances, it ought to have gone farther.

  16. Kaetrin
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 18:55:18

    @cleo: thx Cleo! :)

  17. nasanta
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 20:51:22

    ““Why would you add an s to math?””

    Exactly! I mean, math is bad enough. Why would you want more than one of math? :)

    Sounds like a fun book, especially the Australia vs. America stuff.

  18. Kaetrin
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 22:08:57

    @nasanta: A lot of it was really funny. We are culturally similar in many ways but vastly different in others and I got a kick out of seeing that played out in the story. :)

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