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REVIEW: Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne Tenino

REVIEW: Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne Tenino

Dear Ms. Tenino.

I loved this book. Just loved it. I read it in one sitting, finally going to sleep at 3am on Friday night, damn you. In retrospect, it has flaws, but I didn’t notice them as I was reading.

Brad is a football player and in a frat. I really REALLY love the way the book starts:

One of Brad’s frat brothers bent over naked in the locker room showers early one Thursday morning, and he thought, “I’d tap that.”

He stood there frozen, skin stinging from the pelletized water, soap suds streaming down his chest while his world made a . . . What did they call that? Paradigm shift.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. He’d been trying to avoid this. Admitting it to himself. Consciously. His subconscious had been admitting it for a while in his sleep. Emitting it.

Brad flicked another quick look at Collin. Yeah, he still had a delectable ass. Dammit.

Brad had spent years trying to avoid the “G” word, but denial was suddenly circling the drain. He stared at the water pouring down at his feet, and thought about hanging on to the security that came with telling himself he wasn’t into guys. But it was pointless, right? It wasn’t going to go away. Trying not to know it now was like trying to make the soap suds go back in the bar.

Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne TeninoBrad gets to the point where he just wants to figure it out, get it right for once. So he accepts that he’s gay and starts chasing his delectable history TA, Sebastian. Now, this is where I start getting really picky — do TAs just grade papers? Maybe in some schools? Are you going to have a Ph.D. student at a College? I don’t think so. And no one, NO ONE *EVER* enjoys grading. Ever. Or if they do, I wish they’d come and grade mine, dammit.

But details about academic life aside, Sebastian is hot, Brad’s hooked, and he has to work up the courage to come on to Sebastian. This takes a full quarter of the book, but I wasn’t at all bored. During that time, Brad comes out to his completely accepting family, figured out that despite his size and looks, he’s probably a bottom, comes out to an ex-girlfriend, plagiarizes a paper to try to catch Sebastian’s attention.

Once Sebastian and Brad get together, the sex is smoking hot, the relationship is interesting, and the humor is just nonstop. That’s the thing about this book — it’s laugh-out-loud funny without trying too hard to be so (and without really being excerpt-able, despite reading through the whole book again to try to find a suitable excerpt ;). Sebastian watches everything with a sort of amused, affectionate disdain, so bits of the book from his perspective were fun. And Brad is just…wonderful. He’s not particularly smart (although he’s not stupid), and watching him figure out how to be gay is just an amazing journey. He’s stubborn and intense and committed to being authentic. SUCH a great character. Just a taste:

On Saturday morning, Brad woke up early and watched Sebastian sleep. He knew it was dorky and he tried to stop, but he couldn’t seem to look away. He’d done it last Saturday, too.

He was lucky. Really fucking lucky. He wanted to just stay here forever. But he had to get back to his room and do some laundry, as well as inventory the damned kitchen at the frat house and get ready for the stupid pledge ceremony.

He sighed. He’d rather be here with his boyfriend. Who seemed to be waking up. Just before he thought Sebastian was going to open his eyes, he rolled over and scooted backward into Sebastian’s body. He didn’t want to get caught staring at the shape of Sebastian’s jaw or his long eyelashes in the sunlight, but he could rub up on him some.

Retrospective niggles (I have no idea why this part of the review came out in bullet format, but it’s better to have it written than to fight it, so here you go):

  • Sebastian did not read like a 28 year old. It would have made more sense to me if he’d been doing his M.A. and he were 24 or so. But a 28 year old Ph.D. student seemed a bit more of a stretch to me with the character as written.
  • Once the relationship starts, there’s not much narrative tension, except the tension that’s still about Brad figuring out who he is. Which was engaging and fun, don’t get me wrong, but not relationship-focused so much.
  • The Black Moment is very slightly contrived and not exceptionally well explained. When Brad and Sebastian fight, I had to read it two or three times to really figure out exactly what was drawing them apart. Once I’d figured it out, I believed in the problem — it was subtle but strong and had been foreshadowed throughout the book. But it took me a while to get there.
  • Once they split, there’s a bit too much “gathering of the support network,” as Brad puts it, before they get back together…a few too many conversations with other people before they get together to figure things out together. The book started to seem like an ensemble piece, except the ensemble didn’t really gather at the end, so that was odd.
  • And the final scene ends abruptly. We’ve had pages of Brad coming out to his frat, and when he and Sebastian go upstairs…the rest of the house isn’t mentioned again at all. But then, I’m a big believer in epilogues, or slightly more drawn-out endings, post reconciliation. In my opinion, there needed to be an extra scene from the next morning, or with Brad’s brother banging on their door, telling them to quiet down, or something.
But all that aside, I loved this book. I loved the gentle humor. I loved the characters — all of them, but especially Brad. And I loved the subtle overturning of some m/m expectations (another list!):
  • No coming out angst from friends or family.
  • Big bad football player Brad is a bottom and LOVES it.
  • The characters act rationally when Brad finds himself with his dick down someone else’s (ie: not Sebastian) throat. He tells Sebastian, they work things out and even use it as an opportunity to take the relationship to another level. It was interesting to see the not-Sebastian sex scene and then wonderful to see how it was dealt with between Brad and Sebastian.
  • The mild kink sneaks up on both characters as an additional facet to their relationship that shows how perfect they are together, rather than being something one of them needed because he’s SuperDom looking for PerfectSub.
I can’t wait for more from you. I really hope you give Collin his story.

Grade: B+

Best regards,
-Sarah

P.S. Your blurb’s awful (SUCH a strange shift from second to third paragraph and it doesn’t capture the true tension of the novel), the cover’s pretty (nice abs) but strange (what IS that living room supposed to represent?), and the title’s horrible. But hey, YMMV.

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JOINT REVIEW & Giveaway: The Rifter Parts 1-5 by Ginn Hale

JOINT REVIEW & Giveaway: The Rifter Parts 1-5 by Ginn Hale

UPDATE: The winner of our giveaway of a full subscription to The Rifter is Stephanie M. Lorée. Congratulations, Stephanie, and thanks to Nicole Kimberling at Blind Eye Books for providing it to Dear Author. And thanks also to all the commenters for their great reading suggestions!

Sunita: I’ve heard so many good things about Ginn Hale’s work, and I have Wicked Gentlemen in my TBR on the strength of Janine’s review here at DA. But my TBReviewed stack is bigger than the time I can allot to it, and I haven’t been reading much SFF these days. Nevertheless, when I read that Ms. Hale was releasing a serial novel in monthly installments, I was intrigued. One installment as a trial run didn’t seem like a huge investment of time or money, so I downloaded The Shattered Gates and read it at one sitting. Bad move. I was totally hooked.

Janine: My introduction to Ginn Hale was the marvelous Wicked Gentlemen, and I also enjoyed her novella, Feral Machines, in the Tangle XY anthology. I had difficulty getting into Lord of the White Hell, Book 1, however, and didn’t read far in it. So when Sunita suggested we review The Rifter together, I wasn’t sure what my response to the serial would be. Happily, the installments I’ve read so far have been even better than I had hoped.

I should state upfront that unlike you, Sunita, I’ve only read the first three installments, but that’s been due to lack of time rather than lack of interest. At a hundred pages or more per installment, The Rifter makes for a big but rewarding commitment.

Sunita: Now that the series is half over and Installment #6, Broken Fortress, is about to be released, it seems like a good time to talk about the series to date, without giving too much away.

Janine: It’s going to be tricky to avoid spoilers because of the serial format, but we’ll try to do so without revealing too many.

Sunita: When John Toffler, an ecology grad student, opens a letter he knows is intended for his odd but attractive roommate Kyle, he discovers a mysterious key. John’s ensuing actions catapult him and his two close friends, Laurie and Bill, into Kyle’s world of Basawar. Unable to return, their first priority becomes survival. None of them realizes that John is a Rifter, a potential destroyer of worlds. But Kyle is keenly aware of it and after he pieces together what has happened, he tries to follow John.

The first installment is split between establishing the four’s relationships and their actions after John uses the key. There are multiple dyads: John and Kyle, Laurie and Bill, John and Laurie, and to a lesser extent John and Bill. The succeeding installments continue Laurie, John, and Bill’s efforts to survive in Basawar while finding a way to get home. That distance can only be traversed by a Kahlil, a single member of the powerful Payshmura priestly order, and their desire to return to home enmeshes John and his friends in ongoing political and social intrigues.

Rifter 2 Ginn HaleJanine: This part of the story is quite dark and suspenseful; on Basawar people with John and Laurie’s abilities are often brutally persecuted, so the three friends have to be very careful.

Sunita: While John, Laurie and Bill struggle to survive, Kyle/Kahlil returns to Basawar only to find that much has changed. The parallel stories of John’s and Kyle’s experiences, and their separate and overlapping interactions with other residents of Basawar, structure the next four installments.

Janine: I love the way the narrative moves back and forth not just between John and Kyle’s third person POVs, but also between different storylines and timelines when we switch POV. More on that later.

Sunita: The worldbuilding in The Rifter is amazing. It is complex, intricate, and highly imaginative, but I never felt as if I was being force-fed information. To some extent this is because when we are in John’s storyline we are learning along with him. But even so, the interweaving of the characters, plot, and setting is as well done as I’ve seen in either the romance or the SFF genre.

Janine: I’ve read a few SFF classics that impressed me even more in this regard, but not many. There is a wealth of detail in Ms. Hale’s worldbuilding, and the writing is also quite good. Here’s an excerpt from a scene that comes relatively early in The Shattered Gates, installment #1, before John, Bill and Laurie cross over to Basawar. Kyle/Kahlil is at a diner with them, having recently been in a battle, and these are his thoughts right after he has ordered eggs and toast:

The waitress nodded. He felt a certain satisfaction in having finally mastered the ritual interrogation of ordering a breakfast in this world.

Ten years ago, the baffling barrage of choices had been more than he could contemplate or prioritize. White, wheat, rye, sourdough, over hard, over easy, scrambled, boiled or poached—he knew all the options now. And he was experienced enough to know that he liked his eggs cooked hard, even though he loved the way the words “sunny-side-up” sounded.

Kahlil realized his thoughts were drifting. He was exhausted and hurt, and he should have slept the entire day away, but he had wanted to see John. He had needed to see John smile and laugh and be kind.

In his own world, Kahlil saw such ugly things. He had done such hateful things. But here, it was different. This world was immersed in perfumes and abundance. Here, it was easy to be generous. There was so very much that giving could be painless. Goodness could seem inherent to all life. Here, even a being like John, a Rifter, a destroyer of worlds, could be a thoughtful, quiet graduate student.

Rifter 3 Ginn HaleWe can see the interweaving of setting, character and plot at work here. The contrast between our own world and Basawar in Kyle/Kahlil’s thoughts lets us know Basawar is a place of privation, hardship and danger. The setting of the diner with its comfort food sharpens our awareness of Kyle’s battle fatigue. Kyle’s romantic feelings for John are intertwined with his weariness and evident in his need to see John smile and laugh.

Even the structure of the sentences in paragraphs three and four convey Kyle’s tiredness, through the repetition of “he had wanted to see John” and “He had needed to see John,” “such ugly things” and “such hateful things,” “here, it was different” and “Here, it was easy.” The rhythm here reminds me of feet struggling to sustain a march. The thoughts repeat because they are muddled with exhaustion.

The clincher comes in the final line of the fourth paragraph, where we learn that gentle, seemingly harmless John is “a Rifter, a destroyer of worlds.” This is the engine of the book, the reason for Kyle’s presence in John’s orbit, and the source of a great deal of tension and suspense. Because not only can we not imagine how someone as sweet as John could become a destroyer, we now also know something tremendous about John of which John himself is blissfully unaware, but we don’t know when and how he will find out.

Sunita: I love that scene! It establishes the camaraderie between the four characters and underscores that while their lives aren’t trouble-free, they are nothing like what they will face on Basawar. The latter is a violent society in which power is wielded ruthlessly, not only by the rich and strong but also by those who command magical powers. I appreciated that magic was never used for easy plot twists or clever effect, and the development of magical powers was painful, time-consuming and dangerous for the practitioners.

Rifter 4 Ginn HaleJanine: Agreed. I have to admit that the author’s earlier works didn’t prepare me for the hardship, ruthlessness and danger the main characters encounter in The Rifter. It’s definitely darker than Wicked Gentlemen or Feral Machines.

Sunita: All the characters, from the non-magical humans up through the most powerfully gifted priests, have admirable traits but also weaknesses. The Payshmura are at once sincerely pious and utterly worldly. Every character, with the possible exception of Bill, is a fully realized person (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that criticism is shown to be wrong in later installments). Every major actor changes and deepens over the course of the series, and yet I never felt I was seeing the puppeteer’s strings.

Janine: Yes, and from what I’ve read so far John seems to have an incredible arc ahead of him. I’m both excited for and half-dreading that. It will be very interesting to see where the author goes with Kyle, too.

Sunita: The character arcs and the relationships are especially affected by the way time and distance work in these worlds. We know that John and Kyle/Kahlil are both attracted to and somehow bound to each other. And we know that there will be an HEA. But their storylines separate in the first installment, and the reader is never entirely sure how they will be brought back together. Each has to go on with his life in the absence of the other. And the way that passage between worlds can affect time means that when they do meet again, they may well be at different points in their lives.

Janine: Yes! The narrative moves both forward and back in time, and I love the way Ms. Hale gets at these characters from different points in their lives and in Basawar’s history, as well as different cultural perspectives. It allows her to explore and reveal both characters and setting from unexpected angles, and the twists in the plot come seemingly from nowhere, yet we then get to see how we got from point A to point B, knowing things the characters do not know.

Sunita:  For a book that can be categorized as part of the gay romance genre, there is very little explicit sex. John and Kyle, and possibly other characters, are definitely gay, but the depictions of romantic relationships are as much emotional as physical for much of the book. It is not a typical romance in that the relationship does not comprise the dominant focus of the story. But it is integral to it, and the romantic relationships that develop are particularly poignant, in part because of the contexts in which they take place.

Rifter 5 Ginn HaleJanine: Absolutely. In the three installments I’ve finished so far, Kyle and John are apart for the vast majority of the time. But when they encounter each other again it’s both pivotal and exciting, and in the meantime, they each have other romantic connections that moved me deeply. As in Wicked Gentlemen, the world Ginn Hale has built does not look kindly on same-sex relationships, and some of the characters face other prejudices too. That made me root for the characters to find happiness.

Sunita: The Rifter is an unusually immersive experience for me as a reader, and I’m only halfway through the story. There is a lively and fun group of readers over at Goodreads who are discussing each installment as it is released. I was able to avoid spoilers by paying attention to comment dates, and it’s fascinating to see their views on what has happened and what might come next.

Janine: I’ll have to check out the Goodreads group. I agree that The Rifter is worth reading. One of my niggles is that it took me a while to get used to the Middle Eastern-influenced flavor of Basawar (since I once lived in the Middle East, it was distracting to me). I also think I would probably have enjoyed The Rifter even more had I read the installments as they were being released, a month apart, rather than three back to back. The story was almost too intense for me as it was. Nonetheless I agree with you that it’s impressively good. I know The Rifter will seem on the expensive side to some, but all ten installments, when added up, clock in at over a thousand pages, so it provides a lot of high quality entertainment.

What grade would you give the first half of The Rifter, Sunita? Taken together the three installments I’ve read are an A- for me.

Sunita: I agree, it’s an A- for me as well. I can’t wait to read the second half of the series.

This story is sold as a subscription. Here is the subscription page and a goodreads link for installment no. 1.