A guest review by Stuart
Review Summary: A journeyman effort undermined by clichés, including a SHOCKING SECRET that ruined the book for me.
After playing eleven years in the Minor Leagues, Coach Matt Hawley has returned to his tiny Alabama hometown to lead his old high school baseball team to their first state championship. At the other end of the state, René Días, who left the Major League after one season, is getting his team ready to defend their state title for the second straight year. One is in the closet. The other is between relationships. Neither has any intention of hooking up at the state tournament.
Then they see each other.
Pre-game lust turns into an intense, one-night stand neither man can forget, and when their best friends embark on a romance, Matt and René are thrown together again. This time they decide it won’t be for just a single night.
But the fear of disappointing his minister father and shaming his family forces Matt to keep one foot in the closet, even as he and René find their lust is maybe something more. Will Matt endure a life of hiding or will he surrender and become free?
In the highly competitive M/M subgenre of “high school baseball coaches in love,” Caught Running by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban continues to be my choice for a 5-star read. If you haven’t read the book, buy it and read it. Roux and Urban, expert authors, avoid the problems that undermine the work of Kerry Freeman.
Pine Tar and Sweet Tea is a book you’ve read many times. Two men fall in lust that transforms into love. There is Conflict, Separation, Reconciliation, HEA. This is the most basic plot structure in Romance literature. If a writer is going to attempt it, here there be dragons. The writing must be excellent and bring something fresh to the venerable plot structure.
Unfortunately, PT&ST includes too many clichés to bring life to this most traditional of M/M plots. Would you be surprised that closeted Alabama high school baseball coach Matt Hawley has “wheat blond hair just begging to be pulled,” and a sassy, overweight, female BFF whose inner-beauty goes unrecognized in their “puny” Southern town? Would you be surprised that out and proud, Alabama high school baseball coach Rene Dias has “grass-green eyes” and a sassy, straight buddy with whom he exchanges witty repartee? While Freeman’s writing can be humorous and effectively captures a Southern tone without falling into parody, I’ve spent time with this foursome before and in other and better circumstances.
Perhaps people read generic M/M fiction for the sex scenes. If so, Pine Tar and Sweet Tea will satisfy their appetite for the generic. Nothing in the story reaches beyond the expected. There is the usual unbelievable dialogue, “Fuck, you’re a beautiful creature. Anybody ever tell you that?” There are the expected sex-verbs of M/M romance: the whining, humming, whimpering, and writhing that ends in the unsurprising thought, “He’d completely fucking lost it, and he’d never lost it like that before.” How many M/M protagonists have experienced this post-orgasmic revelation? I’ve lost count.
The sex is not badly written, it’s just been written this way countless times before. The only unusual aspect is the focus on biting. For example, Matt bites Rene’s ear until he bleeds during their initial encounter, a bit ironic considering the MCs concern about HIV prevention via condom use. As HIV prevention literature reminds: “Be aware of your body and your partner’s. Cuts, sores, or bleeding gums increase the risk of spreading HIV. Rough physical activity also increases the risk. Even small injuries give HIV a way to get into the body.” Writers use condoms to create gay verisimilitude, yet proceed to have their MCs, complete strangers to each other, ignore other aspects of safer sex. Not a trope I appreciate.
Despite its Southern location, the book has no sense of place. Freeman uses verbal references to “chicken biscuits” and “sweet tea” to create a sense of the South, but it doesn’t work. What does Matt’s town look like? What does Birmingham look like? What makes towns in Alabama different than those in California, Ontario, or New York? Despite the dialogue, this book is set in the Generic Place Where Men Fall In Love. I’ve spent too much time in that non-place to really want to visit it again.
Just as the location is a generic backdrop, so is the use of baseball as a shared passion. Unlike Caught Running, the narrative is not significantly shaped by the MCs life in baseball. It’s difficult to assess the author’s interest in or knowledge of baseball when, for example, she awkwardly calls the llth inning, “the second extra inning.” There is no pine tar in Pine Tar and Sweet Tea.
To her great credit, Freeman writes a Hispanic character whose family is from a particular place, Columbia, and is not a stereotype. Rene’s father teaches Spanish-American literature and completely accepts his son. Half of my hyphenated last name is Puerto Rican and I deeply appreciate well-written Hispanic characters. There are too few in M/M fiction.
The most egregious error is the depiction of Matt’s father, Evangelical Protestant minister, the Rev. Nate Hawley. Matt remains in the closet in order to appease his father and keep his family intact. Those are understandable reasons to stay in the closet and if the author had stopped there, I would have admired her character design. However, like the generic homophobes before him in M/M literature, the Rev. Hawley can’t only be opposed to homosexuality on theological grounds, he has to be written as a racist asshat. Too often in M/M fiction, homophobes are written as exaggeratedly, unimaginably awful people. If only that were true, it would be easier to ignore them. Homophobia hurts because generally good, sane, and kind people think gay people are morally disordered or damned. It’s the loss of approval and rejection by otherwise good people that hurts.
The book includes the revelation of a SHOCKING SECRET that I won’t spoil. However, I found the secret infuriating and profoundly clichéd. Its revelation ruined the character holding the secret, for me. I can only say that the conflict between Matt and the holder of this secret would be much richer, honest, and compelling if the secret did not exist.
While Pine Tar and Sweet Tea is very generic M/M romance, I hope Kerry Freeman continues to write and finds her own voice. I believe she has the tools to be an interesting author once she moves beyond the clichés of M/M fiction.