Title: The Locker Room
Author: Amy Lane
Cover Artist: Dan Skinner/Cerberus Inc.
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: Contemporary M/M
Length: Novel/250 pages/no word count
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
This review contains what could be considered spoilers
Review summary: This book could have been memorable for me except for a few missteps.
Xander Karcek has only wanted two things in his life: Christian Edwards and basketball—the man he loves and the game that let him escape a childhood he’d rather forget. His two obsessions have served him well. He and Chris beat the odds and stayed together through high school, college, and right on to the NBA.
But life under fame’s microscope isn’t easy, especially when two men are pretending to be frat-buddies so the world doesn’t know they’re the next best thing to married. Their relationship survives the sacrifices they make and the lies they tell to stay together, but when their secret is exposed, the fallout might destroy them when nothing else could.
Chris and basketball are the two things holding Xander together. Now the world is asking Xander to make a choice. Is there an option that includes a future with the man he loves?
I love sports so whenever there’s a new M/M sports oriented book out I’m overjoyed because they are such a rarity compared to the other themes and genres. The Locker Room is a story about two basketball heroes who loved each other so much almost nothing could keep them apart: not the game, the fans, or their teammates. The only person to achieve that doubtful feat was their abusive coach, Strauss Wallick. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Locker Room follows the protagonists Xander Karcek and Christian Edwards for over a decade, through their teen years up to 25 years old. I followed their love for each other and their triumphs as together they were magic both on and off the court. Then came the disappointments, separation and ultimately the tragedy that changed their lives forever.
Told mostly through Xander’s third person POV, it’s hard not to feel for the abused and neglected kid who was saved by the game of basketball and the love of his life, Chris Edwards. Xan and Chris met when they were almost 15. Although Amy Lane’s protagonists are always three dimensional, the one common characteristic most of them seem to share is that they are damaged and abused, and this book follows that pattern in spades. Xander was so horribly abused at home by his mother that he never stayed there if he could help it – there was no food, the apartment was always freezing and his drug addicted mother told him to suck it up and smoke crack to relieve his hunger pains. Instead, Xander chose to play basketball whenever he was hungry. Xan’s young life was hell and he went through just about every imaginable indignity. He only had one meal a day courtesy of the daily free lunch at school, which was not enough food for a growing teenager. He might have resorted to a life of crime or died from starvation if he hadn’t met Chris one day when he was trying to keep his hunger at bay on the basketball court. When he met Chris’s mom and dad, Andi and Jed, he realized what a real family was like and ultimately they became his family.
Chris and Xan fell in love and over the years their lives merged – high school, college and then the NBA draft when they were both selected to play on the same team, Sacramento, through the understanding and machinations of a wonderful agent, Leo, a delightful character whose sense of humour was sometimes off the charts. They tried to live their lives on the down low in the glare of the spotlight, but in the process they lost something precious – themselves!
First the positives: Xander and Chris are two wonderful, flawed, complex, protagonists who made my heart ache because they were so vulnerable . Their devotion to each other was incredibly touching and moving, the way they were like two halves of a whole made their love shine. Chris’s wonderful parents who took Xan into their homes at 16 and Penny, Chris’s sister, were a delight. However, I had some major issues with The Locker Room and the biggest was the author’s decision to require that her protagonists, who considered themselves married, should have sex with women after every third home game to allay rumours about their sexual orientation. The execution of that plan put a lot of strain on their relationship, their health, and almost broke their spirit and their hearts. Forcing themselves to have sex with women made Chris and Xan physically sick, they felt “tainted and soiled”, even though they used two condoms rather than one as a symbolic gesture to separate themselves from the act, and they could barely stand to touch each other afterwards. Xan’s nightmares and stomach problems got worse and Chris started drinking, so what was the purpose of that strategy which was degrading at the very least, for the two men as well as the women they used. Even though the sex was not on-page I felt for Xan and Chris every time they had to go through with this charade and I wondered why other viable options were not pursued such as those that gay sports stars and celebrities use all the time today. Tom Clancy once said “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” Well this didn’t make a damn bit of sense to me.
Another difficulty I had was the “harem” in the house once Chris was traded to Denver. I thought it was a good move to have Penny stay with Xan, after all she was Chris’s sister, the house was half his, and she had been in Xan’s life since he met her brother, but what was the purpose of the other two women sharing the house with Xan? They came out of left field and didn’t have any purpose in the story except as set decoration – they could have stayed elsewhere – or maybe this was a set-up for their upcoming stories, but whatever the reason again this didn’t make any sense to me other than the house could accommodate them. I had a few other issues with the story but these were two of the major ones.
Amy Lane is known as the Queen of Angst because she seems to inflict the maximum amount of hurt on her characters, as evidenced by her other books – two recent ones that I reviewed had similar elements. A reasonable amount of angst is tolerable for me and I know that some readers love angst a lot more than I do. Whenever I read one of this author’s contemporary books the injuries that her characters sustain seem excessive and extreme, and many times I have to stop reading and come back to the story when the knot in my stomach goes away or I just skip some parts altogether. Maybe I’m just a wimp. 🙁 Amy Lane is an incredible writer, her stories are well researched and at times they are a lot of fun, but I do find that the hurt/comfort aspect can be overwhelming. In The Locker Room one of her protagonists almost dies in a terrible accident. What was the purpose if all it did was deny him something he valued that he had worked for all his life, but which, due to twist of fate, a bad decision, or the author’s pen, he would never be able to do again?
In summary, most of the book was terrific and I wished that the games could go on forever. I loved the protagonists, I thought that Chris’s parents, his sister Penny and some of the other characters were great – Xan’s and Chris’s agent Leo, Lucia their housekeeper who took care of them and kept all their secrets, their first two coaches, Chris’s teammate Cliff and his wife Alicia. As for Coach Wallick, he was a one dimensional cardboard figure who was demonic and way over the top. When I discussed my concerns about the story with another reviewer he said “I don’t really think it was up to her usual awesomeness” and I agree, which is why I couldn’t award The Locker Room the full 5 stars, but 4.5 stars is an appropriate rating for a book that had great characters but some of the sub plots didn’t work for me.