Author: William Masswa
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books
Amazon: Buy Link Toughskins
Genre: contemporary gay romance
Length: 264 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Sirius
Summary: Sweet and angsty story about two traumatized guys finding their way to each other in the world of wrestling, which I overall quite enjoyed.
Love can begin in the most unlikely of places, including a “mom and pop shop” wrestling league. John and Bret, two twenty-something athletes who separately endured abuse in their pasts, do what they know—they beat up themselves and each other—until one hero-seeking boy turns their lives around with the question, “Why do you hurt each other?”
John’s heartache begins with a bad relationship when he’s seventeen, and Bret, having had enough with dating in the Pacific Northwest, tries his luck here with this Mid-Atlantic league.
Tender moments unfold for John and Bret. The rookies are also brought together by a ragtag team of oddball wrestlers who, lonely themselves, know what all boys know: deep down, we all just want to be held.
I decided to purchase this book when I saw it nominated for this year’s Lambda awards in the romance category. While I of course do not think that a nomination for an award automatically means that I will like the story, I do consider such a nomination to be at least somewhat of a guarantee that the writing in the book will be decent.
For the most part I enjoyed this story. Beware it is angsty and angst may or may not work for me – it really all depends on the writing, on whether the writer will sell me that the angst is relevant to the story and does not become the angst for the sake of it. I thought writing was very pleasant for the most part – sweet, gentle and easily flowing. A familiar trope – the guys needing to overcome the scars that past abuse left on their souls – is placed in the settings of professional wrestling.
I actually learned some interesting things about the world of professional wrestling (if they were true). I am not sure if it could be considered more of a sport or theatrical performance, or both, but I never was interested in wrestling, and if I managed to accidentally catch it on TV, I would always turn the channel. I guess I always thought of the wrestlers as fake sportsmen and as performers they did not interest me much. This book interestingly enough managed to make me care a little bit.
And this is a book where as you can probably deduce from the blurb where the wrestling is used mostly like a metaphor for how the guys dealt with what happened to them and not a book which has a goal to introduce us to the world of wrestling in the great detail.
I think this book is a good example how good writing can make a reader like me who have read (and loved quite a few of them, and hated quite a few of them) tons of the mm books where the guys were recovering from the different kinds of abuse. I guess I liked how the writer executed the theme of recovery and healing in this book.
I thought that the angsty thoughts the characters had were not artificial; they felt genuine to me and necessary to the story. The writer showed how the events in the past affected both John and Bret in the present, but I loved how much tenderness and gentleness this book had. I loved the chemistry between the guys and how much they wanted to be with each other and how their self built walls slowly came down and the reader gets to watch it, to experience it on page.
Here is a little sample of the writing style for you:
“Here, in the darkness, they realize they are safe. No one will hurt or take away from them. No one will dominate or control, threaten, rob, abuse or destroy. Knowing this, they lay their shields down, one heavy piece of metal at a time”
I have to admit that while in general the writing pulled me in, I did not like the random POV switches. The book mostly is written from Bret and John’s third person limited POV, but from time to time we also get the POVs of several other characters. I wished the writer would have stuck to Bret and John’s. Granted we did not have the POV’s of secondary characters for the many pages – but it still felt random and unnecessary, IMO of course.
Besides that I really have no criticism to offer – I think the book does well what it promises to do, bring two abuse survivors together in a sweet, gentle, enjoyable way without trivializing what they went through.