“He’d found his true home, among people he’d always been told were “weirdos”.”
In a word: Read the thing. I didn’t like this one as much as I did Violated (by the same author), but I still really did like this one. It’s a very different story from Violated, though it also has some really heavy and dark themes that happen. This one was more sweet and had a lot more humour. Also a lot of nudity and RPGs (though not at the same time) (mostly) (there may have been a kilt involved at one point). The main focus of the story is the relationship between the main couple and the obstacles they have to overcome (so much pining); but there is a lot of other stuff going on too. It’s also a story of self-acceptance and finding a place where you feel comfortable being yourself. There’s an importance on friendship, since one half of the main couple not only gets a boyfriend but friends as well. There is also a lot of focus on RPGs, which doesn’t exactly drag the story, but if it’s something you have no interest in you’ll probably be bored reading those parts. So definitely read this if you get the chance, just remember that for as sweet and fun as it is, it can also get pretty dark.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains homophobia, homophobic language, violence, dub-con, and victim blaming.
The Setting: So this is a new one. Screwups takes place in 1996 in an art dorm at a New England university. I don’t know whether it’s a completely accurate portrayal of college life in 1996 (I was only about 5 at the time, so I wouldn’t know), but it’s pretty obvious that this all takes place in the not too distant past. No one is using cellphones or laptops; actually I think only one background character in the dorm even owns a computer. There are no real mentions of current events (that I could tell, anyway) that would specify a time period. I’m pretty sure that tabletop RPGs and LARPs were big in the 90s, and there’s a lot of that in here, if that dates it any. There’s also a phone box (painted to look like the TARDIS) in the dorm lobby and no mention of the Doctor Who reboot that started in the early 00s.
The Couple: Jake Stewart and Danny Sullivan are both university students at the University of New Hampshire. They’re both in their early twenties and (I think) they’re both third-year students. They’ve been at the same school for years, but they only meet when Jake moves into the art dorm, never having run in the same circles before. Jake is majoring in business, and hating it all the way, because it’s what his father wants him to do. Jake isn’t really in control of his life at first, just following his father’s orders. That’s also the main reason as to why he’s deeply closeted and afraid to come out. He’s really just been going through the motions his first years at university and really only seems to come alive once he gets into the art dorm and makes friends with Danny and his friends. Danny, Jake’s new roommate, has been out since high school (for better or for worse) and isn’t ashamed of his sexuality, but events from his past have made it hard for him to open up to people romantically. The two men are attracted to each other right from the start, but they become friends first before they come together as a couple. This is Jake’s first time with a man (with anyone, really) so he’s nervous, but also very enthusiastic. Danny has been hurt before so he’s a little reserved, he wants to be with Jake but he’s having a hard time getting past his traumatic history. Danny has a lot of walls that need breaking down, and Jake has to prove that he’s the right person for Danny to let in.
The Families: I’ll start off with Danny’s family, since there isn’t really much to say about it. Danny doesn’t have any family aside from his mother; his father having left either before he was born or very soon after. Danny’s mother is a Wiccan, and was possibly a hippie at one point. She absolutely accepts her son’s sexuality, and has done since he came out in high school. She doesn’t come off as a ‘typical’ mother, but she loves Danny very much and makes sure that he knows it. The complete opposite of Danny’s family is Jake’s family, which is a complete hot mess. Jake grew up with both his parents and two older identical twin brothers (both named Robert, because Jake’s father is a fucking prize). Mr Stewart rules the household, keeping Mrs Stewart and Jake under his thumb. He expects his sons to join the family business once done with college (which the twins have already done) and be manly family men and fuck women and not disappoint him ever. Judging by the way his wife, as described by Jake, looks and acts like she came from a 50s family sitcom it’s obvious what Mr Stewart believes that women should spend their time doing. The twins are fucking monsters, they spent most of their childhood beating up on Jake and always having the upper hand since they were older and bigger and, y’know, two of them. They continue to harass him even now that they’re all adults. The Stewart men (minus Jake) are all mean, misogynistic, and homophobic, and I can’t imagine what it was like for Jake and his mother to be stuck with them for so long (Jake says at one point that he and his mother were allies against the forces of Mr Stewart and the twins). Luckily there’s some good news there as Mrs Stewart eventually makes up her mind to divorce her husband and is soon out of the house and starting her new life. Jake and his mother are a lot alike, just like the twins are a lot like their father. Also: homophobic to the point of violence, just a warning.
The Tragic Backstory: So Danny comes from a very accepting home life, and he probably would’ve turned out completely fine had it not been for his shit school and the complete asshole he had the misfortune of falling in love with. Danny was still in high school when he fell in love for the first time with a boy on the wrestling team named Steve Cory. There’s foreshadowing about what happened between them starting near the beginning of the book, but the way we’re told about what actually happened is through a flashback to the one incident that scarred Danny for years. Danny and Steve used to go make out in the woods (after Steve got himself drunk, of course) because Danny was out and Steve was way deep into the closet (maybe? It’s not entirely clear on that, but if you’re a guy who willingly makes out and gets aroused by other guys it’s really quite possible that you aren’t entirely straight). Danny thought that he had a chance with Steve and would do pretty much anything for him and for the chance to be with him, which did not end at all well for him. What came of that whole situation was a broken heart, a beating, a… not exactly a sexual assault but something pretty close to it (it’s a hard situation to explain, the sex acts were consensual but not entirely wanted by Danny, but sort of wanted?), humiliation, rumours aplenty, and a fear of getting close to people. It’s not the defining moment in Danny’s life, but it plays a very big part in how he became the person he is when the story starts and it colours a lot of aspects of his relationship with Jake.
The Former Best Friend: Danny has a pretty dark backstory and while Jake’s is nowhere near as horrifying, it’s still a fairly important part in his development. When Jake was in high school he had a best friend (who was also possibly his only friend) named Tom Langois. Tom eventually came out to Jake as gay and Jake didn’t handle it at all well. Tom was in love with Jake, and Jake secretly loved him in return, but Jake couldn’t come out without risking the wrath of his homophobic father and older brothers so he turned away from Tom. Eventually both families moved away from the area and Jake never saw Tom again. I point this out for two reasons. One, this whole experience has Jake force himself to make things right with Danny. He already knows that he fucked up with Tom and it made them both miserable and hurt them both deeply. He loves Danny and they have a chance at a future together, if only Jake can get over himself and do the right thing. Another thing to point out is that Jake doesn’t make excuses for the way he treated Tom, he even says that what he did was inexcusable and that he doesn’t expect Tom to forgive him. He knows he did wrong and he accepts the consequences, but he knows that it’s far too late to change things now and all he can really do is move forward with his life and hope that Tom is doing the same. The second reason I bring Tom up is that he appears in another of Jamie Fessenden’s books, Billy’s Bones. Now, I haven’t read Billy’s Bones (which came out a year before Screwups, but I’m pretty sure takes place many years later), so I don’t know whether or not it’s the same character. If it is it’ll be interesting to see if Jake is mentioned at all in that book, and what happened to Tom since the boys last saw each other.
The Nudity: So here’s something that stood out to me while I was reading: there’s a hell of a lot of nudity here. And I don’t get it. Is this normal? I’ve never been a gay male college student so I don’t know. I’m starting to think it’s just an author’s quirk or something because Violated had a lot of casual nudity (the clothing optional gay B&B being incredibly noteworthy) as well, and I’ve seen some reviews for Billy’s Bones that also mention it. Or maybe it’s just a thing people do, wander around on the regular with no clothes on. It’s not that it bothers me or anything, I’m just confused. In Screwups Danny shows up most of the time wearing only a pair of shorts, and Jake over the course of the story seems to have less and less shame about being naked in front of others (featuring two bouts of angry naked running through the dorm). They even both sleep in the nude. And on top of that there was also a naked party at some point (a fairly small party, but still). And it’s not a lot of the characters that seem to be casually naked a lot, just Jake and Danny. And it’s not even sexual (most of the time, but nudity tends to be implied in sex scenes), most of the nudity is casual. So, yeah. What even?
The Sex: There was a lot of sex in this; mostly because I think Jake lives in a constant state of arousal (seriously though, is this normal?). Like, he gets erect at the drop of a hat. Not that Danny minds, though. Anyway. The sex is good, mostly, some scenes were better than others. I was a bit put-out about Jake instantly becoming really good at sex (he was a virgin before he got with Danny), especially since it kinda played up his nerves a bit. But whatever. The rimming was especially met with more enthusiasm than I was expecting, especially from someone who’d never before heard of it. A good thing is that the sex scenes aren’t all the same, and they feature some different positions. There’s some mutual masturbation, oral, rimming, sixty-nine (on a rug in front of a fire at one point no less), riding, shower sex (mostly just touching though), and missionary. Condom use is fairly lax for the most part (so much come), just in case that bothers some people (I think public awareness concerning safe sex was different at the time).
The Writing: Grammar and spelling-wise, totally solid. I have no complaints about that. The (third person) point of view switches between Danny and Jake in each chapter (sometimes more than once) and it’s never confusing. The pacing is good, though this is mostly slice-of-life so this wasn’t really too big an issue anyway. It’s only mentioned as a subtitle that the story takes place in the 90s, but it’s written in a way that you can tell that the events aren’t taking place in the present. There was some foreshadowing into the events in Danny’s past and that was done well, not enough that I guessed what happened too soon, but enough to let us all know that something very, very bad had happened. The scenes with the RPGs can get a little dull (it’s not something I’m into), but they weren’t badly written and they were easy to follow. The side characters aren’t all that fleshed-out, but it’s still pretty fun to read about them interacting with the main couple. Overall, a solid read.
[Screwups was published March 7, 2014 by Dreamspinner Press, it’s available both in print and as an ebook]