I’ve had the great job of reviewing books that feature gay hockey players PuckBuddys since the fall of 2012. I can truly say every book I’ve presented here is one that I’ve loved, whether it’s a sweet romance, a coming out tale or a wildly fun story about a vampire hockey league. The Understatement of the Year by Sarina Bowen is not only a book that I love, it’s a book that grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.
I read this book during a trip to Alabama to watch the Alabama/Auburn Iron Cup tournament in January. I started it during the plane trip and over the course of the weekend I ended up taking my iPad to the rink so I could read before the games started and during intermissions. Finally, I was late to dinner the last night I was there because I was so near the end and I had to finish it. I cried more than once reading it, too, because there are some passages that pull on the heart.
Understatement is the third installment of Bowen’s Ivy Years series, but you don’t need to read the others to start this one (she confirms that fact in the interview coming up). The book focuses on Michael Graham and John Rikker. They were high school best friends, and secret lovers. One night they were out together and were jumped by homophobes. Rikker was beaten badly and Graham ran away. They never saw each other after that… until Rikker showed up at Harkness College as a walk-on to the school’s hockey team. Rikker was kicked out of his other college because he was gay. Harkness, however, was all about You Can Play and the coach was happy to bring him on because they had an opening.
Graham, however, is less than thrilled to see him. While Rikker had long since healed from the physical wounds, along with a lot of the psychological damage the attack caused, Graham relives the attacks nearly every night. And he’s crafted a facade around being straight because of what he’d seen happen to Rikker. That facade starts to crack the moment Rikker shows up.
Bowen alternates chapters between Rikker and Graham’s point of view so we’re right in their heads as the hockey season gets under way. It’s the perfect way to tell this story as they deal with interacting with each other, their teammates and Bella, the team’s incredible team manager. Everything isn’t school and hockey either, there are great glimpses at friends and family for both guys.
It’s difficult to discuss much about this book because I feel it’s important for readers to dive in and experience the powerful story without knowing too much. The unfolding of the tale is delightful. I do, however, want to offer up a couple passages to help illustrate Bowen’s great prose.
This is from Graham, as he describes how he ended up building his facade after the attack: “Before that awful day, naïveté had made me far too content. I’d never realized just how dangerous it was to be with Rikker. I knew we could never tell anyone. That went without saying. But I’d never been forced to witness what would happen if people knew. I hadn’t understood the sheer repulsion that I’d somehow earned by loving another boy.”
According to Showerheadreview.net, as Rikker takes a shower in his new locker room, knowing some of his teammates don’t like it: “People like Big-D have it wrong. They think that the gay guy is going to be the one who’s slowly soaping up his dick, watching you shampoo. But that’s not how it works in a varsity locker room on planet Earth. The gay guy is the one who discreetly goes about his business, showering quickly and then getting the hell out of there. He puts his underwear on when his skin is still damp, even though it will stick up his ass crack the rest of the night.”
I also want to share a quote. I’m not going to attribute it to a character as I don’t want to give up too much detail, but it’s one of the book’s most important quotes: “Every time you move a person into the truth column, breathing gets a little easier, right?”
Beyond writing great character stuff, Bowen also does some excellent hockey scenes. The game scenes are fast paced, and also, occasionally, cringe-worthy.
I hope you’ll take the leap and try out Understatement of the Year. This is among the very best books that I’ve read in the past twelve months, hockey related or not.
Interview with Sarina Bowen
I enjoyed finding out a little bit more about Bowen in the interview. Here’s a glimpse at the author behind Understatement of the Year.
Understatement of the Year is part three of your Ivy Years series. Can you please introduce the series for us?
The Ivy Years is a romance series set at an elite college in Connecticut, and follows players on both the men’s and women’s teams. The first two books are about straight couples. When I made book three a male/male love story, a few people worried that my readership wouldn’t like that. But I brushed those concerns aside, because Understatement of the Year is an Ivy Years book through and through. It just happens to be about two men.
And now I get fan mail from men, which never happened before! Whenever a reader takes the time to write to say that you made him cry on an airplane… you never forget that. It’s the best feeling in the world.
I read Understatement without reading anything else in the series and didn’t feel like I missed much. Was that a bad choice, or are they designed to be read either way–in order or separately?
The books are standalone novels, and can be read in any order. If you liked the team captain Hartley in this story, he’s the hero of the first book.
What was your inspiration for the story of Rikker and Graham?
My fictional hockey players have experienced a full set of college athlete issues — injury, money troubles, broken hearts. But I got the idea for this book when I saw a You Can Play video at a Dartmouth College football game. The most powerful line in the video was, “you shouldn’t be afraid to walk into your own locker room.” It’s a great video, and a very moving ninety seconds.
(Agreed… and here it is…)
I couldn’t stop thinking about that. I went to Yale, which was the most open and accepting square mile on earth. Pink triangle pins were on book bags of both the gay and straight. (Yes, I went to college before the rainbow was invented.) But locker room homophobia is real, otherwise we wouldn’t need You Can Play videos. So Graham and Rikker’s story took hold and would not let go.
With the alternating points of view, we get an amazing look at both characters. What was it like for you going back and forth between them?
I think alternating first person points of view is the easiest way to tell a story, because you have full access to both characters’ heads. The tricky part is establishing voices that aren’t identical. So both Graham and Rikker have speech tics that are theirs alone. (Graham never drops f-bombs, for example. But Rikker does.)
You show some really interesting dynamics here with Rikker having mostly moved on from the high school attacks while Graham continues to relive them. What are you hoping people take away from that part of the story?
Some readers were occasionally frustrated with Graham’s self hatred. But everyone processes trauma differently. The fact that they had such different reactions to an event that happened years ago felt very real to me.
Overall there’s a lot going on in this book between family and friends and some rather significant events. How would you position the overall arc of the story?
To me, this is a book about a moment in life when you have to stand up for who you are. When Rikker shows up, Graham’s carefully constructed facade begins to crumble. And that plays out in every facet of his life: at the rink, at home, with his friends.
An author never knows which moments her readers will cling to. In Understatement there’s a scene where Rikker buys Graham a cappuccino. And I loved that bit, just as I love cappuccino, and it ends up meaning a whole lot more to him than a cup of coffee. But I had no idea that I’d get letters about that bit, or that a cup of (very good) coffee could articulate a character’s arc so handily.
There’s a lot of on-the-job training in novel writing.
It comes through in the book that you’re a serious hockey fan. How’d you become a fan?
I grew up in Michigan, where hockey is everywhere! And now I live on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. I can’t remember ever not liking hockey.
What’s your team (or teams)? Who are your favorite players? Prediction for post season?
My team is Yale, of course. Seriously–I follow college hockey, and have the ECAC app on the front page of my phone to prove it. I can take my kids to see some excellent college hockey with a half hour’s notice and ten bucks a ticket. What’s not to like about that?
Yale is standing in the number three spot, and I feel quite optimistic about the post season! But to have another shot at the Frozen Four they’ll need to beat Quinnipiac, and their last two games ended in a tie.
What’s coming up next for you?
The next Ivy Years book must feature Bella, the bombshell team manager introduced in Understatement. Not a day goes by when I don’t get a reader asking me: what about Bella? So she’ll have to get her due. And soon.
You can learn more about Sarina Bowen’s books at sarinabowen.com
Jeff’s regular PuckBuddys beat includes the Red Wings (and aren’t they having an awesome season!) and reviewing fiction that features gay hockey players. In addition, he’s the author of the Hat Trick series, which chronicles the romance of Simon & Alex, two hockey players who fall in love during high school. The last novel in the series, Hat Trick 3: Penalty Shot is due out in summer 2015. Another hockey romance short story, Rivals, was recently re-released. His latest book is a gay young adult romance titled Flipping for Him, which (shockingly) has no hockey in it. You can follow him on Twitter at @hockeyguynyc.