Contemporary · lgbtqia content · MM romance

REVIEW: The Road Between by Patrick Benjamin oooo

The Official Description:  Just because you can go home again, doesn’t mean you should.

Television personality, Parker Houston has spent a lifetime following that motto; Running away at seventeen and vowing never to return to the small, country town that made growing up gay, practically unbearable. But when the death of a loved one forces him home, for the first time in twenty years, Parker has to reconcile the life and the people he left behind. Unearthing secrets and conflicts long buried.

While trying to mend the fractured relationships within his complicated family, Parker meets Bryce, a cocky rancher with a womanizing past. And although the friendship seems unlikely, neither man can deny the explosion they feel when their two worlds collide.

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Just the facts: M/M relationship, dysfunctional family, returning home, painful childhood

This book sneaked up on me and got me right in the gut … this is more than a romance, it’s a story about life.- Kinzie Things

My thoughts bit: This is one of those books that sneaked up on me and gave me a good-sized wallop to the heart. I began it thinking it was a M/M romance… and it’s so much more than that. This is a story about all the things that can happen in life. It’s realistic and challenging and I loved it!

Parker Houston is a TV personality … he’s returning home for the first time since he was a teenager to attend his mother’s funeral. Parker had a pretty horrendous childhood. He was bullied mercilessly at school, and then when he was at home he was forced to deal with an abusive father. When he was finally able to escape… he did and he never looked back. The funeral brings him back home out of respect for his mother and a slight chance at a relationship with his sister.

While embroiled in the dysfunctional family dynamic, Parker meets his sisters’s brother in law, Bryce. Bryce has a past… he’s been a bit of a player but he’s the kind of guy that everyone seems able to forgive. In spite of all the trouble he’s gotten into, Bryce turns out to be a pretty decent guy. When he offers to let Parker stay at his family home rather than the run-down local motel, they become close… and things get even messier.

What’s this book about? Wow. What isn’t it about? I suppose it’s about going back or attempting to. Returning home after a long absence can be difficult enough when you weren’t completely miserable. Parker was damaged by the way he grew up. He was beaten once so badly in High school that he ended up in the hospital. He was gay… and different and it was the reason for everything that happened to him. His father’s disgust is as blatant when Parker returns as it is in the emotional memories of his past.

The book is also about secrets and lies. It’s about keeping things from people because we think it’s for the best. It’s about feeling as though we don’t owe people an explanation about everything we do. It’s about the pain and hurt that comes along with finding out someone was never who we thought they were.

I’m not trying to be cryptic. There are some heavy themes in this book and the writing style is great. Most of the heavier incident kind of caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting some of the twists and turns and found myself as shocked as the characters. I consider that to be the sign of a great author.

Parker is a great main character. Sure, he has his issues (who wouldn’t after the childhood he was subjected to), but he’s made a life for himself. He went on to be what he wanted to be. I liked Parker because he was still, somehow, able to be open to speaking with people and trusting. I liked that because it spoke to the resilience that I believe people have in spite of really troubled pasts.

Bryce was an interesting character! I really liked him and then the author made me really dislike him… and man, I was in a bit of a pickle over all of that. I always consider it to be a sign of excellent writing when my feelings about a character can morph. Again, I don’t want to give away what happens in Bryce’s life to bring about such a change in my feelings for him…but I was really conflicted about it.

This book primarily focusses on Parker and his family. So much has happened in the past that it seems hopeless for Parker to have a relationship with most of his family. I was really emotionally invested in Parker. Benjamin has written a well-thought-out, well rounded and authentic character. He reacts without thinking at times because he’s caught up in the swell of emotion. He smiles in spite of the chaos that goes on around him. He cares. And all of that makes this character a joy to read.

The relationship between Bryce and Parker is sweet. It’s believable… neither of them are caricatures. They are authentic, unique characters and when they become involved… it’s emotional and messy but it’s also a very believable friendship.

I really enjoyed this book, more than I expected to. I loved the way that Parker stood up for himself. I loved his strength and vulnerability. The plot was complex enough to be engaging, and all the supporting characters were intriguing.

Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) alcoholism, physical abuse of a child in memories, fistfights, homophobia, physical assault during a hate crime, infidelity, violence, gun violence, shooting with injury to main character, frequent passages about the death of main character’s mother.

Excerpt

Prologue

Twenty years since I’d left.

Camouflaged by a thick perimeter of poplar trees, you would miss it if you blinked. Even travelling ten clicks under the speed limit. Buried at the bottom of a steep valley, River Bluff was accessible only by a narrow gravel road. So unremarkable and insignificant, that if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t have found it. At the base of the way was a single sign, “Welcome to River Bluff, Home of The Grouch”.

Every August, the town held a contest. Townsfolk nominated the rudest, most inconsiderate and overall “grouchy” members of the community. They declared the person with the most nominations “The Grouch”. For the next year, the winner attended every community event, with an excuse to be rude to everyone in their path. The Grouch participated in every social event — everything from the annual chili cook-off to high school graduation. The title was quite a big deal. As a child, the message was completely lost on me. Now, as an adult, I recognize how bizarre it was for a town to take pride in their unpleasantness. In many ways, River Bluff was a strange place. On the surface, it and its residents seemed utterly safe. Underneath, things were perilous.

Everyone knew each other and each other’s business. Everyone loved each other, yet no one could stand each other. If you were struggling, people would arrive at your door to offer you small scraps of their wealth. If you were successful, even more people would arrive at your door, demanding their cut. The entire community walked a thin line between socialist and militant. If an outsider had a conflict with a resident, the town would band together. They would pick-up their pitchforks to drive away the unwelcome beast. The same was true for any resident who challenged traditional thinking or practices. One could best compare the town mentality to a cult. Either you were one of the faithful, or you were an unwanted skeptic.

In River Bluff, belonging or not belonging was a concept as basic as age. There were only a few roles in which to fit. Boys were football players and girls were cheerleaders. Men worked on farms or in the oil field. Women stayed at home or worked in the town’s restaurants and bakeries. Of course, there were a few exceptions. Educators and physicians could be either male or female, but those positions came with their own sets of challenges. They required a degree. Once you left River Bluff to pursue one, you were seldom welcomed back without scrutiny. In fact, to my recollection, not a single teacher from my youth had been an original resident. They had been transplants from larger cities. Fresh out of university, with no choice but to take a position in a town no tenured educator would accept. For most of us, only a few specific roles were acceptable. That left little room for individuality.

I was aware of this truth whenever I would play dolls with Tanya Caldwell from across the street. Or whenever my mother would catch me reading “Nancy Drew” rather than “The Hardy Boys”. Or whenever I skipped football tryouts to audition for a school play. Or when I received the awkward looks of judgment from children and adults alike. That felt constant. They realized early, as did I, that I was not one of them. I did not belong. I did not behave, think, speak or even walk like them. I was different. Alien. It was that simple.

I was six years old when people first began to see me in this way. I was eight years old when I started to notice for myself. I was in the third grade, and our teacher had given us all an easy assignment. We were to present to the class a report about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of the kids spoke about their parents or other members of their family who inspired them. Brandon Jones wanted to be a mechanic like his father. Stacey Zimmerman wished to use her grandmother’s pie recipes to open a bakery. Jonathan Wilkins planned to take over his grandfather’s farm. Tamara Lane’s greatest ambition was to be a mother. I wish my aspiration had been so simple. It wasn’t. When the teacher called my name, I skipped to the front of the room and proclaimed that I wanted to be Oprah Winfrey.

I realize now how absurd a life goal that must have been to a group of children, especially a group of children with such rational and regular goals. I also realize now, how hilarious it was for a skinny white boy to declare that he wanted to be a strong woman of colour. At the time, it had been the truth. Well, almost the truth. I didn’t want to be Oprah. Instead, I wanted to be like Oprah – which was a notion I could have articulated better. I wanted a job in television. Doing what, I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to be somebody special. I wanted success and fame. I wanted love and admiration. I wanted to be a household name, and in 1989, there was no more prominent household name than Oprah Winfrey. So, in my eight-year-old mind, I wanted to be Oprah. This proclamation acted as the catalyst for the decade of torment that followed.

I soon realized that “different” meant unwelcome. It started naturally enough, with innocent pointing, stares and laughter. Other small torments evolved from there. One boy learned how to make ‘spitballs’ from his older brother. Soon all the boys in the class had hollowed-out pens and shredded pieces of paper. Walking the halls became like storming the beaches of Normandy. I endured whatever shots they fired at me. Some days I would get home from school only to discover that the back of my shirt looked like a papier-mâché project.

By Junior High, things had escalated to acts of violence and vandalism. Another, far more offensive term also replaced my name — Faggot. It was the early nineties, so few teachers took issue with the slur. Few of my teachers took issue with anything other students did to me. One January day, someone broke into my gym locker during Phys-Ed and defecated on my jeans and sweater. Nobody batted an eye. I spent the rest of that frigid day in my sweaty gym clothes and walked home with bare legs. When I arrived home, my father had been so furious with me for “allowing” myself “to be a victim” that he blackened my eye. Then he forced me to launder my soiled clothes by hand, in the bathroom sink.

Robert Houston was a proud man, strong and quick to anger. He despised weakness and strived to purge it from me thoroughly. By force if necessary. One summer, I had woke to find the word ‘Fag’ spray-painted, in several places, on my brand-new mountain bike. I didn’t want my father to know that I was a victim, once again. So, I spent my allowance on a can of black house paint and used it to cover the graffiti. House paint is not intended for aluminum. He saw it and raged.

“How could you destroy a two-hundred-dollar bicycle?!” He demanded, furiously removing his belt. He proceeded to lash me all over my body; across my arms, my back, my legs, even my face. He was often unpredictable in his anger. I never really knew what would set him off or if the severity of punishment would suit the crime committed. It was during those long, summer months at home that I counted the days until the fall semester would begin. I preferred the Devil I knew and could predict.

By senior year, I realized that I was not alone in my exile. Of course, there were others like me, whose differences made them easy targets. I could see them getting shoved into their lockers. I could hear the profanities being slung at them. And they, in turn, bore witness to my struggle. Even though we rarely spoke to each other, we were a brotherhood. We were bound together by our shared experiences and common enemies.

Most outsiders strived for a life of anonymity and blending in. I did not. I grew independent and opinionated. I knew that nothing I could say or do could put me lower on the social hierarchy, and that gave me strength. I decided that if I had to be on the bottom, I would make sure they could hear me at the top. I spoke up, and I spoke out. I drew attention to the town’s lack of gender-neutral youth programs. I rallied for the creation of a peer support presence in our school and a plethora of other causes. The protest against pickled beets in the cafeteria had been a personal victory for me. I argued often and hard and realized I was good at it. I served as captain of the debate team, which was where I felt my most authentic and brave.

I had planted in myself, a seed of success. If it had any hope of blossoming, I knew I had to get out of River Bluff. I had to nurture my individuality and empower my spirit. I was raring to experience the world beyond. So, two days after graduation, I loaded a single suitcase onto a Greyhound bus, Toronto bound. I didn’t leave a note, and I never looked back.

Until now.

Twenty years later.

About the Author

Patrick Benjamin has always had a passion for books.  Growing up in rural Alberta, Canada, books were often the only escape he had from his simple small-town life.  Patrick loves the way books can transport readers into different worlds and times, and expose them to experiences and types of people they wouldn’t normally encounter.  His favourite stories, have always been those with strong, relatable characters. Stories that refrain from painting their characters with perfect brush strokes, and instead present their characters as fully rounded, real people — complete with their own imperfections, humours and motivations.  Those are the types of Characters he aims to create, and its their stories he wants to tell. This is his first novel.

Find Patrick Benjamin on Facebook 

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I received an ARC of The Road Between by Patrick Benjamin via Gay Book Promotions in exchange for an unbiased review.

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