Title: Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover (The Most Popular Guy in the School #1)
Author: Robbie Michaels
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Length: 61k words
Genre: m/m Contemporary Young Adult Romance
Heat: 1 – Sweet/None
Sex Frequency: 1 – None
Keywords/Tags: High School, Physical Abuse, Series, Closeted, Coming Out, Jocks, Nerds, HEA
Rating: Didn’t Like It
High school can be some of the best years of life—and some of the toughest. Mark Mitchell’s strategy for surviving is to emulate the mighty turtle: pull back inside his protective shell and keep a low profile to avoid trouble. And it works—nobody bothers him. Of course, nobody really knows him, either, even in a town so small it seems like everybody must know everyone else.
Mark certainly knows Bill Cromwell, whom he meets officially when his father volunteers him for manual labor at the school. Bill is his polar opposite: outgoing, gregarious, athletic. But when a massive snowstorm traps the two boys together for three days, Mark learns that being popular doesn’t mean you can’t be bullied or abused—or gay—and that bullying doesn’t stop at the school doors.
Mark isn’t naïve. He’s seen the news reports of gay teen suicides, and he’s determined not to become a statistic. But it’s not himself he’s worried about.
I had high hopes for this book, but ultimately I didn’t like it for a variety of reasons, mostly because it needed a lot more work before it was ready to be presented to readers. If it weren’t for the fact that I accepted this for review, I probably would have stopped reading it.
Mark is decidedly in the closet. He doesn’t really have any friends and is a self-proclaimed math nerd. He meets Bill for the first time when they’re forced to unload a truck full of candy bars at the high school over a Saturday. He’s known of Bill forever — they live in a tiny town and Bill is a hottest and most popular guy in school. Bill has never talked to him though, as casually and like friends as on that day. Afterwards, they meet again as the last people leaving the school just as a snow storm hits, leaving Bill stranded with Mark’s family for several days. There, Mark starts to question if Bill is really what he assumed he was and if he’s gay like himself. The two grow into lovers, but outward best friends, as they and Mark’s family take up several public causes against bullying and abuse.
What I first noticed that gave me pause was the rather strained dialogue. The way Mark (as well as the other young people) speak doesn’t sound like a high school student. The words were off and while I noticed that the syntax and cadence of Mark’s speech and narration was at times made to seem quite young, the words and phrases he uses are at odds with how I remember and expect teenagers to sound (like “my peers”, for one example of many).
Perhaps what bothered me the most was that the book is really preachy. Mark and his family continually take up cause after cause, which is fine and they mean well. In fact, the message of the book, the golden rule, is fine and well. I found it difficult to read the same pithy sentiments over and over though, often the exact same quotes. Issues are often explained down to every detail (what is wrong with bullying, etc.) and with melodramatic flair that made it all over the top. A crucial point in the story is a scene where Bill confronts others about bullying and what followed was a quite unrealistic, shame on you speech. It mostly made me feel like rolling my eyes because it seemed a bit callous to treat such really serious issues as if the world just needed a talking to and everyone would go on their merry way, a whole culture changed. Despite the fact that I couldn’t reconcile the realism brought to the story by the real bullying and abuse and then the unrealistic treatment of it, iI was sad that a nugget of a great story was presented and then not explored.
The characters fell flat to me for a few reasons. Mark didn’t act like a consistent teenager. Bill faces some extremely terrible issues that are dropped halfway through the story without any real lasting affect on his character. The way Mark’s parents go about their crusade fundamentally bothered me. Both Bill and Mark often say to jocks who make comments about “faggots” seeing them in the shower that they should be proud they’re “hot enough to get attention from women and men“. I just kept thinking… what?
I kept wondering if I was taking this book completely different than how it was intended because I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t decide if all these were deliberate choices by the author. On the one hand, I could perhaps see where some of it is satirical, but that didn’t completely jibe. Either way, the book needed more work and more editing in my opinion — not only for content but also to deal with some sentence problems. Some of the information that is presented over and over (several times an event or scene is told from beginning to end in the retelling to other characters, and without altering or adding new information which would give the retelling purpose) should have been taken out.
Like I said earlier, there’s a nugget of a good story in here, it just needed a lot more coaxing out before this was really ready for publishing. I probably won’t be carrying on with the series, and I can’t recommend this book to readers. I can see where other readers will like this, so please, by all means read other reviews and decide for yourself. This is solely my opinion and my reaction to the book.