Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Link: Amazon | All Romance
Just a few more months and Michael will be able to graduate and leave the hell that is high school. Bullied and tormented, his only relief is his love of music and his bass.
When Jamie transfers to Michael’s school, the two become fast friends. When Jamie catches on to what everyday life is like for Michael and his subsequent low self esteem, Jamie has a fierce need to protect him.
With Jamie playing guitar and Michael singing and playing bass, the two guys connect on a musical and spiritual level with a friendship that seems fated. When their friendship soon has their feelings turning into something more, neither of them knows how to handle it. Growing up in 1970s Wales, neither Michael nor Jamie even know of anyone that is gay and their feelings confuse and scare them. They cannot even talk to each other about it, let alone anyone else.
Lines get continually crossed as the boys are unable to stay away from each other physically. Jamie, who is scared and disgusted with himself, lashes out at Michael when he decides they have to avoid each other completely and Michael is devastated at the loss. But, when Jamie starts a new band the missing piece is Michael.
On the road and seeing each other every day in close quarters has Michael and Jamie fighting themselves, each other, and a record company in a time when two men together is virtually forbidden, looked upon with disdain, and ended careers.
Just Playing is a novel, but in its most basic form it’s a love letter written by both Michael and Jamie. It’s excruciatingly breathtaking in its simplicity and it’s excruciatingly breathtaking in its complexity. The story is Michael and Jamie, their relationship and their feelings, without much of a larger plot line, that’s the simplicity. The era of the 1970s that they lived in and the confusion and sheer emotional turmoil they both go through, that’s the complexity. The writing is descriptive, lyrical, poetic, romantic, and at times beautiful. It’s quite something to see how Bohm is not only able to keep the intensity up, but gradually increase it all the way through the story. If lots of descriptions, adjectives, and visual narrative passages are not your thing, this probably will not be your liking. But, there are so few books out there delivering this and it’s a rare and worthy treat.
Michael already feels broken and worthless and having a friend like Jamie come into his life is exactly what he needs. A camping trip, a forbidden magazine, a bit of experimentation, and a few words inadvertently spoken by Michael, and Jamie starts to completely spiral out of control. They both have sexual thoughts about each other and they are both horrified believing that they are alone with their thoughts and feelings. As Jamie is tormented by his own thoughts he thinks of Michael’s words:
Those words…they had unlocked something, like a drug that made you see the world in a new way, only it wasn’t all psychedelic colours and peace on earth, it was bloody mayhem.
Bohm does an amazing job of dissecting the sheer terror both boys feel about being attracted to each other. The entire book is read with a rush of adrenaline, a higher awareness, as the angst Michael and Jamie feel walks right off the page and sits next to you. (or maybe wraps itself around you)
While the book is set in the 1970s, the only indication of that is the music the band is playing or listening to. Other than that, there are few references to draw on that it is indeed the 70s. Being that it is so important to remember the decade the story is set in, due to public mindset, a bit more immersion into the era would have been helpful. There are a few standard situations that put the boys in close proximity to each other that had me at times thinking “of course that happens,” such as one of them tripping and falling into the other or a prank that leads to them sharing a bed. The guys getting any kind of grip of sorting out their feelings for each other takes the entire book. Their actions keep going one touch further and although Jamie initiates some of it, he then panics and verbally calls Michael out. Bohm takes us up for a brief moment only to plunge us back down time and time again. This allows for minimal forward motion at one point, but the overall payoff was worth it. Granted it was a different time and we are continually trapped with Michael and Jamie in their downward spiral and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
While the imagery of their thoughts is what ultimately made the book and Jamie’s descriptions of Michael has a magical, transcendent quality at times, it is a contrast to their way of speaking. Michael and Jamie both speak age appropriately when in conversation. Their thoughts and inner dialog, especially Jamie’s, is a lot more mature than their spoken voice. Sure, most people think differently than they speak, it is just a noticeable contrast here. There just is so much descriptive prose and the way Jamie sees and thinks about Michael is really just on a higher plain. The secondary characters are limited and while bandmate Cal is a great friend to both guys in a sea of adversity, his presence is less dynamic compared to the intense visual quality of Michael and Jamie. A little bit more from him would have allowed for a smaller contrast between the characters. But all of this is minimal and really does not take away overall from the essence of the story.
When Michael, Jamie, (or the reader) cannot possibly take it anymore, they come together much like the crescendo in a symphony and we soar with them only to have our wings cut down (omg!) yet again. Just Playing — read it and know that the sequel is already available so when you crash land you can move on right away and that is exactly where I am heading off to.