For the Memorial Day SBD:
Title: Stroke to His Cox
Author: J.L. Merrow
Copyright: 2011, Dreamspinner Press
Length/format: e-short story
Poking around Dreamspinner a while ago, I ran across this short story. At first the title made me roll my eyes, then once I read the blurb, I appreciated the word play: the narrator is the coxswain for his college’s boat crew at Cambridge. Also, I’d read a couple of the author’s other ebooks, which have been generally well reviewed elsewhere. Meant to write a review at the time, but then time got away from me. A recent twitter query for interracial m/m romance from SarahF reminded me of this short story once again.
David Tanaka is the coxswain of his college’s rowing team at Cambridge. In comparison to his crew, David is a midget, but he is utterly in charge. It’s clear by their interactions and how they respond to his orders on the river that they trust him implicitly and that his size is relevant only in the sense that the smaller the better since it means less weight to propel. David also has a huge crush on his lead rower, Archie, which he’s suppressed so far for the good of the team.
The wires of the rudder thrumming between my fingers, I had one eye on our heading and the other constantly scanning the crew, watching for signs of weakness or bad timing. My gaze kept returning to Archie, though, and not just because he was the one sitting right in front of me, rowing stroke. His face was tense with concentration, and his eyes were still locked on me as those massive arms pulled on the oar again and again. Blond hair blown back by the wind during the recovery flopped over his eyes as his legs powered him backward on the drive. I felt a tug in the pit of my stomach as the boat surged forward — and then it began again. Catch — drive — recovery. Catch — drive — recovery. Does he dream about this? I wondered.
I used to wank off thinking about this, about Archie rowing stroke, gazing back at me like I’m some sort of god. I used to, until the day we were out on the river and I realized I was getting a hard-on. I nearly dove into the water out of sheer bloody embarrassment. I mean, it’s not like I hid the fact I was a poof, but I made sure I didn’t rub it in their faces.
God, I wanted to rub it in Archie’s face.
The heart of the action of Stroke is a boat race in which the team is trying to earn their oars. I don’t really understand enough about the import of earning oars or “bumping”, but it’s clearly a rite of passage for the team. There’s a fair amount of explanation of the process, but it is conveyed without weighing down the narrative or boring readers (or this reader, at least). The exposition sets up the competition and helps sketch in the team’s dynamic, which otherwise is a little light because of the book length.
Merrow manages to pack a lot of back-story into Stroke. Readers learn that David grew up on the Isle of Wight as one of very few non-Anglo residents. In addition to being non-Caucasian, he grew up being the shortest kid in the class…which was often taught by one of his parents. Then add in the realization that he was gay as a teenager. A less flattering way to describe David’s need to be in charge would be to describe in as a Napoleon complex, but he seems to be pretty self-aware.
My only warning is that this is an EXTREMELY short story. If you keep track of price/word length, you may be a little unhappy. Dreamspinner’s website says this is a 25 page book, but it’s actually 18 pages in the epub format, and five of those are the copyright, cover, author bio, etc.
Having said that, the story fit the short format. It was a quick, fun read, with a different voice, narrator and setting. The story ends with the narrator in a happy place and the potential for an HEA or at least an HFN.
Excerpt available here. Available for purchase at Dreamspinner in multiple formats.
As coxswain of a Cambridge college rowing team, pint-sized Dave Tanaka has eight strapping athletes hanging on his every word, their strength at his command. Leading his crew to win their oars might be easier if Dave didn’t have to hide his crush on Archie, the stroke rower – but as they prepare for their final race, Dave doesn’t suspect that Archie is in the same boat as him in more ways than ons coxswain of a Cambridge college rowing team, pint-sized Dave Tanaka has eight strapping athletes hanging on his every word, their strength at his command. Leading his crew to win their oars might be easier if Dave didn’t have to hide his crush on Archie, the stroke rower – but as they prepare for their final race, Dave doesn’t suspect that Archie is in the same boat as him in more ways than one!