Bear, Otter and the Kid by T.J. Klune
© 2011, published by Dreamspinner Press
Three years ago, Bear McKenna’s mother took off for parts unknown with her new boyfriend, leaving Bear to raise his six-year-old brother Tyson, aka the Kid. Somehow they’ve muddled through, but since he’s totally devoted to the Kid, Bear isn’t actually doing much living—with a few exceptions, he’s retreated from the world, and he’s mostly okay with that. Until Otter comes home.
Otter is Bear’s best friend’s older brother, and as they’ve done for their whole lives, Bear and Otter crash and collide in ways neither expect. This time, though, there’s nowhere to run from the depth of emotion between them. Bear still believes his place is as the Kid’s guardian, but he can’t help thinking there could be something more for him in the world… something or someone.
I’m not entirely certain how this book came to my attention. Maybe a give away, or a review online somewhere? The blurb reminded me a great deal of the plot of the movie Shelter, and it prompted me to see how a novel might treat the same general plot.
As the blurb indicates, Derrick (aka Bear) is acting in loco parentis for his mother, who abandoned his young half-brother, Tyson (aka the Kid) to him just as Bear finished high school, putting the kibosh on any plans Bear had for a college education or escaping her white trash ethos. He’s lucky, though, in that he has a strong support network made up of his childhood friends and their families, who stick with him for emotional and financial support as he raises the Kid, a “vegetarian eco-terrorist-in-training”. In addition to Creed, his BFF, and Anna, his girlfriend and other BFF, who have been physically present for the last three years, there is Oliver (aka Otter), Creed’s older brother who was an original part of the support network but who disappeared abruptly for reasons that are made clear very early – there’s huge tension between Bear and Otter because Bear, ostensibly straight, kissed Otter, out and gay, while upset and drunk. Otter disappeared, more or less, for three years because of his guilt over Bear kissing him and feeling he took advantage. Until the beginning of the book, when he returns and all the tension comes to a head. And that is just the set up of the book and the first couple of chapters!
With Otter’s return, the two of them have to negotiate some sort of truce or ruin their extended family unit. Creed and Anna both notice the tension, and bug them to figure things out while not really understanding what the problem is. The vast majority of what follows is Bear realizing he loves Otter, despite the fact that he is not gay and is not attracted to any other men. In fact, he dismisses the idea of being “gay for you” as being impossible but for the fact that he does love and physically want Otter. Otter is kind of a doormat, indulging Bear in whatever he wants relationship-wise and keeping everything on the down low in front of his brother and Anna. Just as the two of them have begun to figure that out and are ready for the big reveal to Creed and Anna (who have a surprise of their own), potential disaster strikes, pushing them and their relationship back to square one.
There are the bones of a potentially good book buried here. But the bones are buried deep. The book read like a rough first draft, one that had not yet been betaed or reviewed by a crit group, let alone a content editor. Pacing, narration, and some language usage need tightening or review in the book.
Vacuous Minx, SarahFrantz, and I, among others, have noted on Twitter and elsewhere that many of Dreamspinner’s works need better content editing. Even one of our mutual favorites, Sean Kennedy’s Tigers & Devils, could have been just a little bit better (from A- to A) with some words trimmed and the pacing tightened up. And that is very much the case here. BOatK was a Kindle book for me, and it had more than 9,000 “locations”; in comparison, an average mass market paperback usually has between 4,000 and 6,000. Parts of the book dragged incredibly, and there was a great deal of repetitive angst that served no larger purpose. Cutting a good third of the book would have been a mercy.
The Kid as a narrative device is both original and unoriginal. He’s the center that Bear rotates around, and he’s essential to the plot. And yet he’s conveniently absent or able to entertain himself through large chunks of the book, reappearing to give sage relationship advice to his older brother and to take care of him. He’s quirky and different in his fascination with eco-terrorism, and his abandonment issues are realistic and very well done. And yet his emotional intelligence is unrealistic for a child his age – having an eight year old give romantic advice to a twenty-one year old is just plain weird and kind of creepy.
The narration is by Bear in first person for the entire book, but for an epilogue narrated by Otter. And in many places, the narrative style is extremely awkward and self-conscious. Parts of the book scream for the POV of the other characters, but instead of changing POV, those passages are narrated by Bear in a “tell tell tell” fashion, filtered entirely through him and retold by him, even when dialogue or other stylistic devices could be used to better convey the events or speech/opinions/actions of the other characters.
The Gay4U trope and the relationship dynamic between Bear and Otter left me feeling uncomfortable, and I’m struggling to identify and articulate why. I noted in a comment over at Vacuous Minx’s that a couple of the issues were: 1) failure to address the Gay4U issue other than to dismiss it out of hand completely while acknowledging that is exactly what Bear is for Otter – what a waste of an opportunity to actually explore the trope; and 2) the history of the relationship between Bear and Otter and the hints of very early attraction told via flashback, which seems a little squicky to me as it falls a little too closely into the gay=pedo smear.
The nicknames? Cute for a minute and then irritating.
Bear comes perilously close to being a self-sacrificing Mary Sue. And he spends large chunks of the book being an asshat, too.
Some words were used oddly. For example, machismo for macho, tact for tack or tactic, etc. At one point, Bear describes his eyes as being “tacky and crass” after crying himself to sleep; while I grasp what he meant, there is no usage of “crass” that makes sense in that context.
The ending is simultaneously delayed, in the sense that it should have come at least 10,000 words earlier, and abrupt in the sense that the HEA feels manufactured and way too soon for where Bear and Otter are in their relationship.
Someone on Twitter mentioned that the author is planning a sequel to this book, where some of the lingering questions and issues may be resolved, and that better pacing would come with practice and experience. That’s a charitable position to take, but as a reader and consumer, I don’t appreciate being the testing or practice run for an author; if I’m paying full price for a book, I expect it to be polished and produced appropriately by the publisher, with the best efforts of both the author and the publisher. The time for learning your craft is before you start asking people to pay for your work IMO. (Yes, writers learn continuously and continue to hone their craft, but readers should be able to have minimum expectations of the books they buy, in terms of what the authors and publisher bring to the table and charge them for.)
As I read the book, I enjoyed it even as I noted all the things that were awkward or clunky or should have been fixed by a good editor. But ultimately, I can’t really recommend this book to other readers without a huge caveat or warning.