REVIEW: BAREFOOT IN THE CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS(Russel Middlebrook: The Futon Years Book 2) – by Brent Hartinger

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AMAZON SYNOPSIS: “There was no way moving to Los Angeles was going to make me give up my soul. After all, I’d already seen all the movies about Hollywood. I knew how things worked.”

Twenty-four year-old Russel Middebrook and his boyfriend have moved to Los Angeles so Russel can try to make it as a screenwriter.

Almost right away, in a forgotten old house off of Sunset Boulevard, Russel meets Isaac Brander, a once-famous film producer who is convinced he can turn Russel’s screenplay into a movie.

Russel knows that success can’t possibly come this easy. After all, most of Russel’s Los Angeles friends are so desperate to make it that it’s downright scary. His ex-boyfriend, Otto, is trying everything to become an actor, and Daniel, the sexy neighbor, doesn’t even need a casting couch to get naked.

So what’s the catch with Mr. Brander? Could it be that movies about Hollywood don’t tell the whole truth? But what does that mean for Russel’s soul?

REVIEW: Honestly, my feelings towards the book are that this is an excellent story of a young man’s struggle to become a writer in Hollywood… which is totally undermined by its connection to the Russ Middlebrook series.

The plot: Everything about it was so well researched, and well paced. The mystery behind Brander , the charismatic former producer offering Russel a deal that’s too good to be true, was intriguing, and it constantly threw new hooks and twists at me at the exact right moment that kept me reading on, leading to an excellent payoff that was  utterly inevitable and utterly gutting… if i actually had any investment in Russel’s dream as a screenwriter. Unfortunately, this is my first big problem which was caused by its connection to the main series.

Russel spent three books not showing any interest in writing, and he spent the entire previous book not being interested in writing until the final chapter where gay-icon-fairy-godmother Vernie tells him maybe he should become a writer.Not because he’s talented, but he’s special. Now writing’s his LIFE LONG DREAM (of five minutes) that he’ll risk EVERYTHING for. Yeah, this wasn’t well set up and that really undermined the story. My internal questioning of Russel and his screen writing desire felt a lot like this:

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Brick’s love of lamp… still more built up than Russel’s screenwriting career.

The fact that i enjoyed it in spite of this gaping flaw says a lot about its quality, especially since this book contains so many things that I couldn’t care less about. I couldn’t care less about old school Hollywood or the inumerous references he throws in. If i ever became Queen of the world, I would ban writers writing about writing, because a) you’re a writer, you can literally be anything or anyone and create whole new worlds, yet you chose to write about yourself. That is beyond unimaginative b) it always ends up feeling self indulgent. Always.

The Cast: The series has always been a slice of life romance at its heart, which focused on love, friendship,acceptance and Russel’s human relationships.This sadly, is where this book truly deviates from the series. This book focuses purely on Russel’s ambition, and not on any of his human relationships.  The biggest clue that this was never truly meant to be part of the series is the loss of Min (whom I love) and Gunnar (whom I hate- but I’ve learned to tolerate), his two most important friendships. Still, the other characters that were there were good (well, except for Love Interest Kevin who I’ll get to later).

The Otto sideplot was one of its strongest, and its only real spiritual connection this book had to the main series. When I was first introduced to Otto in The Order Of The Poison Oak, I thought he was just going to be the token non-conventional attractive love interest, there to teach us a lesson about looks not being everything … before we go back to fantasizing about the good looking ripped, macho baseball stud.

Okay, Otto is completely the token not hot love interest (like hell was he ever going to be the series love interest over sexy Kevin), but he’s proven to be so much more. He’s funny, confident in who he is and more level headed than our melodramatic protagonist.

In all honestly, I wish we were reading about him. Unlike Russel, who is hot, has great friends, a ridiculously loyal and perfect boyfriend and was able to get a great place to live as soon as he left college and yet still moans about his non problems more than Louis from Interview With The Vampire, Otto has genuine problems. He has double minority status as a gay man and a disabled man, and his scar seriously affects his career choices and (it’s implied) his ability to date.

His struggle to become an actor in spite of the prejudice faced by someone who’s physically scarred was brilliant, heart wrenching (in spite of seeming kind of random) and extremely nuanced. It would have been so easy to paint the Hollywood casting agents who reject him as big , prejudiced monsters, but it didn’t; in one excellent speech, it showed us that even if the prejudice they were perpetuating was wrong, the dog eat dog nature of the Hollywood system meant that doing the right thing could lead to career suicide . The way that Otto dealt with the prejudice and came into his own was clever and realistic.

The story of his lesbian screenwriter and comedian neighbors was really well done, too. They provided a perfect foil to Kevin and Russel’s dilemna, and their resolve at the end was extremely realistic. Again- they were characters belonging to a standalone novel- cogs used to highlight the dangers of the Hollywood culture, not actual characters in their own right the same way Vernie or Min were, but that’s okay. They were still interesting and well utilized.

The weak link in subplots sadly, was the  Daniel side plot which is a shame because it had such a strong start. It spent so much time developing him and his sexy, fascinating (boner inducing) mind games, and I was hooked every scene and intrigued where this was going- but then the payoff was rushed. I would have loved to have seen this developed, as the sexually charged power play between him and the leads was fascinating and I’m not going lie, really, really hot. The sexy Latino is a bit of a dubious stereotype, but considering Hartingers record of writing strong POC (especially Min, whom I miss), I’m willing to give him a pass (this time) and say this was just… unfortunate.

The Protagonist: Now we get to the biggest problem with this book. Russel Middlebrook. I could forgive his random desire to become a screen writer if he was a somewhat likable character. But he’s not, he’s really not. He’s completely self absorbed and makes everything about him and treats his boyfriend like crap.

Kevin is reduced from fully realized character to passive supportive partner- the sweet partner who’s happy to smile at the sidelines, rearrange their whole life and sacrifice their dreams for their lover and require no sacrifices in return. He gives up everything for Russel, sacrificing his career for Russel, yet Russel shows a complete disinterest in any of Kevin’s struggles throughout the entire book. This is ironic, considering Russel wants to write a screenplay about the true nature of gay love, and yet he keeps on neglecting his actual gay love.

Okay, the book does acknowledge that Russel has been awful and has him apologize to Kevin for his appalling behavior at the end, but he still doesn’t really learn or change. And how much he doesn’t change is exemplified at the end, which is a minor spoiler, so if you want to go into this blind, skip to the next paragraph.

SPOILER The epitomy of how self involved Russel has become was the proposal. This should have been a moment about the two of them, how far they’ve come, and for the old Russ- the Russ of the Geography Club- it would have been. But it wasn’t. First, he proposed to Kevin on the Hollywood sign- something that’s his passion, not Kevin’s, as Kevin made clear he didn’t enjoy life in Hollywood. Regardless of whether he says ‘who cares?’ about what movie was shot there, which is supposed to show that he’s moved on from his obsessing about Hollywood over. Even if And his final reflection? After he proposed he wasn’t focusing on Kevin’s sacrifices, his future with Kevin, the life they could lead. It was all about Russel. Russel’s journey, Russel’s dream- Kevin barely even featured into it- he said a half hearted few lines of dialogue.  This is something I could tolerate in a standalone, if Kevin had just been a flat love interest from the start, but he wasn’t. He was a long established character. I honestly can’t think of any reason that Kevin is with Russel, except main character privilege.

I could tolerate this if he was developing into a less selfish person . Russel doesn’t learn! At the end of the last book, he made Gunnar’s emotional heart break about SPOILER his dad’s cancer diagnoses about himself and his issues finding himself. He hasn’t changed in this one, and i doubt if it will change in the final one. It’s also a problem, because Russel and Kevin are moving to a place of greater commitment and yet I don’t know why Kevin gives Russel the time of day.

This is a great shame, because of how likable Russel was in the original series. He actually took time to listen to other people’s issues and he could be blinded by his own self absorption, but he’d always learn and try and become more understanding. Now, he listens to other people- not because he wants to understand them, but because of what their problems can teach him about his (more privileged) life . He’s actually regressed as a character- he’s more selfish, more self absorbed, less empathetic; he actually has a few issues of internalized homophobia or effeminaphobia that weren’t present as a teenager… which doesn’t necessarily make a bad character. In fact, he is very human and he could have made an excellent character if either he really learned and developed, or we weren’t supposed to like him. Unfortunately, because we’re meant to route for him to achieve his ‘dream’ of becoming a screenwriter (ugh), his unlikability made it hard for me to route for him.

Verdict: As much as Russel and his tacked on dream frustrated me, this is still a very well written story about a struggling screenwriter, and as usual Hartinger creates excellent side characters. If you haven’t read any of the previous novels, I would definately pick this up because this is much more enjoyable as a stand alone than a Russ Middlebrook novel. If you’ve already read the series and you didn’t hate the new Russel in the previous books than still pick this up. Even if for no other reason than to say you’ve completed the series.

 

 

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