Oct 09

5 Drops Review: UNDER THE STARS by Geoff Laughton

Title: Under the Stars
Author: Geoff Laughton
Publisher: Harmony Ink
Genre: M/M, Contemporary, Young Adult, Western, Romance
Release Date: October 9th 2014
Length: 180 pages
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Purchase: Dreamspinner | ARe | Amazon

Ethan Tanner is an out and proud, fastidious, and fashionable sixteen-year-old vegetarian who likes theater and musicals. This year, it’s his sister’s turn to pick the vacation destination, so he ends up on a dude ranch he knows he is going to hate. What with the dirt, animals, and germs, he can’t possibly be happy.

Jason McCoy is the closeted sixteen-year-old son of the ranch owners and is trying to find his place in a world that doesn’t seem to fit him. He takes an interest in Ethan, shows him around, and gets him to ride a horse. When he invites Ethan camping, Ethan thinks Jason must be joking. But Ethan takes a risk, and the two boys bond under the stars.

After that, Ethan and Jason are inseparable. Their friendship grows into something deeper as they begin to figure out what they want from life. But Ethan’s home is in Chicago, and the distance might be more than the two teenagers—and their blossoming relationship—can withstand.

I don’t want to do a recap and I believer the blurb does a wonderful job of things. What I do want to touch on in the maturity and enduring strength of the story and characters within the pages. Ethan and Jason come together, against the wish of both boys parents, at least at first. Ethan is out, proud, and a theater boy through and through, while Jason is down to earth, cowboy, and living under the thumb of a homophobic father that sees him as nothing more than a free hand for the ranch.

Watching the two boys dance around each other,  is both fun and frustrating. Ethan’s parents believe Jason to be straight, so they worry about their son’s heart. Jason’s parents figure out pretty fast that Jason is gay (queue the gasp – yeah, though to be honest, it’s only really dad that’s an issue, but that’s more than enough, trust me).

I loved how mature the boys were about their relationship after Ethan has to head back home. Long months separate them, but this is not a journey either is willing to step away from. By the end of the book you’re not only cheering for the now young men, but for love itself. This is an endearing story that I’ve already spoken about to a few teens local to me, lol… and have already purchased copies for them.

If you love YA stories, love and perseverance stories, and a good, strong story, then “Under the Stars” is one you shouldn’t miss. Geoff’s other book, “By the Creek,” is one of my favourite YA reads, but “Under the Stars” tops that list now. Oh, and Geoff… hint: I’d love to see a follow up story for these two, such wonderful characters!

ETHAN SAT in the backseat of his dad’s Cadillac Escalade and did his best not to look out the windows. In fact, he’d been doing all he could for almost like a thousand miles to completely ignore what was happening and where they were going. His sister sat on the seat next to him, excited as all hell. She was twelve and got excited about just about every damn thing on earth. Besides….

“I need to stop,” she said happily, almost singsongy. He wanted to retch.

“Okay, honey,” his mother said from the passenger seat. “There’s a rest area in a few miles and we’ll stop.”

“Great,” he muttered under his breath. He didn’t care if they ever got where they were supposed to be going. But he was getting tired of hour after freaking hour in the car.

They pulled into the rest area in the middle of nowhere and everyone piled out of the car. There were very few people around because, well, who in the hell came to Wyoming anyway? He so didn’t want to be here. He pulled out his phone and texted his best friend, George. He didn’t get an answer. Crap—no signal. He was in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t even get a cell signal.

He sighed, the weight of the world descending on him, and slumped off toward the bathroom. He pushed open the door and immediately crinkled up his nose. It stank. He made his way in, grabbed some paper towels, and used them to open the stall door. He had no intention of touching anything. Gross.

When he was done, he looked at the sinks and figured washing his hands in those would just spread more germs than it would get rid of, so he wiped his hands on the towels, used them to open the door, and then threw them away before hurrying back to the car.

“Ethan,” his dad called, and he shuffled over. “I know this vacation is not what you would choose, but it was your sister’s turn and she asked to go to a dude ranch, so that’s what we’re doing. Last year you chose New York, and I don’t remember anyone making a fuss about being dragged to every Broadway show for nearly a week.”

“But, Dad, a dude ranch? New York is cool. What am I supposed to do at a dude ranch?”

“How about have fun? Spend some time outdoors?”

The thought made him want to gag, but that in itself was gross, so he simply said nothing.

“There will be a lot of activities. The ranch has horses, and you can learn to ride. They arrange camping trips. You and I could go on an overnight and leave the girls behind.” His father looked so earnest that Ethan didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d rather have his manicured fingernails pulled out than do any of those things. He was not interested in horses, cows, pigs, bugs, mud, poop, or anything else he figured came along with spending time at a dude ranch. “Now,” his father lowered his voice and sharpened the tone. “No matter what you decide you want to do, the rest of the family is going to have fun. You can sit in the cabin all day if you like, but the rest of us are going to have a good time. So stop sulking and snap out of it.”

For a second his dad sounded like Cher in Moonstruck, and Ethan smiled. He loved all the divas, and Cher was definitely the queen, at least for this week.

“That’s better,” his dad said, not realizing exactly why Ethan was smiling. “This is going to be a fun vacation. It may not be what you would have chosen, but make the best of it, because we’re going to be at the ranch for two weeks.” His dad sounded chipper and happy. Ethan really didn’t want to take that away from him, and he knew it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good anyhow.

“Okay, I’ll try,” he said as magnanimously as only a sixteen-year-old could muster and worked up his best stage smile. It was all he could do. They were already halfway across the country, and no matter how much he sulked and tried to make everyone miserable, they weren’t going to turn back.

“That’s the spirit,” his dad said with a smile. Then he walked toward the bathrooms. Ethan thought about warning him that it was bad but simply turned back toward the car. They all thought he was some sort of neat freak, so his dad probably wouldn’t listen to him anyway.

Ethan waited by the car for his mother and sister. They came out, pretty much traumatized, so apparently the women’s restroom wasn’t any better than the men’s room. His dad followed quickly, and they all got in. His dad started the engine, and cool air blew through the passenger compartment. Ethan was so relieved. He did not want to sweat through his Dolce.

They got back on the interstate and rode for another hour. Ethan plugged in his iPad and started to play a game. He needed something to pass the time.

“Please turn off the sound,” his mother said, turning around. “It’s giving me a headache.”

Ethan complied. Everything she didn’t like gave her a headache. For a second he wondered if she got a lot of those just before going to bed. Then he remembered he was thinking about his parents having sex and shivered. Yuck. Sure, they did it—they must have, because he and Jessica were here—but he didn’t want to think about it. Well, he didn’t want to think about them having sex. He thought about sex all the time. Most of it centered around Clement Powers and what Ethan thought he’d look like naked in the showers at school. Though Ethan was never going to find out. But a boy could dream, couldn’t he? And Clem was most definitely dreamworthy. Not that he would ever deign to spend more than two seconds around Ethan. Granted, Ethan wasn’t particularly interested in spending time around him. Clem was lucky he was good at sports and had those eyes and a body that would stop a truck, because his brains were certainly taking him nowhere fast.

“Honey, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mom.” Ethan snapped out of his Clem-induced trance and realized both his mother and sister were looking at him. He also became aware that he was sporting wood and breathed a silent sigh of relief that he had his iPad case on his lap. He calmed himself and looked out the window. That cooled things down in a hurry.

His dad turned off the interstate and followed the GPS voice along a country road for what seemed like forever before turning again. They went through some little town that made Ethan shudder. He saw a gas station, a bar, and what looked like a hardware store with tools in one window and mannequins in the other, displaying what apparently was the latest in cowboy couture. Thank God he’d packed enough that he wouldn’t have to buy anything. Heck, if he played his cards right, he had enough clothes that he wouldn’t even have to do laundry until he got home.

Once they were through the town, they turned onto an even smaller road. The bumps went straight up Ethan’s spine. His legs ached, he was tired of sitting, and now he felt like he was inside a blender… without one of those little drink umbrellas waiting at the end.

They turned into a drive and Ethan stared out the car windows. “Is this it?”

“Yes, Ethan,” his father answered.

“Let’s go home,” he proposed, crossing his arms over his chest. It looked worse than he’d imagined, and he’d thought up some pretty bad stuff.

“Just give it a chance,” his mother said.

The car pulled to a stop and Jessica was out in a snap, looking around as though she was in heaven. Ethan stayed in the car and wondered where the nearest airport was. He figured if he could get someone to take him there, maybe he could spend the vacation at George’s house and his family could stay here. “Come on, Ethan,” his father growled. Ethan opened the door. He knew that tone. It meant he was on thin ice and wasn’t going to get what he wanted anyway, so he might as well go along.

“Howdy, folks,” a man called brightly as he descended the porch steps. He was dressed as a cowboy with the hat and red-checkered shirt. “Welcome to the Rocking H. I’m Rick and we’re mighty glad you’re here. I’m the guest coordinator and I’ll be showing you to your cabin and then around the ranch.” The man seemed a little too excited, but at least he didn’t look like a serial killer or something.

“I’m Grant Tanner, this is my wife, Eileen, my son, Ethan, and my daughter, Jessica. We’re all thrilled to be here.”

“You folks had some drive, so I’ll show you right to your cabin. You can get comfortable and then join everyone on the porch for a drink and a snack.” Rick stepped closer. “Now, I bet after you get something to eat, you two would just love to go for a ride.”

Jessica bounced up and down like it was the greatest thing in the world. Ethan was about to convey his regrets as politely as he could when he saw his father glare at him. Yeah, it was going to be one of those family vacations where he would have fun, or fun would be forced on him.

“Okay. Well, we’ll get everything together once you folks are settled. Do you need help with your bags?” Rick walked over to the car and helped get everything out. The back of the SUV had been stuffed to within an inch of its life, and when Ethan’s two suitcases came out, he picked them up and waited until Rick was ready. Then he followed him off away from the main house to a small shack set under a large tree.

“Is this it?” Ethan asked as he stared at what looked like a minihouse, if the house had been built in the Stone Age.

“It sure is. All the comforts of home. Without the cooking or the cleaning.” Rick opened the door, and everyone filed in. Ethan hung back. He figured he’d let them go first in case any wild animals had snuck in.

“It’s just darling,” his mother exclaimed in the voice she used when she was trying to convince herself of something.

“There’s the main room and two bedrooms.” Rick began opening doors, and Ethan set down his bags on the floor. Two bedrooms. He knew what that meant, and there was no way he was sharing a room with Jessica. “The master is here, and the kids can use this one. We have it set up as a bunkhouse style,” Rick continued. No one seemed to have noticed Ethan’s complete horror.

This was quickly turning into the vacation from hell. A low moan sounded from outside the door. “What’s that?” Ethan asked. He jumped inside and slammed the door to keep whatever it had been out there.

“That, my young friend, was a steer. The grazing land isn’t too far away,” Rick explained patiently.

Ethan tried to calm his breathing as he went to the window and looked out. A group of large, dark cows stood nearby, and he swore one of them was looking back at him and lowering its head to point its horns at him.

“I’ll let you get settled, and we’ll expect you at the house in about half an hour.” Rick smiled and left the cabin, closing the door behind him. Ethan carried his bags into the bedroom and set his suitcases on one of the lower bunks. It squeaked, and he groaned softly. Ignoring the bags for the time being, he pulled out his phone. He had one bar, so he sent another text to George. Then he lost the signal altogether. Great, he was probably cut off from everything for the next two weeks.

Ethan heard Jessica in the other room, talking incessantly about all the things she wanted to do. He wasn’t interested and closed the door. He thought about unpacking and pulled open one of the dresser drawers but then closed it again. Nope. He placed the suitcases on the floor near the bed he intended to use, then he pulled out his iPad and earbuds, climbed on the bed, and did his best to try to escape from this entire mess.

It didn’t work. His sister came in, still chattering away. He ignored her. Jessica opened her suitcase and rummaged around in it. She found the clothes she wanted and ran out of the room. He turned up the volume. Kristin Chenoweth could drown out anyone and anything. He closed his eyes and did his best to withdraw from everything.

“Ethan,” his mother said, touching his shoulder.

He sighed and reluctantly pulled the earbuds from his ears.

“Come on. We’re all going up to the house.”

“Do I have to?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said firmly. It was useless to argue, so Ethan put his things away and joined the rest of his family in the other room. His mother was in jeans and a light blouse, looking smart. Ethan thought she should wear clothes like that more often. His father was dressed comfortably as well. Jessica had changed into a cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and a hat. Ethan thought she looked ridiculous, but kept quiet… for now.

“You should change,” his father said as he looked him over.

“I’m fine,” Ethan countered. He had no intention of dressing any different than he usually did just because they were in the middle of nowhere. If these people, whoever they were, had never seen style before, then it was time they learned. “Let’s get this over with.”

Geoff Laughton grew up very near the locations he writes about. Raised in western Michigan, he attended high school outside Muskegon and Ludington. After college Geoff moved a lot, traveled a lot, and ended up living at one time on both coasts. He currently writes full time. Together with his partner of almost twenty years, Geoff still travels, collects antiques, read all kinds of old crap, and loves to get his hands dirty in the garden. He currently lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Geoff loves to hear from readers. Contact him at geoff_laughton@comcast.net.

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