Reader Comments & Reviews
The Rockford Review by Connie Kuntz
Winter – Spring 2019 www.rockfordwritersguild.org
Insightful. Emotional. Relieving. Maddening. Deep. Brave. Urban. Rural. Didactic. Real. Bill Mathis’ novel is about homosexuality and disability, and coming of age and coming out, and growing up and growing wise; all with honesty that fluctuates between shocking and soft. There is cruelty, suicide, early death, and more. There are moments of humor, dysfunction, sexuality, homophobia, understanding, frustration, kindness, and terror. The artfully-written moments are artfully woven in this well-paced, impactful novel. With an emphasis on understanding different needs versus special needs, Mathis gently instructs his readers through powerful, inclusive storytelling.
Reviews by Amos Lassen
Mathis, Bill. “Face Your Fears”, Rogue Phoenix Press, 2018.
What is Normalcy? by Amos Lassen
Over the years that I have been reviewing, I have come across several books that stun me and among them are the thrilling fiction and nonfiction of Edmund White, the lyrical prose of Andre Aciman, the gorgeous poetry Emmanuel Xavier and the journalistic skills that Robert Fieseler in “Tinderbox”. I am now going to add “Face Your Fears” by Bill Mathis to that list of books that I cannot imagine being without. The prose is beautiful, the characters are real people who we come to know and love and the idea is brilliant.
Some of you may know that I have, of late, become active in making the world a better place for those with disabilities and this has come out of a friendship with Lisa, a member of my temple who is totally blind. I was never aware that those with disabilities are treated different than those who are “normal” but I have seen it time and time and it break my heart especially because there is o not one person who has a disability that chose to be that way. I have seen bus and train drivers ignore the fact that someone has a hard time getting on the train because they are blind and I have seen riders ignore the fact that someone with a disability is forced to stand while they are comfortably ensconced in seats reading their I-phones. Not all of us are so lucky to have bodies that work properly and those of us that do should help those who do not. All of this is taking us to my review of “Face Your Fears”, a book that dares to “challenge those traditional concepts of normalcy, family, disability and love”.
We meet Nate McGuire, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who is being raised in a family of achievers. That should be plenty enough of a challenge but Nate has to be fed, dressed and toileted. He is a beautiful person who also has unique skills and abilities that he gradually becomes aware of. Jude Totsian is one of 10 children raised on a Iowa farm. He has no disability and can change diapers, cook, fix broken equipment and milk cows. He has discovered his vocation as a physical therapist. While these two guys are seemingly total opposites, they both experience tragic teen-age losses, deal with family tragedies, and accept who they are and make peace with what they have been dealt. They both also gay men and eventually together. I found that “Face Your Fears” forced me to reconsider the meaning of the world normal and understand that there are many degrees of the meaning of normal. Bill Mathis does not just share the stories of Nate and Jude but as the story builds, we get a look at how homosexuality was considered in Midwest America before the Supreme Court granted our equality. “…even in 1993, this whole area and school still isn’t ready to handle gays in a respectful manner. You must be careful. You must lead a double life. It’s not fair, but it is what it is”.
We are pulled into the lives of Nate and Jude and into their world where they realize that they are so different from others. We come to understand that they see three reasons for this; physical disability, sexuality and family confusion. It is not enough to have special needs, there are issues of sexuality. We see the challenges that they face and we understand them. In doing so, we fall in love with them, see what they see and feel what they feel. We meet both Nate and Jude as youngsters and are with them through adulthood sharing their lives. This is a love story that is replete with strong characters and who triumph over what has held them back. We have had so many coming-of-age stories and coming out stories that it is wonderful to have one that is different and touches our emotions. I could feel myself both smiling and shedding tears as I read.
The novel is told by Nate and Jude in alternating chapters written in the first person. I found myself waxing nostalgic over my own years as a teen as I read how they dealt with theirs. (Remember how much we all wanted to be in the “A” group only to discover that there was always an “A plus” group?). Teen years are traditionally a time of self-discovery and turmoil and being gay and disabled adds to the anxiety. We find ourselves on an emotional journey filed with intensity.
This is a character driven novel filled with nuanced character development of Nate and Jude and there are wonderful supporting characters, there’s a great range of fully formed characters from family members, friends to lovers, and it is through their interactions that we see and examine their family and social dynamics.
As the story alternates narrators, we join them on their journey and as we do we wan them to succeed at every thing they do. I know that I felt early on that I wanted them to be together. Nate and Jude stay with us after we close the covers. Like I said earlier, we live what Nate and Jude live and we also get a chance to learn about their families. I can imagine that it was not easy for writer Mathis to balance the differing perspectives and he does a very fine job of it. I love this book so much that I am rereading it now.
Windy City Reviews with Chicago Writers Association
Wednesday, October 3, 2018 at 3:11PM
Rogue Phoenix Press, July 14, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 323 pages.
Reviewed by Renee James.
In Face Your Fears, author Bill Mathis tells the story of Nate McGuire and Jude Totsian, from each man’s childhood, to his earliest rumblings of attraction to other males, to the adult life events and romances that eventually lead them to each other. It is a novel with significant flaws in craftsmanship and pace, but it has redeeming qualities that recommend it, especially its gentle and touching telling of how gay men experience life, love, and the search for happiness.
Nate and Jude alternate the narration of this story. Nate has Cerebral Palsy, which renders him a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. He is completely dependent on others for even the most basic life functions but compensates with a caustic wit, a loud voice, and a willingness to wield both qualities without fear or reservation in any situation. His suburban-Chicago family is supportive and well-heeled enough to make sure he has the services he needs.
Jude is ten years older than Nate and provides a sharp contrast: he’s athletic, active, and fully integrated into his conservative Iowa farm community as a child. Yet he feels a growing distance from that community as he becomes aware of his sexual orientation and how his family and community would regard that.
The contrast between the two boys’ journeys of self-discovery is profound and one of the elements that most recommend this book. Nate’s life is a succession of physical challenges non-handicapped people might have never imagined—getting a meal, getting to the bathroom in time and needing someone to clean him up afterwards, and dealing with the stares and discomfort his presence causes when he ventures into new places and situations. He deals with these embarrassments by being loud and bold, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes like a brat.
Jude is Nate’s opposite in many ways. He’s physically gifted, relatively quiet, and obedient. He goes along to get along.
The contrasts continue as each boy reaches puberty and begins feeling a sexual attraction to other males. Outspoken Nate wastes little time telling his loving and supportive family that he’s gay, while Jude begins a cycle of many years of a secret life by keeping his sexuality a secret.
The scenes depicting each boy’s early experiences with attraction and love are deep and moving, making this book the kind of read that will linger in one’s memory for many months and perhaps years to come.
As Nate and Jude evolve into their adult years, Face Your Fears becomes more of a romance novel, with frequent twists and turns, angst, and tears in each man’s struggles for love and fulfillment.
While the portraits of Nate and Jude in their early years make this book special, the lapses in storytelling craft slow it to a crawl in places. Author Mathis tells his story in first-person, present tense, which is effective, but it often lapses into long passages filling in back story in past tense. Some transitions in time and place are unclear. And some of the dialogue would be better condensed into summary narration to keep the story moving.
Despite these shortcomings, Face Your Fears rewards readers with moments that are deeply engaging and can change one’s understanding of the world in which we live—a quality not always found in today’s most popular fiction.
Found the book to give excellent insight into coming out with a disability and living with a disability. The characters were interesting the story was fun and kept me engaged. Bill Mathis is very descriptive in his writing. I definitely recommend this book. Charles G. Kesner 5 Stars on Amazon
Buy this book so you can read and re-read it as often as you like.
It’s a wonderful tale that both moves and touches your soul.
I highly recommend it. Nottsdottir 5 Stars on Amazon
This is a heartwarming story about two young men trying to find their identity and happiness. It moved well and, by the end, left me feeling as if they were old friends of mine. Jane Osypowski 5 Stars on Amazon
Bill, wanted to let you know that I finished your book and an happy to tell you that I enjoyed it very much. I liked the characters and found them interesting and I also enjoyed the way you handled sexuality and characters with disabilities. You have a very descriptive style and it was much appreciated by me. The story was a lot of fun to follow. wish you much success on your future writings. Chuck K whose career was spent working with disabled persons.
Just finished your book and it left me with a good feeling. I read Ronni’s comments on the back and after working with special ed students in both elementary and high school I agree that it should be required reading for anyone who works with them. Keep up the good work. B. Gillaspie
I finished Face Your Fears 8 days ago and Nate and Jude remain with me. We left them in 2015 – I want a postscript or epilogue! I want to know how everyone is doing, including David & Bart, grandparents Anna & Peter, everyone! You created great characters, Bill, and they remain with me. Congrats! Vicki J
Growing up different is never easy, but at least until recently, growing up with same-sex attraction was especially dangerous. The opprobrium was almost universal, the bullying inevitable. In Bill Mathis’ touching novel, Face Your Fears, the realization of sexual preference and physical disability among teenagers in the 1990s makes for a compassionate and sometimes humorous story. Jenni Herrick, Shepherd Express, Milwaukee, WI
This is a compelling story that emphasizes the humanity of everyone we meet. It is a story of love, family dynamics, friendships and all the messiness those each entail. The story starts in the early lives of the main characters and moves the reader forward to their coming of age into adulthood. I’d recommend this to others, for sure. 5 Star Amazon Review by iasamni
Just finished your book. It’s amazing! Can’t wait for the next one. Your fan, Marge.
Face Your Fears , a novel of a lifetime of love. With strong, compelling characters this story follows the very different lives of two young men from childhood into young adulthood as they grow to face who they are and who they will become. Tragic to triumphant by turn this sweeping saga is a modern classic! 5 Star Amazon Review by James Brock
I couldn’t put it down, had to finish it…I loved the ending, the rings… Don
I’m reading your book–some nights I keep reading so late I can hardly get up in the morning!!! Carol
Just finished reading the book. With grandsons who are 14 and 16 it was probably more info than I wanted to be thinking about as far as what teens are thinking about regarding sex. Whew! Seriously though, I was impressed with the detail and found it very informative. I was especially struck with your knowledge of the difficulties facing a wheelchair-bound paraplegic... Sue
This book is a heartfelt coming of age and coming out story of our times and so much more! Using alternating, first-person perspective narratives of its two gay male protagonists, the novel gives us an in-depth insight of the emotional turmoils of not only being a teenager but being a teenager and gay/gay and with a disability as well. The writer takes us on an emotional journey with intense highs and lows but the tone remains wonderfully restrained, allowing the readers to develop our own emotional responses. In addition to the nuanced character development of the main protagonists, there’s a great range of fully formed characters: family members, friends, and lovers, and through their interactions we get to examine their family and social dynamics. In the Author’s Note, the writer expresses his intent of presenting one of the main characters as having different needs and not special needs. I feel this intent was fully achieved, and I feel I got to know these families and the two main characters. I kind of wish they were my friends. 5 Star Amazon Review by Csilla
This is one of those books that I think all people should read to become more compassionate and open minded to all the “different” people you may encounter in your life. Bill Mathis does a wonderful job of telling you the story of some “different” people with a funny, thoughtful, lovely story of two boys who turn into men and their story and all those who impact it. This book is delightful and worth the read. Alyssa Norsby on Goodreads, 4 Stars!
A wonderful telling of two young men finding each other, falling in love, and building a future together. Rich in details, I gained a deeper appreciation of the challenges a person with severe disabilities faces. How do you become an independent person when you depend on others to assist you with your most basic needs? This is not the correct question. It is a question an able-bodied person can easily ask. A better question is how can Nate, a kid with CP growing into manhood, become the best that he can be. The author describes how this can be: by the love and support of family, whether biological or chosen, and community. This is a well written novel with wonderfully developed characters and a beautiful message. Tom Slater on Goodreads, 5 Stars!
More stars, comments & reviews on Goodreads (click here).
ON BOOKS & WRITING
October 8, 2018
Face Your Fears
This book grew out of one story, a severely handicapped kid kicking a urinal down rows of seats at White Sox Stadium. Bill Mathis was not only a witness, but he was the chief chaperone for the group of handicapped youths he brought to the game.
Bill told the story to all of us at Stateline Night Writers — a writers group in Beloit, Wisconsin — and we laughed. And then we saw over the next months how he worked that story of Nate and a second character he created-Jude-into a gay romance story that was alternately devastating and celebratory.
It’s not my book, I admit it at the top. But if gay literature rings bells for you, you’ll find Face Your Fears a helluva good read.
It’s Bill’s second novel that I look forward to — Rooming House Diaries. It’s finished, and he’s now shopping it around to publishers. Masterful, brilliant writing in this book. Stories filled with pathos, joy, and, yes, tragedy, too.
Comments from the Beloit Public Library Book Discussion Group September 26, 2018, Beloit, WI: Enjoyed the dialogue, it showed the story and explained the situation quickly…I learned a lot about disability and being gay…I was hesitant to start reading Face Your Fears having just completed a rather laborious LGBTQ book, but I was immediately hooked and couldn’t put it down, I loved it…The differences between the two main characters was startling and really contributed to the book…Your book discussion guide question dealing with income and means relative to a disabled person’s quality of life was eye opening…I was shocked when (a secondary character) died!Why?…You obviously have a good understanding of big families, disability and different characters…It was like reading about real people, the kind you have coffee with or the neighbors across the street…I thoroughly enjoyed it, but in your next book you need to find other words to signify crying, the word was a little overused, though it’s a very up-beat book…I found it informative and entertaining…