Review: Missing, Presumed Dead – A Gritty Queer Paranormal Mystery that I’m Side-Eyeing

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Title: Missing, Presumed Dead
Author: Emma Berquist
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: ???

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With a touch, Lexi can sense how and when someone will die. Some say it’s a gift. But to Lexi it’s a curse—one that keeps her friendless and alone. All that changes when Lexi foresees the violent death of a young woman, Jane, outside a club.

Jane doesn’t go to the afterlife quietly. Her ghost remains behind, determined to hunt down her murderer, and she needs Lexi’s help. In life, Jane was everything Lexi is not—outgoing, happy, popular. But in death, all Jane wants is revenge.

Lexi will do anything to help Jane, to make up for the fact that she didn’t—couldn’t—save Jane’s life, and to keep this beautiful ghost of a girl by her side for as long as possible.

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Here’s a fun dilemma:

What rating do you give a book that contains literally everything you love–a complex bisexual female protagonist, a gritty paranormal mystery, exploration of mental health, ghost girls, f/f romance–and executes most of them very well, but then you come across three or four lines that make you go, “I’m sorry, what??” and put a damper on the whole thing?

Asking for a friend. (Hashtag-I-am-that-friend)

Okay, let’s backtrack for a bit. Missing, Presumed Dead is like the queer YA version of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, starring a girl who can tell the how’s and when’s of someone’s death by touching them skin-to-skin. Except I’m not sure ‘YA’ is even the right label because many of the characters either feel older than their teenage years or are actually older; personally, I think it’d sit more comfortably as a New Adult.

As far as paranormal mysteries go, it’s fairly typical of what you’d find in a lot of adult books: a club that doubles as a sanctuary for people with magical abilities (witches, psychics, etc), a sudden surge of missing and/or dead kids, and a ghost girl with no recollection of how she died. Thing is, though, we don’t really find these kinds of stories in YA–especially ones tinted with shades of horror and noir–so this was a much-needed breath of fresh air for me. The mystery is engaging, the pacing is quick, the worldbuilding just vivid enough to hold your interest, and the protagonist is….well. The protagonist is messy and sharp all over and I was such a huge fan in the beginning.

Lexi is, to be blunt, miserable, and understandably so, considering how her abilities don’t allow her to engage in physical affection and intimacy of any kind. Through Lexi’s lens the story becomes a portrait of loneliness and depression, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I adore stories that dive deep into the psychological baggage that comes with having supernatural powers.

Really, the only major issue I had was with the love interest Jane, who just isn’t as interesting or well-developed as Lexi.

And then I ran up against The Problem, which starts with this little passage:

“My Jane has never looked this carefree, this innocent. My Jane is angry and wild and a little cruel. I know which one I prefer.”

and this one:

“I’d rather have her furious and bitter, I’d rather have her sad, anything but this scornful, spiteful ghost sneering at me across the seat.”

It’s perfectly normal to desire a connection with someone who understands first-hand the pain you’re going through. I get it. I’ve been there. And that’s what initially drives Lexi and Jane together. But you can’t build a relationship on a foundation of mutual suffering. “I can fix your pain and you can fix mine” may sound sweet and romantic, but what it often ends up becoming is an echo chamber of hurt coupled with codependency.

And wanting someone to remain miserable and fucked-up, because that’s how you feel most of the time, is selfish and unhealthy. I’m all for YA stories exploring unhealthy relationships or unhealthy mindsets regarding relationships, but I need them to address the fact that yes, this is, in fact, unhealthy and here’s how we can move forward from that, which this book never does, and that sits so wrong with me.

And the crazy thing is that the core this issue can be fixed by just taking out those four lines.

So yeah. I’m conflicted. And frustrated. And I spent more time trying to figure out what rating to give the book than writing the actual review.

Which is why I’m giving it a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the end.

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: The Mortal Sleep – Stripped Me Open and Healed Me Anew (Why I’m BEGGING You to Read this Series)

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Title: The Mortal Sleep (Hollow Folk 4)
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Independent
Release Date: April 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery, Romance
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 491

Rating: ∞/10

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Brief overview of Books 1-3: A gay psychic teenager named Vie Elliot moves into a small rural town in Wyoming and gets himself involved in a series of murders, kidnappings, and paranormal activities. This is a story of found families, love, complicated relationships, and facing demons within and without.

(You can read my reviews of Book 1-3 HERE)

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 “Maybe it’s all of us, I thought in a flash. Maybe we all believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve love. Or— maybe not all of us, maybe not some lucky assholes— but most of us. Maybe most of us are just as uncertain, just as frightened, just as desperately hoping that we’re worth loving and that the person we love loves us back.”

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I’ve been writing reviews for over a year now. And within that period I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a whole range of emotions–from hair-pulling anguish frustration to joy and nervousness and anxiety.

This is my first time being scared of writing a review.

Like, really fucking scared. Like, shaking in my chair scared. Because I could string together every language that has ever existed in this world, scrawl them into a 1000-page epic, recite it from dawn to dusk until my throat is torn, and still come up with nothing that could describe what this book means to me. And that kills me.

My brain tells me I need to spend several weeks on this review at the very least. But my heart tells me no, I need to do this right now. Because all those immediate emotions that I’m feeling? They’re the ones I need to seize. And because fears need to faced when they’re at their freshest.

So, okay.

This is a book that feels entirely too big to fit in this universe let alone my heart. One that I want to clutch so hard to myself that I become it, or it becomes me. And I would happily give up half of my consciousness, half of my soul, for it to live and grow inside me. But then I realize there’s no need because it’s already claimed it from Book 1.

And when I walk, it walks with me, anchoring my steps. When I look out into the morning light, it looks out with me, radiating hope. When I’m crumpled on the ground it’s there, pulling me up.

Which all sounds a little crazy. It sounds like the ramblings of a soon-to-be maybe-killer (“Well, that Kathy. I mean, she was pleasant. Polite. Never caused any trouble. Although…she did say all those things about that book that one time. Guess that should have been a warning bell, huh?”) But “crazy” just about defines this book. Because perfection doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t exist. And yet it’s sitting right here in my hand.

So what can I tell you about The Mortal Sleep?

I can tell you how heartstoppingly beautiful Ashe’s writing is. I can tell you how his characters aren’t characters; they’re people existing in some other reality, other dimension, projecting their lives into his brain, and now they live in these books like it’s where they always belonged–across ink and paper, instead of flesh and blood–and their relationships are so exquisitely developed that they become your relationships.

I can talk about how the buildup of tension, with regards to both plot and character development, is off-the-walls phenomenal. I can talk about how he’s raised the bar for storytelling from book to book and how he has surpassed it yet again. I can talk about how series finales are so, so incredibly hard to nail, and yet he does it (because of course).

But what makes this book a veritable masterpiece (and I don’t use that term lightly), what makes it stand shoulders every other book I’ve read in the past two years, is that it peers into every dark crevice of the characters’ pain and suffering–into the heart of what makes us us–and it Does. Not. Flinch.

The line between honesty and gratuitousness is a thin one when it comes to stories that try to tackle depression and suicidal behaviour. Gregory Ashe walks it while balancing four different genres and reciting poetry that would make the angels weep. Without condoning it, the book doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and the violence that comes with mental illness.

And it’s not pretty. It’s not sugar-coated.

But it’s true. It’s so, so fucking true.

Like, there’s a scene where Vie goes out his way to deliberately hurt his boyfriend (using words), and at first he tells himself that he’s doing it as a favour–he’s doing it to push him away, to save his life. But then it morphs into something uglier. Because sometimes you turn other’s words and actions (even the innocuous ones) into ammunition against yourself–reasons for why you’re unlovable and discardable. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much and you don’t know how to deal with it, so it overflows onto the people you love. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much that you want them to feel just an ounce of it, and you derive a kind of awful, aching almost-pleasure from that. And on the heels of that comes blackness and self-loathing.

All of that. And all the reasons why we might hurt ourselves (and, in turn, the ones we love). And hate ourselves. And try to end ourselves.

Just…How.

How do you put that mess of emotions into words that I can recognize?

This book gets so many things so right, so real, that it felt like I was experiencing them again for the first time. And I was shaking and crying so hard that I had to go take multiple walks to calm myself down (and this was past 12 AM).

And I honestly don’t know how he does it. Maybe it’s magic. Or pure talent. Or power sourced from earth’s core. I don’t know how he does it but he does it, and I’m thankful to the point of tears because I can look at Vie’s scars and look to my own and nod and say “Okay.” And that’s enough.

This book (and series) is a bulwark against the voices urging me in the middle of the night, whispering that surely this time I can get the dosage right. And I know it can be so much for so many of you too. For all of you who have been broken and ground down. Because in spite of how dark it gets, this is a series about hope. And love–so, so much love. Finding it. Losing it. And slowly, oh so slowly learning that maybe, just maybe, you’re worthy of it and every other goddamn thing that life has to offer.

The Mortal Sleep has taken the top of my Best of 2019 list (and my heart and my sleep and my every waking thought) and it won’t be moving for the rest of the year.

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Complimentary copy provided by the author. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Hollow Folk – Why You NEED To Read This Brilliant Series

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Series: Hollow Folk
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Self-published
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery
Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 10/10

Before we begin, I’d just like to point out that this is a long review. So to prevent the post from being a giant wall of text, I’ve peppered it with pretty pictures. And not random pictures–ones actually relevant to the story and the characters!

So I’m BEGGING you to stick through it to the end, if not for my sappy writing, then for the aesthetics, because these books deserve it.

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The Hollow Folk books are about a queer psychic teenager investigating serial murders and criminal activities in a small rural town. There’s drugs, corruption, grisly corpses, and–

No no no, wait. That’s not right. I mean, all of that’s true, but it sounds…I don’t know, too flippant.

Let me try again:

The Hollow Folk books are about about a queer psychic teenager named Vie Elliot. Vie has been taken away from his abusive mother and sent to Wyoming to live with his father. His father who is marginally better than his mother–which is kind of like saying that tickling a grizzly bear is slightly less dangerous than pulling its tail. He’s juggling a lot of demons–like anger issues and mental health struggles–and his powers only add to his misery because whenever he touches or makes eye-contact with someone for the first time, he gets funneled into their worst memory. But he finds himself having to to rely on his ability to solve a series of murders in his new town.

Eh…Kind of. But still missing something.

C’mon brain, third time’s the charm:

The Hollow Folk books are about the monsters that we fight–both within and without. About going toe-to-toe with your darkness and emerging shaking and triumphant. About the pain and hardship that seep into our bones and shape us in ways that we can’t predict. A story about how power comes in all different forms and vulnerability is sometimes the greatest–hardest–form of courage. A story about finding love and acceptance even when you can’t find the will to love and accept yourself.

Yeah. That’s more like it.

Last month I wrote a post on the five topics I’d like to see explored more in fantasy, and mental health was one of them. These books show exactly how it should be done. The Hollow Folk series weaves paranormal, mystery, and romance alongside issues of self-harm, depression, and suicide to create a story that is as exciting and thrilling as it is heartwrenching and so, so important.

Let’s get to the plot first, shall we?

The series opens up with the disappearance of a high school girl and the realization that Vie isn’t the only “gifted” person in this town. Each sequel follows a new mystery that links back to the previous book and each are fresh and different and wholly engaging. This small town isn’t as innocent as it appears, and seeing our characters peel back layer by layer, all its strange, sordid, extraordinary secrets is such a treat to experience. And with each book, the paranormal stuff ramps up to exciting heights. Among other things we get telekinetics, pyros, ghosts, a Native American woman with the ability to create psychic pocket dimensions (at least, I think that’s what they are), and in Book 3, we get an all-out X-Men style battle with a bunch of superpowered people going to town on each other. It’s exhilarating, badass as hell, and the series is worth reading just to experience that scene.

Now for the characters.

Gregory Ashe writes his characters with an astounding degree of patience and poise. And Vie is without a doubt the most complex character I’ve encountered this year. I was this close to making a diagram to explain what makes him so phenomenal, but I figured that would make this already-too-long review into a 20-page essay.

Here’s the short version: every part of his character–from his past actions, his current actions, his physical appearance and so forth–says one thing about him, but it also says the opposite. Take his appearance: Vie’s built himself up to this big, tough, strong physique. Everything about it says, “Nothing can touch me. I’m invincible. I’m fearless.” But he’s not invincible. And he has fears. A lot of them. He’s given himself this tough outer shell because he is afraid–because of all the abused that’s been heaped on him over the years. And that’s what people do. We try to make ourselves into something more than what our brains tell us we are–weak, ugly, small, whatever–and the author portrays this so goddamn beautifully.

Ashe adds layers to Vie, and then layers to the layers. It’s just so absolutely masterful and my heart aches at the complexity of it.

Vie Collage

I think suicide and self-harm are minefield subjects to tackle in fiction. They’re very easy to romanticize and books sometimes have them just for the sake of adding an extra dollop of angst and conflict. But these books nail them. Like, really nail them. There are small details that knocked my breath flat with how real they are and I was a teary mess by the end of many chapters. These scenes aren’t easy to read through (understatement of the year); they’re heartbreaking and painful and they dredge up a lot of emotions that I’ve tried to bury in some dusty corner of my mind.

But I still couldn’t take my eyes away.

And a lot of that has to do with Vie’s narrative voice, which is sometimes funny, other times sad, and all-around gorgeous and stunningly raw. Reading it is like seeing the rest of the world drop away until there’s just you and him and this journey that you’re taking together, because make no mistake, you are experiencing the story with him– through every danger, every heartbreak, every faltered step, you will be right there feeling everything alongside Vie. It is utterly impossible to not love this character.

It was music like rain falling on lake water, like storms that had closed in and made sunshine a thing that was always just a little farther to the west. It was shaking free all the razored thoughts I kept packed away.

But guess what? There’s more to this story’s brilliance. Because Vie isn’t the only character with layers.

We also get Emmett, the rich kid with the razor-sharp attitude. The kid who has everything that Vie never had–money, designer clothes, food, a future, and a mostly-intact family. The kid who cloaks himself in arrogance to hide the fact that he’s actually a kid who’s drowning in self-hatred but cannot fathom saying the words, “Save me.”

There was a relentless drive in Emmett towards self-harm, and it masqueraded as self-protection. That a was nightmare combination.

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There’s Austin. Your typical jock with the blonde All-American Boy vibes. Your typical jock who’s really not a typical jock at all but just a boy whose anger and discontent masks a kind, insecure heart.

He was the boy next door, and seeing him made me think of those dumb horses River and Jimpson, and the way he held the steering wheel, and how he stood sometimes with his back straight, so cocky but not realizing it, and I thought of sunset and how the Wyoming sky became vertical instead of horizontal, a sheet of gold that ran straight up to the stars, and all of that was Austin.

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There’s Becca, the computer whiz who just wants to help her friends. There’s Sara, who brims with so much love and compassion and becomes a maternal figure that Vie sorely needs. And on and on.

None of these characters are perfect. They hurt one another–sometimes by accident, other times on purpose. All of them carry scars that they try to etch onto others because bearing them alone is sometimes too impossible. Seeing them weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout the course of these three books is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve experienced this year.

I think what I love most of all, though, is how Ashe plays the long game with his characters. Personal problems don’t get neatly resolved in Book 1, or Book 2, or even Book 3. Or if they do get resolved, another quickly takes its place. Nothing is easy for these guys and these books portray, so exquisitely, the sheer messiness of relationships, being a teenager, and living in a world that seems hell bent on breaking you down.

Don’t think it’s all doom, gloom, and sadness, though; there’s also a lot of hope. The greatest message that the Hollow Folk books give you is that bruised, cracked, and battered doesn’t mean ruined, unsalvagable, unwanted. For every person who beats you down, there’s another to haul you up. Because while humans can be terrible, they can also be so incredibly beautiful, and human connections can be as potent as any superpower. So even though scars may not fully fade, you’re still here–alive, maybe a bit worse for wear, but still moving. And you’re gonna be okay.

And if you can kick some villain asses in the process? Well, that’s just the cherry on top.

Vie Elliot and his friends remind me why I read and write. There’s no feeling in the world like having a character stare into your heart and say, “I see you. I am you. Those wounds and fractures you have? They map my entire body. The darkness that presses into your every pore? We’re close acquaintances. So yeah, I’m with you. All the way.”

And you know what else? The books currently cost $2.90 (USD) each on Kindle.

That’s insane. That’s less than the cost of a morning coffee. That makes me want to buy 10 more copies just to even things out because surely some cosmic scale has become unbalanced. It makes me want to grab every passerby on the street and shake them while blubbering “You–book–3 bucks–” and get clapped in handcuffs for public harassment because these books are worth a night in a cell.

So what I’m saying is, go buy these damn books. Right now.

And if you find that they’re somehow less than amazing, then you’re to free direct all your angry complaints to me.

Review: The Dark Beneath the Ice – Paranormal Black Swan (Sort of)

The Dark Beneath the Ice

Title: The Dark Beneath the Ice
Author: Amelinda Bèrubè
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: August 7th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s):
YA Paranormal, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardcover)
Goodreads

Rating: 7.0/10

 

 

 

Marianne’s life is turning upside down. It all started when she decided to quit dancing, and now it’s come to a boil, with her parents divorced and her mother voluntarily hospitalized. To make matters worse, strange things are happening around her. She’s doing things that she doesn’t remember doing and having recurrent nightmares of herself drowning. Now she needs to figure out what it is that’s haunting her and put an end to it before it gets her first.

This was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The story has been called a paranormal Black Swan and I do kind of understand the comparison–both main characters are dancers who start doubting their sanity. But whereas the movie has a frenetic obsessive feel, The Dark Beneath the Ice has a more lonely, laid-back quality to it. It’s a story about Marianne’s insecurities, and other mental health issues, more so than dancing and the pursuit of perfection.

The author does a great job portraying all the little demons that crowd our minds–the voices that tell us we’re not talented enough, interesting enough, good enough. You get scenes that range from awkward and secondhand embarrassment-inducing (Is there an award for the most realistically awkward phone conversations? Because this book has them in spades) to wonderfully poignant ones that tug at your heartstrings. And there are some that really hit close to home–like the “Oh god, does this person really want to be my friend or are they just taking pity on me? It has to be the latter, no one likes me” train of thought that Marianne often falls prey to. Her struggles may not be as overtly dark as Nina’s in The Black Swan, but they’re common ones that many people face and Bèrubè shows them in such a heartfelt way.

“Sometimes I think I’m just not a very good person. You know? Sometimes it’s like any minute someone’s going to read my mind and find out how awful I am inside. Do you ever worry about that?”

All the time, I didn’t say. I’ve never stopped.

We also get a slow-burn romantic subplot between the MC and a girl named Rhiannon (“Ron”), which I thought was very sweet. It’s your “Goth girl with a I’m-tough-shit-but-pry-me-open-and-you’ll-find-a-soft-center attitude gets together with a shy, introverted girl” trope, and I ate it up like a sundae.

My biggest problem with the story was, surprisingly, the paranormal aspect. I went in expecting chills and scares and didn’t find much of either. And I think a large part of that was due to the sheer number of the “ghost” scenes. The first 1/4 of the book is saturated with these hazy hallucinatory sequences that I found myself getting bored of after a while. There were moments here and there where I thought, “Okay that’s nicely creepy” but, for the most part, I just couldn’t get invested in the ghostly happenings.

To sum up: I loved seeing the story weave together mental health elements with the speculative elements; plot-wise, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed.

Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Review: This I Know – Psychics and Queerbaiting in 70’s America

This I know

Title: This I Know
Author: Eldonna Edwards
Publisher: John Scognamiglio Book
Release Date: April 24th, 2018
Genre(s): Paranormal, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age
Page Count: 320 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 3.0/10

 

 

 

This is the first score below 5.0 I’ve given on this blog, so I think a little preamble is in order to mark the occasion. Objectively, this isn’t a terrible book–the prose is nice, the protagonist is engaging, and so forth. But I think the phrase “objective review” is an oxymoron. Once a piece of media content enters your brain, it automatically becomes subjective. No two people experiences anything in the exact same way. My neural map is different from your neural map.

So subjectively speaking? This I Know is a mix of historical fiction, paranormal, and coming-of-age that sounds fantastic in premise but suffers in execution and left me grinding my teeth in distaste.

Set in 60’s and 70’s midwest U.S., it stars an eleven-year old girl named Grace who is rather quite extraordinary. First of all, she has an ability that she calls “The Knowing,” though others may call it clairvoyance or telepathy. It works as it sounds–Grace knows things most people don’t. She can pick up people’s stray thoughts, their desires, and even their future–like what bra size a girl would end up wearing as an adult. Secondly, she’s connected to the spirit (or soul) of her twin brother who had died shortly after birth–and by “connected” I mean “have full conversations with.” The story is about Grace struggling to find her place in a family and town that views her with skepticism and fear.

There’s a lot to like in the first half. Grace’s narration is incredibly charming and funny without coming across as cheeky. She does sound a little too mature for an 11-year old at times and I oscillated between “This narrative voice is so great!” and “No kid thinks like this, however psychically gifted they are.” She uses words like “dilapidation” and complex metaphors that many adults wouldn’t even think of. After a while, though, I ended up burying my skepticism and started enjoying it for what it was. And Grace is an easy character to love. She’s a compassionate girl with a great sense of humour and I love the way she picks out the small details in people–the interesting descriptions she pastes onto their looks and personalities.

Earl is a farmer who spends a lot of time in the sun. The back of his neck has crisscross crinkles that make me want to stick cloves in it like an Easter ham.

Now here comes the negatives.

The plot–there isn’t much of it. Most of the story deals with Grace’s daily life in town as she helps out people and tries to fit in among her somewhat dysfunctional family. While this doesn’t normally bother me in coming-of-age stories, my problem with This I Know is that it half-heartedly tries to throw in a plotline–a mystery regarding a man who’s been assaulting young girls around town– in the last 20% of the story. A half-formed, uninteresting plotline that fizzles out in the very definition of anticlimax.

Also, the side characters lack depth. Grace’s father starts out as a fire and brimstone preacher, strict to the point of stifling, and a neglectful father. He continues that way up until the very last moment where he does a complete 180 and becomes a changed man. Grace’s three sisters spend most of the story picking on Grace and not much else. As for the mother, it would have been great to see her postpartum depression explored further but unfortunately, she’s very much absent for a large chunk of the book.

Third and final point, and what ultimately ended up plummeting the score: queerbaiting. I was so sure that Grace was going to come out as queer by the end of the book–if not to the town, then at least to herself. Throughout the book she’s constantly noting how amazing and gorgeous other girls are and admiring their figures and wanting to touch their breasts. But then, near the end, when her best friend Lola kisses her, she recoils and says (to paraphrase), “Sorry but no. Being gay is a sin.” Which is rather rich coming from a girl who can see the future and talk to dead people. If that doesn’t get you tossed into Satan’s fiery pits, I highly doubt kissing a girl would. There is little point to this scene except to shove Lola into the role of a temptress and Grace into the role of the pure Christian girl who is Definitely Not Gay.

But what really put the final nail on this coffin is the ending (minor spoilers here), where we find out that Grace eventually gets married to a boy named Robin who appears in a total of two short scenes throughout the entire book. They marry, build a house for themselves, have a beautiful baby boy, and live happily ever after. I nearly threw my tablet in disgust at this point.

The obvious lesson we’re supposed to take from this story is that we should examine the world with an open mind and treasure our differences. But in a story where heteronormality is celebrated at the expense of LGBTQ characters, such lessons come tainted with hypocrisy.

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Thank you to Netgalley and John Scognamiglio Book for providing a review copy.

Smoke City – A Beautiful Story of Redemption and Hope and How We Choose to Live Our Lives

Smoke City
Title: Smoke City
Author: Keith Rosson
Publisher: Meerkat Press
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Contemporary, Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 330 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

I’m speechless. I came into this book expecting something interesting and thought-provoking based on the cover and the blurb, but what I got exceeded my already-high expectations in every single way. I cried and laughed and cried. If you read one book this year, make it Smoke City. It is a dizzy melting pot of genres and subgenreshistory, fantasy, paranormal, and contemporary road trip. It had every potential to go off the rails. Instead, Keith Rosson has nailed every single element and given us an unforgettable story that brims with humour, hope, and the small and large truths of our lives.

We are often told that we only get one life in this world, so make the best of it. Live without regrets. But what if we do get more than one life? And what if our regrets follow from one life to the other? These are questions that haunt Marvin Deitz.

Marvin is on the cusp of his 57th birthday. He’s the owner of a small record store in Portland, and, apart from his eyepatch, looks like nothing more than a nondescript office clerk. He also happens to be the most recent reincarnated form of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner of Joan of Arc. Yeah, you read that right. He believes he’s cursed to be reborn again and again, presumably until the end of time, as penance for the sins of his first life.

The Three Parameters of the Curse:

1) I will die sometime between infancy and my fifty-sixth birthday. I have never, ever lived to my fifty-seventh birthday, in any of my lives.
2) I will always suffer some significant disfigurement or physiognomic alteration sometime between infancy and my first two decades of life. Generally pretty early on. The disfigurement will be something that, to some degree, alters and dictates the pathway of my existence. Loss of limb, birth defect, etc. Losing an eye, as I did in this life, is actually somewhat mundane.
3) When I die, I will without fail die a violent death. No going peacefully in my sleep for this guy.

Marvin retains all memories of his previous lives, all of which are fraught with pain and horror. His past actions haunt himthe prisoners he tortured and the innocent lives he ended. And the heaviest burden of them all: the burning of Joan. Life has become a blur of greys and all he wants is to wait for the next violent death to claim him.

Michael Vale was once a young rising rockstar of a painter. The next big thing in the art world. But he burned too bright, too fast, and got too arrogant. One mistake led to another and another, and before he knew it, his career and personal life were taking a nose-dive. He’s neck deep in assault charges, bottles of alcohol, and no longer has the will to paint. Now he works as a cashier at a taco joint, dealing out hatred to himself and  others.

As these two men meet and journey their way to Los Angeles, we alternate between their viewpoints, each chapter short and digestible. We also get flashbacks to Vale’s early life and Marvin’s many lives, including that of Thérage. The latter provides a fascinating and bleak glimpse into the life of an executioner in the Middle Ages. Short, but told with so much pain, they make up some of the best parts of the story.

Vale and Marvin are a brilliant pair of contrasts and similarities. One mild-mannered and empathetic, the other perpetually brimming with energy and anger. Both wrapped up in regrets and bitterness. Both lost and fracturedshackled by the weight of their past and the off-handed cruelty of life.

You would think that in a story featuring the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner, said reincarnation would be the main draw. And it was, at first. But there was something about Michael Vale and his self-destructive ways that I found equally fascinating. Vale is an unrepentant alcoholic, he’s quick to anger, and would sooner land a punch than talk his way out of a confrontation. Seemingly plucked straight out of a grimdark novel, he’s someone you would give a wide berth at parties. Yet his story is one that invites sympathy and sorrow. Because it’s so very human. It’s mired in self-hatred and a lost love of life that so many of us can relate to. Marvin is the more likeable of the two, and his story is, if anything, even sadder–a string of hopes dared and crushed. He is a complicated mesh of history and fiction that you won’t be able to take your mind off of.

Their quest to find purpose and redemption is one that I was rooting super hard for.

The side characters that orbit these two are all very engaging and I chalk that up to the author’s touch for colloquial dialogues. They flow perfectly and they shift effortlessly from funny to moving. Gems like this, for example:

“So what is it that’s going to keep you afloat in Kodiak chew and ironic shirts when you’re in Los Angeles? Huh, my new friend Casper?”
Casper peered down at his chest. “What do you mean, ironic shirts?”
Vale’s eyebrows arched up. “I mean your shirt, man. The bald eagle holding the beer? Driving the truck? It’s ridiculous.”
“How is it ironic?”
“You mean it’s not ironic?”
Casper shrugged. “I don’t know. I like trucks. I like beer. Eagles are cool. I like it.”

The setting plays as equally an important role as the characters. I think the best road trip books are the ones that take mundane placesa parking lot, a motel, a stretch of farmlandand infuse them with a sense of both the familiar and the strange. Rosson does just that. He has a knack for distilling the heart of a location, a person, a scene, and transcribing them into words. His descriptions of the cityscape and its people are apt and so, so beautiful.

Speaking of strange, the author apparently thought that having the reincarnation of a 14th century executioner for a protagonist wasn’t weird enough, so he decided to add ghosts into the mix. In this version of America, smoke spirits (ghosts that resemble smoke, basically) have begun to appear in California and New Mexico. No one quite knows what they are, though plenty of theories are thrown aroundeverything from Russian scams to signs of the apocalypse. For most of the book, these ghosts exist in the background. It’s not until near the end that they merge with the main plot, and the result is well worth the wait.

Smoke City is a story of how much power we give to our pasts. Of how the choices we make too often dictate how we see ourselves for years down the line, sometimes the rest of our lives. How we punish ourselves for our actions, tell ourselves we don’t get to have happiness, that it’s too late to fix things. How we get trapped in an endless cycle of self- recrimination. And when life beats us down, we tell ourselves we deserve it.

But we are more than the summation of our mistakes. The past can be wielded by its hilt, not the blade.

And it’s never too late.