August 2018 Wrap Up – It’s Not You, Scifi, It’s Me…But It’s Also Kind of You

So mental-health wise, life has been a veritable mess from July to August. After a trip to the emergency room, days of yelling and apologizing, and talking to from doctors, things are now marginally better. I’ve been throwing myself into art which has been helping quite a bit. And while it feels like I’m creeping along a tightrope and one breeze at the wrong time can push me over again, I’m hoping things will continue to move in a positive direction. Also, to the beautiful, wonderful people who messaged me with words of encouragement and support, I can barely express how thankful I am. ❤

Well, enough of that–onto the books! I read (or tried to read) 12 books this month which is a little surprising, all things considered. Of those 12, four were scifi and I didn’t much like any them, so I’m going to try to take a small break from the genre.

⚔️= Fantasy; 🚀= Scifi; 👻= Paranormal; 🔍= Mystery; 🌺= Contemporary; 🗝️= Historical; 🌈= LGBTQIAP+

The Brilliant

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The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T Anderson and Eugene Yelchin ⚔️:
I didn’t really know what to expect from this book going in, but holy hell, I had such a great time with it. It’s labelled YA but it’s got the same wit and dark humour found in Pratchett’s writing. So Discworld lovers, this one’s for you. Review to come.

The Dust Feast (Hollow Folk 3) by Gregory Ashe 👻🔍🌈:
I’m saving the big, sappy words for the review so for now I’ll just just say that the Hollow Folk books killed me, resurrected me, and then ascended me to the heavens. Read this paranormal/mystery/thriller series and you too can experience being Jesus. Novella Review to come.

 

The Great

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I Can’t Date Jesus – Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put my Faith in Beyoncé by Michael Arceneaux 🌈:

I Can’t Date Jesus is an amazing collection of personal essays where Michael Arceneaux–a journalist whose articles have been published in pretty much every media outlet–talks about his struggles with intimacy, the complicated relationship he has with religion and family, and his general experience of being a gay black man in America. It’s hilarious, raw, opinionated, and wonderfully intimate–almost like you’re having a discussion with an old friend. And Arceneaux’s dating woes make me feel infinitely better about mine because at least I can say that no one’s ever brought bedbugs and/or fleas into my bed.

A must-read for everyone, LGBTQIAP+ or not.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins by the McElroys and Carey Pietsch ⚔️: (8/10)
The graphic novel adaptation of The Adventure Zone podcast. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. Review here.

Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman 🌺🌈:
A YA contemporary with beautiful, honest portrayal of grief and sisterhood. Review to come.

 

THE (Kind of) GOOD

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The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bèrubè👻🌈: (7/10)
A paranormal YA that’s been called Black Swan meets Paranormal Activity. I wasn’t too impressed with the paranormal plot, but the main character and her mental health struggles were done very well. Review here.

When Elephants Fly by Nancy Richardson Fischer🌺:
A YA contemporary that explores schizophrenia, which I don’t come across too often, and the ethics of keeping animals in zoos versus circuses. Again, while I loved the mental health aspect, the plot left me wanting more. Review to come.

Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North🗝️⚔️:
A fun choose-your-own adventure novel that lets you navigate the story of Romeo and Juliet as either Romeo or Juliet. It’s got robots! And weightlifting! And kissing! And lots and lots of ways to die! I was never a huge fan of the original story (two teens insta-falling in love wasn’t really my thing), so I didn’t enjoy this as much as North’s other choose-your-own adventure book, To Be Or Not To Be, which tackles Hamlet. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

 

THE OKAY

In the Present TenseIn the Present Tense by Carrie Pack 🚀🌈: (6.5/10)
A near-future time travel story with a ton of diversity–mental health rep, PoCs, LGBTQIAP+. I loved the time travel stuff but the actions of the characters were baffling to say the least. Review here.

The Bad and DNF

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Temper by Nicky Drayden 🚀⚔️: DNF 40%

I loved Nicky’s debut, The Prey of Gods, and while I appreciate the strangeness and the sheer imagination of Temper, it wasn’t really something I could enjoy so soon after my brain short-circuiting on me. There’s a lot to the worldbuilding and I just couldn’t keep up. I’ll give it another shot sometime this month.

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio 🚀: DNF 20%

As I wrote on Goodreads, if a bunch of Ivy League classics majors got very high one night and decided they would write an epic space opera, Empire of Silence is probably what you’d get. But like, less fun.

I’ve seen this book compared with Name of the Wind, mostly because of the flowery prose. But to me, while the narration in NoTW sounds like the voice of someone who’s in love with language, music, and just art in general, the narrator for Empire of Silence feels more like someone who’s in love with the sound of their own voice–verbosity without the empathy. Plus the story drags. A lot. I’m guessing it picks up at some point but I didn’t want to have to slog through 450 more pages to find out.

Past Imperfect by Carrie Pack 🚀🌈: (3.5/10)

The sequel to In the Present Tense. In my review I called it a “bad soap opera envisioned by aliens” and that more or less sums it up. Review here.

 

Posts-Made-title

TOP 5 WEDNESDAY

Topics I’d Like to See Explored More in Fantasy
Book List for a Class on Developmental Psychology

REVIEWS

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
And the Ocean was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack
The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bèrubè
Past Imperfect by Carrie Pack
The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins

TAGS

The Weather in Books Tag

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And that’s it from me! How did your month go?

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.

~

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

Most Anticipated Mystery, Thriller & Horror: Feb-April 2018

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Here’s the second batch of the “Most Anticipated Feb-April” series! I’ve banished the “alternate book covers left and right” scheme into a deep, lightless pit because it was an absolute pain to format the last time (free wordpress has a terrible html editor, who knew?). Please note: some of theses straddle the line between Mystery/Thriler/Horror and other genres.

Before we start, I just want to call conspiracy. It seems like literally every author of every damn genre has a book being published this April. Publishers, I love you, but you and your authors are all going to get me bankrupt. Because I will buy every one of these books (more or less) and softly weep my way to file the official papers. And still–still–I will be utterly unrepentant.

There’s a quote from The Gentleman by Forrest Leo that sums up my near-future nicely:

‘Do you mean to tell me, Simmons, that we haven’t any money left?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘Where on earth has it gone?’
‘I don’t mean to be critical, sir, but you tend toward profligacy.’
‘Nonsense, Simmons. I don’t buy anything except books. You cannot possibly tell me I’ve squandered my fortune upon books.’
‘Squander is not the word I would have used, sir. But it was the books that did it, I believe.’

*casts a pointed look*

FEBRUARY

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

~

For reasons beyond me, the North American edition of this is called The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. That edition will also be releasing on September 1st, but I’m too eager to wait until then. It’s got one of the most original premises I’ve seen amidst all 2018 releases and it’s been described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day. If that doesn’t make you excited, I don’t know what will.

Releases February 8th (UK), September 1st (NA)
Add to Goodreads

MARCH

The Hollow Tree by James Brodgen

The Hollow Tree


After her hand is amputated following a tragic accident, Rachel Cooper suffers vivid nightmares of a woman imprisoned in the trunk of a hollow tree, screaming for help. When she begins to experience phantom sensations of leaves and earth with her missing limb, Rachel is terrified she is going mad… but then another hand takes hers, and the trapped woman is pulled into our world.

This woman has no idea who she is, but Rachel can’t help but think of the mystery of Oak Mary, a female corpse found in a hollow tree, and who was never identified. Three urban legends have grown up around the case; was Mary a Nazi spy, a prostitute or a gypsy witch? Rachel is desperate to learn the truth, but darker forces are at work. For a rule has been broken, and Mary is in a world where she doesn’t belong…

~
I wasn’t sure whether to put the book on this list or the Fantasy one, but there’s just something about the cover–I can’t quite put my finger on it– that suggests a lot of lean towards horror. The premise sounds brilliant; I have a soft spot for stories that feature trees, or tree-like creatures, as main characters, and this looks to be a compelling blend of fantasy, horror, and mystery.

Releases March 13th
Add to Goodreads

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The Broken Girls


Vermont, 1950.
There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

~
Mysterious goings-on in an all-girls boarding school? A body of suspicious origin? Possible paranormal activities? And an intrepid female journalist on the case? Sign. Me. Up.

Releases March 20th
Add to Goodreads

APRIL

The Window by Amelia Brunskill 

The Window


Anna is everything her identical twin is not. Outgoing and athletic, she is the opposite of quiet introvert Jess. The same on the outside, yet so completely different inside–it’s hard to believe the girls are sisters, let alone twins. But they are. And they tell each other everything.

Or so Jess thought.

After Anna falls to her death while sneaking out her bedroom window, Jess’s life begins to unravel. Everyone says it was an accident, but to Jess, that doesn’t add up. Where was Anna going? Who was she meeting? And how long had Anna been lying to her?

~
This book first caught my eye on Twitter. A lovely minimalist cover sandwiching a story that offers an exploration of sibling relationships, and you have a recipe for something I would inhale in a heartbeat.

Releases April 3rd
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Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

UnBury Carol
Carol Evers is a woman with a dark secret. She has died many times . . . but her many deaths are not final: They are comas, a waking slumber indistinguishable from death, each lasting days.

Only two people know of Carol’s eerie condition. One is her husband, Dwight, who married Carol for her fortune, and—when she lapses into another coma—plots to seize it by proclaiming her dead and quickly burying her . . . alive. The other is her lost love, the infamous outlaw James Moxie. When word of Carol’s dreadful fate reaches him, Moxie rides the Trail again to save his beloved from an early, unnatural grave.

And all the while, awake and aware, Carol fights to free herself from the crippling darkness that binds her—summoning her own fierce will to survive. As the players in this drama of life and death fight to decide her fate, Carol must in the end battle to save herself.

~
In 2014, Josh Malerman stormed his way into literary horror with his ridiculously impressive debut, Bird Box, and took no prisoners. It was the first horror book I read that made me stop to peer nervously around the dark corners of my apartment at night. His latest seems like a fascinating meld of Western and gothic horror, and I cannot wait.

Releases April 10th
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The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy Shipp


When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn’t suffer.

But Isabella’s parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella’s… condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor.

Or is there…?

~
This is the one novella of the bunch and, once more, a ghost girl seems to be the star of the story. The cover looks wonderfully gothic, and that maze is very, very intriguing.

Releases April 17th
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White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

White Rabbit


Rufus Holt is having the worst night of his life. It begins with the reappearance of his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian―the guy who stomped his heart out like a spent cigarette. Just as Rufus is getting ready to move on, Sebastian turns up out of the blue, saying they need to “talk.” Things couldn’t get worse, right?

Then Rufus gets a call from his sister April, begging for help. He and Sebastian find her, drenched in blood and holding a knife beside the dead body of her boyfriend, Fox Whitney.

April swears she didn’t kill Fox. Rufus knows her too well to believe she’s telling him the whole truth, but April has something he needs. Her price is his help. Now, with no one to trust but the boy he wants to hate yet can’t stop loving, Rufus has one night to clear his sister’s name . . . or die trying.

~
White Rabbit
is just the fourth (*stares*) April novel in this genre category, and Caleb Roehrig’s second YA mystery, his first being Last Seen Leaving. It promises to be very queer and more macabre than the last one, if the blood spatters on the cover are any indication. What fun! You can sample the first three chapters on Amazon now.

Releases April 24th
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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.