I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.
This is the first novel I read by Charles Sheehan-Miles, who is a brand new author to me, although he has published a large number of books, and from the comments I guess he has a legion of fans that were surprised by this book, as it is not a romance. I cannot compare it to his previous work, but I agree with the warning. If readers from his previous books approach this novel as a romance, they will be shocked, because it is far from it.
This is a long book (over 600 pages long), divided up into four parts, with a prologue set two years before the main action of the book, although there are flashbacks (memories) narrated in the first-person by the four main characters —all members of the same family— that offer readers a good understanding of the background to the current situation and help them get to grips with their circumstances, their pasts, and who they are. This is the story of a family, a married couple and their two children, on the brink of collapse due to a terrible tragedy that took place two years before the action we follow chronologically. Or so it seems. (The truth is a bit more complicated than that). Sam and Brenna, the children (adolescents by the time we met them) are close, and Brenna has always willingly played the role of big sister to Sam, there to protect and guide. Until she disappears. Carrying on without her puts a big strain on a family we soon learn was going through difficulties already (some more out in the open than others), and whose communication had ground almost to a halt. The parents, Cole and Erin, are living example of the “opposites attract” edict, at least from a political perspective (Cole, the father, who as a young man decided formal education wasn’t for him and moved up the corporate ladder at lightning speed, is conservative as can be, while Erin, the mother, a college graduate, is a convinced liberal who sacrificed her career to look after her children), and although the story opens up with Sam’s narration, we soon get to read their own perspective on the matter, and the kind of traps they find themselves in.
This is a story that deals in many important subjects, and it could have been told in a variety of ways, but I am impressed not only by the subjects (adultery and its toll on family relationships, sex trafficking, rape, prostitution, bullying, harassment and violence against the LGBT community, missing youths, the isolation of the trans-gender experience for young people, prejudice and harassment at work…) and the sensitive and enlightening way they are handled, but also by the way the story is told. The author allows each character to tell his/her own story, and that makes us walk a mile in their shoes, no matter how uncomfortable they might feel. I am sure many readers will think, as they read, that they would have never reacted in a certain way, or allowed their circumstances to deteriorate to such an extent, but, do we truly know? Although, as the author reminds us in the final note, the events in the book are far from unique (yes, it is a work of fiction, but many individuals and families unfortunately will go through similar experiences to those depicted in the book), many of us will never have been in close contact with somebody in such dire circumstances, much less be directly affected by it, so, how do we know what we would do? The characters are not necessarily the most likeable when we meet them (drinking heavily, harassed, afraid for their lives, paralysed and frozen, unable to make decisions and move on), and they are all closed off from each other, trapped, physically or mentally, sometimes by others and their preconceptions, sometimes by their own fears and inability to grief and forgive. The author also makes a conscious decision to introduce the rest of the family —the parents and Sam— first, so we get to see the effect her loss has had on the family, before we meet Brenna, the missing girl. Her situation is heart-wrenching, and the most extreme and difficult to read about, although none of the characters have an easy ride.
Thankfully, the author manages to achieve a difficult balance between telling the story, not pulling any punches, making sure people can understand and empathise with what the characters are going through, while avoiding extremely graphic scenes (both of sex and violence), and gratuitous iterations and repetitions of the abuse, which would risk further exploitation rather than facilitating understanding and empathy. Don’t get me wrong; this is a hard read, and readers with triggers arounds topics such as child abuse, rape, bullying, violence against women and the LGTB community, and racism need to be aware of it. Even people who don’t have such triggers will find it a tough read, but, on the other hand, this is a book with a big heart, and the individual journey of each character, and of the family as a whole, make for an inspiring and hopeful read.
I have already talked about how impressed I am by the story and the way it is told. I grew fond of all the members of the family by the end of the book (it’s impossible for our hearts not to go out to Sam and Brenna, but we get to appreciate their parents as well), and I particularly enjoyed the journey of enlightenment Cole’s father goes through. The author includes most of the reactions we can imagine to these subjects, from the sublime to the ridiculous, (not everybody changes and accepts either. Bigotry remains alive and well, as we all know), and they all felt true. I was particularly fond of Jeremiah and his wife — almost too good to be true— who are an ideal we should all aspire to. I also liked the fact that the story does not stop when most readers would expect it to, and even Sam makes comments on that. There is no magical happy ending here that just makes everything right again. All the members of the family will have to keep working at their relationship and supporting each other, but that is as it should be.
There were no negative reviews of the book at the time I wrote this, and the only objections (apart from the warning that it is not a romance) some people had referred to were Sam’s virtual game playing (that a reader didn’t feel added anything to the novel. Personally, I think it helps readers understand what life is like for the character and experience the kind of coping strategies adolescents in similar circumstances might use), and some others felt the book could have been shorter and still managed to tell the same story. That might be true, but I suspect some of the nuances would have been lost.
This is an excellent book that manages to combine complex and credible characters with a plot that deals with several difficult subjects, without becoming preachy or too graphic. It is horrifying, touching, and insightful all at the same time, and it makes readers witness the highs and lows of the human condition. I recommended it to readers interested in the subjects, but I advise those who might worry about possible triggers to proceed with caution. The author adds some resources (links to websites) for people who need more information about some of the issues raised in the book, and I thought the final conversation of the book, between Brenna and her grandfather in the garden —when the grandfather talks about the snapdragon, and how it grows back after getting rid of the dead stuff, stronger and more beautiful— stands as a great metaphor for the story. Highly recommended.
As I was trying to put together my review of the first volume in the Lumberjanes series (collaboratively written and drawn by Grace Ellise, Shannon Watters, Noelle Stevenson, & Brooke A. Allen) I realized that it was going to be nigh on impossible for me to formulate new thoughts/observations about further volumes without repeating myself ad nauseam...so a masterpost.
The volumes of this series that I've read thus far:
On first beginning the series, I immediately felt like I was somehow starting in the middle as the reader is launched immediately into the inner circle of our main protagonists (Jo, April, Molly, Mal, & Ripley). What initially caught my interest were the excellent illustrations and the various looks of the main characters which are all widely different (much like the characters themselves). [A/N: I want to say here that the illustrative style changed for each of the volumes and I didn't really dig that.] I kept reading because the format of survival manual blended into a narrative arc was unique and I like the idea of a female led story being written and drawn by females. This is a great message for girls who may have felt that the comic book world wasn't for them. That being said, I'm not likely to continue the series beyond these 5 volumes and if I do I won't be reviewing it here unless it totally ends up blowing my mind. It felt gimmicky and at times I felt they were trying too hard and falling into contrived territory. I get that they're trying to be hip and inclusive (major props that there's not only a lesbian couple but a transgender character) but there was so 'trying to be hip' vibe that the story became second fiddle. Strong elements of fantasy, mystery, adventure, and friendship will appeal to all sexes but I don't think I'm the right age demographic (and this is coming from someone who routinely reads picture books). It's a 6/10 for me.
What's Up Next: Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg
What I'm Currently Reading: Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Life of Britain's Country Houses 1939-45 by Julie Summers
Kieran heads to his new internship at Heidi Norton's campaign office feeling nervous but hopeful. He's been told it's a trans-friendly workplace, and Marcus, the person who arranged his internship, is also a former professor of his, so he figures he'd have the benefit of knowing at least one person there. Unfortunately, he's almost immediately misgendered by one of his new coworkers, who seems confused and uncomfortable when he corrects her. Then he discovers that Marcus isn't there yet and he's going to have to deal with Seth, who immediately strikes him as stiff and intimidating. And also disconcertingly hot.
As Kieran gets used to his new internship, he learns that Seth isn't quite as intimidating as he first appeared, in part because Seth clearly has a major secret crush on Marcus, who is, unfortunately for Seth, both heterosexual and very happily married. To make matters worse, Kieran finds himself developing an awkward crush of his own on Seth.
Chant's Peter Darling was decent but not quite my cup of tea. I was looking forward to Coffee Boy, which I'd heard was a sweet contemporary romance. For the most part, I enjoyed it more than Peter Darling, although I flinched when I started it and realized it was written in present tense, with some verb tense choices in the first couple paragraphs that had me wondering if I was going to spend the whole story encountering odd inconsistencies. Thankfully, the writing smoothed out after that first jarring bit, and I eventually adjusted to Chant's verb tense choice and could even sort of see why he chose it, even though I wasn't a fan of it.
The first half of this story, in particular, made for difficult reading. Lots of instances of Kieran dealing with misgendering, as people saw his long hair and heard his "mean cheerleader" voice and assumed he was a woman. Marcus patted himself on the back for being a good trans ally by hiring Kieran, not seeing that there were additional issues that needed to be addressed. Seth was better, but his habit of snapping at anyone who misgendered Kieran made things worse in some ways, as people began treating Kieran like some kind of workplace ghost or bent over backwards in order to avoid using any pronouns at all when referring to him.
I liked seeing Kieran and Seth gradually relax and get to know each other. Seth was adorable, and I kept having a mental image of Kieran as a puppy nipping at Seth to try and get him to unbend and play around a little. As much as I loved the part when they were finally honest about how they felt about each other, I wish there'd been an epilogue showing them a few months later, after they'd been a couple for a while.
There was a ten-year age difference between them that had a noticeable effect on their lifestyles - Kieran was more comfortable going out to bars, drinking, and dancing than Seth, while Seth was much more financially stable and had a better handle on his life, at least in terms of his career (as far as his romantic life went, he used to be married - he and his wife divorced a while back, although not because he was bisexual). When Kieran and Seth finally admitted to each themselves and to each other how they felt, the age difference was brought up a little, as was the difference in their workplace status (Seth wasn't Kieran's direct supervisor, but he was still in a more powerful and influential position). Both of those things bothered Seth a bit more than they did Kieran, and both were brushed off fairly quickly.
I'm not sure I'd call this a fluffy romance considering how exhausting some of the stuff in the first half was, but it still had some nice sweet moments. I look forward to seeing Chant's future works.
I'll wrap this up with a comment about Coffee Boy's publisher, NineStar Press. This was my first exposure to them and their website has some features that mean I'll be reading more of their publications: they have "category" tags for gender (nonbinary, trans, cisgender), orientation (aromantic, asexual, bisexual, demisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual), pairing (FF, MM, MMM, MMF, menage), and sex content (N/A, non-explicit, explicit). I particularly appreciated the orientation and sex content tags, as well as the "type" tags (romance, erotica, literary). I've now read one other work besides Coffee Boy published by NineStar Press and consider their tagging to be accurate.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)
Stuart Leandro knows he’s washed up, both on the big screen, and in his marriage. Then, when things take an even bigger turn for the worse one night, he winds up blind drunk and lost in a foreign city.
Thankfully, someone’s there to rescue him before his face ends up plastered all over the tabloids.
Wary of the motives of the reclusive stranger who brings the fading star into the quiet shelter of a hip but isolated loft, Stuart nonetheless can't deny his curiosity… Or his attraction. Tim is unlike anyone the actor has ever met, but underneath the mystery and quiet attempts at invisibility, Stuart discovers someone whose life has been intertwined with his own for years.
Neither could have predicted that Tim's act of kindness would lead to one of the most intense encounters of their lives—but, are they willing to weather the media storm their extraordinary relationship will cause?