Book Review: Barely Breathing by Michael J. Kolinski
Jake Wood plans to visit his cousin, Jana, in Los Angeles. He hasn’t seen her in over 10 years, and he’s hoping the visit will help snap him out of the guilt he’s feeling after being the sole survivor of a workplace shooting. But when he arrives in LA, Jana fails to meet him or return his phone calls. He’s not worried at first, since he knows that she just got an exciting job working for the renowned scientific researcher Dr. Gregory Mirek. When he drops by Jana’s house and finds her best friend, Laurie, who hasn’t heard from her in days either, he starts suspecting she’s missing, and it might have something to do with Dr. Mirek.
I like a good mystery, and the description and cover of this book gave it a bit of a noir feel, so I was excited to see what twists on the noir mystery genre the book could bring. Unfortunately, a potentially interesting plot was held back by both some awkward writing and portions of the book that just left a bad taste in my mouth.
The plot is interesting and different enough from other mysteries to keep the reader engaged and intrigued. I personally have not seen a modern mystery revolving around a missing cousin, and I liked how different this felt. The inclusion of a mystery about Dr. Mirek and just what he’s researching into what happened to Jana, who is working for him, gave it another level of interesting information and twists that keeps the reader reading. On the other hand, the inclusion of Jake’s past trauma being the sole survivor of a work-place shooting felt tacked on and did not add much to the plot. If anything, at the beginning of the book, I was wondering if this book was the second in the series, since it felt like I was supposed to already know what had happened to Jake.
The writing really doesn’t support the plot very well, however. There is quite a bit of showing instead of telling as well as passages that just read awkwardly, instead of building the suspense they were supposed to. The quote below is an example of this.
After a long pause she said, “Yes, sacrifices,” in a faraway voice. At the time, I didn’t realize that she was referring to issues much more meaningful than gridlock. (loc 673)
There were also passages that just felt out of touch with modern life, particularly for the age of Jake, the main character, who sometimes reads like an old man. For instance, when Jana first doesn’t show up he googles her for the first time ever and looks at her Facebook page for the first time ever. There is no way cousins that got back in touch after a decade of low contact would wait that long to google each other or look at each other’s Facebook pages. Even people in this age-range who don’t use Facebook themselves will still google a new contact. Jake’s lack of technological and social media savvy just felt really wrong for his demographic.
As far as the characterizations of the main characters goes, Jake is moderately well-rounded but he also isn’t much of a noir hero. He’s clumsy, bad at appearing bad-ass, and hesitant, and yet simultaneously he’s good at fist-fighting (thanks to wrestling moves from high school), and he keeps being asked to be in porn by random people on the street (or if he is in porn). When his character isn’t thrust into noir-style encounters, it is well-rounded and interesting. When his character is, however, it feels awkward and unnatural. Laurie is relatively well-rounded and interesting, as is her boyfriend. We don’t see anybody else enough for them to be more than a passing two-dimensional character, and these are handled well.
The book does, however, put a bad taste into my mouth both in how it deals with fatness and how it deals with bisexuality. The book comes across as fatphobic. Any overweight character is also bad, and Jake judges them for being fat. I’m not saying an overweight person can’t be bad, but when every single overweight character is bad and the “good guy” main character judges them for it, it comes across as fatphobic.
Dr. Mirek is revealed to be bisexual, and the reveal is in the most insensitive way possible. Jake is pretending to be a journalist who had a tough interview with Dr. Mirek. He’s talking to an undergrad journalist student who previously interviewed Dr. Mirekto under the guise of getting more information on him from her than he could himself. She states that he was really creepy toward her in her interview and then reveals that she thinks he might be bisexual in a tone that implies that this is just as bad as creeping on her during her interview. To this Jake responds,
I don’t think my editor wants me writing that Dr. Mirek is a bi-sexual creep with a gambling problem. (loc 1594)
First, bisexual is spelled wrong, and it is never spelled correctly in the book. Second, this entire conversation implies that bisexuality is just as bad as being addicted to gambling or engaging in inappropriate come-ons. Just as with the fatphobia, there is nothing wrong with a bad guy character being bisexual, but equating his bisexuality with his badness, implying that it is part of what makes him bad, is a problem, and it is biphobic.
At the end of the book, it is revealed that Dr. Mirek had a relationship with Laurie’s boyfriend (implying the boyfriend is also bisexual, I might add), and that the boyfriend only participated in kidnapping Laurie and covering up the illegal animal experiments because of this relationship. The implication from the tone of the book is that getting into a same-sex relationship with Dr. Mirek is what brought the boyfriend down into crime. Even in the trial, the defense lawyer
conceded that Dr. Mirek and Danny Clarke had a consensual homosexual relationship. (loc 3694)
I would like to note that since this was a review copy submitted to me last November/December for review this year, I was extra offended at the biphobic content, as my review policies explicitly state that I do not wish to review anything with biphobic content. I am offended that an author who read my review policies well enough to submit properly and get accepted, who also knew one of his characters was bisexual, did not take a moment to check and see if this representation could possibly be biphobic. It is offensive to me as a person, and I feel that the author owes me an apology for putting me through reading something I very clearly stated I did not want to read. It is often impossible to know from a blurb if a book will be biphobic/homophobic/transphobic, and it is really up to the author to self-censor and not submit for review something like that to a reviewer who explicitly stated they do not wish to read that content. In all honesty, though, rather than an apology from the author, I would prefer he take some time to read up on bisexuality and biphobia to correct this biphobia in future writing.
Overall, the plot is interesting but the writing at the sentence level struggles. Additionally, the tone of the book is fatphobic and biphobic, which will both offend some readers and shows a lack of writing three-dimensional characters, since people are bad based on their bodies and sexualities and not their character. I recommend readers looking for a modern LA noir look elsewhere.
2 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review