Sarah Wilkes can hardly believe she’s going away to freshman year of college without her twin sister Lea–who was discovered dead from drowning far away from any water. She moves through life in a haze until a cat-like creature shows up on one of her walks through campus. He claims to be a familiar spirit who can bring her to Unreal City, a place where she can make her dreams come true. There’s only one catch. The price of permanent admission is drinking her blood. Unable to resist, Sarah journeys to Unreal City but the dream world soon takes on a sinister tone.
This book piqued my curiosity when it was submitted to me as a possibility for review last year. I knew when I read the summary that a plot such as this could only go either well-rendered and touching or flat and ridiculous. I took a chance, and I’m glad I did. The book offers a look at grief in the young, but wrapped in a fantastical setting that makes encountering such a big topic more palatable.
The fantastical plot at first seems simple. A familiar spirit who reads as sinister comes to Sarah and offers her a bargain. Feed him (preferably with her blood, but her hair will do in the meantime), and he will bring her to a world where she can escape her grief. It seems that he is targeting her for sinister reasons, but slowly over the course of the plot the reader realizes there is more to it than this. This is one of my favorite types of fantasy. One that reads initially as simple but becomes increasingly complex over the course of the book. The fantastical plot slowly takes the reader first deep into Sarah’s grief then into her trying to solve her sister’s death and finally into forgiveness and healing. It perhaps sounds heavy-handed when I put it that way, but the book makes it so it is not at all. The reader realizes initially they are encountering a young person’s grief, but then gets pulled into the fantastical world of Unreal City. Sarah’s grief process then becomes part of that fantasy, so it is more subtle.
The fantasy world is interesting. It takes the basic concept of a familiar spirit (traditionally, a spirit that a witch would allow to suckle from her in exchange for its magical service) and expands upon it. There are a set number of familiars in Unreal city, each of whom is correlated with a certain sector of the city. They each must find a person from our world to feed them and even give them an identity and appearance. That person can control their own sector, and I do mean control. They dictate its appearance and are able to defy all scientific laws. But they can’t control what happens in other people’s sectors, and that’s where Unreal City becomes more complex. It’s a mix of parallel universes and familiar spirits.
The mystery of Lea’s death kept me guessing, and its resolution is eloquent. The only thing holding me back from five stars is that for me, personally, at the time I read this, I did not have the level of experience with the book that is necessary for me to consider a book a five star read. It needs to be something life-changing or that I know I will think of over and over again. I am sure I would have felt differently though if I was either younger when I read it or had recently experienced a close loss. (Interestingly, I read this only a couple of weeks before my father passed. I am certain I would have had a more powerful experience with it if the order had been reversed).
Overall, this is a relatable rendering of grief and loss in the young, particularly in the late teen years, wrapped in a fantastical world that is engaging and keeps the plot from becoming too heavy-handed. Recommended to readers suffering from recent loss or looking for a unique fantastical world. Especially those who are interested in a new adult setting.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Logan finds himself a single dad after his young son’s mother abandons him on his doorstep, so he moves back to his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, looking to provide his young son with some stability. He has a bad rep from his teen years in Salem to get over, though, and he hopes his new job as a television producer at the local tv station will help. He wasn’t expecting his downstairs neighbor Melody Seabright, however.
Melody, who seems incapable of holding onto a job for any length of time, gets him to get her a meeting with the owner of the tv station and somehow convinces him to give her her own tv show, The Kitchen Witch. The only problem is she can’t cook, and whether or not she’s really a witch is up for debate.
Can Melody learn how to cook and hold onto the job? Or are both of their jobs now in jeopardy? And why does Logan keep thinking about such an unpredictable woman when he knows he needs to provide stability for his son?
I picked this up on a free book cart at a local library because the cover and title were cute, and I definitely am periodically in the mood for some lighthearted paranormal romance. I was a bit disappointed to find this isn’t really a paranormal romance, but I still enjoyed the contemporary tale it told, primarily due to its featuring a good-hearted single dad.
Logan is a contemporary romance character who will make many readers’ hearts beat a bit faster. He’s cute, young, has a high-powered job, lives in the quirky town of Salem and enjoys it, and is an awesome single dad to his young son. Having him be a bad boy who overcame it for his son is the perfect last touch for a contemporary romance. I can see many readers enjoying fantasizing about him.
Melody may be a bit more hit and miss with readers. The delightfully clumsy bit has been used a lot in romance recently and may feel a bit been there done that. Her apartment is divinely adorable, though, and she has some curves that are always looked upon as a good thing. Her difficult relationship with her own father adds some depth to the character, but some readers might have trouble sympathizing with a poor little rich girl, although I do think that Blair handled this particular aspect well.
Blair also writes children characters beautifully. The son sounds like a child, and yet still has the proper astuteness and vocabulary for his age. The only negative I can say about him is that I honestly already forgot his name. However, I enjoyed his presence every time he popped up into the story.
The plot is where things get a bit shaky. The book is definitely marketed as a paranormal romance, and there are hints at the beginning of the book that Melody might be a witch, but that never comes to fruition. The best I can tell is that she’s learned how to act and sound like a witch by virtue of living and working in Salem. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it was disappointing given that I thought I was getting a paranormal story. I also thought that if the book is going to have Logan suspicious Melody is a witch, at some point he should definitely find out once and for all whether she is one. I think perhaps the book was trying to say she’s just a regular girl with some knowledge of Wicca (which isn’t the same thing as being a paranormal romance witch, since Wicca is a religion and doesn’t actually involve paranormal romance style magic but it’s still a reveal I would have been happier with). However, that also is never firmly revealed. Just what type of witch, if any, Melody is is just a plot idea that is dropped and never fully dealt with, which is a bit frustrating.
A bigger plot issue to me though is that this book falls into the romance trope of everyone can see the couple should be together but the couple makes up fake obstacles to stand in their way and they just have to come to their senses and deal with their own stupidity to get over it. (I really wish there was a shorter way to describe that particular trope…..) It is just a trope that really bugs me. I don’t mind real obstacles in the way of a couple, but the couple just being idiotic and making up their own obstacles feels to me like the author stirring up fake drama to make the book longer. Also, I am 100% a-ok with a couple meeting, working out some realistic difficulties, and then being together. Things that are overly dramatic for the sake of drama just rub me the wrong way. Some readers may be ok with this trope, but for those who aren’t, be aware that this is where the plot eventually goes.
Having been to Salem multiple times, I can say that the author clearly did her research, as she depicts the culture and feel of Salem quite well. She also understands the layout of the town and even gives a realistic vague-ish location for Logan and Melody’s house. (In the few blocks nearish the House of the Seven Gables, in case you’re wondering).
The sex scenes were good, not ridiculous. They weren’t mind-blowingly hot, but they were fun to read and well-written.
Overall, this is a good contemporary romance featuring a lovable single dad love interest that is mismarketed as a paranormal romance. Those looking for paranormal romance should be aware that this fits in much better with the contemporary romance crowd. Additionally, those who are frustrated by couples keeping themselves apart for no reason should be aware that this is the romance trope found in this particular book. Recommended to those looking for a steamy contemporary read featuring a heartthrob single dad and a realistically quirky New England town.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Library free book cart
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
A chance meeting between orphaned British writer, Stephen, and American soldier, Dustin, leads to a passionate love affair in England. But when Dustin chooses to go back home to his small Southern town to care for his mentally challenged brother, Stephen is left behind, sending letters that are never answered. He finally decides to follow Dustin home and arrives only to discover that Dustin is no more.
This is my second read by Brandon Shire. The first, The Value Of Rain (review), blew me way with its passionate, multi-generational family drama featuring a gay main character. I was thus eager to accept a second arc from Shire, and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.
There are some commonalities in the stories. Both feature a gay man who grew up in an unaccepting family and show the impact that has on their lives. But that’s where the similarities cease. Listening To Dust is really about a gay man who grew up with an accepting and loving grandmother trying to come to terms with who his lover is and was and how his lover’s family affects and affected him. This book is really more about what it is to love someone who suffers from deep childhood wounds. The difficult path that is to follow and how many pitfalls exist in it. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Stephen’s voice, I still respected his experiences and the difficult situations he found himself in. I also appreciated seeing the far-reaching impact lack of love and family acceptance has. It doesn’t just affect the people raised in that family.
The writing is again gorgeous. Even now I can feel the hot dustiness of Dustin’s hometown and also the comforting cool greenery of Stephen’s grandmother’s French cottage. Shire elicits both place and emotions so powerfully that it is impossible not to be moved by the story.
I also really enjoyed the various commentary throughout the book on love, words, and actions. What love is, what it does, and whether words or actions are worth more.
So I guess we were both right, and both wrong about actions and words. Like the two of us, one is empty without the other. (location 1014)
The sex scenes manage to be steamy and emotional. What I might call literary sex scenes. When I read them, I felt them in my knees.
Even now I can feel the heat from your palm as you cupped the back of my head and pulled my lips those last few inches, how you opened your body and begged me with your soul. (location 1726)
So what held me back from 5 stars? As previously stated, I wasn’t a huge fan of Stephen’s voice, although I respected his experiences. He sometimes grated on me a bit. I’m not sure if it was his slight Britishisms or how much he got hung up in his own head but he sometimes irritated me in a way that kept me from getting completely engrossed in the story. But this is a small thing, really, when compared to the story as a whole and the beautiful writing.
Overall, this is a book that sweeps the reader away to multiple, disparate places to explore both love and the far-reaching affects of a harsh family life. It should appeal to any who enjoy a heart-breaking contemporary GLBTQ romance.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Note: 10% of all proceeds donated to LGBT Youth Charities combating homelessness.