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REVIEW:  Probation by Tom Mendicino

REVIEW: Probation by Tom Mendicino

probation

 

All it took to destroy Andy Nocera’s seemingly perfect life was an anonymous tryst at an Interstate rest area. Sentenced to probation and thrown out by his wife, he spends his week as a traveling salesman, and his weekends at his mother’s house where no questions are asked-and no explanations are offered. To clear his record, the State of North Carolina requires Andy to complete one year of therapy without another arrest. He attends his sessions reluctantly at first, struggling to comprehend why he would risk everything. Answers don’t come easily, especially in the face of his mother’s sudden illness and his repeated failure to live as an openly gay man. But as Andy searches his past, he gets an opportunity to rescue another lost soul-and a chance at a future that is different in every way from the one he had envisioned. With profound honesty, sharp wit, and genuine heart, this debut novel portrays one man’s search-for love and passion, acceptance and redemption-and for the courage to really live. .

Review:

Dear Tom Mendicino,

I really liked your book when I first read it a few years ago; I however could not see myself ever rereading it. Nevertheless the saying “Never say never” is true in this instance.

We meet Andy when he is in front of a judge and being sentenced for having sex in a public space. The book is basically Andy telling us about his life, what led to his arrest and what happened afterwards. The book is mostly written in the present tense with some flashbacks in the past tense.

Andy Nocera is a deeply flawed character and it is very hard to like him, but the writer won me over. It took a lot of effort for me to finish the book however, because it was literally very painful to be in Andy’s head all the time. I think part of the reason why I ended up liking Andy is because the writer explained his character to me so well. I did not ever hate him of course – lots of bad things happened to him and quite a lot of those bad things were not his fault, but society’s fault. However, several times I felt that I needed to stop listening to Andy’s musings, because otherwise his self-hate would become my own – not because our circumstances in life are similar (mine are surely more fortunate), but because it felt so powerful and easily spread in the emotional sense.

“But I’m already halfway to my car. I can’t get away from them fast enough. I hate them, everything about them, if only for one brief and fleeting moment. I don’t want to be a bitter old son of the bitch, steeped in envy. I’m glad they are happy. I really am. It’s not their fault that I’ll never know how it feels to tell the boy I’ve been waiting for my entire life to step up, shake a leg, get a move on, because my old man is checking his watch as he flips the dogs and burgers, telling everyone the party can’t start until we arrive”
“I know now it wasn’t love. It was fear, an absolute, abject fear, that, without him, I’d be back in the box, snapped shut, sealed tight, labeled HUSBAND, and returned special delivery to WIFE”

What probably surprised me the most is the fact that I did not hate Andy even when I read about him repeatedly cheating on his wife for years – that was very unexpected and definitely not a small feat to achieve, but the book does such a good job of portraying them both as real people, flawed but sympathetic real people. They were two people who would always love each other even though they were not in love with each other anymore. I don’t know why I forgave the cheating. Perhaps it was because his wife did? Or because Andy was so honest telling this story (even if he was not honest for years before that)? I really do not know. I know that the book in my opinion did such a good job portraying the subtleties of the various relationships Andy had that I was sold on him, even though he never tried to justify himself.

“I kept my promise, Alice. I never told you I stopped loving you because I never did. You asked the wrong question. You should have made me promise to tell you if I ever fell in love with someone else”.

Sometimes it felt like everything bad that could happen to a person happened to Andy, including his mother’s illness and what he went through with her because of it. I think his mom’s illness was a big reason why I could relate to him, actually. Andy is also going through therapy during the whole course of the book. He shares quite a few of those sessions with us. It is a very painful process, Andy is not entirely cooperative, and several times I despaired whether he would ever get better, even after he was diagnosed with depression and given different medications to try. I thought this was very well done, because at times I felt his therapist’s frustrations too (he was a psychiatrist so he could prescribe medications).

“Why do you insist on being so hard on yourself?” Matt asks after reading my assignment.
“I think I am letting myself off pretty easily”.

The story ends with hope for Andy, but as much as I wanted it for him after so much darkness that I felt like I was a part of, I think I found the ending to be a little out of nowhere. As the blurb tells you, eventually he ends up helping somebody else and feels better because of it, and in the very last chapter we even see the possibility for a relationship for him opening up. It is not a completely happy ending in a sense that he completely recovered, but there is a lot of hope, especially in comparison to the rest of the book, and Andy experiences a significant improvement of his overall situation.

Here is how Andy described what he felt in a chapter prior to the last two hopeful chapters in the book:.
“Anaphylactic shock didn’t transform me. Maybe it’s just that I’d sunk as low as I could go. Not that my little tale of woe was anything special, nothing for the record books. I’ll never experience the horrors and epiphanies of true addiction. A little heavy drinking and a few sour sexual liaisons and a chance encounter with an antibiotic with a four to five percent cross-reaction with penicillin are the sum and substance of the drama of my life.
I wish I could say that I’m seeking redemption through meditation and prayer. But the reality is I’m lying on the bed burping ground beef and onions and dozing while my Psychic Friends promise Great Revelations on the television screen.
Your loved ones are waiting to speak to you…”

The rationale given seems to be that Andy felt that he had hit bottom and the only way for him to go was up, but I think I would have found slower improvement to be more believable.

Grade B-/B

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REVIEW:  The Devil in Midwinter by Elise Forier Edie

REVIEW: The Devil in Midwinter by Elise Forier Edie

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A handsome stranger, a terrifying monster, a boy who burns and burns…

Mattawa, Washington, is usually a sleepy orchard town come December, until a murder, sightings of a fantastic beast, and the arrival of a handsome new vintner in town kindle twenty-year-old reporter Esme Ulloa’s curiosity—and maybe her passion as well. But the more she untangles the mystery, the more the world Esme knows unspools, until she finds herself navigating a place she thought existed only in storybooks, where dreams come alive, monsters walk the earth and magic is real. When tragedy strikes close to home, Esme finds she must strike back, matching wits with an ancient demon in a deadly game, where everything she values stands to be lost, including the love of her life.

Dear Ms. Edie,

Fantasy novels aren’t usually my forte but when I read your submission to our site, what caught my interest was that it’s not about the generic vampire, shifter, were-creature, European-centric characters that populate this genre. No, we’re going to get NA skinwalkers and – better still – Aztec mythology and a Latina heroine here.

Even after reading the excerpt, I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novella. Monsters, fantasy, a handsome guy who can set things on fire and heirloom apples. It’s definitely not the usual paranormal. Finding out just what was going on was half the fun yet also frustrating at times.

This is a novella so words count. Using a compact, quick writing style to get in necessary info works well. The descriptions can neatly nail a situation such as how Esme’s suddenly chaotic life is “like an upended junk drawer.” Or the prose can gently settle around you.

Grief is a little like being in a fresh snowfall. A light, cold curtain falls between you and the rest of the world. Simple things like opening your front door, walking down your front walk are suddenly more difficult. You slide unexpectedly into hurtful places. The earth seems to shift under your feet. You find yourself wanting to stay inside, hunker down. You stare out the window at a place you no longer recognize. It used to be your world, but now it belongs to the white, bleak cold.

However at the halfway point I noted that “I’m grasping part of what the plot is but there’s enough which is hidden that intrigues me. Obviously Esme doesn’t quite get it but delicate clues are dropped along with some wowzers like the mystery man suddenly appearing but then she doesn’t know what we know.” It’s not all mysterious – like the initial funny bits with Esme’s boss Annie and their mutual hotcha reaction to their interview with Colter. And I adore Great Pyrenees so was happy to see Blob, Fluff and Fitzsimmons taking active roles in the story.

But then I’d go back to being frustrated that no one will tell her the truth. Why the secrets if – as they’re hinted at – they’re so important? Only to draw out tension and suspense over the course of the story? Okay so once the whys and wherefores are revealed it kind of makes sense in this world building but it still gets annoying over the course of the story that the people who can help her seemingly won’t.

Suddenly! she “wakes up” by visiting Tia Donna across the river? Suddenly! everything makes sense. Okay let’s go with that. Esme has made mistakes, as Tia Donna points out, which makes her real, makes her human instead of some cardboard superhero. But she also, as Donna points out, gets to be her own hero, her own savior. Xavier can help but it’s Esme who has the power to save herself and must save herself.

The final showdown with evil is enough to make me want to stay away from skinwalker stories for a while. But I do desperately want to learn more of Xilonen and could certainly use the Goddess of Corn’s help with my scraggly roses. Esme and her love might be young but after all they’ve gone through, I think they’re ready and mature enough for their HEA.

I think the strengths here are the writing style, unusual mythos, and a heroine who triumphs by her will and inner strength instead of being merely kick-ass. The main weakness is a frustrating seeming lack of clarity. Overall, glad I read it. It makes me want to taste some of these heirloom apples and read Aztec myths. B

~Jayne

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