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REVIEW:  The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon

REVIEW: The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon

Dear Josh Lanyon:

Sunita: As your faithful readers know, you took 2012 as a sabbatical year and did not release any new novellas or novels (although you did release two short stories). Blood Red Butterfly, which I reviewed briefly earlier this year, came out in February, and last month you released this first novella-length installment of a new series. Since both Sirius and I consider your books auto-buys, we thought it would be fun to do a joint review of The Haunted Heart: Winter.

haunted heart josh lanyon

Haunted Heart by Josh Lanyon [Contemporary m/m] ( A | BN | K | S | G )

Readers of earlier Lanyon stories will find themselves in recognizable territory, but this book is definitely the beginning of something new. Flynn Ambrose is living in a big drafty house in Connecticut, going through the inheritance left to him by his Great-Uncle Winston. Winston left a museum full of antiques and collectibles, some of it valuable and all of it strange. When a Regency mirror starts housing a ghostly something-or-other, Flynn seeks help from the reassuringly strong and solid tenant he also inherited, writer Kirk Murdoch. Reluctant at first, Kirk warms to Flynn and becomes as intrigued by the ghost in the mirror as Flynn is.

I purposely didn’t read anything about this book before it was released. I read both the 2012 short stories and Blood Red Butterfly and enjoyed them all, but I was really looking forward to a new Lanyon book that was (a) longer and more developed; and (b) in the style of his mysteries, which I enjoy the most of all his writing. I am not a huge fan of ghost stories, but I figured I would trust him on this, and I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’ve read The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks, some of the setup and characterizations will be recognizable, but it’s a quite different book overall. For one thing, the ghost aspect is front and center and real. More importantly, though, Flynn in this book feels more complex and mature to me than Perry did (I know a lot of Lanyon fans love Ghost, but while I enjoyed it I don’t return to it like I do some of his other books). And since the story is told from Flynn’s perspective, we really get into his head.

Sirius: Yes, The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks was my least favorite book by this writer. I know that’s his standard way to make a character vulnerable — either with grief or with illness (not just his, of course, but he uses it often) — but I felt he way overdid it with Perry (funny, I do not even remember what the issue was, but I do remember that I felt he was helpless, and damsels in distress annoy me). I liked Flynn much more than Perry.

Sunita: I’ve read a number of books lately that feature protagonists who are grappling with depression, darkness, and/or suicide. Reading this reminded me of how nuanced Lanyon’s treatment of characters with physical and mental difficulties can be, and how unusual this is in romance, whether mainstream or m/m. Where other writers will pile on the angst, Lanyon goes the subtle route. The reader knows right away that Flynn is mourning the loss of his partner, who was also quite young, but we don’t know exactly what happened, and the revelations of what Flynn has gone through since are parceled out slowly and indirectly.

Sirius: I felt Flynn’s grief as clearly as you did. One of the reasons I like his books is because I always admire how much Lanyon can achieve with so few words. That quote about snow on Alan’s eyelashes make me choke up a little.

If I closed my eyes I could remember snowflakes in Alan’s eyelashes and his breath warm against my face …

I like a variety of writing styles – I can admire, let’s say, Carole Cummings for her lush writing style in Aisling and her other series, and I was tasting the words on my tongue when I was reading Ash’s musings in Alexis Hall’s Glitterland, but I also love the restraint Lanyon shows in his works, especially because he can achieve so much with very few words.

Sunita: Flynn’s grief is understandable, and we know his previous actions flow from that, so his parents’ and doctors’ worries about him make sense. It’s only toward the end of the book that we realize the full extent of his unhappiness, and it hits like a punch. The ending is a pretty tenuous HFN, and you really have to trust the author to be able to pull off a genuine HEA over the next three installments.

Sirius: That’s a really good point you make about trusting the author. I thought the ending was perfect for this book. Considering Flynn’s state of mind and the state of his emotions, I thought anything happier than what we have at the end would have felt way too soon and would not ring true to me, but definitely I have no doubt that we will get the genuine happy ending at the end of the series and this is only because I trust the author. Otherwise I would have wondered whether the series would end with another solution which is also clearly hinted at.

Sunita: I agree. An HEA would have been jarring here. That said, this isn’t an overwhelmingly depressing book. Flynn is deeply unhappy, but he still has a sense of humor, and his youthful perspective (he’s in his early to mid-twenties) works to make some of his pronouncements feel less certain than he thinks they are. For example, when he asserts that he’ll never be attracted to anyone again, my reaction was that while he might believe that about himself, I didn’t. And I was right!

Sirius: Flynn felt like a very strong person even if his main determination was to do something I really do not want him to do (this is not resolved at the end of the book yet). But I also thought that his very determined pursuit of the ghost’s story showed him as somebody who could be very goal oriented.

Sunita: The plot is fairly straightforward. As Flynn and Kirk puzzle out the provenance of the mirror and try to understand why Flynn seems to be the conduit, they get to know each other better, gingerly become attracted to and closer to each other, and eventually travel to the original home of the mirror. This section opens out the story and includes relevant historical information without info-dumping. There is also a scene involving characters from an earlier novel that Lanyon fans will recognize, but which new readers don’t need to have read in order for the scene to make sense.

This story is entirely Flynn’s; we don’t really learn much about Kirk except through the ways he interacts with Flynn. What we learn about him is appealing, and Flynn’s interest in him is understandable. By the end of the novella it’s clear that he has his own, somewhat troubled history, but this is not a story about two damaged people being made whole through True Love (at least not so far, it isn’t). I’m hoping that future installments fill out Kirk’s character and develop the relationship, and given Lanyon’s track record, I’m pretty sure they will.

Sirius: Yes, I do agree that we do not know much about Kirk’s character yet and I do hope that he will fill out in the next books. My thoughts were wondering along the lines – eh, so he’s dark, brave, kind, and mysterious. I like his canvas, and I am sure we will see his depths in the next books of the series, but so far I do not feel like I know him well yet. We know that he is a good and honorable guy, of course, because he helps Flynn. We know that he has a sense of humor, and we know that he has a sense of adventure. I mean, we do not know the full extent of what he was doing in the army, but surely at least part of the reason he joined was because he is an adventurous person? I also thought that since in fiction the books the character likes often help us to to learn more about his personality, the fact that he seemed to like Jules Verne also indicates that he likes adventure.

What did you think of the mystery in the story?

Sunita: For a writer who is known for his mysteries, I thought this was more “ghost story” than standard mystery. The investigation was interesting sociologically but not exactly a mystery, at least not in the genre sense to me. I’m not really that up on ghost mythology, but I assumed that the ghost wanted the truth to come out, and haunting Flynn was part of that. The resolution to her story was almost anticlimactic, I thought; not because it wasn’t interesting, but getting to the end was more important than the end.

Sirius: Ah, I think you nailed it. I was a little confused as to what I felt when I was reading about the investigation. I mean, I was interested, I thought it fitted the story, but it did not really feel like a mystery. So what genre do you think this series belong to? Paranormal romance?

Sunita: Oh, good question. It feels like a classic ghost-story setup, which I guess falls within paranormal romance. So yes, but emphasis on the ghost, since everything else is non-paranormal. Plus, there is the mystery part. So paranormal-mystery-romance? With an HFN? Or, let’s just call it a Lanyon. ;) Whatever we call it, I give it a grade of B+.

Sirius: I agree, a grade of B+ for me as well.


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REVIEW:  Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau,Violetta Vane

REVIEW: Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau,Violetta Vane

Dear Ms. Belleau and Ms. Vane,

I really enjoyed the free short story of yours I read and have been on the lookout for your other work. Hawaiian Gothic sounded like something up my alley, even with a ghost angle: an m/m with multicultural characters set in Hawaii with a mystery twist and a gothic flavor. I can’t say that this was an unmixed pleasure, though. It’s a very ambitious work, and some of the writing is lovely, but the story is a hybrid of a number of different subgenres and it ultimately didn’t work for me.

Hawaiian Gothic

It’s a difficult plot to sum up without giving away spoilers. Ori Reyes returns to Hawaii to see his childhood friend and unrequited love, Kalani, who was savagely beaten in a hate crime and is now in a coma with little possibility of recovery. Soon after he arrives, Kalani appears as a ghost who is corporeal and visible only to Ori (yes, Kalani is still in a coma, but his soul or some equivalent is able to leave the comatose body and appear to Ori in a healthy one). After some extremely requited, hot, smexxin’, they talk over the attack and realize that it was part of a curse put on him as a child.

Ori is determined to track down the person who cursed Kalani, which requires figuring out why he was cursed in the first place, which requires unraveling a years-old murder mystery. Once the mystery has been solved, Ori has to find a way to remove the curse.

These three sequences represent three distinct aspects of the book. The first section is an m/m romance, with the added twist that we don’t know whether there can be an HEA given one member of the couple is in a coma. The next section is the murder mystery. The next and longer section is a (grim)dark fantasy (it may also fall in the horror genre, but I don’t read horror so I can’t speak to that). And then the last few chapters and the epilogue return to m/m territory, again with a twist. There is definitely an HEA, but it is preceded by a lot of not-so happy stuff.

This is a very difficult balance to pull off, and the authors don’t quite manage it. The shifts from one genre to another were somewhat jarring to me; they involved shifts of tone and content that didn’t always work, and each section was necessarily shorter than it would have been in a book that stuck to one genre, so they weren’t foreshadowed and set up effectively. I read in all three of these genres, so it wasn’t the content so much as the quick changes and the abbreviated nature of each segment.

There are also regular flashbacks between the present and the past through the entire book, which are sometimes quite effective, but they also interrupt the rhythm of the story. So the overall effect is choppy, and the book winds up feeling a lot longer than its page length (not necessarily a bad thing).

Most of the story is told from Ori’s third-person POV, which means that we are in his head a lot and we see all the other characters through his eyes. Ori is a deeply angst-ridden man. He has PTSD from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shapes his behavior and reactions, but even more consequential is his unrequited love for Kalani. Ori’s discharge from the army and consequent punishment are triggered by Kalani’s attack:

“I wanted leave to see Kalani after he got jumped. I got Julie to mail me a newspaper. Figured I’d show it to the lieutenant, you know, prove to him it really happened, that it was really serious. But the article headline said something about a possible hate crime. He asked if I wanted to go see my boyfriend.” He shrugged his shoulders. Shrugged off the weight of the story.

“And for that, you broke his jaw!” shouted his father, his face darkening to an almost eggplant color. “For that? You know what I’ve been through? In the seventies, my squad leader left a dead dog on my bunk with a note that said ‘chow’, and you know what I did? I filed a formal complaint.”

But this wasn’t like some peon fucking drill sergeant throwing out an impersonal “faggot” to humiliate him into obedience. Honestly, it wasn’t about his sexuality at all, when he thought about it. So what if somebody accused him of being gay and meant it? He’d worked hard not to let anything on, and if he failed, then he failed. So he’d be kicked out. So what? It was Kalani. It was the thought of anyone cheapening what he and Kalani shared—no, could have shared. What went between them…it should have been too sacred to use for humiliation, especially now—especially now that it had turned tragic.

I have to suspend some serious disbelief to accept that an Army Ranger, from a military family and with several tours of duty under his belt, attacked his superior because speculating about a boyfriend was somehow beyond the pale.

It goes beyond obsession to the point where we know little about Ori apart from his focus on Kalani, who winds up being something of a cipher. We see Ori with his family and with Kalani’s family in a few scenes and we see him with others when he is trying to undo the curse. But all of these scenes are about Kalani, Kalani, Kalani. It’s a testament to the authors’ writing ability that I wasn’t sick of character by the end of the book.

However, they were good together, in the chemistry sense, on the page. For readers who enjoy angst and a couple who seem to fit together, this was a great read. When they were together in the present day, I believed in them. But when I stopped and thought about it, I didn’t really know exactly why.

Another strength of the novel is that the multicultural aspects are strongly foregrounded. Most of the characters are non-white and the dialogue is peppered with Hawaiian words and phrases. The supernatural aspects of the plot are drawn from Hawaiian myths and legends. The initial introduction and exposition of these myths was a bit clunky, but the way they shaped the storyline worked quite well.

And as I said above, there are some lovely passages, especially those describing the island:

That night, after a dinner eaten alone, just a few mouthfuls of rice and a grilled ono steak, he went to the beach. Other than the once with his sister, he’d been purposely avoiding the ocean—no small feat on an island—afraid that if he looked too long, he’d be hypnotized by it, called to it, and the undertow would drag him home. Of course, when he’d first made that decision, it was under the impression that there was no Kalani to give him reason to stay here, but now it was something else. Some determined, weird resolve that he wouldn’t let himself enjoy Hawai’i’s goodness until Kalani could too. All of him.

He drove a little north of Hilo so that he’d be alone, parked on a side road, and followed a narrow trail down to where the land dropped into the ocean. Fifty feet of flat rocks and driftwood formed the beach; it was bounded on either side by steep cliffs trailing with flowering vines. The ocean rushed into the cut, frothing white, clawing back. The smallest, smoothest rocks tumbled musically back and forth with the waves. The beach seemed like a whole world in miniature, where water, air, and earth (born from fire) clashed into one another and negotiated uneasy, shifting boundaries.

Ori picked up a rock the size of his hand and threw it into the waves. The sound of its splash melted into the roar of the waves and the rainmaker clatter of the stones.

“I’m here,” The words were quiet, but they cut straight through the sound of the waves.

The writing is vivid and forceful, if a little overwritten at times. The dark scenes are very dark (especially in the fantasy portion) and the sex scenes do a good job of placing the reader within the action. The murder mystery development and solution is largely done in third-person narrative, so it is the most distancing, but I assume that was intentional.

For m/m purists, I should note that there are on-page sex scenes that include a woman, although not with the main characters. In contrast to the m/m scenes, which are explicit and detailed, the m&f scenes are brief and relatively non-explicit (I can’t say more about these scenes without spoiling a major plot point). The inclusion of MMA fighting techniques into the sex scenes made them more interesting than the average, too.

It’s hard for me to know who the target audience for this book is supposed to be. Despite the mystery subplot I don’t think it’s for mystery fans, and if you don’t like dark fantasy or horror, this may be a bit too much. But readers of angsty m/m romance who also enjoy reading dark fantasy and don’t mind a dash of mystery should enjoy Hawaiian Gothic quite a bit, despite its weaknesses.

Grade: C+

~ Sunita