Burro Hills is a bleak coming out story that ends with hope

Reviewed for Netgalley – Mild Spoilers

Burro Hills by Julia Lynn Rubin

There’s no sugar coated way to say this. Jack’s life sucks. As in devoid-of-hope suckage. When even your best friend thinks you’ll turn out to be nothing more than a dead-beat stoner, that is a really crap life. Jack lives in a dying town with his alcoholic father and his unemployable (and possibly mentally ill) mother. His closest friend, Toby, is an ass and a drug dealer, and Jack and all of his friends do drugs to try and escape their going-nowhere lives.

The other force behind Jack’s drug use is a deeply buried secret that he can’t admit to anyone, including himself. This changes when new student Conner enters the picture. Connor comes with a reputation as a total bad boy who punched his last school principal and has been with just about every girl at his last school, so why can’t Jack stop watching him? And why does Connor return his looks?

It isn’t long before Jack has to stop lying to himself about his sexual orientation, but when a gay student is beaten and left naked by other students, Jack lets his fear destroy his relationship with Connor and almost destroys himself in the process.

As Jack faced one problem after another, I found myself wondering how he didn’t simply implode from the pressure of it all. No wonder he toked up as often as he did. His situation is just so bleak. He doesn’t see a way out of it and, as a reader, I found it hard to have any hope for him either. While I enjoyed the overall story, I do admit to becoming frustrated with some of Jack’s decisions such as his lack of defending Connor when he faces arrest because of Jack or when Jack, knowing what Toby has done to Jess, answers Toby’s distress call, putting himself and Connor in danger. Then again, teenagers make dumb decisions. It’s basically a requirement for growing up, so I can understand it no matter how irritating it was.

Julia Lynn Rubin has a lot going on this story, but she manages to encompass the endless issues that youth face in schools today, from peer pressure to drug and alcohol abuse, to bullying, and hate crimes. She captures the insecurity, immaturity, and need to be accepted that every high school student endures. One of the strongest themes of this book is Jack’s struggle to accept who he is, which is a huge challenge in the conditions in which he lives and the toxic environment where he goes to school. Rubin does an excellent job of showing the fear and anxiety that youth face when deciding to come out. Fortunately, the ending isn’t as hopeless as the beginning, and Burro Hills is a solid coming out story about a boy who has to learn to overcome fear and become he who is truly is.



Hutchinson’s Stages is a heart wrenching tragedy with a sliver of hope in the end

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is tragic in a way that could dissolve into nothing but despair, depression, and hopelessness. Andrew has lost his entire family – mother, father, sister – in a car accident. To say his life changes completely in that moment would be Master-of-the-Obvious-level stupid, but his world not only changes entirely, it shrinks down to the confines of the halls of Roanoke Hospital. The outside world disappears and all that remains is the daily grind of emergency rooms, and children’s cancer wards, and late night donut runs at the nurses’ station. Andrew withdraws from everything he has ever known: his identify, his dreams, his life outside of the gray, antiseptic walls. He becomes stuck in the present with a past he can’t deny and a future he won’t accept.

All while Death chases him.

I enjoyed the way Shawn David Hutchinson uses this character of Death as a metaphor for life. In life, Death is always chasing us, but it is what we do with the time we have before Death catches us that truly matters. Andrew is so lost in his present, so busy trying to cheat Death, that he is losing the time he has to truly live. He is stuck in a nightmare of not moving on and even the cast of supporting characters, from nurses who mother him to cancer patients who befriend him and a burn victim who loves him, he cannot break the cycle of grief, guilt and fear that traps him within the confines of the hospital, within the dead-end of his present.

But to remain there means Death wins. It would mean that there is no hope, no future, no way forward for Andrew. The breaking of the cycle is terrible and heartrending, but in the end it allows for the tiniest sliver of hope to emerge, like the slimmest ray of sunshine glowing around the edges of a thunder cloud. And that hope is what saves Andrew and allows the story to be more than heartbreak and gives us readers the silver lining we so desperately need after a story of such shattering loss.

Read this story for Andrew, for the wonderful supporting characters, and for the ending it leaves us with, but keep the tissues close by!

Where Death Meets the Devil is Pure Escapism

Reviewed for Netgalley

Jack Reardon’s 35th birthday is not going as planned when he comes to tied to a chair in the torture shack owned by the same criminal Jack was sent deep undercover to infiltrate over a year ago. And when Ethan Blade, world renowned assassin and ruthless killer, enters the shack, Reardon doubts he’ll be making it to his 36th birthday.

L.J. Hayward’s story of a former SAS soldier on an assignment gone terribly wrong and the world’s 7th deadliest assassin is total entertainment from the get-go. The story shifts each chapter from Then, when Reardon first encounters Blade, to Now, one year after the pair met and had to fight their way through an army and a desert together to survive. These shifts enhance the suspense, dropping hints in the present about what happened between the two in the past and then returning to the Then to expand on those hints and set the story for what is happening in the Now and why. It created an excellent pace for the story and a momentum that would not have been present had the story been told in a linear fashion.

And while events near the end require some Fast-and-Furious-level suspension of belief, Jack is well developed and complicated, having doubts about himself, his mission, and Blade. He’s a former Special Forces soldier whose mind still carries the scars and trauma of all that he has been through, and it shows in the doubts he has in his current agency and the decisions he makes.

I enjoyed the characters, the action, and the non-linear story telling. I look forward to more works by Hayward and hope she’ll bring Jack and Ethan back in a sequel.

Out on the Drink is a unique tale of addiction, adventure, and survival

Reviewed for Netgalley

If you can ignore the many, many typos, misspellings, missing words, and misused words, Bill Bunn’s Out on the Drink is an engaging, unique tale which follows young alcoholic Sean on his biggest, dumbest blunder yet. In the middle of Newfoundland snow storm, he accepts a dare to climb aboard an abandoned cruise ship, where he promptly passes out and awakens much later to find that the ship has torn aware from its moorings and is adrift on the ocean.

Sean must learn not only how to live without alcohol, but how to live alone on a decrepit ship with little water and food that expired almost three years prior to his misadventure. His very survival depends on it.

Bunn did a nice job with the pacing of the story. Sean’s stint aboard the Lyubov Orlova slows the momentum a bit, but I think that was intentional to show how long Sean is stuck aboard the cruise ship and how lonely he is during this time. The pace definitely picks up again when company comes aboard.

The story is original and engaging. Despite Sean’s many stupid mistakes, I found myself hoping he and his ship-imposed sobriety would both survive. I recommend this book despite the many errors.