“I want him to know he’s loved, and will always have me and his Uncle Sam there to take care of him.”
In a word: Maybe read the thing? I don’t know. I have very mixed feelings about this book. A lot of it is slice-of-life stuff in a small Mississippi town as seen through the eyes of our main character/narrator, Henry Hood. Adding to that, though, is the undercurrent of a somewhat deeper and darker plot involving Henry’s nephew and custody and family secrets. It sounds fine on paper, but in execution there’s a lot of homophobia and racism (from the characters, not the author), which is fine as it makes for a varied cast of characters and interesting dialogue, but it’s not something that I enjoy reading personally. Some parts of this book made me unbelievably angry, some parts made me uncomfortable, some parts made me laugh, and some parts made me go ‘aww’; it was a very emotional read. Most of the problems I had with this book were personal ones, there’s nothing really wrong with the book itself. The characters are interesting, the plot sometimes drags, but ultimately everything flows well. Try it out if you want, but if you don’t like reading things that are going to make you angry and upset you’re probably better off skipping it.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains homophobia, racism, homophobic and racist slurs, mentioned drug use, mentioned child abuse/neglect, mentioned child rape/incest, and child abandonment.
The Couple: Henry “Hen” Hood and Sam Rakestraw are the two leads, and if this were a romance novel the romance would be focused on them. Hen, our narrator, is a farmer and landscaper who lives in the old family house that was left to him when his parents died about three years before the story starts. Sam is his live-in boyfriend of four years (though they’ve apparently been together on and off since the tenth grade, though the story doesn’t really get into that) who works in one of the supermarkets in the chain owned by his family. They’re both out, but there’s this weird thing where some people in their small town know that they’re gay and together, and some people don’t seem to realize it? It’s weird. But it’s mostly due to the attitude of the townsfolk and what gay stereotypes they know. Sam is a lot more outgoing than Hen, but Hen has more shit to deal with than Sam. Sam seems a lot more sure of himself and his place in life, but he’s also a pillar of the community with a supportive family backing him. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s regularly employed, which all serves to make him a confident, more or less well-adjusted man. Hen is another story altogether. Three years before the story starts, his parents die in an apparent murder-suicide and that’s left him with a lot of mental health issues (understandably so). We don’t know what he was like before, but Sam tells us that he was a lot happier and easier to be around. Hen is pretty closed-off these days, and he only really comes around more when he has Ishy to focus on. He’s also pretty passive most of the time, letting things just happen to him and not doing much to rock the boat, and he goes on like that until he hits pretty near rock-bottom and starts fighting back.
The Kid: Ishmael “Ishy” Hood is Hen’s 7-year-old nephew, and he’s basically what gets the plot rolling. Ishy is just pitiful, just a kid you can’t help but feel sorry for because his life so far has mostly been full of suck. His mother, Hen’s younger sister Sarah, is a drug addict and often leaves Ishy to fend for himself. Ishy’s small for his age, and he’s a bit slow (he doesn’t have any sort of diagnosis). He’s painfully shy and doesn’t open up easily to people. It’s established that he’s known Hen and Sam for years, but it still takes him a bit to warm up to them (especially to Hen because Hen’s a complete arsehole to him at first). Another thing to mention is that Ishy is written as a normal child character. He’s not ‘wise beyond his years’, he’s not there to spout platitudes and weirdly relevant advice. He does none of that. What he does do is act like an abused child who starts to flourish when he finally has access to people who love and care for him. He’s still 7 years old, when fart jokes are the high point of comedy.
The Side Characters: This book has so many side characters. All of the side characters. They don’t all have the same amount of screen time, and they aren’t all important to the plot, but they all show up now and again, and they all seem to have something to say. Sam’s family makes a few appearances, the one that shows up the most is his germaphobe younger brother Larry, who is always showing up at the house to eat and rant on about how there are so many germs in the world and it’s a wonder that everyone hasn’t died of dysentery by now. I sometimes found him annoying, but he’s mostly pretty good for a laugh. The only members of Hen’s family even left in the story are, of course, his sister Sarah (who is a trip and a half) and his aunt Shirley (who is a complete homophobic twat, thankfully she doesn’t show up that often). Sister Ascension is a native New Yorker and a nun and one of my favourite side characters (despite her being a nun), she’s always on Hen and Sam’s side and seems to spend most of her time throwing shade around town. Miss Stella is a member of the church board (or something) and really has it out for Hen (I’d say for no reason, but she does have a very loose excuse for why she doesn’t like him, but it really doesn’t excuse her behaviour, and she’s really a complete bitch and I hate every scene she shows up in). Chief Calkins is, obviously, the chief of police in town and his main purpose is trying to figure out what really happened with Hen’s parents three years ago, and I have no idea how to feel about him because he usually goes back and forth between helpful figure and arsehole. There are a few more characters here and there who have a scene or two, not all of them are important in the grand scheme of things, a lot of them are fairly offensive, but they’re all fairly interesting and add layers to the story and setting.
The Plot: Unlike the other books I’ve written about so far, romance isn’t a main plot in this book. The main couple are already in a long-term established relationship, and have been for a few years. The main focus of the story is Ishy, and whether or not Hen and Sam will get to raise him. The book starts with someone getting in contact with Hen about coming to get Ishy. Sarah, Ishy’s mother, has run off and no one knows where she is. She’s on probation and her pretty much abandoning Ishy (for three or so days) pretty much ensures that she’ll be heading to prison as soon as she’s located. Hen brings Ishy back to his house to live with him and Sam until they can figure out what’s going on. Things get off to a rough start since Sam is really the only mentally healthy person in the house. Hen is still suffering from his parents’ deaths and doesn’t want to get too close to Ishy in case he won’t be able to keep him. Things eventually even out as Hen realizes that Ishy needs him since he’s really the only family he has left now (aside from Aunt Shirley, but it would be cruel to subject Ishy to her). A lot of the book is focused on the goings on at the house as Ishy settles into his new routine and Hen and Sam settle into their new roles as fathers. I enjoy reading domestic, slice-of-life stories about families going about their business (if I can connect with the characters, which I eventually did here) so I enjoyed the parts of the book focusing on that. It was enjoyable reading about Ishy coming out of his shell and flourishing under Hen and Sam’s parenting. The main conflict of the story is about Ishy’s living arrangement. It’s obvious to the reader that Ishy belongs with Hen and Sam, he’s happy there, and it’s doing everyone good. But, because this takes place in a very homophobic environment, a lot of people don’t want to see a child being raised by two men, so Hen and Sam have quite the fight on their hands.
The Dark Secret: So in this book you have two men seeking custody for an abandoned little boy, and some of the daily goings on in their lives. Underneath all that, however, is the mystery about the deaths of Hen’s parents and the identity of Ishy’s father. These two things are more related than one would think. It’s mentioned fairly early on that Hen’s mother murdered Hen’s father and then killed herself. This happened three years before the story starts and Hen is still suffering from it. Chief Calkins shows up every now and again to talk about it because he’s apparently the only person who doesn’t believe that everything was that clear-cut. He seems to think that Hen knows something about it, but Hen is completely clueless. Murder-suicide is dark enough, but we get a hint of even darker things pretty quickly when a conversation between Hen and Ishy comes up about Ishy’s father, whose identity is unknown to everyone. Ishy has apparently asked his mother about his father and was told that Hen would know who it is, because Hen is Ishy’s brother. Hen has no idea what he’s talking about, but the reader starts to get an ‘oh shit’ feeling because we can probably guess what’s happened here. Of course, this doesn’t come up again until later, and then we finally do find out the dark secret of the Hood family: that Hen and Sarah’s father is also Ishy’s father. That’s the point where Hen’s parents go from a tragic backstory to shady as fuck mystery figures (I don’t think that their mother genuinely knew for sure about her husband, but anyone who forces a 13-year-old to go through pregnancy and childbirth as a punishment is automatically an unfit parent in my book and can go fuck off). It also kinda makes you wonder what else is going on in this town.
The Hate: Homophobia and racism all up and down this story. I just have to mention this because I have never read a story like this before, at least, not one that takes place in modern times. It’s ridiculous. It’s not the story itself that’s hateful, it’s some of the characters. It’s especially jarring because some of the side characters only exist to show up and be homophobic and/or racist and then leave again. I don’t think I’ve ever read the N-word so often in a book in my life. Most of the hate is condensed to Islamophobia and the idea that all gay people are automatically pedophiles (some characters, like Miss Stella and Sam’s brother Paul) even go so far as to say that Hen and Sam must be sexually abusing Ishy because what else do gays do all day? And what’s even more frustrating is that these people are just free to say these things and nothing happens. The only time someone doesn’t get away with it is when Paul, at a Rakestraw family dinner, asks point-blank if Hen and Sam have raped Ishy yet and then Mr Rakestraw throws him out of the house and tells him not to come back. This is pretty much the biggest reason I can’t personally recommend the book to anyone because it makes for a really uncomfortable read.
The Sex: There is none. If you picked up this book looking for sex scenes, you will find none here. There are a few mentions of sex acts between the main couple, but it always fades to black before anything happens. The only thing that even comes close to an actual scene is very sparsely described and is only a few sentences long. You know enough that Henry and Sam have a sexual component to their relationship, you just don’t get to see it.
The Writing: So, the writing in this is a bit weird. Or, the formatting maybe? I dunno. The grammar and spelling and word choices and all that are fine. No real complaints there. The characters all live in a small town in the American south so their speech patterns are written out (different words, expressions, accents written phonetically, and so on). But the weird bit is that the whole book looks like a compilation of chapters someone posted to their Livejournal (like on the kink meme or something). The chapters are pretty short, there’s like 100 of them in the book and the book isn’t overly long (nearly 300 pages, I think). Really, they’re just scenes since a lot of them don’t really have much point to them and are just there for characters to talk and sometimes provide exposition (or hate). This book is mostly dialogue, people are constantly talking to each other and there is very little internal reflection (it’s written in first person POV). Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just something I’m not used to reading.
[Get Your Shine On was published July 24, 2015 by Dreamspinner Press, available both in print and as an ebook]