Review: Jasper’s Mountain by John Inman

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Rating:  3.75 stars out of 5

Jasper's MountainJasper Stone has few needs.  A writer, Jasper loves his solitude and quiet, something he gets plenty of on his ninety acre ranch, high on the side of the Juniper Mountains.  Living alone in his rustic cabin, Jasper’s only companions are the animal menagerie the kind hearted author has managed to accumulate since his arrival.  While all his dogs and cats keep Jasper from being alone, they don’t always keep him from being lonely.  Then Jasper finds a young man with a fever hiding in his chicken coop and everything changes.

When small-time thief Timmy Harwell carjacks a Cadillac, he tumbles into something much more dangerous than just stealing a car.  That outrageously outfitted Cadillac belongs to Miguel Garcia, aka El Poco, a Tijuana drug dealer, known for his ruthless manner and killer reputation.  And it’s not just the drug dealer’s favorite car that Timmy has stolen, no, its the $100,000 he finds in the trunk as well.  Soon, Timmy is on the run, trying to put as much distance between him and El Poco as possible.

But a storm forces Timmy to hide out on Jasper’s ranch until he falls ill from exposure. Jasper finds Timmy and nurses him back to health, becoming fond of the young man during his recovery.  But Timmy recognizes that Jasper is everything he is not.  Jasper is kind, and honest, valuing trust and the truth above all.  So Timmy hides who he is and what he has done behind lie after lie.  When the past and El Poco catches up to Timmy on Jasper’s mountain, Timmy realizes its not just himself he has placed in danger but Jasper too, a man he has come to love and admire.  When it all comes down to making a choice, will Timmy choose survival?  Or will he decide honesty and Jasper is the only choice his  heart desires?

I first found John Inman through a series of novels with a comedic bent to their plots and characters.  And although each contained a serious element or two in the narrative, they were generally light hearted fare that left you smiling or perhaps even guffawing long after you had finished reading them.  So I found myself surprised by the gravity of Jasper’s Mountain, a novel with a few endearing scenes to lighten a storyline of unusual seriousness by this author of humorous tales.

The characters that John Inman creates have always been people that felt authentic. Their personalities, character traits and relationship issues seeming more those of your neighbors than of created personas.  That holds true here for Jasper Stone and Timmy Hartwell.  Jasper, especially, resonated with me.  Jasper is 32 years old, and more fond of animals than he is of people.  Animals have never let him down the way people have.  And Jasper’s mistrust of people combined with  his awkwardness and dislike of society have caused him to retreat to his mountain sanctuary and the company of animals.  Further isolating this man is his chosen profession of writing, something he is only moderately successful at. Jasper sells enough manuscripts to sustain himself and his pets but not  for anything more.  Everything about Jasper feels real, if not relatable.

Timmy Hartwell also comes across as a believable young thief.  Stealing is a way of life Timmy just fell into, driven by a desire never to be poor again after a childhood spent in foster care.  A lack of discipline, no impulse control and a flexible morality made life as a thief an easy occupation.  If Timmy saw it and wanted it, well, then he stole it.  And thought about the consequences later.  Even Timmy admitted to himself that he probably wasn’t very smart about his life choices, just went with the flow of events and easy choices.  Only the choice of hiding spots causes a change in outlook, not a desire to go straight.  Another beautifully layered portrait from John Inman of a young confused human being with a life of bad choices behind him and more of the same in his future.

As with all Inman novels, the animal characters that pop up haphazardly about the story are as vivid and realistic as the people around them.  Whether it is Harry and Harriet, pigs destined never to be bacon,  Guatemala and Fiji, the cats with appetites for alligator lizards and the comforts of home, or Bobber, Jumper, and Lola, the dogs of indeterminate breeding that Jasper adopts, all the animals have larger than life personalities that support and enhance the people they are attached to.  In this instance, the menagerie that Jasper has accumulated makes Jasper’s decision to help and then house another, albeit human, stray feel authentic to the character and situation.  Jasper collects animals in need, what’s one more?  The problem arises in that Timmy is a liar and a thief, someone Jasper cannot count on, unlike the unwavering love and loyalty of his animal family.  It’s a great plot idea, but does it make a great romance?

As I stated before, Jasper’s Mountain is a departure from the typical lighthearted story I expect from this author.  And that more serious aspect runs through the entire narrative.  The biggest issue between the characters also becomes the biggest issue, in my opinion, between the readers relating to and believing in a romance between Jasper and Timmy.  Timmy consistently lies to Jasper throughout the story.  Over his background, over the events that lead him to Jasper’s ranch, over the peril he places Jasper in, and well, everything about the situation Timmy has created.   Timmy is not just in the well, he’s in the Carlsbad Cavern of bad places, so deep and perilous is the position he has created for himself and  Jasper.  And the more he lies he tells Jasper, the more distance Timmy puts between himself and the reader’s emotional involvement in his future.  I am not sure that Inman recognized the extent that the dishonesty of Timmy’s character would decrease the attachment one would feel towards Timmy. It also keeps the reader from investing in their romance.  Even towards the end, Timmy is not honest about the head games he has been playing.  We understand his desperation, the acts he commits in order to survive.    John Inman has made Timmy a thoroughly believable little thief.  I’m just not sure how much a reader will like him.  That may depend on how much empathy you are able to extend towards Timmy and his situation.

The authenticity of Inman’s scenario extends to the story’s resolution as well.  It’s not a HEA or even a HFN.  More like a gritty probability that hope and the right decision will make a future possible.  I liked that the author remained committed to a more likely ending than creating one that discounted all the events and characters that went before.  For me, it was the only way this story could end and stay plausible.  Love and hope sometimes has to be enough.  John Inman understands that as well.

If you are looking for a lighthearted romance, then this is probably not the story for you.  But Jasper’s Mountain has so much to offer.  Its well written, believable, and full of layered characters that will hold your attention from start to finish.  And no matter how I felt about Jasper and Timmy as a couple, I never stopped reading, not once.  Pick it up and decide for yourself.

Cover artist Reese Dante gave Jasper’s Mountain a beautiful, memorable cover.  One of the best of the year.

Book Details:

ebook, 204 pages
Published August 16th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press (first published August 15th 2013)
ISBN 1627980733 (ISBN13: 9781627980739)
edition language English
Author Details:

Review: Static by LA Witt

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Static coverDamon Bryce and Alex Nichols have been together for two years and while things have not always been easy, they remain deeply in love.  But Alex has a secret, one that she has been afraid to tell Damon because she is sure it will cost her his love.  Alex Nichols is a shifter, one of  a small percentage of the population able to switch genders at will.  Shifters are discriminated against, considered less than equal by the rest of the “static” population.  Being known as a shifter could cost Alex not only Damon but her job as well so Alex kept silent.  Then she is drugged and a black market implant surgically inserted to prevent her from shifting.  Now Alex has become a static, a one gender person,  but in her male form. The truth is out and the ramifications for Alex are crushing.

Damon is deeply in love with his girlfriend Alex.  Then he finds out that Alex is a shifter in the worst way possible for them both, when he confronts a man in his girlfriend’s apartment and finds out that man is Alex. Not only has Alex lied about who she is but now that Alex is male, Damon feels bereft of his fiance and best friend too.  Damon has always thought of himself as straight.   He still loves Alex, just not in the same way he used to.  Damon won’t abandon Alex to face the decisions ahead of him alone.  The surgery to remove the implants is both costly and dangerous.  And Alex’s insurance won’t cover the procedure.  Damon gives Alex the support he needs but can Damon give Alex all the support in every way possible that Alex wants?

Alex must decide to accept being forever a static male or to try for the expensive surgery and the slim chance that he will be able to shift once more. As Alex faces an uncertain future, Damon must decide if he is able to love Alex, the person inside the body Alex is in, including a male one.  So much about their future is risky and unpredictable.  Can their love surmount all obstacles including gender?  Alex and Damon are about to find out.

LA Witt’s Static is not only one of the best stories I have read this year, it is also one of the most timely.  We live in an era where gender issues, especially those of transgender people, are prominent both in the media and the judicial system.  New laws are being written daily to promote equality for transgendered people and those of gender fluid identities.  And for every new law written and steps forward, there is an equal number legislated to oppose those measures and gender equality.  In my opinion, the most important weapons in the battle for equality for LGBTQ community are knowledge, education, and awareness.  Static by LA Witt brings that knowledge and awareness home in a story that renders the reality of gender and gender based issues beautifully, factually and emotionally.

I have always admired the author’s ability to create living, breathing characters that resonate with her readers but in Damon, Alex, Jordan, Sam,and Tabby, shifters and trans characters, LA Witt has gone farther, delved deeper with her characters so as to give us such fully actualized people, depicted so psychologically and physically real that we never question not only the authenticity of a shifter gender but their universe as well.

Just the beginning of the book is so emotionally devastating as Damon confronts a stranger in his girlfriend’s apartment, already assuming the worst about the situation. The reader is thrown into the anguish of the moment along with Damon and Alex.  All the fear, anger, hurt, betrayal, confusion of both people is revealed in painstaking detail leaving the reader transfixed by their anger as well as love for one another.  Witt uses alternating points of view from Damon and Alex to  pull the reader into their thoughts and feelings as the characters change and adapt to the events around them.  This format forces us to look at the situation with the emotions and perspective of both characters.  As the implant and it’s ability to freeze Alex into one gender impacts each person, we see not only Alex reeling from the reality of a one gender existence but also Damon’s (and  ours) inability to truly understand what that means for Alex mentally, physically as well as emotionally.  Can anyone who is “static” ever truly understand the both the physiological and psychological dynamics of  the transgendered or gender fluid community?  I am not sure but the author’s narrative goes a long way towards furthering that understanding and acceptance.  Here is Jordan, a shifter friend of Damon’s trying to help him see a part of the situation that Alex is going through:

Most statics have no frame of reference.  No way to understand what its like putting on high heels when your minds wants to be male or getting a hard-on when you are itching to be female.  And don’t even get me started on the body having a period while the brain is male,” She tapped her thumb on the blotter a few times, then went on.  “It’s hard to explain, but….well, you know that feeling when you’ve been wearing a pair of dress shoes half the day, and they start getting uncomfortable? And then they get to the point where they’re so fucking miserable, you can’t think of anything except taking them off?”

I nodded.

“Now imagine that pair of shoes is your whole damned body, and now there’s an implant that won’t let you take off those shoes.  If I had to guess, that’s what this is like for Alex.”

That is an accessible and useful way to start Damon and the reader along the path to understanding part of terrible pain the implant is inflicting upon Alex.  And although Alex is focus of the implant’s destructive design, we also feel Damon’s pain and confusion as he tries to accept that his “female” fiancé is now and perhaps permanently male, something  this very straight man never thought he would have to deal with.  All the internal  arguments, all the justifications and excuses he offers himself when he thinks of jettisoning his relationship with Alex are laid out for us to examine and work through ourselves.  Is the person the body they inhabit?  Is it their body we love?  Or do we love the person inside no matter what exterior they present to us.  It is an old and yet relevant argument.  And we watch as Damon has to find his own answers to that question, something that Alex realizes as well:

“I knew full well this was a lot for him.  It was quite possibly as difficult for him to accept that I was a shifter as it was for me to accept that I was now static.”

Just one of many powerful moments in a story full of them, strung along like pearls on a necklace that only gets more exquisite and individually unique upon closer observation and inspection.

Witt also brings in different elements of society to reflect the current status and  society’s perceptions of shifters within that culture.  Alex’s implant is the result of her mother’s and her mother’s pastor’s actions.  Just like those ministries who believe that they can “de gay” a homosexual through interventions and horrific ex gay therapies (now being banned in certain states), Alex’s mother and stepfather are members of a radical fundamentalist faith who believe they are doing “God’s will”.    If these characters come across as horribly real, it’s only because we have heard them in our media espousing their beliefs with nauseating fervor. Their actions and beliefs are chilling whether they are in fiction or on our cable news.

This is a love story, where one’s perception of love undergoes as fundamental change as one does transforming from one gender to another.   The romance is slow, sweet and absolutely rewarding.

I loved this story and cannot recommend it enough.  Consider Static and its great cover one of Scattered Thoughts Best Books of 2014 in a year that has just gotten started.

Cover by LC Chase.  What an incredible cover, it’s riveting and gorgeous. Perfect in every way.  One of the best of 2014.

Book Details:

ebook, 283 pages
Published January 20th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published June 17th 2011)