Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book review: Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane




Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane *


My Bitch Factor 10 rating:


The title of Violetta Vane and Heidi Belleau 's new novel may first conjure up images of leis and scowly-faced tiki gods , but Hawaiian Gothic is not a book of kitschy pop culture design or the stereotypes that immediately come to mind when one thinks of a story with a Hawaiian backdrop. And no, I wasn't expecting a light-hearted, laid-back tale of two guys who fall in love while hanging ten-- any self-respecting English major knows that "gothic lit" means something very different than common notions of gothic-ness. Vane and Belleau take the main characters in Hawaiian Gothic to some very dark and horrific places in their quest for reclaimed love.

Let me start off by saying that HG was a very intriguing read. So much so that I've had the damnedest time trying to write a review. The book touches on so many themes and topics that interest me: folklore, returning veterans with PTSD, euthanasia, multi-cultural representation in the M/M genre, polyamory-- just to name a few. It takes really gifted writers to successfully blend so many divergent elements together in one novel, and Vane and Belleau clearly have this talent.

Before I get too cart-before-the horse-y, let me blurb you:

Ori and Kalani were childhood friends too afraid to be lovers. Now in their darkest hour—Ori disgraced and Kalani a wandering spirit—they’ll fight the world and death itself for a second chance.


Gregorio “Ori” Reyes thought there was nothing left for him in Hawaii. A former Army Ranger and promising MMA fighter, his dishonorable discharge turned him into the family disgrace, and his childhood best friend Kalani never could love him back--not the way Ori needed to be loved--even before Kalani’s doctors declared him to be in an unrecoverable coma. Ori’s return to Hawaii seems fated to be a depressing reminder of every chance he never took... until Kalani himself impossibly welcomes him home.


Kalani’s body is bedridden, but his spirit is free to roam, and it turns out it’s not just Ori who had unspoken yearnings. Kalani is eager to prove that he can still savor all the pleasures of this world. Together, they remember all those years of surfing, wrestling, touching and aching but too afraid to act; now, they cross that final barrier and struggle against each other in an entirely different way.


Passionately but tenuously reunited, the pair must solve the mystery of Kalani’s unlucky life, sorting through dark family history and even journeying to the Hawaiian ghostworld. And the greatest terror of their journey is that Ori might have to put Kalani to rest.




Now to some particks (and yeah, this might get a bit spoilery):

The Characters-- Kalani, Ori and Hawaii

We know from the blurb that Kalani is in a coma. I know some readers may be hesitant to approach a romance that has one partner non-responsive. And I have to say that during my first read of HG I kept thinking, man, when does Kalani get to have an active part in the story. A second read, however, showed me that Kalani is really all over the story-- beginning to end. He is never far from Ori's thoughts, dreams, or his heart. Non-linear storytelling allows us several glimpses into Kalani's life-- from a childhood where he first met Ori to his nearly-static state in the hospital.

In spite of the insight that the flashbacks give us, throughout, I still don't feel that I know quite as much about Kalani, as I do Ori-- but then I've always been the best company for the most miserable of characters. And boy, Ori knows misery. He has returned from two tours in Iraq and a stint in Leavenworth to find the man he has loved his whole life, unreachable-- languishing physically and with very little indication that anything mentally has happened in a long time. I found myself comparing Ori to the gothic heroes. Did he feel alienated from society, from his loved ones? Absolutely. This comes across from the very first pages and continues until he is reunited with Kalani. Was he brave? Yep. Steadfast? Most certainly. Self-sacrificial? Perhaps too much so… Saying that Ori's decision-making leaves a lot to be desired is a gross understatement; but all the same, Ori, and his fanatical/fantastical love for Kalani, makes the story for me.

It's a good thing the boys are in Hawaii, because the only hope for restoration and redemption either of them has lies in the mythical and mystical, and Hawaii provides that in spades. So much of the story is infused with the spirit(s) of Hawaii that I think it's appropriate to think of "place" as "character," here. I am not sure this story would have worked as well in a different locale. Thankfully, this is a different Hawaii than the touristy claptrap that many of us know from past visits there. Vane and Belleau's Hawaii is gritty, spiritual, off-putting and welcoming; it is difficult to know if Hawaii will serve as protag (bringing the lovers together) or antagonist (forever separating them). Hawaii is the first main character we meet in the story, newly surfaced from the ocean depths--already beautiful, and bespoiled (much like Ori and Kalani's relationship). Hawaii is home to Ori, ethnically Filipino (though considering how Ori ties his very existence to Kalani, perhaps it is, "home is where the boyfriend is"), and quite possibly a final resting place for Kalani, an indigenous Hawaiian; but more importantly (to me, at least), ubiquitous Hawaii contexualizes Ori and Kalani-- shaping their history, their culture, their beliefs, their love.

The 'Lore

 Props to Belleau and Vane taking out the nice tea cups and steeping the reader in Hawaiian/Pacific Islander culture-- especially folklore, mythology and legend (and, accordingly, I can forgive them for making the boys surfers-- just once I want a story with a Hawaiian who neither surfs nor swims, hehehe). I feel like I got a few too many dips in the cups where language was concerned, because I only previously knew "mahalo" and "aloha." I felt I was missing out on some of the meanings of Hawaiian and Pidgin words in the text-- but I did discover, after my 1st reading, that the authors have included a glossary on one of their HG websites (https://sites.google.com/site/hawaiia... so don't let any language barriers deter you from enjoying HG. I must admit I know next to nothing about Hawaiian deities, and I still haven't done enough research to find out where the authors borrowed from traditional lore and what was of their own highly-creative making. I will tell you this, though, the fantastical elements in Hawaiian Gothic definitely meet the horrific standards for gothic literature. Throughout the story there is a tug-o-war between the natural and supernatural worlds. It would be clichéd to say that Ori goes to hell and back to save his lover. It would be more accurate to say that Ori goes to a place that almost makes a heaven out of our usual ideas of hell. Yikes! so much of the otherworld imagery in this story gave me the creeps! Oh, and, Ori and Kalani take loving to a whole 'nother plane-- literally! Thankfully, there are deities and humanly entities to guide the lovers, on both sides of the divide.

The Romance

I hope you'll indulge me on this next part-- the alternative relationships represented in Hawaiian Gothic. I love that Ori and Kalani come from different ethnic backgrounds, but also share a Hawaiian heritage (it sure comes in handy for the boys). Thank the Goddesses (in this case, Violetta and Heidi) that we aren't dealing with two haoles! (look it up) That would have been as unwelcome as an uncoordinated, "hippy" Minnesota housewife doing interpretative Hawaiian dancing.

We know this is a friends-to-gay lovers relationship, and as is often the case in these stories, Ori and Kalani must each deal with homophobia, in addition to other challenges. Ori goes to great lengths to unravel the mysteries of Kalani's family, as a means of restoring Kalani to physical and emotional balance. And, as Ori strives to make sense of Kalani's painful and lonely childhood, a polyamorous aspect enters the story (in spite of tagging to the contrary, I see this as more polyamory than ménage) -- but I really don't want to give too much away. But it seems that the "real" world in Hawaiian Gothic is much too dangerous for many expressions of love-- whether that love is parental, homo- or bi-sexual. For the most part, Vane and Balleau handle the relationships with affection for the characters and sensitivity, when needed. HG is also quite scorchingly erotic, when appropriate (er, when is scorchingly erotic ever not appropriate?).

Tiny Quibbles

Ok, as much as I loved this story-- and I loved this story, there were a couple of things that left me scratching my head. I was totally onboard with Ori having to work through his issues with his military service in Iraq and the resulting PTSD-- that all seemed to be part and parcel with his guilt over his perceived abandonment of Kalani and any potential their friendship had to go other places. The MMA thing, though, seemed superfluous-- kinda kewl, but superfluous. One might argue that Ori was going to need all that MMA-bad-assery for future ordeals, but I think everything he had already experienced in Iraq was probably sufficient preparation for what he would encounter. And… there's Kalani's shark adventure (remembered in flashbacks, but still…). Between that hospitalization and his coma, that Kalani seems to invite extreme misfortunate. I fear for whatever future those two might have together!

And hmmm. The magic realism in this story is a bit heavy on the magic in parts, but it never get so out of hand that Vane and Belleau cannot manage to reel it in. But I still don't get what all happened with Saul's bungling magic, why he even went that route? Saul is a tragic character, and I do appreciate how he seeks redemption in helping Ori and Kalani-- but I wouldn't put faith in such a character in the story-- and as a reader, I don't entirely trust him, either. And magic aside, I really don't get Malia's final actions-- but hell, now that I think about it, I've done similar things, in a similar situation, so maybe I shouldn't judge her too harshly.


Summary

Let me wrap this up, because, really, I could go on and on. I didn't even get on my euthanasia soap box! Anyhoo, so much of Hawaiian Gothic was heartrending and heartwarming. It had just the right amount of action-- of the horrific/fantastical variety. It was a very touching love story that I know I will revisit again and again.



*The authors of Hawaiian Gothic requested this review and provided an ARC for that purpose. This review represents my personal opinion of the book, and I was not influenced by anyone as to what to write in my review. Which should be obvious by how rambling it is. No authors were harmed in the process of writing this review-- well, not physically, anyway.

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