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Book Review: Ray of Sunlight, by Brynn Stein

Book – Ray of Sunlight

Author – Brynn Stein

Star rating – ★★★☆☆

No. of Pages – 108 (98 of story pages)

Ease of reading – easy to read

Would I read it again – No.

Let me start off by saying that I’m on a Brynn Stein binge. I’ve been meaning to read these books for ages, but never found the time. When I was given the chance to read and review a few that I didn’t have, I offered to read the ones I did have, as well. This may well have been a mistake. Stein’s characters are heavily depressive and nearly every book has a dying/dead character and it’s a little too much to handle, one after the other. But I’ve only got one left, now that this one is done, so I’ll plug on.

But, quite honestly, this book made me furious. And I mean to the point where I finished the book last night, had to sleep off my anger and even as I type, I can still feel how angry I am about this story.

Also, I’ve noticed that there are a few strong themes in Stein books that might make me hesitate buying a new release:

  • neglectful/abusing/absent parents

  • homophobic encounters/attitudes

  • some medical catastrophe

  • killing characters (even if they’re brought back)

  • an angry MC

  • no HEA. Ever.

Writing

My initial though, before I delved into the story – Oh no! Another 1st person POV. I don’t get along with the author’s style of 1st POV writing, so I wasn’t feeling particularly positive about the story.

Strike two? The use of ‘rents instead of parents. Ugh! Constant and never replaced by the real ‘parents’ unless it’s someone other than our MC speaking.

Three – the author has a strange way, in 1st person, of making it really unclear whether the character is male or female, until they introduce themselves. I’ve seen others write in 1st person and make it clear the MC was male or female (especially when you’re not meant to know who that person is) without having to come right out and say it. Little hints would have been nice. I know it’s an M/M romance, but I’ve seen some books, even 1st person written, that don’t start with the MC or have a strong female influence. It would have been nice to have that cleared up. Until we know, for sure, what our MC is, all he was to me was another snot nosed kid, with an over inflated sense of superiority and an ego the size of Texas.

But, the main problem I had is with CJ’s character. He’s a great kid and a good character, but he’s got terminal cancer. This hits too close to home for me. I WAS CJ at one point – 16, stage 4 cancer, (assumed to be) terminal – and from the hints in the story, I was on way stronger chemo than CJ (it was experimental and twice the regular amount) so I feel I’m qualified to talk about this.

The cancer treatment was stereotypical – weak, tired, vomit and then die. Personally, when I started the book, CJ was really realistic and I was glad that the author had, once again, shown an aptitude for medical research that surprised me. Then, it just went downhill with the constant insults and the dismissive attitude towards cancer.

Also, I’d just like to say that Stage 4 cancer – of any sort – is not a guaranteed death sentence. But, the reason I’m so angry with this story is because it’s frequently assumed it is. In fact, at one point, CJ and Russ talk about his cancer being Stage 4 and then both go off into depressive thoughts about how CJ will die soon. I find that really insulting, having fought and lived through Stage 4. I get that everyone is different, but that isn’t shown or even hinted at here. Every child in this Children’s Hospital is given a glimmer of hope except the cancer kids, who the author talks about as if they’re destined to die. I hate it.

In the beginning, when we first meet Russ, he’s a horrible character. Really, really horrible. Plus, his POV is confusing. It’s not natural. One minute we’re in court and the thought process makes sense – he’s giving us a back story about how he ended up in front of a judge again – and then, suddenly, we’re getting an entire life history, as though the MC – who we’re supposed to be – is talking to the reader! It was a little weird.

Also, Russ is one of those awful people who is rude and obnoxious to everyone. He blames it on his ‘anger’, which he blames on his dad running off and his mum remarrying someone he doesn’t like. I blame it on Russ and his ego. He calls the kids from the burn unit, that he’s been assigned to for community service, a lot of horrible names.

I don’t want to read the POV of anyone who can call burn victims “deep fried ankle-biters” or “crispy critters and Charlie Browns”. I don’t care that he stops, after meeting CJ, and learning that it’s not right. I care that the author made me read these things. They were unnecessary. We’d already had a crystal clear view of Russ and his snarky attitude. It was shown MORE than enough, that we didn’t need these insulting references as well. The whole “ankle-biters”, “Charlie Browns” and even the “rugrats” that he uses later would have been enough. I HATE that I had to read about anyone who could think about kids that way. And, quite honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had promised to read and review this, I could have DFN’d right there.

When it comes to grammar, too, this isn’t like the other Stein books I’ve read. Mostly, I’ve been objective about all the books I’ve read so far, giving them an extra star if they made me cry, which For Mac did. BUT, I can’t do that here. I’m not suitably detached from the story enough to be objective and although it made me cry, it was for my own personal reasons and not really because of what the book did to me. (Like I said, the subject matter really hits home for me)

Mrs Dietrich also flips from that spelling to Mrs Detrick, which is confusing. When I first read the switch, I actually had to go back and check that this wasn’t supposed to be a new character or a snarky way of deliberately getting her name wrong. But, no, it was just a mistake. As were all those elipsis. I get putting them in dialogue or using the occasional one, but they were prolific in this story. I mean – everywhere!

One more problem to point out, before we move on. This, more than any other book I’ve read by Stein, has snippets that are word for word from another book. Both books – For Mac and Ray of Sunlight – were published this year, but both have exactly the same phrases in them:

1 – “Huh?” I loved it when I was all articulate like that.

2 – that much love must go somewhere, right?

Both are carbon copies of For May, which I read first. But, on viewing the publishing info, Ray of Sunlight came first. Either way, it’s jarring to read the exact same line in two books, when I read them one after the other.

Characters

We’re told, frequently, by Russ’s own POV that it’s not his own fault that he’s the way he is. Later, it’s hinted at it. Again, another theme with this author, we’re expected to forgive Russ his angry/bad behaviour and rotten treatment of other people, his selfishness and his bouts of violence, because he had a bad childhood. At this point, I don’t care. Lots of these characters – in Stein books – have had bad childhoods and Russ is least likely of those to garner my sympathy.

I start the book hating Russ and not wanting to be inside his head. He’s a horrible MC to write in 1st person, but I suspect it was so the author could write in that “cool” ‘rents sort of way and swear a lot, showing a lot of attitude, which they did. For me, though, it didn’t work.

I’ve already said that I liked Pete, but I want to reiterate that. Even after how awfully Russ has treated him, he still finds it in his heart to forgive and move on, to help Russ when he needs it and to stand up to his own father. That’s not easy, especially since we already know that his dad is an overgrown bully.

Speaking of the parents, Allen and Mom, as we’re introduced to them, they’re incredulous. I mean, bordering on ridiculous. I don’t believe that parents can be this obtuse, this abusive or this nasty, without facing some sort of criminal proceedings. They beat on Russ, who hits back, report him to the cops and all, but the constant fury is exhausting and I can’t believe it’s like that all the time. Maybe I was just lucky to have good parents, but I’ve read an awful lot of stories with horrible parents and these take the cake. It comes out of nowhere, exceeds any realistic sensibility and doesn’t work for me at all.

Overall

I loved CJ, I cried for him and Russ, I evolved from hating Russ with a passion to tolerating him and the idea was fantastic. It just fell flat for me. Russ wasn’t a likeable character, by any stretch of the imagination and CJ was far too accepting of his ‘inevitable’ fate for me to stand. The kids brightened the story a little, the parents were ridiculous and Pete was a good character that should have been explored further. In fact, I would have had no objection to this story being written in 3rd person, with Pete and CJ falling in love and Pete finding a medical treatment for CJ that actually worked. THAT was where I kept hoping the story would go.

But, no. Again, someone has to die in a Stein book. And I don’t feel that’s a spoiler or giving anything away, because we’re told consistently through the story that it’s his fate. It’s even in the blurb.

To me, this is far too close to A Walk to Remember for my liking – bad boy gets in trouble, has to do good for the community, falls for a terminally ill patient that dies. It’s as simple as that. The ending is almost exactly the same, too, which I don’t agree with. It was never ‘final’ in A Walk to Remember, but in this book, the ending ticked me off to no end.

Russ says, at the end of the book that “CJ makes me happy”, but I don’t believe it. I DID believe it, before the Epilogue, but after that, CJ was just an albatross hanging around his neck and making him miserable. The author can say what they like about the ending, but I can’t believe it. Russ and CJ weren’t together that long, they didn’t really share any real emotional intimacy that I saw and that means I can’t believe in this story.

The premise was good, some of the events and characters were enjoyable, but overall, this just made me angry. It certainly wasn’t a Ray of Sunlight.

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