Laying a Ghost by Jane Davitt and Alexa Snow – review

Title: Laying a Ghost
Authors:Jane Davitt and Alexa Snow
Genre: Romance , paranormal
Price:US $6.99
Other Information/warnings:graphic m/m, violence, angst, references to infanticide
Summary [from the publisher]:
When John McIntyre sees Nick Kelley step off the island ferry, he’s instantly attracted, and fairly certain that he knows what Nick is keeping secret, because he’s been doing it himself for years. When he discovers Nick’s real secret he’s drawn into a world he never knew existed, one haunted by grief and guilt and ghosts. In the shadowed world of the spirits, Nick’s power is all that the ghosts have to help them. But Nick is still mourning the death of his lover in an accident he believes he caused, and John’s determined to keep their relationship secret.

It’s going to take a lot more than attraction and really good sex to solve their problems but will they be lucky? Or will one week be all they have before they’re left alone again?
My review:

Laying a ghost is set in the imaginary Outer Hebridean island of Traighshee, which apparently lies to the east of Iona and is off the coast of the mainland of Scotland. Since the Isle of Mull is acknowledged as reality, then the only real analogue for this place is Coll. Sorry – this is all irrelevant, but I’ve spent a lot of holiday time up in Scotland and specifically on Mull, and the geography of this story drove me nuts. What is relevant is that the authors have taken insufficient care to properly authenticate their story, but more of that shortly.

The story is about two young men meeeting in an isolated setting, and the events which are triggered by their (inevitable, since this is slash) growing attraction. John McIntyre is thirty – a fisherman, a fisherman’s son, occasional taxi driver and handy man. He’s lived on Traighshee all his life, although he visits the mainland for social reasons and for trysts with strangers to satisfy the homosexuality he’s concealed from all but a single close friend among his local community. He knows everyone on the island, they know him (they think) and everyone knows everyone else’s business too. For a man with a secret as big and charged as he’s got, that’s not always a good thing.

Nick is also thirty, American, wounded and with a big secret – he can see ghosts. He is bearing the scars, physcial and mental of a former tragedy and has come to his ancestral home on the island after the death of his uncle to escape his demons. There he finds John, and their demons – of all kinds – cause problems.

So far as the plot goes, it was okay. It could have been so much better if Nick’s backstory wasn’t so heavily dependent on this character’s fanfiction roots – there was just too much we are expected to accept without explanation, and he is never properly characterised because the authors haven’t grasped that essential difference between borrowing someone else’s creation and filing the numbers off, and creating one’s own. Nick never comes to life, which is a pity because the story hinges on him and his ‘gift’.

John is a stronger, much more rounded character – he feels real, he is convincing in most of his motivations and his behaviour. What lets him down is what lets the entire novel down – inauthenticity. The reader is given a clear warning that cod-Scottish is the order of the day when in the third paragraph, John calls a girl ‘lassie’. This is not how young Scottish men talk. Nor is the ‘you’ll be thinking that you’ll be doing’ etc style of speech the way Scots talk either – it’s Irish. And even then, not in every single bloody sentence either! [ETA – have been informed this is common among older Hebrideans. I’ll give it a pass on that basis, but I sure never encountered anyone who spoke like that up on the islands.]

There are lots of signs that the authors don’t know their setting – referring to an island which would have to be smaller than Mull as having “half-a-dozen boarding houses” for one. The term is ‘bed and breakfast’ in the UK, and there aren’t many more than half a dozen on Mull, certainly not open before the main season – on a much smaller island without much to offer a tourist, there will be far fewer. Another egregious error – spelling Scotch whisky with an ‘e’. People have been shot for less! There was also the inexplicable stupidity of using the American spelling of ‘Kelley’ for a character whose family had lived on the island for a very long time – a simple check with BT would have proven that there are no ‘Kelleys’ spelled like that in Scotland at all. ‘Kelly’ gets hundreds of results. As for calling a character ‘Carson’ – this was proof, if any were needed, that the only Scots the authors are familiar with were those on the telly. I’ve never heard of any Scot with ‘Carson’ as a first name (other than Dr Beckett of course), and when I asked my friend (who’s lived in Scotland for over twenty years and is married to a dyed in the wool Scot herself) if she had, she said she had never heard of anyone either. Her husband had – but only the offspring of rabid country and western fans!

Even nicely authentic details like the overambitious pub owner trying out theme nights were ruined by claims she was serving sushi on Japanese Night. No. Seriously not. On the whole, I got the distinct impression neither author had ever been to the Hebrides, or if they had, had not spent much time there, and what they had put in the novel was the research of intense internet searching. Which is fine as far as it goes, but they absolutely should have put the thing past a Scottish beta to make sure it rang true. It didn’t – and if you know anything about the actual setting, reading this novel is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

However, most readers won’t notice that kind of thing. What they will notice is that this novel needs editing, and a firm line taken with the authors’ tendency to pad with unnecessary verbiage and overlong passages of uninteresting smut. The story is grammatically correct and spell-checked – it’s not that the basic writing is incompetent. But it suffers from adverbitis, and its close neighbour, the overly informative expression:

John raised his eyebrows. “Oh, aye? Neeps and tatties, cullen skink and the like? Show them to Stella and she’ll be all for doing an authentic Scottish night, and you’ll get to taste haggis for the first time.” He gave Nick a challenging look. “Or does a stuffed sheep’s stomach not sound appealing then?”

It wasn’t something John was particularly fond of, although he’d had it once or twice, but he enjoyed watching the fascinated look of horror creep over a tourist’s face when they found out how it was made.

“Not really.” Nick gave him a bland look.

This is all over the novel – so much tell not show. That also applies to the relationship too – these guys are declaring undying love for each other, no kidding, within two days of Nick’s arrival on the island. Since I reckon most Scottish – most British – men wouldn’t declare undying love in under a year unless you filled their penises with boiling lead, I found this a tad silly. As did the characters, who helpfully tell you, in case you missed it, “You didn’t do that. You didn’t tell a man you’d known for less than two days that you loved him.” No shit, kid. The characters are actually amazingly helpful in pointing up silly things in the novel, in case the reader had stupidly suspended disbelief and allowed the story to sweep them along. Nick declares at one point, “God, it’s such a cliché, isn’t it? A psychic medium goes to a remote island in Scotland to live in his recently deceased uncle’s house and starts seeing ghosts? It might as well be the plot of a cheesy romance novel.” This? Not a good idea. People will start to notice that yes, the plot is on the cheesy side.

The pacing was well off too – it’s leaden in the first bit, speeds up, slows down to a snail’s pace, and is frankly just bloody dull in far too many places. This is where Nick’s lack of three dimensionality really bites – if you’re not invested in the love story because one half is made of cardboard, you better hope the plot is moving along at a cracking pace to hide the problem. It doesn’t. Copious amounts of adequately written but scarcely enthralling sex do not compensate for faulty pacing – in fact it just exacerbates the problem. There is far too high a sex to plot ratio here, and it contributes nothing to the story other than that these two guys fancy each other. After the fifth lengthily described bout of perfect togetherness, we got the message already, okay?

There are some good bits to the plot, and the underlying issues are potentially interesting, but it tends to melodrama over John’s homosexuality – not helped by an honest to god straight out of Victorian England ‘minister’ with attitudes from the Dark Ages (and seriously, I’m an atheist but all the clergy I’ve met have been really warm and sympathetic people. Not discounting that this character was based on reality, but it wasn’t a reality that rang true for me at all. But then the characterisation all over was very weak – too many steroptypical people who just didn’t feel real.) Homophobia is a problem in the Hebrides, no doubt – but I thought it was vastly overplayed here. People in closed communities don’t deal with such matters using violence and histrionic scenes – it’s more subtle, shunning, gossip and so on. John is part of this community and in any small community, particularly on a small island like this, there are no superfluous members. People might talk, but they’re not going to ostracise him. If he was a gay man straight off the ferry and poncing about carrying a handbag, sure – he’d get a lot of hostility, maybe even bashed. But he’s one of their own, and the islands are full of secrets and dirty laundry. A lot of the islands are actually surprisingly liberal in their attitude on many subjects. I felt the handling of this issue was more appropriate to rural America than the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

To be honest, I really had trouble finishing this story, which was a great disappointment since I’ve read both authors’ individual work (original and fannish) and enjoyed it immensely. Still, I struggled on – I’d paid for this bugger of a thing after all, and I was going to get a review out of it, if nothing else! – until I came to the ending. An ending so crass and trite and stupid that if this god damn story had been a print book, it would have been hurled across the room with the full force of my complete and utter disgust. It would have gone straight through the drywall, I’m telling you. As it was, I stared at the screen and swore a blue streak for a solid minute, then closed the file down, feeling rather dirty, and certainly cheated. How not to resolve conflict in a story, folks. Deux ex machina, with twinkly bluebirds of happiness, and instant conversion to the one true way, sprinkled on top. I just threw up a little in my mouth thinking about it again.

This novel was a disappointment in so many ways I couldn’t give it more than 3 out of 10 and that mainly because the grammar and spelling didn’t make my eyeballs bleed. If you want a soppy, slashy romance, are prepared to put your critical faculties on hold and have no familiarity with Scotland, you might rate it higher. But I am, sadly, not able to do so.

There is a sequel, Giving up the Ghost, but I won’t be reading it.