Max Shaw is dead.
Well, sort of.
After dying on prom night, Max was recruited by a mysterious tattooed angel named Slade to join a group of teenage reapers. Cocky and sarcastic, Max thinks he has his afterlife together, but the moment Slade assigns him to his first suicide case, everything changes.
Christian college student Kody Michaels is struggling to make sense of his life and his faith. After a failed suicide attempt at an antigay camp, Kody is determined not to fail again. Tired of disappointing his family and God, he is going to end his life once and for all.
But in a split-second decision, Max saves Kody—defying the rules of a reaper.
Max believes his only concern is convincing Kody that God loves him just the way he is, so he can save him from a hellish afterlife as a shade. Little does Max know, some shades have found a way to walk among the living as wraiths. These evil wraiths know Kody has been slated for death, and they have another, darker purpose for him.
Max has only one night to save Kody before one of Slade's team finishes the job Max lacked the courage to complete.
When I saw The Grim Life on Dreamspinner's list of available ARC's, I was immediately taken with the cover, then with the blurb and I'm extremely glad that I decided to take a chance on this new MM author.
I truly enjoyed the book's take on religion, a topic that I normally hate, but Ms. Worth's writing style and character development made it both enlightening and fun. Instead of the book becoming preachy, it focused on all of us playing a part in God's grand design.
The book begins as 16 y.o. Max's life ends and he's introduced to the afterlife by Slade, a tattooed, biker reaper and possible angel.
Instead of being freaked out, Max's calm, if not smartass, demeanor in the wake of his own death grab's Slade's interest and earns Max a spot as a reaper himself, where he helps the newly-departed cross over into heaven.
Then one night, after 3 years of reaping souls who died due to circumstances beyond their own control, Max is assigned his first suicide. And it's a night that will change his life and who he is forever.
Kody is a gay, 18 y.o. college freshman from a very religious family and he hates the fact that he's attracted to men, but also knows that he can't change who he is.
But after faking straight to be released from Camp Purity, a gay-to-straight conversion center, Kody's very soul is broken and he walks to a bridge close to campus to put an end to his suffering once and for all.
Upon seeing Kody crawl over the railing of the bridge, alone and in so much pain, offering one last prayer to a God in whom he very much believes, Max breaks the first law of being a reaper. "Do not interfere." And pulls Kody back to safety a moment after he takes his leap.
Max knows that as soon as Slade finds out about his slip up, another reaper will be sent to correct Max's transgression. But Max quickly develops feelings for the lovable, pure-of-heart Kody and will do everything within his power to protect him.
As Max sets out to convince Kody that life is worth living, Kody begins developing his own feelings for Max and feels a spark of hope for the first time in several years.
It's an absolute joy to watch Max and Kody's friendship and affection develop, but also heartbreaking at the same time, as Kody's years of hopelessness aren't something that can be overcome in a single night.
The scene where Kody asks Max if he'll pray with him is beyond touching.
“So, God, I have this new friend, Kody. Yeah, you know who he is too. Which means you also know what he tried to do tonight, and that I stopped him.” My tone was soft, more reverent than my casual words, and Kody held very still, listening. “I’m glad I was there, glad that it was me who saw him, not someone else. He said that he’s broken, and I know he is. But not the way he means it. It’s his heart that’s broken, God.”So late into the night, Max and Kody talk, with Max finally starting to convince Kody that his life may not be as hopeless and he may not be as alone as he'd always thought.
I heard a sniffle below me, but I kept going, caressing Kody’s back as his shoulders shook.
“So if you’re not too busy, and you got some time, what do you say you help me fix it? I can’t do it all on my own,” I pleaded. “And you can read hearts, so you know Kody’s a great guy. No one should hurt inside like this. And look, I know that I screwed up”— my voice trembled, but I held nothing back — “but you gotta know I did it out of kindness, not selfishness. That’s why I’m asking you to help him. Do what you want to me, but help Kody to see he’s worthy of happiness and love, okay? Please?”
I’d asked God so many times to help me stop being gay, but He’d never listened. He’d never made any of those feelings go away. Nothing changed inside no matter what I did.Through Max's reassurances that he would be there for Kody and his amazing choice of words (I was very impressed), the bleak night has passed and Kody has gained some much-needed confidence that his life might indeed get better.
That’s why I’d given up.
Death had seemed easier than constantly fighting with myself. Then in my darkest hour, while I’d prayed fervently to be forgiven, Max had shown up.
Was it merely a coincidence?
Or was Max the help I’d been begging for in all those unanswered prayers? Had he been sent to save me?
And as Kody is confronted by his ex-best friend Jack, who is spying on Kody for Kody's mother, he impressed the hell out of me when he stood up for himself for the first time ever against the small-mindedness of religious zealotry.
"This is Max.” He smiled at me before facing Jack again. “He saved my life, and he’s my friend. Actually he’s more than just a friend, so if I wanna hold his hand and walk through the quad to get coffee, well, I’m gonna do it. If you’re my friend, Jack, you’ll stop trying to fix me, no matter how good you think your intentions are. I don’t have a clue what tomorrow holds, but this morning I woke up really happy. Believe me, that doesn’t happen very often, but I want it to. And the only way that’s going to happen is if I learn how to accept myself for who I really am. I’ll keep praying that you accept me for who I am one day too.”I thoroughly enjoyed how there were no real "bad guys" (among the living, at least) in the story. Although sometimes extremely misguided, all of the characters truly believed that they were doing what was best for Kody.
Tears brimmed in my eyes, and I’d never been prouder in all my lives.
But I think Slade best summed up the situation with the following:
"A real Christian preaches with deeds and discussion, not accusations and condemnations. You should never listen to the person shouting the loudest in anything."[She’d gone to see Pastor Mark, seeking advice and to show him the note. He’d told her, “Linda, don’t you see? Kody’s death was a blessing. He’s in heaven right now, and God is fixing him.”
It probably won't come as much of a shock that another reaper *does* find Kody and brings about his death, because when it's your time, it's your time, right?
BUT... what well and truly pissed me the fuck off was when Kody's mother, Linda, goes to see her pastor to seek counseling after Kody's death and the callous, unadulterated FUCKERY of a response that he spouted to her.
“The death of a child is never a blessing,” she’d said.
I actually thought Linda might slap him. Instead she withdrew her family’s membership from his congregation right then and there. Driving down the street, she spied a tiny Episcopalian church flying a rainbow flag not two blocks away from her once beloved church and Pastor Mark.
“If God is love, then He loved Kody just the way he was,” she’d muttered under her breath with tears in her eyes, totally unaware of the reaper hitching a ride in her backseat.[She then joined that tiny gay-friendly church, so "Go, Linda!"] (hide spoiler)]
I was actually very shocked that -- for the subject matter to be one of death and suicide -- the story was written in an uplifting and hopeful manner, so the reader doesn't feel like they're being buried in an avalanche of angst.
The story is laced with a mix of both somber moments and several very humorous ones, which I found to be a true joy to watch unfold as Max and Kody work their way from that bridge to an HEA that they both truly deserved.
Actually, let me rephrase that. I would not consider this a traditional HEA, but an "HFA", since HEA's end when one of the couple passes away. So I think in this instance I'd have to call what Max and Kody end up with as a "Happily *Forever* After".
I suppose the afterlife just might have its advantages after all, huh? : )
4 very solid *It-REALLY-Does-Get-Better* stars for this new MM author's freshman effort.
NOTE: Although low on steam, this book was high on romance and the story was left open-ended for a book 2, which I hope is already in the works. Also, this is a complete story and does not have a cliffhanger ending.
My ARC copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair, unbiased review.
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