Below Sunlight - Ryan Adam Smith First, according to the rules, I must state that I won this book from the Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

The first thing I found amusing, and slightly suspect, was before the novel even technically begins, on the dedication page. I’m not sure why the author felt compelled to say “this story is a non-autobiographical work of fiction.” This book appears from the outside to be a novel, and novels generally are fiction rather than autobiographies, at least as much as it is possible for any author to completely keep their own personality and history out of their work. Also, plenty of novels are written in the first person, and we’re taught very early in school not to assume that the voice of the “I” narrator and the author are the same. Therefore, I don’t see the need for this statement, and it just made me think that Sam’s and Ryan’s experiences aren’t as different as he would perhaps like us to believe.

The alternating of the narrative between the present and the past works for the story, although sometimes when I would pick up the book and start reading it for the day I would forget which period we were in at the beginning of a chapter. But it certainly works to build suspense and makes us want to keep reading. I know I wanted to find out what the hell happened between Sam and Ashley.

Lola is the most interesting character, to me, and we certainly find out why that is at the end of the book. It explains her self-destructive behavior, like getting so drunk she has to have her stomach pumped regularly, which seems so much at odds with believing she’s an angel with a greater purpose in life. You can’t stop any wars or poverty or famine very well when you’ve killed yourself.

Most of the narrative is pretty well-written and descriptive, but there are many instances when the wording is so strange that it completely pulled me out of the story. Writing is supposed to be good, but without calling too much attention to itself. Phrases like “taking more noodles and sauce to my mouth” (86) is a very odd way of saying one took another bite of spaghetti. You might at least bring it to your mouth, but you don’t take it there, like it’s somewhere at a distance. Other sentences are just overly complicated, and could be unpacked and written so much more simply, like: “Before Emily was born, I would accompany my mom on frequent trips to the women’s clothing sections of various large department stores in Seattle,” (91). It is much easier to say, while conveying the same meaning: “my mom always took me with her when she went clothing shopping,” or something like that. I think perhaps the author can’t help talking in this overcomplicated, grandiose way, however, since he sounds the same way in many of his book reviews and other posts. But it would be easier on his readers if he would work on that. There is also a tendency toward lists of three or more things in a sentence. “Hearing my mom’s voice makes me feel sad, angry, depressed, [and you don’t need a comma before the and in a list – this is 4th grade English] and more hungover,” (69). “A man standing with his bike on the corner in black spandex shorts, a yellow spandex top, [there’s the unnecessary comma again] and a helmet, says hello to me,” (70).

The novel seems a little episodic at times, and some of the minor characters seem to have very little purpose or none at all. I have no idea why we need Katie in the story. She is there in chapter four and never comes back and is never mentioned again, and I don’t think she does anything to advance the story or help develop the other characters at all. Scott also seems to exist only so he can have a party where Lola can try to drink herself to death. The long speeches from the two drug dealers are very strange, and probably very much out of character for a real drug dealer. They also sound very much alike. I think the author is clearly talking to the reader here, trying to put out his own agenda, or at least personal worldview.

This book would greatly benefit from peer reading, which I have a lot of experience with from being an English major in college with a creative writing minor. Sometimes having feedback from a group of people can help you see problems with your writing, or bring up issues that are confusing that you may not have noticed, because you know what you’re trying to say.

There are a quite a few typos in this book. After a while I began to wonder what publishing house allowed the book to be published with such a poor editing job. I started looking for the publisher and couldn’t find one, or even the name of the printed, which led me to the conclusion that this book was self-published. I can’t say I was surprised, and if this book is ever going to be picked up by a decent publisher for a second edition, it needs to be much more polished. Sometimes books have one spelling or punctuation error; this one has way too many.

P.s. There is also one time near the end of the novel where Emily's name changes to Lily. I think it was a good decision to change the name, since Lily and Lola sound very similar. But that slip is another thing that should have been fixed and that wasn't.