A Story That Will Stick in My Mind
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S. M. Stevens is a novel that will likely stick in my mind for years to come. There's a lot of situations in this book that make you uncomfortable, as so they should. The subjects it covers are hard to read about, but they're important to experience nonetheless.
The main characters are two very different personas, with chapters alternating between their viewpoints. Astrid comes across mostly like a typical Ice Queen (and nicknamed at that one point) and aloof. The attitude to life her mother instilled in her has a lot to answer for that. A take-no-prisoners, in-it-for-yourself, step on anyone who gets in your way attitude, so it takes a while to warm to her. From a story standpoint, she's a victim of escalating workplace sexual harassment by her boss, Brad, a soon-to-be partner in the Boston PR firm in which she works.
Shelby, on the other hand, is like the painting on the cover of this book. Shy, naive, fragile, yet a strength simmering below the surface, just waiting to get out. Of the two, I think her character experiences more growth throughout the novel, as she deals with her trauma and starts the healing process. She meets Astrid when she starts work at the same PR agency.
Parts of this are infuriating, with people’s reactions and attitudes towards Shelby, particularly from her family, mother and one of her brothers, downplaying and minimising what she went through. It made me want to shout at them to have some compassion or common sense. They were so focused on how Shelby’s abuse made their life hard, like they were the victim in all of this. That's kind of the point, though. You can, for a brief moment, experience a little of what it's like to be in that position Shelby and Astrid are in and feel how hopeless they feel.
It really makes you stop and think about how easy it is to trivialise something like Astrid's antagonist Brad. He was obviously in the wrong, but you can see how easy it is to brush it off as him being a monolithic jerk. Then through Astrid's eyes, we experience all the small ways what he did impacts her and how it eats away at her life and her confidence, and it hits home just how important it is not to brush off that behaviour.
Two different approaches to the theme of sexual and emotional abuse, handled delicately by the author. It could be easy to slip into a heavy-handed approach, but I think S. M. Stevens's way of delivering the story gives it more power. The story itself is paced well, moving along through the characters' story arcs without getting bogged down in anything I'd call "filler". Each part tells a little more of the story, gives you a little more insight into the character.
Some of the supporting characters were a little one-dimensional, but typically they weren't those who stuck around long enough to make a difference. A lot of drugs and alcohol consumed - a staple of the hard-and-fast business world of the 80s when this was set.
Jamie Lynn did a decent job of narration. I detected a couple of moments of minor issues but nothing that fully pulled me out of the story and spread far enough throughout the runtime that thinking back, I can barely remember them. I think her voice suited Shelby the best. On reflection, this is a story that could have benefited from multiple narrators - one for Astrid and one for Shelby.
While it was obvious enough through chapter changes, I occasionally got lost for a second as to who was speaking as there wasn't enough of a distinction between them. It typically didn't last too long, but it did sometimes mean jumping back a minute or two to realign my head to what was happening.
Finally, a few quick words on the cover art. I'm a huge fan of ink and watercolour style paintings, so the cover really stood out for me. But not just because of my personal preference; I think it suits the book well.
Overall, a great story about... I want to say overcoming hardship, but that doesn't seem like enough. Growing stronger and being more than just a victim and strong friendships that can help empower and guide you through the darkest of days. Well recommended.
I was given this audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review. I have not let this gift affect nor influence my opinions of this audiobook and have left an honest review.