Hero's Homecoming and Starting From Scratch are both part of the Gifts of Honor duology released last week ( A | BN | K S | ARe | iB ). I struggle with grading anthologies with one grade that averages or combines or somehow integrates all the different stories, and since these are both available separately, I've decided to review them separately, starting with Hero's Homecoming. My review for Starting from Scratch will be up in a few moments after this one.
I read Gifts of Honor during a recent novella marathon (I think I read eight total in four days? It was a lot of fun), and these are both easily two of the most emotional stories I read. They both gave me the kind of stinging sniffle tears when I don't want to cry (because I'm in public) but the emotion of the characters surprised me in a punch-me-in-the-tear-ducts kind of way, and pretty soon my eyelids were twitching trying to hold in the dripping. It didn't quite make me ugly cry, but it's not without significant bittersweet emotion, either.
I'm going to review the second story first because it's a lot easier for me to find the words to describe the story and what I thought about it. I struggled with Starting From Scratch, but even while I struggled with it, I had to acknowledge that the writer and the story were doing brave and difficult things. Neither of these two books are easy stories, not in the narrative sense of deciding how to line up all the scenes so the characters move forward from point A to point Punch Me in the Tearducts, nor in the emotional journey of reading them. They will hurt a little bit, both of them. But they're worth the stinging eyes, no question.
The duology focused attention on the emotional journey of the family and loved ones of those who serve, and how difficult and lonely their job is, especially when they are either cast as selfless behind-the-scenes heroes or ignored altogether (both of which happen with sad frequency). Caring about someone but not being formally connected to them in any official way is even more precarious — a uniquely awful position to be in — and both heroines are in that position. They also carry injury from military service, injuries that are inside and hidden and difficult to address, but both these stories focus on them in a powerful manner that made me realize more fully how much and how far the painful consequences of war can reach.
Hero's Homecoming is the story I liked better, in part because of the balance between emotional pain and sacrifice of the characters. There was not so much bitter regret that it swamped every other good feeling in the book, but there was plenty. The story begins as Beth Tate receives a phone call from Chris Walker, a man with whom she had a 4-day whirlwind affair. They'd met by accident at the university where Beth works, were immediately drawn to one another, and when Walker left after his R&R assignment at Fort Riley, they stayed in touch via email, developing what Beth thought was a real courtship via messages and calls.
Then Walker was injured in an attack, and sent her an email cutting off their relationship with no explanation, crushing Beth and leaving her confused, grieving and very hurt. The next time she hears from him is at the start of the story, when Walker calls her from the airport and asks if she'd be willing to take him to a hotel. There's a snowstorm, his parents can't make the drive to pick him up, and he's stranded.
Beth has half a mind to tell him to go to hell, but she steps up, and oh, gosh, what a heroine. There's a moment when she checks her reflection before she leaves for the airport to go sit in the car with the guy who broke her heart- and she checks her reflection in the door of a kitchen appliance. I loved that about her.
Then, get ready, because Beth is ferocious. She sees Chris in the baggage area, and sees, for the first time with no warning, that he's injured and now blind. He can't see her, he has a white cane, and he didn't warn her.
Her reaction was so shocking and so fierce, and so ghastly powerful, I liked her immediately. I was so on her side. Beth kicked ass. (I can't tell you what she did – go read it and let me know what you think. I don't want to spoil it because… damn, girl.)
She brings Chris to a hotel, drops him off after he's checked in, and leaves, thinking she's done with this guy and has had her moment of closure so she can put their relationship, such as it was, behind her. Then, a transformer explodes outside the hotel, blacking out the power for a section of town, and Beth turns around, realizing that (a) there's no power at the hotel and (b) likely no one has told Chris in his room what's going on.
When she gets there, he's curled on the floor in a flashback, miserable and out of control of his brain's reaction to the sound of the explosion, and she helps him up and out, back into the car, and brings him to her house.
Beth is so tough and yet so giving. She is a wonderfully strong caretaker heroine: she thinks about what Chris might need, she matter-of-factly helps him orient himself to her home, she feeds him and tells him where the food is on the plate (the descriptions of that part alone were adorable), and even though she's hurt and confused as to why Chris broke it off with her abruptly and callously, she doesn't wish him harm. She wants him to be comfortable, even when his presence means she's not. But she doesn't put up with bullshit from him, either, and she tells him exactly what she thinks of his behavior. Oh, I liked her a lot.
Chris is adjusting to life without sight, dealing with the physical and mental changes, and had what he thought were good and selfless reasons for breaking off his relationship with Beth. He didn't want to be a burden to her, and didn't see (beg pardon) himself as worthy of her. Beth tells him exactly what he can do with that presumption, and is compassionate about his injury, while not letting him off the hook for his behavior. In one scene, he almost whines at her that he shouldn't be so mad, and she defends herself and her right to be angry with him, even if he's wounded, even if he's hurting, because she's wounded and hurting, too.
The point of view switches between Beth and Chris, and in the process of getting to know both of them, I could see how far they had to travel to get back to a place where they were, if not closer to one another, at the least turned toward one another so they could move on together instead of separately. Beth had to forgive Chris and trust him again, which is no small task. Chris had to be honest with Beth, and be honest with himself about his perception of his own worth now that he's not who he was before the attack. He has to accept and value himself before he can begin to make up for his behavior with Beth.
But the way in which Chris thinks of Beth as the perfect woman for him, and how the themes of home and what that means for people are woven into their story made the emotional development between them powerful and compelling. Because of the emotional power, the excellent heroine and the rough emotional journey between them that's built into such a small word count, I give this novella a B+.