The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne

second chancesI really wanted to like this book more than I did. It has a lot going for it. The book is set on a remote island in Alaska, where Ray is raising his teenage granddaughter, Sitka, and mourning the loss of his wife. His daughter Jenny (Sitka’s mom) went to jail some years ago and he hasn’t seen her since Sitka was young. He blames her for the death of his wife and the abandonment of her daughter.

Until my wife died, my dreams were somehow waterproofed, sealed against the elements.  Maybe it was feeling her back scrunched against my chest as we lay in bed, her leg draped over my thigh.  My arm around her waist, breathing in the scent of her skin, listening to her breathe.  Twelve years she’s been gone, and I seldom sleep without the rain beating on the walls of my subconscious, the sludge seeping up through the decks of my memory.

Ray is struggling to make a living as a crab/shrimp boat captain, but it’s tough due to environmental restrictions and competition from other fishermen. Sitka is heading into her teens, which isn’t easy for a single grandfather.

Ray is thrown when he gets a letter from Jenny, who’s sober and wants to come for a visit. Ray doesn’t want her in Sitka’s life because he doesn’t think she’ll stay clean.

The title of this book refers to Ray’s beliefs in a number of different gods, which may not be uncommon among Alaskan fisherman, who are superstitious and work in a dangerous field. Ray’s partner is Tlingit and has his own set of beliefs. Ray figures he needs all the help he can get.

As for second chances, the question is whether Jenny is worthy of one. It’s clear from the beginning of this book that Ray’s anger towards his daughter, while it might be justified, isn’t healthy. Maybe everyone deserves a second chance, but Ray feels his daughter has had more than enough of those. The first time she was arrested as a teen, she had a chance to turn her life around but she didn’t. Another when she had Sitka. And when Sitka was a young child and Jenny came home, still another chance.   Ray isn’t offering any more.

What I appreciated about this book: when Jenny shows up, it’s clear she has baggage. It also becomes clear that if Ray’s anger towards her is justified, so is her anger towards him. He is, after all, her father. I liked the complex interplay between these two characters. Even though she’s now a religious zealot, I found her sympathetic; she’s clearly struggled and faced some difficult times in prison. Her early attempts to integrate into Ray’s household and get to know her daughter are pretty weak but may be heartfelt – and she isn’t exactly welcomed.

Ray, as the main character, was harder to sympathize with. He’s stubborn and acts without thinking. With the exception of Sitka, he uses his friends to solve his problems. He puts his crew in jeopardy when he takes his untrained daughter on an important and dangerous fishing trip. He borrows a large amount of money from a friend he probably won’t be able to pay back. He puts his potential girlfriend in a difficult position again and again, because he needs her to solve his family problems more than he cares about her as a person. And he can’t see his daughter as anything but a problem that needs to go away.

The problem with Ray is he never thinks about his actions. He just charges ahead and when things get out of control, he can’t seem to accept blame for anything. He refuses to follow anyone’s advice. His actions lead him in a downward spiral, and it doesn’t just affect him, it hurts his granddaughter, his daughter, and his friends.

I don’t need to like a character to love a book, although I do need to empathize. In fact, flawed characters are often the best – but you do need to feel like you’re along for the ride, and Ray lost me.

For me, the strongest character in this book is Sitka. I was impressed by how multi-dimensional she was, and how realistic. As a teen she is stubborn and surly and emotional, but she loves her grandfather and is devastated to be in the middle of the conflict.

Sometimes an ending makes or breaks a book, and this one just didn’t work for me. I did appreciate that Ray comes to a lot of important realizations, as does Jenny. But it was a little too much drama for me, and not enough introspection.

I really liked the setting and the ideas in this book, I just wanted more.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from publisher Forest Avenue Press in exchange for an honest review.

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