Rating: 4.5 stars
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Tattoo artist Gabriel Navarro has a busy life, equally divided between the tattoo shop he works in and lives above, and the university where he is pursuing his Masters of Fine Arts. Gabe is very particular about the design and the person he inks so his curiosity and imagination are activated when a mildly intoxicated man comes into his shop with a mockup of a design he wants tattooed on his back. The man, Jake MacLean, is an American Iraqi war veteran and his design for his tattoo features a crashed Black Hawk helicopter bursting into flames and the words God Will Judge Me. It it a crude drawing that both repels and attracts Gabe. Gabe needs to fully design the tattoo and include some missing elements that Jake wants to add. As Gabe starts to collaborate with Jake on the design, he starts to realize that the man and his tattoo are occupying his mind at all times.
Jake MacLean ran from an abusive past right into the Army as a medvac helicopter pilot, a job he loved. But one bad mission has left Jake a broken man, unable to overcome his PTSD and move forward with his life. He moved from the US to Canada to stay with his older sister and her daughter, and he spends his days and nights getting drunk in an attempt to hold off the demons in his head. Determined to pay his penance for the loss of his crew in the crash, he decides to have the crash permanently inked on his back for all to see. But Jake wasn’t expecting to find an angel behind the tattoo gun at Atlantis Ink.
As the men begin to spend time together and a romantic relationship forms, Jake’s demons get louder and his anxiety and episodes start to spiral out of control. Will Jake be able to reach out for the help he so desperately needs or will his demons drag him and everyone he loves down with him, including Gabriel?
What an intense and masterfully written book. Aundrea Singer is a new author to me and if this book is indicative of the way she writes, she has instantly become a “must read” author for me. The primary focus of this book is the main character Jake MacLean, a Iraqi war vet who is suffering from PTSD, his physical and emotional scars still raw. Singer takes us right into his head to hear his tormented thoughts, feel how every day is an obstacle he just might not get through. Jake is a walking wound and Singer treats him with respect, recognizing the source of his fragility and pain while honoring his service.
Gabriel Navarro is his innocent romantic counterpart. Intelligent, artistic and kind, Gabe is part Indian, part Euro, which gives him a culturally rich background and history. Gabe wants to help Jake but clearly doesn’t have the tools to do so. And the more he tries, the more frustrated he is. Very realistic as we know that Jake must want to get help and that no one can do that for him. Gabe is a terrific character and I found myself wanting so much more of his backstory. Filling out Singer’s cast is memorable characters such as Hype, the tween who haunts the ink shop, arms covered in pen ink tattoos she has drawn, and Jake’s sister who has a young child, and is barely hanging on herself as she tries to recover from her divorce. And Rob, the owner of Atlantis Ink who looks after them all as though they are family. Hype especially will stick in your memory and heart. Young, frail and trying to be so tough, her story will wrench your heart. Singer just delivers one amazing character after another and then puts them into situations so stressful and intense it is a wonder that any of them survive. And yet, they do.
I came very close to giving this amazing story 5 stars but one element interfered with that rating. It comes down to the fact that Jake is such an emotional mess, so traumatized by his past experiences that is the only side we really see of him. We watch as he breaks promise after promise, is consumed by delusions and nightmares but never see much more than a glimpse of the person he once was until the end. So why does Gabe fall in love with him? That’s the man we need to see and don’t. Yes, Jake is filled with survivor’s guilt and we “see” some of his interaction with his dead crew but only a smidge here and there of the man underneath the scars waiting to be redeemed. Had the author delivered more of a pre-trauma Jake, then it would have made his fall so much more meaningful because we would have been able to see how much of himself he has lost.
But that quibble aside, this is a haunting, memorable story so current and one that holds so much meaning as our soldiers return home in ever increasing numbers, requiring the same sort of help that Jake so desperately needs. I loved it and highly recommend this story of recovery and love to all.
Cover artist is Reese Dante who once again delivers an amazing cover, worthy of the outstanding story you will find within.