MJ has two moods: prickly and pushy. Yes, she’s a brilliant tattoo artist, but she’s also a bitch, a bully, and a demanding boss. Thorn & Thistle is MJs baby, and thanks to the betrayal from her ex-lover — and ex-partner — who recently walked out on her, taking half the staff with her, MJ doesn’t know how she’s going to hold on to her shop. She’s on her second mortgage and her cards are all maxed out. MJ is trying to keep ahead of the bills, which hasn’t been easy since Heidi seems determined to rub salt in the wound and is trying to take down Thorn & Thistle by leaving one-star reviews all over social media. Business isn’t hurting, but it’s not thriving, and MJ has had to accept some sub-par artists into her shop just to have enough hands on deck. And for that extra cherry on the sundae of her life, MJ’s mentor, Zed — who recently lost her fight with cancer — has sent her last apprentice to MJ.
MJ has no time for an apprentice. With the way things are going, she barely has time for herself, but there’s something about Cassie …. she smells like cinnamon and her eyes sparkle with a passion when she talks about art. Zed trusted her enough to let Cassie put ink on her skin, but all of that fire is quickly and quietly covered up by a polite mask and an eager-to-please smile. MJ can’t stand the plastic person Cassie becomes when she’s being a good little worker. She wants to see more of the Cassie who snaps back at her, the Cassie who makes beautiful art and stands up for herself. Come hell or high water, MJ’s going to push Cassie into being herself whether she likes it or not.
MJ could have so easily become a cliched character. She wears combat boots and tattoos for a living, she’s tough as nails and has more confidence than any rock star. But … she also loves to go antiquing (and the inkwell story really shows you the soft, gooey center of MJ), hates needles, and doesn’t brag about herself. She knows she’s kickass, thank you. And if you don’t know it, sucks to be you. MJ is as complex as any real, living person. She’s also pure emotion, jumping in with both feet and pissed off when other people won’t jump with her. MJ is estranged from her family, who didn’t take her coming out very well, but the way it’s handled when she goes back home is both pure MJ and purely human.
Cassie had a perfect life. She had a well-paying job that she was good at, she had friends, a supportive family, a car, a lovely girlfriend … and then she got cancer. Going through chemo and surgery, losing her girlfriend — who couldn’t handle the stress of Cassie being sick — along with her health, Cassie realized she wasn’t really happy with her old life, even though her old boss would take her back in a heartbeat. She’s happier being an artist in a tiny apartment with a crappy mattress than she was living with her ex-lover. And she’s happier with MJ, even though the other woman refuses to let her be comfortable old Cassie.
MJ pushes Cassie in ways Cassie needs to be pushed and pushes her faster than Cassie might have wanted. MJ wants her to stand up for herself, but when Cassie pushes back against MJ she isn’t met with anger or surprise, but delight and pride. And more pushing. MJ isn’t making Cassie change who she is, just how she goes about things. For example, Cassie wants the other girls to like her and so goes out of her way to bring them coffee, or get their inks ready. MJ makes her go up to the girls and give them one compliment, followed by the announcement that she won’t be delivering their mail, getting their shopping, or handling phone calls for them. She wants Cassie to stand up for herself.
Cassie is more logical and orderly, needing to think a situation out; she takes notes, constantly, on how to improve the shop, how to handle Heidi, on how to improve her art, etc. But she never once takes notes on how to improve herself or MJ. She doesn’t need to. Cassie doesn’t want to change who MJ is; she just wants to help MJ with the shop. And she doesn’t need to change herself. Yes, she’d like to be more confident, more self-assured, but there is something holding Cassie back, not just from being the Cassie MJ knows she can be, but from giving her heart wholly and entirely to MJ.
It’s the five-year milestone. If Cassie can go five years without her cancer returning, she has a chance of a long and healthy life, a life she can spend with MJ. A life in which she can be the tattoo artist she knows she can be. Cassie holds herself back, watching that clock tick down, counting every second … and she’s afraid to truly live her life until then. MJ tells her just how giant a load of crap that is, several times. MJ knows she’ll be there at Cassie’s side whether it’s five months or forever. While MJ has trust issues thanks to Heidi, Cassie has them thanks to her own first (and only other) girlfriend who left her when cancer made her too sick, too needy, and too much a shadow of herself.
I knew within the first three pages that I was going to love this book. Something about MJ, all hard edges, strutting, and posturing, or Cassie with her demure grey sweater and steely determination, or maybe it was the simple, effective writing. The author doesn’t overwhelm with descriptions of the shop, the apartments, or even the people. Her focus is more on the characters than their clothing, and the writing has a spare eloquence that I truly enjoyed.
I stood next to MJ at the reception desk wondering how silence could be so complicated that I could write a thesis paper on it. Silence while we were waiting for a client shouldn’t be such a big deal. Should I say something? Was MJ feeling uncomfortable too? She didn’t seem it. So were we going to act like nothing happened? If so, shouldn’t we be talking? Or did we usually keep quiet and I hadn’t noticed? I couldn’t remember.
There were times where I found myself grinning at some of the dialogue, or snorting at some of the more acerbic retorts from Cassie. Davids made the two characters come alive as people, with their shallow moments, mean moments, and thoughtless moments. The fights made sense, they weren’t there just to cause drama — though they did — they were there because that’s what happens when you say something stupid and the other person says something stupid back. When they made up it wasn’t a one-line “I’m sorry,” or a “please forgive me.” It was because one of them was trying her hardest to make it up to the other person, knowing — both of them — that MJ would blow up mountains for Cassie if they blocked the sunlight, and knowing that Cassie would fight tooth and nail to make MJ happy.
My review, to put it simply is: Read this book. It’s worth your time and — as a bonus — it’s only book 1 of the series! That means there’s more. Personally, I can’t wait.