Book Review: Oleander House

The world of online publishing is a frustrating place, perhaps more so in the area of LGBT+ lit. First, you’ve got to find where they’re hiding the LGBT+ books (to which I primarily mean the Nook and Oyster search systems. Roaming through their categories gets you next to nowhere. And good luck finding anything that belongs to the B and T areas. (To the +’s, you deserve more luck than I’m able to give you). Once you find that section, you’ve got to find a book worth your time. This leads to either reading about a dozen samples and becoming frustrated, or reading through the reviews. I try to trust the reviews. This seems like a rookie error, but I’ve got my reason. If enough people like a book, I want to read it so I can try and find out why. (I am still clueless as to the appeal of Hunger Games though).

I outlined all of that for you so you understood how I wound up with Ally Blue’s Oleander House in my hands. I was hunting up books that fell into Gay Romance/Paranormal Adventure types for research purposes. If one wants to write in a given genre, one has to read a given genre. It’s just good business. The reviews on the Nook market held the book in decent regard. Oleander House, first of the Bay City Paranormal Investigations, is a train-wreck from a storyteller’s perspective. All of the seeds are there for a decent story, but about halfway through the book, I realized it was never going to pull up from the nosedive into crap territory. I’d held out hope for that long only because I’m an optimist.

Let’s talk about why this work fails. It’s a case of all the right elements and none of the right refinement. We’ve got our hero, Sam. He’s starting a new job and a new life in a new town–so new that he doesn’t even get to the apartment before going to the paranormal hunt at the Oleander House. He’s a sexy gay guy who, because he lives in the South, feels the need to be a bit protective of his sexuality. He falls quickly for his boss, Bo–who is struggling with his own sexuality. With the other members of the Bay City team, they investigate the strangeness of Oleander House. The southern house has a long and bloody past which includes leaving some victims completely comatose. During the course of the book, there’s a strange occurrence with an entity (demon?) trying to break through the dimensional barrier that’s weak in Oleander House.

Sounds like a neat idea, right?

The problems start on the first page and only mount up as the book goes on. The setting is given in pretty much one long continuous run. In a horror story, especially a Haunted House horror book, the setting needs to provide a consistent mood. Did you ever watch Rose Red? Or The Shining? Or The Woman in Black? Even the Ghostbusters establish the hinkey vibe. The setting in a horror novel has to breathe with life. It has to bear on your subconscious–think of the “Nameless City” by H.P. Lovecraft or Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Without the mood in a horror piece, you lose a prime way of keeping your readers on the edge of their seats. Oleander House gave such long descriptions of every room that I grew bored and forgot the layout–and after the first time of not remembering what room was connected to what, I stopped caring.

The characters were a disaster. Each one seemed to fall back on a predominate trait: annoying. Even Sam, our ‘hero,’ was bland and flat. Worst of all was Bo, the love interest. See, Bo was one of those stereotypical ‘oh, I’m married and I’m so not gay. Nope. Not at allllllllll—but I’m way into you but I’m hiding and my bestie knows I’m hiding but I’m married so stay away. No, I can’t stay away because of my attraction to you!’ Bo waffles back and forth, telling Sam so many different things. He’s completely inconsistent from one scene to the next. Sam spends so much of the novel staring after Bo and imagining doing things to Bo that I’m wondering how he managed to believe that no one would ever catch onto him, or why all but one character seemed to ignore the blatant staring he did scene after scene. —These two are great examples of stereotype in the Gay Romance genre. For nearly this exact dynamic (one partner happily identifying as gay while the other struggles with his attraction to men), read the first of Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series, Fatal Shadows. Adrien and Jake are fine examples incorporating what’s typically a boring stereotype into a character aspect. (First hint, it’s the fact that those are only ASPECTS of the character and not the DEFINING characteristic, which is where Blue’s book falls flat).

The other characters are hardly worth mentioning at all. They chat constantly and rehash the ongoings over and over and over. They’re nearly indistinguishable from each other. The four of them form two heterosexual couples. And for whatever reason, one half of each couple has to be afflicted with dreams, though none so bad as what Sam has. Supporting cast members need to represent different ideas or what’s the point in having them involved? Only one seemed to have a point and that was to harass both Sam and Bo about the growing attraction between them. (In more stereotypical fashion: she did this because Bo was married to her best friend and ‘Gawd, you can’t do that to my best friend!’….)

The hurdles of setting and character are hard enough to jump over, but this last one pushed the book into unbearable territory. The ghost hunt, or investigation, wasn’t much of one at all. They considered themselves professionals in their field, but they seemed to lack some basic knowledge. For starters, how about staying up all night to actually investigate the house? Instead, everyone seemed to turn in by midnight–a prime haunt hour by most accounts. BCPI also made the astounding claim that they recorded everything on film (two types of film), because ‘film is harder to fake.’ I was flabbergasted at the idea–people have faked footage on film since we invented the stuff and those still win over supports. The Film is Better than Digital argument was something I swallowed down because an author should be allowed a little leeway in developing their story. However, BCPI would take that video footage and guess what they do afterwards? Load it up, splice together the juicy bits and give the client a CD version. If I had had a physical copy, I would have tossed it across the room at that line. It’s one thing to be a bit contradictory in how you do things, it’s another to negate what your characters are doing. Having seen far too many episodes of Ghost Hunters, and Most Haunted, and listened to a few too many Coast to Coast in college, I had certain expectations out of the hunt. This tale flew against all of them in such a way that makes me wonder if the author did a basic research into paranormal investigations. I mean, the investigators did more work in the middle of the day than in the middle of the night.

In short, this book failed in the spectacular ways of setting, character, and basic research. If you want to create a horror story, these are the three prime aspects you need to keep your reader hooked. Without a hypnotic, creepy atmosphere, relatable and consistent main characters, or the minor details someone versed in genre ought to know, you’re going to lose more people than keep. Check out Oleander House only in a case of what not to do—and look to the others I mentioned as better examples of storytelling.