Score: 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
Betty Cries by James A. Leyshon is a very unique and ambitious novel. It takes a bunch of risks and approaches storytelling from a lot of different angles.
The novel follows a psychic man who can see ghosts. He is constantly haunted by one particular ghost, that of a little girl named Betty who cries at a particular time of the day and talks to him. It definitely delivers on these promises and more by the end. It ultimately becomes a very worthwhile read.
Now, put that all on the side for now. Just imagine you're a publisher or a literary agent seeing this manuscript for the first time. Imagine you don't have this creepy (yet cool) cover of a ghostly little girl staring back at you, nor do you have the description on the back cover. Imagine that for a second. Imagine that all you know is that this book is a fiction book about a guy, a guy named Jake. You're going to have to figure out what this book is about, what the plot is, and what the characters actually want.
Now, as we said before, this book does eventually deliver something resembling an interesting and tension-filled plot by the end. By that point, the conflict becomes much clearer and easier to understand.
However, for about three-fourths of the book, it seemed to meander. It seemed directionless, although it did tie together reasonably well.
For three-fourths of the book, do you want to know who we thought the villains were? We thought it was either Jake himself hiding literal skeletons in his closet, terrorizing poor bookstore clerks, or the IRS. That's right, we thought the IRS was the big bad of this novel. And, yeah, a cop named Michael was on the side doing shady Buffalo Bill-type stuff like chaining a dude by the neck and seemingly having him dig his own grave, but it was what it was. It was over on the side.
There are times when Jake just seems to be doing stuff. Things just seem to be happening to him. In the beginning, it seems like he has been kidnapped, but he hasn't been. Or has he? He seems to be astral projecting or something. He projects to a children's party. He sees a clown. The clown freaks him out. We, as the reader, don't know why he's so terrified other than the fact that clowns are objectively creepy. He wakes up sweating as if from a dream. Maybe he was having a premonition? We don't know. We don't know anything.
There's a lot we don't know yet. This isn't really explained until later.
Jake hears a little girl crying in his closet and thinks little of it at first, even rolling his eyes. We assume Jake might be a kidnapper, but that issue is left hanging for a while. This is a horror-mystery after all. Next, he's acting like a somewhat-cool, somewhat-creepy hipster art professor oohing and awing over nude art.
Then, he and his student groupie cult accidentally summon an arch-demon from hell named Asmodeus (which is pretty much irrelevant to the main plot) and the ghost of a professional a-hole named Frank (who is also pretty much irrelevant to the main plot). Frank does provide some humor as he's pretty much the Genie from Aladdin minus the Genie powers. Then, Jake engages in small talk and chit chat with side-characters including law officers trying to solve a murder and a love interest who might be a witch. Next, he's tearing up a bookstore and intimidating a bookstore owner with his psychic powers over scalping books. So, do you see the issue we had? It was like the book was as schizophrenic as Jake is. It was like it couldn't decide what it was or what it wanted to be.
So, WHO is Jake St. Johns? WHAT is his actual character? Because Jake seems like an amalgamation of like five different characters competing for space. First, he's a psychic medium with ESP who can see and talk to the dead like the kid from Sixth Sense. Second, he's a nerd who collects literature and comic books. Third, he's a heartbreak kid caught in a bit of a love triangle with the hot waitress and the new side piece who might be a witch/psychic. Fourth, he's a millionaire or something, or at least “rich.” And, fifth, he runs an art academy that seems to double as a groupie cult surrounding him. So, he's a borderline cult leader too. He often acts and talks like he's an angry, angsty, hormonally-driven 13-year-old who likes comics, nerds out over naked people, and cracks crude jokes while entertaining a god complex. Some these other things suggest he's like 30-45 years old. This is similar to something we noticed in another book called The Devil Pulls the Strings in which an adult character sounded and acted much younger and less mature than they ought to be.
On a side note, Betty talks much older than she's supposed to be and seems to be in control. Actually, on another side note, ghosts like Betty and Frank seem to be pyromaniacs who have some kind of pyrokinesis. They'll just burst out when they're frustrated or don't get their way, setting everything on fire. Do ghosts actually do that? That's kinda... unique...
Going back to Jake, Jake is also insufferable when it comes to women and people of other races. He can be very insensitive, especially, when talking to people of color in the book. No, he doesn't use a slur, but he imitates what he thinks they talk like. This usually leads to them threatening him or telling him to, well, STFU MOFO. He can also be very rude to people in general, even telling them to go away and making a scene in a diner.
Something just seems... off about Jake St. Johns the character, and perhaps that's the point. Jake is a weird, strange, bizarre person. You would be weird, strange, and bizarre too if you could see dead people and they talked to you. The thing about all that is: is he a likable character? Because Jake can be quite the anti-hero. He's kinda a jerk, actually. There's a moment in this book where he gets frustrated at not being able to scalp books by a bookstore owner, then uses his psychic powers to intimidate the man and make him hit himself multiple times. After going on this and other power trips, he starts referring to himself as a “god” or a deity, although somewhat sarcastically. He is even referred to as a “mental parasite,” which actually seems to fit the character.
With that said, Jake does show moments of being a good person deep down inside. The best example of this is how compassionately he ends up responding to Betty, the ghost of the dead little girl, often trying to hold and hug her. He also at least tries to tip his cab driver, although he considers running and leaving him with the tab.
This book is actually not as serious in tone as we expected it to be. It's actually quite light and seems to be played for fun and laughs. It's filled with jokes and awkward moments from both the living and the dead. It might best be described as “Shenanigans of a Psychic” because, really, a lot of this book deals with Jake's abnormal powers and personality intersecting with mundane, real-world things.
Now, there is an over-arching conflict, so let's get on to that.
CLICK AWAY TO AVOID SPOILERS. SPOILERS AHEAD!
So, it turns out that there is actually a main villain in this book. His name is Michael, a crooked, murderous vigilante cop who is believed to be responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child. Michael seems to have gone on a sort of crusade, dedicating his continued existence to the capture and slaying of others who he deems to be too much like him: evil. He has basically crowned himself the role of “Holy Smiter” believing that it's his divine duty to hunt down other murderers. However, his hypocrisy blinds him to his own evil and crimes. Some of the best parts of the book are when the ghost children continue to badger him to “tell the truth” and “tell them what you did” and he ignores them. Oh, yeah, he also dresses up like a clown as an alter ego. So, that explains Jake's fear of clowns. Ok...
So, Jake is a precog too? So, not only does Jake have ESP, telepathy, astral projection, energy projection (which basically doubles as telekinesis), and the ability to see/talk to the dead as a spiritual medium, but he can know the future too? The dude is loaded. Psycho Mantis is jealous.
What's good about the ending is that it doesn't allow Jake to just run roughshod over Michael with his powers. That would've ended up being quite anticlimactic. Michael is a clever enough villain to at least try to contain Jake. Jake is actually vulnerable near the end, something you want in your protagonist, and he requires help from others into Tammy the witch, Joe, the other police officer guy, the kidnapped kid whose dad is a lawyer, the kidnapped kid's mom, and all the ghosts (including Betty and Frank). So, yeah, after all that convoluted build-up, it ended up being somewhat worth it in the end. There was a payoff for just about all of those dozen or so side-quests that Jake went on.
And, yes, in case you were wondering, there's even a resolution with the book store owner Jake traumatized, hurt, and set up for entrapment.
END OF SPOILERS
So, yes, this book is a Gordian knot of side-characters, side-plots, and shenanigans, but it has its moments and is a worthwhile read.
Check it out on Amazon!