Author: Brandon Witt
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Christine’s Rating: 4.75 of 5 Stars
Lirtle’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars
PizzyGirls’s Rating: 4.75 of 5 Stars
Publication Date: 11/04/2016
Length: Novel (~ 50K-100K)
Genre: Contemporary, Gay Romance
Happily ever after has no map, but sometimes fate sends a guiding light.
Gabe Rice, a seasonal ranger at the Rocky Mountain National Park, can’t seem to get his life on the right trail. He loves the rugged beauty of the land, and there is no place he would rather live than the mountain community of Estes Park. But after six years, Gabe is beginning to wonder if he’ll ever get a full-time position or find love. When Gabe sees Luis—and hears his gorgeous singing—he’s compelled to meet him.
Luis Martinez, the new owner of a hotel and steak ride business in Estes, left California and a career as a therapist for a fresh start in Colorado. But even the beauty of the mountains can’t help him forget the past or move forward. Unprepared for his strong attraction to Gabe, Luis is ready to run and hide from emotions he never thought he’d have again.
Suddenly the path ahead opens to a future that looks brighter for both of them, if they can find the courage to walk forward—together.
Brandon Witt always delivers honesty. That’s what I think I like most about his writing. He provides characters, situations, and relationships that are authentic and speak to the truths that exist in life, from ugly to exquisite. Within the pages of Mapping the Forest, these truths are found, both metaphorically and not, amidst the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. Pain, joy, revelations, and love are part of the physical and emotional landscape experienced by the two main characters, Gabe and Luis. Each has his own set of issues, flaws, and insecurities; yet the beauty of their surroundings and their longing for one another cast a golden glow of acceptance and healing as they struggle and stumble along the path to one another.
In this first novel of the Rocky Mountain Boys series, the reader is treated to a cast of fascinating, imperfect, cohesive friends who set the tone for future installments. (On a side note, I would recommend reading the short story “Christmas Miracles of a Recently Fallen Spruce” as a prequel to Mapping the Forest. It isn’t necessary prior to reading Mapping, but the sweet short provides some helpful information about secondary characters in this story and adds layers to the universe Mr. Witt has created). Again, honesty reigns supreme here as the connections and unconditional love between this group of characters become vividly clear through their genuine, often snarky interactions. They truly get one another and are fiercely protective of each other, even as they are keeping it real as only true friends can do together.
Balanced perfectly with these scenes is the development of the relationship between Gabe and Luis. Another feather in Mr. Witt’s cap is his consistent use of diverse characters who don’t fit “the romance mold.” Both men are perfectly attractive and engaging in their imperfections and sympathetic in their struggles to find love amidst pain and loss of the past. Luis’s grief is palpable, a fierce antagonist he fights continually in his battle to move forward. At times it is almost too painful to witness, yet the honesty is so sharp, it is almost as though the reader is in Luis’s skin. The necessity of this is clear, as the reader lives and breathes Luis’s guilt and heartbreak and fully experiences his debilitating doubt. Gabe is a bright light, a stronger, more solid figure with insecurities of his own. However, his perseverance and tenacity in his pursuit of his dreams and of Luis are charming and appealing. These two work so well together, and the fits and starts of their relationship are authentic and agonizing. Yet their struggle feels right and makes for a satisfying, natural conflict.
Overall, Mapping the Forest takes the reader on a bumpy, sometimes torturous, but ultimately fulfilling journey that warms the heart and embraces messages of hope and healing. Mr. Witt’s strikingly beautiful descriptions of Colorado and sincere characters grab the reader from the first page and pull them along for the ride, potholes and all. Emotionally honest, entertaining, and boasting captivating scenery and personalities, I have the feeling that this is the beginning of what will be another favorite series of mine.
When this book came up for pre-order, I went ahead and ordered the paperback: that cover, yo, and I knew I’d want to have it on my shelf along many others that have become favorites. It also has many notes, written in different colors of ink, like purple, green, and blue, circling and highlighting and recording how these characters made me feel and think.
Having just experienced this story and these characters, this book has become just that: a favorite, and for meaningful reasons. A large one is the way grief is alive in Luis, his roller coaster journey along its path, how it changes one and changes itself along the way, how breakthroughs arise just as unexpectedly as setbacks, and the way it alters one’s view of the world even before we’re prepared to recognize it. That Brandon Witt does this with a storytelling approach that feels free of any barriers to all of Luis’s emotions, I’m still kind of reeling. And simultaneously filled with joy.
They might barely know each other, but Gabe was his chance to live again.
No. That wasn’t quite it.
Gabe made Luis want to live again.
Another reason is Gabe. His patience, and strength, and his devotion to the family he’s made with his friends. Sometimes we don’t even realize change is what we might need until someone comes along and, even while living with their own misery, alters the beat of our heart. My heart. All at once, fear and excitement and insecurity and bravery jostle for dominance while also trying to work together to make sense of what’s happening.
This story is a conversation, in all forms, between two people in current states of flux. Witt’s choice to give us both points of view, both sets of emotions, both uncertainties and hopes, both triumphs… both is the only way this story can be shared and give us this extraordinary level of intimacy. Our storyteller knows these people. I know these people. Witt trusted us, and himself, with this truth and the trust is all over the pages of this book. In humor and love, in the very real way friends and lovers discuss and share their lives, navigating the challenges and successes, worrying if they’re doing the right thing, assuring each other when they are and helping each other survive in order to live.
Can we talk about Rosalind? And Jordan? They’re almost two sides of the same coin but playing very different roles, especially in the lives of Gabe and his friends, this family they’ve made. Unrelenting, intelligent, funny, omigosh funny, and in ways only someone who knows you really well can pull off without you wanting to bop them in the nose, let alone actually making you love them even more for it. Their hearts are huge right along with their proverbial balls.
I want more of them. More, more, more.
There is one series of scenes that I’m still trying to figure out if they were necessary. I know the points and emotions they were meant to bolster, but I’m not sure they benefitted the story? Really, it’s one scene in particular that felt out of sync with the rest of the book and the characters, including the scenes that immediately precede and follow this one which definitely belonged and strengthened the story, continuing a couple of storylines.
Otherwise, every word of this story is necessary and meaningful and purposeful.
Can we say mature discussions about sex? Oh yes, we can. What a refreshing thing. What a relief! This is one of the duh kind of benefits to a story involving characters in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and beyond. Now, mature doesn’t mean absent of the awkward because there’s plenty of that up in this joint. And it all feels so right, and so real. I snortled. It’s true. And each time it made me love all of these people even more. Maturity also doesn’t preclude those butterflies fluttering in the tummy when someone expresses their interest. Gabe, my man, thank you for sharing that.
Relatedly, and important to highlight, is the way HIV is portrayed. This is also real. And right. Living with HIV does not automatically translate into someone’s life becoming nothing but a tragedy. Living with HIV is a thing, and it’s happening, every day, 24-7, amidst work and family and relationships and sex. Hugs and humor and suffering and disappointment and sharing meals and jokes and everything else are parts of Rob’s life, just as they are with all of his dear, loving friends.
Miseducation and misconception are encountered and addressed in regular ol’ conversation. As they should be. Without fake histrionics or overblown consequences. A serious thing but not the only thing in someone’s life.
Witt’s writing is some of his best. Expressive, filling scenes with crystal clear physical beauty and emotions that shoot right to the heart of the matter. Dialogue that rolls along the peaks and valleys of Estes Park, creating an atmosphere of distinct connectivity between these people and the breathtaking landscapes around them, living as a part of each of them.
Emotions. I’m not even sure how I’m writing this right now. All throughout this story, accessibility is wide open to everything these characters are feeling. Inescapable. Walls exist and shake and crumble between them but we are never denied what’s happening on either side, through every moment as they work to break them down. What a gift. I’m so thankful.
There is so, so, so much more I want to say about this book and these people. If I did, we’d be here many, many, many pages from now. Read this. And know there’s more to come. 😉
I am going to start off with the one thing about this book that affected me negatively. I want to get it out the way so we can focus on everything else. For me, the ending felt like it came out of nowhere. I was reading along so engrossed in the story that I was not paying attention to the page numbers or kindle location markers. When I turned that last page and the author’s note popped up, it actually confused me. It took a bit for me to come back to reality and realize that the story was over. It felt like I was thrown out of things just when they were getting good. It did not feel like an ending or a smooth transition. It felt abrupt and left me wanting more. Like meeting Luis’s family. We were promised that we would meet the family in September and that it would be interesting. Why didn’t we get to meet the family? I don’t know. You may feel differently but the ending hit me hard.
Now on to the good things, well not all of them because this review would never end, but I will hit the high points of the things that impacted me the most.
The writing style was so easy to read yet beautiful and deep at the same time. I have to let you all in on a secret. I once wrote a review for this author where I criticized him for being overly verbose in ways that were beautiful but did not enhance his story lines. Mapping the Forest is a prime example of his growth as a writer. He has taken his artistic eye and easily translated it to the page in ways that are no longer out of place or superfluous. His descriptions were timely and pertinent to the story in ways that went far beyond simple scene setting. His imagery captured not only the physical beauty, but also imparted the emotions that those characters and the author have for the world they live in. Have you ever stood atop a hill or mountain or by your window or on your back porch and looked out into the world and experienced something so majestic it took your breath away? Had that moment when the world was so wondrous that you almost teared up? Well each time this author described Estes and the wilderness, I felt those emotions. I felt that beauty in my gut as my imagination struggled to come up with anything close to what the author showed me those characters felt about their land. To me, this is a different level of talent. Anyone can put words on a page to paint a picture. But to so easy impart the grandeur and wonder associated with those images without resorting to purple prose(much like that in this review)? That is something few authors I have read have ever achieved. So while I cannot take back my previous review, nor will I, I will sit here before everyone and shout to the world that Brandon Witt has grown as a writer and has seriously matured. He has some massive talent for picking his words carefully and using them rather effectively. Yes, I know he has editors as well, and props to them too!
In addition to scene setting, the author did a great job with the characters. These men were so real it is not even something I know how to talk about, though I am totally gonna at least try a little. Luis and Gabe’s journey was fraught with angst and emotion that came from some serious baggage and internal struggles. Be warned, you will need tissue to dab at those tears that will escape whether you want them to or not.
Luis, poor Luis. For me, he was the heart of this story. His journey was so emotional and I got sucked in from the moment he stepped onto the page. From word one, I was invested to the point that I was there, on that page, in that story with Luis. I felt his grief and guilt like I was the one experiencing them myself. I felt those soul wrenching sobs tearing him apart. I felt his weariness, his loneliness. But I also felt his hope. I felt those nerves that come with that first new contact with someone new (umm hello, that scene where he tosses his cell phone? I have totally done that myself!). I felt that awkwardness when you are so out of practice and out of touch with reality that you just want to kick yourself and mutter “stupid, stupid, stupid.” I felt that fear when he realized his hope might actually come to fruition. Luis was, for me, that part of myself that is still unjaded and innocent. Luis was that character that represented what we all want in life and represented that awkward, real way most people will actually achieve those desires. This was not love at first sight, perfect connection, HOT sex, HEA. Nope this was screw up after foot in mouth after embarrassing naked baby pictures after flop sweat ruining your best shirt reality. This was life at its finest in a way that sucked me in, held me captive, ripped me up, and then tossed me out on a bed of hopeful tears. It was FANTASTIC.
Gabe’s story was not as intense for me as Luis’s. Gabe had baggage and showed growth throughout the story, but did not tear me apart the way Luis did. Gabe was that bit of snarky realism needed to balance Luis’s turmoil. For me, Gabe was a necessary MC with his own growth and development, but he was necessary in that he was Luis’s match in all things. Gabe represented Luis’s hope and future and played his part accordingly. Gabe gave Luis understanding and safety. Gabe gave Luis purpose and confidence. Gabe gave Luis a reason to come out of hiding and meet new people. Gabe was the baseline and the way for this series to be introduced and set up for the future, but he was still second to Luis for me.
Another high point was the fact that this story was well balance. While Luis and Gabe were central to the story, the author also included a cast of characters that made this world full and robust. He quietly introduced everyone in a way that was organic but still gave the reader all the background necessary to form the connections needed to further this series. I know just enough about each person to have an opinion on them and to know that I need more information and page time to assess whether my opinions are rational. This is how you set up a series. Organically, with secondary characters that have a life of their own but are necessary for the first book to work. I love that this was developed well enough that I need to keep reading.
In addition to being well balanced character wise, this story was also well balanced in terms of angst and humor. Every time I would start to get maudlin, the author would insert these one liners that would have me barking laughter. I have another confession to make. I sort of know this author in real life. He is an amazing person and his personality and his voice came through loud and clear in this book. Some of the snarky comments are ones I can easily hear in his real life voice. I can hear them in my mind and see them on a message screen. His personality carried this story forward because his voice that broke the sadness and brought much needed lightness.
I also need to admit that in a previous review I slammed this author for his irreverence and carelessness when dealing with the topic of sexual assault. That is not the case in this story. Be warned, that this may be a trigger for some of you, but the author handed this topic with the right balance of outrage, anger, emotion, and care.
Finally, I want to close this review by telling everyone to pick up Mapping the Forest. It will touch your heart while making you laugh inappropriately. This book was fulfilling in a way I had not anticipated.
Oh P.S. there is a cute doggy in this book and the author’s acknowledgments at the end made me cry.
All three of the reviewers purchased copies of this on their own.
One random commenter with thoughtful, relevant comments will win a $25 gift certificate each month in 2016.
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