This is a very rare blog post about a book (or rather, trilogy) that I recently read (or rather listened to) that I’m feeling rather evangelical about.
This is not a review by the way. It’s (a) a wholly inadequate summary of what the books are about; and (b) mostly some incoherent gushing that gets a bit embarrassing towards the end. In short, all it will probably do is demonstrate that *I* loved these books. Heigh-ho.
Incidentally, it is not author-me writing this post. it’s reader-me. Author-me is (or at least tries to be) painstakingly reasonable, fair and objective. But reader-me is none of those things. Reader-me is savagely subjective about the books I read and does not particularly tolerate other points of view. Reader-me’s view of this trilogy, is as follows: you must read it. If you don’t read it, you are a fool. If you do read it and don’t like it, you are also a fool. If you read and love it, I will accept you as my family for all eternity.
That’s one of the joys of reading, I think: that it is gloriously subjective. Every reading experience is a unique collaboration between the book and the reader – and in the case of audiobooks (which is the format I consumed these books in) there is a third collaborator, the narrator, in this case, JF Harding, whose narration is extraordinarily wonderful and which deserves a post all of its own.
In fact, there are a lot of things about these books that deserve a post all of their own. The fantastic writing; the incredible characters and their respective journeys; the setting (Utah, Mormon society, the desert); the banter between the two MCs, Tean and Jem, which manages to be really funny without in any way detracting from the emotionally complex context it’s happening in (such good light and shade in these books!) But if I talk about all these things, this will end up being 8000 words long and I’ll never finish it, and never post it, and no one will every know how much I loved these books. And that can’t happen. Not when I’m pretty sure there are at least nine people out there who might read this post.
So my plan is this: give you a bit of context about the books, then ramble incoherently about one thing that I really loved which is, in fairness, probably the least obviously compelling sales point (thereby cutting those potential nine readers down to maybe, four?) This is the thing that I referred to in the title of this post as The Tao of Teancum Leon. Obviously, this is a wee nod to The Tao of Pooh, proving once again that I am a sucker for a hooky title, no matter how inaccurate. Because what I really mean here is The Camus of Teancum Leon and… no wait! Don’t leave!
Okay, if you’re still here, I need you to stick with me, to the end. I promise to get on with it!
The basics are as follows: this trilogy follows Dr Teancum (‘Tean’) Leon and Jem Berger through a series of mysteries. Each book centres on a self-contained mystery, while the story of the central relationship between Tean and Jem stretches over all three books. Tean is a wildlife vet and Jem is a con artist. They meet when Jem’s foster brother goes missing and their investigation into his disappearance is the subject of the first book.
Jem and Tean are incredible characters, both strong and funny and kind in their own ways. And both damaged and scared and flawed too. Tean comes from a large, devout Mormon family that loves and disapproves of him. Jem grew up in foster care and juvenile detention. Like all the best romance couples, they bring things to one another that they each need, so that they can become the best and happiest versions of themselves that they can possibly be.
One of the ways Gregory Ashe shows this (that Jem and Tean belong together) is through the other central relationship in the books, which is between Tean and his long-term on-off lover, Ammon Young, a closeted, married detective. Tean and Ammon’s scenes show the reader, in the best and must nuanced way possible, just how perfect Jem is for Tean. And actually, that’s all the more the case because Ammon is not (though some will undoubtedly disagree with me here) wholly terrible. In fact, there were moments when I ached for Ammon – he is wonderfully ambiguous – though I suspect some readers will just detest him outright and not feel that way at all. (Disclosure: I have a long track record of crushes on villains).
*Sort of spoiler alert*
The Tean/Ammon vs Tean/Jem dynamic plays out in a final and comprehensive way in book 3 in a series of scenes that are sheer perfection. One of my favourite things in any romance is when the MC is finally given everything they ever dreamed of… and it turns out to be a disaster. And so it goes here. And then Jem makes everything all right with his deepdown, non-judgmental kindness and unshakeable belief that nerdy, awkward, difficult Tean is… amazing. And that’s another thing I love in my romances. When a key character is misunderstood by almost every other character in the book, and the author makes you feel that it’s only you – and the other MC – who can see the truth of that character. It feels like you’ve been entrusted with this wonderful secret. Because you’re special.
*End of sort of spoiler*
Among Tean’s many qualities is his ability to simply and beautifully explain different philosophical ideas. He’s actually not, like Pooh bear, a Taoist (though he does sometimes get quite spiritual when he’s in nature). No, he’s more of an existentialist with a distinctly atheist bent. And yes, okay, I’m an atheist, and a sucker for accessible existential philosophy (because ‘raw’ philosophy is brain-hurty) so Tean’s occasional meanderings down these paths were much loved by me, not to mention preaching to my personal choir. Which is to say, I share Tean’s vision of a bleak and disinterested universe that is nevertheless richly, endlessly beautiful. And I share his view that there is no meaning to anything, except the meaning we give it ourselves. And yes, that it is in confronting that truth, bleak as it is, that we begin to find meaning.
And that – that is what I mean by The Camus of Teancum Leon.
What is the universe, he wanted to ask, except a desert? And what is a desert except a place where life holds on?
All three of these books are my ‘book of the year’, but if you really forced me to choose one, then I would choose the last, The Same End (which is how it should be with any trilogy, I think – #3 should always be the best). After I finished listening to the last chapter of The Same End, I went back to the beginning and listened again. And a week later, I listened again.
Sometimes, when you read/listen to certain parts of a book, you feel it in your own body. Your heart might physically ache, your stomach close like a fist. Your eyes might sting and your throat might burn. Sometimes, too, there is a sense of familiarity, of recognising the thing you are reading about, or maybe of feeling known or seen yourself. That is meaning, I think. That connection. Meaning in a meaningless universe. A smoke signal from far off lands.
Beep beep boop.
Confused? Well, I warned you. I did. I said all this post would do is demonstrate that *I* loved these books. But if you four are still here, I expect you to go and read these books now.
And now you must excuse me. I have a rock to push up a hill. And I’ve been looking forward to it all day.