I expected more from The Unexpected Life of Harry Chambers, mostly because a good friend wrote and self-published it. Say what you will about Indies, self-publishing has come a long way since its inception. The likes of C.T. Phipps,Michael Sliter, and Rob Hayes, to name a few, have helped legitimize the former “last resort” of publishing.
In retrospect, it wasn’t that I was expecting high-caliber prose similar to the authors mentioned; it was that I’d come to expect more from my dear friend. Over the years, he and I have grown fairly close, mostly while discussing personal stuff, reminiscing over video games, mourning the loss of Robin Williams, and potential writing projects. But initially “meeting” through the old SKMB (www.stephenking.com,) our biggest passion was discussing the various works of King. Needless to say, my expectations for the book were high. Maybe too high. Not that said expectations were on par with King, but given our love of Steve’s work, and recognizing his integrity inherent in his strict work ethic, I unfairly thought that Reed’s work would somehow follow suit; that novels such as Misery ,It, or his short story, The Boogeyman, might have inspired Reed to strive for better—for greatness. Nor would I wish to compare the two. I hope you understand my intent here.
But enough about the technical flaws. For the time being, let’s discuss the actual narrative, shall we?
The story itself was engaging. At times, it was harrowing and completely relatable. The core of it was a universal one. Not just because pursuing one’s dreams has virtually taken on a cliched air (you hear it everywhere: always follow your dreams; if you can dream it, you can achieve it, the mantras go on endlessly,) but because doing so is important. Vital to one’s peace of mind. Think about it: if nobody was honest and brave enough to realize—and in turn—to zealously chase their dreams, the world would erupt into utter chaos. We’d all go stark raving mad, wouldn’t we? Wind up in an insane asylum?
Regardless of one’s station in life, everyone needs to follow their dreams; to do everything in their power to ensure happiness. Yet, things are rarely, if ever, that simple. And if your hopes are less than that? If they are, in fact, hopeless? How can you imagine a life worth living? When you’re indoctrinated negatively by those who know you best, how do you brush off all that insidious detritus and move forward?
For twenty-five year old Harry, the journey would test him in many, many ways. I can’t begin to fathom that level of suffering.
His life wasn’t an easy existence to navigate. Taken in by his Aunt Angie from an early age after his mother mysteriously died (an element it could’ve benefitted more from,) he then tragically learned acceptance, subservience, even complacency. Left with relatively minimal means of catharsis, he did what he could, namely writing and acting. He was also a voracious reader (when he wasn’t constantly bombarded with things to do, courtesy of his aunt, half-sister, Danielle, and his father, Simon.) Outside of that, he was employed as a TA’s at a prestigious England academy.
”Nothing compares to the smell of a book. New or old. It’s the smell of a new world, drawing you in.”
I related a lot to Harry and his plight. Much more than expected. Even though our upbringings were different, our mentalities were similar. For instance, I never thought I’d amount to anything. Everyone was better. I believed nobody would or could love me. I would live and die alone. I wasn’t worthy of love. That is what I believed. I don’t any longer. Harry, on the other hand, inexplicably managed to maintain a semblance of positivity, of perseverance, which says a hell of a lot more about Harry than it ever could about myself.
There were a few elements that really resonated, like Harry’s compassion for his colleagues as well as the students he mentored. The special needs kids especially. The ways he related to young Dylan was the epitome of humanity. Beholding their daily interactions, and the fact that Harry didn’t merely see him as “another student” or “another problem,” he treated him with absolute equality. He never saw or treated Dylan, or any of the others, any differently.
By the way, The Barren’s antics were hysterical at times, albeit sad and contemptible, too. Truly contemptible. Reed (who writes under a pseudonym,) captured his character nicely, almost effortlessly. Having said that, some additional backstory into why he was that way would have fleshed him out significantly.
I also appreciated the tender moments between Harry and Aunt Angie, when things weren’t somber or manic. I thought they were handled respectfully, and it was nice to see that other side of her. Like all of us, there were shades are grey.
Towards the end, on a day trip to London, Harry and his friend, Mary, saw some of the sights and met two very memorable characters: Sadie and Kathy. Their chemistry couldn’t have been more exquisite. Despite having just met a couple hours prior, it felt like old times, as if they had known one another for ages. Reed made their interactions very real to life, and it was easy to imagine a similar scenario taking place outside of fiction. Sadie and Kathy were made memorable because Reed imbued their characters with a real zest for life, and made whole by idiosyncrasies and voices all their own. They were easily two of my favorites.
The chapter entitled, “Bitter Sweet,” was also quite good. Mostly because of the situation and the emotions coming across the page. I really felt those.
There were aspects of the novel that were surprisingly gritty. In that regard, S.D. Reed tried hard to make those elements shine through. It wasn’t written “as gritty as possible,” as there was an inherent wholesomeness permeating it, but grittier than expected. It was a refreshing surprise.
Harry loves to make people happy. One of his role models was the late Robin Williams. He would have done anything to meet him, not even to talk to him, just to catch a glimpse of him. If he was ever lucky enough to have seen him, he would have uttered just two words: “Thank you.”
The ending. It was satisfying, no doubt about it. If it were any other story, I might not feel quite the same way, but given everything he endured, it somehow worked. And now I want more. I need to know where his journey’s going. With that in mind, I shamelessly wanted some kind of twist to completely rock my world; to alter the general direction of the narrative. Did that impact my rating? Not really. But if something like that had occurred in a believable fashion, without it being for shock value, I certainly would have applauded the effort. I would’ve been more impressed with the whole.
Ultimately though, Harry Chambers needed a good editor. I’m not going to dwell on that. I’ve spoken with the author privately. I was upfront and honest about those concerns. He fully understood where I was coming from and appreciated my candor. He has an editor now. Together, they’re going to make it as good as possible It will be great. I know that, I feel that, I believe that wholeheartedly.
I’m giving it three stars. That’s decent. It means I liked it overall. The thoughts that keep flashing across my mind, though, were how much better it could’ve been. Just imagine if some of the supporting characters, like Dylan, Steph, Kimberly, and Katie, came with backstories unique to them, thus making the reader know and care about them more? I think that even minor characters should have things about them that make you pause and reflect on them a bit, like Whoa, that’s interested or that’s vivid. I never would have guessed that. Truthfully, I want to know more about all the characters, including Danielle, Aunt Angie, and Simon.
Or what if the pacing had moved a little quicker? I can actually see Book I being told in roughly a quarter or half the time. Or, forgetting its tendency to be what I’d call “a slow burn,” what if things transpired just slightly faster, but were made more engrossing by the above mentioned characters, fully realized and developed? What if you found additional methods of making Harry Chambers more interesting, and in unexpected ways?
Anyway, I hope these prove helpful as you go forward with your editor. Thank you again for the opportunity, the love, and the kindness. Most of all, thank you for your friendship. *Here’s to many more*