Book Review – Sugar Skulls by M.R. Tapia

sugar skulls

When writing a book review I normally have to get on it very soon after finishing the story. I may even make a few notes to remind myself of things I want to say so I don’t forget them if it takes me a few days or so to get started on the review.

Well Sugar Skulls by M.R. Tapia has needed no such notes, and it’s been a few days since I finished it. What I’m saying is, it stayed with me. And that says a lot. What a compelling, tragic, and at times funny novel.

Micah awakens with a skeleton man in a creepy dark hood sitting before him. There is a sickle in the hands of the bony man. Yes, this is Death. Micah quickly discovers he’s dead, hence his current situation. But Death doesn’t want to send Micah either up or down just yet, there’s plenty of time for a little chat between the two of them.

What follows are conversations between them, where Death acts all cryptic and questiony, and Micah looks back on his life and gets angry and shitty with The Reaper. Well, I’m sure none of us would welcome him with open arms after all.

The scenes with them talking about Micah’s life and his thoughts of existence are great and thoroughly engaging. The dialogue flows between them seamlessly, in fact it was a little like reading a two-man play.

But the novel is not just two guys sitting around chewing the fat on one of their lives and the other’s meaning for existence. No, we are also treated to snapshots of Micah’s previous life. These memories are expertly handled, it’s almost like Micah is reliving these moments but with his post-death knowledge, a little like Ebenezer Scrooge during his three visitations at Easter, or whenever it was.

Death (the condition, not the character) is the over-riding theme of this story. It’s our one certainty, yet the one thing we seem to shy away from ever speaking too much about. And Micah is (was) no different. It’s only now that his life has gone that he can reflect on what he did or didn’t do whilst living it.

Micah’s two biggest regrets are being, in his eyes, a disappointment to his mom who died of cancer, and the son he never got to meet. Both these tragic circumstances lead to his anger and frustration as he perceives Death to be simply toying with him before his final judgement.

The writing reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk in parts; the short, snappy sentences and paragraphs, the derisory outlook on modern life, and the fact that I learnt a few things, too. Such as death customs from other cultures which are littered throughout the novel but are never drawn out so much that you think you’re reading a textbook.

Micah’s mother was an immigrant from Mexico. We learn of her struggles in crossing the border and how she eventually settled in America. The references to ancient Aztec culture helped really tie this all together and give Micah’s character some sense of heritage. We are told of the levels through which a soul passes in the Aztec Underworld and how each is a struggle. Is Micah’s soul now experiencing these levels in death, or has his whole life been a descent into an underworld he’d never escape from?

He’s not exactly a nice guy, he’s done some bad shit in the past, but you’re still rooting for him. I suppose a reader will instantly latch on to a protagonist who begins the book dead. By the time we learn of his checkered past, we’re already right there with him.

We know Micah’s dead, but it is not made apparent exactly how he died. It seems as though this is the ‘hook’ that keeps you gripped right to the end. And it is. But when we learn the details of his demise, it’s not exactly a ‘wow’ moment. I’m making this sound like a bad or disappointing ending, but it really isn’t. As what happens to Micah after reliving his death, talking with Death, and realising exactly what went wrong with his life, is the real shocking ending. It was bloody excellent.

So yeah, I’d recommend this book to lovers of horror (although it isn’t exactly horror, but more horrifying, if that makes sense), but don’t expect to be treated to scenes of terror and gore. The thought of death is terrifying enough.

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