August 13, 2015 • Cee • Reviews

Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie • August 11, 2015 • St. Martin’s Press
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An astonishing literary debut about a young man who, in the search for clues into the disappearance of his mother twelve years earlier, discovers himself in the process.

Recent high school graduate and aspiring artist Walter Stahl lives with his ailing father in the dregs of Las Vegas, their lives overshadowed by the disappearance of Walter’s mother, who drove off when he was five and never returned. Although Walter has never so much as seen a photograph of his mother, it doesn’t stop him from keeping an eye out for her in the groups of tourists he caters to in his dead-end job along the Strip.

Then Walter meets Chrysto and Acacia, a brother and sister working as living statues at the Venetian Hotel, and his world cracks open. Spending less time caring for his father, and more time riding on the backs of Vespas and drawing, Walter finds life has more to offer than he could have imagined. But as his feelings for Chrysto deepen, and as clues behind his mother’s disappearance start to reveal themselves, Walter is forced to face the truth about himself and his family history.

Threading through this coming-of-age story are beautiful and heart-wrenching graphic illustrations, depicting how Walter’s mother Emily, a Vietnamese-born accordion player, abandoned her family to chase a vision of Liberace across the country; and how Walter’s father went searching for her amongst the gondolas of the Venetian Hotel.

In Still Life Las Vegas, the magical collides with the mundane; memory, sexual awakening and familial ties all lead to a place where everything is illuminated, and nothing is real.


I received this book for free from St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

First sentence: “She drove the blue Volvo station wagon away from Vee’s house with a sober determination, like it was a lame horse she was leading out of the barn.”

What made me interested in Still Life Las Vegas initially: It’s a hybrid novel—part prose and part graphic novel—and has a half-Vietnamese gay protagonist! These are things that you don’t see often in books, so I instantly knew I had to read it. Would you say no?

What is the book about: Still Life Las Vegas tells three stories about a family after a tragic event:

  • Walter Stahl, a seventeen year who’s mother left him when he was young, has to care for his depressed dad in Las Vegas. He meets Chyrsto and Acacia, siblings working as living statues, and discovers there’s more to his world than what he sees;
  • Emily, Walter’s mother, who packed up the family’s blue Volvo and drove away from Walter and his father. She decides to drive to Las Vegas and find Liberace’s Museum.
  • Owen, Walter’s dad, who goes after his wife when he learns she has left for Las Vegas, and there, we learn what had changed their lives drastically.

Words that describe James Sie’s debut book: Captivating. Heartbreaking. Depressing. Uplifting. Beautiful.

Timeline: Not exactly chronological. You get Walter in the present day, and Emily and Owen in the past as they both head to Las Vegas, separately. (You see Emily and Owen twelve years ago as well as earlier than that when they met.)

Setting: Las Vegas is essentially another character in Still Life Las Vegas. Sie does an excellent job building the ideal Vegas with its glitz and glamour and the wasteland of it when you’re no longer on the Strip where the lights do not shine as brightly.

Prose check: The writing had an unique style to it, where it felt like I was reading a sort of stream-of-consciousness or thought process. Although I enjoyed it, the narrative was a bit confusing at times because it just went on and on, and just became a bit too much.

Illustrations: Sungyoon Choi did a beautiful job on it. I was completely blown away by the intensity of the illustrations. Although it isn’t as abundant as I had hoped, when you see it, there’s huge meaning to it. They were a perfect addition that conveyed the raw emotions these characters are feeling and the suspense. I became emotional multiple times because these illustrations said so much about them and their situation. No words need to be said because the illustrations did all the talking, and it’s so goddamn powerful.

Themes it touches on: abandonment, depression, coming of age, Greek mythology, loss, grief, memory, stories, homosexuality, art, and so much more.

What else’s in this book:

  • When you see the events being portrayed, you just have a sense of foreboding that something is terribly wrong, but you don’t know exactly what for whatever reason like forgetting or not getting the full information, and I loved that. Readers get to watch Walter try to piece together what happened to his mom, and we are given those key information that Walter doesn’t know and sets Walter’s mother off to leave her family.
  • You see these characters trying to make sense of the things that happened in their life. It’s something that they can’t exactly process, and it feels so real. How do you make sense of tragedy?
  • These characters have been experienced huge loss—from being abandoned to deaths—and it’s so heartbreaking watching them try to deal with it. For instance, Walter talked about how he would see an Asian lady and go, “too short, tall, face isn’t right,” always hoping it’s actually his mother, and that made me want to hug him.

  • The Greek mythology plays a role in Still Life Las Vegas (not exactly what though). Walter’s dad was a professor of Greek Mythology years ago, and Walter meets Chrysto and Acacia, a pair of siblings working as living statues of Apollo and Diana. The mythologies are stories that have been passed down, and with that in mind, it makes me think of the stories that Walter’s been told about his mother by his dad. They’re just stories that may or may not be true and have been embellished over time, just like mythologies.

  • Young love doesn’t always happen the way you want it. When Walter first sees Chrysto, he is captivated by his presence. There’s something about Chrysto that instantly attracts people to him. He pulls you into his world even if you don’t want to. That’s such a charming, yet dangerous trait. Walter can’t help but want to be in Chrysto’s life, even when people are telling him otherwise. Chrysto just awakens Walter and illuminates his world, and gives him an escape of sorts. How can he not want that?

Sie’s debut book manages to capture my heart with its gorgeous storytelling and illustration. When he reveals something important, it happens organically and so meaningful. You can expect to be captivated as well as be sad by this story about a broken family trying to escape the past that follows them.



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