Archive for August 2021

Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon


I've been blogging and reviewing books for nearly ten years now. In that time, I've seen many changes to the kinds of books that are being published. Some trends have thankfully come and gone, while other more welcome changes seem here to stay. One positive trend is that publishers seem to be releasing books that are much more diverse in their authors and the stories they tell. This year alone, I've already noticed that my own reading has been much more varied than in years past. Yes, this is partly due to me consciously seeking out a wider array of books, but I think it is safe to say that publishers are learning that readers want to read stories that are as diverse as we are. It should come as no surprise, then, that P.J. Vernon's new thriller Bath Haus has taken readers by storm. 

On the surface, Oliver has it all. The road to this point hasn't been easy, but he has managed to trade a life addiction and abuse in Indiana for a place of love and luxury in Washington DC. Oliver owes his change in fortune in large part to his partner Nathan. Nathan's upbringing couldn't be any more different than Oliver's. He comes from a wealthy family and has flourished in his own right as a prominent trauma surgeon. In fact, it was at the hospital where Nathan first met Oliver. Nathan helped Oliver overcome his drug addiction and showed him the true meaning of a loving relationship. The couple now lives in a gorgeous home outside of the city, and has, by all appearances, the perfect life. Beneath the surface of their picture-perfect life together, however, cracks are beginning to form. 

How did he get to this point? Aren't there better ways to deal with unhappiness in a relationship? These thoughts cross Oliver's mind as he quietly approaches the gay bathhouse Haus. He knows that he is risking his entire livelihood by visiting this place. Still, he opens the door and enters, forever setting into motion the events that will change his life as he knows it. Once inside, thoughts of his relationship with Nathan quickly leave his mind. They are replaced with something much simpler. Lust. Oliver follows a man into a private room, already beginning to surrender to his desire. Just as he's losing himself to the moment and the man before him, things change. His lust is replaced now with something he didn't expect. Fear. As he races from Haus, barely escaping with his life, Oliver is certain of only one thing. Nathan can never know about what just happened. 

In Bath Haus, P.J. Vernon presents a breakneck domestic thriller that is both unapologetically gay and surprisingly accessible to a more mainstream audience. As a gay man, I was thrilled to see a gay couple given the kind of care and depth that is normally reserved for a heterosexual couple in popular fiction. As a fan of mysteries and thrillers, I was even more enthused by the imaginative plot full of surprising twists and revelatory reveals. It was really easy to get behind the main character Oliver. He's just a kid who is overwhelmed by trying to be the perfect version of himself. Even though most of his troubles are self-inflicted, it's hard not to root for him. By firmly planting his characters in a sense of reality, Vernon allows his unabashed exploration of eroticism and enigma to be more readily accepted by the reader. Bath Haus is the kind of read that you won't be able to put down or, in my case, stop listening to. P.J. Vernon has written a steamy thrill ride that manages to push the boundaries of diverse storytelling in modern fiction while satisfying all desires for an excellent summer read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2021, 30)

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia


"Music and comic books. Why couldn't that be life! Why was life so dull, so gray, so bereft of any surprises?" 

Last summer author Silvia Moreno-Garcia's novel Mexican Gothic seemed to be the talk of the bookish community. I quickly procured a copy of the book for myself to see what all the fuss was about. Then, like too many of the other hyped "must-read" books that I buy, I never got around to actually reading it. So much time has passed, in fact, that Moreno-Garcia has already released another novel. I didn't want to miss out on her work again, so when her publisher offered me a copy of Velvet Was the Night, I was happy to accept it. 

The year is 1970. The place, Mexico City. Young Elvis is a bit odd for a man of his generation. He loves to watch classic movies and listen to old rock 'n' roll. Heck, even his chosen name is inspired by the King of Rock himself. Elvis isn't a bad guy, at least not in his own eyes, but the man he works for is a different story. Who is this mysterious figure? As the novel opens, we're not exactly sure. All we know is that this boss has tasked Elvis and the other members of his goon squad with disrupting the political activism that is threatening to overtake the Mexican government's status quo. 

Maite's life is about as far from action and excitement as you could possibly imagine. The young secretary diligently works her mundane job each day and spends most of her off time at her apartment reading the latest installment of Secret Romance. She fantasizes about being a character in those serialized stories, finding a hunky man to sweep her off her feet as she endures daring adventures each week. Alas, a life of romance and intrigue is not in the cards. The most adventure she'll have today is feeding her neighbor's cat in the apartment next door. But here is where things begin to get interesting. You see, Elvis has been tasked with keeping an eye on none other than Maite. Why? Well, let's just say that Maite is about to fall into a conspiracy even wilder than the stories she reads. 

Like the great noir novels that seem to have inspired it, Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a quick little thriller with plenty of twists and turns to keep the pages turning. The cat and mouse aspect between the two main characters propel the plot forward while also revealing little details that deepen our understanding of them.  The ordinariness of Maite, in particular, served as a nice foil to the outrageous action that was unfolding around her. Despite all these positives, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing from the book. The disparate elements of political activism, a budding romance, and an unlikely hero's journey were fun to read about at the moment, but I didn't feel a true sense of arrival or completion when I finished the final page. Velvet Was the Night ended up reading more like the serialized stories that Maite read. I had fun breezing through the pages, but the story didn't move me beyond the entertainment of reading it. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, so I hesitate to say I didn't like the book. Like Maite at the start of the story, I think I was probably just hyping myself up for something more than was being offered. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 29)

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy


"All creatures know love, Dad used to say. All creatures."

I have a vivid memory of walking through the wooded trail of my college campus late one night. I had just finished my final class for the evening and was making my way across the campus to the parking garage where I had parked early that same morning. It had been a long day, and I was exhausted. Instead of taking the usual paved path that was the quickest means to traversing the campus, I decided to take the back way, a winding gravel trail clouded by a canopy of mature trees. The moon shone just bright enough to illuminate the path before me, peaking through the leaves above. I walked this trail, taking in the quiet and reflecting on my day. Just before the end of the path, I spotted the shadowed form of what appeared to be a dog. As I cautiously moved forward, I realized that the creature ahead was a coyote. The animal and I locked eyes for a moment. I didn't dare to make any sudden moves. We just stood there, taking each other in. After that brief moment of recognition, the coyote moved off of the path and went about its way into the brush. 

As I listened to Charlotte McConaghy's latest novel Once There Were Wolves, I was reminded of that long-forgotten memory from many years ago. There is a power in our recognition of and existence with nature, the magic of sorts that McConaghy captures in her work. Our experience, the love, and loss that we each face during our lifetime are uniquely intertwined within the larger world we inhabit. It is from that interplay between man and nature that McConaghy begins to form her story.

The novel centers on the story of Inti, a biologist whose team has just introduced a pack of wolves into the Scottish Highlands. She hopes that in bringing the animals to the area that they haven't inhabited for hundreds of years, the pack will grow and become a beacon of hope for the survival of the species. Her arrival is not without its detractors. The local farmers and sheepherders are up in arms about the introduction of potential predators into the area. Despite her best efforts to reassure them with evidence from similar successful programs in Yellowstone National Park, Inti fears the farmers will take to killing the animals. 

The wolves aren't the only thing that brought Inti to the area. She has traveled with her sister Aggie, a woman who has known her own share of trauma. McConaghy hints at an event that occurred in the last place the sisters lived that drove them to move away, an ordeal that will slowly be revealed as the story progresses. Aggie is withdrawn, a shadow of her former self. Just as Inti intends to rehabilitate the population of wolves, so must she rebuild the relationship with her sister. As the two rescue missions ensue, Inti will be challenged to overcome both the political and personal ramifications of her undertaking. 

To reveal too much about the novel's plot points would rob you of the narrative wizardry that McConaghy achieves. Suffice it to say, Once There Were Wolves is the kind of read that is best experienced with as little preconception as possible. I chose to listen to the audio version of the book and was instantly drawn in by the combination of Saskia Maarleveld's gentle narration and McConaghy's captivating plot. The vastness of the landscapes and sheer scope of monitoring a pack of wolves is juxtaposed with the more internalized conflicts that the characters face. McConaghy writes with a quiet sureness that gives even the simplest moments a sense of gravity and enchantment. Once There Were Wolves asks us to reflect upon our own relationship to the natural world, and more importantly, to the relationships that we foster within it. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 28)

Deception Cove by Owen Laukkanen


Throughout the pandemic and working from home, my dog Cooper was constantly by my side. Even on the most frustrating days of back-to-back video calls and technology not cooperating, I could always count on him to be there with a wagging tail and smile on his face. More so than ever, I was thankful to have the unwavering friendship of my four-legged friend to get me through the uncertainty and fear that comes with living through a global pandemic. Even better, I was excited to welcome a new puppy Murphy into our home. I saw several friends reading Owen Laukkanen's Deception Cove, but didn't really take notice of it until I realized that the plot centers around a rescue dog. That was all I needed to know before diving into this excellent summer read. 

Mason Burke has made some mistakes in his life. He trusted the wrong people and ended up spending nearly fifteen years in a state penitentiary. While serving his time, he was saved by the most unlikely source. Lucy, a black and white pit bull, was just as untrusting of people as Mason was when the pair met as part of an outreach program. Over the next several weeks, the unlikely duo learned to trust each other. Mason patiently trained Lucy to be an emotional support companion. Just as the pair were becoming inseparable, Lucy was taken away and placed into a new home. Now with his time served, Mason is entering back into society with only the clothes on his back, an empty wallet, and a singular mission. Mason is going to find Lucy. 

Jess is facing a new beginning of her own. The former Marine narrowly escaped the battlefields of Afghanistan. A medical discharge allowed her to finally make her way back home, but there's not much left of the life she left behind. Her husband is dead, and Jess is struggling to manage her own PTSD. Thankfully her service dog Lucy keeps her grounded. Lucy is just about the only thing left in the world that Jess still cares about. Lucy and Jess both find themselves in trouble after Lucy bites the local sheriff. He's taken possession of the dog and means to euthanize her. Jess has vowed to stop at nothing to save the dog who has managed to save her. 

In Deception Cove author Owen Laukkanen tells a stirring story of loyalty and redemption in the form of a  page-turning thriller. Be it the ex-con, former soldier, or even the rescued dog, each of the main characters in this novel is working to overcome the adversities of their past. When faced with a corrupt small-town police force, the three must come together to surmount the odds against them. Laukkanen based the dog in his story on his very own rescue pup who is featured prominently by his side on the back cover of the book. Anyone who has known the love of a dog will no doubt recognize glimmers of their own companion within the pages of this novel. There's a power in building bonds, strength in the connections we form with our friends, family, or even our pets. Deception Cove quietly illustrates that message through the unassuming writing and story that it tells, deceptively reminding us that only in coming together can we overcome. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 27)

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix


"After a while, you start to realize that your life isn't the thing that happens between the monsters, your life is the monsters."

How do you get out of a reading slump? For the last couple of weeks, I've been really struggling to read anything. While I shelves and piles of books just waiting to be read, I couldn't land on something that I just had to read. Whenever I find myself in this situation, I try to go back to my roots and read a genre or author that never lets me down. Oddly enough, horror has quickly become one of my go-to genres. After days of starting and stopping several other novels, Grady Hendrix's latest The Final Girl Support Group finally captured my attention. This clever page-turner based upon classic slasher tropes was just what I needed to kickstart my reading back into high gear. 

Even if you aren't a fan of horror movies, you're probably at least tangentially aware of some of the more famous slasher films of the '70s and '80s. Inspiration from movies like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Nightmare on Elm Street are all present here. At the end of each movie, the main character is left as the "final girl", the one remaining who survived that story's horrors. In this book, Hendrix imagines a world where the horrors of those fictional films occurred in real life. What happens to the final girl after the credits roll? 

For Lynette, the horrors she faced twenty years ago have informed how she has lived every moment of her life after.  She narrowly escaped the brutal murdering of her boyfriend and family, and the fear, paranoia, and guilt of that trauma permeate her every thought. Lynette is certain that a final girl like herself can never move on to have a normal life. She takes some comfort in the weekly gathering of other women who have faced similar tragedies, a final girl support group. Some of the women actually have been able to get on with their lives, but they still come together to support those like Lynette who are unable to surmount their demons. 

The group is puzzled one day when one of its members fails to show up. No one can get a hold of her, and Lynette quickly begins to fear the worst. If you've ever seen a sequel to any of those classic horror movies, you'll know that the bad guy never stays down. In fact, they usually make it their mission to get revenge against the final girl from the previous film. Lynette's suspicion is tragically confirmed when the absent final girl is found murdered. Worse than that, whoever killed her knows about the support group and is methodically working to kill every last member. 

I first became aware of Grady Hendrix when everyone I knew seemed to be reading his The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires. I jumped at the offer from his publisher to read The Final Girl Support Group and was happy to find the perfect balance of thriller elements with plenty of callbacks to classic horror lore. Hendrix doesn't shy away from the graphic violence of the genre. If you're even the slightest bit squeamish, this novel probably isn't for you. If you, like me, have a soft spot for these kinds of stories, there's plenty to love in this book. The main character works to battle her internal demons while fighting to keep herself and those she cares about alive. The internal and external battles mirror each other, giving the story a depth of character and reality that balances against the sometimes campy and implausible elements. The ending doesn't quite live up to the build-up that precedes it, but it doesn't detract from the story by any means. In the end, The Final Girl Support Group is a page-turning thrill ride that helped me break free from my reading slump.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 26)

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