Archive for February 2022

Will by Will Smith


With the multitude of streaming services each vying for our attention through various content, it seems that the days of a smash box office hit driven by a Hollywood superstar are beyond us. Yes, the Marvel movies still make a ton of cash and capture the cultural zeitgeist, but I'd argue the draw of those films stem more from our connections to the characters and stories than being drawn to seeing a particular actor or actress. It wasn't too long ago that audiences rushed to their local cinema to see the latest movie to feature a specific star. Nobody in recent history put "butts in seats" like actor and musician Will Smith. In his self-titled memoir, Will looks back on his humble beginning, extraordinary rise to fame, and the family he's built through it all. 

At a young age, Will learned the power of hard work and perseverance. While most kids his age would spend their spare time playing with friends and goofing around, Will and his brother were tasked with work around the house. Specifically, their father had them build a brick wall, a job that took months to complete. Finishing the monumental task taught them the value of committing to doing something the right way and seeing it through. This lesson would stick with will as he began his career in hip-hop, starred in a hit sitcom, and set out to become the biggest movie star in the world. 

Smith achieved his goals through grit, determination, natural charisma, and a bit of good luck. He recalls an impromptu audition for the starring role of The Fresh Prince of Bellaire that took place at the home of legendary producer Quincy Jones during one of his star-studded parties. In front of other Hollywood heavyweights including Stephen Spielberg, Will successfully completed the audition that would make him a household name for the rest of his life. From there, he strategically crafted a career based upon acting in the kinds of films he knew would make him a star. Along with his trusted advisors and confidants, he achieved everything he set out to. 

There's no denying the professional achievements of Will Smith. He will go down in history as one of the most bankable stars to ever grace the screen. His memoir has no shortage of stories about how he achieved such great heights. Even the most casual Will Smith fan will connect to his anecdotes of finding his fame. What sets Will apart, however, is the vulnerability with which he approaches looking back on his personal life. He lays everything out for us to see here. Will was drawn to providing a perfect life for his wife and children, a task made only more complex amongst his high-profile career. He celebrates the successes but is equally introspective about all of the times he got it wrong.  Despite the pride he takes in the family that he's built, I got the sense that he's haunted by his personal missteps. 

The cover for Will is one of the most eye-catching pieces of art that I've ever seen. Despite my desire to own a hardcover copy, I opted to listen to the author narrate his book via audiobook. It plays like a full-on production that features recordings of his music and clips from his acting career. Normally I listen to audiobooks at a 1.7x speed, but I absorbed this one at the intended pace, savoring each moment. Smith's affability combines with his skills as a seasoned storyteller into a work that is as entertaining as it is moving. It works as a retrospective on an extraordinary first chapter in Will's career. With a Best Actor Oscar nomination again this year, Smith is proving that he's only getting started. 

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

(2022, 8)

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran


"Magic works, but it's an exercise in irony, sometimes a dangerous one. Be careful."

Sometimes a book haunts you so much that you can't stop thinking about it. Even long after you've finished reading it, the story invades your thoughts, instantly taking you back to what you experienced as you read it. Such was the case with Sara Gran's story of a woman slowly succumbing to demonic possession, Come Closer. I devoured that book right before Halloween last year, and I've been thinking about it ever since. It should come as no surprise then that I eagerly accepted a copy of her latest novel The Book of the Most Precious Substance to review. 

Lily Albrecht used to have it all. On the professional front, a fairly successful novel brought her modest sales and acclaim amongst the literary community. On the personal front, she met the love of her life, a fellow author, and was living out her dreams. But all of this wasn't to last. She struggled to write a follow-up novel. Then her husband began to forget things. It wasn't long before everything she loved about her life was gone. She was no longer a working author. Instead, she spent her days caring for the shell of what had become of her husband, resigned to the fact that this was now her life. 

In a last-ditch attempt to support herself financially while still staying in the book world, Lily turned to collecting and selling rare books. It makes for a modest living at best, but there are sometimes opportunities for a real windfall. A fellow bookseller comes around asking for help finding a rare work that Lily's never heard of, The Book of the Most Precious Substance. It promises to be the biggest sale she's ever had, but there's one problem. No one seems to know exactly what the book is or where to find it. Determined to procure and sell the book, Lily sets out on a hunt that will prove to be as difficult as it is dangerous. 

I hadn't read a summary of The Book of the Most Precious Substance before diving in, so I wasn't prepared for the erotic thriller that followed. You see, the titular book in question promises unlimited power through the completion of five acts of sexual pleasure. I won't lie to you. When the true nature of the titular book in question was first revealed, I had to stop reading. I wasn't sure this was the kind of story that I was willing to consume. It is to Sara Gran's credit though, that the main character Lily and the mystery behind hunting for a rare book had so ensnared my curiosity that I couldn't help but to continue reading. While the book never gets too graphic in describing the sensual acts that propel this fictional magic, I don't think that reading about them will be for everyone. Still, those willing to suspend disbelief and stick along for the short duration of the book will find it to be an entertaining and twisty thriller that more than satisfies. 

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

(2022, 7)

A Blizzard of Polar Bears by Alice Henderson


Cold weather and ice made their way to South Texas this past weekend, making for the perfect excuse to curl up by the fireplace and read a book. I've opted for a title that takes place in about the most wintry setting I could imagine, the Canadian Arctic. I won a copy of Alice Henderson's A Blizzard of Polar Bears from a Goodreads giveaway late last year. The rush of the holidays and a few publisher-provided books kept me away from the title for a bit. Then early this year, Henderson's work was put on my radar again, this time via a recommendation from Chris with Book Cougars. She included the title as one of her favorites of 2021, so I knew I was in for a treat. 

Biologist Alex Carter is no stranger to working with wildlife in rugged terrain. She was stationed in Montana when she received a call requesting her help in a different kind of place. Alex quickly accepted the opportunity to study polar bears in the arctic climate, a place that has seen the effects of rising global temperatures that threaten the future of vulnerable species. From the start, she realized that the harsh cold weather would be the least of her worries. Obstacle after obstacle arose all coming to a head when her team's helicopter caught fire and forced a landing in the unformidable wilderness. 

Not one to panic, even in the most insurmountable of circumstances, Alex set to navigating the vast sheet of ice. Her years studying wildlife in the field make her uniquely qualified for this kind of survivalist situation. Nothing in her past, however, could prepare her for what comes next. The team is being hunted. It isn't wild animals or subzero temperatures that threaten their life. No, this time they are being chased by armed assailants riding aboard snowmobiles. Alex will have to turn to her instincts and improvise a way to not only complete her mission but simply to stay alive. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from A Blizzard of Polar Bears, especially because I hadn't read Henderson's first novel to feature her hero Alex (A Solitude of Wolverines). Despite my lack of familiarity with the character and her previous adventure, I had no trouble following along with this novel. Henderson sets a pace that matches the primal setting she writes about. She peppers in commentary about climate change and the impact it has on the natural world, but never in a way that detracts from the survival story at the center of the novel. A Blizzard of Polar Bears is a breakneck thriller that perfectly balances character beats with pulse-pounding action. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and plan to backtrack to the first book soon. 

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

(2022, 6)

Survivor's Guilt by Robyn Gigl


It is pretty rare these days to find myself starting a new series. Simply put, I have more books to read than I have time to. Committing to a series usually means I'm neglecting too many other books. Every so often, though, I find a series that I can't help but read. Robyn Gigl's debut novel By Way of Sorrow is the kind of thriller that perfectly combined a riveting plot with even more captivating characters. When I read the book last year, I didn't know that it would mark the start of a series featuring lawyer and transgender woman, Erin McCabe. When Gigl's publisher offered me a copy of the second novel to feature the character, I couldn't help but accept it. 

On the heels of a high-profile case, Erin McCabe's professional life couldn't be better. Business at her small practice is booming, and she has been able to accept the kinds of cases that really appeal to her. On the personal front, Erin is making progress too. Her father and brother had a tough time accepting her coming out, but thanks to her ever-supportive mother and a pair of rambunctious and accepting nephews, the men in her family are beginning to come around. When we last saw Erin, she had just begun a new relationship with Mark, a man who seemed to love her for exactly who she is. Mark's family has been less accepting. Unwilling to be a wedge between him and his loved ones, Erin has decided to break things off with Mark. With this relationship in limbo, she fears she may never find happiness again. Instead, Erin resolves to bury herself in her work. Erin is in luck because her next big case is about to present itself. 

The death of businessman Charles Parsons seems like a pretty open and shut case. At first glance, the death looked like a suicide, but new evidence revealed it to be a murder. There's a recording of the death in which Parson's seems to reveal his killer as his child. His adoptive daughter Ann is picked up and shortly thereafter confesses to the crime. Erin is brought into the mix when one of the detectives on the case begins to have second thoughts about the conviction. It is revealed that Ann is also a trans woman, and the detective hopes that she'll be willing to open up to Erin about what happened. Erin is hesitant at first but soon begins to find too many pieces of the puzzle that simply don't add up. She convinces Ann to rescind her guilty plea and takes on the task of defending her in a trial. 

I was enamored by the way Robyn Gigl empathetically presented the struggles of her characters in By Way of Sorrow. I'm happy to report that the same care is applied to her heroes in Survivor's Guilt. While the case on the surface level may seem extremely similar to the one presented in the first book, there's enough to differentiate the two to make it feel fresh. The personal turmoil of Erin McCabe combines with that of her professional life in a way that makes the story extremely well-rounded. I couldn't put this one down! If I have any complaint, it would be that the villains in the book are almost comically evil. There's no doubt who the bad guys are, and they fall into just about every stereotype you'd expect a villain to have. This can be a bit jarring, especially when contrasted with the deep care that Gigl takes to ground her main character in reality. Still, I more than enjoyed reading this book and wouldn't be upset if McCabe makes another appearance soon. 

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

(2022, 5)

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