Archive for July 2023

Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia


My summer reading has been veering more into the horror side of things recently. I usually try to exclusively read creepy books closer to Halloween, but they've been really hitting the spot this month. One of my favorite spooky reads of the past several years is Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. That story combined a gothic romance with supernatural elements making for a memorable and engrossing read. On the heels of a breakout week at the theatrical box office thanks to "Barbenheimer", it feels serendipitous that Moreno-Garcia's latest effort be set amongst Mexico's film industry. Silver Nitrate, which I received from Moreno-Garcia's publisher, sees the author write an homage to a country's cultural contribution with a suspenseful, magical bend. 

The film industry in Mexico City in the 90s is something of a boy's club. Yes, Montseratt's talents as an audio engineer are undeniable, but the industry at large barely tolerates her, let alone celebrates her skills. She's getting some work, but not enough to financially support herself. As if her troubles at work weren't enough, Montseratt worries constantly about her sister who has cancer. Between the demanding hours caring for her family and the grueling schedule, she keeps to churn out enough film to make ends meet, Montseratt is at her wit's end. 

Things take a turn when Tristán, an aging soap star who happens to be Montseratt's best friend/crush, invites her to dinner with his elderly neighbor. It is revealed that the neighbor is none other than Alberto Urueta, the legendary director of some of Mexican cinema's most revered horror films of the 50s. As the trio talks, Urueta reveals that his only regret from his career is not finishing his final film. The unfinished picture is a legend in and of itself, one that both Tristán and Montseratt want to help bring to light. All they have to do is complete some of the dialogue, a task that Montserrat seems perfectly suited to. As they set out to complete the work, the true nature of the film is revealed, one that explains why the movie may be best left incomplete. 

I have to admit that I wanted to enjoy this book a lot more than I actually did. The premise of a mysterious film that contains otherworldly powers is instantly intriguing. There's only one problem, it took forever to get that hook set up. I'm certain this is just a case of the book not matching my own personal sensibilities, but I kept getting distracted during the opening portion of the work. The setup and the descriptions of the character's various traits just didn't really capture my attention. Once the supernatural element was revealed, the story found a decent momentum. Again, I've read mostly positive reviews of this book, so I seem to be in the minority of reviewers with this opinion. To me, though, Siver Nitrate never truly captures the same sense of magic that Mexican Gothic did. There are plenty of cool moments of revived dead, classic film nods, and an antagonist that is truly wicked. For me, that combined with the early pacing issues makes for a middle-of-the-road read. 

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

(2023, 42)

Hide by Kiersten White


During the lockdown, I stumbled upon a subsection of YouTube that sees creators explore abandoned public spaces. While others were gardening or baking bread, I was enamored with the videos of urban explorers documenting long-forgotten malls, hotels, and even theme parks. One of the most riveting expeditions saw a YouTuber exploring the defunct Six Flags New Orleans. After the devasting floods of Hurricane Katrina, the site was abandoned, left to rot into eternity. The park stands to this day with the remains of rollercoasters, restaurants, and gift shops slowly succumbing to mother nature. It is equal parts sad and creepy. As I read the description of Kiersten White's 2022 novel Hide, I couldn't help but think about that video. She imagines the dilapidated remains of a theme park as the setting of a dystopian contest that seems perfectly at home in the eerie location. 

For the first time in a while, Mack is hopeful. Her life has been filled with tragedy and misfortune, but this game could be her way out. She was approached about it at the homeless shelter where she's been living. The game seems simple enough. Fourteen strangers are planted into the ruins of Amazepark, the amusement park that has sat dormant for decades. All they have to do is hide. The last man standing will walk away with the prize money. Mack is confident she can win. After all, hiding is what kept her alive as her father murdered her entire family. As the game begins, however, something more sinister begins to reveal itself. The cost of losing the game is death. 

After years of writing successful YA novels, Kiersten White makes her adult fiction debut with Hide. Think of this one as a kind of grown-up Hunger Games. The less you know about the plot going into it, the more thrilled you'll be. I was really into the creepy setting, and the competition aspect of the story really ramped up the tension. The plot made a few detours that never fully paid off, but the main story more than made up for those moments. At only around 250 pages, the novel packs a lot of character development, backstory, and horror-tinged thrills. White has written a book that is quick to read while still packing a punch. Things could have been fleshed out a tad more, but Hide is ultimately a fun summer read that is highly original and entertaining. 

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

(2023, 41)

House of Cotton by Monica Brashears


It can take a long time to come by originality. Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you encountered a truly original work? Most of the best novels owe their existence to inspiration from something else. In a world filled with content of all kinds, finding something that feels fresh and new seems like an impossible task. Enter debut author Monica Brashears and her novel House of Cotton. On the surface, it is a continuation of the Southern Gothic literary tradition of countless works that have preceded it. Inside, however, lies something that defies classification. It is a searingly original tale that manages to draw great empathy from the reader while challenging the very conventions that inspired it. 

Magnolia is only nineteen years old, but she already feels as if she has reached her breaking point. It isn't as if young Black women like herself have ever had it easy, but life has been especially difficult for her. Magnolia's only parental figure, her grandmother Mama Brown recently passed away. In the wake of that death, she is left alone. Now the bills are all hers. Try as she might, she can't escape the predatory landlord who demands rent, the deadbeat job at a local gas station that will never earn her enough money to live off of, or the ghost of the woman who raised her, haunting and taunting her about the state of her life. And that's not all. Magnolia spent her last few dollars on the pregnancy test that has confirmed the latest misfortune to rock her life. No, life is not easy for Magnolia. 

Her salvation reveals itself in the unlikely form of a slickly dressed white man named Cotton. He waltzes into the very gas station where Magnolia works and seems smitten by her. When he offers her a modeling job on the spot, Magnolia is skeptical. The money, even if it is an unlikely reality, would be life-changing for her. Against her better judgment, she travels to the address that Cotton provided. The place isn't the studio that she expected. Instead, Magnolia finds herself at the front door of a funeral parlor. Could this place of death be the key to her life? With red flags abound Magnolia does what any desperate woman would do. She goes inside. The money, after all, is why she is here. This peculiar employment by an eccentric man could be the salvation Magnolia covets. The extraordinary things that await her behind that door, could also bring about her demise. 

Take any expectations or preconceived notions that you may hold about House of Cotton and toss them to the side. I can assure you that the story Monica Brashears has concocted is both better and worse than anything you could possibly imagine. Whether or not that is a positive thing will mostly depend upon your taste. There are elements of Southern Gothic fantasy permeating each passage of this novel. The story is unabashedly set in the present day yet it feels like a timeless fable from long ago. Brashears deftly melds timely contemplations of race, class, and gender into a mind-bending story that will have you questioning what is real and what is imagined. Humorous moments balance dark, graphic, sex-fueled flurries that are at times difficult to read but essential to deepening our understanding of the main character. Even as I've finished reading the book, I'm still unsure about how I feel about the work as a whole. The underlying sense I come away with is a profound empathy for the characters who inhabit the world of the story. Through the odd, uncomfortable, and offbeat moments that occur in this novel, it is these grounded characters who more than uphold the weight of each passage. I'm not certain that everything perfectly came together for me at the end, but I was in awe of the book's boldness. Brahsears debuts as a force of literary heft and imagination. She is a unique voice that had me hanging onto every last word. 

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

(2023, 40)

Before She Finds Me by Heather Chavez


This year, I've made it my mission to read books by as many new-to-me authors as I can. Since releasing her debut No Bad Deed in 2020, Heather Chavez has taken thriller readers by storm. She's been on my TBR list ever since. I'm sorry that I hadn't read any of her books until her publisher sent me a copy of her latest novel Before She Finds Me. As has often been the case as I've explored new authors, I'm left kicking myself for waiting so long to crack open the pages. 

Julia Bennet is entering a new stage in her life. For the last eighteen years, her main job in life has been co-parenting her daughter Cora with her ex-husband. Today everything will change. Cora is starting college. As move-in day approaches, Julia's main concern is having the day go as smoothly as possible. Cora deserves to have a day when her mother and father can get along. Julia is determined to make that happen, even if her ex is bringing his new wife. Today is about Cora, and everything will go off without a hitch. As the big day comes, everything is going well. Then the shooting starts. Everything is about to change, but not in the way Julia anticipated. 

Ren's job requires her to have an intense focus and attention to detail. She's a trained assassin for hire, you see, so missing a minute detail can mean the difference between life and death. These days, Ren isn't only worried about her own safety. She's pregnant. Every move she makes impacts two lives now. Ren isn't at the school during the shooting, but her husband Nolan is. The pair always loop each other in before taking on a job, so Ren is surprised that Nolan didn't tell her about this one. As she looks deeper into the attack, she begins to question who really hired him. More troubling, why did Nolan choose to keep this job a secret?

Before She Finds Me sees Heather Chavez combine themes of motherhood and family into a tightly wound thriller that had me flying through the pages. She writes of two women from opposite walks of life striving to give their families the best life possible. Chavez alternates chapters between both characters' perspectives, giving readers insight into both women's motivations. Pitting these two strong characters against each other helps to build tension while blurring the lines between good and evil. The book culminates in a twisty shock that left me glued to the final pages. This is what summer reading is all about. Smart characters, clever plotting, and a pace that doesn't let up. 

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

(2023, 39)

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy


The great American author Cormac McCarthy, who passed away last month, became a reluctant phenomenon later in his life. His first novels went largely unnoticed until in 1992 All the Pretty Horses became a bestselling sensation. No Country for Old Men was adapted into a Best Picture-winning film, and his 2006 novel The Road earned him a Pulitzer and a spot in Oprah's Book Club. I even count that last work as one of my favorite reads ever. Through it all, the soft-spoken McCarthy didn't seem phased by his sudden fame. In fact, he stayed mainly out of the spotlight. For the last 16 years, fans of the author have clamored for any hint at what he may be working on next. True to form, McCarthy stayed quiet. Late last year, his publisher announced that not one but two sister books would be released by the author. As luck would have it, they sent me a copy of the first novel The Passenger to read and review. With the author's recent passing, I've finally decided to give it a go. 

The novel begins with a thrilling setup. Bobby Western (yes, that's really his name) is at the bottom of the ocean floor, just off of the Gulf Coast. Western and his partner are looking into the wreckage of a downed plane. As the pair remove the door and peer inside, they are shaken by what they see. Nothing about the scene rings as sincere. The passengers are all still strapped into their seats with no visible trauma. The pilot's flight bag and data box have disappeared from the cockpit. Had someone else already visited this site? Days later, no word of the crash or victims has broken on the local news. When two men with badges show up at Western's New Orleans apartment, he's already expecting them. What he's not expecting is what they ask him. They want to know how many bodies he saw in the plane because one of the passengers is missing. 

As you can probably imagine, this setup caused me to believe I was about to get into a thriller in a similar vein as McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Indeed, the events following the initial premise involve Western going off the grid. Everyone he talks to tells him he's a marked man. He takes all of his money out of the bank and hits the road. It is after this that the novel takes a turn that left me completely befuddled. The thrilling opening gives way to a book that sees the author take on a contemplative rambling that left me more confused than intrigued. Bobby Western begins to encounter different characters from his past, each inspiring deep tangents about subjects that never truly amount to much of anything. 

We learn that Western is still in mourning for his late sister, a brilliant mind who was institutionalized at a psychiatric facility where she ultimately succumbed to her delusions. Western describes his love for this woman as an incestual pining that goes well beyond the normal boundaries of sibling affection. As if this relationship isn't strange enough, McCarthy peppers in flashback scenes from the sister Alicia's perspective. She is visited in her bed at Stella Maris, the psychiatric facility, by vaudevillian hallucinations that torment and entertain her. These chapters appear before each continuation of the action in the present day, growing more and more difficult to decipher as they repeat. 

"The first thing is to locate the narrative line. It doesnt have to hold up in court. Start splicing in your episodics. Your anecdotals. You’ll figure it out. Just remember that where there’s no linear there’s no delineation."

The novel is at its best when it is working as a gritty exploration of a man on the run, attempting to piece together his life after the devasting loss of his sister. It is in these passages that I found glimmers of the things that I've appreciated in McCarthy's previous works. Even when nothing particularly interesting is happening, McCarthy has a way of finding the profound within the mundane. Bizarrely, though, he seems to lose interest in the novel he opens with, altogether abandoning the plot that set up the opening suspense in favor of a hodge-podge collection of meandering thoughts. There are tangents about the making of the atomic bomb, JFK assassination conspiracies, and even a story about the life of a transgender woman. It felt as if McCarthy was trying to fit every last bit of any topic he ever wanted to write about into the confines of this book. As their own pieces, these elements have varying levels of success. Within the scope of The Passenger, however, they merely dilute the narrative beyond comprehension. There is one more book titled Stella Maris that follows this one. It is written completely as a conversation between this protagonist's sister and her doctor in the psychiatric ward. After being challenged and frustrated by this work, I'm not yet certain I'll continue to read on. I may be better served by revisiting some of McCarthy's classics instead. 

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

(2023, 38)

Always the First to Die by R.J. Jacobs


I'm officially in summer reading mode. That means I'm looking for the kind of book that I can devour in a single sitting. The faster-paced, the better it is. If it is thrilling, all the better. Does it have to make perfect sense? Of course not! I want pure popcorn reading. Entertain me, and I'm a happy reader. Enter R.J. Jacobs's horror thriller Always the First To Die. It's a quick-paced story about a former horror film actress forced back to the set of a cursed production. Did I mention that it all takes place amongst a raging Florida hurricane? It all culminates into one wild ride. 

Lexi swore she would never return to the Pinecrest Estate. The dilapidated mansion in the Florida Keys is the site where she filmed a horror film many years ago. The shoot was infamous for many reasons. The director was known as a horror genius and had an unconventional approach to capturing his horrific ideas on film. The resulting movie is regarded as his very best, though it is the death on set that the feature is most commonly remembered for. Years later, Lexi's husband, the son of the famed director, returned to the estate to finish writing his book on how to survive a horror film. He was never heard from again. 

Why, you might ask, is Lexi returning to the scene of so much tragedy and heartache? Her teenage daughter has run away to Pinecrest in search of answers about her father and take on the starring role in her grandfather's sequel to the infamous horror film. Desperate to save her daughter from the very nightmare she has strived to forget, Lexi drives full force through a hurricane to bring her daughter home. If she's not careful, history will be destined to repeat itself. 

Always the First to Die sees R.J. Jacobs combine pulpy horror with breakneck suspense into a novel that is impossible to stop reading. I'll be the first to admit that the action and entire scenario are a bit over the top, but I simply didn't care. This is a summer action movie of a novel, and it really owns its genre. Jacobs alternates between the past and present, giving us insight into the events that lead to the present scenario. Each chapter ends on a mini cliffhanger, urging us to keep reading just one more. Before I knew it, I had completely devoured the book. The ending buckles a bit under the weight of itself, but again, this did little to change my enjoyment of it. If you're looking for a solid entertaining read for the summer, look no further. 

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

(2023, 37)

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson


What makes great art? Walk through any museum and you'll be surrounded by works of varying importance. I'll admit that sometimes a visit to a museum leaves me overwhelmed by the things that I see. Yes, there are obvious masterworks. The Mona Lisa has been a permanent resident of the Louvre since the 1700s. It is safe to say that art gains its significance through the collective impact it has on society throughout history. In her novel The Exhibitionist, Charlotte Mendelson explores a family and the impact that has on their dynamic. 

Ray Hanrahan is an artist, though this painter's star seems to have faded from his glory days.  It has been several years since his last exhibition, and the art world is beginning to forget about him. Not to worry, though. Ray is mounting a comeback, a new showcase of his work that is sure to bring him back into the limelight and cement his status as one of the country's preeminent artists. 

The Hanrahan is in various levels of support of their patriarch. Ray's wife Lucia is also an artist, one who (rumor has it) is said to be more talented than her husband. This forms a wedge between the couple causing verbal spats and threats of infidelity. Not even Lucia's battle with cancer was able to mend the pair's discontent. As the gallery is prepared for Ray's revival, the marriage seems to be at a breaking point. 

Then there are the children. The eldest daughter Leah is in full support of her father. She is Ray's biggest champion who has become his right hand in mounting his artistic resurgence.  Her sister Jess has completely removed herself from the situation, seeking exile in Edinburgh, away from the family. Then there's Patrick, the nervous stepson who is too afraid of his parents to admit that he dreams of leaving their life to become a cook at a pub. As the family gathers for Ray's big day, their interpersonal tensions threaten to derail the entire event. 

The Exhibitionist was released in the UK last year where it garnered critical acclaim and was longlisted for the 2022 Women's Prize. As it makes its US debut this week, I fear the novel may not meet the same acclaim with this new audience. The publisher advertised the novel as comedic, but I didn't find myself laughing at it. Instead, I was turned off by the main character Ray. He's an entitled jerk who treats his family extremely poorly. Even so, the rest of the family is hardly innocent. The novel takes place over a weekend where we are subjected to their troubles which are all mostly self-inflicted. I kept wanting to shout at them to just talk to each other and tell the truth! There are deeper contemplations on the nature of art, relationships, and class, but I found the characters too grating to get much meaning out of anything else. Mendelson provides a few glimmering moments of brilliant insight that only added to my longing for a book that focussed more on the deeper themes than the trivial family squabbling. I know the book has garnered acclaim, but it simply didn't land with me. I was perfectly happy to be finished with the entire family. 

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

(2023, 36)

The Drowning Woman by Robyn Harding


It has been a while since a thriller indeed thrilled me. As a suspense lover, I am constantly seeking the next book that will keep me on my toes. A downside to reading as many books in the genre as I do is that I can usually spot the twist or end well before reaching the climax. Reading a mystery or thriller is still fun, but not knowing how everything will finish brings an extra layer of suspense and satisfaction. It was with high hopes that I accepted a copy of Robyn Harding's latest The Drowning Woman from her publisher. The premise drew me in, but the twists ultimately turned me into a fan. 

Lee is about as close to rock bottom as she could possibly be. After opening her restaurant, she was living her dream. COVID arrived, crushing Lee's business, romance, and any chance at a real future. Now she travels around with only her beat-up Toyota and a meager amount of clothes. There's really no way things could get any worse. One morning, as Lee lies on the Seattle beach, letting time pass by, she takes notice of a sobbing woman. The lady seems hysterical. Lee gazes on as the woman thrusts herself into the frigid ocean. She's clearly decided to drown herself. Rushing to action, Lee dives into the water after her, hauling the woman back to the safety of the shore. 

The woman Lee rescued is anything but grateful for the good deed. Her name is Hazel, and she's downright furious with Lee. Hazel explains that she's been part of an abusive relationship, and she felt that death was her only way out. Now Lee has robbed her of that escape. After they've parted ways, Lee is certain she's seen the last of Hazel. But the next day, Hazel returns. The pair begin to bond over their collective misfortunes, creating a friendship that shouldn't be. Then one day Hazel makes a bizarre request. She's come up with another way to leave her husband, and she wants Lee to help her disappear. 

As I began reading The Drowning Woman, I felt a bit off-kilter. I didn't understand how Harding's story about a down-on-her-luck, homeless woman could possibly turn into a thriller. Even as the initial setup about the drowning woman unfolded, teeing up the domestic suspense to come, I didn't think this book would end up wowing me. Then, in a masterful stroke of plotting that completely swept the rug out from under me, Harding changed the POV of the book. Learning about the events that I'd just read from a different perspective completely blew my mind. Suddenly the true nature of this twisted story was disclosed, and the reveals didn't stop coming. I easily breezed through the latter half of the novel, blindsided by each new revelation. Yes, logical thinking derails a bit of the story, but I didn't care. I was completely sucked into this book and couldn't put it down. The plot does center around a consensual nonconsensual relationship that gets pretty dark, so be warned of the potential triggers there. Still, if you're searching for a thriller that will keep you guessing, go ahead and pick up The Drowning Woman. You won't regret it. 

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

(2023, 35)

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