Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a surprising and beautifully written novel of horror and darkness that will drawn you into its bloody and visceral world and remind you of how seductive and deadly vampires were before they were turned into glittery boy-band wannabees. Intricately researched, Moreno-Garcia brings the ancient lore and forgotten legends of Mesoamerican vampires into the dim light of modern day.

“…I’m not what you think I am.’
Atl looked at him as she fished out two tea bags and closed the tin. She grabbed a pad of lined notepaper that was attached to the refrigerator. It had smiley kittens on it. He knew it wasn’t hers; it was probably the relic of a previous tenant. She wasn’t a smiley kitten girl, that was for sure.
‘No, man, no, I wasn’t saying, you know. Just in case, I-‘
‘I’m a Tlahuihpochtli…”

It is Mexico City, in poverty and hunger, Domingo makes his way collecting garbage and trading and selling what he can to survive, when he stumbles upon a beautiful woman. Domingo follows her and he can tell that she is hurt and afraid of being seen. When he comes to her aid, she seems to make a decision. Inviting him up to her rooms she reveals herself.

She is a vampire, but not any normal kind, she is a royal descendant of an ancient bloodline of Aztec blood drinkers and she is being hunted. In the world of vampires, there is a war waging and Atl is the last of her family. She needs to escape from South America but she is alone and trapped in Mexico City. She is weak from her wounds and against her better judgement, confides in the street urchin, Domingo.

Mexico City is considered a vampire free zone. Atl is not only in danger from the rival Vampire clan, but there is the police and a vigilante group that is bent on ridding the world of vampires. Time is running out and Domingo is Atl’s only hope.

“…Are you hungry?’ Domingo asked her.
‘Maybe,’ she admitted.
‘You can have some of my blood. I don’t mind.’
Atl pressed a hand against her chest, pausing and carefully considering her options.
‘Domingo, would you like it if we were friends?’
‘For real?’
‘Yes. But being my friend is a bit different.’
‘I’ll bet it’s different,’ he said, smiling goofily, his crooked teeth showing.
‘No, it’s not just the blood.’
‘Then what?’
‘It’s a bond. You’d be my tlapalehuiani,’ she moved closer to him, brushing his hand. ‘Bloodletting was very important to the Aztecs, did you know that…”

Vampires, gangsters and cops all come to the gritty and dark streets of Mexico City to hunt Atl and Domingo. Can they get out alive?

Certain Dark Things is a vampire novel of the kind that has not been written for years. There is no doe eyed young adult romance here. There is no elitist vampire creature that is dressed in long cloaks and walking among the rich and famous. No these creatures the vampires of ancient myth and folklore, dressed uncomfortably in the garb of modern day. They war and kill and hunt. But among themselves they fight for power. This is the Godfather, but these families of evil are far more dangerous and cruel than any mobsters could ever be. Mexico City is transformed through the eyes of Domingo into a surreal world that is more reminiscent to the world that was The Blade Runner. It is dank and dark and without hope. But hope is all these two have as the fight for survival.

Domingo is an amazing character. His love for Atl is that of a puppy far more than a paramour. He is in love with her and what she is. At her side he doesn’t find power, he finds courage as he battles against the life that has held him down in the gutters of Mexico City. His love and devotion to the vampire is that of a servant and a lover. But there is something of the hero in him. A sense that in his heart he has waited his whole life for such a challenge. Such a quest. He is far more Don Quixote than Renfield.

Atl is very complex. She in turn uses Domingo for her own needs and then protects him. Not allowing herself to feel anything but the loss and grief of her murdered family. She knows she must survive if what is left of her people has a chance. Still the opportunity to wreak vengeance for her family threatens to keep her in a city that begins to close in around her.

Certain Dark Things is a beautifully written tale. Well plotted and the writing is a cadence of horror and poetry. This is the first book by Moreno-Garcia I have ever read but it will not be the last. I am intrigued to find out what else she has to offer.

A very good read.

The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen by Katherine Howe

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The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen by Katherine Howe is high on promise, but stumbles when it comes to delivery. I grant that this is a ghost story and my criteria for the genre is very high. For tension and general creepiness I leaned toward the The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and for terror and horror there is no equal to Ghost Story by Peter Straub. So with these two as my guide, the pace and telling of The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen comes about as a strong premise with weak execution.

While helping out a classmate, aspiring filmmaker Wes Auckerman is shooting a film during a seance in the East Village in New York. Here through the lense he spots a beautiful girl dressed in a turn of the century dress. He is immediately drawn to this beautiful young woman, but when he tries to speak with her later on, she disappears. When Wes finds her again, she is strange and distracted. As he spends more time with her he begins to notice different aspects about her character, the most alarming is that it seems that he is one of the few people that can actually see her. Her name is Annie and she has been dead for over a hundred years.

Annie van Sinderen is caught in a loop. From her time to the present. She continually flips back and forth. In her time the Erie canal is just being created and her father is prominent in its execution. But she also learns that there are forces that do not want this canal made. Anarchists who threaten her father and her family with death. But what has Annie flipping back and forth is a ring, given to her by her paramour, who happens to be one of the Anarchists who wants to kill her family. Wes quickly falls for Annie and is determined to help her find the ring, though he doesn’t understand its meaning.

What is incredible and hard to understand about this tale is that the whole point of Annie’s foray into the future is to find the ring, but as time passes its importance just doesn’t make sense. She comes back for a ring, from a boyfriend she is in love with, but has no issue sleeping with Wes and falling for him. As much as she can sleep with him. Then there is the whole point of the death of her family, which for her grand ideals of social reformation, she not only seems to accept but plays a hand in. Her parents are greedy and rich and therefore deserve to burn to death on a barge. So do her little sister and little brother because they are rich and spoiled and annoying. Not like her boyfriend who works hard for his meager wages.

Then there is Wes, a horribly geeky kind of guy who stumbles his way through speaking with the opposite sex, whether they be dead or alive. But now finds himself with the attention of two women, girls actually, who find him irresistible and by the way, they happen to be related to one another. Granted one is dead and the other is alive and they are separated by over a hundred years, but hey, a date is a date.

There are supporting cast, but you could have cut them out of any other book and pasted them in. Socialite mother who only cares about her riches and standing. Business minded father who only cares about money. Best friend and roommate who works in upscale boutique and knows all about dressing girls because, you know, he’s gay.

The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen is a good premise but poorly executed in storytelling and character development. The moral of this tale is pretty simple, if you make money and are rich you are evil and need to die. You and your whole family and the person who should have a hand in killing you is your own child. Because there is a hunky hard working boyfriend or a geeky filmmaker in the future and well, because you’re rich.

I have read several of Katherine Howe’s books and each one has digressed in story and plot and perhaps…this is simply where I need to cut the cord.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

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The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth is an intensely powerful and moving story and not at all what I expected when I first picked this one up. Marketed as the story of the young girl who helps the Grimm brothers gather the stories, that later become Grimms’ Fairy Tales, The Wild Girl is far more than a retelling of old fairy tales. It is in fact the story of a young woman held captive by an abusive and domineering father and a time when daughters were property to be used and traded and not people at all.

Dortchen Wild grew up in the small German Kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in the early Nineteenth century and fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm from the moment she first saw him. But the Grimms were a very poor family and Dortchen’s merchant father had other plans for her. Her father would not have her wasted on a poor scholar with no future.

It is the time of Napoleon Bonaparte and war in all of Europe, the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel is one of the first to fall to the French. Fearful that their history and culture will be crushed under the harsh French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to gather and save all the old tales that had been handed down for generations and publish a book. Young Dortchen knows many of these old stories, such as Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King and Six Swans. She tells these stories to Wilhelm and their time together only increases their love. The ones she does not know, she goes about searching for, bringing the storytellers to Wilhelm for him to write their tales down.

As Dortchen’s father finds out what is going on he reacts swiftly and with great anger. He beats her and as he does, he finds he also desires her. Soon, Dortchen’s father begins to visit her in the dark of the night and rapes and abuses her. His complete control of her keeps Dortchen Wild from ever being a part of Wilhelm Grimm’s life. Wilhelm does not realize what is happening and feels that it is his state of poverty that keeps Dortchen from him. When the book of fairy tales is finally published, Dortchen finds that she is not even mentioned for all the work she has done. She is betrayed by both her father, her family and the man she loves, Wilhelm Grimm. Now Dortchen must fight back, for her sense of self-worth, for her family and for the man she loves. Only life is not like it is in fairy tales and there is no Prince coming to save her.

This is not an easy book to read. The depravity and the oppression of the people and women who suffer under it, will anger and disgust you. The Grimms themselves pay a small part in this book. They are always there but never have a real impact besides being the love that is denied for so long. Wilhelm is the light at the end of the tunnel for Dortchen, the prize that turns out to be even more pain for her. The passage in the book where Dortchen is aware that the book of fairy tales has been published and that she is not mentioned in it is as painful as the beatings and rapes she has received from her father. She rushes to confront Wilhelm angrily. You can feel her angst in the reading, the lack of appreciation or recognition from the man she loves, in her heart simply verifies all the horrors her father has inflicted upon her.

She is living the horror of the original fairy tales. The original stories before they were edited and converted into children tales. This is her story of survival and triumph and heartbreak.

This is a hard read. But the prose and the tale are very well told and it should be read. It should be acknowledged and spoken about. It is a tale of strength and fortitude when all around you the world is breaking apart. It is simply, a really good book.

What Caroline Wants by Amanda Abbott

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What Caroline Wants (Pushing the Boundaries, #1) by Amanda Abbott is, at first glance, a nice little book of erotica about wife sharing. But when read, What Caroline Wants is so much more. This is definitely one of those small print runs that exceeds expectations in a genre where just meeting the status quo is the norm. This is a book about sex, lots of it and very explicit. This is a book about couples and exploration and voyeurism and testing the self imposed moral boundaries of our lives. This is a book about charting unknown territory and learning that what you fear most is not the unknown, but knowing how much you enjoy it.

Jason and Caroline Stratton married straight out of college and have always enjoyed a vibrant and passionate sex life. It is one of the pillars of their marriage. When they find out that their neighbors, Piper and Michael Collins live a lifestyle as swingers, they are intrigued. Jason can’t stop thinking about it and much to her horror, neither can Caroline. The Strattons have always enjoyed a healthy sex life and never thought anything was missing. But the thought of watching another couple, of touching another couple has Jason excited, but Caroline, with her strong Southern guilt, isn’t sure what she feels.

They fantasy about sharing their sexual adventures with another couple cut cannot let it be their neighbors. But in talking with Piper, Caroline is told about another couple who share the lifestyle. They agree to meet with Emma and Pete at a dinner date that quickly turns erotic and leads to an opportunity to watch the new couple make love in the parking lot. Though Caroline is very much into how this makes her feel, she cannot shake the sense that what she is doing is immoral and will destroy her marriage. But she cannot stop and soon they agree to visit Emma and Pete for a night of adventure and exploration, that though very exciting, may lead to the destruction of their marriage. How far is too far?

There is a lot of erotica out in the market and there has always been. The massive success of Fifty Shades of Grey just took it mainstream. Sex sells. Not matter what the medium, sex sells. There is nothing wrong with this, sex, erotica, porn…has always been a pillar of civilization since we all step out of the caves. If you look at some of the artwork in those caves, you can say it happened even before then.

The view or thought process that sex is somehow bad or dirty is actually very new to humanity and that is too bad. But its this sense of guilt when you enjoy sex, that may not be what we were raised to think of as “normal” or “vanilla”, as it is so often refereed to, that is the theme of this book. Not the sex. Its the coming to grips with her own sexuality; that is the journey that Caroline is on. Not the voyeurism or wife sharing. Those are simply the means to her journey that really takes place in her heart and mind and not just between her legs.

There is a lot of bad erotica out there. There is a lot of mediocre erotica out there. But every so often there are the gems. The books that want to do more than shock or titillate you. The books that tell the stories and dare to make their characters about more than just their bodies and their orgasms. Books that deserve not to be missed.

What Caroline Wants is one such book.

Provocative by Lisa Renee Jones

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Provocative by Lisa Renee Jones is a well written and very sexy book that is sure to thrill and please her fans. It revolves around characters, that while new to her stories, inhabit the same time and settings as her prior tales. Jones does not rely solely on the sex to sell her stories, though she is very accomplished in her erotica, but instead infuses each book with mystery and suspense.

There are moments in everyone’s life that change the course of their destiny and when Nick Rogers walks into Sonoma’s Reid Winter Winery and sees Faith Winter for the first time, he knows that this is one of those moments. He knows that all he had thought before may be wrong and his intentions as well. But can Nick trust his desire or is the evidence that lays before him to great to ignore.

Faith Winter is under attack. From creditors to her own family. The mess of a financial situation left to her by her mother may be too great to overcome and she may lose the winery that has been her inheritance from the father she loved. When Nick Rogers steps between her and those that would hurt her, Faith doesn’t know if she can trust him or not. But she cannot deny the desire and attraction that is immediate between them.

Nick is torn between protecting Faith and digging into the past that could destroy her. His father is dead and Nick is positive that Faith’s mother had something to do with it. But what he is not sure of as of yet, is whether or not Faith had something to do with his father’s death. But what he knows for sure is that he wants her, he needs her and he will have her.

This is book 1 in the White Lies Duet series and it lays the groundwork for a rather involved and well woven plot involving the parents of Nick and Faith. There is even the hint that Faith’s mother and Nick’s father had an affair. It is well plotted with secrets and lies and the innuendos of past indiscretions that make this book intensely interesting.

What keeps it from capturing me completely and having me wanting to read book two with anticipation are the characters. They are beautiful and sexy and rich and the best at what they do. Faith is an independent strong woman who needs saving by her alpha male. She is also an artist whose insecurities and family obligations keep her from achieving her dreams. Nick is an alpha male lawyer whose reputation precedes him and when he shows up, everyone runs in terror. He can run circles around a courtroom and have any woman he wants. But he wants the woman who may have aided in the death of his father. I have read these characters before. They are one dimensional cut outs for this genre. The names and the faces have been changed to protect the not so innocent, but still I have read them before.

This is a good book with very good writing. It will please her fans but I’m not sure its good enough to bring in any new ones.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

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The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is a novel that seems to come at the reader from so many different angles that you end up wondering, at the end of the tale, if you were suppose to like it at all. Or instead are simply suppose to recognize it. It is in fact, two stories in one. That of a marriage and a family derailed by a single terrible mistake. Then that of the horrific lives of sex slaves and the people who traffic them.

When Richard and Kristin Chapman agree to hold Richard’s younger brother’s bachelor party in their home, they expect a certain amount of drinking and bad behavior. But what they could not expect is that the night would end in murder.

Richard is the good son. The older brother who always makes the right decisions. A beautiful wife. A lovely young daughter. A successful career in investment banking that has allowed him to move his family into a rather upscale neighborhood. His younger brother has always been immature and rakish and his friends are much the same. Young men in their thirties but are still living their lives as if they were in a fraternity. Tonight it would be no different. Kristin and their daughter go to her mother’s for the night and Richard is left in charge. There is a torrent of drinking and it is not long before the night’s entertainment arrives. Two strippers and their burly Russian bodyguards. But these girls are not just strippers and it doesn’t take long for the night to sink into a cesspool of sex and debauchery and then, suddenly, one of the girls takes a knife and cuts open the throat of one of the bodyguards. Quickly, before anyone could react there are gunshots and the other Russian lays dead as well in Richard’s house.

What comes next is the slow erosion and destruction of Richard’s life. His wife convinced yet trying not to believe that he had been unfaithful. The story of what happened is quickly on the news and his home is invaded by police and media alike. His career is frozen and his employer must decide what to do and there is the sickening realization that these girls were not just strippers. They were not hookers or escorts. That the girls who were in his house were in fact sex slaves. Girls who were kidnapped and raped and beaten and tortured and brought to America to work for their masters. They were slaves and worse is the real possibility that may have been underage as well.

Alexandra was a teenage girl who dreamed of being a ballerina when she was taken from her home and raped by her handlers. They brutalized her and used her until she was ready to become a commodity they could sell. Now in America, on the run from the police and the Russian mobsters who will want her dead, she doesn’t know where to turn. No one had ever been kind to her, except for the older man in the nice house where her and Sonya killed their guards. The man named Richard.

This novel is told in several voices, that of Richard and Kristin and their young daughter as they come to terms with what happened in their home. How they as a family can move forward or even if they should. The truth that no matter what happens they will always be viewed, at their schools and their jobs and their neighborhood, as that family. A scandal that will always stain them.

The other voice is that of Alexandra as we learn directly from her how she came to be a courtesan, as she refers to herself. It is brutal and heart-wrenching and if you are shocked by the truth of what sex trafficking is, then perhaps this is not your book. but perhaps that is all the more reason it should be. Prostitution, like gambling is often called a victim less crime. The story Alexandra tells will tear that lie apart.

What I found somewhat disturbing about The Guest Room is that there is not a single male character that is a good guy. Not one. Not even Richard who in his attempt to right a wrong simply makes everything worse and pays the price for it. From the men who stole Alexandra and the ones who keep her, to the frat boys that are the party goers. They are all, in a word, assholes. Not a single one that can be painted in a good light. Not a single one shows outrage at the plight of the girls. No not one. All of them trying to deflect responsibility, all of them looking to cover their asses now that the word has gotten out.

The theme of this story is that sex trafficking is a horrible crime and that is true and told very well here.

The other theme is that men are pigs. All men. Seriously, to tell this story you had to make all men into a single caricature? No, that part is just lazy.

The Guest Room is a well written book about the horrors of sex trafficking and the impact that infidelity and scandal, even if it didn’t happen like everyone thinks it did, can destroy a family. Not only the relationship between husband and wife, but more so, the one between father and daughter.

Oh and that men are pigs.

Really.

The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston

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The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston is a well written book that rises above the current glut of witch oriented young adult books that infect this genre. This is a story that spans hundreds of years and tells the tale of a witch, a true witch of incredible power who is forced to hide herself from the world. For fear of the ignorance of man and the control of the evil that created her.

“…My name is Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, and my age is three hundred and eighty-four years. Each new settlement asks for a new journal, and so this Book of Shadows begins…”

In Wessex, England, in 1628, plagued has come to the small town. Though her young sister, her brother and her father die from the disease, Bess Hawksmith miraculously recovers. Soon the town and the Witchfinder accuse Bess’ mother of witchcraft. Bess can only watch as the mockery of a trial finds her mother guilty and then hung. Now she knows they will come for her. So she goes to the only one that can protect her from the maddening mob. Gideon Masters.

What young Bess comes to learn is that her mother was indeed a witch and given the power to save her child from the death that had taken the rest of her family. She learns this because Gideon Masters told her. Gideon who is a Warlock and has the power to awaken the black arts in dormant witches like Bess’ mother. Like the same power that resides in Bess herself. With Gideon, Bess learns how to use her great powers in the Craft and with her her own immortality. But Bess also sees the true evil that is Gideon Masters and what she will become if she follows him.

Bess Hawksmith flees the Warlock Gideon Masters and through time she changes her name and hides herself away because she knows; Gideon Masters will not give up on anything he believes is his. Centuries pass and from time to time, Gideon finds her but she escapes again. But not without price as the Warlock takes pleasure in taking from Bess what she loves.

In present day, Elizabeth has sought out a quiet life, selling oils and herbs at the local farmers’ market and hiding her magic. Until one day a young girl called Tegan begins to show interest and Bess decides to teach her slowly the Craft. But Bess knows, somewhere, Gideon waits.

This is a very well written book that will occasionally lose its way. There are several stories here, as in scope in spans several centuries. There is the time of the Witchfinder and the time of Jack the Ripper and then the Great War and then to modern day and the solace of the small markets. Brackston weaves her story of Bess Hawksmith as the witch attempts to find a way to assimilate to the changing world. Only occasionally does it lose its way and that may be due to the single narrative voice that is used. We see and hear what is happening only through the eyes and emotions of Bess. This narrative can become very self involved and repetitious in its telling.

Yet that is forgivable because the tale itself is so well constructed and ambitious. This is a grown up tale of witches and black magic and healing herbs and the dark arts that envelop the Craft. There is romance and some may consider this a historical novel but at its core it is a thriller. A chase through time. The love and hate relationship that is Bess and Gideon is central to this story. Gideon has a hold on Bess and she knows it and she also knows that she will never be allowed to love another while he hunts her.

In recent years, the tales of the supernatural have been turned into either romantic porn or high school love stories that are as trite as they are poorly written. The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston takes a huge leap in the genre taking it in a much better direction.

A really good read.