Just because I brought great gifts to humanity does not mean my presence is benign.
A fabled lost movie. An increasing body count. How much do you risk for art?
Paloma has been watching the Grand Vespertilio Show her entire life. Grand, America’s most beloved horror host showcases classic, low-budget and cult horror movies with a flourish, wearing his black tuxedo and hat, but Paloma has noticed something strange about Grand, stranger than his dark make-up and Gothic television set.
After Paloma’s husband, a homicide detective, discovers an obscure movie poster pinned on a mutilated corpse on stage at the Chicago Theater, she knows that the only person that can help solve this mystery is Grand. When another body appears at an abandoned historic movie palace the deaths prove to be connected to a silent film, lost to the ages, but somehow at the center of countless tragedies in Chicago.
The closer Paloma gets to Grand she discovers that his reach is far greater than her first love, horror movies, and even this film. And she soon becomes trapped between protecting a silent movie that’s contributed to so much death in her city and the life of her young son.
I pre-ordered the novel months ago and perhaps out of the sheer will of manifestation (or is it magick) it somehow appeared in my Kindle library two weeks before the actual release date. Obviously, I was overjoyed.
Where do I even begin? I read Pelayo’s first book Children of Chicago and absolutely loved it (and will forever feel lucky that she sent me a promo book box for it and you should absolutely read the interview she did for the blog here). This book, like the previous one, is standalone, however, it does reference some characters from the previous book (and I’m a sucker for writers keeping their stories in the same “world” so to speak). I’m a lover of fairytales, fables, horror show hosts (Elvira was the reason why I got into horror movies at the tender age of two), cursed films, occult, Greek myths, and murders. This is to say, that this book had SO MUCH that I love – and I was so happy that it delivered tenfold.
First of all, I loved the protagonist Paloma – a woman who not only overcame a terribly abusive childhood but that was a loving mother to her son Bela (hands down the coolest kid in a horror book, ever) and a badass horror influencer. I’m a huge fan of old horror movies and silent movies in general, so obviously I was geeking out at all the movies mentioned that I’ve seen a million times. I loved how she and Bela would chill out at Logan’s Theatre and watch horror movies as though it were a second home cause it reminds me of my own local theatre that a friend of mine owns, where going there 2-3 times a week is like visiting family – cause for those of yes who love movies, you’ll understand the potency and magick of the moving picture.
Pelayo is a very talented writer, however, I do want to acknowledge that this second novel showed so much growth as a storyteller – with the richness of the details, research, and basically soul of the book. Yes, the book is about trying to track down a serial killer, but it’s also so much more. It’s about the importance of art, love, and magick, and how all those things are intermingled.
I don’t want to share too much about the plot because I think you need to slowly discover this tale, that’s filled with mystery, darkness, history, and monsters. It’s incredibly gripping, each page dripping with the emotion of someone who has not only suffered but that also loves in tremendous amounts. In fact, if there’s a lesson to take from this extended fable is that anything you do out of love will always be worth it.
If you’re a fan of horror, cinema, Chicago history, and detective stories, then this is for you.
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The Sheriff’s Office in Willow Gap, AlabamaOne Week After
It would’ve been a touching moment except for the reality of the grave at their feet. Gran’s grave. I shiver just thinking about the three Williams sisters standing in the family cemetery, their arms entwined, gazing up at the sunrise, all that cool Alabama clay piled beside them, their fingernails packed with the red earth, the stench of what they’d done in their nostrils. It was Decoration Sunday, the one day of the year when the entire family descended on Gran’s property to pay respect to the dead and gossip about those still living.
Tara, June, and Clementine Williams are my sisters-in-law. For so long, I’ve waited for the day that their little coven would topple some man’s ivory tower. Now that the time has come, I realize that each of us has a man that we might be better off without, but only one of us is lucky enough to have actually rid ourselves of him.
Four men: a preacher, a doctor, a professor, and a mayor. One goes missing. It’s like our own little Willow Gap edition of Clue. How charming.
Sheriff Brady Dean, his badge shining in the interrogation lights, brings me back to the moment at hand, the moment of reckoning. The aged sheriff wants to know what I know, wants me to spill all the whys, whens, wheres, and hows of the Williams sisters over the past forty-eight hours.
“I’m sure you know why you’re here, Mrs. Williams.” The words emerge like a sigh. He’s been after this family for more than thirty years, ever since he was first elected. Poor guy. Must be exhausted.
I meet the sheriff eye to eye, tapping my recently painted nails—Los Angeles Latte, the dark bottle of polish had read—against the metal table in the claustrophobic office where he’s brought me for questioning. Not that I’m the one in trouble here.
My husband, Walker Williams, knew Sheriff Dean before Walker and I ever met and married a decade ago. Some say ours was a Yankee seduction, but I don’t care. Walker has been the mayor now for eight years, and they have to put up with me, the damn Yank in their midst.
I think of my three children—Walker Jr. and Auggie and Bella—their features too much like my husband’s. They’re fine, I remind myself. They’re with the nanny while I’m here tying up all of the loose ends. I shake my head to dislodge their faces from my mind. It’s important that I focus. I must get this right.
“Call me Ms. Chadrick. Or Stephanie. I’ll be using my maiden name soon enough,” I tell the sheriff.
Sheriff Dean clears his throat, and I follow his eyes to my hand. I’m still wearing my massive diamond, the one Walker bought for our last anniversary. To ten years, baby, and a lifetime more, he’d said as he slipped it on my finger in our Nashville hotel room. I’m not planning to part with my jewelry just because my husband can’t keep his dick in his pants.
I blink innocently at the sheriff and twist my ring around, pressing the stone into my palm until it bites. “I’m here to tell you what I saw after Gran Williams’s funeral. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes’m.” The sheriff lets out a heavy breath that reaches all the way down to the gut hanging over his belt. “I know these women are your husband’s sisters, but we’re hoping…”
“Soon to be ex-husband,” I fire back, reminding him once again.
“Fine. As I was saying, we’re hoping you’ll be willing to give us an account of the movement of your sisters-in-law these past few days. With a missing person, time is of the essence.”
He gives me one of those indulgent smiles saved only for a wronged woman. He knows about my cheating bastard of a spouse, and I breathe, reminding myself again that I’m in good company. Jackie O., Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary—all of these fine ladies were cheated on by their infamous yet politically savvy husbands. Remembering them makes it easier for me to deal with the fact that everyone knows about Walker and his lying ways.
When I first moved here from DC, I thought my new husband and his town were adorable, quaint even. As I prepared for Walker’s bid for mayor, I even got a kick out of researching its history at the local library, trying to understand the place where generations of Walker’s family had lived for so long.
Alabama. Some historians say the word is from a Native American language and means “tribal town” or “vegetation gatherers.” My favorite definition of the word, though, was penned by one Alexander Beauford Meek, a highly unreliable
source, but isn’t that what history is made of? Mr. Meek said that the word means “here we rest.” Alabama: here we rest. It’s deliciously spooky, isn’t it? Like something from one of those Faulkner stories I couldn’t get enough of in college.
To be fair though, my problem isn’t actually with the great state of Alabama. It’s with these people, this town, this family. They forget so easily that I’m a part of them now, for better or worse. They forget that I know where all the bodies are buried, and I’m not just talking about their kinfolk in the family cemetery a couple hundred yards down the hill from Gran’s house.
The sheriff clears his throat and tries again. “As I was sayin’, we’re hopin’ you can give us a clearer account of who all was there and what exactly went on, so we can understand what led to our missing person. He’s an important man, a good man, and the last time anyone laid eyes on him was Saturday evening a few hours after the funeral at Gran Williams’s cabin.”
Our missing person. There’s something so possessive in the phrase. I almost giggle, realizing that this man is handing me my chance on a silver platter, an opportunity to expose every inch of the Williams family drama.
“Sheriff, ask me any question, and I’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear.” I cross my legs and study my cuticles. “Although, if you want to know the whole truth, you need to go a lot further back than the past few days.”
I take a sip of the coffee he brought me earlier and stretch my arms in front of me as if preparing for a catnap. I wonder if the sheriff realizes just how far back he needs to reach, how far down he needs to dig until he hits something like the truth.
The sheriff nods at me to continue, and I notice again the plump circles hanging under his eyes. He sneezes into the crook of his arm and settles in for the real reason why people involved with the Williams family might just disappear.
I sit up straighter. “All right, then. Let’s start with the dead one.”
Everybody lies. Even the ones you think you know best of all . . .
Olivia Bender designs exquisite home interiors that satisfy the most demanding clients. But her own deepest desire can’t be fulfilled by marble counters or the perfect rug. She desperately wants to be a mother. Fertility treatments and IVF keep failing. And just when she feels she’s at her lowest point, the police deliver shocking news to Olivia and her husband, Park.
DNA results show that the prime suspect in a murder investigation is Park’s son. Olivia is relieved, knowing this is a mistake. Despite their desire, the Benders don’t have any children. Then comes the confession. Many years ago, Park donated sperm to a clinic. He has no idea how many times it was sold—or how many children he has sired.
As the murder investigation goes deeper, more terrible truths come to light. With every revelation, Olivia must face the unthinkable. The man she married has fathered a killer. But can she hold that against him when she keeps such dark secrets of her own?
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As kids, Emily and Chess were inseparable. But by their 30s, their bond has been strained by the demands of their adult lives. So when Chess suggests a girls trip to Italy, Emily jumps at the chance to reconnect with her best friend.
Villa Aestas in Orvieto is a high-end holiday home now, but in 1974, it was known as Villa Rosato, and rented for the summer by a notorious rock star, Noel Gordon. In an attempt to reignite his creative spark, Noel invites up-and-coming musician, Pierce Sheldon to join him, as well as Pierce’s girlfriend, Mari, and her stepsister, Lara. But he also sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Mari writing one of the greatest horror novels of all time, Lara composing a platinum album––and ends in Pierce’s brutal murder.
As Emily digs into the villa’s complicated history, she begins to think there might be more to the story of that fateful summer in 1974. That perhaps Pierce’s murder wasn’t just a tale of sex, drugs, and rock & roll gone wrong, but that something more sinister might have occurred––and that there might be clues hidden in the now-iconic works that Mari and Lara left behind.
Yet the closer that Emily gets to the truth, the more tension she feels developing between her and Chess. As secrets from the past come to light, equally dangerous betrayals from the present also emerge––and it begins to look like the villa will claim another victim before the summer ends.
Inspired by Fleetwood Mac, the Manson murders, and the infamous summer Percy and Mary Shelley spent with Lord Byron at a Lake Geneva castle––the birthplace of Frankenstein––The Villa welcomes you into its deadly legacy.
I did enjoy this book however, the “mystery & thriller” part never quite showed up. The book is told in two timelines, the present where two best friends stay at a villa in Orvieto, Italy, each friend using their time there to pen their new books. The second timeline takes place in 1974 when four Brits stay at the villa during one summer and a murder occurs.
Now the thing about the 1974 time that kind of annoyed me is that it was an absolute rip-off of Mary Shelley’s life, as Mari stood for Mary, Pierce Sheldon for Percy Bysshe Shelley, the rock star Neil Gordon was obviously Lord Byron, and Mari’s stepsister Lara was ripped off from Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. The author used details about Mary Shelley’s life to stand in for Mari’s life (how her father married a next-door neighbor, how her family disowned her when she ran away with the married Percy and even used the death of Mary’s child in Mari’s backstory too). This wasn’t just a little too on the nose, it was a complete sledgehammer. However, if you’re a writer, you might enjoy these tidbits of information.
The present timeline wasn’t as fascinating as the one in 1974, because I really couldn’t stand Em, the cozy-mystery writer who’s too hung up on her best friend Chess’s recent success as a motivational writer. In fact, I don’t even know why these two are friends when they seem to dislike one another.
This book was interesting, I won’t deny that, but at the same time, it didn’t deliver on the thriller aspect that was promised in the beginning. But since I did read the book in about two days, I will say that the author has a way of having you want to stay up to read until you’ve reached the end, so I’ll give her props for that.
All in all, this book is good if you’re looking for a cozy mystery – because it’s in no way a thriller or true mystery. The location is gorgeous and the 1974 timeline of groupies and rockstars was fascinating, despite the blatant rip-off of Shelley’s life.
*Thank you so much to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for the digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
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I gasp and stagger backward. My hand goes to my mouth, bear- ing down.
My brain screams at me to run. Run.
I can’t at first. Shock and fear hold me captive. They keep me from moving, like a ship that’s dropped anchor. I’m moored to this spot, my eyes gaping in disbelief. My breath quickens and I feel the flailing of my heartbeat in my neck, my throat and in my ears.
Run, my brain screams at me. Go. Fucking run.
There is movement on the ground before me. The sound that comes with it is something heathen and raging, and some part of me knows that if I don’t go now, I may never leave this place alive.
I turn away. It’s instantaneous. One minute I’m unmoving and the next I’m moving so fast that the world comes at me in vague shapes and colors, streaks of brown and blue and green. I barely feel the movement of my legs and my feet as I run. I don’t feel the impact of my shoes colliding with the earth, moving quickly across it. I don’t look back, though I want more than anything to steal a look to know that I’m alone. That I’m not being followed. But I don’t look. It’s too risky. Looking back would cost precious seconds that I don’t know that I have. If I do, those seconds could be my last.
Sounds come, but I’m so disoriented that I don’t know where they come from. Is it only my pulse, the rush of blood in my ears?
Or is someone there?
I feel something tangible against my hair and then my spine. My back arches. I jerk away, pitching forward, landing hard on my hands and knees.
The world stops moving.
I have only two thoughts in that moment: staying alive, and that this isn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
Lily is sitting on the leather chair in the family room when I come in. Her back is to me. I see her from behind, just her long brown hair spilling down the back of the chair. She stares toward the TV on the opposite wall, but the TV is off. It’s just a black box, and in it, I see a murky reflection of Lily on the screen, though I can’t tell if her eyes are open or shut.
“Hey,” I say, coming in through the garage door, closing it quietly and stepping out of my shoes. I set my phone and keys on the counter, and then ask, “How was your day?”
It’s getting dark in the house. Out the window, the sun is about to set. Lily hasn’t bothered with the lights, and so the in- side of the house is colorless and gray. We face east. Any pretty sunset is the other way. You can’t see it from here, if there even is one to see.
Lily says nothing back. She must have fallen asleep, sitting upright in the chair. It wouldn’t be the first time. She’s been extremely tired lately. The pregnancy is getting the best of her, not to mention that she’s on her feet teaching all day. These two things in combination exhaust her. It used to be that Lily would be in the kitchen, cooking dinner when I got home, but these last few weeks, she comes home from work ready to drop. I don’t mind that she’s not cooking. I’ve never been the kind of person to need a home-cooked meal after work, but that’s the way Lily was raised. Her mother did it for her father, and so she thinks she should do it for me. She’s been apologetic that she hasn’t had it in her to cook dinner, but she’s been queasy, too, and the last thing she needs to be doing is cooking for me. I called from the car and ordered takeout already; it will be here any minute.
I step quietly into the family room. I come around to the other side of Lily to face her. Lily isn’t asleep like I thought. Her eyes are open but her expression is blank. Her skin looks gray, washed-out like the room, and I blame the poor lighting.
Lily’s head turns. She looks up at me as if in slow motion.
“Hey,” I say again, gently, smiling. “You okay? Did I wake you?”
I flip on a side table light, and she winces from the bright- ness of it, her eyes taking time to adjust. I apologize for it, realizing that her pale face had nothing to do with the lack of light.
In the warmth of the lamp’s glow, I see that Lily’s hair is wet. She wears maroon-colored joggers and a sweatshirt. She’s showered and changed since coming home, which is more than she usually does. Usually she falls flat on the couch and doesn’t leave until it’s time to go to bed.
I drop to my knees in front of her. I reach forward and run a hand the length of her hair. “You look exhausted, babe. Do you want to just go to bed? I can help you up. Takeout should be here soon. I’ll bring it up to the room for you when it gets here.”
Lily blinks three times, as if to clear the fog. She finds her voice. It’s husky at first, dry, like after a day of shouting at a football game, which is not that different than a day of teach- ing rowdy high school kids math. “No,” she says, shaking her head, “I’m fine. Just tired. It was a long day.”
“You sure? I wouldn’t mind dinner in bed myself.” I had a long day too, but it doesn’t seem right to compare them when only one of us has another human growing inside of them.
“That sounds messy,” she says.
“I promise I’ll be neat.”
Lily smiles and my heart melts. I love it when she smiles at me. “When are you ever neat?”
“Never,” I say, feeling better if she can still poke fun at me.
I’ve done my research on pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve read that the fatigue women feel during the first trimester is maybe the most tired they’ll feel in their whole lives. Growing a human is exhausting. Caring for one is too, but we’re not there yet.
“You need anything?” I ask, and she shakes her head.
Takeout comes. I convince Lily to come sit on the couch with me, where we both fit. We watch TV and, as we do, I ask her about her day and she asks me about mine. She’s quieter than usual tonight. I do most of the talking. I’m a market research analyst, while Lily teaches high school algebra. We met in college over of our shared love of math. When we tell people that, it makes them laugh. We’re math nerds.
When it’s time for bed, Lily goes up to the room before me. From downstairs, I hear the sink run as she washes up. I clean up from dinner. I throw the takeout containers in the trash. There is a package waiting on the front porch. I step outside to get it, where the night is dark, though the sky is clear. It must be a new moon.
Lily is standing at the top of the stairs when I come back in. She’s there in the upstairs hall, standing in the dark, backlit by the bedroom light. Gone are the maroon sweats she wore ear- lier. She has on my flannel shirt now. Her legs are bare, one foot balanced on the other. Her hair is pulled back, her face still wet from washing it.
“Don’t forget to lock the door,” she says down over the rail- ing, patting her face dry with a towel.
I wouldn’t have forgotten to lock the door. I never do. It’s not like Lily to remind me. I turn away from her, making sure the storm door is shut and locked, and then I push the front door closed and lock the dead bolt too.
Our house sits on a large lot. It’s old on the outside, but has a completely revamped, modern interior. It boasts things like a wraparound porch, beamed ceilings, a brick fireplace—which Lily fell in love with the first time she laid eyes on the house, and so I knew I couldn’t say no despite the price—as well as the more modern amenities of a subzero fridge, stainless steel appliances, heated floors and a large soaker tub that I was more enthusiastic about. The house is aesthetically pleasing to say the least, with an enormous amount of curb appeal. It practically broke the bank to buy, but felt worth it at the time, even if it meant being poor for a while.
In the backyard, the river runs along the far edge of the prop- erty, bound by a public hiking and biking trail. We were worried about a lack of privacy when we first moved in, because of the trail. The trail brought pedestrians to us. Strangers. People just passing by. For most of the year, it’s not a problem. The leaves on the trees provide plenty of privacy. It’s only when they fall that we’re more exposed, but the views of the river are worth it for that small sacrifice.
“Done,” I tell her about the locks, and she asks then if I set the alarm. We’ve lived here years and hardly ever set the alarm. I’m taken aback that she would ask.
“Is everything okay?” I ask.
Lily says, “Yes, fine.” She says that we have an alarm. We pay for it. We might as well use it. She isn’t wrong—it’s just that she’s never wanted to before.
I set the alarm. I make my way around the first floor, turning off lights. It takes a minute. When I’m done, I climb the stairs for the bedroom. Lily has the lights off in the room now. She stands at the window in the dark, with her back to the door.
She’s splitting the blinds apart with her fingers and is looking out into the dark night.
I come quietly into the room. I sidle up behind Lily, setting my hand on the small of her back and asking, “What are you looking at?” as I lean forward to set my chin on her shoulder, to see what she sees.
Suddenly Lily reels back, away from the window. She drops the blinds. They clamor shut. I’ve scared her. Instinctively, her hands rise up in self-defense, as if to strike me.
I pull back, ducking before I get hit. “Whoa there, Rocky,” I say, reaching for her arms.
Lily’s hands and arms remain motionless, suspended in air.
“Shit, sorry,” she says, knowing how close she came to im- pact. The realization startles us both.
“What was that?” I ask as I gently lower Lily’s arms. Lily isn’t usually so jumpy. I’ve never seen that kind of reaction from her.
She says, “I didn’t know it was you.”
“Who did you think it was?” I ask, as a joke. She and I are the only ones here.
Lily doesn’t answer directly. Instead she says, “I didn’t hear you come up the stairs. I thought you were still downstairs.”
That doesn’t explain it.
“What are you looking at?” I ask again, gazing past her for the window.
“I thought I heard something outside,” she says.
She says that she doesn’t know. Just something. We stand, quiet, listening. It’s silent at first, but then I hear the voices of kids rising up from somewhere outside. They’re laughing, and I know there are teenagers clowning around on the trail again. It wouldn’t be the first time. They never do anything too bad, though we’ve found cigarette butts and empty bottles of booze. I don’t get mad about it. I was a stupid teenager once. I did worse.
I go to the bed. I pull the blankets back. “It’s just dumb kids,
Lily. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Come to bed,” I say, but, even as she turns away from the window and slips under the sheets with me, I sense Lily’s hesitation. She’s not so sure.
Excerpted from Just the Nicest Couple @ 2023 by Mary Kyrychenko, used with permission by Park Row Books.
I had a ton of illusions, vivid fantasies of what it would be like to score a coveted internship at Van Doren. Deluded old me thought I would be strutting around the stunning tri-story headquarters in single-soled heels, flitting from design concept meetings to on-location photo shoots, living my best fashion-girl life. Instead, I’m in the back corner of the two-thousand-square-foot ready-to-wear samples closet scrubbing fresh vomit from a slinky gown worth double my rent during my lunch hour.
Italian Vogue’s current cover girl borrowed the hand-sewn dress for a red-carpet event last night, and apparently getting it back on a rack without ruining it was too much for one of the other interns to handle. She was so hungover when she came to the office this morning that she vomited all over the dress before making it out of the elevator. But of course this dress needs to be ready for another model to wear to some big extravaganza tonight, and since I’m the designated fuckover intern, I have to clean it by hand because the satin-blend fabric is too delicate to be dry-cleaned.
This is what it takes.
I chant this to remind myself why I’m here as the lactic acid builds up in my biceps. Working for Van Doren has been on my proverbial vision board ever since I reluctantly gave up the idea, in middle school, that I could be Beyoncé. It’s a storm of hauling hundreds of pounds of runway samples around the city and sitting in on meetings with the sketch artists. A glorious, next-to-holy experience when I’m on duty at photo shoots and one of the stylists sends me to fetch another blazer, not a specific blazer, which means I get to use my own vestiary inclinations to make the selection. Which has only happened once, but still.
Just as I get the stain faded by at least seventy percent, I hear the sharp staccato of someone in stilettos approaching. I turn around and see Lexi. Lexi with her bimonthly touched-up white-blond hair and generous lip filler that she’ll never admit to having injected. When she steps closer in her head-to-toe Reformation, I am grateful that I remembered to put on a few sprays of my Gypsy Water perfume. The one that smells like rich people. But the way she’s staring at me right now, it’s clear that no matter how much I try, I am still not on her level. I do not fit in here. She does not see me as her equal, despite the fact that we are both unpaid, unknown, disposable interns. It’s become glaringly obvious that at Van Doren, it’s not actually about what you contribute, but more about how blue your blood is. Lexi doesn’t even know my name, though I’ve been here a solid nine weeks and I’m pretty sure I’ve told her at least a dozen times.
I’m already on edge because of my assignment, so I jump in before she can ask in her monotone voice. “Brandi.”
“Right,” she says, like she does every time yet still forgets. “Chloé wants the Instagram analytics report for last week. She said she asked you to put it together an hour ago.”
Which is true, but completely unfair since Jenna from marketing also asked me to run to Starbucks to buy thirty-one-ounce cups of liquid crack for her and her entire department for a 9:00 a.m. meeting, an effort that took three trips total, and technically I’m still working on the data sheets I promised Eric from product development. Not to mention the obvious: getting rid of the puke from the dress.
“I’m still working on it,” I tell her.
Lexi stares at me, her overly filled brows lifted, as if she’s waiting for the rest of my excuse. I understand her, but also I’m wondering how she still hasn’t realized this is not a case of Resting Bitch Face I have going on, that I am actually intolerant of her nagging.
Normally, I am not this terse. But nothing about today has been normal. Since this week is my period week, I’m retaining water in the most unflattering of places and the pencil dress I’m wearing has been cutting off the circulation in my thighs for the past couple of hours, and being that I’ve spent most of my break destroying the evidence of someone else’s bad decisions, it is not my fault that I’m not handling this particularly well.
“I’ll send it over as soon as I’m done,” I say to Lexi so she can leave. But she doesn’t.
“HR wants to see you,” she says with what looks like a smirk.
My mouth opens. I have no idea what HR could want, and although I’m still new to this employee thing, I know this can’t be good.
“Like, now,” Lexi barks and pivots away in her strappy, open-toe stilts.
I hang the sample next to the door, and before I leave the room I pause to briefly take in the rest of the dresses stuffed on the racks, each one in that chic, elevated aesthetic that is the cornerstone of Van Doren. This is my favorite part of the day, the chaotic nature of this room a little overwhelming but also inspiring, and I can’t wait for the day that this is my world, not just one I’m peeking my head into. A world in which I command respect.
I cross through the merchandising department, where everyone has their own private office with aerial views of Hell’s Kitchen, Soho and the Garment District, and then move through the maze of the sprawling suite in a mild sort of panic until I remind myself that I have done nothing wrong. Ever since spring semester ended, I’ve been putting in more hours than the sun. I slip in at six-thirty when the building is dark and vaguely ominous, my eyes still puffy with sleep, and when I finally drag myself into the elevator at the end of the day, it’s just as black and quiet outside. I religiously show up in current-season heels despite the blisters, albeit mass-produced renditions of the Fendi, Balenciaga and Bottega Venetas the other summer interns casually strut around in, and mostly stick to myself. I am careful about raising my voice, even if I vehemently disagree with my neurotic supervisor. I keep my tongue as puritanical as a nun’s, even when fucking incel or coddled narcissistic bitch are on the tip of it. I’m not rude or combative. I stay away from gossip. I complete all my tasks with time to spare, which is usually when I check Twitter and help out some of the other interns, even though I’d rather FaceTime Nate in the upstairs bathroom with the magical lighting. I even entertain the gang of sartorially inclined Amy Coopers in the making who insist on obnoxiously complaining to me about all of their first-world, one-percenter problems. I’ve done nothing but consistently given them reasons to think I am a capable, qualified, talented intern who would make an exceptional employee.
I have nothing to worry about.
When I knock on the door to Lauren’s office, she looks up from her desk and waves me in through the glass. I have a feeling this will not go my way when I see that my supervisor, Chloé, one of the more amiable assistants, is also here, fiddling with her six-carat engagement ring in the corner and avoiding eye contact.
“Have a seat, Brandi,” Lauren says, and I tell myself to ignore that her bright pink lipstick extends above her lip on one side.
There is no small talk. No hello or how’s it going? Under alternate circumstances, I would feel slighted, but because I’m growing more anxious by the second, I’m grateful for her smugness.
As I sit down, Chloé shifts in her chair, and I speak before she can. “I’m sorry. The Instagram report is at the top of my task list. I’ll definitely have it to you before I leave today. I just—”
“That’s not why you’re here, Brandi,” Lauren interjects.
“Oh.” I pause, and as she glances down at her notes, I try to make meaningful eye contact with my supervisor, but she is still actively dodging my eyes.
Lauren begins by throwing out a few compliments. My work ethic is admirable and I have great attention to detail, she says, and the whole time my heart is pounding so loud, I can barely make out most of her words. Chloé jumps in to effusively agree, then Lauren finally stops beating around the bush and looks me directly in the eyes.
“We just don’t feel like you’re fitting into the culture here at Van Doren.”
Every word feels like a backhanded slap across the face, the kind that twists your neck and makes the world go still and white for a few disconcerting moments, like an orgasm but not like an orgasm. It’s obvious what they mean, yet can’t quite bring themselves to say.
They just don’t like that I’m black.
They don’t like the way I wear my braids—long and unapologetic, grazing my hips like a Nubian mermaid.
They don’t like that I’m not the smile-and-nod type, willing to assimilate to their idea of what I should be, how I should act.
That’s their code for we-can’t-handle-your-individuality-but-since-we-don’t-want-to-seem-racist-we’ll-invent-this-little-loophole.
Black plus exceptional equals threat.
“If we don’t see any improvement in the coming weeks, we’re going to have to let you go,” Lauren says with no irony, her mouth easing into a synthetic smile.
I blink. I cannot believe this is happening right now. It wasn’t supposed to go like this, my internship at Van Doren, the one fashion company whose ethics align with mine. I wasn’t just blowing smoke up Lauren’s ass when I interviewed for this job, though I was looking at her sideways, wondering why she had not a stitch of Van Doren on. I’d splurged on a single-shouldered jumpsuit from this year’s spring collection that I couldn’t really afford just to impress her, while she hadn’t even felt the need to represent the brand at all as she shot out all those futile questions interviewers love propelling at candidates, I’m convinced, just to see them squirm. Even minuscule amounts of power can be dangerous.
This is bullshit, being put on probation, and I’d give anything to have the balls to call them on it. As I sit here paralyzed, Lauren’s words reverberate in my head and I rebuke them, want to suffocate and bury them.
Liz Rocher is coming home . . . reluctantly. As a Black woman, Liz doesn’t exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward, passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the day of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the couple’s daughter, Caroline, disappears—and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.
As a frantic search begins, with the police combing the trees for Caroline, Liz is the only one who notices a pattern: A summer night. A missing girl. A party in the woods. She’s seen this before. Keisha Woodson, the only other Black girl in Liz’s high school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart removed. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence. As Liz starts to dig through the town’s history, she uncovers a horrifying secret about the place she once called home. Children have been going missing in these woods for years. All of them Black. All of them girls.
It’s your turn.
With the evil in the forest creeping closer, Liz knows what she must do: find Caroline, or be entirely consumed by the darkness.
I’ve always been wary of the forest – in fact, when we lived in Sardinia and our villa had a forest behind it, I always stayed out of it. Even at four years old I had a gut feeling that whatever noise I heard in the forest I should ignore it, and never investigate its origin. Liz returns to Johnstown for her best friend’s wedding, only for her goddaughter Caroline to go missing. But every year for thirty years young Black girls have gone missing – always in the same spot in the forest. This novel is rich with history, terror, and what it means to return home to a place that has never quite felt like your own. The writing is rich and the protagonist Liz is flawed but hopelessly determined. I love folklore and the author masterfully crafted a thriller mystery that weaves folklore with history in a way that you’re left racing through the pages attempting to escape the darkness and rush towards the light. I loved this book, there’s so much one can learn from this about race, class, and history. Read this book even if it scares you, actually read it because it will.
*Thank you so much to NetGalley and Bantam for the digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Full disclosure, when I started reading the novel, I struggled with the first chapters because I found present Ani to be too fixated on looks and appearances, especially when it came to clothes and her views on marriage (when I read the book I was still unmarried and was annoyed that the character could be so judgmental on what was the perfect age to be married by). It wasn’t until we got to meet teen Ani (then known as TifAni) that I warmed up to the character and could feel like we actually had more in common than I would’ve anticipated. Having said this, at the time I really enjoyed the novel so when the film hit Netflix last week I quickly viewed it.
Maybe because the author, Jessica Knoll has written three books since Luckiest Girl Alive, but I felt like the screenplay for the film (also written by the author) managed to convey a powerful punch to the gut, in a way that the book didn’t (I much prefer the film’s ending than the book ending). The writing was raw, sharp, and went for the jugular, in other words, it doesn’t aim to please, rather it aims to seize what is rightfully theirs, without shame.
The movie, much like the book has us meet present Ani – who seems to have it all, impressive journalist career, rich fiancé, and is on her way to becoming an editor for The New York Times. And yet, she’s plagued by an incident from her past that’s linked to personal trauma as well as collective trauma. Mila Kunis skillfully brings this complex character to life in the present timeline, while Chiara Aurelia portrays teen Ani is a stark contrast to her present self, as teen Ani is curvaceous with unruly hair who desperately wishes to be accepted by her blue blood rich classmates at her posh private High School. Present Ani is impeccable in looks, but when her fiancé Luke steps away from the table at the restaurant, we see her scarf down two slices of pizza with a hunger that the viewer knows that there’s something brewing instead of Ani that wishes to unleash itself. That she isn’t being her authentic self because present Ani thinks the only way she can move on from her past is to deny everything she was as a teen.
This is a very harrowing yet powerful movie, and if you’re a woman it’s one you don’t want to miss because finally there’s a character that is both complex and messy and yet manages to honor her younger self in the end by doing something that her teenage self would’ve approved of. The way in which Mila Kunis delivers the most eloquent fuck you in the final scene will make you think that that fuck you is one that many women can stand behind
Grace isn’t exactly thrilled when her newly widowed mother, Jackie, asks to move in with her. They’ve never had a great relationship, and Grace likes her space—especially now that she’s stuck at home during a pandemic. Then again, she needs help with the mortgage after losing her job. And maybe it’ll be a chance for them to bond—or at least give each other a hand.
But living with Mother isn’t for everyone. Good intentions turn bad soon after Jackie moves in. Old wounds fester; new ones open. Grace starts having nightmares about her disabled twin sister, who died when they were kids. And Jackie discovers that Grace secretly catfishes people online—a hobby Jackie thinks is unforgivable.
When Jackie makes an earth-shattering accusation against her, Grace sees it as an act of revenge, and it sends her spiraling into a sleep-deprived madness. As the walls close in, the ghosts of Grace’s past collide with a new but familiar threat: Mom.
I read this author’s debut novel, Baby Teeth and had enjoyed some aspects of it – so I wanted to try out another novel of hers. Mothered is a case study of pandemic life and how it is to cope with your life dramatically changing as the world outside was full of uncertainties and how a mother/daughter relationship completely deteriorates towards the end. Grace and Jackie have been estranged for many years but now during the pandemic, Grace has allowed her recently widowed mother Jackie to move in with her. The two haven’t had the best relationship since Grace took the burden of taking care of her disabled twin Hope growing up while her mother worked – being a single parent. I wasn’t particularly fond of the protagonist Grace, so I actually found her behavior more offputting than her mother’s. My biggest gripe with the novel is that the majority of the horror happened in dream sequences and since I could easily tell when Grace was dreaming – reading the horrible gory dream weren’t as frightening because I knew that nothing truly happened in the waking world. I know the novel took place mostly at home due to the pandemic, but it still made me feel restless and I couldn’t wait for it to be over (especially since we already knew what was going to happen since the prologue gave it away). Overall, the book was well written but I’m weary of Covid and reading about it was such a chore. I recommend the book if you like protagonists with mommy issues – don’t mind a Covid plot, and are okay with slow burn thriller with no clear resolution.
*Thank you so much to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for the digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Typically, it’s always a challenge to have a movie with only two actors carrying the film for a good portion of it, especially when the setting doesn’t change. From the very beginning, a couple, Kate (Kate Bosworth) and Mikey (Emile Hirsch) are contestants in a strange game in which they agree to spend 50 days living in a white room. If they manage to do that, the couple will win $5 million dollars, if for some reason one of them chooses to leave the room prior to 50 days, the prize money drops to $1 million.
The room has the chilly aesthetic of a chic art gallery, and with no form of entertainment whatsoever, the couple must learn to live with boredom for 50 days. We soon learn that Kate views the money as a means to put her mind at ease after spending a life worrying about her finances, while Mikey comes from a wealthy family and it’s still unclear why the money would mean much to him other than to be supportive of his girlfriend. For most pre-lockdown people, staying in a room for 50 days would’ve seemed like an easy feat, but as lockdown made us all realize, being confined is actually much harder than it looks.
Hirsch is animated as Mikey, as he explains what he would do with the money if he were to win, or how to kill boredom he begins to read the tag on his shirt in different accents. Bosworth’s performance is more contained as her character Kate tries to keep herself together with daily affirmations. It isn’t until the addition of external people that she gets triggered and her balance begins to tilt. The couple’s shut-in world begins to shake the moment Simone (Ashley Greene Khoury) enters the room, which sparks jealousy and tension to rise between the couple. It doesn’t take long for the ugly emotions to surface for it to bring things to a head.
The film begins with a study on boredom and if it’s possible to be driven mad by it, but it quickly devolves into the malice of greed and how far would one go to keep the prize in question. Again, for being a film that focuses mostly on two characters and one location, the script was interesting, although this film is less Squid Games than I had anticipated and ends on a positive note.