Publisher: James Garcia Jr.
In 1956, film actress Allison Belle abandoned the glamour of Hollywood for Fresno, California and an idyllic new life. In 1959, she disappeared altogether.
Nearly 60 years later, real estate agent Joanna Johnson steps unsuspectingly into the old Belle house and a story long forgotten. A devastating personal event opens a hidden door into the actress’s world, and a series of long-lost photographs begin to reveal secrets thought buried.
What happened to Allison?
What will happen to Joanna when she finds out?
The problem with the back jacket is that I was expecting a story like one everyone else has written, and Garcia had something different to tell. My first impression of the back jacket almost turned me away. My assumption was that this was a women’s story, which is not my genre, and that the secrets buried would be some weird timeline connection about them being long-lost relatives, or Joanna inheriting some kind of money like it’s always been. That’s the story we’ve all been told before. It was in the prologue that Garcia had me whispering to myself, “This book isn’t what you think.”
And that theme just seemed to unravel itself to me chapter by chapter, and Garcia didn’t stop surprising until the book ended. I swear I had it all figured out by page 189, and what does Garcia do? Throw me another twist!
Garcia had so much patience withholding everything from us until the right moment, too. The payoff was worth it! I found myself experiencing a smorgasbord of emotions ranging from grief and terror to awe and victory. I practically sat with my nose pressed to the spine hungry for more clues because I almost couldn’t handle the unknown fate of the lovely Allison Belle, and our heroine Joanna.
The book paced itself well. I don’t remember one chapter going without action of some kind. Many times in mysteries, the clues are revealed in personal narrative which is boring in both book and film. But in this gem, the photographs themselves spoke volumes. Not just pictorially, but the memories in the photographs came to life. Always in a beautifully written transition from the present to the past.
An unexpected main theme I greatly enjoyed was the haunted house vibe. The cabinet that was mysteriously sealed shut opened upon its own desire. Doors opening on their own when they were surely locked before. The curtains being drawn every morning.
The leaf…oh, the leaf especially was a great theme. When Jo saw the leaf floating and began undressing herself, chasing after it in a trance. The instant tension I felt when that leaf manifested to Jo was delightful.
Best of all, everything that occurred in that house—from the curtains opening to Jo tripping on the same stair with the defiling stain—served a purpose in the plot. I picture Garcia’s outline for this being extremely detailed. Every note in the timeline is underlined with connections to the future and from the past. All of it perfectly interwoven.
Garcia also managed to realistically imagine these characters. Allison, a glamorous movie star, was well lit in her scene of famous friends in chapter eight, and though I’ve never been to a Hollywood party, I experienced my first one through this book. It was tangible, the dialogue appropriate for the time, the whole scene wildly fun.
Joanna being a complete mess of a woman who had just lost her fiance developed into this strong, resilient woman who befriended a ghost and didn’t lose her sanity. I love that while she was having flashbacks through photographs and was experiencing unnatural things in the house, no one ever questioned Jo’s sanity but Jo. Garcia ignored that boring theme to focus on what mattered, and it served the novel well.
What really got me was when the tragedy was unveiled…how Garcia could possibly know how that felt, and then to put it into words—that brought tears to my eyes. For his writing to invoke such real and raw feelings suggests he knows a woman who had felt that pain. Either that or he has one hell of an imagination, guys. I don’t cry for anything, not even when forced to watch The Notebook, but chapter seventeen got me good.
Everything is good in moderation, especially when it comes to detail because you can describe something down to its elemental structure and no two people will ever imagine it the same way you did. But the brevity of adjectives engages a reader’s imagination and gives life to your noun without boring or overwhelming your audience. That is the goal, and Garcia hit the target with every microscene where Jo is performing ordinary tasks such as eating or getting situated in the house. I was greatly appreciative of his writing style there.
Some of my favorite lines from the book:
- “Michael Kors was still hanging where she had left him…He appeared undisturbed and unmolested.” (page 31)
- “Jo this is the final photograph.” (page 337)
- The suspense I felt when I read that line was surreal. That word “final” is such a strong word, and so perfectly fit the climax of the story.
- “It was pointless for Joanna to resist. In a photograph, all one can do is look.” (page 344)
- Way to tie everything in together, title and theme, for the most highly anticipated detail in the book!
James Garcia Jr. managed to pull off all the justified endings without making them cheesy, which I so loved. He managed to keep me guessing the entire story. And best of all, he shattered the cliché women’s mystery for me. Photographs is definitely worth the buy. It’s a story you’ve never been told before, and it is well written in a style you will enjoy!
Sidenote: When I told my daughter I finished the final 300 pages yesterday, with great theatrics she exclaimed, “Mom, that’s 300 hours of your life!”
And my response was, still smiling at the book, “It was worth it.”
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