For this month’s Writer’s Book Club, I’m reviewing The Hacienda by Isabel Canas and Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I had a lot of issues with both books, but while I found it tough to get through The Hacienda, I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Matter. Here’s why.


Writing styles


Cover of The HaciendaThe Hacienda

I read The Hacienda for the February Boswell Bookstore’s Books and Beer Book Club, but it was a struggle.

Throughout the book, Canas uses what authors and editors call “purple prose.” Purple prose is overly flowery and melodramatic writing. It pops the reader out of the story because they can’t make heads or tails of what is being described. The Hacienda is a gothic horror story, and there is romantic, poetic language in a gothic book, but this was overdone. For instance, the book begins:

The low sweep of the southern horizon was a perfect line, unmarred by even the smudge of horses tossing their heads in the distance. The road yawned empty.


The carriage was gone.

This is a great beginning, particularly when you find out (pretty quickly), that the character’s love is in the carriage and he’ll never see her again. But, this is the next paragraph:

I stood with my back to the gates of Hacienda San Isidro. Behind me, high white stucco walls rose like the bones of a long-dead beast jutting from dark, cracked earth. Beyond the walls, beyond the main house and the freshly dug graves behind the capilla, the tlachiqueros took their machetes to the sharp fields of maguey. Wandering the fields as a boy taught me agave flesh does not give like a man’s; the tlachiqueros lift their machetes and bring them down again and again, each dull thud seeking the heart’s sweet sap, each man becoming more intimately acquainted with the give of meat beneath metal, with the harvesting of hearts.

Of course, this is a metaphor for what the character is going through, but it’s long-winded and misplaced. It would be more effective later in the book.

This novel is also told from two different points of view—a woman’s and a man’s. However, the flowery style of writing doesn’t change for the characters, so I had to refer to the chapter heading to see who was telling the story.


Cover of Dark MatterDark Matter

Dark Matter‘s writing style was also suspect. There are page after page of one-line paragraphs that aren’t dialogue. At first, I found this style distracting just as I did Canas’s purple prose, but then got used to the fast pace.

The book is very cinematic, which isn’t a surprise since Crouch writes for TV. Exciting note: Dark Matter has been adapted for TV and will be released on Apple TV on May 8th.

Here’s a small section of the one-line writing from page 4:

I look at Charle, catch him rolling his eyes as he sketches.


Probably embarrassed by our display of parental melodrama.


I stare into the cabinet and wait for the ache in my throat to go away.


When it does, I grab the pasta and close the door.


Daniela drinks her wine.


Charlie draws.


The moment passes.




The Hacienda

The Hacienda‘s protagonist is Beatriz Hernandez Valenzuela, a young woman who marries for money and security. Soon after she arrives at her new husband’s hacienda, she realizes the place is haunted. In stereotypical horror stories, she stays, even though her sister-in-law refuses to stay and lives elsewhere on the property.

Many of Beatriz’s actions make little sense. For instance, she sees a skeleton in a crumbled brick wall (could it be the body of her husband’s first wife? Well, duh). When she goes back to the wall, it’s solid, and yet doesn’t have the wall torn down.

And the husband Beatriz marries, who could add a layer of conflict to the story, leaves and is absent most of the book. It’s like he’s just a prop.

However, Father Andres is an interesting character and, like the setting, is unique. He’s both a Catholic priest and a witch. Much more could have been done with this, particularly his internal struggle with these two very different belief systems. Many of the readers in the Boswell Book Club agreed they’d like to see a book wtih Father Andres as the protagonist. I’d read that, too.


Dark Matter

Jason Dessen is the protagonist in Dark Matter. He’s a quantum mechanics physicist and his wife is a brilliant artist. Both give up promising careers to raise their son. While it makes sense that Jason might give up his promising physicist career and teach at the local college, it made little sense that his wife would never paint again, particularly since their son is thirteen. Even so, I instantly liked these characters and their fun, flirtatious banter.

SPOILER – I appreciated how the Jasons from the different universes had distinct personalities and goals based on the decisions they had made.


Story structure


The Hacienda

The Hacienda is considered horror, and while there are gruesome scenes, there’s no build-up before these scenes—no anticipation—and no empathy for the characters which would make the horror more powerful. Other than placing this in Mexico right after the Mexican Civil War, there is nothing original about this horror story.

The gothic romance was also unoriginal—a woman falling for a priest has been done many times.

Worse still, the main character’s goal is (SPOILER) never realized. Page 10 lays out her goal:

I wanted to steal Mama away from Tia Fernanda, bring her here and show it to her. I wanted to prove to Mama that marrying Rodolfo was right. That my choice would open a door into a new life for us.

SPOILER—Beatriz leaves the hacienda to move in with her mother, who’s inherited a very nice house. What did the main character achieve? Nothing.


Dark Matter

Dark Matter is a science fiction thriller. While the pseudo-science is more pseudo than science, I was willing to suspend disbelief and not get bogged down in the technicalities of the multi-universes. Other readers might have issues with the flaws in the science, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. The reference to dark matter was slight and had little to do with the book, which makes the title of the book suspect. But this is a fast-paced thriller, as promised.

It’s also very original. Sure, the multi-universe trope has been used many times, and the opportunity for characters to see how their lives would be if they’d made different decisions is really popular right now (The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, for example). But while The Hacienda was painfully predictable, this book contained twists I didn’t see coming.

Jason’s goal in Dark Matter is to get back to his family. This is his driving motivator for everything he does throughout the book. This goal drives the story and (SPOILER), unlike Beatriz in The Hacienda, he achieves it.


Why I prefer Dark Matter over The Hacienda

It comes down to intriguing characters and a solid structure that delivers what it promises. In Dark Matter, I empathized with Jason and his quest. I couldn’t empathize with Beatriz in The Hacienda and lost the thread of her quest. Dark Matter lived up to its genre, providing pseudo-science and lots of thrills whereas The Hacienda relied on tired tropes.

The Hacienda receives 👍🏻  for poor craftsmanship.
Dark Matter receives 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 for a thrilling ride.



Next month’s book club

The cover of The Cabin at the End of the World

Poster of the Knock at the Cabin

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (who wrote the scary Head Full of Ghosts). This horror novel was adapted into a hit movie, The Knock at the Cabin, which I’ll also review and compare to the novel.

Fun fact: I preferred the ending of the movie!




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