READERS TELL ALL.
Now in the 21st century, we are allowed to begin a new canon, a crime canon for the 21st century. Assuming this is true, it's easy to place Alison Gaylin's What Remains of Me as the most significant and game-changing Hollywood novel in the crime genre, the definition of The Hollywood novel, The Hollywood novel all Hollywood novels will follow and try to beat. And likely the same can be true about Gaylin's last novel, the Edgar-winning If I Die Tonight, a book that has redefined how novels (and more specifically crime novels) approach technology, perhaps the most definitive tech-crime novel since Patricia Cornwell's, but benefiting from qualities only Gaylin can provide, an expert in humans, humanity, and empathy beyond all others.
The newest novel by Gaylin, Never Look Back, somehow combines the nostalgia of What Remains of Me (which, by the way, should have won the Edgar, but I won't argue that here) and the modernity of If I Die Tonight. Never Look Back screams love in the middle of the blackhole of noir and crime, the desperation and love and how they can mirror each other, or perhaps be the same thing. Gaylin rips emotions, memories, and truths from her characters only she can. She is a grand looker, someone who observes the world and draws from it every truth other people can't understand. You see a psychotic killer who pursues victims because of a dead sister, brother, friend, mother, or father? Gaylin sees a killer who is dark from the beginning, who discovers a darkness, who never forgets this darkness and is just ready to unravel it at the word "Go." Gaylin is an expert at understanding how anyone works, including so many people who aren't her. I admire the positive aspects of #OwnVoices, but to dismiss anyone advocating for writing and understanding voices outside oneself is criminal, especially when dealing with Gaylin, who happily flips between gay men and young women in love with gay men and women dealing with the tragedy of never knowing herself or her parents--so many people who aren't necessarily Gaylin, and yet she writes them as naturally as she might a diary entry. Only, with Gaylin, reading any of her books, we feel as if Gaylin understands these people better than she would her own diary entries. We never feel we get characters in Gaylin's novel. These are people trapped in pages. These are horrors not confined to black ink, as they do not simply stay on the page, but leap at you, grab you, choke you, make you scream. Gaylin is here to remind you of the utter love and brilliance of humanity, and also how destructive and vicious humans can be, and how far we go to get what we want. Gaylin knows people better than people know themselves. She pulls back their skin and reminds them of the tissue inside, the things they destroy with fast food and Red Bull and desire and loneliness.
Here's the thing. Gaylin may have, with Never Look Back, tapped into the biggest game-changer of a novel since Hitchcock's Psycho (note, I am referring to his filmic version, and not the novel or the remake) or Kevin Williamson and the late Wes Craven (RIP)'s Scream, the film to bring slashers back into fashion but also remind everyone that we are getting boring. The 90s were fairly stiff, books that could have remained the same outside a few, the exceptions being Donna Tartt's The Secret History, some claiming Patricia Cornwell's debut (although maybe we can beg to differ), and the welcome of a few great authors who would become greater, like the fabulous Laura Lippman, among others. Gaylin is now nodding to the entry of the 2020s, to a world where we may or may not be destroyed by Trump or find a hopefully happier future, but acknowledging that so many authors are doing the same thing. The Wife Who Got Away. The Woman Who Stabbed Herself with a Fork Because She Was So Fucking Tired of this Title. I Don't Trust My Husband Dear Fucking God. We Aren't Girls Anymore. Generic Title with Your Least Favorite Female Family Member. We Use Titles to Confine Women in Fiction. I'm fed up. Gaylin's fed up. So now maybe writers will up their game. They'll drop bombs like Gaylin does in this miracle of a novel. She switches between characters in a miraculous way, keeping the third person feeling like third person and never confusing or boring the reader. No one is safe for Gaylin. Everyone is expendable. That's how life is, no matter how much you root for them, no matter what you hope for, and if I had to make an argument I'd say Gaylin is the most heartbroken of all the writers, and maybe a broken heart and a dead body are the same thing.
Perhaps Gaylin won't receive the Donna Tartt treatment. But this book is a sign of many books to come: Gaylin is growing, combining subgeneres, challenging any writer who wants to beat her, and letting everyone know the time is up. She's on par with Alex Marwood and Laura Lippman. She writes a book similar to Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, although sometimes her dark places are darker, matches with luminous saccharine sweet heights only Gaylin can bring for you. Gaylin does not confine herself. There's no one person who will get all the answers. There's no one happy ending. My therapist has a saying--a saying lots of therapists and people and yes writers use. "Every relationship ends in heartbreak. There's no way out of that." Am I here referring to our relationship with Gaylin, her novels, or her characters? Perhaps all three. Gaylin works on the assumption you think you're reading a basic bitch crime book. She works on the assumption you think she's confined to her own world, and will never listen, will never learn, and will never write something remotely outside herself. Instead, Gaylin is one of the bravest people writing today, not just ready to listen and learn and understand other people, but then violently kill them off in her book. It takes a lot to try and understand something and then destroy it. And Gaylin does this so well.
Does anyone come out on top at the end of the novel? Are all the loose ends tied up? Will there ever be a book quite like this again? Perhaps it's a strength, writing a new book each and every time, but this could also be her weakness, not able to repeat the same book ever. Either way, Gaylin is winning. Her standalone are heartbreaking and earth-shaking and you will never forget them. For me, I still love What Remains of Me. It was my first Gaylin, and I think everyone remembers their first Gaylin. But never before has she reached into my brain like this, grabbing hold and refusing to let go. During rereads I have found myself fighting sleep so hard as I try to finish a page, a paragraph, a sentence.
Then there's the appearance of Brenna Spector. She just shows up to remind us of Gaylin's origins, and maybe something more. Perhaps we can have an all female original crime fighting Avengers-type thing, what with Laura Lippman's Tess, Alafair Burke's Olivia, and so many more? I would be. fan of this too. I would be a fan of any collaboration between these powerhouses. Fingers crossed and remember: Gaylin's books will knock you dead, just probably not as dead as your favorite characters.
Aya De León is a writer to watch. With that being said, and with the recognition I can only speak so much in depth about her brilliant new novel, Side Chick Nation, without revealing too much of the plot and ruining it from you, I will refrain from giving too many plot details. I will say the book consists of: kick ass women, all the dark and noir-ish settings like Miami with prostitutes and pimps and drugs, violence and fear, and strangely enough hope. Aya is a writer who is not afraid to tackle the hard topics. She dives straight into how America, the "official" America, the America with 50 states where people will not recognize any territories or people who do not live in these states--she knows how the people of these other places are mistreated, destroyed, and often forgotten. She is not afraid to point out that one of the biggest crimes--although not the only crime in this brilliant novel--is act of doing nothing.
As mentioned above, "destroyed" might not be the best word to describe Aya's book and characters. In fact, I would use something of the opposite: resilient, hardcore, ready-to-fight, ready-to-win (acknowledging these last two aren't one word), the determination to survive no matter what. I think of reading about Joyce Carol Oates loving Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, but stating she appreciates survivors more, people who fight through life at all costs. Well, you might say Aya is like Oates' characters, and yet turned into superheroes, fighting. against impossible events for help, for understanding, for truth. The victims of the hurricane, and those people who have suffered and still suffer around the globe, are often silenced by America. We continue to have so many shootings because there is no gun control. We continue to have more fights over a wall between Mexico and the United States, and we forget these people who are suffering, who have long suffered, and who fight viciously and determinedly to live. I can't imagine a more admirable quality--not just resilience, but a word we don't have in the English language for those who are not just resilient but will fight and destroy anyone and everything to survive and get hope and truth. This is past relentless, this is past determination. It's a quality Aya spots and delivers in her characters.
I have laughed reading Side Chick Nation. I have maybe teared up a bit during the novel, too (I'm not a big cryer, although give me a Larry McMurtry or Laura Lippman novel and I'll get close to bawling). This is the badass, crime-fueled epic you've been waiting for. Dulce, who you might consider the protagonist of the novel, makes an escape from a violent past to a world in Santo Domingo, a world which may be even more frightening. She, like so many of us, feels that because of her past she cannot truly be loved. Her feeling of inadequacy, her belief she's not someone great, someone amazing, this could be her downfall. But don't forget she's a fighter, just like many characters in this book. In the novel we see a spiraling, sprawling beauty of an epic, with drugs, those fighting for money, those abusing women and forcing them to prostitute themselves, strong hurricanes ripping towns and entire islands to shreds. The book is a non-stop thrilled ride, balanced miraculously by Aya De León's beautiful prose. She's a phenomenal writer, someone who can build tension, drag out dread and suspense, but also so carefully discern and describe the innermost workings of the characters she writes about. Aya is not afraid to dive deep in to the issues many people are afraid to discuss. I wouldn't write off Aya as not being affected by these crimes and tragedies; instead I would applaud Aya, as she, like anyone else practicing empathy and love, must struggle past difficulties and hurdles like her characters to get to an epic, amazing third act, the finish line, the part we are tearing through the pages to reach.
I've read Side Chick Nation twice already. The book is brilliant, from its prose and characters, to the suspense and dread Aya is able to create in any situation. Read Side Chick Nation and Aya's other books. You want regret it one bit. The book is also available in audiobook format. Such a wonderful treat, brilliant and absorbing, epic and fleeting, a striking commentary on so many aspects of the country many of us reside in, the neglectful people here, the survivors in places we pray for but never help. Send your love, send your money, and buy this book. It's a damn good novel. Not to mention, the way the author will often use different words from various languages, to show that in America, things aren't black-and-white, we cannot vote that way, we cannot think that way, we cannot live that way. Using these words, the words we do not have an English equivalent of, they remind you of the importance of understanding others, reading everything, listening to everything, learning everything. Some ideas are abstract, all people are complicated, nothing is life is easy, and we should never group someone into right or wrong, good or bad, worthwhile or worthless. Learn, love, and don't just survive. Fight until you get what you need, or go out swinging. Again, such a lovely book.
Steph Cha Wants America to Know Who They Love, What They Fight For, and Who They Forgive in Stunner of the Decade YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY
Google estimates Steph Cha's age as 33. So, I kind of hate her. Just for her age, her ability to create so much, and do so much before she's even 35. She might even have Carson McCullers jealous, the author who published The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at 23, the queer author who was somehow able to enter the minds of so many very different characters and convince the reader. Recently, the #ownvoices movement has created a stir. John Boyne, a renowned author and personal favorite of mine, was criticized for writing about trans characters. I myself was told to only write about someone exactly like me. I am assuming there are only so many novels I can write about a fat white Southern gay man who is declared as terminally ill virtually every other week, give or take. The idea of writing only about ourselves is such a dangerous notion, as it ignores one of the most powerful and impactful gifts of writing: the ability to, if qualified, if putting forth a genuine effort, we can understand people who aren't ourselves. This involves reading books by others and listening to others and writing about others and letting these people who are these other people read and help you understand, yes, but if done and done well it's worth the effort. Reading Steph Cha, you might guess she has flown over all this effort and written a--if not perfect novel--perhaps the most important novel of our generation. You might compare her to Carson McCullers reincarnate, or you might call the literary Jesus but with better hair and apparel, but either way, she's a winner.
Without effort, Your House Will Pay transports us to LA in the early 90s, just before riots which change so many lives, including some who haven't yet been born. We see black LA residents, young siblings positioned in a time some might look back with a strong sense of nostalgia, and while Cha has a rare gift of drawing you back with situations not soaked in blood or guns, there's something about your heart being twisted when you see how these kids, family, love one another, the whole time knowing things cannot stay great forever.
Enter the Parks, Grace as the central figure who will find herself opposite Shawn Matthews, one of the children mentioned earlier in the book as a child of the early 90s. There have been deaths, there will be deaths, and yes, Cha has the capability of outmaneuvering anyone with decades more experience in crime fiction than herself--but Cha is here for everything. She wants you to feel the chills, your gut twisted with the unknowing, the need-to-know, the dying-to-know, the way she builds lives around you, the way she can break those lives with the flick of an ENTER key. What might make her the greatest young author living today, and possibly the greatest author of my entire generation--she has a gift that transcends writing in general, and moves into a much deeper, delicate, and resilient aspect of human nature: she uses words to cut through humanity and help us understand how we are all connected in the best and worst ways. This skill is not necessarily writerly, but more so only capable of a person with a great ability to practice both empathy and balance, two of many things comprising Cha's expertise. .
Name an author who can do that. Name an author who can do that--an author who is 33, an author who, if my facebook stalking is correct, has been struggling with this novel for four to five years. There's a thunderous anxiety building through the novel, the fear of not knowing--not just in the case of whether rot someone will survive a crime, but more involved with the way we know people. I grew up in Hogeye, South Carolina with many less-than-great people, cousins I love despite the reminder, again and again, that if I ever "turn gay" (at the time, I didn't even know what the word truly meant) I would "burn in Hell." When my grandfather ran over a cat, not killing it but basically destroying it, my cousin--also not a great person--a born hunter, destroyer, used his Bowie knife to finally show the cat mercy. Later, his older sister sat in the McDonald's drive thru window crying about whether or not he would go to hell for killing the cat, gasping dramatically when she actually said the full word "hell," then whether she would go to hell for taking her friend's appointment at the tanning salon later in the day.
In a more earnest way, the idea of killing, destruction, the loss of a life is something harder to reckon with. My family's struggles sound comical at parts, heinous at others, but that's important to note is that while no one is perfect, and certainly many actions are undoubtedly condemnable, the question is always there: can we lose someone we love so deeply if they have caused the loss of someone else's loved one? Can we hurt the people we love if they have hurt someone or something else? Can we take something so significant from someone we love so wholly when they have done to someone else?
Even after learning someone does not love me in the way I love them, even in learning they might give me up even if I would never consider giving them up, I do not stop loving this person. I have not stopped in violence, in betrayal, in some losses greater and more permanent than death. Love is not something we can measure, walk away from, zip away from on a line or fly away like a superhero. People do not break off romantic relationships by simply turning and walking away like in CW television shows (and I love CW shows so much), but there is so much give and take, running back to one another, testing, doubting, hurting and being hurt, and sometimes things never really do end. The duality of everything being over and nothing ever being over, the dialectic between good and evil (if you suppose those are opposites), love and hate (if you believe those are opposites), but understanding that everything is ultimately a dialectic, a tightrope to be walked, the need to move forward no matter what and never pass judgment but always understand what is right and wrong, and not necessarily good or bad. These things are hard to differentiate, but Cha's book, a rare gem of a novel, does so beautifully, letting us understand how truly contradictory everything about love, family, race, class, and ultimately the types of civil war we wage against one another in all different parts of America on a day-to-day basis is something Cha does unflinchingly and spectacularly.
This year has felt a lot like season one of Buffy, with Cha in the titular role fighting against the Master (please never question my Buffy knowledge, ever). Cha has come out on top, of course, releasing a novel that feels like V by Thomas Pynchon or The Secret History by Donna Tartt. While this is definitely not Cha's debut, Your House Will Pay stands out as Cha's first standalone, and a step forward as a new writer all together. She has evolved, somehow emerged in a way--not necessarily like a butterfly, as I will not accept anyone brushing Juniper Song aside in favor of this novel (even if this novel is one of the most genius books of any genres in years)--Cha is not here to fuck around. Her novel does what so few people can do: have an opinion. Or, rather, for Cha, she is offering you the option to have an opinion, rather than blindly follow a presidential candidate, a political party, a way of thinking, or, more clearly, who you have been shaped as compared to who you can be once you make your own decisions. In a world where words like "mansplaining" and "toxic masculinity" are thrown around like ultimate frisbee and then if one woman lies or alters any facts about a rape, all women are lying about rape, we need Cha now more than ever. Is it so impossible to believe that we may not know everyone completely? And why must this be so scary? While the crime community is guilty of using the fear of not knowing to churn out so many domestic thrillers, at the same time isn't not knowing someone completely part of the brilliance of knowing someone? If we treat each character like a book character, the flaming Scarlett O'Hara who only wants love when it doesn't want her, Rhett Butler who must be yearned for despite being a racist and a rapist--what if everyone was this simple? I would stay home.
Unlike other writers working with issues of social justice, Cha takes a step down and does not defend Korean Americans, and still she doesn't take the Black Americans who costar in her novel and make them all martyrs--in fact, she writes of doing the opposite in Your House Will Pay. People are humans--truly, utterly human--and Cha has imagined them, walked through their shoes, listened to the music they like and pushed herself through every scenario of their past and present lives. Cha presents characters who cannot make one decision or take one action and assume things will only progress and change in a straight line. For Cha, there are a dozen people who act for a hundred reasons and when you combine all of these things, there is no order, there is no absolute truth, and there are no perfect and definite decisions. The broken love Cha presents doesn't mean love no longer exists. It's just real. And it's scary.
We can love one another but not like, appreciate, or endure anything the other person does. Love doesn't have a switch, and the wretchedness of the emotion, the good and the bad, the beauty even in the wreck, I think that's the most difficult part of living with people, and Cha presents this so well. Oh, and there are guns, deception, fear, death, and a walkman or two. And your heart will break. But in Your House Will Pay, Cha presents a world where everything may not be perfect, and hope may not be the thing Christian movies about soldiers and dogs offer, but there is peace in accepting we are complicated people with complicated pasts, and sometimes even if the daily struggle of understanding the balance of everything in our life is too much, it's necessary.
You loved Juniper Song? Steph Cha was just getting warmed up.
Alex Segura's astonishing"Pete Series" starring Pete Fernandez is coming to a close with the astonishing final novel, Miami Midnight. Miami Midnight gathers up a lot of what makes Pete great: in a sense, it's the final homecoming novel for Pete, the return to every dark part of him, the understanding that nothing is actually right or wrong, not entirely so, and instead we must invest in and trust Pete's ability to decide what must be done.
The novel is a sort of fairy tale--one that might not be as gruesome as a story about a mermaid and her demise or a dancer with special shoes and, well, her demise, but Pete is destined to fight against seemingly impossible odds and in doing so he prove to be a true hero for a noir series. Here, Pete must prove he is--and isn't--what he's been all along, as he's suffered with his self-doubt, mental illness and alcoholism, the losses he's experienced over the years, and every other way he's been defined by others and therein through their eyes viewed himself.
With Pete trying to save the day and pull off impossible feats, hoping save lives and stop something much bigger than himself, he becomes a character not to be messed with, and a sleuth and investigator who stands among the likes of Sara Gran's Claire Dewitt, one of my all-time favorite characters, much like Pete. In fighting to save lives--including his own--Pete must prove himself some sort of hero. The same goes for Segura, a marvelous wordsmith with an expert ability to plot novels so well even JK Rowling might be envious.
The novel, in many ways, is the mirroring of the first novel in the Pete series, and it is the mirroring of what started off as a regular blockbuster novel and has now, in the novel's final stages, swelled to a height somewhere between films like Melancholia and the Broken Earth series, or any novel by William T. Vollmann. Here we wonder if Pete and Kathy will be together by the end of this novel--or if either of them will even be alive. Here there is the question of what Pete will ultimately discover--for past the miraculous twists Segura manages to whip up, beyond the grand reveals and the secrets, we must learn the truths about all of us, human nature, the worst and best parts of us we are either unable to see or try to avoid.
Here is a love story, my love story, to Pete Fernandez and Segura as well. This past year has been difficult for me personally, and it's so important to see the (realistic) resilience of Pete, his ability to keep standing and keep fighting, whether it's for his own health or the safety and lives of others. In Pete's world, we see the grittiness of Breaking Bad, but unlike Breaking Bad, with a "good enough" finale, Segura does not hold back. Granted, there's no gust-worthy climax like in the previous novel, Blackout, but that may be the very point of the novel: Segura isn't looking for fireworks. He's looking for a K.O.
Bask in the series. Love them and let yourself love Pete and every person in his world, and all the fights he overcomes. Pete is resilient, but his fate is undecided. Miami Midnight comes out soon, and you should preorder, and if you haven't read the entire series, feel free to catch up. Midnight signals the end of one day, the bridge to another, and likewise we may say goodbye to Pete and his world, but Segura is a master with words and characters and story, and whether Pete returns again, we are lucky to have Segura stick around and tell more tales, break my hearts, and drop more bodies than we can count.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Alongside fellow heavyweights Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, and Lou Berney, Blackout has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best novel. Just another reason you should dive into Pete's world.
Dimberg Speaks for an Emerging (and Important) Subgenre of Crime Fiction in GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
It was Laura Lippman who told me her newest novels, perhaps starting with After I'm Gone, are her quietest novels. I believe the term was "quiet novel," to be exact, and that's exactly what the genre is. A series of books, written mostly by the amazing women inside the crime world, allow for suspense to build from the the crackling voice of truth, or even being so near the truth, too near the truth. Other authors to consider would be Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke, Alison Gaylin, Attica Locke, Steph Cha, and a few others. For the most part, these authors now focus on the terrifying possibilities of understanding not just others, but ourselves as well. Most of the books are beyond astonishing, and while it's hard to tell where this kind of writing began, we can speak for where it is now. Currently, the new debut novelist focusing on quiet mysteries is Kelsey Rae Dimberg, author of Girl in the Rearview Mirror, coming out very, very soon.
The novel centers around Finn, a young woman who has been desperate for money but now has an enjoyable and relatively well compensated job as many for Phoenix's top family, the Martins. She falls under the spell of the youngest son of a senator, now a grown man with a wife who is chilly to the point of brain freeze, and a charming daughter with so much life in her, she becomes hard to resist. They are Philip, Marina, and Amabel respectively. This is a family she is both a part of and a stranger to. At times, Dimberg allows Finn to feel as close to home as she'd like, and then an alien to the people she spends so much time with. However, the fact which will never change is that Finn loves Amabel more than mostly anything. Dimberg excels at the best elements of the quiet crime novel: characters don't become suspicious overnight, there are no explosions or gunfire but a scene with a girl on a swing set can be one of the most terrifying scenes you ever read. Dimberg is great at unravelling not just mysteries but also people, complicated and contradictory in the best of ways, and she treats the need to understand a person and understanding a mystery as equals. Finn has a past of her own, too, and as she tries to step toward the secrets of the governor, his son's family, and a crime inevitable but terrifying, Finn finds she may have to reveal her own secret.
This is a novel I wish I'd written. Dimberg writes with a poignant and destructive sense of character, understanding
There are few occasions when a debut rivals a literary favorite of mine. Any literary favorite of mine. I recall Amy Gentry's GOOD AS GONE being astonishing, as well as Lori Roy's BENT ROAD, both of these books being mesmerizing and caught up in their own space, place, time. The same can be said true for FREEFALL by Jessica Barry, a book as mysterious as its writer who only writes under the pseudonym of "Jessica Barry." The novel itself could at first appear to be lacking in many ways, as James Patterson wannabe, but just keep reading. Barry has every chance to cast her reader off into simple backstories with even more simple (and unbelievable) explanations as to why characters want what they want, and think what they think. Instead, Barry avoids the typical formula of her male counterparts and creates two incredibly wonderful and distinct female voices, women who will not be stopped no matter what man or men tell them to, and who will not be silenced--or killed--no matter how many times a gun is head to their head. The novel functions while vacillating between a mother (Maggie) and daughter (Allison) and occasionally an unknown pursuer, ready to kill any and everyone he gets his hands on. The story is told forward and in reverse, and neither plot lines lack entertainment, thrills, chills, intense character development, and eventually a beautiful, stunning, perhaps even overwhelmingly worthwhile conclusion that the characters have worked for. What's that they say in writing class? "Any conclusion is believable as long as the character has earned it"? These women do earn their conclusions. The novel begins with the plane crash where Allison, one of two occupants, is the sole survivor. She manages to begin her escape, and it seems to be clear that someone is pursuing her--but who would pursue Allison through the Colorado Rockies? That's a part of the mystery, but the mystery doesn't stop there. Maggie, Allison's mother who has remained in Maine even after Maggie's husband's death, learns that her daughter is dead. Definitely dead. Even though they cannot find Allison's body or any remains that would go along with the death story. Maggie begins to dig herself, and as we work backward through Allison's past and Maggie's investigation we learn some scary things--mostly things that men have done to Allison, and we learn of a world of rape, domestic abuse, all types of things Maggie did not wish for her daughter, and never would have wished for her daughter. These two are reconciling with their pasts and their presents--Alison as she rushes to find peace, sanctuary, some place where she might be safe from this killer and perhaps get back to her mother, and from there she needs to get to Maine. Maggie meanwhile needs to find out about a mysterious death come into contact with her after the discovery of the plane crash, and try and learn to the best of her abilities exactly what happened with Allison and how she might get her daughter back finally. Hold on to your seats and be prepared for tears and giant adrenaline rushes--this may not be Terms of Endearment, but it's certainly making its own mark in the literary world. FREEFALL is just that--the fear of letting go, and the escalation through the downfall as you learn exactly how intense, gripping, frightening, and finally beautiful this book actually is. And how badass its leading heroines are.
For years, I've avoid the "cozy mystery" genre like a plague. When I picture the genre in my head, all I can think about are cats solving mysteries and Murder She Wrote--not that there's anything wrong with either of those, and the more diversity in the crime genre the better, but nevertheless cozy mysteries have never been my cup of tea. That was, at least, until I found out that Kellye Garrett's Detective by Day novels, featuring her (now award-winning protagonist) Dayna Anderson, a sort-of-famous actress turned private investigator who will stop at nothing to solve these crimes. Add a load of humor and an unstoppable sense of tension and sometimes despair that keeps the book in motion and you turning the pages, and you get the work of the incomparable Kellye Garrett.
Garrett was a wrier for television, as my research has led me to understand, yet her protagonist, Day or Dayna depending on who is referring to her, is from a hometown not far from my own in Georgia. With reverence to her religion (an unspecified sect of Christianity) and so much love and warmth in the novel for Dayna and her two best friends, although an irresistible romance, it's hard to put these books down, even when you've recently suffered severe eye damage like I have in the recent year, making me take extended breaks between reading periods to try and maintain my vision while also maintaining my sanity. It's hard to keep your blood pressure and heart-rate down when you're reading work as fine as Garrett's, and what's even more astonishing is how Garrett avoids using a lot of what might be considered "negative" qualities of the genre from the past to today. Dayna does not curse (or, according to her, she does her best not to), there's not frequent sex scenes and sex is definitely not alluded to, and the violence is minimal--so much so that the climax of the first novel, HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE, is so delicious and stunning that it's hard to believe the author has kept all of these secrets and tricks buried up her sleeve somewhere.
There are two books in the series so far--HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE and HOLLYWOOD ENDING--the latter of which made my heart sink, leaving me wondering if, perhaps this is the end fo the series. According to a very recent update from the Amazon page for preorders of the fantastic Kellye Garrett, there is a. new book in the works and is coming to us in 2019:, HOLLYWOOD HACK, seemingly available for preorder and at a ridiculously low price. I rarely get so involved in a series--but lately I've started to witness and experience how Garrett's books, along with private investigator series by Erica Wright, Steph Cha, Alex Segura, and Kristen Lepionka all make me wonder if the traditional Philip Marlowe character--with Raymond Chandler being owed a lot for sort of setting some firm rules for the genre--is in fact no longer the rule, but the exception. It's a breath of fresh air to see these private investigators, not the typical white heterosexual cis-male, and how they all lead and empower different parts of different races and cultures and make one wonder if there is a brighter future for the readers of private detective fiction, making us wonder if perhaps if libraries and any other safe zone being cut by Trump, perhaps the newest way to solve all one's problems is by hiring the private investigator of the twenty-first century.
I for one am looking forward to Dayna Anderson's remarkable turn in--what I hope, for once--won't be a limited series, but will go on as long as my eyes continue to read these books. Garrett has won so many awards for the first book in Dayna's series, and I think it's important to note that she defies whatever our expectations are for a "cozy" mystery. The Detective by Day series could be viewed as a wide assortment of the crime and mystery genres, but don't be fooled and don't give in and not read these books. They are by far some of the best writing novels--fiction or non, crime or any other genre--published by day. Between the never ending, twisting and turning mysteries, the romance, the bromances (what would you call it when sister have a really close relationship? Just a sisterhood?)--you won't be able to tear your eyes away from the page, and, like me, you'll be dying for more. I have very rarely been so glued to one series at once, but Kellye Garrett can take all of my money if that means that she'll keep writing in a genre she loves, about a character who inspires her, and in this effortless, stomach-churning way that made me realize--and will allow any future readers to do the same--I cannot wait for the next Detective by Day mystery, nor to see where Garrett's career leads her.
In 2013, I was at a breaking point. A boy I thought I loved told me "I am not in a mood for relationships, but if was, I would be with you." Which, let's be real, is as fake as things can come, and that was before the--and I hate this phrase, but love using it ironically--level of "woke' I became due to crime novels which exposed me to the truth of things, a truth other genres cannot match or compare. I decided that perhaps I could be like a hero--or, rather, heroine--of mine, Veronica Mars, and so I set off solving mysteries. One involved getting a dog out of a locked car in July. That proved simple enough, as the front door was actually unlocked and the methheads who owned the car (I have my fair share of experience with methheads, given I am from a place called Hogeye, SC) who nearly attacked me, accusing me of stealing their dog. The next mission was a bit rougher--I had a cousin who will go unnamed, and who may or may not have been addicted to heroin. I bragged later in class about my endless efforts to locate him after he went missing, and finding him at the home of a drug dealer--his drug dealer, to be exact. Bragging about this in front of a professor I thought was cool actually resulted in me being sent a New Yorker article (because he was an English professor, and not afraid to show his snobbery) about criminal informants who wind up being found dead after dealing with drug deals. Let me get this across: I never once said that I was seeking out drugs, just a drug dealer who had provided my cousin a place of refuge after he tried to burn his parents' mansion to the ground--with said parents inside. Oh and so I don't get sued for this, assume this was all made up.
The point of the little anecdote is to press another matter on you: anyone who is reading this, all of the loyal followers of my website, desperately need to seek out a copy of Canary by Duane Swierczynski. I currently have exhausted all of my own funds sending our copies to my many friends, relatives, and fellow book-lvoers. By the way, if you aren't on the list and want to be gifted with extraordinary works of fiction, contact me and get on this list. Canary is a shining gem of crime fiction, writing in both a cold, hard-as-rock noir narrative mixed with the letters of a young college student to her mother. Her dead mother. Who used to be involved with drugs, possibly a cartel, herself.
Sadie Holland is trying to live her own life, maybe find a boyfriend, make decent grades, and be an average college student when she is unfortunately put in a position that--while not selling drugs--makes her look guilty enough to become a criminal informant. I won't really spoil the novel for you--there's danger, for sure, and it's lurking around every turn of the page of this novel--but you should be very aware: this is possibly the greatest book by a straight man since I breezed through Alex Segura's Pete Fernandez series. Segura himself is a sort of pupil of Swierczynski's, and I really don't know what to brag about more--knowing someone who mentored Segura, or knowing that Segura was the mentee or Mr. Swierczynski. Both roles deserve bragging rights, and let's be real--I am queer as fuck and I do not normally bag about straight men who intimidate me in the writing community, mostly because there aren't many who do. Throw in Daniel Woodrell, Larry McMurtry, and there are only a handful of other names who could be added to the list of straight men--and excluding Segura--straight white men--who make me want to devour their entire bibliography at record speed. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Laura Lippman backed Duane up by giving me her version of "READ THAT SHIT ALREADY" a few years ago. And thank god I finally did, but also, this is one of those books you're sad to have read at all, because it means you'll never have another "first reading" experience, given you don't give in and spend all your savings on electroshock therapy and forget the past six months of your life.
It would be hard to say that the writing in Swierczynski's novel is "immaculate" or "world-changing," mostly because he is able to slip in and out of so many voices, places, and people with such ease that it feels effortless, like Swierczynski typed this all out Jack Kerouac style (and yes there is mention of the Beats in the novel)--only, well, Jack Kerouac could have learned a thing or ten from Duane. Don't get me wrong, I loved reading Kerouac in eleventh grade when I was just as ironically un-woke as the next "No I'm not gay I just have an effeminate voice please don't ever talk to me again" literary wannabe. I only wish I had been able to read Canary then, and please, to all the friends receiving copies, thank me by naming your first children after me, or by somehow boosting me up in the literary community, or, better yet, buy ten copies of the book for your ten favorite people, even if they don't appreciate fine literature as much as we do.
Let me rattle off a few of those book review cliches that apply directly to this masterwork: it will have you on the edge of your seat. Swierczynski will knock your socks off with his literary prowess. He can somehow effortlessly inhabit the mind and voice of a young woman and understand all the complexities she faces in a post-Facebook world. He can also write from a. woman's point of view and not stick in the unnecessary "likes" and "oh my gods" that so many successful--wait for it--women writers put in their work to seem genuinely feminine. There is nothing false or condescending in the way Swierczynski approaches any of his characters, and it is truly a shame he hasn't released more books than he has, but in the same sense, this just means that every work he publishes is one to treasure. For a man who has mentored so many great, aspiring, and now world-shattering authors, and for a man who can earn the love and respect of a god like Laura Lippman, any of you who are reading this should be adding you to your (hopefully indie bookseller) shopping cart immediately and selecting the fasting shipping method, and that's only if your local bookseller is currently closed and you cannot race over there right now and snag a copy of the book I'm speaking of.
This world is tough. The United States government currently hates, as it always has, women, racial minorities, anyone who identifies on any level as queer, immigrants (including those seeking asylum in our country but the government wants to jeopardize their lives over), the poor and struggling lower and middle classes, really, let's be frank, everyone. And this government always has. And while I have admired Mr. Swierczynski from afar and am pretty sure he is as great a man as they come, and I recognize that his books will not fix every one of the social injustices our nation faces on a daily basis, perhaps you will consider buying any of his books, especially this book in particular, and spare yourself the grief of reading yet another headline about how much our government hates you for being you. Perhaps you will buy a book by this man, let him write more books that will help you escape, and when you come back from this escape, stronger than ever, you can fight to make things right. So while Swierczynski's novel only concerns itself with many and and not all social justice issues, perhaps you might be persuaded to know that buying one of his books will give your brain, your heart, and your mental health. a break, and in purchasing a copy of his book, you will enable a man who supports ALL of you to continue writing. It's a win-win-win whichever way you look at it.
Canary not only features one of the most endearing female presences in any book, written by man or woman, in the past several decades, it also features one of the most important messages our country is struggling with currently: coming to terms with its past, and deciding if it will make a brighter and better future for the people who have always been treated poorly, but deserve better. On that note, I will leave you with a link that Mr. Swierczynski asked me to share to a Noir at the Bar happening later this month, and also really encourage you to purchase his novel, which is genius. And I don't throw that word around for White. Straight. Men.
Much love to you all. I hope you read this book and support the writings of Mr. Swierczynski in the process.
Also, it would be a shame if I didn't mention that the novel does concern one of my favorite themes in any novel, ever: revenge, which is maybe what some of you are looking for right now.
In mid to late 2010, there was a lot of to-do about Jonathan Franzen's (admittedly O.K.) novel Freedom. It was publicized so heavily and one commenter, I believe from the New York Times, remarked that if women bothered publishing books of quality and length as Jonathan Franzen, they would be widely celebrated. I read Freedom. It was fun for a while, then long, then longer, then when-will-this-end, then someone digging something out of his own bowel movements. This has been one of the most celebrated books of the century thus far, and a favorite for book club selections and pretentious writers and readers alike.
In 2011, I was introduced to a world wonder by, well, another world wonder (read below), Megan Abbott. Megan went on and on about Christa Faust, and I have to admit, I was confused. This was Christa Faust's second "Angel Dare" novel, a pulp book about a former porn star turned porn executive who begins a series of books (unfortunately, there are only two so far) with "coming back from the dead" (one of the greatest first sentences I've ever read. My friend created a start-up at the time, and I made sure to make an account for myself (and for many other fake versions of myself) begging for copies of Christa Faust's books. I mean, Megan said they were gold. More than gold, actually. What's more than gold? Platinum? Oprah's piss?
I was absorbed with these books. I mean absorbed. Living with my roommate at the time, she claims she knocked on my bedroom door multiple times, opened the door and hollered for me for several seconds before I actually realized she was there. She looked at my books and said "Are these pornography?" I replied, "I mean, they're pulp, but they are about pornography." She was skeptical. While Black (although we have oddly been confused of being sibling before) she is pretty much the most vanilla person I've ever met. Not to mention, her version of "dangerous" are the Lifetime Movies where pregnant women make suicide pacts.
She borrowed the first and said she would read one chapter a night. She knocked on my door at two A.M. and said, "Can I borrow the second?"
We haven't talked in a while. Another long story that doesn't belong in this ode to Christa Faust. I do know this. She didn't read. She didn't like reading. She tried to read because she wanted to be a lawyer, but she didn't read. She did devour both Christa Faust books in approximately two days' time. And then she got angry at Christa Faust, in part because she loved Angel Dare, the protagonist of the series, and in part because she doesn't know what goes in to writing books, how long they take, how much they must be edited, how they have to get published, and even worse how hard it is for women--especially women as daring and frank as Christa Faust, a Vicki Hendicks for a different age.
These books are a force to be reckoned with. They are at once undeniably entertaining, with a low reader like my friend finishing both in two days, and a fast reader like other friends finishing in a matter of hours. Christa's Angel has adventures that take her all over the west, and she fights, and she resists, and she overcomes. She is the woman the women need. She is the woman who expresses her fears but persists anyway. She is the woman that is not afraid to curse and talk "vulgarly" about porn and everything involved while writing in her inner thoughts in words that some of my poet friends have compared to pure poetry. Faust has many gifts as a writer, and I can't think of one flaw.
The series begins with an attempted kill on Angel Dare (her name as a porn star), in Money Shot, an excellent series beginner. I would argue that it's a tour de force, but that would do its sequel Choke Hold little to no justice. While Money Shot is about revenge, both against her rapist and against men who are trying to involve women in sex trafficking, Choke Hold is a masterpiece that surpasses the Fran...who? novel by miles. In just a few hundred pages she compresses an epic for our times--not without Angel's witty remarks, graphic sex scenes, and nuanced observations about, well, everything. Choke Hold is a book that spans much more than what its pages cover, a story of survival, a story of Angel the savior, a story of love, a story of loss. Angel does not stop throughout the entirety of Choke Hold, and this is a book not to be reckoned with. Be prepared to laugh, cry, rip your hair out with fear and anxiety, and then follow Christa Faust on Twitter and just hope she follows you back (HINT, CHRISTA, HINT. WE ALL LOVE YOU). Money Shot is by no means a masterpiece, so that makes me wonder--what do I term Choke Hold? It's beyond a tour de force, it's beyond an epic, it's beyond anything I've ever read before or read sense. Never have I experienced such joy and been so absorbed in a series, and never have I recognized a woman experience such injustice by not being paid by hoards of readers desperate to see another Angel Dare novel.
I'm desperate for another Angel Dare novel. Are you? Maybe sell your gently or roughly used copies of any and all Jonathan Franzen novels and send the money and receipts to Christa? Maybe buy a copy of both books for all your friends and yourself? Maybe anonymously mail a copy to your grandmother and notice how worn the book is on her nightstand which she tries to hide from you? Christa has hinted to me there is another Angel Dare novel coming, and she bigger than Choke Hold. So--if that's true--this book could, just by existing, take Trump down. This book could stop global warming.
All jokes aside, these books (along with Christa's other books available in print, electronic books, and audiobooks) should be bought, cherished, loved, and shared.
There's a new king wordsmith in town. Her name is Christa Faust.
A note: Megan was kind enough to send me a copy of GIVE ME YOUR HAND last year. I read it in the hospital during one of many surgeries. It was a terrible time in my life, and while I wrote a review then, I decided soon after I would not publish that review. Re-reading and re-writing the review has taken some effort, as I've had to take great strides to distance the book and its genius from a horrible time in my life. This is not just a revision, but a completely new way of thinking about Abbott's book, as nearly a year has gone by since then. xx
It's an understatement to say that the release of a new Megan Abbott book is something of an event. A major event. Since around 2010 or so, with the publication of The End of Everything, her first modern novel ("modern" referring to the 1980s), Abbott has released a book every two years during peak summer months, the heat sweltering, the days long, perfect for curling up in a chair or couch or bed and plowing through a book. I have never finished one of Megan's books in less than a day, and not because they are shorter than other author's novels. They are compelling, and once inside the narrator's (or narrators) head space, one is driven to the end of the novel, to the novel's undoubtedly explosive conclusion.
I cannot count on one hand the number of people, friends, fellow-writers, fans, who have told me they've called out of work today to read Megan's book. One of the friends said she had the flu.
Me: "Is it flu season already?"
Friend: "What the fuck does it matter? It's Megan Abbott season."
Touche. I can say, now that I am long past this period of employment, that I even called out when You Will Know Me was released. If you know anything about me, you know I am Megan's biggest fans, and she is one of my most treasured friends. She is also a mentor in many ways, one of her pieces of advice having stuck with many through the years (and playing a part in my asking questions during an interview, or reading my own writing--"Never judge one's characters."
I met Megan ten years ago. I could sloppily go on to talk about our friendship, mentorship, fanship, whatever. I have stood firmly by my belief that Dare Me is not only her best book, but the finest novel written (tied with Laura Lippman's After I'm Gone) this century. I do not think there is *one* great American novelist. I think Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke, Lori Roy, and so on (the list is endless) could stand in Megan's place as well.And yet Megan's talent is unrivaled in many ways. She writes fluidly, understanding girls in both an empathetic and fearful way, portraying female relationships like none other. This is understood universally, or at least in every kiss-ass New York Times review I've come across every two years, along with other publications who are watching Megan explode with talent and power. And it's time that women explode with talent and power. It's time that women take what is theirs (although not solely theirs)--literature, crime literature to be more specific, and a whole new canon to be examined and reinvented and understood by a new generation.
Megan has gone on record, if I remember correctly, by saying she would never kill off a woman or girl (murder wise) in a book. I cannot give away spoilers for her magnificent new novel, Give Me Your Hand, but it's fair to say that times change. Things are different. Megan is active in speaking out (while remaining civil) against the travesties taking place in our country. She is also a very important feminist, and possibly a genius. I personally think MENSA should test her out but whatever, that may just be me. Megan does not work through plot alone, nor through character alone. She is like many of her female contemporaries in allowing multiple facets of writing combine and flourish under her skillful hands. Once, there was a time when people--men, mostly--might have claimed that Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett created noir. Well, it's impossible to deny now that women are reinventing the "genre" (I've studied noir, and it's definitely hard to say whether noir is a genre or style or what have you, but for now, we'll call it a "genre"). Many articles have gone on to argue that Megan is no longer a crime writer, but a literary writer (their way of saying crime is not to be taken seriously, and Megan is to be taken seriously--a sentiment I'm pretty sure Megan might not be happy with). Nine books later, we have Give Me Your Hand, and, based on the summary, it's the last book I would have imagined combatting with Dare Me for that special place in my heart, the book I yearn to read again and again. Yet, this is it. This is the book with which, in my opinion, Megan has outdone herself, taking a novel that was already perfect and creating a novel that is somehow even more perfect. Goddamn, I feel sorry for Jonathan Franzen.
The book deals largely with combatting scientists over who might be granted a position to study an extreme form of PMS. Megan weaves in the straight man (and, perhaps, gay man too)'s fear of menstrual blood with murder. I don't recall there being one, but I'm surprised Abbott didn't make a Paul Thomas Anderson reference in the book--I'll make it for her, if that's all right. Pick up the book. And know this: THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
in this more than fantastic novel, we find two female protagonists battling each other and several men for a spot on the research team. This could eventually grant them so much success, the success they've been fighting for nonstop for years. Yet things unravel. They always do in crime books, and especially in Megan Abbott books. There is no villain. Just as Megan has advised me, she does not judge her characters, and no one is vile and evil or out for revenge--everyone is doing their best, trying to succeed, attempting to get to a place in life, in the day, where they are happy with themselves and what they've accomplished. And Megan does add some strong feminist notions, but oh so subtly. She also comments through her writing on women being pitted against each other, as Jessica Knoll, the great author of Luckiest Girl Alive, has been actively outspoken about and working against for some time now. Women do fight. Women combat one another for success, for hope, for a future. They are told bluntly they have to work many times harder than their male colleagues, they are told that they may not succeed no matter what they do, and this is mixed in with a sense of dread that Megan--and only Megan--can accomplish through her novels. Sure, we know there' sa crime at the beginning. We have a pretty strong clue as to what has happened. Eventually, before the action gets really intense, we learn the truth. But it's only a half-truth. A part-truth. Something women crime writers are great at doing--see Laura Lippman's Sunburn, Alafair Burke's The Wife, Alison Gayline's If I Die Tonight, for other great examples from earlier this year. These women know how to work. They own their work. And, if I'm being incredibly frank, their own their writing--and all writing, really. These writers work as hard as the female protagonists in Megan's novel, and they have earned their spots in the literary community. They are unstoppable.
I'm going to state something very obvious. Blood is the source of life, whether signaled through a woman's monthly period or through the gushing neck of one character midway through the book. The loss of the blood during a period and the loss of blood from the neck wound are seen as equally repulsive by separate characters--and separate sexes at that. The blood motif is obvious and flows freely throughout the novel. Blood does, after all, run through every living person's veins, and every person in this novel is complicit in one way or another. While I wasn't shocked by the small twists in the ending of this book--or, I should say, *as* shocked--as in Dare Me, the book does end appropriately--asking more questions than realizations, and flipping the table completely on the protagonist. These women are both rivals and confidants. And the latter role might be their very undoing.
Megan is, quite bluntly, the queen of noir. And the next Great American Writer. She combines the language of Raymond Chandler with the characterization found in the greatest literary novels. One of her greatest talents, as mentioned before, is the seemingly effortless way she manages to force the reader into a sense of dread. We push our way in at a steady pace--although sometimes it goes faster, more frantic--because we cannot stand what is happening, and we love what is happening, and we know nothing and everything all at once. The twists are neither cheap nor unearned. It is questionable whether the characters receive any redemption at the end--a great idea might be to purchase a copy yourself and decide on your own. If love of language doesn't get you going, this novel is not lacking on plot, and in a way unlike some of her previous novels--novels since Dare Me--we receive the payoff we need but don't deserve. And, frankly, Megan is a national fucking treasure. She is the author we need but don't deserve. People are finally recognizing this. People are finally understanding, in the past few years, that Megan is a force to be reckoned with. Called the next Hollywood novelist, writing frequently about female rage, Megan leans into another quote--another piece of advice--that she has given me plenty, plenty, plenty of times, and it is oh so true. It's a quote from her beloved Shirley Jackson. Something along the lines of if you write it away regularly, nothing can ever truly get to you.
I have been breathless since I read Give Me Your Hand last year. I have waited for books to topple it, and some have come close. I have understood. in my mind, there is no author like Megan Abbott. She is kind and loving and so generous in her knowledge and advice and understanding, which perhaps is the reason she is such a phenomenal writer. But beneath everything--as in with recent articles she's written about female rage, dealing with Sylvia Plath or otherwise--Megan is an author not-to-be-fucked-with. She has earned her spot, from her very beginning in writing one of the most widely-known dissertations while earning her PhD, followed by Die A Little, which earned her fandom from the most sincere and strongly passionate noir fans. She also has made me realize not only my potential as a novelist, but my love for noir and crime and suspense and thrillers.
When I first met Megan, I asked her for a list of books I might break into crime fiction with. I wasn't aware I was already reading crime--as Attica Locke has famously stated, all books are crime books--but she gave me the names of Daniel Woodrell, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, among others. I have been privileged to watch Megan soar from genius writer to national treasure. I have watched a lot of it unfurl. I have loved this book for so long, and I am hoping that you too will pick up a copy of the book and find something of yourself in it, whether you're a man or a woman, trans or cis, etc. There is so much to love about this book, and so much to learn from it. It is also her longest work of fiction yet. And not in a tiresome, dragged out way. Every word is earned. Every action is understood. Every twist is believed. Every heart is broken.
Today is National Megan Abbott Appreciation Day (or, since I'm posting this so late, yesterday was--). Her twitter is @meganeabbott and you can also find her on facebook and instagram. She may not get back to you right away, but god knows she likely will. She may not be the fourth wave feminist savior we're all looking for, but she understands the human heart in ways sociopaths like Trump and other politicians are incapable of doing so. She is one of the very, very few authors who make me wonder: Can reading really make a difference? No, not all books make a difference. No, not all writers are compassionate human beings. But I do think it's time that, like Megan's beloved Philip Roth, we recognize the new Great American Novelist
Her name is Megan Abbott. She has my heart, and if she doesn't have yours already, she will soon.
And she will change the world.