READERS TELL ALL.
Below, see extensive and essential reviews of Lauren Berry's two collections of poetry, The Lifting Dress and The Rented Altar . Lauren is the winner of the National Poetry Series (2011) and the C & R Press Poetry Award (2020). I hope to also have Lauren on for an interview, so stay tuned! And purchase both of her books for yourself and everyone you know immediately!
Pictured above: Poet Lauren Berry; Collections The Lifted Dress and The Rented Altar
Below, see extensive and essential reviews of Lauren Berry's two collections of poetry, The Lifting Dress and The Rented Altar
The first time I read the lines in Lauren Berry’s first collection, The Lifting Dress “I should never have been allowed / to be more than a child,” I did the closest thing to crying I’m used to. I got Chinese food, my chest seized up a bit and I had a panic attack or four, and I stood and looked at the mirror in my en suite bathroom wondering, When do I stop growing, and when do I actually grow into the person I want to be, or am supposed to be? I still haven’t answered that question, nor found the answer or provided it for myself, and I still haven’t gotten over the luminous and impeccably talented poet Lauren Berry.
The story of the poem collection concerns a young woman’s rape and coping with the aftermath of trauma, which in a way is a universal language, all trauma different, all varying in degrees and severities, but especially open to and directly targeting those more vulnerable, those minorities, those silenced. Poetry is a way of speaking victims learn when they must gush before being interrupted, and this book is like a series of demands and begging not to be interrupted once again.
In her first collection, The Lifting Dress, read and really devoured entirely again, again just days after an ER trip, a direct result from my own sexual assault. Some lines were too familiar, like “...she said she lived / because she never / mistook the lighted rooms / of the hospital / for Heaven.” These lines, both referring to childhood and hospital lights are from the same poem, believe it or not. The idea that we grasp on to things, even the intangible handlebars we want to believe are there, that we make manifest for ourselves in our own seeing, are things so powerful they can get us through a lifetime that is really only the brief moments after a trauma, the seconds we survive.
These lines come from the same poem, “Big Sister Drinks in the Field Behind the Children’s Hospital,” written years ago now. I imagine any poet or aspiring poet might be frightened by such a young writer who could summon in brief what novelists and story writers like Dorothy Allison and Sandra Cisneros spend careers pondering. Not to throw disparage either writer. I love them both as well (and I do hope Lauren notes mentioning the Cisneros’s wondrous scent, and me likely frightening her nearly to death by slamming on brakes because, frankly, I’d sell my best friend’s soul to meet Cisneros).
I’ve yet to even engage with her most recent collection, the ingeniously titled The Rented Altar, but can you blame me with poems, less a punch to the gut than straight through your chest? Gems like “magnolia flower withers” sounds less Steel Magnolias than the more innovative and emotionally obliterating Terms of Endearment, with prejudice regarding my love for the late Larry McMurtry. Descriptions that read “his mother’s quick womb” to make William Gay quiver. Titles alone like “The Year My Father Mistook the Ocean for a Mistress” could be ripped right out of Cane.
Flowers play just as much a role in this collection as anything bled (I think leeches, I think ancient and false cures for illness, I think of kissing the first boy I knew in that way, twelve, sitting at the top of a magnolia tree and toppling and falling and scraping my knee). There’s a beauty in the blood, the freshness there, but also the way bugs come, the swamp ferocious, the beauty in blood and in flowers, and the demand that some things which are naturally beautiful always remain this way, when they cannot. I cannot speak enough of this collection. And I feel I cannot provide too many quotes, or summarize too many poems, soliloquys sometimes almost in the way Cisneros writes of the same subject in The House on Mango Street. High praise.
It’s amazing how like Zora Neale Hurston, Karen Russell, Lauren Groff, among others, Berry can find beauty (even when tainted, bruised, poisoned) in the same water that fuels brilliant but disturbing Carl Hiaasen novels and meth alligators. Oh, I’m talking about Florida.
Lauren Berry’s second stunning collection is the gloriously crafted and C&R Press Poetry Award Winner, The Rented Altar. The poet challenges all other poets working today with a collection about a woman trying to fit into the shoes of her husband’s first wife. I think of my nephew, Rabbit, and changing my first diaper during my first fourteen-hour shift with just us two. He was on antibiotics, I wore what amounted to a makeshift hazmat suit, and how it became more experiment than experience (“experiment” being a word my sister will love to hear).
Berry has a gift for twisting births, and rebirths, the pain and labor, the mental and the physical, all of these things into one. One reason I likely won’t ever marry is because I cannot marry a man after he leaves his initial wife upon coming out of the closet. The other is the idea of portraits, paintings, pictures of our new family together. In “Family Portrait with my Stepson’s Heel Against My Stomach,” Berry writes, “Your heart was the only knot. / A labor pain. I sang, Build / a teepee, come inside, / close it tight so we can hide.” The heart, a knot, something worth throwing shoelaces and yarn away, something we learn as boy scouts in case we ever do decide to attempt a personal sequel to 127 Hours. In theory, these can be undone. Practically, easily, quickly, they’re near impossible to untangle.
Similarly, the children’s rhyme about a teepee is something I’d never heard until reading Berry’s collection. Here the narrator exists, teaching the child to tie a tighter knot, perhaps trapping the child, perhaps creating her own solitary. Preschool teachers taught me of teepees being unique ways to trap warmth, to survive, and here there is survival, but the reader could see the teepee, the knot, the heart helplessly, endlessly unmanageable, something that can never be made available to the reader or the second wife.
Before this, Berry tackles the subject so many of us have dealt with in one form or another, unless you’re the kind of guest that feels OK overstaying your welcome. In one of the opening poems (“The Bar of Dove Soap Hist First Wife Left Behind”) there’s shudder of owning someone else’s property, or possibly not knowing if the property is yours to even touch (“My husband’s first wife / held you to her fluttering, / broken heart.”). And something as simple as a bar of Dove soap, which often is plain, white, scentless, and yet so full of everything the narrator fears, regrets, and if I go deep into abject theory, and I’ll spare you, repulses the narrator at times when this bar which could almost be a blank space does, in fact, dominate everything.
There are flowers, there are scents, there are baths throughout the collection which really dominate the book in the need to be a blank slate. The author wants to be something new, and possibly something that can be molded and made or shaped. “She wanted to make things / struggle into beauty. / Was I not enough?” Berry writes in “Red Geraniums,” writing about her mother’s own flowers and that might be her own. To the northern reader, flowers are often a symbol, the blooming sensation of life, but in the South, and in Florida, the weather is often always warm, the flowers not always in peak condition but often always there in some form, and these reminders cannot be uprooted, unless we rip them straight out of the soil, and then there is earth, resembling cracked desert wasteland but more wet from the humidity. Berry takes metaphors than can become cliché and instead uses flowers in a Floridian sense—they are not reborn but always there, and no matter what she does they are the same flowers, the same petals, nothing to separate herself from the woman who came before her, nothing to water and call her own.
Berry is an author of rare talent. Her poetry is a shipwreck in the Bermuda triangle, an urban legend so terrifying it’s beautiful. Buy her books now and read her work slowly. Embrace her confidence, even as she speaks through a character or herself, her writing reminding me of one of my closest mentors and favorite friends, the genius poet Julianna Baggott, whose poem concerning Mary Todd Lincoln still swallows me whole sometime. Berry likewise is the same type of all encompassing, entirely consuming heatwave, relentless, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie post-There Will Be Blood, the terrifying and subtle heartbreak in Forster’s A Passage to India, the diving into the wreck, and Berry would make Rich proud.
Buy her books now, here and here, and listed plainly below.
The Lifting Dress
The Rented Altar
I vacillate. Some days I want to say, "Shawn is my best friend" because let's be real, that's everyone's dream. I want to shake some people when they say he was "discovered" and don't recognize that everything he's ever written, including his writing prior to Blacktop Wasteland, was amazing. I have very rarely been able to read a book so many times when it deals with mortuaries, as I won't even eat on the same street as a funeral home. However, this book, Razorblade Tears, serves as more than a fine follow up to Blacktop Wastleland, and a worthy addition to his own canon, but it's possibly Cosby's best work yet. When I read the description initially about a black father and grandfather avenging the murders of their gay sons, two different races from two different backgrounds, I almost gasped. That kind of gasp when you're like wow, I didn't think of this? Or more like, How could anyone think of this but Shawn? Yes, there are some downsides to the book, like the cliched setup you may see by the time you reach the end, but no one is writing about race or any topical issue as critical and necessary as SA Cosby. This book was something I didn't just read while walking, but if there was a traffic stop with no end in sight, I pulled it out. If I was unable to find anything to do for a few minutes (or looking for a few minutes to spare), I read this book. I took this book with me nearly everywhere, and I passed through an extremely difficult and also divine period in my life remind gate novel in the city where it is set. If you need more background on the novel: the world is fucked. If you need more background: most writers penning The Great American Novel About Civil Rights cannot write for shit, but Cosby is one of the grand exceptions, and someone who can occupy the mindset and roles of others outside himself in ways nearly no other author can, other than fellow powerhouses Laura Lippman, Attica Locke, Steph Cha, Megan Abbott, and a few others. He is able to access the idea of an interracial gay couple being murdered (and make them human, make them more than victims, and not create some grand scheme in order for us to understand how fucked it is they were killed for being gay and two different races in love) and also the mindsets of these people, of the people who hate them (while still astonishing in his ability to make them almost seem human), the development of the white grandfather/father who is so incredibly diverse and reminds me of a backcountry character ripped out of an alternate version of the script of Terms of Endearment, the film, which is honestly one of the greatest compliments I can give. Ike, arguably the protagonist in the novel (in film school we are forced to challenge ourselves and each other and decide who THE protagonist of a novel or film is, and ourselves to choose one, even if the book or movie passes as a sot of buddy novel, as does this one). There's so much weight in this novel. There's so much humor. The novel is a masterclass on escalating tension, maintaining suspense, building grand characters, and destroying expectations of any and every reader. It's a book you should not miss, and yes, I did recommend it to a studio as a good version of No Country for Old Men. These are country people, black and white. They are the people I knew and grew up with--my black best friend, a successful businesswoman no one ever immediately realizes is a lawyer. My malicious family members (I won't mention which side of my family but I'm sure you can guess), who justify hate, who have defended the KKK, but who weren't rich enough to join the KKK (something I always laugh about, even if it sounds horrible--the fact that they weren't only viciously defensive of the KKK, but that the KKK treats itself as a sort of country club for white men who hate everyone else). Cosby has provided an outlet for me, a gay man involved in an interracial engagement that eventually led to its own demise in a different sort of violence, striking home in a way that is so hard to describe and believe, but trust me, you'll want to read this book to find out why. There is no post-racist America. That's like saying there was ever a pre-racist America. This goes for homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and so many other forms of hate we are just in recent years starting to say, "Hey, that's not OK to talk about in that way," better yet in Cosby's case where he takes this career that keeps rising and escalating and building on his own pure talent and provide a socially controversial and important novel and--best reason to buy the novel yet--he doesn't let his readers down. He's someone I hope will allow me to interview him again in the (very near) future, and he's someone who everyone should read. If Blacktop Wasteland was the breakthrough Max Max film for Cosby, consider this motherfucking Fury Road with its own unique, troubled, and at many times triumphant protagonist Ike. You won't forget him. So here's to SA Cosby, and you can preorder Razorblade Tears and his other novels here. I do not believe My Darkest Prayer is listed here for some reason, so find that too. Immediately.
Big surprise here: Writers can save lives. I know that Miriam Toews has saved my life twice. First, after multiple attempts to take my own life, All My Puny Sorrows became the book that seemed to redeem me, that put the humor in mental illness, and made it so real. Some claimed it was a book with no plot (although still genius) that only Toews could make work, and perhaps that's true. Her most recent book, other than the upcoming Fight Night, is Women Talking, the plainly worded title that features one of the most marvelous books of the century so far. We see women discussing men who have raped them in their sleep, and the impossible consequences they have to face-all while coping with this humor, and me coping with being sexually and physically assaulted, and seeing a sort of joy in life past the destruction. This is not a Mitch Album novel. I do not mean her humor makes the wound better. I mean the humor makes the wound real, something we modern people (especially Americans) cannot seem to understand--that we can hurt, that we can change, that we can evolve, and all of this is OK. In her new book Fight Night, which I found less charming but still better than most other books because it is, after all, Miriam Toews, she talks about the life of a young girl (told from this girl's POV) that echoes the voice and influence of writers like Aimee Bender (who is also a favorite writer, a phenomenal storyteller, and the one woman I have always wanted to be best friends with--but doesn't everyone?). The book focuses largely on three generations: grandmother, mother, granddaughter, and the mother being quiet while the grandmother may be dying, and may even wish to die. In some ways a challenge to Jojo Moyes' Me Before You, but also in agreement with it to an extent, Toews writes about the end of suffering, the peace you can find within. Don't go me wrong. The book is fairly predictable, the characters are dynamic but life changing, and this rates nowhere near her other novels. However, I don't think anyone could have kept me captivated for so many pages with really no sturdy plot outside of Toews, who presents to us a young girl learning about the world, but more importantly seeing and understanding more clearly through her seeing but not understanding. We learn about life because she is unable to wrap her mind around concepts, because she is trying to figure things out, and because she lives in pop culture sometimes, in the legends her grandmother tells earnestly and others completely fabricated. The book is what you expect, but it's how Toews tells the story that's what makes the book unique. Her voice, as well as the voice of Swiv, the protagonist, is so unique, and the characters we see like with the grandmother are so interesting, including the grandmother's willingness to live forever despite wanting to die to avoid pain and suffering. All of this is understandable, along with her mother who can be hilarious and heartbreaking at times, the secrets we learn about her, the honesty in her life, and also the lack of male characters for most of the book is a definite plus. The book is a slick read--slick being one of the few words to be able to describe it, with Toews focusing on sliding through a story and a life and letting the reader propel too, despite the lack of a strict plot, but isn't that life? Isn't this how life goes, and isn't this how life ends? To be cliche: and does it end? Because if the universe is infinite, there is no beginning, and there is no end, and no matter what you believe, the idea of infinite provides the reader with some sort of grace much needed in times like these. Preorder/buy the novel here. Buy Aimee Bender's most recent novel here. Both novels are brilliant, lovely, wonderful, and enlightening, and it's hard to imagine a better use of your dollars (if you have some spare change around) spent on anything more unique and special than books by Toews, and also Bender as well. (Please note both have multiple books you should check out.)
THE DEPARTMENT OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans or, subtitle, The Writer Who Could Change the World and Make It Good, in a Way it Has Never Been, and Correct My Awkward Capitalization
If you asked Danielle Evans how we met, she might mention moonshine, goats, my driving skills (or lack of driving skills), and of course my reading her (almost drunkenly) my poem about Brittany Murphy, RIP. I would like to imagine I was in Baltimore, or wherever Danielle is currently, so we could hang out and she could explain the world to me. She's the kind of person who checks in on you, explains to you what a short story is and how to write it, and Danielle Evans is a fascinating writer, someone meant for success from the beginning. But how many authors can actually change the world? As far as primarily (or at least, very often described as something akin to) short story writers go, I can picture Alice Munro, maybe Roxane Gay, Maile Meloy, Claire Vaye Watkins, Kelly Link, Jhumpa Lahiri, and a handful of others. But Danielle. Guys. Danielle.
It's been about ten years since her first book, BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF (2010), came out. And thank God we finally have more, but fuck, now we have to wait for another ten years. I love Donna Tartt, do not get me wrong, but Danielle delivers in the way you actually expect someone who publishes another book in that span of time should write. And it's more than that. There's this crisp frankness to her prose, a distance but also extreme empathy she has with her characters and subjects, this undeniable way of looking at the world through a lens that is both completely her own and also something akin to a god. She is the house she moves around in, shaping a story and making it beautiful and real. There is no hesitation in reading her stories, or, God, the glamorous novella, which I stand by being possibly the best work of noir in this decade, and yes, I know the decade is just beginning. But God, she rips your heart out. Do you know how long I have tried to write this--what is this? A review? An altar made from words and love, this endless love I have for someone who I can never know or truly be friends with because honestly no one is on Danielle's level. She could tell me anything, and I would believe her. But luckily, everything she says is true, or poised in a way to make me think and find the truth for myself. Her work demonstrates not only her writing skills, but also how she makes Plato her bitch. Socrates would be lucky to get one word in. Maybe she could talk with Iris Murdoch but even Iris would bow down, bitches. Sorry, I had to include a sort of Beyonce reference. It is necessary.
What makes these stories so great? Can anyone say? It's so hard to define, mostly because if you are a writer, you read Danielle's books and cry once because she allows you this cathartic release of emotion, all emotions, but then she yet again allows you to cry in knowing that you can never write that well. Basically, every other writer publishing a book in 2020 is fucked, and there are very few who can live up to what she writes, and how she writes, and what it is she delivers. One story called "Boys Go to Jupiter" is stunning. She somehow completely removes herself, even as a godlike figure, even as a creator, and dares to go to a place no one else has gone (although many have tried): an attempt at understanding or explaining or whatever the fuck magic Danielle pulls off by writing about a white college student caught in a picture wearing a "Rebel flag" bikini (Confederate Flag, Racist Flag, pick your poison, it's all the same--I grew up in a place that called it a Rebel Flag, and if you didn't wear it, you were gay--and I very gay, and still am, thank God). Danielle writes from the girl's perspective, and we see where she's coming from even as we cringe and grind our teeth looking at this girl and wondering what she is doing, although we know what she is doing, and honestly wouldn't some of us make the same mistakes? Especially white people, all the people who look like me, who lay in tanning beds until they feel golden, who ask which FRIENDS character they might be, who say "Well, I know good Black people, and they aren't like that." The story is glorious in the way it evokes this awakening for white people in seeing a reflection of ourselves, and for once there is no judgement, but almost empathy for the people who have oppressed Black Americans and really every marginalized people, even some other white people if they are gay, women, poor, etc. As we see the girl make mistake after mistake, we judge her ourselves, and then Danielle drops the bomb.
She's so good.
There are so many brilliant stories in the book, one involving a dream wedding where the brides are gifted or tortured (choose how you want to look at this) with wearing one solid color the entirety of a weekend at a wedding--a rainbow wedding. In another story, a young woman works in a gift shop in an exact replica of a replica of the Titanic. Everything in the collection exists only through the life Danielle breathed into it, and yet the stories are so removed from her, pieces of genius you want to stretch on forever. We see everything, things we haven't been able to articulate because we haven't even formed these full thoughts. No one thinks like Danielle can, and that's why it's the best, and it's why you need to buy this book immediately. Like, right now.
The novella closing the collection--sharing the same title as the book--concerns a woman working a job where she corrects issues regarding history and race. I remember at Clemson with a sit in, protests, police, angry screams from everyone all over campus, and the horrifying bananas hanging from light poles and trees, all reminding us that; there is no America that is post-racism. As white people, we have not even begun to deal with the issue of our own racism, whether instilled in us and what we fight against every day, or what some other white people actively use to promote hate and destroy lives and belittle other Americans for so many reasons, and nothing ever justifying these actions. This novella is the greatest noir possibly since Dare Me by Megan Abbott. In "The Department of Historical Corrections," we see both a fracture friendship and a fractured country, although fractures imply that something as whole once, and we have to ask ourselves: has this country ever actually been entirely solid, and if so, when?
I can't think of anything. If you can, feel free to comment. I would love to hear from anyone reading this how this country was ever great--but I'm stealing lines from a Facebook post Danielle made years ago, noting that America was never actually great (if I remember right--Danielle, I'll have to look through screenshots, as you know I have them, but for now let's say she hypothetically said this, and in that way we don't hold her accountable for words I might just be putting in her mouth). Danielle's story reveals more twists and turns than a Gillian Flynn novel, and yet everything is effortless, heavy with the subject matter but overall so light it's like a cloud, like fog, everywhere, clouding you and making it hard to see anything but the truths Danielle is so kind to provide.
I don't want to give away too much. These are short stories and a novella after all. But I will say that even through multiple reads, I gasped out loud. I had to put the book down and take a few laps. I ate while reading the book. I attempted to walk on a treadmill while reading the book (after about a minute I stepped off and sat on a. weights bench and read the book). I would stay up all night reading the book, trying to find ways to stay awake so I could finish it one more time. Request the book at every library in your county, but also buy the book if you have it. Give as a Christmas present, and not just because we're facing issues involving race in the book (although please support indie bookstores owned by Black Americans). Give this book because it is the most entertaining book you'll read all year. Because you cannot stop reading once you start. Because you want to know how she is so young, but already more than the Alice Munro of America. She's the Danielle Evans of America. She is the top model (I saw her in I believe a dress that shimmered and was amazing--I don't know for sure if it was a dress, as I know there are different names for different outfits for women, whatever, I'm not that gay yet but am working toward getting there). I truly hope she will be a Nobel laureate one day. I hope she will win so many Pulitzers and all the other prizes out there as well. I hope Barack Obama will pick her as his favorite book of the year, and Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah, and Jenna from one of those morning talk shows.
Danielle, you are more than a queen. You're a goddess. You are my Moana, or my Cat Stevens (these are the only thing that make my nephew stop crying), you are the letters Flannery O'Connor wrote and I read in high school to feel less alone. You are a fountain of knowledge, and add something less cliche to that as well. You're the genius here. And to everyone, please know that I really only post about books like this in this way if I am absolutely obsessed with them, and I've been obsessed with this book for some time (that's right, I somehow got lucky enough to snag an ARC and read this amazing tour de force). This is a miniature tome, a spectacular opus, and I hope for more from Danielle soon, and I hope she will get all of the awards and grants so she can write and write and write. If you want twists, if you want screams, if you want laughter and tears, if you want moping and desire, read this book. Just know that Danielle is the funniest writer I know. The kindest writer I know. The most talented and wide-ranging author I know.
And I also include her over all the authors I don't know, too, although I'd really love to meet you Larry and Alice.
Below is a link to indie bound, but I also encourage you to go buy this book from your local indie bookstore, or support Black owned bookstores as well.
Danielle, this is sort of my love letter to you and your work. It's not nearly good enough, but I hope for now, it will suffice.
Buy below, buy everywhere, buy now:
McPherson's novels are less like large events, and more like secret rituals, the ones where blood is shed, lies are told, pacts are made, and lives are sometimes--if you're in a very extreme cult, or just one of the core religions--people die. This is the case in McPherson's latest novel, which doesn't disappoint. Strangers at the Gate is a beautifully written, tightly strung and brilliantly rendered novel which will send even the most experienced crime reader for a loop. Of course, the protagonist (Finn) and Paddy manage to rent out their own expensive space and move to a place which seems perfect, all the way down to Paddy's boss and the boss's wife, everything seems perfect. And I think in life, when we look back on trauma, on desperate and terrifying times, we see things as perfect in the before. And yet, at the novel unfolds, the truths come out, and so many things come to light, we see how the past was never there, and it was never true to Finn, not like she thought it would be.
The necessary understanding of the truth in the past comes at an important time for us, not just myself in America, but around the world, where we gloss over the past, glorify only certain types of heroes, make sure every famous dead person is a martyred saint, and imagine life as it might have been. McPherson's protagonist must work to find out the truth behind the murders of Paddy's boss and the boss's wife as things spin out of control with her need to clear her conscience and, as time progresses, learn the truth about what happened, and why these things happened. As usual, McPherson's novel grabs you from the start, and you grip onto the novel too, ready to explore Finn's adventure, no matter the heartbreak, losses, and ultimately the truth (which can often sting the most). Finn is not a heroine who listens and sits down. She investigates, for better or worse, and she ultimately digs up the past in ways which destroy relationships and explain why certain lives are lost. The truth can be worse than the violence acted upon others in the novel.
McPherson moves past the common "life is perfect UNTIL" scenario, spinning the reader round and round just as she does with Finn, the constantly determined, possibly frightened, but always fighting young woman ready to get down to the bottom of things. Everyone is hiding a secret (clue for all aspiring writers: this is necessary if you want your book to be as fascinating and brilliant at McPherson's) and lives are endangered in every way possible. By the end of the novel, you may be shocked, and you may desperately need to order all of McPherson's lovely books. Don't worry, I've not so expertly hidden the links to purchase from IndieBound or Amazon if you prefer. Either way, start here or start with her earlier books (standalone or series) and find yourself drowning in McPherson. You know, like in a crime novel, the best possible way to drown ever. And share her books with your friends (buy your friends copies of all McPherson's books!). As Strangers at the Gate proves, McPherson is still plowing forward with a ridiculous number of novels and stellar work, the novels she writes always ready to shock and trap you, the dreaded anxious feeling you have when you need to escape but know there's no way out other than to keep reading, get to the end, sleep isn't worth it when it comes to McPherson's books. She is still destroying lives and breaking hearts as much as ever, at the top of her game and so incredibly lovely and kind to readers and fellow writers alike. Follow her on twitter and, again, but her books.
Links to order The Swallows:
If you read one book this year, it should probably be The Swallows by Lisa Lutz. I was annoyed by the description of the book--"battle of the sexes," something I associate with Real World/Road Rules Challenges, a game/challenge show for (usually) losing contestants of these other two reality shows. And yet "game" and "challenge" might be the best words to describe aspects of what may be Lisa Lutz's book yet, and being one of her best books yet, this also makes the novel one of the best books of the century, and likely all time. In Lisa's hand, a "battle of the sexes" is no longer limited to platinum blonde women with breast implants commenting on how, once they win this challenge, they won't have to marry rich, they'll have money. What these women don't admit--and this affects them too--is the position they've been put in where often women choose to be homemakers not by actual choice but because it's the only option they have in many different types of cultures and societies within American and within America as a whole, or how this option and so other limited options are things women are considered to be what women should strive for, and fight for. At Stonebridge, a small prep school/boarding school/high school in Lisa Lutz's newest book, the young women in the book, in part catalyzed by the arrival of a woman with her own past, and in part feeling ashamed by the men who sexualize them and punish the young women on campus for not being what they should be--all of this sparks a sort of revolution, which burns and flourishes in its own right, for better and worse. I think what scared me most about "battle of the sexes" is how black-and-white this phrase is, and how Lisa Lutz has always been a writer who, no matter how passionately she feels about an issue, will take a step back and look at every person and every issue, and describe everyone as they are, as they've want to be, and as others see them. She will point out the flaws and dangers of so many things in our society: how we judge women by looks and any other qualities which might make them attractive to men, how we expect women to be both sexual and virginal all at once, and how women are not expected to take issue with these expectations and voice how they want to be, how they want to be seen, and how their choices should be their own. What's so important about the way I've listed these qualities is, for the most part, they are decided by men and for men, and this is where the real danger is: how can a woman truly be independent (a throwback, perhaps, to the Destiny's Child song for the Charlie's Angels reboot years ago) and how women can have a sense of self if they are always shaping and molding their lives to please men. Don't get me wrong, my own argument has been said and done, and one could argue the issue of women having any autonomy or control over their selves is a topic so many books have tackled, and are least appealing when they state the issue so directly and forcefully. And while I would argue this is an issue hard to approach from a nuanced, delicate, angry, and ultimately beautifully presented point-of-view, Lutz does just this, tackling the issue of the "battle of the sexes" and turning it on its head.
Every character in Lutz's book, no matter how despicable (or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum lovable) they may be, they are so attractive and draw the reader in with the strongest voices, all completely different and overwhelming and compulsively readable. No matter how much Lutz or the reader may hate a character, she presents them in a way where we cannot stop reading, even if a section of the book is narrated by someone we view as antagonistic, to a character we love or even to ourselves. Lutz's true gift is her inability to write a flat character. Every character is shaped, rounded out, developed, and made to be understood by the reader. When I first met Lutz, she sent me something so kind, so generous, I couldn't believe a person who barely knew me could be this kind. And while I still don't know Lutz the way I want--I admire her endlessly, and look forward to meeting her in person one day and seeing how truly amazing she is in real life, as I've heard her described. Lutz is a person who practices empathy the way other people practice tennis or a mean check toward checkmate in a chess tournament. She has the ultimate gift--and possible curse--of understanding so many people in so many ways beyond their surface appearance, and in doing so she's able to shape a novel in which a problem becomes real, complicated, and without a concrete resolution. This novel--perhaps battle of the sexes, perhaps love story, perhaps coming-of-age story, perhaps revenge tale--is not to be classified as one simple thing, and never offers easy answers for inequalities between the sexes, and what goes beyond inequality: rape, sexual abuse, and the scariest part of all--how far women will go to get validation from the men in their lives, and why the hell must these women get validation from men, what about our society makes it so that men are the ultimate source of validation for women?
There are many men and women who narrate the book, and one question the reader might ask is who is the protagonist? Perhaps, when targeting women as protagonists here, we might think Gemma or the new-to-the-school Ms. Witt, 29 with a famous writer for a father--a writer who may only be famous, or perhaps remain famous, because of his ex wife and because of his daughter, Ms. Witt. There are the many girls, all young women Gemma gathers to help battle the men on campus, the way they target and destroy these young women, and the way the women are made objects instead of people by the select and popular men on campus (although, as you go through the book, the reader has to wonder if any of the men--and some of the women--are all culpable in this practice of the destruction of the life of each young woman). The issue of revenge remains questionable--as each person questions the revenge, their motives, and how far they are willing to go to destroy an institution, and if, even destroying a particular institution (think Veronica in season 3 finale "The Bitch is Back" in Veronica Mars) will actually make a different in a long, drawn out game and plan for these women. The book follows these characters through a different type of mystery as it escalates: in crime fiction, we too often forget how rape and exploitation are major crimes and destroy lives and, if you read the news, cause the deaths of many women and also men who are raped or in other ways sexually targeted. As the book escalates, as tension builds, you cannot stop reading. This is Lisa Lutz we're talking about. Have you ever read a book by Ms. Lutz which isn't profound but compulsively readable? Lutz offers so many questions, and some answers, although even with her answers there are more questions, and she recognizes this--but more importantly, Lutz has the reader thinking and continuing to ask the questions for themselves and try to view the world inside the novel as something they see in their own lives. Lutz grabs the reader and doesn't let go, or perhaps the reader doesn't want to let go of Ms. Lutz. It's almost criminal how long we've waited for Lisa Lutz to give us another book--and it is a gift, and not something she is required to do. Lisa Lutz puts her fiction ("fiction") out there for the world to see and read when purchasing a book (buy a copy now) or checking the book out from your library (request the book now if your local library has not already ordered it, when they should have). Lisa Lutz gives us the gift of this epic, sweeping, generous novel, confusing us with all the questions we have to ask ourselves and we too are without concrete answers, and providing a literary triumph that will be remembered throughout the century and hopefully until the end of time. This is not a #metoo book, simply reactionary to a movement which truly has had no effect. Lutz's book is the movement, and not just a companion to other novels by women and men looking to make bank in response to an issue so many people, again especially women, are facing in our country. Lisa Lutz is not here for gimmicks. She's here for art. And she's here to point out the rapists, the lying bastards, and the people who protect rapists and defend their actions even while claiming they are not a part of the problem.
I've spent a lot of time talking about Lisa Lutz and her work, but in a more general sense, and not focusing on the novel itself. The Swallows is, to date, the ultimate Lutz novel. Reading the book, which again really is compulsively readable, something you cannot put down and something you will want to read again as soon as you finish (if only there was more time!!). There's the extremely funny and terribly cutting (and brilliant) wit of the Spellman novels, the camaraderie of How to Start a Fire, one of Lutz's genius books often overlooked because it's in between her two more specifically crime novels, and then of course there is the thrill of The Passenger, a landmark book which has influenced so many books which have come after it, changed the lives (literary and personal) of people like myself, and now we have this wonderful book the nation, and soon the world, is so lucky to have. We see Gemma, a girl with secrets, a young woman fighting a system, male privilege, and the destruction of women just because (and she states, possibly) she needs something to fight for. There's Ms. Witt (Alex Witt, if you prefer, although her titles are usually labeled "Ms. Witt"), a woman with her own past and secrets who is trying to remain professional but save the girls in school. There's one teacher who helps narrate the book, someone who doesn't seem to recognize how he is a part of the problem, and how he is destroying the women in the community, even as he believes he is trying to save them. And finally there's Norman, a young geek who may be romantically attracted to a girl Gemma is working with in her mission, and who joins the mission for many selfish and selfless reasons. The book is complicated when we see the problems laid out, issues and crimes committed by each character no matter what their motivation is (the path to hell is paved with good intentions) and seeing how each character believe what they are doing is right when often they do so, so many wrong things, the reader is forced to turn around and look inside themselves. Are any of us not culpable, if not in a school campus like this then in real life? Lutz's book focuses more on the marginalization and destruction of the female body and any power a young or older woman might have, but this novel can easily be stretched to look at so many other issues we as a nation, we as a world face today. Lutz's genius is to keep us reading, make us believe in the characters and the good they try to do and the overwhelmingly horrible things they don't realize they are doing necessarily, or at least the impact it will have, and finally we see through these lovable and readable characters how many people we know are flawed in such severe ways, and how we are flawed too, even if we may not realize this at the time.
I need to stop going on about this book. By now you're like, "I get it, Matthew." Please preorder this novel or perhaps call your library and request they purchase a copy to be available upon publication. Call multiple times in the hopes they may buy multiple copies. Believe it or not, these libraries listen to you, even if the men of this world, as well as any group stifling your freedom as a marginalized person, may not listen. Libraries have many jobs, and one is to focus on ordering books their community wants and needs. Make your wants and needs heard, and understand how much you need Lisa Lutz in your life. Please feel free to comment here with remarks and questions. Please feel free to contact me here or privately (or on Twitter or Facebook) and discuss the Blowchart, the cleansing fire of revenge, and if you'd like, the incredibly warped librarian inside the novel (although please, again, get your library to order copies). I look forward to hearing from you about this book which is so impeccable and unbelievably good, I am going to stop talking now for fear of going on about it too long.
Lisa Lutz is back, with instructions regarding blowjobs, Molotov cocktails, the fragility of young love and friendship, and the ways we try to live and cope in a world that not only often doesn't seem to want us, but sometimes seems to not need us at all. Look at our goddamn president for example. And when you're disgusted, every time you're disgusted, buy another copy of this book, read another copy of this book, and jump out your skin with the joy of reading a rare book like which comes along once every few decades. Like I said, Lisa Lutz is back, and this time no one will be spared.
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.