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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.
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.