READERS TELL ALL.
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