COTTONMOUTHS: heartbreak & meth in small-town Arkansas

Emily Skinner was eager to leave her small Arkansas hometown and start over at college. But two years later, she has flunked out and has no choice but to move back in with her conservative parents. Her former best friend and childhood crush Jody is also back in town, but she has a baby in tow.

Their friendship ended abruptly years before with Jody disappearing from town and Emily’s life. Emily has spent years believing that Jody left because of Emily’s attraction to her. Against her better judgement, Emily can’t resist attempting to reconnect. But when Emily learns that Jody has a meth lab on her property, Emily knows she must stay away. That is until her parents kick her out and Jody offers her a job as a live-in babysitter.

The more time Emily spends with Jody, the stronger her feelings for her grow. She maybe loves Jody, but also fears what Jody is capable of. And Jody gives her just enough hope to keep her around. When Jody’s business partner goes missing, Emily suspects that Jody’s dishonesty is far more dangerous that she anticipated.

Cottonmouths is heartbreaking and beautiful. Kelly J. Ford weaves a mystery that is easily relatable. The relentless pain of unrequited love, returning to your past when you don’t want to, desperate actions to escape poverty. It’s the familiarity of the themes that makes Cottonmouths a beautiful gut-punch.

THE TERATOLOGIST: wealth and terror in Palm Beach

Two people in 1902 Gilded Age Palm Beach who have very different physical deformities also exhibit paranormal gifts. Dr. Frank Follett studies birth defects and becomes fascinated with them both. One is a young child who was born without limbs but with the ability to channel the dead, including the spirit of Follett’s late beloved wife. The other is a wealthy young man who was born with the appearance of a hairy monster and is a telepath.

Dr. Follett’s work with the young girl is upended when she is kidnapped by a serial killer who has been striking each tourist season. And soon after, the young man becomes possessed by a malevolent entity and goes on a murderous rampage.

Dr. Follett arrived in Palm Beach with a plan to recuperate from his traumatic service in the Philippine-American War. But instead he finds himself searching for a serial killer and trying to stop what might be an actual monster from continuing a killing spree. And THE Mark Twain is in Palm Beach, eager to offer the doctor assistance.

Look, it’s kind of a bananas set-up. But it works.

The protagonist Dr. Follett is a man of science who finds himself entangled with the supernatural. And also with the wealthy upper class who have different rules and expectations than he’s used to. He’s a nuanced character, driven both by a need to help others and by his own selfish urges.

All the characters are well-developed and humanized, even those that aren’t completely human. I found Darryl, the young man who looks like a hairy monster, the most endearing. He can read minds, so he has no delusions about how people see him. He’s spoiled and intelligent but also longs to find his place in the world.

My favorite thing about THE TERATOLOGIST is how immersed I felt in the historical setting. I had no trouble envisioning the luxurious and wild early 1900’s Palm Beach. It’s obvious that Parker did his research, both with teratology and the Florida of the past. His rich descriptions weave a tangible backdrop to this clever novel that is equal parts mystery and horror, with some humor and despair thrown in the mix.

Go into this book with an open mind. You won’t be disappointed.

GRAFFITI CREEK: punk rock pacing and compelling characters

Cary Trubody is pulled over for running a red light late one night with her drunk girlfriend and a purse full of cash in the car. This is a frightening set-up under any circumstances. But within minutes, the traffic stop turns into a nightmare of mistaken identity. Cary is shoved into a car with two crooked detectives, and her girlfriend is taken away in a different car. The protagonist quickly shows us what she’s made of by gathering her wits and escaping. But this is just the beginning of Cary’s ordeal, as she soon learns that she’s been framed for two murders and every cop (especially every dirty one) in town is looking for her. And she has no idea where they took her girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Sameer Zardari is searching for his journalist husband who’s been missing for days. And Marlowe Holliverse is searching for his budding documentary film-maker brother, DoRight.  Both men are on a fast-moving collision course with Cary, and all three are uncertain of whom they can trust. 

GRAFFITI CREEK is paced like a punk rock song. Cary’s life is in danger from the jump and things get worse from there. She’s not former special ops or a trained assassin or even a concealed carrier. She’s just a regular civilian with a curvy figure and a talent for poker. 

Even though the pacing is nonstop, the mystery unfolds slowly. The stakes continue to rise as Cary runs for her life while trying to piece together the events that have put her in the line of fire. If she doesn’t figure out why she’s suddenly a fugitive, she’ll die. And she won’t be the only one. 

In GRAFFITI CREEK and his debut novel JUGGLING KITTENS, Coleman exhibits genius with atmosphere and wit, as well as championing the average person in extraordinary circumstances. Just don’t start GRAFFITI CREEK at bedtime unless you have nothing to do the next day.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: Suck it, haters

The first time I saw a trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, I was so excited I could hardly stand it. For years we’ve heard about a Freddie Mercury biopic, but all of the starts and stops had me convinced it would never happen. Waiting to see it felt like unnecessary torture. And then the early reviews started rolling in. Sheila O’Malley of rogerebert.com gave it one star. ONE FREAKING STAR.

The overwhelming consensus of the bad reviews is that the movie waters down Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, his drug abuse, etc. The negative reviews make it sound like the movie barely addresses his bisexuality (or homosexuality, depending on who you ask). The first trailer didn’t mention it, and instead showed him with his wife Mary Austin, so it was easy to believe. But as misleading as the trailer may have been, it’s simply not true that his sexuality is ignored.

Another complaint was that it doesn’t cover his childhood. But it’s a movie, not a miniseries. And it goes right into the formation of Queen. As much as I would love to learn more about Freddie Mercury’s childhood, I would have been impatient waiting to get to the meat of the story.

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Bohemian Rhapsody begins with Freddie as Farrokh Bulsara, a baggage handler at Heathrow. The story evolves quickly. Within a few minutes of the beginning, Freddie is meeting Mary Austin (a heartfelt performance by Lucy Boynton) and the men who will become his bandmates. There is a feeling that we have somewhere to go and there’s no time to waste. I enjoyed that vibe, as it mirrored Freddie’s unstoppable ambition.

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The story covers his marriage, which is a beautiful and devastatingly flawed love story. We get to see the band writing their songs and grappling over their individual artistic visions, and fighting to have their music heard. The movie goes into Mercury’s drug abuse, sexuality, hedonism, divorce, and HIV diagnosis. It ends with their triumphant performance at Live Aid.

Freddie Mercury is portrayed as brilliant and dangerous. Above all, he is a performer. Perhaps some reviewers wanted more about his personal life and less about his art, which was one thing he struggled with when he was alive. He was an artist and performer, and didn’t feel that he owed unlimited entry into his personal life to his fans and the media.

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But there is a lot about his personal life in the film. We see him with Mary, who was one of the most important people in his life until the very end. We see him coming to terms with his sexual identity. We see him with his traitorous boyfriend and band manager Paul. We are introduced to Jim Hutton, the  man who was his partner in his final years. There are allusions to the drug-fueled orgies and outrageous parties.

Does it feel like there is more to the story? Absolutely. But how much can go into one movie?

Each band member is perfectly represented. And Rami Malek is fantastic as Freddie Mercury. Every person in this movie is giving it their all. Even the bad reviews confirm that the cast is brilliant.

Freddie Mercury is one of the most beloved musical icons of our time. I understand why there are high expectations to meet with this film. The flawless performances and glimpses into Freddie as a person and not just a persona had me glued to the screen. There is a lot of music in the film, much to my delight. The only reason I can see for not enjoying this film is if you’re not a Queen fan. If that’s the case, stay home.

HEATHERS: Does it hold up?

I couldn’t get any work done yesterday because my nerves were freaking shot. So it seemed like a great day to watch an old movie. PRETTY IN PINK was meant to be next, but I saw a meme on FB that featured a photo of Winona Ryder at the end of HEATHERS (post explosion, smoking a cigarette and covered in soot) as “voting in 2018” and it felt like a sign.

Mean girls in high school. *sigh* It wasn’t a tired premise in 1988. Or maybe it was and I was too young to notice. But it certainly feels tired now. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has compromised her ethics to become part of the most popular clique in school. Heather Chandler (one of three Heathers and the leader of the group) takes Veronica to a college party to see if she’s good enough to hang in their clique. Veronica pukes on Heather’s shoes, so Heather vows to socially ruin her.

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Jason “JD” Dean (Christian Slater as Jack Nicholson) is the new kid in school. He’s a sexy rebel with a Zippo and a gun. He and Veronica play strip-croquet after her disastrous night at the party.

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Then Veronica and JD go on a murdering spree, though Veronica is a reluctant accomplice. Perhaps even an unwitting accomplice, but she’s supposed to be intelligent so that doesn’t really make all that much sense because it’s really easy for JD to repeatedly trick her. They make all of the murders look like suicides. Veronica has a special talent for forging handwriting, so it’s simple to write suicide notes. And to their credit, they only murder jerks.

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I watched this movie with my friend Kristen 412 times in junior high. We could recite the entire thing and did recite it often. Perhaps too often, though that is subjective. I was really excited to revisit this film.

This is one of my favorite Wynona Ryder performances, second only to Joyce in STRANGER THINGS.

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HEATHERS introduced one of the best lines in movie history: “What’s your damage, Heather?” Honestly it’s full of brilliant quips.

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Veronica wears a monocle when she writes in her journal. Maybe because I lived in Arkansas, I don’t remember that being the fashion. Blazers with shoulder pads, sure. But not monocles.  There are a lot of pretty adorable skirt and tights combinations as well as cute shoes. Geez, did you guys dress like junior executives in high school? I did, but mostly because I had an after-school job at a bank. When my daughter puts on her sweat pants every day, it takes everything I have not to say, “in my day, we wore dresses to school and we liked it!”

The background music is synthesizer-tastic. The shoulder pads are the size of throw pillows. And the hair is so stiff it seems to have rigor mortis.

The popular jock boys gay-bash a boy because he’s a “geek”. There’s also a scene where Veronica and JD are setting up the jock boys to look like homosexuals, and JD chooses things like a candy dish and mineral water to help with framing them. I guess it’s not technically hateful, but certainly inaccurate. And after the boys are dead, their parents accept their faux homosexuality in an emotional breakthrough which is a nice surprise for 1988.

Throughout the film, the Heathers are awful to an overweight girl. I don’t know if teens are still like that. I really hope they aren’t. And the “suicide epidemic” has done seemingly nothing to make most of these kids kinder to one another. The exception being Veronica, who knows that the deaths weren’t caused by suicide.

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I enjoyed this movie a lot more before I knew how much high school really sucked. Now it kind of aggravates my PTSD. I don’t like reminders of the days of frenemies. I hate that most girls fight over stupid shit like boys and popularity. I hate that a lot women don’t learn to stick together until they’re older, and some of us not even then.

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This movie held up better in the days before MEAN GIRLS. It’s tough not to draw comparisons, and MEAN GIRLS is the more solid of the two. Mainly because of the three Heathers, only Heather McNamara reveals genuine vulnerability. And all three Plastics have softer sides that give us some clues to their motivations.

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Strange fact: One of the most famous lines from Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) was “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” Kim Walker died of a brain tumor in 2001 at the age of 32.

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I really wanted HEATHERS to hold up.  The dialogue is clever, and the plot is engaging though flawed. But it sort of glamorizes popularity through malice as a powerful tool. And the popular girls use their bodies as social currency. I’m not adding it to the list of movies that I want to watch with my kids in a few years.

Does it hold up? I’m going with no on this one. But I will preserve it fondly in my memory as time spent with my friend Kristen.

 

 

THE LOST BOYS: Does it hold up?

Welcome to the first post in my Does it Hold Up? series. Since the world is currently a shit sandwich, I’m revisiting beloved movies of days gone by to see if they hold up to today’s standards and expectations. I’m starting with 1987’s THE LOST BOYS, a movie that I watched at least a dozen times between the ages of 12 and 18.

Did anyone know that Ted Cruz is in this movie? He’s the guy in the very first scene who punches his girlfriend in the face while trying to keep sexy vampire Keifer Sutherland from touching her cheek, since being touched by sexy vampire David is so much worse than a punch from a creepy politician. (I know it’s not really him, you guys. But I can pretend if I want to.)

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The set-up is translatable to today.  A single mother (Dianne Wiest) and her two sons (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) move in with her eccentric and cool AF dad so she can save money. I mean, struggling single moms have been around since the beginning of time (looking at you, Mary).

About 10 minutes in there’s a strong 80’s marker: a greasy man with a ponytail and codpiece playing the fuck out of a saxophone.

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But then Jami Gertz appears and everything’s magical. Timeless beauty, man.

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While we’re on the topic of beauty, how pretty were the vampires back then? *swoon*

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And let me take a moment to pay my respects to the two Coreys. I preferred Haim (RIP) over Feldman back in my Tiger Beat days, but I would have made out with either one of them.

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Not a comment on timeliness, but Jason Patric has his shoes on his white sheets and pillowcase like a GD monster!

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Most, but not all, of the soundtrack is dated.

Though the fashion is dated, it’s still sexy as hell. I’m normally a just-say-no-to-mullets kinda lady, but I don’t hate this bleached bloodsucking-punk rock mullet.

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Jason Patric was clearly in a Jim Morrison phase, and there are other nods to Morrison and the Doors in the film, including the Echo and the Bunnymen cover of “People Are Strange” at the beginning and end. The Doors don’t currently hold the cultural respect that they did in the 80’s. Of course, we had no way of knowing in 1987 that the Doors would lose their status as icons to suburban stoner kids, but we probably should have seen it coming.

The treatment of women isn’t date-rapey like in too many films of this era. Star (Jami Gertz) does have the damsel in distress thing going on. But it’s not old school Disney princess level helplessness. And she wields a big wooden stake before it’s all over.

The humor holds up, and I had forgotten that Corey Haim had solid comedic timing.

The most cringe-worthy 80’s thing about this movie is the music, though a couple of songs are fine. There are too many synthesizers and saxophones the majority of the time. The humor isn’t racist or ableist like a lot of old movies. And the women aren’t portrayed like mindless sex dolls.

Does it hold up? Yes. Yes it does.

BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD: buckle up for a hard-boiled roadtrip

BEAUTIFUL, NAKED AND DEAD is the first in Josh Stallings’ Moses McGuire series. Moses is a suicidal strip club bouncer. A combat veteran and ex-con, Moses has earned his cynicism. He’s reluctant to get close to many people, but he has a friend in Kelly, a waitress he works with at the strip club. When Kelly is murdered, Moses is the main suspect. Driven by his guilt for not saving her from her fate, he takes out to find out what happened to his friend and exact his revenge before the cops can put him away.

His quest takes him from grungy East L.A. through the legal brothels of Nevada where he picks up Kelly’s sister Cass. The two ultimately find themselves in a battle with the mob in the mountains above Palo Alto. Rich descriptions of cars and landscape pepper the novel, preventing the reader from being pulled down too far into Moses’ irredeemable worldview.

Moses is relentlessly compelled to defend women. This compulsion gives him a sense of purpose while also removing any sense of peace. A tough guy who lets people down regularly, he’ll stop at nothing to appease his need for street justice. Moses is an appealing antihero with frustrating flaws and a powerful instinct for chivalry.

BEAUTIFUL, NAKED AND DEAD is a hard-boiled crime novel, no doubt about it. But it is much more than that. It is one part urban philosophy with quotes like: “War on drugs, war on music content, war on all that was strange and different. The tragic truth is, start a war with your kids and you wind up with drive-bys and Columbine.” It is one part unexpected feminism, with strippers who not only demand your respect, but deserve it. And it is one part buddy road trip story, where the buddies are an ex-con antihero and beautiful sex worker. It is not for the squeamish, but it is a beautifully written hard-boiled story that will keep you reading long past your bedtime.

 

 

 

 

LAST MINUTE: curl up with a gritty cozy

If you’re FB friends with me, you’ve heard me gush about my girlcrush on Libby Kirsch. I’ve known her for just under two years. We were introduced by another Ann Arbor author, Sarah Zettlel. Since we’re both busy with writing and kids, we’ve developed our friendship over writing time at the library and brunch, and two glorious trips to Bouchercon. Other than the pages we’ve traded for critiques, I’ve never read any of her work (sorry, girl). Mainly because I didn’t want to read her books and pass any judgements as writers are prone to do. But she needed someone to do a quick editing pass before her next book was released (TODAY, BTW!) and I couldn’t say no. Really, I couldn’t. She had agreed to take a look at my latest, messy rough draft and it would have been super jerky of me to refuse to do an edit of hers when it’s already polished and ready. And really with the world falling apart, the best distraction I can think of is reading fiction. This is how I came to read the advanced reading copy of LAST MINUTE, the second in Kirsch’s Janet Black series.

The protagonist Janet Black is a hardworking, hands-on bar owner. I’m a former bartender and restaurant manager, so this character was dear to my heart right away. When one of her regulars learns of a suspicious death in the family, Janet has to put her business on hold to solve the crime because the cops aren’t getting it right. The local police chalk up the death to an accidental overdose, but Janet’s investigative intuition suspects more is at stake. She’s already in trouble for snooping without a PI license, so she has to grab clues quick before she’s caught again. She’s treading on dangerous ground with both the cops and the yet-to-be-identified murderer.

When Janet discovers the victim has ties to a drug dealer and a hired escort, and her prime suspect turns up dead, she’s pretty sure she’s gotten herself into an unintended mess that she can’t extract herself from. Can she protect the innocent and find the real killer before she becomes the next victim, while keeping her bar running, keeping her increasingly frustrated boyfriend from leaving, and keeping herself out the pokey?

My favorite thing about this book is the way Kirsch captures the chaos in Janet’s life. There is a rising anxiety that follows her as the story unfolds and she’s trying to keep her life together. But perhaps since Kirsch comes from the cozy world, the anxiety is manageable and not overwhelming.

LAST MINUTE is the second standalone book in the heart-pounding Janet Black Mystery series. It’s a fun, chaotic ride with blue-collar Tennesseans. It’s entertaining, gritty escapism that won’t leave you depressed or angry. It’s available TODAY on Amazon.

THE SECOND GIRL: Frank Marr is the flawed hero you didn’t know you needed

THE SECOND GIRL is the first novel in  David Swinson’s Frank Marr trilogy. Frank Marr is a retired police detective in DC who works as a private eye for a defense attorney. David Swinson is himself a former DC detective and the authenticity is evident on every page.

Marr is an incredible investigator, but he’s also a high-functioning cocaine addict. Since a former cop can’t purchase drugs through the normal channels, Marr must be creative in procuring his drugs. It’s on one of his scavenger missions that he finds a kidnapped teenage girl and is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. When he’s approached by another missing teen’s desperate parents, he reluctantly agrees to investigate the case which is possibly connected with the girl he found. The increased attention on Marr brings new enemies and threatens to bring his secrets to light.

Frank Marr is the quintessential antihero. He’s charming and intelligent, yet deceitful and manipulative. His questionable methods may anger you, but you’ll still want him to succeed. The white-knuckle pace of THE SECOND GIRL leaves very little breathing room. It’s gripping from beginning to end, through every dubious decision, every good and bad lead, and every glass of Scotch.

I listened to this book on Audible while I was traveling. It’s expertly narrated by Christopher Ryan Grant, who has a voice that is 100% true to Frank Marr with a cigarette-scarred, no-bullshit tone. But I’m certain it would be just as enjoyable to read on the page.

Creeping up on Bouchercon

In October 2016, my FB newsfeed was full of posts about Bouchercon. It was in New Orleans that year, and it was apparently the best time any writer I vaguely knew had ever had and I missed it. I didn’t know much of anything about Bouchercon, but according to the website it’s the World Mystery Convention, the premier annual event for readers, authors, and all lovers of crime fiction. Since I am all three of those things, I immediately registered for the 2017 Bouchercon (held in Toronto) and talked my friend Libby into doing the same.

 
We loaded up my Jeep and made the trek to Toronto in October 2017 while discussing how to make the most out of our first Bouchercon experience. I was scheduled for a one-minute pitch at the debut author event. The thought of it made me wanted to vomit, so Libby listened to me go over it so many times she could have done it for me, and I probably should have asked her to. We had both registered for the Sisters in Crime breakfast, but otherwise we were going in without much of a schedule. Libby had a single focus: make the most of our first Bouchercon. She made sure we introduced ourselves to other authors, and met people for drinks and dinner. She even snagged LA Chandlar and her friend to go to lunch with us. LA is so nice I couldn’t tell if we were holding them captive or not, but I was thankful for Libby’s drive. The call of an empty hotel room is hard to resist when you have young kids at home. If Libby hadn’t have been with me, I would have spent most of my time ordering room service and watching pay-per-view movies. Libby’s a mom, too, but somehow she had enough push for both of us. When I stood wide-eyed and overwhelmed, she would grab my hand and direct me to a group of authors that she felt we had to meet.

 
This year’s convention is in St. Petersburg, Florida. Libby is going with me again. We registered early enough to get a room at the hotel that is housing the convention. Last year we had to walk back and forth between hotels. It was only a few blocks, but it felt like miles after the third or fourth time in one day while carrying a laptop and books, and wearing shoes that were comfortable until I decided to walk a lot in them.
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We both got panel assignments this year, something that didn’t happen for either of us last year. I’m moderating my panel, so I’ve spent the last few weeks reading books by the authors on my panel and preparing questions. One of the authors became a friend of mine at last year’s Bouchercon.

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My favorite panel last year was the LGBTQ (Reading the Rainbow) panel moderated by Kristopher Zgorski. When I got the news that I was moderating a panel this year, I immediately reached out to him for advice. And he did not disappoint. People like Kristopher are what make Bouchercon so great. I have a larger network of people I can go to for advice just because I showed up. I can’t wait to see what this year’s con will bring. Maybe I’ll stay out of the hotel room without Libby prompting me to!