THREE-FIFTHS: we can all stop writing now

Many years ago, Henry Rollins read Requiem for a Dream. He found Hubert Selby Jr.’s phone number in the phone book, called him, and asked him how he was supposed to continue writing when Selby had written everything that needs to be written. Selby’s work had pushed the prolific writer into writer’s block.

Before Requiem for a Dream, he had read three other Selby books. Before reading John Vercher’s Three-Fifths, I had read a handful of great books in a row. It was to the point of being a little ridiculous. It was time for a meh read because you know, odds. After We Were Witches and Half in Love with Death (I could go back further or you could read the reviews on my freaking blog), I read Three-Fifths. I knew this wasn’t going to be the meh read because several readers whose opinions I trust had sang its praises. But I was not prepared for just how outstanding and impactful it is.

In this story I’m Henry Rollins and John Vercher is Hubert Selby Jr. Except it wasn’t a phone call, it was a text where I told John that he had punched me in the metaphorical dick. And not only did it make it impossible for me to write, I couldn’t even read another book for about two weeks.

Three-Fifths is about Bobby Saraceno, a biracial black man passing for white in Pittsburgh. It’s 1995, and Bobby’s best friend Aaron has just returned from prison. Aaron is no longer the scrawny comic-book geek from Bobby’s adolescence. He’s a muscled-up white supremacist who wastes no time involving Bobby in a hate crime.

Bobby is a hard-working young man, a good kid who hustles relentlessly so he and his mom can make ends meet. His focus to stay afloat intensifies as he continues to hide his identity from his best friend and tries to figure out how to clear his conscience and stay out of prison.

Vercher confronts everyone’s racial biases head-on, saving no one from discomfort. No character is completely guilty or innocent, and no one is spared from the damage inflicted by America’s legacy of racism. Vercher finds a way to make the reader understand every flawed character. And he makes you care way more than you’ll want to.

Three-Fifths pulled me in from the very first sentence. Like Bobby, I willingly went along for the ride and wasn’t the same after. No matter how “woke” you think you are, this novel will hold a mirror up to something in yourself you don’t want to see.

My only regret about Three-Fifths is not reading it sooner.

HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH: 100% worth the stress

It’s the era of peace and love in the 1960s, but Caroline’s life is no longer peaceful. Since her beautiful older sister Jess disappeared, fifteen-year-old Caroline can’t stop blaming herself and looking for leads. Her parents do nothing but drink and fight. The police have no solid leads. The only person who cares is Tony, her sister’s older boyfriend. Tony convinces Caroline that Jess has run away to magical, sunny California. Tony wants Caroline to go with him to find Jess. And Caroline sees no option but to follow, even if Tony scares her a little sometimes with his blue-eyed intensity.

Caroline’s innocence is slipping away with her sister’s disappearance. Having this story told from the perspective of a curious fifteen-year-old girl struggling with her identity does a tremendous service for the reader. Caroline is sad, but not bogged down in grief the way an adult would be. She’s optimistic about her sister’s fate and convinced that everything is going to be okay while the adults in her life are dismissive. And she’s convinced she and Tony are the only people who can solve the mystery of Jess’s disappearance.

The dynamic between a girl and her older sister is perfectly explored in this book. When you’re the younger sister, you want what your sister has. You want to feel what she feels. You want her boyfriend to look at you the way he looks at her, even if that’s a little creepy. You want to wear her clothes and be her, even if she has a way of finding trouble that disturbs you. This is the trap Caroline falls into. Her missteps are understandable, even if they make your heart race.

Emily Ross is a master of tension and suspense. Half in Love With Death grabs you from the first page, and doesn’t let go until long after the last word.

WE WERE WITCHES: a feminist journey through the Bush Sr. administration

Ariel is teen mother who buys into the dream that education is the road out of poverty. She exercises a startling amount of strength and determination to get into college and secure housing for herself and her infant daughter. But once she’s there, she quickly learns that it’s still a man’s world. And young single mothers are not welcome.

We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single lesbian mother as she’s thrust into a surprise custody dispute, surrounded by homophobia, and struggling against the George HW Bush administration’s vendetta against anyone who challenges their definition of conventional family values.

Throughout her tribulations, she strives to provide a life for her daughter where women create the narrative shape that fits their own story.

On the first page of We Were Witches, Ariel Gore describes Sylvia Plath as “a casualty of the soft, feathery war between art and motherhood.” This heartbreaking and poignant prose flows consistently throughout the entire book. Seriously, have a highlighter handy.

We Were Witches is part memoir, part magical realism, part how-to for fledgling witches. And it’s 100% Ariel Gore, the writer I secretly (until now) think of as my punk rock big sister.  As she does in all her work, Gore nails what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a partner, and a lover in a way no one else can. We Were Witches is about Ariel Gore’s journey, but it will make you see your own more clearly.

IT WAS ALWAYS YOU: Just because you’re paranoid…

Morgan Kalson is an accomplished young woman with a troubled background. She’s confident and professional when it comes to her career as an up-and-coming psychology professor, but tragically bad at relationships. Stalkery bad, to be exact.

Her last relationship ended with a police report and restraining order, with her as the focus of both. So, when her boyfriend Justin dies after running the car off the road on their way to a romantic weekend getaway, the police and Morgan’s long-term doctor, Dr. Koftura, suspect Morgan is responsible for Justin’s death. Especially since Morgan and Justin had a huge public argument days before the accident.

Her best friend Annie is behaving strangely, and may or may not have been involved with Justin prior to his death. Dr. Koftura has turned on her. And just who was Justin, anyway? Information on him is hard to come by. Morgan has experienced bouts of paranoia in the past, so she can’t be sure of her instincts.

Morgan has successfully kept the worst parts of her past hidden. So hidden, she doesn’t remember important events. But if she’s going to prove her innocence, she’ll have to break through the barriers to her memory. And she’ll also have to figure out why Dr. Koftura is so convinced of her guilt.

Stephens uses her psychologist background to write believable characters struggling with mental illness and desperate to stay afloat. IT WAS ALWAYS YOU is a riveting psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very end.

IDYLL THREATS: investigating a murder from the closet

Thomas Lynch arrives in Idyll, Connecticut in the summer of 1997 to start his job as the new police chief. Idyll is a small town with a low crime rate and a bar that doubles as a laundromat. Chief Lynch is prepared for boredom. But Cecilia North turns up murdered on the golf course before he can even get a freakin’ nameplate on his office door.

The Idyll police force doesn’t know what to do with murder. They’re used to traffic citations and occasional criminal mischief. Lynch could help by admitting that he had a chance encounter with the victim mere hours before she was killed. But if he tells his detectives about their meeting, he’ll reveal his biggest secret—he’s gay. So Lynch works angles of the case on his own, winning himself no friends in the Idyll Police Department.  

Thomas Lynch is a man trying to reconcile his passion for police work with his homosexuality. The Idyll PD is rife with casual homophobia, and coming out can cost him his job. He’s also dealing with his former NYPD partner’s death. This combination of fear and grief has Lynch in a stranglehold. He has no clear path forward, and he can’t let his personal issues interfere with the murder case.

But also Lynch has needs. You know? And even attempting to get laid can make his circumstances substantially worse.

IDYLL THREATS is the first in the three-book Thomas Lynch series by Stephanie Gayle. Lynch’s deceit and guilt create a constant undercurrent of self-hatred that is its own character. IDYLL THREATS is a slow-burning police procedural that puts the human condition to the forefront.

#FashionVictim: Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl

Yes, that’s a Bob’s Burgers reference in the post title. But it applies to #FashionVictim, Amina Akhtar’s 2018 debut novel about a fashion editor who has absolutely had enough of everyone’s bullshit.

Fashion editor Anya St. Clair has almost reached her life-long goals. She has a trust fund that helped her get where she is, but her success can mostly be attributed to her hard work, talent, and killer instincts.

One of her main motivators is her long-time obsession with Sarah Taft. Sarah is rich, beautiful, stylish, and born to be in fashion. Anya is one desk away from Sarah and oh-so-close to making Sarah her best friend. When Sarah and Anya are pitted against each other for a promotion, Anya decides the best plan is to beat Sarah and prove her worthiness.

Anya is fully capable of beating Sarah. She’s smart and resourceful, and has laser-focus on achieving her goals. And, she’ll murder anyone who gets in her way. I mean, if that’s not commitment, what is?

Akhtar is a former fashion writer and editor. I knew within reading the first few pages of #FashionVictim that I would have left fashion in tears after one day on the job. It’s hardcore and not for the sensitive types. But Anya doesn’t leave in tears. She pushes her rage down until it becomes its own bloodthirsty entity. I hung on every word, eager to watch Anya treat each murder like a work of art.

#FashionVictim never tries to convince the reader that Anya is innocent or misunderstood. She’s unapologetically ruthless. And you can’t help but love her for it.

A ROCKY DIVORCE: like a debutante ball but with pot dealers and fetishes

When an abrupt divorce leaves her with nothing but a high alcohol tolerance and a keen talent for observation, quick-witted Raquel “Rocky” Champagnolle does the unthinkable. She joins the freakin’ Texarkana Junior League. The Junior League gives Rocky endless opportunities to drink with blonde women named Brittany (at least that’s what Rocky calls them) and to make fun of Texarkana’s wealthy elite. Rocky comes up with a winning philanthropic venture for the ladies, but the matriarch Waverly St. Laurent insults her weight, engaging every petty bone in Rocky’s body. Someone is breaking into the homes of the city’s richest citizens, and Rocky could help but now she doesn’t want to. But when Waverly mistakes her husband for the man who has been terrorizing her peers and accidentally shoots him dead, Rocky has all the incentive she needs to get involved. Especially when she suspects the crime wave is tied to a series of decades-old murders.

This book, y’all. I can honestly say it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I’ve read a ton a books. It’s hilarious from page one, with a take-no-shit protagonist who is equally comfortable teaching a room full of young children as she is sitting in a bar with old cops. Her Junior League adventure takes her out of her comfort zone, but she finds a way to make the situation her bitch. I found Rocky relatable on more levels than I care to admit publicly. But I lack her curves and sleuthing skills.

Coleman’s signature steady action pace is fully present, along with fantastic one-liners and well-rounded characters that would feel like clichés in less-skilled hands. A ROCKY DIVORCE is a hilarious page-turner with a protagonist that you’ll want to make your best friend, because you wouldn’t want her for an enemy.

NO ONE’S HOME: I hope you have a night light

Margot and Myron Spielman move to a new town looking for a fresh start. After a predictable yet effective sales technique by their realtor (at this price it won’t last long!), they purchase Rawlingswood, a foreclosed mansion rumored to be haunted. This is the part where you realize anyone could be roped into buying a haunted house. Sure, some people may or may not have been murdered here, but all old houses have a history. And look at this crown molding!

The thing is that the Spielmans, like so many people who are living outside their means, are trying to create a perfect life from the outside in hopes that the inner workings will follow. But it never works that way, y’all.

After an expensive and rushed renovation fraught with problems, the Spielmans move into the beautiful old house. Their issues quickly escalate as the mansion’s façade begins to crumble around them. Their teenage son Hunter uncovers Rawlingswood’s disturbing history as the Spielman’s own secrets and betrayals come to light. And someone, or something, is watching everything that happens inside the house. Hunter searches for answers as his parents become more absorbed in their own darkness. The pressure of their past and present builds to a fever pitch, and there’s a decent chance someone will be murdered. I mean, they are in the Murder House, after all. Murder’s in the name.

D.M. Pulley’s NO ONE’S HOME is a creepy, twisty tale with a setting so rich it feels like a character. Pulley leans heavily into family history and small-town folklore, weaving a lush web of stories into one page-turning novel. It’s currently a semifinalist (horror category) in the 11th annual Goodreads Choice Awards. Vote and buy it now, then read it as soon as you get your hands on it. If you read at night like I do, get ready for some messed up dreams.

THE UNREPENTANT: a story of survival & revenge

Charlotte Reyes has been kidnapped, beaten, and raped repeatedly. And she’s only eighteen years old. Former soldier Mace Peterson happens upon Charlotte during her escape attempt, and in a split-second decision, he aids her escape and puts himself in the path of ruthless, evil men.

Charlotte quickly realizes that escaping isn’t enough. She’ll have to kill every man involved so he can’t harm more women. Mace doesn’t support her plan, especially when she puts his ex-wife in danger with her recklessness. But he’s in too deep to step away, and together they’ll get the revenge that Charlotte so desperately needs.

E.A. Aymar’s The Unrepentant is unflinchingly dark and brutal. Both main characters suffer from PTSD, and there’s no shortage of violence. But there are surprising moments of comic relief.

Aymar never shames or victim-blames Charlotte, and this simple fact makes this brutal story digestible. And when Charlotte begins her quest for revenge, the story remains tense but also becomes wickedly fun.

Girls and women are trafficked every single day. I hope more authors give them voices and stories that aren’t steeped in shame. Charlotte is a victim, but more than that she’s a survivor.

HAPPY DOOMSDAY: teenage wasteland

It’s the end of the world, y’all. In the wake of the sudden and mysterious purge, only a handful of young misfits remains.

When the end came, “Wizard of Odd” Dev Brinkman was seeking shelter in his high school from the taunts of classmates. Lucy Abernathy, fresh off a goth phase, had recently lost her best friend to suicide and wasn’t sure she wanted to remain alive. And quarterback Mohammad “Marcus” Haddad was narrowly avoiding a huge mistake that would have cost him his life and made him infamous.

Dev’s Asperger’s is finally a major asset. He’s able to figure out systems for maintaining electricity and water, and he’s not too messed up everyone he knows being dead.

Lucy and Marcus aren’t content to be alone. They eventually find one another and continue on the road in search of other survivors. They eventually find Dev, who has no desire to be found.

Happy Doomsday by David Sosnowski is a coming-of-age novel set in a postapocalyptic United States. Each survivor has their own idea of how things should or shouldn’t be rebuilt. None of the three would have been friends before the apocalypse, and now they’re all each other has. What I enjoyed the most about this book is that the perspectives of sixteen-year-olds gives the apocalypse a completely different slant than we’re used to. None of them spend much time on self-pity or grief. Instead they move forward and try to figure out how best to navigate the new barely populated world. It’s a fun and often gross novel, and the pace builds momentum with each chapter.