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.

THE WEIGHT OF LIES: murder and mommy issues

Megan Ashley is a socialite struggling to find independence and meaning. Her mother is Frances Ashley, author of the bestselling book KITTEN. I imagine KITTEN as the love child of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. It’s not a literary masterpiece, but it resonates with readers and becomes a cultural phenomenon.    

Frances’s dodgy assistant Asa has contacts in publishing and offers Megan a chance to establish herself as her own person while righting some of her mother’s wrongs. He wants Megan to write a tell-all, exposing Frances’s terrible mothering as well as clearing up the rumors that KITTEN is based on a real murderer.

Megan goes on a truth-seeking quest on Bonney Island, Georgia, where Frances drew the inspiration for her novel. She’s also trying to learn more about her mother who has always been an enigma to Megan, while uncovering the truth about the death that inspired Frances’s novel. Unexpected mysteries and dangers emerge as Megan digs into her mother’s past.

I’m often drawn to stories that center around complicated mother/daughter relationships. And though much of the story is about Megan’s relationship with her mother, it’s about much more than that. It’s about society’s willingness to forgive bad writing for the sake of a good story. It’s about our collective fascination with true crime. But most of all, it’s a damn good mystery. Every time you think you know what’s happening, Carpenter flips the script.

THE WEIGHT OF LIES is a fun and twisty mystery that will make you resent anyone in your life who demands your attention while you’re reading.  

THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA: art & obsession in New York

I started THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA with a healthy amount of skepticism. My cousin/BFF has an art degree and whenever we visit a museum together, he goes on about history and aesthetic and meaning and it’s really interesting for about 30 minutes and then I need a big fat nap. I wasn’t sure an entire novel built around a painting could keep my interest. Then there was a bloody death almost at the very beginning, so I was hooked.

Paire Anjou moved to NYC to escape her dark past and reinvent herself. She’s an artist struggling to find her footing while her boyfriend Derek Rosewood is the toast of the city’s art scene. As she stands in front of the gallery that’s displaying some of his work, she becomes entranced by a painting in the window. An older man joins her on the sidewalk, and promptly stabs himself in the chest.

As far as suicides go, it’s a messy choice. But who am I to tell some old stranger how to do himself in? And the visual of Paire covered in blood while staring at the red-robed Empress is delightfully disturbing.

The incident draws Paire further into the local art scene, where she’s able to spend more time with The Empress and dig into the painting’s history. The Empress brings out emotions and actions in Paire that are frightening and exciting, both for her and the reader. She already has identity issues, and her new obsession causes her to question herself further. She changed her name from Katie Novis when she moved to NYC, and now she’s wondering what this new person she’s become is capable of. Maybe she’s capable of an art heist.

Paire isn’t naïve enough to believe the heist will be without consequences, but she has no idea how dire those consequences will be. She lands herself in the underbelly of the art world, where retribution is more important than beauty or legacy.

Alex Dolan’s story is an exquisite tale of what happens when greed overtakes artistry, and of the young woman hellbent on preserving one artist’s legacy while struggling to reconcile with her own past. THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA is a gripping tale from beginning to end.

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.

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.

I asked the experts what we should be reading

I love hanging out with educators. Just being around them makes me feel smarter, like I’m accidentally learning things with no effort. I asked a handful of my educator friends what their number one priority is for summer reading this year. Warning: if you keep reading this post you’re going to spend your entire summer with your nose in a book.

Ashlee M.: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. It’s all about the resurgence of research into psilocybin and LSD as medicines to treat a range of mental health disorders.  FUNGI are the origin of both compounds. Need I say more?

wheretheredferngrows

Laura K.: I think Where the Red Fern Grows is an absolute must-read for children and adults alike. It showcases the love between a boy and his dogs and the hardships of a particular era in American history. Just remember to have a box of Kleenex ready for the end. I bawled like a baby!!!

Nola N.: My number one for the summer is Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi. I just bought it and can’t wait to dive in. It’s a west African inspired story of reclaiming magic from a leader hell-bent on destroying it forever. With a strong female main character and who fights for hope for her people, it’s a YA epic that would make a great summer read!

Another one would be Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Another great story of struggle, hope, and survival of a young Lithuanian girl in a Siberian work camp. It’s been out a while, but will be a movie soon titled Ashes in the Snow. Children of Blood and Bone is also in the works for becoming a film. Read the book first. Always read the book first.

Mary H.: Varina! Its historical fiction set in the civil war era. Its about the wife of the confederate president. I’m a double major, theatre and history. Its my nerd heaven.

kindred

Amanda M.: I was recently reading a list of the greatest literary villains and I was intrigued by the book, Kindred by Octavia Butler. The story line seems to combine science and history with a strong female protagonist. I usually read more mystery novels so I want to broaden my horizons more. Plus I want to read more from African American authors.

Sue F.:  Lots of books on my list, but very much looking forward to The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. A novel about 3 German women and their children, the families of German officers involved in attempt to assassinate Hitler. Set at end of WWII.

Sue W.: I am looking forward to reading 2 novels by Tatiana de Rosnay: A Secret Kept and A Paris Affair. Over the school year, I read her novels Sarah’s Key and The House I Loved.

Laura Ellen S.: I’m so excited to read Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, that I’m violating my rule of never paying more than $9.99 for an ebook, so I can start reading it on its release day, June 26. Straight up horror fiction never really scares me, but Tremblay’s stories terrify me. He writes a mystery/horror fusion, with lots of layers for the careful reader.

Matt C.: I have two books I am personally looking forward to reading this summer: an early summer release and a late summer release. In late May, Julie Mulhern started a new series with Fields Guide to Abduction. Julie has mastered walking the tight rope between cozy mystery and thriller, and I just can’t think of a better summer read than a cozy thriller. In August, David Joy releases a third novel, The Line That Held Us. David is a friend and one of my favorite writers working right now. He is, in my opinion, the best in the business at telling the stories of rural America. He is telling stories that need to be told, and he does it as well as anyone.