#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.

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.