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.

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.