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.

 

Poison Girls: facts spun into page-turning fiction

poisongirls

Cheryl L. Reed’s Poison Girls is a gripping tale that often reads like creative nonfiction. And for good reason. Reed drew the story from her own experiences covering a group of young girls using crack cocaine in Dayton in the 1990’s.

Poison Girls is set in the Chicago South Side in 2008 where teenage girls are dying from fentanyl-laced heroin which is called “poison”.  An ambitious crime reporter named Natalie is determined to get to the bottom of the deaths. She navigates the world where affluent teens and hardened drug-dealers coexist, and gets too close to a teenage girl who awakens Natalie’s maternal instincts.

The story is woven together with intricate threads of politics, racism, religion, and classism, all set against the backdrop of the shrinking newspaper industry. Natalie risks her career, freedom, and even her life to get to the bottom of the epidemic. And the longer it takes, the higher the body count.

Poison Girls is a captivating thriller, and a great reminder that journalists are often on the front lines of society’s problems when most of us stay away and still feel justified in forming judgments.

Lightwood: greed in gritty Florida

I have been a fan of Steph Post since I read her debut A Tree Born Crooked a couple of years ago. With her sophomore novel Lightwood, Post reminds us that she is an amazing talent who has claimed her position in the southern noir genre.

Judah Cannon is released from prison, and there’s no one there to pick him up. He’s disappointed but not surprised. His life has never been fairy tale.

He walks to the bar he frequented as a younger man, where he runs into his best friend/unrequited love interest Ramey.  Seeing Ramey gives Judah a rare glimpse of optimism. Maybe he can have a normal life.

But Judah’s father Sherwood won’t allow it. He needs Judah for the family business. The same business that landed Judah in prison.

Judah doesn’t see denying Sherwood’s request as an option. So he goes along with the “simple” heist. But before he can settle in with Ramey and the newly acquired cash, Judah and the Cannons find themselves involved with a ruthless biker gang and a lunatic Pentecostal preacher named Sister Tulah. When Judah’s little brother Benji becomes the innocent victim of the Cannon’s greed, Judah makes it his mission to get revenge on everyone involved.

The setting is so strong you almost feel sweaty reading about the oppressive Florida heat.  All of the characters, even the ones who are only bit players, are fully formed and genuine.  Though Judah and Ramey are the obvious protagonists, it’s impossible not to become invested in each character’s fate.

Post’s stories are rich with family legacy and personal struggle. A Tree Born Crooked was Post’s introduction, and Lightwood is evidence that Post is headed for a long, successful career.

Girls can murder, too

Murder Girls by Christine Morgan completely took me by surprise, and I love that. It came to my attention because it was edited by my internet-bestie (she might not feel the same way so don’t tell her I said that) Melodie Ladner. Melodie writes Facebook status updates that make me spit my coffee at the screen in fits of surprise laughter. So I was interested to read the work she edited.

There are five protagonists (or antagonists, depending on how you look at it). Having so many could have been confusing, or their differences could have been stereotypical like the Spice Girls. No offense to you Spice Girl fans, but you know what I mean. One’s cute, one’s athletic, one’s a stuck-up bitch. But somehow, Christine Morgan pulls this off. The characters are very different from one another, but in ways that you and I are different from our friends. And after the first chapter it’s easy to remember who is who.

Murder Girls is a satirical coming-of-age story. These five young women are figuring out how they want to live, and how they want to kill. It’s often cringe-inducing, but there’s enough dark humor sprinkled in to bring relief.

The premise is a little out there. But believing that all five girls would go along with the decision to murder is easy once you get to know them. And Morgan makes sure you get to know them all without force-feeding their stories. The setting descriptions are rich, and the scenes are easy to visualize, even when you’re rather not.

Murder Girls is a fun, suspenseful read that leaves you wanting more.