My hand’s on the handle of the screen door and I pause, turn. The thought of going inside, drinking a glass of water, reading, undressing—the thought of doing these living things makes it hard to breathe and I think of Crazy Horse and massacres and muscle-bound dudes shooting pool and sex. Which of these thoughts will cast Her in the darkest light, will help me get free?
With sparse, languorous sentences that nonetheless hold a masterful deep-seated tension throughout, The Glamshack is a look into the interior landscape of a man on the edge of self-discovery, and, even larger, it chronicles the ubiquitous nature of us all.
Henry has found the woman of his dreams, he even thinks he loves her, but the problem is that she is engaged to another man and she’s leaving to go visit this fiancé in New Orleans.
Henry has twelve days to figure out what he’s doing with his life. And what it looks like from the outside is living in someone else’s pool house, having an affair with a woman who’s about to be married, and flushing his job down the drain.
But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. Henry’s story begins not with the entrance of the unnamed Her into his life, but with childhood memories and how he sees an unlikely parallel of his story in the long-past Plains Indians wars.
What is interesting about The Glamshack is the inversion of the expected gender roles. In a book like this, you would generally expect the Henry character to be a woman. Instead, we get the opposite, and we follow Henry’s introspection, his male point of view, and the world looking back at him.
I think it's important that the book is set in 1999, just before the new millennium, when there really is nothing in the book to suggest that it has to be set in this time period. This setting, which the reader is reminded about at the start of every chapter that isn't a memory, is significant.
It is about to be a turning point, the collective holding of breath before something new begins. Henry, and perhaps the rest of the world, are stuck in stasis, but when the clock turns over, it could be a reset, a chance to try again, be better, have freedom. Who knows what will happen. 1999 represents the top of the rollercoaster for Henry, what happens after these 12 days could potentially determine his freedom.
His job involves writing for what he dubs the “Glamrag,” a magazine mostly full of advertisements where “editorial doesn’t count for shit” and he is in charge of interviewing photographers, tv commercial directors, model scouts, and the like.
But he doesn’t seem to be able to ask the right questions, to really get any story now that She is in his head. And his job is on the line. None of these ordinary things seem to matter to Henry anymore, though.
In glamorous LA, everything is surface level. All anyone seems to see in him is that he would make a good model. He’s got a look and he’s got “as little as possible going on behind the eyes.” That’s all it takes to be a male model: a good looking body and nothing in your head.
Is that what attracted Her to Henry? His prettiness and emptiness? And what makes Her so valuable to him anyway?
I spent a lot of time trying to dissect their relationship, since even though Henry is the one telling his story, I didn't find him that redeeming of a character—there really isn’t that much going on with him. He seems damaged, fixated on bringing everything back to this childhood obsession with a madman in the woods, who may have been a figment of his own imagining.
Henry uses his twelve days to unravel his relationship with Her and see what went wrong, if it even did. He delves into his childhood, grasping for threads, and it seems he spent a lot of his childhood running—it’s almost like a totem for him. A type of power.
But being so fast at running means you are always running away from something, hiding from something. And perhaps the madman resides there too, something to shield him from getting too close to the truth.
What makes their affair so special? Perhaps the point is that it isn’t. Perhaps the point is that there is nothing special about Henry or his experience, much as he tries to distinguish himself, to dig through himself to create meaning, to find substance.
It's another history of broken promises and scarring, sadness and broken hearts. Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare one torrid love affair to the decades-long struggle and oppression suffered by the Native Americans, but it gives an interesting insight into Henry’s mind.
There is darkness in all of us. What matters in the end is what you’re searching for, what you consider to be worth giving up everything else for. Freedom? The divine? A woman?
What’s the difference really?
Get your copy of The Glamshack (out June 15, 2017)
Find out more about the author, Paul Cohen
Find out more about the publisher, 7.13
This is a dark, entangling, deeply unsettling sort of book. The type that digs gritty fingernails deep into your skin, your very bones, and doesn’t let go, not even after you’re finished reading.
Felicia Sullivan had me wrapped up in her story from the very beginning and from there it only gathers steam, or more like vicious black smoke, a smoke that may smell of charred human remains.
I have a deep love of horror but so often horror is given a bad rap as something shallow or schlocky or just too gory and horrible for the sake of being so. Follow Me into the Dark brings horror into the realm of the literary in a way that reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Stephen Graham Jones.
Like much of his writing, this book isn’t afraid to go to places that may be difficult to understand, to use language that might obscure the meaning, or to just straight up obfuscate the scene in a way that makes you have to feel your way out, almost like you are in the dark yourself sometimes.
Of course, this is intentional—the nonlinear structure of the novel, the slippage between the generations and the years causes a disconnect, while at the same time highlighting how patterns of behavior, pain, and illness can be passed down the line affecting family members differently as they fracture outward.
The main thrust of the plot follows Kate whose mother is dying of cancer. Her stepfather is concurrently sleeping with Gillian, who happens to be a doppelgänger of Kate and further, there is a serial killer called the Doll Collector on the loose killing girls who have similar appearance to her as well. Gillian’s stepbrother Jonah increasingly matches the description of the killer, but it couldn’t really be him, could it?
Kate begins delving into her past and her mother’s past, bringing things to the surface that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Abuse, mental illness, loss, and pain begin narrating the pages and her emotions, especially negative ones like anger and rage, start boiling over in a way she can no longer control and the lines in her own mind begin to blur.
Perhaps the answers to now lie in the past, no matter how difficult it is to face them.
As a reader, I got the feeling that I couldn’t really trust any of the narrators; there is a sense of unreliability throughout the novel, though it is built on enough trustworthy details that I just had to keep digging. I wanted to find the truth!
There is a velvety depth to the language of this book. I got lost in it, I drowned in it. I felt like I was going crazy at times—truth is not absolute in this book, the words sometimes withhold more than they reveal, but what is clear is the profound nature of personal suffering and the lengths that some will go to, however misguided by the mind or the past, to end it.
Chilling and compelling. A beautifully written debut novel.
Get your copy of Follow Me into the Dark
Find out more about the author, Felicia Sullivan
Find out more about the publisher, Feminist Press
Website Facebook Twitter Instagram
I always say California is going to fall into the ocean someday. Those fault lines, man. You are just living in denial if you don’t think that entire state is one minuscule step away from a shattering natural disaster. But there they go, building their skyscrapers and freeway systems like it’s no big deal.
Shaker has a powerful, cinematic setup of an enormous earthquake crippling Los Angeles. Enough to put you off going to the beach for a while, or at least rethink your dreams of a glamorous Hollywood life.
Enter Roy Cooper—a New York hitman, quick, reliable, and good at his job, sent to LA to clean up some loose ends. He’s never been on a plane and wants to get in and out quickly, unless he might be able to catch a Dodgers game; he loves baseball and his favorite pitcher is about to break a record.
But then, right after he completes the job, everything goes to hell in a hand basket. He intervenes as a few gangbangers attack an older man in an alley and the whole thing gets recorded by a bystander and goes viral, making him look like a hero.
His anonymity goes out the window—the last thing any hitman wants—and it places him just a few blocks from the crime scene of his hit, which they will surely discover is connected sooner or later, since the bangers stole his gun and used it to kill the old man.
And that wasn’t just any old man, he was the favorite candidate in the upcoming mayoral election and now that he’s dead, the current mayor is being accused of killing off his competition. And why isn’t he doing more about fixing up the city after the quakes, by the way?
The gangbangers have a witness, Roy, and they need to find him and get rid of him. But he’s looking for them too. He knows his employers are not going to be happy about his face plastered all over the news.
LAPD detective Kelly Maguire has been bumped from the gang division due to abuse of an African American rapist/murderer she was interrogating. But she’s onto something with the city’s new hero and something isn’t quite right. And there’s someone more sinister looking for Roy, someone from his past, someone who thought he was dead.
While Roy is definitely the central focal point of this story, all of the characters are attached to him, mostly through those few moments in the alley, whether that’s how they come to know him, or that’s how they come to find him.
It seems that everyone in this book is a shaker—on some form of unsteady ground, the earth splitting beneath their feet and they need to act, to choose one way or the other.
The fact that the earth is literally shaking beneath their feet and causing extra chaos is like an externalization of how these characters' lives are falling to pieces.
I really loved how each character was really humanized--the book gets into each of their heads alternatively and shows how things are not black and white. Ray may be a hitman, but he is a person, and he is a lot more than what is revealed on the surface. Kelly has a lot of anger issues and the city may now see her as a racist pig, but there is a whole 'nother life bubbling beneath her bones, and she is really good at her job. She wants to make a difference.
I didn't really know what I was getting into with this book, but it is a tightly written, cinematic, fast-paced novel, and I definitely expect more great work from Scott Frank in the future. He has already shown us what he can do with the screen, since he wrote the screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight, among others. I would love to see what an adaptation of this would look like. . .
Get your copy of Shaker
Find out more about the author, Scott Frank
Find out more about the publisher, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (Knopf Doubleday, Penguin Random House)
Website Facebook Twitter Instagram
Cruel Mercy is my first foray into the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series following the burly, fiercely determined, and strongly moral Scotsman (of which this book is the sixth).
I was a little apprehensive to dive blindly into a series following a character I had not yet read anything about—I imagined attempting to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince without having the faintest idea of what a Muggle was, or a Dumbledore, or what expecto patronum meant, or barely even knowing that Harry Potter was the one with the glasses and the unlikely scar on his head shaped like a weather phenomenon.
Fortunately, the only thing I felt after being glued to the pages of Cruel Mercy, was that I needed to find the other books in this series as quickly as possible!
While you’ll definitely be missing out on some important character building—I couldn’t help but feel that Pharoah, McAvoy’s boss, and Roisin, his wife, are extremely important characters who do more than occasionally call on the phone in the previous installments--Cruel Mercy does an excellent job of working as a standalone novel while introducing new readers to a vivacious, intelligent, and rugged detective in a fish-out-of-water situation.
McAvoy is sent across the pond to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his wife’s brother, and a lot is resting on the investigation since the two people he was last seen with, an up-and-coming Irish boxer and his promoter are attacked in an apparent mob hit in the woods upstate.
There is a tangled web of lies, mob secrets, and long hushed-up mysterious deaths and disappearances that don’t seem connected at all until McAvoy starts digging deeper than is wanted by everyone involved.
The U.S. authorities are deep in the pockets of the rival mob groups and have their own aims in sight, including keeping McAvoy in the dark. But it only takes one black sheep, or one solitary figure who wants to see justice done. . .
The plot of this book is so complex and completely bursting with very realistic details about the city, the organizations involved, and the potential corruption, that it definitely was one of the most realistic crime fiction books I have ever read. Things are not black and white, there is not just a cast of four or five characters, it isn’t always about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.
David Mark’s book shows a full spectrum of ideas, I learned about the underground boxing world, mob factions and families, corruption in police departments, and seeing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner (always an enlightening experience).
It is definitely a dark book, especially in flashbacks where we eventually realize there may be no hope of escape or release for the characters therein, but I think, in the end, it is a redemptive one and one that reflects on the struggles of our own times.
We do not live in times that are black and white, we live in the murkiest grey. Whether it seems easy to label people one way or the other, it is not—just look at our most current election cycle, people being branded one thing or the other, it is so easy in these times of instant media.
I think it is important, maybe more important than ever to read fiction that speaks truths.
We need to delve into what makes us uncomfortable about not having things strictly separated into right and wrong, true and false, black and white. And sometimes, fiction speaks truer than fact. Sometimes the light at coming full circle in a story helps you hold onto what really matters.
And now, a special interview with author David Mark!
Shelf Stalker: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
David Mark: As ever, I’m reading several books at once. I sometimes wish I had more eyes. Am loving The North Water by Ian Maguire, and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I tend to leave books in different rooms of the house and read whatever I’m nearest.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
DM: John Connolly, because he has shown how to keep an ongoing series fresh and relevant. Sebastian Faulks, because his use of language is so beautiful it makes me want to kill him out of jealousy. And Hilary Mantel, as she is Hilary Mantel.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
DM: I would quite like to be invisible, but as a novelist who spends most of his life in a darkened room, I’ve kind of already got my wish. So I think I would opt for some sort of mind-reading powers. I’d love to know what on earth people are thinking, or if indeed they actually are. Characters in novels have to have some degree of consistency and causality to their actions. Sadly, real life is not so obliging.
SS: Though this book could definitely be read as a standalone, it could be some readers’ first foray into the series—as it was mine, though I think I’ll go back and start from the beginning now. You’ve got me hooked! For readers who might not be familiar with the McAvoy series, what are a few important (or interesting) things to know about this Scottish detective and his past experiences before diving in?
DM: I’m pleased to hear that it works for newcomers as well as seasoned McAvoy fans. That was the idea. I would rather new readers approached it without knowing too much of what has come before but here’s some of the basics. Aector McAvoy is a sergeant on the Major Incident Team in Hull, Yorkshire. He’s a huge Scotsman with a tendency to blush and knock things over and who looks like he would be more at home holding a claymore and wearing a kilt in a bygone age. His life revolves around his wife and children, whom he adores, and his boss, Trish, who is a little bit in love with him. He’s brave, but doesn’t really believe he’s any type of hero, and while clever, he knows he’s not a genius. He follows the evidence wherever it goes, which is why he has so many scars. He doesn’t like upsetting people, and if he hits you hard enough there is a good chance your head will come off.
SS: This is the first McAvoy book set in the United States, or anywhere overseas for that matter. What was the motivation to take Aector so far away from his comfort zone?
DM: I know that McAvoy is synonymous with Hull and I don’t intend for that to change but I felt the time was right to remove a few of his comforts. Without his wife, Roisin, and his boss, he is never quite as sure of himself or whether he is on the right path. Given that there are some real moral ambiguities in this story, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic. I had planned to write a very different kind of New York novel. I had in mind something that was very Ed McBain or a Manhattan version of David Simon. But it occurred to me that to do those kind of stories justice, I would need to write with an authentic voice. I would need to write from the perspective of somebody who knows those streets and given that I had never been to America before, that just seemed absurd. So I decided that the "stranger in a strange land" concept might be a better fit. I wanted the reader to experience New York through the eyes of a blundering outsider, and that is definitely a voice I can find within myself.
SS: While reading this book, I really felt like I had a good picture and feel of that crazy city that never sleeps and the places described. I heard you were able to visit NYC while doing research for the book. Can you share some of that experience? What are some of the most striking differences from your hometown?
DM: There is an air of madness to New York. It’s not just one city—it seems like several different places all crunched together. The result is this patchwork of disparate cultures and influences. And yet it fits together to form this one homogenous entity that is inherently New York. People identify as New Yorkers before they identify as Americans. In that regard, it’s not dissimilar to my usual setting. People in Yorkshire say they are from the North. That’s the bit they’re proud of. In almost every other aspect, it’s a whole new world. If people in Hull were given access to the kind of foodstuffs that Manhattan has to offer, the whole of the UK would sink inside six months thanks to increased bodymass.
In terms of how I researched the book, I’m not 100 percent sure I can remember. There was a lot of drinking! But it would be fair to say that I don’t feel able to write about a place until I have experienced it and there was no way I could write the book without at least breathing in the New York air. So in essence it was a case of coming up with some good ideas for locations and trying to find a real place that worked. If I needed an old church and a boxing gym and two Irish bars, it was a case of looking at a lot of websites and coming up with a shortlist of places that might be right. It was important to me that I didn’t just pick places at random. Certain characters would only visit certain locations and live in certain types of place. There has to be a truth to your fiction. Characters need to behave like real people. Eventually I had a good long list of places that the characters would be likely to visit and where I would enjoy taking McAvoy and I booked myself and my partner a three-day break. We stayed in the hotel that would eventually become McAvoy’s hotel room and dined and drank in the restaurants and bars where he spends his time. We stood shivering outside the police precinct where the New York detective who becomes his ally would have worked. It is such a city of contradictions. It seems to be at once incredibly affluent and utterly destitute and proof of both can be glimpsed in the same panorama.
SS: Might you also talk a bit about your writing process? Your daily process while you are writing as well as what is it like to write a series—keeping all those plot threads straight! Wow!
DM: I’m very lucky that I have the kind of mind that is perfectly suited to writing fiction and which is horribly ill-suited to everything else. I take notes now and again and sometimes find scraps of paper with random words and aide-memoirs scribbled upon them but by and large I think of my skull like one of those candyfloss machines. I just swirl a stick around in there and ideas stick to it. The story I’m living and breathing then squats there in my head and pushes everything else out. Sometimes I look at the clock and I’ve lost a day and I realize I haven’t been to the bathroom since dawn. I write a chapter a day, no matter what. I’m at my desk by 9 am, drinking coffee and grinding my teeth. It’s delightfully masochistic. I kind of enjoy the agony of it, which sounds very pretentious for a writer of dark thrillers! As soon as it’s done, my brain just kind of flatlines for a bit. Then it starts preparing for the next project. Two years later, when the book is in people’s hands, I’ve largely forgotten what it was about. Sorry!
SS: What is essential to writing good crime fiction? Do you stick to some sort of formula or do you break all the rules? Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers as well?
DM: I read everything I can get my hands on. I love thrillers and psychological fiction but it is rather difficult to read them for pleasure now that it’s my day job. It’s hard not to read with an air of comparing the market. I don’t really take any notice of rules, either in the writing process or in life. Actually, I do have one—if the novelist has mentioned the make and model of a car by the end of the first paragraph, the book isn’t for me. And for God’s sake, don’t start off with a dream. For me, it’s just a case of meeting interesting people and twisting preconceptions on their head. Listen to the radio a lot. People who phone DJs are particularly inspiring—they always seem like the sort of person who could be a killer or the killed. Listen to your inner voice. When some dullard is telling you about their tedious problems, think of ways to kill them, and why. It’s less risky than actually doing it. And you think I’m joking.
SS: Do you have plans for many more adventures with McAvoy and company? Where might he travel next?
DM: I’ve just got back from Iceland, and some of the next book will happen there. My American publishers still haven’t made an offer for that one yet so if you want to read it, start bombarding them with demands.
SS: Thank you so much for your time! I so enjoyed reading the book and look forward to more mysteries and crimes to solve with Aector!
DM: Thank you. If you ever come to Hull, I’ll show you around.
Get your copy of Cruel Mercy or the other DS Aector books
Find out more about David Mark
Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
Website Facebook Twitter Instagram
What is literally happening in Fever Dream is not so much the point. In fact, the book can be interpreted several ways and probably should be. It doesn’t even limit itself to one state of being, heck, nor should it.
It is not meant to be taken literally, or rather it is, it begs to be taken for exactly what it is, while at the same time being no more than a metaphor, a haunting,
What I mean to say is that this is a very different sort of narrative. It begs to be read in a single sitting—there are no chapters or breaks of any kind, it just reads straight through. All we really know is that there are two speakers, Amanda (writing in roman) and David (writing in italics).
They are in a hospital where Amanda is ill and David is asking her questions, getting her to recount her memories of a specific time, a seemingly innocuous summer when she was vacationing with her daughter. He seems to be looking for some sort of specific information, a precise moment.
We find out that he is a child and Amanda knew his mother.
We find out that something went wrong, but what was it, exactly?
Being suffused into Amanda’s story is a bit like sinking into your own fever dream. At the beginning, the two speaker’s repartee is a bit of a shock—like jumping into cold water—it takes a minute to decipher who is saying what and what exactly is going on, there is a continued discussion of worms? What worms? Why are there worms? And where are we anyway?
But once she settles into the rhythm of her memory, it all feels familiar, like a promised story. It lulls you to your normal state of reading, what you are used to.
And all behind that, tension is mounting. In David’s carefully phrased questions, in the very specific use of language (brava, translator!) there is a feeling of unease that something is coming, something isn’t quite right.
There is this great repeated imagery throughout of a child (Nina) being attached to her mother (Amanda) by a thread by a rescue distance. When the rescue distance pulls taut, Amanda can feel it in her stomach, in her gut, that something is wrong. Depending on the situation, the distance is shorter or longer. I thought this such an apt description of a mother’s intuition and willingness to do anything to protect her child.
This book masters the smudged line of the fantastic. What is real? What is supernatural? Is it all in Amanda’s head, courtesy of her illness? Is it possible? What has even happened? There are several distinct possibilities, but as readers, we are left trying to pick up the pieces, try to decode what of the information we’ve been given is reliable.
Existential, metaphorical, delirious, and all the more compelling for the way it leaves the reader to decide the truth, this tiny book packs a punch. Yet another great achievement from Riverhead. I would love to see the other works from this author translated.
Get your copy of Fever Dream
Find out more about the author, Samanta Schweblin
Find out more about the publisher, Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
Website Facebook Twitter Instagram
A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
I realized lately that all I really know about law and courtrooms and lawyering is what I’ve seen, heard, and read about through criminal trials (both real and imagined). True crime and crime fiction is generally my scene, but when given a chance to expand my knowledge, I’m game.
Big Law is about a different side of the justice world. One where lawyers from big name firms make boatloads of money working all the time on cases representing big syndicates and companies who are probably in the wrong and have done horrible things, like spill oil all over the habitat of a bunch of poor birds or force people to work in an unhealthy environment that led to early lung cancer related deaths.
Somehow, those corporations seem to skive off without much damage and it’s always Big Law lawyers who are seen skulking away.
Welcome to the world of totally unfair bullsh!t. Oh, wait, I think you’ll recognize it since we are all currently living there for the next four years.
Anyway, back to the story. Big Law follows an up-and-coming newly minted partner, Carney Blake, who is pretty fresh from law school and still rosy-eyed and a bit idealistic about the whole law game.
When he’s given a case fighting against the corporation, for the plaintiff, the people who have been wronged, it seems a bit fishy, but he figures his company is just turning over a new leaf.
The story is told from a point in the future, so the reader gets bits of Carney’s more hardened, mature narration throughout and we can’t help but wonder, where is he telling this story from? The top of his own executive office in a crisp Armani suit? Or a jail cell in a nice orange D.O.C. jumpsuit?
Because things don’t seem to be going so well for Carney. Not in his personal life, where his father is an alcoholic mess and his brother is a drug addict, and not at his job, where every decision he makes for this case seems to send it spiraling out of control—and right into the hands of the firm’s biggest enemy.
This is an extremely fast-paced novel that spins out the world of corporate law in a way that is not only intelligible, but exciting and effortless. It drew me in and I didn’t feel like it stopping to explain every step of the process to me—instead the book treated me like an equal while still giving me all the information I needed. The mark of an experienced and great writer.
I think it definitely helps that this book is written by someone very much in the know: Ron Liebman is a former top litigator himself.
Interestingly, this book has some very clear lines demarcating good and bad, with only one surprise character (who I had a sneaking suspicion about anyway). People who the narrator thinks are bad (and are therefore cast in a bad light throughout) invariably turn out bad, through and through.
No real grey area in law, I guess.
Though the book definitely wraps up with a nicely tight bow, a bit neat for my taste, the story is definitely satisfying and gave me a buzz to read. It puts you right in the action of making the decisions with Carney and floods your brain with just a small bit of the constant wave information that lawyers’ brains must deal with.
Can’t say I’m envious of that life, but it’s nice to take a peek inside for one heck of a wild ride.
Get your copy of Big Law
Find out more about the author, Ron Liebman
Website Facebook Twitter
Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
Website Facebook Twitter Instagram
This is a book for deep winter, a cuddle-up-with-hot-cocoa kind of book, a keep-the-light-on-all-night kind of read. You don’t have to be a fan of Nordic noir or Scandinavian crime novels to get into this book. It has a truly unique and compelling story that honestly kept me guessing and kept the pages turning!
It is told from three alternating perspectives, with each one leaving off in such a way that you are almost forced to continue, compelled from one section into the next.
Peter is a police detective who is married to his job (though he can’t quite muster up that same type of commitment to people) who is called to the scene of a grisly murder—a woman had been horribly brutalized and left decapitated in famous clothing CEO and womanizer Jesper Orre’s house. No one knows who she is and Orre himself has gone missing, but the scene is uncannily similar to a crime committed some years ago.
Hanne consulted on that case and she is brought in to look at this one too. But Hanne has a secret to hide—she’s got early onset dementia and she doesn’t want anyone to know, especially Peter, with whom she shares a painful history.
Emma is Jesper Orre’s secret girlfriend and her side of the story is told from the past, slowly leading up to the present where Peter and Hanne are trying to solve the murder. She though they were in love, about to be married even, but when strange things start happening to her, she thinks Jesper is to blame—but who can she go to for help? Who would believe her, since their entire relationship was a secret?
You’ll have a sinking feeling in your stomach throughout the book—is she the girl in Jesper’s apartment? The only way to know for sure is to read on. . .
This book gave me that very satisfying moment where I had just enough clues and all of a sudden, everything clicked into place. I didn’t feel that the plot had been fed to me and I didn’t feel gypped, as though I hadn’t been given a chance to figure out what was going on.
There was a perfect balance of hints given where I probably could have figured it out sooner, if only I’d been paying attention! Sneaky author! These are my favorite types of books—the ones that make me crave to be smarter next time!
The bleak atmosphere and more intricate police procedural bits of the story that are commonly found in crime novels (especially Nordic ones) are really softened by the depth of character that Grebe reaches. Through the rotating chapters, the reader sees their internal worlds, like Peter and Hanne’s struggles that are going on outside of the investigation, and that turns them into 3D people rather than just characters on the page.
Emma is more of an enigma; I never knew quite what to expect with her, but I loved her independence and spirit in the face of her adversity. As time winds her toward the conclusion you find yourself hoping more and more that she is not the girl who is headless on the floor of Orre’s apartment.
I don't want to give the story away—but there are plenty of twists and a pretty shocking revelation in store. The book moves so quickly because of the shifting perspectives, but there are details you don't want to miss out on!
I really enjoyed the translation—I felt I was stalking the streets of Sweden and scarfing cardamom buns with the characters! (Not quite sure what those are, but they eat them like U.S. cops eat donuts!)
All in all, this is worth a read. In a sea of less than interesting thriller-types, this one will weather the storm. If you need to get out of the house after the Christmas hullaballoo (aka, get away from your family. . .) head on down to your local indie and pick this one up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you—you’ll be glued to the pages until you turn the last one.
Get your copy of The Ice Beneath Her (out 12/27)
Find out more about the author, Camilla Grebe
Find out more about the publisher, Ballantine Books (Penguin Random House)
I am a true crime buff—I listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, and know about all the cases I can get my itchy fingers on. Serial, you can bet I’ve listened to it—twice. Making a Murderer—yep, don’t even get me started on documentarian ethics. I’ve seen The People vs. OJ Simpson and the new shows on my own hometown murder, JonBenet Ramsey.
Yes, I know about Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, how Ted Bundy stalked his victims pretending to have his arm in a sling, and all about John Wayne Gacy, who was inspiration for everyone from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Twisty the Clown on the “Freakshow” season of American Horror Story.
I also know about the cases you’ve probably never heard of either. Ever heard of the Long Island serial killer? The vampire of Sacramento Richard Chase? How about Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker? Don't google "death of Tim McLean" unless you're ready for a bizarre and horrifying murder on a bus in rural Canada. We're barely scratching the surface here.
I love Ann Rule, got way too into Zodiac theories with Robert Graysmith, and do what is probably considered a bit too much research on serial killers, strange murders, and crime. Sue me. I find the human condition interesting—and after all, the worst monsters are real. (Tagline via Sword and Scale, my favorite true crime pod.)
If you’re nodding your head, if you’re itching to join in, if you feel like this describes you, you’re in the right place. But interestingly, the book I’m about to describe is fiction. It’s not a true crime story at all, although it is set up to feel like one.
His Bloody Project is a novel that I’m hard pressed to really categorize. It’s got elements of crime and horror, but isn’t really either of those things entirely. It is a bit epistolary, as it is told in letters, journal entries, and other documents. What I can say for sure is that it is a psychological riddle that leaves the reader at the center, putting together the statements and pieces to make up their own mind about what really happened.
Make no mistake. You know there was a crime, and you know who committed it, though for much of the book, the details are cast in shadow. This set up left me with this pit of dread in my stomach that just grew and grew—so effective! I knew that murder was coming, I just didn’t know exactly how it would happen.
About half the book is an account by convicted murderer Roderick Macrae of how it came to be that he did what he did. The other half is autopsy reports, some reports from criminal experts who interviewed him, the trial transcripts, news clippings, and other writings that round out the details of the mysterious case.
Not sure if this will be a spoiler for some people, but what the book doesn’t give you is solid answers: the, this is why he REALLY did it—we know for sure! But that’s what makes it so realistic, so true to life. Sometimes we can’t understand people’s true intentions, the “why” we are searching for.
Even more interesting is what I felt I was able to put together, based on all the information given, and how it was given. The book is set in 1869, a time when criminal psychiatry was not nearly as advanced as it is now. There are diagnoses that were simply not available to them because they didn’t exist yet. I recognized qualities in Roderick that make me suspect who he is, who is hiding inside him.
It is also set in rural Scotland, where there was a huge bias against the farming communities of the highlands—those people who were continuing to live in the old Scottish way rather than conforming to the English way of living (and speaking). Despite Roderick’s seeming high intelligence and eloquence in his diary, everyone is exceedingly biased against him and thought he was destined to become a criminal.
It was like being at a real trial—feeling the injustice of it all, sensing that I knew some truth about Roderick, his mind, and his situation that they weren’t quite understanding or getting to, feeling that I had all the pieces there and I somehow had to put them all together!
It’s no wonder this book made the shortlist for the Man Booker this year. I love a book that makes me think and put together the narrative myself. One that has me piecing together the elements like a detective.
In the end, did Roddy even have a chance? That’s the question I’m left wondering. I’d love to chat with anyone else who has read this one! Any thoughts on Roderick? Why he did it? Who he is? Come on, true crime buffs—you know you want a piece of your own mystery to solve!
Get your copy of His Bloody Project
Find out more about the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Find out more about the publisher, Contraband
Website Facebook Twitter
Recently, I had the great joy of being able to read not one, but two of Erik Therme's books and he even put up with me long enough to give us a peek behind the author's curtain—see below the review for a special author interview!
If you missed my review and interview with Erik on his book Resthaven click here.
Mortom centers around Andy who was surprised to learn he inherited his recently deceased cousin’s house and assets. He was never all that close to Craig and didn’t even attend the funeral, but who’s going to say no to some free stuff, right?
Craig’s unexpected death was deemed accidental, but things are already fishy when Andy and his sister Kate show up to the house and the first thing they find is a dead rat with a key and a secret message shoved in its mouth.
It seems that Craig is not quite finished with them yet—there’s a mysterious trail of clues that Andy will have to solve and follow if he wants to find out what Craig really left him. Kate thinks there is more going on: there’s a little girl next door and an angry old man who seem to hold one key to the puzzle, and Craig’s mom definitely knows more than she’s letting on.
Is it a conspiracy? Is the whole tiny town of Mortom out to get them? What’s with the trail of clues? Did Craig really leave some treasure at the end? Or is it something worse? And why did he leave it for Andy?
Andy focuses in on finding the clues—he’s convinced there’s something hidden at the end of this that is worth having, that Craig wouldn’t set up this elaborate scavenger hunt without there being something to win at the end.
But Kate isn’t so sure and although she isn’t feeling well, she starts doing some digging of her own, asking questions about Craig to his neighbors, to their aunt, and she starts to uncover something with much bigger repercussions than just the silly material gain that Andy was hoping for. Now, if only she could get Andy to pay attention!
This is a book that keeps on twisting! Once you think you’ve figured it out, there’s another twist, another surprise waiting around the corner.
I was interested in the polar opposition between Andy and Kate: Andy is so focused in on the small details, on following this trail of clues that he just can’t wrap his head around the bigger picture. Kate, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about some silly scavenger hunt, but winds up getting sucked into the town of Mortom and her family’s past in a way she never expected.
Craig is really an enigma throughout the book; I got a sense that he wanted to create this larger-than-life mysterious persona that would almost haunt Andy. But though you will find out the truth behind what drives Craig, I’m not sure we ever find out who Craig truly is.
Creepy old houses in small towns where everyone seems to be watching, jaunts through graveyards at midnight, and scavenger hunts with seemingly no end—this is a speedy read with a lot to unpack!
And now for a continuation of my interview with author Erik Therme!
Shelf Stalker: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Erik Therme: Bridge Daughter, by Jim Nelson. I don’t know how this book hasn’t sold a million copies. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale of an alternate America, where first-born children are carriers of their parents’ “real” children. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling anything, but it’s one of the most original tales I’ve read in a long time.
SS: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
ET: I could always relate to Spider-Man, as he’s just a geeky kid with real life problems. And what’s the best way to escape problems? Walking away on ceilings and walls. Ha!
SS: Any story behind the origin of this book? Any relatives leaving you cryptic messages with their estates?
ET: The town of Mortom is based on Farmington, Iowa, where my father grew up, and where I spent many summers of my childhood. The original draft was heavily influenced by Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and went through numerous drafts before it became what it is today. As of right now, I haven’t heard about any estates from deceased relatives, but I also haven't checked my mailbox today . . .
SS: Andy is so completely obsessed with solving the puzzles, the materialistic side of it all, and is so intent that there is something at the end of it for him that he isn’t able to see the bigger picture. On the other hand, Kate isn’t really interested in the puzzle at all. Once she gets involved, it’s in the human element, piecing together the people surrounding their cousin and his death. Their focus is so different and they constantly clash throughout the book. Is this just sibling rivalry? Gender commentary? What were your thoughts on developing these characters?
ET: The main intent for the constant arguing (between Andy and Kate) was to show that Andy is so fixated on solving the riddle that he has no regard for anything—or anyone—around him. In retrospect, I probably should have scaled the bickering down a bit, as some readers have commented it felt unnecessary and bogged down the story.
SS: What was the most difficult scene to write?
ET: I always struggle writing “action” scenes. The finale in Mortom took a fair amount of tweaking before I was satisfied, and it took me forever to write the dog scene in Resthaven. One of the golden rules of writing is “show—don’t tell,” but whenever I write action-heavy scenes, it always feels like forced description, and I’m never fully satisfied with the end result.
SS: In this book (and Resthaven too) there are definite blurred lines about who the “bad guy” is. There are multiple characters who do bad things, make bad decisions, and don’t seem to have the best motives, including the main character, Andy. What was your thought behind creating characters in shades of grey?
ET: There’s no question I love blurring the lines between right and wrong. I think it’s because I don’t believe anyone is inherently good or evil, and I’m endlessly fascinated by people’s motivations and the choices they make. Life is complicated and messy, and even the best of us have dark moments. Do the ends justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are the types of questions that drive my characters to do what they do.
SS: And finally, are you working on anything new currently?
ET: My third novel, Roam, is going through the editing process and will be released in February 2017. The story follows a young man who believes he’s being haunted by his dead father, and the only way he can redeem himself is by “saving” someone else. It’s a very character-driven story and very different from Mortom and Resthaven. Readers can follow me on Amazon to be notified when the book is released.
Get your copies of Resthaven and Mortom
Find out more about the author, Erik Therme
Website Facebook Amazon Twitter
Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.