Emma Flint Slays in Little Deaths

It took me a while to read Little Deaths by Emma Flint.  Perhaps because of the time period.  I don’t normally read books that aren’t set in the modern day unless they’re by Laura Lippman or Megan Abbott or other authors I trust frequently.  I am so disappointed—not in this book, which was absolutely stunning, but that I waited so long to read this fantastic novel.  This book, loosely based on a true story, is anything but boring, predictable, or dull.  I did, in fact, read it all in one sitting—one very long sitting, staying up all through the night while my partner constantly asked me to go to bed.  It was that haunting.

Little Deaths, like many of Megan Abbott’s books (or all of Megan Abbott’s books, really, and most of Laura Lippman’s standalones as well) is based on a true story—did a woman actually kill her young son and daughter? From the beginning of the novel, we know that things do not bode well for Ruth Malone, and the novel goes on to chronicle the trial she endures for—and I won’t spoil anything—perhaps murdering her own children.

Stories like these are often complicated.  I come from South Carolina, where Susan Smith drowned her own sons in the ‘90s, when I was still a child.  There are many women who experience or commit several crimes, often enduring post-partum depression or other issues that drive them to a point of madness or simply utter confusion and loss.  Flint manages to portray all sides of the situation with such agility and fierceness that the reader is forced to question everyone, and even sympathize with a would-be, might-be child murderer.

Image result for emma flint little deathsThere are so many things incriminating Flint’s protagonist, this woman who has had her own hard life and now must face an even tougher outcome. Yet the book flows effortlessly, never weighing the reader down too much with too much gravity or sadness, always reminding the consumer that this is the woman’s story, not the child’s story, and that the woman at the center of the book is, in many ways, a victim of the times she lives in and her situation.

I do have one problem with this book, and it may seem juvenile. I wish it was longer, and that is purely for selfish reasons. I did not want this book to end. Little Deaths, a play on words, a play on my heart, is a book I wanted to continue on forever, just so I did not have to part with the characters or, even more frankly, the writer Flint’s beautiful style. She can at once be so matter-of-fact and also lyrical it puts many other authors to shame.

If you don’t trust me in regards to Flint’s stunning novel Little Deaths, then perhaps refer to the numerous nominations and praise it has received, the stunning responses of fans from around the globe who truly love this book.  I rarely close an article by saying this—and yet, with so many great debuts coming out this year, this phrase may become a favorite of mine—I cannot wait to see what Emma Flint produces next.  She is a writer of superb talent that is virtually unmatched by beginner writers, someone who should be revered and read widely.  She is a writer who understands women, various time periods, and all of the emotions and contradictions of the human hearts.

Read Little Deaths.  Read it now.

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3 Picks for February

The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd

Inspector Rutledge is driving aimlessly when he comes across a crime scene. A man has been shot and the only witness is a woman who claims that her companion stopped for a man in the road who walked up to him, asked him a question, and then shot him through the heart. Rutledge returns in the morning to find a beautifully carved wolf at the scene. Another richly atmospheric and moving work by Charles Todd that provides enough clues to keep the most diligent reader of mysteries enraptured. This book is about deep family secrets and the  way that we cannot really know what goes on in another person’s mind. A fine chapter in one of my favorite mystery series.

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald Westlake

Compulsive practical joker Harold Kunt’s latest stunt causes a ten car pile up and embarrassment for a couple of politicians caught with their mistresses, resulting in a prison stint. However, he isn’t completely incarcerated. The prison has a tunnel system a few select prisoners use to visit the nearby town to drink at the bar, pick up women, or commit a crime or two since no one would suspect them. The only catch is that Harry has to help these prisoners rob two banks at the same time or else. Thanks to Hard Case Crime, this novel by Donald Westlake at his funniest and most inventive is back in print. It has been stuck in my memory for over three decades.

Cut You Down by Sam Wiebe

Vancouver private detective Dave Wakeland is hired by a professor and possible lover of a student who disappeared and may have taken half a million dollars worth of school funds. The trail leads to a suburban mob, a crooked cop from another case, and a trip south of the border to Washington state for a violent showdown. Wiebe delivers a fresh spin on the tough yet emotionally vulnerable private eye and populates the Canadian underworld he travels navigates with indelible characters.

Pick of the Month: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Each month we choose one book you absolutely can not miss. This month Meike has reviewed that pick, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, for the blog. It’s out February 20th and you can pre-order now.

9780062389923Laura Lippman’s latest, Sunburn, just might be the perfect beach read. It takes off gradually, allowing the tension to build slowly, until the story plunges the reader into a roller coaster thrill ride with countless twists and turns before smoothly bringing him or her to a satisfying conclusion.  You can no more put this book down than you can stop the ride from hurtling forward.

But Sunburn is so much more—it’s a masterwork of modern noir, invoking the style of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Make no mistake—this is a dark tale of secrets and lies with its share of dead bodies.  It’s not the coaster at a shiny clean mega theme park; the tone reflects a slightly more frightening rickety coaster ride at a second-rate theme park that has seen better days.  Lippman masterfully evokes the shadier side of summer with this searing tale of secrets and passion.

The story begins with Polly, a mysterious redhead who is passing through a small town when she stops in at a bar and meets the equally mysterious Adam; the first thing he notices about her is her sunburned shoulders.  We soon learn that Polly has just abruptly left her husband and young daughter in the midst of a family beach vacation.  The reader also learns that Adam is a private investigator who has been hired to find Polly, but we don’t know by whom. They both realize that a relationship between them threatens the secrets they’re trying to keep, yet they succumb to their mutual attraction and a heated affair ensues.  They decide to stay in town for a bit and take jobs in the local diner.  As their relationship unfolds, each is unsure about the other’s motivations; we slowly learn just how many secrets each is keeping from the other.  There are no heroes here—both characters are deeply flawed, and we’re not really sure to what extent each is simply playing the other.  Lippman keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Laura Lippman  was a reporter for twenty years before turning to writing full time.  She is the critically acclaimed author of the Tess Monaghan series as well as nine standalone crime novels.  Her body of work has received countless awards and Sunburn is sure to receive its share of accolades.

Guest Post: Laura Oles on Trouble in an Island Town

Thanks to Laura Oles for writing the following guest post about her new book, Daughters of Bad Men. She’ll join us February 5th at 7pm to talk about the book along with Terry Shames and James Ziskin.

Jamie Rush has been following me for years.  She lurked in the background as I worked, as I ferried my kids to school, and as I handled the ordinary demands of daily life.  I couldn’t shake her, couldn’t get her off my trail.  I worried I didn’t have the time I needed to tell her story, but it didn’t matter.  She wouldn’t go away.   I would need to give her the proper attention she deserved so she would get out of my head.

It turns out she now occupies more space than ever.

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Jamie Rush is a skip tracer in the island town of Port Alene, Texas, and is the protagonist in Daughters of Bad Men. In this first book in a new series, Jamie and her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, take on the emotional task of finding Jamie’s missing niece. Accepting Kristen’s case isn’t an easy ask.  Jamie’s relationship with her con artist family is a complicated one.  She doesn’t trust them, and for very good reason. Still, when Kristen goes silent, she agrees to take the case because…well, she’s family.  You don’t turn your back on family.

Jamie’s domestic dynamics are an important part of the story because they have shaped her into the person she is today. Trust comes slowly to her. A handful of people comprise her true family, including Cookie, a pub owner named Marty, and Erin, an underground bookie for the Winter Texans living in Port Alene until their own northern hometowns are free from the cruel confines of the season. These people are her world, and Jamie would do anything to protect them.

Although Jamie knows the dangers of searching for Kristen-emotional entanglements can cloud judgment–she has no choice.  She digs deeper into Kristen’s life and uncovers her niece’s most guarded secrets. Exposing the truth will put a target on Jamie’s back and endanger the lives of those she loves.

Port Alene, Texas, is a fictional version of Port Aransas, a place my family considers a second home.  It made perfect sense to create Jamie’s world in this town’s image, but Port Alene is a far grittier and darker place than its inspiration.  Jamie is running from her past and Port Alene has offered her a chance to start over, to finally plant roots and stay awhile.  Her business searching for small time skips who owe debts to those dependent on them being repaid is a steady one.  She has finally found where she belongs, although she still keeps a ditch bag under her bed. Even now, she has one eye on the door.

Writers often say that their characters become members of their family, and that’s the case with mine.  They are part of my tribe. I get lost in their world. I sometimes hear dialogue in my head. I can’t turn it off and wonder if I should consult a doctor. Although it’s sometimes inconvenient, it’s also welcome.  I want to know what they’re up to next, what dangers lie in wait, what will come of each of them as they grow older, grow wiser, more jaded, more hopeful.

Since I started working on Daughters of Bad Men, Hurricane Harvey roared across the coast and took a terrible toll on Port Aransas.  Writing the Jamie Rush series allows me to spend time in my favorite island town until its namesake can once again host company. I visited this past weekend and found there are only a handful of restaurants open and still fewer places to stay. The town is rebuilding but it will take time. So, I will continue to write her fictional sister Port Alene–and she will remain untouched by natural disaster. There are enough storms brewing for Jamie already.  

If you’d like to help the rebuilding efforts in Port Aransas, please find out how here. In particular, The Ellis Memorial Library lost its entire collection of books. Everything is lost and they need donations of books and money so that they may once again serve their community.   You can find out more about how to help here.

Guest Post: V.P. Chandler reviews Lone Star Lawless

From the piney woods of East Texas to the dry landscape of West Texas, the Austin Mystery Writers and friends anthology Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime has it covered. The anthology takes us across the state with various law breaking. You can meet many of the contributors February 4th at 5pm when they come to BookPeople for a reading! 

The Lone Star Lawless project was headed by the exuberant Austin Mystery Writers member Gale Albright. Albright describes the anthology perfectly in her introduction, writing, “The stories in this volume cover motel hell, medical menace, mortuary mayhem, sharp knives, kidnapping, theft, murder, assault by food, dangerous exercise, fickle fingers, and bad attitudes.” Not to mention a retelling of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, full of crime and a Texas twist. Now who could pass up that?

“One More Time” by V.P. Chandler, is set at the end of the Wild West era. A girl is kidnapped from a small West Texas town and the town wants the aging Texas Ranger, Ephram Babcock, to retrieve the girl before she’s taken across the border to Mexico. Babcock reluctantly agrees. As he pursues the duo across the plains, he’s haunted by a decision he made in his youth. The memory and regret become stronger as he gets closer to his quarry. It’s a race to the border, a race to save the girl, but can he run from his past?

“Wild Horses” by Alexandra Burt is the story of Brad, who is running from trouble and his temper. Once a man has served time, he has only so many options available. He takes a job at a convenience store when things take a dark turn. Will Brad stay mum or will he find a way to break free?

“The Life of the Party” by Mark Pryor is a story filled with tongue-in–cheek mortician’s humor. The reader sees the world through the eyes of mortician Andrew Banks as he prepares for a party. As the story proceeds, the tension builds in the same vein as Edgar Allan Poe or Alfred Hitchcock stories. The reader will be compelled to see the story to the end!

“Archangel Towers” by Gale Albright begins with a woman receiving a frantic phone call from her grandmother who is in the hospital. The grandmother makes crazy, nightmarish allegations about the staff and is adamant that they happened. Is the grandmother getting dementia? What is a granddaughter to do?

“Baggage Claim, Part 1: The Devil’s Luggage” was penned by Janice Hamrick. The memory of a college prank never left Tyler Fenton. Even though he failed at the prank, he always remembered the thrill of it. Itching to try it one more time, he goes to the Austin-Bergstrom airport to steal an unclaimed bag. But it isn’t a small bag that grabs his attention, it’s a large trunk. Unfortunately for him, he’s not the only one who wants that trunk.

“Baggage Claim, Part 2: Carry On Only” by Laura Oles also involves stealing a bag from the Austin-Bergstrom airport. But this story quite different from Part 1. Stealing bags from the airport is only one of the many things that Max does to supplement his income, and he’s quite adept at it. But when he gets the bag home, he and his friend Belk make a discovery. Then comes the anonymous phone call, “I saw what you did.”

“The Texas Star Motel” by Terry Shames follows the tale of an abused wife, Mona, as she’s made her recent escape from her husband. She’s shaken and has his gun, but needs to stay out of sight to complete her escape. Then she hears through the hotel’s old and thin walls a woman being beaten in the room next door. Should she intervene or lay low?

“Point Blank, Texas” by Larry Sweazy is another tale about an old Texas Ranger. This story is set in 1934. Ex-Ranger Sonny Burton has lost his arm in a shootout with Bonny and Clyde and he’s ready to retire after decades of service. Then Jonesy, the local sheriff shows up and tells Burton that his long-time nemesis, Billy Bunson, has not only escaped from prison, he has kidnapped the warden’s pregnant wife. They turn to Sonny for help since he knows Bunson better than anyone else. As Sonny investigates, he gets the nagging feeling that not everyone is telling the truth.

“The Widow Black” by Kaye George is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Marjorie lost her first husband due to an accident. Then the handsome and smooth Victor moves to town and starts schmoozing Marjorie and she feels young and sexy again. As things heat up, not everything seems to be as perfect as she thought they’d be.

“The Sandbox” by George Wier takes place around College Station. Jimmy Cook is a young real estate agent who works for the slimy Ray Milberger. One day Jimmy sees first hand how Ray has cheated his way to success. Jimmy takes a stand and Ray says Jimmy is ready for a new business venture. “You have a bright (future), kid, if you stick with me. You have to know where your bread is buttered…” As the story progresses the tension builds. Is Ray really going to include Jimmy in a business deal or does he have something else in mind as they head to a secluded area of the woods?

“Texas Toast: The Case of the Errant Loafer” by Manning Wolfe features Dr. and Mrs. Edward Littman, who are avid cyclists. As they cycle with their pack through downtown Austin, Dr. Littman is hit by a bakery van. The driver of the van, Zach Glover, swears he didn’t veer out of his lane. Kim Wan Thibodeaux, also known as the Asian Cajun, is the defense attorney for the Glover. Who is telling the truth? This story is a courtroom drama that would make Perry Mason proud.

“When Cheese Is Love”, by Kathy Waller. Love heats up between the timid librarian, Tabitha Baynes and the suave chef, Gonzalo. Tabitha has been on a stringent diet and worked hard obtain and maintain her svelte figure, but his food is so excellent! And no woman can say no to Gonzalo. At the launch of his new menu, showcasing Tabitha’s favorite foods, Gonzalo declares his love for Tabitha. Finally! What could go wrong?

“The Bird”, by Scott Montgomery is the gritty story of Jimmy Davis and Frog Lee. Frog is always getting in trouble and now is no exception. He slept with the wife of bad guy, Slick Jim (You’ve got to be stupid to sleep with the wife of someone named Slick Jim) and now Frog has a $200,000 bounty on his head. Fortunately Davis knows exactly where to find him. Frog is in Austin because he’s with Davis’ sister, Stacy. Now if only Frog and Stacy would get smart, Davis may be able to save their lives and collect the 200 grand.

“Little Red” by Gale Albright ends the anthology with a bang with Albright’s Texas rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. Complete with crazy East Texas lingo and a voodoo hairdresser named Verna Lee, “Little Red” is a quick and inventive romp that’s sure to make you laugh out loud.

And now for a bit of a personal note. We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention the editor, Ramona DeFelice Long, who has worked her magic on the book. We are grateful for her enthusiasm and her attention to detail. This anthology has a special place in our hearts because Gale Albright passed away before its completion. She infused life, humor, and drive to our group. We aren’t the same without her. So it is dedicated to her and the online proceeds will go toward the Port Aransas library that was heavily damaged in Hurricane Harvey.

All Too Real: The Power of Voice and Sisterhood in Julie Buntin’s Marlena

Marlena by Julie Buntin made my top ten list for 2017 and with good reason.  Marlena, Buntin’s debut novel, is anything but a beginner’s work.  It is filled with wisdom, finely crafted, and utterly heartbreaking in the best of ways.  This is a book I have read countless times, one of those books I turn to for comfort and solace even if sometimes they hold exactly the opposite of this.  Buntin’s novel is a miracle and a masterwork, and the reasons behind this are both incredibly obvious and entirely elusive.

The novel revolves around a woman named Cat, who now lives and works in New York City, but once lived in a podunk town in Michigan where she was forced to struggle to get along with a dysfunctional mother and a less than satisfactory life.  Eventually—well, almost immediately—Cat meets Marlena, and a beautiful but terrifying friendship begins.  It is known from the beginning that Marlena will die.  It is known from the beginning that her death will be tragic, and that it will haunt Cat for the rest of her life.  It is known from the beginning that this is not a happy story, and perhaps these are the reasons I consider it a genuinely real crime novel: the fact that this book is filled with the inevitable darkness that envelops us all, the ways our mistakes come back to haunt us, and of course, you know, there’s crime in the novel.  So, there’s that.

Buntin is a master at writing.  Her prose is lyrical, and there have been several sentences I have read again and again (having read the book maybe six times now easily since its publication last year) where I have said, aloud, to myself or my partner, “I wish I had written that. I wish I could write that. Write like this.” It’s true. I wish I could write as effortlessly, as flawlessly, as Julie Buntin. There is no doubt this novel was years in the making, but it feels as effortless as a quickly jotted down diary entry (that has been meticulously planned, scrutinized and understood again and again to perfection).  The perfection of the prose is not off-putting or unfortunate in any way.  Instead, it feels like a woman trapped in a past that is imperfect, telling her story in the most brilliant way possible.

How many stories have we read about young women and their friendships gone wrong? Megan Abbott has a novel coming out this year (and Abbott has praised Marlena, if that’s not a reason to purchase it alone) about a friendship turned upside down by a crime.  There are, of course, numerous—maybe innumerable—other novels, including other books coming out this year.  But Marlena stands out to me in a way similar, but different, than Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand.  It is a divine examination of a friendship gone wrong, a love lost—not necessarily a romantic love, not necessarily I say again, but something more profound.  An instant in one’s life that has changed this woman forever, and that she can never get back, and never be unchanged by.

Similarly, I cannot be unchanged now that I have read Julie Buntin’s beautiful book.  Cat’s voice is as alive as the voice in my head.  Buntin’s first novel more than delivers: she excels, she succeeds, she is the Superman of debut novelists.  I do not regret a single time I’ve read Marlena again and again.  The most beautiful part of the novel is how genuine and authentic the novel feels, like this is a true story—and who knows, there may be lots of truth to it.  No, I take this back—any book this real, this alive, leaping from the pages, has to be based on some experience Buntin or any other remarkable writer has felt in his or her life: we are lucky to have Buntin to express this truth for us.

Top of Her Game: Alafair Burke’s The Wife

There comes a time in every prolific author’s career when one has to ask “Is there any way for this author to get better? To improve upon their most recent work? To actually write something better than this?” For some writers, they go downhill after their peak—other authors only rise, never reaching that peak exactly (see wonderful examples like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, and Megan Abbott).  The question now is: has Alafair Burke reached her peak? I sincerely doubt it—a writer of her talent can most likely reach unimaginable heights—yet it is incredibly hard to fathom Burke improving upon her most recent masterpiece, The Wife.

Burke kicks off the year in the grandest fashion, with a book that will compel you to the very end, even without a murder in its very beginning.  From the moment the book begins, we know that Burke’s protagonist has committed perhaps the ultimate betrayal—that against herself, lying for her husband’s defense. I have read this book countless times, as I tend to do before beginning a review, and it never ceases to amaze me—the language is fluid and nearly flawless, drawing the reader in.  The narrator, while incredibly deluded and not necessarily the picture-perfect definition of a feminist, is incredibly relatable.  The book speaks to the issues of our times, many of them dealing with women, rape, infidelity, and the permanence of love.

From the very beginning of the novel, I was roped in.  The reader is startled by the way Burke can transform the most mundane scenes into something extraordinary, ripping out incredible portions of her character’s psyches in ways you would never expect.  I was floored again and again as revelation after revelation was revealed, chapter after chapter.  The book is such a quick read that, when finished, I felt compelled to start it over immediately, unsure if I had finished the novel or just begun.

This is not to say the novel is without a conclusion.  Boy, does it have a conclusion.  Alafair Burke is a master at revealing tiny little secrets that are actually big explosions, unraveling and unraveling her characters and plot until, once untangled, the reader is finally able to uncover the truth.  You think you know the truth from the beginning, and then you might change your mind in the middle, and then be completely floored by the end of the book by the smallest, slightest turn of the story: this is how The Wife works.  And I’m not afraid to call it a new masterpiece of the crime genre.

This past award season, Alafair Burke was nominated for the Edgar for The Ex, which works as a sort of companion novel to The Wife.  They feature similar characters, they are placed in similar settings, but these novels are completely different (and equally brilliant).  Here’s the only issue: this is the year of the female crime writer.  So while I would say that Alafair Burke has the Edgar in the bag, with masterpieces like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released soon, it’s hard to tell which author will come out on top.  What’s amazing about the crime community is: no one cares.  Each of these authors are improving daily, each new book proving that the preceding novel was only a precursor to something much more amazing and fantastic than the book that came before.  And Alafair Burke proves this beyond a doubt.  From the very beginning, you are hooked.  From the very beginning, you are roped in.  And it’s all Alafair’s fault.

Burke’s newest novel is mind-blowing, spine-tinglingly good and awe-inspiring in ways that very few authors can aspire to be.  Pick up this book and find yourself lost in it.  Pick up this book and hours later, wonder where you have been, and how you got there.  This is the magic that Alafair Burke works in The Wife, which may very well be the Book of the Year.