Thomas Mullen’s Darktown

The 1950’s in America was a time for great change in the South. It was the start of desegregation. African Americans were finally permitted to move out of the ghetto and into nicer neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court declared black and white segregated schools to be unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Ed.

Thomas Mullen’s upcoming novel, Darktown, takes place right around this time period, in 1948, nearly four decades after the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, and as the Jim Crow era was starting to wane. It centers around the integration of black officers into the Atlanta Police Department, the power struggles and racism that accompany it, and the lengths to which the white officers would go to get the black officers off the force, but also the lengths the black officers would take in order to find justice. There’s a lot of secrecy that takes place in the novel, a lot of police brutality by officers who feel that they are untouchable. But no one is really untouchable.

Black officers Boggs and Smith are rookies on the force, as are the other six black officers that they work with. They’re both war veterans, although Boggs has never experienced combat. Boggs, being a preacher’s son and growing up in a well-to-do part of Darktown, always does the right thing, even if he wants to do otherwise. On the other hand, Smith and his family were directly affected by the riots, and he is not above getting his hands a little dirty every once in a while. There’s a camaraderie between the two, and, while they do judge the other on occasion, they always have each others back.

White officers Dunlow and Rakestraw have a very different relationship. Dunlow, the senior officer of the two, has no problem frequenting the local brothel, making deals with the bootleggers, letting people off the hook, and beating black men in Darktown for no reason. Rakestraw, not yet seasoned, disagrees with the way Dunlow polices. Unlike Dunlow and the rest of the white officers, Rakestraw does not share the opinion that black officers should be kicked off the police force. He also feels that they shouldn’t be restricted in their duties, that they should be allowed to police their own neighborhoods.

When a young black woman with connections to a congressman is found murdered, and it becomes evident that the case is not going to be handled the way it should be, Boggs and Smith take matters into their own hands, determined to solve the murder despite the consequences, and with an unlikely ally. As they start to uncover the truth, they also uncover corruption in the department that goes much higher than they could have imagined.

With a tone that is reminiscent of HBO’s series The Wire, this novel is anything but predictable, and at times had me gasping in shock. It’s a great lesson into the history of our country, showing us how far we have come, but also, how far we still have to go in order to really rid ourselves of racism and the fear that it still instills. It also begs the question, how far would you go, how much would you be willing to sacrifice in order to find the truth.

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Darktown by Thomas Mullen.  37INK.  September 2016.
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Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go

A debut psychological thriller marketed as the next Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train from Berkley, Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is a novel that demands your attention. With so many people talking about a HUGE twist, I was intrigued. And, when an advanced copy landed in my inbox, it quickly moved to the top of my reading list.

The novel opens on a rainy afternoon, as a mother and her son are crossing the street in front of their house. The boy slips out of his mother’s grasp and, in one life-shattering moment, is hit and killed by a car that turns and quickly flees the scene. Leaving the mother in the street huddled over her child’s lifeless body.

But who was behind the wheel?

Following Jenna Gray – a woman who leaves her life behind for one in a remote Welsh town – and the officers investigating the boy’s murder, I Let You Go is a brilliant novel that leaves you on the edge of your seat until the final page. As the police come closer to finding the driver, we see Jenna trying to move on from a past that keeps resurfacing.

The novel is at once heartbreaking and satisfying, and the HUGE twist that they promise comes along in the middle of the novel and does not disappoint. I was left speechless with my jaw on the floor, desperate to keep turning the pages and not stopping until I had reached the conclusion.

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Berkley 2016. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go

Georgia Clark’s The Regulars

What if you had the chance to correct all of your flaws, would you take it? In Georgia Clark’s debut novel, The Regulars, she explores the idea of becoming perfect (beautiful) as three friends struggle with being in their early twenties and deciding what they want to do with their lives. But there’s a catch. In order to be ‘pretty,’ they could end up sacrificing the most important thing of all. What would you sacrifice to be ‘pretty’?

Evie, Krista and Willow are trying to make sense of life in New York City. Trying to find the perfect jobs, the perfect relationships, and just have enough money to pay their monthly bills. Evie is a copywriter working for a magazine that caters towards materialism, beauty and sex as power. She wants to empower women and educate them that look aren’t everything. Krista dropped out of law school to try to make it as an actress but has not been successful. Willow is the daughter of a movie mogul who is tired of living life in her father’s shadow. She has a hard time getting close to anyone, including Evie and Krista, and will unexpectedly disappear from time to time. After losing her agent, Krista is sitting at a bar mid-day when she runs into an old acquaintance who, sensing Krista’s mood gives her Pretty. Pretty is a magic potion that makes anyone who takes it gorgeous. After much debate, all three girls end of taking the potion. They all become beautiful, confident women, unrecognizable as their own selves. But are they?

As I was reading, I found myself thinking about what I would be willing to give up to become perfect. If I would be curious enough to take the potion (probably?!), and if so, if I too would become addicted to it like the characters here were. What I found to be really interesting was that, Evie, Krista and Willow all realized that they were lacking the same thing: confidence. It was the potion that enabled them to gain confidence in themselves and try the things that they were most scared of, and it was the confidence that they eventually retained once the effects of the potion finally started wearing off. As a shy person, I identified with the lack of confidence that the characters had. I still sometimes have trouble mustering the courage to speak up for myself, but I’ve found that that’s the only way to actually change a situation. And it’s definitely the only way to get what you want. I found myself laughing at some parts and cringing at others, thinking what the hell were they doing. All in all, I feel that it’s a great lesson to anyone, that if you just dig deep inside yourself, you can allow yourself the confidence to do anything.

 

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The Regulars by Georgia Clark. Emily Bestler Books. Aug 2016.

Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years

In Karin Tanabe’s newest novel, The Gilded Years, she weaves truth with fiction as she tells the story of Anita Hemmings, the first black student to attend Vassar College.

After successfully passing as white at Vassar for three years, and keeping distance between herself and her classmates, Anita enters into her senior year with the same plan in mind. That is, until she meets Louise “Lottie” Taylor, a member of a very prominent New York family, and her new roommate. Lottie draws Anita in with her infectious personality and the two become fast friends. But when Anita starts to let down her guard, Lottie discovers her secret threatening everything that Anita has worked so hard for.

As a child of the 80s, it’s hard to imagine living in a time where racial segregation existed – even though I know that it did exist. It’s also hard to imagine having to go through life pretending that you are someone else, just to get something as simple as an education or a job. I think what makes this story so powerful is that Anita Hemmings did exist. And she did pass as white in order to be able to attend Vassar College.

What would you do if you were living in a time period where the color of your skin hindered you from doing normal, every-day activities? What if we didn’t have these freedoms that we take for granted? These freedoms that our ancestors had to fight for. Not only is this a beautifully written novel (I’m SUCH a Karin Tanabe fan), but it also makes us aware of how far we’ve come, and appreciate the things that we have. I cannot wait for her next novel!

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Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years. June 2016 WSP

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s One True Loves

“I think that perhaps everyone has a moment that splits their life in two. When we look back on our own timelines, there’s a sharp spike somewhere along the way, some event that changed you, changed your life, more than others. A moment that creates a Before and an After…Maybe it’s something wonderful. Maybe it’s something tragic. But when it happens, it tints your memories, shifts your perspective on your own life, and it suddenly seems as if everything you’ve been through falls under the label of ‘pre’ or ‘post.’”

 

I have a special place for Taylor Jenkins Reid novels in my heart. She has a way of conveying emotions that really pulls at your strings and allows you to feel everything that the characters do. I’ve thought this way from the beginning, ever since I was introduced to her first novel, Forever, Interrupted, knowing full well that it was going to be a tearjerker, but plunging in regardless. In her fourth novel, One True Loves, Reid explores the idea that a person can have more than one true love, as her main protagonist, Emma, is forced to choose between her new fiancé and the husband that she thought had died three-and-a-half years earlier.

Is it ever really possible to get over your true love? When Emma first lost her husband, Jesse, she thought that her life was over, and in many ways it was. The life that they had shared together ended the minute his plane crashed into the ocean. Not knowing what else to do, she quits her job and moves back to her parents’ home in Massachusetts to try and put the pieces of her life back together. It is there that she runs into her old friend, Sam, and after much soul searching, decides to give love a second chance. They become engaged and move in together, but as Emma knows, life is unpredictable, and you may not get the happily-ever-after ending that you hoped for. It is there, while leaving her father’s sixty-fourth birthday party, with her new fiancé in toe, that she gets the phone call that will change her life forever. Again. Jesse is alive. And he’s coming home. While Emma had spent the past three-and-a-half years trying to create a new life for herself and get over the devastation of losing the one person she loved most in the world, Jesse had been stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific, trying to survive and make it home to her. But what about Sam? Where does he fit in?

When Emma and Jesse are reunited, it is clear that they still deeply love each other, but it is also clear that they both have changed in different ways. Emma is working at her parents’ bookstore, something that she had swore she would never do. Jesse has experienced so much pain that Emma couldn’t possibly begin to understand. He wants to pick up where they left off, travel the globe together with their work, move back to California, and as much as Emma is grateful that Jesse is alive and wants to go back to the way things were, she is not sure if that is something that she still wants. The life that she created with Sam is the exact opposite of the one she had had with Jesse: it’s grounded, stable. Emma questions her feelings for Sam and Jesse. She feels like she’s betrayed both men in a way: Jesse, for moving on and not wanting to spend the rest of her life heartbroken and alone, and Sam, for knowing that if she stays with him, she will never be able to give him her complete heart.

It doesn’t come down to love. There is no question that Emma loves both of them. But every love is different. You’re never the same person that you are with your previous love, nor do you love that new person the same way. It doesn’t negate one or the other. It doesn’t mean that you cared for one more than the other. It just means that you loved them differently. For Emma, what it comes down to is what she wants out of life. After losing Jesse, Emma became a different person, because there’s no way that you couldn’t lose the love of your life and not have it affect your fundamentally. “Do you ever get over loss? Or do you find a box within yourself, big enough to hold it?” How do you choose between the person who was ripped from your life too soon and the person who helped you come back from the dead?

For me, this was probably the most heartbreaking of all her novels. It’s hard to think that our true love can be ripped away from us without a moment’s notice. It’s devastating, really, to have built a life with someone and to have to start over. But what is equally devastating is the fact that you might be able to move on some day, or, if you were the person that was lost, that they can move on without you. Can replace you. That you can replace them. But you can never actually replace a person that you loved so deeply and lost.

Taylor came to my office the week after I read this manuscript, and I had the pleasure of discussing One True Loves with her. We talked about Jessie and Sam, and Emma’s relationships with both of them. We discussed the ending, and who Emma picks. I told her that I had been a little disappointed, because of who I wanted Emma to be with and who she ended up choosing. I was disappointed, but I understood. I knew he was the right choice, but in the end, I was still routing for the other guy. Out of the people who had read the manuscript thus far, I was the only one who had expressed that opinion to her, and Taylor had found that interesting, as did I.

So who does Emma choose in the end? There’s a point in the novel where Emma and Jesse spend a few days together at his parents’ cabin. It was also where they had had their wedding. It was the first time since his return that they really had a good chunk of time alone and were able to really open up and discuss all that they had been through. It is another moment in the novel that is fitting of the quote above, another moment that helps Emma to make the decision that she needs to make. The choice that she needs to make. It is possible to have more than one true love in your life, but you can’t have them at the same time.

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One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid. June 2016. Washington Square Press.

 

 

 

Andi Dorfman’s It’s Not Okay

Normally, I’m not one to read memoirs, or nonfiction of any kind, even if the subject is interesting to me. I feel that they are hard to hold my attention and therefore strictly read fiction. Then I heard about Andi Dorfman’s book and, being a fan of the Bachelor/Bachelorette, I HAD to get my hands on it – and, since it was being published in-house, it only took a few emails and a short walk to obtain a pre-pub copy.

I started reading it, put it down, read three or four novels, than picked it back up. It seemed fitting that I finish it by the time the new season of the Bachelorette premiered, which is exactly what I did. For those of you who are fans of the show – even if you didn’t love Andi’s season – this is a MUST read. Not only are you given a behind the scenes look at the show, but you also get a glimpse at life after the show, beyond the interviews and public appearances.

If you will remember, Andi ended up choosing former baseball player Josh Murray over the season’s villain, Nick Vail, and everyone’s (then) favorite farmer, Chris Soules. I say then favorite, because Chris went on to become the next Bachelor, and turned out to be much more of a playboy than I had expected – but I digress! As I was never a fan of Nick or Josh, I was Chris all the way, so you can imagine my sadness at her final choice. There was just something about Josh that I didn’t trust; he was too perfect, too polite, too southern. It felt like a façade to me and I was disappointed that Andi couldn’t see that.

When news of their split surfaced, I wasn’t all that surprised. And, not to give anything away, but while reading It’s Not Okay, I found my self equally as unsurprised by the behind-the-scenes aspects of their relationship and his behavior that ultimately was the breaking point for them.

Andi fell in love and got her heat broken, something that most of us has experienced at one point or another in our lives. Though it’s been quite a while since mine was last broken, I still can remember the pain and agony that I endured. I wanted to crawl into bed next to Andi and pass a bottle of wine back-and-forth with her, because I felt for her.

She fell in love. She got her heart broken. She survived.

 

“No matter how bad it gets, no matter how tumultuous and painful the end of a relationship can be, no matter how much you think your life is over and you are forever damaged, there comes a moment when you find that the storm has finally passed. The sunshine has dried up all the rain, and you, my friend, have survived. It’s the moment where you look at the scar that care from heartbreak, and see it not as a scar of weakness but as a scar of resiliency and strength. It’s the moment when you finally realize that maybe, just maybe, it is okay.”

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It’s Not Okay by Andi Dorfman.  Gallery Books.  May 2016. Available now.

Amy Hatvany’s Somewhere Out There

There are two types of people in the world: the ones that allow themselves to be defined by past experiences, and those who use their hardships as a way to strengthen themselves and rise above. In Amy Hatvany’s latest novel, Somewhere Out There, we see both types, as two sisters who were torn apart when they were young are reunited as adults.

When Jennifer got pregnant as a teenager, against her mother’s wishes, she decided to move in with her boyfriend and keep the baby. Little did she know that he would kick her out. That she would become homeless. That she would have a second child. And that she would end up in prison. For shoplifting food at a grocery store. For her children.

Natalie Clark never knew her birth mother. She was too young to remember her. She didn’t even know that she was adopted until she had to do a family tree project for school. Now that her own daughter has to do the same, Natalie musters the strength to ask her parents the questions she was always too afraid of, finding out that she has a sister that she never knew existed. Natalie feels betrayed by her parents’ actions and immediately goes about trying to find her long lost sister.

The last time Brooke Walker saw her mother or little sister, she was four years old. She moved from one foster home to the next, eventually growing up in a state facility, while her baby sister was adopted. Brooke lives in a small studio and works as a waitress. She doesn’t have any friends, and seems to only date emotionally unavailable men. Brooke never lets anyone get close to her. She keeps herself at a distance from everyone that she comes in contact with, preferring to feel nothing than to get hurt. She blames her mother abandoning her and her sister for never trying to find her.

When Brooke and Natalie finally reunite, Brooke is cautious and keeps her distance. Even when she starts to let her guard down, she isn’t able to completely open up and trust her sister. Natalie wants answers to why their mother abandoned them, but Brooke is hesitant. After digging, Natalie finds out more than she could have imagined, leaving herself heartbroken for both the little girl that she had been and for the pain that her mother – Jennifer – had gone through.

Natalie and Brooke eventually meet Jennifer, but are their relationships ones that can be repaired? There were many moments in the novel that I found myself in tears…mostly for the chapters with Jennifer. Yes, her children went through a lot, having lost their mother and each other, but what Jennifer had to deal with was truly heartbreaking. How do you come back from a loss like that? Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, even if you want to, even if it is presented to you, it’s not enough. Natalie was able to use her losses as strength, something that Brooke has a hard time doing. But what about Jennifer? Will she be able to find a way to let her daughters back into her life, or will it break her?

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Somewhere Out There.  Amy Hatvany.  WSP 2016

Holly Seddon’s Try Not To Breathe

“Some secrets never die. They’re just locked away.”

These days, my reading list has become more diverse as I’m branching out, picking up books that I never thought I would, and loving them. There are a few genres that I keep going back to, ones that time and again prove to me why I love them so much. Nothing beats the feeling that you have when you get caught up in story and its characters and can’t let it go, obsessively drinking in each and every word. These are not always easy to come by, but once found, make me remember why I fell in love with books to begin with.

From the moment I read the description of Holly Seddon’s debut novel, Try Not to Breathe, I knew what kind of novel that it would be to me, that it had the power to stay with me – and I was not wrong. It centers around Alex Dale and Amy Stevenson, two women that have lost everything due to very different circumstances who come together to solve a 15-year old crime.

Alex is an alcoholic who threw away her husband, unborn child, and journalism career because she could not put down the bottle. Her days generally beginning with her waking up in urine-soaked sheets and ending a few hours later when she turns off her phone, unplugs her computer, and starts on her first of many glasses. Every time she starts craving a drink, I wanted to leap into the pages and pour it all down the drain, or at least for someone (anyone?) to realize the shape that she was in and force her to get help. But as much as I want to feel bad for Alex, I have a hard time doing so, because I feel like she doesn’t even try – in the beginning at least – to get past her self-destructive habits.

Amy, on the other hand, has no control over what happens in her life, because she has spent the past fifteen years in the hospital in a vegetative state after a horrific crime left her broken on the grounds of a neighborhood park. Except her mind is still intact, and she is reliving the experience over and over again, wondering if it is real or imaginary. In a way, I found it a bit comforting that, even though Amy’s mind was still working, she was not really aware of the state that she was in. Imagine if she was? How terrifying it would be to not be able to talk or move or communicate your thoughts with anyone. I can’t even begin to understand the agony of it all.

Although it seems to be totally accidental that Alex stumbled upon Amy at the hospital – she had been there doing research on a freelance article she was writing – it turned out to be the best thing for the both of them. By making the decision to write Amy’s story and try to solve the crime, Alex is transported out of her small world and finally has a cause worth living for. Even though Amy doesn’t completely understand what is going on, she does come to rely on Alex’s visits. As Alex gets closer to solving the case, her and Amy form a unique friendship, one that helps both of them to finally move on.

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Try Not To Breath, Holly Seddon.
 Ballantine Books 2016

T.R. Richmond’s What She Left

“Obsession is territory with which I’m well acquainted. Its coarse rub, its barbed spike, its musty spoiled sourness. The line between love and hate is paper-thin, and when you love someone and it turns to hate, there’s an inverse relationship between the two.”

 

Do we ever really know ourselves? Do we ever really know anyone? In the days where we live on social media, we are well aware that everything we put onto the internet is locked there forever. But just how much truth can actually be found? In T.R. Richmond’s debut psychological suspense novel, What She Left, we follow a professor as he tries to piece together the life and mysterious death of one of his former students.

Through letters, emails, blog posts, text messages and news articles, the story of Alice Salmon starts to unfold, a twenty-five year old woman whose career in journalism was starting to buzz, and whose love of university-day partying could not be completely outrun, no matter how hard she tried. Alice was a woman who was still figuring out her life and plan her future. But who was she, and what really happened to her? Anthropology professor Jeremy Cooke attempts to find out by contacting friends and family members, and researching her social-media-persona (aka stalking).

There’s a lot that can be said about this book. Take the character of Alice. Through multiple perspectives (including her own), she comes across as someone who is not in complete control of her actions, jumping to conclusions too quickly, giving into peer pressure, and a little needy. But would she have jumped into the river on a snowy February night and ended her life? With so many different points of view, who, if anyone can be trusted? Everyone is hiding secrets, even Professor Cooke, whose obsessive attachment to Alice and declaration of sticking to the truth tends to waiver at times.

If you are looking for a good thriller with a fresh, modern take, this is your book. It is formatted a bit differently than I was used to, but that actually adds to the tone and story. What She Left will grab your attention right away, leaving you guessing until the very end – and stay with you long after you’ve finished the novel.

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T.R. Richmond’s What She Left. Simon & Schuster January 2016.

Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood

“We were what we pretended to be.”

Growing up, war was a subject that interested me, particularly the Vietnam War. I was fascinated by it because of the fact that it wasn’t a war, because of the way the battle was fought, because of the politics and hardships that the veterans had to face afterwards.

After high school, my interest hit a new level when a good friend of mine joined the army as an officer.   During his first few deployments, we would write letters and email. I was always interested in what was going on in deployment, what you don’t hear about. Always wanting to know the meaning or their seemingly endless acronyms. To this day I will still text him with random questions. And he, like a good friend, will always give me the detailed answers that I am looking for (even if I don’t completely understand what he’s talking about).

I’ve watched Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam and Apocalypse Now, among other war movies. At my friend’s suggestion – when I asked what it was like to actually be there in the day-to-day – I watched the 2010 documentary Restrepo. Which, by the way is really informative and intense (it is a documentary after all), but definitely worth watching.

Youngblood was my first foray into war novels, and not too long into reading it, I asked myself why I had waited so long to pick one up. It follows LT Jack Porter as he is serving in Iraq for the first time. The war is over and the US military is there patrolling, going on peace-keeping missions and trying to keep the counterinsurgency at bay. As a LT, Porter has men that report to him, but when seasoned Sgt. Chambers joins their unit and starts disrupting Porter’s mission, he starts digging into Chambers’ past, finding whispers about his possible involvement in an unsolved scandal between a soldier and a local sheikh’s daughter. Desperate to get Chambers reassigned, Porter starts investigating the scandal, and as he gets deeper and more involved with the players, he ends up risking his own life and career to help them.

The plotline is intriguing and moves at a good pace. What I love the most about this novel though, is the atmosphere that Gallagher creates. As a US army veteran, he has first hand experience being deployed during peace-keeping times, where the day-to-day is much calmer and more mundane than you would realize. There is always a thread of IEDs and gunfire, always a threat of a riot or battle, but there is also a lot of downtime. While Porter would meet with informants, his men would play cards while they waited for him to return. There would be nights where they would have free time and go to a club near the main camp, days where they would be grateful to take an actual shower. There’s also a lot of comments about body odor and foul breath not just with the soldiers but the locals as well. All of this I found to be interesting, because not only are they things that I find aren’t frequently discussed, but also because it gives you a reality check of the little things that we have and take for granted, and a new appreciation and understanding of what the conditions are really like for the soldiers who serve.

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Youngblood by Matt Gallagher.  Atria Books 2016.