The Summer of Jordi Perez

Normally, I would tell you to take novels about romance and shove them, but I enjoyed The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding so much that I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. My normal stance is: stuff falling in love, stuff romance, and stuff soul mates, but this novel caught me off guard.

I think what attracted me to this novel was the gay aspect. I’m not gay (well, maybe a little gay) but love is love is love and though I’m loathe to use the words “heartwarming” this one sucker punched me right in that empty space in my chest I usually save for Cheetos and horror movies. Abby is a plus-sized girl who is deeply in love with fashion. She applies to an indie fashion store for the summer before her senior year and gets the internship along with another girl from her high school named Jordi who she thinks might have been in one of her classes.

Abby came out a little while ago and has never had a girlfriend, never been in love. She’s had a couple of heart-breaking crushes (straight girls who find boyfriends and leave her in the dark), but no one has shown an interest in her. As body positive as she is in her blog about fashion, she believes that no girl could ever fall in love with her (I hear you girl; as a chubby chick, I have my doubts too) and she can’t see a future with a girl who would ever fall in love with her. That is until she finds herself competing for the job at the indie dress shop with Jordi Perez. But does Jordi even like girls? Should Abby even bother nurturing a crush on her?

At home, Abby’s mother is becoming famous for her healthy vegan recipes and ends up going onto local talk shows all while making her daughter feel bad about herself for being overweight. She lets slip one time to Abby that she would be so much prettier if she lost weight and Abby hasn’t been able to forgive her. In her plus size fashion blog, Abby never posts pictures of herself. While she’s body positive, she’s still uncomfortable showing herself.

When Jordi starts showing an interest in her, Abby is slow to believe it. After all, Jordi is tiny and a talented photographer, and Abby’s competing against her for a job at the dress store. But Jordi is into Abby and they both find themselves falling in love and spending time together. Jordi is a bit of a bad ass although the moniker of “Juvenile criminal” is a bit misplaced. She wanted to take a picture of a fire and ended up burning the lawn of an abandoned house. Both Abby and Jordi are aware that they’re competing for the same job, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Ah, youth. If only I could find a way to legally suck it out of them and inject it into my bitter old heart.

Abby’s been spending time with Jax over the summer, a boy from school who she used to see as a spoiled brat with a McMansion and nice ride. He asked her to be his wingman (or wingwoman) as he tried to pick up girls and to help him out with one of his father’s inventions which happens to be an app rating the various burger joints in town. She learns that Jax isn’t quite the “bro” she thought he was and finds herself enjoying his company. Abby’s mother thinks she’s dating Jax, even though Abby came out to her parents several months ago. Abby’s mother seems to think if she lost weight and got skinny, she
might enjoy being straight.

Not so. Abby’s wildly in love with Jordi even though the prospect of them both being up for the same job in the fall is weighing on her. Abby’s job in the store is to be a social media presence and boost the popularity of the store while Jordi is tasked with being the photographer. Everything is going perfectly until Jordi does the unspeakable during her first photography show at an art gallery. Will Abby forgive her transgressions? Will Abby get over herself? Will Abby begin to see herself as more than a plus size girl? Will Abby believe that she is worth loving and being in love with?

For fans of books such as Dumplin and She’s Come Undone, The Summer of Jordi Perez offers everything: first love (that wild and nauseating feeling of handing your heart to another person), self-acceptance, and trying to accept how others see you (and accept that they’re going to see you a certain way that is totally out of your control). Get ready for an emotional roller coaster and if you have PTSD from being a teenager, take this novel slowly. I had a panic attack while Abby was trying to figure out if Jordi had feelings for her or not. I went all the way back to being 16 and almost didn’t make it back to my 43-year-old self.

Read this and then go forgive your mother for not loving you like you wanted her to. She tried her best. Please remember she’s human and lived an entire life before you were born. And now, go live your life how you want it to be. You’ll thank me later.

These Witches Don’t Burn

It’s hard enough to be a teenager without the added baggage of being a member of an ancient family full of witches. Add to that the fact that these teen witches sometimes must wear a ring that binds their powers and dark magic showing up in town, and you have something that would give any Salem Witch Trials survivor vivid flashbacks. Welcome to the world of These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling.

Hannah is from a family of elemental witches in Salem, Massachusetts. They harness the power of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. A handful of other families are ancient lineage witches, but they all have to keep it a secret and cannot risk exposing their lifestyle to the Regs (kind of like Muggles: regular people who don’t know that witchcraft actually exists). Witches can be excommunicated from their covens for showing their magic in front of Regs.

Teen witches must go to classes and if they’re caught abusing their powers, they have to wear a binding ring that nixes any use of witchcraft. Hannah broke up with her girlfriend Veronica a few months before. Veronica, from another family of witches, continuously inserts herself into Hannah’s life trying to make up with her, but Hannah doesn’t want to go backwards. She wants to move on with her life, become more adept at magic, work her part time job at the Fly By Night Cauldron selling witchcraft paraphernalia (her boss is a practicing Wiccan and Tarot card reader; she’s not a real witch but she has excellent senses) and just live a fairly normal life.

But months before while vacationing in New York, a deadly magical being known as a Blood Witch tried to attack Hannah and now there are signs that a blood witch in in town. But who is it? Is it the emo kid who keeps coming into the magic shop to buy hexes against his bullies? Is it the new detective in town who is always suspicious that Hannah seems to be around whenever something bad happens? Gemma, Hannah’s best friend and a reg, hooks her up with a new ballerina in her troupe. Could it be her? Something is targeting everyone Hannah loves, putting their lives in danger and soon they will do anything to kill them.

Fast-paced and original, These Witches Don’t Burn will satisfy your need for fantasy, lgbtq+ characters, and strong family bonds.

Not That Kind of Party

I was once standing in line in a bookshop (remember those, the humming thrum of all those captured words waiting to be freed from the shelves so they could release their stories?) when the couple in front of me began talking about one of my obsessions: the Donner Party.

A little back story: The Donner Party is one of the most well-known ‘wagons west survival stories.’ Many people think they were just unlucky, unprepared or downright cursed. I believe all three had a hand in what happened to the wagon party of several families who set out to forge a new life in the West, got caught in the Sierra Nevada mountains in a brutal snowstorm, and ended up resorting to cannibalism to survive.

The Donner party set out with hope for a new life in California and put their trust in a man by the name of Lansford Hastings who said he had “worked out a new and better road to California.” The Hastings Cutoff ended up being a disaster, with the wagons and animals barely able to make it through.

The party pushed on, crossing into Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake because hey, after having to eat a few of your traveling companions to survive, you should get a lake named after you). The Donner party decided to camp 3 miles from the summit near a cabin that had been built by previous pilgrims. Then 5-10-foot snow drifts trapped the party and the food ran out…

You get the picture: a big wagon party forging westward gets stuck and the living must eat the dead to survive.

But back to the bookshop. The man was saying to the woman beside him something about the anniversary of the Donner Party coming up. The woman shuddered like she felt one of the cannibal’s frozen hands slip down her back and hissed that she didn’t think she could ever resort to cannibalism, even if it was to survive. I’m not the kind of person to join in on strangers’ conversations, but I pushed a thought at the shivering woman: you have no idea what you would do when push came to shove in a matter of survival, even if it meant slicing a chunk of flesh out of a body half buried in the snow, face down so you can’t see who it is.

Well, that was lovely. I went dark there for a minute, didn’t I? I’m not sorry. It’s what I do.

Alma Katsu’s novel The Hunger follows the Donner party as they make the trek westward. The families start out excited and happy to be beginning this new part of their lives, but soon the journey becomes exhausting, things go wrong, and supplies run out. A child goes missing one evening and is found torn open by some beast. Tamsin Donner, on her second husband and maybe a little bit on the witchy side (making potions and concoctions and collecting herbs), begins to sense that something is not right. Something more than the normal peril of crossing America has attached itself to them.

One of her stepdaughters, who is thought to be a bit touched in the head, hears the voices of the dead. Some of them are full of madness while others are trying to warn her. Strange beings seem to be following them, appearing in the dark, watching them and waiting to catch them off guard. Up close, these things are barely human, more monster than man. More members of the wagon party disappear and some begin to get sick. Is it one of their own who is summoning these beings and passing a disease around the families or is there a reasonable explanation.?

I’ll tell you right now, no, there is no reasonable explanation. What is happening is beyond the realm of the known and defies explanation and…..you know what? No. I’m not going to tell you the rest. If you want to read an adventure story based on historical record dive on into Alma Katsu’s The Hunger. You may think you know the full story of the Donner Party, but Katsu turns it on its ear and sets it off down paths of the supernatural and unexpected. You’ll devour this book. And if you don’t like it, eat me.

Patty the Vampire Slayer

In The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix, Campbell loves her husband and children, but she thought she’d be living a bigger life than running errands all day, cleaning the entire house, doing loads of laundry, and cooking gourmet meals for her less than appreciative family every night. Oh, and on top of all that, her elderly mother-in-law, in the grips of dementia (the poor soul has almost forgotten how to eat) moves in and Patricia has another person to look after.

Campbell has given up her career as a nurse, married a very ambitious (and now often distant) doctor, and makes herself nearly insane by being part of a book club where execution is the preferred method of shaming if you haven’t read the assigned book. It’s at one of these horrible book club meetings that a smaller faction of women who don’t want to read ‘Books of the Western World’ come together to form their own book club. The new book club includes four other Southern housewives: Slick, Kitty, Maryellen, and Grace.

The new club reads true-crime novels with titles like Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs and Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of John Wayne Gacy. They also choose more well known titles like The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and the oddly chosen Bridges of Madison County because one of the club members thinks the main character is a serial killer who drifts around the country killing housewives. The book club is the only exciting thing in Patricia’s dull life of driving her two children to after school events, packing lunches, and getting no support from a husband who spends most of his days at the office.

One evening, with the thrill of a book club meeting still fizzling through her, Patricia sees that her son Blue hasn’t taken the garbage bins to the end of the driveway. She can’t really blame him since the cans are stored at the side of the house and it’s pitch black and a little scary there once night falls. So she heaves a sigh only a mother can sigh and begins to drag the garbage bins down the driveway. But a noise catches her attention: the slurping, gulping, crunching sound of something being eaten.

In the shadows she sees her neighbor from down the block, Mrs. Savage, a mean old biddy not much beloved by the neighbors. Mrs. Savage is down on her haunches behind the cans with a raccoon stuffed in her mouth. She disembowels the dead animal while growling at Patricia who is backing away from the old lady and is about to make a run for it when the old woman pounces and tears off Patricia’s ear lobe. The cops and an ambulance come and take both Patricia and the old lady to the hospital.

Patricia is patched up and sent home. The next day she hears that Mrs. Savage has died from some sort of blood poisoning. There’s evidence of intravenous drug use on the on woman’s inner thighs, injection holes that have pierced her skin. Patricia knows that Mrs. Savage has a nephew living with her and acting as her caretaker. Like any Southern woman worth her weight would do, Patricia decides she needs to take a consolation casserole over to the grieving man.

When she gets to Mrs. Savage’s house, she sees it’s completely closed up and the blinds are drawn even though it’s a scorching hot day. When no one answers the door, Patricia lets herself in and begins to search the house for the nephew. She finds him lying in a bedroom. She can tell he’s not breathing. Her old nursing skills kick in and she immediately begins to give him CPR. His skin is cold and dry and she’s positive he’s dead until he sits up with a gasp.

This is her introduction to James Harris, a seemingly shy and artistic man with a hint of appealing strangeness to him. The sunlight hurts him and makes him fatigued. He seems helpless in both his grief over his aunt and whatever ailment haunts him. She decides James Harris is going to be her friend (perhaps more?) and helps him get settled as a real resident of the town: setting up a bank account and going to pay his power and water bills because he can’t bear to be out in the light. He drives a white van (the kind that you expect to see ‘Free Candy Inside’ written on the side) with windows that are heavily tinted to dim any light from getting in.

One evening, James comes over to Patricia’s house while the family is having dinner. Patricia’s mother-in-law, Mary, is having a particularly bad night and takes one look at James and starts babbling about a picture she has of him. Her behavior is excused because of her waning mental faculties. Soon, however, Patricia begins to think James Harris is something sinister with his cagey, secretive ways, the fact that he doesn’t go out during the day much, and his creepy van.

She starts to hear stories about children in town disappearing only to return as ghosts of themselves and eventually committing suicide. Not much has been done about it because it’s in the ‘bad part of town’ where most of the people of color live (remember, this is the early 90s in the South). Mrs. Greene who lives in that part of town and who is Mary’s nurse, tells Patricia about the missing children and how they come back.

Curious, Patricia decides to go there and investigate. She finds a very familiar creepy white van in the woods and what she sees happening in the back is something she can’t explain to herself, let alone to anyone else: James Harris with a monster’s face leaning over the prone body of a little girl. Patricia thought he might have been a serial killer but what she sees in the van is a creature from the depths of myth and folklore.

Patricia tries to tell her book club all about it, but they think she’s nuts and let her know they won’t put up with her crazy stories and theories about James Harris, who has become an upstanding citizen and businessman in town. So Patricia decides to go it alone, to get proof that he is indeed a monster that needs to be destroyed. But even crippling James Harris on her own is more than she’s capable of and in the end, it seems like he will continue snatching small children while charming the town and the book club members husbands. That is, until another book club member witnesses something and they band together to take this creature down.

If you like funny horror novels that are just a damn pleasure to read from beginning to end, pick up Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. You’ll laugh, get scared sh**less, laugh again, and find yourself cheering on a group of somewhat cliched Southern belles whose only worries up until that point had been packing lunches every day and making sure their kids make it to swimming practice on time. Much like blood on the lips of a vampire’s mouth, this book will stick with you for a long time. For God sake, go download it and get to reading!!

Lolita Does Boarding School

God, I haven’t thought of Glenn in years. Or was his name Carl? No, his name was Glenn. Glenn with two n’s, not just the one. It was about 25 years ago. I worked as a grocery bagger (I know they call them courtesy clerks now but the main thing I did day in and day out was to bag grocery’s and make sure not to put the watermelon on top of the eggs) and there was this older man, a sometime cashier who mostly worked in the back stocking the shelves. He wasn’t particularly good looking. In fact, he reminded me a lot of Dorothy’s sleazy ex-husband on the Golden Girls, Stanley Zbornak. But there was something about Glenn with two n’s that made me notice him. And made me want to be noticed by him in return.

In Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, it’s the year 2000 and 15 year old Vanessa Wye is at a Maine boarding school called Browick. She’s going through the motions of being a teenager, not really interested in classes until her English teacher, Mr. Strane, seems to take an interest in her. He seems to be the first person who really looks at her, really notices her and she likes that feeling.

It begins with him loaning her his favorite books. One of those books is Lolita, the story of an older man grooming a teenage girl to become his lover. One day while the rest of the class is busy, Vanessa is at the front of the class partially blocked by Mr. Strane’s desk. He touches her knee as they discuss something. It is a brief touch but filled with more meaning than the actual brevity of the act.

Mr. Strane, 42, confesses his deep love to Vanessa and begins to gaslight her. He trots out all the familiar lines of “I’ve never felt this way before, I’ve never been this deeply in love.” And of course, Vanessa, at 15, soaks the attention up even though a part of her knows how wrong it is. Their relationship becomes more intimate. She sneaks out of her dorm room to spend the night at his house. He gives her a skimpy pair of pajamas almost exactly like those given to Lolita by the pedophile Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita.

Vanessa sees how their relationship mirrors the novel, the secrecy, the forbidden meet ups. All the while Strane is telling her how much trouble she could get him into, how he could be fired from his teaching position and even go to jail for statutory rape. It’s all about the trouble he could get into and never about the mental toll the affair is having on Vanessa.

By her junior year, rumors begin traveling around that she’s having an affair with Strane. Her once best friend, Jenny, thinks she sees something in the way Strane grab’s Vanessa’s arm during a fieldtrip and reports him. Vanessa – with a lot of manipulating from Strane – takes a bullet and sacrifices her life at the boarding school, telling the higher ups and a group of students that she lied about the affair because she liked the attention. Strane, for his part (which Vanessa doesn’t find out about until years later) tells his colleagues how Vanessa had been a pesky student who had an obvious crush on him and he was trying to nip it in the bud.

Vanessa is kicked out of school but her relationship with Strane never really ends. Well groomed and slightly mentally abused slave that she already is, Vanessa spends years obsessed with Strane, constantly worried that her life isn’t up to snuff for him, that she’s somehow disappointed him. She doesn’t even get into any other relationships because she’s so mindlessly devoted to him.

The novel bounces back and forth through time, telling the story of 15-year-old Vanessa and then jumping to 32-year-old Vanessa working at a hotel and barely living her life while still under the thrall of her former English teacher Jacob Strane. She finds an article about Browick, her old boarding school, telling the story of a female student who was assaulted by a teacher there. When she confronts Strane, he brushes the assault off as a young girl who misconstrued his patting her knee which was meant a comforting gesture.

Vanessa’s world, already crumbling from the unfaced disaster that began with her teenage affair, begins to rapidly break apart. She realizes she wasn’t the only one Strane mentally waterboarded; she wasn’t the only one who got the line “I’ve never felt this way about someone.” Soon, she begins the work of digging around within herself and asking why she always defended Strane, refusing to see what he did to her as sexual and mental abuse.

At turns horrifying and relatable, My Dark Vanessa is a book that won’t be put down until the last page is soaked up and the story of Vanessa and the almost 20 years under the shadow of a powerful man comes to an end. Whether you have daddy issues and have been in a relationship with an older man who was only flattered by your attention without giving you love in return or you want to read a novel touching on a subject gaining strength and attention throughout the world, My Dark Vanessa will not disappoint you.

Hmmmm…I wonder what Glenn with two n’s is up to these days. Or was it Carl? I really need to write these things down when they happen.

The Stand in a New Light

I’m surprised I’ve never written a post about Stephen King’s The Stand before. I read it about once a year. Maybe its massive size (just over 1,000 pages) has deterred me from trying to write about it. But there’s no better time than now to write about a book depicting a super flu that wipes out most of the world’s population; leaving behind both good and evil who then must battle it out to save what is left of humanity.

The Stand begins at a government base where a man-made flu breaches a medical lab. In the days following, people begin to come down with the flu. It’s not unusual to hear coughing and sniffling in a movie theater and in the streets. People begin to stay off the streets, quarantining themselves in their homes. What starts off as a seemingly simple flu becomes a pandemic nicknamed Captain Trips. The human population is reduced to almost nothing and the streets and freeways are littered with cars and the bodies of people who tried to flee the cities. The world becomes a wasteland.

But there are pockets of people who are immune to the flu, people who pack a few belongings and set out to find other survivors. As decent people search for each other, people filled with darkness also seek out their kind. Randall Flagg, also known as The Walking Dude, is a god to some, but a demon to others. He gathers the evil ones to him and has a plan for what’s left of the population. The heels of his cowboy boots can be heard clicking down the roads of America as he searches for those with evil tucked away in them. Side note: Randall Flagg pops up in King’s Dark Tower series as well. It’s a cross-over event, like when two of your favorite shows merge.

Stu Redman becomes the reluctant leader of a group of good people who find a new place to settle and begin life again. But Randall Flagg has appeared to many of them, showing them nightmare visions of the world he wants to create. On the flip side, there’s Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old woman who is tasked with saving the rest of humankind. She needs to gather the good of humanity to her to give them a chance to overcome Randall Flagg. Along the way, a couple of Flagg’s spies have embedded themselves in Stu’s group and wreak havoc. In the end, there can only be an ultimate sacrifice to bring about a new beginning.

With a brilliant and memorable cast of characters, Stephen King’s The Stand is about more than just Good vs. Evil. It’s about the human condition when presented with the end of the world and the luck of an immune system that bucks disease. The Stand is about being alone at the end of the world and then finding people to create a new life. To quote another King book, Doctor Sleep:  We go on, even in the dark. Even when the darkness seems unending. We go on.

Now look, I know this new disease is terrifying and something like The Stand doesn’t seem like fiction right now, but remember this: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday all the way through twice, stay away from large gatherings, and if you hear the clip-clop of dusty cowboy boots, run the other way. The Walking Dude has found you.

Gonna Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour begins with a doctor visiting a beauty of a Victorian house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Two elderly sisters have asked a doctor to see to their youngest sister who has been in a catatonic state for years. The doctor often sees a man standing on the porch with the catatonic woman and when the doctor asks who the man is, both sisters deny the existence of a man visiting with their sibling.

The doctor doesn’t think much of their denial. It is, after all, New Orleans where wealthy people don’t even try to act like every day normal humans. But the doctor knows he saw the man being tenderly attentive to the woman locked within herself. When the man attacks the doctor, the physician believes he’s lost his own mind. Because the man wasn’t there when he attacked the doctor. There was no physical form to the doctor’s attacker. Shaken and having escaped the house, he realizes the only explanation that makes sense is that he was attacked by a spirit.

The Mayfair’s are an old money family with a not so secret history of being called a family of witches. Rowan Mayfair has been kept from the New Orleans Mayfairs and was raised by another family member in San Francisco with the knowledge of who her birth mother is: the woman languishing on the porch of the grand painted Lady house in New Orleans. Rowan is a brilliant neurosurgeon with an odd talent of being able to heal a sick patient along with the power to destroy a life. Her mother’s death in New Orleans sends her back to her birthplace where she begins to learn about the family she’s been estranged from for her entire life.

Michael Curry was born in New Orleans but left for San Francisco many years before to become a popular architect whose talent is restoring old Victorian homes. Michael dreams of the houses of his childhood in New Orleans and longs to return. One day Michael drowns in San Francisco bay only to be brought back to life by Rowan who found him while sailing. A side effect of coming back from the dead is Michael’s clairvoyance, a very unwanted new skill. He can touch any object and see its past. Rowan and Michael fall in love (as two people usually do when brought back from death) and Michael travels to New Orleans with Rowan.

Aaron Lightner is a scholar with a shadow group known as the Talamasca who study strange happenings. He has followed the Mayfair family for centuries and calls them “the Mayfair witches.” He has also seen the ghostly man on the porch and knows what it is – not human and not exactly a ghost – and that it means danger to those outside the family. The not human man has a plan for Rowan, and nothing can stop it from getting what it wants.

This hugely sprawling novel spans centuries of the Mayfair witches along with the guardian man who attaches itself to the stronger females in the family. Will Rowan be the family member to break the thing’s hold or will she too become seduced by it and its ancient history?

Ah, now I remember why I never posted about this book. I can’t fit all the details in from this 976 page saga of a family of witches and the being who is passed down to them like hand me down jeans. The Witching Hour may be ridiculously long, but it doesn’t read as a long novel. It doesn’t feel like you’re slogging through a dense forest of words. Instead, The Witching Hour plays out like a rich theatrical release and the credits roll before you’re ready for them.

If you get into Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and want more, don’t worry. She has written a series of books featuring the Mayfair Witches and at one point the books have a crossover between the Mayfairs and the vampires from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. So enjoy, take frequent breaks, make yourself a snack and keep reading as the Mayfair world unfolds like some kind of night blooming flower.

Where I End and You Begin

I find it unsettling that serial killers -both male and female- have been sexualized in the last couple of years. Ted Bundy has become somewhat of a rock star thanks to a documentary on Netflix and a movie based on his life starring Zac Efron. There’s even a young woman somewhere in the world who got a tattoo of Bundy’s bite imprint from one of the bodies of his victims.

With that said, I do have to admit I find true crime beyond fascinating, but mostly I’m fascinated by what makes killers the way they are. I know some people think my fascination is weird and they refer to me as ‘one of those creepy girls.’  Yes. Yes, I am one of those creepy girls. It’s the creepy girls of the world that make everything burn a little brighter.

Stephen King used to keep a notebook full of newspaper clippings about murders when he was young. He said he kept the clippings because it was a way for him to recognize the nightmare people who donned a normal every day face while out in public. I, too, like to be aware of monsters that roam around with false human grace. But if you throw me a character from novels or a television series like Dexter who is a serial killer but only kills evil people, well, that’s something I can easily be obsessed about.

Joe Goldberg from Caroline Kepnes’s book You, throws off major Dexter vibes. Joe runs a bookstore in the East Village in New York. He’s obsessed with books, with literature, and with seeing people for who they really are. Characters fill his thoughts. You know what else he’s obsessed with? Guinevere Beck. From the moment she walks into the bookstore he’s got it bad for her. Like writing their names together on a notebook bad.

Beck, as she’s known to everyone, is a teaching assistant and aspiring writer. She’s working on her thesis, although it seems she never really spends time writing but heads out into the night to pursue a career in drinking and partying all night. Beck is everything Joe wants: beautiful, smart mouthed, and fiercely intelligent. Joe begins an odyssey of learning everything he can about Beck.

Instead of getting to know her through the normal channels, he stalks her social media and spies on her any chance he can get. Is this terrifyingly creepy? Yes. Can you kind of let that slide because Joe seems like one of the good guys? Surprisingly, yes.  That is until things begin to take a sinister turn and the reader begins to learn more about Joe’s past and his level of obsession with Beck. Will nothing stop Joe from being with Beck? Will anyone in the way of gaining Beck’s affection survive?

If you like books where you feel a little guilty about cheering on a main character who’s a lovable sociopath, You is your cup of tea.  Look, we’ve all had a crush that makes the rest of the world fall away and we can’t imagine a time when our crush isn’t a part of our life. But there’s a difference between a crush and an all-consuming obsession. It’s what you do in the middle-ground that makes all the difference.

And if you like You, there’s a sequel called Hidden Bodies that follows Joe after he leaves New York and settles in LA. You can move across the country, but obsessive love, like college debt, will follow you.

Spare Parts

Where was this book when I was a teenager? Oh yeah. It wasn’t written yet and I was already more than obsessed with the works of Stephen King. If ever I needed a manifesto (and not in a creepy way: there’s no dog-eared Catcher in the Rye nestled in any of my coat pockets) it would be Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl. Shuffling and stubbing my toes into my 40s, I still need a guide to help me see who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s a process I still haven’t acquired a taste for, like lima beans or small talk. But Johanna Morrigan is my new hero.

It’s 1990 and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives in a small town in England with her exasperating family. Her family is on government benefits because of her father’s ‘back pain.’ None of the children can tell anyone they’re on benefits because questions would be asked, such as “Didn’t I see your father bent over a car in the driveway the other day? I thought he was physically unfit to wield a wrench?” Johanna’s father thinks he’s going to make millions as a rock star (what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless) and her mother is in postpartum decline from giving birth to twins. Johanna slips up one day while talking to an elderly neighbor and mentions the benefits. She realizes she’s put her family in financial peril. She waits every day by the mailbox to intercept any official letters saying the family’s benefits have been cut off.

Johanna always had a knack for writing and decides to write a poem for a contest. She wins and along with a tidy sum of money, she gets to read her poem on live TV.  She bombs so badly, humiliates herself so roundly, that she decides to become someone else. She creates an alter ego and gives herself the name Dolly Wilde. Wilde after Oscar Wilde, the decadent and naughty writer who once said: if you find yourself in the gutter, roll over and look at the stars. Johanna stumbles onto a job writing for a music magazine which involves going to clubs as well as interviewing up and coming and already established bands. For a kid who’s always immersed herself in words and music, this is a dream job. Her first essay is about a popular singer named John Kite and it reads like a mushy fangirl letter. The two have a connection that will span several years.

Two years pass and a now 16-year-old Johanna/Dolly Wilde is an old hand at interviewing bands. She dresses as a goth and often wears a top hat cocked at an angle. She’s aware that she is a chubby small-town girl, but it doesn’t stop her. She begins to smoke like a chimney, get drunk, and go on liberating sexual adventures where she convinces herself she uses her sexual partners just as much as they use her. There is no falling in love. Life is just one experience after another. She’s also financially supporting her family now and drops out of school to devote all her time to writing.

She indeed becomes someone else entirely. She uses her writing gift to eviscerate bands, making many enemies. A man in a band that got a less than favorable review from her dumps a drink on her head, saying he wanted to pour his urine over her head instead. Dolly laughs it off, telling herself that’s what happens when you’re a truthful writer. Things begin to change when one of her sexual escapades involves another writer at the magazine. She starts to think of him as her boyfriend, only to overhear him describe her as a ‘piece of strange’ meaning she’s from the wrong side of the tracks and he’s slumming it. It’s like a light bulb goes off in her head (or completely shatters, sending glass shards through her brain) and she realizes Dolly Wilde isn’t who she is. While Dolly served her purpose, she now knows that she is Johanna Morrigan:

But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until-slowly, slowly-you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things.

As Johanna makes these life changing realizations, she pulls another humiliating stunt by getting drunk with John Kite and professing her overwhelming love for him. She doesn’t remember much from that night except for spilling her guts to him and him going off to sleep in the bathtub:

Since I met you, I feel like I can see the operating system of the world-and its unrequited love. That is why everyone’s doing everything. Every book, opera house, moon shot, and manifesto is here because someone, somewhere, lit up silent when someone else came into the room, and then quietly burned when they didn’t notice them.

Now older, Johanna sees that her parents did their best with what they had. Her father with his outrageous schemes and blind faith in himself, her ghost of a mother just beginning to surface from her depression with the help of an antidepressant cocktail, Johanna sees them as two people doing their best:

They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love-and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs.

And finally, I wish I had heard (known) this going into my late teens:

And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.

Not just a coming of age tale, How to Build a Girl is an anthem sending a call to all humans to pick through the flotsam and jetsam of who they are, dig for the seeming detritus and know it for what it is: they key to becoming who you are and who you need to be.

Thanks for reading. I gotta go write a book. I’m going to title it How to Put Back Together a Middle-Aged Woman.

Hoarder’s Delight

A dozen years ago my mother flew to California to help my grandma pack up her tiny apartment and move into an assisted living home. Now, my grandma wasn’t the classic definition of a hoarder. There were no precarious stacks of yellowed newspapers or National Geographic magazines going back to the 1940s lying around. Grandma Flower was more of a pack rat: squirreling away slips of paper she’d scribbled on or pretty papers that caught her fancy, even if she never looked at them again.

During the visit, my mom and grandma sat on the couch watching television. My mom studied my grandma as she ripped a piece of Kleenex into tiny pieces and shoved them down the side of the couch. “Hey mom, why are you doing that, why are you tucking pieces of Kleenex into the sides of the couch?” My mom asked gently. Bewildered (and no doubt embarrassed about someone witnessing her little ritual) my grandma spat out “I just don’t know, Linda!” Now my brother and I yell it at each other when we catch each other doing something downright goofy.

In T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, Mouse’s aging father asks her to clear out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Mouse thinks, why not? She’s a freelance editor and can work anywhere. Plus, her father said whatever the house sells for she can keep. Mouse and her hound dog Bongo head to North Carolina. How bad could the old woman’s place be since the last two years of her life were spent in a retirement home?

Turns out, pretty damn bad. The house is crammed with the junk of a long life; a house of nonsense collections of items her grandmother couldn’t throw out. Had her grandmother been a kind and warm person, the task might have been a terrible emotional war, but Mouse’s grandmother was nothing but mean with a cruel streak ten miles wide. Instead of taking only a few days, Mouse realizes it’s going to take weeks to clear the house out, especially when she finds a room dedicated solely to her grandma’s creepy doll collection.

She picks out the most livable looking room to stay in and finds a journal written by her step-grandfather. She barely remembers the man. He was mostly a quiet person who read the newspaper all day. As Mouse reads through the journal, she starts to wonder if he had been in the active stages of dementia. He mentions marrying Mouse’s grandmother because ‘They’ steer clear of her. There was something about her that ‘They’ despised and avoided.

He mentions his birthplace in Wales and wonders if ‘They’ crossed the ocean with him. Because really, the old gods and creatures, whose only joy lies within darkness, like to follow humans wherever they go. They’re like ancient pop stars who fear being left behind and made irrelevant. Cotgrave, her step-grandfather, had a mantra he repeated to himself to keep ‘Them’ away: I made faces like the faces in the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

Mouse finds the sing-song chant creepy but chalks it up to an old man whose mind was beginning to sour. In the following days making trips to the dump (bye bye terrifying dolls) the chant begins to roam through her mind more and more. One night she’s awoken by her dog Bongo who is growling at the window. Mouse looks out to see deer crossing the front lawn except one of them seems disfigured, its legs bent at odd angles. Pretty weird but nothing to be afraid of.

Taking a break from cleaning one afternoon, she takes Bongo for a walk in the woods. The house itself is out in the boonies with a couple of neighbors down the road. Mouse and Bongo follow a trail only to discover something grotesque hanging from a tree. It looks like a deer, but the skull is upside down and pieces of it seem to be held together with wires and strips of cloth. Is it alive in that tree and watching her? It makes a clicking sound: rocks hanging in its chest knock against rib bones, like wind chimes from the deepest reaches of hell.

Mouse and Bongo almost break a land speed record running back to the house. After a fright, humans are good at rationalization, our brains making excuses for what has been seen. But that night she’s woken again by Bongo’s growl. The thing she saw hanging from a tree is at her window and looking at her. There’s no explaining that one. Mouse fears she might be losing her mind.

She’s made friends with people down the road, people her grandmother labeled sneeringly as hippies. Foxy is head of the household, a woman in her late fifties and far from a hippie. More like Annie Oakley, target shooting over her shoulder using only a mirror. Mouse tells her everything that’s been happening and Foxy’s not surprised. She says there has always been spooky happenings in the woods and even more remote places. People don’t talk about it much and treat it like a biting insect: if we don’t bother it, it won’t bother us.

Not really relieved to hear that otherworldly creatures exist and people just accept it, Mouse is ready to pack up her dog and go back home. Her father gave her an easy out. If cleaning out the house was unimaginable, then it could be bulldozed and the land cleared. But before Mouse can make her getaway, Bongo disappears. There’s no way Mouse will leave without him. Foxy invites herself along on the search, because what lies on the edge of their known world is a different and uninviting world.

This was a unique book that brought old customs and beliefs into this century, along with a compulsively relatable friendship between a woman and her dog. Great. Now I can’t see a deer without imaging its skull pressed against my window, watching me. I’d better twist myself about like the twisted ones. Maybe that will help.