The Flats by Kate Birdsall
A dead boy. A cast of deadbeat suspects. A detective determined to root out the killer. Detective Liz Boyle’s hunt for a child murderer sends her reeling when someone she cares about becomes entangled in the web of confusion surrounding a little boy’s death. But just when the case seems synched, a faceless new player slips onto the scene, and Boyle must decide how hard she is willing to push herself and those around her to find justice.
Detective Liz Boyle and her partner Goran are the kind of crime-fighting team I’d want on my side. The Flats is full of solid characters, but Boyle and Goran were by far my favorite duo. Birdsall’s tight writing style and classic cop narrative easily ushers readers into Boyle’s world of crime. There are few times when the narrative slows the action, but nine times out of ten Birdsall balances action and dialogue with narrative beautifully. She swings smoothly between Detective Boyle’s personal and professional life as the line between the two become increasingly blurred over the course of the book. The plot itself is self-propelling as Boyle’s investigation leads her down a sinister rabbit hole. I enjoyed the twists and turns that Birdsall sprinkles throughout the book, and the subtle clues that all lead up to a suspenseful climax and satisfactory ending. I recommend The Flats for lovers of mystery, detective dramas, and realistic fiction. And good news — if you like The Flats, it’s only the first book in the Detective Liz Boyle series!
Before it hits theaters in 2018, catch up on:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Four scientists enter Area X, drawn by their need for discovery. They are not the first group to undertake this exploratory mission. Previous expeditions have died of illness, gone missing, and devolved into murder. Readers join the twelfth expedition as Area X quickly begins to take it’s toll, eating away at the trust and minds of the expedition members, twisting the meaning of reality.
A biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and an archeologist walk into a bar…and by bar I mean a creepy, nature-ruled limbo where logic is rendered useless. Vandermeer landscapes an exciting and utterly unnerving tale of exploration. Guided by his scientific style of writing, I could feel the characters’ fear and confusion as their realities unraveled with each new discovery. I recommend this book for lovers of the strange, of apocalyptic fiction, and of mind-bending worlds.
P.S. Find the movie trailer here.
Looking for a creepy read this fall? Try:
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
There’s something out there…and all it takes is a glance for it to kill you. Newly pregnant in a rapidly devolving world, Malorie seeks safety in a house with fellow survivors while, outside, people are going mad. Dying. Anyone brave enough to look outside could be infected by this unknown menace in an instant. But Malorie and her friends can’t stay inside forever.
Holy crap. Right up there with Pen Pal, this book had me racing between pages with anticipation. The dramatic irony is strong with this one, and it’s to die for (sorry…kind of). Suspenseful, dark, and utterly chilling, lovers of horror found in the unknown will love walking the psychological high-wire that is Bird Box. (Also, this author hails from Michigan, my home state!) It has a style that flows like contemporary and reads like old-school literature. I recommended this for adult readers.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Revisit the classic, or experience it for the first time. The Outsiders is the story of Ponyboy and his gang of Greasers, and the consequences of a social rivalry taken too far. On the run, Ponyboy must face the wider world outside of his familiar streets. Then when further tragedy strikes, he must decide what type of man he wants to be — the kind who takes to the fight, or the kind who would have the heart to stop it.
This was my first time reading The Outsiders, and I can’t believe it took me this long to get to it. It’s easy to see why it’s such a long-withstanding title. Easy to read but incredibly thoughtful, I loved the themes of brotherhood and sympathy that permeated the book. It captures the frustrations and hope of every young adult as they begin to realize that not everyone sees the world as they see it. That everybody’s hurting and loving in some way, and all it can take to mend the gap is a small change in perspective. I recommend this for readers middle school and older.
Happy Reading, and stay gold!
High school was where writing got serious. It wasn’t just for fun–it was for grades, for college credit, for a future career. Greenrock Writers’ Retreat was a place to experiment with writing without consequences, and with the collective influence of other brilliant young writers. We hashed out plot ideas, argued over the summer’s chosen book, and complained about the communal dorm bathrooms (because bleh).
I’m in college now, soon to be on my way out of the very university where I attended Greenrock for the first time as a newly minted high school freshman. While I didn’t choose MSU because of Greenrock, it definitely helped me to plant some roots there, and I am loving every second of being in the Professional Writing program (even the ones I whine about). I was sad to not be able to come back this year as a Greenrock alumni for the writing marathon, but excited to hear about the program expanding.
A special shout-out to Dawn and Luke, my first Greenrock mentors (and of course my original gang of GR writerly hoodlums, The Dolphins). The ones who knew how to draw me out of my shell, make me laugh, and challenge how I thought about writing.
Penpal by Dathan Auerbach
Bad memories aren’t the only thing that can follow you. This incredible reddit.com thread turned published novel pieces together the eerie memories of a man trying to unravel the mysteries of his childhood. It seems those closest to him have something to hide, but the truth is more terrible than he ever knew.
Take a moment to imagine me cradling this book to my chest in sheer wonder that someone was able to gather so much online support for an idea that he was able to make it into a real, pull-it-from-a-shelf book.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of a story. (And the internet.)
But on to the book! Warning: It is not for the faint of heart. More than once I found myself holding my breath with dread and anticipation….in public….in the middle of the day. It’s that good. The story is a series of non-linear snapshots woven together with dramatic irony so thick I wanted to karate chop my way through it to warn the characters–a classic case of “Don’t open that door! Don’t go in there!”. While there is room for polishing, the writing style is relatable yet gripping. I recommend this book for adult readers who like suspense, drama, and skin-crawly crime stories.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
No one predicted the slowing of the Earth’s rotation. For Julia, the weight of the consequences are felt in hindsight as she reflects on her sixth grade year, that first year of “the slowing”. Some people adapted better than others. While the days grow longer, communities crumble like sugar, and relationships shift, life goes on. But for how long?
It’s funny how in the midst of catastrophe, some parts of life plod on unimpeded. Like the ups and down of being eleven, or having a crush, or realizing adults don’t have all the answers either. It’s a rough transition, even without environmental disaster. Walker beautifully captures a classic coming-of-age story against a tragic backdrop. Her imagery is sharp, her points subtle, and her protagonist relatable to anyone who remembers (or is currently experiencing) the unstable years of upper adolescence. Definitely not a light-hearted summer read, but one I recommend YA readers add to their lists.
*Shout-out to my cousin, Zachary, who recommended the book.
Kids are funnier, more creative, and more astute than they are sometimes given credit for. As an adult it can be hard to remember how to think like a kid, making it harder to get inside the mind of a child character. So how do we improve the way we represent children in fiction?
Spend Time with Them
The best way to get to know someone is to spend time with them, right? Even if you’re not “a kid person”, spending some time with them can do wonders for getting those writer wheels turning. Take notes on the conversations you have. Who are more creative and honest than people too young for a verbal filter? I’ve heard some of the funniest, saddest, and purest one-liners while babysitting, and have been able to spin them into great dialogue, in some cases dialogue that isn’t even between children. Those little buggers can be wise.
Know the Vernacular
With child characters, this means being able to distinguish the dialogue of a five year old from a ten year old, etc. I have read stories that underestimate the difference in children’s vernacular as they develop, and the result is unrealistic dialogue or inconsistent/flat characters. Again, exposure can be a huge help. And while we often want to believe in the innocence of children’s language, the truth is that by upper elementary a kid probably has a more colorful vocabulary than some parents might want or expect. In writing this is often used for humor, but if it fits someone’s environment or personality it can also be reflective of realistic characterization (think Stranger Things or the “Bleep” episode of the TV show Arthur).
Recognize Their Impact
Child characters are often used to empathetic ends. We see this when they are used as foils for jaded or angry adults. Their innocence and black-and-white view can diffuse tense situations, likes Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or increase tension by obliviously wandering in on an already taut scene. However, child characters can also reveal the darker parts of human nature, like in Lord of the Flies. Either way, they can provide a lot of insight into what it means to be human. But they should also be understood as more than just a literary symbol. They need to be well-rounded characters and relevant to the story. I think Laura from the movie Logan is a great (if slightly intense) example. If kids shouldn’t be talked down to then as characters they shouldn’t be “written” down to either. Let’s give credit where credit it due.
Question of the week: What was your favorite children’s book/series growing up?
Let’s talk comics! I don’t usually cover entire mediums/genres in What to Read posts, but since I’m a fairly new comic book reader, I thought it might be nice to have a bit of a shoutout to the medium as a whole. Superheroes aren’t the only topics covered in comics, but they’re certainly the most memorable, and in recent years have been given a huge cinematic boost by the release of some of DC and Marvel’s biggest hitters (*cough* shameless plug for Wonder Woman, coming June 2 *cough*).
So, comics. If you’re not already a fan of comic books then it might be hard to see an immediate appeal. I’ve been there. But I’ve always been curious, and after taking a college course focusing on Batman, Superman, and the reconfigurations of mythology, I am hooked. Whether you like superheroes or not, we can’t deny the enormous role they play in history and culture. I mean, our superheroes were essentially born as a creative response to the political and cultural atmosphere surrounding World War II. Our most beloved heroes encapsulate our history and continue the myths and legends so deeply ingrained in our society that we may not notice at first glance.
At the same time, comics can be confusing because they don’t always follow a linear, concrete plot. That’s also part of the beauty of them. Admittedly, it’s something I’m still getting used to, but in the hands of each new writer and artist characters like Iron Man and Supergirl evolve, their stories shift, and they come to reflect the hopes of each new generation. (And to kick some serious ass.) Of course, what comics teach us most is that it is not just power that saves the day. It is the heart behind the fist, the hope beneath the despair. These are the stories that show us that people can be horrible, but more importantly that they can be incredible.
(A few recommendations from a newbie…)
- Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
- Superman: For Tomorrow by Brian Azzarello
- Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb
- Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne by Grant Morrison
- Nightwing by Tim Seeley
- Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker
- Batman & Robin Eternal by Scott Snyder
Happy Friday, friends! The weekend is here and with it, here’s a little extra encouragement as you work on that best-seller. Nothing is quite as demotivating as pitching an idea to someone who replies, “Hey that’s cool! Your story sounds kind of like…reminds me of….etc.” Sometimes it can feel like everything’s already been said, that your story isn’t worth putting out there, but fight that little brain demon and keep at it!
Want to know a secret? Some of the most mind-blowing characters we see and think, “Wow, I could never create someone as devastatingly amazing at that,” aren’t quite as stand-alone as we think. For example, Batman was not the world’s first mysterious and shadowy crime detective to make a hobby of stalking police commissioners. Much of his character draws from the 1930’s radio drama, The Shadow. (Which is actually super fun to listen to if you like podcast-type stories. You can find episodes free online.) So yes, sometimes we do need to stand on the shoulders of the storyteller who have come before us. But by incorporating our own voices we are owning our traditions and remaking the myths that have been the foundation of narrative for centuries. You’ve got this!