New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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Last year I read and enjoyed Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood's retelling of Shakespeare's Tempest. That novel was part of an interesting exercise by Hogarth Publishing to have other well-known author's rework some of Shakespeare's greatest plays. The most recent novel comes from Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

In New Boy, Chevalier reimagines the tragedy of Othello in the form of a school yard romance during the 1970's. Osei has grown accustomed to being the outcast. His father is a diplomat who regularly moves the family from place to place, leaving Osei as the "new boy" in each new school. If being new isn't bad enough, Osei now has the distinction of being the only black kid at the all-white institution.

Osei quickly captures the attention of Dee, one of the most popular girls in the school. Dee is infatuated with Osei's unique good looks and his wise beyond his age personality. Naturally, the other boys in the school see Osei as a threat. One boy in particular sets a plan in motion to humiliate the new boy, and to ensure none of the other students accept him as one of their own.

While New Boy isn't the most riveting book I've read this year, it is still a rather interesting exercise in reinterpretation. By placing the story in a school during the 1970's, Chevalier uses Shakespeare's story to eloquently comment upon jealousy and prejudice. There are heavy implications lurking beneath the surface of this one, but schoolyard setting helps to keep an air of playfulness throughout the short book. The events that took place in Virginia this weekend brought an even more timely perspective to the story. America has an grim history of racism that we haven't been able to shake. The last year has seen numerous works of fiction comment upon that difficult history. I don't think New Boy is the most profound novel that touches on that subject, but it certainly adds to the conversation. The Hogarth Shakespeare Project continues to be one of the more interesting enterprises in publishing today. I'm happy to continue reading the books, and I look forward to Edward St. Aubyn's take on King Lear later this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 36)

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

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"I love you, I know that you love me, but every time we see each other, we see what happened, and neither one of us will ever move forward if we are always looking back."

Charlie Quinn was just a child when tragedy first struck her family. Her family home was burned down in an act of retaliation against her father's representation of a black man in a murder trial. Charlier, her older sister Sam, and her mother were preparing dinner at their new farm house when two masked men entered. The men were looking for Charlie's father. When they realized he wasn't home, they decided to take their anger out on the girls. That night ended with her mother murdered, Sam severely physically and mentally disabled, and Charlie scarred for life.

Fast forward twenty something years, and Charlie is facing a new kind of tragedy. A one night stand with a teacher leaves her front and center for one of the most horrific crimes her small town has ever seen. In the dark night, Charlie and the man switched cell phones. She is in the man's classroom to trade phones when they hear the shots. Charlie runs out to see one man dead, a teacher over a dying girl, and another girl huddled against the wall. Faced with a crime that echoes the one she experience years ago, Charlie quickly returns to the law office that she shares with her father.

Rusty Quinn is quite the character. Imagine an Atticus Finch who believes in justice, but one who smokes too much and is more sleazy T.V. lawyer than elegant wordsmith. He's decided to defend the young girl who is charged with the school shooting. He believes her to be the rare "unicorn" client, a client who is genuinely innocent. But to take on this high-profile case, he'll have to rely on more than just the "good daughter" Charlie for help. He'll need to call his estranged daughter Sam. She's the one who overcame all emotional, mental, and physical hardships from the situation he placed her in years ago to become a powerful patent lawyer in New York. Can the Quinns surmount their own tragic history to defend this client? What really happened that night at the farm house? Why did their family break apart?

The Good Daughter is easily one of the best crime novels of the year. Karin Slaughter combines complex character relationships with gritty, detailed action to form a story that is as thoughtful as it is entertaining. With this latest standalone novel, Slaughter continues the trend of not only righting excellent crime fiction, but filling that fiction with strong female protagonists. By telling the story of these crimes through the eyes of lawyers, she gives a fresh perspective to the genre. Slaughter deftly comments upon small town life, family relationships, disability, and being a women in a male dominated career field, all while never losing sight of the thrilling story at hand. Go ahead and get a copy of this book. You won't be disappointed.

(2017, 35)

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads.

Book Details:

Genre: Thriller, Suspense
Published by: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Publication Date: August 8, 2017
Number of Pages: 528
ISBN: 0062430262 (ISBN13: 9780062430267)
Series: Good Daughter 1
Purchase Links: Amazon  | Barnes & Noble  | Goodreads 

Read an excerpt:

Charlie Quinn walked through the darkened halls of Pikeville middle school with a gnawing sense of trepidation. This wasn’t an early morning walk of shame. This was a walk of deeply held regret. Fitting, since the first time she’d had sex with a boy she shouldn’t have had sex with was inside this very building. The gymnasium, to be exact, which just went to show that her father had been right about the perils of a late curfew.
She gripped the cell phone in her hand as she turned a corner. The wrong boy. The wrong man. The wrong phone. The wrong way because she didn’t know where the hell she was going. Charlie turned around and retraced her steps. Everything in this stupid building looked familiar, but nothing was where she remembered it was supposed to be.
She took a left and found herself standing outside the front office. Empty chairs were waiting for the bad students who would be sent to the principal. The plastic seats looked similar to the ones in which Charlie had whiled away her early years. Talking back. Mouthing off. Arguing with teachers, fellow students, inanimate objects. Her adult self would’ve slapped her teenage self for being such a pain in the ass.
She cupped her hand to the window and peered inside the dark office. Finally, something that looked how it was supposed to look. The high counter where Mrs. Jenkins, the school secretary, had held court. Pennants drooping from the water-stained ceiling. Student artwork taped to the walls. A lone light was on in the back. Charlie wasn’t about to ask Principal Pinkman for directions to her booty call. Not that this was a booty call. It was more of a “Hey, girl, you picked up the wrong iPhone after I nailed you in my truck at Shady Ray’s last night” call.
There was no point in Charlie asking herself what she had been thinking, because you didn’t go to a bar named Shady Ray’s to think.
The phone in her hand rang. Charlie saw the unfamiliar screen saver of a German shepherd with a Kong toy in its mouth. The caller ID read SCHOOL.
She answered, “Yes?”
“Where are you?” He sounded tense, and she thought of all the hidden dangers that came from screwing a stranger she’d met in a bar: incurable venereal diseases, a jealous wife, a murderous baby mama, an obnoxious Alabama affiliation.
She said, “I’m in front of Pink’s office.”
“Turn around and take your second right.”
“Yep.” Charlie ended the call. She felt herself wanting to puzzle out his tone of voice, but then she told herself that it didn’t matter because she was never going to see him again.
She walked back the way she’d come, her sneakers squeaking on the waxed floor as she made her way down the dark hallway. She heard a snap behind her. The lights had come on in the front office. A hunched old woman who looked suspiciously like the ghost of Mrs. Jenkins shuffled her way behind the counter. Somewhere in the distance, heavy metal doors opened and closed. The beep-whir of the metal detectors swirled into her ears. Someone jangled a set of keys.
The air seemed to contract with each new sound, as if the school was bracing itself for the morning onslaught. Charlie looked at the large clock on the wall. If the schedule was still the same, the first homeroom bell would ring soon, and the kids who had been dropped off early and warehoused in the cafeteria would flood the building.
Charlie had been one of those kids. For a long time, whenever she thought of her father, her mind conjured up the scene of his arm leaning out of the Chevette’s window, freshly lit cigarette between his fingers, as he pulled out of the school parking lot.
She stopped walking.
The room numbers finally caught her attention, and she knew immediately where she was. Charlie touched her fingers to a closed wooden door. Room three, her safe haven. Ms. Beavers had retired eons ago, but the old woman’s voice echoed in Charlie’s ears: “They’ll only get your goat if you show them where you keep your hay.”
Charlie still didn’t know what that meant, exactly. You could extrapolate that it had something to do with the extended Culpepper clan, who had bullied Charlie relentlessly when she’d finally returned to school.
Or, you could take it that, as a girls’ basketball coach named Etta Beavers, the teacher knew what it felt like to be taunted. There was no one who could give Charlie advice on how to handle the present situation. For the first time since college, she’d had a one-night stand. Or a one-night sit, if it boiled down to the exact position. Charlie wasn’t the type of person who did that sort of thing. She didn’t go to bars. She didn’t drink to excess. She didn’t really make hugely regrettable mistakes. At least not until recently.
Her life had started to unspool back in August of last year. Charlie had spent almost every waking hour since then raveling out mistake after mistake. Apparently, the new month of May was not going to see any improvement. The blunders were now starting before she even got out of bed. This morning, she’d been wide awake on her back, staring up at the ceiling, trying to convince herself that what had happened last night had not happened at all when an unfamiliar ringtone had come from her purse.
She had answered because wrapping the phone in aluminum foil, throwing it into the dumpster behind her office and buying a new phone that would restore from her old phone backup did not occur to her until after she had said hello.
The short conversation that followed was of the kind you would expect between two total strangers: Hello, person whose name I must have asked for but now can’t recall. I believe I have your phone.
Charlie had offered to meet the man at his work because she didn’t want him to know where she lived. Or worked. Or what kind of car she drove. Between his pickup truck and his admittedly exquisite body, she’d thought he’d tell her he was a mechanic or a farmer. Then he’d said that he was a teacher and she’d instantly flashed up a Dead Poets Society kind of thing. Then he’d said he taught middle school and she’d jumped to the unfounded conclusion that he was a pedophile.
“Here.” He stood outside an open door at the far end of the hall.
As if on cue, the overhead fluorescents popped on, bathing Charlie in the most unflattering light possible. She instantly regretted her choice of ratty jeans and a faded, long-sleeved Duke Blue Devils basketball T-shirt.
“Good Lord God,” Charlie muttered. No such problems at the end of the hall.
Mr. I-Can’t-Remember-Your-Name was even more attractive than she remembered. The standard button-down-with-khakis uniform of a middle-school teacher couldn’t hide the fact that he had muscles in places that men in their forties had generally replaced with beer and fried meat. His scraggly beard was more of a five o’clock shadow. The gray at his temples gave him a wizened air of mystery. He had one of those dimples in his chin that you could use to open a bottle.
This was not the type of man Charlie dated. This was the exact type of man that she studiously avoided. He felt too coiled, too strong, too unknowable. It was like playing with a loaded gun.
“This is me.” He pointed to the bulletin board outside his room. Small handprints were traced onto white butcher paper. Purple cut-out letters read MR. HUCKLEBERRY.
“Huckleberry?” Charlie asked.
“It’s Huckabee, actually.” He held out his hand. “Huck.”
Charlie shook his hand, too late realizing that he was asking for his iPhone. “Sorry.” She handed him the phone.
He gave her a crooked smile that had probably sent many a young girl into puberty. “Yours is in here.”
Charlie followed him into the classroom. The walls were adorned with maps, which made sense because he was apparently a history teacher. At least if you believed the sign that said MR. HUCKLEBERRY LOVES WORLD HISTORY.
She said, “I may be a little sketchy on last night, but I thought you said you were a Marine?”
“Not anymore, but it sounds sexier than middle-school teacher.”He gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Joined up when I was seventeen, took my retirement six years ago.” He leaned against his desk. “I was looking for a way to keep serving, so I got my master’s on a GI bill and here we are.”
“I bet you get a lot of tear-stained cards on Valentine’s Day.” Charlie would’ve failed history every single day of her life if her teacher had looked like Mr. Huckleberry.
He asked, “Do you have kids?”
“Not that I know of.” Charlie didn’t return the question. She assumed that someone with kids wouldn’t use a photo of his dog as his screen saver. “You married?”
He shook his head. “Didn’t suit me.”
“It suited me.” She explained, “We’ve been officially separated for nine months.”
“Did you cheat on him?”
“You’d think so, but no.” Charlie ran her finger along the books on the shelf by his desk. Homer. Euripides. Voltaire. Bronte. “You don’t strike me as the Wuthering Heights type.”
He grinned. “Not much talking in the truck.”
Charlie started to return the grin, but regret pulled down the corners of her mouth. In some ways, this easy, flirty banter felt like more of a transgression than the physical act of sex. She bantered with her husband. She asked inane questions of her husband.
And last night, for the first time in her married life, she had cheated on her husband.
Huck seemed to sense her mood shift. “It’s obviously none of my business, but he’s nuts for letting you go.”
“I’m a lot of work.” Charlie studied one of the maps. There were blue pins in most of Europe and some of the Middle East. “You go to all of these places?”
He nodded, but didn’t elaborate.
“Marines,” she said. “Were you a Navy SEAL?”
“Marines can be SEALs but not all SEALs are Marines.”
Charlie was about to tell him that he hadn’t answered the question, but Huck spoke first.
“Your phone started ringing at o’dark thirty.”
Her heart flipped in her chest. “You didn’t answer?”
“Nah, it’s much more fun trying to figure you out from your caller ID.” He pushed himself up on the desk. “B2 called around five this morning. I’m assuming that’s your hook-up at the vitamin shop.”
Charlie’s heart flipped again. “That’s Riboflavin, my spin-class instructor.”
He narrowed his eyes, but he didn’t push her. “The next call came at approximately five fifteen, someone who showed up as Daddy, who I deduce by the lack of the word sugar in front of the name is your father.”
She nodded, even as her mother’s voice silently stressed that it was whom. “Any other clues?” He pretended to stroke a long beard. “Beginning around five thirty, you got a series of calls from the county jail. At least six, spaced out about five minutes apart.”
“You got me, Nancy Drew.” Charlie held up her hands in surrender. “I’m a drug trafficker. Some of my mules got picked up over the weekend.”
He laughed. “I’m halfway believing you.”
“I’m a defense lawyer,” she admitted. “Usually people are more receptive to drug trafficker.”
Huck stopped laughing. His eyes narrowed again, but the playfulness had evaporated. “What’s your name?”
“Charlie Quinn.”
She could’ve sworn he flinched.
She asked, “Is there a problem?”
His jaw was clenched so hard the bone jutted out. “That’s not the name on your credit card.”
Charlie paused, because there was a lot wrong with that statement. “That’s my married name. Why were you looking at my credit card?”
“I wasn’t looking. I glanced at it when you put it down on the bar.” He stood up from the desk. “I should get ready for school.”
“Was it something I said?” She was trying to make a joke out of it, because of course it was something she’d said. “Look everybody hates lawyers until they need one.”
“I grew up in Pikeville.”
“You’re saying that like it’s an explanation.”
He opened and closed the desk drawers. “Homeroom’s about to start. I need to do my first-period prep.”
Charlie crossed her arms. This wasn’t the first time she’d had this conversation with longtime Pikeville residents. “There’s two reasons for you to be acting like you’re acting.”
He ignored her, opening and closing another drawer.
She counted out the possibilities on her fingers. “Either you hate my father, which is okay, because a lot of people hate him, or—” She held up her finger for the more likely excuse, the one that had put a target on Charlie’s back twenty-eight years ago when she’d returned to school, the one that still got her nasty looks in town from the people who supported the extended, inbred Culpepper clan. “You think I’m a spoiled little bitch who helped frame Zachariah Culpepper and his innocent baby brother so my dad could get his hands on some pissant life insurance policy and their shitty little trailer. Which he never did, by the way. He could’ve sued them for the twenty grand they owed in legal bills, but he didn’t. Not to mention I could pick those fuckers out of a lineup with my eyes closed.”
He was shaking his head before she even finished. “None of those things.”
“Really?” She had pegged him for a Culpepper truther when he’d told her that he’d grown up in Pikeville.
On the other hand, Charlie could see a career-Marine hating Rusty’s kind of lawyering right up until that Marine got caught with a little too much Oxy or a lot too much hooker. As her father always said, a Democrat is a Republican who’s been through the criminal justice system.
She told Huck, “Look, I love my dad, but I don’t practice the same kind of law that he does. Half my caseload is in juvenile court, the other half is in drug court. I work with stupid people who do stupid things, who need a lawyer to keep the prosecutor from overcharging them.” She held out her hands in a shrug. “I just level the playing field.”
Huck glared at her. His initial anger had escalated to furious in the blink of an eye. “I want you to leave my room. Right now.” His hard tone made Charlie take a step back. For the first time, it occurred to her that no one knew she was at the school and that Mr. Huckleberry could probably break her neck with one hand.
“Fine.” She snatched her phone off his desk and started toward the door. Even as Charlie was telling herself she should shut up and go, she swung back around. “What did my father ever do to you?”
Huck didn’t answer. He was sitting at his desk, head bent over a stack of papers, red ink pen in hand.
Charlie waited.
He tapped the pen on his desk, a drumbeat of a dismissal.
She was about to tell him where to stick the pen when she heard a loud crack echo down the hallway.
Three more cracks followed in quick succession.
Not a car backfiring.
Not fireworks.
A person who has been up close when a gun is fired into another human being never mistakes the sound of a gunshot for something else.
Charlie was yanked down to the floor. Huck threw her behind a filing cabinet, shielding her body with his own.
He said something—she saw his mouth move—but the only sound she could hear was the gunshots echoing inside her head. Four shots, each a distinctive, terrifying echo to the past. Just like before, her mouth went dry. Just like before, her heart stopped beating. Her throat closed. Her vision tunneled. Everything looked small, narrowed to a single, tiny point.
Excerpt from The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. Copyright © 2017 by Karin Slaughter. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
  Karin Slaughter

Author Bio:

Karin Slaughter is one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed storytellers. Published in 36 languages, with more than 35 million copies sold across the globe, her sixteen novels include the Grant County and Will Trent books, as well as the Edgar-nominated Cop Town and the instant New York Times bestselling novel Pretty Girls. A native of Georgia, Karin currently lives in Atlanta. Her Will Trent series, Grant County series, and standalone novel Cop Town are all in development for film and television.

Catch Up With Our Author On: Website , Goodreads , Twitter , & Facebook !

 

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Friday Flicks: The Dark Tower

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I'll preface this review by saying that I've never read any of the novels in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I've been a fan of King's since discovering Duma Key in high school, and I've been reading his new releases and catching up on old ones ever since. Hollywood has spent years trying to develop the epic novels into a film, citing the dense plot and sprawling mythology as reasons for the delay. Finally, today marks the release of a film that King fan's are sure to come into with high expectations.

The Dark Tower opens with the image of the titular tower standing as a beacon against the darkness that threatens to invade the universe. As long as the tower stands, the world is safe. The mind of a child is said to hold the power to destroy the tower, thus destroying the universe. We see children harnessed into chairs, light emitting from their heads, shooting into the sky, and striking the tower. It is all quite grim and apocalyptic.

The film is centered around young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy whose dreams reveal visions of the tower and those who seek to destroy it. He is haunted by the images of the Man in Black, played by an understated Matthew McConaughey, using children to exact his destruction of the world. Drawings of these visions plaster the wall of his New York bedroom. Jake's mother is concerned with his odd behavior and sends him to therapists to try to interpret these visions. Little do they know, the images are real.

Idris Elba is the star of the show as Roland the gunslinger who exists to protect the tower. Jake travels through a portal to enter Mid-World, the home of Roland and the Man in Black. The best parts of the film lie in those all too short moments between Roland and Jake. There is true chemistry between the characters that goes tragically underdeveloped.

The Dark Tower is one of those book adaptations that seems draw on the characters and world of the novels, rather than the actual story. The rich plot and characters of the books seem to have been abandoned in favor of a lean 95 minute movie that only has time to gloss over the plot and character development.  Frankly, the movie hints at a larger mythology that the short running time doesn't allow for. The promise of a forthcoming TV series that continues this story excites me with the prospect of filling in the gaps of this movie. For all of its faults, The Dark Tower is still an enjoyable film. It is the rare summer blockbuster that has a true beginning, middle, and end, an attribute that makes for a satisfying conclusion. While filmmakers throw in several nods to Stephen King's other works (I spotted The Shining, Cujo, and 1408), fans of the Dark Tower books may end up being disappointed. Having gone into the theater with an open mind, I actually had a good time with it.

A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave

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"How can you find monsters when they can live like anybody?"

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Paul Cleave's thriller Trust No One. In that novel, Cleave managed to inject a fresh perspective into the genre while still maintaining the elements that have made me such a fan. I really enjoyed that book and was anxiously awaiting a followup. When his publisher provided me a copy of Cleave's latest novel, A Killer Harvest, I jumped at the opportunity to read it.

The persistent string of misfortune in Joshua's life can come down to only one thing. His family is cursed. How else can the death of his mother and father be explained? Why has he been plagued by blindness? Some might say he's being dramatic, but Joshua has experienced a lot of trauma in his short life. That's why the death of the detective who raised him comes as little surprise. He was investigating the disappearance of a woman when the suspect murdered him. Joshua's Uncle Ben, who happens to be his dad's partner, brought quick justice and killed the suspect on the spot.

Out of the tragedy comes a miracle. Joshua's Dad had the dying wish to donate his working organs. His eyes, in particular, go to Joshua. When the bandages are finally removed, Joshua is able to see the world he's always lived in. He takes in the image of the woman who raised him, the doctor who cured him, and sees a photo of the man who's death afforded him new sight.

Joshua's new eyes also bring visions from his father. Cleave delves into the idea of cellular memory. Essentially, Joshua is able to see images that his dad saw because the cells in his eyes captured those moments. At first this ability reveals itself in harmless ways like recognizing people before they are introduced. Joshua soon begins to see more disturbing images. He bears wittiness to the kind of memories that cause him to question just how well he knew his father.

I'll be the first to admit some hesitance with this novel. If the premise sounds a bit far fetched, that's because it totally is. As I began reading, I was afraid that Cleave wouldn't be able to pull me in. Fortunately, he writes quick action with strong characters that are impossible to ignore. I quickly found my imagination gripping onto Cleave's story and rapidly turning the pages to see what would happen next. Cleave expertly mixes action beats with slower character development sections that give the novel an ever-mounting tinge of suspense. Each time I thought I had figured out the direction of the story, Cleave would throw a curve ball and sling the momentum into a new direction. With A Killer Harvest, Paul Cleave writes another contemporary thriller that is the kind of out of the box entertainment that I thoroughly enjoy.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 34)

Last Breath by Karin Slaughter

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A couple years ago, author Karin Slaughter anticipated the publication of her standalone novel Pretty Girls, with a novella called Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes. While the novella wasn't paramount in comprehending the plot of the novel, it did serve as a great teaser for the world that Slaughter portrayed in her book. With the impending publication of her latest standalone The Good Daughter, Slaughter has released another novella to introduce this new story.

Last Breath introduces readers to Charlie Quinn. She's a young lawyer who is still finding her way around the criminal justice system. Charlie is settling into the role as a defender for the defenseless. She aims to help those who otherwise wouldn't have proper representation, even if that means she won't get paid. Student loans are not nearly as important as justice!

Her latest charge comes in the form of fifteen-year-old Flora, an orphaned girl seeking emancipation from her guardians. At the time of her mother's death, a trust-fund was set up to ensure Flora would have a bright future of comfort and higher education. But Flora claims her guardians are depleting those funds for their own personal gains. Flora doesn't admit to it, but Charlie also believes someone is abusing her. As Charlie begins investigating into Flora's unfortunate situation, echoes of her own tragic past come ringing back. How can she help the girl? More so, what isn't Flora telling her? The answer may just be worse than anything she could ever have imagined.

At a brisk 197 pages, Last Breath provides a surprising amount of character development and suspense. Slaughter expertly paces the revelations of Charlie's investigation with a persistent since of urgency. At the same time, both Charlie and Flora are fully formed characters who I instantly connected with. More than Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes, this novella feels like its own complete story. There is a definitive narrative arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion. Completing this story has only increased my anticipation for The Good Daughter.

Read this review on Amazon and Goodreads.

(2017, 33)

Book Details:

Genre: Thriller, Suspense
Published by: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Publication Date: July 11th 2017
Number of Pages: 48
ISBN: 0062742159 (ISBN13: 9780062742155)
Series: Good Daughter 0.5
Purchase Links: Amazon  | Barnes & Noble  | Goodreads 

Read an excerpt:

Chapter One
“Come on now, Miss Charlie.” Dexter Black’s voice was scratchy over the jailhouse payphone. He was fifteen years her senior, but the “miss” was meant to convey respect for their respective positions. “I told you I’m’a take care of your bill soon as you get me outta this mess.”
Charlie Quinn rolled her eyes up so far in her head that she felt dizzy. She was standing outside a packed room of Girl Scouts at the YWCA. She should not have taken the call, but there were few worse things than being surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls. “Dexter, you said the exact same thing the last time I got you out of trouble, and the minute you walked out of rehab, you spent all of your money on lottery tickets.”
“I could’a won, and then I would’a paid you out half. Not just what I owe you, Miss Charlie. Half.”
“That’s very generous, but half of nothing is nothing.” She waited for him to come up with another excuse, but all she heard was the distinct murmur of the North Georgia Men’s Detention Center. Bars being rattled. Expletives being shouted. Grown men crying. Guards telling them all to shut the hell up.
She said, “I’m not wasting my anytime cell-phone minutes on your silence.”
“I got something,” Dexter said. “Something gonna get me paid.”
“I hope it’s not anything you wouldn’t want the police to find out about on a recorded phone conversation from jail.” Charlie wiped sweat from her forehead. The hallway was like an oven. “Dexter, you owe me almost two thousand dollars. I can’t be your lawyer for free. I’ve got a mortgage and school loans and I’d like to be able to eat at a nice restaurant occasionally without worrying my credit card will be declined.”
“Miss Charlie,” Dexter repeated. “I see what you were doing there, reminding me about the phone being recorded, but what I’m saying is that I got something might be worth some money to the police.”
“You should get a good lawyer to represent you in the negotiations, because it’s not going to be me.”
“Wait, wait, don’t hang up,” Dexter pleaded. “I’m just remembering what you told me all them years ago when we first started. You remember that?”
Charlie’s eye roll was not as pronounced this time. Dexter had been her first client when she’d set up shop straight out of law school.
He said, “You told me that you passed up them big jobs in the city ’cause you wanted to help people.” He paused for effect. “Don’t you still wanna help people, Miss Charlie?”
She mumbled a few curses that the phone monitors at the jail would appreciate. “Carter Grail,” she said, offering him the name of another lawyer.
“That old drunk?” Dexter sounded picky for a man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. “Miss Charlie, please can you—”
“Don’t sign anything that you don’t understand.” Charlie flipped her phone closed and dropped it into her purse. A group of women in bike shorts walked past. The YWCA mid-morning crowd consisted of retirees and young mothers. She could hear a distant thump-thump-thump of heavy bass from an exercise class. The air smelled of chlorine from the indoor pool. Thunks from the tennis courts penetrated the double-paned windows.
Charlie leaned back against the wall. She replayed Dexter’s call in her head. He was in jail again. For meth again. He was probably thinking he could snitch on a fellow meth head, or a dealer, and make the charges go away. If he didn’t have a lawyer looking over the deal from the district attorney’s office, he would be better off holding his nuts and buying more lottery tickets.
She felt bad about his situation, but not as bad as she felt about the prospect of being late on her car payment.
The door to the rec room opened. Belinda Foster looked panicked. She was twenty-eight, the same age as Charlie, but with a toddler at home, a baby on the way and a husband she talked about as if he was another burdensome child. Taking over Girl Scout career day had not been Belinda’s stupidest mistake this summer, but it was in the top three.
“Charlie!” Belinda tugged at the trefoil scarf around her neck. “If you don’t get back in here, I’m gonna throw myself off the roof.”
“You’d only break your neck.”
Belinda pulled open the door and waited.
Charlie nudged around her friend’s very pregnant belly. Nothing had changed in the rec room since her ringing cell phone had given her respite from the crowd. All of the oxygen was being sucked up by twenty fresh-faced, giggling Girl Scouts ranging from the ages of fifteen to eighteen. Charlie tried not to shudder at the sight of them. She had a tiny smidge over a decade on most of the girls, but there was something familiar about each and every one of them.
The math nerds. The future English majors. The cheerleaders. The Plastics. The goths. The dorks. The freaks. The geeks. They all flashed the same smiles at each other, the kind that edged up at the corners of their mouths because, at any time, one of them could pull a proverbial knife: a haircut might look stupid, the wrong color nail polish could be on fingernails, the wrong shoes, the wrong tights, the wrong word and suddenly you were on the outside looking in.
Charlie could still recall what it felt like to be stuck in the purgatory of the outside. There was nothing more torturous, more lonely, than being iced out by a gaggle of teenage girls.
“Cake?” Belinda offered her a paper-thin slice of sheet cake.
“Hm,” was all Charlie could say. Her stomach felt queasy. She couldn’t stop her gaze from traveling around the sparsely furnished rec room. The girls were all young, thin and beautiful in a way that Charlie did not appreciate when she was among them. Short miniskirts. Tight T-shirts and blouses opened one button too many. They seemed so frighteningly confident. They flicked back their long, fake blonde hair as they laughed. They narrowed expertly made-up eyes as they listened to stories. Sashes were askew. Vests were unbuttoned. Some of these girls were in serious violation of the Girl Scout dress code.
Charlie said, “I can’t remember what we talked about when we were that age.”
“That the Culpepper girls were a bunch of bitches.”
Charlie winced at the name of her torturers. She took the plate from Belinda, but only to keep her hands occupied. “Why aren’t any of them asking me questions?”
“We never asked questions,” Belinda said, and Charlie felt instant regret that she had spurned all the career women who had spoken at her Girl Scout meetings. The speakers had all seemed so old. Charlie was not old. She still had her badge-filled sash in a closet somewhere at home. She was a kick-ass lawyer. She was married to an adorable guy. She was in the best shape of her life. These girls should think she was awesome. They should be inundating her with questions about how she got to be so cool instead of snickering in their little cliques, likely discussing how much pig’s blood to put in a bucket over Charlie’s head.
“I can’t believe their make-up,” Belinda said. “My mother almost scrubbed the eyes off my face when I tried to sneak out with mascara on.”
Charlie’s mother had been killed when she was thirteen, but she could recall many a lecture from Lenore, her father’s secretary, about the dangerous message sent by too-tight Jordache jeans.
Not that Lenore had been able to stop her.
Belinda said, “I’m not going to raise Layla like that.” She meant her three-year-old daughter, who had somehow turned out to be a thoughtful, angelic child despite her mother’s lifelong love of beer pong, tequila shooters, and unemployed guys who rode motorcycles. “These girls, they’re sweet, but they have no sense of shame. They think everything they do is okay. And don’t even get me started on the sex. The things they say in meetings.” She snorted, leaving out the best part. “We were never like that.”
Charlie had seen quite the opposite, especially when a Harley was involved. “I guess the point of feminism is that they have choices, not that they do exactly what we think they should do.”
“Well, maybe, but we’re still right and they’re still wrong.”
“Now you sound like a mother.” Charlie used her fork to cut off a section of chocolate frosting from the cake. It landed like paste on her tongue. She handed the plate back to Belinda. “I was terrified of disappointing my mom.”
Belinda finished the cake. “I was terrified of your mom, period.”
Charlie smiled, then she put her hand to her stomach as the frosting roiled around like driftwood in a tsunami.
“You okay?” Belinda asked.
Charlie held up her hand. The sickness came over her so suddenly that she couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was.
Belinda knew the look. “It’s down the hall on the—”
Charlie bolted out of the room. She kept her hand tight to her mouth as she tried doors. A closet. Another closet.
A fresh-faced Girl Scout was coming out of the last door she tried.
“Oh,” the teenager said, flinging up her hands, backing away.
Charlie ran into the closest stall and sloughed the contents of her stomach into the toilet. The force was so much that tears squeezed out of her eyes. She gripped the side of the bowl with both hands. She made grunting noises that she would be ashamed for any human being to hear.
But someone did hear.
“Ma’am?” the teenager asked, which somehow made everything worse, because Charlie was not old enough to be called ma’am. “Ma’am, are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you. You can go away.” Charlie bit her lip so that she wouldn’t curse the helpful little creature like a dog. She searched for her purse. It was outside the stall. Her wallet had fallen out, her keys, a pack of gum, loose change. The strap dragged across the greasy-looking tile floor like a tail. She started to reach out for it, but gave up when her stomach clenched. All she could do was sit on the filthy bathroom floor, gather her hair up off her neck, and pray that her troubles would be confined to one end of her body.
“Ma’am?” the girl repeated.
Charlie desperately wanted to tell her to get the hell out, but couldn’t risk opening her mouth. She waited, eyes closed, listening to the silence, begging her ears to pick out the sound of the door closing as the girl left.
Instead, the faucet was turned on. Water ran into the sink. Paper towels were pulled from the dispenser.
Charlie opened her eyes. She flushed the toilet. Why on earth was she so ill?
It couldn’t be the cake. Charlie was lactose intolerant, but Belinda would never make anything from scratch. Canned frosting was 99 percent chemicals, usually not enough to send her over the edge. Was it the happy chicken from General Ho’s she’d had for supper last night? The egg roll she’d sneaked out of the fridge before going to bed? The luncheon meat she’d scarfed down before her morning run? The breakfast burrito fiesta she’d gotten at Taco Bell on the way to the Y?
Jesus, she ate like a sixteen-year-old boy.
The faucet turned off.
Charlie should have at least opened the stall door, but a quick survey of the damage changed her mind. Her navy skirt was hiked up. Pantyhose ripped. There were splatters on her white silk blouse that would likely never come out. Worst of all, she had scuffed the toe of her new shoe, a navy high-heel Lenore had helped her pick out for court.
“Ma’am?” the teen said. She was holding a wet paper towel under the stall door.
“Thank you,” Charlie managed. She pressed the cool towel to the back of her neck and closed her eyes again. Was this a stomach bug?
“Ma’am, I can get you something to drink,” the girl offered.
Charlie almost threw up again at the thought of Belinda’s cough-mediciney punch. If the girl was not going to leave, she might as well be put to use. “There’s some change in my wallet. Do you mind getting a ginger ale from the machine?”
The girl knelt down on the floor. Charlie saw the familiar khaki-colored sash with badges sewn all over it. Customer Loyalty. Business Planning. Marketing. Financial Literacy. Top Seller. Apparently, she knew how to move some cookies.
Charlie said, “The bills are in the side.”
The girl opened her wallet. Charlie’s driver’s license was in the clear plastic part. “I thought your last name was Quinn?”
“It is. At work. That’s my married name.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Four and a half years.”
“My gran says it takes five years before you hate them.”
Charlie could not imagine ever hating her husband. She also couldn’t imagine keeping up her end of this under-stall conversation. The urge to puke again was tickling at the back of her throat.
“Your dad is Rusty Quinn,” the girl said, which meant that she has been in town for more than ten minutes. Charlie’s father had a reputation in Pikeville because of the clients he defended—convenience store robbers, drug dealers, murderers and assorted felons. How people in town viewed Rusty generally depended on whether or not they or a family member ever needed his services.
The girl said, “I heard he helps people.”
“He does.” Charlie did not like how the words echoed back to Dexter’s reminder that she had turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the city so that she could work for people who really needed her. If there was one guiding ethos in Charlie’s life, it was that she was not going to be like her father.
“I bet he’s expensive.” The girl asked, “Are you expensive? I mean, when you help people?”
Charlie put her hand to her mouth again. How could she ask this teenager to please get her some ginger ale without screaming at her?
“I enjoyed your speech,” the girl said. “My mom was killed in a car accident when I was little.”
Charlie waited for context, but there was none. The girl slid a dollar bill out of Charlie’s wallet and finally, thankfully, left.
There was nothing to do in the ensuing silence but see if she could stand. Charlie had fortuitously ended up in the handicapped stall. She gripped the metal rails and shakily pulled herself up to standing. She spat into the toilet a few times before flushing it again. When she opened the stall door, the mirror greeted her with a pale, sickly-looking woman in a $120 puke-spotted silk blouse. Her dark hair looked wild. Her lips had a bluish tint.
Charlie lifted her hair, holding it in a ponytail. She turned on the sink and slurped water into her mouth. She caught her reflection again as she leaned down to spit.
Her mother’s eyes looked back at her. Her mother’s arched eyebrow.
What’s going on in that mind of yours, Charlie?
Charlie had heard this question at least three or four times a week back when her mother was alive. She would be sitting in the kitchen doing her homework, or on the floor of her room trying to do some kind of craft project, and her mother would sit opposite her and ask the same question that she always asked.
What is going on in your mind?
It was not contrived to be a conversation starter. Her mother was a scientist and a scholar. She had never been one for idle chitchat. She was genuinely curious about what thoughts filled her thirteen-year-old daughter’s head.
Until Charlie had met her husband, no one else had ever expressed such genuine interest.
The door opened. The girl was back with a ginger ale. She was pretty, though not conventionally so. She did not seem to fit in with her perfectly coifed peers. Her dark hair was long and straight, pinned back with a silver clip on one side. She was young-looking, probably fifteen, but her face was absent of make-up. Her crisp green Girl Scout T-shirt was tucked into her faded jeans, which Charlie felt was unfair because in her day they had been forced to wear scratchy white button-up shirts and khaki skirts with knee socks.
Charlie did not know which felt worse, that she had thrown up or that she had just employed the phrase, “in her day.”
“I’ll put the change in your wallet,” the girl offered.
“Thank you.” Charlie drank some of the ginger ale while the girl neatly repacked the contents of her purse.
The girl said, “Those stains on your blouse will come out with a mixture of a tablespoon of ammonia, a quart of warm water and a half a teaspoon of detergent. You soak it in a bowl.”
“Thank you again.” Charlie wasn’t sure she wanted to soak anything she owned in ammonia, but judging by the badges on the sash, the girl knew what she was talking about. “How long have you been in Girl Scouts?”
“I got my start as a Brownie. My mom signed me up. I thought it was lame, but you learn lots of things, like business skills.”
“My mom signed me up, too.” Charlie had never thought it was lame. She had loved all the projects and the camping trips and especially eating the cookies she had made her parents buy. “What’s your name?”
“Flora Faulkner,” she said. “My mom named me Florabama, because I was born on the state line, but I go by Flora.”
Charlie smiled, but only because she knew that she was going to laugh about this later with her husband. “There are worse things that you could be called.”
Flora looked down at her hands. “A lot of the girls are pretty good at thinking of mean things.”
Clearly, this was some kind of opening, but Charlie was at a loss for words. She combed back through her knowledge of after-school specials. All she could remember was that movie of the week where Ted Danson is married to Glenn Close and she finds out that he’s molesting their teenage daughter but she’s been cold in bed so it’s probably her fault so they all go to therapy and learn to live with it.
“Miss Quinn?” Flora put Charlie’s purse on the counter. “Do you want me to get you some crackers?”
“No, I’m
Excerpt from Last Breath by Karin Slaughter. Copyright © 2017 by Karin Slaughter. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
Karin Slaughter

Author Bio:

Karin Slaughter is one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed storytellers. Published in 36 languages, with more than 35 million copies sold across the globe, her sixteen novels include the Grant County and Will Trent books, as well as the Edgar-nominated Cop Town and the instant New York Times bestselling novel Pretty Girls. A native of Georgia, Karin currently lives in Atlanta. Her Will Trent series, Grant County series, and standalone novel Cop Town are all in development for film and television.

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A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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"Because a minority is only thought of as a minority when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority, real or imaginary."

George is an outsider in just about every way possible. He is an English transplant living in California during the early 1960's. He is a 50 something-year-old intellectual surrounded by the youthful students of the college he teaches at. Perhaps most egregious, George is gay. His otherness used to not bother him much, especially because his partner Jim loved him unconditionally for who he was. But then Jim was killed in an accident.

Now, there are two sides to George. One side is the outer George, the one who dresses impeccably each day, teaches his students, and makes polite small talk with the neighbors. The other is the internal George, the one who longs for an escape from the monotony of day to day life and contemplates the loaded pistol that's never too far from reach. It is this internal/external dichotomy that fuels the pages of Isherwood's novel.

A Single Man is a tremendous novel. It is the kind of work that should be required reading, but it usually gets passed over for more standard works. Within less than 200 pages, Isherwood writes about love, loss, acceptance, and grief in a way that is as profound as it is engrossing. In George, Isherwood captures the essence of any person labeled 'other' from the crowd, and creates a timeless message of accepting the uniqueness of each individual and living each day as if it is your last. I was completely blown away by this novel.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

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