Shotgun Honey Presents Favorite Reads of 2019 (Part Four)

Our final week of Favorite Reads of 2019 sends out the year with 13 additional books to add to your wish lists and New Year’s reading lists. I know my 2020 is going to be full of books.

This week we invite Scott Adlerberg, Sarah M. Chen and Paul J. Garth, and I tackle a list of my favorites as well.

Remember, most of the contributors for this series have wonderful books of their own that are always looking for good homes.

On with the books and thank you for making 2019 memorable.


Scott Adlerberg

Author of Jack Waters and Graveyard Love

AMERICAN SPY by Lauren Wilkinson

Marie Mitchell, a black woman from New York City works for the FBI during the 1980s.  Obviously, she stands out, and it’s her uniqueness along with her competence, that alerts the CIA to her so that they wind up recruiting her for a job in West Africa.  American Spy is a character study, a political novel, a love story, and a story about memory and history. It deals with race and gender both in the United States and Africa, and it does all this while telling an espionage tale.  What does it mean to be an American, a black American, a woman who is a black American, a woman who is a black American who takes a job to bring down an African leader devoted to building a black nation that can be free of western imperialist control?  American Spy is a rich, layered book and a lovely, propulsive read. 

HIPSTER DEATH RATTLE by Richie Narvaez

Won’t somebody stand up to the scourge of gentrification striking our cities?  One man does, in hipster central, otherwise known as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but he does happen to be a deranged killer.  Well, everyone has their reasons, and perhaps those resistant to the way a neighborhood evolves and forces out people living there for decades aren’t entirely wrong.  As a lifelong New Yorker, Richie Narvaez knows his terrain well, and he uses his knowledge to present a very varied and interesting cast of characters.  To go with it all, he’s quite amusing.  Hipster Death Rattle is a classic case of an author using the mystery form to tell a fast-paced entertaining story while delivering pungent social commentary.

BLOOD SUGAR by Daniel Kraus

The plotting of a terrible crime lies at the core of this novel, but it also has a whiff of horror.  Besides that, it’s what you might call a Halloween YA novel, about a group of damaged kids who form their own family around a grown-up man who’s the most damaged of them all.  From page to page, I found myself laughing, squirming with discomfort, or feeling the sadness in the characters.  Through it all, we have the young teen narrator’s voice, a voice not quite like any other I’ve encountered in fiction.  Will he win the fight with himself and retain his humanity, or will he give in to the influences who’d be happy to have him help wreak destruction on others?  This is a book filled with mounting tension and comedy of the bleakest sort – a combination hard to resist.


Sarah M. Chen

Author of Cleaning Up Finn and Night of the Flood

NEVER LOOK BACK by Alison Gaylin

Alison Gaylin is one of my favorite writers of psychological suspense. This latest book, about a podcaster researching a teenage serial killer couple from the 1970s, skillfully weaves together several storylines from multiple POVs. Gripping from beginning to end. 

THE UNREPENTANT by E.A. Aymar

Relentless, gritty, and gut-wrenching with Aymar’s signature humor and heart. Set in the grim world of sex-trafficking, this thriller never feels gratuitous or heavy-handed. A powerful, brave read. 

YOU ALL GROW UP AND LEAVE ME: A MEMOIR OF TEENAGE OBSESSION by Piper Weiss

I read a lot of nonfiction in 2019 but this coming-of-age memoir is at the top of my list. I found myself recommending it countless times to those interested in true crime or memoir. It’s less about the actual crime than it is about an Upper East Side teenage girl’s obsession with her tennis coach who was later revealed to be a child predator. Disturbing, painfully honest, and beautifully written. 


Paul Garth

Contributing Editor for Shotgun Honey

SAFE by Ryan Gattis

A punk rock heist novel set right before the 2008 economic collapse about a professional safecracker who rips off a cartel, but also a novel about grief, life, the things we do for family, and how trapped you are by where you come from. The best crime novel I read all year, who cares that it technically came out two years ago? Like the playlist that fronts the novel, this book is timeless, angry, and lean. An absolute stunner. 

BLACK MOUNTAIN by Laird Barron 

The book I imagined when I heard Laird Barron was writing a crime series. Intense, nihilistically bleak, and slyly humorous, Black Mountain has a hardboiled heart, but a head full of cosmic terror. 

DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA by Walter Mosley

Mosley writes PIs better than anyone and Down the River Unto the Sea is his bang-on-the-table-goddamn-triumph. Corrupt cops (like, seriously, seriously bad), scheming politicos, racial tensions, all the tangles of family, and the single most chilling Tough Guy sidekick I’ve ever read (seriously, don’t ever mess with a dude named Melquarth Frost) – they all get spun up into a tight mystery that puts our hero in way over his head. If you’re burnt out on the PI genre, this one will singlehandedly restore your interest. 

SATANIC PANIC: POP-CULTURAL PARANOIA IN THE 1980S edited by Kier La-Janisse & Paul Corupe 

One of the most beautiful books I own, this collection of essays, each presented with several black and white photographs, explores the intersection between a changing pop culture and an insurgent spiritual reawakening, and the horrific consequences of their collision. Somehow fun and horrifying all at once (not to mention timely) this book is a beautiful and insightful reminder of how fear can be used for control.


Ron Earl Phillips

Publisher and Managing Editor of Shotgun Honey

MY DARKEST PRAYER by S.A Cosby

Cosby debut is immediately engaging as Nathan Waymaker rides the line between good and bad as he attempt to uncover the truths behind the death of a local minister who had seedier past. Full of memorable characters, sex and violence overlapping a compelling mystery, My Darkest Prayer is nuanced and deft writing.

ONE SMALL SACRIFICE by Hilary Davidson

Since Davidson’s debut in 2011, I’ve enjoyed her ability to ability to write stories about characters and places, and the mysteries between. One Small Sacrifice is no different, as Det. Sheryn Sterling discovers she must solve a murder before understanding the disappearance of a local doctor, and how the man in the middle of both cases, Alex Traynor, connects the pieces.

TINY LOVE by Larry Brown

This posthumous collection of short stories by the late working class writer Larry Brown not only collects his stories, but gives you an understanding of Brown’s personal growth as a writer. Not formally trained, Brown wrote story after story until he was finally published in the 1980s, his first story published in Easyrider. That story though not the best, shows the foundation for telling lean stories with a depth that outnumbers their word counts.


I hope you’ve enjoyed these recommendations over the last four weeks and find some new voices you may have overlooked. Have a great new year and read lots of books and stories.


The Last Second Chance

NOW

“Shhh,” Lyle whispers. “You’re gonna wake her.”

“The window ain’t even open,” Jeannie hisses.

They peer in the baby’s room from the bushes alongside the two-story house like peeping Toms. Lyle’s thighs burn from squatting. Jeannie twitches, rubs her stick arms. Notices Lyle’s frown.

“What? It’s fucking cold tonight.”

Jeannie’s a shitty liar. You can only go to rehab so many times before it’s a joke. Before the chasm you inch away from swallows you. Took him a few tries, but he beat it. Jeannie, not so much.

Which is why he has a bad feeling about this whole baby-stealing thing.

 

FOUR MONTHS EARLIER

“What’s going on here?” A cop loomed above, head craning around the dumpster Lyle and Jeannie crouched behind.

“Nothing, officer.” So much for being the sober lookout. Jeannie will surely cuss him out.

“Is she doing what I think she’s doing?” the cop asked. Name tag read “Officer Colman.”

Lyle snuck a glance at Jeannie slumped against the cinderblock wall. The needle lay next to her.

“Alright, you two, come with me.”

Lyle nudged her pale calf with his dirty tennis shoe. Jeannie’s head jerked up. Half-lidded eyes.

“Unh-huh.” She shifted her weight on the asphalt, grunting.

A garbled noise. “Jesus. She’s pregnant.”

Lyle met the cop’s searing stare. Shame flooded through him.

“How far along is she?”

“Eight months,” Lyle mumbled.

“Fuck.” A long beat. “She needs help, man.”

Lyle opened his mouth but Jeannie answered.

“It’s…my…baby.” Her words moved like sewage down a drain.

“Miss, your baby will die if you don’t stop.”

A strangled wail erupted from Jeannie, the cry of a wounded animal. Her screeching morphed into sobbing.

Officer Colman’s face shifted. Like watching ice melt. “Shit.” Choked voice.

Jeannie cried while Lyle rubbed her back.

The cop cleared his throat. “Might sound crazy. But hear me out.”

 

TWO MONTHS LATER

“We fucked up, Lyle.”

Lyle inwardly groaned as he and Jeannie huddled in the filthy alley for warmth. Why couldn’t she let it go? The baby suffered enough, hospitalized while battling withdrawals. Now she had a good home. “The Colmans are decent folks.”

“You didn’t give birth, asshole.” Jeannie sniffled. “And have your baby taken from you.”

“She’s my daughter too.” Sure, he felt a tug when he thought of what could’ve been. But that was a fucking fantasy. “What’s done is done.”

The fierce look in her eye told Lyle otherwise. “Just help me get our baby back. She deserves to be with me, not a fuckin’ cop. I’ll quit for good. I swear.”

He so wanted to believe her. To jump from the chasm’s edge to the other side.

 

NOW

Jeannie’s twitchin’ something fierce. Staying sober, my ass. Lyle’s dream of a family is laughable. Makes a decision.

“Let’s swing by Sixth Street,” he says. Their dealer’s corner. Ignores the pangs of guilt. “One last fix before we bring her home. Whaddya say?”

Hunger in Jeannie’s eyes. He’s got her. They flail out the bushes, stagger to the bus stop until she freezes.

“No.” Jeannie sprints back to the house.

“Shit.” Lyle hobbles after her. Legs still cramped from squatting. Hears Jeannie’s shouts up ahead. Sees Officer Colman walking out his door with a gun.

“Gimme my baby!” Jeannie screams.

Colman’s face contorts with pity as he crosses the lawn toward her. Gun hand outstretched. “Down on the ground, Jeannie!”

Colman doesn’t sense Lyle behind him until too late. He tackles the cop, shoving him into the grass. They wrestle until Colman pins him down. Crack! Lyle head-butts Colman in the nose. Colman loosens his grip, blood gushing, and Lyle shoves him off, wrenching the gun away.

Dazed, he struggles to his feet, spurred on by Jeannie’s cheers. Through blurred vision, sees her running toward him, grinning. Lyle points the gun at the moaning cop, then spins toward Jeannie, shooting her in the shoulder and chest. Her eyes widen in disbelief. She stumbles, collapses onto the grass. Lies still.

Lyle tosses the gun as he falls to his knees.

No way is he dragging their baby into the abyss. Because it’s coming for him and Jeannie. Just a matter of time.


A High Ridge Homecoming

I see you walk into the bar, Robby, and I get that fiery rush in the pit of my stomach. I giggle like I’m in high school. You tell me after three years, I look the same. You call me Mandy-kins and say I still got them dimples.

Well, course I do. I want to say that but I don’t. Instead, I smile and pour you a Schlafly.

I ask what brings you back to High Ridge. I bet it’s to see me, I joke. But deep down, I mean it. I think you know I mean it too by the way you look at me.

But you say you’re back home to see your momma. You call her and call her but she’s not answerin’ and so you come out to see her and she’s not around. Nobody’s seen her neither. You ask if I’ve seen your momma.