I’m Glad About It

I was very lucky with my career, in many ways. Having a partner who got a job working for a literary festival–the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival–meant years of volunteering at the event itself: writing panel descriptions, working the check-in desk on-site, and giving authors rides to and from the airport and to various events for the Festival that didn’t take place at any of the French Quarter venues. I was able to meet authors who were personal heroes of mine; some became friends, and all were open to giving advice and tips to a personal trainer in his late thirties with aspirations of being a published writer. (I also met a lot of celebrities who came to the Festival; from Kim Hunter to Alec Baldwin to Patricia Neal to Shirley Knight to Dick Cavett to Rex Reed to Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen and Zoë Caldwell–a personal favorite.) One of the biggest thrills was Sue Grafton, who was was more charming and witty and kind than I could have ever hoped. Sue Grafton, of course, was the dream career for a mystery writer: enormous success, both critical and financial; an incredibly original character that became iconic; and crowds of fans eager to meet her. But after meeting her, it was her gracious kindness that I aspired to–I might get books published but that kind of enormous success was an enormous longshot (we all aspire to have a career like that), but being gracious and kind was something I could–with a lot of self-evaluation and work on myself–actually replicate.

But one thing she said to me, with her self-awareness and trademark sense of humor, has always stuck with me. I asked her some innocuous beginner’s question about writing a series character–something she had probably been asked a gazillion times–and she took some time to think before she answered.

“Well,” she said, “One problem with having a popular series is you become a one-trick pony. All anyone ever wants from me is Kinsey–a new book, or a short story, anything, really–and that can be a bit stifling.” Then she grinned, winked, and leaned in close to add, “But you know what? I’m still grateful people want Kinsey from me, and that there are an awful lot of those people.”

The series used to be the thing for mystery writers; very few people had long term careers in the genre without having a series. But over the last twenty years, I’ve watched as series writers began straying away from their series and focusing more on stand-alones; which has not only resulted in some amazing books but extraordinary career growth. Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, and Dennis Lehane, among many others, switched from enormously popular series to writing stand alone novels that give them more room to breathe and be creative with plot and character and voice.

And now, Kellye Garrett has joined their ranks.

I found out my sister was back in New York from Instagram. I found she’d died from the New York Daily News.

Her post was just as attention seeking as their headline. Hers came at midnight. Look back at it. #birthday #25 #grownfolksbusiness #home #nyc–all over a behind-the-back shot of her in nothing more than a black silk dress and no bra.

The article came less than twelve hours later. FORMER REALITY STAR DESIREE PIERCE FOUND DEAD IN LINGERIE IN BRONX WITH COCAINE AND NO SHOES.

I’d come straight here–to where they found her–as soon as I’d seen it.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe to confirm it was real. Maybe to hope it was not. Maybe to get one last glimpse of her even though I knew her body was long gone. Whatever the reason, I’d arrived at this particular playground in the Bronx on autopilot. The place my sister had come to just hours before. It looked how I felt–all reds and blues and worn down. It would never be accused of being the happiest place on Earth.

FORMER REALITY STAR DESIREE PIERCE FOUND DEAD IN LINGERIE IN BRONX WITH COCAINE AND NO SHOES.

I hated it. For what it said. For what it represented. For what it really meant.

Despite a lot of communication over the years, I don’t recall if I have ever actually met Kellye in person. We’ve been at many of the same events–but I don’t think we’ve ever actually met in person; if we did, it was one of those nights/afternoons in the bar at Bouchercon where alcohol has killed memory cells in my brain. But I read her first novel, Hollywood Homicide, which was the first in a series about Dayna, a struggling actress in Los Angeles who stumbles into a murder investigation. I enjoyed it tremendously; I loved the voice and the character of Dayna as well as her friends; I somehow managed to land an ARC of the sequel, Hollywood Ending, and in my inimitable Greg way, I was saving it for when her next book came out, so I would always have another Kellye Garrett book to read. Then, disaster. Midnight Ink, the publishers of the Dayna series, was sold and shuttered. I knew Kellye was still writing, so I kept holding on to Hollywood Ending, waiting for the new book. Her agent generously sent me a print ARC of her new book, Like A Sister, which I had already pre-ordered; (I entered a Goodreads giveaway Kellye tweeted; I replied “Done! (I never win anything.)” It arrived during a very busy Greg period–finishing my own book, Christmas, MWA board changeover–and so it sat on top of the TBR stacks in the living room, glaring at me when I was too tired in the evening after work to read anything. Then, last week, my preordered copy arrived–and what a gorgeous looking book it is. (Look at that cover up there!)

And yes, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

I started reading it this past week after work on Wednesday. Thursday night I was too tired to read; Friday was another busy work-at-home day for me, and so yesterday morning, after finishing my on-line duties for the day, I decided to treat myself to a few hours of the book before moving on to other chores and things that needed doing.

Five hours later I finished the book. It literally was one of those “oh, another half-hour won’t hurt” over and over again until “Well, I might as well finish; there’s only a hundred pages left.”

Wow. What a fun ride this book is, from start to finish. Garrett grabs your attention with that opening above, and never lets go.

The plot focuses on Lena Scott, who lives in the Bronx and is attending Columbia while living in the house she inherited from her grandmother. (Her grandmother’s long time partner also lives there in one of the two apartments inside–more on her later, and yes, I said her.) Her own mother is dead; she is estranged from her music mogul father and his wife; and she has also been estranged from Desiree, her half-sister, for two years. The guilt that she never made up with Desiree before she died eats at Lena, who doesn’t believe for one moment that Desiree overdosed on heroin–she was always afraid of needles–and of course, no one really listens to her, so she starts investigating on her own. There are a lot of twists and turns here, as well as the mystery serving as an self-realization journey for Lena–who begins finding out that a lot of the truths about her family she has always believed aren’t necessarily the truth. Along the way she meets a reporter who may or may not be a love interest; becomes close to one of Desiree’s best friends (the Instagram hashtag #likeasister is where the title of the book comes from); and the incredibly dysfunctional family pieces begin coming back together along the way. I particularly loved the relationship between Lena and her father; Garrett is wonderful at depicting these family relationships and how delicate they can be, and how easy it is for family to fall out and stay apart over misunderstandings.

The pacing of the book is remarkable; you become so deeply vested in the story and the characters you want to keep reading to find out what happens to them. Lena’s voice alone is reason enough to read the book; it’s powerful, vulnerable yet strong at the same time. We understand her, root for her, feel for her, want everything to work out for her, and we also feel her pain–pain born from years of fraught family relationships in a dynamic so complicated and delicate that it’s no wonder it went off the rails. But the writing is also strong and witty; some lines were so clever I shared them on social media, and would have shared even more had I been willing to take the time to put the book down to type on my phone. Character, story, and dialogue are all there at the highest level as well.

And being familiar with her former work, I am even more amazed at how easily Garrett was able to shift from a cozy mystery series into something else; a stand alone crime novel that also explores questions of privilege, celebrity, stardom, and family.

I also loved loved loved that Lena’s closest family attachment is to her grandmother’s widow, Aunt E. I loved that a long-term lesbian relationship was Lena’s only real role model for a successful romantic relationship. I loved that the fact her grandmother had a female partner was portrayed as not a big deal and normal (thank you thank you thank you for this) and that no one had a problem with it within the family. I love that an older lesbian character is the moral compass for the family. This, folks, is a master class on how to include queer characters into your work–and inclusion matters.

I was bummed to see the Dayna series end–but delighted this incredible growth as a writer was the result. I cannot wait to see what Garrett does next, and watching her career grow and develop further is going to be incredibly exciting for me as a reader and a fan.

Highly recommended, everyone. Jump on this one and thank me later.

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