This summer I went on a “ladies who bring the intensity” kick. I'd been craving books with strong yet decidedly imperfect female characters, with a hearty helping of darkness on the side. We're talking Olivia Newton-John in the black catsuit and heels from the end of Grease, not Sandra Dee in the poodle skirt and peppy ponytail.
So here are five page-turning, plot-driven novels guaranteed to spice up your reading life. Girl power!
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
There's no way I could start this list with any book but this one. Megan Abbott is the queen of girls with a dark side. I liked her 2012 novel Dare Me well enough, but Abbott raises the stakes with You Will Know Me, released in July. A gymnastics prodigy, parents who will do anything to see their daughter succeed, an insular community that runs on gossip and secrets, a mysterious death on a dark road in the dead of night—you won't be able to look away. Set aside enough time that you can finish the whole thing in one big, satisfying gulp.
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin
Here's a backlist pick, published last summer, which you should be able to get your hands on from the library or used bookstore with ease. A woman who was the sole survivor of a serial murderer as a teenager has a lot to reckon with as a middle-aged adult: whether her testimony sent the wrong man to death row, and whether the real killer is still out there, stalking her and her teenage daughter. This is one of those books that's plenty diverting in the moment, but fades quickly from memory. (I actually had to look up a synopsis before writing this blurb, and it's only been a week since I read it.) Despite that, if you're looking for a quick-reading, keep-you-guessing escape, Black-Eyed Susans will do the trick.
Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Everything about this book is intense, most of all main character Naomi Vargas, who moves to New London, Texas with her stepfather and two younger half-siblings. It's the 1930s, and east Texas isn't a welcoming place for Mexicans like Naomi or African-Americans like Wash Fuller, a teenage boy with whom she forms a tentative friendship-that-might-become-more. Naomi's life is hard in just about every way you can think of, and her story is hard to read in its unrelenting bitterness. But as Perez points out eloquently in the Afterword, “The work of this book...was to bring to light experiences and narratives that might otherwise go unacknowledged. I have tried to balance the heartbreak, cruelty, and ignorance of my characters' world with a profound attention to the forms of kindness and connection that are also possible in it.” Respect, Ms. Perez.
The Trap by Melanie Raabe
Unreliable narrators are so much fun. I love questioning everything they say, wondering what is real and what is the product of the character's twisted mind. The Trap has one of the best-executed unreliable narrators I've read in novelist Linda Conrads. Linda hasn't left her house in years, due to a mysterious illness she developed after the murder of her sister. Linda was the key witness to the murder, but the perpetrator has never been caught—that is, until one day when Linda sees his face staring back at her from her TV screen. Linda concocts a plan to lure the murderer to her house and trap him into confessing, but with every page, questions mount as to what really happened to Linda's sister all those years ago, and who really had reason to kill her. I can honestly say that with all the twists and turns, I had no idea how the book would end—and there are few things I love more than being surprised in my reading.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
I did not enjoy reading The Natural Way of Things. Tough, gritty, unflinching, and violent, it’s not the kind of book you read looking for a good time. Still, it’s an important book that I hope gains a wide audience in the US. Yolanda and Verla are held captive with a handful of other young women in a remote prison camp. Brutally attended by a skeleton crew and surrounded by a high electrified fence, the women at first don’t know why they are imprisoned or how long they will be forced to stay. As supplies dwindle and the sense of isolation grows, it becomes clear that the inmates are being punished for sexual transgressions they committed or were accused of committing. Wood’s novel has shades of dystopian feminist work I’ve read in the past, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s too grounded in the visceral physical world of the prison camp to allow the reader any comforting distance. Even though it’s brutal and surreal, Yolanda and Verla’s world feels like our world, and that, I think, is the scariest part about this book.