Linda M. Castellitto

Love gone terribly wrong is at the heart of two paranoid thrillers that ask: Is a fresh start possible if you don’t fully reckon with the past? Two female protagonists contend with corrosive lies, nefarious intentions and gaslighting galore as they struggle to drag long-buried secrets into the light.

Reading Darby Kane’s The Replacement Wife is like looking at the world through a window that’s blurry with the lingering fingerprints of traumas past and suspicions present.

Narrator Elisa Wright spends her days feeling fragile and distressed, still reeling from a horrific event at her workplace 11 months ago. But things have been looking up: She’s focusing on caring for her son, Nate, and has even ventured out of the house for an occasional errand or lunch with her husband, Harris.

Despite these improvements, Elisa grapples with a disturbing question that her gut won’t let her push aside. Is her brother-in-law Josh a good guy with very bad luck . . . or is he a charming sociopath with a penchant for murdering women he professes to love? 

Elisa knows it’s a wild-sounding train of thought, one Harris is extra-loath to entertain because his and Josh’s lives are so enmeshed. But she’s always wondered if there was more to the story Josh told them when his fiancée, Abby, disappeared seven months ago, leaving without a goodbye to Elisa, her close friend. Now Josh has a new girlfriend named Rachel with whom he’s already quite serious. Does Rachel know about Abby—or Candace, Josh’s wife who died in an accident at home? 

Determined to protect Rachel, Elisa struggles to appear supportive of the new relationship while searching for clues and clarity. It isn’t easy, especially with everyone looking askance at her whenever she wants privacy (read: an opportunity for serious snooping). She can’t tell if she’s paranoid, or getting close to a terrible reality.

Kane has created a compellingly claustrophobic thriller rife with gleeful misdirects, possible gaslighting and plenty of damaging secrets. Readers will feel dizzy and disoriented right along with Elisa as she tries to discern whether her instincts are steering her in the right direction or putting her in the path of danger, all while hoping against hope that she’ll figure it out before it’s too late for Rachel—or herself.

The three women in Leah Konen’s The Perfect Escape venture farther from home than Elisa does, but not as far as they’d like. 

Sam, Margaret and Diana don’t know each other that well, but they’ve bonded over a few months of intense venting and drinking sessions concerning the sad state of their respective relationships. A Saratoga Springs girls’ weekend, complete with spa treatments and margaritas, sounds like a logical next step in their quest to shake off the tarnish left by love’s demise. What could go wrong?

The trio merrily sets off from New York City, but just a couple of hours north in the small town of Catskill, Margaret loses the keys to their rental car. No others are available nearby, so Diana suggests a pivot: They’ll rent a house for the night, go out for some fun and figure out the rest of their trip in the morning. 

It’s not what they had planned, but it’ll distract them from their crumbling relationships nonetheless, so they go to a local bar called Eamon’s for booze and adventure. Sam is especially enthused; she knows her ex-husband, Harry, lives in Catskill and is likely to see a strategically tagged Instagram post. In the meantime, Margaret grooves with a sexy local guy named Alex, and Diana sashays out to the patio.

The next morning, Sam and Margaret awake to hangovers and confusion as they realize Diana is missing. To their horror, they learn that blood has been found at Eamon’s—and suddenly, skeptical police officers are asking questions the women don’t want to answer.

Konen pulls the reader into Margaret’s and Sam’s perspectives in turn as they reluctantly reveal their sad backstories and unseemly secrets and try to figure out just who they should be scared of. This twisty, creepy and increasingly disturbing story has a delicious, unhinged energy, hinting at all manner of suspects as the women’s motives are gradually revealed to be even deeper—and perhaps darker—than they first seemed.

Love gone terribly wrong lies at the heart of two paranoid thrillers.

The true story of the final group of people who were forcibly brought to the United States and enslaved is rendered powerfully and poetically in African Town, a novel in verse by Irene Latham and Charles Waters.

The poets (co-authors of two previous books, Can I Touch Your Hair? and Dictionary for a Better World) offer a tangible and memorable way for readers to bear witness to the lives of the 110 Africans brought to the U.S. in 1860 by Captain William Foster aboard a ship called the Clotilda. They were pawns in a cruelly casual bet made by a wealthy Mobile, Alabama, landowner named Timothy Meaher. Meaher bet $1,000 that, despite a decadeslong ban on the importation of enslaved people, he could pay Foster to smuggle people into the U.S. without getting caught.

Throughout the book, the poets move between voices and poetic forms as they imagine the long and terrible journey. They embody the despair of a religious man named Kupollee down below (“We are inside a / terrible story. When will it end?”); the denial of Foster, above (“I can’t think of them as humans. I won’t.”); and the anguish of the Clotilda herself (“If I’d been built with a heart, it would be broken”).

Read our Q&A with Irene Latham and Charles Waters.

Among the 14 voices that narrate this history is Kossola, a young man eager to learn from his Yoruba elders at home and who, once in America, encourages fellow survivors to find home within each other. Teens Abilè̩ and Kêhounco forge a sisterhood that unites them in grief and love. And Meaher, well, he holds fast to his beliefs, repugnant as they are.

Readers will feel heartened to learn that, after the Civil War ended and the Clotilda survivors were freed, they worked together to create a community that was theirs alone, and that the African Town (now Africatown) of the book’s title still exists today in Alabama. In fact, Joycelyn M. Davis, an Africatown resident descended from Oluale, one of the survivors, wrote the book’s introduction.

Plentiful back matter includes a glossary, timeline and bibliography, news about Africatown’s present and future plans and more. A section called “Poetry Forms/Styles” offers fascinating insight into the authors’ creative process; their descriptions of the poetic forms employed in the book are little poems in and of themselves.

African Town is a book that should be both taught and treasured.

This powerful novel in verse recounts the true story of the final group of people who were enslaved and forcibly brought to the United States.

Poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters have collaborated on two books for young readers. Their third book together, African Town, is a novel in verse for teen readers about historical events known by far too few Americans. In 1860, decades after the federal government had banned the importation of slaves, a group of 110 Africans were forcibly brought to the United States and enslaved. After the Civil War, the group’s survivors created a community that still exists today, now called Africatown. In many voices and poetic forms, Latham and Waters powerfully chronicle their story. The poets discuss the origins of the project and the responsibility they felt to do justice to the survivors—and to their living descendants.

African Town is your third literary collaboration. How did these collaborations begin?

This all started with an email from one poet (Irene) to another (Charles) in February 2015, with an invitation to work on poems for a potential book from Lerner Publishing Group. The aim was to write about universal subjects with the topic of race as a through line, which turned into Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship. The book was the brainchild of Lerner Editorial Director Carol Hinz. If it wasn’t for Carol, we never would have worked together in the first place. We’re eternally grateful to her.

How did African Town start?

It feels like our previous two books together—and the degree of difficulty involved in creating them—prepared us for undertaking this project, which was quite challenging and rewarding. We were surprised by our lack of knowledge about this vital story, and we hope our book helps remedy that for others.

We learned of this history when we were presenting together at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, Alabama, in the spring of 2019. We were so inspired by these courageous humans—how they endured so much, and how bound they were to one another. They were ripped from their lives, and yet they continued to dream and to do. Every step of the research brought us to another “wow” moment, and we wanted to help bring the story to young readers.

“We imagine intergenerational families sharing this book and having rich discussions about our past, our future and how resilience and hope are cultivated at home.”

Your previous books together were written for younger readers than African Town, which is for teens. How did you settle on telling this story for teen readers?

The age of the characters and the brutality of parts of this history demanded that this book be marketed as young adult, but we approached it as a “family” story. We imagine intergenerational families sharing this book and having rich discussions about our past, our future and how resilience and hope are cultivated at home—however (and wherever) one defines that word.

What research did you do to ensure you could immerse yourselves in the characters’ experiences?

Thank the universe we were able to visit Mobile, Alabama, in late February 2020, about two weeks before the country shut down due to the pandemic. We visited Africantown, spent time outside the Union Missionary Baptist Church, which was founded by the Clotilda survivors, stood next to the bust of Kossola outside the church, visited the Old Plateau Cemetery also founded by the Clotilda survivors, went on the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, visited the History Museum of Mobile, pored over documents at the Mobile Public Library’s local history and genealogy library, and spent time at Kazoola Eatery & Entertainment, meeting the kind people of Mobile and soaking up the atmosphere.

As you researched, what did you learn that was the biggest revelation for you?

One of the biggest revelations was how little we actually know about the women who were onboard the Clotilda. The main sources of information were male-focused, like Kossola’s many interviews and William Foster’s journal. Holes in research are gifts to historical fiction writers, and it became important to us to recognize these incredible humans and to create rich, full female characters.

African Town speaks to readers in so many different characters’ voices, including the Clotilda herself. How did you decide who would write whom?

Our decisions about who would write which character were dictated by where each of us was in the research. We each ended up writing both Black and white characters, and then we spent a lot of time revising together. The Clotilda was perhaps one of the most delicate to write, because we cast her in an all-knowing, voice-of-the-world kind of tone. The Africans in the hold don’t necessarily know what’s happening to them, but the Clotilda does.

“It wasn’t always easy to join these courageous humans on their journey, but it was life-changing.”

At the end of the book, you share details about the various poetic forms you paired with each character and why you chose them. Are there certain forms you each tend to favor? Did you learn any new ones?

We worked hard to match form with personality. With so many voices, we were looking for ways to distinguish each one. Varying the form and shape of the poems on the page helped a great deal. This is where writing our previous book Dictionary for a Better World proved helpful because that book had 47 different poetry forms. We both tend to favor free verse when writing, but we have come to enjoy nonets and tricubes among others.

Even though it was challenging to craft, we’ve come to respect and be proud of using tankas, a short Japanese form of five lines and 31 syllables, for the character of James. It’s such an elegant and difficult form to pull off. We were partially inspired by the verse novel Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes, which is written only in tankas. We felt the form matched James’ personality and mien. Another one we’re proud of is the form used for Cudjo Jr. It was a combination of the poetic styles of E.E. Cummings and Arnold Adoff—with our own twist on it.

How did you feel about doing justice to the real people, events and places in the book?

Both of us knew that since we were writing about many instances that happened to real people, it was vital to be as thorough as possible in research so that we might “get it right.” The mantle of responsibility felt a lot heavier than our previous two books, which dealt with our own lives. We spent hours and hours discussing personality, relationships and motivation—which, due to gaps in information available, was often left for us to imagine.

It’s been important to us to involve the descendants as much as possible, and we’re so grateful for the warm welcome we have received from the community. Our hope is to honor their ancestors, to work with them to make this history more accessible, and to share with young readers a story that impacted us on a very personal level. It wasn’t always easy to join these courageous humans on their journey, but it was life-changing. We feel so lucky to know these characters so intimately. Their resilience continues to inspire us.

Read our starred review of ‘African Town.’

Author photo of Irene Latham and Charles Waters courtesy of Eric Latham.

Acclaimed poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters give the past a voice in African Town, their new novel in verse about the last group of Africans brought to America and enslaved.

June Jackson is only 11 years old, but her dad already has her life mapped out. She’ll excel on Featherstone Creek Middle School’s field hockey and debate teams, get A’s in her classes and then attend Howard University, just like he did. Then she’ll become a lawyer and work at the firm he co-founded.

In Honest June, Tina Wells empathetically shows how these expectations burden eager-to-please June. Her parents work so hard to give her such a nice life, June muses, so what right does she have to ever tell them no?

June has become a pro at strategically nodding along and even lying. “Making people happy is what I’m good at,” she reasons. “Sometimes that means not telling people the whole truth.” Consequently, no one is aware of June’s true feelings—or how she catastrophizes about what might happen if she dares to express a contradictory opinion. But all the dissembling is wearing her down, and she’s begun having trouble focusing in class. It’s not a sustainable way to live, and June knows it.

Someone else knows it, too: Victoria, her fairy godmother (and Tracee Ellis Ross lookalike), who appears in the town carnival’s fun house and bestows a superpower upon the astonished June that renders her unable to lie. Of course, June sees the gift as a curse, and all of her many amusing attempts to circumvent the spell fail. Her only source of relief is her blog, Honest June. If June types out her feelings, she’ll never have to say them out loud, and nobody will be upset with her . . . right?

Brittney Bond’s cheerful illustrations offer a sweet counterpoint to the book’s growing psychological tensions, and their cartoonlike style keeps the tone light even as June walks an increasingly perilous tightrope. Will Victoria show up at an inopportune time? Will June’s strategies work, or will she be under the spell forever? How will June’s parents react if they find out the truth?

Readers will cheer June along on her journey and benefit from the valuable themes in Honest June. It’s a charming and resonant cautionary tale about the importance of being honest with others and—most of all—with ourselves.

In this charming and resonant tale, people-pleasing June’s fairy godmother gifts her with the inability to lie, but June thinks it’s more of a curse.

Nowadays, encountering news stories about sexual crimes is a daily occurrence. But in the late 1970s, when the FBI noticed a marked uptick in reported sexual violence, such crimes were considered a strange new trend, which the agency decided they should address by educating all their agents.

However, as Ann Wolbert Burgess explains in her captivating and chilling A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind, there was a major roadblock to the FBI’s mission. “None of the agents had the background or expertise to speak about issues of sexual assault, rape, sexual homicide, or victimology,” Burgess writes.

That’s where she came in. For several years, Burgess—a forensic and psychiatric nurse with a doctorate in nursing science, et al.—had worked on a major study of what was called “rape trauma syndrome.” When Roy Hazelwood, a new agent in the FBI’s nascent serial killer-focused Behavioral Science Unit, caught wind of her work, he asked her to share her methods for analyzing and finding predictive patterns among sexually violent crimes.

Burgess sees her ability to “ground an infinitely complex human trauma into quantifiable data and research” as a hallmark of her work, and she taught FBI agents how to apply her methods in order to establish a reliable foundation for their investigations. For starters, standardized questions for all suspects are key, as well as analyses of perpetrators’ childhood experiences and similarities across crime scenes.

Although the BSU toiled in underground offices without a dedicated staff or budget at first, as the unit employed Burgess’ methods, their successes grew. Delving into the minds of everyone from Son of Sam to the BTK strangler, they solved dozens of cases, eventually garnering press coverage—and subsequent respect via above-ground digs. Their work also sparked the popular fascination with profiling borne out in a seemingly never-ending stream of books, movies, TV shows and podcasts. In fact, Burgess inspired a character in the popular “Mindhunter” Netflix show, which is based on a book by her FBI colleague John Douglas.

With A Killer by Design, Burgess takes center stage at last, offering important, fascinating new context and details about the history of crime-solving in America. It’s an inspiring and meaningful story, too, with its up-close look at people who have dedicated their careers to catching murderers and pushing for justice. As Burgess writes, “My decades studying serial killers weren’t for the game of cat and mouse, nor because I found these killers entertaining. . . . For me, it’s always been about the victims.”

When the FBI noticed a marked uptick in sexual violence in the 1970s, they called on Ann Wolbert Burgess to teach them how to profile—and catch—serial killers.

“Welcome to Black Harbor, you’ll love it here!” said no one ever, as quickly becomes evident in Hannah Morrissey’s gritty gothic-noir thriller, Hello, Transcriber, which is set in a fictional Wisconsin city with the highest crime rate in the state and a rising suicide rate to match.

People frequently leap from Forge Bridge, a spot that Hazel Greenlee finds herself drawn to time and again. The 26-year-old has been in Black Harbor for two years as the trailing spouse of aquatic ecologist Tommy. They’ve been together since they were 16, but romance has long since departed. Their lives orbit around his drinking and hunting, and the terrible sex he demands every three days. Her vivacious influencer/radio DJ sister, Elle, is no safe harbor: The two are often at odds, not least because Hazel feels bland by comparison.

When she takes a night shift job as a transcriber at the police department, Hazel hopes to find fodder for the novel-in-progress she believes will help her escape Black Harbor at last. During one shift, Investigator Nikolai Kole’s alluring “Hello, Transcriber” fills her headphones—and Hazel’s drug-addled neighbor, Sam, writes a message in the frost on her office window with a severed finger that isn’t his. To Hazel, this is terrifying but intriguing. After all, she reminds herself, the saying is “Write what you know.” If she helps Nik investigate Sam’s ties to a mysterious drug dealer called Candy Man, she’ll know plenty.

Time squeezes in on them: Children are overdosing, Hazel feels like she’s being watched and she and Nik are undeniably attracted to each other. But as Nik often says, everybody lies in Black Harbor. Will Hazel see the twisted truth before it’s too late?

Thanks to its finely tuned bleakness and unflinching exploration of human depravity, Hello, Transcriber is a suspenseful, often shudder-inducing series kickoff that will appeal to fans of atmospheric thrillers or true crime, as well as anyone curious about what it’s like to be a police transcriber. Morrissey, who was one for a few years, makes it sound truly interesting, horrors aside. One hopes real-life transcribers’ shifts are far less eventful than Hazel’s.

With its fine-tuned bleakness and unflinching exploration of human depravity, Hello, Transcriber is a shudder-inducing series kickoff.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!