Witty, fierce, and unapoligetic. My favorite book of 2021!
Lisa Taddeo is the author of three books: Three Women, a compelling nonfiction account of women and sex, Animal, a fictional depiction of female rage and visceral exploration of the fallout from a male-dominated society, and her newest book, Ghost Lover, a collection of fearless and ferocious short stories (available June 14th, 2022 in the US).
“I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me.”
Joan leads us on a journey across the country filled with abrasive revelations as she searches for a woman called Alice, who is connected to the traumas of her past. Having left New York City for Los Angeles, she rents a small apartment on a shared compound located in Topanga Canyon. While there, she becomes romantically involved with two men. A handsome young man named River who lives in a yurt, and a senile landlord called Leonard. Both men have a profound effect on her future. Slipping in and out of traumatic flashbacks, Joan describes various atrocities committed against her in great detail. We know these are the catalysists driving her, even if the details are somewhat concealed in the beginning. What we do know, by her own words, is that Joan is “depraved.” Her trauma defines her and she moves through the world seeking just that.
What I love most about this book is Taddeo’s natural ability to tackle taboo subjects with such literary boldness and grit. The focus on the link between trauma and sexual violence both shocked and intrigued me, and the way Joan lived inside her pain felt relatable and reasurring. I couldn’t pull myself away as her twisted psyche led her down a dark path of exploration, where she describes being victimized while also using her beauty and sexuality as an exploitive tool. And as the story unfolded I found myself concerned and anxious as she walked the fine line between prey and predator.
Certain statements ring true in Taddeo’s novel, highlighting feelings of anxiety, shame, and deep-rooted fears women endure daily. Experiences we encounter but don’t always find the support or opportunity to voice: “I had the fear of angering a man. Of not being an amenable woman. I had the fear of being murdered.” Another scene: “He was picking a pimple on his chin and staring at me. There are a hundred small rapes every day.” Women relate to each other’s pain in a different way than men do, Taddeo mentioned in an interview, stating that it’s something we, as women, are drawn to in one another. Whereas, for men, it’s the sort of pain that makes them feel very uncomfortable. Taddeo explains, “‘Bad women’ aren’t allowed to tell their stories.”
A woman has to be a victim in the right kind of way.
Lisa Taddeo – 2021 – Salon Talks
The vivid and at times, dreamlike, descriptions Joan speaks of are particularly disturbing. A scene that sticks in my mind recounts a night she suffers a painful loss while living in the canyon, and the vivid portrayal of death as the howling coyotes circle outside, drawn by the smell of blood.
I didn’t know what to expect from the story going in, which is my favorite way to read. I’d read Taddeo’s nonfiction book, Three Women, right before this one and loved it, so I could see certain themes repeated in Animal. I’ve read a lot of conflicting reviews about this book and I’m here to say, read it and decide for yourself. I read Taddeo’s nonfiction book first and connected to it immediately. So much time and effort was put in, gathering those women’s stories, and in the end it definitely paid off. When I started reading Animal it felt very different, and I was able to separate the books from each other and enjoy the fact that the world of fiction is a place where one can write more freely with more control over the content.
I recommend this book to those who enjoy complex female anti-heroes, unreliable narrators, slow-burning suspense, and uncomfortable topics. Described as “American Psycho” for the #MeToo era. This is my favorite book of 2021!
published June 8th, 2021
Joan has spent a lifetime enduring the cruelties of men. But when one of them commits a shocking act of violence in front of her, she flees New York City in search of Alice, the only person alive who can help her make sense of her past. In the sweltering hills above Los Angeles, Joan unravels the horrific event she witnessed as a child—that has haunted her every waking moment—while forging the power to finally strike back.
One word: WOW! Whip-smart, thought-provoking, and inventive.
Leading up to the release of this book I’d read comps like: The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out and I was so curious how the twist was going to reveal itself. Especially with the very white backdrop of a corporate office in a New York City publishing house. And since I come from a New York corporate background, everything about the premise intrigued me.
The Other Black Girl is the debut psychological thriller written by Zakiya Dalila Harris—a former editor at Knopf/Doubleday. She joined the publishing house after receiving her MFA in creative writing from The New School.
When I started reading TOBG I was immediately transported into the world of tricky office dynamics, and the added layer of racism and cutthroat competition created a sinister portrayal of corporate America. I was fascinated to learn more about Nella Rogers, an ambitious, career-savvy, young woman who yearned to have another Black colleague in the workplace to share the pressures Black people face in corporate America, particularly in industries like publishing that have long been places of privilege and racial discrimination.
The narrative slow burned between Nella and her new colleague, Hazel-May McCall—a new editorial assistant who sits in the cubicle next to her—and they seem to be getting along just fine. That is until Hazel throws Nella under the bus during the annual marketing meeting and in front of the entire staff at Wagner, including the CEO. Nella is furious but also confused: was this new girl a friend or foe? And Hazel seems to have a knack for getting involved in Nella’s projects and having cozy closed-room conversations with her boss and mentor, Vera.
The direction of Nella and Hazel’s paths are wildly different with one girl holding on to every ounce of authenticity while the other strives for full-blown success. And as the story develops it begs the question: can one have both?
I loved the fresh take this novel took in a genre that is often over-populated with white suburbia and cheating spouses. The change of scenery and complex racial themes intertwined throughout made it one of my favorite reads of 2021. I rooted for the main character, Nella, and wanted her to succeed and be heard in an industry that is predominantly whitewashed. I found the characters believable and intriguing, the story gripping me from page one.
It might sound obvious but, the scene that hit me hard and fast was the main plot twist at the end, making it immediately clear where the GET OUT comparison came from and I was left stunned at the originality and expertly plotted twists leading up to that point.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy slow-burning suspense, witty narration with unsettling/unexpected twists.
Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.
Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.
It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.
Sharp, suspenseful, fast-paced, and satisfying. One of my favorite books of 2020!
Regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with Wendy Walker, this book will make you an instant fan. With a background in law and psychology, Walker crafts compelling female protagonists and eerie settings into twisted mysteries. Two of my favorite books are The Night Before published in 2019 and Emma in the Night published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press, both of which I tore through. More recent notable works of hers include American Girl, an audiobook released in 2021 which received rave reviews. The atmosphere and suspense Walker creates in Don’t Look For Me is palpable as the story immediately takes a sharp turn, unfolding through a carefully structured dual narrative and timeline.
It’s the five-year anniversary of her youngest daughter, Annie’s death. Since then, Molly Clarke has watched her family drift apart as she blames herself and struggles to cope; she was, after all, the one responsible. She’s often wondered if they’d be happier without her, toying with the idea of disappearing altogether. So when she goes missing the night of a severe hurricane it raises the question, did she plan it?
Walker is a true master of the genre, her descriptions vivid, and plot twists believable. Her use of structure to create suspense is clever and creative. Themes of trauma, motherhood, and child psychology are expertly intertwined throughout, the scenes between characters very real and complex. I found both main characters, Molly and Nicole, relatable and likable, and I was desperate for them to reunite and heal their relationship. I enjoyed the slow reveals of each supporting character and their connection to Molly which kept the story alive in my mind. One of the big twists was so surprising it left my jaw on the floor. I was instantly hooked from beginning to end, desperate to learn what happened to Molly, revealing an ending I honestly, did not see coming. Walker is such a huge inspiration to me, not only as a fan but as a fellow writer, and I can’t wait to see what she’s working on next.
I recommend this book to all fans of the thriller genre and urge them to read it immediately. If you enjoy palpable suspense, compelling female protagonists, dual narrative/timeline, and psychological twists, this is for you!
published September 15th, 2020
Molly Clarke is driving home on a stormy night in Connecticut when her car breaks down less than a mile from the nearest gas station. For the last five years, she has been living in a state of torment and self-blame after accidentally killing her youngest child. Often toying with the idea of leaving everything behind, she thinks her family would be happier if she just disappeared. But when she accepts a ride to town from a man with a little girl passing by in a truck, Molly doesn’t make it home.
Picture Tranquillim House from Nine Perfect Strangers located on Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and you’ll capture the essence of This Might Hurt. I’m always drawn to books that focus on complicated female protagonists, sinister settings, and psychological twists. This story definitely delivers and I have no doubt this will be one of my favorite books of 2022.
Stephanie Wrobel’s second novel, This Might Hurt, is a work of pure psychological terror. If you’re familiar with her debut, Darling Rose Gold, published in March 2020, then you know you’re in for a twisted ride. This Might Hurt delves into themes of childhood trauma, reinvention, and self-empowerment. The story follows a young woman whose younger sister appears to be under the influence of a cult located on a secluded island off the coast of Maine. The story unfolds using dual narrative and timelines, is expertly paced, and highly addictive. It kept me hooked with each reveal, leading to a very unexpected end.
I was transfixed from page one. The characters’ backstories are thoroughly fleshed out and masterfully intertwined. I felt a distinct connection to each of them and even found myself justifying their questionable behavior throughout. Each one was detailed, well thought out, and believable. A scene that stuck in my psyche involves one of the protagonists nearly drowning in a lake while learning how to swim.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers, compelling female protagonists, eerie secluded settings, and cult themes.
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 22ND, 2022
Welcome to Wisewood. We’ll keep your secrets if you keep ours.
Natalie Collins hasn’t heard from her sister in more than half a year.
The last time they spoke, Kit was slogging from mundane workdays to obligatory happy hours to crying in the shower about their dead mother. She told Natalie she was sure there was something more out there.
And then she found Wisewood.
On a private island off the coast of Maine, Wisewood’s guests commit to six-month stays. During this time, they’re prohibited from contact with the rest of the world—no Internet, no phones, no exceptions. But the rules are for a good reason: to keep guests focused on achieving true fearlessness so they can become their Maximized Selves. Natalie thinks it’s a bad idea, but Kit has had enough of her sister’s cynicism and voluntarily disappears off the grid.
Six months later Natalie receives a menacing e-mail from a Wisewood account threatening to reveal the secret she’s been keeping from Kit. Panicked, Natalie hurries north to come clean to her sister and bring her home. But she’s about to learn that Wisewood won’t let either of them go without a fight.
The Lies I Tell by Julie Clark is a twisty, fierce domestic thriller.
The story follows two complicated women, fueled by revenge as they navigate the glitzy Los Angeles landscape in search of those who wronged them. I always enjoy domestic thrillers with strong female protagonists and this book checked all the boxes. Clark has created two very compelling characters with unique backgrounds that kept me frantically turning the pages. I found both Meg and Kat believable and likable (in their own ways), as the story gripped me throughout, carrying me to a satisfying end.
One of my favorite scenes described a TV in the background, broadcasting images of women marching in the street and holding up signs displaying the MeToo hashtag as both protagonists confided in each other regarding past experiences. It was a powerful tool to use, highlighting themes of sexual trauma that drive the plot. I found the pace steady, naturally ramping up toward the end. Clark’s writing style is vivid and impactful, her voice extremely compelling, pulling me inside the character’s minds where I found myself rooting for each of them.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a steady pace with strong female protagonists, and a highly entertaining thriller that isn’t too dark.
Meg Williams. Maggie Littleton. Melody Wilde. Different names for the same person, depending on the town, depending on the job. She’s a con artist who erases herself to become whoever you need her to be—a college student. A life coach. A real estate agent. Nothing about her is real. She slides alongside you and tells you exactly what you need to hear, and by the time she’s done, you’ve likely lost everything.
Kat Roberts has been waiting ten years for the woman who upended her life to return. And now that she has, Kat is determined to be the one to expose her. But as the two women grow closer, Kat’s long-held assumptions begin to crumble, leaving Kat to wonder who Meg’s true target is.
Lightning-fast and whip smart. A fresh take on the genre.
Never Saw Me Coming is Vera Kurian’s debut novel, published September 7th, 2021, by Park Row Books. Kurian is a scientist first, novelist second. Per her bio, she’s spent time on both US coasts but now lives in her hometown of DC, which mirrors the setting of her novel.
I was immediately drawn in by the premise of the book: eighteen-year-old Chloe Sevre earns a full scholarship to Adams college when she agrees to participate in a clinical study on psychopaths. It’s new, it’s interesting, and I love unreliable female narrators. Once first introductions were over, the story hits the ground running and drops a couple of bombs in the first 50 pages (my favorite) including, the fact that Chloe is on a revenge mission to kill a childhood ‘friend’, and if that’s not shocking enough, one of the other students in the study is found murdered. After that, the pace continues full speed and we see Chloe teaming up with two other students—Andre and Charles, also participants in the psychopathy study—as they try to figure out the motive behind who is targeting them and why.
But can you really trust a psychopath?
For a debut, Never Saw Me Coming is long in length (389 pages) but since the chapters are relatively short it never slows in pace. I found myself racing through each new chapter as the POV alternated between Chloe (18 year-old hot girl next door), Charles (privileged, handsome, rich kid), and Andre (a student with a troubled past hiding a big secret). Each character is interesting, unique, and complex, bringing their own personal set of traits to the table. Kurian did an amazing job at displaying the nonchalant and calculative tendencies psychopaths are described to exhibit in textbooks to the page, specifically in chapter 47 where I found myself gliding through a particularly gruesome scene with ease, narrated by Chloe, in which I had to pause and go back, shocked at how cold and detached she was. The tone was executed perfectly and it sent shivers down my spine!
One of the things I love the most about this book is how fresh the story idea is. I have read and enjoyed numerous books featuring unreliable narrators for one reason or another, whether it’s addiction, trauma, or straight-up deceit, but it’s not often I read about a diagnosed psychopath who is not only unashamed but openly proud to admit it. And the fact that she’s not the only one makes for a very suspenseful read with an even more interesting cast of characters. The only downside is that sometimes I found it a little hard to follow all of them, nevertheless it’s an expertly plotted novel.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers, dark academia with a wide cast of characters, lightning-fast pace, and unreliable narrators.
Published October 17th, 2018
You should never trust a psychopath. But what if you had no choice?
It would be easy to underestimate Chloe Sevre… She’s a freshman honor student, a legging-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. She spends her time on yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.
Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study of psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smartwatches that track their moods and movements.
When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan for revenge into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book in under 48 hours.
I’m the kind of reader who, when enthralled with a book, do one of two things: speed read to the end, or savor it for months. Regarding this particular story, it was the former.
A Slow Fire Burning is Paula Hawkins’ third book and was published August 31st, 2021, by Penguin. It’s a standalone novel, and you don’t have to have read her other books to enjoy it. The story takes you through the lives of three women, who seem disconnected at first, but as the story progresses, their backstories are intricately woven together throughout the plot, revealing a dark past that leads directly to murder. Who are these women? How do they know each other? And what underlying issues are they all dealing with?
This isn’t simply a whodunnit. In fact, there is a little something for everyone. It deals with trauma and survivor’s guilt, revenge, female relationships, and even features a book within a book. Shout out to my favorite character, Irene, who is the quintessential little old lady living next door who turns out to be the story’s, Miss Marple. I loved how observant, empathetic, and forgiving she is, always trying to help others and do the right thing. She was also (in my opinion) the most underestimated character, holding all the hidden pieces of the puzzle until the very end. The writing is razor-sharp and expertly plotted.
I may have read this book fast but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was fast-paced. In fact, the momentum of the story was steady and slow-burning (much like the title) until the big reveal. And when I finished the book, it felt like I’d read three stories in one, given the level of detail surrounding each character and how my feelings had changed toward them. I found it so enjoyable I couldn’t put it down and there wasn’t a moment when I found my mind wandering—something that happens on the regular for me, unfortunately. As a writer myself, it was definitely a book that made me sit up and take notes. I felt excited, inspired, and could have read it all over again!
I recommend this book to readers who love depth of character, steady-paced plot, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Published August 31st, 2021
The story takes us to Islington, north London, where a young man is found on a houseboat with his throat cut. Three women hold clues to the truth. Laura is the troubled one-night-stand last seen in the victim’s home. Carla is his grief-stricken aunt, already mourning the recent death of yet another family member. And Miriam is the nosy neighbor clearly keeping secrets from the police. And they all have separate connections to the victim. Three women who are – for different reasons – simmering with resentment. Who are, whether they know it or not, burning to right the wrongs done to them. When it comes to revenge, even good people might be capable of terrible deeds. How far might any one of them go to find peace? How long can secrets smolder before they explode into flame?
A slow-burning, utterly satisfying suspense novel with an ending I never saw coming. Inspired by one of the most shocking true crimes in 20th century Britain: the Lord Lucan case.
A Double Life, the second novel by Flynn Berry was published in 2018 by Random House. This book resonated with me on so many levels—some of it personal—and I recommend it to readers who enjoy a story with a slow, steady build that quickly ramps up the action in the last few chapters. As I followed along, I wasn’t quite sure where the story was going at first. Sure, I understood the crime that had occurred years earlier and completely empathized with the protagonist and her motives, but I couldn’t quite figure out which way she was leaning—toward violence or lawful retribution—when finally confronted with her murderous father.
One of my favorite elements Flynn brought to the story was the setting. The protagonist, Claire, lives in London, however, spent a number of years living with her family in Crail, Scotland, a small town north of Edinburgh. And since I was born and raised in Edinburgh, I found that I could really connect with the story and enjoyed reading all the details she’d drop about certain places in the city I’ve personally visited. It felt like I got to experience a little piece of home and it made me feel melancholic in all the best ways.
Something else I enjoyed was how convincing the characters and their interactions were. Nothing felt improbable or forced, and the dialogue flowed naturally (something I’m sensitive to). There was also something so pleasing reading about normal, everyday things like her work schedule and her memory flitting back to the night of the crime, that when the action ramped up in the last few chapters I found it logical and nicely paced. Any illusions I may have shared with the protagonist were shattered when the very serious and real nature of her father was exposed, forcing her to make an unwanted snap decision for survival.
Published July 31st, 2018
“A better person would forgive him. A different sort of better person would have found him years ago.”
Claire is a hardworking doctor leading a simple, quiet life in London. She is also the daughter of the most notorious murder suspect in the country, though no one knows it.
Nearly thirty years ago, while Claire and her brother slept upstairs, a brutal crime was committed in her family’s townhouse. The next morning, her father’s car was found abandoned near the English Channel, with bloodstains on the front seat. Her mother insisted she’d seen him in the house that night, but his powerful, privileged friends maintained his innocence. The first lord accused of murder in more than a century, he has been missing ever since.
When the police tell Claire they’ve found him, her carefully calibrated existence begins to fracture. She doesn’t know if she’s the daughter of a murderer or a wronged man, but Claire will soon learn how far she’ll go to finally find the truth.
Inspired by one of the most notorious unsolved crimes of the 20th century – the Lord Lucan case – A Double Life is at once a riveting page-turner and a moving reflection on women and violence, trauma and memory, and class and privilege.
I recommend to readers who love fiction based on true crime, narrators with an unreliable edge, a slow-burning literary pace, and an interesting setting that often changes.
I love reading stories inspired by true crimes, and this one is no exception. For those of you unfamiliar with the Lord Lucan Case, in 1974 a British aristocrat named Richard John Bingham (or Lord Lucan) killed 29-year-old nanny, Sandra Rivett in the basement of his home before disappearing without a trace. He was formally charged with the murder a year later and was spotted more than 70 times by 2017, but none of the sightings ever held up under investigation. It didn’t help that the media (New York Times) painted him as somewhat of a suave James Bond type describing him as a “dashing British aristocrat and army officer, known for his prowess at backgammon and bridge and his fondness for vodka martinis, powerboats, and Aston Martin cars.”
The fact that the murder took place in the basement of a dark apartment, leaving lots of room for various theories helped cloud people’s judgment. And given that the lead suspect was nowhere to be found helped the most for writing the case up as nothing more than a horrible tragedy. Rumors began circulating not long after that he’d committed suicide by ferry propeller, started a new life in Africa, or was fed to a tiger. But none of them proved true and to this day, nobody knows where he is.
This story follows the facts of the actual case very closely but what makes it even more interesting is that it’s told from the perspective of the eldest child almost 30 years later. A smart, self-aware, successful young woman on the hunt for the man who ruined her and her family’s life. What will she do when she finds him? She’s not quite sure. But the bigger question is, what will he do?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been glued to your screen every Tuesday night since August 31st along with every other Hulu subscriber to watch one of the most entertaining shows on TV. Only Murders In The Building starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez has been one of my favorite series of 2021, and I’m ecstatic a second season has been approved for next year. One of my favorite things about the show, aside from its hilarious star-studded cast, is its affectionate tribute to the Upper West Side. Capturing the macabre humor and stunning architecture that exists between the Hudson River, Central Park, Columbus Circle, and Morningside Heights.
The building, as seen on the show, is not actually called The Arconia. The pre-war structure, which was completed in 1909 and is located on West 86th and 87th (the size of an entire block), is called the Belnord. A building I passed by (and fantasized about living in) regularly on my walks around the neighborhood, its location a mere six blocks from my old apartment. For a little under $5 million dollars, you could call this place home and relish in its glamorous 13 stories of rich history.
The Belnord’s location, like many other buildings on the Upper West Side, holds a long sordid history of murder and hauntings that span back over the 19th century. A theme reflected throughout Hollywood in movies and shows like Rosemary’s Baby, Ghostbusters, and The Night Of which continue to depict the stark contrast of one of the most beautiful locations where horrific things can and do still happen. From seances and psychics in the basement of the Ansonia on Broadway (sounds a bit like Arconia, I know) to 455 CPW—a once cancer hospital turned abuse-ridden nursing home turned luxury condominium building to the disembodied voices and childlike apparitions at the Dakota (noted as one of the most haunted locations in NYC to live). John Lennon even attested to seeing the ghostly presence of a weeping woman there before he was shot and killed outside the building on the street. Now residents have reported seeing his spirit roaming the halls of the building—yeesh!
In the 1930s and 40s, the Upper West Side became a sanctuary where those fleeing Naziism settled after the war, provided they could disclose an affidavit from an American relative. The Eclair bakery on West 72nd street became famous for its guestbook, where newly arrived refugees would sign their names and perform a frenzied search for the names of loved ones they hoped had made it out.
Setting the supernatural aside for a moment, some of the grisliest murders I’ve ever read about have occurred in this somewhat suburban neighborhood so many New York families call home. A few so shocking they still resonate with me to this day. And unlike on TV, the outcome is rarely ever satisfying, but rather more surreal.
The Killer Nanny
Yoselyn Ortega—nanny to three young children murdered two of them in 2012 when they were under her care. She was finally sentenced to life in prison in 2018. Victims, Lulu, six, and Leo, two, were the two members of the Krim family left with Ortega, while Nessy, their three-year-old sister was out with their mother at the time.
Ortega, who was supposed to take the two kids to Lulu’s dance class, decided instead to go back to the apartment on West 75th street. She lead the kids into the bathroom where she proceeded to use a pair of kitchen knives to stab and slash both of them to death before placing their bodies in the bathtub. Mom, Marina Krim, walked in right as Ortega turned the knife on herself, thrusting it into her wrists and throat.
Neighbors reported hearing Marina’s screams echoing throughout the building after the grim discovery. Father, Kevin Krim, was out of town on a business trip at the time of the murders and was met at the airport by the police who escorted him directly to the hospital where his wife was being treated for shock.
Ortega “told a psychiatrist hired by her defense that she was following the commands of the devil,” but later undermined her own statement “denying hearing any instructions from Satan in video interviews shown to the jury.” Her motives for the crime remain hidden inside a twisted and delusional mind.
A Tragic Murder Suicide
When people saw Yonathan Tedla jogging around the Upper West Side, they knew him as a friendly neighbor with a beautiful wife, Jennifer Schlecht, and an adorable five-year-old daughter called Abaynesh. For eight years, they’d been seen as outwardly happy, chatting, and smiling as they left for work and school during the weekdays. They’d even dress up for Halloween and go door to door, with Tedla carrying his daughter up on his shoulders. “When you saw them, they were a happy couple. Funny dude, always smiling,” one neighbor said. “It’s just unbelievable. They were an adorable family. Absolutely adorable. I never saw them fight — ever,” another concurred. But that’s not what the police found when they entered the third-floor apartment on West 121st Street in November 2019.
And things were intense behind closed doors. Three years previous, Jennifer obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband after he threatened and harassed her. The couple had met ten years prior at Columbia when she was studying for her master’s degree in social work and public health and Tedla was working there as an IT freelancer. Schlecht worked in Namibia with the Peace Corps for over a year before refocusing her career in the area of maternity and child health and had over 15 years of experience in international relief and development.
Jennifer Schlecht’s father, Kenneth Schlecht, stated the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate shortly after the birth of their daughter. “She was in tears, said her husband had indicated that if she served him with divorce papers he would ruin her or take them all out.” And it’s noted Tedla threatened his wife specifically when she mentioned divorce. Unfortunately, when she finally made the choice to leave him it was already too late.
A 4- to 5-inch serrated knife was identified as the murder weapon.
A week before the murders, Tedla was spotted by coworkers who stated, “He was a nice guy, but strange.” Jennifer was about to obtain an order of protection from the courts, but she never made it in front of the judge. And when police arrived at the scene after responding to a nervous call from the victim’s brother, they were met with a gruesome and tragic scene.
When officers entered the residence they found Jennifer Schlect’s body lying dead on the bathroom floor, her decapitated head in her lap. Upon searching the remainder of the apartment, they found Abaynesh, with a gash so deep to her throat she was left headless, inside a gore-spattered bedroom. Tedla had hung himself with a rope from the child’s door.
Don’t Trust Your Neighbors
I moved apartments on October 1st, 2018, from the Upper East to the Upper West side. At that time, I lived on the edge of Riverside Park, a short walk to the subway, in the heart of the Historic District and the bustling end of Broadway. Three weeks after settling into my new apartment, a notification flashed across my phone screen. A woman had been found murdered less than a three-minute walk from my front door in a neighboring building. But not like you’d imagine a regular NYC-style murder: strangled by an ex-lover, shot while being robbed, stabbed on the subway. No. This woman was found inside her own apartment with her throat slit.
THE KILLER LIVED INside THE BUILDING
I remember feeling a sense of anguish that something so gruesome could happen this close to my new place of residence. Especially considering it was one of the nicest areas of the city I’d ever lived in. Something came over me and I couldn’t help but go and look for myself. Like everyone who lives in New York City for a certain length of time, you become jaded toward terrible things since they happen constantly. I needed more details in order to feel safe and somewhat in control (I know that sounds insane). I made the three-minute walk around the corner from my building to the street and was immediately met with streams of police tape cordoning off the entrance to 710 West End Avenue. There was a small crowd of people including NYPD, journalists, and passersby all waiting for answers.
The Girl Next Door
On October 17th, Anya Johnston, 24, was filed as a missing person. Her mother, Isabel, hadn’t heard from her for hours and grew concerned until she received a call from her daughter explaining she’d be home soon and that she’d gone for a walk.
At 10:30pm that same day, police officers arrived at Anya’s apartment on the 15th floor where she and her mother sat waiting for them. When asked where she’d ventured off to, she replied that she’d taken a long walk to the Brooklyn bridge but returned because it was too cold and she’d had a long day. When asked to elaborate on what ‘a long day’ meant, Anya said she didn’t want to comment saying “Well, I’m not sure what your version of the events are. So, I don’t, I don’t really know what to say. I don’t want to say a damn thing.”
They responded by telling her she was going to be transferred to a hospital, where she went without protest, arriving at Mount Sinai West’s psychiatric unit.
The Bird Lady
To her neighbors, Susan Trott, 70, was an annoying tenant whom they wanted to evict from the building, but to her closest friends and colleagues, she had the biggest heart, with an even bigger personality. One friend fondly described her as, “A tornado kind of person.”
Trott, who’d lived in her apartment for over ten years, owned two rescue dogs (both elderly) and would take them out in the middle of the night to pee, which regularly prompted fights with other tenants. They complained she didn’t use leashes and that the dogs were aggressive. Another fight ensued when she purchased a vacant apartment next to her own and would have friends stay there. Some neighbors complained that she was illegally renting the apartment out, spurring the board’s anger. Another fight was over how she carried a loaf of bread or a bag of birdseed around to feed pigeons on the corner of West End Avenue and in Riverside Park.
Friends of Trott’s stated, “she had gotten into altercations – at times physical – with neighbors over the past decade.” And, “She was attacked over her apartment and love of animals.” Despite the animosity, she refused to move.
Trott was a successful copywriter and major player in the advertising industry for decades, working for firms including BBDO, J Walter Thompson, McCann-Erickson, Satchi & Satchi, and Y&R and for brands like Levi’s, Nickelodeon, Ambien, Virgin Atlantic, and Air Canada. She ran her own ad company out of her apartment. She split her time between London and New York and owned an apartment in Manhattan as well as a home upstate.
When Eric Boscia, a long-time friend, and colleague of Trott’s, failed to reach her by phone on Sunday, October 21st, he was concerned and contacted police to request a welfare check. Officers responding to the call entered Trott’s residence in the early hours and discovered a trail of blood leading them through the apartment to the bedroom. There they found the unconscious and unresponsive body of a 70-year-old female, clothed, and laying on her back. Upon closer inspection, they noted a deep laceration to her throat.
The apartment wasn’t in disarray, and there was no sign of forced entry so police surmised Trott had let her killer in and may have even known them. There was also no sign of the murder weapon in her apartment, nor was there a clear motive. However, after speaking with neighbors it became clear that Trott wasn’t a very popular tenant, and that, according to some of her friends, she’d had issues with a particular woman in the apartment above hers on the 15th floor.
All Evidence Pointed Upstairs
Once forensic units descended onto the crime scene, the trail of blood was discovered in footprints leading from the crime scene, into the hall, and up a flight of stairs. It quickly leads investigators directly inside a 15th-floor apartment belonging to neighbors, Isabel and Anya Johnston. Anya, who, three days prior had been admitted to a psychiatric unit. Officers searched Anya’s apartment, looking for evidence but were unable to find a weapon matching the incision marks on Trott’s body. Carpet swatches were cut out and submitted for testing. NYPD also confiscated, among other things, a jacket, some pants, and a pair of Converse All-Star sneakers from Anya’s apartment, which were later matched as having Susan Trott’s DNA profile all over them. Reports also indicated that the right Converse sneaker “was consistent” with the impressions made on the carpet in Trott’s apartment.
Johnston was arrested and immediately transferred from Mount Sinai West to the psychiatric unit of Elmhurst, and once her medical status stabilized she was sent to Rikers. But her mental health has remained a pivotal aspect of the case, with her defense attorney claiming Anya has “an extensive mental health history, going back probably 20 years.” He confirmed reports that Anya was adopted from a Russian orphanage as a preschooler and later attended Winston Prep, a private school in Chelsea for students with learning disabilities. He confirmed they would be exploring a defense of insanity regarding the case.
The question of motive continues to perplex the public. Initial media reports mentioned the notion of Anya possibly being caught in the act of burglarizing Susan’s apartment, but the indictment has no burglary-related charges. Boscia, Susan’s friend stated, “Sue never mentioned [Anya] by name, but had said a woman was assaulting her and had been stealing from her. If Anya was in the midst of a theft when the confrontation happened, Boscia believes that Susan would have been sensitive to Anya’s agitated state.
And there’s the question of the murder weapon. According to court records, Anya’s Amazon purchase history reveals she bought an M48 Cyclone knife, the same type of weapon the coroner stated made the unusual tunneling lacerations to Trott’s throat. But the knife itself was never recovered. And nobody really knows what transpired between the two of them. There are those in the building that feel awful for Isabel, Anya’s mother, stating “Sue and Isabel [knew] each other for decades…and [had known] Anya ever since her mother adopted her.” When asked specifically about Anya, she was described as “a highly disturbed person…Anya has always had ‘issues’ according to other people in the building.”
Sadly, about a month before Trott was murdered, it has since been revealed she was planning to leave the coop for good. According to her close friend, Boscia, “She’d already found the real estate agents.” He employed the same team to sell her unit in June of 2020. “Her thought was to get either a place in the country or a pied-à-terre in the city and just travel…just enjoy her 70s.”
But were there warning signs of an impending murder?
About a month before her death, Boscia visited Trott and she mentioned feeling uneasy about someone but didn’t want to get into specifics, dismissing his concern with a wave of her hand. “She was like, ‘Next. It’s fine, it’s fine.’”
Anya Johnston remains at Rikers in pre-trial custody, having been indicted for second-degree murder. The case is still open and pending trial.
Riley Sager’s fifth thriller—Survive the Night—is a must-read for anyone who loves nineties-era-nostalgia. From grungy music and classic horror movies to muscle cars and dingy roadside diners; this book brought the thrills of the big screen alive on the page for me. Charlie Jordan—college student and movie buff—accepts a ride from a stranger she meets at the ride board at school. After her best friend was brutally murdered, Charlie’s desperate to leave college and get back to Ohio, leaving the mess of traumatic memories behind her. But not long into the journey, Charlie starts to suspect her driver, Josh, isn’t who he says he is. Could she really be riding alongside “The Campus Killer”?
I’m a huge fan of anything nineties but particularly love the films created in that era. A few of my favorite examples are Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, Seven, Misery, The Bone Collector, Kiss the Girls. After reading a LOT of books based on serial killers, when I read the premise of Sager’s fifth thriller I was definitely intrigued. So many authors have covered the same theme so I wanted to know what could possibly be different this time. I can confirm one thing Sager does extremely well is turn a simple story idea into something genuinely original. I was pleasantly surprised with the story of Charlie Jordan and her mysterious driver, Josh Baxter, who set off on a page-turning journey into the night that made me stay up past midnight racing to the end just to find out what happened.
The plot was fast-paced and kept me glued to the page. I loved the cast of characters, especially the independent protagonist Charlie, who is courageous, smart, and has a passion for horror movies. I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat along for the ride the entire time, as if the book was a movie playing out in my mind (similar to the story’s protagonist). And with the plot advancing at break-neck speed, I was kept guessing at the end of each chapter. One of my favorite scenes sees Charlie and Josh stop at a diner along the way, set in a remote location miles from the campus where they left from. It’s one of the most pivotal moments in the book without the reader realizing it. All the details of the scene, from the greasy food to the dirty restrooms, were so vivid and the suspense between the characters was palpable. I caught myself holding my breath in many of the scenes, waiting for the truth to reveal itself.
One of my favorite things about Sager’s books is that they’re all completely different from one another. There is no correct book to start with so just dive into the one that speaks to you first.
I recommend Survive the Night to readers who enjoy everything nineties, movie references, strong female protagonists, and twisty, slow-building suspense.
Published June 29th, 2021
It’s November 1991. Nirvana’s in the tape deck, George H. W. Bush is in the White House, and movie-obsessed college student Charlie Jordan is in a car with a man who might be a serial killer.
Josh Baxter, the man behind the wheel, is a virtual stranger to Charlie. They met at the campus ride board, each looking to share the long drive home to Ohio. Both have good reasons for wanting to get away. For Charlie, it’s guilt and grief over the shocking murder of her best friend, who became the third victim of the man known as the Campus Killer. For Josh, it’s to help care for his sick father—or so he says.
The longer she sits in the passenger seat, the more Charlie notices there’s something suspicious about Josh, from the holes in his story about his father to how he doesn’t want her to see inside the trunk. As they travel an empty, twisty highway in the dead of night, an increasingly anxious Charlie begins to think she’s sharing a car with the Campus Killer. Is Josh truly dangerous? Or is Charlie’s jittery mistrust merely a figment of her movie-fueled imagination?
One thing is certain—Charlie has nowhere to run and no way to call for help. Trapped in a terrifying game of cat and mouse played out on pitch-black roads and in neon-lit parking lots, Charlie knows the only way to win is to survive the night.