Praise for Julia Heaberlin’s Novels

Media Reviews

Black-Eyed Susans

From Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Black-Eyed Susans

Eighteen years ago, Tessa Cartwright became known as the only surviving victim of a serial killer.

The Texas teen woke up in a field of black-eyed Susans “with a strangled college student and a stack of human bones” but no memory of how she got there or who put her there.

Fast-forward to the present, and Tessa is an artist, living in Fort Worth with her teenage daughter, and the man she once helped identify as the killer is about to be executed on Death Row.

But a string of new evidence, a determined defense attorney, Tessa’s own doubts about her memory and the disturbing appearance of freshly planted black-eyed Susans outside her bedroom window have Tessa wondering: Did she make a mistake and ID the wrong guy?

Black-Eyed Susans

If so, she has two pressing problems: Can she help set the wrongfully accused man free? And if the real killer isn’t behind bars, could he be setting his sights on her and her daughter, Charlie?

In her brilliant new novel of suspense, Black-Eyed Susans, Julia Heaberlin keeps Tessa, her protagonist, in constant, page-turning peril while also leading the reader down paths of thoughtful exploration into the worlds of child psychiatry, death-penalty law and forensic DNA.

The book is a delicious mix of well-researched facts, creative plot twists and a likable main character who deftly walks the line between someone who you can relate to as she helps her daughter search through dirty laundry for a team jersey and someone whose mind is a mystery even to herself.

This is Heaberlin’s third novel, her first in hardcover, and her best. A former editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Detroit News, Heaberlin brings her remarkable skills as a reporter and editor to this work, digging deep into fascinating, topical issues for her own research, and then pulling out only the most interesting facts and details for her readers.

But it’s her emerging talent as a masterful storyteller that sets this book apart. As the plot twists along, racing back and forth between past and present, revealing bits and pieces of the truth through the haze of her protagonist’s battered and bruised memory, Heaberlin maintains her tight grip on narrative control, expertly maintaining the delightful, nail-biting suspense by weaving those facts and details seamlessly into plot-forwarding action, compelling characters and believable dialogue.

Tessa’s search for answers leads her, for example, to Dr. Joanna Seger at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth. Jo and her team are working on extracting mitochondrial DNA from the bones of the victims Tessa was found with, popularly called “the black-eyed Susans.”

Once the DNA is extracted, the information goes into national databases of missing persons. The bones then go on to a forensic geologist in Galveston who will use isotope analysis to try to match them to a region, as our bones, it turns out, retain the memory of where we have lived.

As Jo explains, “We are so much a part of the earth, Tessa. Of the ancient past. We store strontium isotopes in our bones, in the same ratio as in the rocks and soil and water and plants and animals where we live.”

It’s a heady bit of astounding cutting-edge science, still in its infancy, and its use in Heaberlin’s plot is intriguing.

Heaberlin also takes advantage of the 18 years that have elapsed since Tessa’s trauma to develop her character beyond the scope expected in many thrillers. In the years since she was abducted, Tessa has carved out a world that in many ways is surprisingly normal, and Heaberlin deftly adds bits of humor into some of these scenes, like the aforementioned laundry debacle:

I find Charlie in her underwear, hair slapping around like wet red string. She is tossing her room, a rabbit’s nest of dirty clothes.

“Which jersey?” I ask patiently. She owns two practice uniforms and four game uniforms. The uniforms were “required to play,” cost $435, and three of them looked exactly alike to me.

“Blue, blue, blue, didn’t you hear me? If I don’t have it for the scrimmage, Coach will make me run. He might make the whole team run because of me.” Coach. No last name necessary. Like God.

Tessa’s relationship with Charlie, her romantic involvements, her thoughts about the larger world beyond her own problems (“the silvery light cascading on buxom masterpieces” at the Kimbell), and even her frequent references to food (“a frosty schooner of beer at the Flying Fish,” “our late-night marathon of Walking Dead, popcorn, and cheddar cheese chips”) build for readers a sense of trust in Tessa’s character even as those readers must continue to question the state of Tessa’s mind.

One of the most important relationships in the book is between Tessa and her best friend, Lydia. Again, Heaberlin effectively uses scenes from the past and the present to gradually build the story of Lydia and her mysterious, even somewhat creepy, family.

We also learn early on that Lydia and Tessa had a big breakup and haven’t spoken since they were 17. Why the friendship fell apart and Lydia’s role in Tessa’s life is another layer of plot that adds to the suspense and the eventual satisfying outcome of the book.

Setting is important to any novel, and Black-Eyed Susans is firmly rooted in modern-day, suburban Fort Worth. From the perspective of someone who lived for 20-some years in Texas, I think Heaberlin gets it right.

She gently plays with clichés (yes, Texans drink a lot of Dr Pepper and, yes, sometimes Texas grammar ain’t quite right), but she also shows a true affection for a place rich with art, culture, scientific investigation, good food and a sky like “a bell of glass.”

This isn’t a perfect book. I found some inconsistencies with the narrative’s timeline that had me puzzled and scribbling my own timeline on the inside cover. I didn’t understand why 14-year-old Charlie would be doing calculus, if I read that correctly.

I also would be remiss if I didn’t disclose that I worked in the author’s features department during her time at the Star-Telegram, where she made me a better editor and writer, often returning my work with a note on the top to the effect of “mbmf,” her shorthand for “make better, make funnier.”

While I am sure my opinion of the book cannot help but be affected by this relationship, I also feel confident that if I didn’t like her book, she would want me to say so, because as relatively thick-skinned journalists, the desire for truth rules.

Black-Eyed Susans is a breakout book that I think puts Heaberlin solidly into the category of great contemporary thriller writers. So yes, it’s cliché, but the third time is the charm.

 

From D Magazine:

Is Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans the Next Gone Girl?

Black-Eyed Susans is the third book by Heaberlin, whose byline you may remember from the Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News (and, full disclosure, from this magazine). But it’s her first to be issued in hardcover, meaning her publisher is betting—or hoping, anyway—that she’s ready to break free of the thriller genre and bring in that Gone Girl money.

Heaberlin’s “novel of suspense” only superficially resembles Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster (mostly in that its time-hopping narrative is funnier than you’d expect). But if readers looking for the next Gone Girl do pick it up, I guarantee they won’t put it down. Because the story—broadly: the only survivor of a serial killer may have helped convict the wrong man, and now she has to track down the real culprit—is a classic page-turner. A thriller. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Lie Still

Black-Eyed Susans

From Publishers Weekly:

In this engrossing novel of suspense, Emily Page, pregnant with her first child, and her husband, Mike, leave New York City for Clairmont, Tex., a wealthy community where Mike has secured a job as the new police chief. After receiving newspaper clippings detailing the murder of the man who raped her in college, Emily is convinced that someone from her past is stalking her. And when it becomes clear that the person stalking her has broken into her new house, Mike sees to it that Emily is protected by a home security system and bodyguard. While dealing with her personal demons, Emily learns that one of the town’s socialites, Caroline Warwick, is missing, and Emily was one of the last people to see her alive. Heaberlin (Playing Dead), a former journalist, expertly spins out a tale of lies and deceit that will keep the reader guessing.

 

From Booklist:

Emily Page and her husband, Michael, have left New York City for Clairmont, Texas, where Michael will be the new chief of police. But Emily’s dream of a small-town life with a fresh new start is shattered when she attempts to settle in among a group of wealthy southern women with time on their hands and mischief and mayhem on their minds. When the group’s leader, Caroline Warwick, suddenly disappears, the group’s web of secrets begins to unravel. Emily’s growing involvement in the search for the missing woman brings up memories from her own troubled past, prompting Emily to wonder whether her troubles have followed her to Clairmont and whether they could possibly play a role in Caroline’s disappearance. Heaberlin’s depiction of one tight-knit Texas community is both culturally savvy and politically astute. Her group of rich white women desperate to climb the social ladder is funny as well as sad when shown alongside the racism that engulfs the town’s Hispanic population. A carefully wrapped package of Texas soap opera, social and political expose, and well-paced thriller.

 

From Crime Readers’ Association, reviewed by British poet/author Kate Rhodes:

Lie Still is a potent blast of twenty first century Southern Gothic. Julia Heaberlin brings a poet’s craft and conviction to her storytelling, and the characters which populate her fictional Texan town of Clairmont pulse with believable emotions and jealousies.

When pregnant Emily Page and her husband Mike leave New York City, so Mike can take up his job as sheriff, they are looking forwards to building a new life together. But it soon becomes clear that Emily’s past is catching up with her. The victim of a brutal date rape when she was at college, Emily has struggled to rebuild her fragile confidence. Secrets are reaching boiling pointing under the brittle surface of her new Texan community. The well-bred ladies of the town compete to join Caroline Warwick’s club, but her vetting procedures and initiation ceremonies include the worst kinds of bullying. Instead of supporting each other, the women check out the success or failure of their acquaintances’ latest plastic surgery and the depth of their spray tans. Many of the women Emily meets are at cracking point, desperate to join Caroline’s clique and climb the social ladder. But when Caroline goes missing it emerges that she was a victim, as well as a bully. The anonymous phone calls and letters which Emily has received since she was raped reach a new level of intimidation, and she and her husband realise that her life is in danger. As Emily gets to know members of the Texan elite and tries to find out what has happened to Caroline, she sees that the events of her past are linked to Caroline’s fate. The story builds to an exciting crescendo as Emily traces Caroline’s roots back to a much less salubrious neighbourhood in Kentucky, and comes face to face with the nightmares which have haunted her for years.

Julia Heaberlin excels at depicting the characters and dialects of the Texan community where she grew up. She offers a wry spin on the culture depicted in the legendary soap opera, Dallas, through the eyes of a well-drawn New York outsider. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is the social realism which lies just below the glitzy surface. The book takes an unflinching look at sexual politics, and at a culture where an undergraduate who has just been date raped is told to go home and forget about it, because it can’t be proved. Heaberlin is also deft in showing us the vestiges of racism which exist in Clairmont, where Hispanic immigrants are rarely able to find well-paid employment or be welcomed as equals by their white neighbours.

Lie Still provides a pacey and convincing storyline, and the feisty character of Emily Page is appealing in her unwillingness to allow herself to become a victim. But one of the great pleasures of this novel is the style and glitter of Heaberlin’s writing style. She has captured the raw and dangerous Texan sunshine and sprinkled it liberally across the pages of her highly accomplished second thriller.

 

From The Dallas Morning News, reviewed by staff writer Joy Tipping:

Every successful author faces it: the sophomore curse. You’ve had a hit with your first book, and now the publisher demands a second one, stat, to ride on the waves of critical goodwill.

In North Texas-raised Julia Heaberlin’s case, I expected (and wished for) a second novel starring Tommie McCloud, the spitfire protagonist of 2012’s Playing Dead. But Lie Still has a new heroine and story, although like Playing Dead it boasts a Texas setting, in this case Clairmont, a thinly disguised fictional version of Plano or perhaps Frisco.

The author describes it as a “high-heeled Southern town,” per capita the wealthiest, most highly taxed city of its size in the country, home to CEOs and Dallas Cowboy football players and Texas land barons and nouveau riche wannabes who carried mountains of mortgage and credit card debt.” Yep, she knows us. (Heaberlin, a former journalist, did stints at both The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

Lie Still is a whip-smart thriller, with a heroine just as endearing as Tommie McCloud, if not quite as funny. This is definitely a more serious book, as befits its themes of trauma, loss and self re-creation. Emily’s early-adult defining moments were horrific: date rape while a college student, and her parents’ death in a car crash soon after.

When her husband is offered a high-profile law enforcement job in Texas, they move from New York. They come bearing stereotypical ideas of Texas, some borne out by the flashy opulence of Clairmont’s real estate. But at a women’s get-together soon after their arrival, Emily is startled when one of the women mentions an OB-GYN who “cleans up our mistakes.” Then, “I caught a glimpse of a Steinbeck novel propped up on the Jack Daniel’s. I was busily reworking my preconceived views of Texas. Abortions. Wink. Classic literature, but of course.”

This, and other passages, reaffirm that Heaberlin’s sense of humor is firmly intact. She nails the annoyed reaction from the mother of an overprivileged child to his homework assignment: “Alan Jr. just told me he needs to have a potato carved into a Russian dictator by tomorrow morning. I pay $15,000 a year to a private school and my reward is that I’ll be up at midnight cutting out felt clothes for a freaking potato.”

When one of the women’s group members—a social butterfly who delights in knowing everyone else’s secrets—goes missing, things quickly turn sinister. Emily has her own skeletons she desperately wants to keep hidden, which may include murder, and a mail stalker who knows way too much.

Lie Still seems particularly timely in this time of NSA eavesdropping and Google searches that may end up in the hands of your friendly neighborhood police force. How quickly the thin veil of privacy is ripped asunder: “All of us walk around with ridiculous amounts of intimate information about strangers and acquaintances. We’d never get out of bed if we realized how much peripheral people in our lives know about us. What even the people we love most say behind our backs. The number of confidences broken.”

Playing Dead

Playing Dead

From The Dallas Morning News:

Texas-bred author debuts with a spitfire of a heroine in Playing Dead

Tommie McCloud is the kind of character that every female reader ends up wanting as a sister or best friend — a friend of passionate loyalties, a no-nonsense woman who doesn’t possess the insincerity gene, a not-too-girly Texas spitfire who admits to having “a thing” for her hair but never bothers to do anything but air-dry it.

Oh, and she can kick like a martial-arts heroine and shoot like Annie Oakley.

North Texas-bred Tommie is the invention of North Texas-bred Julia Heaberlin, a former journalist who put in stints at The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

In the feverishly compelling Playing Dead, Heaberlin’s debut novel, Tommie gets slammed by the death of her father, the increasing dementia exhibited by her mother, and an out-of-the-blue letter that arrives bearing a disturbing and tantalizing first sentence: “Dear Tommie: Have you ever wondered about who you are?”

The letter writer, the wife of a jailed Chicago mobster, claims that Tommie is actually her long-lost daughter, who was kidnapped at the age of 3. Tommie is at first sure it’s a scam, until she remembers another letter she’d received years before, from the Social Security Administration, saying her number didn’t match where she’d been born, and that they were issuing a new one for her. That original number indicated a birth in Chicago, not Texas.

Then her possible mobster father, who has been in jail for more than 30 years for the grisly hit on an FBI agent and his family, gets himself transferred to a Fort Worth jail — a five-minute walk from Tommie’s offices. It’s all a tad too coincidental for a curious sort like Tommie, and you know what they say about curiosity.

Heaberlin tells the story with whip-smart dialogue, an insistent pace and keen wit; it’s irresistible enough that I sped through all 300-plus pages in one sitting.

Local readers will spot plenty of real-life locales, including Tommie’s hometown of Ponder, “living off two things as long as anybody around here can remember: the Ponder Steakhouse and the ghosts of Bonnie and Clyde” (who once robbed the town bank).

Heaberlin gives props to the restaurant’s famous chicken-fried steak: “A granola friend, born somewhere north, once asked in disgust, ‘Why would any sane person want a greasy breaded crust around a slab of red meat?’ If you had to ask, I told her, you’d never know.” And, of course, our heroine is thoroughly addicted to “my legal alternative to crack cocaine,” Dr Pepper.

The book reads like a stand-alone thriller, but I can’t help hoping that Tommie’s job as a therapist specializing in equine therapy for children will lead her to more mysteries and to more books with her in the starring role.
 

From Indulge Magazine, Fort Worth:

“Things We Love: A sassy new summer read”

We’re partial to any book that takes place in our hometown, but we’re head-over-heels about Playing Dead, a new suspense novel by Julia Heaberlin of Grapevine. Once the head of the features department at the Star-Telegram, Heaberlin makes her literary debut with this page turner of a paperback that combines an ever-twisting plot with a lead character named Tommie, who describes herself as a “plucky, foolish heroine” and who seems equal parts smart, sassy, sexy and completely unhinged. The book begins as Tommie receives a letter in the mail from a woman who claims that Tommie is her daughter and was kidnapped as a child. Immediately, our heroine sets out to uncover her family’s darkest secrets, a search that takes her from her deceased father’s office in the Stockyards to the mansions of a Chicago mafia hooker. A little bit of chick-lit, a whopping amount of suspense, this is the one tome that should make it into your beach tote this summer — and onto your book club’s reading list.
 

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Playing Dead is a satisfying puzzler with North Texas ties

Years ago, Grapevine author Julia Heaberlin received a letter from a woman who hoped that Heaberlin might be her long-lost daughter. Heaberlin wasn’t, but the inquiry became the catalyst for her debut suspense novel, Playing Dead, in which she encourages the reader to ask the question “What if?”

What if the life you knew, the family that you called your own, and the experiences and memories that shaped you were all a lie?

When Tommie McCloud comes home to Ponder to bury her father, she has no idea that an unassuming pink envelope will set off a chain of events that will have her questioning her life and her very identity.

Tommie grew up under the Texas sun on her family’s sprawling ranch. She split her days playing the piano with her mother and riding rodeo with her dad. The world was hers until a bull landed on one wrist and redirected her life’s course from accomplished pianist to equine therapist working at a therapy ranch in Wyoming.

Prior to receiving the letter, only two events had had such a profound effect on her life: the rodeo accident and her brother’s death in a crash caused by a drunken driver.

The letter, from an unknown woman, claims that Tommie was kidnapped as a child and that the letter writer is her biological mother. A quick Internet search pulls up the woman’s background. Rosalina Marchetti, wife of mobster Anthony Marchetti, lives in Chicago. The story of a kidnapped daughter is true.

Anthony Marchetti, convicted of the vicious murders of an FBI agent, his wife, three children and another agent, has just been transferred to a jail cell in Fort Worth.

The letter is only the first in a series of unnerving events. A visit from a mysterious man claiming to be a reporter from Texas Monthly, an anonymous e-mail with obscure pictures and a parking garage shoot-out only add to the uneasiness Tommie has about Rosalina’s claim.

The events also shake her security in identifying with her father, the man who raised her, who taught her to ride and shoot. But Tommie is soon faced with the reality that there is more truth to the claim in the letter when she shows it to her sister.

Her mother’s dementia and fading mind rule out the possibility of turning to her for answers to piece this puzzle together.

So, she starts her own investigation to find the truth and her connection, if any, to this mobster, the missing little girl she is believed to be and the death of a teenage beauty queen in Oklahoma, enlisting family friends for support and protection. With each step of her investigation, she digs up connections to her past.

The fact that the novel is set in North Texas makes it that much more fun to read. It is peppered with references to landmarks and businesses, such as the Stockyards and the Worthington hotel, that bring the story close to home and allow North Texas readers to put themselves in the middle of the story.

With each turn of the page, I became more invested in Tommie’s quest to find answers, to make sense of the information that she received. Reading with increased attention to her investigation, I found myself wanting to help her, and, as any good mystery/suspense reader does, I was working to try to piece the puzzle together before the end of the book. I didn’t, and I loved that I couldn’t.

In a word, this book is fun. I know that seems like a strange description for a suspense novel, but it is an unpretentious word that best describes my experience of getting so wrapped up in a story, that you look up and realize that an hour has flown by when it only feels like minutes.

Heaberlin’s storytelling, through the voice of the main character, leads the reader through plot twists and turns. Add to that the introduction of characters that will keep you guessing and wanting more at the same time — both qualities you must have in a suspense novel.

If you like puzzles, crime mysteries, mob stories or suspense, this is the book you will want to tuck into your travel bag or upload to your e-reader this summer.
 

From Booklist:

Questions of identity are plaguing Texas psychologist Tommie McCloud. First she gets a letter from the wife of Chicago mobster Anthony Marchetti (in prison for killing an FBI agent and his family) suggesting that Tommie is her daughter who was kidnapped as a baby. Then a man masquerading as a reporter turns up asking questions. With her older brother and father dead and her mother suffering from dementia, Tommie is on her own in finding answers, with backup protection from military contractor Hudson Byrd, once her lover on the rodeo circuit, whose contacts prove invaluable as matters turn dangerous for the affluent McCloud family. There’s a lot going on in this first novel—odd newspaper clippings found in Tommie’s mother’s bank-safe deposit box, visits with and messages from Marchetti (recently transferred from a Chicago prison to one in nearby Texas), mysterious heirs to the family estate—but Heaberlin manages to tie up all the loose ends. Tommie is a smart, sassy, loving, and doggedly persistent narrator in this fast-moving mystery that occasionally tugs at the heartstrings. A promising debut.
 

From The (London) Sunday Times:

In Julia Heaberlin’s impressive first novel, Playing Dead, child-therapist Tommie McCloud returns home from Wyoming to Texas after her father’s death. Soon she receives a letter from a mobster’s wife in Chicago, who says Tommie is her biological daughter. Looking into this claim takes her on a state-hopping journey as she investgates murky events 30 years ago (a family murdered by gangsters, her possible kidnapping, the traumatic loss of her brother), with colourful but not necessarily trustworthy Texan types assisting her search. Heaberlin constructs her plot like a seasoned writer, and fills it with memorable characters; but her debut’s most striking feature is Tommie’s narrative voice, which is so winning and vivacious that it is easy to forget that (in contrast to the typical underdog thriller heroine), she is a pampered heiress, about to inherit an oil field, a vast farm and $20m.
 

From Crimesquad.com:

If Playing Dead is anything to judge by, then this is a debut crime novel from an author with a very promising future. Just when you begin to think you know what is going on in this book, another thread is unravelled, leaving you further in the dark and wanting to know more. Generally when there is a vast quantity of characters I tend to get lost and forget who is who, and the relationships between each of them becomes somewhat blurred. Heaberlin however manages to keep the reader on track perfectly without being repetitive.

As Tommie begins to uncover her family history following the letter from her alleged ‘birth mother’, the more Tommie finds some very disturbing truths. Playing Dead is a fantastic read that had me hooked from page one. It has a labyrinthine plot that just kept going and going and pulled me deeper and deeper in to the story. Heaberlin can certainly keep the suspense going and dangled me like a fish on a line. I was hooked from the word ‘go’. Heaberlin’s debut is excellently written with a great mix of intrigue, murder and mystery to keep the reader determined to see what happens on Tommie’s journey. Playing Dead is a book full of realistic and down to earth characters with an innovative plot that is not to be missed. Astounding!
 

Amazon UK Editor’s Pick: One of “Best Books of the Month” for July

After her father’s death, Tommie McCloud receives a letter from a stranger and her world is turned upside down. The woman who wrote the letter claims Tommie was kidnapped as a baby, and she is the woman’s long lost daughter. In her quest to uncover the truth Tommie uncovers explosive secrets that put her and those she loves in danger. Although the plot may trick you into thinking it is formulaic, the many twists and turns will keep you on your toes throughout and the feisty protagonist will make you care about what happens to her. Suspenseful, entertaining and evocative, this is a thoroughly enjoyable beach read.