It’s surprising when a debut book is a masterpiece, but here we are. My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris arrives perfect and out of nowhere. A graphic novel about a werewolf girl investigating a murder in 1960’s Chicago, it’s a new classic, reminiscent of other identity-driven comics such as Fun Home, Maus and Persepolis. Maybe Swamp Thing too.
The story begins in a tiny Chicago apartment, where 10-year-old Karen Reyes has turned into a werewolf. Or at least she thinks she has. Whether Karen’s werewolfism is real or metaphorical is left up to the reader, but one thing’s for sure: Karen loves her monsters. She sees them everywhere. Her upstairs neighbor looks as wrinkled as an Egyptian mummy. Her classmate’s facial scars resemble Frankenstein’s monster. And when she tries to imagine what he looks like, her absent father takes the shape of the Invisible Man.
Karen’s gothic imagination draws her into the murder investigation of her upstairs neighbor, Anka, a Holocaust survivor with a mysterious past. But along the way, her detective story turns into an investigation of identity. Karen is beginning to realize that she is a lesbian, and as she encounters other people that society regards as outsiders, she begins to understand the difficulties that she is going to face. It might sound sad, but make no mistake: Karen is tough as nails, and her identification with monsters is never portrayed as any kind of self-loathing. Remember, to a certain kind of kid, being a monster is the coolest thing in the world! Monsters don’t want acceptance. They’re empowered and interesting and full of stories. Monsters are the ones worth listening to.
It’s hard to imagine a richer book coming out this year. My Favorite Thing is Monsters feels like an accumulation of lifelong obsessions: horror movies, art history, EC comics, Holocaust narratives and a childhood spent in Civil Rights-era Chicago. Somehow Ferris has brought them all together into a page-turning murder mystery. Who knows how.
Career. Spouse. Baby. Checking off boxes came easy for Ariel Levy, author of the short but intense new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. The New Yorker staff writer knows now what she didn't know when she was younger and life seemed limitless. She spends her journey recounting, in agonizing observations, the ups and downs that have taken place in her life.
No one would accuse Levy of lacking self-confidence. As an only child growing up in the 1970s, Levy was raised to be independent. She pursued her writing career, languished in the New York excesses of the '90s and achieved success telling stories about "women who are too much." Boundaries were blurred. She had male and female lovers. By her own admission, there were times she wanted to "crawl into the pouch of a kangaroo" to protect her from own impulsiveness.
Levy spends much of the book coming to grips with the fact that she was not the only one who needed protecting. Despite marrying the woman of her dreams, a string of devastating losses forces her to confront her hubris and reconcile what she can. The most heartbreaking of these is depicted in a powerful 2013 award-winning article, "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," which originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Levy revisits this tragedy in sobering detail; it is the gut of the book.
The author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise Rise of Raunch Culture, Levy neutralizes the "perfect life" with unsparing writing that is also a surprisingly quick read. Those who enjoy Joan Didion and Cheryl Strayed will recognize those universal threads of tragedy, grief, remorse. It is the realization we don't always get what we want, and that the best laid plans are just that and no more.
Primarily known as a musician, John Darnielle has hidden his literary chops in plain sight through his narratively dense lyrics in The Mountain Goats and a consistently sharp-witted presence on Twitter. But after the success of his first novel Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has announced himself as an impressive novelist in his own right.
Darnielle’s new novel Universal Harvester introduces us to a strange mystery surrounding a video rental store. Jeremy is a 22-year-old sales clerk at the Video Hut who appears to be riding the clock on his days, avoiding commitments toward a career or college, but this rudderless existence masks a deep hurt caused by the recent death of his mother in a car accident. Now, his existence revolves around the shared comfort of quiet frozen dinners with his father and little else. This routine gets upset when customers begin complaining to Jeremy about strange scenes appearing in the rentals. Disturbing footage of people tied up in sheds and masked individuals abusing their captives, spliced randomly into harmless fair like She’s All That. Jeremy’s investigation into these crimes finds him pulled into the orbit of strange rituals and bizarre organizations, ultimately leading to a confrontation with the trauma he’s been avoiding.
Set in the '90s (as you probably guessed by VHS being back in style), the novel is written in clean and precise prose that is endlessly inventive. One of the neatest inventions of the novel is the narrator, a mysterious party with a secret to hide. They seem strangely omniscient, speculating about alternate paths and choices the characters could have made, while dropping sinister hints about their involvement in the story. It gives the novel a sense of impending tragedy that elevates its most languid moments. Pop-culture obsessives will enjoy the deluge of references to film and '90s ephemera, but fans of white-knuckle thrillers like Gone Girl will find themselves pulled in by the mounting suspense of Darnielle’s narrative.
This is Sherlock like you’ve never seen him before. Joe Ide’s IQ is a fresh take on the famous detective that really boils down the essence of the character and reimagines him in an entirely new context. This is not just another “update” where Sherlock becomes a quirky PI with a psychiatric disorder and a nicotine habit, nor is it a recasting where they take a cranky doctor or a malcontent police officer and throw in some brilliant deductive reasoning. Ide crafts an entirely new character who embodies the spirit of the great detective while breaking new ground; in this story he is a young African American man, growing up poor but smart in south central Los Angeles. It feels like a breath of fresh air for a story that, even when done well, has been done to death.
The story spans a couple of time periods. It begins present day where IQ (the nickname of Isaiah, our titular character) has become well known as a problem solver, and is called in to solve an attempt on the life of a rap mogul. It flashes back and forth with the past where Isaiah takes steps down a dark path while simultaneously beginning the journey to become a positive force to the world around him. In the present, a bevy of suspects and an unusual crime scene confuse the field for Isaiah and his assistant/frenemy/partner Dodson, while in the past we see the pair in their earlier days, striking out at others and themselves as they struggle with the curveballs life throws their way and the questionable choices they make.
At times, the story may feel distant from the experiences of many of its readers, but the author does a good job of including threads we can all identify with. We may not be poor and growing up in the inner city, but we all understand struggling with grief, giving in to temptation and making bad, easy choices, or trying to help people even when they won’t help themselves. If anything, Ide’s IQ is more generous and well intentioned than most of us — going above and beyond to help others even at real cost to himself. Rather than being alienating though, I found it inspiring. Plus Ide includes a cast of oddball true-to-life characters that keep the story moving and the reader’s interest piqued.
I really enjoyed this story — especially the tension of the mysteries and the well-developed main characters. If you like this story, you’ll probably enjoy a lot of Sherlock stories — both the originals by Arthur Conan Doyle and many of the derivatives by a batch of other authors. I would highly recommend BBC’s recent adaptation of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It shares the modern setting and a certain irreverent sense of humor.
"Don't go Outside. Don't let the Bad in." In Eleanor Wasserberg's debut novel we see the inner workings of Foxlowe, a commune where a group of people, who call themselves the Family, live by a different set of rules. Freya is the leader of the group, and as long as you follow her rules and listen to what she says, everything will be okay. If you break the rules, you are punished or you become a Leaver.
The story is presented through Green, a young girl living at Foxlowe, who Freya treats like a daughter. In the main part of the story, Green remembers what her childhood was like at Foxlowe and she recalls when Blue became a new family member and the down fall of everything. She follows and believes Freya blindly and doesn't understand the unsettling truth of who Freya really is. While much of her telling shows a beautiful and happy life, there are dark and disturbing moments throughout the story.
Later, Green recalls her life as an adult, where she goes by the name of Jess and lives on the Outside. She misses Foxlowe as her life is difficult and she is unsettled. Her life on the Outside is met with strange feelings and unhappy moments. Remembering the reason she no longer lives at Foxlowe, we see the deeply dark moments that have brought her to her current struggle in life.
Though you may be left with questions in the end, some things are better left unanswered. The mysteries of Foxlowe and what happened to everyone is intriguing and left up to the reader’s imagination in many ways. The beautiful language and point of view gives a sense of a magical and secretive world that is also dark and disturbing. Foxlowe is a captivating new story that will keep you guessing.
Dear Readers, May 4, 2017
I am writing to you to offer a glimpse into the book The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers. A first novel for this accomplished playwright, if you enjoy reading in letter and diary format—once you pick it up, it will be difficult to put down. A historical fiction, mystery surrounds the main character, Placidia Fincher, and through her writing you learn how it was to be a young woman left alone to face the responsibility of maintaining some type of normalcy at home despite being surrounded by the chaos of the Civil War.
At the start of her entries, dating back to 1865, we find out that 19-year-old Placidia has recently been arrested and is corresponding with her cousin behind bars. It is obvious that she is not willing to reveal the circumstances behind her predicament—at least not easily—which adds to the mystery. What is established, prior to Placidia being in jail, is at the young age of 17, she finds a respectable union with Gryffth Hockaday, a high-ranking confederate soldier. Adhering to the social customs of the time, this union was one where marriage came first, above love. However, before any romance blossomed, the major received his own letter calling him to the frontlines of battle.
Switching between different time periods, you will be anxious to find out what happened during the two years that they were separated. What you realize is that hidden within the diary entries and letters is a snapshot of life in the South during this chaotic time. Susan Rivers does not stray away from the complicated history of this time period—touching on topics such as slavery, isolation and brutality. Despite the dark aspects, the story is also one of hope and redemption, especially for the leading lady of the story. If you enjoy this style of historical writing, then you may enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer or These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy E. Turner.
I hope this blog finds you well.
Bulgaria, which lies along the Black Sea coast in Europe, is an ancient country whose capital city of Sofia dates from the Fifth century. Ottoman Turks, tsars and Soviet-style communists have all had a crack at ruling the country, which is now a parliamentary democratic republic. The legacy of Bulgaria’s shifting governance and political instability drives Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Shadow Land.
New college grad Alexandra Boyd is an American abroad. She’s just arrived in Sofia and reaches out to help an elderly couple struggling down the steep steps of the upscale Hotel Forest. No good deed goes unpunished as a cab ride later, she realizes she’s accidentally mixed a piece of their luggage in with hers. With the help of her taxi driver, nicknamed Bobby, Alexandra starts a journey in attempt to return the bag which contains a deeply personal item: the ashes of a man named Stoyan Lazarov. And while Americans like Alexandra turn to the police for help, Bobby isn’t as trusting of the new state’s authority. As the pair crisscrosses Bulgaria tracking the elusive Lazarov family, they realize they, too, are being followed.
At its heart, this story is gripping historical fiction. As Alexandra and Bobby gradually piece together the life of Stoyan Lazarov, they also uncover the horror of government-sanctioned “work camps,” survivor’s guilt and unending atonement. A recent past that won’t stay hidden looms, threatening all of Bulgaria with its darkness. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a political bent, such as The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna or Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, should add The Shadow Land to their reading list.