Emma Straub has a certain knack for writing. Her latest novel, Modern Lovers, doesn’t disappoint. It is fun and engrossing while also offering hefty portions of wit and insight.
Two families living side by side in New York City’s Ditmas Park are spending the summer sorting out their tangled relationships. For Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe, it hardly seems like two decades since they graduated from Oberlin — letting go their rock star aspirations and announcing the end of their band. Now, however, movie producers want to make a biopic about the fourth member of their band who went on to become an icon of their era before joining the 27 Club. The movie can’t be made unless the remaining members sign off on the rights to their lives and the use of a song Elizabeth wrote, which made Lydia a superstar. The prospect has unearthed a lot of buried secrets and strained relationships.
Zoe and Elizabeth have remained best friends. Elizabeth followed Zoe to New York, and when Elizabeth married Andrew, they moved next door to Zoe. The best friends’ kids have even grown up together. Now, however, Zoe’s wife wonders if Elizabeth being so close wasn’t really her just being in the way. Elizabeth no longer knows if it was wise to marry someone she met when she was so young, and Andrew is acting bizarre. To complicate things further, their kids are caught up in a summer romance of their own.
Straub has imagined a wonderful cast of characters. Though she isn’t shy about showing off their flaws, it is hard not to end up liking them, warts and all, and become totally swept up in their lives. I couldn’t put down this story about love and friendship in our modern age.
Fans will also enjoy her previous book, The Vacationers, and One Day by David Nicholls.
In the year 2052, a comet is approaching the Earth, which has inspired a suicide cult called Heaven’s Gate to begin sacrificing animals. The cult believes that killing animals will help them achieve a “level above human.” Because of this, animals around the entire world face mass extinction. In Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, one man named Cuthbert Handley believes he must free the animals of the London Zoo, one of the last remaining havens for animals, to save the animals themselves and all of humanity. Cuthbert is an indigent man in his 90s with a serious heart condition, an addiction to a hallucinogenic drug and a curious gift called the Wonderments, that allows him to communicate with animals.
During his mission to free the animals, Cuthbert experiences a variety of mixed emotions and thoughts, from wondering if he actually possesses the Wonderments to wondering if he’s just crazy and hallucinating, to hoping that he is just doing the right thing. Cuthbert’s struggle to deal with the consequences — good or bad — of his decisions leads to some in-depth pondering and philosophical discussions with some interesting animals. Will Cuthbert be successful in his mission? Will the night of the animals be everything he hoped?
Though the story revolves around the single night of Cuthbert’s mission, Broun takes us through Cuthbert’s life and what led him to this event. We learn that Cuthbert’s entire life has been difficult, from the disappearance of his older brother to being accepted by his parents to his present time, where he struggles more than ever. Cuthbert’s character is strongly developed and completely charming.
The dystopian world and science fiction details of Night of the Animals only highlight and emphasize the important aspects of the plot, Cuthbert’s struggle with humanity and the fate of the world. This detail-rich story draws you in, and will have you questioning everything until the end. You simply won’t want to put this exciting and adventurous book down.
Steven Rowley’s new book, Lily and the Octopus, is a dog book you must read. Even if you don’t like dogs — or if you love them so much you can’t bear to read another book about one — you must read this book. At its core, this is really a story about love, loss...and fighting an evil octopus.
Ted and Lily are sitting on the couch discussing cute boys like they do every Thursday when Ted notices the giant octopus on Lily’s small, furry head. Thus begins the epic battle between Ted and this sarcastic, sadistic sea creature that is trying to take his beloved dachshund from him.
Through flashbacks, we get to experience Lily choosing Ted 12 years before and how she changed his life. We also learn more about Ted’s recent breakup and his life before Lily. Rowley deftly weaves this background information into the narrative so that, with each flashback, these people become more real and more relatable to us.
There is a perfect balance to this story. Readers will crack up laughing and ugly cry in the same chapter. In either instance, the emotions in this book never feel fake or forced, and that is probably because it is largely based on the author’s own experience. Just before writing this book, Rowley lost his beloved doggy companion of 12 years, and he has distilled that experience on paper with honesty and understanding.
Mild spoiler alert: In case you haven't already guessed, the octopus is not actually an octopus, which means the plot veers into magical realism from time to time. While the octopus is actually a tumor, and Lily (probably) can’t really play board games, Ted’s imaginative perception of the situation is pitch perfect and captures what it feels like to fight for someone you love.
I read and listened to Lily and the Octopus because I couldn’t put it down, not even while driving or doing dishes, and I highly recommend listening to this one. Michael Urie does such an amazing job narrating all the characters, it really brought the story to life just a little bit more.
What would you do to help your suffering child? For most parents, the answer is probably “damn near anything.” Carolyn Parkhurst’s new novel, Harmony, follows a family’s tumble down a rabbit hole in search of an elusive fix for their autistic child.
The Hammond parents have reached the end of their collective rope. Their tween daughter Tilly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and socially inept behaviors which were confounding when she was little are frightening with adolescence looming. After being asked to leave yet again another school, Tilly’s parents seek help from an unorthodox source: a man whose charisma and promises lead the family down the primrose path to Camp Harmony. An internet shaman for the neurodevelopmentally challenged, Scott Bean promises salvation, if not outright cures, to desperate parents willing to fork over their assets and live the communal lifestyle at Bean’s utopian retreat in the backwoods of New Hampshire. Is Bean a savior, just another exploitative quack, or something else entirely?
Harmony offers the reader three points of view: younger sister Iris, who loves Tilly but is struggling to find her place in a family focused on its weakest link; mother Alexandra, whose relentless examination of Tilly’s issues propels the family to the camp; and, occasionally, Tilly’s own poignant and imaginative voice which reminds us that behind labels lie unique human beings who actually aren’t so different after all. As Parkhurst writes, we are “exceptional and ordinary, all at the same time.”
Robert Kirkman is already a seasoned veteran of horror-themed graphic novels, so it should come as no surprise that Outcast, his latest offering, is an unqualified success. Scary, tense and mysterious, this book checks all the boxes to make readers love the story and want to come back for more.
Outcast tells the story of Kyle Barnes, a man hiding from the world. Haunted by memories of violence in his childhood and divorced after an incident with his wife and daughter, he is entirely alone. He is given new life when he is offered the chance to help a possessed child. When the possessed child calls Kyle “Outcast” and speaks about Kyle’s childhood, he becomes determined to get to the bottom of it all. To tell any more would be to spoil the many, many surprises awaiting readers.
Kirkman does a great job of revealing just enough to keep the readers hungry and guessing — each answer leads to more and more questions. Just what does “Outcast” mean? How does this all tie into Kyle’s troubled life? And what is the sinister endgame behind it all? He also does not spare us from the gory horror and violence — panels are viscerally painted with the bloody results of interactions with the possessed. With his trademark prose, Kirkman makes us feel the exhaustion of Kyle’s struggle against darkness on all sides.
Definitely a great read for fans of the horror graphic novel genre or Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, this was so well received that it’s currently showing as a TV series on Cinemax. If you enjoyed this, I’d also recommend Joe Hill’s Locke and Key, James Tynion’s The Woods, and Scott Snyder’s Wytches — all series that are terrifying in their own right.
In Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines, our world is exactly as we know it. Social media is humming, fast food chains are thriving and UPS is delivering. Except there was one event that changed the course of our history — Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on his way to his inauguration. The Civil War never happened. And slavery is still the practice in four states.
The United States is part-slave, part-free, with the "Hard Four" states adhering to the old ways. Winters explores all the questions raised by this intriguing alternative history. Who benefits from the slave trade? Where do new slaves come from? The answers are told through the story of a young black man named Victor. Victor chose freedom in exchange for agreeing to work as a bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshall’s Service, the agency responsible for capturing and returning runaway slaves. While he suppresses memories of a childhood on the plantation, he works to infiltrate an abolitionist cell known as the Underground Airlines. His latest case finds him in Indianapolis, on the trail of a runaway named Jackdaw. But this case is different as he finds himself dealing with an uncommunicative boss as well as a young woman and her child who Victor cannot ignore. As his pursuit intensifies, Victor discovers secrets behind our government’s arrangement with the Hard Four — secrets that are not meant to be exposed. Victor struggles with retaining his freedom versus revealing the corrupt truth.
This blend of dystopian fiction, police procedural and alternative history results in a thrilling, quickly paced read. The premise is explosive, the story is well-constructed and the conclusion is exhilarating. Winters handles a provocative topic with sensitivity, but isn’t afraid to challenge the reader by raising thought-provoking issues throughout the novel. This one will stay with you long after the last page, as The Washington Post noted, “Winters has written a book that will make you see the world in a new light.”
What would you do if your roommate disappeared into the night? Or if a mysterious stranger showed up in your small town? Would you be curious? Would you call the police? Would you do nothing? Such is the subject matter of Mary Kubica’s latest psychological thriller, Don’t You Cry. Addictive from the very first paragraph, you won’t be able to put this book down. Everyone has secrets, and these two have more than their fair share!
Twentysomething Quinn awakens one Sunday morning to find her roommate, Esther, missing from their apartment. In disbelief, Quinn waits around for her to return home. But as the hours go by, she slowly realizes something is amiss. Why did Esther take several large ATM withdrawals days before her disappearance? Why did she place an order to change the apartment locks? Why did she never speak of her former roommate or family? Who is Esther really? Did Quinn even know her? Will she find her?
Meanwhile, another story is being told by Alex, an 18-year-old living in a northern Michigan town. Skipping college to take care of his neglectful, alcoholic father, Alex spends his days bussing tables at a local restaurant. One day, an unknown woman appears. Calling her Pearl, he obsessively follows her every move. Why is she in a summer town in the middle of fall? Where is she from? How is this connected to Esther’s disappearance?
Kubica gives just enough clues to keep you guessing and frantically turning the page. Believe me, you will become obsessed with Esther’s disappearance and Pearl’s story. Filled with surprising twists, Don’t You Cry begs to be devoured quickly. But don’t you cry when you read the last word — Kubica has written two other thrillers, The Good Girl and Pretty Baby, just waiting to be read.
A great read whether you’re new to the genre or a seasoned veteran of horror fiction, Joe Hill’s The Fireman is a complex and unsettling book that will leave you with a lot of deep questions but thrilled that you came along for the ride.
The Fireman tells the tale of Harper Grayson, a school nurse who is living in New England when a plague erupts across the world. Dubbed “Dragonscale,” this parasite covers its victims in luminescent scales before eventually causing them to combust into a pyre of flames. Although infected and facing her end, Harper finds a new will to survive when she becomes pregnant, and decides that her child will survive even if she does not. She must attempt to survive the dangerous parasite as well as the groups of people who begin hunting and killing the infected to prevent its spread — a group that includes her husband.
This book has a subtle burn — a gentle build of horror that occasionally sparks into a blaze of terror but typically smolders in the background. Hill masterfully uses foreshadowing to build tension and unease, letting you know that disaster waits just ahead but leaving it agonizingly uncertain when and how it will strike. The real terror of this book, though, is not in looming villains or gory scenes, but the darkness in man. The story examines how evil can grow and live in all people, and how all it takes is circumstance to fan it into a flame. Impressively, the story also crafts a believable protagonist who maintains her positivity throughout, remaining strong despite the horrors she faces.
With his latest offering, the son has truly surpassed the father. Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, is one of the freshest and strongest voices in horror fiction. If you enjoyed The Fireman, I’d also recommend NOS4A2, an earlier work of his that also deals with a mother seeking to protect her child. I’d also recommend Stephen King’s Cell, which shares a focus on humanity trying to survive after an apocalypse.