A dark genre-bending thriller that starts with a drowning but widens to encompass murder, cancer, drug addiction, and satanic ritual abuse.
Dustin is a Cleveland psychiatrist who’s having a rough, creepy year. His wife has died of cancer, and one of his patients is recruiting him to help investigate the drownings of young men that seem to match a pattern. And that’s just the stuff he’s aware of. Dustin doesn’t know that his youngest son, 18-year-old Aaron, is developing a heroin habit in the wake of his mom’s death. Nor does he know that Aaron has been talking with Dustin’s adopted brother, Rusty, who was convicted for killing Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle nearly 30 years earlier. Rusty was sent to prison based on circumstantial evidence and Dustin’s supposedly repressed memories of witnessing a satanic cult ritual that provoked the massacre. But that devil-made-me-do-it stuff has been debunked, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin, we learn, was and remains easily persuaded that untrue things are true. Chaon (Stay Awake, 2012, etc.) has a good time with all this bad news, skillfully exploring our unwitting capacity for self-delusion and self-destructive behavior. He does it through conventional novelistic detail (Aaron’s slide into addiction is particularly harrowing) and psychological insight, unspooling Dustin’s own issues through flashbacks and present-day anxiety. But Chaon also plays with form, at one point splitting Aaron’s narrative into first-, second-, and third-person points of view running alongside each other in columns, the better to suggest disconnection from oneself. But this kind of rhetorical somersaulting doesn’t interfere with the main narrative, and though the novel at times feels baggy, especially the present-day serial-killer plot, overall Chaon has mastered multiple psychologically complex and often fearsome characters.
A shadowy narrative that’s carried well by the author’s command and insight.
A famous photographer’s daughters come to terms with his death in the talented Dymott’s elegiac, devastating tale.
After the 2003 death of famous photographer Max Hollingbourne, his daughters, Ruthie and Vinny, retreat to the family’s villa in Greece, the scene of many dreamlike and bittersweet summers. Vinny is the responsible one, three years older than the volatile, sensitive Ruthie, and they mourn their father in very different ways, especially since Ruthie had been estranged from him for years. Dymott hints at tragedy to come during this final gathering, interweaving past and present and taking readers back to when Max first met 22-year-old Sophie in 1959 and made her his wife. Sophie gave up her singing career to raise Ruthie and Vinny, and Max was largely absent, traveling constantly for his work. Vinny always had an easy way with Max, something Ruthie envied, so when Ruthie asks that he teach her photography, she treasures the time in the darkroom, although his impatience with her was sometimes marked by cruelty and physical violence. Vinny and Ruthie are still little girls when their mother begins showing signs of mental illness, and she eventually leaves, marking a turning point for the girls and their father. Under the care of their Aunt Beatrice, whom they love dearly, the girls still long for Sophie, especially Ruthie, who, as an adult, eventually begins exhibiting similar symptoms to her mother. In 2003, a family moves in to the villa next door, including a young girl named Annie. Perhaps seeing herself in this girl, the 40-year-old Ruthie, a gifted photographer in her own right, is inspired to transcend anything she’s ever created.
The grueling and fascinating process of photographic development reads like its own sort of poetry in this gut-wrenching, achingly intimate look at grief and how closely art and life intertwine, for better or worse.
Pelletier’s (Accidents of Providence, 2012) second novel unfolds a complex story in the span of 24 hours—the dreaded yet celebrated anniversary of Henry and Marilyn Plageman’s son Jack’s birth...and death.
Dead 14 years on May 22, 1897, Jack would have been 16 if he had lived. Traditionally, on the morning of May 22, Lucy, Henry’s lover of 10 years, helps him plant new flowers at Jack’s gravesite and then leaves before unsuspecting Marilyn arrives to mourn. This particular day, the normally well-orchestrated schedule collapses, soon to be followed by the tenuous relationships that have been precipitated by grief. Pelletier expertly fills in the back story—introspection and memories mingle smoothly with the present. Henry, Marilyn, and Lucy relate their stories in the second person, a point of view that serves to distance them from their own lives, as if they are not living but merely being observed. Henry once had a life with a warm, loving wife and beloved son...until that sunlit afternoon when Jack was napping and he and Marilyn made love. Marilyn can no longer bear intimacy with Henry. Her life was once filled to the brim with love...until loss and guilt stepped in. Lucy met a broken Henry and fell in love. She thought he might leave Marilyn, not understanding that he was inextricably bound to her...until she saw them together at the cemetery. Blue, Henry and Lucy’s 8-year-old daughter, loves her absentee father deeply, but her impulsive action in the cemetery on this calamitous Saturday brings relationships to a wrenching conclusion. In the end, the half wives may be able to redeem their lives, but it remains to be seen if Henry will stay locked in his own half-life.
Well-crafted characters struggling alone with shared grief furnishes a coursing river on which this intriguing story effortlessly flows. Tough to put down.
Australian playwright Burton charts the ups and downs of his anxious adolescence and early 20s in this hilariously candid debut memoir.
Diagnosed with clinical depression on and off since he was a young child, Burton enters high school determined to make friends, fit in, and get noticed by girls. The young white man finds his niche in drama class, where his talent for acting manifests itself as his alter ego, Crazy Drama Dave, the hyperactive and perennially involved young man that his new friends come to know. At home, he is withdrawn and exhausted with the effort of keeping up this facade while struggling to understand his emerging sexuality and identity. By the time he enters university to study theater, he decides to put a swift end to his confusion about his sexual orientation and adopts a new persona: Gay Dave. Eventually, his avoidance of his mental health issues catches up with him in heartbreaking ways, and he is forced to come to terms with his own unhappiness. Burton’s descriptions of his anxiety and depression are tangibly poignant, giving authentic voice to those struggling with similar issues. His tone morphs fluidly from compulsively funny to devastating from one moment to the next, and his uproarious wit shines throughout.
A heartfelt, accessible book that strives to break down the stigmas surrounding mental illness with remarkable humor and honesty.
A retelling of the Joan of Arc story set in a terrifying near future of environmental and political chaos.
Earth in 2049 is ravaged. A geocatastrophe has swallowed coasts and islands; supervolcanoes and solar storms have dimmed the sun and reduced the planet to “a dirt clod, floating in space.” The wealthiest of Earth’s inhabitants now live in CIEL, “a suborbital complex” floating just in view of their former planetary home. Christine Pizan (a nod to medieval court writer Christine de Pisan), at age 49, resembles the other inhabitants of CIEL: physically androgynous, completely white “like the albumen of an egg,” and covered in scars and skin grafts. These deliberate body modifications, or “skinstories,” are Christine’s expertise, and they are some of the only reminders she has left of life on Earth, along with her beloved friend and fellow CIELian Trinculo (who resembles his buffoonish namesake from Shakespeare’s The Tempest). In particular, Christine has seared into her body the story of Joan, a young eco-terrorist from the time of the geocatastrophe—and when her and Trinculo’s survival is threatened, she turns to her body’s offering of Joan’s tale for inspiration. Yuknavitch (The Small Backs of Children, 2015, etc.) writes with her characteristic fusion of poetic precision and barbed ferocity, and the ingenuity of the world she creates astounds even in the face of the novel’s ambitiously messy sprawl. Perhaps even more astounding is Yuknavitch’s prescience: readers will be familiar with the figure of Jean de Men, a celebrity-turned–drone-wielding–dictator who first presided over the Wars on Earth and now lords over CIEL, having substituted “all gods, all ethics, and all science with the power of representation, a notion born on Earth, evolved through media and technology.”
A harrowing and timely entry into the canon of speculative fiction.
For a clique of aspiring Shakespearean actors at an elite arts academy, the line between performance and reality dissolves, with disastrous results.
In the prologue to this bloody, melodramatic, suspenseful debut novel, we meet former drama student Oliver Marks, now finishing up a 10-year prison sentence. He is visited by the cop who brought him to justice on the eve of his retirement, asking if Marks will finally tell him the truth of what happened that night at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. He agrees to do so after his upcoming release, on the condition that there are no repercussions for revealing his secrets. And so he begins. “Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us…surrounded by words and books and poetry, all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum.” They are in their fourth year, the kings and queens of the campus, dividing among them all the best roles in the productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar planned for that fall. But as the semester progresses it becomes clear that just as Shakespeare’s language has taken over their speech—they address each other constantly in quotes from the poetry and bits of repartee from the plays—his characters have taken over their souls, and the power struggles, jealousies, and murderous rages that fill the dramas have crossed into their real lives. “I have ransacked Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre with giddy abandon,” Rio confesses in her Author’s Note, managing to cleverly weave a whole new story from the poetry and plots of Macbeth, Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear. "Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?" the retired detective asks the released convict. "I blame him for all of it," the narrator replies.
This novel about obsession at the conservatory will thoroughly obsess you.
In a strong debut, an Iraq War veteran tells the before and after for both sides of a brief firefight in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Army soldiers Cassandra, Crump, and McGinnis and their Humvee are part of a group guarding a roundabout outside Baghdad in 2003. During a mujahedeen mortar and ground assault, the three are last seen taking shelter in an irrigation canal when the story shifts back two years. The mujahedeen are recruiting in Afghanistan and mulling their next campaign when 9/11 occurs and they embark on the trajectory that will end at that roundabout. The narrative hopscotch continues in pre-raid time jumps tracking the Humvee soldiers and the Muslim fighters, while Van Reet, who served with a tank crew in Iraq, adds a third group, a trio of tank crewmen whose hunt for Saddam souvenirs will take them off post when the call comes to head for the embattled roundabout. The author gives each of the three groups a distinctive voice, revealing the hearts and minds on both sides of the war and how training, stupidity, and fear all come into play. Cassandra, Crump, and McGinnis resurface in the main timeline as POWs in separate rooms of a makeshift prison. It’s soon clear that the insurgent leader will use any method to make them serve his propaganda videos, leaving 100 grimly tense pages before the end. Van Reet’s lean prose accommodates a laconic style suggesting military reports and detail-rich context fed by a keen eye and memory. He embeds the reader with the unwashed troops in a cramped Humvee, in a dark cell where only screams penetrate, and in the mind of a Muslim fighter with two decades of campaigning, a dead son, a lost wife, scant wins, and more doubts than faith can ease.
A fine piece of writing that should stand in the front ranks of recent war novels.
Hoping to rejuvenate their flagging writing careers, Clare and Jess Martin inadvertently move into a haunted house. Not everyone will survive.
Back in college, both Clare and Jess were promising writers who met in the exclusive seminar taught by the enigmatic Alden Montague. Now Clare works as a copy editor to pay the bills, which have piled up since the advance on Jess’ second—still unfinished—novel ran out. Luckily, Montague offers them the position of caretakers at his Hudson River Valley estate, Riven House. But perhaps luck has little to do with the offer. Goodman (River Road, 2016, etc.) brilliantly channels the conventions of the Gothic ghost story. The road to Riven House is as dark, twisted, and broken down as the house itself, an octagonal rarity riddled with water damage, abandoned rooms, and a painted-shut dumbwaiter. Indeed, she has cleverly imbued the very bones of the architecture with allusions to Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Once ensconced in Riven House, both Jess and Clare begin to write. Inspired by Montague’s story of how his great-grandfather broke the heart of the local Apple Blossom Queen, Clare begins to research the legend, discovering uncanny parallels to her own life. Illicit loves, illegitimate births, lost children, mothers driven mad—the Montague family’s past soon pierces the veil of Clare’s life. As the haunting intensifies, Clare sees shadowy women on the edge of the weir, hears invisible babies crying in the wee hours, and peels back layer after layer of identical wallpaper in the nursery. Goodman ratchets up the psychological tension, making Clare question everyone she has ever trusted. Why were her adoptive parents so distant? Why did Jess lie about his job offer back in Brooklyn? Who can be trusted?
Losing a child—whether to death, kidnapping, war, or other calamities—is widely recognized as one of life’s most traumatic experiences.
It’s a reality that Lilia and her husband, Héctor, know well. The story begins in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in a remote village with few opportunities for economic or social advancement. Even as a child, Héctor wanted more, and this, along with a ferocious interest in seeing the world, motivated him as a young father to leave his family and undertake a harrowing journey to the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Jobs were plentiful, and soon after arriving he settled in South Carolina, where he found both a place to live and employment that paid a living wage. But Lilia missed Héctor and hated the fact that they were separated. This led her to contact a coyote and, with her infant daughter, Alejandra, in tow, begin the treacherous process of joining him. All goes smoothly until the coyote informs Lilia that she cannot cross la línea—the border—with the baby. He instructs her to turn the child over to an experienced trafficker and assures her that they will be reunited several days later. Suffice it to say that this doesn’t happen, and, as you’d expect, the impact is devastating. Is Alejandra alive or dead? How could she simply vanish? As the novel progresses, readers bear witness to the strain that develops between Lilia and Héctor and experience the stomach-churning agony of the couple’s multifaceted attempts to find out what happened to their daughter. As the mystery unfolds, the tension builds, and so do the risks taken.
A gripping and politically savvy look at the human impact of current immigration policy and an honest examination of the perils facing desperate immigrants as they travel north.
A young man finds joy in a “place they said no one could love.”
In 2009, at age 23, Philp bought a house for $500 in Detroit: an abandoned 1903 Queen Anne with a wraparound porch. One of many such bargains available in the bankrupt city, the house and the story of its yearslong rehabilitation are the focus of this fresh, honest, often stirring debut, which began as a BuzzFeed feature. A shy, idealistic working-class white kid from rural Michigan, the author arrived in the 80 percent black city with no friends, job, or money. Fixing the house “would be a protest of sorts,” he reasoned, an expression of his contempt for the wealthy suburban lifestyle of Ann Arbor, where he had just attended the University of Michigan. Working odd jobs, he found himself in a frightening city of wild dogs, frequent shootings, suspicious fires, and near-daily offers of drugs or sex. One new neighbor, Zeno, a crack dealer, asked him, “are you wearing a wire, motherfucker?” Another told Philp about a county auction of thousands of abandoned houses, an event that kicks off this deeply felt, sharply observed personal quest to create meaning and community out of the fallen city’s “cinders of racism and consumerism and escape.” Often hungry and scared, the author had help from his parents and new friends (most wild spirits sharing in the adventure of a revitalizing city) in working with abandoned materials to cobble his broken-down home, from chimney and stairs to foundation. The grueling process not only reveals his growing maturity, but also becomes a window on the look and feel of present-day Detroit and the neighborly people struggling to achieve satisfying lives there. Philp ably outlines the broad issues of race and class in the city, but it is the warmth and liveliness of his storytelling that will win many readers. “It is your sacred duty to find hope somewhere,” he reminds us.
What begins as a dark comedy, with a viciously cruel cheerleader found dead (clad only in a coconut-shell bra and a grass miniskirt), takes a surprise flashback turn into raw emotional honesty.
High school junior Emma is totally fine with her divorced mother’s newly discovered bisexuality, but why does her mom’s new girlfriend have to have such a complete hellbeast of a daughter? Quinn’s not mean in the sense of petty or snarky but in the sense of “full-throttle mega-mean girl with acid spit and laser eyes.” A hot, popular, white cheerleader, Quinn happily destroys lives; her homophobic, racist, fatphobic vitriol is the least of her nastiness. Emma—a fat, studious, white fan of comics and Doctor Who—wants to keep things civil for the sake of her mom and Quinn’s, but she sees only two options: being complicit in Quinn’s destructive behavior or becoming its prime target. Emma’s blossoming in the face of her semistepsister’s spite seems at first to be a straight-up Heathers-style bitch-clique comedy, but Quinn’s death shocks her into some painful introspection. Without ever excusing Quinn’s (or Emma’s) sins, Darrow’s dark novel forces its readers to see beyond character cliché. The macabre black humor is spot-on, while the subverted tropes rework edgy nihilism into a sniffle-inducing recognition of humanity.
Another smart, savage winner from the author of The Awesome (2015)
. (Fiction. 13-16)