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The 13 Scariest Books Written This Year

An unmissable thriller.

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THE CHAIN

For every child kidnapped, another must be taken. Otherwise The Chain will be broken.

Thirteen-year-old Kylie is waiting for the school bus on Plum Island, Massachusetts, when a man and a woman pull up wearing ski masks. Her brain tells her to run, but she doesn’t make the correct split-second decision, and she is taken at gunpoint. Her mother, Rachel, then receives a call that she is now part of The Chain. She must pay a ransom and kidnap another family’s child, and then that family must do the same for her daughter to be released. No law enforcement, no politicians, no journalists. The Chain cannot be broken or the children—her child, her Kylie—will be executed. While Rachel scrambles to get the money together (even though it isn’t about the money, she is told) and pick a child to steal, it becomes clear that she is being tracked and her every move is being monitored. She can’t do this, she must do this, she is now a completely different person who has done this. Inspired by the “exchange kidnappings” that take place in Mexico and the old-school chain letters of his childhood, crime novelist McKinty (Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, 2017, etc.) takes what at first seems like a fantastical scenario and imbues it with all the terror, stress, trauma, and messiness of reality. At once a commentary on social media, greed, revenge, love, and true evil, and written with an almost lyrical quality, this book will have readers searching for more McKinty titles to devour.

An unmissable thriller.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-53126-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

A memorable, disquieting ghost story about stories, rendered inside a Möbius strip.

THE REMAKING

After a mother and her daughter are murdered, their legacy evolves into a ghost story that haunts generations.

Horror on film is relatively easy: jump scares, gore, the occasional torture porn, and always the final girls. Horror in fiction is a little trickier, but occasionally you get something special like Mark Z. Danielewski’s puzzle box, House of Leaves (2000), John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (2007), or, more recently, Josh Malerman’s runaway hit Bird Box (2014). Chapman’s (Nothing Untoward, 2017, etc.) spooky story solidly fits the mold of nothing you’ve ever read before. The book is divided into quarters, each entirely original yet always connected and deeply unnerving. The opener finds an old coot recounting the story of a woman named Ella Loise Ford, known to the small town of Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, to be a witch. The men in the town don’t take kindly to this, and in 1931, they set the woman ablaze, along with her young daughter, Jessica, whose resting place would become the legend known as “The Witch Girl’s Grave at Pilot’s Creek.” Jump forward to 1971, and their story is being made into a B-quality horror film directed by an obsessive filmmaker and starring a young ingénue named Amber who discovers these terrifying woods hold much more than just rumors. By the mid-1990s, Amber, now a burned-out, Klonopin-addicted scream queen, takes over the story to recall her role in an ill-fated remake of the cult classic that nearly killed her. By the modern day, there’s yet another shift, as a budding podcaster named Nate Denison tracks down an aged Amber to discover what’s really waiting out there in the woods. Something like Stephen King’s imperfect masterpiece The Shining (1977), this book is not always completely coherent, but it’s a deeply eerie and evocative portrayal of what it’s like to stare into the abyss and find something there waiting for you.

A memorable, disquieting ghost story about stories, rendered inside a Möbius strip.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68369-153-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Quirk Books

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A compelling domestic horror story reaches into a young woman’s nightmares of her childhood in search of what’s real.

THE PURSUIT

A young woman is haunted by a past she doesn’t understand in this brief but powerful story of domestic violence.

In her latest novel, Oates (My Life as a Rat, 2019, etc.) is in full domestic gothic mode. Like any bride, Abby Hayman is hopeful that she’s stepping into a new and happy life. But she has more reason than most to long for transformation. Her parents disappeared when she was 5 years old. After a haphazard upbringing, at 20 she’s pulling her life together. She’s even put behind her the terrifying nightmares of skeletons hidden in tall grass that tormented her childhood—or so she thinks. Those visions return with a vengeance just before she marries Willem Zengler, a devoutly Christian pre-med student. The day after their wedding, she gets off a bus, then steps in front of it. Was it an accident or a suicide attempt? She’s so seriously injured she can’t answer the question, spending nine days in a coma and still feeling confused when she awakes. When Willem says, “We need to get to that moment, Abby. When you can tell me what you see,” he might be talking about the accident—or about her screaming nightmares. The first part of the book focuses on Abby and her shadowy memories. It intensifies as Oates switches to the points of view of Abby’s parents. Her mother married young and raised her baby alone while her husband was serving in the military in Iraq. When he returns, his wife hardly knows him: In the Army “he’d cultivated a cruel use of seemingly ordinary speech, given a mock-Southern inflection. Like a butter knife honed razor-sharp.” That cruelty will quickly escalate into PTSD–fueled madness. The book is so submerged in the nightmares that intrude on Abby’s life that it’s a little shocking to be reminded, by such prosaic items as iPhones and MRIs, that the story takes place in the present, in the real world.

A compelling domestic horror story reaches into a young woman’s nightmares of her childhood in search of what’s real.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4791-2

Page Count: 244

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

This riveting Gothic thriller explores the limits of love, guilt, and punishment.

THE SHAPE OF NIGHT

Running away from the memory of a New Year’s Eve party gone terribly wrong, food writer Ava Collette escapes Boston for a remote Maine village only to face a haunted house and a murder investigation.

Bestselling author of the Rizzoli & Isles series, Gerritsen (I Know a Secret, 2017, etc.) returns with a spellbinding thriller. The focus stays tightly on the experience of the potential victim, Ava, which enables Gerritsen to spin a tight web. Entangled in her own guilt, Ava isolates herself further and further, avoiding calls from her sister and living alone in the ominous Brodie’s Watch mansion, named for its builder, a shipping master lost to sea more than a hundred years ago. Although Brodie’s Watch initially frightens Ava, the moment she steps over the threshold, she feels inexplicably welcomed. Indeed, she is most welcome, as the shadows in her bedroom coalesce into the shape of a man, a man who may well be the ghost of Capt. Brodie. He stalks the house most nights, seducing Ava into not only the passions of love, but also atonement through punishment meted out for her sins. And so Gerritsen shifts a murder mystery into a Gothic thriller, replete with an unsteady widow’s walk, secret alcove, strange smells, ominous sensations, and the ghost. Even the prologue echoes the dream of Manderley from Du Maurier’s Rebecca. But then a dead body washes ashore, and the police investigation suggests the dead woman was killed before she hit the water. Fearful that her spectral lover may be a real-life murderer, Ava inquires about Charlotte Nielson, the young woman who rented Brodie’s Watch before her and left in an inexplicable hurry. But Ava’s investigation uncovers a disturbing list of dead women, which the townspeople seem to have spackled over. Who are they protecting?

This riveting Gothic thriller explores the limits of love, guilt, and punishment.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2095-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Read this one with the lights on.

THE TWISTED ONES

A woman realizes she’s not alone while cleaning out her late grandmother’s remote North Carolina home.

Freelance book editor Melissa, aka “Mouse,” can’t say no to her father when he asks her to clear out her grandmother’s house. Unfortunately, the house, which has been locked up for two years, is a hoarder’s paradise, but Mouse digs in with her beloved coonhound, Bongo, at her side. One day bleeds into another as she hauls junk to the nearby dump and makes friends with her kind and quirky neighbors, Foxy, Tomas, and Skip. When she finds a journal belonging to her stepgrandfather Frederick Cotgrave, things get creepy. The prose sounds like the ravings of a man unhappy in his marriage to a woman who wasn’t a very nice person, but the mention of something called the Green Book is intriguing, and the line “I twisted myself about like the twisted ones” gives Mouse the chills. While walking Bongo in the woods, Mouse stumbles on a strange gathering of stones on top of a hill that shouldn’t exist. After discovering a gruesome deer effigy hanging in the woods, Mouse confides in Foxy, who tells a few strange tales of her own. Something is lurking just outside Mouse's house, and that effigy isn't of this world, but just when she’s ready to leave, Bongo disappears. And Mouse isn’t going anywhere without Bongo. Kingfisher effortlessly entwines an atmospheric and spooky “deep dark woods” tale with ancient folklore and pulls off more than a few very effective scares. Mouse is a highly relatable and frequently funny narrator who is also refreshingly willing to believe her own eyes. The charming supporting cast is a bonus, especially the glamorous, 60-something Foxy, who goes above and beyond the call of duty to help Mouse when she needs it most.

Read this one with the lights on.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-2956-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Saga/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Miniature masterworks of modern horror proving that life is hard, weird, and always fatal.

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FULL THROTTLE

The poet laureate of everyday terrors returns with a baker’s dozen of deliciously sinister tales.

Novelist and short story writer Hill (Strange Weather, 2017, etc.) is, of course, the son of Stephen King, with whom he collaborates here on two stories, including the title tale. As ever with King, the stories have ordinary settings with ordinary people doing ordinary things until something extraordinary happens, in this case involving the familiar King nightmare of menacing vehicles (“Could you supercharge a goddamn semi?”). If one bears in mind that in his last collection Hill posited that near-future rainstorms would shower down steel daggers instead of water, some of his setups seem almost logical. The most memorable comes in “Late Returns,” in which an out-of-work trucker (there’s that semi again) finds himself behind a bookmobile delivering volumes to denizens of the afterlife, most of whom owe late fees; as one such fellow tells him, the service he offers is something of a reward “for returning overdue books in spite of the inconvenience of being dead.” There are other benefits: In the weird chronology of the other dimension, those who are about to enter the great beyond get previews of books that haven’t even been written yet—including, perhaps the most frightening moment in the entire collection, “The Art of the Presidency: How I Won My Third Term by Donald J. Trump.” Hill plays with form; one story, “The Devil on the Staircase,” is told in triangles of carefully arranged prose, a storyline worthy of Poe unfolding with eldritch intent—and a nice punchline to boot. In yet another story, this one of a more satirical turn, Hill depicts a world in which the zombie apocalypse and addiction to social media are hard to tell apart. In a series of tweets, the narrator recounts a zombie being hauled before a human audience and a box of hatchets. “Don’t like where this is going,” she says. Exactly.

Miniature masterworks of modern horror proving that life is hard, weird, and always fatal.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-220067-9

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A pleasing book for those who like to scare themselves silly, one to read with the lights on and the door bolted.

IMAGINARY FRIEND

Two decades after his debut novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), Chbosky returns with a creepy horror yarn that would do Stephen King proud.

“Mom? Will he find us?” So asks young Christopher of his mother, Kate, who has spirited him away from her abusive mate and found a tiny town in Pennsylvania in which to hide out. Naturally, her secret is not safe—but it’s small potatoes compared to what Christopher begins to detect as he settles in to a new life and a new school. His friends, like him, are casualties, and that’s just fine for the malevolent forces that await out in the woods and even in the sky, the latter the place where Christopher comes into contact with a smiling, talking cloud that lures him off into the ever dark woods. “That’s when he heard a little kid crying,“ writes Chbosky, and that’s just about the time the reader will want to check to be sure that no one is hiding behind the chair—or worse, and about the scariest trope of all, which Chbosky naturally puts to work, under the bed. Christopher disappears only to turn up a little less than a week later, decidedly transformed. But then, so’s everyone in Mill Grove, including his elementary school teacher, who harbors an ominous thought: “Christopher was such a nice little boy. It was too bad that he was going to die now.” As things begin to go truly haywire, Chbosky’s prose begins to break down into fragments and odd punctuation and spelling, suggesting that someone other than the author is in control of the fraught world he’s depicting. One wonders why Kate doesn’t just fire up the station wagon and head down the Pennsylvania Turnpike rather than face things like a “hissing lady” and a townsman who has suddenly begun to sport daggerlike teeth, but that’s the nature of a good scary story—and this one is excellent.

A pleasing book for those who like to scare themselves silly, one to read with the lights on and the door bolted.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-3133-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

King fans won’t be disappointed, though most will likely prefer the scarier likes of The Shining and It.

THE INSTITUTE

The master of modern horror returns with a loose-knit parapsychological thriller that touches on territory previously explored in Firestarter and Carrie.

Tim Jamieson is a man emphatically not in a hurry. As King’s (The Outsider, 2018, etc.) latest opens, he’s bargaining with a flight attendant to sell his seat on an overbooked run from Tampa to New York. His pockets full, he sticks out his thumb and winds up in the backwater South Carolina town of DuPray (should we hear echoes of “pray”? Or “depraved”?). Turns out he’s a decorated cop, good at his job and at reading others (“You ought to go see Doc Roper,” he tells a local. “There are pills that will brighten your attitude”). Shift the scene to Minneapolis, where young Luke Ellis, precociously brilliant, has been kidnapped by a crack extraction team, his parents brutally murdered so that it looks as if he did it. Luke is spirited off to Maine—this is King, so it’s got to be Maine—and a secret shadow-government lab where similarly conscripted paranormally blessed kids, psychokinetic and telepathic, are made to endure the Skinnerian pain-and-reward methods of the evil Mrs. Sigsby. How to bring the stories of Tim and Luke together? King has never minded detours into the unlikely, but for this one, disbelief must be extra-willingly suspended. In the end, their forces joined, the two and their redneck allies battle the sophisticated secret agents of The Institute in a bloodbath of flying bullets and beams of mental energy (“You’re in the south now, Annie had told these gunned-up interlopers. She had an idea they were about to find out just how true that was"). It’s not King at his best, but he plays on current themes of conspiracy theory, child abuse, the occult, and Deep State malevolence while getting in digs at the current occupant of the White House, to say nothing of shadowy evil masterminds with lisps.

King fans won’t be disappointed, though most will likely prefer the scarier likes of The Shining and It.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9821-1056-7

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Koryta has never been better than with this knuckle-biting thriller.

IF SHE WAKES

Slowly emerging from the coma she's been in since a black cargo van rammed the car she was using to transport a visiting professor, killing him, Maine college senior Tara Beckley is targeted by a ruthless young hit man.

After the driver of the van admits his guilt, police rule the collision a simple wreck. But it doesn't take long for insurance investigator Abby Kaplan, a former racer and stunt driver who knows how cars behave at high speeds, to determine that this was no accident. She responds emotionally to Tara and her family; Abby's boyfriend in Los Angeles was left in a coma after a reckless joy ride she took him on ended badly. The bad news for the bad guys, who are desperate to get their hands on a device that was in the professor's possession, is that Tara is now conscious and alert and able to communicate by moving her eyes. Dax Blackwell, the boyish, creepily calm gunman (whose father, Jack, an Australian assassin, died in Koryta's Those Who Wish Me Dead), must not only get past Abby to get to Tara, he also has to contend with Tara's fiercely protective sister, Shannon. It's a measure of how good this book is that the chilling, masterfully sustained suspense is only one of its standout achievements. Koryta never brushes off anyone's death; he makes you feel for the victims. The relationship between Tara and her sibling is beautifully nuanced, full of revealing details going back to their childhood. And Koryta’s (How It Happened, 2018, etc.) fans will surely appreciate the suggestion of a sequel.

Koryta has never been better than with this knuckle-biting thriller.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-29400-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

A pleasing romp through a fetid swamp, but not for weak stomachs.

JUST ONE BITE

A cannibal is recruited to help catch a serial killer.

Much as it hurts him to admit it, and for reasons he does not divulge, Timothy Blake will tell you he's a cannibal. In fact, his dietary preference, such as it is, informs his livelihood: He disposes of bodies for Charlie Warner, one of Houston's toughest gangsters. In the course of celebrating this marriage of food and function, Blake happens upon an unauthorized corpse right where he was to receive his next assignment from Charlie; he puts it in his freezer, and things rapidly spin out of control. First, Charlie sends two of her heaviest heavies to fetch Blake for questioning. Why had he left the drop-off location, leaving a large corpse in the trunk of the wrong car? Well, it's because of that other corpse, but Blake doesn't want Charlie to know about that. And then Reese Thistle from the FBI shows up to ask him to help investigate a disappearance, and Blake soon realizes the missing man is the body in his freezer. Thistle, it turns out, was Blake's "handler" when he worked for the FBI, and in fact their history goes back to their days in foster care. Blake at one time had feelings for Thistle but had pushed her away lest his appetites get the better of him. Her reappearance is unsettling, and the two dance uneasily through an investigation that gets sidetracked in several ways. Charlie is not happy her corpse-disposal officer is swanning with the FBI and threatens to terminate Blake's employment permanently; Blake realizes that the corpse in his freezer could convict him of murder; and the investigation uncovers evidence of other murders. A messy kidnapping-for-porn subplot occupies Blake and somewhat distracts him from the FBI's agenda. And, oh yes! He and Thistle reconnect in conventionally fleshly ways. Told with energy and humor, this dark narrative is a bit overstuffed with dire twists, but the characters of Blake and Thistle are sweetly tough and naïve.

A pleasing romp through a fetid swamp, but not for weak stomachs.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-335-95284-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Hanover Square Press

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

Laukkanen’s thrillers go beyond bloodshed and giving bad guys their due. His protagonists show a level of humanity that...

DECEPTION COVE

The latest by the author of the Stevens and Windermere series and the maritime thriller Gale Force (2018).

When Mason Burke is released from a Michigan prison after serving 15 years for murder, he has no skills and no money. Near the end of his sentence, he worked with a rescue pit bull mix named Lucy in an experimental program. They weren't supposed to bond, but you know how men and dogs are. Upon his release, Burke knows he can never have Lucy back, but he simply wants to know she's doing well. From a photo he correctly guesses that she’s been sent to tiny Deception Cove, Washington, so he borrows money and follows her there. Lucy has been a companion for widowed ex-Marine Jess Winslow, whose psyche remains badly shaken by combat in Afghanistan: “She couldn’t survive without Lucy.” But when a corrupt deputy sheriff gives Jess trouble, Lucy bites him in the butt. Authorities take umbrage—and Lucy—and plan to destroy her. Jess’ dead husband, Ty, had something the crooked cops want, and they hold Lucy hostage until Jess coughs up information she doesn’t have. When Mason and Jess meet, they are two troubled people connected only by a homely, comforting dog. Jess’ nightmares make her scream, and Lucy’s slobbery tongue on her face calms her down. For his part, Mason’s time in prison was well spent with reading and reflection on his screw-ups. Once they meet, the story escalates quickly. Springing Lucy from death row is job No. 1, after which all three are in deep trouble. Jess and Mason carry equal weight in this story as they learn to trust and rely on each other. Her marksmanship skills come in handy, while “the most decent man she’d ever met in her life” has much to learn. But decency is his strong suit, and it serves him well. And Lucy shows them both a fierce loyalty. If the novel ever becomes a movie, she’ll be a strong candidate for best supporting dog.

Laukkanen’s thrillers go beyond bloodshed and giving bad guys their due. His protagonists show a level of humanity that makes his stories a real pleasure.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-44870-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

A tantalizing, un-put-down-able novel by an instant master of the form.

THE CHESTNUT MAN

In a debut novel by the creator of the television show The Killing, a serial killer in Copenhagen targets young mothers as part of a complex scheme that seems to have ties to the apparent murder of government minister Rosa Hartung's 12-year-old daughter, Kristine, a year ago.

The homicidal Chestnut Man, named after the chestnut and matchstick dolls he leaves behind, is a grisly operator who amputates the hands of the women he abducts while they're still alive. A pair of mismatched investigators are reluctantly on the case: Naia Thulin, a local cop who, tired of what she thinks of as "tedious" assignments with Major Crimes, eyes a promotion to the cybercrime unit, and Mark Hess, a disheveled Europol agent on temporary leave from the Hague to serve "penance for some blunder or other." The big complicating factor is the absence of proof that Kristine, who disappeared, is dead; when her fingerprints turn up on the chestnut dolls, hopes stir that she is, in fact, alive. It takes a little time for the novel to set itself apart from other such thrillers. What are the chestnut dolls if not an imitation of the diabolical snowmen in Jo Nesbø's The Snowman? But with its densely layered plot, chilling settings, and multiple suspects with murderous grudges, Sveistrup's epic rises above any such comparisons. This is a page-turner that will make you hesitate before turning the page, so unnerving is the violence. One of the best and scariest crime novels of the year, it adds to its rewards by promising us at least one sequel.

A tantalizing, un-put-down-able novel by an instant master of the form.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-289536-3

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Unlikely heroes battle a frightening fungus that could wipe out humanity in this taut, mordant thriller debut.

COLD STORAGE

A long-forgotten but deadly organism stored in a deep cave becomes a chilling threat, and a retired bioweapons agent and two security guards are the only ones who can stop it.

Koepp is a very successful screenwriter (Jurassic Park, etc.) and director (Premium Rush, etc.) whose film experience is apparent in this propulsive disaster tale. In the prologue, set in 1987, two agents of the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency, specialists in neutralizing bioweapons and the like, head for a remote Australian town where debris from the Skylab satellite fell. There, Roberto Diaz and Trini Romano find a bizarre catastrophe: An unknown fungus that mutates with spectacular speed has killed everyone in Kiwirrkurra. Diaz and Romano clean up the mess and contain a sample of the organism, which they deliver to a huge cave under the Missouri River bluffs used by the military as a highly secured storage facility. What could go wrong, right? Cut to the present, when the military has sealed the lowest sublevel of the cave, where the fungus is, and sold the rest of the space to a self-storage company. Add a little climate change to raise the underground temperature, and the novel kicks into high gear. Koepp keeps a tight focus on three characters: Diaz, who is called out of retirement to handle the situation secretly, and two guards at the storage facility. Travis “Teacake” Meacham is an ex-convict trying to get his life back on track. Naomi Williams is a college student with two jobs and a sweet little daughter she’s raising as a single mother. When the two try to track down an unfamiliar warning signal going off in the facility, they find a nightmare. Koepp builds a tight plot as the three race against time and the fungus, a fictional but all-too-convincing monster of an organism that, if it escapes, could bring on global extinctions. Roberto, Travis, and Naomi are engaging, believable characters. Koepp is skilled at sharp, often humorous dialogue, and Roberto’s discovery of the physical barriers to being a hero at age 68 is both darkly funny and an effective source of suspense.

Unlikely heroes battle a frightening fungus that could wipe out humanity in this taut, mordant thriller debut.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-291643-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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