An ambitious and provocative grouping of stories filled with peculiar characters.


Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana


A collection of short stories plumbs the depths of the human psyche.

Appel (Einstein’s Beach House: Stories, 2015, etc.) possesses a curiously sharp radar for eccentricity; this collection of short stories investigates the meaning to be found in the messiness of human affairs. In “The Punishment,” an aging musician seeks to rein in her wayward grandson, both spoiled and ungovernable. She recalls her own youthful transgressions and the severe punishments she met with and finds the dark inspiration to chasten her incarcerated daughter’s teenage child. “Boundaries” charts the lonely life of Phoebe Laroque, who works as a border patrol officer and every year has Christmas dinner with her partner, Artie Kimmel. She’s confronted one year with almost equally unsettling prospects: Artie falls in love with a woman suddenly and it’s not her, and a Pakistani attempts to cross the border with what seems to be a dangerous case of smallpox. In one of the two title stories, “Coulrophobia,” a family takes in a mime as a boarder, and his enigmatic presence releases its dysfunction. Some of the stories delve into complex philosophical themes, like “Counting,” in which two Census Bureau agents stumble on a couple living off the grid, averse to being counted, embracing a life that, in its anonymity, flirts with nonexistence. Despite the sometimes heavy themes and somber tone, Appel can be delightfully comedic, even downright silly. In “Saluting the Magpie,” an infant repeatedly swallows household objects, driving her parents insane with worry. After she consumes a penny, her father calls the number for poison control since the mother voices concern that copper is leaching into the baby’s system. The operator dryly asks what kind of penny. Sometimes, the stories feel like symbol-laden parables, and the lessons are too neat and didactic. The conclusion of “Magpie” seems facile: “Together, we watch the copper coin as it rests on my bare flesh, and I understand that we are both waiting for me to swallow it. That is what love is about, isn’t it? Swallowing the ingestible.” For such an unconventional collection, this glib moral seems incongruent. Overall, though, this is a gimlet-eyed and boldly original meditation on the weirdness of human nature.

An ambitious and provocative grouping of stories filled with peculiar characters.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2016


Page Count: 182

Publisher: Black Lawrence Press

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.


Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.


Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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