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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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.


Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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One protest from an outraged innocent says it all: “This is America. This is Wyoming.”

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Once again, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett gets mixed up in a killing whose principal suspect is his old friend Nate Romanowski, whose attempts to live off the grid keep breaking down in a series of felony charges.

If Judge Hewitt hadn’t bent over to pick up a spoon that had fallen from his dinner table, the sniper set up nearly a mile from his house in the gated community of the Eagle Mountain Club would have ended his life. As it was, the victim was Sue Hewitt, leaving the judge alive and free to rail and threaten anyone he suspected of the shooting. Incoming Twelve Sleep County Sheriff Brendan Kapelow’s interest in using the case to promote his political ambitions and the judge’s inability to see further than his nose make them the perfect targets for a frame-up of Nate, who just wants to be left alone in the middle of nowhere to train his falcons and help his bride, Liv Brannon, raise their baby, Kestrel. Nor are the sniper, the sheriff, and the judge Nate’s only enemies. Orlando Panfile has been sent to Wyoming by the Sinaloan drug cartel to avenge the deaths of the four assassins whose careers Nate and Joe ended last time out (Wolf Pack, 2019). So it’s up to Joe, with some timely data from his librarian wife, Marybeth, to hire a lawyer for Nate, make sure he doesn’t bust out of jail before his trial, identify the real sniper, who continues to take an active role in the proceedings, and somehow protect him from a killer who regards Nate’s arrest as an unwelcome complication. That’s quite a tall order for someone who can’t shoot straight, who keeps wrecking his state-issued vehicles, and whose appalling mother-in-law, Missy Vankeuren Hand, has returned from her latest European jaunt to suck up all the oxygen in Twelve Sleep County to hustle some illegal drugs for her cancer-stricken sixth husband. But fans of this outstanding series will know better than to place their money against Joe.

One protest from an outraged innocent says it all: “This is America. This is Wyoming.”

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53823-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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