Cary Fagan’s The Animals is a gentle burlesque in which bureaucratic whims alter the downward trajectory of a nondescript, struggling tourist town.
After the brief defiance of a semester spent studying architecture, Dorn succumbed to his grumpy father’s low expectations and his own niggling doubts. As a college dropout, he makes a local name for himself constructing precise miniature models of the village’s businesses. Everyone is a customer—within the town’s boundaries. Dorn lives alone, rides an adult-sized tricycle, and looks forward to his casual coffeehouse encounters with Ravenna, who abandoned Olympic dreams to become an elementary school teacher. He sometimes indulges in wishes for more.
A government program that encourages people to host wild animals in their homes upends Dorn’s steady existence, though. His reclusive neighbor is mauled to death; a family and a bear move in next door. Water fowl and otters appear in windows and backyards. Simultaneous to these odd developments: Dorn’s younger, less upstanding brother implores him to take custody of a mysterious box; and the village’s misanthropic, Nobel-nominated writer-in-residence releases an unusual project. As Dorn’s habitual existence is jarred by these changes, he tries to summon the courage to initiate one more interruption: he hopes to reveal his deep feelings to Ravenna, fears of rejection be damned. But the new village animals have alternate plans.
Fagan’s novella distills enchantments from the ordinary while treating the forces that corrupt ordinary life (including religions, governments, and the bored rich) with sardonic incision. Each scene proffers a surprise, strung together to form a sometimes baffling, always delightful whole. Though Dorn may require a true disaster to be compelled toward change, his inertia is endearing. The book’s final “maybe” is its own indecisive reward. The Animals is a winsome novella about a makeshift artist’s delayed, sideways coming-of-age.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)
In Jennifer Givhan’s riveting novel River Woman, River Demon, a bruja fights to discover the truth about the woman whom her husband found murdered behind their home.
Eva is haunted. When she was fourteen, her best friend drowned while they were swimming together; Eva was accused of murder. The trauma of the event caused her to experience blackouts. She does not truly remember what happened, but she mourns it still.
On a night when her husband, Jericho, is supposed to be working at their occult store, Eva hears a cry coming from the river behind their home. She goes outside to discover Jericho in the river with the store’s co-owner, Cecilia, who is dead. Eva is thrust back into a nightmare scenario that she knows all too well, contending with the mysterious drowning of a friend. This time, her husband is the suspect. To protect herself and her family, Eva confronts her past and embraces her powers as a woman and a bruja.
Featuring lush, evocative prose and beautiful, detailed descriptions of people and places, the book is difficult to put down. Eva’s past intersects with her present in unexpected ways, revealing small clues about the truth of both drownings. And the portrayal of magic is intelligent, respectful, and reflects multiple cultural traditions. Eva practices brujería and curanderisma, and her husband is a hoodoo practitioner. Eva’s magical experiences are potent, guiding her through the murky quagmire of her tragic past, while also leading her toward the answers she needs to prove husband’s innocence. Though they are often terrifying, she is strengthened by each mystical occurrence.
River Woman, River Demon is a seamless psychological and supernatural thriller about resilience and personal empowerment.
CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2022)
A Novel of the Frankenstein Women
In Kris Waldherr’s Unnatural Creatures, Victor Frankenstein’s family splinters apart amid war and revolution.
In late eighteenth-century Geneva, Caroline, the mother of Victor Frankenstein, adores her family, both biological and not. She treats her maids and wards like her own children, even an abandoned, hunchbacked servant, Justine. Caroline’s untimely death, however, sends her family in many directions: Victor runs off to study science abroad; Elizabeth, who is betrothed to Victor, cares for Caroline’s now motherless young son while contemplating her own selfish desires; and Justine returns to her biological family for a while, in search of love and acceptance. When she doesn’t find either, she comes back to the Frankenstein household, just as another unspeakable tragedy strikes.
Across Europe, Victor’s family and close friends discover horrors and truths about themselves that shape their decisions. Their shifting loyalties and ambitions pull them in myriad, drama-inducing directions. Meanwhile, Victor’s terrible experiments result in a monster that no one is prepared for, but whose actions affect all who cross paths with him.
Following the lives of the women in Victor’s life, this book puts a refreshing spin on the original Gothic tale, rounding out the backstory of Frankenstein’s monster with insights. Forbidden love and a firm belief in fate drive Elizabeth and Justine in different ways, while unforeseen personal dramas and heartbreaking crimes propel the plot forward with chilling suspense. The eerie atmosphere hearkens back to Frankenstein’s groundbreaking Gothic genre and tone, and the historical setting, which is full of political and social strife, is as immersive and real as it is moody. Supernatural thrills, a bittersweet love story, heinous crimes, and reconciliation after sorrow—this book has it all.
Unnatural Creatures is an atmospheric, reimagined classic about the lines we cross for loyalty and love.
AIMEE JODOIN (August 27, 2022)
A struggling empath fights her way back to life in Rita Zoey Chen’s illuminating debut novel.
When she was tiny, Leah beguiled carnival-goers with animal facts—and with her ability to peek into their futures and reveal tender truths. The daughter of a charismatic magician, she was further cradled by the adoration of a bearded lady and a contortionist. They protected her from the carnival’s crueler influences.
The allure of those early days dissipated when Leah’s mother left her with an old friend, Edward, and never returned. Though Edward cared for Leah, doing his best to fill her aching spaces with paternal love, he could not replace the magic that her mother exuded. Truths went unspoken. When Edward died: Leah believed that she had nothing left.
But on the day that she planned to leave the world behind, Leah learned that she’d still had one observer: her reclusive neighbor, Essie. Essie’s ashes are deposited unceremoniously on Leah’s doorstep, along with a check and vague instructions for a good-bye quest. That spiraling trip takes Leah from the Carolinas to Canada, and from Georgia to the Arctic. Along the way, she gathers relics from Essie’s bewitched past, spent among a group of fellow women artists. Essie’s letters also stitch together snippets of Leah’s family’s truths.
Piling revelations atop otherworldly descriptions, the novel wields its uncanny enigmas in an unapologetic fashion. There are moonlit dances and incantations; there are tragic instances of love being rejected. Time unwinds to answer whispered questions, and Leah thaws thanks to the care of strangers. The girl who thought herself inaccessible to human touch finds communities in watery wilds, and she leaps for opportunities to heal.
The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern is an enchanting novel that embraces all of the magic that the world has to offer.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)
A Pinnacle Hotel Mystery
A savvy heiress solves two crimes at a Manhattan hotel in S. K. Golden’s satisfying cozy mystery novel The Socialite’s Guide to Murder.
In 1958, Evelyn, pampered and in her twenties, lives in the luxurious Pinnacle Hotel, which is owned by her tycoon father. An Agatha Christie fan, she displays a talent for “finding things,” from misplaced purses to children gone astray. She both copies the tastes of her idol, Marilyn Monroe, and proves to be a keen observer herself. She’s plagued by demons, and a childhood trauma left her agoraphobic. The snug realm of the Pinnacle constitutes her sanctuary from the world.
After a valuable painting disappears from an exhibit, Evelyn’s best friend becomes a prime suspect. The police arrest a hotel employee following an apparent set-up, and Evelyn employs her detection skills to safeguard the reputations of her friend and the Pinnacle, too. A murder on the premises ramps up the tension. Evelyn enlists aid from Mac, a handsome bellhop who’s happy to do her bidding—and not just for tips. Their playful interactions evolve into a sweet romantic subplot. Still, Evelyn is terrified to leave home, even knowing that, to solve the mystery, she’ll have to venture out. Mac helps her to sort through a colorful array of suspects, too.
The plot zips along in the novel’s first half, after which its pace begins to drag. There’s a long gap in the action before an attempt is made on Evelyn’s life in the book’s fast-moving final chapters. Still, Evelyn is the source of the book’s ultimate reveal, out-sleuthing even the police from the comfort of her posh suite.
The Socialite’s Guide to Murder is a witty, lighthearted mystery novel in which a charming sleuth investigates mysteries that hit close to home.
PAULA MARTINAC (August 27, 2022)