Universal Harvester by John DarnielleIn this intricate, disturbing novel, small town Iowa reveals its darker side when video store customers start complaining about creepy footage spliced into their VHS rentals (it's the late 1990s). Jeremy Heldt, working the counter while he waits for something better to come along, reluctantly starts looking into the footage, which draws him into a local, decades-old story of tragedy and loss. But plot isn't the important thing about Universal Harvester -- you'll want to read it for its strong sense of place, its compelling turns of phrase (author John Darnielle is a singer/songwriter), its menacing atmosphere, and for the way it explores the emotional consequences of loss.
Things We Have in Common by Tasha KavanaghLonely, overweight Yasmin Doner is a high school outcast who desperately wants to fit in but lacks the social skills to do so. Shunned at school and criticized at home, she's built an elaborate fantasy life, which revolves around the most popular girl at school, Alice. After noticing a man lurking near their school, she constructs a new fantasy -- one in which Yasmin becomes a hero after saving Alice from abduction by this man. So Yasmin starts following the stranger, eventually forming a friendship with him. And then Alice actually does disappear. Combining the creep factor and unreliable narrator of classic psychological suspense with the desperately lonely adolescence of a YA novel, this dark tale is a good choice for fans of Sebastian Faulks' Engleby.
All Our Wrong Todays: A Novel by Elan MastaiTom Barren lives in a world where clothes are recycled and refashioned onto your body each day, you yourself are micro-steam-cleaned as you sleep, driverless flying cars are the norm, and avocados are always perfect. It's 2016, and war is nonexistent, thanks to an unlimited power source created in 1965. But that all changes when Tom, a total underachiever, accidentally erases that picture-perfect version of reality in one very stupid, grief-fueled time-travel mishap that lands him in our less-than-ideal 2016, where he discovers an unexpected and wonderful version of his own life at the expense of the utopia he destroyed. A clever, witty take on time travel, this enjoyable debut sparkles with pop culture references and is more about love than science.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh NguyenAuthor Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Carnegie Medal, among other accolades; readers hungry for more will appreciate the eight stories collected here, written before The Sympathizer was published. While the stories, mostly set in the Vietnamese community in California, represent Vietnamese refugee experiences in the U.S., the topics they explore -- relationships, grief, the desire for fulfillment -- "transcend ethnic boundaries to speak to human universals" (Kirkus Reviews). Check them out if you're interested in sympathetic characters, cultural dislocation, or the experiences of refugees.
The Animators: A Novel by Kayla Rae WhitakerIn this much-anticipated debut, two women who met in a college art class (and instantly became best friends), try to make a go of it as animated cartoonists. Sharon, who narrates, has always been the calming presence, while Mel, charismatic, confident, and openly gay, is a creative whirlwind. Ten years after they graduate, the consequences of their success nearly destroy their partnership (frequently drunk or high, Mel flames out spectacularly, while Sharon suffers a debilitating stroke). With realistic characters you'll empathize with even as they make calamitous decisions, The Animators is alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming, passionate and funny as it documents how artists create art out of pain.
Recent Short Story Collections
For a Little While: New and Selected Stories by Rick BassAuthor Rick Bass' many skills include a gift for establishing place -- most of his stories are set in the mountains of the West or in the Deep South, in rough little towns or windswept plains or not-so-tidy suburbia. His depictions of the forces of nature (another favorite topic) range from sudden blizzards to runaway horses, each offering a different kind of danger. His characters are finely nuanced, whether he's writing about grieving middle-aged men or skittish young women. And while this collection offers 18 previously published stories, there are also seven new ones waiting to be discovered.
A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey FordAuthor Jeffrey Ford explores the underlying darkness of daily life via the 13 alarming, thought-provoking stories collected in A Natural History of Hell. Using humor, literary allusions, folklore tropes, and science fiction settings, Ford lets his imagination shine in ways designed to unsettle. He satirizes parenting in an account of a teenager's exorcism ("The Blameless"), chillingly depicts a required-open-carry high school ("Blood Drive"), and invents a world in which angels offer protection -- at a cost ("The Angel Seems"). Fans of Aimee Bender's equally inventive and darkly comic short stories or of Neil Gaiman's work in general will enjoy these twisty, creepy, and sometimes disturbing thrills.
The Pier Falls: And Other Stories by Mark HaddonAnd now for something completely different. (Or at least that may be what you'll be saying to yourself as you move between stories set in the Victorian era, a Martian settlement, and a remote island, among other locales.) Stranded princesses, beachside disasters, junk-food addictions, mysterious strangers -- no matter the vehicle, author Mark Haddon depicts violence, horror, or despair with distinctly dark British humor. If you don't mind a few unhappy endings, or elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, this collection is undeniably entertaining.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories by Helen OyeyemiIn this "beguiling" (Booklist) collection, the stories seem as if they could be modern fairy tales or folklore, so magical are some of their settings: there are echoes of Pinocchio in "Is Your Blood as Red as This?"; "Dornicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose" is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Along with striking imagery and surreal occurrences, the collection has a shared theme of locks and keys that winds throughout the loosely connected stories, which offer a diverse array of characters, each seeking something they may never be able to find.
The Best Place on Earth: Stories by Ayelet TsabariStarring Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent in Israel, Canada, and elsewhere, this award-winning debut collection takes on the search for home among immigrants, travelers, and even those who have never left home (but still don't feel "at home"). Seeming contradictions are everywhere in these down-to-earth stories, from "Arab Jews" to an Orthodox Yemeni woman who feels more comfortable in India than does her half-Indian boyfriend ("A Sign of Harmony"), and Kirkus Reviews says that the characters are "complex, conflicted, prickly people you'll want to get to know better."
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