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Jennifer Thorne’s Diavola is an exercise in delicious twists and masterful suspense, told in the smart, snarky voice of Anna Pace, a jaded Manhattanite on a vacation quite literally from hell.

Anna’s swanky upcoming family trip certainly doesn’t seem monstrous on the outside. A marketing artist by trade and a painter by passion, she’s thrilled at the prospect of renting a Tuscan villa in the picturesque Italian countryside. The problem is her family. Thorne immediately places readers in Anna’s anxious thoughts, and her dread at having to see her parents and siblings, let alone take an entire trip with them, seeps into your bones before any of the other characters even arrive on the page. From a never-ending cycle of guilt trips to spiteful gaslighting, the tension between the Pace siblings and their alternatively aloof and agitated parents is so palpable that you wonder why they torture themselves every year. It’s soon clear that their stay at Villa Taccola might be the last straw.

As ugly stories and past grudges are revealed and Italian wine flows freely, the vengeful spirits of the villa decide it’s time to feast, and events quickly spiral out of control. Thorne pays homage to a cornucopia of mythology, sprinkling in some art and architecture history for good measure, as the Paces struggle to make it through each night. Diavola is a ferocious, maximalist horror ride, an impressive display of Thorne’s skill at crafting unsettling and disorienting scenes. There’s a rottenness lurking within the Pace family—Anna included—but it’s hard not to sympathize with them as they battle night terrors, horrifying visions and spirit possession. After all, whose family is perfect?

Diavola is a ferocious, maximalist horror ride, an impressive display of Jennifer Thorne’s skill at crafting unsettling and disorienting scenes of terror.
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In S.A. Barnes’ slow-simmering creepfest Ghost Station, the stress of deep space travel can do things to a person. If longtime spacers develop the condition called ERS, they’ll start to see things that aren’t there, hear voices that no one else hears. They sometimes turn irritable, even violent. 

The story begins with Dr. Ophelia Bray, who is very out of her element. A psychologist by trade, she’s been assigned to a small exploration team investigating an ancient, lifeless planet. The crew is mourning the death of a teammate, and none of the surviving members have any interest in Ophelia’s therapy sessions or letting their guard down. They also don’t seem to care if their work increases their chances of ERS. But as the explorers investigate the planet, stranger and stranger things begin to happen. It seems they aren’t alone on this world after all. Ophelia and the crew are going to have to trust one another to figure out what’s happening to them if they hope to escape alive. 

Barnes is no stranger to sci-fi horror; her excellent Dead Silence stood out for its atmosphere and sheer scariness, and fans of that novel will be more than happy with this follow-up. Like any great horror story, Ghost Station takes its time, but is sure to ensnare anyone craving intergalactic horror. Barnes patiently increases the sense of unease, building suspense with small moments that are odd on their own and increasingly strange taken together: an empty spacesuit in an abandoned station, a shape running through a snowstorm seen through a window, a rash on the skin. Things pick up steam in the later acts, especially after a couple of shocking moments right after the halfway mark.

In this golden era of sci-fi horror, Barnes leads the charge with her thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and an ever-present sense of dread.

With its thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and ever-present sense of dread, Ghost Station is another sci-fi horror hit from S.A. Barnes.
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The Napoleonic wars have been fertile ground for historical fantasy in recent years. From the draconic aerial combat of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s wry fairy tale of manners, that continent-spanning conflict provides an ideal canvas for fantastical retellings. It’s sweeping in scope, and is easier to romanticize than more recent wars. Hester Fox’s The Book of Thorns, however, is not about magicians single-handedly winning battles. Rather, it is about two women who can hear flowers. Englishwoman Cornelia and Belgian maid Lijsbeth escape their abusive homes and find themselves on opposite sides of the Waterloo battle lines. Neither woman can change the course of the war. All they can hope for is to somehow find safety and joy in a hostile world.

Fox insists on confronting Cornelia and Lijsbeth’s individual traumas head-on. They bear profound scars and are, in their own way, survivors, although both would balk at being called such. Like Katherine Arden’s The Warm Hands of Ghosts, The Book of Thorns is fundamentally a war novel dressed up in magical conceits—in this case, talking rosebushes. Its villains are selfish, not self-consciously evil; its heroes are genuinely decent people, but decency alone is not enough for them to prevail.

The Book of Thorns has a happy ending, in its own way: Both Cornelia and Lijsbeth find people they love, who love them back and who would never cause them pain. That is a kind of joy, if hard-won. Fox does not hide from the fact that for all the romance surrounding Bonaparte’s exploits, nobody who fought at Waterloo came out unscathed, whether they were breathing by battle’s end or not. But Fox also reminds us that, even in fields tilled by cavalry charges and fertilized with gunpowder, flowers can grow.

Hester Fox’s The Book of Thorns is a gentle, magical tale of hope and healing in the midst of war.
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What’s the difference between witchcraft and a miracle? According to The Familiar, beloved fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s latest novel, the answer is simple: politics. This distinction is of life-and-death importance for Luzia Cotado, a scullery maid in a less-than-fashionable Madrid household whose milagritos, or little miracles, can lighten a heavy load or make flowers bloom in winter. As a conversa, a descendant of Jews who converted to Catholicism under the threat of death, Luzia is careful to appear devout lest she fall under the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition. That means keeping her milagritos, with their incantations derived from a patois of Hebrew and Spanish, secret. But when her lonely, petty mistress discovers her gifts, Luzia is forced to display her power publicly and thus increase her employers’ standing in society. If she successfully navigates the elite’s whims, a more comfortable life awaits. If she fails, she can only hope the Inquisition will offer her a quick death.

The Familiar is a book where candles cast deep shadows and even sunlit scenes take on an air of unease. At its center is Luzia, a difficult woman to like, both in-world and for a reader. Foolhardy and ambitious without wisdom, she makes decisions that endanger her life for little reward, time and again. Her counterpoint is Guillén Santángel, the eponymous familiar. As with so many of Bardugo’s morally gray (and potentially evil) male characters, Santángel is immediately compelling, even before readers venture into his perspective. The mysterious immortal wraith holds not just Luzia’s attention, but that of the entire city. Through his ancient eyes and almost alien mannerisms, Bardugo adds depth and intrigue, preserving the mystique of the pre-modern world even as the Age of Exploration begins. Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet, a remarkable portrait of the magic of exiles and the traumatic echoes of the Spanish Inquisition.

Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet.
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When shape-shifting monster Shesheshen is woken from her hibernation by monster hunters, she does what she must: She kills and eats one of them. In retaliation, the nearby townsfolk, scared and desperate to hand over a “wyrm” heart to Baroness Wulfyre, poison Shesheshen with rosemary and hunt her until she toddles over a cliff . . . into the care of a kind human woman.

The sweet and tender Homily thinks Shesheshen is human, and laughs at the things Shesheshen says. She would be the perfect partner if she weren’t a Wulfyre, off to kill the beast who ate her brother. The more Shesheshen learns about Homily, the more she realizes how poorly Homily’s been treated by her family—and how desperately she wants Homily’s love. She’ll need to explain to Homily that the Wulfyres are the real monsters, and she’ll need to do it before they destroy all she holds dear.

John Wiswell has created a monster you’ll fall in love with.

Come for the body horror, stay for the romance: There’s a little something for everybody in Nebula Award-winner John Wiswell’s genre-blending debut novel, Someone You Can Build A Nest In. Told from the unexpected perspective of our sentient, hungry blob of a protagonist, this innovative gem doesn’t shy away from the sweet or the unsavory. Her penchant for absorbing things into her body to make bones—or to hide bear traps in her chest as future weapons—is inventive and gruesome, the perfect balance of horrific and fun. Wiswell pulls from fairy tales of yore to build an intriguing world, including the unique landscape of the isthmus where the action takes place, herbal science and an adorable big blue bear. 

Wiswell is best known for his award-winning short stories, experience which is evident in bite-sized chapters that readers will swiftly devour. But it’s the emotional core, Shesheshen and Homily’s asexual and sapphic bond of solace, that will ultimately hook their hearts. A romp that’s both bloody and sweet, Someone You Can Build a Nest In will delight readers who loved Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered.

Horrific and fun, bloody and sweet, Someone You Can Build a Nest In is a deliciously dark fantasy romance starring a shape-shifting monster.
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When beginning this review, I promised myself that I wouldn’t go overboard with baseball puns to describe just how wonderful KT Hoffman’s sports romance, The Prospects, is. Like “Hoffman hits it out of the park with his debut” or “Gene and Luis are the grand slam of relationships.” I tried my hardest, but damn if baseball doesn’t lend itself to describing the absolute home run that is this book.

As the first openly trans professional baseball player, Gene Ionescu is no stranger to hope and hard work. He thrives on it; and baseball loves an underdog. The minor league Beaverton Beavers are like a second family to him, and he feels safe and supported among his teammates. Until Luis Estrada, his former teammate and current rival, gets traded to the Beavers and suddenly all that Gene has built for himself feels threatened. At first, Gene and Luis can’t work together on or off the field. But a begrudging friendship blooms during long hours on the bus and intimate after-hours practices. As Gene and Luis find their stride, they gain the attention of the heavy hitters in the Major Leagues and see each other with fresh eyes. Had Gene never really noticed how sexy and kind Luis was? And does Luis really need to head to his own place when Gene’s apartment (and maybe Gene himself) feels like home? Soon their tenuous friendship gives way to tender new love. But with the Majors calling, the two must decide what they truly want, both from each other and their baseball careers.

The legendary Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.” So what happens when a book mixes romance and America’s favorite pastime? You get the perfection that is The Prospects. I will be the first to admit that everything I learned about sports, I learned from sports romance novels. But as an expert on the genre, I can tell the difference between a writer who is just using a baseball diamond as a backdrop and a writer who loves the game so fiercely it almost outshines their love for the main characters. Hoffman is one of the latter. Every corner of this book shines, from the tender love of Gene and Luis to the charming found family that surrounds them and the game that brings them all together. The Prospects is about dreaming big, finding love and blowing the roof off simply by existing. It’s a debut so good it’s in a league of its own. (I’ll see myself out.)

KT Hoffman’s The Prospects is a perfect baseball romance that overflows with love for the sport and its main characters.
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Everyone wants a shortcut to love, especially if a happily ever after is guaranteed. So it’s not surprising that Justin Dahl gets a big response when he explains his gift (or curse) on Reddit: Whoever he dates goes on to meet her perfect match right after things end with him. To his shock, Justin soon hears from Emma, a woman with the same problem. What starts as a half-joking suggestion soon starts to form into a real plan—what if they date each other? Wouldn’t that mean instead of being merely the gateway to love, they could finally have it for themselves . . . right after they break up?

It’s a fun premise, but if you think the plot stays frothy and candy-colored, then you don’t know author Abby Jimenez. Yes, Justin and Emma connect via meet cute (meet unusual, to be more precise) at the beginning of Just for the Summer, but Jimenez quickly develops the characters beyond rom-com archetypes as they deal with challenges that aren’t in the least bit quirky, overblown or played for laughs. Justin and Emma have amazing chemistry and terrific banter, but they also have genuine problems, including family catastrophes, emotional trauma, heavy responsibilities and—in Emma’s case—a mother best compared to a malfunctioning time bomb, set to blow everything up with no clear countdown. Just for the Summer has plenty of humor (a scene with baby raccoons being a personal favorite), but the emotions are real. The turmoil is real. The problems the characters face don’t come with easy answers or magic cures.

The story showcases an absolutely gorgeous outpouring of love in tandem with Emma and Justin’s delightful and warm central romance. Jimenez portrays a range of complex, interesting familial relationships, as well as some amazing friendships—particularly Emma’s with her bestie, Maddy. In Just for the Summer, even when love is difficult and devastating and very possibly cursed, it’s always worth it.

In Abby Jimenez’s Just for the Summer, two people cursed a la “Good Luck Chuck” try to break their unlucky streaks by dating each other—only to fall in love.

How to End a Love Story, screenwriter Yulin Kuang’s debut novel, is a contemporary romance that succeeds on every level, from her characters’ compelling emotional journey to the unique plotline to Kuang’s fresh authorial voice.

Helen Zhang is the successful author of a young adult series that’s been optioned for television. Her work targets readers the same age she was when her sister, Michelle, died by suicide. Helen’s life, as one would expect, is split between the before and the after.

Grant Shepard’s life broke along the exact same fault line. A handsome, affable homecoming king and football star who went to the same school as the Zhang sisters, he was out driving late the night Michelle ran in front of his car. In the 13 years since the incident, Grant’s become a successful, sought-after screenwriter in Los Angeles. Imagine his surprise when he’s asked to lead the writer’s room on Helen’s new show. And then imagine her surprise when he says yes.

Yulin Kuang is so much more than Emily Henry’s screenwriter.

A romance between two people on opposite ends of the same tragic event, How to End a Love Story is a mature, compelling and relatable story of healing that resists simplifying its characters at every turn. Helen’s Chinese American heritage is richly depicted, and it shapes the relationships she has with her family (her mother, in particular), but it is not her sole defining trait. And while Grant may struggle with panic attacks and feeling worthy of love, he also works to convince Helen that it’s OK to move on with her life. Their relationship develops at an organic, realistic pace: Helen must first come to terms with the fact that she’s working with Grant at all before she can come to grips with liking him and, eventually, loving him.

Kuang’s own experiences as a screenwriter shine through on every page. Her depictions of writer’s rooms and meetings with executives are lush, smart and visual, with each sentence packed full of insightful nuances and quiet moments of reflection. These are characters who have battled their demons and come out the other side, stronger than before. Were this a movie, it would be Oscar-worthy.

How to End a Love Story is a mature, compelling and relatable romance that resists simplifying its characters at every turn.
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Early in the shattering true crime memoir Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Story, Kristine S. Ervin pauses mid-sentence to tackle a question of grammar. Which tense does one use when discussing a relationship in which one person has died? It is a question that seems to form the crux of this stunning debut: that such a relationship does continue, though on very altered lines.

When Ervin was 8, her mother was abducted from a parking lot, her body later found in an Oklahoma oil field. Both the mechanics of the police investigation and emotional reverberations continued for the next 25 years, the brutal act lapsing into cold case territory. Lost in the background was Ervin, a confused child growing into a motherless teenager, the years bringing with them both new, terrible information about her mother’s killing and an evolving relationship with the mother Ervin might have had. Ervin achingly portrays not just the unmoored girlhood she experienced, but the lifelong processing of trauma that comes from personal and early knowledge of the violence against women lurking around every corner.

In the opening pages, Ervin dedicates the book to her 8-year-old self, and indeed, parts read as her efforts to reach backwards and mother her younger self in the absence of her murdered parent. While the facts of the crime and the unfolding of the investigation are clearly and baldly delineated, this is an emotional journey intimately revealed. Ervin is a poet, and her language here is lyrical. Her depictions of unimaginable cruelty cut so close to the bone that they feel almost tangibly interior. Rhapsodic and startling, Rabbit Heart moves inside of you and explores the places of rage and grief that are often left unmonitored, revealing both the power and danger of womanhood in a violent world.

Kristine S. Ervin’s Rabbit Heart is a shattering, rhapsodic true crime memoir that will get inside you.
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In 2007, doctor Paul Volkman was charged with illegally distributing opioids via pain clinics in southern Ohio, leading to the overdose deaths of over a dozen patients. Journalist Philip Eil was drawn to the case because of a personal connection to the 60-year-old doctor: Volkman was a med school classmate of Eil’s father. Relying on over a decade of research, Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the “Pill Mill Killer” retraces Volkman’s steps from the prestigious University of Chicago Medical School to the cash-only pain clinics in rural Ohio where Volkman liberally prescribed opiates and other controlled substances during the early-aughts opioid boom. “What on earth had happened in the thirty-some-odd years between these two facts?” Eil asks in his prologue. “I found the mystery irresistible.”

Eil leans into the contradictions of Volkman’s world, starting with his decline from promising honors student and med school grad to unhappy pediatrician facing malpractice lawsuits that pushed him to post-industrial Ohio, where he made a fresh start building a pain clinic empire at the expense of rural communities while arousing the suspicions of pharmacists and authorities alike. After Volkman’s eventual arrest, Eil dug into transcripts and sources from the court case, exploring the elements in Volkman’s nature and environment that led him to plead “not guilty” to the deaths of his patients.

Through his own interviews with Volkman and dozens of others who interacted with him or were impacted by his crimes, Eil depicts the doctor as a man forever convinced of both his superior intelligence and his underdog status, warping his perception of the world in order to depict himself as a persecuted victim. Highly financially motivated, largely absent in the lives of his young children and constantly on the road between his luxury home in Chicago and his clinics in Ohio, Volkman amassed a fortune prescribing wild volumes of medication indiscriminately: to those with legitimate pain as well as to longtime addicts to drug dealers. One former patient testified in court that he prescribed her 34 pills per day.

Eil provides context about malpractice law, drug regulations and the history of opioids in America. He also gives care and space to the lives and predicaments of various Volkman patients, devoting his afterword to the memory of the 13 people who died, as described by their families and communities. With Prescription for Pain, Eil joins the ranks of investigative journalists like Sam Quinones (Dreamland), Patrick Radden Keefe (Empire of Pain) and Beth Macy (Dopesick), adding a crucial piece of the puzzle to understanding an epidemic that continues to arrest the nation.

Prescription for Pain investigates how a pediatrician built an opioid empire in rural Ohio, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.

MacArthur fellow and National Book Award finalist Hanif Abdurraqib is a prolific poet and author, writing across genres of poetry, essay and cultural criticism to great acclaim. Abdurraqib turns his sensitive lens towards basketball in his newest work, There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension. With carefully constructed and imaginative prose, he immerses us in the basketball culture of his native East Columbus, Ohio, telling stories of hoop dreams, both deferred and fully realized.

Abdurriqib pays tribute to myriad figures, both ballers and civilians, who were part of the richly portrayed social web of East Columbus and the larger Black Ohio that it is situated in. We learn about East Columbus players who dominated courts in high school and college, leaving indelible marks on their community even though they didn’t thrive on the biggest stages. We also get to intimately witness the ascension and cultural impact of LeBron James, a hooper from nearby Akron who became one of basketball’s most recognizable, successful and yet polarizing figures.

Abdurraqib’s examination of basketball culture is, in and of itself, captivating. However, the book transcends the particulars of the sport to become a powerful meditation on place and community. The author paints a complex but loving portrait of East Columbus as its members navigate moments of love, grief, hope, fellowship and conflict. He generously and seamlessly weaves in his own story, offering it up as a conduit for the reader’s self-reflection.

Abdurraqib’s writing on basketball is among the best of our time, and it centers the sport’s relevance in local communities, a grossly underexplored element. At the same time, There’s Always This Year offers beautiful reflections on personal and communal journeys that have the power to transform anyone willing to step on the court.

Read our interview with Hanif Abdurraqib, author of ‘There’s Always This Year.’

Hanif Abdurraqib’s captivating There’s Always This Year is a powerful meditation on place and community.
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It’s hardly groundbreaking news that the world is increasingly confusing and isolating. Deaths by despair continue to rise, and America has long been in a mental health care crisis. Our screens feed our wildest conspiracy theories and our equally wild celebrity fantasies, while distancing us from friends and family. We put our faith in “manifesting” our reality, while ignoring the advice of experts. We have access to never-before-imagined amounts of information, but we are no wiser. We contrive conflicts with people online whom we have never met. Our anxiety culminates in a nagging question: “Is it them, or is it me?” Amanda Montell, author of The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality, would probably answer, “It’s all of us.”

A linguist, podcaster and writer, Montell explored the links between language and power in her books Cultish and Wordslut. In her new book, Montell takes on an even more ambitious project: explaining how our cognitive biases combine with our brain functions to skew our perceptions of reality.

This is heavy stuff, but Montell combines erudition with humor and self-deprecation to make it accessible. Her explanations of a dozen cultural biases are clear and backed by research, while her cautionary tales of their destructive impact are personal, often hilarious and frequently moving. So, for example, her commitment to an abusive relationship was the result of the sunk cost fallacy—the conviction that “spending resources you can’t get back . . . justifies spending more.” Her affection for a thoroughly mediocre seat cushion that she made from “the innards of a neglected dog toy” is a charming symptom of the IKEA effect—that “we like things better when we’ve had a hand in creating them.” And our fascination with the vlogs of young women dying from painful disease is an example of survivorship bias. There is no condemnation or exasperation in this book, but there is plenty of humor, compassion and reason.

Reading The Age of Magical Overthinking feels like listening to your smartest friend give excellent advice. Hopefully, we’ll take it.

Amanda Montell explores our cultural and cognitive biases and their perilous consequences in the funny, compassionate The Age of Magical Thinking.
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In his haunting debut, Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber, Tennessee journalist Steven Hale sheds light on a rarely seen part of American society: the places where more than 2,700 people await execution by the state.

Hale’s reporting began when, after a decade-long lull, Tennessee began executing the condemned at speed. He witnessed the first of seven executions that would take place over two years. Tennessee and other states have struggled to acquire the preferred lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, and a new three-drug protocol to be used instead was challenged in Tennessee court for amounting to cruel and unusual punishment—to no avail. 

A former staff writer for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, Hale reports from Riverbend Maximum Security Institution through the lens of a group of regular visitors who provide condemned men with friendship and compassion in the years (sometimes decades) leading up to their death, including a Nashville reverend who has acted as an advocate and spiritual advisor for death row inmates since the 1970s. Hale writes vividly about the fear and boredom that marks daily life in a maximum-security prison, and how the visitors offer relief and fellowship. They bring friends and neighbors to their weekly meetings, including those who support capital punishment, thinking that the “best way to expose the inhumanity of the death penalty was to expose people to the humanity of the men condemned to it.” 

Death Row Welcomes You is an engrossing if sometimes harrowing read. Hale starkly recounts the crimes that led to death sentences, including gruesome murders, brutal sexual assaults and drug deals gone horribly wrong. Yet the book does not fixate on grisly details the way so many salacious podcasts and TV shows do. Hale delves into the childhoods of the men he profiles, many of whom experienced abject poverty, neglect and abuse, and presents these facts as important context in which to view the full scope of their crimes and subsequent state-sanctioned killing. These stories are balanced by moving accounts of the supportive relationships among the condemned men, like when a man chose to forgo his prison-provided last meal in favor of communing with his fellows over homemade pizzas, the ingredients plucked from their personal stashes. 

“The people, experiences and research that make up this book have changed my life,” Hale writes. “I hope that by preserving them here I can contribute in some small way to the idea that we are, all of us, capable of terrible and beautiful things.” Readers will reflect on this captivating, deeply reported story for years to come.  

Death Row Welcomes You is an enthralling, deeply reported story that captures the humanity of the condemned men on Tennessee’s death row.

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