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The best new books for February

Scary sequels, great escapes and other walks on the wild side.

Inquirer picks for best new books in February: Scary sequels, great escapes and other walks on the wild side.
Inquirer picks for best new books in February: Scary sequels, great escapes and other walks on the wild side.Read moreBook covers courtesy publishers

As recently pointed out on the “easy-listening” horror podcast With Gourley and Rust, scary movies are rarely allowed to stand on their own, especially if they’re popular. If there’s money to be made, expect a sequel. And another, and another.

But it’s a tricky business. How do you top the first one? Who’s still alive to get killed? How far can you stray from the original blueprint?

Horror novels face the same dilemma, but you’ll be in capable hands when two noteworthy sequels drop this month.

The Destroyer of Worlds (Harper, $30, Feb. 21,, Matt Ruff’s follow-up to 2016′s hit Lovecraft Country, is another pulpy, artful, and socially conscious adventure about magic and monsters in the Jim Crow era. Sadly, HBO canceled its Lovecraft Country series despite its 18 Emmy nominations (and two wins), but at least we have the books.

For some particularly wintry chills, check out the much-anticipated Don’t Fear The Reaper (Gallery/Saga Press, $27.99, Feb. 7,, Stephen Graham Jones’ sequel to 2021′s self-aware slasher novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Final girl Jennifer is older, wiser, and battle-scarred, but she’s still fit for adventure, as Raymond Chandler would say, thanks to having studied every horror flick ever made. This time a serial killer is on the loose in her small, snowed-in Idaho town, and the bodies are piling up. Even compared to its predecessor, the action in Don’t Fear the Reaper is breakneck and breathless, with the whole story taking place over a day and a half.

Jennifer and Jones know the rules of a horror sequel, as spelled out by Randy (R.I.P.) in Scream 2: Bigger body count and more elaborate death scenes. The last rule was cut from the theatrical release: “Never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.” Never assume a series is dead either, dear reader. Jones is working on one more novel to complete the trilogy, and I wouldn’t count out Ruff and Lovecraft Country, either.

And now: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore…

The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape From North Korea, Jihyun Park and Seh-Lynn Chai

In this book’s forward, South Korean author Seh-Lynn Chai admits her initial wariness at even meeting with North Korean defector Jihyun Park. With time, the two found common ground and worked together to paint a ground-level picture of a country where citizens are kept in line by routine, poverty, disinformation, and violence. At the same time, The Hard Road Out details Park’s harrowing personal struggle for freedom that didn’t end once she crossed the border into China. (HarperNorth, $28.99, out now)

➡️ Buy it now on

Brutes, Dizz Tate

In the spellbinding opening pages of Dizz Tate’s magical realist debut, a tribe of thick-as-thieves 13-year-old girls watches their tiny lakeside Florida town tear itself apart in search of the missing preacher’s daughter. The girls, perhaps naïve about the world but cunning and cruel beyond their years, take it all in with cold curiosity: the flashing police lights, the assembling search parties, their own mothers who come into their bedrooms to impart clueless words of consolation. The girls roll their eyes. “Our mothers are so innocent. They don’t know anything about our fierce attachments, our hatching hearts.” Brutes is astonishing, unnerving, cinematic, and slyly hideous. (Catapult, $27, Feb. 7)

➡️ Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

Sink, Joseph Earl Thomas

Employing a third-person perspective in a memoir may grant the author some semblance of distance from its subject, a way to say “See this dumb kid on the page? I don’t know what I was thinking back then.” But in this distressing, inventive, and often sublime memoir, Philly writer Joseph Earl Thomas uses the approach to apply a thin coat of Dickensian whimsy and adventure to what was in fact a rather ugly, cruel, and paranoid childhood on the strange, critter-filled streets of Frankford. And why not? The mere existence of the book tells us little Joey survived, and what we really want to know is how. The answer is: by the skin of his teeth. (Grand Central, $28, Feb. 21)

➡️ Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai

In her first novel since 2018′s The Great Believers, which made the shortlists for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Rebecca Makkai picks at the knotty nature of the true crime genre while reveling in its twists and thrills. Summoned back to her old boarding school to teach a class on podcasting, 40-something Bodie starts to see the murder of her senior year roommate through adult eyes. Did they lock up the right guy, or was it somebody else? The skeezy music teacher? The star athlete/boyfriend? Despite her best efforts, Bodie can’t let the case go, even as she reckons with her own history with problematic men. I Have Some Questions For You is gripping and a lot more complicated than Dateline’s murder of the week; sometimes there are no easy answers. (Viking, $28, Feb. 21)

➡️ Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

The Case for Cancel Culture, Ernest Owens

Arguments about cancel culture are perilous, what with pundits lining up on all sides to deny it, denounce it, define it, and harness its power. For that reason, Ernest Owens — a Philly freelance journalist for the New York Times, Washington Post, etc., and an accomplished pot-stirrer at Philadelphia Magazine — takes a pointed but measured approach, tracing its path from Black Twitter to the larger consciousness, and laying out its intersections with race, gender, politics, and pop culture. Owens is especially effective when recounting his personal adventures in the cancel culture realm, from criticizing the Mummers to sparking a national conversation about cultural appropriation with a single tweet to Justin Timberlake. (St. Martin’s Press, $21, Feb. 21)

➡️ Buy it now on

Also out this month:

The In-Betweens, Davon Loeb

This gorgeously told “lyrical memoir” recounts Loeb’s curious, difficult, joyous journey to find a place in the world in light of his Southern Black and Long Island-Jewish heritage. (West Virginia University Press, $21.99, out now)

➡️ Buy it now on

The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz

The veteran science journalist and sci-fi novelist imagines a fun, high-stakes, and far-flung future in which an environmental ranger discovers an unexpected civilization on the uncivilized planet she was sent to safeguard. (Tor, $28.99, out now)

➡️ Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

Stealing, Margaret Verble

In her new coming-of-age novel, Verble (Maud’s Line, Two Feathers Fell from the Sky) tells a story of heartache and horror about a Cherokee girl taken from her family and sent to a terrifying Christian boarding school. (Mariner, $30, Feb. 7)

➡️ Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

The Laughter, Sonora Jha

A white professor becomes obsessed with his female Pakistani colleague in this nail-biting novel about power and privilege in academia and beyond. (HarperVia, $27.99, Feb. 14)

➡️ Buy it now on

Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, Erica Berry

Comparisons to Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk are a fine starting point, but Wolfish leans wilder and more primal as it examines humanity’s uniquely fraught relationship with these endangered and much mythologized pack-hunters. (Flatiron Books, $29.99, Feb. 21)

➡️ Buy it now on