Let’s raise a glass to Staff Picks, invisible heroes of our local bookshops. With nothing more than handwritten index cards and Scotch tape, they’ve made the world a better place for readers.
We could ask to meet these beneficent staffers, but we probably won’t. Because we don’t need to. Because we have the cards.
It was a Staff Pick that indirectly led me to the works of Brian Evenson, a prolific writer of literary horror and horror-adjacent fiction so sublime it’s a wonder he’s not a household name. Well, a small wonder. He’s not really a killer clown or fancy vampire type of author. His stuff is darker and weirder.
One of his story collections was named a Staff Pick at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope a few years back. My uncle Bob took a chance, enjoyed it, and later passed the book on to me. I’ve been a fan ever since. Evenson’s got a new one coming out this month (see below).
Look at the recommendations here like Staff Picks, one reader telling another: You gotta read this. These are my picks for new books to read in August. I’ll be back the first Sunday of September with more.
The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom on the Rails in the American West, Carrot Quinn. Hopping trains has never been safe, and Carrot Quinn takes care not to over-romanticize it in her engrossing new memoir of a life on the move. For all the free rides and wide open skies, The Sunset Route has no shortage of brushes with death, run-ins with the law, and pitch-black rail tunnels full of smoke and soot. The author’s freight-hopping is a side-quest in her larger struggle to physically and psychologically escape her impoverished childhood and abusive, schizophrenic mother. Amid dangers and disappointments, she ends up painting a surprisingly not-entirely-terrible picture of America or at least Americans. (The Dial Press, out now)
Razorblade Tears, S.A. Cosby. In last year’s Blacktop Wasteland, about a wheelman forced out of retirement, S.A. Cosby rooted around in the crime genre toybox, pulled out some cars, guns, quips, and capers, and came up with something masterfully visceral. He does it again in Razorblade Tears, but ratchets up the emotional stakes in surprising ways. Basically, it’s a revenge story. Two middle-age ex-con dads — Black businessman Ike and poor redneck Buddy Lee — put aside their homophobic, bigoted tendencies to team up and hunt down whoever murdered their gay sons. Along the way they get their fists bloodied and their minds opened. Jerry Bruckheimer’s already got the adaptation rights. (Flatiron Books, out now)
A Touch of Jen, Beth Morgan. Don’t let “millennial sex comedy” or “for fans of Search Party” scare you into thinking you need to be this hip to read Beth Morgan’s debut novel. A Touch of Jen is achingly realistic, hilarious, and comforting — then jarringly off the rails. At its center are the lovable/pitiable Remy and Alicia, a couple inexplicably infatuated by Remy’s ex-coworker Jen. It’s a goofy, harmless obsession at first — a little bedroom role-playing, some light Instagram-stalking — but you can feel something creepy gathering shape. Suggest this for your book club, then kick out everybody who says they didn’t get it. (Little, Brown and Company, out now)
Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So. Many in the literary world mourned the loss of 28-year-old Anthony Veasna So, who passed away suddenly in December 2020, less than a year before his first book would be published. A California-born writer of Cambodian descent, So wrote insightfully about the “Cambo” community, and the generational divide between those who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late ’70s, and those too young and too far removed to understand it. The stories in Afterparties frequently revolve around characters whose flaws are apparent to everyone but themselves, yet the humor is laced with sadness, as So seemed to see comedy and tragedy everywhere and in equal measure. (Ecco, Aug. 3)
The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell, Brian Evenson. “The world is hell because we have made it so.” One of the stories in Brian Evenson’s marvelous new collection starts that way, and such an opening could offer entry into any of its 22 fast-paced tales of terror. A prosthetic leg commits murder. A man is held captive in the alien city above his own. A toxic cloud scours the earth. Though Evenson shares some DNA with bygone sci-fi delights like Robert Aickman and the O.G. Twilight Zone, his economical sentences and icy storytelling keep readers at arm’s length, even as the air starts thinning and the room goes dark. Honestly, is there anything scarier than a narrator who doesn’t care? (Coffee House, Press, Aug. 3)
Others to consider:
Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea, Edith Widder. The renowned marine biologist and expert on bioluminescence recounts her undersea adventures and discoveries in this inspiring memoir. (Random House, out now)
The Turnout, Megan Abbott. The beloved and best-selling crime novelist pits a family-run ballet company against a nefarious contractor in her latest thriller. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Aug. 3)
In the Country of Others, Leila Slimani. A French woman marries an ex-soldier in post-WWII Morocco, and their interracial marriage puts them at odds with both sides of the country’s colonial unrest. (Penguin Books, Aug. 10)
Sensor, Junji Ito. The iconic Japanese manga writer and artist delivers another unsettling black-and-white graphic novel, this time braiding horror, fantasy, and mystery while unspooling a multigeneral saga set in a cursed land. (VIZ Media, Aug. 17)
Velvet Was the Night, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The author of Mexican Gothic returns with a stylish noir thriller about the search for a missing woman in 1970s Mexico City. (Del Rey, Aug. 17)
More books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in the Sunday Inquirer.