James can’t wait to leave his old life behind him and make a new start as a freshman at State University. While stopping for gas on the way to college, he has a chance encounter with his childhood pal, Reggie, and the two are forced to recall their 12th summer. Daniel Kraus’s chilling debut novel, The Monster Variations, looks back at that time of terror, when a mysterious silver truck is running over boys at night. James and Reggie’s mutual blood brother, Willie, is lucky to be alive, only losing an arm from the hit-and-run attack.

Just when summer arrives, promising long evenings playing junkball with neighborhood friends, paranoia sweeps the boys’ small town, which institutes a curfew for children and sends parent vigilantes on the prowl. With more time at home, the boys take notice of the frequent absences by James’ father and his parents’ disintegrating marriage, Reggie’s “well-known” waitress mother who works long hours and Willie’s alcoholic father and overprotective mother. There’s also more time for the boys to seek out the school bully’s secrets, view the dead “monster” kept hidden in an older teen’s barn and turn against each other for the first time.

In this cerebral thriller, Kraus crafts masterful descriptions of bygone childhoods, a town overcome by suspicion and the psychological effects of fear. As the boys try to figure out the identity of the killer, everyone is a suspect until the shocking conclusion. But perhaps the real fear is simply fear of growing up, realizing the disappointments and imperfections in life and trying to avoid becoming a monster oneself, burdened by life’s responsibilities.

Despite the difficult changes that coming of age brings, Kraus also offers hope for happiness and independence in the unsettling time known as adolescence.

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