This week: a summer job on a New York ambulance, plus a creepy, can’t-put-it-down thriller about motherhood.
Kit Owens and Diane Fleming, the protagonists of this nuanced tale of soured friendships, blood-soaked ambition, and desperate murder from Thriller Award–winner Abbott (You Will Know Me), were once fast friends—until Diane tells Kit a secret so dark that it shatters their friendship, sending Kit into a minor tailspin. But high school is drawing to a close, and Kit hopes she’ll never see Diane again. Fast-forward more than a decade, and Kit is working in a lab under the impressive Dr. Lena Severin. When a new grant is announced to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder, Kit can hardly contain her shock as Diane reappears as a newly poached superstar from a competing lab. Kit and Diane each want coveted spots on Dr. Severin’s PMDD research team, and as the only women in the male-dominated lab, they must deal with their colleagues’ thinly veiled misogyny. When Diane’s secret pulses to the surface, lives are lost and futures are put in doubt in a mad rush to keep the past in its place. No writer can touch Abbott in the realm of twisted desire and relationships between women, both intimate and feral.
In the stories of her imaginative and unsettling debut, Bonnaffons creates worlds much like ours, except for the parts that are askew. Sometimes noticeably askew, as in the title story, which features Jesus and Mary lawn statues that talk (and judge); sometimes almost unnoticeably, as in “The Cleas,” a tale of babysitting—and the deeply problematic relationships between men and women—told by a recent college grad. Except for the excellent “Doris and Katie,” about two old friends coming to terms with sex and death, the stories feature youngish women trying to figure out what they can legitimately expect from men, the world, and themselves. In the longest and strongest story, “Horse,” Bonnaffons imagines a world where women—only women—can become horses through injections; the story’s narrator injects herself with the horse hormones at the same time her best friend is injecting herself with hormones to help her get pregnant. Some feature magical realism—“Black Stones,” “Little Sister,” and “A Room to Live In”—but when Bonnaffons hits the sweet spot between the emotional and physical realities of this world and the odd, askew thing that lets readers see them, the collection is at its best. This is an outstanding, exciting debut.
Nearly 80 years after its original publication, Chandler’s iconic debut novel finally gets the scholarly treatment it deserves with this superb, lovingly annotated edition. The enduring 1939 tale of blackmail and corruption introduced readers to private detective Philip Marlowe and remains one of the most influential novels in American literature, inspiring countless books and films. The publisher has enlisted three editors to provide notes—a poet/novelist/bookseller, an English professor, and a librarian/scholar—and the result is a thorough, interdisciplinary approach that enriches and informs the text.
Kilalea’s striking, singular debut constructs an eerie world of replicas, repetitions, and doubles that contrasts the utopian ideals of a modernist house with the irreversibly damaged soul who inhabits it. Narrator Mr. Field is close to inhuman, a lethargic obsessive recovering from a traumatic injury that ends his career as a concert pianist. He retires to one of three replicas of a modernist masterpiece, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, in Cape Town, South Africa. Perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the house is a “grand white box... rising from the rocks on its thin white stilts as if signifying, albeit tenuously, the victory of architecture over nature.” Meanwhile, a developer begins construction on a fanciful housing project next door, a “tower of cowsheds” rising up into the clouds, as Mr. Field’s life and home fall into disrepair. Mr. Field’s wife, Mim, vanishes, leaving behind cryptic notes about the sea; the house’s windows fall out and weeds encroach; and Mr. Field hears the voice of the villa’s former occupant in his head, then tirelessly stalks her in real life. The novel is as opaque as its central character, but Kilalela maintains a balance between formal control and the irrational mystery of a man who is a “stranger to [him]self.” The result is a disorienting and enthralling descent into one man’s peculiar malaise.
Journalist Lingan’s engrossing and fast-paced book tells a mesmerizing tale of the characters that put Winchester, Va., on the map. As in many small cities, the residents of Winchester are torn between preserving tradition and encouraging industry and jobs. Freelance writer Lingan was first drawn to Winchester in 2013 to explore country singer Patsy Cline’s hometown, just two hours from Washington, D.C. Once there, he learned about Jim McCoy, a DJ who in 1948 gave Cline a chance to sing on a local radio station when she was 16 years old. Within a decade, McCoy started Winchester Records and opened a country music nightclub called the Troubador, which he operated until his death in 2016. Cline died in a plane crash in 1963, and since then the Troubadour has drawn tourists searching not only for stories about Cline but also looking for an authentic small-town experience. Lingan introduces readers to the town’s notable historical figures, such as politician Harry Flood Byrd, who in the early 20th century helped expand the town’s apple farming industry, and contemporary writer Joe Bagean (Deer Hunting with Jesus) who railed against the first Walmart that opened there. Lingan’s charming book tells of a mountain town’s adapting to change in fast-moving times.
In McGuire’s beautifully written second story featuring hitchhiking ghost Rose Marshall (after 2014’s Sparrow Hill Road), set in the same world as the InCryptid series, Rose must confront her most dangerous foe: Bobby Cross, the immortal who ran her down when she was only 16. Bobby’s car runs on the spirits of the restless dead, and for him, Rose is the girl that got away. Rose loves her unlife: her true love, Gary Daniels, is finally with her, 60 years after her death, and Rose enjoys ushering the newly dead into their next state of being. Rose has a tattoo that protects her from Bobby, but when he damages the tattoo, Rose must become flesh and blood again—to her horror—and enlist the help of her onetime nemesis, folklorist Laura Moorehead. McGuire gives the headstrong Rose a rich history and firmly anchors her in her present as she crisscrosses the country and spends time in her diner, the Last Dance, with those she loves. This stunning, richly imagined story of love and destiny features an irresistible heroine and is one of the accomplished McGuire’s best yet.
In this fresh and powerful debut memoir, Scardino looks back on his summers during college in the late 1960s when he worked as a New York City hospital ambulance attendant. Working 56 hours a week—“Nights and days, whenever they need me”—Scardino recounts in short chapters the many emergencies he witnessed and assisted in that showed him “the entire catalog of horrifying things that can happen to a human body.” From accidental deaths to suicides, Scardino writes with the detail of a crime reporter (“What had been his left side had grown into the carpet. Just coalesced with the carpet.... Instead of a face, there was a flat oval plane covered with maggots”). Scardino admits that what bothers him “more than seeing how people die, is seeing how people live”: in one example, he describes a diabetic woman whose legs are gangrenous below the knees, who weighs over 400 pounds, and who needs somehow to be carried down from her second-floor apartment. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the job,” he writes, “it’s that any call, anywhere, can always get worse.” Scardino’s unsparing memoir offers an empathetic look at human pain and suffering.
The actions of real-life British intelligence agent Kim Philby, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963, drive bestseller Silva’s excellent 18th novel featuring Israeli art restorer and spy Gabriel Allon (after 2017’s House of Spies). Israel’s intelligence division, known as the Office, is running an operation to save blown Russian agent Konstantin Kirov, one of Israeli’s most valuable sources, and bring him to sanctuary in the U.K. When the operation goes bad, Gabriel and his team are drawn into a meticulously planned mission, involving both MI6 and the CIA, to unearth one of the Kremlin’s highest-placed moles. Meanwhile, in Andalusia, a French journalist starts writing a memoir called The Other Woman, which contains the key to the mystery that Gabriel must solve. Philby, who died in Moscow three decades earlier in 1988, turns out to be at the bottom of it. In recent years, a number of thriller authors have focused on Philby, but Silva’s treatment of him may be the most complex and fascinating yet. Readers will be enthralled by both the history and the up-to-the-minute plot that Silva spins with such finesse.
Stage’s deviously fun debut takes child-rearing anxiety to demented new heights. Frustrated and fragile stay-at-home mom Suzette and seven-year-old Hanna alternately narrate a cascade of crises stemming from Hanna’s near-total refusal to speak, her mistrust of her mom and adoration of her dad, and the parents’ frantic attempts to find a solution to Hanna’s increasingly dangerous tantrums. From Hanna’s perspective, Suzette is the only thing standing in the way of the complete devotion of her father, Alex, and she plots ways to “step up her game against Mommy.” For Suzette, her love-starved relationship with a distant mother and chronic Crohn’s haunt every attempt to bond with a little girl who barks like a “feral animal” and only speaks as a 17th-century girl named Marie-Anne Dufosset, who was burned at the stake for suspected witchcraft. For the besieged Suzette, there’s also a troubling ambivalence about whether she wants to save or kill her disturbed child. Stage expertly crafts this creepy, can’t-put-it-down thriller into a fearless exploration of parenting and marriage that finds the cracks in unconditional love.
Woolley (The Herbalist) delves into the colorful life of the seductive 17th-century English duke George Villiers, favorite of King James I. Elegant and smooth talking, George Villiers rose above his impoverished family to become James’s confidante and lover, establishing a fortune and a litany of titles in a remarkably short time. Despite early missteps—including a breach in protocol that ordinarily resulted in the removal of a hand—Villiers earned the trust of both James and his more introverted heir, Charles. In fact, George and the prince managed a misguided undercover excursion into Catholic Spain in a failed attempt to clinch a betrothal between Charles and the Spanish infanta, which Woolley recounts humorously. He provides an evenhanded portrayal of the dramatic Villiers, balancing his tenderness toward the king with the haughty ambition that inspired him to kidnap marital prospects for his family members on at least two occasions. As for the discussion of why Villiers may have been the first of many Stuart regicides, Woolley draws on new evidence from noted toxicologist John Henry, who believes that someone probably murdered the king, which is interesting but not definitive. Woolley presents an engrossing portrait of an ambitious man trusted by two kings that both casual readers and Stuart history fans can enjoy.
Yoss (Super Extra Grande) is an eminent Cuban SF writer who also fronts a heavy metal band; his iconoclastic spirit and rock-and-roll aesthetic are on full ingenious display in this daring, rollicking, and joyous novel. When humans first encountered aliens, they discovered that the entire sentient galaxy follows a simple rule to make cross-species trade harmonious: demonstrate mutual acceptance by having sex. This leads to the development of a new profession: Contact Specialist, or condomnaut. Josué Valdes, an orphan from the ruins of post-nuclear Cuba, is a Contact Specialist but lacks the advantages of training or built-in nanotechnology to assist him in alien sex. He longs to secure his place as a citizen of the wealthy Catalan Nu Barsa arcology, and maybe get his name into the history books, using natural talent and sheer chutzpah. His swagger is shared by the book’s bravura plot and setting. The novel is recognizable as a space opera, but everything from human history to the economics of galactic trade is seen from a richly irreverent angle. Josué is a three-dimensional, well-rounded protagonist whose flaws can be genuinely aggravating without overwhelming his natural charm. When hilarity ensues, as it often does, the laughs are earned and heartfelt. This extended dirty joke is also an impressive science fiction novel with much to say about sex, culture, and what it means to be alien.