This week: the latest from Laura Lippman, plus understanding the new rules of language.
Rocket to the Morgue
A locked-room mystery preoccupies Boucher’s brilliant clerical sleuth, Sister Ursula, in this stellar entry, first published in 1942, in the American Mystery Classics series. Lt. Terence Marshall of the LAPD asks for Ursula’s advice when an unusual rosary, with seven sets of beads, is found in the pants pocket of a homeless man who was shot through the heart in a rooming house, though the killer didn’t make off with the dead man’s cash. The rosary and a slip of paper with the phone number to a fancy apartment hotel hidden amid the money are the only clues. When Marshall visits the building, he meets Hilary Foulkes, who insists that someone has tried to kill him several times, most recently by sending a package of poisoned chocolates. Marshall learns from a woman employed by the delivery service that accepted the package that the sender was disguised as Dr. Derringer, the Professor Challenger–like hero created by Foulkes’s renowned sci-fi author father. Foulkes’s fears are realized when he’s fatally stabbed in a locked room. Along with his usual cleverness in playing fair, Boucher offers a witty satire of SF and fantasy authors of the era.
Desdemona and the Deep
Cooney’s enthralling third Dark Breakers adventure (following The Two Paupers) plunges readers deep into a series of haunting, dazzling, and unforgettable multi-worlds. Desdemona Mannering is the daughter of Seafall’s wealthiest coal mine owner; her life is filled with heady pleasures. She’s also a fierce social reformer, and her genteel charity work is intended to improve the lives of those harmed by Seafall’s ruthless industrial economy. When she learns that her family’s wealth has come from a bargain with the King of the Goblin court, who takes her father’s workers as a tithe, Desdemona sets out to find the tithed men and bring them home. Together with her best friend, Chaz, Desdemona strikes her own bargain with the Goblin King that could liberate everyone in his kingdom—or doom Desdemona and Chaz. The richest rewards of this book are for series devotees, but newcomers will still find Cooney’s glittering narrative skills and vivid worldbuilding addictive, her diverse characters intriguing, and her message of justice and freedom stirring. This remarkable and richly detailed adventure is worth savoring.
The Gomorrah Gambit
British technology philosopher Chatfield (Netymology) makes his fiction debut with an accomplished and chilling high-tech thriller. In the ominous opening chapter, a disillusioned publicist for the jihadist cause, who’s caught in a battle in Syria in 2014, takes a photo of his cousin’s corpse and thinks: “Every life, every death, is now a message. Just add social media and wait for the shares to begin.” Later that year in London, hacker and social misfit Azi Bello gets an urgent message from Sigma, an online friend who sends him documents that suggest 50 Islamic martyrs are actually alive and preparing for a massive terrorist attack called Gomorrah. Within minutes of the communication with Sigma, Azi—a self-taught expert on the dark web—gets a visit from Anna, a member of an unnamed intelligence service who knows every detail of his life and uses Azi to ensnare Sigma. Once Azi meets Sigma, the complex game is afoot, moving to Berlin and Greece and ultimately to California’s Silicon Valley and a superwealthy think tank, the Existential Institute. Chatfield writes with real skill, intelligence, and, despite the grim story, humor. Readers will look forward to his next foray into fiction.
In this ambitious fantasy, which takes place in an Asia-inspired alternate present, rival clans battle for dominance over their island home, waging an economic, political, and physical war over the course of several years. Picking up where 2017’s Jade City left off, this installment sees the Kaul family of the No Peak clan working against the ruthless Mountain clan, fending off foreign governments, and trying to stamp out smugglers and opportunists. At the heart of everything is jade, a greatly coveted gem that imbues its bearers with amazing abilities and cultural status. While Hilo, the new leader of No Peak, settles into his role, his sister Shae must prove herself as his chief strategist. Meanwhile, their cousin Anden, who refuses to wear jade for the clan, is sent overseas as a punishment and becomes entangled in local issues. Lee’s story is sweeping, leisurely, and epic, and combines political intrigue with sharply choreographed action scenes, but it’s a character-driven family drama at its heart. Conflict ranges from delicate boardroom negotiations to dramatic duels, and from assassinations to all-out war, while the increasingly complex narrative continually ups the stakes. This worthy continuation of the larger story line delivers a satisfying tale and sets the stage for the next installment.
Lady in the Lake
Set in 1960s Baltimore, this smoldering standalone from Edgar winner Lippman (Sunburn) trails Madeline Schwartz, an affluent 37-year-old Jewish housewife who separates from her husband after dinner with an old classmate reminds her that she once had goals beyond marriage and motherhood. Maddie relishes her newfound freedom, renting an apartment downtown and starting an affair with a black patrolman, but she yearns for more. After discovering the corpse of 11-year-old Tessie Fine and later corresponding with Tessie’s incarcerated killer to determine his motive, Maddie leverages her story for an assistant’s position at the Star. She dreams of becoming a reporter, though, and starts investigating a crime otherwise ignored by the newspaper: the murder of Cleo Sherwood, a young black woman whose body turned up in the Druid Hill Park fountain. Lippman relates the bulk of the tale from Maddie’s perspective, but enriches the narrative with derisive commentary from Cleo and stunning vignettes of ancillary characters. Lippman’s fans will devour this sophisticated crime novel, which captures the era’s zeitgeist while painting a striking portrait of unapologetic female ambition.
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
McCulloch, writer of the “Resident Linguist” column for Wired and podcast cohost of Lingthusiasm, debuts with a funny and fascinating examination of the evolution of language in the digital age. Exploring everything from capitalization and punctuation to emojis and gifs, her book breaks down the structure of “internet language” in a precise and engaging way. She offers novices a well-structured introduction to modern linguistics, including a history of informal writing and the social implications of language. McCulloch discusses the ongoing shift toward less formal, more concise greetings in message writing, observing that receiving emails from strangers provides a “never-ending multiplayer guessing game of what generation someone’s in,” based on how her correspondent addresses her. She also discusses the stylized language of memes, sharing an excerpt of Genesis translated into the terminology of lolcat memes (“Oh hai. In teh beginning Ceiling Cat maded the skiez An da Urfs...”) and the function of punctuation in text messages, such as how a period may or may not signal passive aggression. An extensive notes section invites readers to further explore the impact the internet has had on language. Thanks to McCulloch’s skill in explaining both academic and popular subjects, this survey will make an excellent starting point for anyone’s exploration of the topic.
Gravity Is The Thing
This tender and frank adult debut by YA novelist Moriarty (The Year of Secret Assignments) follows one woman’s search for happiness in a world as brimming with promises of healing as it is overflowing with letdowns. On her 16th birthday, Abi Sorenson’s beloved brother went missing. On the very same day, she received the first chapter of a mysterious self-help book titled The Guidebook in the mail, and received chapters intermittently through the years—the chapters cover everything from the death of metaphysics (in a single paragraph) to winking criticism of Keats to more traditional self-help metaphors. Now 36 with a young son, and 20 years into the lessons of The Guidebook—and still reeling from the unresolved circumstances of her brother’s disappearance, as well as grieving her ruined marriage—Abi is invited to a remote island to learn the truth about why these messages came to her. The course ultimately leads her back to her hometown and an opportunity to further explore the mysteries surrounding The Guidebook with others whose life it has haunted—which, she hopes, might somehow help her find her brother. With an eye as keen for human idiosyncrasies as Miranda July’s, and a sense of humor as bright and surprising as Maria Semple’s, this is a novel of pure velocity; it sucks the reader into Abi’s problems and her joys in equal, brilliant measure. A complex dissection of the self-help industry, as well as a complete and moving portrait of a difficult, delightful woman, Moriarty proves her adult novels can live up to her YA work’s reputation.
College basketball player Victor Li, the narrator of Nieh’s remarkable debut, has little to concern him beyond his next game, until his restaurateur father, Vincent Li, is killed in a burglary at home in L.A. Sun Jianshui, a 30-ish immigrant who was raised by Vincent before he married and left for America, tells Victor that his father was part of a criminal enterprise formed when Vincent was a young man in China in the years after Mao’s death. According to Sun, Vincent was murdered for refusing to import a dangerous product called Ice. A letter from Vincent to Victor that Victor finds among his father’s papers instructs him to accompany Sun to Beijing and destroy the syndicate. The rich cast includes beautiful young courtesans, Chinese thugs, Russian gangsters, French journalists, and corrupt police in Beijing. Nieh, a Chinese-English translator, has a real gift for language; one character has “a voice that sounds the way strawberries taste.” This impressive blend of crime and coming-of-age marks Nieh as a talent to watch.
Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History and of the Outbreaks to Come
Preston follows up his 1994 book The Hot Zone with another terrifying real-life thriller about the threat of viruses—in this case, Ebola. He leavens the subject’s essential grimness with inspiring portrayals of men and women who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives battling the virus’s resurgence in West Africa in 2013 and 2014. They include Lisa Hensley, an American researcher and single mother who chooses to travel to Africa to offer what help she can, and Humarr Khan, a physician who, even before the Ebola outbreak, had already decided to stay in his native Sierra Leone and fight Lassa, another virus endemic in West Africa, rather than pursue a lucrative American career. Along with character sketches, Preston delves into the moral complexities that can arise in disease research, in this case when an apparent miracle cure—dubbed wow “because everybody was typing Wow in their emails”—yields amazing results in monkeys and the researchers must decide whether to experiment with its efficacy for humans. His concluding sections establish why this story remains relevant, as the Ebola outbreak is a cautionary tale of what could happen if a similar mutated supervirus reached cities. This nonfiction page-turner will both educate and scare readers.
Good Girl, Bad Girl
Two major cases preoccupy forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven, the hero of this haunting psychological thriller from Edgar finalist Robotham (The Secrets She Keeps). First, the Nottingham, England, police have enlisted him in their effort to catch the killer of 15-year-old Jodie Sheehan, British junior figure skating champion. Second, Cyrus has to assess the fitness of a troubled but achingly vulnerable teenage girl for release from a high-security children’s home. Six years earlier, the media dubbed her Angel Face when she was discovered abused and malnourished hiding inside a north London house, where the body of a murder victim had been found a few weeks before. She now goes by the court-given alias of Evie Cormac, since she has steadfastly refused to reveal her true identity or age. Despite Jodie and Evie’s obvious differences, they are sisters under the skin in many respects. Beneath Jodie’s sparkly princess persona, Cyrus learns, were a host of very adult problems. To succeed, Cyrus must tease out the secrets Jodie may have died for—as well as some of those that could still get Evie killed. Robotham expertly raises the tension as the action hurtles toward the devastating climax. Readers will hope the complex Cyrus will return for an encore.
Glory and Its Litany of Horrors
Brazilian actress Torres follows the frenetic collapse of an actor’s career and his masculine bluster with piercing humor in her latest (after The End). Fading middle-aged soap opera star Mario Cardoso attempts to revive his gravity by playing King Lear. Shortly into the show’s run in São Paulo, he succumbs to uncontrollable laughter. As the already absurd production implodes, Mario receives a call that his mother, Maria Amélia, is in the hospital. He rushes home to Rio, where his addled mother confuses him for her deceased husband. Mario scrambles to find her care and reminisces about his career with a casual tone that only partially conceals the real pain of his failures, including joining a quixotic troop trying to raise peasant political consciousness and his disastrous romance with a co-star who took her method acting too far. Mario’s need for money (and implication in a bribery scandal) pushes him to accept two deeply embarrassing roles that culminate in an alarming twist. Torres’s zippy momentum still leaves space for an emotional coda, and she has an impressive knack for showing Mario’s vulnerability. This resonant story of an actor’s accelerating decline will charm readers who enjoy madcap farce.
The Last Astronaut
Wellington’s terrifying exploration of near-future alien contact layers a shocking “what if” on the bones of current science and space exploration. Presented as a 2057 publication, the novel documents the encounter between the crew of the Orion 7, led by Cmdr. Sally Jansen, and the object dubbed 2I/2044 D1. Following the tragic events of the abortive 2034 Orion 6 Mars mission and the shuttering of the American space program, Jansen is largely retired. Then astrophysicist Sunny Stevens, a deep space researcher for a private corporation, makes the hugely significant discovery of 2I/2044 D1, an object that has altered course in an unnatural way and will come into alignment with Earth’s orbit in six months. He brings this knowledge to the remnants of NASA, and Jansen is called back into action as the most eminently qualified leader, despite her remaining guilt and trauma from Orion 6. Gritting her teeth, she gathers her crew and sets out to see what intelligence is driving 2I/2044 D1 and what it portends for Earth. Within its lightless depths, the crew encounter bizarre and nightmarish creatures, and the tension and body count ratchet up. Wellington (The Cyclops Initiative) creates a gripping story that reveals its horrors one inexorable, plausible detail at a time. Readers will be riveted—and will want to keep all the lights on.