This week, we highlight new books from Lee Connell, Andy Horowitz, and Alex North.

Boyfriend Material

Alexis Hall. Sourcebooks Casablanca, $14.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-72820-614-1

Hall (Fire & Water) breathes new life into the fake-dating trope with this effervescent queer rom-com. Luc O’Donnell, the hapless son of an aging British rock star, is tired of being a tabloid headline. When his employers at the small environmental charity where he works raise concerns about his public image and prompt him to find a stable relationship, Luc lets his friends set him up with Oliver Blackwood, a stuffy but sexy criminal barrister. Though their first date is a disaster, after Luc confesses his true motives, Oliver agrees to pose as his boyfriend at work events if Luc will return the favor at Oliver’s parents’ anniversary party. Their ruse gets its first test during a fancy work lunch in a hilarious, standout scene reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse. Oliver proves to be “Annoying. And thoughtful. And protective. And secretly kind of funny” as he inspires Luc to take control of his life, supports Luc through his absentee father’s cancer diagnosis, and teaches him sex can be meaningful. But Luc’s efforts to help Oliver cope with his hypercritical parents backfire, leading to a delightfully comedic take on the inevitable grand romantic gesture. The writing is witty, and Luc and Oliver’s chemistry is irresistible, but it’s Hall’s insights about trust and self-worth that set the story apart. This is a triumph. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (July)

The Party Upstairs

Lee Conell. Penguin Press, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-9848-8027-7

Conell’s smashing debut creates a vivacious microcosm of life inside a tony Manhattan co-op building, where middle-aged Martin, the super, lives with his wife and daughter, Ruby, in the basement. Ruby, 24, moves back in with her parents after her art history degree fails to land her a job, and John, her boyfriend, breaks up with her. Ruby was raised in the building along with her best friend, Caroline, whose wealthy family lives in the penthouse. As children, the girls played games like “Holocaust-orphans-sisters-survivors,” and didn’t notice the differences in their social classes. They remained best friends as they got older despite Ruby’s growing discomfort over Caroline’s economic advantages, a conflict mirrored in the tension shown in flashbacks with Ruby and John, whom she saw as a “rich boy with family money who displayed his paltry do-gooder paycheck as a badge of integrity.” Ruby now aspires to build a diorama of her building and its residents for the Museum of Natural History. Meanwhile, memories of Lily, an eccentric and beloved neighbor, haunt Martin after he finds her dead in her apartment. Lily speaks to Martin vividly and torments the already anxious super. The story culminates at a party in the penthouse, where Ruby’s recent disdain for her friend pushes her to an act that changes the course of all their lives. Conell’s talent for storytelling, wicked sense of humor, and compassion for her characters will leave readers eager for her next book. (July)

Katrina: A History, 1915–2015

Andy Horowitz. Harvard Univ, $35 (282p) ISBN 978-0-674-97171-4

Tulane University history professor Horowitz debuts with a vivid and persuasive chronicle of the “causes and consequences” of Hurricane Katrina. Beginning with a 1915 report by New Orleans’s Sewerage and Water Board that encouraged the development of flood-prone neighborhoods, Horowitz illustrates how a century’s worth of federal programs encouraged city residents, particularly low-income African-Americans, to make their homes in locations that were increasingly endangered by the dredging of Louisiana’s marshlands to build infrastructure for the shipping and oil industries. Drawing upon an impressive array of sources, including public works records and oral histories, Horowitz argues that a combination of environmental challenges, structural racism, and governmental misjudgment resulted in a massive loss of life during the August 2005 storm. In its aftermath, these same factors generated an ethos of “creative destruction,” which interpreted the hurricane as an opportunity to remake New Orleans into a smaller, wealthier, and whiter city. Ending on a note of mingled optimism and worry, Horowitz describes the deep love that New Orleanians have for their home and the many problems the city continues to struggle with. Even readers who have never visited the Crescent City will be moved by this incisive account. (June)

The Shadows

Alex North. Celadon, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-31803-9

The pseudonymous North follows up his sensational debut, 2019’s The Whisper Man, with another terrifying spine-tingler set in Featherbank, England. When Paul Adams was 15, his school playground was the scene of the murder of one of his friends. The alleged killer, teenager Charlie Crabtree, was another friend of Paul. Charlie disappeared and was never seen again. After going away to college, Paul doesn’t return to Featherbank until, as a 40-year-old English teacher, he decides he must come home to tend to his dying mother. To his dismay, history appears to be repeating itself with a series of copycat killings of teenage boys. Det. Amanda Beck, from the previous novel, investigates as the bodies pile up and suspects accumulate. Ghosts (real and imagined) continue to haunt Paul, whose senile mother fears something strange is in the house. The complex plot shifts smoothly between past and present with numerous unexpected twists. An overwhelming atmosphere of doom and disaster hovers over the perennial darkness of the nearby woods. This heart-pounding page-turner is impossible to put down. Agent: Sandra Sawicka, Marjacq (U.K.). (July)

Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery

Erica C. Barnett. Viking, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-525-52232-4

Journalist Barnett debuts with an intense account of her alcoholism, denial, and, ultimately, redemption. With her first taste of alcohol as a 13-year-old in 1991, she discovered a “magic trick that took me outside myself,” one that, after graduating from the University of Texas, turned a shy young woman into a gregarious one. After landing her first reporting job at the Austin Chronicle, Barnett began drinking heavily, suffering blackouts before accepting a job at Seattle Weekly. In Seattle, her problem worsened, with more frequent blackouts and Barnett relying on box wine at her desk at work. Barnett’s snappy prose carries the reader through several rounds of rehab before the final one sticks, pulling no punches as she goes. Barnett doesn’t skimp on her life’s lows (she goes to an interview drunk, and shoplifts wine) of how her ever-worsening problem caused her to lose her health, her job, and many of her friends, and alienate her family. In the end, she begins therapy and reluctantly joins AA, eventually acknowledging, “I feel better if I give some of those things up to whatever’s out there.” Emotionally devastating and self-aware, this cautionary tale about substance abuse is a worthy heir to Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life. (July)

Vernon Subutex 2

Virginie Despentes, trans. from the French by Frank Wynne. FSG Originals, $17 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-28325-4

The apparent deaths by drug overdose of indie rock star Alex Bleach and his porn star ex-girlfriend unite a motley crew of armchair investigators in this rollicking second volume of a trilogy set in 2014 Paris. Vernon Subutex, a middle-aged former record store owner and sometime DJ, now homeless, was a close friend of Bleach and has in his possession videotapes containing a late, unseen interview with him. Though Vernon is oblivious to the interview’s value, the venal film producer Laurent Dopalet, who hears about the tapes from a screenwriter, is not. In Dopalet’s effort to track down Vernon and confiscate the tapes, which it’s hinted might compromise Dopalet, he hires a fixer named the Hyena, who in turn encounters a rogue’s gallery of Gen-X punks and their millennial successors, among them another porn star, a tattoo artist, a recent convert to Islam, a struggling screenwriter, an alt-right menace, and a number of Vernon’s former lovers and fellow homeless. As clues mount regarding the true cause of the deaths, Vernon becomes through no effort of his own a sort of messianic figure to an unlikely band of the dissolute and the marginalized. Despentes, a former record store clerk and sex worker, makes an improbably intricate latticework of strange bedfellows brilliantly come to life. “Relationships,” observes the Hyena, “feed on events that seem trivial, but each one is a screw that turns and opens the way to unexpected levels of understanding.” Such is the snowballing effect of this sexed-up epic, an achievement greater than the sum of its wildly colorful parts. (July)

Lake Life

David James Poissant. Simon & Schuster, $24 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4767-2999-2

A family grapples with barely concealed secrets after witnessing a tragedy in Poissant’s poignant and beautiful debut novel (after the collection The Heaven of Animals). Retired Cornell math professor Richard Starling and his wife, Lisa, an ornithologist, gather their 30-something sons Thad and Michael for one last hurrah at the family’s lake house in North Carolina before the couple sells the house and retires to Florida. After Michael, an alcoholic facing a dry morning with “wings in the skull,” fails to save a neighbor boy from drowning, the family struggles to salvage their vacation as the causes of their inner pain rise to the surface. Michael’s wife is unexpectedly pregnant despite Michael’s long-standing objection to fatherhood; Thad, an underemployed poet, begrudges his open relationship with Jake, a blocked artist; Lisa mourns her firstborn infant daughter lost to SIDS; and Richard worries Lisa is selling the lake house to punish him for an undisclosed affair. As the family members’ facades begin to crack, fresh wounds surface and hard decisions are made by each. Poissant demonstrates superb talent for observation, cultivating a familiar, lived-in feeling of the family’s lake house, where each character’s unique viewpoint emerges powerfully and their everyday interactions gain greater significance. This is a remarkable, moving depiction of a family on the brink. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (July)

Or What You Will

Jo Walton. Tor, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-30899-3

Hugo and Nebula Award–winner Walton (Among Others) brilliantly braids somber realism, fanciful metafiction, and Shakespearean-influenced fantasy into a moving paean to the power of storytelling. The unnamed narrator inhabits the mind of Sylvia Harrison, a successful 73-year-old Canadian author. He has appeared, in various guises, as a character in all 30 of her books­­—including a fantasy trilogy set in Illyria, a rough analogue to Renaissance Italy—but he also exists independently of her fiction, if only as a figment of her imagination. Now Sylvia travels to Florence, to draft a sequel both to her Illyria books and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Though Sylvia is loath to admit it to the narrator or even to herself, the narrator knows that she is dying. Unsure of what will happen to him if Sylvia no longer exists, he devises a plan to save them both by immortalizing them in fiction. Walton shifts effortlessly between Sylvia’s life, Florentine history, and the plot unfolding in Illyria, giving equal weight to the mundane and the fantastic. The narrator’s voice is spellbinding (“What am I? Figment, fakement, fragment, furious fancy-free form. I have been the spark that ignites in a cold winter”), drawing readers into a nuanced meditation on reality and fiction. This gorgeous, deeply philosophical work is a knockout. Agent: Jack Byrne, Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency. (July)

The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice

David Hill. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-08611-2

Journalist Hill’s fantastic debut blends true crime and Southern history to chronicle the transformation of Hot Springs, Ark., from a spa town into a hotbed of horse racing, prostitution, and illegal gambling between the 1930s and 1960s. Hill tracks the history through the lives of three central figures: Owney Madden, Dane Harris, and Hazel Hill (the author’s grandmother). Madden, an Irish-American gangster and owner of the Cotton Club in Harlem, moved to Hot Springs in 1935 to avoid enemies he’d made in the Manhattan underworld. He teamed with local hustlers, including bootlegger Harris, to turn the town’s existing vice district into a strip of high-end resorts that drew professional athletes and film stars. Harris and Madden also opened the Vapors, the grandest of the city’s resorts, where Hazel Hill worked as a “shill player,” betting with house money “to keep the tourists interested and the games going,” while struggling to raise three children on her own after leaving their abusive, alcoholic father. Expertly interweaving family memoir, Arkansas politics, and Mafia lore, Hill packs the story full of colorful characters and hair-raising events. This novelistic history hits the jackpot. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)