This week, we highlight new books from Elsa Hart, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Karen Dionne.

Borges and Me: An Encounter

Jay Parini. Doubleday, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-54582-2

In this astute memoir, novelist Parini (The Last Station) writes of leaving Pennsylvania in 1971 to pursue a PhD in literature at St. Andrews in Scotland. There, he describes himself as the “last 22-year-old virgin in the Age of Aquarius” as he finds his voice as a writer and escapes the draft. He soon falls for antiwar activist Bella Law, who has a boyfriend and is indifferent to Parini’s meek advances. Then, after Parini’s writing mentor, poet Alastair Reid, asks him to host his houseguest, Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, a one-week ramble through the Scottish Highlands ensues. His mission: to describe the entire trip for the blind writer (“He knew what he wanted to see. Or to have me describe”). Parini also plans to meet his thesis subject, poet George Mackay Brown, on the isle of Orkney, but on the way realizes that Borges, a “batty old man of letters,” is a literary jukebox, referring to such literary works as Beowulf (while capsizing their rowboat on Loch Ness) and writers including Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Over the days, a tender bond forms between the eccentric sage and his caretaker. En route to meeting Brown, Parini loses his virginity to a free-spirited innkeeper’s daughter, and, newly emboldened, Parini returns to St. Andrews and kindles a relationship with Bella as he matures as an author, writing, “I could sense my own voice emerging.” Fans of both Borges and Parini will delight in this touching coming-of-age memoir. (Aug.)

The Last Stargazers: the Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers

Emily Levesque. Sourcebooks, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4926-8107-6

Levesque, a University of Washington astronomy professor, leads readers on a pilgrimage to observatories throughout the world in her wonderful debut. Having “been enraptured by space for as long as I [can] remember,” Levesque became set on astronomy as a career while studying at MIT among like-minded students and professors who similarly appreciated “the simple beauty of the sky.” She blends these memories with profiles of huge telescopes, including the “beast of a machine” at Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory, Chile’s cutting-edge Vera C. Rubin Observatory, and the mighty 630-ton Subaru Telescope atop Hawaii’s highest mountain. Levesque describes her research on red supergiant stars, which led to a breakthrough about “how the insides of stars could work,” and recalls how, before the widespread adoption of digital photography, astronomers like herself relied on glass photographic plates, working through the night to make adjustments by hand. Adding an Indiana Jones vibe, she recalls how, for her and others, astronomy has led to close calls with lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions, tarantulas (“actually fairly, shy, skittish, and fragile”), and scorpions (which “do pose a danger to astronomers”). This will particularly appeal to young women interested in science, but any stargazer would enjoy this joyous adventure through modern astronomy. (Aug.)

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

Katie Mack. Scribner, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0354-5

Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist who has written for Scientific American and Cosmos, debuts with a fascinating tour of the cosmic forces—quantum vacuums, dark matter, dark energy, entropy, and gravitation among them—that may conspire to end the universe. Excelling at providing just enough scientific detail, Mack sets the scene with an exceptionally lucid history of the universe from the big bang to the present. As to how the end might occur, Mack reveals a surprising number of competing theories, including that the mysterious dark energy will rip the cosmos apart, or, conversely, that the universe will collapse in on itself. In the currently most favored theory, it will be the victim of entropy, a long, cold demise paradoxically named “heat death,” and in another scenario, which could happen at any moment, the all-pervading Higgs energy field will become unstable. (In this eventuality, Mack is careful to assure readers, the process will be painless and instantaneous.) In outlining the reasoning behind each theory, she also acknowledges opposing arguments and provides context for how astrophysicists found the supporting data. Despite the seemingly frightening topic, Mack’s endlessly entertaining survey is infused with a palpable love of her subject, and will transmit to readers the same joy she finds in exploring the wide and fascinating universe. Agent: Mollie Glick, CAA. (Aug.)

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne

Elsa Hart. Minotaur, $26.99 (354p) ISBN 978-1-250-14281-8

Hart (City of Ink and two other mysteries featuring 18th-century Chinese librarian Li Du) establishes herself as a versatile talent with this exceptional standalone set in 1703 London. Botanist Cecily Kay has left her diplomat husband behind in Smyrna to spend time in the home of Sir Barnaby Mayne, a legendary collector, who believes his holdings “contain no less than the future course of all knowledge toward the secrets God left for man to discover.” Kay hopes to use Mayne’s collection of plants to help her classify the flora she collected in Smyrna. She’s delighted to find that Mayne’s other guests include a childhood friend, Meacan Barlow, an artist who’s been retained to illustrate a new catalogue of the nobleman’s possessions. Both women’s plans are disrupted when Mayne is found stabbed to death in his study, with the bloody knife in the hands of another member of the household, who confesses to the murder before fleeing. The astute Kay doubts the confession’s truthfulness, but her pursuit of answers puts her in danger. The author has a gift for vivid similes (randomly displayed objects are “like guests at a poorly planned party who cannot find a common topic of conversation”). Hart is bound to become a household name for readers who love clever and fair whodunits. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Gernert Co. (Aug.)

The Disaster Tourist

Yun Ko-Eun, trans. from the Korean by Lizzie Bueler. Counterpoint, $16.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-64009-416-1

South Korean author Yun’s spare but provocative novel (after the collection Table for One) offers perceptive satire laced with disconcerting imagery. In her mid-30s, Yona Ko has devoted the last decade of her life to her employer, Jungle, which offers package tours to areas of the world ravaged by disasters, from hurricanes to nuclear meltdowns. After being sexually assaulted by her boss and assigned to a new role, Yona suspects she’s being pushed out of the company. On the verge of quitting, she’s given a new opportunity: evaluate the disaster ecosystem on a Vietnamese island (a sinkhole, a volcano) and determine whether the destination should be kept in Jungle’s portfolio. Upon arriving, Yona soon realizes that the island’s power brokers are aware that their tourist income is imperiled, and she is appalled when an investor tells her of a plan to engineer a sinkhole during a village festival that would kill at least 100 people, after which they would use international aid for urban redevelopment. In Yona’s increasingly bizarre encounters, she learns just how severe the local environmental degradation is and the frightening extent of corporate greed. Yun cleverly combines absurdity with legitimate horror and mounting dread. With its arresting, nightmarish island scenario, this work speaks volumes about the human cost of tourism in developing countries. (Aug.)

Sherlock Holmes: The Spider’s Web

Philip Purser-Hallard. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-785658-44-0

Inspired by the works of Oscar Wilde, Purser-Hallard’s sequel to 2019’s Sherlock Holmes: The Vanishing Man again displays the author’s remarkable facility at conjuring the spirit of Conan Doyle’s originals. One night, Lord Goring, a member of London society, arrives at Baker Street and implores Holmes to accompany him to a house in Mayfair, where a fancy ball has been disrupted by the discovery of a corpse. An unknown man lies dead in the back garden after falling from a balcony. Since the dead man is clutching a brooch with a spider design on it belonging to Goring’s wife, the nobleman fears the police will suspect her of pushing the man to his death. When Holmes arrives at the scene of the crime, he encounters Lady Bracknell, Algernon Moncrieff, and other Wilde characters who can’t help displaying a gift for wit (“I consider it unconscionably presumptuous to fall to one’s death from the balcony of a perfect stranger”). Watson fans will applaud his major role in the subsequent investigation. Sherlockians and Wildeans alike will embrace Purser-Hallard. (Aug.)

The First to Lie

Hank Phillippi Ryan. Forge, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-25880-9

In this stellar standalone from five-time Agatha Award winner Ryan (The Murder List), broadcast journalist Elle Berensen relishes her first assignment for Boston’s startup Channel 11—proving that a much touted drug made by the pharmaceutical company Pharminex can make women barren. Elle wants to ferret out the information with facts and ethical journalism, but Meg Weest, her new, overly enthusiastic assistant, is consumed by the story. Lacking scruples, Meg will go to any lengths, including lying, cheating, and violence, to usurp Elle and humiliate the family who own Pharminex. Elle has to wonder whether security agents for Pharminex have uncovered her investigation after her home is broken into and she’s followed a couple of times. Meanwhile, confident Nora Quinn, the drug firm’s newest pharmaceutical sales representative, who visits doctors’ offices and chats with patients in waiting rooms, has her own agenda. The breathlessly energetic plot touches on corporate intrigue, journalism ethics, revenge, and the corrosive nature of lies. Ryan could win a sixth Agatha with this one. Agent: Lisa Gallagher, DeFiore & Co. (Aug.)

The Wicked Sister

Karen Dionne. Putnam, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1303-6

Rachel Cunningham, the protagonist of this devastating, magic realism–dusted psychological thriller from Dionne (The Marsh King’s Daughter), has been guilt-ridden for 15 years since a twin tragedy she can’t remember—her mother’s murder and father’s apparent suicide—when she was 11 at her family’s vast wilderness estate on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She has voluntarily confined herself to a decaying mental institution, where one day she gains access to the original police report, obtained somehow by a fellow patient’s brother, that sparks the faint hope she’s not responsible for her parents’ deaths—and sends her back to the family estate, where her brilliant but scary older sister, Diana, and their aunt still live, to try to figure out what really happened. But Rachel’s mission soon becomes far more perilous than she anticipated. Arriving unannounced at a time when both women are away, she discovers paperwork indicating that Diana is up to no good. As Rachel scrambles to remain undetected, the tension at times becomes almost unbearable, especially as the reader becomes privy to critical information unknown to Rachel via flashbacks narrated by her late mother. Dionne paints a haunting portrait of a family hurtling toward the tragic destiny they can foresee but are powerless to stop. Agent: Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management. (Aug.)

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals

Becky Mandelbaum. Simon & Schuster, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-982112-98-1

Mandelbaum’s heartwarming and sharp-witted debut novel (after the collection Bad Kansas) features an estranged mother and daughter better at connecting with injured and abandoned animals than with each other. Mona Siskin, owner of the Bright Side Animal Sanctuary in St. Clare, Kans., steals a “Make America Great Again” sign from the neighboring Fuller brothers’ lawn, the sign’s letters “stamped with all the careless glory of a lower-back tattoo.” When Big John Fuller approaches Mona the next morning, she assumes he’s there to confront her about the sign. Instead, he offers to purchase her property. Bankrupt and overextended, Mona had reluctantly put the land on the market a week before, but she doesn’t want to sell to Big John, who once reported one of her workers to ICE. In Lawrence, Kans., Mona’s 24-year-old daughter, Ariel, who ran away six years earlier after betraying her mother and her first love, is surprised to learn of Mona’s plans to sell, and enraged by reports of arson at the sanctuary, along with anti-Semitic graffiti targeting her mother. She returns, hoping to help save Bright Side, and things get off to a rough start as she reckons with the past. Ariel accidentally lets five dogs escape, prompting Mona to ask if Ariel returned just to give her a heart attack. A more promising sign comes when Big John bonds with one of the runaway dogs, among many surprises in this nuanced look at political divisions and a mother and daughter’s difficult relationship. In Mandelbaum’s bighearted, emotionally intelligent tale, the love for animals proves irresistible. (Aug.)