Our favorite books coming out this week include new titles from Edmund White, Sarah Pinsker, and Ben Smith.

The Humble Lover

Edmund White. Bloomsbury, $27.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63973-088-9
In White’s audacious latest (after A Previous Life), wealthy Manhattanite Aldwych West pursues the younger August Dupond, principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. The 80-year-old’s aching desire for the 20-year-old enfant terrible leads to a live-in relationship that upends each of their lives. August prefers Gatorade to champagne, brings home other lovers, and engages in hardcore BDSM with his partners. Aldwych, meanwhile, hatches a plan to win August’s affections that involves launching a new ballet company, which would allow August to fulfill his creative potential. Philanthropic investment banker Bryce gets involved with the project, and Bryce’s dominatrix wife, Ernestine, arranges for an “afternoon of pleasure and pain” with herself, August, and a sex worker. As the sexual paths of these “perfidious lovers” continue to cross, Aldwych stumbles through his increasingly quixotic endeavor, and White brings it all together in a shocking and baroque conclusion. As ever, White is a master of social comedy and wry observations (on the source of Aldwych’s wealth: “His family had invented the microwave, or maybe something older, like the kitchen stove”). Explicit descriptions of August’s sex life, meanwhile, not only titillate but add poignancy to the portrayal of Aldwych’s elusive desire. Readers will delight in this immersion into a lurid world of passion. Agent: Bill Clegg, Clegg Agency. (May)

Lost Places

Sarah Pinsker. Small Beer, $18 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-61873-199-9
This remarkable collection of 12 speculative shorts from Pinsker (Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea) places celebrated favorites and hidden gems side by side. The volume is nearly bookended by two of the author’s best known and most lauded works: the deliciously unsettling opener “Two Truths and a Lie” and the formally playful penultimate tale “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather,” both of which won both Hugo and Nebula awards. Perhaps even more exciting, however, are the pieces that received less fanfare upon original publication, like “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise,” a lyrical collage that gathers musicians and writers from different eras in New York City and brings them together for a single ecstatic night, and “Remember This for Me,” a poignant tale of an artist whose muse is faithful even if her memory isn’t. The collection closes with a thrilling original novelette “Science Facts!” about a backpacking trip that grows increasingly disquieting. The result is sure to beguile speculative fiction fans—and anyone who appreciates a well-crafted story. Agent: Kim-Mei Kirtland, Howard Morhaim Literary. (Mar.)

Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral

Ben Smith. Penguin Press, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-29975-3
Smith, former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and New York Times media columnist, debuts with a riveting insider’s look at the history of online news media. He chronicles the rise in the early 2000s of online outlets that measured success by the amount of traffic individual articles generated, starting with Gawker’s decision in 2003 to start selling advertising space. The incentive to publish salacious content to attract clicks eventually led to the site’s shuttering in 2016, however, when wrestler Hulk Hogan won a lawsuit against Gawker for publishing his sex tape. Positing that there was always a darker side to the quest for clicks, Smith details how Andrew Breitbart applied what he learned as a junior partner at the Huffington Post to his extremist right-wing news outlet, Breitbart. Smith is critical of online media’s obsession with breaking news first, and he offers a candid reflection on his decision while at BuzzFeed News to publish the Steele dossier, conceding he should have anticipated it would be republished without the caveats BuzzFeed included. Smith’s rigorous journalism and proximity to his subject imbue this with abounding insight, and the author’s sharp eye for character gives it the feel of a novel. Sobering and captivating, this is an essential take on the 21st-century media landscape. (May)

Blood of the Virgin

Sammy Harkham. Pantheon, $30 (296p) ISBN 978-0-593-31669-6
L.A. Times Book Prize winner Harkham (Crickets) delivers an ambitious panoramic period piece set in the early-1970s Hollywood exploitation film milieu. Seymour, a 20-something Iraqi Jewish immigrant, works as an editor for Reverie, a production company specializing in cheap grindhouse flicks. He’s eager to direct his own script, and finally gets his shot with Blood of the Virgin after the original director is fired. Harkham spends a generous amount of the narrative detailing the grueling, often heartless day-to-day work of filmmaking, and in parallel, Seymour’s increasingly stressful home life. His smart, tart-tongued wife, Ida, is exhausted from caring for their infant son, resulting in misunderstandings, frustration, and Seymour’s increasingly wandering eye toward an actor in his film. (The ruthless studio head, Val, casually tells Seymour, “Don’t get so down, your marriage won’t last.”) Harkham vividly depicts the perils of ambition and heartbreak inherent in collaborative creative projects, while glimpses into Hollywood history cleverly link Seymour to historical figures who were sacrificed to an oppressive studio system. Pages are stacked with close panels and thin line drawings that capture choice moments from back lots to late nights. Harkham’s accomplished cartooning, nuanced characters, and sharp period detail keep this sprawling tale thrumming with energy and painful insights. Agent: Liz Parker, Verve Talent and Literary Agency. (May)

The Salt Grows Heavy

Cassandra Khaw. Nightfire, $21.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-250-83091-3
In this twisting and pitch-black horror tale from Khaw (Nothing but Blackened Teeth), a voiceless mermaid plucked from the ocean ventures into a snowy forest alongside a melancholy plague doctor. These unlikely traveling companions soon encounter a village of mutilated children and uncover the architects of this bizarre encampment: three surgeons obsessed with immortality and the reconstitution of the body. As more of the village’s terrible secrets come to light, the mermaid and the plague doctor must rely on each other to survive. Khaw’s prose is rich and gorgeous (“In my dreams, I still swim that soundless black, still travel its eddies of salt and cold nothing”), and the surprising tenderness at the story’s heart is only magnified by the violence and gore that surround it. Both elements prove devastatingly effective in constructing a folklore-infused world that feels wholly unique for contemporary horror fiction. Expertly blending a gothic atmosphere with elements of splatterpunk, this brilliant novella is not to be missed. (May)

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America

Paul Kix. Celadon, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-80769-4
Journalist Kix (The Saboteur) delivers a gripping, novelistic account of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. The brainchild of the group’s executive director, Wyatt Walker, the idea was to use public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s “virulent” racism against him: through a four-step process of escalation, Walker hoped to push Connor into unleashing his “terrible vengeance” on the SCLC, “which would give the waiting press corps all the gory copy they needed” and bring thousands more protestors to Birmingham, forcing local officials to “broker a fairer and more equitable future.” In brisk, tension-filled chapters, Kix recounts the crusade’s ups and downs and draws vivid profiles of participants including pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, whose bravery and intimate knowledge of the city proved vital, and SCLC director of direct action James Bevel, whose controversial push to recruit children and teenagers to join the protests resulted in the most horrifying—and effective—news coverage. Eschewing rose-colored reminiscences in favor of knotty reckonings with the SCLC’s internal rivalries, supercharged egos, and “‘endless’ deliberation,” Kix makes a persuasive case that Birmingham saved a floundering organization and galvanized the Kennedy administration to commit to civil rights. Readers will be riveted from the first page to the last. (May)

The Paper Man

Gallagher Lawson. Unnamed Press (PGW, dist.), $16 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-939419-22-4
In Lawson's strange and brilliant debut novel, a young man made of paper moves to an unnamed city to escape his overprotective family. After Michael suffered an accident when he was a teenager, his father rebuilt his physical body out of paper. He arrives in the city with dreams of being an artist and an overwhelming feeling that he can finally be free and accepted. But with the first unexpected rainfall—water being dangerous for his paper limbs—he finds that life in the city is more difficult than he had imagined. He is saved by a lonely woman named Maiko, who takes him in and helps him to find work. Complicating matters is the budding civil unrest in the city, making it hostile to newcomers. When Michael meets the famous artist Doppelman, his life takes on a different angle, as Doppelman whisks him into the art world, showing him off as an art piece. It is through Doppelman that Michael is reunited with his high school love, Mischa. With these three peculiar characters, Michael navigates life in an increasingly dangerous city and tries to find himself. Lawson has created a bizarre world that incorporates ideological and political problems without ever losing its empathy and feeling for his characters. Beautifully written and finely wrought, this novel is a surreal coming-of-age story that considers the boundaries between art and life. (May)

His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine

S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, $32 (320p) ISBN 978-1-982168-27-8
Historian Gwynne (Empire of the Summer Moon) delivers a fascinating account of the bad decisions, distractions, naivete, and sheer incompetence behind the crash of the massive British airship R101 in a field outside Beauvais, France, in October 1930. In the late 1920s, when airplanes were “uncomfortable, dangerous and in constant need of refueling,” England’s secretary of state for air, Lord Christopher Thomson, became obsessed with a better alternative: the hydrogen-filled airship. Used as scouts during WWI, hydrogen airships had previously been limited by their flammability, size, and cost. Lord Thomson believed these limits could be overcome, and he set out to build an airship that would connect the British Empire to its many colonies around the world. Interspersing the details of R101’s design and construction with the history of zeppelins, Gwynne reveals how Thomson and Royal Airship Works managers doomed the ship by using archaic cattle intestine skins to hold the hydrogen bags, failing to run proper test flights, employing experimental diesel engines, and ignoring weather patterns that predicted massive thunderstorms. Forty-eight people, including Thomson, died in the crash. Meticulously researched and vibrantly written (secured to a mooring mast, the 777-foot-long airship is “a giant silver fish floating weightless in the slate-gray seas of the sky”), this is an immersive and enlightening account of how hubris and impatience can lead to disaster. Photos. (May)