Knoll (Luckiest Girl Alive, 2015) turns her cynical eye to sibling rivalry and the twisted—and, in this case, murderous—world of reality TV.
Meet the entrepreneurial ladies of the New York City–based reality show Goal Diggers. Brett Courtney is the youngest cast member. She’s been known to reach for a second doughnut and is committed to convincing the clients of her popular WeSPOKE spinning classes that being skinny is not the key to being healthy. Her engagement to her girlfriend, Arch, is the icing on the reality show cake. Stunning Stephanie Simmons is the only African-American cast member and a bestselling author, but her struggle with depression threatens to hold her back. Juice bar guru and famously vegan Jen Greenberg indulges in secret turkey bacon binges, and dating website creator Lauren Bunn is known as Lauren Fun! Brett’s older sister and business partner, Kelly, a single mother whose 12-year-old daughter is a showstopper, is the new cast member and is everything that Brett has never been: thin, beautiful, and, as far as Brett is concerned, always their parents' favored daughter. Executive producer Jesse Barnes turns the screws and showrunner Lisa Griffin cracks the whip as Brett and Stephanie detail the production of Season 4 in alternating first-person narratives. Opening and closing the book (and sprinkled a few times in between) are sections narrated by Kelly in which she sits down with Jesse for on-camera interviews in the aftermath of Brett's death, but the truth of how Brett died isn’t revealed until the final act. Knoll explores the pressure society places on women to be everything to everyone and do it all without a strand of hair out of place. There’s enough conniving, scandal, and snark to rival the most shocking episodes of Real Housewives, and these cutthroat divas play to win even if it means blurring the line between truth and lies. In the end, murder seems inevitable. Season 4 will end with a bang, and there will be blood.
Dizzying and overwrought but salaciously entertaining nonetheless.
In which the veteran humorist enters middle age with fine snark but some trepidation as well.
Mortality is weighing on Sedaris (Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, 2017, etc.), much of it his own, professional narcissist that he is. Watching an elderly man have a bowel accident on a plane, he dreaded the day when he would be the target of teenagers’ jokes “as they raise their phones to take my picture from behind.” A skin tumor troubled him, but so did the doctor who told him he couldn’t keep it once it was removed. “But it’s my tumor,” he insisted. “I made it.” (Eventually, he found a semitrained doctor to remove and give him the lipoma, which he proceeded to feed to a turtle.) The deaths of others are much on the author’s mind as well: He contemplates the suicide of his sister Tiffany, his alcoholic mother’s death, and his cantankerous father’s erratic behavior. His contemplation of his mother’s drinking—and his family’s denial of it—makes for some of the most poignant writing in the book: The sound of her putting ice in a rocks glass increasingly sounded “like a trigger being cocked.” Despite the gloom, however, frivolity still abides in the Sedaris clan. His summer home on the Carolina coast, which he dubbed the Sea Section, overspills with irreverent bantering between him and his siblings as his long-suffering partner, Hugh, looks on. Sedaris hasn’t lost his capacity for bemused observations of the people he encounters. For example, cashiers who say “have a blessed day” make him feel “like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne.” But bad news has sharpened the author’s humor, and this book is defined by a persistent, engaging bafflement over how seriously or unseriously to take life when it’s increasingly filled with Trump and funerals.
Cycling, family life, illegal substances—Reed twines them all together in his exceptional debut.
Our narrator, Solomon, is a professional cyclist racing in the Tour de France. His wife, Liz, is a research biologist with an “interest in adaptive theory.” They are both ambitious, devotedly searching for “a right way to do things, a sense of control.” But Sol is not racing to win; his job is “to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this tour in as little time as possible.” To properly perform this job, and to remain competitive against their likewise unscrupulous rivals, Sol and his teammates dope—a practice Sol uneasily supports: “I am no fan of the danger of the process, but when I consider the way the team has got into me—altered my chemistry to my own advantage—I am grateful.” The novel unfolds over several days midtour. Sol’s team has a bit of good luck, and a lot of bad, and eventually Liz, who’s driving in from England to watch the race’s later stages, is drawn into the doping scheme…then further into it, then further. “Just one little thing more,” she says. Reed’s first novel lives squarely within Don DeLillo’s sphere of influence. In addition to their mutual preoccupation with systems—the systems we live beneath, the systems we design for ourselves—Reed shares with DeLillo certain aspects of pacing, voice, and character: Sol’s wryly thoughtful narration is reminiscent of Jack Gladney’s in White Noise; Rafael, the team’s coercive and brilliantly rendered directeur sportif, could be a relative of Gladney's friend Murray Jay Siskind. But Reed relies more heavily on plot than DeLillo, and the effect is remarkably successful: Alongside the ideas and the jokes, there is real suspense and human drama. Reed shows us the allure of conducting our “days...not for their own sake but for the light that will be cast back upon them by success”—and then he shows us how awful this method of living can be when things go wrong.
“We are doing all this for a bicycle race?” Fast and smart, funny and sad, this is an outstanding sports novel, and Reed is an author to watch.
A disturbingly ambitious woman finds herself challenged by mysterious crises—both personal and professional—in Cohen’s painfully funny satire of the tech industry.
In Shelley Stone, Cohen has created an aggressively unlikable yet captivating and entertaining heroine. Twenty years ago, as a directionless 20-year-old, Shelley was struck by lightning, a trauma for which she claims to be grateful despite the physical pain it inflicted. She doesn’t care that the lightning shriveled her pleasure receptor or that she now scores low on the likability scale. What matters is that the lightning strike changed her brain in ways that made her into the driven woman she’s become. Shelley is married and has two children—readers will concur with her amazement at having attracted financial-analyst husband Rafe, who goes along with her scheduled 12 minutes of daily sex even though his own pleasure principle remains intact—but she's primarily committed to her role as CEO of Conch, a company producing personal data repositories shaped like shells and worn behind users’ ears. On a family vacation in France, Shelley’s 4-year-old daughter, Nova, disappears while Shelley and Rafe are distracted by work calls; more disturbing, both parents continue their calls while searching for her. Fortunately, a stranger finds Nova, a stranger who somehow has Shelley’s cellphone number and seems oddly excited to meet her when returning the child. Within weeks, Shelley meets another stranger: Michelle looks like a younger version of Shelley herself, down to the same scar on her arm, and has experienced the same childhood. Is a pre-lightning strike, alternate self possible? Or is Shelley having a nervous breakdown? Shelley is rattled but cynical enough to have her doubts. Meanwhile Conch suddenly faces serious quality control issues that she must solve to save her job. And then there’s Rafe’s plan to move with the kids to Brazil, with or without Shelley.
A rising star in a famous laboratory can track her success back to the one person in her life she’d like to forget.
As a teenager, Kit Owens is fine with doing just enough to set herself up for a comfortable life. She never had a compelling reason to push herself until Diane Fleming quietly stepped into her life. The new girl with a troubled past, Diane seems to care only about achieving perfection, and she doesn’t understand why Kit wouldn’t want the same. The two become each other’s motivation to do better, go harder, working toward the common goal of a science scholarship funded by a doctor famous for her research on taboo disorders related to the female sex. Until one night, when Diane shares something with Kit that is terrible enough—“the worst thing anyone’s ever told me”—to erase any bond they have. More than 10 years later, Kit is the hardest working member of Dr. Severin’s lab, angling for a coveted spot on the new premenstrual dysphoric disorder research team. Her lab mates, all men, are convinced she has it in the bag. But then Dr. Severin drops the bomb that she’s poached a stellar researcher from Harvard who will join the team immediately. That person is Diane. Kit has buried the memory of her old friend under years of pipetting, thousands of precisely cut samples, and days bent under a fume hood: “After a bad dream, a Diane dream, I avoid the mirror…certain that if I looked, she might be there.” Who could truly forget Diane? And when she walks through the lab door the next day, “everything begins again.” Abbott (You Will Know Me, 2016, etc.) has made the dark desires and secrets of the female psyche the life force of her novels. Under the surface of Kit and Diane’s research on women plagued by an “unbearable push of feelings, feelings gone out of control…a wretched curse” lives their own shared curse, something strong enough to tip the balance of their carefully regimented, chemical-clean world.
In Abbott’s deft hands, friendship is fused to rivalry, and ambition to fear, with an unsettling level of believability. It will take more than a cold shower to still the blood thumping in your ears when you finish this.
A young woman’s offbeat adventures among misfits, weirdos, and other human beings.
Mona cleans houses for a living. This surprises people, as Mona is white, and English is her first language. The world seems to expect more from her than she expects from herself, which might be why Mona falls for a junkie. The man she thinks of as “Mr. Disgusting” is, at first, nothing more than fodder for fantasy—her profession affords a lot of time for elaborate daydreaming—but, eventually, the two start a real relationship. Just as there is more to Mona than her clients expect from a cleaning woman, Mr. Disgusting is not solely defined by his addiction. Both Mona and her author are sharp—but empathetic—observers, and this story is filled with characters who are seriously damaged and wholly human. The novel is shaped by the people Mona meets. There’s Mr. Disgusting, who cannot escape himself but gives Mona the push she needs to grow into herself. Nigel and Shiori are a weirdly serene couple whose offers of help Mona ignores, but they help her anyway. Henry is a client with a secret. And Betty is a psychic who may not be a total fake. And then there’s Mona herself, plagued by ailments emotional and physical and trying to finally understand the truth of her chaotic childhood. Mona is cleareyed and funny, not a reliable person exactly but a trustworthy observer. What gives this novel its heart is Beagin’s capacity for seeing: As Mona cleans peoples’ homes, we learn that the wealthy, well-dressed, superior individuals who pay her to scrub their toilets are just as messed up as the addicts and prostitutes and gamblers she encounters outside of work. This is not a new theme, of course, but Beagin makes it fresh with her sly, funny, compassionate voice. This is a terrific debut.
In Broder’s debut novel, a disaffected academic struggling with a breakup finds love in the arms of a merman.
In the midst of writing a disingenuous dissertation about Sappho, Lucy surprises herself by breaking things off with her longtime boyfriend, Jamie, and spiraling into a depression. Thankfully, Lucy’s sister leaves her Venice Beach house, “a contemporary glass fortress,” for the summer and invites Lucy to level out, attend therapy, and dogsit. Predictably, Lucy is bad at each of these tasks. In group therapy, Lucy silently judges her fellow codependents, who “all blurred together into a multi-headed hydra of desperation,” while plotting how she can get over Jamie by getting under someone else. And while she cares for her sister’s dog, she’s not responsible enough to handle his strict dietary and medical needs, either. When Lucy meets Theo, a mysterious swimmer who haunts Venice Beach by night, she thinks her luck in love might have finally turned around. But what—other than a tail—might Theo be hiding? And who is Lucy willing to neglect in order to find out? On the surface, this audacious novel from Broder (So Sad Today, 2016, etc.) is a frank exploration of desire, fantasy, and sex. But it dives deeper, too, seeking out uncomfortable topics and bringing them into the light: codependency, depression, suicidal ideation, and an existential fascination with the void each get their days in the sun. When we obsess about a breakup, or about all the sex that comes before a breakup, what are we actually obsessing over? “I didn’t know if the universe actively taught lessons,” Lucy thinks during her affair with Theo. “But if it did, the lesson was that I could not handle what I thought I could handle.” Broder has created a voice at once intimate and sharp, familiar and ugly. Lucy dares you to recognize your thoughts, fantasies, and obsessions in her own even as she makes questionable choices in life and love. This isn’t just a novel about navigating the dangers of codependency, but an attempt to learn how we all might love better in a culture that pushes even its strongest women to the brink of self-destruction.
A fascinating tale of obsession and erotic redemption told with black humor and biting insight.
French’s adrenaline-fueled adventure fantasy, which features badass gangs of tattooed half-orcs on the backs of giant war hogs thundering across a lawless wasteland, is an unapologetically brutal thrill ride—like Mad Max set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The Lot Lands are sprawling badlands that separate the realm of humans (frails) from the orcs (thicks). Seen as abominations from both sides, the half-orcs exist in loose outlaw clans that patrol the Lot Lands, keeping the frails safe from orc attack, as has been their sole duty for generations. Jackal is a member of the Grey Bastards, and although he loves his home in the Kiln—a seemingly impenetrable fortress that can heat its outsides like a blast furnace when attacked—he believes the leader of the Bastards, an old half-orc twisted with disease called the Claymaster, should be overthrown. The arrival of a half-orc wizard has increased the Claymaster’s strange behavior. Jackal’s childhood friend Oats—a giant thrice-blood (the product of a half-orc breeding with an orc)—backs his decision to attempt to head the Bastards, but when the group puts it to a vote, a tough female half-orc who Jackal thought had his back chooses the Claymaster, effectively exiling him into the Lot Lands. With the future of the Bastards in jeopardy, Jackal embarks on an epic adventure that includes saving an elven girl imprisoned by a demon that lives in a massive swath of bogland saturated with dark magic, becoming a folk hero to a community of halflings after battling crazed centaurs, and, most important, discovering the true history of the Lot Lands and the reason for the half-orc patrols. Powered by unparalleled worldbuilding, polished storytelling, and relentless pacing, French’s novel is a cool fusion of classic adventure fantasy and 21st-century pop-culture sensibilities with nonstop action; a cast of unforgettable and brilliantly authentic characters; vulgar but witty dialogue; and strong female characters who overturn old sexist conventions. This is a dirty, blood-soaked gem of a novel.
An addictively readable—and undeniably cool—fantasy masterwork.
Television writer/Christie-loving Sherlock-ian Horowitz (Magpie Murders, 2017, etc.) spins a fiendishly clever puzzle about a television writer/Christie-loving Sherlock-ian named Anthony Something who partners with a modern Sherlock Holmes to solve a baffling case.
Six hours after widowed London socialite Diana Cowper calls on mortician Robert Cornwallis to make arrangements for her own funeral, she’s suddenly in need of them after getting strangled in her home. The Met calls on murder specialist Daniel Hawthorne, an ex-DI bounced off the force for reasons he’d rather not talk about, and he calls on the narrator (“nobody ever calls me Tony”), a writer in between projects whose agent expects him to be working on The House of Silk, a Holmes-ian pastiche which Horowitz happens to have published in real life. Anthony’s agreement with Hawthorne to collaborate on a true-crime account of the case is guaranteed to blindside his agent (in a bad way) and most readers (in entrancingly good ways). Diana Cowper, it turns out, is not only the mother of movie star Damian Cowper, but someone who had her own brush with fame 10 years ago when she accidentally ran over a pair of 8-year-old twins, killing Timothy Godwin and leaving Jeremy Godwin forever brain-damaged. A text message Diana sent Damian moments before her death—“I have seen the boy who was lacerated and I’m afraid”—implicates both Jeremy, who couldn’t possibly have killed her, and the twins’ estranged parents, Alan and Judith Godwin, who certainly could have. But which of them, or which other imaginable suspect, would have sneaked a totally unpredictable surprise into her coffin and then rushed out to commit another murder?
Though the impatient, tightfisted, homophobic lead detective is impossible to love, the mind-boggling plot triumphs over its characters: Sharp-witted readers who think they’ve solved the puzzle early on can rest assured that they’ve opened only one of many dazzling Christmas packages Horowitz has left beautifully wrapped under the tree.
A redheaded waitress, a good-looking private eye, insurance fraud, arson, rough sex, and a long hot summer: some like it noir.
With her 23rd novel, Lippman (Wilde Lake, 2016, etc.) pays tribute to a literary predecessor who, like her, began his study of crime as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun—James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Lippman’s version of the sexy stranger passing through town starts with Polly Costello (that’s one of her names, anyway) on a beach vacation in Fenwick, Delaware, with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Jani. One morning she says she needs a break from the sun, then grabs her duffel and heads down the road. “What kind of woman walks out on her family? Gregg knows. The kind of woman he picked up in a bar four years ago precisely because she had that kind of wildcat energy.…She scratched, she bit, she was up for anything, anywhere, anytime.” Actually, poor Gregg, suddenly a single dad, doesn’t know the half of it. Someone who does have a much fuller picture of Polly’s background is Adam, a good-looking, Oberlin- and culinary-institute–educated fellow she runs into at a bar her first day on the lam. Neither Adam nor Polly is candid about what has brought them to stools at the High-Ho, but both stick around and get jobs there, as chef and waitress. By the time their connection in the bedroom blossoms into something more serious, the skeletons in the closet have been joined by fresh new ones. Lippman’s trademark is populating a whodunit with characters so believably complicated that they don’t need the mystery to carry the book. If that’s not quite the case here, you can tell how much fun the author had updating the classic noir tropes, and it’s contagious.
Plotty, page-turning pleasure plus instructions on how to make a perfect grilled cheese sandwich and how to stab a man in the heart.
A young woman receives notice of a mysterious bequest. Is it a case of mistaken identity, or will it reveal some truth about her family?
In Ware’s (The Lying Game, 2017, etc.) fourth novel in as many years, Harriet “Hal” Westaway is barely making ends meet as a tarot reader on the Brighton Pier. Her mother died in a hit-and-run several years before, and in her grief, Hal has drifted into a solitary and impecunious life. Worse still, she’s under threat from a loan shark who’s come to collect the interest on an earlier debt. So when she receives a letter saying she's been named in the will of, possibly, an unknown grandmother, she decides to travel to Cornwall, despite fearing that it’s probably all a mistake. There she meets several possible uncles and a creepy old housekeeper right out of a Daphne du Maurier novel, all against the backdrop of a run-down mansion. As Hal desperately tries to keep up her charade of belonging to the family, she realizes that the malevolent atmosphere of Trepassen House has strong roots in the past, when a young girl came to live there, fell in love, and was imprisoned in her bedroom. Hal just has to figure out exactly who this girl was…without getting herself killed. Ware continues to hone her gift for the slow unspooling of unease and mystery, developing a consistent sense of threat that’s pervasive and gripping. She uses tarot readings to hint at the supernatural, but at its heart, this is a very human mystery. The isolation of Trepassen House, its magpies, and its anachronistic housekeeper cultivate a dull sense of horror. Ware's novels continue to evoke comparison to Agatha Christie; they certainly have that classic flavor despite the contemporary settings.
Twenty years after a murder at her family’s tony Long Island Sound summer enclave, an expatriate actress returns to right a terrible injustice and heal her broken heart.
From June to August, generations of fishermen from Winthrop Island’s year-round Portuguese community have supplied the lobsters and occasional bootleg for bridge parties, weddings, golf tournaments, and other social occasions organized by the island’s patrician cottagers. Just as the locals steer carefully around summer people, the “purebloods” are ever mindful of subtle social gradations within their own set. As one of them, Isobel Fisher, remarks to her divorced father, Hugh, on the day of his wedding, “Thank God you’ve found a dear, lovely woman to marry…and not some gimlet goddess from the Club.” It’s 1951, and the Fishers are still regarded as new money (derived from an ancestor’s investment in toilets), their summer redoubt, Greyfriars, built on the less fashionable end of the island, next door to the lighthouse. If the summer crowd and locals are in perfect accord over one thing, it’s Isobel’s wild streak and too-close friendship with the lighthouse keeper’s handsome son, Joseph Vargas, while engaged to a scion of the old guard. As she tells her soon-to-be stepsister, Miranda Schuyler (who has her own thoughts about Joseph), “I haven’t got your brains, I’m afraid. I need a little action to keep me happy.” As in many Williams novels, there’s quite a bit of zigzagging though the 1930s, '50s, and '60s to fill in the characters’ backstories and milk the main plot intrigue: the murder of Hugh Fisher and a homicide verdict that’s fishier than a Fourth of July clambake. Eyebrows lift when the victim’s stepdaughter, Miranda, steps onto the island for the first time in decades. Since moving to Europe she’s become a successful actress, never mind the enormous shiner her movie-star sunglasses can’t quite conceal. To outward appearances, the salacious curiosity about her stepfather’s murder which drove her from the island has greatly faded. Even her dear, lovely mother and Isobel, still single (and sullen), appear to have moved on, converting Greyfriars into a glorified boardinghouse and calling it an artists’ colony. Meanwhile, the family of Joseph Vargas—the admitted killer sent to Sing Sing—is stone-faced about his recent prison escape and rumored sightings near the island. Helping Miranda in her effort to clear Joseph—whom she believes innocent, though she keeps her reasons close to the vest—are her rambunctious half brother, Hugh Jr., (born after their father's murder), the ladies boarding at Greyfriars, and old-shoe banker Clayton Monk, Isobel’s square, endearingly steady ex-flame. As Miranda’s Shakespearean namesake would say: "How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't."
With just the right touch of bitters, Williams (Cocoa Beach, 2017, etc.) mixes a satisfyingly tempestuous—and eminently beachworthy—follow-up to her beloved Schuyler Sisters series.