This week, a reclusive writer, war in early modern Europe, and adventures in the world's hottest places.
The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black (Doubleday/Talese) - Galveston, Tex., a place indelibly marked by the hurricane of 1900, which took well over 6,000 lives, is the setting for Black’s fine debut. In present day, after the death of her six-year-old daughter and the collapse of her marriage, a broken Clare Porterfield returns to her island hometown after a decade away. She’s been invited to choose material for a photo exhibition funded by the prominent Carraday family, whose patriarch, the Jay Gatsbyesque Will, has deep ties to Clare’s mother, Eleanor. As children, Will’s son, Patrick, and Clare were inseparable, their youthful exploits in and around the Porterfield house gradually tending toward the illegal, but a tragedy involving Patrick sent Clare away from home. Although Clare returns to look at photos of the island’s history, what she really seeks is what remains of her wounded self. As Clare searches for the elusive Patrick, the true object of her desire, island characters divulge truths to which she was never privy.
Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester (Sourcebooks) - English Regency social historian Kloester details the life of Georgette Heyer (1902–1974), the “Queen of Regency romance,” who sold her first book at age 17 and, over the next 50 years, married Ronald Rougier, bore one son, and wrote 55 books. With access to a thousand pages of new material plus full access to Heyer’s private papers, Kloester adds to, and sometimes corrects, some facts in Joan Aiken Hodge’s 1984 biography. Read about the only interview Heyer ever granted.
Furies: War in Europe: 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines (Bloomsbury) - Martines (Fire in the City), best known for his work on the Italian Renaissance, makes a major contribution in this survey of war in “early modern Europe.” Challenging the conventional emphasis on diplomacy, bureaucracy, and technology in most military histories addressing the period, Martines describes medieval Europe’s wars as having been shaped by a Christianity that saw battle “as punishment for sin”; a Protestant Reformation that justified “killing for God”; and a quest for private gain that drove poorly paid and insufficiently supplied armies to wreak havoc on civilian populations. The sacking of cities was not uncommon even if negotiations had been formally arranged, and mutually miserable groups of soldiers and peasants destroyed settlements as they fought over the scarce resources of subsistence economies. The difference between monarchs and mercenaries, Martines shows, was merely a matter of degree.
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (St. Martin’s Griffin) - Anna still remembers the “tell-me-again times” when her single mother would reassure her that she was all her mother ever wanted. Through lyrical language, repeated phrases, and pared-down chapters that are often no longer than a page or two, debut novelist Scheidt traces Anna’s lonely path from age seven to 16, as her mother chases one man after another, leaving Anna to fend for herself. Anna has a series of early sexual encounters, is raped by an older boy, and eventually drops out of high school to move in with her teenage boyfriend. On her own, she makes missteps but also meets people trying just as hard as she is to stay afloat, as well as families that exude the warmth and closeness she craves. Readers will be moved as smart, honest Anna learns she can draw on her innate strength to write her own story—one with room for the wounded people she loves.
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (Knopf) - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, born poor in the South Bronx and appointed to the federal bench as its first Hispanic justice, recounts numerous obstacles and remarkable achievements in this personal and inspiring autobiography. Her path to the highest court in the land was rife with difficulties, but it wasn’t circuitous—from an early age, Sotomayor was determined to become a lawyer. To reach her goal she overcame diabetes, the language barrier (her Puerto Rican family spoke Spanish at home), the early death of her beloved alcoholic father, and—in the academic and professional worlds—the disparaging of minorities. Regardless of political philosophies, readers across the board will be moved by this intimate look at the life of a justice.
Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places by Bill Streever (Little, Brown) - Streever’s follow-up to his 2010 New York Times bestseller, Cold, follows a structure as he explores any place hot or anything that creates heat, like Death Valley, forest fires, coal, oil, nuclear bombs, cooking, and volcanoes. There is stream of consciousness in Streever’s style: a chapter that starts with a walk in the desert can contain tangents about 18th-century scientist Lavoisier, heat stroke, nuclear test sites, fevers, firewalking, hyponatremia, and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. But it’s delivered in funny, matter-of-fact prose, and Streever is able to mix the pop science, personal experiences, and historic asides into a fun and informative commentary.
The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine – Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary by Jenny Uglow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - Born in England in 1786, Losh's life took in the era's most progressive politics, arts, and technology while she rarely strayed far from her family's mansion, Woodside, in the northern town of Wreay, Cumbria. Raised in the same area, Uglow first heard of Losh through her most lasting achievement, an idiosyncratic church that pre-empted the pre-Raphaelites and embraced wildly varied cultural influences while downplaying the expected trappings of Anglicanism and even Christianity. By the end of the book, mystery remains around the church's bizarre pinecone-centric symbolism and Losh herself, who burned many of her papers before her death in 1853. Her voice's relative absence should not, however, diminish anyone's enjoyment of Uglow's achievement in spinning a tale of Victorian church building into a captivating epic.
Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons by Ward Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - In this concise analysis of commonly held beliefs about nuclear weapons, Wilson argues that, from the bombing of Hiroshima, policy has been decided based on mistaken suppositions. The first is that the dropping of atomic bombs caused Japan to surrender, rather than the invasion of Manchuria by the formerly neutral Russians. This convenient lie was agreed to by both sides for propaganda purposes. Therefore, according to Wilson, the myth was born that nuclear weapons are so devastating that their existence prevents their use. He points out, with examples, that "destruction does not determine who wins or loses a war." The Cuban Missile Crisis is considered not as proof of the myth but as a negation of it. Wilson's theories are certain to create discussion and a reevaluation of assumptions on the topic.