This week, we highlight new books from Claire Saffitz, Bob Gruen, and Willie James Jennings.

The Dirty South

John Connolly. Atria/Bestler, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2754-1

Supernatural noir fans will relish Connolly’s excellent 18th thriller featuring PI Charlie Parker (after 2019’s A Book of Bones), an origin story set in 1999. The murder of Parker’s wife and daughter ended his career as an NYPD detective, but the ghosts of his loved ones still literally haunt him, and the tragedy may have turned him into a vigilante who beat a child predator to death. Parker’s hunt for his family’s killer takes him to impoverished Burdon County, Ark., where someone, possibly the same person he’s seeking, has been murdering teenage girls. One possible victim, Patricia Hartley, was ruled to have died accidentally, despite the placement of branches in her vagina and throat. During a chance encounter in a Cargill, Ark., bar between Parker and Evander Griffin, the town’s police chief, the conversation turns hostile after they get on the topic of Hartley’s death. Parker later learns that Griffin wants the murders hushed up to avoid losing a lucrative business opportunity for the county. Brilliant descriptions of the setting (a lake “seemed to consume light”) enhance this intelligent and subtle suspense novel. Connolly is writing at the top of his game.

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature

Edited by Daniel Simon. Deep Vellum, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-64605-033-8

This inspiring anthology assembled by Simon, editor of World Literature Today magazine, collects acceptance speeches for the Neustadt literary prize, awarded every two years at the University of Oklahoma. Created as a more globally inclusive alternative to the Nobel, the prize has been given both to internationally lauded writers, such as Gabriel García Márquez and Octavio Paz, and to writers better known in their home countries, such as New Zealand’s Patricia Grace and Mozambique’s Mia Couto. The speeches themselves range from personal recollections to meditations on literature. Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah recalls a multilingual and culturally tolerant childhood, “reading books in foreign tongues and listening to the oral wisdom transmitted in Somali”; Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer affirms that “love... is the only realistic basis for poetry translation.” The anthology also tracks changing political concerns since the award’s 1969 founding. The 1986 winner, Max Frisch, donated his prize money to a Nicaraguan nonprofit to protest Reagan administration policies; the 1996 winner, Assia Djebar, having fled religious fundamentalism in her native Algeria, emphasized that the jurors had given the “power of solidarity to the solitude of my exile.” Like the prize itself, this volume is a tribute and a testament to literature, and a reward for readers.

Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking with Confidence

Claire Saffitz. Clarkson Potter, $35 (368p) ISBN 978-1-984826-96-1

“I wrote this book to celebrate and defend my love of desserts,” writes Saffitz, pastry chef and host of Bon Appétit’s Gourmet Makes YouTube show, in her exceptional debut cookbook. Chapters are divided into types of baked goods, such as pies and tarts, and bars and cookies, and the recipes are thoughtfully organized by their difficulty level: in loaf cakes and single-layer cakes, for example, one of the “very easy” recipes is almond butter banana bread, and toward the end of the section is a recipe for a pineapple and pecan upside-down cake of “moderate” difficulty. Novices in particular will appreciate the helpful footnotes Saffitz shares; for instance, when baking a tarte tatin, she writes: “Very firm, fresh apples could take twice as long to soften than... apples from the supermarket,” and for her buckwheat blueberry skillet pancake, she explains that cooking a third of the batter before adding the rest “creates a platform for the berries, so they don’t sink to the bottom.” But it’s not all confections, and Saffitz devotes a valuable chapter to savory recipes, such as caramelized endive galette and pull-apart sour cream and chive rolls. This should become a go-to reference for any home baker.

Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945–1962

Martin J. Sherwin. Knopf, $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-307-26688-0

Blunders, misunderstandings, and “dumb luck” shape history in this captivating reevaluation of post-WWII nuclear brinksmanship. Examining America’s use of atomic weaponry to contain Soviet expansion in Asia and the Americas, Pulitzer winner Sherwin (coauthor, American Prometheus) relates in nerve-jangling detail how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy grappled with their Soviet counterparts, Stalin and Khrushchev. According to Sherwin’s portrayal, Truman was “intellectually and emotionally unprepared” to understand the atomic high stakes and often deferred to his hawkish secretary of state, James F. Byrnes. Entangled in an affair with a White House intern, Kennedy wavered during the Cuban Missile Crisis and depended on his brother, Robert, to back-channel with the Soviets to avoid nuclear war. According to Sherwin, military personnel countermanded orders to launch nuclear weapons on multiple occasions during the two-week confrontation. In one instance, a U.S. missile squadron on Okinawa was poised to fire 32 nuclear missiles at targets in China and the Soviet Union before deciding to stand down. Intricately detailed, vividly written, and nearly Tolstoyan in scope, Sherwin’s account reveals just how close the Cold War came to boiling over. History buffs will be enthralled.

Restless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements

Matt Wilkinson. Basic, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-465-06572-1

If an alien visitor wanted to collect 10 samples to represent life on Earth, which would it choose? Science writer Taylor (How Birds Work) offers some surprising answers in her outstanding work. The proposed selections—including, in addition to humankind, the stick insect, sponge, and dusky seaside sparrow—span a wide range of time, including ferns, some of Earth’s first plants, and the long-extinct nautilus, a mollusc. Taylor’s choices also push against commonly held definitions of life, by including both the arguably nonliving category of viruses and the human-made one of artifical intelligence. Throughout, she gives lessons about evolution, noting in a chapter about Darwin’s finches that their namesake naturalist made biologists’ jobs much harder by, in part, showing there wasn’t any “finite number of kinds of organisms” to classify. Her discussion also includes an insightful look at the “finality of extinction,” and conservationists’ attempts to fight back, with a look at the threatened softshell turtle. Memorable side trips explore a variety of topics, including the several different types of giraffes and the dawdling dodo. Taylor’s writing is concise and accessible to a wide audience, while the book’s vibrant, attractive layout, filled with beautiful illustrations, adds luster to the text. This rich survey of the long evolution of life on Earth will keep readers focused and fascinated.

A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology

Toby Wilkinson. Norton, $30 (512p) ISBN 978-1-324-00689-3

Historian Wilkinson (The Nile) revisits the whirlwind of archaeological discoveries made in the Nile Valley between the 1822 decoding of the Rosetta Stone and the 1922 unearthing of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, in this meticulous and vibrant account. He sketches how Napoleon’s 1798 expedition into Egypt inaugurated an “intense Anglo-French rivalry” over the country and its artifacts, and documents the competition between British polymath Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion won out, though the Rosetta Stone ended up in British hands—a foreshadowing of the British takeover of the French-built Suez Canal, and the country itself, in the 1880s. In between, Wilkinson highlights the achievements of Prussian explorer Karl Richard Lepsius, who made the first “systematic exploration” of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Auguste Mariette, who discovered the Serapeum at Saqqara in 1851, among other Egyptologists. He also notes the devastating impact of “treasure-hunting,” “slapdash excavation,” and Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali’s modernization efforts on archaeological sites, and details novelist Amelia Blandford Edwards’s campaign to “save Egypt’s patrimony for future generations.” Wilkinson marshals a wealth of detail into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. The result is an essential portrait of how the rediscovery of “[Egypt’s] ancient past paved the way for its modern rebirth.”

Happily Letter After

Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward. Montlake Romance, $12.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-5420-2513-3

The holidays come early in Keeland and Ward’s fun, endearing sequel to Dirty Letters. Sadie Bisset is a staff writer for Modern Miss Magazine and handles the annual Holiday Wishes feature. When the magazine receives a “Dear Santa” letter in July, Sadie, whose mother died of cancer when Sadie was six, feels an unexpected connection to the 10-year-old author, Birdie Maxwell, whose own mother died three years earlier. Birdie’s main request is that Santa send a “special friend” to make her father happy again, but she also asks for socks and olives—requests Sadie can’t resist fulfilling, even during the off-season. Against her better judgment, she continues to grant Birdie’s wishes when Birdie writes back, and her simple gestures spiral out of control when, while approaching Birdie’s house, Birdie’s smoking-hot father, Sebastian, mistakes her for his new dog trainer and ushers her inside. It’s hard enough for busy restaurateur Sebastian to find time to spend with his daughter, so dating is out of the question. But keeping his distance from Sadie proves even harder than training his daughter’s out-of-control Great Dane. Hilarious mishaps, unexpected twists, and a large dollop of sweetness combine into an irresistible romance. This one is sure to tug at readers’ heartstrings.

After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging

Willie James Jennings. Eerdmans, $19.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-8028-7844-1

Theologian Jennings (The Christian Imagination) delivers a searing critique of Western Christian divinity school training and higher education overall, which he claims sustains a system of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Weaving a powerful narrative composed of vignettes from his years as a professor and academic dean alongside his own poetry and critical analysis, Jennings challenges readers to consider that “all theological education in the Western world is haunted” by European colonialism, which “always aims to build a national and global future.” Jennings meditates on the interaction of Christian traditions within divinity schools, predominately white divinity school curricula, the imperialist nature of Western institution-building, and the potential for richer religious and educational communities that could be realized when white supremacist structures within Christianity and academe are abandoned. To do so, he asks “students, faculty, and administrators” to find “things you might all read together” (including a list of suggested reading ) and make “commitments to dialogue.” In the tradition of bell hooks and Paulo Freire, Jennings’s insightful indictment of the church and university will be an ideal choice for group discussion.

Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer

Bob Gruen with Dave Thompson. Abrams, $32.50 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4213-2

Gruen chronicles his adventures as one of the preeminent photographers of rock and roll in his spectacular memoir. Gruen launched his career in 1970s Downtown Manhattan (renting a studio in Tribeca for $75 a month), then worked steadily capturing images of music stars such as David Bowie, John Lennon, Tina Turner, and the Rolling Stones. His tales of far-ranging assignments, ecstatic concerts, and wild times with famous folk make for a roller-coaster narrative. The pages are studded with choice details and plenty of examples of his subjects’ hedonistic lifestyles, though Gruen is rather diplomatic in his mentions of alcohol dependency, arrests for selling drugs, and “groupies in and out of the rooms all night.” Gruen’s (mostly) open, matter-of-fact telling brings readers in beside him, from rooftops to club back rooms. Some of the most moving recollections involve John Lennon and Yoko Ono, whose partnership made a deep and lasting impression upon the photographer. Gruen’s plainspoken formula for his success: he went out every night with his camera and “trusted [his] intuition,” and though he found that “living an unscheduled, unpredictable life is scary,” embracing it is how he got “in the right place at the right time.” Brimming with singular period photographs and incredible personalities, Gruen’s story is a must-read for any rock and roll fan.