This week, we highlight new books from Hiroko Oyamada, David S. Brown, and James D. Shipman.

The Chemistry of Fire

Laurence Gonzales. Univ. of Arkansas, $22.95 (248p) ISBN 978-1-68226-151-4

Gonzales (Flight 232), a former National Geographic feature writer, proves himself a chronicler par excellence of nature—including of the human variety—in this excellent essay collection. He explores both in “Mount Washington,” which begins as a piece about a New Hampshire mountain peak notorious for its deceptive weather conditions, and becomes a deep dive into human psychology and how, for climbers and others engaged in high-risk activities, “danger comes when you suspend your awareness of the hazard and refuse to change your plan.” By contrast, “Change Redemption” explores one of the most artificial of environments, a Las Vegas casino, and contemplates the effect of its dizzying atmosphere on its patrons: “Everything in the casino was bigger than we were, and as we grew, we participated in that giddy bigness while escaping the sense of loss as we shrank back to our normal size once more.” There’s a fascinating profile of the Navy man whose colossal scientific efforts led to discovering the wreckage of the Titanic (“Stealing Titanic”). In the devastating “ValuJet Crash,” Gonzales reveals how corporate malfeasance and regulatory negligence led to disaster in the Florida Everglades. The psychological nuance and vivid detail throughout will dazzle readers.

The Hole

Hiroko Oyamada, trans. from the Japanese by David Boyd. New Directions, $13.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-811228-87-9

Oyamada’s eerie latest (after The Factory) follows a young woman as she acclimates to a new life in rural Japan. Asa quits her job so that she and her husband, Muneaki, can live closer to his work. In the countryside, she attempts to fill their hot, unoccupied summer days with housework, naps, and cooking, and Oyamada inflects the domestic setting with the tone of a thriller, from the ominous sound of a child’s overheard cry to a missing envelope full of cash. Asa has unfulfilling, terse conversations with the distracted Muneaki and bewildering, paranoia-provoking interactions with Muneaki’s family, who are Asa’s closest neighbors and about whom she knows very little. The suspense cranks up when Asa repeatedly sees a strange black animal on the grounds that looks vaguely like a dog. After Asa falls into one of the holes the animal digs, she becomes determined to find out what’s going on with the animal; her efforts lead only to more questions, which build to a neat, satisfying ending. Oyamada’s atmospheric literary thriller puts a fresh, gripping spin on the bored housewife set-up.

The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams

David S. Brown. Scribner, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-1-98212-823-4

Historian Brown (Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald) delivers a splendid biography of Harvard professor and memoirist Henry Adams (1838–1918). The direct descendant of two presidents and a diplomat, Adams, who is best known for his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, sardonically referred to himself as a “failure.” Yet he managed to emerge from his prominent family’s shadow and make a worthy and memorable life for himself, Brown reveals. He vividly describes Adams’s milieu during a period of sweeping social change in America, detailing his marriage to socialite and photographer Marian “Clover” Hooper, who committed suicide in 1885; his friendships with Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Henry Cabot Lodge; and his travels in Cuba, Japan, Russia, and the South Pacific. Brown also tracks how Adams’s views on the Civil War shifted during his tenure as his father’s personal secretary in London, and notes his stances against the spoils system, the gold standard, and imperialism, as well as his ethnic and racial prejudices. The fully fleshed-out Adams that emerges in these pages is irascible, self-contradictory, and always fascinating. Readers will be thrilled by this standout portrait of the man and his era.

A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War

William G. Thomas III. Yale Univ, $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-300-23412-1

Thomas, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, debuts with a revelatory and fluidly written chronicle of attempts by enslaved families in Prince George’s County, Md., to win their freedom through the courts. Many of these men and women were held at the Jesuit-owned White Marsh tobacco plantation, and profits derived from their labor—or from their sale to slaveholders in the deep South—helped to finance Georgetown University. In 1791, two men enslaved at White Marsh sued the Jesuits for their freedom, basing their argument on claims that they were descended from free women of color. Their lawsuits “opened the floodgates,” Thomas writes, leading to “more than a thousand legal actions against hundreds of slaveholding families” in the county. He convincingly characterizes these “freedom suits” as “a public counterpart of the Underground Railroad” that forced a reckoning with the patchwork of laws supporting slavery. Moving profiles of Edward Queen, one of the original litigants, and Thomas Butler, whose family won their freedom suit against Supreme Court justice Gabriel Duvall, reclaim the humanity of slavery’s victims, and Thomas’s discovery that his own ancestors held Queen’s relatives in bondage adds emotional and historical nuance. The result is an essential account of an overlooked chapter in the history of American slavery.

Irena’s War

James D. Shipman. Kensington, $15.95 trade paperback (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-2388-8

Shipman (Task Force Baum) dazzles in this historical tour-de-force based on the real-life story of WWII Polish resistance fighter Irena Sendler. In 1939, Nazi forces take over Warsaw, forcing 500,000 Jews into an overcrowded, walled-off ghetto. Social worker Irena is determined to continue to provide food to those in need, so when a Nazi officer offers her the opportunity to continue running the city’s soup kitchen, she accepts and begins forging documents that allow some of those in the ghetto to continue receiving government aid. Soon, Irena joins the resistance group Zegota and helps smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto (often through the sewers) to safety. Irena continues saving Jewish children from certain death—more than 2,500, according to an author’s note about the real Irena—until she is arrested by the Gestapo in October 1943. The author’s impeccable research, gripping prose, and pitch-perfect pacing bring an immediacy to the atrocities wreaked on Jews and other “undesirables.” Shipman’s humbling, spellbinding tale is a standout among recent works of Holocaust fiction.

Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces

Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo. Temple Univ., $20 (194p) ISBN 978-1-4399-1995-8

Longtime friends Harrison, an attorney, and D’Angelo, Temple University’s assistant vice president for administration and planning, present a superb guide for white parents raising Black children. D’Angelo, the white adoptive parent of a biracial son, Gabe, and Harrison, who is Black and childless, share both personal experiences and cultural analysis. For instance, after D’Angelo recounts her son’s reluctance to join an otherwise all-white soccer team at age four, Harrison explains his reaction as reflecting how being different in itself can be damaging to self-identity. D’Angelo also discusses how raising Gabe makes her more aware of white privilege—at one point, she becomes angry at her husband for modeling, in front of Gabe, aggressive “behavior that would get our child killed,” after which Harrison recalls being warned, as a child, by elders of the danger racially biased policing poses to Black people. More generally, Harrison exhorts parents to educate themselves about how historic discrimination in housing and hiring and under the law continues to affect African Americans, and to make sure kids understand “that when they see Black people in profound disadvantage, it is not because Black people are somehow deficient.” This timely examination of discrimination and privilege is packed with insight and should be a great resource for white parents raising children of color.

Unquiet Spirits: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure

Bonnie MacBird. Collins Crime Club, $25.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-00-812971-2

MacBird’s outstanding sequel to 2015’s Art in the Blood melds a twisty, multilayered plot with a plausible exploration of Sherlock Holmes’s life before Watson. The detective is unusually rude toward a prospective client, Isla McLaren, who seeks his help concerning a series of strange events at her husband’s ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands, Braedern Castle. A decade earlier, her mother-in-law died of exposure after being locked out of the castle. More recently, a servant fell to his death, and, a few days before Isla’s Baker Street consultation, a maid disappeared for two days before reappearing with all her hair shorn, reviving stories that Braedern Castle is haunted. Holmes refuses to help, but a request from brother Mycroft to look into an epidemic that’s devastating French vineyards, believed to be the product of British bioengineering, leads him back to the affairs of the McLarens, who are in the whiskey business. The risks that MacBird takes with her characterizations pay off and will make Sherlockians eager for more from her.

Comes a Pale Rider

Caitlín R. Kiernan. Subterranean, $40 (184p) ISBN 978-1-59606-985-5

Albino demon hunter Dancy Flammarion, who last appeared in the graphic novel Alabaster: The Good, the Bad, and the Bird, cuts a righteous swath across the American South guided by a skeletal, four-headed angel in this spectacular collection of five weird tales from Stoker Award winner Kiernan. Kiernan gets the collection off to a delightfully offbeat start with “Bus Fare,” in which Dancy trades first riddles then blows with a werewolf, and “Dancy vs. the Pterosaur,” in which she encounters the concept of evolution and promptly dismisses it as heretical. “Dreams of a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” a series of vignettes that artfully poke holes into the continuity of Dancy’s universe, and standout “Tupelo,” an unsettling, hypnotic look at what Dancy’s life might be like if the supernatural weren’t real after all, both explore eerier territory. “Requiem” brings the collection to a satisfying and unexpectedly poignant close, as a witch who once threatened Dancy’s life seeks out the now-retired Dancy and the pair reach an unlikely understanding. Readers won’t have to be familiar with Kiernan’s earlier works to fall in love with her scrappy, mildly unhinged heroine or the masterful way in which she places charm and chills side by side. Dancy deserves a wide fan base.