The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Melodie Winawer, Keith Ryan Cartwright, and Jeremy Dauber.
Winawer (The Scribe of Sienna) enthralls with this unique combination of history, romance, and the supernatural. In 2015, Helen Adler, a research scientist living in New York City with her nine-year-old son, Alexander, copes with single parenthood a year after the drowning death of her husband, Oliver. Alexander is obsessed with Greek mythology, and Helen agrees to his request to vacation in Greece. There, Helen and Alexander explore the ruins of Mystras, and Helen is drawn to their mysterious guide, Elias Orologas, who, unbeknownst to her, was originally born in 1237 and has lived, died, and been reborn since then because his mother pledged him to the service of the church of Profitis Ilias to save his life. While visiting a town near ancient Sparta, Helen and Alexander recognize Pierre Lusignan, a pompous professor they’d seen on television talking about Huntington’s disease, the primary subject of Helen’s work. Alexander has a bad feeling about him, which is borne out by a series of flashbacks to the 13th century involving Pierre’s ancestors’ attempts to steal Elias’s blood, which they believed would cure the family’s inherited disease. Not long after Elias meets Pierre, who develops some highly unorthodox plans for blood research, Elias is in mortal danger. Winawer draws on her experience as a scientist to make the research aspects of the plot feel real, while expertly switching between the present day and the various time periods of Elias’s lives. Readers will be riveted from the first page.
Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West
The myths and legend of the American West meet the real-life struggles and triumphs of Black cowboys in this fascinating account from journalist Cartwright (Professional Bull Riders). Drawing from interviews with rodeo champions, ranch hands, and others, he illuminates how, over the past century, Black cowboys have “pushed against the boundaries... and transcended the racial animus they faced.” Among the many notable figures spotlighted are cowboy Bill Pickett, whose “steer rasslin’ ” during the Jim Crow era made him an international star; Cleo Hearn, who, in the mid-1960s, became the first Black cowboy to win a high school state title in segregated Texas; and Dihigi Gladney, a Californian bull rider turned jockey who made a stunning comeback as a sought-after trainer five years after a race injury in 1993 nearly killed him. Varied as these stories are, they form a vibrant showcase of Black resilience in the face of unrelenting racism, and illustrate how, despite being often forgotten to history, these men played a major role in shaping American identity. As one former bullfighter recounts, “In the beginning, they wouldn’t let us win, but before it was all said and done, we dominated.” This stirring history will have readers rethinking the very definition of Americana.
American Comics: A History
Columbia professor Dauber (Jewish Comedy) covers the entire landscape of American comics in this outstanding encyclopedic survey intelligently analyzing how “comics have shaped wars and inspired movements” and even “conquered pop culture.” The roots of today’s blockbuster movies date back centuries, but the author focuses on the American experience, which began with the late 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose lampooning of the corrupt Tammany Hall was so scathing that he was offered what would today be a multimillion-dollar payoff to stop. Dauber uses Nast to underscore how the medium is replete with erasures that for decades have left creators either ignored or robbed of credit (Nast’s wife, Sarah, for instance, wrote most of the most-memorable captions for her spouse’s art). Other themes recur throughout the 150 years he chronicles in thrilling detail—including the medium’s troubling history of racist and sexist depictions “perpetuated by an overwhelmingly white, male body of cartoonists”; the invention of superheroes, the backlash against comics as supposed corrupting influences on the young, and the expansion of the types of genres depicted in comics beyond action, adventure, and sci-fi. In doing so, he skillfully charts “the story of a changing American audience... American ideals and American anxieties... a perfect vehicle for addressing contemporary issues.” It’s a thorough—and thoroughly entertaining—work.
Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia
Historian and filmmaker Mitman (Breathing Space) delivers a harrowing and richly detailed account of U.S. tire manufacturer Firestone’s exploitation of Liberian workers in the 20th century. Eager to break the British monopoly on rubber supplies, Firestone secured a concession of one million acres of land from the Liberian government in 1926 and proceeded to build “the world’s largest continuous rubber plantation.” Though Firestone earned the support of African-American leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois by claiming that the project would foster humanitarianism and economic development in one of only two sovereign Black nations in Africa, Mitman documents how the company’s labor system mirrored regressive scientific and medical stereotypes born out of plantation slavery in the American South. Liberians were subject to harsh working conditions, disease outbreaks, and exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. Fears that Firestone’s “racist attitudes and policies” would undermine U.S. foreign policy in Africa led President Truman to increase aid to Liberia, but “continuing racial discrimination and growing wealth inequality” gave rise to political unrest and labor strikes in the 1960s. Mitman marshals a wealth of material to make his case, which encompasses ecological injustice, racial capitalism, and medical racism. The result is a devastating exposé of the tensions between “the interests of white capital and the desire for Black self-determination.”
A Marvellous Light
Marske debuts with a breathtaking queer romantic fantasy set in Edwardian England. Financial necessity leads newly titled, 25-year-old baronet Robin Blyth to take a post in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, where Edwin Courcey, liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly, “unbushells” him by disclosing the reality of magic. Thugs accost Robin that same evening, placing a curse on him and demanding to know the location of a powerful object his predecessor hid. When Edwin learns of the curse, which gives Robin unbidden glimpses of the future, he whisks Robin to his family’s country estate. There, Edwin, who lacks raw magical power but has a keen mind and a knack for research, attempts to find a solution while his family, including a sister whose pranks teeter on mean-spirited and a brother who torments him, cook up magical diversions. Edwin and Robin share some deliciously described sexual encounters as their research takes them to a powerful, dangerous magical estate. After forcing a vision leaves Robin nonresponsive, Edwin makes a risky decision that lifts the curse but causes a rift between the men as the identities of Robin’s attackers come to light. Sensual erotic scenes, an intriguing magic system, and a puzzling mystery combine to make this novel a wonder. Fans of C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, period queer novels, and creative fantasy will all clamor for more.
A Certain Appeal
King’s irresistible debut gives Pride and Prejudice a fresh look, transplanting the classic story to the sexy, sequined world of a contemporary burlesque club. Liz Bennet lands in New York after a professional betrayal crushes her interior design dreams in Los Angeles. She finds an unexpected home in Meryton, the upscale Manhattan burlesque club where her best friend and roommate (a sweet-natured, gender-swapped Jane) sings. Soon she’s balancing her day job as an executive assistant with her evening duties as “stage kitten.” When starchy wealth manager Will Darcy visits Meryton, he’s far from prepared for the saucy show—or confident Liz’s scantily clad flirtations. She’s equally taken aback to overhear his infamous “tolerable” verdict on her appeal, setting off a slow-building dance of attraction and antipathy as the pair continue to cross paths socially and professionally. King nails the building tension, but what stands out most is her obvious affection for the endearing supporting cast and the richness of their nocturnal world. Both are used to great effect when a twist leaves Meryton’s fate in jeopardy and all must band together to preserve their found home. Between the camaraderie and the costumes, this immersive look at the burlesque scene is sure to win many fans, Austenite or not.
Newland (A River Called Time) delivers a powerful collection of 15 speculative shorts that traverse time and space. He immerses readers in dystopian worlds in stories like “You Meets You,” in which newly developed narcotics engineered to be stronger than ever keep humanity in a tight grip of addiction, and “Percipi,” in which the creation of hyper-intelligent robots by a capitalist powerhouse brings catastrophic violence to the world. Other tales take on more mystical rather than scientific elements, among them “Seed,” which sees mysterious seeds crop up across the planet overnight, eventually sprouting into fully grown human beings. Newland easily engages readers with complex worldbuilding, well-shaded characters, and stories as entertaining as they are meaningful. It’s no small feat to so immediately and repeatedly appeal to readers’ hearts and minds, and Newland’s mastery of short-format storytelling is sure to impress. Speculative fiction fans won’t be able to put this down.
The Seventh Queen
Picking up right where The Frozen Crown left off, Kelly’s latest feminist epic fantasy is even better than her debut. After death witch Askia, Queen of Seravesh, witnesses the assassination of her new husband, Emperor Armaan of Vishir, before the marriage is even consummated, she is abducted and imprisoned by Radovan, Emperor of Roven. Magic is rare and specialized in this world, and Radovan is building a collection siphoned from his string of murdered wives. He’s acquired all types of magic but one: death magic, Askia’s specialty. Askia has just one month before Radovan’s Aellium stone drains her of her magic and traps her soul, and the enchanted chain keeping the stone around her neck suppresses her powers such that while she can still see the dead, she’s unable to summon them or compel them to do her bidding. But with the ghosts of Radovan’s six murdered witch-queens on her side, Askia has a fighting chance to end Radovan’s reign of terror. Complex worldbuilding and fascinating characters propel the intricate plot to a deeply satisfying climax. Sword-and-sorcery fans won’t be able to put down this gripping tale of female solidarity and triumph.
Martin Luther King: A Religious Life
Historian and professor Harvey (The Color of Christ) plumbs the background and writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to provocatively build a religious frame around the civil rights leader’s beliefs and tactics. Delving into the formative intellectual and theological influences on King’s writings and activities, Harvey’s approach is not primarily as a biographer but rather a close reader of the evolution of King’s thought; as Harvey notes, “King’s radicalism had deep roots. The black religious tradition informed him through its history of protest and proclamation.” King’s ways of thinking are considered across his accomplishments and failures in civil rights campaigns including in Montgomery, Selma, and Chicago. Throughout, Harvey stresses King’s unwavering commitment to nonviolence; his political realism, derived in part from his study of Reinhold Niebuhr; and his fundamental economic radicalism. (King first read Karl Marx in 1949 while in seminary.) Harvey also acknowledges King’s “anxiety reduction” practices of drinking and sexual dalliance (which the FBI surveilled obsessively). Importantly, Harvey takes on in an epilogue the “distortions” (or “symbolism [over] substance”) of King’s message in the decades following his 1968 assassination. This careful and of-the-moment examination of King’s fundamentally religious worldview should take a prominent place on the shelf of literature about the man who changed 20th century America.