The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Maggie O’Farrell, James M. Scott, and Jonathan Escoffery.
This lush, provocative historical from National Book Critics Circle Award winner O’Farrell (Hamnet) follows a young woman who is married off at 15 amid the complex world of 16th-century Italian city-states. O’Farrell bases her heroine, Lucrezia de’ Medici, on a real-life figure depicted in Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” who was murdered by her husband. When the reader first meets Lucrezia, she’s been married for not quite a year and faces mortal danger in what O’Farrell describes as a “wild and lonely place.” The narrative moves back and forth from the nearly deserted fortress where Lucrezia plays a game of cat and mouse with the duke of Ferrara, the husband who might be attempting to kill her, and the events that have brought her here. As a child of a noble family in Florence, she was untamable and passionate about making art. Now, the duke grows increasingly impatient with her as she fails to produce the heir he needs to secure his position. O’Farrell excels at sumptuous set pieces: Lucrezia’s encounter with a tiger her father keeps in the basement beneath their palace, the wedding where she is draped and almost swallowed up by her gown, her meetings with the mysterious figures at her new home, particularly her enigmatic husband. By imagining an alternative fate for Lucrezia that deviates from the historical record, the author crafts a captivating portrait of a woman attempting to free herself from a golden cage. Fans of the accomplished Hamnet won’t be disappointed by this formidable outing.
In this immersive, meticulously researched history, Pulitzer finalist Scott (Target Tokyo) contends that the 1945 firebombing campaign against Japan marked a moral shift in U.S. military strategy and paved the way to the use of the atomic bomb. Drawing on oral histories and survivor diaries, Scott vividly recounts the air raid on Tokyo orchestrated by Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, which incinerated one out of every four buildings in the Japanese capital and killed more than 100,000 people. LeMay continued the campaign for 159 days, targeting Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe, among other cities, destroying homes, factories, aircraft plants, and oil refineries. Scott carefully builds up to the firebombing campaign, detailing the pressure on American commanders to bring the war to a close, the capture of the Mariana Islands to be used as airfields, challenges involved in building the B-29 bomber, and Gen. Haywood Hansell Jr.’s refusal to shift strategies from high-altitude daylight precision bombing of industries to nighttime, low-altitude incendiary bombing of civilian neighborhoods. Also profiled is Army Air Forces commander Henry “Hap” Arnold, who thought that “crush[ing] Japan” would demonstrate the need for an independent air force and made the decision to replace Hansell with LeMay. Full of vivid action scenes and sharp character observations, this riveting WWII history reveals the staggering cost of obtaining peace.
Escoffery’s vibrant and varied debut, a linked collection, chronicles the turbulent fate of a Jamaican American family in Miami. Trelawny, the main character in most of the entries, is the younger of two sons. He questions where his light skin places him within America’s racial categories and where he fits into family hierarchy: “You want to prove your father bet on the wrong son,” Trelawny narrates in the title story, addressing his father’s favorable treatment of his older brother, Delano, an arborist and musician. “In Flux” recounts Trelawny’s liberal arts education as he leaves Miami and attends college in the colder, and more racially homogenous, Midwest. “Odd Jobs,” “Independent Living,” and the title story center on the strange and ethically dubious gigs Trelawny takes to survive, including a running stint as a voyeur for a rich Miami couple, asking himself all the while: “What kind of employee are you? And just what kind of man?” Two stories exert a thrilling dramatic pull: In “Splashdown,” Trelawny’s cousin Cukie learns the lobster trapping trade, and something darker, from his estranged father; and “If He Suspected He’d Get Someone Killed...” follows Delano rushing to secure a bucket truck and a tree-trimming contract before a dangerous storm arrives. This charged work keeps a tight hold on the reader.
Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle with paralysis made him a great president, according to this searching biographical study. Journalist Darman (Landslide) opens his narrative with Roosevelt a charming, callow, selfish politician who started a fight and showily leaped over chairs at the 1920 Democratic National Convention to get attention from the press. His agonizing bout with polio in 1921, which crippled his legs, changed him drastically, Darman argues, imbuing him with patience, discipline, thoughtfulness, strategic vision, and a genuine empathy for the disadvantaged. (It also liberated his wife, Eleanor, who emerged from his shadow during his convalescence to become a political leader in her own right.) Illness honed Roosevelt’s penchant for evasion and deceit as well, Darman suggests, as he concealed his disability behind displays of cheerful vigor. (During one carefully staged appearance, he chatted with reporters while jauntily smoking a cigarette that aides had to light and place in his mouth beforehand to hide the fact that he couldn’t yet use his hands.) Written in elegant, evocative prose—“The accent was the same, a honking aristocratic lockjaw charmingly discordant with the plain words it pronounced. But his voice was deeper, more grounded, more sure”—this insightful portrait convincingly grounds Roosevelt’s public achievements in painful private experience. Readers will be riveted.
Hard-boiled PI fiction set in the present doesn’t get much better than Ames’s gritty and moving second novel featuring L.A. gumshoe Happy Doll (after 2021’s A Man Named Doll). Doll revisits his past when he gets a new client, Mary DeAngelo, who hires him to find her missing mother, last seen in Olympia, Wash. Mary explains that she’s approached Doll, rather than an Olympia investigator, because her mother, Ines Candle, was briefly Doll’s girlfriend. Doll hasn’t seen Ines, a troubled soul whom the detective saved from a wrist-slitting suicide attempt, for years, but the pleasurable moments they shared prompts him to accept the case. What Doll finds when he gets to Olympia is depressing and leads to multiple murders. The Raymond Chandler–esque plot is enhanced by superior prose: a handshake is described as “a violent squeeze, the kind that religious zealots or football coaches give, to show you they’re real men, men of strength, with an undercurrent of sadism.” Devotees of Loren Estleman’s long-running PI Amos Walker series will hope Doll has a similarly enduring career.
The unifying premise of Kolluri’s exquisite debut collection—stories narrated from various animal perspectives—might seem gimmicky or cute, but it’s neither. Instead, these nine exceptional stories, centered on a variety of mammal and bird species and set in global locations ranging from the Sundarbans to the open ocean, from the arctic to Delhi, feel both timeless and urgent. Each deal in some way with the disruptions wrought by humans on the natural world and on nonhuman species. These include war (“The Good Donkey,” set in a Gaza zoo), hunting and poaching (in a pair of nearly unbearably sad stories, one set in Yellowstone, the other in Kenya), and technological disruptions. Perhaps inevitably, climate change is either explicitly or implicitly at the heart of several of these tales, including the title story, in which man-eating tigers realize there’s something menacing their home that’s even more dangerous than their own kind. A list of sources points to the real-world incidents and phenomena that inspired Kolluri, such as an Atlantic article titled “Why Did Two-Thirds of These Weird Antelope Suddenly Drop Dead?”; the context serves to make the author’s treatment that much more remarkable. Joy might understandably be in short supply in settings defined by mass extinctions and climate crisis, but the exceptional closer, “Let Your Body Meet the Ground,” soars on the promise of human kindness, no matter how small. This remarkable collection leaves an indelible mark.
In this engrossing account, Nadeau (Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast) combines diligent research, hours of personal interviews, and vivid prose to immerse the reader in the world of Italian Mafia women. Nadeau tells the stories of those who defected and turned evidence against the mob, such as wives who betrayed their husbands, but she focuses on the unrepentant women, Assanta “Pupetta” Maresca chief among them. Born into a crime family in 1935, she married a mobster who was assassinated when she was 18 and pregnant. To retaliate, Maresca pumped 29 bullets into the man who ordered the hit and spent the next 10 years in prison, where she gave birth to her son, before being pardoned for the murder in 1965. She went on to remarry a mob underboss, but was sent back to prison in 1978 for another murder, which was overturned on appeal four years later. Maresca spent the 1980s wielding enormous influence in the crime organization, revered as the godmother and the Lady of Camorra. Even in her old age, she was celebrated as a self-made woman and was the first Mafia woman to be banned from having a public funeral due to her bloodthirsty life, when she died on New Year’s Eve 2021. This look at the “feminine” side of the Mafia is a must for true crime fans.
Spectacular economic growth in the long 20th century fueled visionary hopes, but never quite fulfilled them, according to this sweeping study. UC Berkeley economic historian DeLong (coauthor, Concrete Economics) surveys the period from 1870 to 2010, an era when, he argues, advances in global shipping, vertically integrated corporations, and new technologies hatched in industrial research labs created an unprecedented rise in productivity that for the first time raised humanity out of poverty. It was also a period when economic theories and crises drove history, from the pursuit of a communist utopia in the Soviet Union to the Great Depression that propelled Hitler to power in Germany. Beneath the century’s upheavals, DeLong sees a perennial tension between economic theorists Friedrich von Hayek, who anathematized state interference in free markets, and Karl Polanyi, who insisted that state intervention is needed to protect society from the disruptions of profit-maximizing market economies. (DeLong blames Hayekian market fundamentalism for dissuading the U.S. government from undertaking enough deficit spending to spur recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.) The author conveys a wealth of information in elegant, accessible prose, combining grand, epochal perspectives with fascinating discursions on everything from alternating-current electricity to the gender wage gap. The result is a cogent interpretation of economic modernity that illuminates both its nigh-miraculous achievements and its seething discontents.