Our favorite books coming out this week include new titles from Gregory May, Emily Tesh, and Benjamin Balint.

A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, Four Hundred Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom

Gregory May. Liveright, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-324-09221-6
Lawyer-turned-historian May (Jefferson’s Treasure) offers a fascinating account of Virginia senator John Randolph’s posthumous efforts to free nearly 400 enslaved people and provide for their resettlement. A “relentless defender of states’ rights,” Randolph (1773–1833) was one of Virginia’s largest slaveholders, and his “deathbed declaration” that his slaves must be freed took many by surprise. After Randolph’s death, however, executors discovered two wills—an 1821 version that freed his slaves and an 1832 version that left his estate to his niece’s infant son and made no mention of manumission. Much legal wrangling ensued, with some of Randolph’s heirs seeking to have the 1821 will set aside by proving that Randolph was “mad” when he wrote it. (Randolph’s executor, Judge William Leigh, wanted the 1832 will set aside for similar reasons.) Though the 1821 will was eventually upheld, the story has an unhappy ending—before the freedmen could settle on land purchased on their behalf in Mercer County, Ohio, they were expelled from the county by a white mob and their community was dispersed. May lucidly untangles the legal proceedings and draws vivid character sketches of Randolph and others, while building an irrefutable case that freedom is only the first step to equality. This is history at its finest. Illus. (Apr.)

Some Desperate Glory

Emily Tesh. Tordotcom, $28.99 (448p) ISBN 978-1-250-83498-0
World Fantasy Award winner Tesh (the Greenhollow duology of novellas) jumps from quiet fantasy to ambitious sci-fi in her raw and action-packed full-length debut. Raised on Gaea Station with the last of humanity, Valkyr has been indoctrinated from childhood into intense hatred of the majoda—the alien race that destroyed Earth—and thirsts for vengeance. When Kyr comes of age, however, she’s disappointed to be assigned to Nursery rather than combat, her body designated to breed future supersoldiers. Meanwhile, Kyr’s brother, Magnus, is assigned off-station to certain death. Kyr takes justice for humanity into her own hands to save Magnus—but once she’s away from Gaea Station, the principles she’s been fed her whole life are called into question. Tesh’s sweeping epic wrestles with the nature of hatred, vengeance, and radicalization. The political theme of breaking away from fascist ideology pairs beautifully with smart sci-fi worldbuilding—which encompasses shadow engine technology and time slips—and queer coming of age. This riveting adventure deserves a space on shelves alongside genre titans like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. Agent: Kurestin Armada, Root Literary. (Apr.)

Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History

Benjamin Balint. Norton, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-86657-5
Cultural critic Balint (Kafka’s Last Trial) probes the inner world of Polish Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz (1892–1942) in this spellbinding biography. Raised in Drohobycz, Poland (present-day Ukraine), Schulz gained entry into Eastern Europe’s thriving literary and art circles only to have his career cut short when the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939. During the subsequent Nazi occupation, Schulz’s erotic drawings, depicting “masochistic scenes... of men groveling at women’s feet,” attracted the attention of SS officer Felix Landau, who made Schulz his “personal Jew”—entitling the artist to protection and extra rations—and forced him to paint a series of murals on the walls of Landau’s villa and other buildings. Though Schulz’s friends in Warsaw conspired to help him escape Drohobycz, he was shot dead on a street corner in November 1942. Balint describes how Schulz’s “phantasmagoric” stories influenced Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others, and details the international furor when Israeli agents pried Schulz’s murals from the walls of Landau’s former villa and sent them to Yad Vashem for display. Throughout, Balint’s dogged research and lucid analyses shed light on the interplay between Schulz’s psychology and his art. It’s a fascinating portrait of the artist in extremis. Illus. (Apr.)

How Do You Spell Unfair? MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee

Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. by Frank Morrison. Candlewick, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-536-21554-0
In this thoughtfully conceived picture book, Boston Weatherford centers MacNolia Cox (1923–1976), who achieved celebrity status in 1936 after becoming the first African American to win the Akron, Ohio, spelling bee, thus qualifying for the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. The narrative fittingly works in vocabulary words to tell the tale, for example underlining Cox’s commitment in preparing for the national bee (“Can you spell dedication? D-E-D-I-C-A-T-I-O-N”). As Cox and her mother set out on their trip to the U.S. capital, where segregation sets them apart from white contestants, words such as famous and excited give way to terms like racism and unfair. Morrison’s distinctive portraiture shows the protagonist meeting with Black legends in Akron, and juxtaposes the community support Cox enjoys in her home state with experiences of racial discrimination in the nation’s capital. It’s a powerful, word-by-word telling of a child’s personal triumph. A foreword and epilogue offer a history of spelling bee segregation in the U.S. Ages 7–10. (Apr.)

A Problem Princess

Anna Harrington. Sourcebooks Casablanca, $8.99 mass market (456p) ISBN 978-1-72824-299-6
Harrington’s un-put-downable sixth Lords of the Armory Regency romance (after A Remarkable Rogue) kicks off with Princess Cordelia of Monrovia traveling to London to seek a political marriage to a British duke. When a mysterious assailant holds a knife to Cordelia’s throat, she is saved by General Clayton Elliott, who agrees to act as Cordelia’s bodyguard. Following an explosion at an event attended by Cordelia, Clayton spirits her away from London, convinced that the attacks are related to the criminal organization known as Scepter’s continued efforts to overthrow the British government. Unsure whom to trust, the pair must rely on each other as they investigate the attacks. Cordelia is drawn to the way Clayton treats her like an ordinary person, rather than a princess, while Clayton is enamored with Cordelia’s kindness and strength. The difference in their stations should prevent them from being together, but their chemistry is undeniable. Uniting pulse-pounding mystery with emotionally charged forbidden romance, this may be Harrington’s best yet. (Apr.)

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho

Paterson Joseph. Holt, $27.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-250-88037-6
Actor and playwright Joseph draws from his one-person show, Sancho: A Remembrance, for this thoroughly engrossing portrait of a historical Englishman who escaped from slavery and made inroads with the royal court. Born to two enslaved African people crossing the Atlantic in 1729, Charles Ignatius is soon orphaned and sent to three spinster women in Greenwich, England, who name him Sancho. One day, Sancho runs away and is rescued from the clutches of the local slavecatcher by John, Second Duke of Montagu. The duke, noting Sancho’s quick mind, brings him to his estate, teaches Sancho to read and write, and gives him a job as a butler. Among Sancho’s accomplishments, he composes and publishes music, plays the lead in a local production of Othello, and is painted by celebrated portraitist Thomas Gainsborough. At his lowest ebb, suicidal over gambling debts and enduring painful attacks of gout, he’s befriended by a supportive group of free Black Londoners, and later marries one of their daughters, a fellow abolitionist. Toward the end of his life, he buys a shop and becomes a grocer. The purchase makes him a free male landowner, and he becomes the first Black man to vote in Great Britain. Joseph channels the writing style of the day and draws on the real-life Sancho’s diaries to give voice to his hero’s rich interior life. Readers shouldn’t miss this exhilarating and rewarding account of a man living at the cusp of world change. (Apr.)


Helen Elaine Lee. Atria, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-982171-89-6
Lee (The Serpent’s Gift) returns after more than 20 years with the powerful story of a woman’s reentry to society after being released from prison. Ranita Atwater, 36, was convicted of a drug charge four years earlier. She grew up as the only child of middle-class Black parents in Boston, where her strict mother died when Ranita was 13. (Her beloved father died while she was in prison.) As a free woman, she longs to see her three children, who are cared for by her protective aunt Val; and to someday reunite with Maxine, the sweet and politically engaged fellow inmate she fell in love with at the prison. With the help of her aunt Jessie, Ranita makes unsteady progress toward building a new life: she gets a dishwashing job, moves into her own apartment, and is eventually allowed to visit her kids. Through therapy, she begins to come to terms with her past, including her addiction to drugs and alcohol and her relationship with the children’s father, who died six years earlier. With a light, poetic touch, Lee balances the painful details of Ranita’s reality with genuine, persistent hope for new beginnings. It’s irresistible. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (Apr.)

Life Sentence: The Brief and Tragic Career of Baltimore’s Deadliest Gang Leader

Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8021-6242-7
Montana “Tana” Barronette, the focus of this scorching true-crime narrative from bestseller Bowden (Black Hawk Down), was born in 1995 and grew up in Sandtown, one of Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods. His community was plagued by violence and addiction, and at an early age Tana began a life of crime. He was arrested when he was nine for auto theft and progressed from running errands for street dealers to selling drugs himself. Before long, his record included multiple homicides, including, in 2013, that of a stranger, Alfonzo Williams, who had simply asked to speak to Williams’s sister. Tana’s fearsome reputation kept witnesses to his killings silent, but eventually he became the target of a federal task force and in 2019 was sentenced to life in prison for racketeering and drug conspiracy charges, including murders and witness intimidation. Bowden pulls no punches in his indictment of the ways in which the richest country in the world has allowed Black children for decades to be born into blighted urban neighborhoods, and saddled them with burdens that they must struggle to surmount to lead meaningful lives. This account of “young men growing up in a place where murderous violence has become a way of life” will haunt readers long after they finish it. Admirers of The Wire will be riveted. (Apr.)