Some stories are ripped from the headlines; others are ripped from history. Three new novels publishing this week explore the lives of historical figures who left a mark on their respective eras: the courtesans of Meiji Japan who organized a labor strike at the turn of the 20th century; the author Charles Fort (1874-1932), who made his life's work the study of paranormal phenomena; and the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion of Black Women's Army Corps Members during WWII.

A Woman of Pleasure

Kiyoko Murata, trans. from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Counterpoint, $17.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-6400-9579-3
Murata’s chilling and poignant English-language debut portrays a 15-year-old girl sold into an elite brothel in Kumamoto, Japan, by her father at the turn of the 20th century. Aoi Ichi is forbidden to speak her native dialect and is raped along with the other girls by the brothel’s owner so he can rate them. The story spans her first year in the brothel and details the various ways she finds strength to survive. She draws on memories of her mother, an ama renowned for her diving to catch fish, who wasn’t able to stop Ichi’s father from selling her, and takes solace in her friendship with top courtesan Shinonome. After the two friends attempt to escape, they are captured, beaten, and humiliated by the brothel owner. When Ichi turns 16, her father visits the brothel to borrow money against her earnings, and she realizes her enslavement could continue indefinitely. Still, she persists in seeking a way out. As the enslaved women band together in solidarity, taking inspiration from a nearby shipyard strike, the story builds to a dramatic and tense showdown. This immersive chronicle will move readers. (Feb.)

King Nyx

Kirsten Bakis. Liveright, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-324-09353-4
Bakis returns almost three decades after Lives of the Monster Dogs with a tepid feminist gothic novel set in 1918 and based on the life of author and paranormal researcher Charles Fort (1874–1932), a self-described “crypto-scientist” interested in anomalies. The action begins when Charles receives a letter from mysterious benefactor Claude Arkel, who invites Charles and his wife, Anna, to his mansion in the Thousand Islands so Charles can write. The first night after the couple arrives from New York City, Anna, who narrates, is unnerved by the sight of ragged and disheveled people in the woods, one of whom she recognizes as a fellow maid from back when she used to work in Charles’s father’s house. Later, Anna finds a room full of life-size human dolls at Arkel’s mansion and is creeped out even further. Bakis has a good feel for her characters, and the setting is credibly eerie. Nevertheless, the effort to excavate the real-life Anna Fort from a male-dominated narrative is a bit heavy-handed (“Why was it anyway,” Anna wonders, “that wives were supposed to help husbands with their books and never got their name on the cover?”), and the denouement feels improbable. This one lacks nuance. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Feb.)

No Better Time: A Novel of the Spirited Women of the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion

Sheila Williams. Amistad, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-330793-3
The unfocused latest from Williams (Things Past Telling) follows a battalion of Black Women’s Army Corps members during WWII. Dorothy Thom is a librarian at Spelman College when she hears President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In February 1943, with the president’s words still reverberating, she joins the WAC in search of adventure. Meanwhile, in Dayton, Ohio, single mother Leila Branch signs up for the $21 per month to support her baby. Unsure what to do with Black volunteers like Dorothy and Leila, but powerless to deny them due to recent legislation, the Army immediately furloughs them. Eventually, Dorothy, Leila, and the others are sent to Fort Riley, Kans., where the women’s officers realize their intelligence and capability. In early 1945, the women are assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in England and France to sort through the millions of pieces of backlogged mail for soldiers—some of which go all the way back to the beginning of U.S. deployment in Europe. Throughout their time abroad, Dorothy and Leila sort letters and packages, note how much better they’re treated by Europeans than Americans, and form lifelong friendships. The book bounces perspectives among characters, even minor ones, and never settles on a conflict; as a result, readers may struggle to find their footing. Despite laying down a promising runway, this never takes off. Agent: Matt Bialer, Sanford J. Greenburger Assoc. (Feb.)