MARY MCGRORY:  THE FIRST QUEEN OF JOURNALISM
By John Norris. (Viking, 342 pages, $28.95.)

Mary McGrory toiled for 10 years on the dreary literary desk (poor woman!) of the Washington Star before — bribed with a bottle of root beer — she was promoted to columnist. And swoosh! Her career went into the stratosphere. Her first assignment was in April 1954, covering the Joseph McCarthy hearings, and she lasted well beyond 9/11, turning out hundreds of columns before illness halted her. And in between — wow. John Norris’ affectionate and readable biography is a portrait of a brilliant, prickly, diva-ish Washington insider (Friends with the Kennedys! Possible lover of Eugene McCarthy!) and a recap of the great events of the 20th century.

BECOMING NICOLE
By Amy Ellis Nutt. (Random House, 279 pages, $27.)

When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted infant twins, they thought they were getting two boys. But one of the babies knew pretty much from birth that she was a girl. “Becoming Nicole” is not just the story of little Wyatt’s eventual physical transformation into Nicole, but it is also the story of an entire family’s journey: Kelly’s acceptance of her daughter; Wayne’s more difficult road to understanding, and the unshakable support of Nicole’s twin brother, Jonas, who said that he always knew he had a sister, not a brother. A wise and moving story of a family’s love.

CUSTER’S TRIALS
By T.J. Stiles. (Alfred A. Knopf, 582 pages, $30.)

T.J. Stiles takes a fresh look at George Armstrong Custer, the general we all thought we knew, and finds so much more than just the dandyish dude who was defeated at Little Big Horn. (That battle takes up only a few pages of this lengthy book.) Stiles paints Custer as hugely ambitious and narcissistic but out of step with the country’s rapid changes. He was successful on the battlefield, but “in every other regard,” Stiles writes, “he danced along the emerging modern world, unable to adapt.” Stiles, a Minnesota native, won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

SHOWDOWN
By Wil Haygood. (Alfred A. Knopf, 404 pages, $32.50.)

In vivid, lively prose, Wil Haygood writes about the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first black man to sit on the Supreme Court. Marshall spent his career fighting for civil rights, often putting his own safety at risk; over time, he became a hero to black Americans. “They talked about him in pool halls, and they talked about him in gin joints. They talked about him in jazz clubs,” Haygood writes. “A Negro — Thurgood Marshall — was constantly standing up to white terror in courtrooms, and many Negroes could not have imagined such a thing.” When Marshall was nominated for the high court, a cadre of Southern politicians was determined to destroy him, but Marshall never flinched. This is the compelling story of a true American hero.

ROOSEVELT AND STALIN: PORTRAIT OF A PARTNERSHIP
By Susan Butler. (Alfred A. Knopf, 594 pages, $35.)

Yes, there have been a million books published about Franklin D. Roosevelt and a million more about Joseph Stalin, but this one is fascinating for its portrayal of their relationship. Their powerful friendship was based on a mutual hatred of Adolf Hitler and their desire to defeat him, but they grew to be genuinely fond of each other. When Roosevelt died, it was somber front-page news in Moscow. Butler draws on the men’s lengthy correspondence as well as previously classified documents and war messages.

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior ­editor for books.