In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown By Nathaniel Philbrick. (Viking, 385 pages, $30.)
Like colonists' efforts in the American Revolution, "In the Hurricane's Eye" only begins to come together at the midpoint. The first half of the account by Nathaniel Philbrick, whose previous books include "Mayflower" and "In the Heart of the Sea," is too focused on dull, strategic minutiae of the war's battles. As a result of that, and maybe because he already wrote his thoughts about many of these same Founding Fathers in "Valiant Ambition," the humanity of these legends gets short shrift.
Also, the title is a transparent effort to snag "In the Heart of the Sea" readers. Neither hurricanes nor their eyes are important factors in the book. That happens around page 130 and the remainder of the book is riveting. Although we typically think of the revolution as a land war and Gen. George Washington as a land commander, Philbrick shows how crucial Chesapeake was in building the coalition that would triumph at Yorktown. Philbrick also illuminates how a combination of innovative sailing and good fortune led to victory in the Chesapeake for the mostly-French ships, which were a couple changes of wind direction away from losing everything.
Washington made some bad calls but, over the course of the final years of the revolution, he also became the dignified, inspiring leader depicted in history books and "Hamilton." Philbrick is at his best when he charts Washington's growth as a commander and when he uncorks bayonet-sharp observations like this one, about the Frenchmen who were so crucial to the war effort but who blew off Washington's victory party because they thought it was beneath them: "More than a few of the French officers who chose to ignore their American allies that evening were destined to lose their exquisitely coiffed heads to the guillotine."
Women in Sunlight By Frances Mayes. (Crown, 448 pages, $27.)
Three American women of retirement age, two widowed and one a shellshocked divorcee, meet at an open house at an upscale retirement community in Chapel Hill, N.C. Brought together by a shared sense that they're not ready to settle into comfortable complacency, the three become a tight trio and, on a wild whim, decide to lease a crumbling villa in Tuscany and see what unfolds.
A lot unfolds, most of it marvelous. It would be easy to write off the adventures of Susan, Camille and Julia (as narrated by Kit, a younger American poet who has long lived in Italy) as an overrich confection for female readers of a certain age wistful for a life steeped in sunlight, sumptuous food and wine, stunning vistas and attentive gentlemen, free of financial worries (yep — the women are all fairly wealthy) and unredeemable disappointment.
But like Mayes' bestselling memoir "Under the Tuscan Sun," this book is so knowledgeably and lovingly written, with prose basking in seductive descriptions of Italian country life, that it wouldn't be fair to dismiss it as an escapist fantasy. Save this one to read in the teeth of February or March, when you need a feastlike read that exudes hope and sunshine.