10 best books of January: the Monitor's picks

Nothing starts the new year better than a fresh crop of books. Here are the 10 books that the Monitor's book critics liked best among the January 2014 releases.

1."Radiance of Tomorrow," by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah shocked and captivated Western readers with his 2007 bestselling memoir "A Long Way Gone," which detailed his experiences as a child soldier forced to fight in Sierra Leone's civil war. Now he's back with a haunting novel exploring the aftermath of that conflict. You can read the Monitor's full review of "Radiance of Tomorrow" here.

"Little Failure," by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure is Soviet-born novelist Gary Shteyngart's alternately hilarious and surprisingly sincere memoir, in which he chronicles his journey from his childhood as a sickly “Marcel Proust-looking boy obsessed with cosmonauts and Lenin" to his present status as a successful US author. You can read the Monitor's full review of "Little Failure" here.

"An Officer and a Spy," by Robert Harris

Thriller writer Robert Harris returns to historical fiction with An Officer and a Spy, a tale of the true-life Dreyfus Affair in late 19th-century France, an episode with parallels to the Edward Snowden-NSA contemporary era. Harris sticks to the historical record employing a most effective trope: the secret diary later discovered to reveal the on-the-ground unfurling of events. You can read the Monitor's full review of "An Office and a Spy" here

"Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed," by Ahdaf Soueif

To understand the currents and undercurrents of Egyptian society and politics, it helps to have a local guide. Few are more qualified than Ahdaf Soueif, author of the newly released Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed. Soueif, who has been an author, a political commentator, and an activist amid Egypt’s change and turmoil, is able to take readers back behind the headlines to see the individual Egyptians whose decisions help to shape the country. You can read the Monitor's full review of "Cairo" here.

"The Invention of Wings," by Sue Monk Kidd

Bestselling author Sue Monk Kidd weaves a tale of the friendship between two Charleston, S.C., girls – one slave and one free – in the antebellum South. This novel is also the newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection. You can read the Monitor's full review of "The Invention of Wings" here.

"Why I Read," by Wendy Lesser

Reading Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of the literary magazine Threepenny Review, is like attending a book club where the leader is an Olympic champion reader. (Think the Dana Torres of page-turning.) In Why I Read, Lesser tackles a deceptively simple question: Why does one read? And just as at your favorite book club, the discussion here is brainy, personal, and occasionally off topic. You can see the Monitor's full review of "Why I Read" here.

"The Empire of Necessity," by Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin, the author of “Fordlandia,” has written another engrossing book. The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World chronicles a bloody slave rebellion on the high seas in 1804, when both human political liberty and abject bondage were rising apace – both often advanced by the very same people. It wasn’t so much irony as cause and effect, the author argues. Paralleling the historical drama is an equally intriguing examination of how Herman Melville transformed the incident into fiction for his own metaphysical purposes. You can read the Monitor's full review of "The Empire of Necessity" here.

"Under the Wide and Starry Sky," by Nancy Horan

Bestselling author ("Loving Frank") Nancy Horan bases her second novel on the real-life love affair and marriage of author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Francis Van de Grift Osbourne. You can read the Monitor's full review of "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" here. 

"On Such a Full Sea," by Chang-Rae Lee

Award-winning Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee ("Native Speaker" and "The Surrendered") and proves his own versatility with this dystopian novel set in a future America characterized by a struggle between the wealthy (or "Charters") and the lawless ("counties"). You can read the Monitor's full review of "On Such a Full Sea" here.

"Unremarried Widow: A Memoir," by Artis Henderson

Artis Henderson makes her debut with this poignant, deeply felt memoir about the death of her young solider-husband – the couple, both in their early 20s, were married for only four months – during his military service in Iraq. You can read a Monitor interview with Artis Henderson here.