10 best books of February: the Monitor's picks

From a history of the war in Afghanistan, to a story about a 1950s road race in Australia, to a young adult novel about a teen who loves crossword puzzles, here are our top 10 picks among new February releases.

These are the February titles that most impressed the Monitor's book critics:

1.  "Directorate S," by Steve Coll
Steve Coll expertly unravels the adventures and misadventures of the principal powers and individual actors throughout the uneven arc of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has spanned decades. “Directorate S” is the sequel to Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ghost Wars,” which tracks the key players and events across Central Asia, the Middle East, and the United States that ultimately led to 9/11.  

2.  "A Long Way from Home," by Peter Carey
A road race in 1950s Australia is the setting for Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey’s entertaining and finely observed novel. A gutsy driver, her timid husband, and their oddball navigator cross a continent marred not only by poor roads but also racial injustice. As the team drive north, they encounter dispossessed Aboriginal people – and the story then swerves in a different direction.

3.  "Enlightenment Now," by Steven Pinker
Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker once again waves the flag for progress. In his earlier book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker argued that there has been an astonishing decline of violence on Earth. Here he broadens his scope, putting that decline in the context of what he sees as the stirring extent of progress humans have achieved since the 18th century. Pinker argues that “the Enlightenment has worked – perhaps the greatest story seldom told.”

4. "Hotel Silence," by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
In this novel translated from Icelandic, protagonist Jónas, in despair about his failed marriage, checks into a rundown hotel with a plan to commit suicide. A handyman by trade, he instead ends up making the water run, fixing the windows, keeping the lights on, and helping all. This sparsely written book is full of wonder, portraying even the bleakest of human conditions with compassion and subtle dashes of humor.

5. "The Seabird’s Cry," by Adam Nicolson
British author Adam Nicolson travels the world to trace the 350 bird species (out of roughly 11,000) that have colonized the wind-swept coastlines, raw rocky outcrops, and open oceans of our planet. His book is a captivating celebration of the strange and marvelous beings called seabirds and the forbidding places they call home.

6. "Without Precedent," by Joel Richard Paul
Law professor Joel Richard Paul brings exactly the kind of perspective that a legal scholar can best provide to this engaging biography of US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. The book’s narrative is especially strong when relating the turbulent legal and political infighting of Marshall’s years as chief justice.

7. "Don’t Skip Out on Me," by Willy Vlautin  
The latest novel by award-winning author Willy Vlautin is riveting. Protagonist Horace Hopper – half Paiute, half Irish – has been adopted by elderly ranchers and now struggles to find his identity by pursuing a career as a champion boxer. Vlautin’s colorful characters inhabit both lonely Nevada ranch landscapes and gritty city scenes. Their world is painted with unflinching reality and raw emotion, yet also with compassion and heart, creating a compelling read.

8. "The Marshall Plan," by Benn Steil
Historian Benn Steil expertly moves through the story of how and why the United States abandoned isolationism at the end of World War II, also delineating the impact of that decision on our world today. Contemporary readers may be astonished by the bipartisanship displayed by the US Congress in making the Marshall Plan a reality – in stark contrast to the gridlock that afflicts Washington, D.C., today.
9.  "What Are We Doing Here?," by Marilynne Robinson
This elegant collection of essays by award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson examines the current polarization of American society by challenging the ideological threads that brought us to this point – the cherry-picking of historical facts, the false narratives, the acceptance of capitalism as a core value. Robinson’s arguments will captivate readers who enjoy delving deeply into history and ideas.

10. "Down and Across," by Arvin Ahmadi
This debut young adult novel about an indecisive Iranian-American teen who takes a road trip with the goal of self-improvement
is witty, wise, and inspirational. Note: Scenes with underage drinking and drug use make this a read recommended for older teens only.

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