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10 best books of April: the Monitor's picks

From Greek mythology to Southern cuisine to a final outing for a beloved detective, here are the 10 April books that most impressed the Monitor's book critics.

Circe By Madeline Miller Little, Brown & Co. 400 pp.

1.  Circe, by Madeline Miller

Greek mythology is in expert hands in Madeline Miller’s second novel. Miller weaves powerful imagery and emotion into a rich tapestry, depicting the agonies and ecstasies of the mighty forces and figures of the classical world. Banished to an island for her witchcraft, Circe, daughter of Helios, navigates visitors, prophecies, magic, and love with ingenuity and bravery, turning this story into an epic page turner.

2.  1983, by Taylor Downing

Journalist and historian Taylor Downing offers a well-written, engaging book about 1983, when a series of bad decisions and misunderstandings led the Soviet Union to believe that President Ronald Reagan was preparing to launch a nuclear strike. Taylor draws on previously unpublished interviews anddocuments only recently made public to explore a harrowing slice of recent history.

3.  Sharp, by Michelle Dean

Award-winning literary critic Michelle Dean has written a fascinating cultural history of 10 American women writers, including Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael. The (male-dominated) literary establishment of their time branded these women as too political, too lightweight, and too opinionated, but they persevered. The eye-opener: how vicious literary feuds could be and how critical many of these women were of other women writers.

4.  The Pope Who Would Be King, by David I. Kertzer

Pulitzer Prize winner David I. Kertzer tells the story of Pope Pius IX. Previously the Archbishop of Spoleto, Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti was elected pope in 1846, just as the Italian state stood on the verge of revolution. Pius IX was forced to flee and then required to forge the church’s place in a changing world, making decisions that remain consequential today. This is church history at its most fascinating.

5.  See What Can Be Done, by Lorrie Moore

Novelist and short story writer Lorrie Moore’s first nonfiction collection includes pieces on everyone from Nora Ephron to Kurt Vonnegut to Edna St. Vincent Millay and everything from Christmas to pop songs to 9/11. Running all the way through the book is Moore’s witty, insightful, and empathetic worldview.

6.  Something Wonderful, by Todd S. Purdum

This joint biography of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II not only tells the life stories of the storied songwriting duo but also makes a case for the revolutionary nature of their contribution to American culture. Filled with lively anecdotes and theater gossip, this book is both an important piece of American history and a pleasure to read.

7.  The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl

In an age of unrelenting electronic communication, Patricia Hampl gives license to unplug and daydream. In her latest book, she affirms the potential of quiet and solitude to enrich and bring depth to our experience – but not all see this, so the path requires courage. Hampl draws on exquisite examples of people who “wasted” their whole lives, and her delightful, meandering prose provides the perfect counterpoint.

8.  The Best Cook in the World, by Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg’s scrumptious food memoir is a tribute to his region, his family, and his mother, who was an unschooled but gifted cook. Languorously paced, grim, grand, funny, and memorable, Bragg’s book is the work of a born Southern storyteller. And his recipes are all intriguing – biscuits and tea cakes to feasts showcasing pigs feet, cracklins, and pokeweed.

9.  Gateway to the Moon, by Mary Morris

Mary Morris explores identity, faith, and family in a tale that spans more than 500 years. Weaving fictional characters into history, the novel begins in Spain during the Inquisition and wends its way to a contemporary New Mexico village populated by the refugees’ descendants. In each chapter, family bonds challenge and sustain characters as they grapple with events including betrayal, rape, and an opportunity to escape.

10.  Greeks Bearing Gifts, by Philip Kerr

Sadly, Philip Kerr’s 13th novel starring glum everyman hero Bernie Gunther will be his next-to-last: The author died in late March. (One final Bernie Gunther novel will be published later this year or next.) "Greeks Bearing Gifts" is as uniformly superb as the others in this series about a homicide detective who gets his start working in Germany under the Nazis. This novel, set in Athens in 1956, offers Bernie a very engaging nearly final outing.

[Editor's note: This review originally misstated the publication date of the final Bernie Gunther novel.]

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