February's 10 books to break the winter doldrums

Here are the 10 books that impressed the Monitor's book critics this month:


1  Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Why We Wrote This

The highlights of this month include novels about time travel, a royal wedding gown, and candlepin bowling, plus nonfiction titles that span World War II, Northern Ireland's Troubles, and a memoir about rescuing shipwrecked migrants.

Kin Stewart is a time-traveling secret agent with a heart of gold who got lost on a mission and created a family. Intelligent, caring characters in an amusingly crafted debut novel that packs an emotional wallop as Kin races across time to save his daughter. Mike Chen’s science fiction adventure is convincing and truly wonderful.

2  We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet

The transforming power of lovingkindness reverberates throughout Frances Liardet’s enthralling novel, which deals with two generations touched by wartime in a small English village in the 1940s. Newlywed Ellen Parr rescues a spirited 4-year-old girl in an air raid who captures her heart and changes her life. With beautiful prose and historical authenticity, this story embraces a community with an indomitable spirit.

3  The Gown by Jennifer Robson

The royal wedding of England’s then-Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten in postwar London brought a glimmer of light to a dark time. Jennifer Robson’s novel is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Elizabeth’s gorgeous wedding gown and its talented embroiderers. It tells of three generations of women overcoming adversity, and honors the strengthening power of friendship and art. It’s a charming and romantic novel with style and substance. 

4  Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

A body is found in a cemetery. That might not sound unusual, but this body is alive. Bertha Truitt is found with a bag containing “one abandoned corset,” one bowling ball, one candlepin, and, “under a false bottom, 15 pounds of gold.” So begins National Book Award nominee Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel in 17 years, “Bowlaway,” which combines a love of New England history with an eye for the eccentric to create a tragicomic tale that spans 100 years of a family and its bowling alley. At times the quirkiness threatens to overwhelm the story, but its generous heart keeps “Bowlaway” spinning safely out of the gutter.

5  On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Lights up on Garden Heights! We’re back in the neighborhood of Angie Thomas’s debut novel, “The Hate U Give,” exploring some similar themes through a very different heroine. Brianna “Bri” Jackson is a talented rapper looking to break out, dealing with a loving but complicated home life and the systemic problems of society. She’s an irrepressible, appealing – and believable – guide. (See full review)

6  The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942 by William K. Klingaman

The author uses contemporary sources to survey the nation’s psyche in the tense months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Describing widespread fears of another attack, shifts in roles as men enlisted and women took over their jobs, and shortages of everything from sugar to gasoline, the historian vividly captures the bleak and anxious mood at a time when the Allied victory was in no way assured.

7  Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
by Patrick Radden Keefe

Packed with true crime, terrorism, grinding poverty and rampant police and military corruption, Patrick Radden Keefe’s history of Troubles-era Ireland moves between questions about the abduction and murder of a mother of 10 in Belfast and the machinations of Irish Republican Army figures Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. Keefe’s account of sectarian strife and suffering reveals the costs of colonialism and a society stripped of trust and faith in government. It’s a harsh, and necessary, reminder of how prejudice hurts everyone.

8  Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope by Davide Enia 

Davide Enia, one of Italy’s most lauded playwrights, presents a haunting memoir about refugees and rescuers, survivors and strangers, fathers and sons. Especially rare – and searing – among the voices he captures are those of the rescuers, who face the terrible decision about whom to save and whom to abandon. Translator Antony Shugaar adroitly enables English-speakers access to this spectacular testimony.

9  I’m Not Here to Give a Speech 
by Gabriel García Márquez

From boyhood speeches to addresses given in the presence of presidents and kings, the words of the Nobel Prize-winning author are captured and translated in this brief read. Through meandering narratives and poignant conclusions, readers are invited to glimpse his passion and intellect as he ruminates on creativity, the power of poetry, and Latin America – one speech at a time. “I’m Not Here to Give a Speech” is a welcome reminder of his immense contributions to literature, as well as his skill in using literary fame to highlight the distinct culture and creative strength of Latin America.

10  Midnight at Chernobyl 
by Adam Higginbotham

Journalist Adam Higginbotham sifts through archives and dozens of firsthand accounts to produce the most complete and compelling history yet written in English of the worst nuclear power plant meltdown in history. (See full review

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