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10 noteworthy books for January

(Algonquin; Ballantine; G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Although Valentine’s Day doesn’t arrive until February, it’s always a good time to gain a deeper understanding of love. January’s books touch on many sides of that emotion — loving through grieving, loving as a duty, loving as power and identity, and even unrequited love.

‘Honor,’ by Thrity Umrigar (Algonquin, Jan. 4)

Newspaper accounts of defiant women in India inspired journalist-turned-writer Umrigar’s novel, which considers the privilege of choosing the person you love. Journalist Smita Agarwal hasn’t lived in Mumbai since her teens. Arriving to report on the tragic story of Meena Mustafa, a Hindu woman whose marriage to a Muslim man incited a murder, she finds tension between cultures in ways she never expected.

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‘Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World,’ by Danielle Friedman (Putnam, Jan. 4)

In the 1950s, when physical fitness evangelist Bonnie Prudden realized she could convince women that exercise was a path to slim figures, the world of women’s fitness became tied to societal pressures to attain an often-unachievable beauty standard. Although the tension between health and beauty remains, Friedman’s engaging stories of the women who created and transformed the fitness industry illustrate an evolution built upon strong female shoulders.

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‘Wahala,’ by Nikki May (Custom House, Jan. 11)

Contemporary female friendship goes glam in this lively debut novel with remarkable depth. Fun, food and fashion have bonded Anglo-Nigerian friends Ronke, Boo and Simi, but tension builds after they welcome dazzling and enigmatic Isobel into their group. Each woman confronts her own flaws while facing racial and class divides made more challenging by straddling two cultures.

‘Lost & Found: A Memoir,’ by Kathryn Schulz (Random House, Jan. 11)

Within two years, Schulz mourned her father’s death and met the woman she would marry. Her emotional roller coaster inspired an exploration of simultaneously loving and grieving, full of stunning observations: “Love, like grief, has the properties of a fluid,” she writes. “It flows everywhere, fills any container, saturates everything.” She ruminates on things that can be lost or found and, most touchingly, celebrates the “and”-ness inherent in joining two lives.

‘Yonder,’ by Jabari Asim (Simon and Schuster, Jan. 11)

When you have no autonomy, how do you still love? The answer is at the heart of this affecting narrative. On a Southern plantation, people who call themselves the Stolen are enslaved and forced into rigid obedience, always subject to the whims of their ruthless captors. Their sole power is the ability to form relationships with one another, leaving them with gut-wrenching choices as they decide what a chance at freedom is worth.

‘The Stars Are Not Yet Bells,’ by Hannah Lillith Assadi (Riverhead Books, Jan. 11)

This poignant novel is a testament to love and loss, inspired by the author’s family history. Elle’s path was dictated by society’s unspoken rules. Constrained by a 50-year marriage filled with psychological interventions chosen by her husband “in her best interest,” her final years are consumed with recollections of her first love. Her memories, portrayed through the prism of Alzheimer’s disease, are murky, but in moments of clarity, we see the truth about the sacrifices made for love.

‘The Torqued Man,’ by Peter Mann (Harper, Jan. 11)

Mann, a university professor and creator of “The Quixote Syndrome,” a comic dedicated to “history, literature, and the absurd,” brilliantly combines all three subjects in this debut novel about two men during World War II, one a German military intelligence officer and the other an Irish spy who fancies himself a modern-day Celtic legend. Each recounts the same events in his own manuscript, leaving the reader to deduce what’s real. Mann’s sometimes graphic, sometimes heartbreaking, always entertaining thriller draws parallels to similar forces pulling against each other in modern life.

‘Red Is My Heart,’ by Antoine Laurain and illustrated by Le Sonneur (Gallic Books, Jan. 18)

As in The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” a beautifully melodic song about a stalker, this slim volume is both enchanting and disturbing. A heartbroken lover’s obsession with his ex is reflected in both images and words. Ladders, just-released balloons and other depictions of longing appear with text that also mirrors the narrator’s mood, such as when phrases spoken directly to his ex are printed upside-down. As in the author’s previous novel “The Red Notebook,” the Parisian tableaus are so descriptive that you can almost smell the croissants.

‘Manifesto: On Never Giving Up,’ by Bernardine Evaristo (Grove, Jan. 18)

After winning the Booker Prize at age 60 for “Girl, Woman, Other,” Evaristo was portrayed as an overnight sensation. In truth, her preceding decades were filled with climbing up through a world that did not know what to make of a biracial, sexually fluid artist with a flair for dramatic arts. Her raw memoir reveals a woman with enough perspective on her own life to tell the truth, and her manifesto is a gift to those seeking their own truths.

Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ received half a Booker Prize, but it deserves all the glory

‘Violeta,’ by Isabel Allende (Ballantine, Jan. 25)

Fans of Allende’s generation-spanning family epics are in for a treat with her latest novel, centered on Violeta Del Valle, a centenarian whose life is bookended by pandemics. Violeta’s personal loves and tragedies intertwine with decades of Latin American political turmoil, economic uncertainty and social change. Through a letter to a loved one, she unspools her story, showing a consistent devotion both to her family and to the joy of living.

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