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10 noteworthy books for February

6 min

Genre fiction has some superior offerings in February, including crossovers that blend historical fiction, science fiction, mysteries and thrillers. Standouts in nonfiction include an affecting memoir and inspirational essays from an author who guided readers through the pandemic.

‘VenCo,’ by Cherie Dimaline (William Morrow, Feb. 7)

Lucky St. James’s Indigenous heritage taught her about spiritual power, but unearthing a spoon marked “SALEM” opens doors to a new level of magic that introduces her to a nascent coven of witches who have been waiting for her. They’re part of a female-led front company for wealthy, like-minded influencers, and they believe the time has come to take back societal power from corrupt men. But this supernatural gathering has attracted the attention of a hunter who has been killing witches for centuries, and Lucky is in his crosshairs.

‘Hungry Ghosts,’ by Kevin Jared Hosein (Ecco, Feb. 7)

Hosein said in an interview that he had initially planned for this sweeping saga, set in 1940s Trinidad, to be a horror novel, but he realized the realities of colonialism and its aftereffects were terrifying enough. With a class system firmly entrenched by centuries of colonization, the upcoming ending of American occupation at the behest of British rulers offers desperate locals a reason to hope for a better future. But after a wealthy man’s disappearance, the lives of both the rich and poor — as well as the community as a whole — are changed forever.

‘Up With the Sun,’ by Thomas Mallon (Knopf, Feb. 7)

Part murder mystery, part showbiz history, Mallon’s fictionalized account of the life and untimely death of entertainment industry footnote Dick Kallman is an engaging portrayal of a closeted celebrity hungry for success. Bold and brash, Kallman took every opportunity to make a name for himself, encountering stars like Lucille Ball and Judy Garland on his ascent. He achieved fleeting notoriety with the primetime TV show “Hank,” only to find himself on the wrong side of the 1960s pop-culture revolution. Reinventing himself as an antiques dealer, he hosted fabulous parties at his artifact-stuffed East 77th Street townhouse, where he met a violent end.

‘Stone Blind,’ by Natalie Haynes (Harper, Feb. 7)

Instead of an evil monster, Haynes’s Medusa is a beloved gorgon sister with a keen intellect and a curiosity about the human world. It is her treatment by others — mostly lustful and vengeful gods — that brings about her ophidian transformation, and even still she tries to protect the world she loves from the harm of her destructive gaze. Medusa’s decapitator, the Greek hero Perseus, becomes a useful idiot who acts out of ill-considered and selfish interests and succeeds only through the reluctant interventions of quarrelsome gods. This dynamic retelling of a well-known myth encourages the reader to consider how legends reflect society’s beliefs, and how they are shaped by tellers.

‘Cold People,’ by Tom Rob Smith (Scribner, Feb. 7)

Smith’s screenwriting talent brings a cinematic feel to this novel, which launches with a fast-paced race by humankind to escape an alien invasion by relocating to Antarctica. Upon arrival, the refugees must find a way to live in the previously uninhabitable environment. Decades later, scientists are toying with genetic codes to create a new modified human who can withstand and even flourish in the cold. Natural selection is magnificent in the abstract, when it works over millennia, but seeing it sped up to take place in a single lifetime, as Smith vividly imagines, exposes its brutality.

‘The Porcelain Moon: A Novel of France, the Great War, and Forbidden Love,’ by Janie Chang (William Morrow, Feb. 21)

The French government recruited thousands of Chinese citizens to work for the Chinese Labor Corps during World War I to support troops on the front lines. Against this little-known historical backdrop, two women, one French and one Chinese, find themselves joined by circumstance and forced to make a harrowing choice that will resonate throughout their lives. Chang provides an inviting window into the existences of brave workers who traveled halfway across the world to fight in a war far from home.

‘Empty Theatre,’ by Jac Jemc (MCD, Feb. 21)

As the too-long-to-tweet subtitle explains, Jemc’s sly, darkly comedic romp tells the story of Empress Sisi of Austria and King Ludwig II of Bavaria — how these beloved national figures came to rule, how they came to know each other, and how they came to die mysteriously. Like Hulu’s series “The Great” and Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette,” Jemc brings a modern, quirky edge to a lavish historical tale, portraying Ludwig as an imperious aesthete obsessed with Richard Wagner and Sisi as a self-obsessed, strategic coquette who can hold a grudge. As the two headstrong cousins ascend to power, they resist the roles imposed on them, for better or worse.

‘Sink: A Memoir,’ by Joseph Earl Thomas (Grand Central, Feb. 21)

Childhood was a minefield for little Joey as he navigated regular humiliation, abuse and hunger. In a household filled with violence and derision born of toxic masculinity, his wild imagination was a way to escape from pain and loneliness. Some temporary solace came with a series of doomed pets, whose ability to thrive, like his own, depended on uncontrollable outside forces. For the reader, third-person narration creates a buffer to a brutal coming of age, and perhaps allows Thomas enough distance from his trauma to bravely expose the vulnerability and resilience of his youth.

‘Chaos Theory,’ by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, Feb. 28)

Stone’s talent for writing compassionately about controversial topics that affect the lives of many is on display in her newest young adult novel that follows the paths of two teenagers navigating mental health challenges. Two recent high school graduates develop a friendship, but secrets from their past threaten their fragile relationship just as it might be budding into something more.

‘Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age,’ by Katherine May (Riverhead, Feb. 28)

May, the author of the pandemic bestseller “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times,” returns to offer gentle inspiration for those who feel exhausted or helpless. Turning to nature for solace, May shows how paying deliberate attention to what’s around us — things as small as a shadow or as big as a meteor shower — can surprise us with insights and reveal new connections that deepen our appreciation for the world.

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