10 Must-Read Books for February 2016

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With its panoramic historical novels, long-awaited follow-ups, impressive debuts, and sure-fire debate-sparking works of criticism and investigative nonfiction, February of 2016 seems to contain an entire year’s worth of reading. And it does. You’d better get started, then, and be thankful you get an extra day of reading (because of leap year).

The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee (HMH, February 2)

Chee’s first novel in 15 years (since his widely praised and awarded Edinburgh), The Queen of the Night, which is based in part on the shapeshifting singer Jenny Lind, has the pull and grandeur of Lola Montes or a Luchino Visconti film. It’s among the most anticipated second novels in recent memory.

The Vegetarian, Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith (Hogarth, February 2)

On the surface level, The Vegetarian is exactly what it purports to be: a novel about a vegetarian. The deeper one goes, though, the harder it is to say; it has been variously described as a novel about “desire, guilt… and madness,” “the unknowability of others,” and “metamorphosis, rage, and desire.” Everyone is in agreement, though, that it is eerie, horrifying, and undeniably poetic.

Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Laura Secor (FSG, February 2)

Few if any unfolding international events will create more disagreement and debate during this election season than the United States’ recent deal with Iran. Secor’s book, which peers inside the “black box” of a complex theocratic regime over the course of decades, will likely provide grist for arguments on more than one side.

The Fugitives, Christopher Sorrentino (Simon & Schuster, February 9)

Ten years ago, Sorrentino’s Trance was shortlisted against William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central and E.L. Doctorow’s The March for the National Book Award, and it probably should have won. Now Sorrentino is back with The Fugitives, about a novelist who absconds from New York City to Michigan to finish a book. What happens next is like something from Out of the Past, though delivered in Sorrentino’s richly enigmatic prose.

Ways to Disappear, Idra Novey (Little, Brown and Company, February 9)

Novey’s debut, about a Brazilian writer who goes missing (under weird circumstances) and her translator who leaves for Brazil to find her, is one of the most anticipated debuts of the year. Thankfully Novey has a knack for engaging, humorous prose and audacious plotting the likes of which are rarely seen in a first novel.

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, A.O. Scott (Penguin Press, February 9)

Best known for his film criticism at the New York Times, Scott has lately played the role of the self-conscious cultural critic and arbiter of politically sensitive “thematic” disputes. Less a reprisal of this role than an aggressive extension of it, Better Living Through Criticism lays out Scott’s case for criticism in a series of dialogues and essays.

Sudden Death: A Novel, Álvaro Enrigue, trans. by Natasha Wimmer (Riverhead, February 9)

A rare example of an artful, comedic, deeply literary novel with the potential to become a fixture on bookshelves everywhere, Sudden Death begins by pretending it’s a novel about tennis.

The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray (FSG, February 9)

Wray, the author of Lowboy, returns with this genre-mixing, time-traveling tale of a man who finds himself “exiled from the flow of time.” Even in a year filled with madcap adventures, Wray’s novel stands out by virtue of the weight and sincerity of its themes.

Wreck and Order, Hannah Tennant-Moore (Hogarth, February 9)

Another anticipated debut (blurbed by Norman Rush, for example), Hannah Tennant-Moore’s Wreck and Order finds its protagonist in the familiar position of “traveling abroad to figure things out.” Thankfully, in this case, Elsie is an alternating current of conflictual emotions, a bicameral body in a state of dissensus. I predict many readers will see something of their own inner churning in this first novel.

Tender, Belinda McKeon (Lee Boudreaux Books, February 16)

McKeon’s Solace was named the 2011 Irish Book of the Year, and her new novel, Tender, has already received pre-publication raves from basically everyone. The story of an obsessive friendship in Dublin in the late 1990s, McKeon has already admitted that it contains (at least some) autobiographical elements.