Book Stack: 10 reads to wrap up February

In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times picks out 10 books from around the world that have just hit shelves.

Top of the Stack

1. Burning Questions


By Margaret Atwood
Non-fiction/Chatto & Windus/Paperback/496 pages/$44.75/Released on March 1, pre-order here
3 out of 5

What do zombies have to do with the poetry of T. S. Eliot? Such are the funny little connections that pepper Canadian author Margaret Atwood's third essay collection.

It gathers more than 50 "essays and occasional pieces" from 2004 to 2021 from the two-time Booker Prize-winning author. These include new work, like a meditation on life in the Covid-19 pandemic and a foreword for The Bedside Book Of Birds by her partner Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019.

Atwood chews over culture wars and the climate crisis, fashion and feminism, Shakespeare and science fiction. She reviews a lot of books, while getting in a jab at the first savage New York Times review of her most famous novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

The collection is less selective than exhaustive. Despite the urgency evoked by its title, one gains few fresh revelations from these pieces.


2. The Books Of Jacob


By Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft
Fiction/Riverhead Books/Paperback/964 pages/$36.33/Buy here/Borrow here

Polish writer Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018, has finally had her 2014 magnum opus brought out in English in an astounding feat of translation by Croft.

Clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, this veritable tome follows Jacob Frank, a controversial messiah based on a real religious figure, through 18th-century Europe.

In his orbit is a vast array of eccentric characters - Nahman, a rabbi who becomes one of Frank's followers; Yente, a dying elderly woman who swallows an amulet that lets her view the action from an immortal vantage point; and many more.

It is, according to its frontispiece, "a fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions, not counting the minor sects. Told by the dead, supplemented by the author drawing from a range of books, and aided by imagination". Consider yourself exuberantly forewarned.

3. Recitatif


By Toni Morrison
Fiction/Knopf/Hardcover/40 pages/$22.42/Buy here

The late Nobel literary laureate Toni Morrison wrote 11 novels, but only one short story.

Penned in 1980 and often anthologised, Recitatif is being published for the first time as a standalone book, with an introduction by British author Zadie Smith.

Two eight-year-old girls, Twyla and Roberta, meet in a children's shelter. They lose touch, then meet again as adults - first at a diner, then a grocery store and a protest.

One is white and the other black - but the reader is not told which is which.

4. The Paris Bookseller


By Kerri Maher
Fiction/Berkley/Paperback/319 pages/$29.95/Buy here/Borrow here

This fictionalised spin on a bookselling legend follows Sylvia Beach, the young American who opens the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore in 1919 Paris. It becomes a hub for writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, the last of whom turns to Sylvia to publish his controversial novel, Ulysses, when no other publisher would touch it.

5. Wahala


By Nikki May
Fiction/Doubleday/Paperback/384 pages/$29.96/Buy here/Borrow here

Three Nigerian-English women in their 30s - Ronke, Simi and Boo - are inseparable friends in London navigating London navigating singlehood, stay-at-home motherhood and a fashion career respectively.

But the arrival of Isobel, a friend from their past, introduces cracks into their circle.

6. Kingdom Of Characters


By Jing Tsu
Non-fiction/Allen Lane/Hardcover/336 pages/$44.94/Buy here

Taiwanese-American historian Jing Tsu charts the century-long struggle to standardise the 2,200-year-old Chinese writing system for a new technological age.

From Wang Zhao, the reformer who crossed China disguised as a monk and risked his life to advocate for Mandarin; to Zhi Bingyi, the engineer who devised computer input codes for Chinese while imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, Tsu paints vivid portraits of characters - in both senses of the word.

7. My Annihilation


By Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Sam Bett
Fiction/Soho Crime/Paperback/264 pages/$24.95/Buy here/Borrow here

"Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life." So begins ominously this dark Japanese novel, in which a man finds himself in a room in a rundown mountain lodge with documents identifying him as Ryodai Kozuka - whom he is not - and a mysterious white suitcase in the corner. On the desk is a manuscript about a murder.

8. This Woven Kingdom


By Tahereh Mafi
Young adult fantasy/Electric Monkey/Paperback/512 pages/$29.06/Buy here

Mafi draws on the epic Persian poem Shahnameh for her new romance trilogy. Her heroine, Alizeh, is the long-lost heir to an ancient kingdom of the Jinn spirit race, but must conceal her powers in the guise of a servant. The crown prince, Kamran, falls for her, even though her existence threatens the ruin of his grandfather's empire.

9. A Very Nice Girl


By Imogen Crimp
Fiction/Bloomsbury/Paperback/352 pages/$30.94/Buy here

Anna, 24, is training to be an opera singer, but life as an aspiring artiste in London is a struggle. In the evenings, she sings jazz at a bar in the city centre to make ends meet. There she meets Max, a banker 14 years older than her, about whose life she knows little. They begin a fraught, unequal affair, even as her career unravels and her circumstances grow more desperate.

10. The Embroidered Book


By Kate Heartfield
Historical fantasy/Harper Voyager/Paperback/672 pages/$29.06/Buy here

In 1768, Charlotte, daughter of the Habsburg Empress, arrives in Naples, Italy, to marry a man she has never met. Her sister Antoine is sent to Versailles, France to do the same.

One thing keeps the princesses connected, however: When they were children, they discovered a book of spells, which they now use to survive the vicious intrigue of their respective royal courts.

This fantastical spin reimagines 18th-century European politics with two of its queens - the ruthless Maria Carolina and the extravagant, ill-fated Marie Antoinette - with magic in their hands.

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