Best reviewed new books – The Washington Post

Of the many February books we reviewed, these are the titles our critics liked best.

“Black Cake,” by Charmaine Wilkerson

In this best-selling Today Book Club pick, a brother and sister grapple with the discovery that their recently deceased mother was not who she claimed to be.

The delectable ‘Black Cake’ considers how history and chance alter a family

“Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road,” by Kyle Buchanan

An oral history of the making of “Mad Max: Fury Road” revisits the many foreign obstacles director George Miller faced in getting his celebrated 2015 movie into theaters.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ had an exceptionally strange journey to cinematic glory

“The Books of Jacob,” by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

Sprawling across a thousand pages decorated with period maps and etchings, the Nobel Prize winner’s novel revolves around a real-life 18th-century Polish mystic named Jacob Frank. As daunting as that sounds, the story is miraculously entertaining and consistently fascinating.

Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘The Books of Jacob’ is finally here. Now we know why the Nobel judges were so awestruck.

“The Christie Affair,” by Nina De Gramont

The ingenious suspense novel concocts an elaborate backstory about Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926.

What happened to Agatha Christie in 1926? A new novel explores her curious disappearance.

“Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston,” by Gerrick Kennedy

A collection of unsparing, deeply personal essays about Whitney’s Houston’s tragic life and transcendent career that coincides with the singer’s 10 – year anniversary.

10 years after Whitney Houston’s death, what have we learned about her – and ourselves?

“The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London,” by Catherine Ostler

“Bridgerton” fans take note: For sheer incident and drama, Ostler’s story of Countess Elizabeth Chudleigh, whose bigamy trial enthralled England, rivals any episode of the popular Regency-era Netflix series. And it’s all true.

The uninhibited Elizabeth Chudleigh, whose bigamy trial captivated Britain

“Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them,” by Dan Saladino

A food journalist for the BBC shows how unique foods and crops have been neglected in favor of modern, supposedly “revolutionary” varieties that have no defenses against fungi, viruses and insects – all of which are becoming more of a threat with climate change.

Why we need biodiversity on our dinner plates – and why it’s disappearing

“The Family Chao,” by Lan Samantha Chang

This unsentimental murder mystery follows a Chinese American family in small-town Wisconsin whose restaurant, Fine Chao, is the site of owner Leo Chao’s mysterious demise.

Great thrillers abound this month. Here are five of the best.

“Free Love,” by Tessa Hadley

In 1967, a wife and mother, seemingly happy with her suburban existence, begins to question her life after an unexpected kiss with a younger man.

In Tessa Hadley’s ‘Free Love,’ a mother’s happy life is upended by a kiss

“Gwendy’s Final Task,” by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

The final novel in King and Chizmar’s trilogy completes the narrative of Gwendy Peterson, an ordinary young woman handed an extraordinary – and inescapable – responsibility: preserving the universe.

Stephen King and Richard Chizmar’s Gwendy saga comes to a satisfying conclusion

“The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir,” by Karen Cheung

The unrest in Hong Kong serves as a backdrop to Cheung’s biography as a young Chinese woman who came of age in the post-colonial years when Hong Kong was under China’s sovereignty.

From a local and an expat, two stories of Hong Kong – and similar worries

“Index, A History of The,” by Dennis Duncan

The cleverly punctuated title of Duncan’s book should signal that this is not a dry account of a small cogwheel in the publishing machine. Instead, it’s an engaging tale of the long search for the quickest way to find what you need in those big, information-rich things called books.

Sure, Google is handy, but what about the mighty book index?

“Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor’s Fight for Fairness,” by Laura Coates

Coates’ book stands out among a growing confessional literature regarding the role of Black prosecutors in a criminal legal system that disproportionately investigates, arrests, charges and impressions African Americans.

In a flawed system, a Black prosecutor wonders if she’s pursuing justice or being complicit

“Life Without Children,” by Roddy Doyle

In the Booker Prize winner’s story collection, the pandemic sets the stage for various reckonings, as distractions and options are stripped away, leaving characters to confront their realities.

In Roddy Doyle’s ‘Life Without Children,’ the pandemic sets plots in motion

“Mercy Street,” by Jennifer Haigh

Haigh’s surprisingly restrained novel explores the precarious status of safe, legal abortion in a country where disapproval comes in a thick mixture of class snobbery, theological absolutism and misogynist fanaticism.

‘Mercy Street’ may be the last novel about abortion before Roe v. Wade is dismantled

“The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton,” by Stanley Corngold

Corngold documents, in depth and with an excellent eye for detail, Mann’s life in Princeton, NJ, before the Nobel Prize winner moved to California in March 1941.

How Thomas Mann escaped to America and waged a moral battle against Hitler

“Moon Witch, Spider King,” by Marlon James

The second installment in James’s Dark Star fantasy trilogy is the memoir of a reluctant killer, a 177-year-old disconsolate woman who escapes an abusive upbringing and lands in a palace full of intrigue.

‘Moon Witch, Spider King’ revisits the wondrous realm of Marlon James

“Notes on an Execution,” by Danya Kukafka

Kukafka’s perfectly constructed and exquisitely written suspense novel is about a serial killer’s final 12 hours on death row – and, even more interestingly, the luckless teenage girls he murdered, and the other complicated women left in his wake.

“The President’s Man,” by Dwight Chapin

Despite its title, this memoir from Richard Nixon’s appointments secretary and special assistant, should really be titled “The Chief of Staff’s Man,” concentrating as much as it does on the sad and sometimes chilling story of Chapin’s relationship with the cast-iron HR Haldeman .

A Nixon aide who was Haldeman’s punching bag

“The Stone World,” by Joel Agee

In a 1940s Mexican town, a quiet, sensitive boy navigates life with his American mother and German stepfather, an exiled communist writer.

In Joel Agee’s wondrous ‘The Stone World’ a boy tries to make sense of life

“The Torqued Man” audiobook, by Peter Mann, narrated by John Lee

Mann’s clever debut relates the adventures of a German intelligence operative and his charge, an Irish man of many self-conferred identities. The exceedingly odd but enjoyable book is narrated by Lee, who has a natural gift for Irish accents (an excruciating weakness in many narrators).

3 great new audiobooks marry great narrators with great stories

“Watergate: A New History,” by Garrett M. Graff

“My goal was not to reinvestigate,” Graff writes in his remarkably rich retelling of Watergate. Instead of conducting fresh interviews, he decided “to tell the story based on the documentary archival record,” which has been steadily expanding over the decades.

Among Watergate’s heroes and villains, finding ‘a more human story’

“The Violin Conspiracy,” by Brendan Slocumb

In this engaging, suspenseful debut, a Black up-and-coming classical musician is in a race against the clock to recover his stolen violin, a family heirloom that turns out to be a Stradivarius.

‘The Violin Conspiracy’ could be one of this year’s big crowd-pleasers

“Vladimir,” by Julia May Jonas

In this provocative novel, a middle-aged female professor, whose husband is accused of inappropriate sexual relationships, becomes obsessed with her new colleague, a much younger man.

In ‘Vladimir,’ a woman’s desire takes her to dangerous places

A note to our readers

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