Here are a few of our favorite books of February, including a contemporary fantasy, the story of a plucky Muslim immigrant with designs to reclaim his home country’s coffee legacy, and a powerful and poetic debut that deftly mines the complicated world of mental illness.
My favorite books, especially those that lurk in well-trod genres like young adult fantasy, are those tales that sink a grappling hook in your chest and drag you through a maze of plot twists and surprises until you're hollowed out and yet supremely satisfied at the final page. The Hazel Wood, a creepy, abrasive, and marvelous debut novel, does just that. Teenager Alice knows fairy tales aren't real, though they certainly have affected her own life: Decades ago her grandmother penned a slim volume of brutal fairy tales set in the fictional Hinterland and then promptly shut herself off from the world in her hidden estate. Alice and her mother have been on the road ever since, rarely staying in one place for more than a few months. But when Alice's mother disappears, taken by people who bear a nightmarish resemblance to the characters in her grandmother's stories, Alice turns to Hinterland superfan and sorta-friend Ellery Finch to help her track down her mother and her grandmother's long-lost estate. Alice blazes with a rage and a grace that spurs her and the reader through the weird and brambly paths that lead to the truth behind her grandmother's dark stories and Alice's own childhood. Mesmerizing and menacing, The Hazel Wood rings with a voice and an authenticity driven by a talented author who distills into storytelling magic the moments of power and helplessness spawned by the realization that the world is not as we imagined it to be. —Adrian Liang
The Monk of Mokha is an unblinking, open account of a San Francisco-based Yemeni American’s success story. The sincerity and subject matter will make some cynics uneasy, and cynics would do well to avoid this book, or be less cynical. Following in the path of What is the What and Zeitoun, Eggers delivers us the real-life tale of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Muslim in his early twenties who appears to be on his way to a relatively undistinguished life. But when he discovers the historic Yemeni connection to coffee production, he embarks on a quest that will change his path and provide direction. The adventure itself is riveting, but when you add in the history of coffee, the story becomes even more elevated. Mokhtar is an inspirational character, and Dave Eggers has written an entertaining, inspirational, and informative book. -- Chris Schluep
Freshwater is a mesmerizing and poetic novel that cracks open notions of self-control, mental illness, and love. With every passing page, I felt myself submerge into the complex depths of Ada’s identity letting the waves of Igbo lore infiltrate my understanding of the world and completely change my perception of a person’s agency. The novel is narrated by the ogbange, “godly parasites with many heads,” that reside within “the marble room” of Ada, a Nigerian woman who has moved to North Carolina to attend college. As she enters adulthood, the gods take over and she is powerless to their demands. Though they have protected and comforted her, they also make her rage, inflict violence and destroy relationships with the ones she loves. It’s a devastatingly clear yet spiritual portrait of a life guided by a fractured self and what happens when your body is merely a vessel to the nefarious demons inside. A startling, beautifully written debut. --Al Woodworth