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Five picks for February

Cindy Burnett
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WHAT TO READ This month’s picks include a debut about two brothers who seek to be the first Black Americans to summit Everest, a clever and funny mystery, and three historical-fiction books, one about the women who served in Vietnam, one about Hattie McDaniel, and the last set in 1990s Texas and Japan in the pre-World War II era. (Photo: Cindy Burnett)

Buzz Reads is a column about books by reviewer Cindy Burnett. Each month, Cindy recommends five recently or soon-to-be released titles.

Dixon, Descending by Karen Outen (fiction) – Dixon Bryant was deemed the “good” brother from an early age, and his parents relied on him to be a role model for his charismatic older brother Nate. But when Nate suggests they jointly attempt to become the first Black Americans to summit Mt. Everest, Dixon cannot refuse his brother, even though their family and friends disapprove. During the climb, the weight of their decision to tackle Everest weighs Dixon down as Nate develops increasingly serious health complications. After things go horribly awry, Dixon returns home a changed man, constantly replaying his decision to climb the mountain. As he attempts to return to his job (from which he took a semester off to climb Everest), tragedy strikes, and Dixon begins to understand that to deal with the present he must confront his past. Outen’s detailed accounts of climbing Everest are so engrossing, and her depiction of grief and the many different forms it takes and the burdens it creates are compelling and insightful. This is a story I will not soon forget.

Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson (mystery/thriller) – This delightful and hilarious book stars Ernest Cunningham, who breaks the fourth wall by narrating the story to the reader, constantly inserting his own thoughts and comments into the tale. Looking for material for his second book, Ernest participates as an author in the 50th Australian Mystery Writers’ Society festival, which takes place on the Ghan, a train traveling through the Australian desert. Soon after the trip begins, one of the six authors at the conference is murdered, and the other five begin trying to solve the crime while Ernest sees the perfect opportunity for some inspiration for his novel. One of the best parts of the book is the way Ernest engages the reader, offering up “clues” to help solve the murder such as revealing how many times the murderer’s name will be mentioned and periodically stopping to provide a tally for each character as the story progresses. Stevenson incorporates some phenomenal twists and turns as well as so much humor into the story while also bringing the reader along on the journey of trying to put all the clues together along with Ernest. The mystery itself is outstanding, and I highly recommend this one. While this is technically the second in a series, it reads as a standalone, and there is more than enough detail to get readers caught up with the previous story.

The Queen of Sugar Hill by ReShonda Tate (historical fiction)The Queen of Sugar Hill opens with the night Hattie McDaniel becomes the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind and follows her life until her death from cancer at age 52. While Hattie believed that winning this historical Oscar would change her career for the better, both the role and the award created more problems for her instead. Many Blacks despised her for her depiction of a subservient Black slave to the point that the NAACP waged a full-blown war against Hattie and other actors they felt portrayed Blacks negatively, and whites disliked her for being too Black. In the midst of the attacks on her, Hattie continued to fight for more roles for Black actors while also tackling housing discrimination and navigating numerous fraught romantic relationships. Tate brings Hattie McDaniel to life in a sympathetic but honest manner that had me rooting for her even when I didn’t agree with her decisions. This is such a fascinating time period in Hollywood, and I headed down numerous rabbit holes researching the people and events contained in the book. Historical-fiction fans will love this one.

The Turtle House by Amanda Churchill (historical fiction) – Texan Amanda Churchill’s debut novel is a beautifully written gem centering around family and coming to terms with the past. Toggling between World War II-era Japan and Texas in the late 1990s, a grandmother and granddaughter bond as they grow to understand each other better while dealing with the secrets that trouble them. While I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, Mineko’s tales about her early life are filled with glorious descriptions of Japan and Japanese society before and during the war including life as a Japanese war bride and the importance of turtles in Japanese society. Through these stories, Lia gains an understanding of her grandmother’s pain and sacrifice and realizes that she too must deal with her troubles versus just avoid them. This is a gorgeously written and heartwarming debut novel about history, family, intergenerational relationships, love, heartbreak, and the strength it takes to persevere through hardship.

The Women by Kristin Hannah (historical fiction) The Women chronicles the story of Frankie McGrath, a young, wealthy woman who enlists to serve as a nurse during the Vietnam War. Once “in country,” Frankie quickly learns that she is ill-prepared for the injuries and death that result from such a grim and gruesome war. Hannah effectively portrays the grueling days the various medical personnel endure and how physically and emotionally exhausting it was. But coming home from Vietnam is just the beginning for Frankie as she realizes that many people in the U.S. do not understand nor support the war nor those who served there; her parents do not even welcome her home. The government is not accurately reporting the casualties, and civilians have no idea what conditions are like in Vietnam nor the trauma that results from time there. One of my favorite parts of this book was the music – Hannah constantly weaves in the popular songs of the era as a backdrop to the action taking place in the story. As a music lover, this really resonated with me – so many great songs come from the Vietnam War time period. This stellar book is perfect for those who remember the war and those who know very little about it.

Editor’s note: Southside Place resident Cindy Burnett also writes our weekly Page Turners column. She hosts the Thoughts from a Page Podcast, is co-creator of the Houston literary event series Conversations from the Page, runs the Instagram account @thoughtsfromapage, and regularly speaks to groups about books.

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