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Best books of 2010

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010, at 12:35 a.m.

It's the end of the year, so it must be time for a list. From the books I read in 2010 — those I reviewed in The Eagle and others — I've selected standouts in several categories:

Best novel

"Bound" by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury USA, 240 pages, $25)

Nelson's well-wrought novel, set in her native Wichita, combines family dynamics, old memories and new connections as a woman assumes guardianship of a teenage girl after a childhood friend dies in a car crash. The novel draws a series of circles, some overlapping, some barely touching, some completely encompassing others. It's an achingly honest look at life and the evolution of relationships.

A close second: "Room" by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown, 312 pages, $24.99)

The concept — a mother raising a 5-year-old boy while locked in an 11-by-11-foot soundproofed garden shed by a psycho — is tricky to pull off, even more so when the narrator is the boy. But this book works, and works well — it's well plotted, well paced and well written. Jack is a sympathetic and realistic narrator; we feel for him so much more because we can see what he can't about his mother's torment and how it drives her choices and affects her state of mind.

Also really good: "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson (Random House, 355 pages, $15 paper)

I picked this book up expecting a fun, light read about characters and cultures in an English village, but it was more than that — it is a charming and gentle love story, but it comes with a deeper exploration of class and family, told with lively writing and biting humor. The Major and Mrs. Ali are wonderful protagonists, and the Austen-esque ending works perfectly.

Best nonfiction

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 384 pages, $26)

Sixty years ago, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her cells were taken, without her knowledge or consent, for research and grew into a thriving cell line called HeLa, shipped all over the world for research. This book, a gripping combination of biography, science and history, tells the story of Henrietta's life and her family's realization of her contribution to science, plus the changes in medical ethics over the past few decades.

Best mystery

"The Scent of Rain and Lightning" by Nancy Pickard (Ballantine, 319 pages, $25)

Not a classic "whodunit," this novel nonetheless has the elements of a great mystery: a violent death, a disappearance, a man in prison who may not have committed a crime, and long-kept family secrets that begin to leak out. Set in western Kansas, the story follows a family who lost a son to murder and, years later, his daughter as she returns to her hometown. The story is a real page-turner, but it's not all plot: the characters are well drawn and memorable.

Wildest concept

"Shades of Grey" by Jasper Fforde (Viking, 388 pages, $25.95)

Fforde can always be counted on for a zany, imaginative story, and he delivers again in "Shades of Grey." In the future, social classes are set by color perception, Greens and Purples, Yellows, Blues, Reds and Oranges, with Greys — the color-blind peasants — at the bottom. This creates a whole system of jockeying in politics, and in marriage, as people marry to strengthen their color or shift their spectrum. The absurd nature of the society is funny at first, but appears more insidious the more we learn about it.

"You can never have too many books" is the story of Lisa McLendon's life. Reach her at lmclendon@wichitaeagle.com.

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