Browse the genres below for quick descriptions of our favorite books of 2010. Links in the titles lead to more information, or browse the Best Books of 2010 series as a whole. Snag your own copies from Powell’s Books. Then, check out our Great Reads section and our Special Features page for more recommendations. For still more, check out The Best Books of 2009.
And: don’t miss The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology: 25 outstanding stories from the web in a free downloadable ebook. Compatible with any ereader on the planet.
Table of Contents
The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, by Patrick Somerville
This bizarre, hilarious and endlessly inventive collection of short stories is a must-read for any fan of George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, or Robert Coover—and Somerville can hold his own with those heavy-hitters. The stories range from the surreal to the science fictional, and every single one is worth reading.
Next, by James Hynes
Kevin Quinn is a mid-level editor in Ann Arbor who flies down to Austin for a job interview without telling his maybe-pregnant girlfriend. Planted firmly in mid-life crisis mode and full of an impending sense of doom, Kevin stalks a attractive young Asian girl (whom he dubs “Joy Luck”) around the city. While doing so, he reflects on his life and past in Michigan. The book culminates in a jaw-dropping conclusion that will be on your mind for days.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi Durrow
After the a family tragedy leads to the deaths of her mother and siblings, teenager Rachel Morse is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland, where her exotic, biracial looks cause her to stand out more than she’d like to. This book has a great rhythm to it, Rachel’s voice is a compelling one, and the backstory that Durrow slowly fills in is well executed. An excellent character study of coming to age as a biracial American.
Great House, by Nicole Krauss
Several narrators are nebulously connected by a giant desk that has been around the world and back. Krauss’s characters detail their grim lives of loss, pain, and alienation in settings as diverse as Chile, Jerusalem, England, and New York City. It’s a gloomy novel, but the prose is captivating.
We Take Me Apart, by Molly Gaudry
In lyrical direct address, Gaudry’s narrator reflects on her mother, her own childhood, and the fairy tales she used to believe in, while setting the groundwork for a reveal that tells us where she is narrating this story from, and why. An engaging read from an up-and-coming writer.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen’s novel is about a fairly typical American family, but it also manages to be an astute look at America itself. This isn’t the Great American Novel that you might think it would be, judging by hype it got. But it is a Great Read that’s accessible, thought-provoking, and at times quite tender.
Museum of the Weird, by Amelia Gray
This debut collection of weird and well crafted stories is full of talking animals, cannibals, a woman who births a baby a day, and enough grotesque nods to Kafka to make any book geek happy. Museum of the Weird is definitely worth the read,and Gray’s got real chops as a writer, so expect to see more of her soon.
Solar, by Ian McEwan
This is a book about a fat, old, wasteful, lecherous man, who happens to be a climatologist and has designed a means of renewable energy that could revolutionize the world. He’s at once the savior of society, and its very worst product. McEwan writes in his identifiable style: slow and calculating and precise, teetering on the edge of plausibility. But with Solar, McEwan also decided to shake things up a bit. Here, he pulls off humor as capably as he’s pulled off fear, indecision, melancholy, and regret in the past.
The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
The Imperfectionists is an outstanding collection of short stories, loosely linked, and centered around the employees of an English-language international newspaper based in Rome. Rachman’s characters are complex but still light, layered but unmuddied. Rachman excels at chronicling the interior lives and private problems of each of his varied characters, and it’s that variety and interiority (along with, of course, excellent writing) that makes this collection so strong.
Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman
Misadventure is a terrifically entertaining half-mystery half-thriller (let’s call it “suspense”). It’s a book that isn’t shy about having an intricate, twisting plot, but it still gets its drive from vivid characters and the way it dives headfirst into conflicts, one after another. Kaufman’s writing is full of verve and cynicism and wit, and his barging, entitled protagonist is a great pleasure to watch. If you’re looking for an entertaining novel with great writing and a rollicking plot, look no further.
Noir, by Robert Coover
A bit like Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Noir is a big-name literary author’s foray into hard-boiled detective fiction. Coover’s attempt is, like the rest of his work, postmodern, weird, hilarious, and savagely entertaining. It’s a meditation on and a parody of the Noir genre, but also a pretty good mystery in its own right. Read the full review for a few examples of Coover’s humor and style.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The story of Henrietta Lacks was a generation or two from being completely forgotten. It would have been a shame to lose this piece of our history, not just because of the scientific significance of HeLa cells, but also because of the perspective Lacks’s life and death adds to the Civil Rights struggle. Thankfully, with this book, Rebecca Skloot has made Henrietta Lacks truly immortal.
War, by Sebastian Junger
War is a fascinating look at combat and our soldiers. Its strength lies in its honesty. Junger, embedded, does not shy away from the effect his situation has on his objectivity. Instead, he presents us with the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of the men on the battlefront. This book asks us to empathize with their situation so that we may better receive them into society when they return home.
Happy, by Alex Lemon
If this memoir weren’t true, it’d be a cliché—a boy, lost and careless, becoming a man after coming face to face with death. The prose makes this book original, and stands as evidence that poets make the best memoirists.
The Routes of Man, by Ted Conover
While The Routes of Man’s flap copy claims that it’s about the social impact of six roads in various corners of the earth, it’s really about the people those roads effect. Conover portrays those characters both honestly and lovingly; you’ll find yourself caring about these people and their lives.
This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, by Steve Almond
This is a small, self-published book, that’s hard to categorize because it’s split in two: half stories, half essays. The fiction is well-written flash, and the essays are entertaining and wise. With the latter, Almond has put together, in 40 or so pages, one of the best collections of advice for writers, specifically young writers, written in a long while.
The Poetry Lesson, by Andrei Codrescu
Andrei Codrescu takes us blow-by-blow through the initial Intro to Poetry Writing class of his final semester as a professor. During the nearly three-hour class, Codrescu assigns each of his young pupils a “Ghost-Companion” (a dead poet that the student will take on as a sort-of muse), reflects on his heyday of the 60s and 70s, and wonders how he’s fallen so far out of touch with the youth of today. Or has he?
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, by Steve Almond
Almond shares with us what it’s like to be a Drooling Fanatic (a music obsessive) as he covers his career as a rock critic, spotlights some lesser-known artists, and provides sidebars like “Ten Things You Can Say to Piss Off a Music Critic.”
Master of Disguises, by Charles Simic
Master of Disguises offers familiar sincerity and humor in its imagery. Simic’s often short lyrics are frank and funny in a way that never seems forced or merely ironic. In the title poem, on the lookout for the Master of Disguises, the speaker says, “I wouldn’t even rule out the black cat crossing the street.” It’s a funny line because it’s not a joke. Because in this poem and others like it, “Scribbled in the Dark” and “The Elusive Something,” poems about confrontations with mystery, no potential clue can be ruled out, not “The face of a girl carrying a white dress” or “the sight of a building blackened by fire / where I once went looking for work.”
Here, by Wislawa Szymborska
Here carries on Szymborska’s project of indiscriminate astonishment. These are poems about poetry, place, mythology, music, memory, divorce, apocalypse, and television. These are poems about the constant surprise of finding the world as it is, and right where we left it, or where someone else left it.
Man on Extremely Small Island, by Jason Koo
The poems in this debut collection, often mundane in content, are epic in tone, rhapsodizing about lunch, long car rides, baseball games, and lovers’ quarrels. Self-reflective beyond the point of neurosis, these poems find relief in momentary release from ourselves, into lyric, into landscapes, into dreams. The real challenge presented here lies in negotiating the return trip, in rediscovering ourselves, our desires and anxieties, after a moment of epiphany or something like it.
For more about these graphic novels, click here.
Drenched in sex and violence, Black Kiss is Howard Chaykin’s ultra-cynical version of noir, positioned as a moral response to “Morning In America” conservatism. But despite the grim subject matter this book is often funny—in the end, the exploitative nature of the text boils down to a big gag on the reader, daring you to take any of it seriously.
Batman and Robin may have launched in 2009, but the bulk of the story took place in 2010, and it was in those three story arcs that writer Grant Morrison began weaving the new Batman and Robin’s adventures in with the circumstances surrounding Bruce Wayne’s journey from the dawn of civilization to the end of history, finally landing in the present where he belongs. This is superhero comics at its most inventive best, not ashamed to examine the significance of these characters.
In interviews, writer Grant Morrison stated that Joe the Barbarian was his attempt to tell a sword-and-sorcery fantasy story, the kind he was fond of as a boy, and fuse it with Alice In Wonderland. He’s done that, and used the iconography of a modern teenager’s life to produce a book that comments on death and anxiety and still makes room for seven-foot-tall ninja rats.
The Bulletproof Coffin is the history of comics projected through a grimy lens. It’s the kind of story that has a deep regard for its own fabricated past, and seems intent on fusing that past with the reader’s present. Each issue is in part a “replica” of the fictional Golden Nugget comics that appear in the story, turning the product itself into some kind of bridge between realities. It’s as if the creators are trying to imagine what modern comics might look like if they drew influence and inspiration from these stories and ideas.
Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine tells a story that’s part of the established Marvel universe but not bound to any current continuity. Writer Jason Aaron is free to dip into the sci-fi well, using time travel and alternate realities as tools to explore Spider-Man and Wolverine individually and as complimentary forces who also happen to be two of the medium’s most popular characters.
Zero History, by William Gibson (sci-fi novel)
Zero History is a fast-paced pseudo-sci-fi novel about coolhunting and fashion and jetsetting billionaires and the like. It focuses on an ex-rock star and an ex-drug addict as they scour the earth for the creator of a super-secret unlabeled brand of jeans. Gibson is a great writer and still sharp after being on the cutting edge for thirty years. The stakes aren’t quite high enough for this book to be riveting, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.
You Lost Me There, by Rosecrans Baldwin (literary novel)
Baldwin’s debut novel is a nuanced, wrenching character study about a 60-ish research scientist whose wife died a few years ago. Afterward, he discovers a box full of index cards, dozens of them, on which his late wife detailed for her therapist her unhappy marriage. It’s a compelling novel, good but not often outstanding. It’s at its best when it’s simply portraying the complex pain that comes from seeing yourself, with all your faults, through the eyes of someone you love, and the pain of having regrets that you are absolutely powerless to fix.
Lights Out in Wonderland, by DBC Pierre (literary/comic novel)
Lights Out in Wonderland finally has an American release date: next August. This is a quite entertaining novel, for what it is—a plotless, arcless collection of observations and witticisms, from the mind of a drug-addicted, suicidal intellectual named Gabriel. It’s part quarterlife crisis and part Catcher in the Rye-style rambling odyssey. If you go here, you can download a free 70-page PDF companion piece that should let you know whether you want to pay the $30 to have it shipped from Britain, or whether you’ll be able to wait until August.
The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak (literary novel)
The Wilding, by Benjamin Percy (literary novel)
The Wake of Forgiveness, by Bruce Machart (literary novel)
When All Our Days Are Numbered, by Sasha Fletcher (literary novel(la))