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2010 Books: Overlooked and Overlauded

Don't miss these good reads in fiction and nonfiction

Overlooked and Overlauded

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. The grandfather calls himself "Boppo the Great." His toddler grandson is "Bubbies." Their antics will make you laugh — until you recall that the two are spending time together because Rosenblatt's daughter Amy died too soon. A startlingly beautiful examination of the aftermath of grief.
— Bethanne Patrick

The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer by Jane Smiley. A noted novelist restores to history the Iowa State University physicist who, tiring of manual math in the late 1930s, opted to solve problems via the binary approach. Good thinking, John! In fact, the progenitor of the digital age did everything right except apply for a patent.
— Charlie Clark

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. This final entry in the "Hunger Games" trilogy got lots of press this summer — but as a good read for so-called young adults, not grownups. Collins wastes no time on her saga's backstory, so if you don't have the first two books under your belt already, save this one until you do.
— Roberta Conlan

On the Nickel by John Shannon. As elsewhere in his long-running but underappreciated Jack Liffey series, John Shannon mixes hard-hitting action with sharp-edged social commentary in this tale of teens adrift on L.A.'s Skid Row. Can they be rescued in time by an aging father trying to snap out of his psychosomatic paralysis?
— Art Taylor

Peep Show by Joshua Braff. A stripper joins a Hasidic sect. Her dumbfounded ex-husband fends off developers eager to convert his burlesque houses into hard-core peep shows. And the couple's unhappy teenage son finds his vocation amid the Times Square sleaze of the mid-1970s. They are just three of the touchingly vulnerable characters Joshua Braff brings to life in his second novel.
— Wendy Smith

Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. Hoop Dreams goes to middle school in this doggedly reported story. The allegedly responsible adults — coaches, camp directors, scouts and shoe executives — are the immature ones, forcing the kids themselves to grow up fast.
— Tom Nissley

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. A Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer thrillingly re-creates a pivotal era in this tale of vile potions, cruel villains, hapless victims, bootleg gangsters and some pioneering practitioners of CSI.
— Art Taylor

Private Life by Jane Smiley. She's one of our best novelists — she made our list twice! — so why did Smiley's superb portrait of a marriage and traumatic loss get such perfunctory coverage? This is Smiley's most ferocious work since her Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres — and it is every bit as good.
— Wendy Smith

The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle. All memoirs should be as witty and candid as this collection of personal essays. Castle cops to many things; the confessions that stuck with me are her weakness for shelter magazines, her love-hate relationship with Susan Sontag and a toxic May-December romance with an unidentified paramour.
— Mark Athitakis

Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982, by Larry Clinton Thompson. Nearly 2 million refugees escaped from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the period covered by Thompson's book, thanks largely to the intercession of foreign-aid workers who agitated for — and won — government guarantees to care for these desperate, often bereft people. It's a story to make all Americans justly proud of their nation's performance.
— Bill Lenderking

The Report by Jessica Kane. Based on a tragedy in which more than 100 adults and children died in a London Underground bomb "shelter" during the Blitz, Kane's debut novel is a different sort of whodunit. It examines guilt, heroism and happenstance in equal measures — and with an unusually gimlet eye. Not to be missed.
— Bethanne Patrick

Take One Candle, Light a Room by Susan Straight. After 20 years of increasingly fine fiction, Straight ought to be better known. This searing novel about a woman's struggle to forge her identity amid a nation's legacy of racial violence is a good place to start. Despite deep roots in the African American experience, the book abounds with insights for anyone seeking to make a better life without disowning the past.
— Wendy Smith

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. At first glance, it's a story of the main character's strange malady: He is driven, at random moments, to get up and walk for hours on end. As you read on, however, this novel evolves into something else: a wrenching, convincing tale about the limits of commitment in a mature marriage.
— Tom Nissley

Vestments by John Reimringer. This fine debut novel about a Catholic priest displays the same sort of intelligence, dignity and humor that characterize the classic work of J.F. Powers.
— Mark Athitakis

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