Muruch: Top 5 Books of 2010

5 Jasper Fforde: Shades of Grey

…Fforde’s writing is at its best when there’s a darker edge to his satirical fantasies. Happily, he is back in top form with Shades of Grey, the story of a Dystopian society ruled by a “Colortocracy.”

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4 Maggie O’Farrell: The Hand That First Held Mine

…O’Farrell’s eloquent prose combined with the depth of her characters and her unique method of weaving subtle mysteries into emotional dramas have made her my favorite living author.

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3 Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed

…The Unnamed has restored my faith in the modern novel…literally follows a man who can’t stop walking. Tim Farnsworth was a happily married man, father, and successful lawyer whose life is dismantled by his own body.

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2 Helen Simonson: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

…Simonson has managed to write one of the sweetest, most heartwarming love stories I’ve ever read without ever falling into the trap of sappy sentimentality – all the while tastefully and humorously tackling such weighty issues as racism, nationalism, religion, family dramas, class distinctions, and the sharp difference in how various cultures can perceive a shared history.

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1 Jamie Ford: The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet

…Ford’s writing style brings it vividly, beautifully to life. The love story is touching without being overtly sentimental, the hurtful consequences of war and prejudice are subtly portrayed without being graphic or disturbing, and the inaudible soundtrack of 1940s jazz woven throughout the story gives the novel a palpable atmosphere of sophistication and elegance.

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Maggie O’Farrell: The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine is the new novel by Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. After falling in love with O’Farrell’s writing style in her last book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, I tracked down and devoured all of her brilliant previous works. Maggie O’Farrell’s eloquent prose combined with the depth of her characters and her unique method of weaving subtle mysteries into emotional dramas have made her my favorite living author. And The Hand That First Held Mine only adds to her already substantial literary legacy.

“Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.”

In The Hand That First Held Mine, O’Farrell deftly alternates between two sets of characters living in the same city – London, England – in two different time periods.

We begin with Lexie and Innes, an eccentric Bohemian couple living in the artsy Soho area of London during the 1950s. O’Farrell vividly portrays the era as Lexie and Innes meet, fall in love, began working together for Innes’ art magazine, and eventually move in together. Their freelovin’ bliss is short-lived, however, when Lexie learns of Innes’ checkered past and other secrets that threatened to tear their relationship apart. Theirs is a heartbreaking, multi-layered tale of love and loss with far-reaching consequences both throughout the rest of Lexie’s life and into the generation that follows.

This flashback interchanges with a contemporary young couple – Londoner Ted and Finnish painter Elina – who are each suffering with their own kind of post-partum depression as they attempt to adjust to life with a baby. Both spouses struggle with unusual memory problems – Elina has blocked out the traumatic birth of her son and Ted seems to be discovering repressed memories of his own childhood. Meanwhile, the couple are sinking beneath the standard stress and chaos of having a newborn in the house, bickering and resenting each other every step of the way.

Initially this second thread of the book is a somewhat painful, slow-moving read that makes you think twice about having a child, but the couple’s turmoil becomes more compelling as the connection between the novel’s two worlds is gradually revealed.

The idea for the first retro storyline was born when O’Farrell attended a London exhibition of photographs from 1950s Soho. One particular portrait from the exhibit appears in the modern story, giving us the first glimpse of a possible link between the two seemingly unrelated plots.

The tragic revelation when O’Farrell finally and fully ties the two couples together is beautifully executed, yet what I enjoyed most about this novel were the small glimpses of time and life outside the central characters. In between it all, O’Farrell gives brief, lovely descriptions of the inhabitants of various buildings – including the office of Innes’ magazine – then and now. This innovative tactic really brings home the idea that time doesn’t heal old wounds so much as cover them over with new life.

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Maggie O’Farrell Official Site

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Books

In addition to my usual year end lists, I’m also doing decade lists. Following are my favorite books that were released between 2000-2009. It turns out my two favorite books of the early aughts – Douglas Copeland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – were released in the mid-1990s. Oh well. With one exception, I only included books that were newly released in this decade…

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Books

10. Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach

This unique little novella is probably not one that I would re-read, but I did like it enough to buy it after I’d checked it out from the library. There was just something so elegant and insightful about its painfully realistic depiction of an inexperienced couple’s awkward wedding night in 1962.

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9. Lin Enger: Undiscovered Country

2008 was a very good year for novels. As I said in my review: “Undiscovered Country is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in small town Minnesota.” I still think it’s a shame a certain bloated, boring copycat Oprah book club selection stole the attention and praise this novel rightfully deserved.

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8. Maggie O’Farrell: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I summed it all up in my review: “Irish author Maggie O’Farrell has quickly become a favorite writer of mine. Her new novel The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox is a beautifully written, enthralling piece of Gothic fiction that effortlessly weaves together the emotional and riveting threads of one family’s multi-generational tale. “

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7. Samantha Harvey: The Wilderness

One of the most unique books ever written. I would have put it at #1, except it’s too painful for me personally to ever re-read. As I said in my review, “Harvey’s beautiful, intelligent prose weaves the frayed threads of Jacob’s turbulent life and decaying mind together to create a magnificent tapestry of tragedy and hope.”

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6. Emma Forrest: Namedropper

Compared to the rest of the list, this book probably ranks higher for nostalgic value than the quality of the novel itself. It’s a fun read about the loves and semi-adventures of vivacious, melodramatic, Elizabeth Taylor-obsessed Viva, including her encounter with an ill-fated indie musician that was inspired by Jeff Buckley.

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5. Lee Maynard: Crum

Most of the world may not know who local writer Lee Maynard is, but he is known in West Virginia as the infamous author whose book Crum has been banned in various bookstores throughout the state. The book fictionalizes and scandalizes portions of Maynard’s adolescent years in Crum, WV. It’s been called an Appalachian Catcher in the Rye, but I think it’s far superior.

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4. Robert Cremins: A Sort of Homecoming

This book was originally released in Ireland in late 1999, but the paperback edition wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2000. It was Brendan‘s favorite book then, and I read it when we were living in Ireland during the summer of 2000. I agreed with Brendan’s assessment that the novel perfectly and humorously captured the real Dublin of that time.

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3. James Long: Ferney

I’m cheating a little here, as Ferney was originally released in the late 1990s. But the edition I bought and read this year was a 2001 reprint. As I said in my review: “Ferney is a tale of immortal love trapped within the confines of mortal flesh…the narrative is intricately and intelligently crafted.” This is one of those books that I couldn’t stop thinking about long after I finished it.

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2. Mary Ann Shaffer: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

This delightful little book is one that I expect to read over and over again throughout my life. I said in my review: “I found myself cheering for these fictional people I had unwittingly become so invested in. “.

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1. Markus Zusak: The Book Thief

As I said in my original review, “The Book Thief is one of the most brilliant and emotional books I’ve ever read. The book is narrated by the personification of Death, and tells the story of nine year old orphan Liesel Meminger in World War II era Germany..” It was #1 on my 2008 book list, and I think it will eventually be considered a classic.

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Maggie O’Farrell: The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox

Irish author Maggie O’Farrell has quickly become a favorite writer of mine. Her new novel The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox is a beautifully written, enthralling piece of Gothic fiction that effortlessly weaves together the emotional and riveting threads of one family’s multi-generational tale.

The modern story in The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox centers on Iris Lockhart, an independent woman running a dress shop in Edinburgh, Scotland. As we learn more about Iris and her love life, we’re introduced to the title character. Iris is shocked to learn that she has been named caretaker of a previously unknown relative named Esme Lennox, who is being discharged after over six decades in an asylum. As Iris begins to unlock her family’s myriad of secrets, we’re taken back into the past to be properly introduced to the intriguing Esme and learn the appalling truth behind her banishment.

Not only does Maggie O’Farrell have a talent for creating realistic characters and suspenseful drama wrapped in eloquent prose, but I love how she trusts the intelligence of her readers to distinguish between the various plots. Instead of strictly dividing different characters and timelines into chapters as other authors do, Maggie seamlessly alternates between them within each chapter – sometimes on the same page. So instead of having a drastic shift between the present and the past, the novel flows from one to the other. This encourages the reader to stay engaged with all of the characters, rather than being drawn to one in particular and rushing impatiently through the chapters that omit them.

As in O’Farrell’s debut novel, After You’d Gone, The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox ebbs and flows with dramatic tension until the tragic final act. O’Farrell’s novels are often full of sadness, but they are so superbly crafted that even the most melancholy moments are an exhilarating read.

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