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5 books coming out in 2011 that you absolutely have to read

There are plenty of good books in the pipeline for early 2011, but these are among the very best.

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Mark Richard is the greatest writer you’ve never read, and with the publication of “House of Prayer No. 2” (Nan A. Talese, 224 pp.) that will – thank heaven – change. Richard writes with an otherworldly grasp of voice and description and uses his prose to defamiliarize pretty much everything: in this case, his Southern Gothic coming-of-age. The result for the reader is a hypercolored world rendered with the senses turned up. You will be an outsider in his work until you relearn how to read prose; his writing not only demands that of the reader, but makes it possible – and effortless. Reading “House of Prayer No. 2” is like having a bucket of icy water poured over you: It forces your eyes open, sets you gasping for air, and leaves you utterly refreshed. Nobody alive writes like Mark Richard. (February)

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4. You Know When the Men are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon

“You Know When the Men are Gone” (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 240 pp.) is a revelation, not only in the grace, composure, and sure-footedness of the prose, but in the cultural gap it serves to fill. A loosely linked collection of short stories set in Fort Hood, Texas, the book chronicles the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the military wives (and families) left behind. A haunting glimpse into the domesticity of war, “You Know When the Men are Gone” is an arresting portrait of absence, loss, anxiety, patience, and courage. (January)

5. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabriella Hamilton

I will be the last person to tell you that “Blood, Bones & Butter” (Random House, 304 pp.), chef Gabriella Hamilton’s new cooking/food memoir is great literature. But it is a great read. What differentiates this cooking memoir from the countless that have come before it (most famously, Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”) is that Hamilton really can write, at least when she manages to get out of her own way. She has stretches of truly excellent prose (the beginning chapters are a good example) that rival writing in any genre. Another point of distinction is that Hamilton manages to successfully tie her familial life to her professional one in a way that feels honest (albeit at times too navel-gazing) and gives the narrative a deeper level. Hamilton, unlike many of her compatriots, is a chef-writer who is worth reading, not just idealizing (although, like many new writers, her prose is still spotty and the presence of her authorial hand could stand to be pared down). (March)

Rachel Meier is a book blogger for the Monitor.

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