#1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
After 11 years wandering in the wilderness, following the publication of his slender, cruelly promising story collection Drown, Díaz hauls off with massive, heaving, sparking tragicomedy starring Oscar, a dorky Dominican-American “social introvert who trembled with fear during gym class,” and his mother and sister. Having escaped to New Jersey, they still suffer the manifold curses of the old country, still shiver in the chilly shadow of the departed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. “He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator,” Díaz writes, “a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.” As Oscar and Lola grow up and go to college, they find themselves fighting the lingering dooms of the old country, the alien demands of New Jersey and the depredations of their romantic hearts — crueller tyrants than even Trujillo himself. It’s an unwinnable three-front war, and the outcome isn’t a fantasy, it’s brutal reality. “You know exactly what kind of world we live in,” Díaz writes. “It ain’t no f___ing Middle-earth.” #2. Then We Came to the End: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
For his first novel, set in the offices of a Chicago ad firm, Ferris synthesizes an entire office culture out of thin air, complete with running gags and stolen desk chairs and illicit affairs and secret hurts. In a dizzying, helium-filled stunt, he narrates the book in the first-person plural — “we” tell the story — so that the entire staff serves as its own Greek chorus. As funny as The Office, as sad as an abandoned stapler, Then We Came to the End is that rare novel that feels absolutely contemporary, and that rare comedy that feels blisteringly urgent.
#3. A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
The bestselling literary novel of the year is also — funny thing — one of the best. Unlike Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, Suns is set entirely in Afghanistan, covering the past 30-plus years of Afghan history almost month by month. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy playboy, forced into a loveless marriage to the boorish shoemaker Rasheed. Childless, the couple adopts 14-year-old Laila, who was orphaned by a rocket attack. Rasheed proceeds to take Laila as a second wife. Confined to a single claustrophobic household, beaten and denied love and set against each other, the two women find in each other the things that war and society and the Taliban have taken away from them. Suns is a dense, rich, pressure-packed guide to enduring the unendurable.
#4. Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
by Per Petterson
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Show of hands: Who would have picked up a quiet novel about an old man named Trond living in a frozen cabin in the middle of nowhere? Translated from the Norwegian? Anyone? Do it: Petterson’s story about a retired man’s chance encounter with a neighbor who is connected to a key event from his teens, is a page-turner. The encounter “pulls aside the fifty years with a lightness that seems almost indecent,” and it all comes tumbling and rushing out: a tragic accident, family secrets, wartime lies, regrets too long buried, sins too long unforgiven.
#5. Tree of Smoke: A Novel
by Denis Johnson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The most ambitious novel of the year, and one of the greatest, Johnson’s massive, swirling, grotesque account of the Vietnam war seems to carry with it its own fog of war, a hallucinogenic fever-carrying mist that intoxicates the soldiers and spies and priests and innocents who breathe it. In Johnson’s apocalyptic imagination the war becomes a ruinous drug the Americans fighting it can’t kick.
#6. The House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
A gruff, amoral Red Army veteran looks back on the time he spent in a Russian gulag and the damage it did to his life and that of his gentler, more delicate brother Lev. A supreme stylist and black comedian, with a gift for philosophizing about brute physical violence, Amis loves rolling around in the bitter, angry mud of men at their worst.
#7. No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July
These stories are swift, aching, almost unbearably intense flares of emotion and lyrical language, sent out into the existential darkness of everyday life. July’s characters are orphans and runaways and misfits, insecure, lost and lonely, but they do their best to find that last remaining scintilla of strength in each other, and in themselves.
#8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
by J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
There’s no point in trying to finesse the importance of Harry Potter. In seven books Rowling proved that books can still be a true global mass medium, and that significant chunks of the known world can still embrace a single story. Deathly Hallows finds Rowling is in fine form, pulling all the stops she’d been saving up. She gives us wartime gloom, the crackling three-sided chemistry of Harry and Ron and Hermione, and an epic, cataclysmic finale, among many other minor treats. This isn’t the most elegant of the Potter volumes, but it feels like an ending, the final iteration of Rowling’s abiding thematic concern: the overwhelming importance of continuing to love in the face of death.
#9. Like You’d Understand, Anyway
by Jim Shepard
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Wildly inventive, and at the same time curiously dry and precise, Shepard’s stories feel both minimalist and maximalist at the same time: minimal in their obsessive attention to historical detail, and enormous in their geographical scope and in the extreme emotions that the characters — cosmonauts, Victorian explorers, Texan football players, Aeschylus (yes, that Aeschylus) — cycle through. Shepard scours history and geography — from Chernobyl to Alaska to Tibet — in search of stages grand enough to support his characters private lives. The effect is to make epic adventures and internal monologues one and the same thing.
#10. The Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver
Irina, a children’s book illustrator in London, has a problem. She’s married to staid wonk Lawrence, but she lusts after Ramsey, a professional snooker player. Does she shag Ramsey, or stay faithful to Lawrence? The answer is both: Shriver’s novel splits, following both possible paths in parallel. Neither choice turns out to be the right or wrong one; either is rich and moving enough for a novel in its own right.