Caribou Island, by David Vann. This story about a marriage collapsing in southern Alaska was the most affecting novel I read. Unfortunately, it came out way back in January, so I think people forgot about it by the time they started making up their year-end lists.
Doc, by Mary Doria Russell. Here’s an author who keeps reinventing herself and getting better. Russell’s novel about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp is a bold act of historical reclamation that scrapes off the bull and allows those American legends to walk and love and grieve in the dynamic 19th-century world that existed before Hollywood shellacked it with cliches. I never wanted this novel to end. (Fortunately, I’m hearing rumors that a sequel is in the works.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale. The creepy ape-on-girl scenes aren’t for everybody, but for philosophical comedy, this audacious novel about a speaking chimp can’t be beat.
Best Seafaring Tale
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch. Although she’s been publishing for years in England, this is Birch’s first novel to appear in the United States. Inspired by the tale of the Essex (which also inspired “Moby-Dick”), it’s a moving, exciting sea tale that takes you back to those great 19th-century stories. (Could be good for teens, too.)
Luminarium, by Alex Shakar. I was completely absorbed by Shakar’s long, cerebral novel about the nature of consciousness and spirituality, video games and avatars, but it’s a workout. If contemporary fiction has been striking you as a little too “lite,” take a look at “Luminarium.”
Best Novel About Novels
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. What a pleasure this book is! Eugenides writes about a college graduate whose (mis)impressions of life are too heavily influenced by 19th-century novels. I gave a copy to my younger daughter, an English major home for Christmas, and she’s already halfway through, loving it. She even woke us up a few nights ago to read some witty passage to us.
Best Modern-Day Feminist “Huck Finn”
Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Campbell’s gritty but tender novel features an unforgettable heroine whose determination to carve out a life on her own in rural Michigan is challenged by nature and some very bad men. This story tore me up.
Best Novel about Katrina
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. This trim, fiercely poetic novel (winner of a 2011 National Book Award) portrays four devoted siblings in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. In the simple lives of these poor people, Ward evokes the raw love and desperation of classical tragedy. I’d never heard of Ward before this book; we’ll all be hearing about her next one.
Second Best Western
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. I was reluctant to put another western on my list, but deWitt’s bloody buddy tale of two hired guns during the Gold Rush is weirdly funny, startlingly violent and steeped in sadness. Got nominated for a bunch of awards in England and (his native) Canada, too.
Easiest to Recommend
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. Patchett’s thoughtful, gripping story about a scientist sent to the Amazon jungle to track down a missing colleague grapples with the behavior of Western pharmaceutical firms and the strange choices individuals make in the remote wilderness of their own conscience. Patchett is a genius at writing literary fiction with a popular punch.
Some bonus books:
Best Environmental Novel
When the Killing’s Done, by T.C. Boyle. This terrifically exciting story propels us through 60 years of environmental destruction and restoration involving the Northern Channel Islands off the coast of California.
Best Foodie Novel
Birds of Paradise, by Diana Abu-Jaber. A delicious novel about a Miami pastry chef trying to win back her runaway daughter.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Two old sorcerers place a deadly bet to be carried out over years in a fantastical traveling circus.
Best Music Novel
Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta. In this darkly comic story, Spiotta explores the effect of broad social ills in the lives of a pair of siblings: a washed-up Los Angeles musician penning a self-inflating autobiography and his endearingly neurotic sister.
Best Novel about the Apocalypse
The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta. Three years after a Rapture-like event in which millions of people disappeared, the surviving residents of a small town are left to figure out what it meant. Perrotta’s insightful story, leavened with humor and tinged with creepiness, draws us into some very dark corners of the human psyche.