50 notable works of fiction

November 16, 2012
ALIF THE UNSEEN

By G. Willow Wilson (Grove)

Wilson’s marvelous first novel takes events similar to those of the Arab Spring, adds a runaway computer virus, an unconventional love story and the odd genie to create an intoxicating, politicized amalgam of science fiction and fantasy. — Elizabeth Hand

THE BARTENDER’S TALE

By Ivan Doig (Riverhead)

In this subtle and engaging narrative, a 12-year-old boy tries to figure out the adult world, including his saloonkeeper father. Doig, 73, delivers a slow-paced novel filled with the joys of careful and loving observation. — Jon Clinch

BEAUTIFUL RUINS

By Jess Walter (Harper)


Readers chose "Dear Life: Stories" by Alice Munro as one the year’s best 50 fiction books. (Knopf)

Hopscotching between 1960s Italy and today’s Hollywood, the story sends a young Italian in search of a long-remembered starlet in a plot that’s lively and well constructed — a lemon meringue pie of a novel: crisp and funny on top, soft and gooey inside. — Allegra Goodman

BREED

By Chase Novak (Mulholland)

One could think of this horror story about a couple trying to conceive a child as “Rosemary’s Baby’s Parents,” redolent of Roald Dahl at his creepy best, with enough humor to make the mayhem palatable.
— Dennis Drabelle

THE CHAPERONE

By Laura Moriarty (Riverhead)

In Moriarty’s captivating novel, we meet silent-screen star Louise Brooks long before her arrival in Hollywood. Fifteen-year-old Louise has been invited to take summer classes with a legendary New York dance troupe, but she may go only with a proper chaperone. This is a nuanced portrayal of social upheaval during the Jazz Age. — Caroline Preston

DEAR LIFE: Stories

By Alice Munro (Knopf)

With her stunning new collection, Munro demonstrates that there is no writer quite as good at illustrating the foibles of love, the confusions and frustrations of life, or the inner cruelty and treachery that can be revealed in the slightest gestures. — Ron Hansen

THE DEVIL IN SILVER

By Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)

When a 42-year-old man with occasional anger-management issues gets hauled off to the psychiatric unit of a local hospital, it’s not clear whether he’ll ever get out. LaValle balances social satire, horror and mordant humor but never jettisons genuine affection for even the most damaged of his characters. — E.H.

DREAM OF THE CELT

By Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar Straus Giroux)

A fiendishly clever re-imagining of the true story of Roger Casement, an Irishman who published reports of human-rights abuses in Congo and Peru at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. — Luis Alberto Urrea

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR

By Barbara Kingsolver (Harper)

Yes, this is a climate-change novel, but not the op-ed in story form one might fear. The book’s success stems from Kingsolver’s willingness to stay focused on a conflicted young woman and her faltering marriage, while a strange symptom of the degraded environment — millions of lost butterflies — overwhelms her remote Tennessee town. — Ron Charles

GATHERING OF WATERS

By Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic)

In a voice ethereal, ancient and wise, McFadden tells the story of Money, Miss., where 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed in 1955. — Lisa Page

GODS WITHOUT MEN

By Hari Kunzru (Knopf)

On the gaping expanse of the Mojave Desert, lost souls — including a Manhattan couple and their autistic son — seek salvation in the shadow of a rock formation. Then someone disappears; it’s a whirling wheelwork of a novel. — Marie Arana

HIDE ME AMONG THE GRAVES

By Tim Powers (Morrow)

Intertwining the real and the fantastical, Powers mixes pre-Raphaelite poets and . . . yes, vampires in a two-decade saga, the whole held together with wit and unflagging ingenuity. — Bill Sheehan

HOME

By Toni Morrison (Knopf)

This tale of a Korean War veteran eschews the gothic swell of “Beloved” and the surrealism of “A Mercy,” but it packs all of Morrison’s thundering themes — slavery, racism, sanctuary — in a restrained, daringly hopeful story. — R.C.

THE HOT COUNTRY

By Robert Olen Butler (Mysterious Press)

Intrepid reporter Kit Cobb is in Mexico in 1914 to cover a Marine invasion, win over rebel Pancho Villa and thwart the attack-minded Germans in the harbor. This exciting story is a thinking person’s thriller. — P.A.

I AM AN EXECUTIONER: Love Stories

By Rajesh Parameswaran (Knopf)

In these bizarrely inventive stories from a distinctive new voice in American fiction, exotic aliens turn out to be surly, lovelorn teens, and zoo animals fall murderously in love with their keepers. — Michael Lindgren

IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW

By Mark Helprin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A gorgeous young couple meet on the Staten Island Ferry. World War II is behind them, love right in front of them, business and family challenges ahead. This juicy, entertaining tome offers larger-than-life personalities. — Rodney Welch

LIVE BY NIGHT

By Dennis Lehane (Morrow)

Mixing urban crime with history — Boston’s Joe Coughlin during Prohibition — this could be a standard crime saga, but in Lehane’s hands the tale becomes something larger and infinitely more complex. — B.S.

A LOVESONG FOR INDIA

By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Counterpoint)

Novelist and screenwriter Jhabvala’s India is a rich, bubbling stew spilling messily into England and New York, mixing Bollywood and Greenwich Village. The masterful stories in this volume inhabit both worlds, all of the tales about outsiders peering in or insiders clawing to get out. — M.A

MINISTERS OF FIRE

By Mark Harril Saunders (Swallow)

This classic CIA tale set in China asks what it means to believe — in Mao, in Christ, in good intentions — as well as what it means to live in a fallen world. — R.W.

THE NEWLYWEDS

By Nell Freudenberger (Knopf)

This smart, delightful story explores the anxious interaction between Americans and people from other countries. George finds his Bangladeshi bride over the Internet. (Or did she find him?) Neither is telling the whole truth, but they discover that each person is actually many selves. — R.C.

NW

By Zadie Smith (Penguin Press)

In this big, challenging novel about the forces that poison our dreams of economic ascendancy, Smith captures the harrowing plight of a new generation of lost souls in northwest London. The sophisticated writing and unorthodox forms are demanding, but the author’s casual brilliance is rewarding. — R.C.

THE ORCHARDIST

By Amanda Coplin (Harper)

In 1865, two exploited pregnant sisters find sanctuary with a man and his apple orchard. They can’t stop running toward danger, though, leaving the orchardist to raise one daughter and be soothed by the timeless rhythms of agriculture. — Wendy Smith

THE ODDS: A Love Story

By Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

A middle-age couple on the skids spend the last weekend of their marriage at Niagara Falls. The ever-hopeful husband won’t give up, but his wife is weary of broken dreams. Maybe the odds are against it, but this really is a love story. — R.C.

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON

By Adam Johnson (Random House)

In Johnson’s scrupulously researched and re-imagined North Korea, the ingenious young Pak JunDo is an orphan, a tunnel fighter and a radio interceptor. This audacious, exciting, even funny novel shows how people have lived and died in the nightmare of Kim Jong Il’s country.— David Ignatius

THE QUEEN’S LOVER

By Francine du Plessix Gray (Penguin Press)

Into filthy, rat-infested Versailles comes a young Swedish count, Axel von Fersen, who becomes the lover and confidant of Marie Antoinette. Using Axel’s detailed letters home and other research, the author makes the French Revolution and the court it dismantled come to life. — M.A.

THE RACKETEER

By John Grisham (Doubleday)

Here’s Grisham at his best: tilting at injustice. This caper shuttles the characters from Maryland to Florida to the Caribbean, from a simple real estate deal to a federal prison. The plot is elaborate but, as always, Grisham trains his light on the justice system. — B.S.

THE RED HOUSE

By Mark Haddon (Doubleday)

When two adult siblings take their respective families on a holiday near Wales, secrets are revealed, battle lines are redrawn, and confessions are confessed. Haddon’s constantly shifting perspective shows how families work and don’t. — R.C.

REQUIEM

By Frances Itani (Atlantic Monthly)

Bin Okuma drives across Canada to see his dying father and to revisit the Japanese internment camp of his World War II childhood. It’s a voyage of internal discovery as well, delicately probing the complex adjustments we make to live with our sorrows. — W.S.

THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING

By Jonathan Evison (Algonquin)

Ben is a witty, heartbroken father who works as a caregiver only because he needs a job. His patient is a young man twisted by muscular dystrophy. Can a risky road trip bring either of them comfort? Tender and sad, but also surprisingly funny. — R.C.

THE ROUND HOUSE

By Louise Erdrich (Harper)

After a woman on the Ojibwe reservation is raped, her husband and their 13-year-old son try, in their different ways, to identify her attacker. The question of who is and who isn’t an Indian gradually becomes the heart of the matter as the crime gets caught in the tangled branches of law, family and retribution. — R.C.

THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS

By Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday)

The Armenian genocide during World War I is the subject of Bohjalian’s 14th novel. Inspired by his grandparents’ background, the author explores the suffering and atrocities of that time with astounding precision, compassion and grace. — Eugenia Zukerman

THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY

By Ruth Rendell (Scribner)

St. Zita is the patron saint of servants, and in this “Upstairs Downstairs” conjugal comedy, the murder is almost as farcical as the trysts. The indomitable Rendell is still at the top of her game at 82. — P.A.

SKIOS

By Michael Frayn (Metropolitan)

It’s multiple cases of mistaken identity on a Greek island during a Davos-like gathering for New Age rich people (Minoan cooking classes, early Christian meditation techniques), written with Frayn’s usual hilarity and the pace of a Marx Brothers movie. — M.D.

THE SNOW CHILD

By Eowyn Ivey (Little, Brown)

In this reshaping of a Russian fairytale, now set on a bleak farm in the author’s native Alaska, a couple’s desire for a child brings a creature “born to them of ice and snow and longing.” A haunting end, but moments of unabashed joy. — R.C.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES

By Madeline Miller (Ecco)

In prose as clean and spare as the driving poetry of Homer, Miller captures the intensity of Achilles’s friendship with Patroclus and lets us believe in those long-dead young men for whom sea nymphs and centaurs were not legend but lived reality. — Mary Doria Russell

STAY AWAKE: Stories

By Dan Chaon (Ballantine)

Ghosts are everywhere in this powerful and disturbing new collection: a young man haunted by his parents’ suicide, a widower receiving “messages.” The shocks here are many, as frightening as seeing a ghostly face in your bedroom at night. — Jeff Turrentine

THE STONECUTTER

By Camilla Lackberg (Pegasus)

This richly textured mystery about a spate of murders in a fishing village suggests that Lackberg may be the heir to Agatha Christie. — Maureen Corrigan

TELEGRAPH AVENUE

By Michael Chabon (Harper)

In prose full of manic energy, “Telegraph Avenue” is a tribute to vintage vinyl. The story revolves around efforts to save the Brokeland Records store in a gritty part of Oakland. Think Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” digitally remastered in rococo funk. — R.C.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER

By Junot Diaz (Riverhead)

Nine linked stories that star Yunior, a pining, self-lacerating, weed-smoking schmo who confuses lust with love. Written in a singular idiom of Spanglish, hip-hop poetry and professorial erudition, it is comic in its mopiness, charming in its madness. — Ron Hansen

TRUE BELIEVERS

By Kurt Andersen (Random House)

This rambling, colorful story of 1960s berserkery is full of witty and pretentious insights. The book’s narrator, a high-profile lawyer hiding an old secret, has never had an unexpressed thought, but the result is as lovable and self-indulgent as the flower children deserve. — R.C.

THE UNINVITED GUESTS

By Sadie Jones (Harper)

Survivors of a train wreck interrupt a birthday party in the Torrington-Swift manse: Children act like grown-ups and vice versa. Part locked-room mystery, part fairy tale, it’s a stylized reminder that we’re all uninvited guests in this life. — Donna Rifkind

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

By Rachel Joyce (Random House)

This story about a retired Englishman shuffling off to visit a dying colleague sounds twee, but it’s surprisingly steely, even inspiring. Harold’s stroll turns into a 500-mile walk of atonement, an act of pure impractical hope. — R.C.

THE UNREAL LIFE OF SERGEY NABOKOV

By Paul Russell (Cleis)

In the 1920s, Sergey Nabokov, the homosexual brother of the great Vladimir, lights out for Paris and Berlin, with their stylish and tragic “confluence of histories, cultures, and languages.” Like its title character, “The Unreal Life” proudly wears an infatuation with the arts. — D.D.

WATERGATE

By Thomas Mallon (Pantheon)

In this witty, humane dramatization of that vaudevillian chapter in American politics, the cover-up isn’t a conspiracy so much as a farce of misdirection and self-delusion. Mallon has rotated the cast of characters, pulling some stars out of the limelight and raising others into new prominence. — R.C.

WHAT HAPPENED TO SOPHIE WILDER

By Christopher R. Beha (Tin House)

When Sophie finds God, the experience rattles her life. She abandons her fiction writing and starts working on grant proposals for charities. But charity begins at home, and her estranged husband’s father is dying, leading to a brutal end to this profound, unsentimental novel. — Mark Athitakis

WHAT IT WAS

By George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur)

Pelecanos returns to his detective Derek Strange, in 1972, as he hunts for a thug loosely based on Raymond “Cadillac” Smith, a notorious real-life Washington bad guy. Filled with the soul music, muscle cars and bizarre clothing of the era. — P.A.

WINTER OF THE WORLD

By Ken Follett (Dutton)

Book 2 of the Century Trilogy opens with the Depression and Hitler. Major characters from Book 1 reappear, and their children move through the ideological conflicts of the age. — B.S.

THE WINTER PALACE

By Eva Stachniak (Bantam)

The narrator of this luxuriant story of Catherine the Great is a Polish lady in waiting who acts as young Catherine’s spy in the court of Empress Elizabeth. In intimate scenes we see Catherine develop the steely foresight that will qualify her to serve as Russia’s longest-ruling female monarch. — D.R.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

By Graham Swift (Knopf)

In 2006 on the Isle of Wight, a man learns that his brother has been killed while fighting in Iraq. This gorgeous exploration of grief and longing is infected with the violent terrors of contemporary life. — R.C.

THE YELLOW BIRDS

By Kevin Powers (Little, Brown)

This poetic novel about the Iraq war, by a soldier who fought in it, consists of 11 linked stories that move gracefully between spare, factual description of the soldiers’ work to simple, hard-won reflections on the meaning of war. — R.C.

READ MORE:

PHOTOS | Best books of 2012

Top fiction, nonfiction of 2012

Best graphic novels of 2012

The year in literary news

Best audiobooks of 2012

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