Notable Fiction of 2011

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The prolific author’s latest novel — the tale of a small-town teacher who travels back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination — is rich with the pleasures we’ve come to expect from King: characters of good heart and wounded lives. — Jeff Greenfield

THE ART OF FIELDING

By Chad Harbach (Little, Brown, $25.99)

An accomplished first novel about the changing fortunes of a college baseball player offers lessons that reach far beyond the diamond. — Dennis Drabelle

BINOCULAR VISION

By Edith Pearlman (Lookout, $18.95)

In this story collection, which was a National Book Award finalist, Pearlman presents her characters — widows, historians, children, musicians — in prose as spare and eloquent as that of her contemporary Joan Didion. — Marcela Valdes

BIRDS OF PARADISE

By Diana Abu-Jaber (Norton, $25.95)

With exquisite patience and psychological precision, Abu-Jaber unravels the mystery of a young woman’s decision to run from her Miami home, destroy her parents’ happiness and remain at risk. — Ron Charles

BLOODMONEY

By David Ignatius (Norton, $25.95)

Washington Post columnist Ignatius brings a straight-from-the-case-file feeling to his eighth spy novel, a taut political thriller that turns on a botched CIA operation. You emerge from its pages as if from a top-level security briefing. — Dan Fesperman

THE CALL

By Yannick Murphy (Harper Perennial; paperback, $14.99)

A small-town New England veterinarian’s life is upended when his son is badly injured in a hunting accident. Murphy brings emotional heft, humor and off-hand poetry to this tale of redemption. — Michael Lindgren

CARIBOU ISLAND

By David Vann (Harper, $25.99)

Vann’s story of a family’s unraveling in southern Alaska explores emotionally raw territory — conflicted feelings of love and our friable ties to those we care for most. — RC

THE CAT’S TABLE

By Michael Ondaatje (Knopf, $26)

A playful novel with bite, this introspective story from the author of “The English Patient” moves gracefully through a three-week adventure when the narrator was an 11-year-old boy, traveling on a steamer from Sri Lanka to England— RC

CONQUISTADORA

By Esmeralda Santiago (Knopf, $27.50)

The conquistadora of this sweeping historical novel is an alluring, flawed heroine — a strong, intelligent and enigmatic woman who becomes the master of a 19th-century sugar plantation in Puerto Rico. — Eugenia Zukerman

DAISY BUCHANAN’S DAUGHTER

By Tom Carson (Paycock, $24.95)

A satiric revue of the American Century starring an elderly version of “The Great Gatsby’s” Pamela Buchanan. The literary heroine is now a blogger, and her narration of some defining moments of the 20th century is as witty as Wilde, as punny as Joyce. — Steven Moore

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

By Donald Ray Pollack (Doubleday, $26.95)

Set in the backwaters of the rural Midwest, Pollack’s gritty novel lives up to its title: The book is rife with evil, darkness and blood — lots of it. His portrait of small-town America might be stark, even shocking, but it is also irresistible. — Robert Goolrick

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF

By Lawrence Block (Mulholland, $25.99)

A prequel to the beloved Matthew Scudder series, this taut suspense story finds its recovering alcoholic private eye caught up in the dark underworld of a childhood friend — a brazenly simple plot premise, executed faultlessly. — Maureen Corrigan

THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE

By Benjamin Hale (Twelve, $25.99)

Swinging through this absurd tale of a talking chimpanzee, Hale wraps his prehensile wit around humanity’s deepest philosophical questions — from the magic of consciousness to the reifying function of language and the value of art and the morality of science. — RC

FAITH

By Jennifer Haigh (Harper, $25.99)

Haigh brings a refreshing degree of humanity to a story you think you know well: sexual abuse by Catholic priests. In chapters both riveting and profound, she catches the avalanche of guilt this tragedy unleashes in one devout family. — RC

FALLEN

By Karin Slaughter (Delacorte, $26)

Slaughter’s gripping thriller about a good cop who tries to find her kidnapped mother and protect her two children balances brutality with a compassionate view of her complex and all-too-human characters. — Patrick Anderson

FIELD GRAY

By Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam, $26.95)

Kerr’s indomitable hero, anti-Nazi P.I. Bernie Gunther, is captured and forced to reveal his wartime exploits. What emerges is a vivid yarn that propels Bernie across Europe and ratchets up the moral complexities of the battered, defiant German Everyman. — PA

THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ

By Anne Enright (Norton, $25.95)

Set in modern Ireland, Enright’s beautifully written drama centers on an adulterous woman and her conflicted emotions, deftly exploring connections between desire and responsibility. — Roxana Robinson

THE GRIEF OF OTHERS

By Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead, $26.95)

After the loss of their infant son, a couple’s life unravels, but thanks to Cohen’s vibrant prose, there’s hope threaded through this book’s sad heart. — Sarah Pekkanen

JAMRACH’S MENAGERIE

By Carol Birch (Doubleday, $25.95)

This exciting sea tale about a boy searching for a Komodo ­dragon will take you back to those great 19th-century maritime adventures. — RC

KING OF THE BADGERS

By Philip Hensher (Faber & Faber, $26)

Savage with a soupcon of tenderness, Hensher’s satire set in a sleepy British town abounds with colorful characters — and a dash of suspense centering on the disappearance of a child. — Lisa Zeidner

LAST MAN IN TOWER

By Aravind Adiga (Knopf, $26.95)

Adiga, a Man Booker Prize-winning novelist and former financial journalist, captures the economic and moral turmoil of modern India in his novel about real estate and the conflicting interests of community and development. — MV

THE LEFTOVERS

By Tom Perrotta (St. Martin’s, $25.99)

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 novel, leavened with humor and tinged with creepiness, draws us into some very dark corners of the human psyche. — RC

LUMINARIUM

By Alex Shakar (Soho, $25)

Something like an adult version of “Sophie’s World” for readers clicking between “Mortal Kombat” and Immanuel Kant, Shakar’s metaphysical novel explores different facets of belief and the manipulation of consciousness. — RC

THE MAGICIAN KING ,

By Lev Grossman (Viking, $26.95)

In this sequel to his 2009 bestseller “The Magician,” Grossman riffs on classics of the fantasy genre, infusing it with cool. This is not your father’s Narnia — or your younger sister’s Hogwarts. — Keith Donohue

MAINE

By J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf, $25.95)

Three generations of guilt-ridden, willful, scheming women unload their psychological baggage at their family’s summer home. Sullivan’s ruthless and tender novel shows us how love can sometimes redeem even the most contentious families. — Howard Frank Mosher

A MAN OF PARTS

By David Lodge (Viking, $26.95)

A mesmerizing novel-cum-biography of H.G. Wells that that looks closely at how the Edwardian novelist and ideologue’s erotic life affected his career and the people close to him. — Michael
Dirda

THE MAP OF TIME

By Felix J. Palma (Atria, $26)

In this science fiction, historical, fantasy doorstopper, Spanish writer Palma mingles fictional characters with real ones, including H.G. Wells, in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. — Yvonne Zipp

THE MARRIAGE PLOT

By Jeffrey Eugenides

(Farrar Straus Giroux, $28)

In Eugenides’s sophisticated novel, a bright English major and her post-college friends struggle with romance and novels — and the romance of novels. — RC

THE MIRADOR

By Elisabeth Gille (New York Review of Books; paperback, $14.95)

Irene Nemirovsky, acclaimed author of “Suite Francaise,” died at Auschwitz at age 39, leaving an incomplete record of her life. In this fictional memoir, her daughter imagines her mother’s experience — a vivid picture of her inner life and the tumultuous world that shaped her. — Nora Krug

THE NIGHT CIRCUS ,

By Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, $26.95)

Morgenstern captures the enchantment of circus life in a whimsical love story about two magicians competing in 19th-century London.— RC

NIGHTWOODS

By Charles Frazier (Random House, $26)

Frazier’s anxiously awaited third novel is a cleverly knit thriller about a tough young woman in the 1960s who has given up on the people of her small town and gone to live alone in the woods.— RC

PLUGGED

By Eoin Colfer (Overlook, $24.95)

From the author of the “Artemis Fowl” series, a bang-up crime novel for adults starring an Irish bouncer at a seedy casino in New Jersey. — Lisa Scottoline

PYM

By Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau, $24)

Part social satire, part meditation on race in America — and a rollicking fantasy ad­ven­ture — “Pym” brilliantly re-imagines and extends Edgar Allan Poe’s enigmatic “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” — MD

RIVER OF SMOKE

By Amitav Ghosh (Farrar Straus Giroux, $28)

Set amid the 19th-century opium trade, the second thrilling installment of Ghosh’s trilogy at times reads like a cross between a Horatio Hornblower tale and a Victorian epistolary novel. — Shashi Tharoor

SALVAGE THE BONES

By Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, $24)

In Ward’s trim, fiercely poetic novel, winner of a 2011 National Book Award, four devoted siblings face Hurricane Katrina. In the simple lives of these poor people, Ward evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. — RC

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

By Julian Barnes (Knopf, $23.95)

With his characteristic grace and skill, Barnes tells the story of a 60-something retiree living near London who has taken on a difficult project: discerning what role, if any, he may have played in a decades-old tragedy. Winner of the Man Booker Prize. — Jeff Turrentine

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

By Patrick deWitt (Ecco, $24.99)

This bloody buddy tale of two hired guns during the Gold Rush is weirdly funny, startlingly violent and steeped in sadness — a reaffirmation of the endurance of the Western. — RC

THE SOJOURN

By Andrew Krivak (Bellevue Literary Press; paperback, $14.95)

The heart of this novel — a sweeping tale of a young man’s journey from America back to Europe and into the maw of World War I — is a harrowing portrait of men at war, as powerful as Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories. — MD

THE STRANGER’S CHILD

By Alan Hollinghurst (Knopf, $27.95)

Hollinghurst recounts the century-spanning aftereffects of a single weekend in a saga that is part social history, part social comedy — and wholly absorbing. — MD

STONE ARABIA

By Dana Spiotta (Scribner, $24)

In this darkly comic novel, 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. — RC

THE SUBMISSION

By Amy Waldman (Farrar Straus Giroux, $26)

An alternative history of the memorialization of the 9/11 victims that features a rich ensemble cast and a thoughtful exploration of the debates surrounding it. — Chris Cleave

SWAMPLANDIA!

By Karen Russell (Knopf, $24.95)

The heroine of Russell’s charmingly quirky novel is a 13-year-old alligator-wrestler determined to save her family and their business — a run-down theme park on an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. — RC

THERE BUT FOR THE

By Ali Smith (Pantheon, $25)

At the heart of Smith’s clever and subtly wrenching novel is a dinner party guest who locks himself in his hosts’ spare bedroom between the main course and dessert and refuses to come out . . . for months. — Heller McAlpin

THE TIGER’S WIFE

By Téa Obreht (Random House, $25)

Obreht’s swirling first novel about a young doctor in a war-torn land infused with legends manages to contain the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, science and superstition. — RC

THE TRINITY SIX

By Charles Cumming (St. Martin’s, $24.99)

Inspired by the true story of the Cambridge Five, a ring of spies who infiltrated British intelligence and betrayed their country to the Soviet Union during and after WWII, Cumming’s masterful novel bears comparison to the works of Alan Furst and John le Carre. — PA

TURN OF MIND

By Alice LaPlante (Atlantic Monthly, $24)

The narrator of LaPlante’s gripping literary thriller is a retired orthopedic surgeon with dementia who might have murdered her best friend. The suspense of this unique book comes not so much from seeing if the prime suspect is guilty as from finding out whether she’ll learn the truth about herself before her mind slips away. — Stephen Amidon

THE UNREAL LIFE OF SERGEY NABOKOV

By Paul Russell (Cleis; paperback, $16.95)

The title of Russell’s splendid novel hints at its contents: Sergey Nabokov was the younger, homosexual brother of Vladimir, and in this fictional biography, we learn of his mingling among the greats in Parisian salons and of the difficulty of living in his brother’s shadow.— DD

WE OTHERS

By Steven Millhauser (Knopf, $27.95)

Illusion and reality, the power of the imagination, the nature of storytelling, childhood wonders, romantic yearnings — these themes recur throughout this enchanting story collection by a master of the form. — MD

WE THE ANIMALS

By Justin Torres

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18)

This slender, powerful novel is narrated by a half-white, half-Puerto Rican Brooklyn boy being raised — abusively — in Upstate New York along with his two older brothers. — JT

WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE

By T.C. Boyle (Viking, $26.95)

Boyle’s terrifically exciting story — which propels us through 60 years of tumultuous history involving the Northern Channel Islands off the coast of California — demonstrates that it’s possible to write an environmental novel that provokes discussion instead of merely thumping away on conventional wisdom. — RC

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