Notable fiction of 2013

November 22, 2013
THE ACCURSED

By Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco)

A family of New England blue bloods is afflicted by a gay vampire, a giant snake and poisonous flowers, but Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson may be the strangest creature here. Oates’s genius for macabre comedy is spectacularly evident in this mix of history, horror and satire. — Ron Charles

AMERICANAH

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf)

Ifemelu and Obinze, in love in Nigeria, separate and emigrate; they agree to reunite after they make something of themselves abroad. Unique in the booming canon of immigrant literature, this novel is not about the challenge of becoming American, but the challenge of going back home. — Emily Raboteau

THE ANTAGONIST

By Lynn Coady (Knopf)

An “e-pistolary” novel composed of e-mails from an angry man who learns that an old friend has written a novel about him. Spiritual angst runs through this clever and sympathetic exploration of male friendship. — R.C.

BLEEDING EDGE

By Thomas Pynchon (Penguin)

In the spring of 2001, fearless investigator Maxine Tarnow explores the dark “scumscapes” of petty fraud. Swarming with amazing characters, full of sass and pizzazz and conspiracies, this book reminds you how lucky we are to have Thomas Pynchon.
Michael Dirda

THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN

By Kent Wascom (Grove)

A bildungsroman of religion and revolution set during an obscure chapter of early 19th-century American history: the Kemper Rebellion, in a disputed region of West Florida. Wascom has created a first-person narrator who speaks with fire-breathing eloquence, tormented by God and the Devil.
Rodney Welch

BREWSTER

By Mark Slouka (Norton)

The story of a friendship so potent that it’s taken years for the narrator to understand what happened. Trapped in a suffocating blue-collar town and their different but equally painful families, Jon and Ray share a pure determination to run a race neither of them can win. — R.C.

THE BURGESS BOYS

By Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

Siblings — variously rich, broke, needy, loving, bitter — get caught up in family drama and post-9/11 trauma when one teenage son throws a pig’s head into a mosque. Strout’s humane portrayal proves adept at complicating our easy judgments. — R.C.

CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE BOHEMIAN HIGHWAY

By Sara Gran (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Claire has a fling with musician Paul, but he marries gorgeous Lydia. Then he gets murdered. Claire (“high-stepping, coke-snorting, Zen-loving”) vows to find out whodunit. That’s the first 10 pages; don’t expect the rest to be a logical tale of crime and detection. — Patrick Anderson

CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT

By Edwidge Danticat (Knopf)

A restrained novel composed of episodic chapters that resemble short stories, creating a portrait of a Haitian town and the complicated community of people who live there. Tightly wound threats of hunger and terror, delight and dread, vibrate through these pages. — R.C.

THE DAYLIGHT GATE

By Jeanette Winterson (Grove)

A sharp, utterly spellbinding novel set in early-17th-century England, filled with hags, gorgeous orgies, alchemists, torture and an ominously beautiful possible witch named Alice. And much of it is true: The author draws on the 1612 Lancashire witch trials. — M.D.

A DENIABLE DEATH

By Gerald Seymour (St. Martin’s)

U.S., British and Israeli operatives unite to hunt down “the Engineer,” an Iranian who has designed and fine-tunes the improvised explosive devices that kill and maim in the Middle East. Readers will find suspense, strong characters and a majesty that is rare in fiction. — P.A.

DIRTY LOVE

By Andre Dubus III (Norton)

Four stories in a small coastal town where people are looking for love — and carelessly mishandling it. One of Dubus’s great talents is his ability to shift our allegiances, to inspire our affection for obnoxious men, turn us against them and then finally bring us back with enlarged sympathies. — R.C.

DOCTOR SLEEP

By Stephen King (Scribner)

The challenge was to not only create a satisfying sequel to “The Shining,” but wrest control of our memory of the Kubrick movie version. King pulls it off with a virtuoso tale that reintroduces little Danny Torrance — grown up, still shining and fighting his own battle with booze. — Keith Donohue

THE EXPLANATION FOR EVERYTHING

By Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin)

In this smart, assured novel, a biologist is asked by a young evangelist to advise her study of intelligent design. Hopeful he can show her the Darwinian light, he agrees, igniting the debate between atheism and Christianity, and evolution and creationism, that simmers through the story. — Jennifer Vanderbes

FACES OF LOVE: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz

Translated from the Persian by Dick Davis (Penguin)

In 14th-century Persia, there lived three poets — the (possibly) Sufi mystic Hafez, the princess Jahan Malek Khatun and the often obscene Obayd-e Zakani. This beautifully designed book memorably introduces them to a modern English-speaking audience in a translation that is limpid, direct and arch-romantic. — M.D.

THE FLAMETHROWERS

By Rachel Kushner (Scribner)

A college graduate from Nevada rides a motorcycle into the New York art scene of the 1970s. She finds exotic people who live in a world of infatuation and innuendo. The breadth of Kushner’s historical and critical knowledge could be oppressive if this weren’t such a dazzling performance. — R.C.

FLORA

By Gail Godwin (Bloomsbury)

The still, humid days of summer are fraught with impending consequence as a polio scare keeps 10-year-old Helen trapped in the house with her mother’s cousin Flora. Godwin channels the girl’s precocious sophistication and youthful cluelessness. — R.C.

THE GOLDFINCH

By Donna Tartt (Little, Brown)

An explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art leaves young Theo with a dead mother, a stolen masterpiece and a lifetime of grief. Tartt creates her own masterpiece in a series of elaborately developed episodes singed with the terror of Sept. 11, 2001, but redolent of a 19th-century novel. — R.C.

THE INTERESTINGS

By Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead)

In this story of six friends progressing from artsy teens at summer camp to variously rewarding and tragic middle age, Wolitzer shows how long-term relationships are tested over time.
Adam Langer

THE LAST SUMMER OF THE CAMPERDOWNS

By Elizabeth Kelly (Liveright)

It’s 1972 on Cape Cod, and 13-year-old Riddle Camperdown feels like she’s in heaven. But her father is running for Congress, and an old friend shows up with a memoir that contains embarrassing details. Then Riddle witnesses a murder. — Carolyn See

THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P.

By Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt)

If you think there’s not much new to be found in a novel about contemporary dating, think again. Waldman creates a brilliant taxonomy of homo erectus brooklynitis and the women who are disappointed by him. — R.C.

THE LUMINARIES

By Eleanor Catton (Little, Brown)

More than 800 pages long and set in the gold rush of 1865, with a cast of 19 greedy live characters and a corpse, this astonishingly complicated novel is best understood by obeying the Watergate rule: Follow the money. A finely wrought fun house of a novel, and winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.
Chris Bohjalian

MADDADDAM

By Margaret Atwood (Doubleday)

This entertaining novel is the concluding volume of Atwood’s dystopian trilogy, which began with “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood.” Her vision of global disaster in the not-too-distant future is thrilling, funny, touching and, yes, horrific. — M.D.

THE MAID’S VERSION

By Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown)

Decades after a dance-hall explosion kills 42 people, Alma tells a furious tale of class divisions and the “finer families” who never called anyone to account for the disaster. This trim bildungsroman brings a small town to life. — Wendy Smith

MAN ALIVE!

By Mary Kay Zuravleff (Farrar Straus Giroux)

In this smart comic novel, a pioneer in the use of medication for treating children with autism is struck by lightning. The good doctor survives, but now he’s obsessed with barbecuing. Several clever subplots ensue. — C.S.

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED

By Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead)

A range of Afghan characters are portrayed in different decades, from different points of view, as they face tests of love, compassion and morality. Hosseini knows how to whisk rough moral fiber into something exquisite.
Marcela Valdes

MY EDUCATION

By Susan Choi (Viking)

A determined graduate student who has mastered the pose of “enchanted absorption” sets out to seduce her English professor but ends up with his wife instead. What makes this witty story so delicious is Choi’s style, the unflagging force of her scrutiny. — R.C.

NIGHT FILM

By Marisha Pessl (Random House)

When he hears that the daughter of a cult filmmaker has thrown herself off a roof, reporter Scott McGrath realizes he was the last person to see her alive. This dastardly fun novel folds the plots, characters and motifs of horror films into Scott’s panicked investigation. — R.C.

NOS4A2

By Joe Hill (William Morrow)

From behind the wheel of his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, Charles Manx can travel from this world to a self-created region of cruelty and hopelessness. This is the kind of wide-ranging, scary story that gets compared to the work of Stephen King, Hill’s father. — B.S.

NOSTALGIA

By Dennis McFarland (Pantheon)

Soon after young Summerfield Hayes enlists to fight in the Civil War, he ends up in a Union hospital, where he’s befriended by Walt Whitman, who reads to the wounded soldiers and offers them comfort. A terrific novel about post-traumatic stress disorder, which was then referred to as “nostalgia.” — C.S.

THE RAVEN’S GIFT

By Don Rearden (Pintail)

Why did no help arrive when everyone began to die? Something inconceivably dreadful has happened in remote Alaska, where a young, married couple have come to teach native children — but what? Rearden, a master of the cliffhanger, shifts between the blighted present and the happy past. — M.D.

THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES

By Steve Yarbrough (Knopf)

This beautifully wrought book concerns Kristin and Cal Stevens, a middle-aged California couple who settle in a small town in Massachusetts. The story tracks their halting assimilation into a world that feels foreign and brittle, and it is so keenly observed that its depiction of these lost souls conveys outsize emotional force. — Michael Lindgren

THE RIVER OF NO RETURN

By Bee Ridgway (Dutton)

When Lord Nicholas dies in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, he doesn’t really die: He jumps through time, to 2003. With the assistance of the shadowy Guild, he creates a new life as a Vermont farmer — until he is summoned back to the past to be a spy in an intrigue spanning centuries. — Elizabeth Hand

RIVER OF STARS

By Guy Gavriel Kay (Roc)

In a devastated 12th-century kingdom called Kitai, young Ren Daiyan grows from dreaming adolescent to charismatic outlaw to military leader of vast accomplishment. Merging fantasy with historical realism, Kay creates a credible world, as well as a grand entertainment. — B.S.

SCHRODER

By Amity Gaige (Twelve)

From his prison cell, a divorced father who abducted his 6-year-old daughter writes to his ex-wife, telling a life story that is simultaneously plea, apology and defense. It’s really a testament to self-delusion — because, as Schroder writes, “There is one thing that really deranges us, and that is the disappearance of love.” — R.C.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS

By Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking)

Worlds and centuries removed from Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” this novel features a heroine born in 1800 who struggles with romance, scientific inquiry, the limitations of Victorian society — and moss. Gilbert has written a big, panoramic story that captures the idiom and tenor of its age.
Marie Arana

SOMEONE

by Alice McDermott (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Shy and comical-looking, Marie is a close observer of the Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn where she is growing up between the world wars. She narrates a quiet, intimate story that unfolds in small moments and bears compassionate witness to the reality and meaning of daily life. But she also confronts trauma that we all endure.
Roxana Robinson

& SONS

By David Gilbert (Random House)

In a position like that once occupied by J.D. Salinger, the invented author A.N. Dyer has spent the last 50 years trying to outdo his triumphant debut novel. Dyer’s life, as seen through the unreliable eyes of a resentful hanger-on, presents the literary lion as just like the rest of us: weak, needy, selfish and desperate to be loved. — Jeff Turrentine

SPARTA

By Roxana Robinson (Farrar Straus Giroux)

“Sparta” takes us deep inside the troubled head of a Marine returning from Iraq. Robinson dramatizes how we fail our veterans without reducing her story to a polemic, expertly deploying emotional insight, moral nuance and intellectual depth. — Heller McAlpin

SYCAMORE ROW

By John Grisham (Doubleday)

The year is 1988 — three years after Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance successfully defended the accused murderer of Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill.” Now he is hired to defend the will of a white man who has left
$2 million to his black housekeeper.
P.A.

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING

By Ruth Ozeki (Viking)

On a Canadian beach, a novelist finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a Japanese girl chronicling her “last days on earth.” Ozeki masterfully develops the parallel stories of the blocked writer and the despairing teenager, producing a book as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually provocative. — W.S.

TATIANA

By Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster)

The eighth thriller featuring Russian detective Arkady Renko finds him disagreeing with authorities once again, as he looks into the suspicious suicide of a crusading journalist. Going beyond crime fiction, Smith continues to convey the frustration and absurdity of life in a fractured, tragic and traumatized country. — B.S.

THE TELEPORTATION ACCIDENT

By Ned Beauman (Bloomsbury)

A set designer in 1930s Berlin pines for a rich party girl (who got tired of the questions about her name, so changed it from Hitler to Hister) and winds up pursuing her in southern California. The outrageous developments include a series of gruesome murders at CalTech. Furiously inventive. — W.S.

TELLING THE BEES

By Peggy Hesketh (Putnam)

Albert Honig, unmarried and in his 80s, has lived his entire life in thrall to bees. They direct him one awful morning to go next door and see if his old beekeeping neighbors, Hilda and Claire, are all right. They’re dead — murdered. The detective who questions Albert is met by bee lore and an intricate web of half-truths. — C.S.

THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY

By Miklos Banffy (Everyman’s Library, two volumes)

At 1,454 pages, “The Transylvanian Trilogy” is worth every penny. Set during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Europe as a whole is slipping toward a cataclysmic war, it’s a saga of shortsighted politics and illicit love, of progressivism at loggerheads with entrenched interests, of servants outfoxing their masters — all kept in breathtaking balance by the power of the author’s artistry. — Dennis Drabelle

TENTH OF DECEMBER

By George Saunders (Random House)

In this amazing new collection, Saunders uses the ridiculous jargon and imagery of modern corporate America to produce stories that illustrate the connections among our era’s sexism, racism, capitalism and white middle-class anxiety — and he leaves the reader laughing uproariously. — J.T.

VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE

By Karen Russell (Knopf)

This remarkable fantasist has produced a chilling collection of stories: Clyde and Magreb, an aging vampire couple, enjoy lemons in lieu of blood. Japanese peasant girls sold into slavery are turned into human silkworms. And an Australian boy finds a tree filled with lost things — some of them from the future. — E.H.

WANT NOT

By Jonathan Miles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Interweaving the lives of a “freegan,” a debt collector and a dead-language specialist, Miles presents a complex, often hilarious, ultimately moving story about who we are and what we throw out. R.C.

THE WATCH TOWER

By Elizabeth Harrower (Text Classics)

Laura Vaizey marries a businessman more than 20 years her senior, in part because he’ll allow her sister to live with them. Then he reveals his true colors. First published in 1966, this unflinching depiction of marital enslavement is part of a new series devoted to key works of Australian literature. — M.D.

THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL

By Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly)

A shadowy Washington undersecretary with an exalted passion wants to remake the world with the help of his traumatized daughter. Engrossing and thoroughly overwhelming, the novel roams around the globe and through five decades to provide a profound reflection on the soul of America. — R.C.

READ MORE

Notable nonfiction of 2013

Best audiobooks of 2013

The year in literary news

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