(Cynthia Kittler/For The Washington Post)

By Marlon James (Riverhead)

Exploding with violence, the third novel by Marlon James cuts a swath across recent Jamaican history. It leaves its Kingston ghettos strewn with victims, a few of them lovers, all of them spattered with blood. Seven killings? That’s just for starters. This compelling, not-so-brief history brings off a social portrait worthy of Diego Rivera, antic and engagé, a fascinating tangle of the naked and the dead. The key event is an actual failed assassination in December 1976, when an armed gang overran the Kingston compound of reggae superstar Bob Marley. “Seven Killings” relates this extended episode, like all the rest, through a kaleidoscope of imaginary speakers. James proves especially adept at criminal power dynamics, expressed in poetic monologues laced with breathtaking obscenities. His story lines often end with a bullet, but they never shortchange shooter or victim. What most distinguishes “A Brief History of Seven Killings” isn’t the outrages but the odyssey. — John Domini


By Smith Henderson (Ecco)

Infused with psychological complexity and lush with the landscape of the Northwest, Smith Henderson’s debut novel describes an America that most of us never have to see — but should. His protagonist, Pete, is a social worker in Montana in the early 1980s. Dazed by the infinite creativity of neglect and abuse but blessed with the dexterity of hope, he keeps struggling to save damaged families — including his own. His most challenging case involves a scurvy 11-year-old boy who wanders up to a school playground and speaks “in the clipped cadence of a POW.” Returning the boy to his home in the forest, Pete meets the boy’s dad, a violent survivalist. This tortured zealot, illuminated by Henderson’s sympathy, becomes both victim and villain, an endlessly fascinating character caught in the confluence of personal tragedy and American paranoia. So begins a perilous relationship between these two troubled fathers, each trying to save his own child from the evils of the world. — Ron Charles


By Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

Richard Flanagan’s novel, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, portrays a singular episode of manic brutality: Imperial Japan’s construction of the Thailand-Burma “Death” Railway during World War II using 300,000 people as disposable labor (including Flanagan’s late father). The story focuses on Dorrigo Evans, who finds himself in command of 700 fellow prisoners. Every day he struggles to keep them alive in unbearably brutal conditions. What stretches the story beyond the visceral pain that Flanagan brings to life is the attention he pays to these prisoners as individuals and their efforts to cling to the trappings of civilization. Among the novel’s most daring strategies is its periodic shift to the Japanese and Korean guards’ points of view — both during and long after the war. Flanagan pulls us right into the minds of these men trained in a system of ritualized brutality. Not just an enlivened historical documentary or a corrective to Pierre Boulle’s “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” this is a classic work of war fiction from a world-class writer. — R.C.


By Sarah Waters (Riverhead)

Begin “The Paying Guests” and you’ll immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Sarah Waters’s silken prose. The story opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London. Frances and her mother, Mrs. Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in a young married couple, Len and Lilian, as lodgers. Frances is hardworking and full of common sense, and yet still eager for something more than domestic servitude and the life of a spinster. Len keeps eyeing Frances in his laddish way, sometimes making double-entendres when speaking to her. At the same time, Mrs. Wray schemes to introduce Frances to eligible young men. A novel that initially seems as if it might have been written by E.M. Forster darkens into something more akin to the works of Dostoevsky or Patricia Highsmith. In “The Paying Guests,” Waters has produced a beautifully delineated love story and a darkly suspenseful psychological tale. — Michael Dirda


By Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)

In this genre-blurring dystopian novel, set in the near future, the Georgia Flu becomes airborne the night an actor named Arthur Leander dies during his performance as King Lear. Within months, most of the world’s population has been wiped out. The story presents Arthur’s life in flashbacks and describes how the pandemic affects his friends and ex-wives after his death. Among the survivors is Kirsten, a former child actor with no memory of her first year after the flu. Now in her 20s, she performs Shakespeare with a makeshift family of musicians and actors. Their band is threatened when they accidentally wander into territory controlled by a messianic tyrant. A gorgeous retelling of “King Lear” unfolds through the story of Arthur’s life and Kirsten’s attempt to stay alive in this surprisingly beautiful tale of human relationships amid almost total devastation. — Nancy Hightower

Medicine and What Matters in the End

By Atul Gawande (Metropolitan)

In “Being Mortal,” surgeon Atul Gawande delivers an indictment of the way our health care system fails people with fatal illnesses and those too infirm to live without assistance. Doctors — by training and temperament — are ill prepared to help people face their mortality, he believes, and often cannot even talk about death with their patients. Gawande shares his own exploration of palliative care and hospice programs, and describes how learning about them improved his interactions with patients and even with his father, who developed a tumor of the spinal cord that eventually killed him. Hospice, Gawande learned, is not about aiding or hastening death, but about making each remaining day the best it can be. And the key to caring for the elderly, he believes, is to listen to what people say is most important to them and to help them live by those priorities. Nursing homes, Gawande informs us, are rated on whether residents eat regularly, take their medicines and are prevented from falling, but not whether they make people feel lonely or isolated. — Susan Okie

Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

By Rory MacLean (St. Martin’s)

Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries” is an extraordinary work of history. To call it history is, in fact, reductive. There’s some historical analysis, quite a lot of fiction, some philosophizing, lashings of wit and a fair dose of invective. It’s a work of imagination, reflection, reverence, perplexity and criticism that reveals as much about the author’s precocious mind as it does about the city he adores. The book’s most profound feature, however, is its beautiful writing — phrases of transcendent rhythm force the reader to reverse and read again. Never mind that the logic is occasionally shaky and the facts sometimes slip, the prose is perfect. MacLean calls Berlin “the capital of reinvention.” This explains why his biography of the city is not about the place per se, but about those who shaped it or were shaped by it: Berlin as a canvas on which people paint their dreams. — Gerard De Groot

A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

By Gary Krist (Crown)

While there have been many fine books and articles written about New Orleans’s Storyville era, when prostitution was legalized in a district adjacent to the French Quarter, Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin” is certainly one of the most well-researched and well-written, a true-life tale of a sui generis American city that reads like a historical thriller. At the end of the 19th century, the city devised a unique solution to its many perceived sins and opened a vice district called Storyville — where, reformers believed, all manner of sin could be contained. The next 30 years were some of the most dramatic in the city’s history as Storyville and its denizens were at loggerheads with “the city’s ongoing crusade for order, racial purity and respectability.” The book’s subtitle, “A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans,” sums up Krist’s story well — it’s a book both lurid and scholarly, and thoroughly entertaining. — Kevin Allman

An Unnatural History

By Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt)

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” (2006) presented a powerful account of how climate change was disrupting lives around the planet. In “The Sixth Extinction,” she delivers a fascinating and frightening excursion into how humans are bringing about their own demise. The alterations on the planet initiated by humans build on one another, accelerating change in ways that make it all but impossible for most species to adapt quickly enough. As the great environmentalist Rachel Carson put it, “Time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.” Humans change the world more than other species do, and now the most urgent question is whether they can take responsibility for what they do. “The Sixth Extinction” is a bold and at times desperate attempt to awaken us to this responsibility. — Michael S. Roth

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

By John Lahr (Norton)

In his fascinating biography of, arguably, America’s finest playwright, John Lahr gives a sense of the ebb and flow of Tennessee Williams’s life, exercising a critic’s keen eye on the plays, a novelist’s gift for characterization and a historian’s awareness of the way the changing American society colored his work. The result is almost as much a biography of the plays as of the playwright — a book that lets the life illuminate the work and the work illuminate the life. Lahr portrays the collaboration between Williams and director Elia Kazan as “the most influential in twentieth-century American theater.” Kazan helped turn “A Streetcar Named Desire” into a landmark of American drama and strongly influenced Williams’s other Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. ” In Lahr’s telling, Williams changed the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater with a body of work drawn from his inner life that resonated particularly well with the American mood from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Vietnam War. — Charles Matthews


The top 50 fiction books for 2014

50 notable works of nonfiction

The top 10 graphic novels of 2014

The five best romance novels of 2014

The five best thrillers of 2014

The five best science fiction/fantasy books of 2014

The five best audiobooks of 2014

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