Choosing the “best” books of the year is a dangerous game to play. Sci-fi competes with historical fiction, epic novels compete with short story collections; it’s apples and oranges on steroids. So why do we even bother?
The short answer is that we simply love celebrating good books. And while “good” is relative, we believe the following titles will captivate you. Some will keep you awake at night, others will make you snort milk through your nose. These are diverse stories that have one thing in common: they’re worth sharing.
15. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
In Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, Julie Iromuanya constructs a richly characterized, searingly honest and often wildly funny portrayal of immigrant-of-color life in 21st-century America. At the center of the novel stands the titular couple, Nigerian immigrants Job and Ifi Ogbonnaya. The first thing anyone should know about Job—but nearly no one does—is that he is no doctor. By the time Ifi joins him in America through an arranged marriage and moves into his filthy Nebraska apartment, Job has spent years pretending to operate a thriving medical practice, concealing his failure to get through college (let alone medical school) from his family and his more successful Nigerian friends. Iromuanya’s brilliantly rendered narrative cuts deep into the conflicting ambitions, familial expectations and cumbersome cultural baggage of Nigerians in America. She also delivers a stark portrayal of the frustrating indignities of Nigerian immigrants’ everyday life and the strategies for dealing with them. But best of all is Ifi’s journey to self-possession and assertion, all the more remarkable as she discovers confidence and purpose amidst the accumulated wreckage of her hapless husband’s life. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
14. Girl at War by Sara Novi?
One of this year’s most discussed debuts comes from Sara Novi?, a former fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine who has documented the subject of war and its effect on children. With those contributions considered, it makes sense that Girl at War serves as a long-form meditation on the genre. The novel follows Ana Juri?, a 10-year-old girl surviving in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars. What makes young Ana’s story unique is that it’s not concerned with unmasking the horrors of war, as many have repeatedly done. Instead, this book is an exploration of how humans grow, prosper and move on from unthinkable times. —Tyler R. Kane
13. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk
Steer clear of Make Something Up if Chuck Palahniuk’s most infamous tale, “Guts,” gave you a second taste of your last meal. The book collects the Northwest writer’s short fiction over the last decade, which is at its tamest in fauna-centered fables like “How Monkey Got Married, Bought a House and Found Happiness in Orlando” and “Why Coyote Never Had Money for Parking.” But for the rest of us, the meat’s in Palahniuk’s groan-worthy reveals—like “The Toad Prince,” where a young woman finds herself in a scenario somewhere between American Pie and The Thing. Or “The Facts of Life,” where a kid is force-fed a fiery tale of parental romance (a tale that should wind up in no child’s ears, ever). But like Palahniuk’s best work, heaps of satire and commentary rest beneath the shock value—and beyond that, they’re just great to read at Thanksgiving dinner. —Tyler R. Kane
12. The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
Aislinn Hunter teaches literature, but The World Before Us proves that she could teach just about anything. Her psychologically complex characters, her firm yet fluid grasp on history and her understanding of the awkward nooks and crannies of romantic relationships on display in the novel are each a course in themselves. Centering on the long-ago disappearance of a child and the impact it still has on the woman who was babysitting her, the book balloons backward over decades—and even centuries—to weave a story about the persistence of memory and the ghosts who haunt us until we end up ghosts ourselves. —Mack Hayden
11. The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Set in a distant future where technology is extinct and sword fighting is commonplace, The Queen of the Tearling introduced us to Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, the 19-year-old heir to the Tearling throne. Erika Johansen’s sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling, continues to enthrall with its mesmerizing setting and memorable characters. But beyond the adventure of the story rests Tearling’s greatest achievement: a three-dimensional, female protagonist who gets shit done. Outlaw slavery? Check. Defy a brutal warmonger? Check. Make it actually rain? Check. Come for the action, but stay for Kelsea. —Frannie Jackson
10. Disclaimer by Renée Knight
What if you recognized yourself in the pages of a novel that exposed your darkest secret? A secret known to one other soul—and he died 20 years ago. This is the chilling premise of Renée Knight’s debut thriller, Disclaimer, which has already garnered comparisons to Gone Girl. But don’t write off this novel as a domestic noir wannabe; Knight succeeds in elevating the story within the genre, infusing it with a unique flavor that lingers beyond the final page. Dare to plunge into Disclaimer’s icy waters … just don’t expect to resurface unscathed. —Frannie Jackson
9. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Multimedia artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was as self-realized as a debut collection got in 2008. The tales exposed readers to July’s worldview and proved that her artistic visions weren’t only fluid—they were easily transferred across film, digital and print mediums. Much like her films, July’s stories clung to oddball details and weird narration, and her critics weren’t mistaken when they applied words like “precious” to the pieces. But I’m included in a certain crowd that was eager to pass July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, back and forth forever. The First Bad Man tells the story of Cheryl Glickman: a businesswoman, a romantic and a person who thinks she possesses a centuries-old connection with a baby spirit named Kubelko Bondy. After taking in her boss’ pregnant daughter, Cheryl’s domestic life vaults from mother, to lover, to a whole bunch of other Meredith Brooks nouns. But The First Bad Man, as defined as its voice is, also leaves room to explore non-traditional family roles and relationships. Even hopeless romantics will take something away from this single-sitting read. —Tyler R. Kane
8. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Imagine our most precious natural resource has all but dried up. Paolo Bacigalupi writes a near-future where the American Southwest has been utterly ravaged by drought, and states fight over dwindling water stores. Angel Velasquez, the titular “water knife,” lives to provide water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority—by any means necessary. Exploring the desperate ventures people undertake to endure the unthinkable, The Water Knife promises thrills with enough gravity to make you question how far you’d go to survive. —Frannie Jackson
7. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
At a point in time probably much longer ago than many would think, Neil Gaiman grew far beyond traditional tales inspired by and on the printed page. He wrote epic poetry screenplays and episodes of legacy science-fiction shows, spoke at myriad events and concocted vignettes for mobile phone companies falling lightning fast into obsolescence. Not only did Gaiman ascend further as the premier multimedia avatar of striking fiction, he became an international symbol of stories and their mercurial powers. Whether this ambassadorship has detracted from the man’s classic output (Was I the only one who thought The Graveyard Book would spawn a multi-entry series?) or has violated some bookclub treehouse intimacy is largely irrelevant. The writer has done work well enough to be appreciated by a spectrum of media, which may be the highest praise possible.
The Gaiman of past and present coexists in Trigger Warnings, a compendium of odds-and-ends stories, as well as an original entry into the American Gods mythos. Much as he did during his post-modern residency at Vertigo comics, Gaiman shifts his lens on old fairy tales, most prominently in the one-two punch of “Observing Formalities” and “The Sleeper and the Spindle”—gorgeous retellings of “Sleeping Beauty” that fit firmly in the legacy of the author’s recent Hansel & Gretel retelling and even 1994’s “Snow, Glass, Apples,” aka Snow White with more necrophilia. The dream king also contributes a new Doctor Who prose chapter that presents gentrification as a time-traveling, animal mask-wearing, human-devouring menace. A Twitter-fueled dodecathon of stories for Blackberry displays an effortlessly nimble mind that can catch attention with 200 words just as easily as 2,000. Though this collection may revel in the elasticity and expansion of its author, the important things remain: these stories patiently escort us to foreign, intoxicating planes that make the “real” world that much richer when we return. And in that respect, Gaiman has never stopped doing his job. —Sean Edgar
6. The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus
Sophie McManus’ examination of the cruel monster love—all of the beast’s horrifying, hallucinogenic and analgesic shades, most often ensconced in some veiled corner—is composed of heather grays and the medicine powder at the bottom of pharmaceutical bottles. Her debut proves her to be a chorus, capable of pretty little pictures or vicious passages wherein the anomie of Bret Easton Ellis is whipped about with the speed and ferocity of Tom Wolfe. Set in the rich, classic milieu of East Coast Old Money, McManus treats the lucre with the same prismatic loupe as the emotion; it permeates the background like radiation, savages the leads and, refreshingly, saves the day. It is her ability to add shades to our brightest and most loathed lodestars that makes The Unfortunates one of this—or any—year’s best. —B. David Zarley
5. Golden State Stephanie Kegan
“I was never interested in getting inside the mind of a killer,” Stephanie Kegan told Paste. “I wanted to live in his sister’s head.” Kegan unravels protagonist Natalie Askedahl’s charmed life when a bomber’s manifesto reads like a letter from the character’s estranged brother. Torn between protecting her family and sparing future victims, Natalie spirals down the rabbit hole of guilt-by-association.
Golden State reads like a minefield; one misstep and the story will explode. But Kegan walks the line between sanity and chaos, weaving a tale with a flawless conclusion. The results are devastatingly beautiful. —Frannie Jackson
4. The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
Any nightly news program will validate the timeliness of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s latest read, The Harder They Come. The novel—his 15th since his 1982 debut, Water Music—explores the inherent American nature of violence through three short-fuse leads: Sten Stenson, a retired high school principal and former vet; Adam Stenson, Sten’s 25-year-old son whose struggles with mental health cloud The Harder They Come’s narration; and Sara Jennings, a middle-aged, establishment-hating farrier who finds herself romantically linked to the youngest Stenson. As the book’s jacket confirms, the amped-up sum of this trio leads to the book’s grim finale—a hard fall indeed, brimming with automatic weapon fire, sex and a vivid interpretation of Mountain Man John Colter’s story. Boyle’s penned a fast-paced, riveting read that mirrors many action movie scenarios—the lone hero taking on legions of less clever, less trained, less worthy adversaries. Maybe you’ll find yourself caught up in the pace of it all—but most importantly, like in real life, there are no victory bells when The Harder They Come’s final bullets are spent. —Tyler R. Kane
3. Suitcase City by Sterling Watson
Suitcase City packs all of the elements of gripping noir: a relatable anti-hero with an inescapable past who you cheer for in spite of yourself; a twisted nemesis who gets under the protagonist’s skin and into his head at a slow but insistent pace; a seedy, squalid setting that you’d never want to visit but you can’t take your eyes off of as Sterling Watson paints its darkest corners in carefully meted detail; and genuine, aching loss. When ex-football star James Teach is forced to confront his criminal past through the vengeful, deliberate ministrations of his long-forgotten ex-partner in crime, it all happens with menacing inevitability. Between the novel’s tense racial overtones and its unforgettable golden-oldie earworm—which must be read to be believed and won’t be forgotten when read—Suitcase City makes its case for Watson as an under-appreciated contemporary noir master. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
2. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
A zoologist on the brink of single-motherhood. An eccentric earl with a controversial scheme. Two grey wolves introduced to the English countryside via Eastern Europe. If this reads like a recipe for literary mayhem, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Sarah Hall’s captivating novel weaves the poetic with the realistic, creating a luscious tale spanning Idaho to Scotland. Hall gradually immerses you in a dreamy landscape where modernity takes a backseat to tradition and snow blankets the earth. You’ll discover that you don’t read The Wolf Border, you experience it. —Frannie Jackson
1. Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos
Central to Stephanie Kallos’ Language Arts is the notion of stimming—repetitive, self-stimulating, physical movements and behaviors considered generally therapeutic for people with autism or other developmental disabilities. Cody Marlow, a low-functioning autistic boy, derives calm and balance from ritually crumbling bricks of Ramen noodles with a mortar and pestle. His father, Charles, nurses a lifelong preoccupation with drawing repeated, identical loops, derived from his pre-pubescent days as a student of the Palmer handwriting method. An unspoken, imprecise faith in the transcendent power of stimming binds father and son, and like just about every other aspect of diagnosing and managing Cody’s condition, the question of how long to let Cody stim sharply divides father and mother. As a deeply absorbing, magnificently wrought look inside the stories a man tells himself about life in his family’s “storybook cottage,” Language Arts overflows with insight and mesmerizing twists.
Kallos makes winking reference to writers’ “sophomore slumps” when describing Charles’ failure at age 11 to deliver a satisfying follow-up to his award-winning first short story. Even with the remarkably high standard set by Kallos’ two previous novels, Broken for You and Sing Them Home, she shows no sign of faltering with Language Arts. Improbably enough, she keeps getting better. —Steve Nathans-Kelly