100 great novels by living authors


The following is a list of 100 books by living authors that I have read and highly recommend. I wanted to put together a list of ‘modern classics’, and having the criterion of a living author is a way to impose some currency while at the same time allowing for a certain breadth. Of course, this leaves out plenty of great authors who have unfortunately passed on, whether recently (Chinua Achebe) or centuries ago (Laurence Sterne). I have another list for the dead authors and a list for graphic novels. Every now and then I get around to updating them.

Adair, Gilbert, A Closed Book

Gilbert Adair previously won the Scott-Moncrieff prize for his extraordinary translation of the late Georges Perec’s A Void–a novel composed without the letter “e”– and some of that author’s wit, allusiveness and self- conscious artistry find their way into Adair’s new book, transmuted into something altogether more sinister. This is a powerful psychological thriller, well-paced, energetic (and occasionally very funny) but it also incorporates some subtle philosophical and literary questions into its narrative: How far can we believe what we read (or hear) and how does a reader’s trust in a writer’s fictional world equate with the trust required in allowing someone to interpret the world for us? See for yourself. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus, Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut, begins like many novels set in regions considered exotic by the western reader: the politics, climate, social customs, and, above all, food of Nigeria (balls of fufu rolled between the fingers, okpa bought from roadside vendors) unfold like the purple hibiscus of the title, rare and fascinating. But within a few pages, these details, however vividly rendered, melt into the background of a larger, more compelling story of a joyless family. Fifteen-year-old Kambili is the dutiful and self-effacing daughter of a rich man, a religious fanatic and domestic tyrant whose public image is of a politically courageous newspaper publisher and philanthropist. No one in Papa’s ancestral village, where he is titled “Omelora” (One Who Does For the Community), knows why Kambili’s brother cannot move one of his fingers, nor why her mother keeps losing her pregnancies. When a widowed aunt takes an interest in Kambili, her family begins to unravel and re-form itself in unpredictable ways. (Amazon.com review)

Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow

Amis attempts here to write a path into and through the inverted morality of the Nazis: how can a writer tell about something that’s fundamentally unspeakable? Amis’ solution is a deft literary conceit of narrative inversion. He puts two separate consciousnesses into the person of one man, ex-Nazi doctor Tod T. Friendly. One identity wakes at the moment of Friendly’s death and runs backwards in time, like a movie played in reverse, (e.g., factory smokestacks scrub the air clean,) unaware of the terrible past he approaches. The “normal” consciousness runs in time’s regular direction, fleeing his ignominious history. (Amazon.com review)

Amsterdam, Steven K., Things We Didn’t See Coming

Given that its nine linked stories are set in a postapocalyptic near future, the pleasure of Amsterdam’s debut collection is surprising. Over the course of the book, just about every possible disaster assails the unidentified country in which the stories are set. Floods, drought, mob rule, and a virus that has one deranged character coughing up blood — each play a role in the disintegration of the world as we know it, and Amsterdam’s narrator survives them all, first as a thief, later as a bureaucrat (which turns out to be not much different from a thief), and finally as a 40-year-old, cancer-ridden tour guide. Among the high points are Dry Land, in which the narrator encounters a drunken mother and her daughter clinging to each other in a cataclysmic flood, though each is more likely to survive alone; and Cake Walk, with a narrator who hides in a tree while a man infected with a deadly virus destroys his campsite. Though a couple of the later stories lack polish and punch, Amsterdam’s varied catastrophes are vividly executed, while his resilient narrator’s travails are harrowing. (Publishers Weekly review)

Atkinson, Kate, Life After Life

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to? Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves. (Amazon.com review)

Atwood, Margaret, The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen, initially seems a little cold-blooded about this death in the family. But as Margaret Atwood’s most ambitious work unfolds–a tricky process, in fact, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel–we’re reminded of just how complicated the familial game of hide-and-seek can be: “What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly, for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain.” Meanwhile, Atwood immediately launches into an excerpt from Laura Chase’s novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. (Amazon.com review)

Auster, Paul, The New York Trilogy

The New York Trilogy is an astonishing and original book: three cleverly interconnected novels that exploit the elements of standard detective fiction and achieve a new genre that is all the more gripping for its starkness. In each story the search for clues leads to remarkable coincidences in the universe as the simple act of trailing a man ultimately becomes a startling investigation of what it means to be human. Auster’s book is modern fiction at its finest: bold, arresting and unputdownable. (Publisher’s description)

Banville, John, The Sea

Max Morden has reached a crossroads in his life, and is trying hard to deal with several disturbing things. A recent loss is still taking its toll on him, and a trauma in his past is similarly proving hard to deal with. He decides that he will return to a town on the coast at which he spent a memorable holiday when a boy. His memory of that time devolves on the charismatic Grace family, particularly the seductive twins Myles and Chloe. In a very short time, Max found himself drawn into a strange relationship with them, and pursuant events left their mark on him for the rest of his life. But will he be able to exorcise those memories of the past? The fashion in which John Banville draws the reader into this hypnotic and disturbing world is non pareil, and the very complex relationships between his brilliantly delineated cast of characters are orchestrated with a master’s skill. (Amazon.com review)

Barker, Nicola, Darkmans

There isn’t much plot to Barker’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel, but a cast of eccentric characters, a torrent of inventive prose and an irresistible synthesis of wickedly humorous and unsettlingly supernatural elements more than compensate for the loose itinerary. The novel is set in a contemporaneous British district bisected by the arrival of the Channel Tunnel’s international passenger station, a sore point for one of the central characters, cranky 61-year-old Daniel Beede, distraught at the loss of local landmarks. Beede is estranged from his prescription drug-dealing son Kane, though they share a flat, where Gaffar, a muscular Kurdish refugee with a rabid fear of salad greens, takes up residence. Beede is friends with Elen, a podiatrist, and with Isidore, Elen’s paranoid and narcoleptic husband; their young son Fleet is a spooky prodigy who, in one of this intricate tale’s several instances of mind-bending nuttiness, may actually be Isidore’s ancestor from nine generations ago. This improbable premise is supported by the boy’s propensity for quoting bits of the biography of King Edward IV’s court jester, one John Scogin, the dark man who haunts the book. Despite the story’s plotless sprawl, any reader open to the appeal of an ambitious author’s kaleidoscopic imagination will relish this bravura accomplishment. (Publishers Weekly review)

Barker, Pat, The Regeneration Trilogy

Pat Barker’s work never makes comfortable reading, for she chooses to explore, with an unflinching eye, controversial, often taboo subjects such as prostitution, homosexuality, child rape, mental illness, pacifism, war, and murder by minors. Many readers come to Barker’s work through her best-known books, the Regeneration (1991–1995) trilogy, the third book of which won the Booker Prize in 1995. There is no doubt that Regeneration, with its attention to historical detail and skilful blending of factual and fictional characters is her most subtle and satisfying work. These novels have often been criticised as horrific, brutal, even brutish, yet only by getting close to the base, shocking, palpable detail of the First World War and the mental, as well as physical distress caused by close proximity to danger and death, can we better understand it. (contemporarywriters.com critical perspective)

Barnes, Julian, The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

A revisionist view of Noah’s Ark, told by the stowaway woodworm. A chilling account of terrorists hijacking a cruise ship. A court case in 16th-century France in which the woodworm stand accused. A desperate woman’s attempt to escape radioactive fallout on a raft. An acute analysis of Gericault’s “Scene of Shipwreck.” The search of a 19th-century Englishwoman and of a contemporary American astronaut for Noah’s Ark. An actor’s increasingly desperate letters to his silent lover. A thoughtful meditation on the novelist’s responsibility regarding love. These and other stories make up Barnes’s witty and sometimes acerbic retelling of the history of the world. The stories are connected, if only tangentially, which is precisely Barnes’s point: historians may tell us that “there was a pattern,” but history is “just voices echoing in the dark; . . . strange links, impertinent connections.” Fascinating reading from the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, but not for those wanting conventional plot. (Library Journal review)

Barry, Sebastian, A Long Long Way

Willie Dunne is born in a storm during the “dying days” of Ireland. It is not an auspicious beginning. This novel of Ireland and World War I wears a cloak of gloom and doom as thick as the opening storm. Willie’s mother dies young. Willie enlists in the army and fights on the Western Front. Willie’s sweetheart marries another, and so on. The wartime scenes are brutally realistic. Throughout this dark novel, though, are glimpses of sweetness and light, such as a scene where Willie’s father bathes the returning soldier in an attempt to rid him of lice. Those not familiar with British-Irish history may find some of the personal conflicts and politics in the novel confusing, but nevertheless a compellingly sad, if difficult, read. (Booklist review)

Barth, John, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Just when you may have concluded, like Queen Scheherazade’s husband, that you’ve “heard them all,” Barth (The Tidewater Tales) proves again how original and entertaining he is. Like many of the author’s previous works, his latest blends fantasy, mythology, existentialist wit, bawdy humor and metafictional conceits. But though his opening words declare, “The machinery’s rusty,” the new novel is a testament both to Barth’s undiminished generative powers and to his maturity of vision. In the elaborate plot, a “fifty-plus,” “once-sort-of-famous” New Journalist named Simon William Behler is mysteriously transported to the medieval Baghdad of Sindbad the Sailor. Behler–known variously as “Somebody the Sailor,” “Baylor” and “Sayyid Bey el-Loor,” falls in love with Sindbad’s daughter Yasmin and gets enmeshed in Arabian intrigues. The intrigues revolve around such nagging questions as the intactness of Yasmin’s virginity, the veracity of Sindbad’s tall tales and the whereabouts of a wristwatch Behler needs in order to return home. All this is dealt with in the course of six evenings of storytelling at Sindbad’s dinner table. Barth creates whole and engaging characters with his usual wealth of wordplay, allusion and satire. But the novel’s greatest achievement is how it connects the conventionally realistic story of Behler’s 20th-century life with the outsize and metaphorical world of Sindbad, reflecting in the process on the nature of stories, dreams, voyages and death. (Publishers Weekly review)

Byatt, A.S., The Children’s Book

Bristling with life and invention, The Children’s Book is a seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer. Set primarily in the downs and marshes of the Kent countryside and the southeastern coast at Dungeness, the story also flings characters to London, Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps and the battlefields of Europe, where real historical figures such as J.M. Barrie and Emma Goldman mix with invented characters including layabout students, Fabian socialists, potters, puppeteers, randy novelists and poets in the trenches of France. In its encyclopaedic form, The Children’s Book is a kind of anatomy of the age in which the young men and women of the Edwardian era were confronted by a rapidly changing society and the grim reality of the Great War. But more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail. (Washington Post review)

Carey, Peter, My Life as a Fake

Carey, who won the Man Booker Prize for his True History of the Kelly Gang, takes another strange but much less well-known episode in Australian history as the basis for this hypnotic novel of personal and artistic obsession. He tells it through the eyes of Lady Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a struggling but prestigious London poetry journal, who one day in the early 1970s finds herself accompanying an old family friend, poet and novelist John Slater, out to Malaysia. There they encounter an eccentric Australian expatriate, Christopher Chubb, who concocted, Slater says, a huge literary hoax in Australia just after the war, creating an imaginary genius poet, Bob McCorkle, whose publication by a little magazine led to the suicide of the magazine’s editor. Now Chubb offers Lady Sarah a page of poetry that shows undoubted genius and claims it is from a book in his possession. The tale is a tour de force, with a positively Graham Greene-ish relish in the seamy side of the tropics, a mix of literary detective story and murderous nightmare that is piquantly hair-raising. And just when it seems that Carey’s story is his greatest fantastic creation to date, he lets on that the hoax at the heart of it actually took place in Melbourne in 1946. As so often before, this extravagantly gifted writer has created something bewilderingly original and powerful. (Publishers Weekly review) (see my review at The Modern Word)

Catton, Eleanor, The Luminaries

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013. It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament. (Amazon.com review)

Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Virtuoso Chabon takes intense delight in the practice of his art, and never has his joy been more palpable than in this funny and profound tale of exile, love, and magic. In his last novel, The Wonder Boys (1995), Chabon explored the shadow side of literary aspirations. Here he revels in the crass yet inventive and comforting world of comic-book superheroes, those masked men with mysterious powers who were born in the wake of the Great Depression and who carried their fans through the horrors of war with the guarantee that good always triumphs over evil. In a luxuriant narrative that is jubilant and purposeful, graceful and complex, hilarious and enrapturing, Chabon chronicles the fantastic adventures of two Jewish cousins, one American, one Czech. It’s 1939 and Brooklynite Sammy Klayman dreams of making it big in the nascent world of comic books. Joseph Kavalier has never seen a comic book, but he is an accomplished artist versed in the “autoliberation” techniques of his hero, Harry Houdini. He effects a great (and surreal) escape from the Nazis, arrives in New York, and joins forces with Sammy. They rapidly create the Escapist, the first of many superheroes emblematic of their temperaments and predicaments, and attain phenomenal success. But Joe, tormented by guilt and grief for his lost family, abruptly joins the navy, abandoning Sammy, their work, and his lover. As Chabon–equally adept at atmosphere, action, dialogue, and cultural commentary–whips up wildly imaginative escapades punctuated by schtick that rivals the best of Jewish comedians, he plumbs the depths of the human heart and celebrates the healing properties of escapism and the “genuine magic of art” with exuberance and wisdom. (Booklist review)

Chandra, Vikram, Red Earth and Pouring Rain

Setting 18th- and 19th-century Mogul India against the open highways of contemporary America and fusing Indian myth, Hindu gods, magic and mundane reality, this intricate first novel is a magnificent epic that welds the exfoliating storytelling style of A Thousand and One Nights to modernist fictional technique. Abhay, an Indian college student studying in the U.S. but home on vacation in Bombay, shoots a scavenging monkey; the dying creature reveals itself to be the reincarnation of Sanjay Parasher, a fiery, iconoclastic 19th-century poet and freedom-fighter against British rule. To remain alive, the monkey strikes a deal with the gods: he must keep Abhay’s family entertained each day by telling stories of his former lives. Around this fanciful premise, Indian novelist Chandra has built a powerful, moving saga that explores colonialism, death and suffering, ephemeral pleasure and the search for the meaning of life. Through the monkey’s tales, we learn of Sanjay’s lethal estrangement from his best friend, Sikander, an Anglo-Indian warrior who serves the British; of the suicide of Sikander’s mother, Janvi, who throws herself on a funeral pyre after her English husband gives away their daughters to missionaries; of Sanjay’s avenging showdown in London with Dr. Paul Sarthey, renowned orientalist and murderous imperialist. Abhay also narrates his own sprawling tale about his drive across the U.S. with two alienated fellow students, providing a dramatic contrast between America’s throwaway pop culture and India’s ancient, venerated ways, bound up with the concepts of dharma (right conduct), karma and reincarnation. This is an astonishing and brilliant debut. (Publishers Weekly review)

Clarke, Susanna, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

It’s 1808 and that Corsican upstart Napoleon is battering the English army and navy. Enter Mr. Norrell, a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside and the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Susanna Clarke’s ingenious first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has a cleverness and lightness of touch, but is less a fairy tale of good versus evil than a fantastic comedy of manners, complete with elaborate false footnotes, occasional period spellings, and a dense, lively mythology teeming beneath the narrative. Mr. Norrell moves to London to establish his influence in government circles, devising such powerful illusions as an 11-day blockade of French ports by English ships fabricated from rainwater. But however skillful his magic, his vanity provides an Achilles heel, and the differing ambitions of his more glamorous apprentice, Jonathan Strange, threaten to topple all that Mr. Norrell has achieved. A sparkling debut from Susanna Clarke–and it’s not all fairy dust. (Amazon.com review)

Coetzee, J.M., Waiting For the Barbarians

For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency. (Publisher’s description)

Coupland, Douglas, Girlfriend in a Coma

After making love for the first time, high school senior Karen Ann McNeil confides to her boyfriend Richard of the dark visions she’s been recently suffering. It’s only a few hours later on that snowy Friday night in 1979 that she descends into a coma. Nine months later she gives birth to a daughter, Megan, her child by Richard, the protagonist of this disturbingly funny novel. Karen remains comatose for the next seventeen years. Richard and her circle of friends reside in an emotional purgatory throughout the next two decades; passing through careers as models, film special effects technicians, doctors, and demolition experts, before finally being reunited on a conspiracy-driven supernatural television series. Upon Karen’s reawakening, life grows as surreal as their television show. With apocalyptic events occurring, Karen, Richard, and their friends explore the essential mysteries of life, faith, decency, and existence. Amid the world’s rubble they attempt to restore their own humanity. (Publisher’s description)

Crace, Jim, Being Dead

Crace is a brilliant British writer whose novels are always varied in historical setting, voice, theme and writing style, and are surprising in content. This latest, sixth effort (after Quarantine), a stunning look at two people at the moment of their deaths, is the riskiest of his works, the most mesmerizing and the most deeply felt. Joseph and Celice, middle-aged doctors of zoology married to each other for almost 30 years, revisit the seaside where they first met and made love “in the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay.” They are surprised on the dunes, murdered and robbed, and their bodies lie undiscovered for days. In alternating chapters of chronological counterpoint, Crace traces their last day, working backwards from the moment of their murders to their awakening that morning, innocent of what is to come. At the same time, he recreates the day they were introduced, in the 1970s, when they were researching their doctoral dissertations. In juxtaposing the remorselessness of nature against the hopes, desires and conflicted emotions of individuals, Crace gracefully integrates the facts and myths about the end of human life, and its transcendence (in Syl’s epiphanic vision), into a narrative of dazzling virtuosity. (Publishers Weekly review)

Crowley, John, Little, Big

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood — not found on any map — to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder. (Publisher’s description)

Danielewski, Mark, House of Leaves

When Johnny Truant attempts to organize the many fragments of a strange manuscript by a dead blind man, it gains possession of his very soul. The manuscript is a complex commentary on a documentary film (The Navidson Record) about a house that defies all the laws of physics. Navidson’s exploration of a seemingly endless, totally dark, and constantly changing labyrinth in the house becomes an examination of truth, perception, and darkness itself. The book interweaves the manuscript with over 400 footnotes to works real and imagined, thus illuminating both the text and Truant’s mental disintegration. First novelist Danielewski employs avant-garde page layouts that are occasionally a bit too clever but are generally highly effective. Although it may be consigned to the “horror” genre, this novel is also a psychological thriller, a quest, a literary hoax, a dark comedy, and a work of cultural criticism. It is simultaneously a highly literary work and an absolute hoot. This powerful and extremely original novel is strongly recommended. (Library Journal review)

DeLillo, Don, White Noise

Something is amiss in a small college town in Middle America. Something subliminal, something omnipresent, something hard to put your finger on. For example, teachers and students at the grade school are falling mysteriously ill: “Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the fabric of things.” J.A.K. Gladney, world-renowned as the living center, the absolute font, of Hitler Studies in North America in the mid-1980s, describes the malaise affecting his town in a superbly ironic and detached manner. But even he fails to mask his disquiet. There is menace in the air, and ultimately it is made manifest: a poisonous cloud–an “airborne toxic event”–unleashed by an industrial accident floats over the town, requiring evacuation. In the aftermath, as the residents adjust to new and blazingly brilliant sunsets, Gladney and his family must confront their own poses, night terrors, self-deceptions, and secrets. DeLillo is at his dark, hilarious best in this 1985 National Book Award winner, a novel that preceded but anticipated the explosion of the Internet, tabloid television, and the dialed-in, wired-up, endlessly accelerated tenor of the culture we live in. (Amazon.com review)

DeWitt, Helen, The Last Samurai

DeWitt’s ambitious, colossal debut novel tells the story of a young genius, his worldly alienation and his eccentric mother, Sibylla Newman, an American living in London after dropping out of Oxford. Her son, Ludovic (Ludo), the product of a one-night stand, could read English, French and Greek by the age of four. His incredible intellectual ability is matched only by his insatiable curiosity, and Sibylla attempts to guide her son’s education while scraping by on typing jobs. To avoid the cold, they ride the Underground on the Circle Line train daily, traveling around London as Ludo reads the Odyssey, learns Japanese and masters mathematics and science. Sybilla uses her favorite film, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, as a makeshift guide for her son’s moral development. As Ludo matures and takes over the story’s narration, Sibylla is revealed as less than forthcoming on certain topics, most importantly the identity of Ludo’s father. Knowing only that his male parent is a travel writer, Ludo searches through volumes of adventure stories, but he is unsuccessful until he happens upon a folder containing his father’s name hidden in a sealed envelope. He arranges to meet the man, pretending to be a fan. The funny, bittersweet encounter ends with a gravely disappointed Ludo, unable to confront his father with his identity. Afterward, the sad 11-year-old resumes his search for his ideal parent figure. Using a test modeled after a scene in Seven Samurai, he seeks out five different men, claiming he is the son of each. While energetic and relentlessly unpredictable, the novel often becomes belabored with its own inventiveness, but the bizarre relationship between Sibylla and Ludo maintains its resonant, rich centrality, giving the book true emotional cohesion. (Publishers Weekly review)

Doctorow, E.L., Billy Bathgate

In the poorest part of the Bronx, in the depths of the Depression, a teenage, fatherless street kid who will adopt the name Billy Bathgate comes to the attention of his idol, master gangster Dutch Schultz. Resourceful, brash, daring and brave, the narrator understands that morality will have no influence in lifting him from his poverty; by hitching his wagon to the mobster’s star he can hope to provide his gentle, mad mother and himself with a way to rise out of their desolate existence. The astonishing story of Billy’s apprenticeship to Schultz and his education at the hands of the mobster’s minions is related by Doctorow with masterful skill, grace and lucidity of prose, inspired inventiveness of scene and true-voiced dialogue. Equally a rollicking adventure and a cautionary tale, both parable of the prodigal son and poignant coming-of-age story, it is mesmerizing reading that soars from the shocking first scene of a gangland execution through episodes of horror, hilarity and sudden, deepening insights. In this stunning, lyrical novel, Doctorow has perfected the narrative voice of a lower-class boy encountering the world. He falters only in a sentimental, almost fairytale ending that belies the harsh realities by which the narrative is propelled. But so fine and convincing is this story that the reader accepts in its entirety Doctorow’s mythical vision, a dark version of the Horatio Alger fable related with a brilliant twist. (Publishers Weekly review)

Dorst, Doug and J.J. Abrams., S.

One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace and desire. A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown. THE BOOK: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V. M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched on a disorienting and perilous journey. THE WRITER: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumours that swirl around him. THE READERS: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts and fears. S., conceived by filmmaker J.J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand. It is also Abrams and Dorst’s love letter to the written word. (Publisher’s description)

Doyle, Roddy, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

In Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, an Irish lad named Paddy rampages through the streets of Barrytown with a pack of like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys and Indians, etching their names in wet concrete, and setting fires. Roddy Doyle has captured the sensations and speech patterns of preadolescents with consummate skill, and managed to do so without resorting to sentimentality. Paddy Clarke and his friends are not bad boys; they’re just a little bit restless. They’re always taking sides, bullying each other, and secretly wishing they didn’t have to. All they want is for something–anything–to happen. Throughout the novel, Paddy teeters on the nervous verge of adolescence. In one scene, Paddy tries to make his little brother’s hot water bottle explode, but gives up after stomping on it just one time: “I jumped on Sinbad’s bottle. Nothing happened. I didn’t do it again. Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.” Paddy Clarke senses that his world is about to change forever–and not necessarily for the better. When he realizes that his parents’ marriage is falling apart, Paddy stays up all night listening, half-believing that his vigil will ward off further fighting. It doesn’t work, but it is sweet and sad that he believes it might. Paddy’s logic may be fuzzy, but his heart is in the right place. (Amazon.com review)

Duffy, Bruce, The World as I Found It

Vienna, 1900. The trenches of World War I and the dark slide into Nazi Europe. The intellectual lights of Cambridge University and the nabobs on the outskirts of Bloomsbury. Marriage and domestic life. These are just a few of the worlds the reader enters in this exhilarating novel of ideas, romance, and imagination. Irreverently trespassing on the turf of history, biography, and philosophy, The World as I Found It is the tale of three wildly different men adrift in the twentieth century. At the center is Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most magnetic philosophers of our time: brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark-and sometimes a scar-on lives all around him. Playing in counterpoint are Wittgenstein’s two reluctant mentors: Bertrand Russell, past his philosophical prime yet eager to break new ground as a public intellectual, educational theorist, and sexual adventurer; and G. E. Moore, the great Cambridge don who exercised such an influence on E. M. Forster and who was devoted to the pleasures of the table and pure thought until, late in life, he discovered real fulfillment in marriage and fatherhood. By turns history, biography, and philosophy, The World as I Found It is the tale of three wildly different men adrift in the twentieth century: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. Rich in humor and tragedy, lust and violence, spirit and striving, this is a novel that will enthrall any reader. (Publisher’s description)

Egan, Jennifer, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa. We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her longstanding compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life — divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed up band in the basement of a suburban house — and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang — who thrived and who faltered — and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to Powerpoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both — and escape the merciless progress of time — in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers. (Amazon.com review)

Eggers, Dave, What is the What

Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalised memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalisation. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other “Lost Boys,” beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfilment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval. (Publishers Weekly review)

Eugenides, Jeffrey, Middlesex

Eugenides’s second novel (after The Virgin Suicides) opens “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy…in August of 1974.” Thus starts the epic tale of how Calliope Stephanides is transformed into Cal. Spanning three generations and two continents, the story winds from the small Greek village of Smyrna to the smoggy, crime-riddled streets of Detroit, past historical events, and through family secrets. The author’s eloquent writing captures the essence of Cal, a hermaphrodite, who sets out to discover himself by tracing the story of his family back to his grandparents. From the beginning, the reader is brought into a world rich in culture and history, as Eugenides extends his plot into forbidden territories with unique grace. His confidence in the story, combined with his sure prose, helps readers overcome their initial surprise and focus on the emotional revelation of the characters and beyond. Once again, Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart. Highly recommended. (Library Journal review)

Ferris, Joshua, Then We Came to the End

In this wildly funny debut from former ad man Ferris, a group of copywriters and designers at a Chicago ad agency face layoffs at the end of the ’90s boom. Indignation rises over the rightful owner of a particularly coveted chair (“We felt deceived”). Gonzo e-mailer Tom Mota quotes Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the midst of his tirades, desperately trying to retain a shred of integrity at a job that requires a ruthless attention to what will make people buy things. Jealousy toward the aloof and “inscrutable” middle manager Joe Pope spins out of control. Copywriter Chris Yop secretly returns to the office after he’s laid off to prove his worth. Rumors that supervisor Lynn Mason has breast cancer inspire blood lust, remorse, compassion. Ferris has the downward-spiraling office down cold, and his use of the narrative “we” brilliantly conveys the collective fear, pettiness, idiocy and also humanity of high-level office drones as anxiety rises to a fever pitch. Only once does Ferris shift from the first person plural (for an extended fugue on Lynn’s realization that she may be ill), and the perspective feels natural throughout. At once delightfully freakish and entirely credible, Ferris’s cast makes a real impression. (Publishers Weekly review)

Flanagan, Richard, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love. August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. (Publisher’s description)

Fowler, Karen Joy, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

As a girl in Indiana, Rosemary, Fowler’s breathtakingly droll 22-year-old narrator, felt that she and Fern were not only sisters but also twins. So she was devastated when Fern disappeared. Then her older brother, Lowell, also vanished. Rosemary is now prolonging her college studies in California, unsure of what to make of her life. Enter tempestuous and sexy Harlow, a very dangerous friend who forces Rosemary to confront her past. We then learn that Rosemary’s father is a psychology professor, her mother a nonpracticing scientist, and Fern a chimpanzee. Fowler, author of the best-selling The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), vigorously and astutely explores the profound consequences of this unusual family configuration in sustained flashbacks. Smart and frolicsome Fern believes she is human, while Rosemary, unconsciously mirroring Fern, is instantly tagged “monkey girl” at school. Fern, Rosemary, and Lowell all end up traumatized after they are abruptly separated. As Rosemary — lonely, unmoored, and caustically funny — ponders the mutability of memories, the similarities and differences between the minds of humans and chimps, and the treatment of research animals, Fowler slowly and dramatically reveals Fern and Lowell’s heartbreaking yet instructive fates. Piquant humor, refulgent language, a canny plot rooted in real-life experiences, an irresistible narrator, threshing insights, and tender emotions — Fowler has outdone herself in this deeply inquisitive, cage-rattling novel. (Booklist review)

Frayn, Michael, Spies

By the author of the bestselling Booker Prize finalist Headlong, this dark, nostalgic and bittersweet parable evokes the childhood escapades of an isolated and hapless young boy caught up in the uncertainties of wartime London in the early 1940s, just after the horrors of the Luftwaffe blitz. Stephen Wheatley, now a grandfather living abroad, is drawn back to London to revisit his boyhood home, to deal with the complexities and eventual tragedy engendered by what seemed a harmless game of spy when he was just a schoolboy during WWII. His best friend at the time was Keith Hayward, the bright son of rather standoffish parents; Keith and Stephen embark on a childish adventure after Keith announces that his British mother is a German spy. The murky plot follows their frustrations as they try to shadow Keith’s mum as she goes through the mundane ritual of stopping by her sister’s house with letters and a shopping basket, only to disappear into the neighboring streets. Discovering at last that she takes a route through the culvert beneath the railroad and leaves letters in a box hidden on the other side, they eventually learn that she sometimes meets a tattered, bearded tramp hiding in a bombed-out cellar. When Keith’s mum finally realizes they have found her out, she secretly seeks Stephen’s loyalty, making him complicit. Thrust into a role far beyond his years, but helpless to refuse, he is overwhelmed. As it plays out to a surprising denouement, this enigmatic melodrama will keep readers’ attention firmly in hand. (Publishers Weekly review)

Gaiman, Neil, Anansi Boys

If readers found the Sandman series creator’s last novel, American Gods, hard to classify, they will be equally nonplussed — and equally entertained — by this brilliant mingling of the mundane and the fantastic. “Fat Charlie” Nancy leads a life of comfortable workaholism in London, with a stressful agenting job he doesn’t much like, and a pleasant fiancée, Rosie. When Charlie learns of the death of his estranged father in Florida, he attends the funeral and learns two facts that turn his well-ordered existence upside-down: that his father was a human form of Anansi, the African trickster god, and that he has a brother, Spider, who has inherited some of their father’s godlike abilities. Spider comes to visit Charlie and gets him fired from his job, steals his fiancée, and is instrumental in having him arrested for embezzlement and suspected of murder. When Charlie resorts to magic to get rid of Spider, who’s selfish and unthinking rather than evil, things begin to go very badly for just about everyone. Other characters — including Charlie’s malevolent boss, Grahame Coats (“an albino ferret in an expensive suit”), witches, police and some of the folk from American Gods — are expertly woven into Gaiman’s rich myth, which plays off the African folk tales in which Anansi stars. But it’s Gaiman’s focus on Charlie and Charlie’s attempts to return to normalcy that make the story so winning — along with gleeful, hurtling prose. (Publishers Weekly review)

Ghosh, Amitav, The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

The Calcutta Chromosome is one of those books that’s marketed as a mainstream thriller even though it is an excellent science fiction novel (It won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award). The main character is a man named Antar, whose job is to monitor a somewhat finicky computer that sorts through mountains of information. When the computer finds something it can’t catalog, it brings the item to Antar’s attention. A string of these seemingly random anomalies puts Antar on the trail of a man named Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995 while searching for the truth behind the discovery of the cure for malaria. This search for Murugan leads, in turn, to the discovery of the Calcutta Chromosome, which can shift bits of personality from one person to another. That’s when things really get interesting. (Amazon.com review)

Gold, Glen David, Carter Beats the Devil

In Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold subjects the past to the same wondrous transformations as the rabbit in a skilled illusionist’s hat. Gold’s debut novel opens with real-life magician Charles Carter executing a particularly grisly trick, using President Warren G. Harding as a volunteer. Shortly afterwards, Harding dies mysteriously in his San Francisco hotel room, and Carter is forced to flee the country. Or does he? It’s only the first of many misdirections in a magical performance by Gold. In the course of subsequent pages, Carter finds himself pursued by the most hapless of FBI agents; falls in love with a beautiful, outspoken blind woman; and confronts an old nemesis bent on destroying him. Throw in countless stunning (and historically accurate) illusions, some beautifully rendered period detail, and historical figures like young inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and self-made millionaire Francis “Borax” Smith, and you have old-fashioned entertainment executed with a decidedly modern sensibility. Gold has written for movies and TV, so it’s no surprise that he delivers snappy, fast-paced dialogue and action scenes as expertly scripted as anything that’s come out of Hollywood in years. Carter Beats the Devil has a mustachioed villain, chase scenes, a lion, miraculous escapes, even pirates, for God’s sake. Yet none of this is as broadly drawn as it might sound: Gold’s characters are driven by childhood sorrows and disappointments in love, just like the rest of us, and they’re limned in clever, quicksilver prose. By turns suspenseful, moving, and magical, this is the historical novel to give to anyone who complains that contemporary fiction has lost the ability to both move and entertain. (Amazon.com review)

Grass, Gunter, The Tin Drum

The greatest German novel since the end of World War II, The Tin Drum is the autobiography of Oskar Matzerath, thirty years old, detained in a mental hospital, convicted of a murder he did not commit. On the day of his third birthday, Oskar had “declared, resolved, and determined [to] stop right there, remain as I was, stay the same size, cling to the same attire” (striped pullover and patent-leather shoes). That same day Oskar receives his first tin drum, and from then on it is the means of his expression, allowing him to draw forth memories from the past as well as judgments about the horrors, injustices, and eccentricities he observes through the long nightmare of the Nazi era. As that era ebbs bloodily away, as drum succeeds drum, Oskar participates in the German postwar economic miracle — working variously in the black market, as an artist’s model, in a troupe of traveling musicians. With the onset of affluence and fame, Oskar decides to grow a few inches, only to develop a humpback. But despite his newfound status (and stature), Oskar remains haunted by the deaths of his parents, afflicted by his responsibility for past sins — and so assumes guilt for a murder he did not commit as an act of atonement and an opportunity to find consolation. The rhythms of Oskar’s drums are intricate and insistent, and they lead us, often by way of shocking fantasies, through the dark forest of German history. Through Oskar’s piercing, outspoken voice and deformed little figure, through the imaginative distortion and exaggeration of historical experience, a pathetically hilarious yet startlingly true portrayal of the human situation comes into view. (Publisher’s description)

Grenville, Kate, The Secret River

William Thornhill, a boatman in pre-Victorian London, escapes the harsh circumstances of his lower-class, hard-scrabble life and ends up a prosperous, albeit somehow unsatisfied, settler in Australia. After being caught stealing, he is sentenced to death; the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife. Readers are filled with a sense of foreboding that turns out to be well founded. Life is difficult, but through hard work and initiative the Thornhills slowly get ahead. During his sentence, William has made his living hauling goods on the Hawkesbury River and thirsting after a piece of virgin soil that he regularly passes. Once he gains his freedom, his family moves onto the land, raises another rude hut, and plants corn. The small band of Aborigines camping nearby seems mildly threatening: William cannot communicate with them; they lead leisurely hunter/gatherer lives that contrast with his farming labor; and they appear and disappear eerily. They are also masterful spearmen, and Thornhill cannot even shoot a gun accurately. Other settlers on the river want to eliminate the Aborigines. The culture clash becomes violent, with the protagonist unwillingly drawn in. The characters are sympathetically and colorfully depicted, and the experiencing of circumstances beyond any single person’s control is beautifully shown. (School Library Journal review)

Haddon, Mark, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Christopher Boone, the autistic 15-year-old narrator of this revelatory novel, relaxes by groaning and doing math problems in his head, eats red-but not yellow or brown-foods and screams when he is touched. Strange as he may seem, other people are far more of a conundrum to him, for he lacks the intuitive “theory of mind” by which most of us sense what’s going on in other people’s heads. When his neighbor’s poodle is killed and Christopher is falsely accused of the crime, he decides that he will take a page from Sherlock Holmes (one of his favorite characters) and track down the killer. As the mystery leads him to the secrets of his parents’ broken marriage and then into an odyssey to find his place in the world, he must fall back on deductive logic to navigate the emotional complexities of a social world that remains a closed book to him. Though Christopher insists, “This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them,” the novel brims with touching, ironic humor. The result is an eye-opening work in a unique and compelling literary voice. (Publishers Weekly review)

Harrison, M. John, Light

In M. John Harrison’s dangerously illuminating new novel, three quantum outlaws face a universe of their own creation, a universe where you make up the rules as you go along and break them just as fast, where there’s only one thing more mysterious than darkness. In contemporary London, Michael Kearney is a serial killer on the run from the entity that drives him to kill. He is seeking escape in a future that doesn’t yet exist — a quantum world that he and his physicist partner hope to access through a breach of time and space itself. In this future, Seria Mau Genlicher has already sacrificed her body to merge into the systems of her starship, the White Cat. But the “inhuman” K-ship captain has gone rogue, pirating the galaxy while playing cat and mouse with the authorities who made her what she is. In this future, Ed Chianese, a drifter and adventurer, has ridden dynaflow ships, run old alien mazes, surfed stellar envelopes. He “went deep” — and lived to tell about it. Once crazy for life, he’s now just a twink on New Venusport, addicted to the bizarre alternate realities found in the tanks — and in debt to all the wrong people. Haunting them all through this maze of menace and mystery is the shadowy presence of the Shrander — and three enigmatic clues left on the barren surface of an asteroid under an ocean of light known as the Kefahuchi Tract: a deserted spaceship, a pair of bone dice, and a human skeleton.(Publisher’s description)

Hartnett, Sonya, Of a Boy

Rarely is a sentence turned so well, a setting so remarkably established, and a plot so evenly polished as in this book. Immediately, in the preface, readers are confronted with a spellbinding scenario. Three children head down the footpath from their home in Australia to the ice-cream shop, and they are never seen again. In a neighboring town, nine-year-old Adrian is fearful of much, talented, perceptive, curious, a virtual outcast in his school, and an unhappy resident in his grandmother’s home. He notices the three children who move into a house across the road and wonders if they could possibly be the missing trio. Adrian subsequently meets the oldest girl, Nicole, in the park one afternoon as she cares for a dying bird. His suspicions of her identity are further aroused by her sly answers to his inquiries. A psychic reports that the missing children are located near water, and Nicole and Adrian take it upon themselves to find them. Tightly composed and ripe with symbolism, this complex book will offer opportunities for rich discussion. (School Library Journal review)

Hemon, Aleksander, The Lazarus Project

America has a richer literary landscape since Aleksandar Hemon, stranded in the United States in 1992 after war broke out in his native Sarajevo, adopted Chicago as his new home. He completed his first short story within three years of learning to write in English, and since then his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Paris Review and in two acclaimed books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. In The Lazarus Project, his most ambitious and imaginative work yet, Hemon brings to life an epic narrative born from a historical event: the 1908 killing of Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by George Shippy, the chief of Chicago police, after being admitted into his home to deliver an important letter. The mystery of what really happened that day remains unsolved (Shippy claimed Averbuch was an anarchist with ill intent) and from this opening set piece Hemon springs a century ahead to tell the story of Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer living in Chicago who gets funding to travel to Eastern Europe and unearth what really happened. The Lazarus Project deftly weaves the two stories together, cross-cutting the aftermath of Lazarus’s death with Brik’s journey and the tales from his traveling partner, Rora, a Bosnian war photographer. And while the novel will remind readers of many great books before it–Ragtime, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Everything Is Illuminated–it is a masterful literary adventure that manages to be grand in scope and intimate in detail. It’s an incredibly rewarding reading experience that’s not to be missed. (Amazon.com review)

Hensher, Philip, The Mulberry Empire

In 1839, about 50,000 British troops entered Afghanistan to replace the amir with someone more palatable to the Empire. In this fictionalized account, we meet Burnes, a British explorer who ventures into the capital city of Kabul and befriends the soon-to-be-ousted Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. Through no planning of his own, Burnes becomes an emissary for the British government and attempts to forge a relationship with Afghanistan. The novel switches between Afghanistan and England, and in addition to Burnes, the reader meets many other characters, among them Bella, the woman who falls for Burnes but won’t follow him on his exotic journeys; Charles Masson, a deserter of the English forces who one day finds himself in Kabul and who later plots the downfall of Burnes; and Vitkevich, Burnes’s Russian counterpart, who is attempting to double-cross the amir. Hensher, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award for Kitchen Venom, combines numerous characters, plot lines, locales, and time shifts to tell an incredibly complex saga of rulers, empires, politics, imperialism, and revolt. The past events of which he writes mirror the present and maybe the future, giving the book a timeless quality. This well-executed work will appeal to serious fans of historical fiction. (Library Journal review)

Hoban, Russell, Riddley Walker

‘Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same. There aint that many sir prizes in life if you take noatis of every thing. Every time will have its happenings out and every place the same. Thats why I finely come to writing all this down. Thinking on what the idear of us myt be. Thinking on that thing whats in us lorn and loan and oansome.’ Composed in an English which has never been spoken and laced with a storytelling tradition that predates the written word, Riddley Walker is the world waiting for us at the bitter end of the nuclear road. It is desolate, dangerous and harrowing, and a modern masterpiece. (Publisher’s description)

Hornby, Nick, High Fidelity

It has been said often enough that baby boomers are a television generation, but High Fidelity reminds that in a way they are the record-album generation as well. This hilarious novel is obsessed with music; Hornby’s narrator is an early thirtysomething bloke who runs a London record store. He sells albums recorded the old-fashioned way–on vinyl–and is having a tough time making other transitions as well, specifically to adulthood. The book is in one sense a love story, both sweet and interesting; most entertaining, though, are the hilarious arguments over arcane matters of pop music. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Hulme, Keri, The Bone People

Powerful and visionary, Keri Hulme has written the great New Zealand novel of our times. The Bone People is the story of Kerewin, a despairing part-Maori artist who is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. Her cocoon is rudely blown away by the sudden arrival during a rainstorm of Simon, a mute six-year-old whose past seems to hold some terrible trauma. In his wake comes his foster-father Joe, a Maori factory worker with a nasty temper. The narrative unravels to reveal the truths that lie behind these three characters, and in so doing displays itself as a huge, ambitious work that tackles the clash between Maori and European characters in beautiful prose of a heartrending poignancy. (Publisher’s description)

Hyland, MJ, Carry Me Down

John Egan is a misfit, ‘a twelve-year old in the body of a grown man with the voice of a giant who insists on the ridiculous truth’. With an obsession for the Guinness Book of Records and faith in his ability to detect when adults are lying, John remains hopeful despite the unfortunate cards life deals him. During one year in John’s life, from his voice breaking, through the breaking-up of his home life, to the near collapse of his sanity, we witness the gradual unsticking of John’s mind, and the trouble that creates for him and his family. Set in early seventies Ireland, Carry Me Down is a deeply sympathetic take on one sad boyhood, told in gripping, and at times unsettling, prose. It plays out its tragic plot against a disarmingly familiar background and refuses to portray any of its lovingly drawn characters as easy heroes or villains. (Publisher’s description)

Ihimaera, Witi, The Whale Rider

A poetic blend of reality and myth provides a riveting tale of adventure and passion. An ancient whale ridden by a mystical man rises from the sea, the rider throwing spears that blossom like seeds into gifts of nature. One last spear “-flew across a thousand years. When it hit the earth, it did not change but waited for another hundred and fifty years to pass until it was needed.” It sprouts when Kahu, a girl child, is born to the eldest grandson of the chief of the Maori in Whangara, New Zealand. Koro Apirana is disgusted; he needs a male child to continue the line of descent in the tribe. The years that follow further harden his heart toward his great-granddaughter in spite of the bottomless love and respect she showers upon him. The child’s great-grandmother, the irreverent Nanny Flowers, proves to be the strength of this family; she nurtures the girl whom she knows holds the key to the future. The complex mixture of archetypal characters and cultural troubles make this novel appropriate for mature readers. This story, originally published in New Zealand in 1987, is the basis of the recently released film by the same name. It’s a tale rich in intense drama and sociological and cultural information. (School Library Journal review)

Irving, John, The World According to Garp

This is the life and times of T. S. Garp, the bastard son of Jenny Fields — a feminist leader ahead of her times. This is the life and death of a famous mother and her almost-famous son; theirs is a world of sexual extremes — even of sexual assassinations. It is a novel rich with “lunacy and sorrow”; yet the dark, violent events of the story do not undermine a comedy both ribald and robust. In more than thirty languages, in more than forty countries — with more than ten million copies in print — this novel provides almost cheerful, even hilarious evidence of its famous last line: “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” (Publisher’s description)

Ishiguro, Kazuo, Never Let Me Go

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were pupils at Hailsham — an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside. The children there were tenderly sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe they were special, and that their personal welfare was crucial. But for what reason were they really there? It is only years later that Kathy, now aged 31, finally allows herself to yield to the pull of memory. What unfolds is the haunting story of how Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, slowly come to face the truth about their seemingly happy childhoods — and about their futures. Never Let Me Go is a uniquely moving novel, charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of our lives. (Publisher’s description)

Jennings, Kate, Moral Hazard

This short, self-assured novel by Australian-born Jennings (Snake) brilliantly depicts the complicated life of a working woman on Wall Street during the dot-com boom. Cath, a freelance writer in her 40s, is married to Bailey, who’s 25 years her senior. When he develops Alzheimer’s, she takes a speech-writing job at an investment bank to pay for his expensive medical care. Wry but realistic, and realizing her position in a rigid boys’ club hierarchy, she suppresses her liberal sensibility and defers to the chauvinists who dominate the firm, even cozying up to Horace, the company’s most Machiavellian executive. Cath’s Virgil through this hell is Mike, a cynical but gabby risk manager whose gossip and instruction illuminate the high-stakes office politics and dismal science of Wall Street. As Bailey deteriorates, in scene after heartbreaking scene, Cath finds unexpected succor “in the belly of the beast.” Jennings, herself a former Wall Street speechwriter, makes it clear that the mad math of high finance and the delusions of Alzheimer’s resemble one another: it’s a metaphor she exploits with dramatic consequences in this piercing novel, gleaming with facets of hard-won knowledge, polished by experience and a keen intelligence. An ideal subway read for smart working men and women, it masterfully documents the culture of economic and corporate arrogance, while never losing sight of the human cost of such hubris. (Publishers Weekly review)

Jones, Gwyneth, Life

The lives of biologist Anna Senoz; her husband, Spence; and their university friends intertwine as they evolve from idealistic students into adults with concerns that may affect their world. When Anna discovers a curious genetic trend with implications for the human sexual identity and gender relations, she finds herself a pariah among her colleagues. This latest novel from British author Jones (Divine Endurance) portrays a near future of commercial globalisation in which gender discrimination persists in subtle ways, forcing biology to find a way to fight back to equalise the sexes. Beautifully written and elegantly paced, this story conveys bold speculative concepts through intensely human characters. (Library Journal review)

Jones, Lloyd, Mister Pip

“You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.” It is Bougainville in 1991 — a small village on a lush tropical island in the South Pacific. Eighty-six days have passed since Matilda’s last day of school as, quietly, war is encroaching from the other end of the island. When the villagers’ safe, predictable lives come to a halt, Bougainville’s children are surprised to find the island’s only white man, a recluse, re-opening the school. Pop Eye, aka Mr Watts, explains he will introduce the children to Mr Dickens. Matilda and the others think a foreigner is coming to the island and prepare a list of much needed items. They are shocked to discover their acquaintance with Mr Dickens will be through Mr Watts’ inspiring reading of Great Expectations. But on an island at war, the power of fiction has dangerous consequences. Imagination and beliefs are challenged by guns. Mister Pip is an unforgettable tale of survival by story; a dazzling piece of writing that lives long in the mind after the last page is finished. (Publisher’s description)

Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz, Franz and Marie-Claude–four people, four relationships. Milan Kundera’s masterful novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), tells the interlocking stories of these four relationships, with a primary focus on Tomas, a man torn between his love for Tereza, his wife, and his incorrigible “erotic adventures,” particularly his long-time affair with the internationally noted painter, Sabina. The world of Kundera’s novel is one in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and fortuitous events. It is a world in which, because everything occurs only once and then disappears into the past, existence seems to lose its substance and weight. Coping with both the consequences of their own actions and desires and the intruding demands of society and the state, Kundera’s characters struggle to construct lives of individual value and lasting meaning. A novel of ideas, a provocative look at the ways in which history impinges on individual lives, and a meditation on personal identity, The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the imperfect possibilities of adult love and the ways in which free choice and necessity shape our lives. “What then shall we choose?” Kundera asks at the beginning of his novel. “Weight or lightness?” This international bestseller is his attempt to answer that question. And the answer is hinted at in the novel’s final scene, in which Tomas and Tereza find themselves in a small country hotel after a rare evening of dancing. When Tomas turns on the light in their room, “a large nocturnal butterfly” rises from the bedside lamp and circles the room in which they are alone with their happiness and their sadness. (readinggroupguides.com synopsis)

Kunzru, Hari, Transmission

Transmission is Hari Kunzru’s second novel and, in a similar vein to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the title is instructive; it’s figuratively and literally, the book’s pulsing leitmotif. To transmit is, by definition, to “send across”, and the migration of information and people, the destruction and the erection of borders in our hi-tech, supposedly global village, (a world where Indian graduates gain Australian accents working in local call centres) is what this novel is all about. Leaving aside the broader forces of globalisation, Kunzru’s chief dramatic agent is a computer virus that meshes together the lives of his main characters: Arjun Mehta, a sexually-naïve Indian programmer working in America who unleashes the contagion; Leela Zahir, a Bollywood actress whose image the bug zooms across the globe and Guy Swift, head of Tomorrow, a Shoreditch-based consultancy whose ongoing quest to harness the “emotional magma that wells from the core of planet brand”, becomes somewhat nobbled in the immediate technological fallout. Of his cast, not unsurprisingly Guy comes closest to caricature (though his scheme to rebrand European border police as Ministry of Sound-style nightclub bouncers–”Europe: No Jeans, No Trainers”–sounds alarming believable). But then Guy’s is the incarnate of the worst, Panglossian traits of the West in this callow information age. His certainty and self-absorbed fecklessness (which thankfully he does eventually suffer, horribly for) contrasts jarringly with poor, Mehta, whose American dreams tip, all too swiftly into nightmare. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Kureishi, Hanif, The Black Album

Again cleverly mining the chaos and contradictions of multicultural, postmodern England, Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia) follows the turbulent social and spiritual education of an impressionable young Pakistani at an inferior London college, where he struggles with conflicting personal, familial and cultural allegiances. The year is 1989, and the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has caused an international controversy. Shahid Hasan has left his bourgeois family in Kent to study in the city. As he falls in with a group of crusading young Muslims whose charismatic leader lives next door, Shahid also becomes deeply involved — both intellectually and sexually — with his liberal, humanistic professor Deedee Osgood, who has assigned him a term paper on the rock icon then known as Prince. Irresolute to the point of spinelessness, Shahid allows his beliefs to vacillate until a violent confrontation erupts. Kureishi insightfully probes issues of faith and individualism against a memorable landscape of urban and academic upheaval. While Shahid’s lack of conviction and personal loyalty make him a less than likable protagonist, there is ample fervor in the colorful supporting cast, and the author’s wit and considerable narrative talents easily embroil the reader in the novel’s unfolding drama. (Publishers Weekly review)

Lahiri, Jhumpa, The Namesake

Any talk of The Namesake–Jhumpa Lahiri’s follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies–must begin with a name: Gogol Ganguli. Born to an Indian academic and his wife, Gogol is afflicted from birth with a name that is neither Indian nor American nor even really a first name at all. He is given the name by his father who, before he came to America to study at MIT, was almost killed in a train wreck in India. Rescuers caught sight of the volume of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories that he held, and hauled him from the train. Ashoke gives his American-born son the name as a kind of placeholder, and the awkward thing sticks. Awkwardness is Gogol’s birthright. He grows up a bright American boy, goes to Yale, has pretty girlfriends, becomes a successful architect, but like many second-generation immigrants, he can never quite find his place in the world. There’s a lovely section where he dates a wealthy, cultured young Manhattan woman who lives with her charming parents. They fold Gogol into their easy, elegant life, but even here he can find no peace and he breaks off the relationship. His mother finally sets him up on a blind date with the daughter of a Bengali friend, and Gogol thinks he has found his match. Moushumi, like Gogol, is at odds with the Indian-American world she inhabits. She has found, however, a circuitous escape: “At Brown, her rebellion had been academic … she’d pursued a double major in French. Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge–she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind.” Lahiri documents these quiet rebellions and random longings with great sensitivity. There’s no cleverness or showing-off in The Namesake, just beautifully confident storytelling. Gogol’s story is neither comedy nor tragedy; it’s simply that ordinary, hard-to-get-down-on-paper commodity: real life. (Amazon.com review)

LeGuin, Ursula, The Dispossessed

Most of Le Guin’s science fiction is set in a human galaxy where the distance of time and space imposed by relativity is mitigated by instantaneous transmission of information through a gadget called the ansible. The Dispossessed was the book in which she told us of Shevek, the ansible’s inventor, and the ironies of his career. Shevek is a loyal citizen of a poor anarchist world, Anarres, which finds frills like research hard to afford; he travels to the neighbouring world of Urras, to find that unbridled capitalism is not much fun either. “Nio Esseia, a city of four million souls, lifted its delicate glittering towers across the green marshes of the Estuary as if it were built of mist and sunlight…Was all Nio Esseia this? Huge shining boxes of stone and glass, immense, ornate, enormous packages, empty, empty.” At once one of the greatest of SF novels about political ideas and idealism, and a stunning novel of character, The Dispossessed has at its centre Shevek, scientist and near-saint, a flawed human being whom we come to know as we know few characters in modern science fiction. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Leigh, Julia, The Hunter

The young Australian writer, Julia Leigh, has been hailed as a talent to watch in the 21st century. The Hunter, her first novel, is a strange and haunting story which opens straight onto the world of its protagonist, M: “The mini-bus takes fifteen minutes to arrive in town: “Welcome to Tiger Town” reads a sign by the highway, “Population: 20,000″”. Assuming the identity of Martin David, Naturalist, M makes his preparations for a hunt: he, and the reader, will be spending some time in the Tasmanian wilderness in search of the legendary tiger, the thylacine. In crafted, measured and often beautiful prose, Leigh offers her readers glimpses of who M is, or might be, and what he is looking for. There is a hint that the thylacine’s genetic material has been “declared capable of winning a thousand wars”, a gift to bio-weaponry, but M remains detached: “M does not know, cannot know and does not want to know, but there is no question the race is on to harvest the beast”. M’s not wanting to know guides the narrative: he is solitary, unconnected, only occasionally giving in to the desires for human and sexual, contact which emerge through M’s vague, yet somehow yearning, association with the woman and two children with whom he stays when not out on the hunt. But the feeling centre of the book is anchored elsewhere in the unique connection between M and the tiger, in Leigh’s meticulous exploration of the beauty–and terror–of the relation between killer and killed. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Lethem, Jonathan, The Fortress of Solitude

If there still remains any doubt, this novel confirms Lethem’s status as the poet of Brooklyn and of motherless boys. Projected through the prism of race relations, black music and pop art, Lethem’s stunning, disturbing and authoritatively observed narrative covers three decades of turbulent events on Dean Street, Brooklyn. When Abraham and Rachel Ebdus arrive there in the early 1970s, they are among the first whites to venture into a mainly black neighborhood that is just beginning to be called Boerum Hill. Abraham is a painter who abandons his craft to construct tiny, virtually indistinguishable movie frames in which nothing happens. Ex-hippie Rachel, a misguided liberal who will soon abandon her family, insists on sending their son, Dylan, to public school, where he stands out like a white flag. Desperately lonely, regularly attacked and abused by the black kids (“yoked,” in the parlance), Dylan is saved by his unlikely friendship with his neighbor Mingus Rude, the son of a once-famous black singer, Barnett Rude Jr., who is now into cocaine and rage at the world. The story of Dylan and Mingus, both motherless boys, is one of loyalty and betrayal, and eventually different paths in life. Dylan will become a music journalist, and Mingus, for all his intelligence, kindness, verbal virtuosity and courage, will wind up behind bars. Meanwhile, the plot manages to encompass pop music from punk rock to rap, avant-garde art, graffiti, drug use, gentrification, the New York prison system-and to sing a vibrant, sometimes heartbreaking ballad of Brooklyn throughout. Lethem seems to have devoured the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s-inhaled them whole-and he reproduces them faithfully on the page, in prose as supple as silk and as bright, explosive and illuminating as fireworks. Scary and funny and seriously surreal, the novel hurtles on a trajectory that feels inevitable. By the time Dylan begins to break out of the fortress of solitude that has been his life, readers have shared his pain and understood his dreams. (Publishers Weekly review)

Malouf, David, An Imaginary Life

In the first century A.D., Publius Ovidius Naso, the most urbane and irreverent poet of imperial Rome, was banished to a remote village on the edge of the Black Sea. From these sparse facts, Malouf has fashioned an audacious and supremely moving novel. Marooned on the edge of the known world, exiled from his native tongue, Ovid depends on the kindness of barbarians who impale their dead and converse with the spirit world.Then he becomes the guardian of a still more savage creature, a feral child who has grown up among deer. What ensues is a luminous encounter between civilisation and nature, as enacted by a poet who once cataloged the treacheries of love and a boy who slowly learns how to give it. (Publisher’s description)

Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall

No character in the canon has been writ larger than Henry VIII, but that didn’t stop Hilary Mantel. She strides through centuries, past acres of novels, histories, biographies, and plays–even past Henry himself–confident in the knowledge that to recast history’s most mercurial sovereign, it’s not the King she needs to see, but one of the King’s most mysterious agents. Enter Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man and remarkable polymath who ascends to the King’s right hand. Rigorously pragmatic and forward-thinking, Cromwell has little interest in what motivates his Majesty, and although he makes way for Henry’s marriage to the infamous Anne Boleyn, it’s the future of a free England that he honours above all else and hopes to secure. Mantel plots with a sleight of hand, making full use of her masterful grasp on the facts without weighing down her prose. The opening cast of characters and family trees may give initial pause to some readers, but persevere: the witty, whip-smart lines volleying the action forward may convince you a short stay in the Tower of London might not be so bad… provided you could bring a copy of Wolf Hall along. (Amazon.com review)

McCarthy, Cormac, The Road

Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it’s not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that’s the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy’s previous work. McCarthy’s Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact that greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between the Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out–the entire world is, quite literally, dying–so the final affirmation of hope in the novel’s closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father’s (and McCarthy’s) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith. (Amazon.com review by Dennis Lehane)

McCarthy, Tom, Remainder

McCarthy’s debut novel, set in London, takes a clever conceit and pumps it up with vibrant prose to such great effect that the narrative’s pointlessness is nearly a nonissue. The unnamed narrator, who suffers memory loss as the result of an accident that “involved something falling from the sky,” receives an £8.5 million settlement and uses the money to re-enact, with the help of a “facilitator” he hires, things remembered or imagined. He buys an apartment building to replicate one that has come to him in a vision and then populates it with people hired to re-enact, over and over again, the mundane activities he has seen his imaginary neighbors performing. He stages both ordinary acts (the fixing of a punctured tire) and violent ones (shootings and more), each time repeating the events many times and becoming increasingly detached from reality and fascinated by the scenarios his newfound wealth has allowed him to create — even though he professes he doesn’t “want to understand them.” McCarthy’s evocation of the narrator’s absorption in his fantasy world as it cascades out of control is brilliant all the way through the abrupt climax. (Publishers Weekly review)

McEwan, Ian, Enduring Love

On a windy spring day in the Chilterns, the calm, organized life of science writer Joe Rose is shattered when he witnesses a tragic accident: a hot-air balloon with a boy trapped in its basket is being tossed by the wind, and in the attempt to save the child, a man is killed. A stranger named Jed Parry joins Rose in helping to bring the balloon to safety. But unknown to Rose, something passes between Parry and himself on that day–something that gives birth to an obsession in Parry so powerful that it will test the limits of Rose’s beloved rationalism, threaten the love of his wife, Clarissa, and drive him to the brink of murder and madness. Brilliant and compassionate, this is a novel of love, faith, and suspense, and of how life can change in an instant. (Publisher’s description)

Mieville, China, The City and the City

Better known for New Weird fantasies (Perdido Street Station, etc.), bestseller Miéville offers an outstanding take on police procedurals with this barely speculative novel. Twin southern European cities Beszel and Ul Qoma coexist in the same physical location, separated by their citizens’ determination to see only one city at a time. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad roams through the intertwined but separate cultures as he investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, who believed that a third city, Orciny, hides in the blind spots between Beszel and Ul Qoma. As Mahalia’s friends disappear and revolution brews, Tyador is forced to consider the idea that someone in unseen Orciny is manipulating the other cities. Through this exaggerated metaphor of segregation, Miéville skillfully examines the illusions people embrace to preserve their preferred social realities. (Publishers Weekly review)

Mistry, Rohinton, Such a Long Journey

Mistry, Bombay-born author of Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, serves up an exotic feast with this novel. The year is 1971, and India is ready to pursue a war against Pakistan over the region that will become Bangladesh. This chaotic period is seen through the eyes of one Gustad Noble, a family man and Parsi bank clerk in Bombay. Gustad’s fortunes have begun to change for the worse, with disappointments and bad luck sweeping through his previously secure way of life. When an old friend secretly recruits him to assist in a seemingly heroic mission under the aegis of Indira Gandhi’s CIA-like operatives, he becomes enmeshed in a series of dangerous events, with tragic results. Mistry’s prose displays the lightest of witty touches, and the narrative is often quite funny, particularly when it invites us inside the minds of the knowable, likable, somehow familiar men and women whose activities propel the plot. A writer of enormous range and shrewdness, Mistry delivers no manifesto, but an intelligent portrait of the corrupt aspects of Indira Gandhi’s years in power. Throughout his byzantine scenario, he demonstrates empathy for and deep understanding of his characters. His novel evokes Rushdie in its denser, florid moments, and T. Coraghessan Boyle in its more madcap flights. (Publishers Weekly review)

Mitchell, David, Cloud Atlas

Mitchell’s virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy. There is a naïve clerk on a nineteenth-century Polynesian voyage; an aspiring composer who insinuates himself into the home of a syphilitic genius; a journalist investigating a nuclear plant; a publisher with a dangerous best-seller on his hands; and a cloned human being created for slave labor. These five stories are bisected and arranged around a sixth, the oral history of a post-apocalyptic island, which forms the heart of the novel. Only after this do the second halves of the stories fall into place, pulling the novel’s themes into focus: the ease with which one group enslaves another, and the constant rewriting of the past by those who control the present. Against such forces, Mitchell’s characters reveal a quiet tenacity. When the clerk is told that his life amounts to “no more than one drop in a limitless ocean,” he asks, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” (The New Yorker review)

Morrison, Toni, Sula

Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal — or does it end? Terrifying, comic, ribald and tragic, Sula is a work that overflows with life. (Publisher’s description)

Murakami, Haruki, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Bad things come in threes for Toru Okada. He loses his job, his cat disappears, and then his wife fails to return from work. His search for his wife (and his cat) introduces him to a bizarre collection of characters, including two psychic sisters, a possibly unbalanced teenager, an old soldier who witnessed the massacres on the Chinese mainland at the beginning of the Second World War, and a very shady politician. Haruki Murakami is a master of subtly disturbing prose. Mundane events throb with menace, while the bizarre is accepted without comment. Meaning always seems to be just out of reach, for the reader as well as for the characters, yet one is drawn inexorably into a mystery that may have no solution. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an extended meditation on themes that appear throughout Murakami’s earlier work. The tropes of popular culture, movies, music, detective stories, combine to create a work that explores both the surface and the hidden depths of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century. If it were possible to isolate one theme in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that theme would be responsibility. The atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China keep rising to the surface like a repressed memory, and Toru Okada himself is compelled by events to take responsibility for his actions and struggle with his essentially passive nature. If Toru is supposed to be a Japanese Everyman, steeped as he is in Western popular culture and ignorant of the secret history of his own nation, this novel paints a bleak picture. Like the winding up of the titular bird, Murakami slowly twists the gossamer threads of his story into something of considerable weight. (Amazon.com review)

Murnane, Gerald, The Plains

“Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.” There is no book in Australian literature like The Plains. In the two decades since its first publication, this haunting novel has earned its status as a classic. A nameless young man arrives on the plains and begins to document the strange and rich culture of the plains families. As his story unfolds, the novel becomes, in the words of Murray Bail, ‘a mirage of landscape, memory, love and literature itself’. (Publisher’s description)

O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried

A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried marks a subtle but definitive line of demarcation between Tim O’Brien’s earlier works about Vietnam, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and the fictional Going After Cacciato, and this sly, almost hallucinatory book that is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three. Vietnam is still O’Brien’s theme, but in this book he seems less interested in the war itself than in the myriad different perspectives from which he depicts it. Whereas Going After Cacciato played with reality, The Things They Carried plays with truth. The narrator of most of these stories is “Tim”; yet O’Brien freely admits that many of the events he chronicles in this collection never really happened. He never killed a man as “Tim” does in “The Man I Killed,” and unlike Tim in “Ambush,” he has no daughter named Kathleen. But just because a thing never happened doesn’t make it any less true. In “On the Rainy River,” the character Tim O’Brien responds to his draft notice by driving north, to the Canadian border where he spends six days in a deserted lodge in the company of an old man named Elroy while he wrestles with the choice between dodging the draft or going to war. The real Tim O’Brien never drove north, never found himself in a fishing boat 20 yards off the Canadian shore with a decision to make. The real Tim O’Brien quietly boarded the bus to Sioux Falls and was inducted into the United States Army. But the truth of “On the Rainy River” lies not in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts: both Tims went to a war they didn’t believe in; both considered themselves cowards for doing so. Every story in The Things They Carried speaks another truth that Tim O’Brien learned in Vietnam; it is this blurred line between truth and reality, fact and fiction, that makes his book unforgettable. (Amazon.com review)

Okri, Ben, The Famished Road

You have never read a novel like this one. Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for fiction, The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, a spirit-child. Though spirit-children rarely stay long in the painful world of the living, when Azaro is born he chooses to fight death: “I wanted,” he says, “to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.” Survival in his chaotic African village is a struggle, though. Azaro and his family must contend with hunger, disease, and violence, as well as the boy’s spirit-companions, who are constantly trying to trick him back into their world. Okri fills his tale with unforgettable images and characters: the bereaved policeman and his wife, who try to adopt Azaro and dress him in their dead son’s clothes; the photographer who documents life in the village and displays his pictures in a cabinet by the roadside; Madame Koto, “plump as a mighty fruit,” who runs the local bar; the King of the Road, who gets hungrier the more he eats. At the heart of this hypnotic novel are the mysteries of love and human survival. “It is more difficult to love than to die,” says Azaro’s father, and indeed, it is love that brings real sharpness to suffering here. As the story moves toward its climax, Azaro must face the consequences of choosing to live, of choosing to walk the road of hunger rather than return to the benign land of spirits. The Famished Road is worth reading for its last line alone, which must be one of the most devastating endings in contemporary literature (but don’t skip ahead). (Amazon.com review)

Ondaatje, Michael, The English Patient

Haunting and harrowing, as beautiful as it is disturbing, The English Patient tells the story of the entanglement of four damaged lives in an Italian monastery as World War II ends. The exhausted nurse, Hana; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burn victim who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning. In lyrical prose informed by a poetic consciousness, Michael Ondaatje weaves these characters together, pulls them tight, then unravels the threads with unsettling acumen. A book that binds readers of great literature, The English Patient garnered the Booker Prize for author Ondaatje. (Amazon.com review)

Perez-Reverte, Arturo, The Club Dumas

Fallen angels, satanic manuals, and a passion for the works of Raphael Sabatini and Alexandre Dumas among others–this is the stuff of Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s engrossing novel The Club Dumas. Set in a world of antiquarian booksellers where dealers would gladly betray their own mothers to get their hands on a rare volume, The Club Dumas is a thinking person’s thriller: in addition to a riveting plot, the book is full of intriguing details that range from the working habits of Alexandre Dumas to how one might go about forging a 17th-century text. Woven through these meditations is enough murder, sex, and the occult to keep both the hero, Lucas Corso, and the reader hopping. As in his previous novel, The Flanders Panel, set in the world of art restoration, Mr. Pérez-Reverte has written a literary thriller to tease both the intellect and adrenaline gland. Lucas Corso makes a complex, ultimately sympathetic hero, and there’s plenty to delight in the intricate twists and turns the story takes before the mystery of The Club Dumas is finally solved. (Amazon.com review)

Perlman, Elliott, Three Dollars

One of Australia’s acclaimed young writers, first novelist Perlman explores the conundrums of conscience in one man’s desire to understand his place as a husband, father and complicated human being amid late capitalism’s ever-escalating pressure. Idealistic, intelligent Eddie Harnovey, a 38-year-old chemical engineer, tells his life story from boyhood through college years to the present. Eddie’s narrative revolves largely around the women in his life: his childhood love, the beautiful, privileged Amanda, pops into his world every nine and a half years to bewilder him; his brilliant wife, Tanya, a passionate, quixotic academic, is plagued by bouts of depression; their precocious daughter, Abby, raises the stakes on every decision Eddie makes. After a soulful, progressive youth, Eddie has wound up working for a government agency in Melbourne, where he struggles to maintain his integrity and provide for his family in an increasingly hostile corporate world. When he loses his job, he finds himself with only three dollars to his name, about to lose his house and on the edge of terror. He gets survival lessons from an unexpected source, and then, after brute accident and violence signal the end for him, salvation occurs because of his own previous decency and kindness. Eddie’s blend of self-deprecating wit, caustic social comment, spirited sensitivity and big heart carries the narrative in beautifully controlled passages that brim with insight, humor and feeling. His world is rich with the pleasures and pains of love, family, friendship and marriage, and the supporting characters in this prize-winning narrative are smart and likable; some are unabashedly erudite, facilitating entertaining philosophical debate. Perlman’s sheer storytelling virtuosity gives this essentially domestic tale the narrative drive of a thriller and the unforgettable radiance of a novel that accurately reflects essential human values. Melbourne’s newspaper The Age awarded this novel its best fiction award for 1998, and named it as the Best Book of the Year. It also won the Best Book of the Year award from the Fellowship of Australian Writers. (Publishers Weekly review)

Phillips, Arthur, Angelica

Phillips’s third novel, set in Victorian London, starts as a ghost story. When Joseph instructs his wife, Constance, to have their four-year-old daughter, Angelica, moved from their bedroom into a room of her own, Constance becomes convinced that a seductive spectral force is preying on the child. The catastrophe that follows is relayed from the perspectives of Constance; of her supposed redeemer, an actress turned exorcist; and of Joseph — each view ultimately being rendered by the adult Angelica. What at first appears a rather glib ghost story predicated on Victorian clichés of sexual repression and patriarchal tyranny turns into a spectacular, ever-proliferating tale of mingled motives, psychological menace, and delicately told crises of appetite and loneliness. Phillips sustains a pastiche of Victorian writing and ideas with enticing playfulness, and without making his characters or their complex fears and desires laughable. (The New Yorker review)

Portman, Frank, King Dork

‘I’m small for my age, uncomfortable in most situations, skinny and awkward. Most of the time I walk around here feeling like a total idiot.’ But when Tom Henderson finds his father’s copy of The Catcher In The Rye, it change his world. It puts him in the middle of several interlocking conspiracies and at least half a dozen mysteries involving dead people, naked people, fake people, ESP, blood, guitars, monks, witchcraft, a devil’s head and rock & roll. It appears to be just the tip of the iceberg of clues that could help Tom unravel the puzzle of his father’s death, and — bizarrely — reveal the secret of attracting semi-hot girls . . . (Publisher’s description)

Powers, Richard, Galatea 2.2

Powers’ fifth novel is a dazzling work of autobiography overlaid with a reinterpretation of the Pygmalion myth. Powers describes his fictional namesake’s experiences as humanist-in-residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences, where he uses his literary expertise to help Dr. Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist, win a bet that he can create a thinking machine capable of passing a comprehensive master’s exam in English. As the computer, Helen, learns the fundamentals of language and literature, she develops a sense of her own identity and self-worth. Paralleling Powers’ growing attachment to Helen is a reassessment of the years he spent living in Holland writing his novels and the demise of his longtime relationship with a former student. This is a difficult, thought-provoking, and exhilarating read, electric with the power of language and, paradoxically, language’s ultimate inability to alleviate suffering. (Booklist review)

Pratchett, Terry, The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic is Terry Pratchett’s maiden voyage through the bizarre land of Discworld. His entertaining and witty series has grown to more than 20 books, and this is where it all starts–with the tourist Twoflower and his hapless wizard guide, Rincewind (“All wizards get like that … it’s the quicksilver fumes. Rots their brains. Mushrooms, too.”). Pratchett spoofs fantasy clichés–and everything else he can think of–while marshalling a profusion of characters through a madcap adventure. (Amazon.com review)

Priest, Christopher, The Adjacent

Like some sort of self-assembling jigsaw puzzle, Priest’s new novel starts out as a handful of stories that appear unconnected either by character or by chronology. But, as we follow the stories, we eventually realize that these characters, despite being separated by time, are linked via a Nobel-winning theoretical physicist and his discovery, the Perturbative Adjacent Field. Priest, a master of deception and misdirection (The Separation, 2005), is being especially mysterious here, leaving us to work out even such basic things as whether the book is set in this reality or an alternate version (the photographer’s story seems set in a world in which Britain is an Islamic state, but, on the other hand, the story about a stage magician tasked by the British military to make airplanes appear invisible to ground-based observers seems pretty clearly set during the historical WWII). We frequently get the sense that, like a stage magician, Priest is deliberately focusing our attention on one thing, while he’s doing something else, something subtle, between the lines. While it’s definitely not a book for people who prefer their fiction to be linear, The Adjacent is a wonderful piece of fiction, an intricate puzzle that asks the reader to pay close attention and to read not just the text, but also the subtext and its implications. (Booklist review)

Pullman, Philip, The His Dark Materials Trilogy

In an epic trilogy, Philip Pullman unlocks the door to a world parallel to our own, but with a mysterious slant all its own. Dæmons and winged creatures live side by side with humans, and a mysterious entity called Dust just might have the power to unite the universes–if it isn’t destroyed first. Join Lyra, Pantalaimon, Will, and the rest as they embark on the most breathtaking, heartbreaking adventures of their lives. The fate of the universe is in their hands. Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass pit good against evil in a way no reader will ever forget. (Amazon.com review)

Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49

Returning home one fine summer afternoon from a particularly disappointing Tupperware party, Mrs. Oedipa Maas — of Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, California — opens a letter from the Los Angeles law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus and discovers that she has been named executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, late Southern California real-estate mogul, entrepreneur, and Oedipa’s former lover. Things then did not delay in turning curious. Totally in the dark about what an executor does, Oedipa leaves her disk-jockey husband Wendell (“Mucho”) to cope by himself with his “regular crises of conscience about his profession,” and sets off for Los Angeles and a meeting with lawyer Metzgar, her designated co-executor. Thus begins her Oedipa-in-Wonderland journey through the rococo spider’s-web tangle of her late lover’s leavings and her last-frontier, reality-check confrontations with the Paranoids (an anglicized rock band), Yoyodyne Corporation (“one of the giants of the aerospace industry”), an off-the-cybernetic-wall inventor (Nefastis by name) attempting to defeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics, stamp collector Genghis Cohen, and “all manner of revelations” concerning herself and the mysterious, centuries-old Tristero. This subversive, underground mail-delivery system — with its drop boxes labeled W.A.S.T.E. (“We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire”) and its alienated carriers — appears to be a worldwide conspiracy of mind-boggling reach. Oedipa has never before had to deal with a worldwide conspiracy. Especially one whose existence and nefarious goals are hinted at in a collection of forged U.S. postage stamps, a collection that Pierce Inverarity has left to be auctioned. That collection of Tristero stamps gives Oedipa nightmares, and Pynchon’s fascinating novel its title. There is also a resurrected Restoration revenge tragedy, The Courier’s Tragedy, with lines long suppressed by the Vatican. Not to mention a group of anti-love dropouts called the Inamorati Anonymous. Oedipa uncovers clue after clue after clue, only to reach uncertainty. Does The Tristero exist? Do we need another postal service? Are there vast conspiracies ruling our lives? Or are we hallucinating it all? At last, Oedipa sits in the auction room, with only herself and America to rely on. (Publisher’s description)

Rey Rosa, Rodrigo, The Good Cripple

This muscular, starkly impressive novel from Guatemala’s premiere young writer fiercely addresses the seemingly endless violence of Latin America. A young man, Juan Luis Luna, is kidnapped in Guatemala City and held at the bottom of a rusty, empty underground fuel tank in an abandoned gas station. The kidnappers demand a ransom; his rich father does not reply. The kidnappers threaten to cut off his son’s foot and still hear nothing. They then slice off one of Juan Luis’s toes and send it to his father, who still refuses to act. So the next day… The Good Cripple — obsessively focused, chilling, allegorical — is stunningly explosive. With its enigmatic beginning, however, and its circular relentless structure, the novel is also dense with ideas: can one be whole after mutilation? Can the injured transcend violence? Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s style is of a lithe pristine clarity, but beneath that calm surface cruelty, revenge, and diffidence churn darkly away. The Good Cripple is an astonishingly intense book, and as unforgettable as the sight of “the place where the foot had been severed, where a circle of red flesh, now a little black along the edges, could be seen, with a concentric circle of white bone that was both milky and glassy…” (Publisher’s description)

Roth, Philip, The Plot Against America

During his long career, Roth has shown himself a master at creating fictional doppelgängers. In this stunning novel, he creates a mesmerizing alternate world as well, in which Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election, and Philip, his parents and his brother weather the storm in Newark, N.J. Incorporating Lindbergh’s actual radio address in which he accused the British and the Jews of trying to force America into a foreign war, Roth builds an eerily logical narrative that shows how isolationists in and out of government, emboldened by Lindbergh’s blatant anti-Semitism (he invites von Ribbentrop to the White House, etc.), enact new laws and create an atmosphere of religious hatred that culminates in nationwide pogroms. Historical figures such as Walter Winchell, Fiorello La Guardia and Henry Ford inhabit this chillingly plausible fiction, which is as suspenseful as the best thrillers and illustrates how easily people can be persuaded by self-interest to abandon morality. The novel is, in addition, a moving family drama, in which Philip’s fiercely ethical father, Herman, finds himself unable to protect his loved ones, and a family schism develops between those who understand the eventual outcome of Lindbergh’s policies and those who are co-opted into abetting their own potential destruction. Many episodes are touching and hilarious: young Philip experiences the usual fears and misapprehensions of a pre-adolescent; locks himself into a neighbor’s bathroom; gets into dangerous mischief with a friend; watches his cousin masturbating with no comprehension of the act. In the balance of personal, domestic and national events, the novel is one of Roth’s most deft creations, and if the lollapalooza of an ending is bizarre with its revisionist theory about the motives behind Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism, it’s the subtext about what can happen when government limits religious liberties in the name of the national interest that gives the novel moral authority. Roth’s writing has never been so direct and accessible while retaining its stylistic precision and acute insights into human foibles and follies. (Publishers Weekly review)

Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things

With sensuous prose, a dreamlike style infused with breathtakingly beautiful images and keen insight into human nature, Roy’s debut novel charts fresh territory in the genre of magical, prismatic literature. Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel’s protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. In a circuitous and suspenseful narrative, Roy reveals the family tensions that led to the twins’ behavior on the fateful night that Sophie drowned. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history, all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered. Roy captures the children’s candid observations but clouded understanding of adults’ complex emotional lives. Rahel notices that “at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” Plangent with a sad wisdom, the children’s view is never oversimplified, and the adult characters reveal their frailties — and in one case, a repulsively evil power — in subtle and complex ways. While Roy’s powers of description are formidable, she sometimes succumbs to overwriting, forcing every minute detail to symbolize something bigger, and the pace of the story slows. But these lapses are few, and her powers coalesce magnificently in the book’s second half. Roy’s clarity of vision is remarkable, her voice original, her story beautifully constructed and masterfully told. (Publishers Weekly review)

Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children

Saleem Sinai was born at midnight, the midnight of India’s independence, and finds himself mysteriously ‘handcuffed to history’ by the coincidence. He is one of 1,001 children born at the midnight hour, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent — and whose privilege and curse it is to be both master and victims of their times. Through Saleem’s gifts — inner voices and a wildly sensitive sense of smell — we are drawn into a fascinating family saga set against the vast, colourful background of the India of this century. (Publisher’s description)

Safran Foer, Jonathan, Everything is Illuminated

The simplest thing would be to describe Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s accomplished debut, as a novel about the Holocaust. It is, but that really fails to do justice to the sheer ambition of this book. The main story is a grimly familiar one. A young Jewish-American–who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer–travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex’s grandfather (also called Alex) and a flatulent mongrel bitch, named Sammy Davis JR JR. On their journey through Eastern Europe’s obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer. This narrative is not, however, recounted from (the character) Jonathan Safran Foer’s perspective. It is relayed through a series of letters that Alex sends to Foer. These are written in the kind of broken Russo-English normally reserved for Bond villains and Latka from the US television series Taxi. (Sentences such as “It is mammoth honour for me write for a writer, especially when he is American writer, like Ernest Hemingway”; “It is bad and popular habit for people in Ukraine to take things without asking” are the norm.) Interspersed between these letters are fragments of a novel by “Safran Foer”–a wonderfully imagined, almost magical realist, account of life in the Shetl before the Nazis destroyed it. These are in turn commented on by Alex creating an additional metafictional angle to the tale. If all this sounds a little daunting don’t be put off; Safran Foer is an extremely funny as well as intelligent writer. Admittedly he has an annoying habit of capitalising great chunks of text, but minor typographical nuances are easy to ignore in a book that combines some of the best Jewish folk yarns since Isaac Bashevis Singer with a quite heartbreaking meditation on love, friendship and loss. (Amazon.co.uk review)

Seth, Vikram, A Suitable Boy

Seth previously made a splash with his 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate. Here he abandons the compression of poetry to produce an enormous novel that will enthrall most readers; those who are fazed by a marathon read, however, may gasp for mercy. Set in the post-colonial India of the 1950s, this sprawling saga involves four families–the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis and the Khans–whose domestic crises illuminate the historical and social events of the era. Like an old-fashioned soap opera (or a Bombay talkie), the multi-charactered plot pits mothers against daughters, fathers against sons, Hindus against Muslims and small farmers against greedy landowners facing government-ordered dispossession. The story revolves around independent-minded Lata Mehra: Will she defy the stern order of her widowed upper-caste Hindu mother by marrying the Muslim youth she loves? The search for Lata’s husband expands into a richly detailed and exotically vivid narrative that crisscrosses the fabric of India. Seth’s panoramic scenes take the reader into law courts, religious processions, bloody riots, academia–even the shoe trade. Portraits of actual figures are incisive; the cameo of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, captures his high-minded, well-meaning indecision. Seth’s point of view is both wry and affectionate, and his voluble, palpably atmospheric narrative teems with chaotic, irrepressible life. (Publishers Weekly review)

Smith, Ali, The Accidental

While the Smarts are a happy, prosperous British family on the surface, underneath they are as friable as a Balkan republic. Eve suffers from a block about writing yet another of her popular Genuine Article books (a series of imaginary reconstructions of obscure, actual figures from the past). Michael, her English professor husband, is a philanderer whose sexual predation on his students has reached critical mass. Teenaged Magnus, Eve’s son by first husband Adam, is consumed by guilt around a particularly heinous school prank. And Astrid, Eve and Adam’s daughter, is a 12-year- old channeling the angst of a girl three years older. Into this family drops one Amber MacDonald, a mysterious stranger who embeds herself in the family’s summer rental in Norfolk and puts them all under her bullying spell. By some collective hallucination — one into which Smith (Hotel World) utterly and completely draws the reader — each Smart sees Amber as a savior, even as she violates their codes and instincts. So sure-handed are Smith’s overlapping descriptions of the same events from different viewpoints that her simple, disquieting story lifts into brilliance. When Eve finally breaks the spell and kicks Amber out, it precipitates a series of long overdue jolts that destroys the family’s fraught equilibrium, but the shock of Smith’s facility remains. (Publishers Weekly review)

Smith, Zadie, The Autograph Man

When Alex-Li Tandem is 12 years old, his father takes him and his friends Adam and Rubinfine to a wrestling match at the Albert Hall in London. By the end of the evening, the pivotal events of Alex-Li’s youth have occurred: he has met Joseph Klein, a boy whose fascination with autographs proves infectious; his friendships with Adam and Rubinfine are cemented; and his father has dropped dead. This is enough action for an entire book, and in fact things slow down dramatically after page 35 of Zadie Smith’s sophomore novel The Autograph Man. When we meet Alex again, he is a grown man, an autograph dealer and devoted slacker, suffering the physical and spiritual after-effects of a three-day romance with a drug called “Superstar.” While under its malign influence, Alex has managed to wreck his sports car, alienate his girlfriend Esther, and–possibly–forge the rare autograph of his idol, the 1950s movie star Kitty Alexander. Will his friends save him from the embarrassment of trying to sell this suspect autograph? Will they pull him together in time to perform Kaddish on the 15th anniversary of his father’s death? Although not as enthralling or politically resonant as White Teeth, Smith’s hallowed debut, The Autograph Man amply demonstrates her ability to juggle several main characters, several themes, and a host of plots and subplots, with the occasional purely comic episode thrown up in the air beside them like a chainsaw or a cheesecake. Readers will want to step away to a safe distance during the chaotic final scenes. (Amazon.com review)

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, A Grain of Wheat

Originally published in 1967, Ngugi’s third novel is his best known and most ambitious work. A Grain of Wheat portrays several characters in a village whose intertwined lives are transformed by the 1952–1960 Emergency in Kenya. As the action follows the village’s arrangements for Uhuru (independence) Day, this is a novel of stories within stories, a narrative interwoven with myth as well as allusions to real-life leaders of the nationalist struggle, including Jomo Kenyatta. At the centre of it all is the reticent Mugo, the village’s chosen hero and a man haunted by a terrible secret. As events unfold, compromises are forced, friendships are betrayed and loves are tested. (Publisher’s description)

Thomas, Scarlett, The End of Mr. Y

A cursed book. A missing professor. Some nefarious men in gray suits. And a dreamworld called the Troposphere? Ariel Manto has a fascination with nineteenth-century scientists — especially Thomas Lumas and The End of Mr. Y, a book no one alive has read. When she mysteriously uncovers a copy at a used bookstore, Ariel is launched into an adventure of science and faith, consciousness and death, space and time, and everything in between. Seeking answers, Ariel follows in Mr. Y’s footsteps: She swallows a tincture, stares into a black dot, and is transported into the Troposphere — a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others. There she begins to understand all the mysteries surrounding the book, herself, and the universe. Or is it all just a hallucination? With The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas brings us another fast-paced mix of popular culture, love, mystery, and irresistible philosophical adventure. (Publisher’s description)

Tuck, Lily, The News from Paraguay

A rich historical novel — part love story and part tragedy — about the Irish courtesan Eliza Lynch, and how she became mistress to one of South America’s first, and most extravagant, dictators. 1854. In Paris, Francisco Solano — the future dictator of Paraguay — picks up a blue feather fallen from the hat of a beautiful woman. With this small gesture begins his pursuit of the remarkable Irish courtesan Eliza Lynch. Captivated by a unique courtship involving a poncho and a Paraguayan band, Eliza follows Francisco to Paraguay where she reigns as his mistress. Isolated and estranged in this new world, she embraces her lover’s ill-fated imperial dream — one fuelled by a heedless arrogance that will devestate all of Paraguay, and throw this European woman into a world of unprecedented privilege, ruthless exploitation and even revolution…With the urgency of the narrative, the rich romantic detail, and a wealth of skillfully layered characters, The News from Paraguay recalls the vibrant colour of Isabel Allende and the epic sweep of Mario Vargas Llosa. (Publisher’s description)

Waters, Sarah, The Night Watch

Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked out streets, illicit liaisons, sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch is the work of a truly brilliant and compelling storyteller. This is the story of four Londoners — three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching …Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret …Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover …Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances …Tender, tragic and beautifully poignant, set against the backdrop of feats of heroism both epic and ordinary, here is a novel of relationships that offers up subtle surprises and twists. The Night Watch is thrilling. A towering achievement. (Publisher’s description)

Wolff, Tobias, Old School

Tobias Wolff’s Old School is at once a celebration of literature and a delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art. Set in a New England prep school in the early 1960s, the novel imagines a final, pastoral moment before the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F Kennedy, and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway. The unnamed narrator is one of several boys whose life revolves around the school’s English teachers, those polymaths who seemed to know “exactly what was most worth knowing”. For the boys, literature is the centre of life, and their obsession culminates in a series of literary competitions during their final year. The prize in each is a private audience with a visiting writer who serves as judge for the entries. At first the narrator is entirely taken with the battle. As he fails in his effort to catch Robert Frost’s attention and then is unable–due to illness–to even compete for his moment with Ayn Rand, he devotes his energies to a masterpiece for his hero, Hemingway. But, confronting the blank page, the narrator discovers his cowardice, his duplicity. He has withheld himself, he realises, even from his roommate. He has used his fiction to create a patrician gentility, a mask for his middle-class home and his Jewish ancestry. Through the competition for Hemingway, fittingly, all of his illusions about literature dissolve. Near the end of the novel, the narrator imagines that he might one day write about his school days. But he is daunted. “Memory”, he says, “is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test”. Old School enters this interplay between dreams and the adult interrogation of memory. Risking sentimentality, Wolff confronts a golden age that never was. From the confrontation, he distills a powerful novel of failed expectations and, ultimately, redemptive self-awareness. (Amazon.com review)