"THE ILLUMINATION" by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon, $24.95)
The world is full of books with fantastical content -- time travel, superhuman capabilities, aliens. In "The Illumination," the fantastical piece is that, suddenly, people with any sort of injury or pain glow where it hurts. If you think that that phenomenon is what is going to carry this novel forward, you're both completely right and utterly wrong, and that may be why several reviewers have been unable to fully explain why Brockmeier's novel is so beautiful and so remarkable. At a structural level, "The Illumination" is a set of stories held together by a heartfelt journal that is passed from character to character. While it's to the author's credit that this gimmick works, it isn't the thing that makes the book as a whole work. That "thing," if it can be deemed such, is something indeed out of the ordinary -- Brockmeier's supernatural compassion, which washes over each character in turn like some kind of ... heavenly light.
"THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME" by Jean Thompson (Simon & Schuster, $25)
Put down the Franzen and pick up Jean Thompson's absorbing saga of an Iowa family coming to terms with the end of one century and the start of another, bookended by the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Some of the characters do expected things, some don't; it's Thompson's use of perspective that allows each of them to surprise readers.
"BIRDS OF PARADISE" by Diana Abu-Jaber (W.W. Norton, $25.95)
The counterpoint of protagonist Avis Muir's finicky pastries and her Haitian neighbor's mysterious home remedies bracket the heart of Diana Abu-Jaber's novel the way outer petals frame its titular blooms. "Birds of Paradise" concerns a vibrant, modern Miami that, while filled with waste and decay, contains the seeds of its own rebirth.
"THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR" by Arthur Phillips (Random House, $26)
Most writers would settle for being able to pull off writing like Arthur Phillips does when he's writing in just one voice. Thus, when he not only creates a new narrative doppelganger and has the fictional Arthur discover a play supposedly written by William Shakespeare that actually sounds like Shakespeare? They will probably just give up.
"1Q84" by Haruki Murakami (Alfred A. Knopf,$30.50)
On the surface, this is a lengthy (944 pages) telling of a traditional love story. But Murakami isn't just leading readers through an alternative-reality version of Tokyo for kicks, even if his matter-of-fact manner with the creepiest content unnerves you. Instead, the literary genius is busy calmly turning the notion of epic on its Western head.
"BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS" by Elissa Schappell (Simon & Schuster, $24)
Pity the poor women who are neither truly baby boomer consumers nor Gen-X hipsters, who missed feminism's first wave and feel washed up before its third. These are the subjects of Schappell's short stories: Your tired, your anemic, your huddled new moms yearning to be free -- or at least less depressed. The collection's title is taken from a 1960s manual one character unearths and laughs at heartily. The truth is, most of the women here would be relieved to find some sort of blueprint for their lives, but again and again they learn that there aren't any. While the men on the edges aren't necessarily prizewinners, either, it's the ties between women and even the complicated ties within each woman that are truly Schappell's terrain. Whether living past a miscarriage or willing an anorexic daughter to live, these characters seem to shine through life's grime.
"THE OUTLAW ALBUM" by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown, $24.99)
If at least one of these stories doesn't give you long-lasting nightmares, you're made of stronger stuff than the survivors in them, whose rattle-trap driving, rattlesnake-killing lives are always hanging by a thread -- financial, medical, criminal, familial and more. Woodrell ("Winter's Bone") manages to make each deadpan voice distinct. And scary.
"YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE" by Siobhan Fallon (Amy Einhorn Books, $23.95)
Fort Hood, Texas, is the largest military base in the "free world," a moniker that subtly taunts the soldiers and family members whose Iraq War lives have little liberty and often less joy. Fallon, herself the spouse of an active-duty Army officer, lets no rank go unexamined in her bleak portrait of an on-post world far from the "home front."
"OTHER PEOPLE WE MARRIED" by Emma Straub (Five Chapters Books, $15, )
If you're wondering what "Generation X" has been up to these past few years, look no further than Emma Straub's delicious collection of stories about younger women on the verge of nervous breakdowns. You might be so captivated while reading that you'll miss a threaded character's metamorphosis -- that's how effortless Straub's writing feels.
"SAINTS AND SINNERS" by Edna O'Brien (Back Bay Books, $13.99)
Somehow Edna O'Brien, plying elegant but never stylized prose, manages to use Ireland's clichés (including alcoholic drifters, priggish landladies and wild lapsed Catholics) to both unravel the clichés themselves and to reveal her country's truths. She doesn't shrink from "the Troubles," either -- see "Black Flower" for more on those.
"OPEN CITY" by Teju Cole (Random House, $25)
At its simplest, "Open City" is the story of a New York City day with frequent stops taken by a Nigerian immigrant doctor (he is also half German) in the course of a single day. At its most complicated, "Open City" is an attempt to see the world in a grain of sand. Narrator Julius walks and walks, but while he travels several miles in the course of his foray from Morningside Heights, he travels hundreds more in his mind at the same time. In real time, he talks with people of many ages and ethnicities, including his Japanese mentor, a Moroccan Internet café clerk and a Liberian detainee. Meanwhile, he thinks about everything from heavy philosophy to his adolescence at a Nigerian military academy to his trip to Brussels looking for his grandmother. All of this could trickle through a lesser writer's fingers, but Cole (himself a Nigerian immigrant, now in his 30s) manages his material precisely and through one man's perspective shows us not just the rest of the globe, but how deeply connected we all are, for better or worse.
"THE TIGER'S WIFE" by Téa Obreht (Random House, $25)
Obreht's fable of her native Yugoslavia's deconstruction was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. The young protagonist, a doctor like her beloved grandfather, attempts to makes sense of what she sees in the war-torn land through folktales, archetypes and memories. What she finally unearths is nothing less than stubborn life itself.
"TEN THOUSAND SAINTS" by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco, $26.99)
If your 2010 was all about "A Visit From the Goon Squad," let your 2011 be all about "Ten Thousand Saints" -- not because the books cover the same territory (they overlap a bit on the 1970s New York punk-rock scene), but because, like Jennifer Egan, Henderson mines the most delicate core in each of her characters -- not for just one. For every single one.
"THE MAID" by Kimberly Cutter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)
No one has ever written a fictional treatment of Joan of Arc that encompasses "The Maid of Orleans" the way Kimberly Cutter has. From Jehanne's poverty-stricken upbringing, to her peculiar relationship with France's Dauphin, to her bloodthirsty battle actions and finally, to her sad last days, this book brings a misunderstood figure to blazing life.
"THE FAMILY FANG" by Kevin Wilson (Ecco Books, $23.99)
Annie and Buster are known to their parents, Camille and Caleb Fang, as "Child A" and "Child B." That's because the Fang elders are performance artists who have made their lives their medium, never batting a single eye over whether or not those children mind being artistic fodder. Did they? Oh, and how. A tour de force from a writer to watch.
"THE NIGHT CIRCUS" by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, $26.95)
In "Le Cirque des Reves," there's real magic afoot, and, hence, real danger beneath the beautiful veneer of the world in which youthful lovers and rivals Celia and Marco live. However, the resolution of that danger is less important than the dazzling, delicate web author Morgenstern spins that gives each space -- dark and light -- equal weight.