Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt), the second novel in Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Thomas Cromwell (and the second to win the Man Booker Prize), is history as an intimate drama, showing us Henry VIII and the state of England through the prism of the minister's machinations to set the king free of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, so he might marry the next. The book somehow manages to convey the most down-to-earth workings of human nature while operating in the highest realms of literary art -- and to maintain exquisite suspense about a story whose ending everyone knows.
Megan Mayhew Bergman's stunning debut story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner), left an indelible trail of tiny footprints across my soul. Her deep-seated appreciation of the intimate connection between humans and animals emanates from every single page.
The disciplined, muscular stories of Guilt (Alfred A. Knopf), defense attorney Ferdinand von Schirach's followup to his debut collection, "Crime," deliver another literary home run. They follow ordinary, mostly decent people suddenly propelled into murder and other mayhem. The clipped, razor-sharp sentences, devoid of clauses, nevertheless contain depth charges. With the propulsive rhythm of a fast train, inexorable as fate, the narration converts life's accidents into the precision of story.
Part memoir, part family history, the extraordinary House of Stone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Anthony Shadid conjures the lost world of a cosmopolitan Middle East through Shadid's attempt to rebuild his ancestral family home in the hills outside Beirut. Shadid relies on 74-year-old contractors and a raft of cigarettes and tiles rescued from bomb-demolished villas, making his not your typical retreat renovation. But in his lyrical prose, the story of how it happens makes clear that all the important matters for him -- home, family, a Lebanon that is more than the sum of its conflicts -- can only be achieved the hard way, the right way: through patience and by listening to what a place can tell you.
There isn't a wasted word in Christopher R. Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House), a novel about faith and literature that has a deep respect for both. His story of a Catholic convert's inner turmoil is carefully controlled, yet it's one of the most emotionally rich novels I've read in years.
Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House) is a miracle of immersion reportage, the intimate story of life in a Mumbai slum. Her characters are trash-pickers and thieves -- women and children, mostly -- who are trying to better themselves in a nearly impossible society. Far from victims, though, Boo shows them as fully human, hardworking, sometimes cruel and heartbreakingly determined.
In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Timothy Egan combines breadth and depth in his research, offers fascinating details about Curtis, presents an evenhanded assessment of his subject's flaws and contributions, and brilliantly contextualizes him and his life work. This biography reads like a novel.
William Craig's debut book, Yankee Come Home: On the Road From San Juan Hill to Guantanamo (Walker), is a delicious bouillabaisse that blends history, memoir, travelogue and political broadside. Craig is a vocal anti-imperialist, a powerful critic of the 2003 U.S. invasion, and subsequent occupation of Iraq, which he regards as only the latest in a string of hubristic U.S. imperial misadventures that he traces back to 1898 in Cuba (the Spanish-American War).
In San Miguel (Viking), T.C. Boyle narrows his usually wide focus to imagine the isolated existence of some long forgotten settlers on California's barren, sea-sprayed Channel Islands. Luxuriously paced with breathtaking prose, this doesn't have the hefty ambitions of Boyle's acerbic social commentary fiction, but it just may be this always-readable novelist's most satisfying novel to date. CHERIE PARKER
With memorable prose and an engaging narrative, Eowyn Ivey's extraordinary debut novel, The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur/Little Brown), is set in a wintry wilderness of 1920s Alaska. A childless couple homestead with great difficulties until a magical -- is she real? -- young girl named Fiona is observed through the trees. The couple's lives are utterly transformed, and readers are thoroughly enchanted.