'A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing'

By Eimear Mc­Bride (Cof­fee House Press, $24)

Grant­ed, a novel about a young Irish girl's re­la­tion­ship with her sick broth­er and her sex­ual a­buse at the hands of her un­cle isn't most peo­ple's i­de­a of re­laxed, fes­tive read­ing. Com­pound­ing the dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter is the de­mand­ing mode of storytelling: bro­ken, clash­ing, syn­tac­ti­cal­ly warped sen­ten­ces crammed with frag­ment­ed thoughts and lu­rid ob­ser­va­tions. But ven­ture­some read­ers who per­sist will find that Mc­Bride's sear­ing hon­es­ty and lin­guis­tic prow­ess pay huge di­vi­dends.

"All the Light We Can­not See" By Anthony Doerr (Scrib­ner, $27)

Doerr took 10 years to craft his mag­nifi­cent World War II novel, and it shows. Each short, ur­gent chap­ter con­sists of care­ful­ly dis­tilled re­search and me­tic­u­lous­ly meas­ured prose. The lives of a young blind French girl and an or­phaned Ger­man boy with a love of radios are ab­sorb­ing as sepa­rate strands and ex­cit­ing when inter­twined. Let's hope we don't have to wait an­oth­er dec­ade for more writ­ing of this cal­i­ber.

"The Zone of In­ter­est" By Mar­tin Amis (Knopf, $26.95)

This isn't the first time Amis has staged a pitch-black com­e­dy in a con­cen­tra­tion camp, but on this oc­ca­sion he ex­tends the con­ceit with­out thin­ning the joke and pro­duc­es caus­tic, soul-shat­ter­ing re­sults. The novel un­folds through the perspectives of three char­ac­ters — two top-brass Nazis and one thor­ough­ly de­grad­ed Jew­ish in­mate — only one of whom will sur­vive the war. The doc­ument­ed hor­rors com­mit­ted with­in the "vast yet burst­ing mad­house" are leav­ened by Amis' re­fresh­ing sup­ply of gal­lows hu­mor and diz­zy­ing styl­ist­ic feats.

"The Nar­row Road to the Deep North" By Rich­ard Flan­a­gan (Knopf, $26.95)

Win­ner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Flan­a­gan's sixth novel should, if there is any jus­tice, cat­a­pult him into the ma­jor league. It is Au­gust 1943 and Dorrigo Ev­ans is an Aus­tral­i­an sur­geon haunt­ed by a past af­fair and strug­gling to stay sane and a­live in a Jap­a­nese POW camp. A can­did, mov­ing and deva­stat­ing por­trait of a life lived, and an un­for­giv­ing de­pic­tion of how war turns glo­bal am­bi­tion and cou­ra­geous sol­diers into "im­pe­ri­al dreams and dead men." "Mas­ter­piece" is an accolade too of­ten doled out by book critics. This time, for this book, it is the only word that will do.

"Fourth of July Creek" By Smith Henderson (Ecco, $26.99)

This stun­ning­ly ac­com­plished de­but novel tracks the jag­ged course of Pete Snow, a stead­i­ly unraveling so­cial work­er, through the towns and back­woods of west­ern Mon­tan­a. His en­coun­ter with a near-fer­al 11-year-old boy and his dis­turbed fa­ther proves life-chan­ging and prompts him to con­front his own de­mons. Henderson's nar­ra­tive en­thralls, his dialogue crack­les, and on the con­sid­er­a­ble strength of this, a prom­is­ing lit­er­ary ca­reer beck­ons.

"Pray­ing Drunk: Stories" By Kyle Minor (Sarabande Books, $15.95)

In Minor's bra­vu­ra col­lec­tion, Ken­tucky, Flori­da and Hai­ti form back­drops to trag­ic, quirk­y but all too hu­man lives. A­mong the heart­ache, cru­el­ty and dashed hopes lurk laugh­ter in the dark and bouts of com­pas­sion­ate re­flec­tion.

"In the Light of What We Know" By Zia Haid­er Rah­man (FSG, $27)

A vast, globe-hop­ping, fact-find­ing epic that makes sense of two men's lives while of­fer­ing pen­etrat­ing medi­ta­tions on love, lit­er­a­ture, re­li­gion, fi­nance and math­e­mat­ics. Few first novels come as as­sured as this.

"10:04" By Ben Lerner (Faber and Faber, $25)

The rap­tur­ous ac­claim heaped on "Leav­ing the Atocha Station" didn't daunt Lerner from daz­zling read­ers all over a­gain. The ex­ploits, ob­ser­va­tions and con­cerns of the anx­ious and over­whelmed nar­ra­tor of "10:04" stimu­late and dis­ori­ent, of­ten at the same time.

"Song of the Shank" By Jeffery Renard Allen (Graywolf, $18)

At the cen­ter of this sprawl­ing, riv­et­ing 19th-cen­tu­ry epic is an ac­count of the life of Blind Tom, an Af­ri­can-American slave and pi­an­o prod­i­gy. A mas­ter­ful fu­sion of his­to­ry and fic­tion.

"Snow in May: Stories" By Kseniya Melnik (Henry Holt, $25)

Nine spar­kling inter­lock­ing ta­les fea­tur­ing Rus­sians in the se­cond half of the last cen­tu­ry. All nur­ture hopes, fall in love, try to stay afloat and ne­go­ti­ate "an­kle-snatch­ing snow" and po­lit­i­cal winds of change.

"Boy, Snow, Bird" By Hel­en Oyeyemi (Riv­er­head, $27.95)

Set in 1950s New York and fea­tur­ing a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist called Boy, Oyeyemi's lat­est novel ex­plores race, beau­ty and i­den­ti­ty in a shrewd­ly in­ven­tive re­tell­ing of the Snow White fairy tale.

"Lila" By Marilynne Robinson (FSG, $26)

Oc­ca­sion­al­ly grit­ty, of­ten pro­found­ly af­fect­ing and al­ways in­tense­ly mes­mer­iz­ing, Robinson's third novel set in the fic­tion­al town of Gil­e­ad fol­lows its e­pon­y­mous her­o­ine's mo­ral jour­ney and spir­it­u­al awak­en­ing.

"All the Birds, Sing­ing" By Evie Wyld (Pantheon, $24.95)

One of Gran­ta's Best Young Brit­ish Novel­ists ex­cels with this dark, dis­qui­et­ing tale about one woman on a wind-bat­tered, rain-lashed is­land wres­tling with her fear of a ma­raud­ing "beast" and the e­qual tor­ment of her in­es­cap­able past.

"Shot­gun Lovesongs" By Nick­o­las But­ler (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99)

Four male friends are re­united for a wed­ding in one small Wis­con­sin town. But­ler's cast is so per­fect­ly formed, their ups and downs and inter­sec­tions so beau­ti­ful­ly chart­ed, that the novel's good in­ten­tions still sing to us long af­ter the last page.

"Jour­ney by Moon­light" By An­tal Szerb (NYRB Classics, $16.95)

A re­dis­cov­ered gem by a Hun­gar­i­an writ­er whose life was cut trag­i­cal­ly short in the Holo­caust. Pre­pare to be moved and en­tranced by a novel thick with ach­ing nos­tal­gi­a, lost love and trav­els around pre­war Italy.

Mal­colm Forbes is a book crit­ic in Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land.