A GOD IN RUINS
By Kate Atkinson. (Little, Brown, 468 pages, $28.)
Kate Atkinson’s companion novel to her magnificent “Life After Life” shifts focus to Teddy, the moral nucleus of the conventional yet complicated Todds, an English family negotiating the threats of World War II and the subsequent fractures in our modern world. A former RAF pilot, Teddy carries his secrets through midlife and into old age, buffeted by an antagonistic daughter and Atkinson’s narrative shenanigans. “A God in Ruins” is a triumph of vigorous storytelling and technical wizardry as Atkinson limns a broad swath of British history, gleefully thwarting our expectations to the very end.
By Chigozie Obioma. (Little, Brown, 304 pages, $26.)
Set in Nigeria in the 1990s, Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen” is an ingeniously told tale of a family, a nation and the effect of a madman’s prophecy. The resulting fear and sadness are leavened throughout by a wry sense of comedy, most especially in scenes of everyday life and their relation to the tumultuous events of that decade. A few poignantly funny sketches embellish the narrative. This is the best novel I read all year.
KATHERINE A. POWERS
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT
By Kent Haruf. (Alfred A. Knopf, 179 pages, $24.)
Kent Haruf’s last novel — he died late last year — is perhaps his most poignant. Set once again in Holt, Colo., it is a story about loneliness and the crushing power of small-minded society. As the book opens, widow Addie Moore pays a visit to widower Louis Waters with a surprising request: Will he sleep with her? This is not about sex or even romance, but it is about the basic human need for intimacy and closeness. Nights, Louis comes by and the two lie in bed and talk in the dark until sleep. But the town notices his visits. Haruf’s writing is bare-boned and spare, leaving room on the page for deep emotion.
MR. AND MRS. DOCTOR
By Julie Iromuanya. (Coffee House Press, 304 pages, $16.95.)
This tale of two Nigerian immigrants pretending to live the American dream in small-town Nebraska is heartbreakingly funny and terribly sad, a remarkable feat of storytelling, in which all the characters’ isolated longings and frustrations are intimately felt, yet register on the grand tragicomic scale of human folly. “Mr. Doctor” is not really a doctor, and “Mrs. Doctor” is not really a rich doctor’s wife, but their story is strong medicine for what ails us.
By Cynan Jones. (Coffee House Press, 154 pages, $15.95.)
There are moments in Cynan Jones’ flawless short novel that literally left me breathless. Whether he’s writing about the scorched soul of a man struggling to keep his farm alive during the lambing season after the devastating and unexpected death of his wife, or the moral bankruptcy of a badger baiter and his fierce hounds, Jones manages to pin the reader between empathy and outrage. The result is a visceral and harrowing reading experience.
By Margo Jefferson. (Pantheon, 248 pages, $25.)
There has been plenty of great, essential nonfiction released this year. Certain books have explored complex questions relating to politics and society; others have explored personal terrain in stylistically bold ways. Margo Jefferson’s “Negroland” achieves both: It’s a generational exploration of race in America and a work that candidly follows Jefferson over several decades of her life, using a number of literary techniques to do so. It’s powerful, unpredictable and deeply moving.
JOHN LE CARRÉ: THE BIOGRAPHY
By Adam Sisman (Harper, 652 pages, $28.99.)
After coming in from the cold 50 years ago, John le Carré made his name as the world’s pre-eminent spy novelist. Fittingly, he kept his life shrouded in mystery — that is, until he gave acclaimed biographer Adam Sisman access to his secret past and tasked him with telling his story “without restraints.” The result, “John le Carré: The Biography,” is a candid and enthralling account of heartache, betrayal and adventure, and how hard facts helped create great fiction.
By Ottessa Moshfegh. (Penguin Press, 260 pages, $25.95.)
“I looked like nothing special,” says the narrator on the first page of Ottessa Moshfegh’s provocative noir, “Eileen” — a clear sign that we’re in a novel thick with secrets and schemes. Eileen is a secretary working in a prison whose urge to cut loose from her feelings of entrapment is stoked by the arrival of a new co-worker. What ensues evokes Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, but from its flinty style to deliciously dark plot twist, “Eileen” is an original.
By Brian Selznick. (Scholastic Press, 665 pages, $32.99.)
No hyperbole here. This book contains every story, every truth, every emotion, even. It’s about Shakespeare and shipwrecks, lovers and loss, families and forgiveness. It’s a twice-told tale in mesmerizing sketches (first 400 pages) and prose about five generations of a legendary London theater family and an abandoned boy living with his estranged uncle in 1990s London. I carried this enormous book with me for days after reading it, unable to break from its spell.
CAROLE E. BARROWMAN
EMMA: A MODERN RETELLING
By Alexander McCall Smith. (Pantheon, 361 pages, $25.95.)
“Emma: A Modern Retelling” is one of the most delightful books of the year, and it’s the novel I’m giving to my favorite Jane-ites this holiday season. Everyone knows someone who revels in the works of Jane Austen, and this re-imagining of Miss Woodhouse’s antics as a well-meaning but misguided matchmaker is a literary jewel, just like the original “Emma.” Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith adheres to Austen’s Regency tone as he deftly sets his tale of 21st-century Emma at the Hartfield estate in the village of Highbury, home of Emma’s 19th-century counterpart. Modern Emma drives a Mini Cooper and carries a cellphone, but in spirit she remains the flawed but adorable heroine Austen created 200 years ago.