It’s been a crazy 12 months in the world, and now more than ever, we’re looking to fiction to give us an escape, or even to help us make sense of things. These 25 books do a bit of both, and represent the most powerful reading experiences we’ve had all year.
In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende
Richard and Lucia, two NYU professors in their early 60s who live in the same building (Richard is the landlord), agree to help Evelyn, a Guatemalan nanny and refugee who shows up on Richard’s doorstep, desperate for help. Thrown together on a winter night in Brooklyn, with an unrelenting snowstorm outside, the trio opens up to one another about their troubled pasts, Lucia’s in Chile during the coup, and Evelyn’s as a victim of gang violence. Allende is known for her powerful characters, intimate prose, and magical realism. Winter highlights a new element in her oeuvre, that of a suspenseful crime thriller.
Origin, by Dan Brown
Brown returns to his most successful character with an all-new Robert Langdon adventure, this time centered in Spain and focusing on more modern art. Langdon starts off the book as the guest of former student-turned-billionaire Edmond Kirsch, who is staging a provocative presentation at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and hinting at the answers to two of the fundamental questions of human existence. Naturally, things go very, very wrong, and Langdon soon finds himself fleeing to Barcelona with museum director Ambra Vidal and working desperately to discover a password Kirsch left behind that will unlock all of the billionaire’s secrets. Their opponent, however, seems to be all-knowing, and firmly rooted in the Spanish royal palace—but there’s no one on Earth more equipped to deal with codes and symbols than Robert Langdon.
The Late Show, by Michael Connelly
Detective Renée Ballard was an up-and-comer in the LAPD, until she filed sexual harassment charges against her boss and her career went sideways. She landed on the night shift in Hollywood, which means she never finishes an investigation, always handing them off to the day shift. Until she catches two cases she can’t let go of: a prostitute beaten into unconsciousness, who claims she was assaulted in the “upside-down house” before passing out, and a young woman killed in a nightclub shooting. Ballard works the cases during the day and continues to take her regular shift in the evening, dodging her former boss (who’s officially working the nightclub shooting) and her own demons—demons which begin to haunt her as she begins losing sleep and delving deeper into the twin mysteries.
Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From the Good Squad (2010), Egan’s highly anticipated follow-up appears to be less experimental than her previous works, but just as moving. Set in New York City during the Depression and World War II, Manhattan Beach follows the struggles of Anna Kerrigan, first as an adolescent accompanying her father on a desperate job-seeking mission, and later at 19, after her father has disappeared and Anna is charged with supporting her sister and mother by working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as its sole female diver. A chance encounter with her father’s mobster boss begins to shed light on the truth about Anna’s dad. You may want to have tissues on hand for this detail-rich, feminist historical, which has already been long-listed for the National Book Award.
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
The countless fans of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and its recent Hulu adaptation, will want to grab Erdrich’s latest, set in a dystopian world in which pregnant women are criminalized, hunted, and oppressed because the babies they’re carrying appear to be victims of reverse evolution. In fact, time itself seems to be running backwards, and Cedar Hawk Songmaker, born to an Ojibwe mother and raised by progressive adopted parents in Minneapolis, is caught in the middle of extreme circumstances. Bestseller Erdrich, who is half-Ojibwe herself, continues her tradition of writing thoughtful portrayals of Native-American life.
A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett
The third installment of Follett’s excellent Kingsbridge series of historical fiction finds Kingsbridge Cathedral looming over a blood-soaked, divided England in the 16th century. Queen Mary is persecuting and executing Protestants, including the noble family of Ned Willard, who are accused of being sympathetic to the heretics. When the Willards lose their business to the family of Ned’s love Margery, Ned loses Margery as well—but only physically, as their love for each other transcends politics and business. Ned is inspired by this injustice to join the secret service of the future queen Elizabeth, a Protestant herself and a princess always in danger of being beheaded by her bloody and paranoid half-sister. Follett once again combines well-researched historical accuracy with an exciting thriller plot centered on espionage, continuing what is shaping up to be one of the most epic stories of all time.
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman
Working from the original Norse legends, Gaiman applies his novelist talents to craft the old myths into a cohesive narrative in which the gods emerge as characters with motivations and flaws, telling us the story of Odin, father of the gods, and his sons Thor and Loki from the beginning, but not quite like we’ve experienced it before, from how Asgard was built to how Thor came into possession of his famous hammer. Gaiman is true to the apocalyptic tone of the old myths, stories that cast the world as a place of struggle and violence, where dying in battle was probably your best option. If you’ve read American Gods, you know Gaiman has a gift for making old stories not just new, but unmistakably his own.
The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham
Grisham proves he’s still got his finger on the pulse in his newest, telling the story of idealistic but broke law students Mark, Todd, and Zola, who mortgage their future in the form of student loans to attend a third-tier law school. In their third year, the trio realizes they’ve been victims of the Great Law School Scam: the graduates of their school rarely pass the bar and almost never get jobs—and the school’s owner also owns the bank that wrote the paper on their loans. Naturally, smart nearly-lawyers go for the only option they have available: revenge. It’s going to take planning and risks (like dropping out before earning your degree) but it’s the only option if you want a little justice—and the result is an Ocean’s 11 for the LSAT crowd.
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
It’s hard to predict what books will endure, but this understated, elemental novel, blending stark realism with a dash of magic, has the feel of an instant classic. Hamid tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, a young man and woman who meet each other in a classroom “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” Nadia wears a full black robe, not because she’s religious—she isn’t—but because she wants to move independently through this unnamed Muslim city, where she has made the unusual choice for an unmarried woman of moving into an apartment by herself. Saeed is enchanted. By the time violence starts to demolish their city, they are in love. They make the risky choice to migrate when they hear of a magical door that will transport them to other places. As they join a mob of international refugees moving through these doors into various stable countries in the West and trying to eke out a new existence, can their love survive?
Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks
Actor Hanks has several Oscars and remains one of the most popular thespians of the modern age, so you might be forgiven for thinking this collection of 17 short stories is just a vanity project. But Hanks has a deft style and an active imagination; all of the stories are linked by the recurring image of typewriters (Hanks is a collector), those long-obsolete typing machines that now represent a simpler time. Sometimes the typewriter is just a passing image in the background, sometimes it’s the whole point, but Hanks tells a range of surprising stories using the typewriter as his starting point, including a rapid-fire trip through a hilariously doomed romance, a holiday dinner that comes to represent something darker and deeper than mere family drama, and even a sci-fi story involving time travel. After enjoying Hanks the actor, surprise yourself with how much you enjoy Hanks the author.
Strange Weather, by Joe Hill
Over the past two decades, Joe Hill has established himself as a dark fiction powerhouse, a versatile master of the unusual capable of writing everything from a disturbing horror story entirely in tweets to a massive post-apocalyptic epic. Strange Weather, his new collection of short novels, expands his reach even further, with four “lean, mean” tales of human emotions and twisted nature. Strange events (“Loaded” depicts a mass shooting in Florida during a wildfire; “Nails” centers on apocalyptic hailstorms of crystal nails that gruesomely murder anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside), the tense atmosphere created by unusual natural phenomena, and the vivid visuals and weird beauty Hill brings to his work—it’s another must-read from a increasingly impressive storyteller.
The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman
In this illuminating, entertaining prequel to Hoffman’s bestselling Practical Magic (also a 1998 film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock), readers will learn what it was like for witchy sisters Franny and Bridget (Jet) Owens to grow up in 1950s/1960s New York City with a frustratingly strict mother (understandable, given the family curse: any man who falls in love with an Owens woman will meet a gruesome end). In Rules, we meet a charming younger brother, Vincent, who also grows up ignoring Mom’s warnings, with far-reaching consequences. Will any of the rules-averse siblings figure out a way to outwit their fates? If you loved the adolescent longings and heartaches of Hoffman’s poignant, private school-set River King, you’ll especially appreciate this coming-of-age tale.
Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz
The diabolically clever Magpie Murders opens with the text of a classic whodunit set in sleepy English village; the latest novel in fictional author Alan Conway’s popular Atticus Pünd detective series. That mystery itself is absorbing enough, but things take a turn for the weird when editor Susan Ryeland must use the clues woven throughout it to solve a chilling real-life murder. Horowitz’s prose is elegant, his characters multifaceted and deeply human, and the ingenious construction of this brilliant puzzler (which pays homage to the classic whodunnit while taking it apart and reassembling it into something completely new) will leave you reeling. In his bestselling novels Moriarty and Trigger Mortis, Horowitz proved his knack for writing spellbinding stories, but Magpie Murders is a tour de force mystery-within-a-mystery that takes things to an astonishing new level.
Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King
Putting a lie to the theory that writing talent doesn’t have a genetic component: the King family. Joe Hill has more than proven himself as capable as dear old dad at crafting tense, terrifying thrillers, and now brother Owen is getting into the game with his first book in the family wheelhouse, co-written with the world’s bestselling horror writer. The premise is certainly killer,and oh-so-timely: it a near-near-future, all women suddenly drop into a coma-like state. While their minds are transported to an idyllic, female-dominated paradise, their bodies become shrouded in a gauzy substance. If the shroud is disturbed, the women awaken as feral monsters. As male society struggles to adapt to a world without women, we follow one woman immune to the sleeping state. With the epic length you expect from any book with “King” on the cover—and the thrills and chills to match.
A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré
John le Carré is not only back, he’s bringing George Smiley with him—or at least Smiley’s assistant, Peter Guillam, called upon to fill in the blanks on an old operation called Windfall, now that the British government is being sued over some of the unintended casualties of the Cold War. Guillam begins piecing together the truth behind Windfall, digging through old files, listening to interrogations, and supplementing these discoveries with his own reliable memories. As usual in a le Carré novel, the combination of meticulous detail, skillful spycraft, and moral blankness makes for a slow-boil thriller that slowly increases the tension to unendurable levels. The intelligence and (above all) patience of the men and women working in intelligence becomes as thrilling as any gunplay.
Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker, by Gregory Maguire
The author of the bestselling book and Broadway smash Wicked invites you to take a fresh look at the Nutcracker in this “double origin” story of the famous wooden toy and its creator, Drosselmeier. Who is Klara’s mysterious godfather, born a German peasant and seemingly fated to provide her with the sensational trinket? And what dark enchantment did he experience in his youth? Combining myths and historical legends, and written in the style of a Brothers Grimm tale, Hiddensee promises to delight and intrigue.
The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott
Tended to by an elderly nun after her husband commits suicide, a young widowed mother and her newborn baby are brought into the fold of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t forgiving toward families overcoming scandal, and the young mother discovers that the worst moment of her life is best not mentioned. The consequences of her husband’s act will affect many generations to come, but so will the loving friendships she makes with the nuns’ help. McDermott is a National Book Award and American Book Award recipient (for Charming Billy), and a multiple Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
Fans of Anne Tyler’s Digging to America and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies will devour bestselling Ng’s compelling new drama. When free-spirited artist and single mother Mia gives up her wanderlust and puts down roots in the affluent, tight-knit Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, she quickly befriends her landlord Elena’s family. Mia’s dismissal of the town’s social norms causes friction, however, and when she opposes another family’s well-meaning but controversial custody battle for a Chinese American baby, Elena turns against her, determined to dig up Mia’s closely guarded secrets.
Glass Houses, by Louise Penny
A mysterious figure has appeared in the idyllic village of Three Pines, standing alone and stock still in the freezing November sleet. As the villagers, including Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache, grow increasingly perturbed and even frightened, the figure remains. Soon after it finally disappears, a body turns up, which is very probably not a coincidence, and it falls to Gamache to discover whether the killing is in fact a terrible retribution. Later that summer, the accused stands trial, but Gamache is forced to face the consequences of the actions he took during those fateful days in November. The 13th novel in Penny’s incomparable series ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Saunders’ celebrated short stories have plenty of the speculative about them. His debut novel is no different; starring Abraham Lincoln and set in the 19th century, it involves very real ghosts who populate the graveyard where Lincoln’s son Willie—dead at eleven years old—has been interred. These spirits have chosen to remain in an in-between state of existence, avoiding judgment, and retain all of the prejudices and personalities of their living years. Lincoln’s presence energizes them, and they determine to save his son’s spirit from their own static fate—and all of it is delivered with Saunders’ trademark wit, eye for delirious detail, and a prose style so absorbing you forget you’re reading and not hearing a story by the fire on a chilly winter night.
The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck
In Jessica Shattuck’s third novel (and her first historical), three women widowed by World War II and bonded by their husband’s roles in the resistance come together with their families to forge a new future. However, despite their apparently similar situations, their individual histories are not so easily reconciled. The women’s ad hoc leader, Marianne von Lingenfels, offers her family’s now-ruined castle in Bavaria as a safe harbor, but emotional resilience is tough to come by as the sins of the past come back to haunt the women in different ways.
Sourdough, by Robin Sloan
The author of 2013’s critically acclaimed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is back with a new novel set at the intersection of San Francisco’s technology hub and competitive farmers’ markets. When Lois Clary, an isolated computer coder who works in robotics, is bequeathed a sourdough starter (the yeast used to make bread) by two brothers about to be deported, she takes their request of “raising” the dough—which seems to have a personality all its own—very seriously. She soon finds herself in an invitation-only club of eccentric, fanciful chefs who wish to combine Lois’s day job skills in robotics with her newfound penchant for baking.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
Magical realism and poetic lyricism combine in this paean to road trip novels by a talented author whose creativity brings emotionally devastating truths to the surface. Ward’s previous novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011 for its vital depiction of Hurricane Katrina. Here, drug-addicted and poverty-stricken matriarch Leonie, a black woman living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, is desperate to be a better mom but struggles with what that means and how to achieve it. She drags her two children (13-year-old Jojo and toddler Kayla) across Mississippi to the State Penitentiary, where their white father is set to be released. Jojo prefers the company of his grandparents over his parents, and is deeply reluctant to make the trip. His feelings on the subject are compounded when he’s visited by a spirit close to him in age, who died during his grandfather’s youth. Jojo’s ability was inherited from his mother, who is regularly haunted (and at times, comforted) by the ghost of her murdered brother.
Artemis, by Andy Weir
Weir’s first novel in the wake of The Martian‘s became a bestselling phenomenon and a major box office hit is a completely different kind of story, even as it shares its predecessor’s commitment to smart, plausible science. In Artemis, city on the Moon. Jazz Bashara works as a porter, scraping by and supplementing her income with a little light smuggling on the side. Her moonlighting brings her into contact with wealthy and powerful figures like Trond Landvik, a businessman with designs on a lunar aluminum monopoly. Landvik asks Jazz to come up with a way to sabotage his competition, and Jazz seizes the opportunity to grab a big score with a bold plan spiced. The resulting caper moves at a mile a minute, delivered with the same witty dialogue and ribald humor that made us fall in love with Mark Watney. If you ask us, Weir has another winner on his hands—and likely another blockbuster film adaptation in his future.
Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate
Avery Stafford, an attorney being groomed to follow her father’s footsteps into politics, returns home to a small town in South Carolina to help him through cancer treatments. There she meets an elderly woman in a nursing home who has a photo of Avery’s mother—although Avery’s never met or heard of the woman. Her sudden investigation into her prominent family’s past reveals a shocking secret connected to a sketchy orphanage (based, unfortunately, on real life) that spent decades basically stealing children from poor families and adopting them out to rich ones. As this tragic past catches up with the present, Avery has to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about family, heritage, and justice.
What’s the best new fiction book you read this year?