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A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan (Knopf)

Egan's a daunting stylist, and she's in blistering form for these interlocking narratives about the milieu surrounding an aging and waning music producer. Essentially, it's a story about getting mugged by the passage of time, and along the way she interrogates how rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, and lifelong friendships fluctuate. You also might know this as the novel that has a chapter written in PowerPoint. Egan: unpredictable and, here, brilliant.

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The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)

Wilkerson's sprawling study of the flight of six million blacks from the humiliation of Jim Crow to uncertain destinies in the American North and West is expansive in scope, pointillist in focus, and a triumph of scholarship and empathy. Anchoring her narrative in the suspenseful stories of three who made the journey, Wilkerson humanizes the migration that reshaped American demographics, art, and politics.

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Freedom

Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Did you know Jonathan Franzen has a new novel? He does. It's called Freedom, and it follows a Minnesota family whose problems, squabbles, and poor decisions encapsulate the very essence of what it means to have lived through the first decade of the 21st century. It's… a masterpiece.

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Unbroken

Laura Hillenbrand (Random)

Readers of this soul-stirring narrative will never forget Louis Zamperini, who after a career as a runner served in WWII only to be captured and held prisoner by the Japanese; a more horrific internment would be difficult to imagine. Zamperini's physical and spiritual sufferings both during and after WWII and his coming out the other side become the story of a true American hero from that greatest generation.

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The Surrendered

Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead)

Grim, but so is Dostoyevski. Lee, who can craft a sentence, follows several decades in the lives of an American soldier and a Korean orphan whose paths cross during the Korean War, the reverberations of which, Lee shows, are now deeply woven into the fabric of what it means to be American.

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The Big Short

Michael Lewis (Norton)

Lewis has written the briskest and brightest analysis of the crash of 2008. Other books might provide a more exhaustive account of what went wrong, but Lewis's character-driven narrative reveals the how and why with peerless clarity and panache. When will they ever learn?

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot (Crown)

Medical history is grippingly told through the life of one African-American woman and her family, which begins at the "colored" ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. Skloot, who hit the road in her beatup old car to relentlessly follow this story, explores issues of race, poverty, the ethics of medical research and its sometimes tragic, unintended consequences.

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Just Kids

Patti Smith (Ecco)

Smith's beautifully crafted love letter to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe functions as a memento mori of a relationship fueled by a passion for art and writing. Her elegant eulogy lays bare the chaos and the creativity so embedded in that earlier time and in Mapplethorpe's life and work.

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Man in the Woods

Scott Spencer (Ecco)

A man and a dog in Spencer's adroit hands adds up to one stunning story. Spencer says he likes to put his characters in situations and "turn up the heat." Here his well-meaning, easygoing protagonist lands in the third circle of hell, with his whole life in jeopardy, after a chance encounter at a highway rest stop. Exciting, thoughtful, compelling: you won't want to put it down and you won't want it to end.

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The Lonely Polygamist

Brady Udall (Norton)

Golden Richards, a fundamentalist Mormon with four wives and 28 children, flirts with infidelity in this tragicomic family saga with a cast of flawed, perfectly realized characters. Don't mistake this for the Great American Mormon Novel-it could just be the Great American Novel of the year.

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