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The Abstainer

Ian McGuire (Random House)

Irish-born widower James O’Connell, a Manchester cop, hunts down an American Civil War veteran at the center of a Fenian rebel plot in McGuire’s taut, deeply immersive masterpiece. The city’s brutal, rain-soaked streets become a character of their own and provide unforgiving backdrop for grief-stricken O’Connell’s punishing search for redemption.

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Beheld

TaraShea Nesbit (Bloomsbury)

Nesbit mines a trove of primary sources from Plymouth Colony for a riveting story of a murder amid religious hypocrisy and inequities between indentured servants turned rebels and prominent Mayflower colonists. The author’s in-depth portrayal of the female characters imagines a vital history of women’s voices and day-to-day activity in the colony, unrecorded in the archives.

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Bluebeard’s First Wife

Ha Seong-nan, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong (Open Letter)

Ha’s nitro-fueled collection captures the dark side of South Korean society in mischievous, unapologetic feminist stories. Shocking violence occurs between a new married couple, a dog is stolen, and neighbors are suspiciously noisy among other disturbances in this wonderfully weird book. Each story stands out, and together they form a nightmare impossible to turn away from.

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The Butterfly Lampshade

Aimee Bender (Doubleday)

Francie, the protagonist of Bender’s rich meditation on memory, swallows a dead butterfly at age eight, in order to remember the butterfly pattern on a lampshade in her aunt’s house. In her 20s, Francine catalogs and revisits her childhood memories to astonishing effect through Bender’s extraordinary literary inventions and inimitable prose.

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The Cold Millions

Jess Walter (Harper)

Walter’s sweeping epic, set in the early 20th century, follows two Montana brothers as they search for work and get involved in the free speech riots among miners looking to organize a union in Spokane, Wash. The vivid human drama cuts across the rigid social strata of the time, invoking the best of 1930s social realism.

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Crooked Hallelujah

Kelli Jo Ford (Grove)

Reney, a struggling young Cherokee woman, finds strength from her mother, even as she works to forge her own path and break her family’s generational chain of dysfunction and heartache. Ford’s prose dazzles with glitter and grit, tracing the limits and possibilities of a mother, daughter, and granddaughter’s best efforts with pure grace.

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The Dominant Animal

Kathryn Scanlan (MCD)

The pleasures of language abound in Scanlan’s collection of very short stories showcasing some of the best sentence writing around. Familiar tropes and images are made uncanny through strange details and absurdist humor, reminiscent of prose masters Lydia Davis and Russell Edson.

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Fiebre Tropical

Juliana Delgado Lopera (Feminist Press)

Lopera’s fresh and deliciously irreverent bilingual novel follows 15-year-old protagonist Francisca on a restless search for freedom and self-discovery after moving with her mother from Bogota to Miami. Francisca’s infectious insouciance and deep appetite for experience, revolving partly around a sexual relationship with her preacher’s daughter, make this a singular coming-of-age story.

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Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf)

O’Farrell’s outstanding novel of Shakespeare’s inspiration places the bard offstage for most of the action, centering instead his wife and children as they contend with the effects of the bubonic plague at Stratford-upon-Avon. O’Farrell’s inventive biographical details and narrative conceits enliven the historical material, making this one to cherish.

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Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar (Little, Brown)

This year’s Great American Novel, a masterpiece of autofiction, confronts a series of contradictions, reversals, and enigmas among the author-protagonist’s family members, friends, and lovers. The most affecting—and occasionally the funniest—is the story of Ayad’s complicated relationship with his father, an immigrant from Pakistan who once served as Donald Trump’s doctor, leading him to support Trump in 2016.

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Igifu

Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. from the French by Jordan Stump (Archipelago)

In five delicate, affecting stories, French Rwandan writer Mukasonga focuses on everyday moments in the lives of her Tutsi characters amidst the waves of genocide in Rwanda from the 1960s to the ’90s. The work is full of searing moments as the characters contend with a legacy of violence, government exploitation, and igifu (hunger) of many types.

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An Inventory of Losses

Judith Schalansky, trans. from the German by Jackie Smith (New Directions)

Schalansky’s extraordinary, genre-defying collection is ordered around a series of lost objects and vanished places, each evoked with a ghostlike, fantastical image: a German romantic painting lost to a fire, a 17th-century unicorn skeleton, a “phantom island” that disappeared from the South Pacific. Each entry reaches new heights through a Sebaldian blend of fact and fiction.

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It Is Wood, It Is Stone

Gabriella Burnham (One World)

Second-person narration redeems itself in Burnham’s captivating novel about a Brazilian American woman, Linda, who moves to São Paulo with her husband. Linda’s behavior grows erratic after she becomes attracted to a woman, and she describes her self-dissociation in painstaking, Lispector-esque clarity. Burnham’s ever-tense domestic drama becomes an awe-inspiring study of gaps between race and class.

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The Last Great Road Bum

Hector Tobar (MCD)

Tobar follows up Deep Down Dark, his celebrated work of narrative nonfiction, with a stunning novel based on the life of failed Hemingwayesque writer Joe Sanderson, who died fighting with the guerillas in El Salvador. Tobar keeps up fascinating tension between his critiques of innocent globetrotter Joe’s desire to remake the world in his own image and a genuinely exciting chronicle of Joe’s adventures.

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Likes

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A hint of magic pervades Bynum’s sparkling collection, each story full of exuberance and insight, and each as good as the last. Whether capturing a young girl’s spellbound consciousness at a King Arthur–themed party or the adult challenges of parenting and married life, Bynum takes the reader through surprising turns and into the sublime.

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Mansour’s Eyes

Ryan Girod, trans. from the French by Chris Clarke (Transit)

A square in Saudi Arabia fills with spectators shortly after the Arab Spring, their chant of “Gassouh! Gassouh!” (Cut it off!) becoming a layered, increasingly complex refrain in the narrator’s flashbacks of his friend Mansour, condemned to die for heresy. Girod’s slim, meditative volume packs a heavy punch, and is dense with reflections on colonialism, art and science, and spiritual transformation.

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The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel (Holt)

No one writes historical fiction quite like Mantel. Her Cromwell trilogy is both bingeworthy and prizeworthy, doorstoppers worth savoring sentence by sentence. The conclusion picks up with Cromwell at the height of his power, reflecting on a widening pool of blood in his wake, as Mantel uncompromisingly builds on her themes of wreckage and the recursive nature of time.

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Monogamy

Sue Miller (Harper)

Miller’s tour de force of domestic turmoil shows a master of her craft running on all cylinders. After the death of photographer Annie’s husband, Graham, Annie learns more about Graham’s Rabelaisian life while navigating the entwined relationships of their Boston social circle. Her intoxicating narration swells from painful recovered memories to newfound exuberance, making this an overwhelmingly powerful accomplishment.

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Out of Mesopotamia

Salar Abdoh (Akashic)

Iranian journalist Saleh is drawn from Tehran to Syria and Iraq, where he embeds with coalition soldiers fighting in the war on ISIS. Abdoh’s superb meditation on art and war exploits and subverts the tropes of popular Western war novels for a thrilling, sometimes comical ride through a horrific series of battles.

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Pew

Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A teenage stranger comes to town offering no name or answers to questions about their gender, race, or origin in Lacey’s ambitious fable, in which notes of classic Southern gothic are remixed with trenchant commentary on Jim Crow–era violence and religious hypocrisy, all amplified by the ambiguous outsider. Lacey’s silent protagonist speaks volumes to the reader, making them unforgettable.

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The Regrets

Amy Bonnaffons (Little, Brown)

Bonnaffons’s witty love story soars on the strength of her humor and surreal imagery. Rachel, a librarian ever unlucky in love, meets a man named Thomas who’s died and been returned to Earth by the afterlife’s administrators for 90 days. The couple’s transient love elicits genuine emotion as they reach their last days, and Bonnaffons makes profound observations on dying and regret.

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A Saint from Texas

Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

The spiritual and the profane get equal airtime in White’s wickedly funny tale of a Texas oil heiress who trades on her wealth to become a French baroness while her sister devotes herself to a convent in Colombia, as each explores her own sexuality. Manners of the French aristocracy and American nouveau riche are wonderfully, lovingly skewered by White’s perfect touch.

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Sisters

Daisy Johnson (Riverhead)

Horror motifs set the stage for a beguiling psychological nightmare in a North York Moors cottage, where a mother deals with depression and a teenage girl struggles to put the pieces back together after being bullied. Phenomenal prose and unforgettable images immerse the reader completely in the idyllic-turned-fearsome setting, and a staggering twist makes this worth reading a second time.

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Temporary

Hilary Leichter (Coffee House/Emily)

A temp worker’s bailiwick expands from office admin duties to sailing on a pirate ship and performing absurd tasks such as subbing for a barnacle on a rock. The flights from one assignment to another transition seamlessly through captivating dream logic and magical, inventive imagery, leading to staggering insights about the nature of existence.

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Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri, trans. from the Japanese by Morgan Giles (Riverhead)

Yu’s lyrical ghost story reads like a Jim Jarmusch film. The dead protagonist, Kazu, a homeless man who spent his last years in Ueno Park, still lingers there, observing the changes in Tokyo society and reflecting on the city’s history. Kazu’s loneliness and longing are delivered through devastating lines that shake the reader to the core.

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The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett (Riverhead)

This deeply felt multigenerational story of a Black family from Louisiana surpasses Bennett’s benchmark debut. Twin sisters Desiree and Stella, 16, flee their hometown in the 1950s, then take very different paths. As each embarks on a series of surprising turns, Bennett makes this a powerful novel of Black women’s will toward self-determination.

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