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The Candy House

Jennifer Egan (Scribner)

Once again, as in A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan stretches the bounds of the novel. The speculative story is about technology—and those who design it and those who elude its pervading connectivity. There’s plenty of dazzling innovation in style and form, but the greatest riches are in the many luminous insights on her characters.

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Companion Piece

Ali Smith (Pantheon)

Smith follows up her torn-from-the-headlines Seasons Quartet with a sublime narrative involving a London artist named Sandy whose telephone encounter during lockdown with a strange woman sends her into a rabbit hole involving a parallel story of 13th-century English history. There’s a delightful knot of ideas to untangle, and Sandy’s return to human company makes this glorious and life-affirming.

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Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver (Harper)

The hero of Kingsolver’s teeming and masterly social realist epic, an update of Dickens’ David Copperfield, shuttles through foster care as a preteen in rural Virginia before slipping into his own opioid addiction after a high school football injury. The author makes every sentence count and tackles bulky social issues, all while delivering a spectacular story.

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Devil House

John Darnielle (MCD)

Darnielle, author and musician behind the Mountain Goats, addresses the massive popularity of true crime with a metafictional narrative that simultaneously tells a lurid story of murder and digs into a true crime writer’s reckoning with the conventions of the genre. It works brilliantly on both levels, satisfying readers’ desires while giving them pause.

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Dinosaurs

Lydia Millet (Norton)

A middle-aged man, heir to an oil fortune, befriends his new neighbors in Phoenix, Ariz., does volunteer work, and looks out for the bullied boy next door in Millet’s powerful study of toxic masculinity. This will leave readers considering the limits of good intentions.

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Dr. No

Percival Everett (Graywolf)

Everett’s delightfully unhinged James Bond spoof involves a Black billionaire’s plot to hit Fort Knox, which is phase one in his scheme to avenge the murder of his parents at the hands of a white police chief. With satire as sharp as a baddie’s worst weapon and set pieces more bonkers than Moonraker, Everett shows off his formidable powers.

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Either/Or

Elif Batuman (Penguin Press)

With this radiant sequel to The Idiot, Batuman has achieved campus novel perfection. Selin, now in her second year at Harvard in the mid-1990s, is starting to feel disenchanted. Her friends are pairing off, and her crush is elusive. Funny set pieces, like an S&M-themed party, add dimension to the insightful philosophical flights. Batuman’s outdone herself with this one.

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Human Blues

Elisa Albert (Avid Reader)

Albert unfurls a hilarious and profane portrayal of a folk-punk singer-songwriter who’s a bit obsessed with Amy Winehouse and hopes to have a child. Jokes bend into rants—and vice versa—about Jewish guilt, monogamy, and the “industrial fertility” complex, and the whole thing culminates in a consummate and moving ending.

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Lessons

Ian McEwan (Knopf)

McEwan’s decades-spanning masterpiece tells the story of an Englishman stamped by boyhood trauma in the 1950s. As Roland lives through moments of disaster both historical (the Chernobyl meltdown) and personal (an unfriendly and misleading memoir published by Roland’s ex-wife), McEwan elicits a staggering depth of feeling for the protagonist.

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Living Pictures

Polina Barskova, trans. from the Russian by Catherine Ciepiela (New York Review Books)

In an amazing mixed-genre feat, Barskova compiles and embellishes stories of those who survived the siege of Leningrad during WWII. The author also includes reflections on her own childhood in Leningrad and adulthood in the U.S., with stories that bridge a gulf of understanding between herself and her grandparents’ generation.

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New and Selected Stories

Cristina Rivera Garza, trans. from the Spanish by Sarah Booker et al. (Dorothy)

Mexican author Rivera Garza charts love and danger in Mexico City and beyond in this knockout collection. Whether chronicling a murder investigation, reflecting on migration, or deploying inventive forms such as an anthropologist’s log, the author displays her genius in myriad ways.

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Night of the Living Rez

Morgan Talty (Tin House)

Talty’s knockout collection looks at a family on the Penobscot reservation in the 1990s, and at a young man dealing with an opioid addiction in the present day. Throughout, a series of abandoned or spoiled hunting trips establishes a theme of dreams squashed, and the author brings breathtaking focus to his characters.

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Scattered All Over the Earth

Yoko Tawada, trans. from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions)

With Japan obliterated from the map in a postapocalyptic near future, a refugee builds a new life in Denmark, where her interest in languages draws her into a ragtag group of linguists. It turns into a wondrously complex story of cultures colliding, languages morphing, and hidden narratives. Once opened, it’s hard to pull away from.

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Seasons of Purgatory

Shahriar Mandanipour, trans. from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Bellevue Literary)

The exiled Iranian writer brings a timeless quality to these harrowing stories of violence and war, which often bring a sense of human immediacy to strange occurrences. Whether in an account of two soldiers’ frightening encounter with a leopard, or another dissembling after he’s wounded, Mandanipour evokes an unsettling fascination for his nightmarish situations.

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The Sleeping Car Porter

Suzette Mayr (Coach House)

Canadian writer Mayr pulls off an achingly good portrait of a Black train porter on a transcontinental trip in 1929. He faces many challenges, not the least of which is the need to stay awake, and Mayr captures the surreal notes of his delirium in stunning prose.

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Solenoid

Mircea Cartarescu, trans. from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum)

A failed writer’s diary swells into a marvelous fantastical vision of 1970s and ’80s Bucharest, where he lives on a structure built to tap into the fourth dimension and joins up with a group of anti-death people in hopes of getting there. What follows is a dizzying quest of Kafkaesque proportions.

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The Swimmers

Julie Otsuka (Knopf)

When a pool beloved by lap swimmers must close after a crack is discovered in it, the stage is set for a transcendent meditation on the nature of habit, community, and memory. And after one of the swimmers gets dementia and moves into a nursing home, Otsuka delivers an account of life’s final phase that will touch even the stoniest reader.

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The Town of Babylon

Alejandro Varela (Astra)

Varela’s assured debut stands out for its frank and vulnerable account of a gay Latinx man’s return to his suburban hometown for his 20th high school reunion, where run-ins with former classmates send him reeling. Varela’s take on how the town shaped Andres and continues to affect his life is irresistible.

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True Biz

Sara Nović (Random House)

Nović’s spiky anthem of teenage rage centers on a school for the Deaf, and a student whose parents just don’t understand: she struggles to learn sign language while her parents refuse, and she has headaches from the cochlear implant forced on her. Along the way, Nović generously and ingeniously conveys the intersection of languages.

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The Village Idiot

Steve Stern (Melville House)

Stern, whose genius works of fiction suffuse history with the magic of Jewish folklore, is a writer still awaiting his due. This one, a masterwork of time and memory from the point of view of expressionist painter Chaim Soutine, might just become the sleeper success he deserves.

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