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Burntcoat

Sarah Hall (Custom House)

Booker finalist Hall’s story of a devastating pandemic revolves around an artist working on a sculpture to memorialize the dead. In the process she reflects on her mother, a writer who was altered by a brain injury, and on her lover, who died from the virus. Hall conveys intense sex scenes, superb descriptions of the artist’s practice, and insights on the transformations of bodies in stunning prose.

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Cloud Cuckoo Land

Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

Doerr makes clever and spellbinding use of the vignette-style narration found in his Pulitzer-winning All the Light You Cannot See with this sprawling story of a book from Ancient Greece that passes through 15th-century Constantinople, present-day Idaho, and a spaceship in the distant future. The disparate threads tie together perfectly, adding up to a deeply affecting page-turner.

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Crossroads

Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A hippie Christian youth group outside Chicago in the early 1970s provides the nexus for a fascinating family drama involving a bitter pastor; his complex wife, who’s beginning to reckon with a mental health episode from decades earlier; and their four soul-searching children, one of whom forfeits his draft deferment. Even Franzen’s critics would have to admit this makes psychological realism great again.

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Dear Miss Metropolitan

Carolyn Ferrell (Holt)

Ferrell astounds with the complex and formally inventive story of three young women who are kidnapped and held captive at a house in Queens, N.Y., and of their discovery a decade later. Ferrell also turns the lens on the neighbors of their captor who are now wracked with guilt, including a newspaper advice columnist. It’s a powerful examination of collective trauma.

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Filthy Animals

Brandon Taylor (Riverhead)

Taylor follows up his Booker-shortlisted Real Life with a collection exploring similar ground on and around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, to even greater effect. Short stories are Taylor’s bread and butter, and each one here offers a master class in characterization, interior monologues, and complex backstories. What’s more, they make a satisfying whole.

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The Five Wounds

Kristin Valdez Quade (Norton)

Valdez Quade expands a story from her NBCC-winning collection Night at the Fiestas into a novel about a man entering his 33rd year unemployed and addicted to booze. There’s some hope after he accepts the starring role in his New Mexico village’s annual Passion play, but it fades to destruction and drama. The author pulls off a loving, empathetic portrait of a vibrant community.

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A Ghost in the Throat

Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Biblioasis)

At once a frank autobiography of a middle-aged mother and poet, an insightful critical study of a classic Irish poem, and a sparkling fictional narrative of the poem’s inspiration, Ní Ghríofa’s text attracts the reader even as it resists categorization. This special brew offers both challenges and rewards.

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Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)

Whitehead comes off back-to-back Pulitzers with a heist novel that offers a rich portrait of Harlem in the 1950s, and a memorable cast of characters good, evil, and somewhere in the middle, who rope a furniture dealer into a dangerous robbery. This demonstrates, once again, that Whitehead can do just about anything.

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Lean Fall Stand

Jon McGregor (Catapult)

A technician on a geographic research crew in Antarctica suffers a stroke after an accident in McGregor’s powerful story. The descriptions of the continent’s blank whiteness are stunning, and so is the subsequent chronicle of the man’s recovery, which offers a brilliant depiction of speech therapy. This shows the acclaimed author at the top of his game.

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The Morning Star

Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken (Penguin Press)

Fans of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series remarked on how those books were page-turners even though not much happens. His latest, in contrast, revolves around a momentous fantastical event: a new star appears in the sky, causing people and animals to act erratically and dangerously. The result evokes the horror of the everyday as well as the otherworldly.

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My Year Abroad

Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead)

Lee spins a wild and moving picaresque about an American college student named Tiller who winds up stranded in China by a shady entrepreneur who’d promised him a business opportunity. Tiller then makes it home and shacks up with an older Chinese American woman, and their relationship helps him explore his Asian ancestry. Each page is full of life and real-feeling sentiment.

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No One Is Talking About This

Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)

A young woman, famous for a viral post, becomes a globe-trotting social media pundit. Then she finds out her sister is struggling with a pregnancy, and reluctantly returns to her Ohio hometown to help. The tonal shift leads to a staggering meditation on real life versus screen life. In a glut of novels about the internet, Lockwood’s is one for the ages.

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The Orphanage

Serhiy Zhadan, trans. from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler (Yale Univ.)

Poet and novelist Zhadan, also a Ukrainian independence activist, delivers a profound road story about a teacher named Pasha and his attempt to retrieve his nephew from an orphanage during an onslaught of devastation by Russian-backed separatists. A blend of naturalism and lyrical metaphors conveys Pasha’s struggle as well as the corrupt Ukrainian authorities’ crippling distortion of the truth.

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Outlawed

Anna North (Bloomsbury)

North’s revisionist western follows a young newlywed on the run from accusations of witchcraft in the late 19th century. In the Dakota Territory, she joins up with a gang of women and gender-nonconforming people who want to build a town for outsiders like themselves. A plan to rob a wagon for gold goes terribly wrong, but everything is just right in this blistering adventure.

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The Pastor

Hanne Ørstavik, trans. from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken (Archipelago)

A woman named Liv leaves her seminary in Germany for a post at a church in northern Norway, the site of a Sami rebellion against Christian missionaries. Liv’s reflections on that fraught history dovetail brilliantly with her responses to the conservative and sexist men she meets in the Church of Norway. Ørstavik’s slow-burning narrative crescendoes as a potent feminist anthem.

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The Promise

Damon Galgut (Europa)

South African playwright and novelist Galgut, twice shortlisted for the Booker, conceives of a damning and explosive story of a white family that fails to make good on a promise to a Black woman who once worked as their maid. The prose and the voices are pitch-perfect in this tragic, all-too-plausible drama.

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Ramadan Ramsey

Louis Edwards (Amistad)

It’s been two decades since Whiting winner and New Orleans music industry veteran Edwards published a novel, and this saga of a 12-year-old NOLA boy’s search for his father in the Middle East was worth the wait. The author writes on a Dickensian scale with quick-witted young characters reminiscent of Twain. This has the feel of a classic.

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The Removed

Brandon Hobson (Ecco)

A Cherokee family reunites for an annual independence celebration a year after the killing of one of the children by police. The uneasy mix of trauma and celebration sets the tone, and the story is filled with the spirits of the family’s ancestors along with cameos from the ghosts of David Foster Wallace and Jimi Hendrix. Heartfelt and painful, Hobson’s latest is a revelation.

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The Sentence

Louise Erdrich (Harper)

This inventive story from NBA, NBCC, and Pulitzer winner Erdrich rises like a phoenix from its grief-stricken setting: the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. At the center of these overlapping historical moments is a resilient bookstore. An ingenious structure and the urgent tone make this impossible to turn away from.

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Winter in Sokcho

Elisa Shua Dusapin, trans. from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Open Letter)

A young French Korean woman works at a seaside inn near the DMZ in South Korea. After an older Frenchman, a comic book writer, visits in search of inspiration, a complex relationship develops between the two. Dusapin’s spare, ornate prose evokes French writers such as Nathalie Saurraute, while her heroine’s resistance to Korean beauty standards feels direct and incendiary. It makes for a brilliant and infectious stylistic mix.

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