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Assembly

Natasha Brown (Little, Brown)

A young Black woman deals with a London finance job, a posh white fiancée, and a cancer diagnosis in Brown’s fully realized debut. References to bell hooks and Claudia Rankine abound, laying the groundwork for an incisive and unforgettable mixed-genre critique of race, class, and gender relations. This accomplishes in 96 pages what other books do in 300.

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Second Place

Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Cusk’s latest work of fiction after her acclaimed Outline trilogy breaks new ground with the fiercely intelligent story of a woman named M’s gradual self awareness after hosting L, an artist, at her guest house on the English coast. As M and her family get to know L, a cascading series of poignant revelations and beautiful images leads to a startling conclusion.

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A Shock

Keith Ridgway (New Directions)

Experimental but completely accessible and utterly visceral, Ridgway’s work takes on a Jocyean recursive structure, beginning with a woman climbing through a hole in her wall to peer into her neighbors’ flat during a party, and ending with the perspective of those neighbors and their guests. Don’t call it a novel in stories or a collection; just call it the Irish writer’s masterpiece.

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The War for Gloria

Atticus Lish (Knopf)

Preparations for the Next Life established Lish’s singular voice with an intense look at characters on the margins, and here he surpasses himself with a deeply moving and harrowing story of a teenage boy who takes care of his ALS-stricken mother and tries to distinguish himself from his toxic biological father. Confident and humble, this is a once-in-a-decade triumph.

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Wayward

Dana Spiotta (Knopf)

A midlife crisis with a twist: rather than have an affair or take a trip to Europe, a white married woman from a nice suburb buys a rundown house in a neglected part of Syracuse, N.Y.; moves in; and throws her—and her patient husband’s—money at its myriad problems. Spiotta brings her trademark wit and verve to themes of aging, privilege, and local history.

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All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake

Tiya Miles (Random House)

MacArthur fellow Miles blends meticulous scholarly research with novelistic imagination to explore how material objects—in this case, a cloth sack packed by an enslaved woman for her nine-year-old daughter when she was sold to a new master—can illuminate the hidden corners of the American past. No other history this year was more revelatory or compassionate.

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All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler

Rebecca Donner (Little, Brown)

This spellbinding WWII espionage tale begins with the facts—the author’s great-great-aunt, Mildred Harnack, was a leader of the largest underground resistance group in Berlin until she was captured by the Nazis and executed in 1943—and weaves a thrilling and utterly unique story of courage, conviction, inheritance, and the vagaries of fate.

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Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America

Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Military drone operators, slaughterhouse laborers, prison guards, and oil rig workers discuss the physical and emotional burdens of their jobs in this deeply reported and extraordinarily empathetic account from New Yorker contributor Press, who finds that such “dirty work” falls disproportionately to the poor and people of color. This probing study lays bare the machinery of exploitation.

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A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House)

Abdurraqib studies Black artists and their influence on American culture in this phenomenal collection. He movingly captures the power of Josephine Baker, the history of dance marathons, the work of magician Ellen Armstrong, and his own relationship with music and performance. It’s vivid, gorgeous, and full of life.

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Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir

Ashley C. Ford (Flatiron)

This one isn’t for the fainthearted, but those who read this staggeringly beautiful work will close it having been entirely changed. Recalling the years she spent growing up while her father was serving a 24-year prison sentence for rape, Ford offers up a stunning story about love, forgiveness, truth, and the ways in which familial bonds can both make and break a person.

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