10. The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes continues to plot a lofty, lonely course through the subconscious of popular culture with this hilariously bleak graphic novel starring a superhero who, in his venality and triviality, makes the heroes of Kick-Ass and Watchmen look like Supermen.
Andy, a skinny loser-type growing up in Chicago in the 1970s, discovers that smoking a cigarette gives him super strength; later he comes into possession of the titular death ray, which looks like a classic Hugo Gernsback–style prop, except that it actually works. Andy is too lost and feckless to organize any kind of actual heroic activities — which, let’s face it, is a pretty realistic assessment of how things would work out — and we watch helplessly as he, with the help of a weird outcast friend, completely and utterly squanders his gifts.
9. Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Novelists used to specialize in entertaining, funny-sad, well-observed stories about complicated family relationships. But such books were in surprisingly short supply this year, which makes a gem like Maine all the more precious. Sullivan gives us three sunny, alcoholic acres of Maine coastline and three generations of Kelleher women: the upright matriarch, the good-girl daughter-in-law, the black sheep and the black sheep’s writer daughter. All four are busy forging complicated compromises between domesticity and career, love and marriage. Nobody is completely happy with the deal she’s struck, but they have to learn to live with it or strike another before it’s too late.
8. The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler
Lars Kepler is Swedish, and he’s being billed, naturally, as the successor to Stieg Larsson. But Kepler casts a subtler, creepier spell than his countryman (Kepler is actually the pseudonym for a Swedish husband-and-wife writing team). The book starts with a bloodbath: Erik Maria Bark, an emphatically retired hypnotherapist, is called in to delve into the psyche of a young boy, the last survivor of a brutal killing spree who is incapacitated by shock. What comes forth from the depths of the boy’s mind should be the end of the story, the solution to the crime, but instead it turns out to be only the beginning of a terrible chain of events that leads backward and forward in time. Kepler has a remarkable feeling for physical cruelty, and his ability to inhabit the workings of psychotic psyches is authentically shocking.
7. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
It’s tough to say what list this book belongs on, but it’s the debut of a smart, funny, wholly unique voice, and it ought to be somewhere, so let’s put it here. Kate Beaton is a cartoonist who draws wildly expressive portraits of historical and literary figures and then makes them say funny things. Quite often her comics reveal basic truths about who these people were or are. (Lenin: “Is the right time for revolution.” Russian: “I do not wish to be communist.” Lenin: “Would murderous atrocities convince you sir.” Russian (rubs beard thoughtfully): “Go on ...”) But the main point is that they’re hilarious. Whatever else it might be, Hark! A Vagrant is the wittiest book of the year.
6. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Meet the parents with real boundary issues: performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, who use their children in cruel Candid Camera–style stunts as naturally as a painter uses a brush and oil. Annie rebels in her teens to become an actress; the more apologetic Buster, a writer. She’s Oscar-nominated but a mess; he’s a mess, period. Then Mom and Dad disappear. Foul play or more high art? In his debut novel, Kevin Wilson expertly navigates between pathos and black comedy while negotiating a smart debate about the human cost of sacrificing all for one’s art. Fang has bite but is also incredibly fun.
5. Started Early, Took My Dog
by Kate Atkinson
At this point, the deliciously gloomy, ongoing adventures of the permanently hangdog Jackson Brodie form a kind of seedy, hardboiled modern epic. Depressed but indomitable, a fallen policeman in a fallen world, Brodie here tugs on a slender thread, the search for the real identity of an adopted woman in New Zealand, and an old and desperately unhappy mystery comes tumbling out. His voice duets with that of Tracy; an unmarried police detective of a certain age who seems doomed to a lonely decline until she impulsively and illegally adopts a child! It all coalesces, as things in Kate Atkinson’s intricately constructed stories usually do. It’s a damned depressing world, but her characters make excellent company there.
4. Open City by Teju Cole
There’s not much by way of plot to Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, in which a Nigerian psychiatry resident named Julius takes long walks around New York City. But the flights of Julius’ mind — both the things he remembers and the things he elides — fuel a powerful and unnerving inquiry into the human soul. Cole has earned flattering comparisons to literary heavyweights like J.M. Coetzee, W.G. Sebald and Henry James, but Open City merits higher praise: it’s a profoundly original work, intellectually stimulating and possessing of a style both engaging and seductive.
3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
This is a strange, complex and triumphantly confident reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for a different age. Marina Singh, a docile lab rat, must follow her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson into the sweaty and uncomfortable depths of the Amazon jungle, whence Swenson has vanished in search of the secret to a mysterious fertility drug. Singh finds her living with a bizarre indigenous tribe, but from there the mystery only deepens — Swenson’s methods are, as the saying goes, unorthodox. It’s an extraordinary pleasure to go on a journey like this, into the verdant chaos of the Amazon with an orderly, sane, exquisitely sensitive observer like Ann Patchett as your companion. The stakes are different from what they were in Conrad’s day, but now, as then, the journey is as much an inner one as an outer.
2. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
No one knew what to expect from the half-finished manuscript that David Foster Wallace left behind when he died. What we got was the best we could have hoped for: a construction site of a novel, to be sure, hard hats required, with the barest skeleton of a plot, but also some of Wallace’s most direct and personal and eloquent writing. The opening section of the book includes a dozen pages set in the head of a junior accountant on a regional jet, just sitting and thinking, and it’s riveting. Nobody writing now can pull off that kind of a literary MRI job. It’s a vivid reminder of what Wallace had, and what we lost, but it’s also half a great novel, and that’s a good half more than what most novelists ever write.
1. A Dance with Dragons
by George R.R. Martin
It was, famously, six years between the last Song of Ice and Fire book and this one. What was George R.R. Martin doing all that time? Was he wandering in the wilderness? Was he sunning on the beaches of Dorne? No: he was girding his loins and rallying the banners, and he has come charging back with one of the strongest books of the series. Dance with Dragons puts us back in the main narrative stream of A Song of Ice and Fire: we go into exile with the black-humored dwarf Tyrion, raise dragons with Daenerys, walk the wall and brood with Jon Snow. The artistry and savagery of Martin’s storytelling are at their finest: he has seized hold of epic fantasy and is radically refashioning it for our complex and jaded era, and the results are magnificent. It’s anyone’s guess, who will wind up ruling the Seven Kingdoms, but in the realm of epic fantasy, there is only one true king, and it’s Martin.