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A composite image of some of the books of the century

The 100 best books of the 21st century

Dazzling debut novels, searing polemics, the history of humanity and trailblazing memoirs ... Read our pick of the best books since 2000

  • Read an interview with the author of our No 1 book
  • Read Ali Smith on Autumn
  • Read David Mitchell on Cloud Atlas

I Feel Bad About My Neck

By nora ephron (2006).

Perhaps better known for her screenwriting ( Silkwood , When Harry Met Sally , Heartburn ), Ephron’s brand of smart theatrical humour is on best display in her essays. Confiding and self-deprecating, she has a way of always managing to sound like your best friend – even when writing about her apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. This wildly enjoyable collection includes her droll observations about ageing, vanity – and a scorching appraisal of Bill Clinton. Read the review

Broken Glass

By alain mabanckou (2005), translated by helen stevenson (2009).

The Congolese writer says he was “trying to break the French language” with Broken Glass – a black comedy told by a disgraced teacher without much in the way of full stops or paragraph breaks. As Mabanckou’s unreliable narrator munches his “bicycle chicken” and drinks his red wine, it becomes clear he has the history of Congo-Brazzaville and the whole of French literature in his sights. Read the review

Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the 2011 film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

By stieg larsson (2005), translated by steven t murray (2008).

Radical journalist Mikael Blomkvist forms an unlikely alliance with troubled young hacker Lisbeth Salander as they follow a trail of murder and malfeasance connected with one of Sweden’s most powerful families in the first novel of the bestselling Millennium trilogy. The high-level intrigue beguiled millions of readers, brought “Scandi noir” to prominence and inspired innumerable copycats. Read the review

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

By jk rowling (2000).

A generation grew up on Rowling’s all-conquering magical fantasies, but countless adults have also been enthralled by her immersive world. Book four, the first of the doorstoppers, marks the point where the series really takes off. The Triwizard Tournament provides pace and tension, and Rowling makes her boy wizard look death in the eye for the first time. Read the review

A Little Life

By hanya yanagihara (2015).

This operatically harrowing American gay melodrama became an unlikely bestseller, and one of the most divisive novels of the century so far. One man’s life is blighted by abuse and its aftermath, but also illuminated by love and friendship. Some readers wept all night, some condemned it as titillating and exploitative, but no one could deny its power. Read the review

Chronicles: Volume One

By bob dylan (2004).

Dylan’s reticence about his personal life is a central part of the singer-songwriter’s brand, so the gaps and omissions in this memoir come as no surprise. The result is both sharp and dreamy, sliding in and out of different phases of Dylan’s career but rooted in his earliest days as a Woody Guthrie wannabe in New York City. Fans are still waiting for volume two. Read the review

Bob Dylan in New York, 1963.

The Tipping Point

By malcolm gladwell (2000).

The New Yorker staff writer examines phenomena from shoe sales to crime rates through the lens of epidemiology, reaching his own tipping point, when he became a rock-star intellectual and unleashed a wave of quirky studies of contemporary society. Two decades on, Gladwell is often accused of oversimplification and cherry picking, but his idiosyncratic bestsellers have helped shape 21st-century culture. Read the review

by Nicola Barker (2007)

British fiction’s most anarchic author is as prolific as she is playful, but this freewheeling, visionary epic set around the Thames Gateway is her magnum opus. Barker brings her customary linguistic invention and wild humour to a tale about history’s hold on the present, as contemporary Ashford is haunted by the spirit of a medieval jester. Read the review

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

by Helen Dunmore (2001)

The Levin family battle against starvation in this novel set during the German siege of Leningrad. Anna digs tank traps and dodges patrols as she scavenges for wood, but the hand of history is hard to escape. Read the review

Light by M John Harrison

by M John Harrison (2002)

One of the most underrated prose writers demonstrates the literary firepower of science fiction at its best. Three narrative strands – spanning far-future space opera, contemporary unease and virtual-reality pastiche – are braided together for a breathtaking metaphysical voyage in pursuit of the mystery at the heart of reality. Read the review

by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)

A grand house by a lake in the east of Germany is both the setting and main character of Erpenbeck’s third novel. The turbulent waves of 20th-century history crash over it as the house is sold by a Jewish family fleeing the Third Reich, requisitioned by the Russian army, reclaimed by exiles returning from Siberia, and sold again. Read the review

by Lorna Sage (2000)

A Whitbread prizewinning memoir, full of perfectly chosen phrases, that is one of the best accounts of family dysfunction ever written. Sage grew up with her grandparents, who hated each other: he was a drunken philandering vicar; his wife, having found his diaries, blackmailed him and lived in another part of the house. The author gets unwittingly pregnant at 16, yet the story has a happy ending. Read the review

Noughts & Crosses

By malorie blackman (2001).

Set in an alternative Britain, this groundbreaking piece of young adult fiction sees black people, called the Crosses, hold all the power and influence, while the noughts – white people – are marginalised and segregated. The former children’s laureate’s series is a crucial work for explaining racism to young readers.


By patricia lockwood (2017).

This may not be the only account of living in a religious household in the American midwest (in her youth, the author joined a group called God’s Gang, where they spoke in tongues), but it is surely the funniest. The author started out as the “poet laureate of Twitter”; her language is brilliant, and she has a completely original mind. Read the review

A telling description of modern power … Yanis Varoufakis.

Adults in the Room

By yanis varoufakis (2017).

This memoir by the leather-jacketed economist of the six months he spent as Greece’s finance minister in 2015 at a time of economic and political crisis has been described as “one of the best political memoirs ever written”. He comes up against the IMF, the European institutions, Wall Street, billionaires and media owners and is told how the system works – as a result, his book is a telling description of modern power. Read the review

The God Delusion

By richard dawkins (2006).

A key text in the days when the “New Atheism” was much talked about, The God Delusion is a hard-hitting attack on religion, full of Dawkins’s confidence that faith produces fanatics and all arguments for God are ridiculous. What the evolutionary biologist lacks in philosophical sophistication, he makes up for in passion, and the book sold in huge numbers. Read the review

The Cost of Living

By deborah levy (2018).

Dazzling memoir … Deborah Levy.

“Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want ... ” The second part of Levy’s “living memoir”, in which she leaves her marriage, is a fascinating companion piece to her deep yet playful novels. Feminism, mythology and the daily grind come together for a book that combines emotion and intellect to dazzling effect. Read the review

Tell Me How It Ends

By valeria luiselli (2016), translated by luiselli with lizzie davis (2017).

As the hysteria over immigration to the US began to build in 2015, the Mexican novelist volunteered to work as an interpreter in New York’s federal immigration court. In this powerful series of essays she tells the poignant stories of the children she met, situating them in the wider context of the troubled relationship between the Americas. Read the review

by Neil Gaiman (2002)

From the Sandman comics to his fantasy epic American Gods to Twitter, Gaiman towers over the world of books. But this perfectly achieved children’s novella, in which a plucky young girl enters a parallel world where her “Other Mother” is a spooky copy of her real-life mum, with buttons for eyes, might be his finest hour: a properly scary modern myth which cuts right to the heart of childhood fears and desires. Read the review

by Jim Crace (2013)

Crace is fascinated by the moment when one era gives way to another. Here, it is the enclosure of the commons, a fulcrum of English history, that drives his story of dispossession and displacement. Set in a village without a name, the narrative dramatises what it’s like to see the world you know come to an end, in a severance of the connection between people and land that has deep relevance for our time of climate crisis and forced migration. Read the review

Amy Adams in Arrival, the 2015 film based on a short story by Ted Chiang.

Stories of Your Life and Others

By ted chiang (2002).

Melancholic and transcendent, Chiang’s eight, high-concept sci-fi stories exploring the nature of language, maths, religion and physics racked up numerous awards and a wider audience when ‘Story of Your Life’ was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival . Read the review

The Spirit Level

By richard wilkinson and kate pickett (2009).

An eye-opening study, based on overwhelming evidence, which revealed that among rich countries, the “more equal societies almost always do better” for all. Growth matters less than inequality, the authors argued: whether the issue is life expectancy, infant mortality, crime rates, obesity, literacy or recycling, the Scandinavian countries, say, will always win out over, say, the UK. Read the review

NK Jemisin explores urgent questions of power in The Fifth Season.

The Fifth Season

By nk jemisin (2015).

Jemisin became the first African American author to win the best novel category at the Hugo awards for her first book in the Broken Earth trilogy. In her intricate and richly imagined far future universe, the world is ending, ripped apart by relentless earthquakes and volcanoes. Against this apocalyptic backdrop she explores urgent questions of power and enslavement through the eyes of three women. “As this genre finally acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalised matter and that all of us have a future,” she said in her acceptance speech, “so will go the world. (Soon, I hope.)”

Signs Preceding the End of the World

By yuri herrera (2009), translated by lisa dillman (2015).

Makina sets off from her village in Mexico with a package from a local gangster and a message for her brother, who has been gone for three years. The story of her crossing to the US examines the blurring of boundaries, the commingling of languages and the blending of identities that complicate the idea of an eventual return. Read the review

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By daniel kahneman (2011).

The Nobel laureate’s unexpected bestseller, on the minutiae of decision-making, divides the brain into two. System One makes judgments quickly, intuitively and automatically, as when a batsman decides whether to cut or pull. System Two is slow, calculated and deliberate, like long division. But psychologist Kahneman argues that, although System Two thinks it is in control, many of our decisions are really made by System One. Read the review

Spoor, the film adaptation of  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By olga tokarczuk (2009), translated by antonia lloyd-jones (2018).

In this existential eco-thriller, a William Blake-obsessed eccentric investigates the murders of men and animals in a remote Polish village. More accessible and focused than Flights , the novel that won Tokarczuk the Man International Booker prize, it is no less profound in its examination of how atavistic male impulses, emboldened by the new rightwing politics of Europe, are endangering people, communities and nature itself. Read the review

Days Without End

By sebastian barry (2016).

In this savagely beautiful novel set during the Indian wars and American civil war, a young Irish boy flees famine-struck Sligo for Missouri. There he finds lifelong companionship with another emigrant, and they join the army on its brutal journey west, laying waste to Indian settlements. Viscerally focused and intense, yet imbued with the grandeur of the landscape, the book explores love, gender and survival with a rare, luminous power. Read the review

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy

By barbara demick (2009).

Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick interviewed around 100 North Korean defectors for this propulsive work of narrative non-fiction, but she focuses on just six, all from the north-eastern city of Chongjin – closed to foreigners and less media-ready than Pyongyang. North Korea is revealed to be rife with poverty, corruption and violence but populated by resilient people with a remarkable ability to see past the propaganda all around them. Read the review

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

By shoshana zuboff (2019).

An agenda-setting book that is devastating about the extent to which big tech sets out to manipulate us for profit. Not simply another expression of the “techlash”, Zuboff’s ambitious study identifies a new form of capitalism, one involving the monitoring and shaping of our behaviour, often without our knowledge, with profound implications for democracy. “Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us.” Read the review

Jimmy Corrigan- tThe Smartest Kid on Earth

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

By chris ware (2000).

At the time when Ware won the Guardian first book award, no graphic novel had previously won a generalist literary prize. Emotional and artistic complexity are perfectly poised in this account of a listless 36-year-old office dogsbody who is thrown into an existential crisis by an encounter with his estranged dad. Read the review

Judi Dench, left, and Cate Blanchett in the 2006 film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal.

Notes on a Scandal

By zoë heller (2003).

Sheba, a middle-aged teacher at a London comprehensive, begins an affair with her 15-year-old student - but we hear about it from a fellow teacher, the needy Barbara, whose obsessive nature drives the narrative. With shades of Patricia Highsmith, this teasing investigation into sex, class and loneliness is a dark marvel. Read the review

The Infatuations

By javier marías (2011), translated by margaret jull costa (2013).

The Spanish master examines chance, love and death in the story of an apparently random killing that gradually reveals hidden depths. Marías constructs an elegant murder mystery from his trademark labyrinthine sentences, but this investigation is in pursuit of much meatier questions than whodunnit. Read the review

Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the 2005 film adaptation of  The Constant Gardener.

The Constant Gardener

By john le carré (2001).

The master of the cold war thriller turned his attention to the new world order in this chilling investigation into the corruption powering big pharma in Africa. Based on the case of a rogue antibiotics trial that killed and maimed children in Nigeria in the 1990s, it has all the dash and authority of his earlier novels while precisely and presciently anatomising the dangers of a rampant neo-imperialist capitalism. Read the review

The Silence of the Girls

By pat barker (2018).

If the western literary canon is founded on Homer, then it is founded on women’s silence. Barker’s extraordinary intervention, in which she replays the events of the Iliad from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, chimed with both the #MeToo movement and a wider drive to foreground suppressed voices. In a world still at war, it has chilling contemporary resonance. Read the review

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

By carlo rovelli (2014).

A theoretical physicist opens a window on to the great questions of the universe with this 96-page overview of modern physics. Rovelli’s keen insight and striking metaphors make this the best introduction to subjects including relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, elementary particles and entropy outside of a course in advanced physics. Read the review

Ben Affleck in the 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl.

by Gillian Flynn (2012)

The deliciously dark US crime thriller that launched a thousand imitators and took the concept of the unreliable narrator to new heights. A woman disappears: we think we know whodunit, but we’re wrong. Flynn’s stylishly written portrait of a toxic marriage set against a backdrop of social and economic insecurity combines psychological depth with sheer unputdownable flair. Read the review

by Stephen King (2000)

Written after a near-fatal accident, this combination of memoir and masterclass by fiction’s most successful modern storyteller showcases the blunt, casual brilliance of King at his best. As well as being genuinely useful, it’s a fascinating chronicle of literary persistence, and of a lifelong love affair with language and narrative. Read the review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By rebecca skloot (2010).

Henrietta Lacks was a black American who died in agony of cancer in a “coloured” hospital ward in 1951. Her cells, taken without her knowledge during a biopsy, went on to change medical history, being used around the world to develop countless drugs. Skloot skilfully tells the extraordinary scientific story, but in this book the voices of the Lacks children are crucial – they have struggled desperately even as billions have been made from their mother’s “HeLa” cells. Read the review

Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.

Mother’s Milk

By edward st aubyn (2006).

The fourth of the autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels finds the wealthy protagonist – whose flight from atrocious memories of child abuse into drug abuse was the focus of the first books – beginning to grope after redemption. Elegant wit and subtle psychology lift grim subject matter into seductive brilliance. Read the review

This House of Grief

By helen garner (2014).

A man drives his three sons into a deep pond and swims out, leaving them to drown. But was it an accident? This 2005 tragedy caught the attention of one of Australia’s greatest living writers. Garner puts herself centre stage in an account of Robert Farquharson’s trial that combines forensic detail and rich humanity. Read the review

A mesmerising tapestry of the River Dart’s mutterings … Alice Oswald.

by Alice Oswald (2002)

This book-length poem is a mesmerising tapestry of “the river’s mutterings”, based on three years of recording conversations with people who live and work on the River Dart in Devon. From swimmers to sewage workers, boatbuilders to bailiffs, salmon fishers to ferryman, the voices are varied and vividly brought to life. Read the review

The Beauty of the Husband

By anne carson (2002).

One of Canada’s most celebrated poets examines love and desire in a collection that describes itself as “a fictional essay in 39 tangos”. Carson charts the course of a doomed marriage in loose-limbed lines that follow the switchbacks of thought and feeling from first meeting through multiple infidelities to arrive at eventual divorce.

by Tony Judt (2005)

This grand survey of Europe since 1945 begins with the devastation left behind by the second world war and offers a panoramic narrative of the cold war from its beginnings to the collapse of the Soviet bloc – a part of which Judt witnessed firsthand in Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution. A very complex story is told with page-turning urgency and what may now be read as nostalgic faith in “the European idea”. Read the review

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

By michael chabon (2000).

A love story to the golden age of comics in New York, Chabon’s Pulitzer-winner features two Jewish cousins, one smuggled out of occupied Prague, who create an anti-fascist comic book superhero called The Escapist. Their own adventures are as exciting and highly coloured as the ones they write and draw in this generous, open-hearted, deeply lovable rollercoaster of a book. Read the review

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (Hamish Hamilton).

by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

A beautifully written and profound book, which takes the form of a series of (often hair-raising and claustrophobic) voyages underground – from the fjords of the Arctic to the Parisian catacombs. Trips below the surface inspire reflections on “deep” geological time and raise urgent questions about the human impact on planet Earth. Read the review

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

By michael pollan (2006).

An entertaining and highly influential book from the writer best known for his advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The author follows four meals on their journey from field to plate – including one from McDonald’s and a locally sourced organic feast. Pollan is a skilled, amusing storyteller and The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed both food writing and the way we see food. Read the review

Mary Beard, whose slim manifesto Women & Power became an instant feminist classic.

Women & Power

By mary beard (2017).

Based on Beard’s lectures on women’s voices and how they have been silenced, Women and Power was an enormous publishing success in the “ #MeToo ”’ year 2017. An exploration of misogyny, the origins of “gendered speech” in the classical era and the problems the male world has with strong women, this slim manifesto became an instant feminist classic. Read the review

True History of the Kelly Gang

By peter carey (2000).

Carey’s second Booker winner is an irresistible tour de force of literary ventriloquism: the supposed autobiography of 19th-century Australian outlaw and “wild colonial boy” Ned Kelly, inspired by a fragment of Kelly’s own prose and written as a glorious rush of semi-punctuated vernacular storytelling. Mythic and tender by turns, these are tall tales from a lost frontier. Read the review

Small Island

By andrea levy (2004).

Pitted against a backdrop of prejudice, this London-set novel is told by four protagonists – Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaican migrants, and a stereotypically English couple, Queenie and Bernard. These varied perspectives, illuminated by love and loyalty, combine to create a thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society. Read the review

The 2015 film adaptation of Brooklyn.

by Colm Tóibín (2009)

Tóibín’s sixth novel is set in the 1950s, when more than 400,000 people left Ireland, and considers the emotional and existential impact of emigration on one young woman. Eilis makes a life for herself in New York, but is drawn back by the possibilities of the life she has lost at home. A universal story of love, endurance and missed chances, made radiant through Tóibín’s measured prose and tender understatement. Read the review

Oryx and Crake

By margaret atwood (2003).

In the first book in her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, the Booker winner speculates about the havoc science can wreak on the world. The big warning here – don’t trust corporations to run the planet – is blaring louder and louder as the century progresses. Read the review

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

By jeanette winterson (2011).

The title is the question Winterson’s adoptive mother asked as she threw her daughter out, aged 16, for having a girlfriend. The autobiographical story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit , and the trials of Winterson’s later life, is urgent, wise and moving. Read the review

Night Watch

By terry pratchett (2002).

Pratchett’s mighty Discworld series is a high point in modern fiction: a parody of fantasy literature that deepened and darkened over the decades to create incisive satires of our own world. The 29th book, focusing on unlikely heroes, displays all his fierce intelligence, anger and wild humour, in a story that’s moral, humane – and hilarious. Read the review

The 2008 film adaptation of Persepolis.

by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)

Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel follows her coming-of-age in the lead up to and during the Iranian revolution. In this riotous memoir, Satrapi focuses on one young life to reveal a hidden history.

Human Chain

By seamus heaney (2010).

The Nobel laureate tends to the fragments of memory and loss with moving precision in his final poetry collection. A book of elegies and echoes, these poems are infused with a haunting sense of pathos, with a line often left hanging to suspend the reader in longing and regret. Read the review

Levels of Life

By julian barnes (2013).

The British novelist combines fiction and non-fiction to form a searing essay on grief and love for his late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Barnes divides the book into three parts with disparate themes – 19th-century ballooning, photography and marriage. Their convergence is wonderfully achieved. Read the review

Hope in the Dark

By rebecca solnit (2004).

Writing against “the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq”, the US thinker finds optimism in political activism and its ability to change the world. The book ranges widely from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, to the invention of Viagra. Read the review

Claudia Rankine confronts the history of racism in the US.

Citizen: An American Lyric

By claudia rankine (2014).

From the slow emergency response in the black suburbs destroyed by hurricane Katrina to a mother trying to move her daughter away from a black passenger on a plane, the poet’s award-winning prose work confronts the history of racism in the US and asks: regardless of their actual status, who truly gets to be a citizen? Read the review

by Michael Lewis (2010)

The author of The Big Short has made a career out of rendering the most opaque subject matter entertaining and comprehensible: Moneyball tells the story of how geeks outsmarted jocks to revolutionise baseball using maths. But you do not need to know or care about the sport, because – as with all Lewis’s best writing – it’s all about how the story is told. Read the review

James McAvoy in the film adaptation of Atonement.

by Ian McEwan (2001)

There are echoes of DH Lawrence and EM Forster in McEwan’s finely tuned dissection of memory and guilt. The fates of three young people are altered by a young girl’s lie at the close of a sweltering day on a country estate in 1935. Lifelong remorse, the horror of war and devastating twists are to follow in an elegant, deeply felt meditation on the power of love and art. Read the review

The Year of Magical Thinking

By joan didion (2005).

With cold, clear, precise prose, Didion gives an account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, collapsed from a fatal heart attack in their home. Her devastating examination of grief and widowhood changed the nature of writing about bereavement. Read the review

White Teeth

By zadie smith (2000).

Set around the unlikely bond between two wartime friends, Smith’s debut brilliantly captures Britain’s multicultural spirit, and offers a compelling insight into immigrant family life.

The Line of Beauty

By alan hollinghurst (2004).

Oxford graduate Nick Guest has the questionable good fortune of moving into the grand west London home of a rising Tory MP. Thatcher-era degeneracy is lavishly displayed as Nick falls in love with the son of a supermarket magnate, and the novel records how Aids began to poison gay life in London. In peerless prose, Hollinghurst captures something close to the spirit of an age. Read the review

The Green Road

By anne enright (2015).

A reunion dominates the Irish novelist’s family drama, but the individual stories of the five members of the Madigan clan – the matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna, who escape and are bound to return – are beautifully held in balance. When the Madigans do finally come together halfway through the book, Enright masterfully reminds us of the weight of history and family. Read the review

Martin Amis recalls his ‘velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted’ youth.

by Martin Amis (2000)

Known for the firecracker phrases and broad satires of his fiction, Amis presented a much warmer face in his memoir. His life is haunted by the disappearance of his cousin Lucy, who is revealed 20 years later to have been murdered by Fred West. But Amis also has much fun recollecting his “velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted” youth, and paints a moving portrait of his father’s comic gusto as old age reduces him to a kind of “anti-Kingsley”. Read the review

The Hare with Amber Eyes

By edmund de waal (2010).

In this exquisite family memoir, the ceramicist explains how he came to inherit a collection of 264 netsuke – small Japanese ornaments – from his great-uncle. The unlikely survival of the netsuke entails De Waal telling a story that moves from Paris to Austria under the Nazis to Japan, and he beautifully conjures a sense of place. The book doubles as a set of profound reflections on objects and what they mean to us. Read the review

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Outline by Rachel

Cusk (2014).

This startling work of autofiction, which signalled a new direction for Cusk, follows an author teaching a creative writing course over one hot summer in Athens. She leads storytelling exercises. She meets other writers for dinner. She hears from other people about relationships, ambition, solitude, intimacy and “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women”. The end result is sublime. Read the review

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

by Alison Bechdel (2006)

The American cartoonist’s darkly humorous memoir tells the story of how her closeted gay father killed himself a few months after she came out as a lesbian. This pioneering work, which later became a musical, helped shape the modern genre of “graphic memoir”, combining detailed and beautiful panels with remarkable emotional depth. Read the review

The Emperor of All Maladies

By siddhartha mukherjee (2010).

“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.” In adapting the opening lines of Anna Karenina , Mukherjee sets out the breathtaking ambition of his study of cancer: not only to share the knowledge of a practising oncologist but to take his readers on a literary and historical journey. Read the review

The Argonauts

By maggie nelson (2015).

An electrifying memoir that captured a moment in thinking about gender, and also changed the world of books. The story, told in fragments, is of Nelson’s pregnancy, which unfolds at the same time as her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, is beginning testosterone injections: “the summer of our changing bodies”. Strikingly honest, originally written, with a galaxy of intellectual reference points, it is essentially a love story; one that seems to make a new way of living possible. Read the review

The Underground Railroad

By colson whitehead (2016).

A thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south, this Pulitzer prize-winner combines extraordinary prose and uncomfortable truths. Two slaves flee their masters using the underground railroad, the network of abolitionists who helped slaves out of the south, wonderfully reimagined by Whitehead as a steampunk vision of a literal train. Read the review

Uncomfortable truths … Colson Whitehead.

A Death in the Family

By karl ove knausgaard (2009), translated by don bartlett (2012).

The first instalment of Knausgaard’s relentlessly self-examining six-volume series My Struggle revolves around the life and death of his alcoholic father. Whether or not you regard him as the Proust of memoir, his compulsive honesty created a new benchmark for autofiction. Read the review

by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)

A moving, book-length poem from the UK’s first female poet laureate, Rapture won the TS Eliot prize in 2005. From falling in love to betrayal and separation, Duffy reimagines romance with refreshing originality. Read the review

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

By alice munro (2001).

Canada’s observant and humane short story writer, who won the Nobel in 2013, is at her best in this collection. A housekeeper’s fate is changed by the pranks of her employer’s teenager daughter; an incorrigible flirt gracefully accepts his wife’s new romance in her care home. No character acts as at first expected in Munro’s stories, which are attuned to the tiniest shifts in perception. Read the review

Capital in the Twenty First Century

By thomas piketty (2013), translated by arthur goldhammer (2014).

The beautifully written product of 15 years of research, Capital made its author an intellectual star – the modern Marx – and opened readers’ eyes to how neoliberalism produces vastly increased inequalities. Full of data, theories and historical analysis, its message is clear, and prophetic: unless governments increase tax, the new and grotesque wealth levels of the rich will encourage political instability. Read the review

Sally Rooney focuses on the uncertainty of millennial life.

Normal People

By sally rooney (2018).

Rooney’s second novel, a love story between two clever and damaged young people coming of age in contemporary Ireland, confirmed her status as a literary superstar. Her focus is on the dislocation and uncertainty of millennial life, but her elegant prose has universal appeal. Read the review

A Visit from The Goon Squad

By jennifer egan (2011).

Inspired by both Proust and The Sopranos , Egan’s Pulitzer-winning comedy follows several characters in and around the US music industry, but is really a book about memory and kinship, time and narrative, continuity and disconnection. Read the review

The Noonday Demon

By andrew solomon (2001).

Emerging from Solomon’s own painful experience, this “anatomy” of depression examines its many faces – plus its science, sociology and treatment. The book’s combination of honesty, scholarly rigour and poetry made it a benchmark in literary memoir and understanding of mental health. Read the review

Tenth of December

By george saunders (2013).

This warm yet biting collection of short stories by the Booker-winning American author will restore your faith in humanity. No matter how weird the setting – a futuristic prison lab, a middle-class home where human lawn ornaments are employed as a status symbol – in these surreal satires of post-crash life Saunders reminds us of the meaning we find in small moments. Read the review

Chart-topping history of humanity … Yuval Noah Harari.

by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)

In his Olympian history of humanity, Harari documents the numerous revolutions Homo sapiens has undergone over the last 70,000 years: from new leaps in cognitive reasoning to agriculture, science and industry, the era of information and the possibilities of biotechnology. Harari’s scope may be too wide for some, but this engaging work topped the charts and made millions marvel. Read the review

Life After Life

By kate atkinson (2013).

Atkinson examines family, history and the power of fiction as she tells the story of a woman born in 1910 – and then tells it again, and again, and again. Ursula Todd’s multiple lives see her strangled at birth, drowned on a Cornish beach, trapped in an awful marriage and visiting Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But this dizzying fictional construction is grounded by such emotional intelligence that her heroine’s struggles always feel painfully, joyously real. Read the review

A stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time

By mark haddon (2003).

Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone becomes absorbed in the mystery of a dog’s demise, meticulously investigating through diagrams, timetables, maps and maths problems. Haddon’s fascinating portrayal of an unconventional mind was a crossover hit with both adults and children and was adapted into a very successful stage play. Read the review

The Shock Doctrine

By naomi klein (2007).

In this urgent examination of free-market fundamentalism, Klein argues – with accompanying reportage – that the social breakdowns witnessed during decades of neoliberal economic policies are not accidental, but in fact integral to the functioning of the free market, which relies on disaster and human suffering to function. Read the review

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

A father and his young son, “each the other’s world entire”, trawl across the ruins of post-apocalyptic America in this terrifying but tender story told with biblical conviction. The slide into savagery as civilisation collapses is harrowing material, but McCarthy’s metaphysical efforts to imagine a cold dark universe where the light of humanity is winking out are what make the novel such a powerful ecological warning. Read the review

The Corrections

By jonathan franzen (2001).

The members of one ordinarily unhappy American family struggle to adjust to the shifting axes of their worlds over the final decades of the 20th century. Franzen’s move into realism reaped huge literary rewards: exploring both domestic and national conflict, this family saga is clever, funny and outrageously readable. Read the review

The Sixth Extinction

By elizabeth kolbert (2014).

The science journalist examines with clarity and memorable detail the current crisis of plant and animal loss caused by human civilisation (over the past half billion years, there have been five mass extinctions on Earth; we are causing another). Kolbert considers both ecosystems – the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon rainforest – and the lives of some extinct and soon-to-be extinct creatures including the Sumatran rhino and “the most beautiful bird in the world”, the black-faced honeycreeper of Maui. Read the review

Sensuous love story … Sarah Waters.


By sarah waters (2002).

Moving from the underworld dens of Victorian London to the boudoirs of country house gothic, and hingeing on the seduction of an heiress, Waters’s third novel is a drippingly atmospheric thriller, a smart study of innocence and experience, and a sensuous lesbian love story – with a plot twist to make the reader gasp. Read the review

Nickel and Dimed

By barbara ehrenreich (2001).

In this modern classic of reportage, Ehrenreich chronicled her attempts to live on the minimum wage in three American states. Working first as a waitress, then a cleaner and a nursing home aide, she still struggled to survive, and the stories of her co-workers are shocking. The US economy as she experienced it is full of routine humiliation, with demands as high as the rewards are low. Two decades on, this still reads like urgent news. Read the review

The Plot Against America

By philip roth (2004).

What if aviator Charles Lindbergh, who once called Hitler “a great man”, had won the US presidency in a landslide victory and signed a treaty with Nazi Germany? Paranoid yet plausible, Roth’s alternative-world novel is only more relevant in the age of Trump. Read the review

My Brilliant Friend

By elena ferrante (2011), translated by ann goldstein (2012).

Powerfully intimate and unashamedly domestic, the first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series established her as a literary sensation. This and the three novels that followed documented the ways misogyny and violence could determine lives, as well as the history of Italy in the late 20th century.

Half of a Yellow Sun

By chimamanda ngozi adichie (2006).

When Nigerian author Adichie was growing up, the Biafran war “hovered over everything”. Her sweeping, evocative novel, which won the Orange prize, charts the political and personal struggles of those caught up in the conflict and explores the brutal legacy of colonialism in Africa. Read the review

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

David mitchell (2004).

The epic that made Mitchell’s name is a Russian doll of a book, nesting stories within stories and spanning centuries and genres with aplomb. From a 19th-century seafarer to a tale from beyond the end of civilisation, via 1970s nuclear intrigue and the testimony of a future clone, these dizzying narratives are delicately interlinked, highlighting the echoes and recurrences of the vast human symphony. Read the review

by Ali Smith (2016)

Smith began writing her Seasonal Quartet, a still-ongoing experiment in quickfire publishing, against the background of the EU referendum. The resulting “first Brexit novel” isn’t just a snapshot of a newly divided Britain, but a dazzling exploration into love and art, time and dreams, life and death, all done with her customary invention and wit. Read the review

A meditation on what it means to be a black American today … Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Between the World and Me

By ta-nehisi coates (2015).

Coates’s impassioned meditation on what it means to be a black American today made him one of the country’s most important intellectuals and writers. Having grown up the son of a former Black Panther on the violent streets of Baltimore, he has a voice that is challenging but also poetic. Between the World and Me takes the form of a letter to his teenage son, and ranges from the daily reality of racial injustice and police violence to the history of slavery and the civil war: white people, he writes, will never remember “the scale of theft that enriched them”. Read the review

The Amber Spyglass

By philip pullman (2000).

Children’s fiction came of age when the final part of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy became the first book for younger readers to win the Whitbread book of the year award. Pullman has brought imaginative fire and storytelling bravado to the weightiest of subjects: religion, free will, totalitarian structures and the human drive to learn, rebel and grow. Here Asriel’s struggle against the Authority reaches its climax, Lyra and Will journey to the Land of the Dead, and Mary investigates the mysterious elementary particles that lend their name to his current trilogy: The Book of Dust. The Hollywood-fuelled commercial success achieved by JK Rowling may have eluded Pullman so far, but his sophisticated reworking of Paradise Lost helped adult readers throw off any embarrassment at enjoying fiction written for children – and publishing has never looked back. Read the review

by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)

Sebald died in a car crash in 2001, but his genre-defying mix of fact and fiction, keen sense of the moral weight of history and interleaving of inner and outer journeys have had a huge influence on the contemporary literary landscape. His final work, the typically allusive life story of one man, charts the Jewish disapora and lost 20th century with heartbreaking power. Read the review

From left:  Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in the 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go.

Never Let Me Go

By kazuo ishiguro (2005).

From his 1989 Booker winner The Remains of the Day to 2015’s The Buried Giant , Nobel laureate Ishiguro writes profound, puzzling allegories about history, nationalism and the individual’s place in a world that is always beyond our understanding. His sixth novel, a love triangle set among human clones in an alternative 1990s England, brings exquisite understatement to its exploration of mortality, loss and what it means to be human. Read the review

Secondhand Time

By svetlana alexievich (2013), translated by bela shayevich (2016).

The Belarusian Nobel laureate recorded thousands of hours of testimony from ordinary people to create this oral history of the Soviet Union and its end. Writers, waiters, doctors, soldiers, former Kremlin apparatchiks, gulag survivors: all are given space to tell their stories, share their anger and betrayal, and voice their worries about the transition to capitalism. An unforgettable book, which is both an act of catharsis and a profound demonstration of empathy.

by Marilynne Robinson (2004)

Robinson’s meditative, deeply philosophical novel is told through letters written by elderly preacher John Ames in the 1950s to his young son who, when he finally reaches an adulthood his father won’t see, will at least have this posthumous one-sided conversation: “While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.” This is a book about legacy, a record of a pocket of America that will never return, a reminder of the heartbreaking, ephemeral beauty that can be found in everyday life. As Ames concludes, to his son and himself: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” Read the review

Hilary Mantel captures ‘a sense of history listening and talking to itself’.

by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Mantel had been publishing for a quarter century before the project that made her a phenomenon, set to be concluded with the third part of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light , next March. To read her story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell at the Tudor court, detailing the making of a new England and the self-creation of a new kind of man, is to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes. The surface details are sensuously, vividly immediate, the language as fresh as new paint; but her exploration of power, fate and fortune is also deeply considered and constantly in dialogue with our own era, as we are shaped and created by the past. In this book we have, as she intended, “a sense of history listening and talking to itself”. Read the review

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100 fiction books to read in a lifetime

100 books to read

Plenty of folks have lists of the 100 best books of all time, the 100 books you should read, and so on. And beautifully, despite much overlap, they are all different. The glorious subjectivity of art means that no two of these lists should ever be exactly alike. So this is ours, our special snowflake of a list, born out of our passion for books. We kept it to fiction this time. Some of the expected classic novels are there, alongside some more contemporary stories. There is some science fiction, some YA, and above all else, some unforgettable stories.

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The best fiction books of 2023 & all time

From gripping sequels to debuts by fresh new voices, discover the best new fiction books of 2023. we also look back at the best fiction books of 2022 and share our edit of some of the best novels of all time..

books from novels

Albert Camus once said that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’, and with these eight words he perfectly encapsulated the immense power of the novel. The best fiction teaches us history that the curriculum never did, sees us break in a new pair of shoes in a new city, breaks our heart and mends it –⁠ sometimes in the same chapter. It lets us breathe in a past era, step into fantasy worlds and even offers glimpses into dystopian futures. As 2023 marks another exciting year of new books, we've also collected the best fiction of 2022, and of all time. 

  • Best fiction of 2023
  • Best fiction of 2022
  • Best fiction of all time

The best new fiction of 2023

Western lane, by chetna maroo.

Book cover for Western Lane

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023

Exploring themes of grief and sisterhood, this debut coming-of-age story packs a lot of emotion into just 176 pages. Eleven-year-old Gopi has been playing squash for as long as she can remember. When her mother dies, her father enlists her in a brutal training regimen. Soon, the game has become her entire world, causing a rift between Gopi and her sisters. But on the court, governed by the rhythms of the sport, she feels alive. This novel beautifully captures the ordinary and annihilates it with beauty as we follow a young athlete's struggle to transcend herself. 

by Hernan Diaz

Book cover for Trust

Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Trust is undoubtedly one of the novels of the year. Everyone in 1920s New York knows of Benjamin and Helen Rask, the Wall Street tycoon and the daughter of bohemian aristocrats. They live in a sphere of untold wealth, but what is the true cost of their fortune? This mystery sits at the heart of a bestselling novel that all of New York has read. But, like all stories, there are different perspectives. Hernan Diaz tracks these narratives across a century and documents the truth-bending power of money, with provocative revelations at each turn.

Everything's Fine

By cecilia rabess.

Book cover for Everything's Fine

This stunning debut is a whip-smart exploration of an age-old question: what have you got to lose when you fall in love? When Jess first meets Josh at their Ivy League college she dislikes him immediately: an entitled guy in chinos, ready to take over the world. Meanwhile, Jess is almost always the only Black woman in their class. And Josh can’t accept that life might be easier for him because he’s white. But when they end up working for the same investment bank, their tempestuous friendship soon turns into an electrifying romance, forcing Jess to question who she is and what she's willing to compromise for love. 

‘ The book of the moment . . It’s so good — funny, sexy, unafraid, brilliantly nuanced, completely unputdownable. ’ The Times on Everything's Fine

Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt

By lucinda riley.

Book cover for Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt

Paris, 1928. A boy is found, moments from death, and taken in by a kindly family who gives him a life he could never have dreamed of, but he refuses to tell anyone who he truly is. As he grows into a young man, an evil is rising across Europe and he knows he must soon flee again. The final novel in the Seven Sisters series ,  Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt,  reveals how the sisters came to be adopted by their beloved, mysterious father, drawing the epic series to a stunning, unforgettable conclusion. Finally, readers will know the answer to the ultimate question: who is Pa Salt?

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To paradise, by hanya yanagihara.

Book cover for To Paradise

This novel from the author of A Little Life spans stories of love, family, and loss over three centuries. 1893: New York is part of the Free States, and a member of a privileged family falls for an impoverished music teacher. 1993: Manhattan is being swept by the AIDS epidemic, and a Hawaiian man with a wealthy older partner must hide his family background. 2093: a world where plague and totalitarian rule is rife, a woman tries to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearance. This symphonic vision of America is a demonstration of Hanya Yanagihara's literary genius as she weaves three stories together. 

by Kate Morton

Book cover for Homecoming

A gripping mystery set between Australia and London, Homecoming , is the long-awaited new novel by Kate Morton. When 89-year-old Nora's health takes an unexpected turn for the worse, Jess boards the first plane out of London, her home of twenty years, to be by her grandmother's bedside in Sydney. Soon, she discovers that the usually stoic Nora has been hiding a family secret and vows to get to the heart of the mystery of what happened on a fateful Christmas Eve sixty years before. 

Bright Young Women

By jessica knoll.

Book cover for Bright Young Women

January 1978. Tallahassee. When sorority president Pamela Schumacher is startled awake at 3 a.m. by a strange sound, she’s shocked to encounter a scene of implausible violence – two of her friends dead and two others, maimed. The only person to see the man responsible, she is thrust into a terrifying mystery, entangled in a crime that captivates public interest for more than four decades. This extraordinary novel is inspired by the real-life sorority targeted by America's first celebrity serial killer in his final murderous spree. 

by Jane Harper

Book cover for Exiles

Small-town detective Aaron Falk returns in Exiles , the new novel from the bestselling author of The Dry , Jane Harper. When a young mother disappears on a warm spring night, leaving her baby alone in her pram at a busy festival, Falk begins to suspect that this is more than a cut-and-dry missing person’s case. A thrilling mystery novel with an evocative outback setting and heart-pounding twists, Exiles is a book you’ll want to discuss with everyone you know. 

Jane Harper's books in order: a complete guide

Before the coffee gets cold, by toshikazu kawaguchi.

Book cover for Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot

First published in the UK in 2019, this million-copy bestseller is now available in a beautiful collectible hardback edition – the perfect gift. In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time. This opportunity is not without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful novel has stolen the hearts of readers the world over. Through it, we meet four visitors to the café and explore the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time?

Sword Catcher

By cassandra clare.

Book cover for Sword Catcher

Two outcasts find themselves at the centre of world-altering change. In Castellane, Kel is stolen to become Prince Conor Aurelian’s body-double. As his ‘Sword Catcher', Kel lives for one purpose: to die for Conor. Lin Caster is an Ashkar physician, part of a community ostracised for its rare magical abilities. But events pull her and Kel together and into the web of the mysterious Ragpicker King who rules Castellane’s criminal underworld. Together, they’ll discover an extraordinary conspiracy. But can forbidden love bring down a kingdom? 

How (Not) to Have an Arranged Marriage

By amir khan.

Book cover for How (Not) to Have an Arranged Marriage

From Dr Amir Khan, this is a timely, heartfelt novel which looks at all aspects of modern arranged marriages. The golden child of his strict Pakistani parents, Yousef has his life planned out for him – medical degree, wife chosen by his family. . . Then Yousef meets Jess. A fellow medical student, Jess presents a complication to the plan. Suddenly, Yousef finds himself torn between two worlds – keeping each a secret from the other. Then, as graduation looms, Yousef’s mother informs him that she’s started looking for his wife.

The House of Fortune

By jessie burton.

Book cover for The House of Fortune

A glorious, sweeping story of fate and ambition, The House of Fortune is the sequel to Jessie Burton’s bestseller  The Miniaturist . Amsterdam, 1705. Thea Brandt is about to turn eighteen and she can't wait to become an adult. Walter, her true love, awaits Thea at the city's theatre. But at home on the Herengracht things are tense. Her father Otto and Aunt Nella bicker incessantly and are selling furniture so the family can eat. And, on her birthday secrets from Thea's past threaten to eclipse the present. Nella is feeling a prickling sensation in her neck, which recalls the miniaturist who toyed with her life eighteen years ago.

More Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up

By alexandra potter.

Book cover for More Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up

Thought things were all wrapped up for Nell? Think again. Falling in love may be easy, staying in love, however, can take work. . . Friendships are tested, the past won't stay there, celebrity-scented candles and Instagram filters are simply not working hard enough and it's time for Nell to escape to LA with her eighty-something best friend. Fortunately for us, it seems she has some more confessions to share. 

‘ The story of Nell Stevens’ struggle through her imperfect, messy life doesn’t just make brilliant fiction, it’s turning into a cultural revolution! ’ Matt Cain

A complete guide to Alexandra Potter's books

Christmas by candlelight, by karen swan.

Book cover for Christmas By Candlelight

As Christmas approaches and snow falls, high-flier Libby and her new boyfriend head home from a wedding to attend her university reunion at Archie Templeton's grand family estate. Stranded by the snowstorm, they're forced to spend the night. At first, being snowed in together is fun as the old friends wait in high spirits for the farmer to clear a path. But as hours pass with no news, everyone grows restless. Then the power goes out. Hunkered down together by candlelight, they reminisce about old times, and tensions soon start to rise. Secrets from the past begin to unravel and Libby is confronted with a truth she has long tried to deny.

The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything

By kara gnodde.

Book cover for The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything

Devoted siblings Mimi and Art Brotherton have always come as a pair, bound together by the tragic death of their parents. Art is a mathematical genius, and believes everything – even love –  can be boiled down to equations and algorithms. Then Mimi meets Frank, who definitely isn't algorithm approved and soon the siblings' relationship is pushed to breaking point. Something about Frank doesn't quite add up, and only Art can see it. This tale of love and loss is unique, funny and uplifting – true love, in all its forms, is more than a numbers game.  

by Sarah May

Book cover for Becky

Aspiring journalist Becky Sharp has one goal: to reach the top of the career ladder at the  Mercury , London’s top tabloid during the industry’s celebrity-obsessed 1990s heyday. But for Becky, no matter how many champagne-fuelled parties she covers or celebrity scoops she publishes, her past threatens to stop her from bagging her dream job. A nostalgia-filled trip through the heady, Britpop-obsessed world of 90s London Becky is a dark, witty novel that you won’t want to put down.

Young Mungo

By douglas stuart.

Book cover for Young Mungo

The extraordinary, powerful second novel from the Booker prize-winning author of  Shuggie Bain ,  Young Mungo  is both a vivid portrayal of working-class life and the deeply moving story of the dangerous first love of two young men: Mungo and James. Young Mungo  is a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.

Douglas Stuart on his favourite LGBTQIA+ books

Once a monster, by robert dinsdale.

Book cover for Once a Monster

Perfect for historical fiction fans who love a mythical twist, this imaginative retelling of the story of the Minotaur is steeped in the grime of Victorian London. Ten-year-old mudlark Nell discovers a body on the shore. It’s not the first corpse she’s encountered, but by far the strangest. Nearly seven feet tall, the creature has matted hair covering his legs, and on his head are the suggestion of horns. Nell’s fellow foragers urge her to steal his boots and rifle his pockets, but as she ventures closer it becomes clear that the figure is not dead after all. 

Stone Blind

By natalie haynes.

Book cover for Stone Blind

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2023, this retelling of the famed myth of Medusa asks who the real monsters are. The sole mortal raised in a family of gods, Medusa is alone in her ability to experience change and to be hurt. Then, when the sea god Poseidon commits an unforgivable act in the temple of Athene, the goddess takes her revenge where she can – and she is changed forever. Writhing snakes replace her hair, and her gaze now turns any living creature to stone. Unable to control her new power, she is condemned to a life of shadows and darkness. Until Perseus embarks upon a quest . . .

by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi

Book cover for The Centre

Anisa spends her days writing subtitles for Bollywood films in her London flat, longing to be a translator of literature. Her boyfriend, Adam, on the other hand, has an extraordinary aptitude for language – or so Anisa thinks. But after learning to speak Urdu practically overnight, Adam reveals his secret – the Centre: an elite programme that guarantees fluency in any language in just ten days. Anisa can't help but enrol and is quickly seduced by all that it's made possible, however, she soon realizes the disturbing, hidden cost of its services. This page-turning debut announces the arrival of an extraordinary new talent. 

Open Throat

By henry hoke.

Book cover for Open Throat

A queer and dangerously hungry mountain lion narrates this fever dream of a novel, carrying us on a universal journey through a wondrous and menacing modern day L.A. The lion spends their days protecting a nearby homeless encampment, observing hikers and grappling with the complexities of their own identity. When a man-made fire engulfs the encampment, the lion is forced from the hills down into the city where they confront the cruel inequalities of Los Angeles. But even when salvation finally seems within reach, they are forced to face the question: do they want to eat a person, or become one?

The Passenger

By cormac mccarthy.

Book cover for The Passenger

A sunken jet. Nine passengers. A missing body. The Passenger  is the story of a salvage diver, haunted by loss, afraid of the watery deep, pursued for a conspiracy beyond his understanding, and longing for a death he cannot reconcile with God. The first of two eagerly anticipated novels from literary great Cormac McCarthy The Passenger is followed by Stella Maris  –  both are too good to be missed. 

A guide to the literary great: Cormac McCarthy

The minuscule mansion of myra malone, by audrey burges.

Book cover for The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone  is a charming and magical debut novel, with a love story at its heart. Thirty-four year-old Myra Malone blogs about a dolls' house online. Across the country, Alex Rakes, heir of a furniture business, encounters two Mansion fans trying to recreate a room from Myra's stories. To his disbelief, Alex soon recognizes that it's his own bedroom being recreated, in minute scale. Searching for answers, Alex begins corresponding with Myra. Together, the two unwind the lonely paths of their twin worlds. 

The High Notes

By danielle steel.

Book cover for The High Notes

A moving and uplifting story of following your dreams against the odds from the billion copy bestseller, Danielle Steel. Abandoned by her mother and neglected by her rodeo cowboy dad, Iris started singing in downtrodden bars across Texas when she was just twelve. After many years on the road with different bands suffering at the hands of greedy managers with no scruples, she finally gets a lucky break when she meets Boy, another talented singer, in Jackson Hole. Together they make their way to New York where Iris’s talent is recognized and nurtured by one of the top agents in the business. But then tragedy strikes. 

by Kate Foster

Book cover for The Maiden

Edinburgh, October 1679. Lady Christian is arrested and charged with the murder of her lover, James Forrester. News of her imprisonment and subsequent trial is splashed across the broadsides, with headlines that leave little room for doubt:  Adulteress. Whore. Murderess. Only a year before, Lady Christian was newly married, leading a life of privilege and respectability. What led her to risk everything for an affair? And does that make her guilty of murder? Inspired by a real-life case, this is a remarkable story with a feminist revisionist twist, giving a voice to women otherwise silenced by history.

The Square of Sevens

By laura shepherd-robinson.

Book cover for The Square of Sevens

A historical fiction novel packed with fortune-telling, travels and mystery, The Sqaure of Sevens an epic and sweeping novel set in Georgian high society. A girl known only as Red, the daughter of a Cornish fortune-teller, travels with her father making a living predicting fortunes using the ancient method: the Square of Sevens. When her father suddenly dies, Red becomes the ward of a gentleman scholar. But soon, she can't ignore the burning questions about her family. The pursuit of these mysteries takes her across the country in an tale of intrigue, heartbreak and audacious twists. 

‘ Can you name a book you have read so far this year that you know is 100% going to be in your top 10 books of the year list? This is mine. ’ @bookishreadsandme

Promise Boys

By nick brooks.

Book cover for Promise Boys

Thought-provoking and timely, Promise Boys is the new YA mystery novel that will have everyone talking in 2023. For J.B., Ramón, and Trey, attending the prestigious and ultra-strict Urban Promise Prep School is a golden ticket to college and avoiding the fates of many of the men they grew up around. That is until their principal is brutally murdered, and the boys emerge as the police’s main suspects. As they fight to investigate the crime and fight the prejudice of those around them, the trio are locked in a battle to find the real culprit and clear their names before it’s too late.

by J.F. Murray

Book cover for Fling

When Tara and Colin’s marriage starts to fall apart, they both find themselves looking to a controversial new dating app called Fling to find someone new. After meeting someone who is a 100% match, they both embark on affairs with who they believe are exciting new partners. A hilarious romance novel that will make you question what true love really means, Fling is a novel that asks – what if the person you were looking for was in front of you all along?

by Juan Gómez-Jurado

Book cover for Red Queen

Soon to be a major TV series, this serial-killer thriller is packed full of mystery with a fascinating lead character. Antonia doesn’t go outside much. Why would she when she can solve crimes from her attic in Madrid? She also never gets visitors. That's why she really doesn't like it when she hears unknown footsteps coming up the stairs. And whoever it is, Antonia is sure that they are coming to look for her. . .

Other Women

By emma flint.

Book cover for Other Women

Emma Flint’s evocative historical novels transport you to another time and place. In her new book, Other Women , the destination is London, devastated by the impact of the Great War. For unmarried Beatrice Cade, the war has robbed her of the chance to find true love and have a family, just like it has for millions of others. One day a chance encounter changes her life, and she falls head over heels in love with someone she should never have met. An enthralling tale of obsession, murder and lives intertwined by forbidden love, Other Women is a novel that you won’t be able to put down. 

Lessons in Chemistry

By bonnie garmus.

Book cover for Lessons in Chemistry

In the 1960s, Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist, defies gender norms at Hastings Research Institute. Her unique bond with Calvin Evans, a Nobel-nominated scientist, sparks true chemistry. Later, she becomes an unlikely star on "Supper at Six," revolutionizing cooking with science. As her fame grows, she challenges the status quo, daring women to break barriers. Resistance follows, but Elizabeth remains unwavering in her quest for empowerment.

The best fiction of 2022

The atlas six, by olivie blake.

Book cover for The Atlas Six

Bestselling fantasy  sensation The Atlas Six  follows six young magical practitioners as they compete to join the secretive Alexandrian Society, whose custodians guard lost knowledge from ancient civilizations. Their members enjoy a lifetime of power and prestige. Yet each decade, only six practitioners are invited – to fill five places. Following recruitment by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they travel to the Society’s London headquarters. Here, each must study and innovate within esoteric subject areas. And if they can prove themselves, over the course of a year, they’ll survive. Most of them.

Discover more unmissable reads from Olivie Blake

The lamplighters, by emma stonex.

Book cover for The Lamplighters

Inspired by true events, Emma Stonex’s debut novel is a riveting mystery which will grip the reader, and a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from shore. The door is locked from the inside, and the clocks have stopped. What happened to those men, and to the women they left behind? 

The Murders at Fleat House

Book cover for The Murders at Fleat House

When a pupil suddenly dies at an exclusive boarding school in deepest Norfolk, the headmaster is keen to brand it a tragic accident. But the local police are not so sure, and Detective Inspector Jazmine ‘Jazz’ Hunter returns to the force to investigate. Together with trusty sergeant Alastair Miles, she enters the closed universe of the school. And as Jazz begins to probe Charlie Cavendish’s unsettling demise, things take a deeply troubling turn.

Discover Lucinda Riley's standalone books

By raven leilani.

Book cover for Luster

Raven Leilani is a funny and original new voice in fiction. Her razor-sharp yet surprisingly tender debut is an essential novel about what it means to be young now. Edie is messing up her life, and no one seems to care. Then she meets Eric, who is white, middle-aged and comes with a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. And as if life wasn’t hard enough, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s family.

The Christie Affair

By nina de gramont.

Book cover for The Christie Affair

In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days. Only one person knows the truth of her disappearance – her husband's mistress. The world of Agatha Christie is glamourous parties full of socialites, and country house weekends. But the world of Nan O'Dea is very different. A tough London upbringing followed by a life in Ireland marred by tragedy, Nan has fought her way back to England – with her sights set on Agatha. Despite their differences, the two women will become the most unlikely of allies. And during the mysterious eleven days that Agatha goes missing, they will unravel a dark secret that only Nan holds the key to . . .


By elaine hsieh chou.

Book cover for Disorientation

When twenty-nine-year-old Ingrid Yang finally completes her dissertation on canonical poet Xiao-Wen Chou she never wants to hear about 'Chinese-y' things ever again. Finding a strange note in the Chou archives, she thinks she has found a way out of the academic labyrinth. But Ingrid is accidentally in deep, and the note leads to a huge discovery, one which upsets her life and the lives of those around her. With two trusty friends Ingrid sets off on a rollercoaster of campus protests and drug hallucinations, leading her to confront her relationships with white men and institutions – and herself.

The Attic Child

By lola jaye.

Book cover for The Attic Child

It's 1907, and twelve-year-old Celestine is locked in the attic of a house by the sea. He has been forcibly removed from his home in Africa and is treated as a servant. He dreams of home and family, even as his mother's face, and his real name, begin to fade. Decades later a young orphan girl is banished to the same attic. Under the floorboards she finds mysterious artefacts, and on a wall there is a sentence etched in a language she does not recognise. What she does recognise though, is that she is not the first child to be held captive in the attic. This must-read novel is a tale of love, loss and family secrets that shines a light on the early Black British experience. 

The Dance Tree

By kiran millwood hargrave.

Book cover for The Dance Tree

It's 1518 in Strasbourg, and in the intense summer heat a solitary woman starts to dance in the main square. She dances for days without rest, and is joined by hundreds of other women. The city authorities declare a state of emergency, and bring in musicians to play the devil out of the dancing women. Meanwhile pregnant Lisbet, who lives at the edge of the city, is tending to the family's bees. The dancing plague intensifies, as Lisbet is drawn into a net of secret passions and deceptions. Inspired by true events, this is a compelling story of superstition, transformative change and women pushed to their limits.

The Exhibitionist

By charlotte mendelson.

Book cover for The Exhibitionist

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2022, in The Exhibitionist we meet the Hanrahan family. They are gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art. His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, sensitive Patrick, and insecure Jess. And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. But Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice. 

The Four Winds

By kristin hannah.

Book cover for The Four Winds

Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing , called Kristin Hannah's novel ‘powerful and compelling.’ Elsa Martinelli finally has everything she had wished for – a family, a home and a livelihood on a farm on the Great Plains. But when drought threatens her family and community, Elsa must decide whether to stay and fight for the land she loves or flee to California in search of a better life. 

A Guide to Kristin Hannah's books

By sally hinchcliffe.

Book cover for Hare House

On a crisp autumn day a woman travels to London, having left her post at a London girls school in murky circumstances. She starts to explore the land around her cottage on the isolated Hare House estate, walking the moors and woodland. And she begins to hear unsettling stories, of witches, strange clay figures, and young men scared out of their wits. Having made friends with her landlord Grant and his sister Cass, doubts begin to descend. And when a snowfall traps the inhabitants of the house together, the tension escalates . . .

The Paper Palace

By miranda cowley heller.

Book cover for The Paper Palace

In a picturesque Cape Cod setting, Elle Bishop starts her day with a swim near The Paper Palace, her family's vacation home as memories of a passionate secret encounter from the night before flood her mind. This defining moment sets off a chain of events that span twenty-four hours and fifty years, leading Elle to make a life-altering decision after a shocking betrayal. This page-turning summer read is both a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick. 

How to Kill Your Family

By bella mackie.

Book cover for How to Kill Your Family

I have killed several people (some brutally, others calmly) and yet I currently languish in jail for a murder I did not commit. In prison, Grace Bernard reflects on her past actions with an unsettling mix of sadness and pride. Having taken the lives of several family members as revenge for her absentee millionaire father's callousness, Grace once reveled in her dark mission. With a calm ruthlessness, she executed her plan, leaving a chilling trail of death. However, fate now finds her behind bars, wondering if her twisted tale will ever be discovered – a story of vengeance, class, family, love, and murder.

The best fiction books of all time

Shuggie bain.

Book cover for Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart’s blistering, Booker Prize-winning debut is set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow in the early 1980s. Agnes Bain has always dreamed of greater things, but when her husband abandons her she finds herself trapped in a decimated mining town with her three children, and descends deeper and deeper into drink. Her son Shuggie tries to help Agnes long after her other children have fled, but he too must abandon her to save himself. But he believes that if he tries his hardest he can be like other boys and escape this hopeless place.

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for Room

Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for fiction, Room is a unique novel, about survival and innocence. Jack lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there’s a world outside. Now also a major film, Room is the story of a mother and son, told in Jack's voice, whose love lets them survive the impossible. 

A complete guide to Emma Donoghue's books

A little life.

Book cover for A Little Life

Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Women's Prize and now adapted into a West End play , A Little Life is undoubtedly one of the novels of the century. Hanya Yanagihara's flawless character development transports us into the lives of Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm. We follow the central characters as they try to make their way in New York. Gradually, it is Jude and his unspeakable childhood that is revealed. By midlife he is both a terrifyingly talented litigator and an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by trauma. The book follows Jude for decades, yet ultimately tells a story of love and friendship. 

The Miniaturist

Book cover for The Miniaturist

Beautiful, intoxicating and filled with heart-pounding suspense, Jessie Burton's historical novel set in Amsterdam is both a bestseller and a major BBC TV series. In 1686, Nella Oortman arrives at a lavish house to marry merchant trader Johannes Brandt. Instead of a warm welcome, she encounters his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Johannes gifts her an intricate miniature replica of their home, to be furnished by a mysterious miniaturist whose creations eerily reflect reality. As Nella delves into the secrets of the Brandt household, she unveils escalating dangers. Is the miniaturist holding their fate?

Station Eleven

By emily st. john mandel.

Book cover for Station Eleven

On a snowy night in Toronto, renowned actor Arthur Leander dies on stage, coinciding with the arrival of a devastating virus in North America. Two decades later, Kirsten, a member of the Travelling Symphony, brings Shakespeare's words to life in the settlements that have emerged post-collapse. However, her newfound hope is jeopardized, prompting a critical question: in a world devoid of civilization, what is worth safeguarding? And to what lengths would one go to ensure its preservation? A dreamily atmospheric novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven is also an HBO TV series. 

Emily St. John Mandel's books in order

A thousand ships.

Book cover for A Thousand Ships

While the names Odysseus, Achilles and Agamemnon are synonymous with epic tales of battle and bravery, the women of Homer’s epics have largely been sidelined, if not entirely forgotten. From Helen to Penelope, Natalie Haynes gives a voice to the women, girls and goddesses who have been silenced for so long in this retelling of the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective. Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, A Thousand Ships is a historical must read and a feminist masterpiece . 

The Shape of Water

By andrea camilleri.

Book cover for The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water  is the first in Andrea Camilleri's wry, brilliantly compelling Sicilian crime series, featuring Inspector Montalbano. When two employees of the Splendour Refuse Collection Company discover the body of engineer Silvio Luparello, one of the local movers and shakers, apparently deceased  in flagrante  at the Pasture, the coroner's verdict is death from natural causes. But Inspector Salvo Montalbano, as honest as he is streetwise and as scathing to fools and villains as he is compassionate to their victims, is not ready to close the case – even though he's being pressured by Vigàta's police chief, judge, and bishop.

All the books in Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series

Normal people, by sally rooney.

Book cover for Normal People

Normal People has sold over one million copies and been adapted into a hit TV series. The story follows Connell and Marianne who, despite being from different worlds, form an unspoken connection at school which then follows them to Trinity College. Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other. Sally Rooney's characteristically subtle yet intense prose marks her as one of the best writers of our times. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four

By george orwell.

Book cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four

One of the most influential fiction books of all time, 1984 is George Orwell's terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is slave to a tyrannical regime led by The Party. The novel has a fascinating history, from the phenomenon it became on publication to the impact it has had on the English language.

The Handmaid's Tale

By margaret atwood.

Book cover for The Handmaid's Tale

This novel has become a cultural byword for all things dystopian. The book is set in the fictional Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. In an age of declining birth rates, Offred, along with her fellow Handmaids, are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing,  The Handmaid's Tale  is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.

The Great Gatsby

By f. scott fitzgerald.

Book cover for The Great Gatsby

Evoking the glitz, glamour and the dark side of 1920s,  The Great Gatsby  is a cynical look at the limits of the American Dream and a must read for all fans of fiction. Gatsby lives mysteriously in a luxurious Long Island mansion, playing lavish host to hundreds of people. And yet no one seems to know him or how he became so rich. He is rumoured to be everything from a German spy to a war hero. People clamour for invitations to his wild parties. But Jay Gatsby doesn't heed them. He cares for one person alone – Daisy Buchanan, the woman he has waited for all his life. Little does he know that his infatuation will lead to tragedy and end in murder.

Classic books to read at least once in your lifetime

By gillian flynn.

Book cover for Gone Girl

This twisty psychological thriller became a phenomenon when it was published, selling over twenty million copies worldwide and being adapted into a hit film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. When Nick Dunne wakes up on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife missing, he quickly becomes the police’s chief suspect. Amy’s friends reveal she was afraid of him, there are strange searches on his computer and persistent calls to his mobile phone, but Ben swears he knows nothing about any of this. So what really happened to Amy Dunne? 

Girl, Woman, Other

By bernardine evaristo.

Book cover for Girl, Woman, Other

This 2019 Booker Prize winner follows twelve characters on their personal journeys over the last one hundred years. From Newcastle to Cornwall and the beginning of the twentieth century to the modern day, each of them is searching for something. These wonderful interwoven stories address issues of race, identity and womanhood. Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

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The Greatest Books of All Time

How is this list generated.

This list is generated from 130 "best of" book lists from a variety of great sources. An algorithm is used to create a master list based on how many lists a particular book appears on. Some lists count more than others. I generally trust "best of all time" lists voted by authors and experts over user-generated lists. On the lists that are actually ranked, the book that is 1st counts a lot more than the book that's 100th. If you're interested in the details about how the rankings are generated and which lists are the most important(in my eyes) please check out the list details page .

If you have any comments, suggestions, or corrections please feel free to e-mail me.

1 . In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Image of In Search of Lost Time

Swann's Way, the first part of A la recherche de temps perdu, Marcel Proust's seven-part cycle, was published in 1913. In it, Proust introduces the themes that run through the entire work. The narr...

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2 . Ulysses by James Joyce

Image of Ulysses

Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, June 16, 1904. The title parallels and alludes to Odysseus (Latinised into Ulysses), the hero of Homer's Odyss...

3 . Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Image of Don Quixote

Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman in his fifties, lives in an unnamed section of La Mancha with his niece and a housekeeper. He has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes th...

4 . One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Image of One Hundred Years of Solitude

One of the 20th century's enduring works, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a widely beloved and acclaimed novel known throughout the world, and the ultimate achievement in a Nobel Prize–winning car...

5 . The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Image of The Great Gatsby

The novel chronicles an era that Fitzgerald himself dubbed the "Jazz Age". Following the shock and chaos of World War I, American society enjoyed unprecedented levels of prosperity during the "roar...

6 . Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Image of Moby Dick

First published in 1851, Melville's masterpiece is, in Elizabeth Hardwick's words, "the greatest novel in American literature." The saga of Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of the white wh...

7 . War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Image of War and Peace

Epic in scale, War and Peace delineates in graphic detail events leading up to Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of fi...

8 . Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Image of Hamlet

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or more simply Hamlet, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601. The play, set in Denmark, recounts how Pri...

9 . The Odyssey by Homer

Image of The Odyssey

The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work traditionally ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the m...

10 . Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Image of Madame Bovary

For daring to peer into the heart of an adulteress and enumerate its contents with profound dispassion, the author of Madame Bovary was tried for "offenses against morality and religion." What shoc...

11 . The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Image of The Divine Comedy

Belonging in the immortal company of the great works of literature, Dante Alighieri's poetic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is a moving human drama, an unforgettable visionary journey through the ...

12 . Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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The book is internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, middle aged Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed and se...

13 . The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Image of The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky's last and greatest novel, The Karamazov Brothers, is both a brilliantly told crime story and a passionate philosophical debate. The dissolute landowner Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is mur...

14 . Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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It is a murder story, told from a murder;s point of view, that implicates even the most innocent reader in its enormities. It is a cat-and-mouse game between a tormented young killer and a cheerful...

15 . Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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The narrative is non-linear, involving several flashbacks, and two primary narrators: Mr. Lockwood and Ellen "Nelly" Dean. The novel opens in 1801, with Mr. Lockwood arriving at Thrushcross Grange,...

16 . The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Image of The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye is a 1945 novel by J. D. Salinger. Originally published for adults, the novel has become a common part of high school and college curricula throughout the English-speaking wo...

17 . Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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The book is narrated in free indirect speech following the main character Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with matters of upbringing, marriage, moral rightness and education in her aristocratic socie...

18 . The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Image of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Revered by all of the town's children and dreaded by all of its mothers, Huckleberry Finn is indisputably the most appealing child-hero in American literature. Unlike the tall-tale, idyllic worl...

19 . Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Image of Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endu...

20 . Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Image of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

In 1862 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy Oxford mathematician with a stammer, created a story about a little girl tumbling down a rabbit hole. Thus began the immortal adventures of Alice, perhaps th...

21 . The Iliad by Homer

Image of The Iliad

The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set in the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of Ilium by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and e...

22 . To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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A landmark novel of high modernism, the text, centering on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920, skillfully manipulates temporality and psycholog...

23 . Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 is a satirical, historical novel by the American author Joseph Heller, first published in 1961. The novel, set during the later stages of World War II from 1943 onwards, is frequently cite...

24 . Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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The story details an incident when Marlow, an Englishman, took a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in Africa. Although Conrad does not specify the name of th...

25 . The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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The Sound and the Fury is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The novel centers on the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are struggling to deal with the dissolution of their fa...

26 . Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

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The story follows the life of one seemingly insignificant man, Winston Smith, a civil servant assigned the task of perpetuating the regime's propaganda by falsifying records and political literatur...

27 . Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations is written in the genre of "bildungsroman" or the style of book that follows the story of a man or woman in their quest for maturity, usually starting from childhood and ending i...

28 . One Thousand and One Nights by India/Iran/Iraq/Egypt

Image of One Thousand and One Nights

One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Ni...

29 . The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on a poor family of sharecroppers, the Joads, driven from their home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. In a ...

30 . Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! is a Southern Gothic novel by the American author William Faulkner, first published in 1936. It is a story about three families of the American South, taking place before, during,...

31 . Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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The novel addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marx...

32 . To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Image of To Kill a Mockingbird

As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses is...

33 . The Trial by Franz Kafka

Image of The Trial

Written in 1914, The Trial is one of the most important novels of the twentieth century: the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and mu...

34 . The Red and the Black by Stendhal

Image of The Red and the Black

Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), subtitled Chronique du XIXe siécle ("Chronicle of the 19th century"), is an historical psychological novel in two volumes by Stendhal, published in 1830...

35 . Middlemarch by George Eliot

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Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is a novel by George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, later Marian Evans. It is her seventh novel, begun in 1869 and then put aside during the final i...

36 . Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

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From the preeminent prose satirist in the English language, a great classic recounting the four remarkable journeys of ship's surgeon Lemuel Gulliver. For children it remains an enchanting fantasy;...

37 . Beloved by Toni Morrison

Image of Beloved

Beloved (1987) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The novel, her fifth, is loosely based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner, about whom Morrison...

38 . Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Image of Mrs. Dalloway

Created from two short stories, "Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street" and the unfinished "The Prime Minister", the novel's story is of Clarissa's preparations for a party of which she is to be hostess. Wit...

39 . The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov

Image of The Stories of Anton Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian short-story writer, playwright and physician, considered to be one of the greatest short-story writers in the history of world literature. His career as a dram...

40 . The Stranger by Albert Camus

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Since it was first published in English, in 1946, Albert Camus's extraordinary first novel, The Stranger (L'Etranger), has had a profound impact on millions of American readers. Through this story ...

41 . Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Image of Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is a first-person narrative of the title character, a small, plain-faced, intelligent and honest English orphan. The novel goes through five distinct stages: Jane's childhood at Gateshead...

42 . The Aeneid by Virgil

Image of The Aeneid

The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem written by Virgil in the late 1st century BC (29–19 BC) that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the...

43 . Collected Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges

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From his 1935 debut with The Universal History of Iniquity, through his immensely influential collections Ficciones and The Aleph, these enigmatic, elaborate, imaginative inventions display Borges'...

44 . The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Image of The Sun Also Rises

The novel explores the lives and values of the so-called "Lost Generation," chronicling the experiences of Jake Barnes and several acquaintances on their pilgrimage to Pamplona for the annual San F...

45 . David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Image of David Copperfield

The story of the abandoned waif who learns to survive through challenging encounters with distress and misfortune.

46 . Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Image of Tristram Shandy

As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram's narration of his life story. But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make expla...

47 . Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Image of Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass (1855) is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman. Among the poems in the collection are "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Roc...

48 . The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Image of The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in November 1924. It is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature.

49 . A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Image of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a semi-autobiographical novel by James Joyce, first serialized in The Egoist from 1914 to 1915 and published in book form in 1916. It depicts the formativ...

50 . Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Image of Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. The protagonis...

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The 20 Best Novels of the Decade

Yes, here it is..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the  best debut novels , the  best short story collections , the  best poetry collections , the best memoirs , the best essay collections , the best (other) nonfiction , and the best translated novels of the decade . We have now reached the eighth and most difficult list in our series: the very best novels written and published in English between 2010 and 2019.

You may be shocked to learn that we had a hard time deciding on 10. So, being captains of our own destiny, we decided we were allowed to pick 20 . . . plus almost that many dissents. We did not allow reissues, otherwise you had better believe this list would include The Last Samurai ,  Speedboat , and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead , among a robust host of others. We also, for this list, discounted novels in translation, as they got their very own list last week, and including them would have necessitated a list twice as long. (My beloved  Sweet Days of Discipline , certainly in the top ten novels I personally read this decade, is doubly ineligible , but luckily I also write these introductions.)

Now, for the last time: the following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Twenty

Jennifer egan,  a visit from the goon squad   (2010).

There are some moments from  A Visit From the Goon Squad  that I won’t forget. In one chapter, a former PR hotshot named Dolly is tasked with reviving the public image of an African dictator known as “The General” with the help of a B-list actress named Kitty Jackson. Kitty’s job is to stand next to The General in a photo, but she ends up asking too many questions about a genocide and gets thrown into prison. Months later, it turns out, The General’s government becomes a democracy, Kitty is freed, and Dolly opens a sandwich shop. This strand of Egan’s polyphonic, funny, and often poignant book encapsulates some of her satire’s recurring ideas. In  Goon Squad , a book with a large cast of characters set in a period roughly spanning the late 1970s to the 2020s, shifts in time are always jarring—they can destroy the body, corrupt memory, and blur processes of change. Nominally centered on the American celebrity industrial complex (particularly rock’n’roll in the Bay Area),  Goon Squad  is also very much about media “spin,” fragmented perspectives, illusory identities, and aimless materialism in a capitalist society. Though the premise may seem to indicate otherwise, the book is decidedly skeptical of nostalgic impulses. “Time is a goon,” one of Egan’s characters says. The past is nothing if not the foundation of contemporary disillusionment with its promises—promises of beauty, fame, family, and the attainment of other icons.  Goon Squad  earned Egan well-deserved plaudits, including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and cemented her status as one the 21st century’s most insightful (and formally experimental) American writers.  –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

David Mitchell,  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet   (2010)

It is easier to conjure the intellectual-literary atmosphere of an era when it is 30 years’ past than when it is a mere decade ago. It is hard to see 2010 right now, as we wait for time and the canon to true the lens, but I have a very clear sense-memory of revelation and exhilaration as I sped through David Mitchell’s epic-historical ghost story, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet , wondering if the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson had momentarily taken possession of Haruki Murakami. Here was a reminder that the world of a novel—in this case, a very detailed rendering of an 18th-century Dutch trading post in the port of Nagasaki—can be fuller, more vivid, than our own, that it can exist as a hothouse for the reader’s moral imagination.

It is difficult to say what another 25 years will make of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In the context of Mitchell’s more recent novels, and their space-operatic excesses, the plot of De Zoet seems worryingly baroque, show-offy, even. But it is clearly the work of the same writer who gave us the near-perfect coming-of-age novel, Black Swan Green , its language similarly precise and unexpected, all in aid of a story that seems somehow to tell itself, a true history that never quite happened.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Denis Johnson,  Train Dreams   (2011)

If I was tasked with proving that literary awards are a cruel joke and that life is nothing but a bleak and meaningless trudge toward the grave, Exhibit A would be what I have dubbed The Great Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Travesty of 2012. 2012 was, of course, the year the Pulitzer board (not the jury) decided that no book published in the previous twelve months merited the most prestigious honor in American letters, despite the fact that the trinity of finalists included Denis Johnson’s hallucinatory masterwork  Train Dreams , as well as Karen Russell’s lushly brilliant debut novel  Swamplandia!  and David Foster Wallace’s unfinished opus  The Pale King . (An explanation as to how this happened was proffered by novelist and 2012 jury member Michael Cunningham in a  rather wonderful letter  to the  New Yorker  in the wake of the non-decision).  Train Dreams  may well be the 21 st  century’s most perfect novella (he said, having of course read them all…). It’s the incantatory story of a turn-of-the-century logger and railroad laborer, Robert Grainier, who loses his family to a wildfire and retreats deep into the woods of the Idaho panhandle as the country modernizes around him. Johnson’s spare, strange, elegiac prose conjures a world that feels both ancient and ephemeral, full of beauty and menace and deep sorrow. As Anthony Doerr wrote in his  New York Times  review: “His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.” An American epic in miniature,  Train Dreams is a visionary portrait of soul untethered from civilization, a man stoically persevering on his own hermetic terms in the face of unimaginable tragedy. A haunted and haunting reverie.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Julie Otsuka,  The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

Julie Otsuka’s groundbreaking (and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning) Buddha In the Attic begins: “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” This is how we are introduced to our narrators, a group of Japanese “picture brides.” We follow them as they immigrate to California. We watch helplessly as they meet the husbands they were promised to, as they attempt to assimilate to America and raise children across a cultural divide. The collective first person narration matches the subject matter beautifully; it mimics the immigrant experience, the way “others” are often seen as the same and the automatic camaraderie and safety we might find among those who share our stories. Slipping out of the shared “we” and “most of us” and “some of us,” Julie Otsuka creates a dizzying dislocation, a confusion of identity that serves the story well: “…unable to remember our own names, not to mention those of our new husbands. Remind me one more time, I’m Mrs. Who? ” Her timing is impeccable. Just when you start to grow weary of the collective voice, for just a sentence or two, she’ll give us an intimate detail, an individual life, to hold onto, and it always catches you off guard when she does, like a rule broken: “The youngest of us was twelve, and from the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, and had not yet begun to bleed.” The specificity is heartbreaking. You can feel the intention behind every choice; so rarely does a book mesh style and subject so brilliantly. The most shattering bit comes at the end (SPOILER ALERT!)—when there is a sudden shift in the narrative. The “we” abruptly becomes the white Americans who are left to tell the story, after their Japanese neighbors are sent to internment camps. It’s chilling, and terribly accurate, the way their voices are literally taken from them in this story. I’ve re-read this novel many times, trying to understand how it can encompass such a wide scope of things. What Julie Otsuka has accomplished here is both an artful, intimate portrait of individual lives and a piercing indictment of history.  –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Téa Obreht,  The Tiger’s Wife   (2011)

Although it came out in 2011, I read  The Tiger’s Wife , the elegant first novel by Téa Obreht, only recently. I found it stunning, so perfectly moving on its many levels. Obreht’s protagonist and narrator, a young doctor named Natalia Stefanovic whose life is upended by the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, is one of the most mellifluous, engrossing storytellers I’ve encountered in my life (she has learned well—her grandfather is one of the most mellifluous, engrossing storytellers she has encountered in hers). Her account remembers and aches for her loved one in a way that is both so poetic and relatable; she chiefly connects to his memory through a text, using his beloved copy of  The Jungle Book  to try to solve the puzzle around his last days, as well as his interior life. I also found  The Tiger’s Wife  to be very personal—Obreht was born in former Yugoslavia, and  The Tiger’s Wife  takes place in the Balkans, immediately after the war. My family, too, is from former Yugoslavia (where I spent much time, growing up), and though my life in America (and my age) has removed me from deeply experiencing the region’s turmoil firsthand, I marveled and cherished how Obreht’s book performs the acts of both collection and remembrance about the recent scarring and splintering of this region—this region which has historically been scarred and splintered so many times. (And it made me think of my own grandfather, another Yugoslavian storyteller, with whom I spent much of my childhood dreaming of animals.) “Collection and remembrance” are more than fluid themes of the novel, though—they comprise its methodology. Inspired by the format of  The Jungle Book , perhaps, but also a culture that incorporates so many legends and beliefs (both Eastern and Western), Natalia begins interweaving fables and stories and flashbacks in her story—connecting an older, superstitious, and magical world and a bleak, modern, and disillusioned age. She does this as a device for the reader, but also because they keep unfurling in her own life as she learns her grandfather’s full story, and becomes, in a way, herself, inspired by the magic of it all.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Jesmyn Ward,  Salvage the Bones   (2012)

Most of what remains with me years after reading Jesmyn Ward’s second novel is impressionistic. One of the final images in  Salvage the Bones  is of the 14-year-old protagonist Esche’s father roughing out the initial impact of Hurricane Katrina in the attic of their flooded house. They’ve been separated from the family dog, China, and her litter of puppies; Esche’s dad resolves to stay there until China returns. Ward’s story is largely about caretaking; the slimness of the book and the small-scale—a father and his children prepare for a hurricane that people are warning about—belie the immensity of what Ward set out to do with this National Book Award-winning novel. We all have at least some sense of the disastrous Katrina response and what it revealed about government infrastructure and shortsightedness concerning communities of color in particular. Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in US history, and by the time  Salvage the Bones  was published, the long-term mental and material costs of the hurricane were in some ways easier to see, though also largely lost in an over-saturated media market. China and the puppies are not just decorations Ward includes, but in fact central to the identity of a poor black family in the fictional Mississippi Gulf town of Bois Sauvage. China’s “motherhood” is a source of strength for Esche, who is quietly pregnant herself; Esche’s older brother, Skeetah, hopes to one day sell the puppies as fighting animals—a decision motivated by economic desperation rather than callous detachment. Ward explicitly sought to remind readers of the dignity, suffering, and hopefulness of families of color amid one of the largest-scale disasters of our times.  –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Rachel Kushner,  The Flamethrowers   (2013)

Rachel Kushner’s 2013 masterpiece has the advantage of being both epic in its historical sweep and highly, acutely specific in its characterization, observation, and ultimately, its aesthetic goals. The story is simultaneously too sprawling to do justice to in a few lines and disarmingly simple. A woman moves to New York City in the 1970s primed to create. She’s an artist. She’s swept up in the circles of other artists and finds herself perhaps too much under the sway or influence of an older man, a successful artist and the heir to an Italian tire/motorcycle fortune. The novel is a wash of conversations remembered, urges subsiding and returning, impressions. Reno, as the protagonist is nicknamed, travels to the western salt flats, crashes a motorcycle, challenges a speed record. Then she’s in Italy, adjacent to extreme luxury and wealth; next she’s in the streets, caught up in riots and a burgeoning activist culture on a collision course with her past. There is, throughout, an eerie sense of destiny, partly because we know she’s passing through important modern historical epics, but also because of the dreamlike grace of Kushner’s prose. “I was doing that thing the infatuated do,” Kushner writes through Reno, “stitching destiny onto the person we want stitched to us.” In other moments, the writing turns rock hard and visceral. A world spreads out before us, and before Reno, and we can’t help but follow the path ahead, knowing that it’s full of mistakes, cruelties small and large, and pain. But there’s also an electricity there. This is a book, ultimately, about art, that deeply human subject.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

Miriam Toews,  All My Puny Sorrows   (2014)

How rare is it to come across a novel that elicits a physical reaction from its reader? All My Puny Sorrows runs the gamut of emotions. Miriam Toews will have you laughing out loud one minute and sobbing on the subway the next. Her novel tells the story of Elf and Yoli, two sisters with an incredible bond despite living very different lives. By all external trappings, Elf is the successful sister. She is a world-renowned virtuoso pianist. She’s wealthy and happily married. Yoli is not any of those things. Instead, she is struggling with how to love someone who no longer wants to live. And so here we find ourselves, in the room with these two inseparable sisters in the aftermath of Elf’s suicide attempt. The way Miriam Toews describes her sadness is haunting: “Then Elf tells me that she has a glass piano inside her. She’s terrified that it will break. She can’t let it break. She tells me that it’s squeezed right up against the lower right side of her stomach, that sometimes she can feel the hard edges of it pushing at her skin.” (I read this novel months ago, and I still think of the glass piano often. It’s so memorable in its specificity! It’s so weird and unique that it could only have come from the mouth of this wonderfully well-rounded, surprising character.) But it’s not all sorrow! It hits all the notes. Shown through some flashbacks to the sisters’ Mennonite upbringing and cutting to their cruel present, the intimacies of their relationship are a saving grace, a sigh of relief. Miriam Toews has an ear for dialogue. Elf and Yoli talk like flesh-and-blood sisters. The details are spot-on. At some point, they speak of their plans to “chop wood, pump water, fish, play the piano, sing together from the soundtracks of Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables , re-imagine our pasts, and wait out the end of the world.” There’s a version of this story, painted with less carefully crafted strokes, that comes out cliche. But Miriam Toews is a pro at teasing out the details that make the story full and unexpected.  –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation   (2014)

It is possible to read Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation , in a day. In fact, it is more difficult not to, as you will not want to stop reading once you’ve started. The first time I read it, I remember being dazzled by the form: a progression of short paragraphs, sometimes continuous with those around them, sometimes ostensibly standalone, each one a jolt of intelligence or feeling. Here is the one everyone quotes:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

The novel is filled with anecdotes like these, and also sayings, or literary quotes, like this one, which I have written down in my notebook every time I have read this book:

What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

The second time I read it, I was heartbroken by the story, every bit of it: the writer who sacrifices (too much?) for her family, the wife whose husband has strayed, the woman rebuilding. It is the quality of mind Offill creates that makes this novel so extraordinary, that makes me want to live inside it.

The third time I read it, I realized that this is one of the few novels that I find both formally exciting and emotionally devastating—in a good way. Most writers can pull off one or the other, but Offill does it right: she uses the form to slay you good.

PS: For those, like me, who have read this book too many times already, I am pleased to inform you that Offill’s forthcoming Weather is just as brilliant and wonderful as Dept. of Speculation , but it swaps out marriage and swaps in climate change/existential malaise as its main concern, which makes it exactly the kind of book we need right now.   –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Paul Beatty,  The Sellout (2015)

It’s tough to sell me on a novel that’s not funny. To me, fiction without humor is missing an essential part of the human experience. Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize-winning masterpiece is one of the funniest—and most human—novels I’ve ever read. Not only that, it made me feel entirely vindicated for insisting upon comedy. The Sellout is so sharp you might not notice it’s cut you until you’ve already feeling faint. It’s a combination of laugh-out-loud comedy, precision social satire (rooted in a deep understanding of history), and literary tour de force. It’s so good it made me use the phrase “tour de force.” The mission of The Sellout ’s narrator, a black man, is to reintroduce (official) segregation to his rural neighborhood within inner-city Los Angeles after it is mysteriously disappeared from the map. The novel fittingly begins with the narrator lighting a joint in the halls of the Supreme Court, where his re-segregation endeavor landed him. As Kevin Young wrote in his review , “Beatty takes the same delight in tearing down the sacred, not so much airing dirty laundry as soiling it in front of you.” But The Sellout celebrates as much as it torches. It is, in addition to being one of the great satirical novels of the decade, and maybe of all time, a celebration of blackness in an allegedly post-racial era (keep in mind, this was 2015).  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Viet Thanh Nguyen,  The Sympathizer   (2015)

As a novel, The Sympathizer is a roiling, darkly comic, propulsive literary thriller set in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, as a North Vietnamese mole keeps watch on the exiled South Vietnamese government in Southern California—it is compulsive reading, arresting in its language, unforgettable in its imagery. But it is more than that. By simply writing the words “Vietnam War” I am able to conjure an entire American mythology, the 40-year cultural byproduct of so much not-quite propaganda/not-quite art: long-haired protesters in the streets, Rustbelt grunts wading through steaming jungles, a flock of juddering choppers against an enormous foreign sun, broken men returning to a country that does not want them… This is the “American” version of the war, a story we’ve told “ourselves” that, while not particularly flattering, is as narrow and myopic as any campfire epic.

So let’s try this: The Sympathizer is an American novel about an American War, a devastating and needless conflict that created hundreds of thousands of refugees, new Americans (we were all new here, at some point) who found a home in the empire that displaced them, and who’ve made it better. Our cultural account of the American war in Vietnam has never been fully “ours” because it has neglected and actively excluded the perspectives of these refugees and their descendants. The Sympathizer is a vital work of art that begins to redress that imbalance.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Hanya Yanagihara,  A Little Life   (2015)

A Little Life is a polarizing book. There are those who love it, who hate it, and who spend their entire reading experience vacillating between these extremes. As one of the book’s advocates, even I experienced moments when I felt like throwing the book across the room. But the brilliance of this book is in the unbearable suffering it causes its characters; if the Bible was about how to survive the arbitrary punishments of angry Lord to such figures as Job, then A Little Life is about how to stay friends with Job, without forcing Job to, well, get better.

A Little Life follows four college friends through the ups and downs of their lives in any-time New York City, but is primarily focused on Jude, the survivor of an unimaginable childhood, grimly detailed in the most horrifying sections of the book. (While many would find the depth of suffering in A Little Life to be implausible in its extremes, Hanya Yanagihara, at a bookseller meet and greet I attended, said she’d received plenty of mail since publication that would suggest otherwise.) All this suffering sets Jude up for a central conflict between his friends, who want him to be happy, and his own understanding that the best he can aim is not to be happy but instead to just…be.

To me, the plausibility of the text was neither here nor there. My respect for the novel is more grounded in the book’s return to 19 th century style emotional narratives, as opposed to the hyper-masculine modernity of mid-century America that insisted on short sentences from the perspectives of nascent psychopaths (yes, that was a jibe at Hemingway). It’s also a turn away from the usual misery memoir’s happy healing, in favor of a grimly realistic portrayal of the long shadow of trauma. A Little Life gives me all the feels, and yet provides no easy answers, and to me, that’s what makes for good literature.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

N. K. Jemisin,  The Fifth Season   (2015)

It’s not always possible to tell that a novel is great while you’re reading it. I mean, obviously you can usually tell if you like something, but to for me, you only know that a novel is capital-g Great when you find yourself, weeks or months or years after the first reading, still thinking about it. Most books, even delightful and brilliant ones, do not pass this test, at least for me. But I have thought about N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (and its two sequels, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky ) at least weekly since I read it a few years ago.

Perhaps it’s unfair. The novel imagines an alternate Earth that is periodically torn apart by apocalyptic weather—like suffocating ash, acid clouds, fungal blooms, mineral-induced darkness, magnetic pole shifts—that lasts for decades at a time, often threatening to wipe out humanity entirely. So you can see how it might come to mind these days.

But I also think about it for its incredible world-building, its unfortunately relevant cultural critique (caste systems, power hierarchies, fear and oppression of the other or unknown, particularly when that unknown other has dreamed-of skills), and its unforgettable characters, particularly, of course, Essun, with all her anger and fear and strength and softness and power. I love her.

And hey, if you don’t want to take my word for it, consider that all three books in the Broken Earth series won Hugos. All three. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Rachel Cusk, Outline   (2015)

There is something about the texture of Rachel Cusk’s prose in Outline (and in the novel’s two follow-ups, Transit and Kudos ) that feels different from anything you’ve ever read before. It’s ostensibly a novel about a woman teaching creative writing in Athens, but it’s really just a series of conversations—importantly, conversations as she remembers them, filter after filter. There’s no real plot, and I’m at a loss to fully describe why the novel is so captivating. Probably, it’s because, as Heidi Julavits put it , it is “lethally intelligent . . . Spend much time with this novel and you’ll become convinced [Cusk] is one of the smartest writers alive. Her narrator’s mental clarity can seem so hazardously penetrating, a reader might fear the same risk of invasion and exposure.” That will do it.

Once, on the subway, I saw a young woman reading Transit and a young man reading Outline , both in the appealing Picador editions. They were standing very close, but they were facing away from one another, and didn’t seem to be together. It took all I had not to stand up and tug on their sleeves—not only because of the perfect meet-cute, but because these books feel like a kind of shibboleth, that rare bit of artistic consumption that might actually tell you something about a person, and how their mind works, and the ways to access their heart. I got off before either of them. I hope they turned around and found each other. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Colson Whitehead,  The Underground Railroad (2016)

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel is, as they say in the business, a shoo-in for this list. It won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Arthur C. Clark Award, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize. It was also a huge bestseller, of course, and achieved near-unanimous praise from critics. Oprah picked it for her book club. Barry Jenkins is adapting it into a television show . It doesn’t get much better than that.

But, why , you might ask, if by some strange accident you have not already read it yourself? Well, it’s accessible, entertaining, and character-rich, and it also reminds us of some uncomfortable but necessary truths about America and its history. (Though not, mind you, that there was literally a coal-burning railroad underground during the 19 th century—I mean, first of all, where would the smoke go?) It has the intensity, immediacy, and high stakes of any escaped slave narrative—literally life or death—which makes it a captivating page turner, but it’s also written by the talented and adaptable Colson Whitehead, who seems to be able to tackle any genre and style, from historical fiction to bildungsroman to zombies, and make it look easy. All we can ask is that he keeps on doing it. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Adam Haslett,  Imagine Me Gone   (2016)

This was one of those novels I had to be told multiple times to read. I just didn’t want to read a sad book about depression! And to be fair . . . it is sad. But even so, I was wrong to resist, and so are you if you missed this one.

Adam Haslett’s second novel is a full and frank portrait of a family and the mental illness that besieges its members—some genetically, others merely experientially. It’s no more complicated than that—there’s no hook, no high concept twist, just the story of a family, told over the years and through the lens of each member: John, Margaret, and their (adult) children Michael, Celia, and Alec. Michael is the most intense narrator, and the one who has inherited his father’s “beast,” though in him it is changed into an obsessive, endlessly riffing master. In fact, Michael’s writing shows up quite a bit in the novel, and it’s one of the book’s best parts—a direct lens, as it were, into a highly unusual mind.

Throughout, the writing is perfectly calibrated, shifting in tenor between characters but always elevated, even lovely. But the most impressive feat is the empathy with which Haslett unravels this family, and the tenderness with which he writes about love in all of its forms. This is a striking novel, and one of the best examples in recent memory of a certain literary mode: quiet, moving, immersive, beautiful. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Richard Powers,  The Overstory   (2018)

Much has been made of Richard Powers evocation of arboreal deep time. As ecologists and botanists and field biologists having been trying to tell us for decades, trees are alive in ways far closer to what we think of as sentience than anyone thought.

And while they can certainly be characters in bestselling narrative nonfiction (Peter Wohlleben’s The Secret Life of Trees comes to mind), can they be characters in a novel? Yes and no. While Powers does introduce several recurring tree characters—a landlocked and lonely chestnut that measures the generations of a single family, a monumentally giant redwood that’s home to eco activists—the lasting importance of this elegiac epic of climate collapse will be the way it takes environmental activism seriously. Powers’ human characters are heartbroken about the destruction of the planet, and they act upon it in all the messy, complicated ways one might expect from non-trees; but they are taken seriously—they are not quirky Franzonian extras, sprinkled through the narrative for a little radical spice. Here is a novel that contains within it layers of sadness and quiet hope; its concerns are ours, its characters are us. Deep time for dark times.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Hernan Díaz,  In the Distance   (2018)

From the very beginning of Hernan Diaz’s slyly Western noir we are lashed to its main character, an adolescent Swedish immigrant named Hakan, as if to the mast of a doomed ship: we see what he sees, struggle through the same harsh weather; we drift through his grim Sargassos, desperate for that ribbon of land on the horizon that will grant reprieve. Diaz’s close third person shadowing of Hakan makes his felt dislocation ours: we know he has been separated from his brother on the way to New York, we know he has never seen a city (at one point he almost disembarks at Buenos Aires, thinking it his final destination), but we don’t really know where he is, or where he’ll end up, or why.

Though painstaking in its historical detail (without succumbing to the obsessive’s need to show off) In the Distance has the feel of a very contemporary story, capturing as it does the struggle and the will at the heart of migration, along with the cruelties that inevitably surround it. And though Diaz clearly has a copy of the Cormac McCarthy family bible, its brimstone and blood, there is tenderness buried at the borders of this novel, just waiting for a little rain to draw it to the surface.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Susan Choi,  Trust Exercise   (2019)

A finalist (and in my books, at least, the front runner) for this year’s National Book Award, Susan Choi’s fifth novel Trust Exercise is a novel in three parts. There’s a lot of concern over not ruining the twist that comes in part two (and to a lesser extent, part three), but it’s impossible to describe quite why this is one of the best novels of the decade without giving it away. So if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and just trust that the central hinge is perfect, and that you should go read it. Now, the spoilers. The first section of the novel begins at a performing arts school in the 1980s, a love story between Sarah and David, friends from opposite sides of the tracks, that suffer through their teenage years, their drama amplified by being sensitive, ambitious theater kids. The shift in part two is that this first story is, in fact, the story within the story, a book written by an adult Sarah (who is not actually called Sarah), being read now by a secondary character from the first story, someone named Karen (who is likewise not actually called Karen). It is an incredibly bold, somewhat shocking twist, resulting in an unraveling that’s pure craft. In The New York Times Book Review , it was labeled unlovingly a “bait and switch,” while Dwight Garner (in the same paper) wrote that it made the book “burn more brightly than anything [Choi’s] yet written.” The second part of the novel is a revenge story too, with carefully built suspense (and a theatrical play with an actual gun), while the third dovetails perfectly, if a bit expectedly, into the future of not-Karen’s life. The premise of Trust Exercise is that teenagers are real people, not just unformed adults, with real concerns and emotional intelligence; they, too, are worthy of great literature.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Anna Burns,  Milkman   (2019)

Anna Burns’s Milkman requires a little commitment. I don’t particularly hold to the idea that some books are “easy” while some are “hard” (or that there is particular virtue in either case) but Burns’s unspooling story of a young woman in Belfast during The Troubles asks of its readers that they be good listeners, that they might have the patience to let the novel’s speech-driven rhythms carry them along, its endless clause-laden sentences tugging like a current toward some unknown destination.

The novel doesn’t specifically locate us in Belfast, nor does it give us an exact era; in fact, the only character that’s ever granted a name is the “Milkman,” an IRA higher-up who may or may not be courting the main character, who’s something close to 18. Already deemed odd for her habit of walking the (dangerous) streets with her nose in a book, the attentions of the older man—he shows up at random in his white van—has people talking (but always just out of earshot, the curtains quickly drawn). Milkman is all menace and mood, its ambiguities like dark corners, places of concealment, its violence latent throughout, ready to explode.

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top twenty, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Tom McCarthy,  C   (2010)

Listen, haters. I know it’s not as good—or at least as pure —as Remainder , which is a nearly perfect novel. But I loved this book for its sheer postmodern ambition, its obsessions—with hearing and mishearing, communication and miscommunication, associative thinking—and its arch coldness. It seems McCarthy, who let’s not forget is the general secretary of the “semi-fictitious” International Necronautical Society, which is “devoted to mind-bending projects that would do for death what the Surrealists had done for sex,” is playing some sort of trick, or set of tricks, on us, and maybe on literature itself, and well, unfortunately I am the sort of reader who appreciates that.

After all, the novel, which is ostensibly about a troubled and troublingly blank young man named Serge Carrefax, building radios and dropping bombs as the twentieth century begins, is so weird, and so much, and so clearly about language and what we make of it, and what it’s for. In her review of the novel for the New York Times , Jennifer Egan wrote that McCarthy “withstands the temptations of emotional plotting and holds out instead for something bigger, deeper, more universal and elemental.

C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of  meaning : our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. Gone is the minimalist restraint he employed in Remainder ; here, he fuses a Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs to create an intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.

To be fair about the response of the critics, Michiko Kakutani hated it, calling it “disappointing and highly self-conscious” and finds his “carefully manufactured symbols and leitmotifs . . . to be more gratuitous than revealing.”

Which is perfectly reasonable. I, however, will continue to delight in its self-conscious, hyper-intellectual handwringing. I love that sort of thing. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Patrick DeWitt,  The Sisters Brothers   (2011)

Patrick DeWitt’s  The Sisters Brothers  is a perfect Western, which is why it’s so startling that it’s a comedy about a protracted existentialist crisis. The Gold Rush-era story of two bounty-hunters, the philosophical Eli and his rowdier, more impulsive brother Charlie, it unfolds slowly as they head from Oregon to California to kill a prospector-alchemist named Hermann Kermit Warm at the behest of a shady figure known as the Commodore. Eli doesn’t exactly love what they do for a living (he’d rather work in a shop, he thinks), while Charlie doesn’t question it. As they make their way south, in a picaresque-fashion they stumble from one (often gritty) misadventure to the next, and eventually wind up teaming up with Warm when they finally find him. The best part of the novel is the narration—Eli is the ambivalent moral compass normally absent from Westerns, a kind of extreme normalcy and humanity amidst a desolate and unforgiving landscape and livelihood. He is ever-loving towards his cruel and reckless brother, a little anxious about his weight, and gets extremely excited when he purchases a toothbrush for the first time. Charlie, on the other hand, is scary—and you’ll spend pages worrying that the complicated, loving bond between them will be Charlie’s to selfishly, stupidly break. Eli’s sincerity is what keeps everything afloat, as well as makes it all feel so precarious.

His considerate, soft-spoken-ness is jarringly interrupted by unsettling (usually gruesome, sometimes disgusting) moments of gore—sometimes violence, sometimes other nauseating things. The imagery is stunning—there are passages here and there, both horrifying and not, that have stuck with me since I read it. There is, I should warn you, some extremely tough, hard-to-read violence against horses (usually something that will compel me to burst into tears and stop reading/watching the thing at hand, but I was so interested in the story that still cried but plugged on). It’s elements like this that recall how, for all its creativity and charm,  The Sisters Brothers is actually extremely sad: a wrenching evocation of a bitter moment in the history of mankind, as it tries and fails to make progress. On a different note, it also has the single best title of a fictional work, possibly ever. In my opinion. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Claire Messud,  The Woman Upstairs   (2013)

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” begins Claire Messud’s novel, in a sure hook if I’ve ever seen one. If I could, I would quote the entire first page because it establishes one of the most powerful and memorable feminist voices I have ever read in fiction: urgent and chillingly true. The quietly seething protagonist of The Woman Upstairs, Nora Eldridge, is a teacher who has sidelined her art, because she is a rule-follower who fears risk and uncertainty. She is unmarried, single, without kids; intelligent, experienced, and incisive enough to pierce societal facades and expose the enduring gender conventions, stereotypes, and pressures that imprison women. Thus, Messud’s titular allusion to Bertha Mason, the first “madwoman in the attic.” Nora’s predictable life is enlivened by the arrival of the worldly Shahids, a family of famous Italian artist Sirena, Lebanese academic and intellectual Skandar and young, well-mannered Reza. In each of the Shahids Nora glimpses the revival of a life she thought to be long lost. With their flattery and tacit permission she returns to her art, sharing a studio with Sirena who is preparing for an upcoming art show in Paris; she engages in intellectual discussion with Skandar (though he talks and she mostly listens); and as she gets to know Reza, finding him the perfect child, she wishes she were his mother. She is filled with promise, until they betray her. Messud yields Nora’s confessional, vehement voice from beginning to end, lending the novel the pacing and tension of a psychological thriller. In The Woman Upstairs Messud’s signature intellectual tone is invigorated by the unmoored passion of her protagonist, who grapples with the choices of her past and the promise of her future, burdened with the question of determinism as she is tormented by self-doubt and the sense of having no control to alter her fate. Messud has struck the finest balance between showing and telling: she has delivered one version of the tale of the modern woman that no one can ignore. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Kathryn Davis,  Duplex   (2013)

It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon of reading this novel for the first time, though Lynda Barry does it as well as anyone could in the opening of her review for The New York Times :

The chapter is called “Body-­without-Soul,” the book is called Duplex , and you’ve lived in a duplex so you think, “Oh, I know what this book is about.” . . . And then you read this: “The car was expensive and silver-gray and driven by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul.” And you find out not only does Miss Vicks know him, they are romantically involved, and he can make things vanish or “vibrate at unprecedented frequencies,” including her privates, he can sow fear inside anything, and then you read that he can fit his entire hand inside her. Time stutters. What? His entire hand what?

You read the phrase four times, trying to catch up, the way you tried to catch up when you were a kid and Henry, the teenager from next door, told a bunch of you a story about his finger and a girl. Finger? Girl? What? Then a flood of understanding horrified you, shamed and excited you, trailed you back into the house to the kitchen where dinner was ready, where your chicken potpie was waiting to be pierced with your fork and you stared at it.

Because the thing is, you don’t know what this book is about. I could not tell you what this book is about, because this book is an experience—closest to a dream, maybe, or a memory. An enchantment. Tom Bissell called it “a coming-of-age-meets-dystopian-fantasy-meets-alternate-reality novel, or maybe an Ionesco-meets-Beckett-meets-Oulipo novel.” It is deadpan, episodic, unrelentingly bizarre, continually surprising, and gorgeously written. It considers teenage girls deadly serious, and deadly seriously. It is a suburban American fantasy of the highest order—though Davis herself might balk at this description. “I hope that what I write is about as “realistic” as a piece of writing ever can be, though maybe “true to life” is more like what I want to say here,” she said in an interview . “I think The Metamorphosis is the most realistic autobiography ever written, and I hope Duplex aspires on some level to such lofty heights.” It does. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  Americanah (2013)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel is many things at once: part social satire, part coming-of-age, part romantic comedy, part immigration story. It is expansive and engaging and deeply enjoyable. It insists on the multiplicity of immigrant experiences, including the idea that an immigrant who has found success in the US might return to her country of origin, as its female protagonist Ifemelu does. Born in Nigeria, Ifemelu comes to the US for college, and struggles to earn money, unhappily doing sex work at one point, but ultimately thrives as a writer, winning a fellowship at Princeton and writing a popular blog about her experience of race in the US as a black African. When the novel opens, she is preparing to return home. Ifemelu’s childhood friend and later boyfriend (then ex-boyfriend)—and the novel’s second narrator—Obinze, travels to England and similarly faces money struggles, though his result in deportation. Americanah does not shy away from either social critique or pure, satisfying romance. It is about identity, in both the capital and lowercase senses, and it succeeds in its precise drawing the humanity of its characters as well as the nuances of its cultures. –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Ben Lerner,  10:04   (2014)

Considering his reputation, it’s actually a little jarring to remember that Ben Lerner has published all three of his novels (and one poetry collection) in the last decade. For those ready to jump down to the comments to tell me that actually, Lerner’s a poet —I know, dudes. Yes, he’d published two books of poetry before this decade (2006’s Angle of Yaw was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry), and he published another in 2010, but there’s really no denying that Lerner rose to general prominence with 2011’s slim, semi-autobiographical novel Leaving the Atocha Station , and that since then, he’s become a major name in the literary world primarily on the strength of his novels. Them’s the facts.

I reread both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 recently, so as to better contextualize Lerner’s latest, The Topeka School , and found them both to still be pleasantly over-intellectual, funny, and flawed books—but 10:04 held up rather better, even with its “mild lacrimal events.” Yes, in 2019 the fact that he dropped a New Yorker story into his novel wholesale isn’t as charming as it was in 2014, but who cares? And sure, the novel is mostly just a series of Ben Lerner’s observations about art and people and the world, but who cares, and actually that’s exactly what I love about it, because Ben Lerner’s observations are better than most people’s, and because if a book makes me sit around and think deeply about the world I live in and the connections between phenomena, then I’m more than satisfied. Plus, it has a truly hilarious masturbation scene. Really, you can’t beat it. (No pun intended!!!!!!!) –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Rabih Alameddine,  An Unnecessary Woman   (2014)

Of course I was going to love this book. This is a book about books. It has four (4) epigraphs. W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is mentioned on page three. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is mentioned on page six. That’s only the tip of the iceberg . Plus, it’s about an introverted, deliciously sardonic, relentlessly stubborn woman who hates pretty much everyone, but loves literature, and spends all her time hiding in her Beirut apartment, secretly translating all her favorite novels into Arabic. She’s been doing this for 50 years. No one has ever read any of them. Honestly, I can’t think of a book better suited to my temperament.

And that’s just the flashy headline. This is also a novel about the Lebanese Civil War, and about how we treat people who live at the margins, particularly women, particularly older women. This is also a novel about loneliness, and about grief, and about how language can help us negotiate these, and the limits of that negotiation.

But probably the best argument for this book as one of the greatest of the decade is this: Aaliya’s is one of the best narratorial voices I have ever read. She is unusual, contemplative, critical, complex, candid, rude and tender. She’s absurdly compelling. If the truly great novels are those that invent and maintain a unique quality of mind (and for me, they are), this is one of the greatest. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Lauren Groff,  Fates and Furies   (2015)

Things were pretty good in 2015—Obama was president, the Paris Agreement was drafted, the Supreme Court affirmed same sex marriage (plus a little website called Lit Hub launched). And Lauren Groff’s third novel, Fates and Furies , was published. A finalist for the National Book Award, the book was a sensation, garnering positive reviews from everyone (including Obama, who said it was his favorite book of 2015). The novel begins on the day a young couple Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder marry, a mere two weeks after they meet. The way their love grows is told in the first half of the book, following Lotto’s mythic-hero story (born during a hurricane to a theme-park mermaid mother) he struggles as an actor before transforming into a brilliant playwright. He is a man touched by fate, who doesn’t question his successes. The second half of the novel turns the story on its head, Mathilde revealing herself as the catalyst for Lotto’s good fortune. As the story is retold and reshaped from her perspective, not only are gaps filled, but are secrets revealed. In an interview for Lit Hub, Groff said the novel is a “conversation about marriage, but also about privilege and background and our personality and how we deal with the world.” Fates and Furies takes a fairy tale marriage and probes its deepest darknesses and psychological depths with perfect, lyrical prose. If somehow you missed it when it was first published, this is your alarm to pick it up now. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Paulette Jiles, News of the World   (2016)

A magnificently vivid and thoroughly heartwarming odd couple adventure tale set in the aftermath of the Civil War, in which Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd—an elderly (but still spry) widower and veteran of three wars who roams the towns of Northern Texas, spreading the good word that the 15th Amendment has just been ratified and reading newspaper stories from distant lands to town halls full of rapt locals—finds himself tasked with delivering a young orphan girl (the delightfully quarrelsome former Kiowa “captive” Johanna) across 400 miles of unsettled territory to her relatives in San Antonio. As I have detailed at excruciating length to anyone who’ll listen over the past three years, I love everything about this tender gem of a novel: the way Jiles textures her Old West landscape with Kidd’s tersely poetic observations and ironic musings, the old-fashioned getaway and gunsmoke thrills over which she allows her mismatched protagonists to bond, her masterful blending of humor and suspense, and the pleasure she takes in detailing a disappearing way of life. It’s an exquisite portrait of two wary, worn-out souls, starved of love and unmoored from the worlds they knew, finding unlikely solace in one another. What begins as a hilariously combative battle of wills between this unlikely pair of malcontents becomes, by the close, something altogether more poignant, more precious. If I’m making this sound treacly and sentimental, forgive me, for it is neither. There’s nothing cheap, nothing unearned about the warmth that radiates from its closing pages, the sweet sorrow we feel at their journey’s end. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Mike McCormack,  Solar Bones   (2016)

The flap copy on my edition of Solar Bones gives away the ending, or at least the kicker. I’m going to give it away again, now, so look away if you’re one of those people who clutches their pearls at “spoilers,” as if one could spoil great literature by detailing any point of its plot. So: Marcus Conway is dead. And in this exceptional, strange novel, whose present action is no more than a few hours on All Souls’ Day, Marcus sits at his kitchen table and recounts the day of his death—and much of the life that came before it—in one book-length sentence, an incantatory ode to small town life in western Ireland. But the experimental formatting isn’t even the most impressive feature of the novel—I mean, before this I never would have imagined that I could be so enchanted by a book largely about the daily habits and various relationships and minor work dramas of a middle-aged civil engineer. What magic is that?

And ultimately, that’s what is so profound about this novel: it takes something quite straightforward—a regular person’s life—and presents it so carefully, so lyrically and specifically, that it can’t help but become cosmic, philosophical, a whole world to wonder at. This is why the ending—whether you know it’s coming or not—is so gutting. It’s an apocalypse, a small one, and you feel it, even as the cars continue to stream by outside your bedroom window. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Samantha Hunt,  Mr. Splitfoot   (2016)

Mr. Splitfoot , Samantha Hunt’s third novel, is her creepiest, and maybe her saddest. It is about two preteens—orphans—Ruth and Nat, who live in desolate upstate New York at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission, a terrible place run by a greedy religious psychopath. Ruth is in love with Nat, while Nat is enamored of his own skills—somehow, he can speak to the dead. He can summon the deceased parents of the children who live in the home. It’s during one of his séances that they are interrupted by a new character—a charismatic charlatan named Mr. Bell who wants to help Nat profit financially from his talent. This interloper is obviously bad news—but the sense of foreboding around him and their whole enterprise is gravely augmented by the fact that every other chapter of the novel takes place many years later. Ruth, now an adult, is there, and Nat is nowhere to be found. This older Ruth also does not talk at all now, but she is determined to help a young woman, her niece Cora, escape something dangerous.

Hunt’s novels, in general, are tremendously atmospheric, but Mr. Splitfoot  might take the cake—here, she is a veritable cinematographer. The ambiance she designs is exceptionally vivid: alternately shadowy and garish, extremely lonely and damp. It’s weird that the novel’s setting is so real and ordinary (just outside Troy, New York) because the story is so otherworldly, so metaphysical, so much a sinister fairy tale. The novel conjures its hair-raising, skin-crawling pulse from grotesque Christian iconography, dank forests, and smoky ghosts that might resemble what mothers look like (though, among the very motherless ensemble, no one knows for sure). Mr. Splitfoot  is rich in symbolism, which might feel too-thickly applied for some readers, but I think it fits the overall generousness of her storytelling. Hunt doesn’t just write fiction; like the magical waifs at the center of her story, she truly brings things to life—though to put it this way might be laying things on a bit thick, as well. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Yaa Gyasi,  Homegoing   (2016)

Homegoing , Yaa Gyasi’s sweeping narrative of the slave trade’s toll on a family lineage across three centuries, begins with two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana: Effia, whose marriage to the British governor of Cape Coast Castle furnishes her with security and wealth, and Esi, who is kidnapped and sold into bondage, waiting for passage to the Americas in the packed, rank dungeons under the fortress where Effia lives in luxury. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of their descendants, unfolding the effects of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic: in West Africa, families and villages are torn apart by war and kidnappings; in America, the inhuman brutality of American slavery, rumors of which provoke horror among those who remain in Africa, leads into the era of Jim Crow apartheid and torture. In the book’s earlier scenes, some of its most vivid, Isabel Wilkerson wrote for The New York Times that Gyasi “walks assuredly through the terrain of Alex Haley, Solomon ­Northup and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her intimate rendering of the human heart battered by the forces of conquest and history.” Some critics contended that the book’s later scenes, in the modern-day US, relied on stereotypes that were “sometimes unquestioningly imported, rather than combatted, subverted, and complicated,” Kate Osana Simonian wrote for The Kenyon Review . Regardless, this book is an astonishing testament to survival and a witness to the ancestral wisdom and ingenuity that made survival possible. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First (2016)

I have been recommending this slim, glinting dagger of novel since it came out in 2016, to anyone who will listen, and I’m not going to stop now. Look, “best of” lists like this one should be messy and idiosyncratic and unexpected, reflections of long and heated arguments by people who care a lot about books and are always reading—what they shouldn’t be is calibrated to please everyone. Having said that—and aside from my love of Danielle Dutton’s miraculous first-person inhabitation of 17th-century Renaissance woman Margaret Cavendish—I would like this book to serve as representative evidence of all the short novels that might not be epic in length, but are so in scope, that are too often left off lists like this one because they don’t immediately register as monumental. But back to the book.

Of noble station, Margaret Cavendish—aka “Mad Madge—was a real person, a writer of plays, poetry, philosophical treatises, scientific theories, and more. The first woman ever invited to the Royal Society in London, Cavendish did, indeed, achieve the intellectual fame she’d long sought; unsurprisingly, her accomplishments were diminished at every turn, as many claimed her books must have been written by her husband. Dutton (who founded Dorothy: A Publishing Project) realizes the outsize ambitions of this remarkable book with virtuosic efficiency, braiding first- and third-person perspectives with passages from Cavendish’s original writing. I will be recommending this book for the next decade.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Elif Batuman,  The Idiot   (2017)

The Idiot is one of those books that expanded my understanding of what a novel could look like. It is meandering, but it meanders with such gusto that I never doubted that Elif Batuman knew exactly where she was leading me. The Idiot is a campus novel, telling the story of its protagonist’s first year at Harvard. She—Selin—has a romantic interest (their relationship is sort of one-and-a-half-sided—their courtship mostly takes place in the then-nascent medium of email), but mostly she bobs along. That’s part of it, the bobbing. Selin is something of a buoy in a world of torpedoes. If this sounds tiresome, consider the profound power of the incredibly funny, linguistically virtuosic narrator. The Idiot is occasionally baggy, but its voice is so thoroughly charming that I could have read volumes of it. Selin is, if occasionally bewildered, also full of wonder, without any of the tweeness with which that word is sometimes unfairly burdened. The Idiot is a novel of ideas, a novel of fascination. And it’s just so damn funny. Of the novel’s humor, Cathleen Schine writes , “Language is the medium and language is the comedian, language is the star and the prop, Chaplin and the globe he balances, the hungry fellow and the shoe he dines on.” The Idiot is, for all its shaggy bits, a perfectly self-contained world. –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Jesmyn Ward,  Sing, Unburied, Sing   (2017)

Jesmyn Ward is a MacArthur genius grant recipient, a two-time National Book Award winner, and a former TIME 100 honoree, as well as the author of one of the  most powerful and affecting memoirs  of the last ten years, so why does it still feel like she’s under-read? Granted, Ward is not one of the book world’s Very Online Authors, nor does she qualify as a literary  wunderkind  (though I’d argue that winning two National Book Award by the still-young age of forty is pretty damn  wunder ful), and she and her work have never really been subjected to the kind of breathless op-ed assault that can, as a silver lining, serve to raise awareness of a title, but still… All that throat-clearing is to say that if you haven’t yet gotten around to reading Ward’s work, you really,  really  should. She is a truly magnificent writer and one of the most poetic and humane chroniclers of the trauma that generations of systemic racism has inflicted upon the contemporary black American family. Her finest (and most harrowing) work to date,  Sing, Unburied, Sing  is an intimate, mystical portrait of a fractured Mississippi Gulf Coast family and the painful histories and buried secrets that plague its members as they embark upon a journey to the State Penitentiary. As she does in 2011’s  Salvage the Bones , Ward infuses this devastating Southern realist tale with a sort of mythic grandeur. Her language is lyrical, hypnotic, haunted by a deep and profound sorrow as her characters are haunted by the ghosts of young men brutally and prematurely wrenched out of the world. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Ottessa Moshfegh,  My Year of Rest and Relaxation   (2018)

If I were to choose one word to describe my experience reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel, the word would be delight . It’s just so goddamn fun, and weird, and, well, mean in a way you’re not allowed to be, usually, either in literature or in life, which made me love it (look, she’s not hurting anybody, everyone is fictional, let me have this).

Like many readers (and writers) I know, I first fell for Moshfegh via her stories in the Paris Review , and 2017 her collection Homesick for Another World . My Year of Rest and Relaxation picks up some of her stories’ elements—horrible people, anger, dissociation between reality and interiority—while feeling like a much bigger, better, complex work. Well, it’s a novel, after all, and it’s a good one.

As you may know, the book centers on an unnamed narrator (rich, she tells us, and pretty) living in New York City, whose parents have recently died, and who would like to take a “year of rest and relaxation” via a drug stupor, waking only every three days to eat. She is sometimes stymied by Reva, her “best friend,” but eventually more or less succeeds, and wakes in the summer of 2001, slowly readjusting to her life before she’ll have to readjust all over again.

And not for nothing, the latter half of this decade has made me extremely sympathetic to the quest to spend a year asleep. As long as I’d still be able to vote (absentee ballot?), I would happily agree to be unconscious for 2020. Just think of all the bullshit I’d miss. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Sally Rooney,  Normal People   (2018)

Just popping in to introduce you to a book you’ve definitely never heard anything about, an underappreciated novel I like to call Normal People . Just kidding! I’m sure you know all about it. I’m sure it’s the first thing you see when you walk into your local indie. I’m sure you probably tried to go to the Books Are Magic event that so many people RSVP’d to that they had to move it to a local church (and it was still packed!). You are probably also pumped for the TV adaptation —right? There is good reason for the hype, friends. From Sally Rooney, celebrated author of Conversations With Friends and heralded as “the first great millennial writer” comes the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell is your quintessential cool kid (popular, star of the football team, etc.), while Marianne lives a more solitary and private high school existence. His mother works for her family. One day, when Connell comes to pick his mother up from Marianne’s house, an unlikely connection grows between the two teenagers. Through Sally Rooney’s masterfully controlled prose, we follow them through the halls of their high school, where they pretend not to know each other. We follow them as they outgrow the place, shed friendships, move away from home. We follow them to university. We see them thrive and wilt, ebb and flow. There is something about Sally Rooney’s writing that is so certain, that makes us trust the feelings of the characters. She cuts to the core of them. Normal People is a biting portrait of an intimate relationship as a living, breathing thing. But in the periphery, through some details of circumstance, it also examines socioeconomic class (Sally Rooney has said she wants to write “a Marxist novel”) in a way that reads like George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the modern age. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse   (2018)

Most of us (I hope) are at least intellectually aware of the centuries of colonial violence meted out by European settlers upon the Indigenous nations of North America, and though we don’t need to feel something to grasp its injustice, art is here to remind us of the specific human cost of systematized theft and racism.

The late Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse (first published in Canada in 2012, but released in the US by Milkweed in 2018) recounts the all too familiar story of Indigenous children stolen from their parents to be (re)educated in the ways of Christian empire. In this case, that story happens in one of Canada’s notorious “residential schools,” church-run boarding schools that were effectively prisons, in which all traces of First Nations’ culture were forbidden (language, first and foremost), and where neglect, abuse, and even murder, were tragically commonplace. Though the material is necessarily grim, Wagamese doesn’t fetishize despair, and allows his main character, Saul, the chance to feel something like joy as he discovers a preternatural talent for hockey. And though the sport might only represent a brief respite for Saul, from a lifetime of pain and loss, these sections contain the best writing about a sport I have ever read.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Téa Obreht,  Inland   (2019)

You’d be forgiven, if you read Téa Obreht’s 2011 debut The Tiger’s Wife (ahem, see above), for having high expectations for her sophomore effort, especially considering it’s been 8 years in the making.

You’d be forgiven, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. This is a lush, wide-ranging, and fully American novel, a revisioning of a classic Western, imbued, as all the best revisionings are, with many of the satisfactions of the trope, but presented alongside a set of new and better ones.

For instance, for a Western, it’s not particularly violent—or not as violent as you’d expect, though what is there was so well-written as to make me gasp—and instead we get the aftermath: the ghosts. Ghosts are everywhere in this novel, reminding us that every place and time has its own history, its own victims, its own way of self-consideration. Both Nora and Lurie see them, though it’s not always clear that they both believe them. We believe them, though: such is the compelling texture of Obreht’s prose.

There are two stories at play here: as the novel opens, Nora, a frontierswoman in the Arizona Territory in the late 19 th century, waits more or less patiently for her husband and two eldest sons to return, as her water runs out and her youngest son begins to see monsters in the underbrush; then there’s Lurie, the outlaw and immigrant who joins the United States Camel Corps (yes, this is a thing) and begins a long trek.

These two stories eventually converge, in a way I didn’t see coming at all—though in retrospect it was perfectly orchestrated, inevitable, really. Maybe it was my level of immersion that kept me from noticing Obreht’s deft use of time and space between and within the two narratives. Suffice it to say, if this is a new American myth, I’ll take it. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Emma Donoghue, Room  (2010) · Jonathan Franzen,  Freedom  (2010) · Tana French, Faithful Place (2010) · Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) ·  Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake  (2010) · Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist (2010) ·  Attica Locke, Black Water Rising (2010) · Jaimy Gordon,  Lord of Misrule  (2010) · Chang-rae Lee,  The Surrendered  (2010) · Paul Murray,  Skippy Dies (2010) · Tom Rachman,  The Imperfectionists  (2010) · Nadifa Mohamed,  Black Mamba Boy  (2010) · Andrea Levy,  The Long Song  (2010) · Helen Oyeyemi,  Mr. Fox  (2011) · Nicholson Baker,  House of Holes  (2011) · Ann Patchett,  State of Wonder  (2011) · Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (2011) ·  Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia  (2011) · Justin Torres,  We the Animals  (2011) · Teju Cole,  Open City  (2011) · Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time (2011) ·  Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints  (2011) · Kevin Wilson,  The Family Fang  (2011) · Francisco Goldman,  Say Her Name  (2011) · Colson Whitehead,  Zone One  (2011) · Karen Russell,  Swamplandia!  (2011)  · José Saramago, Cain (2011) ·  Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending  (2011) · Ben Lerner,  Leaving the Atocha Station  (2011) · Adam Johnson,  The Orphan Master’s Son  (2012) · Edward St. Aubyn,  At Last  (2012) · Barbara Kingsolver,  Flight Behavior  (2012) · Sheila Heti,  How Should a Person Be?  (2012) · Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles (2012) ·  Louise Erdrich, The Round House  (2012) · Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012) ·  Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl  (2012) · G. Willow Wilson,  Alif the Unseen  (2012) · Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist (2012) ·  Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies  (2012) · Zadie Smith,  NW (2012) · Andrew Miller, Pure (2012) ·  Orhan Pamuk, Silent House  (2012) · Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (2012) ·  Amelia Gray, Threats  (2012) · Kevin Barry,  City of Bohane  (2012) · Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (2012) ·  James Salter, All That Is  (2013) · Edwidge Danticat,  Claire of the Sea Light  (2013) · James McBride,  The Good Lord Bird  (2013) · Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) · Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (2013) ·  Philipp Meyer, The Son  (2013) · J. M. Ledgard,  Submergence  (2013) · Anthony Marra,  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  (2013) · Alissa Nutting,  Tampa  (2013) · Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (2013) ·  Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie  (2013) · Donna Tartt,  The Goldfinch  (2013) · William H. Gass, Middle C (2013) ·  Kate Atkinson, Life After Life  (2013)  · Eleanor Catton,  The Luminaries  (2013) · Jim Harrison, Brown Dog (2013) ·  NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names  (2013) · Laila Lalami,  The Moor’s Account  (2014) · Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life (2014) ·  Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing  (2014) · Lily King, Euphoria (2014) ·  Akhil Sharma, Family Life  (2014) · Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014) · Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (2014) ·  Marilynne Robinson, Lila  (2014) · Anthony Doerr,  All the Light We Cannot See  (2014) · Marlon James,  A Brief History of Seven Killings  (2014) · Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper (2014) ·  Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing  (2014) ·   Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (2014) ·  Jeffery Renard Allen, Song of the Shank  (2014) · Nell Zink,  The Wallcreeper  (2014) · Celeste Ng,  Everything I Never Told You  (2014) · Merritt Tierce,  Love Me Back  (2014) · Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (2014) · Tom McCarthy, Satin Island (2015) ·  Angela Flournoy, The Turner House  (2015) · Alexandra Kleeman,  You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine  (2015) ·  Ali Smith,  How to Be Both  (2015) · Sara Nović,  Girl at War  (2015)  · Scarlett Thomas,  The Seed Collectors  (2015) · Nell Zink,  Mislaid  (2015) · James Hannaham, Delicious Foods (2015) ·  Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond  (2016) · Jane Alison, Nine Island (2016) ·  Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun  (2016) · Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2016) ·  Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers  (2016) · Tony Tulathimutte,  Private Citizens  (2016) · Emma Cline,  The Girls  (2016) ·  Deborah Levy, Hot Milk (2016) ·  Martin Seay, The Mirror Thief  (2016) · Brit Bennett,  The Mothers  (2016) · Garth Greenwell,  What Belongs to You  (2016) · Jade Sharma, Problems (2016) ·  Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone  (2016) · Esmé Weijun Wang, The Border of Paradise (2016) · Victor LaValle,  The Changeling  (2017) · Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (2017) · Andrew Sean Greer,  Less  (2017) · Katie Kitamura,  A Separation  (2017) · Scott McClanahan, The Sarah Book (2017) · Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida (2017) ·  George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo  (2017) · Mohsin Hamid,  Exit West  (2017) · Hari Kunzru, White Tears (2017) ·  Omar El Akkad, American War (2017) · Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu (2017) ·  Min Jin Lee, Pachinko  (2017) · Sally Rooney,  Conversations With Friends  (2017) · Fiona Mozley,  Elmet  (2017) · Amelia Gray,  Isadora  (2017) · Julie Buntin,  Marlena  (2017) · Tayari Jones,  An American Marriage  (2018) · Sigrid Nunez,  The Friend  (2018) · Madeline Miller,  Circe  (2018) · Nico Walker,  Cherry  (2018) · R. O. Kwon,  The Incendiaries  (2018) · Tommy Orange,  There There  (2018) · Gina Apostol, Insurrecto (2018) ·  Daisy Johnson, Everything Under  (2018) · Dan Sheehan,  Restless Souls  (2018) · Tara Isabella Burton,  Social Creature  (2018) · Chandler Klang Smith,  The Sky is Yours  (2018) · Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers (2018) ·  Jamie Quatro, Fire Sermon  (2018) · Chloe Benjamin,  The Immortalists  (2018) · Akwaeke Emezi,  Freshwater  (2018) · Ling Ma,  Severance  (2018) · Lisa Halliday,  Asymmetry  (2018) · Wayétu Moore, She Would Be King (2018) ·  Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous  (2019)  · Helen Phillips, The Need (2019) ·  Maurice Carlos Ruffin, We Cast a Shadow  (2019) · Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall (2019) ·  Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure  (2019) · Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein (2019) · Lucy Ellman, Ducks, Newburyport (2019) ·  De’Shawn Charles Winslow, In West Mills  (2019) · Sandra Newman,  The Heavens  (2019) · Colson Whitehead,  The Nickel Boys  (2019) · Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway (2019) ·  Kathleen Alcott, America Was Hard to Find  (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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