1. Patrick Rothfuss, The Name Of The Wind (Daw)
When fantasy series have become as ubiquitous as Harlequin romances (and twice as predictable), a debut novel like The Name Of The Wind is more than a breath of fresh air. It's a reason to live a few more years, until Patrick Rothfuss gets the rest of the story of Kvothe, apprentice mage turned legendary outlaw, into print. Combining the academic setting of Harry Potter, the tortured heroism of Frodo, and the bittersweet apocalyptica of A Song Of Ice And Fire, Rothfuss' first novel in the Kingkiller Chronicles weaves a rich, fluid, irresistible world. The Name Of The Wind is the perfect midwinter escape—although the 2009 publication date for the next installment should serve as a warning: Read slowly.
2. Don DeLillo, Falling Man (Scribner)
Falling Man ends with a first-person description of the 9/11 attacks, a jarringly intense setpiece of the kind no one does as well as DeLillo. But it's almost a postscript to a short, haunting novel about a handful of New Yorkers adjusting to life in the aftermath of those attacks, and the everyday madness needed just to get through the day.
3. Kurt Andersen, Heyday (Random House)
Simultaneously a vivid social history and an enjoyable adventure story, Andersen's second novel spans 1848 to 1850, and stretches from Paris to London to New York to the California gold rush. A British aristocrat, a cynical reporter, a psychologically damaged cavalry veteran, and his prostitute sister ramble through a self-consciously Dickensian world full of coincidental meetings, sordid streets of shame, and guest appearances by the likes of Charles Darwin and Walt Whitman. Andersen pointedly sets Heyday at the dawn of America's awareness of itself as a land of opportunity and innovation, and shows how old-world hang-ups and the constant threat of violence set in motion the slow dissolution of a noble experiment.
4. Austin Grossman, Soon I Will Be Invincible (Pantheon)
Austin Grossman's pop-fluff debut novel reads like a prose version of an Alan Moore superhero comic: The chapters alternate between the perspective of a supervillain bent on world domination, and that of a newbie superheroine trying to integrate into an established group. Drawing heavily on superhero-comics tropes, but finding a good bit of depth and pathos in those tropes, Grossman constructs a giddily readable, thoroughly enjoyable popcorn book that whips by at the speed of light.
5. Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin)
In this companion piece to the slim, death-haunted 2006 novel Everyman, Roth's frequent alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, after spending years as a near-ascetic in the New England countryside, is drawn back to a ghost-filled New York by the promise of a surgical procedure that may repair his incontinent bladder. Roth uses Zuckerman—once a stand-in for Roth's youthful and midlife obsessions— as a vulgar observer of how we say goodbye to earthly obsessions. Roth promises it's Zuckerman's final appearance, but it'd be a shame to permanently shelve a mouthpiece this effective.
6. Laura Lippman, What The Dead Know (William Morrow)
A middle-aged woman claims to be one of two sisters who famously went missing from a Baltimore shopping mall in the mid-'70s, and while local police investigate her claims, Lippman jumps back to the circumstances surrounding the original crime, and what became of the girls and their parents in the years that followed. Though What The Dead Know offers a beguiling puzzle, Lippman is less concerned with putting the pieces together than with holding each one up to admire the curiously familiar shapes. This is the kind of book readers will scour for clues, not just to the mystery, but to how we all become who we become.
7. James Kugel, How To Read The Bible: A Guide To Scripture, Then And Now (Free Press)
Who should we believe about the Bible—our Sunday-school teachers, or our university professors? Jewish scholar James Kugel cuts through this dilemma with a breathtaking new look at the world's most popular book. Scripture was composed and compiled over the course of a millennium for reasons that historians, academics, and literary detectives have illuminated in the last century and a half. But it became the Bible through the work of ancient interpreters: rabbis, bishops, apocalyptic writers, sectarian leaders, and scribes of all stripes who propagated definitive readings of the texts they held to be sacred. Kugel walks through the entire Hebrew Bible, juxtaposing early interpretations with deconstructive scholarship. No writer on the Bible has wrestled so profoundly with the most basic, important questions raised by our conflicting knowledge and desires.