As we say each December, trying to keep up with every book released in a year is like trying to drink from a firehose, especially since books tend to be far more nichey and audience-specific than films, and require a greater time commitment than music. We never get to as many books as we’d like, and we all have pretty idiosyncratic tastes. So take this list not necessarily as the most notable or even the straight-up best books of the year, but just as our favorites, the ones we’d most like to recommend to a larger audience.
Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies
Runner-up: Tracy Kidder, Strength In What Remains
With each carefully crafted book, Tracy Kidder elevates the mundane, forgotten, and overlooked into crystalline gems that reflect every facet of the human condition. In a way, it’s unfortunate that marketing has recently been able to pigeonhole him into a social-issues writer, because it means folks averse to homilies will never even pick up Mountains Beyond Mountains or this year’s searing Strength In What Remains, the story of a refugee from the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda who moves from the streets of New York City to the Harvard school of public health. It’s a journey not so much inspirational as stunningly miraculous, raising questions about the randomness of the help that comes some people’s way, and whether suffering or undeserved grace is our natural lot. And the final chapters, in which Kidder accompanies his protagonist back to Burundi and witnesses his confused anger at those he left behind, reach levels of authorial self-doubt that are as moving as anything this modern master has ever written.
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Runner-up: Stephen King, Under The Dome
King’s Under The Dome is easily the best surprise of the year, an exciting, engaging, and perhaps most importantly, beautifully paced thriller that could easily fit in with King’s strongest work from the early ’80s. The premise has been done before, but the execution more than outweighs any potential complaints of unoriginality. The sudden force field that blocks Chester’s Mill off from the world isn’t as important as the effect that isolation has on locals, the way it allows middling power-grabs to take on momentous importance, and the way the stifling, magnified atmosphere is translated into heroism and hatred in equal turns. Only time will tell whether Dome has the longevity of King’s classics, but at the very least, it’s a reminder of how he earned his place on the bestseller lists: through a storytelling craft so pure that readers can’t wait for the next hit.
Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever
Runner-up: Fred Kaplan, 1959: The Year That Changed Everything
The titular concept is a little loose—not everything covered here started or finished the work claimed for it in that year. Nevertheless, Kaplan, a veteran writer on jazz and modern warfare, smartly encapsulates many streams that would utterly alter American culture during the ’60s, writing sharply and persuasively on civil rights, the space race, nuclear fear, the Beat movement, Vietnam, the Pill, independent filmmaking, conceptual art, adult comedy, and free jazz. Only the Motown chapter feels perfunctory.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock
Runner-up: Brandon Sanderson, Warbreaker
While most fantasy fans looking back at 2009 are bound to think of Sanderson’s work on Robert Jordan’s posthumous conclusion to the Wheel Of Time series, Sanderson’s first release of the year deserves its own recognition. Warbreaker lets Sanderson show off what he does best: inventing a world with its own complex politics and magic system, populating it with people that are rarely what they seem, then pulling it all together with a satisfying conclusion. Beyond shining as a world-building exercise, Warbreaker’s drama is peppered with excellent humor through a mix of witty dialogue and absurd situations. With so much to love, it’s easy to wish for a sequel, but hard to imagine a better ending.
Margaret Atwood, The Year Of The Flood
Runner-up: Peter Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
It’s always something of an event when Last Unicorn author Peter Beagle releases a new work; he’s always been an eclectic, idiosyncratic, and not very prolific writer, and ongoing legal and personal issues have ensured he’s never really held the limelight that would make it easy to get his books to the presses. His latest, the short-story collection We Never Talk About My Brother, isn’t likely to bring him to the world’s attention, but it’s a perfect little assemblage of oddities, a handful of extremely well-realized sketches with unusual, unpredictable endings. The title story—about a force for evil and his mild-mannered opposite-number sibling—is a typical entry, a dark fantasy that transcends its standard plot with deft characterization and a thriller-worthy slow build to climax. But better yet are thoroughly offbeat entries like “Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel,” about an aging artist who finds his muse in an irritable angel with baffling motives. By their nature, short stories have to be economical about plotting and fleet about hooking readers in; this particular set is instantly addictive.
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
John Irving, Last Night In Twisted River
Like all John Irving novels, Last Night In Twisted River is filled with flaws and imperfections. But unlike with much of his output since the ’80s, those flaws and imperfections only make the full work that much more endearing. As always, Irving’s characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, but the fact that he centers this story on a father and son on the run from the law makes the raw, bleeding emotions on display feel less like faux-romanticism and more like the ways real people might react to a life truncated by circumstance. While some of the novel’s vignettes are unwieldy, there are moments of real beauty here that cut to the core of what it means to be alive as well as anything Irving’s ever written.
Arthur Phillips, The Song Is You
Runner-up: Steve Hely, How I Became A Famous Novelist
It may seem like an act of deep cynicism to name a biting satire of publishing, in which one of its would-be darlings exploits the industry’s weaknesses for fortune’s sake, as a standout in a year in which print media shed nearly 90,000 jobs. But only someone who loved books could lay bare the process by which college-application ghostwriter Pete Tarslaw sets out to write the James-Patterson-meets-Paulo-Coelho novel The Tornado Ashes Club, a nonsensical pastiche whose excerpts, along with fatuous blurbs and too-real-to-be-true bestseller lists, act as waystations on the way to Tarslaw’s rise and inevitable fall. Sucker-punching everyone from William Faulkner to Oprah, Famous Novelist’s narrator would be despicable if he weren’t so self-aware, and his misguided conviction fuels a series of Swiftian encounters rounded out by a note-perfect ending affirming and smashing the brass ring he thought he was chasing all along.