Choosing the “best” books of the year is a dangerous game to play. Sci-fi competes with historical fiction, epic novels compete with short story collections; it’s apples and oranges on steroids. So why do we even bother?
The short answer is that we simply love celebrating good books. And while “good” is relative, we believe the following titles will captivate you. Some will keep you awake at night, others will make you snort milk through your nose. These are diverse stories that have one thing in common: they’re worth sharing.
15. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
In Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, Julie Iromuanya constructs a richly characterized, searingly honest and often wildly funny portrayal of immigrant-of-color life in 21st-century America. At the center of the novel stands the titular couple, Nigerian immigrants Job and Ifi Ogbonnaya. The first thing anyone should know about Job—but nearly no one does—is that he is no doctor. By the time Ifi joins him in America through an arranged marriage and moves into his filthy Nebraska apartment, Job has spent years pretending to operate a thriving medical practice, concealing his failure to get through college (let alone medical school) from his family and his more successful Nigerian friends. Iromuanya’s brilliantly rendered narrative cuts deep into the conflicting ambitions, familial expectations and cumbersome cultural baggage of Nigerians in America. She also delivers a stark portrayal of the frustrating indignities of Nigerian immigrants’ everyday life and the strategies for dealing with them. But best of all is Ifi’s journey to self-possession and assertion, all the more remarkable as she discovers confidence and purpose amidst the accumulated wreckage of her hapless husband’s life. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
14. Girl at War by Sara Novi?
One of this year’s most discussed debuts comes from Sara Novi?, a former fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine who has documented the subject of war and its effect on children. With those contributions considered, it makes sense that Girl at War serves as a long-form meditation on the genre. The novel follows Ana Juri?, a 10-year-old girl surviving in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars. What makes young Ana’s story unique is that it’s not concerned with unmasking the horrors of war, as many have repeatedly done. Instead, this book is an exploration of how humans grow, prosper and move on from unthinkable times. —Tyler R. Kane
13. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk
Steer clear of Make Something Up if Chuck Palahniuk’s most infamous tale, “Guts,” gave you a second taste of your last meal. The book collects the Northwest writer’s short fiction over the last decade, which is at its tamest in fauna-centered fables like “How Monkey Got Married, Bought a House and Found Happiness in Orlando” and “Why Coyote Never Had Money for Parking.” But for the rest of us, the meat’s in Palahniuk’s groan-worthy reveals—like “The Toad Prince,” where a young woman finds herself in a scenario somewhere between American Pie and The Thing. Or “The Facts of Life,” where a kid is force-fed a fiery tale of parental romance (a tale that should wind up in no child’s ears, ever). But like Palahniuk’s best work, heaps of satire and commentary rest beneath the shock value—and beyond that, they’re just great to read at Thanksgiving dinner. —Tyler R. Kane
12. The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
Aislinn Hunter teaches literature, but The World Before Us proves that she could teach just about anything. Her psychologically complex characters, her firm yet fluid grasp on history and her understanding of the awkward nooks and crannies of romantic relationships on display in the novel are each a course in themselves. Centering on the long-ago disappearance of a child and the impact it still has on the woman who was babysitting her, the book balloons backward over decades—and even centuries—to weave a story about the persistence of memory and the ghosts who haunt us until we end up ghosts ourselves. —Mack Hayden
11. The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Set in a distant future where technology is extinct and sword fighting is commonplace, The Queen of the Tearling introduced us to Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, the 19-year-old heir to the Tearling throne. Erika Johansen’s sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling, continues to enthrall with its mesmerizing setting and memorable characters. But beyond the adventure of the story rests Tearling’s greatest achievement: a three-dimensional, female protagonist who gets shit done. Outlaw slavery? Check. Defy a brutal warmonger? Check. Make it actually rain? Check. Come for the action, but stay for Kelsea. —Frannie Jackson
10. Disclaimer by Renée Knight
What if you recognized yourself in the pages of a novel that exposed your darkest secret? A secret known to one other soul—and he died 20 years ago. This is the chilling premise of Renée Knight’s debut thriller, Disclaimer, which has already garnered comparisons to Gone Girl. But don’t write off this novel as a domestic noir wannabe; Knight succeeds in elevating the story within the genre, infusing it with a unique flavor that lingers beyond the final page. Dare to plunge into Disclaimer’s icy waters … just don’t expect to resurface unscathed. —Frannie Jackson
9. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Multimedia artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was as self-realized as a debut collection got in 2008. The tales exposed readers to July’s worldview and proved that her artistic visions weren’t only fluid—they were easily transferred across film, digital and print mediums. Much like her films, July’s stories clung to oddball details and weird narration, and her critics weren’t mistaken when they applied words like “precious” to the pieces. But I’m included in a certain crowd that was eager to pass July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, back and forth forever. The First Bad Man tells the story of Cheryl Glickman: a businesswoman, a romantic and a person who thinks she possesses a centuries-old connection with a baby spirit named Kubelko Bondy. After taking in her boss’ pregnant daughter, Cheryl’s domestic life vaults from mother, to lover, to a whole bunch of other Meredith Brooks nouns. But The First Bad Man, as defined as its voice is, also leaves room to explore non-traditional family roles and relationships. Even hopeless romantics will take something away from this single-sitting read. —Tyler R. Kane
8. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Imagine our most precious natural resource has all but dried up. Paolo Bacigalupi writes a near-future where the American Southwest has been utterly ravaged by drought, and states fight over dwindling water stores. Angel Velasquez, the titular “water knife,” lives to provide water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority—by any means necessary. Exploring the desperate ventures people undertake to endure the unthinkable, The Water Knife promises thrills with enough gravity to make you question how far you’d go to survive. —Frannie Jackson