The 17 Best Fiction Books of 2013

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9. The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

Civilization will always have its discontents. It’s a theme often harped on by the literati, and it’s the theme Amy Grace Loyd plays out in microcosm here. The story is set in a tenement hall where order rules and privacy is respected from the top floor to the bottom—until, of course, sexual and destructive impulses kick in after a new tenant’s arrival. From that point onward, everything begins to spiral downward into chaos (or upward into liberation, depending on how you look at it). The Affairs of Others is a book with both grit and optimism, a marriage of modern-day realism and romanticism well worth exploring. — Mack Hayden


8. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

A friend described The Flamethrowers to me as “the feminist Invisible Man,” a summary that isn’t too far from the mark. Rachel Kushner’s second novel takes a seemingly incongruous collection of cultural flotsam and with it crafts a rollicking calliope of a narrative. Anchored by the exploits of Reno, a native of Nevada who moves to New York in order to enter the art world, The Flamethrowers touches on subjects as diverse as motorcycle warfare, tire manufacturing, abstract art, Italian high society and the land speed record. Much of 2013’s internet ink was expended leveling praise on The Flamethrowers, and the novel earned every plaudit. Kushner’s unique talent feeds from her equally unique curiosity, and the results are stunning. — Shane Danaher


7. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

McBride, a journalist and musician, made a major contribution to America’s ongoing discussion of race with his acclaimed 1996 memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. In The Good Lord Bird, McBride tackles similar themes from a totally different angle. This comic novel romps through the adventures of a young boy, recently freed from slavery, with John Brown, the fiery, white abolitionist hanged for trying to incite slave rebellion in the years before the Civil War. Heralded as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the 21st century by critics, it was the surprise winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction. — John Ruch


6. A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

A year when National Security Agency spying proved to be stranger than fiction might sound like a tough time for master spy novelist Le Carré to offer his latest. But A Delicate Truth, released two months before Edward Snowden’s revelations, feels prescient rather than outdated. When an anti-terrorism operation on Gibraltar goes badly wrong, a government employee risks everything as a whistleblower on a tyrannical U.S.-British intelligence conspiracy. Sound familiar? A chilling thriller with a moral core and finely drawn characters, the novel eschews sex and violence for the tense in-between moments—the shadows and doubts that haunt our War on Terror psyche. This Truth hurts so good. — John Ruch


5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman  weaves the wonder of fairy tales with the chills of nightmares in his newest book for adults. A hauntingly beautiful tale of childhood adventures, The Ocean at the End of the Lane pits otherworldly forces against a child’s innocence. Both magical and heartbreaking, Gaiman’s novel will enchant you. — Frannie Jackson


4. Tenth of December by George Saunders

Traumatized veterans, emotionally-scarred prisoners, suicidal cancer patients, suburban dads trying to satisfy their pre-teen daughters’ expensive whims—these are just some of the characters who populate the dark (and often darkly amusing) world of George Saunders’ imagination. Amid the bleak and troubling scenarios (“The Semplica Girl Diaries” posits a world where immigrant girls are literally strung out on wires as lawn decorations for wealthy households), there’s a gripping humanity that underlies every tale, as unsettling as they may be. In a way, Saunders’ warped world is very much our own. — Jessica Gentile


3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt made a name for herself with 1992’s suspenseful and smart The Secret History. The Goldfinch proves her ability to keep readers hanging by a thread hasn’t waned at all in over twenty years. At almost eight hundred pages, this may well be one of the longest coming-of-age stories ever written, but it’s a story ably told through Tartt’s seamless characterization and plotting. This tale about art becomes a work of art itself in the telling. — Mack Hayden


2. Dear Life by Alice Munro

Alice Munro continues her streak as one of contemporary literature’s most masterful storytellers. While technically published in 2012, Dear Life truly emerged victorious in 2013. Considering it won the Nobel Prize in Literature and garnered a reprint, we’d be remiss to omit it from this list after such a stellar year. Much like in life, there is no dearth of love, loss, guilt and shame in this collection of domestic tragedies. Packing an emotional punch to the heart, Dear Life proves Munro’s cultural relevance only increases with time. — Jessica Gentile


1. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

No one combines the fantastical with the mundane quite like Karen Russell. An old couple bickers in the Italian countryside—they just happen to be vampires. Horses graze on a farm—they just happen to be the reincarnated souls of former U.S. presidents. The stories in Vampires portray ordinary life with an otherworldly twist in a fascinating and unexpected way. And yet these haunting tales are written with such clarity and recognizable perspectives that they manage the greatest feat of all: in the surreal, we see ourselves. — Jessica Gentile