Salon’s What to Read Awards: Top critics choose the best books of 2013

Will it be Donna Tartt or Rachel Kushner? We've polled the best reviewers and compiled the definitive year in books

Topics: Books, Best of 2013, What to Read, What To Read Awards, donna tartt, Rachel Kushner, Jesmyn Ward, lawrence wright, Best books of 2013, george packer, Editor's Picks,

Salon's What to Read Awards: Top critics choose the best books of 2013

A lot of publications feature lists of the best books of the year, but we like to do something a little bit different: Poll some of our favorite book critics to come up with some kind of consensus on what you should read. It’s our way of trying to make sense of the ceaseless barrage of lists, which seems to begin earlier and earlier each year.

So without further ado, here’s the second annual What to Read Awards with the year’s best nonfiction and fiction, debuts and overlooked books, unlikable characters and books most likely to join the canon.

The What to Read Awards critics’ poll of 2013′s top 10 books:

1. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
2. ”The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner
3. “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
4. ”Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala
5. “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright
6. ”A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki
7. ”Tenth of December” by George Saunders
8. ”A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
9. “Five Days at Memorial” by Sheri Fink
10. “The Unwinding” by George Packer

Our critics and their ballots:

Laura Miller, Salon



People like to complain about the state of contemporary literature, but I can only assume they don’t read it very widely. (Also, people do love grousing.) Winnowing down my list of the year’s best books to just 10 — five fiction and five nonfiction — is always agonizing and leaves me with an irrational desire to mention all the ones I couldn’t fit in (for one reason or another, usually because they were written by personal friends) in the introduction. Fiction in particular gave me so much delight this year that I felt carried back to the great reading binges of my youth, at age 8, when I first discovered children’s novels, and in my college years, a time of epic immersion in the classics. Nonfiction brought me back to earth and sobered me up whenever it seemed like I’d become too drunk on the lives and loves of imaginary people, but that doesn’t mean it was any less thrilling or transporting, although it was often more illuminating. Here are my absolute favorites.

FICTION

The Flamethrowers“ by Rachel Kushner
The story of a young woman drifting through the New York art scene of the 1970s, this novel crackles with authority, intelligence and bravura set pieces, such as a description of wiping out while setting a motorcycle speed record in the salt flats of northwestern Utah. Reno, the main character, wanders among the era’s aesthetic and political radicals in America and Italy, trying — perhaps — to resolve herself into an identity amounting to more than hanger-on and ideal listener. Truth be told, she’s surrounded by some really great talkers, and through their voices Kushner, a ferociously talented newcomer (this is her second novel) explores the way outsiders tried to burn down the established order during that unsettled decade.

The Goldfinch“ by Donna Tartt
A boy loses his mother and surreptitiously obtains a priceless painting during a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this luxuriantly Dickensian novel, Tartt spins out Theo Decker’s subsequent adventures: as the guest of a posh but slightly off Park Avenue clan, then stranded by his feckless gambler father in a near-empty Las Vegas housing subdivision and finally taken in by an unworldly antiques restorer who teaches him the trade. Tartt’s great creation in this book is Boris, son of a Russian gangster and Theo’s erstwhile best friend; her theme is art and its relationship to our humanity. But the star attraction here is the storytelling, richly evocative of all the enveloping reading experiences of a bookish lifetime, and sheer pleasure from beginning to end.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia“ by Mohsin Hamid
The framing device of this novel — a self-help manual — and its second-person narration, might sound like too much of a conceit, but Hamid makes it a supple tool in the service of this rags-to-riches tale of the things humans think they want, and the things that might really make them happy. The setting — an unnamed country that resembles Pakistan — is less significant than the novel’s eternal themes of struggle and survival, from “your” village boyhood witnessing your mother’s death from a treatable illness to your success at wedging yourself into a tiny chink in the economy and then forcibly widening it into a profitable niche. There will be love lost and found, a family formed and dissolved, trust and betrayal, tenderness and violence. By the time the novel ends, at a mere 240 pages, you’ll be left breathless at how much life Hamid has captured within it.

Life After Life“ by Kate Atkinson
Ursula Todd is either a woman who gets the chance to live her life over and over until she finally gets it right or that rare person who has intimations of the multiverse spawned when a small decision — to walk home or to take a different set of stairs — changes the course of events in unforeseen ways. Whatever the nature of her gift, Ursula, born in an English country house in 1910 and eventually a witness to two World Wars, becomes aware of the turning points in her own history and learns to deliberately reroute it. This means that Atkinson restarts the narrative again and again, yet the result is expansive rather than repetitive. With trapeze-artist panache, she releases plot lines into the oblivion of one past life only to retrieve them, to the reader’s appreciative gasps, in a later one. It becomes possible to see how every choice Ursula makes precludes, for better or worse, some other life, a mixture of joy and suffering. Each of these lives is precious in its own way, even if only one is really and truly her own.

The Luminaries“ by Eleanor Catton
Written in the style of the 19th-century “sensation novels” of Wilkie Collins, Catton’s Booker Prize-winning behemoth can be read both as an uncanny modern evocation of the delights of Victorian fiction and as an extraordinarily entertaining experiment in form. The story, set in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, features the death of a prospector in a remote hut, the apparent suicide by opium of a mining town’s most popular prostitute, the blackmailing of a rising politician, the suspiciously hasty sale of a plot of land and a fortune in gold whose provenance cannot be determined. The unfolding of this yarn follows a complicated pattern based on astronomical charts, with chapters that are each half as long as the chapter preceding it. But sorting all that out is entirely optional the first time around. (As one of the Booker judges noted, “We read it three times and each time we dug into it the yields were extraordinary.”) Come for the richly textured mystery; whatever further treasure you choose to find is entirely up to you.

NONFICTION

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief“ by Lawrence Wright
Exposés can be trenchant and thorough and necessary, but they are seldom page-turners. Here’s the exception, mostly because Wright is a gifted reporter and writer but also because the story of L.Ron Hubbard, his concocted religion and the secretive church he built to promulgate it, is so strange and scandalous that it almost defies belief, a real-life potboiler. Wright’s particular focus is Scientology’s campaign to court, convert and cultivate celebrities like Tom Cruise, but all of it — from Hubbard’s history as a fabulist and late-life eccentricities to the church’s history of subjecting members to abusive treatment to the violent outbursts of its its current megalomaniacal leader, David Miscavige — is both alarming and fascinating. Even those whose lives have been untouched by Scientology will find Wright’s saga a sobering reminder of how one man’s personal damage can, if transmitted with sufficient charisma and intuitive skill, infect tens of thousands of people.

The Heart of Everything that Is“ by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Red Cloud, the only Native American commander to defeat the United States in a war, was a Lakota chieftain who forced the government to agree to abandon the Bozeman Trail and three forts built along it in 1868. While this book is partly an exciting account of that conflict, particularly the Sioux victory in a battle near Fort Phil Kearny, it is much more than a military history. Drury and Clavin evoke both the culture of the Great Plains tribes in all their flinty grandeur and the valiant, vulnerable communities that formed in outposts like Fort Phil Kearny, each with equal sympathy but without starry-eyed romanticism. Red Cloud’s War, as the conflict is called, has become an inexplicably half-forgotten episode in American history, and the authors base their book on a recently discovered memoir dictated by the elderly Red Cloud, then living on a reservation, to white interlocutors. Nevertheless, it’s the dramatic, atmospheric rendering of this material, rather than any documentary revelations, that makes “The Heart of Everything That Is” so indelible. You can almost smell the pines of the Black Hills, feel the icy wind tearing down from Canada across the prairie and hear the hooves of the buffalo pounding the earth.

Paleofantasy“ by Marlene Zuk
Evolution has become an inescapable part of the conversation when it comes to everything from how society ought to be run to what a healthy person should eat. Yet as Zuk, a biology professor, points out in this vigorous, wide-ranging and witty treatise, many of the people who invoke evolution don’t actually understand it. A major target of this lucid work of popular science are the various “paleo” movements based on (as Zuk reveals) flawed notions of how our hunter gatherer ancestors lived, but other misunderstandings of this process of evolution get explained as well. It turns out that battling common misperceptions is an excellent way to lay out how evolution, including such under-discussed factors as genetic drift, really does work, and Zuk proves to be the ideal instructor.

The Unwinding“ by George Packer
There’s no shortage of opinion out there when it comes to the subject of what’s gone wrong in America over the past 35 years, but in this important work, George Packer employs a radical approach: listening. A collection of portraits whose primary subjects include an African-American factory worker turned organizer in Ohio, a disillusioned lawyer who drifts from public service to finance and back again, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with extreme libertarian beliefs, a scion of North Carolina tobacco farmers trying to make it as an entrepreneur and, in one particularly memorable sequence, the city of Tampa, “The Unwinding” is narrative rather than polemical or analytic. Packer took as his model the “U.S.A.” trilogy by John Dos Passos, three novels that use a third-person choral method to portray American life in the early 20th century. In the space created by Packer’s refusal to tell us what it all means and in the texture of lives that are by turns touching, alarming, tragic and triumphant, something that looks a lot like the truth becomes visible at last.

Wave“ by Sonali Deraniyagala
The bare sketch of what happen to Deraniyagala makes “Wave” sound way too difficult to read: While on a family vacation in Sri Lanka, she lost her husband, parents and two young sons to the 2004 tsunami. No doubt anticipating such hesitation, Deraniyagala, an economist at the University of London and Columbia University who was married to a British man, keeps her memoir short, yet in this handful of spare and radiant pages, something miraculous occurs. The unflinching, unsentimental story of her grief — beginning in a battered rural hospital where her own humanity seems to have been blasted away by the waters, through a period when she became obsessed with her childhood home (since sold to strangers) in Sri Lanka to the empty London house filled with reminders of her family to the tendril of new life that emerges in New York — gradually becomes a thing of beauty as well as pain. Through Deraniyagala’s consummate art, the lost ones live for the first time in the minds of complete strangers like you and me, and we come to love and cherish them, too.

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” simply because I enjoyed it so thoroughly. Reading it — or, rather, submerging myself in it — reminded me of a rough summer during which “David Copperfield” was my main obsession and refuge.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, “Wave.” I’m still astonished that she had no background in creative writing when she sat down to write about that most difficult subject, grief, and yet produced such a perfect book.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

I adored Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens” for its depiction of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s and other New York radical milieus, and for the galvanic mother-daughter relationship at its center.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

George Packer’s “The Unwinding.”

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

A real person, Thomas Day, who in 1769 obtained two little girls from a British orphanage and tried to raise them to be his ideal wife. (He only wanted one wife, but figured he’d toss the extra once he decided which he liked best.) His story is told in a wonderful book, “How to Create the Perfect Wife” by Wendy Moore. Of course he was a monster of selfishness, but his complete lack of self-awareness about that is probably a lesson to us all.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I believe Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” is a groundbreaking book in its seamless fusion of formal experiment with narrative pleasure. Before reading it, I didn’t think that was even possible, and I look forward to seeing where the coming generation of brilliant younger writers like Catton and Rachel Kushner will take the novel.

Laura Miller is Salon’s book critic.

Daniel D’Addario

1. “The Flamethrowers,” Rachel Kushner
2. “Forty-one False Starts,” Janet Malcolm
3. “Give Me Everything You Have,” James Lasdun
4. “Autobiography,” Morrissey
5. “The Unwinding,” George Packer
6. “Taipei,” Tao Lin
7. “The Skies Belong to Us,” Brendan I. Koerner
8. “Tampa,” Alissa Nutting
9. “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright
10. “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” Karen Joy Fowler

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

If “The Flamethrowers” weren’t the best book of the year, it’d still be the book of the year for the debates it catalyzed over gender — Rachel Kushner’s, her protagonist’s, her readers’. But readers coming to the book in the new year, after the conversation has moved on a bit, will have much to reward them entirely unrelated to the question of what sort of books women can or should be writing, or what sort of books critics are most apt to reward. The book’s depiction of Italian Futurism and its long tail were striking (and new to me). But where the novel most shone was in its portrayal of protagonist Reno’s wandering through the art scene of 1977; characters one-upped one another, had strange and elliptical conversations, and struggled to create work with real meaning. “The Flamethrowers” is that work, a piece of art that will endure.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

Morrissey’s “Autobiography” is the highest-ranked on my list, but it feels like such a continuation of his lyrics that it’s a bit unfair to call it a debut. Alissa Nutting’s “Tampa” was a debut that felt completely sui generis, a blast of scary confidence that felt more like introducing an entirely new way of thinking about writing than introducing a new writer.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

It felt as though a new novel by J. M. Coetzee ought to have merited more attention, but given its deep strangeness and its author’s relative reclusiveness, “The Childhood of Jesus” wasn’t as easy to write about as other literary novels this fall. I’m still thinking about it. I’d also advocate for Nancy Jo Sales’s “The Bling Ring,” marketed as a movie tie-in book but in fact a strange, sad story of celebrity, upward mobility or lack thereof, and the folly of youth.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

The true-crime book “Lost Girls” by Robert Kolker gets bogged down in a series of dead-ends in its second half, but the first half, depicting five girls soon to be killed, all forced by circumstance into prostitution, gets at a sense of national decline and the collapse of the American dream more precisely than the operatic “The Unwinding.”

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year?

The unseen narrator of the political narrative “Double Down,” unctuously giving every player in D.C. room to unload and passing their scurrilous rumors along in a breathless, florid tone. I couldn’t resist listening to him. But he’s a real jerk, and a drama queen to boot.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I think “Taipei” both documents the manner in which the Internet has changed writing and points a way forward for Twitter-addled kids interested in literature but bored by old forms. It may not change the novel entirely, but even if it doesn’t, as a moment-to-moment documentation of experience told completely straight, it’s the book people will read about being young in 2013.

Daniel D’Addario is Salon’s entertainment reporter.

Mark Athitakis

1. “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” by Howard Norman
2. “Five Days at Memorial” by Sheri Fink
3. “Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel
4. “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud
5. “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
6. “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright
7. “Eleven Days” by Lea Carpenter
8. “Enon” by Paul Harding
9. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
10. “Necessary Errors” by Caleb Crain

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

I resist memoirs: Even the ones that haven’t been tarred with accusations of fakery tend to feel untrustworthy to me. But I trust Howard Norman’s “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” because he’s never pleading for my sympathy. When he writes about a murder-suicide that occurred in his home, or a brother living on the lam or a lover who dies in a plane crash, he registers the appropriate feelings of shock and disappointment, but also a curious kind of wonderment — what is this strange thing, life, that brings us to points like this?

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

I’m a great fan of Elliott Holt’s “You Are One of Them,” a smart, tricky novel about ’80s DC, ’90s Moscow, and the kind of identity crises that seemed unique to the Cold War but, in Holt’s hands, feel universal.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Tim Z. Hernandez’s “Mañana Means Heaven” is a well-turned novel about Bea Franco, the model for the “Mexican girl” in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Hernandez thoughtfully imagines how the brief fling between Franco and Kerouac played out, emphasizing that while hitting the highway was easy enough for a young white man from the East Coast, it meant something very different to a young Latina mother in central California.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

“Five Days at Memorial” is a bracing, harrowing account of what happened at one New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina. But it’s also a story about infrastructure, politics, healthcare, cities, lawsuits, the media and especially ethics — conditional ones, hard-line religious ones and everything in between. I think it’s one of those books people will keep turning to for a vision of the American civic mind in the early 21st century.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

This may not be what you’re asking for, exactly, but I know which character I liked least: Mae Holland, the hero of Dave Eggers’ “The Circle.” Every dystopian novel has that moment when the scales fall off a character’s eyes and he realizes Just How Awful this brave new world is. Dim-bulb Mae is forever oblivious to the creepily rapid change the beloved, rapacious Google/Facebook/Twitter company she works for is engineering, until the plot demands she smarten up — proof that Eggers is delivering more of a lecture than a novel.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Though I don’t think it’s any kind of classic, I think people will still be talking about J.J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s “S.,” in much the same way people will still pick apart plot points from “Lost.” But I think it’ll also stand as a signature moment in publishing: For years pundits have asserted that books need to be more book-ish, and S.’s marginalia, postcards, and ephemera are audacious and surely inspiring for a host of writers and designers. It’s set the standard for the next generation of very bookish books.

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who’s spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Washington City Paper and many more publications.

Eric Banks

Top 10— No. 1 followed, by alphabetical order:

1. “The Infatuations” by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
2. “Confronting the Classics” by Mary Beard<
3. “Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985” selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Michael McLaughlin
4. “Picasso and Truth” by T.J. Clark
5. “Whitey Bulger” by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy
6. “Miss Anne of Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance” by Carla Kaplan
7. “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” by Ira Katznelson
8. “Forty One False Starts” by Janet Malcolm
9. “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” by Megan Marshall
10. “Country Girl” by Edna O’Brien

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

I’m tempted to name a lot of books—from Hilton Als’s “White Girls” to Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers”—that I didn’t feel comfortable enough to list since I still think one ought not to plug work written by friends or acquaintances. Given that, it’s a very rich year in fiction and nonfiction; Marías tops my list because his novel is great in its own right and a gateway to one of the most seductive and intelligent voices in fiction working anywhere today.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

It’s only truly a ‘debut’ by being a first work of fiction, but Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors” (Penguin) was a marvelous and assured debut novel.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

There are two: Christa Wolf’s “City of Angels” (FSG) is the final novel from a writer whose reputation unfairly hasn’t survived a complex and imperfect life. It deserved greater attention. James McCourt’s “Lasting City: (Norton)—a remarkable memoir by a criminally underrated figure—fared even worse, hardly getting a review at all. Both absences testify loudly to the decline in our literary culture.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

In its unhappy dissent from the social-media status quo, Jonathan Franzen’s “The Kraus Project,” which I reluctantly left off my list, was less a voice in the wilderness than its author imagined it to be. At least in its deep sense of discomfort with our social and technological landscape, I think Franzen tapped into something I think a lot of Americans sense in their bones but haven’t yet articulated.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

I know this is supposed to apply to fiction, but I honestly found the subject of “Whitey Bulger,” my guilty pleasure of the summer, to be vastly more compelling and loathsome than anything in a novel from the past year.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Oddly enough, I think that the one book I’d feel most sure about in canonization nominations is T.J. Clark’s “Picasso and Truth,” which throws an entirely new light on how the story of Picasso’s classical cubism and the subsequent monstrosities of the ‘20s and ‘30s might in the future be told. It is a model of engaged and critical cultural history.

Eric Banks is the director of The New York Institute of the Humanities. From 2011 to 2013, he served as president of the National Book Critics Circle. In 2003, he relaunched Bookforum and served as its editor in chief for five years.

Daniel Levin Becker

1. “Barrel of Monkeys” by Florent Ruppert & Jérôme Mulot
2. “Traveling Sprinkler” by Nicholson Baker
3. “Phantom Camera” by Jaswinder Bolina
4. “A Questionable Shape” by Bennett Sims
5. “Fondly” by Colin Winnette
6. “Poems (1962-1997)” by Robert Lax
7. “Cartwheel” by Jennifer DuBois
8. “Hawthorn & Child” by Keith Ridgway
9. “The Virgins” by Pamela Erens
10. “X” by Dan Chelotti

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“Barrel of Monkeys” (published in 2006 but only translated, from crass French into a different but equivalently crass English, this year) is so blackly funny, so morbid and joyously awful, that it would be completely appalling if it weren’t carried off just right. Plus it was the first book I picked up this year with truly no inkling of what was about to happen to me.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

“A Questionable Shape.” Debutnovelness oozes from its every pore, but the quality of the whole keeps it in line.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

“In Pieces” by Marion Fayolle: simple and quiet and troubling in its curiosity about the world. Not unlike an early Robert Lax poem, come to think of it, except with creepy mannequin-people instead of words.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

You’re trying to get me to say “The Circle,” aren’t you. No dice! Lots of books swung pretty hard at that particular fence, but I’ll go with “Tenth of December” by George Saunders.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year?

Celeste Price from “Tampa” by Alissa Nutting. Rigged election.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Shot in the dark: “American Dream Machine” by Matthew Specktor.

Daniel Levin Becker is reviews editor of The Believer.

Ron Charles

My favorite 2013 novels at this precise moment:

1. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” by Anthony Marra
2. “The Son,” by Philipp Meyer
3. “The Woman Upstairs,” by Claire Messud
4. “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner
5. “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” by Bob Shacochis
6. “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt
7. “Want Not,” by Jonathan Miles
8. “The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride
9. “The Accursed,” by Joyce Carol Oates
10. “Brewster,” by Mark Slouka

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Anthony Marra’s debut novel about a village in war-torn Chechnya affected me more deeply than any other novel I read this year. This young author’s prose is gorgeous, and his story is heartbreaking.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

See No. 1.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

The minute you claim a book has been “overlooked,” a dozen people indignantly remind you that So-n-So reviewed it on the front of the Such-n-such, so I’m reluctant to go there…. But do look for “The Antagonist,” by Canadian writer Lynn Coady. It’s an epistolary novel made up entirely of email from an angry man who has discovered than an old college friend has written a novel about him. I loved it.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

In so many interesting ways, Jonathan Miles’s “Want Not” explores America’s culture of waste – the things, people and ideas that we carelessly throw out (or hoard). It’s a brilliant, witty, finally poignant novel that reminds me of what Jonathan Franzen did for pharmaceutical America in “The Corrections.”

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

I will quietly avoid wading into the over-discussed issue of likability….

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I read many wonderful novels this year, but predicting a book’s position two decades out is almost impossible since that depends on the winds of public taste and, to some degree, on how schools and colleges draw up their reading lists. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs” is still being read in 2033. To me, it already reads like a feminist classic on the order of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea.”

Ron Charles is Deputy Editor of The Washington Post Book World.

Maureen Corrigan

1. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
2. “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” by Adelle Waldman
3. “Tenth of December” by George Saunders
4. “Book of Ages” by Jill Lepore
5. “Shocked” by Patricia Volk
6. “Miss Anne in Harlem” by Carla Kaplan
7. “Someone” by Alice McDermott
8. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
9. “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
10. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

I loved the sweep, humor, ingenuity and heart of “The Goldfinch.” No one other writer will elicit the adjective “Dickensian” from me for at least a decade–Tartt owns it.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

Adelle Waldman’s “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”–hands down.  She infiltrates the brain of that guy–”Mr. Sensitive”–who all too many of us literary women have met at some time in our lives.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Hmm. Don’t know.  If readers want a superb mystery by, yes, yet another Nordic writer, “The Dinosaur Feather” by S. J. Gazan is the weirdest and most inventive mystery novel I’ve read in ages.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

I think “The Book of Jezebel” by Anna Holmes gives readers a sense of contemporary feminists’ wry-and-pointed take on America in 2013.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

Nate Piven, the main character of “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”  A must to avoid.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

This is a tough one.  I tend to think that “Miss Anne in Harlem” may be the winner here.  Kaplan introduced me to a history of white women in the Harlem Renaissance and I could see the book making it into a lot of college courses.

Maureen Corrigan is book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and the author of “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading!”

Roxane Gay

1. “Tampa” by Alissa Nutting
2. “Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi
3. “The Book of My Lives” by Aleksandar Hemon
4. “Unmastered: A Book on Desire” by Katherine Angel
5. “The Isle of Youth” by Laura van den Berg
6. “Alone With Other People” by Gabby Bess
7. “Meaty” by Samantha Irby
8. “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
9. “Long Division” by Kiese Laymon
10. “Milk & Filth” by Carmen Gimenez Smith

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“Tampa” is audacious, brash, repulsive, terrifying. I cannot stop thinking about it and I don’t think I want to.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

The strongest debut was “Meaty” by Samantha Irby.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

“Searching for Zion” by Emily Raboteau definitely deserves more attention. It’s a memoir about a search for home that is also a strong cultural examination of race and religion. I’d also add “The Virgins” by Pamela Erens. This was such a lush novel, and one I’ve found myself re-reading quite a bit.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

Kiese Laymon’s “Long Division” goes a long way toward encapsulating America and both the strength and fragility of this country right now.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

Aren’t all characters unlikable in one way or another? At least I hope they are. I don’t really have an answer to this question because I don’t think it’s useful to traffic in literary likability.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

It’s hard to say which book will enter the canon because each of the books in my top ten have the potential for longevity. If I must choose, I’d say “Men We Reaped” is the book we’ll still be talking about in twenty years.

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. Her first book, “Ayiti,” was a collection of poetry and short stories. She is the coeditor of PANK. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University.

Rigoberto González

1. “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth L. Ozeki
2. “Mañana Means Heaven” by Tim Z. Hernández
3. “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala
4. “The Black Russian” by Vladimir Alexandrov
5. “Her” by Christa Parravani
6. “Lotería” by Mario Alberto Zambrano
7. “She Has A Name” by Kamilah Aisha Moon
8. “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
9. “The Devil in Silver” by Victor LaValle
10. “Snow Hunters” by Paul Yoon

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

Ozeki’s hefty novel was nonetheless a page-turner. The book ebbs and flows between two women on two continents, one of whom may have perished in Japan’s tsunami of 2011. In her search for the truth, the protagonist on the American continent must swim through a sea of information and in the process begins to chart her own place in the broken world. Exquisite storytelling.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

Elliott Holt’s “You Are One of Them.” The writing–superb. The plot–stunning. The characterizations–flawless. A first-book author? Admirable.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Rachel Zucker’s “MOTHERs.” Books released late in the year tend to fall through the cracks so I hope readers and reviewers won’t miss out on this hilarious yet touching memoir about mothers, mothering and, yes, maternal madness.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

Richard Rodriguez’s “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.” It explores and critiques the challenges to faith, identity and sanity in the current solipsistic climate we live in.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

Nora Eldridge of Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs.” This was one of the most infuriating reading experiences I’ve ever had, and yet, strangely, I was spellbound watching Nora’s hunger for love grow into obsession and fantasy. She was quite unlikable, but undoubtedly memorable.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I believe James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird” has joined the ranks of such classics as Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, like these other novels, McBride’s book was officially anointed with the Pulitzer Prize.

Rigoberto González is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine and on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Laurie Hertzel

1. “Going Clear,” by Lawrence Wright
2. “TransAtlantic,” by Colum McCann
3. “Someone,” by Alice McDermott
4. “Tenth of December,” by George Saunders
5. “Thank You for Your Service,” David Finkel
6. “Five Days at Memorial,” by Sheri Fink
7. “The Country Girl,” by Edna O’Brien
8. “Stealing Sugar from the Castle,” by Robert Bly
9. “The Home Jar,” stories by Nancy Zafris
10. “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” by Anya Von Bremzen

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

I am so wary of top-ten lists and best-of-the-year pronouncements; I have not read everything! I am not even aware of everything!  I know I am leaving out or forgetting about some wonderful books by smaller publishers, or books the publisher didn’t happen to send me, or books I simply didn’t have time to read… OK, OK, enough dithering, Hertzel. I picked “Going Clear” as my No. 1 book because I was blown away by the incredible reportage, the clear prose, the meticulous detail, and the utterly scrupulous fairness that Lawrence Wright brought to his history of the Church of Scientology. And it is a history, much more than an expose-Wright doesn’t write with the macho attitude of “I’m gonna blow the lid off this story!,” but with an intense, unblinking curiosity about how the place works and why it is the way it is. It was a riveting, appalling, incredible read.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

The books I loved are all so different from each other-Paul Yoon’s brief and quiet “Snow Hunters.”  Ethan Rutherford’s extremely strange and imaginative “The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories” (but I can’t choose Rutherford, because he writes book reviews for me and that would be a conflict of interest).  ”The Orchardist,” by Amanda Coplin, historical fiction set in the American West.  But I have to go with “The Golem and the Jinni,” by Helene Wacker, a big fat magical novel that weaves mythology and history with a fabulous, page-turning plot. It was an extraordinary, completely original book.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention?  Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

“Consolations of the Forest,” by Sylvain Tesson, was probably my favorite read of the year, a memoir about going off to live in a cabin in the Siberian taiga for most of a winter and part of a summer. I’m kind of a hermit at heart myself, and I loved reading about Tesson’s days and weeks of solitude, the utterly natural way he took to the forest, spending hours staring at a frozen Lake Baikal, or snowshoeing up past the treeline in thigh-deep snow. He encountered some wonderful characters, he acquired two dogs, he drank a lot of vodka, more than seems humanly possible, and had his heart broken, long-distance (and his recollections of his former girlfriend were both fleeting and beautiful). I never got tired of his many and varied descriptions of ice and snow.

Another book I must mention is “Wave,” by Sonali Deraniyagala, a memoir of the 2004 tsunami, which washed away her husband, her children, and her parents. It is an excruciating read, a howl of pain and anguish, absolutely the saddest book I’ve read in years. It is not fun to read. I’m not even sure I can recommend it, it is so painful. But it is an extraordinary document, this book of love and utter loss, and incredibly moving.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

In many ways, Lawrence Wright’s investigation into the Church of Scientology wove together the cult of celebrity, the greed-run-amok, and the sort of clueless groping for faith that seems to define our times.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year?

That’s a hard one for me to answer, since I primarily read nonfiction. So would it be Adolf Hitler, who figured in any number of books this year? Or David Miscavige, who took over the reins of the Church of Scientology from its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and who seems to have a bloodless knack for tracking down people who don’t want to be tracked down, and disappearing others-including his own wife?

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

“The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride. It will be read side-by-side with “Huckleberry Finn” in classrooms across America far into the future. Those lucky kids.

Laurie Hertzel is books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.”

Marjorie Kehe

1. “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton
2. “The Unwinding” by George Packer
3. “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
4. “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
5. “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki
6. “Five Days at Memorial” by Sheri Fink
7. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
8. “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala
9. “Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
10. “Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

The book that hit me the hardest this year was definitely “Wave,” the memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala about the loss of her entire family – husband, two sons, and both parents – in the December, 2004 tsunami. That anyone could experience a loss of that magnitude, and then distill her experience into so beautiful and ultimately affirmative book was amazing to me.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” was a pretty amazing first novel, particularly considering the author’s remarkable ability to take us so movingly inside a place and conflict that is not his own.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

We didn’t put “Anne Frank: The Biography” by Melissa Muller on our “best of” list. It’s not a new book but it has been republished with a significant amount of new material. This is a comprehensive, nuanced portrait of Anne Frank, her family, and her world. We may all think that there’s nothing new to be learned from the Anne Frank story, but this book proves us wrong. Of truly new books, I also loved “Shakespeare Saved My Life” by Laura Bates, an amazing narrative about teaching Shakespeare to prisoners in solitary confinement. This true story speaks powerfully both to the value of every single human being and to the capacity of literature to uplift and enrich human experience.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

I think I have to mention two books here, which serve as bookends. On the one hand, there’s “The Unwinding” by George Packer which examines Americans struggling to find their place in a changing world and economy. Then there’s “This Town” by New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich which tells the story of politicos and their compatriots, using Washington as a setting for self-enrichment. It’s disturbing but instructive to read these two books back to back.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year?

I’m saying this with a bit of a smile but I think that if you’re a book lover and avid bookstore browser (and I’m guilty as charged) you might be tempted to answer: the Amazon portrayed in “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” by Brad Stone.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I think it’s safe to say that in 2033 and behind, readers will still be enjoying and discussing Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAdam.” I say that in part because her reputation is such that we know that Atwood’s works are not going away. And “MaddAdam” stands among the best of them.

Marjorie Kehe is the Christian Science Monitor’s Books editor.

Kathryn Schulz

1. “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner
2. “Submergence” by J.M. Ledgard
3. “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton
4. “Red Doc” by Anne Carson
5. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
6. “Sea of Hooks” by Lindsay Hill
7. “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
8. “Tenth of December” by George Saunders
9. “To the End of June” by Cris Beam
10. “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

I explain it in many more sentences over at New York Magazine, but “The Flamethrowers” is just tremendous. It has exactly the heat and energy suggested by its title, and also that rare quality—instantly identifiable, but difficult to describe; a kind of forcefulness, an upward jump in valence from the merely very good—that makes me know right away I’ll read everything an author writes. If New York City went dark today, as it did during the 1970s blackout that plays a role in this book, Kushner has the wattage to singlehandedly light it back up again.

 2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is so good it made my Top 10 list. But I can’t in good conscience stop there, because I really loved Hanya Yanigahari’s “The People in the Trees” (exceptionally interesting, and bold as heck for a first novel), and also Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors,” which is controlled and subtle and full of lovely sentences.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Lore Segal’s “Half the Kingdom.” It’s a slender little thing, but so is the splinter in your finger and the line of light under the door, and her book feels like both. It’s so dark and funny and impossible to pin down; is this a book about conspiracies or about dementia? Are we in surreal-land, or is this just what getting older will actually feel like? As 2013 paranoid-fantasy stories go, I’d rank Segal’s above Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” (although, for the record, I do generally love his work).

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

Tricky to answer, because one of the better things about America is how stubbornly unencapsulatable it is; I mean, how constituted of wildly varying experiences. That said, Chimimanda Adichie’s “Americanah” is by far the best book I’ve read about race in contemporary America: funny, astute, challenging, deadly right. George Saunders has a killer ear for our national argot; he always reminds me of those great opening words of “Underworld,” “He speaks in your voice, American.” Cris Beam’s “To the End of June” (about our foster care system), David Finkel’s “Thank You for Your Service” (about the experience of Iraq war veterans), and Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” (about the crises besetting a hospital during Hurricane Katrina): tragically, all of those are profoundly American books, too. And I’m inclined to agree with the British review that saw in Lawrence Wright’s history of scientology “a neat reflection of the worst aspects of American culture.” (Incidentally, every book in this paragraph damn near made my Top 10 list.)

 5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

I vaguely recall that last year you asked about the most likable character, and in answer to that, I’d be seriously tempted to cite Io, the pure-white stoner muskox from Anne Carson’s “Red Doc>,” whom I loved, and cannot get out of my mind. But as for most dislikable—hmm. Does L. Ron Hubbard count?

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Aspiring writers in the year 2033 would do well to sit down and read a bunch of Janet Malcolm, and I loved the essays in her “Forty-One False Starts.” And Pynchon, of course, has already been canonized, so to speak, so “Bleeding Edge” will eddy around in the literary streams of the future, though I don’t think it will stand out as one of his major works.

Kathryn Schulz is the book critic for New York Magazine and author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.” In 2012, she won the National Book Critic Circle’s Nona Balakian Prize for Excellence in Reviewing.

David Ulin

Top 10, not in order of preference

1. “Brown Dog: Novellas” by Jim Harrison
2. “Darling” by Richard Rodriguez
3. “The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit
4. “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner
5. “The Great War” by Joe Sacco
6. “Harvest” by Jim Crace
7. “Never Built Los Angeles” by Greg Goldin & Sam Lubell
8. “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki
9. “Tenth of December” by George Saunders
10. “White Girls” by Hilton Als

1. Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

My number one book of the year is either Ruth Ozeki’s novel “A Tale for the Time Being” or Hilton Als’ “White Girls.” It’s impossible to choose. I love the former for its wisdom, its love of storytelling and the risks it takes; I love the latter for its expansive reimagining of criticism and how it can transform the way we see the world.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

The strongest debut of the year was Paul Kwiatkowski’s “And Every Day Was Overcast,” a novel in vignettes and photographs about the dead-end lives of Florida teens.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

The book that deserves more attention is Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy’s “Whitey Bulger,” a true crime book that becomes a lavish social history of Boston, post-World War II.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

I don’t think of books as encapsulating anything other than themselves: the points-of-view of their authors, the process of wrestling with whatever problems and questions they pose. In that sense, I suppose, all of these books encapsulate America, or a certain set of windows on America. Or maybe none of them do.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

I don’t know.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I don’t know about this, either. The writer I see as most likely to be read and discussed in 20 years is Stephen King, but I thought his novel “Dr. Sleep” had significant problems and probably won’t linger. His other 2013 novel, “Joyland,” is excellent, but it’s also a small book, secondary, and may not be remembered either, in any lasting way.

David L. Ulin is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of “The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time,” “Labyrinth,” and “The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith.”

Abbe Wright

1. “Still Points North” by Leigh Newman
2. “Someone” by Alice McDermott
3. “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki
4. “Son of a Gun” by Justin St. Germain
5. “Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” by Anton DiSclafani
6. “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer
7. “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
8. “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P” by Adelle Waldman<
9. “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala
10. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

1.  Your No. 1 book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

Leigh Newman’s memoir “Still Points North” perfectly captures how powerful and shaping the relationship is between a daughter and her parents. Newman’s writing is witty and wry.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2013?

Justin St. Germain’s memoir “Son of a Gun.” I couldn’t put down this Wallace Stegner fellow’s gracefully written memoir that looks at his mother’s murder and the gun violence surrounding our nation today.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

“Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots” by Jessica Soffer. This was a stunning debut novel that interwove a moving story of a self-harming young girl with one of a lonely widow and capped them off with gorgeous food imagery. A feast for the senses.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2013?

“Survival Lessons” by Alice Hoffman. Everyone in America today has been touched in some way by cancer – either themselves or in a friend or loved one. Hoffman’s road map back to life captures the journey that so many people in this country have walked, or are walking.

5. What was the most unlikable character of the year? 

Harry Powers, the wealthy man from Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel “Quiet Dell,” who woos Asta Eicher and takes her family to live with him, only for the family to turn up dead weeks later. Especially bone-chilling because her novel is based off a real story.

6. What is the book from 2013, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird”—we’ll be talking about McBride’s tale of a young slave’s partnership with an abolitionist for years to come.

Abbe Wright is Assistant Editor at O, The Oprah Magazine.

Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publications

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    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

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