1. Bring Up the Bodies
by Hilary Mantel (Holt, $28)
In Hilary Mantel's hands, Thomas Cromwell has become "one of literature's most compelling characters," said Radhika Jones in Time. Henry VIII's chief adviser was both "loyal and scheming, generous and cruel" — traits Mantel brought to the fore in 2009's Wolf Hall, the first installment of her Cromwell trilogy. In the second, she "deepens her portrait of the master puppeteer." Mantel's "exhilarating prose, unrivaled in contemporary fiction," puts us whisper-close to Cromwell as he maneuvers Anne Boleyn toward the executioner's block while inescapably sowing the seeds of his own eventual demise. Mantel obviously understands that "what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one," said James Wood in The New Yorker. "Quite a few readers would be prepared to yawn" at an encounter between Cromwell and theologian Thomas Cranmer, but Mantel makes such scenes "alive, silvery," and "rapid with insight."
A caveat: This book feels too much like a bridge to the next installment, a "highly entertaining throat-clearing," said William Georgiades at Slate.
2. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain (Ecco, $15)
The Iraq War era has found its Catch-22, said Jeff Turrentine in The Washington Post. Ben Fountain's "masterful gut-punch of a debut novel" unfolds on a recent Thanksgiving Day as the surviving members of a combat unit, fresh from battlefield heroics celebrated endlessly by Fox News, are feted during the megawatt halftime show of the holiday's Dallas Cowboys game. With "hardly a false note," Fountain records the spectacle through the 19-year-old eyes of Billy Lynn, who's just hours away from redeployment and trying to hold his emotions in check as he soldiers his way into the belly of the beast of American excess. Fountain's novel "left me breathless," said Jonathan Evison at NPR. This brilliant satire is also remarkably visceral. "From the sodium glare of the stadium lights to the acid sting of bitterness in the throat," you "feel the story with your whole body."
A caveat: Billy Lynn is "95 percent the most entertaining novel I've read in ages," said Adam Langer in the San Francisco Chronicle. But the ending feels forced.
by Zadie Smith (Penguin, $27)
When in doubt, return to your roots, said K. Thomas Kahn at TheMillions.com. Zadie Smith's fourth novel circles back to Willesden, the northwest London neighborhood of her youth and the setting of her stunning 2000 debut, White Teeth. But NW is a "more poetic and abstract novel," with stream-of-consciousness sections that owe a debt to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Leah and Natalie, the dual protagonists, grew up together in a neighborhood housing project, and both have made it out. But each friend is struggling, amid the claims that race, class, and gender make on her, to find and embrace a comfortable identity. This is a "deeply ambitious" novel, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. But it's also "exuberant, lush with language," and "intensely readable, intensely human": It signals the maturation of a writer already wise beyond her years.
A caveat: "The people in this book are more stereotypes than individuals, more ham-handed cartoons than emotionally detailed human beings," said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.
4. Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn (Crown, $25)
"A great crime novel is an unstable thing, entertainment and literature suspended in some undetermined solution," said Laura Miller at Salon. Gillian Flynn's "ingenious, pitch-black" third novel mixes the ingredients to perfection. Nick and Amy lead charmed lives in New York City until a turn of the economy demotes them to a McMansion in the Missouri town where Nick grew up. Then Amy disappears, leaving a trace of blood, and all signs point to Nick. From then on, readers ache to solve "two mysteries — what happened to Amy, and what happened to Nick-and-Amy?" Neither puzzle is easily solved, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. "Both Nick and Amy are extremely adept liars, and they lied to each other a lot." They lie to you, too — Nick in the present tense and Amy in diary entries. All along, Flynn displays "ice-pick sharp" control, with "characters so well-imagined they're hard to part with — even if, as in Amy's case, they are already departed."
A caveat: Flynn's characters are "slightly cartoonish, and more than once, their over-the-top scheming strains credulity," said Amy Gutman in the Chicago Tribune.
5. Building Stories
by Chris Ware (Pantheon, $50)
This remarkable work of fiction is less a book than a "keepsake box full of things you don't want to forget," said Melissa Maerz in Entertainment Weekly. Each board-game-size box contains 14 odd-shaped bits of "beautifully illustrated" literature, from a flip book to a poster to an ersatz children's reader. The whole package is the work of graphic novelist Chris Ware, and there's no right way in. Picking things up at random, you find your way into an affecting story about the lonely lives of four inhabitants of one Chicago brownstone. My initial irritation at having to piece Ware's story together "gave way to enchantment," said Steve Almond in The New Republic. A "poet of solitude," Ware has used the comic-book format as a tool of psychological investigation — conveying the scope of his characters' "private torments" and "unfulfilled lives" in a few well-wrought panels. Building Stories might be too bleak for some readers, but it's "brutal in the way all great art is." In fact, it's "one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced."
A caveat: You can't read Building Stories on a Kindle, said Douglas Wolk in The New York Times.
How the books were chosen
Our rankings were created by weighting the end-of-year recommendations published in The Atlantic, CSMonitor.com, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Newsday, The New York Times, NPR.org, O magazine, Publishers Weekly, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Slate, Time, and The Washington Post.