1. The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht
(Random House, $15)
Téa Obreht's debut novel is "unusual in content, wise beyond its author's years, and completely engrossing," said Maya Muir in the Portland Oregonian. Set in an unspecified Balkan country in the aftermath of a brutal war, The Tiger's Wife follows a young doctor named Natalia who travels many miles to deliver medicine to orphans while she deals with the news of her grandfather's death. As she works, she recalls the "fantastical stories" the old man used to tell. In one, he met what he called a "deathless man." In another, a tiger that escapes a bombed zoo develops a singular relationship with a village woman. Just 26, Obreht, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, writes with "remarkable authority and eloquence," said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Her stories "move seamlessly between the gritty realm of the real and the primary-colored world of the fable."
A caveat: Obreht has created a collection of "stand-alone stories," not a cohesive narrative, said Rayyan Al-Shawaf in Salon.com.
2. The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
(Little, Brown, $26)
Like a good baseball game, The Art of Fielding is "unhurried, engrossing, a universe unto itself," said David Daley in USA Today. Building on the sport's rich literary tradition, Chad Harbach's excellent debut introduces college shortstop Henry Skrimshander, whose Zen-like mastery of his position deserts him after a single errant throw nails one of his teammates on the Westish College Harpooners. Harbach's book might be most striking "in the unpretentious way it has of joining a love of baseball with a love of literature," said Wyatt Mason in The New Yorker. Herman Melville looms large in these pages, but the allusions are never intrusive. Harbach knows he's here to entertain, and his hand is sure as he unspools an elegant story about what happens when "virtuosity and promise" are replaced by doubt. It's a tale about our national pastime, but also "about how we become ourselves."
A caveat: At times, the novel feels more "Young Adult" than a serious work of fiction, said Dennis Drabelle in The Washington Post.
3. State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett's "vivid, magical" novel is an intricately plotted "Heart of Darkness story," said Caroline Leavitt in The Boston Globe. Updating Joseph Conrad's classic by sending a female protagonist on a 21st-century trek into the Amazon, the "prodigiously talented" author of Bel Canto slices open the jungle and many thorny ethical questions to create a riveting medical thriller. Patchett's Marlow is Marina Singh, a researcher with Big Pharma who's been sent to the Southern Hemisphere to extract a Kurtz-like female colleague who's gone rogue while investigating a tribal treatment that seems to promote lifelong fertility. Patchett does more than borrow, giving Marina "a history Marlow never had, including daddy issues and a haunting episode from her earlier medical career," said Caryn James in TheDailyâ€‹Beastâ€‹.com. Better still, Patchett is Conrad's equal when it comes to taking readers "on a journey deep into a jungle of secrets" and returning them home changed.
A caveat: State of Wonder "veers between silliness and brilliance," said Jocelyn McClurg in USA Today. It specializes in both "lowbrow cinematic moments" and "highbrow literary aspirations."
4. Open City
by Teju Cole
(Random House, $25)
Open City doesn't follow any of the rules of a "breakout first novel," said Taylor Antrim in TheDailyBeast.com. It doesn't "put on an antic show," but instead ambles, ruminatively, around the streets of New York. Its narrator, Julius, is a Nigerian psychiatrist who has immigrated to Manhattan. He's also a walker and an observer. Across a year's worth of wanderings, he encounters fellow immigrants "of all kinds," listens to their stories, and recalls his own African boyhood. His account "achieves its resonance obliquely — meaning you have to pay attention." If you do, you'll be rewarded, said Tyrone Beason in The Seattle Times. The walks turn into "oddly metaphysical pursuits," yet "at every turn, Julius must confront his own reality as a foreigner in a terror-obsessed city." Open City is "a magnificent portrait of post-9/11 New York City," and for Teju Cole, a "remarkably resonant feat of prose."
A caveat: Julius is a pedant and a showy intellect, said Vadim Rizov in the A.V. Club. Readers might be annoyed by his "aloof reserve."
5. The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace
(Little, Brown, $28)
There are plenty of good reasons "not to read The Pale King," said Sam Thielman in Newsday. For one, its primary subject is boredom, as experienced by a handful of Internal Revenue Service agents. It's also an unfinished novel: David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, leaving The Pale King a work in progress. Yet "when you actually sit down with the thing, none of this matters." Its surviving vignettes display Wallace's "astonishing ability to mimic trains of thought with prose." They're also "very, very funny," and together hint that there might exist a kind of peace somewhere beyond the tedium of many people's everyday lives. "Every few block paragraphs or so, a sentence will bubble to the surface that's so genuine, it makes you realize how artificial, by comparison, so much other fiction is," said Maureen Corrigan in NPR.org. Finished or not, The Pale King "further illuminates why Wallace's work was so profound and startling."
A caveat: Wallace's novel is "probably best read as a book-length guide to a particular circle of hell — a tour readers must decide for themselves whether to take," said Margaret Quamme in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch.
How the books were chosen
Rankings are based on end-of-year recommendations published by The Atlantic, CSMonitor.com, GQ, The Kansas City Star, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPRâ€‹.org, Publishers Weekly, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Salon.com, The Seattle Times, Slate.com, Time, and The Washington Post.