1. Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (Little, Brown and Company)
Though Bright Edge of the World shares the historical Alaska setting and fantastical elements of The Snow Child, Ivey’s previous, Pulitzer-finalist for fiction, this excellent new novel is more epic in scope. Bright Edge braids the imaginary journals of an Army colonel exploring the remote Wolverine River with the hardships of his pregnant wife in the barracks, and underscores their commonality: both the wilderness expedition and home front demand fortitude, and a bit of myth, to survive. Ivey deepens the novel’s evocative power by integrating contemporary correspondence between a relative of the colonel and a museum curator in possession of his journal. This rich blend of adventure bravado and contemplative memoir, past and present, reinvigorates the idea of an historical novel.
2. The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale (Penguin Press)
After 13-year-old Robert Combes and his younger brother killed their mother, and as her body decomposed upstairs in their East London home, the boys spent ten days cavorting around town and lavishly spending money. In this gripping book, Summerscale reconstructs the crime and the Old Bailey trial that followed, and explores how the case reflected preoccupations of the late Victorian Era – theories of childhood, insanity, and the perils of educating the working class, as well as the danger of the popular pulp fiction of the day, known as “penny dreadfuls.” After his brother testified against him, Robert ended up in an asylum for criminal lunatics. Summerscale skillfully narrates these events, and she extends and enriches the story by following Robert to Australia, where he made a new life and, as she writes, “relinquished the desires for wealth and power than had animated him as a boy.”
3. Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein (Plume)
Haunted by the memory of an intoxicatingly dangerous ex-boyfriend with whom she had once lived in New Mexico (the “Land of Enchantment,” according to the state motto), Stein seeks to understand the relationship’s dark allure. This compelling memoir moves back and forth in time, and Stein reflects on her inability to untangle herself from this man who was so harmful to her. She writes with the wry self-deprecation that characterized her debut novel, The Fallback Plan, about a Sylvia Plath-loving teenager who graduates from college only to end up in the suburban home in which she was born and raised. Stein, who codirects BinderCon, a professional development conferment for women and gender non-conforming writers, keys into the anxiety and uncertainty of young women coming of age.
4. How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee (Viking)
Through a set of characters – an American Korean, another from a prominent North Korean family, and another who exists by secretly trading across the border – Lee brings alive the terrible life of North Koreans and those who have been separated from them. In this suspenseful narrative, largely set in a small town just across the river in China, Lee focuses on the experiences of those trying to defect from North Korea, while also exploring the determination and ardor of those who are trying to facilitate defection. Lee, a professor of creative writing and literature in South Korea, informs this work of fiction – like her first novel, Drifting House – with experiences gleaned while working to help North Korean refugees.
5.Carousel Court by Joe McGinnis Jr. (Simon and Schuster)
In his 2008 debut novel The Delivery Man, McGinniss keyed into what was happening in the dark side of America, through the stories of a generation of young people in Las Vegas spiraling downward. He continues to explore the fault line of social mobility in this new novel, in which he zooms in on a young married couple who plan to flip a house in suburban Los Angeles in a development called Carousel Court. McGinniss structures this work intricately, in brief chapters that build in urgency and tension, and he brilliantly conveys the feelings stirred up by foreclosures, Klonopin, sexting, and the rampant anxiety that is now part of the American Dream.