by Hilary Mantel
Who was Thomas Cromwell? It's a question you might think you know the answer to, or perhaps more likely don't care about. But this masterful re-creation of court politics in Tudor England turns Henry VIII's powerful adviser, conventionally seen as a villain, into a complicated and fascinating antihero. Over the course of two novels (the equally brilliant first installment, Wolf Hall, is the place to start), Mantel has envisioned a Cromwell who's both sympathetic and chillingly ruthless as he outwits his enemies (including Anne Boleyn) and wriggles his way to the king's side.
Bring Up the Bodies isn't always an easy read. It crams in 60-plus characters dukes, lords, ladies-in-waiting whose names, listed at the front, stretch across five pages. Confusion is as inevitable as head severings. But the novel was the most purely pleasurable reading experience I had this year, a page-turning gallop through religious and royal history, knotty human psychology, and the 16th-century equivalent of office politics, only with life-or-death consequences. Bring Up the Bodies captures a pair of unrivaled minds Mantel's and Cromwell's at their best.2. The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson
Scary, surreal, and often oddly funny, Johnson's carefully researched look at the endless mysteries of life in North Korea is hard to believe and yet frighteningly plausible. Johnson who actually traveled to the little-visited Pyongyang before writing the novel follows a poor-born nobody named Pak Jun Do as he stumbles through all manner of North Korean insanity: kidnapping Japanese citizens, barely surviving a terrifying prison camp, even navigating the loony-tunes inner circle of ''Dear Leader'' Kim Jong Il (who died shortly before the book was published). It's a brutal tale that's almost unbearable at times but thanks to Johnson's narrative skill and keen imagination, it's also tough to put down. 3. Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter
What connects the ambitious owner of a struggling backwater hotel in 1960s coastal Italy to a hotshot entertainment producer in present-day Los Angeles? In this charming Hollywood novel about lost love and thwarted dreams, the answer has something to do with a beautiful young actress who has recently been told she's dying, mysterious old paintings inside an abandoned German pillbox bunker, and the hard-drinking, shenanigan-prone actor Richard Burton, who actually shows up as an unforgettable character in the novel. 4. Where'd You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple
Yes, this Seattle-set send-up of yuppie smugness is deeply funny. No surprise there: Semple is a former sitcom writer who worked on Arrested Development and other shows. But beneath the irresistible humor lies a serious character study that wields a lot of heart along with its wit. Bernadette Fox is an endearingly eccentric former architect whose precocious teen daughter and Microsoft-honcho husband have to deal with her increasing instability. Ultimately, it's a book about the struggle to make sense of life's disappointments and unexpected turns. 5. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
A gripping war novel set not on the battlefield, but at a Dallas Cowboys game. On Thanksgiving of 2004, a group of soldiers is reaching the end of a trip home for a hasty PR tour culminating in a halftime- spectacle appearance with Destiny's Child after an act of bravery has turned them into instant heroes. Fountain captures the disorienting parallel realities of modern warfare: How can American life in all its glorious strangeness march on unhindered while on the other side of the world our young soldiers grapple with unspeakable horrors?