From a bleak Corman McCarthy novel to an openhearted memoir, here are the 20 books that most impressed EW's critic

By Jennifer Reese
Updated December 22, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

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Fiction Books of the Year

1. The Road Cormac McCarthy
About two feet from my desk lies my copy of The Road, a novel I tore through in September and, awestruck and shaken, suspected would be the most powerful book I’d read this year. I have been aware of its whereabouts ever since, keeping it near but out of sight, as if it might do me some kind of harm. Which, in a way, it already has. I wish I could not call up quite so clearly the postapocalyptic ash land evoked in McCarthy’s stripped-down, never-better prose; the icy rain that falls on scorched trees; the desiccated apples. Earth has been leveled by an unspecified calamity, possibly nuclear, and is inhabited now by scavenging bands of humans, among them an unnamed father and son. Here, a parent’s love for a child looks more like curse than blessing. What should this man tell his boy, about the past, about right and wrong, about his duty toward other humans? Would it, perhaps, be a mercy to kill him? McCarthy etches a realistic nightmare of near-total destruction particular to our age. That the tenderest of loves might persist in such a world makes it all the more unbearable. McCarthy is a brave artist, and I revisit his masterpiece with admiration and dread.

2. The Ruins Scott Smith
Six soft young tourists partying their way through a Mexican beach vacation hike into the backcountry to visit some archaeological ruins. To reveal what they encounter on their ill-advised adventure would be a spoiler, but it’s fair to say that their skin-crawling fate fuels a propulsive horror novel so unnerving and elegant it transcends the genre.

3. The Thin Place Kathryn Davis
Davis’ sinuous novel aims to capture nothing less than the mystery of existence. In the New England town of Varennes, the membrane between the unknowable spirit world and the equally unfathomable physical realm has worn away, and a 12-year-old girl is able to breathe life into the dead. Davis tunes her narrative to myriad murmurings of the earth — an old woman’s lament, the songs of lichens, a police log, the dreams of a dog. ”There is probably nothing more beautiful and implausible than the world,” Davis writes. No, there isn’t, and her fiction offers a gorgeous reminder.

4. The Secret River Kate Grenville
A product of London’s wretched 18th-century underclass, William Thornhill — antihero of Grenville’s thoughtful novel — is deported to Australia as punishment for a petty theft. There, he spots a parcel of apparently vacant riverfront and envisions, for the first time, a life of dignity for his family. Of course, the riverfront isn’t vacant and Thornhill’s dreams come with a staggering moral price tag. How can he agree to it? Then again, how can he not? Grenville grapples with unanswerable questions while grounding her story in a specific patch of Australian earth, and the complicated peoples — Aborigine and European — laying claim to it.

5. End of Story Peter Abrahams
Abrahams’ smart, sparkling mystery follows Ivy Seidel, an aspiring Brooklyn writer, as she begins teaching at a men’s prison. A familiar type — over-educated, single-minded, not entirely likable — Ivy soon decides her relationship with an attractive convict is the centerpiece of a real-life romantic thriller. But does she have a clue about plot? Or character? Abrahams delivers some delicious twists and that rare thriller pleasure: a perfect ending.

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