EW critic Jennifer Reese honors the top ten in both fiction and nonfiction, and names five titles you'll be hard-pressed to give away at yard sales for years to come
The Post-Birthday World


10. THE TERROR by Dan Simmons
In this mesmerizing thriller, Dan Simmons offers one possible (if improbable) answer to the real-life question of what happened to a British naval expedition that vanished in the Arctic in 1845. In Simmons’ version, the sailors confront challenges ranging from the mundane (anarchy, starvation) to the extraordinary (a soul-devouring demon, a seductive ”Esquimaux” girl missing her tongue). You’ll want to read this book in a warm, well-lit house stocked with plenty of grub and a few gills of rum. Though dauntingly long, Simmons’ epic, like the frozen sea that trapped the sailors, holds you fast.

Junot Díaz recounts the saga of Dominican-American nerd-boy Oscar in irresistible, high-energy Spanglish. Sample sentence: ”You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” That’s Oscar’s deal, but Díaz also has much to say about sci-fi fandom, bodacious chicas, and an ancient family curse.

8. OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson
Trond Sander, the 67-year-old narrator of Per Petterson’s quietly unsettling tale (gracefully translated from Norwegian by Anne Born), has moved to the countryside hoping to finish out his years in solitude. Then a chance encounter starts him reflecting on his past, in particular the shattering summer of 1948, when a freak accident and dawning revelations about his father’s emotional allegiances turned his world on end. Beneath the wintry surface of this marvelous book, you’ll uncover layers of mystery and sorrow.

Joyce Carol Oates is at the height of her considerable powers in this dark, lush novel loosely based on the life of her Jewish grandmother. After watching her German-born gravedigger father kill himself, Rebecca Schwart willfully reinvents herself, methodically erasing all vestiges of her immigrant past. What she gains in security and respectability is quickly apparent; what is lost becomes clear only in a devastating coda.

6. ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
The year is 1962, and Edward and Florence, ”young, educated and both virgins, on this, their wedding night,” are anticipating conjugal relations with equal parts eagerness (his) and fear (hers). What transpires is funny, embarrassing, dreadful, and all too believable. Sex can be a tricky, delicate business, as McEwan poignantly illustrates in this tiny and wise masterpiece.

5. A FREE LIFE by Ha Jin
You could mistake the unadorned prose of Ha Jin’s fifth novel for artlessness. In fact, his storytelling — direct, homely, affecting — represents a perfect marriage of subject and style. Nan Wu longs to write poetry, but instead takes a series of menial jobs to support his family. Over roughly 10 years, Nan folds dumplings, washes dishes, and clerks at a motel, while struggling to find the inspiration and time for literature. Shimmering language has no place in this deeply felt portrait of the artist ground down by middle-class routine.

Another generous novel about work, this one set during a blizzard at a languishing Red Lobster restaurant in New England on its final day of operation. For the very last time, Manny DeLeon, Stewart O’Nan’s grave hero, negotiates between his bickering waitstaff, tends to the Frialators, banters with a longtime customer, and pushes the tilapia. Without quite admitting it to himself, he is mourning the dissolution of this strange little community, however makeshift and dreary. And why shouldn’t he? O’Nan turns everyday loss into poetry.

3. THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris
Novelists work in their pajamas, which explains why fiction so rarely gets office life quite right. Joshua Ferris’ dazzling debut is an exception. Set in a Chicago ad agency, the action consists primarily of the rumor peddling, flirting, and time wasting familiar to most white-collar drones. Just when you think this is merely a glib literary stunt, Ferris shifts into a somber and lovely minorkey. ”Every agency has its frustrated copywriter whose real life was being a failed novelist working on a small, angry book about work,” the narrators tell us. This is a large, generous book about work.

When gregarious New Yorker Ilka Weisz takes a job at a small-town Connecticut think tank, she worries she’ll never find new friends. But Ilka, introduced in Lore Segal’s 1985 novel, Her First American, is quickly embraced by an insular clique of intellectuals who drink martinis, obsess over poetry prizes, philander, and gab about it all nonstop. Billed as a story collection, the volume starts off as fizzy academic comedy. By the time you realize that you’re actually reading a novel — and that it’s profoundly sad — this sneaky, splendid book is over.

1. THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver
In a year when nearly everyone was caught up in the story of a young wizard, an ensorcelling book about a mortal adult woman went virtually unnoticed. The heroine of Lionel Shriver’s extraordinary novel The Post-Birthday World is Irina McGovern, an illustrator living in London with her longtime partner, Lawrence Trainer, an earnest policy wonk. They share values and routines, if not a world-beating sex life. As the first chapter ends, Irina finds herself alone with a roguish acquaintance, pro snooker player Ramsey Acton, whom she’s always found dangerously attractive.

Here, the novel branches into two competing narratives. In the first, Irina kisses Ramsey. In the second, she resists. Chapter by chapter, these two richly imagined scenarios play themselves out, eventually meeting up again some 500 pages later. Which was the better choice for Irina — the steamy lover Ramsey or the steady companion Lawrence? Shriver playfully suggests answers, only to snatch them back again.

Before it was co-opted and trivialized by chick lit, romantic love was a subject that writers from Flaubert to Tolstoy deemed worthy of artistic and moral scrutiny. This is the tradition into which Shriver’s novel fits. In 50 years, we’ll still be wild about Harry. And a lucky handful of readers may stumble across The Post-Birthday World and wonder why they’ve never heard of it.

NEXT PAGE: EW’S Top 10 nonfiction books of 2007