Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker

Martin Riker’s debut novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return (Coffee House Press, 2018) is a masterclass in writing compelling, well-crafted fiction. Riker’s precise and careful execution of a number of ambitious craft elements—including a structure inspired by a 19th-century novel (Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself) and the main character inhabiting different bodies that all have distinctly written voices—is impressive. And as he pulls off feats of point of view and voice throughout this body-hopping journey, Riker never wavers from the emotionally affective core of the story: a man trying to get home to his son to say he loves him. —Carolina VonKampen

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy

Heather Cleary’s 2018 translation of Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre is equal parts horror and comedy. In a sanitarium in Buenos Aires, a group of early twentieth century doctors craft an experiment that will allow them a glimpse into the afterlife. They build a machine to decapitate terminally ill patients and wait to hear the patients’ final words before their brain completely expires. Given the absurd premise, the minimal, yet impressive, prose devotes little time to unnecessary specifics. The book is viewed through the perspective of Dr. Quintana, and though he is a key member of the team, his pursuit of the head nurse Menéndez commands most of his attention to detail. The novel’s second section takes place in 2009 and concerns an artist’s manipulation of the body for the purposes of art. Larraquy uses family lineage to give the sections some concrete connection point, but more interesting is their shared dispassionate view of the human body. Little of the comedy comes out of the medical ineptitude of generations past as one might expect. Instead the book shows how the fetishization of the body spans generations, and how any attempt to elevate the human form into the divine is futile. I guess the joke is that we will never stop trying. —Dusty Freund

Eye Level by Jenny Xie

Jenny Xie’s Eye Level has a narrative string that weaves around each poem. Delivering a keen observation or grand truth, her language is florid and beautiful, plucked carefully and crafted with a gentle hand. There’s a delicate balance between ancient wisdom and modern commonplace that binds ceaselessly together. Intensely introspective and refined, Eye Level examines our world through both a critical and appreciative lens, nestling itself into consciousness even after the completion of the book. –Meghan Dairaghi

Cosmos A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan Ann Druyan Steven Soter and Me by Connie Mae Oliver

Connie Mae Oliver’s book of anti-war poems, Cosmos A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan Ann Druyan Steven Soter and Me (The Operating System, 2017), contains lyric silences that are, in Louise Glück’s phrase, “dense with argument,” though Oliver’s real touchstones are Susan Howe and Claudia Rankine. The poet’s first collection moves among sequences and vantage points, cycles of self-erasures, poems of repeated lines, and cosmic lists. Astronomy pioneer Johannes Kepler makes multiple appearances as a simultaneously ethereal and earthly man with “only two friends: his cigarettes and the sun.” Haunting just under the book’s slanted vantage and shifting locus is the uncertainty principle: how we can never measure particles, or particulars, in terms of both position and momentum at the same time. This collection embraces the necessary management of both the flawed position we are in, and the direction we are going. —Ryan Smith

A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido

A Hunger (Knopf, 1988), the first collection by Lucie Brock-Broido, who passed away March 6, begins with a promise of resurrection and ends with the image of “the one light left on the small far hill / where someone must be living still”—with the conviction that life will go on. We never know the difference between resurrection and continuity or how much we want either, which was always the secret premise of Brock-Broido, in all the elusive speediness of her lyricism. “In thrice ten thousand seasons, I will come back to this world / In a white cotton dress” was—is—the book’s first declaration and whether this means we will be redeemed or haunted is undecided. A Hunger’s last affirmation is that “After life there must be life.” In the outpouring of love and mourning for Brock-Broido, who was one of her generation’s best poets as well as a teacher to scores of the current generation, the affirmation goes on haunting.—Ryan Smith

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

In Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Portobello Books, 2017) a young girl, Marina, is sent to an orphanage after her parents die in a car crash that she survives. We learn in alternating perspectives of narration that both Marina and the orphaned girls love each other but can’t communicate it; their actions come out wrong and disconnected. Barba captures this strangeness of childhood with a dark mood that permeates the prose, which is brimming with repetition, abstractions, and vivid similes such as: “Like a glass, her face filled up with humiliation.” This story is chilling—it haunts you long after you’ve put down the 97-page novel. —Carolina VonKampen

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

In a novel about an art forgery and the various forgeries, or reincarnations, of three people linked by one paining across more than three centuries, Smith's Last Painting (Sarah Crichton Books, 2016) offers a master class in the use of painterly detail to build a canvas of prose images. Sentences like this one abound: “The girl had been lavished with very fine brushwork, the hem of her dress frayed by a hundred filaments of paint, each one half the width of a human hair.” Couple that sort of close attention to painting and jazz clubs and and human behavior with a meticulously constructed plot and the near-universal praise for this novel is no surprise. —Laura Moretz

Deep in the Shadows: Undercover in the Ruthless World of Human Smuggling by Hipólito Acosta

Deep in the Shadows (Arte Público Press, 2017) is Hipólito Acosta’s unflinching account of his time as an undercover INS agent tasked with apprehending those who smuggle undocumented immigrants across our borders. The memoir covers the major busts of Acosta’s law-enforcement career. Over three decades, Acosta adopts various criminal identities to enter the dens of human traffickers, counterfeiters, drug dealers, and corrupt agents. This is a fascinating look at a hidden world. —René Martínez

Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick

This novelesque work of nonfiction (Broadway Books, 2011) is the book Capote night well have written had he been embedded with a platoon of US troops guarding a highway in the desert south of Baghdad in the early days of the occupation. At the center of the book is a war crime more horrendous than what happened in Capote’s Holcombe but, like Truman, Frederick eschews the question who done it for the much harder to resolve what makes people capable of such things? He deftly chronicles how daily suicide missions shatter psyches and how being ordered to clear IEDs by way of walking on top of them quickly erodes a soldier’s sense of purpose. Jim Frederick takes no liberties whatsoever by putting “descent into madness” in his subtitle. This is not for the faint of heart, but a sobering look at how otherwise good kids lose their souls at the edge of empire. —Ryan Krull

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s latest novel features spunky, relentlessly modern WWII diver Anna Kerrigan and the intertwining of her life and family with local gangster Dexter Styles. Although Manhattan Beach (Scribner, 2017) undeniably contains the gratifying reading experience of an ambitiously researched and detailed big book, I found the real pleasure to be in parsing its deliberate, artificially constructed parallels—an Egan-istic trademark that will appeal to fans of Goon Squad. There’s interlinking arrangement of plot and theme, and character flux: for example, noticeable slip between the two fathers and their relationships with their daughters; symbolic barefoot beach walks; and a puzzling self-destructive morality shared among the main characters. If you enjoy detailed historical novels or more experimental fare, pick up Manhattan Beach regardless. —Jessica Rogen

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

The obvious parallel in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) is King Lear: an aging farmer abruptly hands his operation down to his three daughters and their husbands, one daughter is excommunicated, and the others are left to cope with their father’s diminishing mental faculties. But another parallel comes from its depiction of modern industrial farming in 1979 America. Acquired through less than honorable means, the farm has thrived under the Cook family for generations, but the impending 1980s economy poses unique and unforeseeable challenges to the idea of the family farm. What at first seems a simple Shakespeare adaptation becomes an intimate character study and quickly blossoms into a horrific story of capitalism, trauma, and family. The final pages hold some of the best writing I’ve ever seen. I was shook. –Dusty Freund

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

The eponymous anti-hero of Habash's debut (Coffee House Press, 2017) is a tightly wound, antisocial college wrestler in his final year of eligibility. He is singularly determined to win the 133 lb. weight class in the NCAA Division IV wrestling championship while battling his own demons, his emotional isolation, a complex relationship with his teammate Linus, and a new romance with his classmate Mary Beth. Set against the backdrop of North Dakota, this journey through the obsessive mind of an unreliable narrator is a richly rewarding look at the American drive to win at all costs. —Michael Nye

Cinema of the Present by Lisa Robertson

A book-length lyric by the Canadian poet, Cinema of the Present (Coach House Books, 2014) follows a flaneur-ish “you” through the record of experience. The tone is alternately deadpan, searching, investigatory, and overwhelmed, as though Emily Dickinson were the detective in the adaptation of a Pynchon novel and paranoid about the lurking metaphors. Individual lines are both the characters in the eponymous film and the motifs in the score, and they enter and exit and return and leave again, occupying on- and off-screen space. You exercise the pleasure of refusal. I’m entirely for your fucked up way of living. You abandon it here. It’s a poem as a full-body tattoo—and like a tattoo, delightedly, defiantly immanent. —Ryan Smith

The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee once said of his own writing that instead of creating characters he personified ideas. He’d intended to identify a shortcoming, but The Life and Times of Michael K (Secker & Warburg, 1983) is as good as it is because it makes human some of the thorniest and most interesting human ideas. Set against the backdrop of a fictional Apartheid-era South African civil war, the intellectually slow and ever-earnest Michael K wants no part of the upheaval around him. But it won’t let him be. The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1983, is a two hundred page mediation on the impossibility of being separate from the times you live in. An idea both timely and timeless. —Ryan Krull

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Three years ago the terrific American novelist Kent Haruf passed away, but not before completing his final novel, Our Souls at Night (Knopf, 2015), which is an elegant swan song/love story worthy not only of its creator, but of its touching, senior-citizen couple—Louis and Addie, who now enjoy the cinematic afterlife of being portrayed by Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in the film version released on Netflix last month. Haruf is perhaps best known for his best-selling novel Plainsong (1999), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and for creating Holt, Colorado, a small town on the high plains in the eastern part of the state, of which he once said, “It’s not pretty, but it’s beautiful.” I knew Kent as a soft-spoken, kind gentleman, and one of our great contemporary Western writers. —William J. Cobb

But What if We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

I teach college English, and in my rhetoric courses, I encourage skepticism about almost everything students face in their daily lives: claims made by politicians, religious beliefs, even the ideas presented in classrooms by smug professors. Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong? (Blue Rider Press, 2016) takes this notion much further by questioning things most consider beyond reproach, like the concept of gravity. One section imagines the writer that future generations will regard as the literary genius that defines our era. Will it be a current favorite like Roth or Franzen, or will it be a Kafkaesque unknown who’s currently sharing his work on the dark web?  Klosterman’s views are interesting and worth considering. —René Martínez