Shala Carlson -- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell (Bloomsbury USA) and The Five Books of Moses (W.W. Norton & Company): Susanna Clark's debut novel is hefty, fanciful and in love with language. Jonathan Strange abounds with fairy-tale folklore, singing statues and ghost ships, as Clark imagines an alternate English history that features a prominent role for practical magic in the Napoleonic wars. The former Simon and Schuster editor is a fan of Jane Austen and Buffy -- making Jonathan Strange equal parts period piece and adventure story.
On the nonfiction side, Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, his translation of and commentary on the Pentateuch, is a stunning revisitation of the works' Hebrew origins. The University of California-Berkeley professor shuns what he calls the "heresy of explanation," employing instead a meticulous linguist's eye and a poet's ear in this incomparable work of biblical translation and exegesis. Far from inaccessible, Alter's gorgeous scholarship opens the five books to a wider audience.
Alex Rawls -- Live at the Apollo (Continuum) and Too Weird for Ziggy (Grove): Each entry in Continuum Books' "33 1/3" series examines a single classic album from a unique perspective. Douglas Wolk's take on the James Brown classic discusses the differences between the shows -- the album came from two shows, not one -- and how they appeared on the record. He considers how those performances fit into Brown's career and takes advantage of the coincidence that the recordings took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis to give the book a hint of a Fail-Safe flavor.
Short stories by Mojo writer Sylvie Simmons take place a half step from real life. Thinly veiled retellings of incidents like River Phoenix's death or Brian Wilson's return with Dr. Eugene Landy provide the stories' starting points, but a Day of the Locust vicious humor picks up from there. Her impatience with the indolent bastards mirrors our impatience, and if the behavior seems a little exaggerated, it's probably not as unlikely as it seems.
Erik Spanberg -- Wakefield (Algonquin of Chapel Hill) and The Final Solution (Fourth Estate): The Crescent City's adopted Romanian raconteur, Andrei Codrescu, delivers a delightful dissection of modern-day America in a novel inspired by a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. Along the way, the novel offers a sobering, comic perspective on the droning buzz of a society that feeds on instant communication. With a surfeit of satirical subjects, Codrescu encounters the occasional misfire, but his account of modern Sisyphean pursuits hits far more often than it misses.
Care to see Sherlock Holmes in his dotage? Former Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon does, cooking up a World War II-era mystery that plucks an unnamed Holmesian detective out of retirement as a beekeeper, tracking a mysterious bird who speaks and a little boy who doesn't. Chabon, whose earlier credits include Wonder Boys and The Amazing Advventures of Kavalier & Clay, sacrifices neither pure entertainment nor literary achievement in the telling.
Ed Skoog -- Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced (Alice James Books) and The Lichtenberg Figures (Copper Canyon Press): These first collections of poetry couldn't be more different, yet each one gave me shivers this year in ways that no other book was willing to try. Catherine Barnett's Perfect Spheres is a quiet collection that takes as its subject the unimaginable loss of two nieces to a plane crash and her family's struggle to find meaning in the years since. Despite this gravity, the poems defy the easy gestures of grief and revolt against mere misery. Ben Lerner's sonnet sequence, which he read at NOCCA/Riverfront in October, is a loud and paranoid effrontery, each sonnet a nuclear explosion in a thimble: "This chicken is dry and/or you've ruined my life. / You are the first and last indigenous Nintendo."
David Winkler-Schmit -- Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You (HarperCollins) and The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press): Although there were a number of very good regional works of fiction this year, these two books stood out. Laurie Lynn Drummond's collection of short stories, which were inspired by her years working as a Baton Rouge policewoman, starkly and realistically portrays the women behind the badge. Gone are the hardened stereotype characters of many a cop story, replaced by flesh-and-blood human beings trying to survive an often-deadly occupation. Selah Saterstrom's short novel takes the well-worn subject of the archetypal Southern family and turns it on its head. With little use for the lies of polite conversation and Southern charm, Saterstrom uses her remarkable skills as a writer and poet to expose the diseased roots, limbs, branches and leaves of this family tree.