Noteworthy Fiction

CRESCENT, by Diana Abu-Jaber, Norton, $24.95

Sirine hasn't left West Hollywood for years, but from her Iraqi father she learned how to conjure up the aromas of their lost desert home. Cookbooks have been Sirine's only travel guides. At 39, she knows more about spices than politics. One of the great pleasures of this sensitive novel is the way Abu-Jaber stirs culinary metaphors. With a little more zaniness, this could have been "My Big Fat Iraqi Wedding," but Abu-Jaber prepares a more complex dish that's equal parts romantic comedy, political protest, fairy tale, and cultural analysis. (March 27)

BRICK LANE, by Monica Ali, Scribner, $25

The genius of "Brick Lane" lies in Ali's ability to make the peculiar universal while making what's familiar comically odd. The story opens briefly in Bangladesh, where Nazneen enters the world two months early. Then as a teenager, Nazneen is sent to London to marry a 40-year-old stranger. She arrives knowing only two English phrases, "sorry" and "thank you." Ali handles this frightened girl with a delicate wit that never slips into condescension or tragedy. Booker Prize nominee. (Sept. 18)

DROP CITY, by T.C. Boyle, Viking, $25.95

This story about a raucous free-love commune in the 1960s follows the aimless experience of a young woman named Star, who's escaped her suburban parents. Boyle is a Dickensian genius at the portrayal of hypocrisy. He zeroes in mercilessly on the human tendencies that complicate this social experiment, even while portraying their simple yearnings with real tenderness and sensitivity. National Book Award nominee. (Feb. 20)

MY LIFE AS A FAKE, by Peter Carey, Knopf, $24

Reading Carey's novel about a case of literary fraud after World War II is like falling into an Escher drawing. A young poetry editor meets a man in Malaysia who claims to have been terrorized by a creature from his own invented prank. With stories nested in stories, narrators narrating the narratives of other narrators - it all sounds like the kind of poststructural challenge A.S. Byatt would twist into a web of complexity, but Carey never forgets that it's about entertaining readers. (Oct. 23)

THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, by Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins, $25.96

Erdrich's novel opens in the ashes of World War I. A German sniper named Fidelis has married his late friend's pregnant wife, an act of camaraderie that quickly deepens. Graced with an eerie stillness, he sets about the careful task of building a life in North Dakota and forgetting the horrors he saw and inflicted. Erdrich knows just how to hover between what's plain and what's extraordinary, building on the life of this common German rifleman a story of legendary proportions. (Feb. 6)

THE CLEARING, by Tim Gautreaux, Knopf, $23

This novel set in the 1920s, about two estranged brothers, makes you resent distractions like working, eating, or sleeping. Long regarded as the favorite son, Byron had been destined to take over the family's lumber empire, but he returned from World War I a troubled man. When his younger brother is sent to Louisiana to manage a mill and rehabilitate Byron, the Mafia stands in their way. There are enough ghastly creatures slithering through this woodland swamp to hold anyone's interest, and enough moral insight to enlighten anyone's conscience. (July 24)

CREATION, by Katherine Govier, Overlook, $24.95

The most intriguing move Govier makes in this quiet but stirring novel is her decision to wind the story of artist John James Audubon around the much lesser-known story of Henry Wolsey Bayfield. The great mapmaker and the great bird painter meet again and again as they sail along the shore of Quebec. This window into the 19th century and Govier's invention of a friendship between Audubon and Bayfield are rare and captivating. (May 22)

OUR LADY OF THE FOREST, by David Guterson, Knopf, $25.95

Guterson explores a challenging set of questions without a hint of condescension in this tragicomedy about the persistence of faith. Set in a depressed logging town in Washington State, the story describes a week in which a sexually abused 16-year-old runaway sees visions of the Virgin Mary while picking mushrooms in the woods. Her revelations quickly attract hordes of devotees and challenge a young priest's devotion. (Oct. 9)

THE GREAT FIRE, by Shirley Hazzard, FSG, $24

"The Great Fire" smolders in the aftermath of World War II, when that calamity threatened to flash back into flame or choke survivors. Aldred, a 32-year-old war hero, comes to Japan to record the obliteration of an ancient culture. Taking up lodging with an Australian couple, he finds solace in their remarkable children - particularly Helen, whom he comes to love. In a novel that would collapse under the weight of pretension if a line were mislaid, Hazzard keeps this romance aloft by virtue of her understanding of human nature. National Book Award winner (Oct. 2)

THE MAMMOTH CHEESE, by Sheri Holman, Atlantic Monthly, $24

Holman's robust, witty novel takes place in Three Chimneys, Va., where a young mother has given birth to 11 children and an organic farmer pays tribute to the new president with a mammoth wheel of cheese. Holman keeps all these wonderful characters - including the cows - grounded in her deeper themes about the debt one generation owes another and our lust for independence. (July 31)

DEAFENING, by Frances Itani, Atlantic Monthly, $24

Grania lost her hearing at the age of 5, and Itani narrates her life in a voice imbued with the cadences of the deaf girl's thoughts and sensibilities. Soon after she falls in love with a hearing man, he's sent to the trenches of World War I, described here with extraordinary effect. Despite its subjects - war, romance, disability - it's a story of measured emotion, bleached of all sentimentality. (Aug. 21)

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, by Jonathan Lethem, Doubleday, $26

Lethem won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for "Motherless Brooklyn," and his new novel opens nearby in the early 1970s on a street in Brooklyn that's teetering between gentrification and gang warfare. Lethem's mock-heroic voice, full of innocence and mischief, perfectly captures the challenges of childhood, the desperation to belong, the acute sensitivity to embarrassment, and the unquestioning endurance of adults' absurd behavior. (Sept. 11)

MIRROR MIRROR, by Gregory Maguire, Regan Books, $24.95

Once upon a time, there was a writer who spun fairy tales into novels for adults. Here, Maguire transports Snow White and the seven dwarfs to 16th-century Italy, and he knows just how to mix a villain's character with equal parts menace and folly. Part of the fun is the way Maguire fulfills but then thwarts expectations about where he's going next, crisscrossing well-worn details of Snow White with threads of history and myth in a weave that's entirely his own design. (Oct. 16)

THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING, by Laura Moriarty, Hyperion, $22.95

The narrator, 10-year-old Evelyn Bucknow, lives with her welfare mother in a small Midwestern town where she learns hard lessons about love and loss. Like any child, Evelyn confronts a world of baffling contradictions and competing claims for her affection, from which she must construct a moral code. There's no cheating in this novel, no phony breakthrough, or precious reconciliation, just a sweet, often comic series of tender moments spun from real-life battles. (July 13)

LOVE, by Toni Morrison, Knopf, $23.95

Readers who know Morrison's work only from her surreal classic "Beloved" will be surprised by the subtlety and humor of her latest novel, about a group of women who revolve around the memory of their late patriarch and lover. Morrison plays up the gothic comedy of these warring old women well, but she also presses deep into the complexity of their ruined affection for each other. Ultimately, "Love" reaches a point of real reconciliation, but it's cast, as it must be, in the dark light of lives wasted in conflict, spent trying to satisfy a man who should have been denied. (Oct. 28)

ALL OVER CREATION, by Ruth Ozeki, Viking, $24.95

Ozeki balances intimate and environmental concerns well in this story about a frustratingly irresponsible woman who ran away from her parents when she was 14. Now, 25 years later, hearing that her parents are near death, she returns to their Idaho farm and discovers that they're the heroes of a bus load of eco-hippies who worship her father's natural farming. It's a jungle of a plot, a riot of literary species, sown with strains of satire and tragedy. (March 13)

THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, by Richard Powers, FSG, $27

At the center of Power's new novel is an unlikely romance that develops between the daughter of a black doctor and a German physicist who's just escaped the anti-Semitism of Europe. They try to blend their different cultures in the lives of their children, but it's a hard melody to maintain amid the din of American racism. Powers has orchestrated a cast of characters rich enough to pose the most forbidden questions about race but sensitive enough to capture the most intimate struggle for identity. (Jan. 23)

MORTALS, by Norman Rush, Knopf, $26.95

With a breathless intensity that's both dazzling and exhausting, this story focuses on the fertile mind of an English teacher in Botswana. Ray is an American, a Milton scholar, a happily married man, and a spy with the CIA. We meet him just as the legs of his elegant life are buckling. Rush has re-created the mental life of an original man from the ground up, raising a host of profound questions about the limits of love and language. (June 5)

GOOD FAITH, by Jane Smiley, Knopf, $26

Smiley re-creates the 1980s real estate boom, along with the savings and loan debacle, but the novel stays tightly focused on a real estate agent in a small New England town who overextends himself to make a killing. The excesses of this era were so ludicrous that it would have been natural for Smiley to slip into parody, and there's plenty of wit here, but this is a novel of admirable restraint and sensitivity. (April 10)

EASTER ISLAND, by Jennifer Vanderbes, Dial, $22.95

Vanderbes explores an unusual sibling relationship between Elsa and her mentally handicapped sister on an expedition to Easter Island before World War I. The intensely private, beautifully intimate moments captured here between these sisters are like nothing I've read elsewhere. A parallel story develops by alternate chapters about a scientist in the 1970s who comes to the island after a bad marriage to a world-famous botanist. Among the many pleasures of this novel are the scientific issues laced so gracefully through these lives. The archeological details are fascinating and even suspenseful. (May 29)

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