Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
This is an incredible sociological work: the author followed an impoverished extended family (and friends) around for a decade and wrote a book that documents their experiences. Thought-provoking, insightful, non-judgmental, and bleak, this is probably the most important book I read this year.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
This is just an adorably fun book about a nerdy, socially awkward aspiring writer going off to college. I saw a lot of myself in Cath, and the author does a fantastic job with the characters and their dialogue. Many would classify it as YA, but I'm not a fan of that genre and loved it anyway.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Genre: Historical Fiction/Historical Fantasy
A complex novel in interlocking puzzle pieces, with a protagonist who lives many versions of her life, with vastly different outcomes from seemingly small choices. I'm wary of very popular books, but this one lives up to the hype.
Zenzele by Nozipo Maraire
Genre: Contemporary/Historical Fiction
A Zimbabwean mother writes a long letter (or a short book) to her daughter at Harvard, relating her own experiences and her people's struggle for independence. A lovely, literary novel and an unusually positive work of African fiction.
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
Genre: Historical Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retelling
Both a retelling of Rapunzel and the story of the dramatic life of one of the first authors to pen that story. This is a lovely story with strong heroines and just the right mix of reality and fairy tale.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
This book feels like a fairy tale too, though it isn't based on any that I know of. It's a sparely written story of power, love, and vengeance, with very human characters but mythological dimensions.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
A multigenerational memoir of three generations of a Chinese family, spanning most of the 20th century. It's fascinating both as a memoir and as a popular history; I can't think of a better way to learn about China.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly
A page-turning fantasy adventure with great character development and a thoughtful portrayal of a society in flux. Also, it's full of women and includes my favorite character of this year.
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres
Genre: Historical Fiction
A literary novel about a small Turkish village circa World War I. Very few authors could capture the dynamics of a small, isolated, foreign village as believably as de Bernieres does here.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
A coming-of-age story of two teenage girls in Zimbabwe, and a highly critical look at patriarchy and colonialism. So insightful it's often painful to read, but worth the trouble.