It's a tight race between two contenders for the year's finest novels and both ("North Woods" and "Blackouts") are shape-shifty fictions that incorporate real events and people, that experiment with multiple narrative forms and that leave the reader dazzled by the writer's inventiveness and daring.

"North Woods" gets the edge because Mason — a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for "A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth" (he lost to Louise Erdrich ) — is so successful at everything he attempts in a book about a house in the woods in New England. Over about three centuries, we meet successive residents of the house, who include land thieves, a murderer, a tree, apple farmers, a beetle, furtive lovers and a hard-boiled detective who thinks he's smarter than he is.

You could argue "North Woods" is more like linked stories than a novel (a beloved writer who shall remain nameless told me she didn't connect emotionally to the book because it doesn't spend enough time with any individual characters). But if you think about the house as a "Being There"/Chauncey Gardiner-like protagonist — seeing everything, judging no one, adapting to fit new tenants and circumstances — it's great fun to sit back and marvel at the narrative guises Mason assumes as he shifts "North Woods" from love letters to newspaper articles, songs, land tracts, poetry and a mystery story.

Mason starts with a couple who are young, in love and about to imagine their first home: "At the brook, he found a wide, flat stone, pried it from the earth and carried it back into the clearing, where he laid it gently in the soil. Here." By the end of the book, it feels like nothing less than the story of America.

Blackouts

By Justin Torres

Winner of the National Book Award, "Blackouts" is about two characters, one of whom doesn't have a name. He's a hustler and he's taking care of Juan Gay, a dying friend he met while both were in a psychiatric hospital. Mostly, they tell each other stories in Torres' Gothic novel, which echoes Manuel Puig, Tennessee Williams and maybe Daphne du Maurier (opening line "I came to the Palace because the man I sought kept a room there" made me think of "Rebecca"). But Torres' follow-up to "We the Animals" feels like something brand-new (oh, it's also heavily illustrated with sometimes-graphic photos and drawings). In his review for the Star Tribune, Hamilton Cain called it the year's sexiest novel, a "tour de force" that's "brimming with queer history, racial defiance and the injustices of the Freudian era."

Tom Lake

By Ann Patchett

When I reviewed Patchett's latest, I suggested that it was going to stay with me for a long time. I was right. I'm still thinking about the novel about a woman who runs a Michigan cherry farm with her husband. During the pandemic (although it's not really a pandemic novel), their three adult daughters return home to isolate and help harvest the cherries. Like the fruit, the book covers territory both sweet and tart. As Lara tells her kids the story of a long-ago love affair with an actor who subsequently became famous, the family members grapple with what they want from life and whether they're on track to get it. Each daughter has a different response to their mother's stories (one sometimes wishes the actor were her father) and each realizes they're in the privileged position of being able to chart their futures, with a little help from the past.

Dust Child

By Nguy?n Phan Qu? Mai

Alice McDermott has received tons of praise for this year's "Absolution," which looks at the early days of the Vietnam War through the eyes of women whose husbands were stationed there as diplomats. But an even better look behind the scenes of Vietnam is Nguy?n Phan Qu? Mai's novel. It's told from the perspectives of three people: a sex worker named Trang, a young man named Phong, who hopes that finding his American father will help him make a better life for his family, and Dan, an American soldier who returns to Vietnam to find the child and lover he left behind. The Star Tribune's Tom Horgen wrote that "Qu? Mai's ability to plunge the reader into the perspective of a different character with each new chapter transforms 'Dust Child' into a page-turner."

The Librarianist

By Patrick deWitt

Why aren't more people reading deWitt, who's like a slightly warped Anne Tyler? His five tender, deWitty (sorry, not sorry) novels have been adapted into two movies ("The Sisters Brothers," "French Exit" ) but, somehow, they haven't reached a wide audience. The Canadian's latest is about quirky Bob Comet, a librarian who prefers books to people. Most of the key events of Bob's life take place in libraries, including pivotal encounters with his estranged wife and probably-estranged best friend. In an extended flashback, we learn more about why Bob is so human-averse and how his love of books could help him get out of his own head, once and for all. When I reviewed the fast, funny book, I called it "bright and entertaining from beginning to end" and, having subsequently read it a second time, I stand by that.

Birnam Wood

By Eleanor Catton

Three young New Zealanders form a collective to do environmental good and fight capitalism. Speaking of capitalism, an American billionaire becomes intrigued by the work the collective is doing and offers to finance their efforts. But is his interest legit? (The fact that the novel's title comes from "Macbeth" might be a clue that it isn't.) The motives of everyone — also including a nobleman who's not so noble and his forthright wife — are questioned in this follow-up to "The Luminaries," which made Catton the youngest Booker Prize winner. Bad decisions pile up as Catton puts the squeeze on her flawed but compelling characters (it's much more complicated than "environmentalists = good/billionaires = bad"). Hamilton Cain wrote that the pulse-pounding literary thriller is "one of this year's most sophisticated, stylish, and searching works, a full-on triumph from a once-in-a-generation talent."

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

By James McBride

The "Deacon King Kong" and "The Good Lord Bird" writer returns with another boisterous, tragicomic tale of community. This time, it's Pottstown, Pa., in 1972, when a skeleton is discovered at the bottom of a well. McBride takes his time telling us how it got there, starting with flashbacks to 1925, when white, Jewish and Black residents lived in harmony in Pottstown's Chicken Hill neighborhood. The memorable characters include gangsters, speakeasy proprietors, hapless rabbis and an intimidating cobbler. As a succession of new narrators picks up the story, McBride shows how people with one thing in common — poverty — figured out they were stronger if they stuck together. In her Star Tribune review, author Jenny Shank wrote that the acclaimed McBride once again "lives up to expectations, delivering an entertaining, meaningful story about the community formed when people take advantage of America's opportunities for cross-cultural connection."

The Caretaker

By Ron Rash

The tense opening scene features a soldier in the Korean War. It's a frigid night and Jacob can hear enemy soldiers creeping ever closer until he's in hand-to-hand combat with one on an icy lake, as it begins to crack beneath them. There's an emotional precariousness to the rest of the tale, which has to do with Jacob's wife, Naomi, back home in Appalachia. Jacob's wealthy family disowned him when he wed his impoverished bride so he has had to entrust her care to his best friend, Blackburn. One problem: Blackburn also loves Naomi. An even bigger problem: Jacob's parents will stop at nothing to split up Naomi and their son. Praising Rash's characterizations, Star Tribune reviewer Malcom Forbes wrote that "Caretaker" is "one of Rash's finest novels, impressing on multiple levels. Rash expertly toggles back and forth to reveal key developments at different moments in time."

A Council of Dolls

By Mona Susan Power

Drifting between the past and present, Minneapolis-based Power's moving novel — long-listed for the National Book Award — tells the story of three Native American women and three dolls, revealing how the dolls, as Carol Memmott wrote in her review for the Star Tribune, "give comfort to generations of Indigenous women struggling to connect with their history and themselves." An enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux and a graduate of both Harvard and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Power draws on her own family history in a novel that encompasses the kidnapping of Native children who were forced to attend boarding schools far from home, amid other forms of bigotry. There's an element of magic in "Council," whose characters speak to their dolls and believe they answer back, but its concerns are real-world. Memmott wrote that "the power of pushing back against racism and culture erasure gives this hypnotic novel's characters the strength to move forward."

The End of the World is a Cul de Sac

By Louise Kennedy

In his upcoming Star Tribune review of Kennedy's debut story collection, Cory Oldweiler praises the "Trespasses" author's lyrical language and deft character sketches. The stories in "End of the World" all deal with Irish women or girls who are haunted by bad choices or hard knocks: a woman whose brother murdered a man in the Troubles, a pregnant woman abandoned by her husband, a woman let down by both her husband and her lover, a hopeful mother taking her child to a speech therapist, a young "fiancée" trying to figure out how to tell the American woman she's taking on an impromptu tour of Ireland that the American's late son had not actually asked her to marry him. Many of the stories are bleak, but Oldweiler's lone complaint was that he'd like a whole book about some of the characters we only get to spend 20 pages with.

Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma

By Claire Dederer

When magazine articles become books, too often the result is a work that soared at 5,000 words but feels padded and repetitive at 60,000. That's not the case with Dederer's thrilling collection, which grew out of an essay in Paris Review. The "dilemma"? What to do with work we love by people who do horrible things. In other words, is there any way to watch "Chinatown" without being disgusted by the behavior of director/actor Roman Polanski or to read "Lolita" without conflating its pedophile antihero with author Vladimir Nabokov? In chapters devoted to Polanski (whose "monstrousness," she writes, is as vast as the Grand Canyon), Woody Allen, Nabokov (whom she defends, definitively) and Pablo Picasso, Dederer addresses our ability to hold two competing ideas in our heads at the same time.

Dederer is especially good at examining how personal our responses are to art and to the transgressions of artists. Just as many people voted for Donald Trump despite unsavory things they knew about him (the "dilemma" that began Dederer on the path to her book), maybe some of us can enjoy Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" without thinking about him (it's harder, of course, with a movie such as "Annie Hall," in which he appears as a version of himself). Nobody said it was going to be easy to make choices, whether in politics or trips to the multiplex.

The writer also looks in the mirror, examining her own failings as a human being and weighing them against those of art giants. Dederer lucidly lays out her conclusions in a provocative, wildly entertaining book that eschews definitive answers but asks one fascinating question after another.

Poverty, by America

By Matthew Desmond

Like "Monsters," it's a book that could alter the way you see the world. Desmond's follow-up to his trailblazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Evicted" (in which he embedded himself with Milwaukeeans with insecure housing) also takes a deep dive into poverty and injustice. It also doesn't pretend to be balanced. It reads almost like a passionate speech, urging us to dig deeper, to forget what we think we know as we try to understand the inequities upon which America was built. Citing movements such as Minneapolis' Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), Desmond asks us all to become "poverty abolitionists" and to recognize that when those of us who are keeping our heads above water encounter someone who isn't, those circumstances are related. He also lays out a plan he says would "fix" poverty in America, which makes "Poverty, by America" a surprisingly hopeful work.

The Talk

By Darrin Bell

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Bell's book is a memoir in the form of a graphic novel. As he begins contemplating giving "the talk" (about how to navigate encounters with police) to his son, Bell reflects on his own youth — when, because his Black father was out of the picture, his white mom had to give him "the talk." Bell also looks back at the journey — romantic, embarrassing, scary, inspiring — that drove him from childhood in Los Angeles to creating a daily newspaper comic strip and other cartoons for the New Yorker and elsewhere. Each page of the lively, handsome book (which Bell created digitally, rather than with pen and paper) contains something vivid or funny or heartbreaking — often all three. In his Star Tribune review, Chris Barsanti wrote that the bittersweet book "minimizes overt commentary, making satiric jabs, instead, with brevity, wit, insight and humanity."

Wifedom

By Anna Funder

Essayist Funder had long been a fan of "Animal Farm" writer George Orwell but when she began to examine his life and work, she had some questions. Why, for instance, did he never mention his wife by name when he covered the Spanish Civil War, although she typed and edited his notes, faced more danger than he did and arguably did more valuable work? The more Funder looked into the relationship between George and Eileen Orwell, the more she saw Eileen's uncredited role in her husband's accomplishments. Funder's bold, bracing book blends nonfiction with novelistic passages (clearly delineated) in which she imagines Eileen's activities, as well as a sort-of memoir, in which Funder questions the idea of "the woman behind the man." Her conclusion? "Wifedom is a wicked magic trick we have learned to play on ourselves. I want to expose how it is done and so take its wicked, tricking power away."

Ghosts of the Orphanage

By Christine Kenneally

"A damning book, from start to finish," is how former Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel summed up "Ghosts" in her review. Kenneally's focus is St. Joseph's Orphanage in Vermont, which she describes as "a factory of pain," but her tale of the abuse and torture of children also includes Native boarding schools as well as children's homes in Ireland, Canada and Australia, most of them run by the Catholic Church. Kenneally combines exhaustive interviews with surviving nuns, some who were themselves victims of abuse (one observes, "We had permission to kick the children"), and their victims, who remain traumatized half a century after the events they describe. Hertzel wrote that Kenneally "chips away at the secrets, finding documentation and corroboration. The reportage in this book is impeccable. She never says more than she can prove, but she also never says less."

Master Slave Husband Wife

By Ilyon Woo

In the market for a true story that reads with the tension of a pulse-pounding thriller? How about this wouldn't-believe-it-except-every-word-is-true premise: Ellen and William Craft escape the Georgia plantation where they are enslaved in 1848. They make their way north — on trains, boats and carts — in disguise: Ellen (whose father also was her "owner") takes advantage of her light skin and pretends to be a white man, traveling with her attentive slave (William). Woo's fast-paced narrative follows them on 12 legs of their journey to freedom, hounded by slave catchers and their own occasional slip-ups. In a story that seems tailor-made for the movies, the Crafts eventually became advocates for emancipation and suffrage, and even reunited with long-lost family. Woo has said her goal is a "dramatic history that reads like a novel" and, in the spellbinding "Master, Slave," she manifested that.

Fever in the Heartland

By Timothy Egan

Who knew Indiana was a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan — and white supremacy — in the 1920s? D.C. Stephenson is the vile antihero of this provocative history by Egan, whose other books include "The Worst Hard Time." Texan Stephenson's goalposts included becoming a KKK Grand Dragon, turning his adopted state of Indiana into the one with the highest per-capita KKK membership, planning a run for president of the United States — oh, and almost getting away with murder. His victim was the book's other main character, Madge Oberholtzer, whose brief relationship with Stephenson ended with her tragic demise. Egan's book is filled with astonishing and entertaining details (women in the KKK used cones under their hoods to protect their hairdos) but its story — a warning about the horrors that result when we fall under the spell of a demagogue — is a sobering one.

Black and Female

By Tsitsi Dangarembga

"The force that propels my narrative through the damage is the hope not to be consumed, not to have my being rotted away, by the trauma," writes Dangarembga in her essay collection. "I write to raise mountains, hills, escarpments and rocky outcrops over the gouges in my history, my societies and their attendant spirits." The Zimbabwean writer's novel "Nervous Conditions" was cited by the BBC as one of the 100 books that most shaped our world. In her Star Tribune review of "Black and Female," Shannon Gibney called the essays "trenchant" for the way they grapple with the lingering effects of colonialism and explore efforts to achieve gender equity in Zimbabwe. Gibney wrote that she was moved by the essayist/playwright/filmmaker/novelist's reach across oceans to link her struggles with those of greats such as Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison.

Unraveling

By Peggy Orenstein

"This witty, irreverent memoir is, at heart, extremely serious," wrote Laurie Hertzel of a book that might not sound like it is. Subtitled "What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool and Making the World's Ugliest Sweater," it finds Orenstein facing multiple personal crises in the midst of the pandemic. Like many people, she responds by doing something with her hands. Unlike most of those people, she doesn't just knit a sweater but gathers her own wool and then cards and dyes it. The heavy (and not-as-ugly-as-she-claims) result is a sweater suitable only for when the Californian visits her father in Minnesota. But the point of the book is to talk about the environment, family and the work women do: "Making something from nothing is the quintessential magic of women, whether turning fiber to thread or flour to bread or engaging in the ultimate creative act: conjuring new humans from nowhere at all."

Fire Weather

By John Vaillant

A roundup of books about famous fires led several readers to write to ask, "Have you read 'Fire Weather'? It's fantastic." Thanks, guys! Vaillant's National Book Award finalist comes in three parts. The first establishes the context for what he calls the most intense fire on Earth, ever. It was in 2016 in Alberta, and it was brought about by a perfect storm: a dry spring, high winds, leafless trees, short-sighted officials and denial. A forest fire quickly torched nearly the entire city of Fort McMurray, which becomes the book equivalent of a disaster movie in Vaillant's gripping second section. His reporting gifts are complemented by an imaginative ability to help us understand, for instance, how 19th-century beaver pelt traders were like Netflix and how a fiberglass bus shelter could melt like a milk bottle. Vaillant's spectacular book is also, unfortunately, an urgent one.

Contenders: Two Native Baseball Players, One World Series

By Traci Sorell, illustrated by Arigon Starr

Two outstanding Native American baseball players faced each other in the 1911 World Series. Charles "Al" Bender, an Ojibwe, grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. John Meyers, a Cahuilla, grew up in California. "Contenders" tells the true, inspiring story of their respective journeys from poverty and boarding schools to the big leagues of baseball. Sorell, winner of a Sibert Honor for "We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga," a powerful book about the Ojibwe world vision, is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Starr, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, is a storyteller, artist and writer.

Together they bring their expertise to this serious and lovely book. It lays out the ups and downs — the victories, as well as the obstacles, primarily in the form of racism — that the two young ballplayers experienced. Bender was a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics who tossed the Series-winning game; Meyers was a catcher for the New York Giants (after a stint with the St. Paul Saints). The racism the two endured is shocking and unnerving to read today but was matter-of-fact for the time. In an article, the New York Times wrote, "Maybe they wished they had tomahawks in their hands instead of a bat and a baseball." Sorell's prose is straightforward and well-researched. Starr's hand-drawn and digital illustrations are realistic, inspired by photographs of the time and embellished with gorgeous borders of Cahuilla and Ojibwe designs. This is a riveting story and a sobering one, with historical context and sources at the end of the book along with a reminder that, "More than one hundred years later, Native athletes today still face these same challenges. Tomahawk chops and derogatory chants and signs can be seen and heard at stadiums and ballparks."

Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel, special to the Star Tribune

Fraser the Forest Ranger

By Matthew Schufman

Fraser the forest ranger lives alone in a cabin in the woods. He loves the woods. He loves his life. But he's lonely. "Fraser thought it might be nice to meet someone new." Maybe then he wouldn't have to play himself in checkers. Maybe then someone could help paddle his canoe. And so he sets out to find a friend. He explores the city — too unfriendly. He visits a beach — too hot. It isn't until he accidentally enters the wrong cabin, back in the woods, that he finds someone who is a lot like him. St. Paul author/illustrator Schufman has written a poignant tale of loneliness and friendship. His paint, paper and digital illustrations have a childlike feel, with flat perspective and backgrounds that look as though they were drawn with crayons. His message is sweet: Sometimes the thing you're looking for is right next door.

Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel, special to the Star Tribune

Coyote's Wild Home

By Lily Kingsolver and Barbara Kingsolver, illustrated by Paul Mirocha

Diana and her grandfather set out for the woods. A young coyote emerges from its den with its aunt, who will teach him how to hunt. In parallel stories, Lily Kingsolver and her mother, novelist Barbara Kingsolver, take the reader through Diana's day and the coyote's day. Diana tries fishing but gets skunked. The coyote tries to catch a mouse but misses. Both learn about the woods and its creatures from their wise elders. By evening, when they pitch their tent and hear the coyotes howl, Diana is no longer afraid. "Coyote's Wild Home" is a good introduction to the ecosystem around us and a way for children to learn that they are not removed from the natural world, but are part of it. Paul Mirocha's realistic paintings and scientific context, at the end of the book, add to the educational value of this simple tale.

Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel, special to the Star Tribune

Something, Someday

By Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Christian Robinson

It's a scary world out there, and children are aware. Gorman's "Something, Someday" is a book to pull out when a child is feeling overwhelmed. "You're told that what's going on is very, very sad," she writes, plainly and honestly. "But you're not just sad. You're scared. And confused. You're angry." The child in the book might be confused and scared, but he is not discouraged. He still finds great beauty in the damaged world around him. He finds treasure in trash; he sees potential where others have given up. Page by page, Gorman's spare words and the paint, collage and digital illustrations by Caldecott Honor artist Robinson grow lovelier and lovelier. Children pull together and pitch in. Flowers bloom where there had once been trash. Gorman — the poet for President Joe Biden's inauguration — delivers a strong, reassuring message of hope.

Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel, special to the Star Tribune

Eleven Words for Love: A Journey Through Arabic Expressions of Love

By Randa Abdel-Fattah, illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Abdel-Fattah's book begins, "There are eleven words for love, and my family knows them all." This rhythmic sentence is repeated throughout the lovely book, which illustrates the many different ways there are to care. The words are Arabic, the author's first language. There is Ta'alloq, a love between sisters, "two hearts that cling tight." There is al-Mahabba, a love between neighbors, "baked cakes, plant watering, small talk at night." There is Showq, the love for one's homeland. There are 11 words, and the narrator's family knows them all. Each kind of love is illustrated by Clarke's vibrant double-page watercolor pencil collage paintings, which show both brown- and pink-skinned people embracing, playing, chatting over the fence. Abdel-Fattah's poignant rhyming story celebrates the many ways we cherish the world and the people in it.

Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel, special to the Star Tribune

Ups and Downs: A Book of Emotions

By Mike Wohnoutka

A child's moods can change in an instant, and in Wohnoutka's "Ups and Downs" they do, on every page. From worried (a little violinist, pre-concert) to confident (during her solo). From lonely (a girl sitting alone at lunch) to hopeful (when another child st