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“I couldn’t connect with the characters.” As readers, we’ve all said that, at one time or other, and if you’ve written for publication, I guarantee you’ve heard it from agents or editors who turned down your work. But what does it imply? Is that connection entirely subjective, a matter of taste, and therefore meaningless except for that audience of one? After all, what kind of connection can you expect when there are so many books written about so many different characters?

I thought about these questions as I compiled my annual list of favorite books I’ve reviewed in the past year. They include three mysteries, a thriller, two picaresques, a Holocaust novel, a snapshot of youth, another of old age, and a tale of an infamous miscarriage of justice. I call just about all of them literary. But the one common thread? The characters compelled me. I wanted to know more about how they felt, because I could feel along with them. I expected to learn something about human nature from them, and I did.

Contrast that with two much-heralded novels I put aside recently, one about a woman who explores the Arctic, and the other, about a lynching. Compelling premises? Sure. Beautiful sentences? You got ’em. But these novels didn’t grab me. I didn’t know how the characters felt, even though the authors tried to tell me–and the problem wasn’t just that the narratives told rather than showed. The authors must have thought they created an emotional connection, but I felt none. I thought I was reading about events or actions or attitudes, and however unusual or significant they were, attention-grabbing by their content, they remained abstract.

Not that it’s easy to write that emotional connection. Last month, I attended a workshop given by the literary agent Donald Maas about his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which I’ve mentioned before. I’d gone to the workshop with a half-completed novel–half a house completed, if you will–and hoped to find out what could help me pull it together and finish it. By the third day, I realized that all I had was a big hole in the ground and a lot of building materials scattered around it.

So I’m very impressed with the following books and authors, who, no matter what their story or premise, have created that elusive emotional connection. In no particular order:

The Ballroom, by Anna Hope, tells of a man and woman trapped in a paupers’ institution in Yorkshire in 1911, and how he courts her through smuggled letters, unaware that she can’t read. Another desperate institutional romance, The Golden Age, by Joan London, takes place in an Australian sanitarium for juvenile polio victims in 1946. The kids, though stricken with a life-changing and potentially fatal disease, are much healthier than their parents and have bigger hearts.

By contrast, Sabina Murray’s Valiant Gentlemen takes place on a very large stage, starting with the Congo in the 1880s. Murray dazzles you without being self-conscious and sifts through the most serious subjects without taking herself too seriously–only two of the many pleasures of this novel re-creating actual historical figures. Steven Price’s By Gaslight, equally evocative, takes you into London’s underworld of 1885. It’s a long book, 731 pages, and Price builds his enthralling tale atom by atom.

Darktown, Thomas Mullen’s terrific mystery about two African-American cops in late 1940s Atlanta, is so tense, you think the novel might combust at any moment. Its deeply explored theme, racial politics within law enforcement, couldn’t be more timely. Gods of Gold, Chris Nickson’s mystery set in late Victorian Leeds, depicts the bare-knuckles life of a dreary industrial English city as well as the uphill struggle to uphold the law. Nickson conveys a depth of feeling and atmosphere in remarkably few words.

When the judges are the criminals, as they are in Crane Pond, Richard Francis’s retelling of the Salem witch trials, there’s no end to deviltry. But if you think you know the story, think again, for this judge was the only one to repent his actions, and the man’s internal struggles are compelling indeed. Crane Pond may be the most memorable book I read this year. And speaking of struggle, Mary Doria Russell’s, Doc, as in John Henry Holliday, wants to live life to the fullest in frontier Dodge City. A brilliant dentist, virtuoso pianist, and card shark, he inspires almost universal respect–but he’s dying of tuberculosis at age twenty-two.

Paulette Giles offers a very different view of the West in News of the World, about an itinerant town crier who reads newspapers to audiences starved for stories of other places. His outlook, demeanor, and personal code make him an irresistible character; I wish I knew someone like him. Better yet, I wish he were running the country. Amor Towles tells an inverse story to that in A Gentleman in Moscow, about an enemy of the Soviet state who’s sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. From this circumscribed life springs a tense, richly emotional and intellectual journey on a Tolstoyan scale.

Coincidentally, the last three on the list are the last three I reviewed–or maybe it’s no coincidence, since I finish few books these days unless they truly draw me in. Golden Hill, Francis Spufford’s version of an eighteenth-century picaresque about a man arriving New-York in 1746 bearing a draft worth a thousand pounds, is a marvelous, page-turning moral tale. Is Richard Smith a bounder, a swindler, or an honest man worthy of immediate inclusion in high society? Everyone who’s anyone in New-York takes sides. A Single Spy, William Christie’s heart-stopping World War II thriller about an NKVD agent who doubles for the Abwehr, portrays a man who’s feral and disturbed, yet sympathetic. Impossible, you say? Read it and decide.

Finally, A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert, is simply one of the best Holocaust novels I’ve ever read. Set in Ukraine in 1941, her narrative has no heroes, speeches, nor forced redemptive moments, offering her characters only the chance of mercy.

As always, thanks for reading.