Daniel Mark Epstein
The Ballad of Bob Dylan (Harper)
Dylan biographies abound, but there's room for one more, as long as it's as insightfully written as this one. Epstein makes no apologies for being a longtime Dylan fan; in fact, he turns that into one of his book's greatest strengths, not shying from the highs and lows that come with fandom. The Baltimore resident structures his narrative around four Dylan shows he's attended over the years—concerts that correspond to important developments in Dylan's career. He examines them with passion and precision, consistently nailing what makes Dylan such a fascinating figure. Because so much has been written about Dylan's early career, this book's greatest appeal will be its focus on the last 14 years, a period of intense creative resurgence for rock's great bard. Here, Epstein talks to former Dylan band members and associates to craft a look into his artistic process and longevity. Along the way, he astutely notes Dylan's evolution from wise-cracking '60s child to wizened grandfather—a transformation that both humanizes and dignifies its subject.
Madison Smartt Bell
The Color of Night (Vintage)
Since his acclaimed Haitian trilogy and biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Bell has, most memorably, written historical fiction about a roguish Confederate general (2009's Devil's Dream). For this novel, he weaves a tale of messianic violence and sexual domination that drifts from the Manson murders through 9/11. He ties these blood-soaked narratives to the periods of social upheaval that spawned them, illuminating how easily revolutionary intentions can turn into nihilistic perversions. Bell deftly implies that, if we grow numb to such occurrences, the night will be long and colorless.