The new novel by Joyce Carol Oates explores the high price of professional success in the life of one woman, M. R. The first female president of an Ivy League university, she has lofty goals for changing the academic climate on campus, but her ambition clashes with the militaristic post-9/11 political environment. And all the while, the Mudgirl lurks in her past. Oates combines richly observed descriptions and a burgeoning sense of dread to engrossing effect.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…