Take a janitor raised by a Christian cult and stick him on a Greyhound bus to Vermont, where the Washburn Library, a secret society founded by an escaped slave in 1775, converts him into an "unlikely scholar," then sends him out into the world to make like a hero and save others. The winner of the 2010 Ernest J. Gaines Award, Victor LaValle takes on mammoth issues like faith and fundamentalism in his panoramic novel, Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau). The author, who describes himself as "a weird black kid" who grew up reading Stephen King, gets his horror groove on while also managing to be funny: "This white man stood about seven feet tall. And just as wide. His mother must've been a polar bear." A dark tale with a light touch.