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Publishers Weekly Best Books 99


Date published: 11/1/1999
Source: "PW's Best Books 99", Publishers Weekly It is tempting to characterize 1999 as the windup year to the millennium, and to speculate about what our books say about us as we move into the next century. Of course, the best books published this year merely joined the ranks of literary efforts that attempt to explain the conditions of human existence in any time and place. In this 13th year of compiling our choices, the editors hewed to our perennial criteria: each title must garner the votes of a majority of the Forecasts staff as a work that makes a significant contribution to our society and culture.

As usual, PW editors were cognizant of the fact that the bestseller lists rarely reflect critics' choices. Only four of the fiction titles and three of our nonfiction choices earned that distinction this year, some quite briefly. All the more reason, then, to bring these books to readers' attentions once again.

In fiction, the outstanding narratives articulated the eternal search for love and fulfillment, the tragedies imposed by the abuse of power and the blunted lives of fortune's have-nots. Paradoxically, though it was somewhat easier than in past years to immediately select five or six titles that merited inclusion, it was more difficult to discriminate among an unusually large number of beautifully crafted but perhaps less dazzling novels and story collections. Thus the fiction list is somewhat shorter than we have traditionally run.

Perhaps the most notable element of those choices is the range of settings. Communities in the American heartland were no less exotic than the ethnic enclaves of urban New York or Boston. Indians in Massachusetts, a punctiliously polite Japanese man in upstate New York, Hasidim in the boroughs, cow punchers and rodeo riders in Wyoming and two spirited 19th-century women were among the characters who proved memorable. The transcendent art of Jan Vermeer inspired two writers, and the Civil War, WWII and Vietnam provoked others into recording soul-wrenching experiences. The element shared by all these books was their authors' ability to involve the reader in lives that resonate with our own.

In science fiction, fantasy and horror, novels by familiar names highlighted the season. The horror genre in particular enjoyed a renaissance, as two of its top names returned in great form.

Several of this year's best mysteries hail from England, in novels that emphasize psychological suspense. The best American mysteries came from veteran hands working in a variety of genres: police procedural, private eye and cozy.

Our nonfiction selections offer a range of meditations on the most fundamental aspects of human nature and existence, from the defining elements of womanhood to the roots of sexual orientation to the source of violence. One scientist even explores the nature of consciousness itself. Can biology shed light on psychology? Can the roots of human behavior be found in a study of the fruit fly? Is there such a thing as maternal instinct? Is evil a necessary element of life? And, going from the eternal questions to contemplation of the individual life, biography and memoir -- whether of a self-destructive pop icon like Elvis Presley or of a great humanitarian like Eleanor Roosevelt -- remain a rich lode for consideration of the basic questions of our existence.

This year's lifestyles books showed a weighty emphasis on healthful eating and daily habits. Authors of parenting titles turned their attention to the challenges of rearing boys.

If there were no p try blockbusters this year, there was a steady supply of excellent work from a variety of hands and houses.

The attention devoted to J.K. Rowling has ushered in an exciting time in children's books. The children's titles selected this year boast their share of seasoned award-winning authors and illustrators, yet they are sprinkled with a generous number of newcomers. The novels seemed either to gravitate toward fantasy or to take their inspiration from family stories; nonfiction titles leaned heavily toward memoir (a Holocaust rescuer, a true Cinderella story set in WWII China). Readers were the real winners this year.

Best Books were chosen by: Sybil Steinberg, fiction; Jeff Zaleski, mysteries and SF, fantasy and horror; Jeff Zaleski, Paul Gediman, Charlotte Abbott, Jonathan Bing and Sarah Gold, nonfiction; Diane Roback and Jennifer M. Brown, children's; Mark Rotella, lifestyles; Michael Scharf, p try; Jana Riess, religion; and Elizabeth Devereaux, children's religion.

Fiction



The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

Melissa Bank (Viking)

A standout among the current crush of titles about single women fixated on their biological clocks and lonely lives, this book of linked short stories is more than a chronicle of how 30-somethings search for romance. Bank's witty, distinctive voice animates her irreverent protagonist's attempts to play the mating game in the career crucible of Manhattan, where the rules prove ineffective against the caprices of fate.

England, England

Julian Barnes (Knopf)

In this brilliantly conceived and cleverly orchestrated fantasy, Barnes keeps one foot on solid English soil while imagining an alternate England on the Isle of Wight, with every cultural artifact reproduced as a theme park. The concept is invented by an unscrupulous promoter and ruled by a woman who lets her head run ahead of her heart. This is a spoof with an edge, a cynical look at consumerism that builds to an emotional denouement.

Industry of Souls

Martin Booth (St. Martin's)

Alexander Bayliss, a British businessman who was wrongly arrested in the Soviet Union as a spy during the 1950s and consigned to the gulag, is now living quietly in a Russian village, about to celebrate his 80th birthday. This luminous novel flashes back to his horrifying experience as forced labor in the mines, culminating in an act of exquisite compassion, and juxtaposes his resolutely simple life among the peasants to whom he is beloved as a teacher and a friend.

The Night Inspector

Frederick Busch (Crown/Harmony)

Though never identified by name, Herman Melville is the "night inspector" of customs in this provocative historical novel set in New York City just after the Civil War. The narrator, who encounters "H.M.," served as a sniper in the conflict; with his disfigured face covered by a mask, he is an anguished observer in the slums of the city, where society's outcasts pay a stunning price -- in degradation and violence -- for their powerlessness. With the ease of a master, Busch creates a powerful meditation on history, conscience and literary vocation.

A Star Called Henry

Roddy Doyle (Viking)

The first of a trilogy that aims to tell the history of 20th-century Ireland through the life of one man, this buoyantly imagined, lyrical but realistically detailed narrative has a blistering immediacy. Raised in a slum, Henry Smart must take his opportunities where he can. He becomes a member of the IRA, participates in the 1916 Easter Rising and later trains rebel soldiers, but finds his idealism waning as he realizes that the movement's leaders are motivated by greed for power. Larger than life, Henry's character is refracted through Doyle's bracingly cynical perspective.

House of Sand and Fog

Andre Dubus III (Norton)

Two cultures, and two beleaguered people beset by unlucky circumstance, clash with tragic results in this compassionate story of have-nots whose needs collide. A nearly impoverished former Iranian air force colonel in exile in California buys the home of a woman who was evicted in error. Pride, desperation and a need to save face propel the dignified Iranian into a violent confrontation with the woman and her police officer lover. Dubus's chronicle of the American Dream gone awry is distinguished by his sympathetic delineation of lower€“middle-class life.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

Nathan Englander (Knopf)

A wise and mature new voice surfaces in this debut collection, the work of a writer who commands a dazzling variety of literary styles and locales. Ranging from New York's Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, Russia and Europe, the stories encapsulate various stages of the Jewish experience in the diaspora. Pathos and hilarity mingle effortlessly as Englander's protagonists seek answers on how to live fully, morally and happily in the modern world -- a combination almost impossible to achieve.

Plainsong

Kent Haruf (Knopf)

Ordinary life in America's heartland is the authentically evoked backdrop against which Haruf spins a tale of domestic turmoil, sexual loneliness, unrelenting physical labor, parental love and the healing spirit of community. In a beautifully restrained narrative, he encapsulates both the provinciality and the warmth of rural existence, exemplified in the troubled lives of a high school teacher whose wife leaves him and their two young sons, a teenager who faces pregnancy without money or shelter and the two crusty old bachelors who rescue her. For characters riven by heartache, Haruf illumines the possibility of grace.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Wayne Johnston (Doubleday)

It takes a gifted writer to cobble together -- triumphantly -- a fictional life of historical figure J Smallwood, a terse and mordant minihistory of Newfoundland, a plot that bursts with Dickensian characters, a secret that will haunt a woman throughout her life, a smiling villain and unrequited love. In his grand and operatic novel, Canadian writer Johnston mixes intrigue, mystery and history against the background of a bitter-cold country fighting for identity and independence.

Waiting

Ha Jin (Pantheon)

The poignant, ironic dilemma of a man caught between Communist China's social policies and the dictates of his own heart illuminates this quiet but resonant novel. One feels sympathy for the three major characters: a military doctor who agrees to an arranged marriage and later falls in love with another woman; his wife, living in a remote village; and the nurse who chastely waits with him during the 18 years (starting in 1966) it takes to get a divorce. In addition to the affecting love story, this eloquent novel presents a trenchant picture of Chinese life under communism.

A Dangerous Friend

Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin)

Set in 1965 Vietnam as the U.S. is inching toward full-scale war, Just's powerful morality tale is a scathing chronicle of America's end of innocence. An idealistic, dangerously naïve government official gradually realizes that the purported high moral purpose of those who are masterminding U.S. intervention is actually empty and self-serving rhetoric. The protagonist's hubris gradually gives way to horror as he realizes the tragedy to which he has unwittingly contributed.

Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri (Holt/Mariner)

In nine bittersweet, elegantly crafted stories, Lahiri's Indian characters suffer from the dislocation of life in the alien culture of the U.S. Some, like the self-centered American-born couple in the title story, are unaware of the fragile balance of their unexamined lives; others cannot assuage their existential loneliness in being uprooted from their native environment. Lahiri's compassion for her rudderless characters d s not preclude the stringent use of irony and wit.

A Gesture Life

Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead)

Born in Korea, raised in Japan, settled sedately in America, Franklin "Doc" Hata, the protagonist of Lee's quietly stunning novel, is a model citizen of his upstate New York town. But he knows himself to be an outsider everywhere. In meticulously delicate degrees, Lee reveals the WWII psychic wound from which Hata never recovered, and the wounds his emotional reserve inflicted on his adopted daughter. Hardworking and dedicated to his community, striving for conformity and repentance, Hata has instead achieved an achingly empty life, which he finally learns how to redeem.

Bone by Bone

Peter Matthiessen (Random)

The conclusion and capstone of Matthiessen's remarkable trilogy about E.J. Watson, legendary Florida outlaw and entrepreneur, is a triumph of characterization and historical recreation. Murders, ambushes, lynchings, drownings, jailings, a trial and a spectacular hurricane provide the dramatic action. But it is the complex character of Watson himself, a product of a brutally dysfunctional family, the Southern code of honor, Civil War violence and the lawlessness of the frontier, who gives this novel the status of a classic.

The Last Life

Claire Messud (Harcourt Brace)

The legacy of France's colonial occupation of Algeria, and the violent revolution that exiled thousands of pieds noirs to the "home country" where they felt no sense of identity, haunts the characters in Messud's novel, which centers on the loss of innocence -- a young girl's, a family's, a nation's. From the seemingly secure world of her grandfather's resort hotel on France's Mediterranean coast, the teenage narrator witnesses the gradual destruction of her family's myth of invincibility.

Ahab's Wife

Sena Jeter Naslund (Morrow)

Using the events of Melville's Moby-Dick as point of departure, and writing elegant prose that is both appropriate to the era and vividly accessible, Naslund creates a sophisticated and irresistible epic novel -- part history, part adventure, part romance -- that brings the 19th century to life. Settings in Nantucket, Kentucky and aboard a whaling ship encompass many classes of society and range over the intellectual issues of the time, and Naslund's intelligent, spirited heroine, Una, is a character who is destined to endure.

A Prayer for the Dying

Stewart O'Nan (Holt)

O'Nan continues to show amazing versatility, constructing a stark and frightening fable in which character and fate intertwine in a situation of moral gravity. The narrator, a psychologically scarred Civil War veteran, is undertaker, constable and minister in a small prairie town suffering from a terrible drought. His feeling of responsibility for all the citizens of Friendship covers a thin veil of despair, and when a biblical combination of plague and fire draws closer, O'Nan's tour de force develops a mesmerizing intensity.

Close Range

Annie Proulx (Scribner)

The 11 stories in this volume pack a visceral punch as they chronicle the ironic fates encountered by the denizens of the harsh and treacherous Wyoming plains. Rodeo riders, failed ranchers and farmers, and lonely women are some of the hapless characters facing danger, death and despair who nonetheless summon a spartan determination to go on. Proulx's bleak, deadpan humor is pervasive, arising from the laconic, tart dialogue and her impeccable eye and ear for names, places and poignant secrets.

Fortune's Rocks

Anita Shreve (Little, Brown)

Handled with sensitivity, dignity and meticulous attention to period details, a love affair between a teenage girl and a man 26 years her senior, doubly scandalous for its time and place -- 1899 New England -- becomes in Shreve's hands both a compelling narrative and a fascinating chronicle of manners and mores at the turn of the last century. The court battle over custody of the child born of that union brings another level of suspense to the haunting story, which never strays from the path of credibility.

Amy & Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout (Random)

A close mother-daughter relationship deteriorates in the wake of adolescent sexual stirrings, a small community's gossip and the revelation of carefully guarded secrets. In a New England mill town, reclusive single mother Isabelle raises her daughter, Amy, strictly but lovingly, until a high school teacher becomes the seducer who will bring them both grief. Beautifully nuanced, the novel explores psychological relationships with subtle acuity.

Who Do You Love

Jean Thompson (Harcourt Brace)

With spare eloquence, Thompson surveys the lives of emotionally dislocated people craving connection, but infuses even the saddest situation with humor and a wry glimmer of hope. The 15 stories in this collection ring with an unpretentious integrity and a knowledge of human complexities.

Personal Injuries

Scott Turow (FSG)

An ambitious, unscrupulous trial lawyer who ends up fighting for his life is Turow's richest and most compelling character to date. Paradoxically complex -- a charming, clever and devious womanizer and a devoted husband -- Robbie Feaver is forced to cooperate in a sting to trap corrupt judges involved in payoffs. Fascinatingly detailed in the ways of the justice system, the novel also boasts an adroit and inventive plot.

Losing Nelson

Barry Unsworth (Doubleday/Talese)

A contemporary London man gripped in a mad obsession with Britain's greatest naval hero is the protagonist of Unsworth's striking psychological novel. Meticulously recreating each of Admiral Horatio Nelson's battles by deploying models in his basement, amateur biographer Charles Cleasby becomes deranged when he discovers that in 1799, his idol betrayed a group of antimonarchist Naples citizens and sent them to their deaths. Ingeniously blending historical details into the portrait of a disintegrating personality, Unsworth's suspenseful narrative culminates in a shocking denouement.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Susan Vreeland (McMurray & Beck)

The eight interlinked stories of this impressive debut follow the fate of a painting by Vermeer and illuminate the worth and truth of artistic masterpieces against a background of human frailty and historic inexorability. Beginning in the 20th century and gradually moving back to the 17th, when the painting was created, Vreeland's subtle and atmospheric tales acquire a cumulative power, generating dramatic tension and a poignant proof of ars longa, vita brevis.

The Music Lesson

Katharine Weber (Crown)

Another book in which a Vermeer painting is integral to the plot, Weber's literary psychological thriller revolves around an IRA plot to steal one of the master painter's works and demand ransom from the British government. The sophisticated but love-duped heroine, an American art historian, is a memorable character, and Weber's civilized prose propels the story with neatly measured strokes.



Mysteries

Some Deaths Before Dying

Peter Dickinson (Mysterious)

At the heart of this superb English country-house mystery is Dickinson's brilliant portrait of widow and photographer Rachel Matson, 90 years old and paralyzed, who uses her vast trove of personal photos and her keen observational skills to understand two crimes. Dickinson's first novel in five years, superbly crafted and highly original, finds this grandmaster of the genre in peak form.



High Five

Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's)

The action never stops, the dialogue snaps and the characters are Kodak sharp in bounty hunter and Jersey girl Stephanie Plum's new adventure. In this happily wacky and over-the-top entry to Evanovich's smart series, the disaster-prone Stephanie and her crew of sidekicks and relatives careen through numerous misadventures.

"O" Is for Outlaw

Sue Grafton (Holt/Wood)

The 15th Kinsey Millhone mystery finds the popular California PI digging into her past as she investigates two present-day crimes. The distinctive humor, sharp sense of place and crisp dialogue of the other Millhone novels are here in force, but this outstanding addition to the series offers as well a provocative contemplation of guilt and of decisions made long ago by one of the most popular heroines in mystery fiction.

Arms and the Women

Reginald Hill (Delacorte)

The exemplary English series featuring Yorkshire coppers Andy Dalziel and Peter Pasc veers in an entirely unexpected direction as Hill centers his new mystery on Pasc 's wife and surrounds her with a captivating gallery of female characters. This delightfully quirky, literate series entry works in British spies, Colombian drug bandits and Irish arms runners as it delivers a rare and intoxicating blend of danger and hilarity.

The Big Bad City; The Last Dance

Ed McBain (S&S)

1999 brought grateful fans the 49th and 50th novels of the 87th Precinct. In The Big Bad City, Isola detectives Steve Carella and Artie Brown hunt the killer of a nun; in The Last Dance, Carella and Meyer Meyer search for the murderer of an old man. After four decades, McBain still tells ripping good stories alive with the pulse of the city and as fresh as rain.

The Bird Yard

Julia Wallis Martin (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Grim and intense, Martin's new novel depicts evil slouching through the decaying back alleys and crumbing infrastructure of Manchester, England. The disappearance of a 12-year-old boy, which mirrors the murder of another boy five years before, plunges Detective Superintendent Parker, who's a shrewd and compassionate hero, and criminal psychologist Murray Hanson into a gripping case distinguished by a strong tone of malevolence and firm psychological underpinnings.

Family Honor

Robert B. Parker

(Putnam)

Best known for his macho Spenser PI books, Parker introduces his first female protagonist. She's Sunny Randall, Boston PI, every bit a woman but every bit as smart and tough as Spenser -- and her first adventure, involving a troubled young woman on the run from a killer, is a bravura performance, sleek and seductive, one of the best in years from the dean of American private eye writers.

The Breaker

Minette Walters (Putnam)

Mystery and psychological suspense meld perfectly in Walters's tantalizing, cleverly plotted new novel. When a woman is found murdered, and a toddler is discovered wandering in Dorset, local constable Nick Ingram gets immersed in a perplexing case whose sinuous plot and enigmatic characters are as captivating as newfound love.


Science Fiction Fantasy/Horror



Darwin's Radio

Greg Bear (Del Rey)

Bear plays to his strength -- cutting-edge scientific speculation -- in this riveting SF thriller about possible evolutionary apocalypse. As three scientists discover a catastrophic threat within humanity's genes, Bear, a master of hard SF, explores the nature of evolution and, through well-developed characters, the nature of the species that would control it.

Ender's Shadow

Orson Scott Card (Tor)

In a stand-alone parallel novel to his classic SF tale Ender's Game, Card follows the tribulations of the superhuman child Bean, who is sent to Battle School to learn to fight the alien, insectoid Buggers. Central to this immensely involving SF novel is Card's multihued portrait of Bean, strange and wonderful, tragic yet hopeful, as he grows toward empathy and true humanity.

Stardust

Neil Gaiman (Avon Spike)

The second novel from a superstar of graphic novels abounds in marvels and moral force. At once a magical fantasy, a charming love story and a fable about attaining one's heart's desire, this narrative about a young man's adventures in rural England and the land of Faerie employs exquisite language, natural wisdom, good humor and a dash of darkness to conjure a fairy tale in the grand tradition.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 10

Stephen Jones (Carroll & Graf)

The 10th volume of Jones's always exciting annual anthology offers the series's usual inspired mix of prime fiction from established names (Peter Straub, Dennis Etchison, Harlan Ellison, etc.) and, importantly, relative newcomers (Caitlín R. Kiernan, Kelly Link, etc.), thus pointing to the future as well as the present of the genre. What give this anthology its particular edge are its definitive annual recap of horror in all media and its invaluable annual necrology.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Stephen King (Scribner)

King, who this year also published the tantalizing Hearts in Atlantis, hit a home run with this brief but electrifying horror novel about a young girl lost in the Maine woods. Brutal, intensely suspenseful and aswarm with genuine emotion, the novel weaves backwoods terror, baseball, questions of faith and the travails of a heartbreakingly gutsy heroine into an exhilarating affirmation of the human spirit.

Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson (Avon)

Though scarcely SF, Stephenson's magnum opus, about code-breaking in the present and during WWII, appealed vigorously to his SF readership. And for good reason: the novel, an ambitious and superbly realized evocation of conspiracies and secret histories, is one of the most extravagant and imaginative literary creations in recent years.

Mr. X

Peter Straub (Random)

Straub fashions an ingenious variant on H.P. Lovecraft's classic shocker "The Dunwich Horror" in this gripping tale of a man who discovers that he has a malignant doppelgänger cutting a swath of supernatural destruction across the country. Evocative prose contributes to the thick atmosphere of apprehension that pervades this novel, both a compelling odyssey of self-discovery and probing study of human nature.

A Deepness in the Sky

Vernor Vinge (Tor)

Thousands of years in the future, humanity makes contact with an alien race, the Spiders, in Vinge's wholly absorbing prequel to his Hugo-winning space opera, A Fire upon the Deep. This is top-drawer hard SF -- fast-paced, packed with action, intellectually challenging and, above all, capable of invoking SF's grail: a genuine sense of wonder.





Nonfiction



Woman: An Intimate Geography

Natalie Angier (Houghton Mifflin)

Spirited and thoroughly informed (if admittedly biased), Angier's wide-ranging celebration of the female body engages the intellect and offers a rigorous challenge to male-oriented theories of biology. Who knew that 8000 nerve fibers gird the clitoris, providing double the sensitivity of the penis? Written with verve and wit, this is one of the year's most exhilarating reads.

Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience

Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Basic/Civitas)

Harvard professors Appiah and Gates -- an African and African-American, respectively -- have handily fulfilled W.E.B. Du Bois's vision of a sweeping encyclopedia of the history, literature and arts of the great continent and its diaspora. This exhaustive trove of more than 3000 articles and extended essays by more than 400 scholars is a landmark achievement that Du Bois himself could not have surpassed.

Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity

Bruce Bagemihl (St. Martin's)

This brilliant and important book challenges the belief that homosexuality is an aberration in nature by revealing the documented homosexual or transgendered behavior of 450 animal species. Contesting the idea that scarcity and functionality are the primary agents of biological change, biologist Bagemihl persuasively argues that abundance and extravagance are just as crucial to the mosaic of life.

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War

Mark Bowden (Grove Atlantic)

Bowden combines a graphic account of combat with a hard, informed look at U.S. military tactics in his gripping account of the October 1993 American raid into the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. This is military writing at its best.

If Love Is a Game, These Are the Rules

Cherie Carter-Scott (Broadway)

Blessed with a deep and mature understanding of human nature, Carter-Scott encourages readers even as she challenges them to careful self-examination. Her elegant meditation on building and sustaining an intimate partnership is a standout in a bread-and-butter category.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2: 1933€“1938

Blanche Wiesen Cook (Viking)

By explicitly placing Eleanor Roosevelt's political concerns about human rights, the role of women, racial justice and social welfare at the center of her masterful narrative, Cook offers a revealing look at U.S. foreign, domestic and social policy during FDR's first term, and a galvanizing testament to the difference that a woman acting on the courage of her convictions can make.

A Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

Antonio D'Amasio (Harcourt)

Tackling questions that p ts, artists and philosophers have contemplated for generations, neuroscientist D'Amasio draws on years of clinical research to make the profound and original argument that consciousness arises from our ability to map relations between the self and others through our emotions. This bold attempt to mend the classical breach between emotion and reason is all the more compelling for its p tic expression.

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Samuel R. Delany (New York Univ.)

Best known for his science fiction, Delany issues a provocative and passionately argued cri de c ur against New York City's gentrification in the name of "family values and safety" and extols the virtues of a society that not only tolerates but values a public sexual culture. His idiosyncratic and bracing blend of personal history and cultural criticism emphasizes how the kaleidoscopic possibilities of urban diversity can bestow greatness upon a city.

For the Time Being

Annie Dillard (Knopf)

In a risk-taking and inspiring meditation on life, death, God, evil, eternity and the human predicament, Dillard makes real the world's suffering and the inevitable interconnectedness of humanity. Her lyricism further elevates this scrapbook of existential essays imbued with a powerful spiritual yearning, moral urgency and reverence for nature.

Gone Boy: A Walkabout

Gregory Gibson (Kodansha)

Shortly before Christmas 1992, an alienated student went on a shooting rampage at Simon's Rock College in western Massachusetts, wounding four people and killing two, one of whom was Gibson's 18-year-old son. What distinguishes this book is how Gibson transcends his rage and becomes capable of mounting a searching, moving exploration into the combination of causality and randomness that surrounds his son's death.

Faster

James Gleick (Pantheon)

Funny and irreverent as always, Gleick offers, nonetheless, a serious -- and refreshingly contrarian -- view of time management, technological "improvements" and the instantaneity of everyday life. Though "hurry sickness" is endemic in our culture, he shows how time d sn't go by faster despite all the rushing. This is a rare book that cuts through hype and reveals a fundamental truth about how we live our lives.

Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey

Jane Goodall with Phillip Berman (Warner)

The world-famous primatologist presents a spiritual autobiography that is both compelling and inspiring. From her beginnings as an inquisitive child in England through her trail-blazing work with chimps in Africa to her current role as an ambassador for environmental and animal causes, Goodall maintains a sustained belief in the power of good over evil, despite a significant share of personal tragedy.

Letters of the Century: America 1900€“1999

Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler (Dial)

These 425 letters, gathered by a husband-and-wife team, form a riveting epistolary chronicle of the 20th century. Written by the famous, the not-so-famous and the not-yet-famous, the letters are the work of such figures as Carl Van Doren, Huey Long, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lillian Hellman and a Vietnam soldier named Dusty. This is one of the most original literary tributes to the closing century.

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)

An epic American tragedy is captured in all its complexity by Guralnick in the second and final volume of his definitive account of the life of Elvis Presley. Following the singer's trajectory from his army service in 1960 through his sad, drug-surfeited final days, Guralnick shows in a scrupulously documented narrative how the insecure, fatally undisciplined performer was his own worst enemy.

Coleridge, Volume II: Darker Reflections, 1804€“1834

Richard Holmes (Pantheon)

In the concluding volume of this brilliant biography, Holmes follows the p t-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge through his many travails -- opium addiction, marital strife, unrequited love -- to his final, peaceful years as "the Sage of Highgate." Holmes renders a rich, vibrant portrait of one of the avatars of Romanticism.

Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Pantheon)

Our culture's exalted view of motherhood, argues sociobiologist Hrdy, is sentimentally appealing but fails to account for the wide range of maternal "instincts." As a corrective, her iconoclastic study plumbs the complexities of maternal ambivalence and ambition, female sexuality and infant need, in an exhaustive social and psychological history of childbearing across many species that will endure both as a reference and for Hrdy's inspired theories.

The First World War

John Keegan. (Knopf)

In a riveting narrative that puts diaries, letters and action reports to good use, British military historian Keegan delivers a stunningly vivid history of the Great War. He is as adept at probing the hearts and minds of lowly soldiers in the trenches as he is at examining the motivations of the generals and politicians who directed the maelstrom.

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929€“1945

David M. Kennedy (Oxford Univ.)

Rarely d s a work of historical synthesis combine such trenchant analysis and elegant writing. For its scope, its insight and its purring narrative engine, Kennedy's book will stand for years to come as the definitive account of the critical decades of the American century.

Years of Renewal

Henry Kissinger (Simon & Schuster)

In addition to the light it sheds on Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Leonid Brezhnev and other world leaders, the third and final volume of Kissinger's memoirs is an education in the infinitely complex relationship between foreign policy and domestic politics. Kissinger was a shrewd courtier and ferocious bureaucratic infighter, and he takes a deadpan delight in showing readers just how adept he was.

Another Life: A Memoir of Other People

Michael Korda (Random)

In this charming, brightly amusing book, Korda gives a candid and warmly knowledgeable survey of the past 40 years of American publishing. He creates for himself a persona of guileless innocence coupled with quiet sophistication as he describes the countless trenchant characters of S&S's founding family as well as his colleagues. Anyone who can match Korda's hopeless and enduring passion for the book business will be delighted and touched by his endearing saga.

The Basque History of the World

Mark Kurlansky (Walker)

In his signature style, Kurlansky fuses political and economic history with delightful digressions (and recipes) to tell the story of the Basque people. This wildly informative work is a marvel of clarity, glittering with unusual facts and marked by penetrating insights into a people always "making complex choices about the degree of independence that was needed to preserve their way of life."

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

This enthralling story of how the Scholastic Aptitude Test became enshrined in U.S. culture is told through the lives of the crusaders who, in the aftermath of WWII, dreamed of making American universities into a "national personnel department" based on merit rather than heredity. Lemann's keen and original analysis of the troubled course of this vision is indispensable to current affirmative action and education debates.

'Tis

Frank McCourt (Scribner)

The sequel to Angela's Ashes takes McCourt from his arrival in America and subsequent service in the Korean War through the mid-1980s. Like its predecessor, this memoir features a mesmerizing narrative fraught with sufferings. It triumphs by effecting a genuinely comic meditation upon human frailty, grace and possibility.

Out of Place: A Memoir

Edward Said (Knopf)

The noted literary scholar and author of Orientalism offers a full-blooded memoir that is a passionate account of his intellectual and moral development. At the heart of Said's story is the sense of dislocation experienced by a boy whose father was a Palestinian-born American citizen, whose mother was Lebanese, and who was raised in Egypt under the colonial rule of the British. This is the moving tale of a man who is always an outsider.

Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation

John Phillip Santos (Viking)

With the exquisite craft of a p t, Santos weaves a traditional memoir of growing up in San Antonio, Tex., together with ancient Mexican history, interviews with ghosts and his own sacramental journeys to create an emblematic account of one of the thousands of Mexican families who fled to El Norte during the Mexican Revolution. Born of his passionate resistance to the loss of his family's historical memory, his testament fills a significant void in Chicano literature.

Morgan: American Financier

Jean Strouse (Random)

Often celebrated as the ideal capitalist or excoriated as the robber baron who most epitomized the iniquities of the Gilded Age, J. Pierpont Morgan has at last gained a biographer whose talents match his enormous legacy. The Morgan who emerges from these pages is, for all his hard ambition, not merely ruthless and greedy, as Strouse humanizes -- without shrinking or whitewashing -- one of America's mythic figures.

Physics in the 20th Century

Curt Suplee (Abrams)

From atoms to black holes, from the microcosmic to the simply cosmic, this book -- an unexpected offering from a house known for its art tomes -- reveals in breathtaking fashion the development of physics in this century. The informed, clear text by Suplee, a Washington Post science writer and editor, guides readers expertly through complex theories and marvelous inventions, while more than 200 photos vivify his points in what is the most memorable coffee-table book of the year.

A Book of Reasons

John Vernon (Houghton Mifflin)

Vernon's memoir of how he tried to understand the life and death of his reclusive older brother, Paul, turns into a highly discursive exploration of everyday objects and the meanings they hold. As Vernon's prose ricochets from Paul's possessions to his own, he gives readers both a description and an example of how a writer's mind forges a web of connections among the objects and ideas of the world. It is a beautiful performance lit by stark, revealing bursts of language and delivered with the gravity of liturgy.

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior

Jonathan Weiner (Knopf)

This vigorously engrossing biography brings out of the shadows one of the unsung pioneers of molecular biology: brash, eccentric physicist-turned-biologist Seymour Benzer. By studying tiny genetic mutations in the fruit fly, Benzer seeks to shed light on the question of whether genes determine behavior. Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, presents an elegant scientific detective story.

The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War

Eileen Welsome (Dial)

In an outstanding and shocking exposé, journalist Welsome uncovers the history of federal experimentation on American citizens without their knowledge. Building on her Pulitzer Prize-winning articles revealing how 18 unsuspecting individuals were injected with plutonium, she demonstrates how thousands of people, both civilians and military personnel, were exposed to radiation, leading in some cases to excruciating side effects and death.

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

Garry Wills (Simon & Schuster)

Wills contends that the Contract with America, which the Republican party rolled out as a major platform during the 1994 congressional campaign, embodied not a healthy wariness of power but a calcified and dangerous antigovernmentalism. Ultimately, his tour of antigovernment sentiment throughout U.S. history is an eloquent plea for the American electorate to view government as a "necessary good."





Religion

Letter to a Man in the Fire: D s God Exist and D s He Care?

Reynolds Price (Scribner)

This wise book consists of Price's response to a 1997 letter he received from a medical student stricken with cancer. Price telephoned and then followed up with this long, eloquent letter on the nature of suffering and the justice and righteousness of God. Price courses through the Bible, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, Dante, T.S. Eliot and Milton as he attempts to offer solace to a suffering fellow soul.

A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism

David Hartman (Jewish Lights)

In a series of eloquent essays, Hartman (A Living Covenant) celebrates the great diversity that exists within contemporary Judaism. Most of the essays here focus on the author's "continuing belief in the possibility and necessity of building educational bridges" among Jews. Hartman's incisive wit, passionate heart and loving soul animate his desire for religious diversity and understanding.

Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army

Diane Winston (Harvard)

In this first-rate social and religious history, NYU research fellow Winston traces the development of the Salvation Army from 1880, when it first arrived in New York, to 1950. The Army used the forces of urbanization and commercialization, including dramatic performances and street parades, to its advantage, shaping urban religion along the way. Winston's lively study is a must-read for anyone interested in the Salvation Army as a case study for the interrelationship of religion and culture.

God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization

A.N. Wilson (Norton)

In this splendid book, Wilson points out that the 19th century provided the context for various theories of God's demise. Wilson profiles some of the century's most famous intellectual challengers to faith, especially Darwin, George Eliot, James, Marx and Engels. Wilson's eloquence and amazing intellectual breadth make this one of the best-ever contributions to the intellectual history of religion (or rather, irreligion).

Coming Out Spiritually: The Next Step

Christian de la Huerta (Putnam/Tarcher)

For many years, Q-Spirit founder de la Huerta contends, gays and lesbians have been forced by organized religion to separate their sexual identities from their spiritual identities. In this courageous book, de la Huerta encourages "queers" (his chosen term) to engage in "practical experimentation" with their spirituality. Coming out spiritually, he claims, culminates the journey of self-discovery. De la Huerta's beautifully crafted prose and his passionate desire to help queers come out spiritually mark this book as an extraordinary achievement.

Fresh Faith: What Happens When Real Faith Ignites God's People

Jim Cymbala with Dean Merrill (Zondervan)

This sequel to Cymbala's 1997 bestseller Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire manages to offer what few sequels can muster: a "fresh" and invigorating perspective. He shares stories from his congregation -- including his daughter's miraculous healing -- to demonstrate God's power in transforming lives. Cymbala generally manages to rise above divisive polemics to preach a gospel of truth-telling and ineffable love.

Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion

Stephen P. Huyler (Yale)

Huyler eloquently describes the many devotional rituals that occupy Hindus as they seek darshan, seeing and being seen by God. Using stories and 200 of his own lush color photographs, Huyler outlines elements of public worship, rituals accompanying worship in the home, practices surrounding community festivals, processions that honor specific deities and the coming-of-age ceremonies. Huyler's riveting prose and lavish photos bring Hinduism and its practices to life in all their richness and diversity.

Searching for Your Soul: Writers of Many Faiths Share Their Personal Stories of Spiritual Discovery

Edited by Katherine Kurs (Schocken)

Kurs has gathered a rich variety of writings in spiritual autobiography. Writers both contemporary and historical -- ranging from Augustine, Thomas Merton and Mohandas Gandhi to Dan Wakefield, Dennis Covington and Kathleen Norris -- reflect on questions of spiritual identity and heritage. Never-before-published essays by Albert Raboteau, Randall Balmer and George Dardess are particularly memorable.

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus

Thomas Cahill (Doubleday)

Cahill, no stranger to sweeping historical narratives (The Gifts of the Jews; How the Irish Saved Civilization), triumphs again with this imaginatively written account of Jesus and the early Christian church. He has an eye for the common person's experience of war, famine and religious upheaval, and he shows readers why Jesus' message of peace and forgiveness was so very startling. This is an engrossing, overall portrait of Jesus through the eyes of his family and followers.

When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

Richard Rubenstein (Harcourt Brace)

Rubenstein examines the details of the fractious early period when Christianity was defining itself against other religious sects through a number of councils and creeds. He narrows his focus to the fiery fourth-century battle between Arius, who contended that Christ did not share God's nature, and Athanasius, the ferocious Alexandrian bishop who asserted that Christ was fully God. With a storyteller's verve, Rubenstein offers a panoramic view of early Christianity.





Children's Religion



Journeys with Elijah: Eight Tales of the Prophet

Barbara Diamond Goldin, illus. by Jerry Pinkney (Harcourt/Gulliver)

An irresistible sense of mystery and wonder pervades eight tales about Elijah, set in Jewish communities in settings as diverse as third-century North Africa, 17th-century China and colonial Curaçao. Goldin's storytelling is every bit as colorful as Pinkney's radiant, masterfully composed paintings, and both text and art testify to careful historical research.

The Tale of the Heaven Tree

Mary Joslin, illus. by Meilo So (Eerdmans)

So's energetically patterned and supremely inventive watercolors instantly command attention in this lyrically told story, part creation tale, part ecological fable.

Noah's Trees

Bijou Le Tord (HarperCollins)

Joyfully distilling art and storytelling to their purest essences, Le Tord retells the story of the Flood to concentrate on the trust and love that underscore Noah's relationship with God.

Young Jesus of Nazareth

Marianna Mayer (Morrow)

This mellifluous account of Jesus' childhood and adolescence insightfully blends accounts from the Gospels with the apocrypha and other religious writings to offer a resonant extended portrait of the Holy Family; the elegant production features works by European masters from Fra Angelico to Dürer and the religious artist James Tissot.

The Easter Story

Gennady Spirin (Holt)

Paired with passages from the King James Bible, Spirin's formal, Renaissance-style paintings of the Crucifixion and Resurrection do not especially accommodate young readers. But, from the elaborate architectural details to the stunning use of color and light, the artist's prodigious command of the page inspires awe.





P try



Teducation: Selected P ms 1954€“1999

Ted Joans (Coffee House)

Joans's rakish, unsatisfiable sensibility can be as technically innovative as Burroughs, as polemically exuberant as Ginsberg and as comic as Corso. Creating ebullient forms to meet his needs, and stirring the pot with neologism and slogan, Joans's exultations and exhortions wonderfully prefigure performance-oriented work.

Pamela: A Novel

Pamela Lu (Atelos)

Knowingly resuscitating and toying with prose-p tic narrative in her debut, Lu creates a precise and humorous elegy to the self and its self-subversions. With extraordinary philosophical subtlety and clarity, the book manages to tell a beautiful story -- of "I," "P" "Pamela" and her friends -- in spite of itself.

Matinées

Ange Mlinko (Zoland)

"Filling innocent pastry with rubies," Mlinko is at the forefront of a wave of quirky, emotional gesturists guided by the clear-eyed, big-heartedness of Frank O'Hara and the sensual veracity of Bernadette Mayer. Conceptual reach and an almost aerobically trained muscularity of phrase set these unabashed lyrics apart from the 20- and 30-something pack.

Fredy Neptune

Les Murray (FSG)

Equal parts Odyssey, Paradise Lost and Raiders of the Lost Ark, this novel-in-verse uses loose eight-line stanzas to bring its globe-trotting, pacifist superhero to life. Over 30 years and as many destinations, Fredy makes for a "big, dangerous, baggy" companion, becoming along the way his Aussie creator's greatest achievement.

Midnight Salvage

Adrienne Rich (Norton)

Rich's well-known, fiercely held political ideals -- her commitments to economic justice, feminism and gay liberation -- manifest themselves, in this 16th book of p ms, in her sense of passing the torch. Her incarnations as activist and maker of new language continue to propel, describe, provoke the p t's words.

A Paradise of Forms: New and Selected P ms

Aaron Shurin (Talisman)

Breakage, recombination and a kind of lovely noise -- like teletype from the collective unconscious -- mark the musical structures of Shurin's wonderful books of forms -- no less clear, emotive or communicative than standard shapes.





Lifestyle



Culinaria: France

Edited by André Dominé, photos by Günter Beer (Könemann)

Dominé and Beer present the pleasures of the French table, capturing the essence of regional culinary traditions, in this wonderfully photographed volume in the Culinaria series. Tapping into a varied gastronomic landscape, this cookbook is an erudite reference that g s beyond coffee-table prettiness.

Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian: More than 750 Meatless Recipes from Around the World

Madhur Jaffrey (Clarkson Potter)

James Beard Award-winning author Jaffrey offers recipes from all over the world, with a concentration on food from Asia and India. A comprehensive glossary of unusual ingredients and thorough information about vegetables make this an excellent resource for those who like to prepare everything from scratch as well as those who want fast results.

The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens

Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Scribner)

Following up her award-winning The Splendid Table, Kasper collects simple recipes from home cooks living in the Italian countryside -- many of them on working farms. Her "Cook to Cook" notes are carefully crafted, and her unobtrusive wine suggestions are a bonus. Concocting tight, clear recipes, Kasper captures Italian culinaria beautifully and smartly.

Chez Panisse Café Cookbook

Alice Waters (HarperCollins)

Cookbook author and chef/owner Waters takes readers back to her highly lauded restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., with this amalgam of Mediterranean, Californian, New American and Provençal dishes. Despite Waters's insistence on using organic products and her close attention to ingredient details, Waters successfully delivers a charming and accessible cookbook.

The Art of the Kitchen Garden

Jan and Michael Gertley (Taunton)

The Gertleys bring together practicality and beauty in the traditional kitchen garden, where a little forethought and planning can turn the humblest of cabbage patches into a delight for the eye. If the prose is somewhat utilitarian, the book is commendably complete, enlivened by vivid photographs that effectively illustrate the title. Elevating the useful to the beautiful has never looked so good.

The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men

Michael Gurian (Putnam/Tarcher)

Focusing specifically on moral development, Gurian provides a timely and practical parenting guide. He discusses such topics as biological and neurological development as well as building spiritual life and dealing with negative media influences. Parents and caregivers will welcome the direction and reassurance of this outstanding book in their efforts to guide boys "toward loving, wise, and responsible manhood -- the compassionate life."

The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night's Sleep

William C. Dement, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan (Delacorte)

Sleep researcher Dement contends that America is in the midst of a sleep-disorder epidemic. To help readers get a better night's sleep, he offers scientific data on sleep, advice on sleep hygiene and a scenario for a restorative "sleep camp." Dement's outstanding book also includes helpful appendixes listing sleep-disorder clinics and Web sites.





Children's Books



Picture Books

Three Cheers for Catherine the Great

Cari Best, illus. by Giselle Potter (DK Ink/Kroupa)

For this not-to-be-missed borscht-and-blintzes birthday party in honor of a girl's beloved Russian grandmother, Catherine, no presents are allowed. Potter's delectably skewed watercolors extend the intimacy of Best's narrative as Catherine's family and neighbors ponder what to give her; details such as Russian nesting dolls and short Russian phrases followed by their English equivalents heighten the sense of two worlds harmoniously c xisting.

The Boy Who Loved to Draw: Benjamin West

Barbara Brenner, illus. by Olivier Dunrea (Houghton)

This innovative picture book€“chapter book hybrid brings to life the colonial childhood of the painter Benjamin West. Brenner's vivid narrative gives equal emphasis to young Benjamin's singular passion for art and to the qualities he has in common with readers; Dunrea's pared-down paintings pay their respects to the art of the period but retain a childlike puckishness.

Agapanthus Hum and the Eyeglasses

Joy Cowley, illus. by Jennifer Plecas (Philomel)

With playful language, characters that have their quirks yet remain believable and illustrations that hum (like Agapanthus) with energy, this sprightly chapter book is sure to keep beginning readers entertained as well as challenged.

Sleeping Boy

Sonia Craddock, illus. by Leonid Gore (S&S/Atheneum)

This sophisticated reworking of Sleeping Beauty, beginning in turn-of-the-century Berlin, is nothing short of astonishing, both in the vitality of its prose and its haunting artwork. A chilling design shows a montage of snapshotlike images of the rise of the Third Reich and the Berlin Wall as well as their demise, dramatically arranged to simulate a family photo album.

Weslandia

Paul Fleischman, illus. by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick)

Fleischman and Hawkes make a hero out of a young ostracized nonconformist who invents a self-sufficient civilization in his suburban backyard and converts his former tormentors. Words and images fluidly play off one another as Wesley creates a language for his new produce and the crop erupts into a lush tropical landscape.

A Band of Angels: A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers

Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Raúl Colón (Atheneum/Schwartz)

Lilting prose, poignant historical details and arresting portraits of trailblazing singers lost in song contribute to this triumphant tale inspired by an African-American chorus in 1871.

Horace and Morris but Mostly

Dolores James Howe, illus. by Amy Walrod (S&S/Atheneum)

Walrod makes a showstopping debut with her visual accompaniment to Howe's lighthearted prose. Together they invent an enchanting mouse trio that pokes fun at the ways gender roles needlessly impose limits and derail friendships.

I, Crocodile

Fred Marcellino (HarperCollins/di Capua)

In the first picture book that the Caldecott Honor artist has both written and illustrated, a witty green narrator describes a dramatic transformation from an idol in Egypt to a captive curiosity in Napoleon's France. A singular voice and impeccable visual pacing make this character's story one of the most memorable of the year.

Mole Music

David McPhail (Holt)

McPhail divides each delicate painting into the subterranean world in which Mole practices and plays his violin and the ground above where, unbeknownst to Mole, people and creatures are ineffably moved by the music he is playing. The illustrations work seamlessly with the minimal text to deliver a resonant message: music can change the world.

Black Cat

Christopher Myers (Scholastic)

In this ingenious mixed-media tour of an urban landscape, a stealthy feline -- subtly composed of dark fabric swatches with delicate patterns -- makes its way down to the subways and up to the rooftops. P tic captions accompany Myers's striking images, which develop a visual rhythm of their own and create a comforting, familiar world for both the eponymous creature and the reader.

Here Comes Mother Goose

Edited by Iona Opie, illus. by Rosemary Wells (Candlewick)

This beguiling companion to My Very First Mother Goose abounds with wit and charm; there is no one like Opie for authoritative presentation of traditional verse, and no one like Wells for radiant, childlike visual interpretation.

Basket Moon

Mary Lyn Ray, illus. by Barbara Cooney (Little, Brown)

Author and artist travel to the Hudson River Valley at the dawning of the 20th century for this homage to both a time-honored craft (basket weaving) and the way traditions link one generation to the next.

Tea with Milk

Allen Say (Houghton/Lorraine)

Say's masterfully executed watercolors tell as much of this story about a young Japanese-American woman's transition from San Francisco to Japan as his eloquent prose. Choice words and scrupulously choreographed paintings communicate both the heart's yearning for individuality and freedom and love's bridge across cultural chasms.

David G s to School

David Shannon (Scholastic/Blue Sky)

In situations that top the comedy of No, David!, the hero's Caldecott Honor-winning introduction, the pointy-toothed troublemaker wreaks havoc in the lunchroom, library and playground in a single school day. Deft use of perspective and a keen sense of a child's perception inform each eminently recognizable scene.

Sector 7

David Wiesner (Clarion)

This wordless tour de force begins with a class trip to the Empire State Building, where a boy takes to the air and finds himself at a way station for clouds. With a blue pencil and a smidge of whimsy, the boy improves upon their pedestrian assignments. Wiesner's lofty watercolors render words superfluous as he transforms the sky into magical scenes of marine life, reminding children of the innate power of their own imagination.





Fiction

Saying It Out Loud

Joan Abelove (DK Ink/Jackson)

A month-long series of painfully honest yet witty diary entries by a 16-year-old chronicle her feelings about losing her mother to brain cancer. Through the protagonist's insights, Abelove creates an eloquent metaphor for leaving childhood behind.

Skellig

David Almond (Delacorte)

From the boy narrator's first description of the title character, the author sets up a tantalizing tension between the dank and dusty here-and-now and an aura of otherworldliness that permeates the novel. As Michael and his family struggle with his baby sister's grave illness, his growing friendship with the mysterious Skellig opens the way to a sense of hope and possibility.

The Folk Keeper

Franny Billingsley (Atheneum/Karl)

Billingsley draws on storytelling traditions yet invents a thoroughly original subterranean world inhabited by menacing creatures called Folk, who attempt to wreak havoc on the inhabitants above. The orphan heroine escapes her fate in a hierarchical society by disguising herself as a boy Folk Keeper; hang on for a hair-raising ride.

King of Shadows

Susan Cooper (S&S/McElderry)

Guaranteed to ignite an interest in Shakespeare in youngsters and to uplift dedicated fans of the Bard, this novel brilliantly utilizes time travel to contrast a contemporary staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream with its debut in 1599 and conveys the timelessness of the theater's potency.

Frenchtown Summer

Robert Cormier (Delacorte)

This novel-in-verse slowly mesmerizes with its impressionistic portrait of a 12-year-old boy and his post-WWI hometown, Frenchtown. Every observation implies mystery and hidden drama; while the short verse chapters seem less plot-driven than Cormier fans may expect, they subtly convey the shadows in Frenchtown and the action those shadows conceal.

Bud, Not Buddy

Christopher Paul Curtis (Delacorte)

Uniquely mixing comedy and pathos, Curtis describes the travails and adventures of a 10-year-old African-American boy in Depression-era Michigan who sets out to find the man he believes to be his father. While the harshness of Bud's circumstances are authentically depicted, Curtis imbues them with an aura of hope, and he makes readers laugh even when he sets up the most daunting scenarios.

The Birchbark House

Louise Erdrich (Hyperion)

Erdrich's captivating first novel for children centers on young Omakayas and her Ojibwa family on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. Against the backdrop of unique cultural traditions, and strewn with Ojibwa words, Omakayas's story conveys the hardships brought on by settlers and seasonal changes as well as the universal experiences of childhood.

Unbroken

Jesse Haas (Greenwillow)

Expertly crafted prose is the driving force in this heartfelt story of family ties, as Haas traces the emotional journey of a 13-year-old orphaned girl in rural Vermont at the turn of the century. The author has a gift for description and graceful simile, and her characters are sharply observed, especially the honest and wise protagonist.

Our Only May Amelia

Jennifer L. Holm (HarperCollins)

An unforgettable heroine intelligently narrates Holm's debut novel set in 1899 Washington State. Holm's uncanny ability to give each of the girl's six brothers -- and a wide range of adults -- a distinctive character, while maintaining May Amelia's spunky narrative voice, gives the novel immediacy and potency.

Dave at Night

Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins)

Dave, the star of this coming-of-age story set in an orphanage in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance, rivals the Artful Dodger in his resourcefulness, humor and the camaraderie he shares with his orphaned "buddies." His droll narration creates a chiaroscuro effect between his bleak days and his surreptitious jazz-filled nights.

Monster

Walter Dean Myers, illus. by Christopher Myers (HarperCollins)

Myers bends the novel form for this riveting courtroom drama that explores the guilt or innocence of a teenage boy involved in a murder. By cutting back and forth between a movie script that documents courtroom events and the boy's journal, Myers thrusts readers into the psyche of a teen who is attempting to sort out his sense of self and responsibility.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine)

The hoopla surrounding the second and third installments of the magical series is exceeded only by the scope of Rowling's imagination and the vast pleasure of reading her work -- each successive volume expands upon its predecessor with dizzyingly well-planned plots and inventive surprises.

The Fab Five series

Rosie Rushton (Hyperion)

With its witty Briticisms intact, this series (which was launched with Just Don't Make a Scene, Mum!) has all the hilarious and etiquette-blasting asides of a Bridget Jones's Diary for teens. Readers will queue up for this quartet of books starring four "brill" gals and a guy.

The Mouse of Amherst

Elizabeth Spires, illus. by Claire A. Nivola (FSG/Foster)

An unlikely and charming correspondence fuels this spare, exquisite novel, whose title plays up the double entendre on Emily Dickinson's retiring nature and the p try-penning mouse that shares her abode. Filled with the p t's published works and the mouse's attempts to emulate her style, this slip of a volume will spark an interest in verse in even the most reluctant p t.





Nonfiction



Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance

Jennifer Armstrong (Crown)

Absorbing, briskly paced storytelling loaded with kid-pleasing details turns this well-researched account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1916 expedition to Antarctica into an enthralling and often heart-pounding armchair adventure.

Through My Eyes

Ruby Bridges (Scholastic)

In 1960, Bridges found herself at the center of a national controversy when she was the first African-American student to attend a New Orleans public elementary school. Here, in prose that stays unerringly true to the perspective of a child, she gives voice to her six-year-old self; sidebars providing information unavailable to Bridges as a child complete the picture. Like p try or prayer, Bridges's words melt the heart.

The World of King Arthur and His Court: People, Places, Legend, and Lore

Kevin Crossley-Holland, illus. by Peter Malone (Dutton)

If ever a work could inspire a passion for Camelot, it would be this eminently browsable, stylishly written trove of Arthuriana, representing everything from key characters to Chaucer's account of outfitting a knight to contemporaneous lessons in being a proper butler. Lavishly detailed, both the full-spread paintings and spot illustrat...

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