The Best Books of 2003















An Invisible Sign of My Own















The Lagahoo's Apprentice























































Harry Potter



















Our hopes for 2000 were so high, weren't they? The first year, arguably, of the new millennium would be filled with momentous books that would go down in history as being the first of something. Since, in the end, it was only another year, after all, we were bound to be somewhat disappointed. And, I guess, with an attitude like that, it had to happen. In November, Susan Sontag's In America drew daggers when it was awarded the prize for best work of fiction at the National Book Awards in New York. The book that drew the most attention and created the biggest stir was yet another Harry Potter book (can you imagine the bedlam that will happen when the movie hits?) and a book by The Beatles -- of all things -- shot up all the lists the minute it was published. No doubt about it: 2000 was a funny old year.

There were some significant entries, however. A whole slew of "biographies" about stuff rather than people caught our attention. Biographies of water, math and even nothing at all (shades of Seinfeld?) caught our attention, even if only briefly.

Electronic books took three steps forward (all that fuss about Stephen King, a whole pile of e-book awards and the involvement of some really huge players in a playground that had formerly been dominated by small and independent companies) only to drop four steps back (overrepresentation at said awards, the milling about of those same large companies and the promise of e-book readers that never delivered). The end result is a future that currently looks kind of shady but, in reality, couldn't be brighter. Let's face it: we're talking about a technology that can easily stuff entire personal libraries onto a single laptop. A technology that engagingly packages the power of knowledge in a very intimate way. Of course e-books are here to stay: perhaps the form they will ultimately take will be decided in 2001.

In 2000, however, the writers and editors of January Magazine didn't find our heads turned by electronic books. The books we liked above all others were -- without exception -- traditionally published. And many of these from the publishing houses that inexplicably top these lists year after year. As you'll see, there were exceptions in every genre, illustrating as well as anything can that the vibrancy of small and medium sized publishers continues to grow and glow.

There is nothing at all scientific about our list. None of our picks are based on sales figures or politics or anything that doesn't have to do with passion. The list is comprised entirely from the heart: These are the books that moved us. The books that set us on our haunches, earned pride of place on our shelves or, in some cases, the books that made us laugh or cry.

If we missed your favorite, we'd love to hear about it. Take a few minutes to add a comment and agree, disagree or contribute your own favorites from the best of an eventful year.





The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Random House)

The story of the the comics industry's early days and of its creators is legendary among comics fans. It's a fascinating bit of American history -- and of pop culture history -- that's been largely ignored by the world at large. Michael Chabon, in this novel that details the complex friendship of two young and visionary Jewish men from the 1930s to 1950s, brings that bit of history into the mainstream and reveals deeper truths and mysteries that any compilation of facts ever could. -- Claude Lalumière


An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender (Doubleday)

The author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt brings us her first novel, a pleasantly demented story that is either a gently told portrait of deep disturbance or the fairytale-like recountings from some universe that's a great deal like ours but isn't ours, after all. For all of the clues that Bender gives us it could be either or neither but, in the end, it doesn't matter: Bender's prose is dark and deeply enchanting. Her main character likable even with all of her foibles (she eats soap and is afraid of sex, just for starters). When all is said and done, it's enough to have taken this ride into Bender's fertile imagination and enjoyed her humorous and carefully coifed prose. -- Sienna Powers


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart/Doubleday)

The winner of the Booker Prize in 2000, Atwood's 10th novel is gripping, complex and sure. Set in Ontario in the first half of the 20th century, The Blind Assassin is perhaps the best novel of a writer known for groundbreaking and sometimes controversial work. -- Linda Richards


Crumple by Dave Cooper (Fantagraphics Books)

Crumple is set in a strange world, filled with weird technologies, bizarre creatures, frightening conspiracies and disturbing sex. Cooper, with unapologetic brashness and nightmarish illogic, drenches his comics novel in bodily fluids and excretions. He explores our own culture's contradictory and schizoid attitudes towards sex and desire. A surreal, revolting, mesmerizing journey. -- Claude Lalumière


The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan (Knopf)

Wisely, Harrigan doesn't rely on readers' familiarity with Texas' independence movement to propel them through his new novel's almost 600 pages. Replete with vivid personalities, this surprisingly affecting yarn manages to wring tension from the 1836 Alamo assault -- even when we all know that the outpost's posturing protectors are toast. And although the author offers a frequently critical portrayal of the events and eccentrics involved in the conflict just outside of San Antonio de Béxar (today's San Antonio), The Gates of the Alamo does not come off as revisionist. At the heart of this sprawling narrative lie the fictional Edmund McGowan, a "confident, solitary" American botanist in his mid 40s, and a recently widowed innkeeper, Mary Mott, who is bringing up her 16-year-old son, Terrell. But Harrigan's fact-based figures appear in even greater and more welcome profusion, from the arrogant, preening Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, to David Crockett, the frontiersman and ex-congressman who, after maintaining order with the Alamo's ranks with a practiced politician's ease, falls to the attackers in a scene that is both less heroic and more moving than expected. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse Comics)

This fourth collection of Hellboy comics stories by Mike Mignola is at least as good as its predecessors. As always, Mignola impresses with the breadth of his research, the inventive skill of his artwork and the precise, staccato pacing of his writing. Hellboy, a hulking red demon, is the quintessential pulp/comics hero, spawned from the unlikely combination of Doc Savage, H.P. Lovecraft, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Raymond Chandler, Aleister Crowley and world mythology. -- Claude Lalumière


House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon)

A stunning, disturbing, convoluted and often deliberately difficult to read first novel from Mark Danielewski. House of Leaves proves worth the effort as the author provides a new take on the age old haunted house theme. The difference: no scary monsters, no psychopathic killers and no long-dead undead to haunt the characters, just a dead man's manuscript reviewing a long forgotten documentary about an old house that becomes bigger on the inside than the exterior dimensions should be capable of containing; much, much bigger. Masterful prose, more than unusual layout and typesetting and a trio of interwoven stories combine to make House of Leaves a story that will leave you more than a little leery of venturing down any long corridors for a while. -- David Middleton


The Lagahoo's Apprentice by Rabindranath Maharaj (Knopf Canada)

New writer to watch: along with Eden Robinson, I'm looking forward to the next book from novelist Rabindranath Maharaj whose The Lagahoo's Apprentice was better than a vacation to a warm Caribbean island. -- J.M. Bridgeman


The Last Hollywood Romance by Beverly Bloomberg (Bridge Works)

In her debut novel, The Last Hollywood Romance, Bloomberg has made good use of the old maxim: write what you know. She's done it with authenticity, a clear voice and a happy heart. The Last Hollywood Romance is pure pleasure. A snappy love story enlivened by stylish punch lines and well delivered repartee. The story is uncomplicated and light and clips along happily. If books were situation comedies, they'd look pretty much like The Last Hollywood Romance. -- Monica Stark


Lying Awake by Mark Salzman (Knopf)

A cloistered nun in a Carmelite monastery in contemporary Los Angeles is the central figure in this fifth book and third novel by fiction- and memoir-writer Mark Salzman. Sister John of the Cross (like her namesake saint) writes poetry: God-celebrating verse inspired by intense visions. But the visions, she's told, are caused by a correctable medical condition. Should she correct the condition and cut off her spiritual conduit? Or should she ignore the problem, though it's a source of distraction for her fellow sisters? Mark Salzman writes beautifully, and this spare book is splendid. -- Tom Nolan


Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull (Delacorte)

You can pick favorites for all sorts of reasons, but for pure emotional impact, Losing Julia was mine. When I finished the last page of the book, I just put my head down and wept: it was a clean and satisfying cry. The first novel of a veteran writer, Losing Julia blends the adventures of a young soldier in the first Great War with the recollections of an old, old man near the end of his life. A beautiful debut that didn't really get the attention it deserved. -- Linda Richards


Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady (Doubleday Canada)

Cape Bretoner Lynn Coady followed up her award-winning novel Strange Heaven with this poignant and excruciatingly funny collection of her best short stories. The same themes are here: alcoholism, Island insularity, Catholic guilt, wasted talents, unwanted pregnancy and the poisonous power of gossip. In "Jesus Christ, Murdeena," a young woman becomes convinced she's the second coming of Christ. The townsfolk react not with alarm but irritation: imagine thinking you're so high-and-mighty, "the end-all and the be-all"! In the title story, Coady peels back the layers of family dysfunction with near-surgical skill. Coady is one of those rare writers who can make you laugh until you cry. -- Margaret Gunning


Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (Knopf Canada)

An engaging mystery about a young woman's coming-of-age in a mystical Northwest Coast landscape. Weaving together past, present and future, Lisamarie Hill's story describes a modern setting where outboard motors, television, alcohol and drugs, and a too-present despair have not totally displaced the magic which still inhabits the forests and bays and channels. A wild exciting ride to anchor in sacred space in Haisla Territory. Nominated for both the Giller and the Governor General's Award for Literary Excellence. -- J.M. Bridgeman


Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins)

The author of The Poisonwood Bible gives us a beautiful triad of interwoven stories set in southern Appalachia during one torrid summer. Prodigal Summer is perfectly riveting in a way that is both peaceful and enriching. Biologist and natural historian Kingsolver entwines the needs and desires of her human characters with the eternal tale of nature's balance. -- Monica Stark


The Rose Grower by Michelle de Kretser (Chatto & Windus)

The heady scent of roses haunts this sensuous historical novel set during the upheaval of the French Revolution. Sophie Saint-Pierre, considered an old maid at 22, is cloistered away in a deteriorating family mansion with her father and two sisters. Struck with a forbidden passion for her sister Claire's American suitor, she pours her energies into gardening, determined to breed the first crimson rose that Europe has ever seen. Though the story is wonderfully complex, the skeins never become tangled. The clarity and beauty of de Kretser's writing is stunning, contrasting the dreamy Eden of Sophie's garden with the carnage of the revolution erupting all around it. A vibrant and impressive first novel. -- Margaret Gunning


Shopgirl by Steve Martin (Hyperion)

 Yes, that Steve Martin. The classic triangle, this time containing the callow youth, the waifish girl and the well-to-do older man. Yet Martin infuses his story with a dark verve that is his own. The author's tone is at once blasé and gentle and in the novella's 130 pages, he quietly presents us with a cast of characters that are difficult not to care about. -- Sienna Powers


What's Wrong With Dorfman? by John Blumenthal (Farmer Street Press)

So really, what's wrong with Martin Dorfman? Everything. And nothing at all. John Blumenthal's novel is one of those surprising gems whose unassuming package prepares you for the worst -- the cover image is a detail of Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp." Basically, an autopsy image, the focal point a pallid cadaver -- and delivers the very best. What's Wrong With Dorfman is deeply and completely funny, the plot is tight and the story sings. A winning combination that was almost entirely overlooked in 2000. This one is not the easiest book to find, but it's worth digging for. -- Linda Richards




As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto (HarperCollins)

One of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. This is the gripping story of David Reimer, a boy forced to live as a girl due to a botched circumcision in his infancy. But the book goes far beyond recounting the unbearable emotional strain of trying to live against the grain of one's own nature. It lays bare the corrupting influence of so-called gender identity expert Dr. John Money, who insisted that the Reimer case was an unqualified success. Colapinto does not stand too far back from the story but allows his passion and caring to come through, and the result is a totally absorbing story and a portrait of raw courage and personal integrity. -- Margaret Gunning


Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin (Broadway Books)

Beethoven's Hair is a perfect blend of fascinating modern forensic detective work and the history of one of this planet's most significant musical geniuses. The book begins near its end: in 1994, with the purchase of a well-preserved lock of the dead composer's hair. Later chapters follow the path that the hair took to arrive at that same auction. On the one hand, powerful microscopes, international auctions and DNA sequencing -- the stuff of science fiction or at least modern thrillers -- in sharp relief against the romance and intrigue of 19th century Vienna, or the high drama of World War II. -- Aaron Blanton


From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun (HarperCollins)

Only a cultural historian who has observed and scrutinized his planet for over 60 years can so blithely tell us, "It takes only a look at the numbers to see that the 20th century is coming to an end. A wider and deeper scrutiny is needed to see that in the West the culture of the last 500 years is ending at the same time." Barzun begins his 800 page rumination on World History with the year 1500, the start of the Modern Age. The sheer joy of Barzun's great masterwork is the scent of the author's personality on the pages. He tells us, "This book is for people who like to read about art and thought, manners, morals, and religion, and the social setting in which these activities have been and are taking place." He is, by his own words, "selective and critical" and not "neutral and encyclopedic." A fitting celebration to the true start of the third millennium. -- Frederick Zackel


The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons (St. Martin's Press)

Previous U.S. presidents had to withstand nasty attacks in their time. But few of his 40 predecessors attracted hateful right-wing extremists and nutball conspiracy-mongers as prodigiously as Bill Clinton has during his eight years in the White House. And almost never did earlier accusations against presidents receive such an airing in the press or prove to be so destructive as those leveled against the first baby boomer to hold America's highest elective office. As The Hunting of the President recounts ever-more outrageous indictments against Bill and Hillary Clinton, only to shoot each down in a barrage of well-documented and often previously ignored exculpatory evidence, it's frightening to realize how easily America's scandal-hungry mainstream media were manipulated by a "loose cabal" of well-financed Clinton haters ("an angry gallery of defeated politicians, disappointed office seekers, right-wing pamphleteers, wealthy eccentrics, zany private detectives, religious fanatics, and die-hard segregationists"). Conason, a former Village Voice writer and now a columnist with the online magazine Salon, and Lyons, a former Newsweek editor, have composed a superb retrospective analysis of the malignant campaign to unseat an optimistic and activist president. Their twisting tale reads like a thriller, its pace quickening as it reaches the final showdown between Clinton and a lineup of hypocritical GOP censors, the plot all along filled with quirky players. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy by Eric Hansen (Pantheon Books)

Even crazier than the dog-show people are the orchid people, whose lives seem to revolve around acquiring, growing and showing the exotic blooms. Travel writer Eric Hansen sniffed out a good story here and plunged right in, interviewing the most eccentric cast of characters you'll ever find in a non-fiction book. We meet the aptly named Terry Root, "a bearded, 250-pound, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, kick-ass biker with a pony tail who breeds exotic orchids for a living". We learn the secret ingredient of fox-testicle ice cream and learn about the exploits of orchid smuggler Henry Azadehdel. The book is not only great fun, but educational; you're so taken in by the book's charms that you don't even realize you're being educated. -- Margaret Gunning


Crime Fiction:

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (Random House)

You might relish this novel merely for the author's expert and occasionally discomforting evocation of early-18th-century London. But there is so much more to appreciate in this adventure, from its inspired detective figure, former pugilist Benjamin Weaver, to the way it introduces readers into the Byzantine world of economics and investments, to the manner in which Liss' prose consciously but comfortably echoes that of the time about which he writes. Shortly after the death of his estranged "stockjobber" father, Weaver takes on two cases -- one dealing with an unexpected demise, the other related to some missing papers -- that seem unrelated. However, they eventually converge, exposing a financial scandal previously unequaled in British history -- and revealing hidden risks to the ex-boxer's own family. Weaver's fight to rely more on his mind than his muscles is a pleasure to watch, and Liss does well at hiding the seams of his obviously copious historical research. -- J. Kingston Pierce


An Uncertain Currency by Clyde Lynwood Sawyer, Jr. and Frances Witlin (Avocet Press)

Ostensibly about murder in a small Southern town, the true narrative centers around Mario Castigliani, "Internationally Acclaimed Psychic." Handsome, silver-haired, "leonine" Mario is pausing in Floraville to perform his stage show -- part vaudeville shtick and part miraculous -- when the local police chief asks for his assistance in the homicide of a local union activist. Mario is truly gifted, can read all but two per cent of the population, but la Lucia (his Muse?) is as fickle as any prima donna. When she deserts him, the charming and aristocratic Mario can only wait for her approval. While he works to resolve the murders -- and there are several -- we discover a most remarkable human being. Beautifully written and carefully crafted, it took 20 years to write and the authors' love of storytelling and writing is visible on every page. One of the few contemporary mysteries worth a permanent place in your personal library. -- Frederick Zackel


The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman (Atlantic Monthly Press)

This historical novel was "a sumptuous, fantastical wedding cake," which also describes the main character Gustine. The 15-year-old single mother of a four-month-old infant works the quays in Sunderland, England, in 1831, a city that is about to become the world's largest shipbuilding town. Gustine is "The Dress Lodger," a street prostitute dolled up in a secondhand evening gown to make it easier for her to sidle up to potential customers. As she frantically searches for ways to save her dying child, Gustine is embroiled with a fugitive "resurrectionist," one of the medical bodysnatchers that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about. And then there's the cholera epidemic anchored and waiting to come ashore. The Dress Lodger was also my wife's favorite read. That we both fell head over heels for Gustine and Sheri Holman is our highest praise. -- Frederick Zackel


A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson (Harcourt Brace)

Wilson (best known for his brooding and brutal series about West African detective-troubleshooter Bruce Medway), presents here two parallel stories, one set in Portugal during World War II, the other unfolding around Lisbon in 1999. In the former, a German industrialist named Klaus Felsen is sent to Lisbon on behalf of the Nazi SS to corner the market on wolfram (or tungsten), an element used in the manufacturing of munitions, which Adolf Hitler needs to prosecute his blitzkrieg. Felsen does better than expected, creating a powerful Portuguese bank and a business empire that outlasts the Führer's fall. Meanwhile, the second narrative thread begins with the vicious murder of Catarina Oliveira, the sexually promiscuous daughter of a prestigious lawyer. Assigned to the case is Inspector Zé Coelho, a widower with his own daughter, whose delving into Catarina's past sparks resistance from his supervisors at the same time as it reveals a family's decades-worth of secrets, leading up to Catarina's killing as a final act of depravity and deceit. Wilson can be unsparing in his depictions of violence and sex, but A Small Death in Lisbon offers so many other literary treats, that the author's dips into voyeurism should not be counted against him. He's especially successful in developing the character of Felsen, who is alternately attractive and repulsive -- and whose sidelining about two-thirds of the way through this tale drains it of some energy. Coelho, another in a distinguished line of "outsiders" as sleuths, has a touch of TV's Lieutenant Columbo about him, though his intelligence is less determinedly concealed and his human flaws better established. We come to know both men through this involved novel, which moves at an atypically slow pace for a thriller, yet is impossible to put down for long. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Blood to Drink by Robert Skinner (Poisoned Pen Press)

In the waning days of America's Prohibition era, mixed-race bootlegger Wesley Farrell finds himself in a gangster-style shootout on the streets of New Orleans. Though he survives, a new acquaintance -- Coast Guard Commander George Scofield, who has been busy trying to cut off the region's supply of illegal hooch -- isn't so lucky. Five years later, Scofield's U.S. Treasury agent brother shows up in town, hoping to discover the name of a Coast Guard informant George Scofield was set to meet on the day of his death. Feeling a bit guilty for having survived that shootout, Farrell agrees to help the brother, little knowing that he's stepping into a chain of events that will involve prostitutes and petty crooks, vengeance and betrayal. Events that will leave him soiled with the blood of others and lend new depth to Farrell's relationship with his Irish cop father. In this fourth hard-boiled Farrell outing, author Skinner again demonstrates his skill at creating memorable characters and his talent for escalating both suspense and menace. He has the 1930s background down pat, although he relies a bit too heavily on mentions of period songs to remind readers of the era. Like Cat-Eyed Trouble (1998) and Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1999), this isn't so much a whodunit as it is a literary exploration of cross-racial tensions and the dangerous diversity of criminal thinking. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Cold Is the Grave by Peter Robinson (William Morrow)

It's ironic that his old nemesis, Chief Constable Jeremiah "Jimmy" Riddle, should approach Detective Inspector Alan Banks, asking for his help. Yet Riddle's situation is dire, indeed: His 16-year-old runaway daughter, Emily, has finally turned up -- at least in pornographic images on the Internet. Can Banks quietly track Emily down before this indiscretion becomes a catastrophe for the politically ambitious Riddle? Pursuing the teen from Eastvale to London, Banks finds her mixed up with gangsters and the rock music scene, and eventually convinces her to return to her parents, in the process developing a soft spot for the bratty, defiant Emily. But that's only the beginning of the trouble this story promises. A vicious murder in a nightclub sends Banks looking for links to organized crime in London, causes him to wonder whether there are connections between this crime and the recent killing of a local felon and opens Riddle to charges of official corruption. Soon, Banks discovers himself mired uncomfortably in his superior's life. Meanwhile, he's trying to get his own life together. Again. An announcement by Banks' ex-wife, Sandra, has him reassessing his dreams and a reorganization at Eastvale Regional Headquarters reunites him with police detective Annie Cabbot (introduced in Robinson's wonderful 1999 novel, In a Dry Season), who finds herself confronting one of the most painful episodes from her past. Robinson is a fine, exacting writer and, though its conclusion may be a bit melodramatic, Cold Is the Grave shows that even after 11 Banks novels, he remains a hot talent. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Cold Steel Rain by Kenneth Abel (Putnam)

Cold Steel Rain, the third book by Kenneth Abel (apparently a pseudonym), takes place in present-day New Orleans, where a former assistant district attorney named Danny Chaisson scuttles around the Big Easy as bagman for a political fixer -- much like his father before him. Chaisson's life becomes even dodgier when several friends and associates are murdered, victims of some complex conspiracy whose contours are hard to discern. Little is as it seems in Danny's city -- including Danny's own shadowy self. Notable scenes and taut writing make Cold Steel Rain a bracing read. -- Tom Nolan


The Color of Death by Bruce Alexander (Putnam)

Bruce Alexander's vivid and wonderfully interesting historical mysteries of 18th-century London team a real-life figure -- blind magistrate Sir John Fielding, cofounder of the Bow Street Runners police force -- with a fictional assistant, the teenaged Jeremy Proctor, who helps the astute Sir John in his active investigations. The Color of Death is the seventh and possibly the best in this increasingly popular series. Like all of Alexander's books, it subtly shows a 20th-century social problem in an 18th-century light. The matter at hand here is race relations, which reach kindling-point when a band of supposedly "African" brigands terrorizes a well-to-do London neighborhood. The story is compelling, and the characters a pleasure to keep company with. Bruce Alexander's books are a real treat. -- Tom Nolan


The Immortal Game by Mark Coggins (Poltroon)

Nominated for both the Shamus and the Barry Awards, Coggins' private eye novel shamelessly recreates and then luxuriates within the 1950s conventions that so propelled the hard-boiled genre into American icon-hood. PI August Riordan plays jazz saxophone and chess with equal panache. When he's hired by a reclusive Silicon Valley billionaire to retrieve the only copy of the greatest chess software program of all time, Riordan embarks on the great paladin quest as if for the first time ever and the reader snuggles back in delicious appreciation. Coggins does sacrifice some pacing for depth of portrayal, but when you're luxuriating in details like "hoop earrings trained hamsters could jump through," the ride through the mean streets of San Francisco is a voyeur's delight. We even have a brawl in an S & M club. The Immortal Game is a limited edition book that is already being traded on the rare book market. -- Frederick Zackel


Legacy of the Dead by Charles Todd (Bantam)

The last place Ian Rutledge wants to go is Scotland, home to so many of the young men he'd sacrificed in battle during the recently concluded Great War (a.k.a. World War I). Yet that's exactly where this Scotland Yard inspector seems bound as he tries to identify some remains long ago concealed on a wind-scoured mountainside. Could they be the bones of Eleanor Gray, a headstrong young woman who, determined against convention to become a doctor, disappeared years ago from her privileged home, allegedly bound for America? Lady Maude Gray, Eleanor's mother and a former paramour of King Edward VII, is skeptical -- and more than ready to cut off any probe that might reflect badly on her family's reputation. But Rutledge can't ignore clues and circumstances that appear to link that body on the mountain with another woman, Fiona MacDonald, whose previously quiet life in the Scottish village of Duncarrick has recently gone to pieces amidst malicious gossip that she not only murdered Eleanor Gray, but stole her boy to rear as her own. Further adding to this mystery and the inspector's discomfort is the fact that Fiona was the girlfriend of Hamish MacLeod, a corporal Rutledge had had executed for cowardice -- yet who persists in haunting Rutledge's "shell shocked" psyche. Secrets both tender and violent are revealed as the chapters unfold. Legacy is a captivating read, even if author Todd is stingy here with the sort of guilt-ridden confrontations between Hamish and Rutledge that helped make his first novel, A Test of Wills (1996), and his last one, Search the Dark (1999), so satisfying. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard (Delacorte)

A rascally priest on the lam is center stage in this Let's-Con-the-Mob-out-of-Money tale. But Leonard adds an ex-con love interest who practiced standup comedy on her cellmates, throws in a hit man who has to borrow both a gun and a getaway car, then seasons the brew with a con man-turned-restaurateur. I am in awe of Leonard's narrative skills and his wicked, wicked wit makes me giggle and snicker weeks after I've finished one of his novels. Pagan Babies is also a devastating portrait of African genocide. It's inspiring to watch this compassionate writer juggle it all. -- Frederick Zackel


Places in the Dark by Thomas H. Cook (Bantam)

Thomas H. Cook has been writing award-winning crime fiction for a while, but I only sampled his work this year. I can't imagine a better introduction to it than this haunting story set in a coastal town in Maine in the late 1930s. The tale, which shifts effectively back and forth in time, is told in the first person by the town's prosecuting attorney, a famously logical man whose relationship with his more openhearted newspaper-publisher brother is dramatically altered by the presence in town of a beautiful young woman. At once a murder mystery and a novel of romance, Places in the Dark is full of fine surprises. -- Tom Nolan


Whispers of Betrayal by Michael Dobbs (HarperCollins UK)

The third installment in Dobbs' series about a bumbling but generous-hearted "parliamentary detective" named Thomas Goodfellowe finds the author again exploiting his insider knowledge of British political machinations to most satisfying effect. No longer is the "Honourable Member of Parliament for Marshwood" relegated to the sidelines of power-scheming and spin-doctoring. In this hard-to-set-aside and frequently humorous story about a plot by disgruntled military experts to cripple London and bring a self-serving prime minister to his knees -- arguably Dobbs' best novel of the last half-decade -- Goodfellowe finds himself back at the beating heart of things, the man upon whom the future of Britain's capital unexpectedly rests. There's a tendency in novels employing political backdrops to portray officeholders as one-dimensional and two-faced, and to look for heroes from beyond the echoing hallways of government -- journalists, private eyes, maybe private citizens who are seeking justice amidst the bureaucratic maze. The Goodfellowe yarns, while they certainly include elected leaders with more peccadilloes than promise, also provide in their main protagonist a welcome exception to this convention. -- J. Kingston Pierce


Art & Culture:


Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry (Doubleday)

Beyond the boundaries of race, religion and fashion accessories, here are 50 beautiful photos plus the voices of the wearers of the Crowns. The photographs are astonishing. The women mostly confront the camera properly adorned in their Sunday best and topped by some sort of delicious headgear. Some of the hats are somber and understated. Others are jaunty or jolly. There are designer hats and legacy hats. Still others flirt dangerously close to ridiculous. Yet, somehow, in this context and worn with pride -- and in some cases even defiance -- they are, as the title states, crowns indeed. -- Sienna Powers


Flophouse: Life on the Bowery by David Isay, Stacy Abramson, Harvey Wang (Random House)

Gritty and often visceral, Flophouse gives a glimpse at something many of us will never experience: that of life in a rooming house in New York's Bowery district. Concentrating on four of the eight flophouses left in this 16 block area of lower Manhattan, Flophouse infiltrates these microcosms within the city and gets close and in your face with 50 of the hotel's residents. Illustrated with Harvey Wang's brilliant and intimate photographs -- accompanied with a short and often revealing interview with the subject -- and authors Isay and Abramson's brief history of the Bowery makes Flophouse not only a great piece of art but a thought provoking commentary on the state of those who are considered "down and out." -- David Middleton


Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn (Da Capo Press)

In the spring of 1959, trumpeter Miles Davis and six other musicians recorded a 40-minute jazz album in a converted Greek Orthodox church in Manhattan -- and that record has been selling steadily ever since. Journalist Ashley Kahn takes readers back to that historic LP's two recording sessions and walks us through the dates, take by take. Like the Davis album, Kahn's Kind of Blue is brief, to the point and almost pure pleasure. It's very handsomely designed, too: fleshed out with session photographs and other pictures from the period. The book is everything you'd want it to be -- a perfect complement to the album it celebrates. -- Tom Nolan


Pad: The Guide to Ultra-Living by Matt Maranian (Chronicle Books)

Haul your fun fur out of the attic and fire up the hot-melt glue gun as author Matt Maranian takes us on a kitsch-filled tour of some of the wildest living spaces decorated with everything and just about anything you can think of. Got a spare tiki head or two you don't know what to do with; left over shag carpeting; fluorescent paint and a few dozen boxes of spare religious iconography? Don't fret, Maranian knows exactly what best use this (occasionally useless) stuff should be put to. Interviews with owners and tours into funky, cluttered, colorful, retro and indescribably wild pads make Pad a must-see (or a must-avoid) for those interested in unusual and eccentric interior decorating. Short but snappy how-to's -- like how turn a surfboard into a coffee table -- round out this gaudy but highly enjoyable display of residences which were decorated on a budget, on a whim or on really far-out intoxicants. -- David Middleton


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Branding and Design in Cigarette Packaging by Michael Thibodeau and Jana Martin (Abbeville Press)

Igniters of that demon weed tobacco and even those who do not smoke will get all misty eyed when leafing through Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Branding and Design in Cigarette Packaging. More than just a collection of cigarette packs both contemporary and vintage, foreign and domestic, Smoke is a fascinating glimpse at how designers, artists and of course tobacco companies have used the packaging of the cigarette to convince the populace that lighting up would make them healthy, glamorous and even good supporters of the war effort. Thibodeau and Martin take a look at the cigarette pack as high art and much like critics break down and review the packaging and how its design and aesthetic reflected the morals of the time. Watch as cigarettes go from cultural icon to cultural pariah and back again. -- David Middleton


Children's Books:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (Raincoast Press/Scholastic)

The arrival of "Book IV" in the summer of 2000 was heralded by the running footfalls of many millions of young feet. Quite simply, no book in memory created the advance -- and sustained -- furor as the debut of the fourth component in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of books. The sheer volume of the book surprised many critics: at over 600 pages, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire weighed in looking more like a challenging adult's book than anything that might be read by a child. Without going into the story (which is compelling) or the plotting (which is very ably handled), Goblet makes this list simply for the gift it's brought to both children and children's publishing. Children have learned that there really are some things more exciting than Playstation II. Those that publish children's books have learned that their young target market demands a tightly told tale cleanly wrought. -- Linda Richards


I Was A Rat! by Philip Pullman (Knopf)

While the publishing industry seemed determined to turn Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series -- which included 2000's The Amber Spyglass -- into the next Harry Potter, this prolific author's I Was A Rat! debuted quietly and slid away practically unnoticed. OK: there's no kind of series potential here, but there's certainly a lot of magic. I was a Rat is a charming and absolutely creative reworking of a classic fairytale, but from the backend. Filled with thieves and princesses, politicians and carneys, I was a Rat is slender, action-packed and, in all ways, a highly entertaining tale. -- Monica Stark


Kit's Wilderness by David Almond (Delacorte)

Kit's Wilderness is about the place where magic, dreams and everyday life collide. Almond's prose is elegant, sparse and powerful. He manages to speak volumes with the things he doesn't say, while entrancing his readers with what he does. Kit's Wilderness is a tautly rendered story filled with equal portions of suspense, mystery and wonder. His characters are real, his situations plausible even if somewhat fantastical and his conclusions satisfying. -- Monica Stark


Cookbooks & Comestibles:


A Goose in Toulouse by Mort Rosenblum (Hyperion)

A Goose in Toulouse is served to us almost in the form of short stories as, in 19 chapters, Rosenblum roams the country and shares his adventures. The preparation of a Sunday lunch in Saint-Restitut. A visit to the limestone caves at Roquefort where "milk turns to cheese." The Bordeaux region, complete with salient history and a bird's-eye view, gets a whole chapter. Mushroom sherbet at Lake Annecy; the truffle fair at Aups; stag hunting near Villers-Cotteréts; eating Tex-Mex in Paris; not to mention that famous goose in Toulouse. Rosenblum's book is a delight though, in many ways, not a surprise. He is the former editor-in-chief of the International Herald Tribune. Based in France, he is special correspondent for The Associated Press. The former war correspondent is the author of nine books including 1998's splendid Olives. -- Adrian Marks


Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Random House Canada)

Hot Sour Salty Sweet is more than a cookbook: it's an epic food extravaganza. Beautifully researched, photographed and reproduced, it's impossible to imagine a more complete book on the history, evolution and preparation of the food of parts of China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. From the authors of the almost-as-beautiful Seductions of Rice, Hot Sour Salty Sweet is an armchair traveler's culinary dream of Southeast Asia. -- Aaron Blanton


Pizza: From Italian Origins to the Modern Table by Rosario Buonassisi (Firefly Books)

Buonassisi tackles pizza with aplomb. Defining it, categorizing it, following its history from "somewhere in the southeast Mediterranean region, sometime between the twelfth and the third millennia BC," until the present day. In fact, Buonassisi takes things into the future in a chapter entitled "Beyond the Year 2000," which deals largely with the possible effects that continued international acceptance and mass production might have on "the integrity of true pizza". As near the edge as Buonassisi's passion seems at times, Pizza is a delightfully entertaining and informative book. The photos, art and layout are stunning -- and appetizing if you happen to be a lover of either or both pizza and cheese -- and the book itself is part cookbook, but also a large part cultural commentary through a pizza lens. Fascinating. -- Adrian Marks