The best of anything is in the eye of the beholder. You look at a rose and see beauty beyond compare: a poem in every petal and nectar with every breath you take. I might look at the same rose and see two weeks in bed because of hay fever. It's all a matter of perspective.
Such is the case with this particular compilation. We've included books that were the favorites of many of the contributors of January Magazine. In some cases we've included what it was about the books that made them memorable to us. The poem in the petal, if you will. The scent in the bloom.
We've opted not to do a worst books of the year compilation. It seems to us that life is too short to dwell on the things we didn't like, when there is so much available to us that we did. This, then, is a list of the books that moved us in some way. Moved us enough, at least, to want to make sure they got some special recognition from us as the year came to a close.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (Alfred A. Knopf)
Finely crafted stories, often leavened with humor, by Lorrie Moore, who has said that every story "begins with a wound." Here her characters confront wounds aplenty, including in one case the nightmarish reality of a baby's contracting cancer: "Baby and Chemo, the Mother thinks: they should never even appear in the same sentence together, let alone the same life." -- Charles Smyth
The Coast of Good Intentions by Michael Byers (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin)
A first work of fiction from 29-year-old Michael Byers, these graceful stories are rooted in the damp but fertile soil of the author's native Pacific Northwest. A maturity of understanding and compassion infuses the stories, belying their writer's youth. -- Charles Smyth
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro (McClelland and Stewart)
Alice Munro is the goddess of short fiction. In her hands an oft-overlooked genre is given new life while bringing Munro international acclaim. The Love of a Good Woman consists of eight short stories that look at the things we'll do for love. It's a worthwhile trip with a wonderful author whose work is beginning to attract the attention it has long deserved. -- Linda Richards
A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Whether you loved the book or hated it, Tom Wolfe's 1998 epic was the most ballyhooed and eagerly anticipated release of the year. It is au courant to hate that which is the most acclaimed and so -- predictably -- A Man in Full has had more than its share of detractors. But in most ways, it's a beautifully realized work that showcases Wolfe's mammoth storytelling skills. -- Linda Richards
Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly (Alfred A. Knopf)
Joe Connelly's gripping, harrowing account of a medic's nightly rounds in New York's aptly named Hell's Kitchen. The author, himself a New York City paramedic for nine years, is unsparing in authentic detail. This is the story of what happens before the gurney bursts through the doors of ER. -- Charles Smyth
Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (Transworld Publishers, London)
In his latest book, Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett once again straddles the genres of fantasy and political satire with hilarious consequences. When forward-thinking King Verence of the tiny kingdom of Lancre embraces the new world order, he opens the gates of the city to free trade. This means welcoming the like-minded and curiously sharptoothed Count Magpyr, who's looking for a little, er, new blood. Are we not in a unique position as we reach the end of the Century of the Fruitbat? Verence pontificates, oblivious to the vampire coup around him. Pratchett dispatches some of his feistiest characters -- four witches, a troubled young priest, and an army of hard-drinking little blue warriors called the Nac mac Feegle -- to win back the kingdom. -- Karen G. Anderson
Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin)
Robert Stone, whose novels include A Flag for Sunrise, Dog Soldiers, and A Hall of Mirrors, can weave a malevolent conspiracy with the best of them. Here he wades into the politico-religious twists, turns, and tangles of modern-day Jerusalem. Stone's descriptive powers are as vivid as ever: "The border between the State of Israel and the occupied Gaza Strip had always reminded him of the line between Tijuana and greater San Diego. There, too, ragged men the color of earth waited with the mystical patience of the very poor on the pleasure of crisply uniformed, well-nourished officials." -- Charles Smyth
The Handless Maiden by Loranne Brown (Doubleday)
The Handless Maiden is Loranne Brown's first novel and it's a triumphant debut peopled with compelling and recognizable characters and possessed of a story with a strong emotional hold. Stylistically, The Handless Maiden is a dark story. There is little of levity in the book. Little of light. Yet there is a hopefulness. One that has nothing to do with soundtracks and one that doesn't require a brick to the head to identify. -- Linda Richards
Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian (St. Martin's Press).
Nobody will ever accuse the mysterious Trevanian of being stuck in a rut. Having already demonstrated that he can write thrillers (Shibumi), police procedurals (The Main), and romances (The Summer of Katya), he's now conquered the territory of western fiction. But Incident at Twenty-Mile is nothing like those mythifying adventures concocted by Louis L'Amour and his ilk. By turns cynical and hopeful, dark and witty, this novel follows a young drifter with a questionable past and a skill for prevarication as he tries to fit into the quiet society of an all-but-forgotten 1890s Wyoming silver-mining town. But just when our misfit seems finally to be creating some roots for himself, along comes an escaped murderer and crazed patriot who is intent on robbing a nearby mine. Perhaps only the drifter (and self-appointed marshal), with whom the convict finds an unlikely connection, can save his newfound home from the violence that every reader senses is coming in this tale. Based on factual events, Incident at Twenty-Mile is full of richly conceived characters and lyrical observations about life in the American West, with a most surprising and affecting ending. The only disappointment comes in knowing that Trevanian will probably not visit this fictional genre again. -- J. Kingston Pierce
Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (Alfred A. Knopf).
Re-imagining a familiar novel such as Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is a task that invites harsh criticism. Yet Australian author Carey has not been harshly (or, at least, widely) criticized. That's because he has done such a fine job of respecting Dickens' original yarn, while adding his own quirks and viewpoint. It's the 1830s when ex-convict Jack Maggs, who had been deported to Australia for his crimes, returns to London, worms his way into a respected household, and begins trying to locate the boy (now grown, of course) whom he had set up many years before to become a gentleman. Along the way his course collides with that of Tobias Oates, a writer and mesmerist who brings forth the dark -- and, perhaps, best-hidden -- depths of Maggs' soul under hypnosis. Carey has created here a novel of dysfunctional personalities, interacting in a crowded city of disappointing realities. His prose is sparer and more modern than Dickens', but his conception of 1830s London and the characters with which he peoples it are only arguably less colorful. -- J. Kingston Pierce
The Man from the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch (Random House Canada).
A century after northwestern Canada's Klondike region attracted tens of thousands of men, women, and even children hoping to cash in on North America's last great gold rush, award-winning Canadian novelist Robert Kroetsch re-creates those wild times in this moving and memorable novel. Though it was inspired by Robert Service's most familiar poem, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," The Man from the Creeks does not merely fill in the backstory on Dangerous Dan, "the lady that's known as Lou," and greedy goings-on at the Malamute Saloon. It also gives new and often grim life to that historic stampede for riches, complete with avalanches, treachery, love, and characters so elegantly wrought and bizarrely named that you can't help but be impressed by Kroetsch's masterful storytelling. There's no better novel about the Klondike gold rush. -- J. Kingston Pierce
Riven Rock by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Viking).
At first blush, a novel based on the true early 20th-century story of Stanley R. McCormick -- a son of the man who invented the Reaper, but who slowly went mad while locked away at Riven Rock, a manse in the hills above Santa Barbara, California -- hardly seems like it could enthrall you for 466 pages. But Boyle, who's able to turn a phrase or describe the most quotidian item with a lyrical skill miles beyond what most writers can attain, brings to this tale a hard-edged humanity, a comic energy, and a wealth of episodic dramas that transcend its depressing facts. The schizophrenic and sexually maniacal McCormick is a powerful figure, despite his dementia. But he's only one of three principal actors in Riven Rock. The second is McCormick's privileged wife, Katherine, who in the course of this work becomes stronger both in character (she eventually sues to gain control of her husband's person and estate) and in her commitment to suffragist ideals. Finally, there's Eddie O'Kane, McCormick's hard-drinking and womanizing Irish nurse, who in Boyle's hands becomes the most vividly wrought figure among the many psychiatrists, lawyers, and other hangers-on whose financial livelihood depended on the reclusive millionaire deviant remaining insane. Riven Rock has its slow points, but in the end what you remember most are the author's sharp and sometimes peculiar imagery and his splendid prose. -- J. Kingston Pierce
The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer (Random House)
If Norman Mailer were a movie, you would never watch him at home on videocassette. He needs the movie theater's big screen. This 1,200+-page collection includes selections from some of his best writing over a 50-year career that began in 1948 with the publication of The Naked and the Dead, still considered one of the best war novels ever written. Here you'll find memorable portraits of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Marilyn Monroe. You'll find brilliant passages from The Deer Park, An American Dream, The Executioner's Song, Harlot's Ghost, and other novels. You'll find controversial essays such as the seminal "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," published in 1959. And you'll find penetrating sociopolitical commentary, such as "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," which covers the Democratic Party Convention of 1960 in Los Angeles that nominated John Kennedy for president. In "Superman" nearly 40 years ago, Mailer foresaw the human costs of the dawning Information Age: "The twentieth century may yet be seen as that era when civilized man and underprivileged man were melted together into mass man, the iron and steel of the nineteenth century giving way to electronic circuits which communicated their messages into men, the unmistakable tendency of the new century seeming to be the creation of men as interchangeable as commodities, their extremes of personality singed out of existence by the psychic fields of force the communicators would impose." -- Charles Smyth
Brushback by K.C. Constantine (Mysterious Press)
A new book by K.C. Constantine is like a long-awaited letter from an old friend. In Brushback, Constantine brings us up-to-date on Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, where Police Chief Mario Balzic has retired and acting chief Rugs Carlucci is struggling to take his place at the helm of an understaffed and overworked department. Carlucci's professional future is on the line when Rockburg's only celebrity -- former baseball star Bobby Blasco -- is murdered. Once known for his lethal brushback pitches, but now feared for his ugly temper, Blasco was bludgeoned to death with a Louisville Slugger bat and left in a cold back alley. Carlucci may have half a chance solve the murder -- if only he can figure out a way to keep his domineering elderly mother to stop pestering him at work. -- Karen G. Anderson
A Bitter Feast by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Press).
This fifth entry in a delightful series featuring young private eye Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, her older and more cynical sometimes-partner, has Lydia searching New York's Chinatown for four missing waiters. Does their disappearance have anything to do with a campaign to unionize restaurant workers in the neighborhood? Or with suspicions that certain Chinatown rainmakers may be doing a side business in drug running? Lydia's efforts to answer these and other questions lead her to employment in a dim sum house, bring threats on her life, and place her at the center of a struggle between older Cantonese power brokers and newer Fukienese immigrants. Rozan, who won the 1998 Anthony Award for Best Novel, excels both at plotting and character development. If you're not already familiar with her work, A Bitter Feast is an excellent introduction. -- J. Kingston Pierce
Breach of Promise by Anne Perry (Fawcett Columbine).
Why would a gifted architect, Killian Melville, lead a London heiress in 1860 to believe that he'd marry her -- only to back out in the midst of wedding preparations, thus inviting a socially and financially damaging breach of promise suit? That is the question facing barrister Sir Oliver Rathbone and detective William Monk as they seek to mount a defense of the architect, despite Melville's puzzling unwillingness to reveal -- even to them -- his reasons for refusing his lovely young fiancée's hand. The plot here is convoluted, and it stretches credibility when the Melville case finally intersects with Monk's concurrent search for a housemaid's missing nieces. But Perry's courtroom drama is smart, and she has rarely done a finer job of combining a suspenseful yarn with her favorite subtext about 19th-century women either submitting to or subverting the traditional restrictions on their lives. -- J. Kingston Pierce
Flying Blind by Max Allan Collins (Dutton).
Chicago private eye Nathan Heller's ninth attempt at solving one of the 20th century's most sensational crimes or mysteries finds him being hired to protect famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart during a 1935 cross-country lecture tour. During this excursion, her husband also wants Heller to check on whether Earhart is being faithful to her wedding vows. A simple case? Hardly. First, the detective falls in love with the flyer (despite evidence of her lesbianism). Then Amelia disappears somewhere over the South Pacific in the midst of a 1937 'round-the-world flight. Although initially dubious of rumors that Earhart and her navigator had survived their crash, Heller is convinced to poke further into the matter, eventually running afoul of US government agents and infiltrating the Japanese-held island of Saipan in quest for his beloved. Blending fact with fiction, Flying Blind provides grist for new debate over Earhart's fate and further expands Heller's already deep and troubled character. It's a topflight entry in an already superior series. -- J. Kingston Pierce
Night Train by Martin Amis (Harmony Books)
"I am a police," announces Detective Mike Hoolihan, using the cops' preferred term of self-reference. "And I am a woman, also." So begins this first foray into crime fiction by the London-based novelist Martin Amis, who sets his engrossing story on this side of the Atlantic, in a "second-echelon American city." Hoolihan is assigned a case that no one seems willing to believe: the apparent suicide of a "to-die-for brilliant, drop-dead beautiful" young woman. In her time as a cop, Hoolihan tells us early on, "I've seen them all: jumpers, stumpers, dumpers, dunkers, bleeders, floaters, poppers, bursters. But of all the bodies I have ever seen, none has stayed with me, in the gut, like the body of Jennifer Rockwell." I don't know whether Amis intends to bring back Mike Hoolihan, but she's earned another case. -- Charles Smyth
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill (Doubleday)
On Beulah Height is a wonderfully sinewy book, a chilling whodunit, filled with characters so contemporary and familiar that there's a risk you'll later recall one of their narratives as a story you heard from a friend. Hill's latest book about Yorkshire detectives Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe finds the pair searching for little girl who went out to play and vanished -- just as three other local girls had disappeared 15 years earlier. On Beulah Height is a gritty police procedural laced with wry commentary on contemporary British society. A death-obsessed opera star, a feminist rookie cop, and a womanizing building contractor give the loud, wily Dalziel and his moody partner plenty to investigate. -- Karen G. Anderson
Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam)
I loved Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell. I am a mystery fan and this was a great one. Cornwell's baby boomer female protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, cooks Italian, works too much, and has a niece who is a computer whiz. This book has it all. Scarpetta, the medical examiner of Virginia, Cornwell's always-developing main character, becomes even more human in this book despite the fascinating events that whirl around her professional life. I cried at the end. That is all I can say. The author and the protagonist are women of a certain age, near mine, who have lives that require constant stirring to keep them interested, and constant definition by their work to keep them grounded. With this I can identify. -- Janice Farringer
Art and Culture:
Elvgren: His Life and Art by Drake Elvgren and Max Allen Collins (Collectors Press)
Until I picked up Elvgren: His Life and Art, I never realized how many of his works I had been exposed to throughout the years. Elvgren painted everything from Coca-Cola advertisements to Santa Claus to toothpaste ads and everything in between. A consummate professional and a master at the art of portraiture, Gil Elvgren may have painted and illustrated a variety of subjects, but it was his paintings of women for which he was most famous. Known as the Norman Rockwell of the pin-up, Elvgren's coy and sexy subjects were always the epitome of the wholesome all-American woman. This book compares side by side Elvgren's beautiful paintings with his reference photos of the real-life models he had pose for him. And with his extraordinary talent, he helped define the American pin-up goddess. -- David Middleton
The Mercator Atlas of Europe edited by Marcel Watelet (Walking Tree Press)
The Mercator Atlas of Europe is pure delight for the historian -- armchair or otherwise -- and hard-core bibliophile. A portfolio of illustrated maps by 16th century Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, the lavishly reproduced collection is a book to build libraries around. -- Linda Richards
The Metropolis of Tomorrow by Hugh Ferriss (Princeton Architectural Press)
Metropolis of Tomorrow is Hugh Ferriss' classic manifesto on architecture. He used his imagination to create unique visions of a possible future. Buildings that could dwarf any modern-day skyscraper to bridge-dwellings that could house thousands. His writings on architecture are oddly cold and touching, but it's his illustrations that make this book really shine. Brooding, dark and sternly angular, his work speaks volumes about line, form and passion. This is without a doubt one of my favorite books of all time. One of great vision and poetry. A reproduction of Ferriss' 1926 book of the same name, this new version of Metropolis takes its heritage very seriously, recreating the art, text and typesetting of the original. A biography of Ferriss has been appended, completing and rounding out this book perfectly. -- David Middleton
Pulp Culture by Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson (Collectors Press)
I have long been a fan of the pulp art genre and own several books on the subject, but this one tops them all. From cowboys and Indians to space aliens; sports heroes to pirates; scantily clad women to bony ghouls; no subject is too sacred or too outlandish for Pulp Culture to cover. Beautifully produced and designed, each page is covered with full-color reproductions of the best and the worst that the pulps had to offer. Robinson and Davidson are extremely knowledgeable about their subject. Excellent cultural and artistic reference material. -- David Middleton
The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker (Viking)
This is a highly literate and often mirthful frolic through the history of humankind's relationship with the beach -- "nature's most potent antidepressant." Oregon authors Lencek and Bosker recall how beaches were once thought to be plagued by sea monsters and disease. Not until Europeans started exploring exotic foreign shores in the 16th and 17th centuries did these sandy stretches become known as idyllic attractions -- places to be exploited shamelessly by resort operators, proselytizers of the healthy life, and eventually, fashion designers. Some of the authors' liveliest anecdotes recount the evolution of swimsuits -- originally considered unnecessary even by the British (who commingled in the nude at resorts until the early 1800s, much to the delight of Peeping Toms), later a source of moralistic contention, especially in America, where men were forbidden to bathe bare-chested until 1937 and bikinis were once dismissed as appropriate only for "a man hunter, sun worshiper, or someone very young (at least in heart)..." It's only regrettable that Lencek and Bosker never get beyond how Western cultures have viewed the shoreline. -- J. Kingston Pierce
The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House by John F. Marszalek (Free Press).
This book's title was evidently intended to attract people who normally think of American history as too dry for their tastes. But Mississippi historian Marszalek is less concerned in his text with replaying rumors and slander than he is with analyzing how an 1830s scandal involving the young wife of the secretary of war -- a woman much favored by President Jackson but snubbed by Washington's gentility -- helped decide the fortunes of two powerful rivals eager to follow "Old Hickory" into the White House. Like the present imbroglio in the US capital, the long-ago flap over Margaret "Peggy" Eaton was overblown and rancorous beyond reason. Eaton was a tavernkeeper's daughter who was lambasted for her outspokenness and allegedly sordid past. Wives of other Cabinet members fought her inclusion in their exclusive circle. And efforts by the President to defend her only hardened the opinions of her detractors, provoked the dissolution of Jackson's first Cabinet, and threatened to make his administration a laughingstock. If you ever doubted that politics can be an ugly business, The Petticoat Affair provides fascinating proof. -- J. Kingston Pierce
The Race for Bandwidth by Cary Lu (Microsoft Press)
If you've ever leafed through an issue of Wired magazine and slunk away feeling hopelessly out of it, your confidence in your ability to understand high tech will be restored when you read The Race for Bandwidth. This book by technology expert Cary Lu might better be titled The Hype-free Guide to Communications Technology. In the clear, engaging style that characterized his writing, filmmaking, and columns, Lu paints the big picture about technological and economic factors that have shaped development of communications in this century. Once you read his careful assessments of what's likely to happen with broadcast and point-to-point communications in the future, most gee-whiz reporting you hear about the Internet will leave you snickering. -- Karen G. Anderson
Walk on Water: A Memoir by Lorian Hemingway (Simon & Schuster).
Reared in Mississippi by an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather, Ernest Hemingway's granddaughter Lorian left home in her teens, already "a booze-sucking, pill-popping, dope-slamming druggie." If not for her passion for fishing and some of the people she met through that sport -- including the eccentric black cook who taught her to flycast for catfish and her great-uncle Les, Ernest's brother, who shared with her his philosophies about life and writing -- she might have wound up confirming the Hemingway family's bent toward self-destruction. Instead, Lorian managed to overcome a 32-beers-a-day habit and become an extraordinarily self-analytical writer. Alternately humorous and poignant, and amply stocked with both marvelous fish stories and periodic reflections on Hemingway's literary heritage, Walk on Water is about a woman discovering -- if a bit late in life -- the strength to overcome adversity that had always lain within her. -- J. Kingston Pierce