The Best Books of 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragons of Springplace

The last year of the 20th century might well be remembered as the year the book came back. The de rigueur topic of tabloid conversation ceased to be what dress size Oprah was in this month and turned to what book the television maven was currently recommending. Like thirsty lemmings, the watchers became the readers, reportedly flocking in droves to the nearest book emporium in order to purchase the latest of Ms. Winfrey's picks.

A magical kid named Harry made the cover of Time mid-year, encouraging countless hordes of new readers to join the ranks of the petite literati. And speaking of Time covers, you have to know that when that magazine's man of the year happens to be a bookseller, something very odd and special is afoot.

Despite some booksellers' and publishers' claims that sales were down in 1999, there was much evidence that the profile of the book, in general, and reading in particular were very much in vogue in 1999. There are some very good reasons for both phenomena. Despite early warnings that the Internet and other forms of online communication spelled the death of the book, if anything, the Internet has helped raise the trusted book's profile. Not only has the 'Net given us an easy way to tell each other about the works and words we've enjoyed, it also makes purchasing books via various online means a virtual snap: point, click and wait for the courier dude. What could be easier?

Another factor might just be that communicating via the Internet demands a certain degree of literacy. And once you can make yourself understood in a literate community, the result is enhanced appreciation of and empathy for the written word.

While the world at large spent a lot of time reading and thinking about reading in 1999, we here at January chattered about books incessantly. In the course of all of that, we read a lot of books. Predictably, most of our picks fell into the strongest fiction categories, but there are titles here representing most of the literary areas we cover. This adds to the feeling that, in many ways, the last year of the century was a very strong one for the book. Here are the titles that we liked best.

 


 

Fiction:

Dreamland by Kevin Baker (HarperCollins)

The Coney Island presented here is not the innocent playground of nostalgic visions. At the area's splashiest amusement park, Dreamland, we find demonic dwarfs tormenting parkgoers with cattle prods; men pawing hungrily at women's breasts on carousels; and a new roller coaster careening off its track, killing passengers -- only to draw even larger crowds thereafter, attracted by the keen risk of death. This is an ideal frame into which Kevin Baker can stretch his expansive story. It begins with a dog-and-rat fight, during which a gangster called Kid Twist clubs a rival hood, Gyp the Blood, before the latter can murder a newsboy. Only the rescued urchin turns out to be Trick the Dwarf, a carnival barker who repays the Kid by giving him asylum at Coney's elephant-shaped hotel. The rest of the book finds Baker juggling plotlines, each one more interesting than the last. The Kid falls in love with Esther Abramowitz, a sewing machine operator who (much to his distress) turns out to be Gyp the Blood's sister. Trick the Dwarf courts a miniature beauty who's deluded into thinking that she is the Empress of Mexico. A sentimental politician tries to maintain his grasp on power while acceding to the demands of upper-class reformers. And, most satisfying of all, Esther matures from a lowly, hounded shopworker into a self-confident labor organizer. Author Baker somehow keeps all of these balls in the air, entertaining and educating us throughout. -- J. Kingston Pierce

 

Jane by Judy MacDonald (Arsenal Pulp Press/Mercury Press)

Of the books I've reviewed, Jane by Judy MacDonald, was the most disturbing. Its exploration of the relationship between victims and abusers, of the origins of criminal behavior, feels at times like obsessive picking at the scabs of urban Canada in the 1990s. -- J.M. Bridgeman

 

The Pornographer's Poem by Michael Turner (Doubleday Canada)

The Pornographer's Poem has been touted as Turner's breakthrough novel. Obscene, funny and, at root, very, very serious, Poem captures the destruction of childhood innocence nearly perfectly. This is a relentlessly un-Canadian novel avoiding the imagistic conventions of Can-Lit. Instead it contains as serious a meditation on the nature of pornography as I have ever read and a pitch perfect description of the illusion shattering effects of growing up. In a rather dismal year for fiction, The Pornographer's Poem stands out as both a compelling story and an intelligent probing of the limits of the novel. -- Jay Currie

 

Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Delacorte)

It's a rare writer indeed who can simultaneously make me chuckle and freak me out, and Thomas Harris does both in spades. When I finally got my hands on a copy of Hannibal late this year I was prepared to be enthralled once again, and he did not disappoint. Harris' vast knowledge of the forensic world is astounding; the man has done his research, and it shows. (In the acknowledgments he gives a nod to the librarians in his hometown "who looked things up for years.") Harris also harbors a quirky sense of humor which creeps up when you least expect it; more than once I laughed out loud, usually at a piece of right-on dialogue or a just-so turn of phrase. And while some readers have squawked about the ending, I found the conclusion completely surprising and intriguing -- and open to interpretation. So crack open a bottle of good Chianti, settle back in a comfy wing chair, and discover what it means to be "free-range rude." -- Pamela Patterson

 

Seductions. by Marlene Streeruwitz (Oolichan Books)

For sheer reading pleasure, Marlene Streeruwitz' Seductions. swooped me into its manic rush to escape reality, to avoid accepting from Cinderella the broom we all need to clean up the shards of our shattered illusions. -- JMB

 

The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (Viking)

I first read the title story in this collection last year when it appeared in Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's pet project to foster new writers. At the time I thought, "Who is this Melissa Bank? I've never heard of her, but she's a hoot." Her protagonist Jane Rosenal reminds me a lot of myself in my 20s: paying way too much attention to when and whether the phone would ring, and then when it did, proceeding to say sometimes silly and inane things to fill up the silences. Reading through The Girls' Guide made me glad to be beyond all that; nevertheless, I found myself looking back with a wistful and knowing nod. Melissa Bank has captured perfectly the angst of being 20-something in an uncertain world. And she does it with a welcome dose of humor (the spoof on The Rules is priceless). While some stories are inevitably better than others, they seem to form a cohesive whole, and this was the kind of book that kept me up reading late into the night. I look forward to seeing what Melissa Bank has in store for us -- and Jane -- next. -- PP

 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Knopf)

When I reviewed it several months ago, I thought Plainsong was the most perfectly named book I'd ever read. Now, with all of my 1999 reading behind me, I think this is even more true. A perfect literary song set on the high plains of Colorado. The story is quiet and beautiful and utterly devoid of gamboling heroics. Human emotions, a human tale and all told in Kent Haruf's consistently human voice. Plainsong is, quite simply, perfect. -- Linda Richards

 

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle (Knopf)

Partly because of the rabid success of Angela's Ashes a few of seasons earlier, 1999 was a big year for all sorts of Irish tales. Quite frankly, it got a little old after a while. Maybe that's part of the reason I liked A Star Called Henry as much as I did. Doyle managed to cram in all sorts of historical Irish stuff while never losing sight of the very real humor that any dark tale must own. Doyle is a writer's writer. I'd happily scale any literary mountains he wants to put in my way just to spend more time in the company of his knifing wit and darkly humorous prose. A Star Called Henry is starkly different from Doyle's earlier works but is -- perhaps -- a hint at what the work of the more mature Doyle will look like. -- LR

 

The Death of the Moon by Brian Panhuyzen (Cormorant Books)

Toronto writer Brian Panhuyzen's first collection of short stories, The Death of the Moon is an auspicious debut from a young man with talent to burn. Panhuyzen has mastered the economy of expression essential to spinning a full-blown tale in relatively few words. The stories explore the tender wounds of deep relationships, the eeriness of the unknown and the alienation of youth in a sensual and voluptuously beautiful style ("He had dreamed about her hair, the deep coils as thick and sweet as night in a forest"). His sense of wonder is refreshing and badly needed in an age of cynicism. -- Margaret Gunning

 

Crime Fiction:

Angels Flight by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company)

Angels Flight , the sixth book in Michael Connelly's series about Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch, was the high point of 1999 for fans of police procedurals. Connelly takes his writing seriously, digging deeper into the character of the disillusioned yet determined Bosch with each book. And in Angels Flight , Connelly also explores the city of Los Angeles, a sprawling, diverse metropolis that threatens to ignite when a flamboyant black civil-rights litigator is murdered -- just he is about to take a brutality suit against the elite LAPD homicide unit to trial. Homicide has a conflict of interest, so police leaders give the murder investigation to Boschs team -- probably for PR reasons, as well: The murder is likely to trigger racial unrest in the community, and Bosch works with two black detectives. But their investigation of people who had a motive to kill the lawyer alarms police higher-ups -- they uncovered evidence linking a prominent businessman to the porn-related murder of a little girl. Once again Bosch finds himself in a race against time, with a murderer at large and the investigation imperiled by saboteurs inside his own department. Bosch survives, of course, but he's never unscathed. Nor are we. With each new book in this resonant series, Connelly leaves a deeper impression. -- Karen G. Anderson

 

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth (Viking)

Recently returned to Britain after witnessing -- and being permanently marked psychologically -- by the violence of World War I, Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden is sent to investigate the horrific slaughter of a well-respected family in Surrey. Though the motive for this crime is unclear, the extermination was obviously carried out swiftly with some sort of bladed instrument. Madden comes eventually to realize that it was the work of a soldier-turned-serial killer, a man who thoroughly stalks his targets from hidden, military-style dugouts before attacking. But can the inspector, supported by an understanding superior and assisted by a fetching female physician, prevent the murderer from striking again? Airth injects remarkable tension into this tale by paralleling Madden's probe of the Surrey bloodshed with long, captivating looks into the quotidian lives of the killer and his next set of victims. A moody, memorable yarn. -- JKP

 

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson (Avon Twilight)

This 10th police procedural featuring Yorkshire Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks begins with a bizarre discovery: The skeleton of a murdered woman, hidden since World War II in a reservoir-flooded hamlet called Hobb's End, has recently been exposed by a drought. Banks is initially skeptical about his assignment to the case, but as he and a local detective sergeant, Annie Cabbot, re-create the crime scene, they bring Hobb's End figuratively -- and intriguingly -- back to life. And they're drawn deep into the story of their murder victim, a curvaceous and somewhat brazen young woman. Into his modern yarn, Robinson intertwines the fictional text of a memoir, written by a septuagenarian detective novelist, that sheds additional light on doings in wartime Hobb's End. This combining of viewpoints, the author's skill at building suspense, and the developing relationship between Banks and the younger Annie Cabbot all help make In a Dry Season an especially absorbing read for any season. -- JKP

 

Garnethill by Denise Mina (Carroll & Graf)

The winner of Britain's prestigious John Creasey Memorial Award, this first novel by Denise Mina takes its name from the highest point in Glasgow, Scotland. But it finds theater ticket-office worker Maureen O'Donnell at a low point in her life, poor, with a dysfunctional family and a psychologist boyfriend who's not only married, but also abusive. Then, one morning, Maureen wakes to find that same boyfriend strapped to her kitchen chair, with his throat slit. Not surprisingly, Maureen -- claiming a history of mental illness -- is the prime suspect. Even she isn't sure of her own innocence, until she starts to link this murder with a nightmarish series of recent crimes. I like what another reviewer said of Mina, that she "writes with a pen dipped alternately in gallows humor and rage." Oh, how true. -- JKP

 

Blackheart Highway by Richard Barre (Berkeley Prime Crime)

If the classic California private eyes -- Spade, Marlowe and Archer -- all have one element in common, it is the bittersweet lyricism in their hearts at the end of the case, when the P.I. sees twilight over the Pacific and knows the cost of murder. The best of all their heirs is Richard Barre. In Blackheart Highway, detective Wil Hardesty travels inland to Steinbeck Country, where a 20-year-old triple murder festers like the plague. Barre writes great characters because he loves and understands them. His story reads as fast as whitewater. -- Frederick Zackel

 

Birdman by Mo Hayder (Doubleday)

When he created the first crime story in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allan Poe gave us "the murderous ape." No one but an ape could have pulled off that murder, M. Dupin declared. Now Mo Hayder, in her debut novel, updates that monster and centers it ground-zero within the human species. Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey of the Greenwich, England, police must investigate five vile murders. The corpses -- all of young women -- were mutilated after their brain stems received fatal injections of heroin. Oh, and in place of their hearts, in each chest cavity is found a small dead finch. Hayder gets my vote for Most Hard-boiled Writer for the New Millennium. She has a cold eye for forensics! -- FZ

 

Poetry:

What the Living Won't Let Go by Lorna Crozier (Mclelland & Stewart)
My favorite poet, not only because she is of my generation, Western Canadian, female. Crozier seems fearless, writing about the things usually relegated to gossip or tabloids, and therefore, never discussed at all. Those things which touch us most deeply while ever evading our grasp. This collection of 45 poems is no exception. Spirit animals. Hovering souls. Silence. Space. Shadow. Magic. Affliction. Betrayal. Fear. The other woman. Bone, feather, stone and grass. Things to pack. The taste of light. Loss. Opposites. Other ways of falling. Grounded in ideas, the language, the craft, lifts these poems, snatching our breath as we rise to follow, transporting us to familiar realms previously entered only in our dreams. -- JMB

 

49th Parallel Psalm by Wayde Compton (Advance Editions)

Wayde Compton is a young Vancouver poet with a formidable talent and the uncanny ability to cast a spell over his readers. His first book of poems, 49th Parallel Psalm (Advance Editions) is one of the great finds of 1999, an eccentric, inspired, mercurial take on a segment of Canadian history which has been all but ignored. Compton traces the migration of blacks from San Francisco into British Columbia in the 1850s in a style reminiscent of early Bob Dylan, full of slashing wit, lightning wordplay and wry survivor's humor. This is history transformed into art, a dizzying and impressive first work from an important new talent. -- MG

 

Biography:

Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare (The Harvill Press)

When a man is famous for telling "the truth and a half" it is best that his biographer be a novelist. Sorting the truth from the fiction in Bruce Chatwin's life would be a pedant's task; instead Shakespeare simply tells the charmed tale of Chatwin's life. Art expert, traveler, journalist, author, sexual tourist and socialite in the Noel Coward sense of the term, Chatwin's forty something years on the planet are caught in Shakespeare's wonderful prose. Shakespeare knew and liked Chatwin; but was more than capable of spotting the raw egoism beneath the layers of charm. This is a wonderful book. -- JC

 

Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan (Scribner)

Along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) developed the foundations of 20th-century American private eye fiction. Lew Archer, the Los Angeles detective whom Macdonald introduced in The Moving Target (1949) and followed through The Blue Hammer (1976), was a character less cynical than Sam Spade, more compassionate and capable of evolution than Philip Marlowe, and who probably influenced a far greater number of fictional P.I.s than did either of those predecessors. Yet while Archer has been quite thoroughly analyzed over the years, Macdonald (the nom de plume of Kenneth Millar) was always something of a mystery. Until now. Tom Nolan (who is also a contributing editor of January Magazine) brings an obvious appreciation -- even love -- of his subject to this exhaustive biography, which explores Millar/Macdonald's "depressing childhood" in Canada, his literary scholarship and very troubled family history, and his struggles to bring the detective story into the mainstream. No previous Macdonald bio measures up to this one. -- JKP

 

Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe (Knopf)

In a market saturated with all sorts of biographies -- from the truly interesting to the stunningly boring -- a writer with unusual credentials has crafted a memorable and important book. Conversations with Wilder is just that: a series of conversations between the writer/director Cameron Crowe with the writer/director Billy Wilder. It's the most fascinating look at Wilder yet and Crowe -- a former Rolling Stone associate editor and contributor -- does an admirable job with first rate material. Add to this many photographs of Wilder throughout his illustrious career and you have a perfect book. I can't imagine a better biography. -- LR

 

The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth by Ben McIntyre (Delta).

Although this biography originally appeared last year in hardcover, its paperback republication makes it fair game for 1999. It's a well-documented and wittily written history of the man after whom Arthur Conan Doyle apparently modeled his Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' nemesis. American-born Adam Worth was a smooth, cunning Victorian thief whose criminal network stretched from New York to London to South Africa and operated (rather like a family business) for three decades. Safecracking, train heists and assorted other high-profile malefactions made Worth wealthy, and he recast his life as that of a gentleman, portraying himself to both his neighbors and his children under the pseudonym of Henry J. Raymond. But Scotland Yard and America's Pinkerton Detective Agency took a much dimmer view of Worth. They knew him as a career felon and suspected he'd had a hand in stealing Thomas Gainsborough's famous portrait, The Duchess of Devonshire, from a London gallery in 1876. Indeed, Worth was to blame -- but kept that fact a secret, hiding the painting under his bed or in traveling luggage, until 1899, when an instance of betrayal finally convinced him to make a deal with master detective William Pinkerton for its return. McIntyre, a British journalist, gives readers both a spirited story and a far better perspective on the 19th-century world of crime than Conan Doyle ever could. -- JKP

 

Cookbooks:

New Food Fast by Donna Hay (Whitecap)

Even as I write this, it seems odd to be including a cookbook in this "best of" roundup, but I can't help it. New Food Fast is a stunning book on every level, not the least of which is the fact the it looks utterly unlike any cookbook I've yet encountered. Gorgeous food styling and photography. First rate typography. Excellent reproduction. All of the things that make a cookbook top level. Yet more. Hay has effectively rethought the classic cookbook presentation. Has, really, redefined the meaning of the word, "cookbook." And that's not a feat to be sneezed at. Hay has organized her book by the time it takes to prepare the meal rather than by type of food or meal it belongs with. But the redefining doesn't stop there. Her ingredients are fresh and her directions straightforward. Sections on stocking a pantry, necessary kitchen tools and making kitchen basics (stock, bread dough, pastry crust, etc.) round the book out perfectly. New Food Fast is the most innovative approach I've seen to cooking for the neophyte in years. Maybe ever. -- LR

 

Children's Books:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (Raincoast)

I mention the last title in the trilogy because it was the only one of the three actually published in the book's native UK in 1999. However, 1999 was the year that most people on the North American side of the pond got a good whiff of the magic of Harry. And magic it is: the type of magic that snatches the joystick controllers from the hands of children and adults alike and transports them to the wonderful world of reading. We'll call it one of the best books of the year now. In a decade, we'll be calling it a classic. -- LR

 

Art & Culture:

Batman: The Complete History by Les Daniels & Chip Kidd (Chronicle Books)

Batman: The Complete History is a sensual journey of pop-culture nostalgia, a loving tribute to an icon that has captured the imagination of children young and old for the last 60 years. It's absolute eye candy. And I had tremendous fun losing myself in its warm, colorful embrace. -- Claude Lalumière

 

The Sixties by Richard Avedon and Doon Arbus (Random House/Kodak Professional)

One of the finest photographic books to come out this year by one of the finest photographers of the last four decades. A powerful and intimate look at a tumultuous decade and a stunning glimpse at the movers and shakers who would influence decades to come. I can hardly wait to see if there will be The Seventies, The Eighties and -- now that we're done with them -- The Nineties. -- David Middleton

 

Mutts Sundays by Patrick McDonnell (Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Finally! Patrick McDonnell's enchanting weekend comic strips collected in full glorious color! Mutts is, by far, the best daily strip going these days. This series about Earl the dog and Mooch the cat (and their human, feline, canine, and various other acquaintances) not only uses a much broader palette of emotions than any other current daily strip, but it's also, again by far, the most beautifully illustrated and the most formally interesting, as it draws on the vast history of comics and visual arts to enrich its storytelling. -- CL

 

Science Fiction of the 20th Century by Frank M. Robinson (Collectors Press)

Collectors Press publishes some of the most gorgeous art books and Science Fiction of the 20th Century is no exception. Science Fiction takes you through the history of the genre from the "story papers" of the late 1800s, the "pulps" of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, to modern day novels, magazines and movies. Great information and anecdotes combined with beautifully reproduced illustrations make this coffee table-appropriate volume a must-have for the science fiction aficionado. Seen it all before, you say? Maybe not, as Collectors Press seems to take pride in presenting the reader with something rare or never before seen in any other book of this type; and in the most attractive manner. -- DM

 

Science Fiction/Fantasy:

The Dragons of Springplace by Robert Reed (Golden Gryphon)

Robert Reed is one of my favorite short story writers, and one of the most skillful and imaginative writers of science fiction around. He's also prodigiously prolific. I've been yearning for a collection of his short fiction for about a decade now. The Dragons of Springplace, which barely scratches the surface of the multitude of Reed stories awaiting collection, was a dream come true. I want more! -- CL

 

Non-Fiction:

The Tulip by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury)

In my other life I publish Into the Garden magazine and, for my sins, review gardening books. Most are worthy and pretty and, well, dull unless you are a huge garden buff. But The Tulip is simply a beautiful book about the strange world of this ubiquitous bulb. Imported from the Middle East in the 1500s, the tulip's story covers the history of the garden, the strange economics of mania, the odd story of a virus which "broke" the colors of the tulip and a host of other unlikely tales. Tulips are somewhat unique as they were so valuable that some of the best artists in the world painted them. Along with her splendid text, Pavord has gathered together the best of these paintings and watercolors to serve as illustrations on nearly every page. A beautiful and enlightening book all round. -- JC

 

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers (Profile Books)

A wonderful and timely backlash against all those "politically correct" self-help books designed to make you a better person by nurturing your loving, warm, squishy side or by relating to others in a giving way. Greene and Elvers have said "screw that" and are looking out for Number 1 here, putting together an informative collection of thoughts, instructions and philosophies from some of the greatest thinkers from the last three thousand years, including such diverse sources as DaVinci, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, P.T. Barnum and Aesop. Designed to focus solely on the individual, this book will inspire you to be both ruthless and selfless and all at the price of making you sharper, stronger and more influential. No touchy-feely stuff here, it's all business. Two favorites: Law 15 -- Crush your enemy totally and Law 29 -- Play all the way to the end. -- DM

 

Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon)

Taking a 35-foot sailboat up the Inside Passage from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Alaska is a slightly hazardous and infinitely rewarding way to spend a month or two. And when that boat is packed to the gunnels with books on the history and exploration of the Northwest coast, the Native peoples of that coast and a batch of sailing books, even the days where it is too rough to sail can be well filled. Raban's description of his passage is a wonderful weaving of descriptions of the ever changing sea, a long consideration of the melancholy of Captain George Vancouver, a witty look at the reinvention of native customs under Quaker influence, and a voyage around Raban's dying clergyman father. In Raban's brilliant hands this unlikely concatenation turns into a completely compelling read. -- JC