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Correction to This Article
The following entry was inadvertently omitted from the fiction section of "Book World Raves," a roundup of the best books of 2004, in the Dec. 5 Book World section:

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (FSG). So serenely beautiful, and written in prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. Immensely moving . . . a triumph of tone and imagination. -- Michael Dirda


Book World Raves

The best of 2004, brought to you by our eclectic band of reviewers.

Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page BW03

Another year's harvest of wonderful books! The following are excerpts from reviews that ran during this calendar year. Elizabeth Ward's picks for the best children's books are on page 16, as are Edward Hirsch's choices for poetry books.


About Grace, by Anthony Doerr (Scribner). A modern-day Cassandra dreams about future events -- some momentous, some trivial -- and when he tries to warn people, he is met, for the most part, with incredulity and skepticism. An intricately imagined world. -- Margot Livesey

Any Place I Hang My Hat, by Susan Isaacs (Scribner). Confronts, more directly than any of her previous books, the psychological fallout from a classic Isaacs situation: that of a daughter who parents her parents. A merrily observant, moving, very entertaining novel. -- Maureen Corrigan

Bandbox, by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon). Set in the Jazz Age. Given the variety in Mallon's books, it seems unlikely that we'll be hearing this jazzy voice again anytime soon. Let us relish it while we have it. Bandbox is delicious. -- Donald E. Westlake

A Bit on the Side, by William Trevor (Viking). If one were to pick a single word to characterize this book, it would be forlorn. Trevor's characters -- shabby genteel, for the most part -- have settled into routines of stoic acceptance; a wonderful book by the best short story writer alive. -- Michael Dirda

The Body of Jonah Boyd, by David Leavitt (Bloomsbury). This clever and extremely entertaining novel is narrated by a sharp-tongued and quietly observant university secretary. -- James Hynes

Casanova in Bolzano, by Sandor Marai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Knopf). A fictional account of Casanova after an escape from jail in Venice. At once erotic in its texture and sense of longing, witty in its observation about the human condition and, on top of everything else, great fun to read. -- Craig Nova

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (Random House). It's hard to imagine an idea bigger than the one Mitchell is tackling here: how the will to power that compels the strong to subjugate the weak is replayed perpetually in a cycle of eternal recurrence. Completely original. -- Jeff Turrentine

The Dark Tower, by Stephen King (Scribner). The seventh and final volume of King's long, protracted saga should more than satisfy his voracious readers. Filled with true narrative magic, a fitting capstone to a uniquely American epic. -- Bill Sheehan

The Darling, by Russell Banks (HarperCollins). About a disillusioned and seemingly doomed woman, Hannah Musgrave, and her travails in Liberia. Yes, Hannah is white -- a point she often remarks upon -- but her Liberian world is honestly African: romantic, brutal, black and quite deadly. -- Wil Haygood

The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf). Nine interrelated short stories that address the fraught question of how to repair lives destroyed by one man -- a former shoukèt laroze, one of the Haitian government's henchmen, so named because of the time of day when they usually capture their victims. -- Meri Nana-Ama Danquah

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips (Random House). A penetrating story of human frustration and obsession, and, since we're talking about ancient Egypt here, man's quest for immortality. A tour de force of plotting and narrative technique. -- Barbara Mertz

Every Night is Ladies' Night, by Michael Jaime-Becerra (Rayo). A look into a world I've never seen -- an insular Mexican-American community lodged between past and present, a place where people take computer repair courses, but no one owns a computer. I loved it! -- Carolyn See

The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco). Displays the sumptuous detail and breathless narrative of a 19th-century epic. Oates weaves the still potent lore of Niagara and creates a seamless and engrossing flow that in the end seems natural, inevitable. -- Jane Ciabattari

Flying Crows, by Jim Lehrer (Random House). The almost painfully intimate story of a young man and a much older one who, for a brief time, were co-inmates at the Missouri State Hospital for the Insane. Full of scenes and images that will stay with you long after you've finished. -- Les Roberts

The Hamilton Case, by Michelle de Kretser (Little, Brown). This ambitious, gracefully composed novel might best be described as an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Its title and opening section prompt readers to expect a work of detection in the great and elegant tradition of Agatha Christie. -- Chris Lehmann

Harbor, by Lorraine Adams (Knopf). The image at the heart of Lorraine Adams's luminous novel is a mysterious storage locker outside Boston rented by illegal Algerian immigrants who may or may not be terrorists. -- Joseph Finder

Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown). In his 12th novel, Pelecanos shows us his black PI, Derek Strange, as a young DC policeman in 1968, caught up in the riots that followed the King assassination. No one who lives in this city and reads fiction and cares about the world we live in can afford not to read these books. -- Patrick Anderson

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin). Set during the Depression in "the sparse and weedy northeast Bronx," it tells the story of an immigrant family and the young woman who becomes the household's "hidden engine of survival." . . . a wise, quietly magical book. -- James Sallis

Her Name Was Lola, by Russell Hoban (Arcade). The perfectly cadenced, slyly comic prose is ambrosia. It explores the search for love, the nature of creativity, the power of ancient symbols and the shimmering, shifting, unreliable nature of reality -- a winsomely endearing love story. -- MD

A Hole in the Universe, by Mary McGarry Morris (Viking). An ex-con struggling to find his place in the world. A lonely woman yearning for one last chance at connection. Welcome to the world of Mary McGarry Morris -- and what a world it is. So tightened with suspense it threatens to snap. -- Caroline Leavitt

I Sailed With Magellan, by Stuart Dybek (Farrar Straus Giroux). The work of a master craftsman. The episodes that intersect and surround young Perry Katzek's upbringing in the Polish-Mexican ghetto of Chicago's South Side are intimate in detail and mythic in scale. -- Andrew O'Hehir

The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle (Viking). A surprisingly disturbing novel. On the surface, it is a memoir about a longtime association with Alfred Kinsey, the pioneer researcher into human sexuality. We read on, with quickened breaths, feelingly increasingly excited -- and soiled. Boyle turns his readers into voyeurs. -- MD

Iron Council, by China Miéville (Del Rey). Miéville returns to New Crobuzon with an elegiac paean to Utopian socialism, romantic revolutionaries and the European radical tradition -- an unweeded garden of unearthly delights, a work of both passionate conviction and the highest artistry. -- MD

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury). Channels the world of Jane Austen, the Gothic tale, the Silver-Fork Society novel, military adventure à la Bernard Cornwell or Patrick O'Brian, romantic Byronism and Walter Scott's passion for the heroic Northern past. Magnificent and original. -- MD

Kings of Infinite Space, by James Hynes (St. Martin's). Academia slides to the back burner and science fiction to the front, but the voice is distinctly Hynes's and the satirical strain is as strong as ever. Wells updated for the 21st century. -- Jonathan Yardley

The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton). There is an urgency to the characters and their situations -- the artist desperate to make a name for himself, the girl longing to be a woman, the mother mourning her lost youth, the housewife dreaming of a profession -- that brings this medieval world back to thrilling life. -- Deborah Davis

The Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay (Roc). A historical fantasy of the highest order, the work of a man who may well be the reigning master of the form. It takes place in the harsh northern reaches of his reimagined world and concerns the violent collision between the seafaring Vikings and the inhabitants of a divided island. -- Bill Sheehan

Life Mask, by Emma Donoghue (Harcourt). In the waning decades of the 18th century, with the French Revolution raging in the background, Donoghue has lighted on another terrific story, and she pulls off a dazzling feat of choreography. -- Julia Livshin

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (Bloomsbury). Interlaces a Condition of England novel set during the Thatcher era, a Jamesian inquiry about a well-to-do family and their friends, and a gay coming-of-age story. If you value style, wit and social satire in your reading, don't miss this elegant and passionate novel. -- MD

Links, by Nuruddin Farah (Riverhead). In a country ripped to shreds [Somalia], an elegant statement of what actually bonds people together: common experience, love and commitment. This is the terrain Farah illuminates, one novel at a time. -- Neely Tucker

Little Scarlet, by Walter Mosley (LB). Mosley is more interested in the ambiguous state of mind of the black citizenry, the disorientation of the cops and the looted, shambolic conditions. Watts is a world turned upside down, and Mosley simply points his hero at it and rolls the camera. -- John Burdett

Madeleine is Sleeping, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (Harcourt). In a series of brief chapters or vignettes, Bynum describes Madeleine's prolonged sleeping as well as her adventures on her dream-journeys . . . a voice at once sensuous and humorous, mellifluous and matter-of-fact. -- John Crowley

The Master, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner). Tóibín's impersonation of Henry James works beautifully. The prose is appropriately grave and wistful, the sentences stately without being ponderous, the descriptions at once precise and evocative. -- MD

The Mercy Killers, by Lisa Reardon (Counterpoint). A timely novel of terrific suspense that is as socially aware as Dreiser, as astute about working-class American character as Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates, and altogether terrific. -- Richard Lipez

Mr. Paradise, by Elmore Leonard (Morrow). If a writer lives long enough to produce a steady output of good books, there comes a point when readers grow simply grateful. . . . But in the case of this novel we can rejoice. It is unputdownable, packed with excruciating suspense, and I couldn't stop reading it. -- Michael Dirda

Mortal Love, by Elizabeth Hand (Morrow). At once a painting in prose, an investigation into artistic obsession and a re-evaluation. It negotiates cleverly between its 20th-century and Victorian time frames. -- Lawrence Norfolk

My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult (Atria). The story of a feisty 13-year-old who was conceived to save her sister's life. Over the years, she dutifully serves as her sister's donor, providing her with stem cells and bone marrow. A thrill to read, and it winds up asking an important question: Can a child born to save another ever really be free? -- Katherine Arie

Old Boys, by Charles McCarry (Overlook). Paul Christopher, a romantic loner and spy who has recently survived 10 years in a Chinese prison, seems to be dead. Seems to be. McCarry has cut loose, yet again, this time in a cheerfully convoluted yarn whose tone is by turns mischievous and elegiac. -- Charles Trueheart

Our Savage, by Matt Pavelich (Shoemaker & Hoard). This story of an intellectual and physical giant takes the reader from his birth in an obscure region of Eastern Europe through his Zelig-like travels during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his character a bursting, outsized mirror of equally flush and sprawling times. -- Lizzie Skurnick

The Persistence of Memory, by Tony Eprile (Norton). A richly imagined novel of growing up, its political revelations leavened by social satire. This is a magnanimous introduction to a South Africa we haven't quite encountered before. It's not a long novel, but it's a big one. -- Frances Taliaferro

Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland (Holt). The year is 1959, the locale is rural Virginia, and McFarland, whose prose is richly and beautifully detailed, burnishes every facet of that long-gone time and place to a virtually flawless verisimilitude. -- Madison Smartt Bell

The Ptolemies, by Duncan Sprott (Knopf). The narrator is no less than Thoth, Ibis God of the Egyptians, the supreme God of Wisdom, Keeper of Memory. Sprott has vividly evoked for us a fascinating era and done it with rare vitality and resourcefulness. -- Barry Unsworth

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, by Alice Randall (Houghton). A dance of lengthy expository passages, memories and fantasies hinged to a narrative. The heart of the tale is in the lyricism of the telling. -- Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

The Rules of Engagement, by Anita Brookner (Random House). Though friendship seems to be the subject, the underlying motif is self-willed solitude. This melancholy story is told, however, with such elegance and polish that its surface -- satiny, flawless and smooth as an onion, as always -- holds a fascination equal to its content. -- Roxana Robinson

The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (Dial). An unusual hybrid of adventure story and college novel; the tone and pacing are very different from that of a thriller. If they can claim an influence, it is not Dan Brown but F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . excellent writing -- elegiac. -- Alice K. Turner

The Second Death of Unica Aveyano, by Ernesto Mestre-Reed (Vintage). A marvelously poetic meditation on time and memory, and on the ways in which past, present and future relate to one another in any person's life. In this case, a Cuban exile's. -- Carlos M.N. Eire

Semiautomatic, by Robert Reuland (Random House). Notable not for violence but for subtle characterizations, moral ambiguities and exceptional writing. This is a different sort of legal thriller, one for readers who understand that good writing is the biggest thrill of all. -- Patrick Anderson

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Penguin). A mysterious book. . . . Try to imagine a blend of Grand Guignol thriller, historical fiction, occasional farce, existential mystery and passionate love story; then double it. For anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling. -- MD

Sharpe's Escape, by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins). A dryly witty, violent, highly melodramatic, briskly written and altogether rousing tale of revenge and derring-do. Even those of a pacific nature will find it hard not to thrill at certain moments of battle, or even at single sentences. -- MD

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf). Follows a traditional caper script, and one never really fears for any of the good guys; one simply waits to see how the baddies will receive their comeuppance. Most will enjoy it for its caper plot and pervasive, engaging wit. -- MD

Sleeping with Schubert, by Bonnie Marson (Random House). Much high comedy and even a satisfying soupçon of gravitas. But to write too much about a delicious book is to risk compromising its flavor. Suffice it to say that it is a complete delight. -- Eugenia Zukerman

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk; translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Knopf). His gift for the evocative image remains one of the novel's greatest pleasures: Long after I finished this book, my thoughts kept returning to Ka and Ipek in the hotel room in Istanbul, looking out at the falling snow. -- Ruth Franklin

Sweet Land Stories, by E.L. Doctorow (Random House). The master is back -- his first collection of short fiction since the superb Lives of the Poets 20 years ago. -- Kevin Baker

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru (Dutton). A deliciously satirical, humane and very enjoyable novel about the arcana of computer programming. Kunzru is an exceptionally ingratiating writer, with a skewering wit, wide sympathies and a gimlet eye for the killing or illuminating detail. -- MD

Ursula, Under, by Ingrid Hill (Algonquin). Ursula decides to chase a deer into the woods; then, in a blink, she's gone "like a penny into the slot of a bank." Hill astounds with her ability to meld simply and beautifully told stories. -- Michael Anft

Villages, by John Updike (Knopf). Serves as a wondrous sexual and social retrospective of small-town living over the last half-century. Sex life starts with the innocence of the missionary position, back in the 1950s, and progresses to the prophylactic couplings of the present. -- Fay Weldon

War Trash, by Ha Jin (Pantheon). The "war trash" of this hypnotic novel are Chinese soldiers who were taken prisoner by U.N. forces -- mainly American -- during the Korean War. Written in the modest, uninflected prose of a soldier's letter home, Ha Jin's story is a powerful work of the imagination. -- Charles McCarry

The Warlord's Son, by Dan Fesperman (Knopf). Dan Fesperman covered the war in Afghanistan for the Baltimore Sun, and out of that experience he has brought forth this terrific novel of intrigue, duplicity and death in the shadow of the Khyber Pass. -- PA

Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?, by Maryse Condé, translated from the French by Richard Philcox (Atria). The heroine is a black-skinned beauty with a pulsing scar that she keeps hidden beneath a choker or a scarf. Condé's opulent imagination, sublime prose and magical narratives light up Africa's past. -- Donna Bailey Nurse

With, by Donald Harington (Toby). Beautiful, blonde Robin Kerr is 7 1/2 when the novel opens. A recluse stalks and snatches her, installing her in a wonderland where she will begin her metamorphosis from spoiled city girl to nature goddess. As whimsical as a paper-doll show. -- Steven Moore

You Remind Me of Me, by Dan Chaon (Ballantine). Chaon chronicles the peculiar convergence of Nora's two sons, the one she raised and the one she gave up for adoption. . . . an apparently claustrophobic novel that feels paradoxically large, generous and, ultimately, quite moving. -- Tom Perrotta


Against All Enemies, by Richard A. Clarke (Free Press). Beginning with the Reagan administration's support of the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Clarke shows how Washington's military and intelligence sachems consistently underestimated the threat that a growing global network of Islamic extremists posed to America's security. -- Chris Lehmann

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow (Penguin). Brings to life the Founding Father who did more than any other to create the modern United States. . . . magisterial. -- Michael Lind

America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism, by Stephen Flynn (HarperCollins). Informed by analytical insight, real anecdotes, possible scenarios and hands-on experience. He has the courage -- rare among national-security experts -- to think large. -- John Tirman

American Mafia, by Thomas Reppetto (Henry Holt). We begin this sinister and bloody sewer tour toward the end of the next-to-last century, but it really gets interesting in the 1920s. Be prepared for a deluge of evil, and killers with nicknames like "The Enforcer" and "Cherry Nose." -- Robert Sherrill

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin). Relies heavily -- though never heavy-handedly -- on psychology. . . . an exceptionally rich perspective on one of the most accomplished, complex and unpredictable Americans. -- Jonathan Yardley

Anatomy of Hope, by Jerome Groopman (Random House). Groopman became convinced of the centrality of hope to the process of recovery early on in his 30-year career treating disease. Marvelously written and backed, in the final chapter, by a highly readable dose of hard science. -- Judith Warner

Anthony Burgess, by Roger Lewis (Thomas Dunne). An extremely lively book, an avalanche of factual revelation, vitriolic wit and personal disappointment that buries poor Burgess and then posts a sign, Hic Jacet. -- Michael Dirda

Arts and Letters, by Edmund White (Cleis). Certainly, anyone who loves "arts and letters" even half as much as Edmund White will enjoy this fine collection by this admirable American writer. -- MD

The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Western Civilization, by Barry Strauss (Simon & Schuster). A clear and fascinating account, made easy to follow by his sketch-maps, of the maneuvers that led up to the battle. -- Bernard Knox

Blue Blood, by Edward Conlon (Riverhead). Conlon is a cop's cop, and his book, a dazzling epic of street life and rough camaraderie, is far more rewarding than any disgruntled Serpico-style tell-all could ever be. -- Zac Unger

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, by Marion Meade (Doubleday). Shows why so many young Americans after the '20s wanted to grow up to be writers. Free love! Staying up late! Dancing and drinking! Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edna Ferber and Zelda Fitzgerald are visited once again, with wonderful results. -- Carolyn See

Cary Grant, by Marc Eliot (Harmony). So how did a poor Bristol boy named Archie Leach acquire the spit and polish and know-how of a toff? A portrait that shows the dark shadows behind the gleaming façade. -- Molly Haskell

Chronicles: Volume One, by Bob Dylan (S&S). The work of a masterful essayist. We knew Dylan could write; we simply didn't know that he could write so well, or that the professional curmudgeon could revisit his back pages with such warmth, compassion and insight. -- Richard Harrington

The Cyanide Canary, by Joseph Hilldorfer and Robert Dugone (Free Press). This story of industrial crime and punishment on a minuscule scale was so unattractively packaged that I avoided reading it for review until the very last second. Once I opened it I literally couldn't put it down. -- CS

Death of Innocence, by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson (RH). By the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, murdered by two white citizens of Tallahatchie County, Miss., in 1955. Beautifully and simply written -- as eloquent as the diary of Anne Frank. -- Gail Buckley

Exuberance: The Passion for Life, by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf). For Jamison, the origins and mystery of creativity have long been her holy grail, and she argues -- with her usual wit, ingenuity and panache -- that exuberance is one of its wellsprings. -- Nancy Schoenberger

The Fall of Baghdad, by Jon Lee Anderson (Penguin). Artfully captures the often surprising ambiguity and complexity in human relationships between Iraqi civilians and Americans in Iraq. Never before have we seen Iraq from this perspective and in such depth. -- John Whiteclay Chambers

The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter (Norton). Thrilling and constantly illuminating: After the still, small voices of so many tepid modern translations, here is a whirlwind. -- MD

Flesh in the Age of Reason, by Roy Porter (Norton). A work of entertaining yet authoritative history and a brilliantly compact precis of philosophical thought in Britain from the Renaissance to the 19th century. -- MD

For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s, by Alonzo L. Hamby (Free Press). A useful refresher course on the global prologue to the war. A concise intellectual history of popular political thinking in the '30s. -- Jon Meacham

Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828, by Walter A. McDougall (HarperCollins). You can read any five pages of this book and feel that you are encountering the American story through fresh eyes. -- Michael Beschloss

The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II, by Peter Eisner (Morrow). Exciting and highly readable. He writes with an eye for characterization and vivid detail. -- John Whiteclay Chambers II

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby (Metropolitan). The great virtue of this book is that it succeeds so well in its original intent: showing that secularism, agnosticism and atheism are as American as cherry pie. -- Christopher Hitchens

George Balanchine, by Robert Gottlieb (HC). Gottlieb saw his first performance of a Balanchine ballet in 1948. He watched it all unfold. This personal view lends an elegance to his book. . . . graceful. -- Laura Jacobs

Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll (Penguin). A long -- and long overdue -- look at the peaks and valleys of the CIA's presence in Afghanistan throughout the decades. . . . a well-written, authoritative, high-altitude drama with a cast of few heroes, many villains, bags of cash and a tragic ending. -- James Bamford

Goya, by Robert Hughes (Knopf). Offers interpretations not only of Goya's style but of other artists' works, stressing the singularity of Goya's vision, so apposite to our own moment in history. -- Dore Ashton

Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House, by Sally Bedell Smith (RH). The nonfiction beach book of the season . . . you need more than a scorecard to keep track of all of the women, some of them nubile staffers, who hopped into bed with the leader of the free world. -- William E. Leuchtenburg

The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West, by Joel Achenbach (S&S). Maybe the ideal reading for anyone who's ever floated on, driven over or merely gazed languidly upon the capital's mighty river and wondered about its history. Engaging and solidly researched. -- Henry Wiencek

The Great Game, by Frederick P. Hitz (Knopf). A lucid overview of 20th-century espionage that says more about the great game as it was played by Americans and their allies and adversaries than just about anything else ever published. -- Charles McCarry

Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, by Seth Mnookin (RH). Reads like a thriller, a fast-paced novel unfolding inside a newspaper long viewed as the gold standard of American journalism. -- Michael Getler

Heavenly Intrigue, by Joshua Gilder and Anne-Lee Gilder (Doubleday). A crisply written chronicle of the colorful world of Johannes Kepler and his famous mentor, Tycho Brahe. Was Kepler eager enough to get his hands on data to have poisoned him? -- John Gribbin

Human Accomplishment, by Charles Murray (HC). Consider this claim: that the greatest human accomplishments were achieved almost exclusively by white Western European males. Yet the book is, more often than not, brilliant. -- John McWhorter

Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by Anonymous (Brassey's). A powerful, persuasive analysis of the terrorist threat and the Bush administration's failed efforts to fight it. -- Richard A. Clarke

In the Company of Soldiers, by Rick Atkinson (Holt). Heart-pounding narratives of officers directing combat in Iraq. . . . does a fine job of recreating the division's battles from various threads of information. -- Anthony Swofford

Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia, by Thomas Lippman (Westview). Skillfully excavates the Saudi-American modus vivendi in the mid-20th century, a period that now seems as remote and innocent as a flickering home movie from Eisenhower's America. -- Peter Bergen

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda, by John Keegan (Knopf). Original and provocative. The range is wide -- from Lord Nelson's pursuit and defeat of a French fleet off the coast of Egypt in 1798 to the German assault on Britain in 1944. -- Thomas Powers

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, by James Wood (Farrar Straus Giroux). The writing is alive, crackling and sparkling with electric energy. -- George Garrett

Israel on the Appomattox: From the 1790s Through the Civil War, by Melvin Patrick Ely (Knopf). Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties in a settlement called Israel Hill, and many achieved substantial economic independence. Ely's story is rich and compelling -- and persuasively documented. -- Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

John Fowles, by Eileen Warburton (Viking). Reads like a novel. Most heartbreaking is the sad figure of his lover's tiny daughter, Anna, whom Fowles referred to as "it." -- Elizabeth Hand

John James Audubon, by Richard Rhodes (Knopf). A skilled researcher and historian proves there is still fresh ground to be worked. . . . the most three-dimensional portrait yet of the man. -- Kenn Kaufman

John Stuart Mill, by Nicholas Capaldi (Cambridge). If Mill's father monopolized his youth, Harriet Taylor monopolized his mature life. They did the "honorable thing" by not sleeping with each other -- and by her not sleeping with her husband. A thoroughly sympathetic view. -- Gertrude Himmelfarb

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, by Jennifer Gonnerman (FSG). The story of a woman who served 16 years in New York state prisons on a drug charge before being granted clemency. . . . a remarkably balanced triumph of immersion journalism. -- Michael Schaffer

Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic, by William C. Davis (Free Press). Magisterial. Davis recognizes that the American march westward was irresistible; revolution was inevitable, and overall this was no bad thing. -- T.R. Fehrenbach

The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan, by Ben Macintyre (FSG). A lost chapter from the annals of romantic travel to the East. The stuff of a rollicking boy's adventure tale. -- Matthew Price

Margot Fonteyn, by Meredith Daneman (Viking). That Daneman understands the ballet world so well is one of the book's greatest assets. Here fans may learn things about Britain's greatest ballerina that they'd rather not know. Deborah Jowitt

The Midnight Disease, by Alice W. Flaherty (Houghton). A practicing neurologist, who suffered post-partum depression and then experienced an overpowering urge to write, combines science and art as she attempts to explain why some have the bug and some don't. A tremendously exciting book. -- CS

Missing Men, by Joyce Johnson (Viking). Unlike so many memoirs in which authors repay the real or imagined grievances inflicted upon them by others, Johnson's reaches out to these complicated people and thanks them for what they gave her. . . . a big-hearted, thoroughly adult book. -- JY

Monte Cassino, by Matthew Parker (Doubleday). Those with a romantic, sentimental view of World War II are advised to spend a few hours with this grim depiction of the battle to gain control of central Italy . . . an exemplary, heartbreaking book. -- JY

Moscow 1812, by Adam Zamoyski (HarperCollins). By the end of the book, the tragedy is so vast that it's hard not to feel some more recent echoes. Napoleon's wasteful, hubristic march was truly a harbinger of the greater devastation to come. -- Anne Applebaum

My Life, by Bill Clinton (Knopf). A memoir suited for the Age of Oprah. It captures and conveys, in ways that are sometimes brilliant and at other times unintentional, the essence of his personality and presidency: fascinating, undisciplined, deeply intelligent, self-indulgent and filled with great promise alternately grasped and squandered. -- Walter Isaacson

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Norton). The strength is in its narrative power; by telling all the little stories, it reveals the big story in a different way. We see the bland evil of the plotters, the Hamlet-like indecision of government officials, the bravery amid chaos of the firefighters. -- David Ignatius

Pandora's Baby: How the First Test-Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution, by Robin Marantz Henig (Houghton). Sheds a great deal of light on this too-little-appreciated set of scientific breakthroughs, and stresses the odd ways in which women were thrust onto the sidelines. -- Liza Mundy

The Path to Victory, by Douglas Porch (FSG). An indispensable single-volume guide to World War II in the extended Mediterranean. No other treatment approaches Porch's narrative and thematic sweep, his eye for telling detail and forcefully expressed judgments. -- John Whiteclay Chambers II

Paul Bowles on Music, edited by Tim Mangan (Univ. of Calif.). Whether one agrees with Bowles is not the point. He is an uncommonly plausible and stimulating critic, and this handsome, meticulously edited volume adds significantly to our understanding of American musical life. -- Tim Page

Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, by Geoffrey Stone (Norton). Stone's masterful history . . . explains how Americans could come to fear their own founding documents. We have long needed this book, though perhaps never as badly as we do today. -- Christopher Capozzola

Politics, by Hendrik Hertzberg (Penguin). Long after we've forgotten Pat Robertson's presidential bid or John Tower's confirmation battle, these essays will bear re-reading. They're keepers because they don't just plead the case for contemporary liberalism but -- with their wit, humanity and exquisite understatement -- illustrate it. -- David Greenberg

A Pretext for War, by James Bamford (Doubleday). Highly readable and well-researched. Offers new insights into how the Sept. 11 hijackings occurred, while also showing how terribly ill-equipped and unprepared our defense systems were. -- Douglas Farah

Public Enemies: The Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934, by Bryan Burrough (Penguin). Significant and very readable. It is hard to imagine a more careful, complete and entrancing book on this subject, and on this era. -- Lawrence M. Friedman

Pushing the Limits, by Henry Petroski (Knopf). A fascinating potpourri of history, engineering and imagination, all presented in the fluid, humane writing style that we have come to expect from this author. -- James Trefil

Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, by John Guy (Houghton). A gripping narrative that combines the sleuthing skills of a private detective with the skill of the master historian . -- Lisa Jardine

A Question of Loyalty, by Douglas Waller (HC). The timely story of the court-martial of Gen. Billy Mitchell, who publicly attacked his generation of leaders for failing to imagine and fully prepare for the growing threat that could be posed by air power. -- John Lehman

The Rare and the Beautiful, by Cressida Connolly (Ecco). Consider the case of the beautiful Garman sisters, whose lives described a glittering arc through London's High Bohemia between the two world wars: One had an affair with Vita Sackville-West, another with the poet Laurie Lee and the painter Lucian Freud. -- Amanda Vaill

Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann (Viking). Offers brief biographies of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz. An informative, well-researched and largely nonjudgmental book that reveals the complex web of relationships and the powerful assumptions they came to share about America's role in the world. -- Alan Brinkley

The Roads to Modernity, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Knopf). An exceptionally well written and clever attempt -- all the more clever since its political aims are never made explicit -- to employ a redefined Enlightenment as a bulwark for neoconservatism and as a device for explaining current conflicts. -- Stephen Eric Bronner

The Rose Man of Sing Sing, by James McGrath Morris (Fordham Univ.). By the climax, the most brilliant city editor of that lurid era has become a bloody monster in his own tabloid. And then, lo, he is one of the redeemed. Reversal of fortune is a damned good story in any era. -- Shelby Coffey

Saboteurs, by Michael Dobbs (Knopf). In asserting its authority to secretly detain suspected terrorists and prosecute them outside the criminal justice system, the Bush administration has cited FDR's handling of Nazi agents. Dobbs skillfully tells the fascinating and timely story of that episode, Operation Pastorius. -- John Lehman

The Scientists, by John Gribbin (Random House). A handy reference work. Offers general audiences an engaging and informative view of modern science's prodigious accomplishments since the Renaissance. -- Marcia Bartusiak

The Second Bill of Rights, by Cass R. Sunstein (Basic). In his spirited and perfectly conceived new book, Sunstein celebrates what he calls "the speech of the century," Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union Address, delivered as a fireside chat. -- Jamin B. Raskin

A Secret Life, by Benjamin Weiser (Public Affairs). A real-life spy thriller. A fascinating portrayal of a man who decided that the best way to serve Polish nationalism was to become a spy for the West. -- Peter Eisner

Separate and Unequal, by Harvey Fireside (Carroll & Graf). A riveting account of Plessy v. Ferguson. Most of the facts have been noted by others, but they are no less fascinating in the retelling. The central irony was that Homer Adolph Plessy looked white. -- Paul Butler

Shadow Divers, by Robert Kurson (RH). A group of daredevils salvages a small but intriguing scrap of history: a relic from the critical World War II struggle for control of the North Atlantic. The divers' story supplies the remarkable narrative spine of this captivating book. -- Robert J. McCartney

Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King (Little, Brown). The tribulations of a crew of American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, captured, sold into slavery, fed almost nothing, forced to drink camel urine, and then schlepped all over the desert sands. . . . a page-turner, right out of Homer -- Grace Lichtenstein

Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf). A portrait unprecedented in its intimacy and horrifying in its implications, not merely because it shows that the engineers of one of history's greatest holocausts were depraved but also because they emerge in these pages as surprisingly normal. -- David Satter

Storm of Steel, by Ernst Jünger, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Penguin). I can't remember when I've read a book as thrilling and hypnotic, as perversely magnificent as this. Likened, with justice, to The Iliad. -- MD

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, by John Lewis Gaddis (Harvard). A short book with a long view. Gaddis compares foreign policy reactions to three attacks on America -- the British burning of Washington in 1814, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. -- John Lehman

A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz (Harcourt). It appears to merely chronicle Oz's life from childhood in British-ruled Jerusalem to literary fame, but every event, every factual detail, every discovery opens myriad doors to unexpected revelations. -- Alberto Manguel

The Ticket Out, by Michael Sokolove (S&S). Sokolove knows a good story when he sees one, and the tale he tells about the lives of Darryl Strawberry and his high school baseball teammates is powerful indeed. -- Sean Callahan

To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr's Sacred Mission to Save America, by Stewart Burns (HarperSF). The perfect biography for the age of Sept. 11: one that highlights the terrifying uncertainties of a struggle against evil. -- David L. Chappell

Tommy the Cork, by David McKean (Steerforth). Though Thomas Corcoran became famous in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and died in 1981, his life story makes for a surprisingly timely book. He was the founding father of modern influence peddling. An engaging biography of one of the great characters of 20th-century Washington. -- Robert G. Kaiser

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke (RH). Never mind that many of those names are long forgotten -- if ever they were known at all. Here we see Capote at his witchy, bitchy best, leaving us longing for more. -- JY

Washington's Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford). Describes in moving detail the military campaign of 1776-77 and the British, German and American soldiers who fought it. Washington stands firmly at the book's center. -- Pauline Maier

What's the Matter with Kansas?, by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan). The real problem for the working class is not that they vote Republican but that most of them don't vote at all. -- Corey Robin

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton). A masterful storyteller; his prose is elegant and subtle and his imagination is rich and interesting. When he focuses on Shakespeare's texts, as he does in his chapter on the sonnets, he is brilliant. -- Arthur Kirsch

Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, by Kevin Bazzana (Oxford). Obviously a must for any fan of this great pianist, but it is more than that: a study worthy of its subject -- expertly paced, admiring yet sensible, touched with wit and intensely readable. -- MD

The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David K. Shipler (Knopf). Should be required reading not just for every member of Congress, but for every eligible voter. Now that this invisible world has been so powerfully brought to light, its consequences can no longer be ignored or denied. -- Eric Schlosser

The Yom Kippur War, by Abraham Rabinovich (Schocken). The best available on the war to date. . . . a seamless, riveting narrative reminiscent of the books of Rick Atkinson or Stephen Ambrose. -- Michael B. Oren

© 2004 The Washington Post Company