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Book World talks best books of '09, the decade and for giving this holiday season

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(Len Spoden - For The Washington Post)
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Rachel Shea, Ron Charles, Steven Levingston and Dennis Drabelle
Book World Editors
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; 12:00 PM

Book World editors Rachel Shea, Ron Charles, Steven Levingston and Dennis Drabelle were online Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Noon ET to discuss the best books of the year and their thoughts about the top releases of the decade. They'll also offer recommendations for stuffing your bookshelves this holiday shopping season and invite you to share your favorite reads.

This Story

Best Books 2009

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Rachel Shea: Hello and welcome to the Book World chat. Send us your recommendations for some of your favorites from the year (and beyond)and we'll do our best to provide some of our own.

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Tampa, Fla.: It is a mystery to me how editors at Book World expect a reader of literature and a reader of the Book World to discuss best books of 2009 or the decade when he or she has no idea what has been selected by you prior to Dec. 12.

Hardly seems like the basis for a cogent discussion of relative literary merit.

Or am I missing something here?

Were you really interested in discussing best books, you might have made the deadline Nov. 12 for readers' submissions of what they felt were the best to be discussed on Dec. 12.

As it is your somewhat nebulous, thus feeble request, makes me feel that the editors hold readers in contempt.

Ron Charles: Turn all that passion to good: What books were you most enthusiastic about this year?

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Bethesda, Md.: Please, please, please do more reviews of literary fiction. Every week (Mon-Sat), half or more of the books you review are mysteries or thrillers.

Dennis Drabelle: We will try to do more literary fiction, and are always looking for good books of that stripe. But there have been two developments in recent years that we also need to take note of. One, the bright line separating literary fiction from thrillers isn't so bright anymore. People like Michael Connelly and the late Stieg Larsson have written first-rate novels that happen to fall into the adventure genre. The second thing is that readers of all sorts seem to crave stories. In the Victorian era, writers like Dickens and Collins and Trollope could tell a cracking good yarn without dumbing anything down. Readers want that today, publishers want to give it to them, and we want to cover those books.

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Ballston Metro: I always look forward to the Post's year-end book section, but was disappointed this year by the scant coverage you provided. I noticed that several of Jonathan Yardley's year- end reviews appeared only online and were not included in the Book World pull-out print section this weekend. Why weren't those included? (With the number of unnecessarily large pictures you ran in print, surely you could have included the Yardley reviews and those of other critics). What happened?

Rachel Shea: As he does every year, Jonathan Yardley wrote an essay naming his favorite books of the year. It appeared on the last page of the print section last Sunday, but you can read it here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/10/AR2009121003696.html

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Herndon, Va.: I know it's not a heavyweight, but the late Donald Westlake's last "Dortmunder" novel, "Get Real," appeared in 2009. NOBODY was better than Westlake in writing comedy crime capers, and, writing as himself and Richard Stark, he was right up there in the hard-boiled category too.

Dennis Drabelle: And in case you missed our review of that novel, it ran on August 13.

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Alexandria, Va.: In the humor department, I counted "How I Became a Famous Novelist" and "Juliet, Naked". Did I miss any?

Ron Charles: Elinor Lipman, one of my favorite comic novelists, LOVED "How I Became a Famous Novelist" in the Wash Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/20/AR2009072002778.html

I reviewed Hornby's "Juliet, Naked," and found it thoroughly enjoyable, too: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/22/AR2009092203651.html

Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor" is also very funny: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/28/AR2009042802939.html

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Alexandria, Va.: No biographies of women were included in your biography category and only a few (but not many) books about women were in your other nonfiction categories. I really haven't been yearning for the missing portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt or for a new biography of George Washington, even if it is "fresh." There were really no biographies about women worthy of inclusion? To me, this indicates more about your editorial staff than it does about what was published in 2009.

Rachel Shea: We are always struggling for balance in our pages and some years we do better than others. That said, look for reviews of biographies of Ayn Rand and Patricia Highsmith in upcoming reviews in Style and Outlook.

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Manassas, Va.: A Good Year to Re-read WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak.

Sorry, the excuse of "I saw the movie" doesn't cut it. I haven't seen the movie, but as a former teacher, My 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grade Learning Disabled Kids wanted me to read it to them constantly! Use expression too when they ROAR THEIR TERRIBLE ROARS, AND GNASHED THEIR TERRIBLE TEETH....

There I go again... Almost have it memorized!

Dennis Drabelle: It sounds as if you are a good performer! In any case, good for your students in bucking the trend toward preferring other media to books.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi there! On Twitter, I got some heat for saying HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY was my fave book of the year. @roncharles I know has been involved in similar conversations! What are some other polarizing love it/hate it books of the year?? Thanks, Melissa Klug/@permanentpaper

Dennis Drabelle: Without naming names, a couple of us on the staff her love the work of Pete Dexter, whose new novel is "Spooner," but there is also a strong dissenter, so there is one conflict for you.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm surprised by how many good books from this year did not make your top ten list, in particular Margaret Atwood's "Year of the Flood," James Ellroy's "Blood's a Rover," and Pynchon's "Inherent Vice." Was this year just particularly good for books, or did you not enjoy these novels as much as I did?

Rachel Shea: Both "Inherent Vice" and "Blood's a Rover" did make it onto our list. We didn't include Margaret Atwood's "Year of the Flood" because the review, by Michael Dirda, was respectful but lukewarm. We really very heavily on our reviewers' opinions when compiling the best of the year list.

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Salem, Ore.: What books were most equivalent to a "Harry Potter"-type book? Something that falls within children's literature, but could still have broad appeal.

Ron Charles: Older teen (and adult) Harry Potter fans would enjoy "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" by British writer Susanna Clarke, but it's probably too hard for most children.

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Wicomico, Va.: Greetings -- It was great to see five science books represented in your Best of '09 pullout section. Still, this is fewer than in the Sports category for example, and at a time when science is so critical for understanding issues of climate change, animal welfare, biodiversity and so on... As much as I adore BW I go many weeks without seeing any science reviewed... Could you maybe talk some about science books and further recommendations? Thanks for considering this.

Steven Levingston: Absolutely right. Science and science books are particularly important now. We're constantly on the lookout for important new titles and expect to have more science books reviewed or highlighted in the paper. Watch for them in Book World and in the Health & Science section.

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Anonymous: I have just finished reading 'Summertime' by J.M. Coetzee and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ron Charles: How does it compare with "Disgrace"? I loved that powerful book, but I've grown wary of Coetzee since "Elizabeth Costello" and his other po-mo books, which seem tedious to me.

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Piscataway, N.J.: My favorite books of 2009 (perhaps published in 2008?): Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Stout) Fire in the Blood (Irene Nemrovksy) Thank you for all of your wonderful reviews. Happy Holidays.

Rachel Shea: Yes, both came out in 2008 but are so marvelous that they're worth reading anytime.

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Woodbridge, Va.: I am trying to remember the title and or author of a book that was reviewed in the paper several months ago. It was originally written in Italian, and dealt with a woman's family, etc. Any help? Any suggestions on who to ask at the Post? Thanks

Rachel Shea: Hmmmm. That isn't ringing a bell. Was it fiction or nonfiction?

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Navy Yard: The Best Books of 2009 couldn't have arrived at a better time! I received a gift card on Friday and spent yesterday buying my guilty pleasure, hardbound books. I'm halfway through "The Year That Changed the World," cannot wait to start "There is no Freedom Without Bread," and wondering if "The Girl Who Played With Fire" will last through the weekend.

Rachel Shea: So nice to have all that time to read!

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Loveland, Ohio 45140: Whatever happened to all the nice books from James Hadley Chase and Desmond Bagley?

Dennis Drabelle: Since they both died in the 1980s, I'm assuming you want to know whatever happened to nice books of the kind they wrote. That ties in with my earlier answer about the great hunger out there for well-written, well-plotted stories for adults that don't play postmodernist games with the reader. They are hard to fine, admittedly, but we are always looking for them. One possibility is New York: the Novel, by Edward Rurthurford, reviewed very favorably by Brigitte Weeks, a former editor of Book World, last week.

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Washington, D.C.: Some of my favorites this year that did not make your list -- Jess Walter's The Financial Life of Poets; Well Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned; and Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

I am considering reading Letham's Chronic City, but the Post's review of it made me pause. I see that the NYTBR, however, had it as one of the 10 best books of the year. What does this panel think of Letham's supposed masterpiece?

Ron Charles: I've heard about this other newspaper on the East Coast, but I haven't seen it personally.... Sorry to hear they've misled you about CHRONIC CITY. Keep in mind, their Book Review may have loved it, but their daily reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, agreed with me: It's undeniably clever sentence by sentence, but as a whole it's exceedingly tedious and slow. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/13/AR2009101302994.html

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Hyattsville, Md.: All I can say is that when I opened up my Sunday paper and saw that Book World was back -- Yardley and all -- I let out a loud "Wooh!"

Ron Charles: Believe me, we felt the same way!

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Baton Rouge, La.: Hi, everyone. It's Andrew Ervin checking in. Happy holidays!

Was there one book this year you wanted to review but didn't get around to it? And can you recommend the year's best book about classical music? (Still need a gift for my mom!)

Dennis Drabelle: Hey, Andrew (who is a frequent reviewer for us). How about the new bio of Tchaikovsky by Roland John Wiley. And we didn't do Dave Eggers's Zeitoun (sp?) mostly because the publisher never sent us an advance copy, and by the time the finished book arrived time had marched on. Still, we regret that one.

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Arlington, Va.: My favorite book of 2009 was The Help -- but it hasn't made any lists that I've seen. Why no love?

Ron Charles: Here's our review from March: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/31/AR2009033103552.html

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Speaking of draggy: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might just define draggy and dull. I tried and tried and tried to read it, but ended up feeling like I was walking into a marshmallow wall.

Dennis Drabelle: I've heard the same from a friend of mine.

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Ovid, N.Y.: Sorry to pile on, but, you really did release these Best of lists too late this year.

In the past, I have always valued your children's book reccomendations in particuler, but this year I find myself doubting your selections. Since you've cut back the size and scope of Book World I no longer have faith that your reviewers and editors have sufficiently sampled the new releases from the year past. For example, there are way too many non-fiction titles in the Best of list for children's books.

While I'm at it, please bring back Michael Dirda's weekly chat, assuming he's willing. The Readimg Room is lame. And bring back the weekly Book World while your at it.

Sigh.

Rachel Shea: Our children's reviewers--a librarian, a children's author and a journalist--actually spend a great deal of time sifting through all the books and select the best to review for each For Young Readers column.

As for the rest--Dirda's chat, the weekly stand-alone issue--those are sadly not our decisions to make.

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Herndon, Va.: The Post published a lukewarm review of Letham's Chronic City. Yet other critics seemed to love it. Any debate among the Book World Staff about the merits of this book?

Ron Charles: None. All here surrender to my will.

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I actually read a book that came out in 2009: "That Old Cape Magic". I was hoping it would be "Straight Man 2", but it fell a little short.

Got any suggestions for cozy mysteries?

Dennis Drabelle: There is a British writer named Barbara Cleverly who writes very good cozies. I haven't seen any new books from her in a while, but there is a backlog of already published ones if you haven't discovered her.

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???: Feeling clueless. What is a "po-mo book"?

Thanks.

Ron Charles: Sorry: po-mo = post-modern (in this case, a book in which the author appears as a character in his own book writing about a character in his own book writing about a character in his own book until you want to scream....)

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Ron Charles: I had the same reacion to Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic:" A witty vacation read, but not a classic like "Straight Man." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/04/AR2009080402827.html

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Columbus, Ohio: I read Eiffel's Tower a few months ago and thought it was just delightful. Well written, and enhanced by very old photographs.

One that I could not wait to get back to each evening.

Steven Levingston: That's a fascinating era, full of color and wild antics. If you have a further appetite, you might take a look at "Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Epoque" by Kate Cambor. The book explores the era through the lives of Leon Daudet, the son of novelist Alphonse Daudet; Jeanne Hugo, the granddaughter of Victor Hugo; and Jean-Baptiste Charcot, the son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Here's our review.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401089.html

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Monterey, Calif. : Have you read Path Word: A Novel Novel, by Zanger Zuniga? Isn't it uncannily predictive of recent and current events, political, economic, social trends, and even this morning's Facebook fiasco. Wow.

Dennis Drabelle: It took me a while to track this down. It is published by iUniverse, which makes it a self-published book. We don't review them because we don't have time or people-power to sit down and read the book before we send it out, and the quality of self-published books, as you might imagine, varies widely. Harsh it must seem to self-published authors, we rely on the appartus of the industry--agents, editors, etc.--to screen forthcoming titles for us.

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Arlington, Va.: Ron Charles, I'm calling you out buddy. All told, "The Signal" sucked hard. I spent like all of 9 Kindle bucks to read a book that was okay in terms of describing the natural world, was Elmore Leonard-awkward in romantic/sexy dialogue, and had one of the goofiest endings I have ever read. After reading this, I read Moby Dick again, just to reaffirm my belief in the written word. What were you thinking hoss???

Ron Charles: Give me your address, buddy. I'm going to send you a copy of Jonathan Lethem's "Chronic City."

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Rockville, Md.: How about including some sort of rating system (like 5 stars, 4 stars, etc) for the books in your reviews?

Dennis Drabelle: Why we like the idea: it is handy for readers.

Why we don't: it seems to invite readers not to read our reviews but just to go by the star system.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Sag Harbor was a big disappointment to me, as have all of Colson Whitehead books after The Intuitionist. I want to like his work so much, but Sag seemed like he phoned it in.

Not that you asked, but I think The Kindly Ones was the most unpleasant read of the year.

Not new, but I'm happy to have discovered Joseph Roth this year.

Dennis Drabelle: Yes, I don't think I can bring myself to read The Kindly Ones. did you notice, however, that Littell's dad, Robert, made it into our fiction top five with his latest thriller?

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Washington, D.C.: Will Book World publish its choices for top fiction and non-fiction of the decade? If so, when?

Rachel Shea: We've batted some ideas around for that, but haven't narrowed anything down. Some contenders, in no particular order:

FICTION

The Corrections

The Road

Emporer's Children

2666

The Known World

Atonement

Gilead

The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

NONFICTION

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

The Looming Tower

The Year of Magical Thinking

What do you think? Anything to add? Or take off??

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Washington, D.C.: Great list, and just in time for holidays! But was surprised at AMERICAN RUST being at the top of the heap. Was it merely because there's a dearth of lit coming out of the rust belt? Ach, goes to show there's something for everyone when it comes to books. Wish the kids' list had been bigger, and found it interesting that you'd feature audiobooks. Thanks.

Ron Charles: Philipp Meyer's "American Rust" was on our list because I thought it was a powerful, moving novel. Period. (It was a top pick by The Economist, and the Tuesday reviewer at that other East Coast paper raved about it, too.)

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Books for grownups: I think you find many many more of those well-plotted novels without modernist hooha published in England. Amid the outpouring of chick lit and so on, there are dozens of solid, adult novels published there all the time. Their midlist seems larger and wider than ours. Why?

Dennis Drabelle: I wish I knew why. Some of those books get snapped up by American publishers, but certainly not all.

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Fairfax, Va.: Any suggestions as far as broadening the horizons of a teenage Twilight fan? An effort to get her to read 'Dracula' was a non-starter; she did enjoy 'Her Fearful Symmetry.' I was thinking Shirley Jackson (who will be either too subtle or too scary; there's no middle ground with my sis and it's hard to predict.)

Ron Charles: Yeah, "Dracula" is a tough sell nowadays. If she liked "Her Fearful Symmetry," about about Sarah Waters marvelous "Little Stranger"? Might work.

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SF in 2009: First, I want to thank the Washington Post for the reviews you do run of Science Fiction and Fantasy works. You generally pick smart, accomplished reviewers who take the genres seriously, including Jeff VanderMeer, Elizabeth Hand and Michael Dirda. And, better yet, you devote that review space to works that should get noticed. Kudos.

My only complaint is that I'd love to see more of it. There is enough good SF coming out to warrant a weekly review. Blogs and genre magazines help get the word out, but they also exist to celebrate the genre, something that makes me a bit distrustful of the reviews they contain. (Of course, there are exceptions - one can find reliable reviewers within the din.)

To my related question: what's the best SF/Fantasy of the year? Mieville's The City and the City, Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl and Grossman's The Magicians seem to be on a lot of lists.

Rachel Shea: If we had more room, we'd certainly run more reviews. But sometimes we encounter the same problem that you find on the blogs: reviewers celebrate the works rather than reviewing them, and mistakingly assume that the Post's readers are as steeped in the genre as they are.

I was a little underwhelmed by The City and the City, but very intrigued by The Magicians. Why hadn't anyone else thought to write about what happens after children's fantasy characters and fans grow up?

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Silver Spring, Md.: My nominees for best books of the year are based on what I remember out of the 100 or so books I read a year.

Fiction: Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. One of the strangest and best books ever, raising a zillion questions while poking cleverly along. Even though I like a good adult no-games novel, this one justified all its tricks.

Nonfiction: Joe Queenan's book about his childhood and his father, Closing Time. Unsentimental, clear about the effects of poverty and anger on children, and unforgettable. Unlike every other drunk-Irish-dad book you've ever read.

Rachel Shea: Every year we gnash our teeth about the good books we missed, and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is definitely one of them.

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Ron Charles: Want to make sure to mention that our Food section editors will publish their list of the Best Cookbooks of 2009 in tomorrow's paper!

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Silver Spring, Md.: And where was Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals on your fantasy list? He's still writing marvelous deep books in the face of early Alzheimer's.

Ron Charles: As we've mentioned, we rely entirely on our reviewers' opinions when making up this year-end list, and our reviewer wasn't overly impressed by "Unseen Academicals."

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Annapolis, Md.: Okay, I'll bite: what are the best books of the decade? Off the top of my head I would say the most influential American novels include "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," "The Lovely Bones," "Underworld," and "Kavalier and Clay." But I am sure I am missing some. And I think we have to acknowledge that the 00s were the Harry Potter Decade.

In nonfiction, I'd say that Malcolm Gladwell was the most influential; Barton Gellman's "Angler" was brilliantly reported but didn't cast shadows in terms of style.

Rachel Shea: I can't believe I forgot to include Harry Potter....

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To Woodbridge, Va.: Perhaps you are thinking of "Been Here A Thousand Years"? It's a lovely read, by the way. Recommend highly.

Rachel Shea: An answer to the Italian family question, I think...

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Arlington, Va.: I think while the 2008 election was important, I read the Haynes Johnson, Dan Balz book, and it didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. And I thought it egoish to put your book up there, and leave a better book like "Where Men Win Glory", "Wilderness Warrior Theodore Roosevelt And the Crusade for America",the late Senator Kennedy's "Moral Compass","American Lion:Andrew Jackson In the White House", all out of your list. Yet we get yet another Reagan book. In the fiction category where is George Pelecanos? I mean who was it that made this stupid list? And while there are interesting picks like Truman's road trip or the Cold War dual bio, its not filled out, to the extent that it could be. Just really insulting to the reader. Should I be shocked or surprised, since this is a post-Book World dropping from the Sunday Paper list?

Rachel Shea: George Pelecanos's "The Way Home" made our fiction list, under Mysteries and Thrillers.

The great thing about these lists is that they aren't scientific. Every publication, and every reader, will come up with their own list of favorites.

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And what about the worst best sellers?: My nominee is that awful Potato Peel Pie Society thing. Ugh. Way too cute with its dumb double story and its focus on the modern romance.

If you want to learn about Guernsey, read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Skip the PPP Society.

Ron Charles: Hmmm, my pod-mate (now retired copy editor, Ev Small) loved "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society." And so did my mom.

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Annapolis, Md.: I forgot an influential nonfiction book: Erik Larson's The Devil and the White City. We saw a lot of people rushing to copy it.

Steven Levingston: "Devil in the White City" was very influential with publishers and agents seeking to duplicate its success. Many titles were heralded as the next "Devil in the White City." But alas, nothing came close. The book was a phenomenon all unto itself, a mix of two vaguely intersecting tales that never could have been pulled off without Larson's gifted writing. Even Larson couldn't do it twice. His follow-up title, "Thunderstruck," which tried again to weave two tales into one narrative, never achieved the success of "Devil in the White City," which at this very moment is still selling well -- and far outpacing "Thunderstuck."

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Ron Charles: Just remembered: Teens looking for something to read after "Twilight," might enjoy (the vastly better) "A Certain Slant of Light," by Laura Whitcomb.

Ron Charles: What he said.

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Nashville, Pittsburgh, Jersey City: Wa Po reviews made me read at least three books this year, two I had not heard about elsewhere at the time: Glass Room and the book on Drysdale's perfect game (which I saw --on TV!) back when baseball was real/natural...and Say You are One of Them, Oprah's last selection, some stories which had holes in them, skipped over 'cause of the poignant sociology, in my opinion.

I may not be typical but keep finding the lesser noticed, I say...

Rachel Shea: So glad to hear that. We try to keep things interesting by picking books that are off the beaten path (though Oprah made sure that that's not the case anymore for "Say You're One of Them"!)

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Ron Charles: "The Glass Room" was a finalist for the Booker Prize (!) but the Post was the only US newspaper to review it. Shame. It's lovely.

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Devil in the White City: Put in on the nonfiction list.

Rachel Shea: Duly noted...

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Rachel Shea: Thanks, everyone, for your excellent suggestions, queries and critiques. Hope your holidays will be full of good cheer and good books!

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