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'09's Best Releases

Tues., Dec. 15: Discuss the top books, gift ideas with our editors.

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Best Books of 2009

Washington Post critics pick their favorite novels, biographies, mysteries, memoirs and more.

Arts and Letters

A JURY OF HER PEERS, by Elaine Showalter (Knopf, $30). The first literary history of American women writers is impressively researched and thought-provoking. - Meghan O'Rourke

BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE, by D.J. Taylor (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27). Jampacked and delicious, this book chronicles the doings of London's gilded youth in the Roaring Twenties. - Carolyn See

ON MONSTERS, by Stephen T. Asma (Oxford Univ., $27.95). Leads us on a safari through the many manifestations of our idea of the monstrous. - Michael Sims

Biography: General

CHARLES DICKENS, by Michael Slater (Yale Univ., $35). A magnificent account of "a life defined by writing." -- Michael Dirda

LOGICOMIX, by Apostolos Doxiadis et al. (Bloomsbury, $22.95). In this comic book, the superhero is the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the adventure is his quest for a rational foundation to mathematics and logic. -- Dan Kois

THE POISON KING, by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton Univ., $29.95). The story of the life of Mithradates, leader of the ancient Black Sea kingdom of Pontus, who, in the 1st century B.C., did everything he could to overthrow the Roman Empire. -- CS

SOUL OF THE AGE, by Jonathan Bate (Random House, $35). This look into the mind of William Shakespeare is rich in insight, immaculate in scholarship -- a work destined to become a standard source on its subject. -- Louis Bayard

TCHAIKOVSKY, by Roland John Wiley (Oxford Univ., $39.95). A smart, questing and refreshingly clear-sighted companion to the man and his work. - Tim Page

Biography: American Lives

A. LINCOLN, by Ronald C. White Jr. (Random House, $35). This thoroughly researched book belongs on the A-list of major biographies of the tall Illinoisan. -- David W. Blight

THE ART OF MAKING MONEY, by Jason Kersten (Gotham, $26). The heart of this wonderful book, which reads like the script for a caper movie, takes us through the whole painstaking process of becoming an expert counterfeiter. -- Liaquat Ahamed

THE FIRST TYCOON, by T.J. Stiles (Knopf, $37.50). The illuminating, authoritative portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt that has been missing for so long. - Alice Schroeder

THE ASCENT OF GEORGE WASHINGTON, by John Ferling (Bloomsbury, $30). A fresh, clear-eyed portrait of a full-blooded political animal. - Marie Arana

MR. AMERICA, by Mark Adams (Harper, $25.99). The delightful story of a celebrated bodybuilder. - Louis Bayard

RAYMOND CARVER, by Carol Sklenicka (Scribner, $35). A compassionate, riveting, page-turner of a biography. - Ron Hansen

THE UNCROWNED KING, by Kenneth Whyte (Counterpoint, $30). This William Randolph Hearst biography captures the epic crusades of Gilded Age newspapering. - James Rosen

UNDER THE BIG SKY, by Jackson J. Benson (Univ. of Nebraska, $29.95). Many of the scenes in this biography of A.B. Guthrie Jr. have the rich appeal of good fiction. - Gerald Bartell

VICTOR FLEMING, by Michael Sragow (Pantheon, $40). Fleming, who directed two masterpieces ("Red Dust" and "The Wizard of Oz"), has finally gotten the smart, sympathetic biography he deserves. - Dennis Drabelle

Business and Economics

FOOL'S GOLD, by Gillian Tett (Free Press, $26). Tett creates a devastating portrait of the way greed, hubris and sheer stupidity combined to put global capitalism at risk of disaster. - Robert G. Kaiser

IN CHEAP WE TRUST, by Lauren Weber (Little, Brown, $24.99). In this terrific book, Weber places her thrift-mania against the far larger nuttiness of America's personal and institutional deficit spending. -- CS

IN FED WE TRUST, by David Wessel (Crown Business, $26.99). Wessel clearly had access to all the key players at the Federal Reserve who prevented what he aptly dubs the Great Panic from morphing into something even worse. - Charles Lane

MISADVENTURES OF THE MOST FAVORED NATIONS, by Paul Blustein (PublicAffairs, $27.95). The transmutation of the leaden history of the WTO into a shimmering, essential read for those seeking a deeper and more nuanced perspective on the modern commerce of nations. - William Bernstein

History: American

ALGER HISS AND THE BATTLE FOR HISTORY, by Susan Jacoby (Yale Univ., $24). By turns digressive, intelligent, level-headed, vituperative, maddening and insightful. -- David Greenberg

THE BIG BURN, by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). Egan commands the full sweep of characters, from Theodore Roosevelt on down, in this tale of a fiery catastrophe and the early days of the Forest Service and conservation. - Bill Gifford

A BRIGHT AND GUILTY PLACE, by Richard Rayner (Doubleday, $25). This social history of Los Angeles is a bonanza, a boundless source of creepy joy. - CS

A DAWN LIKE THUNDER, by Robert J. Mrazek (Little, Brown, $27.99). Journalist-turned-congressman-turned-novelist Mrazek melds the historic story of the Battle of Midway with solid and skeptical research. - Robert Bateman

A FIERY PEACE IN A COLD WAR, by Neil Sheehan (Random House, $32). Sheehan concentrates on Bernard Schriever in describing one strand of the Cold War: the race to build and deploy the ultimate weapon -- the intercontinental ballistic missile. - Michael Dobbs

HARRY TRUMAN'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, by Matthew Algeo (Chicago Review, $24.95). An extremely excellent adventure by ex-president Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, in the form of a road trip they both made -- just the two of them -- in the summer of 1953. - Christopher Buckley

THE HAWK AND THE DOVE, by Nicholas Thompson (Henry Holt, $27.50). In this important and astute Cold War history, Paul Nitze emerges as a driven patriot and George Kennan as a darkly conflicted and prophetic one. - Jacob Heilbrunn

K BLOWS TOP, by Peter Carlson (PublicAffairs, $26.95). A deft and amusing writer, Carlson does a marvelous job of recounting the Soviet leader's American sojourn. - JH

1959, by Fred Kaplan (Wiley, $27.95). Anyone old enough to remember the '50s will be astonished to discover how many revolutionary seeds were sown in the final year of that decade. - Charles Kaiser

ON HALLOWED GROUND, by Robert M. Poole (Walker, $28). Poole succeeds grandly in giving voice to the 612 acres of what virtually all Americans now consider to be sacred soil: Arlington Cemetery. - Fergus M. Bordewich

PASSING STRANGE, by Martha A. Sandweiss (Penguin Press, $27.95). There were two sides to the geologist and explorer Clarence King, and Martha A. Sandweiss presents them both with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research. - Annette Gordon-Reed

THE REBELLION OF RONALD REAGAN, by James Mann (Viking, $27.95). This compelling and historically significant book casts new light on both Reagan and the strange ending of the Cold War. - Ronald Steel

REBIRTH OF A NATION, "Rebirth of a Nation" is dazzling cultural history: smart, provocative and gripping. - Charles Postel

UNLIKELY ALLIES, by Joel Richard Paul (Riverhead, $25.95). An account of the American Revolution that reads like a Monty Python movie. - CS

VICKSBURG, 1863, by Winston Groom (Knopf, $30). A brilliant narrative of the Mississippi Valley campaign that makes all the twists and turns completely understandable. - Ernest B. Furgurson

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED, by Gail Collins (Little, Brown, $27.99). A rich account of the past 50 years of the women's movement. - Liza Mundy

History: World

THE AGE OF WONDER, by Richard Holmes (Pantheon, $40). Holmes's enthralling book itself exemplifies those qualities fostered by a scientific culture: "the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe." - MD

THE ANTI-COMMUNIST MANIFESTOS, by John V. Fleming (Norton, $27.95). A spectacularly nuanced portrait of a pivotal period in world history. - Matthew Shaer

ARMENIAN GOLGOTHA, by Grigoris Balakian (Knopf, $35). This memoir by a survivor of the Armenian genocide tells a poignant, often harrowing story about the resilience of the human spirit. - Chris Bohjalian

BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE, by D.J. Taylor (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27). Jam-packed and delicious, this book chronicles the doings of London's gilded youth in the Roaring Twenties. -- CS

THE FOURTH PART OF THE WORLD, by Toby Lester (Free Press, $30). Lester captures the passion, curiosity and, at times, the hubris behind the European explorations. - Scott Martelle

THE HINDUS, by Wendy Doniger (Penguin Press, $35). The equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher. - MD

HOW ROME FELL, by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale Univ., $32.50). Meticulously researched, complex and thought-provoking. - Diana Preston

THE SISTERS OF SINAI, by Janet Soskice (Knopf, $27.95). By turns a rattling adventure yarn -- thick with roving Bedouin and ancient tombs -- and a testament to the power of perseverance. -- MS

THERE IS NO FREEDOM WITHOUT BREAD!, by Constantine Pleshakov (Farrar Straus Giroux, $26). Of all the books that mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, this is one that must be read. - Gerald DeGroot

THE THIRD REICH AT WAR, by Richard J. Evans (Penguin Press, $40). History in the grand style, the kind of large-scale narrative that few historians dare to write these days. - Benjamin Carter Hett

THE YEAR THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, by Michael Meyer (Scribner, $26). Meyer recounts momentous events in an accessible, engaging and intensely dramatic way. - Gerard DeGroot

Memoir

ANNIE'S GHOSTS, by Steve Luxenberg (Hyperion, $24.99). A probing, wise and affecting memoir of family secrets and posthumous absolution. - Barry Werth

THE ART AND POLITICS OF SCIENCE, The Nobel laureate offers a plain-spoken and fascinating story of his rise to the forefront of biomedical research. - Seth Shulman

BORN ROUND, by Frank Bruni (Penguin Press, $25.95). Bruni's unflinchingly honest look at himself as someone whose demons were always pushing or withholding food. - Joe Yonan

BOY ALONE, by Karl Taro Greenfeld (Harper, $25.99). A frank, sometimes brutal account of life with a severely disabled sibling. - Suki Casanave

A BRAIN WIDER THAN THE SKY, by Andrew Levy (Simon & Schuster, $25). A harrowing descent as Levy changes from a man who has suffered from occasional headaches into the victim of an unremitting, four-month-long, life-altering migraine. - Christine Montross

CHEERFUL MONEY, by Tad Friend (Little, Brown, $24.99). Such a winning family chronicle that the decline he describes is less a fall than an exhilarating ride, less sad than heartwarmingly comic. - MA

THE LAST OF HIS MIND, by John Thorndike (Swallow, $24.95). The author honors his father in the most profound way and is blessed, in turn, by participating in the most taxing event in his father's life. - CS

LIT, by Mary Karr (Harper, $25.99). A story not just of alcoholism but of coming to terms with families past and present, with a needy self, with a spiritual longing Karr didn't even know she possessed. - Valerie Sayers

MY TWO POLISH GRANDFATHERS, by Witold Rybczynski (Scribner, $25). In these retrospective essays from World War II to today, the author-architect comes across as disarming, sweet-natured and large-hearted. - CS

NOTHING WAS THE SAME, by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf, $25). A clear-eyed view of illness and death, sanity and insanity, love and grief. - Reeve Lindbergh

THE PHOTOGRAPHER, by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier (First Second, $29.95). A riveting account told with photographs and graphic art of Lefèvre's experiences in Zaragandara, the Afghan town where Doctors Without Borders set up a makeshift hospital. - Douglas Wolk

SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END, by Diana Athill (Norton, $24.95). In this account of growing old, Athill's easygoing prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well. - MD

THE UNFORGIVING MINUTE, by Craig M. Mullaney (Penguin Press, $28.95). Mullaney goes beyond the typical boy-to-man story to discover the limits of his own understanding of the war in Afghanistan. - Chris Bray

WAR CHILD, by Emmanuel Jal with Megan Lloyd Davies (St. Martin's, $24.95). A harrowing, brutally believable story of a Sudanese boy's struggle to survive at home and in Ethiopia during a time of war. - CS

Politics

THE BATTLE FOR AMERICA 2008, by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson (Viking, $29.95). Thanks to this book, we have a pretty good sense of where we are and how we got here. - Ted Widmer

SO DAMN MUCH MONEY, by Robert G. Kaiser (Knopf, $27.95). This fascinating book helps explain the extreme polarization of Congress and why earmarks have become more common since the 1970s. - James Q. Wilson

Public Policy

THE HEALING OF AMERICA, by T.R. Reid (Penguin Press, $25.95) T.R. Reid has done a service to his nation by showing just how uninformed conventional wisdom about health care is. - Phillip Longman

THE LEAST WORST PLACE, by Karen J. Greenberg (Oxford Univ., $27.95). An important and compelling work that others will turn to fruitfully in writing the full history of Guantanamo. - Peter Finn

Science

THE FATAL STRAIN, by Alan Sipress (Viking, $27.95). A superb and sobering look at the shadowy progression of a virulent avian flu now moving across Asia. - David Oshinsky

IS GOD A MATHEMATICIAN?, by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, $26). This engrossing book addresses the age-old question of whether math is a human construction or a cosmic -- possibly divine -- order. - Marc Kaufman

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF UNICORNS, by Chris Lavers (Morrow, $26.99). Beautifully demonstrates what natural science and cultural history can show each other about the origins of enduring myths. - MS

PINK BRAIN, BLUE BRAIN, by Lise Eliot (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25). Reading this book made me see my kids and their world differently. - Emily Bazelon

READING IN THE BRAIN, by Stanislas Dehaene (Viking, $27.95). In this fascinating and scholarly book, French neuroscientist Dehaene explains what scientists now know about how the human brain performs the feat of reading. - Susan Okie

Society and Culture

JUST LIKE US, by Helen Thorpe (Scribner, $27.99). The story of four young women, all from Mexico, all in the same Denver high school, two of them "illegal." - Luis Urrea THE MAKING OF AMERICANS, by E.D. Hirsch Jr. (Yale Univ., $25). In this intriguing, irresistible book, Hirsch tells of life as the odd man out. - Jay Mathews

A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL, by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, $27.95). A fascinating demonstration that disasters give rise to small, temporary utopias in which the best of human nature emerges. - Dan Baum

SHAKE THE DEVIL OFF, by Ethan Brown (Henry Holt, $25). Essential reading for those willing to face the awful truths about New Orleans. - Andrew Ervin

THE SIMPSONS, by John Ortved (Faber and Faber, $27). As tasty as a pink-glazed donut with sprinkles, as refreshing as a Duff beer and as piquant as a curry slush from Kwik-E Mart. - LB

WHEN A HEART TURNS ROCK SOLID, by Timothy Black (Pantheon, $29.95). Four Puerto Rican brothers in Springfield, Mass., face the challenges of street life, career and job, family and even jail time. - LU

Sports

BORN TO RUN, by Christopher McDougall (Knopf, $24.95). An examination of running as allegory of cross-cultural understanding. - Dan Zak

OPEN, by Andre Agassi (Knopf, $28.95). A lost childhood, a Dickensian adolescence and a chaotic struggle in adulthood to establish an identity that doesn't depend on alcohol, drugs or the machinations of PR. - Michael Mewshaw

PERFECT, by Lew Paper (New American Library, $24.95). The story of Don Larsen and his legendary afternoon was hanging out there, like a juicy curveball, for somebody to smash out of the park, and Lew Paper has done exactly that. - Dave Sheinin

THE QUEEN OF THE RING, by Jeff Leen (Atlantic Monthly, $25). A serious history of one of this country's goofiest pastimes: women's wrestling. - Mark Adams

SWEET THUNDER, by Wil Haygood (Knopf, $27.95). Certainly one of the best biographies of a boxer -- in this case, Sugar Ray Robinson -- ever written. - Gerald Early

WHEN THE GAME WAS OURS, by Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, with Jackie MacMullan (HMH, $26). The story of the evolution of perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports. - Dave Sheinin

Travel and Adventure

THE LOST CITY OF Z, by David Grann (Doubleday, $27.50). Grann recounts the expeditions of Amazon explorer Perry Harrison Fawcett with all the pace of a white-knuckle adventure story. - MA

THE WAY OF HERODOTUS, by Justin Marozzi (Da Capo, $27.50). The writer of this excellent travel book is skilled at evoking character, and his descriptions sparkle. - MS

The World: Africa

STRENGTH IN WHAT REMAINS, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, $26). The story that Tracy Kidder spins out here is a man's terrible memory of war. - MA

The World: China

WHEN CHINA RULES THE WORLD, by Martin Jacques (Penguin, $29.95). A compelling and thought-provoking analysis of global trends that defies common Western assumptions. - Seth Faison

THE SNAKEHEAD, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, $27.50) A rich, beautifully told story of the Chinatown underworld, so suspenseful and with so many unexpected twists that in places it reads like a John le Carré novel. -- Alex Kotlowitz

The World: The Middle East

THE MEDIA RELATIONS DEPARTMENT OF HIZBOLLAH WISHES YOU A HAPPY BIRTHDAY, by Neil MacFarquhar (PublicAffairs, $26.95). Gives the reader a window into the private debates among the intelligentsia and political classes of the Middle East. - Wendell Steavenson

THE SISTERS OF SINAI, by Janet Soskice (Knopf, $27.95). By turns a rattling adventure yarn - thick with roving Bedouin and ancient tombs - and a testament to the power of perseverance. - MS

General Fiction

AFTER YOU'VE GONE, by Jeffrey Lent (Atlantic, $24). In gorgeous prose, Lent tells the story of a middle-aged man in Amsterdam recovering from the death of his family and learning to love again. -- Wendy Smith

AWAIT YOUR REPLY, by Dan Chaon (Ballantine, $25). Three engrossing, nerve-racking storylines that continually hand off to one another without breaking stride, leaving us as fascinated as we are disoriented. -- Ron Charles

THE BELIEVERS, by Zoë Heller (Harper, $25.99). Embedded in the middle of this wicked family satire is the sensitive story of a young Jewish woman drawn to God despite all her efforts to resist. -- RC

BLAME, by Michelle Huneven (Sarah Crichton, $25). How do you build lasting relationships when the world insists on crumbling around you? That's Huneven's theme here, and she does a lovely job with it. -- Carolyn See

BLOOD'S A ROVER, by James Ellroy (Knopf, $28.95). A rigorously constructed, idiosyncratic novel that uses the materials of crime fiction to examine the forces that have shaped -- and warped -- our recent history: racial tension, ideological warfare, greed, corruption and unbridled fanaticism. -- Bill Sheehan

BORDER SONGS, by Jim Lynch (Knopf, $25.95). A severely dyslectic U.S. border patrolman thwarts drug deals along the Canadian border, but he'd rather be birdwatching. -- RC

THE CONFESSIONS OF EDWARD DAY, by Valerie Martin (Doubleday, $25). Faultlessly captures a young New York actor's cloistered world of classes, auditions, day jobs and competitive friendships. -- WS

DARLING JIM, by Christian Moerk (Henry Holt, $25). Aglow with fairy-tale inflections, this hypnotic, neo-Gothic suspense story unfolds like a hothouse bloom, lush and pungent; it's a sprig of nightshade, all petals and poison. -- Daniel Mallory

THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF POETS, by Jess Walter (Harper, $25.99) A deliciously antic tale of an American dream gone very sour. - Lisa Zeidner

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY, by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $23.95). A devoted dad's parental concerns fester into a toxin that eventually poisons his life. - RC

GENEROSITY, by Richard Powers (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25). Powers's cerebral new novel offers a chilling examination of the life we're reengineering with our chromosomes and brain chemistry. -- RC

GLOVER'S MISTAKE, by Nick Laird (Viking, $25.95). This novel comes on all wit and chumminess, a buddy story about two London roommates in love with the same woman. But in the familiar surroundings of romantic comedy, Laird is busy plotting something far more unsettling. -- RC

HANDLE WITH CARE, by Jodi Picoult (Atria, $27.95). An exciting, well-researched novel about the mother of a child with osteogenesis imperfecta who sues her former friend and obstetrician for allowing her daughter to be born. -- Perri Klass

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY, by Audrey Niffenegger (Scribner, $26.99). Niffenegger borrows the tropes of Victorian Gothic for a ghost story that seems, at first, more interested in whimsy than terror. -- RC

HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST, by Steve Hely (Black Cat; paperback, $14). I may have read a funnier book in the last 20 years, but at this moment I'm hard-pressed to name it. -- Elinor Lipman

HOW TO PAINT A DEAD MAN, by Sarah Hall (HarperPerennial; paperback, $14.99). Hall's portraits of four artists are captured moments, with each life slowed to a stop by loss and pain. -- Dara Horn

THE HUMBLING, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22). Roth's ability to inspire, astonish and enrage his readers is undiminished. -- Elaine Showalter

I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Hyperion; paperback, $15.99). This pointed and poignant first novel about Nigerian e-mail scammers is a lively, good-humored and provocative examination of the truth behind a global inbox of deceit. -- Chris Cleave

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS, by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Norton, $23.95). These connected stories show us what life is like for both the rich and the desperately poor in Pakistan. A collection full of pleasures. -- Michael Dirda

INHERENT VICE, by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press, $27.95). This may not be the Great American Novel, but it's certainly a Great American Read -- a terrific pastiche of California noir, wonderfully amusing throughout, and a poignant evocation of the last flowering of the '60s. -- MD

INVISIBLE, by Paul Auster (Henry Holt, $25). Auster returns to the thematic territory he has long occupied -- the four-way intersection of memory, language, fate and self-discovery -- with his playfulness very much intact. -- Jeff Turrentine

JULIET, NAKED, by Nick Hornby (Riverhead, $25.95). Hornby's gentle satire of arrested development offers a comforting, shame-free sense of recognition. -- RC

LAKE OVERTURN, by Vestal McIntyre (Harper, $24.99). In his engrossing first novel, McIntyre has created a vast, intricate lattice of relationships reminiscent of the novels of Richard Russo. -- Stephen Amidon

LARK AND TERMITE, by Jayne Anne Phillips (Knopf, $24). This novel about an American family and the Korean War is a striking mixture of hallucinatory poetry and gritty realism. -- RC

LITTLE BEE, by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, $24). This propulsive novel about a British couple who meet a pair of panicked Nigerian girls on the beach will blow you away. -- Sarah L. Courteau

LOOK AGAIN, by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin's, $26.95). Scottoline tells this story in 96 chapters so short they appear written for the iPhone screen, but she still finds room to explore a plausible moral dilemma and offer interesting views on legal issues. -- Janice Harayda

LOVE AND SUMMER, by William Trevor (Viking, $25.95). For those readers who have loved the generosity and beauty of Trevor's work, "Love and Summer" will be one more entry into a world that is both heart-breaking and deeply fulfilling. -- Elizabeth Strout

SAG HARBOR, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $24.95). Detailing the life of a dorky teenager, "Sag Harbor" is a kind of black "Brighton Beach Memoirs." -- RC

THE SCENIC ROUTE, by Binnie Kirshenbaum (HarperPerennial; paperback, $13.99). Spiked with wit, scrubbed free of sentimentality, these tales of love and loss, courage and cowardice, transport us back into the pages of our own lives and our own families. -- RC

THE SONG IS YOU, by Arthur Phillips (Random House, $25). "The Song Is You" is more than a cliff-hanging love story. Phillips's descriptions of his characters are filled with startling intensity. -- Marie Arana

SPOONER, by Pete Dexter (Grand Central, $26.99). In this autobiographical novel, Dexter takes a look at himself, implicitly admitting that he's a little on the high-strung side, to put it mildly. -- CS/p>

SWIMMING, by Nicola Keegan (Knopf, $25.95). This marvelous novel about a Kansas girl who swims her way to the Seoul Olympics is ripe with adolescent wit and angst. -- RC

THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC, by Richard Russo (Knopf, $25.95). A dyspeptic romantic comedy from a Pulitzer Prize-winner who catches the bittersweet humor of our common neuroses. -- RC

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton, $25.95). A hilarious novel about men, their lust and rage and sweetness. -- CS

Historical Fiction

ALL OTHER NIGHTS, by Dara Horn (Norton, $24.95). Horn sends her fascinatingly conflicted Jewish protagonist, a Union soldier ordered to murder his uncle, roaming across a Civil War-torn landscape. -- WS

THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER, by Eugenia Kim. (Henry Holt, $26). This sensitive first novel depicts 30 years of Korea's modern history in light of its ancient past. -- Sybil Steinberg

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK, by A.S. Byatt (Knopf, $26.95). That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy. -- Keith Donohue

THE CORAL THIEF, by Rebecca Stott (Spiegel & Grau, $25). Treasure may be at the heart of Stott's mystery, but fossils and corals are equally precious in this hybrid novel of action and ideas. -- Anna Mundow

DAY AFTER NIGHT, by Anita Diamant (Scribner, $27). Based on an actual event -- the rescue of more than 200 detainees from Atlit in October 1945 -- "Day After Night" demonstrates the power of fiction to illuminate the souls of people battered by the forces of history. -- WS

THE ELEPHANT KEEPER, by Christopher Nicholson (Morrow, $24.99). "The Elephant Keeper" is a strange tour of late 18th-century England, a natural history of elephants and the story of a most unusual friendship, all told with a touch of the otherworldly elegance and wit of Babar. -- RC

FAR BRIGHT STAR, by Robert Olmstead (Algonquin, $23.95). An intense short novel about a massacre of American soldiers dispatched to Mexico to get Pancho Villa in 1916. -- Sandra Dallas

FOUR FREEDOMS, by John Crowley (Morrow, $25.95). Through his wide-ranging imagination and precise prose, Crowley re-creates life on the home front during World War II -- its culture, its sexual mores, its dominant air of uncertainty -- with seemingly effortless fidelity. -- BS

GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS: A Novel Inspired by the Life & Marriage of Charles Dickens, by Gaynor Arnold (Crown, $25.99). A moving story about the special burden of loving a selfish, universally adored man. -- RC

HONOLULU, by Alan Brennert (St. Martin's, $24.95). This meticulously researched and dynamic story describes the life of a young girl against the unique history of early 20th-century Hawaii. -- Krista Walton

LIMA NIGHTS, by Marie Arana (Dial, $25). This tale of a love affair that crosses ethnic, generational and class lines moves toward a climax that is both unpredictable and inevitable. -- Frances Itani

THE LITTLE STRANGER, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead, $26.95). In this deliciously creepy tale, a malevolent force moves through a crumbling mansion in which live the final two siblings of a faded great family. -- RC

NEW YORK, by Edward Rutherfurd (Doubleday, $30). What makes this novel so entertaining is the riotous, multilayered portrait of a whole metropolis. -- Brigitte Weeks

A RELIABLE WIFE, by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin, $23.95). In this gothic tale of smoldering desire in 1907, a wealthy Wisconsin man receives his mail-order bride. No returns allowed. -- RC

THE ROSE OF SEBASTOPOL, by Katharine McMahon (Putnam, $24.95). A beautifully drawn story about a young English woman who goes looking for her sister, stepbrother and fiancé on the battlefield of the Crimean War. -- Philippa Gregory

SASHENKA, by Simon Montefiore (Simon & Schuster, $27). This historical whodunit, set in 20th-century Russia, has the epic sweep of a Hollywood movie. -- Malena Watrous

A SEPARATE COUNTRY, by Robert Hicks (Grand Central, $25.99). This riveting novel takes up one-legged Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood's life after the Civil War. -- Charlotte Hays

TIN DRUM, by Günter Grass (HMH, $26). With a magic-realist brio, "The Tin Drum," newly translated by Breon Mitchell, mixes fantasy, gallows humor, several pathetic love stories, a tragic family saga, a classic bildungsroman and a powerful account of how great political events affect -- usually disastrously -- a small group of ordinary people. -- MD

THE VAGRANTS, by Yiyun Li (Random House, $25). This powerful, thoughtful novel about two young women in modern China is a revelation. -- CS

WANTING, by Richard Flanagan (Atlantic Monthly, $24). The strange connection between a 7-year-old Tasmanian girl, the renowned Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and the novelist Charles Dickens makes for a captivating tale of cruelty and disappointment. -- RC

THE WET NURSE'S TALE, by Erica Eisdorfer (Putnam, $24.95). Taking place in vaguely Napoleonic times, about a spirited female living in England, "The Wet Nurse's Tale" is informative, unusual and intelligent. -- CS

THE WHITE QUEEN, by Philippa Gregory (Touchstone, $25.99). Set in the last years of England's infamous Wars of the Roses, "The White Queen" deals with the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who became queen. -- Diana Gabaldon

WOODSBURNER, by John Pipkin (Doubleday, $24.95). This ingenious novel describes the awful day that Henry David Thoreau accidentally burned down 300 acres around Concord, Mass. -- RC

Mysteries and Thrillers

BAD TRAFFIC, by Simon Lewis (Scribner, $25). This offbeat and delightful novel tells of two men from China who make their separate ways to England, where they enter a world of hurt. -- Patrick Anderson

THE BROTHERS BOSWELL, by Philip Baruth (Soho, $24). In this literary thriller, the younger brother of James Boswell, the celebrated biographer of Dr. Johnson, may be a crazed killer. -- PA

ECLIPSE, by Richard North Patterson (Henry Holt, $26). Aspires to be any number of books -- a novel of political intrigue, an international conspiracy thriller, a courtroom drama, a romance, even a straightforward murder mystery -- and succeeds on all counts. -- Art Taylor

AN EXPENSIVE EDUCATION, by Nick McDonell (Atlantic Monthly, $24). Blends a terse story of international intrigue with a biting satire of Harvard. - RC

FATAL LIES, by Frank Tallis (Random House; paperback, $15). In the third of Tallis's immensely satisfying literary thrillers set in early 20th-century Vienna, someone has murdered a student at the military academy. -- PA

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Kelland (Knopf, $25.95). The further adventures of champion hacker Lisbeth Salander, who is not a Swede to be messed with. -- Dennis Drabelle

HARDBALL, by Sara Paretsky (Putnam, $26.95). A standout, nuanced mystery about civil rights struggles past and present. -- Maureen Corrigan

THE LONG DIVISION, by Derek Nikitas (Minotaur, $24.99). An extraordinary novel that appropriates signature themes and devices of American independent cinema. -- DM

MONSTER IN THE BOX, by Ruth Rendell (Scribner, $26). The last installment of one of the best-written detective series in the genre's history. -- Michael Sims

THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH, by Charlie Huston (Ballantine, $25). This blackly funny thriller about a "trauma cleanup" company is, like the best comic fiction, deadly serious. -- PA

PARIAH, by Dave Zeltserman (Serpent's Tail; paperback, $14.95). A doozy of a doom-laden crime story that not only makes merry with the justice system but also satirizes the publishing industry. -- MC

THE RENEGADES, by T. Jefferson Parker (Dutton, $26.95). The ugly realities of police corruption and the multimillion-dollar Southern California drug trade are portrayed here by one of today's best crime writers. -- PA

ROAD DOGS, by Elmore Leonard (Morrow, $26.99). Yet another gem by the 84-year-old Leonard. -- PA

THE SCARECROW, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown, $27.99). A serial killer grabs the headlines for most of this exquisitely plotted story, but the most inspired feature of "The Scarecrow" is that it's also a meditation on the consequences of the death of print journalism. -- MC

SHADOWS STILL REMAIN, by Peter de Jonge (Harper, $25.99). In this cleverly plotted and sophisticated thriller, a female detective becomes obsessed with finding the killer of a 19-year-old girl. -- PA

THE SIGNAL, by Ron Carlson (Viking, $25.95). When a life-weary young man goes camping in Wyoming with his ex-wife, he accidentally involves her in a deadly scheme. -- RC

31 HOURS, by Masha Hamilton (Unbridled, $24.95). A desperate story about a disenchanted young American coached by Islamic radicals plotting an act of terrorism in New York City. -- Carrie Brown

THE WAY HOME, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown, $24.99). What rings true in Pelecanos's work isn't his plot devices but his characters. -- Kevin Allman

Science Fiction and Fantasy

ANGELS OF DESTRUCTION, by Keith Donohue (Shaye Areheart, $24). A marvelous story that explores the fissures that grief leaves in the life of a woman whose 17-year-old daughter vanished 10 years ago -- and now seems to have returned as a little girl. -- Elizabeth Hand

BIG MACHINE, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau, $25). In this spectacular novel, race and religion are the subterranean tributaries that threaten to destroy America's underclass, even as they help to sustain it. -- EH

FAR NORTH, by Marcel Theroux (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25). The first great cautionary fable of climate change, Marcel Theroux's homespun tale about a solitary frontier survivor conjures up a world that's ominous and deeply memorable. -- Lydia Millet

FINCH, by Jeff VanderMeer (Underland; paperback, $14.95). A detective story full of fantastical elements and genuinely humane ones, too. -- Victor LaValle

UNDER THE DOME, by Stephen King (Scribner, $35). A transparent but impenetrable dome has mysteriously descended over a Maine town. One of King's most powerful novels. -- Graham Joyce

Short Stories

AMERICAN FANTASTIC TALES, edited by Peter Straub (Library of America, $70). Inside this two-volume set lurks more spookiness than you can shake a broomstick at. -- DD

THE COMPLETE STORIES OF J.G. BALLARD, (Norton, $35). Ballard's stories are intensely gripping without ever being upbeat or reassuring. -- MD

FORD COUNTY, by John Grisham (Doubleday, $24). Provides one more reason to ignore those naysayers who claim Grisham writes mere page-turners. -- CS

MY FATHER'S TEARS, by John Updike (Knopf, $25.95). I have rarely encountered fiction that so genially recounts the frailties of old age. -- Ron Hansen

The Top Ten

Book World gives its cream of the 2009 crop. Read More »

Jonathan Yardley

Our critic submits his list of favorite books of 2009. Read More »

For the Kids

We snipped excerpts from the most favorable reviews of the year from our regular reviewers. Read More »

Audio Books

See which recordings are worth a listen. Read More »

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Web producer: Christian Pelusi