Choosing the most worthy books of the year according to reviewers' levels of ardor is not like judging TV shows by their Nielsen ratings -- there is little to quantify beyond the thermal property of adjectives. Nevertheless, our annual look back at Book World's reviews yields many passionate recommendations. We had no trouble identifying the most highly praised books of 2003. This list does not include the top choices of our book critic, Jonathan Yardley, which you can find in his column across the way, nor does it include 2003 books that have yet to be reviewed on our pages. Our list of best books For Young Readers is on page 17 of this issue, and poetry's highlights are covered by Edward Hirsch on page 16. I speak for the entire Book World staff in extending all warmest holiday wishes to our readers.

-- Marie Arana

Fiction

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd (Knopf). One of the pleasures offered by this novel -- and its pleasures are countless -- is perhaps the simplest one a reader can know: following a character through his life. . . . Logan Mountsuart's life might be preposterous, but it is certainly engaging, and Boyd clearly enjoys intertwining his charismatic hero's life with the cultural history of the century. -- Peter Cameron

Best Friends, by Thomas Berger (Simon & Schuster). You can read it as a love story or a suspense tale, as well as a meditation on friendship and fate. Berger is a master of the unsettling narrative, the creepy visitor, the jovial stranger who takes things just one step too far. The characters here are not evil; they don't even come close. . . . It is Berger's genius as an observer and storyteller that we never, for a moment, take our eyes off them. -- Jeffrey Frank

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali (Scribner). A stoutly simple tale, chronicling the fortunes of a Bangladeshi woman who immigrates to England to consummate the marriage her father has arranged with a middle-aged civil servant she has never met. In a feverishly fragmenting and often character-resistant fictional landscape, the novel manages to create a fully rounded, satisfyingly complicated world of its own. -- Chris Lehmann

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (Doubleday). It's midnight, and an autistic 15-year-old boy is sitting on the lawn, holding his neighbor's dead dog, covered with blood. The neighbor runs out screaming, police arrive, the boy hits a policeman and ends up in jail. Thus begins a jolting spiral of events in the life of one of this year's most memorable characters. In this striking first novel, Haddon is both clever and observant, and the effect is vastly affecting. -- Nani Power

Daylight, by Elizabeth Knox (Ballantine). In Daylight, Knox has written Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey for the new century, an entertaining fiction that offers a potent summation and critique of a weary genre. Her style is meticulous and dreamlike, moving with a languor worthy of its nightwalkers. . . . This is not just another vampire novel. -- Douglas E. Winter

Easter Island, by Jennifer Vanderbes (Dial). Her sweeping first novel exemplifies the continuing appeal of the historical-fiction genre to young, talented writers. An engrossing blend of adventure, romance and mystery, it spans the 20th century with three interwoven stories set in that remote South Pacific locale. -- Heather Hewett

Good Faith, by Jane Smiley (Knopf). I admire this novel in so many ways I hardly know where to start. Let's start small, with a detail of genius. In every novel, there are descriptions of locations, rooms, houses, neighborhoods. . . . Smiley is one of our most Dickensian novelists, by which I mean her imagination is prodigious, her observations exact, and the wealth of fascinating people inside her head a national treasure. -- Donald E. Westlake

The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard (FSG). An "old-fashioned" writer; her transitions of plot are seamless rather than choppily cinematic, every page a deep pleasure to read. She is especially good at animating the exotic yet stultifying conditions of postwar Asia in a manner that would do Joseph Conrad proud. . . . I loved this novel beyond dreams. -- Howard Norman

Havana, by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster). Consider the irony that one of the best thriller novelists around is also The Washington Post's chief film critic. . . . He writes some of the most complex and innovative, not to mention exciting, action novels of the past 23 years. . . . Now comes Havana, in which Earl [Swagger] -- on special assignment from the Arkansas state patrol -- takes on the gangsters, spies and communist revolutionaries of 1953 Cuba. -- David Morrell

The King in the Tree, by Steven Millhauser (Knopf). No one alive writes better about yearning and heartbreak than Millhauser. So enchanting is his prose, so delicate his touch, that one surrenders to his plangent word-music as one does to the wistful piano pieces of Ravel and Chopin. These novellas present three facets of love -- more precisely illicit love -- and its consequences. -- Michael Dirda

Love Me, by Garrison Keillor (Viking). This latest work by the host of the public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" is a hilarious satire of just about everything in the early 21st century worth poking fun at, from the writing life to the president of the United States. -- Michael Dirda

Mortals, by Norman Rush (Knopf). In both its wry-yet-forceful narrative style and its generous conceptual reach, it is a worthy successor to his restless, cerebral and searing Mating. But where Mating charted obsessive affairs of the heart that opened out onto the wider world, Mortals depicts from the outside a steady accumulation of inward torments.

-- Chris Lehmann

The Night Country, by Stewart O'Nan (FSG). This is a ghost story, dedicated to -- and partly inspired by -- Ray Bradbury. But as the narrative unfolds, it gradually reveals one of the central, ongoing concerns of O'Nan's fiction: the fate of individuals forced to confront the bleakest of life's possibilities. The story takes place in Avon, Conn., and runs from midnight to midnight on a single, haunted Halloween. -- Bill Sheehan

No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again, by Edgardo Vega Yunque (FSG). Grabs the American tiger of race by the tail. Like jazz and like America, this novel is fluid, unpredictable, full of verve and smarts. Deeply revisionist, tinged with tragedy and yet doggedly optimistic, it belongs on the shelf with Doctorow's Ragtime and Pynchon's Vineland. -- Gene Santoro

One Last Look, by Susanna Moore (Knopf). A lush, delicious, sensuous, intelligent novel of the British raj, which examines the question of who conquers whom within the context of colonialism. -- Carolyn See

Orchard, by Larry Watson (Random House). The story is set near a lake in northern Wisconsin in the 1940s and '50s, and the plot revolves around a Norwegian immigrant woman. . . . It reveals only a little about apples, but a lot about marriage, human relations and the mysteriously heartbreaking intimacies and distances in love and art. Captivating, haunting and very hard to put down. -- Reeve Lindbergh

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (Putnam). The period of our tale is a year or so after the fall of the World Trade Center. Our heroine is a "coolhunter," or freelancer paid to winkle out nascent trends and fads. Gibson has delivered what is assuredly one of the first authentic and vital novels of the 21st century, placing himself alongside Haruki Murakami as a writer who can conjure the numinous out of the quotidian. -- Paul Di Filippo

The Polished Hoe, by Austin Clarke (Amistad/HarperCollins). Clarke opens his novel in the voice of his central character, Miss Mary-Mathilda Bellfeels, "kip miss" (concubine) of the plantation manager. . . . This character is a marvelous creation, and she summons all of her literary sisters to assist in telling her story of one woman's life in slavery. -- Opal Moore

Saul and Patsy, by Charles Baxter (Pantheon). In his beautifully crafted The Feast of Love, Baxter conjured a wide variety of characters modeled on "A Midsummer Night's Dream." His new novel engages the question of how a single love survives, and changes, as it follows the earthbound course of marriage in the American heartland. It's more Willa Cather than Shakespeare, but in the hands of a writer of considerable gifts, it's no less compelling. -- Chris Lehmann

Shipwreck, by Louis Begley (Knopf). Begley has made the amours and moral confusions of the well-to-do his signature territory; he writes a cool, elegant prose, and he knows how to build a suspenseful plot that never lets go. It opens quietly, one middle-aged man telling another the story of a love affair, but the narrative picks up increasing urgency as matters grow ever more distressing and uncertain. . . . At once a classic, even Jamesian novel of character and a highly erotic, very grown-up modern thriller. -- Michael Dirda

Soul Circus, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown). What's so brilliant about it, and Pelecanos's novels in general, is that he raises these questions not only in meditative passages but also in scenes of the rawest violence. In the space of a couple of paragraphs, four gang members suddenly die in bloody, balletic sequence, and you find yourself reeling from the senselessness of their deaths, the waste of their stupid lives. Ditto for the ending of this superb novel. -- Maureen Corrigan

Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon). A comedy of manners and a superbly funny social satire set at the turn of the millennium in two Seattles. One is a boom town, animated by an exuberant market. . . . The other is a spot jolted by earthquakes, bounded by dangerous shoals. . . . Unshared, incompatible reality is this ingenious novel's leitmotif. Raban's eye for the telling, resonant detail is abundantly evident here. -- Katherine A. Powers

The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie McDonald (HarperCollins). A brilliant portrayal of child abuse and its consequences, but it is much more than that. It is a fiercely intelligent look at childhood, marriage, families, the 1960s, the Cold War and the fear and isolation that are part of the human condition. Not only beautifully written, it is equally beautiful in its conception, its compassion, its wisdom, even in its anger and pain. -- Patrick Anderson

What Was She Thinking?, by Zoe Heller (Holt). Heller presents the tale of Sheba in the diarist-voice of Barbara, a sixty-something spinster colleague. Barbara has appointed herself Sheba's caretaker in her scandal-plagued exile from her husband and children, in which the woman glumly awaits criminal charges for the sexual assault of a minor. But Barbara belongs to the Nabokovian tradition of the unreliable narrator, and so winds up revealing much more about herself than about the scandal at hand. -- Chris Lehmann

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer (Scribner). This important book introduces another side of a writer we thought we knew: Never before has she written so feverishly, so courageously. It almost becomes possible to imagine a female Philip Roth. But hers is a wholly original voice, as she tells the story not only of a marriage built on uneven compromises, but of a woman's poignant self-discovery. -- Kera Bolonik

Nonfiction

Against Love, by Laura Kipnis (Pantheon). Kipnis is a feminist but a renegade one. She doesn't work herself up into a frenzy about men being beasts or the nature of sin. She views legalized monogamy as a killjoy institution of the industrialized patriarchy, a dumbing and numbing of the human tropism toward pleasure. . . . It just may alter your thinking. -- Carolyn See

And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of May Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, by Steve Oney (Pantheon). Oney's brilliant narrative shows why, 90 years later, this tale of murder and revenge in Georgia still has the capacity to fascinate, provoking the classical responses to tragedy: pity, awe and sorrow without end. -- Shelby Coffey III

All the Shah's Men, by Stephen Kinzer (Wiley). Kinzer has written an entirely engrossing, often riveting, nearly Homeric tale, which, if life were fair, would be this summer's beach book. For anyone with more than a passing interest in how the United States got into such a pickle in the Middle East, this is as good as Grisham. -- Jeff Stein

Benjamin Franklin, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster). A wonderfully written biography, and his treatment of Franklin's youth and rise to prominence is insightful and imaginative. It sparkles as well in chronicling Franklin's life following his retirement, especially the evolution of his views on religion and slavery, and his troubled and insensitive relationships with members of his family. -- John Ferling

A Brief History of the Human Race, by Michael Cook (Norton). Mankind's march through the Holocene isn't a stately Whiggish progress culminating in splendiferous you and me. It's a kind of fireworks rocket, with brilliant sparks flying off in all directions, not only upward. . . . If so compact a book can be magisterial, this is it. -- Michael Dirda

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, by Robert K. Massie (Random House). A grand narrative of World War I at sea. Massie introduces and develops each personality with the art of a novelist. -- John Lehman

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order, by Niall Ferguson (Basic). An eminent professor of political and financial history at Oxford and New York universities brilliantly challenges the simplistic focus on racism, violence and exploitation. He asserts that on balance the British Empire was a good thing. -- Daniel I. Davidson

Franklin and Winston, by Jon Meacham (Random House). With its keen, nuanced analysis and sympathetic insight, Meacham's book makes for intense and compelling reading. His achievement is memorable, even considering the innate drama of his topic. His heroes are charismatic giants, paladins in a titanic struggle between good and evil, and masters of the English language. -- Daniel I. Davidson

From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity, by Leo Braudy (Knopf). Dense and intricately argued, this is history in the grand manner, pulled off with brilliance, wonderful imagination and considerable erudition. -- Christine Stansell

Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, by Richard Brookhiser (Free Press). A model popular history: tight, lucid, accessible, judicious and humane. Without a wasted word or a false sentiment, Brookhiser smoothly and insightfully guides readers through two dramatic revolutions. -- Alan Taylor

Gulag, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday). An epic portrait of a crime against humanity. Applebaum needs all of her 600 pages of text to describe the rise and fall of the Gulag, along with the repressive prison systems that preceded and replaced it. -- Lars T. Lih

Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda, by Thomas Powers (New York Review). Portrays in vivid human terms repeated FBI failures in counterintelligence, the agencies' inability to infiltrate terrorist groups, chronic reluctance to share information and a management structure that leaves no one in charge. Powers brilliantly conveys the ethos and culture of intelligence agencies. -- Lorraine Adams

John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, by Evan Thomas (S&S). In a book in which every sentence is written with grace and style, Thomas opens a window on the squalid, demeaning and hazardous milieu of 18th-century mariners and provides unsurpassed descriptions of naval battles. -- John Ferling

Jonathan Edwards, by George M. Marsden (Yale). In his superb and engrossing new biography . . . Marsden has given us the most comprehensive account we have of the man who, as much as Benjamin Franklin, is the spiritual godfather of our nation. -- Robert D. Richardson

Khrushchev, by William Taubman (Norton). There are scores of engaging, revealing anecdotes in Taubman's masterful and monumental biography of Khrushchev. Taubman is especially good when describing Khrushchev's endlessly complex relationship with Stalin, who made Khrushchev's career and tormented him even from the grave. -- Robert G. Kaiser

The March Up: Taking Baghdad With the 1st Marine Division, by F.J. "Bing" West and Ray L. Smith (Bantam). A sort of microscope-telescope hybrid, moving seamlessly through many levels. It should be required reading for everyone serving in the armed forces -- and for anyone exercising policy influence over the institution they serve. -- Chris Bray

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, by David Quammen (Norton). A lesser writer might have turned this book into a shrill polemic, yet another tirade against modernity and extinction. But Quammen proves to be a fine reporter: insatiably curious, level-headed and amazingly erudite. -- Bill Gifford

An Open Book, by Michael Dirda (Norton). This memoir has the elegiac quality of a tribute to a lost world. . . . The transformation of working-class and immigrant children into gifted professionals is a story often told, for it goes to the heart of the American dream, perhaps of modernity itself. Rarely has it been combined with such a glowing tribute to the world of books and the life of the mind. -- Morris Dickstein

Orwell, by D.J. Taylor (Holt). Not only the best recent biography of George Orwell but also one of the cleverest studies of the relationship of that life to the written word. . . . I found myself wishing that I had been able to read this book decades ago. There is an insight or a connection in every chapter. -- Christopher Hitchens

School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School, by Edward Humes (Harcourt). A masterly example of passionate yet even-handed reporting -- as enthralling as Richard Hofstatder's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It deserves an A+, even without grade inflation. -- Michael Dirda

Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East, by John Keay (Norton). He has a riveting tale to tell, heightened by his characters, the last great oddballs of the British imperial story, including the Arabists T.E. Lawrence and John Glubb, the Zionist Orde Wingate, and the formidable bluestockings Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. -- Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood, by Hugo Hamilton (Fourth Estate). The lyrical power of his writing stamps his story not as journalism but as literature -- and great literature at that. This is an astonishing achievement, clearly a landmark in Irish nonfiction; and I cannot shake the conviction that for many years to come, it will be seen as a masterpiece. -- Trevor Butterworth

They Marched Into Sunlight: Vietnam and America, October 1967, by David Maraniss (S&S). At its best, this is wonderful reporting. The military part, the story of the 2/28 (second battalion of the 28th infantry regiment) Black Lions walking into the ambush that day, recalls some of the very best nonfiction writing of the war. -- David Halberstam

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, by David Von Drehle (Atlantic Monthly). Ably describes the growth of the garment industry, the lives of its immigrant work force, the politics of early 20th-century New York, and the 1909 strike. But he truly excels in telling the harrowing story of the fire itself. -- Joshua B. Freeman

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, by Robert Dallek (Little, Brown). An excellent historian and a renowned biographer, Dallek knows how to write a compelling narrative, and the fresh detail he has mined from recently available sources more than justifies this project. -- Allen J. Matusow

The Victorians, by A.N. Wilson (Norton). In more than 700 tightly written pages, he chronicles 19th-century politics and culture, packing every paragraph with something worth knowing. Whether he's discussing religious doubt or cholera, the Crystal Palace or Darwinism . . . he sweeps the reader along in this magnificent contribution to popular scholarship. -- Michael Dirda

Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire (Free Press). Tells of growing up privileged in 1950s Havana . . . and of being sent at the age of 11 to the United States to live in orphanages. Masterfully written, bursting with wonderful details and images and populated by characters so well described that they seem to be sitting next to you on the couch. -- Curtis Sittenfeld

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd (Scribner). Canonized as a major artist and intellectual and as a patron saint of black feminism . . . Hurston has been blessed with an astute and admiring biographer. Scrupulously researched, gracefully written, this will most likely remain the definitive biography for many years to come. -- Jake Lamar *

Italian poster of "The Wizard of Oz" starring Judy Garland"St. Jerome as a Scholar" by El Greco