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January 2004

Librarians’ Choice 2003 · Fiction

Since 1992, the Fiction Department has published an annual “Librarians’ Choice” list of staff picks, sixty or seventy fiction titles that were particular favorites of our reviewers that year. Look for some past lists on the department’s section of the website, and find these titles on the 2003 list.

the cover of Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

Yellow Dog
Martin Amis
British actor Xan Meo is attacked in a London pub, and during his recovery from severe head injury, manifests regressive personality changes and misogynistic behaviors. Amis surgically explores the baser aspects of human nature and the baser institutions of modern British life—including tabloids, blackmailers, and the porn trade—in this savage satire

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
As she did in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood gracefully adopts the conventions of science fiction to tell an elegant, futuristic parable. Snowman, a ragged figure living in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, tells us how he got there. In frighteningly plausible terms, he describes the end of the world as he—and we—knew it, all because of a fanatic and a virus.

The Scarlet Letters
Louis Auchincloss
Hawthorne’s classic novel is slyly reimagined in this coolly satiric morality tale. In 1950s New York, the family and social circle of wealthy lawyer Ambrose Vollard are disturbed by the public affair being carried on by his son-in-law. Adultery is all very well, but it must be discreet. A sleek tale of very modern Puritanism by an American master.

the cover of Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr. Timothy
Louis Bayard
In this bold sequel to the holiday classic, Tiny Tim is all grown up and has rejected family and the help of Uncle Scrooge to make his own way. Now, seeking to protect an Italian waif from unexplained danger, he confronts a powerful aristocrat and corrupt police. Strong characters and a colorful evocation of Victorian London mark this ambitious new work.

Islands of Silence
Martin Booth
Booker Award finalist Booth tells the story of Alec Marquand, a World War I veteran dying in an English nursing home. After Gallipoli, Marquand stopped speaking, but now the need to explain himself and the stunning discovery he made in his first year as an archaeologist has grown until he must break his self-imposed silence. Poignant, masterful fiction.

Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart
William Boyd
The journals of the fictional British novelist, freelance writer, and art critic Logan Mounstuart cover most of the history of the twentieth century. Begun in English public school, they reveal Logan as an eloquent schoolboy outsider who grows into an observant, engaging, peripatetic journalist. A writer’s life, compellingly readable.

the cover of Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Drop City
T. Coraghessan Boyle
Having abused the tolerance of local authorities, the leader of the Drop City commune packs up his family of California hippies and moves it to the Yukon River in Alaska. The clash of the lifestyles of the intemperate flower children and the hardy Alaskan trappers offers raucous and vastly amusing entertainment.

Lives of the Circus Animals: A Novel
Christopher Bram
Bram tellingly recreates the New York theater world in this snortingly funny satire. From Caleb, a playwright in a funk since his last work was panned, to Henry, a British stage legend who wants to be a megabuck movie sellout, Bram’s characters are hilariously self-involved but so lovingly drawn, readers won’t want to miss a minute of their performance.

Mr. Lincoln’s Wars: A Novel In Thirteen Stories
Adam Braver
The enduring image of President Abraham Lincoln as common man remains a powerful one. In this collection of short stories, each narrated by a different historic or fictional character, thirteen different perspectives evoke a man both blessed and cursed with an extraordinary heart and intellect.

the cover of The Rabbit Factory by Larry Brown

The Rabbit Factory
Larry Brown
The lives of various earthy, working-class, and criminal characters around Memphis, Tennessee, find coincidental intersection, with results that are tragic, pathetic, violent, and sometimes darkly humorous. Brown seems inspired by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen in this thoroughly entertaining “grit lit” story of hard-living losers seeking redemption.

Jan Burke
Someone is brutally murdering the criminals on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. LAPD Detective Alex Brandon works to bring the killers to justice in spite of public support for their vendetta—and in spite of his own connection to the killers. Complex plotting, exciting chases, and strong motivations make for compelling entertainment by the author of the Irene Kelly series.

Long for This World
Michael Byers
Dr. Henry Moss has dedicated his life to finding a cure for a syndrome that causes premature aging and death in children. But when he discovers a gene mutation that seems to prevent aging altogether, Dr. Moss faces an ethical dilemma. This novel of medical progress—and profits—is both riveting and richly thought-provoking.

the cover of Secret Father by James Carroll

Secret Father
James Carroll
The often complicated relationship between fathers and sons is examined against the backdrop of the volatile Cold War in Berlin in 1961 in this powerful story by a National Book Award author. Elegantly written, this mesmerizing book will return the reader to a haunting time where peace hung in the balance.

The Hills at Home
Nancy Clark
Lily Hill enjoys her retirement in satisfactory solitude in the old family homestead in Massachusetts. But when several family members need help, they all move home. It’s an unusual family reunion, and to make life even more interesting, a sociology student is studying the Hills for his thesis. Clark’s debut is the delightful first volume in a projected series.

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows
Dan Fesperman
A taut tale of intrigue set in contemporary Bosnia, this second outing for former Sarajevo Detective Vlado Petric is a page-turning read. Accepting an assignment from the war crimes tribunal to return home to apprehend criminals, Vlado discovers truths that strike close to his family. A must for geopolitical fiction fans.

the cover of sMothering by Wendy French

Wendy French
Claire, a single, twenty-something living in Portland, finds that her life has suddenly become very complicated. Her parents are separating, her lesbian sister is estranged from the family, and her office romance is going nowhere. Claire tries to calm her family situation while simultaneously heating up her love life in this funny, heartfelt debut.

One Hell of a Candidate
William F. Gavin
Colorful Southern Republican Buzzer LeBrand is near death, so the race is on for his congressional seat. Contenders include a former pro football star, an evangelist, a Marxist Jewish lesbian, and LeBrand’s own long-suffering wife. The political satire is as sharp as the candidates’ rhetoric in this debut effort by a former Presidential speechwriter.

Pattern Recognition
William Gibson
Cayce Pollard does well as a “cool hunter,” advising marketing firms on imminent trends, but she mourns her father lost in the attacks of 9/11. Hired to trace a series of cryptic Internet film segments that have set off a global cult, she finds herself caught up in a dangerous quest. Gibson returns with a cool, shimmering thriller about art, the Internet, and fathomless grief.

the cover of Over His Dead Body by Leslie Glass

Over His Dead Body
Leslie Glass
Middle-aged mouse Cassie Sales has a facelift, hoping to reinvigorate her marriage, but when her husband sees her bruised face, he collapses with a stroke. While he’s hospitalized, Cassie learns that he has been cheating her for years, over both love and money. It’s time for a little revenge, Cassie decides, in this amusing satire.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon
This novel is framed as a book being written by an autistic British teenager as he investigates the death of a neighbor’s dog. As Christopher pursues clues that may reveal the truth about the dog’s death, he inadvertently uncovers other truths he is completely unequipped to handle. This is a triumph of narrative experiment and a moving story with an unusual hero.

I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark
Brian Hall
Hall re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in a bravura piece of historical fiction. His persuasive portraits of the historical figures—including the much-mythologized Sacagawea—and his gorgeous evocation of the landscapes they traveled through bring the expedition to life. An absolutely splendid work.

the cover of Forever by Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill
Hamill’s sprawling picaresque is the entertaining tale of one Cormac O’Connor who arrives in Manhattan in 1741 to find the man responsible for the deaths of his parents. During a slave revolt, O’Connor is granted immortality by an African shaman and witnesses the next two-hundred-and-fifty years of New York history, right up to 9/11/01.

Robert Harris
Though we all know how it turns out, Harris builds surprising suspense into this tale of impending doom as a Roman engineer, sent to repair an aqueduct near Pompeii, begins to foresee the fatal eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Harris captures the full flavor of first-century Roman life, as well as conveying in fascinating scientific detail the progress of the disaster.

Haunted Ground
Erin Hart
Archaeologist Cormac Maguire and pathologist Nora Gavin are called to investigate when human remains are discovered in an Irish bog. Is the cailin rua, the redheaded girl, the missing wife of a local landowner? Music, myth, and history combine to create a haunting mystery in the tradition of Sharyn McCrumb.

the cover of The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire
Shirley Hazzard
Memorable characters and luminous prose distinguish this National Book Award winner, Hazzard’s first novel in more than two decades. In post-war Japan, Major Aldred Leith meets two young people who will alter his view of the future as they all struggle to accommodate change in the aftermath of World War II. A stunning treatment of the effects of war on individual lives.

City of Masks: A Cree Black Thriller
Daniel Hecht
Once, Cree Black didn’t believe in ghosts. Now she’s a professional “ghost-buster” in the Psychic Research Association, and she is visiting New Orleans because society lady Lila Beauforte Warren believes her house is haunted. Ghostly forces and old family secrets are uncovered in this thriller with a vivid setting and a great new character.

Isabel’s Daughter
Judith Ryan Hendricks
Raised in an orphanage till she runs away at thirteen, Avery is a survivor. She has one clue to her identity, her unusual eyes, one dark brown, one amber. Working for a Santa Fe caterer takes her into the homes of the city’s art patrons—where she sees a portrait with the same distinctive coloring. Avery’s quest is guided by a coven of wisewomen in this appealing novel.

the cover of The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Jones writes about a little-known aspect of U.S. history, free blacks who owned slaves in the antebellum South. The death of one such slave owner, Henry Townsend, throws into doubt the fate of dozens of people, slave and free, whose lives depend on him. This powerful, slowly building novel is a rewarding read for fans of historical fiction and cultural commentary.

Office of Innocence
Thomas Keneally
As World War II reaches Australia, naïve young Father Frank Darragh counsels a serviceman’s wife who is facing a moral dilemma. When she is killed, Father Darragh questions his own and the Church’s guidance. This complex character study by the author of Schindler’s List portrays a man at conflict with himself in a world in conflict.

Indelible Acts: Stories
A. L. Kennedy
Those indelible moments, mostly invisible to outsiders, that change everything are the focus of Kennedy’s stories: a little boy, overwhelmed by pressures at home, makes a heartbreaking decision to be “bad”; a shy man is undone by a casual pass from his boss; a lonely woman, watching an injured man’s wife, realizes the devastating emptiness of her own life.

the cover of Keeping Watch by Laurie R. King

Keeping Watch
Laurie R. King
Readers will find their genre expectations overturned again and again in this gripping novel of psychological suspense. Allan Carmichael rescues children from violent abusers. How he attained the skills (and the motivating guilt) for his unusual profession unfolds in harrowing flashbacks to his tour in Vietnam and the shocks he experienced as a returning vet.

Liverpool Fantasy
Larry Kirwan
This alternate world fantasy is an imaginative and plausible take on what might have happened if the Beatles had broken up just before they made it big, and then had reunited twenty-five years later. The author captures the different natures of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, as well as the history-making magic of the Fab Four as a group.

Every Good Boy Does Fine
Tim Laskowski
A severe head injury at age twenty-three left Robert Nyquist wheelchair-bound and cognitively impaired—and though a decade has passed, Robert still feels twenty-three. The restrictions, humiliations, and fears he must face daily give the reader poignant insight into a life requiring unfathomable bravery. This is a restrained but incredibly moving debut.

the cover of Old Flames by John Lawton

Old Flames
John Lawton
Son of a Russian émigré, Chief Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard is the natural choice to be tapped as escort and “minder” when Kruschev visits England in 1956. But the mysterious death of an unidentified Navy diver sets off a chain of events that test Troy’s conflicting patriotism and loyalties in a Cold War thriller of espionage, secrets, and lies.

Shutter Island
Dennis Lehane
In 1954, US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner are sent to Massachusetts’ Shutter Island to investigate a missing insane asylum patient. Soon Daniels is unsure of his own sanity, as gale-force winds rack the island, his partner vanishes, and he suspects someone is feeding him drugs. This is a first-rate psychological thriller that will leave readers hanging till the last page.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
The mysterious legacy of an unknown woman’s diaries and musical scores leads quiet piano teacher Anna Kramer on a quest to identify Holocaust survivor Hana Weissova—and on a voyage of self-discovery of her own. A passion for music and an acceptance of life’s unsettling passages are eloquently conveyed in this subtle, melodically nuanced debut.

the cover of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

The Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem
White boy Dylan Ebdus grows up in a largely black and Hispanic area of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Mingus Rude—black, self-possessed, and equally motherless—is Dylan’s key to the streets. Together, they comb the borough for adventure. This big, shaggy, literary novel about friendship, race, comics, crime, and pop culture is an ode to the Brooklyn streets of Lethem’s youth.

The Garden
Gillian Linscott
To bind her lover to her, wealthy Mrs. Isabelle Allegri persuades him to design an exotic garden on her English country estate. But the garden is not the lovely haven she imagined, as her head gardener’s family becomes entwined with hers and World War I blights the lives of all of them. A compelling upstairs/downstairs saga of two families sharing a fateful secret.

As Meat Loves Salt
Maria McCann
Set during the English Civil War, this vivid debut novel introduces narrator Jacob Cullen, a volatile, brooding character pressed into Cromwell’s New Model Army. Jacob falls in love with a fellow soldier, a utopian reformer, and together they desert the army. This is powerful novel about an inglorious civil war, religion, politics, and outlawed sexuality.

the cover of The Clarinet Polka by Keith Maillard

The Clarinet Polka
Keith Maillard
Raysburg, West Virginia, seems smaller than ever to Jimmy Koprowski after Vietnam. His family hasn’t changed, and neither has their tight-knit Polish-American community. Jimmy’s well on his way to the bottom of a bottle when his sister forms an all-girl polka band that ultimately may prove to be his rescue. Maillard has penned an irresistible love song to hometown life.

War Torn
John Marks
From Berlin (that most famously divided of cities) to the bloody, genocidal breakup of Yugoslavia, Marks traces the ravages of war on lives torn apart in this stark and contemplative novel. American journalist Arthur Cape tries to track his Bosnian lover, whom he met at the crumbling of the Wall, after she returns to her war-threatened homeland.

A Hole in the Heart
Christopher Marquis
Bean Jessup moves to Alaska to search for some direction in her life. She finds it in an unlikely place with some loveable but quirky individuals. An endearing character study of the shy and wistful Bean, this debut is also a fond and funny portrait of Alaskan eccentricity.

the cover of The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

The Pleasure of My Company
Steve Martin
Actor, comedian, and author Steve Martin doesn’t waste a word in this novella, the thoughtful and lightly comedic tale of Daniel, a man who is struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder. When Daniel is unexpectedly called on to rescue his social worker, Clarissa, from a bad domestic situation, he begins to find his way out of the trap his disorder has created for himself.

Harvard Yard
William Martin
“A small gift of majestic proportions” promised in 1830 sets antiquarian bookseller Peter Fallon on the trail of a lost Shakespeare play in this sequel to Back Bay. He must escape the clutches of gangsters, thieving professors, and feuding family members in this family saga and literary mystery spanning three hundred years.

A Minor Indiscretion
Carole Matthews
Ali Kingston, a wife and mother of three, considers leaving her husband, Ed, when she is unexpectedly attracted to a much younger man, Christian. Complex and sympathetic characterizations of all three characters and a strain of gentle humor make this a fine choice for fans of domestic fiction.

the cover of The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

The Usual Rules
Joyce Maynard
Ordinary life collapses for thirteen-year-old Wendy on 9/11/01, when her mom doesn’t come home from work. Wendy and her stepfather hunt through hospitals, post flyers, and call friends, struggling through tragedy. A visit to her biological father in California gives Wendy a chance to rebuild. Maynard has written a compassionate novel about a painful coming of age.

Man about Town
Mark Merlis
Joe Lingeman is a middle-aged, mid-level Washington bureaucrat whose lover of fifteen years, Sam, has just left him. Life isn’t what Joe hoped for when, at age fourteen, he saw a photo of a beautiful youth in a suave men’s magazine and realized that life held infinite possibilities. This is a wonderfully resonant story of midlife crisis: thoughtful, funny, and affecting.

The Speed of Dark
Elizabeth Moon
Lou Arrendale has fashioned a nice life for himself despite facing the challenges of autism. But when he is offered a chance at an experimental cure, Lou must consider the possibility that losing the disease may also cause him to lose a part of who he is. With empathy and not a trace of sentiment, Moon has created an affecting character study.

the cover of Four Spirits: A Novel by Sena Jeter Naslund

Four Spirits: A Novel
Sena Jeter Naslund
The spirits of the title are the little girls killed in the infamous Birmingham church bombing, one of the watershed events in this rich and moving novel of the Civil Rights movement. A wide cast of characters, black and white, find their lives irrevocably changed as they take a stand against such racism and violence—and not all of them survive.

The Time Traveler’s Wife
Audrey Niffenegger
This striking debut is essentially a simple love story, but it’s complicated by Henry De Tamble’s unusual condition: he is “chrono-impaired,” an inadvertent time traveler. He meets Clare, the love of his life, when he is forty years old and one of his jaunts takes him to six-year-old Clare’s family home. Niffenegger has crafted an elegantly complex novel of timeless love.

The Lamplighter
Anthony O’Neill
Fans of The Alienist and The Dress Lodger will be mesmerized by this debut set in 1880s Edinburgh. Three men seek a killer: a police officer who writes detective stories, a university professor has lost his job, and a cemetery watchmen are all led to a frail young woman who vividly dreams the crimes. But can she possibly be a killer, or will she too be a victim?

the cover of All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki

All Over Creation
Ruth Ozeki
Yumi Fuller, the (reluctant) prodigal daughter of an Idaho potato farmer and his Japanese wife, is called home to care for her aged parents. She finds them the center of controversy as a group of radical conservationists resists the introduction of genetically-engineered potatoes to the area. A finely-crafted and richly rewarding second novel from Ozeki.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Z. Z. Packer
Packer’s clear and graceful writing in this debut collection of eight stories draws the reader powerfully into the lives of the predominantly young, female, African-American characters. These well-realized characters face life in all of its complexities. This debut is all the more impressive for the author’s youth.

Shadow without a Name
Ignacio Padilla
In 1916, near the eastern front of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two men decide to switch identities. One goes to join the war, while the other takes a railroad job. How this identity switch damages both men for many years to come is the subject of Mexican writer Ignacio Padilla’s engrossing American debut.

the cover of Samaritan by Richard Price

Richard Price
A clumsy attempt to do good results in violence: Ray Mitchell, a white man who made good and got out of the Jersey projects, is attacked when he returns there to teach. Nerese Ammons, a black neighborhood cop who never left, tries to find out why. This bestselling suspense novel raises sensitive and complex questions of race and class in America.

Crawfish Dreams
Nancy Rawles
Camille refuses to move away from her home in Watts despite her children’s worries. She has cooked for forty-one years for local priests and now is determined to own a restaurant in her neighborhood. This winning story, told with humor and frankness, offers uplifting insight into human goodness and frailties.

Mrs. Roberto, or, The Widowy Worries of the Moosepath League
Van Reid
This charmingly Pickwickian novel set in nineteenth-century Maine is the fourth in Reid’s series about the worthy gentlemen of the Moosepath League. Here, our adventurers cure a melancholy pig, fight an icehouse fire, and rescue a female balloon ascensionist. Marvelously artful, old-fashioned fiction in the best Dickensian tradition.

the cover of The Drift by John Ridley

The Drift
John Ridley
In this brutally honest thriller, Charles Hanson is a million miles away from the world he once knew as an African American living the middle-class dream. Charlie is now a drifter, riding the rails in a haze of alcohol, drugs, and dementia. Looking for a missing girl, Charlie is inescapably drawn even further into that dangerous world.

The Music of Your Life
John Rowell
This debut collection of brilliantly polished short stories explores with both warmth and sarcasm the lives of several Southern, gay characters. Rowell has a marvelous knack for establishing vignettes with ordinary people—a malicious, matchmaking aunt or a bridal dress barn saleslady—and then creating drama in an emotionally powered situation.

C. J. Sansom
This mystery, set in the turbulent times of religious reformation under Henry VIII, features hunchbacked lawyer Dr. Matthew Shardlake. Cromwell sends him to solve the murder of another crown agent at a monastery that is being dissolved. A plot with many red herrings, a memorable protagonist, and lots of period atmosphere make this an appealing series debut.

the cover of The Three Miss Margarets by Louise Shaffer

The Three Miss Margarets
Louise Shaffer
Three elderly Georgia women, all named Margaret, have sworn never to tell the secret of one fateful night, though its consequences have colored their entire lives. But a resentful young woman and a sleazy reporter want to know what they have to do with an unexplained death. Wonderful characters and a gripping mystery fill this tale of race, revenge, and remorse.

Man Eater
Ray Shannon
When Hollywood producer Ronnie Deal intervenes in the beating of a skinny white girl, she makes an enemy of brutal enforcer Neon Polk. So she enlists ex-con screenwriter Ellis Langford to help write Polk out of the picture. Taut suspense, noir style, and complex characters make this a contender. Shannon is a pseudonym for Gar Anthony Haywood.

My Last Movie Star: A Novel of Hollywood
Martha Sherrill
Burned out by a Hollywood career, journalist Clementine James agrees to conduct one last interview with rising star Allegra Coleman. But after a car crash in which Clem is hurt and Allegra goes missing, Clem herself gets caught up in the media frenzy. An entertaining look at the Hollywood machine, a wonderful read for anyone who loves movies.

the cover of The Miracles of Santo Fico by D. L. Smith

The Miracles of Santo Fico
D. L. Smith
It has been eighteen years since lovable rascal Leo Pizzola abruptly left Santo Fico for Chicago, but now he’s back in the little Italian village, and he’s as full of schemes as ever—including a plan to make money on the town’s famous religious fresco. This delightful story is filled with Old World charm, quirky characters, and a mischievous, miraculous plot.

Neal Stephenson
Stephenson begins another sprawling, ambitiously-imagined epic, the “Baroque Cycle,” a fascinating look at the science, alchemy, philosophy, religion, and politics of seventeenth-century Europe. In this first volume, Daniel Waterhouse returns to England from Puritan Massachusetts to mediate a controversy between his friend Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Bay of Souls
Robert Stone
Married Midwestern English professor Michael Ahearn begins an affair with a beautiful colleague. On an illicit trip to a Caribbean island, Ahearn becomes involved with Colombian drug smugglers, while his lover joins a vodoun ceremony to reclaim her lost soul. A dark journey leads to ruin in an infernal island danse macabre in this brilliant, brooding novel.

the cover of Angels in the Morning by Sasha Troyan

Angels in the Morning
Sasha Troyan
This beautifully understated novel is narrated by Gabriel, the older (at ten) of two sisters spending one last summer in the French countryside before their parents divorce. Troyan succeeds brilliantly in depicting a child’s perspective: the deep but half-articulated emotion, the skittish attention, and the vivid perceptions of a child come alive in her novel.

Easter Island
Jennifer Vanderbes
Although separated by sixty years, the voyages of two women to Easter Island converge in intricate ways. British Elsa Beazley, her scientist husband, and her mentally ill sister arrive in 1912; while American paleontologist Greer Faraday arrives in 1973. History, science, love, and duty intertwine in this remarkable story of a remote and mysterious place.

The Shade of My Own Tree
Shelia Williams
After fifteen years, Opal Sullivan finally leaves her abusive husband. An old house as battered and in need of rescue as she is gives her her first step on her route to self-determination. The engaging characters living in the house give this book plenty of charm, and readers will also enjoy lots of local color (Williams lives in Newport, Kentucky).

Clara Callan: A Novel
Richard B. Wright
This novel follows the lives of two Canadian sisters in the 1930s: Clara, who stays home in their small town, and Nora, who goes off to New York to find work as a radio actress. Perfectly gauged in tone and pace, beautifully evocative of pre-war life both in provincial Canada and bustling New York, this is a splendid novel, “women’s fiction” at its very best.