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Year after year, thousands of worthy books are published in the US, along with the innumerable volumes of dreck that outsell them. We read a lot of those books -- mostly the non-dreck, but not even close to 10 percent of the total number of books published. Come to think of it, probably not even close to 1 percent. Nonetheless, we get around to a substantial number of terrific books and try to let you know about them. Out of the hundreds of books we managed to read and write something about in 2004, here is a selection of our favorites.

FICTION

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon). Our pick for Book of the Year is a 48-page graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, the author/artist of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. Absent from book publishing lately, he returned with a vengeance, producing this large, complex, delightful, harrowing and at times hilarious work that tells a riveting story while expanding the graphic novel genre itself. Spiegelman presents a tale of both lucidity and confusion -- and nearly comical fear -- about living in lower Manhattan on 9/11, while using images from America's vast cultural memory, and the history of comics, to evince specific moods and states of mind. This genuine masterpiece is a combination of journal, therapeutic unloading, political screaming, and homage to the comic strip genre itself.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Random House Trade Paperback). British author Mitchell took up the modernist gauntlet in this book of six interrelated novellas, woven artfully, giving each one a clever linear connection to one happening previously in time. Mitchell has a different "voice" for each of his time periods, meanwhile the stories go forward in time for the first half of the book, then backward for the second half. In the end, Cloud Atlas speaks truth to power by vividly demonstrating, over a great expanse of time, how truth survives power.

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf). The Haitian-born Danticat uses a series of narratives to tell the stories of various people whose lives were deeply affected by a young artist's father. He, a Haitian immigrant whom she had always thought was a prison escapee, reveals to her that his role had actually been that of a prison guard with a nasty skill for torturing people. Set largely in America among the immigrant community, The Dew Breaker's prose sparkles and grabs for attention.

Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale (Knopf). Longtime cult favorite Lansdale finally entered the world of prestigious publishers with this Depression era novel set in a small East Texas sawmill community. It begins with a marital-rape-in-progress during which red-haired knockout Sunset Jones shoots her husband in the head, killing him, just as a tornado rips their house out from around them. As usual, Lansdale blurs the edges of several genres including detective noir, historical fiction and horror, spawning a highly unsettling tale with a surprisingly big heart.

Links By Nuruddin Farah (Riverhead Books). Farah, a Somalian exile at the front rank of African writers, gives us a novel in which a Somalian expat returns to Mogadishu in the 90s and finds a post-apocalyptic world. Two old friends -- one a physician and the other a war profiteer -- as well as a visionary child, play vital roles. This is a rhapsodic search for hope and closure amid anarchy; readers with the courage to be swept into its unpredictable currents will learn much.

Little Children by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press). A funny, smart and spooky send-up of the void at the center of suburbia, Little Children features a former bisexual feminist mom who's had enough of motherhood, her husband who's addicted to pornsites, a handsome stay-at-home dad who's lost his way in life, and others. Throw an ill-advised affair and a pedophile fresh out of prison into the neighborhood, and the tensions of suburban childraising are completely outed and mulled over

The Lemon Table: Stories by Julian Barnes (Knopf). This collection of 11 stories by Britain's masterful Julian Barnes is chockfull of literary costume changes, while each story and character is united by the theme of aging -- and the idiosyncratic nature of the wisdom that we allegedly accumulate while falling apart.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf). Florida's favorite satirist returns to his earlier high form in this typically wacked out, complicated story of a woman who works to avenge an attempt on her life by her dick-for-brains husband, whose incompetence and amorality, meanwhile, is helping to further destroy the Everglades. Hiaasen brings back former detective Mick Stranahan, last seen in Skin Tight, which many critics consider CH's best novel.

Early Leaving by Judy Goldman (William Morrow). Charlotte author Goldman explores how people deal with loss and change in the tragic story of a couple whose teenage son murders someone. Gleaning insights from family calamity is a common theme in every two-hanky book on the market, but Goldman's depth of characterization and poetic style raises this novel far above the middling crowd.

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