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Originally published December 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 14, 2007 at 10:35 AM

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Seattle Times book reviewers pick 2007 favorites

It's summing up time — here's our list of books that rose above the rest this past year for Seattle Times reviewers. Is it a "best...

Seattle Times book editor

It's summing up time — here's our list of books that rose above the rest this past year for Seattle Times reviewers.

Is it a "best books" list? Not really, because we didn't review every book that came out this year. But it is a list of 29 books reviewed in 2007 that impressed our regular contributors, who are, may I just say, a pretty discriminating bunch.

Inside (J7), you'll find book critic Michael Upchurch's "best of" list for 2007, as well as the top picks of crime-fiction columnist Adam Woog. Many thanks to our reviewers, who bring passion and insight to the job all year long. Here's the list — and, as always, thanks for reading.

Fiction

"The Song Before It Is Sung" by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury). "Song" is based on the lives and friendship of Adam von Trott, a Prussian aristocrat and one of the authors of the failed 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and Isaiah Berlin, political philosopher and historian of ideas at All Soul's College, Oxford. Valerie Ryan said, "Cartwright's perceptive and revelatory novel illuminates those horrific times and recounts the lives of two men of character and integrity who take different roads. The work is beautifully conceived and written, and is eminently satisfying."

"The Ministry of Special Cases" by Nathan Englander (Knopf). "Part Kafka-esque black comedy, part Oedipal Jewish family portrait and part horror tale of Argentina in its 1970s reign of genocidal military fascism, this tour-de-force first novel demonstrates the ample gifts and broad concerns of its impressive American author," said Misha Berson.

"World Without End" by Ken Follett (Dutton). This vast sequel to Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth" "grabs the attention and imagination for more than 1,000 pages of ambition, greed, lust, revenge and the Black Death," said Melinda Bargreen.

"Spook Country" by William Gibson (Putnam). Gibson, a wizard at predicting where technology and human nature will intersect next, plays with existing cutting-edge gear and gadgets in this suspenseful novel about spies, smuggling and virtual art. Gibson is hyperobservant, with a wonderful sense of humor and an optimistic point of view. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"Returning to Earth" by Jim Harrison (Grove). Entering his own later years, Harrison shaped this moving novel around an active North Woods outdoorsman facing the end of life with a debilitating disease. The man and his family must draw on strength gained by overcoming a tragic past to find a way through their current grief. "A wise, mature and generous book from a master storyteller," said Tim McNulty.

"Tree of Smoke" by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Sprawling, packed with intrigue and lush with colorful characters, this fever dream of Vietnam-era disillusionment, which earned Johnson the 2007 National Book Award, "brilliantly captures how the fog of war creeps into initially gung-ho hearts and minds," said Tyrone Beason.

"Mister Pip" by Lloyd Jones (Dial Press). This novel, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, chronicles how a young girl survives the war that wracks her tropical village by escaping into Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." "Fiction is layered on fiction" as Jones' characters breathe new life into Dickens' characters, and the reader must negotiate "that marginal space where fiction and reality coalesce," said Haley Edwards.

"No one belongs here more than you" by Miranda July (Scribner). Multi-hyphenate Miranda July (actor-director-writer-performance artist-Web provocateur) gets under the reader's skin with this odd, sometimes off-putting, but almost always compelling collection of short stories. "Her worlds feel real and surreal and desperately sad and filled with what one character calls 'secret joy' at the same time," said Mary Brennan.

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"Run" by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins). A spellbinding novel by the author of the luminous "Bel Canto," the story covers 24 hours in the life of a Boston family as a series of startling, accidental events redefines the meaning of family and the power of compassion, generosity and family ties. Reviewer Robin Updike called it "a page-turner in the very best sense."

"Exit Ghost" by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). Reviewer Robert Allen Papinchak said that this work of fiction, the capstone in Roth's Nathan Zuckerman saga, "provides a range of telling experiences and fulfilling characterization."

"The Seventh Well" by Fred Wander, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Norton). A novel of the Holocaust, first published in East Berlin in 1971, written by a man who was a prisoner in 20 different Nazi camps. "In a harrowing, intensely moving narrative, Wander gives back to lost people their voices. Shockingly brutal, profoundly transcendent," said Richard Wallace (reviewed on J7).

"Lions at Lamb House" by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. (Europa Editions). Yoder "breathes life and sparkle into the historical novel — Henry James sparring with and being analyzed by Sigmund Freud, cameo appearances by Edith Wharton and James' brother William, deep but delicate probings in the Master's sexuality. What's not to like?" said David Laskin.

Nonfiction

"The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story" by Diane Ackerman (Norton). The prolific Ackerman's latest book documents the remarkable bravery and ingenuity of a Gentile zookeeper and his wife as they helped hundreds of Jews elude the Nazis. Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett called this "hidden history that reads like transporting fiction ... For all her scholarship and protean knack for seeing through her subjects' eyes, Ackerman is at her best when she writes about the many animals vital to the story."

"(Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions" by Steve Almond (Random House). A collection of essays by "a fine short-story writer who worships Kurt Vonnegut and thinks words still matter," said Mark Lindquist.

"The Walk" by William deBuys (Trinity University Press). New Mexico writer deBuys reminisces on rural life and its generous lessons, which he gleaned from almost 30 years of walking and riding around his small farm 40 miles north of Santa Fe, at almost 8,000-foot elevation in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. "In these days of fast food, fast Internet, fast lanes and fast-paced fluff books ... deBuys and his brave publishers must know he's written something gloriously slow and heartfelt that will attract only a lucky few," said Irene Wanner.

"Island of the Lost" by Joan Druett (Algonquin). New Zealand author Druett tells the story of two shipwrecks on Auckland Island in the same year. In one, the men all survive, and in the other, most of them die. Part of the reason is weather and the circumstances — but much of it is whether the ship's captain assumes responsibility. Bruce Ramsey called it "one of the finest survival stories I've read."

"The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" by David Halberstam (Hyperion). Completed just days before author Halberstam died in a car accident last spring, this tome about the often neglected Korean War provides gripping and epic accounts from the soldiers' perspective. Wrote reviewer David Takami, "What a fitting tribute to those people — and a parting gift to the rest of us — is this, his magisterial, last book."

"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins). Barbara Lloyd McMichael called Kingsolver "rather preachy and self-satisfied, but she argues persuasively for eating locally and organically, and her chapter on turkey sex is howlingly funny."

"The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein (Metropolitan). Reviewer John Freeman said that Klein's authoritative polemic "explores the relationship between shock therapy (either economic or military) and the spread of free-market ideals," as it moves from Katrina's devastation to Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib and Israel in support of the author's thesis.

"Steller's Island: Adventures of a Pioneer Naturalist in Alaska" by Dean Littlepage (Mountaineers Books). Author Littlepage "has written an insightful and fascinating story about the great and little-known naturalist, George Steller," said David B. Williams. "By describing Steller's fateful voyage to the Alaskan coast in 1741, Littlepage brings the science and personalities to life, as well as providing modern insights on both."

"Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal" by Ben Macintyre (Harmony). A superbly told World War II tale of a British criminal who became one of the most successful double agents ever run by the Brits (or anyone else). This gifted author is a master of timing — comic, suspense and otherwise. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"The Thirtymile Fire" by John N. MacLean (Henry Holt). MacLean's painfully vivid account of the deaths of four young Forest Service firefighters in North Central Washington in 2001 is "an unsparing account of the official blunders that led to the tragedy and its continuing legal aftermath," said Bob Simmons.

"Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas" by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher (Doubleday). Clarence Thomas has already changed the face of American society with his U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and he might continue on the court for another 30 years. The two Washington Post reporters who dissect his personal and judicial lives conclude, according to Steve Weinberg, "that Thomas is beset by contradictions and filled with hatred, despite sometimes showing a sunny side when not wearing his black robe."

"Young Stalin" by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf). A revelatory, exhaustively researched biography of Stalin's murky youth and an excellent follow-up to the author's "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," "destined to become the standard work on the subject," said Douglas Smith.

"Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire" by Diana and Michael Preston (Walker & Co.) The Prestons take a look at the "blood, sweat, emotion, expenditure and history behind the world's most famous mausoleum," Bharti Kirchner noted. "This true tale has, at times, the texture of a historical novel."

"Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race" by Richard Rhodes (Knopf). Rhodes won a Pulitzer for writing "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." John Hartl found his latest book an "absorbing account of the fears and ambitions that led to the Cold War buildup of atomic weapons."

"Thomas Hardy" by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Press). A haunting biography of the author of "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "Jude the Obscure," Tomalin's work gets under the skin of this gifted author and poet, dissecting his class conflicts, his mordant pessimism, his lyrical soul and his haunted love life. How master biographer Tomalin accomplishes this with the life of someone who was born more than 150 years ago ... I'll never know. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"The Nine" by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday). This modern history of the Supreme Court, written by a New Yorker contributor and CNN legal analyst, recounts the latest confirmation battles and the ascendant power of recent conservative appointments to the Court. Kevin J. Hamilton called this book a "fascinating inside look at the most secretive branch of government" that was "impossible to put down."

"About Alice" by Calvin Trillin (Random House). Adam Woog felt that "this slim memoir about the veteran New Yorker writer's wife — who guest-starred in much of his best work, served as his beloved muse for decades, and died in 2001 — is bittersweet and deeply moving."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@ seattletimes.com.

She is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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