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Originally published Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Our critic's top ten fiction books of 2008

One critic's best-fiction-of-2008 choices include newcomers (Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga, National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner) and veteran writers (Steven Millhauser, Tim Parks and Joan Silber).

Seattle Times book critic

Publishers are facing major trouble in these shaky economic times — and that could mean they'll be taking fewer risks in the coming year, especially with fiction. So here's a shout-out at eight novels and two story collections from 2008 that followed unexpected paths with rigor and invention. Let's hope some titles as good as these slip their way into bookstores in 2009.

"The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga (Free Press). The dark-horse winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize is a Horatio Alger story of sorts — if one of Alger's society-climbing heroes made his smartest move by slitting the throat of his kindly employer. Result: satire as sharp as it gets that also evinces deep concerns about inequality and instability in India.

"Peace" by Richard Bausch (Knopf). A short, perfect novel about three American soldiers on a reconnaissance mission in World War II Italy. Led by a local guide of uncertain loyalties, the men undergo inward dislocations, especially as their "real" lives at home grow ever less credible to them. Bausch's narrative moves like a cat on the prowl: supple and strong, without an ounce of energy wasted.

"The China Lover" by Ian Buruma (Penguin Press). Three very different narrators cast strikingly different lights on legendary Japanese/Chinese singer-actress Ri Koran (better known in the U.S. as Shirley Yamaguchi). From the mutable contradictions of Yamaguchi's life, Buruma constructs a kaleidoscope through which to see a giant swathe of 20th-century history.

"The Expeditions" by Karl Iagnemma (Dial). This first novel by the much-praised short-story writer ("On the Nature of Human Interaction") evokes 1844 Detroit and Michigan on a symphonic scale as it follows two merging narratives: one about a teenage runaway, the other about his ailing widower father. Result: a novel of ideas that's also an outdoor adventure story and comedy of fraud and errors.

"Telex from Cuba" by Rachel Kushner (Scribner). A debut novel about American corporate families in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, just when the Castro brothers were making things interesting there. The period detail is terrific, and the characters — stiff-necked American bosses, their fluttery wives and wide-eyed offspring — are finely drawn. A National Book Award finalist.

"The End of the World Book" by Alistair McCartney (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press). This autobiographical debut by a gay Australian author is — like the island continent's duck-billed platypus — entirely its own creature. In 26 chapters (one for each letter of the alphabet), McCartney addresses a wild array of topics. His order-obsessed imaginative flights mix conversational whimsy with faux-documentarian authority, to delightful effect.

"Dangerous Laughter" by Steven Millhauser (Knopf). The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Martin Dressler" outdoes himself with a collection of 13 tales that use bright, homespun Americana as a springboard into the cosmic and surreal. Millhauser delivers his caprices in a prose of such melodic wit and finesse that it's more akin to musicmaking than storytelling.

"Cleaver" by Tim Parks (Arcade). Parks ("Europa") is at his caustic best in this novel about a TV journalist who holes up in the Alps after a "memorably hostile interview" with an American president — and after his son publishes a tell-all "novel" lambasting his dad's character. Parks offers a perfect portrait of monkey-mind compulsiveness wrecking all hopes of inward serenity.

"The Size of the World" by Joan Silber (Norton). Silber assembles six far-flung narratives that explore "the elusive connection between place and happiness." Wartime Vietnam, Mussolini's Italy, 1920s Thailand and other locales figure in the action. Silber's hallmarks: clarity, subtlety and a highly agile take on the world.

"Lucky Billy" by John Vernon (Houghton Mifflin). Vernon ("The Last Canyon") is one of our best writers of historical fiction, and in this novel about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War of 1878 he's in great form. Dropping his readers into anarchic Wild West surroundings, he casts fresh, disorienting light on a figure and an era lost in the haze of legend.

NOTE: This will be one of my last columns as Seattle Times book critic. Due to changes at the newspaper, I'm moving to a more general arts beat. I plan still to weigh in on books now and then, but it won't be with the intensity of the past 10 years. (Make that 22, if you count my freelance efforts.) It has been a great pleasure and privilege to discover new authors and rediscover old ones. I hope I've led readers to some worthy and memorable books in the past two decades.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998

and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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