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Best reviewed books of the year - and a clarification

You'll notice most of these books are fiction; it's not that we don't like nonfic here at the Herald. It's just that due to our budget, we are limited to using reviews from our wire services. This is why you'll note a few Washington Post reviews here, an L.A. Times review there. You can count on the Post to review all the big nonfiction books, and the majority of the reviewers who write for me prefer to review fiction. This list just includes Herald-reviewed books.

In no particular order:

Earth Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri: Readers who thought Lahiri couldn't top the haunting stories of her Pulitzer-Prize winning Interpreter of Maladies or her novel The Namesake were mistaken. The eight stories in this gorgeous, devastating collection return to familiar and fertile ground: Bengali families ''typical and terrifying'' and their ongoing generational battles in their new American homeland.

America, America, Ethan Canin: Canin's riveting political novel, set in the 1970s, arrived at the perfect time -- just before an historic presidential election. A pointed lesson on hubris and a timeless meditation on fate and self-determination, it follows the immersion of a working-class teenager into the halls of money, power and deception.

The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb: Lamb (She'sCome Undone, I Know This Much Is True) leaves no trauma untouched in his audacious family drama, assaulting us with infidelity, estrangement, violence, death, war, natural disasters and dead babies. But the beauty of this soaring novel, as amazingly graceful as the classic hymn that provides the title, is that Lamb never loses sight of the spark of human resilience.

A Mercy, Toni Morrison: This companion (of sorts) to the Nobel laureate's Beloved is set in the waning days of the 17th century, when a slave offers up her daughter to a humane farmer as debt payment from their owner. Morrison's narrator -- one of many -- tells us, ''Don't be afraid.'' You won't be afraid; you'll be mesmerized.

The Boat, Nam Le. This memorable debut collection, which features seven powerful stories, is harsh and wrenching and yet not without hope. Le brings to life an assortment of characters -- a drug assassin in Cartagena, an aging New York painter, an American woman visiting a radical friend in Tehran -- and never loses his way.

Price Lush Life, Richard Price: The author of Clockers extends his savvy understanding of the hard-luck streets -- particularly those inhabited by cops, victims and predators -- to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where gentrification clashes uncomfortably with poverty, and race means more than most people care to admit. Detective Matty Clark -- overworked and divorced with a developing drinking problem -- investigates a young man's murder, but what's really on trial here is the fickle nature of our culture.

The Forever War, Dexter Filkins: The New York Times (and former Miami Herald) reporter covered the Iraq War from 2003 until 2006, and his episodic account describes the surreal and tragic consequences of the Bush administration's misadventure with understated empathy and novelistic brio.

The House on Fortune Street, Margot Livesey: This compassionate, resonant novel centers on two young women in London and their romantic and familial entanglements. But Livesey has her unerring narrative eye on bigger things: for example, why we do the things we do, even when we know we shouldn't.

Year The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski: A suspenseful coming-of-age story, Wroblewski's debut novel -- lauded by Oprah and a steady presence on the bestseller list -- is a retelling of Hamlet that focuses on an unusual relationship between dogs and people, minus the usual quirks that plague books in this genre. And for all its length, it deftly explores the limits of words.

One More Year, Sana Krasikov: The protagonists in the eight searing stories in this debut collection are mostly Eastern European women, bruised by life but struggling to understand what tripped them up. Krasikov's debut is as impressive as Junot Diaz's Drown and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies -- and we all know how well things worked out for those authors.

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eileen

hey, next time you talk to wally lamb, can you ask why all his books are named after songs? unless you already asked...

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