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The year in books: 'Prince' rules, Oprah returns

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In the world of books, 2005 was a slightly more civil year than the past several, filled with lower-decibel screeds and not so many references --- at least in titles --- to lies (liberal or otherwise), crooked leaders (conservative or otherwise) and big, fat, stupid people in general.

This was the year that Ashley Smith became an "Unlikely Angel," Deep Throat came out, Jane Fonda apologized and Oprah Winfrey reclaimed her role as supreme determiner of publishing success on this planet.

U.S. soldiers wrote gritty, eloquent reports from the war in Iraq; a disgraced major-leaguer exposed baseball's nasty steroid habit; and radio talkmeister Neal Boortz, along with Congressman John Linder, rewrote the nation's tax code. Former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller lamented the country's "Deficit of Decency," while Jimmy Carter warned of "Our Endangered Values."

Yes, this year Anne Rice gave up vampires for Jesus, and the locally owned bookstore chain of Chapter 11 filed for, you guessed it, Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Before one year slips into the next, let's revisit some of the books to remember from 2005.

> Most anticipated: J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"; Ian McEwan's "Saturday"; Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"; Michael Cunningham's "Specimen Days"; and, more than a decade after the blockbuster "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," John Berendt's "The City of Falling Angels."

> Most overhyped: See above. In the end, none could possibly live up to the hype.

> Splashiest debut: Publisher Little, Brown spent half a million dollars launching "The Historian," a sprawling historical novel about vampires by Elizabeth Kostova. The investment --- unprecedented for a first novel by an unknown author --- worked: The 640-page novel spent four months on bestseller lists.

> Biggest disappointment: John Irving's 11th novel, "Until I Find You," was rambling, self-indulgent and 824 pages long. (The ending's terrific, if you can hang on that long.)

> Biggest comeback: Zadie Smith, for returning to the genius form of 2000's "White Teeth" with her new novel, "On Beauty." Also, Truman Capote, who died in 1984, was back on the best-seller list with his masterpiece, "In Cold Blood." In addition, Random House published his recently rediscovered first novel, "Summer Crossing," written when Capote was 19.

> Nicest surprises: "Widow of the South," Robert Hicks' debut novel of the Civil War; "Indecision," a funny, seriously hip novel by Benjamin Kunkel; and "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld, which Publishers Weekly described beautifully as " 'A Separate Peace' meets 'Mean Girls' meets bestseller lists."

> Best titles: Though unprintable in a family newspaper, two titles seemed to really tap into the zeitgeist --- Harry G. Frankfurt's "On Bull----" and Laura Penny's "Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bull----."

> Best timing: "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big" by Jose Canseco; "The Republican War on Science" by Chris Mooney; and "Using Terri: The Religious Right's Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights" by Jon Eisenberg. Honorable mention: Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go," a novel about what happens when science leaves ethics in the dust.

> Worst timing: Chris Cleave's debut novel "Incendiary," about terrorist bombings in London, went on sale just as terrorists' bombs started exploding in London. Written as a grieving mother's letter to Osama bin Laden, the book is worth revisiting.

> Most memorable memoirs: Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking"; J.R. Moehringer's "The Tender Bar"; Neil Strauss' "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists"; Sean Wilsey's "Oh the Glory of It All"; Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle"; Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man"; and Carole Radziwill's "What Remains."

> Biggest yuck factor: Who's reading these books? "Witness for the Prosecution of Scott Peterson" by Amber Frey; "Blood Brother: 33 Reasons My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty" by Anne Bird; "Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation" by Catherine Crier with Cole Thompson; "Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson" by Keith Ablow; and "Presumed Guilty: What the Jury Never Knew About Laci Peterson's Murder and Why Scott Peterson Should Not Be on Death Row" by Matt Dalton with Bonnie Hearn Hill.

> Best blog-to-book: Julie Powell's year of mastering the art of Julia Child, "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen."

> Best news from the front: "The Assassins' Gate" by George Packer; "My War: Killing Time in Iraq" by Colby Buzzell; "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer" by Nathaniel Fick; "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army" by Kayla Williams; and "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq" by John Crawford.

> Best fiction from the big guns: E.L. Doctorow's "The March," an extraordinary take on the Civil War; Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown," a parable of culture clash; and Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana," a magnificently illustrated novel about an aging bookseller who loses his memory.

> And the biggest gun of all: Apparently done sulking about Jonathan Franzen's snub in 2001, Oprah Winfrey re-entered the realm of the living this year, picking James Frey's druggie memoir "A Million Little Pieces" for her revived book club. That's all it took to boost sales from 1,500 in October to 10,500 in November.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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