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The books most likely to keep you turning their pages.

1999 Critics Choice: The Year in Words

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Style doesn't plan to compete with the National Book Awards and other prestigious prizes. And it's impossible to imagine that anyone needs to be tld of the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series this year. But 1999 saw the publication of a profusion of books that are worth noting and which, if you haven't read them, you might enjoy. Some of them, like "Plainsong," got a lot of notice; others didn't get the play they deserved. We asked our reviewers and a few of our inveterate reader friends to help us with the following list. Here are their picks for the year's best books:

Fiction

"Amy and Isabel" by Elizabeth Strout, (Random House, $22.95) — This book is about the difficulties inherent in the mother/daughter relationship. It includes some shocking violence but tells much truth about family.

"Jem (and Sam)" by Ferdinand Mount, editor of the Times Literary Supplement (Carroll & Graf, $25.95) — A lively first-person story of the ups and downs of Restoration England. Famous people — Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys — appear, as do a host of fictional characters. Plague, war, and the Great Fire of London are all involved.

"Look Back All the Green Valley" by Fred Chappell (Picador, $24) — The fourth and final book in the excellent series about the Kirkman family in Western North Carolina.

"Meeting Luciano" by Anna Esaki-Smith (Algonquin Books $18.95) — A pleasant, well-written novel of two Japanese-American women trying to find a place in their world. The elder is convinced that Luciano Pavarotti will come to visit.

"The Night Inspector" by Frederick Busch (Harmony, $23) — The 22nd book by this author tells the story of a maimed veteran of the Civil War who falls in with a customs inspector named Herman Melville — a lively picture of New York in the late 19th century.

"30: Pieces of a Novel" by Stephen Dixon (Holt $30) — The prolific fiction writer Stephen Dixon gives us the remarkable life and mind of Gould Bookbinder, with 30 linked recollections, in this novel. Gould is aptly described by the publisher as "an Everyman for the end of the millennium, a good man trying to live an honest life without compromise and without losing his mind."

"Plainsong" by Kent Haruf (Knopf, $24) — A story of love and redemption in a small town, written in a simple style, but far from simple in its outlook.

"Snow Man" by Carolyn Chute (Harcourt Brace, $23) — Dedicated to (among others) "all revolutionaries — past, present and future," Carolyn Chute's fourth novel is a kind of thriller involving terrorists, a militia from Maine and the FBI.

"Still Waters in Niger" by Kathleen Hill (Triquarterly Books, $24.95) — A mother visits her daughter in Niger where the family lived years ago. The descriptive writing is wonderful, and it gently and poignantly reveals that mothers and daughters are the same everywhere.

"The Story of a Million Years" by David Huddle (Houghton Mifflin, $23) — An impressive debut in the novel form by a fine short story writer.

Short Story Collections

"Doors" by William Hoffman (Univ. of Missouri Press, $17.95) — One of America's most distinguished story writers over many years, a Virginian from Charlotte Court House, William Hoffman writes about Virginia's tobacco country in these 10 stories marked by depth of characterization and a powerful sense of place.

"How Animals Mate" by Dan Mueller (Overlook Press $23.95) — Selected for the new Sewanee Writers' Series by veterans John Casey, Alice McDermott and Francine Prose, Dan Mueller's first book is a collection of eight stories published in literary magazines as well as in Playboy and a number of anthologies. Mueller studied creative writing at Hollins College and at the University of Virginia.

"My People's Waltz" by Dale Ray Phillips (Norton, $22.95) — A series of 10 linked stories following the adventures of the narrator, Richard, traveling in our time from North Carolina to Arkansas and Texas and back. Phillips lists his three mentors as Doris Betts, Fred Chappell and Jim Whitehead.

"Seven for the Apocalypse" by Kit Reed,(Wesleyan Univ. Press, $16.95, paper) — Kit Reed's sixth collection of stories, this one bringing together a novella and seven stories which may be described as metaphysical science-fiction.

"Someone to Watch Over Me" by Richard Bausch (Harper Flamingo, $24) — Richard Bausch collects 12 stories in this anthology of forms and subjects confirming his reputation earned in four previous collections. Some of these appeared in places like The New Yorker, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly and Playboy, as well as prize anthologies.

Non-Fiction

"American Beach" by Russ Rymer (Harper Collins $25 )— A beautifully written, sophisticated study of several African-American communities facing extinction from aggressive economic development. The story speaks to the importance of preserving culture, history and memory.

"The American Century Cookbook" by Jean Anderson, (Clarkson Potter, $35) — This comprehensive survey of American cooking covers everything from the origins of the gelatin mold to Buffalo wings. Even if this book's 500-plus recipes don't prompt you to get cooking, it's an entertaining and informative, if not mouth-watering, read.

"Best Shots: The Greatest NFL Photography of the Century" foreword by Joe Namath (DK, $30) — This book captures all the grit and grace of the gridiron. Wonderful pictures for the devoted fan.

"Crazy Horse" by Larry McMurtry (Viking, $19.95) — One of the Penguin series of small biographies; in this one McMurtry tells the story of one of the tragic figures in the history of our West.

"Ethel & Ernest" by Raymond Briggs (Knopf, $21) — In the form of a comic book Briggs tell the story of his parents and the British history they lived through. It is charming to read about parents who are truly cherished by their child.

"The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" by Joe McGinnis (Little Brown, $24) — McGinnis spends a year with an against-all-odds Cinderella-story soccer team from the remote hills of Italy. Great soccer scenes, fantastic characters, tension, tragedy, the whole nine yards.

"Wooden Churches: A Celebration" with an introduction by Rick Bragg (Algonquin, $18.95). Reading Rick Bragg is like looking through an especially clear window at a world that we thought we knew before. He tells us that wooden churches are generally square "because God doesn't need a lot of twists and turns and funny angles in His house. Only city people think a church has to be an architectural wonder." The pictures in this volume are evocative and remind us of a time long

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