Editor's Note: This year, The Times reviewed more than 700 books. Here, in the judgment of our contributors, are the best fiction, poetry and children's books of 1998. Culled from the original reviews, their notices have been edited and condensed for reasons of space.
Next week: The best nonfiction of 1998, including memoirs, biography, politics, history, economics and science.
A SONG OF STONE; By Iain Banks; Simon and Schuster: 280 pp., $23
Iain Banks writes with rich tactile detail and dark suspense, borne upon an undercurrent of revulsion. The revulsion issues from the corrupt voice of Abel, his narrator. It grips us insistently and too close; it breathes a perfumed rottenness in our face; it employs unabashed confession as an ultimate smoke screen. Banks uses this smoke to trace out his novel's theme: the perduring evil that underlies all history and histories. "A Song of Stone" is powerfully written and fiercely provocative. Banks, a Jeremiah of our Western civilization, refuses to spare the past, the present or the future. For this novel, incarnation is no miracle but a curse. The vision is bleak and narrow, but it is impressive.
-- RICHARD EDER
T.C. BOYLE STORIES: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle; By T. Coraghessan Boyle; Viking: 694 pp., $35
The author of "Riven Rock," "The Road to Wellville," "The Tortilla Curtain" and five other novels, T.C. Boyle finds the intense, rapid-moving spotlight of the short story especially suited to his brigand's play with language. Ironist and adventurer among the potholes and pratfalls of the American language--how we utter, mangle and stretch it--Boyle doesn't quite deserve the title of philosopher king or teeth-clenching prophet. Not every yarn-spinner needs to be the philosopher king of an epoch. But when the spinner of yarns is as adept at composing his tapestry as Boyle, he is a source of philosophy in others and, yes, he can call himself Maestro.
-- HERBERT GOLD
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE; By Barbara Kingsolver; HarperCollins: 544 pp., $27.50
The rape of undeveloped countries, the exploitation of primitive peoples, the destruction of ancient traditions--these are themes usually attacked with the zeal of the newly converted. Barbara Kingsolver has written on social justice before, but she is no less fervent for it. In this powerful new epic, she addresses these issues through the more minute concerns of an American family caught in the social and political upheavals of the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. Leaving the familiar Southwestern terrain of novels like "The Bean Trees" and "Pigs in Heaven," Kingsolver paints the modern history of Africa with a broad brush while ensuring that individual lives pop out like hardened bumps on the palimpsest. Whether one is converted by the testimonials given in "The Poisonwood Bible" or indeed enticed by Kingsolver's thoughtful evocation of a turbulent paradise, the degree of her achievement is unarguable. She has with infinitely steady hands worked the prickly threads of religion, politics, race, sin and redemption into a thing of terrible beauty.
-- PHYLLIS RICHARDSON
THE TATTOOED SOLDIER By Hector Tobar; Delphinium Books: 308 pp., $23
This fine novel is about fate and consequences. Using flashbacks, the author creates a steadily escalating confrontation between two Guatemalans who meet in Los Angeles at a dramatic moment of life or death. The hero is Antonio Antonio, once a student in Guatemala City and now homeless and unemployed in Los Angeles. The antagonist is retired Sgt. Guillermo Longaria, a soldier who killed Antonio's wife and child in a death-squad operation in Guatemala and now spends his days in an apartment on Bonnie Brae Street, studying mind control and playing chess. Hector Tobar, a Los Angeles Times reporter who came from Guatemala as a small child, has a fine storyteller's instinct. As the author moves his characters toward the climax with the skill of a chess master, he also includes deeper commentaries on urban pathologies. "The Tattooed Soldier" is especially remarkable for the invisible world Tobar has so skillfully illuminated. Who realizes that there are 5,000 dispossessed Kanjobal-speaking Mayans in Pico-Union and South-Central who live, in Tobar's description, in a canyon of brick tenements where not a single shaft of their corn can grow?
-- TOM HAYDEN
MY HEART LAID BARE; By Joyce Carol Oates; Dutton: 544 pp., $24.95