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The Best Books of 2000

The Best Fiction Of 2000

December 03, 2000

Editor's Note: This year, the Los Angeles Times considered more than 1,200 books. Of these, our contributors reserved their highest praise for 106 novels and short story collections, 26 children's books and 113 works of nonfiction. Their original reviews have been edited and condensed for reasons of space.

ACTS OF MUTINY

By Derek Beaven

Picador USA: 280 pp., $24

Derek Beaven's debut novel, "Newton's Niece," won a Commonwealth Prize when it was published in Britain in 1994. Beaven's second novel, "Acts of Mutiny," which was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize, is his American debut, and it's an ambitious, relentlessly ominous and, at times, wonderfully satisfying account of a sea voyage from England to Australia in 1959. The Cold War is in full bloom, the empire is on the wane and mutinous acts of the heart, soul and body politic abound. Into this stormy historical moment sail young Ralph (who tells this story from the untrustworthy vantage of middle age) and his mother, Erica, an impressionable military wife who has taken a womanizing American naval officer named Dave Chaunteyman as her lover. Beaven's bracing tale of moral, political and emotional seasickness is an illuminating travelogue of the treacherous point at which the modern world truly became modern.

ACTUAL INNOCENCE

By Barry Siegel

Ballantine: 280 pp., $24.95

It has been said that Westerns and crime fiction have much in common: tough, taciturn, sentimental and persistent protagonists; a concern with justice, professional and personal honor; and the portrayal of the law in upholding or subverting these. Barry Siegel's novel of legal suspense features all of these: a gory and well-deserved murder, a deft and guileless fall-gal, a corrupt and twisted sheriff, a bucolic community menaced by evil and polluting money forces and an unflinching lawyer waging his (almost) solitary campaign for the life of an innocent condemned to die, for the welfare of the township and for the souls of professional colleagues and other participants.

ALICE FALLING

by William Wall

W.W. Norton: 200 pp., $23.95

William Wall is an Irish poet whose novel is lyrical in the best way: It's evocative and open-ended; it creates intense atmosphere with a light touch; and it's laser-like in its dissection of human frailties. It can also be almost unbearably brutal in its portrayal of two couples who have reached the Sargasso Sea of middle age, where conflicting currents of power, pain and the past stifle all hope and threaten to take down the friends and lovers who flounder around them. Alice is the long-suffering wife of Paddy Lynch, a take-no-prisoners type who owns a software firm called, tellingly enough, Micro Solutions: "His belief was in binary codes, the esoteric world of noughts and ones where every choice is simple and every event is a switch that is either on or off." Their best friends are Mick Delany, a former champion hurler who's now an insurance man, and his wife, Nora, a former free spirit who's now drowning in anti-depressants and who might be secretly in love with Paddy. While Alice, whose not-so-buried memories of abuse at the hands of a parish priest form the book's roiling core, steals off with a Kierkegaard-obsessed undergraduate, Wall allows us to realize that Paddy is more than just a soulless jerk: He's conducting a vicious and violent affair of his own. As the betrayals mount, Alice too becomes increasingly dangerous (as only a trapped creature can be), making "Alice Falling," in the end, an exceedingly bitter pill--sleek, unsugared and determined to devastate.

ALTAR MUSIC

By Christin Lore Weber

Scribner: 252 pp., $23

Christin Lore Weber is a former nun who has written books on Catholic spirituality, including a feminist meditation on the Rosary. Her first novel is a quiet revelation, charting the paths of several women whose lives intersect with the church, with music and with one another. In remote northern Minnesota, a girl named Elise is born in 1940 to Kate and Michael Pearson. In flashback chapters--each one introduced by a lyrical passage from the music notebooks of one Sister Mary of the Holy Cross--we learn about Kate and Michael's early passion, which Kate's guilt squelches; about Kate's emotional frigidity, which began when a fatal fire claimed her father, baby brother and beloved piano; Kate's mother's lifelong relationship with a kindly parish priest; and Michael's disfiguring war wound. Weber illuminates the shadowy side of convent life, where sacrifice and motherly love can be taken too far and where good intentions can mask the darkest impulses. Weber, thank God, isn't interested in the banal sexualizing of Catholic imagery a la Madonna or Abel Ferrara; instead, she has created a delicate and compassionate tone poem about the dangerous entanglement of religion, aesthetics and desire.

ANIL'S GHOST

By Michael Ondaatje

Alfred A. Knopf: 300 pp., $25

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