By Jane Henderson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

No single person can read the thousands of new books every year — let alone pick 10 best. Luckily, there are helpers who, like Santa’s elves, divvy up the work. Don’t hesitate to ask the Big Elf for novels, poetry or whatever you’d like this holiday season.

We don’t know why, but several fascinating novels seemed to take place outside of cities and deep inside dark woods.

Daniel Woodrell’s first collection of short stories, “The Outlaw Album” (Little, Brown), is a stunner. Woodrell has the rare ability to tell compelling stories rooted in familiar soil that are simultaneously simple and complex, local and universal, funny and tragic.

Another riveting book set in the Ozarks is University of Missouri-St. Louis professor John Dalton’s second novel, “The Inverted Forest” (Scribner). Dalton daringly sets his unusual, low-key story in a summer camp for mentally disabled adults.

In the superb “You Believers” (Unbridled Books), Jane Bradley explores a mother’s search for her missing daughter.

Horror writer Stephen King outdid many literary writers with his brilliant alternative history, “11/22/63” (Scribner), which explores what would happen if a man could go back in time and stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday) takes readers inside a circus without a seedy side — full of magic, moonlight and romance between two competing magicians.

One of the most popular history books this year is “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson (Crown). An account of the first year of William Dodd’s ambassadorship in Nazi Germany (1933-34) and a tale of his daughter Martha’s coming of age in Berlin, it offers something for both serious students of the 1930s and for lovers of charming stories.

Against all odds, writer Simon Garfield makes type fonts sound fascinating in “Just My Type” (Gotham Books). If you liked “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” back in 2003, you’ll like “Just My Type.”

Maureen Stanton also makes the common uncommonly interesting with her look into flea-market America in “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money” (Penguin Press).

“Catherine the Great” by Robert Massie (574 pages, Random House, $35) is a logical successor to Massie’s biography of Peter the Great, as the author seems to be working his way through the Romanov rulers of Russia, not all of whom were so great. In Catherine’s case, the transformation of a nervous, relatively poor German girl into a confident, imperious empress was the marvel of the 18th century.

“The Wizard of Lies” by Diana Henriques (Henry Holt) tells the fascinating story of the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff, crook extraordinary. The sums that he stole through what now seems rather transparent fraud are unequaled in our time.

The mercurial genius behind Apple died this fall, and, soon after, Walter Isaacson’s intriguing “Steve Jobs” (Simon & Schuster) made it to the top of best-seller lists.

Readers enjoyed a bumper crop of crime thrillers. One of the best was “Damage” (Dutton), in which author John Lescroat takes a challenging approach. Right away, he identifies the bad guy in a series of San Francisco killings. Even so, Lescroat holds readers fast for almost 400 pages.

In “The Collaborator” (Overlook), Briton Gerald Seymour mixes the Mafia and deadly toxic waste. In this book, his characters rise to a level of literature that goes far above the genre.

Michael Connelly may be the best thriller writer we have. He shows why in “The Fifth Witness” (Little, Brown). It’s a dandy courtroom drama starring Connelly’s ethically challenged Lincoln lawyer, Mickey Haller.

While the summertime shuttering of Borders might have given readers a sense that books are in diminuendo, American poets chorused powerfully for one of their best years. Rae Armantrout’s static feedback, often fragmentary and playful, (“Give a meme/a hair-do”), belies an underlying peacefulness of contemplation: “It’s well/that things should stir/inconsequentially/around me.” “Money Shot” (Wesleyan) is a fine followup to Armantrout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Versed.”

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