[DWJ] Best Books of 2006

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Wed Dec 27 14:16:23 EST 2006

Since I've established that I'm not going to read anything world-shattering
in the next few days (unless _Sharpe's Waterloo_ ends differently than I
think it will) I've put together my annual list of the best and worst books
I've read in the past year.  As always, the audience at home is invited to
play along, since talking about books is always more fun when more than one
person is doing the talking.

*Best Book 2006:  _The Gate of Gods_, Martha Wells

This may possibly have been improved by re-reading the first two books, but
I don't know--this was great in itself and a fantastic ending to the
trilogy.  When I finished it, I spent the next day dipping into it at random
to re-read bits or going back over the sweet, sweet ending a couple dozen
times.  It made me happy.  I don't know what else to say.

Other great books I read this year:
_Jpod_, Douglas Coupland.  It's Douglas Coupland.  Not much else to say, is
there?  The first I heard of it was from Robyn on this list--many thanks.

_The Ropemaker_, Peter Dickinson.  That's right, I only just read this for
the first time this year.  Big hahaha on me.  I had it in my head that I
didn't like Dickinson, but this was a recommendation for the library I work
for, and I felt duty-bound to read it before approving it for purchase.  I
sure felt stupid at not having read it before.

_A Northern Light_, Jennifer Donnelly.  Also recommended for the library,
probably from the NY Public Library top 100.  Wow.  It's centered on the
same murder as Theodore Dreiser's _An American Tragedy_, but the story is
mostly about a young woman with literary aspirations growing up in a family
and a town that sees no value in them.  Beautiful.

_Od Magic_, Patricia A. McKillip.  One more example of how McKillip hasn't
really lost her touch, despite some stylistically beautiful novels that
struck me as rather shallow storytelling.

_Three Days to Never_, Tim Powers.  Again, Tim Powers, not much left to say.
I like how thoroughly immersed his stories are in the era they're set in.
I've just re-read _The Anubis Gates_ and it's interesting to see how his
concept of time travel has evolved while still being fundamentally the same.
And, as always, Powers gives us connections between totally unconnected
historical figures or events that make perfect sense.

_Old Man's War_, John Scalzi.  In this case, the comparison to Heinlein
stretches the truth less than usual.  There's also a similarity to Kage
Baker's immortal cyborgs, in that you have a cadre of physically altered
supermen-fighters working on behalf of people who do not appreciate them
fully and are a little afraid of them.  I enjoyed the story as much as the
world it was set in. 

_Saving Fish from Drowning_, Amy Tan.  A story told by a ghost about people
who disappear...quite a departure from Tan's usual mother-daughter
narratives.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and
surprisingly Tan manages to give each of them life and avoid simple
caricature.  The ending surprised me.  The tone of the novel led me to
expect something very different.  I enjoyed this one a lot.

_God's Executioner_, Roger Terry.  This is a story about a man who kills
someone because God told him to, and who freely confesses his guilt, told as
a courtroom drama by the man's reluctant lawyer.  But it's absolutely not as
simplistic as it sounds.  I totally expected this to be an apologia for
religion, and it's not.  It's extraordinary.  Terry first caught my
attention by managing a first person present tense narrative like an expert.
Usually that's just a gimmick, but this worked very well with the kind of
person the main character was.  The murderer is a nice guy with a great
family that you expect to have all these dark secrets, and even though they
don't, you never can tell if he's nuts or not.  Add to this a wonderful
supporting cast and an ending I really didn't see coming, and it turns into
a unique and excellent book.

*Best First Novel:  _Elantris_, Brandon Sanderson

I put off reading this for a long time because, well, it's a really fat
fantasy novel, and a first novel, and I thought it would be correspondingly
dull and Tolkienesque.  It was so nice to be wrong.  _Elantris_ has its
share of flaws, as most first novels do, but Sanderson's skill at handling
politics and magic indicate a great deal of promise for future novels. (Even
though I haven't read _Mistborn_ because, you know, it's a really fat
fantasy novel....)

*Best New Series:  Bloody Jack, L.A. Meyer

A "new series," in this context, means a series I discovered for the first
time this year, not one that began this year.  This is the story of an
orphan girl named Mary in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century England, who takes
a chance on bettering her life by pretending to be a boy named Jack and
joining the crew of a sailing ship.  It's a wide-ranging adventure series,
with Jacky always in the center of whatever trouble there is and always
coming up victorious.  The author's mention of other fictional ships (Jack
Aubrey's Surprise, Ahab's Pequod) is always brief enough to be funny rather
than tedious.  While the second book, in which Jacky is stuck ashore at a
young ladies' school, is less exciting than the rest--Meyer's interest in
sailing ships makes those episodes come alive--the series as a whole is a
wonderfully exciting, outrageous yarn.

The series so far (and I really hope the fourth book isn't the last, because
I haven't read it yet, but even so...)
_Bloody Jack_
_The Curse of the Blue Tattoo_
_Under the Jolly Roger_
_In the Belly of the Bloodhound_

*Most Anticipated Book of 2006:  _The Pinhoe Egg_, Diana Wynne Jones


I have to repeat my thanks to Otter, who loaned me her copy when mine took
so very long to arrive.  I was one of those who enjoyed _The Pinhoe Egg_
more than _Conrad's Fate_--probably more than any of the recent ones,
really.  I'm not a big Chrestomanci fan (though _The Lives of Christopher
Chant_ is at the top of my DWJ-fave list) so I think that enjoying this more
than I expected to made it seem even better.  Still, I can't really say why
I liked this better than _Conrad_.  Eventually I'll re-read them both and
figure it out.

*Best Guilty Pleasure:  _Enchanted, Inc._, Shanna Swendson

A guilty pleasure, to me, is a book I'm embarrassed to admit to liking,
usually because I'd normally deride it as crap literature.  Every woman in
my gaming group read this book, as well as my mother-in-law, and I was
curious.  It's adorable.  Seriously flawed, but adorable.  It reads like a
good first draft that needs an editor, and you'd think that would be worthy
of scorn in itself, but there's so much potential there that it's hard to
remember that it *isn't* a draft and it *did* already get published.  It
felt like--I don't know--like someone had brought me their first book and
was eagerly waiting for my reaction, and I was pleasantly surprised that it
was as good as it was.  Something like that.  I'm afraid the sequel won't be
as good. 

*Biggest Disappointment:  _Birth of the Firebringer_, Meredith Ann Pierce

This isn't a bad book; it's just not what I was hoping for from Pierce.  You
change as a reader, over time, and books you loved once become dull, and
books you couldn't quite get into become beloved friends.  I think I've
passed the point where I can appreciate a young male's coming of age,
especially if the young male starts out brash and obnoxious.  I had a hint
of this the last time I read the Prydain books, but I didn't quite want to
believe it.  No matter how often this happens to me, it's still sad.

*Best Recommendation:  _Fablehaven_, Brandon Mull

I think this was recommended by the same person who told me _Elantris_ was
good.  Or maybe she said her daughter liked it.  I would probably have had
to read this anyway for the awards I judge.  But I would have resented it.
Mormon publishers have been trying to create "Mormon" versions of successful
publishing trends:  Jan Karon's Mitford series, for example, and of course
Harry Potter.  So I'm suspicious of LDS young adult fantasy.  Often it
sacrifices good, dynamic art for a "safe," non-challenging story.  But
_Fablehaven_ is thankfully not one of those.  In flipping through it (first
step in deciding if something is total crap) I saw some encouraging
signs--clever dialogue, interesting narrative voice--and decided to read at
least the first chapter.  Then I annoyed my husband by quoting bits from the
first three pages while he was reading something else.  You'd think he
didn't know this was an occupational hazard of being married to me.

The worst I can say of _Fablehaven_ is that the main character's younger
brother is seriously annoying.  Not just little-kid annoying; we're talking
deliberately-touching-the-big-red-button-that-says-Certain-Doom annoying.
There's some evidence that he reforms a little, and as this is the first
book in a series I have hope for him.  Mull's pacing is also a little off in
certain places, particularly when he's built up a strong moment of suspense
and then lets it drain away while the plot progresses.  But the characters
are interesting and I'm really impressed by some of the choices Mull makes
in sacrificing and altering them.  One character in particular experiences a
profound and unalterable change, and in discussing this with a group of
(non-fantasy-reading) ladies, I had a hard time convincing them that no,
this character wasn't coming back.  That it would have made the story so
much weaker if the consequences of magic could be easily reversed.  (But one
of these ladies came up with an amazing Garden of Eden allegory for the
story that blew me away.  This is the woman who swore she didn't "get"
symbolism.)  I'm looking forward to the next volume in the series.

*Strangest Reading Experience:  _Cryptonomicon_, Neal Stephenson

I think I've told this story before:  I was in the middle of a very
enjoyable book, and my mind was wandering--sometimes this happens, even when
I'm reading something I enjoy.  And my mind began thinking about
_Cryptonomicon_.  Suddenly I was gripped by an insane urge to drop the
thoroughly enjoyable book I was reading and start on _Cryptonomicon_.  This
was made more complicated by the fact that my husband had cruelly loaned out
my pristine first edition hardcover to a former co-worker two years
ago...the kind of loan where you might as well go shopping for a new copy
because you are never, not in a million years, going to get it back, because
heaven forbid your husband should bring himself to annoy the person by
asking for it back, and you begin to wonder if letting your husband believe
he has ownership of any kind over the books was really such a good idea...so
I had to go to the library. Only I couldn't check the library website
because our Internet connection was down, so I didn't know that they didn't
have a copy available.  I ended up driving way too fast to another branch
and checking the book out at about ten minutes to closing.

It was totally worth it.

It's not so much the content, really, as the fact that Neal Stephenson must
implant some sort of hypnotic suggestion into the pages, because I always
feel happy just reading what he writes.  _Cryptonomicon_ isn't even my
favorite of his books, but I loved it.  I sincerely hope this sort of
deranged compulsion never happens again, or if it does, that I own the book.

*Best Re-read: _The Martian Chronicles_, Ray Bradbury

My oldest daughter is enrolled in an online homeschool program that we both
love.  My standard for quality is, of course, what the literature course
looks like.  In addition to the set lessons, there are three novel units
where she gets to choose books from a list of about 25.  It's a great
list--a good mix of contemporary and classic, several genre choices, just
the list I would have made.  We own enough of them that I just crossed off
the ones we don't have to make my life easier.  Then we sorted through it
together and I did brief synopses of the titles she liked.  She lit on _The
Martian Chronicles_ right away--likes science fiction better than fantasy,
believe it or not.  Reflecting that Bradbury can be a tad dry for some
readers, I suggested she try a little bit before we officially selected it
for her novel.

She was done two days later.  So much for the "what do you predict will
happen?" questions.

She didn't want to write out answers to the questions, which left us
discussing them.  That was when I discovered that I hadn't read the book in
so many years that I only vaguely remembered anything that wasn't "Usher II"
or "There Will Come Soft Rains."  What a fantastic book.  It would be easy
to laugh at the naivete with which Bradbury describes 1999 as being
fundamentally like 1949, but that would totally miss the point, wouldn't it?
So much of what he writes about, love and greed and hatred, hasn't changed a
bit.  I had remembered the plot of "Usher II," but I had forgotten its rage
and fury; forgotten the strange mix of anger and delight I felt as a young
black boy taunted his former master; forgotten how it had felt, at the very
end, to realize who the Martians now were.  And how wonderful, too, to share
this with the next generation.

*Worst Publishing Decision 2006:  _The Sharing Knife: Beguilement_, Lois
McMaster Bujold

I don't care how long the finished book would have been or how long it would
have taken her to write it, they should damn well have published the whole
thing.  This first volume is literally half a book--half a romance book, at
that--and I think this was a big mistake.  It feels so unfinished that it
will probably put a lot of readers off, particularly the ones who aren't
sophisticated enough to identify why they didn't like it.  The core of the
story is very good, but I'm betting Bujold padded it out in places to get it
to a full novel length, and the result is a total loss of momentum (forward
momentum, remember, Lois?) when Dag and Fawn sidetrack into her little
village for family time and a wedding.  If anyone hasn't read this yet, wait
till July and then read both volumes back-to-back.  (I'm still ticked off
that we didn't get to see the Lakewalker camp.)

Worst Book 2006:  None.

Really, none.  I don't know if I'm just getting better at picking books, or
what, but I didn't read a single thing this year I hated.  I didn't even
start and not finish anything crappy.  It's disappointing, really.  I like
having a good rant to finish off the year, but I just can't manage it.  

It's been a better year than last year.  I've been occupied with the school
library and homeschooling and awards, but I've been reading everything that
comes through this list.  It's been a pleasure.  Thank you all for making
this the best online community that ever was.

Melissa Proffitt

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