[DWJ] Best Books of 2005

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Mon Jan 2 01:09:19 EST 2006


Usually I would have done this before the first of the new year, but this
year I got horribly, seriously sick, along with almost everyone else in the
house, right after Christmas.  It's been an interesting week.  So here it is
a new year and it's time to take a look back before closing the old year
entirely.

A movie reviewer friend of mine, in putting together his best and worst
films list, said it was a hard year to come up with a top pick--that the top
four or five could all easily have been number one--and I've felt the same.
I've read a lot of books this year, and most of them were excellent.  That
alone should make it a good year, when the dogs are few and far between and
easy to forget with large doses of good literature.  Not only do I have
several Best Books, but many of the ones I cite in other categories are
equally wonderful.  As usual, I'm going to talk about books I read in 2005,
not necessarily ones published that year.


Best Book of 2005:  _The Hallowed Hunt_, Lois McMaster Bujold

I enjoyed _The Curse of Chalion_.  I loved _Paladin of Souls_.  But I am
plain astonished by _The Hallowed Hunt_.  In her long and beloved Vorkosigan
series, Bujold has never had the opportunity to develop the kind of deeply
symbolic religious/magical system that's present in the "Chalion" books.
Everything fits together, even the shamanistic magic that is in the
shallowest sense at odds with the religion of the five gods.  Bujold may be
drawing on European history, but unlike her lesser novel _The Spirit Ring_,
in these books she is using that history merely as a foundation from which
she creates something entirely different.  I enjoy her characters (and she
is one of those writers whose secondary characters are as entertaining and
lovable as the protagonists), her worldbuilding, and the stories themselves,
and if she does end up abandoning Miles for her fantasy world, I'm no longer
annoyed by the possibility.

Other Best Book of 2005:  _Eleanor Rigby_, Douglas Coupland

Coupland ought to be a fad, a trendy cutting-edge artiste who makes his
living skewering pop culture, Mr. Generation X himself.  But he's this
amazingly clear-sighted guy who comes up with the strangest plots and makes
them seem ordinary and, ultimately, quite moving.  I thought I knew where
_Eleanor Rigby_ was going, and I was wrong.  The main character is a woman
who in a typical novel would be either the clever sidekick or the pitiable
fat office co-worker, but is instead exactly who she would be in real life:
a smart, lonely, not-very-attractive woman who has feelings and secrets and
desires just like anyone else.  Her relationship with her grown son might
seem to verge on the soap-operatic, except that it doesn't, and the ending
might seem too fanciful, except it isn't.  It's an extraordinary little
novel, and like his other extraordinary little novel _Microserfs_, it takes
you by surprise.  If the man ever decides to write science fiction, I'll be
thrilled.

Yet Another Best Book of 2005:  _Child of a Rainless Year_, Jane Lindskold

Jane Lindskold is my baby sister's favorite author, and I saw this one on
the New Release shelf and thought I'd give it a try.  Only when I got it out
to read, Jacob found it and started in first.  (I take pity on him because
it's so hard for him to find a book he wants to read.)  Then he wouldn't
stop yammering on about it, so I had to read it myself to get any peace at
night.  Wow.  If I chose the best book of the year on sheer emotional
impact, this would have been it.  Not that it packs a wallop--just the
opposite; it gets under your skin and wiggles there, impossible to ignore or
stop thinking about.  The story begins with the heroine as a child and sets
up the mysterious circumstances of her birth and family--then, on her
mother's disappearance, sends her to a normal family and gives her a normal
life.  Then the actual plot begins when she's, like, fifty.  And it's a
mystery and a fantasy and a romance and has a healthy dose of literary
structure.  The descriptions are marvelous and the magic is clever, and the
author doesn't try to make the heroine stupid to keep the reader in
suspense.  You know, like when the heroine gets a news clipping in the mail,
and the reader knows EXACTLY what it signifies because, duh, you've been
reading all the clues that the heroine's seen too, but the heroine doesn't
get it because the author wants to drag out the mystery.  The mystery here
isn't obvious from the beginning, but when it does become obvious, almost
immediately our heroine has figured it out.  And the kaleidoscopes are
gorgeous.

This Time I Promise It's the Last Best Book of 2005:  _The Pictograph
Murders_, P.G. Karamesines

_The Pictograph Murders_ is by a Utah author and is published by a Utah
publisher, but it's not nearly as hard to get as some of the other books by
local people.  Technically, this is a mystery, but as the reader is privy to
the thoughts and actions of the villain, there's not much mysterious about
it in the traditional sense.  What it really is is a fantastic exploration
of good and evil, using the trickster figure Coyote (both literally and
metaphorically) and the modern mythology of the LDS religion to fight out a
battle that's been waged for centuries.  The main character is a woman who
may or may not have the ability to detect evil, fighting a man who may or
may not be superhuman but is certainly a murderer, set in the deserts of
Southern Utah where yet another war is being waged: that of the legitimate
archaeologist versus the grave robber.  Pat Karamesines is a fantastic
reader, and I wish you could hear her read this story aloud, but her writing
voice is equally compelling.  I love a good Coyote story, and this is one of
the best--ambiguous, clever, and deeply concerned with Good and Evil.


Best First Novel:  _Twilight_, Stephenie Meyer

This is a first in itself: I hated this book.  It's a vampire romance, which
I detest (and yes, I was surprised as anyone when I liked McKinley's
_Sunshine_); it embodies a philosophy I find abhorrent; it tells lies by
implication about men and women's emotional behavior; and it ends with the
horrendous statement that love can conquer anything, even the vampire thirst
(and, apparently, congenital stupidity).  Also the main characters bugged
me.  Several pages of my reading journal were devoted to the flaws and
annoyances of this book.

Yet, having said this, I have to acknowledge that overall it is very well
done.  The writing is quite good, beautiful in places, and fits the mood of
the story well.  Most of the characters are well-drawn, and those that
aren't are at least minor characters, so the main plot is not affected.
Meyer's ideas about vampires are original and interesting, with one big
exception that had me going "What the hell good is this particular
adaptation to the world's greatest predator?!"  (Because it's an answer to
one of the vampire myths--specifically, why can't vampires come out during
the day--I have to assume she was thinking in terms of a cool new reason for
this myth and not in terms of vampire evolution.)

My only real quibble with the novel (that is, something I believe is a flaw
and not just something I personally detest) is just that--vampire evolution.
Meyer's world is one in which vampires arose as part of the natural order,
as far as anyone knows (and the vampires themselves aren't sure), but if
that were true, I doubt they would be as big and bad as she makes them--far
stronger than most vampires in fiction, in fact--and still be predators of
humans.  Mammoths or even dinosaurs, sure, but humans?  Even Edward, the
male protagonist/love interest, says that their abilities are too
overwhelming to make it a fair fight for humans.  I'm glad Meyer points this
out, but I don't think her awareness of it erases the flaw.

If you love vampire romances, I think you'll enjoy this one.  There's no
sex--the metaphor of vampiric attraction is entirely the reality--but it is
an extremely sensual book.  Me, I still think it's a little creepy to be
attracted to someone who sees you as lunch on the hoof.


Best New Series (tie):  Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries, by Lindsey Davis;
the Sharpe novels, Bernard Cornwell

A new series is one I first begin reading in a particular year, and this
year I found one at the beginning and one at the end.  Both by British
authors (yeah, I know Cornwell lives in America, like that really matters)
and both with strong but completely dissimilar male heroes.  The Falco
mysteries were suggested by some people on this list, thank you all so much!
For most of _Silver Pigs_ I was wondering why on earth this author had
managed to become successful.  The first half of the book is a mess.  But
Falco is such a soppy romantic, and Helena such a tough-minded and tender
heroine, that it didn't take long for me to become addicted.  I haven't read
_Scandal Takes a Holiday_, and _See Delphi and Die_ isn't here yet, but
otherwise I've read the whole series this year.

The *reason* I have not read _Scandal_ is that I got addicted to the Sharpe
novels.  A friend loaned us all the DVDs last year, and Sean Bean is just
the greatest...but I didn't think about reading the books until I inherited
_Sharpe's Rifles_ in August.  Again, it took most of the book for me to fall
in love with the series, but I was hooked.  Surprisingly, having seen the
series enhanced the reading, because I didn't remember the movies well
enough to be confused by the books, and the actors from the movies were just
so perfect in their roles that they fit the picture in my head just right.
I've been skipping back and forth within the series because getting all the
books from the library system has been complicated, but what a ride!


Best Young Adult Book(s):  _Indigo's Star_ and _Permanent Rose_, Hilary
McKay
I read _Saffy's Angel_ last year, I think, and liked it, but didn't realize
there was more to the "series" until the discussion came up here.  Hilary
McKay is simply brilliant.  If there's such a thing as literary young adult
fiction, this is it.  Defying the notion of the traditional straightforward
plot, McKay instead gives us the portrait of a family at once unconventional
and eerily like everyone else's.  The family is definitely weird, with Dad
gone all the time and Mum not entirely present, and there's a bohemian
quality that I think may only exist in fiction, but that's merely the quirky
outside.  How the family members relate to one another, what they do or
don't do, isn't all that strange.  To me, this family seems real, probably
because in a real family you see the adults' behavior reflected (or
diffracted) in the children, and I can see bits of that coming out in all
the kids.  It's an extraordinary piece of work, and I'm looking forward to
whatever book McKay pulls out for Cadmium next.


Best Thriller:  _The Bourne Identity_, Robert Ludlum

I can't believe it was only this year I read this for the first time--not
because it's so old, but because it seems like a really long time ago.  It
was, in fact, the third book I finished this year.  The beginning was
unexpectedly slow (the bit on the island where Bourne heals up) but after
that it was quite the exciting ride.  I don't think I was bored for a
minute--and that's what I call a great thriller.


Best "Classic" Read:  _The House of Dies Drear_, Virginia Hamilton

A "classic" read is something I never read that everyone else did, or that
everyone was supposed to read in school, or whatever.  I got this from
someone who donated books to the school just because it was in such great
condition, and was blown away.  Not like I've never read anything by
Hamilton before, because I knew she was great, but I honestly didn't expect
anything so seriously creepy and beautiful.  One of the things I love about
Hamilton is that she never takes for granted the idea that black Americans
are second-class citizens, in any sense, and in this book it is hard to tell
what race the main characters are for a very long time.  It adds to the
complexity of the story, because you can't just assume this is about whites
versus blacks or rich versus poor or any of the other common polarities that
come into play when you're discussing American history.  Great book.


Best Recommendation:  _The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants_,  Ann
Brashares

This was again recommended by someone from this list.  Lucky me, because I
hadn't ever planned on reading it.  From the cover blurbs, it looked like it
was about girls growing up and having sex and rebelling or something like
that.  Fortunately someone who'd actually read it could correct that
impression.  It was such a beautiful and moving book, as were the sequels,
and I can honestly say I would have been poorer for having missed this.


Best Re-Read:  _Life Among the Savages_, Shirley Jackson

Twice.  I re-read it *twice* this year.  I don't know why it's so satisfying
to meet someone across so many years who would be a soulmate if you lived in
the same time and place, unless that's just obvious.  Jackson's probably
best known for "The Lottery," even better known for "The Haunting of Hill
House" in all its movie incarnations (though I doubt her identity as the
author of the original novel is well known to many moviegoers) but it's easy
to forget that the chilling creepiness of "The Lottery" is as much due to
Jackson's understanding and evocation of ordinary people as it is to the
bizarre premise.  This memoir makes it obvious where she got that
understanding.


Serendipity Award:  _Rosie Dunne_, Cecelia Ahern

I decided to grab some random romance novels for Jacob off the New Release
shelf a few weeks ago, discarded the paperbacks as being almost certainly
not his thing, and ended up with _Rosie Dunne_, which is a romance only in
the sense that the two main characters are in love.  It's an epistolary
novel, funny and frustrating and completely unexpected, and we both ended up
loving it.  How a 23-year-old cutie like Ahern ended up writing such a
mature and well-structured book is beyond me.  There's obviously no justice
in the world.  The ending is, I think, overdone, and spoils the book
slightly; the epistolary premise of e-mail and instant messaging had me
wondering when exactly this story took place, with a 43-year time span...but
that was only after I'd finished the thing and been swept away by how sweet
and, yes, mature the whole thing was.  Ahern has me in awe.


Most Disappointing Book:  the Samurai Girl series, Carrie Asai

It started off pretty good, despite the absurd premise and the fact that
every time the ninjas showed up I couldn't stop laughing.  (Not because they
were ridiculous ninjas, but because even in the context of this story ninjas
seemed out of place, like giant mutant killer attack bunnies.)  Heaven is a
Japanese girl who, as a baby, was the miraculous only survivor of a plane
crash and was adopted by her current family.  Now seventeen (eighteen? see
how the details escape me?) she's going to be married to the son of the
almost-certainly-gangster Yakemura family, but this arranged marriage is
interrupted by--you guessed it--ninjas.  They are fought off by Heaven's
brother, who hints at a plot to kill Heaven before dying, sending her into
the mean streets of somewhere in California, I can't remember which big
city, to find his friend Hiro.  Hiro takes Heaven in and starts training her
in the ways of the samurai, and this is where the story is good:  we're not
talking ancient past, but how the samurai ideal can be part of modern life.
Asai has a good, quick style, and I like the glimpses into modern club life
(especially when the ninjas show up).  But the plot falls apart two-thirds
of the way through the six-book series, and it becomes obvious that Asai is
scrambling to get everything to fit together, finally resorting to the
strategy of changing the fundamental characters of several people Heaven has
(until now, realistically) been depending on, all to get her back to Japan
for a final confrontation with the big bad guy and the revelation of who her
true parents were.  (Naturally this revelation is as contrived as everything
else about the ending.)  I hate it when a good story is ruined, even a story
as cheesy and light as this one.


And, of course, the year wouldn't be complete without the...
Worst Book of 2005:  _The Fairy Godmother_, Mercedes Lackey

I was going to name _The Adventures of Blue Avenger_ by Norma Howe, which
has its fair share of flaws and also annoyed me terribly, but at least _Blue
Avenger_ had good writing.  With this (non)award, I am always aware that
somebody is probably going to love whatever book I choose, so I add the
caveat that no matter how horrible I think it is, that doesn't mean it isn't
likeable.  And, in fact, much of my reading group did like it.  Lackey has a
clever interpretation of fairy tales in this one, and I imagine she'll be
able to get a number of stories out of this world/premise.

This is, unfortunately, a terrible book.  It's a terrible romance.  And I'm
not even going to touch on my personal distaste for Lackey's writing style
and moral philosophy.  The male protagonist attempts to rape the main
character and she refers to it later, to her friends, as "trying to seduce
me."  And yet she's supposed to be an enlightened feminist kind of heroine
who at least ought to recognize the difference no matter how sheltered she's
supposed to be.  Worse than the character interaction is the magical
premise, which is seriously flawed and yet is accepted as "the way things
are" by all these characters who are otherwise bright and sassy and
take-charge sorts of people.  I wish I could go into more detail, but I've
had that part of my memory erased for my own protection.  Otherwise my
hindbrain might still be trying to beat my cerebrum into blessed oblivion.

******

2005 was, in retrospect, one of the worst years my little family has ever
faced.  We had unemployment due to treachery (and, later, the joyous
downfall of the individual responsible); a serious financial crisis that was
only partly our fault; several trips to the emergency room for asthma; a
child whose mysterious vomiting necessitated a CT scan, an upper GI, an
endoscopy and biopsy, and resolved itself without any explanation; the death
of a relative we did not mourn and the loss of good family relations as a
result; and the usual ups and downs of ordinary life.  In between all of
this (and probably because of this) I read 223 books, which is probably a
record for my adult life.  I keep a reading journal in which I date the
entries based on when I finish a book, not when I start it, but even so
there are vast gaps of time where I wasn't reading anything, and then dense
chunks when I was desperately doing nothing but.  It's funny how reading can
be so many different things: relaxation, education, self-imposed torture,
opiate, magic charm.

So I'm hoping and praying that 2006 will be a better year.  I'd like to say
that it couldn't possibly be worse, but frankly, it could.  At least I am
looking forward to reading a lot of new things.  First on the list is _The
Gate of Gods_, which will be arriving on my doorstep on the 3rd.  Thank you,
Amazon Prime 3-month trial!  (To put things into perspective, my life has
been so awful that even though I have been dying for this book ever since
last fall, I a) was not aware it had been published, b) could not afford to
buy it when I did become aware of it, c) forgot about it again for a month
and then d) couldn't remember the title last week when I did order it.)
Then of course _The King of Attolia_ is coming up fast; it will probably be
my birthday present to me.  I've still got most of the Sharpe series to
read, and at least a few Falco books; Jacob is cackling his way through a
Meg Cabot romance I plan to read soon; and there are just so many potential
books that, whether or not they've been published yet, will eventually find
their way here, like _Sir Thursday_ and the next Calderon book and whatever
Jasper Fforde writes next.

It's been a pleasure to read this list the past year, even though I haven't
felt much like participating.  It's strange to realize the web site has been
around ten years, and that the list isn't much younger: seven or eight
years, isn't it?  Here's to another ten years and more for all of us, and
thank you all for your companionship, conversation, and joy in reading.

Melissa Proffitt



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