Books: Best and Worst of 2005

Joining the rest of the world, here’s my take on the best (and worst) books of 2005. With one exception (the first), they are listed in alphabetical order. Where I’ve posted longer reviews I’ve got a link to the review here (PP) and/or on Blogcritics (BC). There may or may not be significant differences between the reviews if two are listed. Frankly, I am somewhat surprised by the number of fiction entries on the list since I’ve always tended to read more nonfiction.

The Best:

Saturday, Ian McEwan — When I was required to pick one and only one book for my Blogcritics selection for book of the year, this was it. If you’re talking about books for general consumption, this work walks away with best of the year. Although I’m not a huge fan of novels, I still concur with my initial description of this book as a masterpiece. It’s impact is probably seen in the fact that I had three separate posts about the book.

Accelerando, Charles Stross — I still think Rick Kleffel of the Agony Column described it best, saying this is real science fiction, “the kind of science fiction that kicks sand in your face and pounds the living shit out of your brain.” Accelerando was far and away the most innovative SF work I read this year. Sure, it’s largely a collection of previously published novelettes but its publication in unified form in a book this year gets it on the list. It is, however, for those with a taste for SF and probably doesn’t have broad enough interest to be book of the year. (PP; BC).

My Friend Leonard, James Frey — Were it not for Joan Didion, this would have been memoir of the year. Although not as strong as its predecessor, A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s stream of consciousness writing again makes you feel what he’s going through. (PP; BC).

The Great Mortality, John Kelly — History for those who don’t like to read history. Kelly accomplishes the near-impossible: making reading about the “Black Death” entertaining and relevant. (PP; BC).

The Society of Others, William Nicholson — A close runner up in the general fiction category. The ending is somewhat confusing but the Kafkaesque nature of this short tale makes it a worthwhile modern read. (PP).

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion — As I began reading this book, I thought Didion’s reputation led over hyping of this recounting of the year following the sudden death of her husband. Yet the book grows on you as she proceeds to show us insights into life, loss and grief with which almost all of us can identify. This is the memoir/autobiographical book of the year, if not the winner for nonfiction in general. (PP; BC).

Honorable Mention (so categorized because they were published in 2004 but I didn’t read them until this year):

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell — Given the genres Mitchell blends into this work, it’s hard to describe it as literary fiction, science fiction or something else. It doesn’t really matter. The unique concept of linking six novellas comes off better than one would expect. (PP).

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson — This is one of those books I was tempted to put down because of its slow pace. But although the pace never really picks up, you are gradually enthralled by what is essentially a letter from a 76-year-old minister with a failing heart to his 7-year-old son. It’s easy to see why it won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Robinson, who lives and teaches in Iowa City, is currently scheduled to be at the 2006 Festival of Books in Sioux Falls this September. (PP).

Most overrated:

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro — As I noted at the time, it seems that if a “literary star” writes science fiction, even bad science fiction, the “pundits” hail it. Philip Roth accomplished this feat last year with The Plot Against America and Ishiguro pulled it off this year with this tale about clones. I’m amazed at how many “best of” lists this made considering the fact the ideas weren’t really unique and the writing style (back story leading to back story leading to back story before heading back to the current thought) was more annoying than edifying.

The Worst:

Hitler’s Peace, Philip Kerr — Here is the sentence that made this book the hands-down winner: “In the moonlight the lawn in front of my house was the color of blood and the restless silver sky had a spectral look, as if death itself had its great white whale of an eye upon me.” Maybe it isn’t fair to call this the worst book as, although I tried to continue after reading this on page 14, I ultimately put the book down and never picked it up again. But if you actually make it all the way to the end of a book, can it really qualify as the worst of the year?

Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It’s part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he’s becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He’s a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection.

Ian McEwan, Saturday

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