Joining the rest of the world, here’s a personal take on the best (and worst) books of 2005. With one exception (the first), they are listed in alphabetical order.
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. Although the basic storyline is a Saturday in the life of a London neurosurgeon that goes horribly wrong, the vulnerability of post-9/11 life and the debate over the still-on-the-horizon Iraq war provide a separate undercurrent of tension.
Accelerando, Charles Stross — Rick Kleffel of the Agony Column perhaps best summarized this book, saying it is “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 of the year as it looks at the human race and society as we confront the singularity. This is a collection of previously published novelettes presented for the first time in unified form in book format. It is, however, for those with a taste for SF and probably doesn’t have broad enough interest to be book of the year.
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 as he struggles to resume normal life after years of drug and alcohol addiction and abuse.
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.
The Society of Others, William Nicholson — A close runner up in the general fiction category. The novel is a Kafkaesque, existential tale of the ordeals of a young unnamed Brit unexpectedly alone in an unnamed totalitarian society in eastern Europe. The book is not only a journey of self-awareness and self-discovery, it looks at those involved in and caught in the middle of the politics and political movements of terrorism and counter-terrorism. While the book at times requires extreme suspension of belief (although one wonders if it is not, in part, satirical) and the ending is puzzling, its strengths are far greater than its weaknesses,
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion — As I began reading this book, I thought Didion’s reputation led to this recounting of the year following the sudden death of her husband being over hyped. 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.
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.
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.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro — Why does it seem 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 pulls 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 aren’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.
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 can actually make it all the way to the end of a book, can it really qualify as the worst of the year?