The turn of the year is traditionally a time for reflection, and a time to ask "what's been the best of the year?" The answers to that, from the Blogcritics reviewers, provides a snapshot of a year of fine fiction, and challenging fact.
Deputy Books Editor Gordon Hauptfleisch chose The Road by Cormac McCarthy: In a picaresque and post-apocalyptic study of resolve in the face of desolation, the travels and travails of a father and young son — "each the other's world entire" — are traced as they contend with "borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." A novel as harrowing and moving as it is keenly-focused, The Road, though a grim and undaunted rumination on ruination and depravity, allows for a glimmer of redeeming affirmation and love – attesting to McCarthy’s capacity for humanity, heart, and ultimate hope.
Tim Gebhart chose The Places In Between by Rory Stewart. Tim said: This year is tougher than last for selecting the "best book." While it's not meant as a slam on this year's books, there wasn't one book that really grabbed and held me as much as my selection last year. That said, Rory Stewart's recounting of his walk (yes, walk) across Afghanistan in January 2002 rose to the top. Although it was published in Stewart's Great Britain in 2004, it did not make a U.S. appearance until this year. It is still timely, given the recent upsurge in Taliban activity in that country. Stewart's work stands out for several reasons. It is a well-written tale of a guy foolish or brave enough to try and walk alone across Afghanistan just months after the Taliban were ousted. As if that weren't enough, Stewart takes a straight line through the mountains in the the middle of winter, following the route of a 16th century emperor. But even the dangers posed by his journey aren't the highlight of the work. Stewart not only takes us inside a country we largely know only through the news, he takes the more important approach of allowing us to meet and try to understand the people who live there. In so doing, The Places In Between truly takes us inside a country that has been at the center of the world stage and about which so many know so little.
Katie McNeill chose Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett: Pratchett has been one of my favorite authors for a long time, the kind that you don't even bother reading the dust jacket or the back cover because you know that there is magic within the pages. With Pratchett it is the magic of laughter. Wintersmith for me has already become an old favorite. It has everything I look for in a book; great characters, humor, interesting story, a touch of romance, and even a life lesson or two if you look closely enough. My year just wouldn't have been complete without Wintersmith.
Violet Nesdoly chose Winter Birds by Jamie Langston Turner. Violet said: I chose this novel for its unlikely heroine (an 80-year-old former school teacher – how interesting could such a woman be?), its humor, its beautiful writing but, most of all, for how it seeks out and probes deep compartments of the heart. I see I’m not alone in my choice. It tops Publishers' Weekly "Best Book of the Year" in the Religious Fiction category.
Diane Kristine said: This was a tough call, since Anne Tyler is one of my favourite writers and released a book this year, but I'm going to go with Lori Lansens' The Girls. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up this book about conjoined twins, but I found myself sucked into a life story I had to force myself to remember was fiction, and felt like I'd lost a friend when I finished reading it. It's mostly told from the perspective of Rose Darlen, with occasional chapters from her sister Ruby, with whom she's joined at the head. Lansens makes these women both astonishingly real people and a metaphor for the distance that separates us and the bonds that unite us. It's fascinating, poignant, funny and beautifully written. The two sisters have vastly different writing styles, and the structure forces us to travel along with Rose's version of her life until Ruby gives us context we're missing and forces us to re-examine Rose's tale.
El Bicho said: My pick of the year is Laurel Canyon by Michael Walker. Through research and interviews with some of its residents at the time, the book examines the Los Angeles neighborhood during the ‘60s and ‘70s when it was a nexus for talented
musicians who affected the cultural landscape and changed the music business model. In those days, Walker writes, Laurel Canyon became populated by “young, footloose, self-styled bohemians attracted by cheap rents and the down-market esprit of living among similarly broke brethren.” Unfortunately this Californian Shangri-la couldn’t last forever. Success led to excess and things inevitably came crashing down. The story concludes with the Wonderland murders of ’81 where four people were brutally murder in a plot involving porn star John Holmes. Laurel Canyon is a great read for fans of the music and times, providing a cautionary tale without feeling preachy.
Finally, in the "best of" category, my own selection – far from the best-written book I read this year, far from the most entertaining, but a report on a piece of original research that throws a whole fresh light on the ancient world. Boudicca's Heirs: Women in Early Britain by Dorothy Watts reveals that what the Romans brought to Britain, on top of all that usual stuff that gets talked about such as roads, sanitation and "order", was the widespread practice of female infanticide. Up to 7 per cent of the women who should be in the graveyards aren't there – were never allowed to grow to an age at which their bones might survive. And what is possibly even more striking is that when the Romans went, so to did the practice: in Saxon burial grounds the natural sex balance is restored. You'll often find me reviewing women's history books, but this is a book that reveals something absolutely fundamental that cries out to be told to the world.
But then one final special treat: Assistant Music Editor A.L. Harper chose Summer Liaison by Basem Darwish as the worst book of the year. A.L. says: This year I read the worst book ever written. When I originally reviewed Basem Darwish’s first – and self-published – book Summer Liaison, Mr Darwish took offence to statements like “… he has no literary talent. None at all. Not even a little. Not a sausage.” And “My twelve-year-old could have written a more interesting and coherent romance novel than this man.” Which, to be fair, isn’t completely true now as my daughter has since turned thirteen. Mr Darwish commented on my review saying, in effect, I hadn’t understood that it was supposed to be a parody of all those grocery store romance novels. But if that were true the book would still have to have had the basics like interesting characters and a plot. It was even lacking serious forethought, research, and even, it seemed, a basic understanding of written English. It is a book that is so bad that it was almost funny; but funny that anyone could publish something so obviously lacking in all the absolute basics is truly absurd.
So that was 2006 in books … the best, and the worst.