Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Favourites from 2005

Here are my ten favourites out of the books that I read in 2005. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by author. For those books that I’ve already discussed at some length on this blog, I’ve kept my comments to a minimum and provided a link to my earlier post. For those that I haven’t mentioned until now, I’ve tried to provide a sense of what they're about and why I liked and admired them.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (Little, Brown, 2004):
Case Histories is a bona fide crossover hit, succeeding brilliantly as both literary fiction and as a mystery novel. Given the very different expectations associated with each, this is no mean feat. My experience in reading it was of an exquisite tug-of-war. The sentences are so beautifully crafted, the characters so fully realized, that I wanted to linger to appreciate the writing. At the same time the suspense was so expertly ratcheted up that I wanted to rush to the end to find who did it and why. I read it twice to satisfy both impulses.

John Banville, The Sea (Knopf, 2005):
The Sea is a brilliant novel about grief and memory that left me in awe of Banville’s writing talents. For my full review, click here.

David Gilmour, A Perfect Night to Go to China (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2005): A Perfect Night to Go to China is a spare, powerful novel that offers up a riveting first person account of a life and a mind unravelling. For my full review, click here.

Eva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan (H.B. Fenn and Company, 2004):
Eva Ibbotson is in her eighties now and doing her very best work. She has previously written comic romps for younger children and romances for adults. The Star of Kazan (and Journey to the River Sea, the book which immediately preceded it) is something of a cross between the two. Here Ibbotson weaves the various components of the best children’s literature into one fabulous novel: a fairy tale plot involving an orphan, a fantastical setting, gothic twists, and breathtaking adventure. It’s the rich, eccentric detail that elevates this book into my pantheon of bests. That the story should open with Annika, the heroine of the tale, abandoned as a baby in a small alpine church and found by a cook from Vienna on her day off is unremarkable in the realm of children’s fiction. That the cook stopped in at the church because her new shoes were too tight to climb further up the mountain and join her friend for a lunch of salami sandwiches -- that’s the sort of detail that gives this book texture and brought it to life for me.

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief (Hyperion Books, 2005):
I recently read the first three books in Canongate’s Myth series. I liked them well enough, but for my money the best modern re-telling of a myth published in 2005 is The Lightning Thief, a novel for children. The novel is narrated by 12-year-old Percy (Perseus) Jackson. When we first meet Percy he’s struggling with ADHD and dyslexia and is on the verge of being kicked out of yet another boarding school. He soon discovers an extraordinary explanation for many of his troubles: he’s a demi-god, and as he approaches adulthood demons are sniffing out his powers. It seems that in the present day the gods of Greek mythology continue to fall in love with mortals and a number of children like Percy have resulted from such unions. Percy is first whisked off to Camp Half Blood to be trained as a hero and then embarks on a quest across the United States to recover Zeus’s missing lighting bolt. Percy is a wry and engaging narrator and the intersection of the contemporary world and the realm of myth is vividly imagined here with Mount Olympus located atop the Empire State Building, and the Underworld deep beneath Los Angeles.

Stuart Ross, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005): The book’s title includes the word “confessions,” the publisher describes it as part memoir, and it’s written in the first person by one Stuart Ross. But the narrative voice is a brilliant literary creation for all that. It’s this voice, full of marvellous contradictions -- self-deprecating and wildly egotistical, ironic and sentimental, deadly serious and funny as hell --, that makes the book such a scintillating read. The jacket copy nicely sums up the breadth of topics covered: “In these essays, [Ross] catalogues his reasons for bitterness, offers a crash course in avoiding writing, pisses off his publishers, rails against open mics, explores his floundering Jewish identity, implores young writers to stop bugging the crap out of him, and declares himself the King of Poetry." The essays were originally published individually as a series of columns in Word: Toronto’s Literary Calendar between 2001 and early 2005. But in book form, they add up to more than the sum of the parts. The usually vague notion of “literary community” becomes tangible in this tour through the highs and lows of a writing life in the small press realm. Read this book! And while you’re at it, read some of Stuart Ross’s poems as well. My personal favourite of his poetry collections is Razovsky at Peace.

James Salter, Last Night: Stories (Knopf, 2005):
At first glance, the stories in Last Night seem to be all surface detail, but the detail is so carefully chosen that it serves to excavate all that lies beneath. The inner workings of a whole complex world are thereby revealed. For my full review, click here.

Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories (Random House, 2003): The Whole Story and Other Stories is a dazzling collection of stories about stories. Smith artfully plays with the idea of story without ever depriving the reader of story. Paradoxically, postmodern play reveals emotional truths. For my full review, click here.

Uwe Timm, In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS (Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Douglas & McIntyre, 2005): Uwe Timm was only two-years-old in 1943 when his brother Karl Heinz, sixteen years his senior and a soldier in the SS, died from wounds he received fighting in the Ukraine. As an adult, Timm tries to piece together who his brother was and what his role in the war was from letters and a diary that Karl Heinz penned at the Russian front. Timm approaches his brother’s papers with a trepidation that he likens to that he felt on listening to the story of Bluebeard as a child. What will he find when he enters the locked room? What he finds is silence. The diary is mostly a sketchy record of mundane details. Timm tries to link the diary with what he now knows of the actions of German soldiers at that time and in that place. Did his brother participate in atrocities? Did he doubt the orders he was given? Did he feel pride? Did he feel guilt? The diary provides no answers. Timm’s quest, and this silence at the centre of it, propels him into a broader consideration of how different generations of Germans saw themselves in the aftermath of the war, contrasting the views of his father’s generation with those of his own. In My Brother’s Shadow is a small, powerful book that has stayed with me.

Sherill Tippins, February House (Houghton Mifflin, 2005):
February House tells the fascinating story of an experiment in communal living when a group of young writers, artists, and musicians (including Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, George Davis, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, and Jane and Paul Bowles) came together under one roof at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn in the year leading up to the US entry into WWII. For my full review, click here.


Anonymous said...

Some fascinating choices. I've only read two on your list (Case Histories and Whole Story and Other Stories), both of which I loved. I will try and read some of your other choices this year (David Gilmour's novel got my attention quite a while ago).

I met Stuart Ross once at a poetry reading; he struck me as a very warm and very, very funny guy.

Jenny Davidson said...

Yes, what a great list; I absolutely LOVE Eva Ibbotson, by the way, and couldn't agree with you more about THE STAR OF KAZAN. It really did combine the most charming features of her children's and adult books--I sort of wish she'd write another adult one, but this one had the same satisfactions, so I can't complain.

Isabella K said...

I've only read one on your list — The Star of Kazan, this past summer. Simply magical! I'll be looking to read some of your other choices this year.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Kate, can you explain you consider Case Histories to be literary fiction? After all, genre fiction writers also write beautiful sentences and create fully-realised characters.

Kate S. said...


You're quite right. I didn't mean to associate beautiful sentences and fully realized characters exclusively with literary fiction nor suspense exclusively with crime fiction. However, I can see how my mini-review of Case Histories lends itself to that interpretation. Let me try to clarify. I read widely and happily in both categories and I get terribly frustrated when they are set against one another ie. some genre fans pronouncing all literary fiction dull or literary snobs dismissing all genre fiction as formulaic and poorly written. This makes me very wary of stepping into the minefield of pinning down the distinction between the two. But I asked for it, so here goes... I think that whether the book slots into one category or the other has to do with emphasis, pacing, and structure for me. I often experience literary fiction as a slower more meditative read than crime fiction. Usually there's more room in a literary novel for backstory and character development. Literary fiction can be "messier," leaving loose ends that crime fiction won't tolerate. Atkinson managed to structure Case Histories such that it has the pacing and emphasis of literary fiction but without sacrificing the suspense and payoff in terms of plot resolution that crime fiction demands.

Anonymous said...

I did like The Star of Kazan very much, but my most favorite Ibbotson book is A Company of Swans, which is basically the original version of Journey to the River Sea, written for adults. I love them both.

Kate S. said...


Stuart is a lovely guy. I should have posted a link to his blog. If you haven't already checked it out you might want to have a look. Click here to find it.


I read an interview with Ibbotson in which she said that she was working on a memoir. And it sounds as if the most fantastical elements of her fiction are actually the autobiographical bits -- definitely an eccentric upbringing. I think her life story will make good reading.


I just read the review of Star of Kazan that you posted on your blog back in September. My response to the book definitely echoes yours!


I've never read A Company of Swans but I've put a copy on hold at the library. Thanks for recommending it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to Stuart's blog, Kate! I think I've visited before, but it's good to be reminded of it. I'll add it to my blogroll.

I guess you know Mark Truscott, too? Another wonderful guy and talented poet. It's a very small world in Can Lit Land!

Kate S. said...


I don't really know Mark, though he and I have a number of friends and acquaintances in common. I do read his blog though, which I think I discovered thanks to your blogroll. It is a small world! No doubt sooner or later you and I will bump into one another at one of these readings.