Best of Fiction 2005

 Best Books of 2006






    Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman (Henry Holt)
    It’s possible that 2006 will be remembered as the year of the blog. Or at least as the year the publishing industry started combing popular blogs for book ideas. Obviously, some fairly lame books came out of that strategy. But life is short: I won’t bother mentioning the lame ones. A handful, though, help you understand what all the fuss was about. Anonymous Lawyer is one of those. In the olden days, a writer might hone their muscles by keeping a journal. In this case, think of the Anonymous Lawyer blog as that same writer’s journal and Blachman managed to get his muscles in shape. Though some of the material in the book version of Anonymous Lawyer started out on the blog, the largest percentage was created for this project. Blachman took the idea he'd started toying with on the blog and created a linear storyline featuring the same fictional lawyer he created on his blog -- a “hiring partner at one of the world’s largest law firms” which Blachman is not -- and spun it into a story about a powerful lawyer who is living a lie, but posting the truth anonymously to his blog. This could have been an ultra lame book. It even sounds like sort of a lame book. And some reviewers (who probably didn’t read it) even said it was. It’s not. And the reason it’s not is Blachman himself. Blachman is deliciously funny, in a dark and pleasingly twisted sort of way. I can hardly wait to see what he cooks up next! -- Lincoln Cho
    The Attack by Yasmina Khadra (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
    “I don’t remember hearing an explosion. A hissing sound, maybe, like tearing fabric, but I’m not certain.” The Attack begins in Tel Aviv, when rockets destroy the life of many, but in particular one man, Dr. Amin Jaafari, an Arab-Israeli citizen whose wife is found dead. Jaafari is still reeling from the loss of the woman he loves when the police tell him that the wounds on her body were typical of those found on fundamentalist suicide bombers. Little by little Jaafari must come to terms with the fact that the woman he shared his dreams with for 15 years had a life of which he knew nothing. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohamed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer. He created the nom de plume when, while still in Algeria, his writing brought him to the attention of the army. Threatened with censorship he created the female alter ego to avoid scrutiny, though he has since moved to France and let the world know who he is. None of this affects The Attack which, like Khadra's earlier novel The Swallows of Kabul, brings the west a bit of understanding about a world that many of us don’t find in the least understandable. More: he’s a wonderful storyteller and he has a lot to say. The Attack is memorable and beautiful and frightening, sometimes all at once. -- Sienna Powers

    Cease to Blush by Billie Livingston (Random House Canada)
    The opening chapters of Cease to Blush are deceiving. While the writing is beautiful, you start out thinking that maybe you've been down this road before. A mother/daughter disconnect. An ugly death by cancer, the adult child left thinking that there was so much unsaid. Yada, yada, yada. To be honest, about three chapters in, when I encountered what felt like turf that has been gone over so well in CanLit that it's shredded, I was tempted to put Billie Livingston's second novel aside. It would have been my loss. Soon after I’d thought to stop reading, the daughter discovers that her beautiful, sometime lesbian, feminist professor mother has left her a trunk. When opened, the trunk reveals a secret life -- actually, several of them. It turns out that Vivian’s mother was, at various times, a peripheral member of the rat pack, a gangster's arm candy, a singer, a stripper, even a beatnik. Bringing these various stories to life -- the daughter's present day and the past lives of the 1960s the mother experiences -- is no easy thing. Livingston employs just about every technique available to her -- the mother's letters to a friend, the daughter's imaginings. Livingston occasionally skates so close to the edge of believability, she risks stretching our suspension of belief to the breaking point. But it does not break. Livingston writes beautifully, even soulfully and Cease to Blush is her best work to date. -- Linda L. Richards
    The Empress of Asia by Adam Lewis Schroeder (Raincoast Books)
    In Singapore in 1942, a young seaman named Harry falls in love with an Englishwoman named Lily. They marry quickly. During an air raid, the newlyweds are separated, which sets in motion a chain of events that lead Harry across Southeast Asia before the pair are reunited. Fifty years later in Vancouver Lily, on her deathbed, shares a secret that holds the power to alter the way Harry has looked upon their life together. He journeys to Thailand to unravel the mystery that began so many years before. The Empress of Asia is a terrific book and I’m delighted that it is because, like a lot of readers, I waited for it for a long time. At the time of the publication of Kingdom of Monkeys, Schroeder’s first book of short stories, Books in Canada called him “the next great Canadian writer.” It wasn’t an overstatement. -- Sienna Powers

    The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards (Doubleday Canada)
    Giller Prize winner, David Adams Richards, has come up with another tightly crafted, meticulously researched and written novel.  In the mid-20th century, traditional logging in Canada is about to die. The days of horse teams, the brave and foolhardy teamsters driving them and the lumber camps hacked into the wilds of northern Canada are drawing to a close. Amongst them is one last family, the once mighty lumber barons, the Jamesons. As their tragic tale unfolds, you are almost afraid to read on. There is no redeeming ray of light in this tale, so prepare yourself. Ordinary people are not portrayed kindly. It’s as stark and relentless as the northern Ontario winters but equally as beautiful. Meager Fortune is anything but an Everyman. You could be forgiven even for thinking him a Canadian lumberjack equivalent of the original J.C; larger than life, misunderstood and persecuted. It took me a while to get into the novel; it is definitely more of a male than female read, but it is going to be a Canadian classic so be one of the first to read it or to give it as a gift. Just be prepared for that big depression; every bit as bad as the Canadian winter lows. -- Cherie Thiessen

    Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris (Delacorte)
    Thomas Harris' fifth novel, and the fourth (after Hannibal, 1999), to feature the extraordinary Hannibal Lecter, is split into two narrative strands. The first section introduces Hannibal at age 8, living with his family in World War II-scarred Lithuania. The Lecter clan reside in some splendor deep within a forest. They're descendants of Hannibal the Grim -- an obvious reference to the Brothers Grimm, and an appropriate one, since this section reads like a monstrous fairy tale. As readers of Hannibalwill already know, the protagonist's sister Mischa was eaten by a group of brigands in the winter, and that, coupled with the death of his family and tutor Mr. Jakov, started to shape young Lecter's psyche. The other factor molding Hannibal's personality is his “memory palace,” where he escapes (at least mentally) from the reality around him. In Rising, we see the development of that refuge as Lecter -- having already blanked out his sibling's horrific fate -- avoids venturing into the woodlands surrounding their home. Left alone in the world, mute, and beating up bullies in an orphanage, Hannibal is finally rescued by his uncle Robert Lecter and his aunt, the very Japanese Lady Murasaki, and transplanted to Paris. In the novel's second section, we watch Hannibal being educated and falling in love with Lady Murasaki. That relationship becomes so strong, that after a local butcher, Paul Momund, insults his aunt, Lecter takes his revenge in a most brutal and bloody manner. Which, of course, places the boy under police scrutiny, as he advances through medical school and becomes an anatomy prodigy. Leaving behind the fairy-tale atmospherics, and moving into Ian Fleming territory, the author has young Lecter rediscovering memories of Mischa's murder and embarking on a revenge trail, which sends him across Europe and North America, and eventually puts him face to face with the brigands, led by the vile psychopath Vladis Grutas. Hannibal shows no mercy as he tracks down these men who deal in prostitution, kidnapping of women and sexual slavery, as well as post-war art smuggling. Hannibal Rising is a much less complex work than its precursors, and its gothic trappings mask both a scary fairy tale and a bloody revenge story. -- Ali Karim

    The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (Henry Holt)
    Earlier this month, New York Magazine's Best and Worst of 2006 issue went out of its way to knock what it called “Jed Rubenfeld's Freud-and-S&M mystery,” The Interpretation of Murder, as one of two “lurid Victorian thrillers” (Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night was the other) that arrived in bookstores “with so much marketing and so many overblown comparisons,” that they were “bound to disappoint.” Did that magazine's critics read the same book I did? Yes, this debut by Rubenfeld, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at Yale University, was helped along by a $500,000 marketing campaign, a $10,000 Web site and $17,000 set aside to print 10,000 advanced reader copies of the novel (which novelist-blogger M.J. Rose notes is “more money in ARCs than 85 percent of authors get in total for their marketing budgets”). But to condemn Interpretation so flippantly, because it didn't measure up to the blockbuster expectations of its publisher is hardly fair. Or warranted, in this instance. Sure, Rubenfeld's novel has its weaknesses (including a romantic subplot that leads both parties to speak, at points, as if they were actors in a cheesy old melodrama), but it's still a crackerjack yarn filled with intriguing real-life figures and wonderfully quirky details of early 20th-century urban life likely to send readers off to find out more. Inspired by Viennese neurologist-psychiatrist Sigmund Freud's only visit to America, in 1909, The Interpretation of Murder focuses on a Freud disciple, Dr. Stratham Younger, who's called in by the New York City police -- following the penthouse strangulation slaying of a lovely debutante -- to help another intended homicide victim, 17-year-old heiress Nora Acton, recover her memory and thereby expose her attacker. Naturally, with Freud in Manhattan at the time, Younger consults with him on the case. However, this is Younger's story, for the most part; and with the assistance of an underrated and determined cop named Littlemore, he gets to the bottom of a conspiracy that plunges him into the darker, more concealed corners of Gotham, and plumbs the psyches of more than one woman whose sanity could easily be called into question. Sure, there are sordid aspects to The Interpretation of Murder, but they're leashed in service to a larger, more twisted and compelling story line. One that, I hope, will draw enough readers to warrant the commission of a sequel. -- J. Kingston Pierce
    The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
    “His ambition was matched only by his self-distrust; he aspired to success but expected failure.” So says the omniscient narrator about one of the timeless characters (at once an individual and a type) in Peter Ackroyd’s brief, absorbing, pleasurable novel The Lambs of London-- a tale of literary and personal intrigue in 19th-century England that has the emotional heft of a book twice its length but reads as swiftly as a thriller. William Ireland is the man described above: a young bookseller who draws notice through his apparent discovery of a number of remarkable Shakespeare items, including a hitherto-unknown play. Charles and Mary Lamb, siblings devoted to the Bard of Avon, become drawn into Ireland’s orbit -- and he into theirs. Faults and talents become confused; illusion and illness commingle. Fact, fancy; truth, fraud -- their borders are blurred by all too human wills. As another character here observes, “Scholarship is not exact.” But tragedy (or is this a bitter comedy?) proves inexorable. Peter Ackroyd, a master biographer as well as a prize-winning novelist, writes of a past as alive as our present -- or more so, given that (as the author reminds and warns), “This is not a biography but a work of fiction.” It's also like one of the Shakespearean plays its protagonists love: at once an expert entertainment, and a work of art. -- Tom Nolan

    Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart)

    It's been a long time since we had a short story collection from Margaret Atwood. Long enough that it was before she became the Booker-winning goddess of the literary world. Long enough, also, that we've forgotten that this -- the short story -- is where she came from. But not to worry: not very far into Moral Disorder it all comes flooding back. One of the great things about a collection of Atwood short stories is that it's a very good tasting pack for readers new to her work. While few people seem to love everything Atwood writes, her work is varied enough and covers a broad enough field of themes that even if someone who claimed they didn't like Atwood's work read all of it, they'd find themselves touched by something and perhaps even acquiring a taste for it all. Moral Disorder does that on a micro level. The book is slender, but the thoughts contained are not. The stories are not all connected, but the book's structure is themed. Moral Disorder is classic Atwood. Unforgettable. -- Monica Stark

    Only Revolutions
    by Mark C. Danielewski (Pantheon)
    The story in Only Revolutions is not easily described, nor is it necessarily the point. Like Danielewski’s groundbreaking 2000 novel, House of Leaves, the author asks us to let go of what we know in favor of what he might share with us. This is not a comfortable place for all readers, or all reviewers, for that matter. But those that are willing to take an unfamiliar journey on a sometimes uncomfortable road are likely to enjoy Danielewski’s latest effort. It is, after all, about the journey. -- Lincoln Cho

    Paint it Black by Janet Fitch (Little, Brown)
    Though I loved White Oleander, author Fitch’s first and celebrated novel, nothing prepared my for the gritty yet delicate reality of Paint it Black. A period piece, Paint it Blacktakes place at the edges of the art and music world in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Fitch has the details right: the clothing, the attitude, the buckets of carefully concealed angst. More than local detail, however, Fitch nails the humanity -- and sometimes the inhumanity -- of a carefully described and created cast of characters. Duplicitous Michael -- already dead as the book begins and who we meet in flashback -- his mother, the spider-like Meredith and our heroine, the teenage runaway Josie Tyrell, the girl Michael’s suicide left behind. -- Linda L. Richards

    The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades
    by Nega Mezlekia (Penguin Canada)
    At its core, The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades is the story of a single family. The marriage mentioned in the title occurs deep in the book. The unfortunate marriage is extremely unfortunate and sets off the sort of chain of events you don't come back from. By the time the marriage is reached, we've had many pages -- and many fictional years -- of Mezlekia's delicate, almost hypnotic, prose and have come to love the characters that inhabit this story. Mezlekia's style here is gentle, even charming. He seems to tell his tale starkly, and without embellishment -- almost like a village storyteller -- but this simplicity is deceptive. There is more going on here -- always -- than what at first meets the eye. Azeb Yitades’ family lives in Mechara, a village in eastern Ethiopia that is so isolated that life there has changed little for generations. It's a peaceful, lovely place surrounded by green hills and filled with people who are hardworking and largely content. Azeb is bright, quick and, in the way of young girls, gently rebellious. But as she moves towards adulthood, Azeb isn't the only thing changing. The arrival of a family of white missionaries begins the shake-up. They apply Christianity quite differently and Azeb's father, the village priest, is dismayed. But the building of a road that connects the village to the larger world completes the spiritual transformation of the hamlet. By the time the book concludes, we've dealt not only with Azeb's most unfortunate marriage, but the green hills are green no longer and the village has become part of the larger -- more discordant -- world. It's difficult to do justice to this book in a review. As used as we are to big stories where things explode and colors are loud and sometimes jarring, it's a challenge to find comparisons: if you liked this then you'll enjoy that. Other critics of Mezlekia's work have been less shy than I am. He's been compared to Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and others. -- Linda L. Richards

    The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro (McClelland & Stewart)
    Although billed as a collection of stories, these 11 “tales,” all in the first person, are definitely a departure from Munro’s usual short fiction. In her foreword, she explains how she had become more interested in one side of her family tree, the Laidlaw branch, with their origins in Scotland. The information she collected over the years began to shape itself into something like stories. “They were not memories but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written.” In fact, it’s family history that has been expanded into fiction. Part One travels further back in the time of her earlier ancestors and their adventures both in the old country and in America and Canada, while Part Two brings us to Munro’s parents and her own life. As always, the tales have the crystal clear perceptions and truths that always lie under the surface of Munro’s fiction. To read this latest work by one of Canada’s foremost writers is to learn more about her as well as to savour more of that deceptive style that keeps sneaking up on you with many a truth. -- Cherie Thiessen

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    Best Books of 2006