Monthly Archives: December 2006

Top Ten Books of 2006

With great difficulty I’ve managed to isolate the ten new books (i.e. not re-reads) that I enjoyed most in 2006. I can’t possibly rank them in order of enjoyment so I’m listing them in the order I read them. I’ve linked to my earlier reviews of each book.

1. Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road
2. Ami McKay, The Birth House
3. Joan Clark, An Audience of Chairs
4. Andrea Levy, Small Island
5. Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan
6. Camilla Gibb, Sweetness in the Belly
7. Joshilyn Jackson, Between, Georgia
8. Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy
9. Robin Hobb, Shaman’s Crossing
10. Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice

The stats, for anyone who cares:

10 fiction, 0 non-fiction — not a good year for non-fiction for me!
4 Canadian, 2 British, 4 American novels
8 female, 2 male writers — about par for the course!
3 fantasy, 5 historical fiction, 2 contemporary fiction (a bit hard to determine as I’m never sure where I should mark the cut-off to consider a book “historical” vs “contemporary”)

Altogether I read about 80 books this year, which is fewer than I usually read, but only a few of them were re-reads this time, so I probably read more new books than I generally do. It’s been a good reading year and I’m looking forward to discovering more great books in 2007.

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Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb

In my last post I raved about re-reading a favourite novel by my favourite fantasy author. I continued my Christmas fantasy excursion by reading an old, but new-to-me, trilogy from my other favourite fantasy author. This was Robin Hobb’s Assassin trilogy. I had read the two follow-up trilogies, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man, but never the original series.

Robin Hobb is a brilliant fantasy writer and in Assassin’s Apprentice she introduces one of her most compelling and believable characters: FitzChivalry Farseer, an illegitimate son of the royal house of the Six Duchies. Six-year-old Fitz is a nobody and a political liability when he gets dumped on the royal family’s doorstep, but he quickly becomes the target for competing allegiances and loyalties that will continue to affect him throughout his life. Characterization and plot are brilliant here. My only complaint would be that the third novel of the series, Assassin’s Quest, is a bit slow in places — but by that time I was committed enough to Fitz and his story to follow him wherever he went, no matter how long it took. If you’re a fantasy lover and haven’t yet discovered Robin Hobb, I can’t recommend her novels highly enough. Start at the beginning with Assassin’s Apprentice – it’s the first of nine great novels which will keep you turning pages for weeks or months (depending on how quickly you read!)

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Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay

As I moved into my Christmas reading this year I decided to relax with some classic fantasy, which included re-reading my all-time favourite fantasy novel, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. I first read this about 12 or 13 years ago and I can still remember where I was sitting when I read the final pages and discovered the surprise twist at the ending: it hit me like a kick in the stomach. For my money, nobody can constuct a plot like Kay; he keeps me constantly on the edge of my seat with twists and turns and just when I think I’ve got everything figured out, he pulls another surprise out of the bag. Add to that memorable characters you can’t help falling in love with and a vivid, detailed, fully realized fantasy world, and you can see why I am shameless in declaring Guy Gavriel Kay the greatest living fantasy writer — or at least the best suited to my reading tastes!

Tigana is my favourite Kay novel because the story is so poignant and heartwrenching. A small country has lost its independence to a powerful dictator — but the dictator is also a sorcerer. As punishment for their resistance, the sorcerer cast a spell so that the name of the country — Tigana — would be unable to be heard or understood by anyone not born there. But wiping out the name, he literally erases the memory of a people and their culture.

The novel picks up twenty years later, when a small band of rebels is determined to overthrow the dictator and restore the name and nation of Tigana to map and memory. Every character is complex and compelling; the story never stops moving forward. I know that at least a couple of people who are near and dear to me and whose reading tastes I respect have found the beginning of Tigana slow and hard to get into, and having given up on it. I really can’t relate, but I have to say that if you find the beginning slow, you should hang in there till at least page 100 and see if you don’t start enjoying the ride. You don’t know what you’re missing.

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Ten Thousand Lovers, by Edeet Ravel

Ten Thousand Lovers is a spare, beautifully written novel about a young Canadian woman in Israel, Lilly, who falls in love with Ami, who is charming and lovable — but who works as an interrogator for the Israeli army. The progress of this sweet-yet-doomed love affair, and the difficulties Lily has accepting Ami’s career, are played out against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts of the 1970s.

One thing I really enjoyed were the small chapters interspersed between the main ones, in which the narrator explores the meaning and background of words, all of which provide insight into the characters and their culture.

The book is, as I said, beautifully written and I was completely absorbed while reading it. I found, however, that it didn’t leave a strong emotional impact on me — a month or so after reading it, the characters no longer live in my mind as characters from memorable books often do. I enjoyed reading it as a tragic love story and as a glimpse into a different time and place, and I would recommend it, but wouldn’t count it as a favourite novel. The sadness I felt over the characters and their lives dissapated too quickly. What lingered was the sadness of realizing how little has changed in the Middle East in 30 years, and how the people who live in that region are no closer to living in a peaceful society than Lilly and Ami were.

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Whitethorn Woods, by Maeve Binchy

Now I know there are some literary types who look down their noses at Maeve Binchy (of course, they’d look even farther down their noses at the “inspirational romance” category I’ve been reading, so that’s OK). However, I have to say I thoroughly enjoy a good Maeve; she’s always readable, has an unerring eye and ear for human behavior and dialogue, and is witty and insightful. Some of her earlier novels, such as Echoes and Circle of Friends, are enduring favourites of mine.

The really good thing with a Maeve Binchy novel is that you know what you’re getting. No unexpected twists and turns; a straightforward ride through a good story with engaging characters and a heartwarming ending. I rarely miss one of her books.

But … here’s the problem. The last few Maeve Binchies I’ve picked up have not been novels, even though they’ve been packaged to look like novels. Whitethorn Woods, whatever its pleasures (and they are many) is clearly not a novel. It is a collection of loosely linked short stories, the link being a common place (a shrine to St. Anne at a place called Whitethorn Woods). The connections between characters and stories are tenuous, but once I was willing to drop the expectation that I was getting a novel and read them as short stories I thoroughly enjoyed them. They are good, thought-provoking, heartwarming and insightful stories set in modern-day Ireland. But what I would enjoy even more would be a good thick Maeve Binchy novel in the style of Circle of Friends, where I would get attached to a small group of characters in the beginning and follow their fate over a period of months and years, rather than jumping off to get to know new people all the time.

Maeve, tell me you haven’t stopped writing novels! Give me something to look forward to!

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Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces is a big, sprawling, compelling novel set in 19th-century England and Europe. It’s the story of two doctors who are pioneers in the study of the human mind — back in the era when psychology, psychiatry and neurology were still poorly understood as disciplines and much of what went on in the brain was simply mysterious.

The story covers not only the professional careers of these two men, but also their private lives, their marriages, and the friendship that unites them. Fascinating speculations about mental illness and the nature of consciousness are interwoven into a realistic and believable human drama that kept me turning pages right to the end … and there were over 700 pages, so that was a lot of turning!

Faulks expects a lot of his readers. Lectures and papers on fairly intricate topics are not simply summarized for easy skimming, but reproduced in their entirety — one key lecture takes up twelve pages. If you’re not interested in the subject matter of how doctors and scientists understood the problem of mental illness over a hundred years ago, the story and characters may not be enough to keep you moving forward, but if (like me) you are intrigued by the topic, you’ll be interested to find it wrapped up in such a compelling story.

I had quibbles with the ending, which I found disappointing, but in general I found this a novel that required time and thought, but rewarded both generously.

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A Time to Mend, by Angela Hunt

Like my previous selection, Sandpiper Drift, I chose A Time to Mend specifically because I was exploring the sub-genre of “inspirational women’s fiction,” particularly the Steeple Hill imprint. This particular novel has a typical romance-novel plot structure: two strong-willed, independent souls strike sparks of all kinds when they meet in the hospital where she’s a nurse and he’s a doctor. They continually rub each other the wrong way yet can’t ignore the attraction between them. Each has painful secrets in their past that stand in the way of a new relationship — and of course there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind that those obstacles will be overcome by the final page. Oh, and of course she’s pretty and he’s gorgeous. No surprises there.

However, I’d consider A Time to Mend sort of romance-novel-plus, the “plus” being a really thorough, detailed and sensitive portrayal of a young woman’s battle with breast cancer. The medical aspect of the novel — a nurse who works with cancer patients discovers that she herself has a malignant tumour — is far more compelling than the romance, which did feel a little formulaic to me. This was an enjoyable read and if you like inspirational romance I’d definitely recommend it, but it was the cancer story that made it memorable for me.

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