Best of Fiction 2005












Brain Work: Stories by Michael Guista (Mariner Books)

Brain Work is a perfect title; it anticipates exactly what the reader will receive. Cerebral and thoughtful,the author has a way of making the mundane profound: "I believe in death, and now have little reason to have faith in immortality, so time is incredibly awesome to me, in both the wonderful and the terrifying sense of the word. I kill time only when I'm wedged in by it on all sides." Superficially many of the stories seem to be about psychological treatment for abnormal behavior, both neurosis and psychosis, but time and time again the characters and readers find themselves up against the intangible, the inexplicable, as the story slips from solid ground: The psychiatrist who finally gives up his search for the soul, two elderly patients who find the courage to step outside their institution and redefine love, the interviewer who is driven to desperately seek proof of angels. Charles Baxter, in his foreword, astutely writes: "The evidence of things unseen is where psychology and religion meet. Psychology has one explanation for visions, religion another. Psychology was once thought to have demystified religious thought or to have displaced it entirely. But what these stories do is to hold these two explanations in a kind of suspension." He goes on to say that it is very rare for a modern writer to deal with the spiritualization of psychic disorders and he's right. This is what gives these tales their edge and will make them stand out for the persevering reader. These 14 stories, some of them as short as six pages, are full of suffering people, all of whom Guista views with compassion and amazement. It's not so much the plots that will grip you, but rather the pain of each of these characters. It feels as if a new noun needs to be invented to describe their situation and the themes of the book, a noun with as much weight as existentialism to define this 21st Century struggle, to balance the psychological condition with a shifting spiritual anxiety. Guista's stories have appeared in many reviews and journals but Brain Work is his first published book. Original and provoking, combining angst and awe, theology and therapy, these stories will mess with your mind. -- Cherie Thiessen

George Alec Effinger: Live From Planet Earth by George Alec Effinger (Golden Gryphon Books)

Anyone would have wanted to ask George Effinger "Where do you get your ideas?" because his answer would have been hilarious, full of insight into creativity and the writing process. Almost every story here deserves mention for some reason; "At the Bran Foundry" is just a totally jaw-dropping weirdness about how they make raisin bran. Think you know? Think again. And "From Downtown at the Buzzer" is wonderful. Just wonderful. Aliens and basketball. Several of the introductions mention how often Effinger's short stories ended up in the best anthologies. The New Dimensions anthologies and the Orbits and the "best of" collections of the 1970s and 1980s were where you could find so much great stuff. Many of these appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which made me happy as that was, for me, the best of the magazines. It's not necessarily a question of the best writing, but what clicked for me and F&SF always brought me what I liked to read. Whimsy, imagination, an edge of goofiness and an understanding of people populate these stories. If you know Effinger's long fiction, as I did, I suspect the storytelling talent here will come as no surprise. If this guy's a new name to you, read. And keep reading. Either way, this is a worthy addition to your library, just so you have available any one of these examples of an author at his best. -- Andi Shechter

Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties by Merrill Joan Gerber (University of Wisconsin Press)

Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties explores college life in the late 1950s through the eyes of Francie, a Jewish girl from New York. At the University of Florida, Francie experiences culture shock: here crew-cut boys address all women as "Ma'am," and female students work hard to obtain their MRS before graduation. She is increasingly exasperated by her roommate's obsession with Bride's Magazine and her relentless determination to find a husband. Francie's secret dream is to write, and she is ripe for friendships centered around more meaningful pursuits. While she doesn't rule out marriage, she is more interested in "the biological imperative -- the overpowering drive to mate" than in wedding gowns, bouquets and multitiered cakes. Francie feels an immediate bond with Liz and Amanda, students from her Russian literature class and is delighted to finally have friends with whom she can discuss important issues, including why Professor Raskolnikov and male students are encouraged to meet at the campus coffee shop in the evenings to discuss "life and literature," while female students aren't allowed out of their rooms. Liz and Amanda introduce Francie to three male friends. Unhappy with the lack of freedom and eager to experience real life, the six of them move into a big house off campus for their final term. Although increased freedom means additional responsibility, it also liberates the girls to pursue their own dreams rather than fulfill others' expectations. Along the way, Francie meets and falls in love with Joshua, a young piano student, and struggles with the decision of whether to give in to her sexual desires. Today's sophisticated college students will probably be amused by the couple's surreptitious make-out sessions and Francie's unwarranted pregnancy scare, but given the mores of the day, her fears are understandable. Today's college students, with their coed dorms and gender-equal instruction, may well consider the education culture experienced by their parents and grandparents ancient history. For those who came of age in the middle of the last century, however, a discussion of that period is like looking in the rearview mirror at a place you're happy you'll never see again. -- Mary Ward Menke

Ladykiller by Charlotte Gill (Thomas Allen)

In Gill's seven stories we meet people who are frozen, their lives etched in brilliant clarity, their relationships caught just as they are about to crumble and blur away into yesterday. Not one union in these stories is a positive one. These are edgy, taut stories, frequently about people we would rather not know. People, for example, like the self-destructive drug dealer in "You Drive" who had a problem: "He ran into women like telephone poles for the pain,the intensity,the continual drama. He knew exactly why. They distracted him from a disease of too much quiet." People like Colby, the scuba instructor on his way out of a job, behind on his rent, about to be evicted and sexually succumbing to a truculent rebellious teenager who is definitely going to make the expression "jailbait" relevant. Or sons and lovers like Gary, the ladykiller of the title story, who simply cannot resist random acts of sex with strangers, even when it means abandoning his dying mother who is about to pass out. Nominated for this year's Governor General Award for fiction, Ladykiller is as fresh as it is stark. Gill puts the English language under great stress, making every word work harder than its wont. Not only are words forced to create perfect pictures for us, they also serve as neon signs illuminating the central character's mood, enhancing the feeling whether it be bleakness and depression, boredom, surliness or self-defeat. Like afterglow, the stories are imprinted in our minds long after they've come and gone. Gill may be tough with her language and her readers, taking them on journeys they may prefer not to go on, but with her characters she is sensitive and non-judgmental. The world can use more of that. Gill's is a welcome new voice. -- Cherie Thiessen

Looking for Bigfoot by Mike Palecek (Howling Dog Press)

In my review of this fine book I discussed my preference for fiction rather than non. Mike Palecek had supplied an argument for me within the book, that "good fiction ... is a more accurate way of saying the truth than the actual stating of facts" and that the fiction writer "can say what the reporters are too chicken to." Current events may be giving the lie to these statements as the news has become just as strange as fiction. However this enhances rather than diminishes the value of a book I consider the best of the year. It's about survival and searching. It's about truth, injustice and the American way. -- Chuck Gregory

Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way by Bruce Campbell (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne)

As I sit down to write this reviewlet to be included among the selections of January Magazine's Best of 2005 feature, I have to acknowledge that Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way seems a ridiculous choice to be featured alongside the esteemed works of literature that will doubtless also be mentioned in the feature. Since its publication earlier in 2005, no one has been going around accusing Campbell of having created a great work of art. And yet, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way has had on me the influence of a bowl of porridge: it's stuck with me in the months since I've read the book, often in unexpected ways. The first challenge is deciding just what the book is. On the cover, it's billed as a novel, yet the book is written in the first person. "Yes," writes Campbell. "I'm the lead character in the story and I'm a real person and everything in the book actually happened, except for all the stuff that didn't." Clear, right? Clear as mud. Actually reading the book doesn't make anything any clearer. Ostensibly, the story revolves around B-list actor Campbell's preparation for a role in a Mike Nichols film and it does, except we're also treated to Campbell's views on life and marriage and acting and... everything. Campbell -- who has appeared in the Evil Dead series of films as well as the Spiderman movies and who starred in the new cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep and who is also the author of If Chins Could Kill -- is a real and vital talent. If you've never heard of him, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way will prove it to you easily. Talented and very, very funny, Campbell is the real deal and Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way is a keeper. -- Adrian Marks

The Narrows by Alexander C. Irvine (Del Rey)

The writing in this SF/F novel is powerful, clear and absolutely immediate. Irvine's talent is such that The Narrows is seldom anything but a thrilling ride. With a sleight of hand due extreme talent and the wonders of modern fiction, The Narrows takes place in a sort of alternate 1940s Detroit where a wartime Ford factory churns out golems (yes, golems!) rather than automobiles and the assembly line is run by a crazed rabi. Kept from the front lines of the war by a slight injury -- and something more sinister the reader discovers fairly early on -- Jared Cleaves is frustrated by his life on the secret Frankenline and wishes he could do more for the war effort; something that would make his family proud. It takes a while for him to realize that the something he can do is not overseas but, quite literally, beneath his feet. Readers that generally avoid alternate history novels won't necessarily be put off by Irvine's tale. The Narrows is carefully crafted, stunningly presented and absolutely worthy of this author. -- Sienna Powers

The Nettle Spinner by Kathryn (Goose Lane)

A fairy tale of peasant love and revenge is interwoven with a modern young woman's story of love and escape. The common thread linking the two is an improbable one; each of the women is weaving a tapestry using the challenging fiber of the nettle, a plant that punishes more often than it rewards. By undertaking this difficult task, each woman is attempting to vanquish the tormentor in their lives. We just don't realize that this is what is happening until the end. Here is a very clever tale that bites as much as the nettle. Kuitenbrouwer writes with such confidence and authority that discovering this is her first novel seems almost as astonishing as the feat of those nettle spinners, separated in time by centuries but joined by shared themes. Alma fell in love with the idea of tree-planting as a young student and pursued this passion in Ontario's ravaged far north, where her idealism may have been as blasted as the forest, but where her resolve remained firm. The seamy reality the author presents us with is portrayed unrelentingly. She's also no stranger to the power of the image. Not only does the nettle tapestry serve as an evolving symbol of evil and its vanquishment, but the actual setting of the novel itself is shot through with visions that evoke impressions of devastation, depression, disillusionment, despair, despoliation. For four seasons Alma has returned to plant trees and live in squalor with a team of ragged, bug bitten misfits. What's drawn her here? And what draws her back, alone, to attempt to live in the shack where once she and her lover conjoined? How can she exist here? If she can be violently attacked in the middle of her populated camp by a man she's known for ages and always considered harmless, how safe can she be now, by herself in this wilderness? But it turns out she is not alone, and lucky for her. An elderly male has already has taken up residence and more than welcomes her. He feeds her, protects her, warms her, gives up his space and ultimately helps care for a baby she never wanted. Is it her attacker or her departed lover's baby? We'll never know. This is one skilled author. This was not a book I put down easily. -- Cherie Thiessen

Saturday by Ian McEwan (Nan E. Talese)

It's difficult to imagine a Best of 2005 list -- or a best of the decade list for that matter -- without McEwan's brilliant Saturday on it. Though some readers voiced a sort of love/hate feeling about the book, there were very few who didn't actually read it. As the title suggests, Saturday takes place over a single weekend day, a day like any other that will, however, change the life of Henry Perowne, an affluent middle-aged neurosurgeon. The story is compelling and, in many ways, important. Saturday is the very best work of a writer whose CV is stuffed with great books, including his previous novel, the rightly celebrated Atonement. But as good as that book was, Saturday is even better. -- Adrian Marks


Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie (Knopf)

Salman Rushdie's tenth novel is magnificent. Though not the largest "big" novel of 2005, Shalimar the Clown is emotionally epic. What's most striking here is that while much of the ground Rushdie covers in the book is touched with his special view of the fantastic, the situations often seem unsettlingly real. And while the themes here are dark -- war, terrorism, extremism in all its ugly manifestations -- Shalimar the Clown is imbued with an optimism that is characteristic of this writer. Yes, he seems to be saying, things can be terrible, but there is always the possibility of hope. It's a message worth taking home. -- Sienna Powers.

The Society of Others by William Nicholson (Nan A. Talese)

Award-winning screenwriter Nicholson entangles a disaffected young man in a cinematic plot in his debut novel for a mature audience. He recalls opening scenes depicting the whiny privileged in films like Garden State or The Graduate, but then launches his protagonist on an accidental search for meaning in a nameless country terrorized by an authoritarian government. The novel delivers in ways much more savory than a gunslinging motorcycle chase or a college kid's realization that home is where the heart is. Before our twentysomething can find himself he must explore the unstable world outside his national borders, where the freedom to be disaffected might be worth dying for. Nicholson touchingly captures in this constructed environment the inspiring first moments of intellectual awakening, where questions of purpose have as much breathless urgency as the climax of an action film. Although this novel's concluding scenes leave readers unsure of what exactly happens, the ride with Nicholson is worth it to ponder whether mere life might just be this same kind of aimless yet essential conversation shared with others. -- Molly Farrell

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow (Tor)

Cory Doctorow's latest is a weird book. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is serious weird. Given the broad range of imaginative science fiction, you're thinking: How weird can it be, right? Alan's mother is a washing machine. His father is a mountain, and one of his brothers is an island (and for those keeping score, points off to my partner who, when I explained this to him commented, "I thought no man was an island." Ahem.). Three of Alan's other brothers are a trio of nesting dolls, and one was a hateful hellish murderous evil monster who's dead but who has a tendency to come back. Interspersed between the story of Alan, who grew up as the oldest of several sons in a family that cannot be explained, dealt with or described to anyone out in the world. Often, Alan, who now lives in Toronto, is as ordinary/normal as anyone: a weird but interesting, wealthy guy. He knows he's not typical or normal so goes out of his way to try to pass, to befriend people, seem non-threatening. He introduces himself to his neighbors and makes sure he's not too loud. He works with a street punk on free networking. And things are pretty normal there too, except that one of his neighbors has wings -- leathery not feathery -- that grow down to her ankles if they're not cut back. All of this contributes to making Someone Comes to Town incredibly difficult to summarize. There are several stories in this book and none of them can be described well nor should any of them be skipped. Are Alan and his brothers monsters that need to be destroyed? At least one person thinks so and is intent on harming them. Is it important to give street kids access to computers or mobile phones which provide free speech? Weigh in on that one, it comes up in conversation. Can you believe a man's mother is a washing machine? Um, well in context... Trust me, it all works. Or if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. Some of it should work for you. It's worth a try because this is an amazing display of talent. -- Andi Shechter

Until I Find You by John Irving (Random House)

Make no mistake: Until I Find You is, in many ways, a very dark book. Perhaps Irving's darkest to date. But, being Irving, there is humor tucked into the darkness, though sometimes you have to look for a bit to find it. Jack Burns is, for much of the book, tragic. A sad sack with nowhere to turn, he has fame, money and very little else. Everything about him is larger than life: hugely abused as a child, wildly famous as an adult and oddly insulated and isolated by that fame. But, before we part company with him, we discover that, despite various advantages and disadvantages and the things that contribute to making him somehow other, Jack is not so different from anyone else. Frail and human, spending his life, like you and I, stumbling towards the light. Until I Find You is the perfect book to follow Irving's disastrous 2001 novel, The Fourth Hand. Fans that had wondered if the author of such modern classics as The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules still had the right stuff need wonder no more. While Until I Find You will clearly not be for everyone, it is a darkly beautiful book that will stand shoulder to shoulder with the best work this author has produced. -- Linda L. Richards

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender (Doubleday)

Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures is full of dark, lovely stories, bizarre and compelling. Together they rehearse the many patterns of control and helplessness that make up love, both romantic and familial. The collection abounds in parables of pregnancy, grotesque fantasies of motherhood full of mutant children and unwanted responsibility. Motherhood is a daze of powerlessness -- the alien invasion of the body, the biological compulsion to nurture, the need to protect something utterly defenseless. In "Dearth," a woman wakes up one day and finds some potatoes sitting unexpectedly in her house, nestled in a pot. Assuming they are a mistaken grocery order, she throws them away. They return. What follows is a comic progression of potato-deaths: she bakes and butchers them, but each time they return the following day. Her frustration at their repeat appearance is matched only by her horror when one is missing: she is attached to this ritual of annihilation. At last she is able to accept and love these strange children, but elsewhere, women are predators as well as nurturers. In "Debbieland," we witness a high school bully's alternating brutality and kindness and wince at what is most pathetic about love: the vulnerability and petty games and jockeying for position, the conventions of power. Perhaps the most memorable story is "The End of the Line," in which a lonely and capricious office worker purchases a tiny man in a cage from a pet store. At first, the big man is almost overwhelmed with fondness for this small companion, but over time, his love grows more violent, oppressive and controlling. The owner's impotence drives him to increasingly terrible actions -- he poisons the tiny man, leaves him in the refrigerator and the toaster oven -- his is the fitful cruelty of overpowering affection. At last, he frees the tiny man, and sitting alone on the pavement, he calls to the tiny family that cower and hide from him, the tiny child "who watched the giant outside put her hat on his enormous head and could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart." The final line is all the more bracing because Bender's refined style is never overwrought or melodramatic; her prose preaches acceptance of the most surreal events in the matter-of-fact way of small children, the grace that comes from releasing the need for control over expectations and embracing powerlessness. -- Summer Block

Zorro: The Novel by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins) 

I figure that life is too short to read depressing arty novels. I read for pleasure. This one gave me a lot of pleasure and brightened my reading year no end. Isabel Allende was commissioned to write a novel about the early career of the swashbuckling hero of dozens of movies and books, and she appears to have had a ball doing it. Her hero, born to a Spanish officer and his Native American wife, in the Californian village of Los Angeles, finds himself being hunted across post-Napoleonic Spain, where he has gone to study swordplay and ended up part of an organization that fights for Truth, Justice and the Spanish Way. In this novel, we find out how he learned his athletic tricks, where he got his horse Tornado, his equivalent of the Batcave and even his elegant black costume. The author sets up a chandelier early in the novel, just so he can swing from it near the end. Turn on the reading lamp, put some Eric Korngold music on the stereo and enjoy! -- Sue Bursztynski

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