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The Eagle
by Jack Whyte
Published by Viking Canada
691, 2005

If you're a fan of the knights of the round table, chances are by now you've heard of Jack Whyte. If you haven't, get yourself to a bookstore and inhale now. This is the real deal, the much written about legend of King Arthur examined from every angle and brought skillfully to life by someone with as much passion for his topic as... well... anyone. He's had passion enough for the topic to go back to this particular well eight times before and to do it successfully enough that the publication of each new book brings him another raft of fans. With The Eagle, Whyte concludes his Arthurian series. (Yes, it's true. He really does.) The good news is, if you're coming to Whyte's work for the very first time, The Eagle stands entirely alone. Be warned, though: this is compelling stuff. One bite will not be enough. -- Lincoln Cho

Incendiary
by Chris Cleave
Published by Knopf
240 pages, 2005

Chris Cleave's powerhouse novel Incendiary had the rather unfortunate karma to be published in England on the day of the London bombings. This wasn't just inconvenient; it was downright creepy, as the novel is about a woman whose son and husband were killed in a suicide bombing ... in London. The book takes the form of the woman's letter to Osama bin Laden, and it's filled endpapers to endpapers with anger, sorrow and a complete sense of desperation. Cleave's voice -- really the woman's voice -- is heartbreaking in its searing honesty. If we were all to sit down and write the man a letter to express our frustration, our inability to understand his murderous motives, we would be lucky to put it into the kind of words Chris Cleave gives his heroine. In powerful times, this is a book that strives to put words against a reality that seems to defy them. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Madonna List
by Max Foran
Published by Brindle & Glass
375 pages, 2005

The title will have provided a hint: The Madonna Code. Even the publisher touts the book as having been written in "the spirit of The Da Vinci Code." But don't let that put you off. It's more likely it was published and perhaps even acquired in that spirit but, truly, the story here is strong enough that it doesn't need to reference any other book. Comparisons are an injustice to the work Foran -- who has been writing about history for many years -- has here created. Following the lives of two 19th-century men from Italy to Canada and, finally, to a penal colony in Australia where -- you guessed it -- the secret of the Madonna List is revealed. A historical thriller of the highest rank. -- Lincoln Cho

Mallory
by Margaret Gunning
Published by Turnstone Press
190 pages, 2005

Mallory is a gifted 14-year-old girl who is not coping well with a more than average-sized helping of struggle through adolescence. Largely ignored by her family, she is a loner and a fledgling writer who battles her demons with self-mutilation. The second novel by former January Magazine contributing editor Margaret Gunning will be a surprise to those who loved Gunning's debut novel, 2003's Better Than Life. Though some of the same points are explored here, Mallory is a completely original work with a much darker world view. Where Better Than Life was often side-spittingly funny, Mallory is poetic, disturbing and perfectly wrought. Unforgettable. -- Linda L. Richards

 

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco
Published by Harcourt
469 pages, 2005

On reading The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, one can't help wonder if, as Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, Baudolino, Five Moral Pieces and so many other books, heads to being a writer of a certain age, if there are themes of greater concern to him than perhaps they once were. Like all of Eco's work, this new novel crackles with his rare intelligence and understanding. A 60-something book dealer in Milan is having memory issues. Though he can remember the plot of every book he's ever encountered, he can remember very little of the details of his own life. He retreats to his family home in rural Italy and immerses himself in his personal history as well as that of his own generation. Eco's readers here are treated not only to his rare and welcome prose, but to many of the visual reminders he encounters. And so we have an illustrated novel from Umberto Eco and it's a rare and welcome treat. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a beautiful experiment that works on almost every level. -- Monica Stark

The Saint of Lost Things
by Christopher Castellani
published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
172 pages, 2005

This gentle book manages to avoid contrivance and sentimentality while still appealing to a wide readership. You can scarcely go wrong, therefore, including it on the gift list of almost anyone who enjoys a good book, from the elitist who claims to read only good literature to the reader who wants to escape into a good story. It's 1946 and Antonio Grasso has gone back to the mountains of central Italy, Santa Cecilia -- his birthplace -- to find himself an Italian wife to take back to America. He's 25 and his parents want him to find a good wife from the old country. It's easier than the womanizing Antonio expected once he sets his eyes on Maddalena for the first time. Beautiful, shy and elegant, the 18-year old girl is everything he's dreamed of. After the honeymoon he proudly returns to the family home with his new wife, convinced that babies will soon follow. The story begins seven years later; there are no babies and the couple still share the home with Antonio's parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their children. In cramped quarters, with no privacy, they do the best they can, wondering what happened to their dreams while regret slowly erodes their lives. This fiction is a gift, though, so you've got to know that things end well. Perhaps the saints play a part in this. Most of us would agree that Maddalena is a saint herself. At any rate, it's a well told tale about the Italian immigrant experience and when it translates to a movie, whoever the lucky recipient of your gift is, she/he will have read it first. -- Cherie Thiessen

Swastika
by Michael Slade
Published by Penguin Canada
426 pages, 2005

Michael Slade's Swastika is a significant departure for this writer and is probably no one's idea of a sweet and easy holiday read. Fortunately, sweet and easy isn't everyone's cup of tea. Nor, of course, will Swastika be for everyone. Just when you thought you'd heard everything you could possibly ever hear about the mad war Hitler waged in the middle part of the last century, Slade goes and stirs up something most readers will find quite new. The book moves between W.W.II Germany and contemporary Vancouver, where the RCMP's Special X unit is working on linking the development of the Nazi "wonder weapons" with two 21st century psychopaths. Though the ending of Swastika will surprise you, this is a thriller: it's all about the journey. -- Lincoln Cho

The Wonder Spot
by Melissa Bank
Published by Viking
324 pages, 2005

When The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing appeared a few years ago, author Melissa Bank became the new "It" girl. These days, she's credited/blamed for the rise of chick-lit, but the truth is, her first book was far more than that: more intelligent, more subtle, more funny, more satisfying. Now Bank's back with The Wonder Spot. While there have been a few who said that Spot was Guide redux, I don't think that's true or even fair. Spot has the disadvantage of being a second novel, but it's got the same edge, the same heart, the same sly and knowing wit as its older sister. Bank's voice is unlike anything around today. Her heroine, Sophie, tells her story with sometimes heartbreaking honesty, but always with a twist that I believe says more about her ability to weather her storms than anything else. She's a brave girl, braving treacherous waters as she looks for love and her place in this world -- and her bravery matters. To her, certainly, and also to me. To Melissa Bank, I have just this to say: "More, please." -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
St. Martin's Press
479 pages, 2005

Over the past several years, one of the great joys of the holiday season has, for me, been the arrival of the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Now in its 18th year, one of the delights is that you never know quite what to expect, but you're never, ever disappointed. 2005's edition was no exception. Represented here are some of the top pens in these genres as well as a few you've never heard of, but surely will. Included in the former are Gregory McGuire; China Miéville; Douglas Clegg (whose story, "The Skin of the World" really rocked mine); Tanith Lee; Chuck Palahniuk; Peter Straub; Elizabeth Hand; Jeffrey Ford; Joyce Carol Oates; Alice Hoffman and many others. With 43 stories included, it's impossible to give you a blow-by-blow in the space provided, but it's a top notch collection. Also top notch, as usual, are the genre summations in fantasy; horror; comics and graphic novels; anime and manga and, sadly, obituaries. Once again, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror is a completely worthwhile investment in reading. -- Lincoln Cho

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