The Best Fiction Books of 2005

[3 January 2006]

By PopMatters Staff

by Ian McEwan

>(Nan A. Talese)

“Perhaps it’s one of those cases of a microcosm giving you the whole world,” ponders Henry Perowne, the hero in Ian McEwan’s powerful novel, Saturday. Perowne is referring to his son’s fascination with the Blues, but the statement also charts Saturday‘s grand ambition: to show the plight of the West after 9/11 through a day in the life of one man. Perowne’s London world is a cosseted one; he’s a successful neurosurgeon, loving husband, proud father, and — how can you blame him? — a bit smug. But on this particular Saturday, while anti-war protesters are flooding the streets, a series of unusual events — a burning plane crosses the sky, a run-in with an aggressive thug — throw that world, and Perowne’s view of it, into question. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, Saturday‘s important exploration of moral responsibility, both on an individual and international scale, becomes all the more hauntingly resonant.
Ratha Tep PopMatters review Amazon

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)
by J.K. Rowling


J.K. Rowling took it up another notch with The Half-Blood Prince. Almost unexpectedly bleak, the sixth book in her record setting series is her best yet. The ultimately comforting boarding school hi jinx have been replaced by a suffocating sense of foreboding and the desperate unhappiness of a society at war with itself. The skies are growing necessarily darker as the final deadly conflict looms, and the humor is blackening steadily to suit. Of course, Harry, Ron and Hermione must still cope with all the pressures of their teenage years, but they hardly have time to count their spots, let alone paint their bedrooms black and get into the Cure, as Voldemort’s armies begin to gather strength and exercise their growing magic muscle. Of course, the surprising death at the end of The Half-Blood Prince leaves you wanting more, and hoping for the redemption and the resurrection that the clues seem to suggest will come. Whatever happens next, one thing’s for sure: book seven will be bigger than the Beatles.
Roger Holland PopMatters review Amazon

Willful Creatures
by Aimee Bender


Aimee Bender once again proves herself a master of the contemporary short story. Willful Creatures, her second collection, confirms her as one of the most imaginative and innovative writers around, constantly pushing boundaries as she explores the dark side of the human psyche. Willful Creatures is far more sadistic than The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which romped and played much more than it bit. While Bender trades in some of her fantasy fiction for more straightforward realism, her stories here lose none of their magic. Even when she writes from the perspective of slightly deranged protagonists, Bender’s prose is sugar and spice with broken glass mixed in. “Debbieland” experiments with a first-person plural voice that explains why a character named Debbie has to be beaten up: “Debbie wore the skirt because she’d seen enough people wear it to know it was okay. She wore the scary skirt safely. For that, we despise Debbie.” “Fruit and Words” imagines a convenience store that sells word shapes made out of their referents. “Motherfucker” tells the story of a motherfucker who teaches a movie-star mother how to fuck. Bender’s twisted sense of humor is only amplified by the simplistic prose in which she injects it.
Megan Milks PopMatters review Amazon

Lunar Park
by Bret Easton Ellis


Lunar Park is one of the more ingenious feats of literary prestidigitation I’ve seen in quite some time. The first chunk of the book — roughly the first third — places the reader in familiar territory, deep in the heart of Ellis’ peculiarly amoral and at times hysterically disassociative universe. Despite Ellis’ unquestioned brilliance as a prose stylist, the reader wearies, mentally girding themselves for another dose of Gothic modernity in the vein of American Psycho and Glamorama. But then, something strange happens: Lunar Park, far from merely a tired recapitulation of Ellis’ fascination with societal pathology, evolves into something much more intimate and affecting. While the readers’ eyes are glued to the leering specter of Patrick Bateman and all the sociopathic baggage of a career spent plumbing the worst excesses of human depravity, Ellis quietly transforms his narrative into a quest for redemption and an affirmation of the most basic human values — love, family and filial affection. By exercising his essential human right to honest regret, Ellis exploits the only taboo left unmolested in his shock-defined career. He emerges from Lunar Park reinvigorated and redefined.
Tim O’Neil PopMatters review Amazon

On Beauty
by Zadie Smith


While almost every book explores, to some extent, human commonality and belonging, few focus on who we are not and how we are different as explicitly or as honestly as Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Set in a white, upper-class northeastern college town, On Beauty explores the relationships of Howard Belsey, a liberal, white, middle-aged mediocre professor, his black, obese hospital administrator wife Kiki, and their three children, each struggling to negotiate their blackness while navigating the ways they can differentiate themselves — physically, politically, religiously, intellectually, and economically — from their parents and one another. Complicating matters for the Belsey clan are Howard’s tryst with a university colleague and the arrival of Howard’s more successful, conservative arch nemesis, Monte Kipps, and his picture-perfect family. Her novel rife with allusions to and contemporary adaptations of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, 30-year-old Smith skillfully charts the dissolution of a 30-year marriage with the acumen of a much older sage while exploring the Belsey children’s comings of age with an authentic youthfulness. As the book draws to a close, this rare combination of wisdom and youth enables Smith to the possibility that our fates are tied as much to our differences as our similarities. Ushering in countless questions about who we are and aren’t with her brilliant wit and spellbinding prose, Smith has ensured that On Beauty is one for the ages — all ages, colors, and creeds.
Laura Nathan PopMatters review Amazon

by Mary Gaitskill


Mary Gaitskill pokes holes in the glitzy façade of the fashion world with this melancholy tale of beauty, aging, and friendship. Her notoriously dark and sexually adventurous writing has matured in this lyrical reflection on the physical, by way of the ‘80s fashion scene and its stream of coke binges, endless parties, and beautiful young things. The middle-aged Alison, now crippled with an injured arm and hepatitis C, recalls her teen years spent living fast as one of the up-and-coming models in Paris. She returns to New York, still young and radiant, yet she never truly breaks through, and holds down a succession of jobs in the meantime while attempting to find work modeling. Central to the narrative is Alison’s conflicted relationship with Veronica, who is HIV positive, awkward, yet comfortable in her skin, and whose lack of beauty and hipness triggers both pity and disdain from Alison. There’s promise of redemption in her friendship with Veronica, whom she has in some ways become closer to through her own faded beauty and suffering.
Anne Yoder PopMatters review Amazon

by Scarlett Thomas

>(Harvest Books)

PopCo is perhaps the most original novel I’ve read this year, equal parts cryptanalysis, detective caper, and marketing strategy. Scarlett Thomas, in her third novel, gives us a protagonist whose job it is to generate brand ideas for PopCo, the third-largest toy company in the world. After Alice Butler, an observant outsider type, is selected by PopCo to develop a product to market to teen girls, she is distracted by encoded messages that suggest someone is following her. The novel, written from Alice’s point of view, is like the movie Pi crossed with No Logo and written with a girl-detective slant that’s smarter than everyone’s favorite, Nancy Drew.
Megan Milks Amazon

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li

>(Random House)

The undercurrent running through A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is Communist China, and its intelligent, assured author, Yiyun Li, deftly shows the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which it pervades the lives of her Chinese and Chinese American characters. But it’s not just the immense subject matter she takes on that’s admirable, but also the astoundingly original ways in which she goes about doing so. In the title story, written in a quiet and understated prose, an elderly man visiting his grown-up daughter in the U.S. rediscovers how to talk openly—with a Persian woman who barely understands him. In the beautifully lyrical and gutsy “Persimmons,” anonymous, communal voices talk in layers, slowly shaving away to tell the story of the senseless death of a fellow villager’s son at the hands of the county judge. Glaringly honest and deeply perceptive, Li has delivered a revelatory debut collection.
Ratha Tep Amazon

We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories
by Owen King


A hell of a debut, Owen King’s book is a blending of the real and the surreal within our present world. He deconstructs with little effort but tremendous impact our varied alliances within our families, friend groups, and our government. This is a biting and original work, with only a few hints of King’s genealogy mainly to do with his earnestness and stark imagery. Straight out of the gate, though, this King has proven himself a writer worth watching for his own clear talent.
Nikki Tranter Amazon

A Slight Trick of the Mind
by Mitch Cullin

>(Nan A. Talese)

Two Sherlock Holmes novels over the last several years have enfeebled the unflappable detective with his most spiteful of adversaries — age. In The Final Solution, Pultzer Prize winner Michael Chabon never actualized either the book’s genre leanings or literary heritage as expected. Early this year, though, Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind hit all the right notes, giving us a Holmes whose approaching death has yet to waver his curiosity, but persistently brings attention to his shortcomings. Without the lumbering genre conventions Chabon tried to wrap his story in, Cullin’s book brings a mournfully poetic melancholy to the hunt, leaving us with a Holmes we never knew, but one that thrills all the same.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

Magic for Beginners
by Kelly Link

>(Small Beer Press)

Kelly Link’s second collection trumps her first on all levels. The fantastic is more subtle here, more sinister and more pervasive. Link writes fantasy fiction in clear, crisp prose that features nontraditional zombies, a fictional television show, and large stone rabbits. She’s toeing the line between literature and sci-fi/fantasy, and her books are usually found in the latter section in stores. The stories in Magic for Beginners are lengthier than typical short stories, driven by solid characters and weird, intriguing scenarios, like a 24-7 gas station that caters to zombies and humans alike. Link brings to each of her pieces a dreamlike, unsettling quality that adds to the sense that on some level of super-reality, all of the weirdness makes some sort of sense.
Megan Milks Amazon

Eleanor Rigby
by Douglas Coupland


No longer looked to as some kind of generational spokesperson, in the last handful of years Douglas Coupland has been writing novel after fascinating novel, tackling big questions about life and death, meaning, desires, and spirituality. In Eleanor Rigby, the tale of the loneliest woman in the world and the secrets she keeps, he again does so in his own charming way. Like his 2003 novel Hey Nostradamus, it appears to be modest in scope but is ultimately quite the opposite. Coupland’s world allows for flights of fancy, for the world to contain surprises and mysteries, yet presents them in a directly emotional way that feels realistic.
Dave Heaton Amazon

Ice Haven
by Daniel Clowes


The disappearance of a small boy provides the backdrop for the dozen or so vignettes that comprise cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ portrait of the suburban town of Ice Haven. The missing boy permeates throughout the book, but Clowes focuses more on the mundane, everyday-lives of Ice Haven’s inhabitants, presenting an incisive, often hilarious, and sometimes disturbing portrait of the town. Clowes’ vignettes comprise of everything from detective noir (a husband-wife team hired to investigate the mystery of the missing boy), to teen comics from the 1950s (new girl in school Violet, who pines for Penrod, an older man from her previous home town) to the modern meta-comic (comics critic Harry Naybors both is involved in the narrative(s) and comments on Clowes’ book periodically). The heart of this collection, however, is the poet/zinester Vida, whose eloquent ruminations on the small town connect all the lonely townspeople and their struggles beautifully.
Raquel Laneri Amazon

Black Hole
by Charles Burns


The first issue came out in 1995, and now all twelve are have been collected in one 368-page tome. Charles Burns’ graphic tour-de-force is a masterwork of retro-pop metaphor and motif. A sexually transmitted disease known as “The Bug” descends upon teenagers in 1970s Seattle and works in the book as an unnerving metaphor for the fear and confusion of late adolescence. The disease does different things to different people, all rendered here with grotesque precision in Burns’ trademark high-contrast style. This story is disturbing, unsettling, and frequently overwhelming: a doozy of the best kind.
Megan Milks Amazon

The March
by E.L. Doctorow

>(Random House)

E.L. Doctorow’s Civil War epic The March is surprisingly the most enthralling page-turned I have come across all year. As in his masterpieces Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, Doctorow’s interpretation of the past is a loose one: one where fictional characters mingle and collide with actual historical figures. The March is a brilliant bloody mess (much like the war itself) of loosely-connected stories, all relating to General Sherman’s infamous march through the South. One narrative concerns a mixed-race slave girl cum drummer boy and surrogate son to Sherman; one, a love story between a Southern girl and a Union surgeon; one, the tale of two existentialist Confederate soldiers who desert and change sides as often as possible as a means to survive. Even the General himself is a main character. Doctorow doesn’t seamlessly weave them together so much as he creates a collage — a modernist pastiche on the many effects and interpretations of war, from its perpetrators and its victims, though everyone is a victim in his story. Beautifully written, with observations that ring true in our modern society (on race, allegiance, identity), The March is a page-turner that is thrilling and intelligent.
Raquel Laneri Amazon

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro


Kazuo Ishiguro’s understatement of the unavoidable devastation awaiting his characters is his fiction’s most piercing trait, and in the brilliantly brushed Never Let Me Go, the wreckage that never makes it onto the canvas, the finality of each character’s future, is as tightly affecting as every singular stolid moment of the book’s narrative. This is fiction melded with science, not haranguing dystopia, but an unhurried deliberation on the unnerving dogmas of cloning, and the persistent hum of belonging and betrayal. Never Let Me Go bristles with a predestined acceptance slowly revealed by the doubt showing through when some begin to question the unraveling providence of their trained obsolescence. It’s a novel of, and for, the ages.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie

>(Random House)

The public life of Salman Rushdie will regrettably always eclipse his literary achievements; even with the high acclaim he has rightfully won as a critical and commercial success. Trying to top both a fatwa and a Booker of Bookers award must be daunting for an author, although you’d never realize it from his unabated virtuoso work which continues. Shalimar the Clown, his ninth novel, shifts time and place, from present to ancient past, moving through Kashmir, France, and America with burning multicultural quandaries. The intimate betrayals Rushdie infuses the book with keep the tale timeless, never allowing the novel to be encased in the polemical now, but letting it belong to the characters and each of their failings. Shalimar the Clown is Rushdie’s finest epic work since Midnight’s Children.
Shandy Casteel PopMatters review Amazon

by Benjamin Kunkel

>(Random House)

Coming-of-age stories no longer need to address adolescence, it seems, as we are coming of age later and later in life. In his debut novel, Benjamin Kunkel, one of the founders of literary magazine n+1, leads us through his protagonist’s quarter-life crisis. Dwight B. Wilmerding is an over-affluent 28-year-old tormented by relentless indecision and the directionless path his life has taken thus far. Dwight, who works at Pfizer, tries an experimental drug whose purpose is to prevent indecision. Suddenly he is off to Bogotá to visit an old flame and finally, finally do something. Indecision is a comic novel written in an engaging first-person voice brimming with snarky witticisms sure to smack Kunkel with the “voice-of-a-generation” tag. A Generation X for Generation Y.
Megan Milks Amazon

by Wesley Stace

>(Little, Brown)

One can be forgiven for overlooking a book such as Misfortune. The author, singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, is probably most well known for nabbing a spot on the High Fidelity soundtrack. Shedding the pseudonym for his real name, however, Wesley Stace’s success as a first-time novelist can hardly be a surprise. Portions of his writing talent can be gleaned from his musical compositions, but this fanciful parable is an enchantment of frilly Victorian proportions — a romp and roll of a good read. At moments, it does stutter, but once it catches its breath, Stace’s story of Rose Loveall’s gender-disorientation is unruly, and beautifully so.
Shandy Casteel PopMatters review Amazon

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
by Lydia Millet

>(Soft Skull)

This fantastical story focused on the fallout of the atomic age is — amazingly — Millet’s second novel of 2005. In it the three physicists who lead the Manhattan Project — J Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard — are transported to present day, where they learn of the devastating effects their brainchild has had on the planet, not the least of which is the proliferation of nuclear arms and the ever-imminent threat of annihilation. The adventurous road trip narrative is deftly interspersed with grave accounts of the human carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the casualties of nuclear testing, and the ever-growing stockpile of weapons we’re hording to “protect” ourselves. It’s a smart and witty read that simultaneously provides a sobering perspective on the nation’s past and humanity’s collective future.
Anne Yoder PopMatters review Amazon

All the Flowers Are Dying
by Lawrence Block

>(William Morrow)

Lawrence Block is a master of plot, characterization, and dialogue; and he’s been telling lies for fun and profit for decades. My own small personal library measures Block’s books not in numbers, but by the yard of shelf space. The man is prolific, but his masterpiece has always been Matthew Scudder, and so Block has returned regularly to Scudder’s ever noir New York neighborhood for more than 30 years. Originally, the intriguing darkness in Scudder’s life came from his alcoholism, and from the tragedy that drove him out of the police force and into the welcoming depths of the bottle. But Scudder has long since come to terms with his own demons, so now, in his 16th outing, our hero must face a demon and a darkness quite beyond his own experience. Hunted by an unknown killer, Scudder and his wife Elaine must seek refuge behind the barricades while the unlicensed occasional detective struggles with that time honored question: Can I get him before he gets me?
Roger Holland Amazon

Slow Man
by J.M. Coetzee


J.M. Coetzee’s writing seems to become more ambitious with each successive novel and literary prize. In his latest novel, Slow Man, Coetzee elucidates 60-year-old Paul Rayment’s struggles with old age and the realities and challenges it presents after he loses a leg in a bicycle accident. With Paul so ready to accept defeat in the early part of the novel, the reader can’t help but wonder just how closely Coetzee — himself an avid 65-year-old bicycler and recluse who has already achieved the pinnacle of literary accomplishments, the Nobel Prize — identifies with his main character. But when Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist from and namesake of Coetzee’s last book, shows up at Paul’s door mid-novel to challenge Slow Man‘s protagonist to confront his desires and fears, to seize life and love, Coetzee’s inner turmoil, as both a writer and a man, becomes increasingly evident. By reintroducing Costello with this “postmodern trick,” Coetzee, through his beautifully fluid prose and emotionally challenging encounters between strangers, facilitates the stoicism that makes this novel work so well. In doing so, he proves he still has a thing or two to offer to literature while leaving readers pondering whether it’s more important to be loved or to be cared for long after the book’s closing line.
Laura Nathan Amazon

Captain Alatriste
by Arturo Perez-Reverte


Depending on your outlook, Arturo Perez-Reverte is either the thinking man’s Dan Brown or a dumbed-down Umberto Eco. Either way, he writes wonderfully suspenseful thrillers that continuously engage the reader. In Captain Alatriste, Perez-Reverte returns to historical Spain — most of his novels are historical thrillers set in the present — as he did in 1999’s The Fencing Master. Captain Alatriste is set in 16th century Spain, and the titular captain, honorable but down on his luck, is forced to battle the Inquisition and nobles of varying levels of deceitfulness and enmity, as an overdeveloped sense of honor forces him to unknowingly defend the English Lord Buckingham from a mad Italian assassin. Readers can enjoy Captain Alatriste for its rousing adventure, while savoring the historical detail that Perez-Reverte uses to bring his tale to life.
Ben Levisohn Amazon

The Sea
by John Banville


Every word throbs with implication in John Banville’s The Sea, a novel drenched in absolute linguistic perfection. “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide,” the book opens with the aesthete Max Morden, unsteadied by the loss of his wife to cancer. Returning to the costal town where he spent a youthful holiday. His reflections work themselves loose entwining the present and the past in an awkward and captious humanity. Towards the end of the book, as revelations start unpeeling themselves through the narration, the outcomes of the young and the old Max are never far from one another. It’s a constant with Banville, this icy exterior foliage camouflaging the warm meadow within. There’s heart in The Sea, and readers can be richly rewarded for taking their time wading in.
Shandy Casteel PopMatters review Amazon

Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami


With book after book, Haruki Murakami makes an opulent feast of intoxicating literary pliability, and Kafka on the Shore is no different. Forming his tale from patchwork nightmares, tattered allegory, and lyrical entanglements, the novel follows a 15-year-old runaway and an elderly WWII veteran who communicates with cats into the swirling imagination of Murakami’s parallel universes. Pulling them on an a meta-fictional thread where plot is a mere skeletal outline for the existential mind-bending musings, Murakami jettisons many questions by the end, and in lesser talents such a perplexingly sketched maze would have navigated perilously close to being impenetrable. Under Murakami’s hand, it sparkles with page-turning verve.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss

>(WW Norton & Company)

Her early years dabbling in poetry have paid bountiful graces for Nicole Krauss in her enthralling novel The History of Love, a book possessing an uncanny knack for knowing just where your heartstrings are, and with each passing phrase, gives them a pull like no other novel from the past year. With this second novel, Krauss has shown she has an able and settled fictional voice, something a few of her contemporaries are still trying to form. The History of Love never backs away for its literary self-awareness, instead, the lonely old man and teenage girl soulfully making their way towards each other do so because literature still has the worth to move, something Krauss’ novel never fails to do.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception
by Eoin Colfer


Despite the overwhelming shadow cast by the all-conquering schoolboy wizard, the Artemis Fowl books have been well received and a movie is rumored to be imminent. Good. These are clever, witty, compelling works and The Opal Deception, fourth in the series, is the best since the first. Effectively the anti-Potter, Artemis Fowl is a schoolboy criminal mastermind with more than a passing interest in fairies. No, really. Evil pixies, a scientific genius straight out of Narnia, hi-tech gadgets galore, and a set of running fart gags that are almost entirely germane to the plot, all of life is here.
Roger Holland Amazon

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