Best (and Worst) Reads of 2000

by Christopher DeFilippis

DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 21
(First Appeared: February, 2001; First Light E-zine, Issue 100)

Bibliophiles rejoice! February’s here, and it’s time to talk books, books, books. Welcome to my third annual Best and Worst Reads column.

2000 was an odd year for me bookwise, and it’s reflected in this year’s choices. As I was compiling the list, it struck me that there were so many good, solid books I’d read, especially in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, that it was difficult to single out just one. In years past, the books practically picked themselves. 1984, Trainspotting, The Stars My Destination, The Silmarillion—when you’re dealing with titles like that, you have little choice in the matter.

But this year didn’t hold as many obvious winners. So rather than judging them by the sheer magnitude of their brilliance, the books that made the cut this time around were the ones with which I felt the most personal connection. It sounds like a silly criterion. After all, isn’t that personal resonance what makes a book good for anyone? But I have tried to strike a balance in my recommendations.

All my usual categories are here, and some are heavy with three-way ties. Consider yourself forewarned.

Best Media Tie-In

Q-Squared by Peter David

Okay, I’m cheating on this one. I actually read this book on my honeymoon seven years ago. But I couldn’t bear to leave a category blank this year (as I did with so many on the 1999 list). I only read two tie-in novels in 2000 and both were turkeys.

This title, on the other hand, is a thoroughly enjoyable romp that features one of the best villains (?) Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced. If you love Q, you’ll love this book. It’s got comedy, action and a story that spans across multiple incarnations of the NextGen universe. Check it out.

Best Science Fiction Novel (TIE)

Otherland Volume III: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

When making these lists, I’m always hesitant to recommend series’ titles, especially if the book is a middle volume. But this is one of those titles I described above as having really touched me personally, and  that’s what nudged it into my personal number one.

Set in the not too distant future, the Otherland series is about a band of travelers trapped in a vast virtual reality computer network created by a mysterious synod called the Grail Brotherhood. As is typical with Williams’ books, there are several main characters driving the long and complex plot to an as-yet unforeseen conclusion. There’s so much going on that it’s impossible to give a meaningful summary in this space.

If you’re a fan of Williams’ Fantasy series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, you’ll like Otherland. The characters and the VR worlds they inhabit are well-drawn, compelling and utterly absorbing. By the end of volume three, you’ll care more for these folks than you realize. To start the adventure, check out Otherland Volume I: City of Golden Shadow.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

George Orr has a wonderful and terrible gift: whatever he dreams becomes reality. Frightened of his power, Orr goes to a dream therapist to learn how to repress his dreams. But upon learning of George’s ability, the doctor has different plans.

Of course, that’s the simpleton’s version of the story. Lathe is another book that’s difficult to summarize in any way that can really do it justice. True to form, Le Guin uses her unique voice to wrestle with heady social and human issues.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

We all know what a sucker I am for time travel. For the five of you who may be unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a man in the late 19th Century who builds a time machine and travels to a far future inhabited by two divergent strains of humanity: the Eloi and the Morlocks. As far as social commentary goes, I thought Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks were rather clumsy symbols of haves vs. have-nots.

Where the author really shines in this book is in his deft description of the fourth dimension (i.e. time). Wells takes a complex concept and crystallizes it in a way that I’ve never seen done so well.

Best Fantasy Novel (TIE)

Legends 3, edited by Robert Silverberg

This was one of three mass-market paperbacks derived from the hardcover Legends anthology, which features all-new stories by various Fantasy authors set in their best-known Fantasy realms. I was particularly drawn to this volume because it housed all my favorites: Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), and Terry Pratchett (Discworld). The other volumes have stories from Stephen King, Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin, and Anne McCaffrey. If you’re a fan of any of these writers, Legends is like a personal invitation to visit old friends and hear something new about them. If only Tolkien were still alive!

The Charwoman’s Shadow by Lord Dunsany

Taken from the blurb on the back of the book: “An old woman who spends her days scrubbing the floors might be an unlikely damsel in distress… [but this] is a beautiful tale of a sorcerer’s apprentice (Ramon Alonzo) who discovers his master’s nefarious usage of stolen shadows, and vows to save the charwoman from her slavery.” Of course, Ramon Alonzo’s quest is not so cut and dry in its execution, and he soon finds his own shadow in danger.

The symbolism of the shadow in this story reminded me a lot of A Wizard of Earthsea (Le Guin), my all time favorite Fantasy book. At heart this, too, is a coming-of-age story. But the antiquity of Dunsany’s writing style lends a lyrical, almost fairytale-like quality to the text that makes it a joy to read.

You’re probably scratching your head and wondering who Lord Dunsany is. He might be all but forgotten these days, but he was doing the Fantasy thing all the way back in 1926. And thanks to Del Rey’s Impact imprint, you can now get quality trade paperbacks of a few of his works.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

I’m recommending this retelling of the King Arthur legend with a caveat. Frankly, I could have done without the bulk of Arthur’s childhood as laid out in the first half of the book. It was boring. But if you stick with it, the rewards are great.

The third section of the book is entitled “The Ill-Made Knight” and tells the story of Sir Lancelot, his deep relationship with King Arthur, and his love affair with Queen Guinevere. It’s a story that everyone is at least a little familiar with. But White does such a masterful job of portraying Lancelot as a heroic, yet tragically human figure that the character jumps to life and steals/redeems the entire book. The emotional interplay between the characters is complex and realistic. It’s quite simply some of the best writing I’ve ever read. And for me to say that about what is basically a romance story, you know it has to be exceptional. I don’t go in for that mushy jazz.

Best Novel, General Fiction:

Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd

Humor and nostalgia sparkle throughout this collection of yarns drawn from Shepherd’s 1930s childhood in Hohman, Indiana. Shepherd is a master with whose work you may already be familiar and not even know it.

If you’re a fan of the MGM Christmas classic “A Christmas Story” (You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!) then you have Shepherd to thank. The movie was drawn from stories in this and another Shepherd book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. The gang is all here—The Old Man, whiny kid brother Randy, bully Scut Farkus and his toady Grover Dill, Kissel, Flick, Schwartz, the legendary Bumpus hounds, and Ralphie himself—in one great story after another.

Best Non-Fiction:

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

You’d never imagine that the story behind the OED could be so interesting, but the title says it all. When Professor James Murray began compiling words for the dictionary, he received more than 10,000 entries from one Dr. W.C. Minor. But when Murray went to visit the man he had grown to respect so much through their correspondence, he found himself at the doorstep of an asylum for the criminally insane.

Winchester deftly weaves the stories of the studious Murray and the schizophrenic Minor into an engaging, highly readable nugget of history. The book was doubly engaging for the writer in me, but you don’t have to be a fan of words to enjoy this fascinating story.

Best History

Undaunted Courage: Merriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

This account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition actually made me wish I was back in Missouri. While in college, I’d seen some highway signs commemorating the Lewis and Clark trail, and even visited the Lewis and Clark museum housed under the St. Louis Arch. But at the time I was so busy hating the fact that I was stuck in Missouri that I completely failed to appreciate it. I wish I knew then what I know now.

Ambrose relates the history of the expedition from Lewis’ point of view, in a book that could equally be considered a Lewis biography. But the westward journey of the Corps of Discovery takes center stage. Perhaps most impressive is Ambrose’s ability to convey the sheer magnitude of the undertaking and what an incredible feat Lewis and Clark pulled off by getting to the Pacific and back unscathed under the ever-present threats of the elements and hostile Native Americans. It will give you a solid understanding of the social and political climate of the time, and impart some of the passion and pride both men must have felt in making their accomplishment.

Best Biography

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel

Despite what the title says, this book is about the exceptional life and accomplishments of Galileo Galilei. Oh, his daughter is in it, but only in an anecdotal, peripheral way. I suspect that the publisher wanted to make the subject matter more palatable to the PC/Oprahfied morons who maintain that dead white guys have nothing left to teach us, and therefore punched up the daughter aspect. Of course, that’s pure speculation.

Regardless, Sobel delivers an excellent and enjoyable telling of the life of the man whose breakthroughs in astronomy and physics changed the world, and made him a target of the Catholic Church. As with her previous book Longitude (my choice for Best History in 1998), Sobel proves herself a master at making pivotal moments in history accessible, engaging and relevant to our lives today.

Biggest Disappointment

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Different terms have attached themselves to this book: “masterpiece,” “bible of the Beat Generation,” “essential,” “defiant” etc. So when I picked it up, I think I was justified in expecting some seminal work of American Literature that would change my life.

What I got instead were a couple of drunken, loser, bums mooching their way across America in a quest to avoid work and destroy other people’s property, and then justifying it by clouching it in a romantic/rebellious light. I just don’t buy it. Then again, I’m more a realist than a romantic, so the problem might be with me. But I honestly don’t see how anyone with even the most rudimentary notions of common courtesy and self-responsibility can relate to this book. Okay. Sermon over.

Worst Read of the Year:

Quantum Leap: Mirror’s Edge by Carol Davis

Here I go, biting the hand that once fed me. I’m flinching at the possible professional ramifications of my decision to be honest, but I think my professional contribution has earned me the right to hang myself if I want.

This book was a dismal close to the Quantum Leap novel series. The characterization was terrible. Sam and Al seemed to hate each other, and Sam acted like a self-absorbed jerk throughout. There was no discernible reason for Sam’s Leap to drive the plot (or lack thereof) forward. And the conclusion was such a confusing succession of Leaps that even after rereading it numerous times, I still have no friggin’ clue what was supposed to have happened. I do not boggle alone. Every fan I’ve spoken to feels the same way. In light of all I owe to the novel program, I feel absolutely compelled to say that it deserved a more worthy swan song.

So conclude my literary picks for 2000, for better or worse. If forced to choose a single title to recommend above all others, it would have to be (drumroll please….) Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. I reel at the fact that a work of non-fiction has risen so high in my estimation, considering how much non-fiction books usually bore me. But I told you from the get-go that it had been an odd literary year for me. This is just the cherry on the cake.

I’m also reeling a bit at the realization that this is First Light’s last-ever February issue, and that I will no longer get to bash you over the head with my literary recommendations. Of all the columns I write, this is the only one that I’m consciously building toward all year long. I’m gonna miss it.

As always, if you read any books based on my recommendation, let me know what you thought. And if you have any picks of your own, I’m all ears.

Read on!

Best Reads Redux — Best of the Best

1998: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
1999: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
2000: Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose

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