The Best (and Worst) Reads of 1998

by Christopher DeFilippis

DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 3
(First Appeared: February, 1999; First Light E-zine, Issue #78)

This is probably the wrong month for this column.

After all, I’m competing with February sweeps. And what with Full Disclosure on The X-Files, another 6-hour Stephen King bore-fest on ABC and the Mirror Universe Lesbian Brigade on Deep Space Nine, I realize that books don’t stand much chance at present.

But this too shall pass, and once the mid-season reruns are in full swing you’ll all be scratching your heads and asking people if they’ve read any good books lately. Well, consider this a preemptive strike against having to settle for that Three’s Company episode where two roommates get really pissed off at the third roommate for something that turns out to be all one big misunderstanding.

Some warnings before I dive in: first off, none of the books on this list were actually released in 1998, which is why I didn’t call the column “Best Books;” they’re the ones I picked up during the last year that stood out. Secondly, four of the titles listed are neither Science Fiction nor Fantasy. I feel it’s important to occasionally step out of the genres and broaden my reading horizons. Feel free to skip over these books, but you’d be missing some of the best on the list.

Onward. Since this e-zine is dedicated to fandom for the most part, I’ll begin in the obvious place:

Best Media Tie-in
Star Trek: The Return by William Shatner, co-written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens.

I don’t care what the cover says. This book is 99 percent Reeves-Stevens. I think Pocket Books just attached Shatner’s name for the prestige factor (big whoop).

If you’re looking a terrific Trek crossover story outside of fanfic and want to wash the bad taste of Generations out of your mouth (I only say that based on popular sentiment; I actually thought it was a pretty good movie), then look no further. The Return picks up where Star Trek VII left off, chronicling Captain Kirk’s resurrection at the hands of the Borg, who have aligned with the Romulans to defeat the Federation.

Aside from the entire Next Gen cast, the book also reunites the original trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy and even has an appearance by Julian Bashir during a stop-over at DS9. The action is strong and all the characters and settings have that Reeves-Stevens touch. All in all, the most well-written and entertaining Trek book I’ve read in years.

Best Science Fiction
1984 by George Orwell.

I started harping on this book in my last column and still can’t recommend it highly enough. I assume most of you out there have read it already; it was one of those books that had been sitting on my shelf for years but fell into the “always-meant-to-read-but-never-got-around-to” (AMTRBNGAT) department. If you are one of the few who still have yet to give it a shot, put it on your short list.

As engrossing as I found protagonist Winston Smith’s struggle to understand himself and his world under the ever-present gaze of Big Brother, what really made the book sing was its exploration of the power of words—written and spoken—to shape our reality. The writer in me found “The Principles of Newspeak” at once fascinating and repulsive and, queasily, not so far-fetched in our politically correct society.

Best Fantasy (TIE)
The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle

Deft writing and compelling character are what propel this book to the front of the hackneyed sword and sorcery genre; those and the fact that it’s one of the only Fantasy tales I’ve ever read that didn’t simply dress the classic Hero Myth in different clothes.

Fear not, the good stuff is all here—magic, sorcery, sword-play, good vs. evil, even a zombie—but not in the way we’ve come to expect. Forget the formula. The peasant-boy doesn’t become king in this one. It’s a story that’s smaller in scope, but broader in imagination. A true original.

Best Fantasy (TIE)
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Welcome to the other end of the spectrum. Who else but Tolkien could pull off the epic Fantasy on such a grand scale?

This was another AMTRBNGAT book (to give you an indication on how long I’ve owned it, the cover price reads $3.50). But rereading Lord of the Rings this summer sparked a Tolkien renaissance within me and I wanted to get as much as the back story as possible. Boy, did I ever.

The Silmarillion is nothing short of the bible of Middle Earth, starting with the beginning of the world and bringing the reader to the Third Age and the eve of the War of the Ring. It deals mainly with the history of the Elves, the birth of evil and the coming of men. It will enable you to appreciate LOTR in much greater depth and provide a new insight into Middle Earth for the casual Tolkien fan.

One thing that struck me as ironic while reading was that Lord of the Rings wouldn’t exist without the stories in The Silmarillion, but The Silmarillion would never have been commercially viable as a novel without the success of the trilogy. A funny thing, this fiction business…

Best Novel, General Fiction
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

I hate junkies. If you ask me, they should all curl up in whatever miserable corner they’ve collapsed in and die. Please, spare me the P.C. hate mail.

So why then, did I find this book about the trials and tribulations of a bunch of heroin addicts in working-class Edinburgh so compelling?

For one thing, no one was whining that I should understand them and the life circumstances that have driven them to this miserable low. It seems the Scots haven’t developed the American proclivity to beg for pity and point fingers; not these Scots, at any rate. True to life, they don’t care that the reader understand them. They only care about their next hit.

The book also features an array of interesting characters (Rent Boy being the main one), is constantly jumping around in narrative point of view from first to third person, and is written completely in the Scottish vernacular. By book’s-end you’ll be an expert in the use of such colloquialisms as “square go,” “skaggy-bawed,” “biscuit-ersed,” and (my personal favorite) “radge cunt.”

If you’re offended by the aforementioned nasty “C” word, you’ll get used to it soon enough. The characters use it as an all-purpose descriptive term. It’s in practically every sentence.

What I liked most about the book is that it ultimately weighed in in favor of self-determination and taking personal responsibility. But it’s not a heavy-handed moral tale; in fact, it’ll leave you with a terrific feeling. Oh yeah, it’s also funny as hell.

Incidentally, the movie Trainspotting was one of the best screen adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen. While it wasn’t nearly as complex and satisfying as its source material, it captured the book’s essence. But I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much without having read the novel first.

Best Non-Fiction
In Search of the Birth of Jesus–The Real Journey of The Magi by Paul William Roberts.

The sometimes scary, often hilarious, utterly absorbing tale of a travel writer who took on the task of retracing the steps of the Three Wise Men on their journey to Bethlehem to deliver their gifts to the Christ child.

In the course of his travels, Roberts is stuck with an impotent and irate Iranian guide, rediscovers an all-but-dead religion, treks along the blasted outskirts of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and learns what Bedouins do with the camels that are unfortunate enough to step on land mines.

It’s a book that reads more like a real-life adventure than a travelogue. Pick it up if you’re searching for something different.

Best History
Longitude by Dava Sobel

This book was another pleasant surprise, chronicling clock-maker John Harrison’s revolutionary approach to solving the uppermost dilemma of his time—determining longitude at sea.

In our era of global positioning satellites, it undoubtedly sounds like a banal topic. But Harrison pitted himself against such historical biggies as Edmond Halley (of comet fame) and Sir Isaac Newton (of apple fame), all racing to find a practical solution to “the longitude problem” and collect a monetary prize that would amount to millions of dollars today.

It’s a short, satisfying nugget of history.

Best Biography
Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber

Being a huge Marx Brothers fan, I might not be the one to provide an objective review of this book, especially since Harpo is my favorite. But the silent Marx Brother proves he has something interesting to say in this first-person account of the highs and lows along his road to fame.

Especially fascinating are his tales as a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, as well as his solo trip to Russia in 1933 as the first American act ever to tour behind the Iron Curtain. Combined with his evolution as an entertainer and a basic history of the Marx Brothers, you’re treated to a funny story with a lot of heart.

Biggest Disappointment
3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Maybe the problem wasn’t with this book so much as it was with me, but the final chapter of the Odyssey series wholly failed to live up to my expectations.

The premise was intriguing enough: Find Frank Poole’s frozen remains in space and revive him 1,000 years after HAL murdered him. But that’s where the intrigue ends. From there the reader is subjected to Clarke’s stodgy and amazingly lackluster vision of the future, in which mankind has advanced greatly in some ways, but remains comparatively stagnant in terms of space flight.

To his credit, Clarke’s future was grounded wholly in current scientific fact. But such extrapolation is a double-edged sword, since it also acts to limit the imagination. For the most part, Clarke seemed more interested in classifying people with religious faith as insane and genetically engineering dinosaurs to wear aprons (I’m not making this up).

The main story focuses around the Monolith, of course, but even there Clarke serves to demystify the matte black enigma in a way that is neither revelatory nor compelling. It serves as the final letdown in a book that should have been so much more.

Worst Read of the Year
From Time To Time by Jack Finney

Considering how much I liked Time and Again, I couldn’t believe what a blathering yawn this sequel turned out to be. The reader is once again invited to join time-traveler Simon Morley, this time as he travels to 1912 to prevent the outbreak of World War One.

Sounds exciting, huh? Don’t believe everything you read. We go from the premise of Si averting a war to the reality of Si walking around New York with a camera explaining boring photo after boring photo which are interspersed throughout the text. From there he takes us on a plotless ramble through a vaudevillian neighborhood. Mind you, this goes on for 211 pages! And even when you get to the climax, you’re sidetracked for a walking tour through Ireland (don’t ask; it’s simply not worth the time it would take to type an explanation).

Don’t even bother picking it up, especially if you liked Time and Again. Leave the memory of that story unsullied by this pile of crap. Trust me on this one. The only thing more amazing than the lameness of this book is the fact that I stuck with it until the final page.

So those are the titles that made the cut this year. It was harder to decide in some categories more than others. But if I had to pick a single best read of the year, the prize would go to Trainspotting. On reflection, it scored highest in both narrative message and pure entertainment value. If you read only one book on this list, make it that one. It’s not Sci-Fi or Fantasy, but who cares? A good read is a good read.

If you do happen to pick up any of these books based on my suggestion, I’d love to know what you think. Drop me an e-mail and let me know.


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