DeFip Side #42: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2004

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Welcome everybody. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, this is DeFlip Side, and it’s time for my favorite segment of the year: my yearly list of Best and Worst Reads, where I discuss what’s been hot and what’s been not in my never ending quest for good prose.

As usual, I’ll be counting down my top five books, the best short story, my biggest disappointment, and the worst read of the year. Remember, the books listed weren’t necessarily published in 2004. That’s why I call it a list of best reads instead of best books. And I’ve eliminated the best comic category this year; frankly, there isn’t one comic I’d recommend, which is probably a statement in itself. Now, on with the list for 2004:

Book 5) Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny may have died in 1995, but his work is new to me, and a pleasant surprise. I picked up Isle of the Dead as part of a double edition published by iBooks that also included the novel Eye of Cat. Though I wasn’t crazy about that one, Isle of the Dead reads like good, old time, misogynistic Science Fiction, when men were men and women were secretaries.

This far-future story centers around Francis Sandow, the last living man born in the 20th Century, who’s obscenely rich, designs planets and just happens to have become an alien god, Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders. Problems begin when another god in his pantheon starts reviving and holding hostage Sandow’s long-dead loved ones, but to what end?

This book stood out for its conversational tone, the likeability of the main character, an entertaining and fast-paced plot and—above all—the caliber of Zelazny’s writing. His observations—funny, poignant or otherwise—are always spot-on. I look forward to reading all works by this late SF master.

For my fourth place title, there was a tie. Call it a Victorian double play…

Book 4 (TIE)) To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Willis is another author who’s new to me, and this time-travel tale stands out as comedic and highly original. Written in a style to parody Victorian era novels, it’s about two time travelers who go back to the Victorian era to locate an object nebulously known as the bishop’s bird stump. Along the way there’s love, laughs, and an increasingly complex web of temporal displacement—to say nothing of the dog…

Book 4 (TIE)): Strange Cargo by Jeffrey E. Barlough

A horror of manners and mystery aplenty awaits the readers of Strange Cargo. In it we meet title character Jack Cargo, who stands to inherit the family fortune—provided he can find and discredit a mysterious heir unexpectedly named in Grandfather’s will. Meanwhile, Miss Jane Wastefield is haunted by an inheritance of her own, so strange and terrible that she keeps it locked in a chest that she never lets out of her sight. And what of the “wizard notion” struck by tinkerer Malachi Threadneedle and his apprentice Tim Christmas? Might it have anything to do with recent reports of a flying house? Readers can only speculate as the seemingly separate paths of these characters (and a host of others) intersect in the seaside village of Nantle in this, the welcomed third installment of Barlough’s highly entertaining and ever-intriguing Western Lights series.

Like the previous Western Lights books, Dark Sleeper and The House in the High Wood, Strange Cargo is a stand-alone tale set in Barlough’s mysteriously sundered world where a slice of Victorian-era human civilization coexists with a host of prehistoric creatures at what appears to be the tail-end of an ice age—a world replete with the supernatural. Barlough continues his deft use of purposely and perfectly padded prose to lend a decidedly Victorian flavor to his writing. The result is a host of fascinating characters and settings in a story with a satisfying and somehow comforting aura of antiquity that nevertheless reads like a modern page-turner.

Book 3) City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris by Jeff VanderMeer

This is VanderMeer’s second appearance on my best of list in as many years, this time with a story collection that shines a spotlight on his hyper-creativity and masterful writing style. All of the tales featured in City of Saints and Madmen are set in VanderMeer’s fictional milieu Ambergris, a city along the River Moth that is so compelling and bizarre that you can’t help but wonder whether VanderMeer is making it up, or actually visits and just reports what he sees.

If you’re looking for some terrific urban fantasy/weird fiction, you can’t go far wrong with VanderMeer. Just be prepared for art, politics, history and insanity, not necessarily in that order.

Book 2) The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Subtitled “Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” Devil in the White City is the kind of story that would make for a wonderful and inventive horror novel if only it weren’t true. But it is. Every gruesome bit of it.

In the book, Larson tells the strangely intertwined tale of two men. One was Architect Daniel H. Burnham, who was the driving force behind the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, one of America’s most ambitious undertakings to that date; the other was America’s first urban serial killer H. H. Holmes, who built a hotel on the fair’s outskirts to lure, and then murder, the young women who were flocking to the city in droves. Compellingly written and fascinating on both fronts—the history of the fair and Holm’s killing spree—Devil in the White City is a prime example of popular history done right.

And now the moment you’ve been waiting for, the top read of the year, the number one book I read in 2004 was…

Book 1) Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies by Tom De Haven

The year is 1938 and pulp writer Al Bready has his hands full. He churns out a book a week, scripts a few radio shows and writes the storylines for no less than six comic strips, the most famous of which is “Derby Dugan,” the lovable little boy who wanders America with his talking dog Fuzzy, armed only with his wits, self reliance and his yellow magic wallet with its self-replenishing sawbuck. Dugan is Al’s favorite strip, the only work he’s really proud of, despite his love/hate relationship with its artist and creator, the notoriously cantankerous old jerk Walter Geebus—who’s been poisoned at least once…

Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies is the centerpiece of De Haven’s triptych of novels that examines the 20th Century through the lens of the comics industry, specifically the Sunday funnies that once were as big and binding a national pastime as baseball. The other books in the series include Funny Pages and Dugan Underground. But Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies stands out as the best of the lot, with subject matter similar to that found in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. De Haven’s Derby Dugan is easily as good; in fact, I liked it better, both in terms of style and character. The main character, Al, is just as adrift in his life as Derby Dugan, and his story, told in a wonderful first person, strikes a deep human chord. By book’s end I found myself genuinely touched—tearing up, yet immensely glad for having read it.

That being said, good luck finding this or any of the other Dugan books. They’re all out of print and I just happened to chance upon them in various and sundry remainder bins. If you see one, snatch it up. You’ll be happy you did.

Best Short Story) “The Two Sams” by Glen Hirshberg

“The Two Sams” is the title story in a short horror collection by Hirshberg and stands out as the best of an excellent bunch. As told by a father who has lost two children to miscarriage, it serves as the most intensely personal story in the book and is obviously drawn from the author’s experiences. I must admit that I felt a special connection to this story which may have skewed the voting a little; my wife and I have lost children in a similar way, leaving within me a jumble of hurt and raw emotion that I have never been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate. But Hirshberg has succeeded where I couldn’t, and so succinctly and specifically that it was at once cathartic and eerie. But the real reason it takes top honors is because it made me cry.

Biggest Disappointment) Iron Council by China Mieville

Say it ain’t so. The author I consider the pioneer and leading light of the weird fiction movement clocks in this year with a novel that was, to put it bluntly, a boring mess. It all starts with a railroad, being built out in the hinterlands of Mieville’s fictional city of New Crubozon. But soon, funding dries up and the workers and slaves on the railroad crew revolt, declare their freedom and create the Iron Council, a democracy on wheels, represented by a Perpetual Train that leaves New Crubozon behind and disappears into the wilderness, taking its tracks up with it. Though suppressed, legends of the Iron Council persist, along with rumors of its imminent return, as New Crubozon undergoes a socialist revolution.

Political unrest has certainly been an underpinning of Mieville’s New Crubozon since he first introduced the city in his brilliant novel, Perdidio Street Station. But to me, the city’s politics were always like the creative equivalent of garlic: great for adding flavor, but you wouldn’t want it as a main course. Unfortunately, by this reckoning, Iron Council reads like a big steaming plate of garlic. Don’t get me wrong; the book still features heavy doses of Mieville’s bizarre creativity and flare for the language. But they get lost in an uneven and choppy story filled with mainly forgettable characters in a plot that chugs along like a locomotive on its last bit of steam.

Still, this won’t turn me off to Mieville’s writing. The way I’ve chosen to look at it, Iron Council represents just a small chapter in the history of New Crubozon, one that dealt with an era that I just didn’t particularly care for. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole bunch of fascinating stories yet to be heard.

Worst Book of the Year) The Wrong Reflection by Gillian Bradshaw

After a terrible car accident, a man identified as Paul Anderson awakes in a hospital bed suffering from amnesia. Only there’s one thing he is sure of—he’s not Paul Anderson! In desperation he turns to the one person he feels he can trust: Sandra Murray, the woman who stumbled upon his wrecked car and saved his life. Together they set out to discover the truth about who and what Paul really is.

So goes the premise of this by-the-numbers thriller by Gillian Bradshaw. From the outset, the possible solutions to the mystery of Paul’s identity should be fairly obvious to most SF fans. Combine this with lousy writing and cliched characters, and you can see why The Wrong Reflection is the right choice for the stinkeroo of the year.

And so ends my list of the best and worst books that 2004 had to offer. It wasn’t a bad year, over all. I read a total of 23 books, 13 of which fell into the three to four star range.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendations, please e-mail me and let me know what you think. The e-mail address is cdeflip@yahoo.com. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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