DeFlip Side #109: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2010

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

January is the time we celebrate good books around here, with our annual Best (and Worst) Reads show. But I gotta tell you, I’m feeling kinda iffy about the books of 2010. My year in reading wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it doesn’t boast many triumphs either.

Blame it on a bright idea I had last January, to make 2010 the Year of Series, Sequels and Shared Universes. Hey, it seemed like fun at the time. I was intrigued at the prospect of tackling my library’s multi-volume backlog. So I dove right in with a series that had languished on my shelves for years: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS trilogy.

Schizophrenic ramblings about Gnosticism, with a clearly deranged Dick blathering on for three books? That should’ve been a cue to scrap the whole Series/Sequels/Universes idea; but NO, the final book in the Dick series, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, was just intriguing enough to convince me I was on the right track after all.

So I sallied forth, and I’m relieved to say that I DID read enough good stuff to make a full list, but barely. As usual, I’ve reviewed a few of tonight’s titles on previous DeFlip Side episodes and on DeFlipSide.com, so if some comments sound familiar it’s because they are. Now, on with the list for 2010!

Book 5) Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms, written by Kurt Busiek, art by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino.

This is the first graphic novel to make the list since Watchmen in 2002. And while Arrowsmith doesn’t have the groundbreaking chops of Moore’s and Gibbon’s seminal work, there’s still a lot to like in this six-issue limited series, which takes place during an alternate universe World War I featuring magical trench warfare and dark sorcery.

Lured by the promise of adventurous aerial battles with the aid of his own personal dragon, Connecticut farm boy Fletcher Arrowsmith runs away to join the Overseas Aero Corps and fight the evil Prussians. The well worn coming-of-age, war-is-hell cautionary tale that ensues is suped-up nicely by an intriguing alternate history, fantastic settings, interesting characters and beautiful artwork. It’s an all-around impressive effort.

Book 4) Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story by Peter S. Beagle

Beagle’s previous Innkeeper’s world books have landed on this list before—even nabbing the top spot in 2003 with the story collection Giant Bones. So I’m happy that his novella Return lives up to this legacy.

Picking up one of the major plot threads left dangling at the end The Innkeeper’s Song, Return chronicles the attempt by Innkeeper’s protagonist Soukyan to confront the assassins dogging him, journeying back to the mysterious monastery from which he’d fled thirty years earlier and risking certain death to come to terms with his past. It’s a past that readers of Innkeeper’s had to guess at, and this story provides welcome information, shedding light on another corner of Beagle’s fantastic Fantasy universe. The origins of Soukyan’s mysterious assassins provide wonder equal to any other Innkeeper’s offering, and Return proves that Beagle’s prose is unmatched for wit and grace.

Book 3) The Fuller Memorandum: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross

This is the novel I looked forward to reading most in 2010, chronicling the exploits of British Occult Services secret agent Bob Howard, a comical combination of espionage thriller and Lovecraftian horror. The Fuller Memorandum pits Bob against no less an adversary than an ancient, malignant god known as the Eater of Souls.

The trouble begins when the eponymous Fuller Memorandum goes missing from the Laundry archives, and Bob’s boss along with it. The quest to retrieve the file and clear his boss’s name takes Bob along a very dark path, and this is the most remarkable thing about The Fuller Memorandum. The comedic overtones are still there, but Stross puts poor Bob through hell in this novel, and the story creeps conspicuously closer to certain nightmare scenarios alluded to in previous Laundry books. Something big is coming down the pike and I can’t wait to see where Stross takes us next.

That said, the reason The Fuller Memorandum didn’t rate higher on this year’s list is because it smacks a bit too much of prelude, and Stross is a bit loose with the prose and plotting. It’s a good book—no question—but not as satisfying as its predecessors.

Book 2) The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor

This book was the surprise treat of the year for me. I’ve long been a fan of Garrison Keillor’s folksy yarns about his fictional hometown of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota—featured on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion and in many books and short stories. And “Harrison Geillor’s” parody novel The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten reads, for the most part, like the book Keillor might have written upon deciding to have the flesh-eating undead overrun Lake Woebegone. It features a cast of well drawn characters humorously lampooning Keillor’s stalwart, stoic breed of Minnesotan, who see the zombie invasion as just one more of life’s little hardships, to be borne without making too much fuss. The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten is about ten times better than it has any right to be and I enjoyed the heck out of it. To put in terms that Keillor himself might, it’s definitely above average.

And even more above average was the best read of the year:

Book 1) The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

Hey, what better place to end up than with the master himself? Pieced together from Tolkien’s copious notes, The Children of Hurin is the expanded, definitive version of a much shorter story that appeared in Tolkien’s earlier work on the history of Middle Earth, The Silmarillion. And like that book, The Children of Hurin has more in common with traditional Norse Saga than the Epic Fantasy for which Tolkien is best remembered.

Taking place in the First Age—almost 7,000 years before The Lord of the Rings—the story relates the tragedy of Turin, the son of Hurin, cursed by the Dark Lord Morgoth to destroy everything he loves. If you’re a Tolkien geek who revels in the details, The Children of Hurin takes care to establish the story’s place in Tolkien’s broader history of Middle Earth; but these preliminaries quickly give way to a surprisingly quick and poignant read easily enjoyed by even the most casual Tolkien fan. Capped off with wonderful full-color illustrations by noted Rings artist Alan Lee, The Children of Hurin easily takes first place.

And easily taking last place is the:

Worst Read of the Year) Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson.

It took about 120 pages for me to give up on this unmitigated pile of crap. Book One in Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Lord Foul’s Bane is filled with labored prose, hippy-dippy Earth mother sentiment about the sanctity of “the Land,” a horribly unlikable main character and stock supporting characters and settings delivered wholesale from the Fantasy mill. This is the kind of clichéd garbage that drags down the entire Fantasy genre and keeps greats like Tolkien trapped in the genre ghetto. I shudder to think of the time I spent over the years hunting for and securing hardcover editions of all three volumes of this rubbish.

Unfortunately, experiences like this eventually soured me on my grand Series/Sequels/Shared Universes experiment. While nowhere near as bad, the other series’ volumes I chose were lackluster enough to give me a case of literary ennui, and as a result I read far fewer books than I normally do in any given year. I just couldn’t summon the will to keep turning those pages. But hey, you live, you learn. 2011 is off to a much better start, and I still have a few new series’ installments that I look forward to tackling in the months to come. The upside is that I’m really going to revel in reading whatever the hell I feel like this year.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendation I’d love to know what you think. Drop me a comment. 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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