DeFlip Side #144: The Best (and Worst) Reads of 2013

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

Brush up on your Melvil Dewey trivia, because it’s time once again for DeFlip Side’s annual best and worst reads show, where I count down the best and worst genre books I’ve read in the past year.

As always, the books featured weren’t necessarily published in the last year; that’s why I call it “Best Reads” instead of “Best Books.”

Now, on with the list for 2013!

(Click the book covers to get your own copies!)

Book 5) Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe by George Johnson

This book recounts the story Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who worked as a so-called “computer” at Harvard at the turn of the last century, cataloging stars. At the time, the size of the universe was a philosophical question, because there was no way to measure it–until Henrietta discovered variable stars.

By measuring their magnitude and using something called the inverse square law Miss Leavitt’s discovery gave astronomers a method to calculate the size of the visible universe. Pretty cool, huh?

Miss Leavitt’s Stars isn’t a gripping page-turner, but it does hammer home the beauty of mathematics. And while many fiction titles I read last year ranked higher, I often find myself thinking on that crafty Henrietta and her invaluable contribution to science.

Book 4) Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross

In this far-future space opera, robots have outlived the human race and populate the solar system. Freya Nakamichi-47 is an archaic pleasure robot, becoming increasingly alienated in a society straying from human norms. But a distress call from one of her far-flung sibs sets Freya on a trip across the solar system, where she discovers another usefulness she never suspected.

Stross obviously had a ball writing Saturn’s Children. The world building is effortless, and Freya is an incredibly likable protagonist–a reluctant spy taking us on a pulpy thrill ride from Mercury to the Oort Cloud and beyond.

Stross dedicates this space opera to Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, even quoting Asimov’s three famous laws of robotics at the book’s outset. But Stross unearths a darkness in them that is now so glaringly obvious that I can’t believe I never saw it before.

Book 3) The Man in The High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Look, reading this book was a leap of faith because Dick’s VALIS trilogy left a bad taste in my mouth. But The Man in the High Castle has an intriguing premise, presenting an alternate history where the Allies lost WWII, and America is divided between Japan and Germany.

There’s plenty of fun world bending on display here, and overarching themes that question the nature and legitimacy of the various “realities” that appear in the book (and by extension, our own). But for all that, High Castle is a surprisingly straightforward read–by Philip K. Dick standards anyway–presenting ideas in much more cogent, compelling, non-batcrap-crazy forms than I’ve experienced in other Dick novels.

Of course, there are some of Dick’s distracting trademarks to contend with, most notably his obsessive need to write himself into his books. Who else did you expect the man in the high castle to be?

Book 2) A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is another classic that caught me by complete surprise. Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1959, but his style and sense of humor feel completely contemporary.

Set centuries from now in post-nuclear war America, the story centers around the unlikely legacy of a 1950s scientist named Leibowitz, who left behind an old blueprint, a shopping list, and a hastily-scrawled note to his wife. Little could he suspect that an order of post-apocalyptic Catholic monks would use them to help rebuild civilization.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is great on so many levels. Complex yet accessible. Deadly serious but extremely funny. Doggedly sincere but dripping with irony. This post-apocalyptic tragi-comedy will enrich your life and stick with you. It also gets big points for widening my narrow view on organized religion. I can better appreciate its capacity now for preserving knowledge during dark times. I can’t guarantee similar epiphanies if you read the book, but you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Book 1) October Dark by David Herter

David Herter has crafted something truly unique and wonderful in October Dark. It’s 1977 and 13-year-old best friends Will and Jim are amateur special effects filmmakers coming of age in the summer of Star Wars. When they discover a nefarious force in the guise of a local late-night TV horror host named Orlac, Will teams up with Lester Deerton, a protégé of SFX pioneer Willis O’Brien (inventor of stop motion and animator of King Kong), who first tangled with Orlac in the 1930s.

The fantastic imagery and artistry of Deerton’s and O’Brien’s creations offer protection against Orlac’s dark magic, embodied in an ancient contraption called the Magic Lanthorn.

October Dark is brimming with references to fantastic cinema and its architects and will strike a particular cord if you grew up in the 70s and early 80s. Thanks to this book I now scour the TV listings for all the old movies it celebrates.

Special kudos goes to Earthling Publications and Publisher Paul Miller for releasing this gem as part of their annual Halloween Series. Earthling has become synonymous with excellence to me, which makes my worst read of the year all the more vexing, because that would be:

Worst Read) Moontown by Peter Atkins

…Which is another entry in the Earthling Halloween series. And there’s no sugarcoating it. Moontown is just awful.

Main character Shelley Campbell has the ability to enter other people’s dreams, and does battle with a Freddy Krugeresque figure haunting the dreamscape. In fact, I’d bet that it actually was Freddy Kruger at one time. Atkins has some horror screenplays to his credit, including a couple of Hellraiser installments. Moontown reads like a reworked Nightmare on Elm Street script that never sold.

On top of this, the “scary” dream imagery is pretty stock, and the characters are two-dimensional and annoying. The book doesn’t feature characters so much as what Atkins thinks book characters are supposed to be, if you get my meaning. The only thing more maddening than the lazy, clichéd cast is the outrageous overwriting. Simple, declarative sentences are scarce in Moontown.

I frankly expect more from Earthling Publications, which has published some of the greatest fiction I’ve ever read. So I’m calling Moontown the exception to the rule.

Honorable Mention) A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Honorable Mention for 2013 goes to A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the final volume in the Wheel of Time series. While the book doesn’t quite redeem the series as a whole, Sanderson wraps up Jordan’s magnum opus in a grand style, fit for the scope and ambition of the late author’s vision.

So there are my picks for 2013. If there’s a common thread in this year’s list, it’s surprise. Surprises both pleasant and unpleasant from Earthling Publications. And to be honest, I picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Man in the High Castle solely in order to be more well-read in the genre. Miss Leavitt’s Stars was an equally dutiful non-fiction pick. I never expected any of them to hit me upside the head like they did. And I resisted reading Saturn’s Children for years just because it has a cheesy cover. So there’s at least one cliché upheld. 2013 was a wild ride indeed.

For links to all of the books on tonight’s show, just click on the cover art that accompanies each entry. If you read any of them based on my recommendation, leave a comment and let me know what you thought. 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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