Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
Break out your bifocals, 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. And I’m happy to reintroduce a long-abandoned category this year: Best Graphic Novel.
As always, the books featured weren’t necessarily published in the last year; hence the title “Best Reads” instead of “Best Books.”
Now, on with the list for 2014!
Book Five: City of Truth by James Morrow
Satirist James Morrow ushers in my picks for 2014 with this Hugo Award-winning novella.
Veritas is the city of truth, where citizens lose their ability to lie, and where lying can mean death. And art critic Jack Sperry likes it that way, happily eradicating falsehoods—from sculptures to Shakespeare—for the greater good. But when his son gets a terminal disease, Jack joins an underground faction of dissemblers in an attempt to learn to lie, hoping it will help save his son’s life.
Jack’s personal journey underscores Morrow’s wickedly witty exploration into the nature of truth, making City of Truth a powerful, thought-provoking read.
Book Four: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Beagle has landed on this list a lot, so I figured that it was past time for me to read his most popular book. And it was certainly worth the ribbing I took from friends for reading what they called, “13-year-old girl fiction.”
As the title indicates, the story is about a unicorn who fears she’s the last of her kind, so she goes looking for her kin, befriending a floundering wizard named Schmendrick and an indomitable washer woman named Molly Grue during her misadventures.
The Last Unicorn is both a fairytale and a self-aware parody of fairytales. But it’s a terrific story, with wonderful characters and none of the snark that plagues most modern genre deconstructions. Beagle’s signature humor and sweet melancholy drive a picaresque tale of love, loss and adventure.
Books Three and Two (TIE): Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Butler sucked me right in with this pair of dystopian Science Fiction novels, set in 2021 America where ecological and economic collapse have driven society into mayhem.
The story centers on Lauren Olamina, an astute young woman with unique empathic abilities that allow her to feel others’ joys and pains. Burned out of her walled community, Lauren wanders bereft and alone, seeking a better life. Her wry first-person narrative brings her harrowing world to vivid life. And the crux of her journey is the formation of a philosophy she dubs “Earthseed,” a pragmatic belief system that helps adherents cope with their savage reality.
But Lauren’s struggle to survive with her fellow travelers in Parable of the Sower is just prelude. Parable of the Talents is where her true story begins. And boy is it a dark one. Butler pulls no punches with the brutal extremes of her future dystopia. And Lauren’s stubborn devotion to the ideals of Earthseed begin to conflict with the few good things she has managed to build in her life.
But this unflinching honesty is what makes the novel so engaging, and what makes the ultimate resolution of Lauren’s story so affecting. Butler’s Parable novels aren’t for the faint of heart. But readers who stick with them will be glad that they did.
And speaking of glad, it’s time for my best read of the year.
Book One: Mighty Mighty by William Freedman
To call Mighty Mighty the most pleasant surprise of 2014 would be an understatement. This superhero satire goes from delightful to enthralling to shocking and it’s the perfect vehicle for Freedman’s manic inventiveness and unbounded comedic style.
Mighty Mighty is set in a world where super-powered people are so common that they’re mall cops. But when minions of the American Malevolence Institute descend on the Chesterfield Mall in St. Louis, the mall’s super contingent is forced to take up the fight: Orville Ortley—a.k.a. Mucus-Man; mild-mannered Mindy Maguire, who must reluctantly transform into her distractingly beautiful alter-ego Supermodel; superslacker Bobby Botler, also known as The Blur; and their seemingly un-heroic backoffice manager Shel Shapiro.
And that’s just the beginning of a story that becomes so sprawling and intertwined that it gives DC’s Silver and Bronze Ages a run for their money. Mighty Mighty is quick paced, funny and breezily embraces every convoluted comic book trapping. Freedman’s scathing eye is all-encompassing, but every satirical tackle is grounded in genuine love and respect.
Chock full of terrific characters, furious action and jaw-dropping plot twists, Mighty Mighty is my pick for the mightiest book of 2014.
Best Graphic Novel: Sex Criminals (Vol. 1) by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Sex Criminals is largely responsible for bringing me back into the comic-reading fold last year, and what a wonderful homecoming it has been.
Sex Criminals is about Suzy, a girl who stops time whenever she has an orgasm. When she meets Jon, who has the same ability, they do what any loving couple in a similar situation would do: rob a bank.
Sex Criminals is unique and intriguing, and despite its overtly sexual premise, it isn’t juvenile or prurient. It deals frankly with sex, but within the context of a smart, character-driven story. And it’s maybe the funniest comic I’ve ever read.
Which puts it into stark contrast with my worst read of the year:
Worst Read: The Ammonite Violin and Others by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This story collection had such promise, with its darkly fantastic, mythological bent. And Kiernan can really write.
But this book is just a fraught downer. Every story is about sexual violence, and I can only tolerate so many variations on the theme of rape before punching out.
So if you want stories with seeds of hope or transcendence, look elsewhere. But if you identify primarily as a victim and demand that the world bear witness to every scrap of your pain, this collection is right up your alley. You should feel at home wallowing in these pools of ice-cold emotional vomit.
And there you have my list for 2014, the standouts in a year of mostly solid reads. You can purchase any of these books by clicking on their cover images. 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!