DeFlip Side #167: The Best (and Worst) Reads of 2015

DeFlip Side #167: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2015.mp3

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

Grab your bookmarks, because it’s time for my annual best reads show, where I tell you about the best and worst genre books I’ve read in the last year. 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 2015!

We have a three-way tie for fifth, including The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross, and Royal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb.

While I enjoyed all of these books immensely, I placed them fifth because they’re parts of ongoing series, and casual readers aren’t likely to enjoy them unless they’ve read the novels that have come before.

Book 5 (TIE)) Royal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Let’s start with Royal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest, the second and third books in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy.

Royal Assassin takes up the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, royal bastard and King’s assassin, immediately following the events of book one, Assassin’s Apprentice. This time out, we watch Fitz grow into a young man, torn by his duty to his noble lineage and his desire to be independent. War with ruthless invaders and the intrigues of palace enemies change Fitz’s life in harsh, compelling ways.

In book three, Assassin’s Quest we discover Fitz’s ultimate fate as he embarks on a journey in search of justice and revenge.

These books subvert a lot of genre expectations, and that’s half of what makes them so awesome. The other half is the solid cast of characters, whose compelling arcs combined to make The Farseer Trilogy one of the most unique Fantasy series I’ve ever read.

Book 5 (TIE)) The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

Now for The Rhesus Chart, which is volume five in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series.

Stross brings us the ongoing adventures of secret agent Bob Howard, who works for the top secret British occult agency, tasked with fighting Lovecraftian horrors from beyond spacetime.

The Rhesus Chart ranks among the best of the Laundry novels, which completely blindsided me, because it’s about vampires. What’s more played than vampires? But genre fatigue is nowhere in sight as Stross cleverly inserts vampires into his Laundry universe, and dumps them square into Bob’s lap.

The Rhesus Chart is a return to form for the Laundry series, reacquainting us with old characters and expanding on new ones. But the real reason the story works so well is because Stross uses it to advance Bob’s story — and the entire Laundry series — to a scary, unsettling new level. Were it not part of a larger series, The Rhesus Chart certainly would have placed much higher on this list. Laundry Files fans are sure to love it.

Book 4) 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I’ve been a sporadic fan of Stephen King’s books for the last 25 years. So I had some trepidation going into 11/22/63, especially because it was a time travel story written by a horror writer.

But I loved this book. Ostensibly, it’s about Jake Epping, a high school teacher who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination; but it’s so much more. Once Jake settles into the past, the real story begins, and saving Kennedy becomes almost tangential. Reading 11/22/63 reminded me of the magic I felt when reading old King favorites like Pet Semetary and It. Give it a shot.

Full disclosure: I read this book with an agenda, as I am now the co-host of the 11.22.63 podcast, about both the novel and the upcoming Hulu TV series adaptation, produced by J.J. Abrams and starring James Franco. Find out more about 11.22.63: An Event Podcast.

Book 3) Galápagos Regained by James Morrow

This delightfully loopy Scientific Romance could only come from the mind of James Morrow.

When out-of-work actress Chloe Bathurst gets a job on the estate of Charles Darwin, she learns of his theory of “descent with modification.” As it happens, London is being scandalized by the Great God Contest, which offers a £10,000 purse to anyone who can irrefutably prove the existence or non-existence of God. So Chloe steals Darwin’s idea, presents it as her own, and embarks on a voyage to the Galápagos Islands to collect the specimens she’ll need to prove the theory and win the prize.

But as with the best Scientific Romances, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And Chloe’s travels lead her down some bizarre physical and emotional byways. Galápagos Regained is a smart, entertaining and amusing addition to Morrow’s esoteric body of work — an unabashed love letter to Charles Darwin, and his gift of an unassailably rational worldview.

Book 2) Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

There are books you read and books you rise to; Radiance is the latter. At once an alternate history, Scientific Romance and cosmic fairytale, Radiance follows the exploits of filmmaker Severin Unck as she rockets around a solar system of fantastically inhabited planets.

This shaggy dog story centers on Severin’s mysterious disappearance, unfolding in non-linear snippets of film scripts, interviews, gossip columns and fantastic set pieces that range from gritty noir on Uranus, to gothic Plutonian melodrama.

Radiance is the most richly imagined, ambitiously written book I’ve read in a long time; the sheer craft and spectacle on display cannot be overstated. It’s a must read for lovers of the fantastic, and fans of books that demand you meet them on their own terms, and not yours.

Book 1) The Cobbler of Ridingham by Jeffrey E. Barlough

Best reads perennial Jeffrey Barlough nabs the top spot this year for this latest addition to his Western Lights series. And though The Cobbler of Ridingham is part of Barlough’s larger fictional universe, it’s still a stand-alone tale that anyone can enjoy.

Barlough’s pseudo-Victorian style and antiquated, wintry settings make for an atmospheric return to Fenshire — featured in other Western Lights books — where main character Richard Hathaway navigates the mystery unfolding during his visit to Haigh Hall on the frozen marshes outside of Ridingham. There’s a family curse, a haunted ship and one nasty pair of boots.

The Cobbler of Ridingham may very well be Barlough’s best Western Lights story yet — a masterful balance of ambiance, character, humor and mystery. I recommend that you try all of Barlough’s books. But read this one right away. It’s a gem!

Best Graphic Novel) Afterlife With Archie Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

In case you’re one of the nine people who hasn’t heard about this, Afterlife with Archie chucks all of your favorite Riverdale teens into the middle of a zombie apocalypse. And zombie patient zero is none other than Jughead Jones. Devastated by the loss of his pooch Hot Dog, who gets run over, Juggy brings the corpse to Sabrina and begs her to bring it back to life. The teenage witch complies, and world-undeadening complications ensue.

Needless to say, this book goes very dark, and there’s a ton of adult subtext added to the character relationships, which neatly augments the bloody storyline. And boy, is it bloody. Francesco Francavilla’s artwork is as gruesome as it is gorgeous.

This title hits a special vibe with me, because I didn’t read superhero comics growing up, I read Archie. So in addition to being a great book, Afterlife with Archie presses all of my nostalgic buttons.

Worst Read) Rage Master by Simon Clark

This takeoff on werewolf mythology follows brothers Kavell and Sebastian, part of the last straggling remnants of a hominid subspecies dubbed Dog-Heads, which evolved separately from humans.

World governments have been covertly exterminating the species throughout the 20th Century. It’s too bad they didn’t finish the job before Clark could write this awful book.

Filled with ham-fisted writing, repetitive prose, repetitive chase scenes and a story that ultimately goes nowhere, Rage Master should be avoided like the moors during a full moon.

Now, on to Honorable Mentions — which go to some non-genre books I read this year that were every bit as good as (and sometimes better than) the genre titles I just told you about:

They are Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley.

And there you have it, my list for 2015. I read a lot of terrific books last year and it was tough to rank them, so these really are the best of the best. You can find out more about them here.

And, as always, 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!