DeFlip Side #18: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2002

DS18.mp3

Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

And it’s time once again for the January rundown of Best Reads: my annual countdown of the top five genre books I read in the past year. When looking back to prepare for this segment, it struck me what an odd year it had been for me, reading-wise. First I’m almost ashamed to admit that the number of books I managed to read was way down—only 15, compared to the usual 25 or 26. Yet out of those fifteen, it’s surprising how many of those books were good, solid reads. This combination of limited choice and high caliber made it very hard for me to rank a top five. The categories of “worst read” and “biggest disappointment” were, as usual, easiest to fill. And one more thing for you faithful listeners out there: I’ve reviewed a few of these books on air already. So just consider any repeated titles a refresher course. Now, on with the list for 2002.

Book 5) The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time by Douglas Adams.

If anything, this book deserves a spot on the list just for being the last work of one of the greatest Science Fiction authors of all time. But happily, The Salmon of Doubt stands on its own merits. It’s a comprehensive collection of articles, lectures, speeches and interviews, written by and about Douglas Adams. It also features some short fiction. But the crowning jewel of the collection is 70 pages worth of an unfinished Dirk Gently novel. It’s a fine tribute to Adams’ legacy that reminds us of just how much we’ll miss his off-kilter brilliance.

Book 4) Dark Sleeper by Jeffrey Barlough

I first told you about Barlough in one of my “Authors You Should Be Reading But Probably Aren’t” segments. My recommendation stands. Barlough writes in a deliberately old-fashioned style that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a Victorian era that’s gone horribly awry.

In Dark Sleeper, he transports us to Salthead, a foggy town perched on a craggy bluff overlooking the sea. Strange matters are afoot in Salthead. A dead sailor roams the streets, his sunken ship raising itself and sailing into the harbor. Ghosts have begun to materialize at a local inn. Unholy creatures are prowling the night, and an ancient evil has been reawakened that threatens every soul.

In the course of these events, we are introduced to the one of the oddest and most engaging casts of characters ever to grace any collection of pages. If you like Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens or M.R. James, you’ll find echoes of them all in Barlough’s atmospheric prose.

Book 3) A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Okay, I’m cheating a little here and sneaking two books in for the price of one. A Song of Ice and Fire is the blanket name of Martin’s multi-volume Fantasy saga, which actually encompasses three books so far, with more to come. But since they tell one continuous story, I figure I can count them all together. I read the first two, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings.

I know I’m a latecomer to this series, which is one of the most wildly popular and critically acclaimed works of Fantasy ever written, and with good reason. For the four or five of you out there who haven’t picked up the books yet, they center around the Starks of Winterfell, a family caught up in a whirlwind of murder and intrigue surrounding the untimely death of a king, and the vying claims for the vacant throne.

If you’re looking for standard sword and sorcery, you’ll be disappointed. There are no magical quests in sight—in fact, there’s barely any magic at all. That’s why the books are so hard to summarize. Martin presents us with character-driven drama set in a brutal medieval world. There is no sharp division between good and evil, just differing points of view. Main characters can be killed off at any time. Children are murdered, and commit murder themselves. Plots and counterplots abound, and the story unfolds like a giant chess game. It’s absorbing, unpredictable, and refreshingly realistic.

Book 2) The Scar by China Mieville

Mieville earned the top spot on this list last year for his stunning novel Perdido Street Station. Now he takes us back to the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas Lag, shortly after the events depicted in that novel. The Scar introduces us to Bellis Coldwine, a woman fleeing from the authorities of New Crobuzon on a ship headed for the outlying colonies half way across the world. But her sea voyage is cut short by a band of pirates who commandeer the ship and passengers, and bring them to the floating city of Armada, a mile-square conglomeration of captured sea vessels, where, they are told, they will spend the rest of their lives. But in her attempts to escape, Bellis uncovers a plot that threatens not only Armada, but her beloved New Crobuzon as well.

Like Perdido Street Station, The Scar is filled with a host of mind-bending creatures and settings that never cease to fascinate. And Mieville is a wordsmith of the highest caliber, with writing ability that will make your jaw drop. That being said, the only problem I had with the book was that I found it hard to warm up to the main character. Which was surely intentional on Mieville’s part. And while the novel was broader in scope, it wasn’t as rich in texture as its predecessor. But this is just splitting hairs. It’s a great book in and of itself, and another stellar foray by Mieville into the realm of Weird Fiction.

And now, the moment of truth…

Book 1) Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

Yes, it’s a graphic novel. Or a comic book, if you like. More specifically, a collection of comic books originally released by DC from 1986 to1987. I could hardly believe the choice myself, but Watchmen edges out the competition as the most innovative and creative thing I read last year. It altered my perception of what the comic book medium is really capable of, and showed me that it is a form of expression as serious and legitimate as any other.

In a nutshell, the books pose a simple question: what if people in the real world decided to don masks and become costumed heroes like those they saw in comic books? No super strength or magical abilities; just a desire to do justice. Well, the answer Moore came up with is nothing short of spectacular. He trades the heroic archetypes we’re accustomed to for actual human beings who are stumbling along like the rest of us, despite the gadgets and get-ups, struggling to define right and wrong in a complex world. In fact, the scariest characters in the book turn out to be the heroes who have the most concrete, unbending notions of good and evil.

Watchmen takes the conventions of the comic book genre and turns them inside out. And in doing so it delivers a message on the human condition that resonates just as deeply as any so-called traditional work of literature. It’s even on the curricula at many colleges. So if you haven’t read it, get your butt out to your local comic book shop and find out what you’re missing.

Well, those were the best. Now let’s have some fun.

Biggest Disappointment) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

I still can’t believe it. I feel like I need to go to Science Fiction headquarters and surrender my membership card in disgrace. But there’s no getting past the fact that I was expecting much more from this book.

When you’re reading Verne, it’s not really about where you’re going, but how you get there. You go in knowing that the plot is going to take a back seat to the journey of scientific discovery. And in every case, Verne manages to captivate me with his imagination and inventiveness. And that inventiveness is there in abundance in 20,000 Leagues. In fact, it’s probably one of Verne’s most prescient novels. He anticipated submarine warfare, and sailing under the polar ice cap—even if he did choose the wrong pole. It took about 95 years for submarines to approach the speeds and depths at which Nemo’s Nautilus can travel. And during that 20,000 league journey, the characters experienced no end of wonder, from coral kingdoms to the lost continent of Atlantis.

So why then, did this story fall so flat for me? In a word: fish. Fish, fish and more fish. Hardly a page goes by without the main character looking out the porthole and describing, in painful detail, species after obscure species of fish. Fin length. Color variations. Speed. And when he’s not telling you about fish, he’s telling you about mollusks, or bi-valves, or sea kelp, or any of the million other uninteresting things you’ll find beneath the waves. It’s not so much a book as it is a travelogue for ichthyologists. And to cap it off, we never find out who Nemo is, or why he’s so adamantly decided to shun the world. For that, you need to read The Mysterious Island! It was one huge let down for a book I picked up with such anticipation. Here’s to having better luck next time, Jules.

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Stepping in as the worst book of the year…

Worst) Well, the choice for 2002 should be painfully obvious to any regular DeFlip Side listener: none other than the Christian Fantasy clunker The War in Heaven by Theodore Beale.

I’ve already devoted an entire segment to this book and went on in great length about what I hated and why no one should waste their time reading it: in a nutshell, Christian brainwashing thinly veiled in a terrible story about a troubled teen who joins Satan’s army in its war against Heaven. But wait! Is that Jesus I see coming? And is that Salvation he carries before him? Why yes, it is! Gee. Satan on one end, Jesus on the other. I wonder who’s going to win? Aside from this painfully obvious plot, the book suffers from bad writing, two-dimensional characters and the underlying message that a questioning, independent spirit is to be avoided at all costs.

One upside to reading the War in Heaven: my scathing review garnered some great feedback, including a letter from author Theodore Beale himself. I can’t say that he was able to change my mind about the book—after all, bad writing is bad writing. But it was nice to get a thoughtful, measured response instead of a sermon. I’ll read it on an upcoming show if time permits.

So there you have it, the best and worst in genre books for the year 2002, according to me. All in all, a pretty good crop. Still, I see better things ahead for 2003. My wife and I recently moved into a new house and we finally have a library. Imagine it! An entire room dedicated to books. The sanctum sanctorum. The Fortress of Solitude. Could you want anything more out of life? Besides maybe Tyra Banks? I’m already spending far too much time in there. The library I mean, not Tyra.

Anyway, as always, if you read a book based on my recommendation, please let me know what you think. And if you have a suggestion of your own, fire away. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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