DeFlip Side #30: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2003

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Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

Whip out those reading glasses and kick the dog out of your favorite chair, because it’s time once again for my annual list of the best and worst books I’ve read in the last year.

In addition to the traditional Top Five, Biggest Disappointment and Worst Book of the Year categories, you’ll find two new listings: Best Comic, and Best Short Story. The additions are a result of my increasingly fractured reading time, which has given me a new appreciation of shorter works. But books still reign, and these are the latest literary kings of the mountain.

Book 5) A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

This third installment of Martin’s acclaimed Fantasy series continues chronicling the bloody war raging between the noble families Stark and Lannister for control of the Seven Kingdoms. Some stories end, new ones begin and the stakes are raised for those characters who’ve somehow managed to make it out alive by book’s end.

Gripping, character-driven action is the hallmark of Martin’s Fantasy saga, and A Storm of Swords meets the expectations set by its two predecessors. Even at more than 900 pages, it still seems too short. A must read for any fan of genre fiction. Were it not a middle volume in a longer series, it certainly would have placed higher than number five.

Book 4) Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

Sometimes, it’s best to let the prose speak for itself. Here’s a passage from Veniss Underground:

“Back a decade, when the social planners ruled we called it Dayton Central. Then, when the central government choked flat and the police all went freelance, we started calling it Veniss—like an adder’s hiss, deadly and unpredictable. Art was dead here until Veniss. Art before Veniss was just Whore Hole stuff, street mimes with flexifaces and flat media.

That’s what the social revolutions meant to me—not all the redrum riots and twisted girders and the flourishing free trade markets and the hundred-meter-high ad signs sprouting on every street corner. Not the garbage zones, not the ocean junks, not the underlevel coups, nor even the smell of glandular drugs, musty yet sharp. No, Veniss brought old art to an end, made me dream of suck-cess, with my omni-present, omni-everything holovision.”

With just these two paragraphs on the first page, VanderMeer has shot us into his living, reeking vision of the far future with a style evocative of Burgess’s slavo speak in A Clockwork Orange, and Kerouac’s more frenetic passages in On The Road.

The artist speaking is Nick, who descends the levels of Veniss’ underground in search of the Living Artist Quin—a shadowy, dangerous figure whose bizarre works of biological art threaten to overtake humanity.

Despite VanderMeer’s obvious talent, the book’s main downfall is its lack of payoff. When VanderMeer finally pulls the curtain aside and reveals the mysterious Quin, it’s extremely anticlimactic. And even though it’s supposed to be that way, I was expecting VanderMeer to come up with a more original anticlimax, one that lived up to its considerable set up. And for that, and that reason alone, it slips to fourth place. That being said, Veniss Underground is still worth reading just for the joy of VanderMeer’s style and off-beat creativity.

Book 3) The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

The year is 2021, and down-on-his-luck computer programmer Scott Warden is at the scene when a 200-foot pillar appears, noting the victory of a warlord named Kuin some 20 years in the future. Soon the Chronoliths, as they’ve been dubbed, begin popping up all over the world, noting Kuin’s continuing future conquests, and somehow Scott keeps getting drawn back into the heart of the mystery.

Building on this intriguing premise, author Robert Charles Wilson postulates an interesting theory of time travel and the nature of causality. To be frank, I had a hard time deciding between this one and Veniss Underground for the third place spot. But though it may lack the raw creativity of Veniss Underground, Chronoliths stands out as the better- crafted and ultimately more satisfying work—a solid bit of Science Fiction.

Book 2) Salamander by Thomas Wharton

Eighteenth Century printer Nicholas Flood specializes in novelty books—books that nestle into one another, books composed of a single sentence, books that emit the sounds of crashing waves. When his work catches the attention of an eccentric Slovakian Duke, Flood gets the commission of a lifetime: create the infinite book. This launches Flood on an odyssey to figure out how to create his book without end.

At heart, Salamander is a fable that uses its fantastical journey as an allegory to explore the nature of books and why people come to love them—for reasons good, bad and just plain odd. Any bibliophile will immediately warm up to Wharton’s words, more so if they happen to enjoy genre elements. But Salamander is Literature with a capital L, deftly crafted and engrossing. It’s one of the most intriguing and original stories I’ve read in a long time.

And first place goes to…

Book 1) Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle

This collection of six novellas cements Beagle in my mind as the single best first-person writer working in the field today. Set in the world of his best-selling novel The Innkeeper’s Song, these lyrical, stand-alone tales are vibrant and vernacular, intimate and homespun, with characters that are just as likely to make you laugh as they are to make you cry. Beagle’s writing is like dessert for the intellect.

Best Short Story) “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” by E.F. Benson

It seems kind of silly to choose this short as the year’s best, considering my esteem for the stories in Giant Bones. But because those stories are set in the same Fantasy realm, and all of them are so excellent, Giant Bones should be taken as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts.

The short stories of E.F. Benson, on the other hand, should be read sparingly and few at a time, so you can look forward to new ones for as long as possible. Benson was a friend and a contemporary of ghost story pioneer M.R. James, and in the early 20th Century turned his own hand to writing ghost stories, meeting with similar success. “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” is a shining example of why.

In it, Benson takes us to Church-Peveril, a house so lousy with ghosts that the family that lives there doesn’t even take them seriously any longer—all except for the pair of murdered children haunting the Long Gallery. To look upon them means almost certain death. But when a napping visitor awakes in the Gallery after dark, she finds herself face to face with the deadly specters.

The problem with ghost stories is that they tend to get a stock feel after you’ve read enough of them. The challenge for the writer is retaining these familiar elements, but giving them a new twist. Benson succeeds admirably in “Long Gallery” because while the story has the requisite horror and gore, it also scores with unexpected humor and pathos. The wry, almost tongue-in-cheek opening segues into a traditional English ghost story, with an unusual upbeat ending that is genuinely touching. I was happy to learn that it was Benson’s personal favorite as well.

Best Comic) Negation written by Tony Bedard, Pencils by Paul Pelletier

Dynamic characters, breakneck stories and excellent artwork make Negation the easy stand out of the comics I currently collect. About a ragtag band of escaped prisoners running from the god emperor Charon in the dark Negation universe, I once referred to it in another DeFlip Side segment as the Farscape of comics. Since then, I’ve read others online who say it’s like Farscape on crack. But I think Bedard put it best when he said, “It’s like crack… on crack.” Well put. And well read. Proof that CrossGen still has something to offer despite its recent financial troubles.

Biggest Disappointment) The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod

MacLeod presents us with an alternate England which hinges on the magical substance aether, that has split society into industrial guilds that control every aspect of commerce. But aether exposure has strange side effects, turning some people into monsters. Such a fate befalls the mother of Robert Barrows, a boy from a small aether-mining town, who flees to London and harbors aspirations of social revolution.

The premise of The Light Ages was so intriguing that I was positive I was going to love it, and the reviewers on Amazon.com bolstered that supposition with glowing comments. But the story, which started out with such promise, soon flagged and then slogged along at a snail’s pace to a conclusion that had already been revealed in the prologue. The book was meant to chart Robert’s idealistic journey and eventual maturation, and in that respect it reminded me a bit of Ellison’s Invisible Man. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near as interesting or poignant.

Instead of characters, MacLeod populates the prose with almost allegorical representations of the different societal classes he wants to tell us about—from the Gatsbyesque flapper to the Dickensian tenement wretch. As for Robert, he spends the bulk of the story pursuing a woman we know will never return his love. But still we are subject to his continual internal debates regarding this uncrossable divide. After a while, it just got plain boring.

This was the book that caused me to adopt a new policy of only buying paperbacks on untried authors. That way, you’re only out six bucks instead of $25, and you’ve lost a lot less shelf space.

Worst Book of the Year) The Poison Master by Liz Williams

This was the book that validated my first-time paperback rule. On the world of Latent Emanation, where humans are ruled by mysterious alien overlords, the alchemist Alivet Dee embarks on a quest to rescue her twin sister from overlord enthrallment. But when she enlists the help of the mysterious poison master, a dark and charismatic man from another human world, she gets swept up in a plot to overthrow the overlords.

As with Light Ages, the reviewers on Amazon couldn’t say enough about this book. All I can say is that those people are dopes. Poor in plot and character, The Poison Master is filled with all the herb-lore-y, earth-mothery, crunchy granola girl bullshit that plagues most every female-centered Fantasy book I’ve ever read. Instead of a strong female lead, we get a waffling, indecisive woman who seemingly can’t reconcile her emerging romantic feelings for the tall dark and handsome poison master.

Why is it that women in almost every book I’ve ever read consider admitting romantic feelings as a form of weakness? As if the urge for male companionship is some kind of character flaw. As a result of this cliched internal conflict, Alivet has no focused motivations to inform her choices, and what little narrative progression there was grinds to a screeching halt. Murky and annoying, this story is not worth the time it takes to read.

So there you have it, my list of the best and worst books that 2003 had to offer. Sad to say, it will go down as a pretty mediocre year both in terms of quality and quantity. I read only fourteen books in all, and one of those was a graphic novel. Still, you have to give the bad books their due; they make the good ones shine all the more brightly.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendations, please e-mail me and let me know what you think. The e-mail address is cdeflip@yahoo.com. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, fire away. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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