DeFlip Side #88: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2008

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

It’s January, so you know the deal (or at least you should by this point). It’s time for my annual list of Best Reads, counting down the best and worst genre books I’ve read in the past year. Now, these books were not necessarily published in 2008; hence the title “Best Reads” instead of “Best Books.” And DeFlip Side devotees may experience some déjà vu, since a few of the titles mentioned have already been featured in previous DeFlip Side segments. Now, on with the list for 2008!

Fifth Place: Angry Candy by Harlan Ellison
It’s hard to believe that this is only thing I’ve ever read by Harlan Ellison. I’ve seen him speak and he’s a tremendously entertaining man. So I was happy to find that he produces prose to match. Angry Candy is that rare species of story collection that doesn’t contain any filler—you know, the not so good stories peppered in amongst the better ones. No turkeys in sight here; just interesting themes, compelling characters and actual points of view delivered in Ellison’s brisk, savvy style; the more notable offerings include the classic “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” “Broken Glass,” “With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole,” “Chained to the Fast Lane in the Red Queen’s Race” and the superb experimental piece “The Region Between.” Only one story came up short for me, “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish”–which wasn’t so much bad as it was self-indulgent. As far as collections go, you wont find many better.

Fourth Place: Anchorwick by Jeffrey E. Barlough
This supernatural page-turner is Barlough’s latest “Western Lights” novel, set in a mysteriously sundered world where a remnant of Victorian-era society lives in ice-rimed isolation. And though it’s a stand-alone tale, it revisits the settings and some of the characters featured in Barlough’s first novel, Dark Sleeper. The narrator this time is aspiring student Eugene Stanley who, while studying one night, is visited by a misty apparition calling out for help. Curiosity piqued, Eugene launches an investigation that snares him in a web of larger and seemingly unrelated mysteries, leading to the rediscovery of an ancient magic that is somehow tied to a monstrous old clock that is not really a clock at all.

Anchorwick once again treats readers to the unique blend of elements that make Barlough’s work so hard to classify—occult mystery, scientific romance, allohistory, Victorian horror—all culminating in a sprawling, gas-lit fantasy that should be doubly enjoyable for long-time Barlough readers, as it reunites them with the key characters and settings that turned them on to the Western Lights series in the first place—a series that just keeps getting better.

Third Place: We have a three-way tie for third this year, with a sequence of books that I’ve come to think of as the “Space Race Trifecta.” They are Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski, The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, and (to a lesser extent) Moon Shot by Astronauts Deke Slayton and Alan Shepherd.

Red Moon Rising deftly chronicles of the origins of the rocket programs in America and the Soviet Union that sparked the Space Race, including the pioneering work of Sergi Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, and the political shenanigans state-side that cost America a number of readily-obtainable firsts; Follow that up with Tom Wolf’s The Right Stuff, which peerlessly profiles the test pilots who became the world-famous Mercury Seven at the dawn of the American manned space program. The Right Stuff is most remarkable for its warts-and-all approach to these iconic figures, capturing the colossal arrogance that gave them the confidence to pursue such courageous achievements. And no small amount of that arrogance is on display in Moon Shot, which is an enjoyable though somewhat selective account of the Apollo program as written by astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The most remarkable thing about these books is how one led into the next almost seamlessly. Taken collectively, you won’t get a better primer of mankind’s quest for the stars.

Second Place: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys is the follow-up to Gaiman’s American Gods, which took third place on the 2007 Best Reads list. But where American Gods was dense, melancholy and darkly humorous, Gaiman lets in some light with Anansi Boys, its playful tone more suited to the story of Fat Charlie Nancy, son of Mister Nancy, the West African trickster god featured in American Gods. Upon Mr. Nancy’s death, Charlie unexpectedly meets a twin brother named Spider, who is everything Charlie isn’t: cool, stylish and successful with women. Spider is a chip off the supernatural block and he immediately and unwittingly begins to demolish Charlie’s fearful, ordered existence.

Of course a much deeper story evolves, born enjoyably forward by Gaiman’s impeccable writing and dry British wit—as personified in the exasperated self-discovery of Fat Charlie. Better still, Anansi Boys can be read independently of American Gods; it’s more a shared universe tale than a sequel. So don’t hesitate to read it, or our

First Place book: Coraline (also) by Neal Gaiman
Yes, Gaiman takes first place, too, with this dark, strange and thrillingly creepy young adult novella. Feeling neglected by her busy parents one rainy day, Coraline decides to explore the flat her family just moved into, part of a rambling old house. She stumbles on a secret passageway to another house, a strange version of her own, where she finds her other mother, and an eldritch mirror of her reality that becomes increasingly harrowing.

I picked up Coraline after reading American Gods and Anansi Boys, and wound up devouring it in a single sitting, completely blown away. To quote author Terry Pratchett, Coraline “is a masterpiece. And you will never think about buttons in quite the same way again.” Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why, and also why it won the Hugo, Nebula and Stroker awards—as well as coveted DeFlip Side top honors.

Honorable Mention: The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh
This one just missed making the list because, though enjoyable, it’s not quite up to the standard of my favorite Irvine Welsh books; but the plot does hinge on a fantastical premise—a dark riff on Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers—that puts it firmly in genre territory. So if you’re looking for more mainstream fair with a genre twist, this is a good choice—providing you can acclimate yourself to Welsh’s Scottish vernacular.

Biggest Disappointment: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
I had high hopes for this book for two good reasons; first because Matheson is (Destinies Host) Howard’s (Margolin) favorite author and he has often praised I Am Legend as being among Matheson’s best. The story concerns Robert Neville, seemingly the last man on Earth unaffected by a plague that has turned the rest of humanity into vampires. I also found the recent film adaptation starring Wil Smith very powerful, and figured thatthe source material had to be even better. If only.

Unfortunately, Matheson’s prose is mostly bland and mechanical, the monotony only broken by melodramatic hysterics as Robert drunkenly bewails his lonely, celibate fate. The whole time I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that half the guy’s problems would have been solved if he had just masturbated. I guess he subscribes to the Philip J. Fry philosophy of self-abuse:

And speaking of crying, it’s time for this year’s

Worst Read: The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers
This book seemed to hold such whimsical promise. When young dinosaur Optimus Yarnspinner sets out to find the unknown author of an unpublished short story, his quest takes him to Bookholm, otherwise known as the City of Dreaming Books; but the naïve Yarnspinner is soon cheated out of his money and marooned in the catacombs beneath the city, where forgotten stacks of books have morphed into something more sinister, and reading can be a deadly pursuit.

Hey, how much more anthropomorphic fun could a booklover want? Unfortunately, the inventiveness and playfulness of the plot and setting very quickly wore thin, leaving only a series of misadventures by a blundering idiot whose persistent naivety became more annoying than endearing. Worst offense of all is that it started giving me contempt for books. Really, steer clear.

So there you have it, the list for 2008—and a new Best Reads first: never before has a Young Adult novel made the list, much less taken top spot. So hats off to Neil Gaiman for giving me such a unique literary thrill.

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

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