Best Books 2002 (long, because I don't know when to shut up)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Thu Dec 26 19:13:35 EST 2002


[Yes, I know there's still a week to go in the year.  But given how little
I've been reading recently, I don't think anything in this list is going to
change in the next five days.]

Once again, I've made my list of favorites and not-so-favorites from the
reading year 2002.  Everyone is welcome to play along at home, and add
categories I haven't thought of, or whatever.  My favorite part from last
year was when people would name the same title in completely different
categories.  :)  For anyone who's been keeping track (and I do pity you if
you have nothing better to do) there are two categories with no winners this
year, Most Addictive Book and Best Guilty Pleasure.  Bummer.

This year, I've finally achieved a New Year's goal: to keep a reading
journal all year long.  It started out as a simple list with a few comments,
but evolved into a real journal after about a month or so.  It's been a
wonderful experience, not least because it's the only journal I've kept in a
long time.  Before the actual list of winners, here's how my year broke
down:

I read a total of 162 books and had 9 more that I started but never
finished.  37 of those were books I'd read before, and 125 were new to me.
The overall total is very low.  First, in February I judged a local
literature contest at the last minute and spent a couple of weeks
frantically locating and reading all of the eligible picture book titles,
which left no time for other reading.  The second reason is that for the
past four months I have felt little or no interest in reading, period.  I
don't know why; some of it was homeschooling demands, but mostly I just
didn't want to.  I'm sure it will eventually pass.  In the other months I
averaged about 19 books, which is normal for me.

Enough of the boring stuff---

***Best Book: (tie) _Wheel of the Infinite_ by Martha Wells and _Night
Watch_ by Terry Pratchett

I finally picked up Martha Wells' books after she was discussed briefly on
this list.  I've read three of the four, and while I liked all of them,
_Wheel of the Infinite_ was by far the most powerful.  I loved the
characters, I loved the interactions between them, I found the religion
compelling without being disdainful of religion, and the concepts were
outstanding.  The romance between the main character and her hunky bodyguard
was yummy, too.  :)  Great book.

It's extremely unusual not to have a Terry Pratchett novel win the Funniest
Book award.  _Night Watch_ is not a funny book, though it has its moments.
This sounds like a criticism, but it's not.  _Night Watch_ takes us back in
time with Sam Vimes and gives him, not a second chance, but a different
chance to affect history.  Pratchett is his usual masterful self at working
in characters from earlier books--the young Patrician is amazing--and I was
also pleased at how Sam had to confront his relationship with his wife,
which also fit into the story as a whole.

***Best First Novel:  _The Ladies Auxiliary_ by Tova Mirvis

This is about Orthodox Jews in Memphis, Tennessee.  Yes, that's what I
thought too when I heard about it.  This came strongly recommended by a
bookseller I know, and I ran to the library immediately.  Wow.  It's clearly
a first novel; there are some rough spots in the plot and writing, but
nothing that detracts from the overall quality.  The issues of belonging to
a community, of identity, of faith, all make this well worth reading
regardless of what faith you belong to (or if you belong to none).  I am
eagerly anticipating this woman's next book.

***Best Recommendation:  _The Count of Monte Cristo_ (unabridged)

"Best Recommendation" means a book I've heard of that I only decided to read
because someone else recommended it.  In this case, it was Paul Andinach,
who suggested the Robin Buss translation, which I in fact did get.  When I
was 15 I read an abridged version that turned out to be very good, and it
was one of my favorite books of all time.  Reading the unabridged version is
like finally eating European chocolate when you've been addicted to
Hershey's your whole life: Hershey's will do if you don't know any better,
but once you do, there's no going back.  I definitely don't regret reading
the abridgement, not least because I think the sheer size of the real thing
might have put me off.  But it was like visiting old friends and discovering
they'd added a whole new wing and brass fittings to their home.  What a
rush.  Thank you, Paul.

***Best New Series: (tie) The Sammy Keyes books by Wendelin Van Draanen; the
Catherine LeVendeur series by Sharan Newman

"Best New Series" means an existing series I've read for the first time.
(Obviously it couldn't be a series that just started this year or you
wouldn't know if the whole series was any good.)  The Sammy Keyes mysteries
are shelved in the juvenile section.  Don't let that put you off.  These are
funny, fresh, exciting, and very clever.  The later books also integrate
good lessons for teens without being preachy, which is some kind of miracle.
There are seven books so far, and the first is called _Sammy Keyes and the
Hotel Thief_.  It won the Edgar for best juvenile mystery, if you care about
that sort of thing.

I almost didn't read the Sharan Newman series because I had a memory of
starting the first of these books, _Death Comes as Epiphany_, and hating it.
When I went back (again on someone's recommendation) I found that while the
characters in the first scene are as I remember, the scene itself is
completely different.  These are fun medieval mysteries by someone who does
a lot of research.  The mystery part is usually secondary to the historical
fiction/romance part, which is something to keep in mind if you are
expecting a really strong mystery.  Again, there are seven books in the
series so far.

***Best Ending to a Trilogy: (tie) _Child of the Prophecy_ by Juliet
Marillier; _Firesong_ by William Nicholson

Juliet Marillier's first book, _Daughter of the Forest_, was an expert
retelling of "The Six Swans."  The second book in the trilogy, _Son of the
Shadows_, left the fairy-tale motif and delved deeper into the original
storyline that Marillier developed alongside the reworked fairytale.  In
_Child of the Prophecy_ we see the fulfillment of that storyline in an
ending that works back into myth.  Very enjoyable, if a tad weighty in
places.

_Firesong_ also wins the special award for "Nicest Thing Anyone Did For Me
This Year" because Hallie went to a lot of trouble to send it to me when it
wasn't available here.  This is some trilogy.  I genuinely didn't expect the
denouement he came up with, and while I was a little unhappy about certain
"fairytale" aspects of the ending, I was overall amazed at this book.  It's
got a quest structure Homer would have been proud of and a lot of hard
questions with very hard answers.

***Weirdest Ending to a Trilogy:  _The Witch Queen_ by Jan Siegel

I have never really decided whether I like this series or not (_Prospero's
Children_, _The Dragon Charmer_, _The Witch Queen_) but I seriously admire
Jan Siegel's gift with words and her ability to freshen up old myth.  What
makes this a weird ending is that on the last page, in the final sentence,
something happens that simply should not have happened.  Or so I think.
It's not like _Fire and Hemlock_ where you have to rent your brain out to
Einstein just to get it to make sense of the ending; this is purely
unexpected.  And yet it states on the back that this volume is the ending to
the trilogy.  I hope they're lying.

***Funniest Book:  _French Impressions_ by John S. Littell

Okay.  Probably this will only be funny to housewives with children.  But
this story of a young couple spending a year in the south of France with
their two small children, one of whom is actually an air-raid siren made
flesh, had me laughing hysterically the whole way through.  John Littell is
the older of those two children, and he edited and revised his mother's
diaries and notes about that year for this book.  I haunted the library sale
shelves for months until I snagged my own copy.

***Most Intense Reading Experience:  the Jane Whitefield novels by Thomas
Perry

Again, someone recommended these to me.  The heroine is a Seneca woman
(Native American from upstate New York) who specializes in making people
disappear--people running from abusive relationships, children who are being
abused, etc.  I loved the books primarily because I lived some years in
Syracuse and that part of the state is very dear to me--and Perry makes it
come alive.  But I was caught up in the very real terror Jane's runners live
in.  Each book is more intense than the last, and in every case the bad guys
are as cunning and well-connected as Jane is.  I have no idea whether there
will be another one, but the first is called _Vanishing Act_ and there are
five altogether.  (Not all of Thomas Perry's books are about Jane.)

***Book I Waited Longest To Get and Was Really Glad I Waited:  _Coraline_ by
Neil Gaiman

I'm not kidding.  I nearly grew a beard waiting for this one to come in.
But it was so good!  I really enjoyed the description of the other world and
I was so excited by Coraline's solution to her final problem, when she was
back in her own world.  Smart kid.  I like them.  What I didn't like was how
difficult I found it at first to figure out how old she was...I started out
thinking she was about five, but then guessed she had to be at least eight
or nine.  That was a distraction.  Otherwise, great book.

***Book I Most Wish DWJ Had Written:  _Enchanter's Glass_ by Susan Whitcher

I feel guilty for even *thinking* of this category.  I mean, here some
author has put her whole heart into her book, and all I can say is "well,
maybe you should have given this plot to DWJ."  But in truth this was an
excellent book that was handled poorly.  Usually this occurs to me when it's
the kind of book I can imagine DWJ writing, and this one was all about
disappearances and spells and other worlds.  But it was very heavy-handed on
the symbology--it was almost an English lesson on Metaphor and so forth--and
the ending wasn't very compelling.  Hence the award.  (Or citation.  Or, um,
something negative.)

***Most Disappointing Book:  _Teetoncey_ by Theodore Taylor

I had a great memory of this book--I practically cut my literary teeth on
it.  And it was TERRIBLE.  Ugh.  Plus how the HECK can the girl be called
Wendy when the action takes place six years before _Peter Pan_?  Huh?

***Most Boring Book:  _Panglor_ by Jeffrey Carver

This had a great concept (those of you who've read Carver's other books
about the starriggers will know what it is) and some very interesting
imagery, but I was so bored by the storytelling I ended up flipping through
to see if I could find a better part, and finally I gave up.  Yawn.  (It's
one of his first books, so I don't really blame him.)

***Most Annoying Book:  _Fool Moon_ by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files is actually an interesting series; imagine Glen Cook's
Garrett in Laurell K. Hamilton's vampire world, and that's pretty close.
But this particular volume (the second) had me SCREAMING in frustration at
how STUPID everyone was!  Friends blamed the main character for not telling
them important things, and he took it like a pansy even though he'd had
legitimate reasons for his decision.  I wanted to smack him and I wanted to
kick his policewoman friend into another time zone.  It still makes me
irritated, and I read it four months ago.  (The third book is far, far
better.  Haven't read the fourth yet.)

***Biggest Waste of Time:  I was going to make an award in this category,
until I realized there were at least seven hot prospects.  Then I just got
depressed.

***Worst Book:  (DISCLAIMER: Remember that in almost every case, this
category reflects my personal preferences and not an absolute judgement.  If
any of you happen to like, love, or have written the book(s) below, I don't
think any less of you.  And please don't shoot up my hedges with automatic
weapons again.  Thank you.)

_The Family Tree_ by Sheri S. Tepper.  I went into this in vitriolic detail
a while back.  I'll sum up by saying that I don't think this is a bad book
in the usual sense; Sheri Tepper remains one of the great storytellers of
speculative fiction, and she's mastered the art of misdirection.  But I
detest propaganda, and I think that's what this is.  I don't like propaganda
even if it's for a cause I support.  Good fiction ought not to take (overt)
sides.  That's why we have pamphlets and earnest young men in dark suits
knocking on doors.

But speaking of those earnest young men, here's my real winner:

_Funeral Food_ by Kathleen Taylor.  I like fiction about Mormons by people
who aren't Mormons, at least if they do their research.  So I thought this
would be a fun book.  Wrong.  Geez, woman, Mormon missionaries do NOT go off
alone without their companions!  And if they do, it's DEFINITELY not with
the approval of the mission president!  Really, how hard would *that* have
been to find out?  Had the plot of the mystery not hinged on this crucial
point, I might have been willing to let it pass.  (It even might have worked
if she'd had the kid sneaking out without permission.)  But sloppy research
is another sin I won't tolerate.
_______________________

If anyone is still with me--boy, this is a long email--I'd like to finish by
noting how many of the books I read this year came my way because of the
recommendations of good friends.  I realized a little while ago that of my
ten favorite authors of all time, almost all of them were recommended by my
friends...including Diana Wynne Jones.

This is a great list.  You all know that, right?  You are interesting,
articulate people with opinions and ideas that are worth listening to.  I am
again very grateful to be a part of this community.

Thank you,
Melissa Proffitt


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