Best of 2003 (excruciatingly long)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Mon Dec 29 15:12:02 EST 2003


It's almost noon, I haven't done anything useful yet, and it's snowing like
mad outside--that last being the reason I haven't done anything useful yet,
because it's hard to feel motivated when the world looks like it's drowning
in cotton balls.  So, think I, perhaps if I do my annual list of notable
books, I'll feel like I've accomplished something.  Or maybe it will just
take me back upstairs to the bedroom for more reading.

For our new friends, this is something I do at the end of every year--review
the books I've read and pick out the ones that stood out (for good or ill).
When I started this tradition, it was just for myself, but one year I
thought it would be fun to share it with the list, and since no one has
complained, I persist in inflicting my opinions on the rest of you.
Everyone is welcome to play along at home; I have my own set of categories,
but they're not binding on anyone.

So here we go.

Best Book of 2003:  _The Dollmage_, Martine Leavitt

It was a surprise to learn I'd only read this last February; that seems so
long ago.  This was, bar none, the most heartbreaking and powerful novel
I've read all year.  The prose is deceptively simple, the narrator a woman
who can neither be trusted nor admired, the magic unusual and earthy.  It
was a shock to me that my reading group was not nearly as impressed.  Silly
people.  (More on this later.)


Best New Series:  the Benjamin January mysteries, Barbara Hambly

"New" in this case means a series I began reading for the first time this
year, not one that began this year; that wouldn't make sense, since you
can't know if a *series* is good unless you've read more than a few of them.
I tend to think of Hambly as a decent middle-quality writer, someone with
interesting ideas but pedestrian prose.  This series is far better than I
expected.  Set in 1830s New Orleans, the main character is a surgeon and
musician who, because of his race, must bow and scrape to even the lowest
cracker out of Kaintuck.  January is a wonderful protagonist, but the
supporting cast is equally interesting.  Hambly brings this era to life,
with its distinctions between the free colored and black slaves, the vibrant
voodooeinnes, and the tensions between the French Creole and the Americans
(just thirty years after the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans didn't really
think of itself as American).  The books in the series thus far are:
_A Free Man of Color_
_Fever Season_
_Graveyard Dust_
_Sold Down the River_ (one of my favorites)
_Die Upon a Kiss_
_Wet Grave_
_Days of the Dead_


Best First Novel:  _Across the Nightingale Floor_ by Lian Hearn

This Japanese-flavored story is not an alternate universe nor a
pseudo-Japan.  Instead, it borrows naming traditions and cultural beliefs
and weaves them into an entirely new world.  The protagonist Takeo is raised
by a religious sect called the Hidden, who worship a single god (echoes of
Judeo-Christian monotheism) and are persecuted for it.  When his village is
destroyed by an avaricious, conquest-minded lord, Takeo is rescued by that
man's archrival and adopted into his family.  But as the story progresses,
it seems that Takeo is actually the child of a very secretive magical race
who live in the world, but are completely separate from it.  By genetics, by
upbringing, and by accident, Takeo belongs equally to all three groups
coexisting in this land, which sets him apart for a unique destiny.  I'm
looking forward to the sequel, _Grass For His Pillow_, which is up on my
bedside table, and to the conclusion, _The Brilliance of the Moon_, which
should be released in 2004.


Best Guilty Pleasure:  The Stardoc novels, S.L. Viehl

These books are BAD.  The structure is too loose, the characterization is
almost cariacature, the descriptions are sometimes florid, and it's an
emotional manipulation playground.  And I can't get enough of them.
Possibly because of the emotional manipulation, possibly because the main
character is way too much like me--it's not even that I identify with her,
we're just too much alike--but basically I'm eating them up.  One thing
Viehl has that I thought was really interesting is the way she handles
translation of languages: a planet or a large ship will have a central
database which stores all the translation information, and individuals wear
these handlinks or necklaces called vocollars which access the database and
provide translations.  So if you're outside the "range" of the central unit,
your translator doesn't work any more.  Cool.  Plenty of sex, lots and lots
of drugs (of the medical variety), but not much rock'n'roll--she goes in for
classic jazz.


Most Anticipated Book:  _The Merlin Conspiracy_, Diana Wynne Jones

I swear I've never waited so long for ANYTHING.  It took Amazon.com way too
long to ship it and I thought I would go crazy.  It was well worth waiting
for, despite overidentifying with Roddy and being ticked off that she never
seemed to get a break.  And that reviewer who thought the romance between
Roddy and Nick was, what, too obvious? or only existed because DWJ told us
it did?  Please.  Roddy *never* starts feeling the warm fuzzies for Nick; at
best, they become friends, and Nick is still thinking he can get her to fall
in love with him at the end.  (This is possibly overidentification at work,
because Nick irritates me.  I think he's using the "well, you see, I'm just
selfish" line as an excuse not to change, especially since I don't think
he's so much selfish as interested in self-preservation, which I can hardly
blame him for.)


Pleasant Surprise:  Protector of the Small series, Tamora Pierce

I was seriously put off by all the series after the Alanna books.  The
Tortall "sequel" was just silly, and the Circle of Magic books sounded like
they were written for a juvenile audience.  But my friend Julie picked up
_First Test_ and told me they were really good--just what the Alanna books
could have been, if Alanna hadn't had magic.  And she was right.  The series
is about Keladry, the first girl to train openly as a knight, and the first
three books go into great detail about her training.  I loved it.  The
fourth book seemed a little slower after the breakneck pace of the others,
and is about her first campaign and responsibilities as a knight.  It's
still good, though.


Funniest Book:  _A Mother to Embarrass Me_, Carol Lynch Williams

Carol is a local writer who for most of her career has written tearjerker
"issue" books for young teens.  With _My Angelica_ she broke into humor, and
she has a natural gift for it.  _A Mother to Embarrass Me_ has a girl named
Laura who thinks her mother--an artist and a free spirit--is just too
embarrassing for words.  When her mother becomes pregnant after many years
of miscarriage and infertility, this is just too much for Laura...now
everyone will know that her mom and dad were, you know, ACTIVE!  I laughed
so hard I nearly wet my pants.


Best Young Adult Novel:  _Mississippi Trial, 1955_, Chris Crowe

I read both this book and the previous one while I was judging a literary
award last year.  The irony is that we gave _Mississippi Trial_ our Best
Novel award, not the YA award.  The titular trial comes from the true story
of Emmett Till, a young black boy who was tortured and killed for "making
advances" to a white woman, and the groundbreaking decision to try his white
murderers in court.  The narrator is Hiram, a white boy who has returned to
Mississippi to spend the summer with his racist grandfather; he is drawn
into the trial because he knew Emmett Till slightly and because he might be
a material witness.  Hiram begins the novel idolizing the memory of his
grandfather; as events progress, he is forced to reevaluate what he always
believed about the man and about his own father, from whom he is estranged.
Wonderful, wonderful characterizations, marred only by an over-hasty ending.


Best Romance:  _The Boy Next Door_, Meggin Cabot

Publishing as Meg Cabot, this author has become famous for The Princess
Diaries for teens.  _The Boy Next Door_ is an adult novel, a modern
epistolary novel told in a series of emails.  It's funny, romantic, and
exciting by turns.  One of my favorite characters is the protagonist's best
friend, a large woman who is trying to lose a lot of weight before her
wedding--but discovers that her fiancee really doesn't want her to be
skinny, and that she's beautiful as she is.  (Also, the protagonist is a
Melissa who isn't stupid, evil, bitchy or self-absorbed.  They do exist.)


Best Thriller:  _Chindi_, Jack McDevitt

I love McDevitt's science-fiction thrillers, but my favorites are the ones
starring the pilot Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins--not just because I like her,
but because they are uniformly suspenseful and exciting.  _Chindi_ has Hutch
as part of a team investigating the strange appearances of a non-natural
object.  When they finally track it down, the search turns into an
archaeological investigation and then a chase at appreciable fractions of
the speed of light--gives new meaning to the phrase "high-speed chase."
Exciting, intriguing, and as usual a fascinating blend of science fiction,
archaeology and anthropology.  I can only hope McDevitt plans to write
another novel about the expedition outside our galaxy, because I really want
to know what the killer clouds are all about.


Best "Classic" Read (tie):  _Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry_, Mildred D.
Taylor; _Gentlemen's Agreement_, Laura Z. Hobson

About five to ten of the books I read every year are either really early
20th-century texts or books that "everyone should read."  (I'm not put off
by "should" the way some people are; I think it's ridiculous to go all
passive-agressive and refuse to read something just because someone tells me
I *have* to.  But there is a general consensus on certain texts that are
widely read, and for good reason, and I try to keep up on those.)  I read
_Thunder_ while I was doing research for my mother-in-law, and it was
fabulous.  An infuriating subject, but a fascinating text.  _Gentlemen's
Agreement_ came about in a much different way; I had seen bits of the film
starring Gregory Peck and a half-hour documentary on making it, but that was
years ago.  Earlier this year I stumbled on an online review that made me
convinced I wanted to read it.  The story is about a writer from California
who has just moved to New York and been assigned to write about
anti-Semitism.  He comes up with the angle of pretending to be Jewish so
that he can experience anti-Semitism first-hand.  The novel takes us through
all the phases of his experiment, beginning with his feeling that maybe this
isn't a very respectful notion, to his knowledge that it isn't really an
accurate experiment--he can walk away from it at any time--through his
outrage when his son suffers at school.  It's a fascinating book, and very
readable.


Best List Recommendation:  _The Eyre Affair_, Jasper Fforde

I checked this book out three times before actually reading it.  It wasn't
until I heard good things about it from you people that I decided to give it
a try.  I loved it!  Now I can't wait for the third one to come out here.


Happy to Be a Reader Award:  _The Wizard Hunters_, Martha Wells

All the way through this I was just happy that I could read books.  That's
all.  Happy happy happy.


Most Memorable Book:  The Sarantine Mosaic, Guy Gavriel Kay

I didn't want to read this duology, I dragged my heels the whole time,
because I don't always understand the point of Kay's books.  No, that's not
right.  He'll write something, and it seems that *he* believes it's made a
certain point, and I'm still scratching my head waiting for the rest of the
explanation.  So basically I'm not comfortable in his worlds, despite their
being fantastically well realized and so forth.  But I couldn't stop
thinking about this one--months later I'm still remembering bits from it.
What's more, as I was reading it, I realized that it's probably the one
thing I've read of his that I actually enjoyed all the way through.  (No, I
have not read _Tigana_, so don't ask.)


Most Disappointing Book:  _The Anvil of the World_, Kage Baker

I love the Company books, so I was eager to get Kage Baker's first fantasy
novel.  I have no idea what happened here.  It's written more or less in
three parts, but you don't actually get the "main" story until the middle of
the third part--about four-fifths of the way through the book.  Important
foreshadowing is neglected.  Things happen which don't ever matter later in
the plot.  It's not a bad story, it's just not at all what I was hoping for.
Jacob liked it better than I did, but when I was complaining, he didn't have
any answers for me.  So if someone else understands what Baker was trying to
do here, I'd love to hear about it.


USUAL DISCLAIMER:  I recognize that people have widely varying tastes, and
while I have strong opinions I don't want anyone to feel put down or mocked
for liking something that I consider a terrible book.  Having said that,
here is--

Worst Book:  _Bitter Waters_, Wen Spencer
Honorable Mention:  _The Thief of Kalimar_, Graham Diamond

I should always have years like this.  _Bitter Waters_ is not an awful book
along the lines of worst books of past years.  The story concept of this
series, which is a new form of alien invasion and interbreeding with humans,
is quite good.  Unfortunately Spencer appears to be in love with her hero
and is doing some kind of Mary Sue act through the hero's love interest.  I
find this repellent.  The hero, Ukiah Oregon, is perfectly sexy, perfectly
handsome, perfectly strong, has "magical" powers, and is, by the way,
emotionally open, gentle and kind to small animals.  He's just too perfect.
He has perfect sex the very first time.  He's a perfect father because he
has a special link to his child, which means he's never frazzled by a kid
who just won't stop crying.  Gaah.  There are also a number of
inconsistencies in the text, and in this book there's also the "oh, wait, I
forgot to mention it, but there were these super powerful weapons on the
alien ship that nobody noticed even though the heroes were *on* the ship"
fudge that I associate with really poor planning.  And if she mentions
Ukiah's perfect memory again, I will kill something.

That actually felt pretty good.  My reading group loves these books.  I
can't trash them in front of those women because they get the "oh no, she's
pulling literary rank again" defensive look.  ("Yeah, she's probably in love
with Ukiah, but I DON'T CARE" says one...gaah.)

I feel bad mentioning _The Thief of Kalimar_ because it's not really its
fault that it's bad.  This is a '70s fantasy, really early stuff, and I'm
willing to give ol' Diamond the benefit of the doubt because modern fantasy
was really in its infancy.  But...oh, the humor.  The main character slaps
his lover on the butt in a very demeaning way, and she likes it.  The prince
they follow all through the book *never gives his first name.*  Funny, but
ultimately tedious.


That was much longer than even I expected.  If you've made it this far, let
me say again how thrilled I am to be a part of this community.  I was
reading a blog link Jacob sent me yesterday, about how some Internet
communities are starting to behave like self-organized intelligences, the
individuals working together to come up with ideas and solutions that alone
they could never reach.  If this is true, I believe this list may be one of
the most intelligent and organized of all of them.  As a group we seem
capable of almost anything, whether it's an extended memory for recalling
lost book titles or a higher processing unit for creating new literary
theories.  Thank you all for making this the great place it is, and I hope
the next year will be even better than this one was.

Melissa Proffitt

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