Best Books of 2004

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Fri Dec 31 02:17:08 EST 2004

Well, boys and girls, it's that time again.  The year is pretty much over
and I've been going over my reading list, choosing outstanding (for good or
ill) books I've read this past year.  As usual, you're all welcome to play
along at home, or skip this entirely if you wish.  (I figure there's not
much chance that I'll read something groundbreaking between now and
tomorrow, especially considering that we're going to a Lord of the Rings
Extended Edition party beginning on the 31st and going until we all die of
overstimulation or see all three movies.)

I really wanted to compare this year with last year, but the spreadsheet I
made isn't where I left it and I don't feel like hunting for it or
recreating it from the hardcopy.  Oh well.  I did notice that the percentage
of books I read for the first time is a lot higher than last year...why, I
don't know.

Anyway, on with the list!

**Best Book of 2004:  _The Conversion of Jeff Williams_ by Douglas Thayer

This is a book none of you, probably, have ever heard of.  Nor are you
likely to see it in bookstores, given the publisher's horrible promotional
abilities.  I had to personally drive to the publisher's office and wrench a
copy from their tiny hands to read it myself.  What's more, it's by a Mormon
author, from a Mormon publisher, about a Mormon kid.  Three more strikes.  I
read it as an awards judge last February and almost didn't bother, given how
difficult it was to find.  Plus, with a title like that, I figured "bad
preachy missionary novel."  Ugh.

I was so wrong.

We all reach a point in our lives where we have to decide whether we are
going to leave behind the teachings of our youth (religious, political,
social, etc.) or accept them as our own guiding light.  This novel is about
such a point in one young man's life.  Jeff Williams begins the novel
knowing all the things his parents have taught him about life and God, but
not really believing them.  Over the course of a summer spent with his rich
relatives in Provo, Utah, he has to make the decision about who he is going
to be and what he truly believes.  What makes the novel surprising is that
Jeff chooses to stay with his faith--and it's not saccharine or unbelievable
in the least.  It's a remarkable book from any perspective; if you know
anything about Mormon literature, it's almost miraculous.  (Our authors
still have this tendency to think of fiction as a missionary tract, even if
it's fiction aimed solely at those who already believe.)  This is a book
about faith that I think can be appreciated even by those who aren't
religious.  Wonderful.

More really great books from 2004:
_The Viscount of Adrilankha_, Steven Brust (finally finished this year)
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson--WOW!
_Going Postal_ and _A Hat Full of Sky_, Terry Pratchett
_The Ships of Air_, Martha Wells
_The Life of the World to Come_, Kage Baker's fifth Company novel

**Best First Book:  _The Goose Girl_ by Shannon Hale

In this retelling of a lesser-known fairy tale, Shannon Hale both stays
close to the spirit of the story and creates an original fantasy world that
is interesting in itself.  "The Goose Girl" is one of my favorite
stories--or maybe it's just a dramatically memorable one, what with the
talking horse-head and all that.  Hale's explanations for some of the
elements that become problematic in a full-length novel (i.e., why the heck
did the stupid princess just let her maid walk all over her like that?) make
perfect sense and also tie into the larger story.  Good romance, good
characterization, excellent description, and some wonderful magical concepts
make this a fantastic book.  Shannon Hale herself is a very cute and
articulate person.  I hate her.  (Not really.)  The sequel, _Enna Burning_,
follows the adventures of one of the secondary characters in a completely
original story, and Hale says she has one other novel coming about a third
character.  I'm looking forward to reading both.

**Best Romance:  _The Silver Metal Lover_ by Tanith Lee

Do you ever read a book and just sit there afterward banging your head
against the wall going "Why WHY haven't I ever read this before?"  Yes, it's
true, this is the first time I'd ever read this book, and it was a powerful
emotional experience.  Wow.

**Best Recommendation (tie): _The Oracle Betrayed_ by Catherine Fisher and
_The Gate of Ivory_ by Doris Egan

_The Oracle_ was finally published here as _The Oracle Betrayed_, and after
all that talk about it, I snatched it up when I saw it in the store.  (Ditto
_Mortal Engines_, but that's another tale.)  Hallie, have I mentioned that
you're probably the person I depend most heavily on for books that I know I
will love?  I loved the world, I loved the story, and I went and ordered
_The Archon_ from rather than wait any longer.

_The Gate of Ivory_ was one of my reading group selections this year.  If
you've never heard of this series, it came out in the late '80s and was
recently reprinted in an omnibus edition titled _The Complete Ivory_.  The
thing is, the story has a lot of weaknesses, but something about it really
hooked me.  Part of me wishes Egan had written more--there are some things
she could have explored more fully--but part of me is glad she didn't,
because some of those weaknesses become annoying.  Overall, though, I'm glad
this was recommended to me.

**Best New Series: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall
"New series" in this case does not mean that the series is new, but that
I've begun reading it for the first time this year.  I picked up the first
book in this series for a dollar at the thrift store because it was in great
shape and because the title intrigued me.  Despite the "detective" in the
title, this is not a mystery series.  Precious Ramotswe used her inheritance
from her father to set up a detective agency in her homeland of Botswana.
She's a smart and observant lady and is really good at what she does.  The
books are very low-key, not fast paced, and part of the beauty of them is
the descriptions of Africa and its many different people.  Titles in the
series are:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life

**Best "Classic" novel:  _Julie of the Wolves_ by Jean Craighead George

I've never read this series (hence the "classic"--books of the canon that I
should have read when I was younger) and fell right into it.  I didn't care
for the third volume (_Julie's Wolf Pack_) as much, but overall I enjoyed
the feeling of being in the far north, of living with the animals.

**Serendipity Award:  _Peter and the Starcatchers_ by Dave Barry and Ridley

This one came up on the splash screen.  I saw Dave Barry's name
first and then the title, and I'll admit it was Barry as author that made me
want to read it.  He's a great humorist, but he's also coming into his own
as a fiction writer.  That, and the idea of Ridley Pearson writing a
children's fantasy...well, I had to see what it was all about.  I was about
fifty pages into the book when my child stole it from me and spent the rest
of the day reading it.  Then she had the nerve to tell me I ought to read it
because it was really good.  What did she THINK I'd been doing?!?

I'm not a fan of Peter Pan pastiche, particularly sequels, but this is a
prequel and very very different.  Barry and Pearson are rebuilding the
legend, in a sense, by providing a background for Peter and Never-land that
could logically lead to what J.M. Barrie wrote.  I loved the evolution of
the mermaids in particular; in the original they always seemed to be so
bloody-minded and inhuman, and I thought their origin story fit that
perfectly.  The book is also highly enjoyable on its own merits.  The
authors are contemplating more novels in this world: a set of shorter books
for the juvenile audience, and a couple of sequels to _Starcatchers_.  I'll
be watching to see what they come up with.

**Guilty Pleasure:  the Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate

Yes, I admit it.  I not only read the books, I also liked them.  They're not
great literature, and the need for readers to be able to start at any point
in the series leads to the expected repetition of basic information.
However, I was surprised to discover that while these are written to a very
basic level, they contain a number of more sophisticated elements.  The
characters have to make some tough decisions and face an enemy that is
completely ruthless and can take over people they love.  The power of
"morphing" into other animals, which seems kitschy on the surface, has some
serious side effects, and by forcing the characters to face those
implications in the very first book, the author makes this power seem a lot
less like some goofy fantasy novel.  I'm no longer afraid of my kids reading
too many of these; on the contrary, I think they could be a very good
introduction to serious science fiction.

So there.

**Best Intellectual Novel:  _Zod Wallop_ by William Browning Spencer

We discussed this book a few months ago, so I won't go into much detail
here.  This is a book that requires analytical reading, but doesn't seem
complicated or abstruse.  Having read it, it merits re-reading to discover
more about what's really going on within its pages.  The descriptive
passages are fantastic and the characterization...well, I'll just say that
anyone who thinks fantasy books aren't literature should read this one.
Fantastic, and worth searching for.

**Screaming for the Sequel:  _The Archon_ by Catherine Fisher

AAAAAAAAAH!!!  I just know there has to be more to this.  I won't be able to
bear it otherwise.  It's not like it's a bad ending; it's a great ending, a
wonderful ending, but how can the series end if half the people we care
about are on the other side of the desert?  Please, please, let there be

**Best Re-Read:  _Watership Down_ by Richard Adams

It's one of my favorite books.  I really can't say why; it just is.  So in
February I felt like reading it again--it's been a few years.  I was about a
hundred pages in when, at lunchtime, the kids wanted to know what I was
reading.  So I started telling them about it, and they got excited (Teleri
in particular is fond of rabbits).  And I thought, "Why not just read it to
them?"  So I started over that afternoon and we read it through.  They loved
it, and so did I.  Usually if I have to start a book over before finishing
it, I'm irritated by having to re-read those first few pages.  But this
wasn't tedious in the least.  Aside from the occasional descriptive dump, it
went very quickly.  When we finished, Teleri started reading it to herself.
It was a tremendous experience.

**Biggest Disappointment:  _Second Contact_ by Mike Resnick

Resnick's books are hard to find in our library system, for some reason, but
I loved _Kirinyaga_ and _Santiago_ and so forth.  But _Second Contact_ was a
bust.  Most of it is great--it has one of the best female rogues in all of
literature--but when I got to the ending, all I could think was, "Well, why
did you have to spend the whole book hunting down the truth if it turned out
it was okay for them to tell you?!?"  Grrrr.

**Most Anticipated Book of 2005:  _Conrad's Fate_ by Diana Wynne Jones


Other books I'm looking forward to reading:  Jim Butcher's hardcover fantasy
debut, _Furies of Calderon_; _Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane_ by Suzanne
Collins; _Enna Burning_ (I've had this for two months and just haven't
gotten to it); _Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince_ (yes, I love Harry
Potter, and someday I'll explain why); Jack McDevitt's latest book
_Polaris_; and a new recommendation called _City of Pearl_ by Karen Traviss.
As always, looking out for something new by Connie Willis.  Whatever Terry
Pratchett writes next.  And I'm hoping Martha Wells gets the next Ile-Rien
book out soon.

And finally...
**Worst Book of 2004:  _The Da Vinci Code_ by Dan Brown

It was nice to see people talking about this book in the negative.  I had to
skim the last 150 pages just to finish the book without needing to gouge my
eyes out with a stick.  Jacob and I read it because it sounded like a fun
thriller.  Jacob read it first and begged me to read it too because he
thought Brown had cheated in handling one of the important characters.  I
have no idea whether he did or not (actually it seems likely) because my
brain tried to run away and hide after the first few chapters.

I almost don't have to rip this book apart because everything that's already
been said here, I agree with.  The writing is sophomoric (and soporific) and
all the stuff that's supposed to be a huge surprise was either a no-brainer
or something I read in _Holy Blood, Holy Grail_ (though one funny part was
when the characters referred to that book as good but flawed).  Sorry, Dan,
but all that stuff about Jesus being married is part of my religion.

However, the writing isn't much worse than that of most popular writers, and
I could have forgiven it if the underlying premise had not been so
despicable.  See, I'm more or less a contrarian.  If I find myself
identifying with and rooting for the bad guy in a novel, I know it's
probably because the author has stacked the deck against him in an
improbable effort to force my sympathies in a particular way.  And I hate
being manipulated like that.  Brown's opinions, and his desire to make the
reader agree with them, permeate the entire novel.  I'm going to quote Paul
because he said what really bugged the crap out of me:

>What it does is
>assert the bits that *are* true - the existence of certain paintings,
>certain organisations, and so on - but in such a way that the reader
>is encouraged to assume that the rest is true as well; in such a way
>that people remember it saying "This is all true", but without it
>actually saying so.

Readers are talking about how exciting the book was, and how they went and
looked at the paintings and gosh darn it, they really are that way, and
isn't it amazing!  Except that most of what went into that book is a crock
of smelly--lies.

It's also full of wonderful contradictions and unprovable assertions.  One
of my very favorites comes near the beginning: the main character (a
symbologist) is talking to the French police investigator, who asks him what
a certain symbol means.  And the main character is thinking how much he
hates that question, because symbols only have personal meaning and are
individual in interpretation.

And then we have FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE PAGES in which this SAME
CHARACTER tells us all about the symbols in various paintings and buildings
and what they definitively, absolutely, no-question-about-it mean.

If he'd been a real person, I would have punched him somewhere painful.

I have to vent here, because the only other person I know who's read it
actually liked it and got offended when I didn't, probably because she felt
I was making comments on her intelligence for liking such a worthless piece
of crap.  This is a lot worse than when ordinary mortals discovered fantasy
thanks to J.K. Rowling.  At least when those people started acting all
superior you could easily prove to them that there was a world of fantasy
beyond the R section in the bookstore.  Now we've got a horde of clueless
drones who believe they've discovered the secrets of the universe because
they happened to read one book full of unattributed, unproven assertions.

Well, at least I've still never seen "Titanic."

For any of you who've made it this far, I hope you enjoyed my long-winded
meanderings.  (This seems to get longer every year.)  It's been a good year
for reading and I've been grateful to be a part of this company, which makes
my reading even better.  Thank you for everything you do to make this list
one of the best places to be, online or not.

Melissa Proffitt

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