Best Books of 2004

Allison Marles apm at alumni.uwaterloo.ca
Fri Jan 7 18:49:25 EST 2005


Best Food-related book: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Best Recommended book: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

   I didn't enjoy The Virgin Blue by the same author as it was too
   depressing for me.  I found the atmosphere of GwaPE very absorbing.
   I haven't seen the movie yet.

Best Series: The Dark is Rising Sequence 

   Technically I'm only on book 4 and it's the new year, but hey, I just
   got them for xmas, and I'm loving them, so I count them for last year.

Best Picture Book: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

    I read this at xmas time. It's amazing.
    Thinking of picture books, I also love "Clown" by Quentin Blake. But
    I didn't read it this year.

Best Non-fiction: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Most anticipated book that I bought in 2004 but haven't read yet:
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Allison

On Fri, Dec 31, 2004 at 12:17:08AM -0700, Melissa Proffitt wrote:
> 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 Amazon.uk 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
> Smith
> "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
> Pearson
> 
> This one came up on the Amazon.com 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
> more.
> 
> **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
> 
> Duh.
> 
> 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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