Best Books of 2004

Paul Andinach pandinac at ucc.gu.uwa.edu.au
Fri Jan 28 23:48:24 EST 2005


This still has some rough patches, but considering how long it's taken
me to get this far, I don't want to risk still being at it when it's
time for Best Books of 2005...


Best Recommendation:
'The King's Peace' (inc. 'The King's Name') by Jo Walton

It *came alive* in a way many books don't. I loved the
characterisation, and the intricate plotting. And the world-building;
one thing I particularly appreciated was the effort put into the
religions, something that fantasy authors often overlook or avoid even
when religion ought to be a significant influence on the characters.
(Guy Gavriel Kay, I'm looking at *you*.)


Best Non-Fiction:
'The autobiography of the woman the Gestapo called The White Mouse'
by Nancy Wake

Memoirs of an Australian-born French woman, who was active in the
French underground after the Nazis invaded, escaped to England, and
then went back as a liaison between British Intelligence and the
Resistance. "Autobiography" to me suggests something a bit more formal
than this, which is basically a string of anecdotes. A fascinating
story, engagingly told, and I learned quite a bit from it (which is
good, since I read it in the pretence that I was doing Research).

(After I'd read it, I had a shot at the more recent biography of Nancy
by Peter Fitzsimmons, but I had to pack it in after a couple of
chapters because I couldn't stand the style. Maybe Fitzsimmons just
doesn't do anecdotal as well as Nancy, but I think it was at least
partly because it felt strange having someone tell anecdotes about the
intimate details of *somebody else's* life.)


Best Classic I Hadn't Read Yet:
'Tarzan of the Apes' by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A fun book, rather better than some people would have one believe.
I found it very interesting - and not just because of the game of
comparing Burroughs' Tarzan with his pop-culture-composite successor
(Quick quiz: Tarzan is generally depicted as a clean-shaven man in a
big-cat-skin loincloth who speaks broken English; in which single
respect does this image match Burroughs' version?).

I also read the sequel, 'The Return of Tarzan' - of which more later.

Runner-up: 'Farewell My Lovely' by Raymond Chandler


Most Interesting Contrast With Screen Adaptation:
"Astro Boy: The Blast Furnace Mystery" by Osamu Tezuka

I've been working my way through Dark Horse's collections of Tezuka's
Astro Boy comics on and off for the last couple of years. The series
as a whole was also a nominee for this category, but this instalment
in particular interests me because one of my favourite episodes of the
Astro Boy TV series was adapted from this story, but the story itself
is not much good.

It's as much about running time as medium: the premise is pretty good
(for anyone who might remember it, it's the one about the police
detective who thinks he sees his father disposing of a dead body), but
the original version of the story was written to fill in a couple of
pages, which isn't nearly enough to do the idea justice.
The television version gives the story more room to shine, and adds a
bunch of interesting incidental details. (And also, it should be
noted, shifts the story to a different setting that serves the story
better.)

Runner-up: 'Tarzan of the Apes' by Edgar Rice Burroughs
(obviously, the system is rigged so that no book gets more than one
headline)


Best Graphic Novel or Similar:
'Batman Adventures' by Ty Templeton, Dan Slott, et al.

About the only Batman comic worth reading this year. So guess which
one got cancelled... (For marketing reasons, it should be pointed out,
with no reference to the series' quality or sales.)

I particularly liked the "Shadows & Masks" story arc, in which Batman
goes undercover to infiltrate a new criminal organisation. There was a
brilliant twist at the end, setting up for the sequel - which, of
course, we will now never see. Curse you, DC Comics Licensing
Department!

Runner-up: No, I got nothin'. A couple of candidates came to mind -
Jeff Smith's 'Bone', of course, Ed Brubaker's 'Made of Wood' - but on
checking my records, they're all things I read in 2003. 2004 was a bad
year for comics, or at least for the kind of comics available around
here.

I did read volume 2 of Alan Moore's 'League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen', which fails to make it as Runner-up for the simple reason
that, in the end, I didn't like it very much. Underneath all the
Victorian literature geekery that drew me in in the first place, the
actual *story* was the kind of thing I would have avoided had I known.
(And even the literature geekery has lost its appeal; he cheats a bit
too much for me.)
As a side-note, it's obvious in retrospect that, although LoEG was
published and marketed as two six-issue miniseries, it's really a
single 12-issue story arc, and anyone who's only read the first half
has a false impression of what the series is about. (This of course
includes the people who made the movie out of the first six issues,
not that that lets them off the hook.)


Most Cringe-Inducing:
'The End of Eternity' by Isaac Asimov

Not Asimov's fault, of course; he just happened to hit on one of my
readerly idiosyncracies. I can't stand to watch characters making
fools of themselves, and the protagonist here spends a large chunk of
the novel doing just that. After a while, I was putting the book down
every ten-fifteen minutes and doing something else to relieve my
nerves. I see from my notes it took me three days to get through 'The
End of Eternity', which is a long time for a book that size, and it
felt longer. It was a great relief when, on day three, the protagonist
finally realised what a fool he was and set about saving the day;
after that things went much more smoothly.

On an unrelated note, I found myself being tolerantly amused by the
way Asimov's preoccupation with The Atom worked its way into the
fabric of the plot; I do believe I could have guessed when it was
written to within a decade if I hadn't known already. I wonder what
modern work people will be reading fifty years from now and being
tolerantly amused by how it shows the imprint of the time in which it
was written...


Best Re-read:
'Hellspark' by Janet Kagan.

No big surprise there.

Runner-up: "Out of the Night, When the Full Moon is Bright" by Kim Newman


Biggest Disappointment:
'The Return of Tarzan' by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It's a little-known fact that 'Tarzan of the Apes' actually ends with
Tarzan and Jane suddenly and tragically separated, only to be at last
reunited at the end of 'The Return of Tarzan'. The reason it is
little-known is, of course, because all the screen adaptations have
quite sensibly ignored it.

'The Return of Tarzan' is, probably, not a bad book, at least as
Tarzan books go. There's quite a lot of dramatic action as Tarzan
saves a countess's honour, defeats spies in the Arabian desert (my
favourite section), discovers the soon-to-be-legendary Lost City of
Opar, and so on. Had it not been the immediate sequel to 'Tarzan of
the Apes', I would probably have quite enjoyed it.

The problem is that, having justified a sequel by engineering a
situation where Tarzan and Jane cannot be together - and thus created
the expectation that this is what the sequel will be about - the
author spends most of his word quota talking about other stuff
(countesses, Arabia, Opar, etc.). And when he does get around to
resolving the Jane situation he ignores most of the helpful plot
threads he'd left dangling at the end of the previous book in favour
of a series of risible coincidences (and, incidentally, the drawn-out
and painful death of a character I'd quite liked).

My opinion of the book has mellowed somewhat with distance and the
recognition that I may have been expecting too much of Burroughs after
'Tarzan of the Apes' turned out so well, but I was seriously
disappointed at the time.


Runners-up:
'Ash: A Secret History' by Mary Gentle

...though I was tempted to put this first, solely so I could make the
joke about it being the *biggest* disappointment. This book, for those
who haven't encountered it, is so large that the Americans published
it as a four-volume series. And after investing so much time in it, I
felt let down by the way it fell apart at the end. (*Most* of it was
fine - Ash's story was wonderful - the trouble was the frame story,
where things tended to happen for no better reason than because it
suited the author for them to happen that way. Especially at the end.)

"The True State of Affairs" by Diana Wynne Jones

Like 'Ash', the story itself is great, but the frame let it down. I
ended up being incredibly frustrated because we never learn the story
of how the protagonist ended up in this place; I realise that it's
extraneous to the story actually being told, but if it's so extraneous
as all that, why make it part of the story at all?

'Paladin of Souls' by Lois McMaster Bujold

I don't know if it's fair to call 'Paladin of Souls' a disappointment;
I would have been quite happy with it if 'Curse of Chalion' hadn't
been such a great book.


Anticipating in 2005:
'1610' by Mary Gentle
'Going Postal' by Terry Pratchett
'Conrad's Fate' by Diana Wynne Jones
'Tooth and Claw' by Jo Walton
'Bone: Crown of Horns' by Jeff Smith

(Two of which I've already read in the time it took to get around to
writing this...)


Paul
-- 
"Hold fast to the one noble thing."

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