Alfvaen's Top & Bottom Books of 1995

Welcome, once again, to Alfvaen's Top & Bottom Books of the year, the best and worst books I read this year(which has nothing to do with their date of publication). This year, I'm breaking with my long-standing tradition of a Top & Bottom Ten, because I had a good year. I read a lot of good books, and few bad ones. I really had to cull the Top list a lot, and had to scrape to get the Bottom. What's left are just the ones I just couldn't exclude from either list. Here we go:

Top:

  1. John Barnes: Mother of Storms. As is my wont, I read all of the Hugo nominees(with the exception of Mirror Dance, since I'm several books behind on the Miles Vorkosigan books and don't want to read them out of publication order). I'm glad I did, because I just loved this book. It seems like Yet Another SF Disaster Book, like Lucifer's Hammer or Flare, but is much, much more. All the characters were quite well-done, the apotheosis of two of them convincing(and quite thought-provoking), and in general I was utterly wowed. I was deeply disappointed when it was beaten out for the award by Mirror Dance(though, as I said, I haven't read it yet), because I thought this could beat any of the Hugo nominees of the past few years. Ah, well.
  2. Russell Hoban: The Medusa Frequency. I can't remember who recommended this book to me(a perennial problem, since I write down book titles for all kinds of reasons). Whoever it was, I'm indebted to them. It's a masterpiece of sur-/magic realism, while still being witty, and short to boot. Features Medusa(of course), the Kraken, Orpheus & Eurydice, and a man who claims to be one of half a dozen people who play the parts of everybody in London. Extremely charming. I want to read more of this guy.
  3. Norman Spinrad: Russian Spring. Though I've had my disagreements with the person who recommendes this one(I do remember this time), I can't fault his taste for this book. While rendered alternate history sometime between being written and published by the peaceable breakup of the Soviet Union, it's still a fascinating book. Highly realistic depictions of politics(and how they can affect a scientific career), plausible future history(with the possible exception of President Wolfowitz), and the characters themselves. My opinion of Spinrad is going up and up.
  4. Orson Scott Card: Speaker For The Dead. It was years before I found out that Ender's Game had a sequel(probably, in fact, by the time it had two). I'm glad I finally did get around to reading it. It's quite different from its predecessor, but still extremely good, showcasing more of Card's strengths.
  5. Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash. Stephenson shows how much fun you can really have with "cyberpunk". Not for everybody, sure, but for those who don't mind fun being poked at something which has been known to be taken too seriously.
  6. Tanith Lee: The Blood of Roses. A story that starts off slow, and builds ever so gradually, plotlines and characters interwoven in a tapestry of folk mythology and Jungian archetypes. Includes some vampiric elements, as the title might indicate, but a very unique breed of them. One of Lee's best.
  7. Mark Helprin: Winter's Tale. Appropriately enough, this one reminded me of both of the preceding books--pacing of Snow Crash and the archetypal loading of The Blood of Roses. (Yes, I realize it predates both of them...) A paean to New York City as it once was, or perhaps never was; hence, one of the best urban fantasy novels.
  8. Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates. Not Just Another Victorian[*] SF Novel. Contains some tried-and-true time travel elements, but they seem fresh in Power's hands; skillfully blended with magic. Have to read more of this guy, too.
  9. James Morrow: Towing Jehovah. Another Hugo nominee; this one I didn't expect to win, if only because of the controversial nature of its subject matter(towing the corpse of God). Morrow manages to avoid the heavy-handed biting satire one would expect of such a subject, and instead fills his book with real people, real problems, and real solutions based on the single premise.
  10. Robert J. Sawyer: End of An Era. Another book I thought was cheated of an award; this one I thought was a clincher for last year's Aurora Award(for Canadian SF), and I was quite annoyed when Gibson's inferior Virtual Light won instead. Contains perhaps the most original theory I've ever seen for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  11. Tanith Lee: The Silver Metal Lover. At the other end of Tanith Lee's oeuvre from The Blood of Roses, this book is from her early, more SF-oriented work. Not the first falling-in-love-with-a-robot story, but one of the best.
  12. Kay Hooper: The Wizard of Seattle. Okay, in absolute terms this is not a tremendous book; but taken in context as a Romance novel, it's tremendous. Sure, Hooper uses Atlantis as her fantasy setting, but it is a unique vision of Atlantis, and the plot is more than just a disentangling of misunderstandings that prevent the main characters from admitting they love each other. Can hold its own with much that's filed in the fantasy racks.
  13. Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan/Gormenghast. Classics of fantasy, and no wonder. The setting of Gormenghast Castle is hard to match, and the characters engaging. I've heard that Titus Alone, not completed by Peake before his death, is very much different, so haven't gotten to it yet, but I doubtless will.
  14. Joseph Heller: Catch-22. Another classic work that barely needs my praise for it, so enough said.
Around here I usually praise some non-fictional work. Having gone through most of Stephen Jay Gould's essay collections, I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favourite, so read them all. Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and An Anthropologist On Mars are also highly recommended.

Oh, yes, and something I forget when I originally posted this: Merritt Ruhlen's The Origin of Language. In a book quite accessible even to the non-linguistically-minded, Ruhlen demonstrates how one can deduce relationships between languages using known groups, and then proceeds to venture beyond that into classifications above those most linguists would consider possible to detect...finally arriving at the conclusion that all known languages have a single common ancestor. Don't take my word for it, see for yourself.

One final belated addition--my favourite script of the year is Einstein & The Polar Bear by Tom Griffin. It's got everything. Witty dialogue, strong characters, comic relief, subplots, and even symbolism. Any of you dramatically-inclined people should try to put it on in your area.

[*] "Victorian" used for "British historical, post-Renaissance and probably post-Industrial Revolution" with the same carelessness as "Classical" music.

And now the Bottom books of the year, the books that I found most disappointing out of all those I read this yet. A shorter list than usual, as I said, because all in all I had a good year.

Bottom:

  1. Nancy Kress: Beggars And Choosers. Another Hugo nominee, but this one I didn't mind not winning. Not bad in an absolute sense, but I didn't think it was up to Beggars In Spain by any means. The threads of the book didn't seem to knit together well, and the premises of the book might have done better in a new setting than incorporated into this one.
  2. Tanith Lee: A Heroine of The World. Another Tanith Lee book, just to show that I don't consider her unable of writing anything bad. The title is misleading, because the protagonist of the book, though female, is anything but a heroine. As a matter of fact, I had trouble seeing her as anything but a victim, or at the very least a pawn of others. She spends most of the book following around some man or other. Furthermore, I found the world of the book quite dull. Lee can, and has, done better.
  3. Alistair MacLean: Seawitch. My wife warned me that MacLean's later books didn't tend to be among his best. This one is proof. The characters are so wooden that it's hard to care what happens to them, who lives and who dies, who ends up with what girl, and even who's a good guy and who's a bad guy. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
  4. J.O. Jeppson: The Last Immortal. Okay, to be fair, I didn't expect Janet Jeppson to be as good a writer as her late husband. I picked up her books, like, I imagine, many others, mainly because I was curious to see if she could write. I seem to recall not disliking The Second Experiment too badly, or else I wouldn't have gotten this one, even if I didn't realize at the time that it was a sequel. But this one doesn't even measure up to TSE. It has its moments, and a few interesting ideas, but the characters are not convincing, so I had trouble caring what happened to them.
  5. John Crowley: Little, Big. I'm not even sure why I was disappointed with this one. Perhaps I just preferred Crowley's more "straight" SF, like The Deep and Engine Summer. I certainly preferred Winter's Tale as my urban fantasy read of the year; it seemed to have something that Little, Big was lacking. Again, L,B had its moments, but somehow the moments strung together did not make a satisfying book for me. I will doubtless reread it someday to see if it makes a better impression.
  6. Michael Moorcock: The Silver Warriors. Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle is beginning to seem somewhat juvenile to me, I think. I can still reread books in it without suffering much in my enjoyment, but any books I haven't already read will seem silly and pointless. (On the other hand, perhaps I've just read all the good ones, and have only the mediocre ones left. It's hard to tell, really.)
  7. Jo Clayton: Changer's Moon. I first saw this book years and years ago, but didn't read it because it was the third of a trilogy. Of course, by the time I'd found and read the first two books, I couldn't find this one anywhere; thus, there were several years between the books, and I had trouble remembering what was going on. Still, this book had a lot of unnecessary elements--an SF subplot which resulted in a bunch of new characters which didn't really add much to the book, for instance. And, to top it all off, it's got one of those kind of endings where they have a great big battle that doesn't have any effect on the real defeat of the villain, which is an element of Tolkien that I'd just as soon not see more of.

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com