Alfvaen's Top & Bottom Books of 1998

It's time once again(well, actually, it's past time, since as I write this it's September of 1999)for Alfvaen's list of the Top & Bottom Books of the past year. As always, let me emphasize that the only real relation between the books below and the year of 1998 is my having read them then. But I haven't read all the books published in 1998, so this is the best I can do.

The lists are bit short this time which I can attribute to a few things--my having actually read fewer books, and those books tending to fall more in the middle range of "good, but not notable" than raising my hackles or giving me gooseflesh.

So without further ado, we have:

Alfvaen's Top Books of 1998:

  1. Robert Jordan:The Shadow Rising. Someone who happened to discuss Robert Jordan with me before I actually started reading the books might have gotten some uninformed negative opinions based mostly on the fact that other people couldn't stop gushing over it. I have acquired a habit somewhere of starting to actively dislike things if I I was neutral towards them until people start telling me how great it is. (This is probably one of the main reasons I don't watch Deep Space Nine, for instance.) But in this case I gave in and started the series a few years ago, and made my way through it slowly.

    Somehow, with this book, despite reading it during a period of severe bodily distress, I turned a corner and became a rabid fan who derived great enjoyment from speculating over possible future developments, and pointing out to other readers important clues that they had missed.

    I won't belabour this much more here, but suffice it to say that Robert Jordan has managed to bring something new to the fantasy genre, possibly through sheer length. You see, your average fantasy trilogy can get a bit predictable after a while, since the story is essentially the same arc. But with Jordan, the prolongation of the series makes it possible to vary the arc to the point that we don't even know where on the arc we are, or how high it may rise before the end. (And I'm still only up to the fifth book...) Of course, this will, and probably already has, spawn imitators who can match Jordan's verbiage but not manage to create a world as rich or characters as engaging. But I am here and now proclaiming that Jordan definitely deserves a place of honour up there beside J.R.R. Tolkien, and I hope it takes them a long time until his coffin is nailed shut. (Although, for god's sake, Robert, please finish the series before then.)

  2. David Brin:Heaven's Reach. I'd found Brin's Uplift books to be interesting, but the best of them, Startide Rising, was patently only a small piece from a much larger story. It was with great relief that I found the story picked up again in Infinity's Shore, and in Heaven's Reach brought to as fine a conclusion as I might have wished.

    In the best SF tradition, Brin was not content to rest on the laurels of the universe he had created in previous books, but continued to expand it in new and unexpected directions. The progression of events moves effortless from the mundane to the cosmic, and my sense of wonder was continually being stimulated.

    Who knows if there are more books to come from the Uplift universe, but at least now things are much more resolved than Startide Rising left them. He can rest on his laurels now if he wants to, and he's earned them.

  3. Vivian Vande Velde:The Changeling Prince. The most rewarding random-pick-off-the-library-shelves I made all year. (Using my most time-honoured technique, picking the author with the most interesting name.) I'm a big fan of C.J. Cherryh, and I heartily recommend this book to any others. Not that it's derivative in any way, but Vande Velde shows herself quite capable of the same level of tension, and depiction of a character trapped in a situation, trying to make the most of what little control they have. In other ways, a different but tasty fantasy treat.
  4. Tom Wolfe:The Bonfire of The Vanities. A masterful study of the microcosm that is New York City and the war between the haves and the have-nots. And much more than that, of course, but I imagine its richness has already been plumbed by those more capable than I, so I can only add my voice to the multitudes that have already spoken and say, if you haven't read this, you're missing something.
  5. Charles de Lint:Trader. De Lint has a name for urban fantasy, intermingling ordinary people living in the city with spiritual forces from other realms. This book takes a slightly different approach, with a deceptively simple premise: The main character wakes up one morning in someone else's body and life, and while trying to reclaim his own, comes to realize how little he had made it his own in the first place. It does include some of de Lint's trademark elements near the end, but the beginning's more low-key approach is highly successful(and also explains its marketing as mainstream fiction...)
  6. Dean R. Koontz:Cold Fire. Koontz can be very hit-or-miss sometimes; his books can have good scenes, good characters, good premises, but fall down on other elements, or on the ending, or on the way things mesh overall. Not to say that they aren't good reads. But he does sometimes pull them all together to surpass himself, and in Cold Fire he did just that.

    The main character knows that certain things are going to happen, and he is compelled to fix them. He runs in at the right moment to save a child from being hit by a car. He gets on a plane he knows will crash, so that he can save a few people when it does. But he doesn't know why he knows these things. The search for answers takes the book in some directions which seem almost predictable, and then hit you out of left field with something totally different. A wonderful book, and highly recommended.

  7. David Foster Wallace:Infinite Jest. Once again, this is a book that almost made it onto a "Most Ambivalent" list, but eventually I put it on the top side. It was a thick book, and a long read, and not as universally enjoyable as The Broom of The System. But it is still an amazing book. The book's main focus is on addiction(copious footnotes document, among other things, pharmaceutical details on every addictive substance mentioned in the book, and there are a lot), but it examines numerous facets of it. The book is set a couple of decades in the future--it's hard to tell exactly because the American government, at least, has started using Subsidized Time, so that each year is named after whichever sponsor paid the most for it. (Why they don't just alternate between Pepsi and Coke, I don't know--instead we get "The Year of The Purdue Wonderchicken"...)

    The strikes against it include a plot that is sometimes hard to follow(particularly since the first chapter of the book comes chronologically after the rest of it, and I, for one, did not have enough information to deduce what happened between the last and first chapters...), and numerous dangling threads. But as was pointed out in The Broom of The System, plot may not be the most important part of a book...and if you don't mind losing it sometimes, this is a highly rewarding read. (And a very heavy one, at least in hardcover.)

You've have the grapes, now have the gripes. It's:

Alfvaen's Bottom Books of 1998

  1. Robert J. Sawyer:Frameshift. I can go either way on Sawyer. I loved End of An Era, but didn't care for Foreigner. I liked Starplex, but Frameshift didn't do it for me.

    Part of the problem is that too much seems to come together in this book. (Spoilers follow.) We have a woman who happens to be telepathic, who marries a man who happens to be at risk for Parkinson's; we have a suspected Nazi war criminal, who turns out to not be, but who replaces the couple's child with a cloned Neanderthal; and then we have the real Nazi war criminal, who runs an insurance agency and also kills people with genetic defects(like Parkinson's). I haven't seen this many coincidences together since reading Thomas Hardy.

    I mean, I have nothing against a book with a theme to it, and it's pretty obvious that this book has a genetic theme. But throwing this many coincidences together into the plot for the sake of illustrating the theme is overkill, and what it killed was the book. The plot moves well, and I'm sure the things that bothered me won't bother everybody who reads the book. But they bothered me a hell of a lot.

  2. Stephen King:The Shining. King's another author I can go both ways on. And it seems to be his earlier books that go towards the bottom. If what you consider to be horror is the degradation of a formerly decent human being into something monstrous, then this book is definitely horror, and on the whole I don't like horror. A lot of his books I don't consider to be horror, by that definition--any book where the main character perseveres to the end, even if he's maimed horribly and then dies, is not horror. But when your hero turns into your villain, then that is. And let me just say that I'd rather not read it.
  3. Piers Anthony:Unicorn Point. After reading Firefly and The Colour of Her Panties, I don't expect a hell of a lot from Piers Anthony. And I read this book mostly to try to finish the Apprentice Adept series off. (The first two books were good...the next two were okay...but after that, no.) The biggest problem with this book was that he came up with this idea to do each chapter from a different point of view, and then to arrange these points of view into an artificial pattern. Or should I say "shoehorn"? Blecch. Some highly disagreeable parts in this book, too.
  4. Fred Saberhagen:The Dracula Tapes. An interesting idea that fails in practice, that of writing Dracula from the vampire's point of view. It reminded me a bit of Philip Jose Farmer's The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, except that it doesn't add as much underlying unreported story, just tries to correct Stoker's "inaccurate" account of what happened, and this constant correction gets a bit tedious after a while. Saberhagen would have been better off just doing his own story.
  5. Sheri S. Tepper:Shadow's End. I do like Tepper's writing a lot, but sometimes she doesn't manage to pull everything together. The ending of this one left me highly unsatisfied--it took place at a different level than I had been led to expect throughout the book, and IMHO didn't really fit. Maybe she had planned the ending first and had to fit it onto the book after it had gone in a slightly different direction. In any event, somewhat of a disappointment, but not enough to put me off her books entirely...

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