(Dragon reading to a small boy.)
Image from Reading Dragon Graphics by Xxanthe
The Book Barn discussion list posed the question to members, "What were the best fifteen books you read in 1998?" This was my answer. Half of these are re-reads, the rest are new-reads.

Songmaster by Orson Scott Card
      In a galaxy-spanning human civilization, the Songhouse is one of the longest-lasting institutions connecting all the planets. The Songhouse adopts promising children, raises them and teaches them all educational basics -- plus music and song. The majority of Songhouse students graduate able to entertain listeners and even to teach music on far-flung planets. A select number are Songbirds, able to raise the power of music to a mystic level, to move and influence audiences. These are sent out to carefully chosen, powerful families, and eventually come back to the Songhouse with what they have learned of the far-flung worlds, to teach the next generation of singers.
      Ansset is the most talented new arrival at the Songhouse. He is also a wounded child; emotionally crippled, he can echo the feelings of any other person, in song, but he feels nothing. The Songhouse heals him, but when his teachers decide that only the power of Ansset's song can tame a tyrant, they send him out into both greatness and tragedy.
      In many ways this is a retelling of the Biblical story of David and Saul. Like the Bible, too, Orson Scott Card puts his characters through bloody-all. Job himself would not trade place with an Orson Scott Card protagonist, thank you very much. I was not surprised to learn that Orson Scott Card was a Mormon; much of Christian writing is about dealing with pain and guilt, finding meaning in an imperfect world. All of Orson Scott Card's writing seems to be on that theme. His characters go through agony; they come out of it with grace, deep wisdom, and large souls.
      Ansset becomes the Songmaster. I re-read very few books; this one I have re-read more than any other.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
      I am putting a codicil in my will that none of my children or grandchildren inherit anything from me until they have read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I read the first two paragraphs and I was hooked, for life. The poetry and rhythm on Hurston's prose make this another of the rare books that can be re-read. Hear a selection read
      In Hurston's own life, she was unfortunately rejected by both white critics and black for her use of dialect and black cultural themes in her work. It was Alice Walker who resurrected her work and made her remembered. Just one more thing I admire Alice Walker for.

No-No Boy by John Okada
      It was an espresso shop barrista who turned me on to this little-known novel, a one-time work by a man who committed suicide young, printed posthumously. I have seen the book listed since then on library Recommended lists.
      The story takes place in Seattle's international District at the end of World War II. The soldiers are returning -- and so are the "refusees", the young men who sat out the war in prison for refusing the draft. The protagonist is a Refusee; when the same country that sent his family to the camps for being Japanese informed him he was drafted, he said -- a lot of things, but the essence of it was, "No." Now he is trying to pick the pieces of his life back up again, and wondering if his refusal was worth the divisions it caused between himself and his community.
      This is another re-read. I originally found the book many years ago. I have been haunted ever since by one image from the book: the elderly Japanese woman, deeply betrayed by her adopted country, certain that Japan truly won the war and anything else is just more American propaganda, sitting by the window, her bags packed, waiting for the victorious Japanese ships to come take her home.

Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn
      This was another barrista recommendation. A different barrista, though.
      aka Five Tons of Smooth Stones, this 800+ book doesn't please everyone. I've found its epic account following three generations during the civil rights era memorable.

Silverlock by John Myers Myers
      The adventures of a jaded "modern man" who shipwrecks on the shore of the Commonwealth of Letters, a land where all the characters of myth and literature who are memorable enough to live forever -- do. He meets Circe, Robin Hood, Beowulf, The Complete Angler, and many others; his guide through his adventures is a living archetype named Golias who is all the world's bards rolled into one. His surface adventures aren't world-shaking: the central action of the book involves Golias and Shandon (Silverlock) helping a young proto-Tom-Jones foil the attempts of a wicked cousin to trick him out of his inheritance and steal his bride. The essential story of the book is the development of Shandon's soul as he exposed to the literary treasures that have built our culture. The main fun of the book is Hunt the Allusion; the book is packed with so many lterary, mythological and historical allusions that even the most well-read can't identify them all, so you are bound to be turned on to something new.
      I've created a website providing hyper-linked references for all of the allusions in the book: I'm about half-way through so far, and I've learned a lot in doing it.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman
      This is one of the classics of humorous fantasy, in both its movie form and its book form.   You can buy the movie at Amazon.

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle
      This is one of the books I keep buying again every time I give away one. It is one of my own yardsticks for great fantasy. When I first read the book, I could see it played out as an animated film, and sure enough it became one. I even like the movie. But the book is still the best.

The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other by Tzvetan Todorov
      I found this book through a reference in Orson Scott Card's notes to his own novel Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus. Through this book I discovered much more of historian Tsvetan Todorov -- a valuable find indeed.

Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner
      The explanation for why technology bites includes many things you already know, like the more complex something is the more likely it will break. But Tenner, with the extensive background of a Renaissance man, provides detail on how the complexities of modern life relate to each other and enjoyable little details like how Murphy's Law got its name, along with some commonsense advice on how to avoid the bites. The main drawback to the book is the same as its advantage -- Tenner is erudite, and he does rather tend to go on as erudite professors usually do.

Last Call by Tim Powers
      I am trying not to use up all my fifteen books on one or two authors, but I could. I can recommend without hesitation the five books I've read so far by Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard, Anubis Gates, Last Call, Expiration Date, Earthquake Weather. I plan to read the rest of his books. I consider the last three to be the best, and Last Call should be read first among them: the events and themes in Last Call and in Expiration Date dovetail into the sequel to both, Earthquake Weather. All of Powers' books deal with archetypes, with the power of the symbols of the imagination over daily human life. He also explores chaos theory; he and Michael Moorcock between them have motivated me to begin studying it.

Gone Fishin' by Walter Mosely
      Walter Mosely has always been one of the more literary mystery writers. This book is the most mainstream yet -- not a detective story, even mystery, even crime novel, but a dark-toned coming-of-age novel providing backstory to his main continuing characters.

The Bone Collector by Jeffrey Deavers
      Managed to impress me as serial-killer novels seldom do. (I don't give many of them a chance; I avoid them almost as avidly as I avoid serial-killers.) This book creates its emotional impact by damn good writing, instead of by scattered gore and body parts. It also has excellent forensic detail, and I'm a sucker for science in novels.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Sharyn McCrumb
      I have probably read more critically acclaimed collections of short stories, but this one made an impression because it was such a pleasant surprise. I picked it up expecting popcorn-chomping mystery entertainment and got very mainstream and still interesting well-written short stories.

Caesar by Colleen McCullough
      Colleen McCullough continues to write the best historical novels I have ever read.

The Truth in Rented Rooms by Koon Woon
      I have to plug a local. A StreetWrites workshop member and fellow Real Change editor has a book available at amazon.com! It's gotten excellent reviews, too (not just in Real Change) by Bob Holman, organizer of the public-TV series The United States of Poetry, among others. If you like poetry, give it a try. I think it's worth all of the rave reviews.

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Last updated December 25, 2002