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Editors' Choice - The Official SF Site Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2006
by Neil Walsh

This is our 10th annual Top 10 Best Books list. As usual, we have a few surprises in store. The biggest surprise for me was our number one best read of 2006 -- but we'll get to that in due time. As many of our long-time readers already know, we can never quite manage to narrow down our Top 10 list to a mere 10 books. Every year the editors, reviewers, interviewers and other contributors to the SF Site are solicited for their top picks, and the results are compiled and amalgamated into this annual list. Because of the way we decided to weigh and calculate the results 10 years ago, we almost inevitably end up with a few ties on the list. This time the only tie is in the number 10 spot, but it was a 3-way tie, so we actually have a top 12 list. Read on and enjoy our recommendations!

[Editor's Note: Where possible, links lead to SF Site reviews of the books. You can find links to other Best of the Year columns here.]

   No. 10 (tie)
Kafka on the Shore Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
(Alfred A. Knopf, January 2005 / Vintage, January 2006)

First of all, you should know that this is not the Kafka you're thinking of. Kafka Tamura is a teenaged runaway in search of his long-lost mother and sister. Together with a vagabond who may not have it all together upstairs, Kafka embarks on an outlandish journey of discovery, involving talking cats, immortal soldiers from the second World War, a murder wherein both the murderer and the victim are unknown, a ghostly pimp, and many weirder things. And yet, all becomes clear in the end -- or clearer, anyhow.

   No. 10 (tie)
The Road The Road by Cormac McCarthy
(Alfred A. Knopf, September 2006 / Picador, November 2006)

McCarthy has built a reputation as a literary writer, and this novel has been marketed as mainstream fiction in spite of the post-apocalyptic setting. Together, a father and son attempt to find their way in a nightmare world they barely recognize. As you would expect from this author, the book is quite beautifully written in a spare and direct style that brings the horrors of the ravaged setting into sharper focus. But it's not all doom and gloom; even though the world has ended, there are still a few tiny sparks of hope left.

   No. 10 (tie)
Rainbows End Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
(Tor, May 2006)

In this novel, Vinge has created an uncomfortably plausible near future world in which computer technology is even more ubiquitous and the US government has even tighter control on the flow of information. Virtual reality is now able to create and superimposes a real-time overlay on your perception of the real world, essentially allowing you to live in the VR world of your choice. But some clever cookie has also created extremely slick mind control software called YGBM (You Gotta Believe Me), which causes you to believe whatever the originator want you to believe.

   No. 9
Girl Genius Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio
(Studio Foglio/Airship Entertainment, ongoing graphic series)

Girl Genius is an online comic, currently up for the Web Cartoonist Outstanding Comic Award (to be announced mere days after I write this). There are also hard and softcover collections, including Volume 4 Agatha Heterodyne and the Circus of Dreams (December 2005) and Volume 5 Agatha Heterodyne and the Clockwork Princess (July 2006). Mad science, romance and madcap adventure in a bizarre steampunk setting -- the pace has never slackened for Agatha Heterodyne, heroine with a "spark"!

   No. 8
The Last Witchfinder The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow
(William Morrow, March 2006 / Weidenfeld & Nicholson, April 2006)

As the Age of Enlightenment is dawning, superstition still reigns supreme. And the persecution of "witches" continues. Jennet Stearne is the spirited daughter of a witchfinder, and sister to a brother who is apprenticed to their father's vocation. Jennet spends much of her time with her scholarly Aunt Isobel. What? Scholarly women? Sounds suspicious; probably they're witches. This novel has shipwrecks, humour, kidnapping, passion, Newton, and oh so much more.

   No. 7
Farthing Farthing by Jo Walton
(Tor, August 2006)

What starts out as 1940s-style murder mystery story among the English upper crust quickly slides into alternate history. The Tories, currently led by the Farthing Set, made peace with Hitler in '41, so the English never really entered the war. Lucy Kahn (nee Farthing) is at odds with her family because she married a Jew and because she's not very sympathetic with the deal her family cut with the Nazis. She and her husband David have come to the Farthing country home under protest, and now there's been a murder. Scotland Yard is on the scene...

   No. 6
The Empire of Ice Cream The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
(Golden Gryphon, April 2006)

The title story in this, Ford's second collection of short work, won the 2003 Nebula Award for best novelette. It's about a synaesthete who taps into another reality when he comes in contact with coffee (or coffee ice cream). There's also a modern fairy tale, a ghost story, and more. All the stories here are introduced by the author, and it's a varied and highly polished set from one of speculative fiction's best.

   No. 5
End of the World Blues End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
(Gollancz, August 2006)

Kit Nouveau, ex-pat Englishman, is drifting through his hollow shell of a life. Kit runs a biker bar in Tokyo and is sleeping with the wife of a local crime lord. So perhaps it isn't too surprising when someone blows up Kit's bar, incidentally killing his wife, a famed Japanese potter. On the same night, he's rescued from a hit man by a teenaged girl who's just stolen 15 million dollars. But this girl may actually be visiting from a sentient castle at the end of the world, trying to retrieve some of her stolen memories...

   No. 4
Ladies of Grace Adieu Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, October 2006)

Beautifully illustrated by Charles Vess, this is a collection of short stories about English magic. Some of the tales feature characters you'll recognize from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and just as in her award-winning novel, the author will have you believing in magic -- and the faerie realm. Most of these stories share the 19th century atmosphere of Strange & Norrell, but they are generally and as a whole more whimsical. Certainly this is a fantasy collection that will not pass unremarked into obscurity.

   No. 3
Three Days to Never Three Days to Never by Tim Powers
(Subterranean, May 2006 / William Morrow, August 2006)

Frank Marrity and his 12-year-old daughter Daphne have developed a limited telepathy with each other. Marrity's grandmother disappears under mysterious circumstances and later turns up dead, several hundred miles away. Suddenly covert organizations are trying to find out something from Marrity and Daphne that they don't know. Everyone is interested in something in grandma's shed, but no one knows quite what. This novel has everything from Einstein to action-adventure, buried treasure to lucid dreaming espionage, time travel to Charlie Chaplin. It's a head-spinner for sure -- Tim Powers in his finest form.

   No. 2
Spin Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer
(Tor, August 2006)

Duncan Shriek authored the famous Early History of Ambergris (see City of Saints and Madmen). His sister Janice has left a manuscript of a "belated afterword" to her brother's famous Guide. She wrote this afterword shortly after the Guide was published and Duncan disappeared under mysterious circumstances. However, Duncan has returned and discovered the manuscript of his sister's commentary on his work, only now Janice has disappeared. Duncan, true to character, cannot resist inserting his own comments throughout his sister's commentary, which, by the way, isn't an afterword on the "Guide to Ambergris" at all...

VanderMeer has an uncanny ability to paint vividly with his words, which enables him to quickly bring a reader into his creation. He also has a knack for writing stories that are outrageously funny and at the same time extremely disquieting.

   No. 1
James Tiptree, Jr. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
(St. Martin's Press, August 2006)

Truth really is stranger than fiction. For the first time in 10 years, a work of non-fiction is topping the SF Site list of the best books of the year. This is a biography of one of science fiction's most enigmatic short fiction writers, whose name is still remembered today primarily due to the annual James Tiptree Award bestowed for science fiction or fantasy that explores or expands our understanding of gender.

The life of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree was certainly full of adventure and passion. But the credit here goes to Julie Phillips for bringing to light the vibrant and painful life of this utterly fascinating individual. From big game safaris in the 1920s to a turn as a WAC in WWII, from CIA analyst to science fiction author, from repressed sexuality to seduction and infidelity, and ultimately ending in murder and suicide, this is a powerfully emotional account of a truly unique life.

The Near Misses and Honourable Mentions
You didn't really think we'd stop at a mere 12, did you? Oh no. Those above are our top recommendations from the past year of reading, but there are many more books that we want to share with you -- many of them only very narrowly missed a ranking in the top 10 - er, 12. Here the are, in no particular order.
  • Lords of the Razor by Joe R. Lansdale, edited by Bill Sheehan & William Schafer (Subterranean Press, August 2006);
  • Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (Tachyon, November 2006);
  • Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches edited by Mike Resnick & Joe Siclari (ISFiC Press, August 2006);
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (Gerald Duckworth & Co / Crown Publishers, September 2006) -- how can you go wrong with zombies?;
  • How We Got Insipid by Jonathan Lethem (Subterranean Press, July 2006) a collection of two short works, one an homage to Heinlein's masterful The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1942);
  • The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist (Bantam Books, August 2006), which gets my vote as the best title of the year;
  • The Prestige - Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan (Faber & Faber, October 2006), based on the novel by Christopher Priest (1995);
  • The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson (Bantam Press, March 2006), sixth volume of the increasingly complex and wonderful Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen;
  • Destinations Unknown by Gary A. Braunbeck (Cemetery Dance Publications, June 2006);
  • The Best of Philip Jose Farmer by Philip Jose Farmer, edited by Dorman T. Shindler (Subterranean Press, January 2006);
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (Gollancz / Bantam, June 2006);
  • The Keyhole Opera by Bruce Holland Rogers (Wheatland Press, November 2005 - close enough; we didn't discover it until 2006);
  • Air by Geoff Ryman (St. Martin's Griffin, October 2004 / Gollancz, July 2005 & new edition September 2006)
  • Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe (Tor, December 2006), sequel to Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Solider of Arete (1989).
Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2005           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2004           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2003           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2002           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2001           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2000           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1999           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1998           
           Best Read of the Year: 2005
           Best Read of the Year: 2004
           Best Read of the Year: 2003
           Best Read of the Year: 2002
           Best Read of the Year: 2001
           Best Read of the Year: 2000
           Best Read of the Year: 1999
           Best Read of the Year: 1998
           Best Read of the Year: 1997
Check out next issue for the results of your own choices in the SF Site Readers' Choice Best Books of 2006

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

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