The 2006 Book List

Reviews of and notes on books read in 2006.

[ - Mark’s Pick - ] indicates a notable book.

This page also contains my reading queue.

Books Read

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde
New hardcover
31 December 2005-1 January 2006

More fun from the creator of Thursday Next. This one’s set in the Nursery Crimes Division, and continues Fforde’s Douglas-Adams-meets-Monty-Python style of humor. If you like those two, you’ll probably like this. Pleasant fluff.


Samuel R. Delany
Used paperback
8-13 January

Bron Helstrom, metalogician, lives on Neptune’s moon Triton, which may be about to join the outer moons in a looming war with the inner planets. While walking home one day he thinks: I am a reasonably happy man. Thirteen pages and perhaps half an hour later, a stranger calls him confused. The observation is perhaps a foreshadowed curse; he and the stranger become involved, and it leads to the dissolution of Bron’s happiness. In the end, she is left with more self-awareness, but it provides no consolation. She cannot recognize what is causing her desperate unhappiness, nor how to change.

Triton is not a happy book. Bron is a confused, self-involved jerk who, though having spent time in his youth as a prostitute, is remarkably insensitive to others. She’s also a misogynist, even after her gender transformation. One would think this would bring some insight, but not in Bron’s case. She’s dense. He puts his finger on the problem when early in the book he laments that in a world where you can join or create any kind of society you desire, or become whoever you desire, what happiness is to be found for those who don’t know what they desire? In the ambiguous heterotopia of Triton, Bron never learns, and that is her tragedy.

As in most of Delany’s novels, the characters alternate between realistic dialog and obscure academic infodumps. The appendices, one of which reads like an attempt to be brilliantly clever, don’t improve the novel.

[A strange moment for me: looking at the paperback’s cover painting closely for perhaps the first time and suddenly realizing that not only (a) what it portrayed wasn’t what I’d assumed it to be for twenty-five years, but also (b) I knew with an almost complete certainty the instructions the artist had received when given the commission. Deciphering so much from one image felt uncanny.]

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Alice Munro
Library book
19-25 January

While well-written, these stories of repressed middle-class people (mostly women) didn’t interest me that much. I appreciate them technically, but these days I’m much more interested in people who have a passion in their lives. These characters’ fires were damped too much to shine. However, the last story was poignant and affecting.

The Plot Against America

Philip Roth
Library book
14-16 February

When Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 Presidency on an isolationist platform, young Philip Roth’s father fears the worst. With America refraining from entering the war in Europe, and Lindbergh willing to meet with and make treaties with Hitler, how can Philip’s parents and their neighbors not wonder whether Jews in America will suffer the fate of Jews in Europe? When brother Sandy becomes estranged after involvement in the administration’s “Just Folks” project, and the family is later targeted for relocation by the newly-established Office of American Assimilation, it becomes clear that the situation is not going to magically disappear overnight. Even the unthinkable, fleeing the country, becomes a serious possibility.

Amidst all this, Philip is growing up quickly, trying to understand the changes in himself, his family, and the world around him. As a character, though, he’s too young to be a dynamic character. He’s more a witness. That’s one of the minor problems with the book; it spends most of the time telling us what’s happening, rather than showing us. However, this is forgivable in a novel with this premise. Infodump is unavoidable.

One thing kept me wondering. The persecution was aimed at the Jews, but wouldn’t other groups have been targeted as well? I kept waiting for a mention of blacks, but it never came. Maybe the narrator wouldn’t have heard about it, but since most of the book’s written in the omniscient third person, it’s a little less than credible.

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst
Library book
25-27 February

This novel begins with a death: a creative woman in a loving marriage falls from a tree. The coroner rules it an accident, but her husband isn’t so sure. In his grief and confusion, he wonders if he can teach the only witness to the event to speak. Unfortunately, the witness is the couple’s dog, a species not known for its ability to speak.

From there, the book starts to run on two divergent tracks. There’s the professional self-destruction of a college professor, leading to an encounter with a nefarious underground group. This starts out believable, but eventually strains credulity past the breaking point. It’s a pity, because as these events unfold, through flashbacks cracks begin to appear in the storybook romance. This part of the book is handled well, leading me to wonder why the editor didn’t suggest that the author lose the fantastic element.

Ultimately, parts were good, but as a whole this goes into the small but growing pile of books that make me wonder “what was the author thinking?”.

Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami
Library book
8-9 May

Kafka on the Shore’s plot is divided between Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old runaway fleeing an unspecified menace in his father’s house, and Satoru Nakata, a simple-minded old man who can speak with cats. Although they do not meet, each fulfills part of a greater story.

As a whole, the book left me unmoved. What was for me the most interesting part (the origin of Nakata’s ability to speak with cats) was unceremoniously dropped, leaving the matter unresolved. Why spend four chapters setting up a mystery, only to abandon it?

The rest of the book was okay, but suffered from a limited dynamic range. The only characters who stand out are Mr. Hoshino, a truck driver who discovers Beethoven, and the enigmatic Tiresias stand-in Oshima. I’d rather we’d heard more about the latter’s life.


Robert Charles Wilson
Library book
10-11 May

It all seemed so familiar... let me count the reasons why:

  • Earth suddenly cut off from the universe by bubble of unknown origin: Greg Egan, Quarantine.

  • The neglected sister of an important family rebels, cuts off communication with family, and marries a poor religious man: Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain.

  • The main character plays Exposition Boy to the smart heir, who’s been groomed for great things by his domineering industrialist father: James L. Halperin, The Truth Machine. (Perhaps I’m misremembering the latter, and am confusing the two because EB always seems to be present when the World-Changing Events happen.)

  • Girlfriend’s breakup with main character takes him completely by surprise; she accuses him of emotional detachment: Greg Egan, Distress.

  • A galaxy filled with competing machine races: Gregory Benford, In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns.

It’s not a bad novel, and it does put together old ideas in new ways, but there didn’t seem much that was original. The only point where the novel started to engage my interest was the industrialist’s confession to the main character. It could have made the novel more interesting, but ended up going by the wayside. By the end, the big revelation about the main character’s mother was a complete anticlimax.

Having read three of the five candidates for the Hugo award for best novel, I’d choose Accelerando. It’s got its problems, but it’s the only one of the three that at least tries to challenge its readers.

The Wife

Meg Wolitzer
Library book
12 May

Throughout this short novel, a woman who’s been married for many years reflects on her marriage. Her husband is a well-known and respected novelist, good enough to win prestigious prizes but not quite good enough to win the biggest. For the many years of their marriage, she’s played the roles of mother and supportive wife. As the book opens en route to the biggest award ceremony yet, she decides to end the marriage:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage, I could have said, but why ruin everything right now?

Wolitzer’s writing is good; she’s got a distinctive voice that asks to be read aloud. There are good scenes that are worth going back to, and enough material to chew over. The book’s only flaw was the seemingly endless recounting of the husband’s infidelities, along with the polarizing politics of sex & publishing. There were several times when I wanted to say move on, you’ve covered that. But then another good scene would come along.

Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud

Peter Watson
New hardcover
26 December 2005-13 May 2006

Watson’s mammoth book (750 pages, oversize, small margins) divides the history of ideas into three tracks: the soul, the idea of Europe, and the experiment. He follows these from paleolithic times to the early 20th century. His ultimate argument isn’t expounded until the book’s conclusion. To oversimplify his thesis, religion has been losing its grip during the last millennia because the rise of Europe provided fertile ground for the growth of another way of interpreting the world (science), and science has shown consistent progress while wave after wave of inward-directed exploration (the Reformation, dualism, Freudian psychology, et cetera) have not. There’s more to it than that, certainly, but that’s the gist.

As with many propositions, the journey can be more interesting than arriving. There’s a lot of food for thought here, and Watson introduces many historical byways that cry for exploration. Take a pinch of caution with you on the journey, though; even I, who am untutored in history, found a few errors scattered throughout the book. A typesetter’s point is 1/864th of a foot, not 1/144th (p. 384 et al); Heisenberg’s first name was Werner, not Walther (p. 668); and it’s now doubted that Ben Franklin ever conducted his celebrated kite-and-key experiment (p.556). These lead me to wonder what errors I missed.

I’m going to have to think about this one.


Greg Egan
14-17 May

This time around, I understand some of the mental diagrams better. Still haven’t quite gotten the hang of macrospheric rotations, though.

The Best of Edmond Hamilton

Edmond Hamilton
Used paperback
20-25 May

Here’s a collection with a split personality. The first story is a nice Lovecraft/Merritt tale, but it’s followed by Thrilling Science Wonder Tales which get the science so wrong they’d be funny if they hadn’t actually gotten published. Biology, astrophysics, radioactivity, evolution—no subject is too abstruse to mischaracterize. I was particularly taken with the phrase “radio-active radiation”, in the 1934 story “Thundering Worlds”. In this tale, the planets of the solar system are moved from their orbits by applying “atom-blast” jets at their equators. It’s worth reading aloud to friends to see who can spot the most flubs. Bad Science Boggle, if you will.

But darned if the stories didn’t start turning around. The first hint was in the early “A Conquest of Two Worlds”, in which humans are clearly oppressive invaders, not conquering heroes. Then came “He That Hath Wings”, a story which could be interpreted as an allegory about the compromises we make when we become adults. Hamilton reaches his apex in “What’s It Like Out There?”, in which a returned Martian astronaut is caught between his experience and people’s expectations, and “The Pro”, wherein an aging SF writer worries whether his work caused his son to choose the dangerous profession of astronaut. Both of these are quite strong on characterization, eschewing Big Gimmick Ideas to focus on people. I don’t know whether Hamilton changed his style to fit the times (think Kornbluth & Pohl) or whether the times caught up to him, but the introduction notes that “What’s It Like Out There?”, originally written in the 1930s, wasn’t bought until the ’50s. This one story at least, with its future echoes of Korea and Vietnam, was ahead of its time, and still stands up.

Of the collection, I’d recommend: “The Monster-God of Mamurth”, “A Conquest of Two Worlds”, “Child of the Winds”, “He That Hath Wings”, “What’s It Like Out There”, “Requiem”, “After a Judgment Day”, and “The Pro”. Most of the rest can be skipped unless you’ve got a high tolerance for cheese.

Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes
Library book
2-11 June

If this book is correct—and I have no reason to believe so—Gustave Flaubert kept a stuffed parrot in his office. The fictional narrator searches for clues to the parrot’s fate. There are two candidates, but which is true?

That’s the framing device of this curious piece of semi(?)-fiction. The narrator is certainly fictional, but Flaubert was real. Along the way Barnes serves us up a whole bunch of trivia and speculation about Flaubert’s life, couched in playful chapters (e.g., chapter 8: The Train-spotter’s Guide to Flaubert). It’s all rather peculiar, a literary dissection of the long-dead corpse of a man who (if the book is to be believed) wished to be forgotten after his death. And as all that happens, we get glimpses into the life of the narrator, whose story ends up being more interesting than Flaubert’s.

What to make of it? I don’t know. Clever, perhaps, and much too aware of what it is for its own good.

Year’s Best SF 11

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, editors
New paperback
21 June-3 July

I hadn’t planned to pick up this collection—ten years is enough, isn’t it?—but when I saw a new Ted Chiang story in the table of contents, I bit. Plus David Langford, and Ken MacLeod, and Bruce Sterling... I’d have been a fool to pass this up.

The table of contents was a bit deceiving, though. What I didn’t look at was the lengths of the stories. Many of them were one-pagers from Nature, including all the authors mentioned above except MacLeod. The stories can be amusing or trenchant, but none immediately stood out as great (although some bear reconsideration). The Chiang story was a disappointment, especially in comparison with Greg Egan’s “The Hundred Light Year Diary” (in his collection Axiomatic).

One candidate for this year’s popular theme is rats; three stories are either about them, or use them as metaphors. Other candidates include posthumanity-cum-godhood, the impossibility of understanding aliens, and being forced to make exceedingly difficult ethical choices in situations where there is no good solution. The latter, including Bud Sparhawk’s “Bright Red Star” and R. Garcia y Robertson’s “Oxygen Rising”, are among the most memorable stories in the collection. The standout story, though, is Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”, about the unraveling of a family after the daughter overdoses on a drug that pulls the mask off consciousness.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Third Annual Collection

Gardner Dozois, editor
New hardcover
12-23 July

SF seems to have had an above-average year. Foremost was David Gerrold’s “In the Quake Zone”, which was not only a good tale, but far better written than any other work of his I’ve read (not that there have been that many). You won’t go wrong with the other stories either, with two exceptions: Stephen Baxter’s “The Children of Time”, which suffered from a ridiculous premise, and Harry Turtledove’s “Audubon in Atlantis”, an otherwise okay story made stupid by its alternate history setting.


Nick Sagan
Library book
24-25 July

With Black Ep no longer a problem, it’s finally time to thaw those who went into cryonic suspension to avoid the deadly disease. But with each person thawed, it becomes increasingly apparent that only the powerful and connected—and their private armies—made it into suspension in the first place. With the revived being reborn into a power vacuum, can a new society form before factions permanently destroy any hope of coöperation?

As with its prequels Idlewild and Edenborn, Sagan moves the action along briskly. In another author’s hands, this could easily have been twice as long, but Sagan keep his focus on what’s important to the story. Good for him.

Century Rain

Alastair Reynolds
Library book
26-30 July

Throw a clichéd noir detective story (complete with down-on-his-luck jazz-playing expat sentimental gumshoe knight errant, and a mysterious woman with a secret) into a particle accelerator and smash it at near lightspeed into a typical Alastair Reynolds nanotech-warped future. The result is Century Rain. I can’t decide what it is. If it’s a joke, it’s one that’s five hundred pages long. Any hope of it being taking seriously is crushed under the weight of the aforementioned clichés and references to mystery novels, Casablanca, and Hitchcock films. I was predicting lines of dialogue and plot twists, which isn’t a recommendation. It’s not a horribly written or plotted book, but some of the author’s choices were so distracting that I ended up focusing on the writing instead of the story. And as for the characterization... well, my suspended disbelief eventually came crashing down around my ears, with me muttering “that’s completely ridiculous” at one of the more improbable (but inevitable, considering the genre) developments. To coin a Clutism, Century Rain is a glittering congerie of fakes.

Y’know, I want to read a novel someday in which the protagonists’ dice don’t always roll boxcars.

The Ringworld Engineers

Larry Niven
Library book
3 August

A serviceable sequel which reveals a bit more about the Ringworld, and wraps up some loose ends.

The Ringworld Throne

Larry Niven
Library book
2-5 August

A honking big piece of poo whose first two hundred pages is almost completely superfluous to the plot, and the second is all tactical dance.

Ringworld’s Children

Larry Niven
Library book
5-10 August

Better, and it actually seems to wrap the story up. Still too much tactical dance. Still, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that the Ringworld would eventually fail as an ecology. Niven’s grasp of biology seems tenuous; in the amount of time it takes hominids to speciate, it’s preposterous to think that no annoying parasites would evolve. And that’s how the Ringworld feels: cute idea, but it falls apart as soon as you look at it.

I’ll give Niven credit for finding an interesting solution to the novel’s central problem, though. I don’t believe the solution, but it’s interesting.

Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman
Library book
28-29 August

American Gods light? Certainly more entertaining. The theme is nothing new, reaching back to at least the time of Gilgamesh, but the breezy prose made this pleasure to read. To my surprise, it retroactively made American Gods more interesting.


Theodore Roszak
Library book
??-22 November

A friend described this as “Videodrome meets The Da Vinci Code”, which is a fair description, although I might throw in a little Snow Crash and about half a dozen other books as well. Synopsis: a rather dull young film enthusiast discovers the low-budget films of Max Castle, and learns more than is good for him. Sadly, the most interesting part of the book is the beginning, the student’s erotic introduction to film analysis in the bed of the enigmatic Clarissa Swann. After that, the novel forgets the romance of movies and embarks on a conspiracy story that’s notable only for its (a) clumsy tangents, and (b) conservative attitude toward culture. (If culture has always decreased throughout history, where did it come from in the first place?) Give me more Clare, please, and lose the yammering & Mickey Finns. Thumb down.

Book Queue


Emphasized titles are in progress.

  • Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality

Last updated 28 December 2006
All contents ©2006 Mark L. Irons.

Previous: Book List, 2005