DeFlip Side #65: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2006

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Coming straight at you from the deepest darkest stacks is my annual list of Best and Worst Reads. As usual, I’ll be counting down my top five books, the best short story, and the worst read of the year. Remember, the books listed weren’t necessarily published in 2006, hence the title best reads instead of best books. On with the picks for 2006!

Book 5) In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker
This is the first of Kage Baker’s novels about Dr. Zeus Incorporated, otherwise knows as the Company, an organization that recruits time travelers to track lost bits of history and preserve them for future discovery—and profit. The problem is that the Company has grown so powerful that nobody seems to know who’s running it or to what ends.

Garden of Iden tells the story of Company operative Mendoza, from her recruitment as a small child, where she faced certain death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition in 16th Century Spain; her training and augmentation by the Company, which transforms its operatives into immortal cyborgs; and her first assignment among the mortal humans she has come to disdain and fear.

But once arrived in Renaissance England to collect long-extinct plants, Mendoza finds that the 16th Century is worse than she remembers and better than she imagined. Baker is a better writer than I thought at first, because I was two-thirds of the way through Garden of Iden before I realized I had been sucked into a romance novel. But by that time I was past caring. Interesting characters, rich historical settings and a plot which hinges on a highly entertaining science fiction/time travel premise make Garden of Iden a winner. I can’t wait to see what else Kage Baker’s Company novels have in store.

Book 4) The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
I reviewed The Atrocity Archives on-air last year. Since then, Charles Stross’s reputation has grown as quickly as his celebrated body of work. The Atrocity Archives serves as a great indoctrination for those as yet unacquainted with Stross’s witty and sophisticated style.

It presents a world where magic, governed by mathematical precepts, can be used as long as the proper safeguards are in place. Ensuring those safeguards is Bob Howard, who works for the super-secret British intelligence agency the Laundry. After years of hum-drum work as a Laundry IS tech, Bob has been approved for active duty in the Counter-Possession Unit. His first field assignment brings him to America, where he has to contact a British ex-patriot professor working in California. But what begins as a simple fact-gathering mission becomes more complicated when the professor is kidnapped by a Middle East terrorist cell working magic of a dangerous magnitude, last used by the Third Reich during World War II.

Part horror, part spy thriller and liberally peppered with wry English humor, The Atrocity Archives pulls off the neat trick of being at once complex and breezy. The story is detailed and multi-layered, but never looses its sense of immediacy or accessibility. Whether Stross is writing for laughs, shocks or thrills, his prose is always pitch-perfect. The Atrocity Archives is a smart and clever book brimming with interesting characters, humor, creativity, and weird, intelligent fun.

Book 3) The Book of Flying by Keith Miller
Lyrical is the word that most readily describes Miller’s style. The Book of Flying presents the story of Pico, a lonely librarian and poet who lives in the city by the sea, and who has fallen in love with a girl who can fly. But when her affections become estranged from earthbound Pico, he locks up his library and embarks on a quest to find the mythical Book of Flying, so he can get wings and win her back. A diverse cast of characters colors his travels, including a robber queen, a lonely Minotaur, a studious rabbit and a dream seller—all of which temper Pico’s perceptions of love, loss and himself.

The Book of Flying is best characterized as an adult fairy tale, and as such, it’s poignant and moving and (dare I say it?) enchanting. If you’re a fan of fanciful prose, and feel (as I do) that beautiful writing can be an end unto itself, then The Book of Flying is the book for you.

Book 2) The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Wait, you’re saying. Didn’t he just tell us about Charles Stross? Yes, I did, and I’m going to do it again. The Jennifer Morgue is the sequel to The Atrocity Archives, and as much as I loved those initial adventures of laundry operative Bob Howard, I loved their continuation in The Jennifer Morgue even more.

When a billionaire businessman attempts to dredge a rather nasty bit of ancient alien technology up from the sea floor, Bob Howard is on the case. But he soon becomes entangled—both figuratively and literally—with CIA Black Chamber operative Ramona Random and is snared in a magical trap that sets him on a seemingly predetermined path toward disaster. Bob is forced to roll with the spell that is apparently dictating his actions from without, while fighting within to stave off the succubus that inhabits Ramona. And did I mention the zombie seagulls?

Stross has really hit his stride with The Jennifer Morgue. The story is suspenseful, rollicking and hilarious. It’s Ian Fleming meets Douglas Adams meets Die Hard With a Vengeance. And I especially recommend it to you Bond fans out there. You’ll LOVE this book, since a deconstruction and re-examination of the Bond mythos is essential to the plot. Trust me on this. And if, like me, you’re not especially a Bond fan, you’ll love it anyway. I can not speak highly enough about The Jennifer Morgue.

Which naturally leads you to ask, why is it only book two? What could possibly trump it? The answer surprises me as much as it will probably surprise you.

Book 1) Misery by Stephen King.
For the record, I stopped reading Stephen King more than a decade ago, after slogging through the 1,000+ page Needful Things to an extremely unsatisfying end. I haven’t read any of his new books since and probably never will. But I found an old copy of Misery lying around the cafeteria at work and decided it couldn’t be the worst way of whiling away my lunch hour. Well, it was like coming home. Here was the King I remembered, the King who had given me It and Pet Sematary and, above all, The Shining.

Even if you haven’t read the book, you probably already know the story from the movie starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. Best-selling author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a near-fatal car crash by his biggest fan, the deranged and murderous Annie Wilkes. When Annie finds out that Paul has killed off her favorite fictional character, romance heroine Misery Chastain, she keeps Paul prisoner and forces him to write a new book chronicling Misery’s triumphant return.

Filled with the horror, gore and compelling characters that were once King’s trademarks, Misery deserves to be counted among the author’s best works. But what makes it really stand out for me—and what eventually nudged it just a hair over The Jennifer Morgue to take the top spot on the list—is its exploration of the writing process itself.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to be a writer—the highs, the lows, the insecurities, the triumphs or just the plain old daily process—Misery will give you as near to firsthand experience as you can get without actually penning a novel yourself. And if you are a writer like me, Misery will speak to your very soul (melodramatic as that sounds). You will empathize tremendously with Paul Sheldon because it will be as if you’re reading about yourself. Just to give you the flavor, here’s one of my favorite lines:

“He didn’t need a psychiatrist to point out that writing had its autoerotic side—you beat a typewriter instead of your meat, but both acts depended largely on quick wits, fast hands and a heartfelt commitment to the art of the farfetched.”

Truer words were never written. And for speaking to me so directly and honestly, Misery earns the distinction as my top read in 2006.

Next up is my Best Short Story: “The Word of Unbinding” by Ursula K. Le Guin. This is the first story set in what would become Le Guin’s Earthsea universe. It explores how magic works in Earthsea, following the trails of the wizard Festin, who has been imprisoned by an evil mage. It is a simple story that nonetheless embodies the deeper themes that would come to dominate the Earthsea books, chiefly the value of patience and self-sacrifice, both of which are brilliantly and movingly displayed in the story’s tragic last line.

Which leads us to tragedy of a different sort, the Worst Read of 2006. This year the prize goes to a dismally boring book called Babylon by Richard Calder. I made the oldest mistake in the game with this book: I got sucked in by its cover, an 1836 painting by artist Thomas Cole called “The Course of Empire: Destruction.” Turns out that Cole’s gripping canvas was the most compelling thing about the book. Which surprised me, because the plot had potential, including as it did such diverse elements as two novitiates in a society of whores, access to a parallel Earth where it is always night and Jack the Ripper. And let’s not forget the Black Order, the Thule Society and genocide. Despite all that, the book can most effectively be summed up in one word: tedious. Steer clear of Richard Calder’s Babylon, unless, of course, you’d like to make an offer on my signed, numbered first edition. If anything, it’ll look handsome in your collection.

So there you have it. The best and worst books I read in 2006. This year’s list holds the distinction as the first ever where one author took two spots. Nice going, Charlie.

All in all, though, it was a mixed year for books. Of the 20 I read,  I rated nine books good to excellent, while another nine fell in the fair to middling range. Despite this, there were only two real turkeys, and the books that were good were really good, so that made up for the rest.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendations, please e-mail me and let me know what you think. The e-mail address is cdeflip@yahoo.com. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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