In 2006 I read over 200 books – lost count but I think the final tally was 207 – up considerably from last year’s 137. This was partly because I read quite a lot of shorter books, but also I think I did more travelling where it was easy to keep reading. In addition, I had a few attempts at sertting up small reading programmes for myself, such as the Unread Books Project and pursuing a couple of obscure authors, which actually gives you an incentive to read them fairly quickly so that you can get on with the next sf paperback.
I read six graphic novels in 2006 (down from eight in 2005).
I read 70 non-fiction books, about 34% of my total reading; an increase on both counts from 40 and 29% last year.
My distant relative Frederic Whyte provided me with one of them: I read three of his five books (the fourth arrived on Friday, and the last is on order). All three – William Heinemann: A MemoirA Wayfarer in SwedenA Bachelor’s London – were published in his retirement in the 1930s and are gentle and gentlemanly reminiscences, respectively biography, travelogue and literary autobiography.
Another family-related project was to get to grips with the first world war’s Macedonian campaign, in which my grandfather fought. I read three books about this, which complemented each other nicely: Ward Price’s contemporary (and mildly propagandistic) The Story of the Salonica Army, Alan Palmer’s more geopolitical The Gardeners of Salonika, and Wakefield and Moody’s voices-from-the trenches Under the Devil’s Eye.
On more political topics, I read seven books about Irish history and politics, three of which got five stars: Lost Railways of Co. Down and Co. Armagh, which unpretentiously describes what it says it describes; The Elusive Quest, an exploration of the concept of reconciliation, and Lost Lives, a gut-wrenching account of every single death attriubtable to the Troubles. I enjoyed three other Irish history books, Easter 1916, The Independent Irish Party 1850-9 and Sixteenth Century Ireland but was less impressed with What If? Alternative Views of Twentieth-Century Ireland.
More closely related to my work, I read four good books on more general international topics. The best was Robert Cooper’s The Breaking of Nations, but the other three (The Age of Fallibility, International Governance of War-Torn Territories and You, The People) are all worth reading. I really enjoyed Skeletons on the Zahara, an account of a nineteenth-century encounter between shipwrecked American sailors and the Sahrawi nomads. More uptodate reading on that area: Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Endgame in the Western Sahara, and Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate. I read five books about Cyprus, of which the two good ones were Bitter Lemons of Cyprus and Echoes from the Dead Zone (the others were An International Relations Debacle, Disaccord on Cyprus and Everything is about Cyprus, by Hasan Erçakica). Apart from the three mentioned above on the Macedonia campaign, I read seven books about the Balkans, of which the two best were Salonica: City of Ghosts and Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia (my review of the latter was picked up by, and published in abridged form in, an academic journal). The others, none of them bad, were The New Macedonian Question, Café Europa, Peace at Any Price, Kosovo’s Endgame and This Was Not Our War.
The two standout historical/biographical books of the year for me were Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. I also read good biographies of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, St Malachy, and Joan of Arc and bad ones of Richard of Wallingford and Fanny Kemble. In autobiographies, I was entertained by Zoe Margolis/”Abby Lee” and less so by St Augustine. Other history books read: The Great English Pilgrimage, Ockham’s Razor, Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, The Belgian House of Representatives, Mr Belloc Objects To “The Outline Of History”, 31 Days, and the unreadable The Triumph of the West and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee.
Apart from seven books about science fiction, which I will get to in a bit, I read ten other non-fiction books of various sorts. The two best were Indefensible by David Feige, an insider’s account of the American justice system, and Emma Crewe’s charming anthropological study of the Lords of Parliament. Most of the others (EU’ve got mail!, Does Anything Eat Wasps?, The Economist Style Guide, 22) Critical Reasoning, A Rule Book for Arguments, The Prince and Notes from a Small Island) had their good points. An Intimate History of Humanity did not.
I read 131 fiction books this year, up considerably in number (but not in proportion) from 89 last year.
The two best non-sf novels I read were The Warden’s Niece, by Gillian Avery, The File on H by Ismail Kadarë. I also read a few detective/thriller/mystery stories (The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, See Delphi and Die, Eleven on Top, White Eagles over Serbia and Casino Royale), the only other genre I’ve really enjoyed. I read a lot of classics and fairly heavy literature, some of which I enjoyed more than others: Little Women, The Kite Runner, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, Ivanhoe, The Alchemist, The Red Badge of Courage, Henderson the Rain King, Tropic of Capricorn, The Warden, A Game With Sharpened Knives, Mrs Dalloway, The Brothers Karamazov, Persuasion, The God of Small Things, Beloved, The Lovely Bones, Villette, The Color Purple, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, The Reader, The Crying of Lot 49, Perfume, Crooked Little Heart and Lord Jim. I enjoyed collections of short stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell. And I also read a novel by Kosovo political figure Veton Surroi and Brian Aldiss’s first novel.
I read 101 books in the sf field this year, counting seven non-fiction books on sf topics, which is up from last year’s 79 (but down in percentage terms, from almost two-thirds to less than half).
The numerical difference is more than explained by the no less than 32 books on the list relating to Doctor Who. Four of these were non-fiction, ie books about the programme: the best of these was The Discontinuity Guide by Cornell & co, but I also enjoyed the other three The Television Companion, Inside the Tardis by James Chapman and Doctor Who by Kim Newman). Of the fiction books, I think I enjoyed the three Short Trips collections of stories most (Companions, A Universe of Terrors and Past Tense). I read no less than ten novelisations of stories broadcast in the show’s first run, of which the best was Ian Marter’s Doctor Who – The Rescue (the others were Marter’s books based on The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, The Ribos Operation, The Enemy of the World, Earthshock, The Dominators, The Invasion, and The Reign of Terror with State of Decay for a bonus). And I read fifteen Doctor Who spinoff novels, of which the best were Evolution and Managra (the others being Harry Sullivan’s War, Timewyrm: Genesys, Timewyrm: Exodus, Timewyrm: Apocalypse, Timewyrm: Revelation, Goth Opera, Blood Harvest, The Empire of Glass, The Scales of Injustice, The Clockwise Man, The Monsters Inside, The Stealers of Dreams and I Am A Dalek).
The last three non-fiction books of my year were rewarding biographical studies of sf writers – Roger Zelazny, Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft. Another book that is clearly SF but defies further categorisation is Thunderbirds spinoff Secret Files: The Inside Story of International Rescue.
I read excellent collections of stories by four authors: David Langford, Fritz Leiber, James Tiptree jr/Alice Sheldon and most importantly Zoran Živković. Also as usual I read the various Year’s best volumes that I could get hold of: Gardner Dozois, Hartwell and Cramer (and their volume from last year), and Rich Horton (two volumes). The Alternate Generals anthology left me rather cold. I liked one of the three stories in Winter Moon.
That leaves me with 54 sf and fantasy novels, over a quarter of my year’s total of books. Two of my reviews achieved a certain level of notoriety, for different reasons. My attempt to write up Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World in chronologically appropriate style was gratifyingly widely appreciated. (I had had a dry run earlier in the year, writing a review in blank verse of The Compleat Enchanter.) However, my take on the politics of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War provoked much follow-up discussion and, from me, a partial retraction. I still think that the political discussions in the book are not adequately grounded, and that, in my view, is a failure of art on the part of the author. I am glad to hear that these points will be addressed in a concluding volume of the series.
I re-read some old favourites: The Foundation Trilogy, Fahrenheit 451, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the first five Amber books, A Game of Thrones. A couple were reviewed for Strange Horizons (Mappa Mundi, Ghosts of Albion: Accursed). I managed to read all the Nebula-winning novels that had thus far eluded me – The Einstein Intersection, The Falling Woman, Camouflage, The Healer’s War, Stations of the Tide, A Time of Changes, The Terminal Experiment and Rite of Passage – and the other Hugo nominees – Learning the World, and Spin which I thought was a worthy winner. I also read two sf books supposedly written by Ulster journalist W.D. Flackes: Dark Side of Venus and Duel in Nightmare Worlds.
The three other sf books which I had not previously read but enjoyed most this year were Thud! by Terry Pratchett, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Wreck of The River of Stars by Michael F. Flynn. Apart from two really awful books (Daughter of the Drow and Galactic Patrol) I enjoyed all the other sf novels I read, some recent and some decidedly less so, to a greater or lesser degree: Anansi Boys, Steppe, A Clockwork Orange, Air, 9Tail Fox, The Space Merchants, Take Back Plenty, Hidden Camera, The Jennifer Morgue, A Hat Full of Sky, The Moon Pool, The Prisoner, Never Let Me Go, The Mark of Ran, The Lady of the Shroud, October the First is Too Late, Southern Fire, Epic, Thunderbird Falls, Pyramids, and Unfinished Tales.
Books of the Year
In no particular order: Robert Cooper’s The Breaking of Nations is a brilliant examination of what international politics is about by a senior practitioner; Lost Lives is harrowing but essential reading for anyone interested in Ireland’s recent past; and Indefensible unexpectedly develops from being a day in the life of a defence lawyer to an exploration of the possibility of redemption. Honourable mentions to Fanny Kemble’s first person account of slavery in the Old South, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, and Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Although I read many classics of non-genre fiction this year, the two I enjoyed most were an unpretentious children’s book, The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery, a charming children’s novel set in nineteenth-century Oxford; and Ismail Kadarë’s The File on H, a very thought-provoking exploration of Albania and its relations with the outside world.
Only one of my top four sf books was published for the first time in 2006, and that was a compilation of the author’s previous work: Impossible Stories, which pulls together Zoran Živković’s visions (many previously published in Interzone) and makes a satisfying if somewhat mysterious read. I thought that Terry Pratchett hit all the right notes with Thud!, an allegory on sectarianism and bigotry – not in themselves new themes for Pratchett, but done somehow more sure-footedly here. Similarly, of the past Nebula winners, I particularly liked Elizabeth Anne Scarborough’s account of the Vietnam War through a mildly fantastic lens, The Healer’s War. And I can’t understand why I had not previously heard much about The Wreck of The River of Stars by Michael F. Flynn, a superb hard sf story about the crew of a doomed spaceship, with characters and scenes that lingered in my mind for months after I had closed the cover.