My year in books

summer
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.

Comics

I read six graphic novels in 2006 (down from eight in 2005).

Non-fiction

I read 70 non-fiction books, about 34% of my total reading; an increase on both counts from 40 and 29% last year. Read more...Collapse )

Fiction

I read 131 fiction books this year, up considerably in number (but not in proportion) from 89 last year. Read more...Collapse )

SF

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). Read more...Collapse )

Books of the Year

Non-fiction

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.

Fiction

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.

SF

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.

August Books 2) The Healer's War

earthsea
2) The Healer's War, by Elizabeth Anne Scarborough

Only four Nebula winners left to read now, Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg, Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick, and The Terminal Experiment by Robert J Sawyer. I checked the 1989 shortlist to see what this book beat: I must have read both Prentice Alvin and Ivory shortly after they were published, and remember the latter as particularly engaging, though I think that The Healer's War is better. (The others were Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson, Good News From Outer Space by John Kessel and Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen; this was the equivalent year that Hyperion won the Hugo for Best novel, with the Card and Anderson books on both shortlists.)

This was one of those years when the Nebula system managed to recognise an exceptional novel that would never win a Hugo. The Healer's War is a somewhat autobiographical account of the Vietnam war as seen by an American military nurse, with precisely one sfnal element: a magic amulet, with slightly healing powers, which gives the narrator the power of empathy with the Vietnamese of all sides and of none (and indeed with her fellow Americans as well). It is a fair comment that the magic amulet is a literary device that enables the author to tell the story she wants (Scarborough herself says so in an afterword). But I think it's still entirely legitimate to count the book within the genre, and to acknowledge its merits accordingly.

It's a stark contrast with other war stories I have read, which tend to concentrate on the view of the individual soldier (eg, Catch-22 and War and Peace; see also my reviews here, here, here and rather notoriously here). The Healer's War concentrates on the non-soldiers involved in war, and indeed its military characters tend to be pretty unpleasant, whether Americans or Vietnamese of either side. But I felt that none of them slipped into caricature; the narrator's commitment to empathy helped to avoid that trap. It was a gripping and moving read.

Vietnam is coming somewhat indirectly into my life at the moment in a way I had never expected. I hadn't expected it in this book either - it arrived from a second hand dealer the day before we left on holiday, and I packed it without looking at it beyond checking that the title and author were correct. I shall be learning a lot more about Vietnam in years to come, but this was a surprisingly thought-provoking starting point.

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