2006 in Review

Films

I saw 22 films this year. The high points were probably Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and Superman Returns. The biggest disappointment was X-Men: The Last Stand, because it was so much weaker than the first two X-Men films. However, the actual Worst Film would be a competition between Lord of War (which I saw on a plane, so didn’t actually waste any money on), Tristan + Isolde and Mission: Impossible III.

Plays

I saw 12 plays in 2006 (though I only actually blogged 9 of them). Ten were from the Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions (although one of these – The History Boys – was actually a National Theatre of Great Britain production). Of the other two, one was the Russian production of Twelfth Night, which was here for the Sydney Festival, and the other was You Never Can Tell, which I saw in London. My favourites were probably Twelfth Night and Woman in Mind, and the worst was unquestionably The Lost Echo.

Books

I’ve been very slack about blogging books this year. However, in August I set up – and have been maintaining – a What I’m Reading book log. So I know that from August to the end of the year, I read 81 books – though two of them I gave up on, and another two I haven’t yet finished. 47 of them were first-time reads, and 34 were re-reads. Alternatively, I could sort them by target audience (48 adult, 9 young adult, 24 children) or by genre (25 fantasy/science fiction, 15 crime/thriller, 7 non-fiction, and the rest a variety).

It was quite a good year for new-books-by-favourite-authors. George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows (book 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire) was a bit of a let down, but I don’t think it would have been possible to maintain the intensity of the third book in the series, and I still have high hopes for the rest of the story. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Beguilement was enjoyable, but only half a story (the other half comes out this year), and I still prefer her Vorkosigan books. Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie was interesting, but unlikely to become my favourite of her books. On the other hand, On the Jellicoe Road could end up being my favourite Melina Marchetta. The other exciting event was Under Orders – the first new Dick Francis in six years. It wasn’t his best work, but it was a long way from the structural mess of his last couple.

I think my favourite new author for the year would be Donna Andrews. Her chick-lit/detective story crossovers are a lot of fun, if not exactly great literature. I read them from the library, and I’ll hold off on buying them until I know for sure I want to re-read them, but I’m certainly hanging out for the latest (No Nest for the Wicket) to come out in paperback and turn up in the library. Other new (to me) authors included Naomi Novik (Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O’Brien), Anthony Horowitz (James Bond for teenagers – and with some clearly conscious Fleming homages, which I’m sure people who’ve only seen the films don’t get) and Stella Rimington (spy stories by a former head of MI5). They were all enjoyable enough to read more than one of their books, but I didn’t get overly excited by any of them.

Mirror Dance and Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

It’s odd that although these are two of my favourite Bujold books, I always skip the first few chapters of each of them when I am re-reading. It’s because I know the main character is going to make an absolutely enormous mistake, and I just can’t stand seeing it happen. So I tend to pick up Mirror Dance at Chapter 12, when Mark arrives on Barrayar (after everything that could possibly have gone wrong has done so); and Memory at Chapter 7, when Miles is discharged. I know in both cases there is good stuff in the earlier chapters (not to mention things highly relevant to the plot!) but I just can’t subject myself to the pain of watching Mark and Miles dig their own graves.

Once the mistakes are made, though, and the books move into “recovery” mode, I love them. In fact, both of these are books that I will occasionally get off the shelf just to read one of the “good bits”. (I also do this with A Civil Campaign – which I also can’t re-read the first few chapters of.) They seem to have more depth than the earlier books in the series, though you probably need to have read at least some of the earlier books in order to fully understand these ones.

Mirror Dance is the first Miles book where there is a non-Miles perspective character. And I actually find the Mark sections of the book (after the excruciatingly painful first few chapters) far more interesting than the Miles bits. In fact, I find the Miles sections pretty dull.

I’m not totally convinced that Mark is the same character I first met in Brothers in Arms – he seems much more brisk and efficient there than he does in Mirror Dance. However, that’s more of an issue when I’m re-reading Brothers in Arms – the Mark of Mirror Dance is the same as the one in Civil Campaign. And I guess you can justify the change partly by saying that you only see him from the outside (Miles’ perspective) in Brothers in Arms, and also that he has spend the intervening time hiding out, and without Galen driving him, so it does make sense that he’d seem a bit more adrift than he did in the earlier book.

I think one of my favourite scenes in the book is the one where Mark overhears Cordelia and Aral talking – I particularly love Cordelia’s analysis of Ivan as only playing the fool, and Aral pointing out that Ivan has been like that all his life, and her interpretation would make him “a fiendishly Machiavellian five-year-old”. And the bit earlier in the book where she points out that “Miles thinks he’s a knight-errant. A rational government wouldn’t allow him possession of a pocket-knife, let alone a space fleet.” Cordelia really enriches this book, even though her part is relatively small (though still bigger than in any of the earlier books except Cordelia’s Honor).

Memory is my absolute, all-time favourite Vorkosigan book. The detective story and Miles’ personal growth are really well woven together, so the book is neither too depressing nor too lightweight. Fun minor characters are either introduced for the first time (Martin, Ma Kosti and Zap the Cat), or developed from earlier books (Duv Galeni, and also Illyan – not that he was previously underdeveloped). And it has so many wonderful scenes: Ivan taking over and moving into Vorkosigan House, the trip back to Silvy Vale, Illyan’s illness and Miles’ management of it, the “wrestling with temptation” scene, the Assault on Cockroach Central, and the confession to Gregor. Some of these scenes are fun, some moving, some powerful – all of them really good to read and re-read.

Ethan of Athos and Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos is not one of my favourite Bujold books set in the Vorkosigan universe – it doesn’t have Miles in it, and I’m not particularly grabbed by Ellie Quinn. Allowing for that, however, it’s a reasonably fun adventure story, with enough twists to keep you on your toes. But even the most plot-driven of the Miles stories seem to have extra depth to them, because of Miles’ personality (or maybe it’s just because he’s so hyper, whereas Ethan, although a well developed character, is very staid). Also, although the settings (Athos and Kline Station) are not uninteresting, they’re both a bit conventional – unlike, say, Cetaganda.

Brothers in Arms is also more plot-driven than character-driven – unlike the next few in the series. It’s more sophisticated than, say, Warrior’s Apprentice, but I don’t think it even comes close to the depths of Memory. Though because it introduces the characters of Mark and Duv Galeni, it’s pretty crucial to the series as a whole. I find it hard to make up my mind how much I like it for itself, and how much because it’s setting up the later books that I really like.

I find the concept of a mercenary fleet having an accountant totally bizarre, and yet at the same time completely logical.

The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game and Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

I had been planning to slowly re-read all of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books in (internal) chronological order. I had not been planning to read these three all in a bunch, but an infected blister, that resulted in two days in hospital on intravenous antibiotics, changed that.

When I set off for the medical centre, knowing that I might spend quite a while in the waiting room, I grabbed Warrior’s Apprentice, knowing that it was engaging, but not too cognitively demanding. (The alternative, which I had just started, was Children’s Literature – An Issues Approach. I decided this would not be ideal under the circumstances.) In the event, Warrior’s Apprentice lasted me not just 40 minutes in the Medical Centre, but also several hours in casualty at the hospital, with a foot that was becoming increasingly painful. The Vor Game and Cetaganda (which Michael brought in for me, along with my laptop and some DVDs) carried me through the next two days in the ward.

These three books have never been among my favourites in the Vorkosigan series. On re-reading, however, they do all have some good stuff in them – Warrior’s Apprentice in particular, since this is the book in which she sets up Miles’ personality. Even in these early books, Miles is an interesting and complex character, and Ivan is a wonderful counterbalance to him. In general, however, I find all three books pretty lightweight when compared to later books in the series.

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve just finished re-reading this, the first in Bujold’s series about Miles Vorkosigan (although this book is actually about his parents, with Miles himself only being born at the very end).

Before reading any of Bujold’s books, I had been vaguely aware of seeing her name crop up now and then in the Galaxy bookshop newsletter, but didn’t really know anything about her. Then one day I came across a website that mentioned that her then most recent book (A Civil Campaign) was dedicated to “Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy” – by which, the site explained, she meant Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers. Wow, I thought, this is one author I have to read.

Confronted with a range of titles at Galaxy, I wasn’t sure where to start. I had gathered that A Civil Campaign was about Miles Vorkosigan, so I thought it would be better to start at the beginning of the series than with the most recent book. A helpful assistant told me that Cordelia’s Honor was the first book (by internal chronology): he warned that it starts out a bit like “Mills and Boon in space” (and this is a problem? I thought), but to stick with it, as it gets much better. Well, it does, and it did. Bujold has since become one of my favourite SF/fantasy writers.

Cordelia’s Honor is actually two separate books – Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Shards of Honor is essentially a romance, although I think to call it “just” M&B in space is doing Bujold a gross disservice, as it deals with a number of thought-provoking issues. Of course, the M&B aspects (though I think they are more like Georgette Heyer) are good as well! It was the first book Bujold wrote, and I find it interesting that in her Afterword she says that she “already knew, at this early date, that Aral and Cordelia would have a physically handicapped son in Barrayar’s intensely militaristic culture”. I wonder if she realised that this physically handicapped son would be her major ongoing character?

Barrayar is both more eventful and richer in detail than Shards, dealing with politics and civil war, as well as with Aral and Cordelia’s relationship, and Cordelia’s connection with her unborn child. The first time I read them, I enjoyed Shards, but was absolutely gripped by Barrayar. On subsequent re-reads, Shards has risen in my estimation, but I still think Barrayar is more consistent. You can tell that Cordelia’s Honor was written by a woman (and a mother), as the whole concept of motherhood is central to both halves of the story. And yet, it’s also an action packed and exciting story, set in an interesting world.

Due to difficulties in getting hold of the books, I unfortunately read most of the rest of the Vorkosigan series out of order. However, I’m glad I started with Cordelia’s Honor. As well as providing a context for Miles (which original readers wouldn’t have had, as Barrayar wasn’t published until after the first couple of Miles books), I find it a thoroughly enjoyable book in and of itself. In fact, it’s probably one of my favourites in the series – behind Memory, Mirror Dance and A Civil Campaign, but definitely ahead of all the early Miles books up to (and maybe even including) Brothers in Arms.