Books read in 2006

1. Untold Stories, Alan Bennett. (Christmas present from D). Enjoyable throughout. Victor Lewis Smith’s Christmas card (as recounted in a dairy) had me (and AB) giggling for days. The initial stories are the most interesting though.

2. I Choose To Live, Sabine Dardenne. Her account of her ordeal at the hands of Marc Dutroux. Truly horrific – but compelling.

3. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown. First book club. Er – it could be a good film. May 30th – went to see said film Hmm… the story is good but both book and film could have been done so much better. Characters have no depth, plot seriously lacks credibility in terms of the jumps from one thing to another.

4. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks. Weird, a little disturbing, but very satisfying. This was a very literary book with excellent picture drawing. (Note - I bought a first edition of this, Banks's first novel, in Hay-on-Wye in June 2022 for just £10).

5. Judas Unchained, Peter F Hamilton. At last, a PFH that ends as well as it reads throughout. Had difficulty remembering the detail from Pandora’s Star and there is no recap info.

6. Arthur & George, Julian Barnes. Book Club 2. A book I knew I would enjoy but wouldn’t have read without the club so the latter is doing its job. The veracity of the historical detail is a surprise. Conan Doyle doesn’t come off well – one wonders how such a man could have created Sherlock Holmes.

7. Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, Henry Hitchings (Christmas present from Mum & Dad). Interesting in terms of the way the dictionary was laid out (copied by all since) and the way it was done. The man himself doesn’t appear an attractive or likeable personality.

8. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka. Book Club 3. Enjoyable, light. (read in a couple of weeks). Not laugh out loud but plenty of mirth throughout.

9. Gradisil, Adam Roberts. Another cerebral novel from this chap. Story of a rather eccentric mother who lives in the nascent Uplands – orbiting habitats serviced by space planes that fly through the magnetosphere as ordinary aeroplanes fly through the air – whose daughter becomes its first president. The latter, Gradisil, is an obsessive but very skilful. Her ineffectual consort eventually betrays her to be killed some years later in an act of revenge by their children.

10. Exit Berlin, Tim Sebastian. I really don’t understand spy novels. I read this because, well, it’s about Berlin – and Berlin immediately after the wall came down, so the subject matter looked interesting. But you need to keep track of who is who as everyone betrays everyone else and if you’re not on top of the characters it can seem a bit random. Yes, it made sense in the end but this one left me feeling less than satisfied.

11. Labyrinth, Kate Mosse. The latest book club novel and the one I’ve enjoyed most by a long way. Comparisons with Dan Brown are inevitable as both are about a grail quest, both have a mysterious bunch of zealots bent on murder, both have people whose life has been spent researching. But that’s where comparison must end as Mosse has characters, depth, description and intelligence that soar high above the wooden Brown. The fact that it is sent in the Pyrenees helps. You get a sense of the openness of the mountains contrasting with the crowded bustle of 13th century Carcasonne – and the modern incarnation too. As the book goes on one wonders who the bodies in the cave might be – I only guessed one right.

12. Takedown, Brad Thor. Ghastly, awful drivel. Right wing American fundamentalist crap from start to finish. The all American hero out to fight the towel-heads. Agh! Why did I buy this? And then actually read it to the end? It was bought at JFK as I’d finished Labyrinth quicker than expected. Should have left it there.

13. The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg. I bought this a couple of years ago having seen the TV series some time before that. I enjoyed the TV series and this brought a lot of it back – Melvyn Bragg reading word lists to the camera and all that. As much of it was familiar I didn’t learn much – or rather, didn’t notice much that was new – although it was a good refresher and an enjoyable read.

14. Life Swap, Jane Green. A book club choice and certainly not one I’d have chosen. A 98% predictable story about instantly forgettable characters leading vacuous lives. It was an easy read – done in about 10 days – which is the best thing about it. The only good thing to say really is that both of the women ended up with a better grip on reality than when they started and were set to take more control over their lives. But, given their history of giving in to pressures for wearing the right sort of clothes and carrying the right sort of bag, one doesn’t hold out much hope for their future. It is and always will be a mystery to me why anyone would ever consider spending $3K on a handbag. It does rather tell you a lot of about the mental acuity of the characters.

15. Emperor, Stephen Baxter. Baxter makes the most of his research into Roman Britain that he did before Coalescent. You get a good sense of Britain under the Romans – or rather, you think you are getting it. The stuff about the prophecy, which is the heart of the book, comes and goes and provides a thread for the 400 year history. As this is billed as Time’s Tapestry Book One, my guess is that, as with the Destiny’s children series and perhaps Evolution, we’ll span many more centuries before the story is over. OK by SB standards but I think we need the follow ups to make sense of it.

16. The Day After Tomorrow, Allan Folsom. Re-read this for the book club. I thought I remembered it but actually I didn’t recognise any of it until the very end in the Swiss alps. Not as much of a thrill as the first time – I put this down to the fact that I now read a lot more. When I read it in 1995, reading such books was something I did occasionally – I hadn’t yet become a serial reader. Therefore the impact was all the greater. Still a jolly good thriller though with sufficient depth to the characters to give the story reasonable credibility.

17. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneger. Another book club choice that I feared would be a real struggle. It wasn’t – it was a real pleasure to read this. Yes, it’s a romance which is hardly my thing, but it was entertaining and I enjoyed all the time jumps, working out which partner knew what during each of their conversations. It’s science fiction from start to finish but, of course, it’s “too good” to be classified as such so it’s sold alongside “proper books.” Actually, the SF element is rather weak since it lacks any credibility. An SF writer would never get away with a genetic disease that caused temporal shifts. And the thing about arriving naked is straight out of Terminator. Very funny in places.

18. Dead Air, Iain Banks. My second Iain Banks of the year, I see. I bought this in Robert’s shop the other day – having ummed and ahhed about buying it when it came out. It wasn’t anything like what I was expecting, being the story of a London shock jock and his (inevitably) booze and coke-filled, in and out of bed life – and a run in with a gangster first class. Very funny indeed in many places – made me think of Steve Huthwaite throughout.

19. The Napoleon of Crime, The Life and Times of Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty, Ben Macintyre. I bought this for Debbie for her birthday years ago and I finally got around to reading it. The book gives and an idea of the connections and workings of the criminal underground in the US and Europe (Worth operated in both). But the book doesn’t sparkle – it was a bit of a plod. The main focus of the book, and one is lead to believe, the main focus of Worth’s life, was the Gainsborough painting of the Duchess of Devonshire that he stole and took with him everywhere from then on. I guess there’s a bit of the unloved son trying to make good of himself throughout (cue many a self-made millionaire/dictator or whatever). Perhaps the most interesting nugget for me was that the highly successful Pinkerton’s Detective Agency that was hired by the painting’s owners and several banks that Worth had robbed, evolved into the FBI. Maybe a lot of people knew that – I didn’t.

20. Keeping it Real, Justina Robson. Still don’t know what to make of her books. I’ve read Mappa Mundi and Natural History; Living Next Door to the God of Love has been on my shelf for a while. Keeping it Real (Quantum Gravity book 1) starts off really well. An accident at the Texas SSC (planned but actually never built in reality) opens up a door between 5 different worlds of which Otopia (Earth) is one. There’s a mix of apparent magic (actually, as ever, control of quantum forces) and Earthy tech. I get turned off by elves and dragons and it’s, well, just not my thing. I’ll probably get the next in the series and see how it develops though.

21. The Constant Princess, Philippa Gregory. Historical romantic fiction chosen by the Book Club. There’s no way to tell from the book how much is true and how much is fictionalised – I’m going to have to read a little further to find out. Clearly the substantial portions of the book told from Catalina/Katherine of Aragon’s perspective can only be fictionalised. But it is, of course, all very plausible and brings the era to life. There’s plenty of atmosphere and background although I felt I wanted to know more about some of the other characters too. Henry VIII is described a lot but others are names with little characterisation. Quite lengthy, something I was more aware of than during, say Labyrinth.

Coda – checked up: the historical detail is very accurate. Debbie read it on her Slovakia trip and thoroughly enjoyed it.

22. Resplendent, Stephen Baxter. Baxter’s latest bit of spring cleaning – a batch of short stories from the Xeelee sequence. Each one is good and it is satisfying to fill in the blanks. The problem, as ever, is remembering what you’ve read before. It’s a long time since I read Ring, Raft etc. One day I ought to sit down and read the whole lot again – a happy prospect if I have a month to spare. Would have liked to have had a story or two concerning the Coalescent story – but that all seems to have gone into the Time’s Tapestry sequence.

23. The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Probably the best book I’ve read for years in terms of literary skill. The parallel stories of an investigative young boy/man and the person he’s investigating. Extremely well written (wonder what it was like in the original Spanish) and a joy to read. Every character in Daniel Sempere’s life (the protagonist) has a double in that of Julián Carax (the focus of the investigation). The only character for whom I couldn’t see a parallel was Firmin Romero de Torres – the one time tramp who becomes a helper in the Sempere bookshop and Daniel’s friend – unless he’s the mirror of inspector Fumero but I don’t think so. I know lots of others have read it too – Julian, Maz, Debbie et al – everyone enjoyed it.

24. Inversions, Iain M. Banks. The third book by Mr Banks this year – and the one I enjoyed the least. It's OK but not inspiring. It tells the parallel stories of two people who have much in common in terms of them both being from elsewhere but confidants of the local rulers. I spent most of the book trying to guess how they would come together and interact directly, or, at least, the actions of one affect the other, but it was not to be. They both sail off into separate sunsets not knowing of each other's existence.

25. The Island, Victoria Hislop. Book Club choice. "At last – a beach book with a heart" screams he cover, quoting the Observer. Hmmm… I thought it was better than that and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I'll be interested to see what the others got out of it but I was interested in the whole leprosy/leper colony angle. The stories of the women involved seemed a reasonable vehicle for that. My guess is that the 'beach' aspect comes from "one woman's struggle to find the truth about her mother." Well, that's there but it can readily be overlooked. The geography wasn't clear from the narrative. When I checked on the atlas I was surprised, for instance, how close Spinalonga is to Iraklion.

26. Classic Political Clangers, David Mortimer. Christmas present from D, a series of short pieces about a variety of political clangers down the years. I learnt a few things and was reminded of more by this mildly amusing book.

Finished it at 2 minutes to midnight on New Year's Eve in the caravan at Kloofs caravan park near Bexhill on Sea.