Books read in 2007

1. Much Ado About English, Richard Watson Todd. Christmas present from D. This short book contains a lot of interesting information, only a small percentage of which I knew previously. Occasionally he skimmed over a subject where I really wanted a bit of detail but in general this was a thoroughly enjoyable read and a book I am sure to dip into again now and again.

2. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. I began reading this expecting to find things with which I disagreed, expecting that I'd find Prof. Dawkins making assertions about religion that were demonstrably untrue, in particular, that religion causes war. I should have known better. His erudition and articulation is such that there's not a word I can find to disagree with. I was swayed to easily by some silly Thought for the Day talking head who decried the book before I'd read it. Of course he doesn’t ignore that fact that Hitler and Stalin waged literally un-holy wars. But neither did they go into battle in the name of atheism (and Hitler may well have been religious anyway).

I'll be reading this again one day – it is a wonderful demolition job on religion that has made me more convinced, as if any further evidence were needed, of the bigotry, intolerance and sheer absurdity of the religious mindset.

3. Natasha's Dance, Orlando Figes. Christmas present from Aunty Maz. This is a true magnum opus. The amount of detailed data here is staggering – the 586 pages of prose need 150 pages of notes to back them up. Thus, it has been a bit of a slog, however, one I have enjoyed. I've learnt a good deal about Russian history along the way. I don't pretend I'll remember a lot of the detail but I will, I am sure, retain a good feel for Russian culture that I was certainly unaware of hitherto. Figes refers to War and Peace so much (Natasha dances in that novel) that I wonder whether my earlier stated desire to read that novel (stated to Maz, no doubt prompting her choice for me) has been satiated, at least for now.

4. Galactic North, Alistair Reynolds. The light relief after the Russian meisterwerk. This chap really does wrote excellent sci-fi. This is a series of short stories in the revelation Space universe that, like Baxter, he uses to fill in the gaps between the novels and to provide their back story. I've long realised that I need to go back and re-read Revelation Space itself. One day… Good stuff from start to finish.

5. Are You Experienced, William Sutcliffe. Book club choice (Kate). A very light read and. although certainly very funny at times, also unfunny when clearly I was supposed to laugh. The description of the Bollywood movie on the bus is excellent. A bit of a teenage movie in places but enjoyable nonetheless. Actually read this in the space of 24 hours thanks to a wholly messed up body clock after arriving in Australia. Started it in a poky hotel room near Sydney airport and finished it on the terrace of my very nice hotel in Canberra. Can't be bad.

6. Woken Furies, Richard Morgan. This is the book that has finally driven me to drop Morgan of my "buy everything they write" author list. Market Forces was one of those rare books I have started and not finished just through boredom – in that case with the unreal scenarios he paints. I really enjoyed Altered Carbon and the sequel, Broken Angels was OK, but this just wasn't. I couldn't follow the plot, despite reading it pretty intensely over a short time, and the violence was as predictable as it was incessant. A real duffer (but I did finish it).

I have since cancelled my Amazon pre-publication order for his next book!

7. Helen of Troy, Margaret George. This looked really good in the shop and I began it with high expectations. I know more about the Trojan War now, and the characters within the story, but the end notes reveal that George was fairly selective in choosing which bits of the story to include. I didn't realise that the Iliad only goes up to the death of Hector and that other documents, including the Aeneid, are needed to fill in the remainder of what may never have been anyway. At 600 pages, you'd think it would be pretty complete and adhere to the full story. Mind you, 600 pages of prophesy being fulfilled gets a bit much. The interaction between the 'real' characters and the gods makes the whole thing obviously fiction and quite what the underlying truth could be is hard to imagine. Dan Simmons felt a lot more satisfying in that regard.

8. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. Book club choice (chosen by me). I think I probably wanted the book club to exist so that I would read this and neither the club nor the book disappointed. It is, of course, a rather good read. The language is fantastic and Elizabeth Bennett is a real heroine, fighting the absurdity of early 19th century manners. At the time of reading, I have not seen any screen adaptation of the book ever – perhaps a little surprising. At the club night we watched the "alternative US ending" on the Keira Knightly-starring DVD. The snippet of actual dialogue from the book makes me less fearful of seeing an adaptation. I recently heard a radio version of Mansfield Park which was enjoyable. I should certainly read the remainder of Austen's works.

9. Revelation, Bill Napier. Elaine leant me this after I'd seen her reading it and expressed an interest. Oh dear… it was awful. The only good thing to say really is that I read it in less than 2 weeks so that not much time was lost. Credulity stretched, science abused as the plot demanded. Money and commitment to real life no object – oh, and of course, a fanatical religious cult for good measure. Another of his books, Nemesis, looks worth reading but I'll think twice before doing so.

10. Conqueror, Stephen Baxter. He really is superb. This took us from early Anglo-Saxon times to the Conquest and made it seem very real. I was surprised at how detailed his battle scene descriptions were and, well, the story telling was first class. He uses enough modern phrases to make it easy to read – you don't have to remember what an Old English word first introduced in chapter 1 means in chapter 17. But there is enough old vocabulary, especially place names, to make it feel of its era. I can't be certain of the historical accuracy but it sure feels right and the depth of Baxter's research is a good indication that it was pretty well spot on. Next up seems to be Navigator, centred on Columbus.

11. The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury. Book club choice. Enough of the ancient religious artefact/conspiracy theory/murderous cardinals on secret missions from the Vatican! This was enjoyable. Not good, but enjoyable. Obviously written by a screen writer – well, it reads like a film. Several clichés. Of course the heroine is stunning, mid thirties, intelligent. Actually Khoury makes her sound like Catherine Willows in CSI. And there's the FBI chap who is driven by what happened to his dad. Hmmm… The story is OK and would feel much better if it weren't for the Da Vinci Code and Labyrinth (a nd no doubt many others). I don't know whether Khoury wrote his before or after Dan Brown but they do seem to have a lot in common. best bit was the twist right at the very end. I didn't see it coming and it was good.

12. The Execution Channel, Ken McLeod. I went into Waterstone’s looking for a tide table and bought this instead. I had enjoyed Learning the World and his others look good so this looked like one I should have. It was, well, OK. The near future world he paints was too unrealistic for me, with Britain very much the neutral player between sabre-rattling France and USA. That may be our role in the real world of today but there are no actual sabres being rattled. He took the world as it is and just extended it a little too far for me. Mind you – he did make a lot of use of the mobile Web!. So a little unsatisfying – but I'll still look out for his others.

13. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Douglas Adams. It's Douglas Adams, it's weird and at times it's very funny. Thor wants to get back to Norway but is a little stuck at the airport due to the lack of a passport. The final chapters where he was explaining everything lost me a little – and yes, I was fully awake. Very entertaining. St Pancras station as the alternate universe for Valhalla and all that…

14. Imperium, Robert Harris. Terrific. The authorial voice Tiro (amanuensis to Cicero) tells of his master's rise through the Roman system and thus how he gains power (Imperium). The wheeling and dealing, the politics and compromises and so on are very familiar, and they put life in the Roman Forum and its surroundings. Really good read.

15. The Secret River, Kate Grenville. A Book Club choice (Elaine). A little pedestrian – that it was short-listed for the Man Booker prize surprises me (shows how much of a judge of literature I am I suppose). The story of Will Thornhill's life in London, conviction for thieving and subsequent shipment to Australia is atmospheric and you get a good picture of life for the new colonials – in a word, hard. The roughness of the people is well brought out, the absence of any help or luxury is clear. The centre piece of the book is the relationship – or lack of it – with the aborigines. The treatment of whom was, of course, horrendous (Thornhill has half a heart though). What ruined it for me was, I think, that it all ended so nicely with the Thornhills living in a splendid mansion along the Hawkesbury River – that didn't feel right.

16. Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky. (Father's day present in Southwold). A very descriptive account of life in France under first, Nazi defeat and, second, occupation. It felt entirely real – a feeling confirmed when you read the story of where the author was when she wrote it. I wonder whether the book would have had as much attention has she not died in a concentration camp and finished it – it certainly should have done – but the fact that it is unfinished, well, leaves you feeling there's something missing at the end! I certainly felt I had been given a good picture of what it must have been like. Our own trips to French villages help to paint a picture. For example, I kept imagining the second in the suite taking place in the village we visited last year.

17. The Prefect, Alistair Reynolds. Superb sci-fi, superb AR. The story was set in the glitter band before the melding plague had struck so this gave a good account of life at that point in his Revelation Space timeline. It's essentially a thriller with good plot twists. Very enjoyable.

18. The Dreaming Void, Peter F. Hamilton. Hamilton very much on form with this one. The interweaving of the story within and outside the Void, plus the complexity of the former, keeps you on your toes remembering who is who – but that's what a 650 page book that's just part 1 of 3 does. Can't wait until the next instalment.

19. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver. (Book Club) So well written, so well told. It's essentially the catharsis of the mother of a school massacre. How did it happen, what were the signs, what could she have done to stop it. why did it happen. She knew from the moment of Kevin's birth that things weren't right but was unable to change that. Kevin's blank state of mind and complete lack of attachment to anything (except his archery) is the whole problem – but that just made it harder to deal with. There really weren't any 'answers' – which is, I think, the point. The twist at the end is foreseeable (and I more or less did) but none the less dramatic for it.

20. The Time Machine, H G Wells. (Book club – Nickie). Only short and I've read it before but I got a lot more out of it this time. I think I made the mistake of thinking it was about a time machine first time around… The social comment is explicit throughout and very well expressed. It could have been written at more or less any time in history – now no less than 1895 – and we still haven't learnt.

21. Sixty Days and Counting, Kim Stanley Robinson. The third and final instalment of Robinson's Science in the Capital series was more readable than the previous two. Maybe I just read it more quickly this time. His very believable plots concerning climate change and possible responses are weakened by the less-than-believable sub plot about Frank Vanderwal's brush with the spooks. But I suppose there had to be something else in there to try and zip things along a little. This series has been rewarding at times but generally heavy going. I'm looking forward to seeing his next work…

22. Navigator, Stephen Baxter. Continuing the series this one takes us from 20 years after Hastings to Columbus setting sail. The links between the different time zones seemed stronger this time round. Baxter continues to paint a very plausible picture of life a long time ago. He manages to bring in Roger Bacon and mentions Da Vinci – surprising he didn't get more of a mention but the action is set in England and Al-andalus so one can see why Leonardo got left out rather. We get the next instalment in January.

23. The Afghan, Frederick Forsyth. This happened and then this happened. At location A there is a section B that is off limits to everyone except a few souls and one of those souls there did this which made that happen and because all the other things had happened that meant the other thing was inevitable. Plod plod through the story – but it's always very enjoyable and I should read the ones of his I've not done so yet.

24. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. A cure for any happy day… very well written – it provided a vivid picture of its principal character in the various stages of his life. Amir’s betrayal of Hassan, his father’s betrayal of Ali and Hassan … it’s a depressing story without a happy ending. I’m not sure the term ‘enjoy’ really applies. It was certainly worth reading and I’m glad to have done so – but I was also glad to have finished it to get on to something less depressing.

25. Hopscotch and Handbags, the Essential Guide to Being a Girl, Lucy Mangan. I bought this because of who it’s by – her weekly column in the Guardian usually makes me laugh, hysterically so occasionally, therefore this was a must buy. In places, her wonderful use of vocabulary shines through and it makes you laugh but there’s an awful lot to get through around all the -gems. As a result I skim-read the last couple of chapters (in the car park at IKEA in Nottingham as it happens) – there’s a limit to how much I want to read about makeup and handbags, whoever wrote it.

26. The Blood Spilt, Åsa Larsson. I bought this on impulse in Menlo Park in March. It’s, well, so-so. There’s a murder mystery throughout the book but it’s more about the lives of and relationships between the (mostly female) characters. A (female) priest is murdered and it transpires that she was very active in the rural Swedish community, dividing opinion and generally shaking up the andro-centric order. There’s a female character who’s long term off sick having been involved in an earlier incident in which she killed three people in the same district. I think the she-wolf (Yellow Legs) was a metaphor for her.

27. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards (book club choice). This was almost as dark as the Kite Runner but I enjoyed it a lot more, mainly because I could relate to the characters much more. The deception perpetrated by the doctor at the start was only ever going to create multiple lives of misery, as indeed it did. I found the characters generally credible – Norah, the doctor’s wife whose daughter was sent away, was perhaps a little less than credible in her mid-life transition into a successful business woman (shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin as it was in the travel business). I thought it was more likely that she’s become a depressive alcoholic in her situation. And Caroline Gill, the nurse who loved the doctor and took Phoebe away – I think she’d have been in touch with Norah long before she actually did at the end. Much emotion, especially at the final reckoning.

28. Invasion, Robin Cook. Bought this in Borders in Boston as a flight-home book (in fact I finished the Memory Keeper’s Daughter as we taxied to LHR T4 and started this in the baggage hall!). A reasonable alien invasion story but very much a TV movie book. It was written in the early 90s so that the Internet only makes an appearance as a means for non-infected to communicate quite late on – probably high tech stuff when the book was first published. Shades of War of the Worlds with something like the common cold being the best weapon with which to fight the aliens. Light weight but OK.

29. Land of the Headless, Adam Roberts. Another science fiction novel that shows Roberts’ deep literary roots. The cruelty metered out to Jon Cavala, the protagonist, is certainly cruel and unusual, born of delight in the job shrouded in religious observance. Not particularly inspiring as a story but it does make you think – what would you smell without a head? How would you eat? etc. Probably more of a commentary on religious fanaticism than anything else and, as always, superbly written.

30. The Interpretation of Murder, Jed Rubenfeld. A book club choice (suggested by me after I heard the author interviewed on the radio). Written by a Harvard law professor, this takes an understandably academic approach to the whodunit. Freud visits New York and his acolytes are soon involved in analysing the fiendish plot that’s left many a poor girl hurt or murdered across town. The final resolve is rather confusing and no, I didn’t guess. So from that point of view it was rewarding and satisfying. Perhaps a tad slow at times but the real pleasure was the description of New York in 1909. Rubenfeld sets out what was real and what was fictional at the end of the book and, as I knew from the radio interview, it was mostly factual. A good read.

31. The Liar, Stephen Fry. As the title suggests, this is full of lies and double lies within deceit, misdirection and obfuscation – hence, it all gets rather confusing at times and is hard to follow. However, in the absence of any travel I read this in lots of short bits and wasn’t able to get the flow of the thing. The final 60 pages I knocked off in a morning and it flowed much better (mind you, that was the reveal at the end so it was bound to be generally more cogent). Funny in places, very much in so in a couple, but not hilarious throughout. In the end, it’s all a game…

32. The Ghost, Robert Harris. Christmas present from D and, due to the very relaxed festive season this year, I was able to read it in 3 days. The narrator is ghost-writing the memoirs of an ex prime minister who has a great deal in common with Tony Blair. Harris has extended Blair and people like Anji Hunter but not so much that they are not credible characters. The Cherie Booth avatar is less of a parallel – more of a Hillary ‘behind’ Bill. The pro-American/’War on Terror’ theme dominates. As always, well written and, on this occasion, very easy to read. I enjoyed it a lot.

33. Darwin’s Angel, An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, John Cornwell. Christmas present from M & D just slipped in between the Ghost and New Year’s Eve in the caravan in Thetford. Cornwell sets out a series of complaints against Dawkins’ scholarship. He (Dawkins) is accused of referring to himself too much – although I was sure that this was to avoid unnecessary repetition rather than vanity. Cornwell also points out lots of sources for ideas that Dawkins has used without much credit and it looks as if, on scholarship, it’s a clear win for Cornwell – one expects more of an Oxford Professor.

In his final two chapters, Cornwell then presents his own arguments for why Dawkins is wrong (i.e. the point that Dawkins has missed…). He makes the argument that the bugger question is why the universe exists rather than not existing – the universe does exist, ergo God must exist. And finally that religion is not open to scientific study in the way Dawkins suggests. The first argument is, in my view of course, entirely bogus and crass, the second entirely equivalent to that posited by practitioners of homeopathy, astrology and the like.

It was worth reading, and I will look for more in the same vain, but Dawkins wins hands down for me (no surprise there then).