Books read in 2008

1. Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin. The first of three novels in ‘Rebus; The Early Years’ (Christmas present from M & D). This is therefore the first Rebus novel which is where I wanted to start. Rankin wrote this before he began the series so to speak so we learn a lot about Rebus’s background in the army/SAS. Quite short and a little predictable but full of detail which makes it very engaging. And I now feel ready to read and enjoy the others.

2. Off on a Comet (or Hector Servadac Travels and adventures around the solar system). Jules Verne. On a post Christmas visit to Waterstone’s, book token in hand, I found this splendid-looking book in a slip case with a new novel by Adam Roberts (no doubt, details below!). It took a little while to read this – I’ve not been as far as London while reading this so no forced reading time (sic). The slow pace may account for a feeling of slowness throughout but, of course, the main point about reading a book like this is the historical perspective one gets on science fiction of the time (1877). The wonderful naivety of the story – a comet skims the earth and carries off a portion of North Africa and the Mediterranean, complete with atmosphere, and goes out more or less to Saturn and back (the planets from Mercury to Saturn are all in the path of the comet in a Voyager-like mission). All that’s required to survive the cold is the interior of a volcano and a few good woollens. Returning to earth is simple – just hop in a hot air balloon for the landing and all will be exactly as it was before. So it would not get anywhere near a publisher now – but that’s the point I guess. It’s an amusing story and worth the read for historical perspective.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. (Book club). Thoroughly enjoyed this one. I began with the preconception that Margaret Atwood was snooty about SF although I must retract that – the book won the Nebula Award and there’s no doubting its SF genre. America is taken over by religious extremists – i.e. men who like the idea of having their own personal harem in the name of piety. Very bleak throughout but you warm to the narrator and her situation. I would have liked to have had more on how the takeover of America by the regime was accomplished. Killing all members of congress, the house and executive in one day and then filling the vacuum didn’t seem plausible enough, and how it was sustained through, presumed, foreign opposition isn’t made clear. The final chapter, where we hear a lecture on the period from a historical perspective certainly helps in this regard. Curiously, Maz loathes this and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Hmmm…

4. Splinter, Adam Roberts. This is his re-telling of the Jules Verne story and something of a homage to Verne. Roberts’ story has the benefit of being rather ,more credible than the Verne original, using modern SF techniques – the alien consciousness at the heart of a very dense object that goes to explain the impact, the retention of gravity on the splinter and the purposefulness of the exercise. It’s all wrapped up in a kind of remote American cult hang out – so perhaps it should have been set in Montana not California. As always, Roberts doesn’t make for light reading, but the structure, language and delivery is superb.

5. The Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur C Clarke. Gilbert and Sullivan to Roberts’ Wagner. An SF tale very much of the old school with human exploration of the stars. Thalassa is almost entirely covered by its ocean, where an early human colony has set up. The expansion into the galaxy beng forced onto mankind by the Sun going nova. A later, more advanced colony ship drops by to pick up some ice for its ablation shield which provides the set up for interaction between two generations of humans who also discover life, but not high intelligence, in the ocean beneath. The link between ACC and Stephen Baxter is most apparent here – Baxter could have written something similar, I think. Talking of whom…

6. Weaver, Stephen Baxter. And so we get to find out that the mysterious Weaver is actually a student of Gödel hooked up to a machine that ends up in the control of a British Mata-Hari supporting the Nazi occupation of England. Baxter’s picture painting remains superb – his description of Operation Sea Lion leading to the occupation of the South East of England is very plausible – all following the routing of the British Expeditionary Force – no little ships to bring the boys home from Dunkirk and Churchill hoofed out of office early on.

But there’s something unsatisfactory about the Time’s Tapestry series. I think it must be that you need to know a good deal about what actually did happen to get a real sense of what the various deflections – or attempted deflections – were. It does make sense in the end, and my history knowledge was sufficient to get me through. The real joy in the books though is the detail and the way Baxter brings characters to life and makes them very credible – quite a feat across such a long period of history.

7. Moon Dust, Andrew Smith (Book Club). I've not read a book like this before. Smith bumps into Charlie and Dotty Duke in London on the day Pete Conrad died – and then there were 9 (Moonwalkers). He sets out to meet them all and find out what Apollo meant and was really all about. The 9 have all done different things since their flight, all trying in one way or another to work out what the heck you do after you've done that. Aldrin, Duke and Cernan still spend a lot of time talking about the Moon (of them all, it's Cernan who is most like one might expect "I've been there and done that now we all should". John Young is the only one still at NASA. Many are very hard to meet, including Dave Scott and, of course, Neil Armstrong. But Andrea Smith did succeed in meeting them all. I was surprised that he didn't even attempt to meet the Command Module pilots (Mike Collins is, apparently, even harder to get to the Armstrong). It does rather put Apollo into perspective though. I'll be interested to see what the other club members made of it as most of them were too young to remember the moon shots.

8. Hide & Seek/Tooth & Nail, Ian Rankin. The remaining two stories in Rebus: The Early Years. Rankin has got a lot of the introduction over – we know who Rebus is and the kind of lifestyle he leads with little of the explanation that was necessary in Knots and Crosses. What I find a little hard to ‘get’ is the motivation Rebus has for what he does. His SAS background doesn’t, for me, explain why he has such an understanding of the Edinburgh world he spends his time in, that is, he doesn’t seem to be as removed from it as one might expect. Maybe that’s why he’s such a good detective… Hide and Seek is pure Edinburgh down and out with drugs and rich men seeking illicit thrills (shades of Hostel). For Tooth & Nail, Rebus heads to London and is the guest of the Met. Good misdirection by Rankin over the guilty party!

9. Stealing Light, Gary Gibson. An enjoyable read but it’s marred by the lack of originality. The idea of an über-race being the keepers of FTL technology - and that they in turn stole it from someone else – is not new. Neither are things like machine-heads talking to computers, ships with technology that can out-smart the lumbering authorities and so on. Lots of Peter F Hamilton, a good dose of Alistair Reynolds and a little Stephen Baxter thrown in too – and those are just the references I recognise. For that, though, it was well written and executed and I’m pretty sure I’ll read more of his – it’s fun stuff.

10. Dry Store Rom No. 1, Richard Fortey. Birthday present from M & D. I enjoyed this as much as The Earth, an Intimate History. It’s not a history of the NHM – although you learn a good deal of that along the way – but a collection of stories that reveal the life of the hidden museum. Fortey is ‘the trilobite man’ who shows his respect, admiration and understanding of the, often odd, characters around him who devote their lives to everything from whales to aphids. The place of the museum - it’s importance and relevance throughout its history – is well covered. One’s reverence for the place is enhanced mightily, after all, this is where the samples taken by the Challenger in the 1880s are (the birth of oceanography), all those Victorian gentlemen’s collections, the type specimens for countless plants, animals and minerals – it’s all in the magnificent building (and its outliers). I must get a copy of Trilobite.

11. House of Suns, Alistair Reynolds. Superb, first class sci-fi. Reynolds steps away from Revelation Space for this one – a terrific idea about clones and longevity. Yes, there are some old chestnuts – a secret buried thousands of years ago come back to haunt, but it’s terrific stuff from start to finish.

12. The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy, Fiona McNeil. (Book club) I realised that this was supposed to make me laugh on page 1. It actually made me laugh on page 190. The rest of the group loved it and found it hilarious and I can see why, but it took me a long time to get into the way of it. Once I realised that it was essentially a farce in the theatrical tradition, it began to make more sense. The dénouement in the hotel is very Noel Coward (and well done). So, not a bad book by any means but not really my thing.

13. The Exile, Allan Folsom. Terrific read. As good as The Day After Tomorrow and therefore better than Day of Confession. Typical Folsom page turner with a lot happening all the time. The short chapters and constant references to the time were, however, over done – he could have made it flow easily as a regular novel without that. having said all that, after the initial unexpected twist near the start, there weren’t that many surprises.

14. Speaking for Myself, Cherie Blair. A book club choice that no one seems happy to admit to choosing. It was more or less as I expected it to be. She’s worked very hard to achieve what she has independently of Tony. One wouldn’t expect her to say anything remotely unsupportive of him, which, of course, she doesn’t. But all the way through it seems shallow. She discusses the times when she was in the public eye (always for the wrong reasons) and doesn’t, to her credit, court favour for her substantial charity work. But it’s hardly a riveting read. OK, I’ve read it, I know more now than I did and I know more of ‘her side of the story’… now what’s the next book.

15. Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Flemming. Well, it’s a lot more Flemming than Faulks and it’ll be a better film than it is a book. Faulks said in an interview that he had to forget all about painting characters and go from plot event to plot event in this one but I had hoped he’d be able to inject more of Bond’s emotion than he was able to – that’s the point of Bond, I guess, he just ‘is.’ A very quick, easy read – but very enjoyable. The film will be good.

16. The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver. Bit of a slog but a very good novel. It paints a vivid picture of how the heroine feels when she does, and doesn’t, flee the stability of home for the greener grass of a life with a leading snooker player. The structure of the book is very much in the forefront with all the but the first and last chapters being (numerically) duplicated, beginning and ending with Irina both lives – with a nice twist at the very end (you think she’s in one timeline and actually is in another, thus emphasising the ultimate indifference to the decision she made on the ‘the birthday’).

17. Flood, Stephen Baxter. Hmmm… not his best. The basic premise is that subterranean seas suddenly ooze out from the earth’s mantle and flood the planet, triggered initially by global warming but then becoming self-sustaining. Although, as per usual, he ends with a note justifying the scenario it seems much, much weaker than the usual lines he takes in his books and I felt all along that I was being asked to suspend too much disbelief. The narrative is good as ever – if the waters rose like that then yes, this seems like a plausible outcome, but it lacked something.

18. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova (book club). Kate had this lying around her camper van for months and I kept wanting to borrow it, hence the suggestion that we make it a club read. At 700 pages of small font-size type it’s not a quickie, but it is terrific. Part detective novel, part history, part travelogue – very richly told throughout. Since reading this I’ve looked up the author (married to a Bulgarian), what exactly was the Byzantine empire, where is Wallachia cf. Transylvania, was Dracula entirely Bram Stoker’s invention (no) – so a book to get you thinking. An excellent read.

19. Life, An Unauthorised Biography, Richard Fortey. I read this because I’ve enjoyed two of his other books but I hesitated because, well, I reckon I know the basic story of life on earth. Well, yes I do – there was nothing outstandingly new in terms of narrative here… but that’s not the point is it? The detail that Fortey chooses, and the way he tells his version of the incredible story is very distinctive and superb. It’s a terrific natural history with more detail of the geological side than I’ve encountered before; and it is interesting to hear him argue with Stephen Jay Gould. A good read (and I’m still looking for that first edition of Trilobite).

20. The Night Sessions, Ken McLeod. This was a quick bit of SF between the natural history and the book club choice. It’s a post world war novel, but this time the cause of the war isn’t nuclear madness but religious madness, so McLeod puts us in an era of religious intolerance – that is, intolerance of all religion. It’s as authoritarian as any world where religion is dictated (and all the more depressing for that). But, it proceeds a little like an Ian Rankin novel – i.e. a Scottish detective novel – except that the space elevator is in place, ‘phones’ are very much part of oneself and the robots haven’t quite learnt Asimov’s laws. Not particularly memorable (I had to get it off the shelf to write this) but not a bad one. It was pleased with the creationist-turns rationalist ending.

21. The Road Home, Rose Tremain. Book club choice (Elaine?) This is about a Polish man, Lev, who comes to Britain to try to improve the life of his mother and daughter at home after his wife dies. A very interesting portrayal of the life of an immigrant arriving in London with nothing and working hard to send the money home. Tremain tells a very plausible story without making it a heavy read – I’ve enjoyed this more than I thought I was going to. The emotions are not sugared, his life both in London and on his return home are not made out to be wonderful through miraculous luck (as Hollywood would no doubt require). He doesn’t end up wonderfully happy – rather he ends still feeling his loss (for his wife and their village, now submerged beneath a reservoir) despite fulfilling his dream of owning his own restaurant. I’ll look out for more of her books.

22. The Temporal Void, Peter F. Hamilton. Always a treat and Hamilton lived up to his best. I was a little put off by the idea that it was going to be mostly about Edeard the Waterwalker rather than the Commonwealth outside the void but it was truly superb. Can’t wait for Evolutionary Void.

23. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne. (Book club) Over hyped dross. The nine year old boy, Bruno, has some aspects that make him seem much older but essentially he acts like a 3 year old throughout most of it. Maybe my expectations of a 9 year old are too high, but this really was self-indulgent claptrap. Elaine and Kate went to see it at the cinema and thought it was boring. Debbie read it when we were in Chester for a weekend and thought it was dull too. Ah well. At least it was short.

24. No Time for goodbye, Linwood Barclay (book club, Elaine). Everyone was taken by the cover blurb for this. On holiday in the Peak District Kate couldn’t put it down. Oh dear, this is the most un-thrilling thriller ever. At no point did anything happen that you hadn’t expected for the last several pages (in some case hundreds of pages). It would make a predictable telly-movie, not much more.

25 Swiftly, Adam Roberts. Very Adam Roberts… we’re still in building stories based on the characters and ideas of the pioneers (i.e. we’ve moved on from Jules Verne to Jonathan Swift). Plenty of philosophising around place in the universe, human rights and all the rest of it. England is at war with France in clash of ideals over the place of the Lilliputians and Brobdingnangians cf. an English gentleman. Characters hang well together except one – the female lead seems to go through a complete personality change during a break in the narrative and I didn’t find her post-traumatic persona in line with the previous one. Not a rip-roaring read, but very much up to Robert’s superb standard of literacy and erudition.

26. The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory. Terrific. On one level I’ve learnt several basic facts (Mary was Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, when he divorced her, Henry passed a law that disinherited Katherine and their daughter. Along comes Anne and their daughter is Elizabeth – cue future problems and all that). But the detail and the narrative is compelling as one gets a plausible motivation for why things happened the way they did. Henry was a spoilt brat from day 1 and no one ever said no to him. There was no misfortune in his life that he didn’t bring upon himself by his own childishness and greed. Anne Boleyn doesn’t get a good press and Mary (the eponymous heroine) gains one’s sympathy as she is essentially pimped through the court by her (and Anne’s) awful parents, brother and uncle. Jane Seymour is no better of course – she just came along next.

27. Trilobite! Richard Fortey. (Christmas present from M & D) Another excellent blend of scientific writing and artistic prose. I read this over the new year break and found myself, sort of, justifying to Jon Luke why anyone would study trilobites, still less read a book about them. One can argue about discovering more about Earth’s history, evolution, tectonic movements etc but fundamentally it’s because they are interesting. They lasted 300 million years – far longer than the dinosaurs which Fortey reminds us of continually. The only real surprise is that none survived beyond the Permian (actually, most had gone before the Carboniferous). There are a couple of earlier books by Fortey to look out for and, I hope, more new ones to come.