Books read in 2009

1. The Last Theorem, Arthur C Clarke & Frederick Pohl. A little unsure what to make of this. It had elements of 1950s sci-fi in it (not surprising given the authorship) and I felt it was perhaps a little self-indulgent. Setting the story in Sri Lanka – OK – but the revised world order, the alien invasion, client races and al that just seemed old fashioned. A book out of its time I’d say.

2. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë. I finally read it! It’s been on the shelf for ages and I kept wanting to get to it but never quite made it. She was quite the heroine, an independent mind in an age when women were not supposed to be in possession of such things. Yes, it has contrivances (she walks across the moor starving and destitute only to be rescued by three people who turn out to be her cousins) but the love story is powerful and told with a superb command of language and literary colour. It’s 200 years old or so and still a masterpiece.

3. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak. (Book Club). I was disappointed by this book, mainly because I was expecting it to be fantastic – and it was really just 'good.' The best thing for me was that it showed WWII from the point of view of a working class German street which we duly bombed. What was extraordinary was the courage of the family in providing safe haven for, and showing public kindness to a Jew. The story of Liesel (the eponymous heroine) was touching and you got a real sense of her loss and her strength. So lots of good things to say about this one. What I found irritating was some of the style. The little blocks of centred bold text with the opposing peacock motifs I could have done without – maybe that's part of this being a book for young adults. Zusak wrote some very interesting descriptive phrases – I wish I could remember one now – and they really stood out and must have taken some writing. But that's why they irritate – because it makes you realise that you're reading someone's work rather than being lost in the narrative. It actually stops you suspending disbelief.

On a side note, it was the first time I can recall that everyone In the group had actually finished the book!

4. Catherine Howard, Lacey Baldwin Smith. One of the more readable history books I've tackled. This one was easy and very informative. It had the English air of "you know this already don't you so I don't want to insult your intelligence by pretending you don't... but here's what really happened" about it from the start but interesting. The callousness of the Howard family really was incredible (are they still around? Probably - let's hope they don't treat their daughters quite as badly as they did Anne Boleyn and Catherine (they were cousins, both used by their uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, for his own self-interest, both disowned on the axeman's block).

As Lacey Baldwin Smith says - the cruellest thing of all is that had she not lived, history would not have changed one iota. She was 5 of 6 – where really only 1 and 2 had any lasting impact. So, it's a good way to fill in the blanks of your Tudor knowledge, but the subject matter is hardly compelling.

5. Q & A. Vikas Swarup (book club). I guess this counts as the opposite of the Book Thief. I wasn't really expecting to enjoy this but I did, very much. It paints a vivid picture of Indian life (I have no way of knowing whether it's accurate or not but it felt as if it was) and the lead character is someone you like from the outset. Each chapter fills in the story of how come he knew the answer to each question on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire – style game show. It felt like a whodunit in that respect as I spent most each chapter trying to guess what the question would be. I've not seen the film (Slumdog Millionaire) and from what the BC members were saying about it, I don't think I want to particularly – I know I'd rail against the changes – god though Danny Boyle most certainly is as a director.

6. Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts. Even though I have read all Adam Roberts' major novels, I never know what to expect of the next one, except that it will be very weird in one respect but make sense in all others. He sticks very closely to the SF maxim – change one thing and leave everything else the same. Stephen Baxter does this, for example, in Raft where he changes the gravitational constant, but Roberts is more subtle. In Land of the Headless he creates a world where the punishment for serious crime is the removal of one's head (and replacement with a computer), in On he switches gravity through 90° and in this one the thing he changes is that Russian paranoia with extra terrestrials isn't entirely groundless. And then the story flows from there. We meet Stalin, we meet SF writers, KGB thugs and friends that betray, so that the essential atmosphere of the Soviet Union is unchanged. A literary, erudite writer. Adam Roberts deserves far more acclaim than he gets I'd say. One day the literati that dismiss SF will put him on the shelf next to Margaret Atwood (and Kim Stanley Robinson if they have any sense).

One nit – he very clearly talks about the name of a bone in the arm, but the tibia is in the leg, right next to the fibula. It's arm homologue being the Radius. Ah well.

(Addendum: the book became the focus of some attention around the time of the Booker Prize when Kim Stanley Robinson fumed that SF is always ignored – despite, in his view, this book being the one that should have won.)

7. The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham. I've read most of Wyndham's books now. The Chrysalids is one I haven't and will. Unlike his 1950s contemporaries who were all space ships and laser guns, Wyndham wrote about contemporary characters handling extraordinary and highly creative situations. That very ordinariness is what gives the books their appeal. I recall seeing the Village of the Damned many years ago but of course I've long since forgotten the detail. The Midwich Cuckoos is largely about village life, well, maybe not, it's village elders/military intelligence officers 'handling' a situation in a way that is designed not to upset village life. At the heart of the book is the moral dilemma between the natural instinct to nurture children, do the right thing etc. and doing what has to be done in the face of a clear threat. Very good stuff.

8. The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens. (Book club, Tricia). One or two people have read this before me I believe... It's a bit of a slog (550 pages with a small font size) but Dickens really is as good as they say. He talks to you, that is, he clearly narrates as if on stage (as he often did) and this is very much part of his style. His use of language is extraordinary. I think the most similar modern writer (purely in terms of authorial voice) would be Alan Bennett - although the two remain very different of course.

Reading classic novels is something one always expects to get round to eventually. There are so many, you'd better start now! I guess that's why we read them occasionally in the book club.

9. The Palestine-Israel Conflict, Greg Harms. I've boycotted Israeli goods for as long as I can remember, more out of gut reaction than real knowledge. A friend of mine posted a link (on FB) to a fiercely pro-Israel video some months ago which I watched and thought "this sounds like the kind of claptrap the BNP/UKIP would say to justify their policies." Hmmm... I needed to know more. This book told me.

Like many, I believed that the Israel-Palestine conflict goes back thousands of years (it doesn't, it started in 1947). I believed that the Jews have been persecuted for centuries. True - since they were kicked out of Judea by the Romans in the 2nd century CE and by many others since (notably the Russians, and, it goes without saying, the Nazis). But where is Palestine? It's where Israel is. Where was Palestine, say, 100 years ago? It was where Israel is and many lands around there too. What is Jordan? It's a 20th century construct, like Iraq and Kuwait, created by the British, Russians et al.

Where was Palestine in 1947? It wasn't anywhere. The West Bank is part of Jordan. Gaza is in Egypt. As with the Balkans, the mess is as much a result of the complete botched job done by the Western powers after the fall of the Ottoman empire as anything. Did the idea of Israel come about as a response to the Holocaust? Again, no. Zionism (a land for the Jews, free of persecution - which seems perfectly reasonable to me) goes back to the 19th century.

I hoped I might come away feeling less anti-Israel and less sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, while always condemning violence on either side. But no... I am even more convinced that Israel should be boycotted and must be brought to heel. It does not live by any moral standard I could subscribe to. The open prison that is the Gaza strip, the Berlin-wall around the West Bank, the appalling tactics of their armed forces enacting the occupation and, more recently, the use of illegal weapons (phosphor bombs) on schools cannot be justified. When Mark Regev, chief apologist for the Israeli government, says "any country would behave as we do in our situation" I always scream back "no we wouldn't matey."

The book does not take sides. It gives a historical account, beginning before the Canaanites moved into, well, Canaan, and ending in 2007. At no point did I feel "ah yes, right, they have a point there." The book is short (less than 200 pages) and very readable. If you want to know why Palestinians and Israelis kill each other every day, this is an excellent place to find out. I'd be interested to know what a pro-Israeli made of the narrative.

10. The Boy With No Shoes, William Horwood (book club, Helen). Really enjoyed this one. Wasn't sure I would when I started it but definitely did. Horwood paints a very vivid picture of life in Kent in the 1940s and thereabouts. Tragic tale indeed and you wonder how much is true. I'm sure a lot of it is. Very moving. I had empathy with the hero's love of staring at the sea for hours in all weathers!

11. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters. I read this after seeing some excited reviews in the Guardian while in the Isle of Wight. I ordered it and was looking forward to it. Oh dear. Plod, plod, plod. The pace is glacial but I guess that's a function of the era in which it is set (again, immediately after the war). A lot of manners and etiquette and 'there there my dear'. I guess my own dismissal of even the faintest possibility of the existence of ghosts lead me to find the (actually rather few and far between) ghostly sections far from spooky. Can't really recommend it, sorry.

12. Palace Council, Stephen L Carter. Father's day present. Hmmm... it had plenty of promise according to the blurb. A bunch of rich and powerful men hold a meeting in the early 50s, later, they all start to get killed one by one. Secret meetings, multiple factions and a detailed picture of life in Black America in the 50s, 60s and 70s as a backdrop. I was expecting something brilliant. It was... good. A little slow in places, but always engaging. The final twists at the end are satisfying, which is always important. I think the thing that really stands out more than anything is how recent it is that American society was completely segregated. carter brings in real events – Kennedy, Nixon, Vietnam etc. so you have anchors in the timeline.

13. The Six Directions of Space, Alastair Reynolds. Oh dear. An Al Reynolds story that doesn't live up to my expectations – and this shortly after he's won a one million pounds, 10 book deal with Gollancz. This is a short story published by a small publisher in the US – hence the price tag of £35 – and it wasn't even a first printing. Humph. But the real disappointment is that the basic story is one that's been done before. A system of conduits passes through space, discovered by humans who in turn discover more races who actually turn out to be humans from other timelines. It's a bit like the Star Trek episode where Kirk and Spock meet their dark-side other selves – and a lot like Greg Bear's Eon or Robert Reed's Down the Bright Way.

I hate to be negative about Al Reynolds – he's terrific – but this isn't.

14. The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger. (Book club – Tricia I think) This reminded me of the Brett Easton Ellis novel, Less Than Zero, my brother bought me years ago. The two books tells the story of an adolescent out of control with too much money – although the two of them behave differently. It's years since I read Less Then Zero so memory is sparse but they do seem very similar. The difference between the two is that Salinger was writing at a time when such behaviour was seen as wholly beyond the norm – hence the banning of the book or at least the refusal to stock it by many when it came out. Set against the mores of 1950s society, it must indeed have been shocking. Now it's just another tale of care-free irresponsibility and so not the gripping read it must have been.

So the narrator gets himself thrown out of his boarding school, not for the first time, and drifts around a little and ends up... drifting around some more.

Published today I doubt the book would gain much attention. Well written? Yes, of course, but no longer shocking.

15. Galileo's Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson. I read this on holiday in Cornwall. In a review no longer online, Adam Roberts said that the book is a return to form after the 40-50-60 Science in the Capital series. Actually I was surprised. KSR does more science fiction-type stuff than I'm used to him doing. In the Mars trilogy it's all basically NASA/Apollo-type technology taken forward a little. Here he has quantum entanglement ferrying Galileo back and forth from his time to the moons of Jupiter 1,500 years hence. You learn a lot about the great man, of course, and one trusts KSR to have done his research. Towards the end I was hoping his next book might pick up where Galileo leaves off so he could do something similar with Newton but it's clear that's not KSR's intention.

A superb book.

16. Trouble with Lichen, John Wyndham. (Book Club, me). I borrowed this and read it years ago. It was leant to me by a friend of Debbie's when we visited them in 'the Australias' one evening (Sandy and Steve their names were, I'm told). My guess is this would have been around 1994/5. I remember enjoying it a lot and, if memory serves, this was one of the key moments when I began to read, in particular, read SF. That said, my memory of the story, now that I've re-read it, was clearly wrong! I remembered the basics but misremembered the detail. Anyway... published in 1960 it's set against the same social background that made Catcher in the Rye so shocking. It's actually a fiercely feminist story – so I'm looking forward to hearing the book club reaction to that aspect. The discovery of the life-preserving properties of the lichen is seen and sold purely as a way for women to have long enough to have children and have a career in series rather than having to do them in parallel. The use of the treatment by men although referred to, is always a secondary thing. As ever, Wyndham describes entirely plausible reactions to the situation as presented. He runs through the many possible ramifications – from workers being permanently stuck in their jobs with no hope of promotion even through to funeral directors fearing a loss in trade (I think that was almost a joke on Wyndham's part). All this laced with the sexual tension between Diana Brackley and Francis Saxover which doesn't get resolved until the very last sentence.

17. Ark, Stephen Baxter. This was very much along the lines of Baxter's NASA series of the 1990s, particularly Voyage. Flood was similar to Moonseed in that he had fun destroying the world, in Ark he has a group of people in a 'Big Brother with brains and money' competition to get a place on the spaceship that's going to save a few folk from the rising waters. On its own, this book wouldn't stand up since it pays very little attention to the flood-induced human tragedy taking place all around the construction site. However, given that Flood does exist, this is understandable. I imagine that a more literary treatment would involve putting the simultaneous stories into a single, albeit Pater Hamilton-length, book. That might also give more scope for character development and surprises along the way. The story is very linear with really only one surprise which I'm about to spoil. After the three way split at Earth II, why do we only follow 2 of the sub-crews? What happened on Earth II? Maybe that's the next book in the series? There's plenty of scope for it – setting up a new colony on a tidally-locked planet could be fun.

The characters are reasonable although they lack depth. The 'terrible choices' that have to be made in order for a project like Ark to work are covered in detail and you side with those making them, so that works. You know that the book will end with an Author's note pointing to some research paper somewhere that says warp drive is theoretically possible so and, being familiar with Natalie York and the crew of Ares 1 to Mars in Voyage, I expected the story to end when key characters made planetfall.

All in all, yes, I enjoyed this and it was the sort of novel that has ensured my pre-publication order for all his books since, well, Voyage. Maybe I'm getting older but I can't help but feel a little disappointed that the story wasn't more richly painted.

18. Bad Science, Ben Goldacre. I've been reading Goldacre's terrific Bad Science column in the Guardian for years so some of the material and all of the subject matter is familiar. The wholly unqualified Gillian McKeith, the odious Patrick Holford, the culpable Matthias Rath and so on. The joy of the whole Bad Science project is that it pokes fun at such ludicrous characters who deserve all the ridicule they get. The sad part is that, as Ben Goldacre says, they win. Every time, they win, due to irresponsible journalism and not just by the likes of Melanie Philips but proper journalists as well – who take no notice of their science-writing colleagues as they attack established evidence-based medicine for rejecting the 'wisdom' of 'brave souls like Andrew Wakefield.' Ignorance is everywhere and is praised for being spoken by someone in a white coat. And it's not going to stop.

19. The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins. Put aside the fact that Richard Dawkins' biggest fan is Richard Dawkins and this is a very good, accessible and well-written book. That 40% of Americans reject evolution is tragic and a blot on that country's education system. The figure in Britain, while lower (28% from memory, the book isn't to hand) is scarcely anything to be complacent about. So, yes, it really is necessary and indeed useful to collect together the mass of evidence to support the statement that evolution by natural selection is a fact, in the way that the heliocentric model of the solar system is a fact, and not an idea or an opinion in the way that, say, 'the NHS is a good thing' is.

What I take away is that evolution by natural selection is:

And yet there is a significant number of people, otherwise intelligent people, who reject it. Why is easy: because they believe that their religious text trumps everything. How? That's what gets me. What is the mental process that says “you have proved x to be true beyond reasonable doubt and yet I choose not to believe it.' The same is true (as has been pointed out many times over) of Holocaust deniers, HIV causes AIDS deniers, climate change deniers and so on. There is a mental process at work here that allows the obviously crass untruth to conquer reality.

Dawkins' section on plate tectonics – sorry, the theory of Plate Tectonics – that caught my eye. Do creationists doubt this? Actually, strangely, they seem not to. All they ever go on about is fossils, always looking for the 'missing link.' Provide real, tangible evidence of such a link and, from their twisted point of view, there are now two missing links either side of what you just showed them.

Dawkins sets out his stall in detail and is utterly compelling. But then, I never doubted the truth of what he was saying in the first place. I do, however, wish he would not deliberately up the ante. Yes, creationists are an irritation. Yes, they are dumb. Yes, they need to be told every day that they are wrong and stupid and need to grow up and generally fuck off 'cos they're just plain wrong at every opportunity. But you don't win friends by calling them history deniers.

That might be your next book professor. How people maintain false belief in the face of overwhelming evidence. But please do it in a way that doesn't alienate them along the way.

As an aside, I noted one particular sentence towards the end of the book that caught my eye for different reasons.

20. Sepulchre, Kate Mosse. Book club (Helen). This is not a great book, but I really enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed the atmosphere that Mosse conjures up in late 19th century France, the landscape and the people in it are all vivid. Unlike Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger, this book did allow me to suspend disbelief in the supernatural and enjoy the spooky bits. Like Labyrinth, it juxtaposes historical and modern times and I was, initially, tired of that formula. However this was a much easier read than Labyrinth and, for me anyway, it worked better. The 750 pages flew by. On the downside, the plot is scarred by too many coincidences and forcing of issues. When we discussed the book I was surprised to discover that two of the characters were also in Labyrinth – that passed me (and everyone else) by completely.

For a terrifically astute demolition job on the book, see John Crace’s Digested Read.

21. The Vesuvius Club, Mark Gaitiss. This was a Christmas present from Ruth and I wanted to read it before this Christmas came around. The blurb made it look funny and well worth reading. The endorsement from Stephen Fry a clear sign that it was of good quality. Oh dear… this is ghastly. My feeling throughout was that a teenage boy would like it, maybe a student, but really, once you get passed the age of finding cod 19th century upper class twittery amusing, this loses its appeal. Maybe the odd line here and there but it’s relentless, like hearing a child repeating the same joke over and over again. Ah well…

22. The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood. Reminiscent of the Hand Maid's tale, this is another near future story of dystopia. As with HMT we're focussing on a religion-gone-mad group although there's a wider context here based on genetic engineering, gated communities and the segregation of haves and have nots. Oryx and Crake appear as characters so I assume this is a sequel of sorts, it's certainly set in the same universe. The writing is superb and the pictures vivid. Excellent science fiction. I had to break off mid way through the read Small Island in time for the book club meeting.

23. Small Island, Andrea Levy (book club, Kate). A slow burn this one. As with so many book club books I didn't think I was going to enjoy it but in the end very much did. I had to put the Margaret Atwood book down to get this read in time which may have coloured my thinking a little but once I got into this book it was excellent. I enjoyed the UK sections more than the Jamaican back story and found the character of Bernard, the personification of racism, as appalling as I think I was supposed to. Having said that, he was a vessel for what was, AIUI, the thinking of the day so he wouldn't have been unusual. The book presents a study of racism, immigrants' false expectations, the attitude of post war society and the hypocrisy of war time need for help from wherever it could be found. The American GI comes across as being particularly racist but no more than the central characters' neighbours. The main Jamaican character, Gilbert Joseph, is a hoot.

Very much a Booker prize winning type story.

24. The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (Book Club – common consensus). Always enlightening to read the original to get the story you think you know into its proper perspective. Written in 1894 of course we're fighting Martians with horse-drawn canon, not nuclear weapons. And the vocabulary, like the landscape is dated, but it's recent enough to fit in with one's modern mental map of the world. I was struck by the reference to the towers of Crystal Palace for instance. But the basic plot is the one everyone knows – massively superior technology thwarted by Earth's microbes. Wells' Mars has no microbial life and no sexual reproduction. Having 'lost' at Earth, the Martians move on to Venus. The naivety of the these worlds is almost endearing!

25. The Thirteenth Tale, Dianne Setterfield. I bought this for Mum for Christmas some years ago (2006 I think) and then saw another first edition at half price at Waterstone’s in High Holborn and decided to buy it. I finally got around to reading it – and it is fabulous. A studious bookworm, very much a loner, is contacted by a dying and incredibly successful author (who sounds like a cross between Catherine Cookson, J K Rowling and perhaps someone with a bit more of a literary pedigree). The author, who has spun obvious fiction about her own life in every interview she ever gave, wants to record her real story. But the hired writer isn’t given an easy ride. She has to do a good deal of detective work along the way and uncover the substantial mystery of that life (and in so doing understand more about her own).

Terrific plot, very well written. I whipped through this.

26. Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers, Alastair Reynolds. I thoroughly enjoyed Thousandth night. It’s a novella from the same universe as House of Suns (and the same principal characters) which I thought was fantastic (although Adam Roberts didn’t think it was good as I did). Having read House of Suns, Thousandth Night is an easy read with familiar characters facing a bit of detective work, with much plotting and subterfuge amongst the members of the Gentian Line.

Minla's Flowers is in a different universe from any I've ready in AR before. He posits a character that goes to sleep for 20 years at a time and therefore gives us a series of snapshots of life on a planet whose future the time hopper has discovered is limited to 70 years. It's an OK story, written with AR's usual skill. I left this book thinking that it was a sketch for a bigger universe yet to be fully realised.

27. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (Christmas present from D). I had just about begun to read Adam Robert's I Am Scrooge (Zombie version of A Christmas Carol) but put it aside to read this. Hmmm… the third ghost book I've read in 2009 (Little Stranger and Sepulchre being the others). The good thing about this book, as with Time Traveller's Wife, was the characterisation and writing style. As other people have written in their reviews, the first half of the book – I'd say rather more than half actually – is very enjoyable. You get a good picture of the characters and their lives, all set against the obviously heavily-researched backdrop of Highgate Cemetery. Brownie points to (American) Prof. Niffenegger for the many London details.

Like TTW, the plot pivots on a very implausible basis. The time hopping in TTW would never be accepted in science fiction circles as it was way too far from possible but the strength of the characters, and their humour, carry the story along. The soul/body swapping in Her Fearful Symmetry seems way too outlandish for me and sadly the rest of the book isn't strong enough to quite pull it off. So all in all I'd say this is OK – but it ain't as good as I had hoped it would be having so thoroughly enjoyed TTW.

(Actually finished this sitting outside the caravan in Forest Park, Cromer, in bright sunshine surrounded by snow and ice on New Year's Day).