Books read in 2010

1. The Clue Bible, from Footlights to Mornington Crescent, Jem Roberts (Christmas Present from D). This is a very detailed biography of Britain's best-loved radio comedy. As such, it's a little heavy going in places and not a quick read. However, the many extracts from scripts mean one is constantly giggling. I hadn't realised the close relationship between Python and the Goodies but all that, and more, is laid out in detail going back to the days when Tim Brooke-Taylor, Greame Garden and John Cleese were in the Cambridge Footlights. Add in Bill Oddie and the inevitable references to David Frost and peter Cook and the story fits together. What's clear is that the modern I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue really only began in 1995 when Jon Naismith brought in Iain Pattinson. Prior to that it seems almost a surprise that the programme continued as it didn't stand head and shoulders above the rest in the way that it has done in more recent times.

The book goes into the many programmes that preceded it (Hello, Cheeky for example) and there is a lot of detail about its immediate forerunner I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Similarly there are references to its many spin offs. A solid record of the programme with enjoyable snippets – but it isn't a book you'd read unless you remember your childhood games of Mornington Crescent, have wasted happy hours playing Hunt the Slipper or creating new entries for the Uxbridge English Dictionary – and certainly not one you'd read without due deference to the might of Humph's chairmanship or Samantha's point scoring.

2. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (book club, me & Helen). Booker Prize winner, much acclaimed and deservedly so. Absolutely first class, superb book. It evokes the conversations that Cromwell might have had with all the usual suspects: Norfolk, Suffolk, Brereton, Lady Carey, More and, of course, Henry, Anne and Katherine.

That said, it’s not an easy read – you need to pay close attention to who is talking (there is a huge amount of dialogue) and it’s not uncommon to have to go back and reread a passage. You need to put some effort into reading Wolf Hall but it’s well rewarded. What I can’t tell is what people will get out of it who are not familiar with the story of Henry’s divorce. How much of the story would you understand if you didn’t know it already?

And Wolf Hall? Cromwell lived at Austin Friars for most of the story. More at Chelsea. When Anne is ‘secure’ as queen with Elizabeth at Hatfield and the miscarriage fading from forebrain, Fisher and More have had their appointment with the executioner, the court goes on its summer procession. Nothing too hasty. There’ll be plenty of time to call in on friends on the way home. Wolf Hall is on the way – home of the Seymours.

3. Weaving the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. It's showing its age but still worth reading for the historical context. Some of what Tim says has now come true – actually a remarkable amount of what he says has come true, but one or two bits are (with hindsight) off the mark. One reason for reading this was so that I wouldn't feel quite so bad when asking him to sign it, which he did on the W3C Team day: 20/3/10.

4. The Winter Ghosts, Kate Mosse (Christmas present from D). A short book in the same vein as Labyrinth and Sepulchre. I read this on a trip more or less in a couple of days. Easy reading, enjoyable but rather more predictable than I like. Whether that predictability would be so obvious if I hadn't read the others I'm not sure.

5. The Last 10 Seconds, Simon Kernick (birthday present from D). An undercover policeman on the edge of morality and legality. It felt like a TV police show from the start rather than a book – but then I like those so that’s no bad thing. I read it at every opportunity (short chapters help with this) and it's worth a look. Great literature it ain't, but it's none the less enjoyable for that. A tad predictable, a tad far fetched but well, it's a police thriller…

6. The Return, Victoria Hislop (book club Ali I think). Excellent. An absorbing read, especially when Hislop finally gets us into the meat of the story which is the story of the Spanish Civil War. The story around that (of an unfulfilled woman with a boring husband finding adventure) is pretty weak, as was the similar set up for the Island, but the main sequence of the book is superb. Plenty of colour and detail, with a sense of the loss for most, the broken lives of many and the bravado of a few. Read the final few pages on the Brussels metro en route to a project review meeting at the EU…

7. The Bible, The Biography, Karen Armstrong. I’d heard about this book some time ago and have poked around various second hand bookshops looking for it but in the end it came as a birthday present from Mum and Dad. I thought it would give an account of how each of the books in the Bible was written, how the canonical texts were selected and so on. That’s not what this book covers. Much of it is about one earnest man or group after another throughout the last 2,500 years or so studying the text, interpreting it, rewriting it, claiming that their way is the only way to understand it and so on. For me it gets most interesting in the final chapter on modernity and the epilogue provides an excellent summary.

As Armstrong emphasises throughout, the idea that the text provides a literal account of events is very modern. It only really came into play in the late 19th century as a response to yet another interpretation of the text known as Higher Criticism. American conservatives decided that this interpretation was way too liberal and did not give the biblical text the integrity it deserved. For what was left of the 19th century, Higher Criticism was the bogey man. It wasn’t until 1925 when Williams Jennings Bryan came along to prosecute John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee that Darwin became the number one bogey man. From 1859 to 1925, Darwin was simply not an issue for religious thought, any more than it is for the majority of people today.

The biblical text didn’t become ‘scripture’ for a couple of centuries until after it was written and rewritten. It never has been the perfect, immutable, word of God for most religious people and those that do see it this way are a very recent mob. Denialsim is central to the religious fundamentalist who sees the Bible as providing literal truth since the book itself is, of course, full of contradictions. The creation myth in chapter 1 of Genesis is well known. What’s less well known is that chapter 2 provides a completely different creation myth. It is only possible to be a religious fundamentalist if you can edit out the bits of the Bible that don’t suit your cause and create a canon within the canon.

As an atheist I am always wondering why anyone believes in their religion (all religion strikes me as utterly absurd). Armstrong’s book helped me to understand a little more in that for the overwhelming majority of religious people through the ages, the Bible is a text to be interpreted and understood in all sorts of ways that fit the particular reader’s circumstance. For them, the Bible is a living text that you need to internalise in some way rather than see as a textbook. Modern mainstream religion is as critical of religious fundamentalism as it is of fundamental atheism and a lot of people are, understandably, upset when atheists tell them that what they believe is nonsense – not because they think that what they believe is nonsense but because they don’t believe the specific nonsense of which they are accused.

Armstrong’s text is short, scholarly and readable, packed with references and erudition. However you interpret it, it’s well worth a read.

8. Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds. Reynolds very much on form here. The novel provides something of a diversion from his normal fare in that we don’t leave earth. There are no spaceships (lots of blimps but no spaceships). But the imagination and scope that makes is writing so thrilling is all there. He does a fact dump about two-thirds of the way through when he (helpfully) explains what happens in the different zones that are a central feature of the story. Each zone can support technology up to a certain level and no further. Take a high tech device into a low tech zone and it ceases to function. Since the zones are arranged up an enormous God-scraper height = technological advance but it’s not that simple.

Classic sci-fi storyline really – we have a protagonist coming to terms with the world that is as strange to him as it is to us. The equilibrium is disturbed and not quite restored but we get close enough. There’s room for further development in this universe if Reynolds chooses to take us there but he could equally leave it all behind and start something fresh.

9. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman. As Pullman makes clear, this is a story, not a challenge. It sets Jesus up as a charismatic leader whose brother, Christ, follows him around and writes down what he says. There’s a bit of skulduggery with Christ making a few bits up to make it read better and so on. Inevitably there will be a minority of people who find it offensive from the title onwards but for the vast majority of people, believers or not, I can’t think this is going to cause much of a stir. I may have missed something but this didn’t strike me as a great read. It was OK, I’m glad I’ve read it, but it’s not great.

10. The Shack, Wm Paul Young (Book club, Tricia I think). I guess if you’re religious this might be a book that instils some sort of positive feeling. For atheists like me, who read it because their book club chose it... hmm…, let me see if I can sum it up in a single sentence. The Shack is 250 pages of over-sentimental, turgid American religious clap trap dissolved in creationist stomach juices. Avoid.

11. The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova. A very welcome good read after a couple of not so good ones. I thoroughly enjoyed the Historian – which, refreshingly, this was nothing like. Very well written with a lot of character depth, an imaginative and rewarding juxtaposition of human personality and artistic composition, all wrapped up in a (admittedly not very mysterious) mystery. Good stuff.

12. Denialism, Michael Specter. This appears to be a book of two halves, well, maybe two thirds and a third. It’s clear that Specter’s area is life sciences and he gets suitably annoyed by the anti-vaxers, homeopaths, promoters of the idea that to feed the world you just need to deliver an organic veg box once a week and HIV causes AIDS deniers. For the first two thirds of the book the irrationality of the denialists is exposed for what it is. Specter describes how in recent times (say, the 1970s) the scientific method and the results it has produced were taken with little question. The Apollo moon shots were a classic example of the public believing in science and wishing it well. But as the gap between the depth of scientific understanding and the public understanding of science has grown, so has the mistrust. Now we see a public that is so ignorant of even basic science, let alone the advanced science of genetic engineering, that the science that makes the headlines is seen as little more than a conspiracy of big industry and government against the little people. How can x thousand parents be wrong when they say that their child became autistic after receiving a vaccine? Don’t they have a right to be heard just as much as the scientists? Well, of course they have a right to be heard. But that doesn’t make them right. Until they have understood the general scientific method and the very specific detail of the subject matter at hand, those views simply do not, and must not be allowed to, carry equal weight. That’s a fact that some people seem to find impossible to accept. Hence they deny what has been proven beyond any rational doubt. Whether deep down they know they’re wrong one can only guess but the signs are, worryingly, that they really do believe they’re right, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Climate change deniers and creationists get dishonourable mentions as fellow deniers of reality but it’s the life science deniers that are the focus of this book. The section on GM food is interesting. Although a green movement supporter for many, many years, I have never personally subscribed to the anti-genetically modified food lobby. It seems obvious to me that we have a technology with the potential to feed many more people than we currently do and it is ill-informed prejudice, as much as reasonable concern, that is holding back its widespread adoption. Guess how many people, or indeed habitats, have been adversely affected by GM crops? That’s right: none. Not one. Ever.

Although Specter attempts it, I don’t think he really gets to the bottom of why denalisam is so rampant. Maybe that’s more of a topic for a psychologist (or psychiatrist?) than a science writer.

The final third of the book seems to go off topic a little. Specter talks at some length about the (amazing) advances in genomics and assesses the proximity of our world to the one depicted in the film GATACA, i.e. one where couples decide what genetic features they want their children to have and then order it from the clinic. Towards the very end there’s a discussion of Craig Venter’s project to create Synthia. As it happened, the announcement that Synthia has been successfully created was made more or less as I read the words (Synthia is a living organism containing entirely engineered DNA).

Overall, an interesting book and a good complement to Ben Goldacre’s (excellent) Bad Science. But there’s more to this phenomenon of denialism to be discovered. Today is the day when Andrew Wakefiled was finally struck off the general medical register in Britain. Melanie Phillips, climate change denying Daily Mail columnist, was, of course, reliably there today supporting the malpractice of Wakefield or, to give the ex-doctor his full medical title: Andrew Wakefield (copyright Ben Goldacre when talking about Gillian Mckeith).

13. New Model Army, Adam Roberts. One of the phenomena fostered by the Web is the Wisdom of the Crowds – the idea that, if people work collectively and pool their knowledge you can end up with something smarter than any one person can create on their own. The primary example of this is Wikipedia of course but there are others. Roberts takes this meme and applies it to the most unlikely arena – an army. Normally armies are run through a strict hierarchy where you salute anyone above you in the ranks and administer reprimands for anyone below you insubordinate enough to forget their place. But take that away, and apply a good dose of genuine classical Athenian democracy, and you have the New Model Army. Decisions are taken collectively via the wiki. The dispositions of friends and foes are mapped in exactly the way Open Street Map works today with anyone able to contribute to the data.

Adam Roberts blogs and tweets so he’s familiar with social media (follow @arrroberts for a stream of puns to pepper your day) and this is evident in the novel. But he’s also someone with literary erudition in every bone. He is, as is always noted, a professor of 19th century literature after all. On one level, you could see this book as another sci-fi dystopia – and, yes, it’s that – but as ever, the writing is superb, the story construction compelling and the characterisation fulfilling. The opening sentence: “I am not the hero of this story” is true – the NMA itself is the subject, and one can imagine lesser writers taking that and using it as a pretext for hopping from one character to another, painting none of them, all in the name of focussing on the subject matter. Adam Roberts gives his narrating character a full history, personality and motive for his actions whilst still making the NMA itself the hero of the story.

I’ve read all Adam Roberts’ novels and they really are superb. Some of them are less accessible than others (‘On’ and ‘Polystom’ are seriously weird!) but from Gradisil onwards he seems to be retaining his hallmark skill of taking a single unusual concept and wrapping it into a novel of outstanding quality. Reading a book as good as New Model Army one cannot help but rail against the ignorance of the literary classes that eschew Adam Roberts (and Kim Stanley Robinson) whilst heaping praise on Margaret Atwood just because she has managed to convince the book world that she’s not a science fiction writer (she is) because science fiction writers don’t write ‘proper novels.’ All three produce first class novels as good as anything Hilary Mantel or Salman Rushdie has ever written. One can but hope that this will be recognised one day.

14. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson (book group). Terrific thriller. Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating and captivating heroine and this is a real can’t put it down novel.

15. Three Ways to Capsize a Boat, Chris Stewart. Short, light and fun. This was a Father’s Day present, coming hot on the heels of Tiki’s maiden voyage (of a few metres…). Introduced me to the name Tom Cunliffe whose guide to day skippering I’ve now bought.

16. The Girl Who Played With Fire, Steig Larsson (Book group). Again, excellent. Really couldn’t put this one down. The story whips along in true thriller style but the main character has a lot of depth. The secondary character, Blomkvist, could, perhaps do with a little more depth and there’s little or no depth to any of the others. But you barely notice. The big ‘reveal’ about Zala and the dénouement are terrific.

17. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest, Steig Larsson (book group). began reading this as soon as I’d finished the previous one. There is no gap in the timeline between books II and III, unlike between I and II.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series. Is it great literature? No, it’s a thriller. Lisbeth Salander is well drawn. We know a lot about her and her motives and she’s fascinating. The problem is that she’s the only character with any depth. The other major character, Blomkvist, is very 2 dimensional. Larsson doesn’t give you a reason to like him (or dislike him) - he just ‘is.’ Likewise the other characters. Erica Berger and the various police officers could all have a lot more to give. That would have made the books even longer but more rewarding for all that.

I feel something of withdrawal symptoms now it’s all over.

18. Stone Spring Stephen Baxter. Vintage Baxter and the start of a new trilogy with an interesting idea at the heart. I enjoy What if novels like Stephan Fry’s Making History (the Nazis without Hitler) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s the Years of Rice and Salt (a world without Europeans). If either of those is an ‘obvious starting point’ then Baxter’s is more intriguing – Britain not an island. Stone Spring is set around 7300 BC. If I remember my ecological training correctly that’s roughly when the land bridge between the island of Great Britain and the rest of Europe was flooded in a spectacular break through at what is now the Straits of Dover. But what if that hadn’t happened? What if what marine archaeologists now call Doggerland were never flooded? That’s the what if here. The story itself has a similar feel to several of Baxter’s earlier works – he’s dealt with early humans before (along with assorted other hominids). The story is plausible, with different groups interacting largely through necessity while early ideas about trade and agriculture are brought in. This is humanity just getting going. Well written as ever with plenty of detail and atmosphere to take you to that cold north-facing shore just west of the confluence of the Thames and the Elbe. My guess is that the next two books will focus on roughly the twentieth century and then goodness knows how much further into the future. Whenever they are set, I’m looking forward to them.

19. Stormy Weather, Carl Hiaassen. Maz leant me this. Hiassen was one of Cam’s favourites and she thought I’d enjoy this. I did. It’s a ‘comedy thriller’ – essentially the elements of a thriller taken to farcical extremes with just about everyone on the make, ending up in an almost Coward-esque final scene with everyone converging on a central location with everyone out to get everyone else. Written in 1995 it’s amazing how dated this story is. No internet, no mobiles – and yet it feels like it’s a modern-day story.

20. The Restoration Game, Ken McLeod. This novel has enormous potential. It has a terrific core plot. It has a terrific setting, a likeable lead character and more... and yet it is a huge frustration. Like Iain Rankin, Ken McLeod loves to describe Edinburgh and there’s a lot to describe. You know you’re in the hands of a local here. The central plot is based on an old sci-fi idea – but this book is essentially a mystery. There’s this big unknown ‘thing’ in an obscure part of the former USSR, around which legends have been built for centuries. There’s a peasant population kept in check by their overlords. There’s a bit of Soviet intrigue, post-Soviet intrigue, Georgian-Russian relations and more. By golly there’s enough here for a trilogy – and yet it’s all over in 300 pages. If you see a film of a book you’ve read, you’re always disappointed by how much gets left out of the film. Such is the case here – except this is the book!

I was reminded of The Historian, in which Elizabeth Kostova takes us on a fantastic journey through Eastern Europe, picking up clues as the protagonists search for the tomb of Dracula. Every character has a motive for their actions. In the Restoration game we get to know a bit about Lucy Stone, the main character, but not much. About her mother (a key figure) we know almost nothing. Her life alone could be one book – adding in a bit of details about Ross Stewart and the other men that came and went. Another key character, Klebov, could again be the subject of, if not a book in the trilogy, then many chapters. And hooking Lucy Stone up with a Kiwi boyfriend that stereotypically enjoys hiking just so she would have the necessary kit and experience to face her big moment? Agh! That really was a bit pathetic.

Ken McCleod’s books are all around the same page count but this one really did feel like it had been rushed. Perhaps he was up against a deadline. Pity, it could have been great.

21. The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. A richly atmospheric mystery story in Zafón’s beloved Barcelona. It has the feel of a ghost story throughout, complete with a cracking yarn. Set in exactly the same world as The Shadow of the Wind, Sempere & Sons booksellers and the cemetery for forgotten books both figure although there is no direct relationship between the two stories (or if there is, it’s too long since I read Shadow of the Wind for me to remember specific points of reference). Excellent stuff.

22. The Evolutionary Void, Peter F. Hamilton. And so the Void trilogy reaches its conclusion. More than 2,000 pages long, the trilogy is very much in Peter F Hamilton’s style with loads of different characters and planets whose names you have to try to remember. It’s rich and rewarding but it does take a bit of effort to get the full story. Actually the trilogy follows on from the previous 2-volume story of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained in which we first meet the Commonwealth, Wilson Kime, Gore and Justine Burnelli, Mellanie Rescorai (sp?) and more. And that’s a bit of a problem too since, as part of the whole future history, Hamilton refers right back to events in all of the 5 novels. I read all of his books as they come out so I read Pandora’s Star in 2004. Remembering detail from that far back is hard.

Throughout the Dreaming Void and the Temporal Void we switch between life in the Commonwealth on the outside and the pre-industrial world of Edeard on Querencia that we understand is inside the void. The latter is a threat to the entire galaxy as it devours everything in its path as it grows and yet the followers of Living Dream are determined to enter it for their religious reasons, thereby initiating a massive, galaxy-devouring, expansion. The end of the trilogy continues to build up the tension as forces gather to defeat the void (or be ready to flee the doomed galaxy). There are the good guys, the other good guys, the not-so sure guys, the obviously bad guys and some others too, all with their own agendas, strengths and weaknesses. There is a grand coming together, almost like a farce, with all the principal characters gathered in a single location and facing the ultimate win-everything or lose the galaxy moment.

Hamilton takes care to give his characters depth. We understand a good deal of their motivations, loves and losses, but it’s not done to excess. Even more detail could be provided but the complexity of the story, or rather the complexity of the overlapping stories all wrapped around a central narrative, is what leads to these books being 700 pages apiece. It’s a balance that Hamilton gets spot on in my view, compared with, for the example, Ken McLeod whose recent novel The Restoration Game was critically short of detail.

At the end of the hugely enjoyable Night’s Dawn trilogy I was massively disappointed by the ending. Hamilton’s got better at his endings. This one’s OK and does bring you to a satisfying, if rather too clean, ending. I love this man’s books: they’re a fantastic read with space ships, planets, wormholes, lasers, aliens, first-sentience, alien artefacts and more. There’s clearly scope for more stories to be set in the Commonwealth which might be the setting for his next book – or he may just reset the universe and start something new.

23. Beijing Coma, Ma Jian (book club, Elaine). Emphasis on the coma. Starts slowly, remains slow. I skipped the middle 300 pages and barely noticed the gap in my ability to follow the book. In theory it should be terrific. We are inside the head of a man in a coma who was instrumental in the student protest that ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre. But it just dragged on and on.

24. The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi. I bought this having seen a tweet from Gollancz – first novel and all that. Of its type this is very good. As the book proceeds, multiple layers are revealed to show that there are multiple factions trying to out-do one another. My problem was that I read this book too slowly to keep track of who was who. I think if I’d read it more quickly I’d have got more out of it. It’s hard core SF with very little explanation of what different terms mean – not at first anyway. It’s not my taste on SF but I can recognise that it’s a good ‘un.

25. In A Strange Room, Damon Galgut (book club, Kate). Shortlisted for the Booker prize 2010 and chosen by Kate, I believe, for its brevity (180 pages with lots of white space). It’s an interesting and evocative tale of a white South African’s travels in different countries. He meets a variety of characters of course and it’s his interaction with them that makes up the narrative. The locations are less important than the fact he is away from home. It’s beautifully done and you can certainly ‘feel the quality’ so to speak. The narrator is talking about himself – a younger self – and describes him in the third person, but not in a pretentious way. It only becomes obvious that the writer is ‘him’ about half way through. What I find difficulty with is that this person seems to be able to drift from one place to another for months on end with a ready supply of money earned from doing not very much. Journeys end with “the last two months on the beach” or whatever. How? Even if I could ever relax for that long, I’d never be able to afford it, and I don’t see how others do. It seems a very self-centred lifestyle to me and not one I could ever empathise with.

26. The Cobra, Frederick Forsyth It’s a Frederick Forsyth novel. Plodding prose, super-charged plot. Literature it ain’t. But it’s fun.

27. Beyond the Veil of Stars, Robert Reid This is nothing like the other novels of his I’ve read so I was a little surprised by it. A young man has had a largely unhappy childhood thanks to his Dad being a 1980s crop circle enthusing, UFO hunting chap and his Mum being out of the picture. It turns out that, although the UFOs aren’t real, the conspiracy theories aren’t all bunkum and he ends up being recruited into an odd planetary exploration group. A tad slow at times but the plot is a good one and Reed gives his characters well-drawn motivations for their actions. Not his most gripping novel but worth a read.