Books read in 2011

1. The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown (book club, Ali I think). Ghastly, ghastly ghastly. Utter tosh about ancient knowledge being wrapped up in Masonic symbols and hidden in plain view.

On the plus side, this was the first book I read on the Kindle – something I like. Obviously it’s a very convenient way to carry a book around and, best of all, you can turn the pages one handed.

2. Map of a Nation, A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, Rachel Hewitt. This is the best book I’ve read in a long time. The subject matter itself is of interest, how it came about, the early mapping techniques and so on, but Hewitt’s writing is fantastic. There are a broad chronological narrative from William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland carried out in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 through to the eventual publication of the final sheet of the First Series in the mid 19th century. But around that basic chronology, she takes us in logical steps, telling the stories of different aspects of the work in a way that wouldn’t be possible if she’s adhered too strictly to the timeline. Clearly passionate about her subject, this is a terrific work of research and literature.

My only sorrow is that her next book is not a continuation of the story up to the modern day. There are several mentions of the 1935 re-survey – the one that gave us all the trig points – but we don’t get that story or how they decided to adopt contours (absent from the First Series which showed relief using hachures).

3. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom (book club, Elaine). Surprisingly, perhaps, I enjoyed this. I was worried, as were all the club members, that it would be a re-run of the Shack, full of American schmaltzy religion, but it wasn’t at all. It was an interesting take on the idea that key events and the people around them, shape our lives. The only mentions of God were there simply as a backdrop. This was a human tale of how a man lead his entire life in the same place, never realising his ambitions (although he did, of course, bring joy to many people).

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon (book club, Helen?). I’ve heard of this book, of course, and knew that it had received rave reviews (it was recently included in the one million book giveaway). But I’d not read it or known what it was about. I didn’t even know that it was a story told by an autistic boy trying to make sense of the world.

It’s terrific, really terrific. You warm to Christopher immediately and see the world as he does, question the world as he does and recognise how silly some of it is and how frightening it must be to anyone not able to cope in the normal way. There really is a curious incident of a dog that happens at night, and that is where we join the story, so it’s not an allegorical title. There’s a massive betrayal that becomes evident in the last third of the book and one wonders how any relationship could survive that.

5. Seeds of Earth, Michael Cobley. The first in a new trilogy. He’s not a new writer but he’s new to me. As the Iain M Banks quote on the cover says this is proper space opera with aliens and space ships and empires and robots and all the rest of it. It’s enjoyable sci-fi with lots of familiar ideas and he tells a good story but it’s the kind of book that the literati can readily cite as evidence of SF not being proper literature. The focus of the story is a planet that was colonised by one of three Ark ships launched from Earth to escape certain annihilation by relentlessly bad aliens. They share the planet, entirely peacefully, with a native sentient race who all live on the planet’s moon to where they in turn escaped 100K years ago at the end of a terrible inter-stellar war. With human help, the Uvovo return to the planet and begin to uncover the archaeological evidence of what happened.

And that’s when the Earth folk turn up who, as it happens, were saved from certain annihilation by becoming a client world of a bug bad empire… who want to get their hands on the weapon that defeated the baddies all those millennia ago. Oh, and one of the baddies from the inter-stellar war is still around too. So lots of concurrent plot lines and that makes it rich enough to be interesting. The writing’s good – the main characters are Scottish and are written as such. So yes, I enjoyed this. But I wouldn’t hold it up as great literature.

6. The Slap Christos Tsiolkas (Book club). Very interesting. Set in the Greek Diaspora of Melbourne, this tells the story of how a single incident affects the lives of a group of family and friends who were at the barbecued where the incident occurred (a young child being slapped by a man who wasn’t his parent). We’re lead to recall the slap through different perspectives and Tsiolkas hangs a lot of variety of that theme. I believe this will prove to have been popular when we discuss it.

7. The Orphaned Worlds, Michael Cobley. See, I told you I liked the first one in the trilogy. This is the second. Not much more to say other than, well, the story continues. We’re all set up for a big showdown in book 3, due in November. Incidentally, the first one I found when browsing in Waterstone’s so it’s a mass market papaerback. This one I read on the Kindle, even though I could have bought a first edition – if I’d had a first of Seeds of Earth I’d have gone for the FE of this but, well, it didn’t seem worth it this time. I wonder if I’ll regret that one day.

8. Deliver Us From Evil, David Baldacci (Christmas present from the family). A page turning thriller. Good fun from start to finish. About a vigilante group who happen to be after the same person as Baldacci’s character Shaw. Evidently he’s been in previous books but this is the first time I’ve met him. Set in the south of France and therefore reminiscent of the landscape used by Kate Mosse.

9. Winter In Madrid, C J Sansom (Book club). Excellent. Liked this a lot. Set in WWII, a young chap is invalided out of active duty and is sent to Spain as a) he speaks fluent Spanish and b) he is the ideal person to meet up with an old school friend, get to know him and find out what he's up to. The sub-plot is the British attempt to keep Spain out of the war Which we did by keeping up supply lines that Franco couldn't replicate). There were a couple of coincidences that weakened the plot just a little but not catastrophically. Assuming that this was based on facts, as it seemed to be, then it painted a good picture of Spain during the War and how the two sides both played off one another through the various factions around Franco. Good stuff.

10. Deep Navigation, Alastair Reynolds A retrospective collection of Reynolds’ short stories. Every one was a gem. Reynolds on top form.

11. The Other Hand, Chris Cleave (Book club). I was annoyed by the book's blurb being so secretive, obviously in the hope that you'll be so intrigued as to want to read it. The problem was that it told you nothing so, without any plot spoilers, it's about a successful woman who works in publishing and is having the affair that appears obligatory in modern novels. Her husband, a columnist, is deeply troubled by an event that brought the two of them together with a couple of young sisters on a beach in Africa. Interleaved with the modern successful woman's story is that of one of the sisters.

It's OK. I enjoyed it and read it pretty quickly. There's a biggish 'reveal' in the middle and it keeps one's attention. Sadly the English woman does seem awfully stereotypical for this kind of novel. The lifestyle, the kind of job, the inevitable and pointless affair (with an equally pointless individual who doesn't have any clue what's going on underneath the surface). The basic plot is interesting. The underlying emotional interplay is a rich one and that's good. I just wish that some of the characters were rather less predictable. In contrast, the African girl, Little Bee, is very interesting indeed.

12. Starborne, Robert Silverberg. Pretty standard old-school SF. We have an ark ship. We have a bunch of people living together at close quarters coupling with each other on and off and, because Silverberg is American, a constant theme of God and man's place in the universe. Not a bad book but, well, nothing great either.

13. Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre. I saw this on Mum and Dad's shelf and was intrigued. It's the true story of a very big deception played out successfully by Britain during the war. The level of detail that had to go in to setting up the deception and making it credible was immense. But even more interesting perhaps was the highlighting of human nature. People who are predisposed to believe something take little persuasion that it's true. Likewise, people that want to look good to their masters are likely to fall for a lie if it achieves that personal goal. As much as the careful planning and execution of a clever idea of floating a dead body ashore that just happened to be carrying all manner of top secret information, it was human nature amongst the Spanish and German characters that made it work. And perhaps the knowing connivance of an anti-Nazi German intelligence assessor.

14. Flashback, Dan Simmons. Having read and been thoroughly engrossed in and impressed by Olympos and Ilium, I was looking forward to this new Dan Simmons novel as my main summer indulgence. It's a post-apocalyptic world set in what would be my lifetime (one elderly character was pretty much born in the same year as me). We have the familiar themes of urban decay, streets ruled by gangs, incessant violence and the wealthy living in gated communities.

The problem with the book from my perspective is that Simmons appears to be using his novel purely as a right wing call to action. He blames the 2008 financial crisis squarely on the entitlement programmes of the Obama administration (notably health care reform so hated by the Tea Party of course), the hoax of global warming and anyone else that he and Glenn Beck might be able to think of as being the cause of the state we're surely going to be in. The book is 100% American – other parts of the world are largely dismissed as being part of the global caliphate that came in because Europe was too soft on its stance against Islam. And all the money in the world – literally – is in Japan or Japanese control. It's for that reason that I found it impossible to suspend disbelief in the way that Simmons had so comprehensively achieved previously. You probably have to be as much of a right wing lunatic as Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman to really enjoy this book.

15. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (book club, Kate). I had no idea what to expect when I began reading this. That's partly because it's a book club choice so I didn't have to decide whether to read it or not and partly because I read it on the Kindle and so therefore didn't pick the book up, read the blurb and so on, before diving in. I had no idea of the subject matter (it's about the memories of a woman born into a Brave New World-like system) and so it took me a while to catch on what the narrator was talking about. Soon it becomes plain although you don't quite get the full horror of it at any time. And perhaps that's the most horrific. In Logan's Run, most of the 30 year olds are happy to end their lives. Here, even the heroine is entirely accepting. No doubt bookshops will put this under fiction because it's written by Kazuo Ishiguro, but it's SF, just like Margaret Atwood.

16. Anti-Copernicus Adam Roberts (short story, Kindle only). Nice short story (only 4 chapters). We make first contact and it's with a bunch of aliens who won't come closer than the Oort Cloud. The reason is the centre piece of the book and, as usual, expresses an incredibly inventive idea that is Roberts' hallmark.

17. The Case for God, Karen Armstrong. This took quite a while to read. It is long, has an incredibly small typeface – and is very thought provoking. I plan to write a full piece about it for the website but in brief, Armstrong has no time for fundamentalists of any kind and emphasises that religion is something that you do, not something you believe. The word belief itself is a problem for her. Religions all share the same Golden Rule we're told: Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you." But throughout the book she uses historical references and quotes from any number of ancient people to say that "so and so never thought of God in terms of a separate being" and quotes people form whom the existence of something other than the physical is a given fact. She doesn't offer proof of God, indeed, the (ancient) apophatic idea is that no such proof can be forthcoming. This is repeated throughout the ages. And then, inevitably, she says that science can't prove anything either and cites Heisenberg as proof before making unfounded statements that science is becoming less certain. All that research, that careful academic rigour, blown apart.

18. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (Book club, Gina – because the Beckhams called their daughter Harper after her). I read this in high school and remembered the setting but no recollection of the core theme which is southern US racism. It's a true classic of course and rightly so. Absolutely beautiful evocation of the time, the attitudes, the surroundings, the people. I wonder if being a liberal intellectual in rural Alabama is any easier now that it was in the 1930s.

19. By Light Alone, Adam Roberts. I think I found even more in this book than any of his earlier ones, with the possible exception of New Model Army. Like all his work, this is a standalone novel that grows from a single, central and inspired idea. In this case, world hunger has been cured by the development of nanotechnology that means people grow photosynthetic hair. Rather than curing world hunger, it makes it 1000 times worse as it triggers a downward spiral. If you lose the need for food, you lose the incentive to work – so men literally sit around sunbathing all day. Women have an incentive to work as sunlight doesn't provide sufficient nutrients to enable them to become pregnant, and the desire to have children drives them on. Society descends into feudalism and, for the vast majority of humanity, utter poverty. The book uses various authorial voices to tell the story, and it's the underclass of course, not the obscenely rich who flaunt their wealth by not having the hair and eating real food, that earns one's empathy and respect. As ever, Adams delivers a terrific novel of the highest class.

20. Dark Matter, Michelle Paver (book club, Kate I think). As Donnie has read the Chronicles of Darkness series (Torak and all that), I knew the author's name. This book is advertised as her turn to writing adult fiction. I'm not sure if she made the transition – it's a pretty simplistic plot. Loner finds himself, rather improbably, on an expedition to Spitsbergen in 1937. The charter boat hired to take them to their destination doesn't want to go to the allotted place but is persuaded to in the end. Circumstances conspire to leave our hero on his own throughout the arctic night and, of course, the spookiness is all around. Largely predictable from page 1, it's impossible for me to decide whether this would succeed is being frightening for those who find ghosts credible enough to be spooky. Had the spook actually been real, surviving alone in the arctic for years without support – that might have been more impactful.

21. Bronze Summer, Stephen Baxter. Book two of the Northland series. Another enjoyable read from Stephen Baxter. This one has more interaction between the people of Northland and other parts of Europe. The Northlanders have to battle with more than the sea to survive. Iron Winter is due this summer. I'm a little surprised to see that it will be the last – this idea could be stretch well into and, in Baxter style, well beyond modern times. Ah well…

22. Fear Index, Robert Harris. Fun, easy to read thriller. Very much like the Forbin Project (ghastly 70s film, much laughed over with Auntie Maz). Set in Geneva with CERN as a bit player. Bound to be a film.

I think that's where 2011 ends but I could be wrong. I'm catching up on this on 29/4/12!