Books read in 2012

1. Gilead, Marilynn Robinson (Book Club). So, so slow and so, so dull. Couldn't read past the first third. There are so many more books I want to read…

2. The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley. I'm catching up on recording these so I'm having to think back a way. I enjoyed this trilogy. Sufficient depth and intelligence to make it interesting, well thought out plot lines with multiple strands – good stuff. The idea of deeper layers of hyperspace, essentially old cold universes going down and down was not one I've come across before. Ancient evil trapped by ancient wars where good eventually triumphs is more of a mainstream. But a story well told. I'll enjoym more of his stuff.

3. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick (Book club, me). I started to read this a while back and couldn't get into it so I put it forward for book group – and thoroughly enjoyed it (no one else did sadly). The Axis powers won in '45 and the world is divided between the Japanese half and the German half the central USA as the neutral zone. My reading of it was to think of it as a tale of life under occupation where the resistance, the desire for freedom and self-determination, is so strong that it will always win – eventually. The style is not very easy to read, but it's a highly intelligent and interesting book.

4. Blood Guilt, Ben Cheetham (Book club, Elaine) This was chosen by Elaine based on the fact that it was the top of the best sellers on Amazon's eBook-only list. There's a reason why it doesn't have a proper publisher. Badly written, wholly non-credible plot. Lesson learned.

5. Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds. The first of a new series from Reynolds, the first of his new million pound contract with Gollancz. And it's terrific. Interestingly, the Earth base is Africa – a prosperous, politically stable Africa. The story centres around a family whose matriarch founded a space infrastructure company – elevators, Moon and Mars bases etc. Evolving machines, the world under total surveillance and where everyone has implants that allow that system to prevent you committing any crime. Hmmm… this wasn't the centrepiece of the plot which is surprising. You'd think there would have been more resistance to that – well, maybe in future boos but not this one. This is all about what the matriarch knew and what she did before she died. As ever, first class from Mr R.

Aside. I was supposed to read The Help (Kathryn Stockett) for Book group but, ashamed to say, I didn't even start it, let alone finish it. Reading has been slow, I was enjoying the Alastair Reynolds and, well it didn't look like something I'd enjoy particularly so I didn't put the AR down to read this. Interestingly, this was on the heels of Gilead which was the first book group book I didn't finish. next meeting, I hadn't even started it. Bad. Hence, I made sure I'd read the next one well in advance…

6. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Paul Torday (book club, Gina). Debbie read this some years ago and said that it would be a good one for the book group. Very enjoyable indeed. A fisheries expert is taken from abject rejection of the stupid idea to being forced to undertake it to be being blamed for its failure to being praised for its success. Witty from start to finish with a nice bit of political spin thrown in.

7. The Turin Shroud Secret, Sam Christer. Debbie bought this for me for my birthday and it looked good on the outside. Well they say never judge a book by its cover. Utter, utter dross from start to finish. In the running as the worst book I've read (no better than the Ben Cheetham thing above).

8. Germania, Simon Winder (birthday present from M&D). Very enjoyable and readable journey through German history. The narrative assumes you know the basics already (which I don't) – either that or it wants you to go and read more – which might. It takes a broad brush from the founding of Charlemagne's the Holy Roman Empire through to 1933. Charlemagne was born in what is now Belgium but that's life. I took me a while to get through and I broke off a couple of times to read the next two, but it was easy to pick it up again.

9. Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre (book club, Tricia? Helen?) Best book I've read for years. Absolutely amazing writing. Reminiscent of the Catcher in the Rye in terms of subject matter but the writing just makes you stop and re-red some of it, such is the power of the language in places. definitely one to read again one day.

10. Strip Tease, Carl Hiaasen (book club, me). I picked up a signed first edition of this a while back and thought the group might like it. It's the one that was made into a film with Demi Moore – which I had forgotten when I suggested it. I think I may have seen it, I'm not sure, but the book is classic Hiaasen. Always amusing, often very funny, it's a great read through the swamps of Florida.

11. The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Interesting. The basic premise, that you can step between an infinite number of parallel versions of Earth, is classic Baxter in many ways. But this is definitely funnier and easier to read than Baxter's normal style and that can only be Pratchett's influence. It was more of a stretch than normal for Baxter – i.e. a little soft for the hard SF master – but a book I managed to read within a week, albeit a non term-time week that began with the Rendlesham weekend (in Dunwich). A nice easy read that was fun, but it's not in the same league as some of Baxter's other work (I;ve not read any Terry Pratchett so I can't compare his other work).

12. Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams (Father's day present) Really enjoyed this trawl through the elements. I learned many snippets such as that the Sandwich islands, cf. the South Sandwich Islands, are now known as Hawaii and that, yes, the €5 note (if not the others) contains inks based on salts of Europium. The elements were not presented in order, but groups together in terms of their human associations, beginning with gold and platinum and ending with a trip to rural Sweden to a mine from where many rare earths were first isolated. The only tiny niggle is that the book didn't actually include a Periodic Table of the Elements. I wish it had – I kept looking for it.

13. 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson. This year's summer holiday treat book… that fully met hopes and expectations. The ideas of a city on rails on Mercury, a terraformed Mars, and of many hollowed-out asteroids are not new of course, but Robinson stitches all these together in such a convincing way with such through and depth that, as with his Mars trilogy, you just know this is how it's going to be. There are several familiar Robinson ideas, notably extended lives and people enjoying swimming in the Hellas Sea on Mars, but that just helps you feel at home in his universe. I wasn't sure about the lists and extracts – but they work really well, providing an "information dump" so that the story itself is not encumbered with "tell me how we got here originally" style dialogue. Definitely one to read again some time.

14. Fifty Shades of Grey, E L James (Book Club). The rage du jour. Just graduating ostensibly sensible girl who appears never to have had a boyfriend, falls for obscenely rich, good looking 27 year old business man who turns out to be heavily into domination. I found neither of the main characters to be remotely plausible or likeable. The writing was bland and uninspiring and I rattled through it so I could get onto something better. What the book club women will have made of it I can't guess. I don't think it's porn as such, but it does contain a lot of sex told from the woman's perspective and I assume it is therefore female fantasy so maybe it is (female) porn? Dunno – will have to wait and see what the others think. I'm keeping it out of young people's eyesight.

Coda – my supposition was incorrect. David Austin at the BBFC tells me that no, it's not female porn which is far more graphic with more build up. The rest of the club seemed to enjoy it, several went on to read the other parts of the trilogy. My copy went in the recycling bin.

15. A Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (Book Club). Short and sweet. I managed to read this within 24 (holiday) hours. It's split into 2 parts, the first of which has the narrator telling us about his school days, particularly about his 3 close friends and his first proper girlfriend. Part 2 sees him in retirement and looking back on his adult life when, out of the blue, he gets a bequest in the will of the girlfriend's mother, 40 years after he met her for one weekend. From there he struggles to work out and find out why this has happened and it's really about the contrast in the lives lead by him and Veronica. This is Julian Barnes so of course the writing is superb. In a compact book he includes more insight and interest that the Fifty Shades trilogy (will the girls decide to read books 2 and 3? Possibly…)

16. Double Cross, Ben Macintyre. Very interesting account of the deception played on the Nazis over the D Day landing. As ever, ban Macintyre tells his story well with masses of detail without going off at a tangent – and that's a real skill he has. The story is not as compelling as Operation Mincemeat. It's much more about mostly unlikeable characters who you could barely trust to go and post a letter, let alone carry out subterfuge on behalf of a country but that's the nature of the beast. There are a lot of names to get used to and I didn't manage to recognise them all consistently, but Macintyre helps you along.

17. Iron Winter, Stephen Baxter. The end of the trilogy. All the centres of power crumble in the face of the advancing ice and crop failures. Key characters leave Northland and travel across the old world so we are taken through various places that seem half familiar. Actually, this is slightly irritating. I spent a lot of time trying to work out what the modern day equivalent of some of the places were (Daidu = Beijing for example). Nothing wrong in this except that it makes it harder work to keep a mental track of where everyone is on the map when all the familiar place names are changed. But then that's a central point of the trilogy: what would have happened if Northland had existed beyond the melting of the ice in the stone age?

It's a harsh environment as people turn on one another to survive. many loyalties betrayed and people sacrificed for the greater good and all that. As ever, Baxter is plausible from start to finish and the writing is always good.

18. Grievous Angel, Quintin Jardine (Book club, Tricia?). A quick look along the shelves at Waterstone's shows that Quintin Jardine has been writing crime novels featuring Bob Skinner for many years. This novel is his latest although is chronologically before all the others. It's a writer going back to fill in the history of how his creation's character was formed. Not having read any of the others, I can't measure it against them and there are one or two places where it seems Jardine assumes you know more about Skinner's later life then is the case for me.

Bob Skinner seems a fairly typical Edinburgh policeman – or rather, typical fictional Edinburgh policeman. Wife deceased, in and out of relationships, wedded to the job and all that. He has a softer side, mostly reserved for his 13 year old daughter. And there's a whole Edinburgh gangland where he knows everyone and the bosses are untouchable. The narrative is satisfying without being too complex to follow and I think I can piece together how all the pieces fit together. I hope I can still do so in 4 days' time when we get together to discuss it.

19. Great North Road, Peter F Hamilton. As always, Hamilton serves up a huge treat. nearly 1100 pages of well crafted story. This one is a single, if multi-faceted, mystery. The police are not seen as buffoons, rather as being competent and diligent. There are mega-corp machinations, people who aren't who they seem to be and a gradual reveal as the end draws near. You can imagine Hamilton working out exactly when to reveal what as the plot rattles along. The leading female character is reminiscent of Night's Dawn primary habitat/persona (I'd have to look up the name). The male characters are credible, likeable, flawed, effective. There are clones, longevity treatments, inter-planetary travel via trans-spatial gateways and even the odd space ship. One thing is constant in Hamilton's universes – the ability to interface with the future version of the Internet through implants. In Night's Dawn it was called datavising, in this stand alone novel it's called the transnet. I have little doubt he's right about that particular aspect of the future.

One to read again one day – I'm sure I'll enjoy it as much as I did this time.

20. The Guilty One, Lisa Ballantyne (Book club, Elaine). This has childhood trauma as a theme. A solicitor who himself had been fostered and has a troubled childhood defends a troubled child and so there's an interplay between the who childhoods. I was making my way through it it but only got about half way when we had the meeting and didn't return to it afterwards. Everyone praised it.

21. The Thread, Victoria Hislop (Book club, Ali, Father's Day present). The latest Victoria Hislop story has the same feel as her previous works. A very detailed twentieth century history told through the stories of individuals. The history of Thessaloniki is remarkable with the population swap with Turkey, the Nazi occupation and shipping off of the Jewish population and then the Generals. Thessaloniki has a tradition of needlework and that gives Hislop the background for her characters – it works well.

22. Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. I was surprised to see this listed – I missed it when it came out so I was relieved to be able to find a (signed) first edition several months after publication. I think I've enjoyed his books more and more with each one. This one presents a series of locked room mysteries, character revelations and subplots against a background of a solar-system wide dictatorship based on a hierarchical tyranny. As always, the writing is absolutely superb, the story construction brilliant and the ideas inspired. He really is very, very good. The method of escape from the asteroid prison is not one you'd think of – it's been going round in my head ever since.