Books read in 2013

1. Origin, J T Brannan (Christmas present from Donnie/Debbie). The blurb makes this look like a good book. It's a real pleasure to receive a book that looks good that someone else has found for you and I began reading it with relish as soon as I could (while we were in North Norfolk for New Year). Oh dear. It is truly ghastly. Cliché follows cliché, ridiculous ideas and factual inaccuracies pile up to overwhelm wholly non-credible characters (she the stunningly beautiful NASA scientist, he the native American tracker who got just the right sort of special ops training needed to out-Bond 007. Awful.

2. Citadel, Kate Mosse (Christmas present from Donnie/Debbie). The third in the Languedoc trilogy. Audric Baillard remains the common thread with references to Trencavel's defence of Carcasonne that we heard about in Labyrinth. In this one, the modern day story is of French resistance and the ancient one a monk hiding a codex that causes a few problems. Lots of background on the Nazi occupation of the north, the south under the collaborationist regime etc. Very rich and plenty of detail and atmosphere. I'm enjoying it greatly and, of course, want to go back and read the trilogy all over again. One day…

3. The Life of Pi, Yann Martel (Christmas present from the family and book group choice by common consent). This has won many awards – it's the kind of book that does: extremely well written and reflective of its protagonist's life. Pi Patel's father runs the zoo in Pondicherry and so Pi grows up surrounded by animals. He decides to follow multiple religions which naturally raises a few eyebrows, not least with the various religious elders from whom he seeks information. The main focus of the book though is his post-shipwreck voyage across the Pacific Ocean in the company of a Bengal tiger who he has to teach to be subservient if he is not to become its prey. We learn how Pi survives in terms of gathering food and water as well as not being eaten. There's a weird section where he lands on an ecologically impossible island, which, for me, was the least credible part of the story. Until then I'd suspended disbelief sufficiently to accept that story could be real.

I enjoyed the book for the quality of its writing. Debbie and Donnie both read it before me and said they'd enjoyed it too. I have to admit though, I enjoyed Citadel more and I'm enjoying Dominion more now.

Coda: The book group went to see the live stage production of this in autumn 2022 - first class! It helped me understand the allegories throughout much better.

4. Dominion, C J Sansom. (Christmas present from the family). What a terrific and thought provoking book. We didn't sign a truce, we didn't just surrender, a lot of people fell for the whole Nazi ideology. I wrote about this separately.

5. Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell. The first Wallander mystery. This is perfectly respectable and enjoyable crime novel. Wallander is, of course, divorced but not over it, naturally his daughter doesn't talk to him and he's always at work. A murder is committed, there are false trails and, eventually, the mystery is solved. The character painting is fine, the pace is good and so on. What I can't see immediately is why this became such a hit. Maybe I need to read more.

Did I feel the same about the first Rebus novel? Let me check. Back in January 2008 I said "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." Hmm, no, I wouldn't say Faceless Killers was predictable. In fact the resolution is a little unsatisfying precisely because the game of "ah yes, I know who did it…" doesn't actually work in this case. But yes, we do get a lot of detail about Kurt Wallander so yes, I think I should read at least another to see how the character develops.

6. Intrusion, Ken Macleod. I put off reading this for a while following the Restoration Game which I see I read back in 2010 – so that's 3 years between Ken Macleod books. This one was much more satisfying and enjoyable. I wasn't left feeling that it was a sketch for something bigger. It's a very thought provoking novel about, in my current terminology, 'evidence based policy making.' If evidence says x is always a good thing, should it not be mandatory? The book is partly set on Lewis which makes for terrific mind pictures. Part of the work of the locals is to dismantle the now redundant wind turbines. He manages to do this without being a climate change denier. Overall, an excellent read.

7. God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens. Hitch's last words on religion. How it poisons everything, kills people etc. He makes powerful (evidence-based) arguments for all this and I agree with it entirely. It's more a polemic against organised religion cf. faith itself. The support of the catholic church for totalitarianism was particularly interesting I found. It's also noteworthy perhaps that books like this talk about religion whereas people like Karen Armstrong writes about faith. Lots of talking past each other…

8. The Betrayal of Trust, Susan Hill. Enjoyable, gentle detective story set in the West Country. Ostensibly about a cold case of a teenager that disappeared 16 years ago, the underlying theme throughout is of terminal illness and how to deal with it. This is one of a series of books by Hill featuring Simon Serallier. I'd happily read another. I got through this one during 4 days of travel.

9. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson (book club, Elaine). Thoroughly enjoyed this. It's a light hearted farce that races through the 20th century with elements of Inspector Clouseau for good measure. Allan Karlsson is the eponymous hero whose unlikely life story unfolds throughout the book. I'm sure everyone will have enjoyed it. Some laugh out loud moments but generally just a good feeling.

10. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Current best seller and talk of the town that I read during the course of my trip to Rio. There was a Guardian interview with (hard g) Gillian Flynn that made it seem even more well worth picking up. It's a well constructed psycho-thriller that has the protagonists battling with each other. Hard to write anything without giving plot spoilers but the title refers to the fact that early on the female lead, the girl, is indeed gone. The events leading up to it, the evidence, the subsequent events and so on, are the meat of the story. The main characters are well developed, the minor ones less so – which seems sensible. Very filmable with some plot twists and an ending that is one of several possibilities and not an overly obvious one.

11. Dark Eden, Chris Beckett. I heard about this when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award (beating Ken Macleod's Intrusion and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 among others). It is a little reminiscent of Lord of the Flies in that it tells the story of a group of individuals cut off from the 'adult world' – except most of them are adults. The planet that Beckett describes is a little odd in that it never sees daylight. It's not explained whether this is due to it being tidally locked or somehow bereft of a parent star – but that's a minor detail. Very atmospheric with plenty of detail throughout. Top notch stuff.

12. Cities in Flight, James Blish. I bought this years ago when we visited Maz one time. I can't recall if it was the day we went to Hay on Wye or another occasion but I remember Maz being there. I've picked it up and put it down many times since then but finally got around to reading it on a long haul flight… but I found it hard to carry on with. Yes, it's classic sci-fi and maybe if I'd read it in the 70s I'd have thoroughly enjoyed it but, well, SF has moved on. It stretched credulity almost to Jules Verne proportions and I just couldn't take to it. I got about half way through when I had that "you know there are better books on the shelf…" moment.

13. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice (book club, Helen). Not what I was expecting for some reason; I think was expecting something lighter overall although this is a light hearted book. It's set in the changing world of the 1950s with a war widow coping with the crumbling pile and children embracing the new world. The character of Charlotte is a little too extreme to be credible and there's a massive coincidence at the heart of it all which again stretches credulity but this is a pleasant enough book that has sufficient depth to maintain interest throughout.

14. Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel (book club, Helen again I think but common consent). As everyone has said of this book, it's a lot easier to read than Wolf Hall was. I think that's partly because I was much more in tune with what Mantel was doing, i.e. focussing always on Cromwell. Even so, it's a bit of a commitment to read it and dipping in and out you do lose the flow which is there if you read it in a short time. of course the writing is superb and the history richly painted. I'm sure we'll read the final one of the trilogy which, presumably, takes us to Cromwell's execution which I learned the other day was on the same day as Henry's marriage to Catherine Howard.

15. How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier. Hot on the heels of his gift of the RDF-logo egg cup, this was another unpexcpected present from Andrea Perego. He'd read it when he first starting working on INSPIRE at the JRC and it is indeed interesting. It reminded me a lot of Ban Goldacre's work but what struck me constantly was how out of date it felt. Written when the Web was very young, references to connected computers and GIS were almost as an aside in most chapters, Yes, you can lie with maps – and any other presentation of facts.

16. Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada. This year's big holiday read. It's a superb account of the fear under which Germans lived under the Nazis. How everyone was cowed into submission and of the people who were the functionaries of the state. The act of resistance carried out by the central characters is show to be futile which is the most depressing aspect – and the point of the book. The appendix describes the factual cases on which the book is based. A first class book.

17. The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith. Oh how I and many others wish I'd bought a first edition of this when it came out back in April. It's a very well written and well constructed private detective novel with all the usual features (of course he drinks, of course he's been thrown out of his home, of course he's in debt). The sidekick doesn't conform to the norm though in that she's intelligent and moves the investigation along without jumping to the same conclusion you did only to be corrected by the superior brain. When it was first published apparently the reviews said it was remarkably good for a first novel, perhaps too good. So when it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was a nom de plum J K Rowling, a mystery was solved (and she was mightily cross with the member of staff at her lawyer's firm who revealed it). Knowing that it's actually by her explains a lot about the role of the press and their relationship with celebrities that is a theme of the book. A very satisfying, page-turning read – the perpetrator was someone I had considered as a possible although, looking back, I was slow to see the motive which is, of course, right there in front of you the whole time.

18. The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers. I'm sure Jane Rogers wouldn't class herself as an SF writer but this is an SF novel. I found it in the SF section at Waterstone's but saw it also in the general fiction section. It won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2012 and was on the long list for the Man Booker prize in 2011 – I like those facts! It's a short book, just 240 pp, about a 16 year old girl facing a terrorist's biological weapon that has made pregnancy lethal. How she reacts, and the relationship with her parents, especially her dad, provides the narrative. Very plausible, although the independence of mind of the eponymous heroine and her ability to get on with life seems at odds with our own 15 year old so that stretches credulity for me a little.

18. Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson. Sad to say I gave up on this after about 100 pages (if that). It centres on a young man making his way in the (ice age) world, putting into practice what his father has taught him. There are clans and elders and arrows and hunts and… even KSR's skill can't make that interesting for me. I kept thinking of Wolf Brother, the Michele Paver series that Donnie liked when he was about 9 or 10.

19. The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Thoroughly enjoyed this, which I read mostly on a lengthy trip to the USA. It takes the Long Earth story on and is a real delight. I imagine it must be Pratchett's influence that introduced a couple of absurdities that made me laugh – Boson Higgs especially. Good fun. Hopefully there will be another.

20. The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones (Book club, Kate I think). This book, like The Historian (see 2008), was set partly in Hungary where I happened to be planning to go/going/in when reading this which made it all the more vivid. It invents an old Hungarian tale of shape shifters and adds in good old fashioned revenge to create an excellent narrative. There are goodies and baddies and goodies turned baddies which all adds to the fun. Very enjoyable.

21. Proxima, Stephen Baxter. Good to see Baxter very much on form. A bit of space travel, a new world to colonise, a bit of mystery physics and… hatches that connect worlds. Monoliths? Someone's been here before us. More to come in the series I hope.

22. Camp David, David Walliams (book club, I had a hand in choosing the author). I wish I found Little Britain funny but I really don't. And Matt Lucas comes across as being as much of an unlikeable character I imagined he was – except that Walliams praises him at every turn. Predictably enough it's full of famous names he knew and has worked with. And he's suffered greatly from depression which is no joke. His and Lucas' run in with Richard Osman, who I think is terrific, didn't endear me to him at all. Good book? He can write well enough and an autobiography doesn't leave a lot of room for invention. I wanted to know more about the series IO first saw him, in which the book reminded was called Attachments and featured a website called (domain name for sale 3/11/13).

23. On The Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds. The second book in the African/Akinya universe. Reynolds re-uses his idea of one person in many bodies that he's had in earlier novels; this time there are 3 individuals who pursue different strands of the story. The interplay between humans and machines (good and bad), the alien mystery – all superb stuff. The only slight problem I had was that read this too soon after Baxter's Proxima. Since both of them include ark ships heading for nearby stars, there were times when I was mildly confused about which universe I was in – but that's not the fault of the authors.

24. The Silent Wife, A.S.A Harrison. The blurb promised that this would be 'better than Gone Girl.' It isn't. The basic plot has a lot of potential and you can see the author trying to make use of the fact that the heroine is a psychotherapist to add background and colour, and we do see into the mind of the male protagonist, but it just feels too pedestrian. There's a good plot twist near the end with lots of potential for tension – which doesn't quite materialise. In the hands of a thriller writer, this could be a better book. But, well, Gillian Flynn's is better.

25. An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris. I'd only heard of the Dreyfus affair in very vague terms, knowing nothing about it. I heard a little about it when I happened to see an episode of Who Do You Think You Are that featured Davina McCall in which it transpired that an ancestor of hers had played a part on Dreyfus's pardon. The Robert Harris book takes us through the whole affair in which an innocent man (Dreyfus) was accused of being a traitor. After his conviction, to admit it was false would lead to more embarrassment that than the French establishment could tolerate so he continued to languish in gaol. Eventually he was pardoned (the real traitor was Esterhazy). So I learned a lot from this book that was immensely enjoyable too.

26. The New Republic, Lionel Shriver. Written just before We Need to Talk About Kevin but published much later, I saw this as a modern/cynical version of Scoop. An unlikely journalist is sent off to an obscure part of the world and joins the local hack community. The ghost of his predecessor haunts everywhere and him personally as he realises that there is no terrorist organisation, just a series of clever hoaxes. The unintended consequences are substantial. I really like the way Lionel Shriver writes – this was an easy read and something of a page turner but it lost no quality in being that. Good stuff.