Books read in 2017

1. The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (requested xmas present from Debbie). Not as immediately gripping as Harry August, but excellent nonetheless. Where Harry August is reborn repeatedly, Hope Arden is immediately forgotten by everyone she meets, even her parents. This makes her an excellent thief. I thanked ‘Claire North’ (Cat Webb) via Twitter. The ‘risk a fiver’ line is a reference to her blog where she talks about spending time accepting praise.

2. Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall (xmas present, Debbie). Very interesting look at how geographical reality affects the wealth of nations. Why some countries will always be poor, others have an advantage etc. Fascinating stuff.

3. The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter. War of the Worlds part 2. Baxter manages to write convincingly in Wells’ style (enough to convince me anyway, he certainly isn’t writing with his normal voice here, no whir of pumps and fans in this one). The original ends with the Martians dying of the common cold. This one has no less a rapid resolution but I kind of saw it coming too early in the novel as the laying out of the ground was just a little too obvious for much of a surprise.

4. The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd (book club, Helen). It took me a while to get into this but 7 days’ almost continual travel does wonders for getting stuck into a book which turned out to be very good. I hadn’t realised that it was based on the true story of the Grimké sisters and their slaves – and how they were early abolitionists and feminists. The story is told through alternating short chapters from the perspective of Sarah Grimké and the slave given to her as a hand maid on her thirteenth birthday, Handful. Moving, harrowing, engaging throughout. Modern sensibility of course makes it impossible to comprehend slavery but here it was, spelled out.

5. A Place Called Winter, Patrick Gale (book club, Kate). An exploration of homosexuality, long before it was tolerated, let alone accepted. Beginning within the heavy social confines of middle class England, an element of the risqué is brought in via a sister in law in the theatre which leads to the first of two men who, although not especially powerful, exercise enormous power and influence over the protagonist in London and then in settler Canada. Lots of internalisation, hardship and suffering, but ultimately it turns out more or less OK. There’s a weird psychiatric hospital thrown in for good measure, a place where a dodgy psychiatrist seems to be developing theories on how to ‘cure’ homosexuality and/or criminal behaviour. It provides a story-telling device but doesn’t, I think, add a great deal.

6. The Good Liar, Nicholas Searle (book club, me). This was a Christmas present from Deb. I wanted to propose a thriller as my choice for the year so chose this one. It follows the life on a conman who spends his whole life cheating people out of their money. It begins with him in early old age meeting a new mark who I felt immediately was going to be the one who came out on top. His story is told through a series of sections that detail previous cons, going back further and further in time. I guessed that Betty, the new mark, was going to have been a previous victim, but there were sufficient surprises even so. Not bad. Not great, but not bad.

7. At the End of the Day, Claire North. The latest Claire North that explores life and death – more the importance of life and the inevitability of death. Being the Harbinger of Death is a job, administered from an office in Milton Keynes. There are Harbingers of famine, war and pestilence too – all ordinary people working for their supernatural bosses. Although the protagonist doesn’t have a special feature in the way Claire North’s other heroes do, he works for one who does. Lots of travel in this one. I suspect Cat Webb really has been to those places, including a Greenland glacier. I wrote a blog post about Claire North.

8. The Book of Tides, William Thomson (birthday present from Maz) I learnt a few things from this exploration of the tide as if affects the UK coast. The difference between the stream and the height being the main one. He goes off into a few bits I’m not so concerned about but then, I’m not a surfer. Some of the graphics a very helpful, others, well, there to make the book look nice. Physically, it’s a nice book, one that can easily be dipped into again and again.

9. Touch, Claire North. Her second novel that I had to get hold of. This one posits ghosts who can jump from one host to another and thus live indefinitely. Very much written as a thriller, this one has a big organisation that is trying to rid the world of ghosts who steal people’s bodies and lives.

10. The Ocean at the end of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (book club, Nickie). Short and a little weird. Not really my thing as it’s more fantasy than SF, with tears in reality, people who have been around for aeons with an unchanging outward appearance etc. I think I’d have to be more used to things like varmints, cleaners and the like to really get into this. It’s a genre piece – and I’m not familiar with the genre. It’s probably much better than I felt it to be.

11. Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen (book club, Gina I think). Jane Austen’s first novel is, as all her others, a commentary on society and how people with nothing to do simply must behave to one another. Not a page turner but gently enjoyable throughout.

12. The Leviathan Wakes, James S A Corey. This is the first in The Expanse series recommended by Tessel Bogaard at CWI who I know through the VRE4EIC project. I whizzed through the first 5 novels in short order. They’re not particularly good sci-fi (not particularly inventive, not particularly well written), but they are certainly good fun. Humanity colonising the solar system, enter ancient technology the creators of which have themselves been destroyed by an even more powerful alien force. I read the next four books in the series one after the other.

13. Caliban’s War, James S A Corey.

14. Abaddon’s Gate, James S A Corey.

15. Cibola Burn, James S A Corey.

16. Nemesis Games, James S A Corey.

17. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas. I took a break from The Expanse series on holiday finally to get around to tackling this long novel – al 1242 pages. There is, of course, a huge amount of detail, and, even reading it at a pace of around 100 pages a day, you still forget some of those details. The revenge is total and meted out with relentless accuracy, all under the noses of the people who wronged Dantès originally but who were too blind and too vain to notice until it was too late. Surprisingly, I felt, the narrative skips the period in which Dantès does his research and creates the characters of Abbé Busoni and Lord Wilmore, as well as the Count himself. In a modern thriller, that would probably be a central part of the plot with the execution much more rapid. Without that research period, one wonders how much is planned, how much is luck, and how much he had to actually do to nudge things in the intended direction, and how much was down to the victims’ own vanity.

18. Mad Girl, Bryony Gordon (Book club). Bryony Gordon comes across as the life and soul of the party and sounds like someone you’d instantly like. But then you’d have to be OK with excessive alcohol and cocaine taking to the point of regular oblivion. For me, that rather dwarfs the serious topic which is her own mental illness which she describes very well.

19. Babylon’s Ashes, James S A Corey – The Expanse volume 6

20. I Let You Go, Clare Mackintosh (book club, Ali). Enjoyable police story interwoven with the suspect’s story. Nice twist in the whole story telling, which was good. Impossible not to compare with the Helen/Rob story in the Archers since coercive control, or something like it, is also a theme. Mackintosh is an ex-police offer herself so, unsurprisingly, the police aspects seem genuine.

21. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson Flooded New York – but still New York. This is KSR’s campaign against climate change and corporate greed. Not a page turner but well plotted and worked out. Only weakness is number of key people who happen to live in the same building – and he makes a reference to this ‘coincidence’ in his own text. Significantly better than his Science in the Capital series.

22. Dead Simple, Peter James. I heard Peter James on Meet the Author and thought I’d give his novels a try. The police procedural aspects are good and enjoyable, but the protagonist is a believer in the occult etc. and uses meetings with soothsayers to help with the investigation, decisively in the end. No.

23. Eileen, Otessa Moshfegh (book club). Short but intense novel about the early life of a woman whose life divides into ‘before and after.’ Dark, miserable, but highly engaging and full of interest. Really enjoyed this, although many in the book club didn’t. Frustrating not to learn more about Eileen in later life, but the complete break between the two parts of her life is the point. The character of Rebecca is central although her active participation in the story is surprisingly ephemeral. The ‘before and after’ is really ‘before and after Rebecca.’

24. The Three Body problem, Cixin Liu. I’d picked this up a few times and not gone any further, but I saw that Gregg Kellogg had read it recently and decided to give it a try. Really good stuff. The Chinese angle adds another layer that Westerners need to cope with – which is a good thing. I was put off by the references to being inside a computer simulation, but that’s only a small part of the novel and fits in perfectly well. Unfolding an 11 dimensional proton into a 2-D membrane so you can etch circuitry onto it and thereby give it sentience, then wrap it up again and sending it at near light speed – terrific thinking.

25. The Miner’s Girl, Maggie Hope (book club). The final book club book for 2017 – we got through them all (I even included the Count of Monte Cristo). The book club folks looked at my copy and said – looks like Catherine Cookson. Yes it does. Misery, poverty, injustice, dashing young doctor, casual rape… All that.

26. Conclave, Robert Harris. Nice easy read set against a detailed backdrop within the Pope-electing conclave. Sort of a who’s going to get it, rather than a whodunnit. Immediately wanted to go on to his new one, Munich, but thought I’d better mix things up a little.

27. The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts. As with the previous, this is sort of a “I really ought to have read last year’s novel by Adam Roberts since his next is already on the shelf.” Not a page-turner and, sorry, not a fun read. But… this is Adam Roberts so it’s very good, if you can get your head around all the Kantian philosophy. There are a couple of chapters where he goes off into all kinds of weird, one in particular, but it’s all part of the underlying issue of whether the universe is as we see it because that’s how it is or because we cannot conceive it in any other way, i.e. what is the thing itself?

28. Munich, Robert Harris. And so to Munich. I don’t know how many of the characters in the story are reflections of the staff who took part in the September 1938 summit in Berlin but the principals are all correct so one can assume that probably everyone was, except the old university friends around whom the narrative revolves. As ever, I felt I learned a lot about the meeting, what led up to it and how it proceeded, in particular, Chamberlain’s motives. Enjoyable, certainly, but not a page turner in the way Conclave was.

29. Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre. This was a Christmas present from D and a real surprise as I’ve never heard of this Scottish author of crime novels and sci-fi. This one is both of those genres in one and very enjoyable. There’s the rather predictable underground life aboard a big space station, the power play between corporations and governments and, disappointingly, a hacker who can break into any electronic system. Add in a bent police officer and a straight-laced new broom and see what happens. Except of course there’s more to it than any of that, with memory implants and more. Good stuff – no doubt I’ll be looking out for more from this Scottish author.

As I finished it on the afternoon of 31 December, I guess that’s it for another year.