Books read in 2018

1. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon. This was my book club Secret Santa present. For the first time, we all put in a book that we’d either read and enjoyed or wanted to get around to reading. It wasn’t supposed to be a new one. It was Helen who put this one in and I see it was one of the biggest sellers of 2017.

2. Defectors, Joseph Kanon. Having just read Joanna Canon, I couldn’t resist turning to Joseph Kanon next. A typical cold-war era spy novel when the wall was still in place. Lots of questions about who was telling the truth to whom and what they were hiding. As ever, everyone was lying to everyone else – I think.

3. Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds. I admit that I’ve forgotten any relevant detail from the Prefect to which this is a sequel. I have an idea that there will be more in the series too. Any mystery with twins inevitably leads you to wonder which one you’re dealing with at any one time. Some of the plotting was rather predictable as a result but of course Reynolds is terrific and any of his books a treat.

4. The Power, Naomi Alderman (Book club, Kate). I quite enjoyed this although the others in the group didn’t. The underlying premise is: what would happen if women became more physically powerful than men? It’s achieved through developing an electric eel-like ability to shock and, not unimportantly, also gives women the power to cause an erection in a man and therefore to rape him. Alderman takes the view that society would implode and have to be rebuilt (by women). I’m not sure I accept that as the inevitable outcome but I do find the underlying premise intriguing. She tells the story through an odd mixture of women from around the world (and one man), only some of whom interact with each other directly.

5. The Scandal, Frederik Backman (book club, Tricia). I nearly abandoned this as it was so dull at first. It’s set in winter in a small town in Sweden that has nothing going for it but does have an ice hockey club with paid staff and one shining team member. They’re approaching a semi final and then final. The narrative takes us through the intersecting lives of the town’s inhabitants (Beartown) with the usual mix of teenage angst, adult lives, social class division and more. It starts with the fact that a teenager walks into the woods, puts a shotgun to the head of another, and pulls the trigger – and then tells the story of how and why this happened. By half way through it’s – finally! – getting interesting and the final few chapters are very good (basically you want to know who is going to shoot who). So, eventually, this was very good – but it took some effort to get there.

6. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson. I wanted to read this as it has the same basic idea of a life relived that I enjoyed so much in the First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Very little is made of the reincarnation aspect. There are only vague memories from one life to the next – just enough to get the characters past the point where they die young or marry inappropriately. There’s no overt passing of information from one generation to the next, for example. The main focus of the book is the telling of multiple experiences of WWII, from both British and German perspectives. Lots of detail and colour, which is what makes it so good. Picked up another Kate Atkinson while in a charity shop the other day.

7. Persepolis Rising, James S A Corey. Number 7. Good fun, as ever, with evil empire taking over using superior weapons based on alien tech. Ends with all the main characters arranged on the board to resume the chess game in book 8.

8. Artemis, Andy Weir. Christmas present from D. I was slightly put off reading this one as I so enjoyed the Martian I wonder whether Andy Weir could do it again. But he has. It has the same structure, in that it’s a first person narrative of a smart individual beating the odds, working out how to do things in a hostile environment, improvising with what’s available. The lead is a 26 year old woman who is sharp, spiky, and breaks the rules but in a way you understand, and sexy – you can bet this is going to be a film before long. If that’s the case, my guess is that Hollywood will elide the protagonist’s Saudi heritage, and the dominance of Kenya in space, in favour of an all-American gal working for NASA…

9. He Said/She Said, Erin Kelly (book club, Elaine). Lots of themes here but it’s primarily about fidelity and the central protagonist’s struggle with the morals of lying. Not bad but the author was trying to be too clever. With every twist the story became less credible so that by the end it had lost all credibility.

Ancestral Machines, Michael Cobley. Abandoned after about 100 pages due to ridiculous back stories of endless destruction by millennia of warring factions with stupid names. The kind of book that gives SF a bad name.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, Chris Packham (book club, Rachele). So very, very dull. Couldn’t bring myself to read more than about 20 pages. Tried dipping in later – equally dull. Sorry. I believe the rest of the club will enjoy this but not me. (Actually, only Kate read it and she really enjoyed it. She saw it for what it is – a description of the life of an essentially autistic person coming to terms with the world. Maybe I should return to the book and, with that insight, try again).

10. Don’t let me go, Michel Bussi. I’ve already forgotten this, I’d need to look at it again to be reminded. I recall enjoying it, but nothing at all about the book a few months after reading it.

(added – I remember - this was the one set in Reunion)

11. The Crow Girl, Erik Axl Sund. The darkest of Nordic Noir. Why do we enjoy reading about such horrible people?

12. Glass Half Full, Caro Feely (book club, Gina). Oh my perfect life in my perfect French vineyard, and my perfect children and my perfect organic food and how can I make my husband’s life more perfect…

13. Island Madness, Tim Binding. A murder, everyone’s life constrained by the yolk of occupation, no one behaves in a way they believe in, the police working in that impossible situation. Excellent novel with many layers to uncover.

14. The President is Missing, Bill Clinton & James Patterson. Typical Patterson novel with short chapters and fast pace throughout. Slightly irritated that, yet again, it hinges on the idea that there are computer experts who can hack anything and if you have the right experts, you can stop them. But there’s good political drama in there as well (clearly Clinton’s contribution) ending in what looks a lot like the speech he wishes he’d given to congress but never did. Film version inevitable.

15. Planetfall, Emma Newman. I found this in Waterstone’s and it looked up my street. As the name suggests, it’s the story of colonists on an isolated planet with many of the usual tropes: a revered/departed leader, safety within the city, danger outside, an underlying mystery. It’s done well, but it’s not spectacular.

16. Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel. I enjoyed this more than I thought I might. It’s an alien artefact on Earth story written as a series of short reports of interviews with the key players. Highly secretive, an individual who seems to have all the resources of the US government/military at his disposal without question, and fairly predictable plot lines. Not great, but, yes, a fun read.

17. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton. This was something special. A big house murder mystery played out 7 times and seen from different angles by an entity that hops between bodies; a love story, a classical style set of tasks to be completed to earn salvation and more. Absolutely loved this excellent book. Highly recommended.

18. The One, John Marrs (book club Nickie). OK-ish. The concept is ludicrous (everyone has exactly one other person in the world to whom they are genetically matched for a fireworks-popping magical and passionate relationship). The number of holes in the story is therefore substantial, but it’s more about how something like that – and all the dating apps du jour – might affect different people in different circumstances. We have a way too young cancer victim, a control freak of a grieving mother, the son of a wronged scientist and a serial killer, all in there with others. The unscientific nature of the underlying science grated throughout, but, well, I got to the end without difficulty.

19. Perfidious Albion, Sam Byers. Seen in the Aldeburgh bookshop. A thought-provoking book. A tad hard to read at times but it’s an insightful commentary on the relationship between the online and offline world, how fake identities empower some and obsess others to a ridiculous degree. It’s set in a post-Brexit right wing state where the ‘acceptable face’ of right wingery eventually has his comeuppance. Another key theme is the appalling misogyny that exists online and how women are treated by anonymous thugs. Well worth a read. Sorry it didn’t get more publicity/traction.

20. The Real Town Murders, Adam Roberts. He’s clever, that Mr Roberts. There’s now a follow up – his first follow up I believe. Everyone lives in a virtual world, the real world is a place rarely visited but where, of course, a murder takes place. Very much in his style.

21. Salvation, Peter F Hamilton. The start of another Hamilton trilogy, complete with space ships, wormholes and aliens. Much fun.

22. Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger (book club, Helen). Helen was worried I’d dismiss this as over-religious. It isn’t at all. It’s the story of two brothers growing up in small town America. Their father is a vicar and so there is an element of religion but it doesn’t suffocate in any way. It centres on how the community copes with a tragic death and we see the boys grow up, how they interact with different members of the community, how the one with the stutter befriends the mute woman and so on. A study in characters I’d say.

23. Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis (book club, me). I made this choice having seen the TV series Rellik that told the story by repeatedly jumping back in time. What happened now was the result of what happened before which in turn was the result of what happened before that. I found that TV series compelling and looked for a book that also had a forwards narrative while going back in time. This is the prime example. Difficult to read at times everything happens backwards which, I think is based on the fact that in the concentration camps, ‘doctors’ made well people sick, cf. his later life, wit which the book begins, where they make well people ill until some accident suddenly makes the patient well again. A mind bender, but thought-provoking. Not popular with the club but, well, that’s not unusual for my choices.

24. A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (recommended by Maz et al) Very enjoyable. Our hero, a Count by birth, returns to Russia after the revolution only to be confined to the Metropole Hotel where he spends the next 30 years or so. It’s the place where many Politburo people meet as well as international journalists so it’s the perfect place to do a spot of spying. Oh and bringing up a friend’s daughter.

25. River Bodies, Karen Katchur (book club, Ali). Small town America, woman coming to terms with her past, making up with her estranged dad who’s on his deathbed – and a couple of murders to boot, the most recent of which is a copy of one from her youth. Enjoyable enough. It’s set on the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border so it was appropriate that I was reading this while on a trip to the new GS1 office in Ewing.

26. The Magician’s Nephew, C S Lewis. In the book club Secret Santa I ended up with a complete set of the Narnia books (originally from Gina). So I wanted to read at the least the first one. I recalled some of the detail from the radio play we listened to with the children and I knew the whole series was essentially a version of the Bible. I hadn’t realised – which I really should have done – that the Magician’s Nephew is simply a version of Genesis complete with a void without form that becomes Narnia, a garden of Eden with a tree of life and its forbidden fruit, temptation by the Devil etc. It’s all there…