Books read in 2019

1. The Moscow Sleepers, Stella Rimington (Christmas present, D). A gentle spy story. Rimington’s knowledge of how things actually work is clear and that grounding in reality is what slows it down. By the same token, it gives the story far more credibility. This one is centred on refugees being recruited by Russians to become part of their cyber warfare programme. Lots of East Anglian references of course.

2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Becky Chambers. Her first novel and definitely first class. The primary theme is racism and integration (the eponymous angry planet is home to violent fascists). Around that theme there’s a good ol SF story with aliens and wormholes. Kizzy, the tech, is a terrific character.

3. My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent (book club, Kate). Depressing from start to finish. This is the story of an abusive father-daughter relationship that seems to have gone wrong after the death of the mother. The daughter, Turtle, survives but is damaged by the horrendous experience. I had to miss out a few pages that I just didn’t need to get the detail of end of finger amputation without anaesthetic. Very well written and evocative but a struggle just because of the subject matter.

4. A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers. The second in the series. Not as immediately enjoyable as the first but very good nonetheless. This one follows Lovey, the AI from the Wanderer transferred into a ‘kit’ (a body) – an illegal operation. The other timeline was Pepper’s story of being born in a very artificial way into a factory that deals with scrap – hence her knowledge of tech.

5. Austerlitz, W G Sebold (book club, me). No chapters, no paragraphs. OK, there’s a section break on page 165. This makes it very hard to read and I see no benefit from doing it this way. I ploughed through it, and yes, it’s an interesting journey through discovering that his mother went to Theresienstadt and his father was lost somewhere in Paris (probably also deported). But it’s just such a chore to read. Really sorry to have had this as my book club choice for the year.

6. The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre (Christmas present from D). Another superb exploration from Ben Macintyre, this time about Oleg Gordievsky who spied for Britain for more than a decade before being exfiltrated from Moscow. Terrific story.

7. Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers (Christmas present from D). The third in Becky Chambers’ series. Like the second, it doesn’t quite have the immediate pulling power of the first but does provide the best background for her universe, so I’m looking forward to no. 4 whenever that comes.

8. Transcription, Kate Atkinson. This is advertised as a return to the world of Life After Life. Well, yes, a lot of it is set during WWII that features heavily in the latter, but that’s the only commonality. It’s the story of the British establishment, easing between intelligence/government and the BBC, with different characters’ allegiances shifting in and out of focus. A good read.

9. Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson. As ever, this is Robinson’s latest take on the politics of space. The ‘red’ refers to the Chinese who essentially run the south pole, cf the Americans who run the north. Lots of chasing back and forth between and around Earth and Moon, including a memorable sequence in Hong Kong.

10. The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder, Sarah J Harris (book club, Elaine). Synesthesia is the theme here – taken to an extreme for the sake of the story. A young only sees colours, can’t remember names and faces, even his own. Very reminiscent of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time with a close-knit community, curtain-twitching and more. Obviously the clues are there, in bright colours, from the start – if only others could understand them.

11. The Fox, Frederick Forsyth. It’s a Frederick Forsyth. Very enjoyable, as ever, but I’ve forgotten it already.

12. In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott (book club, Nickie). I loved this. It tells the story of the author’s early life when her family was ‘mixed up with the brethren’ – that is, living in an isolationist, religious cult. She traces back to the person who joined the cult by choice – her great grandfather – as everyone since then has been in it by birth and diktat. They got out when she was a teenager but it haunts them all through their adult lives. Interestingly, Rebecca Stott’s other books focus primarily on Darwin. Very interesting from start to finish.

13. Middlemarch, George Eliot. This has been on the shelf for years and I’ve long wanted to read it. I enjoyed it more than any other classic I’ve read. It’s rather modern in its construction in that it has a series of characters living in a genteel village, complete with the appalling subjugation of women that goes with the times. Dorothea Brooke is quite the rebel – a woman with ideas of her own! Aunty Maz tells me that Mum saw herself as a something of a Miss Brooke. I quite see why. Anyway, a stranger comes to town with a secret that, inevitably gets out…

But it must be said this is a loooonnng book. Having kept up a pace of at least a book a fortnight so far this year, this one took 6-7 weeks to read, including two long haul trips to the US. Hence I missed reading Ali’s book club choice (Michelle Obama’s becoming).

14. Ordinary People, Sally Rooney (book club, Tricia). A complete contrast to Middlemarch in terms of length if nothing else (266 pages). Connell and Marianne are both troubled in their own way. This prevents them – or perhaps is the basis – of their close relationship through late school and early adulthood. Very well written and tragically plausible. A lifetime of abuse means that for her, being physically hurt is a sign of closeness.

15. Do You Dream of Terra-Two, Temi Oh. If this were the only story of its kind, it would be terrific. The problem is that stories of young people being selected to represent humanity as they set off on an ark ship, with one person removed from the crew at the last minute to be replaced by a back-up who has to struggle to become accepted by the others… is not new. Not at all. So, yes, this was enjoyable, but not in any way surprising.

16. Fall, or Dodge in Hell. Neal Stephenson. I looked forward to this immensely as I’d enjoyed Seven Eves so much. I enjoyed it, yes, but not as much. I guess that’s down to my lack of interest in cyber worlds which is Stephenson’s forte. Here we see a number of billionaires seeking immortality through moving to cyberspace, complete with petty jealousies and rivalries that play out in a Tolkien-esque landscape. Inventive, certainly. Lots of rich characters, and the device of introducing characters from the living world into the cyber world bit by bit gives a really good narrative hook. It’s not the same static set of characters throughout.

17. Three things about Elsie, Joanna Cannon (book club, Helen). Very reminiscent of Elizabeth if Missing. It’s about a woman living in an old people’s home, struggling with memory and reality. An enjoyable read.

18. The Woman in the Window, A J Finn (book club, Gina). Another protagonist struggling with memory vs reality with obvious shades of Rear Window (which I might even get around to seeing one day). This time she’s a late thirties psychiatrist who has been traumatised by a car accident in the snow minutes after she and her husband decided to split up immediately after they arrived at what sounds a lot like Holiday Inn. She watches from her window and sees others through theirs. Of course, nothing is quite what it seems.

19. Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds. The second in the Revenger series. With Bosa Sennen dead and vanquished, Adrana and Fura Ness are in full control of the Nightjammer with plenty of scope for those seeking revenge. A most intriguing ending as the sisters head off looking for a long orbit object that seems to be a harbinger of transitions between occupations among ‘the worlds’ – i.e. the many small worlds created from the rubble of the original planets of the solar system.

20. Salvation Lost, Peter F Hamilton. Terrific stuff – once I’d remembered enough of the previous novel to understand what was going on. The (understandable) gap between instalments means it’s all too easy to forget. I think I also missed a lot of the significance of events in the first one. Clearly well worth reading this and the first one again before the third one comes along.

21. The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North. Another perfect book from young Miss Webb. Sure, she’s getting repetitive in her writing now. Here’s another ghost-based travelogue with the protagonist as spy. So that’s ‘more of the same’ but her theme here is the effect of truth on those around you – and there are a lot of deep insights there I’d say.