Books read in 2020

1. The Butterfly Room, Lucinda Riley This was my Secret Santa from the book club. I felt duty bound to read it this having refused to read any more than the first 20 pages of the last book on the club’s 2019 list (5 Go On The Piste by Giles someone) as it was so ghastly. This had several interesting, intelligent women with good back stories reduced to talking about men and relationships, handsome men across the room and all the rest of it. Re-run the story without the ludicrous focus and it could have been a lot better.

2. The Second Sleep, Robert Harris (Christmas present from Bekki). Harris’s latest novel is presented as one set in the 15th century, complete with horse-riding priest, religious devotion and simple village life in an agrarian setting. All that applies except this it’s 1400+ years after the end of the modern world, glimpses of the apocalypse, past technology and lost knowledge. Very reminiscent of the Handmaid’s Tale in that respect.

3. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott. I saw this in Maz’s bookshop in Pershore and was drawn to it. It tells the stories of several women involved with East-West intelligence, all of whom are used by the less-qualified men who are their nominal superiors. The core of the story surrounds Boris Pasternak’s work and how it was published in the West and then smuggled back into the East. Enjoyable and, like all good fiction, based on a lot of historical fact.

4. World Engines, Destroyer, Stephen Baxter. His longest, most readable and, I think, best, work for a long time. It combines ideas from a lot of his previous work with versions of Reid Malenfent and Emma Stoney from different timelines in the manifold, long timescales, and possible NASA histories. Good stuff. Looks like the start of a new series – good.

5. The Accidental Spy, Sean O’Driscoll. I picked this up while browsing at Waterstones one day. It’s the story of how an American trucker got deeply involved with Irish Republicanism and became a spy for the FBI and MI5. He got involved with US fundraising for the IRA in the US, ran a pub near the border and became friendly with the IRA’s quartermaster who, with his wife, Bobby Sands’ sister, continued to be a terrorist after the peace process came into force. A very good story but it’s clear that O’Driscoll is a journalist not a story teller (it’s published by Mirror books). You can imagine that the same material in the hands of Ben Macintyre would be far more engaging.

6. The (Hugo Award) Long List Anthology volume 3/Sunvault. Two short SF story collections given to me by Hadley and Danbri on the occasion of my minor foot surgery. I’ve dipped into these books and will do so again. Obviously the enjoyment varies from one story to the next but what I’ve seen so far are all good. I am taken particularly, but the Sunvault collection “Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-speculation”. I’d not heard of Solarpunk before and, given my general distaste of cyberpunk, it didn’t look too promising, but they’re stories of ecological breakdown/re-emergence and that sounds good to me. Lots still to read, but I am, of course, most touched by where these books came from.

7. Lion (A Long Way Home), Saroo Brierley (book club, Nickie). The autobiography of a boy who, aged 5, found himself locked on a train taking him away from his home in India to the metropolis of Calcutta/Kolkata, his lucky survival and then adoption by a Tasmanian couple – and then his search for his original home. Now a major film (apparently) that, inevitably, stars Dev Patel. Poignant and thought provoking. He tells his story well and there are touch points with our own adoption story. As he says himself, luck played a big part in the story. It could easily be that he didn’t survive at all, that he wasn’t adopted, that he couldn’t find his birth family and so on. But, in this case, it all worked out.

8. Rejoice, A Knife To The Heart, Steven Erikson. So often, SF serves up future dystopia; but here the all-powerful aliens initiate First Contact by preventing humans creating their own dystopia. Deforestation, child soldiering, tar sand mining and fracking stopped. Much philosophising – excellent stuff.

9. Bone Silence, Alastair Reynolds. The last in the trilogy – at least for now. Arafura and Adrana Ness are fascinating characters, as is the universe Reynolds created here. He’s left us with tantalising mysteries about how it came to be that the planets of our solar system were sundered into thousands of small worlds millions of years ago, the cyclical occupations and so on. I’d love to see that explored but he makes clear in the post script that he’s done with this time line. Who knows, he may return to it in future. Excellent stuff as always.

First Man In, Ant Middleton (book club, Rachele). Having abandoned Rachele’s previous choice after 20 pages or so, I was determined to read this one. But it, and he, are utterly ghastly. I managed two chapters of self-righteous, testosterone-driven, cockscomb preening claptrap before moving on. Sorry Rachele.

10. Between The Stops, Sandi Toksvig (Christmas present from Bekki). Sandi Toksvig is utterly brilliant. I love her humour, her stories, her erudition, her feminism. This was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. Her upbringing as the daughter of Denmark’s foremost journalist means that she’s always had the good fortune to be in exceptional places with exceptional people – holding the hand of Neil Armstrong’s secretary as he took that one small step being one of them. Funny and informative.

11. To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers. This novella is absolutely first class. A long range expedition to explore 4 planets around a distant star. Lots of good science (thanks partly to her consultant who is also her mum). And she’s a terrific writer. Lapped this up and eagerly await whatever’s next.

12. The Sultan of Byzantium, Selçuk Altun. Maz bought this for Donnie at a time when the latter expressed an interest in Byzantium. It always looked interesting and, unlike Donnie, I’ve now read it. The book does indeed provide a tour through the basics of Byzantine history, from its founding in ‘East Rome’ (then Constantinople) and then, after 29 May 1453, the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. There are elements of a classic thriller with a secretive, ultra-wealthy organisation and a protagonist who outsmarts everyone. Weirdly, Selçuk Altun is a minor character in his own book. It’s less than 300 pages, which makes this readable. Had it been any longer it would, I think, have been, too overwhelming. So a good balance of historical detail, thriller and plot.

13. Timat’s Wrath, James S A Corey Expanse 8. Still fun, looking forward to book 9. Still no desire to see the TV version.

14. The Know, Martina Cole (book club, Gina) Grim. I hadn’t realised that Martina Cole’s books are largely, if not exclusively, about working class environments. I kept expecting the story of a prostitute’s struggles to bring up her 3 children, the child neglect and abuse, the crime and violence would soon give way to the police investigation. Nope – it starts grim and remains so throughout.

15. Agent Zig Zag, Ben Macintyre. The book that made Macintyre famous – a superb story as expected. A real joy to read.

16. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (Book club, Helen). This year’s classic. Very readable and a good read – but boy it’s long… Debbie and I saw Armando Ianucci’s film, starring Dev Patel, earlier this year and its release was what prompted Helen to choose it for 2020. I read it in two halves, breaking off midway through to read…

17. The Long Call, Ann Cleeves (Book club, Tricia). Gentle, plodding detective story. Enjoyable, pleasant enough, with lots of colour in the people and places, but not thrilling.

18. Rachel’s Holiday, Marian Keys (Book club, Kate) A delightful read that you can’t help but hear in an Irish accent. Amusing throughout, very funny at times. Of course it’s a mistake that Rachel is in a clinic for addicts, it’s the others who need to be here… Excellent stuff from Marian Keys. Will very likely read more of her books in future, despite her saying that men don’t read books written by women.

19. Part of the family, Charlotte Philby (originally published as The Most Difficult Thing). Satisfying spy thriller with everyone spying on everyone else and falsely believing they’re being successful in keeping secrets from everyone. Very well constructed and written. The fact that the author is Kim Philby’s granddaughter – rightly or wrongly – makes the spying aspects that much more credible. Have immediately ordered her new novel.

20. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (Book club, me). The first Jackson Brodie novel.

21. One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson I offered the first Jackson Brodie novel as my choice for 2020 thinking that everyone in the group likes detective novels. It turns out others had the same idea (see the Ann Cleeves and Martina Cole above). Both books have many threads with increasing numbers of connections as the novel progresses – which can seem like awful clichés. I really dislike mysteries being solved by enormous strokes of luck/coincidence. Kate Atkinson’s novels are so much better than that. There are no coincidences, no luck, everything actually is connected – and that’s what makes the stories so much more satisfying. I’ll look out for the others.

22. Seven Devils, Elizabeth May & Laura Lam. Terrific sci-fi with an evil empire to destroy, much dissembling, powerful women. This feels like a shoe-in for a TV series or film, but I bet Hollywood would replace some of the characters with men for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Slight nit-pick around some of the “with one bound she was free” stuff – the tractor beam was really uncalled for – but characters had credible back stories with old habits affecting their current behaviour. Looking forward to the second book already. Top stuff and great fun.

23. A Double Life, Charlotte Philby.

24. Human Croquet, Kate Atkinson.

25. How to Argue With A Racist, Adam Rutherford.

26. What You Did, Claire McGowan (book club).

27. World Engines, Creator, Stephen Baxter.

28 V2, Robert Harris.

29. When will there be good news? Kate Atkinson. Jackson Brodie 3 sees him unfortunately on a train that crashes in Edinburgh. Reggie is the 16 year old girl who helps her friend Dr Joanna Hunter who was the sole survivor of a murderous attack on her mother and two siblings when she was aged 6. As ever, all events are connected. Only Brodie’s presence on that train seems to have been an actual coincidence. Louise Monroe features heavily – she’s more of a character than Brodie IMO.

30. Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre.

31. The Devil and the Dark Water, Stuart Turton.

32. Afterland, Lauren Beukes.

33. The Saints of Salvation, Peter F Hamilton

34. The Whisper Man, Alex North (book club, Elaine).

35. The Righteous Men, Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland). It was Fiona Ayres who reminded me about Sam Bourne. I visited many charity shops over the summer looking for his books but in the end had to find copies online. This one is set deep in the Jewish community of New York. It suffers from lack of plausibility but the characterisation and plotting is good. I have two more to go.

Christmas 2020: tried to read Ambridge at War, Catherine Miller. I asked Debbie for this for Christmas but, sorry, it was just unremittingly dull so I gave up after about 100 pages. Likewise Tom Clancy’s Code of Honor by Marc Cameron, a present from Bekki. It would make a predictable film, full of American secret ops teams. Although radically different in style, in both books I struggled to remember any names or connect with any characters. So… on to 2021