Books read in 2021

1. Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel. The follow up to Sleeping Giants. This is the physical book I found lying around in a WH Smiths bag a month or so after my birthday a couple of years ago. One of the children will have got it for me but forgotten to actually pass it on. Lucky I found it really… This is part 2 of the trilogy about giant alien robots. In this instalment, a lot of people die.

2. Only Human, Sylvain Neuvel. Part 3 of the trilogy. In the end, it’s so-so. Readable and enjoyable, sure, but I’m not sure that the second and third parts of the trilogy really added a great deal. Neuvel had to jump through lots of hoops to keep the narrative style going to the end with the various reports and accounts from different people.

3. Piercing The Darkness, Frank Peretti (Book club, Rachael). Rachael’s first suggestion for the group and not something any of us were expecting. Written by a Christian fundamentalist with angels and demons fighting each other. I thought it was tongue in cheek to start with but, no, Peretti actually believes in all that and the power or the prayer cover. I skipped a couple of hundred pages and didn’t think I’d missed a great deal.

4. The Midnight Library, Matt Haig (Book club, Lynne). Lynne’s first choice. I had to be reminded that I’d given up on Matt Haig’s one about humans (from a dog’s perspective) so I was pleased that this was a lot better IMO. The familiar trope of an individual being shown different lives they could have had, in this case by being given a book of their possible life taken from the shelf of an infinite library. Readable and enjoyable but not great.

5. Girl A, Abigail Dean. This was my choice for book club 2021. I absolutely loved it. Girl A is so called because, as a child, she and her siblings are rescued from a house of horrors after she managed to escape and raise the alarm. Brilliant construction, jumping from modern day, where adult Lex is visiting all her siblings and we see how their past affected them, back to the times when the abuse was being meted out by the dominant father and the acquiescent mother. The final twist was unsurprising but satisfying. Terrific stuff.

6. Woman On The Edge Of Time, Marge Piercy (Book club, Nickie). Hard work but excellent. Connie is born poor in Mexico and lives a poor life in the US. She’s used, manipulated, and has no control over her life at all. Her men control her, the system controls her, like it does all women. But she has a connection to a future Eden where women are truly emancipated. The biological facts of being a mother are removed, children are brought up by 3 parents so one cannot dominate the other, men breast feed as much as women. It’s a weird society and not necessarily Utopia, but women are not downtrodden, no one is poor. We are shown that it’s not the only possible future. There’s one where women are commoditised even more and the planet fully wrecked by controlling men. Written in the late 70s, Piercy’s future includes what we would now recognise as a smartphone (a ‘kenner’). A very powerful book, but, golly, it’s a commitment to read it.

7. The Doors of Eden, Adrian Tchaikovsky. A story featuring gigantic, immortal space-faring trilobites is pretty impressive I’d say. Tchaikovsky continues to have fun with his theme of re-running evolution multiple times and seeing what comes up. In this one, we can hop between timelines. There’s an element of a thriller with a baddie and MI5 in the mix – a terrific read.

8. The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman (birthday present from D). Enjoyable nonsense from Mr Osman. Set in a sheltered housing block with a cast of characters that meets on a Thursday to discuss murder cases, run by an ex-MI5 officer who has access to info. And then an actual murder happens and it’s jolly japes all the way.

9. The Cloven Viscount/The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (book club, Kate). The actual choice for book club was the Baron in the Trees but it’s sold in a single volume with two others of which the Cloven Viscount is the first. It’s short so I thought I’d read it as well. Both stories are set in late 18th century Italy with kingdoms and domains for the nobility. In the Cloven Viscount, the eponymous hero is cloven in two by a battlefield cannonball. Both halves survive. A bad half and a good half. Both go about the land being bad or good in their manor, with equally poor results until they are stitched back together – all with 18th century medicine. The Baron in the Trees is no less silly with a baron who, unsurprisingly, lives in the trees his whole life following a teenage argument at dinner. Both were OK, with some highlights but a bit of a slog. I didn’t read the third.

10. Notes From Deep Time, Helen Gordon. I saw this in my first visit to Waterstones for many months following lockdown. A gentle, rather superficial pop-science story of Earth history. Engaging, and I learnt/was reminded of facts I knew. A quick, enjoyable read. The chapter on nuclear waste towards the very end was the most interesting for me. People are making a career out of working out how to store waste safely for at least 100,000 years.

11. Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir. Another ‘lone astronaut fixing stuff’ story but very well done. Lots of what I assume is correct science and engineering, and typical Andy Weir humour. Slightly optimistic on the inter-stellar travel front I’d say but that’s readily forgiven. Very enjoyable.

12. The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford (book club, Helen). The opposite of Jane Austen. Dreary women with absolutely nothing to do or talk about except getting married and being entirely defined by their menfolk. OK, so the lead character hops from one to the other, but always in pursuit of a new life for herself as defined by the current him. Well-written, OK, but I couldn’t connect with any of the characters, all of whom needed a jolly good word with themselves. But then, this was the 1930s and so many women’s lives were defined in exactly that way.

13. This Fragile Earth, Susannah Wise. I bought this as Gollancz were promoting it heavily. Hmm… It’s a mixture of familiar tales. The machines have taken over (Terminator etc.), humans are the disease, society collapses (Day of the Triffids), road blocks, looters (28 Days Later). The lead character is a strong female character with whom one sympathises throughout. Her child is unusually bright and knowledgeable for a 6 year old (emphasising the rate of change in society) and the end, well, it’s one of those ‘shazam, all is well’ endings that I always find disappointing. One good thing is that, like Eve Smith, Susannah Wise uses the end of antibiotics as a theme. So, OK, but not outstanding and, sorry, not quite up to the Gollancz hype.

14. Purgatory Mount, Adam Roberts. Quite different from his usual style, this one is cemented firmly – and explicitly – in musings on theology and Dante’s Inferno. The first and third sections centre on a ship arriving at a distant planet carrying normal humans and 5 that are augmented with various technologies including one that allows them to slow down their own perception of time, allowing the journey to be completed quickly from their POV while generations of others live and die around them. In the middle is a novel of dystopia where the heroine struggles to keep her and her friends’ all-powerful computer from falling into the hands of the government of the bits of the USA that haven’t seceded. But actually it’s about Hell, Purgatory and Heaven – although I had to have this explained in the afterword.

15. The Art of Betrayal, Gordon Corera. I bought this for Dad some years ago and finally got around to reading it. Very interesting account of MI6 from post WWII through to the Iraq war.

16. The Second Woman, Charlotte Philby. Third in Philby’s triptych. Not a trilogy, but we see the same series of events through different eyes, so there is an overlapping set of characters but not all characters feature prominently in all three novels. Definitely worth reading all three again. I am pleased to have found a signed first edition of the first one under its original title of The Hardest Thing for a price that means either the (American) seller or I have misjudged its value.

17. Brexit Unfolded, Chris Grey. The book of the blog. A detailed account of the endless contradictions of the Brexit story. How Vote Leave didn’t define what Brexit meant so that every supporter was free to think it meant something else. As soon as it actually was defined (by Steve Baker, Rees-Mogg and others the ERG), everyone else cried betrayal. Superb account. I would be interested to read a leave supporter’s account but somehow doubt it would have the same level of irrefutable ‘this is what happens when reality destroys delusion’ about it.

18. Notes from the Burning Age, Claire North. A bit of a change from her immediately preceding novels. Rather than a feature like time travelling or everyone forgetting you as soon as they meet you, this paints a fairly near-future dystopia. It has a lot of familiar themes from such novels such as going on a journey across the country, avoiding local militias, and finding abandoned farm houses. What’s slightly different here is that the dystopia was overseen by machines that were programmed to neutralise anything that caused damage – in this case humans.

19. Girls Who Lie, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir. Dark story of children broken by dysfunctional parents, set against the lava flows of rural Iceland. Will look out for more from Eva Björg Ægisdóttir.

20. The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris (book club, Rachael). The horrors of Auschwitz are described in a way that’s always necessary and can’t be said too often. My problem with this book is not the material, but the way that Heather Morris constructs the story using fictional characters to represent multiple real ones That technique is well-established and not a problem but the result is that it feels, to me, that the person at the centre of the story, Lale Sokolov, had a succession of lucky breaks and coincidences that begin to feel unrealistic. That’s me that’s at fault. He did go to Auschwitz, he was the tattooist and he did survive. So there had to be some luck of some kind. It just felt ‘too happy’ for a real story of what was clearly the opposite.

21. Inhibitor Phase, Alastair Reynolds. Always a joy to read Alastair Reynolds, and I always come away thinking I need to re-read the whole series to get more out of it. One day…

22. Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson.

23. Daisy Jones and The Six, Taylor Jenkins-Reid (book club, Lynne). Great fun read. Told in the style of a documentary with short memories from all the players involved in the story of the band who created one, single iconic album. I guessed, and Lynne was able to confirm, it’s much inspired by Stevie Nicks joining Fleetwood Mac for Rumours. Lead singer of The Six, Billy, struggles against alcoholism and drugs, but does so for the sake of his wife and family. Very well told and put together.

24. God: An Anatomy, Francesca Stavrakopoulou. How have I never heard of this woman before? She appears with the likes of Robin Ince and on things like The Museum of Curiosity. This is not a quick read – it’s long and has a lot of detail – but it’s packed with interesting material presented and organised in a way that’s easily digestible. Terrific stuff from start to finish.

25. Fleishman Is In Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Book club, Elaine). Most of the book is a man’s rant about his wife disappearing and leaving him to look after the children on his own – while also making a lot of use of dating apps to find plenty of willing partners. Most of the time it feels as if he himself is the narrator but actually it’s a friend who is the narrator throughout. The final section, of course, is her side of the story. I really enjoyed this – very thought provoking and plotted excellently.

26. The Apollo Murders, Chris Hadfield. Excellent read for people of my generation who remember and followed the Apollo missions. Really enjoyed this one but I wonder how much the story would have resonated with younger people.

27. Galaxias, Stephen Baxter. His best for a long time I think. Thoroughly readable and enjoyable.