Books read in 2022

1. Odd Boy Out, Gyles Brandreth (requested Christmas present). I know he’s a self-publicising, must-be-centre-of-attention but he is very amusing. Like all autobiographies, this is essentially a series of anecdotes about how he has met/knows famous people. But it’s amusing.

2. The Black Ice, Michael Connelly. This was my book club Secret Santa. A typical US police procedural from the late 90s. The lack of mobile phones is the biggest factor that dates it. Apart from that, you have the usual maverick cop who goes against authority, bends the law, but comes up with the right answers in the end.

3. Leviathan Falls, James S A Corey. Final instalment in the saga. My fear in all these things is that the end itself will let the whole thing down, but, fair play to the two people know as James S A Corey – it wasn’t bad. So an enjoyable and satisfying end to a long series. Not great writing, but good story telling and characters with enough depth to make them interesting. Good fun from start to finish. I don’t want to watch the TV version – it would ruin the pictures.

4. Milkman, Anna Burns (book club, Elaine). Absolutely superb writing with huge depth. Quite dense prose but it flows well as it’s essentially a stream of consciousness. I hear it with an Irish accent throughout – which may or may not be appropriate for a Republican from the North. It tells the story of how rumour becomes taken as fact, despite there being not a shred of reality behind it. Reading Ivanhoe while walking, it turns out, is dangerous in 1970s Belfast. Excellent read.

5. Off Target, Eve Smith. The publicity strategy followed by Orenda Books means that this book appeared in my social media feed for months before it was published first as an ebook and then finally, as a paperback. Like her first novel, Waiting Rooms, Eve Smith explores the impact of medical advances and their limits. The central character goes through many of the all-too-familiar problems associated with trying and failing to conceive until, after a one night stand, pregnancy comes. Except with genetic engineering, the natural father’s genes are replaced by the husband’s. An exceptional idea but barely a stretch from the kind of thing that is being done, or expected to be done soon. The story is entirely plausible, and all the more troubling for it. An easy read after Milkman.

6. Seven Mercies, Elizabeth May & Laura Lam. Enjoyable, plucky crew fight the odds and, of course, win. The interplay between the characters is, of course, the main issue. Sibling rivalry, straight and queer relationships, outward strength hiding underlying insecurity – and who can you trust. Oh and there’s the tired old trope of the genius hacker, but they handle it well and give her a lot of depth and drive. I enjoyed the webinar with the two authors, following which I got my personally signed copy. Not outstanding, but very good. I’ll certainly look out for more.

7. The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, Zoe Playdon. I saw this in Waterstone’s and was intrigued. Ewan Forbes weas a trans man whose life as a man was more or less uncontentious until the issue of the inheritance of his titles came into play. Primogeniture meant one of them had to go to a male. A cousin came forward as the only legitimate male heir – cue court cases. That story underpins a very interesting and detailed narrative of the plight of trans people throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. How prejudice and ignorance has made many people’s lives. Things I learned: male and female, while by far the majority, are ends of a spectrum. This is and always has been recognised by the medical community. Between the two is intersex. Even the XY and XX chromosomes are not deterministic of sex. Mosaicism means the same person can have both in different parts of their body. Trans men and women can be heterosexual or homosexual and so on. A crucial part of gender is, of course, how the individual feels. It’s not a psychosis and does not ned to be treated by a psychiatrist. And the law is deeply prejudiced. Very well worth a read – I learned a lot.

8. The Universe Versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence (book club, Helen). Another ‘simple child’ as a lens through which to examine the absurdities of adult life. This one explores assisted suicide. Engaging and funny at times, Alex Woods survives being hit by a meteorite but it leaves him autistic. Strange mother runs a tarot card reading business. Alex befriends an elderly American who he then helps get to the clinic in Switzerland. Others in the group really enjoyed it. It was OK, but, for me, too reminiscent of things like the Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time and the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

9. Plutoshine, Lucy Kissick. I’d not seen anything about this but picked it up in Waterstones in Worcester. The author’s knowledge of planetary processes and terraforming make this really interesting. I was confused by the motives of the guilty party but I think that was sort of the point. Really good plot throughout, even with, yes, another damaged and therefore over-simple child. Very surprised that Charon gets exactly 3 mentions, all towards the very end of the book. How Lucy Kissock write this while also working on her PhD is beyond me. Will look out for more from her in future.

10. Inscape, Louise Carey. Recommended and promoted by Claire North I saw this in the same trip to Waterstones Worcester and picked it up. Very plausible future state where corporations run everything and have replaced the notion of a nation state. Lots of hacking into systems, which I find tiresome, but the human-computer interface stuff is better. This is the first of 9at least) 2 novels so I’ll look out for Outcast soon.

11. Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw (book club, Nickie). I admit I wasn’t looking forward to this one – it didn’t look too promising. However, it soon took me in. It weaves together multiple people’s lives in Shanghai – those working their way up from remote Malaysian villages meeting those on their way down from super rich families who exploit them. There’s an underlying motive behind one of the characters, who’s obviously very shady. Actually enjoyed this in the end.

12. Edith & Kim, Charlotte Philby. Actually very little about Kim and a lot about Edith – which was very interesting. Charlotte Philby states clearly at the beginning that the book is a work of fiction but that it is inspired by true events and her own familial knowledge. That means that it is all entirely believable but you have to remember “this may not be true”. And that I found rather frustrating. I think I wanted a postscript to say ABC was true, XYZ was not. Arnold Deutsch – who was Kim Philby’s handler – is in the story as is his cousin Oscar of Odeon fame. Burgess, McLean and Anthony Blunt are all there. So, yes enjoyable but with a nagging doubt throughout.

13. Outcast, Louise Carey. Book two in Louise Carey’s trilogy. It doesn’t say but I’m pretty sure it will be a trilogy. Very enjoyable indeed. Really like the characters of Tanta and Cole and the way they work to fight the system. Only drawback, as is so often the case, is that Cole, the ace programmer, can circumvent all the security in a way that just doesn’t happen in the real world.

14. The Creak on the Stairs, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir. This was the first in her series of Icelandic noir stories set in Akranes. I saw a signed copy advertised and was pleased to see that it is number 8 in that batch of signed first editions from Goldsboro. It’s a pretty straightforward police procedural but it has that Icelandic setting that makes it interesting. And there’s clearly more to Elma than she’s letting on…

15. Beyond Measure, James Vincent. A history of metrology published with spectacular good timing in the very week that Johnson’s appalling cabal of inadequacy and ineptitude posited the idea that we should ‘bring back imperial measures’. James O’Brien highlighted it and spoke to the author on LBC. It tails off towards the end but for the most part it is a fascinating tale of the development of the idea of measuring and understanding what the measurements tell us about the real world. Science, geekery and standards – good stuff.

16. The Ministry of the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson. This has been on the shelf for too long but I finally got to it – and it’s excellent. Much better than his Science in the Capital series, this one sees a ministry established following the Paris Climate agreement and how it gradually makes some progress. A character in the story is an American relief worker who survives a killer heatwave in India (because he had access to just enough cold water). First time I’ve come across the term ‘wet bulb’ temperature. Truly terrifying of course, especially as even just 2 years after its publication, its already hopelessly optimistic.

17. The English Passengers, Matthew Kneale (book club, Kate). Slow going. So slow I had to skip from about one third in to the last bit of the book. Those who managed all of it (some through Audible) enjoyed it. It’s the story of horrendous racism, colonialism and genocide in 19th century Tasmania. Excellent storytelling, weaving in the Aboriginal point of view, the racist scientist’s stand point, all mixed in with Manx seamen who are also smugglers. The author did a lot of research into the period and based a lot of the story on fact. The scientist’s tract, for example, really was published and is a clear forerunner of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf. I’m going through a slow reading phase anyway. I can imagine that if I were not so, I’d have read all of this and got a lot more out of it.

18. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Sunders. A novella recommended by Amber. Weird, ridiculous and fun. I’m reminded, slightly, of Stephen Baxter’s Flux, which is about tiny creatures living on a neutron star.

19. Mercy, David Baldacci (Christmas present from D). I needed a page turner, and this was it. As ever, Baldacci produces a thriller with plenty of pace and intrigue. Mercy is the end of a series and I can imagine the whole series would have been terrific. Having started at the end, I can’t go back as I know the resolution, but I wish I’d started at the beginning. Yes, it’s a mass-produced page-turner, but it’s terrific fun. I must look for a series of his and start from the beginning.

20. Eversion, Alastair Reynolds. Slightly confusing reading this so soon after the English Passengers as this too begins being set on a 19th century ship. But then we jump from the coast north of Bergen to Patagonia to an airship over Antarctica to its conclusion. He’s good you know…

21. Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson. Her novels are a joy. Her story telling, her language, her construction just superb. And this was her first published novel. There is no museum, but there is the life of Ruby from conception in the 1950s to later life. Her family, and her family’s background back to just before and during the First World War. Families are complicated and, somehow, some people make it through.

22. The Manningtree Witches, A K Blakemore (book club, me). Lovely language and a rich story. The book was well received and enjoyed by everyone in the group. I didn’t know that the ‘Witchfinder General’ was born a few fields away from Chattisham in Wenham. Really interesting history well-told.

23. Ithaca, Claire North. A complete break from previous Claire North novels. A terrific story of the sisterhood fighting back against ingrained misogyny, male self-importance and brutality with goddesses monitoring and interfering along the way. A terrific read.

24. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. This was a birthday present from Bekki (apparently chosen by the Waterstone’s staff). I didn’t know at the time but this is seen as something of a SF classic (although it only dates from 2011). I was reluctant to start reading it as I’m not a gamer and find the idea of Second Life/Metaverse deeply unattractive. But, yes, this is a really good story and I thoroughly enjoyed following Wade on his journey to the Egg. Excellent stuff.

25. Colditz, Ben Macintyre. Another tour de force of detailed research and excellent story-telling. It dispels, or at least contextualises, a lot of the mythology around Colditz, what happened and what horrendous privations the prisoners went through. Very interesting to hear the viewpoint of the ‘chief gaoler’ Eggers.

26. The Island of Missing Trees, Elif Shafak (book club, Fiona). A lesson in the history of Cyprus wrapped in a love story with trees – one in particular – as key characters. A very enjoyable read and an excellent first choice for Fiona!

27. The Men, Andrea Newman. I saw this on a bookshop shelf and it looked interesting. Everyone with a Y chromosome disappears across the world in a single instant leaving an entirely female population. The story includes things like fuel shortages and planes falling out of the sky, i.e. the immediate effects of male-dominated jobs, but the primary focus is on a black woman who suffers more than most at the hands of men, especially police men. She’s an odd but dominant character whose very survival is only possible without the presence of men. Other women, notably the narrator, who is a sexual victim herself, are part of the story too. Not a feminist utopia, but not a complete feminist dystopia either.

28. Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson. Set in 1920s Soho, focused on a matriarchal owner of several nightclubs and her various children who are all part of the family business. The plot is moved along by the unlikely character of Gwendoline, a Leeds librarian, hired to infiltrate the family and find evidence to bring them down. In this endeavour she reports to one of the few policemen not in the pay of the matriarch who, of course, knows exactly who she is and what she’s up to. One of the bent coppers is also a serial murderer of the waifs and strays that fail to make it onto the West End stage. Not as immediately enjoyable as others of Kate Atkinson’s novels. This one was based much more firmly on historical reality than others.

29. Meet Me in Another Life, Catriona Silvey. Like The Men, I bought this some time ago and put it in an out of the way slot on my shelf so it’s taken me a while to get to it. I’m glad I did get to it though. It felt like a mix of The Time Traveller’s Wife, Life After Life, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – with perhaps a hint of 2001’s HAL. Santi and Thora relive their lives over and over again all within the confines of Cologne, although each life is different. Eventually we discover why, which is where the HAL aspect comes in. Very enjoyable.