Books read in 2023

1. Shards of Earth, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Top-notch stuff as always from Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is the first of a trilogy and I'm very much looking forward to the next two. It's full of old SF tropes. A giant, unknowable and undefeatable killer from ages past. Humanity fled to the stars to survive. A small group of psi-capable humans can just about communicate with the Architects. Warring human and alien factions. Oh and a cloned army of super good looking women with advanced fighting skills and technology. So it's not going to win points for originality - but he does it so well.

2. Catch Your Death, Louise Voss & Mark Edwards (book club Secret Santa)

I've read better books. Lots of unnecessary "will she be able to keep her hands off her long dead boyfriend's twin" and all that. A plot based on an evil scientist determined to wipe out human civilization to prove that he's the best virologist in the world and all that. Managed to skim through it in time for the book club meeting.

3. Downfall, Louise Carey

I read the first in the series, Inscape, based entirely on the fact it has a grab line on the cover by Claire North who also recommended it on Twitter. It was well worth it. Louise Carey's dystopia is indeed very plausible, not least as not long after Inscape's publication there was much talk of the idea of 'Charter Cities' - that is, cities more or less run entirely by commercial companies able to set their own bylaws. Scary. Downfall is the end of the trilogy which, unsurprisingly given the title and the way trilogies work, culminates in the downfall of the system but the story of that inevitable outcome is well constructed without some sort of unsatisfying "with one bound Tanta was free" moment. The characters all have depth and are credible, as is pretty much all the tech.

Louise Carey herself is part of a novel-writing family. Her father, Mike, is better known as M R Carey.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (book club, Nickie)

When Nickie suggested this as her book for 2023 I thought it was going to be sci-fi. Far from it. Henrietta was a poor black woman who, in the early 50s, contracted an aggressive form of cervical cancer. A sample of her cells were collected and found to survive and thrive outside the body (in a culture medium). That cell line, known as Hela, went on to become ubiquitous across many areas of medical research. Henrietta's family - poor and poorly educated - have almost no understanding of the science. All they do know is that the cells have been very important in medical advances and that some people have earned a great deal of money from them. They have received not a penny.

5. The Last Party, Clare Mackintosh

A police procedural completely within the genre but as I like that kind of thing, I really enjoyed it. Set on the England/Wales border with rather more Welsh spoken in that area than I recall from my childhood (you need to go a little depper into Cymru to find Welsh normally). Everyone has a motive, everyone's a suspect. The book is billed as the first Ffion Morgan book and the second is due out later this year. This first one gives good detail about her background, as it does for her investigative parter from Cheshire - I wonder if Leo will appear in the next book too.

Incidentally, I picked my sigend first edition up on a visit to Victoria's bookshop in Haverfordwest (along with the Alan Johnson and latest Claire North). Dangerous shop to go into - they have a wide range of signed first eds. I'll be back soon.

6. Braking Day, Adam Oyebanji

This is a really good take on the generation spaceship idea. It was credible throughout, the characters had real depth and the focus was very much on them rather than the technology which didn't include any obvious cheats. Excellent stuff - I'm glad I chanced upon this book while browsing one day. I'll try not to break stuff.

7. Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel (book club, Elaine)

Very much a timey-wimey book. A lot of the time travel aspects of this are from a well-trodden path but that doesn't detract from the story telling which I really enjoyed. I'll be very interested to see what the others thought of it. Most the group are un-used to this kind of thing and I suspect it won't go down well with everyone but it's definitely a good'un.

8. Birnham Wood, Eleanor Catton

A few, a very few writers, are able to use language to immerse you in their story with a level of skill to match Eleanor Catton. As with The Luminaries, reading Birnham Wood was a huge pleasure from start to finish. The construction is very different though and Birnham Wood is a much simpler story than The Luminaries (her 2013 Booker winner). It has a small number of main characters through whose eyes the story is told and overall it's a much easier read. To be honest, it's less pretentious. Birnham Wood is an absolute gem of a read. At the time of writing, I'm very much looking forward to going to an author event with her next month at Toppings in Ely. First editions of her other novels have been procured for the occasion …

9. Eyes of the Void, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Book Two in the Final Architecture trilogy. The factions continue to fight, the Architects continue to tear worlds apart, and Idris is, eventually, in the right place with the right renegades and mad scientists to find important truths about the universe and unspace. We'll see how it all comes together in a glorious victory at the end of book three - and who will survive long enough to see it. Very enjoyable from start to finish.

10. The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton

This is the kind of book you immediately want to read again as soon as you finish it. Eleanor Catton plays with us throughout. Are we watching real people in their real life or are we watching a play? Did the teacher/under-age pupil liaison actually happen or are Jane and Isolde the real protagonists? Is Patsy real or is that a pseudonym for Isolde making Jane the saxophone teacher? It's rarely clear. At the author event in Ely I suggested in my question that this appeared to be her final project from her training (the sleeve notes list the studying she did). A sort of "look what I learned to do". Then the Luminaries was her magnum opus that won the Booker and then Birnham Wood was a "now I've proved myself I'm going to have some fun" novel. Her reply was interesting. She knew that, having won the Booker, her publisher would basically publish whatever she wrote next, but she wanted to make sure that it was really good enough. It definitely was. And The Rehearsal is definitely worthy of a re-read when I finally have time to re-read all the books I want to re-read.

11. Elektra, Jennifer Saint & 12. Clytemnestra, Costanza Casati

Although I'd read Margaret George's telling of Helen of Troy's story many years ago, it was, of course, Claire North's Ithaca that got me onto the genre of retellings of Greek epics from the female characters' points of view. That, and some heavy promotion of Costanza Casati's novel, led me to back to Norwich 'stones earlier this year for the event with Casati and Beth Schuler (I need to get around to reading the latter's Lady Macbethad soon). Then I got notification of another event at Norwich where 'Claire North' would be interviewing Jennifer Saint about her new novel Atalanta. OK, so I'd better read one of Saint's novels before I go to that. Hence buying a copy of Elektra while visiting Malvern a couple of months ago. All three books - Ithaca, Elektra and Clytemnestra - recount the events at home in Ithaca, Sparta and Mycenae while Menalaus, his brother Agamemnon, together with Odysseus and assorted other brutes go off to Troy to recover Helen, twin sister of Clytemnestra, cousins of Penelope of Ithaca. All three novels (and as I recall, Margaret George's telling of Helen) are thoroughly engaging and enjoyable reads. The motivations, the schemes, and the cleverness of the women as they fight constantly against the ignornace, brutality and mysogeny of their awful menfolk is what makes them so compelling. Basic rule of thumb: if you're going to kill a king to take over his throne, better make sure you kill all his children first or they will come back and kill you in their turn. And remember that the women are smarter than you and no less determined.

13. Red Notice, Bill Browder

I read this on the strong recommendation of a freind (Emma L). It tells the story of the events that led to the murder of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of the criminal gangs that run Russia. Putin is the figurehead and primary beneficiary of those gangs, but the country is, tragically, riddled with men and women who see public office simply as a means to extract the nation's wealth for their own personal gain. The term 'Russian Oligarchs' is a euphemism for those whole stole the most from the state following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author is the protagonist in the story. Grandson of a former US presidential candidate for the Communist Party of America, Bill Browder runs an investment fund and himself made a lot of money from the way in which state assets were sold off following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. I find that aspect both distrubing and boring. Personal gain from buying low and selling high is, for me, morally questionable but I accept it as a necessary evil in the world. For that reason, I didn't really enjoy the early part of the book that describes how Browder established his business and I can't warm to him as an individual. However, he has looked after his staff and he certainly has campaigned with huge energy, commitment and deserved success, to fight against the Russian state criminals. I'd heard of 'Magnitsy sanctions' - especially in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - so it's good now to know more about the Russian lawyer who was killed by that system ultimately because he refused to join them in the lie.

14. Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky

The end of the Final Architecture trilogy. I waited until the publication date of this third installment was getting near before reading the first one and that's a strategy I think I'll follow in future. I've read all three in the last 5 months so that I had enough memory of the previous books when starting the later ones to know what was going on. That's something I've struggled with before now. The climax and resolution of the story was satisfying - always an important metric for whether a narrative ultimately makes sense IMO. The series has xenophobia as a theme throughout. The divisions between us and them, each faction othering everyone else with predictably calamatous consequences. The ultimate baddies are pure xenophobes, intolerant of all others in 'their universe'. Add in spaceships, lasers, hyperspace (unspace, third space etc.), telepathy and a dollop of sexy cloned fighting women in figure-hugging armour and you have a rollocking good read.

15. I Who Have Never Known Men, Jacqueline Harpman (book club, Fiona)

Definitely a contender for the bleakest dystopia ever. The unnamed narrator is the youngest of a group of 40 women held without any explanation on a planet that probably isn't Earth by characters that don't speak but do all disappear at once, leaving key that the women can use to escape... to nothing. Ecologically untenable but a powerful description of coming to terms with a world completely without explanation or words to frame the relevant question, let alone the means to discover any answers. Very moving and a good choice by Fiona.

16. Friends of the Dusk, Phil Rickman.

I was given this by my old school friend who I was delighted to see recently. The first time in 42 years. It's a gentle semi-rural crime story with many of the usual tropes. I nice policeman who comes with many of the ins, outs, relationships and back-stabbing that seem to go with the police hierarchy. That kind of thing I enjoy so, for example, I'm looking forward to the new Clare Mackintosh, the follow up to Last Party. But, there's another hierarchy too - that of the church as the main protagonist is the vicar, Merrily Watkins, who also happens to be the local 'deliverance minister' or exorcist as one might call her. So along with the police politics - the main detective is, secretly, the partner of his boss who is the daughter or the former commissioner who is also a sex-pest and philanderer - we have the new bishop to contend with and the old faithful assistant who it turns out, happily, is adept at recording private conversations on her iPhone. Now add in a bit of vampire lore, 'deviant burial', archaeology, 1970s-style parties with too-young attendees and assorted odd-balls, and you have your story. Vera and her husband are very keen on Phil Rickman and I very much appreciate the chance to read something I wouldn't normally pick up but, hmmm …

17. The Thousand Earths, Stephen Baxter.

Baxter riffing on his favourite theme of the deep future & end of the universe. In this one, a near-light speed ship allows time dilation to take John Hackett millions, then billions then trillions of years into the future. The Thousand Earths are a human construct, a means of preserving humanity beyond the ultimate heath death. He does this stuff very well.

18. The Late Train to Gipsy Hill, Alan Johnson.

This would be a here today, gone tomorrow thriller were it not for the resonance with Bill Browder's Red Notice and the fact that, of course, Alan Johnson is a former Home Secretary and therefore knows of what he speaks. It centres on an innocent young man caught up with a Russian criminal gang who operate with the full knowledge and permssion of the FSB and the Kremlin - they're all part of the same organisation as Bill Browder explains. Very enjoyable page-turner that I looked forward to reading having enjoyed One of Our Ministers is Missing (which I notice I forgot to record reading last year).

19. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (book club, Kate).

I knew what to expect having heard (and enjoyed) Meet David Sedaris on Radio 4. This is a collection of the kind of pieces he presents in that programme - short reflections on his past. As the cover grab lines say - he's in the same mould as Alan Bennett in that sense. I tried reading it as a book but took a break to read the Neil Macinness novel - Sedaris is best dipped into rather than reading it all in one go.

20. In Ascension, Martin Macinnes.

I found this in the independent bookshop in Penzance where we went on holiday with the family. An intriguing novel that stands apart from anything else I've read recently. It's written from the perspective of Leigh, a biologist with a particular interest in archaen life forms. It's reminiscent of Carl Sagan's Contact and so I couldn't help comparing Leigh with Ellie Arroway but that's not really fair. The two novels are very different despite both essentially describing first contact without a full resolution of exactly what contact was made with. Superb stuff. I need to dig into Macinness's back catalogue (this is his third novel). I have a strong suspicion I'll be reading a lot more of his work in future.

21. One, Eve Smith.

The only problem with Eve Smith's dystopias is that they're all so believable. In this one she creates a totalitarian eco-fascist Britain that demonises refugees in a way that's entirely plausible in our current political times. I fear Suella Braverman will find it inspirational. The climate breakdown is the justification for a ruthless one child policy with attendant orphanages for 'excess' children, a wholly state-controlled media hiding huge crimes committed by those in power. All wrapped up in a story in which a life-long true believer gradually has the truth revealed to her. An excellent novel. One that would make a good Sunday night TV drama series.

22. Game of Lies, Clare Mackintosh.

A second case for Ffion Morgan in the border town of Cwm Coed, and another chance for her to work with Cheshire's Leo Brady with the usual will they/won't they thread. In this one, the hillside above the lake is the setting for a reality TV show. Cameras everywhere and yet there are secrets kept by everyone. Oh and there's a murder to solve. Mackintosh has fun with the ludicrous nature of reality TV, contestants' willingness to be publicly humiliated, the parasitic social media and the public voyeurism. One of the themes is how pre-planned and scripted the 'reality' is, something I reflected on in my post about The Traitors.

23. Act of Oblivion, Robert Harris.

I bought this a couple of days before its official publication day at a newly opened independent bookshop in Pickering during a short break in North Yorkshire. It sat on the shelf for a year because I knew that I'd enjoy it but I also knew it was not going to be a quick read. Both were true. Harris does historical novels very well. In this one I learned that the Act of Oblivion was the name given to an act of parliament passed after the restoration of the monarchy. It pardoned everyone who had fought for Cromwell except the men who 'killed the king', the 'regicides'. They were to be prosecuted. Most were hanged drawn and quartered, some died before the act was passed and a few managed to hide for lengthy periods before eventually being caught. Two — Cromwell's cousin and that man's son-in-law — fled to New England and spent the rest of their lives in hiding. The book filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge concerning the civil war itself, the term 'Puritan' and the rapidity of the decision to try and then execute Charles I. Well worth the commitment to read this. Incidentally, I should record that it was the necessary prop when adopting the persona of 'bloke with a book' in the Golden Lion this time.

24. The Housekeepers, Alex Hay.

I bought this from the Victoria Bookshop in Haverfordwest while browsing for signed first editions. A big house mystery, the downstairs staff exacting revenge on them upstairs, plenty of scope for intrigue and unexpected reveals. Hmm … No. Well, it was OK but sadly it didn't really live up to its billing. The characters weren't credible or particularly engaging, the fact that all the major characters were related confused everything and the whole thing just didn't knit together.

25. The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex (book club, me).