It has been a long time since I did one of these so what follows is brief summary of some of the best books I’ve read in the first six months of this year.
Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake
In the late 1990s I went through a phase of reading everything that Atwood had written. The one book of hers that I failed to connect with was one of her most popular, The Handmaids Tale. So, I feared that returning to Atwood after many years with another of her science fiction (though Atwood doesn’t like them to be called that) may not have been the wisest move. I needn’t have worried because Oryx and Crake is up there with Alias Grace as her best work. An excellent and haunting story, beautifully written, of a future world scarred by genetic engineering and other scientific developments. I look forward now to reading The Year of the Flood.
Ben MacIntyre – Agent Zig Zag
The wonderful true story of Eddie Chapman, a small time, but violent, criminal in pre-war Britain who is arrested in the Channel Islands at the start of the second world war and is in prison at the time of the German occupation. He sees a route out by offering to become a German agent. Earning the trust of the Germans he is trained and dropped back into the UK where he offers his service to the British as a double agent. Chapman is a fascinating character and is expertly brought to life by MacIntyre who has a real gift for writing a gripping story. Highly recommended.
Andrew Smith– Moondust
Andrew Smith’s excellent account of the Apollo programme differs from other books on Apollo in that although it has plenty of technical detail, its main focus is the astronauts. Smith attempts to track down and interview each of the remaining living Apollo astronauts and to discover what links them and how the programme changed their lives. Whilst some have embraced the fame that walking on the moon brought them, others have shunned it. Smith allows them space and is careful in how he judges them. The book contains some great facts and amusing stories: I especially like that one of the astronauts submitted a claim for mileage for the trip to the moon and back; NASA returned the claim with a bill for the craft that took him there and back. The book sits alongside The Right Stuff as the essential reads on the space programme.
Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger
Waters is a lovely, talented writer and a great storyteller. Her latest is essentially a Victorian ghost story but set in the aftermath of the Second World War. It touches briefly on politics and substantially on class. The characters are believable, but not particularly likeable. Although the story is beautifully paced with a number of geniunely creepy moments. Recommended.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Purple Hibiscus
Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was one of my favourite books of last year. Her debut is nearly as good. A wonderful, evocative tale of growing up in the political and religious turmoil of Nigeria. Like Yellow Sun Adichie does a great job in creating an atmosphere – the tension is high and the pain of the main characters felt. Adichie has recently been selected by the New Yorker as one of their “20 under 40” young writers to watch out for.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - The Thing Around Your Neck
Adichie’s short story collection did not, for me, reach the highs of her two novels but still has much to recommend it. As with the novels the characters are strong but the short story format does not give her the time to bring the reader into their lives as she does so brilliantly in the novels. Some of these don’t feel like short stories but more like sketches for a longer book. But the writing remains powerful and lyrical. Worth reading but read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun first.
Richard Williams – The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music
The title of this book, and the back cover blurb which talks about following the lineage from A Kind of Blue through La Monte Young / Steve Reich, to VU, Soft Machine and right on to Eno and beyond, set an ambitious argument which Williams doesn’t quite pull off. He writes with passion about the music and art he likes and know his subject(s). He also references a lot of music and musicians I like including The Necks and Nik Bartsch. But all the time he is up against Ashley Kahn’s masterly book on a Kind of Blue. Overall worth reading but also flawed.
Michael Chabon – Kavlier and Clay
A huge and hugely ambitious and imaginative work, Chabon’s Kavlier and Clay tells the story of two Jewish cousins in 1930s and 40s New York – one New York born, the other a recent escapee from occupied Prague. The cousins create a comic book hero who makes them rich, the profits from which one uses to try to bring his family from Europe. The story is gripping – one of those rare books which keeps you up late at night – and frequently moving.
Michael Brooks – 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
A popular science book which is unusual in that it actually leaves you with more questions than answers. Over the 13 chapters in this short book Brooks explains why subjects as diverse as cold fusion, dark matter, placebo, sex and freewill don’t make any scientific sense, and demonstrates that for all the scientific breakthroughs we have made there is still so much that we don’t understand. Brooks pitches the book about right – enough scientific detail but not too much to confuse the layman.
Colm Toibin – Brooklyn
Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn was one of the most praised books of 2010, appearing on the top of most critic’s end of year lists. It is easy to see why. This is a beautiful, sparse piece of work, deceptively simple – I think it can leave some readers underwhelmed – but incredibly powerful. It is written from a female perspective, recounting the story of a young Irish woman who starts a new life in 1950s New York. Forced to return back to Ireland she realises how much she has changed and has to make some difficult decisions.
Simon Armitage – Seeing Stars
Armitage’s latest collection is a wonderfully written, often very funny collection of poems which take delightfully surreal turns. For example the opening poem is written from the perspective of a whale, complete with useful information about whales, but then the whale tells us that his brother owns a camping shop in the Lake District. Another poem is James Cameron discovering on his birthday that all his family and friends are actors. And in another a driver picks up Denis Bergkamp on the side of the road as his chauffeur had ditched him on the way to a game in Belgium. There has been debate about whether this is really poetry (as a fan of modern jazz I am used to such debates). Ignore them and read this for what it is: a brilliant collection of writing.
Jason Cowley – The Last Game: Love, Death and Football
Cowley takes as his starting point the last match of the 1989 British football season where Arsenal needed to win by two clear goals at Liverpool to take the title. They did so scoring in the last minute. From here Cowley looks at how football changed forever following the disaster at Hillsborough a month earlier and how his own relationship with his father altered. As an Arsenal fan who grew up in the same area as Cowley at around the same time I found that there was much I could relate to in the book (I was at many of the same matches) and it brought back many memories – both good (the joy of that goal) and terrible (the memory of Hillsborough). It also made me look afresh at my relationship with the modern game and how my young son sees football.
JG Farrell – Troubles
Farrell’s 1970 novel recently won the Lost Booker prize and so has been receiving a lot of media attention and very positive reviews. It tells the story of an English Major in Ireland after the First World War, set around a once grand hotel. There are elements of Evelyn Waugh, especially in the slight, dark humour. I found it ok but like so many Booker winners I could not separate it from its hype which it never lived up to.
Simon Mawer – Glass Room
A truly lovely book, beautifully written. Mawer’s novel concerns a commissioned private, modern house built in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and the lives of the people who occupy it over 60 years: first a wealthy, half-jewish, business family; later a German scientist during the occupation; then a clinic; and finally as a museum. The characters are believable and despite their flaws very likeable (in this it reminds me of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun). It relies perhaps a bit too much on coincidence but remains a great piece of writing and storytelling.