Sunday, January 22, 2017

My 2016 book reviews list

This is my last review for 2016. Last year I split the books I'd read in 2015 across three posts. I've decided not to do that this time around, even though this will end up as a long post! I have split it into fiction (with comic books and children's fiction separate) and non-fiction. Just scroll down for non-fiction if you have no interest in fiction. I've also listed them in the order I finished them.

Fiction books 

Burmese Days - George Orwell ~ based on his real-life experiences growing up in Burma during British imperial occupation, this is ahead of its time in showing the brutal racism that underpinned British attitudes to the subject races of the Empire. It also included this funny extract about the Bible.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy ~ exceedingly long Russian classic that took me a couple of years to finish. My reading of it was not helped by how deeply unsympathetic Anna Karenina is as a character. You can read a full review of just how much I disliked this book here.

Player One - Douglas Coupland ~ four strangers are trapped in an airport bar as the world comes to an abrupt, apocalyptic end. I noticed several ideas were recycled from other Coupland books, sometimes verbatim. Then I discovered this novel was actually his contribution to a famous lecture series so I can't really blame him for cutting a few corners. Still, not his best work. The most interesting character in this is a girl with autism who breeds laboratory mice for a living and her interaction with the world and self-awareness about how she interacts differently is well captured.

Generation A - Douglas Coupland ~ after bees go 'extinct', five random strangers across the world are stung and become the centre of government attempts to solve the riddle of the bees. The five are detained under the watchful eye of a crazy scientist who believes the link is in the power of story-telling. It's a bit of a weird one, even by Coupland's standards but reasonably enjoyable.

The Gates - John Connolly ~ this is a young adult novel about Samuel, a young teenage boy who discovers his neighbours are messing around with the occult and have accidentally opened "the gates" that allow demons through from hell into the real world. Of course no adults believe Samuel so it is up to him and his mates to save the world. Some of the demonic carnage is surprisingly gruesome.

Dragonflight - Anne McCaffrey ~ fantasy story about a world where dragons are used to combat interplanetary spores that will destroy all life. It had a plot device that I worked out long before the characters did. There's an awful lot of conversations about events rather than describing the action, which makes it feel dated. It's also clear that other authors (like Naomi Novik) owe a huge debt to the ideas in this book.

The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks ~ the second Culture novel, centering on a representative of the Culture being commissioned to visit the Empire of Azad and play the famous Game of Azad that determines who will become Emperor. I had read this before 13 years ago and was surprised how many key scenes in the story I remembered, I felt I got more out of it on the second reading and it was interesting to see how advanced Banks' ideas about the Culture were so early on in the series.

Fangland - John Marks ~ creepy horror that borrows heavily from Dracula and other vampire lore. Evangeline Harker works for a TV news channel and travels to Transylvania to interview a crime lord who turns out to be a darker monster that feeds off the memories of murder victims. The monster wants to travel to New York because it's attracted to the energy unleashed from the ruins of the World Trade Centre (this was published in 2007 not long after 9/11). I don't usually read horror and was misled slightly by the quirky cover that promised more humour in the story.

Complicity - Iain Banks ~ a newspaper columnist is framed for a series of grisly murders, and it looks bad for him because all the victims are people he had named in one of his columns as people who deserved to have some street justice meted out to them. He has to find the real killer before the police decide the circumstantial evidence is too great to ignore. There's a lot of sex and bloody violence in the story, both of which stray into being uncomfortably graphic.

The Girl with all the Gifts ~ M.R. Carey - science fiction post-apocalyptic zombie story that I think was probably my book of the year. Melanie is a child held in a secure education institution who begins to realise she is not a normal girl like the ones she reads about in books. The world outside is not as the books say as well, with the human population under threat from zombie cannibals, known as 'hungries'. When hungries overwhelm the institution, Melanie and some human protectors try to reach Beacon, the last outpost of humanity. But first they have to cross a hungry-infested London. The cause of the 'hungry' outbreak is based on a process found in nature. The book itself is gripping, I kept finding myself wanting to pick it up at breakfast to find out what happened next, and it was difficult to put it down. The characters are all very believable, despite the questionable premise.

When They Come from Space - Mark Clifton ~ 1960s science fiction that is more of a pastiche of political bureaucracy. Ralph Kennedy, a psychologist, is drafted by mistake into the space navy just before aliens make contact with humans. There was some humour and the lampooning of media barons was entertaining, but the story wasn't particularly thrilling.

Children's fiction

The Wombles to the Rescue - Elisabeth Beresford ~ the Wombles need to meet their fellow Wombles from around the world to deal with the great oil crisis (this was written in the 70s). While Great Uncle Bulgaria heads to the International Womble Conference in the USA, Tobermory solves the problem with a synthetic replacement, showing the Wombles were light years ahead of human green tech solutions. The story is oddly paced and there are no scenes at the conference or in America, which seems like a missed opportunity to widen the world of the Wombles a bit and show us what American ones are like.

Noggin the King - Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin ~ short story book about Noggin the Nog (70s kids TV character). As king, Noggin feels a responsibility to care for his people, but he doesn't know if he is also king of the birds and whether he should be caring for them, so he goes with Queen Nooka into the forest to find out. The story really comes second to the lovely illustrations.

Comic books (or graphic novels)

Halo & Sprockett: Welcome to Humanity - Kerry Callan ~ entertaining collection of comic strips about an angel (Halo) and a robot (Sprockett) who are living with a young woman called Katie, and are trying to understand human beings. There's a lot of heart to the book and I found it very amusing.

Serenity: Better Days ~ the Serenity crew (from the TV series Firefly) come into money in a heist but then lose it again, possibly because Mal is afraid his crew are going to split up now they are rich. We also learn that first mate Zoe was a 'dust devil' terrorist who kept on fighting after the war ended.

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale ~ it turns out Shepherd Book is not a holy man at all. As his story is told in reverse his links to the Alliance forces are revealed, but as the story goes back further more secrets about his origins tell a very different story. I wasn't sure I liked the deconstruction of the character this way or finding out who he really was, but the story was well told.

Non-fiction books

Shopping in Jail - Douglas Coupland ~ a collection of essays, including a reflection on Generation X, twenty years later. Some of his thoughts about how humans and technology could merge in the future and the development of alternate copies of human minds (stored doppelgangers or 'cloud-gangers') were thought-provoking. He had a good line about how in the past there were movements (like surrealism) that lasted decades, but now we have memes that only last a few days.

66: The World Cup in Real Time - Ian Passingham ~ I was sent this reportage style review of England's 1966 World Cup victory to review for When Saturday Comes. I thought it was an interesting way to tell a story that has been told many times before. (Published review here)

The Boy Who Wanted to Fly - Don Mullan ~ weird hagiography written by a peace campaigner in Northern Ireland whose hero was England goalkeeper Gordon Banks. I like books about goalkeepers so picked it up to add to my collection. Don's own experiences - he was a witness to the events of Bloody Sunday - are glossed over in favour of repeating the mantra that if more people were like Gordon Banks the world would be a better place.

Godless Morality - Richard Holloway ~ a thoughtful book about constructing a moral framework without the problematic issue of saying 'this is what God wants'.  Read my longer review here

Nothing - various authors ~ a collection of essays published by New Scientist on the concept of 'nothing'. From studies of what elements do when reduced to absolute zero, through to patterns in the unconscious brain, through to the development of the concept of zero as a number, this is a bit of a mixed bag and some of the essays were too similar. But there were lots of things to think about.

Marshall McLuhan - Douglas Coupland ~ unorthodox biography, notable for being Douglas Coupland's first attempt at writing a book like this. It tells McLuhan's story well, as a misunderstood predictor of the Internet age who hated technology. McLuhan is eminently quotable but only if the quotes are taken out of context. Coupland weaves in his own connections with McLuhan into the narrative, for example, taking a photo of McLuhan's grave for a fax advertising campaign in the 80s, and while this is odd in a biography it kind of works in a fitting tribute to a man whose view of the world defied convention and divided opinion in his lifetime.

God is Watching You - Dominic Johnson ~ an interesting blend of psychology and evolutionary theory that suggests supernatural beliefs about divine punishment offered an evolutionary advantage to social groups as humanity emerged. The theory suggests this has produced human beings who are hardwired to believe in supernatural agents. Controversially, this may mean society may only function optimally if people are afraid of incurring the wrath of supernatural agents. The main points of the theory are backed up by experimental research findings, but it got a bit repetitive, as if the author was trying to stretch a few papers out into a book.

How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World - Francis Wheen ~ a collection of angry essays targeting 'nonsense'. Post-modernism comes in for a hammering, as do trickle-down economics, the Left's support for radical Islam, the cult of Princess Diana, conspiracy theorists, and rapid globalisation that destroys economies in developing countries. This book was published in 2004 and could do with being updated in the light of ISIS and the post-truth politics and lies of the Brexiteers and Donald Trump.

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