I’ve read so many good books this year – and a few terrible ones – so here’s a catch-up from over the summer before I start doing end of the month things again.
A Passion for Mars by Andrew Chaikin
If you were following my book a month photos, you’ll remember this was a book I’ve been reading for years. I put it back on my to-read pile after that and finally finished it! The good thing is that each chapter covers a different era/mission/person so it was easy enough to get back into, although I probably forgot which people had been involved in previous missions. If you’re interested in space exploration this is worth getting, especially since Mars exploration is still big news. Reading about all the early missions and everything they discovered about Mars is almost as exciting as the Apollo missions, and there are loads of amazing images included. (Buy on Amazon)
Child Octopus / Pretty Good Number One by Matthew Amster-Burton
Both these books tread a similar path, involving trips to Asia (Tokyo and Hong Kong) where the author and his food-loving young daughter eat their way around town. Both are really just collections of short essays so great to drop in and out of, although I read both in one sitting each. They’re easy to read and full of weird and wonderful food, people and places. It suffers a little from being a bit too jokey – the writing is interesting enough without feeling like you’re constantly supposed to be in fits of laughter – but if you like food writing and travel and, I imagine, especially if you have kids, these are well worth picking up, and really cheap too. (Buy on Amazon)
Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
I don’t know why I picked up Wolf Hall as I’m not generally a fan of historical fiction, but I’m so glad I did as I loved it and taken together they might be my favourite things I read this year. Telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power, it gets right inside his head and family life, making him so much more interesting, sympathetic and almost heroic compared to the usual portrayals. Obviously well-researched, but with a huge amount of poetic license and a use of contemporary language that makes it easy to get caught up in. The writing style reminded me a bit of Parade’s End, both with the words and the phrasing and the rhythm keeping me delighted, and how you feel like you don’t understand what’s happening, only to watch it all come together beautifully. It’s one of my favourite types of books, that instantly make you want to read it again to study the construction, like re-reading a mystery novel once you know who dunnit. I came out of it in a sort of obsessive daze and immediately read the sequel, which suffers a little from speeding up the plot, and am now bereft waiting the final book. I would be quite happy if she drags it out into another ten books instead. (Buy on Amazon)
The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford
Rather coincidentally, I then discovered that Ford Madox Ford (author of Parade’s End) also wrote a book about Cromwell, which picks up not long after where Bring Up The Bodies stops and is in the public domain. I thought it would be an interesting contrast and it certainly is. A trilogy of short novels, it focuses on Katharine Howard – Henry VIII’s fifth queen – and bizarrely casts her as the most perfect woman who ever existed, while Cromwell is basically Darth Vader. It’s written in ye olde medieval language and comes off as something of a Dickensian romp – it wisely tells most of the story from the point of view of minor characters plotting away in the background including bumbling religious types, idiot servant boys and dastardly spies so I ended up enjoying it rather a lot. (Free to download)
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Another one that has jumped right into my favourite ever books list. My dad lent me this and I loved it so much as it’s one of my favourite genres – overprivileged gentleman of the British Empire goes travelling in the 1950s. This is a cut above the usual though as Eric Newby has a tremendous way with words and his sense of resigned wretched misery about every aspect of his hilariously disastrous journey is a constant delight. At the beginning he jacks in his job in a fashion house and joins up with an old friend to visit a remote part of Afghanistan and climb an unclimbed mountain, despite the fact that they are both clueless about mountaineering. Things start quite badly and get worse and worse until the whole expedition becomes a cloud of illness, discomfort, loathing and resentment but never stops being funny – it’s amazing that he manages to keep his sense of humour throughout. It’s all thoroughly entertaining and fairly interesting too, although he is pretty disparaging of everyone and everything. Must read everything else he’s written. (Buy on Amazon)
Barbed Wire Kisses by Zoë Howe
It’s always worth making an ebook wishlist and checking it during Kindle sales – this is a biography of The Jesus and Mary Chain that I picked up for 99p. I always enjoy reading about the early years of Creation Records, and it turned out I didn’t actually know much about JAMC at all, despite my former band covering 2 of their songs. The book’s interesting enough, though the writing is a bit amateurish and not that compelling. It did make me dig out my records so good job on that front. Glad I didn’t pay full price though, especially as an astonishing 35% of the book is taken up with a timeline/discography/index etc. (Buy on Amazon)
Extreme Sleeps by Phoebe Smith
Another 99p bargain. This is a collection of short pieces about wild camping written by the editor of my favourite travel magazine, Wanderlust. She takes short trips around Britain (Lake District, Cornwall, Dartmoor, Cairngorms, Jura etc.) and stays overnight in a tent or cave away from the usual campsites. As with all these sort of books, there’s a mix of the bad (disastrous weather and getting lost) to the good (amazing scenery and solitude) plus some amusing moments. I enjoyed it a lot, but I am still not tempted to go camping again, let alone out in the middle of nowhere on my own. (Buy on Amazon)
Starglass/Starbreak by Phoebe North
I’d been looking forward to reading these for a few years, as I came across Phoebe’s writing while she was still looking for an agent and then enjoyed the excerpt published on Tor. Plus it’s set on a generation ship, one of my favourite sci-fi concepts. Unfortunately, it turns out only the first book is set on the spaceship but it’s all quite well imagined. The plot suffers a bit from YA tropes and teenage love triangles, but it was a fun read. I didn’t really enjoy the second book as much – the plot points were all a bit too convenient for our protagonist and there was way too much overwrought romance. Also (minor spoiler) intelligent humanoid alien plants. I also wrongly thought it was a trilogy so I was quite disappointed that we were just told how everything worked out in the future, when it could have been an interesting third book. (Buy on Amazon)
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
This is one of the most eye-opening books I’ve read in ages. It is literally beyond belief, except that it’s written by a respected Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and exhaustively researched and fact-checked. If you thought Scientology was just some stupid sci-fi celebrity thing, prepare to be horrified and dumbfounded. (Buy on Amazon)
The Abominable by Dan Simmons
This is the stupidest book I have ever read and I am going to spoil the plot so you don’t read it. The first half is a horrendously overlong tedious detailing of some mountaineers who plan to climb Everest shortly after Mallory & Irvine disappeared trying to be the first to summit, so they can look for some made-up peer who was around too. There are loads of really obvious FORESHADOWING mentions of yeti so when they finally stop faffing about and get there you are expecting it all to go supernatural and yetis and it does, but then it turns out the yetis are NAZIS IN DISGUISE! Amazing. It then gets even stupider as they basically have a mass shootout at the top of Everest, as you do, and manage to stop Hitler ever being elected because they have incriminating photographs. Well done there. Also they obviously find Mallory and Irvine’s bodies and make up some “facts” about whether they got to the summit (I can’t remember now, they probably did) and then insert some other idiocy to “explain” why no-one’s found Irvine’s body in real life yet. Complete tosh and yet I finished it because I wanted to see how dumb it would get (answer: very). I hope they make a film of this – it would be a hilarious trainwreck. (Buy on Amazon, if you must)
As always, you can friend me on Goodreads to see what I’m currently reading (more Ford Madox Ford).
That photo at the top is of a lovely old bookshop on my street that I have still not been in because I fear it might contain lots of things I want.