Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Book Reviews: January - 14th February, 2017.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson: Something of a potted guide to science history and not bad as far as it goes. The problem is if you know anything about science, you will think the science doesn't go as deep as you want it to go. Bryson becomes a little too fixated on the people who made science and, specifically, the people forgotten by science. Unlike the other books in the list, which I've read quite quickly, this was something I hadn't finished in 2016 and took me months to get through, mainly on train journeys. Another case where I find I never enjoy Bryson's books as much as I want to like them.

The Three Body ProblemLiu Cixin:  A strange book in that I found hard to get into simply because of the challenge of dealing with so many Chinese names and a treatment of Virtual Reality that felt a bit too much like Star Trek's holodeck to be entirely believable. I'd heard the book discussed on the Tested.com podcasts and I did begin to wonder what the fuss was about until the last third when it really picked up with some great science. That was enough to encourage me to read the next in the series. I'm glad I did. The Three Body Problem should be read as the prelude to two of the best science fiction books I've ever read.

The Dark ForestLiu Cixin: If the Three Body Problem only hinted at how good this series could be, the second book in the trilogy was where I became hooked. This book covering generations of human history and scientific advance. The world building is sublime.

Death's End, Liu Cixin: The last book of the Three Body trilogy was masterful. The ambition of the book is incomparable to anything I've ever read. It even puts the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey to shame. What's more: the science never felt like it slips into the fantastic. This even contains a version of light speed travel done in a way where it embraced the nihilistic nature of speeding across the galaxy. This is a book where entire civilisations of human life pass by in a sentence or are simply ignored.

The Conclave, Robert Harris: Read this in an afternoon. Even as a devout atheist, I'm always intrigued by books about religion and the politics of the church. This had all of that. Not sure why I recommend it but I do recommend it, whilst being aware that it might just be one of those books that presses all the right buttons for me whilst annoying the hell out of anybody else.

The Isle of Joy, Don Winslow: The only book I've had to force myself to finish. Winslow's The Power of the Dog was one of the best books I've ever read, comparable to Ellroy at his best (and only a touch less good than Mailer's simply brilliant Harlot's Ghost). This, however, felt more like a extended piece of research, using the backdrop of the early 1960s to produce a roman-a-clef that thinly disguises the world of John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. By the end, I warmed to it but not enough to make me want to pick another Winslow in the near future.

Old Man's War, John Scalzi: Another quick read (and another recommendation from Tested.com). This one hearkens back to the military sci fi of Robert A. Heinlein. Reads a bit like a latter day Starship Troopers. Quick read but highly recommended.

The Ghost BrigadesJohn Scalzi: The second book in the Old Man's War series. A sequel whilst not being a direct sequel, which I also thought better than the first book. Another quick read. I've not read this much science fiction for a very long time but I'm now reading entirely for pleasure and that's what this was. Highly recommended. In fact, the third book (The Last Colony) is the next on my reading list.

A Most Wanted Man, John Le Carre: I love Le Carre's work but always want to give new readers a warning that it's highly likely that they won't become a fan. It's sometimes slow moving and steeped in introspection. However, if you like spy novels containing people with ugly motives and real character flaws, then there are no writers who better straddle genre fiction and first class literature. Most Wanted Man isn't Le Carre at his best but it's still better than the best of most thriller writers.

The Night Manager, John Le Carre: Longer and therefore better than A Most Wanted Man, The Night Manager really is Le Carre at his best. I couldn't put it down. Thankfully, I hadn't seen the recent TV series. Ignore the reviews over at Good Reads, mainly written by women who read it thinking they'd be reading about Tom Hiddleston. This is a book filled with those emotionally complex characters plagued by idealism and often defeated by the grim reality of an ugly world. One of those books where I often find myself tutting, shaking my head, and thinking 'just great writing'.

A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin: Reread this for the second time in a year simply because it felt so relevant to modern politics. What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister? I expect pretty much a version of this story in which the forces of the establishment do everything to undermine the authority of the Prime Minister. If you believe politics is a rotten game, this is a book for you.

The Girl With All The Gifts, M.R. Carey: I'd seen Mark Kermode's review of the film and had it down as something I wanted to watch. When I saw the book on sale in Tesco for £3, I took a punt. A really quick read, which I had finished over a couple of sessions on a long Sunday. Typical (in a good way) post apocalyptic zombie survival fare which felt a bit like John Wyndam crossed with Richard Matheson. I've since seen the film which convinced me that I made the right decision. The book is far better than the movie but not necessarily great stuff, least of all because there were a few moments when it was evident he needed a better editor. One moment a character has her hands tied, the next she's flailing them about before they're tied again. Class this as a dumb but fun read which is a bit too derivative to be recommended too highly.