At the start of 2022 I was reading a dense tome called “Railroaded – transcontinentals and the making of modern America” which was all about the development of the railroads, the growth of monopoly capitalism, and the effect this has had on American culture. I had to skip whole chapters; it was fascinating – but alas, rather intermittently and unreliably so. I was at the same time re-acquainting myself with the pulp science-fiction of Philip Jose Farmer (his “World of Tiers” series), and Sven Hassel’s “Monte Cassino“, a story of the second world war in Italy as seen from the German perspective.
In January I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s historical novel “Red Sky at noon” about – cough – war in the Ukraine. Reviewed here. His novel opened “The red earth was already baking and the sun was just rising when they mounted their horses and rode across the grasslands towards a horizon that was on fire“. What an opening! I read Tim Marshall’s “The Power of Geography“, a weaker book, perhaps than his earlier outstanding “Prisoners of Geography”.
In February I finished another historical tome, Ray Allen Billington’s “Westward Expansion – a history of the American frontier”, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in this topic, an abiding fascination of mine. This book covers the whole, from the early Spanish incursions to the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. Also in February I found time to read William Gibson’s “Agency” – one of his stories involving computer-generated “stubs” of a somehow alternate past rather like the recently filmed “The Peripheral” which I read years ago and am watching now.
In March I found myself enjoying John Julius Norwich’s history of “France” (how many of us in England know anything other than the very basic facts about that country?) and also military historian John Keegan’s “History of warfare“. I was then a little ambivalent about the highly recommended “Humankind – a hopeful history” by the Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman. Very readable and informative but not a book whose conclusions I could whole-heartedly agree with – a bit like the work of Yuval Noah Harari in this respect. It’s not all about nodding sagely in agreement, nor all putting the book down in frowning consternation.
A short interlude in May saw me reading a book called “How steam locomotives really work“. I’ve still got that one – not given it away. It’s a gem in that it conveys an understanding of a very complex and difficult technical subject without resorting to advanced mathematics. In May I read the first novel of a friend of ours, Mrs Ruth D’Alessandro’s “Calling WPC Crockford“, an engaging memoir of rural policing in the 1950’s. We eagerly await both a sequel and watchable early Sunday evening TV adaptions thereof. Keith Robert’s “Pavane” – reviewed here – I had never heard of, despite its publication as an “SF Masterwork”. I thought I know my SF – but perhaps not? A pavane is a kind of Latin dance. This Pavane is a remarkable alternative history, a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end.
In June I read another sci-fi classic, Doris Lessing’s “Shikasta“. Shikasta is our earth, as seen from the viewpoint of those who try to settle it from afar. Like much great work by her and other female science-fiction writers such as Ursula le Guin, there are much deeper ideas at play here: this is not guns and heroes space-opera. A key idea explored in Shikasta is the importance of collectivism and community. At the far extremity of her argument in this direction, we see the idea that individualism itself could actually be a form of mental illness. You may be sure I don’t agree with that.
I was Between East and West – that is, touring in Eastern Europe – with Anne Applebaum, and then, I travelled from Portugal to India with Roger Crowley for an eye-opening account of “how Portugal forged the first global empire”. Remarkable to read what happened when men from Portugal – a primitive and feudal middle-ages culture – arrived at length in the Indian Ocean. They entered a sea of traders, free markets, and if by no means a democracy, then certainly, a functioning multi-cultural melting pot. The Portuguese, possessed as they were of vastly superior military technology but a much weaker moral and cultural understanding, swept the lot away and as good as destroyed everything they touched. There is a lesson there for us all.
Christopher Hibbert has published a life of Admiral Lord “Nelson – a personal history“. Nelson was a flawed man and not quite the untouchable English hero we see on the plinth in Trafalgar Square. I read the journal of Osborne Russell, a nineteenth century trapper: “nine years in the Rocky mountains“. I waded through Frank Snepp’s “Decent Interval“, about the Vietnam War. Upsetting. It put me in mind of a character created by the writer Richard Morgan who said “Anyone who still loves his country just hasn’t read enough history books yet”. Never a truer word wrote in fiction…
As summer turned to Autumn I had another good read on an upsetting and blood-soaked topic, “Partition” by Barney Spunner-White. This came about following a re-read of Kipling’s “Kim” and then a canter through Kipling’s short autobiography “Something of myself“. From upsetting and blood-soaked, to the engaging writing of Andrew Marr’s “The making of modern Britain”. Then, back to Norman times for “The White Ship” by Charles Spencer, being a history of pre-Plantagenet England, based loosely around the foundering of the aforementioned ship at Barfleur in 1120. Only two people survived. The king’s son and heir to the throne, William the Conqueror’s grandson, was drowned. This tragedy precipitated decades of bitter and bloody civil war.
Becky Chambers’ gentle and uplifting “social” science fiction “A closed and common orbit” tells the story of a woman – herself rescued from destruction as a child – who befriends and helps another woman. With Becky Chambers work it’s all in the emotional back-story: two plots move towards one another, only combining in the final pages. M John Harrison provided “You should come with me now“, being a collection of rather odd but compelling short stories about ghosts. Deeply strange, and rather reminiscent of the work of China Mieville. In the autumn, I re-engaged with the local library after many years away, and I borrowed and read “Thin Air” by Richard Morgan. You’ve read one Richard Morgan sci-fi/detective novel, you’ve read ’em all… Unremitting, gory violence. A bad tempered and ill-mannered former enforcer hero. Market forces gone mad. Explicit sex. All the usual Morgan tropes. Somehow unputdownable. More? Yes: Adam Robert’s “Bete” – another bad-tempered and irascible hero in a world where animals can talk – and do. Also, Sylvain Nouvel’s “Sleeping Giants“, a novel in the form of a series of interviews with a never-named representative of a shadowy and all-powerful government agency.
Moving back to non-fiction to finish, Jorge Cham wrote “We have no idea“, being a jocular, cartoony, sub-Bill Bryson account of how little science the human race actually knows. Refreshing reading, as I finished the year with Steven Weinberg’s (again highly recommended) “The first three minutes” about the birth of the universe. I thought it would be good; though he had a few good phrases, overall I was disappointed. I suppose cosmology IS complicated – see my comments above about advanced mathematics. I read Christian Woolmar’s “Cathedrals of Steam” about London’s great railway termini, which was a great account though it dwell on how things might have been better organised. I found Theodore Dalrymple’s anecdotes from the under-class (“Life at the bottom“) the more depressing for it being over twenty years old and knowing that little if anything has improved in that time.
Fifty-one books. Around a fifth of them, were re-reading. Only two-thirds I read in paper copy – the rest were on a Kindle. This year, a little over half of my reading was pure fiction. I re-read some old favourites: “The Lord of the Rings“, Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls“, and Stephen Baxter’s “Moonseed” and “Ark” to mention a handful. I finish the year deep in Nick Hayes’ “The Book of Trespass” which is troubling but exciting reading.