Summer Holiday Books 2012

While I was listening to Siggy sizzle in the heat of the Skiathos’s June sunshine I took the time to read a few books. Last time we were there it was Russel Brand’s bookywooky (volume 1), a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s and a few others – the weather was crap so I had plenty of time to read and cook up ideas for a book of my own – this is where ‘Broken’ began to gestate in my mind. This time round, between Euro 2012 matches, a variety of grilled meat based food, and plenty of Mythos i got stuck in to the following mixed bags of literary tricks:

  • Bernard Cornwell – Heretic
  • Margeret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Audrey Niffenegger – Her Fearful Symmetry
  • Timothy Zahn – Star Wars: Last Command
  • Valerio Massimo Manfredi – The Oracle
  • Trudi Canavan – The Magician’s Guild

Heretic is the third book of a trilogy about an English archer based in the time when the Spanish Inquistion wasn’t expected by anyone (or maybe I have got this wrong as it’s based in France so I guess it’s a French inquisition). Anyway there’s some religious zealots going around burning witches and killing anyone seen as a heretic. The heretic in this case is a lovely gypsy type women who the main character falls for when he frees her from being burned at the stake. The archer is on a quest to find the Holy Grail – no really he is! This is Book 3 of the Grail Quest trilogy after all! But it’s not all Sir Lancelot and all that silliness. As usual Cornwell’s historic accuracy seems to be excellently researched and it is the gritty realness that is used while he is weaving this outlandish tale which makes it such a good read. Although I had not read books one or two, I didn’t care that it was Book 3 – I kind of knew what to expect after having been reading random Corwell books on holiday for 3 years or so. I picked this up for £1.25 at Sue Ryder along with all the others listed apart from Her Fearful Symmetry and the Star Wars book, and for that price I wasn’t disappointed. Also a friend had told me that ‘the archer series is a good read’. Hopefully some day I will come across books 1 and 2. (5/5)

The Handmaid’s Tale was quite a loaded purchase as i had been lead to believe that she was somewhat of a feminist of the school of thought that ‘every man is a potential rapist’ – can’t quite remember where i picked this up and whether this is a quote from her or Greer. Anyway it said on the back that it was an award winning sci-fi tale which intrigued me, and I knew it was a modern classic in much the same vein as 1984 or Brave New World, and if you have read my blog about my book ‘The Music’ then you would know I am a sucker for dystopian futures. This tale does not disappoint. It is the tale of a woman kept for the sole purpose of providing a surrogate child to a man high up in this future society and her relationship with the members of the household she lives with, where the wrong word or look could get her shot. I realised that my book ‘Muta’ could have mutated into something very simliar if I had not solved the problem with cloning. It is quite a depressing thing to be reading on holiday but I would recommend it – as usual with sci-fi the ‘what if’ covers some intersting points of male and female relationships within today’s society. The ending is a bit flat, but realistic I guess (4/5)

Her Fearful Symmetry came out hot on the heels of the amazingly good Time Traveller’s Wife one of few books to make me shed a tear (another being ‘The Book Thief’ while I was on a beach in Kefalonia – go figure). Symmetry I have to say straight away is not a good as TTW, but I did a swapsee at our hotel, so it cost me not a bean. The story is not as tightly plotted and the characters, for me at least, did not engender any great emotional attachment. The story is about two twins who inherit a flat from a dead aunt and find out that it is haunted. They also have a couple of nerdy neighbours to contend with – one is the ex-lover of the dead aunt, the other is an OCD sufferer who can’t leave his flat. The story is quite mundane in a way and somewhat full of cliches for anyone who has read any of the ghost stories by King, James Herbert or Straub. It will probably end up being made into a film and for once I would expect the film to be better than the book. There is an unforgivable gaff surrounding UK television scheduling and an outrageuosly placed bucket of ping pong balls, but it was still an entertaining read and had some interesting insights into twins and mental health issues. It reminded me a great deal of Neil Gaiman’s writing, but where his stuff appears to be so ‘smooth’ and well polished Niffenegger seems to have struggled with some of the elements of this book. (4/5)

Timothy Zahn bless his cotton socks got the dream job of continuing the Star Wars story beyond Return of the Jedi. Last Command is the third book of a trilogy that lays out the story of a mad Jedi master intent on ruling the galaxy (sounds familiar) and an Imperial Grand Admiral bent on beating the New Republic after the demise of the Emperor, Darth Vader and two Death Stars. All the usual suspects are in the story – Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, lando, R2, C3PO, plus a few new characters included Mara Jade (who I know has an interesting plotline beyond this trilogy). To say Zahn’s writing is corny would be a gross understatement and his lack of characterisation is at times is inexcusable. Leia gives birth to twins in this book and the whole scene is dealt with awfully, as if Zahn is too intent on getting back the action. Of course you have to remember that the average ‘fan boy’ doesn’t give two hoots about the twins either so I guess he’s just giving his readers what they want – loads of lasers shooting and spaceships flying around, and the lack of characterisation is probably because after three films we already know the characters and Zahn make sure to remind us of ‘that time on Endor’ etc. Saying all that as a bit of light relief after the previous two books then it was good entertainment. (3/5)

The Oracle was an enormous disappointment. I have read four of Manfredi’s historical novels about Alexander and the Spartans and was expecting a lot better. This reads like Dan Brown at his most dire and I think in some respects that this is down to the translation (for instance the word colaboration was used so many times on contiguous pages that I had to go and get a vanilla milkshake and have a dip in the pool to stop myself from throwing the book away). The woody dialogue while okay in a historical novel (which this is not) was laughable for modern characters being convoluted, full of mad-cap metaphors that may work in Italian and too OTT in a lot of places. The story is about the discovery of a priceless vase linked to The Odyssey, student riots in Athens in the 70’s and then a string of killings ten years later. It sounded like it had good potential but it is a train wreck of a book. Two things I did like was the fact that Manfredi make sit clear how much history there is in Greece (and being there helped) and the key (but not thoroughly developed) idea that Odysessius lived throughout history (a bit like Highlander) as ‘the commander’. It came across as a real hotch-potch of ideas from a writer who should stick to his excellent historical novels. (1/5)

The Magician’s Guild really couldn’t do any wrong after such a tiresome read as The Oracle. This is book one of a trilogy (all three books being handily available from Sue’s shop, thanks Sue) and as such not a lot really happens beyond character introductions and the ‘set up’ for the next book. Well, that’s a lie, but that’s how it felt. There’s some great stuff about Thieves (yes with a capital letter – they’re organised), Magicians and the city they live in which reminded me a lot of the city in the Elder Scrolls game ‘Oblivion’. The main character is a girl who discovers she has innate magical abilities, but cannot control them. The story revolves around the magician’s guild trying to find her and the thieves trying to hide her. I am not sure if this is a children’s book, but it’s a good fantasy yarn and I am looking forward to reading the other two books. I can’t say much more because I don’t want to give any spoilers. If you like the genre (5/5) There’s a copy in a bar near the airport at Skiathos if you want to go and get it!

Update:

I finished the last holiday book last week while I was being poorly – this was Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge: A Novel of 2000AD – ‘in ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people – the druids…’ well that’s your first mistake, Druids didn’t pop up until much later and had nothing to do with the creation of Stonehenge, sorry Tapsters. Cornwell provides an entertaining story of why and how the stone temple was erected. As usual for Cornwell he has a tale of blood and guts, revenge and madness, and once again has much to say about religion.

It only recently dawned on me that a lot of the Cornwell books I have read dwell somewhat on religion and its consequences on historic man – Heretic and the other two grail Quest books feature the inquisition and Enemy of God and the other two Arthurian books has early Christianity versus paganism (druids!) Not sure if Cornwell has an axe to grind in this arena, but suffice to say it doesn’t detract from the axe being used to carve up a few people along the way. The book starts slowly, but is good once you get past the point that makes you think ‘good something has finally happened’. It is predictable in places but is very atmospheric and slightly educational along the way. The title put me off from reading it when I was on holiday, so it got a nice trip out and came back with me in my hand luggage. I probably would’ve read it while in Greece, if I had not stumbled across Her Fearful Symmetry on the hotel bookshelf.

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