2014 was a bumper year for holiday reading so I’ve chosen to split this into two posts to make it easier for everyone concerned. It’s amazing how quickly you can get through a well-written page turner or a mediocre shambolic mishmash of ideas if the conditions are right, and the conditions were almost perfect in Skiathos this year – very few distractions, new prescription sunglasses, good weather, regular vanilla milkshakes and sun, sun, sun.
Sci-fi readers the world over know never to trust the blurb on the back of the book. Unfortunately with Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghost from the Grand Banks I forgot this advice and so went into it thinking it was going to be about the identity of a dead girl found in the wreckage of The Titanic ocean liner on the floor of the Atlantic.
In fact this book was more to do with (at the time of writing) near-future technologies to raise the two halves of the wreck and fractals. Yes fractals. Of the 274 pages, 29 are blank, 12 pages are an appendix dedicated to fractals, 8 pages are acknowledgements and sources and many other pages are only half covered with text. As a result this took just one day of lounging beside the pool to complete.
An encounter with a giant octopus from the viewpoint of a solo submarine pilot should have been exciting but wasn’t, the end of the book was thoroughly disappointing and the subplot concerning a child prodigy and her mother both obsessed with fractals seemed to have nothing to do with the Titanic. It was as if Arthur C. Clarke had two lacklustre stories that he shoe-horned together to get a novel finished.
If I am forced to clutch at redeeming straws then I could suggest that some of the ideas in the book are vaguely interesting, but that doesn’t excuse the hopeless story. Not at all what I expected from one of the biggest names in sci-fi and certainly not what the blurb had promised.
I have said it before and I will no doubt say it again in about a year, but a holiday wouldn’t feel like a holiday if I didn’t have at least one Bernard Cornwell book in my suitcase. Sea Lord is not as it would first appear a historic novel and is in fact based in the contemporary world of the South Coast of England and the Channel islands. This continuation of the nautical theme after The Ghost from the Grand Banks reminded me somewhat of the work of children’s author Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons, Coot Club etc.) although the main character is a grown man.
The story concerns a prodigal son’s return to England aboard his boat the ‘Sunflower’ to be at his dying mother’s side. His mother doesn’t like him because he previously turned his back on his responsibilities as an Earl and was prime suspect in the theft of a Van Gogh from the ancestral home.
Roughly half the book is spent in explaining why the Earl, Johnny Rossendale, a sea-faring loner and reluctant hero feels the need to return to England and upon his mother’s quick death to stay there despite his deep desire to skip town again. The painting is worth £20m but Johnny is more concerned with looking out for his idiot sister and getting into the pants of an attractive Italian woman who works for an art collector than finding out exactly who stole the painting. So much so in fact that I was beginning to suspect that Cornwell was pulling an ‘unreliable narrator’ prank until it dawned on me exactly how the plot was going to play out.
I am not the sharpest of tools in the box when it comes to guessing ‘who dunnit’ but it seemed to me that the prime suspect was continually being overlooked and indeed it did transpire that my suspicions were correct. Despite this Sea Lord was a very entertaining book and captures the atmosphere of the dangers of the open sea (and the English Channel in particular) very well. The character arc is satisfying and the hero gets his reward at the end of the tale but not before overcoming quite a few obstacles.
I tend to only read kid’s books on holiday and pointedly refuse to read anything involving a young wizard called Harry. I have to draw the line somewhere despite those people who tell me I’m missing out. I don’t care. Okay? Now drop it…
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is the first book of ‘his dark materials’ trilogy and spawned a vague flop of a film ‘The Golden Compass’ starring James Bond and Nicole Kidman. Having now read the book I can see why fans of the book didn’t like it as it misses out quite a lot of the story.
The story struck me as very much like that of the Magician’s Guild books I read last year; featuring as it does a young girl, Lyra, as the hero who is learning her way in the ever-complicating political world of grown-ups while possessing a hidden magical talent. Yes, the plot of many a kids book I guess, given that readership is so skewed towards literate girls rather than boys.
The world is fantastical but, giant armour clad talking bears and daemons aside, has similarities to our own. For a children’s book the fight scene between two of these bears is gruesome and there are a number of serious themes – death, puberty, religion – up for discussion.
In the story children are being abducted en mass from cities around Great Britain by a shadowy group called the ‘gobblers’ and taken with their animal companions, the daemons, to an experimental station in a distant snowbound land populated by, amongst other things, bears and witches. Lyra gets caught up in a desperate mission of a group of parents to rescue their children and the conspiracy is slowly revealed, and by the end of the book the land featured in the next book of the trilogy is revealed.
I enjoyed it very much, and I’m sure fans of Harry Potter would like it, but give the film a miss.
In Summer Holiday Books 2014 – Part 2 I will write about my first experience of reading a Jo Nesbo book, another children’s’ book with questionable content – The Hunger Games, a struggle with Hunter S. Thompson’s acerbic portrait of US politics in 1972, and a topical thriller by Frederick Forsyth.
Again I would like to give a big shout out to the charity shops where most of these books came from – Sue Ryder, Care UK and Oxfam.