Summer holiday books 2016

Although I now have a fully functioning Kindle it didn’t make the journey to Kos with me this year. I still have about 50 paperbacks to get through before I arrive (late) into the digital era for my reading. The extent of my reading backlog made the choice of what to take on holiday with me this year as awkward as ever but I plumped for those books that wouldn’t take up too much space in my suitcase and that I knew I would enjoy. Actually, where I was reading a series it obviously meant I would have to take the next book in the sequence so some of my decision making was done for me. Anyway I’m waffling so here we go, in the order I read them:

Bill Bryson – The Lost Continent

This is an educational and humorous account of Bryson’s road trip around all but ten of the lower 48 states of the USA. I think I have read it before but so long ago that I could only remember the vaguest of details.

Bryson is scathing about the country’s obsession with materialism, the seeming endemic ignorance of the TV nation and the corruption of the places he holds dear in his childhood memories of road trips with his family – corruption by fast food chains, malls and their huge parking lots.

At turns this, like his other books, is genuinely laugh out loud funny, sentimental without being saccharine and insightful. It is an expose of contemporary US society juxtaposed with observations from his adopted home in the UK. He is (as it says on the back cover) ‘a foreigner in his own country’ and in the closing pages of the book it is this journey’s end realisation which is perhaps the most poignant observation – not only is there no going back to his childhood but the American of his childhood is no longer there to be found.

Lee Child – Die Trying

If ever there was an author for a mid-40s office worker to read while on holiday then Lee Child is that man. I read this in record time – if I had put my mind to it I probably could have polished it off in a day by the pool. As it was it took a day and a morning and was a thoroughly good read – a genuine page-turner.

Jack Reacher is bundled into the back of a van along with an FBI agent – fit and female (surprise surprise) – who is being kidnapped by some mountain dwelling survivalists. The plot evolves from quite a small scale into a situation which ups the ante so much that it stretches the boundaries of believability almost to breaking point. In a Die Hard way it has you rooting for Reacher from the off.

For me the only negative in the pulp fiction was the obligatory sex scene which is shoe-horned in just after a scene in which the captives are forced to bury the body of another FBI agent who has been brutally tortured and mutilated. It seemed really inappropriate timing and crassly unnecessary.

High points were the great descriptive passages about sniper rifles and the science of sniping and the visceral fight scenes in which Reacher is portrayed as a violent killing machine.

It’s a bit silly how the bad guys keep Reacher alive when it would be a whole lot easier for them if they just shot him ten pages in. Of course that would be a shit story and Child does a reasonable job of creating some believe logic around his continued reprieve from execution.

Bernard Cornwell – Sharpe’s Havoc

It wouldn’t be a beach holiday for me without a bit of Cornwell action. Havoc finds our hero with his band of green jacketed riflemen stuck in Portugal trying to help fight the French invaders. As usual Sharpe gets diverted from his mission to rejoin the British Army by being given a side mission to find the daughter of a wealthy Porto merchant – fit and female (quelle surprise) – who has run away from home.

Of course Sharpe immediately wants to get his leg over as soon as he claps eyes on the dusky maiden, but a rogue intelligence agent takes her for his wife. This traitor does his upmost to get Sharpe killed and the cad even steals Sharpe’s telescope that he got off Arthur Wellesley (a.k.a. the Duke of Wellington).

Set in the spring of 1809 the latter part of the book details Wellington’s victory over the French in the Porto region. The French are driven over the Ponte Nova and the Saltador bridges near the Spanish border in Northern Portugal. There are the usual historical and military insights you’d expect from Cornwell and of course Sharpe gets his man in the end and his spyglass, but predictably not his woman.

Given that this another one of those Sharpe books that the author wrote out of sequence the continuity seems fine to me.

J. G. Ballard – Cocaine Nights

Well first of all I must say that I thought the end of this book was pretty awful and ignoring the author’s name I don’t think The Independent’s claim of it being ‘dazzlingly original’ are warranted. ‘Quite interesting and a bit thought provoking’ is my blurb quote if they want one for a reissue.

The overall theme is that those Westerners who can afford it strive to achieve a state of limbo in protected retirement compounds across the Costa del Sol. The famous quote used by the Manic Street Preachers is that they aspire towards ‘a billion balconies facing the sun’.

To chivvy the retirees from their trancelike state of mind psychotic tennis pro Bobby Crawford commits a string of petty crimes. The community bursts into life and is catered to by Crawford’s business associates. Crawford has convinced himself and others that he is doing a public good rather than simply satiating his needs.

Charles Prentice comes into the story as brother Frank (who is little more than a bit part) a club owner accused of killing five people in a house fire at one of these secluded enclaves. Charles tries to prove his brother’s innocence and gets sucked into the corruption and conspiracy. There’s a huge chunk of clumsy exposition in an underground car park in which the real culprits of the murders are revealed. It is no great revelation and held no shock for me.

I think the problem here is that Ballard has a flimsy theory about the link between crime and community that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Despite reading this on a beach among a large number of leisure seeking retirees, I found this book unrealistic because of its contemporary setting. Perhaps I would have been more accepting if it was near-future science fiction. The scene in which three people are observed watching TV behind the blinds with the sound turned off is as poetic as it unlikely.

I also have an issue with the ‘voices’ of the characters – most of them seem to share the same thoughts – i.e. that of the author – and often come across as two-dimensional. Perhaps I missed something profound that went right over my head, perhaps I was supposed to read this as a surreal allegory rather than a straight-up whodunit.

James Joyce – Dubliners

I liked the interconnectedness of all the characters and stories, the lingo and insights into the politics and religious issues of that era in Dublin. However I found the stories mostly unfulfilling as they were more snapshots than well-plotted short tales.

For me The Dead was the best and not because it signalled the end of the book. It was added on by Joyce while he tried to get the book published and it shows the development of the writer over the period between ‘finishing’ the book and adding this tale on. It had a more satisfying narrative arc.

I’m sure Dubliners is the subject of many an English Literature thesis and lecture so I won’t waffle on any more about it. I chose to read it this holiday more on the basis of its size and weight than any desire to discover Joyce. That said I do want to read his other works which by all accounts are superior to this little ditty.

While reading it became evident to me, again, that the Manic Street Preachers have been reading the same material, but again I’ll leave that to greater (or more nerdy) minds to provide the analyses.

Bernard Cornwell – Sharpe’s Gold

This is one of the original Sharpe books in which Sharpe’s men are ordered by Wellington to find a horde of gold that will fund a secret action by the British army against the French peril. The problem is that the gold is behind enemy lines and in the possession of a powerful guerrilla leader. The guerrilla leader, El Catolico, is betrothed to Teresa – fit and female (are we spotting a pattern yet?) – who reminds Sharpe a bit of the last woman he porked. Sharpe takes Teresa hostage and they end up falling in love, but it’s more than just Stockholm Syndrome.

Sharpe and his men, harried by Portuguese guerrillas and French soldiers, head for the fortress town of Almeida. Some German cavalry turn up just in time to save Sharpe and his men from being slaughtered. The commander of the fortress, Brigadier Cox, has no orders from Wellington to let the gold go with Sharpe and so he holds them within the fortress and indeed it looks likely that El Catolico will be given the gold.

There’s a night time showdown between Sharpe and El Catolico before he is supposed to hand over the gold. Sharpe then comes over all Guy Fawkes and plots to blow up the magazine stashed inside a church. The explosion maims and kills a few people and damages the fortress walls. Because the fortress is no longer siege proof Sharpe and his men are allowed to leave rather than stay and help defend the town.

The gold funds the construction of the defensive lines of Torres Vedras a historical reality that helped Wellington to ultimately overcome the French – but that’s a subject for all the other books in the series. The events inside of Almeida only very loosely follow real historical events and it’s rather obvious Cornwell is ‘reaching’ here to have his hero play a crucial role once more the fight against the French.

 

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