Holiday Books 2019

Bernard Cornwell – Sharpe’s Waterloo
It’s been a long-standing habit of mine to read at least one Bernard Cornwell book when I go on my summer holidays and this year was no exception. In Sharpe’s Waterloo, the twentieth and penultimate book in the expanded series (the final of the original series), Cornwell once more shoehorns the titular character and his good buddy Patrick Harper into historic events. And what an event! The Battle of Waterloo Napoleon’s 1815 defeat is one of the most written about battles ever.

It’s one of Cormwell’s longer books in the series and justifiably so because the author is such a stickler for historical detail that he wouldn’t want to miss anything out from the four days of fighting that decided the fate of Europe. Cornwell has an eye also for the gory blood and guts detail of battle and this book seems to compress as much death and destructive in its pages as two or three of the previous books. In fact so much so that it becomes somewhat of a hard slog and there’s a feeling of repetition within some of the descriptions of the artillery and infantry routines involved. If anyone asks me how a musket or cannon is loaded then I could give you a pretty good step-by-step run down after having it drummed into me so many times.

Cornwell does well to provide a conclusion to Sharpe’s cuckold situation in which the cad Rossendale gets his comeuppance and our hero gets some sense of justice having been served without yet another duel situation. There’s also the usual criticism of the decision making of the higher ranks within the army which leads to so many unnecessary deaths. The book has it all for Sharpe fans with enough derring-do by our hero to let the author off the fact that it seems rather far-fetched to think he could be so heavily involved in all these key moments of the battle.

Jon Ronson – Out of the Ordinary
Out of the Ordinary was a very quick read in comparison. It is a collection of Guardian articles contained within a book with one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen. I got it for £1 at a charity shop.

In the first section of the book, Ronson describes some family situations. For example his his parents commissioning an artist to paint a family portrait with hilarious consequences, a botched trip to meet Santa with his son, and a canal side accident that made me laugh out loud. In the other half of the book includes his writing about the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire ‘cough’ trial, Jonathan King’s trial and Frank Sidebottom (which went on to lead to the film Frank).

Having already read a lot of Ronson’s output I realised I was re-reading some of the content, but it still seemed fresh to me and it was a nice read on the beach to lighten my mood after all the blood and guts of Waterloo.

Bridget Christie – A Book For Her
A Book For Her was literally that – I bought it for Siggy for her birthday after discovering that Christie was married to one of my all time favourite comedians Stewart Lee. Her comedy style is somewhat similar but she would absolutely hate me for linking her with Lee like this here because the book is very much about feminism and how we shouldn’t say things like ‘wife of…’ etc. to define a woman.

It’s a good read and at no point did I disagree with anything she was saying. What I found perhaps more interesting than the persuasive arguments within was the autobiographical side of the story – how Christie’s stand up developed over time to the point where she was said to have ‘found her voice’ and how she was not necessarily comfortable with being labelled a ‘feminist comedian’.

Lee Child – Past Tense
It’s perhaps ironic that I then read Past Tense, as while he’s not as misogynistic as James Bond (and comparing Child to Fleming as writers I’m sure anyone would agree Fleming is the one with issues here) Jack Reacher is hardly a feminist character, although he has helped many a damsel in distress and not slept with all of them in the process.

Past Tense was a real page turner and good fun. There are clear re-use of elements from other books mashed up with a kind of Hunger Games plot, but it’s different enough not to be just another book on the conveyer belt of Child blockbuster novels. The reason I think is that we finally see some characters other than Reacher show some initiative and fight for themselves. None more so than the Canadian couple who find themselves hunted by bow and arrow wielding madmen on quad-bikes.

There’s a subplot about Reacher’s father’s past which is why Reacher is in the town of Laconia in the first place which helps to balance the mystery of the captive Canadians, but it’s the finale of their battle that really gives the reader satisfaction. When Reacher steps out of the shadows to help out, most of the work has already been done for him. There are some huge loose-ends that are glossed over in the closing pages of the book – like Child wants to distract you by stories of Reacher’s father from thinking too much about some hoodlums out of Boston coming to get Reacher but never actually arriving.

Stephen Fry – Mythos and Heroes
I had been holding off from buying any new books this year until I had read all the ones I have on my shelf already but I made an exception for Past Tense and Stephen Fry’s duo Mythos and Heroes. In Mythos, Fry does for Greek mythology what Neil Gaiman did for Norse mythology in his book. Having watched a lot of films like Clash of the Titans and read some stuff before it was great to revisit the myths again delivered with Fry’s famous wit and knowledge. There is humour to be had in great dollops from many of these myths and much learning to be had. For someone who holidays in Greece pretty much every summer it seemed like a no-brainer as a holiday book.

The ‘companion book’ Heroes relates the stories of Perseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason, Atalanta, Oedipus and Theseus in a vague chronology – although the reader is soon informed that as well as monsters, here there be many an inconsistency. Having done much groundwork in Mythos these tales come across as exciting without being too weighed down by back-story – when this is necessary Fry is typically apologetic (and refers to Mythos a lot) – and presented as a whole show how the mythology uses the heroes to eradicate much of the fantastical danger from the Titans and Olympians to allow for civilisation to grow.

Lying on the beach in Crete looking out at the sea I imagined Jason and his Argonauts sailing past, battling Talos the bronze man and then Theseus battling the Minotaur down the road in the maze of Knosos. I’d already seen a display of Minoan Bulls in an archaeological museum in Chania and so it was good to understand the importance of the various iterations of the bull within the mythology. It was also good to know who the hell Hylas was and what he was doing with those nymphs in the iconic painting by John William Waterhouse.

Fry also alludes to the stories of the Fall of Troy and Odysseus being ‘for another time’. It would make perfect sense for Fry to turn this series into a trilogy and write another anthology. I do hope this is the case as I thoroughly enjoyed both books and cannot recommend them highly enough. Rather than donate these to our hotel’s collection of books I brought them both back home with me. The others will find new homes if anyone can find them among all the German language books on the shelves in the hotel in Crete.

 

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