You know I’d like to be doing a post called Holiday Books 2020 but that’s not happening for me this year, hence I’ve gone with a gloomier theme for the title. I’d like to think there’s a book for everyone in this list, but that’s perhaps not wholly true since there is a male-bias and certainly no, dare I say it, chicklit. I keep telling Siggy to start a blog so she can wax lyrical about the latest Emily Barr, Pudding Club or Shopaholic book, but she’s not biting.
Also you may have gathered that I’ve been trying a few new things out in the digital space this year – Disney Plus, Apple TV plus (although I haven’t blogged about any of their content yet), Procreate and Audible. My dalliance was brief with Audible. The numbers just didn’t add up despite them trying to stop me leaving by offering me another free book. It’s too expensive and I have enough podcasts to listen to anyway. That’s not to say I didn’t get my money’s worth out of my short love affair with the app, and you’ll see three of the books listed below are actually audio incarnations.
Louis Theroux – Gotta Get Theroux This (audio) is a very entertaining look at Theroux’s canon of TV documentary work with some very candid insights into his home life along the way. Having listened to Adam Buxton’s Ramblebook earlier in the year, and with Buxton and Theroux being friends (although not for much longer if Theroux doesn’t give that microphone back), it was hard not to compare the two. Doing so left me thinking that while they are very different stories – Buxton’s centres on his childhood and relationship with his dad and leaves the Radio and TV stuff aside, Theroux’s does almost the opposite – Theroux’s was the more satisfying, and not just because it was significantly longer.
Theroux seems less concerned about putting a foot wrong and has more of a way with words – perhaps inherited from his father, than Buxton. However, I’d much rather listen to a podcast from Buxton than Theroux who sometimes takes himself and his subjects rather too seriously. He’s made a career out of pretending to not understand where his interviewees are coming from like a less extreme and so less funny version of Borat or Philomena Cunk, while it’s patently obvious from his erudite references to great writers and philosophers that he is intelligent and well-read. I sometimes find his style on TV rather creepy and patronising but then he gets some absolute TV gold out of his subjects.
What I liked most about the book was his description of anxieties over his career and personal life that help to take him down in my mind from a great kooky TV character to a real person. He’s a well-rounded self-aware individual and the book does well in reflecting that.
Homer – The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles, has been on my bibliographic bucket list for decades. I bought a Wordsworth Classic version translated by someone else and found it almost impenetrable and so recently I did a bit of research and found that Fagles’ version had got some rave reviews. I think deservedly so. I don’t read the classics at all and have only really read Shakespeare because I was forced to at school. Me putting Shakespeare in the same pot as Homer should tell you how unacquainted I am with this kind of literature.
My desire to read Homer was rekindled by Stephen Fries excellent Mythos and Heroes books, which stopped frustratingly short of any Homeric content. So once I’d ploughed my way through the painfully long introduction I waded into the poem itself with much gusto. My first shock was how gory the book is – the anatomically accurate details of the injuries inflicted upon the soldiers is almost like reading a Bernard Cornwell battle scene or the antics of Jack Reacher breaking bones around the back of an American diner. The second thing I noticed was the repetition involved and how each god or main character gets a description like ‘the swift runner’ to help the verse scan.
The third thing and I think what struck me the most is how the Greek gods interact with humans and disrupt the battle. They are very much more hands on than a certain other god I might mention. No working in mysterious ways here. If they want to stop a warrior being killed they sweep him off the battlefield and drop him off out of harm’s way. The fourth thing is that there’s no ruddy mention of the Trojan Horse or the death of Achilles – although the prophesy is alluded to numerous times. Quite frustrating.
On the whole I enjoyed reading The Iliad, Fagles’ translation is very easy to understand and I was pleased to finally scratch the book off my list. On the flip side, I’m sorry to say, it was a tinsy bit boring in places and I was laughing to myself how many times they settled back in the middle of a battle to cook some kebabs.
Stephen King – If It Bleeds (audio) is a collection of short fiction which contains a novella-sized follow up to the excellent The Outsider. On the whole, and the reason I’m keeping this section short, I was rather underwhelmed by everything but the sequel novella ‘If It Bleeds’. I really enjoyed the continuation of the story of the rather geeky girl detective and another shape-changing creature preying on people’s pain.
‘Mr. Harrigan’s Phone’ felt more like an essay on the impact of the iPhone upon modern life than a horror story and was like a very predictable story from a low-budget Tales of the Unexpected or some such. Being a lifelong King fan I’ve read so many of his descriptions of characters looking at dead bodies or contemplating death that it was all a bit ‘meh’. ‘The Life Of Chuck’ was more out there and structurally interesting, but it didn’t feel as though it really arrived at any satisfying conclusion. And ‘Rat’, yet another story from King about a writer who is bereft of ideas, left me wondering whether the irony was intended.
J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales was another book that left me a little cheesed off. But I think this is partly my fault and its not like Christopher Tolkien doesn’t warn the reader upfront about how terrifyingly tautological some of the text gets. The reason I feel that I’m partly to blame is that I read The Children of Hurin before Unfinished Tales and a large part of Tales is taken up by a sketchier version of Children. And to compound it I think Children is probably the best of the unfinished tales included in this book.
The next best tale is of ‘Aldarion and Erendis’ and then most of the other content feels less robust. I thoroughly understand that we are kind of feasting on scraps with this book and hats off to Christopher Tolkien for going to such great pains to piece together his father’s notes, letters and scribblings to form these tales, but boy does it get tedious when you read the notes after each of the tales. If you though the appendices to Lord of the Rings were tiresome you really ain’t seen nothing until you’ve dragged your aching brain through the notes. Does anyone really care where a ford on a river is on the map? Well, don’t answer that because I know the answer is ‘yes’ for a lot of complete LOTR nerds. I however, am just a fan.
Lee Child – Blue Moon (audio) was also a bit of a damp squib for me. Christ, I realise I am sounding so hacked off with these books, sorry, but I have to be honest. maybe that cancelled holiday is the problem? As you will know if you’ve been paying attention, I love Child’s Jack Reacher books and they generally never fail to entertain me. This one had it’s moments but ultimately did leave me thinking that it is time for the author to hand over the reins, as he said he would, to someone else to carry on the story.
Blue Moon is once again based in an anonymous American city containing a bunch of criminals who need teaching a lesson. Reacher once again gets involved and once again shows us that he is perhaps America’s worst fictional serial killer, far far worse than the likes of lovely old Hannibal Lecter for instance. The body-count is off the charts and sure the bad guys deserve punishment, but capital punishment? I’m not sure.
Also, just like Bernard Cornwell’s leading men and Bond before any of them, Reacher always seems to fall in with a slightly damaged woman happy to jump into bed with him despite the fact he’s a borderline psychopath. The women are presented as strong individuals for the modern reader but when it comes down to it they’re still disappointingly more Jane than they are Tarzan.
Nothing of any great impact really happens in Blue Moon and listening to it I felt myself wanting to watch a John Wick film instead. I wonder if it is because it was an audio book and so my imagination wasn’t working in quite the same way. I will never know because I can’t very well go back and read it instead of listen to it. One thing I will say is that Child still has a good ear for snappy dialogue and some of Reacher’s comebacks in this made me laugh out loud.