So, I took a big pile of books away with me and here's what I thought of them. Well, the ones I actually managed to finish.
Michel Faber - Under the Skin
Usually I prefer to watch a movie after reading the book but I approached this one a bit arse about tit and, as a consequence, it was hard to process it without imagining Scarlett Johansson driving around in tight jeans. I did enjoy the book but where the screen adaptation was vague and atmospheric and subtle this was a bit more direct and a tad heavy-handed when it came to the factory farm/vegetarian moral message. I may have had a different reaction to it if I had read it when it first came out, unaware of the central plot premise (which I am trying to avoid giving away here), but I find myself, unusually, preferring the movie version. That being said, I did think this was very good, just not as good as the film.
Peter Jefferson - And Now the Shipping Forecast
An informal and conversational history-cum-miscellany of the Shipping Forecast; fascinating in places, a bit too chummy in others. The author has a tendency to throw in asides and anecdotes from his own life which make the whole thing more dressing-gown and slippers than life-jacket and welly boots which is fine up to a point but this reader was more interested in the actual facts and figures than tales from Jefferson's childhood, or his views on climate change and immigration. The end result is a bit of a mish-mash but the book does contain pretty much everything you need to know about how the Shipping Forecast works and what it all means.
Shehan Karunatilaka - Chinaman
An alcoholic sports writer with a failing liver is determined to write a book about Sri Lanka's greatest unsung cricketer before he dies. A clever and playful novel; the author inserts just enough characters and events from history, as well as a bunch of documents and photos, to suggest there may be some truth in this wild spinner chase.
Sarah Bakewell - The English Dane: From King of Iceland to Tasmanian Convict
I am often drawn to biographies of obscure people of whom I have never heard. Jorgen Jorgenson just happens to be the most recent example. Born in Denmark in 1780, the son of a clock-maker, he went on to be, at various times and to varying degrees, a sailor, whaler, explorer, privateer, naval officer, spy, author, dramatist, preacher, revolutionary, gambler, prisoner, convict-doctor, police constable, editor, exile, prospector, drunkard, vagabond and King of Iceland. His was a fascinating and chaotic life and makes for an engrossing read, particular his spells in Iceland and Tasmania; the former as a revolutionary who briefly ruled the island, the latter as a convict who helped establish the first towns, eventually gaining a full pardon. Bakewell had some wonderful raw material to work with and does it proud.
A.N. Wilson - The Man Behind Narnia
This Kindle Single (for the uninitiated, Kindle Singles are short ebooks, usually from established authors, tackling subjects in under 100 pages or so) purports to revisit the subject of one of Wilson's biographies, CS Lewis, but although there are some interesting snippets from Lewis' life in here the bulk of the book concerns Wilson himself, and specifically his own on/off relationship with Christianity. The Lewis portions were more interesting, to be honest.
Jonas Jonasson - The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden
Jonasson's debut, The 100-Year Old Man etc., was my book of the year in 2012. I loved it and it went on to be an unlikely, but deserving, bestseller across the globe. His follow-up doesn't deviate too much from the successful formula—oddball and endearing character ends up changing the world through a seemingly random series of coincidences—and I am sure that will annoy some readers but I didn't mind it at all. Far from it. Definitely the funniest book I have read this year and a novel with a massive heart.
Linda Grant - I Murdered My Library
What starts off as a eulogy for her bookshelves (Grant culled loads of volumes when she moved house recently) ends up as a love letter, of sorts, to the Kindle. Fitting then that this essay is only currently available on ebook as a Kindle Single. It will resonate with anyone who owns too many books, if there is such a thing as too many books, which I am not sure there is.
William Horwood - Duncton Wood
It is always risky, I think, returning to much-loved books. They have a tendency to disappoint. It just isn't possible to replicate the initial pleasure, the joy of discovery, and as a result there is often something lacking. No such problem with Duncton Wood, however, which I first read in the mid-90s as it turns out I had forgotten much of the second half. This book, and the rest of the series, has been out of print for some years so probably won't be familiar to many but if I were to say it was like Watership Down crossed with Lord of the Rings but with moles instead of rabbits or hobbits then you might get the idea. Add in some analogous references to the early days of the Third Reich, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, a liberal approach to death and sex that predates Game of Thrones and a hint of Homer and you clearly have an epic on your hands. I am now very much looking forward to reading the remaining five novels in the sequence.
Philip Hoare - The Sea Inside
Quite by chance this turned out to be the perfect book with which to complete my holiday reading as it contains references and allusions to a whole host of topical and relevant subjects. It is part travelogue, part memoir, part natural history of the oceans. Hoare uses his own love of the sea—he lives on the south coast of England in a town I could see on a clear day from the Isle of Wight—as a springboard from which to discuss the people who reside near it and the creatures that live in it, in particular the many varities of cetaceans, for which he has a particular fondness (he won the Samuel Johnson Prize for his book, Leviathan, and organised the Moby Dick Big Read). Along the way he touches on the Shipping Forecast (see above), life in Sri Lanka (see above) and also the founding of Tasmania and one Jorgen Jorgensen (see above). I had no idea about any of this before reading the book. Nor did I realise that a whole chapter was set in Freshwater Bay which is where I started reading the book last week. And just to add to the serendipitous value, the book ends in a part of New Zealand from which a a letter was waiting for me when I arrived home on Saturday. Obviously all of that endeared me to the book but we should consider that a bonus as the book itself is a stunner, full of beautiful writing and fascinating anecdotes.
So there you have it. I also read one year of The Shorter Pepys and made it about halfway through the excellent One on One by Craig Brown so I am sure you'll be hearing more from me about them in due course.
In the meantime, if you've read anything good over the holidays to please leave a comment and let me know.