Summer Reading

Sadly, this summer just passed didn’t give me a lot of time to read (and none to write), but I’ve caught up with my reviews on Goodreads. In no particular order, and pay no heed to the dates of reading:


AnnapurnaAnnapurna by Maurice Herzog
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you don’t like books about mountaineering – though if you’ve got this far, you probably already do – stop reading this review. If you do like them, this is one of the greatest climbing books, and one of the greatest adventure books ever written. It grips from the opening sentences to the final words, with the pace of a thriller and a consistent insight into human nature at the limits of what we can achieve.

The French expedition arrived in Nepal in 1950 with an idea to ascend either Annapurna or Dhaulagiri. The core team consisted of eight European mountaineers, one Nepali representing the royal family (which, then, was the state) and three Sherpas, along with many others in support. Although all of the Europeans were experienced in the European Alps, none were experienced in the Himalaya, and the Himalaya turned out to be a very different kettle of fish.

The first part of the expedition was spent exploring the area around the two peaks. It turned out that nearly all of the maps they had were wrong, and some of them very dangerously wrong. Their explorations did map the area and, in the end, they concluded that Dhaulagiri was unclimbable (it was to be ten years before they were proved wrong).

With time before the monsoon running out and supplies dwindling, they turned their attention to Annapurna. After a frenzy of recces, they ruled out one route but found another, and, on the 3rd June 1950, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal became the first people to summit an 8,000 meter peak.

What makes the book great are not the bare facts of the climb, though those are spectacular enough, but the author’s insight into the characters of his fellow climbers: the different attitudes to risk, the their determination, the willingness of some to forego the summit in order that the expedition as a whole would succeed.

He also brilliantly conveys not only the sheer hardship of what it is to climb at high alititude, but also what it’s like to climb with severe oxygen narcosis – it is quite clear from the scenes as he approaches the summit that he is not thinking straight, that his ability to evaluate risk has been lost, and that he is high (as in stoned).

No mountaineering book is complete without the descent. This contains some harrowing scenes. Maurice and Louis were severely frost-bitten, and, with the monsoon rains coming in, the expedition had to get off the mountain and fast. Bounced and jolted down on improvised stretchers, I found myself wincing and grimacing at every unfortunate bump.

Even though the author was one of the worst-affected, he recounts the experience without looking for pity, but with a grim humour: their train pulls up at a station in India and the locals’ (presumed) first experience of Europeans is an amputated toe being thrown from a carriage full of blood and pus.

If the mountaineering section of your library consists of only one book, this should be it.

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The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lent this book, the first of a trilogy that I think ended up becoming a triptych of trilogies, over the summer.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an original fantasy, and this makes the grade. It is gritty, violent and has a very black humour. The pages turn quickly enough. The characters are all nasty in interestingly different ways, and the author deserves credit for including a main character who is a complete moron, yet whose depiction is at once both engaging and funny.

For all that, I can’t quite put this up with Game of Thrones (I wonder if that series ever got finished?). The problem is that this world is neither as complete nor as fully formed; if anything, it is too close for comfort to our world. One of the great constructs in Game of Thrones is a vast ice wall; there is no similar geographical impossibility here. Although nearly all the main characters are physically out of the ordinary, there don’t seem to be any friends or enemies that are non-human in the way of Tolkein or the ice creatures in Game of Thrones. The only exception are the Shanka, but we’re never given a description, so it’s not clear whether they’re Orcs or just a particularly vicious tribe of nasties.

But the bigger missing thing is that, having read this first very thick volume, I still have no idea what’s at stake. There is the survival of a kingdom that is decaying, but its decay appears well-deserved. What’s missing is the clear evil represented by Tolkein’s ring, or the advance of the very non-human zombies in Game of Thrones.

I’ll read (if I can borrow it) the next volume, but only because this one didn’t so much conclude as stop. As an acquaintance once remarked of sex on speed: great fun, but not idea where it’s going.

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The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small IslandThe Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To fans of Bill Bryson – and I am one – this is the usual Bill Bryson fare. On the twentieth anniversary of this American’s “Notes from a Small Island”, he sets off on another circuit of his adopted home, the United Kingdom.

This tour starts in Bognor Regis and ends in Cape Wrath at the other end of the Bryson Line (you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is). In between we are treated to the author’s acerbic wit, so funny that there were points when I was laughing so hard that I had to stop reading, and a series of vignettes in various far- and not-so-far-flung parts of the British Isles.

Bryson’s charm is that he is as funny as he is well-informed. Never shy of a rant, his diatribes range from a delightful defenestration of those who profess to write English but are completely ignorant of its grammar, through his own schizophrenic attitude to the National Trust, which excites both admiration and frustration, to his experience with large corporations “… there are people in [British Telecom] who hated you before you were born.”

Two things let this book down. The first is that, quite simply, it wasn’t about the British Isles. It was about the part of England south of the Midlands. Everything north and west of that is an afterthought, a kind of bow to necessity. The second is that it is less than the sum of its parts: this is a book with an acute case of sequelitus, written not because the author wanted to write it, but because he, his publisher or his agent saw a few bucks.

I hope he succeeds in making a few bucks. But I also hope his next book will be written because he wants to write it, not because someone else wants him to write it.

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The Woman in the WindowThe Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this mystery with a twist. What I liked most is how deeply rooted it is in the tradition of black and white murder mysteries, mostly Hitchcock, and how it blends those with a gripping tale of a woman, Anna Fox, who lives in complete isolation and whom we never quite trust as a narrator.

That distrust is very skillfully played out and central to the plot. I would have liked to use the analogy of a Matryoshka doll, but that’s weak because the dolls are the same in every layer, just smaller, whereas in this book, each layer reveals a different shape and appearance of Anna. This is a woman with serious issues and each revelation makes us realise how damaged she is.

Yet there was a section about a third of the way through when that distrust played against the book, when I was ready to give up on both Anna and the book; when I stopped trusting the author. The problem was that the trauma central to Anna is simply not credible. She would not have survived.

So, a great and intricate plot, skillfully woven, and clever. But not one I’d read again.

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