#705 Batten down the hatches
by Joel Scott
Toronto: ECW Press, 2019
$18.99 / 9781770414273
Reviewed by John Hutchings
This is the second book by Chemainus-based sailor and author Joel Scott, featuring the further adventures of his principal two characters and their old wooden boat, the Arrow. Having not read the first book, I can attest that the new story stands alone, although there are numerous references to the first adventure, mostly as background to the curious relationships between the main characters. Nevertheless, the reader may feel somewhat left out without having read the first book. Indeed, it took me quite a few pages to get to understand, and even like, the two central figures of Jared and Danny.
The writing is lively and the dialogue entertaining. The settings are expertly drawn from extensive personal experience by the author, and described in loving and sometimes lyrical stretches of prose. While the adventure inevitably involves much sailing and nautical detail, the non-sailing reader can gloss over these and still get immersed in the excitement of the action.
In Arrow’s Fall we are treated to descriptions of the north of New Zealand and its coastline, South Minerva Reef, the Fijian island of Viti Levu, and the exotic pleasures of sailing in these locations. There are exciting and scary sailing races that are friendly — and some that are desperate. There is a gigantic high tech yacht worthy of one of James Bond’s adversaries, hosting a bizarre crew of villains, rich guests, hostesses, and gladiatorial contestants. There is a huge battle-scarred crew-dog that swims and fishes, and hunts and lives alone when ashore, and either hates or loves individual humans. There is a voluptuous and eccentric party-time woman who single-hands an ugly steel boat and is also an expert diver.
The plot emerges as other characters appear and join the party. Reprised from the previous book, we later rely on the appearance of the aged but astonishingly tough, all-knowing, and independent Joseph, who understands but won’t speak English. And lastly, they are joined by a young Fijian who has a handy supply of Second World War weaponry. Everybody drinks copiously and on all occasions. There are plenty of deadly monsters of the deep, women who flock to join the heroes, an obsessed ex-professor, and large tough hand-to-hand combatants who can be beaten by a naked young woman with sharp fingernails.
The story is related in the first person by Jared, the captain of the Arrow, who comes across as a vulnerable but tough and obstinate individual with an impressive array of skills. While sensitive to the beauty of the places he and Danny visit, Jared harbours an underlying meanness that kicks in at a number of occasions. There is finally a feeling that, like other superheroes, he will walk away unencumbered from this adventure and be ready to appear in the next one.
The story unfolds slowly at first, and proceeds throughout with episodes of high action interspersed with chapters where little happens and where not much moves in the story line.
The cast of characters grows steadily as the tale evolves — new ones appear and build the unlikely bond that drives them all ahead. Most of them are implausible, including the dog Sinbad, and the adventure they pursue hardly seems to unite them, although they all play essential parts in what happens.
There are several scenes of very graphic violence, which seems beyond what is needed to characterize the villains. Jared and Danny seem to possess superhuman strength, skill, fitness, and the ability to withstand and recover miraculously from severe wounds, beatings, and terrifying accidents, all along with continuous consumption of vast amounts of booze. I would characterize the genre of the writing as improbable fantasy. Covering the range from James Bond to Hamlet, it has a long and fine heritage in literature. One expects long before the end that the heroes will prevail, but at some awful and gruesome cost.
The two main characters are drawn as flawed individuals, which presumably excuses some of their behaviour; and the new friends, who keep joining the story almost to the end, while needed for the action, are similarly curious and thinly drawn. All that said, this is a fine and rollicking adventure story set in lovingly-drawn locations. The reader should expect no more, engage with the colourful cast, fear the villains, ogle the ladies, dread the sharks and snakes, and relish the exotic action.
John Hutchings is an astronomer whose research has used telescopes around the world and in space, and from X-ray to radio wavelengths. Born in South Africa, he has worked at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria since 1967 and collaborated with colleagues and space agencies around the world. He led Canadian participation in a series of space missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope. He also writes mystery novels based on his travels — stories about ordinary people who get involved in adventures beyond their normal experience from shady dealings in the wine trade (A Fine Drop, 2011) to difficult situations on coastal British Columbia (Death in Remote Places, 2013) and South America (The Clue from Cusco, 2017). He has boated in the waters of the Salish Sea and explored its islands and coastlines for some decades in sailing boats. John Hutchings lives in North Saanich.
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