Book diary – March 2012

‘MAMista’ by Len Deighton

Wednesday 29th February – abandoned Thursday 8th March

It isn’t often I am driven to abandon a book, and yet this is one of those moments. To describe this as the worst book I have read all year is rather extreme (particularly as it is only early March and there’s plenty of time for something else to take its place) but also ascribes it an awfulness it doesn’t really deserve. I simply found that I was reading the book mechanically – like eating a meal because it is sitting on a plate in front of you getting cold rather than because it tastes nice – and decided that my time was too precious to waste trudging through the remaining 100+ pages in order to discover the fates of characters about whom I did not care; fates which I could probably guess at anyway.

The book’s main problem is its overwhelming mediocrity. Dull, clichéd characters act out a dull, clichéd plot in a predictable setting described with all the dull clichés that immediately spring to mind when thinking about the South American jungle. Not only that, but it is badly edited – on at least one occasion, the same sentence is used, almost word for word in successive paragraphs. This is not repetition for emphasis, but repetition caused by a lack of proper proof-reading.

The biggest disappointment is that this is a Len Deighton. When I was younger, I read a great number of his books – almost all of the Bernard Samson series and a couple of ‘standalone’ stories too. Deighton is a fantastic thriller writer, and for him to produce something so average comes as an unpleasant surprise.

I would have suggested that as this book was written in 1991 it maybe that his powers were fading and he, in moving away from Cold War spy novels, was out of his comfort zone, but a quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that I read (and enjoyed) four books he wrote later than ‘MAMista’. The more worrying alternative is that as a teenager, my standards were lower, and a return to those books would only disappoint me further.

‘He Died With His Eyes Open’ by Derek Raymond

Thursday 8th March – Wednesday 14th March

Emma bought me this book for Christmas after I requested it, having seen David Peace sing Derek Raymond’s praises in this article on the Guardian’s website.

I must admit, even before turning the first page, I was having a certain number of doubts. As you can see on the cover (I should perhaps have mentioned that each book cover I insert into my book diary is the actual cover of the edition I read), the let’s-sell-it-to-the-casual-bookshop-browser quote reads: “A crackerjack of a crime novel, unafraid to face the reality of man’s and woman’s evil”. Not only that, but the back cover has another quote, just in case that hadn’t sold it to you which declares that this is “a gripping study in obsession and absolute, awful evil”.

The first few chapters did little to contradict these quotes – it could well be said that Mr Raymond’s view of humanity is painted in shades of black, and best viewed through the polar opposite of rose-tinted glasses. However, to portray his book as little more than an exercise in spreading depression is to do his ability as a writer a gross disservice.

The story is very well written, and whilst the dialogue sometimes sounds a little dated and stagy, the characters are believable in a very depressing way. The plot is a little different from many in the crime genre and maintains an air of individuality even when it drifts towards the mainstream, more recognisably ‘crime novel’ elements of the story.

‘An Expensive Place To Die’ by Len Deighton

Wednesday 14th March – Friday 16th March

Even though I felt the urge to read something more intellectually challenging, and possibly educational, than a standard paperback thriller, I decided to give Len Deighton a chance to redeem himself.

At only 244 pages, I thought this book wouldn’t take long to read even if it did nothing to improve my opinion of his writing. Luckily, within a day I was halfway through, and enjoying it a great deal more than I had ‘MAMista’. It was much closer in style and content to the books of his I had enjoyed, particularly ‘Funeral In Berlin’ which I had read back in November (something which escaped my reasoning when I was so disappointed with ‘MAMista’).

Overall, I enjoyed this much more than ‘MAMista’ (which wasn’t hard) and it did a lot to restore Len Deighton’s reputation in my eyes.

‘Understanding Flight’  by David F. Anderson and Scott Eberhardt

Saturday 17th March – Thursday 29th March

Over the last month or so, in my stupid, self-defeating way, I have become rather conscious of how little I know about aeroplanes despite professing to like them. I am aware that the other volunteers for the Catalina Society have been doing it for years, and many of them have some sort of engineering background, and also that it is only eighteen months or so since my interest in aeroplanes was rekindled by cause or causes unknown. However, I still feel lacking in the knowledge department, and so I have lined up a small handful of books about both flight in general and the Catalina in particular.

This book is very interesting and I am intending to write a brief blog about what I learned from the first few chapters on subsonic flight and what they tell me about the Catalina.

There are a few criticisms that could be levelled at the book. I noticed a few spelling mistakes (not least a complete clanger where an aircraft’s ‘roll’ was spelled ‘role’) and a couple of typos too. Then there were the ‘factoids’, placed in little blue boxes in the margin. Some were interesting, some relevant and some a little bizarre and potentially pointless. The worst thing about them was the clear bias towards facts about Boeing (not surprising when the ‘About The Authors’ section informs us that both work for Boeing), which made me wonder if this book was an indulgence permitted by the manufacturer on the basis that they get a little plug every few pages.

The last criticism (and potentially the most important) was that the book seemed a little out order at times. There were several moments where an explanation of a particular result was cut short with the phrase “we will discuss this further in Chapter 6”. As I read on, I began to understand that it is difficult to discuss the science of flight without this happening, as it seems that so much is interconnected that rather than the process going from A to B, it goes from A to B to C to D and then you discover that A relies heavily on D and that the overall situation, E, will only occur if B’s value lies within a certain range, but to understand that you need to have an overview of how E works….

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this and learning something new, but I think to fully take in what the book is trying to tell me, I would need to re-read it, and take notes. It’s more like a textbook than I originally gave it credit for, and this has affected the way I chose to consume it.

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