Book Diary – May 2012

‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ by Robert Ludlum

2nd May – 17th May

I had tried to read this one before, having waded through the first two novels in the trilogy and found them all tough going. I couldn’t quite describe what it was about Robert Ludlum’s style that I disliked, but the books were much slower going than the films (which I love). I think that the film-makers knew this too, as film of The Bourne Identity bears a very strong resemblance to the book – albeit updated from its original 1970s setting – and Ludlum was an ‘executive producer’ on that film. However, he then died, and from then on the films deviate from the books almost completely, taking their title and main character but retaining little else. The change of director from Doug Liman (who Wikipedia claims loved The Bourne Identity from his childhood) to Paul Greengrass may also have had a significant impact.

I found I still had many of the same problems with the book – mostly Robert Ludlum’s propensity for very melodramatic conversations between people I would normally expect to remain calm under stressful circumstances. Maybe I’m being misled about how composed CIA people are, but in Ludlum’s books they spend far too much time screaming, exclaiming and invoking God (usually in italics!) for my credulity to stand.

Another problem Ludlum has in my eyes is a lack of subtlety. Just in case you aren’t sure whether you’re meant to like certain characters, he gives them polarising personality traits – this good guy is extremely altruistic; this bad guy is racist. Instead of embellishing the characters, it reduces them to weak stereotypes.

As a result, it was a book which needed to be read in bursts. If I lost momentum, it was a challenge to get back into it, and so I tried to read for an hour or more at a time, covering 50+ pages each time to gain a tangible sense of progress. The fact that the book is over 500 pages in this edition made it quite a task.

‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffrey Household

17th May – 20th May

Yet another recommendation from Mother, and another success. This is very similar to the adventure stories that my parents lent me as a kid, along the lines of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, ‘Greenmantle’ and ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ amongst many others.

To describe the book as dated seems to critical, so I think it is better to say it is ‘of its time’ as its strong rooting in its own era is not a problem and once I was accustomed to the narrator’s voice he was good company for the duration of the book.


‘The Lost Squadron’ by David Hayes

20th May – 22nd May

After a couple of novels, I felt the need to indulge in a little non-fiction. I decided to go for ‘The Lost Squadron’ as I thought it would be quite light reading after the endurance test that was ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’.

I knew the book would be pretty similar to ‘Hunting Warbirds’ and I was a little concerned that if I read them too close together there would be too much overlap and the differences that there were would jar.

As with the story of the Kee Bird, I knew a little about this expidition too, having read this article a year or so ago.

The book is very easy to read, and the story is interesting. What let this book down were the small inaccuracies – a photo of a bent propeller and a picture of the whole plane, but the two photos didn’t seem to match up to my eyes; and, more glaring, the throwaway observation that May is only four months after Christmas.

‘The Take’ by Martina Cole

23rd May –

I normally wouldn’t read a Martina Cole book, probably down to a kind of contrary snobbishness which means I pretty much ignore anything which appears in the WH Smiths bestsellers section. However, I was given this free as part of World Book Night, and thought I would give it a go. I was also intrigued by the fact that, as it was a special WBN edition, the back cover didn’t contain the usual synopsis and so it was possible to try the book completely ‘blind’. No idea about the author, no idea about the plot, let’s just see where this goes!

Unfortunately, I should have left it well alone. Twenty-two pages were enough to convince me that i wouldn’t finish the book unless forced to. The quote on the cover described it as “a typical blend of Eastenders with The Sopranos and a few of the nastier moments of the Forsyte Saga” though I thought “Only Fools And Horses with extra cliches and no humour” would have been more accurate.

‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho

23rd May – 26th May

This was another book on the World Book Night list, and, whilst better than ‘The Take’ it still wasn’t great. The cover quotes describe it as a life-changing book which makes me wonder who is soft-minded enough for something like this to change their life.

The prose is very simple, and it reads almost like a childrens’ book on theology or philosophy. Its central theme is that if you want something enough, then it is clearly your destiny and the universe will collaborate with you to help you reach your goal. The central character has almost everything go right for him and learns many valuable lessons on his journey. Along the way, he learns to speak the Universal Language which allows him to communicate with, among other things, the sun and the wind.

In its defence, the book is harmless and inoffensive enough – even charming in its sweetness and simplicity – and at 160 pages doesn’t outstay its welcome. However, I fail to see how this is the significant work of 20th Century literature that it is made out to be.

‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

26th May – 29th May

After a couple of disappointments, I decided to go back to an area I know and love, and picked up a Danish detective story in one of the many charity shops in Braintree.

Unbeknown to me, this was the first of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s books to be translated into English, and if this is the standard he achieves in all his work, I can’t wait for the rest to be made available to those of us who don’t speak Danish!

This is the first book in a series about Copenhagen Police’s ‘Department Q’ and its sole member, Detective Carl Mørck. While there are many elements of the story which are commonly used in detective fiction – the main character is a talented but unpopular man with both less-than-perfect health and emotional problems stemming from work and a dysfunctional home life; he heads a cold-case unit, thus making the crimes that little bit more difficult to solve – at no point did it feel formulaic or clichéd. The pace was just right, and the tension was skilfully cranked up at the right point in the story.

My only complaint is one which is directed at the genre as a whole rather than this book in particular. I’m a little tired of ‘insane’ murderers. Rather than have a bad guy driven mad by his need for revenge, I would like to read a story about a murderer who kills a single victim by mistake and then (if multiple bodies are required by the genre) is forced to bump off those who might point to him/her in an increasingly desperate attempt to stay ahead of the law (for instance). Too often the villain is a raving lunatic whose brilliant vengeance has been many years in the making and is planned down to the last detail.

However, don’t let the fact that I have devoted the longest paragraph to a grumble about detective fiction in general mislead you into thinking that I didn’t like ‘Mercy’. It is a very, very good example of the genre and one of the best novels I have read in some time. Highly recommended!


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