Book Diary – June 2012

‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

Wednesday 30th May – Thursday 14th June

Having enjoyed ‘Great Expectations’ a couple of years ago (in fact, enjoyed doesn’t do it justice; I am convinced it is the greatest book I have ever read), and ‘David Copperfield’ to a lesser extent last autumn, ‘Hard Times’ was recommended to me as better than either of the former.

Despite that, I found the beginning hard to get into. I sometimes think that my lunch hour at work isn’t the best environment for something like Dickens which requires all of my concentration.

After about 150 pages, it all clicked into place, and I read the last 120 pages in about three days when the first half had taken me ten days. However, I still don’t think it is as good a book as either of the previous two. Perhaps it is because I thought that a couple of the characters were closer to caricatures than real people, and the whole book felt more like a metaphor than a real story that I was left a little dissatisfied.

‘Roseanna’ by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

Thursday 14th June – Tuesday 19th June

Having enjoyed my reintroduction to Scandinavian crime fiction last month, I decided to ignore the small pile of Jo Nesbos growing on the head of my bed and go for the first book in the Martin Beck series written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö back in the 1960s. Sjöwall and Wahlöö are considered to be the mother and father of modern Scandinavian crime and are widely acknowledged to be a major influence on many of those who have followed, such as Henning Mankell.

With such high praise, and a couple of back cover quotes such as “I have never read a finer police story” from the Los Angeles Times, my expectations were raised before I even read a page. I was not to be disappointed.

The book is slower-paced than many modern crime novels and contains more cerebral moments than action. Not only that but the characters, while not developed in massive detail, are very believable and the feeling is that they will develop further over the course of the following books. They have both a past and a future which exists independent of the plot.

Altogether, this is an excellent crime novel. It is easy to see why the authors are considered to be such an influence on more modern writers and why their books are so readily recommended.

‘The Simple Science Of Flight’ by Henk Tennekes

Tuesday 19th June – Monday 25th June

This followed on quite nicely from ‘Understanding Flight’ in that it went into a bit mroe scientific detail, with more precise descriptions of some of the basic concepts of flight, not just for aeroplanes, but birds also. Though it was completely by chance, I definitely read these two books in the right order.

The drawback to the book was that it probably spent three-quarters of the time focussing on birds rather than aeroplanes, which is obviously my main area of interest.

That’s not to say the book was a struggle to read, and it contained a lot of very interesting information about the different families of birds and how their body shape affects the way they fly and how they have evolved to suit particular environments.

There was also an interesting section towards the end which gave some simple advice about how to build your own microlight (or ultralight as they are known in America), and made it seem that anyone with a calculator and some basic mechanical knowledge could build something that was perfectly capable of flying.

Finally, there was an interesting explanation of the enduring success of the Boeing 747 and the failure of Concorde and other supersonic airliners, and how evolutionary convergence is as true in science as it is in nature.

‘The Man Who Went Up In Smoke’ by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

Tuesday 26th June – Wednesday 27th June

Another very good book from the Swedish pair. The joy of their writing is in its simplicity and brevity. Not a word is wasted; everything you read contributes either to the plot or the atmosphere of the individual scenes within the book.

This particular story concerns the disappearance of a journalist in Hungary in 1966 and keeps the reader on their toes from the outset right through to the very end.

Throughout both the books I have read so far, there is a real sense of sadness at the causes of the crime and concern for the victim, making the detectives human beings first and foremost, and giving their actions at work a believable impact on their lives away from the police station.

I know I have mentioned their impact on all who followed in my previous comments, but it is more and more noticeable. There is a particularly appropriate quote on the back cover from Henning Mankell, which reads: “They changed the genre. Whoever is writing fiction after these novels is inspired by them.” ‘The Dogs of Riga’, the second book in Mankell’s own ten-book detective series about Kurt Wallender has a lot in common with ‘The Man Who Went Up In Smoke’; in fact, there were moments when I began to wonder if Mankell had simply lifted large sections of the plot and simply changed the names and locations in order to thinly disguise the fact, but in the end there are sufficient differences to make the books distinct.

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