Book Diary – December 2012

‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday 27th November – Wednesday 19th December

I am going to reveal the shameful extent of my ignorance. I decided to go into this book as blind as possible. No knowledge of the plot – in fact, I barely read the synopsis on the back cover – and no reading of reviews or Wikipedia entries about the book either. And so, when my mother mentioned that it was “about Cromwell and the Tudors” my immediate (mental) reaction was “eh? I thought the Tudors were 1500s, and Oliver Cromwell was 1600s…?”

Obviously, it’s Thomas Cromwell to whom she was referring and despite covering the Tudors at school, it became painfully clear that our education had been extremely lacking in the sort of detail which was abundant here.

I can’t express how much I enjoyed this book. It had great subtlety, the characters were brought to life wonderfully well and the graphic moments were infrequently employed which gave them greater impact.

This is probably my favourite book of the year so far, pushing ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’ into second place.

‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow’ by Peter Hoeg

Thursday 20th December – Wednesday 9th January

I found this very hard to get into at first, and it took me over a week to read the first fifty pages. After that, something clicked and I made more rapid progress, though rapid probably isn’t the right word; I worked my way through it slowly and steadily.

I found myself reading the second half of the book much more eagerly than the first and read the last quarter inside a couple of days. It was involving and better-written than many in the genre but I still found the plot progression a little tangential and the links from one situation to the next a little tenuous, as if the author knew where he wanted each chapter to unfold but was less sure of how to manoeuvre the characters there.


As I reach the end of the first year of keeping a Book Diary, I look back on it with pride. I have not only increased my blogging but I I’m quite pleased with what I’ve written. Having a regular theme leaves me free to concentrate on what I want to say (and I think I’m getting better and transferring that from feeling the text too) without the pressure of thinking “it’s my first post in months, I’d better make it a good one”.

It is interesting to see whether any conclusions can be drawn from the books I read. A lot were Scandinavian and American crime novels, as well as a handful of classics (though they weren’t among the best books I read), and several about aeroplanes. However, the ones which really stood out were those when I strayed from my usual well-worn paths  – ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and ‘Wolf Hall’ as the leading two this year, with ‘The Road’ not too far behind. This suggests that I should vary my subject matter more in future, and I certainly will. I have a stack of books lined up over the coming months which should give me the sort of variety I’m looking for.

I also made a point of not re-reading anything in 2012. Except for ‘War and Peace’ which I had started previously but not finished, I hadn’t read any of the books before. I won’t stick to this rule in 2013, though given the size of the aforementioned pile, I may not have time to re-read anything from my bookshelf!


Book Diary – November 2012

‘Waltz With Bashir’ by Ari Folman and David Polonsky

Thursday 1st November

It’s a long time since I last read a graphic novel, and this is probably the first ‘grown-up’ graphic novel I have read. I’m pretty sure that the last ones I read were either Tintins or Asterix stories.

In the event, this only took about twenty minutes to read, so despite its more adult subject matter, it is no more challenging to read (on a technical level) than Asterix. Where it is more challenging is in the content of the story – the author’s attempts to uncover repressed memories of a massacre in a Palestinian refugee camp during the Lebanon War in 1982. It is a disturbing tale, as it emerges that the memories are repressed due to the guilt the author feels for having aided those perpetrating the massacre without entirely realising what is occurring and his role within it. As one of the cover quotes explains, the animation (the quote is referring to the film version of the story) acts as a distancing device, which makes the final pages, which contain real photographs of the victims, all the more shocking.

I’m torn, because part of me regrets reading this book (perhaps not expecting something such harsh reality to leap from the pages of a graphic novel), and part of me feels that I should be reading things which challenge me and provoke a reaction, even if it is one I don’t like.

‘Murder on the Thirty-First Floor’ by Per Wahlöö

Thursday 1st November – Saturday 3rd November

I stumbled across this book quite by chance in Chelmsford Library and borrowed it to see how well Per Wahlöö could write without his partner in crime (pun definitely intended!). The answer is, pretty well!

The story is a strange combination of standard detective novel crossed with a science fiction fable. It follows a Detective Jensen, a policeman in an unnamed country at an unspecified point in the future where the government has, benignly and with the best intentions (so it seems to me), created a depressingly sterile society. Out of the blue, someone sends a letter to the company which publishes 99% of the magazines read in the country, threatening to blow up their landmark office block. Jensen is given a week to solve the case but it seems as though his boss is heavily influenced by the publishing company and they would rather it were solved quickly than correctly.

In some ways, despite being set in the future, the story is strangely dated, a little like watching the original Star Trek series. However, it is much better than JG Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’, despite certain similarities in tone and setting. It was still enjoyable, and at only a shade over two hundred pages, it didn’t outstay its welcome.

‘Fiddlers’ by Ed McBain

Monday 5th November – Friday 9th November

Ed McBain, where have you been all my life?!

I picked this book up at the same time as the three library books which surround it in this diary entry for mere pence in a second-hand bookshop in Chelmsford simply because I had heard good things about Ed McBain in a review of Dennis Lehane’s latest novel.

McBain’s influence on Lehane is clear – both employ a gently sarcastic tone and do a good line in everyday banter.

The great joy of this novel was the unintrusive way in which the main plotline was interweaved with the everyday lives of the detectives and the believable methodology and progress of the investigation.

The only annoyance I felt came with the realisation that I had started my Ed McBain experience with the very last book he ever wrote, and the 53rd of the ’87th Precinct’ series – annoying because it means I now have another 52 novels to read, and I have started at the end!

‘The Steel Spring’ by Per Wahlöö

Saturday 10th November – Sunday 11th November

This was the second Per Wahlöö solo novel. Again, only two hundred pages long, it was a quick read and held my attention throughout a quiet Sunday. However, thoughts and feelings which had only vaguely insinuated themselves in the first book were much clearer and stronger through this one.

The main character is an Inspector Jensen, a policeman in the unnamed country sometime in the future. The society is a twisted utopia, a carefully created demonstration of the path to hell being paved with good intentions. Jensen is a product of this society and is practically robotic. He is middle-aged, lives alone, has no opinions, emotions or imagination – in fact lacks any kind of human characteristics which would make the reader warm to him. This does really bring home the loneliness and sadness which Per Wahlöö clearly wishes to evoke but also makes the books a rather cold and clinical experience.

‘My Dark Places’ by James Ellroy

Sunday 11th November – Monday 19th November

I don’t normally read autobiographies. The few I have read or skimmed have fallen foul of a number of obvious pitfalls – a lack of subjectivity, shameless self-promotion, and the growing impression that famous peoples’ lives are actually just as mundane as mine.

As a consequence, I approached James Ellroy’s memoir with low expectations and the hope that I wouldn’t find that a disappointing read clouded my opinion of his other work.

Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Whilst Ellroy is a pretty unabashed attention-seeker anyway, his book contains none of the vanity of others and in fact is startlingly candid about his younger days.

The central theme is the murder of his mother in 1958 when he is ten years old. The crime is never solved (it remains unsolved to this day) but in the early nineties, Ellroy teams up with a retiring detective to reinvestigate his mother’s murder in the hope of finally catching her killer. To provide context, he describes his relationship with her and his father along with the impact her sudden demise had on him.

What is interesting is that his blunt, staccato writing style, normally employed to give his brutal novels a very immediate impact works equally well at conveying the subtle modifications in his feelings towards his mother as the reinvestigation progresses.

‘The Hilliker Curse – My Pursuit of Women’ by James Ellroy

Tuesday 20th November – Tuesday 27th November

The problem with James Ellroy is that once you’ve read one of his books nobody else is quite able to match up. The next book is almost always a disappointment. Having enjoyed ‘My Dark Places’, I was particularly aware of this problem.

I decided to dodge that particular bullet by reading another of his books. I found a copy of his second autobiography ‘The Hilliker Curse – My Pursuit of Women’ in Braintree Library and dived straight in.

There is a certain amount of overlap between this and ‘My Dark Places’ – I decided that reading two versions of the same story back-to-back might be better than reading them a month or so apart as I could almost fool my memory into believing that they were actually two parts of the same book.

Well, it kind of worked. The actual story didn’t grate in the way that two repetitive books could, but the story wasn’t really for me. Maybe it’s my stiff-upper-lip Britishness but I found reading 200 pages on the subject of James Ellroy’s love life a little awkward almost.

I think that his writing style is both what redeems this book and a problem in itself. Had it been any other writer, I don’t think I would have finished the story, but equally, at times Ellroy’s love of tabloid-esque alliteration made the anecdotes seem glossy and artificial. Added to that is the tone of his recollections – at once both admirable in their lack of criticism or blame for his various partners and frustrating in its insistence that his love for these women is the result of some greater cosmic plan which manages to conform to both his religious convictions and a sort of occult belief in his own ability to “conjure” the women of his dreams – which is like listening to an unbelievable sermon from someone you are beginning to suspect is less grounded in reality than you previously thought.

James Ellroy has always come across as someone a little outside normality, damaged by his mother’s murder and unable to totally move on, but this book absolutely confirms it. What I did find interesting was that if at any point I stopped and actually thought about the tales he was telling, I was struck by how unpleasant he was (and perhaps still is). He outs himself as one of those creepy people we have all known at one point in our lives; the ones who have rubbish social skills and go about compensating in all the wrong ways. It is a great credit to his skill as a writer that even after considering these monumental personality flaws, I felt sympathy for him and still respect him.

On the bright side, it has broken the Ellroy Curse on the next book.

Book Diary – October 2012

‘The American Future: A History’ by Simon Schama

Friday 28th September -Tuesday 23rd October

I picked this up for mere pence in The Works some time ago, having seen the TV series and enjoyed it. The problem I anticipated was that as this was written around the 2008 American presidential elections, it would be dated despite only being four years old. However, I was completely wrong. Only the introduction dates the book, and even then not in an ‘oh-that’s-so-2008’ way, more a contextual anchor for the rest of the text.

Despite taking quite a while to read the book, I found it fascinating. I tended to read in bursts of dozens of pages at a time than gradually working my way through the text.

I learned an enormous amount about American history (despite having seen – and clearly forgotten – the series when it was on television) and it was interesting to read the contrast between intention and realisation. The book painted a very attractive picture of the American ideal and a depressing one of the way in which this was twisted and exploited by immoral and misguided people over the last three or four centuries.

Having read Simon Schama’s ‘Power of Art’ last year, and enjoyed the television series which accompanied both books, I can honestly say I would willingly read anything he has written.

‘The Children of Húrin’ by J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

Wednesday 24th October – Thursday 1st November

I bought this several years ago at a bargain price in HMV, but had repeatedly put off reading it, having been rather daunted by The Silmarillion’s dense text and foolishly assumed that The Children of Húrin would be the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite its very dark and tragic plot. The lack of hope, and the despair which permeates the entire story make more grown up than many of his other stories, and puts the tone in stark contrast to the (I feel) rather childish style of The Hobbit. In some ways it is probably right up there with The Lord Of The Rings as my favourite Tolkien story. At 250-odd pages, it’s a much quicker read!

With the film of The Hobbit imminent, I was struck by how easy it would be to turn this into a fantastic Middle Earth tragedy, though it’s debatable what sort of audience such a hope-free film could attract.

Book Diary – September 2012

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid

Saturday 15th September – Sunday 16th September

Another recommendation from Mother, and another success for her.

As I have mentioned before, after reading a significant book there is always a danger that whichever book is next will suffer by comparison through no fault of its own. Luckily, in the case of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, this doesn’t happen , both because ‘War and Peace’ wasn’t as brilliant as it could have been, and because ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is an interesting and distinctive story itself.

It is written as a monologue delivered by a twenty-something Pakistani Muslim, with the reader cast as his unnamed American audience. It works well as a method of delivery for the tale of Changez’s transition from pro- to anti-Americanism around the time of 9/11.

My main criticism would be that as a brief story (it clocks in at 209 pages) and one written in quite an amiable tone, it sometimes feels a little too light and as such lacks a certain amount of emotional impact. As the majority of the story is written in the past tense it leaves the reader clear that events has transpired and so there is little or no tension. Despite this, it got me thinking (particularly the open and ambiguous ending), and contains some neat reversals of the reader’s preconceptions. The fundamentalism of the title is not the religious fundamentalism we expect but the capitalist fundamentalism expected of Changez from his job in America.

The interesting thing is that it is the ambiguous ending which causes you to re-evaluate all you have read before. It makes the reader question the honesty and innocence of the narrator and doubt whether the initial meeting between him and the character the reader inhabits is really as chance as it seemed at first.

‘Eric Coates on: Scale Aircraft For Free Flight’ edited by Vic Smeed

Monday 17th September – Thursday 20th September

This is the first of five books I’m planning to read on the subject of flying models. I was trying to read them in a sensible order, and start off with the most basic. However, I made a mistake in reading this first. That’s not to say it is a bad book, but it is quite detailed and is written for someone with a decent level of experience in the free flight field. It’s other main problem is that it seems to have been written in an era when people were more accustomed to building such things, and so comes across as a little dated in places. As a result, a lot of what was written went right over my head though I’m sure if I stick at balsa model building and re-read it in a couple of years it will make a lot more sense.

The other drawback is that it deals only with biplanes. The author states early on that he feels these are the best suited to scale free flight and from then on makes virtually no reference to building later monoplanes.

I have also come to the conclusion that it is difficult to read these type of books cover to cover and hope to make best use of them. It makes more sense to read the relevant chapter(s) as I go along through a build. Therefore, I’m unlikely to read any more of them in a way that will result in them appearing in here (since I’m likely to read them at the same time as a more standard novel or non-fiction book). I will have to put in an appendix, or something similar of books I have dipped in and out of throughout the year so that they don’t all fall through the cracks and disappear from the record.

‘The Savage Altar’ by Åsa Larsson

Thursday 20th September – Thursday 27th September

I was quite looking forward to reading this book, having heard good things about it, and possibly even influenced by the usual glowing cover quotes. It’s also a prize winner (Sweden’s best first crime novel award, as you may be able to see on the cover).

Maybe these heightened expectations simply gave me further to fall, but I was extremely disappointed by the book. The characters were pretty cliched, the plot as formulaic as they come (honestly, the final act of the book is preceded by the main character taking two children in her care to a remote lodge in a forest during a snowstorm because she believes they’ll be safer there!). I felt myself rolling my eyes at points as things were so clunky as to be ridiculous.

This is also going to cause me to give vent to two subjects which have been bothering me. Firstly, the murder in this is pretty gruesome. I’m tired of this. I may have written about this before, but I am fed up of authors thinking that by making the deaths in their stories as gory and horrific as possible they are doing something original. I think what makes the Martin Beck novels much better than this is the fact that the murders in them are much more mundane, and so believable. This in turn makes the crime a bit more unsettling as it is the sort of thing you read about every week or so.

Secondly, I wonder if half of the problem I had with this book is that it has women cast as three of the four main protagonists. I don’t want to sound sexist (though I suspect I do), but I think I find it hard to get into a book if I can’t relate to the main character(s) in some way, and I find it hard to relate to female characters. I struggled a little with the two Laura Lippman novels I read last year. I suspect they were no better or worse than many of the detective stories I read but they contained a female lead and so I was less engaged than I perhaps should have been. I realise that this is a fault which lies entirely with me, but it’s one I suspect I will struggle to remedy.

Book Diary Special – ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

Thursday 19th July – Saturday 15th September

I originally started this ‘War and Peace’ several years ago, reached page 559 and paused to read something else briefly, and never went back to it. After ‘Headhunters’ I was at something of a loss, with either a moderate pile of Scandinavian crime novels or a handful of classics to choose from. At this point, glancing over the classics, I noticed the bookmark lodged a third of the way through ‘War and Peace’ and decided that now was the time to re-embark on possibly the longest literary journey of my life.

Despite the fact that I could remember a great deal of what happened, I decided that rather than resume my reading in the middle, I would go back to page 1 and read it from cover to cover. And so I did.

It’s an impressive book, but by no means the best I have ever read. It doesn’t have a traditional plot, and as such seems more a chronicle of the events and activities of a select few people against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars between France and Russia from 1805 to 1812.

It also comes across as a prolonged attack on Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius and historians’ portrayal of events throughout history – the second part of the epilogue is a forty-page discussion of whether or not historical events can really be considered to be the result of the instructions of one man which then morphs into a debate about the nature of free will. ‘War and Peace’ itself is written as four books, and extensive passages at the beginning of each book contain what seemed to me repeated and repetitive monologues dismissing the idea that Napoleon had any real control over the events of 1812. I sensed a certain hatred of Bonaparte which is entirely understandable from a Russian author writing about events within living memory.

Brief research shows that the book was originally published in parts rather than as a whole, and was heavily re-written in the late 1860s. To be honest, several sections of the book are repetitive (Tolstoy mentions that in pursuing the French out of Russia, the Russian army loses half its strength without facing a battle on several occasions) and this seems to me a direct result of the fact that the book wasn’t written in one go. However, Wikipedia claims that Tolstoy was fond of repetition; I would assume he used it to further reinforce the points he was making.

All in all, this was a very interesting book, and one I am very glad to have read. However, I wouldn’t say it was a great book. Tolstoy clearly has a great eye for people and personalities, and can convey them with great accuracy and understanding, but too often (for my liking), the book diverges into lengthy expositions of Tolstoy’s opinions on a handful of pet subjects. The points he makes are perfectly valid and very well argued, but his tone sometimes strays into something akin to sneering arrogance, and the aforementioned repetition left me feeling as though I was being told off for ever thinking that anyone else could be correct.

Book Diary – July 2012

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy

Thursday 28th June – Monday 2nd July

It’s hard to properly convey my feelings about this book. I picked it up on a vague impulse, merely to break the stream of Scandinavian detective stories I have lined up and yet as I read it I became convinced that this was no ordinary book.

The basic premise is very simple. It is set in the not-too-distant future, in America, after some catastrophic event which has rendered the world a wasteland. A father and son are walking south across the devastation.

The brilliance of this book lies in how quickly the reader becomes emotionally involved. The man and his son are never given names, nor described in terms of physical appearance or personality, and yet the strength of their relationship and the balance of power quickly becomes clear. The book is suffused with a sense of impending doom and from about page four onwards I cared deeply about the two main characters. Despite fearing what I might find, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

McCarthy’s distinctive style fits perfectly with the book. He doesn’t bother with any punctuation other than capital letters and full-stops, and yet manages in his brief sentences to give a very vivid description of the world in all its desolation. The lack of speech marks around the dialogue also helps to increase the sense of silence and stillness in an environment in which the only two living things are the main characters.

Cormac McCarthy has admitted that this book was written as a “love letter” to his son and, though I don’t think I’m one to really go in for ‘deep and meaningful’ readings of books, songs or the like, I was genuinely affected by the story.

I am usually pretty useless when it comes to seeing the underlying metaphor in books and films, but I’m convinced that this book is an allegorical tale of parenthood and watching a child grow up.

The only things that keeps me from putting this right up the top of my all-time favourite books list is the ending. I don’t want to give anything away as I would wholeheartedly recommend ‘The Road’ to everyone, so all I will say is that the ending is rather cryptic in the same way as the last few pages of ‘No Country For Old Men’ was. I re-read the last couple of pages to see if I had missed the significance of the very end, but came out none the wiser. However, I will definitely read ‘The Road’ again in the future and see if it makes more sense the second time around.

Disgrace’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Tuesday 3rd July – Monday 9th July

After enjoying ‘Mercy’ so much, I pre-ordered the follow-up, ‘Disgrace’ ahead of its publication in English and when it arrived in the latter half of June, it jumped ahead of several other books on my ‘To Read’ pile.

I was a little disappointed.

Maybe liking the predecessor heightened my expectations to an unfulfillable level (I do have a nasty habit of hyping authors, bands, artists and the like in my own head, wishing them into the status of as-near-as-perfectly-aligned-with-my-tastes until they can only disappoint me); maybe the problem was that it followed a very good book in ‘The Road’ and almost any book would pale by comparison (after all, Mark Kermode’s book suffered much the same fate); maybe it just isn’t as good a book as ‘Mercy’. Either way, I didn’t enjoy it as much.

It had a number of problems which prevented me from liking it wholeheartedly. Firstly, it seemed very long. Neither ‘Disgrace’ nor ‘Mercy’ are short books, but this felt longer. The plot seemed a little sluggish and it wasn’t helped by characters who fell into many of the crime novel clichés about which I have ranted before. When there are a range of bad guys to choose from, and virtually none have any redeeming features, it’s hard to get emotionally involved in the plot as the only person you care about is the detective and you know that there is a later book in the series so it’s pretty clear that he’s not going to come to any harm.

I hope I can simply dismiss this is Difficult Second Book syndrome and the third in the series, ‘Redemption’ will restore my affections for Jussi Adler-Olsen’s work. Unfortunately, that isn’t published until Spring 2013 which is a long time to wait with the aftertaste of disappointment lingering.

Reassuringly for me, many of my sentiments are echoed here (I must stress that I hadn’t read this review either before reading the book or writing my own thoughts down).

‘Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The ‘Miracle’ On The Hudson’ by William Langewiesche

Tuesday 10th July – Abandonded Wednesday 11th July

I made it 36 pages into this book before giving up. The story of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ could – should – be more interesting than this book manages to make it.

The main problem is the excessive level of irrelevant detail the author goes into when describing the events leading up to the crash. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the statistical breakdown of the passengers by age, sex, weight and even seating arrangements. It’s almost as if this was a court transcript from the post-accident investigation which somehow ended up published and available to the general public.

‘Headhunters’ by Jo Nesbo

Monday 16th July – Wednesday 18th July

After a surprisingly long hiatus caused by mild book fatigue, a lack of inspiration as to what to read next and a weekend occupied by a stag do, I am back reading again.

I originally saw the film of this book in the cinema earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was very impressed by the black humour and clever plotting.

The film follows the book very closely, and while I enjoyed the book too, I thought that the film somehow had more to it – more subtlety, more nuances, a touch more humour. I felt it did a better job of explaining the story too, whereas the book has a slightly clunky interview with the investigating policeman at the end which joins the dots and fills in the gaps which have been left by the preceding pages.

Overall, a fun book to read and a positive introduction to the writing of Jo Nesbo. I would probably describe this as ideal holiday reading in the most complimentary way.

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.