Book Diary – DeZenber 2013

‘A Long Finish’ by Michael Dibdin (Saturday 7th December – Thursday 12th December)

‘Blood Rain’ by Michael Dibdin (Friday 13th December – Sunday 15th December)

‘And Then You Die’ by Michael Dibdin (Sunday 15th December – Wednesday 18th December)

‘Medusa’ by Michael Dibdin (Thursday 19th December – Friday 27th December)

If 2013’s reading has a theme, it would have to be Zen books. Prompted by a combination of genuine enjoyment of the earlier instalments in the series, a need for light reading (which in my case nearly always means a detective novel) and not least the urgency brought on by impending library lending deadlines, December turned into a month entirely devoted to Aurelio Zen. Hence me renaming the month DeZenber. See what I did there?

I won’t go into detail regarding the plots of the various books, but I will say that through these stories, Zen cements himself as my favourite detective. I don’t think these are at quite the same level as some of the earlier books (I think ‘Dead Lagoon’ is probably the best) but they are still better than many of a similar ilk I have read.

The best thing about them is Zen’s character. I may well be repeating myself from earlier entries regarding the series, but Zen’s great quality is his normality. He doesn’t fit the stereotype and is all the better for it. He has human yearnings and tastes and they are satisfied in the books ,but rarely, if ever, as a major plot point. Instead he stumbles through life as we all do, accumulating good and bad experiences. He is morally questionable at times, whilst trying to do the right thing, and it doesn’t always work.

The more I read, the more I want an element of realism in the books and Zen has that. I know he doesn’t exist, but I believe that he could, and would be a decent guy to know.

Book Diary Special – ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkein

Sunday 24th November – Friday 29th November

In reading The Hobbit, I broke two of the unwritten rules of my Book Diary:
1. To only read one book at once
2. To read new books (i.e. no re-reading old favourites).

The second isn’t so much of a rule, more a challenge to see how long I could go without re-reading a book. The answer, it turns out, is just short of two years. I think that just before Christmas 2011 I re-read both The Damned United and White Jazz in quick succession, but since I started the book diary I haven’t re-read anything.

My main motivation for picking up The Hobbit again was the impending second installment of Peter Jackson’s films. Having rewatched the first film with Emma, we weren’t sure how big a part the likes of Radagast, the Necromancer and Azog the white orc played in the book. As it turns out, both are mentioned, but only in passing.

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it more than probably any previous reading. I’ve always held The Hobbit to be the poor relation of The Lord Of The Rings due to its more child-oriented writing. This time I didn’t mind the style and found more to enjoy in the story. Having enjoyed The Children Of Hurin recently too, I’m increasingly impressed with J.R.R. Tolkein’s stories even though I would have described myself as a big fan to start with.

Book Diary – October 2013

‘Dead Lagoon’ by Michael Dibdin

Friday 27th September – Sunday 6th October

Despite being briefly tempted by Cormac McCarthy’s debut novel, I couldn’t resist moving quickly on to the fourth Zen novel. There isn’t a great deal to add to what I have already written on the subject, so I’m probably going to repeat myself now. I think Zen is my favourite of the fictional detectives because he is so human. Not for him the infeasibly long days of bad diet and worse sleep. He is outsmarted and betrayed. He makes a fool of himself, but also gets things very right and does his best to be a decent human being. The best thing about the books is that Zen’s character really develops across the novels, and not just in the token he’s-getting-older/reference-to-something-significant-from-previous-story way that many series opt for.

‘The Man on The Boulevard’ by Georges Simenon

Tuesday 8th October – Saturday 12th October

Despite it only being 170 pages long, I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. I found the story dull and dated, and I lost interest despite wanting to enjoy it.

‘Cosi Fan Tutti’ by Michael Dibdin

Saturday 12th October – Thursday 24th October

I guess the run had to end somewhere, but I found this to be the least enjoyable of the Zen books so far. I think the main problem I had was that Michael Dibdin seemed to be doing a version of the opera of the same name, and so the events within the book were comewhat contrived and melodramatic, a stark contrast to the usual low-key, understated style he employed in the earlier books.

I also found the events a little more difficult to follow, and even now I’m sure there was one subplot which was never properly resolved or explained.

This won’t deter me from reading the others in the series, though it has meant that I feel less urgency about moving on to the next installment. In that sense, it is probably a good thing that the spell has been broken as I could feel myself developing a new obsession with the Zen books, as I have done with the likes of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane to name but three. Ultimately, becuase of the generic nature of the books, I find them enjoyable at the time, but once the sequence is over I am left wanting something a little more from them. Individually, they are fine examples of their type, but collectively they are less rewarding than something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or possibly The Crimson Petal and The White.

Book Diary – August/September 2013

As David Peace’s ‘Red or Dead’ dominated most of August, I’m going to combine the tail-end of the month with September.

‘Vendetta’ by Michael Dibdin

Monday 26th August – Saturday 31st August

Following on from ‘Ratking’ in February, I moved on to the second Zen book.

As with the previous novel, I felt that the TV adaptation was very true to the spirit of the books. There were moments when the plots deviate but without jarring horrendously.

It’s a common thing for fictional detectives to have vulnerabilities, but I think Zen’s make him more human than the archetypal anti-social, alcoholic divorcee. He wants friends, a stress-free life, and is a reluctant outsider due to the fact that he’s a Venetian, rather than because he isolates himself through a lack of personal skills or overwhelming devotion to duty. It’s this that I think makes him my favourite fictional detective, ahead of Wallander, Kenzie and Gennaro or Derek Strange and Terry Quinn.

‘Hang Ups: Essays on Painting (Mostly)’ by Simon Schama

Sunday 1st September – Thursday 12th September

Feeling artistic, I decided to start on Simon Schama’s collection of essays on the subject of art.

The essays themselves are perfect examples of Schama’s readable but intelligent style, and he does a great job of bringing pictures to life, even when you can’t see them.

The main criticisms of the book would be twofold: firstly, and most importantly, the subjects of the essays are often exhibitions which are long since gone, so it is impossible for the reader to ever truly experience what SS is talking about, and secondly, the lack of pictures. In some ways, I’m ashamed to type that, but I feel that a book about art is the perfect place for plenty of pictures, and there is a maximum of one picture per artist discussed, which leaves something to be desired.

I stopped reading about two-thirds of the way through for a number of reasons. Mostly, the last chapter was about fashion rather than art, but also because the format was becoming a little repetitive (though that is perhaps harsh as Simon Schama’s writing is always a pleasure to read) and he was heading into artists I don’t like (Cy Twombly for one!) and several of the later essays were clearly aimed at a more knowledgeable audience than I.

I will read some of the as-yet unread essays, and would recommend the book to any art fan.

‘Cabal’ by Michael Dibdin

Friday 13th September – Sunday 22nd September

Having enjoyed the first two of the series, I quickly moved on to the third, Cabal, which would also complete the set of three which the BBC had adapted for television.

This is the point at which the TV adaptation and the books finally part company once and for all. Beyond the opening scene in which Ludovico Ruspanti falls to his death, the book is unrecognisable as the TV episode bearing the same name and containing the same characters.

However, that is not to its detriment. The book is still very enjoyable, and Zen is still the most likeable of the fictional detectives I have so far encountered. His jealousy of his lady friend’s independence provides an amusing subplot and reaffirms his status as a proper human being.

 

Book Diary Special – ‘Red or Dead’ by David Peace

Friday 2nd August – Monday 26th August

“I have written about corruption, I’ve written about crime, I’ve written about bad men and I’ve written about the demons. But now I’ve had enough of the bad men and the demons. Now I want to write about a good man. And a saint. A Red Saint. Bill Shankly was not just a great football manager. Bill Shankly was one of the greatest men who ever lived. And the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, and the people of Liverpool the city, know that and remember him. But many people outside of football, outside of Liverpool, do not know or do not remember him. And now – more than ever – it’s time everybody knew about Bill Shankly. About what he achieved, about what he believed. And how he led his life. Not for himself, for other people.” – David Peace

So ran the announcement of David Peace’s new novel, ‘Red or Dead’. I count myself among the people outside of Liverpool – Shankly is just a name, a former manager, and little more than that. After ‘The Damned United’, I was looking forward to this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The book is written in two ‘halves’, though the first half, dealing with his managerial career takes up nearly 500 of the book’s 715 pages, and the second half is also much easier reading.

The main reason that the first section is such slow going is the pedantic recital of details of virtually every match Bill Shankly managed, and little else. However, this was  a conscious decision, to show that the road to success is a long, slow and arduous one built on foundations of attention to detail and relentless repetition, and Shankly’s obsession with football to the exclusion of all else. It isn’t until the end approaches, and he begins to feel that football is changing and starting to leave him behind that his life outside the game creeps in, with subtle references to his health, the health of his wife and the changing attitude of the players gently inserting themselves between him and the job he used to love.

The second half is more human, more poignant than the first. There’s Shankly’s struggle to let go of Liverpool Football Club, the uncomfortable attempts of the club to encourage him to move on and let the new order establish themselves and the sad situation in which he is more welcome at rivals Everton and Manchester United than he is at Anfield.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and after all of David Peace’s previous work, it is a refreshing change to read such a warm portrait of someone he clearly admires. There isn’t a single person who comes out of it badly – even Shankly’s neglect of his wife for much of the story, leaving her at home as he quenches his thirst for football at every opportunity, creates no resentment between them and is presented uncritically as merely a facet of his character rather than a flaw.

What I enjoy the most about David Peace’s writing is that I seem to be on his wavelength in many ways. I see what he is doing to create the effects he desires. As with the pedantic approach to the first half of this book, there is also a lack of detail for a lot of the second half, certainly very few dates are mentioned, which gives a feeling of timelessness which I imagine is a common feeling in retirement. It is no longer clear in which month, or even in which year certain things happen. As he attends any game to which he is invited, the events lack the cohesion of a structured season for a given team and so become islands in a sea of time.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes Liverpool, any football fan, and certainly  the last section is worthy of anyone’s attention for its sad and touching portrayal of a man in retirement. I think David Peace is a brilliant writer, but this time he has written a person better than ever before.

Book Diary – July 2013

‘Fatherland’ by Robert Harris

Monday 1st July – Sunday 7th July
For some unknown reason, I had put off reading this book repeatedly since picking it up for mere pennies in a charity shop last autumn. Now that I’ve read it, I regret the delay immensely.

‘Fatherland’ is set in an alternative history in which Germany was triumphant in World War 2. It makes for a very interesting premise for what is, at its heart, a straightforward detective story. However, it is also something of a history lesson – much of what is reported as happening pre-1945 is true – and a political thriller.

I’ve read one Robert Harris before, several years ago, and a common characteristic is his ability to make you read on and on. I read the last two hundred pages in little over a day, and had a fantastic time doing so.

I would thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good thriller. I have read a lot of detective stories over the last three or four years and this is one of the very best. All the more impressive given that it was Robert Harris’s debut novel.

‘Killer’s Choice’ by Ed McBain

Monday 8th July -Wednesday 10th July

Having enjoyed ‘Fiddlers’ last year and thus started at the very end of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, I stumbled across another, much earlier, novel a few months ago and rapidly bought it.

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as ‘Fiddlers’, partly because there wasn’t a great deal of detection going on (the killer is discovered by complete chance) and there are two cases running side by side, neither of which is especially interesting. However, McBain’s writing elevates this above the rather weak material and makes the book very readable if somewhat forgettable.

‘The Given Day’ by Dennis Lehane

Wednesday 10th July – Saturday 27th July

What happened here then eh? Dennis Lehane goes epic.

This is a funny book to read after all the other Dennis Lehane books – it’s as if he wrote one of his normal stories and then went back and added shedloads of detail.

This brings out conflicting feelings in some ways – firstly, I’m pleased and impressed that DL has taken his writing to the next level; however, I’m also a little surprised, as it seems a little out of character for him, and I would also have said (prior to reading this book) that he was the weakest of the four writers I have discovered through The Wire. The opening does little to dispel the feeling that he is blagging things a little bit, as it bears a certain resemblance to the start of Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’.

That said, the criticism I level at him seems unfair. As the book progressed I felt that rather than this being a limited writer attempting to imitate someone better, it was far more likely that this was Lehane putting his very best into it for perhaps the first time. I’m sure that writing is far harder than anyone who hasn’t done it could ever guess, but this shows his Kenzie and Gennaro series for the small-scale, run-of-the-mill detective fiction it is, however enjoyable it may be. The only previous book of his that comes close to this quality is ‘Mystic River’. With hindsight, that was probably his first attempt at breaking out of the detective genre and into something larger in scope.

The amount of research ‘The Given Day’ must have required is incredible, and the hard work pays off as the city becomes more than mere backdrop for the first time in DL’s writing. His tone is more serious too, but he hasn’t lost his talent for readability and I devoured the book in large chunks – 50, 70 pages at a time. He also added genuine suspense, and made the book so believable that I had no idea how things would pan out of the main characters.

All in all, a far superior read to his previous work and one which makes me feel I owe him an apology for every doubting the quality of his writing.

‘Jar City’ by Arnaldur Indridason

Saturday 27th July – Wednesday 31st July

July has been a pretty good month. Not only have I managed to read four books, but three of them have been pretty good.

‘Jar City’ starts as a fairly run-of-the-mill police procedural with a host of familiar conventions observed. The murder is a little odd andthe detective is a grumpy middle-aged divorcee with a difficult relationship with his children.

The book’s real quality only shows through towards the end as a note of optimism creeps in. Not only is the detective trying to be a better man but more importantly the killer is not some raving lunatic but a real human being with understandable motive.

This was one of the better Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read, mostly due to its heart.

Book Diary – June 2013

‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel

Friday 31st May – Wednesday 26th June

While this clearly took me a long time to read, it wasn’t hard going. If anything, the main reason was a change in employment which deprived me of the opportunity to read on my lunch break.

As with the other books of Hilary Mantel’s that I have read recently, I enjoyed the act of reading it, which isn’t something I would say for most of the books I read. By that I mean that I felt no desire to rush on and get to the end of the chapter or book, but instead took pleasure in each sentence and paragraph.

The cover quotes all describe this book as being humourous, and while there is some sharply observed mocking of the pretence of everyday conventions, I found this to be not so much amusing as a rueful confirmation of our self-deception.

‘Ladies’ Man’ by Richard Price

Wednesday 26th June – Sunday 30th June

Richard Price is a strange author to me. I always enjoy reading his books, regardless of the subject matter, even though he often has what I would consider unresolved plots. I think his gift is that his characters are so believable that I follow them and understand their every decision. I wish I could write characters like that, and so he makes me wish I could write full-stop. If I ever make a serious stab at writing a novel, Richard Price will be one of my main inspirations.

And so to ‘Ladies’ Man’. It charts the descent of Kenny Becker from guy in unfulfilling relationship and job to guy in neither, via his insecurity-driven trips to various seedy establishments in 1970s New York. All in all, not really the kind of thing I would choose to read, however I still found it easy and engrossing reading, mostly because Richard Price made Kenny an easy man to sympathise with.

I guess part of the reason I liked the book and grudgingly liked Kenny was that as a thirty-year-old in a job he didn’t really enjoy, he was very similar to me and the situation I was in a couple of months ago. Some of his thoughts, wild plans for the future and dispiriting realisations seemed very familiar.

* * *

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I have now changed jobs! While I’m very happy about that, it does mean my potential reading time is reduced and I reckon I will find that I take longer to read each book. If it gets to the point where I am only getting a book or two into each month, the current format of my Book Diary will be somewhat redundant and I will look to change it to something more suitable, either devoting a post to each book, or perhaps only updating it on a quarterly basis.