Book Diary – February to April 2015

‘Excursion to Tindari’ by Andrea Camilleri

Sunday 1st February – Friday 6th February

‘The Scent of the Night’ by Andrea Camilleri

Friday 6th February – Monday 9th February

‘Rounding the Mark’ by Andrea Camilleri

Tuesday 10th February – Friday 20th February

‘The Paper Moon’ by Andrea Camilleri

Friday 27th February – Sunday 1st March

‘The Wings of the Sphinx’ by Andrea Camilleri

Sunday 1st March – Tuesday 3rd March

As you can see, a string of Montalbano novels occupied all of February and the beginning of March. There isn’t a great deal more for me to say about them that I haven’t already said, hence me running this post into the next month’s too.

‘A Place of Greater Safety’ by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday 3rd March – Monday 20th April

It’s difficult to know where to begin when writing about a book of this magnitude. By the time I reached the end I could barely remember how it began. A lot of the detail was lost to me, but nevertheless I felt like I had learned a great deal simply by reading this book.

That’s not to say that its only value lay in its ability to educate me about a period of history with which I am not well acquainted. As with all Hilary Mantel’s novels, the story is compelling and the characters utterly believable. Of course, the fact that they existed aids this impression but in some ways it must be even harder to make the development of the novel match the events of history rather than simply following the inclinations of the writer’s imagination. What was most impressive was the way in which I found my sympathies shifting (and, I suspect, being shifted) as the book progressed.

‘Carte Blanche’ by Carlo Lucarelli

Tuesday 21st April

This is possibly the shortest novel I’ve read for a long time, if not the shortest ever. It clocked in at less than a hundred pages and that’s one of the main reasons it was read in less than a day.

The book matches the TV episode very closely and that was probably its greatest criticism. Not that the episode is bad, but it felt as though the novel was lacking a lot of flesh on its bones and that there was nothing new to discover. Had I encountered them in the opposite order, I’m sure the TV episode would have enhanced my enjoyment due to it being so close to the book rather than slightly undermining it.

‘Vincent Van Gogh’ by Inigo F. Walther

Wednesday 22nd April  – Monday 27th April

Following last year’s trip to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I had a heightened degree of respect for VVG. I invested in this biography more for the pictures than the text but both were very satisfying.

The scope of the book only extends as far as his artisitic career, with less than a page dedicated to the first twenty-something years of his life. Instead, there was a nice entry-level analysis of how his style changed throughout his life and why.

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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.

Book Diary – February 2013

‘Bring Up The Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday 29th January – Saturday 9th February

After ‘Wolf Hall’, I was incredibly excited to read the follow-up, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’.

Once again, I am struggling to find the right words to convey how much I enjoyed reading this book.

When reading ‘normal’ novels (i.e. the detective stories I favour) as I approach the end I feel a sense of urgency to turn the last page and find out how it ends. This is almost certainly because they are following a well-worn path and so the interest lies not so much in where the reader is being taken as how the author has chosen to take them there. With both of Hilary Mantel’s books, there is no such  urgency as not only is the journey new and exciting itself, but also done with such style and skill that each page is to be relished and enjoyed rather than turned impatiently.

I recently listened to a podcast which contained a discussion of ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ and the talking heads concluded that Hilary Mantel’s masterstroke with her Thomas Cromwell series is to write them in the present tense. It hadn’t consciously occurred to me before, but I am sure they are right – it lends an immediacy to events which happened five centuries years ago, leaving the reader feel that the consequences of each action are unsure and that history may well unfold differently from how we expect.

All in all, a brilliant book, and I am extremely excited for part three of the series. It’s just a shame that I may have to wait another two or three years for it to be published!

‘Winter’s Bone’ by Daniel Woodrell

Sunday 10th February  – Friday 15th February

This was a chance impulse buy from a market stall in Braintree a couple of weeks ago. All I knew about the story was that it had recently been turned into a film which Mark Kermode liked.

I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I’d never heard of Daniel Woodrell before, but found his writing very easy to read and he had moments of absolute brilliance. The story itself was, while not wildly original, a bit different and well told, and reminded me most of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’. It was a similarly short tale, involving poor Americans living hand-to-mouth and struggling against their situation whilst harbouring dreams of escaping to a better future. However, despite those common themes, the book never wandered towards pastiche and maintained a respectable independence. The characters in it were very believable and at no point was I forced to suspend my disbelief for the events to proceed . All in all, a very worthwhile read.

‘Ratking’ by Michael Dibdin

Friday 15th February – Thursday 21st February

After watching and enjoying the Tv series based on these books, I thought (as I usually do) that I would investigate the source material.

At first, Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Aurelio Zen seems right on the money – his unruffled, placid detachment matches the written Zen very closely. However, as with almost all TV adaptations, the on-screen incarnation and the source text depart from each other. Zen is a little less gentle in the book, and the story is also much darker than the episode of the same name. The plot contains elements of child abuse (something which rears its head in crime fiction with depressing frequency) and incest which are nowhere to be found in the TV version.

That’s not to imply any criticism of the book. It was one of the more intelligent, better written detective stories I have read recently and I did enjoy it. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates the genre and I will certainly work my way through the next couple of books in the series at the very least (knowing myself as I do, that almost certainly means I will read all eleven eventually).

However, it does bring me to a general subject upon which I have written at some length before (I think it was in a review of Åsa Larsson’s ‘The Savage Altar’) about the obligation some crime writers seem to feel to include all sorts of sordid and unpleasant activities either as the main event in the book or as a key part of a character’s history. I don’t wish to sound prudish or naive – I’m conscious that these sorts of things probably occur much more commonly than any of us really know – but I do wonder why people who are essentially writing for the entertainment of their readers turn so readily to the very darkest and most shameful aspects of human behaviour.

As someone for whom crime novels make up a greater proportion of my reading material than any other single genre, I am as much to blame for perpetuating this as anyone else. Nonetheless, I do look forward to the day when I pick up a detective story and read it from cover to cover without discovering repulsive sexual perversions or sadistic killings within.

‘A History Of British Art’ by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Friday 22nd February – Friday 1st March

This was a Christmas present from mum, and one I was very much looking forward to reading. I have enjoyed several of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s TV series on the art of various countries, as well as his recent tours around northern Italy.

The book is very interesting without being too dense and ‘academic’. He provides a brief overview of each era, linking nicely from one to the other – obviously, history flows from cause to effect, which is the cause of the next series of events – and touching upon some of the more significant artists of the time. His examples aren’t exhaustive (something which provoked a rebuke from one reviewer on Amazon) but they really don’t need to be. There is enough detail to follow the progression of British art from pre-reformation to late twentieth century without becoming bogged down in one particular period.  The obvious implication is that if any particular era interests the reader then there are bound to be other volumes which can provide much greater coverage of the time.

When reading non-fiction, my aim is always to learn something. The best thing I can say about this book is that I feel as though I learned quite a bit from this book, without even realising it at the time.

 

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.

Conclusions

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!