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 – 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!