Book Diary – January 2014

‘The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro’ by Joe McGinniss

Sunday 29th December 2013 – Monday 6th January 2014

On the face of it, this should be an ideal book. It would appeal to my British love of the underdog, contains a story of mid-nineties football and is based in Italy. What’s not to love?

Well, the author for a start. Maybe it’s a limitation on my part, but for me to fully embrace a book, I have to like the narrator. In fact, I think I have to believe that I am them (this could explain why I find it hard to really enjoy books with female main characters). However, Joe McGinniss wastes little time in outing himself as an arrogant buffoon. This is a man who only became interested in football in time for the World Cup in 1994 and therefore by the time of the book has been a fan for only three years, and sees nothing wrong with being overcome by the urge to offer his tactical advice to an extremely experienced manager or suggesting that the chairman and owner are being naive in their spending (or lack of it). He readily ignores their advice and suggestions, because after all, he knows best(!) He couldn’t possibly stay in the nice hotel they have chosen for him because it’s in the next town, oh no, he’s got to go and stay in the horrendously bad local hotel because he couldn’t possibly not stay in the town about whose football team he is writing.

It is a very good story and I did enjoy it, but the author does get in the way. There are many more occasions when he feels the club could benefit from his limitless wisdom, and he seems utterly incapable of tact or discretion when confronted by some of the less admirable aspects of the story.

‘The Double’ by George Pelecanos

Tuesday 7th January – Thursday 9th January

After ‘What It Was’ proved something of a disappointment, and ‘The Cut’ restored some of my admiration for GP, ‘The Double’ builds on that and helps restore him to the status of one of my favourite authors.

The story itself is more of the usual fare and as always it is well written. I devoured the first hundred pages very quickly, and it was only once the bad guys were introduced that my enthusiasm flagged slightly. My main criticism would be that the characters of the antagonists were slightly clunky stereotypes. As his plots are somewhat formulaic, the characters are the main hook for me, and so this left me a little underwhelmed.

However, as I often say, I feel like my tone is over-critical. The fact that I finished the book inside 72 hours says something about its readability, and all in all it was another solid addition to GP’s rapidly lengthening bibliography.

‘The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong’ by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Thursday 9th January – Thursday 16th January

The natural partner to ‘Soccernomics’ which I read back in the summer of 2011, this book takes a similarly analytical approach to football, on the basis that it will reveal some startling home truths about the game we all profess to understand.
Granted, there are some astonishing revelations. However, the title has a slightly confrontational, dismissive tone which mis-sells the book.

There are some very interesting revelations; corners are pointless – something like 2% end in a goal – and a player touches the ball for less than a minute in total during an entire game.

However, there are also some maxims which they verify, even if they need to tidy up the common understanding of what the maxim means. For instance, possession really is important in making your team more successful. They do go into greater detail regarding what counts as possession and what sort of it a team needs (it can be loosely explained as time that your opponent doesn’t have the ball, though there are other criteria too) but they also show a strong correlation between how much possession a team has and its success in terms of points accumulated.

My main interest was in the sections devoted to management (mostly due to my geeky armchair-management of various teams through the many versions of FM), and these contain some valuable insights – it is better to improve your worst player than upgrade your star, and the optimal times for substitutions when losing. It also disputes Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s findings regarding the ineffectualness of managers, and claims that they have a much bigger impact than previously suggested. It’s difficult to know who is right, if either of them are. As we all know, you can prove anything with statistics…

‘Back To Bologna’ by Michael Dibdin

Saturday 18th January – Sunday 19th January

Clearly, I enjoyed the penultimate Zen book as I read it inside 24 hours. However, there was something underwhelming about it.

It’s almost as if Zen’s disenchantment with his career and life in general is actually Michael Dibdin’s Zen-fatigue displaced onto his main character. Throughout this book, Zen is a snivelling, irrational, self-pitying excuse for a human being and achieves precisely nothing, yet still receives the credit for solving the case which he was sent to Bologna simply to observe. There is no mystery about the case as far as the reader is concerned, Zen does no investigating, and beyond the two incidents which are there to be investigated, not a lot happens.

This novel reminded me most of one of those water-treading episodes of a TV series which keep the long-running themes going without achieving a lot else; almost to set the scene for the next episode. Obviously, I will move on to the next (and final) book in the series, and I hope Zen goes out with a bang.

‘End Games’ by Michael Dibdin

Sunday 19th January – Friday 24th January

And go out with a bang he does! Or at least, with one of the best books in the series. Not only is this novel a full 160 pages longer than its predecessor, but it fills those pages with a much more interesting story, and significantly more involvement from Zen.

As has become something of a central motif to the Zen series the outcome is rather bittersweet and the story – the series – ends with Zen waiting on the platform of the train station, frustrated by delays, leaving the region with his tail between his legs having solved the crime but with the execution of the final arrest lacking slightly, leaving something of a mess behind.

The greatest thing about Zen is his ordinary-ness. Where other detectives I have read they are almost superhuman detecting machines, but Zen is a fallible, disillusioned, mildly underachieving middle-aged man doing his best to lead a decent existence. He is certainly not a hero in the standard sense, but he is an admirable person in many ways. I’ll certainly miss him now there are no more books to discover.

‘Norse Mythology: Great Stories from the Eddas’ by Hamilton Wright Mabie

Friday 24th January – Tuesday 28th January

This slim volume was a Christmas present from Emma; one which I was inspired to request by none other than the Thor films.

What surprised me the most was how closely the films had stuck to elements of the original mythology.

Beyond that, the myths were quite interesting, but there is something unrealistic about all the stories. I know it seems stupid to say that about a collection of stories about Norse gods and frost giants, but even then several tales required disbelief to be suspended beyond the normal requirements of a fanstastical tale.

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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 – 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 – 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.