‘The Crimson Petal And The White’ by Michael Faber
Friday 30th March – Wednesday 18th April
This was another recommendation from Mum, and what a recommendation it was. She gave me the book back in January and I had dallied a little before diving in, partly because I had a couple of other books I wanted to read first and partly because I was concerned that, at 840 pages it might be quite a challenge. How wrong I was!
It is so well-written that I was devouring it at a rate of about a page a minute. The author manages a delicate balancing act between graphic detail and unnecessary crudity and so creates a world which is all too realistic (as far as I can judge a novel set in 1875 anyway) but without seeming overdone or depressing.
The characters are fantastically multi-faceted, and your feelings towards them are cleverly manipulated through the book as they develop. In the case of William Rackham, the main male character, I started pitying him, was then impressed by him, liked him, was shocked by him, doubted him and finally disliked him before at the very end sympathising to an extent with his self-inflicted plight. Their motivations are all too human and understandable, and their reactions to the social conventions of the age are also very consistent with their unfolding personalities. The end is abrupt but as I let it settle and thought more and more about it, I came to the conclusion that given the preceding events it was the only credible conclusion.
All in all, this was by far the best book I have read this year, and had I not read ‘Great Expectations’ about eighteen months ago, it would be the best for several years. As it is, it has cemented itself in my top five books of all time, and it will take something extraordinary to displace it.
‘It’s Only A Movie – Reel Life Adventures Of A Film Obsessive’ – Mark Kermode
Wednesday 18th April – Tuesday 24th April
Maybe it was because it followed such a fantastic book, but I was a little disappointed with “It’s Only A Movie”. I like Mark Kermode very much, and I find his movie reviews on Radio Five Live essential listening, but I thought that the stories he recounts in this book would have been better told in person rather than in writing. I also found his self-deprecation crossed from modesty into obsequiousness far too often. It’s one thing to admit to a certain degree of good fortune, it’s another for the country’s best-known film critic to spend 300-odd pages repeatedly insisting that he is an ordinary person (albeit film-obsessed ordinary person) who has essentially blagged his way to where he is today.
It was certainly easy to read, and I will probably get around to “The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex” at some point this year, but there is definitely less urgency about reading another of his books than I hoped there would be when I first opened this one.
That’s not to say that there weren’t funny moments; he clearly has a great talent for storytelling (or at least, after proofreading and editing has taken place, the stories are very entertaining) and his description of Pierce Brosnan’s singing in ‘Mamma Mia’ on page 118* made me cry with laughter. Unfortunately, this is the high point of the book and the only moment where I felt he really hit the stride that will be familiar to listeners to his reviews. The rest felt a little watered down.
*In case you wish to look it up while killing fifteen minutes in your local library/WH Smiths
‘Hunting Warbirds – The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War Two’ by Carl Hoffman
Tuesday 24th April – Thursday 26th April
As you can probably guess from the simple fact that I read this book inside three days, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was extremely readable, and as someone who is interested in aeroplanes etc. it couldn’t have had a more receptive reader.
The story itself is very interesting – a Boeing B-29 Superfortress got lost in bad weather and was forced to make an emergency landing in Greenland in 1947. Within a couple of days, the entire crew had been rescued, but the plane was left behind. Nearly fifty years later, a team of pilots, engineers and ‘warbird’ enthusiasts went back to try to salvage what they could. The whole thing was made into a documentary, and can be found on YouTube, or by clicking on the links below (I must admit, I haven’t got around to watching them yet):
I think I enjoyed it so much because it contained all of the ingredients that I fell in love with back when I was reading Biggles books as a six-year-old – aeroplanes, adventure, tension, more aeroplanes, travel to far-flung places and a mix of people from ordinary plane lovers to millionaire businessmen.
‘The Drowned World’ by J.G. Ballard
Friday 27th April – Wednesday 2nd May
At only 175 pages, I didn’t think it would take me very long to read but I found the beginning of this book very hard going. I struggle to get into any book if I can’t empathise with the main character and I couldn’t understand why the characters were behaving the way they were and if the explanations were in the text, they were too subtle for me to detect.
I kept putting the book down, not expecting to pick it up again, only for the effusive quotes on the cover to make me feel like a literary philistine and shame me into resuming. Perhaps this isn’t the right motivation for continuing, and is more than a little hypocritical given the ease and reasoning with which I abandoned ‘MAMista’.
However, I persisted, perhaps motivated by the imminent end more than anything else and finished the book. It was another which had a rather inconclusive ending, and left me rather frustrated. Maybe my diet of books so far has been restricted to rather simple fare, but there were a number of things which I felt this book lacked which I have come to expect. Firstly, there was little or no sense of the main character’s personality (which surely caused my inability to empathise with him) and as I mentioned earlier the motivations of all the characters were inexplicable. Then, there was a lack of moral clarity in the story – as events unfolded the supporting cast would alternate from friends to foes without anyone on either side seeming particularly bothered, and again left me wondering why the characters were acting the way they were, and whether or not they were right or wrong. This wasn’t a book which questioned the reader’s moral compass by encouraging them to sympathise with a character engaged in dubious activities, it simply lacked any sort of judgement at all.
Overall, a very disappointing book and one which has deterred me from reading any more of J.G. Ballard’s work in the immediate future.