Captain by Thomas Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As I almost always say at the beginning of every review, I received this book as part of a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind consideration I will provide my utterly candid opinion below.
Many other reviewers have pointed out the dramatic aspects of this novel and I won’t disagree with them. The story runs along the typical line of air disaster movies that were so popular in the 70’s and 80’s and is a reasonable example of such. The standard ‘plot complications’ that arise in the story are reasonably novel and one does feel educationally edified by the end of things. Block’s work grabs the attention and then holds on to it rather fitfully for what seems like a very long time. “Captain” is a standard pulp airline suspense novel.
At its heart the story has a good idea but at times the rendering is shaky. The text could use extensive editing and part of the reader’s soul dies each time the author uses the phrase “can’t hardly”, drops one of several unnecessary profanities or uses the same trite phrase four times in the span of two pages of text. Block’s rendering of the technical aspects of flying are wonderfully credible and solid but once he wanders outside his realm of immediate knowledge things seem to come apart. The interactions between characters range from maudlin to plastic and fail to sound the ring of truth in the reader’s ear. Block also has a tendency to use rather obsolete terminology and wording that made me check repeatedly that the novel wasn’t actually a reprint of one written 20 years ago. The pervasive use of the term “internet message” over the more common term “email” was especially distracting.
From a content perspective, it’s clear Block knows his way around a plane but it’s equally clear that he has a bone to pick with the manner in which the airline industry has evolved over the past few decades. I’m certainly in no position to make any value judgement on whether those changes are good or bad but it is evident what Block’s opinion is. He spends considerable effort painting the old school pilots as heroes who get their jobs done despite the utter incompetence of their higher-ups. This results in some befuddlingly implausible situations that dilute Block’s obvious knowledge of piloting an aircraft.
In summary, “Captain” does offer us a dramatic insight into the world of a commercial airline pilot. Unfortunately, some of the points of execution are firing rather amiss and the result is a novel that is obviously written by an airline pilot and not by a professional writer. There is much merit to be sure but this one needs quite a bit of additional polish to make it a quality novel.
Dictionary Of Omens And Superstitions by Philippa Waring
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
For once this book has nothing to do with a GoodReads giveaway. It is merely a random book picked up from the ether. It’s worth noting that I started this one with the intent of reading it straight through. This is fairly unusual for a reference book but since I have recently instituted a policy of reading three books at a time it made some amount of sense. One book in the current reading pile, according to the new scheme, should be easily consumable in tiny interruptable bits. This was that book.
As a book to be read straight through this is fairly unacceptable. It’s redundant, unentertaining and pretty poorly organized. To this my diligent reader may say, simply, “duh, it’s a dictionary” but it goes beyond that. When I was a child I read the dictionary and it’s not all that terrible. There is, at least, a sense of variety. Waring’s definitions all have an infuriating sameness to them that makes one grit ones teeth and turn the page with increasing hopeful vigor as time goes on.
However, as a reference work it has its shortcomings as well. Since I’ve read through the first third of the book in its entirety I can tell you that it is, at times, inappropriately self-referential. If one is going to be using a book by randomly hopping into the middle bits looking up superstitions related to the word “badger” then phrases like “as stated earlier” and “as we said before” are rather nonsensical. It seems clear the book was written in some sort of order which doesn’t match up well with the order of use. There is also a problem with organization in that some entries are not sufficiently self-referential. Terms which are typically considered synonymous bear strikingly different information and do NOT refer to each other in any way. So the results of any reference depend at least in part on luck and choosing the exact right word. Lastly, the book is terribly dated. Despite its publication date in 1997, most of the entries appear to date from the 70s.
In summary, this book is going on my shelf for later reference but I’ll remember the lack of organization and work a bit harder at using it when its use is required. Not the best dictionary ever but better than nothing.
100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod by Scott Christianson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As is the usual preamble, I received this book as part of a GoodReads giveaway.
For most purposes this rather brief tome is serviceable as a coffee table book. Each entry is given one page devoted to the diagram with a half page of text to describe it. In general the author does a good job of choosing his topics and while most are already familiar to any individual of average erudition there are some new tidbits to be gleaned. As a book to be read from cover to cover it does become somewhat daunting because the author’s text is often very brief and very high level and one can never quite settle into any particular topic before being shuffled off rather quickly to the next. The chronological ordering of the book is exactly what one would wish for in such a work and the full breadth of history has considered.
On the constructive side of my observations it seems evident that the author had some difficulty coming around to 100 ‘diagrams’ for inclusion. Many of the entries can only marginally be called diagrams at all (or the diagrams are really only secondary to the significance of the achievement being documented) while others are of dubious significance to begin with. The idea that a sketch for the iPod should appear in a book alongside Copernicus and da Vinci is, in this reviewer’s opinion, an affront to any reasonable view on how we could what is significant and what is not in the grand scale of history. Lastly in this vein the text at times seems rushed and perhaps suffers from over-editing. The chosen textual format is so short that no real background can be properly conveyed and the reader suffers a bit from whiplash.
In summary, this book would make a reasonable addition to the coffee table but cannot be considered for any serious reading. It would have been better served as a book containing half as many diagrams but with much expanded text.
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