Book review: A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller


A Killing in the Hills
by Julia Keller
Headline, 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed this superb debut novel. Here is an author who not only can write, but clearly loves writing. A Killing in the Hills is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

What’s so good about this book is not the mechanics of the main crime plot (which do not work, in my opinion), but the characterisation, storytelling and atmosphere. The narrative is a layered one, and revelations about the layers occur at different points in the book, providing far more reader interest and engagement than is usual in a typical crime novel.

Belfa (Bell) Elkins is a prosecuting attorney in the impoverished West Virginia hamlet of Acker’s Gap. She was a trailer kid, but when she was about 10 her home burnt down – more is revealed gradually. As the book opens, a man walks into a diner, shoots three elderly men, and walks out. The aftermath of the shooting forms another narrative framework. One of the witnesses to the killing is Bell’s daughter Carla, who has just been to her teen anger-management course – and boy, does she need it! Another theme of the book is Bell’s relationship with Carla and with Sam, her ex-husband: all portrayed realistically and compellingly with an originality rarely encountered in contemporary crime fiction (which regularly features stroppy teenagers). Another theme is a case involving the death of a small boy in a game gone wrong: Bell has to decide on the charge to be made against the person responsible.

Bell is the heart of the book; her past, her professional life, her relationships with colleagues and an elderly couple she’s befriended, and her close, movingly portrayed friendship with the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong. All the characters, important or minor, are vividly conveyed, though the diner gunman is the least successful.

The intertwined plots play out against a beautiful portrayal of this rural area, a wonderful portrait of a community riven by poverty and hopelessness. The main story, that of the gunman and his actions subsequent to the initial shooting, is not credible in various ways – and the final revelations also lack believability. But this does not derail this excellent novel: there is so much to like about it that I can only urge you to read it for yourself, and discover this very talented author.

Although the cover of the book shows a beautiful picture of some mountains, here is an extract from the book:

This was what morning in West Virginia really meant, Chill thought. Not the pictures they were always sticking on postcards – sunrise over the mountains, the scooped-out gorges, and all the wildflowers – but a traffic jam in a 7-Eleven parking lot, the dirty pickups and the cars with mufflers hoisted up and tied there with rope. Kids crammed in the backseats, looking out the side windows, and if you looked back at them, they gave you the finger. Don’t see that on any postcard. Hell, no.

I received this book from Amazon Vine.

Aunt Agatha’s: another (glowing) review of this book.

YouTube: trailer for the book (very beautiful).

About the book at the publishers’ websites: Australia, USA (pdf) and UK.

Why have I stopped watching Prisoners of War/Hatufim?

The American TV series Homeland was a big hit in the UK. I had recorded it in advance, but after watching episode 1 was sure I did not want to watch more, and deleted the rest. Later, the Israeli series Prisoner of War (Hatufim, literally “The Abducted Ones”), was shown, written by the same author (Gideon Raff) and by all accounts much better – and with subtitles! I therefore set up the series to record and towards the end of its run, began to watch it. After three episodes, I’m stopping. Why?

On the basis of what I’ve seen, I find Prisoners of War vastly superior to Homeland, benefiting enormously from its absence of a mad neurotic voyeur who bugs the returning prisoner’s home and obsessively observes him having sex with his wife. Apart from that big plus, the whole thing is so much more real. You can believe in the two returning prisoners, their wives, their respective personal dilemmas, and the situation of the third woman, the sister of the man who did not return.

After watching an episode all about the homecoming, a second episode about the reunion with the families, and a third about the debriefing of the two men in a secure facility, I lost interest. The pace is glacial, and I’m learning nothing. The constant flashbacks to scenes of torture and abuse (physical and mental) are upsetting and abhorrent. They are done of necessity, and are not gratuitous, but I don’t need to keep seeing them – I believe the men had a dreadful time of it in their 17 years of captivity, and I don’t need to keep witnessing the details.

I care that one man is finding it hard to reconnect with his powerful wife, the woman who has kept the faith for him all these years, who has kept her family together and made their house a perfect home that now seems to have little place for him. I care that the other man has been betrayed by his girlfriend, and find the dance of mutual lies between them convincing and moving. I care that the sister of the third man is pole-axed by her grief, and identify with her relationship with her brother’s ghost. I hate the psychiatrist who interrogates the returned prisoners, pushing them again and again to detect small inconsistencies. But at the same time, these scenes become boring to watch.

I don’t care enough to see more. I don’t care if either or both the men have been “turned” by their captors, or if their families do or don’t survive the emotional dramas of their return. I think that the Israeli version’s method of splitting the issues between three men rather than focusing them all in one, as in the American version, is much better. But I don’t want to see any more mangled bodies, scenes of abuse, or mentally agonising interrogations. I just can’t bear to sit through another 9 hours of slowly, beautifully filmed, pain and occasional happiness. If the story had been told at film length, or slightly longer, it would have held my interest. Yet at this pace, it is all too much. What am I missing by not watching any more of this?

Guardian: Prisoners of War: why the original is always the best.
Israeli drama Hatufim displays a level of sophistication that US remake Homeland didn’t quite achieve.

Guardian: TV review: Prisoners of War (Hatufim). What Hatufim doesn’t seem to be from the early evidence is the white-knuckle ride Homeland was. It smoulders rather than burns; less of a thriller, more of a thoughtful, psychological thriller – without the sniping and bombs. More of a family drama too, with the emphasis not so much on the action but on the PoWs rebuilding their lives. In other words, it hasn’t been given the 24 treatment.

Guardian: Why the Israeli version of Homeland has even more shock value. Homeland, with its US marine who has become a devout Muslim, packs an even more powerful punch in its original Israeli version.

Wikipedia: Homeland and Prisoners of War (spoilers).

Homeland and Prisoners of War are both available on DVD.

Book review: Gone in Seconds by A J Cross


Gone in Seconds
by A J Cross
Orion, 2012

Gone in Seconds ticks all the boxes for a contemporary crime novel: but is that enough? The heroine, Kate Hudson, is a senior lecturer in criminology at Birmingham University who works in parallel for the West Midlands police force’s unsolved crime unit. She’s divorced from an unpleasant barrister who defends obviously guilty people, and has a 12-year-old daughter Maisie with whom she has an up-and-down relationship. Kate’s main professional interest, as disclosed in a lecture she gives to new students in chapter 1, is in men who abduct girls and/or young women. She emphasises to her students how many of these men operate under the radar, because society has no way of alerting the public to them: we tend to follow cases in the media when someone disappears, or a case in court when someone is caught, but Kate’s line is that women in general need to be much more “switched on” in their daily lives, to avoid this fate.

The first few chapters introduce too many characters and themes at once. The police unit staff comprise a full compliment of genre staples: handsome/sensitive American FBI-type, the boss from hell, gruff grandfatherly figure, obsessively accurate pathologist, scene-of-crime men (one nice, one nasty), and Julian, one of Kate’s students who helps with all the computer “stuff”. Kate herself has a caricature of a cleaning lady, on-tap to look after Maisie at inconvenient times, as Kate is a workaholic. Maisie is usually out at her friend Chelsey’s house, causing Kate much angst about how much parental control to try to insist upon.

Once the book gets over all the scene-setting, it settles into the main plot, in which the remains of a teenager who went missing ten years ago are found. The book focuses on the identification of the body, and on Kate’s psychological insight which enhances the police procedural aspects of the investigation (despite the boss’s fury on the topic). More bodies are found, more suspects identified, and soon it dawns on everyone that the criminal might be one of the unsolved crime unit’s staff……

Although this book is a solid read, particularly strong in the sections about the parents of the missing girls, it has a sense of being “made for TV” (there are regular name-checks of branded clothing and fashion accessories) and is utterly predictable in its plot as well as in its stock cast of characters. After I’d read the first few chapters I made a note of what I thought would happen, and 400 pages later I was correct on all counts, short of precisely naming the villain.

I would have liked this book a lot more if it had been 250 pages in length rather than 420, which meant the pace was very slow and the content padded, given that almost every event was so predictable. I was disappointed by the one element that seemed to me to be potentially original: Kate’s insistence that the “serial killer” popularised by the media does not exist, but that what does are people she calls “repeaters”. I did not see how the two differed at all, on the evidence of this novel.

Those who don’t read as much crime fiction as I do (or watch the many TV programmes that concern forensic crime) may well find Gone In Seconds is a competent, satisfying genre novel. It certainly has a nice sense of its West Midlands setting, but there is not anything in it to make it stand out from the pack.

I obtained this book via Amazon Vine.

Another review: Entertainment Focus.

Publisher website: about the author, who is a forensic psychologist.

Books up for the International Dagger 2013, first post

Now that the winner of the 2012 CWA International Dagger has been announced, we can turn to the titles that are eligible for consideration for the 2013 competition. Karen Meek of Euro Crime has created her usual essential post of the books that qualify, and has included a GoodReads feed of the titles, also. Both of these are updated as more titles are published or announced, so check back regularly to the Euro Crime post or sign up to the GoodReads RSS feed for alerts of new books as the year goes on.

The criteria for consideration are that the book must be translated into English for the first time, and published in the UK between June 2012 and May 2013. The award is shared between the author and the translator. There are, therefore, several eligible books already published, some of which I’ve even read (sometimes a few years ago, if the book was published in the US before the UK). These read and reviewed titles are:

Adler-Olson, J. Disgrace, tr Kyle Semmel (Denmark)
Dahl, A. The Blinded Man, tr Tiina Nunnally (reviewed as Misterioso, the US edition and title) (Sweden)
Enger, T. Pierced, tr Charlotte Barslund (Norway)
Eriksson, K. The Cruel Stars of the Night, tr Ebba Segerberg (review of the US edition) (Sweden)
Holt, A. The Blind Goddess, tr Tom Geddes (review submitted) (Norway)
Indridason, A. Black Skies, tr Victoria Cribb (Iceland)
Juul, P. The Murder of Halland, tr Martin Aitken (review submitted) (Denmark)
Larsson, A. The Black Path, tr Marlaine Delargy (review of US edition) (Sweden)
Marklund, L. Last Will, tr Neil Smith (review of US edition) (Sweden)
von Schirach, F. The Collini Case, tr Anthea Bell (Germany)

Most of these books have been most enjoyable to read, but for me so far there are two clear favourites, Last Will and Black Skies. A couple of the others are extremely strong candidates, but fall short of my definition of a “crime” novel in one or two ways. Karen, of course, has listed many more titles, either published or due to be published. I’ve prioritised these so hope to be reading next:

Fossum, K. In the Darkness (Norway)
Tegenfalk, S. Project Nirvana (on order) (Sweden)
Ceder, C. Babylon (Sweden)
Meyer, D. Seven Days (South Africa)
Miloszewski, Z. A Grain of Truth (Poland)
Theorin, J. The Asylum (Sweden)
Camilleri, A. The Age of Doubt (Italy)
Kaaberbol & Friis. The Invisible Murders (Denmark)
Marklund, L. Lifetime (Sweden)

There are several others that appeal to me (and some I shall not be reading), so I am sure I’ll be reading more than those listed above between now and March 2013.

All my posts on the International Dagger.
Petrona’s International Dagger page, which includes a list of all the past winners and a link to the lists of all the eligible titles from each year, with reviews of many of them.

Book review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach


The Collini Case
by Ferdinand von Schirach
translated by Anthea Bell
Penguin/Michael Joseph 2012
(first published in Germany 2011)

The Collini Case is a novella: 160 or so pages of large type, with each chapter starting on a right-hand page (so plenty of white space). Therefore, any review is likely to give away too much in advance for the reader of this brief tale.

The centrepiece of the book is a courtroom drama. The defendant, Collini, is an Italian who has lived in Germany for all his adult life, first as a guestworker. As the book opens, he enters a hotel and, on the pretext of being a journalist, brutally kills an elderly industrialist millionaire. Collini does not try to escape, but he won’t speak to anyone, either.

The pleasures of the story are in the procedural details of the case (including a few pages of detail about the post-mortem which are hard to read if you are the slightest bit sensitive). The defending lawyer, Caspar Leinen, is a young idealist; part of the book tells his life-story and his connection with the victim’s family, which is very poignant and well done.

As a defence lawyer, of course, Leinen feels a moral obligation to find out why Collini committed the crime, even though Collini himself will not speak. Eventually, he thinks he has found a clue, but inevitably simply discovering the truth is not going to be sufficient to see that justice is done. Perhaps the revelations near the end will not come as a surprise, but they are nevertheless moving and powerful.

The Collini Case is an extremely readable book, ably translated by the highly honoured Anthea Bell. It is easy to see why it has been a bestseller in Germany since it was first published there in 2011.

I obtained this book via Amazon Vine.

Spiegel online: fascinating article in which the author discusses his grandfather’s past. I recommend not reading it unless you don’t mind knowing in advance what this book is going to be about.

YouTube video about the book.

Every blurb and review I’ve read of the book gives away far too much of the plot for such a short book, so if you plan to read it I suggest you do as I did and just read it without knowing anything about it! (The John Grisham-style cover is a sufficient hint as to the contents.)

Book review: Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin


Playing Dead
by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine Books (pb), 2012

This debut novel is set mainly in the wilds of Texas. The narrator is Tommie, in her early 30s and an equine psychologist by profession – she rehabilitates children whose lives have been shattered in some way by encouraging them to ride and train horses. Tommie was set to be either a great pianist or a rodeo star, but her hopes for both potential professions were dashed in one fell swoop when, as a young girl, someone ensured she rode a “banned” steer, so she fell and broke her hand when it trod on her.

If this preamble gives you a hint that this novel has elements of an overblown soap opera, you would be right. Tommie is one of those well-educated but daffy protagonists, who is paranoid about her safety yet is always getting herself into avoidable, dangerous situations. She has a few useful men to protect her – an Afghanistan vet boyfriend, her parents’ ranch hand, an old Southern lawyer, a crack journalist and a taxi driver. Tommie is scared because she has received a shocking letter just after her “Daddy” has died. The letter says that Tommie’s mother is in fact a woman married to an infamous, jailed mobster. The woman who Tommie has always thought of as her mother is in a care-hospital suffering from Alzheimer’s, so cannot communicate with her daughter. Tommie’s sister Sadie and her cute niece Maddie provide useful support and a sounding board for her concerns.

At the bottom of this novel is a good mystery story, actually quite simple. Yet the author makes it appear extremely complicated by filtering everything through Tommie’s unreliable perceptions and memories of her childhood on the ranch as a sort of tomboy-rich-girl. Tommie is, obviously, desperate to find out the truth about her origins, yet at the same time fearful. Most of the first half of the book is taken up with her feelings of insecurity, her dreams and hallucinations as she fears the people she has to meet but also makes sure that she does not have any help or back-up when she does so. Somewhat crazy things happen, such as Tommie is told to wear green clothes to visit the woman claiming to be her biological mother – it turns out, so that she is well-camouflaged when sitting in the conservatory. She also has a phone relationship with an exceptionally irritating fellow-inmate of the mobster, a woman whose calls pepper the narrative. There were moments when I almost did not continue. But there was enough interest underneath all the baroque paranoia to keep me going.

Eventually, Tommie sharpens up a bit, and follows up some of the clues she finds – for example she was told by the authorities a while back that her social security number was given to her in error. Towards the end of the book, she decides to follow up on the person who had the number she thought was hers for most of her life. Right at the end of the book, one of the characters provides another clue (which he could have done on page 10) that rapidly allows all the loose ends to be tied up – and it is certainly the case that many of the hints throughout do turn out to have relevance to the plot (though it was pretty easy to guess the main twist), even if some of them, in particular the ones involving the mob, are over-hastily resolved.

I don’t think that Playing Dead is the best debut novel I’ve read recently, but it has promise. The novel has a strong element of the author trying to be too clever in deliberately obscuring the plot and laying on too thick the Texan/Southern clichés – it reminded me a bit of books by Gillian Flynn. The characterisation in some cases is weak. A man who tells Tommie he is a journalist helps her one night at her ranch when she’s taken some of her father’s prescription drugs. The next time we meet this character, he is very drunk – Tommie reflects that he is always drunk, as if the previous event had not occurred. I think the author has a good way with language and will go on to write interesting books, but I hope with fewer circular elements and more consistency.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this novel.

Other reviews of Playing Dead: Jen’s Book Thoughts, Kirkus reviews and Life in Review.

Author website.

Which books are (or were) automatic buys for you?

A post at Kittling:Books made me think about books that one buys automatically, without knowing anything about them other than the author’s name. Bernadette’s subsequent post at Reactions to Reading took the concept a little further, in asking which authors were once auto-buys but are no longer.

Auto-buys for me include J. K. Rowling and Ian McEwan, but I’ll limit myself here to crime fiction. Authors whose books I buy as soon as one is published include:

Michael Connelly
Karin Altvegen
Liza Marklund
Arnaldur Indridason
Adrian Hyland*
Asa Larsson
C J Box
Helene Tursten
Andrea Camilleri
Catherine O’Flynn*
Stef Penney*
Peter Temple
Johan Theorin
Deon Meyer

*Even though these authors have each only written two novels, they’re on my list.

These authors have one thing in common, they don’t simply reprise the structure of their last book. Each novel they write can be guaranteed to have some different perspective, or if it is a series, to vary the structure and content in some way to produce an original book.

Authors who were in that category, but who have become disappointments and so I read no longer, include:

J. D. Robb (Eve Dallas series – good idea, rapidly became predictably formulaic)
Lindsey Davies (Falco series – original concept, not developed so became boring)
Elizabeth George (Lynley/Havers series – became far too long and content-free)
James Patterson (yes, I admit to enjoying his first half-dozen books, pre-franchise anathema!)
Richard North Patterson (I loved his early legal/political thrillers but he’s become too ponderous)
Karin Slaughter (quite gruesome, OK for the early books but the later ones focus on gruesomeness and are very slow)
Thomas Harris (Red Dragon is one of my favourite crime novels. Silence of the Lambs was OK-ish. Hannibal was thrown across the room, what a load of rubbish).
Patricia Cornwell (once a true original following on from Harris’s concepts in Red Dragon, now utterly tedious)
Jonathan Kellerman (I was addicted to the first half-dozen Alex Delaware books but then they lurched into monotony)
Janet Evanovitch (the first two books were funny and fresh, but rapidly became a stale re-working each time)
Lee Child (excellent first few books, now suffering from superman syndrome as well as flatness)
Denise Mina (I still read her but judiciously, but she has not matched her auto-buy days of the Garnethill trilogy or Sanctum)

One thing that strikes me about many of these ex-auto buy authors is that they have achieved “best-sellerdom” after I discovered them. And it is perhaps the pressures of “best-sellerdom” that requires someone simply to reprise a formula each time, than to risk something different, hence becoming non-reads for me. It is sad that this is what “mass market” readers seem to like. Not all the authors are like this: Elizabeth George varies her structure and subjects, but the problem with her books now is that they need editing to half the length (i.e. the same length as her first few).

From the “still auto-buying” list, Michael Connelly is a perfect example of an author who sells in shedloads, but who remains true to his readers – he simply does not take the lazy way out. That is, he has talent and, in his case, that’s what sells. Other authors on my auto-buy list are similarly varied in creating their compelling novels, but probably don’t sell in the same size of shedloads as Connelly ;-)

There are many other favourite authors whose books I am very likely to read, but I would check out their latest title before automatically buying it. There are also some recent good candidates who may well go on my auto-buy list, for example Gail Bowen, Y. A. Erskine and Julia Spencer-Fleming, but the jury is still out. There are also a few who have been auto-buys but who are currently wobbling in the light of their most recent titles. Some authors I enjoyed in years gone by, but for unknown reasons have become bored with their books – eg P D James, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Frances Fyfield.

Let me know what you think: do you like any of the authors on my lists? Who are your auto-buy (or ex-auto-buy) authors?

Search my book review archive by author name for reviews of books by authors in my auto-buy list.

Book review: Pierced by Thomas Enger

Pierced
by Thomas Enger
translated by Charlotte Barslund
Faber&Faber, 2012
Henning Juul #2

Pierced is an excellent novel, even better than the author’s very good debut novel, Burned. In Burned, we learnt that Oslo-based journalist Henning Juul has just returned to work at 123 News after being severely burnt in a fire in his flat one night two years ago. His 10-year-old son Jonas was killed in the fire. In Pierced, Juul is contacted one weekend by Tore Pulli, a prisoner whose appeal is coming up. Pulli asks Juul to find evidence that he is innocent of the crime he committed. The hook is that Pulli knows something about the fire in which Juul lost his son, and will tell him about it in return for Juul’s help.

Juul cannot remember anything about the weeks before and after the tragedy, so clings at this straw and spends most of Pierced following up his unusual task, which involves the world of men’s gyms, strip clubs, body builders, enforcers and others who live on the wrong side of the law. At the same time as following some very subtle clues, Juul tries to put together his shattered personal and professional life. His marriage broke up after his son died, his wife Nora leaving him for his work colleague, star journalist Iver Gundersen. Juul’s strange friendship with Gundersen is a continuing feature of Pierced, the dynamics between the men, and each of them with Nora, being one of the pleasures of this novel.

There are other strands to the plots of Pierced, which combine to make the novel a great combination of detection and thriller as Juul is unknowingly in a race to solve Pulli’s case before some Swedish villains get to him in a subplot that is extremely tense and very sad. And why are the Swedes keen to silence Pulli: is it because they were involved in the crime for which he is serving time, or is there another reason, perhaps closer to home for Juul?

Although there is less of the journalism theme, and humour, in Pierced than in Burned, it is endearing that Juul sees the world through the eyes of a wordsmith. He cannot erase his wife from his life “like a typo”, and when he hurts her by bringing up the subject of their dead son, a taboo, he realises that she gets through each day by “applying correction fluid” to her deep grief. There are also some neat crime-fiction references: to Eva Joly, the French (Norwegian-born) anti-corruption magistrate and now novelist; and to a book by R. N. Morris, which provides a clue.

I urge you to read this novel (ideally after reading Burned), and hope you enjoy it as much as I did, even though it is written in the present tense. Its pleasures are enhanced by the excellent, colloquial translation by Charlotte Barslund.

I received this book via the Amazon Vine programme.

My review of Burned, the first book in the series. I see that my review starts with the sentence “I welcome this stunning crime-fiction debut from Norway.”

Publisher’s website: about the book, including a video of the author talking about it.

[Update 17 August: comments are now sorted, somewhat belatedly.] Because of a Word Press bug, comments to this article have been disabled. I hope Word Press will resolve this, but in the meantime, if you would like to comment, please send it to me by email (maxinelclarke AT gmail DOT com) and I’ll post it for you via the blog dashboard.

Internet choice: June 2012

Here’s my somewhat belated monthly round-up of articles on the internet that I’ve found interesting, stimulating, annoying and, occasionally, funny. The full spectrum is available at that very quiet place, Google + .

There are more articles on the future of publishing out there than the number of raindrops we are endlessly subject to, the central question being whether content providers of words will go the way of the content providers of music, etc. Unusually, there is a readable perspective on this perennial topic at the excellent Scholarly Kitchen, a blog written by various specialist academic publishers and editors. Their advice to publishers: “If your priority is the dissemination of knowledge, then partnering within your own community to further that goal makes a lot more sense than turning over the future of scholarship to those who see it as a means of selling Kindles or iPads……So many of the current movements in the scholarly publishing space revolve around control — who holds the copyright, who gets to re-use the published material in new ways. If the research community wants to reclaim the ownership of its output, then it would be wise to truly do that, and to not merely trade one set of commercial owners for another.”

Turning to book publishing, in similarly dire straits, not enough of us appreciate – “digital is not free and easy” – as Brett Sandusky explains well in an article with the title The Biggest Lie in Publishing. Another article making the same point is at the HuffPo – “making e-books is harder than it looks” – it is not correct to assume that they should be vanishingly cheap. Random House is beginning to produce videos about what is involved in producing written and audio books.

In a vaguely related vein, Paul Bradshaw at the Online Journalism blog is writing a series of posts on how journalism education needs to keep up with the seismic changes in the industry. His first series post is about the skills gap – that is, the vast number of new (usually tech-based) skills that journalists are expected to have now compared with the old days of “rehash press release, where’s the cheque, ed?” (a style that I have actually witnessed!).

The Guardian reported the sad news that the Queen’s English society is closing due to lack of interest. Nobody cares about the correct way to write prose in an era of text messaging and Twitter. So we will no longer be told interesting snippets, such as the fact that in one of its surveys, it found that 80 per cent of English university undergraduates cannot spell.

If you like reading and book groups, you have until August to apply to join a panel for Pan Macmillan. (Via The Bookseller.)

“Bookstores are going down and taking discoverability with them” (Paid Content). Can “social reading” (interactive features and the like) perform this function? I can tell you that one solution proposed in the report, that of renaming titles so that, for example, Hamlet becomes Ghost Dad, is not going to work. Another attempt, involving “layered content”, is described in a tecchy post by Joe Wickert.

But the internet is good for discoverability of some things, so long as filtering is applied. I somehow found this article in The Smithsonian about Fritz Haber: “In 1918, Haber would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air—the process that enabled the production of fertilizer in quantities that revolutionized agriculture worldwide. But in the winter of 1915, Haber’s thoughts turned to annihilating the Allies. For his efforts directing a team of scientists on the front lines in World War I, he would become known as the father of chemical warfare.” Another element, bromine, is the topic of a neat little post about lethal lipstick at Sceptical Chymist, Nature Chemistry‘s blog.

The “outraged at bankers & fat cats” post for June has to be Robert Peston’s for the BBC, in which he reveals that “FTSE100 chief executives were last year awarded average total remuneration of £4.8m, a rise of 12%….at a time when earnings for the vast majority of people are stagnating and represents a record of just over 200 times average total pay in the private sector.” (Good point, but clearly the BBC does not share the values of the Queen’s English society.)

If you want more on that topic, you can read this piece in Eurozine: “From Scandinavian democracy to target of British anti-terror laws: the whole world knows about the Icelandic crash, but how did the country get itself into such a mess? Andri Snær Magnason tells a saga of privatizations, overreaching and astronomical pay checks.” (Just tipping over into July, the BBC is running a video in which uber-handsome and ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox “claimed the UK has spent more on saving banks in a year than it had on science “since Jesus”.”)

Spare a thought for those poor climate scientists. Pop Sci: “Not so much a battle as asymmetric warfare, between scientists and deniers. The scientists have science on their side. The deniers have billionaires, Republicans and talk-show hosts. The stakes are high, the tactics are nasty.”

If you’ve read this far, you might like some light relief from Gav Reads – reasons why we reviewers won’t read your self-published book (not that this will stop anyone from trying, as is evident in the comments to the post). One reason is, as described in The Guardian, the importance of good editing (not the same thing as self-editing!).

My Internet Choice columns, collected.

Book review: Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg


Death of a Carpet Dealer
by Karin Wahlberg
Stockholm Text e-book, 2012
(first published 2009)
Translated by Neil Betteridge

Death of a Carpet Dealer is mainly set in Oskarshamn, a small coastal town south of Stockholm, from which the ferries to the islands of Oland and Gotland depart and arrive. As the novel opens, however, Carl-Iver Olsson, the titular carpet dealer, is on a rather different ferry, one that travels up and down the Bosphorus to and from Istanbul. And, given the title, it is not giving anything away to reveal that he is discovered to be dead when the time comes for disembarkation.

Chapters alternate from different points of view: the Turkish sections concern two workers on the ferry who may or may not be involved in Olsson’s death; and the Istanbul police, who initially investigate the crime. When it becomes apparent that the victim was Swedish, the Oskarhshamn authorities are informed and dispatch two officers to Istanbul to help and to be present when Olsson’s family identifies his body. After an interlude in Istanbul, most of the action thereafter takes place in Oskarhshamn.

The novel is like a switchback, as events are told from the point of view of several connected characters. One of these is Veronika, a 47-year-old doctor who is about to give birth to her third child, and who has taken an old carpet to Olsson’s shop for repair. The shop is run by Olsson’s niece Annelide, who is married to one of Veronika’s colleagues. Olsson’s wife, soon to be widow, is a nurse at the same hospital, working the night shift. And Veronika’s husband Claes is a senior police inspector who is given the Olsson case. Each character has a chapter to reflect on life and his or her concerns, often seeming rather tangential to the plot, before the subject changes to another one. In this fashion, a mosaic-style picture of life in this country area of Sweden is provided (click on map for larger view).

In the second half of the book, the plot becomes more central as some facts are revealed to the reader that were hitherto unknown, coming to a climax at Olsson’s funeral which ends the book. The pace of the crime investigation is pretty relaxed: the full picture of what’s happened and why becomes apparent gradually because of information that is revealed piece-by-piece from the various characters’ perspectives and actions, rather than by any great detective work or puzzle-solving. Even at the end when the police have worked out who is their main suspect and “stake out” the church before the funeral, the person concerned simply exits through a side door nobody thought to cover, unobserved.

Death of a Carpet Dealer is an engaging book if you don’t mind the type of novel that is more concerned with telling the stories of a range of characters, that spends pages on describing scenes and ways of life (in Turkey and Sweden), and provides plenty of information about, for example, hospital procedures, the rug trade and Turkish culture. It’s a readable concoction – the author is a storyteller in a vein similar to Camilla Lackberg – which easily slips by. It is a rather old-fashioned book but none the less a pleasant, easy (certainly not “literary”) read, even with occasional lapses in grammar and spelling.

I received this book free in a promotion by the publisher.

From the publisher’s website: “Death of a Carpet Dealer is one of the seven Karin Wahlberg books featuring Police Commissioner Claes Claesson and his wife Veronika Lundborg, doctor at Oskarshamn hospital. It is a traditional crime novel based on a concrete crime to be solved – no politics, no unrelated action, but lots of ordinary life around the characters. Wahlberg herself is one of Sweden’s most renowned accoucheurs. Her highly literary reads have sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.” I believe it is the sixth in the series, even though it is first to appear in English.

Other reviews of this book: Rhapsody in Books and The Crime House.

Wikipedia: list of the series in reading order.