April fools’ day arrives early

So, today is 29 February. A lot of people have been arguing for a day’s holiday today, on the grounds that they are providing a day of unpaid work for their employer. And some organisations are even going along with this, on somewhat pious grounds of "saving the environment". Of course, these employers cannot know if they are saving the environment or not, because they don’t know what their employees are going to do on their day off. For example they could charter a private jet and take a round trip to a distant country (especially this year, when 29 February conveniently falls on a Friday).

Be that as it may, I don’t agree with the premise that one works "for free" on 29 February, as the "day" is an artificial unit created by us. It does not properly fit reality (the natural world), hence the need for the four-yearly correction. An employee could just as easily think of it as receiving an extra quarter of a day’s pay for nothing every three years, in preparation for the fourth year when she or he works the "extra" day.

Opposite views of Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been widely, and mainly very positively, reviewed in the blogosphere, and has been the subject of many a discussion on quality of translation, publisher’s choice of title, and so on. I was quite struck by the contrast between these two opinions:

Andrew Taylor in The Spectator:

"This is a long thriller but it sustains the reader’s interest, partly because it’s well-plotted but more, perhaps, because of the anger Larsson directs at his targets. Misogyny, financial corruption, murder, fascism all have a contribution to make, and Larsson implies that ultimately they spring from the same source. The book may not be particularly subtle but it’s highly effective and a very good read: I look forward to the sequels."

Josephine Damian’s blog (thanks to Karen of Euro Crime for the link):

….."Then onto chapter one wherein we’re introduced to the sleuth, a hapless guy who’s already in a heap of trouble (great way to introduce the MC). We meet him first in a courtroom where a judgment has just been handed down against him – it seems he’s a financial journalist who just that moment has been found guilty of slandering a bilious billionaire. The judgments trashes his reputation as a journalist and wipes out his savings – a very nice set up to what no doubt will be the motivation for his making a bad and desperate choice – to investigate the long-ago mysterious disappearance of the girl whose grand uncle receives the flowers. Lots of great characterization as he receives/reacts to the judgment – so good, so far – this author was doing everything right.

Then the author decides to tell me the entire back story of how the journalist met, got tangled up with, and ultimately came to slander the billionaire. I guess the author never read the advice from Donald Maass where he says: DO NOT HAVE A FLASHBACK EARLY ON IN YOUR NOVEL. This being a book published in Europe, I cut the author some slack thinking the Swedish editor would be more tolerant of flashback/digressions than say, a US editor so I read this flashback with an open mind. After 15 pages, I started skimming (trusted reader – you know what words come next – so say them with me now) – always a bad sign. The flashback introduced a bunch of new characters, and I got confused on top of being bored; I wanted to get back to the murder plot! While I figured this financier and the conflict he had with the MC must have some bearing on the missing girl, there’s a right way and a wrong way to convey this. “Information dump” – a phrase I see a lot in writing advice books in the section marked “what NOT to do” – is something all writers need to watch out for, especially the thriller scribes."……

An optimal medium for book reviews

The other day I read a very well-written review, by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, of Wicker (also called Cast of Shadows) by Kevin Guilfoile. The plot sounds horrific, as Kerrie describes it: "When his teenage daughter is raped and murdered, Davis uses the semen left in her body as the genetic basis of a cloned baby. He hopes that when the baby grows up he will somehow be able to use him to identify his daughter’s murderer.
The people who do this work are being targetted by an organisation called the Hand of God, that employs a killer to see that high profile pro-cloners and scientists are killed. Although these pressures, together with the death of his daughter, lead to Moore retiring from active practice, he follows the growth of Justin, the baby cloned from the rapists’ semen, with interest, and attempts to track the rapist down."

Although I’ve read about this book before, I wasn’t then inclined to read it: yet Kerrie’s review intrigued me, as she highlights some of the scientific and ethical questions arising from the previous paragraph (there are quite a few, obviously!) and concludes, "I didn’t "see" the ending of this novel coming. There are things revealed in the final 50 pages that you won’t predict, so if you find it a bit of a long read like I did, hang in there!" So yes, maybe I’ll overcome my sense of squeamishness and go for it.

But the book didn’t let Kerrie go, and yesterday she posted further thoughts about it, explaining that the book is essentially in two parts: one about DNA cloning and the ethical issues; and the second about a virtual 3D world called Shadowland, in which people are represented by avatars in a manner similar to Second Life. Kerrie describes some of the scientific, medical and "virtual world ethics" addressed in Wicker, as well as linking to some media articles about rape, prisons and child abuse in virtual reality.

This post decided me: I’m definitely going to read the book. But I wasn’t the only person impressed by Kerrie’s thoughts. In the comments, one Kevin Guilfoile writes: "just wanted to thank you for the thoughtful reading you gave to WICKER (Cast of Shadows). And thanks too for those Second Life links. I’m not really a gamer myself, but it is fascinating to watch expressions of violence find their way inevitably into a virtual world and more fascinating to watch the community try to come to grips with it."…..

Doesn’t this story show blogging at its best? First, a review of a book that makes the reader want to buy it. Then, the reviewer has thought more about the book, and can write a follow-up post, as well as linking to topical, related issues. And, the author lets us know his take. Perfect.


Army of Davids or Serial Killers?

Davids_3 Debra_review_2

Debra Hamel’s verdict of The Serial Killers Club (I can forgive no hyphen in the title but not the lack of apostrophe): "part thriller, part romance, this black comedy is one weird book." Although the plot of this book, which, according to Debra’s review, concerns an exclusive club for serial killers in which said criminals can relax and share experiences of their nefarious deeds, must surely be unique, it is a pity that the same could not be said of the cover.

I was instantly reminded of An Army of Davids, Glenn Reynolds’s excellent book about the power of blogging. I checked it out and, yes, the two books could be mistaken for each other.

I shan’t be reading The Serial Killers [sic] Club, but I can highly recommend the first half of An Army of Davids, which is the best of the many books about blogging that I have read. (I was not so keen on the second half, an over-rosy science and technology prediction exercise.) Frank Wilson, Book Review Editor Emeritus of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote an excellent review of the book (it was Frank’s review and my subsequent reading of the book that really opened my eyes to the full potential and power of blogging, in fact). Here is a taster of Frank’s review: unfortunately I cannot find a freely available version of it, but if you drop a comment at Frank’s blog, Books, Inq., he may be able to help.

Army of Davids on Amazon.com and on Amazon.co.uk.

Sunday Salon: building loyal readers

Sunday_salon The reading week started out well, as I completed The Cipher Garden by Martin Edwards (review will follow), but went downhill from there. For various reasons I read another thriller, this one called Requiem by Jack Ross. It is an easy read and exciting enough, but flat, leaving me wondering what the point had been. It seemed to me as if the author was going for the Patterson ticket. But although I find Patterson’s currentish (haven’t read the past few) books shallow — written by computer market-research programme — the early Alex Cross novels were darn good of their kind. Patterson worked to build a readership. Now he is cashing in on that, throwing in a few other genres (historical, chick lit) for good measure. (For some good thrillers recommended by me, see yesterday’s Petrona post).

After that I read The Golden Section, Pernille Rygg’s follow-up to The Butterfly Effect. The sequel continues the theme of exposing the seamy underbelly as well as the alternative culture of Oslo, but has a sentimental "Disneyfied child" theme included. The book is also too long. For me, a disappointment compared with the author’s first novel.

So it is a pleasure to turn to a familiarly reliable author, Donna Leon, and her latest novel The Girl of his Dreams — wonderful, so far — readable, evocative, sad and infused with that sense of place for which this author is so renowned. I haven’t got very far into the book yet, but here are some delights (look away now, Norman):

"..he recalled an observation Paola had once made, after a train trip from Padova to Venice when they had sat opposite a long-gowned mullah, busy with his prayer beads for the entire trip. His robes had been whiter than any businessman’s shirt Brunetti had ever seen, and even Signorina Elettra would have envied the perfection of the pleats in his skirt.
As they walked down the steps of the station, the mullah moving gracefully off to his left, Paola said ‘If he didn’t have a woman to take care of his costume for him, he’d probably have to go out and work for a living.’ In response to Brunetti’s observation that she was displaying a certain lack of multicultural sensitivity, she replied that half the trouble and most of the violence in the world would be eliminated if men were forced to do their own ironing, ‘which word I use as a metonym for all housework, please understand’, she had hastened to add. "

"That day’s headline, giving further details about the recent capture of one of the chief leaders of the Mafia, looked up at the room, shouting for attention.
She stopped behind the sofa, two cups of coffee in her hands, and asked, ‘Reading about your triumph?’
Brunetti closed his eyes. ‘Indeed’, he answered, ‘a triumph’.
‘It’s enough to make a person give serious thought to emigration, isn’t it?’ she asked.
‘He’s been on the run for forty-three years, and they find him two kilometres from his home.’ He raised a hand and let it fall with a helpless slap on the open newspaper. ‘Forty-three years, and the politicians fall over themselves praising the police. A triumph.’ "

(PS Typepad spell check wanted to replace "Disneyfied" with "dignified".)

Italian fashion crimes

When I saw the headline Fashion crimes on this week’s table of contents in the TLS newsletter, I immediately thought of Italian crime fiction expert extraodinaire, Uriah Robinson (aka Norman Price) of Crime Scraps, whose fiendish and comprehensive understanding of the country’s crime psychology (dentistry pales in comparison) is second to nobody’s, and that includes Italians. (See here for a typical Norman post, but there are many others of this ilk at Crime Scraps.) The TLS article so titled is a review of Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, translated by Virginia Jewiss (Macmillan UK; Farrar, Straus & Giroux US). I’ve read reviews of this book before, but this is a particularly good one.

Gomorrah is, according to the TLS review, "the product of several years of investigative journalism in Naples and the Caserta area of southern Italy by a young journalist (born in 1979). Its greatest merit is to show in meticulous detail how the organized crime syndicate in the region, Camorra, has been able to forge relationships of mutual cooperation with a sizeable section of the local and national economies, and how legal and illegal production intersect and support each other. The book aspires to be, and fully succeeds in being, a work of literature: it is written in the first person, in a raw, unadorned yet highly elaborate style. The reader is invited to read Gomorrah as the personal memoir of a young man who cannot turn his analytic gaze away from the evil he grew up with. In Italy, the book has become a literary phenomenon and won a major literary prize. The author is a now a marked man."

The story is of how the famous fashion houses use fixers "to contract out the production of their designs to dressmaking sweatshops in the Neapolitan area", with all kinds of horrible twists and warped systems that have evolved around this apparently simple, if unedifying, practice. Just read the review, and believe it if you dare (will you ever wear one of those £x,000 off-the-shoulder numbers again afterwards?). As the TLS reviewer, Federico Varese (Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford)  concludes: "No matter how much individual valour anti-Mafia campaigners display, the nexus of self-interest that links sizeable sections of the economy and organized crime must be weakened and eventually broken."  Professor Varese himself has a book coming out later this year called Mob and Mobility.

13th tale, Rendell and more

I have been unavoidably away from blogging and the Internet for a few days — the past couple of posts were by courtesy of the advance timer button — but now I am back. Back, in fact, with a post "hoisted up from the comments" of my previous post, which linked to my review of Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale. Susan Balée’s view of the book as a modern Victorian novel is exactly my own. She writes:

"I, too, really enjoyed "Thirteenth Tale," …..Sort of a modern Charlotte Bronte story, and I was certainly fooled by the extra character haunting the plot (I’m saying that obliquely, so as not to spoil the novel for other readers)."

Susan continues: "I’ve just read Ruth Rendell’s "The Crocodile Bird," on a rec from Becky — quite a good psych. thriller. Do you like Rendell and can you make any other recs? I don’t like detective stories, but I do like thrillers!" "

Well, yes, as it happens, I can recommend a few thrillers 😉 I love being asked to recommend books!

For a sustained series of thrillers (as opposed to detective/crime novels) I don’t think that Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series can be bettered. Start with the first: if you like that, you’ll revel in the rest. Jack Reacher (like his televisual counterpart Jack Bauer) is a perfect storm of a hero, and I’m reliably informed that he is immensely popular with women readers.

If you are more interested in a stand-alone, I can suggest five intensely exciting novels  that I’ll bet money will have you turning the pages without being able to stop (click on titles for more details):

Triptych by Karin Slaughter

The Serbian Dane by Lief Davidsen

The two-minute rule by Robert Crais

No time for goodbye by Linwood Barclay

The Woods by Harlan Coben

Turning to Ruth Rendell, Susan’s currently identified thriller writer, I like almost everything she writes: she produces a longstanding crime fiction "English village" [East Anglian market town, actually] police-procedural series featuring Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden- characters with whom I have literally grown up, and seen change as they have married, had children and (in the most recent books) the children have had children. These started in the 1960s and have held up incredibly well, still going strong today , as Becky notes (I have the latest installment on my shelf to be read). Ruth Rendell also writes stand-alone thrillers (and many short stories) under that name, including The Crocodile Bird as recommended by Becky; and as if that isn’t enough, she writes other books under the name of Barbara Vine, which tend to be slightly more dense and deep concerning motivation and character. A good one to try is The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy — successful author dies of heart attack, but was he all that he seemed? Another good one is The Blood Doctor, not so much for its plot (maybe it is because I’m scientific, but I found that pretty obvious), but because it is set in 2002, the year the House of Lords dissolved itself (apart from a rump), and is told from the point of view of one of the hereditary peers who are (mostly) metaphorically falling on their swords. The atmosphere is so convincing, due to the happy duality of Barbara Vine’s insightful writing and Ruth Rendell’s real-life role as a Labour life peer. Enjoy!

Thirteenth Tale and Ice Trap

My reviews at Euro Crime this week are a contrasting pair, indeed. First, a book I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a great deal because of the hype, but in the event found utterly absorbing and enjoyed very much: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, a "beautifully written and involving story". I adored it.

The second book I review is Ice Trap by Kitty Sewell. The opening sequence was haunting and suspenseful, but the main plot turns out to be somewhat unrealistic in a soap-opera kind of way. Nevertheless, the book is a page-turner, and if you are prepared to suspend belief a bit, you might enjoy it as much as some of the newspaper reviewers did.

Other new reviews at Euro Crime can be seen here. They include Karen Meek on Crimini, the collection of Italian short stories edited by Giancarlo De Cataldi; Norman Price’s take on A Vengeful Longing by R. N. Morris; and Fiona Walker on The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo— one of the ten-part Matin Beck series. I haven’t yet read this one as I am only up to number four, but I am looking forward to it.

Digital facsimiles of rare books

Via my friend and colleague Li Kim Lee, I learn about a seminar on Wednesday (20 February): Turning the Pages 2.0: 3D digital audio-facsimile of manuscripts and rare books, by Michael Stocking of Armadillo Systems at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at Kings College London. "Turning the Pages is a technology for creating interactive 3D facsimile of books. It powers an ongoing digitisation programme of the most treasured, illuminated manuscripts and rare books in the British Library, National Library of Ireland, USA National Library of Medicine, and other libraries and archives." For more information and links, see 3DVisA Index of 3D Projects. Advanced visualisation techniques made it possible to make interactive digital facsimiles available online. Pages can be turned virtually and examined in close detail, using a virtual magnifying glass. Perhaps the most wonderful attraction is Mozart’s Musical Diary, accompanied by 75 audio excerpts.

Sunday Salon: reading tour

Sunday_salon Two weeks ago, I wrote for Sunday Salon about starting The Pool of Unease by Catherine Sampson. I finished that book a few days afterwards, finding it a compelling and well-told story. It is the third book in a series, but distinct from the previous two in that a large part of the action takes place in China, where the author herself now lives. And although I’ve read as many news and analysis articles about China as anyone else, so could be said to be broadly aware of the "issues" in that country as the rest of the world sees them, I was struck by how much more involved one feels by reading a good novel compared with a dry, factual account. There are three main Chinese characters in the book: they are vividly portrayed, more so than the series regulars, in fact, and I now feel much more emotional connection with — maybe I should write "emotional inkling about" what it must be like being a citizen of that country, leading a life there.

Next was the long-awaited (by me) The Woods by Harlan Coben, just out in paperback in the UK. As I predicted, I thoroughly enjoyed this racy, tense thriller, which is a standalone, though featuring several characters who appear in other books by this author. I was anticipating that the solution to the conundrum would be convoluted and far-fetched, as this is an area where Coben (in common with many other detective/thriller fiction authors) tends to fall down. But although I guessed some aspects of the outcome, and some of the others don’t bear too much scrutiny, the denouement worked pretty well, I’d say. Harlen Coben is a bestselling author who is improving rather than coasting: good for him.

Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway (in proof) was next – as short as its predecessor (Borderlands) – it is lean and very readable, although lacking that additional touch of magic that made Borderlands exceptional. But compared with Meltdown, by Martin Baker, my next title, it is genius. Meltdown is such a load of badly written hokum that I really regretted wasting my time reading it.

I’ve completed one more book since then, The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, much admired by Euro Crime aficionados. This book is a solid (i.e. long) book, and after 100 pages I almost gave up. But I was glad I didn’t, because I soon became so absorbed in it that I couldn’t put it down. This author "gets" emotion, so I enjoyed very much the character study of Harry Hole and his colleagues, and was dreadfully saddened by the death that affects him so much in this and even more in the next book, The Devil’s Star — which I have already read because Nesbo’s books are being published in translation out of order, for reasons unknown to me, but crazy, whatever they are. I half want to read The Devil’s Star again, knowing what I do now about events preceding it. But I probably shan’t, because both books are long, and the crime plots too complicated and unconvincing (although Nesbo’s light on Norway and Norwegians’ behaviour during the Second World War is fascinating, and probably uncomfortable for many of his countrymen to read). I’m very much looking forward to Nemesis, soon to be published in the UK.

Finally, I started The Cipher Garden by Martin Edwards the other day. I’m enjoying it so far, a few chapters in. I smiled at Miranda’s comments when her train was (allegedly) delayed at Crewe, making her late to return home to her partner Daniel. She says "The guard says we may be stuck for a couple of hours, God knows why…..Wrong kind of sunshine I expect". The other day I read in the Times that exactly this excuse was given in Wales to account for train problems – something about unseasonal sunshine causing unanticipated passenger demand. A few pages later, another character opines that he doesn’t trust league tables because he is a supporter of Carlisle United. I think I’m going to like this book (as I happen to live with someone with just this affliction).