The future of reading gets closer

As regular/longstanding readers will know, I have long thought that POD (print on demand) technology is the future for authors, readers and publishers – and I am not alone, though possibly in a minority. I've written about lots of examples, one post from December 2006 is here, for example, and a nasty attack on it discussed here. Various developments in the interim have bought closer the concept of a reader being able to search for a book and to buy it POD "on the spot", some of which I've written about, but this post at is well worth noting. According to the Bookseller, the publisher Blackwell is installing the Espresso machine (EBM for short, and it does not make coffee) in its 60-store chain in the UK. From the Bookseller piece:

"The EBM is already installed in 11 sites worldwide. It can access around one million titles, of which more than 600,000 come through a partnership with Lightning Source; the rest are in the public domain. It is also in talks with publishers about adding their content, although On Demand c.e.o. Dane Neller stressed the model was not to own content but to act a facilitator. The machine, which On Demand describes as an "ATM for books", prints, binds and trims paperback books with four-colour covers, on demand and at point of sale. Version 1.5 prints around 40 pages a minute and is 9 ft long and 5 ft high and deep."

Although these are early days, and this pilot scheme is for academic books only, the technical systems are now pretty much there. How long will it be before you can go into a bookshop (or even a coffee shop) and get an "out of print" book printed up while you wait (or drink your coffee)?

Female protagonist challenge

Which men, if any, write excellent female protagonists [in crime fiction]? This was my question to Meg Gardiner and the panel at the CrimeFest session "Female of The Species – Women In Crime Fiction". And nobody could think of any!

L. C. Tyler (a.k.a. Len) came to my rescue at a coffee break, by reminding me of the excellent Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg. Len correctly pointed out that this character is superbly and sensitively realised. (We reminisced a bit about the book, which I loved even though I was crushingly disappointed by the last quarter: after the brilliant start and middle, the thriller/science fiction ending just lost me.)

But surely there must be other examples of men who have written good books with female protagonists. Can you think of any? I don't count Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, as that is mainly told from the perspective of journalist Mikael Blomkvist, although I have got the message that Lisbeth Salander features more prominently in subsequent books (yet to be published in English).

I dredged up Robin Cook's Coma from my memory, a breakthrough book which kicked off not only the medical thriller genre but, so far as I recall, was the first full-out thriller to feature the hat trick of female main character, detective, and ultimate solver of the central dilemma. But that book was written in 1977. Even Miss Smilla was published in 1992. Surely there must have been other believable, central,  female protags written by men between then and now? Not partnerships, not "members of groups", I mean full-on female equivalents to Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole, Jack Reacher, John Rebus, "E" Morse, Jack Frost et al. Or perhaps I should write, to hammer my point home, equivalents to Jackson Brodie (Kate Atkinson), Thomas Lynley (Elizabeth George), Jimmy Perez (Ann Cleeves), Reg Wexford (Ruth Rendell) et al. Prove me wrong, someone, please.

Do scientists hinder science communication?

Mark Lynas writes on the Guardian blog about how not being a scientist is a help, not a hindrance, in enabling him to communicate science effectively. It is a well-written article, but does not convince me. Some people can write or otherwise communicate well, and some can't. Some are scientists, some aren't. You can't put an apple and an orange together and call it a gin and tonic.

There is plenty of good writing about science by people who are scientifically qualified, if Mark Lynas would care to look in his nearest bookshop, or at a site such as Brian Clegg's excellent Popular Science website – "science can be dull but it doesn't have to be like that", or Jennifer Rohn's LabLit — "the culture of science in fiction and fact". On the other hand, I agree with him that many scientists don't communicate science well, but those particular scientists are often communicating (badly!) to each other, not to the world at large.

On the other hand, there is a huge amount of what I can only call rubbish written about science by people who have no scientific training, who don't think critically, and/or who confuse emotion with fact. You only have to look at the masses of hysteria and error in (mainly) US blogs and websites about autism and MMR vaccines to see what I mean. But sometimes, scientific debate on blogs that aren't even primarily about science can be better than in the newspapers (whose science correspondents presumably have at least a first degree in some sort of science): see Books, Inq. the Epilogue for a case in point.

What to conclude from all this? Although I think Mark Lynas has made some sweeping oversimplifications in his post, I have to warm to the guy for concluding thus: "Having said all that, I am acutely aware that I am not a qualified expert in my own right, and that I need to tread very carefully when making judgements about work carried out by people who are, after all, the real experts. That is why I have so little time for climate sceptics, who claim to know better than those who have spent their entire professional lives investigating the physics of the atmosphere. That vast majority of those who dismiss the reality of global warming are simply ignorant – and arrogant, to boot. Now that's a statement that no scientist would probably make. But it's true nonetheless, and it's my job to tell you that." Spot on, Mark. (Who, by the way, just won the 2008 Royal Society prize for science books.)

A post on the fly

I only have time for a quick flyby tonight:

I haven't heard of crime-fiction author David Rosenfelt before, but he's onto a good thing – not only has he found it useful to print his email address in his books (yes, readers have interesting things to say, and it is nice to interact with them), but now he's gone to the next stage and started blogging (as the week's guest blogger on Moments in Crime, the St Martin's Minotaur blog). Hmm, might even catch on, this blogging idea.

Euro Crime may have gone to France, but she's still blogging by magic – here are a few summer reading recommendations, as identified by the newspapers, with links to Euro Crime reviews where they exist.

And Susan Hill has a most perceptive post here, about readers' loyalty. She points out the Poisson distribution of Richard and Judy picks: a huge spike in sales of the chosen books, but no extrapolation to additional purchases of the selected authors' other titles. She contrasts this with the reading behaviour of us crime-fiction addicts, whose "author loyalty" is rock-solid, no marketing required, please note. (And eat your heart out, Julian Barnes.)

Finally, you may have read about the CrimeFest meeting in Bristol earlier this month on various blogs. The nearest thing to an actual conference report is now up at the Rap Sheet, in an absorbing post (said to be first of three) by Ali Karim.

End of the world books

Via a Sunday Salon post on a blog called Not Enough Bookshelves, I was led to a list of "end of the world" books at another blog, this one called Becky's book reviews. This Becky is not Becky of A Book a Week, but is another Becky, and here is her list of EOW books:

The Host by Stephenie Meyer
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (and sequels)
The Sky Inside by Clare Dunkle
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
the dead and the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
the shadow series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
the uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

To my embarrassment, I have not read any of these, although my daughters both read the Jeanne DuPrau trilogy (aimed at children) and loved it. They have also read other EOW children's novels by authors such as Robert Swindells, Philip Reeve, John Christopher, Julie Bertagna and others. It is possible that most of Becky's selection (apart from the Cormac McCarthy, which I haven't read on the basis of Frank Wilson's advice) is mainstream SF, which would account for why I haven't heard of the authors, apart from McCarthy and DuPrau. 

That aside, what EOW books have I read?

On the Beach by Neville Shute (brilliant – read the Wikipedia synopsis at the link, and weep. I read this book when a young girl and will never forget it.).

The Stand by Stephen King (one of my favourite Stephen Kings, though I haven't read him for about 30 years now. Hence, it seems from the Wikipedia link, I have missed out on The Stand edition with bits added by the author — but I am not too sad as the original was a doorstop).

I think that is all I can think of, which I find hard to believe as I love the concept. I expect some other EOW books (that aren't out-and-out SF, which is not my cup of tea) will occur to me if they don't to you. Are there any EOW crime fiction books, though?

Sunday Salon: Susan Hill and Helene Tursten

Sunday Salon The latest reviews are up at Euro Crime, including two of mine. Both books are excellent, and highly recommended. One is The Vows of Silence, Susan Hill's latest, just out in the UK. From my review:

"The fourth Simon Serrailler novel looks at death from a wide range of perspectives: natural, unnatural; past and present; of old characters and new ones. By the end of it, I felt I had gone through the wringer, but as usual with this author, the journey was worth it." Read on here.

The other review is of an absolutely superb book, Detective Inspector Huss, and I'm grateful to Karen of Euro Crime for bringing my attention to the author, Helene Tursten, a while back. Karen reviewed a book by Tursten called The Torso, second in a series. Despite being a bit put off by the outline of the torso plot, I bought the first book. It's brilliant, It falls into the category of "if you only read three books this year, make this one of them." From my review:

"Although I often enthuse about Scandinavian crime fiction, DETECTIVE INSPECTOR HUSS is an excellent police procedural even by the sky-high standards of authors such as Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Arndaldur Indridason and Kjell Ericksen.
Irene Huss is a 40-something police detective, happily married to Krister, a chef, and with twin teenage daughters Kristina and Jenny. The book tells the story of her and her colleagues' investigation into the death of a rich financier, Richard von Knecht, who falls from his balcony window in spectacular fashion as the book opens in the middle of a cold and slushy Swedish winter, while his wife and their adult son are waiting for him in their car below." Read on here.

There are other excellent reviews at Euro Crime today. I'm particularly intrigued by Karen C's review of Crow Stone by Jenni Mills, and Norman Price has turned in his usual insightful and informed review of a book that is waiting for me to read: Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski. Pat Austin has read the latest Stuart MacBride, Flesh House. I'm on the fence about this author, but I've only read his first, so should give him another go, really (especially as I've got the second book to read, courtesy of an excellent Amazon deal). Finally, for this week, is Mike Ripley's May crime file round-up – a writer always worth reading for his humorous insights.

Ute fiction, Holden style

As part of a discussion about How To Reduce Your Petrol Spend To Zero Overnight, a post at Henry Gee's blog The End of the Pier Show, I commented:

"All good Australian crime fiction has a ute in it somwhere." (Thinking, Peter Temple, Adrian Hyland, etc). To which Henry replied: 

"The Ute must be the updated version of the Holden Pickup (unless the two are consanguineous simultaneous the same thing), as in this extract:

Bruce Strayne walked into the bar. There she was—Sheila—the girl of his dreams, the mata hari of Wagga Wagga, looking like a million dollars. “What kept you, Richard Bruce?” she said. Her teeth were like stars (they came out at night). She had the voice of a buzz-saw and the smoker’s cough of a ‘57 Holden Pickup.

From Picnic at Hanging Participle by Adelaide Brisbane, reproduced without permission."

Just as well I didn't mention the footy, then.

From Nordic to points south and west

Moving south and west from Nordic crime, to some other new reviews:

Glenn Harper of International Noir Fiction turns his attention to Vita Nuova, the last novel by Magdalen Nabb written "at the height of her powers", says Glenn: "her books are richly rewarding on their own, both as crime fiction and as a portrait of a unique place, whether you recognize that city from your own experience or only from the author's loving portrait." I read the first few of the Marshall Guarnaccia books some years ago, and am not quite sure why I stopped. This one is one I'll look out for on my travels.

Several blogs have pointed out the amusing "advertising on a car" stunt for Peter James's new novel Dead Man's Footsteps, but Helen of It's Criminal has written the first actual review that I've read. The book once again features Roy Grace, and here's part of Helen's take: "As this brilliantly complex tale moves between Brighton, New York and Melbourne, the threads binding these stories together become more and more tightly woven. Dead Man’s Footsteps is a masterpiece of plotting; it is police procedural at its best, with clue building on clue, and connections being made through a combination of good solid detective work and a little luck." This book is lurking on my shelves so I shall be reading and reviewing it myself before too long. (See here for Peter James's other books in this exciting series.)

Far be it from me to exhibit jealousy, but I am coming close to it when I read that Material Witness has got hold of a copy of Robert Crais's Chasing Darkness. This author's Elvis Cole (PI) and Joe Pike (sidekick) novels have a loyal following of readers, among whom I number myself. Although they are quite "manly" books, emotions are increasingly coming through, as both main characters confront their pasts, deal with various mess-ups on the girlfriend front, etc, as well as either solving cases (Elvis) and guarding bodies (Joe). Chasing Darkness is, according to Material Witness, less intense than some of the recent outings, a "fine mystery novel, with a tightly-bound plot and a a typically compelling narrative and Crais' easy, seductive style. And some of the old Elvis was even back, the happy-go-lucky wisecracker of the early novels who was one of crime fiction's most entertaining characters: perhaps the one you'd most like to have a beer with."

Nordic noir meets approval

Via Dave Lull, I read of the experiences of Joe Queenan of the LA Times. Mr Queenan writes: "I first became aware of the Nordic Mystery Boom two years ago while dawdling in a bookstore in Philadelphia, my downbeat hometown. Informing the manager that I was tired of the French, the Italians, the Aussies, the Scots and those coy mysteries set in Botswana, I asked if she could recommend something a bit more exotic."

The bookseller recommended a novel by Henning Mankell, "a deceptively gifted writer who uses the plebian mystery format to address the disintegration of Swedish society, the horrors of old age, the very meaning of police work."  Having read one Wallender book by him (The Dogs of Riga), Mr Queenan lost no time in polishing off his entire oeuvre, following this achievement by a quick run through all of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's ten Martin Beck novels. "Then I began gobbling up Mankell's numerous proteges and imitators. God, were they glum." These authors include Arnaldur Indridason, Kjell Ericksson, Ake Edwardsen, Helene Thurston (a recent jewel of a find of mine), Hakan Nesser and Karin Fossum.

All these authors are highly recommended by me: you can read reviews of many of their books (and plenty of other Scandinavian authors), via Euro Crime's Scandinavian archive - some of these reviews are by me, but more of them are by other reviewers. Highlights among many other authors include my beloved Liza Marklund, Stieg Larsson, Asa Larsson (no relation), K. O. Dahl, Jo Nesbo, Ysra Sigurdardottir, Leif Davidsen and the wonderful new talent Johan Theorin. (My review of his debut, Echoes of the Dead, is in press at Euro Crime).

Let's leave the last word with Mr Queenan (who is also a fan of Ruth Rendell, Fred Vargas and others): "few writers from Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, France or anywhere else can approach Coben or Connelly or Dennis Lehane for ingenuity, pacing and thrills; Elmore Leonard for dialogue; Raymond Chandler for atmosphere; Dashiell Hammett for style."  OK, fair point (don't forget Robert Crais and Mary Higgins Clark in the first category, though). "Yet the Nordic mysteries …possess a seductive charm all their own…. The unrelenting bleakness, the zero tolerance for chuckles and the ferocity of the crimes…make the books much darker and spookier than glib mafiosi capers from Bologna and Bensonhurst. And the Swedes do not write conventional whodunits; they are obsessed with understanding why people become ax murderers in the first place."

Island novels, cont.

Following in from earlier musings on "island fiction", inspired by a muddy post here and there,  Jessica Mann, author of the excellent The Mystery Writer, tells me via email:

"I wrote an 'island crime novel' -rather to the dismay of my then editor, the infinitely experienced and worldly Lord Harding of Penshurst who moaned gently and said that everybody had to write their island's novel, he supposed. It's called No Man's Island and came out in 1983. The island's called by an imaginary name but is based on the Isles of Scilly."

Sounds most intriguing. As you can see from this Euro Crime listing, No Man's Island is second in a series of six books featuring archaeologist Tamara Hoyland, which is an interesting coincidence, as my daughter has only this week decided that she might want to study archaeology at university (having been set on history for the past few years). In fact, she even went to the local library after school today to find out more about the subject, only to find nothing at all useful in stock. Never being short of a book, however, I have loaned her a no doubt very out-of-date volume I once won as part of a school prize, and hence still have, Archaeology by Liam de Paor, so that's OK. .

I also remember that Clare Dudman, fairly soon after I'd "met" her, wrote about a book called The Island by Jane Rogers. Clare enjoyed the book very much, as beautifully demonstrated by this 2006 post containing a review of the book and her interview with the author. It is a lovely piece, well worth reading in its own right even the the book doesn't grab you. (It must have influenced me as I bought the book straight away, but am ashamed to say have not yet read it.)