Renovation nation; writers on reading

Books, should we chuck 'em or store 'em, asks Alex May at The Sydney Morning Herald Blogs: Renovation Nation (thanks to Karen M for the link). Alex is of the "chuck 'em" fraternity, giving her read books over to friends, charity shops or the recycling bin. I'm of the same persuasion these days (though I admit to stopping short of the recycling bin). I've been through so many phases of keeping every book I've ever read, stacking up groaning piles in the attic, struggling with every flat or house move…I suppose that when you get to a certain age, you know you can never read them all again so it just does not make sense to keep them all.

My solution is just to keep a few* favourites (I'm unmoved by all the comments to Alex May's piece), but to log online all that I've read so that I can go back to them again if I want. These days, it is so cheap to obtain a book on the internet as well as to log it there, that there seems little point in keeping them all. If you kept all your books and you were me, you'd increase your library by about 10 books a week, and if you had two children as I do, they would too; pretty soon you'd have nowhere to live. Future generations probably won't have this problem as they'll all have e-readers (or won't be able to read).

Even if you have the space, is it even desirable to keep all your books? In another link sent by Karen, Henrietta Rose-Innes of the Times of South Africa writes about the dark side of reading. "Bookish people drolly claim to be addicted. I think, in some cases, this is literally true. I’d like to know the brain chemistry involved — what pleasure centres ignite when you part the pages of a new book and sniff the ink. It seems those neural pathways are laid down young: you’re hooked early or not at all. And from that point on, you need to keep feeding the habit with progressively larger doses of word, no matter how cut and contaminated." 

*Even so, my definition of "few" requires ever-expanding shelf space!


Winter’s Bone is featured at

This month's's book choice is a favourite of mine, Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. From the site's review:

The cover and title of this remarkable novel hardly prepare you for the bleakness on the pages inside. It is the story of Ree: “brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes….tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs” and her terrible quest through the snow-filled Ozark valleys, legs bare to the biting cold, to find her father, Jessup.

In an interview with the author, Daniel Woodrell reveals what draws him to the Ozarks; how he managed to write from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl; whether he thinks there is any escape for Ree and the people of the region who live outside the rule of law; and tells us a bit about his next book.

My brief review of Winter's Bone is here.


Sunday Salon: summer holiday reading

TSSbadge3 Realistically, I am not going to get around to reviewing very many of the books I read on my recent holiday, so I'll provide a brief list here (more details about most of these authors and their books can be found at Euro Crime). Just before I left, I read:

The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg. Although this book has not been as well received by some reviewers as other recent Scandinavian offerings, and I can understand why, I enjoyed it a lot. I liked the small-town elements, as well as the digging back into the past. I found the romantic elements less interesting, but although I could guess the broad outline of the solution to the crime without too much trouble, I thought the book had a real emotional punch as well as being very readable. I'll definitely be reading more of this author. (Thanks to Norman Price for passing on to me his copy of this book.)

While away, I did not read my usual holiday ration of a book a day because we had a busy schedule, but I did manage an average of a book every two days.

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

Well-crafted Inspector Banks story whose strength is in the historical section set in the Second World War.

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Superb fourth installment in this classic Swedish police-procedural series, which provides a gripping mystery plot yet at the same time casts an acerbic eye on this so-called ideal society.

Aftermath by Peter Robinson

Another Banks story in which he has to investigate an awful case of teenage abduction and torture. Good, strong plot but I am increasingly irritated by the sexist Banks.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Number five in this series of ten is just superb. These authors don't put a foot wrong: all the usual elements are there, including the telling domestic details of the policemen's lives. This time, it is a child's toy going missing that provides the key to the mystery. Don't expect any sentimentality, though.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

This beautiful prose poem to California's ecology and environment is every bit as wonderful as I remember it. Also it is very funny indeed.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey

Stand-alone by the author of the Charlie Resnick and Frank Elder novels (Lynn Kellog makes a brief appearance). As expected, a readable police procedural. There is a strong, "silver screen" movie legend plot which is enjoyable, but I did not like the main character Will much and found the interactions between him, his wife Lorraine and his colleague Helen unconvincing.

Crow Stone by Jenni Mills

Disappointing story about archaeological myths and mining engineers under the hills of Bath. Annoying heroine who undertakes too many trips into abandoned mines without help or equipment, and who is too passive and feeble about work politics (they can be tough, but this woman barely seems to be able to say hello to a grumpy guy without internal panic). The best parts by far are the flashbacks to her childhood.

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

A brilliant novel. A haunting and telling parable of the emptiness of our new religion of materialism, with the almost unbearably sad framework of the story of the young "girl detective" Katie and the lasting effect on people's lives of her nascent investigations. This is one of those truly special books. Although there is a mystery element, this is not the reason why this superb novel is so powerful. I just have to write the classic phrase "If you only read one book this year, make it this one" about this book. (Thanks to Karen Meek both for recommending the book and for passing on to me her copy.)

and, since returning,

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton.

A superior Kinsey Millhone story, of main interest for the details of how she goes about her various investigative tasks. The plot centres on the vulnerability of the elderly, with a somewhat cardboard villainess. But I loved reading about all the micro-aspects of how you undertake reference checks, file a process, serve a deposition and so on. An added bonus for me is my recent visit to Santa Barbara, where this series is based (though the town is called Santa Teresa in the novels), so I could better envision where the events are taking place.

Waiter, there’s poison in my soup

"Chef sorry for poison plant error" is the title of a recent piece on the BBC News website. Celebrity (their word, he means nothing to me) chef Antony Worrall Thompson is quoted in a magazine interview about watercress and other wild foods saying that the weed henbane is "great in salads".  According to the BBC: "Healthy & Organic Living magazine's website has now issued an urgent warning that "henbane is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten". The chef had meant to recommend fat hen, which is a wild herb."
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) has sticky serrated leaves; yellow, funnel-shaped flowers; and a stale scent. It can cause hallucinations, drowsiness and disorientation in humans.
Larger quantities can cause a loss of consciousness, seizures, trembling of the limbs and, in extreme cases, death. Hawley Harvey Crippen, also known as Dr Crippen, is thought to have used seeds from the henbane plant to kill his wife in 1910. 
Fat hen, on the other hand, is safely edible. Species include Aristolochia rotunda (Smearwort); Atriplex prostrata (Spear-leaved Orache); and Chenopodium album (White Goosefoot). I also learn (from Wikipedia) that the "plump version" of the eagle on the Bundestag is sometimes called "fat hen". Strange world.
Healthy & Organic Living magazine's editor Kate Collyns has written to subscribers to apologise. Her publication's website gives this advice: "As always, check with an expert when foraging or collecting wild plants." Not celebrity chef A. W. Thompson, one assumes. Or Prince Charles, but we knew that already. (See Tomorrow's Table for a good account of why P. C. need not worry, and therefore spout, so much.)

ITV3 crime thriller shortlist announced

Via the Bookseller, 12 novels have been shortlisted for the three fiction prizes at ITV3’s inaugural Crime Thriller Awards. The winners will be announced on 3 October in a ceremony which will be broadcast on ITV3 on 6 October. The 12 novels fall into three categories: breakthrough author award, international author of the year and author of the year. I guess from the shortlist that "international" means "not British". From the shortlist, I'd choose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but if they'd shortlisted Karin Slaughter's excellent standalone Triptych instead of the far weaker series novel Skin Privilege, I'd have been stuck. The "author of the year" is a hard one: I haven't read Exit Music or The Ghost yet (though I intend to). Lee Child and Peter James have both written books that I've enjoyed more than these two examples. I haven't read any of the "breakthough" shortlist, though I've read Stuart MacBride's first book in the series of which Broken Skin is the fourth. Based on the blogs I read, Michael Robotham must be the favourite. But I don't know what defines "breakthrough" — Heartsick is a first crime novel (previously the author wrote the Nancy Drew parody Confessions of a Teen Sleuth).

The shortlists in full:

Breakthrough Author Award    
Chelsea Cain Heartsick (Pan)
Stuart MacBride Broken Skin (Harper)
Michael Robotham Shatter (Sphere)
Anne Zouroudi The Messenger of Athens (Bloomsbury)

International Author of the Year    
Jeffery Deaver The Sleeping Doll (Hodder & Stoughton)
Stieg Larsson The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Quercus)
Karin Slaughter Skin Privilege (Arrow)
PJ Tracy Snow Blind (Penguin)

Author of the Year    
Lee Child Bad Luck and Trouble (Bantam)
Robert Harris The Ghost (Hutchinson)
Peter James Not Dead Enough (Pan)
Ian Rankin Exit Music  (Orion)

20: The Shadow in the River

Grytten My twentieth, and last in this series, book-review retrospective is The Shadow in the River, by Frode Grytten, from May. The full review is here.

"In the provincial, decaying Norwegian town of Odda, journalist Robert Bell is a cynical observer, relishing his self-chosen role of outsider, constantly sizing-up and judging his fellow-citizens. He enjoys his lonely job at an outpost for a big newspaper, though has been regularly frustrated at the paper's refusal to publish what he regards as serious investigation, instead having to write frothy pieces.

As the story opens, a nineteen-year-old teenager has driven into the local river and, although no body has been discovered, presumably drowned. Robert is told by his manager, a delightfully accurate portrait of a voice down the phone, a politically correct, bland and smug woman whose composure Robert can never seem to ruffle however hard he tries, to follow the case. He does so, efficiently but upholds his journalistic integrity by refusing to take part in either exploiting the boy's family (however much they may seem to welcome it) or to join in the general condemnation of the Serbian asylum seekers who live in a local hostel and are considered by all to be the obvious culprits. Journalists from other papers and media turn up, including an unpleasant hotshot from Robert's own publication who muscles-in on Robert's area and patronisingly sets out to show Robert how it is done."

As well as the crime investigation, Robert's personal problems – and perhaps his reason for living in a place he seems to despise – come to the fore."

19: A Carrion Death

Stanley My nineteenth choice of book review is April’s A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley. The complete review is here.

“A CARRION DEATH is a rip-roaring read. Set in Botswana, the main character is Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu. He’s a very large man (hence the nickname, which means “hippo”) who loves opera and is happy to be under the thumb of his lovely wife Joy and be the dutiful son to his elderly, traditional parents. The action begins when a body is discovered in the desert. The victim has been almost completely eaten by hyenas, but some scientists on a local field trip stumble across the remains before they vanish for good.

Kubu is called to the scene, and immediately suspects that the dead man was murdered, a suspicion that is soon confirmed by the pathologist. We quickly see that as well as being an engaging man, Kubu is keenly intelligent, intuitive and determined. His investigation into the identity of the body takes him to the heart of the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company, run by the somewhat unpleasant-seeming Cecil Hofmeyr.”

18: Gallow’s Lane

McGilloway Number eighteen in this daily series of book-review retrospectives is another from April, Gallow’s Lane by Brian McGilloway. The full review can be read here.

“The central character, once more, is Detective Inspector Ben Devlin of the Lifford Garda. Although Lifford is a small town just south of the border in Ireland, it certainly has more than its share of crime. Before many chapters have passed, an old IRA arms cache has been found in some woods; a young woman has been viciously attacked and killed in a house under construction on an estate; a pharmacy has been burgled; and a woman reports a prowler in her garden. To top all this, Ben is asked by his boss, Superintendent Costello, to ensure that a local man recently released from jail after a sentence for armed robbery, Jim Kerr, does not stay in the neighbourhood but moves on, because he is trouble.

In the midst of coping with these events, Ben is also caught up in office politics: Costello is about to retire and encourages Ben to apply for his job. This does not sit well with his colleagues Patterson and Colhoun, who discovered the arms cache – in particular Patterson, the senior partner of the pair, is one of Ben’s rivals for the promotion. To what lengths will they go to make Ben look bad?”

17: The Pool of Unease

Sampson The Pool of Unease by Catherine Sampson is the seventeenth in my daily book-review retrospective. For the full review, please see here.

“Following on from her excellent first two novels, FALLING OFF AIR and OUT OF MIND, Catherine Sampson provides a change of theme for TV journalist Robin Ballantyne. After the death of her partner and the father of her twins, and starting a relationship with Finney, the detective investigating the case, Robin might have thought life would calm down a bit. She’s wrong.

At the start of THE POOL OF UNEASE, Robin is sent to Beijing where Derek Sumner, an executive from a Scottish steel mill, has been murdered. The mill is about to be sold to a Chinese millionaire businessman called Nelson Li, and it was after Sumner made some indiscreet comments about the operation being moved from Scotland that his body was found.

As well as coping with the long flight and the separation from her young children, Robin is immediately thrown into the chaos of this huge Chinese city. She has hired an interpreter called Blue, but they have an edgy relationship: everywhere she goes, Robin encounters mistrust among a population ground-down by government dictats and poverty.”

16: Bruno, Chief of Police

Walker Sixteenth choice of book reviews is also from April, Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker. The complete review is here.

“Although in many respects this is a “feel-good” book, providing an idyllic and partisan depiction of the French country way of life which exists still despite the efforts of the relentless modern world to homogenize it, the author is not afraid to address difficult issues head-on, personal and political. The stories of the French resistance in the Nazi regime and the fate of the French North Africans during the DeGaulle years are sombre, told with authority and style, as one might expect from an author who has written distinguished histories (as well as a previous novel about the famous prehistoric art in the caves of the region) and covered many international conflicts during his journalistic career. I am glad that BRUNO, CHIEF OF POLICE is the first in a series, as I look forward to reading more about this charmingly self-deprecating man, his past (plenty of angles are hinted at) and his neighbours – not forgetting, of course, his next criminal case.”