Blibberings at the faceplace

Anna Pickard has the great idea of collecting "made up" names for online social networking sites (Guardian TV and radio blog). Some of these are already in existing TV series, some she has made up and says "are available for future use". My favourites: FacePlace (Law and Order); B-Frienz (used, but she does not say where); Blibber (made up – perfect for a murder mystery set around microblogging); MeNet and Twatty (both made up, surprisingly). I'll have to have a go at this game – NetShare? Rosy Curtains? ChatterBlog? OK, I give up – I am sure others are better at this than I am – but not the commenters to Anna's post, who are mostly a puerile lot.

Two new (non-crime fiction) books out: Justine Picardie has written a chapter of In Bed With…., but like her fellow contributors, she has not signed hers. Apparently there is much fun going on among readers trying to match the authors to their work. And Brian Clegg's latest work of science, Ecologic, is now "on the shelves", as he puts it. Ecologic is about the reality behind the green police – examples include why plastic carrier bags are better than biodegradable ones, why carbon offsets will have no effect on the planet, and how a BMW 3 series is better for the environment than a Toyota Prius hybrid car. I can imagine a lot of people who are going to love this book, at least one of whom is no longer in office.

Bryan Appleyard is looking to his readers to identify "the best blogs in the world" – do go over and nominate one or two (he knows everyone will put their own first, so you are allowed two nominations). Please aim upmarket, he says. If this is a prelude to a newspaper article or book, I look forward to reading his synthesis. In the meantime, here's a gem from one of his commenters: "female blogs are for making friends and saying how nice everything is and talking about all the things you like and making it look like your life is idyllic; and male blogs are for arguing."

I'd love this if it wasn't so tragic. Daniel Finkelstein at Comment Central, the Times blog, is on the look out for an even more stupid idea than Elton John's suggestion of turning off the Internet. He has come up with a priceless police initiative: officers are visiting areas with high vehicle crime, identifying "vulnerable" vehicles, and putting a sticker on them to indicate the fact – with boxes ticked, telling the owner exactly where they are insecure. Tell me it isn't real. This information comes via the Inspector Gadget blog – apparently a real policeman, but for some strange reason writing anonymously. I might check it out for a bit if it is always this good.

Wikipedia and Britannica modes of editing

Via Dave Lull, Wikipedia is considering introducing "flagged revisions", a way for the organisation to review content to avoid a repeat of incidents such as the incorrect report of Senator Ted Kennedy's death at an inauguration lunch. (Reported by Cnet news.) Is Wikipedia a news organisation or an encylopaedia? If it is an online encyclopaedia (as I thought it was), it doesn't need to bother about "breaking news" and scoops. It could set itself up not to have instant changes or additions to its content. If, on the other hand, it is a news organisation, it needs resourcing appropriately, otherwise the site becomes just like a comment thread on a blog – everyone, however ignorant, can get a moment in the sun (and cached in Internet searches). What of the question of speed with which user-generated content and edits appear on the site? In the article at the link, there are complaints that the German-language Wikipedia site took days for its moderators to approve content. This is not critical for an encyclopaedia. It is for a news publication.

Again via Dave, Encyclopaedia Britannica is continuing its efforts to remain relevant for the web 2.0 world by inviting user-generated content and edits (again). (Reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.) What's the difference between the two rival publications? "Wikipedia, which ranks among the world's top-10 most visited websites, is maintained by volunteers from all over the world and anyone with an internet connection can create and edit articles and publish them on the site. Would-be editors on the Britannica site will have to register using their real names and addresses before they are allowed to modify or write their own articles." I had a go but did not get very far in the complex system. I did learn, however, for free, that it is Oprah Winfrey's birthday.

PS Non-sequitur, but Howard Shore's score for Lord of the Rings remains brilliant however many times I listen to it. I've just heard the part when the Fellowship escape from Moria, and are struck by the emotional realisation that they have lost Gandalf. Wonderful. Sublime.

Twitterings, layoffs and output of gorillas

My brain is blank and I have nothing of interest to write, so I'll mention a few items that caught my eye:

James Long reveals that Twitter has become mainstream. He knows this not only because use of the platform grew by 752 per cent last year, but because "Internet darling" Gwynneth Paltrow is reportedly considering using it to start a book reading group "with her famous pals like Madonna". Cue sarcastic comment about how convenient to choose a format that allows only 140 characters per post? (or "tweet"). You don't seem to be able to search Bryan Appleyard's Thought Experiments blog so I cannot provide a direct link to the matter, but if you go there you will find plenty of inside stories about Bryan and his soul-mate Gwynneth which explain the "Internet darling" label. Even if you don't find them, its a provocatively interesting place to spend a bit of time in any event.

There is an amazing graph at the Official Google Enterprise blog (new blog to me – is it a spin-off of Star Trek?) showing spam trends in 2008 – and most amazingly, what happened to those trends after one day in November when the McColo network was taken offline. The day of 2008 with the highest volume of spam was 23 April, a date that sticks in my mind as the shared birthday between Shakespeare and Hitler – and the day widely considered to be the day Shakespeare died, though without much evidence – and St George's day. Also my paternal grandfather's birthday. I wrote the birthday part without checking, so I am prepared to stand contradicted (apart from the bit about my grandfather, which I defy anyone to know better than I do).

And a bit of book news from the blogosphere today: Amazon has announced it is to stop offering e-books in the Adobe and Microsoft Reader formats. Martyn Daniels of the Booksellers' Association explains what it all means. And perhaps more shockingly, Sara Nelson, the editor-in-chief of Publishers' Weekly, has been laid off, says Sarah Weinman. What a pity. I rarely see a printed copy of the magazine in the office any more, sadly, but when I do I am usually favourably impressed by her column and by her editorship of the publication. One reaction: "it's a bit like firing John Lennon (and only John Lennon) from the Beatles". Sarah, inevitably, has all the links in her post.

Finally, I was shocked and saddened today to learn that naturalist David Attenborough has been receiving hate mail. (Will they turn on David Bellamy next?) Henry Gee picks up the baton in a characteristically excellent, trenchant and funny post: Let us all throw used gorilla poo at creationists.

The Coroner by M. R. Hall

January is not over yet, but so far it has been a superb reading month for me. Buzz about Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire has been filling the blogosphere, and positive reviews of the book have appeared in most major newspapers. It's certainly an exciting, compelling and thrilling read, and the heroine quite a remarkable mix of abused child, fairy-tale character, computer geek, sexy woman and tough avenger. Followed by Neil Cross's Burial, three wonderful books by Andrea Camilleri (Rounding the Mark, The Patience of the Spider, and The Paper Moon), and Tom Bale's Skin and Bones, you might think that these riches were enough. But no, I read the most superb book – a debut novel and one that I think I've enjoyed more than many a book I've read in a long time.

The book is The Coroner by M. R. Hall; my review appeared yesterday at Euro Crime. I loved this book. We've discussed previously how male authors do not often write from the point of view of a female protagonist: here is one, and extremely successful it is, too. For my part, she is more easy to identify with than Lisbeth Salander, as Jenny Cooper lives in the UK, has a demanding job, commutes, is having a nervous breakdown and has to cope with being a parent on top of everything else. She lacks Lisbeth's more superhuman skills, let's say. The Coroner is also a great detective story with a big conscience, laced with humour, plenty of informative and seemingly accurate details, a sense of place (the south Wales borderlands) and a cracking pace. It's a fantastic book, and one that I highly recommend you read as soon as you can get your hands on a copy. At the moment, the hardback is priced at £4.50 on Amazon (UK site). A taster from my review:

The main character of THE CORONER is not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she is a woman in the full process of breaking apart. This is one of the many factors that makes this book such a compelling, fascinating, almost voyeuristic read, as we wait with bated breath to see if Jenny Cooper will crash before she solves the crime. As this assured novel opens, Jenny takes up her job as Coroner in Severn Vale District, on the English side of the Wales-Bristol border. She's recently divorced from David, a typical selfish, ambitious surgeon, who has custody of their teenage son Ross. Jenny is addicted to temazepam. She's been in therapy and although she shrugs off her treatment at the start of the novel, she's aware of some unacknowledged, unremembered trauma in her childhood which is central to her fragile state of mind. Read on here

Laura Wilson's Guardian review of The Coroner.

Book Bag review of The Coroner.

Daily Express review.

Publisher's website and review.


Sunday Salon: Skin and Bones by Tom Bale

TSSbadge3  Skin and Bones by Tom Bale (Preface, £12.99)  starts grippingly and chillingly with the story of how Julia, visiting the village in Sussex where her parents recently died, runs down to the post office for a few supplies, to find herself in the middle of a massacre. A gunman is rampaging through the tiny hamlet, indiscriminately shooting people. Julia narrowly escapes – or so she thinks. She realises that the murderer is playing with her, chasing her in a macabre game. Just as he catches her and is about to shoot her, a badly wounded, older resident distracts the murderer for long enough for Julia to make a temporary escape, by climbing a tree on the village green. What she witnesses from there is even more shocking than the preceding events. Then she is shot.
After racing through these early chapters, I wondered if the rest of the book could possibly live up to this amazingly tense and dramatic start. The answer is a qualified yes. 6a00d834524ac069e2010536ba7e28970c-200wi The plot is given momentum by the fact of one character knowing something that nobody else, the police included, believes – and this knowledge is exactly what is putting that person in peril. Or is it?
In a separate thread, Craig Walker, a former investigative journalist who has lost his nerve, becomes involved. He has personal connections with the village, and so helps an ex-colleague Abby, now a freelancer, to follow the story of the terrible killing and the possible reasons for it. Abby digs around and finds various shady connections with drug dealers, crime lords and property developers – not an edifying trio of professions, and one that rapidly leads her and Craig into danger themselves.
These parts of the books are the most successful, as the two main characters separately cope with the various threats to their lives, and decide to fight back. Less successful, in my opinion, are the portrayals of the villains, which do not quite gel.
Nevertheless, Skin and Bones is an extremely fast-paced thriller whose pages any reader will be desperate to turn to find out what twist and turn is coming next. There are some very good characterisations, particularly Vanessa, the wife of the local lord of the manor. But there are also some quite weak ones, for example her indolent nephew Toby, and quite a few predictable cliches. But overall, the book works. Many of the plotlines are cleverly tied together as events reach their conclusion – everything and everyone turns out to be more connected than they had realised, and there are several satisfying aspects to the resolution. Skin and Bones is definitely a book that will keep you occupied while the world carries on around you.

Skin and Bones: publisher's website review.

Video and special offer for Skin and Bones.

Review of Skin and Bones at It's a Crime! (Or a Mystery).

Andrea Camilleri appreciation at Picador

The Picador blog has been running a short series about the novels of Andrea Camilleri this month, to celebrate the recent paperback publication in the UK of The Paper Moon, the ninth in the author's Inspector Montalbano series.

In the first post, Size does matter, Sue Magee asks why she so often reaches for a Camilleri novel when she wants to read for pleasure – what does Montalbano have that other fictional detectives lack?

Second up is the world-renowned Italian crime-fiction and historical expert, Norman Price, on Appreciating Camilleri. Erudition, a sense of place, cookery, plot, characterisation – Norman believes that "it is the charm and wit of Salvo Montalbano, the liccu cannartu, that are the enduring reasons for reading these books."

Today it is my turn, with a review of The Paper Moon, which among other remarks, I call "a satisfying detective story in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, with the complex interplay of the Italian political culture and Sicilian organized crime providing an edgy, sharp focus."

But the tour de force will be on Monday, when the translator of these novels, the poet Stephen Sartarelli, will write a post about his work. The expert translations, with their fascinating glossaries, contribute enormously to the brilliance of these novels. I can't wait, and I urge you to check out the Picador blog on Monday to read the inside story of the delights and challenges of translating the books.

A bibliography and links to reviews of Camilleri's other books, including Michelle Peckham's very good take on The Paper Moon, can be found at Euro Crime.

Stieg Larsson flies to new heights

More on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl who Played with Fire, the first two books of the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

In a fascinating post (scroll down for the English translation), Dorte of DJs krimblog provides further analysis of the likeness of Lisbeth Salander and Michael Blomqvist to Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, respectively. Pippi is a popular children's fictional character, particularly in Sweden, who is strong, assertive, independent and lives on her own, mocking any adults who try to control her. In another series of books by the same author, Astrid Lindgren, Kalle is a teenage detective, one of a gang who solve criminal puzzles in a style that has been likened to Hercule Poirot or Peter Wimsey. I have to admit that I did not take to Pippi as a child, and I don't have any recollection of Kalle (though I did enjoy a perhaps similar book by another author, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner). So I don't have the same warm memories of Lindgren's books as many others have.

When I first read of this association, which is alluded to several times in the first two books of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, I felt that the emphasis on these characters from children's fiction, while making some sense, did not work in the context of some of the very dark parts of these books – the first two of which go to many extremely black places. Dorte's posts explain the allegories extremely well: here she discusses Michael as Kalle Blomqvist; and here Lisbeth as Pippi Longstocking (albeit with a feminist crusading and necessarily, for her part, dark streak). For an earlier post that acts as a sort of introduction to Dorte's two analyses, see "Who is Lisbeth Salander?" by Norman of Crime Scraps.

In other Stieg Larsson news, Ron Beard of Quercus writes to let me and other bloggers know that "the paperback of Dragon Tattoo is selling more, week on week", that Playing with Fire is still riding high in the hardback charts (and indeed, Dragon Tattoo is also doing well in hardback), and in a charmingly generous comment: "we all know where the buzz first started"! (In the blogosphere, naturally.)

See here for a new review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at Eclectic Book Reviews – "for once, however, I suspect this is a case where you should believe the hype, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really is that good". And just in case you think this post is me hyping, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the favourite read for 2008 of the Euro Crime reviewers – and I didn't even vote for it! (I loved the book, but I thought I'd prefer book 2, which I did, so I'm saving my vote for that – or maybe even book 3 when it is published here this Autumn.)

John Baker reviews the same book here, also bringing to the fore the Pippi Longstocking aspects. "I couldn't put the book down", he writes.

Barbara Fister writes about the books in a post with the title "it all goes back to childhood".

Helen of It's Criminal reviews The Girl Who Played with Fire: "utterly brilliant – enthralling, compulsive and mesmerising".

Another review of the same book can be enjoyed at Material Witness, who calls it "a quite outstanding novel". And the ever-insightful Glenn of International Noir Fiction shares with us some comments on The Girl Who Played with Fire, among other points, making comparisons with the novels of Dumas.

And here are a couple of round-up posts about Stieg Larsson and his books, one here by Barbara Fister at Scandinavian Crime Fiction; and one here by yours truly at Petrona.

I hope by now you have got the drift: these books really are a bit special. Do read them (if you haven't already!).

Paperbacks in January and February

I thought I would pass on some information from The Bookseller's Paperback Preview (not available online), announcing the books due for UK PB publication early this year and predicting the hits.

Stephanie Bateson, Asda's book buyer, predicts that Chelsea Cain's Sweetheart (Pan, 6 Feb), "in the vein of the best American slasher crime books of the last couple of years", will be mega-popular. Not for me, but maybe for you. She also thinks The Reapers by John Connelly (Hodder, 19 Feb) and In the Dark by Mark Billingham (Sphere, 2 April) will hit the mark.

Geoff Briley, senior buyer at Gardiner's books, thinks that Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs (Arrow, 23 April) will be a big seller, as "we are given a more personal look at our unlikely heroine". Again, not for me - I've read the first three or four of the series and decided to rest it there. I'm extremely positive about another of Geoff's tips, though: The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly (Orion, 28 May).

Among the crime novels due out in PB this month are Where are you Now?, Mary Higgins Clark's latest excellent thriller (Pocket books), The Murder Exchange by Simon Kernick, When will there be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, and The Perk by Mark Giminez (Sphere) – apparently after his last novel, The Abduction (not read by me), this author is making a welcome return to legal thrillers. Flesh House by Stuart MacBride, who did very well in the Euro Crime reviewers' poll of 2008, is out in Jan (Harper), and I have to mention The Road (Cormac McCarthy, Picador) – obviously already out in paperback but this month brings the film tie-in edition. The film, that is, which stars one Mr Viggo Mortensen, plus beard.

In February, we have Careless in Red by Elizabeth George (Hodder) to look forward to, as well as Chasing Darkness by the superb Robert Crais (Orion), Scream for Me by Karen Rose (Headline), City of Fear by Alafair Burke (Avon), and An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson (Faber), described as "a very satisfying plot-driven period piece.

Sunday Salon: Useful (and not) reading guides

TSSbadge3 The Guardian and The Observer are running one of those perennially popular lists, this time "1,000 books you must read". First they did love, and today they have got onto crime – so I thought I'd better read it (thanks to Karen for the heads-up of which day to watch out for). From the introduction:

"It's obvious which genres the Agatha Christie whodunnit and the 007 spy novel belong to, but between them are sub-genres — courtroom duel, psychological thriller, suspense novel, crime caper, criminal-centred fiction — not so easily classified. Part two of this seven-part series tries to reflect as much of the crime spectrum as possible, as well as the regularity with which literary novelists have made evildoers their theme. The difference? The latter break genre rules, typically eliminating the hero who solves or prevents crime. And they usually write more stylishly; but the recent rise of the literary crime fiction epitomised by PD James has made that distinction less clear."

And, er, that is basically it. I found the paragraph above (the extent of the "introduction") rather lazy, in that it makes a proposition of the difference between genre and literary crime, then states that this proposition does not always hold. (As it indeed does not: a "genre" example is given but one could equally give literary examples that stick to the "rules", for example Stef Penny and Diane Setterfield.)

What follows is an alphabetical listing of brief paragraphs about a slew of "crime" books, written by many different contributors: part 1, part 2 and part 3. Each entry carries a link to the Guardian bookshop, so you can readily buy the book even if you don't get any context or other reason for why it was included in the list. For example, Ian McEwan's Enduring Love is followed by Henning Mankell's Sidetracked. Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson comes immediately before Barbara Vine's A Fatal Inversion.

A messy exercise in marketing, is my conclusion. Try it if you want to go from Algren (The Man with the Golden Arm) to Zola (Terese Raquin) in a jerky series of disconnected paragraphs, but if you prefer some more thoughtful reasoning, try reading some proper book reviews, which can be found in abundance on the Internet, often collected in sites like Euro Crime, Reviewing the Evidence, CrimeTime, ShotsmagTangled Web, Mystery Readers Journal, Crimesquad  and so on. You might prefer an analysis in book form, in which case I recommend Barry Forshaw's Rough Guide to Crime Fiction – or for an online "quick read", there have been plenty of similar articles in other newspapers, for example The Times's attempt to capture the "best 50 crime writers". One might disagree with some of the choices made in these compilations, but at least there is a reasoning provided for the selection, instead of a hodge-podge of mini-adverts.

A post inspired by Kerrie

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise (an excellent blog) has asked me to contribute to a "meme", that of "bloggers who inspire me". I cannot honestly say that I am inspired by bloggers, but I can certainly say that there are many blogs I love and that are important to me in some way, so I will write a bit about those and the people who write them.

Jenny Davidson of Light Reading wrote the first-ever comment at Petrona, and made me realise in a blinding flash the "third way": that the game is an interactive one, and not just about writing posts and reading other blogs. So in that sense, she inspired me. But in another way, too, Jenny was an education to me about blogging, which at that time I had heard a lot more negative things about than positive. Jenny is an unfailingly positive, encouraging, amusing, witty and erudite person who I greatly admire. And to those who dismiss blogging as an activity of teenagers or those of arrested development, Jenny is a Professor of English at Columbia University and a superb triathalonist (if that is a word) as well as having written various highly regarded novels and other books. Yet demonstrating the "small is beautiful" of the Internet as well as the horizon-expanding aspects, Jenny and I turn out to have much shared history concerning the early days of computing in the UK – and a shared penchant for beards? I highly recommend her blog.

Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. runs the blog I myself first began commenting on, in my early blogging days. In those days, Frank was Book Review Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his posts mainly consisted of links. But usually interesting ones, so I followed up on those, and Frank and I – as well as the mysterious and blogless Dave Lull – discursed on a range of topics. I discovered Frank's generosity when he took my writing seriously to the extent of asking me to review books for his paper, so in that sense, he inspired me to follow the reviewing business so that now I feel more confident about it. Frank is the Sir Galahad of the Blogosphere and I have the highest respect and regard for him. He is now Emeritus Book Review Editor, and as a result his blog tends to contain a higher proportion of reflective posts among the linking posts, and it is always thought-provoking and interesting to read Frank's wise and mature thoughts.

Debra Hamel (the Deblog) is the third main person with whom I gelled in my nascent blogging life, when I knew more about RSS than blogs per se. I kept bumping up against Debra in blog searches in my attempts to find fellow-readers, either via fiendish puzzles, or via her book reviews, or via her enterprises such as Buy a Friend a Book (BAFAB) week. Debra turned out to inhabit a subterranean lair with two delightful children and a scientist husband (and, incidentally, gives the phrase "bedroom coder" new meaning), so we had a lot in common. She also opened my eyes to the possibilities of multi-blog ownership. Since then, Debra has gone stratospheric with innovations such as Twitterlit and Sunday Salon, but I still follow her blog(s), reviews, puzzles, and we still share some wicked posts of mutual amusement via 'Google Reader shared items'. I also discovered another excellent blog via a post of Debra's: Keeper of the Snails, by Clare Dudman – now a good friend, and another person with whom I turned out to have several past intersections.

CrimeFiction Reader of It's a Crime! was the first person I "met" who actually blogged about reading crime fiction. I encountered her in the comment threads of some other blogs, liked what she wrote and her attitude, clicked on her name, and discovered a wonderful universe of CRIME FICTION BLOGGERS! Through her lovely, engagingly written and enthusiastic blog I discovered other similar ones that attracted my enduring interest, not least Material Witness (fantastic reviews written in a way to which I aspire) and….

Euro Crime, the blog of Karen Meek, who runs the fabulous resource of Euro Crime, a free database of books, reviews, news and other information of novels by European authors. Through Karen I have found many an author whose books I've grown to love, for example Helene Tursten, and been invited to various publishers' events, braved a couple of book festivals, met up in person on many a convivial occasion,  as well as discovering a few more excellent blogs, one of which is International Noir Fiction and another is a superb gem …..

Crime Scraps, the blog of the self-described short, balding, retired dentist Norman (Uriah) Price (Robinson). Initially focusing on the shared historical interests of Norman and one of my daughters, I paid more attention to the crime authors Norman liked, and hence to my delight discovered Andrea Camilleri and the husband-wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. And, in yet another spooky coincidence, Norman turns out to have lived about two stops down the train from where I now live, and to have practiced within walking distance of my house – a fact I discovered when blogging about how a local fish and chip shop had unaccountably gone upmarket. (Now he is retired, Norman lives in another part of the country.)

There are many other blogs I love and bloggers with whom I very much enjoy interacting. I could go on, and on, but I'll stop there. Please feel free to pick up the baton on your own blog, if you have one.