Burial and The Trophy Taker

I've read several novels recently by writers new to me – including, at the moment, The Coroner by M. R. Hall, which is shaping up very nicely indeed. My reviews of two of the books I've completed were posted on Euro Crime this week.

Of the pair, I enjoyed Burial by Neil Cross very much, as I predicted to myself after reading reviews by Kim of Reading Matters, who said "a good, thoroughly believable crime thriller doesn't come much better than this",  and Crime Fiction Reader of It's a Crime! who found it "a bit like coming face to face with a twister in a novel".

After reading it, I felt that "BURIAL is one of those books that will make you miss your stop on the train. I predict that it will be a hit (2009's equivalent to 2008's NO TIME FOR GOODBYE by Linwood Barclay, perhaps), and will probably end up on a screen near you soon enough." Read the rest of my Euro Crime review here.

My second review is of a debut novel, The Trophy Taker by Lee Weeks, a.k.a. "The female James Patterson", according to the blurb. The author spoke in an articulate and moving way at Crime Fest last year about her experiences in the Hong Kong hostess industry, and her life-story (or what she told of it) made me intrigued by the prospect of her book. In fact, I found the novel something of a pastiche of various true-crime stories and similar books, but even so it is very fast and easy to read, and if James Patterson is to your taste, you will probably like it. My Euro Crime review is here.

The hieroglyphic streets

I can't understand why, but the other day a blog popped into my Google search called The Hieroglyphic Streets - or to be more accurate, a particular post on that blog called Dublin Noir, which is a part-review of, part link-round-up about, the book Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. The link-round-up in the post is actually fantastic, a quite wonderful collection of articles about the book (which I still haven't read, so I have only skimmed some of the articles). If you are like me, and enjoy reading lots of details about a book after you have read it, this is definitely a blog for you.

But more than that, The Hieroglyphic Streets is a rather wonderful blog all told I think. It recommends books for places — "fiction and non-fiction that explains or evokes a neighbourhood, city, or country." As well as the usual search and index, you can find books categorised by the region in which you are interested. Here, for example, is Sweden. Ystad to be precise. Therefore, of course, the book reviewed is by Henning Mankell, in this case Faceless Killers. There are nine books in the Italy category, including one from Sicily – yes, you have guessed it – Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water. Finnmark and Norway are represented by Vendela Vida's Let Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

Each post follows the same pattern of a beautiful image, a short review, and a cornucopia of links to various reviews and articles or podcasts about the selected books. A very beautiful blog, and one I am looking forward to following.

Gingerbread and fairy tales 2009

I saw a couple of nice pictures recently. First is

"Skeat" is the winner of a competition by Google, to create a gingerbread house using its program SketchUp, including "dynamic candy" in the construction:


Lots of other nice examples at the above link.

And more fairy tales via Brian Sibley. Here is Mike Peters's take on desperate housewives, Disney-style:


Hold Tight, by Harlan Coben

Hold tightHold Tight by Harlan Coben is just out in paperback in the UK (£3.49 in some retailers); of course I bought a copy on publication day. Coben's books are always edge-of-seat, one-sitting reads, and Hold Tight is no exception.
The "hook" is the apparently unconnected killing of two women, partly connected with some information they know, but partly for unknown reasons. Loren Muse, a state investigator whom we have met in previous Coben books, takes on the case while dealing with a pesky outburst of sexism in the workplace on the side.
Interwoven with these dramatic events is the story of a typical Coben family – father Mike is an ex-hockey player, now a transplant surgeon; mother Tia is a lawyer working for Hester Crimstein, a recurring minor yet dominant character in other novels by this author; their two children are Adam and his young sister Jill. Adam is 16 and has become so moody and secretive that his parents decide at the novel's start to put spyware on his computer so they can track his online activity – not least because a friend of his from school has recently died in a drug-related incident.
Coben is superb at describing the urban domestic scene, pulling the reader into his world of pushy parents, little leagues, carpools, shopping malls and the New Jersey dream, tinged with Sopranos. A particularly strong, sustained theme is the claustrophobic atmosphere created by various Internet applications. Usually thought of as providing access to a wide world, Coben skewers so accurately ways in which an individual's ability to access and filter information, and keep it private, has challenged family life and values. He sticks to describing known technologies, and provides several examples of pertinent ethical dilemmas and chillingly cruel online evilness – whether an anxious parent tracking his child using mobile GPS; school students setting up cruel, bullying websites about a young girl with some faint facial hair; or the empty "tributes" to a dead boy that cause even more grief to his grieving mother.
The book cracks on at a furious pace, with many subplots being juggled and the reader on the edge of the seat wondering how Loren's investigation is going to connect with Mike's family problems, and how the numerous, apparently disparate events are going to be tied together. It is hard to review a book like this one without providing spoilers, but I do think the emphasis in the book's publicity (tagline: "how far would you go to protect your child?") is a bit of a red herring.
Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with Coben, the ending is a throwaway mess. Apart from the weak character of Mo, Mike's best friend, who seems to be present in the book for one reason only (he works something out at the end that affects one of the dramatic climaxes), the whole interconnected network of crimes and motives goes just too far, when we finally discover all the previously hidden relationships and secrets. One shocking revelation in a book has impact, two can be pretty cool, but at some point one cannot have too many connections and retain credibility.  In particular, the second woman's death is barely explained and based on what we have been told about her character, does not fit in; and Loren's involvement peters out. The disappointing ending is such a pity because the rest of the book is a smoothly icy read, as one lurches around the zig-zags of the plot, skating wildly over the murky depths beneath.

That girl who played with fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson's second part of his Millennium Trilogy, is lighting up the blogosphere, the media and readers everywhere with its exciting, involving plotlines – something for everyone, dare I say?

Iain from Quercus, the publisher, has drawn my attention to The Girl Who Played with Fire website, complete with information about the book, the series and the author, as well as competitions, reviews and more. 

Norman Price would like Lisbeth Salander on his side– with her taser gun, computer hacking skills, her mace canister and her determination, what argument could possibly be lost?

Dorte H., on the other hand, comments: "Stieg Larsson´s characters are inspired by Astrid Lindgren´s characters "Kalle Blomkvist" (boy-scout-detective hero) and "Pippi Longstocking", hereby adding a touch of ´magic realism´:) Another point concerning Lisbeth Salander is that even though many readers are fascinated by her, others see her as too fantastic. She may be, but as a mother of an autist I see her amazing computer skills as a not uncommon symptom of autism."

Bookwitch plays with the "male fantasy figure" fire, and "the national secret on how to stuff yourself with junk food and still remain beautifully slim." Reg Keeland, the superb translator, says: "Wait till you read the description of her tattoo in book 2! It’s huge, swooping from her shoulder down to her thigh…." (He adds, excitingly: "Hope to see y’all in Bristol if we can find an affordable flight…")

Ali Karim's take is on The Rap Sheet. Ali is probably the most enthusiastic reader of Stieg Larsson I've yet come across.  "I warn you, this story is not pretty. Not in the least. But it does pulse with insight and compassion, and it will haunt you for many weeks after you’ve put it down. If I read a finer book this year than The Girl Who Played with Fire, I shall consider myself extraordinarily lucky."

The Times said: "The novel is complex in plot and characterisation, perhaps unnecessarily so. But the urgency of Larsson's prose prevents boredom in reading a book that would otherwise be regarded as over-long and over-crammed. Somehow, Larsson has managed to write a riveting read."

Of course, the last word is in my own review of this book, which you can read on Euro Crime……"this book is truly powerful. The criminal investigation turns out to be directly related to the events in Lisbeth's horrific past, and the way in which old events are gradually revealed in order to explain how the crimes occurred is very cleverly done, with a stunning, emotionally draining climax."

Sunday Salon: Spring books

TSSbadge3 Now that Professor Petrona's extremely generous Christmas present, a subscription to the Bookseller, has started arriving, I shall be more reliably informed than hitherto about what books will be appearing in the next few months. So without further ado, here is what to look out for this spring (April 2009):

Long Lost by Harlan Coben (Orion), a new Myron Bolitar novel. Myron is a sports agent, and here a former girlfriend gets in touch out of the blue (i.e. we have probably not heard mention of her in previous titles). She's a suspect in a murder case, and only Myron can help.

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child (Bantam): Jack Reacher is on a subway at 2 a.m. in New York, and becomes suspicious of a fellow passenger who is exhibiting "all the signs of a would-be suicide bomber". Let's hope he's better at this activity, and what to do about it, than the Metropolitan Police.

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (Simon and Schuster) is the second novel by the author of the phenomenally successful and highly-regarded Child 44. In this book, it is 1956 in the Soviet Union: Stalin is dead and Khrushchev is promising transformation of the whole country. But there are many who cannot forget the Stalin years and former KGB officer Leo Demidov and his family are in danger from someone who bears a grudge.

About Face by Donna Leon (Heinemann) is the new Commissiario Brunetti novel – this outing being accompanied by a practical walking guide to Venice by Toni Sepeda (same publisher). I have often hoped that "placeist" crime-fiction (and other) novels could be accompanied by travel guides to the relevant literary scenes, so maybe this is the start of a welcome trend.

My Soul to Take is the eagerly awaited second title from Yrsa Sigurdadottir (Hodder), again featuring lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir, this time investigating a murder at a health resort. The author will be attending CrimeFest at Bristol in May, I'm delighted to say.

The Kill Call by Stephen Booth (HarperCollins) is the ninth in the DS Diane Fry/DC Ben Cooper series set in Derbyshire. This time they become entangled in the violent world of hunting and hunt saboteurs.

Bleed a River Deep (Macmillan) is Brian McGilloway's third Inspector Devlin novel, a superb series set in the borderlands between Northern Ireland and Eire.

Another eagerly-awaited Irish novel is Dark Times in the City by the extremely talented Gene Kerrigan (Harvill), this one set in the Dublin underworld. Danny Callagan is having a quiet drink in the pub when two men with guns enter. On impulse Callagan intervenes to save a man's life, an action that will have vicious consequences.

Comfort to the Enemy is the latest from master Elmore Leonard (Weidenfeld and Nicholson), this one a novel comprising three linked stories charting the career of lawman Carl Webster.

War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson (Serpent's Tail) is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, when a body is discovered on Hampstead Heath after one of socialite Regine Milner's legendary Sunday house parties. 

Henning Mankell, better known for his Wallendar crime novels, has a "literary" novel coming out. In Italian Shoes, a man living in self-imposed exile on a Swedish island is visited out of the blue by the only woman he ever loved, whom he abandoned 40 years earlier. They drive to a lake in northern Sweden, where he discovers she has a surprise in store. There is a chance the author will visit the UK when the book is published.

Among the rest of April's crime fiction are Black Out by Lisa Unger; debut novel Daemon by Daniel Surarez; Fatal Cut by June Hampton; Mystery Man by Bateman; The Edge by Chris Simms; The Black Monastery by Stav Sherez; The Little Victim by R. T. Raichev; Close-up by Esther Verhoef; Bone Man's Daughters by Ted Dekker; and The Devil's Bones by Jefferson Bass.

As a postscript, three new Doctor Who novels are also scheduled: The Slitheen Excursion by Simon Guerrier; Judgement of the Judoon by Colin Brake; and Prisoner of the Daleks by Trevor Baxendale.

That's just April.

A rose by other names, please

The Daily Intel blog of New York magazine turns its attention to blurb comparisons. Some examples:

"F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edith Wharton: If you write about society, you write about rich drunks, or you write about crumbling marriages and decadence, you're one of these two. If you're a boy, you're Scott; if you're a girl, you're Edith. If you're a girl pretending to be a boy, maybe you get to be George Eliot."

"Malcolm Gladwell: If you find a fascinating new way to state the obvious, you're a Malcolm."

"Hunter S. Thompson: If you are a crazy writer who did something adventurous, and your publicist couldn't even get through the book but sensed it would be transgressive, you are a Hunter. If your publicist could get through it, you are more like a Jack Kerouac."

This certainly translates into crime fiction. Here's a few of my suggestions:

  • If your book has anything to do with cutting up dead bodies, you are like Patricia Cornwell.
  • If you set your novel in Scotland, you are the next Ian Rankin.
  • If a book has a lawyer in it somewhere, the author is compared to John Grisham.
  • An exciting book – James Patterson. (Or "a female James Patterson" as was written on the blurb of a book I read recently).

Although this practice is lazy, it does have the effect of conveying very briefly the broad outline of a book. However, the comparison is often wrong. Just because a book is set in Scotland does not mean that the contents will have any similarities whatsoever to the Rebus books – I have read a few of these so I know. And such comparisons put quite a burden of expectation on an author.

Perhaps the best thing a potential reader of an untried and unreviewed author can do to rely instead on a blurb written by a popular author. In that case, you might note the ubiquity of Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and Harlan Coben. In another genre, Stephen King is legendary in this regard.

Michael Walters on reading crime fiction

Michael Walters, author of the excellent Mongolian series of police-procedural thrillers, has a blog but in my opinion does not blog enough. He's been rectifying that recently, though, with some great posts on what he's been reading and associated thinking over the past year.

Part 1: on the financial crisis, reading habits and a bit about crime fiction.

Part 2: Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith);The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson) and more.

Part 3: The Fabric of Sin (Phil Rickman); Bruno, Chief of Police (Martin Walker); and the Bethlehem Murders (Matt Rees).

Part 4: A Cure for All Diseases (Reginald Hill); Savage Moon (Chris Simms); Nemesis (Jo Nesbo); Have Mercy on us All (Fred Vargas).

Michael's blog provides a nice balance between updates about his books, his writing and snippets of news from Mongolia. Apart from that, it has an engaging tone, and Michael is extremely generous about replying to people who comment. I think it is an unusually interesting author blog: many authors make the mistake of thinking they need to overtly promote their books on their blogs, which makes them not interesting. Michael provides some information about his books and the writing process, which gives readers a sense of the inside story, yet also he writes thoughtfully about wider issues – his reading, as well as various unusual eccentricities (if that word is acceptable) about Mongolia. However, he has not picked up on one particular Mongolian-related credit crunch fallout: Mrs Crime Scraps's upcoming holiday in a Yurt on Bodmin Moor, while Mr Crime Scraps and Master Crime Scraps take refuge in the pub!

The Outcast reviewed: Michael's latest book.

Michael Walters on Euro Crime.

More on translators of fiction

51CWS92JRTL__SL500_AA240_ I have just got home from a hard day at work to some unaccustomed excitement at Petrona (comments department). Reg Keeland has responded to my heartfelt plea that he might consider attending Crime Fest. He's thinking about it. Let us hope that the airwaves and webwaves are currently busy between Bristol Crime Central and New Mexico. Not only this, but Reg's wife Tiina Nunnally might also attend. Tiina Nunnally is of course an eminent translator herself, in particular of Mari Jungstedt's Gotland novels and Peter Hoeg's modern classic Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. Looking on Amazon for her translations, I was very struck by the beautiful covers of the books by Sigrid Undset (see illustration), which sound as wonderful as the pictures.

"Reg Keeland" has also translated many books, including Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and Camilla Lackberg's Ice Princess, a book that I enjoyed a lot though did not review. Perhaps Ice Princess was a tad on the romantic side for my taste, but I am eagerly awaiting the next to be translated, The Preacher, "the second psychological thriller from No 1 bestselling Swedish crime sensation Camilla Lackberg. In the fishing community of Fjallbacka, life is remote, peaceful — and for some, tragically short. Foul play was always suspected in the disappearance twenty years ago of two young holidaymakers in the area. Now a young boy out playing has confirmed this grim truth. Their remains, discovered with those of a fresh victim, send the town into shock. Local detective Patrik Hedstrom, expecting a baby with his girlfriend Erica, can only imagine what it is like to lose a child. When a second young girl goes missing, Hedstrom's attention focuses on the Hults, a feuding clan of misfits, religious fanatics and criminals. The suspect list is long but time is short — which of this family's dark secrets will provide the vital clue?" [publisher description]. 

How to avoid the financial crisis

From today's Times, print edition, p 4 (brief):

"Girl Guides are to be given advice on money management to help them through the credit crunch and to prepare them for the modern world. Tips include avoiding store cards, fashion fads and relying on parents for handouts."

Even though my daughters are and were not in the Guides, I was sufficiently alarmed to check out the source of this information, which is this glossy leaflet. Thankfully from my perspective, the grammatical ambiguity in the Times piece turns out to be in the right direction (i.e. the girls are not being advised to indulge in fashion fads or parent-begging). However, I can't help thinking that my initial reaction to the Times piece, that one saves money by asking someone else (who actually has it) for it as opposed to spending your own, was probably more on the mark.

Apparently 'money management' was considered the most pressing issue in a poll of members of GirlGuiding UK. (Next was 'personal safety'.) I wonder how much was spent in conducting the poll, analysing the information and producing leaflets to provide these particular pearls of wisdom?