Watching the film Jar City

So, one of the many good things about the recent snowy weather in the UK is that my younger daughter's parent-teacher evening at school yesterday (Tuesday) was postponed. Therefore, I could, if I wished, go to the cinema to see the one and only showing of the film Jar City in Kingston (2030 h on Tues). I decided I would see the movie, so tramped down to the cinema in the icy, silent and dark streets. It turned out that about six other people had made the same effort.

The film, based on the book by Arnaldur Indridason, is excellent. It is soon out on DVD (in the UK at least) and it is very well worth watching. Although the police team are not exactly how I had imagined from the books, the actor playing Erlunder was convincing in the role, really inhabiting the morose detective's skin and with the requisite intense focus. From my memory, the film stuck pretty closely to the plot of the book, and it was telling (if poignant) to note that the late Bernard Scudder, Indridason's superb translator, was responsible for the English subtitles.

So, what of the film? It is a straight police procedural, in that Erlunder and his team investigate the death of a late-middle-aged man bashed on the head with an ashtray. The case reveals to them that the victim may have raped a woman many years ago, and this is somehow relevant to the birth of a girl, Aude, who died young of a disease. Erlendur, the lead detective, and his team (portrayed tellingly as real, believable individuals that one might see on the street or at work tomorrow) soon discover that the death is linked with the Icelandic genetic database. There are many wonderful, atmospheric scenes of the hamlets of this barren, rocky isle, where people seem to be clinging to a life in a harsh environment – a hardy people, content in their solitude. But scratch the surface and unpleasant adaptations begin to emerge.

The Icelandic database project is real. Every person on the island (who has given consent, which is most of this small and inter-related population) has his or her genetic data held there. The plot depends on one person having faked a research project, got through several ethical and scientific review boards, and having access to all these data. This could not happen. A person could not undertake such a course without a body of published research, an active group, and other types of accountability. Indridason, and the film-makers, want to explore the consequences of an individual having total access to this information, so they venture into unrealistic territory. On one level, I am glad that they have done so, because the core of the story involves the genetic "deviants" who carry the potential for disease, and how this affects human emotion and entire lives. This field is one that is very little understood, apart from those who live under the burden of such genetic darkness. (I have personal reasons to understand this subject, as well as a professional interest.) On another level, I feel disappointed that the plot has to depend on the scientific community being stupid - the system simply does not and cannot work in the way shown in the film.

In the film, more than in the book, this discrepancy does not matter. Erlunder pursues his goal – discovering the truth – and in the process we see many small, delightful quirks that could never be conveyed in a Hollywood or other commercial film. I loved the depictions of Icelandic life- whether eating a sheep's head (eyes and all), snacking in the mortuary, the knitwear, the little houses clinging to the windswept rocks and plains, the introspection, misery, boredom, drug addition (the story of Eva Lind and her father Erlunder is a moving aspect of the film, as in the books) and bleakness is all there, speaking to the audience. But above all, the enduring memory is the beautiful young child in her white communion dress in her coffin, the ruin of the lives of her parents, and the sheer tragedy of it all, reflected in the eyes of Erlunder as he sings in the choir that forms the elegy in the prologue and epilogue of this remarkable film, which drew me in and absorbed me totally.

Jar City: Observer review.

Jar City: Times review.

Arnaldur Indridason's books reviewed at Euro Crime.

Update: review of the film at Crime Scraps.

Authonomy author starts to blog

I received an email today from Authonomy, the Harper-Collins website to "flush out the brightest, freshest new writing talent around" (their words) or the online "open slushpile" to use another description. (The Guardian called it an "outsourced slushpile".) You probably read recently how this cynicism was not in the event borne out, when Harper Collins offered publishing deals to three authors who had uploaded their books to the site (Authonomy's announcement is here).

Today's email (and, doubtless, press release) is to say that one of the three authors, Miranda Dickinson, is going to write a series of posts on the Authonomy blog detailing "her journey from unpublished to published author". She describes in her first post the excitement of getting a book deal. I enjoyed reading her post, which starts well: .."let me start at the beginning… Picture, if you will, a small office somewhere near Birmingham airport, September ‘08. This was my workplace – and things were not boding well for my job. We’d started to notice that work just wasn’t coming in, with our bosses remaining tight-lipped about the reasons why."

Each month, editors at Harper Collins read the five titles that have received the most votes from site visitors. This month's selections are up, if you want to take a look (link in first sentence of this post). I'm quite intrigued to see how this project pans out, as it sounds as if it has got a lot better than when I last looked, which was at the time of the official, post-beta launch. My best wishes to the selected authors.

E-publishing updates from the Bookseller

I seem to get "briefing" and "bulletin" emails every day from the Bookseller as part of my (very expensive, Christmas present) subscription. I think that these mostly find their way into the printed edition of the magazine each week, but I have not really worked it out yet. Here are a few highlights, in any event:

Waterstones have sold more than 30,000 Sony e-readers since last September's launch, and about 75,000 e-books, to their surprise. (On Christmas day, Waterstones sold more e-books than physical books on their website, and Random House reported significantly higher sales of e-books over the Christmas period, which they put down to people being given e-readers as presents.) The main bottleneck, says David Kohn, Waterstone's "head of commerce", is that there are not enough e-books out there. He thinks that every conventionally published book should simultaneously be released in e-form, but I think publshers might be finding that technically and operationally hard to achieve (even if economically desirable, which I am not sure about either). Amazon may be about to launch its second-generation Kindle at a press conference on 9 February (next Monday), according to rumours reported in the New York Times. I do not get the impression that the UK and the rest of Europe is likely to be able to buy it yet. Good news for those who read Spanish, though – you can download e-books for 5 euros. And good news for schools – which will increasingly be using this form of book.

Print on demand is another e-technology that is coming into its own with a vengeance. One POD provider, Lightning Source, reports that publishers are increasingly using its service to increase print runs. A book that would previously have had a print run of 250 is now more likely to get one of 1,000, thanks to this technology and the help it gives to publishing economics. Lightning Source printed 30,000 books in its first year of operation (2001); last year it printed 2 million. It has just printed its 7 millionth book in total. I have one or two Lightning Source books and like their production values – very white paper and large, dark print.

Although Borders is not doing well in some respects, being about to close down its shops at UK airports, its website seems to be increasingly popular, achieving third place (up by 56) in a ranking by Retail Bulletin. HMV is at number 29, Play.com at 35, Waterstones  at 43, and W H Smith at 104 – equal to Amazon, which must say something about this particular list. Whatever one may think about Amazon's principles, it has a huge amount of stock on its site, and is easy to use and order (even though its browse and search functions are nowhere near as good as they were in the old Google partnership days, as I discovered yet again yesterday when trying to find books about Shelley's poems — at least I found one in the end, which is one better than all the physical bookshops in Kingston). And returning to online for the minute, I am pleased to read today that Woolworths is to be reborn online! I wait with bated breath – but not in the hopes of finding anything there about Shelley.

Sunday Salon: books of the year at Euro Crime

TSSbadge3 Karen Meek of Euro Crime has compiled a list of the favourite books read by the site's reviewers during 2008. The selection (which contains links to reviews of the chosen books where one exists) is an excellent guide to some of the cream of the books read (not necessarily published) in 2008. There is a wide-ranging mix of the literary, the psychological, thriller, historical, noir, police procedural and classic fiction – with a European accent, of course - so take your pick. Many of the selections were first written in languages other than English; I have deep admiration for the translators who have so sympathetically and in such a talented way enabled us to enjoy these books. My own selections are as follows:

English language origin:
Nicci French – Losing You
Simon Lewis – Bad Traffic
Diane Setterfield – The Thirteenth Tale
Laura Wilson – Stratton's War

Translated into English:
Karin Fossum – Broken
Arnaldur Indridason – Arctic Chill
Asa Larsson – The Black Path
Johan Theorin – Echoes from the Dead
Helene Tursten – The Torso

I like them all because they are strong books – thoughtful, interesting characters, intelligent writing, and show the effects on people of challenging circumstances. My reviews of all these books are at Euro Crime and can be found via Karen's Euro Crime page.

I read several books last year that I did not review, so did not include those in my selection criteria. However, I would like to mention one of these books here, as it was perhaps my favourite book of 2008. It is What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn. This book is not "crime fiction", though it does feature an unusual detective element. It is a haunting and poignant portrait of the world as seen through the eyes of a delightfully unusual child, as well as some others on the fringes. It's a witty satire on urban values, and extremely perceptive. I cannot recommend this short, sad (but funny) book highly enough. Thanks to Karen for encouraging me to read it.

Other Euro Crime reviewers who provide selections of their 2008 favourites are: Pat Austin, Paul Blackburn, Karen Chisholm, Sunnie Gill, Amanda Gillies, Terry Halligan, Geoff Jones, Karen Meek, Michelle Peckham, Norman Price, Mike Ripley, Laura Root, Kerrie Smith and Fiona Walker. A summary of the books chosen and the combined favourites can be found at Euro Crime's blog. Some of us continue the reading conversations, with other bloggers and readers, in a "room" for Crime & Mystery fiction at FriendFeed – please do join us there, it is a very user-friendly web interface and there is lots of fascinating chat and exchange of reading news and information.