August holiday paperback reading

Lots of treats in store if you live in the UK and want some good paperback holiday reading in August. I spent a frustrating time trying and failing to find an online picture to post here of Natasha Cooper's first "relaunch" title, No Escape: new publisher, new theme (not Trish Maguire but "a dark, psychological thriller set in the Isle of Wight"), new name: N. J. Cooper. Unfortunately the pictorial evidence is nowhere that I can find on the Internet, but there's a minipic in the August paperback preview of the 24 April Bookseller (page 31). See this Euro Crime blog post for more details of N. J. Cooper's transition. The paperback is published by Pocket Books and out on 3 August, list price £6.99.

Other exciting novels due for August paperback release are the excellent Burial, by Neil Cross (Pocket, £6.99); Bombproof, Michael Robotham's fifth thriller, this one featuring Vincent Ruiz (Sphere, £6.99). I've read the first two in this series so far (The Suspect and The Drowning Man), and enjoyed them. The core cast of characters is the same, but the main character changes in each book (so far). Perhaps the biggest seller will be Ian Rankin's Doors Open (Orion, £7.99), the author's first post-Rebus novel. Close behind will be Ruth Rendell's Portobello (Arrow, £7.99) and Tess Gerritsen's Keeping the Dead (Bantam, £6.99), an author who is very popular but with whom I have parted company after enjoying the first few of this loosely connected series.

On the translated front, the big treat is Jo Nesbo's The Redeemer (Vintage, £6.99): I don't expect I'll have managed to read Nemesis before August but you never know. Here's the Nesbo expert's view, at Crime Scraps. Apart from The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs (Phoenix, £7.99) and Mehmet Murat Sommer's Gigolo Murder (Serpent's Tail, £7.99), third in the Turkish transvestite detective series , there aren't any other translations that I can spot in the Bookseller preview feature.

Among the other books to look forward to in paperback in August are The Good Thief's Guide to Paris by Chris Ewan (Pocket, £6.99), Darkness Rising by Frank Tallis (Arrow, £7.99), Magdalen Nabb's final novel, Vita Nuova (Arrow, £7.99), Death Trip by Lee Weeks (Avon, £6.99) and Geezer Girls by Dreda Say Mitchell (Hodder, £6.99). This list is by no means comprehensive!

Thoughts on The Jewel in the Crown

Jewel Watching the magnificent The Jewel in the Crown, based on the (even better) Raj Quartet by Paul Scott brings back many thoughts and memories of the year of first transmission (1984), a significant year for me. Putting that to one side, two of the many things that strike me watching the series again now:

Although only half-way through the series, the style of the dramatisation is one that seems unimaginable nowadays. Each episode mainly consists of two-handers between characters – sometimes main, sometimes minor. These scenes are long interactions, sometimes unbearably tense (I literally could not watch the prison scene between Merrick – who was the most hated man in Britain the day after the first transmission – and Kumar) and sometimes apparently banal – but it is through these scenes that the allegories and drama are perceived. This structure is repeated in episode after episode, providing a stylised framework for the exciting events that occur during a world war and a country in the throes of cultural and revolutionary change.

And second, I am amazed at the roles for women "of a certain age"! Not only do we have the young Daphne Manners and the sisters Susan and Sarah Layton, but we have a range of middle-aged and elderly women – Barbara Batchelor (Peggy Ashcroft), Mabel Layton, Lady Ethel Manners (Rachel Kempson), Mildred Layton (Judy Parfitt) and other less central ladies – who are allowed simply to "be" themselves, at relative length. How often these days does one see ladies who will not see 30 again (by a long way) as significant characters in a mainstream drama series? (I exclude series with titles along the lines of "a drama series about oldish ladies".) Because I rarely watch TV, I don't know the answer, but I can guess it. It is truly wonderful to watch these actresses convey so subtly and convincingly and unhurriedly, their characters' experiences of life, emotion and wisdom.

Review: Executive Privilege, by Phillip Margolin

With Executive Privilege, Phillip Margolin has come up with a topical, multi-faceted and racy thriller – yet again. I loved it
There has been talk recently about the thriller genre being in the doldrums, once two or three hugely selling authors are excluded. Yet Margolin has delivered a consistently high baker’s dozen of thrilling novels – like another superbly professional thriller-writer, Mary Higgins Clark, Margolin’s characters are usually decent, ordinary, capable people (often women) who have to live on their wits to survive, work out the conspiracy plot and thus (usually) best the villains. Most if not all of Margolin’s novels are set in his native Oregon, and most (but not all) are standalones, as is Executive Privilege.
As one might infer from the title, the US President is involved. What’s the hook that makes it different from all the other president-related thrillers? This president may be not only be an adulterer, but may be a murderer – or even a serial killer — and he’s losing no opportunity in closing down any witnesses.
One of the main characters in this tightly plotted narrative is Dana Cutler, an ex-cop-turned-private investigator. She’s suffered a terrible ordeal when in the police force, the details of which become evident later in the book. She’s a resourceful woman, who knows how to watch her back and has a couple of loyal friends. When she’s hired by a rich lawyer to follow a young volunteer for a  politician’s election campaign, it doesn’t take Dana long to realise she’s involved with some powerful people. Just how deep it goes, however, takes even her by surprise. Soon she’s running for her life.
Simultaneously, a young lawyer, Brad Miller, is told to take on a pro-bono case, that of a serial killer on death row. The prisoner, Clarence Little, insists that he did not kill one of his alleged victims. Brad goes to see him in jail and discovers Little’s creepy alibi, and why he hadn’t revealed it previously.
The link between the cases is FBI agent Keith Evans, who has spent years unsuccessfully tracking the killer of a series of young women. The latest victim not only provides a key to the case, but also provides some startling inconsistencies that blow several people’s worlds wide open.
Phillip Margolin is a highly experienced author who juggles these disparate themes with extreme discipline and searing pace. The characters are attractive and capable, the tension and suspense are ratcheted high, and the plotting is satisfying. At the end of the day, this book is an unpretentious thriller that isn’t going to survive the highest possible scrutiny that could be applied to it. But it’s great entertainment, it respects the reader, it’s exciting, topical, and – yes, thrilling. Anyone who thinks the thriller genre is dead in the water need only look this far.

News from Unshelved and Detectives Beyond Borders

Via OWL, a.k.a. Dave Lull, you can read in cartoon form (PDF)  some "frank feedback for publishers from librarians, booksellers, and readers", courtesy of Unshelved. Unshelved and BooksExpoAmerica (BEA) work to connect publishers with libraries; as part of that partnership, Unshelved asked its readers and members the question "what do you wish publishers knew?" The result is a 40-page booklet of quotations and comic strips, which you can download via the Unshelved blog. (It will also be emailed to all BEA members.)

You can follow and comment on Dave's links by joining the Librarian's Place room at FriendFreed.

In other breaking news, Peter Rosovsky has just written his 1,000th post at his excellent blog Detectives Beyond Borders. US-based blogs about crime fiction written by non-USA authors are pretty thin in the aether, and in my opinion Peter provides a uniquely valuable service in bringing news and reviews of all the excellent crime fiction written elsewhere in the world to the attention of US readers – as well as a constant diet of fiendish questions and entertaining challenges to readers. Sarah Weinman (herself Canadian), of course, is queen of the crime-fiction blogs in the USA, and does a fantastic job at rounding up, reviewing and bringing constant news of international, as well as indigenous, crime fiction at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. However, Peter and Glenn Harper (International Noir Fiction) to my knowledge run the only US blogs dedicated to "the great beyond" - I welcome any contradictions in the comments to this post! And congratulations again, Peter, even though I could not rise to the challenge in your 1,000th post.

Trends in book publishing

At BookBrunch blog*, Nicholas Clee, former Editor of the Bookseller, draws attention to an article he wrote in the New Statesman  in the wake of the just-finished London Book Fair. He says the article "has a somewhat misleading headline: I do not think that celebrities have been the prime causes of anything." The article's title is "How celebrities saved, and then killed, the book trade".

Mr Clee then provides a quote from the article, which I assume means that he believes it to be the main message: "However, these trends are not the fault of the celebs, or of Richard and Judy. They are the consequence of the conglomeration in publishing and bookselling; of the proliferation of media; and of the undermining of a cultural consensus that could tolerate, without embarrassment, such concepts as literary excellence."

Actually I think they are mostly if not entirely to do with readers and what they are prepared to pay their money for. The full New Statesman article describes how, in Mr Clee's belief, celebrities and 'Richard and Judy' have provided artificial but short-lived bursts of life to the publishing industry – but what happens next? He describes how hard it is for an author to get published these days – authors who have already published several books can't even get a look-in with their new work, or if an editor likes a title, it will not get approved by the sales and marketing departments. Online retailers (mainly Amazon) and digital forms of content (mainly e-readers at the moment) are even bigger threats to the industry, says Mr Clee.

While I don't disagree with Mr Clee's analysis of the business model of publishers, I don't agree with him that celebrities alone are providing the "artificial" boost, and I don't agree that the boost is short-lived (although unfortunately, the Richard and Judy [a.k.a. Oprah] effect, which emphatically was not about celebrities or marketing budgets but about what someone thought was a good book when she'd read it, does seem to be on the wane). There will always be "celebrity authors" who are not authors because they are celebrities in the sense of Jordan, Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell and their international equivalents, but because they are James Patterson, Danielle Steel, the ghost (in both senses of the word) of Catherine Cookson, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, Wilbur Smith, etc. (Between them, these mega-authors produce more than enough for one person to read in a year, if anyone wanted to exist entirely on such a diet.) These authors are huge sellers because their books are popular with readers – they are authors who are only famous for being authors. I don't see this category drying up any time soon, any more than I believe that the appetite for the next Miley Cyrus, Zak Ephron, Russell Brand et al. will end (most of these books will be actually written by jobbing authors, so they at least keep some scribblers on a payroll, even if they have no "literary merit").

At the core of these analyses is the fact that not many people buy much of the great bulk of literary fiction or non-fiction. They probably never did. Cultural standards have indeed changed due to mass media and lowest-common-denominators, as Mr Clee writes, but it is not possible to infer from that, that there was a time where all the people who are now reading "popular" TV- and celebrity-inspired books used to read literature. In fact I don't think it is the case. They were probably all listening to the "wireless" ;-).

The book publishing industry as a whole is not a mega-profit-making industry. There are a very few giants, but the rest do not make vast profits or even in many cases small profits. These companies know what books will sell, roughly how many copies, how to sell those copies. It does not make sense to "blame" them for not publishing literary works rather than the books that people actually buy. Yes, a cheap, highly promoted "book of the week" offer will produce a spike in sales, but those customers would not have purchased a highbrow work of literature instead if the deal had not been offered to them.

What will happen is some kind of hybrid, via print on demand or digital formats (sometimes "published" by the authors themselves); and the internet will become increasingly relevant in targeting books to readers (perhaps with libraries as the middle-men rather than publishers?). Some "publishers as we now know them" will adapt and survive, some won't – because "long tail" readerships are individually small, and there are a heck of a lot of authors producing all and any kind of material for them to choose from. Readers will certainly benefit from these technologies, but it is very tough for authors in this intermediate but not steady-state, in which publishers aren't publishing their books and if they do it themselves, they aren't going to find a large market other than in exceptional cases (such as the title selected for publication by Harper Collins's Avon imprint via its Authonomy scheme, which turned out to have been previously self-published and marketed very effectively on Authonomy by Steven Dunne, the author – read all about it here.).

*If you click on the link you might get a message stating "you are not allowed to view the blog. You will have to be a member first" (even if you are a member and signed-in). In that event, go to Bookbrunch main page, click on the blog tag, and look for posts on 24 April. What a palaver.

FiledByAuthor, another online book network

It's not safe to get back in the water yet: I just discovered, via Read Street, another social networking site, FiledByAuthor, marketed as for authors but I think readers might enjoy it too, despite a plethora of existing social sites and online groups for readers. The hook for readers is that you can "connect with your favourite authors" – but although J. K. Rowling has a page, I am not sure what "connecting" with it does in that regard (James Patterson and Stephanie Mayer have pages that are featured prominently, also). FiledByAuthor could, however, be a way to connect with other people who like reading a particular author's books. Some categories include Women sleuths, Police procedurals and Hard boiled - or you can search by an author's name. Here's Stieg Larsson, for example.

What's in it for authors? Well, apparently you can have a profile, promote your work, "add content" etc. I am not sure if that is significantly different to social sites such as Book Place or Crime Spaceon Ning, but if you are an author I suppose it is another venue for getting known. (More about the site is here.)

I think I will check out FiledByAuthor as a reader, to see if there is any crime-fiction discussion on offer. I will let you know if I find any! I have set up a group for crime and mystery fiction readers, so please join it if you want. (I have not put anything in it yet, but contributions are welcome.)

There is also an associated blog, FiledByBlog, which looks to be a useful source of publishing news.

An interlude at the London Book Fair

 I spent a few hours at the third and final day of the London Book Fair, with Karen of Eurocrime and CrimeFictionReader of It's a Crime. Not only was it an opportunity to catch up with two of my favourite bloggers and hear about all the crime-fiction news (Karen and CFR are veritable mines of information), but it was also a chance to see some of the books that will be (potentially) gracing our shelves in the next few months. Bearing in mind the quantity lined up already for my eyes to be shifting over during the next few years given the collection I already have, I tried to be ruthless with myself about what I picked up. I have to say that Karen and CFR applied marginally less strict criteria – I trust they managed to stagger home unaided with their sacks of spoils. My own acquisitions are pictured: one book (clue: the translation) is from Karen herself and another was very kindly given to me by the publisher Simon & Schuster for my elder daughter, who numbers Philippa Gregory among her favourite authors. I have to confess to buying Emma Darwin's A Secret Alchemy the other day on this week's "buy a book with The Times for £2.99 from W H Smith" offer, so Cathy will have an interesting comparison of perspectives on Elizabeth Woodville (the cover of the proof of The White Queen, black with a red rose on one cover and a white one on the other, is much nicer than what seems to be the image on the book itself, published in the UK in September). The rest of my little collection will keep me very happy, thanks to Karen and the generous publishers at Quercus and Macmillan.

 Frimansson Lady of pain Shooting star White queen Dead tomorrow

Frank Wilson and the beauty of brevity

Via Dave Lull, I read a beautiful poem, Still Point,  by Frank Wilson (Sir Galahad of the Blogosphere), published as part of the planetary month series in the Globe and Mail. The fourteen-line poem is preceded by a short appreciation by American poet laureate Daniel Hoffmann, who writes: "The verse moves with natural ease, unobtrusively giving emphasis to the significant words whose rhymes or internal rhymes make them attractive — and thus invite the reader's attention. This little poem in its moment portrays a memorable character, its meaning embodied in the manner of its saying."

Partick Kurp, at his blog Anecdotal Evidence, writes an appreciation of this poem. The character described in the poem comes “alive awhile” through the attentiveness he pays the simplest of events – a bird flies from a branch. It’s a scene painted on a Chinese screen. "The beautifullest harmonies", indeed.

As well as his blog, Books, Inq: the Epilogue, which is an essential source of all book-related news and insight, Frank writes a regular column for When Falls the Coliseum, an online journal of American culture. The title of his latest essay is "What blogging can teach a writer", in which he writes the following perceptive analysis:

My blog largely consists of links to things I have read or been alerted to that I think others might want to look at. Often, but not always, I offer up a take on what I’m linking to. I may also quote what I think of as a key point in the piece. I go to some trouble to keep these commentaries short and to the point. This may be because I am an aphorist manqué. Or because of other years spent writing headlines and captions. Whatever the reason I have become acutely aware — and this has coincided with my blogging — of when something I am reading seems longer than it need be. When I link to something, I try to be aware of what in particular about it grabbed my attention, and what I try to do in my commentary is address that specifically as briefly as possible.

This philosophy of brevity was very much that of my late mentor, Sir John Maddox, who firmly believed in the impact of a distilled message. Not many people can combine brevity with the beauty and insight of John or Frank, but it is a noble goal to which to aspire.

British thriller writers shoot themselves in the feet

"Jeffrey Archer, Matt Lynn, Martin Baker and Alan Clements launch bid to woo writers away from 'formulaic' American writing" is the headline of this ludicrous Guardian piece. The "reign of the production-line American thriller writers" that is being challenged is the crown held by the likes of James Patterson, John Grisham and Dan Brown.

While there is certainly some truth in what these British authors are saying about the contemporary book market (ghost writers, "factories" of teams producing books under one main author's byline, and so on), let's just take a closer look at the five principles of the group.

1. That the first duty of any book is to entertain.

2. That a book should reflect the world around it.

3. That thrilling, popular fiction doesn't follow formulas.

4. That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.

5. That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.

These principles are all fair enough if that's your taste, but the two authors of the "Curzon four" I have read certainly do not live up to them. In addition, there are many books that can be criticised along the same lines that are not thrillers: celebrity biographies and novels are ghost written, for example; Dickens and Zola followed forumulas; and Jane Austen did not reflect highly significant contemporary events in Europe (the Napoleonic wars).

But the whole enterprise is massively wrong-headed, and possibly just a marketing exercise to get some of these authors better-known. Nobody can tell anyone else what to read, or judge a book along the lines that these Curzon authors are doing. What one reader extols, another may not. The first duty of a book is not necessarily to entertain, if that isn't what the reader wants. Some readers enjoy formulas. And so on. The Curzon four should stop this moaning forthwith, and if they think they can do better than Patterson, Grisham and Brown, good luck to them. In the meantime, "sour" and "grapes" are two words that immediately spring to mind. If you disagree with me you are welcome to find out more about the Curzon group:

"Their not-entirely-altruistic plans to champion the cause of British thriller writing include a month-long debate on books site which will pit British writers against a yet-to-be confirmed American author; a poll to find the greatest British thriller of all time (early possibilities include The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The 39 Steps and The Ipcress File); a story competition for wannabe thriller writers; festival appearances; and a manifesto of five principles they hope will provoke debate. Promotions, blogs and live chats will be running throughout the year at a new website,"

All of these enterprises seem very positive and worthwhile; I only wish they did not originate in such apparently petty jealousy.

Update: Sarah Weinman's view on the Curzon four is here.

Crime novels for the rest of the year

Earlier this month (10 April) in the Bookseller, Maxim Jakubowski picked his favourites from the crime fiction, mystery novels and thrillers due to be published in the UK in the second half of this year. In his preface he notes that the total output from publishers has decreased by 10 per cent compared with last year, with "midlists and backlists" suffering as a result, as publishers put more resources into marketing a smaller number of titles. He believes there are fewer debut authors this year and notes "the recent vogue for crime in translation seems to be calming down somewhat, at any rate on the Scandinavian front, although I feel that French and Italian writers are still criminally overlooked generally." The smaller independents have lost ground, with honourable exceptions Serpent's Tail, Bitter Lemon and one or two others; Quercus and Orion are singled out for "innovative and commercial lists that are allowed to grow organically through a combination of judicious finds and big dollar acquisitions". Conclusion: the genre is still thriving though there are a few clouds on the horizon.

Of the books selected for the preview feature, there is only one translated title in the predicted best sellers, and that is, of course, Stieg Larsson's The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Quercus, October). You can count the translated titles in the rest of the preview on the fingers of two hands:The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Weidenfeld, June), August Heat by Andrea Camilleri (Picador, June), The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum (Harvill, July), The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (Profile, November) – an author better known for her Moomin children's novels – The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackberg (HarperCollins, August), and The Gigolo Murder by Mehmet Murat Somer. For more details of these and all European (translated and UK) crime fiction due for publication in the UK between now and the end of the year – check at Euro Crime's regularly updated lists (by date or by author).

Of course there are many titles due for publication in the second half of 2009 that are originally written in English, by authors including Michael Connellly, Ian Rankin, Frances Fyfield, Laura Wilson, Peter James, John Harvey, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson and many more.