I think I have just about decided…

Thank you very much for your advice about books to take on holiday. The choice was a tough one, slightly skewed to what I have in paperback (not so heavy). I commissioned a local photographer to show you my (I think) final selection:

Holiday readingIn some cases, the advice took the form of actual books (thanks, Karen! and also thanks Sam of Transworld and James of PanMacmillan), and in others, it took the form of recommendations (thanks Norman, Dorte and Bernadette, and to them and Kerrie and others for reviews that have led to some of these selections). The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves is going in my hand baggage – and possibly one other "just in case". (I never like to be anywhere without two books in easily reachable form.) However, if I am lucky, the airport WH Smith will be honouring the offer at UK stores from tomorrow (Monday) all week, which is that the paperback of Linwood Barclay's new novel, Too Close to Home, is available for £2.99 if you buy a copy of The Times. (Otherwise you can get it for £3.89 at Amazon, £4.99 at British Bookshops/Sussex Stationers, or "buy one get one half price" at Borders.)
Continuing the holiday theme, I see my review of August Heat by Andrea Camilleri has been posted at Euro Crime today. Other Euro Crime reviews can be found here, should you be short of reading recommendations. There are also excellent reviews regularly to be found at the blogs highlighted earlier in this post.
Happy holidays!

Michael Bhaskar’s life of crime

Michael Bhaskar writes on the Picador blog: "As someone new to crime I have been by turns shocked, amused, gripped, repelled, absorbed and scared witless. Oh, and loved every minute of it. What is it about murders most horrid, alkie loner detectives and and the police procedural that so appeals?"
Michael wonders why crime fiction appeals "even as it shocks". Torture, blood – since the days of Agatha Christie, the genre has become more hard-core- "the attraction lies in something about crime that sucks in the twisted, depraved, Darwinian and reptilian soul buried deep beneath the fragile veneer of conscience and civilisation. Either that or we just like a good story with a bit of gore. Hmm. This calls for an investigation into the darkest recesses of the human mind…"
I think there probably was quite a bit of explicit violence going on contemporaneously with Christie, and not just on the other side of the Atlantic, but putting that to one side, I responded that everyone has their own reasons for liking crime fiction, which is is so immensely varied a genre (some of it can hardly be defined as genre, eg Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale or Stef Penny's The Tenderness of Wolves) that it can encompass all kinds of reader.
For my part, I like writers like Michael Connelly and many others, who present the modern-day cowboy story – the loner who sticks to his or her principles in an uncertain or unsympathetic world.
Many crime fiction novels are allegories of human nature (eg The Sinner by Petra Hammelsfahr – a very dark journey into one woman's troubled psyche and repressed memories), and in other ways they provide us with inspiration to continue with our sometimes grey, routine lives (eg Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill, a lovely example of the uncrushable human spirit in the awful privations and brainwashing of 1970s Laos – very funny indeed, to boot).
Also, I find, as I get older, having a plot structure is easier for the fading powers of concentration and memory. 

Storm in a symbol over Brown/Kernick Deadline

I know that the blogosphere exists so that people who are het up about something can vent vigorously and in public; receive unprocessed comments of agreement from their buddies; with the result that all concerned feel vindicated in their little bubbles of mutual ignorance. You just have to learn to avoid this stuff if possible, or if not, to let it wash over you. Even so, I think that some of the posts I've seen about this Dan Brown/Simon Kernick deal, even by experienced bloggers, are just silly. (Here is an example.) In at least one post expressing outrage about possible customer misunderstanding, the wrong Simon Kernick title has been cited – a mistake that can be interpreted in various ways.

When I first heard about this marketing campaign, I thought from the headline of the article that it was a bit rich. However, having actually read beyond the title, it is clear that what is going on is this: W. H. Smith is running a promotion in which if you pre-order Dan Brown's next novel, you get a free copy of one of Simon Kernick's books, called Deadline. For this purpose only, the free copy has a cover with both Brown's and Kernick's names on it, in big letters. You can't buy this book, you are only given it if you pre-order Brown. You are told via one of W. H. Smiths usual flyers for this purpose that if you pre-order Brown, this is what you are going to get as your reward.

If you happen to be browsing the shelves at W. H. Smith in blissful ignorance of all this, you might stumble across Deadline by Simon Kernick, but it would have the usual cover – no mention of Dan Brown anywhere.

So what's the big deal? Simon Kernick is happy because his back-list sales have gone up. Readers are happy because they have been given a 'free' copy of a book that is probably more enjoyable than the one they have paid for and ordered, when they get it (the Dan Brown). The publishers and W. H. Smith are certainly happy, not least by all the extra publicity which will probably lead more people to take up the deal (even if only to invest in a limited collectors' edition of Deadline!).

Oh well, if bloggers didn't get upset about this, they would find something else to upset themselves over, I suppose. Quite possibly this post.

Harrogate crime writing festival about to open its doors

Tomorrow (Thursday 23 July) is the start of the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, in which "for one long weekend in July, the world of crime writing will descend again on this sleepy Yorkshire town"Tickets to most events are still available – or if you can't make it in person, you can follow CrimeFictionReader on Twitter (more here) for an "almost there" sense of excitement.  Ali Karim and Mike Stotter, Editor of Shotsmag, will also no doubt be providing lots of online reporting, mirth, excitement and ebullience.

The winner of the 2009 Condense-a-Crime Classic Competition, judged by Laura Wilson, has been announced. Many congratulations to Janet O'Kane for her Twitter-sized summary of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  
"Two of my patients having died in quick succession – the widow (driven to suicide), the squire (stabbed in the neck) – I was delighted when Hercule Poirot sought my counsel. While the police wasted time on the butler, the drug addict and the impoverished stepson, Poirot uncovered everyone's secrets. Even mine."
I'm sorry I won't be there this year – but for the programme and additional evidence of all the excitement I'm sad to be missing, see the festival's website.

What shall I read on my holidays?

At this time of year, I always have the same dilemma – what books to take on holiday? I usually go for paperbacks for space/weight reasons, but this year I suspect I may have to break that rule. I've just ordered The Rule Book by Rob Kitchin from Amazon (as a result of enjoying his excellent blog From the Blue House), which seems to be a hardback. And via Twitter and the lovely Transworld account, I think I may be lucky enough to be in line for a copy of Joel Theorin's second novel, The Darkest Room, in which case that is going in my suitcase as well.

I've recently purchased paperbacks (phew!) by Michael Robotham– The Night Ferry and Shatter – on the basis of blog reviews and online discussion. I've also just received Katharine Howell's second novel, The Darkest Hour, thanks to the kind offices of CrimeFiction Reader (It's a Crime) and the publisher, Macmillan.

This is not going to keep me going for the whole duration, so any further suggestions, particularly of translated fiction, are very welcome – so long as suitable for holiday reading.

Your invitation to my Twitter evening

  • FSP: "We wish you best of luck with your scientific endeavors, and your anger management, maturity, and ethics issues." http://is.gd/1FvJb


  • Phil Ball on "Why astronomers are twittering" http://philipball.blogspot.com/2009/07/why-astronomers-are-twittering-heres-my.html

  • The Great Beyond on "that" cartoon http://bit.ly/FDj2T


  • Right, that really is the last straw. "Royal family joins Twitter". http://is.gd/1FuQY


  • Aargh! Now this: "favourite Westminster notion of the moment – Peter Mandelson could be next leader of the Labour Party." http://is.gd/1FuJN


  • At last, some good news. "US box office spellbound by HP and the Half-Blood Prince" — and Bruno nowhere 😉 http://is.gd/1FuG4


  • Meghan McCain has spoken. Joe the Plumber is “a dumbass”. http://is.gd/1FuyE


  • I despair. Blogher.. world's biggest group of blogging women … everyone's Twtr question? "What am I going to wear?" http://is.gd/1Fup6


  • This doesn't refer to Nature Publishing Group! "Wikipedia and the NPG Fall Out Over Copyright" http://is.gd/1FtQB


  • Via NYT: "readers pick which articles they want in their magazine and then print it themselves". http://tiny.cc/yfXkv


  • The FT editor, L. Barber, predicts "almost all" news organisations will be charging for online content within a year.http://tiny.cc/mLjFS


  • NYT: We Rent Movies, So Why Not Textbooks? http://bit.ly/PVaFV

  •   Rob Kitchin: We’re all prosumers now: blogs are a form of what some call prosumption – we help produce what we consume. http://is.gd/1EhXr

  • 'Moon-landing sceptics were referred to as 'loonies', contrary to the Guardian style guide. This has been corrected' http://is.gd/1EgJN

  • Via Sarah W: fascinating essay on Patricia Highsmith's attempt to understand Michael Jackson, ca. 1984: http://is.gd/1DEBS

  • Sunday Salon: translated fiction to read this Summer

    TSSbadge3 With the holiday season well-advanced in some regions of the world, and about to hit this small island mid-next-week with the end of the school term, I present a few holiday reading recommendations from books reviewed in the past few weeks. The two parameters I've chosen are: (1) translated into English; and (2) not on the shortlist for the CWA 2009 International Dagger award.

    First, my review of Island of the Naked Women, by Inger Frimansson and translated by Laura A. Wideburg, is up today at Euro Crime. From my review: "I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is a strong candidate for my "best of" list for this year. As well as the satisfying "on the surface" mystery, there is an allegorical aspect to the story, which gives it a haunting quality. The island of the naked women (Shame Island) is where legend has it that, in the olden days, wives from the village who had been unfaithful to their husbands were sent, naked, to fend for themselves. It is presumed they starved. The wives in the story told in the book live in more enlightened times, but is their fate any better than that of their historical counterparts?" Read my full review at Euro Crime.

    Second, up last week at Euro Crime, is my review of The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, translated by Charlotte Barsund. "As usual, I am very impressed by Karin Fossum's talent and originality. In THE WATER'S EDGE she has taken an upsetting and controversial topic– the painful death of a child or children – and has made it palatable and interesting even to a sensitive reader who, frankly, cannot usually bear to think about the subject. The author uses the events in the book to look at people, their attitudes and relationships, in both small and large ways." Read the whole review here.

    Over at Reactions to Reading, Bernadette reviews Karin Alvtegen's Missing, translated by Anna Paterson (I presume, if it is the same edition as the one I read). Bernadette writes: "I  intended to read a few pages of this before going to sleep last night. I quite literally could not put it down and finished the whole thing in one sitting ….Here is story telling at its absolute finest: I was hooked from page one of this simple and moving tale." The rest of Bernadette's 5/5 review is here.

    For those, like me, who enjoyed Johan Theorin's debut Echoes from the Dead, Peter of Nordic Bookblog writes an early review of the second in the series, The Darkest Room Peter says that like Theorin's "first novel, this too is an intelligent book somewhere in between a crime fiction book and a ghost story." I am shocked to note that there is no mention of the translator of this novel either in this review, or at the publishers' website, or Amazon, or on the Guardian review. I guess that it is translated by Marlaine Delargy, who translated the author's first novel, but I hope the name of the translator is provided in at least some of these places by the time the book is on sale.

    Finally for this post, a new (to me, and in fact quite new) blog called The View from the Blue House posts a review of The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett (a.k.a. Harry Hole). Rob Kitchin, the reviewer, calls the book "a highly enjoyable read and I zipped through it, picking it up at every opportunity so I could find out what happened next. Nesbø is particularly good at keeping the pace and tension high, running several sub-plots simultaneously and linking them in and out of each other." Read on here. [If you are tempted to read this book, my strong advice is don't do so until you've read first The Redbreast and then Nemesis – the correct reading order is here.]

    Congratulations to Colin Cotterill, winner of the Dagger in the Library

    The 2009 CWA discussion on this blog has entirely concerned the International Dagger, so I'll now hastily remedy that situation by offering my congratulations to Colin Cotterill, who has won the 2009 "Dagger in the Library" award. Just as "international" does not mean "international" but "translated into English", the Dagger in the library is not for the most-borrowed book or author, but "the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users", as nominated by reading groups and judged by a panel of librarians. This year, the judges said of Colin and his books: "An unusual hero in an unusual setting. Quirky, funny and very appealing. His books are a truly beautiful read."

    I have reviewed the first three of Colin Cotterill's books for Euro Crime, and am particularly enamoured of their central character, retired doctor and Laos's only coroner, Siri Paiboun, who is in his 70s: I love his outlook on life, his stoicism and dealings with the repressive regime under which he lives, his eccentric little band of colleagues and friends, and the cases he solves in an increasingly magical and surreal world. Above all, the books are very funny, and symbolise the freedom of the spirit that utter poverty, privation and oppression cannot crush.

    My reviews of the books are here: The Coroner's Lunch, Thirty-Three Teeth, and Disco for the Departed. There are three more books in the series (so far) that I have yet to read: Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick (these two reviews are at Reviewing the Evidence), and The Merry Misogynist.

    Colin is a man of many talents, one of which is that he's a cartoonist, as is evident from his website. He's recently started blogging at International Crime Authors Reality Check, a group effort along with Barbara Nadal, Christopher G. Moore and Matt Beynon Rees. Check out this post of Colin's for the story of the title you will never see.

    My congratulations once more to Colin. I'm delighted for him that he's won this award, and hope it leads more people to discover his novels.

    The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg, translated by Steven T. Murray

    Lackberg The story of Erica, her partner Patrick (the local deputy police chief) and her troubled sister Anna, begun in The Ice Princess, continues in this excellent second novel. Erica is a much more domestic character in The Preacher than she was in the previous novel, as she’s about to have a child and is enjoying a last couple of weeks at home, on sick leave from her job, before the baby is born. She’s blissfully happy with Patrick, who is warm and sensitive, and relieved that Anna has escaped her abusive husband Lucas and seems to be starting a new life with her two young children.
    Events in the small town of Fjallbacka are less tranquil, though, with the discovery of a body of a murdered young woman in a cave on a local farm. This crime is compounded by the fact that the body is lying on top of two skeletons. With Erica’s help, Patrick soon identifies the skeletons as belonging to two young women who went missing 24 years ago. The new victim, however, is much less easy to identify; Patrick and his colleagues have a frustrating time trying to find out who she is – but eventually old-fashioned police work provides the breakthrough that ties together the new crime to the old.
    What’s all this got to do with a preacher, you may be asking? Patrick is convinced that an extended local family is involved in the crime or crimes. When the two girls vanished all those years ago, Gabriel Hult contacted the police to tell them that he’d seen his brother, Johannes, in his car with one of the victims on the night she disappeared. Johannes was the prime suspect until he was found hanged in his barn, presumably having committed suicide in remorse. Gabriel and Johannes are the sons of the titular preacher, Ephraim Hult, who as a young man had made money by travelling round and using the two boys to “heal” gullible people of various ailments. At about the time the lads reached puberty, Ephraim announced that the gift had deserted the boys and retired from his circuit – marrying a rich woman and, when he eventually died, leaving a fortune to taciturn Gabriel, and nothing to the family of the handsome, free-spirited Johannes. Resentments have simmered, and sometimes boiled over, between the two families ever since.
    Most of The Preacher tells the story of the tortured relationships of the Hults across the generations – wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren. Patrick is convinced that the answer to the mystery lies within the family’s secrets, but he can’t make much headway before another young woman goes missing after hitching a lift into town from the local campsite. Conscious that time is ticking away, Patrick is desperate to find the missing young woman while at the same time torn by his responsibilities to Erica and the imminent birth of his own child.
    The Preacher is a great read, and has many things to recommend it. Above all it is a good story, packed with incident and paced revelations. One of its strengths is that most of the events are seen with the humanity of Patrick and Erica – Erica’s increasing concern for her sister and her inability to stand up to various freeloading visitors who want a free summer holiday, as well as her anxieties about motherhood provide a warm background to the very cold, unsentimentally told events of the novel. Patrick is a much more rounded character than he was in The Ice Princess – he’s hard-working, talented as a policeman, has empathy with his victims and has a charming introspection and good nature. Another plus is the depiction of the police colleagues – each character has his or her own foibles and the reader becomes absorbed in the routine and interactions of the cops.
    The Preacher is a good mystery story, very well translated. Although there are too few characters to make the ending a complete surprise, Camilla Lackberg (pictured) keeps all the balls juggling in the air to keep the reader guessing as to the details almost right to the finish. Although the ending of the book is exciting, it is also very bleak, and I found the details of the motivation of the criminal not all that convincing. These are minor disappointments, though. In the main, the book is a great read: as well as tight plotting, the author is particularly strong on her depictions of small-town dynamics, the interactions among the police, and the domestic story of Patrick and Erica, which is left nicely balanced for the next novel in the series. (There are six so far, all of which have been bestsellers in Sweden.)

    I thank Crime Fiction Reader of It’s a Crime blog, and HarperCollins, for my copy of this book.

    Other reviews of The Preacher:

    Sunnie Gill at Euro Crime
    Kimbofo at Reading Matters
    Peter at Nordic Bookblog
    CrimeFiction Reader at It's a Crime…or a mystery

    Steven T. Murray, the excellent translator, writes about the book.

    Vargas wins International Dagger 2009

    I am the last person in the world to have heard about the CWA International Dagger award for 2009, announced last night. Fred Vargas and her translator Sian Reynolds won for The Chalk Circle Man,the most Harry Potter-esque of the shortlist. Because I go to bed at about 9 pm and wake at 6 am, and the internet (social aspect) is not part of my routine until I get home at night, everyone else had reacted to this news long before I received it via an industry email sent to my work account this afternoon. Predictably there is much comment that the winning book is (1) by an author who has already won twice; (2) the only non-Nordic book on the shortlist; and (3) is French. OK I made that last one up – but taking into account last year's winner, Dominique Manotti with Lorraine Connection, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz, with Vargas and Reynolds again for 2007 and 2006 (Wash This Blood Clean from my Hands and The Three Evangelists, respectively), Gallic honours are very high.
    Incidentally, in the context of this award, "international" means "translated into English from their original language, for UK publication". Books originally written in English whatever the nationality of the author qualify for the main annual award, for example Peter Temple deservedly won in 2007.
    Returning to 2009, I believe that points (1), (2) and (3) are irrelevant in deciding the winner, and although the judge's choice wasn't the book I would have selected, I think it is a fine example of contemporary crime fiction (actually it was written quite a few years ago, but never mind – most foreign-language books seem to take a while to have English translations published). Another point to bear in mind is that all the books on the shortlist have flaws - of course, all books have flaws of some kind, but crime fiction does tend to suffer from cliche, formula and incredulity somewhat more than most, and these downsides can be applied at times to all the titles on the shortlist, I think.
    Looking forward, I can already imagine a few strong candidates for next year's shortlist: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg, translated by Steven T. Murray (reviews here at Euro Crime, Reading Matters and Nordic Bookblog); The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, translated by Charlotte Barslund; and Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard, translated by Tiina Nunally. (Strangely, these are all Scandinavian!)
    Some posts about the 2009 International Dagger awards:

    Lying for a Living by Meg Gardiner, MC for the awards evening (lovely pictures).
    Euro Crime blog
    Crime Scraps: Fred Vargas wins again!
    Discussion at Friend Feed.
    Mysteries in Paradise: I am not always right.
    Scandinavian crime fiction: c'est dommage.
    It's a Crime…or a mystery.
    Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.
    Mystery Fanfare.