Digital photography and Italian lessons

My ex-colleague Oliver Morton recently invited me to join the question-and-answer service Aardvark. It seems like a good idea – Oliver told Aardvark that he trusted my knowledge of detective fiction and science (thanks, Oliver!) and I've signed up via Facebook, but Aardvark seems to be an independent application. I have also invited a few friends to join. (I think you can join my network directly by going here.) I can now ask people questions using keywords, and if anyone asks Aardvark a question using whatever keywords I told it I knew about, people can ask me questions – all via Aardvark-mediated DM (integrated with whatever DM system you currently use, or via email if you don't use DM, or via Twitter). You can limit your Q/A interactions to people in your Aardvark network or widen them to all Aardvark users.

So, I've asked the two questions most pressing on my mind just now, but it occurs to me that I could also ask the same questions here, on my blog, and I might also get some answers! So, here goes:

(1) Does anyone know of a London-based digital photography course for teens over the summer holidays, specifically during the last two weeks of August?

(2) Does anyone know of a nice tutor of Italian, who would teach a teenage beginner interested in studying for a GCSE – say for the next couple of years?

Book review: Genesis by Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter’s Skin Privilege (Beyond Reach in the US), sixth in the Grant county series featuring Sarah Linton, ended with a shock. The author followed the book with Fractured, set in the same state but about different characters – mainly Special Agent Will Trent and police detective Faith Mitchell. Slaughter’s latest novel, Genesis (Publisher: Century; US title, Undone) combines these series by introducing these characters to each other.
   Since we last encountered her, Sarah has left her previous job as Grant county coroner, sold her paediatrics practice, and is now working crazy hours in Grady hospital ER. An elderly couple driving home hit what they first think is a deer leaping out into the road, but soon realise that they have, in fact, collided with a young woman. Other motorists stop to help and the traumatised victim is taken to hospital, to be treated by Sarah. It is immediately apparent that the patient has been brutally tortured, including being blinded, and has been starved for many days. As investigators of the crime, Will and Faith meet Sarah – who rapidly finds herself with another, unexpected patient – Faith.
   The main plot of the book concerns Will and Faith’s attempts to discover who was responsible for the appalling ordeal that “Anna”, as they think the woman is called, has suffered – Will discovers the cave in the woods where she and another woman were held, and realises the adversary is a very sick and dangerous person. At the same time, he and Faith have to cope with interdepartmental rivalries which compromise their ability to do their job.
   Anna herself is drifting in and out of consciousness, but after a couple of days is able to ask Sarah what has become of her baby son. Will and Faith rush to Anna’s apartment, which turns out to be the scene of another crime – one which Angie, Will’s estranged wife, and her low-life contacts have previously tipped him off about but which he has ignored in his attempts to escape Angie’s influence.
   In the meantime, a woman disappears from a supermarket car park, leaving her six-year-old son terrified in the back of her car. The detectives realise that their only chance of finding the woman is to uncover what happened to Anna, but Anna is not interested in helping. Another woman disappears, and all the victims seem to be connected by their membership of an online anorexia group.
   Despite these and other events, the book is told at an extremely slow pace, focusing on the thoughts and insecurities of the three main characters as they wrestle with their various inadequacies (not revealed here because of spoilers). One has a strange sense reading the novel that events are going on somewhere else while Will, Faith and Sarah ruminate and agonise over their various personal dilemmas. Another annoying aspect of this writing style is that nothing much happens in the characters' personal lives between the start and the end of each book – Sarah for example spends the whole book wondering whether or not to read a letter; Will's dyslexia is (constantly) overdramatically presented; a look between two characters is picked over rather than going anywhere; and we know far too much about Faith’s angst-ridden reactions to her own domestic/personal situation with no resolution or direction to move things along. The most dynamic, and sharply individual, character is Amanda, Faith and Will’s boss, who always drives the plot forward whenever she appears– introspection is not her style and all the scenes in which she appears are fresh, crisp and provide direction.
   The book picks up towards the end as Will finally interviews a missing witness and begins to put all the pieces together. The climax is exciting, but there are quite a few holes in the plot, and of course in the interests of tension Will and Faith separately break several “detective 101” rules that any seasoned reader of crime fiction will realise way in advance mean big trouble, and so are merely irritating rather than adding to the suspense.
   My main problem with this book is its obsession with its sick subject matter. I don’t mind reading strong stuff, but to my mind there isn’t enough detection, pace or plot to compensate for too many gratuitously disgusting details, sometimes going as far as “torture porn” and pointless sensationalism. Karin Slaughter is a talented author – Triptych is right up there with the best thrillers currently being written, being a cracking and involving story. She needs to drop the clunky Patricia Cornwell/Thomas Harris-like direction she seems to be moving into (agonising and gruesome), and stick to what she does best, which is to write about a group of professionals, police and medical, coping with some of the stresses and adventures of modern low life.

Read the first chapter of Genesis free online.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book.

Sunday Salon: Reinventing plots

TSSbadge3 As well as featuring 12 crime fiction novels, the current issue of Waterstones Quarterly contains an interview with Sarah Waters about her life and work, especially her latest book The Little Stranger. I found a paragraph about influences on this novel extraordinary for two reasons:

"That's right" [says Waters]. "I'd been thinking a lot about Brideshead and other country-house novels. One in particular actually: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. It's about a working class girl who's abducted by a mother and daughter living in an isolated house. It's brilliant in lots of ways, but repellent: the narrator's sympathies are completely with the middle-class people and the girl is made a repository for all this class loathing. At first I wanted to do a rewrite of it, but I worried that Tey's estate might not be happy. So I decided to find another way to explore that landscape."

First, has Waters actually read the book? Of course she must have done, but anyone who has read it will surely agree that her encapsulation of the plot is bizarre.

Second, the idea of Tey's novel as a ruthless salvo in the class war had not occurred to me before. It is an interesting way to look at it. Not a perspective with which I agree, but Sarah Waters has certainly provided a stimulating, if jarring, interpretation.

I thought I might try the Sarah Waters treatment on a couple of classics.

Hamlet: a middle-aged couple is driven to distraction by a hooligan they selflessly adopted despite his ASBO. The authorities' caring attempts to save the wayward boy from his worst excesses via secret surveillance and monitoring by a female social worker are viciously repelled.

Lord of the Flies: in an over-the-top show of force, the military callously destroy the innocent game of a group of unarmed boys; the reader is encouraged to root for the oppressors, endorsing the terrible repression so prevalent in British society at that time and providing a vote for juntas worldwide.

Please feel free to try this approach yourself on your own favourites.

The return of Harry

Harry-Potter-and-the-Half-001 From Random Jottings: "as I stood in the check out queue there was at least one copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in each trolley. In front of me stood a gentleman with four copies and I could not resist asking him, Why Four? "Well, there is one each for the kids and one each for the wife and me and we are going to have a really great weekend as peace will reign in our house while we all read" ".


Four poems written by 19-year-old Daniel Radcliffe have appeared in an underground fashion magazine under the pen-name of Jacob Gershon. The collection was published in November 2007 in Rubbish magazine, an annual publication with a circulation of 3,000 which describes itself as "a playful platform for fashionable people". This, and many other fascinating details, are revealed in The Guardian.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince: Warner Brothers official site.

Freemium as a bird

I like this comment by Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired magazine and author of books The Long Tail and the two-day-old, controversial Free, in response to some of the recent attacks on him and his latest project:

"I may have a somewhat rosy-tinted view of journalists as being largely drawn by intellectual curiosity, but they are also people, and they are people in the midst of a once- in-a-lifetime industry collapse. How the media industry has to reform is not yet clear. I don’t have answers for them."

Chris was interviewed by PW for an article about the stormy reception the book has received – mainly by people who haven't read it or who can't be bothered to work out his argument before reacting against it. (The unfortunate accidental lack of attribution of some Wikipedia passages didn't exactly add to the book's popularity.) Me, I'm well-disposed towards anything Chris writes anyway as he's always intelligent and original (he's an ex-colleague of mine from long ago when he was a News reporter at Nature, and has also done a distinguished stint at The Economist), but the fact that Malcolm Gladwell slated the book in a prominent review makes me think it probably is rather good.

PW interview with Chris Anderson on the meaning of Free.

The Long Tail blog, which has lots of posts about the book and how it is "free" (and why).

@chr1sa on Twitter.

Useful and useless promotions

Among my emails today was one from my gas supplier, about the London postal strike. The email informed me that this strike was expected to cause major disruption, and would I therefore like to rest more assured and manage my account with them online? (Which I already do, and have done for years.) One person's sorrow is another's opportunity – or in this case, one organisation's sorrow is another organisation's opportunity to show both its rapaciousness and its incompetence. Maybe next time there is a burst main in my area, the Royal Mail will send a person on a bike to my house with a "Post Office Brand Gas Cylinder", compete with compatible (or possibly incompatible) attachments to my supply pipes.

Returning to reality, I was quite impressed by Waterstone's latest crime-fiction promotion, Fresh Blood. In their print magazine and online, they present short biographies and minireviews of books (at "up to 40 per cent off") by 12 authors – they call them "best" and "new" which is not always true, but they are not obvious, lazy choices – they are (of the ones I have read) rather classy selections. They include novels by Brian McGilloway, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, S. J. Bolton, Johan Theorin, Karen Campbell, Nicola Upson and Camilla Lackberg. I've enjoyed novels by all these authors, so I will certainly aim to read books by the remaining five  – Mark Pearson, Caro Ramsey, David Levien, Shona McLean and R. N. Morris. There, good marketing works! (Gas company, please note.)

By the way, Waterstones is also offering a few lucky readers the chance of a free advance copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final part of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Triology (published by Quercus), out in the UK in October. Pre-order the book at Waterstones before 6 August, fill out a form including your card number, sign a confidentiality agreement ;-), and you could be one of five lucky winners of a free pre-publication copy of the book. Further details here.

Possibly my last word on the topic before the International Dagger winner is announced

Now that I have read all the books on the shortlist for the International Dagger award 2009, the question on everyone's mind is "am I sticking to my earlier choice of winner?" That earlier choice was made exactly one month ago today, on the basis of having read four of the six novels.

The books, with links to my reviews, are:

Karin Alvtegen – Shadow (translated by McKinley Burnett)
Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Played With Fire (translated by Reg Keeland)
Johan Theorin – Echoes From The Dead (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Fred Vargas – The Chalk Circle Man (translated by Sian Reynolds)
Arnaldur Indridason – Arctic Chill (translated by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb)
Jo Nesbo – The Redeemer (translated by Don Bartlett)

Two of the novels are exciting thrillers – Redeemer and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Only one of them, Shadow, is not a police procedural, in whole or part. They are all very sad -each of them facing up to the cruelties of human nature. Two of them, Shadow and Echoes from the Dead, are explicitly about the lasting effects of the Second World War on the present, and one, The Redeemer, has its roots in the horrors of more recent conflicts in the Balkans. Arctic Chill is an indictment of racism and, in common with The Redeemer, condemns the attitudes of comfortable cultures on those less fortunate. The Chalk Circle Man is an oddity – not necessarily because it is French whereas the other books here are Swedish, Norwegian or Icelandic- but because it is a fable. Even so, what gives it its heart is the same as the core appeal of the other books – its identity with the weak, the old, the abandoned child, the immigrant, those whom society would ignore.

All the books share one feature in common – they are all superbly translated by people who have real empathy with the text and seem to genuinely interpret the intention of the author, as well as the actual words. Perhaps it goes without saying that they all have a committment to showing the truth – either via a detective or via one or more of the characters who aren't formally investigators, but who also are the conscience of the events that are described. The books all also share the accolade of being impossible to stop once you start. You live with these books while you are reading them, and for long afterwards.

All, then, are worthy winners. None of these books is noticeably "better" than the others. All these books have a heart, and speak for those who don't usually have a voice: children, women, the poor, the bereaved, the old, the forgotten. For me, the emotion evoked by the sadness of Shadow and Julia's enduring grief in Echoes from the Dead possibly lift these two books onto a higher plane. But these are personal reactions from one who recognises the suffering. Arctic Chill is an utterly sympathetic portrait of depression and of the awareness of life's pragmatic disappointments. The Girl Who Played with Fire is a sprawling, occasionally flawed novel of immense heart and passion, burning with revenge in a cold, fierce heat. The Chalk Circle Man is a magical, glassy, brittle affair, told with baroque detail and with a splinter of ice in its heart. Echoes from the Dead identifies not only with the impossible grief of a mother who has lost her child and has no subsequent engagement with life, but is also an elegy of old age – the enforced patience, the slow death of faculties physical and mental. Shadow is Chekhovian in its unblinking portrayal of lives, old and young, destroyed by ambition – and Shakesperian in the playing out of the roles of the characters.

All of the books except Shadow are series. The Chalk Circle Man and Echoes from the Dead are the first in their respective series (Echoes from the Dead is a debut with the second yet to be translated; The Chalk Circle Man has been translated long after several later installments). The Redeemer and Arctic Chill are relatively late entries, and probably suffer slightly if you haven't read the earlier volumes. The Girl Who Played with Fire is second in a posthumous triology and definitely requires a previous reading of the first volume.

My main advice is to read all six books. All of them transcend the mere labelling of genre. All of them present characters who live outside the page, and provide an involving, exciting plot. All of them will involve you, will make you laugh at times and make you feel sadness, anger and despair. None of them should be consigned to a genre. It's a very worthy list indeed: I commend them all.

The winners will be announced next week, on 15 July.

A selection of posts and polls about the International Dagger 2009 award.


Sunday Salon: The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

The Chalk Circle Man
By Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds.

So I come to the last book I have to read that is on the shortlist for the 2009 International Dagger award. It’s French, and the first in the Adamsberg series that has already won Fred Vargas this award for two years in succession (2006 and 2007).
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has been, until the start of this novel, a provincial police inspector of great unconventionality but with an unusually high success rate in solving cases. Therefore, as the novel opens, he’s recently promoted to commissioner in the Parisian force, and we see his eccentricities through the eyes of his close colleague, Inspector Danglard – himself a single parent of two sets of twins and additionally looking after a fifth child belonging to but abandoned by his ex-wife and her lover. Adamsberg has an instinctive, bordering on supernatural, style, as is shown by an initial vignette in which he correctly identifies the criminal in a case long before any evidence is found to force a confession from the suspect.
Despite the internal and external strangenesses of the sensual Adamsberg and the lugubrious Danglard, the story told in The Chalk Circle Man is at its heart a straightforward police procedural. Someone is drawing chalk circles on the Parisian streets at night, leaving strange objects in their centres. Adamsberg’s forebodings about the person behind this activity are soon borne out when a murdered body is found inside one of the circles. Despite intensive police activity, other murders follow, at different parts of the city.
An eccentric range of suspects is assembled even before the first body is found. An academic whose research speciality is deep-sea fish, Mathilde, has a hobby of following people round the city. One of these characters, a beautiful blind man called Paul Reyer, has disappeared and Mathilde, professing to be worried, reports him as missing to the police. She is ignored by all but Adamsberg, who rapidly finds the “missing” man (not missing at all). Soon, Reyer and another wanderer on the streets, an elderly woman called Clemence, are lodging with Mathilde in her fish-obsessed house. Clemence is addicted to answering lonely-hearts adverts, but is perpetually disappointed because each time she arranges to meet someone, he immediately abandons the old woman on sight.
How these three oddballs are going to become involved in the chalk circle story is not clear – but involved they are, not only with the mystery but also, in Mathilde’s case, with Adamsberg in a much more personal sense. As events reach their climax, the author plays fair with her readers and provides a satisfying, if sad, solution to the bizarre conundrum. At the same time, the author has piqued the reader's interest in the affectionate relationship (mainly unspoken) between Adamserg and Danglard, two men of very different outlook, to be explored further in future novels.
Much has been written about Vargas's alternative universe. I see her characters as acting like children in adult’s bodies. This novel is a fable, in which people live out their impulses, creative or destructive, without thought of consequence. Nobody plans for the future, living in the existential present. Yet the motivation of the murderer is cold and logically carried out – and would pass muster in a novel firmly rooted in pedestrian reality.
The book is peppered with acute social observations; cynical yet funny barbs at the media and  modern society (the excerpts from the newspaper reports of the chalk circles are hilarious); and myriad tiny delights – Mathilde’s plan to spend a day following a man who is interested in the mythical rotation of sunflower stems, Clemence’s pointed teeth for which Mathilde likes to provide zoological comparisons, or little exchanges between Adamsberg and Danglard about Byzantium and the emperor Justinian (actually highly relevant to the mystery). If the reader is prepared to take this world as it is, then the book is very satisfying. Its eccentricities are charming (though the author is ruthless within her creation, which is no fairy tale) – they are bound up in the pace and focus of the novel, rather than distracting the reader from these essentials.

Thanks to Karen Meek of Euro Crime for my proof copy of the book.

Fred Vargas at Euro Crime: a listing of all the books translated into English, in order, with links to reviews.

Crime Scraps discusses The Chalk Circle Man and order of translations of the Vargas books, in a series of posts.

L A Times: Sarah Weinman discusses Fred Vargas's novels and the order in which they have been translated.

Other reviews of The Chalk Circle Man at:

Euro Crime by Fiona Walker

Mysteries in Paradise by Kerrie

The Independent by Jane Jakeman

The Guardian (brief) by Laura Wilson

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett

In the cold of winter in Oslo, Harry Hole is investigating the case of a young drug addict who has apparently committed suicide among the containers in a shipyard. He's undecided about his future with the police force: although he has achieved closure concerning the death of his colleague (described in three previous novels: The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Devil's Star), the reverberations have left him even more outside the mainstream than before. His lover Rakel has rejected him in favour of a careerist doctor. What's more, his sympathetic boss, Bjarne Moller, has retired and been replaced by a stickler for discipline, Gunnar Hagan. It isn't long before Harry and his new boss are rubbing each other up the wrong way, as Hagan reacts against Harry's intuitive and freewheeling approach (no doubt he would be shocked at Harry's failure ever to have had business cards printed).
Harry is nothing if not a good detective, though, and rapidly unearths the facts behind the young man's death which his younger, slicker colleagues have overlooked. His method of solving the case proves critical to the climax of the next investigation, which takes up the bulk of the book.
An assassin from Vukovar is in Oslo, whose target is a member of the Salvation Army. We are told the life story of the assassin, known as the Little Redeemer for his actions in the terrible wars during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. We also learn a great amount about the workings of the Norwegian branch of the Salvation Army, the raging jealousies and relationship traumas of its younger members, and the shady business dealings concerning the lucrative properties that the Army owns in Oslo. I admired the fact that the author managed to keep me interested in the story of the Little Redeemer, because the 'disaffected assassin' theme is one that crops up quite often in thrillers and tends to create a sense of deja vu.(For an example of an excellent book in this subgenre, I highly recommend The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidson.)
I was less interested in the Salvation Army characters, finding most of them (the men, certainly) either unsympathetic or not well-drawn, or both. I would prefer to have read more about Harry, his personal life and his colleagues. As the plot thickens – and it is a very fast-moving, exciting plot – there are a couple of rather gruesome set-pieces, as well as another tragedy that strikes the Oslo police team. Harry himself presses on with the investigation, finding himself drawn to one of the Army members, which of course distracts him from his pursuit of the Redeemer. As I've found previously with this author, the final disentangling of who hired the assassin and why does really stretch credulity – however, the story of the Redeemer and his circumstances are, perhaps because more simple, rather moving, and I was pleased by Harry's choices in the end-game.
Although you don't need to have read the earlier books in the series to enjoy The Redeemer, I think you'll enjoy it a lot more if you have done. There are nuances running throughout the text, for example Harry's relationship with watches and with his retired ex-boss, that won't make much sense in isolation of the previous novels. I think the Harry Hole books comprise one of the top police-procedural series being written today. Although the books have flaws, they are flaws of ambition – the plots are very clever, and if perhaps they are sometimes a bit too clever, that's better than the opposite. These novels are thoughtful, intelligent, exciting and above all, have a great central character.

'You're moving into a difficult area for theologians, Hole. Are you a Christian?'
'No. I'm a detective. I believe in proof.'

I recommend reading all the books – in the right order. (English readers won't have been able to read the first two chronological novels in the series, which have not yet been translated, but the next one, The Snowman, will be out in English fairly soon, and follows directly on from The Redeemer.)

See yesterday's post for other reviews of the book, and links to further discussion about Nesbo's novels.

Jo Nesbo at Euro Crime: lists the books so far translated into English (excellently, all by Don Bartlett), with links to reviews.

Euro Crime news about forthcoming novels by Nesbo .

Crime Scraps: Is Jo Nesbo Europe's top crime writer?

Some books by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett

I have been having a bit of a Jo Nesbo fest recently, as part of a possibly doomed attempt to read all the shortlisted novels for the Crime Writers' Association international dagger award before the winner is announced in about a week's time. I had read four of the six books when the shortlist was announced, which admittedly helps a lot.

Although I had not read Jo Nesbo's The Redeemer, I won it at Crime Fest, so had a copy to hand. Life is not that simple, though. Nesbo's Harry Hole series is one of many to be translated into English out of chronological order – and in this particular case, it's an egregious crime because the impact of the "trilogy within the series" (The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Devil's Star) is ruined if you do what I did and read the third one first, followed by the first one. The Redeemer follows on from this "trilogy".

Nothing for it, then, but to buy Nemesis and read that first. And a gripping read it is, too. The character of the police detective, Harry Hole, previously rather patchy and chaotic, began to gel in my mind. I'm sure he looks exactly like Don Bartlett, the excellent translator of the series (though Don has more hair than Harry). Nemesis turns out to be a very exciting book. Harry is mourning the death of a colleague and has his suspicions (actually, convictions) of who is the perpetrator. However, after six months he has failed to find any evidence so has agreed with his boss to go back to his usual duties. His girlfriend Rakel and her son Oleg are in Russia, where Rakel is petitioning the courts for custody of Oleg. While she's away, Harry bumps into Anna, a woman with whom he had a brief fling some years previously. Anna is now an artist of sorts, and has created a strange triptych of paintings surrounding a lighted statue – Nemesis. Harry is soon investigating two crimes, in an intensely plotted and detailed narrative (you need to read every paragraph carefully to spot all the clues). There are some real implausibilities in the plot when the ending is finally revealed – not least the perpetrator of both the crime and the way in which Harry is manipulated in his attempts to solve it – but I didn't mind because by then I was won over to Harry: he's a flawed, angst-ridden, funny alcoholic – inevitably a maverick but one who in the main uses his brain and wit rather than his fists to demonstrate his independence.

I then had to re-read The Devil's Star, of course, as in the two or three years or so since I read it previously I had forgotten most of the details. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed it – due in no large part to the excellent translation (Don Bartlett again) and the strange coincidence of identity (in my mind) between the translator and the character of Harry. Reading this book after the previous two made an extraordinary difference – it was a far more rounded, and moving, experience this time around, as Harry returns to his pursuit of the person who he believes murdered his colleague, while at the same time investigating a series of ritualised killings that seem to be related. The characters and their relationships are one of the main strengths of the book, and the convolutions of the plot are so intriguing that you have to keep reading on, driven to know how it is all going to work out. The solution to the crime is again somewhat weak, but I think more believable than the outcomes to the cases in The Redbreast and Nemesis (the latter is particularly daft).

Finally, I was ready to read The Redeemer – but given the length of this post, I'll return to that another time. If you can't wait until then, you can read reviews of the book at Crime Scraps, The Independent, Nordic Book Blog, Mysteries in Paradise, International Noir Fiction and Reviewing the Evidence. 

Crime Scraps on "Keeping Harry in Order" (a very useful post!)

Michael Walters on the Harry Hole novels.

Crime Scraps: notes from Nesbo.

Don Bartlett's website.