Books to put on your Christmas list

I keep reading that 1 October, though a Thursday, will be a "super Tuesday" of the book publishing world, with a huge post-DB splurge of predicted best-sellers due for publication (not least Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest – as described in the previous post and others, if you'd like to scroll down for more information about this eagerly awaited novel).

However, life goes on – and as I see from recent Booksellers that December is expected to be a "quiet" month for UK book releases, I thought I'd post a few here so you can plan your holiday reading or even drop a few hints to Santa.

There's massive publicity to support publication of Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by Edgar-winner C. J. Box (Corvus, £12.00 HB), his UK debut. The plot: a couple adopt a baby, only to be told a few months later that the father did not sign away his parental rights, and wants her back – very badly. Not so surprising, perhaps, but a sinister motive emerges.

Other December HB releases include Two Tribes by Charlie Owen (Headline, £12.99); Paying Back Jack by Christopher G. Moore (Atlantic, £12.99); A Murder on London Bridge by Susanna Gregory (Sphere, £19.99); and True Blue by David Baldacci (Macmillan, £17.00) – one of those authors with whom I parted company some time ago despite a few exciting early novels, including his cracking debut Absolute Power (made into a film starring Clint Eastwood, not bad in itself but which ruined the plot and the logic by ducking the shock that happened half-way through the book).

Moving on to paperbacks, more my cup of tea (price- and size-wise), of the December crop I am most looking forward to Death in Oslo by Anne Holt (Sphere, £7.99), one of Norway's best-selling authors. This is the first in a series in which the female US president disappears while on a state visit. I liked the two so-far-translated Johanne Vik novels by this author, and am keen to try this one.

Peter James's Dead Tomorrow is out in PB (Pan, £6.99), a super outing in the Roy Grace series, this one about organ and child-trafficking. "It's a sad tale of desperate needs taken to extremes, really very disturbing", according to The Bookseller. You can see what I thought of it in my review (of the HB).

Other December PBs – well, get the megasellers out of the way first, we have Run for your Life by "James Patterson" & Michael Ledwidge (a strangely dry month for James P, only one out by him in Dec); and Girl Missing by Tess Gerritsen (Bantam, £6.99) – warning, this is her debut crime novel, out in the US in 1994, only now getting a UK publication.

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo (Pan, £6.99) has received excellent reviews in the professional media and on blogs, so I shall certainly be reading this one. It is about an Amish community disrupted by murder with, according to The Bookseller, "an amazing hook, sense of place and a terrific twist. It's for the P. J. Tracy market and had my reader totally gripped right from the start". [Not that I am that keen on P. J. Tracy but I will nevertheless give Sworn to Silence a go, based on reviews I've read.]

A few more: The Taken by the controversially named, pseudonymous Inger Ash Wolfe (Corgi, £6.99), second in the Hazel Micallef series, the first not much liked by me; The Fury by Jason Pinter (Mira, £6.99), fourth in the Henry Parker series and much praised by The Bookseller (I must read The Mark, still on my shelf from ages ago); Dishonour by Helen Black (Avon, £6.99), one of the childcare lawyer Lily Valentine series (the third, I think); Mud, Muck and Dead Things by Ann Granger (Headline, £7.99), first in a new series set in the Cotswolds; Playing with Bones by Kate Ellis (Piatkus, £6.99), second in the Joe Plantagenet series (Kate Ellis also writes the well-established Wesley Peterson series, an attractive mix of contemporary and historical crime, based on the one I've read, Bone Garden); and Bad Penny Blues (Serpent's Tail, £7.99) by Cathi Unsworth, a "1960s tale of brutality, police corruption, perverted aristocrats and murdered prostitutes, with a bit of mystic stuff thrown in."

Lisbeth Salander’s favourite reading material

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I am even more grateful than I realised in advance to the publisher (MacLehose Press) for sending me the perfect weekend distraction of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland. The book is out in the UK and Australia on 1 October, so if you haven't read the first two in this trilogy, you just about have time to rectify that situation before the final volume is out. You certainly need to have read them both before embarking on Hornet's Nest. Like the previous volumes, the opening 100-or-so pages are not an obvious way to begin a novel of this calibre. But persevere  – I am now 200 pages in and at that delicious stage of wanting to race on as fast as possible, yet not read any so that I don't finish the novel. (As, sadly, there will be no more by this author.)

Lisbeth Salander, the scorching protagonist, is in hospital because of her serious, life-threatening injuries incurred at the end of book 2 (The Girl Who Played With Fire). Here's an excerpt from Hornet's Nest (p. 187 of my edition), an exchange between her surgeon and a psychologist at the hospital:

… "I asked her if she wanted something to read, whether I could bring her books of any sort. At first she said no, but later she asked if I had any scientific journals that dealt with genetics and brain research."
"With what?"
"Yes. I told her that there were some popular science books on the subject in our library. She wasn't interested in those. She said she'd read books on the subject before, and she named some standard works that I'd never heard of. She was more interested in pure research in the field."
"Good grief."
"I said that we probably didn't have any more advanced books in the patient library – we have more Philip Marlowe than scientific literature – but that I'd see what I could dig up."
"And did you?"
"I went upstairs and borrowed some copies of Nature magazine and The New England Journal of Medicine. She was pleased and thanked me for taking the trouble."
"But those journals contain mostly scholarly papers and pure research."
"She reads them with obvious interest."

See Euro Crime news for some early reviews of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

More about the Millennium Trilogy, with links to reviews of and articles about the earlier books.

After eighteen years

I spent the morning
Sitting in your chair
Looking at your bookcase
With all the books arranged higgledly-piggeldy
Covered in dust.

I pulled out the bookcase and Hoovered up behind it
Years of dust, fluff, hairclips and beads
A little heart-shaped box with gold and orange shapes all over it.

I put your Charlaine Harris series
Into the empty space I’d made
I wasn’t too keen on you reading those
But now the array of black
With red-lipped woman
Is what I have.

I empty the half-full jar of pesto
That sits in the door of the fridge
I wash it out
And put it in the recycling bin

Nobody to eat it now
Or the breaded fish fillets
In the freezer.
Nobody will eat those
Or the single chicken fillet
Likewise breaded.
Will they keep till December
Or shall I throw them out?

We won’t have to be quiet
In the mornings now
When we get up at 6
And make the tea.
We can even switch on
The dishwasher before we leave the house
In the morning.
That’s looking on the bright side.

The little girl across the road
Scoots along
Her mother walking beside her
The little girl chats
Lost in her fantasy
Telling her mother all the details
Of what’s in her mind.
The mother is half-listening
The other half
Watching to make sure
The girl does not fall off.

You said I could watch your West Wings
and your series 2 of House.
You've left them for me to watch
You said.

You’ve taken your space cup from
The NASA canteen.
You’ve taken your coats
So I have somewhere
To hang mine now.
That’s great.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest has arrived!

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Q: When is it that when a 602-page book arrives in your post, you not only can't wait to start reading it, but wish it were longer?

A: When it is The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third part of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, published by the MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus), and translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. What's it about?

…women who were common soldiers, who bore arms, belonged to regiments, and played their part in battle on the same terms as men. Hardly a war has been waged without women soldiers in the ranks.
It is estimated that some six hundred women served during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men. Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here – or is this history ideologically difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled to deal with women who do not respect gender distinctions, and nowhere is that distinction more sharply drawn than in the question of armed combat.

After reading the first 43 pages, I am pretty sure that Lisbeth Salander is going to buck this trend, simply by taking no notice of it.

The author of The Millennium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson, was Editor in Chief of the anti-racist magazine Expo. He died suddenly in November 2004, at the age of 50, soon after delivering the text of the three novels to his publisher. The first of these, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, won ITV's International Author of the Year Award 2008; the Galaxy British Book Award for crime thriller of the year 2009; Waterstone's book of the year 2009; and the Crimefest Sounds of Crime Award 2009 (audio version). The second novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, received superb reviews upon its UK and (very recent) US publication.

Reg Keeland has translated all three novels; he is also the distinguished translator of other novels including those by favourites of mine Helene Tursten, Karin Alvtegen, Henning Mankell, Leif Davidsen and Camilla Lackberg, some of these in collaboration with Tiina Nunnally, also a very distinguished translator. (See here for more about Reg's work.)

I shall be aiming to read this book and have my review delivered by its official publication date of 1 October. If you don't hear from me between now and then, you will know why.

Petrona posts about Stieg Larsson

Crime Fiction journeys posts about Stieg Larsson, including many more reviews of the first two books.

Publisher website for the Millennium Trilogy.

Favourite literary heroes

The Book Depository blog has provided the shortlist for a competition being run by Mills & Boon and the Times Cheltenham Literary festival to identify "the nation's favourite literary hero" (yuk!). Despite hating the idea of the "nation's" favourite anything, I'm quite intrigued by the concept of a favourite literary hero. Of the ones in the list provided, I would, probably obviously, choose the perfect Mr Darcy (Jane Austen's of course). I haven't read the Sharpe novels, nor the books by Jilly Cooper or Audrey Niffenegger on this list. Of the rest, I'd eliminate Heathcliff as not heroic, Oak as boring, Butler as superficial and Rochester as misogynistic (despite his rehabilitation as portrayed by Toby Stephens in the recent TV adaptation, in the book he was not so nice).

  • Richard Sharpe — Sharpe by Bernard Cornwall
  • Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy — Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Mr Mark Darcy — Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
  • Mr Rochester — Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Rupert Campbell Black — Rutshire Chronicles by Jilly Cooper
  • Rhett Butler — Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Heathcliff — Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Captain Corelli — Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
  • Henry DeTamble — The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Gabriel Oak — Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

    Before the UK's obsession with Mr Darcy and the other Mr Darcy, Guy Perron from The Raj Quartet (a.k.a. Charles Dance) had considerable mass appeal. One of my own favourite literary heroes when I was in my 20s was Mr Knightley (Jane Austen's Emma). (As an aside, why is he always played by someone too young in recent – and upcoming – dramatisations?) I also rather liked Edwin Clayhanger and Doc (Cannery Row). Before that, I adored characters like Robin Hood, Achilles and Sherlock Holmes, who probably would not have been all that nice to know in reality. A sort of modern-day equivalent of these impulsive, rebellious types is the rather appealing Sirius Black (J K Rowling), but look what happened to him. Of course nowadays I suppose I am too old to have literary heroes, and I also don't read "literature" (or Jilly Cooper!). But I do rather like Erlendur (Arnaldur Indridason) because he likes to spend his "spare" time quietly reading a book. (I'd have to draw a veil over some of the local specialities he eats.)

    If you want to vote on the shortlist above, here is where to go. You don't get my options, I'm afraid. Nor any Dickens, Eliott, Tolstoy, et al.

  • Viking preview: The Hammer and the Cross

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    There's an interesting profile of Robert Ferguson, author of a new book The Hammer and The Cross (Penguin Press, November in the UK and Australia) in The Bookseller last week (18 September, p. 19; I think print-only). The author hopes to revive interest in the Vikings, along the lines that has been done over the past few years for the Romans. Apparently, historians currently view the Vikings (who did not keep written records) as having been traders, craftspeople and settlers, in contrast with their traditional popular reputation as warriors, pillagers and associated delights.
    Ferguson thinks the Vikings need rehabilitation as violent, brutal people. His book has taken seven years to write, and looks at the "psychotic rage" of the Viking age from its beginnings (around the beginning of the last millennium) to the early 11th century, when it "fizzled out after mass conversion to Christianity". The book explores settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, the activities of the Swedish Vikings (who went as far south as the Black Sea), and the Vikings in Normandy, Spain and England, complete with "horrific details", apparently. The Vikings "won" in England after 150 years of attacks; Cnut ruled the country for 30 years. "Had he been luckier with his sons, Britain might be a Scandinavian country today."
    The author has lived in Norway for many years, learning the language so he could study the early modern writer Knut Hamsun and write a book about him. He then wrote biographies of Henry Miller and Henrik Ibsen. According to the Bookseller, his "literary background is evident in the book's skilful use of Viking saga and poetry to flesh out the history." Here is an excerpt (not for the faint-hearted):

    Now, with the chamber boarded up, came what was probably the heart of the proceedings. Four or five dogs and two more oxen were slaughtered, as well as fifteen horses that had first been run to exhaustion. The furniture, tools and carriages scattered across the foredeck were bathed in their blood. Stones were then piled over the ship, breaking many of the grave-goods and rendering them unusable. The sights and sounds accompanying such an orgy of blood-letting we might perhaps be able to imagine, the atmosphere conjured by it probably not. As the mourners then set about completing the mound the sight before them must have been eerie and awe-inspiring, the blood-spattered ship with its cargo of dead women seeming to lurch forward across the field in a last attempt to shake off the engulfing wave of dark earth rising behind it. The meadow flowers preserved from this stage of the proceedings were autumnal, showing that the whole process from the opening of the furrow to the closing of the mound must have taken about four months. Clearly at least one of the women had died long before the burial took place.

    The Page Turner on UK TV on 23 September

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    Sometimes, something just catches your eye and you aren't sure why. I was flicking through the various sections of the Saturday Times this morning (a Sunday morning habit) when the phrase The Page Turner jumped out at me. On closer inspection this turns out to be the title of a 2006 film which is showing on Film4 on Wednesday 23 September at 2250 UK time. From the Times's blurb:

    Revenge is a dish served icy cold in the French writer-director Denis Dercoult's taut, psychologically charged Euro-thriller. Catherine Frot plays a successful concert pianist who hires a new assistant (Deborah Francois), not realising that this seductive femme fatale has scores to settle with her from years before (85 min).

    I may have read about this film when it was first released, but if so, I'd forgotten about it – it sounds good even if it is not, as my subconscious brain must have at first thought, about books. The 85 min is also quite appealing, so I might attempt to set up the timer for it (if we even get this channel), because even though it is a short film, it's too late to watch "live" as it were.

    More information:

    La tourneuse de pages at the IMDB

    Film4 review and info about the film

    Observer review by Philip French

    Finished reading: The Disappeared by M. R. Hall

    The disappeared

    I was thinking of writing a review of The Disappeared, M. R. Hall's follow-up to his very successful debut The Coroner. My very kind colleague at Pan Macmillan, James Long, gave me a proof copy of the book, which I've just finished. But I see from the back cover of the proof that the book is not published until January 2010, so my review will have to wait.

    The Disappeared continues the story of Jenny Cooper, Coroner for the Severn Dale district of Bristol in the south-west of England, across the river from Wales. Jenny is in her 40s, divorced from David, an arrogant surgeon. At the moment, their teenage son Ross is living with Jenny, but they aren't getting on too well – Jenny because she's permanently stressed out at work and suffers from chronic anxiety; Ross because he's a typical alienated teenager who wants independence until someone doesn't put a meal on the table when he's hungry. Both mother and son are recovering addicts, so their relationship is highly unstable.

    Jenny has problems at work with her prickly assistant Alison as well as various male authority figures in the police force and at the morgue. The Disappeared is mainly about Jenny's investigation into two missing young Asian students, and the obfuscations she experiences from the police, MI5, the university, lawyers and assorted other people. At the same time, Jenny isn't sure about her relationship with Steve, her neighbour, or how she feels about Alec McAvoy, a maverick, struck-off lawyer who seems to be using his charms to manipulate her investigation.

    The Coroner is just out in paperback in the UK and is doing well in the charts. The author, M. R. Hall, is a screenwriter, producer, and former criminal barrister.

    Post for a silly day: book titles, updated

    When you log into the Typepad dashboard now, you get to see all kinds of things, including a question of the day. Today's is: if you met yourself as a teenager now, what three things would you tell yourself?
    I'll take a raincheck on that, but on a day when despite my best intentions not to mention the DB or TLS words, the internet and blogosphere is overwhelmed by Dan Brown — Waterstones and the Bookseller read and live-Twittered The Lost Symbol overnight and the Guardian (clearly not as dedicated in the line of duty) started the same exercise this morning – I feel like writing something silly.

    So here is a post via Boing Boing which I think is a better challenge than the one posed by Typepad's question of the day. It is "if literary classics had been retitled", or as the source post at Your monkey called more aptly puts it: "Book titles, if they were written today". An example is:

    Then: The Wealth of Nations
    Now:  Invisible Hands: The Mysterious Market Forces That Control Our Lives and How to Profit from Them

    As is so often the case, the best examples are in the comments to both posts. A few favourites:

    Then: Dante's Inferno.
    Now: Dante's Descent into Dummy Loan Felonies —With a Detour for Minimum Security Prison— and Amazing Redemption as an "Ethical Financial Advisor"

    Then: The Art of War
    Now: 13 Chapters of Highly Effective Warfare Techniques (Illustrated)

    Here's two with Dan Brown themes:

    Then: The Double Helix
    Now: The Stuff of Life: The Hunt For the Code Behind Every Living Thing

    Then: The Iliad
    Now: The Trojan Code

    OK – that's enough DB — ed.

    Then: Moby Dick
    Now: Sea Trek 2: The Wrath of Ahab

    Then: The Bible
    Now: The Dangerous Book for Adults. Lessons on Life, Love, War and Sin. Includes dream interpretation and The Bible II – revised edition with all 4 gospels.

    Then : The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
    Now: The Jungle Book by Bernie Madoff/Ben Bernanke

    And finally….

    The Twist Progression

    The Jarndyce Inheritance

    The Havisham Agenda

    Feel free to add your own, here or at your own blog (or both!).

    Reading Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason

    Hypothermia I started reading Hypothermia this morning, and have just finished it. I had to break off at a couple of points during the day to do other things, but equally I had to take any opportunity to return to it and read on until I got to the end. It's a brilliant book. (How could a book by this author with this title not be great?!)

    It's a perfectly told story – an apparently straightforward set of plots that play out in interlocking fashion – and also is a superb picture of the protagonist's internal emotional landscape through which events are filtered. Erlendur's decades-long musings on the effects of loss colour his thoughts and actions to this day. I identify with him more than any other character in fiction, as his age (and hence the way in which he responds to the world and current events) and preoccupations are so similar to my own.

    But that identification apart, this is a wonderful book, relying entirely on good storytelling and authorial insight, and not at all on thrills, technology, special effects or other machinations. Yet it is never less than tense or compelling. When the last page is turned, one is left with a sense of having really experienced life in the book's setting in Iceland; of having learned something about human nature and relationship dynamics; but above all of having read a great story straight from the land of the imagination. 

    My review is being drafted and in due course will be submitted to Euro Crime.

    Publisher description: One cold autumn night, a woman is found hanging from a beam in her summer cottage by Lake Thingvellir. At first sight it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide; the woman, Maria, had never recovered from the loss of her mother two years earlier and had a history of depression. But when Karen, the friend who found her body, approaches Erlendur and gives him the tape of a seance that Maria had attended, his curiosity is aroused. Driven by a need to find answers that even he does not fully understand, Erlendur embarks on an unofficial investigation to find out why the woman's life ended in such an abrupt and tragic manner. At the same time he is haunted by the unresolved cases of two young people who went missing thirty years before, and, inevitably, his discoveries raise ghosts from his own past.
    About the Author: ARNALDUR INDRIETHASON worked for many years as a journalist and critic before he began writing novels. Outside Iceland, he is best known for his crime novels featuring Erlendur and Sigurdur Oli, which are consistent bestsellers across Europe. The series has won numerous awards, including the Nordic Glass Key and the CWA Gold Dagger. His most recent novel is Arctic Chill. (Hypothermia, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published in the UK in October 2009).

    Reviews of Indridason's previous Erlendur books.