Nine Dragons (Connelly) and Doors Open (Rankin)

Many of us go through reading highs or lows, in which every book seems to be spot-on or the opposite. I've been going through a low recently – starting and putting down three books after struggling to maintain interest in the one before that. To break the spell I went out and paid for the new Michael Connelly, Nine Dragons, in hardback. I read it this week, followed by Ian Rankin's Doors Open (kindly sent to me by Pat of Mysterious Yarns, who reviewed it for Euro Crime). Although I did read both these books from beginning to end, I can't summon up enough enthusiasm to write a proper review of them, so will just make a few remarks here.

Nine Dragons is a typical Michael Connelly – he is a superb author at the top of his game, deeply embedded in his main character (Harry Bosch), his mission (to stand up for the dead) and his world (LA, with whom Connelly and Bosch are tightly integrated). If you like Connelly's novels, you'll like this one, it is well up to standard. As well as a tight plot with a twist, Bosch is taken out of LA for 39 hours in the middle of the book, when most of the (very fast and furious) action happens. It's interesting to read about Harry when he's a fish out of water; we see him much more objectively, as rather an objectionable character in this part of the book, as his driven, obsessive and blinkered personality dominate everything and everyone, sometimes to destructive effect. One very much has the sense in Nine Dragons, as in The Scarecrow before it, that the author is setting the scene for what will happen after Bosch's imminent mandatory retirement from the LAPD. By the end of Nine Dragons, a couple of characters have been removed from the scene so that Bosch, McEvoy (an ex-journalist), Rachel Walling (FBI agent) and Mickey Haller (the "Lincoln lawyer" who has more than one connection to Bosch's personal life) can form some kind of partnership….well, that's my theory.

Doors Open by Ian Rankin is a heist story about an art theft. It's mildly diverting, particularly in the second half after the heist actually takes place (I usually find the planning stages of these crime "capers" rather tedious). For me, the motivation of the "criminals" is always unconvincing, as is the portrait of the gang boss (cloned from Big Ger of the Rebus series). Rebus himself is alluded to, not by name, as an aside in the middle of the book. There's lots of neat little touches in this novel, particularly many nods to the author's knowledge of art and music, but it doesn't add up to much of a whole. It passes the time in a pleasant enough fashion but I can't say that I was gripped by it. The behaviour of the characters became less and less likely, a few "cheats" are thrown in (the reader not being told about certain events), and the wrap-up plus outcome for the "gang" was somewhat flat, silly even.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer in the Bookseller

One advantage of the various local postal strikes in London is that the Bookseller is arriving late, so I am reading it in a less rushed fashion and focusing on bits of it I might usually skim over in my weekday haste. (OK, this is a stretch of a good reason for a postal strike or two, but I am trying to be positive.)

One such article in last week's (9 October, p. 23) issue is a profile of an author of a book that looks intriguing. Belinda Bauer, author of Blacklands (hmm, lots of Bs there – why didn't I think of that for my last crime-fiction alphabet post?), was highly commended by the CWA in the debut dagger category this year. Ms Bauer says that she did not set out to write a crime novel: "to me a crime novel is Val McDermid or Sue Grafton or Michael Connelly, where there is a crime. And in my book the crime had taken place many years before, and it was the aftermath of the crime that I was dealing with….."

The book, published in the UK by Transworld (Bantam Press) in January of this year according to the Bookseller, 2010 according to everyone else, is the story of a 12-year-old boy who lives with his mother and nan. His uncle had disappeared when aged 11 – believed to have been murdered and buried on Exmoor. The boy is searching for his uncle's body to "heal his fractured family"……It's the first of a trilogy, apparently.

Ms Bauer trained as a journalist and worked as a reporter for a news agency – good training for novel writing. She wrote a screenplay in the evenings, and fortuitously entered, and won, the Carl Foreman Award. The prize was to study screenwriting at California State University, where she found it empowering to be "in a town where when you said you wanted to be a screenwriter nobody laughed in your face". (What a sad comment on English life.) Returning to Cardiff having written a screenplay "Happy Now", made into a film starring Ioan Gruffudd but never released, she eventually wrote Blacklands in just 4 months.

Detectives in novels and on screen

I am sure many other people will have read the article in today's (13 October) Times, in which P. D. James and Ruth Rendell (who also writes under the name of Barbara Vine) discuss their lack of regard for the TV adaptations of their novels. They weren't too keen on their respective leading detectives – Baroness James says that Dalgliesh does not have a moustache (you never see a senior detective with one, according to her), and Barnoness Rendell that Wexford was ugly (she thinks George Baker too handsome). I did see a few of these adaptations years ago, and I suppose I must agree. I invariably prefer books to TV or film adaptations, so have just learnt to see them as completely different entities.

If I were an author of a series, I'd find it hard to continue once actors were firmly established as my characters. As a reader, it is bad enough – can one read a Henning Mankell now without visualising Ken Branagh as Wallander? Whatever one may think of Ken Branagh in that part, he is not the books' Wallander. Everyone liked John Thaw as Morse – I was already a fan of Colin Dexter's books long before the TV series was dreamed up – but even though I did not see all that many of them, it is impossible to detach Morse from John Thaw in my mind.

The best part of the Times article, for me, is this: "Baroness James said that she had given up trying to make sense of changes made to her stories when they were adapted for television. “I don’t read a script of adaptations because I know I’m not going to like it. They do things sometimes that are nonsensical.”
Dame Ruth said that her stories were always augmented with irrelevant action sequences. “They put a car chase in all of mine. There’s no reason for a car chase but everyone likes one. In the end you don’t care.” "

Absolutely. Fewer car chases and more plot, please (ideally, a plot that actually makes sense). I doubt this will ever happen. But it is why I tend not to watch detective programmes (or anything else) on TV -  because it is always obvious what is going to happen after the first few minutes. One exception to this rule was Cracker, which started out being about a truly unpleasant person (Cracker, played by Robbie Coltraine) and some gritty police procedural, headed up by Christopher Ecclestone. He (Ecclestone) soon jumped ship, and before you knew it, Cracker had morphed into a "loveable old rogue" and I switched off. David Jason as Frost was (is?) similar: the character on TV had very little connection with the scurrilous, politically incorrect man in the books – superficially wisecracking with very off-colour humour, bursting with obsessive energy, but a very sad, lonely person at some level. Again, I switched off after a few episodes. Not because I'm a purist about differences between page and screen, but because the screen versions were boring in their predictability and sameness to each other (both within and across series).

Last words to the Baronesses: "Dame Ruth, who has written 21 Wexford books, said that she had no creative control over television adaptations but that they were not important to her. “I think that people expect us to be far more concerned with our television productions than we are. You can say that television makes you famous and sells your books but you don’t care very much about it.” "

Alphabet in crime fiction: Desmond Bagley

B This is my second entry in Kerrie's alphabet meme.
During the 1970s, I was an avid reader of authors like Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley. I liked Desmond Bagley’s thrillers so much that I actually kept a couple of my favourites from all those years ago – Fontana paperbacks priced at 85 p each.
It’s quite amusing looking at these titles now. One is called Running Blind, and the blurb reads:
The tip of the iceberg…. “It’ll be simple”, they said at the Department. “You’ll just be a messenger boy.” But to Alan Stewart, on a deserted road in Iceland with a murdered man at his feet, it looks anything but simple.
The cover of my edition is a dark photograph of a handsome looking actor with a flash stating “now a BBC TV serial”. I am not sure whether I ever watched it, we did not have a TV in those days and I don’t remember it, but according to the back cover, the hero is played by Stuart Wilson, and the serial was produced by Bob McIntosh for BBC Scotland.

My other favourite, I think the favourite, The Enemy, I recall because it was a scientific thriller about genetics, and the plot depended on knowing the DNA code. I don’t remember any other details about it (apart from liking it so much I read it about three times). The blurb reads:
The enemy strikes and strikes again, as George Ashton flees for his life after an acid attack on his daughter. Who is his enemy? Only Malcolm Jaggard, his future son-in-law, can guess – when, as a government agent, he sees Ashton’s secret file.
In a desperate manhunt Jaggard outwits the KGB and stalks Ashton to the silent and wintry forests of Sweden….

Iceland? Sweden? I detect a bit of a foreshadowing of my later reading habits here!

Will you be buying the international Kindle?

With the announcement by Jeff Bezos of Amazon that the Kindle is now available to order from many countries outside the US, the UK included, for delivery from 19 October, I thought I'd attempt to weigh up the pros and cons.

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, you can't actually buy the Kindle in other countries, you have to order it via the US site (though you won't be charged for shipping) and therefore there are some questions about the wireless access – in effect, this seems to be via US wireless networks (via the deals Amazon has with service providers there) not UK networks. What I'm not sure about is the effect this will have on costs to the UK user long-term, after Amazon does introduce a UK-centric Kindle (later this year apparently).

As the big advantage, or rather selling-point, of the Kindle compared with currently available e-readers eg the Sony is the wireless access, I think this point is worth anyone looking into, before purchasing. The Sony and other e-readers need to be plugged into a PC before e-books can be bought and downloaded.

I advise checking into pricing – I think that Amazon will be charging more for an e-download on its international Kindle than the amount charged by existing readers available in the UK (certainly Amazon will charge more to international users than it charges to US Kindle users – eg $11.99-13.99 for a typical bestseller to international users compared with $9.99 to US users). Also, of course, an e-reader like the Sony is cheaper to buy than a Kindle, which is $279 for the international version.

Another factor to bear in mind is availability of books. Sony uses the e-pub format which is the nearest there is to a universal standard among British publishers. Amazon, on the other hand, has not completed its negotiations with publishers on rights and formats before announcing the Kindle's wider availability, so although many have signed up, others have not – notably Random House, OUP and PanMacmillan. Therefore, Kindle users may have a while to wait before being able to download any book they want, even if it is available in e-format. Nevertheless, apparently 200,000 titles are available via Kindle so the owner is not exactly stuck for choice.

In sum – e-readers have not taken off hugely in the UK, not least because of the lack of wireless access. It seems to me that this first-generation Kindle (for non-US users) is perhaps a premature investment. If you are in the UK, it might be better to buy a reader like the Sony or similar, which apparently offers a nice reading experience, even though it doesn't have the wireless access; or wait for the UK-centric Kindle which will be available fairly soon; or hang on for the Nirvana of the single device (phone, internet, e-reader, email and music). From what I read, the most likely winner in that game will be Apple, not Amazon or Sony, who may find themselves having produced expensive "interim" devices that nobody will want in a year or so.

The urge to criticise

Watching the news of this year's Nobel prize winners appearing on Twitter and elsewhere over the past week has been a learning experience for me. The first couple (physiology or medicine and physics) were fine – the reactions were largely excited and congratulatory. But then came chemistry. Even before the announcement that Yonath, Steitz and Ramakrishnan had won for their studies on the structure of the ribosome, the twittosphere was replete with sarcastic wit about the fact that a biological discovery would probably win. And sure enough – the fact that the ribosome is a biological structure seemed more important to many twitterers and bloggers than the achievements of the prizewinners. As Nature put it:
"It is the third time in seven years that the chemistry Nobel has been awarded to crystallographers who have determined the structure and function of a complex biological molecule. "It does seem to be a recurring theme," says Thomas Lane, president of the American Chemical Society. But at its heart, this structural biology is "fundamentally chemistry", adds Jeremy Sanders, head of physical sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK, "even if many chemists had never heard of any of the winners"." A commenter at the Sceptical Chymist blog wrote: "To me, chemistry is the study of atomic and molecular structure and understanding how these structures affect the properties of molecules and molecular assemblies. In this respect, the work of Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath falls right into the heart of what chemists do." Quite.

This was nothing, of course, to the reaction to the announcement that Herta Muller was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Many in the UK and America, myself included, had never heard of this writer. Rather than by reacting with curiosity and interest in her work, the main intent of twitterers seemed to be to sneer either at her or at the Nobel committee, implying that the award was not deserved in some way. I was glad to read a piece in the Guardian today correctly pointing out that "By awarding the 2009 Nobel prize for literature to Herta Müller, the Swedish Academy is not only honouring a beautiful writer, but also expanding our concept of Europe". (I'll refrain from commenting here about the non-winning, introspective, self-regarding US literature about the collapse of the American Dream, etc;-). ) I was also glad to read that the publishers Serpents Tail and Granta are to reissue two of Muller's books in translation. No doubt, as a result of the Nobel, more will continue.

And even this was a storm in a teacup compared with today's announcement that Obama is to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Frankly I'm nauseated by the constant carping nastiness and "jokes" on twitter today, and have "unfollowed" several people as a result – not because of any views one way or the other about the recipient, but because I wish that rather than impulsively and emptily criticising, people might bother to think or find out why the award is given, before jumping in to share their knee-jerk petulance with the world. I was impressed, both by a video interview between a very highly groomed American TV lady and the chair of the Nobel committee in which he explained their rationale for the award (unanimous, across the political spectrum of the committee members from left to right), and with another one of Obama's reaction speech (video embedded at link). There's lots of good in all of this if people care to listen, not least in the mood of consensus building, which is essential if the world is to make anything of the political, economic, social and environmental mess it is currently in.

Hobbyist and professional bloggers

I keep reading interesting posts on blogs and online newspapers, but can't get enough into any one of them to do more than to post a link/comment at Twitter. However, a few highlights from them:

The Huffington Post says that very few individuals in the book publishing industry are blogging, because companies don't like it. Apparently crime-fiction author Jason Pinter (The Mark, etc) was an editor at Random House and lost his job because of his blog – or so states the Huffington Post. Yet the same day, I read a PW interview with Rebecca Ford, who runs the (US) Oxford University Press blog and Evan Schnittman, the company’s vice president of global business development, who maintains his own publishing-centric blog, “Black Plastic Glasses.” A well-run blog benefits a publisher by promoting authors, the brand and encouraging debate, they say. Quite. It doesn't seem to me that there is much of a shortage of publishing blogs.

The Guardian technology blog weighs in on the just-announced US FTC plans to regulate bloggers. It is still unclear to me what exactly is planned  – and enforceable, across international boundaries. According to the Guardian, it is their relationship with advertisers that bloggers must disclose. But this isn't how many book bloggers are interpreting it, according to various discussions about what do do about declaring receipt of free review (advance-reading) copies of books and bound proofs that publishers send (often unsolicited) to bloggers. Other bloggers are, rightly, questioning how to declare a relationship with a Google ad box with automatically generated content. Frank Wilson collects some unsurprisingly negative coverage of the plans over at Books, Inq. Ed Champion puts it well in a comment to that post: "If the FTC wants to rake in some cash and keep media clean, they're better off going after the big boys, not the legions of hobbyists who clearly aren't blogging for lucre."

'Life sentences' are people who everyone knows one thing about. Dan Quayle, for example, cannot spell potato (that's my contribution). Some nice examples here. And on the same blog (Nicci French) - Murphy's law or Mruphy's Lore: bad grammar or misunderstood irony?

I barely watch any TV, let alone daytime TV, so my heart fell a bit when I saw in my RSS reader that the Guardian is running a series in which they ask readers who are at home during the day to submit reviews of TV programmes that they watch. I should not be so quick to form an opinion: this review of a programme called Pointless is rather good, even though it is a game show and (therefore, of course) I have never seen it. Chalk up another win to the "hobbyist" bloggers!


Crimefest returns to Bristol, 20 – 23 May 2009

Next May may seem like a long way away, but preparations for CRIMEFEST 2010 are well under way. Colin Dexter, Gyles Brandreth, M. C. Beaton and Ariana Franklin have already been announced as "featured authors" but some new names have just signed up: Michael Stanley, author(s) of the Inspector Kubu series; Jonathan Hayes, born in Bristol, and now a veteran forensic pathologist in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manhattan by day and crime writer (amongst many other things) by night; Dan Waddell (Creasey Dagger nominee); and Laura Wilson (Historical Dagger nominee). Lots of other participants have signed up already: a full list is available here, and you can register for the festival here (special registration rates available until 15 October; special hotel rates available until April 2010).
Crimefest have also announced the next online reading group title, "an excellent debut crime novel that has just been nominated for a Gold Dagger: M.R. Hall's The Coroner. The novel is set in Bristol and the Wye Valley, and not only does it catch the atmosphere of CRIMEFEST 's home base, it is a great psychological suspense novel as well. To receive a copy, the first twenty people to email us at with 'Coroner' in the subject line and their postal and email address in the body of the message will receive a free copy of the book. The deadline is October 30. Have you already read the book and would like to join the discussion? Then please sign up at ONLINE READING GROUPS." A new book is discussed every month, and several copies of each month's selection are given away free.
You can also enter a competition to win a signed first edition of Fever of the Bone, the latest in Val McDermid's chilling Tony Hill series. To enter the draw for the free signed first edition, send an email with 'Bone' in the subject line, and your name, postal and email addresses in the body of the message to The deadline to enter is October 30.

Lifestyles of the online wanderers

I was rather taken by a post by Bill Thompson, Neo-Nomad at Large, which I read on Saturday and has stuck with me. Bill already lives as the aforementioned neo-nomad, "one of the growing number of people who use digital technologies to allow them to work from anywhere, living with 'no office, colleagues who are largely engaged with online and often a number of overlapping projects to be juggled and managed at the same time'." Now, he is taking the concept one stage further by selling his house and embarking on life as a "digital bedouin", seeing how far he can get with a laptop and an internet connection without having to be rooted anywhere: home or office. He's giving it a trial period of a month, to see how he can use the technologies around him to support his existence. If it's the kind of life that interests you, there are some useful pointers in Bill's post as to what devices to use and storage/back-up systems to prevent your very being from vanishing into the 'cloud'. 

Or, you could just go to China instead. For that, you'll need a bit more than a laptop and an internet connection, it seems.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Hunt by A. Alvarez

A I'm going to have a go at Kerrie's Alphabet crime fiction meme, in which participants write a post a week featuring successive letters of the alphabet.

Back in 1978, for the sum of £4.95 for the hardback, I read a book called Hunt, by A. Alvarez (two As for the price of one!), perhaps better known for his work on suicide and poetry than for crime fiction. To my knowledge, it is the only crime-fiction book he wrote, though he did go on to write non-fiction about gambling, the subject of Hunt.

Conrad Hunt leads a tedious suburban life with his wife and sons, painting in the attic while the rest of the family watches TV. But he finds himself caught up in a confusing and bizarre game of gambling in which he has no idea of the rules or the players – and his life spirals out of control.

The publisher's blurb reads: "Hunt is a taut, funny, psychological thriller with brilliantly realised characters: a book/game in which even the reader who would die rather than risk a shilling [sic] on the Derby will turn the next page as inevitably as the gambler reaches for the next card."

Opening paragraph: "Conrad Hunt, foxy moustache, sly melancholy eyes, sat over his beer and brooded: "Loves me, loves me not, loves me, loves me not." He sipped his beer, puffed his cigarette and stared at his newspaper but did not take it in. Did not even take in the daily horoscope he usually paid so much attention to."

The book's prologue is an excerpt from a piece in the Times from 9 September 1977: "The names and personal details of tens of thousands of people scrutinised by the Special Branch for reasons of national security are to be fed into a new criminal intelligence computer bought by Scotland Yard and shrouded in mystery.
When plans for the computer were drawn up two years ago it is understood that the Special Branch was allocated space on it for up to 600,000 names out of the system's total capacity of 1,300,000 names by 1985. The work would begin with the transfer of a much smaller number of records as a pilot project.
Yesterday a police source said that the Special Branch had yet to decide how many names would be placed on the computer and denied that anything like 600,000 names would eventually be filed."