Book review: Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton

Sacrifice Sacrifice, by S. J. Bolton
Bantam, 2008.

is an utterly absorbing, addictive read. The first thing that struck me about it is the attractive heroine, Tora, who not only has a lovely name but is a great role model. She doesn’t wear her feminist credentials on her sleeve, but gets on with being a consultant obstetrician (even though she can’t have children of her own, she keeps a stiff upper lip about that), having recently moved to a farmhouse on a remote Shetland island and living there mostly on her own as Duncan, her businessman husband, is frequently away on the mainland. She’s athletic – she loves riding and sailing – and when, as the book opens, she discovers her favourite horse has died, she feels sad but simply gets on with digging a grave for it. As she digs deeper, Tora makes a grim discovery, that of the body of a young woman whose corpse has been mutilated in more than one way.

The police who respond to Tora’s phone call are not particularly sympathetic – detective Dana Tulloch in particular is silently critical from Tora’s perspective. Before Tora can fully recover from her shock, she is called to a medical emergency at the hospital where she works. She meets her boss for the first time (he’s been away), a sinisterly seductive character, and later on, has to advise on the post mortem of the dead woman.

After such a cracking start, I wasn’t sure if the book could continue at such a high yet compelling speed. My concerns were soon put to rest. The plot continues to thicken in many ways, as Tora becomes more suspicious of those around her – her boss, her impossibly handsome husband, the cold and immaculate Dana, her in-laws and even her patients begin to give her cause to feel alienated. It isn’t long, however, before Dana and Tora confront rumours and slurs about the policewoman to begin a tentative, gradually strengthening friendship.

Then, tragedy really strikes and Tora is unable to trust anyone. Her paranoia is given full rein as she insists, despite professional sanction and private threats, on pursuing her goal of discovering what happened to the dead woman and why she died. She lurches between trusting her husband and suspicion of him as he repeatedly changes his accounts of himself. When Tora makes a cruel discovery among his possessions, she becomes convinced of his guilt, and with the help of another ally, begins to work out what’s at the root of all the mysterious and threatening goings-on.

This book is fantastic right up until the last 40 or 50 pages, whereupon it falls apart bigtime. I suppose this was inevitable for such a great build up. Logical flaws in the plot (which I can’t reveal here as they would constitute spoilers), incomprehensible actions by various characters in the past (including their decision to keep silent about significant events), an unbelievably silly resolution to the mystery, and a clichéd showdown on a boat – it is all there. But never mind. It’s a great story up to that point, with three excellent, strong, independent female characters – even if the men are a bit implausible in their attributes. Even though the ending was a mess, I very much enjoyed this book; I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Awakening, the second novel by this very assured storyteller.

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

Review of Sacrifice (audio book) by Karen at Euro Crime.

Review of Sacrifice at It's a Crime!

Review of Sacrifice in The Times.

Review of Sacrifice by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.

Review of Sacrifice by Sharon Wheeler at Reviewing the Evidence.

Review of Awakening by Amanda Gillies at Euro Crime.

Author website. S. J. Bolton's third novel, The Blood Harvest, is published later this year in the UK. You can read the first chapter of each of the three novels at the website.

Two crime festivals and an interview with Jo Nesbo

Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate, takes place this year from 22 to 25 July. In partnership with HarperCollins and Alibi (the TV channel), the festival has announced a competition "to unearth some of the country's hottest new crime-writing talent" by asking contestants to write a crime fiction short story of between 2,000 and 5,000 words long. The first line of the story has been provided by author Stuart MacBride, chairman of this year's festival: "In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it." Three finalists will win tickets to Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (with travel and accommodation included), and the winner will be announced during the weekend. The first prize is a Sony e-reader, a library of 100 crime books including a signed Stuart MacBride back catalogue, and an online, downloadable e-edition of their story published by HarperCollins. The deadline for entries is 16 May; more details and instructions for submission can be accessed from the Alibi website. A list of the authors so far attending Harrogate this year can be found here: among them are Neil Cross, Ann Cleeves, Yrsa Sigurdadottir (the only "translated" author on the list so far), Gene Kerrigan, Frances Fyfield, Martin Edwards, Ariana Franklin, Barry Norman, David Levien and many others including Ian Rankin and Karin Slaughter.

Another crime-writing festival will be held in the UK later this year at Reading, on 16-19 September. This is the third annual Reading event, and an extra day has been added to the programme this year. The festival has a new website and you can follow the organisers on Twitter to receive news of which authors sign up to attend. Already confirmed include Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre, Lindsey Davis, Susanna Gregory, Paul Doherty, Malcolm Pryce, M. C. Beaton, Mark Mills and Andrew Taylor.

A slight change of subject – hot on the heels of yesterday's post about "Nordic noir" comes a link from Dave Lull to a PW Q/A format interview with Jo Nesbo (creator of Harry Hole and an author blessed with a superb translator, Don Bartlett) on just that topic.  A sample question and answer:

"Do you think it’s fair that Norwegian and Swedish crime fiction is often lumped together as “Scandinavian”?

It may not seem this way for outsiders, since there are cultural, demographic, and geographical similarities in the stories, but I think the voices are very different. I actually feel more related to the American hard-boiled crime novel than the Scandinavian crime novel, whatever that is. But since “Scandinavian crime fiction” seems to have become a trademark for quality, being a Norwegian writer is not a bad starting point."

Jo Nesbo also reveals that he may consider having his first two Harry Hole novels, The Batman and Cockroaches, translated into English (and why this hasn't been done before).

The enduring appeal of Nordic novels

I've become a bit overwhelmed recently with links to articles in the media about Scandinavian, or Nordic, crime fiction. People kindly send me them, they crop up in my RSS reader, or they are added to the Friend Feed crime fiction room. I like to read them but it is getting hard to distinguish them in my mind. Almost all of them have the same structure – they ask why crime fiction from the region is suddenly so popular, and say that people must like gloom. The examples given are usually Swedish and invariably include Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell – the latter being not a new author by any means, but given new relevance via two television series, one Swedish and the other English. Occasionally such articles look back to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Swedish authors again, who are regarded as parents of the modern police procedural novel and whose ten-series Martin Beck books were written mainly in the 1970s.

One example is Laura Miller's The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives, from the Wall St Journal (15 January).  (via Dave Lull, FriendFeed and my RSS reader and probably elsewhere.) An example of her argument is: "In Scandinavian detective fiction, this stoic ideal takes the form of a stalwart, methodical practicality. Almost all Nordic crime novels are procedurals, a genre that focuses on the often monotonous, day-to-day details of police work." A less restrictive set of examples would have undermined these conclusions (Leif Davidson, Karin Altvegen, Gunnar Staalesen, Anne Holt, Jo Nesbo, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, etc). Miller does, however, acknowledge the "pitch black humor" in the "form's austere pleasures", Hakan Nesser (not mentioned in the article) perhaps being the best example of that.

There is a much more informed, and interesting, piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald, which sensibly does not seek to generalise a whole region or genre, on the international appeal of Stieg Larsson: sex, revenge, identification with the particular brand of feminism in the novels ("female characters are universally clear thinking, resourceful and good"), and "because we, too, feel hurt; betrayed by a system that deceives us into wars we don't want and environmental crises we could avoid".   

A more original, and informed, article than Miller's is one by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent (link kindly sent by Simon Clarke, in Euro Crime news,  and discussed by Barbara Fister at her blog). The article ("will a global vision renew Nordic crime fiction appeal?") sets out to show how the 'new' interest in Nordic noir is causing several books to be repackaged accordingly, even though they are only tangentially 'crime' fiction. It's an informed article (mentioning several authors and books I didn't know), being in its second half a review of The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell – Tonkin making the point that Scandinavian crime fiction is increasingly embracing international themes as a sort of "global social conscience". (Although so is crime fiction from any region of the world you care to mention – as, indeed, asserted in the Times Literary Supplement last week.) He recommends Asa Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason and Camilla Lackberg to readers who have not ventured further than Mankell and S. Larsson. A look at the Euro Crime database for Scandinavia would provide these and a lot more riches – with links to reviews in many cases.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Orford

O My contribution this week is a review of a book I have just finished reading, Like Clockwork by Margie Orford (Atlantic books).

Set in Cape Town, Like Clockwork follows the life and thoughts of Dr Clare Hart, a multi-talented author, profiler, and TV programme maker (who never cooks her own meals) – as she becomes involved in the murders of young teenagers. The basic plot of this debut novel is pretty standard: someone is abducting very young women and teenagers, killing them in sadistic ways, leaving their bodies ritually arranged among discarded rubbish. Clare lives in the same neighbourhood, but behind security gates in the affluent part of it. She’s a consultant to the police in the person of her on-off lover Inspector Riedwaan, so has both an insider’s view of the murders as well as an outsider’s, in that she often stumbles across relevant facts and suspects as she goes about her daily life.

We are gradually introduced to Clare’s world – her two sisters Julie, a wife and mother; and Constance, Clare’s twin, who has been institutionalised since she was viciously attacked many years ago. Clare and Constance share an uneasy yet passionate bond, as Clare bears the burden of guilt for what happened to her sister.

We are also introduced to several unsavoury characters: rich local businessmen who are cashing in on the sex trade and property boom. One of the most threatening of these is Kelvin Landsmann, who Clare wants to interview for a TV programme she is making about international trafficking of women. Clare’s life is filled with preparing her TV documentary, helping the police in the murder investigation, and supporting the various abused girls and their distraught families – as well as spending time with her sisters and an old neighbour. Increasingly, she becomes aware of the way in which girls are being abused as “hostesses” in the local tourism and erotic movie business, as well as forced prostitution from other parts of the continent and beyond, and how this abuse has spread into threats and crimes against the girls’ families.

Like Clockwork is a debut novel, and although I quite enjoyed it, I found it rather formulaic. I cannot empathise with the fascination of some authors with ritualistic, serial killers, and here the perpetrators are so obvious that there is little suspense to offset the many grim circumstances. I never feel comfortable reading books describing young women’s (or anyone’s) suffering, and this one is no exception, though it is not too explicit, thankfully – although it paints an extremely depressing picture of the typical 16-year-old’s family life and what happens to her if she is foolhardy enough to go into bars or take a part-time job doing voice-overs.

Although the novel has promise, I feel it tries to cover too many themes, so is a bit of a hodge-podge. For example, the police investigation is somewhat sketchily described; the relationship between Clare and Constance is not fully developed; and the varied professional activities of Clare mostly happen off-page, making her into a slightly implausible superwoman who has the right phone number to hand for any victim of any circumstance, so she can immediately head off to the next crisis. Although there are too many fragmentary elements, particularly to her back-story, she’s an attractive and capable protagonist. I think that in future, if the author focuses more and creates a better central story, Clare Hart could definitely make her mark.

There are two subsequent novels about her so far, Blood Rose and Daddy’s Girl – though I have not yet decided if I am going to read them because of the subject matter of sexual abuse and death of young women and (in later books) children. At the end of the day, I just did not find that this novel was sufficiently original, insightful or well-written to justify the voyeuristic, sickening subject matter – a conclusion I reached about the rather similar first two novels by Lee Weeks. I was also distracted by the poor editing and proofreading of the edition of Like Clockwork I read, even to the extent that the sentences in some paragraphs seemed to be out of order.

Read another review of this book at International Noir Fiction.

Author's website, which includes positive excerpts of reviews of Like Clockwork.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Book review: The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt

The_reunion-as222 The Reunion
By Simone van der Vlugt, translated by Michele Hutchinson (Harper Collins)

Sabine works in an office in Amsterdam as an administrator for a bank. She’s recently had to take some time off work while suffering from depression; while she’s been away her colleague and friend Janine has left the company and the two young women’s’ role has been usurped by newcomer Renee, who is adept at office politics and who wraps Walter, the boss, round her little finger. Her nose out of joint, having to work at a desk in the corner and constantly being criticised for making mistakes, Sabine is at her wits' end. (This part of the novel reminds me of The Exception by Christian Jungersen.)

When she was 14 and living in a small seaside town, a schoolfriend of Sabine’s, Isabel, disappeared in the woods or dunes, and was never found despite a national police hunt and media campaign. Sabine cannot remember much about these events, despite having been Isabel’s best friend at primary school but victimised by her in high school. She has learnt from the psychologist who treated her depression that repressed memories could be at the root of her condition, so makes frequent trips to her dull home town to try to remember what happened on the day that Isobel cycled away, never to be seen again. Sabine experiences flashes of recovered memory, perhaps enabled by the fact that a reunion of old pupils is being arranged at the school.

Sabine makes contact with Janine again, and her life at the office seems to be becoming slightly easier when Olaf, the handsome IT support man, takes an interest in her and asks her out. Although Sabine and Olaf did not know each other when young, they both attended the same school, Olaf being in the same year as Sabine’s beloved older brother Robin. Olaf’s unstable behaviour becomes increasingly suspicious to Sabine, so she determines that she will investigate Isabel’s disappearance herself, in the hope that she will be able to remember what she believes she is blocking out. As she goes to visit the old school caretaker, the local police inspector and the parents of her own schoolfriends, she becomes more convinced that she knows who is responsible for Isabel’s disappearance. Yet why should Robin, who now lives in England but who returns to Amsterdam for a short visit, seem worried at Sabine’s actions? And why did Bart, Sabine’s first love, behave as he did when the two were at school?

Simone van der Vlugt has written an excellent suspense thriller, not only providing lots of clues, red herrings and interesting sidelines, but also showing great psychological insight as to what it is like to be a 14-year-old girl being alternatively bullied and ostracised by others at school, and what it is like to be an insecure 23-year old being victimised by work colleagues with their petty yet hurtful behaviour. I particularly like the way in which the same events (for example Renee's behaviour and actions) seem very different when viewed through the eyes of different characters.

Although when one obvious suspect is eliminated near the end of the book the outcome is relatively obvious, I was not sure which of two solutions was going to be the right one up until the final revelation. There are quite a few threads left unresolved, for example the old caretaker’s names for his cats, yet this psychological suspense thriller is both extremely readable (thanks to an excellent translation) and a satisfying mystery.

Read another review of this book at It's A Crime!

Read another review of this book at DJs Krimiblog.

And another review at Crime Scraps.

The Reunion at the publisher's website.

Author website.

Deon Meyer at the London Book Fair 2010

Deonmeyer Continuing my game of catch-up with The Bookseller, I discover from the 15 Jan issue (p.19) that the London Book Fair this year will focus on South Africa. To celebrate this fact, Catherine Nelian interviews Deon Meyer, "one of the country's brightest crime writers", who will be appearing at the book fair this year as guest of honour, to celebrate the UK publication of his latest novel Thirteen Hours

One positive aspect of living in South Africa is that the "Meyer" who is highest in the bestseller charts is Deon rather than Stephanie. Deon Meyer tells the Bookseller that "there has been an explosion of South African literature in the past few years, and there are some great new authors – a lot of black authors – not getting the recognition they deserve".

Thirteen Hours is Meyer's ninth novel, the sixth to be published in the UK. His books are written in Afrikaans and later translated into English – the "traditional British lack of engagement with translated fiction" is held to be the reason why Meyer's novels do not sell better over here (sales are apparently about 3,500 per novel). "When I write, I am very conscious of time, because it is such a wonderful mechanism for creating suspense", he says. "For the past two or three novels I have been playing around with time, to see whether I could write one that takes place in one day or less than a day."

Thirteen Hours is the result – a book in which detective (and ex-alcoholic) Benny Griessel is fighting against time to track down a young American backpacker in Cape Town. Griessel is a recurring character in Meyer's novels, first appearing in the author's debut, Dead Before Dying. None of Meyer's novels are formally part of a series, but they have recurring characters. Based on the two I have read so far, I think his novels are very good adventure thrillers, superbly conveying a sense of place as well as the internal landscape of the characters. He has been likened to Peter Temple, which is praise indeed. 

Author website (includes bibliography, information about the books, and more).

My reviews of Blood Safari and Dead Before Dying.

Bernadette's review of Devil's Peak

Karen's review of Devil's Peak

Kerrie's review of Devil's Peak.

A few paperbacks for 2010

One of my Christmas presents was a renewal of last year's present of a gift subscription to The Bookseller, the UK "trade" publication. I like it a lot because it tells you lots of tempting information about upcoming titles. There were a few glitches in my renewal, partly to do with the snow, but order now seems to be restored. In the first issue of 2010 (8 Jan), there are various previews and selections of the books that will be on sale in paperback in the UK this year. I'll mention a few here for those who still have not spent their Christmas book tokens.

One new initiative is "Indies for Indies", in which The Bookseller identifies books that deserve support – perhaps from independent publishers or new authors – that won't get supermarket or "3 for 2" exposure. Top of the list is Inspector Cataldo's Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciardi (Herisila, March), which is the first book from a new publisher specializing in Italian crime. Apparently this novel is "the start of a series low on gore but high in colour". One for my list, then. As ever, Euro Crime was on the case early with this one.

The Bookseller's panel have chosen their favourites from the forthcoming paperbacks for the year. Not many crime novels are included – Ruth Rendell's The Monster in the Box (April), Silent Scream by Lynda La Plante (April), and The Neighbour by Lisa Gardner being the sum total.

The Channel 4 book club picks are predicted to sell well – crime choices among those rae Blacklands by Belinda Bauer (on TV on 24 Jan; out now, and available on various promotions at a very reasonable price) and The Way Home by George Pelecanos (on TV 7 March; highly recommended by one of my favourite blogs, Material Witness). The Rapture by Liz Jensen is another choice which is sort of crime-ish – on TV on 21 Feb.

There are so many paperbacks in the 2010 list that I am going to mention only a few – those that interest me. Of the January releases, I can recommend Just Take My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark, which is a typical novel by the "queen of suspense"; Simon Beckett's Whispers of the Dead is also well worth a read. In February, we can look forward to Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid, The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (guiltily, I still have Child 44 unread on my shelf), Skin and Bones by Tom Bale (a very good, exciting thriller), and The Missing by Jane Casey which I haven't read but am looking forward to.  In March, I am looking forward to What to do When Someone Dies by Nicci French. About Face by Donna Leon is out in paperback, and I expect a lot of people will be pouncing on The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by the late Stieg Larsson, when it comes out in paperback in April. John Harvey's Far Cry is also out in April (despite being previously mis-announced as January), as is Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell (another one on my shelf to read). If anyone has not read The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin, that's also out in April and I cannot recommend it too highly.

Michael Connelly's excellent The Scarecrow is out in May, as is Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C. J. Box. Skipping to July, I am looking forward to Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay, and The Twelve by Stuart NevilleTooth and Claw by Nigel McCrery is worth a read if you have a spare couple of hours. The best August news is that The Complaints by Ian Rankin is finally out in paperback. Sophie Hannah's A Room Swept White and U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton are other August titles, as is Where The Dead Lay by David Levien (on my shelf and one I am looking forward to reading after enjoying his debut, City of the Sun). The Disappeared, M. R. Hall's follow-up to the excellent The Coroner, is in paperback in September, as is Henry Porter's The Dying Light.

Peter James's Dead Like You is scheduled for October, as is The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (translated by the incomparable Don Bartlett). Possibly even more exciting is that Liza Marklund's Red Wolf is out the same month.

Of course, I have only highlighted very few titles from the long list of upcoming paperbacks – I am sure there will be news of many other great reads as the year continues.

(Links in the above post go to reviews of the books at Petrona, Euro Crime or Material Witness.)

Book review: Murder on Page Three by Ella Griffiths

Murder on Page Three
Ella Griffiths
  (translated by J. Basil Cowlishaw)
Quartet Crime 1984 (first published Norway 1982) 183 pp

Latest in my discovery of Scandinavian mystery authors is Ella Griffiths, who wrote Murder on Page Three back in the 1980s. The novel instantly pulls you in with its brisk yet chatty style, as we follow the thoughts of author Karin Ullestad, “Norway’s Agatha Christie”, as she struggles listlessly in the heat of the summer to find the inspiration to start her new detective novel – in which her publisher has requested: “Make sure there’s a murder in the first chapter. The best would be on page three.” Karin isn’t too settled, though, partly because of the heat which she and her dog Lucky find hard to bear; partly because Karin’s husband Jan has left her a few months ago – although the separation is semi-amicable, we gather from Karin’s thoughts that Jan is doing pretty well out of it; and partly because Karin is distracted by an old lady on the doorstep of her neighbour’s house. These neighbours, the Hansdals, are both teachers and are away in their summer cottage for the school holidays. Karin is keeping an eye on the house for them in their absence and so helps the old lady enter, using her own key.  She goes back to attempt to work, thinking nothing more of it – until the next day, when she gets a nasty shock: there has been a murder and the Hansdals' house has been ransacked.

What follows is a solid, tranditional detective story, as the team of police investigate all the possible leads, sometimes helped but more often not by the extended acquaintanceships of Karin, the Handsals and their student  son and daughter, and the staff of the nursing home where Mrs Olsen, the old lady, lived.  Until some way through, the novel treads a balance between a classic “cosy” mystery and a police procedural. Then, however, an event is discovered that casts a darker shadow over the proceedings. Nevertheless, the plot continues to unfold at a brisk pace, as the police – mainly brothers Rudolf and Karsten Nielsen, exhaustively run down every possible clue and every possible person who might be involved.

An interesting twist is given by the fact that the reader knows more than the police about the motive for the crime, so can fairly easily guess what is at the bottom of the many rather confusing and apparently disconnected discoveries. The police, without access to this information, gradually piece together the witness statements, forensic evidence and the fruits of much solid detective work to discover the perpetrator.  There are several red herrings among the suspects, including my two main contenders, so I would think that this attractively written novel, extremely well served by the naturalistic style provided by the translator, J. Basil Cowlishaw, will provide a satisfyingly challenging conundrum to the keen consumer of detective novels.  Although there is an upbeat aspect to the ending for a couple of the characters, the book leaves a sad impression – more so than might have been anticipated from its breezy tone.

I found out about this book via this post at Euro Crime blog. I managed to find second-hand copies of Murder on Page Three and The Water Widow on Amazon.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Noll

N Some years ago, I read three excellent novels via my local library. The author is Ingrid Noll and the books are dark, yet full of black humour. Most amusing of these is the first, in which the main character is in her 50s, so nobody takes any notice of her. She therefore, "gets away with murder". As I can't remember many of the details apart from having enjoyed the novels, I reprint here the publisher blurbs (unfortunately not revealing the name of the translator), which come with a recommendation from Val McDermid:

Hell Hath No Fury: When 52-year-old Rosemarie Hirte falls for Rainer Engstern, she knows that this could be her last chance for happiness. Finding herself in the grip of terrifying obsession, Rosemarie spins a deadly web in which she lures and then destroys all those who come too close to the object of her love.

Head Count: Maya's only memory is being at odds with her mother and brother. Her father seemed to love her but he disappeared. Maya's life is embattled until she meets Cora. The two form a friendship founded on a conviction that they are somehow separate from society and do not have to abide by its rules.

The Pharmacist: A gripping psychological mystery from one of Europe's best-selling crime novelists. Would you confide your most intimate secrets to a stranger? Hella Moormann, a pharmacist, finds herself doing just this when she meets the unprepossessing Rosemarie Hirte in hospital. Hella has always suffered from a need to nurture lost souls, but she believes her latest lover will be different. Levin, a beautiful young dental student, is heir to his grandfather's fortune and looks like a good thing. All too soon, though, her faith is shaken: not only does he take an unhealthy interest in some antique poison bottles, but he also plans to misuse his dental skills in a macabre way. Hella's life takes an increasingly bizarre course, from involvement with drug runners to murder, via adultery and much else. But is she the helpless victim of fate or a cunning manipulator of events? Whatever the truth, in choosing to tell her story to the anonymous Rosemarie Hirte, she may have made a lethal mistake, for Hirte has a sinister secret of her own…

From Wikipedia: Ingrid Noll has written several novels, including Head Count, Hell hath no Fury and The Pharmacist, as well as one television drama, Bommels Billigflüge. Several of her novels have been subsequently adapted as films, including Die Apothekerin, which was released in the United States as The Pharmacist and was nominated for the German Film Award in Gold for outstanding feature film. She wrote her debut novel at the age of 55 and is (says Wikipedia) one of the most appreciated authors in Germany.

DW-World interview with Ingrid Noll, who describes herself as: "good-natured, usually easy-going and easy to be around, loyal, I have a good appetite, and I'm sometimes a bit venomous." It's a very funny (and short) interview, and I strongly identify with the final answer.

Ingrid Noll at the Internet Movie database, from which it appears that she may have written some more novels and adapted them for film and TV.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Let’s speak up for Waterstones

In Friday's (15 Jan) Book Trade News Digest was a headline "What has gone wrong?", which is a link to seven articles in the UK national papers about Waterstones. There were a couple more of these in November last year, about which I wrote on Petrona. Overwhelmingly these articles are critical in tone: some rehash recent history in providing the authors' own account of where Waterstones went wrong so now have abruptly hired a new managing director; others are simply attacks at the shops and their content.

I think this is all mad. What do we have in the UK? Borders has just collapsed, and other book chains long ago, so Waterstones is in many places all we have got. Not every town has the luxury of an independent bookstore (mine no longer has one, for example). Furthermore, although independent bookstores are much lauded, in particular in articles that denigrate Waterstones, they are not all good.

Of course, Waterstones now has it tough in competing with the Internet (Amazon, mainly) on the one hand and on the other with supermarkets and discount chains (eg British Bookshops, with its great prices but seriously limited stock). Of course, one can look back with hindsight and say that Waterstones should not have entered into partnership with Amazon to sell its books online but should have developed its own web commerce from the start; and that it should have developed a flexible storage and distribution system much more quickly than it has done (and is yet struggling to do effectively). Of course, some specialist and erudite readers say that they don't care about price and want to have a large choice of stock and somewhere nice to sit and browse – but this just isn't economic. Irrespective of the Internet, it is expensive to keep a book (individually cheap) on a shelf for months or years and not sell it.

Instead of criticising, people who want real-live bookshops should be more constructive about Waterstones, because like it or not, it is better than being left with only W H Smith, Tesco and a remainder shop. The branch where I live, Kingston, is always packed on a Saturday or Sunday (including a permanent long queue at the only remaining checkout).  It must be getting something right.

Maybe it is too late for Waterstones to develop an efficient Internet-based distribution system that can compete with Amazon, not for the full range of Amazon's offering, but for a sizeable chunk of non-esoteric stock. If Waterstones can do that, it can have terminals or mobile devices in-store (many per store), so while a customer is browsing, she can search/order a book that isn't in stock or is on backlist then and there, knowing it will be delivered next day. Plenty of publishers don't like the terms Amazon forces on them, so if Waterstones could sort out its back office distribution system, this type of route seems to me to be a good one to go.

One aspect of the critical articles that I do agree with is the need for some local autonomy in which books to sell. Different branches of Waterstones should be able to stock a proportion of books specific to that locality if they sell well. These could be related to a local activity for areas of historical or scenic interest, or books about local people, or just books on a topic that for some reason do well in that area. This is in addition to the various events, signings and so on that the chain already does.

For all I know it may be too late for Waterstones to survive in an environment where Amazon reigns supreme, pricing is highly competitive, and publishers are cutting down on producing "risky" ("mid list") books and are overproducing books on themes they think will be popular (celebrities, humour) and then aren't. Whether or not people are reading less than they did in the past, they certainly have more options for reading devices nowadays, over and beyond the printed book, another challenge to the bookseller.

At the end of the day, let's be kinder to Waterstones. It is a vast, high street bookshop, and that is what I like. Whatever people may say about the experience of buying books in a branch, it is a far nicer experience than trying to buy a book in a supermarket, in a bargain/discount bookshop or in W H Smiths – in all three places you can't see the shelves properly or find a space to look through a book before you buy.

Good luck to Waterstones. I hope it survives.