The Rising and other books on a wet weekend

Rising I've taken advantage of a wet weekend to read a proof of Brian McGilloway's latest novel, The Rising. It's great, and I'm in mid-draft of my review for Euro Crime. Apparently, The Rising is published in the UK on 2 April, so you have plenty of time (!) to discover this author by reading his first three novels about Garda Inspector Ben Devlin: Borderlands, Gallows Lane and Bleed a River Deep. You can watch a video of the author talking about his new novel at Vimeo or YouTube.

I also read the 26 February issue of The Bookseller (delivered on Saturday instead of Thursday, as I am growing to expect!). There's a feature on page 27 about the self promotion that authors have to do now that publishers' "ever-tightening marketing budgets are increasingly being earmarked for the big names". One of these initiatives, mentioned in the Bookseller article, is the airport tour undertaken by the Curzon group, a self-organised number of crime-fiction authors. They started at 5 a.m. (I don't know when they finished!) because they reckoned that this is when many people have time on their hands and are browsing in airside branches of W H Smiths. Another author, Katy Moran, says that she sets up as many school visits as possible (she writes the "Bloodline" series of children's historical fiction); she has set up a Facebook page, a Wikipedia entry and so on. She says "Trying to get reviews in national newspapers is like flogging a dead horse. Review space is so small now, especially for children's literature. Authors are reduced to grass roots methods. We've got to become literate in social media."

Robert Muchamore, who writes the popular Cherub spy series for teens, chats daily on his website with readers; Matt Lynn (one of the Curzon group) recommends book festivals and bookstore signings/events, and of course, blogs and other online platforms allow authors not only to communicate with their readers but also to reach potential new readers. The article doesn't mention this, but encouraging readers to post reviews on Amazon and other large bookselling platforms is another way to spread the word. Overall, I found this feature a bit quaint, as many authors have been doing lots of these activities for many years.

Bookseller feb This edition of The Bookseller has a paperback preview for June (UK). June – will it ever arrive, bringing sunshine, warmth and dryness? Sarah Broadbent, editor of this section of the magazine, writes briskly that the quantity of new titles for June is substantially less than previous months this year: "Those categories deemed dwindling – clogs, shawls and chick lit – have precious little." Instead it is all supernatural and a few futuristic thrillers (Tim Powers' Declare and Mat Frei's The Stranger are the most highly recommended of this last category, which I suspect is not for me – I can't see into the future so I can't be sure).

For crime-fiction enthusiasts, we can look forward to Play Dead, an early Harlan Coben from 1990 that only had a very limited release in the UK at the time (I haven't read it); Adrenaline by Jeff Abbott – start of a new series about a CIA agent; Ice Hunt by James Rollins; The Twelve by Stuart Neville, which was very well-received when it was first published (in hardback) and very highly recommended by The Bookseller; The Fate of Katherine Carr by Thomas H Cook, about a girl's disappearance 20 years ago; My Last Confession by Helen Fitzgerald– "chick lit noir" to quote one reviewer; Dark Places by Gillian Flynn; and I Kill by Giorgio Faletti (Constable) – a "major Italian crime writer with a detective and FBI agent hunting a deranged killer in Monte Carlo".

There are lots of other titles due for paperback publication in June (if we ever get there), so it seems to me that the crime fiction/thriller genre is alive and well, even if clogs, shawls and chick lit aren't. I also do not (yet) spot the promised/threatened avalanche of books about angels and dogs combined with misery memoirs.

Book review: The Missing by Jane Casey

TMissing Thanks to the generosity of Karen of Euro Crime, I have just read a copy of a very good book. On the cover, Sophie Hannah writes: "Compulsive, menacing and moving – a very satsifying psychological thriller". I agree completely. Here's my review:

The Missing
By Jane Casey (Ebury Press, 2010, paperback)

I thoroughly enjoyed Jane Casey’s debut novel, The Missing. The story is told from the perspective of Sarah, a young English teacher whose brother Charlie disappeared from the family garden almost 20 years ago.  Sarah was in the garden at the time, but half-asleep, so can’t remember exactly what happened. Part of the novel tells the story of the impact of this event on Sarah and her parents. Gradually, we come to see the full effects of the devastation wrought on all three of them – as individuals, as a family, and as the rest of the community in their Surrey commuter town perceives them.

The main narrative takes place in the present day, beginning when a girl from Sarah’s class of 12-year-olds disappears. Sarah and a policewoman talk to the girl’s distraught parents to try to determine who last saw her and what she was doing. Sarah, a quiet, introverted woman, is deeply affected by this disappearance, not only because it concerns one of her students but because it causes repressed memories and emotions concerning Charlie to come to the surface.  She goes out for her usual run the next morning and discovers a body in the woods. It is the missing girl.

In the immediate aftermath, the book focuses on the school’s response: what the teachers and headmistress do about the situation, and how the media insinuate themselves and compromise Daisies the police investigation. During this phase, Sarah comes over as somewhat irritating and wimpy, being rather feeble about dealing with an over-keen male colleague and a pushy reporter, for example. As the novel continues, the school aspects fade out and we focus much more on Sarah’s relationship with her mother, the police who are investigating the crime, and her own attempts to find out for herself what happened, in the process beginning to recognise and face her feelings about her brother’s loss and its shockwave. I really enjoyed this perspective, in which Sarah sees herself as helping the police, but can’t actually know what leads they are following or what they are concluding – even about her own involvement. Gradually, through her experiences and discoveries, as well as her shifting relationships with each of the very well-portrayed detectives Vickers and Banks, she gains strength and resilience.

This is a novel of many levels – first and foremost it’s a good story, with a believable and exciting double plot. I desperately wanted to know how it was all going to turn out, and in particular whether we would ever know what happened to Charlie. The author does not disappoint in her realistic, naturalistic account.  The book is also an excellent character study of the effects of one traumatic act over a period of years, mainly on Sarah and her mother, but also on the family’s dynamics. I was impressed with how the author avoided some of the clichés to bring true emotional resonance.  The story is topical, in the sense of being about some of the darker activities that go on in the world today, with the author getting the balance just right between not pulling her punches and not dwelling unnecessarily on the sordid or the gruesome for their own sake.  There is also a dash of romance, which I liked. Unusually for a crime novel, major and minor characters seem real and individual, without any of the shorthand or stock elements that are so common to the genre. Although the climactic scene is somewhat melodramatic compared with the discipline of the rest of the novel, the outcome of the two mysteries is very well thought-through. I highly recommend this novel  as a great combination of insight, suspense, sadness, excitement and well-constructed plotting.

I like the apt quotation from Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) at the start of the book:

Those houses, that are haunted, are most still
Till the devil be up.

Other reviews of The Missing:

Michelle at Euro Crime

Fleur Fisher reads

Paul Engles at Book Geeks

Meta-reviewing and musing

One of my harmless foibles is that I like to read reviews of books I've already read, to see what other people made of them. I've seen a few of these recently, which I'd like to share in this post.

TDisappeared The Disappeared, by M. R. Hall, is reviewed by Cathy of Kittling:Books. Of the protagonist, Cathy writes: "Jenny Cooper is a very interesting, and very flawed, character. She suffers from acute anxiety and depends upon medication to keep herself together. She's raw from a nasty divorce. She's trying to be a good parent to a difficult teenaged boy. The man in her current relationship wants commitment, and her job is stressful and demanding. She's trying to give 110% to each facet of her life, and there are times when she almost comes unglued." Cathy identifies several aspects of the book to which I had a similar reaction. One thing that surprised me is that, she writes, The Coroner, the first novel in this series, has not been published in the USA. This is crazy – not only is The Coroner a superior book (in my opinion), but one needs to read it before The Disappeared in order to fully appreciate what is going on with Jenny and the other regular characters. (See my reviews of The Coroner and The Disappeared.)

TSPool Over at Mysterious Books News, you can read a review of Martin Edwards's latest novel in his Lake District series. From the review:  "The Serpent Pool
is a superb mystery, from both a plot, replete with classical literary references, and stylistic perspective. The characters are delightful and well drawn, the Lake District setting beautiful and charming. Even the various romantic elements, including those simmering just beneath the surface, play an important role here. As dark and disturbing secrets come to light, answers to questions of murder or suicide, past and present, are finally established in the thrilling conclusion to this exciting suspense novel." My take on the same book is here.

At Crime Scraps, you can read a review of About Face, by Donna Leon. Uriah a.k.a. Norman writes: "I find Donna Leon's books a constant delight as she describes a society where government agencies live alongside criminal gangs and sometimes you can't tell which is which."  You can see what I thought of this book at Euro Crime.

Truth Finally, for now, Glenn Harper of International Noir Fiction writes a superb review of Peter Temple's brilliant Truth, "a complex story with an ambivalent moral sense, told in terse coded dialogue among the police and an almost stream of consciousness narrative in the third person but from the point of view of the new head of homicide, Stephen Villani."  My review of this book was the first post of the new year at Petrona. "This is a fantastic book: it has a strong, satisfying plot; yet in its brutal, sad poetry it is a telling account of the myriad tragedies and ruined lives in our shallow, materialistic and unedifying age, dominated by our fascination with the power of technology and wealth, but lacking principle, depth or kindness."

Alphabet in crime fiction: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

S For my contribution to the letter S, I have written a review of the book Last Light by Alex Scarrow.

Last Light is a very exciting thriller based on the premise that the world’s oil supplies run out. Andy Sutherland, a consultant geologist originally from New Zealand, is commissioned to write a secret report about the vulnerable parts of the supply chain. While delivering this report, his nine-year-old daughter Leona accidentally sees some of the people who commissioned it.

Ten years later, Andy’s marriage is essentially over. Ever since writing the report he has been convinced that energy supplies must soon collapse, and has tried to persuade his wife Jenny to move to the country, become self-sufficient and prepare for the worst. Eventually she has had enough of his paranoia and, soon after Leona goes to university and the younger child, Jacob, departs for prep school (on the proceeds of Andy’s fee for writing the report), the couple decide to split. Andy goes to Iraq on a consulting project and Jenny goes to Manchester by train for a job interview which, she hopes, will be the start of a new life for her and her son.

That day, however, massive explosions occur at the Holy Mosque in Mecca and in other places of worship in Saudi Arabia. Within hours, a religious civil war has broken out.  Crippling explosions at oil refineries and pipelines in Georgia, the Gulf and Venezuela soon follow. In the UK, the Prime Minister and his immediate advisors assess the situation and realise that the country has only about two weeks’ oil reserves left. They decide to recall all the military from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to maintain order, and close down all the train and air services. Major roads are closed. Rapidly, the country degenerates into chaos and anarchy as electricity fails and food supplies run out.

The novel focuses on the efforts of the fractured family to reunite at their house in Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Each member of the family faces almost insurmountable dangers in attempting their journey. Andy is in a hostile country with a small unit of British soldiers, trying to make their way through dangerous terrain to any friendly base. As Andy picks up fragments of what is going on in the world from half-heard radio reports and phone conversations snatched when the signal is good enough and while he still has a battery, he realises that the events he Last light outlined in his report are really happening.  Jenny is stuck in Manchester with no means of transport, surrounded by increasingly hungry and violent people. Leona is in the most danger of all the family, although she does not realise it, because of what she witnessed as a child. And Jacob isn’t allowed to leave his school without signed permission from his parents (a nice touch). The novel switches perspective between Andy, Jenny and Leona as they struggle towards safety, each of them increasingly aware that their destination may be far from being the refuge that they hope for.

Last Light is a breathlessly exciting novel told at an incredibly fast pace. The author conveys with great believability the speed with which British society breaks down in the face of this disaster. No stiff upper lip or World War Two spirit here. The characters of the Sutherland family and the people they meet over the time of the novel are extremely well depicted, and the reader is constantly urging them on in their seemingly impossible task of meeting each other again. However, the novel is far less successful as a “global conspiracy” thriller. The hired assassin elements are clichéd, and the explanation for who is behind the report Andy wrote, and why, seems almost to come from a different book altogether. Even so, I highly recommend this nailbitingly exciting novel.

Last Light was published in 2007, and is explicitly a homage to 9/11 and 7/7, as well as considering what might have happened had SARS or avian flu epidemics actually happened on the extreme scale of the predictions. The book was published before the global financial crisis took over the headlines, and it would have been very interesting to see how the author would have incorporated that into his plot had he written it a year or so later.

There is a fascinating afterword to the novel by the author, about how and why he came to write the book. “It’s not really a book about Peak Oil – that was merely the starting point for me. No, it’s a book about how lazy and vulnerable we’ve allowed ourselves to become. How reliant on the system we are.  How little responsibility we are prepared to take for our actions, for ourselves, for our children.  …..And here we are, the ghastly events of 7/7; the increasing prevalence of gang-related gun crime in London; legions of disaffected kids packing blades to go to school; a media that night and day pumps out the message – screw everyone else, just get what’s yours; reality TV that celebrates effortless transitory fame over something as old-fashioned as ‘achievement’; corporations that rip of their employees’ pension funds; politicians of all flavours putting themselves and their benefits first. All these things, I suspect, are the visible hairline cracks of our broken society that hint at the deeper, very dangerous, fault lines beneath. And all it’ll take is some event, some catalyst, for the whole thing to come tumbling down.”

The author also recommends a website, Life after the oil crash , for those interested in knowing more about 'Peak Oil' and what might lead to the kind of crisis described in Last Light.

I thank Material Witness for recommending this novel to me.

Alex Scarrow's blog

Alex Scarrow's website (with brother Simon)

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

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

New books by Chessex and Kinberg

A couple of newly published books caught my attention in the past week or two – books that are destined for my reading shelves.

"A novel based on a true story . . .On April 16, 1942, a few days before Hitler’s birthday, a Jew handful of Swiss Nazis in Payerne lure Arthur Bloch, a Jewish cattle merchant, into a stable and kill him with an iron bar. Europe is in flames, but this is Switzerland, and Payerne, a rural market town of butchers and bankers, is more concerned with unemployment and local bankruptcies than the fate of nations across the border. Fernand Ischi, leader of the local Nazi cell, blames everything on the Jews and Bloch’s murder is to be an example, a foretaste of what is to come once the Nazis take over Switzerland." So runs part of the publisher's description of A Jew Must Die, by award-winning Swiss author Jacques Chessex and translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson, a professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada. The book is published in the UK this month.

 “A novella of immense power… In its imagined evocation of historical fact, A Jew Must Die is in itself a justification of the power of art. This brief, disturbing masterpiece goes to the heart of the creative process.” The Independent. Chessex is, according to the publisher, considered one of Switzerland’s greatest authors. His other works include The Vampire of Ropraz, also published by Bitter Lemon Press.

B-very flat is the second novel in the Joel Williams series by the accomplished author Margot Kinberg.  "Is anyone really safe? Not necessarily. At nineteen years old, Serena Brinkman, an Bflat undergraduate violin major at Tilton University, seems to have a very secure future; she's got good looks, money, people who love her, and rare musical talent. She's also got a coveted Amati violin, a musical rival, friends whose secrets she knows, and an obsessed fan." Having very much enjoyed the first novel in this series, Publish or Perish (who can resist a book with that title?!), I'm certainly looking forward to the second. Here's a sample from my review of the first novel: "The pace never flags as the investigation narrows down to a small group of suspects, and previous associations become clearer. I thoroughly enjoyed Publish or Perish, and can recommend it to anyone who wants to be taken out of themselves for a couple of hours, and who is curious about the backstabbing and doublespeak that can go on in the groves of academe."

Book review: The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Crossing The Crossing Places
By Elly Griffiths (Quercus, 2009)

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by Elly Griffiths, which depicts a vivid and attractive character, Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist at North Norfolk University, a fictional institution near the salt marshes of the east coast of England. Ruth is 40 and lives alone in an isolated cottage on the marshes. (There are only two other cottages nearby.) She’s a keen and able academic, bringing an enthusiasm to her analysis of old bones and what they tell her about the way of live of our prehistoric ancestors that is most engaging.  Ruth is content in her solitude, living with two cats after ending her relationship with Peter, another academic,  a couple of years previously. Ruth’s parents, however, are a malign influence on her inner life, as she regularly reflects on their constant disapproval of her atheist, independent lifestyle, and their criticisms of her weight and dishevelled appearance.

As the novel opens, some human bones are found at the edge of the salt marsh where Ruth lives. The police have been searching for Lucy, a child who went missing 10 years ago, so they ask the archaeology department at the university to help them examine the find. Ruth performs the analysis and is able to tell the police, in the shape of DCI Harry Nelson, that the bones date from a couple of thousand years ago. Later, Harry calls Ruth and asks her to look at taunting letters he has been receiving since Lucy’s disappearance. Despite their differences in style – Harry is a gruff northerner who is married to Michelle, a “bottle blonde” who runs a hairdressing salon, and with whom he has two teenaged daughters who like shopping and parties – whereas Ruth loves reading, walking and her solitary life away from people and noise, the two instinctively recognise that they have in common a seriousness about their rather similar lines of work.

Ruth is able to provide Harry with some leads from her analysis of the letters. Then, another young girl goes missing, presumed abducted while playing with her siblings in the family garden. Harry turns to Ruth for advice at various points in his investigation, as the mismatched pair develop a mutual respect and liking. This attraction of opposites is a really great part of the book, particularly the character of Ruth, a warm and humorous woman who despite being patronised by her male colleagues pursues her own goals without being distracted.

The mystery aspects of the story are less satisfactory, depending too much on coincidence and on a small cast of characters. Although one of the subplots is cleverly deconstructed, the other one fails to convince or explain. I don’t want to reveal some of the flaws here, as this would spoil new readers’ enjoyment of this extremely promising book – not least because it ends at a very interesting point for Ruth’s future.

The next book in this series, The Janus Stone, has recently been published, and is high up on my reading list.

Read reviews of The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone, both by Pat Austin, at Euro Crime.

Review of The Crossing Places by Peter Millar in The Times.

Interview with the author, Elly Griffiths, at Shotsmag.

The Crossing Places has been reviewed on many book blogs.

Horror in crime fiction

Lindqvist While scrolling through the (hundreds of) posts in my RSS reader the other day, my eyes idly passed by an article, I think it was on one of the Guardian blogs, that opined that the boundaries between crime fiction and horror are now so blurred that they are pretty much one and the same. I wanted to write a post disagreeing, of course, but I haven't been able to track down the original article. So instead of disagreeing with the specific article, I'll disagree with the premise.

Books that are said to blur the distinction between horror and crime fiction are, for example, American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist and almost anything by Stephen King. I haven't read either of the former two books, and have not read any Stephen King for years, until I attempted to read "Cell" over Christmas (a book I bought purely on the strength of its title, but it turned out to be about phones not biology). I didn't get very far with it, as it was a series of set pieces describing deaths in nauseating detail, with practically no plot (such as it was, the plot was done much better in the same author's The Stand many years ago).

I don't read the horror genre, but looking at the best selling "crime" novels, one sees books that dwell on the minutiae of dead bodies, ancient dead bodies, deformities, torture by, respectively, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Mo Hayder and Karin Slaughter. Whether one would call these in any sense "horror" novels, rather than an excessive interest in decay and pain, I don't know. I don't think I would.

The best-selling crime novelists in the world are, to my knowledge, James Patterson, Dan Brown and John Grisham. James Patterson writes fairly up-front violence as part of his plots, but in a comic-book sense. Dan Brown writes conventional action thrillers with a religious/symbolic element.  John Grisham mainly writes legal, courtroom-style dramas. No horror there, then.

Detective The best-selling crime authors in the UK are Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. The former writes conventional police procedural detective stories, and the latter, although she has flirted with the torture-porn genre, has moved away from that in the past few years and now writes books without that element (her initial Tony Hill novels were quite gruesome, but no longer are).

People who read crime fiction regularly will be familiar with Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Peter James, Peter Robinson, Janet Evanovich, George Pelecanos, Susan Hill, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Sue Grafton, J. D. Robb, Linwood Barclay, Mary Higgins Clark and many other top-selling novelists. One thing all these writers have in common is that their books are based on plot, not on gruesome grisle: their appeal lies in the fact that they tell a good story - sometimes dark, sometimes not – about interesting characters.

Moving to mainland Europe, the most popular authors at the moment include Andrea Camilleri, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason and Camilla Lackberg. No "blurring of the horror boundaries" in any of these novelists' work – although Jo Nesbo does like his set-pieces of baroque violence, these are limited to a (skippable) few pages in each tome, the vast majority of each being a traditional police-procedural story.

Of course I have missed out many examples here. I have also ignored some authors who do write visceral books, eg Stuart MacBride, Simon Beckett or Mark Billingham, or who like to describe lots of violence in the form of fights, shoot-outs, etc (I can't give many examples as I don't read many in this subgenre). However, a fascination with violence is not the same as horror.

To my mind, "horror" involves the supernatural in some sense – the book is about events that can't be explained. This genre goes back to Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James and stretches to James Herbert, Clive Barker and many others of whom I've never heard – culminating in the current teenage vampire fad (soon to be replaced by angels and dogs I gather) represented by Stephanie Meyer and countless other similar authors. Crime fiction, on the other hand, is about a plausible, real-world story, perhaps not explained but certainly explainable. Perhaps an analogy is the difference between "science in fiction" (Arrowsmith, Intuition) and "science fiction" (Foundation, Contact, Dune). In my mind, therefore, if it's about ghosts, vampires and other impossible constructs, it isn't crime fiction.

Book review: Where the Dead Lay by David Levien

Levien David Levien’s second novel to feature PI Frank Behr certainly lives up to the promise of the first, City of the Sun.  As Where the Dead Lay opens, Behr is distraught to discover the dead body of his jiu-jitsu teacher and close friend, Aurelio Santos. Aurelio has obviously been murdered, so Behr calls in the police, who aren’t too sympathetic. Behr is determined to discover who killed his friend, but despite his best efforts, he can’t find any leads.

While Behr is mourning his loss, he receives a call from a large investigation agency, asking for an appointment. The CEO and his lawyer want Behr to find two of their operatives, who have gone missing, Behr being a lot cheaper than the $300 per hour in lost fees the missing men’s colleagues would cost the agency to assign to the case. Despite needing the money, Behr turns them down, as he’s suspicious of their secretiveness. Soon afterwards, Behr’s old police supervisor and nemesis, Lieutenant Pomeroy, contacts Behr and asks him if he will take on the same case, hinting that Behr may be reconsidered for the police force if he does. Behr can’t resist this incentive, so finds himself tracking down an illegal gambling racket among the decrepit low-rent and abandoned neighbourhoods of Indianapolis.

The reader has a little bit more of an idea than Behr as to what is going on – part of the enjoyment of this novel is seeing how Behr is going to discover the pieces of the jigsaw that we have been told about, and fit them together. To reveal any more would be to spoil this excellent, traditional detective novel, but suffice it to say that the plot is a good, strong one with lots of satisfying, disparate elements to delight the keen crime-fiction reader.

Where the Dead Lay is more than an action thriller, though.  Behr is a lost soul, whose world view can be summarised as  “…it was a shit world, lousy with fear and not knowing and death, full of people in a constant state of panic and desolation, the more they learned the more the truth swam away…”. Part of this novel is about the possibility of a new start for Behr, and whether  he can put behind him the tragedies of his past – all the more tragic because of his own culpability.

There’s a little too much fascination with bodybuilding and fighting in this novel for my own taste, but other than that, Where the Dead Lay is a very good read indeed. When I first started reading it I was prepared to be a bit disappointed, because I thought what worked so well in City of the Sun (Levien’s debut) was the juxtaposition of Behr’s world and that of his clients, a suburban couple. When I realised that there was to be no “client” in this second book, rather that the plot seemed as if it was going to depend on Behr’s discovery of a friend’s body (a friend not mentioned in the first book), I admit to a few doubts. But I needn’t have worried, the book is solid and engrossing, with Behr an attractively flawed protagonist, sensitive as well as macho. I was particularly entranced by the subplot of Behr’s relationship with his sort-of girlfriend Susan.

You can enjoy Where The Dead Lay without having read City of the Sun, but you’ll understand Behr more if you’ve read the first novel, in particular the events of his past that triggered his lasting depression, and why he is no longer in the police force but yearns to return as part of his internal quest for a family. David Levien has written two excellent novels in a series that I hope will continue for many future titles.

My review of City of the Sun.

Other reviews of Where the Dead Lay at:

The Mystery Reader

The Agony Column


I thank the publisher, Bantam Press, for my copy of this novel.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Rigbey

R Every now and again, you read a book that is truly original – not perhaps the best-written book ever, or the sort of book that will win literary prizes, but a book that really sticks in the mind for years. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow is one example, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo another. For “R” in this series, I am choosing such a book – Total Eclipse by Liz Rigbey, which I read back in 1995. It’s a novel I’ve kept since then and shall definitely read again one day.

The story is about a group of astronomers in northern California, one of whom, Julia, is accused of murder.  Despite the seemingly cast-iron evidence against her, Lomax (another of the group, and in love with Julia) decides to prove her innocent of the crime. The rest of the novel tells the story of this task. This is a very exciting novel indeed. It was so refreshing to read a convincing novel about scientists, by an author who had certainly done her research. Another aspect that struck me at the time (but perhaps would not seem so strange 15 years after the novel was written) was that all the characters Lomax encounters on his journey to uncover the truth are female, representing a range of professions. The outcome of the novel perhaps does not quite match up to the suspense and the telling of it, but it's nevertheless a superb read. 

The Wall Street journal said of this novel: “gripping, creepy, moving and suspenseful….This one-of-a-kind book is a comedy of manners, a sexually charged romance, a science problem, a detective story, a courtroom thriller – and one heck of an impressive debut”.

Of course I eagerly awaited Liz Rigbey’s next novel, which came along in 2003, called   Summertime. This novel was also very good, about a woman’s search to find out why someone Summertime  murdered her father, a retired geology professor, and in the process discovers hidden truths about her own past. Although I recommend this book as a superior thriller, it does not have quite the impact of Total Eclipse.

Looking to see if Liz Rigbey has written any more books since then, I see she (now called “Elizabeth” Rigbey) has written one other novel, The Hunting Season, in 2007. From the blurb: “The rugged Rocky Mountains are a place some go to hide inside, some to escape into and others to hunt in. Dr Matt Seleckis has never been one for the woods: he remembers his childhood vacations there with his mother and father; and the looming threat of an unexplained death. Now Matt lives in Utah with his wife and young son. Yet the prospect of a hunting trip alone with his father is bringing back dark, unwelcome memories of a certain vacation, of his beloved parents. And of a hushed-up tragedy that he’s sure concerns him. But with the arrival of these unsettling memories comes the creeping realisation that in nature, death for the unwary lies around every corner.” One I shall be ordering!

Liz Rigbey does not appear to have her own website, and it's not that easy to find reviews of her novels.

Maxim Jakubowski writes a brief review of Summertime at the Guardian.

Total Eclipse at Amazon UK.

Fantastic Fiction has the author listed twice, once as Liz (reviews of Total Eclipse and Summertime) and once as Elizabeth (reviews of Total Eclipse and The Hunting Season, but not Summertime).

Publisher website (Penguin) for Summertime and The Hunting Season. Total Eclipse was published by Orion, but does not feature on the publisher's current website.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

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

Online social networks, 2: getting it right

Ladybird_ITA2 If you are a user of a social network, you aren't interested in whether or not it makes money, you just want it to do whatever it is you need. This may seem obvious, but I think it poses a problem for social network "owners" – users will just go off somewhere better on a whim (as happened with MySpace). Stuffing the network full of advertising, even if that were a viable business model, is not appealing to many users either.

Of course, for a user it is easy to say what's right about a social network. It should enable you to do what it is you want to do, easily, without distractions but with "targeted serendipity". I am increasingly aware that the power of the internet is not to do with speed – these days, if there is a world-shattering event or someone famous dies, I duck. First Twitter, then blogs, are instantly filled with many identical observations. In my opinion, there is no news that can't wait for a day to be read at leisure in the newspaper. I, like everyone else, am very busy so I don't want to read the same thing over and over again, usually with no added value or insight to the other people's posts.

So, what the internet is good for is filtering. This is why for me, the best social networks are Friend Feed and Nature Network, supported by an RSS reader (Google Reader), Twitter, and, recently, this Typepad blog. Other people will prefer other social networks depending on their needs. There is no relationship, from the user perspective, with the number of people on a network and its success. What is important to the user is the quality of the other users, not the quantity. That way, you can have what I've called here "targeted serendipity", eg "I know I like Bernadette's book reviews so even though I've never heard of this author I'll read this book on the basis of her review" or "I really don't need to add another blog right now to my reading list but Kerrie recomends Margot's blog, so I'll take a look" (that's how I discovered one of my very favourite blogs, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist).

Why do I like the networks that I like?

Friend Feed is a microblogging service that, unlike Twitter, allows you to aggregate posts into groups or "rooms" based round a common interest. Friend Feed also allows you to integrate much of your online activity into one place (your profile), and to see other people's activities on those platforms. If I don't use any of the 40 or so websites that FF supports, but I am interested in you and you do, I can use FF to see your activity on those platforms. If I don't like your contributions to FF, I can block you specifically so that I don't see anything you write. If I visit another social network so don't want that duplicated on FF, I can block that network. The end result is a highly personalised web service which I primarily use to discuss books and reviews of those books with a small group (172 at last count) of people round the world who (mostly) like the same type of book.

Nature Network is a group of blogs and forums whose content is entirely provided by users, most of whom are scientists or interested in science communication of some kind. it is free to use. It is not as technically sophisticated as some of the other platforms, but its main pleasures are the concentration of scientifically minded people who share interesting opinions, and the personalities of those people, most of whom are charming, witty, argumentative (in the nicest sense of the word!), creative and friendly. What NN lacks in technical sophistication it more than makes up for in its customer service: the NN team of about half a dozen publishers, editors, community managers and programmers are always at the end of an email if anything goes wrong, and regularly take part in the conversations. What a breath of fresh air in an increasingly "outsourced" world, to know that one can ask Lou, Matt, Jo or Ian (say) something, and get a thoughtful answer from a real person.

Google Reader. This isn't a social network really, though it tries to be. It is the way in which I read and comment on blogs – all the blogs I regularly read are delivered to one website (Google Reader) so I only have to access one site instead of every single blog I read. GR is introducing more and more social features, eg you can see your "friends' " choices of blog reading, you can "like" someone's blog posts and see how many other people feel the same, you can easily email posts to people. However, I don't see my use of GR changing significantly from being my window to blogs and to keep me in touch with what those bloggers are writing and conversing about at their own sites.

Typepad. Six Apart, the company that makes the Typepad blogging platform, have introduced a lot of changes over the past year. One of these is that the blog dashboard is now a way to connect to and follow other Typepad bloggers and people with a Typepad profile. When I log on now, I see posts and comments from the people I follow. I use this service a bit – i.e. I follow five people, only two of whom have Typepad blogs. I think this service would be more useful if I read more Typepad blogs, but most of the blogs I read seem to be on Blogger – Typepad and WordPress are in a minority. The Typepad system does work, though, because I do comment on Kim's blog Reading Matters more frequently through seeing her posts and comments every day in my dashboard, and similarly for Ben of Material Witness. I'd do the same for It's a Crime! blog and Random Jottings blog also, but their bloggers don't seem to be part of the new system, as yet. (Incidentally, I like Typepad very much, not strictly on-topic for this post, but their customer service is also great, once again staffed by real people who go the extra mile, totally unlike Google's automated forums.)

Twitter. I do see the use for Twitter now, but again, I am so pressed for time that I don't follow anyone who uses the service to "chat" about their daily comings, goings and musings. I follow two or three individuals who share common interests, a couple of lists, and apart from that, organisations (eg publishers, publications) who post links to articles or books that I am likely to want to read. Twitter is a similar service to Friend Feed but its aggregation is by hash tag (created by all the users interested in one topic, eg a conference or a TV programme or a joke on a theme) rather than by "rooms". You can't build up a conversation on Twitter in the same way that you can on Friend Feed, but it is increasingly popular as a way to communicate about or during a mass event.

Facebook. I think this is the world's most popular social networking site, and the one that seems to be making the most out of the current fad for mobile applications. I don't use it myself apart from maintaining a presence there as it does not fit any of my lifestyle needs, but I can understand why it is very popular when I see how young people I know use it to keep in touch – with year groups from school or college, to share photos, to arrange events, share mutual jokes,  and so on. It's cheaper and more efficient than the phone. It is carrying an increasing amount of advertising, and it will be interesting to see if it goes the way of MySpace and becomes essentially unusable because of the quantity and quality of ads. It will also be interesting to see if it continues to annoy its users by introducing new features without asking them first, then having to backtrack (as happened to Google with Google Buzz).

Well, this post is a bit of an incoherent information dump, but I enjoyed writing down what I like about certain social networks. I doubt that any of them will make money by following my advice, but they will have some happy users!

Disclaimer: I am aware there are lots of other social networks out there, and have even used quite a few of them. I'm just focusing here on the ones I like, and return to regularly.

Earlier post: Online social networks, 1: getting it wrong.