Photo (real) this is it

IMG_0012 Pictured right are the books that I acquired last week, partly as a result of my trip to the London Book Fair (a lovely description of which is provided by Karen at Euro Crime blog) when I received a few from Karen and a few from publishers there; partly the fruits of my weakness in joining yet another book club and getting seven books for 99 p each plus a free one; partly a book I'd requested from a publisher (for the title as much as anything else, Water Blue Eyes); and partly a couple of unsolicited books from another publisher. Quite a challenging week, even for me.

This week, which is about to end, I acquired a more usual ballpark total of five books. One was requested by me from Karen to review for Euro Crime; one landed on the Nature Book Review shelves and was diverted to me by a kind colleague who had heard I was interested in Scandinavian crime fiction; one was sent to me by a publisher; and two more were sent unsolicited by another publisher (I have to say, the same publisher who sent me two unsolicited books the previous week!). 

So, fun though it will be to read most of these books (the free gift and at least one of the unsolicited ones are not for me), I think I will have to book them in for 2015. Or, as my kind camera-owning associate wrote (message in toto) when emailing me the illustration: Photo (real) this is it. 


Waterstone’s Quarterly interview with Ian McEwan

Solar_article  I enjoyed browsing through the latest edition of Waterstone's Books Quarterly ,which I was given at the checkout last weekend after spending vast sums of money on some volumes for someone I live with. The highlight, for me, was a Q/A with author Ian McEwan, the questions being by Waterstone's customers, mainly about his latest novel Solar (which I am so much looking forward to reading). Here is my favourite bit:

Q: What has been the biggest change in you as a writer in …35 years and what has been the biggest change in publishing?

A: The biggest change in me probably came sometime in the early 1980s – becoming a father, stopping writing for a while and then going back to write A Child In Time [is this or Atonement my favourite book by this magnificent author?] . A sort of shift took place around that time. [Me too.] As for publishing, I can only draw on my own experience. Publishing in the 1970s was still a rather dusty, gentlemanly affair. It was still the time of the long two-bottle lunch and accountants were of very little importance. Not much money was made and one distrusted any writer who sold more than a couple of thousand copies of a book. I don't think novelists in those times were the subject of gossip columns, either. So everything has become a little louder, a little more vulgar, a little more trashy, a little more celebrity-conscious, sales-conscious. Less sleepy and considerably more sparky. More fun in lots of ways.

Solar is reviewed in the current issue of Nature (28 April 2010). Read more about the book at the author's website.

What to read in August?

"Most publishers reduce their new book output in August, leaving space for the new hopefuls to shine", writes Sarah Broadhurst in the 23 April Bookseller in her introduction to the paperback preview for that month. Looking through her selections of what is on offer, I 
Herrings  see quite a few that might be tempting to take along on holiday, notably The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, a truly dark Norwegian crime novel and what looks to be the only translated novel in this set. (Translated by Charlotte Barslund, who I can now state with authority is both charming and exceedingly glamorous.) Elly Griffiths's second Ruth Galloway novel, The Janus Stone, is out in paperback. I very much enjoyed the first, The Crossing Places, and in fact have the hardback of the second on my shelf from the ever-generous publisher, Quercus. I'm certainly looking forward to that.

Also out is Neil Cross's bleak little number, Captured, which is, as the Bookseller puts it, a "brutal tale of revenge getting out of hand…very much a one-sitting book". I can also recommend David Levien's Where the Dead Lay, but I think it is best appreciated if you have read the first, City of the Sun. Books that I haven't read, but which look good, are The Flesh Tailor, Kate Ellis's latest Wesley Peterson story; All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney, Ravens by George Dawes Green – "a quiet build of menacing terror….a domestic thriller with great characterisation"; Ten Little Herrings by L. C. Tyler;
Wash shad   Washington Shadow by Aly Monroe; and All the Pretty Girls by J T Ellison, the UK debut of a US bestselling series.

There are a few "top sellers" due out, of course. Among them are The Complaints by Ian Rankin; The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell; U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton; and A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah. Skipping over a few unappealing-looking novels, I'll conclude this post by mentioning Think of a Numb3er by John Verdun, a paperback original "full of tension and intrigue as weird puzzles mystify the police." Hard to believe it is a first novel, according to the Bookseller. As the "s" word (serial killer) is not mentioned, perhaps I will take a further look at this one.

Newbooks crime-fiction supplement

Nb mag I picked up a copy of newbooks magazine (May/June issue) in W H Smiths the other weekend, no doubt because of the words "including our special crime-fiction supplement" on the cover. The magazine itself is for readers and reading groups, and is pretty interesting – not least containing special offers and some free giveaways on several rather good novels, including Andrea Camilleri's August Heat. (You pay the postage: I suspect this offer is for the UK only but am not sure.)

The crime-fiction supplement is certainly impressive, and I recommend you try to get hold of a copy if you can (the magazine's main website is here). It is produced in conjunction with the Theakston's Old Peculier crime writing festival, Harrogate, which this year happens on 22-25 July, and is full of articles by or about crime authors, and a few extracts. The first article is an impressive piece by M. R. Hall, author of The Coroner and The Disappeared, on why he stopped being a barrister and turned instead to crime - in the authorial sense, that is - and, indeed, why he chose a coroner as his main character. He writes: "It seems to me that we live in a society which as sought not only to insulate itself from death, but which has increasingly lost the emotional mechanisms and belief systems for dealing with it."

I enjoyed reading the other articles, most particularly one by R. J. Ellory about his awful childhood, his persistence in pursuing his dream of being a writer, and why he chose crime fiction as his topic. (He has now published many successful novels, including A Quiet Belief in Angels and The Anniversary Man.) There are short reviews of new books, alerts of forthcoming titles, and more.

I highly recommend this crime supplement – if you can't get hold of it via the parent magazine, it might be worth trying the Harrogate festival office directly, as I would not be at all surprised if they turn out to have the odd copy.

Mysteries of the catalogue

I am slowly reading though the publishers' catalogues that I picked up at my recent trip to the London Book Fair. Although an increasing number of publishers are producing online-only catalogues, and one can only approve of this activity, I am always pleased to receive or get hold of a printed edition where one exists, for ad-hoc browsing.

Sunset  One of these catalogues caused me to smile quite a few times in its bizarre descriptions of its books. Here is a lovely example:

"Scrupulously honest Amish-born cartographer John Graef teams up with outlaw prospector and gemologist David Freeman in a ferocious race to be the first to find the treasure and solve the centuries old Tavernier Stones mystery." Sounds exhausting, and that's just the blurb. The author biography just below the synopsis reads "xxx xxx is a cartographer and gemologist. This is his first book." Delightful!

Later in the same catalogue, here is a description of a book in its entirety: "Could Dr Brian Eddy, plastic surgeon to the rich and famous, possibly be the Blonde Bomber serial killer? Packed with everything from homeless kittens to Mob connections, this mystery is messier than a chicken parmigiana sandwich." Er, that is supposed to make you want to buy the book? 

Book review: The Last Fix by K. O. Dahl, translated by Don Bartlett

Last fix The Last Fix is a very enjoyable, if ultimately sad, police procedural set in Oslo, Norway. Katrine, a young woman who works part-time in a travel agent, is attacked by a customer demanding money. Shaken by this event, Katrine’s older colleague, Elise, makes the girl admit that the attack had something to do with her past. The events and mystery of Katrine’s past are the driving force of what follows. 
The next day, a group of social workers and other colleagues at a drug rehabilitation centre have a party. Many of the staff are late-middle-aged Norwegians who tended to socialist radicalism as students, now leading comfortable if boring lifestyles. After a horrible murder occurs, not described directly but which the reader realises later in the novel was truly nasty, the Oslo police dissect the lives of this rather smug group. 

It is the police detectives who form one of the many joys of this novel. One of them is tall, thin Gunnarstranda, with his comb-over, his private grief, his goldfish and his acerbic relationship with his immediate deputy Frolich. Frolich is solid physically and torn between his sensuous relationship with his girlfriend and his loyalty for his job. Frolich often grumbles and is resentful at Gunnarstranda, but the older man is a strong mentor to the younger, patiently and wordlessly leading Frolich to make deductions that he, Gunnarstranda, has already worked out. The other detectives appear only fleetingly but one of them in particular has a lovely cameo in which he tells a hilarious story – strangely convincing even though impossible –  about his experience once in catching a pike and taking it home for tea.

The framework of the novel is a staple classic of crime-fiction: there is a group of witnesses and possible suspects; the police interview them all and try to reconstruct the crime and hence find out who was responsible for a particularly cruel murder. In parallel, under the surface, the story is replete with acutely presented social commentary and insight. Broadly, there are two main elements to the investigation: the victim’s current lifestyle and associates; and the group of older people, at least one or more of whom must have figured in the past. Revelations come from within both elements which lead to an eventual solution, but the truth only emerges when the past is fully uncovered and the police can make the complete deduction. 

In common with the best of crime fiction, this novel is much to do with false perceptions and the author’s ability, aided and abetted by translator supreme, Don Bartlett, to throw the reader off the track, both directly and via letting the reader draw the wrong conclusion from what some of the witnesses say or think. Re-reading the first chapter of the book near the end, when the visit to the travel agent’s is retold from another point of view, is one of many examples in which it can be seen how the police, other characters and the reader can be fooled into making the wrong assumption. The very title of the novel also falls into this category.

I highly recommend this absorbing novel.  A review is too brief a space to touch on all the aspects of it that I liked, but there is lots of black humour and observational philosophy in the interplay between the police, and a genuine, deep humanity in the initially sparse but gradually fleshed-out tale of the central character.

The publisher (Faber) is not very helpful in first, publishing this series out of order (in translation); and second in not providing a chronological list of the titles in the front of the book. The Last Fix is the most recent to be published in English, but in fact is second in the series as a whole. The other two that have been translated so far are The Man in the Window (no 3) and The Fourth Man (no 5). 

I am so glad that I’ve finally read a novel by K. O. Dahl. What took me so long? I don’t know, something to do with the strange order of English translations, I think.  But now that I have addressed the situation, I can confidently write that The Last Fix is easily as good as one of the Kurt Wallander novels of Henning Mankell (Sweden), and has much in common with them.


K.O. Dahl at Euro Crime (link to author's website in Norwegian, and list of translated books in chronological reading order)

A sneek peek of The Last Fix (opening paragraphs) is available at Euro Crime blog.

Other reviews of The Last Fix: Nordic Bookblog; The Independent (Barry Forshaw); and at  International Noir Fiction (thoughtful and insightful review by Glenn Harper, as usual).

Interview with the author at Scene of the Crime blog.

Alphabet in crime fiction: re-up

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise gave participants until the end of this week to write a wrap-up post to report our progress in her crime-fiction alphabet game. She's collecting them up at her blog. As it is now Friday evening in the UK I have left it a bit late, but nevertheless, here is my contribution.

I was a bit hesitant to start the task of writing a post every week for 26 weeks, but because I noticed a suitable book on my shelves for "A", I thought I'd at least start. I soon very much got into the swing of it, sometimes referring to published reviews, sometimes writing a small piece about an author and sometimes writing a straight book review. I very much enjoyed both writing my own posts and reading the other participants'.

As usual I took a boring option and decided to write about an author each week who has a surname beginning with that week's letter. Like everyone else, I found Q and X a bit of a challenge, but managed to rise to it.  My complete set of posts can be read in reverse chronological order here. 

Here is my alphabetical list of posts:

A: Hunt by A. Alvarez

B: Desmond Bagley

C: Robert Crais

D: Lief Davidsen

E: Kjell Eriksson, Ake Edwardson and Martin Edwards

F: Karin Fossum

G: Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser

H: The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell

I: Susan Isaacs

J: Mari Jungstedt

K: Gene Kerrigan

L: Asa Larsson

M: Liza Marklund

N: Ingrid Noll

O: Like Clockwork by Margie Orford

P: The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer

Q: Sheila Quigley

R: Liz (Elizabeth) Rigbey

S: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

T: Snow Angels by James Thompson

U: Nicola Upson

V: Andrew Vachhs

W: Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

X: Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

Y: A Certain Malice by Felicity Young

Z: Dark Matter by Juli Zeh.

Thank you very much, Kerrie, for such an enjoyable exercise. I look forward to the next one!

Book review: Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta

Thumbnail_78  Translation: Antony Shugaar.

In the north-eastern part of Italy, near Venice, lies a small town which is home to some of the oldest and noblest families in the country. Francesco Vitelin, scion of one of these privileged few, is about to marry Giovanna, the daughter of another.  Francesco has his own law office, and Giovanna works at the law office of Francesco’s father Antonio. Francesco looks up to his father, and having proved his independence, plans to join his father’s practice after his marriage. He has specialised in corporate law, planning to help promote the consortium of local industries that exports wines and other produce from the region, bringing wealth and enabling cultural growth to preserve the national heritage in an increasingly globalised world.

Right at the start of the novel, the first crack in the idyll happens, and it is seismic. Giovanna is murdered on the night before her wedding. Francesco is enjoying his bachelor’s party at the time, though his friends’ lewd and drunk activities are beginning to pall. He has a fight with Filippo, an old enemy who was Giovanna’s previous lover, then goes home to bed. Next morning, he eventually finds Giovanna’s body and, distraught, reports his discovery to the police.

The facade begins to come down, piece by piece. In this wonderfully economic and black novel, we see events mainly through the eyes of an instinctively trusting and decent man. Slowly we realise that all is not what it seems. Everyone seems to have a secret, and as the investigation continues, this escalates from the small to the all-encompassing, from the personal to the professional. At the same time, the characters are all fully alive, and the plot is beautifully structured as brick upon brick comes out of the shaky edifice of the upper-class, traditionalist miasma that surrounds everything and infiltrates everywhere.

Poisonville is simply a perfect novel: bleak, unsentimental and focused. I loved it. Even though it did not take me long to work out the bare bones of what was going on (based on a helpful prologue), and I soon guessed the identity of the criminal, I enjoyed so much following all the trails and seeing how everything was going to pan out. I found there were plenty of surprises in store that I hadn’t anticipated, and I was really sad to turn the last page.

La Stampa wrote “Whoever begins this book must necessarily finish it. And whoever finishes it will never forget it – it’s a book that haunts one’s memory”.  The hell described in Poisonville is compelling because it isn’t “just” a crime novel, and isn’t striving for effect. It is a classic tale, told with apparent simplicity, but with a huge motivation of social justice and standing up for the truth. Because this aim is understated, the book is neither preachy nor shallow, but effective, sad and haunting.

I have not read any novels by Massimo Carlotto before, but have often decided to on the basis of reading reviews at or by Crime Scraps (see here for one example). I am very glad I’ve finally achieved this goal, and shall now seek out other books by the author, a man who spent many years on the run after being falsely accused of murder, and who wrote about his experiences in his novel The Fugitive.

Read other reviews of Poisonville at:

International Noir Fiction (Glenn Harper)

Time Out Chicago

Woody Haut's blog

Poisonville at the publisher website (Europa editions).

A European view of current crime-fiction favourites

AlfaEvery month the Bookseller provides a list of the bestsellers in the previous month in some European countries. This time (9 April issue) it is the turn of Germany, Sweden, Spain and France. Crime isn't featuring too much in the German lists for March, with the only top-10 entries being Ausgelöscht (Abandoned) by Corey McFadyen at number 3 and Todesspiele (Kill for Me) by Karen Rose at 9. The rest do not look to me as if they are crime fiction.
In Sweden, however, it is a different story, with the eagerly awaited (by me) Postcard Killers (Swedish title) by Liza Marklund and A. N. Other (forgotten his name;-) ) at number 1. Also in the top ten are Kniven i hjartat (The Knife in the Heart) by B Ranelid (4), Alfahannen (The Alpha Male) by Katarina Wennstrom (5), Den förlorade symbolen (no translation necessary) by some guy or other (6), Gatans Iag (The Brass Verdict) by Michael Connelly (7), Dödsmässa (Midnight Fugue) by Reginald Hill (8), Oroligh blod (Blood's a Rover) by J Ellroy (9) and Tedags for normalt.….(!) (Tea Time for the Coben
Sangre  ….[which I fill in as] the Traditionally Built] by Alexander McCall Smith (10). Can you imagine the UK top-10 chart with 6 titles originally written in other languages, and a total of 8 crime-fiction titles? 

Moving to Spain, the only two non-Spanish-language titles in March's top 10 are Sangre derramada (The Blood Spilt, Swedish) by Asa Larsson (9) and El simbolo perdido (who was that author again?) at 10. The previous eight, from what I can tell, don't seem to be crime fiction, although number 1, El asedio (The Siege) by A Pérez-Reverte is by a man sometimes (incorrectly?) classified as a crime author.

In France, number one is Sans lassier d'adresse , translated in the chart as With No Address to Follow (!)* by Harlan Coben. Apart from that, the only crime novel in the list seems to be Le symbole perdu (er….), at 7.

Of course, these lists don't mean very much as they are determined to some extent by when novels are translated into the languages concerned. I'm quite struck, though, by how many bestselling novels in these countries are translated, compared with similar charts in the US and UK (what about Australia and New Zealand, both English-language charts but which I don't usually see each week?).

I can't imagine anything like the Swedish list in the UK. Here, all three novels by Stieg Larsson are currently riding very high (the third having just come out in paperback and the film of the first on general release a month or so ago) – but there are no other translated novels in the top 50.

*Actual US/UK title: Long Lost.

Book review: Still midnight, by Denise Mina

Still Midnight"She knows the difference between good and bad. She’s just not sure which she prefers…” So reads the inaccurate cover blurb on Denise Mina’s latest novel, Still Midnight.  The novel is, in fact, a tale of a Glasgow kidnapping gone wrong, told from two points of view – that of the perpetrators, who are hapless, unintelligent, fantasist lowlifes; and that of DS Alex Morrow, a neurotic, unpopular yet competent police detective. 
The kidnapping is planned by Eddy, a failed person on many counts but, as seen through co-conspirator Pat’s eyes, dangerous. The two men attack a suburban house at night, with the aim of kidnapping a man called Bob. Eddy has it on good authority from his Irish contacts that Bob’s family will pay a ransom of a million pounds to get him back. The third member of the trio is Malki, Pat’s heroin-addicted young cousin, who is to drive the getaway vehicle. Inevitably, the attack goes wrong on several counts, but Eddy and Pat do kidnap someone, and manage to get away with their victim.

Alex is one of the police officers called to the scene of the crime. She’s initially excited because it is her turn for the next case, but her hopes are soon dashed when her unfriendly boss, DI McKenchie, gives the job to her hated colleague DS Bannerman. Alex feels herself to be an outsider as she has achieved her rank on merit, whereas Bannerman is from a police family and so she feels he gets preferential treatment and is “one of the boys” – which Alex very definitely is not, going out of her way to be unpleasant to all her colleagues.

The rest of the story is told in alternating passages from the perspectives of the kidnappers (mainly Pat) and the police (exclusively Alex). I found it very slow-paced, and the sections about the kidnappers quite boring as well as unpleasant. Alex is by far the most interesting, intelligent and (as far as witnesses are concerned) sensitive character in the book –  although I really did not like her persistent crude swearing and in particular use of the "c" word – yet the revelations about the shadows in her personal life which give her depth are rather long in coming.

The novel comes to life towards the end, as the pace speeds up with plot twists and turns among the relationships between the kidnappers and their families; and the victims and theirs. I am not quite sure whether I liked this curate’s egg of a book sufficiently to want to read the next  in the series, if there is one – it is a fairly standard plot, though the family and friends of the victims are well-observed.  I’ll be better disposed to a next book if it focuses more Alex’s personal and professional life, and less on the ins and outs of the tedious activities of stupid but violent villains.

 Author website
(possibly not updated very recently as this book, just out in paperback in the UK, does not seem to be on it). Among other books, the website features the author's Garnethill trilogy, which I liked very much indeed, and her Paddy Meehan series, which on the basis of having read the first, was not to my taste.

Denise Mina at the publisher's (Orion) website.

Short review of Still Midnight at The Guardian.

Crime Time review of Still Midnight.

Independent review of Still Midnight.