Euro Crime reviews in March

Although I haven’t been around in real-time much during March, three of my reviews were published at Euro Crime this month:

Yours Until Death by Gunnar Staalesen , a Norwegian novel first published about 30 years ago, but well worth reading now both for its traditional, Marlowe-style PI and for its social-political observations.

Meet Me in Malmo by Torquil MacLeod, a debut novel from a British author who has spent much time in Malmo, Sweden, which shows to advantage. There’s a strong female police detective within the pages, who is apparently set to return in future books.

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon, a typical outing for Comissario Brunetti of the Venice police. This one features various kinds of fraud – legal, superstitious, financial and others.

Reviews submitted but not yet published include Blood Sisters by Alessandro Perissinotto, The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler, Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon and The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I believe that the first two of these are eligible for the 2011 CWA International Dagger (unlike the books reviewed in March, which although mainland European in setting are either too old or not translated, so do not qualify).

Start the e-revolution without me!

Last week the New York Times looked at the deal that the popular self-published author Amanda Hocking signed to have some of her books produced the old-fashioned way. It’s a good piece, but perhaps even more interesting is the blog post by Amanda Hocking herself, explaining why she signed the deal given that she is making so much money out of selling her books herself. The bottom line is that she is paying the publisher to do the things that take her an enormous amount of time (marketing, editing, cover art, formatting, etc) so that she can do what she wants to do most, which is writing. It’s a maturely argued post and well worth a read. Many of her previous blog entries attest to the amount of time and effort Ms Hocking has spent on being her own publisher, on functions that she has now (in large part) outsourced. (Mysterious Matters has recently posted on the value of “traditional” publishing, a lot more than 99 cents per book.)
On the same theme, but a different author and approach, Lee Harris of Angry Robot books describes on Future ebook blog how he came to publish a novel by Adam Christopher, essentially via a Twitter relationship. Again, it’s a great post and well worth reading as an example of how an author can constructively use social media to become published. Even though the “Twitter” headlines are appealing, note that this deal did not come about overnight! Rather, it seems, the author acted in effect as his own agent, and the rest of the story is quite traditional.
Not the end.
Neither of these two examples signals the “end” of book publishing. Both these authors have struck deals because they are writing good books, and have convinced a publisher of that fact. Very many people are publishing their books themselves, over the past few years as print on demand or e-books on sites such as Lulu, and more recently via Smashwords in a range of e-formats for platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle, allowing them access to a potentially huge ready-made universe of people searching for books to read. If you enjoy reading science fiction, “erotica”, horror, about the paranormal, fantasy, or non-fiction along the lines of self-help or business success, your range of choice has never been better!
For any discerning reader who has a necessarily limited number of hours a week in which to read, the idea that “more is better” is simply not true. Book publishers provide a filter for what they see as the “best” books. I choose what to read based on a mixture of factors, such as having liked an author’s previous novel, coming across an interesting debut via one of the book websites I regularly visit, trusting a publisher’s output, reading reviews, and so on. I would be very unlikely to read a book because it is on the “top 100” list of books available in Kindle format for 70 pence (or 99 cents), however many people have awarded a particular example 5 stars. Of course, in today’s economic climate there are many good authors who are unfairly not published, particularly if their first couple of books have sold modestly, and this is a pity. But it also has to be said that from the readers’ perspective, there are more than enough books being published to last anyone several lifetimes.
Peaceful coexistence.
For authors, I do not think it is right to suggest there is a war between “indie” (self-published) authors and those who have been published by an “external” publisher. This post at Kindle review sets out the terms of the publishing revolution as it sees it – that there is an unfair monarchy of publishers which is ripe for the French revolution to hack it down. I disagree. I am pleased that anyone who has written a book can now not only publish it him or herself but also promote it via hugely powerful sites such as Amazon. I am pleased also that some of them can make good money at it (though many others will be lucky to sell half a dozen copies). But I would not be pleased if I had no way of telling (other than by enthusiasts’ 5 star reviews) who, other than the author, had judged that the book is objectively interesting, or whether I’d be reading something that has been professionally edited. The publishing industry is not perfect; publishers annoy me intensely by practices for e-books that hamper the reader, such as agency pricing and nonsensical geographical rights restrictions. But publishers offer us readers a great service, producing engrossing books at a price that is usually very reasonable (compare the cost of a book with that of a cinema, theatre or concert ticket).

Free Fire by C J Box

I’ve just finished another Joe Pickett novel by C J Box. I apologise for the somewhat monotonic run of book reviews just at the moment – I am reading books by other authors but either am reviewing them for Euro Crime or not reviewing them (before this latest C J Box I read the whopping Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope, a marvellously perceptive novel but I feel an amateur review from me of a classic novel would be somewhat pointless). So, here are my thoughts on Free Fire.

The seventh novel about outdoorsman Joe Pickett and his family is the first in which he is not a game warden employed by the Wyoming fish and wildlife service. Joe is honest, unpolitical, and hardworking – hence deeply unpopular with institutional types, not least his bosses, so has ended up without a job. He’s on the radar of the state’s extremely eccentric Governor Rulon, who at the start of this novel offers Joe temporary re-employment if Joe will go as his secret representative to Yellowstone Park to look into a bizarre two-year-old murder case that has recently come back to public attention owing to the release from jail of the presumed perpetrator. Joe reluctantly accepts the offer, partly as his only other option is to continue working as head ranch hand for his mother-in-law’s husband, and partly because he is drawn to return to Yellowstone for reasons that are later made apparent to the reader.

This plot is a dual refreshment for the series, both in taking Joe out of his usual stamping ground of Saddlestring, and in giving him a different job than his usual one of ensuring wildlife regulations are kept. This naturalistic author’s main strengths are in his depiction of Joe’s family dynamics (his wife MaryBeth, an increasingly successful businesswoman, and his rapidly growing-up daughters); and in his mastery of his location. Free Fire is, I think, particularly strong in this last respect. At its core, the author is deeply in love with all aspects of Yellowstone, and succeeds in pulling the reader in to share his enthusiasm and knowledge of the park’s natural history, management, landscape and ominous geology – not an easy task to provide as much detail without being pedagogical, but here it works. The plotting is well-paced and satisfyingly convoluted, though some threads are started but abandoned for no obvious reason.

Most long-running series that I have read come at some point to providing back story for the protagonist(s). Joe is a laconic, even taciturn, individual, so it perhaps is not surprising that we have not learnt anything about his past until this book. Here, the author uses the shift of location to Yellowstone to provide a trigger for Joe’s memories of his many childhood days spent there, and the events that explain much about Joe’s adult persona and attitudes. I felt that Free Fire shifts this series into a different gear, and is a more rounded novel than some of the earlier ones, particularly in its inclusion of sophisticated science, technology and legal issues into the environmental-political themes that are the norm for the series. The novel ends with a resolution of sorts to Joe’s investigation that may bring him wider recognition – but on the other hand probably won’t as the more media-savvy and politically devious layers of command above him move in on his findings. It also ends well-poised for more development in future, as we still don’t know in which direction Joe’s career is moving, although we do know that by the end of Free Fire he has a desperate personal mission to accomplish!

I have not provided a plot summary of Free Fire in this review, but there is a good one at the author’s website, which also links to many independent reviews of the novel. You can also read about Joe Pickett at the author’s website.

I purchased this novel, published in paperback in the USA by Berkley crime in 2008. Corvus is publishing the entire Joe Pickett series in the UK during 2011 (see announcement at Crime Time).

My reviews of the previous novels in the series:

Open Season (# 1)

Savage Run (# 2)

Winterkill (# 3)

Trophy Hunt (# 4)

Out of Range (# 5)

In Plain Sight (# 6)

From the web 10 – 15 March

I have been unexpectedly offline for a week and forgot to post this beforehand, so it is a bit late. Nevertheless, rather than leave it in draft I thought I’d press “publish”!

Some good book reviews this week: Keith B. Walters reviews Savage Run by C. J. Box, second in a very enjoyable series. As well as being a review of the book, Keith’s post examines why he was initially reluctant to read one of this series.

Fleur Fisher has written a very nice review of The Burning by Jane Casey. This is a good crime novel which suffers somewhat from inappropriate “packaging” (cover words and image). My review of the same book is here.

Other good reviews this week: Darkside by Belinda Bauer (review by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading); The Gallows Bird by Camilla Lackberg (review by Simon Clarke at Amazon); and Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder (review by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise).

Rob Kitchen reviews The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham. This is a popular series, enhanced by a recent TV adaptation of some of the novels. Rob’s review addresses the question of formula which, however readable and exciting each new title, can have an off-putting effect for those who prefer originality.

And among the new reviews at Euro Crime this week, Michelle Peckham reviews Colin Cotterill’s latest, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, which is not about a coroner in 1970s Laos!

Michael Walters, author of a series about crime in Mongolia, reveals a little about his new book, Trust No-One (by his alter ego Alex Walters) about an undercover police officer called Marie Donovan, to be published in September by Avon/Harper Collins.

There’s an online discussion at The Guardian about whether people trust online book reviews, Amazon’s in particular. My opinion of this question is that it is a non-question. Amazon reviews have various indications of quality – “real name”, “top xxx reviewer”, and “helpful” grades by other readers, to name but three. If one is trying to decide whether to read a book on Amazon, it does not take long to distinguish which reviews are helpful, literate, and by people who have read the book, and which are ignorant, by people’s aunties, and so on. It reminds me of those sterile debates about blog reviews “versus” reviews in newspapers and magazines.

Inspired by the book A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor and associated BBC project, you can now contribute to A History of the Future in 100 Objects. It’s an ambitious project, involving 100 blog posts, podcasts and more, so worth checking out.

I am not a fan of those lists of “books everyone should read”, and this composite of many such lists shows why. According to the various polls and lists that form the data for this cloud, the book that comes second (of all literature!) is The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you are interested, you can see how many of the books you have read that make up this particular analysis.

There are lots of ways an e-reader can be used imaginatively, but this picture shows a good one – as a teleprompter on a video camera during a photoshoot. While on the subject, there’s a good but depressing post at Scholarly Kitchen about the poor quality of free e-books that have been digitised en masse, using Jane Austen as an example. I have read about 15 books in Kindle format, and every one of them has had many gaps between lines and even within a line on occasion, but not, so far as I can tell, any actual content missing. The formatting of the Kindle version is definitely not as good as that in a printed book, though of course in an e-book one can change the font size which can be an advantage.

A non-book-related post: I’m fascinated to learn that all the moaning travellers do about the tube has a basis in fact. Last year there was only one day in which all the London Underground lines ran a good service for the day. The information was unearthed via a freedom of information act enquiry, and comes courtesy of Going Underground blog.

In Plain Sight by C J Box

The sixth Joe Pickett novel is a grim affair, which starts with Joe falling even lower in the estimation of his superiors and the bureaucracy of the US Forest and Wildlife Service, a situation which has arisen due to various changes at the top. Not only that, but the local election for sherriff, which Joe had thought could only result in an improvement on the despotic Barnum, has also made his situation worse, given the person who is now in charge. Increasingly reduced to behaving as a cog in a machine, having to gain permission from his supervisor for every action and having been assigned a truck that constantly breaks down so he can’t do even the basics of his job properly, Joe is at the end of his tether.
The plot of In Plain Sight is driven by a baddie called John Wayne Keeley, who seeks Joe to obtain revenge for a death in a previous novel – a death that was the opposite of Joe’s fault in fact. Keeley is of the blackest black, which as is so often the case renders the story less interesting. As well as suffering his immediate problems, Joe has dealings with the overbearing, feuding Scarlett family, who own a vast ranch and who regard themselves as the direct descendants of the founding fathers of Saddlestring. Joe’s daughter Sheridan is friends with Julie Scarlett, and it is a girls’ sleepover that provides Joe with the means to work out why things are going so wrong for him, and who is responsible.
In Plain Sight is not of the high standard of the previous novels in this series as well as being colder than them: Joe is a more taciturn, less sympathetic character now, having lost his essential optimism, and crosses a couple of lines that he would not have done previously. It does, however, leave the series in an interesting balance, as most of the previous certainties are now most definitely uncertain. It remains to be seen (by me) whether the author will carry through to address new horizons in the next installments, or if he will follow up on a hint in the shape of a brief interaction between Joe and a potentially powerful political ally, which could lead to a return to business as usual in future.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this novel, which was first published in 2006 by Berkley. All the Joe Pickett series is being published this year in the UK by Corvus.

My reviews of the previous novels in the series:

Open Season (# 1)

Savage Run (# 2)

Winterkill (# 3)

Trophy Hunt (# 4)

Out of Range (# 5)

From the Web 2-9 March

About books:
At Books and Writers, a review of a debut novel, White Heat, by M. J. McGrath. From the review, by Keith B. Walters, “An ice-cold crime chiller from debut novelist, M.J.McGrath, this little cracker of a book deals with murder and mystery among the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle – on the island of Craig to be specific……White Heat does what great crime books do best, it tells a good story with a great and interesting central character and has a strong secondary character – the landscape of the place in which the story plays out.” UK Amazon’s listing for the book describes the author thus: “M. J. McGrath was born in Essex. As Melanie McGrath she is the author of critically acclaimed, bestselling non-fiction (Silvertown and The Long Exile) and won the John Llewelyn-Rhys/Mail on Sunday award for Best New British and Commonwealth Writer under 35, for her first book Motel Nirvana. She writes for the national press and is a regular broadcaster on radio.”

Joanna Trollope has a new book out, Daughters in Law. Here is a BBC Breakfast video of her talking about the book and more generally about relationships between mothers and daughters-in-law. Read more about the book, including an extract, at the author’s website. The author’s 30-year writing career, and her books, are described in this brief biography.

A BBC radio programme in which bestselling author Val McDermid talks about “the rise of Emerald noir” (that’s Irish crime fiction!) is available on iPlayer (no geographical restrictions) for a few more days. The Guardian has reviewed the programme, as has Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays blog, which specialises in promoting Irish crime fiction. A good range of Irish crime fiction authors, with links to reviews of their books, is at Euro Crime. I particularly recommend Gene Kerrigan and Brian McGilloway (see the preceding two links for my reviews of their books), as well as Winterland by Alan Glynn (his first crime novel).

Some good book reviews this week: The Night Season by Chelsea Cain is reviewed at Yet Another Crime Fiction blog by Keishon. This post is a great example of how to review a book that one found disappointing and/or mediocre. The superb reviewer Bernadette takes on Liza Marklund’s Prime Time at her Reactions to Reading blog. Perhaps this book is not one of Marklund’s best but even so it is heaps better than most crime novels in my view. As well as some interesting comments this review sparked some discussion of the quality of literacy and translation over at the Friend Feed crime and mystery group. Glenn Harper, another superb reviewer, has unearthed an example of South Pacific noir at his blog International Crime Fiction: Devil-Devil by Graeme Kent. And Philip posts a review of The Facility by Simon Lelic at his blog To Be Read… a kinder review than I was able to write for this disappointing second novel after the author’s searing debut, Rupture (or 1000 Cuts). Finally of this week’s selections, Terry Halligan reviews James Thomson’s promising first novel Snow Angels at Euro Crime. My review of the same book is here; and Barbara Fister posts an interview with the author on the eve of publication of his second novel in the series, Lucifer’s Tears.

And on the miscellaneous front, some articles that caught my interest this week:
Robert Peston (BBC) on why Barclays bank has just paid its shareholders a hopeless dividend after giving huge bonuses to its leaders.
John Gapper ( has lunch with Sean Parker, said to be the driving force behind several internet companies including Napster and Facebook (he is portrayed in the film The Social Network which is just out in DVD in the UK and which I must watch, together with another new DVD release, Winter’s Bone (my review from 2007), based on the excellent book by Daniel Woodrell).
Philip Ball (Nature News) on how the images from early microscopes are a lot clearer than many have believed.
Future Book (The Bookseller, UK) on how to get a job in publishing.
Joanna Scott (Nature Network San Francisco blog) on the film Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War I. This film has been shown at the Computer History Museum in California – I am not sure if it is going to be made generally available, but here is the link to the museum’s website for those who want to watch out for it.
Guardian Technology blog: first round-up of analysis of and reactions to the Apple iPad 2.
Marbury: A world map of China (via the Economist) which instead of provinces displays the country with the nearest GDP to that province. Fascinating.

February reading and reviews

During February I have enjoyed embarking (or re-embarking) on Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. I am not reviewing these in detail, as that would be de trop, but have made a list of them, and will add a short summary of each novel as I complete it. So far, I’ve read the first two in the series, Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn; currently I am reading the third, The Eustace Diamonds. Here is the list of Trollope’s Palliser novels, in order (there are six altogether, but so far each is more than 700 pages long).

On the lighter front, some of my book reviews have been published at Euro Crime. Specifically:

The Calling of the Grave, by Simon Beckett , in which “Forensic anthropologist David Hunter continues his geographical wanderings after his experiences in Norfolk, a remote Scottish island and at Tennessee’s “murder farm” in three earlier books.” (read on here.)

Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder, tr. (from Swedish) by Marlaine Delargy “a substantial, rounded novel and a welcome newcomer to Scandinavian crime fiction.” (read on here.)

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves , “a readable novel, telling a very good narrative in which the characters really come to life.” (read on here.)

Shadow Sister by Simone van der Vlugt, tr. (from Dutch) by Michele Hutchinson, “a creepy little tale that I can highly recommend”. (read on here.)

At Petrona, I reviewed two books in the engaging Joe Pickett series, by C. J. Box: Trophy Hunt (#4) and Out of Range(#5). In addition, I reviewed Jo Nesbo’s latest Harry Hole novel, The Leopard, in a translation (from Norwegian) by Don Bartlett.