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).

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Lifestyles of the online wanderers

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

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

Favourite literary heroes

The Book Depository blog has provided the shortlist for a competition being run by Mills & Boon and the Times Cheltenham Literary festival to identify "the nation's favourite literary hero" (yuk!). Despite hating the idea of the "nation's" favourite anything, I'm quite intrigued by the concept of a favourite literary hero. Of the ones in the list provided, I would, probably obviously, choose the perfect Mr Darcy (Jane Austen's of course). I haven't read the Sharpe novels, nor the books by Jilly Cooper or Audrey Niffenegger on this list. Of the rest, I'd eliminate Heathcliff as not heroic, Oak as boring, Butler as superficial and Rochester as misogynistic (despite his rehabilitation as portrayed by Toby Stephens in the recent TV adaptation, in the book he was not so nice).

  • Richard Sharpe — Sharpe by Bernard Cornwall
  • Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy — Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Mr Mark Darcy — Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
  • Mr Rochester — Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Rupert Campbell Black — Rutshire Chronicles by Jilly Cooper
  • Rhett Butler — Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Heathcliff — Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Captain Corelli — Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
  • Henry DeTamble — The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Gabriel Oak — Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

    Before the UK's obsession with Mr Darcy and the other Mr Darcy, Guy Perron from The Raj Quartet (a.k.a. Charles Dance) had considerable mass appeal. One of my own favourite literary heroes when I was in my 20s was Mr Knightley (Jane Austen's Emma). (As an aside, why is he always played by someone too young in recent – and upcoming – dramatisations?) I also rather liked Edwin Clayhanger and Doc (Cannery Row). Before that, I adored characters like Robin Hood, Achilles and Sherlock Holmes, who probably would not have been all that nice to know in reality. A sort of modern-day equivalent of these impulsive, rebellious types is the rather appealing Sirius Black (J K Rowling), but look what happened to him. Of course nowadays I suppose I am too old to have literary heroes, and I also don't read "literature" (or Jilly Cooper!). But I do rather like Erlendur (Arnaldur Indridason) because he likes to spend his "spare" time quietly reading a book. (I'd have to draw a veil over some of the local specialities he eats.)

    If you want to vote on the shortlist above, here is where to go. You don't get my options, I'm afraid. Nor any Dickens, Eliott, Tolstoy, et al.

  • Redundant, risible and sublime

    "Have you ever wondered what celebrities do when they use the web?" asks Google. No, actually, I haven't. Never mind, Google ploughs on, you can now tour the homepages of your favourite celebrities, using iGoogle. Eight celebrities are mentioned; I have heard of four of them, only one of whom I know to have done anything useful (Al Gore). I can't bear to write more, but please do visit the Google blog if you want to know more about it.

    As more ministers toppleTop five political backstabbings. Funny, but is that all they could think of? Or should I write, Et tu, Brute?

    Sean French writes that "DVDs are good for movies but utterly fantastic for opera". Bernard Haitink's Glyndebourne version of The Marriage of Figaro will cost you £175 to see live (the only price on offer) or £14 to buy the DVD. Advantages and one disadvantage of the recorded medium are duly noted.

    Three Days of Rain at the Apollo theatre

    Three-Days-of-Rain-002This afternoon, Cathy and I went to see Three Days of Rain, a play by Richard Greenberg. Featuring James McAvoy, this absorbing three-hander reminded me of works by both Tennesee Williams and J. B. Priestley. I enjoyed it very much, particularly the second act (set in the 1960s) and the character of the father (played by McAvoy).

    Michael Billington's Guardian review.

    Lyn Gardner meets the cast. (Her take on the play? "The irony of Three Days of Rain is that, despite everyone's intelligence, they can't stop themselves destroying the future and failing to understand the past.")

    Videos: trailers, pictures and interviews with the cast.

    David Tennant as Hamlet at the RSC

    Tennanthamlet2 I suppose I should write something about the David Tennant Hamlet (no point in calling it the RSC 2008 Hamlet, or the Gregory Doran Hamlet, David Tennant is bigger than everything), which I saw on Monday of this week. But writing about Hamlet, probably the greatest work ever written in any medium, and blogging, are rather at opposite extremes of a spectrum in my opinion.

    The production is good. It is very much a "David Tennant vehicle" Hamlet, but he's up to it. He's most convincing, magnetic even, in the first half, where his long, lean and pale looks are admirably suited to the grief and the horror of discovery of his father's death. This Hamlet is one torn between the old ways, epitomized by the old warrior father, and the modern, epitomized by the pin-stripe suited, suave Claudius (downplayed effectively by Patrick Stewart).

    David Tennant is best when conveying emotion, which he does very well, and when being intellectually playful; the relish with which he demonstrates his quick-wittedness and superior intellect approaches pure brilliance. Hamlet is a character of so many facets, however, that it is probably impossible for one actor to master them all. Tennant, for example, is too self-centred. He does not indicate to us, the audience, whether or not he's aware that Polonius and Claudius are eavesdropping on his "get thee to a nunnery" encounter with Ophelia, which detracts from the scene, the poignancy of her death and his later reaction to it. He is also not one of the most poetical Hamlets I've seen – but is very confident and natural with the lines, unlike some others.

    I also take issue with the staging. We had good seats near the front in the middle, but too often, bit-part actors stood for long minutes with their back to the audience watching the action, blocking the sight-lines. I could not see Gertrude (the superb Penny Downie) at all during her moving speech about Ophelia's death, for example, and there were several similar instances.

    The audience of course were ecstatic. At the end everyone stood up and cheered for a very long time. One enterprising person threw red roses at Tennant. Two of them were well-enough aimed to reach him, so he put one inbetween his teeth and presented the other, with a flourish, to Gertrude.

    It was a good production, with the usual (for the RSC) excellent supporting cast, particularly John Woodvine as a (severely cut) Player King. David Tennant was damn good, occasionally lapsing into a touch of the matinee idol in the second half but turning in a sincere, committed performance with lots of physical action, revelling in his youth, pitifully anguished in the passionate Gertrude bedroom scene, full of grace and agility in the climactic final fights. London is in for a treat next year when the production (already sold out) transfers there.

    RSC website on this production.

    BBC review of the production.

    Guardian review of the production with links to other reviews and Hamlet material.

    David Tennant's website, explains why he is famous, adored by many, more about his interpretation of Hamlet, lots of pictures, etc. 

    Where I was yesterday

    Isn't it nice when you go out and not only have a lovely time but on your return to the blogosphere you find your companion has written the perfect post about it, saving you the bother! Not only can you find out where I was but also find links to reviews of the production concerned and an interview with Ken Branagh – including a little about his upcoming role on TV as Kurt Wallender, Henning Mankell's miserable but endearing detective.

    I am not particularly a Kenneth Branagh fan: I saw him onstage in London in his breakthrough role in Another Country, which dates both me and him, and in the interim have experienced many years of watching his rather self-regarding persona in various films (mainly) and the odd play. But yesterday, he was wonderful as Ivanov. The play is not performed that often compared with the rest of Chekhov's output (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull are most often performed). And it is true that the play has some of the hallmarks of being an "early work". Nevertheless, the translation by Tom Stoppard is excellent and the ensemble work superb. As Times critic Benedict Nightingale writes:

    "Michael Grandage bolsters his reputation as an actor’s director by getting fine performances from the (variously) ebullient, malicious and wanly affable topers played by Lorcan Cranitch, Malcolm Sinclair and Kevin McNally, but he’s equally successful at evoking a tiny, mean-spirited world where the diversions are playing cards, exchanging scandal and making anti-Semitic remarks. And the sum effect is so glumly comic you’re left wondering how Ivanov could ever have been dismissed as minor Chekhov." Cranitch and McNally in particular had the three of us laughing uncontrollably; but Branagh was truly superb, well inside the skin of this man whose irony, and tragedy, was that he was the honest person among a large group of pretenders for the accolade. The logic of his self-diagnosed condition was faultless, emotionally gripping, played-down and pacy. This is not a play with longueurs, thankfully. But it is a play with which those of us of a certain age, or at a certain stage in life, can identify, all too well. That is the genius of this particular author.

    Putting your bodkins in one basket

    Hamlettennant460 As Lyn Gardner points out in The Guardian theatre blog (an aside: all the Guardian blogs have just moved to a new platform and been redesigned – but where's the permalink in amid all this "book this restaurant" buttons?), some people book their holidays years in advance, others make sure their theatre tickets are in the bag in very good time. I can't say I do either, but have made an exception for David Tennant's Hamlet. We are going to see it in the upcoming October half-term, and I booked the tickets last July (that's 2007). A first for me – I'm a "call in at the National at 10 am and get a day ticket for £10 in second row of stalls for Anthony Hopkins as Lear" person myself. However, I am told by my daughters that this David Tennant chap is rather good, and as one of them is studying Hamlet at school I conquered my fear of hubris about the future and my aversion to Barty Crouch, Jr, and booked the darn things. Of course, as at that stage I had no clue about what would be happening over the summer vacation, I plumped for the October date. From all accounts, the production is excellent and I will not be pining for my lovely 1940s blond Laurence Olivier version. But unlike Lyn, I will not be repeating the exercise for Jude Law in 2009.

    Among other points, Lyn wonders what will happen if Mr Tennant calls in sick on 27 December and she and her party have to watch the understudy. I remember when this once happened to me. It was while I was living in Manchester and I was very excited that the then very new National Theatre planned a tour to those northern wastes (as then were). I booked a ticket for whatever the show was, I forget now. But something happened, the show was cancelled. They had to put on a substitute. What? The Merchant of Venice, with Olivier as Shylock and Joan Plowright as Portia. Those few of us who held tickets for the cancelled production enjoyed a wonderful treat, without having to pay the greatly inflated prices charged by the touts who immediately snapped up the 80 per cent of tickets that hadn't been sold for the advertised show. It was my only opportunity to see Olivier in the flesh, probably for the cost of about a fiver or less. Just "goes to show".

    Grim inter-regional struggle or post-modern kitsch contempt?

    Fig2This picture of the science of the Eurovision song contest voting "blocs" comes via Mixed Miscellanies. The figure comes from a paper  with the title Comparison of Eurovision Song Contest Simulation with Actual Results Reveals Shifting, published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 9, no. 2 (2006). Thanks to Scott Keir, of Mixed Miscellanies blog, I can now share it with you, too. "What implications does this have, if any, for pan-European political institutions? The answer to this depends on whether or not one takes the view that the contest is some kind of grand metaphor for European politics", writes the author of the J Art. Soc. paper, the appropriately named Derek Gatherer.  "If one believes this", he continues, "then the outlook for an expanded European Union is one grim inter-regional struggle. However, if one simply sees the contest as an expression of post-modern kitsch contempt for the established pop music industry…, then no such concern is warranted. This paper shows that regionalism in the contest is a memetic epidemic, and not likely to reflect very profound fault lines in the current state of Europe."

    Bluestockings, brilliance and books

    I was lucky that my couple of days off work to use up the last dregs of my "2007 holiday" coincided with Karen of Euro Crime’s availability today, so we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition: The Bluestocking circle; Celebrating Modern Muses; and A Revolution in Female Manners. In a nutshell, the exhibition

    "explores the impact of the original ‘Bluestocking Circle’, a group of celebrated women writers, artists and thinkers who forged new links between gender, learning and virtue in eighteenth-century Britain. These women were not just brilliant, they were exceptional, both for their individual accomplishments and for breaking the boundaries of what women could be expected to undertake or achieve."

    Elizabeth Montague arranged the chairs of her salons in a semicircle where attendees were assigned places according to "talent and rank" (a challenge if one was considered to have one but not the other!), whereas Elizabeth Vesey, a more prescient harbinger of modern blogging, scattered cushions in the room so that there was "no zig-zag path of common impediment" to discourse.

    The exhibition is informative about the lives of intelligent and independently minded women of these times (eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) and their social salons and other groups. In their heyday, they wrote books, were artists and were painted as heroines and role models, often as characters from classical Greek mythology. Later, however, they were pilloried in cartoons as female freedom of speech fell out of fashion with the advent of the French revolution, and women with more comfortable, domestic values became a safer ideal than Mary Wollstonecraft and her ilk. The term "bluestocking" changed in the public mind from a compliment to an insult — even to this day it is a term of denigration, sadly – though not in my book. And while on the subject of books, you can buy a book of the exhibition — it is beautifully presented and looks very good, but it costs a hefty £18.99.