A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana

Translated by Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press, 2008 (UK), first published in Catalan, 2005.

I highly recommend this engaging, readable book. The story concerns a couple of brothers (twins), Eduard and Pep. Eduard lives a “normal” life in Barcelona with his wife and three children; Pep, who previously disappeared for a long period, has reinvented himself as “Borja”, an impoverished aristocrat, and does not let Eduard tell anyone, even his wife, that the two are brothers. Borja’s name is not his only invention; he also owns a business that does nothing but has an opulent front. Eduard used to work in a bank but now “works” with his brother as his partner – they do small tasks for the rich of Barcelona, such as quietly selling assets on behalf of their owners. There’s a lot of back story in the first half of the book about the two brothers and their rather tragic boyhood, and about the social scene among the upper echelons of Catalan society. I loved reading all this, but if you like books that jump right into a fast-moving plot, be warned that the jewels in this novel (and there are many) are not of that variety.

The plot-proper concerns a request to the brothers by a leading politician, Lluis Font. Font has discovered a portrait of his wife in an art catalogue. He has purchased the picture concerned, but wants the brothers to find out if there are any more of them, and if so to discreetly stop them becoming public knowledge, as this would cause a scandal and upset Font’s chances at party leadership. Always a month away from financial disaster and with Christmas coming up, the brothers take the commission and the associated ready cash, and begin to follow the wife. This provides the author with many excellent opportunities to present a scathing yet lightly amusing account of high-society life, exposing it as a nest of permanently shallow people obsessed with personal appearance and shopping for nonessential luxuries. Naturally, events escalate as the brothers find out more and more unexpected truths, culminating in a genuine murder case.

There’s lots to love about this book, particularly the way the author combines a story about three generations of a family, with telling, witty portraits of all the characters. I suspect she does not put a foot wrong in her portrait of class snobbery or of social climbing, or of attitudes among the middle classes represented by Eduard’s wife and sister in law. Very few of the characters are well-read – Eduard had dropped out of his degree in Catalan literature in disgust after undertaking a survey to show that nobody in the department had actually read Don Quixote (which he himself found indigestible) – but he’s an educated man (his knowledge of the classics comes in useful at the end) and in his relative ordinariness and lack of eccentricity, an apt narrator. The only other “intellectuals” in the novel are the various police officers who appear now and again: everyone else is frantically pursuing courses of alternative therapies, beautification, watching football or other trivialities, causing Eduard to reflect on what the anti-Franco revolts of his youth had in fact achieved, as his city increasingly becomes an overcrowded, homogenised temple to Mammon, and where the very rich live in a bubble of their own creation, regarding everyone else, whether middle-class professionals or people living in boxes on the street, as poor and beneath contempt.

There’s much more to this novel – overwhelmingly, it has a wonderful sense of atmosphere so that the reader is totally immersed in Catalan ways and mores. I found the crime plot (after the murder is committed) less interesting, and wonder if the author could have got away without even introducing it. There is a rather hastily added denouement and a paragraph or two of moralising which is the only time the author loses her admirable ability to be serious with a light touch. One of the many positive aspects is that the story of the brothers (particularly Pep/Borja), though now revealed in outline, has many tantalising gaps and aspects (such as Eduard’s mother in law and Borja’s relationships with his mistress and Eduard’s sister in law) that have plenty of potential for future development.

(I borrowed this book from the library.)

About this novel at the publisher’s website.

Read other reviews of the book at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham), Reviewing the Evidence (Sharon Wheeler), Reactions to Reading, BookGeeks, Crime Scraps.

Teresa Solana’s second novel, A Short Cut to Paradise, will be published in English translation in the UK in February 2011. The Spanish edition has been reviewed at The Game’s Afoot.

Some thoughts about restricting e-readership

Those of us (and our numbers are increasing rapidly!) who like to read in e-format often bemoan the way in which publishers sell the "rights" to their books on a regional basis hanging over from the world of print as the only reading medium. Of course, print readers (myself included) also find it frustrating not to be able to read a book after perusing reviews of it, if one does not live in the "right" (righted?) region. But for the e-format (including digital audio), this restriction seems even more pointless.

Bernadette, in an excellent post at Reactions to Reading, put her finger on one reason why this regional  division is a no-win for publishers – piracy, which as everyone from the CEO of the E-reading_women major publishing companies down to the youngest kid on the internet block, admits occurs on a massive scale. (Never by me or anyone in my house, I am of the honest but frustrated quarter of content users.)

I have two "hats" that I wear in the context of this debate. First, as a reader, I want to read a book as soon as it is published, not wait for some artificially imposed geographical business model. In the world of scientific research, this is the norm. When a paper is published, it is published – people argue about subscription vs "author pays" or the size of the unit of publication, but the argument is how readers pay for access, not about whether one can access at all.  Second, my other "hat" is that I work for a publisher – not, thankfully, on the business side, but on the scientific journal/editorial side. So I can see at first hand the large amount of value a publisher adds to the raw material. In the case of scientific publishing, there is an incredibly large investment in the editorial selection process, for example. I am not as closely familiar with book publishing (though my employer is an internationally leading publisher of books). Even so, I can see the resources that are put into both print and e- (digital) books, and am well aware that this is considerable. (There are many other factors in addition to editorial and production costs, of course.) 

The point for the reader is not price, it is access. Based on my long experience of scientific publishing, it is not necessary to restrict access geographically in order to run a viable business. This is why news items such as these lose me completely –

Waterstones has removed from its website the ability for anyone outside the UK to buy e-books, with "no plans" to reinstate them.

WH Smith has removed e-books from people's e-readers. That is, people who have paid to download a book. The information provided to these paid-up customers is minimal.

The UK Publishers' Association last week agreed that it would restrict library borrowing of e-books to those who are physically present in the library. (See, eg, this Guardian piece.)

This last piece of news is appalling: "I can't believe the PA has declared war on libraries in this way" wrote Luton's librarian at the Bookseller website. Yes, indeed, the very point of e-books is that people who do not live near, or cannot get to, a library can now read! How ludicrous.

I understand concerns on the behalf of authors, and I understand that publishers want to stay in business (and booksellers, but that is also a slightly different story). I know that issues often seem more simple to those outside a situation than they are in reality, but what I am questioning is what we learnt years ago in the scientific publishing sphere – base your business model on some form of payment per download, not on deciding who can read the content based on where they live. The payment can be made directly by the customer (book purchaser) or library on behalf of its patrons, Ipadreader
or borrower (lending fee). Public libraries could also use a variant of the site-licence model in place at academic libraries, in which the price paid for the content is proportional to the number of readers of that content; as well as providing books and other content for free according to whatever criteria they choose (including providing out-of-copyright books free). 

The point of this post is simple – there are technological solutions in place in other parts of the industry for what is termed "e-commerce". Why aren't organisations such as book publishers and governments' library authorities exploring these to reward authors and publishers, instead of exploring technical means to restrict access to non-rights-holders and/or people who have not paid? To paraprhase Bernadette, even if not perfect, the former means some income; the latter encourages piracy. The former also gives the customers (readers) the message that the publisher likes, or even is proud of, its content and actively wants people to read it. (This Telegraph article, for example, is about the increase in library membership bought about by the e-format.) Those new readers might then go on to read more, instead of watching TV or playing computer games – that is, the publisher has a great opportunity to increase its customer base with this format. The latter seems to me bad for business, and provides a rather Scrooge-like image which can hardly be good PR for an industry that is under so much pressure in this era of "instant availability" and from Google Books et al.

I do hope that publishers' organisations will soon find a way to remove the geographical element of their rights arrangements – in their own interests as well as in readers'. We are living in a global community,  after all.

British Library offers test drive of e-readers

Via press release, The British Library is offering people the chance to try three e-readers from Sony and iRex Technologies currently available in the UK. The e-reader display will give visitors the chance to familiarise themselves with the devices and to explore the benefits of the e-book revolution. Devices on display include the Sony Reader, iRex DR1000 and the iLiad as the library seeks to equip people with the digital literacy skills to be able to use such technology for research and reading.
Traditionally, e-readers have struggled to compete with the traditional book due to issues with low battery life and the use of harsh back-lit screens. Overcoming these obstacles through the use of e-ink technology, e-reading devices are more capable of satisfying reader expectations and can deliver additional functions such as the ability to vary font size, access WiFi, and make annotations.
The e-readers on display have been pre-loaded with material currently available. However, in the future, the British Library hopes to exploit e-reader technology to facilitate access to its own digital collections, allowing readers to explore rare and often out-of-print items. Here is what the British Library has to say about these e-readers:

  Sony Reader: Encased in stylish brushed aluminium, the Sony Reader is super slim, intuitive to use, easy to navigate and with an exceptional battery life of up to 6800 page turns.
  iRex DR1000: Helping the environment, the DR1000 allows companies and individuals to print directly to an e-reader, cutting out the need to print billions of pages every year.
  The iLiad: With an integrated Wacom tablet and stylus, the iLiad allows users to annotate works, bringing e-books one step closer to being a replacement for the real thing.

Are you reading, Henry?

Via Brave New World blog: Private detectives are being used by Norfolk County Council to track down unpaid fines for overdue library books. “It is reported [by The Telegraph] that library users in Norfolk alone have over the last six years paid £1.4m in fines for overdue books.”

A touch of common sense

The British Library story rumbles on. This is what my favourite Times columnist, Richard Morrison, had to say about it, with his ever-fresh, "common cultural man" perspective:

The extraordinary newfound popularity of the British Library among undergraduates racing to finish their dissertations – or simply using the place as an upmarket pick-up joint – has supposedly made life difficult for other users. But there's a simple answer to the Reading Room's overcrowding crisis. The BL is open for just 58 hours a week. Indeed, only on Tuesdays does it stay open after 6. But I seem to recall that there are 168 hours in a week. Yes, I am making an outrageous suggestion – but I'm also serious. The BL should turn itself into a 24/7 operation.
Why not? The prospect of studying in total peace through the night would appeal to many scholars. Quite a few are night owls anyway. And the BL can hardly complain that it doesn't have the staff or money to stay open all hours. It employs more than 2,000 people. And it owes us. We taxpayers forked out £500 million to build it, and now pay well over £100 million a year to keep it going.
If my local Tesco can manage to stay open all night without a penny of subsidy, the BL should be offering at least as good a service to the long-suffering public.

Makes sense to me.

Too groovy for scholarship

As I've observed before, it's a small world, that Internet. Today on the train to work I read an article in the Times about lack of space at the British Library reading room: "Two years after one of the world’s greatest libraries opened its doors to undergraduates and anyone working on research, high-profile writers and academics say that the struggle to find a desk is now intolerable. Library directors stand accused of increasing visitor numbers to boost funds and performance bonuses."
The problem is, apparently, the students. Initially rallying (mentally) to the defence of this much-maligned societal group, I read on and realised that the issue is not so much the students per se, but that they go into the reading room and don't read — rather they sit around chatting, etc. Whether they really are students, or whether they are just random people wanting to spend a day in the warm and dry, there are plenty of places in the BL to go and chat — over a drink or some food if you want to – without having to go into the reading room. So it does seem a bit strange, even antisocial, to natter in the reading room while others are trying to concentrate. It is rather like reading your book quietly on the train when someone plonks themselves next to you and starts to organise their next trip somewhere by yelling down their mobile phone, as happened to me tonight on the way home.
As it happens, I was due to have lunch today with an eminent author and senior academic who, coincidentally, was in London to do some research at the BL: Professor Dame Honoraria Grump, FRS, B. Lit, VC, OM, so I asked her opinion. She confirmed that the queues are just as described, and that she is frequently reduced to perching on a windowsill if she is lucky, because she cannot arrive very early at the BL due to the distance she has to travel to London. We speculated that the students may not have vacation access to other London University libraries if they live in London but study at universities elsewhere, and/or that individual universities' libraries may not, these days (as opposed to "our day")  be very good compared with the BL.
When I arrived home tonight, I opened my "home email" and found that Dave Lull had already sent me a link to the online version of the Times article. Far flung we may all be, our little band of brothers and sisters, but our minds are in tune!

Here's some more from the Times, you might enjoy it:

"Lady Antonia Fraser and Claire Tomalin have swapped horror stories of interminable queues. Library users complain that the line to enter the new building in St Pancras, central London, has recently been extending across its enormous courtyard.
Lady Antonia said: “I had to queue for 20 minutes to get in, in freezing weather. Then I queued to leave my coat for 20 minutes [at the compulsory check-in]. Then half an hour to get my books and another 15 minutes to get my coat. I’m told it’s due to students having access now. Why can’t they go to their university libraries?”
Of particular irritation is the notion that many undergraduates now come to the library to relax, meet and text friends, and play on laptops, rather than to read books. “It’s become a social gathering,” Lady Antonia said.
Ms Tomalin described the crowds as intolerable: “It’s full of what seem to be schoolgirls giggling. I heard one saying, ‘I’ve got to write about Islam. Can I have your notes?’ It’s what you expect to hear in a school.”
Of the long queues she said: “It is absurd. It’s access gone mad. Access has many good points, but making the British Library, which was for specialist readers, into something for general readers seems to me terrible.”
The historian Tristram Hunt said that it was a scandal that it was impossible to get a seat after 11am when students were there. Many people travelling from outside London complain that they cannot get to the buidling [sic] any earlier. “Students come in to revise rather than to use the books,” he said. “It’s a ‘groovy place’ to meet for a frappuccino. It’s noisy and it’s undermining both the British Library’s function, as books take longer to get, and the scholarly atmosphere.” "

An author at the library

Penny Vincenzi, who has shot straight to the top of the UK paperback charts with her latest book, An Absolute Scandal, is one of those authors whose latest book I invariably read (via the library) at a time in my life when I read anything and everything, from Aeschylus (yes, honestly) to Waugh (Hillary and Evelyn) and all points inbetween. Then I stopped reading her. I can't remember why, now, but it was probably because I was too busy writing my thesis to read novels and then forgot, or maybe I just drifted away. Now, it is too late to pick her up again I think, because I am probably too "out of sympathy" with the genre – and I already have three lifetimes of books to read in my literal, electronic and metaphorical queues.
But I did smile to receive a link to a lovely article in the Independent (careers section) from the indefatigable Dave Lull today (the man who keeps the Internet going, single handed), about how Penny Vincenzi's first job was as a librarian — and not just any librarian, but a Harrod's librarian. "There were far more private lending libraries then," she explains. "Boots had one. At Harrods, you got a book straight away; you just rang up and ordered it and it was delivered that afternoon, sometimes by horse-drawn van". The article continues: "Penny handled readers whose names began with the letter S. "Sir Malcolm Sargent was an absolute sweetheart, very polite." The famous conductor was unusual: "Most of them were absolutely horrible. We were minions." "

Shakespeare in open digital form

Via an industry press release, I discover that a group of "foundations, government, post-secondary institutions, and libraries is breaking ground in the presentation of Shakespeare for the masses. As open digital content, William Shakespeare's 32 pre-1641 quartos will soon be available for scholars, students and the general public." This project is apparently possible in principle because Shakespeare did not give permission for his works to be printed, so the quartos being digitized in this project are originally "foul" copies: working drafts written down from people's memories after performances and published as "paperbacks".
The UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is coordinating the Shakespeare initiative, with partners including the University of Maryland, which will provide the technology and platform for people to conduct research, including analysis and comparisons, of the quartos. Another partner is the Shakespeare Institute, whose teachers, students and scholars will provide feedback and guidance on the prototype. Also involved are the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, Oxford University, and high-school teachers in the Washington, DC area.
Publishers do not appear to be part of this initiative, so it will be interesting to see what role they take, if any.

Events at The Women’s Library

Via a friend and colleague, I today learnt about The Women’s Library in London, "a cultural centre housing the most extensive collection of women’s history in the UK. Access is free and open to everyone". She told me about a literature course, which sadly owing to other commitments I cannot attend, called Significant sisters: key fiction, key themes. The course, on Saturday 29th March and Saturday 12 April, introduces "key women writers exploring women’s roles in earlier periods, this two-day course will discuss two unforgettable anti-heroines via Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country: a contemporary novel steeped in the nineteenth-century, and a satirical novel from 1913 that feels surprisingly modern. It is led by writer and lecturer, Lynn Knight, author of the biography Clarice Cliff."
The Women’s Library also has a well-established book group, "a welcoming and informal place to discuss a wealth of work by women writers. Please feel free to attend occasionally or regularly. Read the book and come to share your thoughts! Sessions £5 including wine, soft drinks & nibbles." Thursday 27 March, 6.45pm: Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates; 24 April: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley ; 29 May, Beloved by Toni Morrison; and 26 June, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Do take a look at The Women’s Library website for lots more events and services.

Goodbye to Good Library Blog

Link: The Good Library Blog: How to be a public servant.

Tim Coates, prime-minister-in-waiting of Britain, has hung up his hat. He writes:

"I started out by observing that just as we have come to expect that very little of the money we pay to charities arrives with the recipient we intend we have now to realise that the public services in our country work in much the same way. They are more about employing people than being any help; and they are about seeking ways of obtaining even more money from the public while giving little in return. Those things are not right. I am not stopping my attempt to revive the UK public library service– I’m just going to climb the mountain again from a different side. (or bomb it from a different direction)"