The Most Memorable Reads in 2015

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These are the new books that gave me the most pleasure, each in their own way:

The One I Wish Were Mine

Paula Daly: The Mistake I Made

Paula’s characters are neither wicked nor good, they are real people who do their best to muddle through – and make mistakes, fatal mistakes. Roz juggles with son, debt, job, a lover and her useless ex. One day all the balls come crushing down.

The Cleverist Twists

Clare Macintosh: I Let You Go

This book has the most skilled and effective use of the first person narrator I’ve ever come across. I can’t tell you anything about the plot because I don’t want to spoil any of the several surprises this book has in store. Read and admire.

The Most Intense

Doug Johnstone: The Jump

Ellie’s son killed himself by jumping off a bridge. Her grief is so intense she’s slowly losing her mind. When she has a chance to stop another boy jumping off she goes all out to save him. But the boy had his reasons and Ellie gets far more involved than she expected. Many a time I wanted to shout ‘stop, Ellie, stop right now’ but the woman just carries on, doing her reckless best.

The Most Vicarious Life

Phil Hogan: A Pleasure and a Calling

Mr Heming, the estate agent, appears mild and unremarkable but you really – I mean really – do not want to cross him. This book is an exquisite balancing act, teetering between funny, outrageous and creepy. Mr Heming has no qualms in doing what he either considers right or necessary to save his neck and he’s infinitely resourceful. My final resolution after reading about Mr Heming is that if I ever move to a new place I’ll change all the locks, at once.

The All-Nighters

Mark Douglas-Home: The Sea Detective

Ben McPherson: A Line of Blood

There are not many books that keep me reading through the night but in 2015 I was lucky to find these two. Both are psychological thrillers, on the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Sea Detective is more of a thriller and it deals with a global problem, human trafficking, intertwining that with the protagonist’s family history. It’s very cleverly constructed and all the elements blend together to produce an addictive brew.

A Line of Blood is focused on a family in London. Dad finds a neighbour dead in the bath and, at first, his primary worry is that his eleven-year old son witnessed the find. Soon he has much, much more to worry about. The psychological screw tightens and tightens until the reader is in cold sweat. This is a book that stays with you.

IF THE CAP FITS

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While awaiting the new Doug Johnstone – The Jump – to be released I made the acquaintance of another Scot, James Oswald (only literally, of course). Is there no end to good Scottish crime writers, I wondered and tried to work out their number.

Not so easy, it seems, for it’s hard to know what makes an author Scottish. Is it an accident of birth? Is it a question of residency? Or because the books are placed in Scotland? Who decides, anyway?

Take Ann Cleeves, the author of Jimmy Perez Shetland Island mysteries, Vera Stanhope of the TV fame and many others. Ann grew up far south of the border and has, for decades, lived on Tyneside, but is often celebrated as a Scottish Crime writer.

In contrast Manda Scot, hailed as “one of Britain’s most important crime writers” – was born, educated and worked in Scotland although now lives in England. Her Glasgow novel No Good Deed is, in my humble opinion, as good as it gets – yet it’s hard to find her name on the lists of Scottish Crime writers.

Val McDermid is a Scot by birth but most of her books are placed in England – A Darker Domain being an exception – and she has lived primarily outside Scotland. Still, you can hardly talk about Tartan Noir without mentioning McDermid alongside Ian Rankin et al.

And then there’s Charles Cumming. In 2012 his spy thriller, A Foreign Country, was named as “The Scottish Crime Book of the Year”. Cumming was born in Scotland but has lived most of his adult life elsewhere. This is how the New York Times reviewer, John Schwartz, sums up A Foreign Country:

“Amelia, a young au pair, disappears in Tunisia in 1978, leaving behind a lovelorn seducer. Years later, an elderly French couple are murdered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Soon after, a young man is abducted from a dark Paris street in a 20-second maneuver “as easy as lighting a cigarette.” And Amelia, now the new head of MI6, the British intelligence service, has gone missing during a sudden trip to the South of France.”

Not exactly a Scottish tale, then. But, wait, Schwartz comes to this conclusion:

Geopolitics aside, this is a novel about identity… the real story in “A Foreign Country” is the quest to reclaim our better selves, the people we once thought we might be.

 Maybe that’s the answer. It’s all about identity. Or to paraphrase the old saying: If the Tam O’Shanter fits, wear it.

WAS IT SO MUCH BETTER?

It’s not only selective memory that makes the past seem golden. Selective publishing can play a part, witness British Library’s Crime Classics series. It makes available authors and titles long since out of print and has proved very popular.

Having found an audience receptive to this brand of nostalgia, British Library hosted a Saturday jamboree of Golden Age crime fiction. The programme was planned with care and expertise and executed with charm and enthusiasm. (The coffee was also very good.) I, for one, will buy a ticket for the second round promised for next year.

Judging by the zest of the panelists and the attentiveness of the audience the Golden Age is a period of undated popularity. But why? Why do so many people want to read murder mysteries many decades after they were first published? It can’t be simply as Simon Brett joked in his opening speech; that by its appearance most of the audience had read the Golden Age mysteries when they were first printed. OK, some of us in that auditorium were not young but none of us was hanging outside the village bookshop in 1935, clutching three half crowns in a sweaty fist and hoping to be the first to read The Cornish Coast Murder.

The most often suggested reason for this popularity is escapism; that we find comfort in reading about a time which was simpler (such tends to be our view of the past) than our own, and that we like to know that the wicked will be punished properly – no life sentence with a minimum term for the murderers of the Golden Age, the death penalty was still in force. Conversely, though, a good classic crime novel is clever rather than gruesome, very middle or upper class – and if the characters harboured perversions the authors kept them off the page.

Once the greatest accolade a new crime writer could hope for was to be trumpeted as the “New Agatha Christie”. Some time in latter part of the 20th century that changed; young writers most definitely did not want to be compared to the Golden Age authors whom they considered an irrelevance. Murder had left the village vicarage and was now residing in tenements and crowded cities. But the Agatha Christies and the Dorothy L Sayers remained in print. They didn’t go out of fashion, they just had a smaller share of the market.

Not every book published during the Golden Age was hallmark quality but the best of them have endured because they continue to give pleasure. Good books don’t have a “Use By” or “Best Before” date

WHAT IS THIS BOOK I SEE BEFORE ME?

My reading habit is barely under control – I guess I’m a functioning book addict. For years I deluded myself that, somehow, the house would expand to accommodate the growing book collection and that my shrinking income would cover the book-buying sprees without economies needed elsewhere.

That’s how it might have continued to my demise, if something truly horrible hadn’t happened. Rot set in, literally, in every sense.

While I was contentedly reading or working at my computer, an alternative world was born and spread rapidly from the corner where books were most densely packed. That corner was a meeting place of the four drivers of my apocalypse. Not horsemen, these microbes needed only the right conditions to move along at an amazing speed. Their names are: Rising Damp, who came from a leaking water mains under the floor and a cracked downpipe on the outside wall (beautifully covered by a lush creeper); Dry Rot who flew in and found a promised land, closely followed by Wet Rot. Together these three begot Mould (or Mold to Americans).

Wholly ignorant of this evil fungal empire I read on – until the day I needed a book, double-stacked at the back in That Corner. I pushed my hand in to take the book but it wouldn’t budge and my fingers were now … sticky. I pulled the front row of books out and had the first sighting of the horror. The whole back row had solidified into one slimy lump of mould.

If you can consider mould objectively, without the urge to throw up, scream, weep or have hysterics, it is an amazing organism – even beautiful with its sheen of delicate colour and gossamer surface. And, of course, it’s not evil as such, there’s no intent to destroy my world, it simply does what it’s so efficiently evolved to do.

After that first revelation my library was doomed. Not all books, but a large majority, had to go. With the books went all the built-in shelves, one window, the whole floor (including joists) and plaster off the walls.

Never again will I have a wall-to-wall carpet or tightly stacked bookshelves but that’s not enough, I must not to have so many books – especially since the specialist damp treatment didn’t come cheap so budgeting is necessary.

Enter the e-reader. The plan was to acquire in hard copy ONLY the books that are for keeping and e-read the books which, I hope, will keep me informed about new trends and directions. Since e-books are a little cheaper than paperbacks, my budget would also benefit.

It sort of works. I don’t feel so bad about a disappointing book when I’ve spent only a couple of pounds on it. But with e-books the reading experience is lacking in one crucial respect: the physical book is absent.

For me, books are not only the words on a page. While I’m reading, the volume in my hand becomes part of the encounter; it reminds me throughout what I’m reading. The look of the book, especially the cover, becomes a reminder of its contents. Later, when I try to recall a book, it’s easier if I can visualize it. With an e-reader there is nothing to vizualise, nothing on the screen to remind which book I’m reading. My habit of having several books on the go at the same time makes the situation worse.

My familiarization with a book starts even before the first line. When I pick up a volume I look at the cover before checking the back for some hints what the book is about. I look at the publishing history – the year, the publisher, any editions and the previous titles by the author. All these nuggets of information help me to place the book in context. With and e-reader I’m pushed straight to page one. It’s a blind date.

But the e-reader has one strong ace up its plastic sleeve: it does not attract mould.

 

 

Title goes here

It was a pointless exercise. I knew it was pointless but I did it anyway. There were twenty authors – on and off – gracing the platform at Deal Noir, the successful one-day mini celebration of crime fiction at the end of March. Between sessions I started to calculate the total number of books published by these authors and it came to 288. I even thought of trying to work out how many murders these twenty had committed in their work but decided life’s too short and some statistics are too meaningless.

I’ve read thousands of crime novels and thrillers and I’ve read something by most of the authors on that Deal Noir platform but nobody could possibly read everything – and isn’t that wonderful? To know that there’ll always be new authors and new titles to discover or old favourites to re-read.

And that reminds me; I read The Tooth and the Nail again. Happily I’d forgotten enough of the plot to enjoy the story now almost as much as on the first reading as a teenager. The book carries its age well. It came out in 1956 and was billed as “The Year’s Most Unusual Suspense Thriller”. On the back cover New York Times is quoted saying: “Anyone who fears that the detective story has exhausted itself … is urged to secure at once The Tooth and the Nail, in which Bill S. Ballinger presents us with a completely new trick.”

The story isn’t actually a detective story and in the intervening 59 years that new trick has been trumped by forensic science, but the plot is still very good and Ballinger’s neat and economical style feels cool and fresh, with its occasional burst of colour – when a circus arrives or a location is vividly painted with words.

As to the possibility that the detective story has exhausted itself – no way.

Crime writers are generally very clubbable and all the crime writing events I have attended have been good-natured and jolly affairs. Maybe crime authors can channel all their frustration and aggression into their books which leaves them free to spread bonhomie when in company. A new website was launched at Deal Noir, www.killerwomen.org – well worth checking out if you like to keep company with “criminally good writing,” as their promotional tag-line promises.

A Treat and A Feast

 

The treat is in Deal on 28 March, a day of crime fiction, DEAL NOIR. My ticket has been secured weeks ago and I keep looking at the programme with happy anticipation.

Susan Moody is spearheading the event and the seven sessions feature names that promise to make this a great day out in a small town. I’ll report anon.

The feast is in Bristol in May (14-17). CRIMEFEST is an event every crime reader should experience at least once. Spread over four days, from Thursday to Sunday, it is so full of sessions that it’s nigh impossible to take in everything. And it’s not only the books that pull in the crowds. The atmosphere is great, buzzing but friendly. It’s the place to rub shoulders with the authors you’ve only met between the covers of their books.

For me this year’s highlight is the special guest interview: Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjowall. What an inspired signing that is.

The session titles promise an eclectic mix: Debut Authors; Nordic Noir; Strange Bedfellows: Sex in Crime Fiction; Psychopaths: Not Very Nice, Or Just Misunderstood; Spies: When Snooping Is Your Business; Thrillers: Brains or Brawn, Who Kicks Best Ass – the list is long.

Not everything in the programme is nailed down this far ahead – the session titled Forgotten Authors contains no names. How forgotten can you get?

But that made me think – who are the forgotten authors I’d want to hear about?

The first that came to mind is Ursula Curtiss, maybe because she represents a genre of crime fiction which almost disappeared after its heyday: A Woman in Peril. I still reread Curtiss occasionally when I’m in the mood for women who chain smoke, wear wool dresses and little hats and evoke murderous intent.

Next on my list is Bill S Ballinger, simply because his The Nail and The Tooth was the first crime novel I remember reading and it left an indelible mark on my juvenile mind. My copy of the book fell apart decades ago but today, in a bout of nostalgia, I sourced a replacement from Abebooks. It’ll be a bit scary to reread it after all this time. What if I now think my teenage self was stupid to be so impressed?

And finally, Arthur Upfield deserves not to be forgotten. I don’t have to travel to Australia, I can sit at home reading about the cases his Bony – Detective Napoleon Bonaparte – solves and I feel I know the place. Admittedly, this is the Australia of 1920s – 1960s but that gives me a social history lesson as a bonus. Upfield was half Pom and Bony was half Abo, a combination which the Australians didn’t always find endearing, more’s the pity.

 

 

What’s it for?

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The New York Times posed a question recently: Should book reviewing be considered a public service, or an art?

The two reviewers, James Parker and Anna Holmes, who were tasked to answer kicked the question around before deciding that, at some level and at times, there is an art to book reviewing but first and foremost it fulfills a practical purpose. Readers’ responses to the piece made it clear that people read book reviews for different reasons – and many believed that some reviewers are motivated by self-interest or malice.

There have been some famous hatchet jobs masquerading as book reviews, often hugely entertaining to all but the author and their agent/publisher, but whether these serve any useful purpose is a moot point. A reviewer can damn a bestseller in the most amusing way but fans will continue to buy and read the book regardless. Since most book reviews are short, informative pieces they can aspire to be artistic only if the reviewer has a talent to write haiku.

Back in the sad old days, in the mid-1980s, when we had no Internet and no bloggers and when reviewers never touched a paperback (which was all I could afford to buy) I grew frustrated knowing that there must be hordes of books published every month that I’d never know about. Being public-spirited I decided to rectify the situation; I made it my business to let all crime fiction readers know what was available. My medium was a monthly publication called Crime fiction catalogue. It gave a short summary of every single crime title published that month in the UK. In the busiest publishing months this could mean 60 books.

My noble enterprise lasted for twelve months before cruel life intervened and demanded I spend my time earning some money – but since the circulation never reached 200 it wasn’t much of a loss for the reading public.

With this blog my aim is more modest. I review only books I’ve enjoyed reading – that is a must since these days I drop a book if I don’t like it, so couldn’t possibly express an opinion. I try to give you a flavour of the book, maybe help you to decide if it’s something you’d like to read. I hope you’ll find Brigid Quinn, the protagonist in today’s READ posting, as enjoyable as I did.

Pleasure on a page

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Did you know that in 2014 fewer cinema tickets were sold in the UK than books bought through bookstores?

This may indicate that not many people go to see a film. I like to think it means that a lot of people like reading books – and are even prepared to pay for the pleasure.

For a pleasure it is, at least according to a recent survey by Dr Josie Billington at University of Liverpool. Of her sample of 4164 people 58% said they read regularly and these regular readers turn out to have greater levels of self-esteem, are less stressed and can cope better with difficult situations than non-readers.

So, if you’re in a need of a pick-me-up, pick up a book.

Two recent paperback releases have been picked by readers in such numbers that both have reached bestseller lists. The books have more in common than popularity; both follow a successful debut novel and the setting in both is the world of book publishing. There’s a closer look at these two titles, The Silkworm and The Accident, on the READ page of this posting.