Losing your mind

The final two books I have read during my most recent binge that will remain forever half-reviewed are Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind and S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep. The reason for not reviewing these properly is a little different from the books I mentioned yesterday. Both tackle an almost impossible premise and, for me anyway, one succeeds brilliantly but its subject matter is a little too close to home for me to discuss in-depth with any objectivity. The other didn’t work for me at all. Neither are really what I’d consider crime novels.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante tells the story of Dr Jennifer White, an orthopaedic surgeon who lives in Chicago and who, at 65, has been diagnosed with dementia. Among the tribulations she faces is that her friend and neighbour has been murdered and there is enough about the crime scene to have Police suspecting Jennifer, though due to her condition they take things slowly.

The book is told from Jennifer’s point of view, essentially as a journal of her life and her struggle to maintain some semblance of control over her situation. In the beginning this is relatively easy via the use of various memory aids and tricks but as the book (and the disease) progresses it becomes more difficult. I am not generally a fan of the first person narrative and in this instance it ought to have been unreadable but LaPlante pulls it off by being unsentimental and depicting Jennifer as a not entirely sympathetic but wholly credible character. As a surgeon, as a busy and not entirely willing mother and as a sufferer of Alzheimer’s Disease Jennifer feels completely authentic to me which makes her story well worth reading. It is, I have to admit, quite harrowing especially if you’ve had any personal experience with sufferers of the disease but on balance I am very glad to have read it. I think it probably gives genuine insight into what it must feel like from the sufferer’s point of view and while it’s not pretty if it is realistic it can only help people who have to watch loved ones go through it. I thank Maxine for sending her copy of the book across the sea to me and am quite glad I don’t have to return it in its tear-stained state. I normally try to take much better care of my books!

S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep is nothing like that book. I know it’s poor form to compare two random books that have nothing to do with each other (other than some similarities in premise and structure) but the coincidence of my reading them in the same short time span meant I couldn’t help but compare them.

Again from the first person perspective this book tells the story of Christine something or other (I can’t remember and can’t be bothered to look it up) who through some ‘event’ (details are murky) has acquired long term amnesia and has lost her ability to create new memories that last longer than a day. So every day she wakes up thinking she is in her early 20’s (or sometimes a child) and every day she has to learn that she is a 47 year old woman who’s married to a teacher called Ben and has been in her current state of limbo for around 20 years. Christine has started seeing a new doctor who came up with the startlingly brilliant idea of her keeping a journal which they decide to keep secret from hubby (for a pretty pathetic reason but one necessary to the success of the plot). The good Doctor gives her a mobile phone that only he will ring her on so that he can ring her each morning and tell her where the journal is hidden and she can start to read about things in her life from someone’s perspective other than her husband’s. It is perhaps a sign of how bored I was by this book that I kept wondering about the little things like how did the phone get charged given it never left her handbag for fear of Ben finding it.

As in Turn of Mind the drama here is meant, I think, to come from reading about this woman’s fairly horrendous life. Unlike in Turn of Mind though at no point did the author make me care about Christine or even believe in her reality.  I simply never bought into the symptoms of the condition (though I have no reason to doubt that Watson says he saw a news article featuring a woman with these exact symptoms) or Christine as a sufferer of them or even Christine as a woman (I actually thought this book was written by a woman until about a quarter of the way through reading it when I thought ‘no woman would depict a woman in that way’ and I did enough googling to learn Watson is a bloke). It had almost none of the elements of good story that I look for; blessed instead with no conflict, no story arc, a weak and insipid protagonist and precious little suspense (I am genuinely astonished to discover there were readers who couldn’t predict the ending of this one).

I wrote a few days ago at my wariness of reading much hyped, award winning books. They rarely, in my experience, live up to expectations. In that case, with Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter I was pleasantly surprised and richly rewarded for having read the book despite all the hype. With Watson’s book (which took out the best debut category in the same awards) I got what is, for me, a far more common experience: me shaking my head and muttering under my breath about having read a completely different book. Whereas Turn of Mind had layers of substance that warrant re-reading, Before I Go To Sleep was, for me anyway, all surface and entirely forgettable. Its central gimmick might have sustained a short story but did not engage me for 12+ hours of listening.

Maximum reading: minimum reviewing

The main prompt for me to start this blog was to write down my thoughts about the books I read so that my future self would be a little less ignorant about my reading than I had been in the pre-blog days. Sadly this only works when I actually go to the bother of writing a review, something I have abjectly failed to do over the past week and a bit. I have read a rather astonishing 9 books since October 21 (the upside to insomnia) but only managed to review 2 of them. If I don’t at least write a few words about the rest my future self will be able to read them again as entirely new in a few short months so here are some mini reviews.

Outrage by Arnaldur Indriðason (translated by Anna Yates)

The 7th (in English anyway) of what must now be called the Reykjavik mysteries (due to the potentially sinister absence of its regular protagonist from this instalment) is a good old-fashioned police procedural in which one of Erlunder’s colleagues, gourmet cook Elinborg, investigates the murder of a young man in his Reykjavik apartment. Despite the fact the investigation is a slow one, featuring many frustrating dead ends, it makes for compelling reading as it uncovers the hidden layers of the victim’s life and, ultimately, leads the reader to ponder what they might do in the circumstances described in the book. There is a very authentic feel to both the crime and its solution. There’s also a rather nice depiction of Elinborg’s personal life which is one of highs and lows.  For me it’s not quite as hauntingly memorable as last year’s Hypothermia but still an excellent contribution to the series and the genre. Rating 4 stars.

Now You See Me by S J Bolton

Bolton’s fourth book tells the story of young DC Lacey Flint who finds a dying woman leaning on her car one evening and then becomes embroiled in the hunt for a killer whose gimmick is to recreate, at least partially, the crimes of Jack the Ripper. I’ve really loved Bolton’s first 2 books (and have the third here ready to read but was happy to read out of order when my library got this one in as the novels are all standalones) but did not enjoy this one quite as much. Partly this is because I think the theme of Jack the Ripper’s crimes being repeated is overdone and it bores the pants off me and I therefore found the folklore in the first half of the book more than a little tedious. I also was never entirely convinced that young Lacey’s role in the investigation was terribly realistic. I think crime writers have more license to be creative when they use ‘amateur sleuths’ as Bolton has done in the two other books I’ve read but in police procedurals things like a copper’s rank and relative experience have to ring vaguely true and here it just seemed bizarre that someone so new to the job would be given such status in the investigative team. There’s still suspense a-plenty though and the book actually got better as it went along (as the ‘Ripperology’ reduced). Rating 3 stars.

The Gallows Bird by Camilla Läckberg (translated by Steven T Murray, narrated by Eamonn Riley)

The fourth instalment of this semi-cosy series set in a small community in south-west Sweden is another solidly entertaining contribution. As always there is a strong element of the personal lives of the investigators as senior policeman Patrick Hedstrom prepares (or rather fails to prepare) for his wedding to Erica, his colleague Martin has some good news of his own and their newest colleague Hanna Kruse seems to have a rather dark secret. The story itself surrounds the death of a local shopkeeper in what is first thought to be a suicide and the subsequent linking of this to a series of other deaths around the country. There’s also a reality TV show being shot in the town and this too provides its own dramas as well as a dead body. As always the crime could be solved a bit more quickly by a bit brighter police force (and surely the poor old boss of the station deserves to have a change of luck with the ladies soon) but this does not detract from the naturally entertaining story full of humour and engaging people. I must admit I was thrilled when I learned my pre-order of the paper version of this book was not going to be issued because I thoroughly enjoy Eamonn Riley’s narration of the stories and am happy to see that volume 5 is already available via audible. Rating 3.5 stars

The Man Who Went up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (translated by Joan Tate)

The second of 10 books featuring Martin Beck sees the protagonist called back from his summer holiday (after only 1 day) to head off to Budapest on the search for a journalist who has disappeared. In an attempt to avoid an international incident of any kind the investigation is an unofficial one though Beck does interact with both the Swedish embassy and the Hungarian police.  As something of a late starter to this series (first published 40 years ago) I am slowly reading them in order and finding them quite a treat, especially these editions from Harper Perennial which have forwards by modern-day crime writers (here it’s Val McDermid) and lots of interesting titbits at the end (interviews and wotnot). The story itself is tautly written, full of a dry humour (for which both the authors and the translator must be particularly congratulated) and makes compelling reading. I loved the sense of location (much of the story takes place in Hungary) and the period which somehow manages to convey the differences to today’s world without making it feel dated. Rating 3.5 stars.

Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (translated by Philip Roughton)

Reading the the third tale to feature Reykjavik lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir felt a lot like visiting the home of a good friend who you don’t see often enough. Three (and a quarter) bodies are discovered in the basement of a house on an Icelandic island which, along with its neighbours, was abandoned during the 1973 eruption of the island’s volcano. Although people have returned to live on the island this particular stretch of houses was covered by lava and ash and is only now being incorporated into an archaeological project. Thóra’s client Markus wants to rescue some items from his home before the project takes over but he is not expecting the bodies. When he becomes a suspect in the crime that led to their burial Thóra takes it upon herself to investigate the decades-old secrets being kept by various islanders. I love the combination of humour, domestic life and somewhat haphazard investigative style that are the hallmarks of this series though do have to admit that a bit of editing could have helped this instalment along (it’s 450+ pages for what is ultimately a fairly simple story). Still I did find the history of the island and its volcanic eruption very engaging and the starring role of Thóra’s secretary was a real treat in this outing. Rating 3.5 stars

Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

I had no real plan to read this book until I noticed it won the UK CWA’s Gold Dagger award earlier this month and was the only book from the shortlist for that award which I had not read. As I was not blown away by any of the shortlisted books I was curious to see what kind of book the winner was. 

In Amos, Mississippi Silas ’32’ Jones is the lone police officer, sharing his office with the town clerk and spending most of his time on mundane duties like directing traffic or extricating snakes from mailboxes. When the daughter of the town’s wealthiest family goes missing people start pointing the finger at Larry Ott, better known as Scary Larry. He garnered the nickname 25 years earlier when another young girl went missing and Larry was the only suspect in her disappearance. Though that case was never resolved the entire town believed has always believed him guilty of her murder and he has been a virtual outcast all the while. Even Silas, once Larry’s only friend, has kept his distance from Larry ever since that night.

I love books which draw me in their world and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter does so masterfully. The combination of exquisitely poignant characters and a totally absorbing depiction of small town Mississippi, complete with dialogue rich in local idioms and, at times, confronting language is simply perfect. As I read I could almost feel myself slowing down to the deliciously languid pace of the novel and Franklin’s writing made it easy for me (who has never been closer to Mississippi than a few days spent in Louisiana many moons ago) to conjure up images of the town and its people in my mind. Even when I was only a few pages into the book I felt like I was there in Amos and I was reluctant to tear myself away, which accounts for me staying up late into the night to finish the book in one sitting.

Although ostensibly about the mystery of the two missing girls the book, for me anyway, was mostly about the two men, the disparate tracks their lives had taken and the ways they coped, or didn’t, with their various hardships and guilty secrets. After being introduced to the men as adults we learn about their pasts, both shared and separate, and only the coldest of readers could fail to be won over by them both, even though (or perhaps because) neither is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. In a relatively short space (the entire book is only 270 pages) with scenes of stark symbolism and authenticity we see the events that shape the boys into the men they will become.

I am always wary of the much-hyped book but in this instance all the buzz, awards and kind words are well deserved. For a book in which poverty, racism and domestic violence feature heavily it is remarkably gentle and, ultimately hopeful. It somehow straddles the line between harsh realism and overt sentimentality to be that rare thing: a perfect reading experience. I would recommend it to everyone.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Publisher William Morrow [2010]
ISBN 9780230753051
Length 274 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series standalone
Source I borrowed it from Kerrie – thanks :)

This post is published at http://reactionstoreading.com if you are seeing it at another site then it has been stolen and/or used entirely without permission.

Review: Second Violin by John Lawton

Second Violin attempts, I think, to be something of an epic; somewhat audaciously depicting many aspects of war time life both in continental Europe and in Britain and delving into all classes and communities.  From the Austrian/German Anschluss in 1938 the book jumps through a series of seminal historical events including Kristallnacht, England’s declaration of War,  the internment of various classes of ‘alien’, the London Blitz and so on. Somehow inveigling their way into all of these happenings are the Troy family which includes Russian émigré Sir Alex Troy, now a retired newspaper baron, and his two sons Rod, a journalist, and Freddie a police constable. One or other of them is centrally involved in all of these events (and then some) as the book hurtles, at pace, along. At about the three quarter mark there is a cursory police investigation into some curious deaths but potential readers should believe the author when he says the series that this book is part of is not crime fiction.

Surprisingly (perhaps) it wasn’t the lack of a mystery element to the novel that bothered me but rather its epic scope. I think I’d rather have seen a few events or incidents teased out with more depth than have an entire wartime experience condensed into 15 hours of listening. On multiple occasions just as I was becoming interested in some aspect of the story – a Jewish tailor’s flight from Vienna for example or the experiences of the fascinating mixture of characters in an internment camp on the Isle of Mann – I’d be whisked away to some other drama. Individually all of these events could probably power their own novel so I felt a bit cheated to have them all crammed into the one book. I was reminded a little of being back in school when history text books just skimmed the surface and threw up a lot of names and dates. What I wanted then and want still is to get behind all the facts and figures and with Second Violin I found myself tantalisingly close to doing that but never quite getting there.

This doesn’t stop the book from being both entertaining and insightful though. The process of identifying which ‘aliens’ would be locked up for the war’s duration, and how that process worked, was, for example, depicted as the farce we now know it to have been. The parallels with more recent political skirmishes are well-drawn although, I’m certain, would be entirely unseen by any powers-that-be who happened upon the book.

I did not find any of the Troy family particularly engaging as characters, feeling they’re all a little too unrealistic to be the kind of people I could truly grow to love. I admit this is unfair on my part as I am quite smitten by Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody who is at least equally as unrealistic and potentially allegorical as the Troy brothers and I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t take to the Troys more but there’s not a lot I can do about it. I adored some of the other characters in the novel though, including the aforementioned Austrian tailor and his part-Polish, mostly Cockney boss.

Unfortunately and unusually there was an aspect of the narration of the audio book that was a bit off-putting too. There didn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to the voices, in particular the accents, that the narrator chose to use. So Sigmund Freud (one of many real life characters to make a cameo appearance in the novel) has a vaguely Viennese accent while the German foot-soldier who helps the tailor escape has a Cockney accent. Most peculiar.

Overall then I liked this book but didn’t love it. Apart from being a bit too shallow for my personal preference I think the epic scope of the story resulted in a lack of narrative focus. You couldn’t possibly suggest that the investigation of the deaths that Troy carries out is the book’s focus as this doesn’t occupy more than a small fraction of the story and doesn’t start until close to the end. So to me Second Violin read more like a series of vignettes of ‘highlights’ of the wartime experience than a closely woven narrative and my preference will always be for the latter.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Head to Crime Scraps for a much more positive review of the book

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Narrator Lewis Hancock
Publisher Oakhill [2008]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 15 hours 9 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series chronologically #1 in the Frederick Troy series, though published #6
Source I bought it

This post is published at http://reactionstoreading.com if you are seeing it at another site then it has been stolen and/or used entirely without permission.

All eReading apps are not created equal

Since buying my iPad earlier this year I have tried out some of the reading apps available for the platform. I don’t have any plans to use the device for all my eReading (I much prefer eInk readers) but as I tend to have my iPad with me on occasions when my other eReader is not available and because the eBook market is fragmented enough that some books are only available on a single platform I can see myself using the iPad as a backup eReader. A couple of general points first

  • The only app that allows you to buy books from within the app is Apple’s own iBooks. The rest of the apps have removed this functionality rather than pay Apple its vig (30% of all sales). So I’ve deliberately not factored in-app purchasing into my ratings as I’m pleased the non-Apple app developers didn’t cave in to Apple’s standover tactics on this issue and all make it fairly easy to buy books outside the app and synchronise easily with the app.
  • All of these apps are free to install

Kindle app (the app not the cloud reader) – 4.5 stars

Having deliberately avoided buying a kindle as my eReader (not because I don’t like the devices but because I wanted to do my bit to fight Amazon’s market dominance) I wanted to dislike this app but I can’t. It is the reading app by which I judge all others. Its highlights include:

  • synchronizes seamlessly with all the devices Amazon knows you have (e.g. dedicated kindle reader, PC kindle app, phone app etc). If you read 5 pages of a book on your phone at lunch time then take out your iPad to continue reading on your trip home you’ll start at where you stopped reading on the other device. This is one of those features of technology that sounds like nothing until you use it when it suddenly has wow factor
  • allows all the note-taking, highlighting and bookmarking you could want at the touch of a screen
  • has a terrific dictionary (again available at the touch of a screen) which even copes with non-US slang terms and ‘ye olde English’
  • has easily customisable brightness/background options (so you can turn the backlit screen into something far less eye-strain inducing)
  • full text searching of the content of your books
  • a good choice of font sizes and styles

The only thing I can think of that it doesn’t do is allow you to organise your books on shelves/in collections as you can do on a kindle device itself. It doesn’t matter to me as I delete books once I’ve read them and only have a couple of TBR book in the app at any time but if this was your eReading app of choice I imagine it would get annoying to only be able to organise alphabetically by title or author (and I am frankly baffled at its absence given the capacity exists in kindle reading’s other incarnations).

Amazon also offer a web-based ‘reader’ very similar to the Booki.sh service discussed below but I haven’t tried it out (and don’t plan to).

iBooks app – 4 stars

Not surprisingly Apple’s device comes pre-loaded with Apple’s own eReading app. As books in the Apple store are the most expensive eBooks I’ve found I’ve only used it to read free books, including the two iPad user guides I downloaded when I bought the device and some other reference books.

iBooks does have most of the features of the Kindle app except the easy synchronisation with other devices (and heaven forbid you should want to read an iBook on a non-Apple product as this is simply impossible). The page turning/loading is also noticeably slower than with the Kindle app. It does however allow you to create your own collections/shelves which is the one thing the Kindle app doesn’t do.

I cannot imagine why anyone is buying books through this app. I looked at a dozen or so books I was interested in buying and none were cheapest in this app and if you have an iPad you have access to all the other apps so why bother with this one? Unless the pricing is an anomaly of the Australian market?

Booki.sh Cloud ‘app’ – 3 stars

I have already done a full review of this service which is a web page rather than an app but I am including it here because its use case and features mirror these other reading apps. It is a cloud-based service that requires a 3G or wi-fi connection to use as it downloads a portion of a book at a time. You can cache a whole book to your ‘satchel’ if necessary but you can’t store a whole library on your device at once.

As a reader it has most of the basic features I look for though it does not allow note-taking or highlighting and it can’t, by design, tell you how many pages you have left to read (essentially it doesn’t know). I do find this pretty annoying.

Cloud services are not for everyone but if you have relatively ubiquitous access to 3G or wi-fi it’s worth considering because there’s something to be said for having your library be device independent (you can read a Booki.sh book on any device with a modern web browser and you’ll never have to worry about re-synchronizing devices or losing access to your library if you lose a device).  You can bookmark Booki.sh books and these remain even after you return the book to your online library so I don’t understand why annotating and highlighting aren’t also available. These additions would make this a very competitive option (especially for Aussies as lots of Australian publishers seem to be using the service).

Overdrive app – 2 stars

This app is not associated with a specific store and allows you to read ePubs, PDFs and most other formats except Amazon’s proprietary format. It’s the app that Australian eBook retailer Booku synchronizes most easily with (as do many other eBook retailers and sites like Smashwords) and is also the app used by most libraries offering eBook loans (my own library does not yet do this so I haven’t tried that aspect of the app).

It is a pretty basic app that seems to be missing some features I’d have thought standard by now. There is no note taking or highlighting available, no dictionary and unlike all the other apps I’ve tried its choice of font sizes is very limited. There are 2 choices only, they’re not that different and neither seems to be equivalent to large print (which is at least 16pt font). The other apps have a range of 6-8 font size choices, several of which are very large and suitable for a range of vision impairments. I imagine this feature is very important to some people, especially those with specialised needs, and it really should be standard.

Kobo app –  2 stars

The Kobo eBook store is the best one I’ve found for non-American readers of non-Amazon eBooks (i.e. ePubs) so I was keen to try the app. I read a book that I had bought for my dedicated eReader because the store does allow me to download to books multiple devices (though it doesn’t synchronise them).

Frankly this app just made me cross because, unlike this person, I think reading is more important than tweeting about reading or ‘visualising’ my reading. The Kobo app’s ‘features’ include

  • Seamless integration with twitter and Facebook so that every page turned, comment made, book started/finished, badge obtained can be recorded and shared with your ‘friends’
  • Badges/Messages/Reading Live Awards when you ‘achieve’ certain goals (getting to a certain percentage of a book etc)
  • Coming soon is something called Kobo Pulse which has an indicator that gets larger and brighter as you reach pages in your book that have generated more comments and reader activity in the associated social space (‘saints preserve us’ is the phrase that leaps to my mind at this point)

I find this kind of stuff inane and believe it is possibly an indicator of the imminent demise of our civilisation but as Kobo does allow you to turn most of it off I could have ignored it. What frustrated me is that all their development energy seems to have gone towards this nonsense and the reading features of the app have suffered. For example:

  • one of the most wonderful features of eBooks is the ability to search them easily but the Kobo app has no search feature (or if it does I could not find it amidst all the sharing options and there is no search feature mentioned in the app’s introductory slides)
  • Instead of telling you how many pages there are in a book (or locations like the Kindle app or percentage like other apps use) this app only ever tells you how many pages there are in the chapter you are reading. This felt like part of the ‘treat readers like illiterate 9 year olds’ philosophy which prompted the sharing/awards/badges ‘features’ (unlike the Booki.sh cloud app discussed above there is no technical reason for this). It does have a progress bar of sorts along the bottom but it works poorly (seeming to move backwards and forwards based on the size of the chapter you are reading rather than continuously moving forward).
  • The app also appears to have a technical glitch that makes it seem like it’s constantly downloading something. The network spinner icon works constantly when the app is running though it’s not possible to tell if it’s just the icon being wonky or if data is being downloaded or uploaded in the background. Being in Australia where data is expensive I’m careful about how much data I use/transmit when my iPad is in 3G mode so this worried me enough to go to the bother of turning off 3G each time I started reading (this takes a few moments and means the dictionary doesn’t work). I did leave a comment about this in the Kobo forum but so far no response (to be fair it’s only been a few days). The books are stored locally on the device (unlike cloud readers) so there is no need for data to be constantly transmitted. Unless of course the damned app is busy ‘sharing’ even though I turned those features off.

I realise I am in the minority of human beings who will not feel enriched (Kobo’s word) by having my life constantly interrupted by my friends sharing their favourite passages of the books they are reading (or visa versa). I am sure the sharing features of this app will probably appeal to many others. And I wouldn’t care if these features existed alongside what I consider basic features of an app that is supposed to enable you to read but I’ve been hard on this app because some basics seem to have been forgotten. I am also averse to being treated like a child.

Copia app – 0 stars

Copia is a fairly new online community combined with an eBook retailing service. It feels a bit like a combination of Good Reads (for eBooks only) and a book store.

Strictly speaking this rating is not entirely fair as I was unable to purchase the book I wanted in the Copia store and could not therefore try out the app. It turns out the store is only available to Americans. This is not a new thing and normally I would have just walked (virtually) away shaking my head. But I am particularly annoyed when I have gone a fair way through the shopping process (about 3/4 of the way in this instance) and then discover the store has forgotten (if it ever knew) there is an entire world outside the 50 states. My time might be less valuable than that of an American but it is worth something. I did submit a support query and was told that they were aware of the glitch and I should be happy with the free books. This dismissive attitude annoyed me even more than the initial problem (I have all the poorly formatted, typo-ridden copies of Pride and Prejudice that I need thanks very much) which is why I have rated the app a great big zero and removed it from my iPad never to be tried again. How could Copia have avoided this snarky behaviour on my part? Put a big red warning sign at the top of the page saying that you can only buy books if you live in America.

Summary

So my app of choice for the iPad is the Kindle app as it offers all the things I consider important (annotations, bookmarking, font size choice, text searching and dictionary). The seamless synchronisation across platforms and devices is a great bonus. Though my dedicated eReader is still my main eReading device I will be happy to use the kindle app for as a secondary/backup device. The only other ‘app’ I am likely to use semi-regularly is the Booki.sh service, especially if it continues to offer lots of Australian titles.

The plethora of reading apps is a bit of a worry really as it does speak to the market fragmentation and the lack of cross-platform compatibility. Never had that problem with physical books did we? Anyone who is planning on using multiple reading apps on an ongoing basis would, I think, need to utilise a third party eBook management program (the best of which by a country mile is Calibre). Or at the very least register all your books on a site like Good Reads or Library Thing and include tags for which store/app you’ve downloaded a book to.

Have you used any of these apps? Any others? Have you compared apps on different devices? Are there any other apps you think I should try? 

Review: Blood Atonement by Dan Waddell

Blood Atonement is the second book in Dan Waddell’s series featuring English genealogist Nigel Barnes, who once again teams up with police who are investigating a current crime which has links to the past. The book opens with police called to Queen’s Park, London where Katie Drake has been gruesomely murdered while her 14-year old daughter appears to be missing. Not sure at first whether she has been taken by the killer or indeed is the killer the team soon find similarities to an earlier case and their investigation then requires they understand more about the family background of Katie Drake, whose past seems something of a closed book.

There will come a point at which the premise of this series, (genealogist working with police) will become unbelievable, but with only two books so far the twist on police procedurals still feels fresh. Waddell weaves the historical element into the present-day story well especially well here, giving a plausible motivation for the killings that doesn’t rely on serial killer-style fetishism. He also does a good job incorporating genealogical aspects of the narrative into the main narrative and (this being one of few subjects I know something about having been an archivist in a former life) gets it all right.

The DCI heading up the case is Grant Foster who was injured rather badly in the events of The Blood Detective and this is his first case back after a long recuperation. He is still feeling the aches and pains (and is meant to be working to a rather stringent return to work plan) of his injuries but is keen to get back into the swing of things. As a way of showing Foster is not quite the full-time curmudgeonly grump he seems in the second half of the novel he meets a young boy who is in potential danger and, in spite of himself, becomes quite attached to the lad. This is a sweet yet quite funny thread. Sergeant, Heather Jenkins continues to work together with Barnes though the personal relationship between the two that appeared to be going somewhere at the end of the first book has gone cold when this one opens. Barnes is not particularly happy about this but he puts it aside to get the job done and the two dart around the country (and the globe) happily enough. There’s a nice tangent in which Barnes is asked to appear in a pseudo-documentary style TV show that adds a bit of levity to the growing body count.

I like the combination of history and genealogical investigation in this series and the particular emphasis of this book (which I’m deliberately saying nothing about to avoid spoilers) is one of those subjects I always enjoy seeing explored. All the elements of a good who (and why) dunnit come together well here with plenty of suspects, a handful of red herrings and even a crazy old lady in an asylum. Jolly good reading.

Not the author’s fault: I read this via the Kobo app on my iPad which turned out to be a fairly frustrating experience of which I will speak further in a different post. Definitely my least favourite eReading experience to date but I tried very hard to keep my nasty thoughts about that distinct from my thoughts about the book itself.

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Blood Atonement has been reviewed at Aust Crime Fiction and Mysteries in Paradise

 

I reviewed the first book in the series, The Blood Detective, last year

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My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Penguin [2009]
ISBN 9780141040998
Length I don’t have a clue because the daft Kobo app is more interested in tweeting about my reading than telling me how many effing pages there are in the effing book (not that I’m annoyed or anything)
Format eBook (ePub)
Source I bought it

Sisters in Crime Challenge Post #3: The genre busters

This post at Petrona reminded me of a tremendous small Australian publishing house called Spinifex Press which specialises in ‘publishing innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge’. A few years ago they re-published Australian author Finola Moorhead’s Still Murder which, according to Moorhead herself, is not a genre novel although it features a crime, an investigation, and suspects. In a short essay in Killing Women: Rewriting Detective Fiction (Delys Bird editor) Moorhead explains her somewhat paradoxical lack of comfort with the notion of the crime genre’s suitability for tackling the subjects that interested her (broadly speaking women’s thinking and feminism) and her reasons for using the genre’s popularity, in spite of these misgivings, to do exactly that.

The book was first published in 1991 when it won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. On re-reading it 20 years later I was pleasantly surprised to find it largely undated and as compelling as I remembered. The themes and ideas it explores seem almost purpose-built for this particular challenge. To begin with Still Murder is not a conventional narrative, using instead a mixture of fictional diary entries, news clippings, detective’s notebooks and other documents to flesh out its complex, grand story. This could have proven not much more than a quirky experiment but Moorhead is skilled enough to draw these disparate streams and points of view together to tell a fascinating story. The fact that it unfolds somewhat unevenly with readers never knowing which angle will be coming next adds to the suspense.

The subject matter is another departure from run-of-the-mill crime fiction; exploring some themes that remain largely ignored even today. One that resonates particularly strongly still is the notion of war as a crime, especially in the myriad of horrendous ways it impacts on society for years after the events themselves are done with. For all its genre-busting ways though the novel does have a corpse (discovered by a nun), a police investigator (who spends most of her time pretending to be a nurse in order to keep an eye on a key figure in the case) and suspects (of a sort). It isn’t the easiest read you’ll come across but it is intellectually stimulating, especially for those who have some familiarity with the tropes and formulas of the genre who will enjoy seeing these subverted in intriguing ways. From this perspective the novel was quite a different read for me now than in 1991 when my knowledge of the genre (and most everything else at the ripe old age of 24) was fairly limited.

As part of this challenge my job is now to mention three other female crime writers whose work is similar. I might revisit this in a different way in a future instalment of this challenge by discussing more feminist crime novelists but here I thought I’d highlight other women whose works are only loosely ‘of the genre’ in terms of their structure, focus or themes.

Natsuo Kirino: a Japanese writer who eschews the traditional procedural or detecting elements of crime novels and in her grim narratives which explore a range of social themes such as the overall treatment of women in society. Of the two novels of hers that I’ve read, Grotesque and Out, I enjoyed the first more. It has elements of fantasy and gothic romance as well as crime but all are somewhat tangential to the deconstruction of the lives and thoughts of the sisters at the novel’s heart and the tortured, vitriol-filled relationship between the two is one you won’t forget in a hurry.

Dorothy Porter: another Australian writer who in 2007 released El Dorado, in whicb a man kills children (without molesting them) and is hunted by a troubled policeman whose own personal relationships are laid bare in the novel. The book’s break with genre conventions is that it is written entirely in verse. I thought I would hate it when it was selected by my book club shortly after its release but admit to finding myself thoroughly gripped by the exploration of people seemingly unable to grow up. If you’re worried about the poetry leading to a flowery or romantic book don’t fret; it’s as dark and sharp as any noir tale.

Karin Alvtegen: there are actually quite a few women writers specialising in the psychological suspense category of novels which often don’t feature police officers or detectives of any sort and in which sometimes even crimes themselves are only tangentially discussed. In these books it is the reason for the crime that the author is exploring rather than who did what to whom and how many years are they going to jail because of it. The fact that these novels are often standalones is, these days, something of a convention-busting trait in itself as the long-running series has become so ubiquitous in the genre. I’ve only read one of Alvtegen’s novels so far but it has stayed clearly in my memory for over 2 years which is high praise indeed.

Do you like crime writing that breaks with the traditions of the genre’s styles? Do you have any favourite women crime writers who ‘bust’ the conventions of the genre in some way?

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sisters in Crime (US) author, blogger and current Sisters in Crime board member Barbara Fister issued book bloggers the challenge of writing about women’s contribution to crime fiction. There are three levels of the challenge and I’m aiming for the expert level which requires me to write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by a woman author and, for each, mention three similar women authors whose works I would recommend.  Though I am taking Barbara at her word and using the “whenever” deadline as a concrete goal, so it may take me a while to do all ten posts. Even if you only occasionally blog about crime fiction why not join in the challenge and help celebrate the women who write it?

Another non review, this time A D Miller’s Snowdrops

This is the synopsis of a book that judges of this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction selected for the Prize’s shortlist

“… a riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman’s moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets – and corpses – come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw… Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.”

Here’s a synopsis of the book I read

…a predictable drama that appears to have been borrowed from the set of whatever local version of Neighbours they have in Russia that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter (they got that bit right), as a nearly middle-aged Englishman sets his moral compass aside with nary a thought because a pretty girl offered to sleep with him. There are quite a few train rides, and a visit to a strip club (or maybe two, I forget) and lots of snow. Old people do not fare well. Snowdrops is a bland story of mild lust in a moral vacuum. It is dull, languorous and has the momentum of a somnambulant tortoise which threatens to bore the reader into a coma.

On the bright side the book I read was mercifully short, the writing itself was rather good (the problem being more that there was nothing of much interest written about) and it did deliver an atmospheric sense of place (though my cynical self says this bordered on the caricature at some points but having never been I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt).

It wasn’t a ‘literary thriller’, it didn’t have ‘a sense of foreboding’ (the outcome was blindingly obvious from the outset), it wasn’t ‘engrossing’ or ‘powerful’ or any of the things other people have written about it.

And while we’re on the subject of things other people have written why in the name of all that is sacred would anyone think the phrase ‘…reads like Graham Greene on steroids’ (7th blurb on that page) is a selling point for a novel? I can’t recall when I’ve ever read a more inane comment on literature. Given the context of the phrase it would seem the reviewer meant it as a compliment but how? And why? Among the effects of steriod use are aggression, hypomania, suicidal tendencies and temporary infertility. How would Graham Greene be improved by any of that?

Yes, yes I’ve digressed. Sorry. In short, I read a book about a mildly interesting though self-deluded chap surrounded by caricatures which completely failed to capture my imagination for even a nanosecond. I can’t for the life of me see what the Booker judges saw in it but there’s nothing new in that.

 

Review: The Vault by Ruth Rendell

I’ve written before of my teenage self’s rejection of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series and my subsequent luke warm appreciation of the books, but last year I rather enjoyed book 22 of the series, The Monster in the Box, though I did think it the end of the series. I was curious then when a 23rd full length Wexford novel was released this year and when an edition narrated by the excellent Nigel Anthony became available I couldn’t resist.

Reg Wexford has retired and he is enjoying some aspects of his new lifestyle, especially living part-time in the converted coach house in the grounds of his daughter’s north London home. He and his wife Dora enjoy the change of scenery from their home in Kingsmarkham and Wexford in particular has taken to having long walks around the city (Dora gets her exercise at a gym). However Wexford does miss being a policeman so when and old colleague, Tom Ede, asks him to act as a specialist advisor on a curly case Reg jumps at the opportunity. Four bodies have been discovered in the dis-used coal hole of a house in St John’s Wood; forensic evidence indicates 3 of the bodies have been there for about 12 years while the fourth has only been there for 2 years. Given the house has changed hands several times over this period police are somewhat baffled by the case, especially as there is not much to go on in the way of identification.

In most crime fiction some suspension of disbelief is required and here it is that a senior policeman with all manner of resources at his disposal would need (or even consider) relying on a retired person for the resolution to a case however it is made just about believable when the prior relationship between the two is described as being something of a mentoring one. Stretching the credibility further though is the wide acceptance of Wexford by Ede’s younger subordinates, none of whom slow the slightest hint of being miffed at being lumbered with the ageing Wexford as interviewing partner/meddler. Such acceptance of the wisdom of the older person is certainly not my experience of the modern workplace.

However, it’s not that hard to put this aside and become immersed in this gentle but satisfyingly complex tale complete with a nicely observed take on several aspects of modern life. One of the things I appreciated most about this book, and its predecessor, was the well-rounded sense we get of Wexford’s personal life including his various familial relationships and his friendship with his old colleague Mike Burden who he has a drink with each time he goes back to Kingsmarkham. A couple of years ago I read the very first Wexford book, From Doon with Death, and I was struck by how little of the personal side of the characters we saw. Clearly a lot has changed in the 40+ years that Rendell has been writing this series. We see the gentle side of Wexford with his various grandchildren and also the distraught parent shines through when one of his daughters is severely injured. As far as the case goes Wexford struggles sometimes with having no official role, he even goes so far as to lament that he is not like the famous amateur detectives of fiction such as Hercule Poirot and Peter Wimsey. However, his imagination is captured by the puzzle of the case and I enjoyed the way he was depicted as figuring out various aspects of the problem, using new technology where appropriate and old-fashioned interviewing techniques when that was called for.

Another thoroughly enjoyable aspect of the book is its presentation of London as something of a character in its own right. Via Wexford’s walks (and bus rides, taxi trips etc) we’re treated to an eclectic but quite delightful picture of the city. There are observations about particular buildings, the changes brought by waves of migration and the way a place can go from being a mansion to a slum (and back again) over time.

There are things that don’t quite work about the novel too. The idea that a senior policeman could have retired within the last year or two having never sent an email seems utterly preposterous for example and the resolution of the case at the heart of the novel is a bit contrived. But the character studies and observations about the life of a newly retired man make up for these minor deficiencies and I can recommend this book to both fans of the series and those unfamiliar with the characters as you really don’t need to have read the rest of the novels to enjoy this one.

I do have to say something about the editing though and not in the way that I usually do when I just want words cut out. Here the book is not too long but it is very poorly edited with names of characters being different in different places, information being repeated unnecessarily (we’re twice told in some detail about the layout of the coach house for example), a character talking of something before the fact is revealed in the narrative and several other errors. At first I thought it was me as I was listening to the book (superbly narrated by Nigel Anthony) but after laboriously re-listening to several passages I realised I had remembered properly and it was the book itself which contained the rather alarming number of errors.

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The Vault has been reviewed at Petrona

Apparently the book is a kind of sequel to one of Rendell’s non-Wexford books, A Sight For Sore Eyes, which appears to tell the story of the events of the first murders which result in the bodies found in this novel. I suspect if you’ve read that book (I haven’t but have read the blurb) and can remember its plot you won’t find much suspense in The Vault

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My rating 3.5/5
Narrator Nigel Anthony
Publisher AudioGO [2011]
ISBN N/A downloaded from audible.com
Length 8 hours 41 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Source I bought

Review: Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Note: this book is published in the US as The Keeper of Lost Causes and is referred to at the author’s website as The Woman in the Cage.

Given that everyone in the world has already read this book (refer links below) there doesn’t seem much point in writing this review but my life appears to be full of pointless pursuits these days so one more can’t hurt. Perhaps if I add my voice to the chorus of positive reviews there might be a hastening of the translation of other volumes by this clearly talented author?

Mercy tells us two stories. The first is the story of Merete Lynggaard, a successful politician who disappears very suddenly one day in 2002. While the rest of the world thinks her dead, drowned when falling or jumping from the ferry she was travelling on, we learn that she is alive and imprisoned in horrendous circumstances. Merete’s part of the book takes us back through her life as well as depicting her current circumstances in such an affecting way that I was close to hyperventilating more than once (I am extremely claustrophobic and the descriptions are all too realistic).

The second story is that of Carl Mørck who is a Detective with the Danish police. As the book opens he is returning to work after a traumatic incident in which he was shot, one of his colleagues was murdered and another was crippled for life. Carl’s entire focus as he comes back to work is to ensure that he can do as little as possible while still getting paid and his employers are keen to sideline him too. With the help of a new source of funding they establish a new Department for Carl to head up which will investigate unsolved cases. Putting Carl out on his own is seen as advisable as no one likes working with him and the bosses have plans to use much of the allocated money for their own ongoing investigations. Carl sets himself up in his basement office, where he spends days surfing the net and arranging case files in piles (but putting off actually looking at them) and prepares to do not much at all. But one of his demands in the bargaining that he conducted with his superiors was for an assistant who could do cleaning and make coffee and the man assigned to him, Assad, forces Carl to actually open some of the cold case files. And he becomes intrigued in spite of himself. When they decide to focus on the Lynggaard case Carl and Assad (who takes on a wide array of duties, most of which would not normally be performed by a cleaner) cleverly uncover the mistakes made by the initial investigation and doggedly work their way towards finding an answer to the mysterious disappearance.

People (and book blurbs) are always keen to paint Scandinavian crime fiction as universally bleak and miserable but this book is hardly that. While individual circumstances are indeed on a scale from merely bad to utterly horrific there is a strong sense of humour throughout Mercy and this is where Lisa Hartford’s superb translation skills are most evident. There were many genuine laughs in the book for me, especially from the dialogue between Carl and Assad or Carl and his superiors and I am always extra impressed when linguistic humour can be translated and remain funny.

Another element that keeps this book from being too grim is the depiction of Merete. Perhaps because I know that if I were in her situation I would have curled into the foetal position and died I loved the way she was shown to be keeping her sanity and wits. She is locked alone in a room with no distractions, no comforts and no human contact for a very (very) long period and yet she never lets it get to her, or at least not for too long. Thankfully Adler-Olsen resisted the temptation to infuse her imprisonment with any kind of sexual or violent torture which also scores extra points with me as that particular trope has worn very thin.

From a plotting perspective it’s not that difficult to work out who must be responsible for Merete’s kidnapping but there is a lot else going on to keep the reader engaged and guessing right up until the end. The unveiling of the characters’ back stories and the ongoing battles that Carl has with his superiors and colleagues, not to mention his beleaguered family life, provide plenty of tension and intrigue. This really is a multi-threaded story but kept well controlled so that you don’t, as a reader, feel confused at all.

In short this is a tremendously good read with excellent characters, lots of interesting storylines and offering a credible depiction of a modern bureaucracy with all its flaws. If there does happen to be anyone left who hasn’t read it then my only advice is to do so. Now. I eagerly await the next translated volume.

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This book (either as Mercy or as The Keeper of Lost Causes) has been reviewed at Crime Scraps, DJ’s KrimiblogEuro Crime (By Maxine), How MysteriousMysteries in Paradise, Reading MattersThe Nordic Bookblog,

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My rating 4.5/5
Author website http://www.jussiadlerolsen.com/
Translator Lisa Hartford [aka Tina Nunnally]
Publisher Penguin [this translation 2011, original edition 2008]
ISBN 9780141399966
Length 504 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Department Q series
Source I bought it

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