books

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)

Scandinavian crime: Camilla Läckberg

As with Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg was on my dad’s useful list of Scandinavian women who write crime, and I was fortunate to find her first three novels in one ebook from the library (though I only read 2 before the loan expired). The Ice Princess and The Preacher were both gripping novels set in and around the small Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. Again, as in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, there is that sense of small-town interconnectedness, the potential for gossip and everyone knowing everyone else’s family background. However, there is no isolation here: Fjällbacka is a summer tourist destination, there are residents who’ve moved to the city (and some who’ve returned), and we occasionally follow characters to Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Having, as I said, only read the first two novels from a dozen or so years ago (and synopses of some more recent ones) it seems that the first volume, The Ice Princess, follows a different format. While the series as a whole seems to be referred to as the Patrik Hedström books, it’s hard to say who is the central character in The Ice Princess, and Patrik doesn’t appear for quite a while. We mainly follow the amateur investigations of Erica, a moderately successful non-fiction author who is temporarily in town sorting out her parents’ house after their recent deaths. When her childhood friend Alex’s body is found, apparently as the result of suicide, Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex’s life. Speaking to Alex’s friends and family, and dredging up her own memories and photographs, Erica begins to feel that something isn’t right.

In The Preacher, the murder of a tourist seems to be connected to two twenty-five year old disappearances, and a divided local family. With the fresh death occurring at the height of the tourist season that most of the town depends on, the police are under pressure to clear it up as quickly as they can. If they don’t melt in the heatwave, first.

With The Preacher, there is an explicit connection to 1979 (including flashbacks to events of that time), but the death in The Ice Princess also has its roots in past events, and according to my dad the third novel, The Stone Cutter, delves into the 1920s. This put me in mind of Robert Goddard and his novels based around family secrets, with the key to the present being obtainable only by solving a puzzle from the past, so the series may appeal to his readers.

Camilla Läckberg draws out the human side of the Tanumshede police force, whether it’s Mellberg (the chief) with his comb-over, or young Martin’s disastrous love life, we’re reminded that they are people too. Patrik has his doubts and insecurities, mistakes are made and laziness creeps in with the summer heat. Because of that human side, there is a degree of natural humour in the books (in a similar way to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels) and though there are descriptions of gruesome situations, the books are by no means bloody and grim.

Perhaps one of the things that initially drew me in to The Ice Princess when I began to read it was the herring connection. The book I’d finished reading the day before was Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, set in North Shields and partly about the decline of the herring catch. In the early part of The Ice Princess, Läckberg talks about the decline of the herring catch in Fjällbacka (which I was delighted to discover is a real place) and how that changed the town, so it was interesting to see that mirrored on both sides of the North Sea. While I appreciate that not everyone will have such a niche interest, I think this series will have wide appeal with its engaging characters and well thought out thriller plots.

Reading crime, and a shift in patterns

June is National Crime Reading Month apparently – at least according to the Crime Readers’ Association, and surely they should know. True to form, I am of course reading Ed Reardon’s Week which (pilfered magazines from the library aside) doesn’t really feature any crime. However, some of you may be reading some Karin Fossum books after last weekend’s review, and there will be another Scandinavian crime review shortly (I won’t specify when, mainly because it’ll no doubt change in the meantime, but let’s pretend it’s also to give you a nice surprise).

That (in a loose sort of a way) brings me to the other matter, which is a change in blogging schedule. I know most of you won’t have noticed, let alone cared, that I mainly blogged on Wednesdays for quite a while. You may have noticed it go all to pot recently with the mini-series on train journeys of the North. This seemed like a good time to shift back to weekend posting, as I don’t seem to find the time during the week any more (she says, writing a blog post on a weekday evening. And conveniently forgetting about the scheduling facility). Whatever the excuse, posts will be available (on the whole, when I remember) on a Saturday or Sunday from now on. Until I change my mind again.

Scandinavian crime: Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum

The joy of libraries in the digital age, eh? Just before my May Day holiday my dad emailed me a list of Scandinavian women whose crime novels he’d recently read courtesy of the e-book loans from his county library service. My nearest Kobo-friendly library service had a few of them too, so the night before I left I was able to load up with half a dozen crime novels by unfamiliar authors without bulking out my rucksack. I won’t say I picked them on the recommendation of my dad, because in his usual style he said he couldn’t remember which ones were any good.

I tried a couple of chapters of an Anne Holt novel (according to the blurb she’s a former minister in the Norwegian government) and found the style a bit too lyrical for murder, so I picked Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum at random from the remainder of my list. I was hooked by about page 2.

The central thread concerns the body of a girl found by a tarn, but it ends up being about so much more than that. The setting is a small village at the foot of a mountain where everyone knows each other, rumours spread fast, and yet somehow everyone has secrets. Some of them might even be worth killing for. The connections between the residents are complex, and once you start untangling a trail, who knows where it might lead.

The sense of place in this Norwegian novel was wonderful – admittedly I’ve never been to Norway but the isolation, stillness and beauty were conjured vividly. Refreshingly the police detective, Konrad Sejer, instead of being jaded, hard-drinking and divorced, was a reasonably contented grandfather, albeit still mourning for his late wife, and his sidekick Skarre seemed like a nice chap, full of boyish enthusiasm. There was a small amount of violence in the novel but nothing particularly graphic or out of place; if you like your detectives full of action like Harry Bosch or Elvis Cole, you’ll be disappointed here.

Fossum wrong-footed me constantly with this novel, and it’s hard to say much about the plot without letting a spoiler slip, but I raced through, desperate to find out where it was going next. The frequently switching point of view (at least once to a dog) might be disconcerting if you prefer a tight focus, but I know I’ll be reading more from Karin Fossum before long. If you like the more thoughtful end of crime fiction (Ross Macdonald, say) I recommend you do too.

A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado

Cover of A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli SalgadoMinoli Salgado’s debut novel A Little Dust on the Eyes takes as its trigger a family wedding in Sri Lanka in late December 2004, which the reader knows is about to be disrupted by the Boxing Day tsunami. In the couple of weeks of calm beforehand, lonely PhD student Savi takes the opportunity to escape an English winter and try to reconnect with the family she left behind years ago.

The story is told with gentle insistence, and the vivid images juxtapose and mingle grey Britain with colourful, exotic Sri Lanka. We shuttle back and forth in time and place, from the south coast of England to the south coast of Sri Lanka, from the present day to points in Savi’s childhood or the more recent past. Revisiting a place you remember doesn’t necessarily match up with revisiting the memory, and if you’ve been away for long enough are you a visitor or going home? Memories, stories and truth – how closely are they connected, really?

Savi’s struggling thesis has her studying her native land from afar, through literature. Her cousin Renu on the other hand, whose formal education was interrupted by the civil war, is studying recent history through the gaps and inconsistencies in what people say when they talk about relatives who disappeared during the war. The core of the novel is the connection and contrast between these two women, practically sisters in childhood, whose lives have then been so different. One sent to an English boarding school, out of harm’s way but also out of family life, the other growing up in a community turning against itself, where everyone turns a blind eye and no-one wants to know the truth, just in case.

Dr Salgado lectures in English at the University of Sussex, and this academic background comes through via technicalities in Savi’s research, as well as the list of references at the end of the novel. Interestingly I felt almost cheated when she acknowledged the real source of a couple of quotes she puts in characters’ mouths, yet I assume (and probably expect) novelists in general are poaching dialogue left, right and centre, from a choice phrase at a bus stop to a neat summary sentence on the news. I know I do it now and then.

A minor niggle for me was the lack of a sense of timescale in the book – I wasn’t altogether sure how long it had been since Savi last visited Sri Lanka, or had seen her cousin, how long she’d lived in England or even how long Renu had been unofficially working with the NGO investigating abductions. That aside, I was captivated by A Little Dust on the Eyes and I imagine anyone who liked Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll (see my review here) would also enjoy it.

Casting the actors in your head

When I read fiction, it’s kind of like watching a film in my head through a murky window – the events play out in my mind’s eye, but not with absolute clarity, though the voices are usually distinct. Often I’ll end up with a real actor playing the character, either because the physical description put me in mind of them, or because they’ve played a similar character in something I’ve seen. Jack Shaftoe in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, for instance, is for whatever reason played by a young James Bolam.

Where I’ve seen a TV or film adaptation, the casting for the version in my head is more straightforward. Both Marlowe and Spade are forever Bogart thanks to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, I probably saw those films before I started reading either Chandler or Hammett. Hercule Poirot can’t be anyone other than David Suchet, again the TV adaptation might have just come to my notice before the books did. Maigret is a trickier one, however. I can no longer remember how I pictured Maigret, or how he spoke, when my dad first introduced me to a shelf of Simenon, but ever since we watched the TV adaptation in the early 90s, Maigret has been Michael Gambon whenever I’ve read the books. It’s with mixed feelings, therefore, that I read of Rowan Atkinson’s role as Inspector Maigret in two new TV films – I’m sure he’ll be good, I just don’t want to muddy the Gambonesque waters.

Interestingly (at least to me), OneMonkey doesn’t always read aloud/hear character voices in his head when he’s reading a book. Nor does he always picture the events being described. Naturally I assume I’m the normal one and he’s odd, but it would be fascinating to find out how other people read (as OneMonkey says, long descriptions of how a room looks are often wasted on him – as a writer am I generally wasting my time on that sort of thing or do most people get something from it?). Feel free to comment here and let me know.

Assorted creativity

I have a (flimsy) excuse for my long absence, I’ve been working on some exciting projects. As well as the continuing redrafting of the sci-fi noir, which is lurching along in fits and starts, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on preparations for a storytelling evening which may or may not happen this summer in York (you’ll be the first to hear about it if it does). I still need to write a sci-fi story to complete the package, which is looking like it will also contain myths, fairytales and one of my Luddite stories.

The other exciting news is that I should be starting to review books (and graphic novels) for the Luna Station Quarterly blog pretty soon. The moment the first one is up there, I’ll stick a link to it on here.