Monday, 3 October 2011

Moving....

The blog move to the Hersilia Press site is now complete. This blog will not be updated, so please visit www.hersilia-press.co.uk/blog for the new posts. The new blog will have better functionality and will be better integrated with the website.

Thanks for your patience!

Friday, 23 September 2011

An interview with Keith Walters

Keith runs a wonderful blog at http://booksandwriters.wordpress.com/ which is one of the best sources for all things crime fiction. Since he's used to interviewing authors I thought I might ask him to be on the other side and answer a few questions, which he very kindly agreed to: that will give you an idea of the busy life of a crime blogger. Crime *fiction* blogger, I mean....


What’s the strangest thing that happened to you in an interview?

Maybe not the strangest, but certainly the most memorable.

A few years back (quite a few in fact as was in my college days, writing horror film and book fanzines - yes this was pre-internet!) I had the privilege of being asked to interview Jay Clarke (one of the Canadian team of lawyers that write collectively as Michael Slade) over lunch at Langhams Brasserie.  

A great lunch and a lovely chat with a very like-minded guy.  But, perhaps too like-minded as we both loved horror movies and when we got to discussing those and the magazine, Fangoria, his publicist admitted to feeling a little green around the gills and left us to get on with it :)

The day was topped off by the fact that, as we'd had such a great conversation, in the evening at the launch party, Jay spotted me amongst the crowd of the much more professional press guys and called to me. I was a bit gob-smacked, but not as much as those in the room who were clearly wondering who the hell was this 'kid' amongst them.  

It was great to interview CJ Box over breakfast at Harrogate this year - but I was so embarrassed when a few other attendees (including author David Jackson) were about to sit with us and then I had to ask if they would mind giving us a while.  They were very understanding and gracious - I must get a bigger tape machine as I don't think they realised I was interviewing at the time.

What’s the best perk of being a crime blogger?

Where to start? I don't think I could single one out.

Obviously it's great to receive free books - that's a given. To get them in advance of publication is a greater bonus and an honour too, and there's nothing better than somebody telling you via twitter or on a blog comment that they are going to or have bought the book based on a review you've written.

Then there are the book events, the launches and the special memories - those at Goldsboro Books in London are always fantastic and draw great crowds, and when there's something a bit different, such as the Jack the Ripper tour walk for the launch on SJ Bolton's 'Now You See Me', it will stay in the mind for years to come as a really memorable and fun evening.

Meeting crime writers in general is always a great time guaranteed - genuinely the nicest bunch of people you could hope to meet.

And, of course, without the blogging (and twitter, plus the support of many) I wouldn't have won the 'blogger in residence' gig at this year's excellent Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. 
We may not have won the quiz, Ilaria, but we can't have everything :) [I have to butt in here and add that Keith and I were on the same quiz team....we didn't win, but we didn't do too bad...]

Crime fiction blogging seems to spin off into all sorts of other things I never would have had the opportunity to do before - this year I attended and took part in the World Book Night launch, attended the filming of three episodes of the TV Book Club, and have written for the We Love this Book website - so, all good and thoroughly enjoyable stuff.

Conversely, what’s the worst aspect of being a crime blogger?

I wouldn't really necessarily call it the 'worst', but maybe the most difficult, if that's okay to twist things a little? That would be time - or lack of it.

There really are so many great books out there that, with the full time sales job I hold down to pay the mortgage, bills and keep the kids in shoes, sometimes a few chapters and I'm asleep on the sofa far too early some evenings. 

This is all, without a doubt, self-inflicted, however, particularly as I also delve into YA books every now and again (something my 11 year old daughter is now assisting with on our JNR version of the blog), so some days more YA books arrive than crime fiction titles to review.

It's also a bit of a challenge to make sure a balance is being struck and that all the lovely folk who look after us bloggers are getting an even spread of reviews - there's nothing worse than a site that looks like every review is a book from the same publishing house.

I have invested in a dry wipe board, just to keep a better track on what I'm doing so that I can switch off from the day job in the evenings and take a look at what I 'really' want to be doing.

A great hero or a great villain? [IM: I am indebted for this question to the wonderful Dan Holloway, author of The Company of Fellows as one of his 'how long is a piece of rope']

In life, the great hero would have to be my Dad.  If I can be half as good a Dad to my kids as he is to me then I would have done a pretty good job.

In crime fiction, my author hero would likely be the late great Ed McBain - I love the ensemble work of the 87th Precinct novels and the man was so prolific - my bookshelves of his work shout at me to get my own books written.

For a crime fiction character, my hero would probably be Charlie Parker from John Connolly's excellent novels - he has just the right balance of being a haunted character whilst also being tough and ready to do his bit when required - and I just love the way those books tread the border between crime and the supernatural.

For a villain - I will avoid real life and authors and go with a character only, and here's where I go more horror than crime I guess, with Annie Wilkes from Stephen King's masterpiece Misery. Although, I guess the title villain may not strictly apply in that case as she clearly believes she is only acting in the best interest of the author Paul Sheldon and his work - as chilling as that becomes.
  
What’s the book plot you’d rewrite?

Ooh - good question.  
To be honest, I wouldn't profess to thinking I could do anything to improve on anyone who's actually had something published.

But, there are lots of books where I guess I would have preferred the ending was different of the plot changed in some way. 

In some ways, although I absolutely loved Justin Cronin's The Passage, I was sad when the first section of the book ended and I felt rushed years ahead as I wanted to stay in the first section for longer - maybe for that whole book - especially as it was the first of a trilogy.

What’s the best idea you’ve had which has gone (so far) unappreciated by everyone else? 

Well, nothing that I'd take to Dragons' Den if that's what you mean.

In terms of writing, I have completed NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the past few years.  Two years ago my children expressed an interest and wanted to know what I was writing, so I changed tack and chose to write a childrens' fantasy book featuring them.  It meant that, every night at bedtime, I got to read them a few pages and then got their feedback and ideas as to where the story would go next - cheating in a way, but I felt that was a pretty good idea to keep them happy and to get the book written.

If I'm allowed two, then I also changed the design on the architects' plans when we had a loft extension a few years back, to put a turn in the new staircase rather than a straight run - this resulted in me gaining a lovely little office and reading space - a bit selfish, but I thought it was a good idea :)  

Tidy desk or messy desk?

A bit of both really.

I like nothing more than getting organised.

Today for example, my desk (which is actually now our dining room table) is covered in paperwork from the day job to file away for next week along with the work laptop, calculator, car keys, workbag and several phones, along with a pile of books received today, this laptop and paperwork relating to book-ish things.

So, right now it's very messy, but I will no doubt spend a couple of hours this evening getting everything organised in the expectation that this will be the weekend where I get stuff done. Then my wife will come home, the kids will start fighting, washing up in the kitchen needs doing and dinner to be sorted out - and my nice tidier desk will sit like that until it's time for Monday to hit with vengeance. 

Most stupid question you’ve ever been asked? (no, you can’t answer with “this one”!)

That's not a stupid question, but it is the toughest of the bunch.

It doesn't relate to books or writing, but to somebody taking dictation (from a cassette machine) at a place I used to work.

The guy on the tape had asked the temp to type a quote (we repaired shop signs) and he'd said 'Two engineers attending site and carrying out repairs...'. The temp actually asked me if what she'd typed was correct, clearly not engaging brain before showing it to me. 

She'd typed 'Two engineers attending site and carrying out some bears' !

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Glitter Scene by Monika Fagerholm

The Glitter SceneThe Glitter Scene by Monika Fagerholm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When I received this book, courtesy of the publisher, I was a little puzzled as it was described as a murder mystery but the cover was unlike any other murder mystery book I'd seen. At this point I have to admit that I am a bit of a font and book nerd and the cover of this volume is absolutely beautiful – not just beautiful to look at, it is tactile as well (one point scored for the supporters of the “kindle-will-never-replace-that”). But I digress.

I started reading and I kept thinking I was missing words. The style of this book is so peculiar it was like reading Ulysses all over again: you will see what I mean when you read the book. It is like modern art or contemporary classical music: it takes a while to understand, and you think it's really weird, but amazingly it all works, and eventually you do understand it, a little while after having closed the book. Which is exactly what happened to me.

I don't think you can summarise the plot, as it is anything but linear: there are different points of view, flashbacks and overlap between them. It is an “impressionistic” book in that you have to let the words take you where the author wants you, the reader, to be. The characters are viewed from their own point of view and the point of view of one other character in the story: there isn't an omniscient narrator that we can rely on and trust, to help us form an opinion of the characters. This prevents empathising with them, but makes the reader be the narrator him/herself: it is almost as if the story is unfolding in front of our very eyes, with all its complexities, emotions and lack of objectivity.

I liked this book once I finished it – it is, more than a story, an experience or an emotion.

The translator has done a brilliant job for a book which must have been a very difficult assignment indeed.


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Thursday, 8 September 2011

Il Giorno della Civetta by Leonardo Sciascia

Il giorno della civettaIl giorno della civetta by Leonardo Sciascia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It is impossible to do justice to a book like this, which has become a classic and in the opinion of many (me included) should be compulsory reading at school. It is the first Italian fiction book to deal with the mafia phenomenon, which is nowadays commonly accepted as a reality of many societies (not only Italy) but when Sciascia was writing, it certainly wasn’t.

The book deals with the murder of an entrepreneur, Colasberna, at the hands of the mafia. Carabinieri Captain Bellodi, who is originally from Parma in the north of the country, is determined to identify the culprit, but despite the murder having taken place on a crowded bus and in a public place, no witnesses come forward and nobody has heard or seen anything. Bellodi meets the local Godfather, who assures him the mafia doesn’t exist, a concept repeated in Parliament where a politician claims it is an invention of the communists. The real culprits have unassailable alibis and the murder is declared a crime of passion, attributed to the lover of Colasberna’s wife.

Sciascia is ground-breaking not only because he is one of the first gialli writers, but also because he writes about contemporary criminal reality, which he knew well as a Sicilian and as a member of Parliament. He also is one of the first writers to have a strong impegno, the socio-political commitment which is a denunciation of everyday real life, where justice is not always made. In this book, as in many others (especially Italian) there is no “happy” ending (as much as a book with a murder can have a happy ending), no closure, no sense that justice has been made. And this is exactly why these books have become classics.


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Thursday, 1 September 2011

The killing place by Tess Gerritsen

The Killing Place (Jane Rizzoli & Maura Isles, #8)The Killing Place by Tess Gerritsen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Tess Gerritsen worked as a medical doctor: and you can certainly tell. A killing place really keeps you on edge, and without being particularly crude, it manages to come up with situations where even medical science could not help.

This is the eighth in the Rizzoli and Isles series, which was published in the US under the title “Ice Cold”. Forensic anthropologist Maura Isles is at a conference where she meets a former University acquaintance and joins him and some of his friends for a post-conference tour in snowy Wyoming. Soon they find themselves in a village where all houses seem to have been suddenly abandoned, and with a casualty on the verge of losing a limb even the knowledge of two doctors is not very useful without any equipment. It is impossible to call for help and Maura tries to entangle the many suspicious circumstances that surround the situation.

Her partner Jane Rizzoli, who incidentally (unlike Maura) seems to be one of very few fictional detectives with a normal family life, is very much in the background in this novel but shows how close and loyal the two characters really are to each other.

I loved this book: it is fast-paced, has the right amount of twists in the plot and characters I like and empathise with. What I really liked about the book was how real, how likely it felt for me and how much strange and apparently inexplicable situations had a perfectly rational and reasonable (after you’re told) explanation. The end was of course not what I was led to believe but in general I’m not terribly good at guessing endings…

I see this has been called a non-typical book by Tess Gerritsen by some reviewers, but I think the style of writing which is one of the main qualities I liked about it will be the same in other books. I do look forward to reading not only the others in the Rizzoli and Isles series, but the stand-alones and even the romantic suspense (I have an open mind!).




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Friday, 26 August 2011

St Hilda's crime and mystery weekend


This year I attended the St Hilda’s conference for the second time. As last year, the papers were of excellent quality and very exciting: the theme was The Anatomy of Justice. The conference opened with Ayo Onatade who talked about her day job in the Royal Courts of Justice (which she doesn’t do enough of, but I understand it is not something you can discuss with everyone all the time!) and Val McDermid talking about how to make the law work for authors. This was followed by an interesting discussion which also included the recent rioting in London and the penalties handed out to those found guilty.

All speakers gave fascinating talks: some particularly interesting for me were Frances Fyfield’s paper which discussed unusual trials (of animals and objects) carried out in the Middle Ages, with excerpts from a documentary she did for the BBC World service (you can listen to it here), while Cath Staincliffe talked about the moral and practical difficulties involved in assisted dying – and left me with a big lump in my throat. Penny Evans discussed how women’s ‘nagging’ has been considered a provocation in some murder cases (thankfully that loophole has now been closed!) which was truly astounding.

An excellent and more detailed summary of the event is on the Shots blog. The event was a real success and I discovered more about a number of attending authors and books, including the guest of honour Professor Bernard Knight. Natasha Cooper did a brilliant job of chairing the conference and attendees were very friendly.

The conference was well organised and the speakers’ styles and topics were very diverse, giving the event a good variety of themes and approaches. The questions and discussions were thought-provoking and the environment not intimidating. I only wish there was a website for the conference and more ‘social networking’ presence which would make it easier for new people to get to know those who have been at the conference for a number of years.

Next year’s event will be held between 17 and 19 August and its theme is Stop, you’re killing me: humour in crime fiction. Contact Eileen.roberts@st-hildas.ox.ac.uk if you are interested in attending. I am already looking forward to it!

Monday, 15 August 2011

A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

A Room Swept WhiteA Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a novel which despite being a work of fiction reminded me of significant real events in the recent past.

The story runs two parallel threads, one which sees TV producer Fliss Benson rising to the post of director of the company she works for, and at the same time landing her boss' job directing a documentary about women accused of killing their babies; the other thread following the story of some of the accused women and their families.

Felicity's boss, Laurie Nattrass, who was heavily involved in campaigning for the innocence of these women and even founded an organisation to this aim, has suddenly decided to move on to another company and leave Fliss in charge. As she starts work on the documentary, she gets to know more some of the people involved: the women, their husbands, and the paediatrician Judith Duffy who as expert witness in many of these trials seems to bear most of the responsibility for sending these women to jail.

With the second murder of one of the women it becomes clear that the two deaths are linked and Fliss also starts feeling in danger. Her work on the documentary, which she is determined to finish, will uncover strange and dark aspects of the personality of some characters as well as the culprit behind the murders.

I enjoyed the book and its “dizzingly complicated” plot and although I was expecting a different type of psychological tension I enjoyed the moral and psychological dilemmas which are more than touched upon in the book: miscarriages of justice, reliability of eye witnesses and expert witnesses, and the trauma of an innocent person not only losing a loved one but being accused of a heinous crime.

However, I found Fliss highly irritating despite the fact that she redeems herself in the end, and in common with another reviewer I was annoyed at the apparent recognition given to a scientifically discredited theory about vaccines. I did enjoy the very deep psychological insight into many characters as well as the writing style, which seems to be easily spanning between a Bridget-Jones-like single thirty-something, and a scientific report on causes of cot death. Sophie Hannah seems to be at ease with either style. Fliss’ occasional very funny comments contributed to lightening the mood from a very thoughtful topic.

The police characters are very much in the background, almost sketched, and the story isn’t as much about the investigation but it is told in the majority by the characters themselves: I found this aspect quite refreshing.

I will certainly read more of Sophie Hannah's books.

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Guilt by Association by Marcia Clark

Guilt by AssociationGuilt by Association by Marcia Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I started the book quite a while after having been given it, after assurances from a blogger I know that it was really good. So, having enjoyed the first few pages, which are always crucial, I got really engrossed in the story.

The narrator is Rachel Knight, a Deputy District Attorney in LA whose colleague Jake Pahlmeyer is found dead in the company of a (very young) male prostitute, also dead. She is evidently distressed and while the investigation points to a likely homicide-suicide and blackmailing, she wants to find out whether really she knew nothing about her former colleague and his apparent double life as a paedophile. In the meantime, she is also looking after a case of rape where she thinks the main suspect, a gang boss, is not the culprit.

The two cases will of course turn out to be connected, and a number of times she risks her own life, let alone her career, but with the help of a few police friends she finds information which the regular investigation would have completely overlooked.

Clark’s knowledge of the legal system (she was a prosecutor in the OJ Simpson case) as well as of how the people really work within the system is evident throughout the book and I’m a stickler for these details: I like when authors clearly know what they’re describing, be it by personal experience or by research.

The dialogues, especially those involving the gang boss or others in the same environment, are extremely well played: being a non-native speaker it’s difficult for me to judge but I found the details of Rachel is correcting someone’s grammar absolutely hilarious!

Rachel is a very likeable character and as close to a real career woman as you can get (she likes to be well dressed and well turned out but doesn’t always have the time to do so), and sometimes does stupid things that get her into trouble, but also has really good friends who look after her. 

The pace of the story is fast and it interweaves action, legal thriller, and a (very little) bit of her personal and love life. Only occasionally the frequent description of what she chooses to wear is slightly superfluous but it certainly doesn’t get in the way of the narrative.

I do hope that this is the first of many books by Clark about Rachel Knight and perhaps a whole series.




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Friday, 8 July 2011

Premio Strega 2011

Yesterday evening saw the award ceremony, in the beautiful Ninfeo of the Villa Giulia in Rome, of the very prestigious Premio Strega, one of the most important Italian literary prizes. The prize is sponsored by the company making the Strega liqueur but was established in 1947 by Goffredo and Maria Bellonci whose literary salon included the founder of the Strega company. 

The winner for 2011 is Edoardo Nesi, with Storia della mia Gente (Bompiani), a book that crosses the line between fiction and non-fiction and is about social change in the Italian provinces, from a time when money was easy to make and was spent mainly in luxury items, to a global economy where China threatens the current near-effortless lifestyle.

Other books in the final shortlist were:

L'energia del vuoto (Guanda) by Bruno Arpaia, a “popular science” novel about a UN diplomat whose wife, a CERN physicist, has mysteriously disappeared.

Ternitti (Mondadori) by Mario Desiati, an account through the eyes of the daughter of one of the workers, of the “Eternit” factory and the damages caused to workers and their families by asbestos used to make roof coverings.

La vita accanto (Einaudi) by Mariapia Veladiano, a story about an ugly girl, love and hate, human nature, talent and music.

La scoperta del mondo (Nottetempo) by Luciana Castellina, the personal diary of a famous communist activist, journalist and writer between the ages of 14 and 18, corresponding to 1943 and 1948, crucial years for both the country her own personal development.

Information about all the books in the longlist can be found here (in Italian).

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Solo Fango by Giancarlo Narciso

Solo fangoSolo fango by Giancarlo Narciso

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The name of the collection which this book belongs to (VerdeNero) is a giveaway of the themes encountered in it: a crime story with the background of a real life tragedy, the collapse of the Val di Stava dam in 1985 in Trentino, near Riva del Garda where the author lives.



PI Butch Moroni, whom we’ve met in Narciso’s Sankhara, is hired to find the whereabouts of a disappeared boy, but soon his investigation brings him to uncover some of the corruption behind the tragedy of Stava and its criminally inept management.


Butch will also meet up with an old flame of his, a very likeable character, whom he still fancies and tries to revive his relationship.


I am a passionate environmentalist so the theme really interested me – and the real story is described with accuracy, sensitiveness and involvement. However, perhaps because of the importance of the real life story which sadly not many people remember, I found the fictional story falling in the background a bit and therefore losing its strength. Perhaps a stronger (or just different) type of link between the two stories would have enriched both, but I realise that this being real, and being in Italy, the possibility of legal action would become high.


Narciso (who also writes as Jack Morisco) is a typical example of Italian gialli writers, with the impegno (socio-political involvement) being a strong theme of the novels. He is also an experienced writer and his writing is fluid and engaging. I found Solo Fango a good read which made me go back and read more about the Stava tragedy. The downside is that stories of this kind make you really discouraged and disheartened about people in general, and about the Italian political class especially. Will things ever change?


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Thursday, 9 June 2011

An interview with Isabel Losada


I went to Battersea Park Road with a bit of apprehension, not sure if I would find the place, and where it would be in the maze of London. Isabel’s house really is on Battersea Park Road, but tucked away in a green garden which makes it feel miles away.
After settling down with a cup of tea, we start talking about her books, since the Italian version of her fourth book, The Battersea Park Road Park To Paradise, has just published.
She tells me that her books are “against the tide” because they are non fiction, but this is what she wants to write about: fiction has convenient coincidences, while she writes about reality. Her first book, The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment, is about happiness. In it she explores many approaches to looking inwards, retreats, tai-chi, tantric sexuality, rebirthing, past life exploration, colonic irrigation (!) an anger release workshop, 'angel' work - basically a number of courses that claim to make us happier, more fulfilled people. Her aim is to ask herself “what can I learn from this?" describe her experiences to the reader and make them laugh.  Not at the courses but at Isabel.
When I comment that to do this she has an incredibly open mind, as most people wouldn’t even approach some of these experiences, she says “you can’t have a mind so open that your brain falls out”, which I think is very good advice – she says she had a picture of a man walking on a tightrope while she was writing the book, a careful balance between being sceptical and being open.
The book has been an incredible success, but critics accused her of navel-gazing, so in the following book (For Tibet, With Love) she started to look outwards: it was the time of the war on terror, and she believes that the best course of action is instead to reward the good, rather than punish the bad. So, guided by the serenity prayer (Grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference) she starts exploring the Tibetan question, working with various charities, culminating in a jump from Nelson’s column (by a professional stuntman, but still highly dangerous), and a meeting with the Dalai Lama. I ask her to tell me more about this meeting, and in her usual humorous style she tells me how emotional the meeting was how overawed she has felt to meet this remarkable man of peace.
Her following book set out to try and understand why she had so many single women friends and knew no men that she could introduce them to.  A state that she says is international.  So she started exploring for her third book, Men!. She says that if you wanted to throw a party with 100 interesting, successful and single women, it would take about three days to find them, while it is almost impossible to find 3 interesting, single men who are not addicted to anything….she explores why this is the case, and why women and men see things in a different way. She doesn’t let any secret out though, so you'll have to read the book to find out!
In her latest book, The Battersea Park Road to Paradise which she is clearly stating is non fiction, she does a similar work to her first, The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment, but she chooses only five activities and explores them more in depth. The very description of them made me feel uncomfortable: Vipassana meditation (10 hours a day for 10 days, no speaking and no eye contact), Anthony Robbins (who she describes by starting to jump up and down and making me feel tired just by looking at her), then Feng Shui (where the 3 independent experts she calls in don’t agree on anything, and someone tells her she is missing a corner of her house therefore she had problems with her father), Mooji, the Advaita teacher (a guru who makes her think about who the “self” really is, and about the very nature of consciousness), and finally taking ayahuasca in the Amazon, a very powerful drug taken under the supervision of a local shaman.
Again, she uses her funny style to describe these experiences with the aim of telling us, the readers, what she got out of these experiences, with some inspiration for us to explore any path fitting for each of us, and find our own way to enlightenment (or paradise).  'Above all...' she says, 'I love to make my readers laugh.' 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

An interview with Alfredo Colitto


I’ve been looking forward to meeting Alfredo Colitto in my hometown of Bologna so when he suggests going for lunch at a local historical deli-cum-eatery I am just delighted.

After a chat about Italy, books and crime fiction, with plates of cheese and excellent prosciutto in front of us, I ask him about Inquisition (Cuore di Ferro) which has just been published in the UK by Sphere. Its background is Bologna and its university where the protagonist, Mondino de’ Liuzzi, was one of the first anatomists and surgeons in the early fourteenth century.

Mondino is an extremely interesting character, having written what is considered the first anatomical treatise, and quite short-tempered. In the book, Mondino is brought, illegally, a corpse (the study of anatomy was carried out on corpses of suicides or people who had been executed) by the Templar Knight Gerardo da Castelbretone who feigned to be a medicine student. During autopsy, Mondino discovers that the corpse’s heart has been transformed into iron and decides to help Gerardo to hide the corpse, which belongs to another Templar Knight. When another body is found with the same extraordinary transformation, Mondino realises that in order to save himself from the grips of the Inquisition, he must outwit both Inquisitors and Templars to find the real killer.

With such a fascinating historical background, I ask Alfredo how he carried out his research: firstly on Mondino’s own treatise which is still extant and available (on the internet no less!), then on his biography by the academic Piero P. Giorgi (http://www.pierogiorgi.org/) as well as on more general medieval studies.

Inquisition also mentions the well known complex of the Seven Churches in Bologna, which Alfredo refers to in the book because of its historical importance. Tradition has that it was built over an ancient Celtic sacred oak, on which subsequently a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis was built, and then, perhaps in the fifth century, was erected the Basilica del Sepolcro. The whole complex was planned in imitation to the main places of faith in Jerusalem and was quite famous at the time.

With Cuore di Ferro finished, the editor was happy, the author had become passionate about the subject and a three-book deal was done (although readers keep demanding another book, Alfredo didn’t tell me whether it’s likely to happen or not!).

Alfredo’s next book will be another historical novel, but set in the seventeenth century: a family saga set between Naples and the forming United States.

I ask Alfredo more about his writing process, and he’s one of the authors who think about the plot, have it almost completed in their heads and then start writing – when writing a historical novel, this process allows one to focus the research, then work on specific ideas and more focused inquiries.

Alfredo currently works as a translator for different publishers and has worked with authors like Joe Lansdale, Don Winslow, and Hilary Clinton: his fluency with languages comes from his extensive travelling, which he says has been in few places but for a long time each, and I’m amazed by the list of places he’s visited: apart from the UK and Germany, he has lived in Mexico, India, and Nepal (where he drew the inspiration to write a fairytale, Bodhi Tree).

I am obviously curious to know what kind of books he reads and my inkling is confirmed: he claims to be an “omnivorous reader”, to read a bit of everything although quite a lot of thrillers, but not excluding fantasy and historical (his favourites being Bernard Cornwell, CJ Sansom, Rory Clements).

Finally, I have to come back to the modern world and I am interested to hear his take on the e-book phenomenon, from the double point of being Italian and an author: Alfredo thinks the e-book is a market, and not the market for books. It is extremely handy, especially for research, since with a tablet or ipad one can have everything in the same place. But the paper book certainly isn’t dead, it is just a different medium – you wouldn’t want to use your ipad on the beach!

Since Alfredo also teaches on creative writing courses, I ask what advice he has for aspiring writers and it resounds with what I’ve heard many a successful author: write what you like and enjoy, without thinking about the readership or publication: the market is unpredictable, and if things don’t go well at least you’ve written what you liked and enjoyed the process!

Alfredo’s book Inquisition published on 5 May 2011 in the UK by Sphere.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø

NemesisNemesis by Jo Nesbø

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I put this book on the top of my TBR pile because of the World Book Club event that the author had in London recently (the time lag between the event and the date I finished the book gives you an idea of the size of my TBR list at the time). I was slightly daunted by the 400 plus pages but I shouldn’t have been: the book reads like a dream.

It was the first Harry Hole book I read, despite the widespread advice to read them in order, which I (unwisely?) decided to ignore.

The novel starts with a bank robbery, unusual in that the teller is shot despite handing over the money immediately. Harry, the alcoholic and possibly most unconventional  member of Oslo’s police force, is part of the investigative team. On a personal level, his girlfriend is in Russia to try to gain custody of her sons, and Harry decides to have dinner with an old flame of his, Anna. Problem is, the following day he has no recollection of much of the evening, and she is found shot dead in her flat.  Harry then starts getting threatening emails but keeps his cool and while trying to find clues about the bank robbery/murder, he also tries to find out more about Anna’s death.

Of course the two are connected but the plot thickens and will keep you guessing until the very end, at least about the details. Despite a lot of characters and a complex storyline, Nemesis didn’t feel to me over the top, and I thought it achieved the perfect balance between describing Harry’s personal affairs and his involvement in the cases. It is written in a really flowing style so that the length of the book does not make it heavy.

This is a remarkable author and again, despite its size, I look forward to reading the other books in the series.

You can read about the BBC World Book Club interview in a previous post on the blog.


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Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Fallen Angel by David Hewson

The Fallen Angel (Nic Costa #9)The Fallen Angel by David Hewson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As a native Italian I can be very picky when it comes to novels set in Italy, and I was really looking forward to this, my first read in the Nic Costa series.

The story starts with the untimely death of Malise Gabriel, a British academic living in Rome, an event which initially seems an accident but soon it emerges it might be all but. The dysfunctional family of the deceased are hiding something from the police and investigator Nic Costa, who is captivated by the mystery and naivety Malise’s teenage daughter Mina, feels he has to get to the bottom of the story even though is he meant to be on holiday.

The family’s behaviour and relationships soon seem to mirror the story of Beatrice Cenci, an Italian noblewoman who, together with her family and especially her brother Giacomo, organised a plot to kill her abusive father and was executed in 1599 despite the great protest of the people of Rome.

I really liked a number of aspects of this book, which is clearly very well researched not only from the historical details about Beatrice Cenci. The police characters and their description are realistic and not patronising: the book portrays people who have to work within the constraints of a rigid and often corrupt bureaucracy. Nic likes Rome, Italy, good food and good wine which are an important part of his life – but not to the point of making him become a caricature. The description of places and people shows clearly that David Hewson has spent a considerable amount of time in Italy – his description of Rome made me want to go back, and he really had me wondering how on earth he knows so much about how to rebuild an old Vespa!

This has been deemed the best so far of the Nic Costa series but I’m sure I won’t be disappointed when reading the previous ones – which I can’t wait to do.




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Monday, 28 March 2011

I Fiori di Hong Kong by Paola Rondini

I fiori di Hong KongI fiori di Hong Kong by Paola Rondini
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is an unusual Italian thriller in that it is not set in Italy, nor in Europe, but in the far east, and unusual also in the lack of political and social undertones which are rather common to the Italian giallisti.

The architect Vittorio Sarli is called to Hong Kong to identify his late brother Giorgio, who has been found brutally killed in his house. Vittorio is unconvinced by the circumstances and wants to reconstruct the events of the last weeks of his brother's life. He meets Julia, the editor of an ecological magazine, and her ward Lin May, a photographer and ex drug addict who occasionally works for the magazine.

While grieving and reconstructing his brother’s life, Giorgio and the local investigator Leung find worrying and dangerous connections to the Russian and international mafia.

The descriptions and sense of place are what I most liked about this book: even the dampness of the weather in Hong Kong comes across in the writing of an author who has clearly lived in those places. The diversity between different attitudes, the western and the Chinese, is also rather aptly described. However, I missed a more engrossing description, which could have supported more strongly and in more detail the framework of the plot.

The characters also have an interesting underpinning, but are not developed quite as much as I would have liked: i like the original idea of the victim's brother trying to find closure by investigating the last weeks of the victim's life, but feeling and events seem to be described almost incidentally. Vittorio’s relationship with the Chinese investigator, Leung, is something between professional and friendly - and neither seems to be very realistic.

Another interesting idea in the book which I think is not quite treated in sufficient depth is the cultural divide between east and west: we read a lot about Leung's daughter, who is a troubled teenager, but this doesn't quite contribute to the picture of the Asian culture and I am not sure how it fits with the main story of the book.

All in all, a book with decidedly interesting ideas, which if had been unravelled sufficiently would have made a very good, fast-paced thriller exploring different cultures.


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Monday, 21 March 2011

The Inspector and Silence, by Hakan Nesser

The Inspector and SilenceThe Inspector and Silence by Håkan Nesser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Although a crime fiction reader knows that a fiction book is just that, fiction, there still are some topics which are more disturbing than others. One of which is violence on children: and we know that this is going to be the theme of the book from the quote at the beginning.

When a teenage girl disappears from the Pure Life camp, run by a religious fanatic and his feeble-minded acolytes, inspector Van Veeteren is called in, despite the lack of evidence of a murder, even after the girl’s body is found. Then a second body is found in the wood and rumours start to emerge about the oddness of the sect and its members, and the goings-on at the camp.

Van Veeteren tries to interrogate various people at the camp but the young girls have been brainwashed and the adult women refuse to make any comments except to support their leader unconditionally. After extending the investigation further, Van Veeteren finally discovers an uncomfortable and disturbing truth.

Despite the grimness of the topic, Inspector and Silence is extremely discerning in the descriptions and this is not a violent book – descriptive violence not necessarily being a requirement of crime fiction, indeed in my opinion often detracting from the quality of the writing.

The description of the environment is extremely suggestive and as already mentioned, the difficult topic is dealt with very judiciously. The translation by Laurie Thomson manages to convert excellently a large number of idioms and the unusual expressions of Van Veeteren, achieving a good measure of fun even within the boundaries of a grim investigation.

Van Veeteren is an older and experienced detective and is looking forward to his retirement, and despite this being a character whose traits are not unique to the crime fiction literature we can’t help but empathise with him and the small pleasures of good food and wine.

I have enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward to reading the others in the series very soon.




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Monday, 14 March 2011

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Notes on a ScandalNotes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It is never a good idea to watch the film version before reading the book, however I felt in this case this was an exception. The 2006 film starred Judy Dench, one of my favourite actresses, and Cate Blanchett, who both fit remarkably well with the characters described in the book.

The story is probably very well known by now and it describes the relationship between two teachers: the sixty-something, single Barbara Covett and the forty-something pretty and naïve Sheba Hart, who has an affair with one of her pupils that is subsequently exposed.

The story is narrated by Barbara in the form of a recollection and diary, and it manages to give Sheba's point of view throughout their friendship remarkably well. Through Barbara, who comes across as manipulative, selfish and haughty, as well as painfully lonely, we learn of the trials and tribulations in Sheba's mind which have led to the affair and its consequences.

I was astounded at how deeply and clearly the author communicated the complexity of both characters and their motivations: Barbara's excruciating solitude and Sheba's lack of assertiveness which leads to terrible consequences. I felt outraged at Barbara's behaviour and at the same time extremely sorry for her loneliness, and found myself debating whether it would explain, if not justify, her actions.

Barbara is painfully critical of anything and anyone which doesn't conform to her own sky-high standards, but this is her own justification for being alone. She doesn't seem to have any friends except for Sheba, and we are told of a previous friendship that ended up badly. Indeed, we can see why: Barbara sees friendships as exclusive, all-encompassing and overwhelming, not leaving anything for the other person to choose for herself without risking the scorn of Barbara herself if the choice is not to her liking.

I also felt outraged at Sheba's behaviour, who felt to me like she was letting her life and her actions being led by chance and by anyone who expressed an interest in her or what she was doing; at the same time I couldn't help but feel sorry for her and what was happening to her, which indeed was more than sufficient punishment for just lack of assertiveness.

Although there aren't many twists and turns in the plot because of the nature of the story, the narration is extremely absorbing and the rhythm comparable to a psychological thriller. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly as one of the best novels I've read in the last few years.




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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Jo Nesbø at the BBC World Book Club

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the recording of the BBC World Book Club talking about The Redbreast with Jo Nesbø a couple of days ago. It was a great and rare experience being able to share the discussion of a book with none other than its author.

The presenter, Harriett Gilbert, started with the question we all wanted to ask: what is the correct pronunciation of his own and his protagonist’s name? After establishing that the English and Norwegian pronunciations don’t sound anything like each other, it was agreed to use the ‘English’ version, which was a relief!

The discussion started with a very frank recollection of Jo’s youth when his father told him about his own role as a German supporter in the Second World War and his harrowing experiences, which shaped the background of the book, the first in the Harry Hole series which currently runs to eight with the latest The Leopard.

More questions from the audience in the room, as well as on the phone and by email, brought to light an extremely talented and multifarious personality: a former stockbroker, a musician and an undoubtedly talented writer all in one. We also learnt about the origin of the title, the real people behind Harry Hole, and the origin of the 'apple' instrument of torture described in his latest book, The Leopard.

Jo’s thoughts on writing were perhaps the most anticipated of the discussion: we talked about his occasional plot strands left hanging (reflecting real life, where there isn’t closure on everything), about when he started writing, when he realised that the book was becoming a series, and why Scandinavian crime is so popular.

Although Jo doesn’t like to know the personality of the storyteller (for example, he says he doesn’t read his friends’ books) as this ‘stands in the way of the story’, he wasn’t reluctant to tell us more about himself, his experiences of life and of writing The Redbreast: why the Northern European detectives seem to be all gloomy and depressed, what writers influenced him, and the process of working out the plot of the book.

He commented on the possible end of the series but didn’t give away anything to the fans: we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled for the next book!

The programme will be broadcast on Saturday 2 April for BBC World Book Club. Don’t miss it!

Friday, 4 March 2011

L'allieva by Alessia Gazzola

L'allievaL'allieva by Alessia Gazzola

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


L’allieva, the debut book by medical doctor Alessia Gazzola, has certainly been much anticipated in the Italian publishing world and has so far triggered very different and rather strong reviews (both positive and negative).

The protagonist, Alice Allevi, is a young trainee pathologist who has to struggle against the customary Italian nepotism and patronising macho attitude of her colleagues as well as her own absent-mindedness on the job, which puts her in trouble more than once. She seems to have a rather unfortunate fascination with her young trainer but falls for a charming and exotic young man whom she meets at an art exhibition. All this while trying to follow, against her superiors’ advice, her own hunch on the circumstances of the death of a young girl belonging to the Roman high society, whom she had met by chance in a shop a few days earlier.

Alice has been called a cross between Kay Scarpetta and Bridget Jones and she certainly has elements of both: the book is well written and runs very smoothly and easily, although mixing two genres like Alessia has done here is no mean feat. Crime readers are notoriously very difficult to please, requiring a watertight and complex plot as well as an excellent description of characters and locations, while romance is concentrated on feelings and emotions more than on hard facts. It is a tightrope that Alessia is walking here and credit is due to her for this.

As a crime fiction reader, I would have probably liked her to draw more from her own forensic knowledge and experience which can really make a book gripping, and I hope that the next case will perhaps have a few more twists in the plot and draw a lot more on the forensic detail. As a doctor, she has the capability to do so, and she needs to exploit this fully.

The book is, all in all, a good debut and I am sure the writer will, in the next books, choose to concentrate on only one genre, the crime or the romance: the resulting book will certainly be much stronger.




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Monday, 28 February 2011

The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston

The Gingerbread WomanThe Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The Gingerbread Woman is the story of an unlikely friendship between two strangers. A man walking on Killiney Hill in Ireland comes across a woman standing perilously close to the edge and warns her, but she claims she is in no danger and has no intention of committing suicide.

Subsequently they bump into each other again and she invites him to stay as a lodger for a few days, since he is temporarily away from home. The relationship is not sexual, they don’t ask questions and they give each other space while offering friendship. They talk over cups of tea, and during the course of these conversations they learn about each other and what has brought them where they are, in terms of time and of attitude. Their stories are both of loss and sadness, and together they manage to find a way of accepting and overcoming the past to look at the future.

The book is a story of bereavement and grieving, and somehow these two people seem to understand each other by the force of their similar feelings. Everyone else, despite being well-intentioned, just doesn’t seem to get their message across and, most of all, nobody is really helpful regardless of their efforts. After all, what do you say to a bereaved person? These two people are both grieving in a different, and personal, way.

It is perhaps impossible to set a book in Ireland without making reference to the political situation, but this is not so strong in the book – it is rather a background, something present every now and then in the dialogues. What is strongest is the sense of loss and how it affects the two characters in the form of anger, sadness and despair, and how they deal with it.

Excellently written, it is a book I recommend heartily.




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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Sara Paretsky in Oxford

Thursday 17th March at 7pm
Sara Paretsky
Blackwell Bookshop, 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford
Tickets: £2
Internationally bestselling author Sara Paretsky will be with us on Thursday 17th March at 7pm to talk about her latest book, Body Work.

“Doctors take days off—why not P I’s?” V I Warshawski demands. When America’s hardest-working private eye visits a club, a stranger is shot, and dies in her arms. Club Gouge is Chicago's edgiest night spot, where a woman known as the Body Artist turns her naked body into a canvas for the audience to paint on. A tormented young painter shows up too, and the intricate designs she creates on the Body Artist drive one of the audience, a former soldier, into a violent rage. When the painter is shot and the shell-shocked war veteran accused, the soldier's family hires V. I. to clear his name and the detective uncovers a chain of ugly truths that stretches all the way from Iraq to Chicago's South Side in her most challenging case yet.

Sara Paretsky's critically acclaimed V. I. Warshawski series has revolutionised female characterisation in mystery writing since 1982. Body Work is the fourteenth outing in the series.

Tickets cost £2 and can be obtained by telephoning or visiting the Customer Service Department, Second Floor, Blackwell Bookshop, Oxford. 01865 333623.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Alessandro Perissinotto in the UK


We have just finished the author “tour” with Alessandro Perissinotto to discuss his books and celebrate the publication of the English version of Una Piccola Storia Ignobile (Blood Sisters).

The events, at the Italian Cultural Institute (ICI), the Royal Holloway and the University of Leeds, went extremely well, with a very interested and engaged audience. Alessandro talked at the Italian Cultural Institute with Michael Gregorio (pen name for Daniela de Gregorio and Michael Jacob) in conversation with the always brilliant Barry Forshaw, who discussed with the authors anecdotes on their first meeting, and the north-south divide in Italy together with the stereotypes that go with it.

At the Royal Holloway, in the Department of Italian, the discussion was more literary and was centred on the giallo and its developments and origins.

In Leeds the discussion expanded onto his latest book, Per Vendetta, which is not a crime fiction book but a more investigative journalism take on the connections between the Vatican, Italian politics and the Argentine dictatorship, continuing on talking about the latest generation of crime fiction writers in Italy and predictably on the current Italian political situation. The conversation continued in a nearby pub accompanied by local ale!

So thank you to all involved for their great hospitality, the stimulating discussion and the great company!

A blog entry on the ICI event by Ayo Onatade in Shots Magazine is here.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Censorship on books?

I would have liked to start my blog with something less controversial, and definitely less worrying.

But I felt compelled to write about something that is happening in Italy and that hasn't yet had enough national and international coverage: the decision of some libraries in the Veneto region, after a suggestion by members of the PdL (Berlusconi's party) Roberto Bovo and Paride Costa, supported by the councillor for Education Elena Donazzan, to boycott (i.e. remove from the shelves) books by a number of “banned” authors.

These Italian writers, among which are Roberto Saviano (author of Gomorrah), Valerio Evangelisti, Massimo Carlotto, Sandrone Dazieri and many others, signed in February 2004 an open letter asking for the release of Cesare Battisti, arrested in France after a number of years in hiding.
Cesare Battisti was a member of a far-left militant group in the Seventies, which supported violent revolution in Italy during the Anni di Piombo (a period which saw extremist groups fighting each other in episodes like the Piazza Fontana massacre and the kidnapping of Aldo Moro). Battisti had indeed been convicted in absentia of killing two policemen, a butcher, and of helping to plan the killing of of a jeweller, although he has always denied these charges.

He fled to France where he claims to have renounced violence and wrote a number of books, including fiction and non-fiction. After his arrest in France in 2004 he fled to Brazil, where he has been ever since. Recently his extradition was refused, creating a diplomatic incident, by the outgoing president Ignacio Lula da Silva.

The matter of whether the trial was fair, and of whether Battisti is guilty or not, is something for the law courts and for Battisti's conscience, although if the trial was indeed unfair he has the right to a retrial. What is most worrying is that books are removed from the shelves because they happen to have different views from ours. What shall we do with Mein Kampf?

For those who would like to follow the topic on twitter, the hashtag is #rogodilibri