Monday, June 29, 2009

NASA funds research into space...

...But possibly not quite the space you might expect

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hill's Beacon

I've written before about Susan Hill's fine Simon Serrailler series.  Perhaps along with Kate Atkinson, Hill has been one of the most successful mainstream interlopers into the crime genre.  Many of the distinctive qualities of her writing - strong characters, a powerful sense of place, an intriguing, slightly enigmatic style - lend themselves very well to crime fiction. 

Her new book, though, is something of a return to the mainstream.  The Beacon is a short, intense book - little more than a novella in length, but it leaves a powerful impression.  The book describes the Primes, a farming family who had lived for generations at The Beacon, a farmhouse in a remote part of Northern England.  May, the eldest daughter, has devoted her life to caring for her widowed mother, and the books begins at the moment of the mother's death.  We then gradually learn the history of May and her siblings - and in particular that of the estranged youngest brother, Frank. 

May, we learn, was academically gifted and won a place at London University, but was driven back home by a series of panic attacks and terrifying visions.  Her younger brother and sister, Colin and Berenice, have made unambitious but largely satisfactory lives for themselves in the local community.  Frank, silent and watchful as a child, also went to London and made a name for himself, first as a journalist and then through a 'miserylit' memoir in which he described the abuse he supposedly suffered as a child at the hands of his parents and siblings. May, Colin and Berenice are horrified by Frank's fictitious claims and, prior to their mother's death, have had no contact with their brother.

In other hands, this might have been the basis for a melodrama of claim and counter-claim.  But Hill is more interested in the restraint and repression that underpins this family - a life in which most things are left unsaid and everyone copes.  We are left to ponder on the possible links between Frank's depiction of the family and May's unexplained London panics.  We are left also,  particularly in the eerie final paragraph, to consider the possible truths - emotional if not physical - that might lie behind Franks outrageous claims.  And we are left to meditate on the nature of family life - the changing generational dynamics, the meaning of 'home', the significance of one's relationship with these unchosen others. 

It's a beautifully written book without a wasted word (although, as one reviewer has pointed out, with some odd and clearly deliberate verbal chimes which contribute to the reader's unease), intensely powerful in its depiction of both the family and the seasonal landscape around them.  In a world of blockbusters, it's refreshing to read a brief, perfectly constructed fable that carries such resonance. 

A blue horse day

An interesting and optimistic account from the Huffington Post of the inauguration of Mongolia's newly elected president, Elbegdorj.  The author, Ming Holden, concludes that 'those who are watching Mongolia at this point in its history [are left] enthusiastic, impressed, and hopeful'.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

McConfidentially...

Rafe McGregor, a fascinating author and enthusiastic blogger (not to mention very good company at this year's Crimefest), has been kind enough to interview me for his McConfidential series.  Some very intriguing questions, and you can read my responses here...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Out of a Hole...

Just a quick note to thank everyone for their support and kinds words following yesterday's hacking of the blog, and particular thanks to Maxine Clarke for being kind enough to send me a copy of the Nesbo/Harry Hole posting which had been deleted.  Fortunately, we've been able to restore the missing items so, for the moment at least, everything's back to normal. 

Thanks also to webmeister John O'Malley for his usual speedy response and assistance. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cash and cashmere

I've written before about the impact of the economic downturn on Mongolia.  Here's a piece from Reuters, which paints a fairly gloomy picture of the damage inflicted by the recession on the country and its people.  On the other hand, here's some more positive economic news for the country, and even the IMF seems moderately optimistic

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Hole story

I blogged a little while ago about the translators' panel at this year's Crimefest.  The discussion was fascinating and all the panel members were luminaries in the field, but I think I've begun to develop a particular respect for Don Bartlett.  Bartlett, among other credits, is the English translator of the Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo, author of the Harry Hole series.  I've just finished my third of Nesbo's books, and he's emerging as my current favourite among the plethora of Scandinavian crime writers now appearing in English.  The atttraction of the books for me is the character of Hole himself, and the wonderful deadpan wit that permeates the dialogue.  Hence my admiration for Bartlett - I presume that the tone of the books is Nesbo's, but Bartlett succeeds admirably in establishing the perfect English voice for the books and their characters. 

There has been some controversy about the publication of the English translations as the books were, rather unhelpfully, published out of order.  Bartlett explained that The Devil's Star, actually the fifth book in the series, had been published first in English simply because it had attracted the most interest in Scandinavia.   This is fairly standard publishing practice, and in most series it doesn't matter too much.  Unfortunately, the third, fourth and fifth of the Hole books have an overarching sub-plot (if a sub-plot can overarch - underpinning, perhaps?) which is critical to the development of the core characters.  Although each of the books stands up well in its own right, reading The Devil's Star first would inevitably have reduced the pleasures of the preceding books.  

Purely by chance, I picked up The Redbreast (the earliest of the books so far available) first and so was able to enjoy the books in the order intended.  The pleasures of the books are manifold - as well as Hole's character and wit, I like the fact that Nesbo is prepared to deal fully with the consequences of his characters and plots.  Hole, for example,  is a serious long-term alcoholic, with all that that entails - not simply a middle-aged cop who has a whisky or two too many at the end of a hard day.  The Redbreast contains a plot development which I won't reveal but which is genuinely shocking and which reverberates through the succeeding books. 

Some have complained that Nesbo's plotting is too convoluted, and there's probably some truth in that.  At times, the books have a slightly Christiesque desire to spring yet another surprise which (while there's nothing wrong with Agatha) for me sits slightly uneasily with the essentially realistic depiction of character and situation.  But that's a minor gripe - and I'm sure many readers will see the complex plotting as a strength.  What stays with me is Hole's dry-as-dust, sometimes bitter irony, and a cast of highly memorable characters. 

I was fortunate enough to walk away from the Crimefest pub quiz with, as my share of the second-place prize (achieved courtesy largely of Ali Karim and Peter Rozovsky, it must be said) a copy of Nesbo's latest English release, The Redeemer. So that's next on the pile to be read - in, I'm pleased to say, the right order.