Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Little Luck

After three solid months of touring , I'm now home. The edits for the next book are spread over my desk and I'm working through them very slowly, but part of me is still tied up with The Book of Lost Things.

Some writers, and I am certainly one of them, always wonder if there was something more that they could have done for their book, if there was some extra push they could have given to it that would have helped it to be read by a few more people. Looking back, I'm not sure that there was in this case. I'm bone weary from travelling. The book was beautifully packaged by my publishers. I spoke about it to just about anyone who would stand still long enough to listen. The reviews, with two exceptions, were the best that I've had for any of my books. Maybe there could have been a little more media, but it's hard to get time on radio and, especially, television, and even newspapers are restricted in the amount of coverage that they can offer to books.

So, frankly, I'm not sure what more could have been done. Was the book a success? Well, it's a little early to tell, but ask any writer and he or she will almost certainly say that the book in question could have done better. Well, almost any writer, as I don't think Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling would provide a similar answer to the rest of us. (Then again, maybe even Dan looks at the sales for, say, Boise, Idaho and thinks, "Hmmm, they're a bit low. Wonder why I'm not liked so much in Boise? Perhaps I'd better go there for the next book and try to motivate the book troops . . .")

What is the measure of success? It rather depends upon which side of the artistic scales you choose to put your weight, although, in truth, the measures all tend to blend together at some point, complementing one another. From the writer's perspective, was the book one of which to be proud? Did it achieve what the writer set out to do artistically? (A third question, albeit one that can't be answered immediately after publication, is one of influence. There are a great many influential books that may not have sold in huge quantities, but affected the way that others viewed literature, or even the way that subsequent writers approached their work. In musical terms, it was said that only a handful of people bought copies of the Velvet Underground's first album, but all of them went out and formed bands afterward . . . )

Then there are the rather less esoteric issues: was it read, and did it sell? (These are two different things, incidentally, albeit rather subtly different.) Answering 'yes' to the artistic questions won't keep a writer in Grape Nuts and Cheerios, just as answering 'no' to the commercial questions will have a similar result. Then again, if you can't stand over the book with pride, why was it written? (There are clearly those out there who write from purely mercenary instincts, but it's probably better not to think about them too hard, or to encourage them by buying their books.) In the end, the ideal result for the writer would involve massive artistic satisfaction and massive sales, but that rarely happens, with the result that the bestsellers sometimes envy the critical acclaim of the literary writers, while the literary writers envy the bestsellers their sales.

But the hardest part, for me, has been coming to terms with the fact that, while I can write the book, I can't make it sell. Even publishers and booksellers can't quite manage to make a book sell, not alone. Each book needs a little bit of luck. Some books don't have any luck at all, and some seem to be gifted with luck out of all proportion to the quality of the work, but that element of luck is out of everybody's control. A writer can lay the groundwork for it by writing the best book that he can. The publisher can package and promote the book, and send the writer out to hustle his wares. The bookseller can put it front-of-store, or face out on the shelf, but all involved can then only sit back and hope for a positive reception, and some luck. That luck can take many forms: TV or radio book clubs, an endorsement from a celebrity, a big movie deal, a well-known literary prize or - the best kind - simply a slow building of word of mouth praise, an accretion of support that lifts the book up above its peers. Luck can come suddenly, or it can come gradually, but every book needs it. You can plan for it, but you can't make it happen.

We're all looking for a little luck, but it is available only in limited quantities. Perhaps that's true of all things, and not just books. For now, I have wait and see if some of that luck comes the way of The Book of Lost Things . . .

This week John read

half of one book, then gave up and picked up Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris instead

and listened to

So Divided by . . . And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead
Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens
Chainsaw of Life by Hellwood

Monday, November 06, 2006

On Reading Aloud, and Other Matters

The Book of Lost Things is officially published in the US on November 7th, and I am writing this in my New York hotel room as I gear myself up for another three weeks of touring.

Someone asked me recently if I still enjoyed doing it, or if I even had to do it. I suppose that the answer to the first part is yes, I still like touring, even if I'm starting to find myself a little (or very) dull by now, and after almost two solid months of it I'm a bit tired. As for having to do it, well, that's harder to answer. I was talking about this with some other authors, and there comes a point when you are seeing the same faces in the crowd, and you wonder if you're merely preaching to the converted. On the other hand, there were times when there would be nobody, or virtually nobody, occupying the seats in the bookstores, so better to be preaching to a sympathetic crowd than no crowd at all. In the end, I just hope that it helps the book, and I guess that, ultimately, helping the book is the main reason why I do it, especially in the case of The Book of Lost Things. I'm grateful for the opportunity to explain the book, to justify its existence, to try to convince people to give it a chance. Even if my presence in the bookstores makes only a small difference, it's a difference nonetheless.

I've also broken with my habit of many years, and have begun reading aloud from the book. I don't read very much - barely two pages - but even in that reading, I've discovered ways of improving the novel. I tend to read the Red Riding Hood
extract, but right from the start I began altering the last line of the reading. I discovered, in reading it aloud, that there was a better, more striking, more rhythmic ending to the extract, one that I'll incorporate into the paperback. I don't imagine that anyone reading the two books will spot much of a difference, but it felt better to me.

While I was touring in South Africa last month, I conducted a workshop for writers. It was the first time I had taken one alone, and only the second time that I had ever taken one. I found it exhausting, and I'm not sure how much people got out of it, but I did try as best I could to share whatever small insights I had gained into writing over the course of nine books. One thing I did encourage them to do, though, was to read their work aloud if they were having trouble with the flow of a section of their work. Actually, sometimes you don't even spot that there's a problem until you do read it aloud, and it's a pretty safe bet that if you stumble over your own work when you're reading it aloud, then a reader will have problems with it when he or she is reading it quietly at home. Or, as was the case with me and the Red Riding Hood extract, by reading aloud you find a way to improve on something that was pretty serviceable to begin with.

So, over the next few weeks, I'm probably going to read that Red Riding Hood extract on occasion, complete with its new last line, and each time I do so I'll be grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to read it in front of an audience, however large or small that audience may be.

And I will hope, as I read, that my little book finds its way into the hands of perhaps one or two more readers who might not otherwise have picked it up. In a strange way, I feel that I owe it to the book. It is now a repository for things that are important to me, things that I believe to be true, or hope to be true. A few days sacrificed, and a few early mornings endured, are a small price to pay in order to do it some justice.

This week John read

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
The Book of The Dead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

and listened to

The Talking Animals by T-Bone Burnett
Grizzly Bear by Grizzly Bear
Marie Antoinette: The Soundtrack

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Good Day

There are good things and bad things about being a writer. In truth, the good things far outweigh the bad, and the bad are generally things about which it is churlish to complain. I realize that I am immensely fortunate to be doing what I do for a living, so that even when I have relatively bad days I acknowledge that they are far better than even the best of days in some of the other jobs I have had. (Nevertheless, it is reassuring, sometimes, to recall James Thurber's wonderful observation that "even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building, would pall a little as the days ran on.")

On Sunday, I flew from South Africa to London, and from London to Dublin. I had three hours at home to shower, change, and pack some clean laundry, then returned to the airport to fly to New York. I tried watching Season Two of Deadwood on the DVD player of my computer during the Dublin-New York flight, but started dozing towards the end of the first episode. I think I got to my hotel at about nine o clock that night. I had a bite to eat, then fell into a deep sleep. Only my alarm clock woke me in time for a telephone interview the next morning.

That day, as for many of the days over the preceding week or so, albeit with a new sense of urgency, I fretted over what I would have to do that evening. At seven-thirty, or thereabouts, I would step on to a stage at New York's Symphony Space to interview Stephen King in front of an audience of hundreds of fans and the representatives of the publishing house that I share with him. I didn't want to make an idiot of myself, and, more to the point, I wanted to make King look good. No, strike that: he would make himself look good, just as he has done for the past three decades or so. I just didn't want to get in his way while he did it.

So I thought, and worried, and thought, and worried some more. At about 3.30pm I went back to my hotel room, sat down, and began compiling a list of questions. At 5.45pm, I arrived at the Symphony Space, 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Better early than late, I had thought, although perhaps not quite that early . . .

At 6.45, King arrived.

I think that, over the hour or two that followed, I did my best. I was helped immeasurably by the fact that King was just as I might have wished him to be - polite, funny, self-effacing - especially given the fact that I had been a fan of his for about a quarter of a century. He even signed my books, all twelve of them. (I know, I know: it's not the done thing for writers to present to a fellow writer copies of books to be signed, but I've never subscribed to that belief. I was a reader, and a fan, of a great many writers long before I became a published writer myself, and I have never quite managed to shake off that fan boy element of my personality. In fact, I hope that I never do.)

True, perhaps I tried too hard with some of my questions, and I am still kicking myself 24 hours later over the fact that I confused the words "ambiguous" and "ambivalent" in one of my interrogations (I plead nerves), an error that King corrected without comment. Yet all through the interview, and for some time afterwards, a small voice in my head reminded me that this was probably as good as it was going to get. I was interviewing a writer whom I had long admired, and whom I had long wanted to interview, in front of a sympathetic audience. This was a writer whose work I had begun reading before I even entered my teens, and my boyhood self could never have imagined that, one day, he would be sharing a stage with this man.

After the interview was concluded, I went to the Delta Grill on Ninth Avenue. I ordered a bottle of Abita Reconstruction Ale, and a Margharita straight up, with salt. I sat at the bar and recalled the first interview that I had been fortunate enough to conduct with a writer whom I had long admired: James Lee Burke, in his house in Montana in 1999. Burke was one of the writers who inspired me to become a writer myself. I will always be in his shadow, yet it is a shadow in which I am happy to dwell. King, I realize, is another such writer.

To hell with Harold Bloom, I thought, who decried the decision to award one of America's highest literary honors to King in 2003. I doubt that anyone ever became a writer because of Bloom or his ilk. I think that Bloom is an intelligent, perceptive, valuable critic, but in his criticism of King he was guilty of literary snobbery. King deserved that award (and Lisey's Story, his latest novel, stands as a riposte to those who would contend that he is a poor writer, for it is a beautifully written book) and I was proud to spend an evening in his company.

I finished my Margharita, and started in on the beer. This, I said to myself, has been a very, very good day . . .

This week John read:

Promise Me by Harlan Coben
On Writing by Stephen King
Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became A National Obsession by Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing

and listened to:

Immortal Memory
by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy
Under the Skin by Lindsey Buckingham

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Letter From The Editor

There is a brief lull in the touring schedule for The Book of Lost Things, so I have a chance to catch up with my mail, at least until next Friday when the whole thing begins again in South Africa and then the US. (I know, I know, it's a tough old job, but I'm bearing up manfully. . .)

One of the letters awaiting me comes from my editor, and relates to The Unquiet, the Parker book to be published in May 2007. Basically, I sent off the manuscript of the next book a day or two before I began touring, so copies of it landed on the desks of both my British and American editors, and my agent, in early September. Since then, I've been running around promoting BOLT, so, apart from a brief conversation with my lovely British editor at the launch in London, during which she indicated that I was unlikely to be cast out of Hodder & Stoughton's offices and invited to try my luck elsewhere just yet, this is the first official response to the next book.

I always have difficulty letting a book go, mainly because I feel that it forever remains open to improvement, and given another week or so I might, just might, manage to attain perfection, or at least manage to put a little more distance between the manuscript and gross imperfection. I've spoken before about that brief period when the manuscript is in transit between my desk and the desks of the three individuals mentioned above, who are the first to read anything that I write. For that 24-hour period (and that is how long it is, as my British editor in particular tends to read my new book almost as soon as it arrives, a devotion to duty that I find at once both flattering and rather frightening), I enjoy a sense of relief and disconnectedness that may be akin to the out-of-body experiences sometimes described by those who have found themselves hovering above their corporeal selves during complicated surgical procedures. For now, the book is out of my hands. Its fate lies elsewhere.

I read my editor's letter with a certain degree of trepidation. I know that she is pleased with the book, but that doesn't mean that changes are not required. The problem with changing a book after it has been delivered, I find, is that the sense of disconnectedness described above never entirely goes away. By printing off the manuscript and submitting it to the scrutiny of my editors, I have effectively admitted that I am done with this book, cosmetic alterations apart. In my mind, I am already moving on to the next book, a book that, I hope, will be better than the last one. Returning to a manuscript once it has been submitted feels to me like a step backwards, or a return to the scene of the crime. I am no longer in that mindset, and it's difficult to find my way back into the book once again.

There is also a part of me that, in the event of significant criticism, would like to erase my editor's memory of the book, apply all of her suggested changes, and then resubmit it as an entirely new work, now significantly closer to that much desired perfection. It strikes me that handing over a manuscript sometimes feels like handing over homework, and I always want an 'A' for my written work.

Thankfully, the letter is very kind and generous (and I should add that even on those occasions when my editor has found problems with a manuscript, the criticisms have been couched in such a diplomatic way that I find it hard to tell if they are criticisms at all or merely slight differences in perception). There is only one minor clarification required in the plot, although I have no doubt that, when the manuscript itself arrives from the copy editor, there will be other suggestions to be dealt with along the way, and I would be wise to take them on board, for my British and American editors, and my agent, enrich my books immeasurably with their insights. The novels would be poorer creatures without their help.

Still, somehow I have contrived to get away with it yet again. In May 2007, God willing, my ninth book will be published. Now it is time to start work on the 10th. . .

P.S. The website for The Book of Lost Things has been significantly expanded, and readers can now download free screensavers and desktops, as well as read extensive notes exploring the background to the various stories and myths used in the book, and the original versions of those myths and tales. Please let us know what you think!

This week John read

Lisey's Story (uncorrected proof) by Stephen King
Imperium by Robert Harris

and listened to

Universe by Sebastian Tellier
Sam's Town by The Killers
Live A Little by The Pernice Brothers

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Reviews

To read, or not to read: that is the question. I get asked a lot whether or not I read my reviews, and my answer is 'yes, sort of'. Basically, I don't believe any authors who say that they don't notice reviews. Pretty much everyone does it, and the ones who say they don't are liars.

Nevertheless, I don't tend to read the bad ones all the way through. I'll usually glance at the last paragraph of the review and, if that's okay, then I'll read the rest. If the final paragraph is the equivalent of a dagger being twisted in my heart, then I don't bother reading the rest. I'm not a masochist. Well, not that much of a masochist anyway.

So the reviews for The Book of Lost Things have been coming in over the past couple of weeks. So far, between Ireland, the UK, and the advance US reviews, there have only been two negatives, and all of the rest have been glowing. That's probably as well as I've ever done with a book, review-wise, and it's kind of consoling. It is, as one reviewer pointed out, an "odd" little book, but that's no bad thing.

When I was doing a radio review show last week, I was asked where bookstores were going to put it, given that it didn't obviously fit in with my previous books, and was a difficult book to describe. It was a good question, and I'm not sure that I had the right answer, but, secretly, I was kind of glad that it forced people to ask these questions. If nothing else, it's a little different from the norm, and, with luck, readers will begin to find that out for themselves, regardless of where it's positioned in the bookstores.

The UK tour comes to an end this week, and then I head to Madison for Bouchercon. I'm trying not to worry about sales - this book was always going to be something of a slow burner, and it has come out at a very competitive time for fiction. It's nudging the Top Ten list in Britain, which is a surprise to me, although a welcome one. It would be nice to see it break into the list, but it may not, and I'll live with that.

Now, given that I have my first afternoon off in as long as I can remember, I'm off to see Helen Mirren in The Queen. And then maybe Clerks II, because it's going to be that kind of day . . .

This week John read

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young

and listened to

101 by Depeche Mode
Tripper by Efterklang

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Glamorous Life

Wake up feeling a bit groggy. Last night I spoke at a booksellers' conference and then stayed up until 1.45am talking about books and stuff. I don't often get the chance to talk to so many booksellers at once, so it was a rare pleasure. Unfortunately, I'm paying for it this morning, even though I only had a couple of beers. In addition, it's only two days into the tour and my voice appears to be going. I sound like a fog gargling gravel.

Start driving from Bristol to Brighton, which is quite a long way. I prefer to drive myself rather than use a chauffeur, mainly because I like my own company, my own music, and I'll spend much of the day talking to people so it's nice to have somewhere quiet to which to retire, even if that somewhere quite is hammering down a motorway at 80mph. No breakfast, as the hotel hadn't started serving it by the time I had to leave - not that I'm a big breakfast person anyway, but a cup of decaff wouldn't have hurt.

Arrive in Brigton to sign books for some dealers. The dealers have always been very supportive of me, so I don't mind making the effort for them. Am offered a cup of coffee, but there's not much point when I'm signing as it will either go cold or get spilled all over their books.

Arrive at the wholesalers in Eastbourne. More signing, and again I refuse a cup of coffee for the reasons stated above. I've become a pretty fast signer, and my signature remains fairly consistent, or at least it still looks vaguely like a real signature when I'm signing the last copy. I was once given a signed copy of James Ellroy's My Dark Places, on which the signature consisted of a single vertical line about one inch long. Cheers, James! One to treasure . . .

Find myself in the wrong town, for various reasons. (This doesn't happen very often, I'm happy to say.) Already running late, despite my best efforts, so give up and have a cup of coffee with a bookseller in her store. She's one of my favourite people, a really lovely person and a great bookseller, but she informs me that her store is about to close. She really wants to stay in bookselling, and I feel immensely sorry for her. (If anyone in London or points south needs a great bookseller, get in touch with us, please! I'm sure we can find a suitable way to thank you.)

Still feeling very sad for my fave bookseller. Begin driving to where I'm actually supposed to be, which is another wholesaler's premises further west. Sign more books, chat, meet some nice managers. Everyone seems a little puzzled so far by the new book, and I can tell there's a certain amount of caution about it. Nevertheless, they're supporting it, for which I'm grateful.

Hellish drive into the centre of Brighton to sign shop stock. Turns out that the toilets have leaked in the bookstore, and assorted noxious things are threatening to drip through to the ground floor, so the staff are a little distracted. Sign quickly and leave. Still haven't eaten today, and starting to feel a little tired. Schedule now entirely gone to pot.

Begin driving. Realise that I'm not going to make Southampton before the bookstores there close, so call the lovely, tolerant publicist to ask her to make my apologies. Get caught in roadworks and traffic jams. Now very tired, and very hungry.

Make it to Eastbourne just in time to park my car in the world's most expensive car park and race to the bookstore.

Arrive at Borders bookstore in Bournemouth. Small but enthusiastic crowd, and a very kind bookseller. Start talking, only to find that my voice really is shot. Persevere. Someone gives me her phone number and asks me to call her, which is very odd. I don't, needless to say. That's a little beyond the call of duty.

Check into my hotel, which is full of rather elderly people. Wash teeth, then walk back into city centre and find a bar that is showing the PSV Eindhoven v Liverpool match. Have a glass of wine. Liverpool don't get beaten, which is about the best that one can say about the match.

Find Mexican restaurant. Order first meal of the day, only to find that I'm so hungry my stomach seems to fill up after a couple of bites, or maybe I'm just so tired that I can't eat. Walk back to my hotel and collapse into bed.

Wake up. Shower. Start driving . . .

Recently John read

The Religion by Tim Willocks (finished it at last - yay!)
Christina Falls by Benjamin Black

and listened to

5.55 by Charlotte Gainsbourg

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Unquiet

As I write, I am surrounded by sections of the next Parker novel, The Unquiet, as yesterday I commenced printing the book off prior to sending it out to my editors and my agent later this week.

I think I've said in the past that I have mixed feelings about this part of the process. I never print off the book until it is due to be sent out because, as soon as I do so, my mind starts moving on to the next project. While a book remains on my computer it is fluid, capable of change, open to improvement and adjustment, but once I start printing it off I begin to draw a line under the writing. The act of printing is an admission that the book is, to a large degree, finished.

True, my editors, and my agent, may suggest small changes, and I will always try to incorporate those suggestions into the book, but I will find it harder to make those changes now that the novel has assumed a physical form. It is like a building that has previously only existed in the mind and plans of an architect, and suddenly it starts to become a thing of bricks and mortar, of windows and doors and ceilings. At that point, the architect's part in the building's construction is largely done, and whatever changes he might make to his original vision will ultimately be rather cosmetic, unless he is forced to raze the whole structure and begin again.

It usually takes a couple of days to print off the book, largely because I view it as my final chance to make alterations and to correct as many small mistakes as I can. It's useful to do it in as concentrated a burst of activity as possible, as it forces me to keep the details of the book fresh in my head. (When did Daniel Clay disappear? Was it September or October, 1999? How many days have passed since Frank Merrick's ultimatum to Parker?) It also enables me to spot repetitions, and those little tics that seem to inhabit every book, the words that I overuse and that need to be pruned back in favor of others.

There is also a hint of regret, though. While it is satisfying, at last, to print off something that has existed only in my mind, and then on screen, for the best part of two years, that satisfaction is tempered by the fact that another imperfect book is about to see the light of day. I always feel that another draft would help it, that another re-write might help to make those imperfections less obvious. But even if I were to be given that time, then I would just seek a few more days on top of it again, because there will always be the urge to revise the book once more in the belief that every revision makes the book fundamentally better. In the end, though, I know I would be making the kinds of changes that only ants would notice, and 'changes' is the operative word: changing something does not automatically make it better, only different.

Usually, too, I would take a couple of days off once the book has been couriered to London and New York, but not this time. I have the publicity for The Book of Lost Things to which to attend, and I will not be seeing much of the inside of my house for many weeks. This, too, means that the urge to hold on to The Unquiet has to be resisted. If my editors do not get it this week, then it will be November before I have a chance to start printing it off again, and that will be too late to make the publication date that has been set. Events have conspired to take the book out of my hands, and perhaps that is for the best.

Now, too, I have to start thinking in earnest about the next book. I no longer have the excuse that I am still writing this one. The Unquiet is done, and before the year is out I will have started a new project. And I think I may even know what that might be . . .

This week John read

The Religion by Tim Willocks (still haven't finished it, and have now been fatally distracted from it by the necessity of writing a review of Christina Falls by Benjamin Black, a.k.a. John Banville)

and listened to

Revelations by Audioslave
El Perro Del Mar by El Perro Del Mar

Monday, August 28, 2006

On Departures

The interviews for The Book of Lost Things have commenced in earnest, and the common theme seems to be the word 'departure', as in, "This novel is something of a departure for you, isn't it?" (Actually, 'departure' is much better than the word 'brave', which has also cropped up once or twice. Having the decision to write TBOLT being described as 'brave' is slightly worrying, as it brings with it the unspoken words ". . . but foolhardy", evoking images of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or very cold chaps announcing that they plan on leaving the tent for some time.)

I suppose that, for me, the new novel doesn't seem like a complete departure, but instead part of a natural progression. After all, I've been using the story-within-a-story framework since Every Dead Thing, and the fascination with folk tales and fairy stories that comes into bloom with this new book has also been present as far back as that first novel. What, after all, was Adelaide Modine but a version of the wicked witch, the evil stepmother, the consumer of children? In Dark Hollow, that link to folk tales was made even more explicit, and it has since found further expression in a number of the stories contained in Nocturnes, particularly "The Erlking" and "The New Daughter".

Thematically, too, The Book of Lost Things echoes earlier books. The search for an absent parent, and the idea of redemption through sacrifice, have both been present in a number of the previous novels (and, in the case of the latter, underpins them, especially the Parker books). Finally, it is, at heart, an anti-rationalist book, and if there is one thing for which my novels have been consistently criticized within certain sections of the mystery community, it is for their refusal to adopt an entirely rationalist approach to crime fiction.

That's not to deny that TBOLT is, in many ways, a very different beast from what has gone before it, but I suppose I see it in terms of being the next stage in a gradually developing body of work, each book of which has been dependent, to some degree, on the preceding books.

I had a discussion with my Beloved Agent a month or two ago, and he was talking about my freedom, relative or otherwise, to pursue new directions in my writing. He advised me not to use this freedom to do "small things", and I suspect that he was, in part, referring to Nocturnes, which was a collection of small things. And yet Nocturnes is, for me, one of the most important books that I have written in terms of my development as a writer. It allowed me to experiment with a range of voices and forms, to explore different modes of storytelling, and through it I was able to progress. I finished The Black Angel, which was being written and researched contemporaneously with Nocturnes, and makes use of so much of what I learned from writing those stories, and to produce The Book of Lost Things, which is, I think, the best book that I've written. Certainly, it's the novel that, once finished, was closest to the book that I had envisaged in my head before I began writing it, the Platonic ideal that exists in every writer's head but that is virtually impossible to replicate in practice.

What I'm trying to say, and what I've attempted to explain to interviewers, is that 'departure' implies a kind of isolation from what has gone before, and The Book of Lost Things, although different from my previous books, simply doesn't feel like that to me. It is the next step in an ongoing process, and there are mysteries at its heart, but they are not the mysteries of killers and criminals. After all, there are other mysteries worth exploring too . . .

Finally, before I forget, I've picked some winners for the 'List of Lost Books' competition that we were running on the website this month. Can I just say that I found the entries fascinating to read, and we're going to look at the possibility of creating a permanent, dedicated page for them on the site that can be updated with new entries. I've found four or five books that I now want to read simply because of the passionate recommendations that people made.

Anyway, I ended up choosing three entries. The signed proof will go to Heidi G (A Haunting Reverence), while signed first editions of The Book of Lost Things will go to Mark B (Pale Gray for Guilt) and Jesoni (The Devil's Door Bell). As for why I picked those entries, well, I think I was fascinated, in each case, by either the story behind the book's discovery, or, as in Mark B's case, the teasing out of the whole concept of 'lost books'. If those three people would drop the lovely Jayne a line with details of their address, and whether or not they'd like a dedication on their books (although I'd advise Heidi G to leave her book as is), then we can send them off ASAP. Thank you to all who entered. Even if you didn't win, you've managed to turn new readers on to your beloved books!

This week John read

The Religion by Tim Willocks (well, started it!)

and listened to

A Lazarus Taxon by Tortoise
Writer's Block by Peter, Bjorn and John

Sunday, August 20, 2006

It Begins

This week, the first finished copies of The Book of Lost Things were delivered to my door. Well, I say 'delivered', but I was out at the time so the delivery man heaped all of the boxes into my dustbin and rolled it up to my front door. Everyone's a critic these days.

It's always slightly anticlimactic to receive the finished book. I sometimes feel that I should be doing something to celebrate the arrival of a new novel, but instead I just put a copy on the shelf in my office and, well, that's it. I didn't even open this one for fear that an error would leap out and slap me in the face. The new book was simply added to the line of old books, and thereby became an old book itself. As I've said in the past, I tend to feel slightly disengaged from the finished, ready-to-sell book, and anyway my attention, at the moment, is focused on trying to finish the next book. There really isn't time for self-congratulation.

I'm also aware, though, that the next stage of the process is about to begin. Already, I'm juggling tour schedules, blanking out days in my diary for press, fielding requests for signings, and generally accommodating myself to the fact that the next few months will be spent traveling and talking, with all of the pleasures, frustrations, minor triumphs, and slightly less minor disappointments that come with promotion.

I find myself preparing for interviews in my head at odd times of the day, asking myself the questions that I'm likely to be asked by journalists and trying to come up with sensible answers. It's a form of madness, one step away from talking to oneself, but there is no point in going into interviews cold and unprepared. I need to be able to explain myself and the book that I have written, and that requires putting some thought and effort into what I'm going to say.

Similarly, I try not to repeat myself when I talk in bookstores, so I have to prepare fresh material for each book. I'll juggle thoughts, anecdotes and bits of research in my spare time, seeing how they fit together and, gradually, knitting them into a routine that bears some semblance of coherence. The first test of this is likely to be at the Edinburgh Festival next Saturday. The last time I was at the festival I read a short story instead of speaking which, in retrospect, wasn't a good idea. I don't think I was quite as confident about speaking then, and I was a little overwhelmed by the festival's reputation and prestige. I hope to do better this time.

While all of this preparation is going on - fielding phone calls, making final decisions on scheduling, writing articles for newspapers to promote the novel - I'm still making the final adjustments to The Unquiet. It's now on its fifth draft, with another to go before my editors see it. It has almost come together, which is fortunate because its delivery date is looming.

And then the whole process will begin again . . .

This week John read

On Being Born and Other Difficulties by F. Gonzalez-Crussi

and listened to

Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble
Hotel Vietnam by Blue Asia

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The List of Lost Books

This column is a little early this week, and will be quite short. Basically, we're running a competition to give away a very rare signed hardback proof of The Book of Lost Things. Publishers don't usually do hardback proofs, but Hodder & Stoughton did 90 numbered editions of TBOLT, and we have one of them on offer this week.

To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is nominate a "lost book", a book that may not be very well known but that means a lot to you. I mean, you may have liked The Da Vinci Code or The Silence of the Lambs, but they hardly qualify as 'lost' books, or titles that could do with a little more exposure. We'd prefer you to pick something a little less well-known and, in one paragraph or, if you prefer, ten paragraphs, to tell us why this book matters, and why you think others should read it.

I've been thinking about this myself, and I suppose I'd go for Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, or maybe i: sixnonlectures by e.e.cummings, or Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme, or even Lost in Music, Giles Smith's fabulously funny book about growing up with popular music. The problem didn't lie in coming up with 'lost' books, but in limiting my selection to just one. Thankfully, I don't have to narrow it down. You do.

The closing date for receipt of entries is August 25th, and we'll announce the best one in this column the following week. Just go to competition, and good luck!

This week John read

Set up, Joke, Set up, Joke by Rob Long
The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

and listened to

Bach(!) and assorted candidates for the next Voices From The Dark CD

Sunday, August 06, 2006

On Music

The first record I ever bought was “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. EMI. Plain white cover. Off-white label. I think this gives me a certain credibility. Even at the age of nine, I knew what I liked.

Mind you, the first single that was ever bought for me, quite possibly at my own request, was “Two Little Boys” by Rolf Harris. I’d like to stress that I rarely listened to it and found it cheesy and emotionally manipulative, just like Shirley Temple movies or bad renditions of “Old Shep” (actually, all renditions of “Old Shep”). I’d like to stress that, but I can’t. I seem to recall that I rather loved “Two Little Boys”, and when the chorus came in that second time, after one former little boy has rescued the other former little boy from the battlefield, well, that was a choker. I’m feeling a little weepy just writing about it.

I bought books before I bought music, but I listened to music long before I read books. Music and books were my first loves, and my affection for both remains undimmed. True, there has been the odd falling out over the years. I was forced to read Francis McManus’s dreadful Men Withering while in school in Ireland and it put me off books for a good three months. (Even the title makes your heart sink. Men Withering: it sounds like some form of sexual dysfunction. “Sorry, doc, got a touch of the old ‘man withering’. You couldn’t sort me out with some of those little blue pills, could you, and maybe a subscription to Granada Men & Motors?”) I still haven’t listened to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica the whole way through, and every time it crops up on one of those 100 Greatest Albums Ever polls I feel like I’ve failed a test. I have similar problems with nu-metal, although that’s excusable on the grounds that it’s rubbish.

Nevertheless, music and books have been my near-constant companions through life, so that when I came to write my books it probably wasn’t too surprising that music would find a way into them too. After all, the central character in most of my novels, the private detective Charlie Parker, isn’t far off my own age, and it seemed natural that he should share my tastes in music, just as he shares my views on most other matters.

In fact, the very first page of my very first book, Every Dead Thing, contains a musical reference. Parker is listening to the radio as he drives, and recognises a tune as “early REM, something about shoulders and rain”. The song is “Perfect Circle” from the album Murmur, a title that is particularly apt as the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible throughout. Even Michael Stipe’s fellow band mates confessed that they didn’t know what he was singing about most of the time. With this in mind, it’s not surprising
that Parker mishears the words. (According to various lyric web sites, the shoulders are actually high in a “room”, not in the “rain”. Not that it makes any difference, frankly.)

I’m not unusual in using music in my books, especially as a crime writer. Pick a modern crime novel written by any male between 30 and 70 and I suspect you’ll find musical references of one sort or another, some of them admittedly a little more hackneyed than others. Personally, I always feel my hackles start to rise when a detective spends a lot of time listening to the blues. Nobody spends a lot of time listening to the blues, except perhaps blues musicians, and to be fair that’s because they have to play it. It’s depressing, and if you listen to more than a couple of songs in a row it all starts to sound the same. Don’t get me wrong, it has it’s place, but using it in crime fiction as some kind of signifier is the equivalent of buying a black dog and calling it Blackie. Jazz can be a bit problematical for the same reason: its evocation of noir can seem just a little too contrived. John Harvey tends to handle it well, though, as does Michael Connelly. Handled badly, the use of jazz in crime fiction leaves the reader feeling like he’s trapped in a Woody Allen pastiche, and we’re talking late-period, unfunny Woody, not funny, Sleeper-era Woody.

Classical music, meanwhile, brings with it a whole new set of problems. Take Inspector Morse, for example. Classical music became an integral part of the Morse experience, particularly when the novels were adapted for television. Unfortunately, it was pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the kind of music Classic FM plays in the early afternoon when it doesn’t want to frighten the elderly. The music contributed to the creation of a comfort zone: it was familiar, a bit sad, and you could hum along to the best bits. Morse was right up there with crumpets and The Archers and Gardeners’ Question Time as a quintessentially English experience, nicely done but almost entirely without an edge. The music also reflected the emasculation of Morse. In Dexter’s early novels, he’s a seedy, vaguely dislikable character, prone to losing himself in pornography and not above noticing the shortness of the odd schoolgirl’s dress. By the time Morse died, he was like everyone’s favourite bachelor uncle: a bit of a curmudgeon, fond of a beer, but still likely to slip you a tenner at Christmas and on birthdays. He was Morse-lite, backed by classical-lite.

Popular music arguably provides more fertile ground. George P. Pelecanos, one of the finest modern chroniclers of American urban life, soundtracks his novels with classic soul, funk, even Ennio Morricone themes, the latter reflecting his later novels’ links with the western, the genre that was itself the precursor of modern crime fiction. After all, is there really much distance between Shane, the lone gunman who arrives in a small farming community and rights its wrongs for no reason other than the fact that it is intolerable for him to turn his back on them, and Ross Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer who says “I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter.”? Arguably, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest marks the most obvious point at which the two traditions merge, and it’s no coincidence that his short, bloody novel of rival gangs being played against each other should have inspired a gangster version (Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing) and a western (Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars) as well as a samurai interpretation (Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo).

But we digress. The point is that the music in Pelecanos’s books is a reflection both of his own inner life and the inner life of his characters, the society in which they live, and arguably the roots of the genre itself. It’s there for a purpose, and is an integral part of his work.

Music, too, infuses the work of Britain’s most popular crime writer, Ian Rankin, starting with the titles themselves and their nods to The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Cure (The Hanging Garden) and even Antipodean nearly-made-its The Mutton Birds (The Falls). Titling books after familiar songs is an easy way to signal a particular type of reader. Someone who gets the reference is perhaps more likely to pick up the book than a potential reader who does not. It’s a way to make the book stand out on the shelf, as well as giving an indication of an author’s personal tastes. Again, if those tastes match the reader’s own then another connection has been made.

Needless to say, this works better if the author’s tastes have a certain kudos. There is an element of showing off when male writers make references to music, a display of their perceived credibility. There are sound reasons why no male author has yet seen fit to name a book after, say, a Michael Bolton b-side, or a Kajagoogoo song. There is also the question of aptness: the decision by the hard-boiled Newcastle-born crime author Martyn Waites to name his most recent novel The Mercy Seat after Aussie gloomster Nick Cave’s tale of execution by electrocution is unlikely to raise expectations among muso readers that the book fails to fulfil.

Women, on the other hand, are less snobbish about the use of music as signposts in book titles, leading to books named after old disco hits and Abba songs, even if the references often don’t extend beyond the cover. The songs chosen, though, do say something about both the age of the author and the potential market that the book is aimed at. After all, the title of a novel named after a 70’s disco hit is perhaps less likely to resonate with a 20 year old girl than a book named after a Pink song. Similarly, Rankin’s Cure reference gives an instant clue as to both his own age and the age of those at whom the title is aimed.

But what is it about crime writers, particularly male crime writers, and their fascination with music? When Rankin set about putting together this year’s BBC Radio Four series Music To Die For, an exploration of the links between crime fiction and music, he had real difficulty finding women to contribute. They simply did not appropriate music for their books in the same way that their as their male peers.

Young men, I think, use music to define themselves in a way that young women do not, or at least not to the same degree. Music becomes a pointer towards fashion, a central topic of conversation, a way in which one can judge oneself against others. A certain type of man - and I may well be one of them - will allow that fascination to continue into adult life. (That type is pretty easy to spot. They’re the ones who, when they first arrive in your house, head straight for your record collection and begin dividing it into piles of the acceptable and unacceptable, quietly tut-tutting along the way at more shocking errors of musical taste.)

Also, we have now entered an era where large quantities of music are easily transportable for the first time. Most of these writers are also products of a generation for whom that music is available in greater quantities than ever before, and is accessible with greater ease. We have moved from unwieldy vinyl to tiny boxes capable of storing 10,000 songs. We are not longer at the mercy of DJs, or tied to the record player in the corner. From the Walkman to the iPod, we have reached a stage where we can virtually soundtrack our own lives. If we can do that for ourselves, then it’s hardly surprising that it should filter into the lives of the characters in our books too.

But why does crime fiction provide a natural home for these musical references? Well, crime fiction has always had a fascination with what G.K. Chesterton referred to as the poetry of urban life. It is closely linked to the workings of the society that it chooses to explore, from the mechanisms of law and order to the petty crooks on the streets. It has an acute awareness of changes in culture, and uses them to give its novels a sense of raw immediacy. Crime fiction cherry-picks from film, music, television and politics. More than any other type of genre fiction, it engages with the reality of the world around it in all of its messy glory.

Yet the songs chosen, the music used, can sometimes have a far deeper link to the action of the book than merely acting as a lure for readers or a means of mutual congratulation on shared good taste. Music, selected and used carefully, can deepen one’s understanding of a character, a scene, a dilemma.

In my third novel, The Killing Kind, Parker faces the choice that most private detectives face at some point in a crime novel: whether to turn his back on a case and leave an injustice uncorrected, or to take it on and risk having violence and emotional trauma visited upon him. While he debates this question, he puts a CD into the player in his kitchen. The album is Wrong-Eyed Jesus by Jim White, and the song that begins to play is called “Still Waters”. The lyric that Parker hears as he works through his problem goes like this: “Well don’t you know there’s projects for the dead and there are projects for the living/ But sometimes I must confess I get confused by that distinction.”

It’s Parker’s dilemma in a nutshell, yet the song simply plays in the background. At no point does Parker acknowledge its aptness, or imply that it affects the choice that he makes. That’s for the reader to pick up on.

The difficulty in using songs lies in giving the reader a sense of the auditory in a literary context. Put simply, how can you let someone hear a specific song when they’re reading a book? The answer, and it’s often an expensive one, is to use lyrics, for the use of which the songwriter will normally demand payment. Another solution, also expensive, was the one I used for The Black Angel. I put together a selection of songs that were important to the Parker novels and gave the CD away with the book and at signings. Artists like The Walkabouts, Lambchop and The Blue Nile allowed me to use their music, and I hope the compilation gave readers got a chance to experience the books, and the songs that influenced them, in a new way. Strange to say, though, I think I got more pleasure from hearing someone say “You know, I’ve just discovered The Triffids/ The Go-Betweens/ Red House Painters because of your CD” than I did from hearing that they liked the book.

And, sad fan boy that I am, Kate Bush was on that CD too, which brings us full circle.

But at least it wasn’t Rolf Harris.

This week John read

The Ruins by Scott Smith

and listened to

The Weed Tree by Espers
Folk Off! (compilation)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

On Experimentation

I recently formed part of a panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I’m not sure that it was an entirely satisfactory experience for all concerned, to be honest. The panel was entitled “Unique Voices”, which might have been part of the problem as I couldn’t quite see what was unique about any of those involved in it. That probably sounds a lot more negative than it is meant to, as each of the writers involved (myself, I hope, included) had something to offer in terms of the quality of their work and their commitment to the genre. No, the problem, as I saw it, was in the description of us as ‘unique’, because we weren’t.

One of us was a lesbian and had a lesbian detective as the central character in a number of her novels. Unique? Um, possibly not. Maybe unusual, but hardly unique either because of her own sexuality or the sexuality of her character unless, of course, one had led a very sheltered existence and lesbians counted as a form of exotic life on a par with rare butterflies and near-extinct birds. Similarly, another panellist was Australian, and hence his unique status will probably have come as something of a surprise to a) other Australian crime writers and b) other Australians.

It was all rather strange. I tried to put my difficulty with the panel into some kind of coherent form, but I don’t think I succeeded very well (which led to the chairman, the wise and tolerant Marcel Berlins, to enquire, rather understandably, as to what I was “bitching” about). In a nutshell, though, I think it could be summarized thus: I felt that it reflected badly on the degree of experimentation in the genre that the rather modest variations that the various panellists were performing in the course of our work could somehow be regarded as ‘unique’. There, I wish I’d managed to put it that simply at the time.

I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to be the norm in the genre.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, is to blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what they want?

Then again, it may be the case that no blame should be ascribed to anyone. Writers write to be published. They want to be reasonably successful in order that they can continue to be published. Readers are a rare enough breed as it is (especially when one considers that a ‘high volume reader’, in trade parlance, is someone who buys five books a year) without criticizing them for wanting to pass their reading time in whatever way happens to please them most, and we should be grateful to those who buy any books at all. And publishers have a duty not only to art (and, cynicism aside, publishers generally feel better about publishing good books than bad books) but to the shareholders and to the bottom line financially. Publishers succeed by selling books, and the more books they sell the more successful they are.

Perhaps I was - and am - playing devil’s advocate to some degree, but there is a part of me that feels crime fiction thrives on a ‘more of the same’ ethos, and that there is a sneaking conservatism at work that is in part a product of the genre’s own ubiquity and success in recent years. (From a personal perspective, I have learned by now merely to shake my head in bemusement and move on when I read criticisms of my work that are based on a belief that even the slightest hint of the supernatural has no part in the mystery genre, as though it should have been preserved in aspic at some point between the birth of Sherlock Holmes and the death of Poirot. The mere fact of my existence seems to cause a great deal of irritation to critics of that stripe, and I have to say that pleases me no end, as I tend to have little time for poor critics who would prefer no experimentation at all to experiments with which they disagree.)

At the closing session of the Harrogate festival, I conducted a public interview with Jeff Deaver, in the course of which he spoke of his recent novel, Garden of Beasts. It is, I think, his best book, but it probably sold less than any book he has written since he found mainstream success, and it crashed and burned in the U.S. It wasn’t because it was a bad book, far from it, but it wasn’t like his other books. He deviated from his own formula, choosing to write a historical thriller set in Nazi Germany instead of a contemporary thriller set in America, and he suffered for it. During the interview, he admitted that the experience had probably made him more reluctant to experiment, and I felt that was a shame. I had enjoyed reading Garden of Beasts and seeing another side to Jeff’s writing. Perhaps, in time, he’’ll reconsider, for it’s important that writers with some commercial clout should take the odd chance, that they should try to introduce a little edge to the mainstream and foster an environment conducive to a little experimentation.

For if they don’t, then who will?

This week John read

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (uncorrected proof) by Lian Hearn

and listened to

All For Nothing, Nothing For All by The Replacements

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Average Day

The question I get asked more than most ("Where do you get your ideas from?" and "When is the next one coming out?" aside) is, "How do you spend your day?" In the beginning, I used to be a little defensive in answering it, because I wasn't entirely sure how I spent my day. Admittedly, I wasn't sitting around in my vest watching children's television, or napping until midday, but I never seemed to get quite as much done as I should have and, anyway, it wasn't like I had a real job so explaining it was harder than I thought.

Also, if I added up the time I spent actually writing, it often didn't seem to come to very much, even though I didn't get a great deal else done in the interim. So, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm going to try to explain exactly how I spend a working day, within reason.

I have an office at the top of my house. At the moment, it's serving as a kind of storeroom as well for assorted copies of my books packed in boxes, bits of electrical equipment (I have a new scanner and phone, but I'm mildly terrified at the prospect of trying to set both up together, so I've been putting it off for a while and now it won't get done until August.) and most of the paperbacks I've accumulated over the years and haven't been able to part with. My desk is large, and vaguely V-shaped. It faces a wall, with a Velux window above it, so I can't get distracted by a view of anything but clouds and the edge of my chimney. It also gets rather warm at this time of year, so working there is a little less pleasant than in winter.

I write in silence. I can't listen to music when I work. At the moment, I have painters redecorating the house, so I'm trying to tune them out. When I was writing The Black Angel, the same men (they're great, incidentally, and I like them so much I have to force myself not to spend time nattering with them over coffee at the kitchen table) were retiling my bathroom and installing an en suite, and for various reasons I ended up working for weeks at my dining room table. It wasn't ideal. I like my office space. I don't even write very well when I'm travelling. I had always thought that writers could write anywhere, but I'm not like that. Where writing is concerned, I'm a creature of routine. It's part of the discipline, I think.

This morning I was at my desk at nine, a large cup of coffee to hand. I had been away for a few days, so I performed my usual default displacement activity, which is dealing with email. There were just under 200 messages, some of them junk, but most requiring at least a short answer. There were also two sets of email interviews for The Book of Lost Things, which took me about an hour or so to do. By then, it was close to midday.

I'm just about to start another draft of The Unquiet, but I have to travel again this week, so today I'm going to spend much of my time transferring the draft on to my laptop and making a backup copy to bring with me, just in case. I'll also put the draft on a little 1GB micro drive. I'm paranoid about losing it, I think, or of making lengthy changes only to discover that they haven't been saved. I'll try to assemble a folder of notes as well, as I have some idea of what needs to be added to parts of this draft. Two or three new chapters will also have to be written, and I don't want to start them while I'm away only to discover that I left the notes at home.

On an average day, though, at this stage in the writing, I would try to get two or more chapters revised. Progress quickens as the rewriting process goes on, simply because there's a little less to change each time. By the time I usually stop at 1.30pm or 2pm, I'll have done at least a chapter, perhaps more if there were few changes to be made. I'll then stop and go out to the gym, or simply ramble off to have a cup of coffee and read for a while. Still, I find it hard to concentrate on reading at that point in the day, probably because my mind is ticking over on my own work. I think I take a break largely because it would be counterproductive not to do it, so I just have to find ways to fill the time until my batteries have recharged enough to enable me to get back to work.

After an hour or two, I'll return home and sit at my desk again. I'll answer the emails that have arrived in the interim, then try to tackle another chapter or two. I stop if I feel that I'm skimming, or that I'm just trying to file away another chapter as 'done' in order to make myself feel better. By 6.30pm, maybe 7, I'll try to finish up for the day, but sometimes I'll feel the urge later to do some work, often a minor thing that has just struck me and that I'm afraid I'll forget to do otherwise.

And for the rest of the time, I worry. I think writers are usually either writing or thinking about writing, and there's very little other stuff in between. At certain points in the process, I can't even enjoy a trip to the movies, so distracted will I be by my own work. It's not so bad now, as the lion's share of the new book is done, but I know it will begin again soon as I try to figure out what to do next.

And that, I suspect, will form the substance of next week's column . . .

This week John Read

Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish

and listened to

Damaged by Lambchop (promo copy - it's quite superb, probably the band's best work yet)
Nineteeneighties by Grant-Lee Phillips

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Blockbusters

Just a short post this week, as I've spent the last seven days revising The Unquiet and I'm developing a relationship to my keyboard that bears disturbing similarities to a prisoner's relationship to his ball and chain.

Actually, to be honest the last couple of days haven't been so bad. I had deliberately left the last three chapters of the book unwritten, in part because I had been researching in Maine and wanted to revise earlier sections of the book while that material was still fresh in my mind, but also because I was reluctant to 'finish' the book just yet. With thirty chapters written, I knew how it was going to end, and was quite looking forward to putting those final touches to it.

Mind you, had my plane gone down in the meantime the discovery of the unfinished novel would have been rather frustrating for my agent and my editors. I wonder would someone have been tempted to finish it for me and, if so, would that person have come up with a similar ending to the one that I eventually added this weekend? It's an interesting thought. The book's ending was quite clear to me, but someone else would probably have come up with something very different from a reading of the earlier chapters. The Unquiet is a very ambiguous book, and Parker does not get all of the answers that he might have wished for. Instead, he is left to posit a number of possible explanations for what has occurred, each with evidence to support it but not enough to offer a final, definitive solution. In that sense, the mysterious 'other' assigned to complete the manuscript would have found a number of potential endings available without any sense of which one the now-deceased author had considered most appropriate. The fact that I have lived long enough to finish the book will, therefore, probably come as good news to my publishers, saving them a lot of agonizing and head-scratching.

There was slightly less welcome news for me this week when one of the English newspapers announced that this autumn would see the "Battle of the Blockbusters". Apparently, rather a lot of high-profile books are being published this autumn (or this Fall if you're reading this on the right hand side of the road). John le Carré, my compatriot Roddy Doyle, William Boyd, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris all have books ready to appear, and all sorts of mystery writers have books on the horizon. (And in case you're wondering why those authors have been mentioned by name while the mystery writers have not, I am simply following the lead of the Bookseller magazine in England which has filed The Book of Lost Things under "Literary, Historical and General". So there.)

This issue of when a book should be published is one that concerns publishers, authors and booksellers a lot. January used to be a quiet month, and therefore a good time to slip out books that might otherwise have been lost in the summer or Christmas rush, but then so many publishers spotted that it was a quiet month that it ceased to be quiet at all, and now I really don't think there is a 'good' time to be published. Nevertheless, this autumn promises to be particularly busy and it's given me one more thing to worry about as the publication date for the new book approaches. There will be a lot of big authors competing for space on bookshelves and bestseller lists, on review pages and in shop windows, and I don't want my little book to get swamped in the rush.

There's nothing that can be done now, of course, except to hope that it holds its own, and that maybe those who enjoy it will tell others, thereby giving it some freedom from the vagaries of lists and press coverage. In the end, books live or die by the recommendation of readers, by one reader suggesting it to another as worth exploring. Newspapers, bookstore promotions and bestseller listings all help, but ultimately it is the ordinary reader who will decide a book's fate.

And that, of course, is as it should be.

This week John read

Cold Moon by Jeffery Deaver

and listened to

Don't Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up by Cortney Tidwell
Another Fine Day by Golden Smog

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bond and I

I've just finished reading Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain, a kind of cultural history of post-war Britain seen through the eyes of a James Bond fan. It was occasionally interesting, if rather long-winded, but it was deeply marred by bad grammar, eccentric punctuation, and some cringe-inducing misspellings that, had they occurred in a schoolboy essay, would have resulted in immediate and lengthy detention for the culprit.

Some of the errors were just bewildering. The following sentence can be found on P159: "Even passing minor villains like the Mexican would-be assassin in Goldfinger, with his single, immortal line, 'You like pretty girl - go jig-a-jig' (managing to convey in six words an entire squalid personality), have a truly Dickensian air." Now which six words might they be, exactly? The sentence to which he is referring has, even allowing for my poor mathematical ability, eight words, or seven if one is being pedantic and counting the two uses of 'jig' as one word. Perhaps 'a' is not being counted as a word, which might - I stress 'might' - allow us to make up the requisite six, but the sheer effort involved in trying to work out a formula by which that sentence could claim to be true rather spoiled the act of reading it to begin with.

I don't usually criticise books in this way - after all, I've confessed to the fact that errors creep into every text, my own books (hell, even these blogs) included - but there were so many in this book that the experience of reading it began to feel like being hit over the head with a small hammer every couple of pages. Mr Winder, you might be interested to learn, works in publishing, and the book is published in the UK by Picador, an imprint that has built its reputation on literary fiction and quality non-fiction. Nevertheless, nobody - not Mr Winder himself, and not his publishers - seemed to feel that it was worth the effort to properly edit The Man Who Saved Britain. It cost me €22 in hardback, and for €22 the least somebody can do is make sure the book is presentable to the reading public.

The reason why I bought this book was because, as a boy, I was a big fan of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. Fleming was the first author whose books I devoured, seeking them out in second-hand bookstores and sales of work, usually in battered Pan paperback editions with often fabulous covers. (My particular favourite was the cover of Thunderball, which had two holes bored into it to resemble bullet wounds in skin. As a bloodthirsty nine-year-old boy, there were few greater pleasures than to be able to poke my fingers through those two wounds. And you wondered where my books came from . . .)

In particular, and this is one of the few areas in which Mr Winder's book becomes less of an apology for liking Fleming in the first place and more of an attempt to engage with the reasons for his popularity beyond the shores of England, I was fascinated by Fleming's villains. I had never before encountered creatures so grotesque: Goldfinger, Blofeld, Irma Bunt (Blofeld's lesbian sidekick in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice), From Russia With Love's Rosa Klebb, with a poisoned blade in the sole of her shoe . . . They were like ogres and trolls from fairy tales, and were often, truth be told, much more interesting than the Bond of the books.

True, I haven't read the Bond books for many years, and Mr Winder's book imbued me no great urge to return to them, although I can't quite figure out if that is a flaw of The Man Who Saved Britain or of Fleming's original novels. I expect that it's a little bit of both. To be honest, I can't recall very much about the books at all beyond their villains, and I suspect that even those memories are coloured somewhat by the films that followed. I do seem to remember that a lot of the women in the Bond books had some minor physical disability: a boss eye, one leg shorter than the other, that kind of thing. As a pre-teen boy, I expect that whatever such shortcomings in the Bond women suggested about their creator probably went over my head, although even then I can recall being vaguely aware that there was something, um, unpleasant underlying a great deal of Fleming's work.

But those wonderful villains stayed with me, and I think they influenced me when I came to create some of the vile creatures who inhabit my own books. Characters like Pudd, Brightwell, Faulkner and Adelaide Modine share some of their ancestry with Fleming's creations. After all, most writers, if they are honest, will confess to being, in part, the sum of the writers whom they themselves have read. I have frequently admitted the debt that I owe to Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke. Fleming's influence is less pronounced stylistically, but is no less important for that, especially given the pleasure (if that's the right word) that a lot of readers have taken in the villains who have cropped up in my books.

Some years ago, I interviewed James Lee Burke for the Irish Times. Burke is another writer who seems to enjoy using grotesques as villains, and one of the questions that I asked him was why he portrayed them in this way. His answer was illuminating, and put into words something that I had only felt, but could not express adequately, in relation to my own characters. Burke said that he believed there were some individuals who were so morally corrupt that their corruption found a physical expression. It was a perfect, concise reply and I thought, yes, that's their appeal. It was probably their appeal for Fleming too, although he is less interested than Burke or I in the roots of that corruption. Still, Fleming planted that seed in my imagination, and for all the shortcomings of the books and the movies, I am grateful to him for that. I suspect that it probably accounts for my continued affection for his greatest creation and for the fact that, despite its own editorial shortcomings, I rather enjoyed Mr Winder's book . . .

This week John read

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder

and listened to

Bande a Part by Nouvelle Vague
To Find Me Gone by Vetiver
Bamnan and Silvercork by Midlake
(and Midlake's second album, Van Occupanther, once again, because it's simply superb)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Note on Distraction

I'm currently midway through a new draft of The Unquiet, the next Charlie Parker novel. At this point in the writing, progress slows a little once again. I find that I can only really concentrate properly on revising one chapter each day. If I do more than that, the revisions to the second chapter suffer. On the other hand, time is pressing, so I am trying to do more than one chapter each day, recognising that some progress is better than no progress at all, and it will make the next draft that little bit easier. Still, there is a always a nagging voice telling me that I should be doing more . . .

Then again, life seems intent upon providing welcome distractions and, although I'm reasonably disciplined, I am quite happy to do other things if the opportunity arises. Hence last weekend, when I should have been slogging away at my rewrites, I was in Barcelona, courtesy of my lovely Spanish publishers. Two days of that trip were justified by publicity for the Spanish edition of The White Road (El Camino Blanco, for all you linguaphiles out there), and let me tell you now that the Spanish press ask kind of difficult questions. It's an indication, I think, of the seriousness with which they approach genre fiction, and crime fiction in particular. None of the reporters seemed to have any doubt that mysteries were capable of tackling big themes and that viewpoint was reflected in their questions. Frankly, at one point I openly admitted to wishing that I was a bit smarter so I could provide answers that did more credit to the questions, which moved from issues of race and history, through moral philosophy, and on to the existence of God. The interviews were challenging, and kind of exhilirating, the pleasure dimmed only by my pathetically poor Spanish, an obstacle which required the presence of a very tolerant interpreter to overcome.

Of course, this is just a pathetic attempt on my part to explain away as work a splendid five day break in the sun. Okay, so I did my interviews over two days, and gave a talk at a fabulous little bookstore called Negra y Criminal, but none of those duties hardly counted as work in any real sense, and the event at Negra y Criminal in particular was an unalloyed pleasure. Yet I have to hold up my hand and say that the two days that followed passed in a blur of Gaudi, Picasso, and lots of football and tapas. There, I've admitted it. I feel better for that now. I've let you all down, I know, by not sweating over a keyboard. I'd like to say right now that I'm sorry. I'd like to, but I can't.

But there are other distractions that I can perhaps justify a little more easily. My British publishers are setting up a microsite (a mini-website) to go with The Book of Lost Things, and I've become quite fascinated with the process, in part because it involves deconstructing the book, something that I've never done before in quite this way. Essentially, I've gone back and found the originals of the tales that inspired sections of the book, as well as the little bits of Greek myth, Roman history and British poetry that David, the child at the heart of the novel, uses to create the alternative world into which he is drawn. The originals will sit alongside sections of the novel on the website, and I'll try to explain the connections between the two, and why certain stories and images were chosen over others. In a sense, the creation of the site has enabled me to examine the way in which the book itself was created. In turn, I'm learning a little more about myself as a writer and recognising how decisions that seemed somehow "natural" at the time, for want of a better word, were actually the product of a complex unconscious process. How could it have been otherwise, I suppose, in a book that is so personal to me, and in which so much of my own childhood (and adulthood) has been mined to bring it into being?

Over the coming months, I'll be writing newspaper articles on the links between fairy tales and childhood trauma, and on the importance of David's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to the book. I'll continue to add to the microsite, and to my own website. I'll also continue to write this weekly piece, for it too is a distraction of sorts, but not all distractions are counterproductive or unwelcome. They help to give me a little distance from the book on which I'm working, to put it into perspective, and this column, like the deconstructive process for the microsite, has given me insights into my work by forcing me to examine, and to put into words, things often left unsaid. For that opportunity, and for taking the time to read this column, thank you.

This week John read

Last Ditch House (manuscript) by Shane Dunphy
True Grit by Charles Portis

and listened to

He Poos Clouds by Final Fantasy
Espers II by Espers
No You Won't by The Walkabouts

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Master of Go

I was browsing in a Dublin bookstore when I found a book for which I’d been casually searching for some time: The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata, which was recently nominated, by an English newspaper, as one of the 50 greatest books ever written about sport.

What strikes me about that last sentence is the phrase “casually searching”. You see, I could have ordered The Master of Go from Amazon, or from ABE, or I could simply have asked my local bookshop to order it for me. But there was part of me that wanted to search for it, because there is a pleasure, in this age of instant gratification, in waiting a while, in taking the time to search for something, even if it means a little effort and a little frustration along the way. When I found the book, I felt a kind of joy: it wasn’t earth shattering or life changing, but it felt like one of those small gifts that life occasionally offers us along the way, the kind that ultimately makes day to day existence tolerable. It was a book that I had wanted to read - not urgently, and not because I felt that my life would be empty without it, but because it sounded interesting enough to check out - and after five or six visits during which there had been no sign of Kawabata’s novel, there it was.

I suppose the concept of instant gratification has been on my mind ever since reading an article about Google in a newspaper last week. Google, as some of you may know, rather fancies making every book ever written available to people on the Internet: just press a button, and the text will appear on the screen before you. It is, I suppose, the way of the future, but it seems to me that it spells a slow death for the idea of browsing and searching, at least in a way that does not involves browsers and search engines. In my darker hours, I wonder sometimes if, a generation or two down the line, there will even be bookstores to visit.

I wonder also how people will stumble across unexpected gems in this cold new age of virtual texts. The book that I read last week, Lawrence Osbourne’s The Accidental Connoisseur, was found, rather appropriately, by accident while browsing in the American Imports section of a bookshop. I had never even heard of the book, but I took it down from the shelf, read the jacket, and decided that it was something I would probably enjoy.

Would I have done the same thing had Google, or even Amazon, offered it as a suggestion based on a book that I happened to have glanced at before? Probably not. In fact, I rarely buy books based on such suggestions. (I’m not even very good at reading books that other people give me and insist I’ll enjoy. It brings out the stubborn side of me.) After all, I glance at lots of books, but I don’t buy them all, and I certainly don’t want their peers tapping me on the shoulder and demanding attention on that basis alone.

I’m not even sure that an algorithm, or whatever it is that websites use to determine my tastes, can even capture just how awkward, fly-by-nightish, half formed, and generally illogical my tastes actually are. At no point had any website registered the fact that I wanted to read The Master of Go. I don’t browse sporting books generally, and I simply hadn’t informed any website of this particular nagging desire. But it was there. I was aware of it. And each week I would browse the shelves on my city’s bookstores for The Master of Go ( if I remembered, and if I didn’t then it really didn’t matter too much) until one day, there it was.

Don’t get me wrong here. I use Amazon, particularly for research books, and I’ve been grateful to it for more than one CD or DVD that otherwise I would never have been able to find in a store on this side of the ocean. But I don’t want websites and Amazon and Google to be my only option when it comes to seeking out a book that I want to read, and I suspect that, deep inside, I appreciate more the books and music that I have found myself by taking the time to stare at the spines on a bookshelf or flick through the CDs in a rack.

Even now, a week later, with The Master of Go beside me on my desk as I write, I still feel a kind of happiness, and a satisfaction at the presence of this book among the others in my house. I searched for it and I found it, not with a computer or through a website where millions of titles exist but no books, but by waiting and looking and, ultimately, finding.

And, in a strange way, I think Kawabata himself might have appreciated that.

This week John read:

Vicious Circle (uncorrected proof) by Robert Littell
The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

and listened to:

White Bread, Black Beer by Scritti Politti
No Word From Tom by Hem

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Proof of the Pudding

Over the last week or so, my British publisher has begun sending out proof copies of The Book of Lost Things to various people in the trade: booksellers, reviewers, literary editors, and the buyers for the big chains.

It is the next step in a gradual process that began when my editor and agent saw the initial manuscript back in October 2005, a process that will conclude with the book's eventual publication in September 2006. With each step in the process, more and more people have been exposed to the book, but it is the point at which the proofs become available that the author (or this author at least) begins to fret in earnest.

After all, those who read the book in the earlier stages - the people at the publishing house whose task it is to turn my manuscript into a book that people might want to buy - were probably reasonably predisposed towards it. They hoped that it would be good. They wanted to like it, because if they liked it then their jobs would be a bit easier. There is, I imagine, little joy for an editor or agent who has to go back to a writer and say "Um, well, this needs some work . . . " which, as any fule kno, is subtle code for "Um, well, this isn't very good at all . . ." or, to put it bluntly, "You screwed up. Badly."

Thankfully neither my editor nor my agent said any such thing, so the first potentially major obstacle to publication was safely crossed. What happened next was that the manuscript was circulated throughout the publishing house, so that people in marketing, sales, art and publicity could read it. Since they would all be intimately involved in its publication, it was important that they got a chance to read it and offer their input. I've had feedback some of those people who liked the book and were kind enough to take the time to say it. Still, there remained that niggling voice in the author's mind that taunted: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They're hardly going to tell you it's a stiff." (I suspect that they would probably maintain a diplomatic silence, to be honest. They're very nice that way.)

Occasionally, a manuscript may find its way out of the publishing house and into the hands of someone not immediately connected with the details of its publication - a bookseller who particularly likes the author's work, for instance, or a reviewer who might be relied upon for some supportive word-of-mouth - but for the most part it stays within the confines of the house. In the case of The Book of Lost Things, Lawrence Jackson, the brilliant producer who looked after the Nocturnes stories for BBC Radio 4, read the book in manuscript and wrote a note back to my publishers expressing his enthusiasm for it, which was good for everyone, I think. It meant that someone outside the house, someone who was liked and respected, shared their opinion of it.

But the proof stage marks the point at which the book moves into a more public domain. About 1500 copies have been sent out by Hodder in the UK and Ireland, with more circulating in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and all of Hodder's international markets. Soon the Americans will follow, and thousands more will pop into mailboxes in the USA and Canada. I've already received emails from booksellers and buyers letting me know that they have a copy. Some of these people I know well, while others I have never have met. They have no reason to butter me up, and I know from experience that they are tough critics. They approach a book both as readers and as individuals who have to sell that book on to other readers. There is some room for sentimentality, but not much.

Oddly enough, the way in which books are sold means that orders have probably already been placed for The Book of Lost Things, even before copies were available to read. To a degree, its initial impact on the shelves has already been decided. The book trade works so far in advance that chain and independent buyers will, in the weeks to come, be looking at the Christmas catalogs (and it's hard to feel festive in July). But, in truth, the response to the proofs will determine to a large degree whether The Book of Lost Things lives or dies on the shelves. It is a book that will rely greatly on the enthusiasm of those who read it, and of booksellers in particular, to persuade others to pick it up. There is only so much that the publishers can do to make that happen.

So now I wait. It's a difficult time, rendered more painful by the fact that this book is, in many ways, rather unlike what I've done before, although there are themes in it that have reared their heads in my earlier work. I won't hear back from some of those who've told me that they have proofs, and that will trouble me. Did they read it? If they read it, and I haven't heard from them, then does that mean they haven't enjoyed it? Did they think that it stank? Is that what they're telling people? Would I be happier if they wrote back and told me that they didn't like it? Probably not, but at least I'd know. Is that what I'm going to read on the Net in the weeks to come: that it doesn't work?

Because that's the other matter to consider. There was a time, not long ago, when it took rather longer for word-of-mouth to filter through on a book or a film or an album. In fact, writers and filmmakers and musicians could rely on a certain grace period during which their work would have time to find an audience, a period during which the mass of critical opinion would be formed. That is no longer the case, and a film or a book can be damned even before it has a chance to reach, respectively, its potential audience or readers. In years past, a writer might only encounter negative criticism beyond the pages of a newspaper or journal if he was unfortunate enough to encounter that semi-mythic, and much feared, figure, the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, an individual practically simmering with rage at the time and money he had wasted on a the writer's work and just itching for a chance to tell the miscreant in person. Now critical opinion comes in thicker and faster than ever before, and it can be hard for an author to avoid. Bad news travels quickly, and has many willing messengers.

I have to put these concerns aside, because I have other work to do. I'll continue to improve the current draft of The Unquiet, and I'll hope and pray that The Book of Lost Things, a book, truth be told, of which I'm incredibly fond and protective, will be received positively. The genie is out of the bottle now, and this little book will have to stand or fall on its merits. I think it's a good book. I just hope that others think so too.

But - and here's the thing - even if it were to be rejected by all, selling only a handful of copies and provoking general muttering and finger wagging from the disenchanted, I wouldn't have written it any other way. If it comes back to me head bowed, like an unsuccessful child at the end of school sports day, it will still be mine, and nothing that has occurred will diminish my affection for it, or the quiet pride I may feel in having written it.

Come along, come along. There will be other days . . .

This week John read

The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World by Lawrence Osborne

and listened to

Fear Is On Our Side by I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
Fisherman's Blues (Deluxe Edition) by The Waterboys

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Reluctant Critic

I can't remember why I decided to detail, at the end of each of these columns, the books that I'd read and the CDs to which I'd listened during the previous week. I think it was because I was often asked what I happened to be reading, or what I was listening to, so it just seemed like an easy way to answer those questions.

Recently, someone posted a message on the forum asking me why I didn't include my opinions on the books and CDs. It was easier to answer the question in relation to the music than to the books: I was worried that if I began writing lengthy pieces on the CDs then I might become distracted entirely by them. I love writing about music, but I do have a book to finish so it seemed like a good idea not to add any more distractions to those I already have (and, given that the World Cup has just commenced, I have some six hours of extra distractions to deal with for the foreseeable future).

The question is a little harder to answer when it comes to books. Some, but by no means all, of the books that I read are mysteries. Often, they've been written by authors whom I know, or whom I meet occasionally at conventions or events. One of the unusual things about the mystery genre is the degree of interaction between writers, and, in turn, between those writers and their fans. It's not something that is found in, say, literary fiction, where common ground between writers and readers may be harder to find.

On the one hand, that sense of community is to be cherished, but on the other hand it means that the act of criticism needs to be handled with diplomacy. I've learned from experience that to criticise a mystery author's work, or even statements made by an author on a related subject, even in the most general or respectful of terms, is to invite a response that, in terms of the sheer umbrage taken, ranks with questioning the author's parentage or his mother's sexual proclivities. Even when discussing the work of dead authors at bookstores I've been taken to task by those who perceive any criticism as an entirely negative act.

For example, I've never cared for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, largely because it seems to posit a "bad things happen to bad people for a reason, ergo if something bad happens to you it's because you're a bad person" view of the universe to which I don't subscribe. It's not common to all of her books, but it's there in my reading of The Nine Tailors. Neither am I a huge fan of Agatha Christie: I can admire the intricacy of her work but it leaves me cold, and I find in it an unwillingness to engage with the complexities of human behaviour, particularly in the way in which most of those who die in her books appear to have brought their end upon themselves through a perceived moral laxity. (As someone once commented of such books, what lies at their heart is not murder but contributory negligence.)

Both of those positions have, in the past, earned me the kind of finger wagging gestures of disapproval more commonly associated with maiden aunts who catch their nephews swearing. They were regarded as personal attacks upon the authors in question, rather than reasoned criticisms of their work. And those were dead authors! Imagine the furore that would arise if similar comments were made about current bestsellers. In fact, I don't have to imagine it: I've experienced it, and the results have made me very reluctant to even attempt to engage with the work of fellow authors in this way again.

In part, this can be attributed to the rather protective attitude that some readers have towards their favourite writers (and, to be perfectly frank, that some authors have towards themselves), but it is a protectiveness, and a sensitivity to criticism, that persists throughout the genre to this day and has undermined its claims to an equal footing with other types of fiction writing. After all, the ability to countenance, and support, criticism is an indication of the maturity of both a writer and a genre. It's an attitude that I think is still lacking in mystery fiction.

True, we have been ill-served by criticism: the tendency in most media outlets is still to relegate mystery fiction reviews to 'catch-all' columns, each book meriting a paragraph of consideration but rarely more than that, the space given over to it ever more limited. Yet the same could equally be said of fiction in general. Increasingly, serious newspaper coverage of books is dominated by non-fiction, in part because non-fiction reviews are perhaps a little easier both to write and to read, and have the benefit of an easily understandable 'tag' upon which to hang a review piece.

Still, the coverage of literary fiction tends to be a more robust affair than the consideration of mystery fiction which, with some exceptions, continues to err on the side of fandom. (And I remain unconvinced that everyone is a potential critic. Everyone has an opinion, which is not quite the same thing, and the Internet has rather blurred the distinction between serious criticism and the simple dissemination of a variety of opinions.) There is also a tendency to invite writers to review other writers in their field which, given the closeness of the members of the mystery community, rather suggests that objective reviewing could, at the very least, prove challenging in some cases. Many writers may feel a natural empathy towards a fellow author, a 'there but by the grace of God go I' belief that what they visit on others may well be visited upon themselves at some point in the future that causes them to pull their punches somewhat. Finally, even among quite respected mystery critics, there is a kind of "criticism by exclusion", whereby reviewers tend only to consider those novels to which they are sympathetic, or that they have enjoyed, excluding the rest from coverage and thereby avoiding the necessity of saying anything negative about them in print.

That's not to say that there aren't exceptions to the above, from intelligent Internet critics to fair and supportive newspaper reviewers, from columnists who feel no compunction about skewering authors with their disdain - sometimes confusing objectivity with hostility - to authors who rarely hesitate to stick the knife into the competition when the opportunity arises. In the end, criticism isn't a perfect science: it is rife with prejudices, a worthy effort to attempt to frame the subjective with objectivity, to make what is personal general.

So it's probably just easier for me if I keep my opinions about what I've read to myself, or at least refrain from putting them in print, even if it does make me part of the problem instead of part of the solution. And, to be honest, I'm getting better at setting aside books that I am simply not enjoying, leaving them forever unread, so the books I list are books that I've enjoyed enough or have been stimulated/ infuriated/ intrigued enough to finish, and that, in a sense, is a recommendation in itself . . .

This week John read

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
The Pusher (for the second time) by Ed McBain

and listened to

The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake
Has A Good Home by Final Fantasy
Aja by Steely Dan
The Warning by Hot Chip