Category > Essays

The Crime Fiction Handbook

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The Crime Fiction Handbook, Peter Messent, book reviewAny crime fiction fan will realise that the number of crime novels and writers that a book on the genre might cover is enormous, and that anyone writing such a book is going to have to make some really hard decisions on who or what to write about. The title of this “handbook” led me to expect a more scholarly version of the Rough Guide to Crime Fiction aimed at the general reader. In fact, the approach and style is more that of a textbook for an introductory course on crime fiction. Peter Messent is a retired academic (Emeritus Professor of Modern American Literature at the University of Nottingham) who used to teach a crime fiction module to students in the US and Britain.

About half of this 200 page book is about the politics, main forms and key concerns of crime fiction.


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84 Charing Cross Road

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84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff, book reviewLong before the internet, or even computers, New Yorker Helene Hanff started buying books from Marks & Co. in London, thereby beginning relationships that lasted for decades. Her account of this was made into the book 84 Charing Cross Road.

It is a rare instance when non-fiction reads like fiction, and Helene Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross Road is exactly one of those exceptions. Long before the age of the Internet and on-line book sellers like Amazon, New York writer Hanff saw an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature for a second-hand book shop called Marks & Co, which was located on 84 Charing Cross Road, in London, England. As she was in need of some items that were either out of print or unavailable in the USA, on October 5, 1949 she decided to write to them.


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Mortality

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Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, book reviewI am rather ashamed that I didn’t discover Christopher Hitchens until it was in many respects ‘too late’. I had read reviews of some of his books and I knew he was someone I ‘ought’ to read but I just hadn’t got round to doing so. Sadly I hadn’t realised what I was missing until he was already dead – passing away in December 2011 to a flurry of critical acclaim and much praise for a life that was cut short but always well lived. Hitchens himself would no doubt have realised that there’s no better publicity for a writer than his own death though it’s not a technique from which the author can hope to benefit. Strange as it will no doubt seem, I decided to spend Boxing Day morning reading his final work, Mortality, a collection of his essays written whilst he was receiving treatment for cancer of the oesophagus and its spread to other parts of his body.


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Philosophy for a Six

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 Centurion: The Father, the Son and the Spirit of Cricket  by  Pramesh Ratnakar, book reviewA book about Sachin Tendulkar eavesdropping on a college principal interview. Invisible to boot. Sounds impossible, but impossible or otherwise that’s what the Centurion is about. It takes the reader through a debates, arguments and internal musings that turn philosophy, sport and history inside out. But that is after you get to the inside pages. The first stopper is the cover which does not carry the author’s name. And which cocks a snook at the Catholic trilogy in the subhead, though diverting it deftly by adding the word cricket.

Inside is a dialogue between The Arranger of All and someone who may be the author but who declares vehemently that since the author is known by the fiction he creates the author is in short a work of fiction, so there is no need for the author to identify himself.


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An Enlightening Collection

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 The Collected Speeches of Somnath Chatterjee by  Somnath Chatterjee, book reviewThis is an important book for students studying civics or political science, equally important for those interested in the Indian state. Somnath Chatterjee bestrode the Lok Sabha like a colossus of conscience – that same conscience that led to his being evicted from the Communist Party of India which he had served faithfully for four decades. As the Speaker of the House enforcing discipline, he expelled 10 members who were involved in a ‘cash for votes’ scam issue which caused more controversy. During his time in the Lok Sabha he was known for the speeches that he made orations which highlighted his sterling qualities and focused on the reforms that were needed and the administrative duties that should be performed for the efficient functioning of the Indian democracy.


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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,  David Bellos, book reviewIs That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos, with the subtitle Translation and the Meaning of Everything, is a study of the world of translation. What is translation, what does it mean to translate, the history of translation, the pitfalls and different types of translation…these are all areas which Bellos looks at.

Having studied languages to an advanced level, and with an additional focus on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is a book which appealed to me. I was interested to learn more about this field – I may have studied translation itself, but I know little of the history or the issues surrounding it.


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Amazing Tales For Making Men Out of Boys

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Amazing Tales for Making Men Out of Boys, Neil Oliver, book review“There was a time not so very long ago when boys were taught to be men” writes author, archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver, and “part of the education of boys came from reading tales of brave and selfless deeds”. Not so any more. “It’s rubbish being a British man at the moment…nowadays the rest of the world sees British men as the performing seals of George W Bush’s Wild West Show. We’re the sick men of Europe too with our lazy fat guts and our binge-drinking.” He also opines that nothing grand or challenging that we do now is simply for the sake of it; nothing is important unless it is done live on air or filmed to be broadcast to the masses – perhaps a strange complaint from a man who makes his living from such media. But while being an archaeologist in Scottish winters, growing hero hair and appearing on TV in armour and wielding swords may be a little bit manly, Oliver is more interested in manliness on a much grander scale and how stories about such manliness could be an antidote to his despair for the youth of today.


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The Art of Camping

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The Art of Camping: The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars, Matthew De Abaitua, book reviewWhen Father Ted presented her with a machine that would ‘take the misery out of tea-making’ TV’s most aesthetically challenged housekeeper Mrs. Doyle lamented ‘some people enjoy the misery’. It’s more or less the way I feel about camping; I certainly don’t camp for any pleasure I derive from it, rather a belief that it’s somehow character building and morally robust. I’m certainly not the first to think so and in The Art of Camping Matthew de Abaitua takes us on a trip back in (fairly recent) history to look at those people for whom camping was a means to rehabilitation or a way of instilling certain values, using socialist in principle.

Part history, part memoir (though happily much less so than Emma Kennedy’s ‘The Tent, the Bucket and Me’, a recent book about remembered camping trips in the 1970s that was so awful it set my teeth on edge) The Art of Camping:The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars reminds us that while a camping can be a much needed tonic from the irritations of modern life, a way of getting back to nature and temporarily forgetting the rat race, the practice has also been (and continues to be) advocated by extremists and oddballs.


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Golden Treasury

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The Best of Quest, Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala , Arshia Sattar , book reviewI started with an article by Professor P Lal, a rejoinder to Jyotirmoy Datta, on why he wrote in English, ‘We do not write in English because it is a pan-Indian language of the educated; we write because we cannot write as well in any other language’, revisiting the incisive words of the man who was the doyen of Indian Writing in English, or Indo Anglian literature. Then I went onto Khushwant Singh at his vigorous best writing about Delhi, in a collating of some of his columns. There was a piece about the notorious Sashtibrata, writing letters in English for Delhi’s shoeshine boys and turning up in rags at tatters at the Delhi offices of The Statesman.

And of course, there were the usual subjects, s review of Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Continent of Circe, an interview of Naipaul by Adrian Rowe-Evans, a review by Saleem Peeradina on Satyajit Ray’s films.

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How To Be a Woman

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How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran, book reviewHow To Be a Woman may seem an oddly titled book for a 33 year old woman to be reading – surely with 33 years of practice I must have figured it out by now? Yet despite this ample experience, being a woman is something I feel I’m a bit rubbish at. I only own one dress (the one I got married in, never to be worn again). I only own one pair of heels that I can’t walk in (putting me apparently way below average on this count). I never wear, and never have worn, make-up (not even on my wedding day – I drew the line at having to wear a frock). I don’t have a handbag, either (why would I need one when I have a perfectly serviceable rucksack and pockets in my clothes?). And the biggest failing of all – I don’t want babies.

How To Be a Woman is described as being part rant, part memoir, and part The Female Eunuch rewritten “from a barstool”. Yes, that’s right: a lot of How To Be a Woman is about FEMINISM. Before a lot of you flee before the very mention of this word, let me say that Moran is far from being one of those scary, aggressive men-hating feminists


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Faulks on Fiction

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Faulks on Fiction The Secret Life of the Novel by Sebastian Faulks, book reviewIt seems to me that there are (at least) two sides to Sebastian Faulks. On one hand there’s the genius writer of fantastic books like Birdsong and The Girl at the Lion d’Or which are so convincing that he tells us that readers refuse to believe he just made them up. On the other there’s the slightly stuffy chap who appears on dull but worthy Radio 4 programmes like ‘The Write Stuff’ (surely a show designed for rather smug clever people to show off how clever they are to an audience of baffled listeners) and looks like the sort of chap who probably has leather patches on his corduroy jackets. When I was offered Faulks’ latest book I was excited because he writes such fantastic fiction – but when I realised it was non-fiction, my spirits dipped a bit. I probably should have given him more credit.

Faulks on Fiction is a companion book for the BBC 2 series of the same name which starts on Saturday 5th February.


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Obliquity

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Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay, book reviewWhen I was presented with a copy of John Kay’s book Obliquity, my heart sank just a little at seeing the words “goals” and “achieved” used in the same sentence on the front cover. Books that use these sorts of words are usually dull, prescriptive and….well, the sort of books that Kay goes to considerable length to tell you are not in slightest bit helpful. Why? Because they are too direct to work in an uncertain world such as ours.

Obliquity – as a more effective alternative to directness in Kay’s terminology – is basically an extended essay that grew out of a short article in the Financial Times’ weekend magazine in January 2004.


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