Trying something new by Quentin Bates

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Like most of us who write for this blog, and I’d imagine, like most of those who read it, I don’t have far to reach for a book to read. I live in a house that’s slightly too small for the number of books it contains, like an overweight jogger desperately trying to slim down to get into last year’s trousers.

There are piles of books overflowing the shelves, a stack of books in the shed and even a respectable pile collecting on the back seat of the car. I’m one of those people to whom books are important. There are people out there who never read anything other than a TV guide or a Chinese takeaway menu, and I can’t understand how they cope, but I guess they’d feel the same about me, the old fart who has never swung a golf club or felt even the remotest urge to sit in front of a Play Station.

Reading time is valuable these days. Life is busy and I’m at an age at which I have to recognise that I’ll never be able to read all the books I’d like to. So reading is becoming focused, probably too focused, and there’s a lesson to be learned here.

This year I’m taking part in (and organising) a small crime fiction festival in Iceland. In fact I may have mentioned this here once or twice before and given Iceland Noir a plug more than once. But stay with me… As part of all this, I’ve had a lot of reading to do, reading I might not otherwise have done.

Iceland Noir also includes a prize, the brand-new IcePick Award, for the best crime novel of the year translated into Icelandic, with the prize for the quality of the translation as much as for the original book. Having been persuaded to be on the judging panel, there was a bunch of books to read. First the longlist – you might not imagine there’d be many crime novels translated into a fairly obscure language like Icelandic, but think again… Then the shortlist that had to be read with greater care and attention.

On top of that I’m moderating a panel at Iceland Noir, the new blood panel, so there are four books by brand-new crime writers to read.

That’s nine books, the five on the IcePick shortlist, plus the four panel books. It’s a chunk of reading. Of the shortlist books I had already read one, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Then there were books by Joel Dicker, Jo Nesbø, Håkan Nesser and Antti Tuomainen; those last two on the list not yet translated into English.

Then there were the new blood books, and I’m still working my way through them. Sverrir Berg Steinarsson, AK Benedict, David Swatling and Sarah Ward have all come up with startlingly good and original debut novels, and I’m looking forward to quizzing them about their work on the day at Iceland Noir.

What struck me so powerfully is that if I’d have picked up some of these books in a shop, I doubt I’d have been hugely interested. Two of them contain elements that normally are major turn-offs for me, and I’d probably not have got beyond the blurb on the back cover. But it was just those books that I found to be the special ones – and I’m not saying which ones they were, not yet, at any rate. Those books had me gripped from start to finish, in spite of those elements that would normally have had me dropping them back on the pile to be picked up again one day, maybe, but probably not.

Even for a reader like me, who is the character publishers dislike, the type who generally prefers something new and different to a safe pair of hands, the one who scans bookshop shelves for unfamiliar names, this was a wake-up call to put the prejudices aside and take a chance on something that I might not like.

For the record, the four books are Drekinn by Sverrir Berg Steinarsson (only in Icelandic so far), The Beauty of Murder by AK Benedict, In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward (not published until next year, so I’ve been given an advance peek at the proofs) and Calvin’s Head by David Swatling. They’re all people we should be hearing plenty more from in future. So if you want to hear more about these fascinating and very different books, then the panel is on the 22nd of November in the Nordic House in Reykjavík, at the dreadful hour of 9AM, the opening panel of Iceland Noir’s second day.

But the message is clear, put aside your preconceptions of what you think you like to read and pick up something by someone you’ve never heard of. Fair enough, tastes vary enormously and you may have to kiss a frog or two, but you might (you will!) find something that keeps you turning the pages into the small hours.

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