I am closing in on the end of my time with Kurt Wallander -- only a couple of books to go after this -- and I am a little sad to be saying goodbye to...moreI am closing in on the end of my time with Kurt Wallander -- only a couple of books to go after this -- and I am a little sad to be saying goodbye to the depressing Swedish cop. As Mankell says, "It is the fans who will miss Wallander." Just so.
This volume is a nice beginning of the end for me. A stack of stories that span Wallander's career and give some fantastic insights into his character. It has the added benefit of being the perfect book for a vacation trip: five self-contained mysteries, five perfectly digestible mini-Wallander tales. This is a summer read extraordinaire.
Wallander's First Case --
The mystery itself is interesting enough, and the early hints of Wallander's uneasy relationship with the rules is just what I expected, but what made me devour this story was the abuse of Wallander at the hands and tongue of Mona, who would become his wife then ex-wife, and the abuse of Wallander at the tongue of his not yet dementia reduced father. So much of Wallander's personal life, so much of his failures as a friend and father and lover, so much of his obsession with the lonely victims he comes across, is tied up in these two unhealthy relationships. When Kurt is thinking of breaking it off with Mona, is then afraid that Mona will break it off with him, all I could think was, "Christ, YES! End it. Let it end," and when Kurt considers never seeing his father again, considers cutting off the old man after a particularly nasty bit of passive aggressive manipulation, I was thinking the same thing. Of course, I know Kurt's going to go ahead and make his mistakes, but it didn't stop me wishing for a different outcome.
Slightly aside: this story takes place in the early seventies, and I couldn't help wondering when Martin Beck was going to show up. He never did, but I dearly wanted him to. I wonder how hard it was for Mankell to keep Beck out of the story?
The Man with the Mask --
This tight, taut little story kept me in mind of Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck mysteries. Only this time, I couldn't help noticing how much the character of Wallander owes to Sjowall and Wahloo's chief protagonists, Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg. The pair are partners and completely realized characters in their own rights -- not mere archetypes -- but much that Wallander is, especially in this story, can be found in those men. He is a complex blending of the two, and when this story engages in a consideration of apartheid South Africa (did this early case of Wallander's ever come up in The White Lioness?) with the young dissident turned murderer Mankell's debt to the Martin Beck novels comes into sharp relief.
The Man on the Beach --
There is a lot of suicide going on in this book, but somehow that feels perfectly in place with the mood that the Wallander books have created through the years. The bleak landscape of rural Sweden might make suicide seem fitting, but I think it is more about the quiet despair of people living rurally in a modern society than about the space they live in. It certainly feels that way to me in this story where murder comes first, then suicide follows as a result. This is the most depressing story of the bunch -- so far.
The Death of the Photographer --
Two things: 1. It never ceases to amaze me when an author hits on something that speaks to me directly. It is why I read, I suspect.
"'He must have been crazy in his own way,' Hansson said. 'To spend his spare time distorting images of well known people.'
'Perhaps the explanation is quite different,: Rydberg suggested. 'Perhaps there are people in today's society that feel so powerless they no longer partake in what we call democratic society. Instead, they devote themselves to rites. If this is the case, our nation is in trouble.'"
2. If you've read the Wallander books to this point you are aware of what has gone on between Martinsson and Wallander(view spoiler)[, and you know that Martinsson betrays his mentor, specifically citing Wallander's unorthodoxy in his attacks on him to the higher-ups. Reading this story now, which falls right at the beginning of Martinsson's time on the force and his relationship with Wallander, I was shocked to see how clearly his feelings and his inevitable betrayal informed their interactions and Martinsson's attitudes. (hide spoiler)] Once again these stories show that their true worth is what they tell us about Wallander and his relationships.
The Pyramid --
This felt much more like the Wallander stories I'm used to. I think this is both because the story directly precedes Faceless Killers, so all of his relationships are reaching the place I am familiar with, and because the story was much longer than the other four in this volume, putting it closer to the level of plot complexity in the novels.
Yet I don't think this is the best story in the book. In fact, it almost felt like this story was something discarded rather than a story that Mankell felt he really needed to tell. The other short stories felt like little explorations that Mankell needed to produce for himself, but they were complete and packed enough of worth that Mankell could share them without reservation. The Pyramid, however, felt like an idea Mankell played with but couldn't imbue with enough complexity to suit his needs, an idea that aspired to but didn't reach the high standard of plotting in his other Wallander novels, an idea that took much too much of Mankell's writing energy to simply let go and was published merely to clear the docket.
Still, I am glad I read it if only for Rydberg, Martinsson, Linda and Wallander's father. More time with them all is appreciated by me, and I can't wait to see what Linda is like as the protagonist in Before the Frost. I hope she isn't just a copy of her Dad.
When I finished Roseanna again last night I thought I should write a review talking about how rare it is for me to reread a book, and how Sjöwall &...moreWhen I finished Roseanna again last night I thought I should write a review talking about how rare it is for me to reread a book, and how Sjöwall & Wahloo have conjured something exceptional from me as a reader. When I started thinking about how rare it is for me to reread, however, I realized what a load of crap that is.
So rereading Roseanna isn't so special after all. It isn't some rare occurrence. It's business as usual when I find something worth reading again and again. And this book is that.
I have been listening to these books for my "first reading" and I recently reached the seventh book, The Abominable Man, wherein the interdependence of Sjöwall & Wahloo tales suddenly focused into a clear picture. They wrote ten books in their Martin Beck series, and it struck me that it is one of the only series I've read (apart from Lord of the Rings) where the authors had the entire series mapped out before they started.
I decided to test that theory by actually reading Roseanna (rather than listening), and it appears that I was correct. Beck and Kollberg are fully conceived from the first moment. There is no authorial searching for what these men will be, no feeling out their relationship and personalities. Everything is there. Everything is ready, and everything that is coming for these men (the two constants in the series so far) are there waiting for them. I can see it in their decisions, their emotions, their concerns, their actions -- everything.
I gave this book four stars when I first read it, but loved it enough to pass it on to a good friend (she loved it too). Now I have to give it five stars. I think the series itself constitutes a masterpiece, but as first chapters go, Roseanna is perfection.(less)
One of the things I dig most about the "Martin Beck" mysteries is that they are only named "Martin Beck" mysteries out of convenience. He's the highes...moreOne of the things I dig most about the "Martin Beck" mysteries is that they are only named "Martin Beck" mysteries out of convenience. He's the highest ranking policeman in Sjowall and Wahloo's Stockholm Homicide Division, and a couple of the early books tended to focus on him, but as the series goes on the books can be about any of the men who work with Beck.
The Laughing Policeman revolves around two of the detectives: Lennart Kollberg and Åke Stenström. In fact, the central mystery of the book is the shooting of Stenström and seven others on a double decker bus on the edge of Stockholm and Skåne. No one has any idea what Stenström is doing on the bus, and the hunt for a mass murderer in 1968 Sweden is all a bit surreal to the detectives who expect that kind of thing in Vietnam war torn USA, but not late-sixties Sweden.
The investigation (refreshingly bereft of the "cop killer" chest beating we've come to expect from our police procedurals) digs deep into the life of Stenström, trying to figure out what he is doing and why he is on that bus. We meet his girlfriend and future cop Åsa Torell, we discover their sexual proclivities, Stenström's love of guns, and his lofty ambitions.
It is Kollberg who does most of the work on this front, befriending Åsa Torell after Stenström's death and going so far as to invite her to stay with him, his wife, Gun, and their baby (only one at this point) for a while. We discover much more about Kollberg's Socialist politics, his disdain for guns, his and Gun's sexual proclivities, and that he is a damn good detective. No wonder he and Beck get along so well.
The Kollberg and Stenström stuff is exactly the kind of stuff I love. Getting to know characters in the midst of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. But what Kollberg is supposed to be doing, along with Beck and Melander, Larsson and Rönn, is finding a mass murderer. And that part of the story is as satisfying as it can possibly be. If you love mystery novels, and if you're even mildly interested in Swedish crime fiction, you will love this book. I did. (less)
I am a big fan of multi-multi-part series. Series that follow the same character(s) for eight, nine, ten or even dozens of books have an ability to pl...moreI am a big fan of multi-multi-part series. Series that follow the same character(s) for eight, nine, ten or even dozens of books have an ability to play with characters and let them grow and breathe that one shots or even trilogies don't.
The best, like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey Maturin Series, do such a fine job that their characters become members of the family. People you know intimately and love despite all their flaws. The worst, like most of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi series that have multiple authors, remain a fascinating way to examine how different authors present their different takes on the characters they're writing about. They're often worth reading despite the contradictions and lapses in authorial judgement.
The mystery genre is probably the most prolific producer of multi-volume sets -- especially when it comes to the police procedural. It makes perfect sense to follow a cop or forensic examiner or whatever else over the length of his/her career, and their stories have the easy crime hooks that land our attention. Fans of crime novels all have a favourite detective -- mine is Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander (I am setting aside Mr. Holmes for this discussion) -- and we all have plenty that do nothing for us. But the one thing that can be said for all the "big" characters of the genre, whatever the skill of their creators, is that the more books that are written about them, the more they come to life.
This is, of course, also true of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's exceptional Martin Beck series -- only more so.
Beck and his colleagues -- Kollberg, Melander, Larrson, Rönn -- exist in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's sixties Sweden with an ease that seems entirely unreasonable. The Beck books are short (at least the three I've read so far), yet these characters, in tiny, almost imperceptible ways, achieve depths that other characters can't and don't. They don't seem like characters anymore. They feel real, as though these books are a chronicle of men who once existed.
Perhaps this has most to do with a peculiarity of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's books that popped up in The Man on the Balcony. It struck me that there books are unique in one very important way. Unlike every other multi-part series I've ever read -- and there've been quite a few -- the Martin Beck books are not really multiple parts. Sjöwall and Wahlöö weren't writing ten Martin Beck stories, they were writing ONE Martin Beck story, and each "part" was really just a chapter in the greater whole.
That, more than anything else, allows Sjöwall and Wahlöö to breathe life into their policemen. References in The Man on the Balcony to the first part of their story, Roseanna, aren't simple reminders of some action that happened in the past, they are experiences that shaped their characters' personalities and altered the way the men are now reacting and behaving. Everything about these men is built as if they are real. Not just characters on a page, but men whom Sjöwall and Wahlöö can bring into existence through sheer force of will.
It's no wonder this series is seen as a seminal work of the genre. Its influence should be tremendous for anyone writing about cops. Hell, I don't write about cops, and its already influencing me. (less)
This is a story about victims. Not about being a victim, or the modes of victimization and self-victimization, but a story about victims moving throug...moreThis is a story about victims. Not about being a victim, or the modes of victimization and self-victimization, but a story about victims moving through lives that have victimized them.
Or maybe it is about loss.
There is a mother who lost her son twenty years before and descended into alcoholism, deep depression and a loss of society.
There is a grand/father who lost his grandson and most of those he's cared about in his life -- simply through the movement of time -- who's never had the love of the daughters he loves, who needs closure and a chance to heal himself and those he's leaving behind.
There is a man who lost his father to an act of violence -- terrible on one hand, misunderstood on the other -- who lives a lonely existence on the alvar, being without really being.
There is a girl who loses the only one she ever loved, and she never even had a chance to tell him; there is a mother who lost all her sons; there is a man who lost his self-respect and his health; there is a family who lost their cohesion; there are two boys and an old man and a drunk man and an exiled man and a police man and two soldiers who lost their lives. There is deep loss in Echoes from the Dead on the Swedish isle of Öland; it is an island of victims.
And there is another person to consider. He killed some of those who lost their lives, or was the subject of others' losses. His actions rippled out to catalyze new actions, which created more victims. But he was as much a victim as everyone else. A man-child who never matured, a boy who wanted to be respected and be good and was at times, a boy-man who couldn't control his violence but was able to rationalize it, a lost heart who just wanted to be home with his mother. He was a victim too. And Johan Theorin lets him be exactly what he is, letting us care for him if we want, without passing any authorial judgement, simply letting him exist amongst all those his life effected and affected.
Beautifully done. Again I find myself wishing I could read Swedish. I bet this is even better in its original form. Someday I will. (less)
I have a big complaint about Ian Rankin’s early Rebus novels, and it is a complaint that continues to taint my enjoyment of the series. D.I. John Rebu...moreI have a big complaint about Ian Rankin’s early Rebus novels, and it is a complaint that continues to taint my enjoyment of the series. D.I. John Rebus is too erudite. He’s impossibly well read, he knows and loves fine wine, and he’s a big jazz fan; he’s way too cultured to be a D.I..
So for that reason alone I find it impossible to enter the “really liking” territory with these books.
Yet I can’t really attack Rankin for his early decisions because the guy diffuses the bomb in his forwards to Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek. He’s his own biggest critic when it comes to the early characterization of Rebus, and he claims that he fixes the problems as the series continues. I have to believe him until I see for myself, so my criticism is a waste of time.
I can complain, however, about Rankin’s borderline cheesy need to cleverly reference classic literature. In this book alone he has characters named Holmes, Watson and Macbeth. He has an illegal boxing club named after Edward Hyde (and by coincidence, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic just happens to be the book Rebus picks out of a pile to read while in the middle of his investigation). We know you’re well read, Ian. Enough already.
Even with all this nitpicky criticism, though, I really enjoyed Hide and Seek. Rankin knows how to spin a mystery, even at the early stage of his career, and while he didn’t really keep me guessing, he kept me reading. And at the heart of that desire to continue is D.I. Rebus. He may be the biggest son of a bitch who’s ever been the leading detective in a mystery series. He is corrupt, self-righteous, hypocritical, misogynistic, violent, egomaniacal, bullying, and delusional. But he is smart, effective and predatory when the hunt is on. It seems to me that he’s the real deal. Not a caricature, but a character of real depth and complexity. Quite something when you consider that I’ve only reached the second book in the series. (less)
I could hear the cigarettes and bourbon tearing apart narrator Tom Weiner's vocal chords as I listened to his reading of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke,...moreI could hear the cigarettes and bourbon tearing apart narrator Tom Weiner's vocal chords as I listened to his reading of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Weiner's voice adds aural texture to a book overflowing with atmospheric texture; he compliments the Martin Beck tale perfectly with his slurry gravelly voice.
And that's seems important to me here in a way that it doesn't in all audiobooks. I think it is because of how important this series is to its genre.
Mankell's debt is easily traceable. His Kurt Wallander novel, The Dogs of Riga, is a direct descendent of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Wallander spends his time in Riga, Latvia, at the height of the Cold War, investigating a murder, just as Martin Beck spends his time in Budapest, Hungry investigating a man's disappearance. The similarities are such that they feel like companion pieces, pieces meant to be read together as a way to consider the same tale from the perspectives of different eras.
But I discovered a potential link of inspiration that surprised me (and I'd love to have an admission for this from the author himself -- just to satisfy my curiosity). I am willing to bet that China Miéville read The Man Who Went Up in Smoke when he was gearing up to write The City and the City. In a much simpler form, the tale of Tyador Borlú's search for the killer of Mahalia Geary is present here. But the most interesting link is the way Beck moves between the cities that are Budapest. It is a city and a city, and that idea is playing on the edges of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.
These connections and those who've been inspired by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahloo don't really matter for too many of us. What does matter is that these are some seriously satisfying mysteries. Must reading (or listening) for any serious fan of the police procedural.(less)
I had low expectations going into this. Being a big fan of Scottish lit, I've always kept Rankin at arms length, thinking that he'd be too pulpy and p...moreI had low expectations going into this. Being a big fan of Scottish lit, I've always kept Rankin at arms length, thinking that he'd be too pulpy and pop culturey to be worth reading. I'm comfortable enough to own my snobbery.
Lately, though, I've felt Rankin's pull, especially since Henning Mankell's Wallander books reignited my interest in crime fiction. I have a thing for those damaged, brooding, middle aged, drink-too-much detectives, whose world view is so beaten and jaded by what they've seen and done that they are doomed to a slow path of self-destruction. So I thought it was probably time to give Rankin a try.
I have never seen an on-screen adaptation of Rebus, so I had no preconcieved BBC notions to overcome, but I decided to take a crack at Rankin's first novel, The Flood, first, hoping that a peek at one of his none-detective novels would seed an appreciation for his writing before I tackled Rebus. It didn't. I was mostly disappointed, and I appreciatred little that he had done. Still, I saw enough potential there in his writing to pick up the first Rebus book from my shelf and give it a go.
Surprise, surprise, I really liked it, and I was impressed with the way Ian Rankin used the obligatory detective's-family-in-peril cliche. Every police detective series with any staying power has one of these episodes, but they usually come deeper in the series, when the author and his audience have a more personal stake in the protagonist's life. (view spoiler)[In this, the first Rebus book, however, Rankin goes straight for DI Rebus' ex-wife and daughter as payback for a perceived betrayal. (hide spoiler)] There is no build up of love for Rebus here, no chance for us to overcome our disdain for some of his nasty behaviour (his petty theft and possible sexual assault of a one night stand), it's just straight into personal peril. I didn't expect that, so I was searching for other alternatives from the off, making the truth harder to see and far more effective.
I would have liked a more tragic ending, and I thought the lack of full out tragedy betrayed the character of Gordon Reeves, a character Rankin had done a marvelous job creating, but it was still emotionally satisfying, and if the rest of the Rebus novels are this good I am afraid my snobbery will be a thing of the past. I am such a pushover.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Many months ago, I ordered some books online, and when the box arrived I discovered Peter Abrahams' Down the Rabbit Hole had mistakenly found its way...moreMany months ago, I ordered some books online, and when the box arrived I discovered Peter Abrahams' Down the Rabbit Hole had mistakenly found its way into my box. Being the anarchic thief that I am, I decided to keep the book, tossing it on my tertiary to-read pile and promptly forgot about it.
But last week I needed a book to read while doing the dishes, and noticed Down the Rabbit Hole sandwiched between A Game of Thrones and The Drawing of the Three, and since it fulfilled my doing-the-dishes requirements I decided to give it a go. My doing-the-dishes requirements are: 1. it has to be a book that can get wet, which means I can't care about it before reading; 2. it has to be something that doesn't require undivided attention (for instance, Gravity's Rainbow wouldn't qualify); & 3. it has to be a book I can toss aside without guilt (a complex internal system I can't explain here) if I'm not enjoying the experience.
Down the Rabbit Hole fulfilled those three requirements, so I found myself reading this totally random book that's full of problems yet somehow manages to be a damn fine read.
Problem 1. It is written in the third person, but just screams to be written in the first. Problem 2. Its reference to Alice in the title creates some reader expectations (at least in me) that were never fulfilled. Problem 3. The end made me feel like a lemming who suddenly realizes he's falling off the cliff. I was invested, I was excited, I was looking for more, and then it was over and the chapter to the next book was beginning. Not good. Problem 4. The Sherlock Holmes love fest was just too damn silly for me. Problem 5. Abrahams left too much hanging for future books, making me want to find out about Grampy's farm, how Joey and Ingrid develop as a couple, and all sorts of other things. Clever bastard! So, yeah, there were problems.
But I actually DO want to read on. I really took to the characters in this book, and I actually came to love Ingrid. I even felt worried for her. Abrahams generated genuine emotion in me, and I'm impressed by that.
Down the Rabbit Hole was a nice diversion while scrubbing pots and glasses and toddler bottles. I am guessing it would be equally welcome when taking a poop, showering, or even lying on a beach. Take your pick. (less)
Immediate Reaction: This was a blast. A little fantasy-noir fun for anyone who likes bad men behaving with honour. Vlad Taltos is an anti-hero extraor...moreImmediate Reaction: This was a blast. A little fantasy-noir fun for anyone who likes bad men behaving with honour. Vlad Taltos is an anti-hero extraordinaire, and all the minor characters and relationships he's surrounded with are equally cool.
Later: This is only the second book I've read by Steven Brust, and the first I've read that he wrote alone. I read his collaboration with Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity a couple of months ago, and loved their book so much I knew I had to hunt down their other works and give them a go. What Jhereg delivered was totally unexpected.
F and N was a beautiful literary work that obviously suffers in its redership by being written by a pair of Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors. And I expected more of the same with Jhereg. But there is little "literary" in the first of the Vlad Taltos books, but that doesn't make it any less readable. In fact, it might actually make it much more of an addiction inducing habit.
Jhereg is a bit like a fantasy detective story, or a "fantasy noir" (as I called it earlier), with assassin/crime boss/information collector Vlad Taltos taking the role of obligatory hardbitte detective from the works of Dashiel Hammett or Mickey Spillane. And it's as good as the former and better than the latter.
Vlad is surrounded by an original and exotic fantasy world, killer allies (his pseudo-cousin Aliera is a personal favourite), a smart ass familiar named Loiosh, a seamy underworld, nasty enemies (including one who calls himself "Demon"), witchcraft and sorcery (which are nothing alike), genetic engineering (for the slightest touch of Sci-Fi) and the most mundane of domestic lives. Even better, he is one of the most likable antiheroes in all of Fantasy.
I understand from some of my goodreads friends that the depth of this series -- as it goes on, and it goes on for a long time -- is impressive. I've already started Yendi, so it's a good bet that I am going to experience this depth first hand. Having read F and N, I believe that depth is possible. Now I just need to track down War for the Oaks, so I can experience how the other half of F and N writes when out of collaboration.(less)
The Swedish-noir (Swedish-svart?) family tree runs just so: Martin Beck (grandfather) → Kurt Wallander (father) → Mikael Blomkvist (son).
Now I admit t...moreThe Swedish-noir (Swedish-svart?) family tree runs just so: Martin Beck (grandfather) → Kurt Wallander (father) → Mikael Blomkvist (son).
Now I admit that my exposure to this family is limited by my North Americanism, by the translations that filter their way across the Atlantic, by the culture(s) that make(s) these works popular, but even if there are branches and roots of the tree that I can't see, the relationship between these stories is undeniable.
So it feels to me like Martin Beck -- more specifically the first novel starring Martin Beck, RoseAnna -- is the progenitor of the big protagonists that came after.
Martin Beck, you see, is the sixties' Kurt Wallander. He is consumed by his job, he is deep in a failing marriage, he is constantly depressed, almost always in ill health, yet there is something admirable in his doggedness. And in the version of RoseAnna that I listened to, Henning Mankell admits his debt to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö, acknowledging that the writing team's split from classic "English" mystery, their committment to the banality of police work, their need for investigatory truth, deeply influenced his own work.
Making that first connection is easy, the next much less so.
On the surface, Mikael Blomqvist seems a bit harder to link to his father and grandfather. He is flamboyant (for a Swede), where they are moderate and restrained. He is an active lefty, while they are decidely more conservative. He is a hopeful investigative reporter, while they are jaded old school cops. He shares the spotlight with Lisbeth Salander, while they are clearly the protagonists of their tales.
It's not the protagonists who hate women (at least not enough to destroy them), but the criminals they deal with. It is a preoccupation for all the authors, and it makes me wonder, when one reads these books, what the attitude towards women really is in Sweden. Can it be as bad as these books suggest?
Whatever the case, these books are compelling reads for anyone interested in the mystery genre. Don't be fooled, though, by those who would have you believe that Steig Larsson is some sort of genre creating genius who gave rise to Swedish crime fiction out a vaccuum. He's the most recent, and most popular, of a healthy and strong family tree. And this book, RoseAnna is one of the healthiest and most gripping of its roots.(less)
Thank you for the dazzling joy of Freedom & Necessity. This book went toe to...moreSummerside, Prince Edward Island 29th August 2010
Dear Steven and Emma,
Thank you for the dazzling joy of Freedom & Necessity. This book went toe to toe with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and won the battle for my attention (and that's saying something). I don't know how you did it, but I am so glad you did. THIS was one of the best reading experiences of my life. Where do I begin?
I want to begin with the form you chose. But I am going to hold off on that and talk about Hegel, Engels and Marx. Hegel, your unifying thread, was used in a way that I am sure he would approve of; he was the natural connection between your boys. Richard and James sparring over the Science of Logic while their lives are at their most uncertain was pure genius. Then you gave us Engels, but not Engels as an abstract ideologue whose impossible ideals inform the characters' actions but as a fully developed character whose realism is a fulcrum about which the novel's action necessarily turns. Then you add Karl Marx in a family man cameo that brings the great historical thinker down to the Earth of his family life. Again...genius.
But you weren't content with your brilliant invocation of historical figures. No. You wanted us to believe in your four main characters. No. More than that. You wanted us to love and pull for and fear for and cheer for your lead cast. And you succeeded. James Cobham, Susan Voight, Kitty Holbourn and Richard Cobham are the most completely realized characters I've read since Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in Perdido Street Station (and speaking of Perdido, thanks to China Miéville for pointing me towards your marvelous book). They go beyond the page. They live and breathe. Their relationships feel true because they are true. They are petty and self-indulgent and unrelenting and selfish and cruel and spiteful and occasionally silly. But they're also heroic and outward looking and tractable and selfless and kind and mostly serious. They are people I want to know, and they're people I do know thanks to you two.
And now it is time to talk about your form, because the epistolary nature of Freedom & Necessity -- and your masterful execution -- makes all of this possible -- this and so much more. James, Susan, Kitty and Richard are given to us on their own terms because everything is shared with us through their journals and letters (and by the end I felt like one of their children reading the family's history, which I am sure you intended). We only know them through what they want to tell us and through what they need to say about and to one another, and there is no truer record of a life or lives than one's own correspondence coupled with the thoughts and epistles of others.
But even that wasn't enough for you. You had to create one of the most compelling adventure-intrigue-mystery-historical fictions ever written, and again the ultimate genius was in your choice of the epistolary form. I have never read an ending like that, Steven and Emma. You build and build and build towards the denouement, then you skip ahead a couple of days because that's when the players would be ready to write their thoughts, so we get fragments from Richard, nothing from Kitty and James, and the perfect recall of Susan (albeit from her limited perspective). You withhold and withhold and then deliver in dribs and drabs the final actions of your tale in a way that blows my mind. Druidic conspiracies mix with greedy grabs for property mix with labour disputes and revolution, and all of it is delivered from the perspective of our four correspondents. UTTERLY...FUCKING...BRILLIANT!
So thank you for your genius. I am going to read your solo books A.S.A.P, and I beg you, please, to come together and write another novel because Freedom & Necessity is damn near perfect. I want more.
Yours in humility,
p.s. thanks, Jacob, for giving me the final push to pluck this off my shelf and read it. I am forever indebted.(less)
I am confident that Stieg Larsson has a reason for this, but Lisbeth Salander is not much of a heroine. Let's list her transgressions from The Girl Wh...moreI am confident that Stieg Larsson has a reason for this, but Lisbeth Salander is not much of a heroine. Let's list her transgressions from The Girl Who Played With Fire (and these will be deliberately out of context):
1. She forces herself on a 16 year old boy in Granada. 2. She kills a man on the beach during a hurricane. 3. She shuts out Blomkvist for a very long time for a perceived slight, giving him no explanation. 4. She fails to take or show the necessary care with her ex-guardian after his stroke. 5. She alienates everyone else who cares about her. 6. She lives off billions that she stole. 7. She invades the apartment of her "guardian" and threatens his life in the middle of the night. 8. She endangers the lives of friends and innocents. 9. She very nearly burned her father to death when she was a teenager. 10. She pulls a gun on the owner of a car rental agency and shuts him in a broom closet to control him. 11. She commits multiple computer violations, including the hacking of government computers. 12. She carries and uses illegal weapons. 13. She is genuinely ultraviolent. 14. She shoots a man in the foot after macing his eyes, and she tasers another in the testicles. 15. She steals a motorcycle. 16. She chops her father's knee and skull with an axe. 17. She is vengeful in a way that makes Edmond Dantès look like a sissy.
Let's face it, Lisbeth is more than a little bit nasty. And taken a step further, it is safe to say that she is not particularly likable. She is cold, calculating, emotionally irrational, mean, detached, abrasive, unapproachable, unfriendly, selfish, mercenary, vengeful, and more than a few other things most of us would classify as unlikable.
Out of context, Lisbeth Salander is the kind of person who most people would be more than happy to see locked up forever. And if all we had to go on were the reports of newspapers and descriptions of trials, we'd all see it as a failure of the "justice system" if she went free.
Yet we cheer for her in the Millenium Trilogy; we can't seem to help ourselves. And therein lies what Stieg Larsson is trying to tell us with his challenging protagonist -- context is everything.
Larsson isn't simply writing a compelling series of thrillers (and I haven't been so locked into a book, as I was with GWPWF, for a very long time). He isn't simply fishing for a film deal. He isn't just sitting down to write a vapid bestseller. I'd even go so far as to say that Stieg Larsson is not a hack. Nowhere near. He is criticizing the very efficacy of what we so proudly call the "rule of law."
Larsson is suggesting that the "rule of law" fails because it has no room for context. It deals in absolutes (unless you're one of the super-rich or super-influential), and it doesn't give a damn whether you perceived a threat before you lit someone on fire; it doesn't care whether the sixteen year old you're having sex with is mature, in love with you and is totally willing; it doesn't care that you stole the car or killed someone to save a life; it doesn't care that you withheld evidence from the police to protect yourself or someone you love; it doesn't care that you hacked into computers for altruistic reasons; it doesn't care that you were bred to ultraviolence through nature and nurture; it doesn't care about you and it doesn't care about context. It just doesn't care, and because it doesn't care Larsson suggests that we should have a healthy disdain for the "rule of law" and recognize its terrible shortcomings because it is the structure we have to live with whether we like it or not.
Yet with all this, The Girl Who Played With Fire is -- most importantly -- a cracking read. It is fast paced, cinematic in its noirishness, full of suspense, has a genuine twist or two (one of which actually took me by surprise), a cast of characters it is almost impossible not to love and hate (as the mood takes you) -- even thought they are all rather static -- and it ends with a cliff hanger of the first order (I am guessing this is a problem for some readers, but I am a fan of the cliff hanger).
What a shame Stieg Larsson passed from us so soon. I could have read his books for the rest of my life. (less)
The Crow Road is not Iain Banks best book, but I understand why it is his most popular (even though I am sure it's the wrong Banks book on that list o...moreThe Crow Road is not Iain Banks best book, but I understand why it is his most popular (even though I am sure it's the wrong Banks book on that list of 1001 books to read).
• It has the most catchy of openings: "It was the day my grandmother exploded." It's an opening that appears regularly in lists of "best opening lines" and rightly so; it's intriguing, messy and one of the best hooks I can remember reading.
• Apart from some characters in a couple of his lesser known "mainstream" novels, the McHoans, Urvills and Watts of The Crow Road -- even with their eccentricities and foibles -- are Banks' most likable characters.
• The Crow Road's plot is Banks' most accessible for mainstream audiences. It is a mix of the jilted lover tale (where the protagonist loses the love of his life to someone close to him, never having noticed that the woman he should be loving has been his best friend, standing right beside him as long as he can remember), the quiet murder mystery, and the generational family soap opera with a Scottish castle and Observatory thrown into the mix. It's the sort of comforting storyline that everyone's Mum can love (well... my Mum, at least).
• It's compellingly paced too. The build is languid with just enough information and forward momentum to keep its audience on board until the "can't-put-it-down" portion of the book kicks in around page 350. It's the perfect book for sitting on a comfy chair, in the sun, over a long weekend on Loch Lomand.
And for some of those reasons, I, too, enjoyed The Crow Road, but not without mitigation.
My main problem was that I didn't like the narrator, Prentice, until very late in the novel. In fact, Prentice may be the least likable protagonist I've encountered in Banks' body of work (and that includes Frank Cauldhame from The Wasp Factory). He whined, he moaned, he was petty, he was precious and his sense of entitlement drove me crazy. But, of course, that was the point. Banks wanted him to piss us off so that his growth would ring true. And it does. It's just that reading a first person narrative from the perspective of such a pain in the ass borders on the tiring. Which, to Banks' credit, he recognized and handled well with interjections of third person narrative focused on the elder generation, thus giving us respite from the little jerk until Prentice developed into a genuinely likable guy.
Paradoxically, though, The Crow Road also includes my favourite supporting character in all of Banks' books, Prentice's father, Kenneth McHoan. I know most people love Rory and his globe trotting bohemianism, but Kenneth is a cooler guy and a great Dad. From his River Game (a home made, violence free game of trade economics) politics and love for his son, to his children's stories, atheism and wonderfully fitting death, Kenneth was the part of The Crow Road I longed to read. When he wasn't there I was thinking about him, and when he was there I never wanted his part to end. Plus, I kinda wish he'd been my Dad.
So what do I really think about The Crow Road? Well...I like it. It's a good read, an accessible read, and it has some moments of absolute beauty (like the post-coital Morse code, the way Ken handles the creation of the Black River Game, and the ending is one of Banks' most emotionally satisfying). But it's not one of Iain Banks' best books. The trouble for Banks is that his best books -- the dark and sinister or the challenging or the ferociously creative -- are books that most people don't want to read and many who do read them just don't connect with them.
I do connect, however. Banks is my glass of scotch, and I'm always willing to imbibe. He's officially one of my faves. Give him a try. You may just develop a crush, right Kelly? (less)
I approached The White Lioness tentatively, afraid that I wouldn't like it and that it could very well mark the end of my appreciation for the written...moreI approached The White Lioness tentatively, afraid that I wouldn't like it and that it could very well mark the end of my appreciation for the written Wallander.
Faceless Killers was a somewhat uninspired though compelling murder mystery. It was straightforward, and exactly what one would expect from the story of a taciturn Swedish cop in quiet Ystad. Coupled with the BBC movies, it was more than enough to make me want to proceed in the series. Dogs of Riga, however, was something else entirely. It wasn't bad, but it was thoroughly unexpected. It was a political thriller in the guise of a cop mystery, and Kurt Wallander's foray into Latvia felt too forced and uncharacteristic (despite the book's early place in the Wallander chronology) to rise above Mankell's personal, political agenda. It wasn't bad, but it made me wary of what might come next.
Once I saw the map of South Africa and the disclaimer at the beginning of The White Lioness, I was even more frightened: "Since The White Lioness was first published in 1993, some towns and areas in South Africa have been renamed. The names in use then have been retained here.”
“Uh-oh,” I thought, “Another Dogs of Riga. And to some extent it was, but in a more masterful and confident way. Mankell does with The White Lioness what he probably should have done with its predecessor. He tells two parallel stories: one is a tense murder mystery starring Kurt Wallander at his unpredictable best; the other is a suspenseful political thriller set in de Klerk’s Africa at the tail end of apartheid. This time, however, he doesn’t try to force Wallander into a foreign trip. He doesn’t embroil Wallander in a Jason Bourne style international action story. Instead, he lets these two stories bleed into each other in their separate countries, showing us how the actions of men and women in Sweden and South Africa simultaneously and unwittingly affect the other.
The two stories are constantly and necessarily tied together, but few of the important characters ever meet.
It is an impressive balancing act, and it ratchets up the suspense to a level I’ve never before experienced in a Wallander book. This was the first one I couldn’t put down, and I didn’t want it to end. It’s a real shame that The White Lioness is so rooted in its time and place. An assassination attempt on Nelson Mandela would not have the same implications today, which means that this story, barring an attempted big screen period piece, will never make it to the screen, at least not with Branagh as Wallander.
How I would love to see it, though. This really is an excellent Wallander tale. The Dogs of Riga have been put to rest.(less)
There was a point in The Fifth Woman where I thought, "Christ, Wallander is getting preachy. I wonder if Mankell realizes it?" And then a couple of ch...moreThere was a point in The Fifth Woman where I thought, "Christ, Wallander is getting preachy. I wonder if Mankell realizes it?" And then a couple of chapters later it came clear that Mankell did realize what was happening to his Ystad Detective because those closest to Wallander comment on his fondness for lecturing everyone around him about the ills of Sweden and his philosophy of police work. They then prod him to become a lecturer at the local police academy.
A literary snap of the fingers and Mankell makes this new trait of Wallander an acceptable part of his character. At least for me.
As for the rest of the book, it's not the strongest in the series, but it is still a page turner. I powered on late into the night to finish, and it was definitely full of suspence. Wallander himself remains one of my favourite literary detectives. I admire his doggedness, but I love him because of his emotion. He feels, sometimes too intensely to be healthy, but he feels everything, and it dooms him to loneliness. He cannot express his emotions, you see, and so he buries them and works. Works. Works. Works. I find myself caring more about him the longer the series goes on and wanting something good for him in his life. I don't think he's going to get it.
If you're new to Wallander, don't start here because he's changing, and you need to know him before to enjoy the changes. But you should enjoy this book just fine when you reach it.
later: I hadn't seen the sixth episode of the BBC Wallander until last night; I'd been saving it after I finished the book. Since I finished it yesterday I thought I should give it a watch, and it is the first time I was disappointed.
Both the mystery and the emotional core of Kurt Wallander were too distant from Mankell's book. Kurt, in the book, begins to resolve his relationship with his father, taking a week long vacation with his father in Rome, so when his father passes away there is no deep pool of despair for Kurt to dive into. But he dives intot that pool in the book, wandering around like a Basset Hound who can't find his owner.
The mystery gets short shrift too because of Wallander's whiny broodiness. We get none of the killer's POV, which offered some interesting moments in the book. We get too little of the crimes of the abusive men, the victims of the killer, and the crimes we do get are altered in ways that lessen their severity and make the men much easier to feel sorry for.
These aren't the only changes either. Anna-Britt isn't shot, it's Kurt who takes the bullet. Baiba isn't the one Kurt loves, it is a witness for the case named Vanja. His relationship with Linda is short changed. It's just plain bad.
I have serious concerns about this show going forward, and I am bummed because I was looking forward to series 3 becoming available in North America. Huge bummer for me. (less)
As much as I like Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and I like him quite a lot, my feelings weren’t enough to overcome my disappointment with The Dogs...moreAs much as I like Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and I like him quite a lot, my feelings weren’t enough to overcome my disappointment with The Dogs of Riga.
Mankell admits in the afterword that “The revolutionary events that took place in the Baltic countries during the last year  were the basis ...” of his second Wallander story, and it is very much a case of an author writing with an idea rather than his characters in mind.
Mankell didn’t need to make this tale a Wallander tale, nor should he have. Having Wallander jaunting off to Riga, Latvia on some end-of-the-Cold-War spy adventure was unjustified. Any character would do to tell the tale because it was the tale that was important. A a new character would have been a much better choice than the cop from Ystad.
Kurt Wallander is a small town, apolitical, regional cop who is more concerned with his daughter’s depression, his father’s mounting dementia and his growing belly than anything he’s expected to care about in The Dogs of Riga. Mankell does remember enough about the man he is creating to allow Wallander to maintain the integral parts of his personality, but that only leaves Mankell with the flimsiest of excuses – a silly and totally unbelievable love – for Wallander’s uncharacteristic actions, and it isn’t enough to be convincing.
I admit, however, that I may not have felt this way if I had read this book when it came out in the early nineties. This is only the second book in the series, and back then there was only Faceless Killers around to tell us who Kurt Wallander was. But I am reading the series now, nearly twenty years later, and I have Kurt Wallander television shows and Linda Wallander books and a pretty serious body of popular culture manifestations to provide me with expectations that a timely reader of The Dogs of Riga wouldn’t have had.
I imagine I’d have liked the book better back then. It is well-paced, suspenseful, mildly prophetic, and Wallander is his usual, surprisingly likable self, but time doesn’t do The Dogs of Riga any favours. I just hope it is better onscreen because they say it will be part of the third series of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander.(less)
I remember a discussion I had years ago with a friend of mine about Jonathon Demme's film version of The Silence of the Lambs. We were both annoyed by...moreI remember a discussion I had years ago with a friend of mine about Jonathon Demme's film version of The Silence of the Lambs. We were both annoyed by the pacing of the film and joked that it was really the story of an FBI agent driving her car, with some dialogue thrown in to liven things up.
I felt a bit that way reading Faceless Killers, the first Wallander book by Henning Mankell. I don't know if it was only this first Wallander mystery (it's the first I've read too) or if it is a common theme in Mankell's work, but the writing is obsessed with time. Time of day, seasons, days of the week, months, we are constantly being reminded when we are in the story. But that's not such a bad thing.
What Mankell achieves with his use of time, whether he meant to or not, is an expression of what I imagine is the reality of police work: waiting, waiting and more waiting.
We are so used to the slick, Hollywood version of crime stories that we expect everything to come together quickly, cleanly, logically. We expect the perpetrators to make big mistakes, the crime scene investigators to find some smoking DNA, the Detectives to put all the pieces together as if by magic. That's not how it really happens, though, and investigations take time. It makes for some boring bits in the book, but boring in a way that reflects the police lifestyle.
As for the main character, Wallander spends more time in Faceless Killers worrying about his ailing father, obsessing over his failed marriage, and feeling generally sorry for himself than he does thinking about the case. Yet he still manages to work on the case with the tenacity of a bedbug, and six months after the killings, with nothing but perseverance, he gets the break in the case he needs and finds the killers.
Faceless Killers isn't a classic "whodunnit" style mystery; there's no way for a reader to figure out who the killers are. There are no clues we can follow, no hints, but there are no real red herrings either because, in the end, the murders and police work are not what the book is about. It is about the life of Kurt Wallander and everything else, including the mystery, is just a part of his life.
I like Wallander (probably because I watched the BBC version on Masterpiece Mystery and loved Kenneth Branagh as Wallander), so I'll probably read another couple of stories when I am bored. But if you don't like dreary, self-pitying, middle-aged, divorced men, the Wallander books probably aren't for you.(less)
Sometimes when you discover a new author -- even when your first exposure to their books doesn't blow your mind -- you see the promise of something fa...moreSometimes when you discover a new author -- even when your first exposure to their books doesn't blow your mind -- you see the promise of something fantastic, and you keep reading.
I've been reading many authors with that goal in mind: Ian Rankin (for the last few months) and Stephen King (for most of my life, with perpetual disappointment) and Nick Hornby (for a decade and a half) and Philip Palmer (for a couple of years) and Miriam Toews (since last summer). Only one of those authors has delivered the fantastic, but my love for Arsenal keeps Hornby on the "potential list" because I was predisposed to loving Fever Pitch, and it hardly seems fair to give his writing credit for such an easy victory.
Henning Mankell was on that list until today. I've enjoyed his books, some of them quite a bit, and I have become a big fan of Kurt Wallander (played brilliantly on the BBC by Kenneth Branagh*), Mankell's brooding, anti-social, middle aged, tenacious, Ystad cop. But Mankell finally delivered on the promise he made me in his first Wallander book, Faceless Killers.
Sidetracked is the first fantastic Wallander I've read. It does everything Mankell always does, only better. It's a perfect mixture of Wallander's personal life (his always complicated relationships with his daughter, Linda, his Father, his long-distance, Latvian lover, Baiba, and his partner, Ann-Britt Hoglund), his professional life (this time he's searching for a serial killer who scalps and kills his victims with an axe), and his interior life (full of nostalgia, anxiety, pain, guilt and doubt). Wallander feels, this time, like he's not just a character on the page, but a real cop, a real person, living somewhere out there in the world at this very moment. It's rare for me to find a character I believe in so thoroughly, and it's exciting when it happens.
I had a hard time putting this book down. Honestly. And if it hadn't been for life, I would have read it in one bleary-eyed sitting. Even so, I stayed up late every night for three nights so that I could finish. I loved this book. I wonder if any of those remaining in the series will deliver the same satisfaction. No matter. One book in my personal fantastic range is enough. Mankell has solidified me as his fan.
Long live Wallander.
*Sorry. I had to shamelessly plug old Ken, as I do in every Wallander book review.(less)
There came a turn in the vampire oeuvre -- and that turn had much to do with the Anne Rice's vampire novels -- when the inherent eroticism of vampiris...moreThere came a turn in the vampire oeuvre -- and that turn had much to do with the Anne Rice's vampire novels -- when the inherent eroticism of vampirism, which was one of many vampiric themes, shifted into a full scale fetishization of vampire sexuality.
I don't say this to criticize totally what vampire tales have become. I remain a fan of Lestat, Louis and Armand, and I certainly dig Sookie's Bill and Eric (the less said about Bella's Edward the better), but the fetishization of vampire sexuality has become a reductive cliche in vampire literature, and each new manifestation of vampire fiction seems to carry with it an increasing hypersexuality to the detriment of other potential vampire themes, so I've found myself less and less excited by vampire tales with each incarnation.
So reading Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night has positively rejuvenated my interest in vampire fiction, reminding me that there is much that remains unexplored and underexplored in fiction about this most human form of undead.
Hambly discards the fetishization; in fact, what sexuality there is in Those Who Hunt the Night is either between her human protagonists, Lydia and Asher, or is merely the bare minimum required by a vampire for hunting (who are, according to one of the number, basically asexual). Sexuality is incidental. And I think Hambly wants it to remain that way because the theme that most concerns her is predation.
She is concerned with the ethics of hunting to live, of killing to preserve life. She offers one complex vampire, the eminently likable Don Simon Ysidro, and a series of violent archetypes, from a violent and angry master vampire, Dr. Grippen, to a damned and guilt-ridden ex-priest, Brother Anthony. These vampires, and all the others we get a taste of, inhabit some position along an ethical continuum that runs from debilitating remorse to a pragmatic sublimation of remorse to no remorse at all. But Hambly takes things a step further and places some of her humans along the continuum too. The most important is Asher, the philologist/spy/private investigator coerced by Ysidro into hunting down a dangerous killer of London's vampires. Even Asher is forced, by his connection with and aiding of the vampires, to face his own predation and the motives he has used to justify or rationalize the actions in his past.
Hambly's thoughts on predation could have gone further, I suppose, but anything more would have been beyond the characters and their Edwardian milieu, and Hambly is a good enough writer to know that she must be true to her characters and their setting, no matter what else she is trying to achieve.
There are better vampire books than Those Who Hunt the Night, and from everything I've been hearing there are better Barbara Hambly books than Those Who Hunt the Night, but as a bit of a vampire geek, I am full of appreciation for her attempt to remind us that vampires are predators who feed on us -- as folklore has always warned us. In our fantasy worlds, vampires are on top of the food chain. And it sure sucks to be food, doesn't it?(less)
HAK-oh-SAW-rus REX Tyrant Hack-Novelist a.k.a. Harlen Coben 6 feet (1.8288 metres) Psi Upsilon Frat Boy Friend of Brownosaurus Dan Current Holocene North America (New Jersey, USA) Edgar Award winner; Shamus Award winner; Anthony Award winner; never short listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Hackosaurus Rex exemplifies every image conjured by the words "hack" and "writer" when they are thrown together: plot loving, pop-culture obsessed, slightly dull of expression and quick with a manuscript. It is the only hack writer who repeatedly refers to Newark, New Jersey. Evidence of this animal containing "talent" was scant until quite recently, and it was only in 2006 (because of the French) that important gaps in our understanding of Hackosaurus' "talent" were filled in (see also D. Pow's review of The Woods for a full and fair examination of this "talent").
Hackosaurus was one of the largest of the pontificating mystery hackosaurids. It amassed a prolific body of work. Some works by it measured as many as three hundred instances of hokey wisdom and/or pseudo intelligent proclamations per four hundred pages. By any standards, Hackosaurus Rex was a tremendous pulp writing animal.
This giant was also one of the last of the non-cinematically adapted hackosaurids, though not for lack of trying. All Hackosaurus "skeletons" (its favourite Mcguffin), seemed perfectly suited to the big or small screens, offering inanity while pushing along a breathless pace, but after two decades of production experts remained baffled by Hackosaurus' seeming inability to achieve the Hollywood payday. Oddly enough, French filmmakers were the first to discover the joys of Hackosaurus Rex and theirs is the only adaptation of a Hackosaurus work to this day.
Like other hackosaurids, Hackosaurus had a recurring character and only two functioning brain cells. The special character had a silly name (Myron Bolitar), but he was good for business and returned to Hackosaurus Rex stories whenever the animal grew bored and lazy.
***Not sure about spoilers here. I think I danced around things pretty well, but you may want reconsider your decision to read further in case I messe...more***Not sure about spoilers here. I think I danced around things pretty well, but you may want reconsider your decision to read further in case I messed up.***
I am a bit disappointed. I was so close to loving this novel and its author, and I really did want to love them, but the denouement really let me down.
In the two books I've read now, Jodi Picoult sets out to deliver a big twist that will knock us on our asses. But she telegraphs the big twist in a way that removes any possibility of surprise. This could be seen as a bad thing, a failure on her part, but she does such a magnificent job of building our suspense in anticipation of that moment, that guessing the moment ahead of time is almost part of the fun. We know the shark's going to take the girl's leg off, the fun is in the expectation of when and how.
The Pact: A Love Story sets up a suicide pact between a pair of young lovers, but only one of them takes a bullet and the other ends up on trial for murder. From the outset we know that Emily's suicide is far more complex than Chris lets on, and the "truth" that we are destined to hear is fairly easy to guess, but the telling is compelling. Picoult prepares us for the big reveal by taking us through a decade of her main characters' lives, making us care for them, forcing us to empathize with them regardless of their actions. Picoult trusts that we will recognize their complex moral lives, the good and the bad in all of them, as something we all share whether we choose to believe it or not.
All of this makes the revelation at the heart of The Pact highly satisfying. By the time we discover what really happened on the night of the suicide, it has become impossible to judge those involved because we know too well what brought them to their actions. But therein lies the problem.
We are close to these people because we have read their thoughts. We know things about each of them that they choose to hide from the people in their lives, truths that are never revealed to anyone in the story. We have seen their lives through their eyes, so we understand their pain, their motivations, their choices as though we are them. But then Picoult allows her jury to make a decision that can only be made by someone reading her book -- not by a juror witnessing the most bizarre of all trials.
What Picoult asks us to believe is one ask too far. The result of the trial simply cannot be, and I felt sucker punched by the ending. I wanted something more akin to reality, I guess, and I would have loved Picoult for delivering. Instead, she gave me a Hollywood ending tacked on to a fine little piece of thought provocation, and I find myself continuing to withhold the love my mother so badly wanted me to feel for Picoult.
I like her, but somewhere along the line she's going to have to give me what I need for me to love her. (less)
1. It's misogynistic. 2. It's packed with cliché. 3. It's too convoluted. 4. It's too disturbing. 5. Lisbeth wasn't autistic enough or was foolishly autistic. 6. There were too many red herrings, and the damn Nazi red herring didn't have the usual payoff. 7. Too/Two many plots. 8. Too hard on Leviticus.
I will answer these in a moment, but first I must declare that I am an unrepentant fan of this book. This is one of the rare times when I long for goodreads to have half grades, because I would love to give this 4.5. I can't give it a full 5, though, because I sense Mr. Larsson's series is going to grow in his last two books.
And now...back to the top eight complaints:
1. Perhaps, but how can a book whose original Swedish title is "Men Who Hate Women" avoid misogyny? It can't. But at least the misogyny present is a comment on misogyny. Larsson isn't being misogynist. He's attacking misogyny.
Moreover, our hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is not one of the men who hate women. He is a pretty good guy, actually; in fact, he's one of the rare guys I would actually categorize as a "good guy" in most modern literature. Sure...he's a bad Dad. Sure...he has a failed marriage and many sexual relationships. Sure...he makes some decisions that challenge his ethics. But he remains a "good guy." He tries to do well in an ugly world. He never succumbs to cynicism. And he genuinely cares about all the people in his life. Male and female.
And it's not like Berger and Salander are weak women -- far from it. There may be misogyny in Men Who Hate Women, but it is wholly the characters' misogyny -- those who have it -- and not the author's.
2. With apologies to my friend who's first name starts with T: Cliché, smiché! Yes there's some cliché -- maybe plenty of cliché -- but who cares?! Seriously? We're not talking about Proust here. We're talking about a mystery novel, a serial killer who-dunnit. Complaining about cliché in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is like complaining about "pinko sympathies" in The Communist Manifesto.
There's communism in Marx? Really? You think!?
3 & 7. Yep. There's a couple of distinct plots here, but there's a level of verisimilitude to that. Have even our banal lives ever had anything important happen without something else important occurring at the same time? Not mine, and to have multiple incidents happening simultaneously makes sense to me. The search for Harriet Vanger wasn't hampered at all by the Wennerström drama, and vice versa. And to be honest, I loved having a pair of mysteries solved in the same novel.
4. Too disturbing compared to what? It's nowhere near as disturbing as American Psycho, and it's about average as far as the serial killer genre goes. Plus, I think there is a power in the graphic moments of this novel, particularly Lisbeth's vengeance on her guardian. I am not on her side when it comes to this vengeance, but I understand it, and the drive to take vengeance in such a way -- such a human way -- fascinates me. Who'd have thought, besides maybe my friend Manny, that the Swedes have it in them?
5. Perhaps this is true, but at this point I have only read one of the trilogy, and the only person who suggested that Lisbeth was autistic was Mikael, and while he thought she was suffering from Asberger's his guess was only in passing. I can cut the book some slack here. (suspend my disbelief, suspend my disbelief).
6. I was stoked that, for once, the Nazis were a red herring rather than the ultimate, degenerated evil. We all expect the Nazis to be the worst of the worst, so it is refreshing to see them as a deflection instead.
8. Can anyone really be too hard on Leviticus? Ummmmm...nope.
Now, I admit that I might love this novel simply because it is set in Sweden. After all, I do love ABBA, Fredrik Ljungberg, IKEA (my apologies), glögg, Stellan Skarsgård, Max von Sydow, Ingmar Bergman, and Mats Sundin. I looked into emigrating to Sweden but had no excuse, being a resident of Canada with no skills the Swedes were looking for, and I am a fan of Norse Mythology, but I do love Sweden, and I was jazzed by the setting of Larsson's book. All that aside, however, I think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a compelling, entertaining and unabashedly thrilling read.
If you can overlook the eight complaints, or consider them in a different light, you'll like this book too. I promise. (less)
I love it when a mystery fulfills my desires rather than my expectations, and I have always loved the way that Agatha Christie planted clues so that t...moreI love it when a mystery fulfills my desires rather than my expectations, and I have always loved the way that Agatha Christie planted clues so that the careful reader could figure out the mystery. At around page 110 I figured out who the killer was (and I have NO problem with that), but I rejected the thought because, well, it just didn't make sense with what I know about 20s' mystery writing.
Which, apparently, isn't much at all.
Agatha Christie gets much stick for being a bit of Stephen King style hack of the mystery genre, but the grand dame of English mystery novels hit a century with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Blackmail, suicide, blackmail, murder and suicide. Serve it up!
The killer is cool. Hercule Poirot is at his infuriating best. The plot thickens and thickens to thickness, and the perfectly tuned ending really does make this Christie's symphony.
I can't say anything else without wrecking this amazing book, so I will end with a simple statement: if you love mystery, if you love Christie, if you love when an author messes with the conventions, then The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a book you MUST read. Simple as that.(less)
I'm not a likely candidate to read a Jodi Picoult book. I have to admit that I've always been a bit of a snob when it comes to the books that my Mom r...moreI'm not a likely candidate to read a Jodi Picoult book. I have to admit that I've always been a bit of a snob when it comes to the books that my Mom read.
She was a big fan of mysteries, but nothing classic (no Christie or Doyle), very little new or challenging (no Steinhauer or Rankin), and practically nothing genuinely pulpy (no Leonard or Chandler). She always preferred the uber-popular stuff and was a massive fan of James Patterson (and his peers), having to go out and buy the books from his mystery-mill in hardcover they day they were released.
And that's where the snobbery comes in. I tried a couple Patterson books early on, but his work is basically crap, so when my Mom discovered Jodi Picoult, adding Picoult to her list of favourite authors and telling me I should read her, I mocked my Mom's taste and avoided Picoult with an internal snicker.
But then my Mom died last month and my Dad asked me to go through her bookshelves and take anything I wanted. And there was Jodi Picoult.
Now this probably wouldn't have been enough to make me grab a stack of my Mom's Jodi Picoult books, but two other moments pushed me over the edge. First, I bought my Mom Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman: Love Murder for Christmas. I found it during a random book store browse and thought it would be a good way to introduce my Mom to graphic novels; second, I read a recent article by Stephen King that was talking about the merits of some of our most popular novelists, praising both Rowling and Picoult while damning Stephanie Meyer (raise a cheer!) and Patterson. I am not a big fan of King's fiction, but I do enjoy his essays on popular culture and literature, so his opinions are close enough to mine to take as advice.
So I added the Jodi Picoult books grudgingly to my haul and put Salem Falls -- a random selection -- straight onto my to-read soon stack.
I finished Salem Falls last night and I can say that I was completely surprised by how good it actually was and disappointed by how good it wasn't.
Picoult is a good writer. She has serious chops. She balances multiple characters with the speed and grace of an excellent screen writer (I'm not talking about screen hacks here), giving us vivid scenes that tell the tale quickly and move on to the next important scene with no meaningless lingering. Her dialogue, though occasionally cliche, is believable and serves to make every character an individual. And her use of flashback to tell us bits and pieces about her people is superb.
I was sold on Salem Falls by page ten, and she held my attention right to the end. I didn't expect that.
Even with Stephen King's praise, I was ready to scoff at Picoult's work, but she really impressed me. Until Salem Falls shifted from an interesting story about interesting people to a boring Law and Order style courtroom drama.
And it didn't have to do that.
By the third act, Picoult gave up the creativity that was making Salem Falls a compelling read and took the conventional way out, which is a shame because the unconventional would have been so much better and realistic. You see, Picoult gave us all the information we needed to know the ending (which was a good one) early in her novel. A good reader, paying close attention, knows exactly what's going on. The problem is that her characters, smart people all (and brilliant in some cases), have the same information and never see what's happening.
So we find ourselves waiting to see how the "truth" is going to come out and save Jack St. Bride, how it's going to make the trial meaningless, how it's going to save people's spirits and the bodies of some young women, but we are let down because, apparently, the smart folks in Salem Falls aren't as brilliant as the folks reading about them.
Usually I would be a fan of people not being saved because in real life, more often than not, that is the case. People aren't saved. People go on in pain. People live with abuse that doesn't end. People hurt. And when authors are brave enough to let that happen I am generally full of praise. I would have been in this case too, had Picoult employed dramatic irony. But she didn't. There was no pertinent information we had that was withheld from the characters. They had the same access to information that we did, and they were oblivious. And I was left disappointed.
I wanted more from Picoult, and she promised more in the first two acts only to fail us in the third; still, she did enough to win me as a fan (albeit it a mildly skeptical one).
I will definitely read her again. I just hope she doesn't continue to exceed my expectations only to dash my hopes. There is only so much of that I can take. (less)
Expatriate American author Olen Steinhauer's five part Iron Curtain series gets better with every book, every decade he showcases, and every character...moreExpatriate American author Olen Steinhauer's five part Iron Curtain series gets better with every book, every decade he showcases, and every character he focuses on. 36 Yalta Boulevard is no exception.
Brano Sev, the enigmatic apparatchik who played supporting roles in The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy to overthrow his unnamed country while on assignment as rezident in Vienna, Austria.
Weaving his way through a sixties Europe populated by the Beatles, Christian sponsored CIA groups, the Austrian secret service, double dealings and betrayals, hash smoke, too much drink and just a hint of free love, Sev remains a loyal party man and devout socialist, fighting for what he believes is right.
Sev's politics (not to mention his advanced age and tenuous health) make him a strange protagonist in a novel of intrigue, but it is refreshing to imagine the Cold War struggle from the other side, and with an agent as loyal to his cause as we expected the agents of our side to be.
It makes an otherwise familiar spy story something entirely entertaining because -- despite the Soviet flavour of Steinhauer's setting and the unique point of view of his protagonist -- Steinhauer's tale is one that we've read before. Sev is that classic Cold War agent trying to root out a nasty Mole in his own organization while being framed as the Mole himself. His boss is helpful and caring; his boss's boss is angry, unreasonable and under suspicion; and there are even the obligatory love entanglements and family ties to corruption that throw Sev's loyalty even deeper into question.
Without the moody setting of Steinhauer's Cold War Europe and Comrade Major Brano Olesky Sev, 36 Yalta Boulevard would have been a pedestrian, though still enjoyable, spy yarn. But Steinhauer's characters and setting elevate the third installment of his Eastern European series into the realm of real excellence.
If you are a nostalgic leftist or just a fan of Cold War spy fiction, Steinhauer's work is well worth a read.(less)
It's tough to be critical of Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse books; after all, there is no pretense of serious literary merit, nor is there...moreIt's tough to be critical of Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse books; after all, there is no pretense of serious literary merit, nor is there a rabid fan base that begs for "re-education."
No...Charlaine Harris's books are exactly what they are meant to be: somewhat entertaining, light weight, playful riffs on the Vampire and mystery genres.
There is always something fun and fresh in the Sookie novels. Living Dead in Dallas, for instance, has a crazy KKK-like bunch of religious kooks called the Fellowship of the Sun whose mission it is to expunge Vampirism from the world -- or at least from the US.
And there is always a bunch of straight laced, almost monogamous sex between Sookie and her Vampire lover, Bill. Unfortunately, the sex is never arousing, even if it is mildly fun to read, and it only makes me want to crack out some genuine erotica and read it out loud while my wife and I soak in our big clawfoot tub surrounded by candles (but that's not exactly a bad reaction to evoke).
As for Sookie's love life, she kisses whomever she wants whenever she wants, while being constantly jealous of Bill, but that is right in line with her skewed personal morality, which turns up its nose at a menage a trois but has no difficulty with being a blood source during sex. But at least she recognizes her hypocrisy. She knows she's a "goody two shoes" -- hell, even thong panties are enough to scandalize her (is this a little too much of Charlaine coming through in her character?) -- and that is definitely part of Sookie's charm, but that element of her personality can also become a little much by the end of an installment (which is why it is best to take a break of a month or two before reading another).
Even so, I actually do get why Bill and other Vampires, specifically the Viking Vampire, Eric, are attracted to Miss Stackhouse. The telepathic waitress turned telepathic investigator for Vampires is more than a little mouthy, and her ability to stand up to the powerful Vampires without flinching coupled with her genuine self-confidence makes me believe that they'd dig her -- unlike other human females, whose names I won't mention, who inexplicably and inappropriately attract creepy Vampire lovers, whose names I won't mention either.
Sookie is a pain in the ass, but if she were real I know I'd be attracted to her.
Living Dead in Dallas is a pretty decent Sookie novel, and it is a nice piece of fluff if you're reading something challenging and need a back up. But don't expect greatness.
Jim Butcher achieves something that no other authors of urban fantasy have done (at least not the ones I've read); he expresses how wonderful it is to...moreJim Butcher achieves something that no other authors of urban fantasy have done (at least not the ones I've read); he expresses how wonderful it is to be producing magic in a world like ours.
I don't expect characters to be jazzed about their magic skills in a classic fantasy world, where magic is like bowling and everyone knows about it, most people have dabbled, but only a few can bowl anywhere near a perfect score.
Nor do I expect wizards to remain wide-eyed about their skills if they find themselves separated from Muggles for long periods, so that they are surrounded by magic and their only influence is magic. After all, knowing how to throw a slider loses its coolness when you're one of a pitching staff where everyone's got a slider and something more.
But in an urban fantasy setting, where the magical world is our world with magic in it -- a world with zombies and Coke, or vampires and Dancing with the Stars, or demons and Battlestar Galactica -- the protagonists can't always be seeing their talents as curses or handicaps or illnesses. Some character somewhere has got to like what they're able to do.
Enter Chicago wizard Harry Dresden.
Here's what he thinks about his skills: "The potion had worked. I was inside. I had to suppress an urge to break into a soft-shoe routine. Sometimes being able to use magic was so cool. I almost stopped hurting for a few seconds, from sheer enjoyment of the special effects. I would have to remember to tell Bob how much I liked the way this potion worked."
Now that's more like it. That's enthusiasm. That's joy. That's a man who knows that supernatural talent is about the best thing you can have in a modern city. And that's a recognition that being able to do magic is just plain cool.
This enthusiasm (dare I call it passion, as Harry does?) is at the core of Harry Dresden, and it is the best reason (amongst many others) for me to keep reading The Dresden Files.
I know guys like Harry. They are the computer geeks who spend their days programming wonders and come home to play video games, or the math geeks who spend their days dreaming up lofty theorems then come home and play speed chess. Harry's talent happens to be magic, but by grounding his skills in the lovable body of an everyday geek (albeit a badass geek), the kind of geek we all know and understand, Butcher makes everything about his Chicago -- the city, the people (especially Harry) and the magic -- as accessibly realistic as an urban fantasy-noir can be.
Furthermore, as an inveterate Indiana Jones fan, the constant references, intentional or otherwise, to Raiders of the Lost Ark are enough to keep me happy even when Harry Dresden miraculously pulls off his self-proclaimed mission against ridiculous odds that are compounded by bloodloss and bruising and beatings that would put a normal person in the hospital, which is, of course, another reference to Indiana Jones, making me love Dresden even more.
This is only the second book of The Dresden Files, so I don't want to go too far in my praise -- I am expecting better stories to come -- but as fantasy-noir entertainments go, Fool Moon is top notch. It is exciting, action packed and pulpy with just the right amount of cheek.
The Dresden Files is the perfect series if you need a break from the cerebral, but don't want to immerse yourself in drivel.
P.S. At this point in the series I completely hate Murphy. I know that is heresy for fans of The Dresden Files; I know she is beloved and has a history with Harry that grows and deepens, but right now I can't stand her. At this point (and I really do hope this changes in future books), she is pig-headed, abusive, closed minded, inflexible, self-righteous, and just plain mean. She is the one element of Fool Moon that I genuinely disliked. Too bad Harry didn't hook up with Tera.(less)
I imagine that some people will complain that Butcher's Storm Front is misogynist, and I can see where they're coming from -- to a point. There is a b...moreI imagine that some people will complain that Butcher's Storm Front is misogynist, and I can see where they're coming from -- to a point. There is a bad Vampiress who runs a brothel, there are a couple of prostitutes, a sexually abused woman, a sexy journalist, and a tough, rough-cut female cop. I can see these characters striking a nerve with some women, thereby stripping any enjoyment of the book for them.
And fair enough.
But these characters are classic archetypes in the fictions Jim Butcher is bringing together, and his Magic Noir wouldn't work fully without them.
If one pays too close attention to the "chauvinism" of Harry Dresden, one can miss impressively fun stuff that is going on elsewhere in the tale.
Not only does Butcher come at magic from a fascinating direction, not only does Butcher capture the Noir feel of old dime store novels, not only does Butcher create an entertaining treat, which amounts to a really fun read, but Butcher manages to deal with Black and White Magic, Dark and Light forces, without simplifying motives and ethics to a simple and unrealistic battle between good and evil. By my count the word "evil" only appears in Storm Front once. This book has a bad ass wizard blowing people's hearts out of their bodies, summoning demons and addicting the denizens of Chicago to a new "magic drug"; it also has a Mob boss and a Vampiress in charge of the town's organized crime; yet, none of these characters are tossed into the rotten "evil" barrel.
They are just folks with anger issues, greed issues, power issues, bloodlust issues, etc. And to maintain such an ethical stance over the course of a novel, albeit a pulpy, fantasy/detective novel, is impressive.
Beyond that, Storm Front and Harry Dresden are ideas I wish I had thought of first. What a cool spin on some classic forms of fiction.(less)