I'm sick of thrillers that burn through female characters like the author is keeping score. None of these women haveOkay, so. I'm fucking sick of it.
I'm sick of thrillers that burn through female characters like the author is keeping score. None of these women have any agency: they're clearly there to be fucked and beaten and raped and abandoned and called bitches and be mad drooling hags and be violently killed. Oh, except for the one lucky woman who gets to be the hero's mom.
Hero's totally the wrong word, though, of course. Instead of anyone remotely admirable or interesting, we're forced to suffer through this valley of despair and human indecency with some racist, homophobic, misogynistic schmuck who has no interesting character traits outside of what an asshole he is. Great, let's spend 300 pages watching this charmer bumble around investigating a bunch of little girls' brutal murders that turn out to be part of some sort of giant conspiracy of I don't give a fuck. Like, the police, politicians, and businessman are sometimes corrupt and stuff. I'm positive no one has ever used that plot before!
And, sure: I get this is all supposed to be gritty and real. Whatever. I am so tired of that being used as an excuse for another vile, cynical book that doesn't say anything interesting about humanity other than the fact that the author apparently thinks it fucking sucks. Or at least that the '70s sucked. Except, aside from the protagonist constantly telling us the year (I'm not sure I caught it...is it NINETEEN SEVENTY-FOUR?) and tossing out song references ("Life on Mars" was playing in a pub at one point, and god did it make me wish I was watching that show instead), this book could pretty much take place whenever. It certainly doesn't make any interesting points about how things may or may not have changed in the last 36 years. Just: people are shits, people are shits, people are shits. Thank you, please sexually harass your waitresses.
I can't read any more books like this. These highly-acclaimed thrillers that are blurbed with words like "explosive" and "raw" and that are the equivalent of spending several hours hanging out at the bottom of a cesspit. But how to avoid them? Certainly read fewer thrillers by men; definitely skip anything blurbed by Ian Rankin. And you know what: maybe for a while sidestep thrillers all together.
Anyone got any recommendations for books in which women with swords get to stab a lot of people? For some reason I have a craving....more
Sometimes I worry that there's something recursive—or even, yes, vaguely masturbatory—about reading books about books. But I love them; I read them coSometimes I worry that there's something recursive—or even, yes, vaguely masturbatory—about reading books about books. But I love them; I read them constantly; I may have what you'd call a bit of a problem. Perhaps the reason I can't seem to let a literary satire or reader's memoir pass me by is that I know from the start that—to very loosely paraphrase Woody Allen—I'll be reading a book about a subject I love: books.
Last year it was Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist that earned my ardor. The target of Hely's affectionate skewering are the "literary" blockbusters that tend to cling like limpets to the top of The New York Times' bestseller list. As part of a get-rich-quick/spurned-lover's-revenge scheme, Hely's protagonist devises a formula for bestsellerdom and swiftly hammers out his literary masterpiece, The Tornado Ashes Club. Yes, that title alone should be enough to do it: I'll pause for a moment here to let your snort and cringe and remember your book club's worst excesses.
Fortunately, those past mistakes can be remedied by Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, which has a bit of old school adventure and a dash of film noir thrown in with its playful poking at the rather ripe target of memoirs. Ian Minot, a sad-sack, down-on-his-luck barista—a.k.a, an unpublished writer—finds himself embroiled in scheme (those pesky buggers are everywhere!) to rewrite a stranger's failed novel as a TRUE STORY starring none other than Ian Minot. When this exciting and heartwarming tale lands on the bestseller lists, Ian, the plan goes, will then reveal that it was all fake--thus, says his new benefactor, humiliating the publishing executives who did them both wrong. Sounds foolproof, right?
Of course things get completely out of control, in an enjoyable madcap Hitchcockian style. But what really made me stop and savor The Thieves of Manhattan—and How I Became a Famous Novelist, as well—were the examinations of the creative urge and the question of how to honestly express oneself in a commercial world, artfully sprinkled amongst the shenanigans. A satire that isn't entirely cynical—that seems as rare and delicate a creature as a memoir that really is entirely true.
So, fine. In the spirit of all the honesty we're cultivating here, I'll admit: I did not "stop and savor" The Thieves of Manhattan at all. I raced through it in less than a day. Like a certain type of lie, leaping off the tongue, it wasn't something I could help. It felt too damn good.
[Honest confession No. 2: Effusive review + moderate rating = I wrote this for work.]...more
Looking at the task of writing up this, the third book in Larsson’s tragically cut-short series, I feel obligated to sum up not just the book itself—wLooking at the task of writing up this, the third book in Larsson’s tragically cut-short series, I feel obligated to sum up not just the book itself—which I found an exciting and overall solid conclusion to a storyline which was not meant to be here concluded—but what this series has meant to me as a whole. Larsson’s books have, of course, become insanely popular—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was my store’s No. 1 bestseller two years running—and part of me always balks at being an advocate for something that is already a blockbuster. So instead here are just a few words on why these books have been important to me, from which you can extrapolate whatever larger societal meaning as you so choose.
It’s Lisbeth, obviously. Blomkvist is a totally likable character—if you like clever, determined manwhores, which I apparently do—but these books are really all about Lisbeth. And I love her. I know people have said that they find her to be a man’s fantasy of what a badass woman should be, and this may be partly the case, but if so, Larsson’s fantasy-projection synchs up nicely with my own. Moreover, for all her larger-than-life qualities, I find Lisbeth remarkably realistic—by which I mean, she felt emotionally realistic to me. For all her leather and chains, and her brilliant and calculating plans, Larsson never writes Lisbeth as a robot. She is emotionally vulnerable—as the close of book one so brilliantly and subtly demonstrates. But throughout all three books Lisbeth reacts, and in general carries herself, the way the male heroes in other series do. She, like all those male heroes, is an outsider, is outwardly tough, is someone who has been through an unspeakable trauma but survived. She’s like all those male heroes: but she is a woman, and so for once, she’s mine.
I was recently talking to my father about male and female roles in fiction, and about how much happier I was when I realized that I didn’t have to like Princess Leia best. This was a big moment for me, that I really remember: I was maybe ten or eleven, and I finally realized that I could identify with Han Solo if I wanted to. After that I liked Star Wars a lot more, because my character got all the best lines and the cool ship. In fairness, Princess Leia was given more to do than a lot of female characters, but was I really supposed to think it was so great that she got to choke Jabba with her chain after being humiliated for ages in that metal bikini? I wanted more than that, and I still do.
So for years I liked the male characters best, because male characters actually got to do things and I wanted to do things (and preferably say witty stuff in the process). Men were awesome—and doubly so, in that I could project my fantasy self onto them and enjoy a sexual attraction to them as well, which is a little masturbatory and confusing, but also clearly the reason I so like slash fiction. Ahem. The point here, though, is that since men were who I saw and read about being awesome, they’re who I started writing about being awesome, too. If you read my short stories from high school through college (please don’t), you’ll see that a dude is the main character in almost all of them. I saw guys getting all the cool shit to do, so I gave them all the cool shit to do. What a neat little circle!
It’s only recently that I had another oh! moment like I did when I was ten. Too many factors conspired for me to pick out one cause, but maybe it was simply a case of the camel’s back finally buckling under some insignificant straw: where were the women? I wanted to read and write about women! How had things gotten to the point where I wasn’t even in my own stories?
If I, and other women like me, don’t write women awesome things to do, chances are no one will. So examples of women getting to take active roles—being smart and competent and maybe even kicking ass—have become even more precious to me. And I’m not talking about the standard female sidekick in the leather bustier. Real characters—the main characters, even. Which, arguably, Lisbeth is. Larsson, in my view, never writes her as “the woman”—he writes her as a person. As the hero.
People have argued that these books’ violence toward women make them unfeminist. I don’t agree: in my view, what Larsson is doing is clearly showing both that violence of this type exists—and will continue to exist if we choose to ignore it—and that it is survivable. These are books where women rescue the men, and perhaps more importantly, where they rescue themselves. The women are the heroes. And so, yeah, in this case, I am happy to advocate for something that is already insanely popular. If characters like Lisbeth—if women in central, heroic roles—can seep into the collective subconscious the way Han Solo and hundreds of years of male heroes sunk into mine, then maybe the next girl (or boy) growing up won’t have to have some big revelation about how she can write women in her stories. She’ll already know....more
Not at all what it says on the tin. I often very much enjoy Holmes pastiches that pit him and Watson against the supernatural or uncanny, but despiteNot at all what it says on the tin. I often very much enjoy Holmes pastiches that pit him and Watson against the supernatural or uncanny, but despite the purported goal of the collection, only about half of these stories fit into that category. (The other half, Adams says in the introduction, were basically included as a giant red herring, to which I say: boo.) But, supernaturally-fueled or not, nearly all of these were just really, really dull and forgettable; I had to force myself to the end—something that should never happen with my beloved Holmes! Upon review, the only two stories that I really liked were Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,” which I have only read a billion times previously, as it has been collected everywhere; and Naomi Novik’s “Commonplaces,” which is absolutely fantastic—beautifully characterized and written—but in which the supposedly improbable element is the assertion that Holmes and Watson were lovers. Pish!
I would like to see “Commonplaces” collected in other books, because then this one would truly be completely unnecessary....more
The TV show Bones is probably the best and worst thing to ever happen to this series. The best because it’s no doubt brought a whole slew of new, eageThe TV show Bones is probably the best and worst thing to ever happen to this series. The best because it’s no doubt brought a whole slew of new, eager readers to these books—including ones like me, who are really only sporadic watchers of the show. And the worst because all those new readers will inevitably be hauling all their show-based expectations with them. At which point they will discover that this book is—to me, sadly—nothing like the show.
The main character both on TV and in print is called Temperance Brennan, and in both mediums she is a forensic anthropologist. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. TV Temperance is brilliant and socially oblivious—in short, she’s wonderfully weird. Apparently, her personality is based more on Reichs’ own than on anything in the novels (thanks, Wikipedia!), which makes me wish Reichs had stuck much more closely to writing what she knew, because book Temperance—or Tempe, as she prefers to be called—is far less entertaining. She’s just so...normal. Aside from her somewhat eccentric choice of career, she’s a fairly average woman with fairly average concerns (prior to getting caught up in the book’s serial killer plot, anyway) and tediously average thought processes, on which Reichs spends way too much time. (I’m not sure I as a reader ever need to hear about every stray song lyric that gets stuck in a character’s head.)
I have to say, I really prefer my main characters to be oddballs. This may be my predilection for socially awkward geniuses at play, but I really do think it’s especially important in a genre that can all-too-easily become formulaic: you know there’s going to be a bad guy, and in the end, you know he’s going to get caught. A good mystery is really all about the journey, so the person you are accompanying on that trip needs to be unusual in some way. Bones the TV show is full of weirdos and goofs, and is packed to the brim with surreal moments and humor and—at times, an overabundance of—wacky shenanigans. I was in the mood for something like that: a puzzle, some jokes, a dash of sexual tension to add a little spice. Instead I got a depressingly straightforward police procedural, anchored by a lot of stiff, mostly colorless characters and a protagonist who, in being rendered more “relatable,” becomes much less interesting than her TV counterpart....more
Chesterton is perhaps best known for his Father Brown stories, so I was deeply disappointed to find that they represent him at his preachy, intolerantChesterton is perhaps best known for his Father Brown stories, so I was deeply disappointed to find that they represent him at his preachy, intolerant worst. If I’d started here, instead of with the wonderfully weird and delightfully dark The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I would have had no desire to pick up anything by Chesterton again. All of these stories seem to revolve around the irritatingly smug Father Brown proving that some type of non-Christian is wrong wrong WRONG about everything, the poor, deluded, and occasionally murderous souls.
Aside from being pious, preachy, and at times outright racist, these tales also just aren’t very good from the detective story standpoint, either. The Sherlock Holmes stories continue to be fascinating because Holmes is, because his relationship with Watson is, because the way he interacts with the world is. Father Brown’s character has less color than his name, and although Chesterton makes the occasional attempt at providing him with a sidekick, he’s never truly given anyone to confide in or bounce off of, as Holmes has in Watson. Father Brown is lost without his Boswell. And he can stay there, as far as I’m concerned....more
One of those “Sherlock Holmes meets [Famous Historical Figure:]!” books—in this case, “Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Houdini!” This was quite fun, althoOne of those “Sherlock Holmes meets [Famous Historical Figure:]!” books—in this case, “Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Houdini!” This was quite fun, although, as is the case with a lot of mysteries for me, more fun in the setup than in the conclusion. Also, Stashower’s Watson was a bit too much of a bumbler for my tastes. Not Laurie R. King bad or anything, but I think after Jude Law’s impeccable Watson from the new movie, I am feeling a tad spoiled....more
Dual-purpose Sherlock Holmes reread, as I 1) wanted to try out the e-reader on my new iPhone (it hurts my eyes), and 2) desperately needed some classiDual-purpose Sherlock Holmes reread, as I 1) wanted to try out the e-reader on my new iPhone (it hurts my eyes), and 2) desperately needed some classic Holmes and Watson back-and-forth (*wink wink, nudge nudge*) after being thrown into a tizzy by the fantastically ridiculous new film. I always thought of The Valley of Fear as “the other one with Moriarty in it,” though upon reread I am sad to discover/recall that he really isn’t in it at all, which is a pity. Still, the first half of this is quite fun, with a lot of good classic investigation and interaction, and Holmes and Watson having to share a hotel room. Delightful!
The second half is...largely pointless, giving us backstory that we didn’t need and a lot of stuff about Freemasons. In a way its rather reminiscent of the second half of A Study in Scarlet, which gives one backstory one doesn’t need and a lot of stuff about Mormons. Doyle was a weird writer. With Valley of Fear, you really get the sense that he wished he didn’t have to be writing Sherlock Holmes anymore—which is factually true. (I don’t know what his excuse was for Study in Scarlet, as that was the first Holmes story he wrote!)
Still, for me, Doyle’s Holmes and Watson are like pizza and sex for George Carlin—even when they’re bad, they’re pretty good....more
Serious and yet oddly whimsical serial killer mystery. This is Walter's first novel, and you can tell that there were a lot of elements he wanted to gSerious and yet oddly whimsical serial killer mystery. This is Walter's first novel, and you can tell that there were a lot of elements he wanted to get in there—the Green River Killer and the double-edged sword of profiling and new policing vs. old and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and even a touch of romance. I'm not sure how well it all works together; the resulting work feels a bit disjointed, not quite complete. But it's also so much more interesting and complex than the average mystery, with psychologically rich characterization and an—at least as far as I could tell—impressive level of realism to the police work. Emotionally, most of the novel feels impressively gritty and grounded in harsh truths. And yet, in the same book, there's also a random scene in a bar that, as an Eliot fan, had me spasming with joy. Bizarre combination. But fascinating and compelling, and you can see traces of the genre-blending creativity that are so evident in his later work. Much of this book has stayed with me, and it definitely left me wanting more....more
Starts out as an interesting book about a con woman, Marina, whose excellent skills at reading people make her a fantastic fake psychic. She sets up iStarts out as an interesting book about a con woman, Marina, whose excellent skills at reading people make her a fantastic fake psychic. She sets up in a wealthy Southern California town, where she encounters a lot of rich people with assorted rich people problems, some of which may escalate...to MURDER! Dun dun dun.
Actually, all of that is quite fun, although even in its earliest parts, this novel does suffer from too many POV characters and a bit too much jumping around in time. Where it really runs off the rails, though, is when Marina starts having real visions. I am not opposed to this concept out of hand: in fact, I think the idea of a fake psychic becoming actually psychic is potentially awesome. (If the show Psych went in that direction, I would even consider trying to watch it again.) However, I really hated how it was handled here, and in regards to the ending, I was equally Not Fond. Overall, I think this book would have been better if it had taken itself much less seriously....more
I am often asked which of Larsson’s first two novels, this or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is better. My standard response is Tattoo, because nothI am often asked which of Larsson’s first two novels, this or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is better. My standard response is Tattoo, because nothing in Fire can match the wonder and pleasure of meeting Larsson’s characters, particularly Lisbeth Salander, for the first time. I stand by this answer, although it’s possible that the plot of Salander and Blomkvist’s second outing is even more exciting and suspenseful than the first. Both books are terrific reads, however, and they work wonderfully as a pair. Why should one have to choose?
The third—and last, as Larsson is sadly and prematurely deceased—book in the series doesn’t come out in America until next year, but I got it from the U.K. as soon as it became available. I haven’t started it yet, though—I’m afraid to. I don’t want this story to end....more
Warren Ellis’ first novel is kind of sketchy and underwritten, with its characters careening around the country from one piece of American Grotesque tWarren Ellis’ first novel is kind of sketchy and underwritten, with its characters careening around the country from one piece of American Grotesque to another. Mike and Trix are likeable, if somewhat thinly presented—two lines of dialogue from Trix about why she likes Mike are probably the closest the narrative comes to conveying why we should root for the guy. In a more perfect world, Ellis would have spent less time on all the gross shit our heroes encounter (and there is a lot of gross shit—the novel opens with a mutant rat pissing in Mike’s coffee, and spirals downward from there) and more time developing the pair themselves. That said, what does make it to the page is strangely compelling, and Ellis is, as usual, a sharp and witty writer. The book kind of reads like Transmet Lite, but for what it is—for a book I finished in three bus rides and one lunch break—I enjoyed it, almost in spite of itself....more
**spoiler alert** Ridiculously boring—not to mention just plain ridiculous—mystery by a literary author (John Banville) slumming it in genre fiction u**spoiler alert** Ridiculously boring—not to mention just plain ridiculous—mystery by a literary author (John Banville) slumming it in genre fiction under a pseudonym. (I have never understood this—why not just genre hop under your real name? All the cool kids are doing it!) The plot is convoluted, involving unwanted pregnancies and a baby smuggling ring and nuns. Actually, what the plot is is thin and convoluted, somehow; there’s very little mystery to be solved, really, but our hero, the drab and (we’re told) physically imposing medical examiner Quirke, sure takes his time. And along the way a lot of women throw themselves at him for no reason—so much for gritty realism—and Quirke’s young female relative is sexually assaulted for no reason other than the fact that Black/Banville couldn’t come up with any other kind of climactic event to finish off this slow slog of a book. I was just glad the damn thing was over. We sell a lot of copies of this novel (and its sequel, which I now have no intention of reading) at my store, but when there are exciting and complex literary mysteries out there like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to read, I really do not understand why....more
Perfectly pleasant cozy-type mystery, which takes place in the ’70s and stars an old-fashioned professor at a small American agricultural college. I lPerfectly pleasant cozy-type mystery, which takes place in the ’70s and stars an old-fashioned professor at a small American agricultural college. I liked Professor Shandy’s quiet wit and general oddness, and MacLeod manages to deliver at least one deliciously creepy image. This was a rec from Wychwood, and I can see why she enjoys the series; if I stumbled across any of MacLeod’s other books at a library sale, I’d probably snatch them up. However, this wasn’t memorable enough that I’ll be actively and desperately seeking them out....more
Dull dull dull mystery about a female film editor/plumber and two local sheep farmers/eccentrics pursuing a murderous “werewolf” across the French couDull dull dull mystery about a female film editor/plumber and two local sheep farmers/eccentrics pursuing a murderous “werewolf” across the French countryside. The werewolf’s on foot, and the three of them are in a rickety old truck repurposed from transporting sheep, so the chase is about as high-speed and exciting as being stuck behind a farm vehicle on a narrow road. I just did not get this book at all. The characters had all these weird traits—one of the shepherds is obsessed with definitions and mythology; the other is, um, old; and as for the editor/plumber, Camille, well…her two chosen careers are “editor” and “plumber,” an unlikely mix to be sure, but Vargas never connected this to anything interesting or profound about her character. She’s an editor and a plumber. Also a part-time amateur werewolf hunter.
Maybe part of the problem I was having was that some of these characters have been featured in Vargas’ earlier books, including Camille and a Commissaire Adamsberg, who’s barely in the first two-thirds of this novel but is supposedly the series’ main character. (I figured this out based on the fact that the front of my copy had “Commisaire Adamsberg Investigates” solemnly imprinted upon it.) Okay, my bad for not reading the other books first, but a talented author can still make her characters come alive whenever they come on stage. Everyone in this book seemed as flat as the landscape was hilly.
It may have also been a bad translation. A clue: there’s an ongoing joke about Camille not being able to remember (or not caring to remember) another character’s dog’s name. There are a lot of puns—I think they’re meant to be puns; jokes, anyway—based on the other, incorrect things she calls this dog. But in English, the dog’s given name is Woof, and none of Camille’s mistakes (or inability to remember the frickin’ name) make any sense based on that moniker. It’s entirely possible that this gag was HILARIOUS in the original French, but in English it’s just…puzzling.
Equally puzzling: why I persisted in reading this book to the end. Maybe it was so I could discover that the killer was exactly who I expected, based on the character serving no other purpose in the narrative....more
Easily my favorite book of the year so far, which I certainly didn’t expect it to be during the first 25 pages, which are all about the Swedish financEasily my favorite book of the year so far, which I certainly didn’t expect it to be during the first 25 pages, which are all about the Swedish financial system. But once you get through that, this becomes a fantastic, can’t-put-it-down thriller grounded in great characters. The way I always describe this book to customers (I sell the crap out of this baby) is: “A disgraced financial reporter and a female private investigator team up to solve the mystery of a young girl who disappeared off an island in the ’60s,” and then I ramble on until they buy it about how awesome these characters are. THEY ARE REALLY AWESOME. Lisbeth Salander, the aforementioned P.I., has already become one of my favorite fictional characters ever, and I am very impressed with Larsson for creating such a complex, fascinating woman. Not to mention that amazing rarity: a novel—and a thriller, no less!—in which the women not only rescue themselves, they rescue the men....more