Ever since reading Shadowland when I was a teenager, I’ve been a big fan of Peter Straub. Reading Ghost Story was great, and one of the scenes in the...moreEver since reading Shadowland when I was a teenager, I’ve been a big fan of Peter Straub. Reading Ghost Story was great, and one of the scenes in the book represents one of the few moments I can recall where a passage in a book really, truly got under my skin. I think he’s an effective storyteller with a great sense of what’s creepy, and I was thrilled to see that he had written a short novel that was supposed to be the be-all, end-all of creepiness.
It’s true that the book is creepy. It’s about a young boy who receives tutelage from his uncle about how to develop and support his murderous nature. This isn’t a new idea — hell, there’s a television series on Showtime about this very thing — but Straub takes it into dark, dark corners. This isn’t a mainstream story; it lacks a real plot, and settles instead on sheer character development to drive the narrative. The focus is strictly on the young boy and how he goes from being an abuser of animals to a full-blown psychopath. It’s effective, because it’s a chilling look at that development, and because while Straub doesn’t shy away from showing us the bad stuff, he doesn’t do so in a clinical way. It’s just enough to make his point.
The thing is, there’s not really much resolution here. Anyone looking for a denouement will be left behind, as will anyone looking for some sort of retribution. It was somewhat disappointing in that sense, but I’ve since learned that this novella was written as a way to show some of the backstory to the main character in one of Straub’s other novels, A Dark Matter. This is cleverly revealed in the subtitle of the book, but I somehow missed that novel, and didn’t realize that this was just a prologue. On the one hand, the novella felt like it was missing something; on the other hand, it piqued my interest enough to want to read the novel.
I think so long as readers going into this novella realize that it’s a prologue to a larger story, they’re going to be satisfied with it. As it is, though, I’m not sure I would recommend it as a stand-alone book.(less)
Justin Cronin. That’s right. That’s the name of the guy who wrote this book. I couldn’t remember, even after reading the book. Why is that? Well, his...moreJustin Cronin. That’s right. That’s the name of the guy who wrote this book. I couldn’t remember, even after reading the book. Why is that? Well, his name certainly doesn’t ring any bells with me. If this were his first novel, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s actually his third, and based on what I read about him on the dustjacket flap, I doubt I would go out and read his other two books based on their summary alone. So even after reading the book, I probably won’t have any name recognition with this guy. What compelled me to read it, anyway?
First, I noticed the summary of the book sounded a lot like The Stand by Stephen King. I thought that was a good start (Swan Song and The Road started there, too, and were both awfully good), but then I noticed King’s own praise printed on the back of the book. OK, I thought, that may not mean too much; he also heaped a lot of praise on Jodi Picoult, an author who I felt was overwrought. But it’s definitely enough to get me started. And how did that go?
By the time I reached page 8 of this book, I was hooked. It may have been even sooner than that, but I do remember looking at where I was in the book when I realized that I wasn’t going to be quitting it any time soon. By page 17, I already felt emotionally wrenched, and I had a moment where I thought, “How does that happen?” How does one get wrapped up in a character so quickly? I had the feeling that I was in the hands of a good author, and I settled in for a book that I expected would haunt my thoughts, enough so that I would start looking forward to the time when I could return to the book. For the most part, that was the case.
The Passage is not a perfect novel. It begs comparison to King’s own The Stand, since the story is a massive post-apocalyptic novel that’s about rebuilding after the destruction. This isn’t really a spoiler — this fact is mentioned on the dustjacket flap — but that isn’t made clear until about 200 pages into the book. What this means is that the novel is broken down into two distinct parts — the destruction, and life afterward. With The Stand, King managed to put all these parts together with a cohesive story that led logically from one part to another, using characters that popped up throughout the narrative. The Passage has a character that shows up in all the parts, but in some of them, the appearance is brief, meaning that you have two different stories in this novel. It makes the novel a little disjointed, and it’s easy to lose focus on the story, since the author gets us all wrapped up in a handful of characters, only to dismiss them and move on to some different ones each time. It requires a lot of investment on the reader’s part, and it’s risky, since it makes it easier to quit on the book when it shifts away from the characters you really want to see more. Cronin manages to make the story continually interesting, but I would have preferred a more straightforward approach to the characters and the story.
In addition, the book itself was a bit schizophrenic, in that about half of the novel was a portrayal of how the world devolves into chaos due to the release of a biohazard, while the rest of the novel was a tale of survival after the fact. The progression made sense — the two halves are clearly related — but it was almost like you get settled in to read a book of one type, only to start reading a different one a few pages later. It’s not necessarily bad, but it did take me longer to finish the second half of the book than the first half, because it just wasn’t as interesting.
In the end, I was satisfied when I finished the book, but only because I had finished it, not because I felt like it was some redeeming story. That’s a real shame, too, because the first third of this book was well-paced, well-told, and populated with very likable characters. If he had managed to maintain that level of storytelling with the entire book, I would be more interested in the book overall. As it is, though, I can only recommend it with hesitation.(less)
So, the series draws to a close with this novel, and true to form, Larsson took the same cast of characters (plus a few extra) and made a different so...moreSo, the series draws to a close with this novel, and true to form, Larsson took the same cast of characters (plus a few extra) and made a different sort of novel using them all. This time, he wrote a pretty good police procedural thriller that, to me, was far more interesting than any of the other books in that genre I've read. Granted, I haven't read that many of them, but still, I wasn't left wanting for more with this book. Other than the occasional episode of "Law and Order," I find police procedurals to be pretty dull.
This novel was probably the most difficult to finish, because (a) police procedurals are usually full of details, and (b) I've already covered how Larsson covers every teeny-tiny little detail of his novels in microscopic, clinical detail. Combine the two characteristics and you get a near-tedious presentation of everything that happens in the book. The book started out well -- it literally started right where the second book left off -- and then hit the doldrums for a few hundred pages before it picked up near the end, as the trial began. Interestingly, the trial itself doesn't take that long, but the detail is just right at that point. The author shifted from narrative to dialogue for much of that portion of the novel, and it increased the pace and readability of that part of the story. By then, it was smooth sailing through the end of the book.
I wish that Larsson had lived long enough to pursue this series. I understand that he had up to ten books planned out before his death, and given that he was writing distinctly different books with each novel, I would be curious to see where he would take his characters next. Surely a science fiction or fantasy setting wasn't too far off, right? Because that's what we would all really like to see: Salander in space.(less)
The second book in the so-called Millennium trilogy picks up right where the last one left off, more or less. It follows the main players — Salander,...moreThe second book in the so-called Millennium trilogy picks up right where the last one left off, more or less. It follows the main players — Salander, Blomkvist, and Vanger — and brings us up to speed on what’s happened to them since the mystery of the first novel resolved itself. It also takes a bit of a turn, with a new story developing that involves Salander, Blomkvist, and a criminal mastermind who goes by the name of Zala. It involves murder, intrigue, espionage, and adventure, much like a Bond film. And, truth be told, this sort of does read like a Bond story, though without the suave, debonair approach that Bond typically brings to such stories.
Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire gets off to a very slow start, and almost plods along at certain points as the author goes far off target and goes into excruciating detail about … well, nearly everything. He talks about what people do when they get ready in the morning. He writes about what kinds of furniture and appliance brands people buy for their apartments. He writes about the insects and worms that live in the dirt surrounding the buildings where the crimes take place. (OK, no, not really. But I’m a little surprised that he didn’t.) When he focuses on the story and the plot, the book sings as it zips along, but there’s just so much detail in the books that it becomes almost distracting.
I do find it interesting that the story has such a different feel than the first book in the series. In Tattoo, the book is a big mystery with a large cast of characters; in Fire, the book is more a political intrigue thriller, with a smaller cast of characters. I could be all coy and predict that the third book will be something different from these two books, but truth be told, I’m almost halfway through the third book already, and I can already tell that this might be the case. So I have to give the author credit for pulling off that sort of diversity in the series.
Still, the novel ain’t perfect. Tedium of detail aside, the characters are almost Koontz-ian in their perfection, to the point where I have to say that I don’t know people like this in real life. It has nothing to do with the situations they find themselves in; it’s more that I don’t know people who have the perfect answer to every question, and know all the right people, who have the perfect answer to the questions you couldn’t answer yourself. These are all moral, uplifting, smart, perfect people, and in the end, it’s difficult to read stories like that, because I can’t relate to the characters. It becomes a little frustrating, but once I get caught up in the story, I sort of forget about it all.
In addition, the story was a lot less interesting than that of the first novel in the series. This might be because the character development stopped to some degree (we find out much more about Salander, but Blomkvist is already a painted canvas), or because the idea of a political thriller is less interesting to me than a Gothic mystery. Either way, it took a little more dedication to get through the novel, which was a bit of a bummer. I figure it’s never a good sign to find that, while I’m reading one book, I’m thinking of another book I’d rather be reading.
Still, once it gets going, it’s pretty good, and once it gets on course, it keeps your attention. I just wish it had been able to maintain that sense of something new and fresh that was evident in the first novel.(less)
This book is a hard one to peg. On the one hand, it's a mystery; on the other hand, it's a police procedural; on the OTHER other hand, it's a thriller...moreThis book is a hard one to peg. On the one hand, it's a mystery; on the other hand, it's a police procedural; on the OTHER other hand, it's a thriller; and on the OTHER OTHER other hand, it's a political intrigue novel. That it's set against the backdrop of the world of financial journalism makes it unique, and that it's a compellingly readable story makes it worth the time to read. So it's not completely surprising that this is an "international best-selling novel," but to be such a hybrid of different genres, it's successful despite itself.
I say that because my biggest complaint about the novel is that it's almost clinical in its description of the minutiae of life of its characters. If you've ever wondered what it's like to live in Sweden during the deep winter, or what the typical drudgery of being a researcher is like, or what it entails to be a financial journalist, then this is definitely the book for you. Larsson covers in great detail all of these different aspects of life, which in part accounts for the near 600-page length of the book. While it gets a little tedious to see so much detail, it's still written in such a way as to be relatively fascinating, enough so that you're not going to be taken too much out of the story during these passages.
There were a couple of parts that seemed a little clunky, too. The main character has a daughter with whom he isn't estranged, but he doesn't see her often. She pops in right in the middle of the novel for about four pages, and provides the clue to keep the plot moving along. It was plainly obvious that she was only there for that one purpose only, and it stood out to me like a neon sign. There were also a number of references to authors and novels listed strictly for flavor, without being necessary to the plot at all, and I felt like the author threw them in there for recognition more than anything else. It wasn't that Larsson was going for his own recognition, as much as he was giving a shout out to his inspirations, but it was pretty clear that's what the purpose of the comments were. As I understand it, though, this was Larsson's first novel, despite having been a writer for years, so I can overlook some mechanical gaffes in the narrative. As compelling as the story is, it was very easy to overlook them, in fact.
And that's ultimately what I look for in the books I read: Story. This single novel has it in droves, with plots, subplots, and sub-subplots, peopled with likable characters with their own flaws, set against a historical backdrop in a remote, out-of-the-way place. What starts off as a single-minded plot becomes much more layered and involved, without it ever seeming contrived or forced. The good guys win and the bad guys lose, but the journey to see who's who, what drives the different characters, and the growth that they endure over the course of events will keep you stuck with the story, no matter how much you want to be doing anything else. The book may have a few flaws, but what works in it works so damn well that the flaws will hardly make a difference to you by the end.
By now, you have to have heard about this book. Now you just need to get out there and read it.(less)
Joe Lansdale writes some weird stuff. Consider “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a novella about a dying Elvis impersonator living in a nursing home, a black man who be...moreJoe Lansdale writes some weird stuff. Consider “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a novella about a dying Elvis impersonator living in a nursing home, a black man who believes he’s JFK in hiding from the government, and a mummy who’s stealing the souls of the nursing home residents.
Sunset and Sawdust is a more mainstream novel for Lansdale, set in 1930s Texas, but it’s not without the normal Lansdale weirdness. Sunset, the main character, so named because of her long, fiery-red hair, has just shot her husband because she’s had enough of him beating her up and raping her. When she goes to her mother-in-law for help, she finds not a woman distressed at the loss of her son, but a sympathetic woman who gives her the position of Constable at Camp Rapture, the local sawmill. Aside from her bring a woman constable in Depression-era Texas, she raises even more controversy because the constable she replaced was Pete, the husband she shot.
A lot happens in this brief novel, but Lansdale pulls it off without making it seem convoluted (an achievement all by itself) or forced. At the beginning of the novel, I had an issue with how one of the characters reacted to a certain plot point, but by the end of the book, Lansdale had explained that away, and made it seem more acceptable. It was a bit jarring at first, but by the time I had finished the book and thought back on the beginning, knowing the whole story, it made perfect sense. I should have known to expect something like that, knowing that Lansdale is an accomplished writer with more than a few tricks, but it was a nice surprise. It just reaffirms my faith in him as an author.
The other great thing about Lansdale is his turns of phrase. He writes like you would expect a Texan would , and comes up with some very clever metaphors. He describes the color of a sunset as being like a razor had been slashed across the horizon, and he describes a hot, searing sun as like a blister hanging in the sky. The banter between characters is also a sort of signature of Lansdale’s, and it never gets tiring; if nothing else, it accounts for much of the humor in his stories. It’s always dry, but it never fails to get a laugh from me.
Lansdale, though, is also a brutal writer. He doesn’t hesitate to show you the darkest nature of his characters (protagonists and antagonists alike), and he won’t shy away from violence. I suppose you could best categorize his books as noir, but the East Texas settings, and the characters who live there, make his stories a category unto themselves. Noir is usually reserved for dark alleys and average men; Lansdale populates his stories with bright, sunlit areas and odd characters. Southern noir? Country noir? Who knows? It’s worth reading, though, and Sunset and Sawdust is as good a place as any to start.(less)