There's something decidedly off, combining erotic romance with a serial rapist-killer. Just putting those words in the same sentence together makes me...moreThere's something decidedly off, combining erotic romance with a serial rapist-killer. Just putting those words in the same sentence together makes me cringe. It seemed ... tasteless, to me.
It's a suspense-thriller with so-called erotic sex and it fails miserably. Nikki is a surgeon with a high-stress career and secretly wants to be dominated in bed; her search for fulfilment leads her to exchange emails with a man who likes to dominate, Richard. After a few weeks of exchanging emails that get more and more explicit, she agrees to meet him. There's something wrong though, and before anything happens she's rescued by Detective Thomas Cavanagh, who's after a serial killer who rapes and tortures women before removing their hearts.
Thomas has read all Nikki's correspondence with Richard and wants to be the man to dominate her - forced to live together for her protection at a safe house, he gets his wish but does she really mean it? And who is the Amy he talks to in his sleep, saying he loves her, that makes Nikki jealous? There's plenty of miscommunication or lack of entirely that strings out their relationship, but ultimately the juxtaposition of sexual play alongside grisly murders just turned me off. I confess I skimmed a lot of it, something I very rarely do. I've read one short story by Black and liked her style, and hoped this would be good. But I should have looked more closely into it before picking it up, because if I'd known it would have been about this I wouldn't have bothered.(less)
Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective in the Jewish territory carved out of Alaska after WWII. They held Israel for only a short time before they were kicked out of there, and now it's happening again. Reversion - when the US is going to take the land back - is only a few months away and the Jews are once again finding themselves homeless. Landsman is a divorced alcoholic but a good detective; when a man in the hotel where he's been living is found dead, executed by a single bullet to the back of the head, he feels drawn to the dead man. They lived so close but never met, never saw each other. And certain things about the dead Yid - a junkie and a genius chess player who went by the name of Frank - lure Landsman in.
But changes due to the approaching Reversion mean that he and his partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, aren't allowed to touch the case. Obeying directives that stink isn't one of Landsman's talents, though, and he suspects a cover-up, especially when he discovers that the dead Yid was a Verbover - a tight-knit orthodox Jewish sect that have their own island. Even more suspicious, he turns out to have been the only son of the Verbover Rebbe - and quietly hailed as the Tzaddik Ha-Dor: a potential Messiah, the man who will lead the Jewish people back to the Holy Land and bring about a world of peace and prosperity.
So why was he killed? Why did he leave the Verbovers in the first place and become a heroin addict? Why aren't the Verbover's trying to get American Green Cards or emigrate to Canada or somewhere else; what are they waiting for? What does the incomplete chess game in "Frank's" hotel room mean, and could this whole mess possibly have something to do with Landsman's sister Naomi's earlier death?
This is a tightly structured novel, drawing you deep into the insular world of Sitka and its Jewish denizens. It had a depressing feel to it, did Sitka. I kept picturing communist-Romania concrete cities, only worse. Run-down, cheaply made, bare-boned, ugly buildings. Made more so by the pervasive depressive air of its inhabitants. Chabon excelled at atmosphere here!
I know very little about Jews and Judaism - we covered it in my Year 11 Religion class, but considering we spent an entire semester on the Australian Aborigines and then crammed Buddhism, Judaism and Islam into second semester (and got way behind because we were so confused by the structure of Buddhism), it's fair to say that I have a far from in-depth understanding of the religion. More than that, though, I've never really understood what "Yiddish" is. I had to look it up. Embarrassing I know. I don't think my state (Tasmania) has a large Jewish presence - it has a Synagogue or two, but no one really talked about being Jewish. If I had Jewish friends - and I very easily might have done - I didn't know it. We're all mongrels there anyway, so what does it matter?
But I do understand that the Jews were - are -homeless and persecuted no matter where they went, and I know enough about the Promised Land to understand the motivations behind the characters in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and also to feel their incredible "adriftness", a weird blend of apathy and resignation and everlasting hope and expectation. That's how it came across, anyway.
Landsman was a character I instantly felt drawn to, and sympathetic for, even though he could be frustrating and made stupid decisions and his messes affected other people. He's so very real. I loved his ex too, Bina, his boss. She's a tough nut. And Berko, his cousin. I absolutely adored Inspector Dick - he was so alive I felt like I could reach out and touch him (though he'd have something very sharp and biting to say if I tried). Oh hell, I loved them all! Even the bad guys - and they were scary. Not overdone, but subtle and menacing. The Big Plot itself was scary. Especially because so many powerful people were involved, there was that sense of being squished hanging over Landsman.
I wasn't always able to follow the plot or keep up with the impressive cast of characters. That's mostly my own fault, because I was reading several other books at the same time. The language, now, that's something I will always love Chabon for. I did feel that he may have overdone it a bit and the entire book could have been shorter, but the language was consistent and suited the tone of the novel (it created the tone as well, I know, but they go hand-in-hand. It's "artistic expression"). His descriptions are simple, stark and effective, and also poetic and vibrant with metaphor:
Look at Landsman, one shirttail hanging out, snow-dusted porkpie knocked to the left, coat hooked to a thumb over his shoulder. Hanging on to a sky-blue cafeteria ticket as if it's the strap keeping him on his feet. His cheek needs the razor. His back is killing him. For reasons he doesn't understand - or maybe for no reason - he hasn't had a drink of alcohol since nine-thirty in the morning. Standing in the chrome-and-tile desolation of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria at nine o'clock on a Friday night, in a snowstorm, he's the loneliest Jew in the Sitka District. He can feel the shifting of something dark and irresistible inside him, a hundred tons of black mud on a hillside, gathering its skirts to go sliding. The thought of food, even a golden ingot of the noodle pudding that is the crown jewel of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria, makes him queasy. But he hasn't eaten all day. (p146)
The first half of the book is a bit slow, but the second half buzzes with action and suspense. You can read it as a superb mystery-detective story, or as speculative fiction pondering the Jewish Question and more. For me, I read it as a Chabon fan. I can appreciate the detective side, the speculative fiction side, but mostly I appreciate it for being a bloody good novel, even if I'm not gaga over it.(less)
I had initially picked this up to read because of the 1930s Mini-Challenge a few months back, but didn't get around to it at the time. It's the first...moreI had initially picked this up to read because of the 1930s Mini-Challenge a few months back, but didn't get around to it at the time. It's the first Hammett book I've read, though I did watch (and study) The Maltese Falcon for a course on Film Noir at uni. With that story and main character in mind, The Thin Man was both what I expected, and quite different.
The blurb describes the set-up thusly: "Nick and Nora Charles are Dashiell Hammett's most enchanting creations, a rich, glamorous couple who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis." How could you resist that? And how different a set-up is that from the classic noir detective of The Maltese Falcon? Not only is Nick affable, but he's married! To a beautiful young woman who's smart and elegant and behaves sensibly. Though, Nora isn't very involved in the investigation: Nick tells her everything, and she notices things and passes them on to him, but the spotlight is Nick's alone.
In this story, he comes into contact with a family he used to know, the Wynants: old Clyde Wynant is a reclusive, paranoid inventor, divorced from the mother of his two children, Mimi, a rather violent woman who thinks she's clever and who has married a beautiful younger man, Christian Jorgensen. The two children, now grown into young adults, are Dorothy and Gilbert. None of the people in this family are at all likeable, and they're all rather off. So when Clyde's secretary is murdered just when Mimi happens to be visiting (to see if she can get more money out of her ex), the whole family begins to look suspect.
However, the chief suspect is Clyde himself. Because Nick was a former detective and everyone involved knows him, he becomes involved in the case despite wanting nothing to do with it. The biggest hurdle is trying to work his way through all the lies - it seems like no one can say an honest thing, especially Mimi, who is always trying to work every situation to her advantage.
It's not often - in fact, I can't think of another example quite like this - that I read a book that's almost wholly dialogue-driven. It's rather like a play, or a screenplay perhaps, but definitely like a play. Every scene is an interaction between key players, with very little fleshing out beyond what comes across in speech. I actually found it harder to read, or I should say slow-going. It took me about two months to read this because it couldn't hold my attention for very long at any one time -which made it hard to keep track of who they were talking about, or the point of a conversation.
When it's not dialogue, it's pure narrative, or description: I went here, I did this, I got in the taxi, she poured the drinks etc. No embellishment. No adjectives. If I was more into the story, I would have appreciated it more I'm sure (I'm pointing this out because it's interesting to me, not because it's a negative). It's been years since I read an older detective story - like Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler, for example - so I'm not sure if it's common to the noir genre or not; but it is a style well suited to it. I tried to read a PD James novel a few years ago that a friend leant me, and I couldn't get into it at all. It was the same kind of thing, just introducing characters without embellishment, dry conversations which you presume will have import later on, a mapping out of people's movements ... I find it very boring. So yes, this is definitely not the genre of story I read, though I have enjoyed the older ones before.
I want to reiterate: this isn't a bad book, it isn't badly written, there's honestly nothing wrong with it - I just didn't enjoy it much. I couldn't get into the story or the characters or their conversations, which left me nothing to go with. I was bored. I didn't care very much who killed Julia Wolf, and it was such a close-mouthed case that very little in terms of revelations happen until close to the end (and they're all irrelevant in the end anyway). I don't make any effort to predict a "whodunnit", so I was nicely surprised by the real crime and the perpetrator. At the end, it's pretty impressive just how turned around Hammett made me, by throwing the Wynant family in my face (and boy, are they an hysterical handful!).
Nick Charles is a funny sort, quite the alcoholic - Nora too probably. My reading of the novel was too disjointed to get a very clear idea of them; but then again, I'm not sure that if I'd read it in one sitting I'd have got a better feel for them. I also didn't find them as clever as I felt I should, though there were some nice nuances going on beneath things - like when Dorothy Wynant was always throwing herself at Nick - as was her mother Mimi - and Nora is rather bemused by it all. I liked Nora quite a bit, and was disappointed she wasn't in it more (and when she was, she was always pouring Nick a drink or taking Dorothy into a bedroom - nothing kinky of course; Dorothy was always distraught, drunk, weepy or psychotic. The entire family was weird, which was rather fun).
Overall I'd say, if you like detective fiction and especially the older sort, you'll probably enjoy this. As for me, it didn't encourage me to read more Hammett, though I'm glad I read one to get a taste of his work. (less)
Nina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works at a clinic by day and by night helps hundreds of illegal immigrants hiding across Denmark. With a history of...moreNina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works at a clinic by day and by night helps hundreds of illegal immigrants hiding across Denmark. With a history of abruptly leaving her husband Morten and their two young kids for stints in refugee camps in Africa, Nina is passionate, caring and driven to help the unfortunate. When her old friend Karin calls her with an urgent request one day, Nina doesn't say no. Karin gives her a key for a locker at the Copenhagen train station which contains a suitcase. And inside the suitcase is an unconscious, naked three year old boy.
Nina's first thought is child trafficking, and she has little faith in the police actually being able to help; still, she goes back to the train station to report it. But while there she witnesses a large man violently attacking the very locker she found the suitcase in - and he notices her, the way she was looking at him, like she knew. But Nina doesn't really believe the man is after her and the boy until she arranges to meet Karin at her family's lake house, and instead finds her brutally murdered.
Now on the run with a boy who doesn't speak her language and with no one to help her, Nina must try to figure out the boy's origins in the hopes of reuniting him with his family, before the man finds them and she ends up like Karin.
Such a summary as that only tells part of the story, and there's so much more to it than that. The cast of characters, aside from Nina, includes her husband Morten; a wealthy businessman called Jan Marquart who lives in a fortress-like house on the coast with his wife Anne and son Aleksander; the man who abducted the boy, Jučas, and his older girlfriend Barbara; and the boy, Mikas, and his single mother, Sigita Ramoškienė, from Lithuania. The story moves between Nina's side of the story and Sigita's on two different planes of time until they meet at the end, with Jan and Jučas appearing when required. There are other, more minor characters, and as the story progresses we learn more about Nina and her personality, and why her husband sometimes talks to her like she's irresponsible and incompetent. It also gives Sigita's backstory, and truly, it's all put together so beautifully, like a very clever jigsaw puzzle - and I love jigsaw puzzles.
I'm not a big crime reader, I only occasionally read novels like this, and I almost never read pop fiction thrillers and murder mysteries - Tess Gerritson, Tana French, Kathy Reichs etc. - I had to read some for a course at uni and I found them very boring and poorly written, so, not for me. But these "literary" crime novels, I often enjoy these. There's so much more emphasis on character development, the plots are more interesting and they often speak to social issues, economics and politics. With all of those ingredients present, they're more likely to engage me and get me emotionally invested. Which is exactly what happened here, and why I loved this so much.
First of all, now that I have a child of my own, I'm even more deeply affected by stories involved bad things happening to children and mothers than I was before, which is saying a lot. Sigita's story almost made me sick with fear and panic, though it's never reduced to corny melodrama. Sigita keeps her head, and while she struggles to be taken seriously by the police and feels the crush of hopelessness, the threat of panic - her boy could be anywhere, anything could have been done to him - she is also possessed of that unique drive that comes over women when their children are threatened, that single-minded determination. Even just recalling it while I type this, makes those emotions zing through me. She was a strong, well-developed character, young and isolated and too aware that, after long enough, her son won't even remember who she is.
In contrast, Nina was a less familiar, more unique character, but one who becomes familiar and understandable. When her first baby, Ida, is only five months old, she suddenly leaves her family for Liberia, only telling Morten when she was already at the airport. To have a woman just abandon her husband and baby like that, it seems so cruel and selfish, but throughout the novel we get the pieces to better understand Nina, who has an almost psychological problem, like a mental illness.
Only much later had she succeeded in explaining herself to [Morten], at least to some extent. He had noticed that she was finding it harder to sleep, that she was constantly watching Ida, day and night, that she seemed to be afraid of disasters, real or imagined. He had tried to calm her fears, but facts and rationality didn't seem to have much effect on her conviction that something horrible could happen to the child.
... She led a remarkably efficient one-woman crusade to save the world. It was only her own family who could reduce her to abject helplessness. [pp.169-170]
Perhaps because Nina was caring for this little abducted boy, but I never saw her as a bad mother. Just different, and struggling to not let the horrible things that happen in the world completely overwhelm her. She helps the illegal refugees in Denmark as a way of actively doing something, lest her sense of disaster destroy her sanity. It made sense.
The interesting thing about Jan Marquart, is that when we first meet him at the very beginning, the hints or clues indicate that maybe his son has been kidnapped, and he's being blackmailed. I'm sure that's deliberate. We only gradually, bit by bit, learn more and rearrange our impression of Jan, until it comes somewhat full circle. I went through several hypotheses and didn't quite hit on the right one, though I was close. Truly, it's very cleverly written, and a remarkable achievement considering this is the first crime novel the duo of Kaaberbøl and Friis have written - one a fantasy author, the other a children's writer. I can never really imagine how it works, writing a book together, and this one is so seamless, you can't tell that there are two authors. And with Kaaberbøl writing the English translations, you know that nothing's really being lost in translation, either. The writing is gripping, quietly suspenseful, emotionally engaging and sometimes violent.
Karin is dead, she thought, gripping the steering wheel still harder. She had tried to wipe her hands on a crumbled, jellybean-sticky tissue she had found in the glove compartment, but the blood had had time to dry and lay like a thin rust-colored film over her palm and fingertips.
Unbidden, the feel of Karin's skull came back to her. Like one of those big, luxurious, foil-wrapped Easter eggs Morten's parents always bought for Ida and Anton, and which always got dropped on the floor somehow. The shell under the foil would feel flattened and frail, just like Karin's head. She had ben able to feel individual fragments of bone moving under the scalp as she probed. [p.125]
The novel presents a very urban, European Denmark, a country hiding its flaws and ineffective police force. Through Nina we get her scepticism, her distrust of the system and the camps provided for orphaned or homeless children. We meet prostitutes and foreign women trapped in abusive relationships. It's nothing unique to Denmark, and a crime novel is never going to paint a pretty picture of a place. It is the individual characters - some of them - who shine through with their own moral integrity and compassion. Same in Lithuania, with Sigita. The ex-Communist bloc country is a mix of modern Europe and bleak poverty; makes you want to learn more.
And overall, as someone from an island country which shares no borders with anyone, the politics and social justice issues associated with all the refugees and people trafficking, is something that feels so foreign to me - not because we don't have illegal refugees or, perhaps, people trafficking in Australia, but because, without borders you can just drive across, they're not issues, people, that are an accepted part of everyday life, the social fabric. They're still Big Topics, things to be debated about publicly, discovered, uncovered, and punished (the traffickers, not the refugees, though the politicians don't agree). It's hard to explain, but there is a different way of thinking about your place, depending on the landscape - the political landscape as much as anything else. It just seems so easy, for someone to be abducted and sold in another country, within Europe. It's scary.
Probably my one disappointment with this book was the ending. After the climax, the real ending. The tidying-up. I really wanted to know what Nina told the police, especially since she hadn't reported Karin's death and they'd been looking for her, too. I wanted to know how Jan was explained. It just felt like there were some loose ends left hanging. The tidying-up wasn't very tidy, really. Emotionally, yes, sort of, but not plot-wise.
I will definitely be reading more Nina Borg stories, but I'm also interested in reading some of Lene Kaaberbøl's fantasy fiction, and Agnete Friis's children's books, if they're available in English. If you want a really solid, original and unpredictable crime novel, I heartily recommend The Boy in the Suitcase.(less)
Stephanie Plum is fresh out of a job, out of money and out of options when her mother mentions that cousin Vinnie is looking for someone to do some fi...moreStephanie Plum is fresh out of a job, out of money and out of options when her mother mentions that cousin Vinnie is looking for someone to do some filing for him. Vinnie runs a bail bonds company, and since the filing has been filled, his friendly receptionist, Connie, suggests Stephanie do some "skip tracing" - finding people who'd skipped out on their bond (meaning, they hadn't shown up for their court date). She can earn 10% of the bail bond for bringing one in to the police station, and such a reward makes Stephanie feel a bit dizzy. Her car has been repossessed and her phone disconnected. She's already hawked all her furniture and appliances to make ends meet, so the lure of earning $10,000 from bringing someone in who's bond was a hundred grand makes her determined to take on the job, despite Vinnie's protests.
Only problem is, the skip is a cop called Joe Morelli, accused of murder. He's also a womaniser with a long history, including Stephanie herself as a teenager, behind the counter at the pastry shop where she worked. In the process of trying to find Morelli, Stephanie makes herself a target in an increasingly complex case of missing women, drugs and one very scary, unhinged boxer called Benito Ramirez. If it weren't for the money, or rather the promise of money, she'd leave the bounty hunting to the big boys, but when it becomes a matter of personal survival, she realises she has to learn some serious survival skills.
I can see why this series is so popular: it's fun, funny, exciting, a bit scary and balances the fun with some dark, psycho characters and real danger. It's the kind of book I'd think of if someone said they were looking for a beach read (the kind of book I think "beach read" means).
At the top of things to love would have to be Grannie Mazur, Stephanie's widowed maternal grandmother who lives with her parents. She comes out in spandex shorts because she likes the look on Stephanie, and she loads Stephanie's gun at the dinner table and shoots the roast chicken. She's so funny! And in the background is Stephanie's quiet, long-suffering father, rolling his eyes. Stephanie's from a Hungarian - or half-Hungarian? - background and the family dynamic is often hilarious and reminiscent of the stereotypical Greek or Italian family and community. One of the reasons why her new job as a bounty hunter in New Jersey is at all doable is that it's where she grew up and everyone knows everyone, sort of. Though I have to say, never having been to New Jersey or even seen pictures to get any kind of impression, that based on the descriptions (and there's a lot of driving), I kept picturing L.A.
The characters is where One for the Money really excels. Stephanie is plucky, determined, aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and not a complete push-over. Joe is a solid cliché that I've seen on many TV shows and movies, but his familiarity only means that you like him that much faster. Grannie Mazur I've already mentioned, but there are others who, while not terribly original, are done well, believable, and entertaining. The scariest is of course the unhinged psychopath, Benito Ramirez. On his way to being a champion boxer, his penchant for mutilating and raping women is kept hushed up by his manager, Jimmy Alpha. One of the other bounty hunters, Ranger, didn't come across as strongly in this book, but I think in books further down the line Stephanie has some kind of relationship with him, so I think he makes more of a presence in later books. I liked him though. The fact that he didn't ogle Stephanie or make chauvinistic or stupid jokes when he had to help free her from her shower rod made me like him more.
The story is rather predictable - there were elements, small details, that took more time to work out but overall it was pretty obvious who was behind the cover-up that framed Morelli. It was also pretty obvious that Sal's was the place to check, especially considering Stephanie conveniently forgot about it for so long. I was confused that Stephanie would be confused about who would want her dead, especially when the car is blown up - she does hit on the name but not very seriously. And when she decides Ramirez is the master-mind behind it all? I felt confused myself. She knows perfectly well he's no planner and is pretty stupid, so that was a bit glaring right there.
It was good to see Stephanie grow into the job - it makes sense that she is constantly asking for help here, mostly from Ranger but also Morelli; it was fun getting to see her in her inept stage, because all too often we get tough female characters who are already established sharp-shooters who know kung-fu and all the rest of it (yeah I am thinking of Kitty Katt a bit here). It'll be great to see her grow - because of course I want to keep reading. I loved the banter, which actually made me laugh aloud a few times (hard for books to do), and the pacing was great: great balance of uneventful, getting-my-bearings, time for things to sink in periods with fast-paced, high adrenaline scenes of pure danger.
Plot-wise, I love that she "borrows" Morelli's car, and his reaction to it. I love that you never quite know how a scene will go - it might start out like it's going to be comical and then turn out to be dangerous, or vice versa.
And the time - this was first published in 1994 and the descriptions of clothing, in particular, give this a lovely daggy feeling. I mean, Stephanie is often wearing clothes you'd associate with the late-80s (including the spandex shorts), and it's a very daggy mental image, I love it. I am more used to British crime drama and police stories (I grew up watching The Bill), so when Eddie Gazarra said that PC stood for "plainclothesman" I was surprised - I'm more familiar with it standing for Police Constable, which made me wonder whether they use the term "constable" in America at all - I'm guessing not, now that I think of it. (It'd be the equivalent of Police Officer.)
All in all, this is a fun, quick read that keeps you turning the page, and I had no problem immersing myself in Stephanie's world (which is so different from my own). Its weak points are easily over-shadowed by its strengths, and the cast is memorable. Definitely happy to read more about Stephanie Plum. (less)
Forty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nell...moreForty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nella and Rose. But appearances can be deceiving. At fifteen, Nella is at a difficult age and Jessica is finding it hard to keep the lines of communication open between them. And she's still trying to recover from learning that Bob had a one-night stand with a much younger woman while on a business trip in Europe a month ago.
On the day Jess's story starts, she meets a potential new client on his first appointment. Gwydion Morgan is a young and extremely handsome local actor, whose best known for his on-going role in a popular Welsh TV soap. His father is the renowned stage director, Evan Morgan, who is equally famous for his numerous affairs and dalliances with other women, while his wife, Arianrhod, once a beautiful actress, wastes away at the family home, a forbidding stone mansion on the rocky Welsh coast. Gwydion has no love for his father but is close to his mother, and no other siblings.
Gwydion comes to Jessica with a fairly typical button phobia, which is a concern now that he's been picked to star in a new costume-drama (the costume he'll have to wear will have numerous buttons). Then he opens up to her about a recurring nightmare he's been having, in which he's a terrified little boy trapped in a dark box. Each time he returns to her office, he recounts the dream as it progresses, and each time, Jessica is sure she thinks she knows where it is going.
As much as she tries, she can't quite keep her own, very human, sense of curiosity out of Gwydion's case. Her friend, an actress called Mari, once had an affair with Evan and imparts some random bits of gossip about the family. And when Jess agrees, against her own rules, to visit the Morgan home in person when Gwydion falls into a deep depression, she is taken on a tour of the cliff-top garden by Arianrhod. At the edge of the cliff, at the top of a steep flight of stairs cut into the rockface, she sees a plaque, written in Swedish, memorialising the death of a young, pretty Swedish backpacker who drowned there.
As the Morgan family's secrets come bubbling to the surface, Jess gets more and more deeply involved in uncovering the truth in the hope of helping Gwydion recover and move on. But all is not as it seems with the Morgans, and Jess is not as in-control of the case as she believes.
I'm a bit torn over this one. While it had many qualities of good writing: swift, smooth, consistent pacing, a well-developed protagonist, some atmosphere and enough details to keep me interested, it was a bit predictable and a bit thin, plot-wise.
The setting - the Welsh coast, in particular - was a good one, and lively for the imagination. There was some atmosphere, but not as much as I would have liked; not as much as would have added tension and real suspense to the story.
Jessica was an interesting character, intelligent and honourable but flawed in the sense that she's a bit over-confident in her own analytical abilities and her own sense of righteousness, and she makes mistakes. She can be a bit unlikeable at times, which actually made me like her more because it made her feel more human. She could be surprisingly slow on the uptake at times, despite being intelligent overall, and she came across as rather cold and unfriendly. The reasons why Bob had a brief affair are hinted at, and as much as it doesn't excuse it, Jess has something to do with it. Her analysis of her own marital difficulties is patchy, and no wonder: it's all very well to look deep into someone else's problems while they sit on your couch, and discreetly guide them to the answers buried in their own minds, but quite another thing to accurately and honestly reflect on yourself. It takes Jess quite a while to realise that, and in the meantime - I can hardly believe it - I actually felt slightly sorry for Bob. Sorry for him in that he's a bit of a pathetic figure (anytime a 50+ year old man shags a 20-something woman, it's a bit sad, really. Mid-life crisis and all that), but also sorry for him because he could use a therapist himself, no doubt.
I am always very fascinated by the descriptions of therapy. Never having attended any kind of therapy session myself, I feel like a real voyeur, peeping in on someone else's. And it speaks to our all-too-human curiosity as to what's going on in other people's lives, partly to see what we can learn about coping techniques for ourselves. I studied some Freud at uni, in a couple of English courses, and was not impressed, but while his ideas were a bit ludicrous at times, I can see the merit in the principals of psychotherapy for some people, at least in the way Jessica works with her clients. As in Liane Moriarty's excellent novel, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I love getting that intimate access to a therapist's room, and hearing about the processes behind it.
But the plot, oh dear the plot. It really was rather predictable, and Jessica's family drama with Nella was more interesting to me than the murder mystery. It just felt a bit too contrived, a bit too convenient, and a bit too flawed. The concept for the set-up - which I don't want to explain as it would spoil the story, and I don't like giving spoilers if I can help it - seemed flimsy to me, and too obvious. After all, Jessica's dealing with a whole family of actors here, which she notes in the beginning and then forgets, so dazzled is she by Gwydion's beautiful face. (Was it just me or was the flirtation between them just plain creepy?)
As far as a quick mystery read goes, this was certainly quick. As far as a satisfying, suspenseful thriller goes, it was decidedly lacking. I didn't wholly dislike it, for the reasons mentioned above, but by the time I got to the ending I had rather lost interest in the whole family-secret-murder-mystery plot, and just wanted to hear more about human nature and Jessica's internal analysis.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
My friend Maria from Denmark got me onto these books and I'm so so glad she did. I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, last year,...moreMy friend Maria from Denmark got me onto these books and I'm so so glad she did. I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, last year, and as soon as book two came out in paperback a couple of months ago I grabbed a copy (I did pay for it). Then she told me it has a real cliffhanger ending, and that she'd send me book 3 (which wasn't even out here at the time). I waited till it arrived and then last weekend I took this one up to the cottage. It's perfect sunny day, waterside reading.
The main events are set about a year after the end of the first book, and aren't directly related to the mystery of that book. Lisbeth Salander, twenty-five, less than five feet tall and a skilled computer hacker, has broken off all communication with Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist she helped and had a relationship with in the first book. She has her stolen billions from the corporate criminal Wennerström and takes a year off, travelling around the world. When she returns to Stockholm, she makes some changes in her life. She buys an expensive condo and a car, reconnects with her friend Mimmi, and checks up on her state-appointed guardian, Bjurman.
She can't resist hacking into Blomkvist's computers and seeing what's he's working on: a feature and a book written by another journalist, Dag Svensson, on sex trafficking. Dag's partner, Mia Johansson, is doing her PhD on the same topic, though from a different angle. It's an absorbing project that Mikael is editing, and Salander doesn't become really interested until a name turns up in the research: Zala.
On the same night Lisbeth visits Dag and Mia to find out what they know about Zala, the couple are murdered. The murder weapon is a gun owned by Bjurman with Lisbeth's fingerprints on it.
Suddenly Salander is a fugitive, wanted for mass murders. Her history - or choice parts of it - are splashed across the papers and embellished. Only Blomkvist is sure of her innocence - and he intends to prove it. Of course Salander has her own plans, and everything centres on the mysterious unknown figure of Zala.
This is one very tight novel. While book 1 started off slow and had some even slower patches to get through, this second book is fast-paced and never dull. I was deeply engrossed and read most of the hefty book in one day (it helped to be lazing around at the cottage with few distractions!). From the beginning it held my absolute attention. The characters, established in the first book, become so much real here. Lisbeth in particular becomes the main attraction, and even reading about what she buys from IKEA for her new apartment engrossed me. (For readers who complain about "irrelevant" details in books, they'll no doubt hate this. Larsson's style is very detail-oriented at times.)
We learn about Lisbeth's past, and get her side of the story - as well as the psychiatrist's. Continuing the theme from book one of "men who hate women", The Girl Who Played With Fire has several note-worthy bigots, chauvinists, misogynists and downright arrogant bastards (the original Swedish title of book 1, Maria told me, translates directly into English as "men who hate women". But I can see why they changed it and went with "the girl who..."). It's interesting, men like these populate a lot of fiction, TV shows and movies, and we just accept them. They tend to be clichés, true to type, and familiar. But we never really see the damage they do, the bigger context such attitudes creates, how they really affect women - as a gender. That's what's really highlighted in The Girl Who Played With Fire. It threads its way through the entire novel, not front-and-centre but consistently present. And it helps you see just how far we haven't come.
The maths references were beyond me, and I could only vaguely get the metaphors at the beginning of each part. Frankly it was like reading another language. I was still interested in Salander's mathematical hobby, but at the end where she suddenly figures out Fermat's equation, I'm impressed at her skill but have no idea if it was meant to be clear to me as well. I don't even understand what the puzzle was! (and please don't bother trying to explain it to me. I just don't have a mathematical background to follow.)
I was glued to this book - for someone who doesn't read and doesn't care for crime fiction, detective stories etc (unless they're literary, which sounds so snobby, but just means that I need better character development and greater detail than you get from the actual genre), it seems like a big deal to me. This isn't just a crime to be solved, a mystery to puzzle out, a whodunnit. It touches on deeper social issues, is dark and gritty and unabashedly violent but never, I think, gratuitous; and every character is one that becomes tangible. It's like those rare TV shows where the characters become so familiar they're like an extended family - which is what every network hopes to achieve with every show, don't they? I'd say Larsson succeeded exceptionally well with the Millennium books. As soon as I'd finished this one, I picked up the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Let's just say that my challenge-required reading has been, ah, delayed!(less)