31 August 2010

From the far north

I had three books to write about, and I wrote about one. Now, I still have three books to write about because I've read another. It's time to write.

The other book I bought at West Yellowstone's Bookworm was The Black Path by Åsa Larsson. (She's no relation to Stieg Larsson.)

Three years ago, about the time I was beginning to read Scandinavian mysteries, I read her book Sun Storm. I liked that book enough for the vague memories to encourage me to pick up The Black Path while in Montana.

The book has echoes of the crooked business people that Stieg Larsson's character Mikael Blomkvist was writing about at the beginning and end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The story here is about a trio of successful Swedish entrepreneurs who reach too far and not too well.

The stars of the story are the same police detective (Anna-Maria Mella) and lawyer (Rebecka Martinsson) who were featured in Sun Storm. The story is convoluted and overly-complex. It's full of flashbacks and asides. I found it quite difficult to follow the story in the first half of the book before I got to know who the characters were.

This is evidently the third book featuring this cop-lawyer pair. (I missed one, I guess.) Maybe that's why I don't have a very good impression of who these women are. Maybe Larsson has never done much revelation about the characters. Too bad, there's potential.

  • Maxine Clarke's review at EuroCrime.co.uk
  • A review from Complete Review
  • A review by Uriah Robinson (Uriah Robinson is the blogname of a short, balding, retired health care professional) at Crime Scraps

23 August 2010

Iclandic mystery, again

Suddenly, so it seems, I've read 3 books without thinking much or writing anything. What was it that some famous or notorious person said about the unexamined life or unexamined reading experience?

We are back from vacation (for three weeks now).

When we were in West Yellowstone, we visited one of our favorite bookstores, The Bookworm [see the "tower" with the word "Books" on it in the photo to the left -- click on the picture for a larger view]. Shopping there was more difficult than usual because the store was wrapped in crime scene tape for a couple days. We never found out what happened, but there weren't any body outlines taped on the floor inside. (Then again, there very little floor space inside.)

Nance and I each bought a couple books.

I mined the Scandinavian mystery section (yes, there's a table with piles of mysteries by Nordic authors). The first one I read was Silence of the Grave by Indriðason, the Icelandic writer whose main character, Erlendur, is a sad case. But Indriðason's stories aren't as depressing as those of other Scandinavian writers.

I picked this 2002 novel, which is the fourth of ten books with police inspector Erlendur as the primary character. I've read one earlier book and three later ones. Silence of the Grave offers some insight into the Erlendur character and his relationships with his children. It also allows Indriðason to tell a complicated story in which the present reflects the past.

In the murder mystery, construction excavation uncovers a skeleton. Erlendur and his partners are assigned to determine who was involved and what had happened fifty years earlier. Archaeologists excavate the burial, the detectives look at records and interview former residents, and Erlendur tries to excavate the history of his daughter in order to figure out what happened to the child he abandoned when he walked out on his marriage twenty years earlier. And he tries to find a way to save the drug-addicted daughter who has just survived a dangerous miscarriage.

There were moments (especially as I sat by the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park), when I nearly gnashed my teeth because the stories seemed overly complicated. But the stories were compelling and I kept on reading. In the end, the complexity was worthwhile and the explanations created by bringing together the very disparate details made all the stories in this book come alive.

And the story of Erlendur, his depression and his passivity and his lack of self-understanding, made it possible for me to understand a bit more about his seemingly heartless flight from his family and his relationship with his daughter (which is part of a couple of the later books).

That gets me to the point of suggesting that you read Indriðason's books in the order in which they were written if understanding the Erlendur character is important to your reading of the mysteries. That would mean reading Sons of Dust and Silent Kill before going on to Jar City, Silence of the Grave, Voices, The Draining Lake, Arctic Chill, and Hypothermia.

Looking back at my reactions to the three newer Indriðason books I've read, I'm not as enthusiastic about Silence of the Grave as I was about Voices, The Draining Lake, and Arctic Chill. But it's worth the time. Maybe someday I'll get all these books together in one place and read through them in chronological order.

Then again, there are so many other books to read.

11 August 2010

Reading Stieg Larsson while in South Dakota

Like Bird, I finished Stieg Larsson's trilogy while on vacation. But I'd read the first two books before I left home.

I was amazed that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest began exactly where The Girl Who Played with Fire had ended. It was almost as if an editor had cut the manuscript at the end of a paragraph and declared the first part book 2. The section beginning with the next paragraph was thus declared to be book 3. If I'd been at home, I'd have gotten Fire off the shelf to remind myself exactly what was going on in the final pages. But I was in South Dakota.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a coda to the story (and it is all one story). Bird likened the trilogy to Tolkein's epic. As I read the last book, I began to think of Larsson's story as a symphony. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first movement which introduces the themes and characters; The Girl Who Played with Fire is a second movement in which those themes and characters are played out; The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is really two movements -- the first movement introduces new characters who part of one of the main themes and the second is the coda, or conclusion where all the themes and characters are resolved. (Pardon my musical ignorance, but that's how I understand symphonies. Corrections and instructions are welcome.)

After the heights of the second movement (Fire), the third and fourth movements of Hornet's Nest were a bit of a let down, but they're sort of supposed to be as the conflicts are resolved. By the time the really bad guys are introduced in the first part of Hornet's Nest, they are so vulnerable that their fate seems obvious. And the final resolutions are almost "Happily Ever After (sort of)."

I, too, was driven to read these books. I just didn't have them all during one vacation time. The characters are what really carried the story for me. The conspiracy was a little thin and a lot paranoid, but almost believable. (The Cold War can be a scapegoat for lots of terrible fictional things since it was the cause of so many terrors of real life. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?) But the story telling kept me going as well, though I don't know if it would have been as good without Salander and Blomkvist and the villains.

I leave it to some academics to point out the commonalities between Larsson's books, Tolkein's stories, Rowling's wizardry, and other immensely popular "must reads." I'd be interested in hearing their theories about what makes books so quickly and immensely popular.

But here's the deal: the three Larsson books are worth the time -- even if you only devote half an hour at bedtime for a couple months to them. But read them in order. I'll bet that those half hours become hours and then weekend afternoons pretty quickly.

Katherine Dunn's review of Hornet's Nest in The Oregonian
Ed Siegel's review of Hornet's Nest in Newsday
Alicia Rancilio's review of Hornet's Nest in Taiwan News

Racing through the Millennium Series

Bird Loomis wrote about the last Stieg Larsson book before I did. Here's his take.
For a mystery buff, I may have been the last person on earth to start reading Stieg Larsson's Girl With Dragon Tattoo from the “Millennium” series.

Jeesh, the Swedish Tattoo film came out, and I had to avoid it, knowing that I wanted to experience reading the books before I saw any of the films (the second one has been released in the US and a US director is working on an American version of Dragon Tattoo).

I wasn't really worried that I'd be disappointed. Everyone who has talked or written about the series has been pretty damned positive.

So, about two weeks ago, heading out to the Pacific Northwest for vacation, I took the first volume to begin on the plane.

It's always fun to be caught up in a book, racing ahead because you're compelled to. (It's also fun to savor books, but sometimes the narrative just requires that you put everything aside.) A couple hundred pages in by the time I got to Seattle, I luxuriated in the cool temperatures and just kept going. Luckily my in-laws had the remaining two books in the series (in hardback!).

I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and plunged into The Girl Who Played with Fire. My brother-in-law offhandedly said he didn't think it was quite as good as the first and third, but you could have fooled me. And although I finished Fire at about 10:30 at night, I immediately started The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest that evening. Despite kayaking, biking, eating salmon, drinking beer, etc., I got through the last volume within another day or so - more or less 1700 pages in about a week.

A lot's been written about Larsson's's books, and I surely have no great, overarching take on them (well, actually I do, noted below, but it's scarcely all that well considered). But I am interested in why some books pull you in so completely that you just can't stop until you're completely done. For me, although the plotting is decent, it's the characters that are so compelling, even if Lisbeth Salander and Michael Blomkvist are, like many thriller characters, a bit beyond belief. Indeed, that's part of their charm. Many of the less central characters have their moments, a lot within the Vanger family.

And although there are numerous surprises, the overall arc of the story, especially in the last two books, leads one to believe that things will turn out well for the major characters and that, roughly speaking, justice will be done. About half way through the last book, it dawned on me that these three books were comparable to the Lord of the Rings, along with The Hobbit. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is like The Hobbit in that it introduces you to all the characters and the turf to be played on, but the real story doesn't start until the first book of the Rings trilogy. Larsson's first book is a great start, and we understand the world he's created, but the 2nd and 3rd books offer the real meat of one continuing story - not quite the same quest as Frodo's, but a quest (for revenge, sanity, justice?) nevertheless. Thus the seamless transition between Fire and Hornet's Nest.

In a recent post, Ken talked about putting down a Michael Connelly book because of some of the content. And these books are scarcely for the faint-hearted (nor is the first film, as I understand). Much of the talk about the books and Larsson revolves around victimhood, rape, and abuse in its many forms. But issues of gender and sex and violence are integral to these books - I'm not sure there's anything that is gratuitous (but that's probably a matter of opinion). And compared to some other thriller writers (Andrew Vachss comes most notably to mind), Larsson's not so hard edged.

And in the end, he has given us Lisbeth Salander, a truly remarkable invention of his mind (and apparently, his experience as a teenager). What a gift, and perhaps the most notable reason to hunker down and read these books without coming up for air.

Katherine Dunn's review of Hornet's Nest in The Oregonian
Ed Siegel's review of Hornet's Nest in Newsday
Alicia Rancilio's review of Hornet's Nest in Taiwan News