31 March 2009

More on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I came across this lengthy extract from the book and figured I would post a link here for those who are intrigued and want to know more.

30 March 2009

To Be Read

I recently compiled an Excel spreadsheet containing information about my TBR books so I could keep better track of how I am doing in the informal “reduce the TBR stack” challenge. I excluded reference books, craft books, cookbooks, travel guides and books one rarely if ever reads from cover to cover, and according to this reckoning I have, as of today, 789 TBR books in my book collection.

I had not realised I owned so many books I had not read. Of the genres, about half are mysteries, thrillers or crime novels of one kind or another. The second biggest genre is novels of all sorts, including 81 historical non-mystery novels. This is followed by 55 romances and 49 travelogues and a smattering of other genres. Since I get rid of 9 out of every 10 books I own either through BookMooch or by donating them a local charity after I have read them, there is a lot of shelf space I can free just by reading more of my own books and fewer library books.

When I have finished reading the current crop of library books (most of them Top Mysteries Challenge books), I will concentrate on the TBR stack for a while and reduce the numbers even further. It will give me an excuse to buy some discounted books when the spring sales begin.

29 March 2009

Reading journal: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 3rd and final entry

Some final thoughts on the book:
I have rarely read a long mystery or thriller that didn't at least sag just a little bit in the middle, but this one does not. It does take a while for the central story to begin but once it does start rolling it never slows down until the almost disappointingly short climax is reached and the long denouement begins.

That he was able to keep the reader's attention through a slow background setting and introduction of characters the length of a short novel and a denouement that is an almost self-contained story the length of a novella, shows that Stieg Larsson was a master of the craft of writing. This is a first novel but it shows no signs of firstbookitis, which isn't really surprising because Larsson was a veteran journalist and therefore an experienced writer. That he was a reader is obvious. Apart from the references to Astrid Lindgren that suffuse the story in the characters of Mikael and Lisbeth (who are his speculations on what Kalle Blomkvist and Pippi Longstocking would be like as adults), his love of literature shows in nods and references to other writers, and several are mentioned by name.

The narrative is an interesting mixture of stark Scandinavian realism (e.g. the commentary on the Swedish social system) and a traditional mystery/thriller where realism takes second place to telling a good story, and the shifting between the two is seamless.

Several predictions I had made about the story turned out to be right, including The Big Twist, which I predicted as soon as the old man had told Mikael what he wanted him to do. I was likewise able to pinpoint the villain fairly quickly, but that doesn't mean this is a bad mystery – it just means the author plays fair with the reader. Kudos for that.

I‘m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, but I may have to read the English translation because I am not sure I want to wait for the Icelandic one to find out what happens next.

One thing I did wonder about is the title of the book. Not the original Swedish title or the Icelandic one which is a direct translation of the original, but the English one. The original title translates into English as Men Who Hate Women, but in English the title is changed into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which shifts the focus of the title from the villains to one of the protagonists, who is herself a victim of just the kind of misogynist the original title focuses on.
Then I had a conversation with a woman I work with, and she mentioned the book, telling me that because of the title she thought it was a self-help book or a sociological study of misogyny when she first saw it. ”Aha! “ I thought, “so that‘s why!”
On further reflection I decided that the title change in English probably was made to make the book appeal to a bigger audience rather than to avoid it being thought to be something it is not. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is undeniably a more appealing title because it implies mystery with sensual undertones, contrary to Men Who Hate Women which just implies brute violence.
--

I have decided not to write a regular review, as my journal notes include most of what I would have written in a review. To make it easier to follow, just click on the „girl with the dragon tattoo“ label below this post and you will be able so see all the entries in the journal on one page with no intervening posts in between.
--

Book information:
Author: Stieg Larsson
Original Swedish title: Män som hatar kvinnor
English title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Published: 2005 (Sweden); 2008 (English translation)
Genre: Mystery/thriller
Awards: The Glass Key (Scandinavian crime award), 2006; Exclusive Books Boeke Prize (S-Africa), 2008; ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards, International Author of the Year, 2008.

I will end with a warning: This is not a book for the squeamish. The violence is not of the stylised kind, but is extremely realistic. This includes a couple of rape scenes that are all the more harrowing because they are described from the victim‘s point of view. They are also liable to make women who read them very angry. After the second one I was seriously tempted to throw the book at the wall in anger and leave it unfinished, but I'm glad I didn't, because it turned out that the violence was a necessary factor in the personality development of the character it happened to.

Top mysteries challenge review: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Psychological thriller
Year of publication: 1955
No. in series: 1
Series protagonist: Thomas Phelps Ripley
Setting & time: The USA (beginning chapters), Italy (remaining chapters); contemporary

Teaser:
How on earth do I synopsise the beginning of this story without giving away too much? I’ll try, but don’t blame me if you haven’t read the book and see something in here that you consider to be a spoiler.

A Mr. Greenleaf asks the protagonist, Tom Ripley, to go to Italy to persuade his errant son, Dickie, to come home to America. Once there, Ripley easily befriends Dickie, but when clouds start gathering on the friendship horizon Ripley decides that he deserves to be in the situation Dickie is in: financially independent and living in wonderful Italy; whereas Ripley is poor and unemployed and once his travelling money from Greenleaf senior runs out he must return to the USA to an uncertain future.

Review:
Herein you will definitely find SPOILERS.

The book is very well written, the characters are believable and the surroundings so innocuous that you find it hard to believe they are to be used as a backdrop for dark deeds. The narrative starts out innocently but almost immediately starts winding up like a spring until it is vibrating with pent up tension waiting to be released. When it finally is, the events that unfold have become not entirely unexpected, but then the tension starts mounting again and this time you have no idea where the narrative is taking you: if it is going down the inevitable road that psychological thrillers of the time of writing usually took, or if it will take you on an entirely new and (then) relatively untrodden path.

Highsmith has managed to do something in this story that is quite difficult: to create an utterly selfish, ruthless, amoral and unredeemable character who is nevertheless appealing, even sympathetic. That he is unredeemable and sociopathic is important, because there are plenty of selfish and ruthless and even apparently amoral but nevertheless likeable and even charming protagonists to be found within the crime-thriller genre (Sam Spade and James Bond come to mind), but ultimately they are sympathetic because one believes they possess a conscience (even if is underdeveloped) and might be reformed.

Highsmith creates this sympathy by the simple expedient of allowing us to see Ripley from the inside, to travel with him, even become him, and to feel with him all his insecurities and anxieties. At the same time she manages somehow to manipulate us to look past the fact that not for one moment does he ever regret having done what he did, except at moments when he thinks he might have been careless enough to get caught.

Rating:
An excellently written and executed psychological thriller with an unexpectedly sympathetic criminal protagonist. 5 stars.

Books left in the challenge: After careful counting I believe I have 110 books left to read in the challenge, but don’t take my word for it.

27 March 2009

Reading journal: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, entry 2

I got so engrossed in the book last night that I didn’t stop until my eyes were stinging from all the reading and it was past one o’clock in the morning. I stopped around page 410, which leaves me the last section of the book, about 120 pages. I hated to stop, as I had got to a very exciting part in the plot, with one protagonist in mortal danger and the other about to head into it. That there should be so much left of the book when the climax appears to be starting tells me that either the climax is going to be drawn-out, there will be a second climax, or the denouement is going to be a long one.

Some thoughts about the plot: I really, really hope there is some real purpose to the horrifying abuse Lisbeth has had to suffer at the hands of her legal guardian. I would hate to think it was just a gratuitous addition to the book or a way to have her supply a small and not very important item to the profiling of the killer. It does emphasise that vulnerability that I mentioned earlier, that a pervert should pick her out as an easy victim (and then find out how wrong he was...). I think maybe something may happen in the chapters I have yet to read that will justify it, or it may even possibly have something to do with the other two books.

What seemed at first a baffling but clear-cut case of a girl’s disappearance has turned out be a lot more sinister, and the way Mikael discovered the clues was interesting. I don’t think I will be revealing to much by saying that at this point it has turned into an investigation of a grisly series of murders that the missing girl had found some clues about, so she may not have disappeared because of her strong position within her family, but rather because she knew that one (or more) of her relatives was a serial killer.

One of the killers – because there must be more than one – has been revealed, and was one of my two strongest candidates. At this point it seems obvious who the other will turn out to be, but I suspect there might be a twist involved. I rather suspect that there may be more dark deeds afoot than just the murders, or maybe more people are involved.

I am intrigued by the constant references to the reason why Mikael agreed to investigate the case of the disappearing girl: his conviction for slander against a rich and powerful business tycoon. Although the judgement and his prison term are discussed, it is also hinted at that he could have gotten himself out of it because of something he knew but didn’t reveal, possibly to protect a source, but I am inclined to think that there was more to it than that. Also, what does his employer have on the tycoon? His promise to help Mikael revenge himself indicates that he knows something important, but so far there has been no obvious clue at all as to what it could be.

I have already mentioned the parallel between Mikael and Astrid Lindgren’s Kalle Blomkvist, but what I didn’t mention was Lisbeth Salander’s connection with Pippi Longstocking, to whom her employer likens her (but only in his thoughts). Dorte has written an interesting analysis of Blomkvist and Salander as Pippi and Kalle, so I will not go into that (in any case, I am far more familiar with Pippi than Kalle, as the Kalle books weren’t translated into Icelandic until I was a teenager).

--
Oh, and someone thinks Val McDermid is a man. I’m inclined to think it’s the Icelandic translator. I somehow doubt that a mystery fan like Mikael Blomkvist or a mystery writer like Larsson would make that mistake. Anyway, in the original Swedish the sentence about McDermid probably doesn’t indicate her gender at all.


The next entry will probably be the review, as I plan to finish the book as soon as I get home from work today (I'm writing this in my lunch hour).

Top mysteries challenge review: The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Genre: Comic mystery
Year of publication: 1946
No. in series: 3
Series detective: Gervase Fen
Type of investigator: University professor
Setting & time: Oxford, England; contemporary

Story:
Poet Richard Cadogan goes to Oxford for a holiday and due to bad planning he ends up missing the last train and hitch-hiking part of the way, arriving in Oxford in the middle of the night. While walking along a street he comes upon a toyshop with its door ajar. In he goes to let the owner know, but finds the shop empty and the body of a murdered woman in an abandoned apartment on the first floor. However, when he brings the police back to the crime scene in the morning the toyshop has been replaced by a grocery shop, the apartment looks different, and there is no body. Convinced he didn’t dream this, he turns to his old school pal, amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, who is now a don at one of the colleges, and together they embark on an attempt to explain the mystery.

Review:
This book was a surprise after the previous Gervase Fen book I read. That book was boring and the characters were mostly interchangeable and unmemorable, except for Gervase who was a conceited prick. In this third book in the series he happily seems to have undergone a personality make-over and has actually become rather likeable.

The book is written with a light touch. It begins as a typical Golden Era type puzzle mystery, briefly becomes a thriller with noir undertones (including a car chase, black-clad henchmen and a pretty damsel in distress) and from there it moves on into Keystone Cops territory, ending with two funny chase scenes with characters in various stages of inebriation chasing the villains on foot and bicycles. The eccentric plot revolves around the will of an old lady, some of whose heirs are too greedy for their own good and whose downfall is caused by Cadogan’s blundering into the middle of a crime which would otherwise have remained undetected.

The solution depends on a number of coincidences, which in my mind does not make it a good mystery, but one can see why this is such a favourite as to make both the CWA and the MWA lists because it is so highly entertaining that one is liable to forget or at least forgive the shortcomings.

Rating:
An entertaining mystery, but if you want good solid detection based on diligent searching for clues rather than stumbling into them, then look elsewhere. 3 stars.

26 March 2009

Reading journal: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, entry 1

I did say I was going to start journalling about Crime and Punishment, but as it happens I had to read this one first, because I was on a waiting list for it at the library and got it on “new book loan” which means I only have it for 2 weeks, so must finish it before then, whereas I can keep the other one for 2 months, and then get another copy if that isn’t enough. This is a long book, over 500 pages, so it lands itself well to journalling. I am reading the Icelandic translation.
--

So, here are some thoughts about the book so far:

The intro chapter is a very good hook which suggests that an intriguing mystery is about to unfold.

It’s good that of the two leading characters Carl Mikael Blomkvist is introduced first, because he is the more conventional and less interesting of the two. Even the attempt to make him slightly less conventional by having him be involved in a ménage à trois does not quite work. If he alone had been the leading character, I would have expected this to unfold like a pretty conventional murder mystery. As a matter of fact, where I am at in the book, it looks like it’s going to be a “locked room” type story, although in this case the “room” is actually an island that was pretty much closed off when the crime happened, apparently limiting the number of possible suspects.
I say ‘apparently’ because although no-one seems to have left the island while it was closed-off, someone could have left it by sea and come back, or someone could have arrived by sea, done the deed and left, taking the body with them.

To anyone who is a fan of Astrid Lindgren, the Kalle Blomkvist reference is going to be an obvious one. It will be interesting to see if it turns into anything more than a joke.

Lisbeth Salander, who, while she has not been much present so far, is clearly the book’s other protagonist. With her counter-culture appearance and apparently asocial personality, obvious extreme intelligence, history of problems and suggestion of vulnerability, I think she is likely to be the wildcard in the story, and am looking forward to reading about how she and Blomkvist meet and start working together. Although this has not happened yet, I know it will, because I have been unable to avoid reading about the book. Besides, it is stated in the blurb, so I know it’s going to happen. Just how, I’m not sure.

It already seems that the book is going to be teeming with suspects, but appearances can be deceiving, and I think a twist may be coming up. It certainly looks like Lisbeth is about to run into some serious problems with her creepy guardian, or whatever he is called.
--

One thing does annoy me about the book, and that is a technical problem. It seems as if it has not been proof-read by a human being. I have come across several errors that a spell-checking program would not catch but a good proof-reader would, such as correctly spelled but wrong words, and a couple of punctuation problems, including an annoying missing question mark.

25 March 2009

Wednesday reading experience #12

Journal or blog about a book as you are reading it. This is is a good way to get thinking about things like writing style, formulas, points of view, themes, characterisations, etc.

I am about to start reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and plan to make some journal entries about the book while I am reading it. I would have liked to do this with Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone which I read recently because it really got me thinking, but it is so short that I read it in two sessions and taking a break to journal about it would have spoiled the mood. Crime and Punishment, however, is so long that I expect it will take several sessions to finish it, which lends itself perfectly to journalling.

I'm interested in seeing how others do this, so if you’re journal blogging about a book or planning to do so, please post a link in the comments to this post and I’ll check it out and leave a comment (or two).

24 March 2009

Mystery review: My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

This book is due to be published in Britain and the USA in April.

Original Icelandic title: Sér grefur gröf
Genre: Murder mystery
Year of publication: 2006
No. in series: 2
Series detective: Þóra Guðmundsdóttir
Type of investigator: Lawyer
Setting & time: Snæfellsnes, Iceland; contemporary

Story:
Þóra’s client, a hotel owner in Snæfellsnes (south-western Iceland), wants to sue the people who sold him the land for the hotel on the basis of the place being haunted. This would not be a problem if the hotel were an ordinary one, but it is a new age health spa and some of the staff claim to be sensitive to that sort of thing, the owner included. Þóra goes up there to investigate and prepare the lawsuit (or rather to dissuade the client to go on with it), but arrives in the middle of a murder investigation. The architect who designed the hotel has been brutally murdered, and when a second person connected with the hotel is murdered as well, Þóra’s client is arrested on suspicion of being responsible. He asks her to investigate, and she starts looking for clues that lead her to start digging into the past.

Review:
Here is an interesting puzzle mystery that utilizes Icelandic folk tales and beliefs as part of the plot, as well as touching on a part of Icelandic history that most people would like to forget ever happened. The book is full of interesting characters and strong emotions, and there are a number of people who could have wanted to kill the victims, not all of them for obvious reasons. The story does get a bit long-winded at times, with periods of little action and much reflection or descriptions of nature, but the plotting is good and the puzzle is satisfyingly complicated.

Þóra has become a more likeable character than she was in the previous book, but her personal life, while providing some comic relief like in the previous book, has now become too prominent in the story, as has her relationship with Matthew, whom she met in the previous book. His presence in the story is, in my opinion, not really necessary from the viewpoint of an Icelandic reader, and he is certainly not needed for the point of view of the investigation, but he makes an excellent vehicle for the author to use to explain certain things to a foreign reader without the explanations looking too forced (i.e. Þóra is always telling him things).

Rating: Another good mystery from Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. 3+ stars.

22 March 2009

Mystery review: The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas

Original French title: Debout les morts
Translator: Siân Reynolds
Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: original: 1996; in English: 2006
No. in series: 1
Series detectives: Historians Marc, Lucien and Matthias, and former police commissaire (Armand) Vandoosler (Marc’s uncle)
Type of investigator: Amateurs and semi-pro
Setting & time: Paris (mostly), France; contemporary

Story:
Three down-on-their-luck historians move into an old run-down house along with the uncle of one of them, a former police commissaire. Because of their names the old man calls them “The Evangelists”: St. Lucas, St. Mark and St. Matthew. The four men quickly make the acquaintance of their neighbour Sophia, a retired Greek opera singer, and also that of Juliette who runs a restaurant nearby. Some weeks later Sophia disappears. Her husband seems unconcerned, but Juliette and Sophia’s niece Alexandra, who turns up shortly afterwards, are both convinced something has happened to her, as are the four men, who have already alerted the police. Not quite happy with where the police’s inquiries are taking the case, they set out to investigate it themselves, doing their research in traditional academic manner as well as using more unorthodox methods.

Review:
A full review would simply be a re-iteration of my previous reviews of Vargas’ books as regards style and so on, so I will let it suffice to say that I found the characters, especially of the three historians, very interesting and well-written, and the plot full of the twists and turns that typify the classic puzzle plot.

Rating: An excellent puzzle plot mystery that will keep the majority of readers guessing until the climax. 4+ stars.

Awards:
Prix Mystère de la critique, 1996.
The Duncan Lawrie International Dagger, 2006.

20 March 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Genre: Psychological thriller
Year of publication: 1977
Setting & time: England, contemporary

Story:
Eunice Parchman, illiterate and deeply ashamed of it, is hired as a housekeeper by the respectably upper-class Coverdale family, Mrs. Coverdale quickly becoming dependent on her for the housework and thus reluctant to let her go even when repelled by her. A seemingly innocuous event leads Eunice to become friends with Joan Smith, a religious fanatic living in the nearby village, and seals the fate of her employers which is revealed simply and starkly in the beginning paragraph: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

The whole narrative is an elaboration and examination of all the little causal threads that come together and drive Eunice to murder the Coverdales.

If you like a book to surprise you, don’t read the following review, because I got a bit carried away and wrote a short analysis that will best benefit people who have already read the book and need discussion points for, e.g. a book club discussion or a class assignment.

Review:
If there is a book with a more chilling opening line or indeed an opening page, I haven’t read it. Here is the second paragraph:

“There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman’s disability was made known not to a mere family or a handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished nothing by it but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing. And yet, although her companion and partner was mad, Eunice was not. She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman.”

Here the innocent reader is on the first page of a book and already the ending has been revealed. As a literary device it shouldn’t work: you, the reader, really should become offended and put away the book; but instead it draws you in, because of the same kind of curiosity that has people rubbernecking at the scene of an accident in an attempt to see the twisted metal and bloodied bodies, only here you then actually get to go back in time and watch the whole disaster unfolding in detailed slow motion, the tension mounting by degrees until it is almost unbearable and you begin to understand people who, upon seeing a stage villain sneaking up behind the hero, give a shout to warn the prospective victim of what is about to happen.

From the beginning line onwards the story only becomes more upsetting as the narrative progresses towards the climax: the inevitable murder of the Coverdales. Even Rendell has admitted that she became upset at the fate of the victims, so it’s no wonder that a reader would be.

The story is finely crafted, with seemingly innocuous events and innocent remarks taking on a sinister colour through the remarks of the omniscient narrator and the twisted paths of Eunice’s mind. Humour is injected to relieve the tension and make the story less dreary, and the characters are excellently drawn.

With Eunice, Rendell has managed the same thing Patrick Süskind did with Grenouille in Perfume - to create a protagonist who is utterly unsympathetic but at the same time the reader wants to feel sorry for her, if only for her illiteracy. But of course the illiteracy is a MacGuffin, a mere device to drive the narrative. Eunice would have been a sociopath even if she could read. She could just as easily have been a repressed lesbian (a device Rendell has used in at least one of her other books) or a phobic of some kind, to mention only a couple of possibilities. To lose sight of that would be a fallacy, and once the reader realises this Eunice ceases to be sympathetic.

As to the Coverdales as characters, such is Rendell’s skill that while she lets you know that they are indeed “nice” people she also makes them just as utterly unlikeable as Eunice. They are snobbish and self-centered, their attempts at doing good for Eunice range from patronising to downright contrived to make themselves – rather than her – feel good, and they are, each in their own way, responsible for their own deaths. Not that you ever feel they deserve it. The reason, I think, for us not wanting them to die even though we don’t like them, is that they are insignificant. They are snobs, yes, but to a normal person their snobbery is harmless and their self-centeredness is not consciously cruel to others. It is only a twisted person like Eunice, with her intense fear of being found lacking and being mocked, or Joan Smith with her religious righteousness crossed with psychosis, who can possibly decide they deserve to die. Therein lies the crux of the story: no sane person would do this kind of thing, even if they were illiterate.

Rating: An excellent psychological thriller and whydunnit. 5 stars.

P.S.
I have given up on the countdown because I keep getting confused and getting different tallies. I have somewhere around like 110-113 books left in the challenge.

18 March 2009

Wednesday reading experience #11

Try reading in the bath or hot tub. I recommend something you will not cry over if you accidentally drop it in the water.

If you only have access to a shower, you have my sympathies. If, however, you have discovered a safe way to read in the shower, please share the secret.

15 March 2009

Mystery review: Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Icelandic title: Þriðja táknið (literally: The Third Symbol)
Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 2005
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Þóra Guðmundsdóttir
Type of investigator: Lawyer
Setting & time: Reykjavík (mostly), Iceland; contemporary

Story:
Icelandic Lawyer Þóra (Thora in English) is hired by the parents of a German history student who was found murdered in the offices of the history department of the University of Iceland. They want her to help Matthew, an investigator they have sent over from Germany, to find out why their son was murdered and why his body was mutilated. Since they are not convinced that the suspect the police have arrested is guilty, they also want Þóra and Matthew to find the real killer.

The victim had been researching and comparing the history of witch hunts in Germany and Iceland and was the leader of a clique that practiced magic rituals. The mutilation of his body is connected to a magic spell found in an old grimoire, so it would seem logical that he was killed in connection with the practice of black magic, but there may have been a more logical reason behind it.

Review and rating:
I must admit that I had made two aborted attempts to read this book before I finally did finish it. In both cases I didn’t get beyond chapter two because I didn’t like the writing style. Not that’s its bad or clumsy or anything like that – it is in fact quite smooth, but the tone irritated me. However, it seems that Yrsa’s writing style is a bit like that used by Elizabeth Peters in her Amelia Peabody books: grating at first (although for different reasons), but once the story pulls you in it stops being annoying.

The characters of Þóra and Matthew are well-developed. Less well-developed are the characters of the members of the clique they have to deal with to find important information about the lead-up to the young man’s death, and most of the minor characters (with the exception of Þóra’s teenage son) are either stereotypes (e.g. the secretary) or simply flat. Þóra starts out as not a very likeable person: uptight, insecure, defensive and often rude; but she slowly gets more likeable as one begins to understand her better. There is an interesting balancing of power between her and Matthew. He is a friend and employee of the victim’s family, knows more than Þóra does about the case and has experience with this kind of investigation (it is hinted that he is an ex-police detective), but Þóra holds her own because she speaks both languages, knows the culture and the local laws and is good at reading people. Unusually for a detective story, her personal problems (single mother of two kids, broke after a divorce, a struggling law practice, a bitchy secretary) are actually interesting, because while they have little or no bearing on the mystery, they lighten up the dark and rather creepy story, and Yrsa is careful never to let them overpower the main plot.

The best part of the story is the plotting. The narrative is fast-paced and the twists and turns of the investigation keep the reader guessing right until the final twist. All in all, this is quite a good mystery. 3+ stars.
--
P.S.
I have a second book by Yrsa lined up and should have a review ready later this month.

13 March 2009

Mystery review: Pel and the Faceless Corpse by Mark Hebden

Genre: Police procedural
Year of publication: 1979
No. in series: 2
Series detective: Chief inspector Evariste Clovis Désiré Pel of the French Police Judiciaire's Brigade Criminelle
Setting & time: Burgundy, France; contemporary

Story:
On a miserably cold and windy winter’s night Pel is called out to a farm where the body of a murdered man has been found in front of a memorial for resistance fighters killed by the Germans during World War II. The man has been shot in the face and head in such a way as to make his face unrecognisable, and because his fingerprints are not on file Pel and his men have a hard slog ahead of them to even find out who he is, let alone find his murderer. Complicating things is a second murder and an attempt on the life of a farmer who lives nearby. Then there are the fugitive bank robbers who may be hiding out in the area, and a pesky chicken thief the commissaire of police wants caught. All this weaves together to make an entertaining story.

Review:
Judging from this book, Mark Hebden was an expert in creating atmosphere. The cold, damp and windy winter weather he describes certainly gave me the shivers and made me wish I had waited until summer to read the book, because it heightened the winter chills I have been having lately. In that he rivals Arnaldur Indriðason.

The characters of the policemen were distinct and their detection methods different from each other, so there was never any danger of getting them mixed up like I have sometimes done when reading police procedurals. The story is interesting, for the plot, which is a typical police procedural plot with several investigations going on at the same time, for the characters, and for bringing up the German occupation of France in World War II, the crimes the Germans committed against the French and how the victims and/or their families have coped in different ways since. The red herrings are nicely done, and while I suspected that they could be red herrings, Hebden writes the story in such a way that at no time was I sure. I did see the final twist coming, but only a chapter or so ahead of Pel, so all in all I have to say “well done”. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Hebden's books.

Rating: An intereting and chilly police procedural. 3+ stars.

11 March 2009

Wednesday reading experience #10

Take a newspaper and read it all the way through. It’s amazing what we miss in the papers when we always just read one or two particular sections.

When I did this for the first time I was amazed at what I had been missing. Now I try to at least read the headlines to every article and piece of news, and the beginning paragraph as well, and I often find something I am glad I didn't skip.

09 March 2009

Online advertising

I couldn’t help myself when I saw this sponsored ad on a website I visited:

“Learn How a Mom Combined 2 Products to Get Rid of Her Wrinkles Forever.”


To which my answer is: When is the funeral?

07 March 2009

Top Mysteries review: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This is part of my Wednesday reading experiences, one where I challenged my readers to read a book by Joseph Conrad, and did the same myself.

Year published: 1907
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: London, England; 1886.

The story deals with Mr. Verloc, an anarchist who is also a secret agent for a foreign embassy. When the embassy requires him to prove his usefulness by committing an act of terrorism, he conceives an idea which will not put him at risk and that will, if successful, prove his usefulness to the embassy and prevent them from exposing him to the police. But the act of terrorism goes tragically wrong and Mr. Verloc has to pay for his failure in a way he never imagined.

This book was first published over 100 years ago, but it is very relevant in today’s society because of its themes of anarchism, terrorism and the examination of the driving forces behind them.

The story is excellently written and tightly plotted and a good solid read. Not that I would read it again, like I would, for example, Lord Jim, but the time I spent reading it was well spent. Highly recommended.
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Here is a link to the Project Gutenberg edition of the book. There are other online versions available, but Project Gutenberg is the only one that I have found that does not have annoying advertising.

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I am now reading a totally different book that also deals with anarchism: G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s interesting to compare how the two authors handle the subject. One story is perfectly serious on the surface but there is subtle humour underneath, while the other is comical to the point of farce but with a serious undertone.

06 March 2009

Free download: Temeraire/His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I loved this book when it was first published, and now it's being offered as a free download!

Here is my review.

And here is a link to the main site. They have more free downloads available, and will be adding even more.

These books are being offered by Random House to promote the sci-fi and fantasy series they publish under their Del Rey imprint, so this is perfectly legal.

Top Mysteries challenge review: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Year of publication: 1950
Genre: Psychological thriller
Setting & time: USA, contemporary

Story:
Guy Haines, a young architect, meets loafer Charles Bruno on a train. Guy wants to divorce his estranged wife so he can marry his new girlfriend, and Bruno wants his father dead. Bruno suggests an exchange of murders and Guy refuses. But soon afterwards Guy’s wife is murdered, and he gets sucked into a sick and terrifying relationship with Bruno, who wants him to honour the deal he thinks they made.

Review:
This is a good psychological thriller and an examination of what can make an honest and upright person commit a terrible crime. It is also an examination of the feelings that might arise in said person afterwards, and it might also be seen as an examination of the differences between the lazy, degenerate rich and the honest, hard-working middle-class.

The story is well plotted and the narrative moves slowly but surely towards an inevitable end, with some interesting twists along the way. The only problem I have with it is the characters, or rather the character of Guy. He and Bruno are clearly supposed to be opposites, their reactions to the same kinds of situations always being different – e.g. Bruno is calm in situations where Guy is a bundle of nerves, and vice versa, Guy is sane and Bruno is not, etc. But the problem is that while Bruno is capable of arousing feelings of extreme revulsion in the reader, Guy isn’t sympathetic enough to make one feel anything but slightly sorry for him. Mostly he just made me angry because he was so stupid, which I am sure is not the feeling Highsmith was trying to arouse.

Rating: A good psychological thriller with a murderous plot. 3 stars.

Books left in challenge: 114 (if this looks wrong – I got a bit confused when I started and counted Len Deighton’s Game, Set & Match trilogy as one book. I’m now counting the books separately).

Note: There is a Hitchcock movie based on the book (with a script written by Raymond Chandler), but apparently it changes the plot quite a lot. I’m going to watch it anyway – provided I can find it to rent.

05 March 2009

Why lie about having read a book?

This article in today’s Guardian got me thinking about why anyone would lie about having read a specific book. I have always been able to understand people who pretend to not have read a book. After all, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about someone who admits they have read Mein Kampf or the works of the Marquis de Sade. But when I started thinking about it, I realised that of course some people would get the wrong idea if someone were to admit they haven’t read works which are required reading among students of English literature and culturally required reading in English-speaking countries. I am of course referring to books like Animal Farm, Hamlet or Jane Eyre.

But why pretend to have read books like Ulysses or War and Peace which are not required reading except in specialised university courses?

Is it perhaps a simple wish to seem well read, or an attempt to seem somehow “better” than those around one that have not read those books?
I would be interested to hear what you think. (And if you can give me a link to the full results of the survey mentioned in the article, I’d appreciate it).

04 March 2009

Wednesday reading experience #9

Ask a stranger for a book recommendation and follow it. You never know what might happen. If you are too shy to approach a stranger, try someone you know but have never discussed books with, like a workmate or an in-law.


What happened? Did you read the recommended book, and how did you like it?

02 March 2009

Interesting musings on book-to-film adaptations

As my regular readers know, I have a degree in translation studies. This is why, when I come across interesting articles or books about any aspect of the craft, I naturally want to tell the world about them.

Apart from Language X to Language Z renderings, "translation" can, among other things, refer to what is also called "adaptation", that is the rendering of one form of art into another, the most common being the adaptation of a book into a film.

Here is an interesting article on the subject by Salman Rushdie that I came across on the Guardian website.

Reading report for February 2009

I finished 21 books in February, which is quite a bit better than my monthly average for 2008 (not that I'm competing with myself or anything...). Out of those, I had started reading 5 before the beginning of the month – 2 of them last summer.

In the reading challenges the situation is as follows:
  • I finished the last of the Mystery Reader Café challenge books: the book with the word "murder" in the title, so that challenge is finished.
  • In the 52 Icelandic books challenge I read 4 books.
  • In the Top Mysteries challenge I finished 2 books.
  • In the TBR challenge I finished 7 books that had been on my shelves for more than a year.

Additionally, I culled 7 of the books I read this month and will be adding them to my BookMooch inventory, making room on my book shelves for the 7 mooched books I received in the mail. 5 of these I will be reading for the Top Mysteries challenge. I also found 2 TM challenge books in the book section of a local charity shop.

I listened to one audio book in February, or rather a filmed reading: Neil Gaiman was generous enough to offer live audiovisual recordings of his reading of The Graveyard Book through his blog. The recordings were made when he was on the promotional tour for the book. (If you follow the link, scroll to the bottom to start listening (and watching) in the correct order).

The books I read or listened to in February: (I have posted reviews of those marked with *)

*Arnaldur Indriðason : Myrká (police procedural)
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: The Physiology of Taste (kitchen science and philosophy)
Mary Higgins Clark: The Lottery Winner (detective stories)
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Mistress of Spices (novel, romance)
Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book and Coraline (children's fantasy/horror)
John Grogan: Marley and Me (memoir)
*Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (noir detective story)
Tony Hillerman: The Dark Wind (police procedural, thriller)
Ingólfur Jónsson (collected by) : Þjóðlegar sagnir og ævintýri (folk and fairy tales)
Jón R Hjálmarsson : Þjóðsögur við þjóðveginn (folk tales)
H.R.F. Keating: Death of a Fat God (mystery)
India Knight, editor: The Dirty Bits - for Girls (anthology, erotica)
Sharyn McCrumb: Paying the Piper (mystery)
*Steven Saylor: A Murder on the Appian Way (mystery)
*Fred Vargas: Have Mercy on Us All (police procedural)
*Fred Vargas: Seeking Whom He May Devour (police procedural)
Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson : Flateyjargáta (mystery)
*Hillary Waugh: Last Seen Wearing (police procedural)
Jeanette Winterson: Boating for Beginners (fantasy, satire)

Reread:
Gerald Durrell: The Whispering Land (travel, animals)

01 March 2009

Mystery review: Myrká by Arnaldur Indriðason

I wasn’t sure if I should post this review right away, considering that the book will probably not be published in English until 2010, but then I though “why not?” It just means the review will be there for those who want to know something about the book beforehand. Unfortunately I do not have an English title for it, but I will post it once I know what it will be.

Added April 7, 2011: The English title is Outrage, and it is due out in June of this year.

Genre: Police procedural
Year of publication: 2008
No. in series: 9
Series detective: Detective Erlendur Sveinsson and colleagues, of the Reykjavík detective force
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Reykjavík, Iceland; contemporary

Story:
Erlendur, the leading investigator in the previous books, is away on vacation, and the detective in this book is his colleague Elínborg. She is called in on a murder case involving a young man found with his throat cut and some Rohypnol tablets in his pocket. Was the man a drug rapist or were the pills planted on him? Did he rape someone the night he was killed and did she kill him in retaliation? Was there a third person involved? Elínborg needs to find answers to these and several other questions before she can solve what proves to be a complicated case.

Review:
As is usual in Arnaldur’s books, the mystery element in this story is excellent. There are twists and turns, meticulous gathering of evidence and questioning of a collection of interesting characters, most of whom have things to hide. However, one thing mars this story – something I have commented on about some of the earlier books in the series: too much background information.
In the previous stories, Arnaldur would sometimes summarise events in Erlendur’s family life from the previous books in overly long paragraphs. Here he is using Elínborg as the lead detective for the first time, and obviously he felt he needed to give her some back-story. The problem is that the back-story is too detailed and long-winded and does not have any bearing on the mystery or how she solves it, apart from her interest in Indian food, which helps her find an important witness. I got the feeling that Arnaldur was possibly building something up for the next book in the series, but even so it was clumsily done and boring to a degree.

Rating: A good mystery that gets bogged down in background detail. 3 stars.