Monthly Archives: March 2010

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1) My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My two previous attempts to read this book ended in my tossing the book aside in frustration. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” should come with some kind of label saying that the first 50 or so pages are pretty tedious, but necessary to set up some things for later in the story, but once you get past them, the novel opens up pretty well and becomes a real page turner and an interesting mystery.

Disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by the reclusive industrialist Henrik Vanger to spend a year writing a history of his family. And also to solve the mystery of who killed his niece Harriet 40 years earlier. As Blomkvists unpeels each layer of the family’s long and sordid history, he rumples some feathers and soon teams up with Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year old private investigator and hacker who is the girl of the title. As the two close in on the truth of what happened one fateful afternoon, the stakes get higher and higher for the two–Vanger has promised Blomkvist that if he solves the mystery, Vanger will provide him with details to ruin the financial company that disgraced him in a libel trial.

Reading up on the background of author Stieg Larsson (who passed away before the publication of “Tattoo”), it’s interesting to see the parallels between himself and his character of Blomkvist. Both are men who had complicated relationships with a particular woman, both ran successful financial magazines in Sweden and both seemed to like mysteries. Larsson includes a lot of Easter eggs to classic and popular mystery writers and even throws in a bit of a critical assessment of Val McDermid’s “The Mermaids Chair” along the way.

It’s been reported that Larsson wrote these books in his spare time and that he wrote them to entertain himself. That becomes apparently as several points in the story whree Larsson is clearly inserting himself into the story as Blomkvist. It’s not quite a Mary Sue, but it does come dangerous close.

It’s also apparent when we get product placement moments for Apple products. These come repeatedly throughout the book and feel like the moments satirizing product placement in the “Austin Powers” films.

Luckily these moments aren’t enough to detract fully from the mystery unfolding and the story Larsson is telling. But they do serve to take the book from a possible five star read down to a four in my mind.

The central mystery plays out well enough and while the ending won’t come as a huge shock to anyone, Larsson does a nice enough job of putting all the pieces into play that the resolution doesn’t feel forced or come out of left field. He does have a huge cast of characters–especially the Vanger family and keeping up with them could be a bit confusing, if not for a family tree included in the front of the book.

And while Blomkvist may be a stand-in for Larsson, the more interesting character in this book is that of Salander. The very reserved girl is a fascinating character study and one that kept me interested in what we find out about her next and what she’d do next. Larsson limits the amount of time we are able to be inside Salander’s head and that benefits the story greatly. We see how others react to her and what they think of her more than we see inside of her, making her all the more compelling and interesting. It also helps keep us guessing what she will do next and make us scratch our heads at certain decisions she makes over the course of the story (devotion to Apple products aside).

There’s been a lot of buzz for this book and deservedly so. It’s a fun thriller that’s trying to be a literary masterpiece. I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece that many feel it is, but it’s a better piece of popular entertainment than the “Twilight” novels. (Of course watching paint dry is a better bit of popular entertainment than the “Twilight” novels.) The story is a clear homage to the Agatha Christie locked-room mysteries with a bit of the modern character emphasis that drive current mystery series. It’s an interesting hybrid and one that has me curious to see where the characters will go in the next installment.

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“Carter Finally Gets It” by Brent Crawford and “Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn” by Sarah Miller

Carter Finally Gets ItCarter Finally Gets It rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn rating: 2 of 5 stars
It’s interesting to read “Carter Finally Gets It” and “Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn” within the same time span. Both novels attempt to get inside the mind of a teenage boy and find out what makes him tick. I imagine this is a valid concern for many teenage girls, trying to figure out what makes certain guys tick and why we act that we do. And while each novel concludes that guys are driven by one thing, it’s interesting to see how differently each novel approaches that driving factor.

With “Gideon” the feeling I got was that guys are motivated only by one thing–sex. And that’s it. The insight into the guy’s mind is that teenage boys think about sex A LOT. They think about the ways they could possibly have sex, where they could have sex and who they would like to have sex with. And that drives just about everything they do in trying to win over and impress girls.

Honestly, the story doesn’t go much deeper than that and, in the end, it becomes a bit repetitive by the halfway mark of the book. What will keep you reading is the curiosity factor over which of the characters is the first-person narrator with the all access pass to Gideon’s mind. There were times I felt like skipping ahead to find out, but I kept thinking I might miss some pivotal moment or some character development. Alas, that never quite happens.

On the other hand, you’ve got “Carter Finally Gets It,” a story about high school freshman Will Carter and his journey though his first year of high school. Carter and his fellow male friends are clearly motivated by lust for their fellow females, but most of them would clearly have no idea what to do with a willing female should they get one. In fact, Carter and his crew really have no clue as to who they really are and instead put on airs and try to be the stud they all think the should be. The results are humorous and realistic. Carter starts off the book in a romance with his home ec partner from the previous year who has blossomed a bit. Helped by his older sister’s advice, Carter is able to at first woo her but allows his early small successes such as holding her hand, kissing her and getting to first base to cloud his judgment and boost his ego. Before you know it, Carter is trying to have his cake and eat it too instead of just being the guy that he liked being and that most people liked him being.

It all catches up to him in a realistic way and then the rest of the novel finds Carter finally “getting it” and figuring out who he is. Yes, by the novel’s end Carter is still a hormonally imbalance waiting to happen, but there’s been some growth and learning by Carter along the way. There’s also been a couple of nice laughs that are grounded in the character. As I said in my review of “Swim the Fly,” the tone is similar to the early “American Pie” movies where you had some crude humor but it was balanced by some heart. That’s the case with “Carter” and while the book isn’t necessarily perfect, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable enough read.

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“Levithan” by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan (Leviathan, #1) My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Before I picked this one up, I’d heard a lot of really positive buzz surrounding it. And maybe the glowing reviews heightened my expectations to a point that no book could really live up to.

Because while I liked “Leviathan,” I didn’t love it.

I wanted to.

The book has some fascinating concepts from alternate history to elements of steam-punk. In terms of a world-building exercise, Scott Westerfeld has done a masterful job of creating a universe that’s rich, fascinating and dynamic. The steam-punk elements alone make the novel worth investing your time and attention to.

The problem comes in the characters and the story. The two leads are interesting but become predictable halfway through the story. I found myself slowly caring more about reading more about the technology of this universe than I did about the characters themselves, something I consider a bad sign. I didn’t feel as though the book worked hard enough to have me become as invested in the characters as I could have or should have been. Instead, it was too concerned with the clever technology and steam punk aspects and the story, as a whole, suffers as a result.

I realize this is the first of a series and I may or may not come back. I may check in just to see where things go next in the alternate history. We’ll see.

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Booking Through Thursday — Taking a Break From All Your Worries

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Do you take breaks while reading a book? Or read it straight through? (And, by breaks, I don’t mean sleeping, eating and going to work; I mean putting it aside for a time while you read something else.)

I tend to do a bit of both.   I will sometimes start two or three books at a time and then figure out which one I want to finish first and go from there.  But I do tend to finish all the books.  A lot of the decision making process can be made by how I acquired the book.  If it’s from the library and is a high demand book where I only get a week with it, I will tend to bump those up and start those sooner, even if I’m already reading something that is due later or I own.  I find that books I own or don’t have a due date on tend to drop lower on the list, unless it’s something I can’t wait to read (aka the new Dresden files book or the latest Elizabeth George novel, both of which are coming in April and I’ve got preordered and yes I’m counting days, why do you ask?)

And that doesn’t even take into account books I am reading for book club.  Those I tend to start early but will often leave and come back to…well, at least until I get a week before the meeting when it’s a race to the finish.

A lot of this is complicated by audio books.  They tend to take longer to “read” than if I was reading a book myself and I can often leave them and come back after a longer break than usual.  I tend to listen to audio books while working out or while doing chores around the house or driving, so my time to devote to them isnt’ always as much as I would to a regular book.

So to boil it down…it depends.

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Booking Through Thursday — Prose

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Which do you prefer? Lurid, fruity prose, awash in imagery and sensuous textures and colors? Or straight-forward, clean, simple prose?

(You thought I was going to ask something else, didn’t you? Admit it!)

Honestly, it depends on the book and how far the author goes with it.   I like world-building (I read a good bit of sf and fantasy) and I enjoy when an author uses language and words to create and set-up the world and atmosphere.  However, it can be something that is overused, especially within the realm of fantasy.   One of my biggest criticisms of Tolkein and all his imitators is that we can get so lost in the description of the world that we often we lose the reason I’m reading the story in the first place–the plot.  I do think that you can find a good balance between giving the reader enough detail to create the world and fill in minor details in their own mind and between an excess of wordage where it goes on and on and on for no good reason.

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“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterMy rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is one of those books that’s going to be sold by the cover and title alone.

The cover, featuring the visage of Honest Abe with a blood stains on his famous suit and a bloody axe in one hand is enough to make you take pause, open the cover and wonder what kind of absurdest joys lie within the books pages.

Seth Grahame-Smith, who found ways to skewer the works of Jane Austen by inserting zombies, has an interesting new way to skewer the biography–by inserting vampires. According to the introduction, Grahame-Smith is presented with a series of journals written by the sixteenth president that tell the real story of his life. Apparently, the history books missed that Abraham Lincoln was more than just a statesman, he was an avowed killer of the blood-sucking fiends known as vampires.

The book postulates that the reason so many of Abe’s close friends and family passed away under such mysterious circumstances was due to vampire attack. It’s an interesting premise and one that works fairly well in the early going as we see Abe swear to destroy every vampire in America after finding out his mother died due to a vampire attack, but the premise itself wears a bit thin by the second half of the novel. Grahame-Smith really stretches things when Lincoln discovers a link between vampires and slavery, leading to the reason that Lincoln decides that slavery must be eradicated. Some of the views of the Southern states in the later stages of the book are a bit too much and over the top with Grahame-Smith choosing to ignore certain things in order to go for the humorous effect.

As a satire of biographies, the novel works fairly well, inserting reflections by Lincoln’s journals with prose created in the biographical style of Grahame-Smith. But while the concept is interesting, I couldn’t help but feel the premise became a bit SNL-skit-like the longer the pages kept turning–nice idea but probably a bit too drawn out and rapidly losing its wit the longer things went along.

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“Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane

Shutter IslandMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
Being the book snob that I am, I’ve had this one of my to be read list ever since I heard it was being adapted for the silver screen.

And with the movie finally hitting theaters, I decided it was time to give it a try.

I’ve not read a lot of Dennis Lehane, though people have told me I should. I read “Mystic River” a few years ago and found it compelling, but I haven’t yet picked up any of his other books. Reading “Shutter Island” I think I’ll be revisiting Lehane in the near future.

One of the blurbs on the book cover called “Shutter Island” a cross between Stephen King and Agatha Christie. It’s a very apt description and the whole idea of a locked-room mystery with the supernatural element works very well. But thanks to the movie’s campaign, I was aware that there was some twist to the events of the story and so I found myself looking harder for clues to it than I might have if I’d not been aware a twist was coming. Thankfully, Lehane puts all his cards on the table early, laying the groundwork for the plot twist well enough that it works when it finally arrives and it doesn’t feel like something he came up with out of left field.

I can’t say more about it without ruining it for others, but I will say it did make the book worth reading and worth skimming back through to pick up on the clues Lahane lays out as the story unfolds.

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