Lisbeth Salander’s favourite reading material

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I am even more grateful than I realised in advance to the publisher (MacLehose Press) for sending me the perfect weekend distraction of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland. The book is out in the UK and Australia on 1 October, so if you haven't read the first two in this trilogy, you just about have time to rectify that situation before the final volume is out. You certainly need to have read them both before embarking on Hornet's Nest. Like the previous volumes, the opening 100-or-so pages are not an obvious way to begin a novel of this calibre. But persevere  – I am now 200 pages in and at that delicious stage of wanting to race on as fast as possible, yet not read any so that I don't finish the novel. (As, sadly, there will be no more by this author.)

Lisbeth Salander, the scorching protagonist, is in hospital because of her serious, life-threatening injuries incurred at the end of book 2 (The Girl Who Played With Fire). Here's an excerpt from Hornet's Nest (p. 187 of my edition), an exchange between her surgeon and a psychologist at the hospital:

… "I asked her if she wanted something to read, whether I could bring her books of any sort. At first she said no, but later she asked if I had any scientific journals that dealt with genetics and brain research."
"With what?"
"Yes. I told her that there were some popular science books on the subject in our library. She wasn't interested in those. She said she'd read books on the subject before, and she named some standard works that I'd never heard of. She was more interested in pure research in the field."
"Good grief."
"I said that we probably didn't have any more advanced books in the patient library – we have more Philip Marlowe than scientific literature – but that I'd see what I could dig up."
"And did you?"
"I went upstairs and borrowed some copies of Nature magazine and The New England Journal of Medicine. She was pleased and thanked me for taking the trouble."
"But those journals contain mostly scholarly papers and pure research."
"She reads them with obvious interest."

See Euro Crime news for some early reviews of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

More about the Millennium Trilogy, with links to reviews of and articles about the earlier books.

Complaints about The Complaints

Don't mess with your readers, says Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. The only reason people care about Ian Rankin is because of Rebus, he writes, in response to a Herald article about the author, with the provocative title 'Killing characters is the real crime for fans'.
In the Herald piece, Colin Waters reports Rankin's announcement of his new series and opines that "the omens are not good", on the basis that Colin Dexter wrote no more after Morse, J K Rowling has yet to write anything significant after Harry Potter and Agatha Christie killed off Poirot because she did not like him.
I don't think any of these examples are relevant: Dexter pretty much retired after many years of Morse novels; Agatha Christie wrote many successful novels (series and non-series) before and after giving up on Poirot; and J K Rowling is not a crime-fiction author, conceived Potter as a seven-novel series, and is hardly a Salinger-like case yet. On the other hand, there are plenty of counter-examples of commercially successful authors who write more than one series and/or who write series and stand-alone novels: Val McDermid, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell, John Harvey, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Andrew Taylor, Harlan Coben, Karin Slaughter, Patricia Cornwell and so on.
Be that as it may, Waters concludes that "Rankin has resisted the temptation to revive Rebus" but that if he does write another book featuring his famous detective, "the motive will be… great mystery". Give the guy a chance! The last Rebus book, Exit Music, was published only a couple of years ago and there have already been two novels since - last year's Doors Open, which as top-selling UK paperback last week could hardly be doing better, and the upcoming (aptly titled!) The Complaints
I predict that Ian Rankin will be crying all the way to the bank whether or not he decides to revive Rebus – he's a good writer and people like reading him. (His pre-Rebus novels were not successful when first published, but even though they aren't as good as the Rebus novels, they certainly were commercially successful when they were republished after the author found fame with Rebus – himself not immediately successful – it took a good few years for Rebus to catch on with the wide readership he currently enjoys.)

I was going to make this a two-part post and have a go at another (unrelated) strange attack, but given the length of this post already, I'll return to the topic of "Complaints" another time.

Ian Rankin bibliography at Euro Crime.

Ian Rankin's website.

Ian Rankin at Wikipedia.

Sunday Salon: enchancing the reading experience

TSSbadge3 Clare Dudman, on her blog Keeper of the Snails, writes about the ways in which the internet can enhance the experience of reading a book. In addition to her list, there is an interesting group of suggestions in the comments discussion, as well as a debate about whether the pleasure of reading is best limited to the book itself, rather than including secondary activities such as looking up the location of the setting on Google maps.

For me, the main way in which the internet enhances the reading experienceis to use the plethora of online book reviews. If I am deciding whether or not to read a book, I might search for the title/author and then skim reviews on blogs or other websites (eg newspapers) - but not read them very thoroughly as I don't want to know too many details or opinions at that stage. After I have read the book, however, I very much enjoy reading other people's review of the book to see other perspectives on it  - and, if there are online comments for the review I'm reading, I like reading those and perhaps joining in the discussion.

Our Friend Feed crime and mystery group (which anyone is welcome to join – if you are quick you can be the 100th subscriber as we reached 99 this morning) is an extension of this process. Links to reviews of books are posted, either automatically or manually. The stimulating book-focused discussions that develop, either at Friend Feed or at the linked article, can either persuade me to read the book (or not to read it!), or bring out aspects of it that had not previously occurred to me.

The internet is so good at enabling one to discover books and to read them, either by visiting good book websites (my favourite is Euro Crime as I am becoming increasingly taken with translated fiction) or by general searches. Buying the chosen book online is also a huge advantage on the old days (pre-Internet) of traipsing round bookstores and not finding a desired title in stock (but being tempted into buying other books in the process, of course). Although Amazon does feature "customer reviews" of books, I don't usually find these as useful or engaging as the reviews I read on blogs (particularly the blogs I regularly visit) or via an internet search, which identifies newspaper or magazine reviews as well as reviews on blogs I didn't previously know about. So I tend to use Amazon (or other bookselling site) mainly for the purchasing function and not for the reviewing/recommending option.

Sunday Salon: translated fiction to read this Summer

TSSbadge3 With the holiday season well-advanced in some regions of the world, and about to hit this small island mid-next-week with the end of the school term, I present a few holiday reading recommendations from books reviewed in the past few weeks. The two parameters I've chosen are: (1) translated into English; and (2) not on the shortlist for the CWA 2009 International Dagger award.

First, my review of Island of the Naked Women, by Inger Frimansson and translated by Laura A. Wideburg, is up today at Euro Crime. From my review: "I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is a strong candidate for my "best of" list for this year. As well as the satisfying "on the surface" mystery, there is an allegorical aspect to the story, which gives it a haunting quality. The island of the naked women (Shame Island) is where legend has it that, in the olden days, wives from the village who had been unfaithful to their husbands were sent, naked, to fend for themselves. It is presumed they starved. The wives in the story told in the book live in more enlightened times, but is their fate any better than that of their historical counterparts?" Read my full review at Euro Crime.

Second, up last week at Euro Crime, is my review of The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, translated by Charlotte Barsund. "As usual, I am very impressed by Karin Fossum's talent and originality. In THE WATER'S EDGE she has taken an upsetting and controversial topic– the painful death of a child or children – and has made it palatable and interesting even to a sensitive reader who, frankly, cannot usually bear to think about the subject. The author uses the events in the book to look at people, their attitudes and relationships, in both small and large ways." Read the whole review here.

Over at Reactions to Reading, Bernadette reviews Karin Alvtegen's Missing, translated by Anna Paterson (I presume, if it is the same edition as the one I read). Bernadette writes: "I  intended to read a few pages of this before going to sleep last night. I quite literally could not put it down and finished the whole thing in one sitting ….Here is story telling at its absolute finest: I was hooked from page one of this simple and moving tale." The rest of Bernadette's 5/5 review is here.

For those, like me, who enjoyed Johan Theorin's debut Echoes from the Dead, Peter of Nordic Bookblog writes an early review of the second in the series, The Darkest Room Peter says that like Theorin's "first novel, this too is an intelligent book somewhere in between a crime fiction book and a ghost story." I am shocked to note that there is no mention of the translator of this novel either in this review, or at the publishers' website, or Amazon, or on the Guardian review. I guess that it is translated by Marlaine Delargy, who translated the author's first novel, but I hope the name of the translator is provided in at least some of these places by the time the book is on sale.

Finally for this post, a new (to me, and in fact quite new) blog called The View from the Blue House posts a review of The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett (a.k.a. Harry Hole). Rob Kitchin, the reviewer, calls the book "a highly enjoyable read and I zipped through it, picking it up at every opportunity so I could find out what happened next. Nesbø is particularly good at keeping the pace and tension high, running several sub-plots simultaneously and linking them in and out of each other." Read on here. [If you are tempted to read this book, my strong advice is don't do so until you've read first The Redbreast and then Nemesis – the correct reading order is here.]

Sunday Salon: Reinventing plots

TSSbadge3 As well as featuring 12 crime fiction novels, the current issue of Waterstones Quarterly contains an interview with Sarah Waters about her life and work, especially her latest book The Little Stranger. I found a paragraph about influences on this novel extraordinary for two reasons:

"That's right" [says Waters]. "I'd been thinking a lot about Brideshead and other country-house novels. One in particular actually: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. It's about a working class girl who's abducted by a mother and daughter living in an isolated house. It's brilliant in lots of ways, but repellent: the narrator's sympathies are completely with the middle-class people and the girl is made a repository for all this class loathing. At first I wanted to do a rewrite of it, but I worried that Tey's estate might not be happy. So I decided to find another way to explore that landscape."

First, has Waters actually read the book? Of course she must have done, but anyone who has read it will surely agree that her encapsulation of the plot is bizarre.

Second, the idea of Tey's novel as a ruthless salvo in the class war had not occurred to me before. It is an interesting way to look at it. Not a perspective with which I agree, but Sarah Waters has certainly provided a stimulating, if jarring, interpretation.

I thought I might try the Sarah Waters treatment on a couple of classics.

Hamlet: a middle-aged couple is driven to distraction by a hooligan they selflessly adopted despite his ASBO. The authorities' caring attempts to save the wayward boy from his worst excesses via secret surveillance and monitoring by a female social worker are viciously repelled.

Lord of the Flies: in an over-the-top show of force, the military callously destroy the innocent game of a group of unarmed boys; the reader is encouraged to root for the oppressors, endorsing the terrible repression so prevalent in British society at that time and providing a vote for juntas worldwide.

Please feel free to try this approach yourself on your own favourites.

Sunday Salon: The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

The Chalk Circle Man
By Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds.

So I come to the last book I have to read that is on the shortlist for the 2009 International Dagger award. It’s French, and the first in the Adamsberg series that has already won Fred Vargas this award for two years in succession (2006 and 2007).
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has been, until the start of this novel, a provincial police inspector of great unconventionality but with an unusually high success rate in solving cases. Therefore, as the novel opens, he’s recently promoted to commissioner in the Parisian force, and we see his eccentricities through the eyes of his close colleague, Inspector Danglard – himself a single parent of two sets of twins and additionally looking after a fifth child belonging to but abandoned by his ex-wife and her lover. Adamsberg has an instinctive, bordering on supernatural, style, as is shown by an initial vignette in which he correctly identifies the criminal in a case long before any evidence is found to force a confession from the suspect.
Despite the internal and external strangenesses of the sensual Adamsberg and the lugubrious Danglard, the story told in The Chalk Circle Man is at its heart a straightforward police procedural. Someone is drawing chalk circles on the Parisian streets at night, leaving strange objects in their centres. Adamsberg’s forebodings about the person behind this activity are soon borne out when a murdered body is found inside one of the circles. Despite intensive police activity, other murders follow, at different parts of the city.
An eccentric range of suspects is assembled even before the first body is found. An academic whose research speciality is deep-sea fish, Mathilde, has a hobby of following people round the city. One of these characters, a beautiful blind man called Paul Reyer, has disappeared and Mathilde, professing to be worried, reports him as missing to the police. She is ignored by all but Adamsberg, who rapidly finds the “missing” man (not missing at all). Soon, Reyer and another wanderer on the streets, an elderly woman called Clemence, are lodging with Mathilde in her fish-obsessed house. Clemence is addicted to answering lonely-hearts adverts, but is perpetually disappointed because each time she arranges to meet someone, he immediately abandons the old woman on sight.
How these three oddballs are going to become involved in the chalk circle story is not clear – but involved they are, not only with the mystery but also, in Mathilde’s case, with Adamsberg in a much more personal sense. As events reach their climax, the author plays fair with her readers and provides a satisfying, if sad, solution to the bizarre conundrum. At the same time, the author has piqued the reader's interest in the affectionate relationship (mainly unspoken) between Adamserg and Danglard, two men of very different outlook, to be explored further in future novels.
Much has been written about Vargas's alternative universe. I see her characters as acting like children in adult’s bodies. This novel is a fable, in which people live out their impulses, creative or destructive, without thought of consequence. Nobody plans for the future, living in the existential present. Yet the motivation of the murderer is cold and logically carried out – and would pass muster in a novel firmly rooted in pedestrian reality.
The book is peppered with acute social observations; cynical yet funny barbs at the media and  modern society (the excerpts from the newspaper reports of the chalk circles are hilarious); and myriad tiny delights – Mathilde’s plan to spend a day following a man who is interested in the mythical rotation of sunflower stems, Clemence’s pointed teeth for which Mathilde likes to provide zoological comparisons, or little exchanges between Adamsberg and Danglard about Byzantium and the emperor Justinian (actually highly relevant to the mystery). If the reader is prepared to take this world as it is, then the book is very satisfying. Its eccentricities are charming (though the author is ruthless within her creation, which is no fairy tale) – they are bound up in the pace and focus of the novel, rather than distracting the reader from these essentials.

Thanks to Karen Meek of Euro Crime for my proof copy of the book.

Fred Vargas at Euro Crime: a listing of all the books translated into English, in order, with links to reviews.

Crime Scraps discusses The Chalk Circle Man and order of translations of the Vargas books, in a series of posts.

L A Times: Sarah Weinman discusses Fred Vargas's novels and the order in which they have been translated.

Other reviews of The Chalk Circle Man at:

Euro Crime by Fiona Walker

Mysteries in Paradise by Kerrie

The Independent by Jane Jakeman

The Guardian (brief) by Laura Wilson

Sunday Salon: inappropriate titles

Interesting weather last night: raining steadily but mildly in Kingston, completely dry and sunny in Wimbledon 3 miles down the road, and torrential rain in north London, causing closure of the North Circular and other roads in many places due to severe flooding, and a several-hours-long power cut over Mill Hill. Today, all is calm and I turn to the topic of books.

Horace Bent of the Bookseller 26 June p. 42 (not online) notes the Sun-generated outrage that The Crimes of Josef Fritzl was selected for a prominent a father's day promotion in W H Smith and Tesco. The book was quickly removed from the shelves despite, writes Horace Bent, "Tesco's initial bold defence of their decision to stock it".

What, he asks, would rank among the most inappropriate book promotions? "The God Delusion on an Easter table? Living with Sexually Transmitted Diseases in a Valentine's promo?" He also suggests Wittgenstein as a 'Summer Read', but that doesn't seem so bad to me – especially on reading some of the holiday recommendations in yesterday's papers. Winter's Bane or Snow Falling on Cedars, now….

What would be your suggestions? Far From the Madding Crowd in a "Glastonbury special"? The Black Path to promote countryside walks? Skin and Bones in a health campaign?

[For more bookselling amusement, follow HoraceBent on Twitter]

Sunday Salon: Body Count by P. D. Martin

TSSbadge3 It is all too rare that we in the UK can read some of the great Australian crime fiction currently being published. I write “great” because of all the wonderful reviews I read on the Australian (mainly) blogs devoted to the subject. I've loved Peter Temple (Jack Irish and more) and Adrian Hyland (Diamond Dove), for example, and have enjoyed the first two by Michael Robotham – who although Australian sets his books in the UK. Although some more authors are being published over here and/or are available on Amazon, there are many that aren’t – see the Crime Down Under Australian crime fiction database and this reading group for plenty of examples.
One author who is regularly recommended by crime-fiction bloggers and other reviewers is P. D. Martin, so I was very pleased to see a copy of her debut, Body Count (publisher, Mira), in my last visit to Murder One, and snapped it up.
Sophie Anderson is an Australian, working for the FBI as a profiler in their famous Quantico offices. As the book opens, she takes part in a joint operation with the Washington, DC, police to capture a serial killer, an exciting few chapters that provide a (seemingly) authentic view of an FBI operation in detail, and allow us to become acquainted with the engaging Sophie and her colleagues.
We also learn, however, that when she was a young child, Sophie’s brother John was abducted. Not only did the infant Sophie have a premonition of this horrifying event, but in a nightmare she experiences the kidnapping and subsequent events from the perpetrator’s perspective, feeling his sense of enjoyment. Determined to dedicate her life to helping victims of criminals, twenty-five years later she is an admired and respected profiler. Of course, she and the reader know that the reason for Sophie’s ability to accurately profile offenders is because of this psychic ability.
Unfortunately, clichés of the genre being what they are, the plot of the book is apparent very early on. Sophie has a best friend among her colleagues, Samantha (aka Sam). The team is overworked because resources have been diverted to combating terrorism in the wake of 9/11, so the case of the “Washington slasher” is passed to Sam and Sophie to profile. Inevitably, via Sophie’s nightmares, the reader has to share her re-enactment of the horrible ways in which this person tortures and kills. Equally inevitably, Sam and Sophie (both attractive, fit young women, of course) become targets of the killer as they are similar in several ways to the earlier victims. For me, this aspect of the book is deeply unpleasant, as the basis for the suspense is not only the fact that women are being tortured and raped, but that it is probable that one of the two friends is going to suffer this fate, and that we are going to have to experience these events through the mind of the other one. I really do not find this entertaining in any sense: to the contrary.
This having been said, the book does not fall into the category of “torture porn” that has made me fail to complete, or not even start, other books on these topics. The tale is told briskly and without dwelling too much on the gory details – but they are horrible.
It is obvious very quickly, and well before anyone in the FBI taskforce cottons on, that the villain is going to be someone working on their team. In another weakness, I knew the identity of the villain on the first appearance of this character – I am not sure why I clicked straight away, but I did – so for me there was no suspense in the eventual revelation of which character this was and how they had evaded suspicion.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to be unduly negative about the book. Its strongest aspects are in the details of the investigation – how the FBI team teases out hard clues from a profile and follows them all up in order to narrow down the options to identify a chief suspect. The story is told at a fast pace in an easy style, and the protagonist is an attractive character, although her mystic intuition is far stronger than her ability to add two and two together in the here-and-now, and she’s a bit too susceptible to a handsome guy. Although at the end of the day the subject-matter was not to my taste, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone looking for an exciting thriller to take on holiday or to pass away a couple of hours, if you don’t mind the subject matter described here. The novel easily stands up there with Karin Slaughter and earlier (i.e. good) books by Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman. And it’s better than many others in this rather crowded subgenre.

P. D. Martin bibliography (official author website).

Body Count reviewed at Shots.

Body Count reviewed by The Age newspaper.

Posts about P. D. Martin at Mysteries in Paradise.

Review of the next in the Sophie Anderson series, The Murderers' Club, at Reactions to Reading.

Sunday Salon: Starting The Scarecrow

TSSbadge3 I am 38 pages in to The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, and as expected, am enjoying it tremendously. Here is a passage from page 12, just after verteran reporter Jack McEvoy has been given two weeks' notice, a grace period in order to train up his replacement:

There was no newspaper out there in the market for an over-40 cop-shop reporter. Not when they had an endless supply of cheap labor – baby reporters like Angela Cook minted fresh every year at USC and Medill and Columbia, all of them technologically savvy and willing to work for next to nothing. Like the paper and ink newspaper itself, my time was over. It was about the Internet now. It was about hourly uploads to online editions and blogs. It was about television tie-ins and Twitter updates. It was about filing stories on your phone instead of using it to call rewrite. The morning paper might as well be called the Daily Afterthought. Everything in it was posted on the web the night before.

and here's an extract from page 18:

I turned from my reverie to look up at the lovely face of Angela Cook. I didn't know her but I knew her: a fresh hire from a top-flight school. She was what they call a mojo – a mobile journalist nimbly able to file from the filed via any electronic means. She could file text and photos for the website or paper, or video and audio for television and radio partners. She was trained to do it all but in practice she was still as green as can be. She was probably being paid $500 a week less than me, and in today's newspaper economy that made her a greater value to the company. Never mind the stories that would be missed because she had no sources. Never mind how many times she would be set up and manipulated by the police brass, who knew an opportunity when they saw it.
She was probably a short-timer anyway. She'd get a few years' experience, get some decent bylines, and move on to bigger things, law school or politics, maybe a job in TV. But Larry Bernard was right. She was a beauty, with blond hair over green eyes and full lips. The cops were going to love seeing her around headquarters. It would take no more than a week before they forgot about me.

Fantastic, perceptive stuff. This book is shaping up to be a perfect read.

Sunday Salon: Crime Fest edition

TSSbadge3 On the run-up to CrimeFest, the crime-fiction festival in Bristol starting on Thursday 14 May and continuing until Sunday, several of the books reviewed at Euro Crime today are by authors who will be at the meeting. Two of these reviews are by me; I highly recommend both titles.

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves is the third of her Shetland novels. It is best enjoyed if you have read the previous two (Raven Black and White Nights), but it isn't essential. I wrote: "Much of the appeal of this book lies in the wonderfully conveyed sense of place, the convincingly sympathetic portrayal of a way of life, and astute characterisation. But as well as these elements, there is a good solid mystery plot…" Ann will be moderating an exciting session at CrimeFest called Foreign Correspondent: Books in translation, featuring (as well as Ann herself) a world-class panel of Don Bartlett, Ros Schwartz, Reg Keelend (Steven T Murray) and Tiina Nunnally.

The Mind's Eye by Hakan Nesser is the first in the van Veeteren series. A quote from my review: "The plot is simple yet powerful; elemental themes are involved; there is lots of droll humour and neat touches; the solution is satisfying; and one is left hoping for more." I've read these books out of order by default, and think I would have enjoyed the later ones more had I read this one first. Never mind, the author has a very dry and wicked sense of humour; Laurie Thompson (also translator of several of Henning Mankell's books) has done an excellent job of translating not only the text but also the jokes. Hakan Nesser is a featured author at CrimeFest; one of the highlights of the programme for me will be his interview by Ann Cleeves.

See the Euro Crime home page for the rest of this week's new reviews, including books by CrimeFest authors Caro Ramsay, Andrew Martin and S. J. Bolton.