August 7th, 2011
There are so many things I am thankful for when it comes to my Vicious Circle book club. The ladies are amazing, intelligent and actually love to discuss books. But they are also so well read that it’s crazy — I am consistently in awe of all of the books, and authors, my friends (and I feel privledged to call these women friends) know. Before the Vicious Circle, I had never heard of Tove Jansson. After book club, I can’t imagine my life without her.
I finished Fair Play last week and am still standing in amazement at its simple complexity. The story of two life-long partners, Jonna and Mari, the book consists of short chapters that follow the two women through their travels, the creation of their artwork, and their lives together in a small cottage on a far-away, solitary island. Their conversations are simple yet laced with meaning. Their actions are the same and Jansson, as Ali Smith points out so adroitly in the introduction, consistently plays with the interaction between love and work. The love, between these two women, feels both sisterly and romantic. They debate films with the heated intensity of siblings that are forever at odds with one another. Yet, they have a delicate, lovely cadence with one another — even when jealous rears its ugly head or the weather turns utterly dangerous — that can only come from a lifetime spent in love. (more…)
May 6th, 2011
This novel was incredibly bittersweet — not 100% mystery, not 100% your typical Swedish thriller, and there’s an element of incredibly honesty about aging throughout these pages. So often, male authors of a certain age (ahem, John Irving, Rushdie, ahem) tread and re-tread their same themes: men sleeping with younger/older women, ridiculous novels that they’ve written thrice before, and the banner of “literary fiction” seems to save them from ridicule. They rest on their laurels. They rest on the fact that they’ve written great works before. But I call these novels “mid-life crisis on the page.” They generally frustrate me critically and as a reader — they aren’t pushing any boundaries and there’s not a lot of honesty going on. I respect honesty on the page, from a writer, from their characters.
Mankell’s The Troubled Man, which is not without its problems (the dialogue, in particular, between Wallander and his daughter Linda is rather painful), but at its heart, the theme that touched me most was seeing how such a vibrant, aggressively distinctive man reacts to getting older. And not just middle age, but old age, as Wallander starts forgetting things, losing time and generally suffering from the first symptoms of dementia. It’s actually quite heartbreaking — yet, it doesn’t stop Wallander from solving the novel’s key mystery — the disappearance of Linda’s quasi-father-in-law.
The mystery in the novel seems straightforward at first, Håkan von Enke, a highly decorated, extremely respected naval officer (he was the captain of various Swedish submarines) simply disappears on day while on his daily walk. There’s nothing missing from his bank accounts, he has taken no clothes, and it’s as if he vanished into thin air. And when, a few weeks later, his wife also vanishes without a trace, the entire story becomes more complex. Are the von Enke’s what they seem? Are they alive? Are they dead? Wallander does his best to solve the mystery — looking at things from a different perspective, turning them over in his mind, until the book comes to its penultimate action, and the case is solved.
Mankell writes in tangents, suddenly Wallander’s making steak or doing something that simply appears in the story, and there are a lot of characters that seem to show up to tie up loose ends — both in terms of the detective’s life and of the central mystery. It’s interesting that much of this novel takes place outside of Wallander’s actual police duties. He’s on sick leave and/or vacation for most of the book, but like many hero’s of crime fiction, he just can’t stop working. The case sits before him, eating away at his subconscious, until he finally figures out the answers. Taking the focus away from traditional police work allows the novel to pay attention to Wallander’s personal life — his old relationships, the loss of good friends, the general sense of melancholy he feels about aging, about what’s happening to his brain.
Again, the tangents that Mankell intersperses throughout the text are sometimes daunting, they pull away from the story and allow the narrative to wander. In a way, it feels as if Mankell, by consistently pulling Wallander in all these different directions, is narratively representing the state of his mind — disjointed, sometimes confused, sometimes razor sharp, agile, angry, yet always on the cusp of discovery (and eventually he does solve the crime). All in all, like I said at the beginning of the post, it’s a bittersweet read — but one that challenges the idea of “genre” fiction, more ‘end of life’ (is there a word for this, like the opposite of buldingsroman?) novel than anything, and there’s nothing that makes you think more than the mortality of one of your favourite characters on the page.
December 3rd, 2010
Henning Mankell writes gripping, engaging novels and, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed every one of his books that I’ve read. And there were aspects to The Man from Beijing that I enjoyed but overall it really wasn’t as successful as many of his other novels. It’s a stand alone, so not a Kurt Wallander mystery, and it’s full of fascinating details about China, early development of the railroad in the US, the migrant/slave workers and colonization.
The novel opens with a lone wolf tracking the scent of blood, human. A man lies dead in a remote village in Sweden. In fact, the entire small hamlet, with few exceptions, is brutally murdered. And there is no apparent motive for the crime, no reason an entire village should be brutally slayed — the likes of which have never truly been seen in Sweden before. The police can find no motive and the only link seems to be the fact that all of these people lived in the small, remote village.
When Swedish judge Birgitta Roslin hears about the killings in Hesjovallen, she realizes that she has a connection to the victims. Her mother’s foster parents lived in the hamlet, and her mother grew up one of the houses where the massacre took place. In a way, she’s somewhat related to the people who were murdered, and Roslin discovers that they were all relatives of the Andren family…and soon suspects that something much larger is going on than a madman gone wild with a machete. Although, as you plod (and I mean plod) through the complex backstory, you discover why it’s so much easier for the police to arrest their suspected madmen than to believe what actually happened, and why.
Partway through the mystery, Mankell digresses into a narrative that follows the story of a young Chinese man in 1863. As he and his two brothers make their way to Canton, poor, starving, looking for work and food, they are confronted with the harsh reality of life. San, the protagonist, and Guo Si and Wu, are forced from their village and sent to wander. Like so many, they end up in a crowded city hoping to find a new life. They come upon tragedy after tragedy, and eventually San and Guo Si are captured, stolen and forced to become slaves building the railroad in the US. It’s an impossibly hard life and as the novel progresses you understand the true toll progress takes in human life. In the end, San finds his way back home, but not before horrible things happen, things that would make a weaker man question whether or not he was cursed. How does all of this fit in to the massacres? Well, it would spoil the novel too much to truly explain, but let’s just say that some of the things that happen while San is working on the railroad are avenged years later by one of his descendants.
Eventually, Roslin figures out there’s a link to the murders with China and sets off to uncover exactly what happened. It’s a dangerous thing to do, and she’s really not aware of the kind of trouble she’s stepping in. I enjoyed Roslin’s character — she’s tough as nails, smart, and doesn’t stand for any messing about. But I’ve always had a problem with revenge plots. I think they are the weakest in terms of thrillers — I don’t like them in movies and I’m even less fond of them in novels, which is why this book sort of fell flat for me. It’s not a page-turner, and at 2 AM when you’ve got a RRBB feeding away, you need something active, and fascinating, to peak your interest. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t well researched and that the information contained within isn’t valuable, I’m just saying it didn’t all fit together as nicely as one would have expected from a novelist as solid as Mankell.
In the end, the parts of the book that I liked the best were the ones where Birgitta was out and about trying to solve the mystery. I doubt that Mankell will develop a series around the character but I do have to admit that I really, really liked her and wanted more from her in the novel. The far fetched nature of the entire book just didn’t ring true despite Mankell’s excellent prose and I was disappointed in the bad guy. He seemed very Hollywood, a little too Gordon Gecko for my liking, but I did learn a lot about China, or at least Mankell’s version of China, and the very interesting political things that are happening these days — in that sense, the novel doesn’t disappoint.
And, because Mankell’s Swedish, here’s another book that counts for my Around the World in 52 Books challenge. One day I’ll tally everything up. I’ve got four weeks left in the year. Maybe I’ll get caught up on all of my reading challenges. Um, yeah, right.
October 6th, 2010
I probably should have blogged about this earlier in the week as I actually read this book a while ago. Having read all of the Larsson’s, I needed a little bit of that Swedish mystery one week while I had umpteen doctors appointments. Mystery/popular fiction is very good crowded waiting room reading, isn’t it? So, I downloaded the first book of Camilla Läckberg‘s incredibly popular series of set in Fjällbacka.
A beautiful young woman ends up dead, the so-named “Ice Princess” of the book’s title, and Erica Falck, a writer trying to come to terms with the death of her parents, finds herself embroiled in the investigation. Everywhere she turns, she’s connected to the murder — the deceased was her best childhood friend, the family leans on her for support, her love interest is the lead investigator, and multiple other coincidences stick her to the case like glue. Unlike my favourite writer-slash-Swedish-crime-thriller-hero, Blomkvist, Erica writes mainly biographies. She’s a woman’s writer — chronicling their lives for mid-list biographies. There’s not a political edge to these mysteries; they’re more straightforward, and interspersed are more personal details about Erica’s life: her abused sister, her blundering love life, her male best friend. There’s an element of romance novel in this book, and it kind of softened the hard-edges that I’m used to by reading Larsson and/or Henning Mankell.
That doesn’t mean that this novel is ultimately successful — certainly not to the level of the Millennium trilogy, but Läckberg has a talent with description and setting. The atmosphere absolutely infuses the level of intensity surrounding the case of the murdered woman. But the translation feels clunky and a lot of the set-ups feel unrealistic, and I honestly didn’t care who had actually committed the murder by the end. I know, that’s harsh, but the book definitely falls down in a number of ways. But my lust for Swedish mysteries these days seems unhinged. I just can’t get enough of them.
June 8th, 2010
I was sitting with an author yesterday speaking with them about the web, how to use it, what’s important, how and why to blog, etc., when she asked what my blog addy was, I replied, “But I’m a terrible example of a good blogger these days.” It’s a “do as I say and not as I do” kind of situation. There’s just too much going on these days and I can’t seem to get it together to sit down, ass on chair, and get writing.
Maybe I’ve lost my words.
Or maybe I’m just far too comfortable on the couch.
Regardless, things should quiet down by July and then I’ll feel more in control.
At long last I finished the galley I had of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest about three weeks ago. A friend had sent it over to me when she saw my exuberant post about Larsson’s previous book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and I started and stopped a few times before actually getting through to the end.
If we’re being completely honest, as much as I am sucked in by Larsson’s rambling narrative style, I find the excess of information, the journalistic tone of his writing, sometimes a bit frustrating. Does the book really need those chapter openers about the Amazons, the female warriors, etc. Do we really need to know every single detail of the founding of the secret government society (the so-called Hornet’s Nest that Lisbeth kicks?). Probably not. But once you wade through all of that stuff, it’s almost impossible to put the book down — once the mechanics of the conspiracy are unraveled, which would be difficult to explain if he didn’t go into painful detail about how it all got started, the book roars to its conclusion.
As the book picks up right where Fire left off (SPOILER), with Lisbeth in the hospital and her abhorrent father just down the hallway, it doesn’t contain as much pure action as I would have liked. But, again, this novel isn’t about action, it’s about conspiracy, cover-ups, the responsibility of governments and the underhanded way Lisbeth has been dealt with over the course of her entire life. The machinations of the cover up and the reasons behind it remain so utterly despicable that it’s easy to see Blomkvist as hero as he unravels and brings it all to light. Yet, he, like Lisbeth, is not without flaws — and, as a reader, you appreciate this. These two characters, Lisbeth and Blomkvist, stop this novel from becoming a poor Bourne knock-off (often, in my head, I saw Treadstone in the place of the Swedish “secret” government agency). They’re refreshingly different from the norm (although “downtrodden” seems to be the characteristic du jour for so many thriller-type protagonists).
What’s more, I appreciate how Larsson’s own writing never flushes into the Hollywood/movie-style of prose that so often plagues novels within the genre (like what Black Water Rising ultimately suffers from). He never relies on tropes or tricks when describing action and maybe that’s his journalistic background, or maybe it’s just his own particular gift. Regardless, the story hums because of Larsson’s inherent capability to drive the action forward, despite how irrelevant some of it actually is when it comes to the end of the book.
The Girl that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest isn’t a perfect book but it absolutely won’t disappoint fans (like myself) and truly feels like a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.