Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

The second entry in the Millennium trilogy had the same impression on me as the first: an interesting mystery with fascinating characters that somehow never seems to work itself up past a low hum.

Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant, distant young hacker with a horrifying past, was put through the paces as a sidekick in the first book; this time, she takes center stage. Redeemed journalist Mikael Blomvkvist is working with two freelancing friends on an expose of sex trafficking in Sweden. When his friends end up dead, however, Salander's prints are found on the murder weapon. Suddenly, the intensely private Salander finds herself on the front page of every newspaper in Sweden, with multiple organizations tracking her down and most of the country convinced that she is a retarded psychopath. As Blomkvist attempts to find her and help her, he uncovers not only her surprising connections to the case, but begins to gain insight on how she became the surly loner she is. Meanwhile, Salander has to evade the tightening noose of journalists and police officers as she attempts to finish what the murder victims started.

Here's the main problem I have with this book: the events above, which are advertised on the book jacket, don't actually happen until hundreds of pages in. As with the first book, Larsson takes the scenic route to the actual mystery, and in the meantime, we get a completely unrelated vignette of Salander's Caribbean adventures, a subplot with Erika Berger that ends up going nowhere, and about a third or so of the actual IKEA catalog, as far as I can tell. Once things actually start happening, they don't actually get interesting until around page 400 or so. And even the intense action sequences are rendered in Larsson's usual laconic, Prozac-laden drone, so that the most suspenseful scenes still feel clinical. Also, everyone in Sweden apparently buys dinner at 7-11. Weird.

Oddly enough, all of that doesn't make for a bad read. Once again, I was invested in the story the whole way through, because I'm a fan of character work and these books are basically proving to be a series of detailed character sketches. I felt that the second book was actually more tightly plotted than the first. Even though the pacing still feels completely broken, the mystery is definitely less scattered and clumsy than the one in the first book.

There's another annoyance that set in for me partway through this book, though. For all that Larsson's characters are interesting, I don't really buy the way in which he portrays female characters. I mean, being male, I could be completely off-base here, but each time I was presented with a female character, I couldn't get past the image of a male author trying to approximate a female voice. Salander's crass treatment in the first book gets a little more dimension in this one, and new insights into her psychological profile explain her voice a bit, but Mimmi? Modig? Johannson? Every last one of them reads like a middle-aged male fantasy of what a strong, sexual woman should sound like (which, by the way, is exactly how Salander and Berger came off in the first book, I'm realizing). Again, just my impression; I didn't buy them, and I'm beginning to understand why some readers classify the books as mildly misogynistic.

Don't get me wrong, these books are good. I mean, they're... I don't know, competent. But I can't really wrap my head around the wild praise I keep hearing. The characterizations are largely great, but the writing is uneven, the pace is completely boned, and the narrative forgoes descriptive prose in favor of mountains of technical details. Also, I think maybe something is lost in translation, as some of the dialogue is painfully awkward and sometimes even nonsensical, which seems out of place amidst the painstaking prose in the rest of the book.

Yeah, I'm picking on it a little. But even if I didn't get very excited about this book, I never lost interest, either. In fact, the focus on Salander is incredibly satisfying. I'd have even been pleasantly surprised by some of her backstory, if the director who made the Swedish movie out of the first book didn't decide to spoil this book in that movie. Goddamned jerk. Anyway, even though I'm whinging a little about this book, it's not bad at all. It's a decent thriller, and it definitely benefits from a comparison to the first in the trilogy.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 2: Miles Behind Us, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Yeah, this one is a little bit more like it.

With the drama at the Atlanta campsite having reached its head, Grimes assumes leadership of the refugees and they hit the road. They meet a few new people along the way, and land upon an abandoned suburb and a pastoral farmstead in their search for a home safe from the restless dead.

With the introductory issues out of the way, it feels like the second volume gets a little deeper into Kirkman's "all about the characters" mission. The characters are a little less stereotypical in this one, and though we're still basically in a zombie soap opera, the interactions are considerably more believable (and, in a few instances, genuinely scary and affecting). The pace is a little better, too, with the traveling lending a bit more urgency to the proceedings. The places they land along the way have a bit more going on than the campsite in the first volume, as well.

The only tradeoff was the predictability, though that shouldn't be too surprising from a zombie story. There is never really any doubt about how each mini-story in the volume will turn out, especially considering that any suspense that does exist is neutralized with some pretty ham-handed foreshadowing. That leaves the surprises for the characters that end up leaving or getting killed, some of which I found surprising to the point of jarring (again, that's a little bit more like it).

The direction of this series looks good. Whatever flaws it has, it's so damned readable that I had to force myself not to breeze through it in twenty minutes. I'm in for the next few volumes, for sure.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larrson

Hmm. Well, considering the word-of-mouth this one has been getting for quite some time, I was expecting either the best mystery book I've ever read, or the usual crushing disappointment that comes from reading hyped books. I got something in between: a competent, enjoyable read, but not anything that hasn't been done better elsewhere.

This book begins with a very long, very detailed backstory for Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist facing a libel trial for an investigative piece on a less-than-upright CEO. Blomkvist's travails attract the attention of Henrik Vanger, an aging industrialist who has been mourning the disappearance (and, as he believes, murder) of a favored niece for years. Vanger offers Blomkvist a huge salary if he will work for a year writing a family chronicle and, in the process, see if he can uncover anything new about Harriet Vanger's disappearance. As the investigation takes on new life, Blomkvist enlists the help of a brilliant, damaged young hacker named Lisbeth Salander. Between the two of them, they discover that the historical murder mystery may be something altogether more immediate, and dangerous.

Over and over again, I have seen this book described as gripping. I'm going to come right out and say it: if not for the fact that Larsson was a good writer that could depict interesting characters, this book would be utterly boring.

Larsson loves his details. Like, really loves them. We get thorough breakdowns of our character's afternoons: what sort of meal they ate at what time, before the detailed route they took to the store, etc. Technical specs abound, as well. Any scene that includes a computer reads like a catalog, and I swear, there is even a helpful website URL in parentheses at one point.

This obsessive-compulsive description extends to the characters through backstories, side-plots, exposition, and even wardrobe. This is a saving grace, as far as I'm concerned; even with Larsson's spartan, Nordic prose, the characters are fascinating in their flaws and idiosyncrasies. By extension, the situations in which they find themselves keep the reader's attention. Despite the too-even keel, I never lost interest at any point; I kept reading because I perpetually wanted to find out what happens next.

The big problem this book has is the completely broken pace of the story. The main mystery doesn't pick up steam until literally 300 pages in. In the meantime, after getting a novella on Blomkvist's journalistic troubles, we are treated to strangely flat chronicle of Salander's difficult life, punctuated by a buffet of rape that is curiously absent of any psychological consequences. It must be said that this smacks of being explored more fully in a future book, but for now, the treatment of Salander's character development comes off as almost crass. Furthermore, it's unclear what any of it has to do with the main narrative. All of the subplots in this book are completely orphaned from the big story; while the book is nicely bookended by the libel stuff, it has almost nothing to do with the Vanger business. And Salander's introductory adventures are as aloof and unconnected with the rest of the book as her character is.

Again, none of this ever put me off enough to stop wondering how everything was going to turn out, but I really don't understand all of the praise heaped on the narrative. It's clumsy. At best. All of the seams show. The stories being told about Blomkvist and Salander are fantastic, but the big mystery nearly drowns in them.

This is a good, solid mystery that is definitely worth reading, though, even if its brilliance is a bit exaggerated, in my opinion.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Had I read this back in high school, I would be extolling it as the best book ever written, between the creepy premise, the poetic justice, and Wilde's trademark way with words. I'm hesitant to declare a flawless victory now that my tastes have evolved a little, but this is a classic worth the time of anyone who likes irony, and loves dialogue.

For those that aren't familiar with the plot, Dorian Gray is a young British aristocrat who serves as the unrequited love and prime inspiration for an artist named Basil Hallward. Basil becomes so enamored that he pours all of his talent and effort into a portrait of Dorian, finding what he feels to be the pinnacle of his art. In the meantime, Dorian is reluctantly introduced to a friend of Basil's: Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic dandy that lives only to indulge idle whims and explore new sensations. After only a single day, Lord Henry's philosophy so affects Dorian that, for the first time, he becomes aware of the ephemeral nature of his youth and afraid of the day in which it begins to wane. As he gazes upon Basil's unveiled portrait, he idly wishes that he could keep his youth forever, and that the beautiful painting would age in his place. As time goes by, he realizes to his astonishment that he might have got his wish; as Lord Henry's influence takes greater hold, the portrait begins to reveal what an unnaturally long youth can do to one's soul.

The narrative is straightforward compared to similar books from the same time period. And, as one would expect from Oscar Wilde, the prose is delectable. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the descriptive passages are tight when they need to be and luxurious when they have the opportunity. Which, believe it or not, is at the root of the minor issues I had with the book.

I have to be frank and say that there really isn't a whole lot more in terms of plot than the synopsis above. Wilde seems much more interested in sharing his themes and social critiques than in spinning a yarn. The character of Lord Henry Wotton is a prime example; most of the time, he seems to be simply a delivery vessel for Wilde's sarcasm and humor. He's got witty repartee at the ready for every situation, and chews up the scenery with his caustic remarks and introspective musings on every page that includes him. Which amused me more than irritated me, actually, because Wotton is an interesting character in spite of himself. He serves as a poisonous influence that precipitates Dorian's downfall in the beginning, and offers a stark contrast to the depths of Dorian's corruption at the end.

The only trouble I have is that, at one point, the story takes the same sort of languid detour that Wotton's dialogue does. Once Dorian's course is established, the narrative suddenly drops into an exhaustive list of the fabrics he likes, the gems he is interested in, the music he listens to, etc. This is described in the sort of detail that suggests Wilde was indulging his own knowledge and interest. Once I made it through the middle and the story picked up again, I looked back on it as a sort of literary montage to explain Dorian's hedonistic comings and goings, but honestly, I began to lose interest at this point after tearing through the beginning. Not long after the main story picks up again, it suddenly ends with a Poe-like twist. It was a satisfying ending, but didn't seem to do justice to the rich prose that led up to it.

So, even though I loved most of the book, my eyes begain to glaze over in a few places. A bit of Oscar Wilde Overload, maybe. But those were only momentary lapses, as far as I'm concerned; this is a classic worth owning, especially if one has an interest in classic horror. It is also required reading for anybody who espouses hedonism, or likes to argue themes in literature.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

As usual, my laziness puts me far behind the curve. I watched these graphic novels go on and off the shelves at my library, and put off reading them until AMC made a TV series out of it. Really, there's no earthly reason I shouldn't have read a comic about zombies by now, so I'm a little ashamed it took watching and loving the pilot of the filmed version to make me pick it up. And since I don't have the patience to follow a monthly comic anymore, I'm glad there are a pile of collected issue graphic novels for me to catch up on.

I tore through the first trade paper volume (issues #1-6) in record time. Police officer Rick Grimes is injured during a violent traffic stop, and wakes from a coma weeks later to a ravaged, deserted hospital. The zombie apocalypse has come while he slept, and through a combination of canniness and sheer luck, he crosses paths with a small group of other survivors on the outskirts of Atlanta, dodging the ravenous undead and trying to figure out what to do next.

This volume is generally focused on introducing the reader to the cast, the setting, and the interpersonal dramas to come. I happily lapped it all up, because come on, guys, it's fucking zombies. That being said, this isn't quite the tour de force I've been led to believe. Well, not yet, anyway. The characters are a bit stereotypical, in the way that the characters at the beginning of most zombie stories are. And the dialogue veers hard into melodramatic territory, as most comic book dialogue does. I think the only reason this bugs me is because I was hoping for an esoteric, literate type of graphic novel narrative, which isn't really in place yet. However, Kirkman's somewhat pompous introduction indicates that he wants the series to go past the typical zombie movie time frame, and really get into how the characters cope after getting through the initial crisis. That gives me hope, and puts the rather mediocre beginning in perspective. Plus, I don't know if I mentioned this, but it's fucking zombies. The Walking Dead certainly doesn't lack for action, so even if the story doesn't immediately improve, I'll be hooked for at least a few more volumes.

There is lot of homage to the zombie genre throughout the volume. The stark, black-and-white art is well done, and effectively puts the characters front and center instead of distracting with bright gore and detailed shock and awe... the horror here is more Romero then Roth. And yes, some of the homage tends toward the derivative, including a few scenes taken right out of other zombie tales. To read some other reviews, you'd think that was a SHOCKING AND APPALLING development. Hey, spoiler alert: this book has dead people that chase and eat the living! You can stop them by destroying the brain! Also, the survivors are so stressed and scared that their inability to work together is as big a threat as the zombies! I don't know, it seems to me that if you pick up a book called "The Walking Dead" and are surprised when you discover that it has familiar zombie tropes in it, the problem might be with you, not the book.

So, I'm intrigued. I haven't seriously read graphic novels for a bit, now, but The Walking Dead is good enough to drag me back in for a while. My only regret is that it's spoiling the equally awesome AMC series (so far, anyway) for me.

Verdict: 4 out of 5