Tuesday 30 November 2010

Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Second in the Millennium Trilogy, the astonishing set of works from Stieg Larsson. Like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, this fully justifies the hype as it continues the adventures of crusading journalist Blomqvist and the anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander. Blomqvist is working on an exposé of the sex trafficking industry in Sweden, dragged deeper in after the murder of the journalists who began the investigation. Salander is implicated in those murders and goes on the run.

Larsson again weaves the pain of Lisbeth Salander around the slightly calmer journalistic happenings and we learn more about the horrendous mistreatment of Salander through the years. Abused as a child at home, abused in institutions, she has developed coping mechanisms and skills that confuse the authorities but serve to shield her and save her life. Now she cares little for society and less for the fate of those who are directly trying to harm her. The police hunt for her, initially mistaken and ultimately corrupt, is almost another plotline as she continues on her way, deciding her own directions whenever able.

The writing is gripping, the pace is relentless, the characters are finely limned. There's a thriller here, a detective novel, a walk through the Swedish justice system and a morality tale. Though very much a Swedish novel this will appeal to anyone who likes their books intelligent and demanding. One caveat: you are much better reading this after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

See The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- The Book and The Movies for a discussion of books and both Swedish and US movies.

In Praise Of UK Public Libraries

Settle down children, pop in a boiled sweet and Granddad will tell you a tale of yesteryear, of a time when Britain ruled the waves and large parts of the Midlands were marked on maps as "here be dragons".  This is a time when local authorities spent money on local people rather than on massively-overpaid chief executives, when leisure facilities received more funding than the council employee who ran them, a time when the only thing that stopped a young whippersnapper accessing free books was a touch of scurvy and the fact that it was his brother's day for the shoes ...

In 1849 William Ewart introduced a Public Libraries Bill to the Commons. Despite opposition from Conservatives, who thought that it would mean the upper and middle classes paying to educate the poor  (and in the process making the oiks uppity and difficult to control) the bill eventually became law, though it was almost emasculated by the alterations forced on it. Most noticeable was the halfpenny rate restriction on funding (and that money couldn't be used to buy books!). If it hadn't been for several wealthy philanthropists, most notably Andrew Carnegie, putting up money for buildings and books, the new library movement could have been stillborn.  PS Carnegie's worth a read-up himself, the closest thing to a good capitalist that the 19th century produced.

Andrew Carnegie, philanthropist and public library benefactor
Andrew Carnegie with a library copy of Valley Of The Dolls

Cutting the history lesson short, matters improved and public funding increased so that soon major towns and cities all had public lending libraries. Most were staffed by pallid men in nylon shirts (yes, even in 1863), scowling women of a certain age in cardigans and horn-rimmed specs and plump young women who wanted to be somewhere else.  The other thing that these libraries had in common was books. Hundreds and thousands of the buggers. Big books, little books, books for kids and books for grown-ups. Some even had books for odd people but you had to ask for those, I'm told, and the horn-rimmed glasses stopped me ever trying that.

As I mentioned in my first blog, I was a voracious reader as a child. Imagine then stepping into one of these cavernous buildings, going through the sacred process of registering and getting my first Library Card  (and yes, it should be be capitalised). Guided to the children's section, let loose on a selection of books that would amaze and horrify today's punters.  Biggles and Blyton, Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer, people marooned on desert islands, whether with treasure or coral and boys only or with the family and geology unspecified, a short ride on the L3 bus took me to worlds hitherto unimagined.

Four books only, impossible! I didn't care if they were too big and too heavy -- Mum could carry them :) Asking a small child to choose between all those possibilities was like setting me loose amongst Woolies Pick 'n' Mix but making me wear mittens. Yet there was another, untold, benefit of these temples to the written word. Even at a very tender age I was learning to evaluate and make a choice, learning to use my own judgement -- with the hideous penalty of having garbage to read for a week or two if I got it wrong.

As I grew older, libraries developed.  LPs became available in the more avant garde, then CDs and videos. Reference libraries began and provided valuable sources for homework and, note this all you local government hobgoblins, places for children to do homework away from all distractions. Eventually computers arrived and I'm proud to say I had a small part in helping popularise that development in libraries on Merseyside. In the early days of the internet we saw anyone from grannies to goth kids tentatively approaching and soon surfing merrily.  People who'd come in for books found a new facility, people who'd come in for the new facility often found books. Win, win, win.

Of course, that last triumph was funded by Europe, the ERDF. Already  the powers that be were dipping into the pot. Buy less copies of each book. Buy less books and then only the popular ones. No adventure, nothing even vaguely unusual.  Forty kids after one reference work. Tough. What else can we cut? Staffing and running costs.  Shorter opening hours, less evenings, no Saturdays. Deskill the staff -- we don't need trained librarians to stamp books.

And as the service gets worse, so the number of users drops and the range decreases. Working people don't go to the library? No, because our working hours correspond exactly with opening hours. Quality of books? Dick Francis and Barbara Bloody Cartland - yes, if you limit availability to pensioners and don't offer much of a choice anyway.

Where were we? Ah yes. Settled comfortably, Worthers in gob. "Once upon a time there were big buildings called Libraries ..."

What can we do? Patronise your local library -- get up on a Saturday morning! Complain about cuts to MPs and councillors. Question their support for library services. Make it an election issue. Complain to local media. If we just moan quietly to ourselves then the easy targets stay easy.

Mark Haddon: "Libraries are the NHS for the mind, one of the very few places where we are all equal, a place where we can all read and learn and get involved in our community institutions of which we should be hugely proud, and they are being destroyed to save a banker’s bonus."

Facebook campaign by The Bookseller

An excellent blog on the finances of public libraries

Ian Anstice, who is a librarian, blogs on public libraries. Includes call to action and suggestions for responses.

Guardian piece on Labour government review of public libraries (March 2010)

Excellent piece by Terence Blacker on Tory depredations. Newer piece (aug 2012) in in the Independent but don't read the comments - depressing.

Funny stunt, but a tinge of sadness: To prevent a threatened closure, Library gets rid of all of its books

In Praise Of UK Public Libraries
Phil Bradley's Tweets Tag Cloud

Children's books referred to above: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Treasure Island The Coral Island The Swiss Family Robinson

Monday 29 November 2010

Stieg Larsson: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

First volume in the world-wide success that is Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. This combines a whodunit for a decades-old murder, a journalistic exposition of financial shenanigans, an array of personal relationships, a social commentary and more. Most importantly, it introduces the two main characters: financial journalist Carl Mikael Blomqvist and one of the most unusual (and unwanting) heroines of crime fiction for decades: Lisbeth Salander.

Salander is the girl with the dragon tattoo: she is the girl mistreated for years by the asylums and social services of Sweden, she is the hacker and fighter who goes unnoticed by all bar a few. Dismissed as stupid, near-autistic, a nonentity by those in authority, abused by professionals, her gifts and her courage drag her up to a crucial role in this book.

Okay then, I'm not sure if those two paragraphs will have scared you off or left you curious. Hopefully the latter and you're reading this third paragraph! Larsson's novel is a triumph of a debut: gripping, dark, incident-packed and written in a style all of his own. Slow in starting however, read only the first few pages and you will misjudge the book. Read a few chapters and you'll be hooked. You'll probably also be shocked and outraged at some of the content but that shouldn't put you off -- this is a book that plays you like a fish on a line. Order the next one in the trilogy before you finish this one -- you'll be angry with yourself if you have to wait for more.

Daftest comment from a reviewer (though overall he gave a favourable review): "It's hard to find fault with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. One must struggle with bewildering Swedish names"  Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post.

Well yes, one might expect a few of those in a book set in Sweden, written by a Swede!

See The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- The Book and The Movies for a discussion of books and both Swedish and US movies.

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist, little known outside his homeland and even then only familiar to those who read his financial and political articles. Nothing prepared the world, and I use "world" advisedly, for the trilogy of novels he was to produce.  The three manuscripts were delivered shortly before his death in 2004 and have since, as happens far too rarely, justified the rapturous clichés from all sides. They truly are amazing  works, in concept, scope and execution.

Scandinavian authors (and poets and musicians) bring a certain bleakness to their work. The good ones use it as their canvas, the great writers weave it in to the lyricism of the words they produce. Larsson combines that lyricism with a style based on his journalistic expertise and an expert sense of timing to produce great sweeping novels that never let up.

I've just deleted the words "he throws in" as they would be a mis-description. Along the way he gently injects moments of pain and horror, tempering the novelist's craft with the journalist's avoidance of editorialising. Where a lesser writer might lapse into buckets-of-blood excess, he guides readers to form their own opinions and emotions. He doesn't need to state that something is wrong or a huge injustice, his readers do it for him.

After reading the trilogy I was left almost angry that his early death has robbed us of more. If this is the quality of his first works, his later ones would have been magnificent.

There are a couple of sad footnotes to his demise. An unfinished fourth manuscript is reliably said to exist. More importantly for those close to him, he died intestate and his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, did not therefore inherit what is now estimated at a £30 million fortune from the three novels. An unseemly feud between her and his father/brother have seen her cut out of the picture. Said Stieg's father, Joakim, "We found out in January 2005 that we would automatically inherit everything. I wrote to Eva and explained that under Swedish law we had to accept the will, but we could choose to give everything - his half of the apartment, and his savings - to her. It came to around £150,000." Good of him. The only thing that all apparently agree on is that the unfinished manuscript will stay unfinished and unpublished.

"Eating in Sweden is really just a series of heartbreaks." Bill Bryson

Original cover: see Peter Mendelsund's blog

See The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- The Book and The Movies for a discussion of books and both Swedish and US movies.

Stuart MacBride: Dark Blood

Dark in the title and dark in mood as a convicted kidnapper/rapist is resettled in Aberdeen after serving his prison time. DS Logan McRae is one of the reluctant coppers assigned to keep the man safe. Little does he know that the pitchfork-waving mob isn't the only danger and that the criminal past of the bible-reading pervert will threaten the health of more than the one who deserves it.

As a sub-plot we have Edinburgh heavies moving in, crooked property developers (and Donald Trump, not crooked, of course, up yours lawyers), Logan's getting a bit out of his depth with Wee Hamish Mowat - and Hamish's preferred depth for those who annoy him is six feet under.

Alongside MacRae's usual broad canvas of Aberdeen rain and pain he shows several smaller, gloomier scenes, well-described to lend contrast to the work, and all the better for it.

The book stands alone but I'd recommend you read one or two of the earlier Logan McRae novels first.

Stuart MacBride: Flesh House

There's a mad butcher (literally) loose in Aberdeen and he's leaving bits of his victims in the food supply chain. Never before has mince 'n' tatties seemed so unappealing as DS Logan McRae and the usual cast of granite city grotesques try to catch the baddies before the unthinkable happens and a Scottish city has to resort to salad.

We meet again mountainous DI Insch, fighting his sweet addiction and heading for personal tragedy and pain. DI Steel, frizzier and more nicotine-stained than ever, thick DC Rennie and WPC Jackie Watson. Only two of them will hit Logan McRae in this story; his heartache comes from personal and professional losses.

Stuart MacBride discusses Flesh House:

If you've read any of the other Logan McRae books then you know what you're in for here -- a bunch of beautifully drawn heroes and villains manouevering like Pacman on PCP. Only this time the goodies turn bad and the baddies get worse.

Another excellent novel from Stuart MacBride: yet to produce anything that disappoints. Buy it as a christmas present for yourself, your mum won't like it.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Stuart MacBride: Broken Skin

Second in the series of Logan McRae novels, and maintaining the high standard of the first, Broken Skin is another romp through Aberdeen's lowlives and a distressing insight into the alcohol and deep-fried diet of the granite city's plods.

The two main strands of this novel are the attempt to capture a serial rapist and the search for a murderer with more interest in leather goods and marital aids than is good for you. As the victim found out. For the former we already have a strong candidate - unfortunately he's a star footballer with a sly lawyer and a high degree of cunning. Logan's now live-in girlfriend, WPC Ballbreaker Watson, is after chummy and there's a strong feeling that if she can't get her man she'll at least get his soft squidgy bits.

As to the hunt for the murderer, the denouement will have you both snorting with laughter and curling your toes. A tour de force scene for the wonderful DI Steel  (she's the half-insane, chainsmoking, bacon-sarnie munching lesbian), it ends with a constable who'll never eat sliced bread again - I won't say any more lest I spoil the scene.

Throw in an eight year old who exhibits the savagery craved by a Daily Mail headline writer (knife child murders war hero) to keep DS McRae busy, plus a few more police matters to keep him from the pub, and you have yet another great read from Stuart MacBride.  You can read this without having seen the first novel (though perhaps better to have read Cold Granite); if you do I can guarantee that you'll be searching out that and the rest of the series.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Stuart MacBride: Cold Granite

"Dead things had always been special to him."

So begins the first of the Logan McRae novels, where Aberdeen's finest hunt desperately for a serial child killer. Both aided and taunted by a cynical and ruthless reporter, DS McRae and his semi-bodyguard WPC "Ballbreaker" Watson career through the rain-sodden tenements and byways in a race to recover missing children before they become further tragic victims. Gargantuan sweet-eater DI Insch drives McRae and all around to near despair as the author marries acidly-described police procedural to a spiral of crime and chase that teeters ever more desperately on the edge of disaster.

Stuart MacBride manages the difficult task of handling a description of the hunt for a child-killer whilst also giving free rein to black humour and almost manic police behaviour. Along the way we meet a host of characters from Aberdeen's underworld, including Desperate Doug MacDuff, so called because he choked someone to death with a rolled-up copy of the Dandy. "Quite the ladykiller in his day" says DI Steel from behind a cloud of illicit cigarette fumes, "But we couldn't prove it."   Take it for granted that Logan will regret meeting this bitter old villain ...

If you like grown-up crime fiction , if you like your humour grim, this is the author for you. Too often first novels promise without achieving much (or even worse, completely flatter to deceive). No such issues here, MacBride kicks you in the goolies at the start and keeps the steel-capped boots going throughout, though the blades and the dog's teeth do sharpen things up a touch. Thoroughly recommended.

Stuart MacBride

One of a small pack of newish and hugely talented British authors, Stuart MacBride writes gloriously over-the-top crime thrillers. His books are set in Aberdeen, city of granite, rain and violent crime, and peopled by police and criminals who could share the same padded cell. His characters reach almost cartoonish levels of misbehaviour but, and this is one of MacBride's great strengths, remain believable. From Logan McRae, a very imperfect hero, through D.I. Steel, manic lesbian bacon-sarnie muncher, to grandmotherly money lenders and sundry Scottish hard men, all are beautifully described and perfectly developed as the books continue.

Add to those characters MacBride's ferocious dialogue and expertly paced plot developments, with enough intertwining story lines to keep many other authors in business for several books at a time, and you get one of my favourite authors. If you want a rollicking good read that you wouldn't let the vicar see, go for any and all of these books.

Stuart MacBride books reviewed:
   Cold Granite
   Broken Skin
   Flesh House
   Dark Blood

Two sites that you might want to look at: Stuart MacBride's own blog and his official site. The blog was updated recently, the main site is lagging (shame on an ex web designer!). If you fancy a trip to Shetland, just as the winter snows are starting, you can meet the author in person. See blog for details.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Books and authors: book reviews, author reviews

Having just knocked over a pile of books (again) and as the collection spills out onto a communal landing, I've begun to realise that I own a few books more than the average person. I've begun to understand why friends mutter about opening a second hand bookshop or make clever comments about Sefton council not having closed all its libraries then ...

It's not my fault though: people keep writing books, people keep selling them - someone has to buy them, if only to oil the wheels of creativity and commerce. And many of them are from libraries, charity shops or (pause for revolting expression) pre-owned. Actually, I blame Amazon for making it too easy to grab a few novels; much like supermarket cakes which don't count in the diet if they're reduced, so Amazon's special offers lure you into a short session of comfort shopping. Before you know it there are nine paperbacks on the floor and a pile of squidgy plastic to mock your green credentials.

"That child always has his nose in a book." True, once upon a time, though I long ago graduated from Biggles. (I still remember him, Ginger and Algy doing dashing deeds in the war and then, as peacetime police, spotting reefer fields in Cornwall - spoilsports.) I've also realised that there are several activities that are vastly improved with a good book; bubble baths, television, lazing, pre-bedtime relaxing, travel. That's not to deny that there are activites where mixing with reading is a bad idea, as girlfriends and fellow footballers will testify. Vehemently. Painfully.

So then, I read voraciously and must feed the maw with ever new supplies. How do I find new books, new authors? Book reviews in newspapers tend to be over-literary and incestuous as "critics" praise each other's efforts. Book reviews on sellers' sites are a mixed bag, often surprisingly badly written: if you can't write a few grammatically-correct sentences, what does that say for the written work you're talking about?

I'm fortunate in having an independent bookstore nearby (Pritchard's, Crosby) but they can't stock everything and the assistants can't read everything to advise.

One favourite way of buying books is finding a good charity shop and whizzing along the racks, dodging little old ladies after Dick Francis and not making eye contact with other shoppers looking at garish green dresses. And they're usually men in cord trousers :) Grab a book, scan the blurb, read a few paragraphs at random, look at the cover review quotations. If the main comment is from the evening paper from a town of less than 20,000 population, put back on shelf and move on.

Even with these precautions though, success is sadly mixed. For every ripping yarn I find, I walk out with a promising effort that transmogrifies on the way home into a tale of a rabid right-winger killing commies and foreigners to make the world safe for him and a bevy of lithe but submissive beauties. I'm cursed to read such efforts as I'm unable to leave a book partially read. All I can do is pass the grudgingly-finished book back to the shop and hope that it doesn't find another mug like me.

If only there were sites where I could read reviews of books and authors written by people like me ... If only I could reach out and find such people ... If only I got off my backside (not literally as I sit down to type) and put out a few such reviews myself, and then I might get feedback, comments, recommendations!

Right, time to start a blog about the books I've read and enjoyed. Lurking on the Web there must be many who like Stuart MacBride , Andrew Vaachs, George MacDonald Fraser and Ross Thomas. Or who might enjoy discovering them perhaps. People who've read about her with the dragon tattoo and are looking to branch out. There's great pleasure to be found in passing on a book when the recipient comes back a few days later, raving about it, so let's see if some reviews here can do that virtually. Coming soon, then, and hopefully in ever-increasing numbers, my reviews of books and authors. Mainly novels, though various writers will creep in as and when I remember them or, perhaps even better, discover them. If just a few people find pleasure from reading something I've recommended then the world will be a better place. And by god it needs it :)

Your comments are welcomed: I'd love to chat with you and hear your book reviews and thoughts. Sadly we can't do it over coffee and cake but the thought is there at least.

A bit of fun for you: go and have a heated debate about which five books you'd choose: Five Favourite Books For A Desert Island

Completely off topic, but a cool tool, and probably of interest to many bloggers: check your ranking by keywords on major search engines (free).

Going for a wider range of reviewed material than I, Bookgasm blog

A professional blog: David Montgomery's Crime Fiction Dossier though sadly he tells me he's no longer blogging.

A very good and stylish blog by an enthusiastic reader: For lovers of good coffee, good food & good books

A geographically wide-ranging crime fiction blog: Euro Crime

And a hilarious post and comments after a review: Author shoots self in foot. Then reloads and does it again.

Something else I've been looking at recently: Squidoo -- a social networking site where you create pages (known as lenses) and can raise money for yourself and for charity. I've been letting my creative juices flow -- please visit some of my lenses:

Earning money online in safety

Five Internet Gurus

Joni Mitchell, my ten favourite albums

Top tens for various bands on iTunes

Valentines Day: A guide for men buying for women

Valentines Day: A guide for women buying for men

A Sixties day out and a ferry across the Mersey to New Brighton

And one that may be of value to fellow bloggers: Common English Errors - helping online writers find and fix common mistakes.

A quick exercise: someone asked me to recommend a few Poirot books but I'm not a fan of Agatha Christie so I just knocked up a list of all the full-length Hercule Poirot stories