Monthly Archives: May 2010

Book: The Girl Who Played with Fire

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L-r: Lisbeth Salander, as played by Swedish actress Noomi Papace in the movies; a movie poster (picturing Salander and Mikael Blomkvist); the American publication.

I just finished the Black Lizard publication of “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” an amazing book. It’s the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which stormed the US (and Europe before that) in 2009 (which I reviewed in December 2009). They are the two best mysteries/thrillers I’ve read in a long while.

A third book in the series, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” was published in hardback in the US in May 2010. The three books are known as the Millennium Trilogy.

stieg-larsson-150.jpgStieg Larsson (right), a Swede, turned in all three books to a publisher in 2004, and the first book (called “Men Who Hate Women” in Sweden) had just been published…and then he died of a massive heart attack. He was 50. Since he and his companion of 32 years, Eva, never married, the entire estate went to Larsson’s father and brother; she got nothing. This is a big scandal in Sweden, though their laws are pretty clear. A case of bad planning.

They had no idea these books would become a worldwide sensation. The three books became the number 1, 2,  and 3 bestsellers in Sweden, and the same pattern repeated in other countries. In 2008, Larsson was the second-highest-selling author in the world. In 2009, all three books were released as movies in Sweden. To date, 27 million copies have been sold in 40 countries.

The title character, Lisbeth Salander, may be the most interesting heroine you’ll ever read about.

To envision Lisbeth Salander, start with the goth stereotype–black clothes, piercings, tattoos, anti-social, introverted. She’s 4-foot-9 inches tall and weighs 90 pounds. Add a severely dysfunctional childhood and a total distrust of “the system,” which has let her down repeatedly. Then add genius qualities–an expert computer hacker, photographic memory, amazing resourcefulness. And a willingness to resort to violence when threatened.

She is joined by Mikael Blomkvist,  a middle-aged investigative journalist with the magazine “Millennium,” thus the title of the series. Blomkvist is well-known in Sweden for his exposes. He and Salander have a strange relationship, mainly because she distrusts everyone and is emotionally bankrupt. They are not a “couple,” but end up working together. 

dragon-tattoo-movie200.jpg“The Girl Who Played with Fire” starts pretty much where “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” left off, though it mostly occurs two years later. It starts with an upcoming, blockbuster Millennium expose of sex trafficking, but turns into a murder mystery, and then gets taken over by plotlines from “Dragon Tattoo.” Halfway through the book, Salander disappears entirely for a long period as a full-fledged police investigation begins, and Larsson acquaints us with the persons on the police team.

It’s difficult to figure out where the book is going, but you can’t pull yourself away. I was sucked in, and just had to keep reading, utterly hooked. Larsson jumps from one character to the next, a few paragraphs or a few pages with each, juggling a host of different perspectives, motives, and agendas. But everything comes together in the end. The plot is very complicated, yet easy to follow. A lot happens in those 630 pages.

Larsson wrote the books in his spare time. His main preoccupation was running an organization that documented and exposed right-wing extremism and racial and religious intolerance. He and Eva lived their last 15 years under death threats from extremist groups, and the threats were real. One reason they never married is that Swedish law requires that married couples make public an address; for security reasons, Stiegg and Eva kept their lives out of the public view.

The third book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” start immediately where “The Girl Who Played with Fire” ends. I’m anxious to see where the story goes, and may not have the patience to wait for the Black Lizard paperback version in 2011.

Larsson envisioned a ten-book series. Eva still has possession of an unfinished manuscript for the fourth book, and I read that he left a synopsis for books 5 and 6. But his books are so unique, I can’t imagine turning them over to some other writer. Larsson is gone, and I greatly doubt he can be replaced.

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Book: “Eight Lives Down”

eight-lives-down-150.jpg“Eight Lives Down,” by Chris Hunter, is the reality version of “The Hurt Locker,” the 2009 Oscar winning film. The subtitle says, “The Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Job in the World’s Most Dangerous Place.”

The author, a British major, spent four months in Iraq in 2004 as a bomb tech–or, more correctly, an ATO: Ammunition Technical Officer. He was already an expert in this field, having served previously in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Columbia, and elsewhere. When there was an IED or a car bomb, he was called out to diffuse it. The title alludes to the 9 lives of a cat. Considering his ultra-dangerous work, Hunter figures he had one life left.

In two months’ time, Hunter responded to 45 bomb incidents. He was so good at his job that the insurgents put a price on his head, and began designing bombs with the sole purpose of killing him when he responded. For that reason, his superiors pulled him from field duty and gave him a job looking for the bomb makers, using forensic and other evidence. Before he left Iraq, the two main bomb-making groups in Basra had been eliminated.

Hunter tells a number of stories of diffusing bombs. The bombs keep growing in sophistication, thanks to the Iranians. Early on, he and his squad of seven other men were caught in a terrible ambush and fought their way out of it. Hunter is good at making you feel like you’re there.

chris-hunter-100.jpgI’ve read several books about our current two wars, but this is the first one from a non-American perspective. It was interesting seeing how British troops behave and interact with each other–not much different from American troops, except perhaps a bit more straight-laced. They are certainly highly trained warriors.

And what a sense of humor! Here are some quotes from the book:

  • “When you make something idiot proof, someone just makes a better idiot.”
  • From helicopter gunship operators: “You can run, but you’ll just die tired.”
  • “Those who live by the sword get shot by guns.”

It was also fun wading through all the British jargon: beezer, bollocks, judder, bumf, gobsmacked, biff, blokes, recce. Notice how many of them start with the letter “b.” Either the British like “b” words, or we Americans just don’t like incorporating “b” words from other languages.

Here’s a story. Hunter and three Americans are watching a live feed from an unmanned drone. About five persons are preparing what looks to be a car bomb. Suddenly there’s a flash, and when the picture returns, there’s only a black cloud where the car once stood. “They got love from above,” said one American.

While in Baghdad, heading to the airport, Hunter watches a car pull out of traffic, barrel through street-side shops and pedestrians, and then blow up–a horrific car bomb. The dead and maimed are everywhere. Hunter watches a young woman retrieve her father’s severed hand from atop a vehicle.

They learn that the Iraqi police had captured two bomb-makers. Hunter and Lisa, a British captain, march into the Basra police headquarters, where prisoners are being openly tortured. They barge into a room where the two bombers are being tortured and demand custody of them. The police chief objects, but the woman puts the guy in his place. In that society, the police chief probable had to go kill some prisoners to restore his honor. They walk out of the headquarters with their two prisoners, who then divulge everything they know.

A number of superb books are being written about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “Eight Lives Down” is among them, a most fascinating book. It’s not in the league of “Joker One” or “The Forever War” or “Moment of Truth in Iraq,” but it does give two unique perspectives–the British, and the harrowing role of bomb techs. 

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Books: Mongolia, France, and the Florida Keys

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One advantage of being laid-up is that I’ve been able to do lots of reading. Here are three books I read over a period of four days, the week after my April 16 surgery.

I enjoy mysteries set in other countries, and with detectives from those countries (rather than some American on a foreign jaunt). I’ve read mysteries set in Sweden, Iceland, Nazi Germany, Italy, China, Japan, Bosnia, and elsewhere. Now I’ve added a far more exotic country: Mongolia.

“The Shadow Walker,” a 2008 book by first-time novelist Michael Walters, involves a series of grisly murders which, as the plot develops, seem to involve the gold-mining industry and foreign businesses. The Mongolia we see is trying to struggle out of Third World status and away from its recent Soviet/communist past.  

Frankly, the book somewhat disappointed me. There was plenty of local color, but the plot fell flat for me. It moved slowly, with little happening. Too much unnecessary dialogue. A lot of the procedural stuff could have been summed up, rather than forcing us to read mundane details. It came to a conclusion, but not a satisfying one. My thought was, “I read 350 pages for this?”

“Seeking Whom He May Devour,” (2006), by Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, is set in the mountains of southern France. This is a “Chief Inspector Adamsberg” mystery. Lots of sheep, and the occasional human, are being killed by what seems to be a very big wolf and its owner.

It’s sort of a road trip book, as three somewhat quirky characters–a woman and two men–head off to follow the killer’s route and hopefully catch him. Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg eventually joins them. It was an enjoyable plot, and you learn a lot about wolves and the French police system. I liked Adamsberg.

“Tropical Freeze,” a 1989 book from James W. Hall, is an oddball piece set in the Florida Keys. It’s like a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard book–quirky characters, and a plot that wanders to and fro and ultimately decides to end.

We’ve got our protagonist named Thorn, an FBI friend working for the local bad guy, a beautiful weathergirl, an inept criminal named Ozzie, a spinster librarian/computer hacker, and other assorted folks. They usually do the unexpected, and anything they plan out is inevitably thwarted through stupidity or happenstance. So if the reader thinks he knows what’s going to happen next, he’s wrong.

Hall is a very good writer, and the book teems with texture and a sense of place. You feel like you’re in Florida. But I’m not really a fan of this kind of meandering plot. I prefer a straightforward, “Here’s the mystery. Now let’s solve it.” 

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Jesse Stone Books and Movies

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When I had my operation on April 16, I was reading Robert Parker’s “Stranger in Paradise,” the latest in his Jesse Stone series. I finished it the next morning. These books, written in third person (unlike his Spenser and Sunny Randall books), center on the sheriff of smalltown Paradise, on the Massachusetts coast. Stone is a former LA cop who views Paradise as his last stop before retirement. (The Spenser characters have a way of showing up in the other two series; Jesse Stone makes an appearance in a couple Spenser books.)

stranger-in-paradise-120.jpg“Stranger in Paradise” involves mobsters and gangs, and an old heist. The most interesting character in this book is Crow, yet another of Parker’s good-hearted stone-cold killers. Jesse Stone is intent on putting Crow away, and yet they strike up an amiable relationship, totally understanding each other.

I got the impression that Crow would be the first in a rogue’s gallery of criminals whom Stone could call on when needed. The Spenser books have Hawk, Vinnie Morris, Chollo, Tedy Sapp, Ty-Bop, and Junior–all tough guys and killers who are ever-ready to help Spenser when needed. If he thinks Susan is in danger, or someone else, he’ll summon one of these guys for bodyguard duty.

Crow would fit right in with them. But with the death of Robert Parker, I don’t imagine Crow will be joined by anyone else.

During the past month of so, we watched the five Jesse Stone TV movies, starring Tom Selleck in the title role. These are very good movies. They have a definite tone, a smalltown feel (a bit like the Twilight movies, without the bloodsucking), with the same tranquil music which slows everything down.

Selleck is perfectly cast. As I read “Stranger in Paradise,” I could picture Selleck in every scene, and could hear him say every line of dialogue. He plays Stone as a low-geared fellow, very understated, never excited. Just plods along, solving the crime. I loved, absolutely loved, those movies.

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