Month: June 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I finally finished this book. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – published in 2005 in Swedish, 2008 in English. I got it for Christmas in 2010, and I finished it at the end of June in 2011. I muscled through the first 250 pages and then couldn’t go any further. I had the sense that I was finally moving beyond the setup and the action and thrill would begin, but I dropped it anyway. Finally, I made it through the book.

I’m told that the title in Swedish is “Men Who Hate Women,” which I guess is somewhat apt. After all, there are murders and rapes and such.  This series of books is often referred to as the Millennium series/trilogy.  This takes its name from something in the book. There are a bunch of characters – but the main character is a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist.  Blomkvist publishes a political/financial expose magazine called Millennium.

Blomkvist is not a terribly interesting character. He’s the hero and its obvious he is the hero. He survives getting shot at, when he goes to jail he has a pleasant time, all the women adore him, etc. However, he’s also somewhat daft for someone so “James Bond.”   The other main character, who’s story we learn along side Blomkvist’s story – until the two narratives run together, is Lisbeth Salander.  She’s crazy. Seriously. But she’s apparently quite intelligent, too. (She’s the girl with the tattoo…..)

I can understand why this book was a big bestseller. It does have a huge story and a complex narrative.  Its graphic enough that all the folks that love intrigue and mayhem will enjoy it, and its intelligent enough that it takes brainpower to follow along with the storyline.  After all, Blomkvist is caught researching the Vanger family – and the reader’s got to keep a handle on at least 10 characters to make it all make sense. This gets tedious – prepare to keep your bookmark in the genealogy chart.  The story has a variety of levels, there is not just some simply surface story. Everything is interconnected and the story involves a whole lot of companies, people, and timelines.

Unfortunately, the writing is very boring. And perhaps some of that is the translator’s fault? The writing style is flat. Its just flat. Deadpan. The most outlandish item can be told to the reader in the flattest, emptiest tone. And I think that is why I had take a break from the book after the first 250 pages.  Its not bad writing, i.e. idiotic and foolish. Its just deadpan. I’ve read that this book is a thriller…. well, no I don’t think so.  However, the last chunk of the book is exceedingly more interesting than the front half.  So much so that, yes, I am vaguely interested in reading the next in the series. I want to know what’s going to happen next with Blomkvist and Lisbeth.

The crimes in the Vanger family are gruesome. Sexual deviants and murder and such. However, told in this deadpan style, its hard to be shocked. However, if you think about it, this is quite twisted stuff.  It makes me hesitant to say this is a great novel because there were these sick elements that I find quite disturbing. Writers/creators/artists who write about these things leave me a little wary because while I am not naive, I still think its weird for people to write what is classified as “entertainment” (i.e. fiction) to include these topics/subjects.

3 stars

Magic Bites

Magic BitesI recently read “Magic Bites” by Ilona Andrews, published in 2007.

I read this book because I am starting to work my way through a list of what is called “urban fantasy.”  This term provoked an interesting discussion on the over-genre-ization of novels these days.  What the heck is “urban fantasy?”  I know what people mean by it, but is it really something? Really? Isn’t it just fantasy or fiction?

Anyway, Ilona Andrews is actually:  two writers, Ilona and Gordon. From their website we learn:  “We write urban fantasy, an odd hybrid of a genre that includes elements of mystery, fantasy, and horror. Our stories are set in a modern setting that has a touch of paranormal to it.”  Frankly, I wasn’t very surprised when I found out that its a team of authors.  Somehow, though they do write seamlessly together, there was something about the writing in this little novel that made me think that either the author did a LOT of research on some very minor details, or the editor really was picky in some places. Turns out its not all culled from one brain!

Magic Bites is the first novel in the Kate Daniels series. The website says: “Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren’t for magic… One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst of knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires with their minds. In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice is rarely easy…”

Its an easy summer-read book. I mean, you do not have to muscle through this one. Which is nice. I was truly afraid it would be very… how can we describe it?… very romancy/girlie.  And sure, the main character is a chick, but she’s not some damsel in distress full of love-struck big hearts. And that is very much a good thing for the book.  Look at Kate’s picture on the front cover. It is an OK cover; drawn by Chad Michael Ward.

The enemies, villains and allies are formed through alliances that seem, more or less, to want to keep the status quo.  One fantastic thing about the story is that vampires are not some neo-Gothic, emo romancy types. Vampires in this series are entirely monsters – basically like zombie insects. And this is so wonderful because I am sick of the ridiculous characterization of vampires as “cool”. (Twilight/True Blood)  Anyway, I am interested in reading more about the beasts.

Some may be a bit confused or dissatisfied with the start of the book – feeling its very in media res. I suppose it does start that way, but its okay, and it works for the book. Overall, this is not the best urban fantasy series start – there are other similar series I would read further in before I got to book two here. I guess it lives up to the fluffy entertainment it is meant to be in a rather average way.

3 stars

Special Topics In Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics cover

I finally got around to reading “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl.  It was published in 2006 and is the author’s first published novel.  According to Wikipedia (not the most truthful of all sources), Pessl had several attempts that failed at getting published.

The book is often compared to “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, which I have also read.  I don’t know that that is a fair comparison, although while reading this book, the comparison did cross my mind. Ultimately, the books are quite different, and I think that any association is just because our minds work well with analogy and similarity.

Personally, I think this book draws from an autobiographical standpoint.  Pessl was born in Michigan and went to a private, co-ed school in Asheville, NC. This is very much like the main character of the book, Blue van Meer.  The dust jacket describes Blue in this fashion:

“….a brainy, deadpan, and preternaturally erudite girl who, after traveling from one remote academic outpost to another with her professor father, has a head crammed full of literary, philosophical, and scientific knowledge.  (She is also a film buff and can recite pi out to sixty-five decimal places).  When she is sixteen, due to certain nuclear events, her previously dull life is forever transformed.”

The book is told from the point of view of Blue.  And Blue will consistently and thoroughly inundate the reader with a variety of “references.”  Some people might find this tedious.  Unless you’re a reader of such an appetite like Blue, then you will probably find that her endless quoting of books she’s read is overbearing.  However, I didn’t mind at all, and frankly, enjoyed most of those parts as much as or more than the storyline itself.  What the dust jacket said about Blue is accurate, especially the point about Blue being “deadpan.”  She is often shy and socially-inept which appears throughout the book as a deadpan innocence.

Overall, its a good book, and that is looking at it from a distance.  As you get closer to the book, its not quite as good as one thinks that it is.  Its certainly not a bad book, but it just isn’t on par with great books.  One of my main thoughts about this book is that Pessl was never really certain where the story was going – as if she just sat down to write, using her life as a vague guide, and just wrote whatever hoping the storyline would fall in step.  It kind of does and it doesn’t all at once.  The book seems like a real investigation of the relationship between Blue and her father and their nomadic lifestyle across the USA.  A reader might expect that the book would be focusing on Blue’s struggles to get accepted at Harvard University.  However, somewhere in the second half of the book, the book veers off this course and there are a couple of dead bodies and suddenly its a murder mystery – but without the suspense and thrill.  A whole pack of characters (Blue’s peers at school) are heavily developed, reworked, reworked again, and then discarded as meaningless and with distaste.  And in the end, the reader feels a bit unsatisfied because there are several items left unsaid, which, frankly, someone ought to just say, but we are left to surmise on our own. In this type of book, I do not think leaving things unsaid or incomplete works.

One of the pitfalls that Pessl falls in from time to time is the over-metaphoring of things.  Sometimes, when trying to write as a genius, erudite Blue, Pessl describes something or someone or some event with a bit too much metaphor.  Its easy to fall into this – thinking that everything has to be over-metaphored.  Overall, though, Pessl keeps most of it witty and/or interesting. But sometimes it does get tedious. Its a tough balance to strike, and I can see how Pessl overdid it. What I cannot see, is why the editors did not point some of this out.

There are some hysterical lines in the book, though.  At several of them, I penciled in “LOL” so that whomever reads this copy next will know that I agree that these lines are amusing. Sometimes such lines are both witty and also demonstrate that Pessl does have a knack for describing the awkward and thoroughly human moments that people experience.  For example, driving to a house, Blue shares:

“At the end of this nauseating parade of woods and pastures and nameless dirt roads… I’d find not a house, but a black door barred by a velvet rope, a man with a clipboard who’d look me over and, when ascertaining I didn’t know Frank or Errol or Sammy personally (nor any other titan of entertainment), would declare me unfit to enter, by inference, to continue living.”

3 stars

Analog Science Fiction and Fact April 2011

Analog April 2011

Analog April 2011 cover

I finished the April 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact.  Every issue I read makes me truly love these little issues more and more.  There is just something incredibly loveable about their size and contents. I love that its all science fiction stories.  But interspersed are actual hard science articles and snippets that deal with real concepts, anecdotes, and ideas.  I also like the editor’s letters and the listing and recommendations of newly published science fiction works.  Basically, Analog is the best thing (or one of the top five) in the magazine industry.

This issue was much better than the previous issue that I read through.  The cover art was done by Jean-Pierre Normand.  Normand has done many other covers for Analog as well as Asimov’s Science Fiction.

CONTENTS (fiction only) and my rating

Hiding Place – 3 *s

Ian’s Ions and Eons  –  4*s

The Flare Weed  –  5*s

Small Penalties  –  3*s

Two Look at Two  –  3*s

Blessed are the Bleak  –  2*s

Remembering Rachel  –  3*s

Quack  –  3*s

Balm of Hurt Minds  –  3*s

By far my favorite story was Larry Niven’s “The Flare Weed.”   Interestingly, this “story” is only two pages in the issue.  (Or one page, if you like.)   Niven’s contribution had the utmost wit, frivolity, science, and seriousness all wrapped up in an easy-to-read catchy story.   Niven is a master of science fiction, and it was a joy to get this little snippet from him in this issue.

The first story, “Hiding Place,” was unique and curious.  It was written by Adam-Troy Castro.  Apparently he used concepts and storylines from this story before in other works.  It was a little darker than I normally read; however, I think that it has a lot of potential.  I was glad to be introduced to this world by the author even if I did not give it 5 stars.

The story “Ian’s Ions and Eons” is a really good story if you enjoy time-travel and the ethics thereof.  Do not think that this is merely an ethical digression, though. The story is interesting and I think it was the second best of the issue.  It was written by Paul Levinson – who is a well-published author and commentator in the media (from NPR and CBS to the History Channel and all sorts of newspapers). He is also a professor at Fordham University.  Anyway, reading this story makes me want to read some of his actual fiction novels that have been published by TOR publishers.

Of the remaining stories, the one most noteworthy was Jerry Oltion’s “Quack.”  Again, Oltion is a well-published author (in fact, he had a story in last month’s Analog issue).   I liked this story quite a bit because I think that it describes the personalities and attitudes among doctors and scientists as well as the influence of the media very accurately.   It provided a surprising point of view and I recommend reading this story to anyone who is in the fields of religion or medicine.  Just because.

Finally, although I prefer not to discuss the non-fiction articles and snippets in Analog, I have to make an exception this month.  I really liked Jeffery D. Kooistra’s article for the section:  The Alternate View.  He wrote a snippet about “AUTHOR FALLS IN LOVE WITH E-READER.”  One of the reasons that I am praising this article is that a week after I read it, I was still thinking about it.  It is also quite well written – engaging and interesting.  And, most importantly, its causing me to re-examine my opinions regarding e-readers, the future of literature, and human knowledge. That’s a good article.

MEAN:  3.22
MODE:  3

Batman: Grotesk #659 – 662

Sandwiched between Grant Morrison storyarcs, the Batman storyarc “Grotesk” is a relatively self-contained, quality story written by John Ostrander with art by Tom Mandrake.  “Grotesk” ran from #659 – 662, which were the first issues of 2007.  I suspect there was either a printing/publishing error at the time or Morrison’s arc wasn’t ready, so DC threw in this 4-issue story to bridge the gap.

Batman 659

Batman #659 cover

I don’t think that “Grotesk” will ever be given as much acclaim as it should be simply because it falls in the middle of Morrison’s run.  The four books previous to “Grotesk” were “Batman & Son,” which is the first storyarc with Grant Morrison as the regular writer on the Batman series.  It deals with the revelation that Bruce Wayne had a son with Talia, the daughter of Ras-al-Ghul.  Hello Damian Wayne. However Morrison’s famous run gets interrupted in January of 2007, and we get “Grotesk.”

There’s a lot that I want to say about all of this, and hopefully I can say it in a coherent manner.  I am on the fence, as they say, regarding Morrison.  I guess, I didn’t really know much about him or his work – but I only heard the noise that all the folks on his bandwagon were making.  His name was uttered with hushed awe and reverence.  One must praise Morrison.  And after surfing online, watching some videos, and reading some interviews, frankly, Morrison seems like a really arrogant dude who needs to avail himself of a few more meat ‘n potatoes meals. So, my first impression of him is that he is insufferably arrogant.  However, then I read the “Batman & Son” storyarc.  I admit, it was good.  Its factual:  its a good arc. Is it the best arc that I have ever read? No. But can I see this stuff developing into a widespread rolling good time with the Batman? Yep. So, maybe all this racket I’ve been hearing about Morrison is justified.

But before I have to deal with Morrison, I get these 4 issues of “Grotesk.”  First of all, I disliked the covers quite a bit. I kind of did not want to read the arc because the covers looked yucko.  All four covers in this arc were done by Greg Lauren, who, for whatever reason, hasn’t done a whole lot in the industry.  I’m not sure what to think of this. Has he not done much because he’s really not good? And if he’s not good, how did he ever land four covers of DC’s big bad Batman title?

However, I took a good hard look at the first issue there. Three colors: white, black, red. Batman kinda looks to me like a statue here…. cracking, poisoned, diseased… and he’s looking up.  And actually after a good 15 minute staring contest, I decided that this is quite a good cover. I usually love color, but the “simple” cover here is very nice in its three colors. By “simple,” I mean that it’s not busy and wild. Horror, noir, unique. Yeah, I had to admit it’s a good cover.  The next two covers are the weaker covers, I think.  But the last cover? Just like the first in that it is very noir and very unique.  They are a bit surreal and perfectly noir for the Dark Knight.

Batman 660

Batman #660 cover

The story is quite deep for a quick 4-issue substitute arc.  Grotesk is the name that has been given to the killer who is attacking people in Gotham City.   The City is under a heavy winter storm when Grotesk strikes – bodies with skin on their faces removed – are lit on fire. (Cp. the third cover) Batman and the police struggle to find the connection between those being killed.  Batman follows leads to Amina Franklin.  Her brother died recently, but Batman suspects she is not telling the whole truth about her brother’s death.

Thugs keep pestering Amina, insisting that she owes them because her brother owes them.  Batman saves her, but discovers some of the trouble can be traced back to a project that Amina’s brother, Wayne, was working on.  Wayne was a surgeon who was developing the I-GORE.  The I-GORE was a cybernetic-robotic interface that could be used to perform surgeries remotely.  Unfortunately, Wayne Franklin ran into a number of problems – including the failure of the I-GORE to work as hoped for.  Wayne Franklin ended up bartering and borrowing money from a number of individuals as well as having his technology copied by a rival medical group. Russian and Japanese mobsters all make attempts to get the technology, get payment, or exact punishment on Amina.

Batman soon establishes that the killer running around Gotham being referred to as Grotesk, is actually Wayne Franklin.  Franklin faked his death and has now fashioned a mask for his mutilated face from the facial flesh of his fallen victims.  Grotesk is seeking vengeance against those who hurt him and those who ruined his project.  He is even willing to sacrifice his sister, Amina.

Grotesk ends up shooting Amina with a fatal dosage as he makes his escape from Gotham. Batman gives chase, and they end up fighting on a boat in the river.  Grotesk is maddened and accuses Batman of being just like all his other enemies.  Batman subdues Grotesk and they notice a large ship bearing down on them.  Batman escapes – making an attempt to save Grotesk.  However, Batman only grabs an artificial arm and Grotesk is crushed and submerged by the oncoming ship’s hull.

Batman #661

Batman #661

Okay, there are a lot of great things about this story.  First of all, it is so noir, it should win a prize.  It takes places in the winter, in Gotham City, mainly at night.  It involves a surgeon who has lost his sanity and who has stitched other people’s flesh into a mask to wear.  There are Russian and Yakuza mobsters in the story – shooting people up and threatening everyone.  Both Amina and Wayne are dead at the end of the story.

Second of all, the story is self-contained.  I did not need to read 100 issues before and after to really understand the inner workings of this arc.  It was contained within 4 issues – however, it had all the depth, tension, and action that one would expect out of a really good Batman story.

Third, the covers represent the story inside. Sometimes (more and more frequently) covers on comics are just eye candy to get readers to buy an issue and the cover art has little or nothing to do with the interior story.  Not so with this arc – these covers practically tell you the story themselves! And the more I look at them, the more I like them, particularly the first and last.

Fourth, I absolutely love the interior art.  Every artist (and writer, for that matter) has their idea on how Batman should be drawn.  Well, the interior artist, Tom Mandrake, nails it; as I read through issue #659 I was thinking to myself:  “Yeah, this is how Batman should be drawn.”  The Batman in these four issues is… correct.  In fact, the story and the art is classic Batman.  These are precisely the stories and depictions that I think of when I think of classic Batman stuff.  And its good:  it’s a good story and it’s good art.

Batman 662

Batman #662

It seems a lot of online folk rated these issues somewhat low: 6 / 10 or 2 / 5.  I don’t understand that.  I really don’t.  I have a hard time wondering what they are looking for and expecting from Batman if this arc wasn’t it.  I guess Grant Morrison is the answer.  People want whatever he’s selling.  And hey – maybe what he’s selling is good, right?  I will find out soon enough.  However, to act like this arc is somehow subpar or not quality is ridiculous!  I do think it’s unfortunate that it interrupted Morrison’s larger arc, but these issues started 2007 – what a way to start a Bat-year!  I only got to read them this week, but they were very much worth the cover price.

This is good stuff. Ostrander and Mandrake were an excellent team and did a fine job with “Grotesk.”

5 stars