Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 2)

Late afternoon, on one of the coldest days we've had in the UK for quite some time, and I've just been for a walk outside. There's a thin layer of  snow on the ground, the air is eerily quiet, the sky drained to a strange translucent orange-pink .  It feels, out there, as if everything is temporarily suspended, frozen in time.

A good time to take stock, then.  I've just been glancing back through some of the books I've read over the past year, piled on shelves (or, in some cases, just piled in piles) in the loosely-arranged chaos that passes for my office. 

Unusually for me, this year I did read one or two high profile books more or less as they appeared - notably Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 and Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Both were heavily promoted, not to say hyped, and I think in both cases this was more or less justified, though I was left with slight reservations.  Smith's book caused a particular furore by being long-listed for the Man Booker, with Canongate's Jamie Byng dismissing it as 'a fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that'.  Actually, I thought that Mr Byng had at least a fraction of a point.  While I was pleased to see any thriller getting within spitting distance of the grand old prize, I was a little surprised that it should have been this one.  Child 44 is grippingly readable and provides an extraordinary and harrowing depiction of life in the former Soviet Union, but it is a relatively conventional thriller, with perhaps a little too much reliance on unlikely coincidence and 'with one bound he was free' heroics.  In the end, I felt that the thriller elements risked cheapening the very real power of the set-piece descriptions of Soviet tyranny.  Still, we should cheer the long-listing as a real step towards breaking down the literary hegemony.  Perhaps one day we'll get a chance to see a book like Peter Temple's The Broken Shore on there.

Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrived here as a genuine phenomenon, having already sold millions in Scandinavia.  I must confess that, much as I enjoyed the book, the reasons for its runaway success slightly eluded me.  It's a fine book, certainly, but to me its qualities didn't  immediately sing out 'best seller'.  But then, as you'd rightly point out, what do I know?  The book nearly combines a locked room mystery, social and sexual politics, and a couple of highly-engaging, if slightly unlikely, lead characters.  Lisbeth, the girl herself (incidentally, particularly given Larsson's focus on sexual politics, shouldn't that be 'woman'?) is an extraordinary character, and I very much look forward to discovering more about her in the succeeding books.  Maxine Clarke, in her comment on on an earlier posting, wonders whether Lisbeth is something of a male fantasy figure.  Well, definitely not for this particular male, but she's a terrific character nonetheless. 

My only reservation about the book was its oddly discursive nature.  Larsson takes us down some pretty unexpected by-ways on his way through the plot - many are interesting but a few feel decidedly out of place (I recall an extended discription of the specification of the hero's laptop, which managed to be even less interesting than it sounds).  There's been speculation about whether Larsson's untimely death prevented tighter editing of the books.  Perhaps that's the case - certainly I imagine the finer details of the laptop would have been blue-pencilled.  But, in a way, the book's digressions are part of its charm, and one of the reasons why its commercial success is so heartening.  This is the opposite of a formulaic Da Vinci Code thriller, where every short chapter ends on a carefully calculated cliff-hanger.  Larsson takes a while to meander through the plot, but on the way allows you to lose yourself in the minutiae of the world and the characters he creates.  And that, I suspect, is why the book has made such an impact.  I'm certainly looking forward to the next installment.

I seem to have written at some length already, and still managed to discuss only two books.  There's a whole pile of other volumes sitting over there to be discussed but, rather than wear out my welcome, I'll pause here and wait till tomorrow to add the next installment.  See what I mean about carefully calculated cliff hangers?


1. Maxine said...

Very nice post. I am cold today! I have got Child 44 on my shelf but have not got around to reading it yet. My comment about Lisbeth Salander being a male fantasy figure - I don't think this applies to the first book, but if you read the second (The Girl Who Played with Fire) you might see what I mean. I go into one or two of the justifications for this comment in my review at Euro Crime. And I also think this could be why so many male readers like her ;-) (No harm in that.)

2. Michael+Walters said...

Well, now you've definitely whetted my appetite for the second book... I'd seen your review on Eurocrime, which also intrigued me because the discription of the Lisbeth character seemed somewhat at odds with her portrayal in the first book. But nothing much wrong with Modesty Blaise in my book...

As for 'Child 44', it's a fascinating (and horrifying) book, but, for me, perhaps a little too constrained by the triller conventions. I'd be interested to see your review...

3. Sunnie said...

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went down a lot in my estimation when Larsson had a character travfel to Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory to visit a sheep farm.

A quick look at some of the photos on the district's Tourism website http://www.barklytourism.com.au/ will reveal why that particular location was such a howling error.
A minor thing I know but it lost major points for that mistake

4. Michael Walters said...

Yes - I see what you mean, Sunnie. I'm always reluctant to make too much of authors' errors (mainly because I know I'm quite capable of making far worse ones myself..) but that seems an odd one, since he presumably selected the location deliberately. The problem with that kind of mistake for the reader is that, once you've spotted it, your disbelief is immediately unsuspended.

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