Thursday, 15 October 2009

“The Complaints”, Ian Rankin

How fast the departed fade from view. For so many years Rankin and Rebus were synonymous, almost impossible to imagine one without the other, and even Rankin's other works, such as "Watchmen", were comprehensively outshone by the cases of his signature detective. Since Rebus exited stage left with 2007's "Exit Music" it is interesting the level to which he has faded from consciousness. While the careful reader could spot a passing side reference to him in "Doors Open", "The Complaints", Rankin's first 'proper' book in the post Rebus era, has wiped him completely from the scene.

Ably stepping into the shoes of lead protagonist, Inspector (as he says, we lose the 'detective' in PSU) Malcolm Fox is a very different character to Rebus, both in temperament and background, but it is testament to Rankin's ability, that very quickly the reader identifies with him, cares about him, and gives not a thought to the absence of Rebus. Interestingly, the initial impression of him is as a healthy almost ascetic figure, perhaps encouraged by him being a reformed alcoholic, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Fox is overweight, struggling to sit comfortably in Breck's Mazda RX-8, and unfit, being tested by running up stairs in Edinburgh's Waverly station. Strangely this comes as a surprise, and it significantly complicated building up a picture of Fox in my mind.

One area where Rankin's writing has sometimes not quite sat write is when he tries to immerse himself in 'cyberspace'. Writing about online computer games it doesn't seem to fit properly with him. It didn't come across convincingly in "The Falls" and somehow, even although there's more veracity and it's more plausible, it doesn't quite sit right with "Quidnunc" in "The Complaints". I appreciate there may well be copyright issues, and given that Breck, the player of "Quidnunc", is introduced as a suspected user of child pornography one can accept that the makers of "World of Warcraft" or similar may have had reservations, but somehow I can't help feeling that Rankin could have written around this problem in a slightly more effective way.

If the novel does have a real fault, it is that the ending somehow feels too pat. There is an absence of loose ends, which some might see as a good thing in terms of textbook crime writing, but it lacks the ambiguity that keeps a book in your mind long after the final page is read, and almost feels like an "and they all lived happily ever after", which I don't think is what people are looking for from Ian Rankin.

This isn't a significant criticism really, more a mild disappointment. Nothing can detract from Rankin's sheer ability to quickly weave a plot, populate it with intriguing characters, and immerse the reader in time and space. Edinburgh in February 2009 feels right, in just the same way the cops and criminals both appear real; with this in mind Rankin can be forgiven for maybe only getting the narrative execution 90 per cent right.

Monday, 12 October 2009

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest”, Stieg Larsson

Since bringing it home from the bookstore a couple of days before its official release it took quite a lot of restraint to not start reading "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" immediately. It's testament to the phenomenon that Stieg Larsson has become and the power of his writing that this is a consideration at all - countless other authors are destined to languish for far too long on the bookshelf, waiting attention, for me this was never likely to be the case with this, the final Larsson book.

Let's get the negatives out of the way to start with. I had thought about doing a complete run through of the trilogy, revisiting the first two works before launching into "Hornets' Nest", and on reflection I should have done. In no way is this a standalone book, indeed without a detailed awareness of what happened in "The Girl Who Played with Fire" it probably makes no sense whatsoever. Compounding this, the way the reader is flung into the events immediately following the end of previous book jars, and it takes the first hundred or so pages to get your bearings and reset yourself in Larsson's universe. The effect of this is initially disconcerting, and I found myself wondering if somehow this might end up as a disappointment. Perseverance is however rewarded, and ultimately this is revealed as every bit as engrossing a tale as his previous works.

Larsson has long challenged easy categorisation, and this is much more a political thriller than crime novel. At its heart is the existence of "The Section", a counterespionage element of Swedish intelligence who, more than most, have been captured by the wilderness of mirrors making up the intelligence community. The namechecking of the now infamous CIA spycatcher, James Jesus Angleton shows how they have come to see secrecy as an end in itself that they immerse themselves in and subvert ordinary legality to what is seen as being of pre-eminent importance. Even these spies however carry with them a sense of world weariness and an awareness that society has passed them by. As reluctant Section Chief Wadensjoo opines:

"There's a new realpolitik in Europe since the Soviet Union collapsed. Our work is less and less about identifying spies. It's about terrorism, and evaluating the political suitability of individuals in sensitive positions." (p.105)

The Section may be at the heart of the crimes perpetrated in the novel, and in their moral relativism are absolutely the opposite to everything the idealistic crusading journalists on Millennium stand for, but somehow one can't help thinking that they too are victims, this time of circumstances largely of their own making. Their ultimate downfall, while satisfying, pales alongside the much more personal story acted out by Lisbeth Salander.

The character of Salander here is more accessible. Over the course of the novel she is much less the Nikita / Petra Reuter like machine, and much more the vulnerable character who has to fall back on her wits and what she's best at to survive. This is a much more satisfying and real existence, and perhaps parallels the psychological journey portrayed in the book, transforming her from the mentally unstable ward of the Swedish state to more fully fledged citizen.

Of the other key characters, they all enjoy the sort of complex and very Swedish relationships that have made Larsson's universe so interesting to read. They're all flawed, but engagingly so, from Blomkvist's endless romantic entanglements to Berger's inability to bring a traditional newsroom to heel, they all build a set of subplots rich in detail and fascinating to read.

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" is a sprawling ambitious narrative that gives the lie to the notion, peddled to death by Dan Brown, that to be a fast paced novel it has to take place over 24 hours acted out by characters who never sleep. Here the story takes place over 8 months from April to December, with a rhythm that ebbs and flows in intensity towards the dramatic courtroom denouement, and throughout shows characters that throughout are thoroughly human in their frailties. In contrast to the somewhat disorienting opening, the signature Larsson dramatic coda brings with it a welcome sense of closure, which makes the narrative ultimately work.

Chatting to the bookstore owner while buying this, we concluded that there were mixed feelings about it coming out. Yes it's enormously looked forward to, but there's a tinge of regret, because we know it's the last of these books that we will read. Without wishing to delve into mawkish sentimentality there is a sadness to reading the last pages, because we will never get to find out what Larsson had mapped out for the rest of his 10 volume series.

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" is a brilliant book; I still can't quite believe it's all over.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Profitable Direct Marketing and Blogging in the Big Time

Having been posting for just shy of a year now it's almost pleasing to have managed to get my idle thoughts on books noticed by the "make me a millionaire from doing virtually nothing on the internet" brigade.

The receipt of the following clearly indicates I've hit the big time...

Hey Blogger - My name is David,

I have been searching the Internet for blogs that fit our criteria. Yours does. I wanted to invite you to become a paid blogger at Blog Distributor. (Please understand that I do not send this invitation to every blogger I come across.)

Roughly 25% of bloggers are now being paid to write postings on their blogs, that are linked to websites. The value here is that, when a blog posting is linked to a website, that website will get higher rankings in the search engines, such as Google and Yahoo. You can write anything you think about the website, positive or negative.

Here is a link that describes how it all works in a little more detail:


Our system is set up so that bloggers can make more money with us than with any other blog-for-pay firm. In short, we are the middle man between you and the advertiser. We match the correct blogs with the correct advertisers, who pay us to do so. And then we pay you, the blogger on behalf of the advertiser. You only take the advertisements that you want and are comfortable with. In no way does this alter the owersship of your blog. You simply get paid to write postings on your blog that you choose to write. You do what you want, when you want. You decide what content to accept or decline.

To submit your blog, go to Redacted

If you have any questions, do visit the FAQ's area of the site: Redacted

If you have more than one blog, you are more than welcome to sign those up as well. If you have any other questions, please contact me at: Redacted. I know some people might be worried, getting some random e-mail, so please do write me if you have any questions or concerns. Also do a search for us on Yahoo or Google and look for reviews.

P.S. - I should note that we take great concern in the blogs that we allow into the system, so it's not possible for a full evaluation of the blog and/or its content until it reaches our categorizers.



I can chuckle about this happily - blogging isn't what pays my bills, it's something I do out of interest, and more selfishly, to try and keep track of what I've read (although this hasn't worked as well as it should have!) but it is a mildly depressing insight into what the WWW has become. Last year in Beijing Tim Berners-Lee made the point that there are now more static pages on the web than there are neurons in the human brain - flipping this on its head, if the web is a reflection of our brains, most of us aren't going to be appearing on "In Our Time" with Melvyn Bragg anytime soon.

I was going to deconstruct what "David" had written to me, with handy reference to my admittedly not particularly well thumbed copy of Jim Kobs' "Profitable Direct Marketing", and thus conforming to my attempt to keep everything on here solidly book related, but sadly the light in the study's gone out, and it's far too early in the morning to go hunting for fuse wire. Suffice to say, in contrast to the nice phone call from Lexus yesterday, it's not really doing anything to persuade me.

Normal book related service will be resumed in due course - perhaps connected to managing to lay my hands on some fresh coffee beans.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

“Wasp-Waisted”, David Barrie

Flippantly while refering to "Wasp-Waisted" I spoke of it being hard to resist, as it was a book simultaneously about murder and pants, however this is to do it a considerable disservice. Scottish author David Barrie has drawn on his experience of living in Paris to pull off that most accomplished of feats, an authentic feeling roman policier penned by someone other than a Frenchman.

"Wasp-Waisted" provides a fusion of murder and couture amidst an achingly fashionable Parisian setting. A series of murders connected by the extremely upmarket lingerie the victims are clad in and artistic photographs of their bodies supply all the raw materials needed for a crime novel suffused with Gallic charm and insouciance. The police are believably natural, Paris fashionistas and artists are chic and interesting in a Julie Delpy sort of way, and the murders richly depicted in a plot that steadfastly resists being predictable.

Franck Guerin is as engaging a central character as one could wish for. A former spook with DST, recovering from a controversial operation in Corsica, he neatly ticks many of the crime fiction 'must haves' as a loner, a man of action, and ill at ease with the more mundane aspects of police work. On the contrast between the resources available to the secret world (and the liberties taken with them) and the due process demanded by police work, he muses that "[p]laying by the rules might be good for one's conscience, but it could prove wearing on the nerves."

Personally Guerin's literate character is ambiguous in his relationships. Throughout the book he displays affection for a multitude of female characters, from an appreciation of model Sonia Delamazure's beautiful shoulders, the sparky relationships with investment banker Sylvie Thomas, and his frank interest in art professor Anne Subrini. Most striking is the lesson in lingerie supplied to him by magazine publisher Maryam Sehati. Throughout Barrie leaves the detail of Guerin's relationships almost completely unsaid, which all serves to add to the reader's interest in him.

As a novel it benefits from a bit of reflection, and the fact that you are thrown into Guerin's life very much at the deep end jars, but by Timothy this is good. It's the sort of book that left on your desk after a lunchtime indulgence calls out to you, and you feel obliged to stifle its siren song in a briefcase or drawer (not at all connected to the titillating pseudo erotic novel cover at all) and hanker to revisit it. As crime fiction it's different, engaging, well written, and deserving of all the attention it can possibly get.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Stieg Larsson and Self Restraint

My relationship with Stieg Larsson has been one of ever deepening engagement. I came late to "Dragon Tattoo", and loved it. "Played with Fire" was bought in hardback soon after release and in many ways it was even better. Thus "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" qualified for one of the most anticipated books of the year. Long on order when I got the phone call on Tuesday evening telling me that my marvellous local bookshop had it in stock it was a prompt to leave work promptly and eagerly collect it. The book store owner's comment, that this was the book everyone's been waiting for, is about as true a comment as one could imagine.

Walking back to the car I ran through some existential dilemmas in my mind. Do I take the sensible approach, using this as an opportunity to revisit the previous books, making sure the context was set in my mind, and long belatedly write down the thoughts I've had on "Girl Who Played with Fire"? There's also the issue that I'm in the middle of a book I'm really genuinely enjoying (David Barrie's "Wasp-Waisted"), lent to me by a friend keen to hear my opinion, and both they and the author deserve not be gazumped by a Swedish best-seller.

Or do I give in to temptation, relishing this as one of the comparatively few times you really want to get a book on day of release? It's complicated by the self knowledge that knows that this is likely to be the sort of book that will steal sleep, tempt me to pull a sickie on Thursday, and an awareness that the coming long weekend is going to be completely taken up with family and not hallmarked by conspicuous amounts of peace and quiet. It's the sort of time that makes you yearn for a long flight (like last year when Ian Rankin's "Doors Open" kept me company on the run out to Hong Kong) or an anonymous European hotel room.

Pragmatically Stieg Larsson's final flowering is going to have to wait...