Thursday, July 30, 2009

Margaret Atwood makes me want to stick my head in the sand…

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

I know that sounds bad, but her dystopian visions are so profoundly disturbing, I find they influence my thinking for forever after. Say what you will--her nightmares are not easy to dismiss!

Readers of 2003's Oryx and Crake will recognize the world of The Year of the Flood. Neither a prequel nor a sequel, the latter is more of a companion novel. It's set in the same world, covering roughly the same time span. Whereas Oryx and Crake was a post-apocalyptic narrative told from Jimmy's point of view, here the narrators are Toby and Ren. Jimmy, Oryx, and Crake make appearances in this novel, and readers of both books will discover minor characters from the former are major characters in the latter. In short, the two are intertwined, but may be read in any order. It is not necessary to have read Oryx and Crake first, thought ultimately reading them both is an immensely satisfying experience, shedding light on many aspects of the story being told.

Now to the story... Toby and Ren have both spent significant portions of their lives with a fringe religious group called God's Gardeners. Ren was brought to the ascetic group as a child by her mother. Toby found her way there out of desperation in adulthood. Each has professed a disbelief in the tenets of the religion, but the pacifistic and environmental teachings of the group have become deeply ingrained in both. At the opening of the novel, it is Year Twenty-Five in the God's Gardeners' calendar; the Year of the Waterless Flood.

From the beginning, the group's prophet-like leader had preached that a "waterless flood" was coming to wipe out humanity. In addition to their dogmatic environmentalism, the group believed in preparing for this flood with survival skills and food caches called "Ararats." The predicted day has come in the form of a global pandemic. Society has broken down completely. From their respective places of isolation, each woman wonders if she may be the last human left and struggles to survive in this altered world.

As everyone knows, there's nothing like apocalypse to make a person introspective. As each woman reflects upon the ups and downs of her life with the Gardeners and beyond, the reader gradually gleans a fuller picture of the world these women lived in, their individual and joint histories, what led to cataclysm, and what has ultimately happened to the world.

As one might expect from Atwood, The Year of the Flood is a beautiful telling of an ugly story. And what a story it is! In addition to being very much a novel of ideas, it is an utterly un-put-downable page-turner! It's a quick read, with lots of short chapters and white space on the pages. The novel flies by. The ending is satisfying and unsatisfying at once. It sheds some light on Oryx and Crake's enigmatic conclusion and completes this arc of the story, but leaves this reader very much hoping for a final volume of this rumored trilogy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Set aside your expectations about Harry Potter’s college years…

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman

Meet Quentin Coldwater. He's the proverbial smartest kid in his class, and quite possibly the most unhappy. Quentin and his friends are in the process of interviewing for colleges. His most recent interview has gone very much against the plan, and through a series of mysterious events, Quentin winds up in what he perceives to be another world. He suspects he may be in the mystical (fictional) world that he's been a bit obsessed with since childhood. "Is this Fillory?" he asks. "No, upstate New York." This exchange is typical of the ironic blending of fantasy and reality found throughout the novel.

After agreeing to take an entrance exam, Quentin is granted admission to Brakebills, a college of magic. As Quentin would say, "Wait, magic is real?" This may well be the first novel I've read where the characters had a bigger problem with willing suspension of disbelief than the readers did--or at least this reader did, because I was completely captivated from the opening pages.

As others have summarized, this novel explores the education and early post-grad years of several young magicians. No, it's not Harry Potter. After all, it's about kids who read Rowling and Tolkien and watch Star Trek. ("Didn't any of you watch Star Trek? This is basic prime directive stuff.") This is about kids from the real world. They cuss, they binge drink, they explore their sexuality, they make bad choices, and they know all the same pop culture references you do. In addition to these cultural references, Grossman pays homage in ways subtle and unsubtle to classic fantasies. Fillory, for example, might as well be called Narnia. Nonetheless, I enjoyed each allusion I managed to catch.

I was also interested in the way the less, um, magical side of magic was explored. Learning magic is difficult and painful work, and ennui seems to be an epidemic among adult magicians. Really, what are you supposed to do with yourself when all your basic needs are taken care of? What is there to strive for? While Quentin and his friends do eventually stumble onto a quest, he rightly points out that there is a dearth of monsters to battle in the magical world.

And Lev Grossman can write--don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Reading The Magicians reminded me why I'd enjoyed his last novel, Codex, so much. Namely, he creates quirky stories that are wildly imaginative, you never know how they'll end, and which feature some remarkably good prose. It is clear that Grossman is a polarizing author. All I can say is that his work truly speaks to me. Obviously, that's not true of everyone, but I highly recommend The Magicians for readers willing to put aside their expectations.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jennifer Weiner says everything is going to be alright

So, I'm going through a bad time right now. Yesterday was horrific. But Atria was kind enough to send me a nice, shiny hardcover of Jennifer Weiner's new novel, Best Friends Forever, and I'd planned to go to her signing last night. It was just a few blocks from my office, after all.

I basically dragged myself to the book store. My mind was on other things. But there was Jennifer Weiner, resplendent in her tiara. (Yes, she wears a tiara to signings, what of it.) And she's so funny, and so charming, and I think every woman there wanted to be her BFF.

In no time at all I was laughing, and for an hour or two I had a brief respite from my worries. I had a couple of books for her to sign, and while she was doing so I told her, "Today was the worst day ever. Worst. Day. Ever. But you made it end just a little bit better." She was very sweet. She insisted so sincerely, "It'll be better tomorrow."

I think I need to read her novel this weekend. It's not on the reviewing schedule, but if she made me feel that much better, I imagine ten hours of her work will do wonders. Every person who's blue should be given a Jennifer Weiner novel--if they can't get Jennifer herself.

P.S.: Maybe Jennifer's right. Galleys for the new Margret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, and Karin Slaughter novels just arrived in the mail! :-)

Monday, July 20, 2009

All the real action takes place in the bar...

So, I continue to drag my feet when it comes to blogging about T-fest. It will be a periodic series. I shall try to be done by next July.

As I mentioned in the last installment--and anyone who's ever been to Thrillerfest (or any writer's conference, I'll venture) knows this--all the action takes place in the bar. It is the place to see and be seen, and in my case, the place to see all your buddies. I checked in with Jimbo upon exiting the theater, and he confirmed things were in full swing, so I zipped over from Times Square to Grand Central. Jimbo was easy to spot, ensconced on a central couch with novelist Grant Blackwood and reviewer Hank Wagner. Discussion was mellow. I joined them. At some point, Grant posed a veterinary question to Jim, as that was his career for lo those many years. So we all talked about Grant's elderly dog. It was very sweet. (I told you these gatherings were wild.)

Eventually, Grant and Hank departed--wisely opting for bed, I think. Jimbo and I sat quietly chatting and spying on our friends. Boyd Morrison was talking to a bunch of people at the bar, and had yet to look over at us. Jim had seen him earlier, but I hadn't had a chance yet to congratulate him on his book deal in person. Finally, we went to say hello, and found our friends Chris Kuzneski and Elle Lothlorian at the bar as well.

Jim, Boyd, Chris, Elle, and I all know each other from the first T-fest in Phoenix. That's true of so many other people, but this is the group of friends that I really bonded with at that first, insular conference. Upon reflection, I think this year's conference was the best since that first for several reasons. First, we were all so happy about Boyd's good news. It was truly something to celebrate. But another thing was the return of Chris and Elle. They didn't attend last year, and having them there just felt like, "the gang's back together!"

BTW, if Chris's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the author of a series of bestselling thrillers featuring Jonathan Payne and David Jones. They're great, action-packed buddy thrillers with excellent banter. Chris is at an exciting point in his career, too. His latest novel, The Lost Throne, is his first to be published hardback. And guess what? It goes on sale this week! You should totally buy it.

Elle is still working towards being published. She had written what was, by all accounts, an exellent thriller around the time of the first conference, but confessed to me somewhat sheepishly that she was now working on... chick lit. "You go girl!" I say. I'll be the first in line to read it.

While I was catching up with this group of friends, the Cussler crew was laughing boisterously nearby. Namely, it was Jack Du Brul, Paul Kemprecos, Christi Kemprecos, and some couple I didn't know. I don't remember who eventually spotted me, but there was much hugging and kissing and How long have you been there?-ing.

Jack and I haven't been in touch much this past year. The man doesn't believe in email. And I'd had no contact at all with Paul and Christi. So, it really was so great to see them. It's a funny thing, we see each other once a year, but I absolutely adore Paul and Christi. Those two are the life of the party. (And little do they know, but they may see me again sooner than they think. More on that later.)

You know, now that I stop and think of it, I had seen Paul and Christi briefly at the cocktail party earlier in the evening. It's all coming back now. They were off to see Jersey Boys. And it was the two of them that had informed me that Jack was having a Boys' Night Out with friends. Well, I could believe that. Jack was a little--what's the word I'm looking for?--inebriated. Ah, I love a drunken Du Brul. He's just a hell of a lot of fun. We had a most excellent literary discussion, he and I, in which I learned that he'd read a book I'd recommended, Fragment. Now, Jack and I have been discussing books for many, many years. Or perhaps I should say arguing about books for years. The man doesn't like anything! But he did like Fragment, with reservations. He said it would stick with him for a long time. We both laughted about baby-killers. You had to be there.

Come to find out, his big Boys' Night Out was watching a ballet from the wings of the Met! His friend is marrying a ballerina or something. I was like, "You were backstage at the Met and didn't invite me!" There may have been hitting involved. I suppose bringing me would have defeated the purpose of the BNO, (but I would have appreciated the experience a hell of a lot more than he did). However, his lovely wife Debbie was arriving the next afternoon, so I guess he deserved a night out.

Me, Jack, Paul, and Christi closed the bar--not for the first time, I might add. I got back to my hotel after 2:00am. You may recall from the last installment that my day had started at 5:00am. Long day. Excellent start to a conference. Almost all the photos I took in NY were on the final night, and I look shockingly dreadful in all of them. Nonetheless, I'm sharing photos of me with Christi, Paul, and Jack from Saturday night, because it makes me happy to look at my friends and remember what a great time we had that weekend.

A flawed debut that still shows a lot of promise

The Last Ember
by Daniel Levin

Daniel Levin's debut novel is a mixed bag. It has a lot of problems, but nonetheless, I see enough promise in this first novel to encourage me that there will be better things to come.

The Last Ember opens with attorney Jonathan Marcus arriving rather abruptly in Rome. Given his background in archeology and classics, he's been summoned by the firm to consult on a case concerning an artifact of questionable provenance. Jonathan hasn't been back to Italy since he was drummed out of the American Academy following a tragic incident. Suddenly his past is coming back to haunt him, as it is one of his former friends and classmates opposite him on the witness stand.

Jonathan is a talented lawyer and performs his job well, albeit with reservations. He has found a clue in the disputed artifact, something no one else seems to have discovered. Unable to let sleeping dogs lie, Jonathan starts down a path that leads him right to his recent legal adversary, Dr. Emili Travia. Soon the two realize they are on the same side as they hunt down clues to the Tabernacle Menorah, the eight-foot, solid gold menorah from King Herod's court, lost for millennia.

All such chases have obstacles, and in The Last Ember baddies abound. Unfortunately, the revelations of their identities, both named and unnamed, were ridiculously anticlimatic. I mean, if you can't figure out the identity of "Salah-al-din" before the reveal, I'll, I'll... revoke your library card! A lot of the "surprises" were well telegraphed ahead of time. Another problem with the novel is that Levin has succumbed to some very convenient plotting. Need to find a person with a highly specialized skill set? One of the protagonists knows just the person! Need to escape the country as a fugitive? I've already got a flight lined up! The two protagonists never make a misstep as they untangle clues that have defied scholars and treasure hunters for centuries--but that's good, because the bad guys and the carabinieri are just as adept at solving ancient puzzles and are hot on their trail.

What does Levin get right? Well, I, for one, really liked the way he blended the Jewish and Christian elements of this tale in interesting ways. It's unfortunate that the Muslims are the villains (though by no means are all of the Muslim characters villainous), but that's the reality of the stories being told at this point in our history. (And that's not a spoiler, BTW.) Had the Catholic Church been the bad guys, that would have been equally cliched. If it had been the Jews, well, lets not go there.

Quite possibly my favorite thing about this novel was the way he really brought Rome and Jerusalem to life. Levin did an excellent job when describing the ubiquitous ruins found in both places, and the way they blend in with contemporary life. I was fascinated with how ancient civilizations literally built right on top of the ruins of what came before, and the underground sequences were marvelously atmospheric!

I think Levin does a really nice job with the secondary characters, with the unfortunate side effict of having the two protagonists appear to be somewhat bland. His prose is fine, and he's very good with pacing. It's not a short book, but Levin keeps the pages turning speedily. And overall, it's a fun story he's telling. There's a lot of interesting history and scholarship. Levin is also making a serious comment on historic revisionism. I can be a very critical reader, but I can't deny that there was fun to be had reading this novel. Despite a flawed debut, I'll be willing to check out whatever Levin comes up with next. I think he has real potential.

Gate crashing a writers' conference

So, on Friday I spent the day with my buddy, Jimbo. (That's NYT best-selling author James Rollins to you.) I have a devil of a time luring Jimbo out to the Bay Area, and therefore always make an effort to spend time with him when he's around. On Friday, he was participating as faculty for the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference.

Book Passage, as you surely know, is one of the most respected independent bookstores in the US. In addition to their excellent author events which go on just about every day of the year, they hold several major writing conferences for mystery writers, travel writers, etc. Not being a writer (as readers of this blog can plainly see), it would never occur to me to attend such an event, but I spend so darn much time with novelists, it's always good to learn more about what they're up to. Right?

Anyway, I schlepped over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and hooked up with Jimbo around 10:30am. He was participating in a panel at 11:15am with several other authors, including but not limited to Tim Maleeny, Hallie Ephron, Tony Broadbent, and several others. They were discussing the writers that had been influential on them as readers and writers. Very interesting. (Jimbo talked about the Doc Savage novels, H.G. Wells, and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.)

The panel ended around 12:30pm, and we ducked out of a lunch invitation, because we had to head down to San Mateo to sign stock at M is for Mystery. Back over the Golden Gate Bridge. Still foggy. We must have made it down there around 1:45pm, and signing the stock didn't take too long. My contribution here was just to wander randomly around the store looking at books. I'm good at that. Afterwards, there was time for "fro-yo." Yay!

The ride back to Marin took much longer. Damn bridge traffic over that damn, foggy bridge. Jimbo grumbled about how people could live in the city, but I explained that in the course of my urban life, I rarely have to travel over bridges and through tunnels. It's the suburbanites that cause the mess. Anyway, we made it over to the mall a couple of blocks from Book Passage sometime after 4:00pm. We grabbed what might have been a nice "lunch" at P.F. Changs, had there not been a screaming child over Jim's shoulder. Time to rush back to Book Passage for Jim's 6:00pm talk and signing.

Jimbo has been on tour promoting his latest novel, The Doomsday Key. He did a little of that, but tonight, mindful that his audience was largely made up of wanna-be novelists, he talked at length about his progress from unpublished to published author. Jimbo would repeatedly tell the audience some plausible-sounding story, stop, and say, "That was a lie." Seriously, you have to watch that guy every minute. It's gotten to the point that I don't believe anything he says! Truthfully, Jim always does a nice job at his speaking events. He's interesting, amusing, and entertaining. He was well received by the Book Passage crowd.

After he finished signing books, Jim (and I, by extension) were invited to a catered "faculty dinner" for all the professionals teaching at the conference, most of whom were involved over the course of several days. There were other local novelists I know there, like Tim Maleeny, Cara Black, and David Corbett, and also several of our ITW pals we'd just seen at Thrillerfest, such as Katherine Neville, D.P. Lyle, and David Hewson to name just a few. I was sitting in the center of a table that had author Sheldon Siegel, FBI agent George Fong, and legendary Book Passage proprietress Elaine Petrocelli at one end (What a thrill to finally meet her!), and Jimbo, Katherine Neville, and Katherine's husband Carl at the other. I swiveled back and forth with the conversations.

I've been running into Katherine and Carl so much lately, we've become defacto acquaintances--which is just very cool. That Katherine Neville is such a class act. God, she dresses beautifully. I comment on her clothes every time I see her. And she's just a really neat, impressive lady. We had discovered in NY that Katherine and Carl live in my hometown, Washington, DC. During dinner, Katherine asked for my card, explaining that they have occasional parties for the DC-area writers, and if I was ever in town... I had to explain, "I'm not a writer, I'm just a hanger-on," but Jimbo gallantly pointed out that I write book reviews, my blog, and edit novels. So, Katherine said they've had reviewers and editors as guests as well. Like I said, she is a gracious and charming lady.

I have to say that my day around the Mystery Writers Conference was just one more example of doors being opened to me because of my association with Jim that never would be normally. It's always so much fun seeing how the other half (that "half" being rich and famous writers) lives! Jimbo and I always have a good time together. And the conference itself was pretty impressive. They've got a talented and successful faculty, an interesting and full curriculum, everything is very professional and well organized, and they even feed the students. From what I could see, they had some happy clients. And the conference has a long history of alums becoming published authors, and sometimes even coming back to teach.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Jimbo and head back over the still foggy Golden Gate Bridge a last time. It was a good day.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Don't get distracted by the plot

The Wonder Singer
by George Rabasa

Mark Lockwood is a hack. He's a writer without pretension, happy to be making a living. But now he's somehow landed the writing job of all time--ghostwriter of the autobiography of legendary opera diva Merce Casals. Suddenly he has a real investment in his work.

The story of Senora Casals life and work is a major thread throughout the novel. As she relays the triumphs and tragedies of her life, Mark develops a genuine affection for the sometimes difficult lady. And, bored in his marriage, it's an affection of a different sort he holds for her attractive nurse, Perla. All is going well until La Casals up and dies on them.

Suddenly her biography is a hot property. Lockwood's manager wants to reassign the book to a more high profile biographer, and he wants Lockwood to surrender the recordings he and Casals made together. It is at this point that the novel veers off into what might be condsidered farcical territory, with an oversized drag queen added to the troupe of biographers on the run.

The story is interesting on multiple levels--first, simply, for the grand operatic background. And George Rabasa has created a memorable tribe of characters that stick with the reader for some time. However it was here that Rabasa and I ran into trouble. I continually got caught up in the action of The Wonder Singer, and time and time again it became obvious to me that the author was writing a novel about character, not about plot. He hammered it home: character, not plot. And if you read the novel with that in mind, you'll be satisfied. Silly thing that I am, I kept getting distracted by the plot, which led to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thrillerfest 2009: Where do I even begin?

Well, I've been back from New York for a couple of days now, but every time I want to sit down and start writing about Thrillerfest 2009, I start to feel overwhelmed. This has never been a problem in the past. So--whatever--I'm just going to start typing...

I had an absolutely WONDERFUL time at the fourth annual Thrillerfest. Like many of my friends, I haven't missed a year yet. Personally, I thought this year's T-fest was the best one since that first magical year in Phoenix--even considering that Barry Eisler and his fabulous hair were absent for the first time this year. Major bummer.

I actually arrived in New York several days early. The morning of Sunday, July 5th, to be specific. My plan was to see friends, see shows, and just enjoy some free time in New York. And in the above goals, I was successful. I spent time with my friends Roland and Mony and managed to squeeze in six Broadway shows. For those who are curious, they were:
  • 9 to 5
  • Next to Normal
  • God of Carnage
  • Waiting for Godot
  • Hair
  • Blithe Spirit

Now, since I'm not a writer, I didn't attend the first two days of T-fest. They were filled up with Craftfest (bestselling authors teaching classes on the craft of writing) and Agentfest (essentially speed dating with literary agents). My conference started with the official opening cocktail party on Thursday evening. Thursday was a long day for me. I'd awoken at 5:00am, cabbed up to Central Park, and utterly failed to acquire tickets to the Shakespeare in the Park production of 12th Night. I walked the 50 blocks back to my hotel dejectedly, and crashed in my room for a few hours. Later I was running around the garment district trying and failing to accessorize a dress. Then I rushed back up town to pick up tickets to Blithe Spirit, my fallback show, and finally across town to the Grand Hyatt to make a brief appearance at the cocktail party.

Walking the few steps from Grand Central to the Hyatt, I immediately ran into two friendly faces, my friends Chris Kuzneski and Donna. Much more on them later. Arriving in the lobby of the Hyatt, the party was obvious, but I hadn't picked up any of my registration packet, my name badge, etc. A writer named Ed Mitchell was guarding the entrance of the party. He took one look at me and said, "You're okay. I know you. C'mon in!" Well that was a nice welcome!

Moments later I was greeted by novelist A.J. Hartley. A.J. and I were introduced by James "Jimbo" Rollins a couple of years ago, at which time he'd signed a copy of his novel On the Fifth Day for me. (A really enjoyable read, BTW.) Anyway, I was kind of stunned that A.J. was greeting me like an old friend, but it turned out he knew exactly who I was. Apparently my trashy underwater fiction obsession made quite an impression on him. A few moments later I hooked up with Jimbo, and it was so good to finally see him! We synchronized our schedules, made plans for later that night, scarfed down some pasta, and ultimately went our separate ways.

I was off to the theater, but I returned to the Hyatt later that night, because every seasoned T-fest-goer knows, all the real action takes place late at night in the bar.

I guess that will be installment two of this saga. I promise it will get more interesting. Oh, and a few photos, too, once I find the damn download cable...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The sweet smell of success...

No, not my success, but that of someone I'm very fond of. And it's appropriate that the news comes this week. I'm writing from New York. I'm in town for the fourth annual Thrillerfest. I haven't missed one yet, and I've made some great friends over the years at this conference. It's essentially the reason I keep coming back.

At the very first T-fest in Phoenix, I met an unpublished author named Boyd Morrison. Nicest. Guy. Ever. Unlike most of my T-fest pals, Boyd and I keep in touch throughout the year. And, in the years since we first met, I've had the priviledge of reading and offering editorial notes on two of his manuscripts. The Palmyra Impact was a thoroughly entertaining disaster thriller. But the second MS he shared with me was even better. At the time I read it, it was called The Noah Covenant. It has since been renamed The Ark. I'm not the only fan of his work. Boyd has gotten "blurbs" from several of the biggest names in publishing. Once his agent started submitting the novel to publishers, we just sat back and waited for the good news.

And waited. And waited. Boyd got some positive feedback, but not one house picked the book up. Now, obviously, it's not that easy to get published--but I'd read two of his novels and they were waaay better than so many published novels.

Boyd took his rejections in stride. Rather than dwell, he sat back down at the computer and started a new story. Like other writers I know, he seems to have an endless supply of ideas. I have no idea where that comes from. Anyway, in addition to continuing his work, Boyd's the type of guy to take advantage of whatever technology is available. He actually had three unpublished manuscripts. (The third was written like 14 years ago.) He created a website and offered his novels to readers for free. Additionally, he uploaded his novels for sale at a nominal price on the Amazon Kindle.

Boyd's a pretty savvy guy. He didn't just offer them for sale, he joined several online Kindle user's sites and made contact with potential readers. Enough were interested in what he was saying to give the novels a try. Early rave reviews garnered more readers and more raves. Before he knew what was happening, unknown, unpublished author Boyd Morrison was climbing the Kindle bestseller charts. His agent thought it might be time to shop The Ark again.

Suddenly the New York houses were a lot more receptive. And Boyd may well have made history. He may be the first author to turn Kindle success into a major publishing contract! Boyd has a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster and The Ark has also been sold in seven foreign markets! You'll see the hardback release of The Ark on store shelves next summer, and the as-yet-unwritten sequel a year later.

Now, I know a lot of successful authors. But they were all succesful before I knew them. This is the first time a writer I've been a fan of and rooting for for years has called to share such wonderful news. I couldn't have been happier had it happened to me.

So listen up, thriller fans--you are going to want to read Boyd Morrison. Unfortunately, his novels are no longer available for free on his website, or for sale on the Kindle. You'll have to wait til next summer. But I do encourage you to visit his website here:

Check out the description of The Ark. And also spend a moment reading Boyd's bio. It's fascinating--and I didn't know most of that stuff until I read it there.

I'm predicting a big hit next summer. Remember, you read it here first. And, uh, Boyd? My fictional counterpart is available for cameo appearances. Maybe with a happy story for once?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lisbeth Salander is Stieg Larsson's immortality

It feels like a ridiculous cliché to call Stieg Larsson's premature death a tragedy--no matter how true it is. But now, as I am still breathless having finished the second novel of his dazzling Millennium Trilogy, I truly believe this man has achieved immortality. I can easily imagine his creation Lisbeth Salander joining the ranks of the most enduring literary characters. Once you've met Lisbeth, you'll never forget her.

The Girl Who Played With Fire opens quite provocatively, with an unknown 13-year-old girl being held captive by a sexual predator. Whatever ideas you form at that point--you're wrong. Trust me, you are. From there, we have some one-on-one time with Lisbeth. She's been busy since we last saw her, getting a personal makeover and taking some time to see the world. She's been away from Sweden for about a year, and it's time for her to return home. She left without a word to anyone, and she cautiously begins making contact with the people who care about her, with the notable exception of Mikael Blomkvist. Much to his consternation, she wants nothing to do with him, and has refused all contact.

That's okay. Mikael's busy running Millennium magazine and jumping in and out of affairs. And, as it happens, a huge story has just walked into Millennium's office in the form of Dag Svensson. Dag's a young journalist who has been researching sex trafficking in Sweden for years. He's written an explosive book, and he wants Millennium to publish it. They decide not only to take the book, but to build an entire issue of the magazine around it. The question is, how far is someone willing to go to keep a crime quiet?

As an American, I've always had a very positive opinion of the Scandinavian peoples. They always seemed "better" than us, more enlightened somehow. Let me tell you, Stieg Larsson has disavowed me of that notion. The Swedes are just as unpleasant as we are. God, maybe worse! Reading this book, written by a native, is a fascinating glimpse at a culture in many ways quite different from our own. Regardless, it seems that people are people and there's a lot of ignorance, hatred, violence, venality, and sickness in the world.

Others will write more about the plot, but I see no reason to go there. I read this novel without knowing what to expect, and the reading experience was the more enjoyable for it. There were some BIG surprises. That said, the plot was the most flawed part of a luminous novel. On the one had, I absolutely loved it. On the other, Stieg Larsson cheated--not once, but twice! Deep into the middle of the novel, a major plot point revolves around a coincidence. That's not cool. I had a conflicted internal debate, and had just about decided to let Larsson have a pass on at least a semi-plausible coincidence when he did it again! A second major plot point based on a coincidence. That's bad. I was so disgusted at that point that I put the book down for a day. But, I have to admit that when I picked it back up, the story moved along at such a headlong pace that I could hardly bare to set it down again. Seriously, I went without food. Ultimately, it's an amazing story being told, but very flawed from a technical standpoint. As much as I want to, I just can't give it five stars.

Now, what aren't flawed are Larsson's characterizations, and that's what elevates this novel from being one hell of a good mystery to a work of far greater significance. And as I alluded earlier, it is Lisbeth Salander that is his showstopper. I've never met anyone like her. You've never met anyone like her. She's one of a kind; a damaged genius who will break your heart while pissing you off. Lisbeth's past had only been hinted at in Dragon. We learn a lot more about her in Fire. Happily, I feel confident there is still much to unravel in Hornet's Nest. The ending of this novel will leave you deeply impatient to get your hands on the final installment, and fearful of how that one will end.
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Okay, I did not see THAT coming...

Vanished (Nick Heller)
by Joseph Finder

What the hell has Roger Heller gotten himself into? Vanished, the latest thriller from Joe Finder opens with an attack on Lauren and Roger Heller as they are leaving a Georgetown restaurant. Lauren wakes up more than 24 hours later, badly concussed. Of Roger, there is no sign. In the interim, their 14-year-old son, Gabe, has called in his uncle, Nick, for help. It is Nick Heller, brother of Roger, who Finder is setting up to be the hero of a new series of novels.

He's made a good choice. Born to a life of extreme wealth--all of which was lost in a scandal--Nick gave up the pursuit of cash and joined the armed forces. Now he works as a private investigator for a high-end DC firm. He's tough, charismatic, and extremely competent. Nick Heller strikes me as a character that could go over equally well with both men and women.

Nick and Roger haven't been close in years, but Nick can't leave his only brother's disappearance entirely in the hands of the DC police. He begins his own investigation, while at the same time continuing to look into loose threads from his last work case. The deeper he digs into each, the more convoluted these two cases become. And the more enemies he seems to acquire.

Occasionally I thought I knew where Finder was going with his story, and occasionally I was right. More often I was wrong. A couple times I was completely stunned by a plot development. Joe Finder is definitely more clever than I am. Nick Heller is also more clever than I am, and the man really knows how to throw a punch. Fight scenes in the book were unusually interesting and well-written. Additionally, take it from a native Washingtonian that the DC setting was used with specificity and authenticity. (And observations like, "Washington, D.C., is to lying what Hershey, Pennsylvania, is to chocolate" made me smile.) Plenty of details that ring true do a lot to sell the whole story.

These days, I've got a litmus test for thrillers: Can I read it in a single day? Because it has relatively little to do with how many pages or how fast I read. It's all about a novel holding my interest for hours on end. Vanished passed with flying colors. It's not Finder's strongest work, but it's a good start to a new series.
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