The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Monday, Nov 28 2011 

I had been hearing about Stieg Larsson’s now world-famous Millennium trilogy for a couple of years, but I didn’t read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, until I saw the trailer for the English-language film adaptation coming out in December. I was slightly nervous to start the novel after hearing how great this series was: could it live to the hype?

The answer, at least for this first book, was yes.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with Swedish journalist Mikael Blomqvist being convicted of libel against billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström. Disgraced and left near financial ruin after paying damages and court costs, Blomqvist soon finds himself living on a remote island and completing a freelance assignment for Henrik Vanger, the elderly former CEO of his family’s Vanger Corporation. For nearly forty years, Henrik Vanger has been haunted by the disappearance of his favorite niece, Harriet. He is convinced that someone in the competitive, corrupt Vanger family murdered Harriet and has been trying to drive him insane ever since. The mystery seems impossible to solve, especially after so many years, but Henrik charges Blomkvist with one final effort to find out who killed Harriet.

Because of the considerable research the assignment requires, Blomkvist takes on Lisbeth Salander, a surveillance agent from Milton Security, to help him solve Harriet’s murder. Salander is a brilliant investigator, able to find out anything about anyone, albeit through less than scrupulous means. She is pierced, tattooed, antisocial, and seemingly mentally unstable. But despite her unconventional appearance and unsettling presence, she proves to be exactly the person Blomkvist needs by his side as his investigation into Harriet Vanger’s fate uncovers more corruption and more brutal violence than he ever imagined.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. It is written with such detail and such intelligence that I felt not only interested in the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, but also involved in its investigation. The plot has several very clever twists; it’s been a long time since any book succeeded in surprising me as much as this one did. The book does become gruesomely violent at points, but the violence never feels gratuitous. Larsson clearly wanted to make a point in this novel about the horrors of sexual violence and make his audience take the issue seriously. As a result, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turns out to be both a good thriller and a brutally honest social commentary. Somehow, one never really interferes with the other; Larsson does an excellent job of weaving the two together into a strong, cohesive story.

For me, though, what truly sets this thriller apart from most others is the character of Lisbeth Salander. As much as I enjoy mysteries and thrillers, I find it irritating that so many authors in these genres feel the need to make their female characters impossibly beautiful, sophisticated, and perfect. Salander, on the other hand, is riddled with imperfections and not someone most people would immediately find attractive. One could possibly say that Salander’s eccentricities and extreme antisocial behavior make her no more realistic than more “conventional” heroines, but I found her a strangely refreshing character. I appreciated seeing a woman in this genre that was far from perfect, but still had the toughness and the intelligence to get the job done, even without movie star looks and impeccable social skills.

My only criticism of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the subplot involving Blomkvist’s libel conviction and the fallout for his magazine, Millennium. While there were interesting aspects to the storyline and it needed to be resolved, I was disappointed to see how much it dominated the end of the book. It simply wasn’t as gripping as the main plot, and I felt a little too confident that I knew how it would end. Still, I understand that it was necessary to give some sort of conclusion to that subplot, and it detracted very little from my enjoyment of the book.

I am always willing to be the naysayer if I don’t like something that’s popular, but I’m very glad I didn’t have to take that role here. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really was the smart, unorthodox, surprising thriller I hoped it would be. I looked forward to seeing the film adaptation premiering in December and reading the other two books in the trilogy.

Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson Monday, Nov 7 2011 

There was a time when I watched The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson every weeknight. Ferguson was a clever, funny late night host who often had interesting guests with whom he had intelligent conversations. I hardly ever watch The Late Late Show anymore, though; I found that Ferguson’s show has become more about gross-out humor, too many inside jokes with a robot (yes, I generally find Geoff Peterson unfunny, deal with it), and interviewing starlets who have little to say that interests me, so I saw no point in continuing to watch.  The whole thing came to feel very lazy to me, though I still hope there will be a return to form for The Late Late Show.

 Ferguson’s novel, Between the Bridge and the River, reflects the same problems I’ve found watching his show. The novel follows the stories of two estranged friends in Scotland: George, a lawyer dying from cancer and contemplating suicide, and Fraser, a phony televangelist entangled in a sex scandal. It is also the story of orphaned brothers Leon and Saul Martini and their bizarre rise and fall in Hollywood. Their stories become intertwined through dreams, near-death experiences, and religious awakenings, both sincere and not. Beyond that, the plot is too detailed and messy to describe in depth here.

The novel is largely a satire of religion and show business, and as satire, it does work quite well. Ferguson is very good at humorously pointing out the hypocrisies and ugly aspects of both, without becoming so bitter that he cannot see anything good coming out of either one. His writing style is enjoyable enough that I would be interested in seeing him write another novel, even one with as chaotic a plot as this one.

Unfortunately, there are enough problems with Between the Bridge and the River that I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly, at least not to everybody. There are a few too many characters in the novel, and it was sometimes hard to keep track of all of them, especially if certain ones weren’t mentioned for a while. This is also a very, shall I say, R-rated read, and while often it was dirty in a clever, funny sort of way, just as often it was just plain gross. There were a few too many times when I was cringing at the “dirty” moments rather than laughing at them, which was very disappointing. I am hardly what most people would consider a prude, but as I read certain details of some of the characters’ behavior, particularly Saul Martini, I frequently found myself saying, “Was that really necessary to include?”

While I enjoyed many aspects of Between the Bridge and the River, I was rather relieved to be finished with it, which is never a good sign with any book. Funny as it often is, it is also too overloaded with plots, characters, and grotesque images I could have lived without ever having placed in my mind. This is very obviously a first novel, and I’d hope to see some of these problems gone if Ferguson ever wrote more fiction.

If you are eager to read something by Ferguson, I would more enthusiastically recommend his other book, American on Purpose. Written a few years after Between the Bridge and the River, this is Ferguson’s memoir of his life from childhood in Scotland through an adulthood of drug addiction and checkered success, culminating in success on CBS and becoming an American citizen. It is really a remarkable life story told in a sophisticated but still fun and conversational style. While Between the Bridge and the River reminded me of why I don’t watch The Late Late Show much anymore, recalling American on Purpose gives me hope that someday I will be back to watching it every night.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman Saturday, Nov 5 2011 

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Scotsman living a rather ordinary life in London. One evening, on the way to an “important” dinner with his fiancée Jessica and her boss, Richard stops to help a severely injured young woman on the sidewalk. Jessica’s outrage at this leads to their breakup, but soon, Richard is noticing much bigger changes in his life. His office is empty, his apartment is being rented to someone else, and nobody from his life recognizes or even sees him.

The biggest change of all comes when Richard, desperate to get his life back, finds himself in London Below, the world from which the injured young woman, simply named Door, had come. Here he encounters beings and things he never imagined existed, some of them beautiful, some of them hideous—and many of them dangerous either way. As Richard accompanies Door, the arrogant Marquis de Carabas, and the beautiful bodyguard Hunter on the quest to avenge Door’s dead family, the magical and complex nature of London Below presents countless challenges, not the least of which are the assassins Croup and Vandemar, whose mysterious employer insists that they capture Door (for undisclosed reasons, of course). Along the way, Richard learns that many beings and places in London Below are not at all what they seem at first glance, and that perhaps he is a stronger person than he thought when his life in London Above began to crumble.

I do not want to give away too much about the world of Neverwhere, because it’s much more fun to discover them on your own.  I will say, though, that the rich details of London Below are a joy to read. Even the more grotesque elements of it are delightful in a strange, morbid sort of way. The novel, in my mind, is a dark, modern twist on classic stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it also reminded me more than a little bit of the beloved science fiction series Doctor Who. The science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements all blend together perfectly.

Having now read both Stardust and Neverwhere, I can very surely say that Neil Gaiman has quite a gift for creating worlds in which the reader enjoys getting lost. Like Faerie in Stardust, reading about London Below often made me forget where I was. Gaiman makes this fictional place feel so vivid and so real that it will almost be a surprise to me when I finally make it to London someday and do not somehow end up in London Below.

Gaiman’s writing is so intelligent and so engaging that, when reading his books, I start to wonder if I’m more of a fan of the fantasy genre than I thought. I think it helps that his characters are not all mythical creatures, and even many of the characters one would never encounter in reality are somehow human enough that I can almost believe they exist. I think, having read Neverwhere, that I could also get really into the urban fantasy subgenre. So, if you have any recommendations for urban fantasy novels (or even any other really good fantasy novels), go for it!