January 2009


Riga Lane
Photo of Riga by Desmond Kavanagh used under a Creative Commons license.

Henning Mankell, The Dogs of Riga (Vintage, 2004).
Mankell’s provincial Swedish detective, Kurt Wallender, investigates the deaths of two men washed ashore in a life raft. The case leads him to Riga, Latvia, where he finds himself embroiled in something larger. The novel is set against a backdrop of political change and instability in Latvia in 1991, when the Berlin Wall had come down and the country was struggling to escape Russia’s orbit.

Here is a biography of Mankell on his official website. Here is a page about the book on a fan site.  Google BookSearch has a preview. Blogger jborras4 has a shorter passage. Jane Jakeman (The Independent) calls it atmospheric and gripping fiction, never mind the middle-aged male anxieties. Sue Magee says the tension is palpable.  Listen to Maureen Corrigan’s review for Fresh Air. Andris Straumanis at Latvians Online says that for a reader familiar with recent Latvian history, it’s fascinating to see Mankell depict the calm before the storm. Comparing it to Mankell’s more traditional police procedurals, Simon Quicke was somewhat underwhelmed. S.E. Smith says it’s dark and creepy. Payal Dhar thinks it’s compelling and suspenseful. Kate S. was utterly satisfied. Dorothy says it also offers a lot to think about. But Ken Wedding wasn’t blown away, and Norwegian blogger Moonknight was even more disappointed.  Maxine has Joe Queenan writing about the Nordic Mystery Boom, and another Maxine (or the same?) follows up at Petrona.

Buy it at Amazon.

Tattoo Art Fest
Photo by philippe leroyer used under a Creative Commons license.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Knopf, 2008).
Mikael Blomkvist is a disgraced financial journalist, convicted on libel charges to which he did not offer a defense. Lisbeth Salander is a tattooed and a social private investigator, a hacker and an orphan. Before long, Larsson has them both working to solve a decades-old mystery, the disappearance of a teenaged scion of a wealthy family of Swedish industrialists. The plot is ever so much more complicated, but Blomkvist and Salander are equal to the task.  Many of the locations are real, but much happens in a fictitious town on the coast of Norrland.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Larsson, who died suddenly before the book was published. Here is the official Larsson site. Reg Keeland, the translator, has a new blog. NPR has this excerpt. Here are reviews — beware of spoilers! Joan Smith (The Times) says it deserves most of the hype. Maxine Clarke (Euro Crime) very much enjoyed it. Maureen Corrigan (Fresh Air) liked it. Jonathan Gibbs (The Independent) says it never feels like a by-the-numbers thriller. John Baker says it’s a strange novel; like me, he was unable to put it down. Neither could Pop Culture Nerd. Alex Berenson (The New York Times) thinks it ends blandly. The Complete Review calls it a very good second-rate novel; they also link to many reviews I don’t. Here are more links. Graham Beattie says, what a triumph. Rebecca thinks it defies the cliches of its genre. Sharon Wheeler sees a stunning achievement. Sue Arnold (The Guardian) says Larsson threatens to knock Henning Mankell off his throne. Peter calls it another great Swedish crime novel. Larissa Kyzer (3%) sees a critique of Sweden’s social-welfare state. Macy Halford chatted with New Yorker colleagues about the book. Barbara Fister locates some neat parallels. Myron really enjoyed it. WhereDunnit mapped locations in the book. Keith says it’s a fine one. Tom Cunliffe thought it too long. Semi Dweller says, believe the hype. Kerrie says it deserves the accolades. Pat Gray says it will keep you riveted. Material Witness writes about on-line debates about the book. Mack links to reviews he liked. Likewise, Maxine has all sorts of good links. Anuradha Sengupta says Lisbeth is the real hero. Martin Edwards sees a fascinating and innovative blend of story lines.  Marg liked the plot’s complexity. Gwen Dawson thought it was a little too long. Cate Ross wasn’t overwhelmed. Nor was John Talbott. PopinFresh loved it. S. Krishna’s expectations were surpassed. Lit*Chick has a clip of an interview with Knopf’s Sonny Mehta. Martha Woodroof reported for NPR on how it became a U.S. bestseller. And you can watch the trailers for the forthcoming movie! There are many more reviews out there — please feel free to link to good ones in the comments.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Approaching Willesden Junction
Photo by LHOON used under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Frayn, Spies (Metropolitan Books, 2002).
A coming-of-age story set in London during World War II. Stephen Wheatley, an old man as he starts to recount things at the outset, was a young boy then, living on a block of new housing near a train station on the outskirts of town. As events unfold — and I am being vague about what happens to avoid giving things away — Stephen comes to understand that there are secrets behind the new facades on his street, and over in the rural tracts on the other side of the tracks. Frayn deftly, gradually unpacks these secrets.

Here a bio of Frayn and here is Wikipedia’s entry on him. Nicholas Wroe profiled Frayn in 1999 for The Guardian. Google BookSearch gives a preview. Claire Armistead interviewed Frayn for The Guardian. Here are reviews, but be careful — they may give away too much.  The Complete Review says it’s hard to be truly enthusiastic about the book.  They also gather lots of links.  Robert Weibezahl says Frayn is a master of the literary slight of hand.  Kevin Holtsberry says Frayn creates tension well. Henrietta Ghattas says the novel paints a dreamlike world. Phillip Tomasso III was reminded of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) sees a classic English theme. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) says the clockwork mechanism of the plot fails to engage. Jennifer Schuessler (The New York Times) says some of the most beautiful passages evoke the landscape of the town. Adam Mars-Jones (The Observer) sees innocence with a vengeance. Alan in Belfast found it quite an irritating book. Eli Weintraub calls it a sensory delight. Christopher Caldwell and Erik Tarloff read it together at Slate. Anne calls it wonderful.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Crépuscule sur Dublin
Photo of Dublin by FroZman used under a Creative Commons license.

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls (Henry Holt & Co., 2007).
Quirke is a Dublin pathologist; his brother, Malachy, is the most popular obstetrician in town. Drunk after a party one night, Quirke finds Mal in his office, doctoring the autopsy report of a dead mother, Christine Falls. Quirke’s efforts to find out who Falls was and what happened to her infant child lead him into dark corners of Dublin and across the Atlantic to Boston. What I saw of Boston here wasn’t enough for me to recommend the book to someone going there, but there is plenty to make you feel 1950s Dublin. Black is the pen name of Irish writer John Banville, winner of the MAN Booker Prize, and this book received quite a bit of attention as a result. Banville writes wonderful sentences; on the other hand, mystery devotees might find the plotting somewhat pedestrian. For better or worse, Christine Falls is more literary than most mysteries.

Here is Google BookSearch.  Here’s “Black’s” website, with an excerpt (.pdf).  The Elegant Variation has Jim Ruland’s four-part profile of Black — here are part one, part two, part three, and part four.   Janet Maslin (The New York Times) calls it a swirling, elegant noir.  Michael Allen thinks it’s more of a mainstream novel than a genre thriller.  Ted calls it an anti-mystery.  C.B. says the depth of characterization makes it memorable.  Michael Dibdin (The Guardian) says Banville can plot.  Bill Peschel rates it highly.   Critical Mick thinks it falls short.  Gideon Lewis-Kraus thinks it a promising experiment.  Mark Sarvas says Dublin is rendered with a damp, creaky specificity (scroll down).  Kathryn Harrison (The New York Times) says Black’s Dublin oozes existential dread.  Patricia Craig (The Independent) says his Dublin is an overwhelming churchly muck.  Smithereens loves the wordplay and imagery.  Chuck Leddy (Boston Globe) calls it intricately plotted and beautifully written.  Tony Bailie says it carries you along but never flows easily.  Frank Wilson (PopMatters) says Black paints a scary atmosphere of moral claustrophobia.  Jon Polk thinks not many mysteries are better written.  downstreamer appreciates the exquisite attention to descriptive detail.  rjhowell prefers Banville to Black.  Josephine Damian sees flaws but calls it a decent readWatch Banville explain that he and Black are very different.  Listen to him on KCRW’s Bookworm.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Questione di Eleganza
Photo by E|NoStress| used under a Creative Commons license.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008).
To observers, such as the affluent residents of her building in the sixth arrondisement, Renée Michel is a typical Paris concierge, from Central Casting, and she works hard to maintain the image, wearing frumpy clothes, cutting her own hair, and adopting a brusque manner. Inside her loge, and in her own mind, Michel guards a different persona, that of a autodidact and aesthete who appreciates philosophy, Tolstoy, Japanese cinema, and opera. Michel, who narrates much of this novel, lets down her guard long enough to let two residents into her private world. One is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old girl, precocious and misunderstood by her family, who lives on the fifth floor and whose journal entries form the rest of this story. The book gives a long glimpse inside one of the posh buildings closed to most tourists.  Many reviewers loved it or hated it; my reaction is more mixed.

Here is Barbery’s site.  Alison Anderson translated it into English; here is her site.  The Complete Review provides a wealth of links, as always. They say it makes for a bizarre social critique that has some superficial appeal but is presented much too simplistically. Yvonne Zipp (Christian Science Monitor) says it has its own elegance.  Michèle Roberts (Financial Times) says it consoles rather than unsettles.  Ian Sansom (The Guardian) finds it charming.  Robert Hanks (The Independent) likens it to a hedgehog turned inside out – superficially warm and cuddly, but with some nasty barbs within.  Caryn James (New York Times, Scotsman) calls it quirky and studied yet appealing.  Heather Thompson (New Statesman) appreciates the interplay of the characters.  Louise McCready (New York Observer) doubts it will play in America.  Viv Groskop (The Observer (UK)) calls it profound but accessible.  Beth Jones (Telegraph) says the entire tale is soaked in sentimentality.  Michael Dirda (Washington Post) thinks you will fall in love with both narrators.  Caroline Smailes calls it a delicate and beautiful story of friendship.  Smithereens wanted to throw it across the room.   Jonathan Birch calls it a fluffy confection of style over substance.  Grierson Huffman recommends it with reservations.  Dan Sumption calls it beautiful if flawed, and is not alone in faulting the translation.  Kalafudra found it unbearable and couldn’t finish it.  Anne Hawk found it simply charming.  Jan del Monte, blogging from Paris, says it’s a book to read and reread.  Jing-reed calls it erudite, humorous, and tragic by turns.  Harkinna loved it.  Monica Carter (Salonica) says it’s erudite but accessible, intellectual and sweet.  Ragan felt smarter after she finished it.  It left Ella entirely cold.  Annabel Gaskell says the first half was too slow and the second half too fast.  Princess Haiku gave it an award.  Barbara B. says it’s great.  NPR offers this excerpt.  More are posted here.  Claire (or *claire*) posts some favorite passages.

Buy it at Amazon.com.