Wednesday, January 27, 2010

One of the most unusual characters introduced in modern fiction is surely Lisbeth Salander, the title character in Stieg Larsson's sensation The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Tiny, tough and solitary, she doesn't allow anyone to get close to her. Because of so far unexplained circumstances, she is a ward of the court. Although she is 25, with a job and her own apartment, she does not have control of her own finances. The authorities have appointed her a guardian who oversees her affairs. All this is fine when her original guardian, with whom she has a trusting relationship is alive. Unfortunately, he is replaced with someone who decides to use Lisbeth's dependence on him for his own personal sadistic purposes. Until Lisbeth decides to put an end to that idea . . .

Meanwhile, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, has just endured a trial where he's been sentenced to three months in prison for libel. He had an informant who was feeding him false information about a businessman that Blomkvist published in his magazine Millenium. With the prison sentence looming over him, he gets an offer to come to an out of the way island in Northern Sweden for a possible assignment. There he meets Henrik Vanger who asks him to write a history of the highly prominent and successful Vanger family as well as solve their greatest mystery: what happened to 16 year old Harriet Vanger when she disappeared in 1966? At first, Blomkvist is unwilling to take the job, but as he looks through the material that Henrik has saved over the years, he becomes intrigued.

Before Blomkvist was hired to take on the investigative job, the Vanger family had hired Lisbeth Salander to do some background research on him. Salander is a researcher and computer hacker who is able to ferret out the most private and hidden details about anyone. Once Blomkvist decides to accept the assignment, he hires Salander to help with the investigation.

That is the main story behind "Dragon Tattoo." The action is fairly fast paced, and there are plenty of situations when both Mikael and Lisbeth are thrown into danger. The story itself was pretty far-fetched (that a serial killer who kills in spectacular ways could go undetected for decades), but there are plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments. There is a Swedish version of the film, starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace), and supposedly a Hollywood version on the horizon.

Bookseller.com notes that Stieg Larsson was the best selling author in Europe last year. It's interesting to note that 3 of the top 10 authors were Swedish (Camilla L├Ąckberg and Henning Mankell also make the list). I'm anxious to read the other two books in the Lisbeth Salander series. Sadly, Stieg Larsson died at age 50 of a heart attack before he could complete the fourth (of a planned 10) book in the series.

One thing that surprised me in the book was the constant reference to Swedish politicians, scandals and events. None of these had been changed or explained during the translation process. It's odd that a book that is so obviously meant for one country has become a world-wide sensation.

Final Verdict for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling mystery with a totally unique heroine

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The British radio station Classic FM is currently accepting votes for listeners' favorite classical music of all time. Go over and vote and be sure and propel the British composers to the top of the list! There is a contest for people who vote, but sadly, it is only open to UK residents. The voting, however, is open to all! Be sure and cast your votes by this Sunday, Jan. 31:

Voting in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2010 has now opened!

Classic FM wants to know your all time classical music Top 3, so it’s down to you to vote for your favorite British composers to make sure they win! Hall of Fame is Classic FM’s biggest chart compilation that has been a huge success since launching in 1996.

Will it go to one of England’s finest, Edward Elgar? Or will Vaughan Williams’ stunning Lark Ascending maintain its three year lead at the top? The battle has commenced, so nominate your British favorite to decide who is going to win!

Visit www.classicfmhalloffame.co.uk to vote for your favorites. Type the details of the piece or composer you'd like to vote for in the box and search from the list of thousands of pieces chosen in previous years by other listeners. If your favorite isn't listed, you can also follow the instructions to type it in manually. The list of suggestions is simply there to help you vote as easily as possible - but it's by no means restrictive.

Online voting closes at 23:59 on Sunday 31 January 2010. The brand new Top 300 will be revealed on Classic FM across the Easter weekend from 2-5 April 2010.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Anne Perry certainly knows how to tell a great story. I've always preferred her Monk series to the ones featuring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, but all of the novels I've read by her have been instantly engaging. I was happy to see that at least one of her novels, The Cater Street Hangman, has been made into a film.

I wasn't sure where in the chronology of the novels Cater Street fell, but it turns out to be not only the very first in the series featuring the Pitt characters, but the very first novel that Anne Perry published. I knew it had to be an early book in the series, since this is where Charlotte and Thomas meet. Thomas is a young police officer investigating the troubling deaths of several young women in the Cater Street area. Charlotte's family lives in this area, so in questioning the residents, Thomas becomes acquainted with her. Charlotte becomes further involved in the investigation when the family maid Lily becomes a victim of the killer and her sister Sarah is attacked.

Charlotte lives at home with her parents and two sisters. The story is set in 1881, when certain behavior was expected of well-bred young women. Charlotte's father and brother-in-law are allowed to do as they please, of course -- have mistresses or force themselves on female servants -- without anyone being allowed to question their behavior. The women are expected to look pretty and confine their interests to visiting, painting, needlework and parties. Charlotte, clearly a "modern woman," has little patience for this hypocrisy. Her outspokenness and impatience with the morals of the day quickly set her apart from other females, and Thomas Pitt is soon smitten. As Charlotte puts herself into harm's way in an attempt to determine the identity of the killer, Pitt becomes more concerned for her. Charlotte, however, has no intention of butting out.

The DVD I saw contained only this one program. However, Amazon sells a series with 4 different "Victorian mysteries" on it. Only this one was written by Anne Perry.

Final Verdict for The Cater Street Hangman: Three Gherkins, for being an interesting look at a Victorian mystery with beautiful costumes and scenery

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Ninni Holmqvist's thought-provoking book The Unit, people are either needed or dispensable. If you haven't become needed by the time you are 50 (for a woman) or 60 (for a man), you will be removed to The Unit. This is public knowledge and everyone knows what goes on there, but to the new arrivals, the whole place is unimaginably frightening.

The novel opens with Dorrit Weger, an unmarried woman who's just turned 50, leaving her beloved dog Jock and her house and being transported to her new home in The Unit. Dorrit is dispensable because she has no children or other family who need her, and her chosen profession as a not-very-successful-author has not earned her a respected place in society. In other words, she will not be missed at all. The adults who are moved in to The Unit seemingly want for nothing. They each have their own apartment. Food, utilities and clothing are all provided, free of charge. They can take classes or indulge their hobbies at will. Soon, however, everyone there will be asked to make a donation of a non-vital body part, or to participate in a drug trial or psychological experiment. Eventually, everyone will have to make "the final donation" of a heart or lungs. Because each of the residents has valuable body parts at stake, their every movement is monitored so that they don't attempt suicide or some other form of escape.

Dorrit has always been a lonely person, so it comes as something of a surprise to her how closely she soon bonds with others she meets in The Unit. She even finds love with another writer, Johannes. Hanging over everyone, though, is the prospect of physical and mental deterioration as the "donations" become more invasive. At times, Dorrit arrives at someone's room for a chat to discover they've been taken away for "the final donation."

Although she's had no choice in what has happened to her up to this point, things suddenly change when Dorrit discovers that she's pregnant. Because of her condition, she's excused from participating in all experiments. She wants to have and keep the child, because that will make her needed, but this is out of the question. She is given the option to "transplant" the fetus, or to give the baby up for adoption. Suddenly, Dorrit has something to live for and new options in her life. Will she choose to go along willingly, or fight for her right to have her own child?

This book was not the sort I normally read, but I was intrigued by the concept. It does bring up many questions, especially about those in society who are "dispensable" and those who have "more right" to live. It's interesting how all the childless people in The Unit keep speaking disparagingly about how people with children "spread out" everywhere and take up so much room, while the dispensable ones tended to keep to themselves and not bother anyone. I was rather alarmed at the sentiment expressed by The Unit's librarian that people who read a lot tended to end up there! Interestingly, many of the people who receive "final donations" are politicians -- no doubt they have deemed themselves the most needed category of all!

All in all, I found this to be an unusual and disturbing book. It would make a very interesting, if somewhat depressing, film.

Final Verdict for The Unit: Three Gherkins, for being a frightening look at a futuristic society

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The 1750s were a dangerous time in London. Crime was rampant and there was no real organized police force to deal with the problem. Enter the brothers Henry and John Fielding. Henry was already a well-known author of such works as Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. Younger brother John had been blind since the age of 19. The two decided to form a small group of "runners" to investigate crimes. The Bow Street Runners became the origin of the modern police force and how the group came into being is the focus of a short-lived TV series called City of Vice.

The Fielding brothers might claim to be worried about the lawless streets, but the crimes they are most concerned with in this series involve sex. The first four episodes (out of a total of 5) dealt with children in brothels, murdered prostitutes in bath houses, "molly houses" (where homosexual men congregated), and the rape of an upper class woman. People couldn't walk down the street without being assaulted and mugged, but the early police force was only concerned with sex (or so you would be forgiven for thinking from watching this series).

The two main characters are very likable and flawed. Henry is terribly troubled by the fact that he impregnated his maid and that she is now is wife. All of society seems to know about the scandal and the fact that his son was born only a few short months after their hasty wedding. John is simultaneously in awe of his brother and exasperated at always being in his shadow. The general misery of the London poor is illustrated to great effect, but for all that, the Fielding brothers seem perplexed as to why anyone, even someone who is starving and has no options, would resort to crime. They have little patience with the circumstances that might drive someone to a life a crime. Their only concern is with tracking down the guilty parties and punishing them.

I was a bit surprised to see Nigel Harman (Dennis from Eastenders) playing a character that was waaaaayyy against type for him. I guess Steve McFadden was busy.

All in all, I enjoyed the series. For a costume drama, there were an awful lot of unexpected four letter words being thrown about. It seemed the language was "spiced up" only for the surprise factor, because even though the subject matter was somewhat risque, the dialog was not until Henry Fielding suddenly and unexpectedly had a colorful outburst. Too bad there was only one series of the show. It would have been interesting to see if the Fielding brothers ever got around to investigating anything other than sexual crimes.

Final Verdict for City of Vice: Four Gherkins, for being an enjoyable look at a dangerous time in London's history

Monday, January 11, 2010

One of the most highly reviewed books of last year was Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Publications from Publisher's Weekly to The Washington Post listed it as one of the top books of 2009. Of course, when a book receives near unanimous, gushing acclaim, it's generally a sure sign I'll hate it. My contrary nature, I suppose! Still, this book sounded intriguing enough that I was excited to read it. For once, the critics were right!

The book immediately grabs the reader, for on the first page, we encounter Ryan and his father on the way to the hospital with Ryan's severed hand in a cooler. Ryan has recently learned that he was adopted, and had just gotten reconnected with his birth father (and we see how well that worked out for him). Ryan and his father are momentarily left on their rush to the emergency room and Lucy Lattimore enters the story. She is an 18 year old high school student who, immediately upon graduation, flees her Ohio town with her history teacher, George Orson. Next to enter the story is Miles Cheshire, who cannot seem to get his life on track because he is constantly chasing after his schizophrenic twin brother Hayden. Miles hasn't seen Hayden for a decade, but there is the occasional communication from him, which sends Miles racing off to find him -- always too late.

These three stories form the basis of the novel, and it's great fun to try to dissect what's going on, and to try to figure out how they are all connected. All of the characters seem to be searching for something -- Ryan for a relationship with his father, Lucy for someone she can connect with, Miles for his missing brother.

I must admit, English major though I was in another life, I am a bit puzzled as to all the references in the novel to water (or lack thereof). The hotel where Lucy and George end up is deserted because the lake that used to attract all the tourists had long ago dried up. A swimming pool at a second hotel later visited by the couple is similarly dry. Then there is reference to many of the characters drowning -- although these accounts are all misunderstandings, misdirections and outright lies. Very strange.

All in all, the book provided enough twists and turns to keep the reader involved and guessing until the end. I'll be interested to see if this is made into a film. I'm sure it would be a hit in the right hands!

Final Verdict for Await Your Reply: Four Gherkins, for being an engaging and surprising book that lives up to the hype!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A young wife and mother, Sandra Jones, disappears and there are no shortage of suspects in Lisa Gardner's novel The Neighbor. I had read good reviews of this book and been thrilled when I finally reached the top of the holds list at the library. Of course, by the time I'd finally been able to check it out, I'd forgotten what it was all about.

I listened to the audio book version and it was read by several narrators, with each major character having his or her own voice. Sandra and her husband Jason Jones are a secretive young couple with a four year old daughter. Sandra works days as a teacher, and Jason works evenings as a reporter so that one of them is always at home with their daughter. One evening Jason returns home from work and finds his wife gone and the daughter home alone. The police become involved and discover many strange things about the couple -- such as the fact that although they live modestly, the Jones family has several million dollars in the bank. Sandra and Jason Jones also seem to have just appeared about 5 years previously, with no information about them going back farther than that.

Naturally, Jason becomes the prime suspect in his wife's disappearance, but luckily for him, there are other suspects -- the register sex offender who lives just down the street, the teen aged boy helping Sandra with computer problems, the teenager's uncle who works as a computer expert for the state police, and Sandra's estranged father. The main problem with this book is that once Sandra disappears, the four main suspects spend an awful lot of time going round and round on why each of the other three suspects must be guilty. There is a lot of action packed in to the resolution at the end, but at least 85% of the book is repetitive filler. We also get a "mystery" of just what in the world Jason was doing on the family computer, but by the time we get the answer, we've long since lost any interest.

None of the characters were particularly likable, so that probably contributed to my lack of interest in the proceedings. This book was OK, but too much time was wasted on trying to make the reader believe that one or the other of the main suspects was the culprit. We could work that out for ourselves, without having it replayed for us from each character's perspective. Frequently.

Final Verdict for The Neighbor: One Gherkin, for being a promising story, but wasting too much time going over familiar ground

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

As usual, I had all sorts of grandiose plans for how I would spend the Christmas vacation from work. The stack of books beside my bed was enormous, I had plenty of British DVDs that I had been "saving for a special occasion" and I just knew I was going to make some extreme progress in working my way through the backlog. Naturally, not much was accomplished. The culprit in this lack of productivity was not yours truly, but rather Stephen King! Yes, I'll admit I was swayed by all the glowing reviews his new behemoth of a novel, Under the Dome, has been receiving, so I decided that I simply must read it.

Well . . . first of all, let's just say a word about the HEFT of the thing, shall we? It's totally unnecessary for a dedicated reader such as myself to risk injury to various facial features merely by attempting to hoist an over-sized book above my head in my favorite reclining reading position. Especially when said book has plenty of blank and/or nearly blank pages included. Ahem. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the book meant that I was pretty well occupied for the reading times I had available during the break.

On to the story. As I'm sure everyone has heard, the novel concerns the town of Chester's Mill, Maine, which is suddenly and inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world when an invisible dome descends. As several planes and cars crash into the dome, the plight of the town is soon brought to the attention of the media and the military, but no one seems to have any ideas on what can be causing the problem.

Conflicts among the people of the town are really the true story of the book. Unfortunately, the "bad" folks are identified pretty quickly, and there's a dark cloud hanging over the story as you wait for them to to do something to the "good" guys (who naturally have some previous history with the baddies in pre-dome days). There were some pretty amusing and thinly veiled references to some recent politicians sprinkled throughout the book.

As usual with Stephen King's books, the actual story is very engaging and the characters are interesting. The only downside with the book (aside from the heavy-handed baddies and the aforementioned weight of the thing) was the ending. I must admit, I was wondering what the explanation and resolution was going to be, and I was sadly disappointed. Really? That's the best you could come up with after all that? It was really beyond silly. But, I guess that's the chance you take when you suspend disbelief with Uncle Stevie -- sometimes you're rewarded (The Mist or any short stories), sometimes you end up with strained eyes (from rolling them back in your head too frequently) and carpal tunnel from lifting the books. This was the latter, sadly.

Oh well, I'm sure that won't deter me from reading/listening to his next effort! And maybe the movie will be better.

Final Verdict for Under the Dome: Two Gherkins, for a promising start, but an overall disappointing outing from the King of Horror

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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My LibraryThing Library

The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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