Sunday, 30 September 2012

Swedish suspense saga

Swedish author Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). Translated into English in 2008, the book and its sequels have been on the bestseller lists practically ever since and have been translated into two film franchises. 

By now, the story is well known. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist loses a libel case after a story he published in his magazine Millenium. With his reputation in ruins, Blomkvist accepts a job offer from retired businessman Henrik Vanger to conduct an investigation into the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, who has not been seen for over 36 years. Working out of a guest house on the Vanger's island estate, Blomkvist hires a research assistant: goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. She is the girl with the dragon tattoo. Together they delve into the mystery, uncovering dark Vanger family secrets.  

Lisbeth is an unlikely heroine. She is antisocial with a disturbing past, but she is so intriguing because her character is full of contrasts: strong yet vulnerable, brilliant yet damaged. You can't help but care for her and want to learn more about how she became who she is.  

The story is intelligent with many strands building to an exciting climax. The relationships are complex,  and there are many characters to keep track of.  There is also a darkness to the book, and it doesn't shy away from unspeakable acts of violence against women. While the mystery takes a while to get going, around the half-way point the suspense becomes page-turning. Immediately upon finishing this book I commenced the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire, as I wanted to spend more time with Lisbeth and see what happened next.

With regard to the films, I have seen both the Swedish film (2009) and the American version (2011). While each was admirable for different reasons, ultimately I prefer the Swedish version more.

The Swedish film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, features Michael Nyqvist as Blomqvist and Noomi Rapace as Salander. It is filmed in the bleak, snowy Sweden where you can really feel the cold as you watch. It is gritty and the scenes of violence are frighteningly realistic. Rapace in particular was an extraordinary find. She completely inhabits the character and is so convincing in her portrayal that she is Salander for me. I have since seen other films with Rapace and she has shed Salander entirely and proven herself to be an incredibly talented actress.

When I heard they were making an American version of the film I was disappointed as I thought the Swedish one was fantastic and it seemed a bit too soon to rehash the same tale. I figured they would Americanise it, so I was surprised when it was set in Sweden and tried to be as faithful to the book as possible.

Daniel Craig plays Blomqvist and Rooney Mara is Salander. It is directed by one of my favourite filmmakers,  David Fincher. So with the combination of an excellent cast and an amazing director I had high hopes for this film. While I thought it was good, I didn't think it was great.  I think there is difficulty in watching it after having seen the first film and read the book, because the story line is so familiar. Perhaps Fincher needed to make a few changes so it wasn't quite so faithful to the original and gave the audience a bit of a surprise. His visual style was definitely there (especially in the amazing title sequence with the brilliant cover of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song"). But the result is a bit too conventional, missing the edge that I had hoped Fincher would provide. 

My reviews of the The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest  also appear on this blog.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Bring out your best

Strengths Finder 2.0 (2007) was written by leading business author Tom Rath, a consultant at Gallup. Used in conjunction with an online self-assessment tool, Strengths Finder 2.0 provides a report highlighting individual talents and how to work best with them.

The first part of the book explains why it is important to know your strengths, and what you can do to build on the strengths that you have identified. Once you have read that section, you go online and complete the assessment tool using the unique access code in the book. This will provide you with a personalised report detailing your top five strengths. You then return to the book and read the second part which explains each of the 34 identified strengths, ideas for action and what to do if you are working with someone who has that particular strength.

I followed this path and was impressed with the report I received on my strengths. I feel it was really accurate and reflects who I am and how I work. According to Strengths Finder 2.0, I am Strategic, Learner, Intellection, Context and Arranger. Yup, that's definitely me; a reassurance of my abilities to self-assess. Referring back to the book, the ideas for action provide little fortune cookies of wisdom that will help me to build on my strengths. Reading about other strengths also provides insight into other people who have different strengths to my own.

With regard to the assessment, it is a shame that you cannot go back and take the test again - to see if you change over time and to test the validity of the initial assessment. It was also a bit disappointing that you only get to know your top five strengths. I would have found it more useful if the report provided me with a list of all my strengths in order, so I could know what my other strengths are (and are not) - even though this is contrary to the author's point of focusing on your core strengths.

The whole process - to read the introductory section and take the assessment - only took an about an hour, but the report provided to me I will be pondering for some time to come. This is not a book for everyone, but for those who are introspective and want to better understand what they are good at, Strengths Finder 2.0 is a worthwhile investment.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Crazy confectionary

I have been reading a lot of diverse books lately - epic novels like A Game of Thrones, introspective business books like Strengths Finder 2.0, labyrinthine literature like The Blind Assassin, and thoughtful essays in Hitchens' Arguably. Each has been so enjoyable - the reading equivalent of an eight course dinner of complex flavours and textures. Yesterday I went looking for dessert - something light and fluffy - and Explosive Eighteen (2011) by Janet Evanovich fit the bill perfectly.

Explosive Eighteen is the latest in a long line of novels about inept bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Stephanie has returned home from a nightmare trip to Hawaii that she does not want to talk about. The guy seated next to her on the plane is now dead and there's a mysterious photo in her bag that she knows nothing about. After throwing it away, Stephanie discovers there is a lot of interest in the photo with the FBI, gangsters and the dead guy's widow knocking on her door to acquire it.

Besides the photo, Stephanie has other things to deal with. She has a line of skips to collect, including her nemesis Joyce Barndhart. Morelli isn't happy with her, Grandma Mazur is urging Steph to drink love potions, Ranger is continually coming to her rescue, and Lula is single-handedly keeping the Trenton fast-food industry afloat.

The title is a misnomer, as there is nothing explosive here. Just more of the same craziness in a lightweight read that requires absolutely no thought. Explosive Eighteen has moments of humour and served as a perfect diversion from the other things in my reading pile. It is quick and easy and, if you don't expect anything more, you won't be disappointed.

As I said in my review of other Plum novels, the series has been hit-and-miss. Some books have been excellent while others have really missed the mark. The formula is always the same: a fairly lame overarching storyline; a comedy of errors in trying to haul in bizarre bail jumpers; witty banter and screwball clumsiness; and, the never-ending love triangle of Plum/Morelli/Ranger.

For me, the biggest problem with the series is that the characters have never really evolved. It has been 18 years since One for the Money (1994) and Evanovich has brought out a new Plum novel every year since then. I know I have aged in that time, but Stephanie hasn't. She hasn't gained skills in her years as a bounty hunter and there is only so many times she can blow up her car before it gets old. I think it is time for Steph to grow up, make decisions about her life, and for the series to take on another dimension.

Notorious Nineteen (2012) is due out in November. I doubt that Janet Evanovich would have heard her critics and altered her formula. Will I read the next one? Of course. Will it frustrate me? Probably. But I know that Evanovich will at least provide me with an entertaining diversion for a few hours, and so it will be worth the investment of my time and money.

My review of Smokin' Seventeen is also available on this blog.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Pact

In 1998 a slim satirical novel by Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize for fiction.

Amsterdam (1998) tells the story of Clive Linley, a renowned composer, Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Julian Garmony, the British Foreign Secretary who seeks to become Prime Minister. They meet at the funeral of Molly Lane, a woman who had been the lover of all three. The men are self-absorbed, ambitious and selfish, and Molly's death causes them think about their own mortality.  Vernon and Clive enter a pact to ensure they die with dignity should either be faced with a debilitating illness. They later have a falling out which leads to tragic consequences.

This novella showcases McEwan's writing talents and his ability to compress complex themes into a tight space. Here we explore friendship, grief, ambition, greed, morality and ethical decision making. His portrait of these unsympathetic men leaves the reader wanting more and filling in the gaps with their imagination. There is depth in his prose and his characters are interesting, albeit unlikable. There is a great twist in this satirical tale. While not as good as Enduring Love (1997) or Atonement (2001), McEwan's Amsterdam is a delight that can be enjoyed in one sitting.

My review of Atonement is also available on this blog.

Monday, 3 September 2012

An unexpected adventure

I first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) when I was a child and my father would read me chapters of the book in instalments. I was thrilled by this tale of dwarves, hobbits, dragons and elves and the fantasy world of Middle Earth. 

As the first of Peter Jackson's films of this novel is due out later this year I thought it was time to revisit this book and see whether it would still hold my childhood sense of wonder.

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit - a creature who delights in good food and drink and making merry and staying within the confines of his community of the Shire. His wizard friend Gandalf arranges for Bilbo to partake on an adventure with a group of dwarves lead by Thorin Oakenshield. The dwarves are seeking to regain their treasure stolen by the dreaded dragon Smaug. Gandalf has assured the skeptical dwarves that Bilbo is a burglar and will be of great assistance in their quest. 

Bilbo would much rather be home and he reluctantly travels with the group through mines, forests and tunnels towards the Lonely Mountain to meet with Smaug. Along the way they battle goblins, wargs and giant spiders. Bilbo becomes separated from the group,  encounters Gollum and finds himself in possession of a most precious and powerful ring.

My memories of the book were of the battles and adventure. Reading this book again as an adult allowed me an opportunity to see more of the evolution of Bilbo from reluctant participant to unlikely hero. As he finds himself alone, he must draw on his strengths and become resilient. He finds creative solutions to problems, takes a leadership role because he has to and, in doing so, earns the respect and admiration of those around him.

Of course this is a children's book and as such some of the parts I enjoyed as a child (like the dwarves' songs) I did not enjoy so much this time around as I was eager for the story to move on to the action. 

As I read I kept trying to imagine how this would translate into film and, while I have no doubt about Jackson's genius (the Lord of the Rings films were brilliant), I am not sure how he will stretch this novel into three films. But I cannot wait to see them all and experience The Hobbit all over again.