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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I'm Reading: Stieg Larsson

When The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (herein TGWTDT) first came out and everyone was telling me how much they loved it, I got my name on the hold list. When the book came and I started reading, I realized that the names of the characters and places, being Swedish words, were too distracting to me, but I also was pretty sure I would love it. I just couldn't love it while struggling to pronounce things. So, I solved the problem by ordering the audio. While I was at it, I placed a hold on the (as of then) yet to be released The Girl Who Played With Fire (herein TGWPWF).

Since I take the discs and upload them into iTunes (where I delete them after 1 listen, thus breaking no copyright laws), I waited to listen to TGWTDT until TGWPWF came out. Now I have just listened to them back-to-back. Although I loved them both, these are dark, violent, and twisted books. Listening to them (or even reading them) back-to-back takes a strong constitution. Even I, queen of dark books, thought I might need a break halfway through TGWPWF. But I continued and now I am desperately awaiting the third book. I have to know what happens next!!!

I don't want to give away too much of the plots, but here are the key details. Our two main protagonists are Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist and Lisbeth Salander, a loner outcast, who may have Asperger syndrome, and is one of the world's best computer hackers. TGWTDT tells their stories in tandem until the two meet up to solve a decades old mystery involving a missing relative of a famous and rich industrialist. TGWTDT focuses much more on Blomkvist which TGWPWF is focused on Lisbeth. The first book leaves some plot threads up in the air (although the mystery itself is resolved), but they are picked up and resolved satisfactorily by the end of TGWPWF.

In both books there are very dangerous and evil people, doing very bad things, sometimes to our heroes. I cannot stress enough how dark and graphically violent these books are. But the plotting is so original and the characters so compelling that I could not put them down.

BTW, Lisbeth is the girl referred to in each book, so now I am wondering about her kicking a hornet's nest...

Appeal: These books are intricately and cunningly plotted, with extremely sympathetic series characters. The two main characters are very flawed individuals, but we, the reader, love them despite their quirks and issues. Readers will love following a subplot into the next book. This series must be read in order. Intriguing and detailed secondary characters are introduced and given a chance to tell the story from their point of view. Like all good suspense novels, we get the villain's point of view, so we know more than the protagonists. This adds to the suspense. We know how bad the danger is before they do. Both books resolve the main mystery but leave other secondary story lines and issues totally open. This is not a problem because there is another book; however, Larsson conceived this as a 10 book series and he died only completing 3. After The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest comes out next year, we may all be left up in the air. The thought already worries me.

Red Flags: Lots of violence against women, hero and heroine in grave peril, and graphic depictions of sex and rape. Violence and gore throughout.

Readalikes: Larsson's series is a wonderful example of the extremely popular category of Scandinavian suspense and mysteries. All are marked by a dark atmosphere and graphic violence. So why do people like them so much? I think it is because the most successful of these titles have compelling stories with satisfying twists AND great characters. Lisbeth and Mikael are not stereotypical in any way. They feel real; they have depth which one does not often find in suspense and mystery.

Other Scandiavian authors I would suggest if you like Larsson's books are Asa Larsson, Henning Mankell, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir (I am cheating, this is Iceland), all of whom are well represented on American library shelves.

As I was reading both books, I kept thinking about Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie suspense books too. Atkinson's books are not anywhere near as graphic, but they are on the darker side and Jackson is often described as the champion of lost and voiceless girls, which reminded me of Lisbeth and Mikael. Atkinson is also great at carefully and cunningly plotting her books so that details from earlier come out to mean quite a bit later on; just like in Larsson's books. Specifically, When Will There Be Good News would be a great readalike here. It is the third in the series, but the best and most like Stieg Larsson. You can easily pick up the series there.

Finally, Irish author Tana French's In the Woods and The Likeness are dark and original suspense stories with a man/woman team. And like Larsson and Atkinson, French's novels have won lots of awards.

Nonfiction options, obviously books about Sweden and Stockholm. But also books about Asperger syndrome, computer hacking, and investigative journalism may also be of interest.

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