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The Picture of Dorian Gray (Penguin Popular Classics)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Penguin Popular Classics)
by Oscar Wilde
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book., 22 Mar. 2011
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. He was a poet, playwright and author, though is perhaps a little more widely known for his wit. He studied at both Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford's Magdalen College - where he became a part of the Aesthetic Movement. At Trinity, he won the Berkeley Gold Medal while at Magdalene, he won the Newdigate Prize in 1878. He subsequently graduated from Magdalene with a double first - however, he failed to be elected to the Oxford Union, which is something I'd imagine they're very embarrassed about now. After a very colourful - though, at times, difficult - life, he died in 1900 and is buried in Pere Lachaise in Paris. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is Wilde's only novel, and was first published in 1891.

Basil Hallward is a highly-regarded and well-known artist. As the book opens, he has just completed his latest portrait - one of his latest muse, a young gentleman called Dorian Gray. Hallward's friend, Lord Henry Wotton, thinks it's the finest work completed by Hallward and suggests it should be exhibited in the Grosvenor - Hallward, however, disagrees. He feels he has put too much of himself into the portrait, insisting it would reveal more of the painter than the subject. Basil has become obsessed with Gray : he sees him daily, and describes his presence as "absolutely necessary". Wotton naturally becomes intrigued, and is keen to meet Gray. Basil, on the other hand, wants to keep them apart - knowing Henry would be the worst possible influence. Unfortunately, Gray calls round unexpectedly and he has to introduce them...

Basil's fears were well founded. By the end of their first conversation, Dorian is completely in Henry's thrall and is convinced that his youth and beauty will only gradually fail - leaving him with nothing of value. He offers his soul, if his looks remain as they are, while his portrait ages in his place. Under Henry's guidance, Dorian dedicates to the "new Hedonism" - and, in time, he notices the portarit not only ages but becomes more hideous with each sin.

I found it difficult to see exactly how Basil and Henry came to be friends. Apart from a little pretentiousness and plenty of flouncing - especially in the book's early pages - they appeared to have nothing in common. I did find it a little difficult to take Henry seriously, though - luckily, for the book - Dorian proves to be as impressionable as he is vain. He is dominated by Henry's malign influence and - despite occasionally considering returning to the straight and narrow via Basil - generally remains happy to follow the path Henry set out for him. A book that gets better as it goes along, as it starts to deal with Dorian's internal struggles - and is certainly much better than some other classics I've read.

Angel-A [DVD] [2006]
Angel-A [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Rie Rasmussen
Price: £6.88

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Send Me An Angel, 22 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Angel-A [DVD] [2006] (DVD)
Directed by Luc Besson, Angel-A was first released in 2005. It's a French romcom (not quite what most would expect from Besson) and stars Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen in the two lead roles.

André is 28 years old and badly down on his luck. Although his working practices have been a little shady in the past, he's trying to make an honest fist of things and - following a recent trip abroad - is sure that his big break is just around the corner. However, given that he owes an absolute fortune to nearly every crook, villain and gangster in Paris, he mightn't live to see the good times. Having sought help and protection from both the police - who wouldn't lock him up for a few days - and the US Embassy - although of North African descent, he holds a green card - he's left alone and desperate. Eventually, he gives up and decides to throw himself off a bridge and into the Seine...and, just as he's about to jump, he notices Angela to his left. In fairness, Angela is very distracting : she's a tall, very leggy and exceptionally beautiful blonde...and the dress she's wearing only just keeps everything covered. Although he pleads with her not to jump, she won't listen...and so, rather than ending his own life, André finds himself jumping in and saving Angela's. The pair get talking on the banks of the river and, by way of thanks, Angela dedicates herself to helping André. Miraculously, with Angela on his side, things start looking up very, very quickly...

It is subtitled (which may put some people off) and it mightn't appeal to the very innocent, but I loved it. There is a real `feel-good' element to the movie and there is a pretty obvious comparison to "It's a Wonderful Life". Some of the better known locations of Paris are used as the story's backdrop - the Seine and its bridges, the bateaux mouche and the Eiffel Tower - and it's very stylishly shot in black and white. A film I'd have no hesitation in recommending.

Pan's Labyrinth [DVD] [2006]
Pan's Labyrinth [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Ivana Baquero
Offered by FREETIME
Price: £3.80

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I believed in a lot of things I don't believe anymore., 22 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Pan's Labyrinth [DVD] [2006] (DVD)
"Pan's Labyrinth" was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, and made its debut at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It has been very highly regarded since its release, and the awards it has won include three Oscars and three BAFTAs

"Pan's Labyrinth" opens in 1944, and is set in Spain. Five years have passed since the Spanish Civil War "officially" finished, although there is still a Resistance fighting against the Franco's Falangists. As part of the state's solution, military outposts have been established to deal with the "problem." The film's main character is Ofelia, a young girl who is devoted to reading. As the film opens, she is travelling with her heavily pregnant mother to at one of these military outposts. Captain Vidal, the outpost's commanding officer, is Ofelia's stepfather and the outpost will become her new home. Vidal is as cruel, vindictive and selfish as you'd expect from a Fascist and Ofelia (unsurprisingly) grows to hate him. With her mother desperate to please him and provide a `safe' home, Ofelia's only real ally is Mercedes, the housekeeper. Mercedes, however, is anything but a collaborator : her brother is in the Maquis, and she helps them in any way she can.

Luckily, there is the chance of an escape. A long time ago in a wonderful underground kingdom, a young princess dreamt of blue skies and bright sunshine. One day, she managed to escape her guardians and found a way to the human world "up above". Unfortunately, the brightness of the sun blinded her and wiped her memory. She suffered pain and sickness and, in time, she died. Her father, however, knew her soul would return at another time and in another place and he would wait for her return. When Ofelia follows a fairy into the labyrinth close to her new home, she meets a faun...who tells her she is the princess returned. Unfortunately, she must first complete three tasks before she's allowed to return to her former home. However, from the film's opening scene, you know things are not going to be easy for Ofelia.

Despite the fairytales and mythical creatures, I wouldn't really say "Pan's Labyrinth" it a movie for children - it is quite dark and a couple of scenes are really very unpleasant. In fact, despite the fantasy element, the film's biggest monster is Vidal : poisonous, nasty, vicious and brutal, he barely tolerates Ofelia and views her mother as little more than a walking womb. Mercedes, on the other hand, is everything Vidal isn't - protective, honourable, loving and kind. However, it is an excellent movie overall and - so long as you don't mind subtitles - is totally recommended.

Ring for Jeeves: (Jeeves & Wooster)
Ring for Jeeves: (Jeeves & Wooster)
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I dabbled in it to a certain extent, m'lord., 22 Mar. 2011
"Ring for Jeeves" was first published in 1953 in the UK, though was first published in the US under the name "The Return of Jeeves". However, unusually for a Jeeves book, Bertie Wooster is absent. (The Second World War has been and gone, and the effects haven't been good for the aristocracy. The peasants are revolting, and many of the upper classes have actually had to start working for a living. Bertie's back at school, being taught how to fend for himself - just in case the proletariat become even more troublesome. Luckily, it's just a precaution, as his finances remain quite sound. In the meantime. Jeeves is on temporary assignment as the butler of Rowcester Abbey).

However, it's a while before either Jeeves or his new employer - Bill Belfry, the ninth Earl of Rowcester - make an appearance. Instead, the book opens at the Goose and Gherkin, where Rosalinda "Rosie" Spottsworth is taking a break from her journey to the Abbey. Having out-lasted two exceptionally rich husbands, she's now exceptionally rich herself...and Bill's sister, Monica, has nearly convinced her to buy the stately home. (The pair had met in New York, though Bill hasn't quite been informed yet. However, he isn't remotely upset with the news - given that he is a member of the "new" aristocracy, he is very strapped for cash).

Quite by chance, Rosie is soon joined by an old friend - Captain Biggar, the legendary big-game hunter. (Mr Spottsworth had been on a hunting expedition with the Captain when Rosie went from being Mrs Spottsworth to the Widow Spottsworth). Although more used to chasing down lions and rhinos, the Captain is again on the hunt - having backed an unlikely double at Epsom, he was due to collect about £3000 from his bookie. Unfortunately, the bookie in question - Honest Patch Perkins - and his clerk ran off without paying up. All the same, Biggar he knows he's on the right track - although his car has broken down, he's tailed them this far...and it's only a matter of time before he picks up the scent again. Unfortunately, Honest Patch Perkins is really a thinly-disguised (and totally broke) Bill...while his clerk was none other than Jeeves.

Naturally, there are also major problems for the characters' romances. Biggar and the Widow Spottsworth have their sights set on one another, but the Great Hunter is being badly hampered by his code of honour. (He won't feel worthy of the Rosie until he has a fortune of his own...which makes him even more determined to get his hands on his winnings). In a typically Wodehousian twist, things are further complicated by Rosie's previous form with Bill - the pair had, briefly, taken moonlit strolls along the seafront in Cannes. (She was between husbands at the time). Poor Bill has to lay it on thick with Rosie, in an attempt to smooth the sale of the Abbey...which causes his fiancée, Jill, no end of anguish and sparks waves of jealousy and contempt from Biggar. Jeeves' difficulties are compounded by Monica's husband, Rory Carmoyle - the sort of character you can rely on to say the worst possible thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the worst possible person.

A little strange, for a Jeeves book - I'm used to Bertie telling the story, getting everything wrong and then being used as the book's fall guy. Jeeves plays a smaller role than normal too, though - luckily - his superior mental powers remain impressive. Still, an enjoyable and funny book can always rely on Plum.

The Père-Lachaise Mystery: The Victor Legris Mysteries 2: A Victor Legris Mystery
The Père-Lachaise Mystery: The Victor Legris Mysteries 2: A Victor Legris Mystery
by Claude Izner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Death to Grouchy !, 21 Mar. 2011
Claude Izner is the pen-name of two sisters, Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre. Both are booksellers on the banks of the Seine, and they are experts on nineteenth-century Paris. "The Père Lachaise Mystery" is their second book, was first published in 2003 as "La disparue du Père-Lachaise" in France. (By the looks of things, it has also been published in English as "The Disappearance at Père-Lachaise"). It sees a return for Victor Legris, the hero of "Murder on the Eiffel Tower."

The book opens late 1889, with a brief prologue in Columbia - with the last moments of a man, who will probably be identified as Armand de Valois. (His colleague, who seems quite healthy, is planning a rapid return to France). Armand was the husband of Odette, Victor's ex-lover - and, when the book switches to Paris some four months later, she is every inch the grieving widow. (In truth, with her apartment's new `look', she has taken it a little too far). Armand had been working in Columbia on the construction of the Panama Canal and, officially, he died of yellow fever. Oddly, the dying man in the book's prologue had been shot in the back.

Odette makes her first appearance on her way to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, to visit her husband's memorial. She'd travelled there with her maid Denise, who's a little skittish about being in the graveyard after dark - but Odette, more or less, laughs at her fears, and tells her to wait near the gate. Unfortunately, Odette should have been a little more careful...she's attacked at the de Valois family plot, and robbed of a painting she'd brought along for her husband. (On her medium's advice, she'd brought 'The Madonna in Blue' along to Père-Lachaise...well, at least, she thought she had).

Odette doesn't make it home, and Denise becomes more and more frightened. Eventually she goes to see Victor - Denise, originally from Brittany, doesn't know anyone else in Paris. She tells Victor what's happened, though initially he's not too bothered - he's assumes that Odette's just devoting herself to some new lover. (He's a little more concerned with his new girlfriend Tasha - who he hasn't seen in two weeks, after an argument). However, he agrees to help Denise out...but primarily because he sees a way of manoeuvring Tasha out of her apartment and into his.

Unknown to Denise and Victor, Odette didn't actually survive her attack...her body was dumped on a cart belonging to Père Moscou, a tramp who spends a lot of time at the cemetery. Moscou is old and confused, and his memory problems are compounded by his fondness for a drink. When he unloads his cart the next day, he has no idea who Odette is or where she came from...though he's pretty sure he didn't kill her. Panicking, he buries her close to where he lives, in the ruins of the Palais d'Orsay. Later - wondering if it all really happened - he can't find where he buried her.

An easy and enjoyable read, and a book that seems to give a historically 'accurate' description of Paris at the time. (There are a few notes at the end of the book, giving a little detail on some of the names and places mentioned - the Palais d'Orsay, for example, has since become the Musée d'Orsay). Having said that, it never gets too academic or bogged down in detail. Good fun, certainly recommended.

by Marjane Satrapi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The struggle goes on., 21 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Persepolis (Paperback)
"Persepolis" is a graphic novel, originally published in four parts in France. It formed the basis for an animated film that was first released in 2007. It won the Jury Prize at that year's Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature. Rather unusually for a graphic novel, it tells the story of Satrapi's own life.

Marji was an ordinary 10-year old when the Revolution took place in 1979. She was very religious, and desperately wanted to be the last prophet...but she also idolized Bruce Lee and occasionally pretended to be Che Guevara. Naturally, she understood little of the "adult world" - Marji liked the Shah, and believed her teachers when they said he'd been appointed by God. Her parents, with good reason, detested the Shah and soon explained the truth to her. The current Shah inherited his position from his father - who, in turn, had been appointed by the British, rather than God. Furthermore, her Grandfather (a prince, no less) and her Uncle Anoosh had been imprisoned by one Shah or another and both had been devoted Communists - viewed by both Shahs as something evil. Both Marji's parents had been involved in protests against the Shah's regime, though they'd managed to stay out of prison.

With the fall of the Shah, life is - for a short spell - like a dream. Old family friends - like Moshen and Siamak, who had been routinely tortured - and Marji's Uncle Anoosh are released from prison. Like Marji's parents, both are hopeful of a better society. Marji had known nothing of her Uncle before his release from prison but, before long, the pair are devoted to each other. Unfortunately, their hopes prove unfounded. Islamic Fundamentalists win the following elections, and society becomes even more oppressive. Many of the Shah's former enemies - including Anoosh - are hunted down and returned to prison. Moshen, meanwhile, is found dead in his bath...though since only his head was underwater, it was obvious he was murdered. Although some (like Siamak) flee, Marji and her family stay put. War with Iraq sees the authorities calling for martyrs, with our young heroine becoming increasingly disillusioned. As time goes on, though, it becomes increasingly obvious that Marji won't be able to say nothing and keep her head down. As a result, her parents decide to send her to Austria to continue her education. While the move solves some problems, it opens the door to many more...and for many years, leaves Marji trapped between two worlds and unsure where she belongs.

Being a graphic novel, it's not your typical autobiography. There is a brief introduction - using standard prose rather than pictures - where Satrapi tries to explain her reasons for writing this book. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she says, Iran "has been discussed mostly connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran I know that this image is far from the truth." Marji proved to be a very likeable character, someone you wanted to see things go right for...though somehow you knew things wouldn't be easy. She and her family did have a tricky life in Iran. Her difficulties with social classes, religious regimes, wars and rivalries set her apart- and the suffering of her family, friends and neighbours under two repressive regimes shouldn't be glossed over. (These regimes weren't entirely "their" fault either - there was a certain amount of sneaky Western interference). Her life in Austria - a democratic, western country - wasn't pleasant either. There, she was always the outsider, someone set apart - with things sometimes descending to blatant racism. Nevertheless, it's a book that's definitely recommended.

Service of All the Dead (Pan crime)
Service of All the Dead (Pan crime)
by Colin Dexter
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can you keep a secret, Inspector ?, 21 Mar. 2011
Colin Dexter was born in 1930 and, over the course of his writing career, has won CWA Gold Dagger and Silver Dagger awards. "Service of All the Dead" was first published in 1979 and is the fourth book to feature the famous Inspector Morse.

Morse's investigation centres on St Frideswide's Church, a historic church that proves popular with the tourists. It's a while before Morse makes his first appearance, with the early part of the book setting the scene and introducing the key players. The Reverend Lionel Lawson has been the church's vicar for around ten years, and is well educated - and pretty well-off - individual. There has been some speculation about the Vicar's personal life - some believe that one of Oxford's down-and-outs in his brother, while others gossip about his alleged sexual preferences. However, he does have a very healthy bank balance...although he has suspected for a while that someone has been helping themselves to the collection plate. When the book opens, he knows his suspicions are correct - and that the pilferer is Harry Josephs, the church's Warden.

Harry is an ex-soldier who joined the Civil Service after he left the forces. He'd been made redundant two years previously, and has since only briefly worked in a pharmacy. (His redundancy is something he's still a little bitter about). Harry's wife, Brenda, works as a nurse and he suspects - correctly - that she's having an affair with Paul Morris, the church's organist and a music teacher. Morris is a widower, and his son, Peter, sings in the church choir. He and Brenda have only been "together" for around three months, but he'd be very keen for Harry to conveniently disappear. (In fairness, Harry isn't exactly the innocent and wounded husband - he's been playing away from home with the church's cleaner, Ruth Rawlinson).

The book's opening section concludes in August, with the Rev. Lawson calling on Paul Morris; it then picks up again with Morse, the following April. In between times there have been two deaths at the church : Harry is dead, stabbed in the vestry and the Vicar subsequently threw himself to his death from the church's tower. Paul and Peter Morris have both left Oxford - very abruptly - and, oddly enough, so has Brenda Josephs. Despite being officially on holiday - never mind the fact that it was never his case to begin with - Morse starts poking about...

For me, this instalment is definitely better than the three previous books in the series : it has an interesting storylone and Dexter's writing has improved dramatically from "Last Bus to Woodstock". Morse's main hobbies remain drinking beer, listening to classical music and leering over the ladies - however, despite his occasional grumpiness, there's still something quite likeable about him. A quick and easy read overall.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
by Michael Gates Gill
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It is tragic but not serious., 21 Mar. 2011
From the moment he was born, Michael Gates Gill led a privileged life. His parents were well-off, and nothing was too expensive for their son. He studied at Yale and, upon his graduation, walked straight into a job with a major advertising firm. He worked hard with the firm, doing everything he could for the company and his clients - he earned well, but often allowed his family life to suffer. Naturally, after twenty-five dedicated years with the company, he was fired - to make matters worse, the person doing the firing was one of his own protégés. Gill spent the following ten years working as a consultant, though - in time - less and less work comes his way. As the book opens, Gill hasn't worked in months and he's sitting in a Starbucks near his childhood home, nursing a latte. In a massive stroke of luck, that branch of Starbucks is throwing an open house - meaning they're looking to recruit baristas. Gill is, in time, employed by Crystal - the lady who initially approaches him.

Our fallen hero is delighted with the additional benefits - particularly the health insurance, given that he's just discovered he has a small brain tumour. Furthermore, for a small additional fee, they'll also cover his five children. (Unfortunately, the fifth came was the result of a little extra-curricular activity with Susan, a woman he met after he was fired. Gill was suffering a little, performance-wise, in the marital bed at the time and Susan thoughtfully provided an outlet. The marital bed subsequently became less of a problem after his wife divorced him and got the marital home. That saw our hero moving into a small apartment in Bronxville). With everything looking pretty rotten all round, things amazingly start looking up with Starbucks.

This is a book I thought I would like...but it didn't quite live up to what I'd expected. Based on the back of the book, I'd expected the focus to have been on Gill's journey AFTER he'd started working with Starbucks - and with Crystal playing a large supporting role. That didn't quite happen. He constantly returned to his former life throughout the book - recalling how he used to look down on the less "worthy" and dropping so many names it became increasingly difficult to take him seriously. (WH Auden, EB White, Ernest Hemingway, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackie Kennedy and even the Queen of England are among those who pop up in his stories about "people I've met"). When he DID talk about Starbucks...well, the focus was just wrong. Too often, it was like he'd returned to his former life as an advertising executive : the book seemed like an attempt to "sell" Starbucks as a wonderful place to work and to visit as a customer. He constantly referred to the company's provision of health insurance...what I found very odd was his reluctance to use it. (The guy DID have a brain tumor, after all). The relationship he developed with Crystal - which I'd expected to be central to the book - proved to be relatively minor. (In fact, I felt that Kester - a fellow partner - contributed as much as Crystal). It's a pity he didn't get someone to ghostwrite the book for him : handled properly, it could have been worth reading.

The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Punching the Fluffy Black Ogre, 6 Dec. 2010
This review is from: The White Tiger (Paperback)
Aravind Adiga was born in Madras in 1974. Although he has written for Time Magazine, and has had articles printed in the Independent and the Sunday Times, "The White Tiger" is his debut novel. Impressively for a debut, it won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

The book takes the form of a letter - dictated by Balram Halwai over seven nights, and intended for the desk of China's Premier, Wen Jiabao. Premier Jiabao, apparently, wants to discover the truth about Bangalore and meet some genuine Indian entrepreneurs. As Balram believes he ticks both boxes, he figures he can help the Premier out. However, since his firm won't figure on the politicians' lists, he decides to contact the Premier's office directly. His plan is simple : by telling the Premier his own life story, the Premier will learn the truth about Bangalore. While he admits to being somewhat lacking in his education, he seems convinced that his methods are the way forward and believes the 21st Century will be the Century of the Yellow and the Brown Man.

Balram's life hasn't been entirely easy : he was born into poverty, in Laxmangarh - a one street village with no sanitation, no electricity, broken water taps and where the most important family member was the water buffalo. People from the lowest classes are expected to serve their masters with absolute devotion and loyalty and, in return, are abused and blamed. Corruption and bribery are widespread, with (naturally) only the rich and the powerful benefitting. Laxmangarh had four exceptionally rich landlords : the Stork, the Buffalo, the Raven and the Wild Boar - and they taxed the villagers according to their livelihoods. Balram's father, Vickram, was a rickshaw driver and he had to pay the Buffalo for using the roads. However, it's the Stork's family who have the greatest impact on Balram's life.

Balram has had several names over his lifetime. He was originally called "Munna" at home, but - as Munna means "boy" - it was his schoolteacher that chose Balram as his "official" name. The book's title, "The White Tiger", also refers to Balram - it was something of a nickname for Balram, chosen by a school inspector. A white tiger is something special, something that only comes along once every generation. Although Balram's education was incomplete, he had been the best reader and writer in his class. The inspector figured Balram was an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow" surrounded by a "crowd of thugs and idiots." Given that - by the end of the book's first chapter - Balram has admitted to cutting his boss' throat and stealing a bag of cash, his honesty obviously didn't last. In fact, while he introduced himself to the Premier as one of Bangalore's most successful but least known businessmen, that claim wasn't entirely true. Three years before the book opens, his wanted poster had been pasted the length and breadth of India.

Overall, "The White Tiger" is certainly worth just wasn't quite the book I'd hoped for. If it was good enough to win the Booker Prize, I honestly can't understand why Kazuo Ishiguro has only won it once. (I thought "Never Le Me Go", especially - which was shortlisted in 2005 - was much better than this).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy Book 1)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy Book 1)
by Stieg Larsson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pippy Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, 6 Dec. 2010
Stieg Larsson was born in 1954, was a journalist and an expert on anti-democratic and far-right organisations. He died suddenly in November 2004, shortly after delivering the manuscripts for three crime novels - known together as the Millennium Trilogy - to a Swedish publisher. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the first part of this trilogy.

Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist based in Stockholm. As well as writing for the current affairs magazine, Millennium, he's also the publisher and part owner - alongside Christer Malm and Erika Berger. (Christer acts as the magazine's art director and designer while Erika - the magazine's majority partner - is the editor in chief. She and Mikael first met at journalism school twenty years previously and have always had a hard time keeping their hands off each other. Mikael's marriage eventually failed because of his feelings for her. Erika's is still intact, though her husband knows and can apparently live with what's happening).

Millennium isn't yet a big player, but things had been moving along nicely - the magazine's circulation and its advertising revenue had both been rising steadily. However, trouble is looming thanks to an article written by Blomkvist where he claimed Hans-Erik Wennerström - a very wealthy financier - had used state funds for shady arms deals. At the time of writing, he was certain his story was good and his sources were solid - in fairness, it does seem clear that Wennerström was up to something very shady. However, things haven't worked out the way they should have : when we first meet him, Blomkvist has just lost a libel action brought by Wennerström. In order to protect Millennium from Wennerström and his circling lawyers, Blomkvist decides to step down from the roster and take a good, long break.

As he's clearing his desk on Christmas Eve, Blomkvist takes a telephone call from Dirch Frode - an aging lawyer, acting for Henrik Vanger. The name alone is enough to grab Blomkvist's attention - although now retired, Vanger is well known as an honourable `old-school' businessman whose name still carries a great deal of clout. (Vanger's nephew is now in control of the Vanger Corporation - it's not quite the elite company it once was, but it's still more than respectable). It appears there's a freelance assignment on offer, though Blomkvist has to travel to Vanger's place for the details. Officially, he'll be writing the history of the Vanger family; unofficially, he'll be investigating the disappearance of his Vanger's niece, Harriet - who Henrik is convinced was murdered nearly forty years previously. In return, Blomkvist will not only be very well paid - but Vanger will hand over evidence that Wennerström is a swindler and a crook.

Unknown to Blomkvist, he has already been thoroughly checked out. Frode had approached Milton Security to run a little background check on Blomkvist. The check had been carried out by Lisbeth Salander, who - despite having a very difficult background - is probably the company's most thorough investigator. It would be easy - and foolish - to dismiss her based on first impressions : she didn't finish high school and has no formal qualifications, has several piercings and tattoos and is barely five feet tall. However, she is highly intelligent, resourceful and knows exactly how to handle herself in a dangerous situation. She also comes across as being rather cold and detached and - when Blomkvist finally meets her - he suspects she may actually have Asperger's syndrome. Fortunately for Blomkvist, when they meet they're working together as allies....

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is comfortably the best thriller I've read in a long time. It can, at times, make for uncomfortable reading - Salander's had a very tough life, and she continues to be badly treated by her current guardian Nils Bjurman. (What happens between the pair isn't exactly pleasant). I did find a little odd was that Blomkvist was really the book's lead character - I'd have thought, given the book's name, it would have been Salander who played that role. Hopefully, I'll learn a bit more about her in the next instalment. A cracking read, totally recommended.

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