Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer reading advice

Although, like most people, I work through the summer, there is something about the warm weather and the week or two of vacation that put me in the mood for some pure literary escapism. My criteria are pretty simple. Sure, the novel should be exciting, with some cliffhanger chapter endings, but it should also have compelling heroes facing worthy adversaries, and it should not insult your intelligence with lame plot devices. Humor helps. But perhaps most important, it should be well written. Having largely exhausted the oeuvres of LeCarre, Leonard, and PD James, the true masters, I have had to resort to lesser literary mortals.

The late Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo got a lot of attention when it came out, and like many I read it with high expectations. Sorry to speak ill of the dead, but the book was a major disappointment: poorly written, with cardboard cutout characters and a ridiculous, convoluted plot. With its cheap cliffhangers it kept my attention to the lame and bitter end, much like The Da Vinci Code, another miserably written thriller. But I didn't feel at all good about myself in the morning. (At least one could give Larsson the benefit of the doubt and attribute the ham-handed writing to the translation from the Swedish, an excuse alas unavailable to Dan Brown.)

I'd sworn off the Girl sequels until I read Michiko Kakutani's recent glowing review of the posthumously published finale of the trilogy. I generally trust Kakutani's judgment, so I figured I better give the guy another chance and catch up with part 2, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Big mistake. It's just as lame as the first installment, and at least as poorly written. The first chunk of the book is devoted to a pedestrian recap of the first installment, along with some obligatory and truly atrocious sex scenes. From there it only gets worse, with cheesy villains right out of a bad Bond movie, and a spunky heroine who is so much smarter than her adversaries that she never is in any real danger, until the absurdly implausible ending.

Oof. So imagine my delight when I followed that up with a truly masterful, minor classic of cyberpunk by Richard K. Morgan: Thirteen. I had read and enjoyed some of Morgan's hardboiled near-future thrillers before, but this was the best so far by a good margin. The main plot elements are well-worn staples of the genre: a conflicted genetically engineered hero, corporate malfeasance, and a post-United States political landscape in which, in this instance, the country has split into two coastal blue countries and a central red Republic, nicknamed Jesusland by the blue-staters.

So far nothing you haven't seen before, all the basic elements not so very different from what you find in Larsson, but handled so well, and get this, artfully written! Nice descriptions of urban landscapes, clever metaphors, vivid action scenes, and some steamy romance that at least is not embarrassing. The book runs long, and just when you think Morgan has finally run out of gas, he surprises you with an extended, heartfelt, and genuinely sad deathbed scene. From there the denouement is a little disappointing, leaving us with an ambiguous ending that at least offers some hope for a sequel. I'd read it.

I followed this up with a last-minute and perhaps desperate airplane read, Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled. Mankell is usually reliable, but this is by far the worst I've read. Dull dull dull! Perhaps this summer's best-selling title should be: The Swedes Who Couldn't Write for Shit.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Bill, I don't know if it is your typical fair or not but you should try The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. My father and I both read this book and I'm still not sure what it's about but it is awesome. Funny, well written, original, and kick ass. A synopsis is next to impossible but it's a coming of age/martial arts/sci fi romp. With an epic twist. For what it is worth, I highly reccomend it.