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review 2018-07-20 20:34
Shades of Nordic Noir
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

The books comprising the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ have achieved, albeit posthumously, almost legendary status for Stieg Larsson. Having previously delivered the manuscripts to his Swedish publisher, tragically the author died of a heart attack in 2004, aged just 50 and consequently he never witnessed the international plaudits, which were eventually to greet this exceptional work. I read the series a number of years ago, but I wanted to revisit them before reviewing and I was curious to see if my original impressions remained. Clearly, international sales of the books, reported to be of the order of 80 million copies worldwide, is quite a phenomenon. But what is it that continues to strike such a chord with the readers of popular crime fiction?


Powerful yet shocking, violent yet touching, this novel is at its heart a thriller, which contrasts the most depraved, base examples of humanity with the most outwardly unassuming characters. Yet, in investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and security analyst Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has created main characters who are clearly flawed, but retain a complexity and depth, which is truly absorbing, thrown together as they are, to combat low points in their respective lives and the situational challenges that follow.


At the opening of the book, Blomkvist has just been found guilty of libel against financier, Hans-Erik Wennerstrȍm and is faced with three months in prison as well as a sizeable fine. Salander, a very different kind of investigator, is commissioned by her sometime employer to generate a report on Blomkvist and is intrigued that for such a careful reporter, he appears not to have contested the case. The author cleverly uses the report to inform the reader about Blomkvist and the thoughts of Salander’s boss at Milton Security (CEO, Dragan Armansky) to sketch out an early impression of her. Both are mavericks, with quite contrasting personalities, but as the plot unfolds they are bound inextricably together. Salander has experienced a troubled young life and might be considered a victim, but for her capacity for violent retribution. Brilliant, but emotionally cold, Salander lacks the capacity for empathy, but is drawn towards Blomkvist’s open warmth, humour and laid back attitude. What they share is an insatiable appetite for answers and the need for justice to be served, though Salander is quite bemused by Blomkvist’s attachment to the rule of law.


The ‘Millennium’ of the title is a magazine and Blomkvist’s enforced sabbatical enables him to take up a freelance assignment, for ex-industrialist Henrik Vanger. Ostensibly tasked with writing a biography of the Vanger family, Henrik though is obsessed with identifying the murderer of his great niece and favourite (Harriet Vanger) and persuades Blomkvist to mount an investigation for which he is prepared to pay handsomely and on completion, the prospect of some useful information about Blomkvist’s nemesis - Wennerstrȍm. The investigation centre’s on events which took place forty years earlier on the island of Hedestad, owned by the Vanger family and where generations continue to live in splendid isolation. In that sense there are echoes of an Agatha Christie whodunit, with a limited cast of suspects, but getting to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is deliciously convoluted. Moreover, the nature of the comeuppance doled out to a series of villains is supremely satisfying.


Curiously this first book in the trilogy introduces the key protagonists and can stand alone as a novel, with a discrete storyline. Books 2 and 3 feels like a further, longer story, dissected into two just to make the volumes manageable, but developing the characters in all their dysfunctional glory. In any event, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ remains a ground-breaking book, which helped herald the contemporary genre of Nordic noir and propel it into the spotlight of popular literary culture. For me, it is understandably vaunted as a ‘modern classic’, not to everyone’s taste, but quite a ride.

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review 2018-04-08 05:49
Red Sonja by Amy Chu
Red Sonja Vol. 4 #0 - Amy Chu,Carlos Gomez

The barbarian She-Devil with a Sword faces a whole different world and challenges in this new adventure written by Amy Chu and drawn by Carlos Gomez. Somewhere deep underground, strange and powerful demons clad in metal armor attack and roust Red Sonja from a deep magical sleep. Confused and weaponless, she must find a way to defeat these mysterious creatures, escape from her solitary prison, and make her way to the surface to discover where she is, and why she was put there...

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Illustrations by Carlos Gomez

Coloring by Mohan

Cover Art by Nick Bradshaw

 

 

Once again, I'm sampling another version of the Red Sonja story. In this one, author Amy Chu places our heroine in more modern times, facing a world full of technology she struggles to understand. 

 

Can't say I enjoyed this one quite as much as Michael Oeming's work. All the classic traits of the character are still honored here, but in Chu's version it feels like overkill. Nearly every panel here seems to put the perspective emphasis on Sonja's lady bits more than the storyline at hand. I'm not necessarily bothered by Sonja being scantily clad, but do we need SO many panels of her derriere photobombing the scenes? I do like to have SOME villain backstory.

 

Coming off of Oeming's lush version, the artwork in this sampling also struck me as more cartoonish in style, the dialogue a bit more cringe inducing. I appreciate wanting to have humor worked into the character, but here it veered a little too far into cheeze-fest for me, sometimes bringing to mind old TMNT (the original one) episodes.. only not as good with the laugh-facepalm blend. As a whole, the story here had its fun elements... I just find myself not really in a rush to continue with this line in Sonja's story. 

 

The kindle edition features "exclusive digital content", which pretty much amounts to a collection of un-colored versions of some of the panels you see earlier in the book, as well as a few examples of illustrator Carlos Gomez's sketches laying out ideas for the Sonja character -- costume details, different versions of facial characteristics, that kind of thing. 

 

 

 

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review 2018-04-08 05:14
Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword #0 (Graphic Novel) By Michael Oeming & Mike Carey
Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword #0 - Michael Oeming,Mike Carey,Mel Rubi,Caesar Rodriguez,Richard Isanove

 

 

Writers: Michael Oeming & Mike Carey
Art: Mel Rubi
Coloring: Caesar Rodriguez & Richard Isanove
Cover Art: Greg Land; Inking: Matt Ryan, Cover Coloring: Jason Keith

 

 

This is a 17 page prequel to Oeming's rendition (a 50 issue series) of the epic Red Sonja tale. This first offering is told from the POV of Jessa, a bartender who tries to get Red Sonja drunk so she can steal Sonja's blade. Fighting and hell-fury ensues.

 

I've enjoyed the Red Sonja story in its various forms since my childhood. Being a (natural) redhead myself, it was cool to have such a strong, bold fellow red to look up to! Hardcore feminists in this modern age might not love Sonja as she is typically portrayed, with overflowing lady bits and ridiculously useless chainmail bikini... as a woman, let me say, either take this for what it is and have fun with it or don't read it. I find the chain bikini hilarious the same way I laugh my way through the old movie adaptation that was done back in the 80s (I think.. maybe the 70s), where Bridgette Nielsen had to wear equally ridiculous outfits. I love it all. It's campy at times, laughably stupid in some scenes, but there are also moments where you can't help but cheer for Sonja's undeniable fierceness.

 

Oeming's version here offers gorgeous color work as well as prose that just oozes that legend feel. The reader, even if only briefly, gets the chance to escape into something with a true sense of epic-ness and just downright FUN. I thought this was a blast to read and look forward to trying out the rest in the series.

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review 2018-03-21 20:08
A Nordic noir thriller with two fascinating protagonists, D.I. Hulda Hermannsdóttir and Iceland.
The Darkness - Ragnar Jónasson

Thanks to NetGalley and to Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve followed with interest the rise in popularity of the Nordic/ Scandinavian Thrillers in recent years, although I have read random titles rather than becoming a dedicated fan of any single writer. (I’ve also watched quite a few of the crime TV series produced in those countries and I’ve particularly enjoyed Wallander, The Bridge, and The Killing). This is the first novel I read by Ragnar Jónasson, although I suspect it won’t be the last.

The novel contains some familiar elements, although with interesting variations. The main character, Hulda, a Detective Inspector, that works in Reykjavík, is 64 and on her way to retirement. She is surprised by the news that this retirement has been brought forward, and, as an afterthought to keep her quiet, her boss tells her she can work on a cold case of her choice. She chooses the apparent suicide of a Russian girl, an asylum seeker because she mistrusts the lead investigator. The novel, written in the third person, mostly from Hulda’s point of view, follows her last three days in the force. I say mostly because there are other fragments that are told from other characters’ points of view, although at first, it is not that clear who they are. We come to understand how they relate to the main story later, but I must clarify that they are clearly distinct, easy to follow, and do not cause any confusion. They do provide additional information, a different perspective, and they help us understand the story and the characters more fully (and yes, they might also mislead us a tiny bit), although I suspect some readers might catch on faster than others as to their true relevance.

Hulda is a known standard of the genre: the old detective forced to leave the job that is determined to solve one last case before retirement. Only, in this case, she is a woman, and she does reflect on how difficult things have been for her because she is a woman, glass ceiling and all. She does share some of the other attributes sometimes typical of these characters: she is very good but not that very well liked; she has to work alone because she is not a favourite among the other detectives; she resents her younger boss and many of her teammates; she is effective but might bend the rules slightly; she is reserved and has suffered tragedies in her life… The author is very good at creating a very compelling character and then making us question our judgment. At least in my case, I really liked Hulda to begin with, but after a while, I realised that she might be one of those favourites of mine, an unreliable narrator (or, although not directly a narrator, her point of view is unreliable). She makes decisions that are morally questionable; she drinks a bit too much; and well… I am keeping my mouth shut. My feelings for this character went from really liking her, to not being so sure, to not liking her very much, and then… This change in opinion and perception is cleverly achieved and extremely well done, and it reminded me of books like We Need to Talk about Kevin (not the story itself, but the way the writer slowly makes us empathise with a character to later pull the rug from under our feet).

The story is dark in more ways than one. As I said, there are morally grey areas (or even quite dark): the subject matter and the fact that a young asylum seeker and her death are not considered important and have been all but forgotten a year down the line (unfortunately that rings true), Hulda’s own life and the secrets she keeps, and Iceland. Although there is not a great deal of violence (and definitely not explicit), there is a certain unsettling air and a cold and menacing atmosphere, that comes in part from Hulda’s paranoia and her personality (suspicious and mistrustful), but goes beyond it. The setting is very important and it contributes to the story and its effect on the reader. Iceland is a character in its own right. The descriptions of the many locations in the book create a picture in the reader’s mind and help understand how important the place is to the mood, the characters, and their way of life. A place where light and darkness rule people’s lives, and where the inhabitants have adapted to conditions many of us would find difficult and hostile. The title is apt for many reasons (as we learn as we read on). It is a noir novel, where nobody is exactly as they appear at first, and where red herrings, false clues, and side-stories muddy the storyline, adding layers of complexity to what appears straightforward, at first.

The writing is fluid, and versatile, providing different registers and clearly distinct voices for the different aspects of the story and the varied points of view, and although it is a translation, it is well-written and the style fits in perfectly the content. It is not the usual fast-paced thriller, but one that builds up tension and organically incorporates the psychology of the characters and the setting into the story.

A couple of examples:

Time was like a concertina: one minute compressed, the next stretching out interminably.

‘She’s being deported. It happens. You know, it’s a bit like those games of musical chairs you play as a kid. The music starts, everyone gets up and walks in a circle and when the music stops, one of the chairs is taken away and someone’s unlucky.’

The ending… I will not talk in detail about it but although perhaps not unexpected, is a bit of a shocker.

A great (and not long) novel for lovers of Nordic thrillers, or anybody who enjoys thrillers that deviate from the norm. I’d also recommend it to anybody intrigued by Iceland and unreliable narrators. And I’d also recommend it to authors always intrigued by other authors’ technique and voice. I intend to keep reading the series. And enjoying it.

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review 2018-02-14 04:29
Bandits, miner's daughters, a boring prince and a sentient mountain
Princess Academy - Shannon Hale

This is the type of excellent children's publishing that I craved as a preteen/young teen. It reads sort of like a middle grade, more accessible to younger readers than a lot of the YA MA books these days.

 

This wasn't at all what I was expecting from the title and cover; I thought it would be fluffy romantic school stories, but it's the type of smart, political historical fiction-inspired fantasy that I loved well before paranormal romance and urban fantasy took over YA.

 

Miri is a 14-year-old miner's daughter who mourns the fact that she's too small and can't go help out in the mines. Fantasy!politics decree that all daughters in the village between 12-18 or so must be removed to a training camp to be prepared as a potential princess pool. Handwavy explanation aside, it's a chance for Miri to start to see a wider world and her own home's context within that. She uses what she learns about economics, politics, reading and math to negotiate a better situation for her village, protect her classmates, understand her family, and fight oppression. There's some very mild romance (again, suitable for MG/young teen readers), but the story is more about personal growth, community and friendship, and helping others through learning and sharing knowledge. Beautiful, meaningful, engaging and fast-paced.

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