Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Girl in the Spider's Web

An exceptional novel that I almost gave up on in the beginning.  As bad as the first 1/4 or 1/3 was, the book picks up speed and quality after the death of a noted computer specialist--and the emergence of Lisbeth Salander.  Whether by design or by accident, the book becomes extremely good after she emerges.  Her character meshes everything and everyone else, and makes it all work.  Before she appears, it all flounders.

The four books have the same tagline on the front cover: "A Lisbeth Salander novel."  Though Mikael Blomkvist is also in all four books, Salander, again, is the fulcrum that powers the works.  David Lagercrantz, taking over for Stieg Larsson, undoubtedly knows this.  But you wouldn't know that at first, as Lisbeth is behind the curtain and is only barely even spoken of.  Larsson notoriously hindered his last novel by doing the same to her--keeping Lisbeth prone in a hospital obviously paralyzed her movements, and when Lisbeth isn't moving, neither is the book she's in.

And so I have to believe that it is by design that she doesn't appear for awhile here.  Maybe Lagercrantz believed he was building tension, or maybe he believed he didn't have an open door for her until he finally did.  I don't know, but these books don't work like Dracula did; the more you didn't see the Count in the book, the more mysterious and terrifying he became.  Salander isn't like that.  She's not terrifying (except maybe to the men who hate women); she's kinetic.  She bristles with energy and fury.  (Maybe her fury gives her this hyperactivity and kinetic energy.)  It's possible that Lagercrantz believed he could offer up too much of a good thing by making her appear too early.  If so, he's probably right, as it's really not possible that someone of her limited physicality could actually brim with as much energy and survive the shocks her flesh was heir to.  (I'm a rather hyperactive slim guy, but I haven't been shot multiple times, or been abused as she had been in her youth and in the first book.)

The writing is very Nordic Noir: very dry, very "Just the facts, ma'am," and very specific.  In the beginning, this was to the point of being pedantic, and it almost became stale before Lisbeth appeared.  Then, the writing fit her persona, and it all took off.  Lagercrantz also does a good job playing the cards he's been dealt by the first three books, and then running with them.  Though his writing is a little different from Stieg Larsson's, by the end it does seem possible that Larsson could have written this.  None of the characters do anything they shouldn't do.  They don't behave strangely or do strange things.  There is a relationship that gets downplayed here, but I was expecting that.  For this series to take off with Larsson's passing, one relationship had to sort of cool, and one had to sort of subtly pick up.  If you've read all the books, you should be expecting it, too.

And, finally, Lagercrantz somehow manages to flesh out Salander here, without going too far.  He does toe the line, but he doesn't cross it, and what we learn and see of her past is worthwhile, riveting, and completely at home with her character.  There are also some very interesting premises here, including a neat little section that shows how computer intelligence has increased in just five years.  This section posits the question: What would happen when a computer can learn by itself, and fix its own mistakes?  A character wonders what a computer would think when it realized it's owner--who can turn it off, remove its insides, and essentially kill it--is much less intelligent than it is.  It all sounded too uncomfortably like a computer very soon could be some sort of HAL, Skynet, Blade Runner hybrid.  This stuff alone made the book interesting and worthwhile to read.  It all stays just on the good side of info-dump.  As in Larsson's books--and as in the genre itself--there is a lot of character-explaining here, and they sometimes talk a little too long, longer than it seems that real people do.  But, again, it stays just on the good side, and it never slows down the pace of the book once the pace establishes itself.

And so finally this book was a winner for me.  It's clearly better than the third Larsson book, possibly better than the second, and equal to the first.  Possibly it's better than any of them.  You should read it.

P.S.--Unlike most book series, this book builds upon and needs the other three, and so the reader should read each of those before he reads this.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Appreciation From Time to Time

Very enjoyable sequel to Time and Again until the ending that almost ruins the whole thing.  This book violates a rule that Finney seems to have established with the first book: a sense of wonder and fun is more important than a sci-fi plot device or message.  The ending is a cruel trick on a character who deserved much better, just to re-state a message already mentioned many times over. 

This also does an injustice to the sinking of the Titanic, treating like an "ah-ha" morality trope, rather then the world-changing tragedy (as the book itself says) that it was.  Also unfortunate were that the two characters who witness the sinking of the Titanic don't describe it--an impossibility, as it jarred for life every single survivor.  Here it's unmentioned, and the narrator offers a sort of epilogue and the thing ends.

There's also false advertising, as the back of the book blares the news that the novel revolves around the main character's attempt to change the course of history by changing the fate of the Titanic.  But, actually, the Titanic doesn't show up in the book until the last 20 pages or so, and the main character's only on it for 10.  Despite the ad copy, this book has almost nothing to do with the Titanic at all.  In fact, this book could have very easily ended without including the fateful voyage at all.  Had it done so, it would have been a much better book.

This time, everything I'd written about the wonder of the 1880s of Time and Again also fits here.  The era is 1912, of course, and it mostly focuses on Broadway, its plays, and an odd but entertaining digression about vaudeville performers and other circus-like performers.  They evidently graced the Broadway stage in the time, as did many other types of performances that may surprise you.

Again, the main reason to read this is the description of NYC in 1912.  The plot doesn't matter.  The tropes don't matter.  The messages don't matter.  If you can lose yourself in the world described here, and forget the ridiculousness of plot and morality--passed off here as philosophy, but don't be fooled, it's morality--then this book is still worthwhile.  It's taken me a few hours to get over the ending, and the movie Titanic has been on HBO all day, and is on now as I write this, which doesn't help at all, but the two books really are fantastic escapism into another time and place.  They are worthy of reading and of wonderment.

What isn't worthy, again, is Finney's treatment of his female characters, who are again very minor, very in love with the main character, and frankly treated like little girls who can't help themselves.  Both girls (Julia from the first one, and the unnamed woman [!] from this one) are better women than their author treats them, and deserved better.  You'll probably tire, as I did, each and every time the main character apologizes to the reader (and to Julia, by association) for kissing this book's heroine, which he does consistently and, apparently, uncontrollably.  Again, she deserves better than the ending she got, and the name she didn't get, and I'm getting annoyed about it all again as I write this.

Whatever.  Feel free to just let those things pass and to lose yourself once again into the very well-realized New York City of the past.  Again it'll seem like you're walking down Broadway yourself, seeing what he sees and living the life he lives.  It's worth it to do this.

If you do, let me know if the ending bothered you as much as it did me.  I can overthink things sometimes, which you already know if you've read my reviews. Too bad Finney died at approximately the same time this book was published.  As he re-wrote the ending of the first book to make this one possible, so too could he have changed the ending of this one in the beginning of a third.  These are now as stuck in time as his two New York Cities are in theirs.  It's a curious statement of the solidity and permanence of history, as their own unique--yet similar--times and places, to be experienced and appreciated, never to be either again.

Time and Again the main character states an appreciation for the moment he has just experienced, the thing he has just seen, the air he has just breathed, appreciated for the unique and temporal experiences that they were.  If only I could do the same, as often as I should.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Sense of Wonder--Time and Again

I read this book partly because I'm researching a book of my own that takes place partly in 1892--ten years after the 1882 of this book, but still, I didn't have any 1880s information at all.  Turns out, Finney infamously uber-researched for this book.  In fact, it seems that the sole reason he wrote this book is to simply describe 1882 until it felt like he lived there.

This he does.  If you're at all interested in the past--and the 1880s in particular--you should read this book.  If you live in New York City and want to know how Broadway and Fifth Avenue and the many buildings constructed in that time became alive in their own right, and then grew into the life's fabric of the city, you should read this book.  If you're even a little bit a traveler or an explorer at heart--if you're even a little curious or interested in history and people at all--you should read this book.  And if you think it's interesting to understand the people of the era--the actual, flesh-and-blood people of a time--more than just the important historical facts themselves (as I do), then you should read this book.

In short, this was quite a little pleasure, a rare, quaint joy that reading should bring but often does not, even when reading a good or important book.  This gets you away.  Not just into 1882 NYC, but the mid- to late-Victorian Era of your own town and city.  Have you ever wondered what it was like in 1882 where you are?  This book may give you an idea.  Chances are, it was like this, just maybe on a lesser scale.

But the air was clean and the people were evidently a little more carefree than the early pictures would have us believe.  There were horses and sleighs everywhere; children played outside, even in the winter.  There were no screens to enslave us, no computers to weigh us down.  People awoke early, at sunrise, and went to bed just after sundown.  There were telegraph wires everywhere, like electric wires today, so the landscape wasn't as bare as you might think.  The el rattled the city, and electric trains shouldered aside horse-drawn carriages and coaches.  Everyone walked, and people probably spent more time with each other.

This is romanticized history, of course.  You won't see how the very poor live here; in fact, the author just barely refers to them at all.  Most of the action takes place in the richer Broadway, Fifth Avenue part of Manhattan.  There aren't minorities here, either--these things, and the way Finney handles female characters, make the book seem a little less sophisticated than what we may be used to today.  They aren't jarring, and they aren't what this particular story is about, but there it is nonetheless.

It was written by the guy who wrote the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (that was the other reason I wanted to read this), so there's a slight sci-fi aspect here, but it is very slight.  This is more historical fiction than it is science fiction.  It's a bit of fantasy, too, if you think of 1882 NYC as another world, which it sort of is.

My favorite thing about this book (and books like it) is the sense of wonder that it instills in the reader.  Finney clearly was enjoying himself as he wrote this, and the writing and tone exude a sense of wonder that he himself must have been feeling while writing this.  You get the feeling that if Finney has the chance to walk into 1882 NYC and to stay there, he would have as well.

Would you want to stay in the 1882 of your own place?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Kim Davis and Issuing Marriage Licenses

A few thoughts about Kim Davis:

1. She's being called a martyr by some, but I'm not so sure she is.  Why?  Well, she's obviously enjoying herself here, proud of her self-righteousness and her popularity.  I guarantee you that the second nobody cares about her situation anymore, she'll say okay and get out of there.

And, oh yeah--Martyrs don't typically enjoy their punishment as much as she clearly is.  Getting crucified, stoned to death, or hanged upside-down on a cross are not enjoyable experiences.

2. This is not about her religious beliefs.  It's about her.  In a narcissistic way.

3. And it's about her power.  Her mother issued marriage licenses for 37 years, and she was her deputy clerk for 27 of those years.  She's been issuing licenses herself for who knows how long, and her son has been her deputy clerk for years.  I'll bet she's thinking, Nobody...Nobody, not even a federal judge, can tell me who I have to marry.  In this way, it's not at all about religion.  It's about power.

4. Speaking of power, it's also about the power of judges--in the Supreme Court, and in other courts who have ruled on this--who don't like it when someone stands in front of them and tells them she is not going to follow their law.  No Supreme Court, or Superior Court, or any other type of judge will appreciate this.

5. Anyone notice that she looks like Carrie White's mother, minus the blonde hair?  Look at her eyes.

6. Someone find me the New Testament passage where Jesus says that marriage is only between a man and a woman.  What was Jesus's stance on this?  I don't know.  I guarantee you, Kim Davis doesn't, either.  Apparently, she's blipped on the passage where He says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  After all, she has been married four times.  And what about those who are without sin casting the first stone?

7. Speaking of that, I like how her husband has been taking her side on this from the comfort of his own home.  He's behind her, all right--way behind her.

8. It's very disconcerting to see almost every Republican candidate for President publicly siding with her on this.  I didn't expect them to suddenly be for the gay community, but I'm surprised they are all so openly and blissfully unaware of the democratic dictum of Separation of Church and State.

9. I would not vote for anyone who so clearly did not understand the importance of separating Church and State.  Our Founding Fathers--who were very, very religious men--still put democracy over their religion.  They did this for a reason: Because when Religion rules the State, history has shown us that we'd have something really, really bad.  Look at many news stories today in some parts of the world.

10. Her lawyer is clearly not giving her quality legal advice, and may be purposely throwing fuel on the fire, which lawyers are not supposed to do.  His law firm is a Christian firm, and only has Christian clients with Christian issues.  He's clearly espousing his own agenda here, and not giving his client good legal advice.  This is the man who compared this woman's jail stay to that of Martin Luther King's.

11. Some politicians, judges and lawyers are saying that she should be excluded from issuing these licenses because of her religious beliefs.  They are trying to pass legislation that would exempt someone from doing any part of their job that they say violates their religious beliefs.

This is, of course, impossible, and ridiculous, for many reasons.

a) You can't decide what part of a job you will do and won't do.  In this case, her public is her employer, and she therefore has to follow the law that governs her public.  As one of the men seeking a license said, he was a taxpayer who was paying her to oppress him.  That is obviously a violation of his    civil rights, and is obviously unconstitutional.

b) Can I say that every single aspect of my job violates my religious beliefs, and therefore I will not do them?  Can I say that the parts I mostly don't like violates my religious beliefs? Cuz if so, I'm doin' it.  And still getting my paycheck.

c) Where is the line for the term religious beliefs?  Can Creationists flat-out refuse to teach evolution at all, not even mentioning it as a theory?  What would atheists say?  How about people who don't want to work with--or serve--divorced people?

12. Does the phrase, "...the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" mean anything to anyone?  I mean, really, can anyone tell people that they can't get married?

13. Marriage comes with some good tax breaks, insurance benefits, and ability to inherit money and land from a loved one.  It is not constitutional to prohibit marriage to someone for this reason alone.

14. Beware of someone whose life revolves around one person or thing.  Her religion is not that one thing.  Her beliefs are.  It's important to understand this distinction.  Because of this, her happiness predominates, to the point that she does not consider the happiness of others relevant.

Like I said, Narcissism.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Rights to "Pink Lemonade" Sold to

I'm happy to say that another short story, this time "Pink Lemonade," has been sold to OMDB!  (Well, the rights to the short story were sold, but you know what I mean.)  Anyway, the good folks over at OMDB!--namely the editor, Ms. Cherie Jung--also published another Brad Foster short story, "Everything's Connected," in August, 2014.  I'm grateful again to Ms. Jung.

I don't know when "Pink Lemonade" will be published, so I'll keep you updated.  Remember that is a free fiction site (though it pays its authors, of course), and it publishes quality short mystery and detective fiction.  If you like the genre, please give it a shot.

Thanks again to Ms. Cherie, all the folks at OMDB! and, of course, to all my readers.  You all rule!