Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The girl without a dragon tattoo--Fifty Grand, by Adrian McKinty

I thought I'd take a moment to mention that today is the street date for the American paperback edition of Fifty Grand, Adrian McKinty's action packed thriller about a Cuban detective who sneaks up into El Norte to track down her father's killer.

In the book biz, 'the street date' is the date a book is officially available for sale, which is an attempt to level the playing field for all sellers. For some reason lately Tuesday seems to have been designated as the day for new books to come out, so today for example we have the latest Diana Gabaldon for sale in paper and a new Janet Evanovich in hardback. (I'm not providing links--you're not getting away that easily.) But other books are also released that may not have gotten such promotion as either of these fine women have, and that's a little bit of what I wanted to talk about here today.

If you're reading this blog, you have almost certainly at least heard of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and quite possibly already devoured the whole trilogy. I have nothing against the books or there subsequent success, though it is a bit sad that Larsson isn't around to reap the benefits of it. I read the first one, and liked it pretty well, though was bothered that the mystery didn't really hold up, and found the graphic violence against women pretty tough going at times. And, although I didn't mind these so much myself, I heard others complain that it suffers from too much information syndrome and even that both prose and plot were terrible.

The reason people seem to be willing to overlook so much of this, though, is that Larsson created a tough, smart, resilient and utterly determined heroine. Also, she had a pretty nifty tattoo.

So is it really all about the tattoo, then? Because Fifty Grand has a tough, smart, resilient and utterly determined heroine as well. Mercado is just as independent as Salander is, and actually a lot more out there on her own than even she knows. They both come from what you might call 'bad home lives', though Mercado's is more cultural than domestic. Both suffer the attempt of some appalling sexual violence and the threat of it pretty much all the time.

True, Detective Mercado doesn't have a photographic memory. She isn't a genius hacker, with a hidden underground friend who can provide her with the latest equipment. And she doesn't have a tattoo of  a dragon on her body--at least I don't recall one.

But the story she dwells in is a better story. It's more tightly written and plotted. The author has lyric gifts that Larsson did not have, at least in translation. Larsson's first tale, anyway, is obsessed with Sweden's hidden Nazi past, while McKinty's is interested in the power structures and abuses of the present. I haven't come across anyone who brings more sociological awareness than he does to his fiction, though I'm aware that this is a title Larsson himself might have relished.

Now, I may not be playing fair with Larsson's books, as I've only read the first. I'm really just saying that there is obviously a market for good books with kickass heroines and Fifty Grand fits the bill. So where was the marketing campaign for this one?

I wrote a somewhat less serious piece on Fifty Grand when it came out in hardback, but that's a year ago, and though I doubt this blog has more readers now than it did then, it might at least have a few different ones.

By the way, for the few people in the world who are less aware of sporting events than I am (and yes, I'm aware that not a lot of toddlers will be reading this blog), the featured picture is not of the author or in any other way related to the book. It's just a nod to McKinty's Northern Irish origins, which he shares with Graeme McDowell, winner of the 2010 U.S. Open. The guy with him is his dad.

On the other hand, his strategy for achieving his underdog win might well mirror Mercado's on her own high stakes quest:

"I controlled my emotions; I felt calm all week. Probably the worst I'd been was Thursday when I got a little frustrated out there. I hit a few bad shots and got frustrated... I promised myself I was going to be calm, and I was going to hang tough."

And they do.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Part 2

Thought it might be nice to once again follow up my own thoughts on Mohsin Hamid's novella with the impressions of various members of my book group. We were fortunate to have a couple of new people in attendance, one of whom had been wanting to talk to a group about the book and one whom had only read it the night before.

The main thing that was fascinating to me was that there were two opposing views of what had happened between the narrator and his silent antagonist. Both groups had been so certain that they had the right interpretation that it had occurred to neither that there might be a different interpretation until they heard one at the meeting. Apparently the ambiguity was Hamid's intention, but I wonder how well this strategy works if you don't discuss it with others, as the story itself does not reveal to you that you might not have gotten its point.

I'm not sure that as a group we really got into the trajectory of the Changez's story. In retrospect, I think the group view that Changez was just a guy who never quite fit in, making it a personal problem or personality quirk failed to follow the real dilemmas of a character like Changez, which have to do more with a cultural situation than with his idiosyncracies. I believe I said in my first post that people became reintrigued with this book after the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad, as Changez seemed in some way to prefigure Shahzad. Changez does not explain Shahzad, but an American who reads this book will come away with at least a little more understanding of how America looks through Pakistani eyes. And that certainly is all to the good and a service that Hamid has provided us.

In my search for a photo for this post--the author, by the way, lest that remains unclear--I came across a nice review, which probably makes clear some points that I have unintentionally left vague.   

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Lighthouse Land by Adrian McKinty

As the school year ends and summer pleasure reading begins, it seems a fine time to suggest an action packed adventure story, especially one that is the first of a trilogy. This book has two likely but very different audiences. The first is composed of middle grade readers, looking forward to somewhat bigger adventures in the years ahead. The second comprises McKinty's adult fan base, who are either waiting for this summer's release of his latest crime fiction, Fifty Grand, to hit the shops in paperback, or simply have run through all the rest of his oeuvre.

For this last group, who may be thinking about gifts for the younger readers in their circle as well, fear not--there are no Belfast sixpacks to be seen in this book, although there is battle and there is also death. But like other able crime writers who moonlight in the realm of children's literature, McKinty is quite capable of writing a tale of derring do and adventure that is suited to younger readers. Personally, I think this trilogy is a perfect recommendation for middle graders who have run through the Percy Jackson and Alex Rider books. What stood out for me in this first book on the sheer excitement level was a certain kind of sea going vessel that McKinty has dreamt up along with a wholly plausible way to fight it. The story in fact, cries out to be animated. It could really be quite stunning in the right hands.

Another strong point of the story from my perspective is that though two of the main characters are boys, there is also a female lead who is independent, capable and not always in agreement with the others on the best course of action. In other words, it's not all just battles and there should be plenty of elements that girls will relate to too.

But enough about child readers and the child reader in all of us. What's in it for adults? Some things that stood out to me were the fact that it's a story that really begins three times, and in three very different settings. We start in Harlem, and then we start again in Northern Ireland. The third start I'll leave for you to discover.

The main character, Jamie O'Neill has recently had to come to terms with losing a large part of his arm to cancer. But he has not only lost an arm, he's lost a father to the process, and at least for the time being has lost his ability to speak. I found the connection between these things fascinating to contemplate, the more so as the author does not give any facile explanation as to why this should be so. Jamie's muteness simply is. It is not sullenness, as Jamie does manage to communicate by other means. But there is some implication that speech comes out of wholeness and as the novel starts, Jamie has by no means been made whole again after his various losses, despite the fact that he has suddenly come into a pretty grand inheritance.

Another thing that is a true pleasure for the American reader is to get a new view of Northern Ireland, as we have all been filled with certain kinds of image of the place, even when the time for that image is long since past. Thanks to fellow blogger Philip Robinson, who shares a background and fondness for this part of the world with McKinty, we have a couple of old photos of the Northern Irish setting of one part of the story.
According to Philip, the following photo is captioned:

Port Muck and Muck Island.
There are puzzling remnants of a castle keep, above McClelland's farm, overlooking the harbour. The jetty was built 1827 when almost 100 herring boats fished these waters. Horse's cave on the island kept smuggled animals hidden while awaiting shipment.

And of the following, Philip says: "The second photo is of Blackhead lighthouse which is just a few miles down the coast - at the bottom end of Islandmagee, where Adrian's sister lives. He cleverly puts the lighthouse on the island in the story. And there is a shingle causeway out to the island which is only visible at very low tides.

By the way, Islandmagee is not an island but a peninsula about 5 miles east of Carrickfergus."


Thank you, Philip.

As for the rest, I think I'll leave the book some of its secrets. The truth is, I've already finished the sequel, which is also terrific and am pacing myself on the third as, well,  that's the end, isn't it?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

Another book group pick. I don't know for sure why the person who requested it chose it because she wasn't present at the last meeting, but I do know why this novel, or really, novella, has come to the forefront again. The Times Square attempted bomber, Faisal Shahzad, bears more than skin deep resemblance to the narrator of this book, and I imagine that people looking for clues have gravitated toward this one. I'm glad this Booker-Man Prize shortlisted work of fiction has had a second wave of interest, though I suspect people looking for conclusive answers will be disappointed. I think what they will find, though, is a penetrating look at American society about a character both outside it and inside it, and his progressive disenchantment is well worth considering. It is, in fact, open to interpretation.

The narrator, Changez, is a Pakistani, and the entire novel is narrated by him in one sitting in a cafe in Lahore. His willing, captive or hostile listener is an American stranger and he is only one of those whom Changez tries to find some sort of mirror or connection in. In a sense, the failed attempt in Times Square, which happened long after the novel went to print, raises the stakes and perhaps even changes the reading by a reader now. I don't think Hamid would mind that, as the book is all about our ambivalent interpretations of each other. I had originally thought to write that I don't get the ending, but having read an interview with him, I realize that's partly his intent.

This book is full of acute observations about the foreigner's position, and particularly the Muslim foreigner's position in America today. It's interesting to watch how far a liberal American is willing to go with him and where and if there is a point where the viewpoint diverges. We must of course always remember that Changez is not Hamid and though I'm sure their viewpoints overlap at many points, but they are not identical.

I had a funny feeling of a haunting in this book, although it is not about ghosts. Briefly, I can feel the ghosts of the books that Hamid has read before writing this. It is by no means derivative, but this story of an Asian man who falls for and is emotionally captured by a damaged Western woman feels like a story I've heard before.

Actually, it's a very Western story, come to think of it.