4 Following

Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

It often happens that the author who scoops the jackpot isn't the one who came up with the original idea. Douglas Adams was as surprised as anyone when Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy became a household name; he was just following in the footsteps of Robert Sheckley, but somehow Sheckley never hit the big time. Also in SF, Neuromancer is rather like Logan's Run stylistically, but Gibson is regarded as the founder of cyberpunk while Nolan is half-forgotten. And, moving to highbrow novels, I was amazed to discover last month that many of the themes generally ascribed to Proust were already present in Huysmans's A Rebours, which Proust certainly read. Life isn't always fair.

Right now, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels are still topping the worldwide bestseller lists. As most people probably know, the original title means "Men Who Hate Women", and that could easily have been the generic title for Liza Marklund's series, in which Livstid is number seven. Marklund has done quite well - several of the books have been hits in Scandinavia - but the megasuccess Larsson achieved has eluded her. If you like Larsson, though, it's by no means impossible that you'll also enjoy Marklund's feminist thrillers.

She established the formula in the first one, Sprängaren ("The Bomber"), and, as formulas go, it's not bad. Annika Bengtzon is a journalist at a Swedish newspaper. The Olympic Games are going to be held in Stockholm and an explosion has wrecked the new stadium, also killing the woman who was in charge of building it. The police soon determine that she has been murdered in a particularly horrible way. Annika ends up covering the story, and gets more and more involved in it. Simultaneously, she is having trouble at her job. She's just been promoted to a position of some responsibility, and the people on her team refuse to acknowledge her authority. They make it clear that they don't like her, and want her out: the fact that she's a woman is a large part of it. Annika becomes increasingly desperate, and doesn't know whether her own superiors will help her. She feels she's close to breaking down altogether.

In the end, both threads are resolved simultaneously. The newspaper's editor-in-chief finally comes down on Annika's side, and tells the troublemakers that their choice is between accepting her and getting fired. At the same time, she cracks the mystery. The murderer was the victim's subordinate; she has been systematically bullied until she snapped and killed her boss. The ending is very effective. The murderer has taken Annika hostage, but the police arrive at the last minute and rescue her. Annika doesn't hate the woman who came within a few minutes of killing her too. She suddenly understands that it could just as easily have been her: there, but for the grace of God, goes Annika Bengtzon. She attends the trial, and shows in every way she can that she is on her side.

In Livstid, it was clear from an early stage how things were going to work out. Annika's husband has just abandoned her for another woman, leaving Annika alone and heartbroken with their two small children. The very same night, someone firebombs her house. She barely manages to get out alive with the kids. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, police lieutenant Nina Hoffman somehow ends up being the first person at the scene when her best friend's neighbor makes an emergency call at 3 am. Nina arrives and finds Julia lying on the bathroom floor in a state of shock; her husband has been shot dead, and their son is nowhere to be found. She mutters something about "the other woman", and passes out. Since it's a Liza Marklund novel, you know there are only two possibilities: either Julia is innocent, or the guy had it coming. But Marklund moves the cards around skillfully enough that I wasn't sure which one it was until I was nearly at the end.

Okay... it's feminism-by-numbers, but it's good feminism-by-numbers. Marklund's strength is her ability to give a voice to women's pain and frustration, and she does a fine job here. By chapter 2 I was already an outraged woman. Julia's been taken to the hospital in a catatonic state. "What's wrong with the murdering bitch?" asks Nina's appalling, sexist partner. "PMS?" I almost forgot for a moment that I have never actually suffered from PMS. It's a great read even if you don't happen to be female.