Monday, September 27, 2010

Some Non-Genre Reviews: Dragon Tattoo and Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Posted by Simcha 8:12 PM, under | 8 comments

Murder- mystery novels don't usually interest me but because both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie came so highly recommended by people who I trust, I decided to give these books a try. I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a few months ago and never got around to reviewing it but since my feeling about the book are similar to how I felt about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I just completed, I decided to review the two together.

Harriet Vanger, a young member of a very wealthy Swedish family disappears at the age of 16. Gone without a trace, 40 years later, Harriet’s Uncle is still haunted by her absence… was she murdered? If so by who?

Mikael Blomkvist part owner of the magazine Millenium has just taken a huge hit to the pocket-book. Caught in a libel conviction he decided to take a breather from the magazine until the heat wears off and instead of a break, finds himself hired by Harriet’s uncle to research and try to find evidence as to what happened all those years ago. With the help of a very damaged young tattooed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Mikael finds himself searching for pieces that will change the lives of all involved.

I don't have much time these days to read non-genre books but when I recently managed to get a free audio book download of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I was excited at the opportunity to finally "read" it. My excitement quickly waned when I realized the audio book was a only an abridged version but since I had started looking forward to listening to it I decided to just get myself a copy of the full audiobook.

Simon Vance does an excellent job of narrating the book and in giving each character an individual voice that is easily recognizable. The only problem I had was that at times I thought Vance's portrayal of Salander was softer than I would have imagined it, were I reading the book myself. At certain points in the story, where events take a darker turn, the book became rather difficult to listen to. One of the downsides for me of audiobooks is that I can't just skim past those parts which I find unpleasant and listening to them read out loud is also a lot more intense.

Had I been reading the book I would probably say that I couldn't turn the pages fast enough and as the story progressed I was deeply hooked. But one thing that held me back from being really affected by the story was the fact that I didn't actually connect to, or even particularly like, any of the characters. My deep disapproval of Blomkvist's lifestyle, and the fact that he so easily jumps into bed with almost every woman he encounters in the book, but still considers them all "just friends," made it impossible for me to like him. Though I could tell from the way he is described that I would probably would have liked him, had I met him in person. And while Salander is an intriguing character I didn't feel like I got to know her enough to really care about what happens to her, at least not until the very end, when she shows some real depth of emotion for the first time.

While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a good book it didn't blow me away as I had expected it to after all the rave reviews I read of it. It wasn't until the end of the book, when Salander became more interesting to me, that I even considered following it up with the sequel. My less-than enthusiastic final impressions of the book might just be because this isn't my preferred genre. I'm sure I would have been a lot more impressed with it if Larsson could have snuck in a little bit of magic somewhere (or maybe a real dragon?). Kind of like MiƩville' The City and the City. Now that was a murder- mystery book that I enjoyed.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is another book that only came to my attention because it was so highly recommended by a trusted source, but in the end it didn't impress me as much as I had hoped.

It is the summer of 1950—and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story—of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder—but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….

While The synopsis of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie sounds exciting and colorful I didn't find myself particularly interested in the mystery of a missing stamp and a dead body. What really drives this story are the quirky characters, in particular the eleven year old Flavia de Luce. Unfortunately I didn't particularly like Flavia and I actually thought she was more disturbing than intriguing. There is just something wrong with an eleven-year old girl who plays around with poisons, and even tests them on her own sisters. Perhaps it's because I had to deal with my own share of annoying little sisters while growing up, but I found myself sympathizing more with Flavia's older sisters than for the book's young heroine. I would probably have tied her up and dumped her in a closet too (which is how the book starts off), if she were my little sister.

And while I realize that Flavia is meant to be a child-prodigy, some of her thoughts and observations are just too adult to be convincingly come from a girl her age, no matter how intelligent.

    The finely curved Legs of a Queen Anne wash-stand seemed almost indecent beside the gloomy Gothic bed in the corner, as if some sour old chamberlain were looking on dyspeptically as his mistress unfurled silk stockings over her long, youthful legs

While I appreciate the imagery conveyed in the above paragraph there is no way a child is going to casually compare a piece of furniture to a mistress's legs. I think I would have liked Flavia more if the author had given her a more child-like perspective rather than making her sound so much like an adult.

There were some moments when I felt myself softening towards Flavia, such as when she shows herself vulnerable through her intense desire for affection from her father. The rest of the time, though, I just found her irritating.

Both The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are books that I was entertained by, while reading them, but which I don't feel as passionate about as so many others seem to.


It sounds like you would have enjoyed these books more had you connected with the characters. And I agree with you about Blomvkist's sexually free lifestyle - especially since he didn't sound particularly attractive.

Meh, I would have to read this one in Swedish since it would be silly of me to read it in English...and, no

I have not read the Larsson book yet but its on my shelf. I heard its a bit misogynistic.

I loved the sweetness, Alan Bradley is such a wonderful author. He is amazingly articulate and to create a character like Flavia... brilliant.

I think Flavia is awesome. In fact Bradley says - as readers we believe anything - but to think that there could be such a smart 11 year old girl it is hard for us.

He asks why? and to have us consider that as readers.

Shellie: I have no trouble believing in 11 year geniuses but her voice was just too adult to be believable to me. Around the same time that I read Sweetness I also read When You Reach Me and I thought that author did an excellent job of creating a character much younger than me who I was still able to relate to and who came across as really real.

Blodeuedd: That's true. Though it would be interesting to read a review of the book from someone who read it in the original format.

StephanieD: Yes, I would have definitely stronger about each of the books had I felt more of a connection to the characters.

Hm, you have a point there, but then mysteries, thrillers, I don't care for them so could I review with an open mind...still

I made the mistake of watching the movie version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. On the plus side, Blomqvist doesn't sleep with everyone, so his lifestyle is down played. On the down side, the graphic scenes with Lisbeth were far more graphic than I could handle.

Blodeudd: I'm the same way. I usually only read mysterious that have some fantasy elements to them, like with The City and the City. Otherwise they just don't seem that interesting to me.

Redhead: I had a hard enough time listening to the scene with Lisbeth being read, I definitely would not want to watch it being played out. I don't think I'll be watching this movie.

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