Now that Canada Day has signalled the real start of summer, here's one suggestion on how to get the most bang for your beach-book buck: Devour the 2,000-page-plus Millennium trilogy by Swedish sensation Stieg Larsson.
The dark mystery series has basically become Harry Potter for adults: intricate, addictive and stuffed with memorable characters. All three very fat (another Potter-esque quality) books - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - are at the top of the bestseller lists and on the tip of everyone's tongue.
Or as my sister-in-law said to me, in bleary-eyed amazement, "I just read 800 pages in two days!"
If you ride public transit, the distinctive first two paperbacks are clearly the reading material of choice for women passengers, perhaps drawn and repelled at the same time by the trilogy's overarching theme of violence against women and its fierce feminist ethos.
Why can't we get enough?
For starters, at the heart of the series is an anti-heroine like no other: 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander, who is both victim (of an horrific, abusive childhood) and vanquisher (taking on perverts, bike gangs and government heavies). A mere slip, Lisbeth is heavily pierced and tattooed, bisexual and asocial to the extent that she may or may not register on the autistic spectrum. What's not to like?
But she is also a brilliant computer hacker who teams up with likeable middle-aged reporter Mikael Blomqvist, first to solve the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy young girl, then to solve the puzzle of her own life.
Then there's the back story: Stieg Larsson, himself an investigative reporter whose specialty was exposing extreme-right hate groups, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004 at 50, before the books were published. (Or was he killed? Conspiracy theorists, sign in here.)
Now his heirs - his brother and his long-time live-in partner - are fighting over the spoils. There are rumours that Mr. Larsson's partner Eva Gabrielson (who amusingly told the New York Times that Mr. Larsson made his alter ego Blomqvist sexual catnip for just about every woman in the book, because he had to have some compelling quality to counter the magnetic Lisbeth) is using an almost-finished fourth book on Mr. Larsson's laptop as a bargaining chip. Oh please, can we have it now?
Make no mistake. These books are very Swedish. For many readers, the country has primarily meant IKEA, which, as everyone knows, is Swedish for "out of stock." In fact, the characters - Modig, Erlander, Malm - sound like the names of those bookshelves (and indeed the heroine shops there). But now we are all conversant with Stockholm's trendier areas such as Sodermalm, and with the fact that so much coffee is guzzled in Sweden that in every crisis, the first thing anyone does, unless they are literally bleeding to death, is turn on the coffee machine.
Mr. Larssen also thought nothing of subjecting us to a torrent of facts about the intricacies of secret government security forces, corrupt business empires, the sex trade and even the geopolitical aspects of the toilet industry.
But the plots are on fire. I finished the second volume - 724 pages, plus a 13-page teaser for the last book - in a day and a half, beating my sister-in-law's time by a good few hours. The final volume is only available in pricey hardcover. But after calling around the city, spending one Friday afternoon driving through a maze of rush-hour traffic, parking illegally and dashing frantically into my chosen bookstore, I was able to get it for less than $25. I might as well be on crack.
The books have already been turned into Swedish movies. The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second film, opens next week. (Of course, Hollywood has a remake in the works, scheduled for 2011.) I was a little shaken by the first movie. While Swedish actress Noomi Rapace is brilliant as Lisbeth, it is incredibly violent - featuring multiple rapes, including a woman-on-man revenge attack that was a little less graphic in the book.
The message to men is that if you use your power - physical or political - to mess with women, well, at least one young woman is coming to get you. So should men in general be taken aback by the success of these books? Are they a dark fantasy for women who feel oppressed or abused?
I don't think so. They are an irresistible blend of espionage, crime potboiler, journalism - and, yes, girl power. There's enough kick-ass vigilantism for everyone who feels powerless in the face of global or personal challenges. A sort of "go-ahead-make-my-day" for the post-feminist generation.
When I closed the last page of the last book, I finally knew how millions of children everywhere must have felt when Harry Potter ended: "But what will I do now?"
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