Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec (Shane's book 6, 2010)

One of the most important of the Oulipian writers, Georges Perec is best known for Life: A User's Manual - a collection of interlinked stories about the inhabitants of an apartment block - and A Void - a novel most famous for having been composed without the use of the letter e. The translation, which repeats the feat, is well worth reading.

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This volume collects Perec's non-fiction work, though 'non-fiction' is perhaps not the best term for such a parade of flights of fancy, odd word games and barely-contained lunacy. There's also a clever Borgesian short story, 'Le Voyage d'hiver', in which an academic searches for the provenance of a mysterious book.

As I've said, there's plenty of silliness here and some of it is a little tedious. 'Two Hundred and Forty-three Postcards in Real Colour', for example, is simply a recitation of the messages from 243 postcards. It's fair to say that after about 43 postcards the point is made and the remaining 200 messages are a slog. 'Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four', meanwhile, is exactly that: a list of everything Perec ate over the course of a year.

Elsewhere though, Perec's obsession with life's tiniest details is entertainment and thought-provoking. 'Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books' is comical in its absorption with the task of maintaining a personal library. Anyone who has ever attempted such a task will be able to relate to Perec's problem, while also being pleased that they are not anywhere near as anal as the author, who offers 12 different ways of ordering one's books.

'Species of Spaces', the 1974 book which takes up the first third of this volume (and lends it its name), is a wonderful meditation on the world around us. Beginning with a contemplation of the space on the page before him, Perec gradually moves outwards to look at the bed, the bedroom, the apartment, the apartment building and so on, until he reaches the Earth itself and then, once again, space. It's an endearing combination of the comprehensive addresses that small children are inclined to give themselves and a scientific undertaking.

In amidst Perec's pendantry - why do we assign rooms based on their function, rather than, say, mood or days of the week? - are some genuinely illuminating observations. In being forced to look so closely at the things that surround us, it's impossible not to notice those things that we've taken for granted. It's a fascinating exercise and Perec is a brilliant guide, always writing with a smile.

That lightness of touch is extraordinary given Perec's upbringing. He was orphaned by the Second World War - his father died fighting the Nazis in June 1940 and his mother is presumed to have died in Auschwitz. Though little in this collection is autobiographical, the fate of Perec's parents is implicit in many of the pieces.

Perec's own career was a short one. He died in 1982, 17 years after he was first published. He was 45.

Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason (Shane's book 33, 2009)

This Icelandic detective novel is the third in a series starring Inspector Erlendur, however, it was the first one to be published in the UK. To further add to the confusion, it's also available under the title Jar City, which was also the name of the film based on the book. [amtap book:isbn=0099461633]

Erlendur is investigating the murder of an elderly man, found dead in his flat with a cryptic note left on his body. Were it not for the note, it would appear to be a burglary gone wrong. Some of Erlendur's colleagues suspect burglary anyway but Erlendur knows better and finds a link between the man and the death of a young child 40 years earlier.

And so we're plunged into a mystery that centres on a crime committed many years earlier and a lethal genetic abnormality running through a community. Like all good fictional detectives, Erlendur is divorced and while he doesn't have a drink problem, he does eat badly and barely sleeps. He also has a drug-addicted daughter who turns up here pregnant and trying to kick her habit.

Through his daughter Erlendur is drawn into a subplot about a bride who has disappeared on her wedding day. While the subplot is thematically relevant to the novel - family secrets, that kind of thing - Indridason doesn't do much with it and gives it a perfunctory resolution.

The writing is sparse and reads strangely at times - I'm not sure whether that's a product of the translation or not. Indridason has a dry sense of humour, for example he carefully avoids specifying whether Marion Briem - who provides Erlendur with a couple of tips - is a man or a woman.

Apart from the unusual genetics plot, this is a fairly straightforward detective novel. Erlendur methodically works his way to a solution but has a healthy dose of intuition and the requisite disrespect for authority. It's not a bad book but it is an unremarkable one. I don't plan to read any more of the series.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (Shane's book 27, 2009)

This 1890 novel, Hamsun's first, is widely considered to be a major influence on 20th Century literature. Hamsun wanted to write fiction that explored the psychology of characters and here he takes us inside the head of a starving writer in Kristiania, now known as Oslo.

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The writer, who remains unnamed, cannot afford food and eventually becomes homeless. We follow his train of thought, his rantings and his bizarre ideas as he teeters on the edge of madness. He's an egotist whose reach, it seems, exceeds his grasp when it comes to writing but he's not dislikable.

In his introduction to this edition, Paul Auster argues that it is impossible to empathise with the narrator but I found the opposite. While he can be frustrating at times and the pranks he plays on various strangers are bizarre, I found myself sympathising with his predicament.

The writer swings between pride and desperation, sometimes refusing help and at other times begging people for assistance. He always seems to misjudge the situation, begging those who won't help him and refusing those who want to help. Throughout, Hamsun makes him utterly convincing.

Hunger has been translated three times and this translation, by Sverre Lyngstad, is excellent. At the end of the book is an essay by Lyngstad in which he compares the previous translations with his own. He's merciless in his dissection of the mistakes of his predecessors, which makes the essay quite amusing but it's also a good illustration of the challenges a translator faces.

Hamsun was a fervent supporter of the Nazis in his old age, somewhat clouding his Nobel Prize-winning career. Regardless of what became of its author, this book is a must-read.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Shane's book 25, 2009)

It may seem unlikely, given the title, but Dead Souls is a comedy. Envisaged as a trilogy, only the first part was published during Gogol's lifetime. Elements of the second part, which Gogol attempted to destroy shortly before his death, were published posthumously.

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Dead Souls is a social satire detailing the efforts of Chichikov, a mid-ranking gentleman turned social-climbing conman, as he travels the Russian provinces with a bizarre plan. Chichikov approaches landowners and offers to "buy" those of their peasants who have died since the last census. Russian law at the time dictated that landowners had to pay tax on the serfs they had at the last census, regardless of whether they are still alive. By taking these 'dead souls' off the hands of the landowners, Chichikov appears to be doing them a favour. But what does he want them for?

His plan is little more than a MacGuffin and not terribly important to the novel. Instead, the focus is on Gogol's portrayal of the various landowners Chichikov meets. For Gogol, they too are dead souls, as is Chichikov himself.

Gogol's writing, translated here by Robert A Maguire, is exquisite. There is some wonderfully descriptive writing and his characters are drawn with wit and precision. Gogol's narrator is endearingly strange, frequently wandering off into poetic asides about the state of Russia or a certain kind of person.

It's a voice that would nowadays be described as postmodern. At one point the narrator apologises for the characters he's bringing to us: "And so, readers should not feel indignant towards the author if the persons who have been appearing so far have not been to their taste. This is Chichikov's fault, he is fully in charge here, and wherever he takes it into his head to go, we must plod along in the same direction too."

The Penguin edition presents the scraps of Gogol's second volume after the first. It's worth reading as a curiosity but is altogether more cumbersome, with a heavier tone and no clear sense of direction. Of course, it's highly unlikely to be anything like what Gogol would have wished to have published.

Clearly, Dead Souls should be judged solely on the first part. Elements of it reach across to Dostoevsky, back to Homer and extend forwards to Kafka. It's a masterpiece and essential reading for all.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Shane's book 24, 2009)

I'd read so many good things about this novel - in the press and from otherwise respectable people on Twitter - that I thought I'd give it a try. Unfortunately this Swedish murder mystery is terrible. It's badly written, it's poorly structured and, worse than either of those, it's dull.

Larsson was a left-wing journalist who originally set out to write a series of ten murder mysteries. He died after completing just three. The parallels with Sjowall and Wahloo are obvious but while the Martin Beck series relishes the banality of police work and yet remains compelling, Larsson's debut is sensationalist and action-packed but thoroughly boring. Where Sjowall and Wahloo are playful and subtle, Larsson is po-faced and blunt.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWTDT) has three sections. In the first, Mikael Blomkvist, a principled, crusading financial reporter at Millennium magazine, is disgraced when he loses a libel action to a wealthy industrialist, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom.

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In the second section Blomkvist is approached by Henrik Vanger, another wealthy industrialist whose grand-niece, Harriet, disappeared 40 years earlier. Vanger, convinced Harriet was murdered, asks Blomkvist to solve the mystery, under the guise of writing a biography of the Vanger family.

In the final section, Blomkvist gets his revenge on Wennerstrom and saves Millennium magazine for another sequel. Throughout all this Blomkvist is aided by Lisbeth Salander, a dysfunctional punk and hacker who gives the book its title. Salander is anti-social and lives life on the margins but, like seemingly every other woman in the novel is unable to resist the lure of the middle-aged and charmless Blomkvist.

There aren't many plot holes but the structure is slack and the book could easily lose 100 pages or more without consequence.

The first section of the book is quite promising, despite Larsson's clumsy labouring of the point that violence against women is a bad thing. That's hardly the most penetrating observation but nevertheless Larsson begins each chapter with some worthy statistics. One, claiming that 18 per cent of Swedish women have at some time been threatened by a man is followed later by news that 46 per cent of Swedish women have been subjected to violence by a man. Both alarming stats, to be sure, but how is it possible for more women to be actually assaulted than threatened?

The middle section is like a different novel, and a really, really bad one. Larsson piles one serial killer thriller cliche onto another as Blomkvist investigates Harriet's disappearance.

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He uncovers a serial killer guided by the Book of Leviticus who trains his son to be a serial killer too. While the father is a slavering maniac, the son becomes one of those ice-cold evil genius serial killers who has a torture room in his basement and disposes of his victims at sea to ensure they'll never be found.

While this sort of thing might cause Thomas Harris to wake up stuck to the sheets, to me it just sounds laughably daft. If it was mooted as an ITV weeknight thriller, even Robson Greene would consider it beneath him.

Moreover, this kind of schlock writing gives the impression that Larsson's message about violence against women is there simply to lend legitimacy to the very silly plot. First, in the real world most women are abused by husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers rather than by cackling serial killers. Second, the victims in this book are all anonymous and interchangeable. The empathy created by Sjowall and Wahloo in Roseanna or by Bolano in 2666 is entirely missing here.

It's a woefully shallow piece of work. Larsson's dialogue is wooden and his characters are underdeveloped. Only Salander is fully realised and, to me at least, she seems like a cartoon or video game character who has wound up in a novel by mistake. Her presence just makes the story more implausible.

In that context, Larsson's constant parade of statistics begins to make sense. He doesn't have the skill as a novelist to make his point through the story so he needs stats to do it for him instead.

There is some truly awful writing in places too. In one scene Salander's mother watches "sadly and anxiously" as her daughter leaves. Larsson ends the scene with the wretched: "It was as if she had a premonition of some approaching disaster."

Overall though, Larsson is simply lazy. The third and final section of the book is mostly just a list of events recounted in emails. It feels like the writer just can't wait to get finished.

I can't say I blame him. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is terrible; the worst book I've read all year.