Violence, misogyny and computer hacking in a dark Swedish thriller

<strong>THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET&rsquo;S NEST</strong><br />BY STIEG LARSSON<br /><strong>Quercus, &pound;18.99</strong><br />****<br />THE THIRD in the Millennium trilogy, this is perhaps the only one of best-selling Swedish thriller writer Stieg Larsson&rsquo;s books that cannot be fully enjoyed on its own. The fascinating heroine and the plot &ndash; it opens with Lisbeth Salander being rushed into hospital with bullets in her shoulder and head after suffering an attack at the end of the previous book &ndash; make sense only if you&rsquo;ve read the previous one.<br /><br />Salander&rsquo;s exploits in the previous book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, included getting mixed up in a triple murder and trying to kill her father, who is now lying a few doors down from her in the hospital. Angry prosecutors want her saved so that they can try her for the triple murder and lots more.<br /><br />Salander&rsquo;s plans, once she comes to, are to get on with punishing her assailants. It&rsquo;s not just them, though &ndash; as anyone with any familiarity with this trilogy will know, the list of Salander&rsquo;s targets is long, and focuses on the violent men responsible for her life&rsquo;s pain, and the institutions that messed her up as a child and which are waiting to receive her again if the authorities have their way.<br /><br />Larsson, a renowned antifascist and an authority on extreme right wing and Nazi groups who died unexpectedly after he submitted this trilogy, has created a character that few men a would have thought up. Salander is the mouthpiece for Larsson&rsquo;s preoccupation with men&rsquo;s hatred of women &ndash; and as such she is so outrageously tough and clever and tattooed that she almost becomes a kind of perverse male fantasy.<br /><br />But Salander is an enthralling, refreshing and much-needed heroine, a combination of fury, strength, violence and supreme computer hacking skills. As such, she manages to ultimately kick her way through the hornet&rsquo;s nest of a distorted and depraved society. Her triumph is gratifying, and bittersweet because it heralds the end of her adventures.<br /><br /><strong>THE WINTER GHOSTS</strong><br />BY KATE MOSSE<br /><strong>Orion, &pound;14.99</strong><br />**<br />THIS IS the third book in another trilogy, Kate Mosse&rsquo;s Languedoc series. The first, Labyrinth, got her onto the New York Times Bestseller list and made her a mega publishing force &ndash; she&rsquo;s a female, more nuanced Dan Brown. The second book, Sepulchre, continued in the same vein and was also long, complex and loaded with legend, with plenty of Mosse&rsquo;s speciality of shuffling characters between worlds and centuries.<br /><br />The Winter Ghosts is a smallish tome compared to the other two books and my, it is enticingly packaged, with a deep blue cover ringed with silver frost and sparse trees that practically shiver with romantic mystery. The font of the book is enormous and interspersed with empty, eerie illustrations of French villages and woods. The result has been billed as a novella rather than a novel, but the text being somewhat light on substance anyway, this book ends up feeling more like an exercise in packaging than a story.<br /><br />The plot, thin though it is, is compelling enough. It&rsquo;s the winter of 1928, and the narrator Freddie is still haunted by his brother&rsquo;s wartime death and fears for his sanity. He&rsquo;s travelling through Southern France in search of peace when his car spins off a mountain road during a storm. Alive but shaken, he stumbles into the woods and takes refuge in an isolated village where he meets Fabrissa, a beautiful woman who is also in mourning. In the course of one night, Freddie and Fabrissa share their stories and by the time dawn breaks, Freddie is grasping the key to a heart-rending mystery.<br /><br />The book has a strange, mythical quality, which is enhanced by Mosse&rsquo;s sensitive rendering of rural southern France. But on too many levels, it&rsquo;s such a slim volume you feel as though you can see straight through it.<br /><br /><strong>THE PERFECT MAN</strong><br />BY SHEILA O&rsquo;FLANAGAN<br /><strong>Headline Review, &pound;12.99</strong><br />***<br />THE HEROINE of this novel is Britt, a best-selling romance writer (Sheila O&rsquo;Flanagan, best-seller herself and former banker, swears this isn&rsquo;t autobiographical) and has been invited to celebrate Valentine&rsquo;s Day with a luxury cruise around the Caribbean. In place of her agent, she brings her sister.<br /><br />Now, a Caribbean cruise around the time of V-Day may sound like heaven, especially for a romance expert, but for Britt it&rsquo;s actually hell. Recently split from her husband, sick and tired of men and deeply cynical about the prospect of meeting &ldquo;the one&rdquo;, she is in no mood to be aboard a floating loveboat. Her sister Mia isn&rsquo;t in much better shakes as a single mum who has also failed to find romantic harmony &ndash; but at least she still believes in soul mates.<br /><br />Britt&rsquo;s sharp tongue and knack for putting men in their place (often rightly) ensure that the cruise is awkward for both sisters &ndash; and the fact that they&rsquo;re spending more time together than they have in years doesn&rsquo;t help much.<br /><br />But what&rsquo;s this? Men, delicious, irresistible men hoving into view on the girls&rsquo; return? Do such men exist, and if so, what about the death of true love? Suddenly things start to look very different, and a good bit rosier than they did before. O&rsquo;Flanagan fans will guess the outcome &ndash; for first-timers, here&rsquo;s a hint: the ending is happy and involves a nice dose of the L word.