29 December 2006

Bibliophile reviews To love and be wise by Josephine Tey

A belated Merry Christmas!

I apologise for the long break, but I have been working on a translation and have had neither time nor inclination to write reviews.

Series detective: Inspector Grant
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1950
Type of mystery: Missing person, possible homicide
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural England, 1950s
Some themes:

...there was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, that it is impossible to love, and to be wise.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), "On Love"

I thought it suitable to give the relevant full quote from which the book's title is derived, as it has a bearing on the story told in the book.

Said story is a delicious detective tale that knowingly and effectively breaks one of Van Dine's principal rules of detective fiction, but since it would give away too much to reveal which one, I will leave it to you to find out. I will say that a character in the book manages to disprove Bacon's statement, but to find out more you must read the book.

Story: Leslie Searle, an accomplished and famous photographer of the rich and famous, is invited to stay with Walter Whitmore, a famous radio show host, at his country house. Leslie charms almost everyone there, not the least Walter's fiancée, Liz, much to her mother's consternation. Walter and Leslie decide to make a book together about a river that runs through the village, Walter writing the text and Leslie taking the photographs. On the night of the fourth day of their journey down the river by canoe, Leslie disappears without a trace and Inspector Grant of the Scotland Yard is called in to investigate what proves to be a very difficult case indeed.

Review: The story is enjoyable and is told in a flowing and slyly humorous style, even when the suspicions of foul play are the strongest. Tey is the only author I have come across who can make Georgette Heyer's light and humorous style look ponderous by comparison. I wouldn't have noticed this except the book I read ahead of this one was a Heyer mystery.

I can't say much about the plotting, as it would give away too much, but let's suffice to say that if you enjoy detective stories only if they follow the rules slavishly, you will probably be upset by it. If, on the other hand, you enjoy seeing how the rules can be broken while still telling an enjoyable story, you will enjoy it – perhaps even love it – as I did.

Rating: A highly enjoyable and somewhat unorthodox detective tale. 4 stars.

17 December 2006

Bibliophile reviews the movie Mýrin (Jar City)

The film Mýrin (The Mire)is based on the book of the same title by Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason. It was published in English as Jar City (also as Tainted Blood). I read the book a couple of years ago but never got round to reviewing it. Here is a link to Maxine's review: Jar City review.

The story begins with the discovery of the body of a murdered man in a basement apartment in a neighbourhood known as Norðurmýri, The North Mire, so-called because that is what was there before the houses were built. He turns out to have been a vicious thug and the investigation soon leads the police to start trying to find the victims of crimes he committed years before and which may explain why he was murdered. They also decide to re-open the investigation into the disappearance of one of his cronies many years before, an investigation that was closed with what Erlendur, the leading investigator, thinks is suspicious haste.

The movie was directed by Baltasar Kormákur who is probably Iceland's best film director right now. Being an actor himself, he is good at getting the best out the actors he directs and it shows in his films.

When I first heard that Ingvar E. Sigurðsson was to play the lead, Erlendur, I was not convinced that he could do it properly. For one thing, he looks nothing like what I had imagined Erlendur to look like, and secondly he is about 10 years too young and youthful-looking to boot. I need not have worried – Ingvar is one of Iceland's best actors and pulled the role off very convincingly, as did Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir who played his daughter, drug addict Eva, and Atli Rafn Sigurðsson as a young father driven to desperation by the tragic death of his daughter, to name only three of the characters. Everyone was, in fact, very good in their roles.

The changes to the story from book to movie were minor and were, in my opinion, necessary for the cinematic adaptation. The movie is filmed in colours that reflect the moods of people and nature, the colours being warm and homey inside Erlendur's apartment, cold and stark in an early funeral scene, and at other times sepia coloured or almost monotonous. Nothing is beautified, the people look like people, not beautifully made up dolls like in most Hollywood movies, and nature looks by turns harsh and beautiful. The director has not given much into the mania common among Icelandic film makers to show off the country to its best advantage with endless landscape shots but has mostly stuck to a few aerial views of roads winding through black and green lava fields which look very good but get a bit repetitious after the second one. In between are scenes of Icelandic weather at its howling, windy worst.

In her review of the book, Maxine mentions an impossibility that mars the story somewhat. That particular plot device is made a little clearer and more believable in the movie. It takes massive suspension of disbelief to accept that anyone could break the coding system Decode Genetics uses to hide the identities of the people included in their genetics studies, but having seen what can happen if many enough people are careless enough, the explanation of how the system was bypassed that is given in the film becomes somewhat believable.

The story as it is told in the movie is an emotional rollercoaster, often sad, even tragic, but sometimes very funny as well, especially in scenes involving Erlendur's young colleague, yuppie type Sigurður Óli who fancies himself to be a cop like the ones you see in American crime movies (right down to doughnuts and take-out coffee). It says something about the skill of the filmmakers that you can laugh at a movie that has so much ugliness and tragedy in it as Mýrin does.

Many reviewers have called Mýrin the best movie ever made in Iceland. I can not be a judge of that, as I have not seen all Icelandic movies, but I will venture to say that it is the best and most realistic crime movie ever made in Iceland. See it if you can – while it may lose something in translation the visual aspects are still the same. I also recommend reading the book beforehand as it can only add to the enjoyment of the movie.

Rated 8 out of a possible 10.

06 December 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Roads to Sata (travel) by Alan Booth

Subtitle: A 2.000 mile walk through Japan
Year published: 1985
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: Japan, 1980's

Booth had been a resident of Japan for 7 years and spoke the language fluently when he embarked on a walk from the country's northernmost corner at Cape Soya, to it's most southernmost, Cape Sata, in an effort to learn to understand Japan and the Japanese better. The book describes his mostly lonely journey of several months, his visits to tourist sites along the way and to places no tourist would ever go, and his encounters with people that ranged from absurd to funny to near tragic. He met people who refused to believe he spoke Japanese even though he did, people who viewed him like a circus freak and people who were afraid of him, but also people who accepted him with open arms and showed him kindness and friendship.

The most striking things about this travelogue, apart from the high quality writing, is the author's feeling of alienation towards his adopted homeland. He desperately wants to understand the culture of Japan, but the Japanese seem for the most part to be inscrutable to him. There is an aura of sadness over much of the book and while he did experience all sorts of weather, somehow it remains in the mind as a description of a rather rainy journey. While not very much happened to him in the way of adventure, the book is still an interesting and well written account of one man's attempt to understand a foreign culture and where he himself stands in relation to it.

Reviewers who are familiar with Japan and the Japanese say the book gives an accurate account of what any foreigner can experience upon visiting the country, and some have said it should be required reading before visiting Japan.

Rating: An interesting tale of a journey from one end of Japan to the other that deserves to become a travel classic. 4+ stars.

05 December 2006

Mystery author #26: Catherine Aird

Title: Henrietta Who?
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1968
Type of mystery: Murder, identity
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural England, 20th century, post WW2

Story: Grace Jenkins is found dead, a hit-and-run victim, in the middle of a village road, and her autopsy shows two things: her death was no accident and she can't possibly be the biological mother of Henrietta, the young woman she has brought up as her daughter. But who was she then, and what's more important: who is Henrietta? She and her boyfriend, and DI Sloan and his men race to try to find the answers, which prove to be, if not entirely unexpected for the reader, rather shocking for the characters.

Review: Here is a genuine old-fashioned mystery with a classical twist. I can't say too much about it, as the whole story hinges of it, but it is about identity that may or may not have to do with the murders that take place in the story. The reader of course suspects certain things about Henrietta right away, and is either disappointed or happy when they turn out to be true. There is only one early clue that points in the direction of the killer, and it is so small that you can miss it if you blink at the wrong moment, but once the police have established who their favourite suspect is, the reader has pretty much figured out the same thing as DI Sloan.

Rating: A somewhat predictable but enjoyable mystery about murder and identity. 3+ stars.
Title: The Body Politic
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 13
Year of publication: 1989
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 20th century, post WW2

Mining engineer Alan Ottershaw accidentally kills a man in a (fictional) Arab country, which calls for an automatic sentence of death. He escapes to England but dies while participating in the re-enactment of a medieval battle. His death seems to be natural but after the cremation something mysterious is found among his ashes that indicates he could have been murdered. The mining company and the British government had good reasons for wanting him dead, as the country involved was the only country in the world where a certain (fictional) a metal important in some way for the military was mined, and the king had announced that unless Ottershaw be handed over, he would confiscate the company's assets in the country and drive them out. DI Sloan is at first baffled by the case, but things start to become clear once he begins to recreate what happened on the day of the battle re-enactment.

Rating: Well plotted story but rather colourless writing. 2+ stars.
Title: After effects
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 15
Year of publication: 1996
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 20th century, post WW2

Story: When a suspicious relative complains to the police about the death of his grandmother, who was taking part in a clinical drug trial, the West Calleshire police begin a standard suspicious death investigation that quickly turns into one of murder when the doctor directing the trials is found murdered, his suicide having been unsuccessfully faked. The pharmaceutical company directors seem to have something to hide, and some animal rights activists who oppose animal drug testing are also under suspicion. It is up to Sloan and co. to unravel the mystery and find out whodunnit and why.

Rating: A twisty but somewhat colourless mystery. 2+ stars.

Author & series review:
The DI Sloan series celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and the books number 21, the latest having been published in 2005. As in all series about the same people that cover such a long time, the author has, at least in the two newer books I read, been very careful not to make them too easy to date, in case anyone wonders why Sloan has not risen higher in the police force in all this time, and in fact seems to be pretty much the same age in all the books. As in many cosy series, there is a certain timelessness about the stories which means they could have taken place any time from the end of World War II to the end of the 20th century, or perhaps it's better to say that they happen in a sort of time vacuum.

Aird does not spend a lot of words on characterisation, and the stories are for the most part made up of narrative. I wish I could say something positive about the writing style, but I must admit that it is rather bland, and it is the plotting that makes the reader what to read on, not the writing. Aird is good at carefully hiding key clues so that if the books are not read with full attention, they can easily be missed. The first, and in my opinion, the best of the three, is predictable to a point, but only because it is about a classic mystery theme that has pretty much been covered in all possible ways, namely identity. Once one has figured out that identity, the killer is obvious, even though there are not a whole lot of actual clues. The latter two books, however, are more deviously plotted and the resolutions are somewhat unexpected.

These are all books you read for the plot, not for sparkling dialogue, characterisations or excellent writing, although there is some humour in them. I don't think I will especially seek out books by Aird in the future, but I have nothing against reading more of them, should the opportunity present itself.

Bibliophile reviews The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

This is the first of my From the Stacks challenge books I finish reading.

Year published: 1959
Genre: Biography, expatriate memoir

Robin and Tilly Grant and their 5 year old daughter, Elspeth, came to Thika in Kenya in 1912 to start a coffee farm. The book tells the story of the first years of their life on the farm until World War 1 started and Robin joined the army and Tilly and Elspeth left for England. With great clarity and beautiful prose Elspeth writes about the people, both Africans and European settlers, about nature and animals and events. She writes about what she saw as a child, but with an adult’s insight. The narrative is somewhat disjointed at times, as she often jumps years forwards in the middle of a sentence to show what the future outcome of some action or event was, and sometimes I was not sure she had gone back to the same place in the narrative where she had been before the jump. Her story gives an insight into the problems faced by the white settlers of Kenya and often reveals how woefully unprepared they were for the life that awaited them out on the African plains and how little they understood the native culture and ways of thinking.

While I enjoyed the book, it did not grab a hold of me like some memoirs have, possibly because I found myself unable to “enter” the story. Often, when reading about other countries, I have been able, to an extent, to feel I am there while reading, but I did not get this feeling when reading this book. I think this is because the author keeps a certain distance – she describes things like she’s telling a story rather than remembering things, which makes it feel more like a novel than a memoir. This is perhaps not surprising as the book was written something like 40 years after the events in it took place.

Rating: A lyrical and beautiful account of a childhood in Kenya that unfortunately reads more like a novel than a memoir. 4 stars.

03 December 2006

November 2006 reading report

I read 21 books this month, mostly mysteries. I am behind with my reviewing, for which I apologise, but I have been reading, which is much more important that writing (for me). I read books by five new mystery authors last month, and will be writing reviews on them soon.

Reviewed and upcoming:
After effects and Henrietta who?: Catherine Aird
The Demon Archer: Paul Doherty
Detection Unlimited: Georgette Heyer
The Flame Trees of Thika: Elspeth Huxley
Death in the Andamans: MM Kaye
Prepared for Murder: Cecile Lamalle
The Dogs of Riga: Henning Mankell
Gideon's Day: JJ Marric
To love and be wise: Josephine Tey

The Cat who talked to ghosts: Lilian Jackson Braun
The Homecoming: Marion Chesney
Sex, lies and online dating: Rachel Gibson
Unreliable memoirs: Clive James
Cleopatra's sister: Penelope Lively
Notes from an Italian garden: Joan Marble
Living with books: Alan Powers
Korea: A walk through the land of miracles: Simon Winchester

Rereads: (unreviewed)
Eric: Terry Pratchett
Interesting times: Terry Pratchett
Sourcery: Terry Pratchett

Bibliophile reviews News from Tartary (travel) by Peter Fleming

Year published: 1936
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: China & India, 1930's

In 1935 the author and his travel companion Ella "Kini" Maillart set off from Peking to travel across Chinese Turkistan (Sinkiang) and all the way to India. The journey took them 7 months, alternatively by truck, on foot, on horseback and by camel, and without major mishaps (but many small ones). The author tells the story with wry humour (mostly at his own expense) and is often full of indignation at the natives for their treatment of their animals, while he carefully avoids admitting that he himself and his companion were also guilty of mistreatment of their own pack and riding animals. The descriptions of the landscapes are often beautiful, while the descriptions of the people they meet are unsentimental and sometimes somewhat coloured by British feelings of superiority, i.e. because he was British he seems to have felt that naturally he knew better how to do things that the natives did (it was sometimes true, but not always).

Review: Here is another of those "just because" journeys that, much like Eric Newby's trip in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, was probably made because it had never been done before by Europeans. Fleming does say that as a journalist he was interested in the political situation in the area, but it occurs to anyone who reads this book that the news he gathered could have been gained in an easier way and was, in all likelihood, unreliable and out of date by the time he got to India.

Fleming writes in an easy and flowing style, and the trademark English irony and understatement is never far away. This is one of those journeys that, while not wholly impossible, is probably in some ways a lot more difficult for outsiders to do today than it was back then, because of politics, but in other ways a lot easier – for example, my old atlas shows a railroad that, back in 1979 when the atlas was printed, covered half of the route Fleming took back in 1935.

Rating: An enjoyable and unsentimental description of a foolhardy and interesting journey. 4+ stars.

27 November 2006

Bad book covers revisited

I have mentioned on several occasions my dislike of bad cover art. Well, I'm not the only reader who feels insulted when publishers put something tasteless, confusing or just plain butt ugly on a book cover. Click on the link (the post title) to see the results from the annual All About Romance worst cover contest. Unfortunately I somewhow managed to miss the 2005 voting, but never mind - I plan on voting in the 2006 contest.

26 November 2006

From the Stacks report

I am finally reading the first book of the five I set myself. I am 8 1/2 chapters into The Flame Trees of Thika and liking it so far. I can not help but compare it with other African memoirs I have read, especially Karen Blixen's Out of Africa and the impressions of later visitors to the area, such as Evelyn Waugh and Dervla Murphy.

While the book attempts to show things from the point of view of a child, it is written with knowledge the child could not have possessed at the time, so it is interesting to see how Huxley balances her childhood memories with adult judgment and opinions.

21 November 2006

Can someone tell me why...

...some books smell like tobacco? I don't mean the ashtray-scented books that come from smoker's homes, but brand, spanking new books straight from the bookshop than give off a smell similar to a newly opened pouch of fresh pipe tobacco.

It's kind of a nice smell (it reminds me of my grandfather who used to roll his own cigarettes using pipe tobacco), but it seems to me it doesn't belong in books, and I have only ever smelled it on new or new-ish hardcovers.

19 November 2006

Bibliophile reviews A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (travel) by Eric Newby

Year published: 1958
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: Afghanistan, 1950's

In 1956 Newby and his friend Hugh Carless embarked on a quest to climb Mir Samir, a mountain in Nuristan, a remote area of Afghanistan. Considering that neither had any real mountain-climbing experience and they were badly under-equipped and not in very good physical shape, it is amazing how few accidents they had and that they managed to climb almost within sight of the top of the mountain, after which they travelled even further into Nuristan, apparently in order to become the first white men to visit the place.

Review: Eric Newby was a humourist in the best English tradition, a master of funny understatement and irony. This, while not his only travelogue, is the one he will be remembered for. It pops up on many lists of the world's best travelogues, and for good reason, and it seems destined to become a classic of the genre. It is well written, funny and interesting, and describes one of those marvellously pointless journeys that can only be justified by repeating a quote attributed to Sir Edmund Hilary on being asked why he wanted to climb mount Everest: "Because it's there". In this case, it was a mountain that, to anyone's knowledge, had never been climbed before, didn't seem too difficult for amateurs, and furthermore, was situated an area mostly unexplored by Europeans. This was enough for Mr.Carless, who then managed to lure his friend into coming along with him, for which we can thank him because the offshot was this book.

Rating: A funny and interesting account of a journey that today would be nearly impossible because of the political situation in the country. 4+ stars.

17 November 2006

Mystery author #25: Paul Doherty

Also writes as: Anna Apostolou, C. L. Grace, Ann Dukthas, Michael Clynes, Paul Harding, P. C. Doherty, Paul C. Doherty, Vanessa Alexander. Some books have been published under two different names: one of the above, and later the name Paul Doherty, which I believe is his real name and under which he now writes all his books.

Note: Much of what I want to say about the writing style and characterizations and plotting and so on is applicable to all three books, so I will put it in the author review.

Title: The Nightingale Gallery, being the First of the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan
Series detective(s): Brother Athelstan, a Dominican friar, and Sir John Cranston, coroner of London
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1991, under the name of Paul Harding; reissued in 2002 under the name of Paul Doherty
Type of mystery: Murder, locked-room
Type of investigator: Amateur and professional
Setting & time: London, England, 1377
Number of murders: 4
Some themes: Locked-room murder, adultery, usury, temptation, religion.

Story: Brother Athelstan has been sent by his prior to a very poor parish in London to atone for his sins and part of his punishment is serving as a scribe and assistant to Sir John Cranston, the drunkard coroner of London. They are assigned to investigate the death of a rich goldsmith who had lent money to John of Gaunt, the newly appointed regent of England. The murder took place in a locked room and Athelstan is able to ascertain that the servant who was thought to have committed the murder and then killed himself, was also murdered. However, it takes more suspicious deaths before Athelstan and Cranston are able to discover the identity of the killer.

Rating: A historically detailed, well-written, suspenseful and complicated mystery. 3+ stars.
Title: The Hangman's Hymn
Series detective: None
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 2001
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, appointed by law
Setting & time: England, mostly Gloucester, late 1300's
Number of murders: Many
Some themes: Witchcraft, devil worship, poverty, social injustice, the hangman's trade

The premise of this series is that Chaucer's pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales each tell more stories than the ones Chaucer wrote about. In fact, Chaucer is a minor character in the stories.

Story: Events on the road between stops lead to Simon, the carpenter, being asked to tell his tale. He had come to Gloucester in the hope of attracting the attention of a young woman, but her father had prevented him from doing so and he had been robbed of all he had, even his clothes. He is rescued and accepts the position of assistant hangman in order to earn some much needed money. One night he and his fellow hangmen attend a secret trial of three women accused of horrible serial murders, sacrifices to the devil. The hangmen are then ordered to take them deep into the nearby Forest of Dean and hang them and keep watch over the bodies for three days before burying them. The hanging is carried out but a storm drives them to seek shelter during the first night, and in the morning the bodies are gone. Almost immediately they begin to be haunted by strange sounds and visions of the disappeared women, and one by one the men who attended the trial are murdered. In the end it is up to Simon to dig deeper and investigate the murders to find the leader of the coven so they can be stopped.

Rating: A dark mystery thriller that should appeal to all mystery lovers and quite a few horror lovers as well. 4 stars.
Title: The Demon Archer
Series detective: Sir Hugh Corbett, Clerk of the Secret Seal
No. in series: 11
Year of publication: 1999
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Professional
Setting & time: England and France, early 1300's
Number of murders under investigation: 4
Some themes: Family relations, lechery, religion, revenge

Story: Sir Henry Fitzalan, an important emissary of king Edward I is assassinated by a mysterious archer. At the same time, the body of a young woman is found in Ashdown forest, Sir Henry's estate, with an arrow wound in her throat. The king sends Sir Hugh Corbett to investigate. He discovers that Sir Henry knew something that could seriously inconvenience King Philip of France, and also that he was hated by many people, including his siblings. Among the suspects are Sir Henry's brother, his verderer, and the mysterious outlaw known as the Owlman.

Rating: A complicated and twisting historical mystery, full of intrigue and dark deeds. 3+ stars.

Author review: Paul Doherty is a historian. Many of his mysteries, including all three I read for this review, take place in fourteenth or fifteenth century England, which is not surprising considering that he wrote his doctorate about the reign of Edward II of England (1307 to 1327). The richness of the historical tidbits he includes in his books shows his familiarity with the era, but he has also written mysteries that take place in Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt and Classical era Greece. Unfortunately I was unable to get hold of any of those books.
The writing is expert, the storytelling excellent, and while I had all three murderers figured out before mid-book, the mysteries are by no means weak - Doherty just seems to firmly believe in Rules no. 1 & 2 of mystery writing and plays completely fair with the reader. It was fun to see the sometimes complicated plot twists that led to the final resolution of each story. The style of The Demon Archer and The Nightingale Gallery is similar, those two being straight mysteries, but The Hangman's Hymn is a bit different. It is as much a thriller as it is a mystery, and most of the story is quite dark, even supernatural at times, as befits a book that deals with evil and devil worship. Doherty's characterisations are excellent, and even minor characters are fleshed out and made realistic. All of this comes together to make entertaining stories that are difficult to put down. I think I can safely say that I have found another author whose books I will seek out.

Bibliophile recommends: Gerald Durrell

I discovered Gerald Durrell when his classic memoir, My family and other Animals, was translated into Icelandic. My brother and I loved to be read to, even after we could read perfectly well ourselves, and our mother loved to read to us. The two books she read to us most often were My Family… and Tolkien’s fantasy story The Hobbit. Both books were pure magic to us, Tolkien’s because of the fairy tale element and Durrell’s because of the humour and his talent for description, of places, nature, people and animals.

Later, when the family was able to afford holidays abroad, we bought Durrell’s other books whenever we found them, and now my mother and I have most of his memoirs and two of his novels in our book collections. My Family… is still just as magical as it was when I was a child, and is one of my perennial reads. Other favourites include The Bafut Beagles, The Whispering Land and The Drunken Forest.

Durrell’s prose is beautiful and flowing and he writes with humour about himself and his family, his animal collecting expeditions, nature, people and animals he met, and about the zoo he established in Jersey.

16 November 2006

Some fantasy novels I have enjoyed

I haven’t been reading much lately (only six books this month so far), and have been suffering from selective writer’s block as well – I have something like six half-written reviews on the go and can’t bring myself to finish them, but find it perfectly easy to write short essays. To keep the blog going, here is a list of book recommendations I wrote ages ago but never published until now:

First I have to say that my explorations into fantasy literature have not taken me far into the world of series fantasy. The reason is that I have too often discovered that the book I was reading was part of a series where the story was so interwoven with previous books that it was impossible to enjoy it without having read those first, or that the story actually started X books ago, and/or would not end for another X books. I have nothing against series, but each book must be readable as an independent story with a solid beginning and end to interest me. This goes for any genre. The only exception is when I can be sure of getting all the books in the series to read in chronological order. Reading them in order allows me to enjoy character development and to detect when the series starts going downhill.

Oldies and Classics:

Gulliver’s Travels - Jonathan Swift. Satire, adventure, alternative reality.
Wonderfully imaginative adventure and scathing social and political satire combine to make this a great story. Many readers will only be familiar with the first two books of this masterpiece, about Gulliver and the Lilliputians and Gulliver and the Brobdingnagians, but there are two more which have received less attention. Swift would not have called it fantasy – to him it was social satire, using fantastic elements to draw out the ridiculousness of certain people and institutions – but most modern readers read it more as a fantasy than as a satire.

Phantastes - George MacDonald. Adventure, fairy tale fantasy.
Here is an author who influenced both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and was instrumental in having Lewis Carroll submit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for publication. Yet he seems little regarded today, except by serious fantasy fans who are interested in the origins of the genre. I challenge any serious fan of fairy tale fantasy to read Phantastes - you will not regret it. There is a development of themes in it that can be seen in later works by other authors, and a clever reworking of old fairy tales and myths.

Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. High fantasy.
Although LOTR was far from being the first fantasy novel, it was among first that showed the precision and attention to background detail that made the world it depicted seem real to its readers. Many readers criticise it for all the detail, which they feel bogs down the story, but don’t realise that without all this background, it would just be another good vs. bad saga that might already be forgotten.

The Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis. Adventure.
When I was young enough not to detect the religious content I found this series absolutely wonderful. I have not read any of the books since I was in my teens, but remember them with fondness.

Peter Pan - James M. Barrie. Adventure.
This story fascinated me when I was a child. I saw the Disney movie when I was quite young, and later, when I read the book, it became one of my favourites. To be able to fly like Peter Pan was a childhood dream. I have not been able to bring myself to read it after I grew up, out of feat that it will be spoilt by reading it through critical, adult eyes.

The newer ones:

The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. Humorous fantasy.
Pratchett has created a world that seems very real, although I wouldn’t want to live in it (a short visit would be nice). The early books are lighter and more laugh out loud funny, while the newer books are darker and give you things to think about, while still being funny, although often in a tragicomic way.

The Harry Potter books – JK Rowling. Magic, alternative reality.
It seems to be fashionable in some circles to criticise the Harry Potter books for nothing more than being popular. The fact is, though, that the Harry Potter books are well written, well plotted, good reads (with one exception, and even that had some merits), that are written to grow with young readers. Unfortunately The Order of the Phoenix nearly put me off the series, and while I want to know how it all ends, I think I will wait until I can borrow the next book rather than buy it.

American Gods - Neil Gaiman. Dark, mythological fantasy, alternative reality.
Dark fantasy mingled with horror and interwoven with mythology. About a war between the old gods and the new gods, and a human who gets mixed up in it.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various graphic artists. Alternative reality, mythological fantasy.
Completely captivating graphic novels.

The Chronicles of Pern – Anne MacCaffrey. High fantasy that changes into science fantasy.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading those, even when the same story was repeated up to three times from different viewpoints. I lost interest when MacCaffrey turned the fantasy/science fantasy (quite unnecessarily) into science fiction. The last book I read in the series was Dragonsdawn, which, while a credible explanation of the origins of the dragons, was a letdown because it rationalised something that didn’t need to be rationalised.

The Neverending Story and Momo – Michael Ende. Adventure.
Ende was a genius when it came to writing fantasy that appeals to all ages and these two deserve status as classics of the genre.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. Mythological fantasy.
I was quite young when I first read this, and found it fascinating. It’s the story of Merlin and his involvement with King Arthur, told by Merlin himself. For a long time I thought it was a standalone book and found the ending rather abrupt, but later I discovered that there are three more books, which I have been trying to get hold of.

15 November 2006

Organising your books, continued

Link to part 1
How I organise my own library:

I am not the kind of person who needs to have everything perfectly organised – just organised enough to be able to find things fairly quickly without having to refer to a catalogue or index, and my system reflects that. This is a system I arrived at after several moves which I used as opportunities to try out different arrangements, since I had to take the books down from the shelves anyway.

Books I am reading are strewn all over the house, several in each room. Those I think I have been reading for too long and want to finish soon reside on top of the back of the living-room sofa. Another pile sits on one of the kitchen chairs, well out of splattering range of the stove but within an arm’s reach of the table.

Cookbooks and food reference books belong in the kitchen. Food history, food travel books, essay and article collections and foodie memoirs, however, go with the rest of the history, travel and biography books until I find a decent closed bookshelf for the kitchen. I don’t mind food stains in my cookbooks – it gives them character - but my non-recipe foodie books I want in pristine condition.

TBR books go in the home office, and so do the dictionaries and reference books, except the literary references which are shelved with the literature they refer to. TBR books are organised thus: all the mysteries and thrillers together by author (not alphabetical), all the romances together, and then the rest of them by colour. I act as a library for my mother, so all the books she has not yet read go on a special shelf. Everything is double stacked except the last category, but that is only because I’m keeping them in a CD case and it only takes one row of books. I would like to get shelves I can triple stack. I currently own more unread novels than read ones, but am working hard to change that.

Read books go in the bedroom. General fiction and genres I don’t have much of go together. Literature has a couple of double stacked shelves and blends into mythology, fairy tales and sagas which then blend into fantasy and science fiction. Gerald Durrell and James Herriot have a shelf to themselves, and my Terry Pratchett hardcovers have two. Mysteries go by themselves and also romances, and so do travelogues (along with a few outdated guidebooks I keep as mementos of my journeys) and audio books. Large format books in all genres except sewing, crafts and quilting go on the bottom shelves, and so do all the gardening books. Non-fiction has a book case to itself, with everything arranged in very broad categories, except quilting, sewing and craft books which have one whole shelf to themselves.

Most of my old children’s books and a few chosen school books are in boxes in the basement, as I can’t fit them into the apartment without resorting to having specially fitted bookcases made (a distant dream for when I have enough money to spend on such luxuries).

Dear reader: How do you organise your library? Are you a Dewey or Library of Congress organiser, or do you have a more eclectic system? Do you organise by colour? By size? By periods in your life? By price?
Tell me - I would like to know.

Here’s someone else who has been giving the matter some thought: : Sarah Crown asks readers to share their shelf help tips.

14 November 2006

The new Blogger

I have switched over to the new Blogger and am beginning to explore the possibilities it offers. The first thing I will be doing is to go back to the beginning and label all the posts to make it easier for my readers to find posts with similar themes. I am starting with the challenge authors and plan on having them all done by the end of the week and then I will label the other posts at leisure. Hopefully the work will be done by the end of the month.

This may confuse some feed readers - I know Maxine's has been reporting all the reposts.

Later on I may change the look of the blog, provided it will be possible to copy all the alterations I have made to the current template over to the new one. Who knows, I may even create my own personal template.

10 November 2006

Organising books

The photos below of the colour-organised bookshelves got me thinking about book organisation. I once got the task of organising a small school library. There were not a lot of books in it, probably about 1500 or so (certainly fewer than in my home library right now), but it was an eclectic collection of mostly reference books and novels, with some art and technical books in-between, all in no order at all, except fiction was kept in a different room so it wouldn’t get mixed up with the non-fiction. I decided right away that this was not a Dewey job and invented a coarse system that suited the library and the disorganised lending system.

This was the lending system: you took whatever books you wanted and returned them to the shelves once you were finished with them. Or not. There were no cards, no lending list and no catalogue, and most of the students (adults, one and all) could not be trusted to remember from what shelf they took the book, basically just sticking the books back wherever they found an empty space on the shelves.

I divided the books into broad categories: art & architecture, science & maths, guide books, geography & travelogues, etc. and stuck a coloured label on the spine where regular libraries put the Dewey label. Then I alphabetised the fiction by author and arranged the rest on the shelves alphabetically by the labels, knowing full well that that trying to organise them by genre would only end in confusion. The system meant that once you had learned the colour codes you could quickly find the kind of book you wanted, even though it was not in alphabetical order, because there were not a whole lot of books in each category, usually less than 100. I would be interested in seeing if the system is still in use...

Link to part 2.

08 November 2006

I've joined a group reading challenge

OK, so I am already doing a challenge of my own, but the 52 authors challenge does not have any time constraints (although I would like to finish it before the end of 2007).

I discovered this one through Jenclair's (mostly) book blog,
A Garden Carried in the Pocket. The challenge was issued by Michelle and is called From the Stacks. The aim is to read 5 books that have been languising in the TBR stack before 30 january 2007. Click on the above link to read the rest of the rules and join in the fun (there's prizes).

Here are the books I picked and the reasons why (besides having been TBR for too long). To be fair I have not included any book that I plan to read as part of my own challenge:

Conspiracy in Death by J.D. Robb, because I started reading the In Death series in order of publication but have been stalled at this book for nearly a year.

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, because it's been on my night table for a year and a half and I have fond memories of the TV series.

Rhoda: A life in stories by Ellen Gilchrist, because it seems like a fun book to read. I'm going to make it my bedtime read and read one or two stories every night.

The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo, because it's time I read some poetry (it's a novel written in blank verse).

My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel, because it's one of the oldest books in my TBR stack and I already read and enjoyed Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

Bibliophile reviews Borderlines (travel) by Charles Nicholl

Subtitle: A journey in Thailand and Burma
Year published: 1988
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: Thailand and Burma, 1986

The Story: Nicholl recounts his three month journey to Thailand in search of enlightenment in a forest temple. Instead he found the reality of Thailand, a land of contradictions where drug smuggling and prostitution exist side by side with ancient rituals and traditions and no-one seems to find anything unusual about it. He meets Harry, a Frenchman who trades in all sorts of commodities (although he denies being involved in drug smuggling) and accepts his offer of a guided tour of the Golden Triangle in return for picking up his Thai girlfriend and chaperoning her while Harry is off on an expedition to connect with people who can sell him gemstones. Katai, the Thai girl, turns out to be a complicated and intelligent young woman who is very conflicted about her relationship with Harry. Together the three explore the borderland between Thailand and Burma before Nicholl sets off for the jungle temple where he finds, if not exactly what he was looking for, then at least an insight into Buddhism and a bit of relaxation before his return home.

Technique and plot: Nicholl has the journalist's instinct for a good story, and that is probably what led him to accept the offer of a stranger to journey with him into the Golden Triangle. The account of the part of the journey spent in the company of Harry and Katai reads like a novel, and in fact had I not known this was supposed to be non-fiction, I would have taken it for one. Besides his instinct for sniffing out a good story, Nicholl also has ability to tell a good story, so that a rambling journey full of periods of waiting becomes an interesting exploration of feelings and relationships, interspersed with adventure and even some danger. The jungle temple episode serves to show Nicholls's final disillusionment with what he seems to have seen as the old mysterious and spiritual east – at least he doesn't seem to have got any enlightenment there, although he did acquire some insight into Thai beliefs and thinking.

Rating: An interesting journey in the Land of Smiles. 3+ stars.

Running out of steam

Has this ever happened to you?
You pick up a book, it turns out to be very gripping but you can’t finish it in one sitting so you put it aside and get on with whatever you have to get on with. Then the next time you have time to pick up the book – say the next day – you just can’t get into it. It doesn’t grab you the way it did when you started to read it and although you want to know how the plot resolves itself you no longer feel like reading it all the way through.

I’m sure this happens to many readers.

Right now, it is happening to me. I started reading Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian three days ago and expected to finish it in four sessions (it’s a large format book and 600 pages long), but when I came home last night and picked it up to start reading, I could not get into it. It sometimes takes me a chapter or two to get back into a book, but after five chapters I gave up and started reading a crime mystery instead. I’m still interested in the book, but last night when I was trying to read it I found myself distracted by the constant, nagging thought “I whish I was finished reading this”. I’m wondering if maybe it a case of overanticipation, that I was simply so eager to continue reading that it stopped me from being able to read. I guess I will find out tonight...

05 November 2006

Bibliophile reviews She Walks These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb

No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 1994
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: North Carolina, USA, contemporary
Some themes: Second sight, madness, family ties, ghosts, legend

Story: Police dispatcher Martha Ayers wants to become a policewoman. After some hesitation, Sheriff Arrowood takes her on, saying if she passes her probationary period he will send her for training and make her a full member of the small police force in Dark Hollow. Her lover, police officer Joe LeDonne, isn't too pleased and finds an outlet for his feelings that could break up the relationship. Meanwhile, an escaped convict is making his way towards the town and his ex-wife and daughter. He suffers from a mental disorder that makes him think he is still back in the sixties and it's only a few days since he last saw them. At the same time a student of folklore is trying to retrace the trail along which a young woman captured by Indians 200 years before escaped, and psychic Nora Bonesteel awaits the girl's ghost, which she has seen many times at that time of year. Finally, a young woman is having marital problems that Martha tries to help her with. All these stories cross and uncross and finally blend together as Martha, determined to prove herself by capturing the escaped convict, comes to realise that policing is both rewarding and very, very hard.

Review: While there is a more genuine mystery going on in this book than in the previous one in the series, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, this is still more than a mystery. It is written with the same skill as the previous book, and the characters are well-drawn and realistic. As in real life, not everything ends well, but some of the endings are inevitable, while others are not.

Rating: Another great installation in the superb Ballad series. Highly recommended. 4 stars.

04 November 2006

Reading reports for August, September and October 2006

As my regular readers will know, I was very busy doing other things than writing reviews during most of the summer, and neglected some of the regular features of this blog. One of these things was the reading report. Now I want to make amends, so here are reading reports for the last three months, all in one blog entry.

As always, if I haven't reviewed it, you can request a review.

August report:

The Seagull's Laughter: Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir (in Icelandic)
My sister's keeper: Jodi Picoult
Love bites: Lynsay Sands

Matarsögur: Sigrún Sigurðardóttir & Guðrún Pálsdóttir, eds. (interviews and reminiscences about food by Icelandic women, with recipes)
Nerd in shining armor: Vicki Lewis Thompson (romance)

Rereads: (Unreviewed)
Equal rites: Terry Pratchett
Lords and Ladies: Terry Pratchett
Wyrd sisters: Terry Pratchett
Witches abroad: Terry Pratchett

September report:

Reviewed and upcoming reviews:
Death of a hussy: MC Beaton (upcoming)
Anyone but you: Jennifer Crusie
Fasting Feasting: Anita Desai
Ritual murder: ST Haymon
A Very long engagement: Sebastien Japrisot
The Stone Boudoir - In search of the hidden villages of Sicily: Theresa Maggio
The Hangman's beautiful daughter: Sharyn McCrumb
She walks these hills: Sharyn McCrumb (upcoming)

Rereads: (Unreviewed)
Carpe Jugulum: Terry Pratchett
A Hat full of sky: Terry Pratchett
Maskerade: Terry Pratchett
The Wee Free Men: Terry Pratchett

October report:

Reviewed and upcoming reviews:
The Body Politic: Catherine Aird (upcoming)
Case histories: Kate Atkinson
The Roads to Sata: Alan Booth (upcoming)
The Hangman's Hymn and The Nightingale Gallery: Paul Doherty (upcoming)
News from Tartary: Peter Fleming (upcoming)
Last places: Lawrence Millmann (upcoming)
A Short walk in the Hindu Kush: Eric Newby (upcoming)
Borderlines - A journey in Thailand and Burma: Charles Nicholl (upcoming)
Wintersmith: Terry Pratchett

An author bites the dust: Arthur W. Upfield
Jumping the Queue: Mary Wesley

Comrade Don Camillo: Giovanni Guareschi (Icelandic translation)
Sourcery: Terry Pratchett

02 November 2006

Mooching books

One of the ways I aquire books is by trading them for other books, but many trading websites either cost money to use (meaning I could just as well go and buy the books) or are restricted to one country or continent. The one I have been using, TitleTrader, is international, well designed and easy to use, but there are not many traders there who trade to Europe. Most of the users are Americans who only trade within the USA, and if they trade abroad, it is usually only to Canada. The result is that it can take months before I find a book I want.

Now I have discovered BookMooch. Not only does it have loads of European traders, but it has a system that is designed to encourage traders to trade outside their country and continent: you get 3 trading points for sending to another country (only 1 if you trade within your own country), but you only have to pay 2 trading points to request (or mooch) a book from abroad (1 point for local books), meaning that a free trading point is generated every time you trade abroad. Furthermore, you are encouraged to list books by generating 1/10 of a point for each book you list.

The downside is that the website is not as well designed as the TitleTrader site and it can be hard to find things. For example, if you want to know if anyone has wishlisted a particular book, the only way of finding out is to browse through all the wishlists or actually list the book (edit: see comment by John). However, TitleTrader would do well to imitate some of BookMooch's features, such as the Save-for-later list, the ability to see a list of books and traders by country and the ability to gift trading points, not only to other members but also to charities (we have been asking for the last two for months on TitleTrader).

You do need to keep up a good trade-to-mooch balance: for every 5 books you mooch, you must trade 1, meaning you can not just list hundreds of books no-one wants, accumulate the points and then go on mooching without ever sending out a book.

If you are interested in trading with me, you can register for free at BookMooch. My member name is Netla.

Here is my current inventory.

01 November 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Stone Boudoir by Theresa Maggio

Subtitle: In search of the hidden villages of Sicily
Year published: 2002
Genre: Travel, memoir, social life and customs
Setting & time: Sicily, 1980s & 1990s

Theresa Maggio, a third generation Italian-American, describes her many visits to her grandparents' native Sicily over a number of years where she visited not only their native village, but also many other small and remote villages. Her purpose was to both to discover her heritage and to record the ways of life of Sicilian villagers, both traditional and modern.

Rating: A very enjoyable and informative book about a love affair with Sicily that is enough to make anyone want to visit the place. 4+ stars.

Stack of books...

Stacked, originally uploaded by Netla.

...nevermore to be read. Glued and screwed together to make a work of art. Kind of sad.

Location: Reykjavík City Library (main branch, second floor)

31 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter by Sharyn McCrumb

No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1992
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: North Carolina, USA, contemporary
Some themes: Life and death, second sight, cancer, madness, family ties

Story: Two teenagers are the only survivors of a family tragedy that ended in a triple murder and suicide, a woman expecting her first child is beset by loneliness and doubt, a young mother wants the best for her child, and an old man discovers that the cancer that is killing him may be the result of drinking polluted water. All of these stories begin to knit together little by little, with Sheriff Arrowood and seer Nora Bonesteel observing and occasionally participating in the story.

Review: Calling this installation in the Ballad series a mystery is simplifying things. It is not just a mystery but also a psychological thriller, a true-to-life story about ordinary people, and an ode to the Appalachians and their inhabitants. But "mystery" is perhaps as good a label as any, as the story is steeped in it – not the whodunnit or whydunnit kind, but the more indefinable mystery of life. At every turn you wonder what is going to happen next and sometimes you are right, but just as often you are totally wrong. The story is literary in the best sense of that word: beautifully written, well plotted, realistic and yet dreamlike at times, and McCrumb fully deserves the title of master storyteller. The murder mystery is only a small part of the overall plot and really solves itself, but Sheriff Arrowood is still an important character because he is a participant in all the stories told in the narrative, the central character who binds everything together, along with Nora Bonesteel who observes events from her mountain house, sometimes long before they happen, and offers comfort and advice to the participants.

Rating: A suspenseful story with much more to offer than a mere murder investigation. 4+ stars.

30 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews Ritual Murder (mystery) by S.T. Haymon

Series detective: Inspector Ben Jurnet
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1982
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, contemporary
Number of murders: 1
Some themes: Religion, drug-dealing, anti-Semitism, social injustice
Awards: The (British) Crime Writer's Association Silver Dagger Award, 1982

Story: A choirboy is found murdered in the cathedral of Angleby (a fictional town based on Norfolk) and signs on the body indicate that someone wanted to recreate the murder of Little Saint Ulf, whose holy bones are buried under the church and whose death had sparked a mass murder of the Jewish inhabitants of medieval Angleby. Ben Jurnet, who has now made a decision in the matter he was considering at the end of Death and the Pregnant Virgin (important for the story), is called in to investigate. He soon finds out that no-one seems to have liked the murdered boy much, but neither does anyone seem to have hated him enough to kill him. The murder sparks a riot by British nationalists, and two groups within their ranks start fighting for supremacy, with people Jurnet cares for getting caught in the (metaphorical) cross-fire. The solution of the mystery is a shock to everyone.

Review: This is a really good mystery. Not only is it hard to figure out – although certain bells had started ringing some before the end I only really realised who the killer was at the same time Jurnet finally did, near the end – but it is also well written. The plot is evenly paced and never flags, and the side-stories, one a lesser crime mystery, the other a tragedy, are both very good and are woven seamlessly into the main mystery near the end. The solving of the case here is much less intuitive than in the previous book, and is mostly the result of painstaking investigation and questioning of witnesses, but still it is hard to figure out what the solution is. Even an experienced mystery reader may be excused for being totally surprised by the final twist.

Rating: A suspenseful mystery that mingles together several storylines in the best tradition of master storytelling. 4+ stars.

Author review: S.T. Haymon
The two books I have read by S.T. Haymon are of a quality that should by rights have made her a classic author, but for some reason they haven't. These two novels are of a better quality than many mysteries I have read which have been reprinted over and over. Perhaps Haymon's work gets worse in the following books, or perhaps it was because she was not prolific (for a mystery writer), only producing 8 mysteries in a writing career spanning 16 years (she died in 1996). However that may be, all her books seem to be out of print, which is a pity because I want more. She delves into the mysteries with vigour and goes deeper into issues that come up in relation to the crimes her detective investigates than many authors do, and her characterisations are realistic and well-drawn. The language of the books is somewhat literary and the vocabulary may be occasionally challenging for a non-native speaker, which is by no means a bad thing.

Readers who have read both this book and the previous one in the series may well think Haymon the worst sort of atheist, with her obvious disdain and cynicism towards organised religion, but it seems to me that she is a true believer in God, but at the same time too much of a cynic to fully accept the trappings of organised religion.

While these two books are firmly in the tradition of the English village mystery where setting is concerned, the atmosphere in both is more sinister than what you would expect, for example, from Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, both of which have been evoked by previous reviewers when discussing Haymon. There is a dark cynicism at work in both books that makes them seem more real than the works of those two classic mystery writers, who have, in most of their works, seemed to me to be rather light-hearted about it all. Because the lead character is a policeman, he is involved in more than one case at every given time, and not all the crimes he investigates are fully solved, something that would be unthinkable in Christie or Sayers or most modern cosies.

All in all, I can heartily recommend at least Death and the Pregnant Virgin (unfortunate title, but a good mystery nonetheless) and Ritual Murder. I have the third book in the series as well, which seems to be a take on the country house mystery: Stately Homicide. We will have to see if it lives up to the expectations raised by those two.

Subscribe to Another 52 books

I thought I would make it a bit easier to subscribe to Another 52 Books. On the left sidebar just under my picture there is an icon like this one:

Just click on it and it will take you to my site feed where you can subscribe with any of several popular news readers, like My Yahoo!, Newsgator, Pluck, My AOL, and more.

Books as decoration

Books as decoration, originally uploaded by Netla.

Another shelf of books arranged by colour. I have done this myself, with my TBR books, but my other books are organised by a much more mundane and practical system: by size, then genre, then author (not necessarily alphabeticlly). I don't bother with organising by title because once I'm down to that I can easily find the book. Of course, I only have about 3000 books - I suppose once I hit 5 figures I will have to organise them with more precision...

27 October 2006

Color coded books

Color coded, originally uploaded by Netla.

A cool way of organising your books. Very decorative but I'm afraid this would massively annoy any librarian who came near it. Seeing books organised like this, by colour but not by tone, actually makes me look at them as individual books and not as a collection.

Location: Góði Hirðirinn charity shop, Reykjavík, Iceland.

26 October 2006

Jenny Crusie on quote whoring

I came across this interesting entry on author Jenny Crusie's blog. It's good to know at least someone takes these things seriously, even if I never use quotes as a buying criterion myself.

22 October 2006

Tension relievers for book lovers

You are anxiously waiting for someone or something, and need to put your mind off it so you will not start throwing things and screaming to relieve the tension. Books have a calming effect on you, but you are too wound up to read. Well, I've been there, and here are some suggestions for book-related activities:

Dust your books. Dust is an enemy to books just as much as dampness and sunlight.

If you are the type who finds books more by what they look like than by knowing exactly where they are, organise your books by size or colour rather than subject. I've done this with part of my TBR stash and they not only look good on the shelf, they actually look tempting, which might mean I will finally go and read some of them.

Hunt down lost bookmarks. I am a typical bibliophile and if I do something with books, chances are that many other book lovers do the same. I keep putting half-read books away with the bookmark still inside and don't realise I'm doing it until I run out of bookmarks.

Cull your books. It can be hard, but sometimes it needs to be done. Do you have books you have read to tatters and need to replace? Cull them and give them a respectable funeral, then put them on your shopping list. Do you have books that you have read once and know you will never read again? Cull them. Do you have books you bought five years ago and still haven't read? Chances are you will never read them, so give others a chance to enjoy them instead. Give the culled books to a library or a charity, trade them, sell them on EBay or have a garage sale. Think of all the lovely shelf space available for new books.

Get started cataloguing your library. Begin with just titles and authors, then find out which books are valuable. If you ever need to make an insurance claim, it pays to know what you have lost.

20 October 2006

My favourite bookshop

Uppáhalds bókabúðin, originally uploaded by Netla.

Although I buy most of my second-hand books at a local charity shop, this is the book-shop that is closest to my heart. I can browse in there for hours, just looking at book after book and soaking up the atmosphere.

Clicking on the image will take you to a bigger version.
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19 October 2006

Mystery author #24: Kate Atkinson

Title:Case Histories
Year published: 2004
Type of mystery: Literary mystery, murder, missing persons
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Cambridge, UK, contemporary
Number of suspicious deaths: 3
Some themes: Missing persons, family, hopelessness, murder

You may wonder why I am counting Kate Atkinson as a mystery writer. Simple: she has written two mysteries so far which is all it takes to make it onto my mystery author reading list. I am trying to get my hands on her other mystery, which is about the same lead character as this one.

Story: Jackson Brodie is a typical depressed, divorced and chain-smoking hopeless P.I. Three cases land on his table: a child's disappearance more than 20 years before, a 10 year old unsolved murder, and a missing person. The stories of Jackson's investigations into these cases, his private life and the lives of some of those involved intertwine and in the end some things are solved for the participants and others only for the reader.

Review: This is something of a flow-chart kind of story. The character's paths cross and uncross and recross and in the middle stands Jackson and tries to fit together the pieces of the mysteries. The characters are interesting and Atkinson doesn't just pull them out of a hat fully formed, but gives them backgrounds that explain why they are the way they are, whether it be the woman who grew up neglected, Jackson's daughter who in some respects is very mature and in others a complete innocent, or Jackson himself. The POW changes from chapter to chapter so that we get to see events and people sometimes from several different angles, and while the story starts slowly, it quickly picks up the pace. When I was about halfway through I found I could not stop reading it.
While this is a literary mystery, the plot is something you could easily find in a by-the-book mystery – it is the writing style and the character-driven story that makes it literary. Another thing that divides it from a by-the-book mystery is that there is no Justice in the sense it is usually understood in genre mysteries – the wrongdoers ending up in prison or getting punished by the Law. It is justice of a different kind that is dealt out in this story, and while there are resolutions, some of them are only for the reader, not the characters, to know, somewhat like real life. However, there is a certain fantasy element regarding Jackson that I found highly satisfying after having read so many stories about depressed, divorced and chain-smoking hopeless PI's who don't seem capable of ever changing...

Of interest to mystery fans is seeing how one of Van Dine's principal rules of mystery writing is soundly and successfully broken in the story, making it truer to life than a by-the-book mystery.

Rating: An enjoyable and interesting character-driven literary mystery. 4 stars.

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(not that they work – for some reason Technocrati only picks up the tags in my photoblog, not this one. Not that I intend to stop trying :-)

13 October 2006

Lovely old books

Lovely old books, originally uploaded by Netla.

I came across these lovely old books recently, while searching for used furniture at my favourite second hand shop. I thought they looked so lovely that I snapped a photo of them.

09 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews Anyone but you by Jennifer Crusie

Year published: 1996
Genre: Romance
Setting & time: USA, 1990s

Have I mentioned I'm a Jennifer Crusie fan? I am. Every time I open one of her books I know I am guaranteed a funny read, even when the story itself is disappointing (not that this one was).

The Story: Nina endured a long marriage with a social climber and finally divorced him. One of her gestures of independence after she is free is getting the dog he always denied her. However, when she goes to the pound to find a suitable puppy she spots Fred, a middle-aged, ugly and sad looking bloodhound-bassett mix who is about to be put down. She rescues him and takes him home, seriously doubting her own sanity, but happy that she has saved a life. Fred soon brings her into contact with her sexy younger neighbour, Max. The result is instant attraction on both sides but since Nina thinks Max is too young for her and Max thinks he isn't sophisticated enough for Nina, they become friends.
We all know how it will end, but I'm not going to reveal how.

Technique and plot: This is one of Crusie's early short novels, but some of her signature mini-formulas are in place already: the ugly but loveable pet, the somewhat untraditional couple, the interesting and funny extras, and a misunderstanding that stands in the way of the couple's happiness. It's pure formula, but as in her other books Crusie winks at it and produces a light and funny book that should satisfy any true romance fan and many others beside. In this particular book, the ugly pet gets to play cupid, and Fred is in fact the most memorable character in the book. This is not to say that Nina and Max are uninteresting, but Fred is such a strong personality and driving force that the story is really his.

Rating: An enjoyable and funny read – for both romance fans and dog lovers – too bad it's so short. 4 hearts.

08 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Year published: 2006
Genre: fantasy (aimed at young readers but accessible to all ages)
Setting & time: Discworld, whenever

The Story:
Tiffany Aching (heroine of The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky) is almost thirteen and is still in training to learn witchcraft. This time it's Miss Treason she is working for, a formidable old witch who is both loved and feared by the people she looks after. But old doesn't necessarily mean wise, and when Miss Treason refuses to tell Tiffany the significance of a dance they witness one dark autumn night, Tiffany ends up participating in the dance and catching the eye of the wintersmith, the powerful spirit of winter. But that is not her only problem. There is Horace, and Anagramma, and the Nac Mac Feegles, and Roland. What's a girl to do? Tiffany handles the problems in her own unique fashion, but I don't think I will say any more or it will spoil the fun of finding out for yourself.

Technique and plot:
The book is clearly written for younger readers. You see it, not so much in the language, but in the intertextual connections which are far fewer and more obvious than in the adult Discworld books. There is plenty for older readers to enjoy, however, like the sly references to other Discworld books that pop up when least expected. It is fun to be allowed to see old friends like Granny and Nanny through the eyes of someone from outside Lancre, and while they remain firmly themselves, new facets are revealed that their fans will appreciate.

As always, humour is never far away, and while the story gets quite dark at times, there is always a glint of hope for Tiffany and the others even when things look very bleak. There are sub-plots which tie neatly into the main plot as it progresses, and, as usual, Pratchett has not taken the easy way out and resolved them all with smiley happy endings, and some are not completely resolved at all. In fact, you get the feeling that there is at least one more Tiffany book in the offing (yay!).

I only have one gripe about the book: the book itself (the physical object) is in a different format than the previous two Tiffany books. I can see why – it's 400 pages long and a book in the smaller format of the other two would be as thick as a brick, but it's still annoying.

Rating: Another rich and entertaining tale from the master of funny fantasy. 4+ stars.

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30 September 2006

Cum laude...

I made it! My grade average is 9,06 out of 10, so I graduate cum laude. Now I think I will open that champage.

28 September 2006

Is it too much to ask for a spoiler warning?

I consider it a courtesy to the people who read my reviews to warn them if there is anything that could be called a spoiler in my review, and I expect the same from others, and although I do sometimes reveal spoilers, I would never, ever reveal the ending to a mystery. Others obviously feel differently. Today I came across a Robin Paige book on TitleTrader that had a review that suggested it was interesting. A visit to Stop! You're killing me showed that it was the second in a series, so off I went to Amazon.com to check out the star rating and, if I liked what I saw, to buy the first book in the series. And what did I find? An author's message by one half of the writing team that reveals the ending to a mystery I was about to start reading, and without a spoiler warning.

Thank you so very, very much, Ms. Albert. If this is typical of your tact in general, I don't think I want to read any of your books any time soon. How would you like it if someone forced the ending to your latest mystery on the world? Just because a book was written decades ago and the author is dead, it does not mean there are not people out there who haven't read it and don't want the ending revealed prematurely.

I am tempted to register on Amazon.com just so I can leave a comment to the message and give her a piece of my mind.

25 September 2006

It's done – TBR stack: here I come!

The thesis is done and is now at the print shop. I'm picking it up from the printers tomorrow to turn it in. I should feel euphoric, but I'm just tired – I put in a good sprint towards the finishing line and am now in a sort of post-victory daze. It's amazing how much work it is getting a thesis ready for printing: double-checking and proofreading and re-checking and making sure the printers can't mess up the layout and discovering last minute changes that need to be made and then nervously checking everything again.

Now all I have to do is turn the thing in and wait for my grades – I have hopes of graduating cum laude, but I'm not opening the champagne bottle until I know for sure. It will be wonderful to go back to reading just for fun – my TBR bookcase is double-stacked and overflowing, and I have sworn not to renew my library card until I have cleared at least a shelf.

I hope to have the blog running again at full speed soon.

17 September 2006

Mystery author #23: Sebastien Japrisot

Title: A Very Long Engagement
Original French title: Un long diamanche de fiançailles
Year of publication: 1991 (original), 1993
Type of mystery: Missing person
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: France, 1917-1924, with flashbacks and flash-forwards
Number of corpses: Many
Some themes: Love, hate, perseverance, truth, war crimes

I had originally intended to review One Deadly Summer (L'été meurtrier) because I had seen and enjoyed the film, but I didn't like the first person narrative style of the book and gave up on it. I also suppose it was not that exciting for me to read because I already knew what the surprise twist was. When I came across this book I remembered that there had been a critically acclaimed film of the same title and a random reading of a few lines told me it was not written in the same narrative style as the other book, so I bought it.

Story: In the winter of 1917 five French soldiers who have been sentenced to death for cowardice are pushed out into no-man's land between the French and German fronts. The next day, five bodies are recovered and buried in a common grave. After the war, Mathilde, the fiancée of one of the men, sets out to discover what really happened that night. She has never really believed her Manech was dead. Her investigations take her all over France and her patient questioning and doggedness lead her on a convoluted trail of clues and red herrings before finally the terrible truth about that night in no-man's land is revealed.

Review: This is a literary mystery and as such can't really be tied down to a specific mystery sub-genre. It is also a thriller and a love story, and all of it is well done.

As usual when I review translated books, I don't think I can comment much on the style, as at best the style of a translated book belongs to both author and translator. I do think the translation is well rendered in the sense that it reads like a text written in English. Since my French is not good enough to evaluate the correctness or faithfulness of the translation I am not going to comment on how good a translation it is of the original.

The story is gripping from page one, but not in the sense of being "unputdownable", at least not for me. I was perfectly content to read a chapter now and a chapter later, simply because I felt I had to digest the contents of each chapter before going on. Also, to tell the truth, I didn't want it to end.
The story is simple: Mathilde searches for her fiancé, but in terms of plotting it is complex, like a deceptively simple jigsaw puzzle you think you can solve in an hour but nevertheless takes several days to complete.

While the story is emotional, Japrisot has managed to avoid melodrama, for which I am thankful because there are plenty of things in the story to get emotional about. The narrative, which, by the way, is supposed to be written by Mathilde (but in the third person), never gets bogged down in tear-jerking over-sentimentality. This is not to say that it can't or won't make you cry, but it makes it a lot harder. There is humour, not just in some of the events, but in the wording, like the narrator (Mathilde) is gently mocking herself and everyone around her. The letters from Mathilde's various correspondents are written in distinct voices, so that you never confuse the elderly Italian woman with her messed-up goddaughter, or the soldier with the private detective.

The story is as full of surprises as you would expect from a mystery, and at times you really don't know where the plot is taking you, something I always like about mysteries. All in all, it is one of the best mysteries I have read this year. I really must rent the DVD soon.

Rating: A very enjoyable romantic mystery-thriller. 5 stars.

10 September 2006

Bookmark: Graffiti

This piece of graffiti is part of a huge mural that can be seen when driving along the Sæbraut road in Reykjavík, Iceland.

The larger bookmark (first image) is 19 by 6 cm and the smaller one is 10 by 5 cm. Click on the images to bring up the full-sized image. Print on cardstock or thick paper. I recommend laminating.


Bibliophile reviews Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

Year published: 1999
Genre: Literary fiction (if that can be called a genre)
Setting & time: India and the USA; 20th century (semi-timeless)
Some themes: Tradition, family, unhappiness, gender roles

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.

Warning: contains what some may consider to be SPOILERS

The Story: The story, such as it is (I will explain later) revolves around an Indian family that is so steeped in tradition that it has tragic consequences for the children, none of whom are happy with their lot. The first half of the book deals with Uma, the eldest girl who is plain and has not been able to get a husband. She lives at home with her parents and is more like an upper servant than one of the family and yearns for a life outside the family home, but she can never realise those dreams because it would be unseemly and disgraceful for the family if she did. In between we see glimpses of family history, the siblings growing up and the younger sister's arranged marriage in which she imagines herself to be happy, a cousin's tragic arranged marriage, and two not so respectable relatives who nevertheless have to be allowed to stay in the house when they so whish because they are family. Both have an effect on Uma and give her a glimpse of life outside the family home.

The second half is about the youngest child, the long wished-for son of the house, who is a disappointment to his parents even if they never say so. He is perhaps the most bound up of them all, because although he has been sent to university in the USA where he should be able to do as he likes without his parents looking over his shoulder, he still feels obliged to follow his father's orders and work like a slave at getting the education his father chose for him. But all Aroun wants is to be left alone. He is staying for the summer with an American family and watches in numb disbelief and concern as the family seem to be disintegrating around him.

Technique and plot: If you are looking for a clear cut story with a beginning, middle and end, this is not a book for you. If you are after good storytelling, beautiful writing and characters that come alive before your eyes and situations that seem so real that you feel you are there, watching them unfold, this is definitely a book for you.

The book is really two novellas. The first, Uma's half, reads like the beginning and middle of a story, but has no end, which to me is an indication that there never will be any relief for Uma. The second, Arun's story, is much more story-like, in that is has plot, a beginning, a middle, a resolution and ending of sorts.

The writing is beautiful and flowing and Desai brings to life her characters and their situations so well that a reader with an active imagination and some knowledge of India and Indians can easily visualise the unfolding narrative. In Uma's part of the story you feel her desperation and longing, and in Arun's part you sense the emptiness in him, the pointlessness of his life as he tries his best to live up to the expectations of his father. My biggest disappointment was that there was no resolution, good or bad, for Uma. She seemed doomed to continue leading a life of thankless servitude and devotion to her unloving parents for the rest of her life. The two disreputable relatives do offer some hope for the reader that she may follow their example and break out of her appointed role, but there is no indication that she will.

Rating: A beautiful and tragic true-to-life narrative about people so bound up in tradition that it is slowly smothering them. 4 stars.

05 September 2006

Request a bookmark

I am thinking about starting a bookmark of the week project. I have a huge collection of photographs I have taken over the years, some of which I have been moving over to Flickr. I want to do something with them, and here's my idea: visit my Flickr page and if you notice a photo you would like to see on a printable bookmark, drop me a comment on this blog with the title of the photo and I will feature it as bookmark of the week. To see my photographs, click on the link in the heading, choose a photo, copy the title, then come back here and make your request.

P.S. I only ask that you do not request bookmarks made from mosaics I have made from images by other Flickr users. There are copyright issues at stake.
As regards the graffiti images, they are on the walls for the world to see and while I would never try to make money from selling photos of them, I see no harm in distributing them to a bigger audience for free.

01 September 2006

Printable Bookmarks

Here are a couple of bookmarks to print out. The first one is single-sided, the other is double sided. You can print them on cardstock or if you want to lamintae them, on heavy paper. The double one should be folded down the middle and the blank sides glued together. These are not shown full size.

25 August 2006

I'm taking a break from blogging for a while

I am working on my thesis and will therefore not post any reviews until after September 10. I may add some short essays or thoughts about books and reading if the spirit grabs me (I find it's a good way to get myself writing in the mornings to write something unrelated to the thesis). Until then, here's a mosaic of some of the books I read and reviewed in the past:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

17 August 2006

The Seagull's Laughter

Today I am going to recommend a movie. I have just finished reading Mávahlátur (The Seagull's Laughter) by Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir, and loved it. I had previously enjoyed the movie and can now with certainty say that it is the most faithful movie adaptation of a book I have seen. It’s a combination of mystery, satire and coming of age story, with the central character Agga turning from girl to woman in the course of the book, while observing her mysterious cousin Freyja, who may or may not have murdered two men, and her struggles with the class system. The class-conscious society of an Icelandic fishing town in the 1950s is beautifully drawn (Freyja is working class, the man she marries is as close to being an aristocrat as is possible in Iceland), and while Americans have been puzzled over the catty class clashes (I have been reading movie reviews), people from more class-divided countries like Britain should be able to enjoy the story on a more equal footing with Icelanders. The movie is out on DVD and video, and I heartily recommend it.

P.S. I would also like to apologise for the scarcity of reviews lately. I am in the finishing stages of writing my master's thesis and have only had time to read at such times when I couldn't sit at the computer and type, like mealtimes and my habitual half hour before bed-time. I am looking forward to the end of the month when I finally turn the thing in. Then, of course, comes the endless wait for grades and graduation, but that can at least be temporarily forgotten with the help of a good book.

14 August 2006

Printable bookmarks

It's funny about bookmarks. They belong to that special group of things that also includes keys, pens and one half of any pair (socks, earrings, etc.), i.e. items that keep getting lost. Ergo, readers can always use more bookmarks.

According to my web counter, about half the visitors who come to my blog every day do so in search of printable bookmarks. My bookmark posts seem to have a high rating on Google if the right search words are entered, and I only hope the one bookmark I have actually published so far has come in handy for many readers.

So as not to disappoint, here are a couple of printable bookmarks. All I ask in return for you using them is that you leave a comment. I would especially like to know what kind of bookmarks you would like to see here in the future. If I get enough comments, I will make this a regular feature, either as bookmark of the week or bookmark of the month.

Instructions: Click on an to bring up the full-sized bookmark. The bookmarks should print out in the size 19 by 5 cm. I recommend downloading them before printing, but they can be printed straight off the web if you want. Set the printing quality of your printer to 'high' or better and print the bookmark on cardstock. I recommend laminating them.