31 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Vanity and Vexation (a kind of romance)

Author: Kate Fenton
Previously published as: Lions and Liquorice
Year published: 1995. American publication: 2005
Pages: 276
Genre: Romance (sort of)

The Story:
A film outfit arrives in a tiny Yorkshire village to film Pride and Prejudice. Local writer Llew Bevan looks on the proceedings with a jaundiced eye as the film’s star sweeps his widowed brother-in-law off his feet, and he himself can not help being attracted to not one, but two of the outsiders: haughty director Mary Dance, and a young woman who has a serious quarrel with Mary.

Technique and plot:
Ring any bells? No? Think Pride and Prejudice in a modern setting with older players and reversed gender roles.

I have avoided reading any of the “sequels” that have been written to Jane Austen’s novels, as I know no-one can do the characters as well as she did. But a modern spin-off is another matter. I read about this book several years ago while browsing the The Republic of Pemberley fansite. Everyone said it was hilarious and I thought it was an interesting idea. But finding it was a different matter. Lions and Liquorice, as it was originally titled, had been out of print for some time. It never came up in Ebay auctions and I was beginning to think I would never be able to read it, when I discovered it had been republished under a new title. I didn’t want to buy the expensive hardcover, so I patiently waited for the paperback and ordered it as soon as it was available. It was with anticipation that I opened the book to read it.

I can’t say I found much funny in the story. There are a few things worthy of a chuckle, but for the most part this is an ordinary novel about love and misunderstandings. It is well written but nothing more than that. It doesn’t sparkle, and it is not the kind of book I want to re-read. Not exactly a dud, but didn’t live up to expectations.

Rating: A decent read that will keep Austen fans guessing who’s who and whether “Elizabeth” will end up with “Wickham” this time around. Other readers will simply enjoy it for the story. 3 stars.

29 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Flight of a Witch (mystery)

Author: Ellis Peters
No. in series: 3
Series detective: George Felse
Year published: 1964
Pages: 247
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of detective: Police and amateurs
Setting and time: Wales, 1960’s
Some themes: Murder, robbery, obsession

The Story: A young man sees Annet, the daughter of his landlord, walking up a mountain. She returns five days later but maintains that she has been away only 2 hours, counting on being believed because of stories of such things having happened before on the mountain. However, she looks like the young woman seen standing near a jewellery store where an old man was murdered and robbed, and the police suspect that her male companion is guilty of the crime. But Annet refuses to talk, and Felse has a hard time solving the mystery and finding her lover.

Review: I have read a couple of Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries and one non-series book, and therefore could not include her in the challenge. But this is my first acquaintance with Inspector Felse.

The story is not only a mystery, it is also a twisted love story. Finding the man in the case is of prime importance because Felse thinks he may try to kill the only person who knows who he is, Annet. She, on the other hand, obviously loves him so much that she would rather die than see him hang for the murder (the story happens while the death penalty was still in force in Britain). So far so good.

The characters are variously drawn, some very well, some not so. Unfortunately Felse is one of the less well drawn. He hardly seems to have a personality, but I will forgive that as he’s a series character and may either have been described better in a previous book or will develop through the following books. Here he is hardly anything more than a thinking machine. The young woman, Annet, is well drawn but rather unbelievable. She is so bewitchingly lovely that all men either fall in love with her or want to protect her, and she just gets to be massively annoying before the end, with her hysteria and obsession. I couldn’t summon up any sympathy for her at all. As to her lover, it is rather unbelievable that she would have fallen for such a man, but of course we know that love is irrational. I guess what I want to say is that the feelings of the characters are rather too passionate for my taste, and the ending too highly dramatic.


Since Peters has sympathy with the killer, she allows him a way out of being judged and hung, something which has really started to annoy me in stories written about time periods and places where the death penalty is in force, because the alternatives are so few that all have been used ad nauseam by soft hearted authors. These alternatives are flight, incarceration in an institute for the criminally insane, a milder sentence due to extenuating circumstances, and death: by suicide, accident or getting killed by pursuers while trying to escape. I have read so many books that use these devices that I am really beginning to hate them. If a writer can not lead the criminal to her or his logical end or find an original way of rescuing them from the gallows, they should stick to other kinds of mysteries.

Rating: A tale of murder, obsession and doomed love. 2+ stars.

28 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Athenian Murders (mystery)

Author: José Carlos Somoza
Year published: 2000
Pages: 314
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of detective: A “decipherer of enigmas”
Setting & time: Athens, ancient Greece
Some themes: Murder, philosophy, obsession, translation

The Story:
It is the time of Plato. A beautiful young man is found murdered on the outskirts of Athens, and his teacher, the philosopher Diagoras, hires Heracles Pontor, Decipherer of Enigmas, to investigate the death. In footnotes we see the comments of the translator who is translating the ancient manuscript that tells the story, into a modern language. As the investigation progresses, the translator gets more and more involved in the story, even begins to think he is in it, and traces, for the benefit of the reader, some clues that are scattered throughout the text and seem to refer to the 12 labours of Hercules. The translator thinks they are the key to a secret meaning hidden in the text (and the reader scents an ancient secret about to be revealed). Someone seems to be stalking the translator, and he gets more and more paranoid as the translation progresses and more clues are revealed in the translation text. But the story is not all is seems, and once the reader thinks she has been very clever and solved both mysteries, an unexpected twist appears, one that, while not unhinted at, will take most readers by total surprise.

The story begins as a straightforward mystery, but quickly becomes a mystery within a mystery when the translator begins to tell his story in the footnotes. But that’s not all, there are several more layers or frames to the story that only become visible as it progresses. It is not necessary to have a good grounding in philosophy to enjoy the story, but those familiar with Plato’s theory of the Idea and the metaphor of the cave will perhaps have a deeper understanding of the philosophical discussions. The twists are numerous in both stories, and can be a bit confusing. The ending unravels the mystery and brings it to a conclusion, but some readers may feel unfulfilled by it and annoyed at the author for tricking them, while others will feel it is the only logical ending to the story.
For me, as a translator, there is an added dimension to the story. I don’t know if Somoza has worked as a translator, but some of the translator’s comments can be seen as descriptions, real and metaphorical, of problems translators come across in their work.

Rating: A twisty mystery to make you think. 3+ stars.

25 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Embers (literature)

Author: Sándor Márai
Original title: A gyertyák csonkig egnék (Hungarian)
Translated into English by: Carol Brown Janeway
Published: 1942 (original), 2003 (translation)
Genre: Literature

Excerpt from Embers

It’s 1941 and an old general is living alone with his servants in a castle in the Carpathian forest. One day an old friend of his announces his arrival, and old memories bubble to the surface. The friend listens while the general talks about their childhood friendship and the events that led to the friend’s departure 41 years before.

This novel is a bit unusual in its set-up in that nearly two-thirds of the story is a monologue by one of the main characters. The interjections by the other main character are so few and short that it can’t really be called a dialogue. The first third of the story is scene setting, descriptions of people, places and situations, told in a conventional style. The story is slow, almost painfully so at times. The language is flowing, almost sensuous, and makes up for the slowness of the story. The translation, while I can not judge how accurate it is, is beautifully rendered and it is only in a few places that you can see it is a translation.

From the start, the general makes it clear that he is intent to be revenged on his friend for something he did, but for readers who expect blood or fury, this story will be a disappointment. The general’s monologue, besides being reminiscences of past events, is also a philosophical discourse about love and hate, the nature of friendship, of otherness, of revenge and forgiveness.

Read it for the language or for the cultural insights, but if you expect action, you will be sorely disappointed, because while there is plenty of emotion, there is no action to speak of. 3 stars.

24 March 2006

Mystery author # 12: Elizabeth Peters

I read three of Peters’ books: two non-series romantic mysteries, and the first book in the Amelia Peabody historical mystery series. I think I have got a pretty good sampling of her work. Peters also writes suspense stories under the name of Barbara Michaels, and I have one of those books in my TBR stash that I plan on reviewing.

Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Amelia Peabody
Year of publication: 1975
Availability: In print
Type of mystery: Supernatural (?)
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: (mostly) Egypt, 1880’s
Some themes: Archaeology, stalking, mummies, adventure, feminism, romance

Amelia Peabody, a spinster in her early 30’s, is left a considerable fortune by her father and decides to go on a Grand Tour of Europe and Egypt. In Italy she rescues a young, destitute English lady, Evelyn, who has been “ruined” (loss of sexual innocence without the blessings of marriage was a big deal for women in those days) and cruelly abandoned by her Italian lover. Amelia takes Evelyn on as a companion, and together they travel to Egypt and sail up the Nile, pursued by Evelyn’s cousin who wants to marry her in spite of her loss of respectability. Evelyn doesn’t want him, especially after clapping her eyes on young archaeologist Walter Emerson. The friends visit Walter and his short-tempered elder brother, Radcliffe, at an archaeological dig and before too long the ghost of a mummy is seen in the night, scaring away all the Egyptian workers on the dig. But is the mummy real, or is it, as would appear, very much alive and after Evelyn?

Elizabeth Peters is an Egyptologist, an archaeologist who specialises in Egypt, and thus eminently equipped to write about the subject, and it shows. The archaeological dig is accurately described (I have history books on the subject that agree with Peters’ descriptions) and I have no doubt the archaeological and historical information is correct. This is just the icing on a rather tasty cake.

Amelia is a strong character, a woman who is in no doubt as to what she likes and doesn’t like, an ardent feminist and (she thinks) confirmed spinster. Her first person narrative is humorous, often quite satirical towards herself and others. The other main characters are equally well drawn, and before we meet Radcliffe Emerson, we wonder what kind of man it would take to sweep this eminently practical (in matters of the heart at least) Victorian spinster off her feet. Evelyn and Walter are both more gentle persons, but both show a tenacious nature when provoked. Egypt is just as much a character in the story as the people are, and the descriptions of that ancient land are obviously first hand.

The story moves slowly, but the clipped style and short sentences make it seem to move faster. The style is a bit off-putting at first, but once I got used to it, within a chapter or two, the story sucked me in and kept me reading until I was finished with the book. The part of the story that covers Amelia’s journey from Italy and up the Nile beautifully parodies travelogues of the era, and as I am now reading a real travelogue by an Englishwoman from the same general time period, I am constantly coming across phrases and attitudes that remind me of Amelia.

The mystery is fairly mysterious, but not unsolvable, and the reader (naturally) catches on to what is happening much sooner than the characters do. At least I did.

Rating: An excellent start to what promises to be an excellent series. 4+ stars

Title: Devil May Care
Year of publication: 1977
Availability: In print
Type of mystery: Supernatural (?), country house
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Virginia, USA, 1970’s
Some themes: Ghosts, cats and dogs, romance, past ill-doings

Ellie, young, pretty, and recently engaged, agrees to house-sit for her aunt Kate for two weeks. She looks forward to spending some time alone in Kate’s big, rambling mansion, as her fiancé can be a bit overbearing at times, and she needs time to think seriously about the relationship. But on her first night alone in the house, an apparition disturbs her peace: a transparent young man in 19th century costume appears on the landing and then disappears. The next night it’s a woman and two men out on the lawn. Ellie isn’t afraid, just surprised, but her curiosity is aroused the next day when Donald, the neighbour’s son, comes in to mow the lawn. He is the splitting image of the first apparition. After this, events begin to move quickly, and more apparitions are seen, not just by Ellie. Things turn serious when Kate’s neighbour and friend, Ted, is found in the library, having had a heart attack while trying to stop a burglar. Ellie and Donald figure out that the burglar is after an old book of local history that Ellie bought for Kate, but why, and how were the “ghosts” managed?

The style of this story is quite different from the previous book. The pace is slow right until about the last third of the book, but there is plenty happening, and the humour is milder and not as satirical as in Crocodile..., while being able to cause the same kind of explosive laughter. The characterisations are not as good - the only really rounded character is the puckish Kate, who does not appear in much of the story. The rest are all basically stock characters, from Ellie’s stiff and proper yuppie boyfriend, the villain, Donald, and Ellie herself. Not that it matters - the story is plot driven and the characters are just along for the ride. Peters manages to capture a spooky, supernatural atmosphere, which she lightens with the escapades of Kate’s pets, a collection of cowardly dogs, curious cats and a rat who rules the household like a king.

Review: A light and funny supernatural tale with a romantic twist. 3 stars.

Title: The Copenhagen Connection
Year of publication: 1982
Availability: In print
Type of mystery: Kidnapping, treasure hunt
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Denmark (mostly Copenhagen), 1980’s
Some themes: Kidnapping, theft, treasure, romance

Elizabeth Jones is on her way to a holiday in Denmark, but an accident puts her in the position of being able to offer her services as secretary to her idol, Nobel-prize winning author Margaret Rosenberg. Starry-eyed Elizabeth is soon brought down to earth by Christian, Margaret’s stuffed shirt of a son, who insists his mother is not quite sane and should be kept within arm’s reach at all times. When Margaret disappears and a bizarre ransom note is sent to them, they are flung into an adventure that has something to do with Queen Margarethe the first of Denmark. But what, and how did Margaret become involved?

Here is a story that is not quite as funny as Devil..., but which makes up for it with tight plotting and more realistic characters. The humour here is rather in the tone of the story than in the text, except for some situational gags that recall a silent era slapstick comedy. Margaret is eccentric, to say the least, her son is a stuffed shirt, as sometimes will happen with the conventional children of highly creative people, and Elisabeth is opinionated and a bit silly, but ultimately level-headed and realistic. All three change and develop through the story.

The plotting is, as I said earlier, tight and the story moves at a fast pace with no digressions. The criminals are somewhat stereotypical, but not unbearably so.

Rating: An entertaining romp through Copenhagen and the Danish countryside. 3 stars.

Author rating: Peters is an accomplished writer who writes with humour and is good at creating funny scenes and good plots. I will definitely be looking for more of her books, especially the adventures of Amelia Peabody.

23 March 2006

Mystery writer # 11 : Amanda Cross

Title: In the last analysis
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1964
Type of mystery: murder, whodunnit
Type of investigator: amateurs
Setting & time: New York, 1960’s
Some themes: Psychoanalysis, murder, literature, university life

New York literature Professor Kate Fansler is shocked when a former student of hers is murdered on the couch of the psychoanalyst Kate recommended to her. What’s worse, the psychoanalyst, an old friend of Kate’s, is the police’s favourite suspect. Not trusting in the intelligence and experience of the police, Kate begins an investigation of her own, assisted by her nephew-in-law to-be who does the sleuthing, and a friend who is an assistant district attorney and has access to inside information about the investigation. Kate herself mostly does the thinking and the mental arithmetic involved in putting together the clues and finding a likely suspect and motive. This she does and arrives at a theory. Unfortunately she is, at first, unable to prove it, as the evidence is all circumstantial, but her ADA friend helps her to get hold of the one available piece of evidence the police need to turn their attentions to the real killer.

Amanda Cross (pseudonym), in real life a professor of literature herself, has been described as a literary feminist mystery writer, but I didn’t find much feminism in this book. Maybe it surfaces later in the series. Literature I did find, quotations in fact, and an accurate description of academic life, academic thinking processes and academic arrogance. Having experienced all these things as a student, it was interesting to see it from the point of view of a teacher.

As to characterisation, Kate is not a likeable character. She is arrogant, automatically assumes the police don’t know how to do their job, and barely hesitates to use her ADA friend to get access to classified information. She puts together her splendidly unlikely murder theory from some very tenuous threads that require a rather large jump to reach the conclusion.

The storytelling is ok, up until the point where Kate’s ADA friend breaks the law to get her the evidence she needs to prove the theory. In real life this would have meant that the evidence was inadmissible in court, but of course it doesn’t matter to the story, as she was simply trying to prove her friend didn’t commit the murder. Whether the killer gets away with it because of the lawless way in which the evidence was obtained is beside the point.

Cross’ books came highly recommended to me, but I must say this one is a disappointment. I plan to do a bit of research and try to find her most highly regarded mystery, to see if she deserved the praise.

Rating: A lusterless, undistinguished mystery. 2+ stars.

22 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret

Author: Judy Blume
Year published: 1970

The Story:
12 year old Margaret Simon has conversations with God, but doesn’t belong to any religion, because her mother is Christian and her father Jewish and they want her to choose her religious orientation for herself. When she is given an assignment where she has to keep a journal about some self-chosen subject for the whole winter, she decides to investigate religion. She and her friends are getting to the age when boys are becoming exiting, and they are all looking forward to the moment they will start to menstruate. Basically, religion and budding sexuality are the main themes of the book, along with friendship and prejudice.

Technique and plot:
I decided to read this story mostly because it is among the most banned or challenged books in the USA and has been since it was first published. It seems to have been challenged mostly for it’s portrayal of budding sexuality, but probably also for the controversial religious content – Margaret believes in God, but can’t decide which religion she wants to belong to. So we can blame both prudes and religious fanatics for trying to ban it.

This is clearly a story for adolescent girls. It is obviously meant to educate as well as to entertain, and to make them think, especially about religion and about prejudice, religious and otherwise. It is very open about those subjects and about sexuality, about belonging and friendship, and the cruelty as well as the joys of growing up. It doesn’t dumb things down, although obviously the vocabulary is appropriate to the age group, and it doesn’t make the heroine an angel - Margaret has her faults like everyone, and she is more real for it.

I found the story so innocent in comparison to some of the books I read as a child and teenager that it’s just funny. It makes me wonder how those clamouring for it to be banned would have reacted to Comrade Jesus by Sven Wernström, where Jesus is portrayed as a Communist type rebel and Mary Magdalene as his girlfriend. But then I grew up (and still live) in Europe, where things are more liberal than in the USA. (That’s not to say books haven’t been banned here in the past but they had to be a lot more explicit than this).

Rating: A well plotted and well written, very honest look at adolescence and its problems. Recommended for girls aged 8-14.

P.S. I read the old version of the book. When preparing the book for reading by a new generation, Blume updated it, so that girls who have never seen or heard of a menstrual belt – whose mothers may not even be familiar with them – would not be stumped when it came to those passages in the book. The belts were replaced with modern stick-on sanitary pads, which makes sense to me, but seems to have put a bee in the bonnet of some who read and loved the original version as girls.

16 March 2006

Mystery author # 10: John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson

This time I read two novels by the author, one each with his two series sleuths.

Titles: The Hollow Man (alt. title: The Three Coffins), The Red Widow Murders
No. in series: 6, 3
Year of publication: 1935 (both)
Type of mystery: locked-room mystery, whodunit, howdunit
Type of investigator: amateur, retired professional
Setting & time: London, 1930’s (both)
Some themes: Locked rooms, poison, the French Revolution

John Dickson Carr is one of the Golden Age mystery writers. He was an American, but lived in Britain for a long time and set many of his books there. He was a very prolific writer during the peak of his career, and wrote most of his books under two different names: his own, and the pseudonym Carter Dickson. He had two series detectives: Dr. Gideon Fell, a professor of lexicography about whom he wrote as Carr, and Sir Henry Merrivale, written under the Dickson name. In addition he wrote non-series books, many of them historical novels.

The Hollow Man is one of Carr’s most famous novels, and is by many considered to be his best.

Story:Charles Grimaud is visited, publicly, by a mysterious man who makes veiled threats. Shortly afterwards Grimaud is found dying in his room and utters some cryptic words before lapsing into unconsciousness, and on the same night the man who threatened him is murdered. Both murders appear to be impossible: one man was shot in a locked room, the other in the middle of a snowy street, but the only footprints seen were his own. Yet the killer had stood close enough to him that powder burns were found on his clothes. How was it done?

Review: It’s hard to review a novel of this kind without giving away something of the plot, which is complex and full of unexpected twists and turns. This may be a locked room mystery, but then again it may not be. It may be about a double homicide, or just one. The murder or murders may be a diabolically clever scheme perfectly executed, or a risky one horribly bungled. Nothing is as it seems, and it falls to Dr. Gideon Fell to puzzle together the pieces and discover how it was done.

Carr creates a playful knowingness in the story, first by having the narrator be visible for part of the story then by making it clear that the characters know they are in a story that is being read. At the beginning, the narrator becomes visible and comments directly to the readers, and later on Dr. Fell indicates that the characters know very well that they are in a novel. The “Locked Room” lecture is a famous chapter where Dr. Fell discusses the various solutions to locked room mysteries, a sub-genre of the “impossible crime” genre that Carr specialised in. Every Golden Age crime writer worth his salt tried to write at least one.

A complaint I have is that Carr does not play fair. He does not give the readers all the information available to the sleuth, or rather he gives it in such an oblique way that there is no way for the readers to solve it on their own. As this is not a realistic crime story, but one in which anything is possible, there are a lot of coincidences, and once Dr. Fell has discovered one of those, he has the final piece of the puzzle and is able to solve the case. The discovery of this particular coincidence (it’s a coincidence that works in the villain’s favour, not a coincidental discovery) is presented in such a way as to confound both the reader and the sidekick equally.

Although this is not a realistic crime story in the sense that it is unlikely to have happened, it does take place within a realistic framework, meaning that while the story is unlikely, it should not be impossible. This means that coincidence plays a huge role in the plot. Carr stretches the believability of the story unreasonably when he allows two mortally wounded men to perform feats only supermen or people on drugs could possibly do in their condition.

Rating: While this is a thrilling story to read and gives cause for a lot of thinking, it is not the kind of story one enjoys reading again. 3 stars.

The Red Widow Murders is another series book, about Sir Henry Merrivale, a retired doctor, barrister and former intelligence officer, that Carr wrote under the pseudonym Carter Dickson.

Story: A group of people gathers together to draw cards to decide who will spend two hours in a room no-one who has spent time in alone has ever left alive. One man, who later turns out to have been a psychiatrist, cheats and gets to go into the room. At the end of the two hours he is found dead from curare poisoning, and has been dead for at least an hour. But someone answered the call of the outside group every 15 minutes for the duration of the two hours. The next night, the unstable younger son of the house owner, is found bludgeoned to death in the room. Sir Henry, who was there as a witness, sets out to investigate and uncovers two unrelated plots, one about theft, the other about murder.

Review: Not such a good detective story. The characters are mostly flat, those who are not are uninteresting, and Sir Henry could be replaced with Dr. Fell and no one would notice any difference in behaviour or methods of investigation. The mystery is interestingly twisted, but not satisfying. I pegged the killer and his motive from the moment he appeared, and all the interest was in seeing how he did it. 2+ stars.

I am now convinced that Carr’s books should be read with several weeks or months passing between the readings, not a few days.

While both books have been disappointing to a degree, I still haven’t given up on Carr. I have another two of his books that I intend to read later, and will review them when the time comes.

12 March 2006

Mystery writer # 9: Sister Carol Anne O’Marie

Title: A Novena for Murder
No. in series: 1
Year published: 1984
Availability: In print
Pages: 183.
Setting & time: San Francisco – mostly Mount St. Francis College for Women, 1980’s (but has a somewhat timeless feel)
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateurs and police detectives
Some themes: Immigration, cultism, love, blackmail

Summary: 75 year old Sister Mary Helen has been dodging retirement for several years, but now the church has decided that she deserves her rest and she has been sent to Mount St. Francis College for Women to spend her retirement at what they call the Sister’s Residence, but she knows is nothing but a convent. The former teacher expects it to be boring, but a few days after her arrival, a Professor Villanueva is found murdered in his office and suspicion falls on Leonel, the assistant cook, whose fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. Sister Mary Helen is convinced of his innocence, and starts an investigation of her own. When she finds the body of Joanna, Villanueva’s secretary’s sister, in the college chapel, she is convinced the murders are in some way connected to the Portuguese immigrants Villanueva has been helping, since both victims and the prime suspect are Portuguese. The disappearance of Joanna’s M.A. thesis, which was about that subject, convinces the police that Mary Helen’s theory is correct, and since she has shown herself capable of ferreting out information the police couldn’t find, they allow her to assist in the investigation.

Review: Reviews of this novel and others by the author often mention G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, possibly because the sleuths are both Catholics in service of the church, but I find they have little else in common. Mary Helen does not seem to have Father Brown’s almost supernatural ability to notice tiny details – her forte is curiosity - and there is none of the dark fantasy element in this story that one finds in Chesterton.

For a first book it is very well written, suspenseful and funny, and fortunately Sister Carol has avoided making the story overly religious while still including details about nun’s lives that are all the more interesting for knowing she is writing from experience. Sister Mary Helen does not take a particularly religious approach to her sleuthing, which is good. I venture to say she has more in common with Miss Marple and other educator sleuths than she has with Father Brown, whose approach to crime solving is often spiritual.

Rating: A funny and entertaining story about a sleuthing nun. Will definitely be looking for more. 4 stars.

About the author

09 March 2006

Travel literature, part 3: Travelling while staying in one place - Expats writing about life abroad (updated 13 September 2016)

Here is a genre that has been included under the heading of “travel”, although it should properly be labelled “memoirs of places”, or, to borrow from Peter Mayle: “being there” books. These are the accounts of people, for some reason often British, who have chosen the expatriate life and moved abroad and then felt the urge to write about it. The genre has existed as long as there have been expatriates, but it was Peter Mayle who made it popular with modern readers with his bestseller A Year in Provence. Since the publication of this book more and more people have jumped on the bandwagon and written about their experiences. The result has been that the places the most popular books describe have seen an increase in tourism, and people long to buy houses there and live the dream presented in the books. Some have gone further and made that dream come true.

I like to divide these writers into two groups: the simple-lifers and the good-lifers.
Broadly speaking, the former try to outdo each other by writing about how isolated and dilapidated their houses were when they bought them and all the hard labour that went into fixing them up, and how character-building and liberating it is to live - for a while at least - without indoor toilets, electricity, telephones and tap water. Then they go on to bemoan the fact that other expats have been attracted to the area and are spoiling it, or to wax poetic about how the expat population has revived the area.
The latter group revel in the luxuries of living abroad: the food, the weather, the gardens and landscapes, the people (who are always interesting and often eccentric), and how cheap and wonderfully exotic everything is.

Some of these writers start out belonging to the former group and then join the latter once the house is fully fixed up. Which brings me to a common sub-genre: the fixer-upper story.
This can feature both kinds of writers. Those books tell the story of how the author arrived in the foreign country with a limited amount of money and bought a cheap house to fix up over a number of years, or, if they had plenty of money, how they fell in love with a location on which there stood a dilapidated house and decided to fix it up rather than tear it down and build a new one.

This may sound like a rather sarcastic description, but I actually do like to read such books, provided they are not too egocentric or badly written. Unlike stories by travellers on the move, the “being there” stories can give you an in-depth idea of a place or country, whereas the other kind rarely go beyond superficial impressions.

Here are a few that are worth reading:

Gerald Durrell:
*My Family and other Animals. Lovingly written childhood memoir of living in Korfu, Greece, full of descriptions of quirky characters, both human and animal, and wonderful descriptions of nature. Portrait of a Korfu that seems to be mostly a memory today. I have read this book approximately once a year for the last 20 years and I never get tired of it.
*Birds, Beasts and Relatives. The sequel to My Family.... Not quite as good, since it is a collection of stories rather than a cohesive narrative, but there are some really funny stories and wonderfully drawn portraits of people and animals in there.
*The Bafut Beagles. Memoir of people, animals and nature in the British Cameroons. I know I mentioned this book in the previous list as well, but after some thinking I decided it fits better here, since Durrell doesn’t describe much travel in it, only short animal collecting expeditions from his base in Bafut.

Karen Blixen: Out of Africa. Blixen’s memoir of living on a farm in Kenya. Even with her paternalistic view of Africans, it is still a charming portrait of Kenya’s colonial past.

Osa Johnson: Four years in Paradise. Osa and Martin Johnson were American naturalists and adventurers who were famous for their explorations in East and Central Africa, the South Pacific Islands and Borneo. This book is about their four years in Kenya.

Charles Fergus: Summer at Little Lava. This is one of the best books I have read about Iceland by a foreigner. With his family, he stayed for a summer at an abandoned farm in western Iceland.

Peter Mayle: A Year in Provence and the sequel, Toujours Provence. A Year... is the humorous account of the Mayles’ first year in Province, France, a fixer-upper story. The sequel is more disorganised, a collection of essays on various subjects rather than a cohesive story, but perhaps better able to make one want to visit the area. Have not read the third installation.

Eric Newby. A Little House in Italy. The first book of this genre I remember reading. Another fixer-upper story. The Newbys bought a farm in Tuscany in the 1960’s and fixed up the house, made friends with some of the neighbours (and had endless problems with others), and watched the old ways of life dwindling away.

Christ Stewart. Driving over Lemons: An optimist in Andalucia. Stewart and his wife bought a farmhouse in Andalucia, Spain and began a new life there. A fixer-upper.

Elizabeth von Arnim: Elisabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer. Both books are fictionalised accounts of von Arnim’s life and her obsession with gardening.

Marlena de Blasi: A Thousand Days in Venice. Marlena met her destiny in Venice when a total stranger walked up to her and confessed his love for her. Her life in the USA was in a muddle after a divorce, and she took a chance and moved to Venice to be with him, and the story tells of how she fell deeply in love with the city and how her relationship with her “stranger” (as she calls him in the first half of the book) developed in pace with her growing love for the city. Very evocative of the place.

M.F.K. Fisher: A Considerable Town. Fisher’s portrait of Marseille is quirky and well written and her descriptions of food can make me hungry just after having eaten.

Formerly TBR, now read (September 2016):
M.F.K. Fisher: Aix-en-Provence 
Frances Mayes: Under the Tuscan Sun. Enjoyed it but wouldn not call it a favorite.

Chris Stewart: A parrot in the pepper tree

On the TBR list are:
Joan Marble: Notes from an Italian Garden
Annie Hawes: Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted

08 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Undead and Unwed (paranormal)

Author: Mary Janice Davidson
Year published: 2004
Pages: 255

First in a series.

The Story:
Elizabeth “Betsy” Taylor is a talkative, shallow shoe-addict with an attitude that comes her in good steed but also causes problems when she is struck by a car and rises two days later as a vampire (read the book to find out why). The discovery that her stepmother has stolen all her designer shoes and intended to bury her wearing a pink suit (a colour she hates) and cheap shoes initially upsets her more than being dead. Everything indicates that she is the new Queen of the vampires: she can enter churches, touch crosses and say “God” without any discomfort; instead of burning her, holy water only makes her sneeze; daylight just makes her sleepy; and dogs and people are attracted to her like iron filings to a magnet. Not to mention that men get horny just looking at her, something she has never experienced before. She soon discovers that there are two vampire clans in the city: Nostradamus’s clan, who want her to become Nostro’s (as she calls him) minion, and Sinclair’s clan, who believe her to be the prophesied vampire Queen. Betsy just wants to be left alone to live her death as she pleases, but she has no clue about how to survive as a vampire, and reluctantly accepts Sinclair’s help. When she decides to join the war against Nostro, his people kidnap her and that’s when the real trouble starts…

Technique and plot:
The story is well written and funny, but with serious moments as well. The main characters are well drawn: Betsy is saved from being a totally intolerable ditz by her fierce independence and her warm protective feelings for her friends and family; and Sinclair is saved from being a typical sexy vampire king by actually having a personality. Nostro, unfortunately is a stereotypical villain.
The story is told by Betsy herself, in a tone that made me think of Cher in the movie Clueless.
This book is classified by the publisher as a “paranormal romance”, which is a misnomer. There is very little love in the sense of romance in the story, and certainly no falling in love. Falling in lust, yes, but not in love.
The story is partly a parody of the vampire genre, while still being very much part of it. Betsy is an atypical vamp who will do anything to protect her friends and family from being hurt. This makes her a sympathetic character, a difficult feat when telling the story of a member of a parasitical race that preys on humans.

Rating: A funny vampire story, Carmilla lite, that makes an entertaining afternoon’s read. A relief after the intensity of the Anita Blake books. 3 stars.

07 March 2006

Bibliophile’s booklists

I am a maniac when it comes to making lists, and book lists are no exception. I currently have the following set up:

Books Read list. I keep a handwritten reading journal where I write down information about the book (author, title, publication year, pages, rating, rereads, etc.), summarize the plot and write my review. The BR list is an Excel file which contains everything the journal does except the summary and review, and which allows me to gather statistics about my reading habits.

The Library list. This is twofold: a master list of all the books I want to read that are available at the various branches of the Reykjavík City Library and the National Library, and a series of smaller lists, broken down by the location of the books. These I print out small and keep in a Filofax that resides in my handbag.

The Wanted list. An auxiliary to the library list that lists books I want to read but not badly enough to buy, which are not available from the library. This list I check about once a month in the hope the books have been added to the collection, and sometimes they have been, especially if they are new. I occasionally put in requests for one or two of these books to be bought, but it takes months before such requests are processed.

The Shopping list. Books to buy when I have money to spend. These are mostly books I have already read, but want to read again and own, or replacement copies for books I own but have lost or want hardcover copies of.

Author list, otherwise known as the Glom List. Divided up into smaller lists by author. When I find an author I really like, I want to keep track of which of their books I own, which I have already read, which I can get from the library, and which I will have to buy. These lists are mostly to do with series that I want to read in order, and books I own but have yet to read and therefore don’t remember the titles of. This list I also keep in the aforementioned Filofax (I have had that thing for 15 years, and I finally found a use for it).

The Owned list. I started making an Access list of all my books several years ago, but am sadly behind schedule. I really should finish it, if only for insurance purposes, but I haven’t got the time.

The TBR list (To Be Read). This is a master list put together from the Wanted list, the Library list, and a list of books in English I own but have not read yet. I keep it online at Bibliophil.org, along with copies of the Shopping list and a list of books I’ve read in English. Their tagging option is great for organising lists.

Finally, I have two other lists online: my Amazon wishlist, and my TitleTrader wishlist.

You would think I should be well organised with all those lists, right?
Think again. The only ones I regularly consult are the Author and Library lists and the two online wishlists. The rest are there, should I need them, but I don’t use them very often.

06 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Bloody Chamber (short stories)

Angela Carter was a brilliant short story writer and often used mythological or folk tale themes in her stories. Years ago I read another collection of her stories, Fireworks: Nine profane pieces, as part of a course on modern British literature, and was captivated by her use of language and the interweaving of folk tale elements and feminist themes into a rich web full of mystery and magic realism.

The stories in this collection are all variations on folk tales, with the exception of one story which owes more to modern vampire mythology. As the title suggests, there is a take on the Bluebeard story. Other folk tales readers may recognise are “Beauty and the Beast”, “Puss-in-Boots”, "Snow White" and “Little Red Riding Hood”. Carter reworks these stories into tales about strong, smart and, for the most part, resourceful women who know how to turn men’s desires to their advantage (for the most part: the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” doesn’t have a clue). Most of the stories feature sexually knowing but virginal heroines who encounter predatory males whom they conquer through their sexuality. There is one inversion of this theme, where it’s the male who is the innocent and the female who is the predator.

Carter takes the folk tales and writes her own sensuous, twisted interpretations, sometimes moving them from the realm of far away and long ago into the era of cars and electricity, but always retaining the fantasy element.

These are definitely not stories for children. Sexuality, of which many original folk tales are so full and which is always so carefully edited out of folk tale collections for children, is very much in evidence here, and there are weirdly erotic scenes in some of the tales. The language itself often oozes rich sensuality, but she is also capable of writing bawdy, of which “Puss in Boots” is a good example that put me in mind of Chaucer’s pilgrims at their most vulgar.

Rating: Fine fairy tales for grown-ups. 4 stars.

02 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Road Fever (travel)

The other “fast travel” book I read last week was Tim Cahill’s Road Fever: A high speed travelogue, which had been languishing in my TBR pile for over two years. This is the account of how adventure travel writer Cahill and Gerry Sowerby, a professional adventure driver, drove from Ushuaia, the southernmost town in Argentina, to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, the northernmost place they could reach by road, in under 24 days, a world record.

Other reviewers have complained that nearly half the book is taken up with the planning and financing of the trip, but I found it refreshing to be allowed to see some of the intricate planning that goes into this kind of journey. So many adventure travel books make it look like the adventurers just decided to set off without any planning at all, which of course is a gross deception (in most cases).

I’m not exactly sure what I expected when I started reading it, probably something macho, but I was pleasantly surprised. Cahill is a skilful writer and manages to make even the planning part of the story sound interesting, by interjecting humour into the situations they encountered, even managing to be funny about Sowerby’s brush with death on a previous adventure in Africa.

While the "whys" of this journey are just as much beyond me as those of the previous book I reviewed, I also enjoyed it, but in a different way. In spite of the speed of the journey and the fact that they spent most of their time either driving or sleeping, Cahill seems to have kept his eyes remarkably well open. He describes the people and situations they met with on the road with understanding and humour, throwing in historical snippets to spice things up, and even manages to make some of the places they passed through sound interesting to visitors.

This was an interesting read because I had previously read Michael Palin’s book Full Circle which covers some of the same territory. The last leg of his Pacific rim journey took in much the same area as Cahill and Sowerby’s trip, only going (mostly) by public transport and thus much slower. I had also read about Argentina in books by Gerald Durrell, who ran into similar customs problems in Buenos Aires as Cahill and Sowerby did in another country on the route. So I was also covering familiar territory in this book, and as always when I do this, it was interesting to see the different perspectives.

Humour is never far away, and Cahill’s internal monologues and fantasy scenarios when he is annoyed with Sowerby for criticising his driving abilities are hilarious and should be familiar to anyone who has driven with a back-seat driver but wanted to keep the peace. While Cahill himself is the butt of some of the humour, he also deftly describes funny situations and adjusts the humour to the situation, it becoming quite dark when he is describing the traffic problems on “the Mountain of Death”, turning to slapstick in other situations and being subtle where it is required.

Rating: Wouldn’t mind reading more of Cahill. 3+ stars.

01 March 2006

Bibliophile reviews Border Crossing (travel)

I have always been of the opinion that in order to enjoy travel, you have to do it slowly. By slowly I mean taking your time to explore, to talk to people and enjoy being there, even if you had to fly to get there. But that is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading about fast travel. I just don’t see the point of it.

I read two such books last week, and enjoyed them in different ways. The first was Rosie Thomas’s Border Crossing: On the road from Peking to Paris. (I will review the other tomorrow).

In 1997, Thomas, a middle-aged author of women’s literature, and Phil Bowen, a thirtyish adventurer whom she had met while on a hiking holiday in Nepal, joined a rally from Beijing to Paris, which was being held to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first (and then only) such race. The book describes the 45 day race to the finish line, across 13 countries, covering 16 thousand kilometres, complete with friendships, strife, a serious health problem, breakdowns, and road accidents. Rosie herself comes across as neurotic and clinging, while Phil is alternatively seen as emotionally closed and vulnerable, or calculating and controlling. Thomas’ analogy of their relationship as a kind of (sexless) marriage isn’t far off track, starting with the courtship when Phil charms Rosie into financing the journey, to the final breakdown when he can not bring himself to reciprocate her compliments to him in a TV interview, and the “divorce”, the parting of ways when she gives him the car and they each head off to their respective lives.
Rosie’s comments on the event planners are scathing, and it is clear she thought the whole thing was badly planned, but then she had reason to: no-one in the organising committee bothered to warn her that stating in her visa application that she was a writer would in all likelihood cause her to be denied a visa to China. In the end it seems to have been because of the intervention of a British politician that she got her visa, not because the rally organisers did anything to help. I would have been pissed off too in her situation, especially if I’d had to pay 1000 pounds extra for the privilege.

First off: I think the rally was reprehensible, as it was conducted mostly on roads in full use by other traffic, causing dangers to both rally drivers and other road users. The drivers had to stay within given time limits for each stretch if they wanted to earn medals, which meant they were often driving at unbelievable speeds (even for a country like Pakistan where the locals don't exactly drive slowly or carefully). Continuing it after a worker and two participants died in accidents was unbelievable, but perhaps inevitable, considering the kind of morality and money that was involved. That said, I think the story was an interesting study in psychology and the generation gap, and it was interesting to see how Rosie saw the places she travelled through that I had also been to. The difference was the biggest in rural Pakistan, where the rally cars were met with hostile stares and thrown rocks, an area where I met mostly friendly and curious people only a year earlier.

Rating: Interesting mostly for the writing and the people. Don’t expect travel tips, unless you’re planning to participate in the next Beijing to Paris rally. 3 stars.