23 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

(I finally gave in and cheated on the shelf challenge...)

Year originally published: 1948
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: England, 1940s

The Story: The book is written with 17 year old Cassandra Montmain as a narrator. She is keeping a journal in which she tries to capture the character of castle she lives in and all its inhabitants. Her father once wrote a very important book, but has not written a thing in 12 years, her artist's model stepmother is wildly eccentric but also rather domestic at heart, her sister Rose is willing to sell her soul to the devil to take herself and her family out of their poverty-stricken situation (they have no regular income), and Stephen, who is a sort of servant and sort of family member, is very much in love with Cassandra, who cares for him very much but is not romantically interested in him.
The arrival of two brothers in the neighbourhood bodes changes in the family's fortunes, and here I think I will say no more, as this book is hard to review without spoilers.

Technique and plot: In this book, Dodie Smith has managed to capture the essence of a teenage girl on the verge of becoming a woman and falling in love for the fist time, and the turmoil of feelings involved in the process. But the book is much more than that. It is a wonderful portrait of a family of eccentrics who immediately made me think of two families in other books: the Starkadders from Cold Comfort Farm, and the Durrell family as described in various books by Gerald Durrell.

The narrative is by turns funny and sad and the characterisations realistic. Cassandra is a good narrator although not a very good judge of character sometimes and looks at her world with eyes open to the family's difficult situation but is also quite cheerful about it, having long ago learned to accept what has been handed out to her by fate. Rose, on the other hand, is not someone to accept a life of endless poverty and lack of new clothes and enough food, and she is really the driving force of the story. It is her decision to marry into money that gives Cassandra some juicy material to write about. While one sometimes wants to give Rose a good shaking, she still continues to be a sympathetic character because Cassandra always loves her in spite of everything she does. The father is the least well drawn character in the book, which is deliberate because Cassandra simply doesn't understand him, and the stepmother is a wonderfully eccentric character.

Rating: A wonderful story told in the voice of a young woman of character. 4+ stars.

21 March 2007

What I found inside The Southern Gates of Arabia

Some months ago I wrote about things I have found in books. Back then, I had not really started thinking about how finding stuff in books could become part of this blog, but I have been thinking it over and I think I will begin a new feature about it. I am not about to go into any kind of competition with the good people of Found magazine and the Found blog, as my finding things in books usually happens at long and irregular intervals, but I think it can be interesting to look at the things people leave inside books and consider what it can tell us about them and the books.

My first featured find is the three items I discovered inside The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark.

The first is simply a plain bookplate stating that the book is a bequest to the National Library of Iceland from Mrs. Ellen Gertrude Austin, dated 1942. Presumably the book is part of a bigger bequest of books. The edition was published in 1938, so the book was almost new when it was given to the library.

About 80 pages in I came across a letter, written by someone living at what appears to be Musley College, although with this handwriting it could be any of various spellings close to that (Mosley, perhaps?). The letter is addressed to a Miss Binney (or some such spelling) and Meri (?) White, one of whom probably borrowed the book from the library at some time. It is unfortunately undated.

The second find came a little further on. It is an old-fashioned brochure and order form for a subscription to Blackwood's Magazine, at the cost of 30/-, which is presumably 30 shillings in the old British monetary system. The wording promises something quite English and conservative and tries to entice rather than push the reader into subscribing. I doubt the brochure is newer that from the 1950s.

Both these finds indicate to me that not many people can have checked the book out from the library since it was first shelved, because if it had been, they wouldn't be there. Or perhaps it has only been borrowed by people who respected the items and left them where they were? I suppose I will never know, but out of curiosity I intend to ask the librarian what the library does with found items like this when I return the book.

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18 March 2007

Pruning my book collection

I have been doing a bit of pruning in my TBR shelves and am putting the 'cuttings' on my BookMooch trade list. When I got them, some of the books were being given away for free and looked interesting at the time, although I now can no longer remember why they looked interesting, while with others I know I can easily get them from the library and also that I will have no desire to own then after I read them. And then there are the books I do no remember being given, buying or taking from the 'free books' table. How they got into my book collection is a mystery.

If anyone can give me reason why I should keep and read any of these books, please drop me a comment.

Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory - I am only mildly interested in it and if someone mooching it suddenly makes me want to read it, I can easily read it in 2 hours before sending it off.

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress. Not only can I get it from the library – it is also available on the net. I have mostly been keeping it because it is a pretty little book, a paperback with an old-fashioned woodcut picture and the title in gothic lettering. If I ever fell like reading it, I will get an annotated version.

George Macdonald Fraser: Flashman and Royal Flash. Where these came from I can not imagine. I do find it quite funny that they were shelved right next to Erica Jong – obviously I must have been in a mind to read picaresques when I got these, but now I don't feel like reading them.

Georgette Heyer: Devil's Cub. I think one copy is enough, so I'm getting rid of the spare.

Erica Jong: Fear of Flying: See George Macdonald Fraser.

Maxine Hong Kingston: The Woman Warrior. I must have been interested when I got it, but I am not now.

Colleen McCullough: The Ladies of Missalonghi. Freely available from the library, so there is no need for me to let it take up shelf space.

Barbara Michaels: Houses of Stone. I gave it the obligatory 50 pages and it did not arouse any interest in me, so I am letting it go.

Jodi Picoult: Vanishing Acts. If I ever get an overwhelming desire to read it I can always get it from the library.

16 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table by Ruth Reichl

Year published: 1999
Genre: Memoir, food, recipes
Setting & time: USA 1950s to 1970s.

I got this book on some solid recommendations from the foodies in my online reading group, and I am not sorry.

Reichl writes about growing up in New York with a caring but rather distant father and a bipolar mother and some of the characters, many of them wonderfully eccentric, who contributed to her education about food. She becomes a rebel, but only when her parents can't catch her at it, has friendships, travels, falls in love and marries, and lives in a commune in California and works in a cooperative restaurant. All of this contributes to her wide knowledge of food that would later lead her to become a restaurant critic, and throughout the book food is a constant theme.

Reichl writes an easy and light style and her prose is entertaining but without ever being fluffy. The book is a collection of episodes from Reichl's early life rather than being one story told straight through, probably because it is supposed to be food themed. These episodes show us how she grows into a person who knows enough about food and cooking to be a good restaurant critic, so it might be said that the book is basically about how to educate a food writer.

I have been unable to get the second volume of Reichl's memoirs, but I am now reading the third part, about her stint as the restaurant critic for the New York Times, and am enjoying it very much.

Rating: An entertaining account of a woman's food education that led her to getting to eat for a living. 4 stars.

My blogs are breeding…

I have a new blog. Its about me learning to bind books, with photos and examples of my work. If you are interested, here is the link: Bibliophile’s Bookbinding Journal.

07 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews a (gasp!) new(ish) book

Author: Naomi Novik
Title: Temeraire
American title: His Majesty’s Dragon
Year published:2006
Genre: Fantasy/alternative history

Yet another independent bookshop in Reykjavík is closing and it looks like soon there will only be two chains left, both owned by the same company. But this is supposed to be a review, not a lament for the demise of the independent bookseller. At the closing sale I came across this book, which caught my attention with the cover artwork: a black dragon hovering over an old-fashioned warship under full sail. The blurb promised a novel of the Napoleonic era – only with dragons. I decided to cheat on my reading diet and read the book while my interest in it was still fresh, so here is the review:

The Story: When William Laurence and his crew capture a French ship Laurence wonders why the French put up such very fierce resistance to the taking of the ship. The reason becomes clear when a dragon’s egg is discovered in the hold. Dragons must be harnessed straight from the egg, or they will become wild and fly away after their first meal. Britain does not have many dragons and since they are an important force in fighting the French, it is important to harness the dragon, but the ship is two weeks from the nearest harbour and the egg is about to hatch. Dragons become bound by love and friendship to the person whom they allow to harness them, so that once bound, the dragon and person belong together for life. Dragon riders (called aviators in the book) are looked at askance by the rest of society because of the beasts and their wild mode of living, so it is not a good prospect for anyone to become an aviator. When the dragonet refuses to be harnessed by the man who was chosen for the task (by the drawing of lots), and chooses Laurence instead, Will knows he is in for a big career change. The rest of the book is about his and Temeraire’s growing friendship, their time in training and their first skirmishes and a full-blown battle with a French invading force.

Technique and plot: Having cut my reading teeth on fairy tales, myths and legends, I have always liked fantasy, but have not read any new books in the genre lately, simply because they have so often disappointed me. Instead I have waited until the books begin to be talked of as classics, but in the case of Temeraire my reader’s sixth sense (which is rarely wrong) screamed at me to buy and read it, perhaps because the artwork was not exactly typical for the kinds of fantasy one sees in Icelandic bookstores and because it mixes together fantasy with another genre that I love: the historical novel.

This is not hard-core fantasy. There is no magic, no wizards, no elves or goblins or any of the things considered necessary for high fantasy. Novik has not created a new world, but has taken an existing world (our own past) and given it a twist to include dragons, and – like Anne McCaffrey in her science fantasy Dragonrider novels – non-magical ones at that. Never mind that according to modern physics an animal as big as a dragon can not fly – the dragons in this book are a phenomenon of nature rather than of magic and therefore only fantastic in the sense that they exist in the book’s world and not in ours. The story blends together the two genres in such a matter of fact way that I didn’t find it at all incongruous to read about dragons in Napoleonic Europe.

Novik might be accused of taking a safe route by using a familiar setting rather than creating a completely new one, but as any habitual reader of history and historical fiction can tell you, there is nothing safe in using a setting that is so very well known to so many readers. She has managed it very well and drawn up such a convincing image (or mirage, if you like) of the early 19th century that you don’t notice until on the second reading that it is in fact only a veneer, a backdrop for the actual story of Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship.

Characterisations are, for the most part, realistic. Will Laurence is a typical English gentleman of the era (imagine Mr. Darcy with a dragon in tow), and his shock when he enters into the world of the aviators, whose views and ideas are more like those of the late 20th century (including women as the social equals of men and fornication without social stigma), is described in such a way as to make it perfectly understandable without making him look like an insufferable prude. Temeraire is given a distinct personality, is very intelligent and he and Will complement each other nicely. Both characters came very much alive in my mind while I was reading. Other personalities are a little less well drawn, but not so much as to make them flat.

For a first novel the writing is of good quality and if there is firstbookitis in it I certainly didn’t notice. While this is her first published book, it is obvious that Novik is not a novice writer. The writing is too polished for that.

There are already three books published in the series and a fourth on the way, and I look forward to reading them.

Rating: An excellent beginning to what I hope will turn out to be an excellent series. A definite re-read. 4+ stars.

P.S. I read that Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings director) has optioned the film rights to all three books. One can only hope that the option will eventually bear fruit in the form of a movie (or three). There are too few good fantasy movies around.

04 March 2007

Reading report for February 2007

I managed to read 15 books in February. Apart from that, I have taken apart, repaired, re-sewn and rebound four more and printed, folded, sewn and bound one. In other words: the book binding course is going well, but as a result I have not had much time or inclination for blogging. I am proud to say I read four books in Icelandic, three of which were written in the language and one translation.

MM Kaye: Death in Zanzibar
Ellery Queen: Cat of many tails
Georges Simenon: Maigret and the burglar's wife

Unreviewed: (at least two of which I will review later)
Mary Balogh: Slightly scandalous (historical romance)
Leslie Charteris: Hefndargjöfin (a Saint story, but there is no original title given)
André Dominé & Michael Diker, eds.: Culinaria: European specialties 2 (seriously cool foodie book)
Bramah Ernest: Four Max Carrados detective stories (the first blind sleuth)
Phyllis Hartnoll: The Theatre: A concise history
Hendrik Ottósson: Gvendur Jóns og draugarnir á Duusbryggju (half-true funny stories about boys getting into scrapes in early 20th century Reykjavík); Gvendur Jóns stendur í stórræðum (more of the same); Gvendur Jóns og ég... (and still more of the same)
Fergus Hume: Hagar of the pawn-shop (short crime stories where Hagar and the pawn shop she runs are somehow involved)
Robert B. Parker: Stone Cold (police story – part of the mystery authors challenge – I am now reading a Spenser novel)
Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, lady detective (interesting early detective stories)
Ruth Reichl: Tender at the bone: Growing up at the table (foodie memoir)

02 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews Maigret and the Burglar's Wife by Georges Simenon

Original French title: Maigret et la grande perche
translator: J. Maclaren-Ross
Series detective: Chief-Inspector Maigret
No. in series: 66
Year of publication: 1951
Type of mystery: Missing person/possible murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Paris, France; 1953s

Story: A woman who once embarrassed Maigret when he was a young policeman comes to him with a fantastic story: her husband, a safecracker famous for his bad luck, found a murdered women in one of his break-ins and has fled the city for fear of being suspected of the murder. However, no murder has been reported in the suburb where it happened, and Maigret is unsure as to whether to believe the story or not. After speaking with the inhabitants of the house, a middle-aged man and his mother, his policeman's sixth sense is aroused he begins to believe the story and starts an investigation.

Review: It was interesting to read this book so shortly after having watched the same story unfold in an episode of the British TV series (with Michael Gambon as Maigret). Story and TV show could easily be used to show how an original written story can both lose and gain a lot in the adaptation. But I'm not going to discuss the adaptation here, just the story as it is in the book. It is a fine story about psychological warfare between Maigret and a suspect, and has an interesting twist in the tale, which, while not entirely unexpected, is put forward in such a way as to leave it up to the reader whether she believes the solution or not. It may just be the translation, but I got the feeling this doubt was entirely intentional.

Rating: Another fine tale of psychological warfare and human nature from the French master of mystery. 4 stars.