28 February 2008

Bibliophile reviews Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

One long book at a time is enough for me, and since I had started reading The Thirteenth Tale when I remembered that I had been planning to read a classic, I decided to find a short one. The first short classic I found at the university bookstore was Cranford, so that’s what I decided to read. Gaskell did not feature in the course I took on the English 19th century novel, and to tell the truth I wouldn’t have known she ever existed if it hadn’t been for the TV series of her novel Wives and Daughters (which I unfortunately missed when it was shown on Icelandic TV). (North and South and Cranford have also been filmed for television).

The book was first published as a serial in a magazine in 1851-2, but in 1853 it was gathered together in one volume and published as a novel. It seems obvious that Gaskell originally merely intended to tell some interesting individual stories with only the central characters as a connection between them, which makes the first half or so of the book rather loose and episodic. It isn’t until the latter half of the book that a story begins to be told that continues from chapter to chapter, so in fact the ‘novel’ is really a collection of interconnected short stories and a novella. To the original has been added one extra story, and an essay by Gaskell that fits in well with the rest of the book’s material.

The narrator is Mary Smith, a younger woman who frequently visits her friends, the Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns, two elderly spinster sisters who live in the town of Cranford. Miss Matty is the central character, but around her there revolves a group of women, all of whom are either widows or spinsters. Men do not feature largely in the story – as a matter of fact they are viewed with some suspicion by the women – but some of the turning points do revolve around them. The world of these upper-class women is genteel and rather innocent, and all behaviour is controlled by rigid rules that are meant to ensure that things continue to be nice and comfortable and changeless in the face of impending change (e.g. the arrival of the railroad). The value of friendship is the chief message.

I found Cranford to be a sweet and gentle read, sometimes funny, sometimes melodramatic, but always entertaining. It would be interesting to read one of her novels (that were intended as such) to see how she handles a longer narrative structure.

3 stars.

Read Cranford online.

27 February 2008

Free online book by Neil Gaiman

The best part is: it is absolutely legal. Neil Gaiman and his publisher will be offering American Gods for free online. Fans were given the vote, and the majority wanted AG. It wasn’t my choice (I voted for one of the short story collections), but I applaud the gesture and hope it will lead many more readers to discover his work.

The book will be available from February 28th. Further information: Neil’s blog

19 February 2008

My reading journal

I have been keeping a reading journal for about three years now, and it has become a routine for me. I have started writing a regular journal or diary several times, but the only time I have been able to keep it up for longer than a couple of weeks is when I have been travelling, but somehow I have been able to stick to the reading journal, perhaps because it doesn’t call for daily entries. My only regret is that I didn’t start it a long time ago. I have estimated that I have read at least 5000 books in my lifetime – probably more – and it would have been fun to be able to compile a list of them all and to analyse how my reading habits and tastes have changed through the years.

As I mentioned in the January reading report, I decided at the beginning of the year to start keeping the journal in a real book instead of loose-leaf binders, and so far it is working out well. The book has blank pages, so the writing is not always in a completely straight line, but it somehow feels better to be writing in a book than on loose sheets of paper, even if the paper was lined. Of course it feels even better because I actually made the journal.

Into the journal goes some basic information about each book I read: date read, genre, title, author/editor, reader (if an audio book), illustrator/photographer (is there is one), translator (if it’s translated), publisher, year published, country, no of pages, format, a short plot summary and a one line review with star rating. The rating and everything but the summary and short review goes into an Excel file as well, to help me analyse the information statistically.

Well, enough about the contents - here is the journal:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

I put some information about how it was made and what materials I used, in my bookbinding blog

13 February 2008

Is it any wonder?

I have occasionally mentioned that I hate literary snobbery, especially the kind that makes people declare that a whole genre of literature (be it fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, romance or whatever) is no good without having read any of it, or at the most merely sampled it a bit. Romance has especially been reviled as stereotyped and inane, called the female equivalent of porn and its readers dismissed as being entirely female, with little education, a small income, who read it to escape their daily drudgery and dream of marrying a [insert Mediterranean ethnicity of your choice] billionaire prince.

I may be exaggerating somewhat, but you get the picture.

But, I really do have to ask myself: Is it any wonder people think this way when they see the titles of many of the romances available?

I am referring to the type of book known as a category romance. These are short romances written to specific standards and formulas that pertain to sub-genre, setting, time and certain other guidelines, like level of sensuality, type of conflict or type of couple and so on, and published under a category name. Examples from Harlequin Enterprises include Everlasting Love, American Romance, Blaze, Medical Romance, Intrigue and Superromance, to name a few that are published under their imprint. They have a limited print run and usually only stay on the shelves for about a month before they are removed (if there are any left) to make way for the next batch.

Now, I realise that when you publish over 100 titles every month like Harlequin – most of which are romances – it is probably hard to come up with decent titles for each and every book, and in addition you want to make sure the customers can easily find a book in the sub-genre they prefer, so you give them titles that suggest what the book is about. The books also have a short shelf life and each title generally sells a few thousand copies at best, so they must be produced cheaply, meaning you're not about to pay someone to think up original titles for the books.

(BTW, if you thought the writer gives the book its title, you're mostly wrong. According to an article I read somewhere – possibly in the At the Back Fence romance reader's e-column – it is generally only the really popular writers who are allowed to do that. It looks like the rest have to suffer the indignity of having their book reduced to a few keywords that are then fed into a romance title generator. At least that's what it felt like to browse some of the category titles available through Amazon.com.)

The majority of the titles below, randomly taken from a search of the Amazon website, are Harlequin romances that take place in a modern setting, under different categories. I only chose descriptive titles (which are in the majority) because they are the ones I think give romances a bad reputation.

Please note that while I may ridicule the choice of title, I am not placing any judgment on the stories told in the books and how they are written. I am merely lamenting the unoriginality of the titles.

Read through it the list and you will quickly see patterns emerging, mostly involving virgins, mistresses, brides, wives, pregnancies, babies (usually secret babies, a popular sub-genre), rich men, exotic men (generally Italians, Greeks, Spaniards or ‘Sheikhs’), dominant men, weddings and marriages of convenience. Many titles also suggest reluctance on behalf of the women and use of force by the men.

A Mother for the Tycoon's Child
A Virgin for the Taking
Aristides' Convenient Wife
Arranged Marriage
At the French Baron's Bidding
At the Greek Tycoon's Pleasure
At the Spaniard's Convenience
Bedded by the Desert King
Bought for the Greek's Bed
Bought for the Marriage Bed
Bought: The Greek's Bride
Bride for the Taking
Claiming the Cattleman's Heart
Convenient Wife
Cowboy's Woman
Executive Bodyguard
Expecting the Playboy's Heir
Exposed: The Sheikh's Mistress
Finn's Pregnant Bride
For the Sheikh's Pleasure
Her Honorable Playboy
Her Italian Boss's Agenda
Her Parenthood Assignment
Her Secret, His Child
Her Sister's Children
His Pregnant Mistress
His Private Mistress
His Wedding Ring of Revenge
Husband by Request
Husband of Convenience
In the Venetian's Bed
Kept by the Spanish Billionaire
Longshadow's Woman
Love-Slave to the Sheikh
Marine & the Princess
McCavett's Bride
Million-Dollar Love-Child
Mistress for a Weekend
Mistress on Loan
Possessed by the Sheikh
Pregnant by the Millionaire
Purchased by the Billionaire
Reluctant Mistress, Blackmailed Wife
Royally Bedded, Regally Wedded
Saying Yes to the Boss
Seduction of an English Beauty
Surgeon Prince, Ordinary Wife
Taken by the Sheikh
Taken: The Spaniard's Virgin
The Australians Convenient Bride
The Australian's Housekeeper Bride
The Billionaire Boss's Bride
The Billionaire's Marriage Bargain
The Billionaire's Scandalous Marriage
The Boss and his Secretary
The Boss's Pregnancy Proposal
The Brazilian's Blackmail Bargain
The Defiant Mistress
The Disobedient Bride
The Doctor's Mistress
The Forced Bride
The Future King's Bride
The Greek Boss's Bride
The Greek Millionaire's Mistress
The Greek Tycoon's Virgin Wife
The Greek's Chosen Wife
The Greek's Christmas Baby
The Greek's Virgin
The Italian Boss's Secretary Mistress
The Italian Millionaire's Virgin Wife
The Italian Prince's Pregnant Bride
The Italian's Convenient Wife
The Italian's Forced Bride
The Italian's Future Bride
The Italian's Virgin Princess
The Italian's Wedding Ultimatum
The King's Mistress
The Kouvaris Marriage
The Kristallis Baby
The Lawyer's Contract Marriage
The Marchese's Love-Child
The Marriage Bed
The Mighty Quinns (series)
The Millionaire Boss's Baby
The Millionaire's Runaway Bride
The Millionaire's Virgin Mistress
The Mistress's Child
The Petrakos Bride
The Pleasure King's Bride
The Prince's Convenient Bride
The Ranger's Woman
The Rich Man's Baby
The Rich Man's Royal Mistress
The Rich Man's Virgin
The Roman's Virgin Mistress
The Santorini Bride
The Secret Baby Bargain
The Seduction of Sara
The Sheikh's Bartered Bride
The Sheikh's Convenient Bride
The Sheikh's Disobedient Bride
The Sheikh's Innocent Bride
The Sheikh's Ransomed Bride
The Sheikh's Reluctant Bride
The Sicilian's Christmas Bride
The Sicilian's Marriage Arrangement
The Sicilian's Red-Hot Revenge
The Spaniard's Blackmailed Bride
The Spaniard's Marriage Demand
The Spaniard's Passion
The Sultan's Virgin Bride
The Taming of Jessi Rose
The Ultimate Seduction
The Wealthy Man's Mistress
Traded to the Sheikh
Wife By Contract, Mistress By Demand

A couple of others that I want to comment on specially:
It's a Wonderfully Sexy Life (pun on the movie title that makes it sound like a sex manual)
Slow Hand Luke (another movie/book title pun that sounds more like porn than romance)

07 February 2008

Bibliophile’s reading report for 2007

I finally got my act together and compiled the annual report.

Total books read in 2007:
142. This is 18 books fewer than in 2006, and 140 fewer than in 2005 (an exceptional reading year for me), but still pretty good when you consider that it makes nearly 3 books a week.

Last year I was very focused on cookbooks and skimmed through 18 of them in search of interesting recipes, reading all the titles and a number of recipes from each book, but as I can’t claim to have actually read any of them all the way through, they are not included in the tally. Also not included are the books I began reading in 2007 and will hopefully finish in 2008.


Fiction: 97 (68,3%)
Non-fiction: 43 (30,3%)
Mixed: 2 (1,4%)

The mixed books are The Literary Gourmet, which combines real recipes and passages from novels, and The Science of Discworld which combines popular science with fantasy. In addition there are 3 books that are ostensibly autobiographies, but have a distinct flavour of being more or less fictionalised. However, since the Icelandic National Library classifies them as non-fiction, so will I.
My non-fiction percentage is up 4,7% from 2006. I would like to make it to 35% non-fiction this year.

Total no. of pages read: 38901.
Average number of pages per book: 274. This is 22 pages (on average) longer than in 2006.
Number of books under 100 pages long: 1. I think I will leave this item out of the next report, unless I get a job reviewing children’s books ;-)
Number of books 300+ pages long:70 (49%). This percentage was only 26,8% in 2006.

Re-reads: 8 (5,6%).
Library and loan books: 21 (14,8%)
E-books: 4
Audio books: 0
Translated books: 13 (9%)
I re-read fewer books in 2007 that in 2006, and much fewer library books (down to 14,8% from 21,25%).

Books published before 1900: 4. I aim to read at least 12 this year (see my New Year’s reading resolution).
Books published after 2000: 31 (21,8%). This is 4,9% more than in 2006.

Average rating per book (out of a possible 5+): 3+
Most common rating (out of a possible 5+): 4 (45 books, 31,7%)

Languages: English (132: 93%), Icelandic (10: 7%). My percentage of Icelandic books is up by 6,3% since last year, which is good, but could be better.

Breakdown by genre:
As I said (in a lot more words) last year, this breakdown is by main genre, so genre-crossing books get classified under one genre even if they could possibly belong to as many as three. Non-fiction where I only read a few books in the genre is collected under "miscellaneous non-fiction" . The only time I use a fuller genre classification is when there are enough of them to be statistically interesting.
A few books were very hard to classify, not only the two mixed fiction and non-fiction books, but also a book about “true” supernatural events. I ended up classifying that one under non-fiction, since there is such a strong belief in the veracity of the stories therein. The other two ended up under the fiction category, just to simplify matters. Cookoff ended up in the travel category, since, although it is about cooking and eating, it is just as much about travel to different places.
The non-travel biographies and memoirs were too few to warrant a category of their own this year.

Crime, mystery and action, including one non-fiction popular criminology book: 62 (43,7%, up by 3,1%)
Romance: 10 (7%, down by 1,75%)
Fantasy, sci-fi, fairy tales and supernatural horror: 19 (13,4%, down by 1,6%)
Miscellaneous fiction, incl. novels, short story collections, etc.: 10 (7% down by 10%)
Travel, memoirs of places and geography: 17 (12%, down by 0,5%)
Miscellaneous non-fiction, minus that one criminology book included in the crime category: 24 (16,9 %, up by 8,15%)

Out of these, 12 were written with teenagers or children in mind. They belong to various genres and are counted in the relevant categories.

Most read authors:
My most read author in 2007 was Ngaio Marsh. At the end of 2007 I had acquired all 32 of her Roderick Alleyn detective novels, and I have been reading them in the order of publication. I am taking a break from her for a while in order to concentrate on finishing the 52 mystery authors challenge, but she may still come out as my most read author of 2008.
As I continued my rereading of Terry Pratchett’s books that I started in 2006, he came second.

Ngaio Marsh: 11
Terry Pratchett: 6
Georges Simenon: 5
Madeleine L'Engle, Jennifer Crusie: 4
Rex Stout, Hendrik Ottósson: 3
Tess Gerritsen, Ruth Rendell, Ruth Reichl, Robert B. Parker, Nancy Pearl, Nancy Martin, Jill Ker Conway, J.D. Robb, Eric Newby, Andrea Camilleri: 2

05 February 2008

A useful new term...

Property porn.
Apparently the Collins English Dictionary defines it as:
a genre of escapist TV programmes, magazine features, etc showing desirable properties for sale, especially those in idyllic locations, or in need of renovation, or both.

I first saw it used on the Guardian book blog in a slightly different but related meaning as a term for the travel sub-genre I call “fixer-upper” stories, i.e. one of those “I bought a dilapidated dream house in France/Italy/Spain and fixed it up and I want the world to know I did it. Incidentally I’d also like to tell you about how wonderful/crazy/quaint the locals are”.

I wonder if House Invaders and the Big, Strong Girls/Boys shows could be called property porn as well? The outcomes of all those renovations are certainly offensive often enough.

04 February 2008

Desert island books

This post was inspired by a posting on a reading board I occasionally visit. The original poster called for the members to nominate 10 books they would take with them for a year’s stay on a desert island. All survival necessities would be taken care of, giving you plenty of time to read. In addition to 10 self-chosen books, we could take the collected works of William Shakespeare and the Bible or another religious book.

Shakespeare was made mandatory in that particular challenge, which is not surprising as the board is frequented mostly by native speakers of English. Since I am not a native speaker of English and Shakespeare has not had much influence on my native literature, I nominate instead the equivalent in Icelandic literature: The Sagas. As to a religious book, I would choose the Mahabaratha.

I chose a blend of old favourites and books I have wanted to read but not got around to. I have changed the list a bit from what I posted to the board, as I have had some time to mull it over.

The List:
  • The Jón Árnason collected Icelandic folk tales (technically one book, although it is in several volumes).
  • Dalalíf by Guðrún frá Lundi (an Icelandic novel of country life in several volumes).
  • The Arabian Nights (read it as a teenager and would like to revisit it).
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.
  • The collected d'Artagnan romances by Dumas (The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later).
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White.
  • Small Gods by Terry Pratchett.
  • The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
  • London: A biography by Peter Ackroyd.
  • The condensed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (there is some fascinating reading to be found in the OED if you are interested in etymology).

This is just what I would choose if I was leaving today. Tomorrow it might be totally different. As a matter of fact, I might revisit this subject again next year, since several of the books are actually on my TBR list.

You may have noticed that these are mostly very long books. That is because I don’t see the point of taking short ones when you can only take so few. I would rather take the long ones and risk not having finished them all at the end of the year rather than having to re-read a number of short books to keep myself occupied.

Dear Reader: Which books would you choose for a year’s stay on a desert island? Would you replace the Bible and collected works of Shakespeare with something else? (has to be one religious book and one pillar of your national literature).

02 February 2008

Reading report for January 2008

Before I begin listing books:
For 2008, I decided to make a bit of a change in my reading statistics compilation. Instead of writing my reading reports on loose sheets of A5 paper and inserting them into folders in alphabetical order (by author) like I have been doing for the past couple of years, I used my newly learned bookbinding skills and made a hand-bound reading journal into which I write the information I want to keep track off as I finish each book. I decided to do this because the folders take up a lot of space and look ugly on the shelves, whereas an even halfway well-made hand-bound book is a joy to behold and easier to stack. As I put everything except the summary and a one-sentence review into the computer as well, what I wrote about each book will still be easy to find. All I need to do is to open the relevant computer file and then I will know approximately whereabouts in the journal to find what I wrote about the book.

Since the journal is 336 pages long and I am able to fit information about two books (on average) on a page, the book should last me over 4 years. Even if I start writing down more information, like words I learned from reading the book and longer reviews, it should still last over 2 years. To make the books easier to find in the journal without starting up the computer, I plan to tip in an index at the end of each year, with the books alphabetised by author and the month I read them in.

I still haven’t found the perfect covering for the journal, so the boards are currently only bound with blue Rexine (fake leather) on the spine and corners, but I will post a photo of it once I do find the right paper for finishing it (something that goes with blue and has a book theme).

And now for the reading report:

January’s reading was a mixture of mystery and romance, with a couple of other genres thrown in for good measure.

Suzanne Brockmann: Forever Blue
Kristine Grayson: Thoroughly kissed
Tony Hillerman: Dance Hall of the Dead
Miranda Jarrett: The Very comely countess
Nagio Marsh: Colour scheme, Died in the wool, Final curtain, Swing, brother, swing, Night at the Vulcan
Katherine Hall Page: The Body in the Bog
Scott Rice, ed.: Son of "It was a dark and stormy night"
Joyce Stranger: Two's Company
Mark Twain: Roughing It. (The month's classic).

Son of "It was a dark and stormy night" deserves a special mention. It is a collection of opening sentences to imaginary books, entries in the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest. This is a great read for those who can tell the difference between good writing and bad and have the sense of humour to laugh rather than cry when they meet with the latter. As the passages are short it makes perfect toilet reading material for those who go in for that sort of thing.