31 December 2009

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Year published: 2009
Genre: Fantasy
Setting & time: Ankh-Morpork, can remember what year (it’s mentioned in the book)

For some reason I have not yet been able to bring myself to finish Terry Pratchett's last Discworld book, Making Money, possibly because it failed to grip me in the first chapter, and also because I do not find Moist von Lipwig that interesting a character. I had no such problem with Unseen Academicals. It is interesting from the first page, and while it didn’t turn into a must-finish all-nighter for me, I did enjoy it. The humour is less dark than it has been in several preceding books, and the book sparkles with good humour throughout, even when nasty things seem to be about to happen, are happening, or have just happened.

As with most of Pratchett’s other Discworld books, this one presents the reader with several interwoven story threads involving a number of characters that gradually come together into bigger strands and finally become one as the story nears its climax.

The plot revolves around an attempt by Lord Vetinari to tame the brutal street sport of foot-the-ball with the assistance of the wizards of Unseen University. Mix into that academic bickering and rivalry, opposing teams of rabid football supporters, young love, high fashion, the art of cooking, and the mysterious Mr. Nutt, whom lots of people want to kill on principle, and you have the usual heady mix readers have come to expect from Pratchett.

Unseen Academicals is not up in the top league of Pratchett's books, but I would need to re-read it with my literary analysis glasses on to put my finger on why. It is good, solid entertainment and gets a good solid 3+ stars from me.

P.S. I would like to read more about Dr. Hix and his department.

30 December 2009

Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham

Year published: 1960
Genre: Science fiction, satire
Setting & time: England, mid-20th century

Two scientists discover an anti-ageing substance derived from lichen and put it to use in very different ways. When the public find out about the substance it is not, as one might expect, unanimously welcomed, and society is divided into different factions when people start to realise all the implications.

I don’t quite understand why this book is labelled as science-fiction even if a scientific discovery and its consequences are at the centre of the plot. The science is explained in simple layman terms and doesn’t dominate the plot even though it is of course the factor that sets the plot in motion. This is an interesting moral satire on British society in the mid-20th century and an intelligent examination of what might happen in such a society if the people discovered that it was possible to double their expected lifespan.

This is a fun read rather than a funny one, as the undertone is quite serious while the tone is kept light. Recommended.

Rating: 4+ stars.

Wednesday reading experience # 52

Read a biography or autobiography of someone you admire or are curious to know more about.

That concludes the Wednesday reading experiences/suggestions. I will not be continuing this feature in 2010.

25 December 2009

Review of Sex and the City

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Originally published in June 2004, in 2 parts
Book 22 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Candace Bushnell
Year published: 1996
Genre: Social life and customs
Sub-genre(s): Sex, dating, relationships
Where got: Public library

Came across this while browsing in the library and decided to give it a go. It will be interesting to see what the book that spawned the hit TV series is like.

The Story:
There isn’t really a story as such, this being mostly a collection of articles about the mating habits of New Yorkers that appeared in Bushnell’s newspaper column, but some of the same people pop up repeatedly and you get to know something about them and their relationships with each other and others. Sex, dating, marriage and the attendant social rituals are the order of the day, and are sometimes investigated through conversations between people comparing notes on the subject and sometimes as little story vignettes that illustrate the subject. Faithful viewers of the TV series will recognise most of the subjects: “modelizers”, psycho moms, swinging, serial daters, toxic bachelors and perennially single women, and of course Carrie’s relationship with Mr. Big. They will also recognise many of the characters, but may be shocked to find that some of the people in the book have almost nothing in common with their namesakes from the series.

The first two-thirds or so of the book is a collection of articles about the above subjects and more, and the last chapters are mostly a chronicle of the relationship between Carrie and Mr. Big.

Technique and plot:
The book is written in a breezy, journalistic style, which is no surprise considering where the articles originally appeared. Bushnell has a good ear for dialogue and writes conversations that sound real (unlike some writers I might mention).

Although I read most of the book in one sitting, I would recommend reading it more slowly, maybe one or two chapters at a time.

A fascinating record of New York social life in the 1990’s, and a must for everyone who loved the TV series. 3 stars.

23 December 2009

Wednesday reading experience # 51

Read a sequel/prequel or rewrite of a famous novel that features some of the same characters but is written by a different author.

This could be, for example, a modernisation of a famous novel such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as retold in Kate Fenton’s Vanity and Vexation or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre retold as science fiction in Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborn.
Examples of sequels and prequels (and spin-offs) include all of Jane Austen’s books (authors include Emma Tennant and Joan Aiken) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books (authors include Laurie L. King and Nicholas Meyer).

Additionally, you can find thousands of (mostly unauthorised) short stories and some novels that have only been published on-line, written by fans (and not all of it is slash fiction). Most of it is not terribly good, but if you search hard you can find some gems among the rubble.

Some questions to consider:
How did you feel about reading about characters you knew and loved from the original, in a book written by another author?
Did the author do a good job of continuing or updating the story?
Did they try to imitate the original style and language and if so, did they succeed?
Would you read more sequels/prequels or modernisations of famous novels?

18 December 2009

Review of The Haunting of Hill House

Originally published in June 2004, in 2 parts
Book 21 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Shirley Jackson
Year published: 1959
Where got: Public library
Genre: Horror
Sub-genre: Haunted house tale

I started reading this book a couple of days ago and have finished the first two chapters. Although nothing supernatural has happened yet, a subtle sense of suspense and creepiness has started to build. So far, I’m reminded of the beginning of both the TV series Rose Red and the movie The Legend of Hell House, but I guess there are limited ways in which you can start a haunted house tale.

Finished it this afternoon. This is a book that is best read in broad daylight – not that it kept me awake or gave me nightmares, but it took me quite a bit longer than usual to fall asleep after reading the first two chapters at bedtime.

The Story:
Two young women, Eleanor and Theodora arrive at Hill House, a fancy country mansion, to meet Dr. Montague, a researcher of psychic phenomena who has asked them to help him investigate the apparently haunted house. The fourth member of the team is Luke, the rakish future heir to the house. Right from the day of arrival, it is apparent that this is a strange and unusual place, and as the days pass on, we get to know some of the apparent reasons for the strangeness of the house described by Dr. Montague as “…disturbed…. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity…”
Strange things happen and hauntings occur, and the characters are affected in different ways as the house tries to scare and even possess them. Things come to a head when Mrs. Montague, the Doctor’s wife, arrives with an odious companion and tries to contact the spirits she believes are trapped in the house.

Technique and plot:
This is a marvellously spooky story, and Jackson has managed quite well to build up suspense and a sense of creepiness right from chapter one. The suspense and horror are largely psychological, and it helps that we get to follow one character’s internal thoughts and feelings and her… I don’t know if I should call it descent into madness or opening up to possession by evil, but you see her get more and more disturbed – by turns elated or upset - as the narrative moves closer to the climax.

A comic interlude lightens the atmosphere just before the climax, making the climax and denouement all the more effective. The ending is both completely predictable and a total surprise, which is no small feat for any author.

A well crafted, suspenseful and spooky haunted house tale. 4 stars.

Information about Shirley Jackson, including a link to her brilliant short story, “The Lottery”:
Shirley Jackson

A possible inspiration for The Haunting of Hill House:
The Haunting of Borley Rectory

16 December 2009

Books I acquired during my trip to India

Most of these books I bought or was given in India, but three I bought in London, two on the way to India and one on the way home. The first two were the guidebooks, and the third was Ulysses by James Joyce, because I couldn't find an edition in India that I liked.

Indland 2009

Some of the books pictured had been on my wish list for varying lengths of time, others were bought on speculation because I liked the look of them. The books that it's hard to see titles or authors in the photo are, from the top:
1. Incident on the Kalka Mail by Satyajit Ray.
4. Le Morte D'Arthur, part II by Sir Thomas Mallory (I have had part I for ages but never could find part II until now).

Books number (from the top) 2, 8, 9 & 17 I was given by my friends.

Not pictured are the books that I bought, read and exchanged for other books: No Full Stops in India by Mark Tully, and The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple. Both were interesting reads and very informative about various aspects of Indian society, but neither was a book I wanted to re-read, so out they went.

Wednesday reading experience # 50

Celebrate the Christmas season with a holiday-themed read.

Any one of Charles Dickens’s Christmas novels will serve to get you in the mood. Start with A Christmas Carol, then move on to The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. I leave it up to you whether you also read the less popular The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

Fannie Flagg’s A Redbird Christmas is funny and somewhat sentimental, but many of us like sentimentality around Chrismas.

Connie Willis has an excellent fantasy and science fiction themed collection titled Miracle and other Christmas Stories.

For younger readers J.R.R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters is both heartwarming and funny and while Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! may have been written and drawn for children many adults find it enjoyable as well.

Christmas probably wouldn’t be complete for many Americans without "A Visit from St. Nicholas", better known as "The Night Before Christmas". This famous poem, originally anonymously published, has been attributed to Clement Clarke Moore and also to Henry Livingston, Jr. Whicever of them wrote it, it’s an entertaining little poem, lively and full of Christmas spirit.

Generally speaking, Christmas in crime stories is rather miserable due to most of them being about murder, but there is an exception: Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol have written several Christmas crime stories starring Mary’s sleuth Alvirah Meehan and Carol’s sleuth Regan Reilly. These aren’t really mysteries, but rather caper stories focusing on how Alvirah and Regan foil some baddies, usually thieves or kidnappers, and tend to be frothy, fun and full of holiday cheer, and weak on mystery but usually with some suspense.
Mary started the series with Silent Night and All Through The Night, and Carol joined her for Deck the Halls, He Sees You When You're Sleeping, The Christmas Thief, Santa Cruise, and Dashing Through the Snow.

11 December 2009

Wednesday reading experience # 49

This should of course have been published on the 9th, but I thought I had it on automatic posting and didn't even check. So here it is now, none the worse for being a little late:

Choose a major literary award, local or international, and read some books that have been given the award.

It can be any kind of award, not just literary fiction. It could, for example, be for crime writing, romance, travel writing or science, etc.

Did you agree that it should have won the award? For a fairer comparison, you could also read the books that were nominated alongside the winner and decide which one you like best and why.

Review of Closed at Dusk

Originally published in June 2004.
Book 20 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Monica Dickens
Year published: 1990
Where got: Bookstore (sale)
Genre: Thriller, mystery

I was going to read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as this week’s book, but I’m too busy right now to read such a long and dense text in only one week. Instead I have switched to another mystery that is shorter and less demanding.

I’ve read several of Monica Dickens’ children’s books and the autobiographical book One Pair of Feet, about her experiences as a nursing student during World War 2. It will be interesting to see how I like her adult fiction.

The story:
This is not a mystery as I first thought it was, but a thriller, or perhaps it might be called an insider mystery, as the reader knows who the villain is nearly the whole time. In this particular edition, the blurb cleverly gives a hint, but I at least didn’t catch on to it until I reached the chapter where the villain’s identity is revealed, and then I turned to the blurb and went “a-ha!”

Through the first chapters of the book we are gradually introduced to a family, some who live at a mansion called The Sanctuary, the rest coming there often to spend time with the family. The gardens are open to the public, because, as with many of Britain’s old landed families, they can’t afford to keep the gardens in shape without the entry fees from the public. When mysterious, apparently supernatural events start taking place, no one is sure what is happening and The Sanctuary seems posed to turn into a haunted house.

The technical points:
The story is quite well written, and the twists well worked out. It starts rather slowly, with a bit of underlying menace that is introduced through a nervous child who gets scared of the smallest things.

Unfortunately the character development is not quite as good as it should be. None of the victims in the story are really drawn as sympathetic characters. They are, in fact, rather colourless - not unsympathetic, just bland. They are so harmless and normal that you almost feel as if they deserve to be shaken up a bit, but only almost.

The villain, or should I say villainess, is the most strongly drawn character, and you do almost feel sorry for her, even if her revenge scheme is rather on the extreme side. But of course she is insane, so it no wonder. There were times when I wanted to reach out and stop her, help her to forget about her crazy scheme and get on with her life. She does become less sympathetic as the story draws nearer to the end and her scheming becomes more extreme.

This was not what I expected – I had been expecting a mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, and this thriller element was quite unexpected, but not unpleasantly so. Dickens gives the villainess real reasons and motives and shows us her innermost feelings and thoughts, enabling us to feel sorry for her, instead of simply portraying her as an unsympathetic, rampaging madwoman like many writers would have.

A good psycho thriller, where the villain is actually shown as a real person rather than the pure evil some authors might have been tempted to write. 3 stars.

P.S. There’s nothing like a case of the flu to keep you indoors and reading when the weather is sunny and warm. At least I’ve finished the book of the week a couple of days ahead of schedule.

09 December 2009

Reading report for November 2009

As might be expected I finished only a small (for me) number of books in November. They were mostly read in hotel rooms after dinner to delay sleep so I wouldn't wake up at 4 a.m. and on long train journeys when the company was less than convivial (or I had no company) and I was tired of looking at unchanging landscapes.

6 of these books are about India in one way or another. 2 are travelogues, 2 are collections of articles, and 2 are novels by Indian authors.

One of the friends I visited on my trip introduced me to R.K. Narayan – in fact she gave me the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Malgudi. Satyajit Ray I discovered on her bookshelves and subsequently bought another book by him that I have just finished reading. They are written for children but are thoroughly enjoyable for adult mystery lovers and beautifully translated.
My friend also recommended Bill Aitken to me and I bought one of his books that I still haven‘t read. Dalrymple and Shand are old acquaintances of mine. I have enjoyed other books by both of them and will continue to buy their books.
Tully I was new to. I found his analysis of Indian society and politics very convincing. As to the remaining 2 books, Eeyore is my favourite Milne character and Nora Roberts never fails to deliver a good dose of thrills and romance.

Bill Aitken: Divining the Deccan - A motorbike to the heart of India (travelogue)
William Dalrymple: The Age of Kali - Indian travels and encounters (collection of articles)
A.A. Milne (and others); Ernest H. Shepard (drawings): Eeyore´s Gloomy Little Instrustion Book (self-help, humour)
R.K. Narayan: Swami and Friends (novel)
Satyajit Ray: The Curse of the Goddess (mystery)
Nora Roberts: Birthright (romance)
Mark Shand: River Dog - A journey down the Brahmaputra (travelogue)
Mark Tully: No Full Stops in India (collection of articles)

06 December 2009

Reading report for October 2009

I´m back from a great holiday in India.

Here is the reading report for October. I will post the one for November soon, plus a photo of my book acquisitions from India and possibly some reviews.

I only read one Top Mystery in October, and only one Icelandic book, but I did quite well in the TBR challenge, with 7 books altogether.

Árni Gunnarsson (text) and various photographers: Eldgos í Eyjum (documentary)
M.C. Beaton: The Skeleton in the Closet (mystery)
Suzanne Brockmann: Force of Nature (romantic thriller)
Edmund Crispin: Frequent Hearses (murder mystery)
Jasper Fforde: The Well of Lost Plots (futuristic fantasy)
Nicki Grihault: Culture Smart! India (cultural guide)
Thomas Hardy: Under the Greenwood Tree (romantic novel)
HRF Keating: The Murder of the Maharajah (murder mystery)
Sarah Macdonald: Holy Cow! (travelogue)
Ngaio Marsh: Singing in the Shrouds (murder mystery)
Stuart Mclean: Stories from the Vinyl Café (short stories)
Ellis Peters: Death to the Landlords (murder mystery)
Unknown: The Epic of Gilgamesh (classic literature)
Various: Ripley's Believe it or Not (trivia)

Additionally I read large parts of the Lonely Planet Guide to Rajastan, Delhi and Agra.

04 December 2009

Review of The Stainless Steel Rat

Originally published in May and June 2004, in 3 parts.
Book 19 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Author: Harry Harrison
Published: 1966 (this edition: 1997)
Where got: Bookstore, sale
Genre: Science fiction, action

I’ve wanted to read this book since I read and enjoyed Harry Harrison’s short story “The Golden Years of the Stainless Steel Rat” in the comic fantasy collection The Flying Sorcerers.

This is classic science fiction, as can be seen from how long this book has been in print. First published in 1966, it is still being reprinted.

Harry Harrison’s official website.

Entry 2:

Progress report:
So far so good. This is not as funny as I had thought it would be after reading the short story, but maybe the stories get funnier in the later books (did I mention this is the first in a series?). The style is very straightforward and reminds me of classic macho tough guy detective stories. The story is plot driven and there has been action on nearly every page so far. The Stainless Steel Rat is not having a good time where I am reading right now – he’s got serious female trouble.

Entry 3:

Finished the book on my lunch break today. Am planning on starting to read next week’s book tonight, as it is a long one and will probably require me doing some research on the side.

The story:
At the beginning of the story, career criminal James Bolivar diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat, is in the process of escaping from the scene of his latest crime. By chapter 4 he’s been recruited – reluctantly (his reluctance, not theirs) - by the Special Corps, an elite team of special police whose job it is to control and prevent intergalactic crime. When a mission goes wrong and a highly dangerous and attractive criminal escapes, Jim is determined to see the mission through to the end, even if it means abandoning his post and becoming a renegade from the Corps. The rest of the book describes how he tracks down his criminal and what happens afterwards.

The technical points:
As I have already mentioned, the story is plot driven and the narrative style is in the vein of the classic tough guy detective story. The narrative is in the first person. There isn’t much dialogue, but what there is serves to carry on the action. There are several twists, some more unexpected than others. The humour is in the sometimes ironic situations Jim finds himself in, and the author also had fun with names, some of which are puns and others which are only funny if you know a bit of German. The writing is hardly what I would call sparkling, but there’s never a dull moment, and Jim is the kind of character you can’t help but like.

I do have one gripe with the book, and that is that the story is not completely resolved (for me). Having read a short story about Jim in his golden years, I know something of what takes place after this book ends, and now it will nag me until I have read the rest. If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will know that I hate stories that spill out into several books. Oh, well, at least they are all published and in print and the library has some of them. Off to the library I go…

A sci-fi classic that should interest sci-fi, action and detective story fans. 3 stars.

02 December 2009

Wednesday reading experience #48

If you have a favourite genre and a favourite sub-genre within that genre (say historical mysteries or paranormal romances), choose a different sub-genre you are less familiar with and try that (e.g. forensic mysteries or Amish romance).

I find I often stick to a comfort zone in my choice of reading materials, concentrating on one or two particular sub-genres and tending to ignore the others, but my original 52 books challenge had me reading out of my comfort zone and I have tried to continue that practice. It has introduced me to authors, genres and sub-genres I might otherwise never have discovered.

27 November 2009

Review of The Godmother

Author: Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Year published: 1994
Where got: Public library
Genre: Fantasy (real world, alternate reality/possible future), fairy tale

As I mentioned yesterday, I went to the library to look for a suitable romance to review so I could keep my promise to choose reading material outside my comfort zone. Found no romance I liked the look of, but came home with The Godmother, Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen and Foucaults’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading The Godmother, never having read anything by Scarborough before. What got my attention was the the title and the cover , which shows a middle-aged woman (who resembles Lauren Baccall) with a knowing smile and a pose of authority and confidence, surrounded by graphics that suggest magic and interposed on an image of the Seattle skyline (immediately recogniseable because of the Space Needle). Woohoo, I thought. Magic in the modern world. Nice!

I finished it in one sitting, around 2 in the morning and went to sleep with my head full of fairy godmothers and talking cats.

What follows might be considered by some to be SPOILERS, so if you want this book to totally surprise you, please stop reading here and skip to the rating at the bottom.

The story:
In an alternate reality or possible near future, Seattle social worker Rose Samson is toiling under an unfair official policy that is turning the place into a hopeless hell for the homeless and the abused. One day she cynically whishes for a fairy godmother for the city, and is surprised and incredulous when one turns up.

A lost teenager, two homeless young people, a street gang, dangerous pedophiles and two missing children are some of the things Rose has to deal with, aided by her police officer love-interest and the godmother, Felicity Fortune. Felicity doesn’t use much magic, only resorting to it when things get tough. Instead she relies on her psychic talent and a widespread net of connections among people she has previously helped.

A savvy reader will immediately recognise several fairy tales in their modern incarnations. Some of the ones I identified were Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Hanzel and Gretel, Blubeard and Puss in Boots.
Scarborough isn’t afraid of describing violence – people get beaten up, poisoned and sexually molested, but in the end the good and the innocent get the good they deserve and the bad get their comeuppance. Oh, and there is a little romance as well.

The technical points:
The story is well written and well plotted with some minor flaws in the plot. The beginning is somewhat slow but it’s necessary in order to introduce all the different characters and narrative threads that come together later in the story. Although there is a fair amount of violence, it never becomes too graphic, and the author handles it sensitively.

Sometimes I thought she was being a little too simplistic or not clear enough. For example it is never really explained why the evil toad decided to help bring one of the godmother’s good causes to a happy ending (unless it was just from a desire to be kept safe until he could become human again), and the reasons the author gives as to why Rose’s accusations against the bad guys are unlikely to be believed seem unlikely to hold up in a court of law when there is so much physical evidence to support them.

Aside from these minor flaws, this was a good read and a gripping story, but not one I am likely to want to re-read.

Rating: A modern fairy tale with social conscience. Recommended for everyone who likes fairy tales. 3 stars.

25 November 2009

Wednesday reading experience #47

Read some travel tales, real or fictional.

If you’re wondering where to start, you can start by browsing through my travel book reviews.
Then, you can check out the Wikipedia article on the subject.

20 November 2009

Review of The Professor and the Madman

Originally published in 2 parts, in May 2004.
Book 17 in my first 52 books challenge.

Full title: The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Author: Simon Winchester
Published: 1998
Genre: History, biography, lexicography
Where got: National library

This book is about two men who worked on the making of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and their longstanding relationship. What got me interested in it was the title. We will have to see if the book lives up to it.

The story:
The book touches upon several subjects, but the core story is that of two men who were influential in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. One was Professor James Murray, the longest-serving editor of the OED, and the other was one of the most useful contributors of quotations to the book, Dr. William C. Minor, an inmate in a lunatic asylum (as they were called in those days). The life stories of both men are told in brief, showing how Prof. Murray rose from humble origins to become a philologist and a professor, and looking at Dr. Minor's career as an army surgeon in the American civil war and exploring the possible causes of his insanity. The history of British lexicography is touched upon, and also the conception and launching of the biggest lexicographical project ever undertaken: the Oxford English Dictionary.

The story-lines all come together in the second half of the book and we follow the relationship between Murray and Minor to the end, look at Minor's final years when he was finally released and sent home to the USA, and the OED's history is followed (in brief) up to modern times. It's really amazing how so much material made it into so short a book without becoming superficial: it is only 242 pages, including the preface, postscript and other end material. The only thing I missed was a bibliography.

The technical points:
This is another brilliantly written popular history book that reads like a novel (see my review of Seabiscuit). The narrative method takes some getting used to - at one point I became rather annoyed with the author for what I saw as over-usage of flashbacks, taking the reader back in time and to a different subject in every chapter and sometimes within chapters - but of course he had a good reason for telling the story in this way: There are so many narrative strands that have to be explored before they all come together that it would have been impossible to do it differently. I love the way each chapter is prefaced with one or more entries from the OED, explaining words that are pertinent to the subject of the chapter.

Rating: A fascinating snippet of history that is quite capable of gripping the reader until the end. 4 stars.

18 November 2009

Wednesday reading experience #46

Get to know the roots of your favourite literary genre.

There exist histories of most of the popular genres, and a good librarian can recommend one to you.

13 November 2009

Review of A Hat Full of Sky

Originally published in 2 parts, in May 2004.
Book 16 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author:Terry Pratchett
Published: 2004
Where got: Amazon.co.uk
Genre: Fantasy, children's

This book was delivered by the mailman on Friday afternoon, and I had to restrain myself not to start reading until after dinner. Finished reading it around midnight. I am going to read it again - more slowly - before I review it.

This is the sequel to The Wee Free Men and is the third Discworld book for children.

As usual, Pratchett has done an excellent job. The book is written for children, but is actually quite a good read for adults, who will read it at a deeper level. As this is a children's book, there are not as many allusions to other works as there are in the adult Discworld books, but there are still quite a few, some of which will be easily picked up by children and some which are better understood by adults.


The story is slower than The Wee Free Men and not quite as laugh-aloud funny, but it is also deeper and more thought provoking and will (hopefully) teach children who read it a useful lesson about why it's bad to always act upon impulse. The previous story reminded me of Alice in Wonderland (except Tiffany is quite a lot brighter than Alice), but this one has elements of both Alien (the movie) and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The story is not as dark as The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (the first Discworld children's book), but is still about quite a serious subject. The Nac Mac Feegle (see The Wee Free Men or Carpe Jugulum) play an important part and provide many of the funniest jokes. As in the previous book, Pratchett has not made the reading too easy - you sometimes have to read the Feegle's dialogue out loud (in a Scottish accent if you can manage it) in order to fully understand it.

Pratchett writes realistically about the feelings and thoughts of eleven year-old witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. I remember feeling some of the things Tiffany does when I was at her age. The inclusion of Granny Weatherwax is a good touch and I recommend for anyone who wants full enjoyment from reading this story to have read not only The Wee Free Men, but also the short story "The Sea and Little Fishes", which introduces the Witch Trials and the character of Letice Earwig and explains why Granny doesn't like her.

Rating: Excellent book, recommended to anyone who likes fantasy, fairy tales and/or is a fan of Granny Weatherwax. 5 stars.

11 November 2009

Wednesday reading experience #45

Read some of Jules Verne's books.

I have a particular fondness for A Journey to the Center of the Earth, because it partly takes place in Iceland, and for Around the World in Eighty Days, which is partly responsible for my love of travelling.

06 November 2009

Review of Icelandic Food and Cookery

Book 15 in my first 52 books challenge.
Originally published in 3 parts in May 2004.

Entry 1:

Author: Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir
Year published: 2002
Where got: public library
Genre: Food, recipes, social history

Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir is at the moment Iceland's most famous cookery book author who is not a chef. Her previous two cookery tomes, Matarást (Love of Food) and Matreiðslubók Nönnu (Nanna's Cookbook) are veritable food bibles. The first is an encyclopedia of food, ingredients, cookery methods, kitchen science, cookery terms, food history etc. etc., and the second is a collection of over 3000 recipes from all over the world. Both are unfortunately only available in Icelandic.

Icelandic Food and Cookery is Nanna's first cookery book written in English (to my knowledge). It focuses on food that may be called Icelandic, both traditional and modern. This book is of special interest to me because what Nanna is doing with this book is exactly what I have been doing with my cooking website, namely to introduce Icelandic cuisine to an international audience.

Here is one of the downsides to library books: you never know what condition they're going to be in. Every time I open this particular copy, the stink of stale cigarette smoke wafts up to meet me. Not the nicest thing when you're thinking about food.
Aaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrr gggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!

Entry 2:

This is more than just a regular cookbook. The first section offers a short history of food and eating habits in Iceland, an introduction to Icelandic festive food and a listing of many of the festive occasions available to Icelanders and the traditional foods that go with them. A second section lists some of the ingredients in the recipes and in the case of ingredients largely unknown to Americans*, like skyr and hartshorn, there are suggestions as to where they can be got from and also what substitutes can be used.

The recipe section is divided into the usual categories. With each recipe there is a short text where the author explains why the recipe was chosen for the book and in the case of traditional recipes she often recounts some memories she has about the dish.

*The book is written for the American market and uses American measurements.

Entry 3:

This is by far the best and most representative Icelandic cookbook for foreigners I have seen. The recipes are a mixture of traditional and modern recipes, and the author never forgets that it is supposed to represent Icelandic home cooking. Too many Icelandic cookbooks for foreigners are full of fiddly "nouvelle" recipes that can only be called Icelandic - and not French, Italian or international - because they were invented by Icelandic chefs and use some supposedly unique Icelandic ingredient like rhubarb or fresh fish.

The recipes in this book are for the most part easy, although users in the USA may in some cases find it difficult to hunt down some of the more obscure ingredients. Hartshorn (ammonium carbonate) will certainly be hard to find, and even mundane (to Icelanders) ingredients like fresh haddock or a leg of lamb can be difficult to find. (I once searched supermarkets in eastern North Dakota from the Canadian border and all the way down to Fargo for both these ingredients and found neither. People who live in cities like New York will not have any trouble finding this stuff.)

The book was specifically written for the American market, and so the measures are American. The book is widely available from Internet bookstores, such as Powell's, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, and I have no doubt that many of the bigger bookstores in the USA will carry it.
(I didn't recheck to see if it's still in print, but I did buy a copy at the August the Deuce celebration in Mountain, ND, last year).

Some recipes include:
Icelandic halibut soup, langoustines (scampi) with garlic butter, cocktail sauce, grilled salmon, leg of reindeer with rosemary, flamed puffin breasts, glazed potatoes, velvet pudding, bilberry soup, crullers, vínarterta and leaf bread.

Rating: Great cookbook, full of easy and tasty recipes for homemade Icelandic-style food. 5+ stars.

04 November 2009

Wednesday reading experience #44

Discover the literature of a foreign country you are not much familiar with.

I plan to see if I can find some English translations of Indian writers while I am in India, because my reading of Indian literature consists of a prose retelling of the stories told in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and a handful of books by Indian women writers who write in English*. When this posts (I am posting this ahead of time) I should have finished reading a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata.

*Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anita Desai.

30 October 2009

Review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brody

Originally published in 2 parts, in April and May 2004.
Book 14 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Muriel Spark
Published: 1961
Where got: second hand shop
Genre: Literature, satire

I seem to have a knack for choosing books that have been made into movies. I wonder why?

This week's choice was made into a memorable, if rather stagy, movie, starring the wonderful Maggie Smith.


Don't say I didn't warn you!

The book is about a teacher at a private girl's school in Edinburgh (Scotland) who has her own special ideas about education. She strives to turn out girls who are liberated and free thinking - or what she thinks is liberated and free thinking. Her behaviour and teaching methods are far from orthodox in the conservative environment of the school. She makes enemies among the other teachers and the headmistress is constantly trying to find an excuse to get rid of her. Her closest allies are a group of her students, six girls known as "the Brodie Set" among the other teachers and students of the school. The story is about her relationship with the girls and how the girls' perceptions of her change as they get older, and how in the end one of them betrays her fascist political ideas to the headmistress, causing her to be forced into early retirement.

This is in many ways a good story. Jean Brodie is a memorable character, somewhat unsympathetic and utterly real and understandable. She is the kind of teacher who can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. A blessing because she readily diverges from the set curriculum to tell her students about foreign countries and other interesting subjects, and a curse because she does so much of it that learning is mostly done at home and can be reflected in bad grades. Her teaching seems to consist mostly of telling the girls about her life and travels and trying to mould each of them into the persons she believes they are destined to become. The girls seem to love her unquestioningly and form a protective shield between her and the headmistress whose attempts to get something on her become ever more desperate as the narrative continues. We are told almost from the start that she will be betrayed by one of her own girls, and when the betrayal happens, it is quite understandable why the girl did what she did, although you still feel sorry for Miss Brodie.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time and is somewhat disjointed at times. It took me quite some time to figure out the age of Miss Brodie, and sometimes it wasn't clear how old the girls were either (not that it matters much).

Rating: A decent read, nothing earth-shattering, but worth taking the time. The movie is better (in my opinion) even though it is a bit stagy - Maggie Smith captures Miss Brodie perfectly. 3 stars.

28 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #43

Read an epistolatory novel.

These are novels written as a series of documents, e.g. letters or e-mails, blog entries, historical documents, reports, reviews, excerpts from books, newspaper clippings and diary entries. Basically anything that is traditionally written or typed, used without any connecting passages to form a narrative. It enables the author to let the characters (or a chosen number of characters) express themselves directly without having a narrator tell the story.

I have already recommended reading fictional diaries, which form part of the epistolatory genre, so a different epistolatory form is recommended.

Here are some that I have enjoyed:
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Written as a series of accounts of the theft of a precious stone, using different styles and voices.
  • Letters to Alice, Upon first reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon. What the title says, plus much more besides.
  • Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. A novel told entirely in letters between the characters.
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. A correspondence between a young demon and his "uncle" Screwtape, a senior demon.
  • The Boy Next Door, Boy Meets Girl, and Every Boy's Got One, by Meg Cabot. These are frothy and fun romances, written as a series of e-mails between a number of people.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. Written as a collection of letters, diary entries and other writings.
  • Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, by Jean Webster. Two entertaining romances told entirely in letters.
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Letters between two sisters that tell a heartbreaking but also eventually heartwarming story.

I didn’t particularly like this next one – I thought it could have done with some serious editing – but many loved it, so I think it’s worth a mention:
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

On my reading list I have:
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock
  • The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
And here is a list with even more:
Wikipedia list of epistolatory novels

27 October 2009

Holiday notice

I am off to India for the next 5 weeks. During that time it is unlikely that I will post anything new, but there will be some automatic postings, including the Wednesday reading experiences for the whole time.

25 October 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Murder of the Maharajah by H.R.F. Keating

In keeping with my India-oriented reading I chose a Top Mystery that takes place in that country, not long before the end of the Raj when Maharajahs still had some power (even if it was dependent on British support).

Year of publication: 1980
Genre: Mystery, cozy
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police officer
Setting & time: The fictitious state of Bhopore, India; 1930.

The immensely rich Maharajah of Bhopore is murdered and several people had the means, motive and opportunity (or at least two out of the three), to have done it. Due to an impending visit by the Viceroy of India, the Resident Adviser calls in District Superintendent of Police, Mr. Howard, and presses him to solve the case quickly, because if the murderer turns out later to be the heir to the throne, it isn’t good for the Viceroy to have met him. Howard sets out to methodically investigate the case, and in a reconstruction at the end makes some interesting and startling revelations.

Keating has taken the classic country house (or small village, desert island, cruise ship, etc.) mystery and set it in the exotic location of a maharajah’s palace in India, but it is in every detail still a classic “limited location - limited suspect group” whodunnit.

While the detective is a police officer, he does not have the backup of other policemen or forensics specialists, and does not interrogate people police fashion, rather using the methods of elimination and observation used by non-police detectives across the genre, so this can not be classed as a police procedural.

The writing is straightforward, with touches of humour here and there. The main characters are just barely brought out of the realm of stereotype by being given small personality quirks or distinguishing traits, but are still recognisable as reliable old types: the trusted retainer who may not be so trusty, the older woman with something to hide, the hothead, the male and female love interests, the dashing but not too bright young man, the quiet and dedicated detective, the spoilt young man suddenly forced into a position of responsibility, the mysterious woman who may have something to hide, the gold-digger, the reader stand-in, etc.

What makes this a bloody good mystery is then not the characters, but the plotting, the twists, turns, red herrings and an excellently imagined macguffin.

Now I think I will go and put the Inspector Ghote mysteries by Keating on my BookMooch wishlist. Maybe I'll be able to find some of them in India.

Rating: A very good mystery that will keep all but the most observant readers guessing until the very end. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 87.

Place on the list(s): CWA #97
Awards and nominations: 1980 Gold Dagger Award.

23 October 2009

Review of The Gentle Tamers

Originally published in 2 parts, in April 2004.
Book 13 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Full title: The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West
Author: Dee Brown
Year published: 1958/1981
Where got: second hand bookshop
Genre: Social history, women, pioneers

This looks like a promising piece of women's history. If we were to go by the history books we read in school, it would seem that men single-handedly settled the western parts of the United States. This is of course not so - women did their share of the work and had a great deal of civilizing influence on the men. I'm looking forward to exploring the west with them, through this book.

Written by the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Entry 2:

The Gentle Tamers is a collection of true stories about the women of the wild west. Some who are included are true pioneers, like Janette Riker, who survived a harsh Montana winter alone in a covered wagon, others are included because a history of women in the Wild West wouldn't be complete without them, like Calamity Jane. The stories are not told in a straight timeline, but are collected into themes which include chapters on the dangers of the pioneer trails (which included bad weather, food shortages, epidemics and attacks by natives), fashion and finery, gatherings and entertainment, to name a few. Some of the women in the book are heroes while others are victims. There are army wives, wild women, educators, settlers, entertainers, suffragettes, prostitutes and various other kinds of women. Some have a remarkable history of their own, others are included because their experiences are representative of the experiences of women of the time. All of them are treated with respect, although the author does make the occasional subtly sarcastic remark about some of them. Their stories are told in a simple, straightforward style with a number of quotations from the original sources that give the narrative colour and depth.

The text is well written and informative, and there is an extensive bibliography at the end for those who wish to do further research into the subject. No attempt is made to put forward any kind of thesis on the subject - this is simply a collection of stories about real women, a popular history that is first and foremost meant to entertain.

Rating: A fun and interesting read about the lives of women, ordinary and not so ordinary, in the Wild West. 5 stars.

I can't leave out one endearing thing about this particular copy: it has an inscription in it. I bought the book in a second-hand shop in Hamburg, Germany. On the inside front cover there is a sticker indicating that it was originally bought in the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas, USA.

The inscription reads:
My dearest woman of the new Wild West, Maybe you find the time in the Old World to read this book, to help remind yourself that the women of the New World had the same problems and struggle, like you may have. But of course they havenot had me.
Yours (The signature is unreadable)

I love books that have a history of their own.

21 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #42

Challenge your prejudices some more: Read a book that you have panned or derided without actually having read it.

Some frequently panned books that come to mind include novels by Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel. Others include such famous and/or infamous works of the more distant past, like philosophical and religious writings of all ages and eras, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and anything by the Marquis de Sade. Of course you should choose one that you have prejudices about.

Whether your prejudices are rebuffed or confirmed, you will at least now be able to pan or praise the book in question without hypocrisy.

18 October 2009

Books I have enjoyed, pt. 1

About 10 years ago, as I waited in a Canadian airport lounge for my flight to be announced, I found some unused Canadian currency in my pockets and went to browse in the airport stores to find something on which to spend the money. I chose a small bottle of Canadian maple syrup, and then decided to get a book to read on the plane. Among all the usual bestsellers and other typical airport books, I found a small shelf of Canadian literature and gave it a browse. One of the books I picked up had a whimsical image on the front, of a block of small shops. The title was Home from the Vinyl Café and the author was Stuart McLean. I opened the book and found myself engrossed in reading a story of a hapless husband charged with cooking the turkey for the family's Christmas meal and running into all sorts of difficulties, starting with forgetting to buy the turkey.

I promptly bought the book and read most of the short stories therein on the flight home, with frequent giggles and stifled laughter. The stories revolve around a record-store owner named Dave, his wife Morley and their two children, and their adventures and mishaps. They apparently feature frequently on McLean's radio show, which I would love to listen to. Ever since I bought the book I have pulled it off the shelf occasionally to read a story or two. I even translated the story of Dave and the turkey as a project in one of my translation classes. I give it a great big thumbs up.

From the information in the book I knew there was a previous book, Stories from the Vinyl Café, but I gave no further thought to it until I was building my wish list on BookMooch. I entered it into the list, and some months later it popped up. I promptly mooched it, but for some reason I didn't read it right away. Now I have and I enjoyed it just as much as the previous collection, although none of the stories stood out as much as the turkey story did. It was also fun to read about Dave and Morley's friends and neighbours, some of who got stories of their own in the book.

17 October 2009

Review: Holy Cow!

Author: Sarah MacDonald

I am heading to India at the end of the month, and have been doing a lot of reading about various places I might visit. I had this one unread India travelogue in my TBR stack, and decided to read it to whet my appetite.

This is the story of how MacDonald returned to India after having left it over a decade earlier, wowing never to return. But fate plays funny tricks on people: her boyfriend, a broadcast journalist, was stationed there and she quit her job and moved to Delhi to be with him. She was not a religious or spiritual person when she arrived, but a fortuneteller's prophesy set her off on a search of spirituality among the many religions of India, and in the main the book is about this search. Each religion and spiritual experience is examined - often extremely superficially, I thought - and she takes away something good from each of them, but eventually rejects them all because none is perfect for her, finally finding the peace she is looking for within herself.

It's an interesting book and she had some experiences I can relate to, but the search for spirituality and religion is too much of an obvious gimmick for it to come across as entirely sincere. The book is entertaining - especially the passages about the spookily accurate fortune-tellers (even if they read like fiction) and about the living saints and their followers - but ultimately rather empty. You will find no new revelations about India in there, only a light read to while away a couple of hours.

16 October 2009

Review of Seabiscuit

Originally published in 2 parts, in April 2004.
Book 12 in my first 52 books challenge.
If you're wondering about no. 11, it was The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. I did not feel it was worth republishing.

Entry 1:

Full title: Seabiscuit: An American Legend
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Year published: 2002
Where got: book store
Genre: History, biography, sports

This book is about a famous American racehorse and the men whose belief in him took him from the lowest rungs of the racing world and right to the top.

I am not particularly interested in sports, and know next to nothing about horse racing, so this is not a book I would have picked up if it had not been for the fact that it has been made into a film.

As a teenager I enjoyed a film about another famous racehorse, Phar Lap, and so when Seabiscuit hit the cinemas I decided this was a film I wanted to see.

Well, somehow I managed to miss it. However, after watching a National Geographic documentary about Seabiscuit, I decided I would read the book to tide me over until the film comes out on video. So far I have not been disappointed.

Entry 2:

It's rare to find a history book that is as readable as Seabiscuit. One history book I have already reviewed, Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world tries and fails, perhaps because the author simply isn't as accomplished a writer as Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand's writing seems effortless and she manages to hold the reader's attention throughout the book.

Of the two parts of the book, the second is the most gripping. In the first part Hillenbrand is introducing the people and animals involved in the story and laying out a description of American society in the first decades of the 20th century. This will at first seem somewhat longwinded, simply because of the wealth of information she has chosen to bring into the narrative.

In the second half of the book, which is mostly about the preparation for Seabiscuit's greatest race, it becomes clear that without all the information in the first half of the book, it would not have been as good a narrative. Her detailed descriptions of the racing practices of the era and the horrible situation of the jockeys (who had no union and hardly any human rights), of Seabiscuit's noble lineage and the character portraits and short biographies of Seabiscuit, owner Howard, trainer Smith and jockey Pollard before they came together, bring into the narrative a sense of continuity and a deeper understanding of what the race meant to these men and to the thousands of admirers of the "Cinderella horse".

There are some profoundly sad moments in the book (jockeys and horses being injured or dying), but also occasions for laughing out loud - especially in the description of Seabiscuit's appearance and habits and Smith's mischievous sense of humour and his war with the press.

Rating: Very well written biography of a horse and the men who believed in his abilities and made him a star among racehorses. Recommended for anyone with an interest in American history, sports or horses. 5 stars.

14 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #41

Read THAT book.

You know the one I mean: the one every one of your friends has read, or the one you promised someone you would read, or the one that you want to have read but don’t particularly want to read, or the one that you have desperately wanted to read just about for ever but haven’t because it daunts you because of its size or its reputation.

THAT book can be just about any book ranging from Twilight to War and Peace, so I would love to hear what you would choose and for which of the above reasons.


When I have finished my current reading challenges I am planning to tackle a tome that is the embodiment of THAT book for many people: James Joyce's Ulysses. I want to do this to challenge my prejudices about Joyce, whose short stories were apt to put me to sleep when I was studying him in modern literature at college. It is also one of those books that any literary snob worth her salt wants to have read, and I dearly want to be able, when said snobs start talking about Ulysses, to be able to tell if they have really read it or if they are pretending. Evil of me, maybe, but just think of the possibilities for pulling one over on a lit snob. The particular snobs I have in mind find my taste in detective novels and romances deplorable, and I would love to challenge their prejudices about romance and mystery readers.

It has occurred to me that I shouldn't be calling this feature reading experiences, but rather reading prompts, but I guess it's too late to change it now. If I decide to continue it next year I'll probably rename it.

13 October 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Game, Set & Match trilogy by Len Deighton

I suddenly realised that I had not yet posted my review of Deighton’s trilogy, so here it is:

While I listed these books separately on my TBR list, the trilogy is listed as one book in the CWA list, so I will be reviewing them all together. Each book gets a brief synopsis and a very short review, and then I will review the common points together. I will try not to drop serious spoilers in the synopses, so they will necessarily be rather telegraphic, but if you have not yet read these books you probably should avoid this review anyway.

Published: 1983-5.
Genre: Espionage thriller.
Type of investigator: MI6 agent.

Title: Berlin Game:
Setting & time: London and Berlin, contemporary.

Agent Bernard Samson has been doing desk work for 5 years but his superiors in MI6 want him to go out back in the field to convince a frightened spy in East Germany to stay in place for a while longer. The man is convinced that Stasi or the KGB are about to discover his identity, and the only person he trusts to smuggle him out is Bernie. While he is considering whether to accept the mission or not, Bernie noses around and discovers that a high-ranking agent may be a mole, but finding out just which agent is going to be a tough job.

Review and rating:
A thrilling and twisted tale about intelligence and counter-intelligence, agents and double agents, trust and friendship, doubt and double-crossing. 4 stars.

Title: Mexico Set:
Setting & time: London, Berlin and Mexico City, contemporary.

A known KGB agent is spotted in Mexico City, and MI6, eager to recover its dignity after the defection of an important member of its staff over to the Soviets, send Bernard Samson to try to convince the man to defect. Samson isn’t too keen on the idea, but he needs to prove his loyalty, and so begins a complicated set of manoeuvres that can lead to either success or disaster.

Review and rating:
This excellent sequel to Berlin Game has narrator Bernard Samson trying to outmanoeuvre an enemy agent who knows him almost as well as he knows himself. 4+ stars.

Title: London Match:
Setting & time: London and Berlin; contemporary.

Story: Bernard Samson becomes filled with suspicion after an encounter with a Soviet agent, thinking that perhaps the double agent who fled to the East in book one wasn’t the only Soviet agent working inside MI6.

Review and rating: This final book in the trilogy follows Bernard Samson as he tries to discover if one of his superiors is a Soviet double agent, and re-build his private life at the same time. The weakest of the three books. 3 stars.

Review for the trilogy: All three books are well written and full of twists and turns, double (and triple) crossings, suspicion, fear, hatred and suspense. Deighton is clearly a master of suspense, and manages to make the secret services and the scheming that goes on within them believable and realistic, at least to someone like me who knows little about the subject. Unfortunately the very good second book in the trilogy is a hard act to follow, and the third book, which should be the strongest, doesn’t quite deliver, although it does complete the plot that began with the first book and suggest that the game is just beginning, thus paving the way for the second Bernard Samson trilogy.

All-over rating: A fine series of spy thrillers that deliver suspense and betrayal galore. 4- stars.

Books left in challenge: 88

Place on the list(s): CWA 58.

09 October 2009

Review of The Book of Intriguing Words

Originally published in 3 parts, on March 28 to April 3, 2004.
Book 10 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Full title: The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words: The insomniac's dictionary of the outrageous, odd and unusual
Author: Paul Hellweg
Published: 1986 (as The Insomniac’s Dictionary)
Where got: University Student Bookstore
Genre: Dictionary, glossaries

I'm studying for exams and writing final essays for the next three weeks, so during that time I'm going to review some of the reference books I use in my field of study. To make it more fun, I'm going to pick some of the more unusual reference books in my library.

As a student of translation I am naturally interested in etymology, semantics and semiotics. This book is not only a nice way of finding unusual words, their meanings and origins, but it is also quite short for a dictionary and fun to read.

Entry 2:

Being a confirmed logolept, I like to collect words, and this dictionary was a windfall for me because it has plenty of unusual ones. Unlike regular dictionaries, it is not one long alphabetized list, but rather a series of chapters containing glossaries of words relating to a specific subject or theme. Naturally enough, the first chapter is all about word-words, all of them beginning, naturally enough, with the prefix logo.

It goes on from there, covering insomnia words, phobias and manias, killing words, types of divination, forms of government, eponyms, portmanteaus and acronyms, long and short words, interesting words no longer in use, consonant only words, word play, love, sex and marriage words, unusual words that don’t fall into any specific category, and three chapters on animal words: animal adjectives, names for baby animals and collective nouns for groups of animals.

It was in this last chapter that I found out that a group of ferrets is known as a business and a group of ravens as an unkindness. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to put this knowledge to use, but never mind, it’s still fun to know.

Seriously, the book HAS come in handy, especially the chapters on phobias and manias, and it is valuable for Scrabble players when all they have left is consonants.

Speaking of reference books: I recently discovered Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and am planning to dupe my parents into giving me the updated Millenium Edition for my birthday. This wonderful book is full of fascinating and often completely useless information.

Entry 3:

A fun and fascinating collection of eclectic glossaries. Especially interesting for people who love unusual words, and handy for those who wish to increase their vocabulary. Too bad it's so short. 4 stars.

07 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #40

Now that you have become firmly familiar with the diary form, both in reality and fiction, why not try keeping one for a while?

This may look like a writing assignment at first sight, but I’m getting to the reading part:

Read your journal at the end of the journalling period, and again in 5, 10 or 20 years time. Annotate it if you feel like it.

Alternative suggestion: If you are a regular journal/diary writer, have you ever read your old ones? It can be like meeting a total stranger who is sort of familiar, but sort of not, and it’s interesting to read about how you saw or reacted to something back then versus the way you see or remember it in retrospective.

I have occasionally dipped into my travel journals from years past, and have often been surprised at what I have found in them. I have been amazed by the prejudices I held, the opinions I had, the way I handled a situation, how immature I was. I still cringe every now and then when I take one of these nostalgia trips, but even though they are "only" travel journals and therefore irregular, I can still see how I have grown and changed and matured by reading them.

03 October 2009

Reading Larsson

I am about 90 pages into the English translation of the second volume in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl who played with Fire. It's a slow beginner, but the main storyline seems to be kicking off.

I take grave exception to all the [insert expletive of choice] product placements in the beginning chapters of part 2. Who cares whether Lisbet Salander bought Bonde or Billy bookcases? Or what was the brand name of her sofa or her coffee table? It isn't even necessary to list what she bought - surely it would have been enough to say she went shopping for new furniture at IKEA and brought back just about everything she needed for her new apartment? The whole thing reads like a combination of an IKEA advert and instructions for a movie set designer.

Earlier in the book there are several other such lists that, although not as heavy on the product placement, do make the book longer without mattering to the story.

If anyone who has read the book in Swedish reads this, could you please post a comment and tell me if the characters, including Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, are almost always mentioned by their last names in the original? It's annoying as hell and makes them less sympathetic and I want to know which one to blame: the author or the translator.

02 October 2009

Review of The Loved One

Originally published in 2 parts, on March 24-26, 2004.
Book 9 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Evelyn Waugh
Published: 1948
Where got: second-hand bookshop
Genre: Social satire

I first saw the movie as a child and again recently on TCM. I had no idea it was based on a book until I started reading about the film on IMDb, and when I found the book I immediately bought it in anticipation of a good read.

Here are a couple of links to information about the author and his books:

Evelyn Waugh: The best and the worst
Evelyn Waugh (includes a bibliography)

The novel tells the story of Dennis Barlow, a poet and ex-pat Englishman who has managed to make himself a nuisance to the stiff upper-lipped Englishmen of Hollywood by taking a job at a funeral home for pets - something that "just isn't done" by Englishmen Abroad. When arranging the funeral of a friend at Whispering Glades, a fancy and extremely kitsch funeral home, he meets a young cosmetician by the name of Aimée whose job it is to apply make-up to the faces of the dead in order to make them look presentable to the living.
Their budding romantic relationship is described with subtle humour. Aimée is quite beautiful and outwardly different from other American girls Dennis has met, but her lovely exterior belies her empty-headedness and ignorance. Aimée is very unsure of herself and writes regularly for advice from Guru Brahmin, a newspaper agony aunt whose real name is Mr. Slump. Not really aided by the Guru's advice, she has a hard time deciding between Dennis and her other suitor, Mr. Joyboy, the senior mortician at the funeral home. Things start to heat up once both suitors start playing dirty. Death and the rituals connected with it suffuse the novel from beginning to end.

The Loved One is a dark and often quite subtle satire, even becoming quite morbid at times. It deftly satirises the movie business, the funeral industry, American society and Americans in general. Mind you, Dennis Barlow is no paragon of virtue...

Sometimes the satire becomes quite obvious, like whenever Waugh starts describing Americans in general - his description of the uniformity of American women is sneeringly bitter and quite funny:

"Dennis at once forgot everything about her. He had seen her before everywhere. American mothers presumably knew their daughters apart but to the European eye the Mortuary hostess was one with all her sisters of the air-liners and the reception-desks. She was the standard product. A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again in a cigar stall in San Francisco and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse."

It's hard to tell if Waugh is being sarcastic here or if he really feels this way about American women. (Yes, I know this is a novel, but there are certain indications in Waugh's life story that in this book he was lashing out at American society in reaction to being frustrated by American film-makers who had optioned his book, Brideshead Revisited for a movie).

Rating: A dark, subtle and funny look at life, death and what comes after. 4 stars.

01 October 2009

Reading report for September 2009

I only finished 13 books this month, which would have been about average for most years except this one. Since I read 20+ books every month of the year up to now, this is actually quite far below average, but I‘m not worrying. After all, one needs to have a social life too.

In the challenges, I read:

3 Icelandic books:
Benedikt Gröndal: Sagan af Heljarslóðarorrustu - a literary parody that tells the story of the battle of Solferino as if it were an Icelandic Saga.
Páll Líndal: Reykjavík 200 ára - a short 200 year history of the city of Reykjavík, mostly told in photographs.
Þórarinn Eldjárn: Sérðu það sem ég sé - a collection of quirky short stories from one of Iceland‘s best short story writers.

TBR challenge:
John Berendt: The City of Falling Angels - a combination of travel book and the history of the fire that destroyed the Fenice opera house in Venice.
Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (also a Top Mystery read) – a brutal crime thriller.
Betty MacDonald: Onions in the Stew - funny memoir.
James/Jan Morris: Heaven's Command - history of the British Empire during Victoria‘s reign.
Lily Prior: La Cucina - romantic novel about a woman‘s love affair with food and a man.
JD Robb: Portrait in Death - futuristic police procedural.

Top Mysteries Challenge:
Len Deighton: Mexico Set and London Match - spy thrillers
Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (also on the TBR list)

And non-challenge:
Adam Jacot de Boinod : The Meaning of Tingo - a dictionary of interesting words expressing things English can not express in one word. I have been reading it in the bathroom for several weeks.
Lynn Viehl: Shadowlight - romantic urban fantasy.

I don‘t know how much reading I will be able to do in October, as there are big changes afoot in my life. Either I will do hardly any reading at all, or I will do nothing but read and cook and sleep. I have just lost my job, which sucks, but I am financially in a good place for 6 months at least, and I plan to take a holiday before I begin to search for a job.

I may – and this is still just a possibility – be going off travelling for a while. If anyone has a copy of the latest or next-latest issue of Lonely Planet India, I am willing to exchange it with the latest Lonely Planet Egypt.

30 September 2009

Wednesday reading experience #39

Now that you have read a real diary, try a fictional one.

Last Wednesday I recommended a real diary because it helps to be familiar with the non-fiction diary form when reading fictional diaries. In fiction the diary form has been used to good effect in parody and for satire, but also for more innocent humour. It has also been used in dead earnest in fiction. It is one of the forms which epistolatory novels take, a sort of monologue where the reader takes on the role of the narrator's confessor.

Here are some that I can recommend:
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. These are ostensibly written for teenagers, but can be enjoyed by adults as well. I have not read the sequels, but I do own them and plan to read them.
  • Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding.
  • Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison. Written for teenage girls, but quite enjoyable. Have not read any of the sequels, but expect them to be enjoyable as well.
  • The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. Another series written for teenage girls, but enjoyable for adults as well.
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Here are some more ideas (from Wikipedia).

28 September 2009

I have posted a poll on the side bar

I am curious to know how book buyers feel about dust jackets on books. Please vote in my poll!

25 September 2009

Review of Himself and Other Animals

Originally published in 2 parts, on March 17-23, 2004
Book 8 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Full title: Himself and Other Animals: Portrait of Gerald Durrell
Author: David Hughes
Published: 1997
Where got: public library
Genre: Biography, memoir

This week's book is about one of my favorite authors: Gerald Durrell. David Hughes, a longtime friend of Durrell's, wrote the book as a tribute to his friend back in the seventies, but it wasn't published until after Durrell's death. It's more a portrait of the man than a regular biography - I guess it should be called a memoir rather than a biography.

Entry 2:

Finished it last night. The book is well written and set up as a busy week in the life of Gerald Durrell, back in the 1970's when it was originally written. Interspersed with descriptions of Gerry's daily routine, character and moods are comments and reminiscences of himself, his friends and his family. He is shown in different environments and interacting with different kinds of people and what emerges is a portrait of a man who was contradictory in many ways.

Strong willed and selfish, generous, charming, moody and used to having his own way, yet admired and loved by people who knew him, Durrell was no ordinary person. His upbringing was eccentric and his education sporadic and specialized: he basically read a lot of books, studied everything to do with animals and nature, and didn't bother much with the rest. Yet he emerged as a fine writer and an enthusiastic nature lover and conservationist who was capable of sweeping other people along with his writing. After all this, it's hard to believe that he was shy and retiring when it came to meeting the public or standing up to make speeches.

This books only gives snippets of biographical information, mostly concentrating on Durrell's personality. I really think I will have to read his biography now to get the whole picture.

Rating: A biographical appetizer that one might follow up with Durrell's own autobiographical books for the main course, followed by his official biography as a dessert to complete the meal. 3 stars.

23 September 2009

Wednesday reading experience #38

Read a published diary/journal or a collection of excerpts from diaries/journals.

Diaries can be an excellent way of seeing into someone’s mind and also to find out little things about daily life in the past that can hardly be found anywhere else. For this reason historians find diaries to be an excellent source of research material. They also make good material for biographers.

While the diaries and journals of famous people may be most interesting to the general public in the authors’ life time or recently after their death, in the long run it is often the diaries of ordinary people like Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys that end up being much more fascinating. While parts of Frank’s diary were written with the view of later publication, Pepys probably never intended his diaries for publication and so he is more candid and outspoken than he might otherwise have been.

I am currently reading The Faber Book of Diaries, a collection of interesting diary entries chosen and edited by Simon Brett. The book is organised like a diary, i.e. by date, and within the date by year, so the oldest entries come first. I am reading it day by day, so that it will take me a year to finish.

Diarists whose writings you may find interesting:
20th century: Anne Frank; Virginia Woolf; Anais Nin; Sylvia Plath; Joe Orton; Victor Klemperer; Kenneth Williams; Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
Earlier: Samuel Pepys; James Boswell; James Woodforde; John Evelyn

If you read an anthology like the one I mentioned above, you can find many more diarists you might want to give a try. Here are a few titles:

  • Revelations: Diaries of Women, edited by Mary Jane Moffat & Charlotte Painter
  • The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists edited by Alan Taylor
  • Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey edited by Lillian Schlissel
  • A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries edited by Thomas Mallon

21 September 2009

Top mysteries review: Red Harvest

Year of publication: 1929
Series and no.: The Continental Op, first novel, preceeded by and based on short stories
Genre: Noir thriller
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Personville, a fictional town in the western USA, probably California or Nevada.

The nameless narrator, know to the reader only as the Continental Op, arrives in the small city of Personville where the crime situation has become so bad that people have started calling it Poisonville. His client is murdered before he can meet him, but the dead man’s father retains his services to find the killer. The Op starts investigating and uncovers all sorts of nastiness, and events finally lead to him becoming so annoyed with the place and it’s criminal elements that he decides to clean up the town.

Review and rating:
Like the previous two Hammett novels I have reviewed, this one is written in a spare and quick style and the narrative moves fast. The story is nasty and brutal and slightly tempered with the narrator’s sarcastic humour. Few if any of the characters are truly likeable, except perhaps for the femme fatale, whom one can not help liking on a certain level, even though she is scheming and greedy.

The narrative is in the first person, told by the Continental Op, Hammett’s nameless first hard-boiled detective about whom he wrote two novels and a series of short stories, some of which he elaborated on and connected together to make this novel. The Op is a true hard-boiled detective, a prototype for those who would follow: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and more of their ilk. He is cold, tough, calculating, hard-dinking, clever and manipulative and possessed of a great deal of shadenfreude. In fact I would describe him as a sociopathic bastard of the first order, capable of anything, including murder. He is rather too inhuman for my liking, but then I happen to dislike violence for the sake of the same and with this dislike comes a dislike of violent people, and since this novel is a collection of both, I didn’t like it much. 2+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 91.

Place on the list(s): CWA: #94; MWA: #39.

19 September 2009

Some recently acquired books

Here are some books I have acquired recently:

About half are BookMooch acquisitions and the rest I got at a second hand shop that sells stuff for charity.
The one you can't see the title of is A Voyage by Dhow by Norman Lewis.
I have already read The Thirteenth Tale, but getting it in hard covers was a piece of good luck.

18 September 2009

Review of Hawksmoor

Originally published in 2 parts, on March 9-12, 2004.
Book 7 in my first 52 books challenge.

Part 1:

Author: Peter Ackroyd
Published: 1985
Where got: public library
Genre: mystery, horror

I read this book years ago as part of a college course on modern English literature, but I remember nothing about it. Even now, when I'm almost finished with part one, I still remember nothing about the previous reading, which I guess shows how interested I was in it at the time.

Every other chapter happens in the 18th century and is written in the style of that time, which takes a while to get used to. The other chapters are written in modern English and happen in modern times. The narrative point of view shifts between chapters, from 1st person to 3rd person. These stylistic changes necessitate a shifting of mental gears at the beginning of each chapter and make the book challenging to read.

So far I'm finding it to be a dark and rather menacing narrative. Dyer, the 18th century narrator, appears to be stark raving mad and a satanist to boot. His narrative seems to tie in with the modern chapters, where it appears that people are being murdered in the neighbourhood of churches Dyer has built.

Part two should start giving some explanations - I hope. I hate it when mysteries continue to be mysterious after I've finished reading them.

Part 2:

Finished the book. Now for the review:

As I mentioned before, the narrative is in two totally different styles. The first chapter and every second chapter after that is written in the1st person, 18th century style English. The 1st person narrator is Nicholas Dyer, a character very loosely based on real life English architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. In the book, Ackroyd attributes to Dyer the six churches Hawksmoor is most famous for designing, and the narrative is as much based around the churches as it is around Dyer, inspector Hawksmoor and other characters in the book.

The second chapter and every other chapter following is written in the 3rd person, modern English. In part one of the book these chapters introduce, with great compassion, characters who end up being murdered at the sites of Dyer's churches, in an echo of sacrificial deaths, accidental, by murder or by suicide, that are connected with the building of the churches (in the story). In part two the modern chapters tell the story of inspector Hawksmoor who is investigating the murders, and his increasing frustration over getting nowhere with the cases.

I have to say that while this novel is a masterpiece in many ways, it is not a satisfying read. It has an ending, but no conclusion or resolution, leaving the reader to try to work out happened. The use of 1st person narrative for the insane and evil Dyer and the 3rd person for Hawksmoor, who's closest to being the good guy in the story, serves to make the reader feel compassion for Dyer and indifference towards Hawksmoor. Most of all it underlines how alike they are, their thought processes and frustrations are very similar, like two sides of the same coin.

Hawksmoor should really be read with a map of London at hand, as it will give the reader a better feel for the area in which the story happens. Make that TWO maps, one of the contemporary city and one of 18th century London, as some of the street names have changed. Knowing what the churches in the book look like will help as well - here's a link to a page with pictures of some them.

Another good reference to have at hand for historical detail is Ackroyd's own London: A Biography, but it's not absolutely necessary.

Rating: A dark and morbid narrative, in turns horrifying and puzzling, that should appeal to admirers of gothic literature and murder mysteries. 3 stars for quality, none for satisfaction.

Ackroyd links:
Peter Ackroyd bio and bibliography
Review of Hawksmoor

16 September 2009

Wednesday reading experience #37

Read a graphic novel. If you are not already a fan of comic strips and/or comic books, you might be surprised to find just how sophisticated they can be.

Graphic novels tell a story in graphic form, using the images and minimal text style of comics to convey what a regular novel does in words alone. The term is used about stories too long to publish in one single edition of a comics magazine, and describes both works originally published in book form and works originally published in episodic form in comics magazines and later collected into book form.

There is some debate as to the exact definition of a graphic novel, but for the purpose of this blog post let’s define a graphic novel as a book containg a single long story or a collection of shorts stories with a common theme or setting, told in graphic form.

I can personally recommend:

By Neil Gaiman and various artists:
  • The Sandman series
  • The Books of Magic
  • The Death series (spin-off from Sandman)
  • Stardust (also a traditional novel and a movie)
  • Coraline (children's book. Also a movie)
  • The Daughter of Owls
  • The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch
  • Harlequin Valentine

By others:
  • Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman
  • When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
  • The Lucky Luke books by Morris & Goscinny
  • The Astérix books by Goscinny and Uderzo
  • Some of the Tintin books by Hergé. While some of the books are racist and offensive in other ways, others are just pure fun.

11 September 2009

Reading journal on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Book 5 in my first 52 books challenge.
Originally published in several parts on February 22-22, 2004.

Entry 1:

Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Published: 1998
Where got: public library
Genre: Detective novel

Reason for choosing:
I first read about this book in a book review in one of the daily newspapers in Iceland. The title caught my attention and I decided that such an unusual and humorous name was very promising as to the contents of the book. So far I have not been disappointed (after reading chapter one).

Entry 2:

I'm quite enjoying the book so far.

Here are some links with information about the author and some of his other works:

About the series
Publisher's website, dedicated to the series

Entry 3:

"I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do."

There is something enchanting about the way Alexander McCall Smith puts these words into the mouth of his private detective heroine, Precious Ramotswe.

The book is more a collection of interconnected sketches than a continuous narrative. It moves backwards and forwards in time, telling the story of Precious and some of the people connected to her, in a simple and flowing style. Background information is dispersed throughout the book and you slowly get to know about Precious' past and the experiences that have brought her to the point where she decided to set up a detective agency.

Armed with her intuition, a manual for private detectives, and minimal assets that would make any American or European private eye hand in his licence on the spot, she starts the business with money inherited from her father. The book is about her first cases, which range from a cheating husband to a missing one, a variety of con men to expose and a missing boy who may have been murdered to make magic amulets. She solves (or in some cases doesn't solve) the cases to her customer's satisfaction (sometimes not), through intuition and knowledge of human nature, occasionally resorting to lying and sneaking about in search of clues.

The image you get of her is that of a woman who has learned to accept life as it is, whether it be happy or sad, and has not let the suffering she has lived through get her down. The descriptions of her and other character's reactions to misfortune are quite matter-of-fact, giving you an idea of a people who accept suffering with equanimity, much as they rejoice in good fortune.

The humour is sly and sneaks up on you, like the following:
"Now constipation was quite a different matter. It would be dreadful for the whole world to know about troubles of that nature. She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party - with a chance of government perhaps - but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try to pass legislation, but would fail."

I like it that the author has made his heroine a non-traditional one. Writing a story about a fat lady who runs a detective agency in Africa is an original idea and the author definitely took a risk with it. I'm sure he can have had no idea that it would become such a hit, or that people would be crying out for more of the same. There are now five book in the series and its popularity just keeps on growing.

Favourite quote:
"Nobody was missing, nobody was cheating on their wives, nobody was embezzling. At such times, a private detective may as well hang a closed sign on the office door and go off to plant melons."

Great and unusual detective novel that convinces the reader that maybe she too can become a private eye. 4 stars.