31 August 2009

Review: A Year in Provence

Author: Peter Mayle
Year published: 1989
Genre: Biography, living abroad
Where got: Charity shop

Just finished reading this book (well, not really - this is a repost from 2004). It describes the first year Mayle and his wife spent in their Provence farmhouse, sometime in the 1980's.

The story is set up in 12 chapters, each of which covers one month of the year. The two main threads that hold the story together and prevent it from being just a rambling collection of anecdotes are on the one hand their relationship with their rascally old neighbour Massot and his fight to keep tourists away from what he considers to be his land (actually part of a national park), and on the other the alterations being made to the house to make it fit for the Mayles to live in (i.e. installing modern conveniences like central heating) and their relationship with the workmen.

Pesky summer visitors make their appearance and are so sarcastically described that one wonders if they were likely ever to come back again after recognising themselves in the book (not that it would be a loss to the Mayles), delightful restaurants are visited and delicious meals consumed, and in the background the seasons change, each bringing its share of problems and delights. Even the travails of having a noisy crew of workmen apparently dismantling and reassembling the house on an irregular basis is made out to be not too bad - the Mayles are either a very tolerant couple or else Mr. Mayle has an exceedingly bad memory.

Rating: A nice, light read that would be suitable for taking along to while away time during a long-distance flight. Interesting enough that I have now got hold of the sequel and will review it later. 3 stars.

29 August 2009

Top mysteries review: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Year of publication: 1903.
Genre: Thriller, espionage novel.
Type of mystery: Military secrets.
Type of investigator: Amateur.
Setting & time: (mostly) the Frisian Islands, Germany, around he turn of the 20th century.

The narrator, Carruthers, is invited by Davies, an old acquaintance, to join him on a yachting trip in the North Sea. When he arrives, Carruthers discovers that the “yacht” is in fact a small boat, with no crew, and that Davies is hiding something from him. As they make their way down to the Frisian islands, Davies eventually reveals that he has started an impromptu investigation of possible nefarious doings by a man he suspects of being a British defector working with the German military. To complicate matters, Davies has fallen in love with the man’s daughter.

The book is in the public domain, and here is a link to an online edition: The Riddle of the Sands.

The Riddle of the Sands was one of the earliest spy novels, and has had immense influence on the genre. It was also a clear warning to the British, pointing out how badly they were prepared for repelling an invasion by sea. Here is some interesting reading on the subject: Wikipedia article.

The story is well written, with a solid plot and an engaging narrator, and is one of those charming adventure novels about plucky heroism by ordinary people caught in unusual circumstances. The sailing descriptions are correct and realistic (I get this information from people who know about sailing) and even a card-carrying landlubber like myself can enjoy them, even if they may occasionally have to consult a dictionary.

This is one of those proper British “boy’s own” tales: thrilling, patriotic and non-violent fun that boys of all ages (and sexes) can enjoy and imagine themselves participating in. The pace is very slow at first, but the tension begins to build up almost immediately, which should be enough to keep most people reading.

Rating: A pretty good early thriller, recommended read for sailing enthusiasts and fans of spy fiction. 3+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 92.
Place on the list(s): CWA #92.
Awards and nominations: None I am aware of.

28 August 2009

Review of Cod

Originally book 6 in my first 52 books challenge.
Published in 2 parts on February 29 and March 7, 2004.

Full title: Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Published: 1997
Where got: public library
Genre: History

I decided it was time to learn more about the fish that can, with some justification, be called the basis of Iceland's economy. I have always liked haddock better. Maybe this book will change that.

After all the rave reviews and accolades, I expected Cod to be something more than just an ordinary history book. It isn't. Like many other history books I've read, it's well researched, informative and well written, if somewhat journalistic at times, but by far the best thing about it is the quotes and recipes, for which Mr. Kurlansky is not responsible. The writing failed to get me interested in the subject and about the only thing I found interesting was chapter 2 which gives information about the biology and ecology of the cod, and chapter 10, which gave me a new angle on the cod wars between Iceland and Britain, which in retrospect seem funny but at the time were dead serious.

I can only surmise that the praise the book has received was for the idea itself, of writing the history of the commercial exploitation of a seemingly mundane natural food resource, and furthermore one that few people outside the fishing communities of the Atlantic ocean ever give thought to. Of course, it has been done before, but mostly about more exotic foods like chocolate.

Rating: 1 star for an unusual subject, 1 star for good research and good writing, 1 star for great choice of quotes and recipes. In other words: 3 out of 5.

Kurlansky links:

Eclectica Magazine review

There were more, but they are all broken.

27 August 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Year of publication: 1936
Series and no.: Lord Peter Wimsey, no. 11.
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Sabotage, poison pen letters, attempted murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, aided by a semi-professional
Setting & time: Oxford, England; 1930s

While visiting her old college in Oxford, Harriet Vane finds an anonymous poison-pen message seemingly directed at herself. She thinks no more of it until she is invited back and taken into the confidence of the Dean and asked, due to being a mystery writer and therefore a sort of expert on criminal behaviour, to help discreetly find out who has been sending these nasty little messages to students and various members of the teaching staff and committing acts of nasty but apparently senseless sabotage around campus. Harriet feels out of her depth, but agrees to the task and, over the period of almost 2 academic semesters, diligently gathers clues, but is unable to draw any significant conclusions from them. However, once she gives up trying to do it on her own and asks Peter Wimsey for help, he is able to use those clues to solve the mystery, and as they work together on the case, Harriet and Peter finally begin to understand each other better.

The synopsis above might indicate that this is a straightforward detective novel, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is also an ode to Oxford, a close look at academic society and academic thinking, an examination of the attitudes towards higher education for women prevalent at the time of writing, and a love story.

This is a long book, even by today’s standards, but unlike Have His Carcase which I read before it and which could have been pared down by about 100 pages or so with no damage to either plot or narrative, this one could not have been made better by making it shorter. It needs the slow pace and the discussions and thinking and the descriptions and small side-plots to build up tension, not only in the mystery part, but the romance part as well, and the examination of academia and women's education needs to be as extensive as it is because it has a direct bearing on the mystery.

The story breaks one of the primary rules of mystery writing, the one that states that nothing short of murder can be interesting in a mystery. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is almost a perfect specimen of the genre. It has the requisite build up of tension, the gathering of clues, odd and interesting personalities, a psychological factor, a thumping good climax and a very satisfying denouement.

It also has that interesting mingling of post-war sadness and pre-war innocence that colours some novels written in the years between the World Wars, especially after Hitler’s accession, and in fact I was slightly shocked when some of the characters referred to him positively and others jokingly, until I realised that of course I knew things that neither they nor Sayers had any inkling of.

I could probably write a thesis about this book, but since I think brevity is best when it comes to online reviewing, I will stop here.

Rating: An excellent, fine, nearly perfect mystery. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 93.

Place on the list(s): CWA: 4; MWA: 18.

Awards and nominations: None I know of.

26 August 2009

Wednesday reading experience #34

Read some short stories or novellas and compare the form with that of a novel.

The short story has been called the novel’s little sister, which could be taken to imply that it is an easier form than the novel, but in fact a good short story is actually just as hard to write as a novel, possibly harder. In a novel, you have plenty of text to say what you want to say, but in a short story you can only say so much if you want it to stay short and not turn into a novella or even a novel.

Here is a blog about just such a challenge.

24 August 2009

Literary musings: Changing tastes

Originally published on 25 February, 2004.
I was thinking about my first 52 books reading reading challenge, which I had recently started.

It's funny how my taste in reading has developed in cycles.

The first books I really got hooked on were Enid Blyton's Adventure, Famous Five and Adventurous Four series, which means that my first love in literature was detective novels. Then I discovered Jón Árnason's collection of folk tales. Jón Árnason is to Iceland what the Grimm brothers are to Germany, and his collection of folk tales is great reading. My favourite section was the fairy tales, and I could spend hours reading them. This developed into an interest in legends and mythology, especially Nordic and Greek, and in all branches of religion.

Then came a period when I read just about everything I could get my hands on, including all kinds of stuff that isn't meant for kids. One memorable book I read during this period was Robert Bloch's Psycho, which gave me nightmares, and then there were the hardcore porn books I found somewhere and which gave me rather strange ideas about sex. I think I was 11 or 12 at the time.

Then I became interested in thrillers of all kinds: Alistair MacLean, Sven Hassel, Desmond Bagley and Ian Fleming were among my favourite authors, and I'm sure I didn't understand half of what was going on in some of these novels.

This was followed by a period when I became fascinated with love stories, but this quickly blew over and I got interested in Agatha Christie. (First full cycle completed). I read every one of her books I could get my hands on, both in Icelandic and English. After that I graduated towards more serious detective stuff (meaning explicit) and Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell became my favourite authors.

Then I discovered fantasy, which may well be called a rekindling of my interest in fairy tales. My favourites were the Pern series by Anne MacCaffrey and Piers Anthony's Xanth books. Just when I was beginning to get tired of both, I discovered Terry Pratchett, who has been my favourite author since. I read his Discworld books with the same fervour and interest as I did fairy tales 25 years ago.

With this reading challenge I have re-entered the omnivore part of the cycle, and am reading anything I can get my hands on. I have, however, just made an inventory of the 40-50 books I have on my "to be read" list, and there are more detective novels than any other genre on the list. I wonder if this is the beginning of a new cycle?

It was. The cycle is still going strong.

22 August 2009

Mystery review: Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers

Genre: Mystery, murder
Year of publication: 1932
No. in series: 8
Series detective: Lord Peter Winsey
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: A fictional English resort town; 1930s.

Harriet Vane is on holiday and on a hike between two English coastal towns she comes across the body of a man, with his throat cut, on a rock on the shore. She is unable to drag the body off the rock, but is able to photograph the body and make some observations and remove the weapon that appears to have been used to kill him, before going for help. Once she is able to find help, the tide has dragged the body away and it isn’t found for several days, during which Lord Peter turns up and he and Harriet start investigating the case alongside and with the full co-operation of the local police. What emerges is a complicated and elaborate conspiracy plot about which I will say no more.

This is a well written and intricately plotted book with interesting and rounded characters, just like the other Sayers novels I have read (Whose Body?, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Five Red Herrings, Strong Poison), but just as in The Five Red Herrings there is a tendency to overcomplicate the plot. In both cases the whole thing depended on timing, and there were endless considerations going back and forth about it, ad nauseam. In addition, there was a cipher, which was given so much attention that I found myself skipping whole paragraphs when Harriet and Peter were discussing it and trying to break it. A cryptography enthusiast would probably have enjoyed it, but I didn’t. (The cipher is, in itself, quite interesting, but as a minor plot element it is given way too much space).

WARNING: Read no further if you are unfamiliar with the Harriet/Peter story arc and its conclusion.

Additionally, like is unfortunately the case in a number of mysteries from that era, the murder plot is too intricate for my taste, and yet, for a novel that has such an involved murder plot in it, it still reads like background to the development of the relationship between the sleuths, a bridge between the book where they first meet and she turns him down, and the book where they finally reach an understanding. I have no problem with relationship development, but I think both that and the murder plot could have been streamlined by judicious editing of what is essentially just padding, at little or no cost to the plotting and character development.

Rating: Not one of Sayers’ finest, but essential reading if you want to follow the developing relationship between Peter and Harriet. 2+ stars.

21 August 2009

Review of Chocolat

Book 3 in my first 52 books challenge. Originally published February 8, 2004.

First, a guilty admittance: I read Chocolat around the middle of last week. In fact, I devoured it.

Author: Joanne Harris
Published: 1999
Where got: Public library
Genre: Chick lit

Chocolat is a light and fun read and although I have seen the movie (which broadly follows the story in the book), I was unable to put it down.

The story is that of chocolatier Vianne and her daughter Anouk, rootless itinerants who, one day at the beginning of Lent, drift into the small French village of Lansquenet and start up a chocolate shop. Vianne immediately provokes the dislike of the village priest, padre Francis Reynaud, who sees her as a threat to his authority over the villagers, who forget all about fasting and proper Lenten behaviour when they encounter the delights of Vianne's shop. What provokes the priest in the beginning is Vianne's self-professed atheism and the impropriety of opening a chocolate shop during Lent, a time when he expects his parishioners to follow his example and deny themselves meat and all luxuries in food and drink. His dislike turns to hatred when Vianne keeps her shop open on Sundays, something he sees as her wantonly tempting the parishioners away from his influence right after mass, a time when he believes they should be especially humble and obedient to the laws of the church. The outcome is a psychological war, with the participation of the villagers, some of whom back Vianne and some padre Reynaud.

Vianne acts as her conscience and insight tell her to and further enrages the priest and his posse by allowing gypsies into her shop who are not getting served anywhere else, rescuing the battered wife of a café owner in the village, and encouraging an old woman who has long waged a war with the priest over various subjects. The old lady immediately recognises Vianne as a fellow witch, but Vianne has the ability to see what kind of chocolate is the best for each person, and can to some extent read people's minds.

The priest is someone who should really have been born in the middle ages. He is ascetic to the point of nearly starving himself and suffers from a biting bad conscience over something that happened when he was a child and really was not his fault (and over something else that was). He denies himself more and more as Lent passes and at the same time becomes more and more suspicious of and hateful towards Vianne and the gypsies who have moored their boats at the riverside on the edge of the village.

The story itself has a timeless feel to it and could easily have happened at nearly any time during the 20th or even the 19th century. The only indication of it being modern is a passing mention of one of the villages possessing a satellite dish.

The book is well written and engrossing. You keep reading to find out what happens next - not that there is a lot of action and excitement, but the character development and the reader's curiosity about the character's fates are enough to keep the pages turning. Most of the characters are alive and believable. You come to care about what happens to Josefine, long to know what the priest's secret is, and wonder if anything will happen between Vianne and Roux. The descriptions of Vianne's chocolate creations are sensuous and tempting, and make you want to run to the nearest candy shop and buy a box of luxury chocolates to munch on while you read.

The story is told in turn by Vianne and pare Reynaud. My only complaint is that although Harris manages quite well to portray the differences in their characters through their narratives, their voices and style are too alike. It may be that she is trying to show the reader that they are actually more alike than they would admit themselves. I really can't tell.

Rating: A delightful and delicious box of chocolates ready to be devoured and savoured by romantics and lovers of magic realism. 4 out of 5 stars.

20 August 2009

Review of Gone Bamboo by Anthony Bourdain

Year published: 1997
Genre: Crime, thriller, comic
Setting & time: (mostly) the Caribbean island of Saint Martin; 1990s.

The Story:
Between hits, laid-back professional assassin Henry lives an idyllic life on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin with his wife Frances, but things get complicated when an assignment goes wrong and one of the intended victims survives.
The injured capo agrees to bear witness against his former Mafia associates and is moved to Saint Martin by the authorities to keep him out of harm's way. However, their idyll is about to be disturbed because the mafioso who ordered the hit has sent out people to track down the capo and Henry and kill them both.

Technique and rating:
This is a better put-together book than the previous thriller I read by Bourdain (Bone in the Throat) in that it focuses on fewer characters and there are no extraneous storylines here that interfere with the main story, making it more focused and streamlined. It is loosely connected with Bone in the Throat in that it shares some of the same characters, but the blurb manages to make it look like Tommy Pagano, the protagonist of Bone... is one of the lead characters in this one. He isn't.

While I am on the subject of the blurb: this has to be the most blatant example I have ever come across of a blurb written by someone who hasn't read the book. Not only does it make Tommy look like one of the lead characters, it also gets the name of Charlie the capo wrong and makes it look like he's a cross-dresser. The name confusion may be because it does look like his name was changed in the British edition, but there is no excuse for the other mistakes.

SPOILERS coming up:

This is less a gangster thriller than Bone..., although it does of course have a gangster element. There is humour here, but not as much of it, which is a pity, and none of the main characters are really sympathetic. But the storytelling is undeniably better, which evens things out. I am giving it 4 stars for that, and for having the balls to do something not many authors would dare to do, namely to kill off the book's most sympathetic characters.

19 August 2009

Wednesday reading experience #33

Subscribe to a magazine for one year and read every issue from cover to cover.

I did this for the several years when I subscribed to National Geographic, and then to Saveur, and found it very rewarding. I recommend something that has substantial and informative articles and contains more articles than advertisments.

17 August 2009

Literary musings: Serial stories

Originally published in March 2004.

What is it with sci-fi and fantasy authors? Can't they write a story that's contained within one book? Is it greed, is it inability or unwillingness to finish the story, is it a continuation of the tradition of serializing novels in newspapers and magazines, or is it something else altogether? Is Tolkien (or rather his publisher) to blame?

You can probably guess by this that I don't particularly like reading an endless series of books that together make up one huge epic. I like it even less when there is no indication of this to be found on the cover and I buy a book thinking it's a stand-alone story and then discover I've bought volume 12 of a 25 volume epic. Gimme a break!

Trilogies are OK, unless they run to 1500 pages per volume, but more books than that - no way. If they are collected in one volume later on I may be tempted to invest in it, but I will not spend my money on a series that goes on and on with no end in sight. It doesn't matter how good it is. What if the author died or the publisher went bankrupt? I would never see the conclusion of the story and it would nag me endlessly.

I came to this resolution after I once started reading a gothic fantasy series that dealt with a large family of witches, starting in the 16th or 17th century and stretching onwards to modern times (I think the last book ended in what was then the future). The books were well written, the historical aspects were detailed and largely correct and there were some interesting sex scenes (hey, I was a teenager, full of hormones and curiosity).

After reading about 10 books I realised three things:
1) that I would have to read every single book in the order of publication to be able to understand goings-on in later books,
2) it would go on for years, and
3) I didn't have the patience.

So I stopped reading them.

As it turned out, I was right on all accounts. The author created a complicated family tree and it was vitally important to know what had happened to who and who was descended from whom; in the end there were more than 40 books of about 150-200 pages each; and when the series came to an end the author began another one about what happened afterwards. According to a friend who read them all, the quality kept on declining the closer the books got to the 20th century. By that time I had long lost interest in this kind of literature and was reading books in which realism reigned supreme (I have since come back to fantasy).

However, I have nothing against books from series that happen in the same fantasy world and even feature the same characters, as long as each book is a separate and complete story and you don't need a "companion" or guide to figure out plot elements or the reasons why major characters are like they are. I used to quite like Piers Anthony's Xanth (before it got silly and repetitious) and I still love Terry Pratchett's Discworld. In both series, having read the other books helps you understand the characters and the worlds better, but a reader unfamiliar with the series can still safely pick up any book in the series and enjoy it on its own.

16 August 2009

Mystery review: The Terracotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri

Original Italian title: Il cane di terracotta
Translator: Stephen Sartarelli (2002)
Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 1996
No. in series: 2
Series detective: Inspector Salvo Montalbano
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Sicily, Italy; 1993

When working on a case, Inspector Montalbano discovers a sealed-off cave and inside it the dessicated bodies of two young people, murdered 50 years before. The bodies have been ritualistically surrounded by a life-size terracotta dog, a water jug and a bowl of money. While on sick-leave, Montalbano has time to investigate the case and makes some interesting discoveries.

Review and rating:
As with the previous books I read by Camilleri, I found this one to be a good mixture of skilful writing and plotting and great storytelling. Combined with the humour, some quite poignant but never sappy scenes and some of the most mouthwatering descriptions of food I have read in any mystery, it makes for great reading.
And of course there is Montalbano. He is far from being perfect, but it is exactly his flaws that make him more human and endearing than many other detectives. He is, I think, a good example of how a character’s flaws can be used to make him come alive on the page.

The mystery itself is a bit lame, but the way that Montalbano finally solves the final part of the riddle is ingenious, and somehow I can easily imagine his gambit working in Italy, simply because the Italians seem to have such a highly developed appreciation for melodrama.

Stephen Sartarelli’s translation is excellent, by which I mean that it reads like the text was written in English but still retains an Italian flavour. The list in the back of the book, of terms and other stuff that needs explaining, is useful but at the same time unobtrusive so that one doesn’t feel like one has to read it.

Highly recommended. 4 stars.

14 August 2009

Review of Jonathan Livingston Seagull

This was the second book of my first 52 books challenge. I would probably be less charitable if I reviewed it today...

Originally posted in two parts on February 1-2, 2004:

Entry 1:

Author: Richard Bach
Photographs: Russell Munson
Published: 1970
Where got: charity shop

This week's book is short and should make for a quick, easy read - a good thing considering that I'm swamped with school work. I've read it before, when I was a teenager, in an Icelandic translation and can remember nearly nothing about it except it took me less than an hour to read (I expect it will take a bit longer this time). I also saw the film some years ago and all I remember of that is music, pictures of soaring seagulls and a voice telling the story. This books seems to be a great favourite among New Agers and other sorts of spiritually inclined people, like religious groups, none of whom seem to interpret it in the same way. It will be interesting to see what my own impressions will be.

Entry 2:

Joyce it isn't. The language of the story is simple, so simple that young children and semi-advanced learners of English as a second language can understand nearly every word. Some of the flying terms might cause a bit of confusion to some, but they are not that important to the story. It's a quick read - I estimate that it took me less than 30 minutes to read it, sitting on the bus on the way to and from school.

The story is, narratively speaking, a very straightforward parable about a person who happens to be a seagull and who is cast out of his social group/flock for daring to be different and thinking more about flying than food. So far I can relate, having myself experienced very nearly the same thing. Then part 1 ends and the story gets spiritual, even religious. Jonathan transcends his mortal existence, enters another plane of existence where he meets others even more advanced in flight than himself, and perfects his art. He becomes some kind of heavenly gull who returns to the flock to teach others what he has learned about the pursuit of perfection through flight.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull could almost be taken as a model for how to write uplifting and spiritual texts. The language is ethereal, soothing and gentle and the story is very simple and yet vague enough that it can be taken to be an allegory for a hundred different things, which is probably a contributing factor in its popularity.
Personally, I think it's harmless enough, but I really can't understand what all the fuss is about.

Rating: A misunderstood children's book that you will either love or detest. 2 stars (out of 5)

12 August 2009

Wednesday reading experience #32

Find out about a religion that’s foreign to you. You might want to read, in part or entirely, the primary religious text of that religion, and a book that explains and discusses it.

I suggest keeping a reading journal of the experience and considering how religions clash and how sometimes their messages are fundamentally the same.

11 August 2009

Review of Kiwis Might Fly by Polly Evans

Sub-title: Around New Zealand on two big wheels
Year published: 2004
Genre: Non-fiction, travelogue
Setting & time: New Zealand, 2003 (?)

This is Evans’ second published travelogue, and a sort of sequel to It’s Not About the Tapas. This time around Evans stepped up the pace and got herself a motorcycle permit before embarking on a journey around New Zealand in search of the stereotypical Kiwi male: the hard-living, hard-drinking, ingenious bloke of pioneer days. This is, of course, a gimmick (such as most travel writers use in order to justify their journey) and it works well, even if it seems a bit affected. It lends humour to the narrative, as does her initial struggle to master the powerful motorcycle and the relationship she develops with the bike in the course of the journey. Then there is the destination. New Zealand comes across as the kind of place an Icelander would feel right at home, with its small-town culture, individualism and friendliness, and the varied landscapes and even more variable weather.

Evan has, in this book, managed to find the right balance between personal and historical narrative. There are no overly long historical passages and when she has chosen to include some history, the short and well-chosen passages are relevant to her mission and the places she visits. Most of all, she manages to make New Zealand interesting, in a way that she fails to do for Argentina in On a Hoof and a Prayer.

Rating: An interesting and well-written travelogue. 4 stars.

10 August 2009

Musing about some of the ways readers mistreat books

Originally published in March 2004.

Some people have no respect for books.

There are readers who don't hesitate to mark their place by folding down a corner or laying the book down open and face down, risking serious damage to the pages and spine.

Some like to break the spine before starting to read, which weakens the cover and loosens glued pages. Of course, sometimes you have to, especially when the book is as thick as a brick and fights back when you try to open it.

Many, many readers slobber food stains or spill crumbs on the pages, which lowers resell value, hastens decomposition of the paper and encourages insects and bacteria to take up residence. Not to mention it's kind of icky for the next reader to find a collection of stains in the book. Jam, peanut butter, paté and ketchup stains are especially disgusting.
(OK, I confess, I am guilty of eating while I read, but I have at least learned to keep the book away from the food by using a book-stand, and I never read when I'm eating finger food or soup*).

I have heard of a reader who likes to read paperbacks and tear out each page after he's done and throw it away (shudder).

And don't talk to me about people who smoke while they read: I have checked a book out of the library that turned out to be so poisonous from cigarette fumes that only a gas mask would have enabled me read it.

All of this spells disrespect to me and I don't understand how people can treat books like that.

I also don't understand people who highlight words or write in library books or other books they don't own. I don't generally write in books myself, except sometimes in school books I don't intend to resell, and I would never write in a book that doesn't belong to me, and I always use a pencil when scribbling in my own books.

*There's nothing that teaches that lesson more effectively than having your pet bird land in the soup dish and shower both you and the book with soup. After the soup incident he is not allowed out at mealtimes.

08 August 2009

Review of Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb

Year published: 2003
Genre: Historical novel
Setting & time: (mostly) North Carolina; mid-19th century and modern times.

The book tells two converging stories. One is about the American Civil War as it played out in North Carolina (and Tennessee), seen from the viewpoints of two historical characters: Zebulon Vance, and Malinda Blalock, while the other is about modern-time psychic mountain dwellers and Civil War reenactors in the Appalachians who are on a collision course with some restless ghosts of the war.

The book examines how the Civil War tore apart families and made neighbours turn on each other, and how modern people in the area (not just reenactors ) all seem to think that their people were on the Confederate side during the war, when in fact they might have had ancestors on both sides. To add some spice to an already interesting story, McCrumb brings in a theme she has used in several of her other books: ghosts that can or will not rest. An additional dimension brings in NC governor Zebulon Vance to tell about the political side of the war, and Sheriff Spencer Arrowood as a balancing factor on the modern side, in his search for an ancestor who fought in the war.

The technique used to tell the story is one that is potentially confusing: two timelines, three major first-person narrators and an omniscient narrator, and a point of view that shifts between 5 important characters and a few minor ones. McCrumb pulls this off quite well and manages to keep the narrative voices distinct and separate and tell a cohesive story.

Most of all, this is a good story well told, as are all of her books. I am pleased that she seems to be moving away from the mystery genre, because her mysteries have always been more about people and their relationships than about detection, and I can truthfully say that only one of her books that I have read was a really good mystery (If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O).

Rating: Very good, as might be expected from this master storyteller. 4 stars.

Awards: Wilma Dykeman Award for Regional Historical Literature (by the East Tennessee Historical Society); 2004 Audie Award for Best Multi-voiced Narration (audio book award).

06 August 2009

Top mysteries review: Trent's Last Case by Edmund Clerihew Bentley

Warning: If you want to be surprised by this mystery, don't read the Wikipedia entry on it.

American title: The Woman in Black
Year of publication: 1913
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur (artist)
Setting & time: England, just before World War I.

An American business tycoon is found dead in the grounds of his English country house and it could be either murder or a bizarre suicide. A newspaper publisher calls in Philip Trent, an artist who has a knack for solving mysteries. He methodically sets about solving the case, using scientific methods and eliminating the suspects and theories one after the other.

This is a thoroughly old-fashioned mystery, and yet surprisingly fresh. According to some sources I have found on the web, Bentley wrote it in answer to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, in order to contrast a detective who was human and fallible with the methodical and never-wrong Holmes, and perhaps to show the how some of Holmes' deductions could very well have been interpreted differently.

This novel is notable for breaking some of unwritten rules of a genre that was still in its formative years. For one thing, it offers not one, but three solutions to the case, and not in the form of speculations either. For another, it allows the detective to fall in love with a suspect, possibly one of the first detective stories to do so. It also shows just how wrong the deductions drawn from an available set of clues can be, even if they look thoroughly bullet-proof.

Modern readers may find the pacing slow, but this book is well worth taking the time to read. And the best part is that you can do it for free. I chose to link to the American version because the format of the British one is not suitable for reading online.

Rating: A good early mystery that has a few surprises up its sleeve. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 94

Place on the list(s): CWA #34; MWA #33.

Here is a recent entry on another blog that explains, better than I have the patience to write down, why you should read it.

Top mysteries challenge review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Year of publication: 1960
Genre: Novel
Type of mystery: Rape
Type of investigator: Lawyer
Setting & time: Alabama, USA, mid-1930s

A presumably grown “Scout” Finch looks back on three years of her childhood, from the ages of six to nine, and tells the story as seen through her childish eyes, but with adult understanding. Part one is concerned with her, her brother and their friend and their lives, introducing the the town were they live and the people who live there, and the children's fascination with a mysterious neighbour who has not been see out of doors for many years. Part two features a criminal trial where the children's father defends a black man accused of raping a white girl, a trial that has unexpected consequences for the family.

Although this book is on the CWA's list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, I can’t really review it as a crime story or a mystery, because it’s not really either. The crime is never much of a mystery, and although it has far-reaching consequences, it isn’t really the main theme of the story, but rather the means to an end. The core of the story, as I see it, is justice and injustice and the various forms they take, and not just in the judicial meaning. But it’s also about coming-of-age, about race and racial prejudice, about poverty, community, family, friendship and childhood. In fact it has so many interwoven themes that it would make a good subject for an analytical thesis. Do not read it as a straightforward crime story, as you will only be disappointed.

This novel is a masterpiece of good storytelling and one of its main strengths is the charming way in which the story is told. While we are aware that Scout is teling the story with an older person’s hindsight, the narrative voice is still endearingly naïve at times, and mixes together adult humour and irony with childish wonder and innocent outrage in a narrative that would not have been nearly as charming if it had been told by an anonymous third person narrator.

I could write a long essay about this book because of all the different thoughts it provokes and its various themes, but in the interest of brevity, I think I will stop here and leave the expounding and interpreting to the thousands of students who read it every year in schools across the globe.

Rating: A wonderful coming-of-age novel and strong portrait of a community in the southern USA at a point in time. 4+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 95

Place on the list(s): CWA #60

Awards and nominations: The Pulitzer Prize, 1961

05 August 2009

News: The Árni Magnússon manuscript collection is added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register

Árni Magnússon spent much of his adult life collecting old Scandinavian manuscripts, including many Icelandic ones. Some of the manuscripts are on display in Iceland's Culture House, which is located in the center of Reykjavík, next to the National theatre. For only 300 kr. (free on Wednesdays) you can see some of the manuscripts and view an exhibition that covers their creation and historical importance.

Wednesday reading experience #31

This is actually a challenge in two parts and requires the participation of at least two people.

a) If you consider yourself an expert on a particular genre, consider how you can teach a neophyte to like that genre by finding which books you would recommend they start with so they will get a positive image of the genre. For example, if you want to turn a mystery fan into a romance reader, choose the very best romance you know which has a strong mystery element, and a couple more books that will move gradually away from mystery and into purer romance.

b) Get some of your friends to do the same, then find someone among them to exchange these reading suggestions with – someone who prefers a different genre or sub-genre than you.

The same can be done with authors. See, for example, my suggestions for starter books in the Discworld series.

04 August 2009

The fans are out in force and arguing about who is the best wizard

I wonder if the author of this blog entry knew what he has starting when he wrote it? (I'm sure he did, and is now sitting back and enjoying the show)

Some of the comments are hilariously fannish.

03 August 2009

Second hand bookshops

I love second-hand bookshops and (by extension) second-hand books.

The number of second-hand bookshops in Reykjaví­k has dropped severely since I was a teenager. Most of the shops I remember from my forays into the city in those years were situated on the fringes of the city centre, away from the main shopping streets, sometimes skulking inside residential areas. The windows were usually dirty enough to allow only a dim view of the inside, and once you opened the door, the shops were tiny and stuffed with books from floor to ceiling, with hoards of more books in boxes, piles and stacks on creaky wooden floors. They all seemed to be run by old men who sat in ancient office chairs (that leaked stuffing) and looked benignly on as you rifled through the collections of dusty books. If you were lucky, you could find treasures for next to nothing, books that don't seem to be available anywhere anymore.

This was before the flea market opened.

The only good thing about buying books at the flea market is the low prices. Unlike the shops, the flea market is large, noisy and crowded, and, like most true bibliophiles, I love bookshops that remind me of an old-fashioned library, complete with high bookshelves and an atmosphere of church-like quietness combined with a smell of paper, dust and leather covers.

After the flea market opened and a bunch of booksellers set up permanent booths there, selling new and used books at low prices, the old-time second-hand shops disappeared one by one, killed off by competition, bad locations and the retirement or passing away of the owners. Now there are only two worthwhile second-hand bookshops left in the city.

I remember being very upset when my favourite second-hand bookshop closed and an Irish theme pub opened in its place. The shop had been housed on two floors, the first being given over to Icelandic books and antiques, and the second floor to foreign books. I could spend hours in there browsing until I was driven out by sneezing fits brought on by the clouds of dust that would billow up when some of the older books were pulled out for inspection.

As it turned out, the store had not closed, but had just moved to a cheaper location, a mere 10 minute walk from the old one, in a residential area where the Salvation Army also has a shop, giving me a double reason for visiting the area.

The new location has by now become too small for its contents. As you enter, you come into a dimly lit room dominated by a couple of desks placed at an angle to one another to form an L-shaped fortress around the bookseller - a friendly, elderly man - when he isn't pottering about the shop and arranging books on shelves. A large table in the middle of the room is stacked high with books, and to the side there is a huge pile of even more books. Continuing inwards from the front of the room are rambling, dusty bookcases that reach towards the ceiling and drifts of books creep over the floor and periodically threaten to form dams across the narrow aisles. The air is hot and dusty and has a musty, papery smell and I can never stay for long because it is always stiflingly hot in there, possibly to ward off dampness. There may well be doorways into other dimensions hidden among the shelves, and I wouldn't be surprised if one day I were to find myself wandering into L-space. It's that kind of bookshop.

The other good second hand bookshop in Reykjaví­k is very nearly in the centre of the city, not too far away from where I work. The street it's located in is the next one down from Laugarvegurinn, the main shopping street.

This shop is more like a regular bookshop: it's clean and neat, there is little dust, and there are no free-standing bookcases. The smell of books is still there, but it doesn't have that church-like atmosphere of the other one. The attraction there (for me) is the paperback section. A bunch of shelves and a table piled high with foreign (mostly English) language paperbacks beckons as soon as you enter. The books there are more expensive than in the other shop, costing about the same as they would new in a bookstore in the USA (did I mention that books are VERY expensive in Iceland?). The great thing about this second-hand bookshop is that it accepts trade-ins. The trade-in price for one paperback is two paperbacks - an excellent way to reduce a large library. This is where I acquired most of my fantasy paperbacks, and where I get mystery novels and thrillers for my mother.

Before going in there to trade books, a savvy bibliophile will first visit the Red Cross second-hand shop and buy a couple of books for 200 kr. and trade them in for a single book that costs four times that...

First published in March 2004, in three parts.


The first bookshop has since moved again. It is now situated in the city center, on the same street as the other one. The lighting is now good because the location was designed as a shop with large windows, but the books still drift about the floor and many are stacked in tottering piles and boxes. It's still dusty, but the musty smell is no longer there and neither is it uncomfortably hot any more. Big improvement.

The second bookshop has changed owners, and now stinks so horribly of smoking that I wouldn't dream of buying books there any more.

And the price of second hand books at the charity shops is now 100 kr.

02 August 2009

Reading report for July 2009

I read fewer books in July than in the preceding months, which is actually a good thing because the time taken from my reading schedule was used for some freelance translation work that will eventually enable me to buy a bigger apartment with a special room to house my book collection ;-)

I finished 8 challenge books:
3 top mysteries,
2 TBR, and
3 Icelandic (still on course, as I read 5 last month).

There were also 2 rereads and 3 first-time non-challenge reads. Two of the first-time reads were, in a roundabout way, parts of the top mysteries challenge: I am trying to read the Brother Cadfael series in order of publication, and one of the books is in the Top Mysteries challenge, so I am reading my way towards it.

The books:
Caroline Alexander: The Way To Xanadu (travelogue)
Linda Barnes: Bitter Finish (murder mystery)
Vera Caspary: Laura (murder mystery)
Jennifer Crusie: Anyone But You (romance)
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm (novel)
Magnús Rafnsson: Angurgapi (Angurgapi is a magic symbol), (history)
Susan Moody: Penny Black (murder mystery)
Ellis Peters: One Corpse Too Many and Monk's Hood (historical murder mysteries)
Rakel Pálsdóttir og Jón Jónsson: Ástargaldrar (Love Magic), (books of spells)
JD Robb: Purity In Death (mystery-thriller)
Dorothy L. Sayers: Strong Poison (murder mystery)
Stefán Sigurkarlsson: Hólmanespistlar (stories from Hólmanes), (short story collection)

01 August 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is the first volume in the four book story arc within the Lord Peter Wimsey series that describes his developing relationship with Harriet Vane, from first meeting to honeymoon. Two of the books are on the top mysteries list, but I will be reading them in order of publication to get the story as it should be read.

Year of publication: 1930
Series and no.: Lord Peter Wimsey, no. 6
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Semi-pro
Setting & time: (mostly) London, England, 1930

Mystery author Harriet Vane stands accused of murder, but Lord Peter, who has fallen in love with her at first sight, does not believe she is guilty. When a hung jury results in a mistrial (meaning the case will have to be tried again), he sees a chance to investigate the case more thoroughly, and does so, revealing a fiendishly clever and well-planned murder plot.



One of the drawbacks of doing research before you read a book is that it can take away some of the thrill of reading it. In this case I started reading with the knowledge that Harriet Vane was innocent, which is pretty obvious as she ends up marrying Wimsey in a later book. But it couldn’t be helped – these books are just too well known for the fact to slip by any mystery fan who doesn’t wear blinkers. I can only imagine what it must have been like to read the book when it was first published, because back then no-one but the author would have known for certain that she was innocent. But enough about that, on to the review.

This whodunit has the narrowest list of suspects I have come across in a mystery, so narrow that the whodunit element can’t be sustained all the way through and around the halfway mark it turns into a whydunit, and then into a howdunit. The mystery is very cleverly done, and this is a beautifully done puzzle plot. Lord Peter is slightly less foppishly annoying in this book than in some of the previous ones, which is good, and there is a wonderfully comic interlude with his employee and sometime spy, the resourceful Miss Climpson, pretending to be a medium in order to acquire some important papers. The writing, as usual, is very readable, and fortunately less peppered with French and Latin words and phrases than some of the previous books.

Rating: A complicated mystery that has a good reason for being reckoned a classic of the genre. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 96.

Place on the list(s): 67/36

Awards and nominations: None I know of.