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Showing posts from 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 ba…

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.

Story:
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.

Review:
The Riddle of the Sands was one of the earliest spy novels, and has had immense influence on the genr…

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 c…

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

Story:
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 tryin…

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.

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, …

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.

Story:
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.

Review:
This is a well written and intricately plotted book with interesting and rounded characters, just like the othe…

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 Len…

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…

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.

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 d…

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

Story:
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…

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 i…

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.

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 e…

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&#…

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…

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.

Story:
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.

Review:
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'…

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

Story:
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.

Review:
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 h…

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.

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 fle…

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 symbo…

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

Story:
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.

Review:

SPOILERS

One of the drawbacks of doing research before you read a book is that it can take away some of the thrill of…