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.