31 December 2010

Friday night folklore: The Skeleton and the Man in Red

Here is spooky New year's Eve tale:

Once upon a time at one of Icelend’s farm churches, a whole skeleton of a man was found on the ground in the graveyard. The next time there was a burial, the pastor had it buried with the coffin, but not long afterwards it was again discovered above ground. The pastor made several  attempts to bury the skeleton, but it would always find its way back out. Eventually he gave up and had the skeleton transferred into the church and stored under one of the pews and there it stayed for a long time. 

One New Year’s Eve when the pastor was about to perform the nightly reading from the holy books, he realised that he had left his hymnal in the church after the last service. He spoke up and said “Is there someone here who is not afraid of the dark who is willing to fetch my hymnal from the church?”

One of the farm maids replied that she would do it and went and brought back the hymnal.
Then the pastor said to her: “I see you are not afraid of the dark, but you will not hear me praise your courage until fetch the skeleton from the church.”

She replied that this was an easy task and went and fetched the skeleton and carried it to the pastor.

Then he said: “That was brave of you, but now take it back.”

She started on her way, but as she was passing out the door of the house, the skeleton spoke up and said: “When you go into the church, it will be full of people and by the corner of the altar there will be a man clad in red with a red cap on his head. If you can get me back into his good graces you will never want for good luck.”

She continued to the church and saw that everything the skeleton had told her was true. The church was full of people, and she gave no indication of shock but walked into the church and up to the man in red and said to him with a serious voice: “Would you be so kind as to allow this skeleton to lie in peace in the ground from here on?”

“No,” he said, “that I cannot bring myself to do.”

“If you don’t,” she said, “may all the demons of Hell come after you and never leave you in peace or quiet.”

This deflated him somewhat and he said: “Since it is so very urgent, I shall henceforth leave the skeleton in peace.”

Then she took the skeleton to where it had been stored and put it back, the people moving back from the pew so she could do it.

The she started to leave, but when she was nearing the church door she heard the man in red say: “Look into my burning eye.”

She was convinced that if she were to look back she would never get out alive, so she lifted up the back of her skirt and said: “You look into my black arse.”

Then she continued calmly on her way back to the farmhouse and no-one could see that anything out of the way had happened. 

A few days later a man was to be buried in the graveyard, and the maid suggested to the pastor that this would be a good time to bury the skeleton. The pastor said it was no use, but she said it was such a small thing and he should try again. This he did, and this time the skeleton stayed buried.

After this the maid told the story of what had happened in the church, and received great praise for her actions. A short time later she was married to a promising young man and was always a solid and very lucky woman.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

30 December 2010

Short stories 341-350

  • “Santa Claus Beat” by Rex Stout. A clever policeman clears up a theft case.
  • “Whatever Became of Ebenezer Scrooge?” by Tom Tolnay. What happened on Boxing Day, after the events of A Christmas Carol.
  • “Who Killed Father Christmas?” by Patricia Moyes. A third murdered Santa.
This ends Mystery for Christmas.
  • “The Telephone” by Mary Threadgold. About a ghost, or maybe not.
  • “Afterward” by Edith Wharton. About a ghost one doesn’t realise one has seen until long afterward.
  • “On the Brighton Road” by Richard Middleton. About a tramp who is joined by a spooky companion on the road to Brighton.
  • “The Absent-minded Coterie” by Robert Barr. A funny story about a super-sleuth who bears more than a little resemblance to Hercule Poirot, except he predates that estimable detective by more than a decade. The story itself is more in the vein of Doyle. Recommended.
  • “The Problem of Cell 13” by Jacques Futrelle. A funny story about the original Thinking Machine and how he was able to think himself out of a prison cell. Highly recommended.
  • “Arsène Lupin in Prison” by Maurice Leblanc. A funny trickster story. Recommended.
  • “The Superfluous Finger” by Jacques Futrelle. The Thinking machine solves a strange case.

Apologies for the reposts of the short stories - I hope I haven't messed up any feeds too much, but it was necessary as I had counted wrong and needed to make corrections.

    Frankfurter Buchmesse 2011 Challenge: 101 Reykjavik by Hallgrímur Helgason

    Genre: Lad-lit
    Year of publication: 1996
    Setting & time: Reykjavík, Iceland; contemporary
    German and English title: 101 Reykjavik

    Gex-X slacker Hlynur spends his days moping around, watching porn, chatting on the Internet, bar-hopping and spending his unemployment benefits on booze and Ecstasy, all the while enjoying living in what we Icelanders call “Hotel Mom”. Two unexpected pregnancies precipitate an existential crisis, but in the end he manages to overcome it.

    This is a not-so-subtle twist on the classic coming-of-age storyline, except the character doesn’t grow and doesn’t learn anything and just stays the same. The language is creative and verbose, sometime overwhelmingly so. For example, the Icelandic version has one sentence that is over four pages long (can anyone confirm that this structure has been kept in the English and/or German versions?). There has been some mention of the language in the English translation coming across as stilted and unnatural at times, but rest assured, it is sometimes like that in the Icelandic original as well.

    Hlynur is not the kind of character readers are likely to have neutral feelings about. Either you will find his narcissism and bumbling incomprehension of other people’s feelings and motives endearing, or you will be like me, who found him slightly unsympathetic in the beginning and repulsive at the end (Really: Can any right-thinking feminist like a guy who values women solely according to how much money he would pay to have sex with them?)

    Hlynur himself is the narrator of this roller-coaster ride of verbosity, a narcissistic thirty-something who collects second-hand chewing gum like others collect coins or stamps and likes to play potentially harmful pranks on people. He covers up his feelings with linguistic gymnastics, puns and wordplay and reveals himself to be totally shameless about his self-centeredness and refusal to grow up.

    If you are the kind of reader who likes a story to have a definite conclusion, to have a heroic central character and a point and for the protagonist to learn things and grow as a person, you would do well to avoid this book. If you like dark humour, warts-and-all storytelling and creative use of language and don’t mind meandering story lines and characters that are neither sympathetic nor capable of growth, go ahead and read it. 3+ stars.

    I was surprised to discover that this novel seems to be filed under Erotica on Amazon.com. If this is erotic, than I’m the pope. I concede that it is occasionally profane and some very short passages could be defined as porn, but I thought that to be defined as erotica/porn, a book had to be mainly about sex, which this one is not.

    29 December 2010

    So sad today

    Today I say goodbye to my grandmother, who died on December 23rd, after a fairly short illness. Her death came only two days after we buried my aunt, her second eldest daughter. This has been a very hard and sorrowful Christmas season for my family, with two deaths so close together, but it has shown us how important it is to have such a close-knit family as ours is.

    28 December 2010

    Meme: Top Ten Books I've Read in 2010

    Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme organised by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we are looking at the 10 best reads of the year 2010. Please visit the originating blog and click on the links to visit some of the other participating blogs to see more great reads.

    I decided to exclude any re-reads from this list. It was still quite hard to draw up, since I actually read at least a dozen books this year that I would have liked to include. I haven’t put them in order of preference, but chose to put them in alphabetical order by title instead.

    Aska (English title: Ashes to Dust) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. This is possibly Yrsa's best novel to date, although I must admit that I still have the last two of her books left to read.
    Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. Such a wonderfully rich narrative of childhood in the early 20th century.
    Empires of the Indus: The Story of a river by Alice Albinia. A combination of travelogue and history that spans 2 millenia and several countries.
    Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James. My discovery of the year - I will definitely be reading more of his tales and re-reading these.
    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Dense and detailed and altogether a great slow read.
    Maps & Legends: Reading and writing along the borderlands by Michael Chabon. Gives an interesting insight in to the twin processes of reading and writing and made me want to read the author's novels.
    Nation by Terry Pratchett. A nice break from Discworld, but with typical Pratchettian humour and insight.
    The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill. Gruesome and funny with an irresistible lead character.
    The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham. Very tense and taut thriller.
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. A deeply disturbing and chilling psychological thriller.

    I really would have liked to see a list of the disappointing reads of 2010 in this meme, but maybe I’ll just list those for myself.

    27 December 2010

    Indian Folk-tales and Legends

    Originally published in January 2005, in 2 parts.
    Book 47 in my first 52 books challenge.

    Edited/Retold by: Pratibha Nath
    Year published: 1995
    Pages: 170
    Genre: Folk-tales, myths, legends
    Where got: Paramount Book Store, New Delhi, India

    I bought this book during my stay in India in 1996. For some reason I only ever read the first few stories, and when I got back home I put it on a shelf and promptly forgot about it. It came to light again recently when I was culling my books, and I decided to finally finish reading it. Like most of the locally published books I bought in India, it is printed on cheap paper that is already yellowing, and the glued binding is coming apart, even though the book has rarely been opened.

    As you can see, the cover is quite funny – I believe that’s supposed to be a demon.

    This is a collection of folk-tales and legends from all over India. Although the stories are meant for children, they are readable for persons of any age who like folk-tales and adventure stories. The folk-tales are mostly about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and the legends are about the gods, demons and heroes of India’s ancient literature, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas.

    The stories are written in a simple and readable style that suits the subject of the folk-tales. Some are funny, others fantastic, and some have some kind of moral. The legends don’t quite fit in with the folk-tales – the themes are so different and when the folk-tales end and the legends begin the reader is all of a sudden not sitting by the fire in the village square any more and listening to a master storyteller, but instead has been transported to the palace of a king to enjoy a reading from books about gods, kings and heroes. It doesn’t quite fit, and I think the two story collection should have been published as two separate books.

    Rating: A collection of stories that are fun to read and will give fans of folk-tales an opportunity to compare Indian folk-tales with those of other cultures.

    26 December 2010

    Short stories 331-340

    On with December:
    • “Cold and Deep” by Frances Fyfield. About getting away with murder on Christmas.

    The next 12 stories come from Mystery for Christmas, a collection of Christmas crime stories originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

    • “The Christmas Bear” by Herbert Resnicow. About a missing toy and the grandmother who solved the mystery of its disappearance.
    • “Christmas Cop” by Thomas Adcock. An undercover cop meets with a moral dilemma on Christmas.
    • “Dead on Christmas Street” by John D. MacDonald. It looked like the mob did it, but did they really? Recommended.
    • “I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus” by George Baxt. What the title says.
    • “Kelso’s Christmas” by Malcolm McClintick. A second murdered Santa. Recommended.
    • “The Marley Case” by Linda Haldeman. A modern Scrooge starts to wonder how Jacob Marley died and gets an unexpected visit.
    • “Mystery for Christmas” by Anthony Boucher. A film studio script doctor helps the police with their enquiries.
    • “On Christmas Day in the Morning” by Margery Allingham. About how a little more in-depth questioning can clear up a mystery. Recommended.
    • “The Plot Against Santa Claus” by James Powell. Fantasy piece about a plot to kill Santa.

    24 December 2010

    Friday night folklore: The Christmas Night Dance

    This is another variation of the “person left to guard the farm” tale:

    On a particular farm one of the women would always be left to guard the farm while the other attended Christmas mass. One Christmas, and several Christmases after this, the woman chosen would be incurably insane when the people got back. Eventually no-one was willing to stay behind, until a new maid was hired and not told what had happened to the others. She was then told to guard the farm on Christmas Night.

    When the others were gone, she lit all the lights and placed them so that the whole farm was well lit. Then she sat down on her bed with a book and started reading. She was an intelligent girl and religious. When she had sat for some time, a large group of people entered the farm, men, women and children. The started dancing and invited the girl to join them, but she sat still and said nothing. Every now and them someone would try to cajole her into dancing, even offering her rich rewards if she did so, but she just sat still and quiet. This went on until morning, when the people left. Shortly afterwards the other farm people came back from church, fully expecting to find her insane like the others. They were relieved to find her as sane as she had been when they left, and asked her if anything unusual had happened while they were away. She described the dancing to them, saying she had suspected that nothing good would come of it if she joined in.

    After this she always guarded the farm on Christmas Night.

    Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

    22 December 2010

    Top mysteries challenge review: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

    Year of publication: 1931
    Genre: Thriller
    Type of mystery: Murder
    Type of investigator: Amateur (gambler, sworn in as a (crooked) district attorney's special investigator)
    Setting & time: An unnamed American city, contemporary

    Gambler Ned Beaumont is the right-hand man of crooked politician and crime boss Paul Madvig. The latter is supporting a senator for re-election and plans to marry his daughter. Then the senator’s son is murdered and people start getting mysterious letters that implicate Madvig in the murder, and Beaumont, who considers Madvig to be his friend, starts investigating the case as a gang war is brewing.

    This is one excellent tour de force of a thriller. Red herrings, twists, crossings and double-crossings – this story has them all, even twists that are so twisted that some of them become double switchbacks. You never really get a complete grip on what is going on – the plot moves too fast and every character is too slippery and untrustworthy to get a handle on and most of them are unsavoury as well, leading you to mistrust even the most innocent-seeming characters.

    The style is clipped and to the point and the plot just as hard-boiled as in Red Harvest, which it resembles in that it shows a small city in the grip of criminal gangs. Only here there is no tough Continental Op to clean up the town; there is only Ned Beaumont who is a criminal himself, one whose whim (and possibly loyalty to a friend, although I have my doubts about that) leads him to investigate the murder and whose apparent weakness – he is not a fighter and hardly defends himself when attacked – leads people to underestimate what he is capable of doing by pure cunning.

    Rating: One of the classics of the genre. 4+ stars.

    Books left in challenge: 71

    Place on the list(s): CWA # 31; MWA # 38

    21 December 2010

    Meme: Top Ten Books I Hope Santa brings

    Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme organised by The Broke and the Bookish. Visit them and click on the links to visit some of the other participating blogs to see more Christmas wish lists.

    To compile this list I took a look at my Book Depository and BookMooch wish lists and decided which books I would like to most to get for Christmas. These are mostly wishlist books I can’t get from the library and am unlikely to get through BookMooch, plus a couple of new or newish books I can’t wait to read. There are no Icelandic books on the list, but I am looking forward to reading the latest books by Arnaldur Indriðason (which my parents will in all likelihood get for Xmas) and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (which one of my friends will buy for herself if she doesn’t get it for Xmas), and several other Icelandic authors not known in other countries.

    1. The Songs of Love and Death anthology. This has stories by several of my favourite authors.
    2. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais. Foodie read - I love those.
    3. Just Kids by Patti Smith. I have been wanting to read this since I first heard of it. Patti Smith rocks!
    4. August Heat by Andrea Camilleri. I am following this series.
    5. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan.
    6. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby.
    7. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Loved the movie, would love to read the book.
    8. Vol. 1 of the Questionable Content comic book by Jeph Jacques. My favourite web comic.
    9. Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual by Peter Hertzmann. One for the kitchen.
    10. Any Culinaria book I don’t have, especially the ones on Italy, Spain, France and China. These are gorgeous coffee-table books full of photos, recipes and information.

    20 December 2010

    Mouse or Rat? Translation as negotiation

    Originally published in January 2005, in 3 parts. Book 46 in my first 52 books challenge. Edited to include publication information.

    I don't know what the xxxx is going on here, but whenever I try to use the Beta posting engine (this refers to tBlog, and not to Blogger) to edit an existing post, the text disappears, just as the introduction to Mouse or Rat? did here. Fortunately, the review was posted separately.

    Author: Umberto Eco
    Year published: 2003
    Pages: 193
    Genre: Translation theory, writing
    Where got: Amazon.co.uk

    In this book, Eco discusses translation as a kind of negotiation: between translator and author, between languages, and so on. He mostly discusses what is known as translation proper, i.e. the translation from one language (source) into another (target). He also mentions other kinds of translations, like intersemiotic translation or transmutation, which is the translation from one form of art into another, e.g. a novel into a film or a poem into a painting, and intralinguistic translation or rewording, but the main focus is on translation proper. Many of his examples are taken from his own books, and from books he has translated, so he has a unique insight into the problems he discusses.

    Eco discusses his own work in some detail, and gives some insights into why he loads his novels so much with allusions and quotations from other literary works, and discusses the problems translators have run into when attempting to make translations that have the same effect on readers in other languages as they do in the original Italian.

    In the first chapter, in an attempt to explain a particular translation problem, he takes some rather funny examples of machine translation that anyone can repeat with similar results by running a text through any of the translation machines available on the Web.

    He goes on from there to discuss translation of poetry (meter and rhyme vs. accuracy), modernization of old texts, effect vs. exact meaning, and several other things that need to be taken into consideration in literary translations, and ends with the problem of accurately translating colour terms.

    I must say that Eco’s non-fiction is rather easier to read than his fiction. The ideas he expresses are put forward in a readable style and while a linguist or translation theorist will undoubtedly have a deeper understanding of the text - if only because they’re likelier to be familiar with certain theories he mentions without further explanation - it is clear enough for an interested non-linguist to understand. He uses numerous examples in several languages, and while it isn’t absolutely necessary, it helps to know some Italian, French and German in order to better appreciate the examples, but it is quite possible to get along without knowing any of those languages, because he explains the pertinent parts in English as well. I for example, have learned both French and German (4 years of each), and can not say I understood much in the examples he used in those languages, because much of it is in highly literary, poetic or archaic versions of those languages.

    Rating: An interesting insight into some of the problems translators meet with in translating literature and poetry. 4 stars.

    18 December 2010

    Short stories 321-330

     Merry Christmas, Everyone!

    On with the reporting:
    • “Caravan” by Rosalyn Chissick. A fine little tale about a girl who joins the circus. Recommended.
    • “The Seven Steps from Shag to Spouse” by Tiffanie Darke . The stages of development in a relationship. About as dreary as the title suggests.
    • “Lip Service” by Karen Moline. A man tells his friends the story of a narrow escape from a woman.
    • “Saving Amsterdam” by Chris Manby. About finding love again.
    • “A Form of Release” by Daisy Waugh. About a has-been pop star yearning for a come-back.
    • “Hurrah for the Hols” by Helen Simpson. A family holiday and the woes of parenthood.
    • “No Worries” by Sarah Ingham. About travel as a metaphor for healing after a breakup.
    • “Re: The World”, by Amy Jenkins. GNI. About the one who got away.
    This finishes Girls’ Night Out. I had some inkling of what I was getting myself into when I decided to read this book for the challenge: lots of light-hearted stories about romance and some stories about break-up crises and recovery, but what I didn’t expect was the sameness of other themes in the stories. It seems as if every other woman in these stories either works in publishing or either is a celebrity or ends up dating one, and at least a third of the stories involve the combination of heartbreak and travel followed by new love. I lay the blame for the publishing theme at the door of Bridget Jones, or rather Helen Fielding, and celebrities are always a popular subject for light-hearted stories, but I wonder what the reason for the popularity of the travel theme is - could it be the implied glamour of travel or the inevitable metaphor of travel as a journey towards recovery? Whatever the reasons, I just wish there hadn’t been so many versions of what was basically the same story.

    The last of the November reads:

    • “The Corner Shop” by Cynthia Asquith. A chilling tale about an antiques shop. Recommended.

    And now for the home stretch: December’s stories.

    Most of the Christmas stories in my collection that aren’t novels are novellas and too long to include in the challenge, but I do have one book of Christmas mysteries that I plan to finish in December, and I will fill up the gaps with other, holiday and non-holiday stories that will enable me to finish a couple of books. I might also look farther afield and pull some classic Christmas stories off the Internet.

    Starting with a spooky Christmas story from Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, here are the December stories:

    • “Christmas Meeting” by Rosemary Timperley. A very short but nonetheless chilling Christmas ghost story, and proof that a story need not be long to be effective. Recommended.

    17 December 2010

    Friday night folklore: The Elves’ Christmas Dance

    In the olden days it was a tradition to hold a mass on Christmas Night, which was attended by everyone who possibly could, but there was always someone who had to stay behind to guard the farm. This task usually fell to the shepherds, since they needed to look after the sheep as usual, whether it was a holiday or not. They had rarely finished their day’s work when it was time to depart for the church, and so they stayed behind. 
    As the story goes, there was a farm where this tradition was upheld. But the difference was that one Christmas morning when the people returned from the church, the shepherd had disappeared and was never found.

    The farmer hired another shepherd, but next Christmas Night he also disappeared, and so did his successor. The story got around and no-one was willing to go there to do the shepherding. It was not until after the first day of summer that a man came to the farmer and asked if he still needed a shepherd. He had good recommendations and the farmer hired him on the spot, but warned him that his three predecessors had disappeared without a trace on Christmas Night. The newcomer only said he would handle that problem when he came to it. 

    The shepherd took up his occupation. He was a hard worker and good at his job and everyone liked him. When Christmas rolled around everyone went to church as usual and the shepherd stayed behind to finish his day's work and guard the farm alone.

    When the people were gone, he pulled up some floorboards in the common room and made a hole in the dirt under the floor. When it was deep enough for him to lie in he crawled into it and pulled the floorboards back on top of himself, only keeping open a small hole so he could see everything that went on inside the house. 

    He had not been there long when two boys came in, both of them wearing fine clothes. They looked all around the house but found no-one home and went out again. They returned shortly, carrying between themselves a chair in which sat a man, very old and grizzled. They set down the chair at the far end of the room.

    After that other people began to arrive. Everyone was dressed in fancy finery and they looked like gentlemen and ladies. The tables were set and food was served on fine silver plates and eaten with fine silver cutlery. The old man sat at the head of the table and presided over the feast. After the feast was over the tables were moved aside and the people sat down to drink or stood up to dance as each desired, and this went on far into the night.

    One young man was especially finely dressed in a red robe. The shepherd thought he was the old man’s son as he seemed to enjoy almost as much respect as he did. Once the man in the red robe came near the hole and the shepherd grabbed his knife and cut off a piece of the hem of the robe and kept it.

    As dawn began to near the people started to leave, the two young men carrying out the old man. A little later the farm people came back from church and the farmer was greatly relieved and very happy to find his shepherd alive and well. The latter told the whole story and showed the piece of cloth as proof. This was the last time anything of this kind ever happened on this farm. The people thought that these elves had wanted to keep their activities a secret and had therefore killed the shepherds.

    Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

    Reading journal: The Woman in White, entry 1

    Before I start I must say that although I have not read the book before, I know the story broadly, from an abbreviated audio book version I once listened to and from a film version seen many years ago.

    Below you will find minor SPOILERS, so be warned.

    I found out when I read the Moonstone that Wilkie Collins was a master at creating wonderfully live characters. They might sometimes appear at first sight to be drawn in broad strokes, but then they surprise you by saying or doing something you would never expect that particular stereotype to say or do, and so they stop being stereotypes.

    Collins was also a master of creating characters it is difficult to be indifferent to. Mr. Fairlie is one such character – one realises almost from the start and certainly from Mr. Gilmore’s narrative onwards, that he is in large measure to blame for the whole disastrous events that follow, because of his indolence and unwillingness to act in the best interests of his niece. I have got to the point of his instructions to Laura before the wedding, and if I could reach into the book I would do so and slap him, hard.

    Laura Fairlie comes across as disastrously naive and even a bit stupid, but honourable and good-hearted, while one likes and dearly wants the sharply intelligent and likable Marian Halcombe to turn out to be the real heroine of the story.

    This is good - I don't have to like the characters in a book order to enjoy it but I can never enjoy a book with characters I am indifferent to.

    The social aspects are fascinating – I might mention Laura’s honourable if misguided insistence on putting her dead father’s wishes before her own happiness, and also the impossibility of marriage between her and Hartright which seems to be class-based rather than because she is rich and he is not.

    16 December 2010

    Mystery review: Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh

    Year of publication: 1972
    Series and no.: Inspector Roderick Alleyn (Detective superintendent in this book), no. 27/32
    Genre: Country murder house mystery
    Setting & time: England, contemporary

    Agatha Troy, Roderick Alleyn’s famous painter wife, is at a country house to paint the owner’s portrait. As Alleyn is working on an extradition case in Australia, she accepts an invitation to spend Christmas there (there is no mention of her son, Ricky, which I find strange). Then a servant disappears under suspicious circumstances just after Alleyn has returned and accepted an invitation to join the house party over Christmas. Although the investigation of the case rightfully belongs to the local police, the master of the house is able to force Alleyn to take over the investigation, which he reluctantly does.

    When I read this book I found myself getting irked at some discrepancies in the story when compared with the previous books. Alleyn, who has hitherto not hesitated to poke his nose into cases that are really no concern of his – such as in the last book before this one – is in this one strangely reluctant to take over this case and in fact gets quite stroppy when forced into it. And when I saw a date that fixed the time period in which this story takes place I found myself going “oh, no!” because it is contemporary with the publication date, which would mean that Alleyn is still working as a police officer in his mid-to-late seventies, but with all the prowess of a man in his forties. Much better to have only alluded to the time period and continued in the timeless vein, in my opinion.

    Apart from these little details, this is quite a good mystery. Marsh creates an atmosphere of tension and hostility, partly with the cast of characters and partly by setting the story in the middle of winter with miserable weather. She leads the reader astray with ease and well-planted red herrings and I would say she manages quite deftly to draw attention away from a key clue that is dropped quite early in the story. I know that if I hadn’t been wearing my sleuthing glasses I would certainly have missed it. As it was, it still took a couple of chapters before I realised what was going on. After that it was just a matter of seeing how Alleyn solved it. 4 stars.

    Awards: Finalist 1973 Edgar Award for Best Mystery

    15 December 2010

    Dogs and Goddesses

    Authors: Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart & Lani Diane Rich
    Genre: Supernatural romantic thriller
    Year of publication: 2009
    Setting & time: Ohio, USA, contemporary

    Three women, Daisy, Abby and Shar, meet at a dog obedience training class and are given a mysterious drink that makes them able to understand the speech of their dogs and releases powers they didn’t know they had. They discover that, along with four other women, they are the chosen priestesses of an ancient Assyrian goddess. As if discovering they are demi-goddesses themselves wasn’t enough, they also meet Sam, Noah and Christopher, three very sexy men who all have some connection to the goddess, who has plans to take over the world. But things have changed in the four thousand years since her cult was last strong, and the goddess has to contend with free will and a goth priestess who wants her all to herself.

    This is an entertaining supernatural romp of a romantic thriller which doesn’t take itself too seriously and has three feisty heroines, three delicious heroes, two villainesses and a pack of talking dogs to entertain the reader with their antics. 3 stars.

    14 December 2010

    Meme: Top Ten Books I'm Anticipating For 2011

    This meme is hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. For more anticipated and upcoming books, please visit the mother site and click on the links to some of the participating blogs.

    I decided to only include books that are getting published in 2011, but was only able to come up with five:

    • A new book from Arnaldur Indriðason, as yet untitled.
    • A new book from Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, as yet untitled.
    • Lavender's Blue by Jennifer Crusie. It will be interesting to read a mystery from my favourite contemporary romance author.
    • Frostfire by Lynn Viehl.The third installation in the Kyndred series.
    • Snuff (working title, so subject to change) by Terry Pratchett. A Discworld Watch novel.

    13 December 2010

    Letters to Alice, on first reading Jane Austen

    Originally published in December 2004. Book 45 in my first 52 books challenge.

    Author: Fay Weldon
    Year published: 1984
    Pages: 156 (pocket book)
    Genre: Literary essays and criticism
    Where got: Public Library

    About the book:
    I came across this book in the literature section of the public library, while browsing for quick reads (I’m slowly reading a long non-fiction book and like to relax between sections with short novels). Although Letters to Alice… is shelved under General Fiction in the Germanic Languages (Dewey class 830), the suggested classification on the book’s publication information page is Dewey class 823.7, which is the classification for Jane Austen studies.

    At first glance the book seems to be a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, and therefore rather hard to classify under the clear-cut Dewey system. It’s classifiable as fiction because it is written in the form of an epistolatory novel, as letters to Weldon’s imaginary niece who stands in for the common reader, and it is classifiable as non-fiction because it contains a non-fictionalised retelling of historical facts (Jane Austen’s life and times) and speculations about the nature of reading, the writer’s craft and the relationship between reader and writer. But is it really non-fiction, and is it really about Jane Austen?

    I’m not so sure. It seems to me that if the framework of the book is fictional, the rest is too, that is, Aunt Fay in the book is not Fay Weldon, but someone who just happens to have certain things in common with Fay Weldon – a fictional version who is in some ways different from the original and who may have opinions different from Weldon. It’s hard to tell without knowing her personally, but in an aside to the dedication, she calls the book an epistolatory novel and the characters fictional, which tells me that the contents are more or less fiction, so why not the narrator as well? (She doesn’t exactly mention Aunt Fay, but hints at her being fictional too).

    Jane Austen is mentioned often, and her life story is retold in broad strokes and the social conditions of her era are discussed, but the text is no more an analysis of Austen’s work than it is of writers, readers, writing and reading in general. The opinions expressed may be those of Weldon, or of the fictional Aunt Fay. Not having read any of her non-fiction, I can’t really say for sure how fictional or non-fictional the book is, but it is fun to speculate.

    Technique and plot:
    Whatever may be said about the fictionality or non-fictionality of the book, it is an interesting study of writing and writers, reading and readers and the relationships between them. For Jane Austen enthusiasts it will not cast any new light on that sainted author, and some might in fact be upset with Weldon about personal remarks she makes about Austen and certain aspects of her writing (especially those who do see her as Saint Jane). The book is written in a light, somewhat irreverent and chatty style, as letters to a budding young writer and student of English Literature who is struggling with her studies and writing her first novel. Although we only ever see one side of the exchange, there is a story – of the developing relationship between Alice and Aunt Fay, and the process of Alice’s writing.

    Rating: A light and somewhat enlightening study of authors and readers and the relationship between them. 4 stars.

    12 December 2010

    This made me laugh

    ...it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all."
     Walter Hartright describing Miss Fairlie's former governess, in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

    11 December 2010

    List Love 4: 10 Best Horror Novels That Have Been Made Into Good Horror Films

    Time for a little List Love.

    I came across this list of 10 best horror novels made into films when I was checking if had forgotten to mention something good on my Top Ten Books for Halloween list.

    This does not seem to be a consensus list, but rather one person’s opinion, but since film adaptations of books are a subject I am interested in, I decided it was worthwhile to look at this list in an issue of List Love.

    • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971). The book made me afraid to go to sleep – the last book ever to do so. The movie was good, very creepy and the “pea soup” scene was disgusting.
    • Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967). I have neither read nor seen this one, but the book is on my Top Mysteries Challenge list, so I will read it one day. I generally find that reading the book before I see the movie is better, so I will not be watching it until I am done with the book.
    • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). One of my top 10 best supernatural suspense novels. The 1963 movie captured the atmosphere perfectly and was fairly faithful to the book. I haven’t seen the second movie, but I have been told it sucks. Both are titled The Haunting.
    • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988). Good novel, although I preferred Red Dragon, and the movie is very good, very creepy.
    • Misery by Stephen King (1987). I have neither read nor seen this one, and am not particularly interested in doing so.
    • The Shining by Stephen King (1977). Another one of my Top 10 supernatural suspense/horror novels. The Kubrick movie changed the story considerably but captured the atmosphere perfectly, while the TV mini-series was more faithful to the book but didn’t capture the atmosphere as well. My advice is to not view the Kubrick movie as an adaptation of the book as much as an independent work inspired by it.
    • Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818). I wrote my thesis in English literature on this novel. My favourite film adaptation is the old James Whale film, starring Boris Karloff. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was more faithful, but it doesn’t have the atmospheric tension of the old black-and-white feature.
    • The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957). I have neither seen nor read this one, but I like Wyndham’s writing and plan to read the book. It has been filmed twice as Village of the Damned and once as Children of the Damned. I am following a webcomic that speculates about what could have happened if the children in the story had grown up: FreakAngels.
    • Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). I also wrote a detailed essay about this one when I was in college. I have seen several film adaptations of it, but the two that I like best are the 1958 adaptation with Christopher Lee, who made a damn creepy count, and the Coppola version, Bram Stoker's Dracula, from 1992, which followed the book pretty well. This is probably the horror novel that has been filmed the most times, and definitely the one with the most spin-offs.
    • The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972). This is one I have no desire to either see or read.

    10 December 2010

    Friday night folklore: Queen Bothilda

    It is an old tradition in Iceland to attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and many folktales tell of what would happen to those who stayed home to guard the farm while the others were gone. There are many variations both of the following tale and also of another that tells of the person left behind disappearing altogether and someone breaking that pattern with bravery or cunning. Next Friday’s story will be one of those.

    One Christmas Eve on a farm in south-western Iceland there was a knock on the door and outside there was a beautifully dressed woman who asked if she could stay the night there. The farmer welcomed her in and asked her name, but she said she was called Bothilda but was unwilling to say where she came from or who her people were. She stayed the night and was alone in the house while the people from the farm attended the midnight mass. When they came back in the morning, they saw that the house was cleaner and tidier than it had ever been before and everything was ready for the Christmas celebrations.

    The farmer saw that here was a good housekeeper and invited her to stay, to which she agreed, and accepted a position as his housekeeper and carried out her duties in a perfect manner. The next Christmas Eve she again stayed home whole the others attended the mass, but when they returned, they saw that she was very downcast and had been crying, which was unusual for her. 

    Her third Christmas on the farm she again said she would stay at home, but this time the farm shepherd, whose name was Gudmund, swore that he would find out what she was doing while she was home alone. The people all sett off to church, but after a while he pretended to fall ill and turned back. He had an invisibility stone which he took in his hand before he entered the house and walked into the common room. Bothilda was decking herself out in fine clothes and jewelry and he had never seen such a splendid outfit. When she was fully dressed she took a green cloth out of her clothes chest and left the house.

    Gudmund followed her down to a nearby lake, where she laid the cloth on the water and stepped aboard as if it were a boat. Gudmund got onto a corner of the cloth as well, and the cloth then sank with them into the lake and he felt as if they were passing through thick smoke down through the water and the ground below, until they landed in a wide, beautiful field. There he saw a grand city nearby with high towers and a big church.
    Bothilda walked into the city and the boy followed. A man, to whom everyone else showed great respect, came to meet her and greeted her as his wife and kissed her, and so did three children who called her ‘mother’. Everyone rejoiced when they saw her and welcomed her gladly.

    Everyone then entered the church and a mass was sung, just like in the world above. Bothilda’s children wandered around the church and each played with a golden ring, but the youngest dropped his ring and could not find it, but Gudmund had picked it up and put it in his pocket. 

    After the mass Bothilda sat at table in a throne beside her husband and enjoyed a feast with the others. The food was abundant and drink too, but as dawn neared Bothilda stood up and said it was time to part. This saddeded everyone, and especially her husband. She said her goodbyes to everyone and her husband escorted her back to the field, and was very sad and despaired, saying this might be the last time they ever saw each other. They were both crying when they parted.

    She stepped on the cloth and Gudmund too and it rose with them up into the earth and through the water. They then returned back to the farm, where she took off her finery and put on her everyday clothes and did the housework, and had everything ready as usual when the others returned. 

    The farmer asked Gudmund where he had been, and he said he had been exploring life in the lower regions and the farmer asked him how that was. Gudmund then said he had been following his housekeeper. He then told the whole story, in the presence of Bothilda, who then asked him if he had any proof. Gudmund then pulled out the ring and showed it to her.

    Bothilda was very pleased to see the ring and said: “You have told the truth and I owe you much. I was once a queen in Elfland until an evil witch cast a spell on me that I should spend my time in the human world and only visit Elfland on Christmas Night and only be released from the curse until a human was brave enough to go there with me. You have freed me from this spell and shall be richly rewarded.”

    She took her leave of the farmer and the other people and left them that same day. The next day she appeared to Gudmund in a dream and gave him a large sum of money and and many fine things besides, which he found on his pillow when he awoke in the morning. He used the money to buy his own farm, found himself a good wife and had a long and prosperous life.

    Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

    A quotation for today

    "The books we think we ought to read are poky, dull, and dry;
    The books that we would like to read we are ashamed to buy;
    The books that people talk about we never can recall;
    And the books that people give us, oh, they're the worst of all."

    Carolyn Wells (1862-1942)

    09 December 2010

    Time for some reading challenges, pt. 3

    Here are the fifth and sixth reading challenges I am considering.

    To read more about a challenge, just click on the image and you will be taken to the originating website.

    This one is to choose a minimum of three themes to read up on, with an increasing number of books in each level, plus a couple of other rules. I'm thinking that it could be combined with the mythology challenge I mentioned in my last post in this series.


    I could participate in this one, where the originating blogger has already decided which 6 themes will be used:

    08 December 2010

    A breakthrough in the American market for translated books?

    I came across an article in The New York times yesterday about publishers that are trying to expand the US market for translated books. The American market for translations is notoriously difficult, and what the author of the article calls "the 3 percent problem" is very real - only 3% of all books published in the USA are translations and this has been the case for many years, while the German market, for instance, is much more open, with translation percentages in the double figures (I have heard as high as 40%, but couldn't find data to confirm it).

    Short stories 311-320

    • “The Itch” by Polly Samson. About the beginning of a relationship and what may be the beginning of the end of the same.
    • “Morro” by Alecia McKenzie. About a woman who is first the ‘victim’ of sex tourism but later becomes a sex tourist.
    • “Flung” by Adele Parks. A frothy story about a jilted woman, a holiday and a fling with a younger man.
    • “Pull Me in the Pullman Carriage” by Helen Lederer. A woman going through a sexual dry spell meets a hot stranger on a train.
    • “The Plain Truth” by Claire Gilman. A plain girl gets to be sexy for a night, with consequences. Some realism, for a change.
    • “Mr Charisma” by Yasmin Boland. About a paparazza who secretly hates being one.
    • “The Sun, the Moon and the Stars” by Pauline McLynn. About a theatre production and a misunderstanding between lovers. Recommended.
    • “The Shell of Venus”, by Victoria Routledge. GNI. Spa treatment as a metaphor for healing a broken heart.
    • “Man with a Tan” by Anna Maxted. A girl meets a new guy just as she discovers that an old friend is interested in her.
    • “Storm Clouds” by Sheila O’Flanagan. Another relationship problem story, with weather as a metaphor for feelings.

    07 December 2010

    Short stories 301-310

    When I looked at the list of stories I have read so far I realised I had read more stories by men than by women, so I decided to focus on short stories by women for the whole month of November. I finished Girl‘s Night In, an anthology of stories by contemporary female writers from the UK, Ireland, the USA and Australia that was published to raise money for the charity War Child. These stories were mostly women's magazine fare, relationship- and friendship-oriented stories with with lots of holiday romances, heroines working in publishing (the book having been published when Bridget Jones was at the height of its popularity) and several bad friends getting their comeuppance while several good or 'ordinary' girls got a life and got the guy, with a few different ones in-between. All good and fine by themselves, but reading so many of them so close together did get a bit boring after a while, but by the time ennui had set in I was almost done with the book, so I thought "what the hell - I'll just finish it".
    • “The Power of Two” by Fiona Walker. About the perils of publicity and fame.
    • “The Truth is Out There” by Marian Keyes. Humorous tale about a young woman with relationship problems who acquires an unlikely guardian angel. Recommended.
    • “Rudy” by Lisa Jewell. A character study and sly tale about a young London slacker who gets an unpleasant but not altogether undeserved surprise. Recommended.
    • “A Swimmer’s Tale” by Stella Duffy. A story, almost a prose poem with sprung rhythms and a flowing quality, about grieving. Has a tacked-on, unnecessary ending sentence, but is quite otherwise good. Recommended.
    • “Post Haste” by Isabel Wolf. About a woman who has different ideas about her relationship with the man she is seeing than he does. I guess it’s supposed to be funny, but it falls flat.
    • “Cassandra” by Cathy Kelly. About a woman who finally discovers what that friend has been up to – the one who makes you feel like she’s doing you a favour, all the while riding your coat-tails and stealing your thunder but doing it so adroitly that you don’t notice.
    • “Access All Areas” by Jane Owen. A boring little story about a party girl.
    • “Love on the Underground” by Jessica Adams. About racial stereotyping. Rather funny.
    • “Fairweather Friend” by Patricia Scanlan. A woman finally frees herself from a poisonous friendship.
    • “Something Different” by Clare Naylor. About a woman who has the break-up blues.

    06 December 2010

    Tourists with Typewriters – Critical reflections on contemporary travel writing

    Originally published in December 2004, in 3 parts.
    Book 44 in my first 52 books challen

    Author: Patrick Holland & Graham Huggan
    Year published: 1998
    Pages: 261
    Genre: Historiography, criticism and history
    Sub-genre(s): Travel writing
    Where got: National/University Library

    Whenever I go browsing at the National/University Library I come across books on all sorts of interesting subjects. One of my haunts is the travel and geography section, where I have found many great reads about travel, which is without doubt my favourite genre. The last time I visited the library I ventured into the literary theory section, where I found this interesting book about travel writing and writers. The bibliography alone has given me a substantial number of books to add to my TBR list.

    Part 2:
    Tourists with Typewriters: Reading progress
    Try as I may, I can’t get into this book. I read a few pages and find myself dozing off. In 5 days I have only got as far as finishing the introduction and chapter 1.
    I may have to declare my first failure of this challenge – but first I’m going to browse a few pages of each chapter and see if it gets better.

    It’s not that it isn’t interesting – it is – but it’s so dry, it’s like being in the desert with only salt water to drink: you desperately want it, but it isn’t good for you.

    Part 3:
    I’m giving up on Tourists with Typewriters...
    I’ve decided to drop the book of the week because I just can’t concentrate on it.

    It’s unfortunate when such an interesting subject gets written about in a less than interesting way. No subject needs to be boring if the writer knows her/his craft. Even economics can be made interesting to a layperson by a skilled writer, but if the writer is not able to write interestingly, the text can turn out dry as a mummy.

    For some reason, academic writers seem to especially adept at writing boring texts. It’s almost as if in the land of Academia it is forbidden to write texts that can keep a person’s attention for more than five minutes at a time. In my opinion, academic writers should take lessons from writers of popular non-fiction, because it is definitely not serving Education when the text books are so boring that the students fall asleep reading them.

    I plan to try again on my summer vacation when I have more time and fewer other things on my mind, and will review it if I get round to it.

    Note: I never did get round to it.

    05 December 2010

    Progress report for November and tentative reading plan for December

    Of the books I named as possible November reads, I only finished The Three Musketeers and Twilight. I only read one Top Mystery instead of the 2 or more I had planned for, but managed to read 8 TBR books.

    As to A Kiss Before Dying and Innocent Blood , I am going to have to pay a hefty fine to the library for keeping them too long, so I’ll read them later. Instead I have a mind to read some Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett for the Top Mysteries Challenge, as well as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which is also my Chunkster Challenge book for the month. All of these have the advantage that they overlap with the TBR challenge.

    I am way behind schedule with my reporting for the 365 short stories challenge, but I hope to remedy that so I will not be posting those reports far into next January. The theme for November was ‘women only’.

    I am still reading Lark Rise by Flora Thompson, which has turned out to be an excellent slow read, but I expect to finish it in December and start reading Over to Candleford, the second book in the trilogy.

    I have also been reading Christmas stories, mostly romances, some of which I have enjoyed and others not so much. While I found Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth disappointingly sentimental and melodramatic, I do plan to read his The Chimes in December, as well as some Christmas stories I have dug up for the short story challenge. I might also re-read A Christmas Carol once again.

    In addition, I have started reading the Buchmesse challenge book for December, which is 101 Reykjavik by Hallgrímur Helgason. I am about 50 pages in and already like/dislike the main character and hope he will redeem himself.

    Finally, I will probably delve into one of my two new books in December, and read Svörtuloft, last year’s installation in the Erlendur books by Arnaldur Indriðason.

    04 December 2010

    Reading report for November 2010

    I finished 14 volumes in November. I refer to them as volumes because if you count each novella in the three novella collections separately, I read 19 pieces that could have appeared as separate books. As with the Edward Gorey books I read earlier in the year, it is difficult to decide whether to count each piece as a separate book or not, but in the end I decided to use the same criterion, namely this simple question: Has it been published separately before?

    If the answer is ‘Yes’ then it’s a separate book, even if I read it in a collection or anthology. Using that criterion, the Santa, Baby anthology is one book, because although two of the novellas in it have been published before, they both originally appeared in other anthologies. The Debbie Macomber novellas are both still in print as single volumes, and the Nora Roberts volume was originally two books, a novel and two novellas, respectively, so that counts as two as well. That, if my mathematics doen’t deceive me, makes 16 books I read in November.

    Out of the 14 volumes, 8 were TBR Challenge reads, one a Top Mystery read and one a Chunkster Challenge read. Of the 5 non-challenge books, one was a re-read and one was supposed to be a Buchmesse Challenge read, but I had faulty information that disqualified it, so I had to review a previously read book to keep my promise of reviewing one translated Icelandic book per month until October 2011.

    Here are the books:
    • Anthology: Santa, Baby. Christmas-themed romance novellas by Jennifer Crusie (Hot Toy), Lori Foster (Christmas Bonus) and Carly Phillips (Naughty under the Mistletoe). TBR challenge.
    • Anthology: The Midnight Reader. A collection of chilling short stories by various masters of the macabre, including Algernon Blackwood, J.Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and F. Marion Crawford. TBR challenge.
    • Rhys Bowen: Evans to Betsy. Murder mystery. (TBR challenge.
    • John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps. Spy thriller. Top Mysteries Challenge.
    • Charles Dickens: The Cricket on the Hearth. Sentimental Christmas story. Non-challenge.
    • Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers. Adventure tale, classic historical novel. TBR challenge, Chunkster Challenge.
    • Einar Már Guðmundsson: Eftirmáli regndropanna. Literary fiction.Non-challenge.
    • Jane Langton: The Dante Game. Thriller. TBR challenge.
    • Debbie Macomber: A Gift to Last. Two Christmas novellas (Can this be Christmas? and Shirley, Goodness and Mercy). TBR challenge.
    • Ngaio Marsh: When in Rome. Murder mystery. TBR challenge.
    • Stephanie Meyer: Twilight. YA vampire fantasy. Non-challenge.
    • Terry Pratchett: Jingo. Fantasy. Reread. Non-challenge.
    • Nora Roberts: The Gift. Two Christmas romance novellas (Home for Christmas and All I want for Christmas) and one short romance novel (Gabriel‘s Angel). TBR challenge.
    • Lynn Viehl: Midnight Blues. Urban fantasy, romantic novella. Non-challenge.

    03 December 2010

    Friday night folklore: Grettir the Strong, the Maid and the Elf-man

    This is a folk-tale but it tells of one of Iceland’s Saga heroes, the outlaw Grettir the Strong. It is also a classic helper story in which the central character does someone a favour and that person comes back to help them when they need it.

    On a farm somewhere in Iceland in the old days it was a tradition for one of the farm workers to be left out of the Christmas celebrations, turned out of the common room and made to spend Christmas Eve sleeping on the floor by the front door. These poor wretches would always disappear and everyone thought this was very strange. This had been going on for a long time.

    One summer day when the farm maids were milking the ewes, a stranger arrived, a man tall and strongly built, and asked one of the girls for a drink of sheep’s milk, as he was very thirsty. She asked him for his name and he said it was Grettir Ásmundarson. She told him that she was afraid to give him any milk because her mistress would punish her harshly if she saw that there was less milk in her pail than usual.

    The stranger answered that if she would only give him a drink of the milk, he would come to her aid when she most needed it. She relented and handed him the pail and he drank deeply of the milk and then departed. When the maid came back to the farm her mistress scolded her relentlessly for the loss of the milk and from that day on the girl was an outcast among the farm workers, and on Christmas Eve she was made to sleep by the front door.

    When the girl had been there for a short while, an elf-man came to her and asked her to be his wife, but she refused. He went away but came back shortly afterwards and persisted in asking for her hand in marriage, saying he would kill her if she kept refusing. He was about to attack her when suddenly Grettir arrived and the elf fled. Grettir lay down with his head in the girl’s lap and thus they spent the night, and the girl saw no more elves that night.

    Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

    I have started posting again on the travel/photo blog

    I plan to finish the travel story from India and them start posting photos from Iceland again. Link.

    Books for Christmas

    I love getting books for Christmas and birthday presents. My friends and family know this, which is why, when I was about 10 and still got presents from all my aunts and uncles and cousins, I once got 15 books for Christmas and 7 for my birthday. These days I am lucky to get one book, usually for Christmas.

    As a child and young teen I was happy with whatever books I got, but then things developed so that the only people who ever gave me books were the ones who had no clue as to what I liked to read. But that was fine because I realised that unwanted books could be exchanged for books I wanted, or for store credit that could be used later. How I loved store credit!

    In Iceland the main season for publishing and buying books is the months before Christmas. At some point, about 10-15 years go, the supermarkets got in the game, selling books at considerably cheaper prices than the book shops, but only the books likely to sell well and only from about mid-November to Christmas. It’s a boon for budget-conscious people, because books are expensive in Iceland, but it’s a nuisance for someone like me, who rarely gets given books I want to keep.

    As I already mentioned, I used to be able to take whatever unwanted romance novel* or cookbook I already owned that people usually give me and exchange them for store credit in book shops, but this has been ruined because of people who would buy the cheap supermarket books and then make a profit by returning them to book shops and selling their store credit for cash. To fight this, the book shops first started levying a return fee for books not bought from them, but now they have clamped down and will only accept returns of books that were bought from them. This is done by the buyer requesting that a return sticker be put on the books when they are bought, and the giftee then usually has 2 weeks in which they can return the books for credit.

    This is all good and fine and understandable, because who wouldn’t want to be able to give more lavish gifts for less money? The problem is that when people give me supermarket books and I return them, I end up being able to only buy groceries for my credit at the chain that sells the books at the cheapest prices. I ask you: would you give groceries for Christmas to someone who doesn’t need it?


    *I'm not dissing romances, but romance translators are badly paid around these parts and it shows in the translations.

    02 December 2010

    Time for some reading challenges, pt. 2

    Here are the third and fourth reading challenges I am considering.

    To read more about a challenge, just click on the image and you will be taken to the originating website.

    This one is all about mythology, both fiction and non-fiction, with some specific rules. There are prizes to be won for participating in this one.

    Mythology and folktales were my favourite reading material from childhood and well into my my twenties. I already have several TBR books on the subject, so I could easily combine this one with the TBR challenge, which I will be continuing next year.


    This one is simply to read a certain number of Gothic novels, choosing from 4 levels:

    I found myself reading a number of novels with Gothic themes this year, so why not make them a challenge for next year?

    01 December 2010

    Chunkster Challenge Review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, père

    This was my third Chunkster Challenge read, the one for November, but for technical reasons (i.e. it took me 2 days to write the review) I was unable to post it until today. My final book in the challenge will be The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which is incidentally also a Top Mysteries Challenge book.

    Original French title: Les Trois Mousquetaires
    Genre: Adventure, historical novel
    Year of publication: 1844
    Setting & time: France and England, 1625-28
    Translated into English by: William Barrow (1846)
    Page count: 576

    The edition I read is one of the earliest English translations of this classic story. According to Wikipedia, this edition, which seems to have stayed in print all this time is “fairly faithful to the original” with the exception that “all of the explicit and many of the implicit references to sexuality had been removed to conform to 19th-century English standards”. This has made me curious to read a modern, unexpurgated version, but that will have to wait until I get a hankering to re-read it.

    The book is, apart from the omissions, well translated, in the sense that I do not get a feeling of foreignness from the text like I do with another 19th century French novel I have been reading (Le Bossu by Paul Féval) that has a very French sentence structure and a stilted formality which comes across as forced and strange in Icelandic. It may be the difference between two translators, or the difference between two authors, or both, that has caused it. Some books are simply more difficult to translate well than others are.

    Before I go any further, I must mention that the copy I have is published by Reader’s Digest, but is not one of their digests, but a full edition of the 1846 English translation. It surprised me to discover that RD publishes full editions, but what didn’t come as a surprise was that the book is gorgeous. This image doesn’t do it justice, as neither the red nor the blue are correctly reproduced, and gold never comes out right on the computer screen. Say what you want about Reader’s Digest, but you must admit that they know their stuff when it comes to producing books that look sumptuous and expensive.

    On with the review, and best start with a short synopsis, in case someone happens across this review who is unfamiliar with the story:

    D’Artagnan, a young man from Gascogne, comes to Paris to join the king’s musketeer corps. He is unable to join up immediately because of politics, but befriends three musketeers, all of them using pseudonyms for one reason or another: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Because of d’Artagnan’s love for his landlord’s young wife he is able, with the assistance of the three musketeers, to do the queen a good turn, thereby arousing the admiration and ire of the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, and the hatred of one of his spies, the beautiful Lady de Winter, who wreaks terrible revenge on him and indeed on anyone who offends her.

    And now I must, for the benefit of the unlikely reader who is completely unfamiliar with the story, give a fair SPOILER WARNING. THE ENDING OF THIS BOOK WILL BE REVEALED BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

    The Three Musketeers is first and foremost an adventure tale and as such a very effective one. The fast-paced narrative sparkles and fizzes with action and humour is never far away when describing the adventure of the four friends. D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are strongly moulded types whose reactions and actions can always be predicted once one has got to know them, and in fact no character shows any kind of change or growth, except the villainess, Lady de Winter (traditionally called Milady, although not in this particular translation). Call them stereotypes or call them archetypes – people have done both. However, it doesn’t matter much, as in a story of his kind you don’t need complex, developing characters. All that matters is that the lead characters are not bland, and none of the four main characters nor the villainess can ever be accused of that.

    Milady is an interesting case, as she is by far the best-developed character in the book, something most authors reserve for their protagonist. In the beginning, we see her simply as Richelieu’s henchwoman, with the implication of being clever and brave, but then she begins to unfold in stages. First we see her as a devious, egotistical schemer, then as a creature of wild, boiling passions tempered by rigorous self-control and finally, when she feels the web that she herself has helped weave closing around her, as a psychopath with only the barest intellectual control over her raging ego and murderous temper. Our final view of her is of someone broken by her own scheming having exploded in her face, a femme fatale hoist by her own petard. Broken, but not repentant.

    The remaining characters, except possibly Richelieu, who is less of a plain and simple villain and more of a looming menace in the book than he is in any of the film versions, are just puppets, wooden stereotypes who never surprise the reader. But it doesn’t matter, because the narrative is plot driven and the characters are just along for the ride.

    Read as a plain and simple adventure tale with no considerations for anything but entertainment value, The Three Musketeers deserves a resounding 5 stars, but...

    ...however I might enjoy the swashbuckling part of the story, I did find it to be strongly misogynistic. Reduced to its basics, it is very much a story of Man, or rather Men, against Woman, represented on the one hand by d’Artagnan and co. and on the other by Milady. Dumas always manages to make the men’s scheming and lies somehow seem to be a justifiable means to an end, while Milady’s scheming, both on her own and Richelieu’s behalf, as despicable and wrong. They take turns in winning their battles, but there is no doubt as to who will emerge victorious in the end. However, when the story is examined in modern feminist terms it is interesting to note that Milady is such a formidable enemy that it eventually takes a team of 10 brawny men to overcome this one physically weak but devious and clever woman: the four servants who spy and keep an eye on her, the four friends, her brother-in-law and an executioner. It is at the point where they capture and punish her that the shining heroes stop being so shiny. Their ritualistic psychological torture of her (which may be read as a kind of exorcism or as a kind of rape) and the biased mock trial tarnishes them and makes them, in the end, really no better than their victim, and the ignominious dumping of her decapitated body in the river, which Dumas no doubt intended to show that she deserved no better, today comes across as a hiding of the evidence of a plain and simple murder.

    For this reason, I can really only give it 3 stars.

    Oh dear, oh dear! The 2011 Bad Sex Award has been announced

    And the winner is: Rowan Somerville for The Shape of Her, specifically for these passages

    Could someone please point me in the direction of some good sex passages to erase those images from my head, please?

    30 November 2010

    Meme: Top Ten Characters I wish I could be friends with

    The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Show your appreciation for this meme by visiting them and some of the other participating blogs.

    Starting with three characters I wanted to be friends with as a child, and still do, here is my list:
    • George (Georgina) from the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, because she is feisty and smart and adventurous (the only girl in any Endid Blyton book I have read who is on an equal footing with the boys).
    • Anne Shirley from the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery. She is a good and true friend despite her talent for rushing headlong into trouble.
    • The Cat in the Hat from the books by Dr. Seuss. The original furry anarchist. Can you imagine all the mischief one could get up to with him and never be found out?
    • Granny Weatherwax from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, although I fear she wouldn’t much approve of me. A good woman to have at your back when the elves and/or vampyres arrive in town.
    • Lord Peter Wimsey from the books by Dorothy L. Sayers. He has qualities I value in a friend, such as loyalty, courage and a sense of humour, plus if I ever get wrongly accused of a crime, he’d be the one I would want covering my back.
    • Sophy Stanton-Lacey from the Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, because she is good at solving problems and has a sense of humour.
    • Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, because she is strong, independent and has a sense of humour, and she wouldn’t abandon me even if I made a match she didn’t approve of.
    • Fitzwilliam Darcy Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Although he would be difficult to become friends with because of his standoffishness, once his friendship was gained he would look out for me in a crisis and because he isn’t too proud to admit it when he’s wrong.
    • Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. She may think a bit too well of herself, but she is an excellent problem-solver and overall nice person who wants everyone to live up to their potential and be happy.
    • Jo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I’m only about 1/3 through the book, and already love this character, perhaps because aspects of her remind me strongly of myself.

    I think I can depend on finding at least Anne, Lizzie and Jo on several of the other’s lists.

    Frankfurter Buchmesse 2011 Challenge: Englar Alheimsins

    The Icelandic book I read this month and had planned to review for the challenge was Eftirmáli Regndropanna by Einar Már Guðmundsson, but as it turns out, it doesn’t seem to have been translated into German (I was convinced it had been, but I can’t confirm it). As it is too late in the month to find another book to review, I am instead reviewing another book by Einar that I read several years ago: Englar Alheimsins, which was translated into English as Angels of the Universe (by the late, brilliant Bernard Scudder and published in 1995 and again in 1997) and into German as Engel des Universums (by Angelika Gundlach and published in 1998). It is his best known and most popular book to date, and has been included on the literature curriculum in Icelandic schools. It earned the author the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1995.

    The story has been filmed (the author writing the script) and I can recommend the film, although not for people who only enjoy happy endings.

    The narrator, Páll, tells the story of his life from birth to death, from a normal childhood to life as an adult with mental illness who spends long periods of time locked up in a psychiatric ward.

    This is a brilliantly written book with a narrator who is open and honest about his problems and has been hailed as a very realistic portrait of mental illness. It isn’t all about being ill and unable to function – Páll also discusses his attempts to have a normal life and tells the stories of some of his friends and the book is in part a criticism of the attitudes towards the mentally ill and how they are treated. This is by no means a piece of mis-lit, however, as the narration is too upbeat for that and there are moments of humour, some of them absurd and others tragi-comic, but also poingnant moments when one wants to reach out to the narrator and give him a comforting pat on the back. Einar writes with respect and love for his character, which is no surprise, as he wrote the book in memory of his deceased brother, who suffered from mental illness much like the narrator, and it is fact a novelisation of his life, although of course Einar takes poetic licence and changes things to suit the story.

    Anyone who wants to sample some of the best of modern Icelandic literary fiction could do worse that start with this book. If you want to start with something more upbeat, check this space in late December for my review of next month’s Buchmesse Challenge book: 101 Reykjavík by Hallgrímur Helgason.
    4+ stars.

    Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed in this review are drawn from a longer article/review I wrote many years ago (in Icelandic) that never got published.