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.

29 November 2010

Interesting article on translating and translators

If you are a translator or interested in becoming one, you might want to read this:
How I got lost in translation and found my true calling

The Hollywood Musical

Originally published in December 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 43 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Jane Feuer
Series: British Film Institute Cinema Series
Year published: 1982/1993
Pages: 154
Genre: Cinema history and criticism
Where got: National/University Library

I came across this interesting volume while browsing at the library. As someone who possesses a growing collection of musicals and watches them frequently, I am naturally interested in the subject, which is why I picked it as the book of the week.

Contents and review:
A critical and analytic look at the Golden Era Hollywood musical as a genre. Feuer examines some conventions and formulas of the genre, how the earlier musicals refer back to stage shows, vaudeville and revues, while the later ones refer back to the earlier ones. She examines the importance of the songs, the standardized romantic storyline of the musical comedy, and in a postscript chapter takes a brief look at some post-Golden Era musicals and gay readings of the old musicals (especially those starring Judy Garland).

When I started reading this book I expected to find some insight into the musical genre and what makes musicals enduring and endearing to audiences. What I found was an attempt to analyse certain isolated themes and techniques of the genre.

The book is an academic work written for academics, and therefore full of academic and technical jargon. For persons who have read little or nothing about literary analysis and literary theory, it is – I wouldn’t say exactly useless, but rather not as useful as it could be. For film students it gives a valuable insight into the genre, albeit not a very complete one.

For me, it has mostly been useful in drawing my attention to musicals I would like to watch.

Rating: An academic look at the movie musical as a genre. Not rated.

P.S. I am quite surprised that neither Grease nor Saturday Night Fever - both very popular movies that have attained cult status - rate a mention in the text, as the former is so clearly both a parody and a celebration of the genre, and the latter subverts and deviates from many of the genre’s conventions.

28 November 2010

Short stories 291-300

I have fallen way behind with my reporting of the short story challenge because I keep finding more interesting subjects to post about, but here is one more report:

  • “The Ghost of a Hand” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. About a ghost that only shows its hand. 
  • “The Sweeper” by A.M. Burrage. The tale of a woman haunted by an event from her past.
This ends October.

  • “Couching at the Door” by D.K. (Dorothy Kathleen) Broster. About the dangers of dabbling in the dark arts. Highly recommended.
  • “The Familiar” by Sheridan Le Fanu. About a man haunted by a demon from his past. Very boring.
  • “Full Fathom Five” by Alexander Woollcott. A very short tale that sounds like a “true” ghost story.
  • “The Millvale Apparition” by Louis Adamic. About a painter working in a church who encounters an apparition/ghost.

We now come to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, a collection of ghost stories chosen by Dahl, who, I think everyone who has read his books will agree, knew his stuff when it came to chilling tales. I found it hard to restrain myself not to finish the book, but I have a specific theme for November (which I will reveal the next time I post about this challenge) so I decided to save those of the rest that don’t fit that theme for later. Maybe I’ll read them to counterbalance the Christmas stories I plan to read in December.
  • “In the Tube” by E.F. Benson. A creepy tale about a ghost of the living and a ghost of the dead.
  • “Elias and the Draug” by Jonas Lie. A tale of a man who has a fateful encounter with a sea-ghost, modelled on the narrative techniques of folk-tales.
  • “Playmates” by A.M. Burrage. A well-plotted ‘gentle’ ghost story. Recommended.
  • “Ringing the Changes” by Robert Aickman. About a honeymoon couple who encounter a frightening old ritual when they visit a small town on the coast of England. The masterfully controlled mounting tension, the horrifying climax and the inevitable resolution make this a tale to be highly recommended.

27 November 2010

The art of blurbing

This is a reworked post from my old, now abandoned, 52 Books blog. I’ll be taking that blog down as soon as I remember where I stored the password...

Blurb: noun [C]
a short description of a book or film, etc., written by the people who have produced it, and intended to make people want to buy it or see it: The blurb on the back of the book says that it 'will touch your heart'.
(from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

I have mentioned several times the importance of good blurbs on books. By that I meant the teasers on the back cover or on the inside flap of the dustcover that are designed to entice a potential reader into buying the book. The good ones do this by giving the reader just enough enticing information to want the to find out more.

The worst of the bad ones give away an important plot element or even the ending of a book. Giving away the ending of a romance is usually okay because romance readers already know that the hero and heroine will get together at the end, but please don’t tell me how it happened – I’d like to find that out by reading the book. However, when I sit down to a whodunit I want to be kept guessing and not get told in a blurb just who did what (the how and to whom is okay, unless the author meant it to be a surprise).

Another type of bad blurb I loathe is the kind that gives erroneous or misleading information (see my review of Anthony Bourdain’s Bone in the Throat for a good example of both).

The other blurbs, the ones I like to call "gushers" - the often overwrought quotes by reviewers, famous authors and the occasional celebrity - can be funny or just plain horrible. The funny ones are those which have obviously been edited to leave out unfavourable wording and also the ones that are very carefully worded to sound like praise but are really saying: "I hated this book, but I'm too polite to say so."

The horrible ones are the long, gushing passages taken, apparently unchanged, from published reviews. If the book then turns out to be less than what I was given to expect from all the praise, I am not going to be inclined to ever trust that particular reviewer or publication to recommend books to me again. In fact, I was stung so often by believing these things as a trusting teenager that I became quite cynical about them and now only read them for fun. 

While I'm on that subject, I have a piece of advice for publishers: Two pages of gusher blurbs are not going to make me any more interested in a book than a well-crafted teaser on the back cover. For example, I hate, hate, hate opening a new Nora Roberts novel and having to search through several pages of quotes about her other books in order to find the title page. And it’s not even as if Roberts needs these quotes.

I am especially disinclined to trust recommendations by famous authors. So what if Stephen King thought a book was good? I don't know what kind of taste he has in literature. And so what if XXXX thought a particular book was great? She may be sleeping with the author, be a friend or relative of the author, or have been compelled by her publisher or agent to push the book. She may even be under contract to do so.

For all of these reasons, I usually save the gusher blurbs until last, which has the added advantage of making them easier to decipher.

P.S. I love reading back-cover blurbs on books I know I will never read, for example the Mills & Boon romances. The publishers know that people do not buy these books because they are dying to know who the heroine will end up with - it is therefore OK for the blurb to give a hint, even an assurance, as to the identity and basic personality of Mr. Right. The blurbs on these books are really like little condensations of the story, minus all the little twists, and you are never in doubt as to how the book will end. In the case of romances, giving away the identity of the hero is essential because people buy romances for two things: they like to experience the satisfaction of falling and being in love, even if it's only for as long as it takes to read the story, and they what to see the twists that finally bring the lovers together. They also want to be sure they will like the hero and heroine. What they don't want is to be kept wondering throughout half the book which male character is Mr. Right.

26 November 2010

Friday night folklore: The Steward of Skálholt

Iceland used to be divided into two bishoprics: north and south. The one in the north was situated at Hólar in Hjaltadalur, and the southern one in Skálholt, not far from Þingvellir.

Once upon a time there was a bishop in Skálholt who was very hard and inconsiderate in his treatment of his stewards. For this reason they hated working for him and he would send them off without references when they quit the job. Some of them hated him for this and wished that the Devil would take their place when they left. Eventually there was no-one who would apply for the position, and the bishop then had sore need for a steward.

Then a man came to him, stocky and red-haired, and offered his services. The bishop gladly accepted, not the least because the man did not make any demands as to pay, saying they could negotiate that when he left the service. He made no mention of his family or where he came from, saying it did not matter, all that mattered was how well he did his job. He then took up the position of steward and did it well, much to the bishop’s liking.

There was an old farmer in the local parish, an acquaintance of the bishop, who was well-versed in old lore, and soon there arose a quarrel between him and the new steward. Finally the farmer went to the bishop and told him that he feared that the steward would end up being a curse rather than a blessing for the estate. The bishop asked him why, and the old farmer asked him why he didn’t reprimand the man for never coming to mass until after the reading of the gospel and always leaving before the blessing.

The bishop said that he had not given a thought to this, but went and reprimanded the steward, who angrily replied he could not stay in church for long as he was a very busy man, and that if he were not allowed to decide himself when he went to church, he would resign. The bishop then backed off, as he did not want to lose this steward. The steward stayed on for six years and during that time he became increasingly disliked by everyone but the bishop, and even he was sometimes intimidated by him.

On the night before Easter of the sixth the aforementioned old farmer came to Skálholt and quietly walked up to the church yard wall. He saw there three men standing on different sides of the church and the steward was one of them. He saw that they were tying ropes with weights on it around the church under the steward’s direction, and he guessed that the others were his servants. Both me were ugly and brutish in appearance. When they had wrapped the ropes around the church, the steward told them that tomorrow when he came out of the church they should stand on opposite sides of the church and pull on the ropes, but he would stand by the door and hold the rope there, and by those means they could sink the church and everyone in it into the ground.

When the farmer had seen and heard all he could of these nefarious plans, he crept away from the church-yard and into the bishop’s house and quietly woke up the bishop and told him everything. The bishop was startled and did not know what could be done, but the old farmer told him that there should be no hesitation: he should stay up for the rest of the night and prepare a powerful sermon that he would perform himself, rather than have the local priest do it as was the tradition.

“But I,” said the old farmer, “will sit on the bench nearest the entrance and delay the steward when he tries to leave. When you see me stalling him, start the blessing from the pulpit and with God’s will that will be enough to save our souls.”

The bishop followed the farmer’s advice and wrote a sermon to deliver on the morrow. When the bells were rung for mass, the old farmer was seen walking around the church and with his pocket-knife surreptitiously cutting crosses in the wall here and there, but what he was really doing was cutting the ropes put up by the steward and his men.

The bishop entered the pulpit and the steward entered the church after the reading of the gospel. The steward had an ugly look on his face that became even uglier when he saw the bishop in the pulpit. The bishop noticed this and this gave him courage to continue with his sermon in a lively and spirited manner. Every soul in the church was brought to tears by the sermon, but the steward alternated between being pale as a ghost and black as coal in the face, and as the sermon started drawing to an end he jumped to his feet and half-ran towards the door. But the wise old farmer stood in the doorway and would not let him exit, saying there was no hurry and that he should wait for the blessing on this great day. The steward tried to push him aside, but the old man stood like a rock and could not be budged.

The bishop noticed this and lifted his hands to begin the blessing, and had only uttered a few words when the steward started to sink into the floor. The old farmer had a psalter in his hand and started hitting the steward over the head with it to hasten his departure. His head disappeared into the floor just as the bishop finished the blessing. The bishop then gave a lovely speech of thanks for the deliverance from evil of himself and his congregation, and after this he always treated his stewards with full respect.

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.

Useful website of the week: If you're looking for a reading challenge

Created by Teddy and Wendy, two bloggers who love reading challenges, A Novel Challenge is a blog all about just that. They collect reading challenges and book-related events together in one place to make it easier for others to find challenges. They don't steal the challenges - they merely let people know they exist and direct those who are interested in participating to the sign-up pages.

25 November 2010

Time for some reading challenges, pt. 1

I am always on the lookout for new and exciting reading challenges. In the coming weeks I will be presenting some I have come across that I especially like. I haven't decided if I am going to participate in any of them in 2011, but I will be considering it.

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

This one is very simple: You challenge yourself to read more books in 2011 than you did in 2010. It is hosted by the Book Vixen, who is also hosting three other challenges in 2011, of which I might do one: Men in Uniform (she plans to read romances for that one, but there is noting in the rules that forbids other genres).

I don't think I will be participating in this one. I read so much anyway that I don't need to push myself further, unless I decide to go for 200 books next year, which could easily happen considering the challenge I am setting myself for 2011 (more on that later).


This one is to read more books by authors you have read a book by and thought "I must read more by this author", but never did. There are three levels and some rules.
I don't know how many times I have ended a review by saying "I must read more by this author", but maybe it's time I finally did.

23 November 2010

Meme: Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Holiday Books

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Do head on over there and visit some of the other participating blogs.

I don’t have 10 favourite holiday reads, but here are some I love and have read many times over:

1. Jólin Koma by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. This is an Icelandic book of Christmas poems, as beloved by Icelanders as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ is by Americans. First published in 1932, it is now in its 24th printing, the most popular children’s book ever published in Icelandic. A must Christmas read in my home.
2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. No need to explain this one. I read it in December about every other year.
3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss. One I reread occasionally. No need to explain this one either.
4. The Father Christmas Letters by J. R. R. Tolkien.I have only read this once, but I loved it and I want a copy of my own!

Apart from these, I try to read something new with a holiday theme each year, usually including at least one mystery and one romance. The ones I have already read this year are The Gift by Nora Roberts, A Gift to Last by Debbie Macomber, and Santa, Baby! by Jennifer Crusie, Lori Foster and Carly Phillips. I also plan to read Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh, and I will probably read The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens and All Through the Night: a Troubleshooter Christmas by Suzanne Brockmann.

Some of my past Christmas reads I can recommend are:

5. The short story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
6. A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg. A sweet, corny Christmas tale that will warm the cockles of your heart.
7. Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis. A collection of sci-fi and fantasy based short stories with Christmas themes.
8. The only one of the Christmas books I have read so far this year that I can unequivocally recommend is A Gift to Last by Debbie Macomber, which consists of two heartwarming Christmas novellas, one with a fantasy theme (three angels with a taste for trouble are sent to help a man see the error of his ways), and one about a group of people stranded in a train depot in the middle of nowhere over Christmas.

Since several other participants in this meme have mentioned Christmas movies, I will add my favourite two to make the list up to ten:

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas
10. The Muppet Christmas Carol

22 November 2010

Stiff – The curious lives of human cadavers

Originally published in November and December 2004, in 4 parts. Book 42 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Mary Roach
Year published: 2003
Pages: 303
Genre: Popular science, biology
Where got: amazon.co.uk

Mom, Dad, what happens after we die?

This is a classic question most parents dread having to answer. While this book doesn’t answer the philosophical/theological part of the question – what happens to the soul? - it does claim to contain answers to the biological part, namely: what happens to the body?

Reading progress for Stiff:
Stiff is proving to be an interesting read. Roach writes in a matter-of-fact journalistic style that makes the subject seem less grim than it really is, but she does on occasion become a bit too flippant about it, I guess in an attempt to distance herself. Although she uses humour to ease the grimness, the jokes – which, by the way, are never about the dead, only the living, especially Roach herself – often fall flat. Perhaps it’s just me, but this is a serious subject and I’d like to see it handled as such, even in a popular science book like this one.

Roach is careful not to be overly descriptive or overly scientific, which makes the book (at least those chapters I’ve read) accessible to people who want to know about these things, just not in too much detail. Even so, I have been very careful not to read the book just before or during meals, as there are limits even to what my strong stomach can take.

Stiff links
These links are to articles on Salon.com. You have to watch a a short commercial before reading the whole text.

Read an excerpt: Dead man decomposing

Interview with the author: Over your dead body

The Stiff review
Contents, technique and effects:

This isn’t a scientific book. Roach writes from the point of view of an informed and slightly prejudiced layperson about the natural and “unnatural” things that can happen to people’s bodies after they die. The description of what happens if nature is allowed to take its course – decay - is brief and tied in with the use of human cadavers in forensics research. The treatment of cadavers in mortuaries – cosmetic touch-ups and embalming - is discussed in the same chapter and there is also a chapter on methods of disposal, other than burial, such as cremation, liquification and composting. The rest of the chapters are about how scientists and doctors use donated cadavers and body parts in such varied fields as life saving body-part transplants, plastic surgery courses and anatomy classes, automobile and air-crash research, forensics and ballistics research. Other chapters contain historical accounts of all kinds of crazy and weird (and occasionally quite useful) stuff – including body-snatching and mellification - people got up to with cadavers in the name of science, medicine and religion. As far as I can see, the only widely known practice that is not discussed is mummification, although the (stomach-churning) use of mummies in medicine is mentioned.

All in all, this is good reading for people who are curious about these things, but not curious enough to want pictures and details. Roach speaks of the dead with respect and has a few words of sarcasm for people who mistreat (by that I mean "use them unnecessarily or disrespectfully") dead bodies and/or torture animals in the name of research.

As I said earlier, Roach writes in a journalistic style that fits the subject and makes the book more accessible to the public than a purely dispassionate and dry scientific style would have. There is humour in the book which sometimes comes across as flippant, but also breaks the seriousness of the text. The flippancy seems to be mostly in the first chapters, but there is humour throughout the book, although not the laugh-aloud kind. Roach is not afraid of revealing her own preconceptions and prejudices and makes fun of herself and her near obsession with morbid subjects throughout the book.

Although the subject is morbid at first glance, there is actually nothing morbid about the book. It is, in fact, strangely upbeat and enlivening, especially for someone like me who is going through the grieving process for a loved one. Knowing what happens to the body after death is helping me to let go, which is a good thing, a part of the healing process.

Rating: An interesting and enlightening look at what can happen and what does happen to our bodies after we die. 3+ stars.

19 November 2010

Friday night folklore: The two brothers and the piece of parchment

Once upon a time there was an old farmer who had two sons. As he was dying he handed them an old piece of parchment with writing on it and said that one of them should always carry it on him, and especially when they went out to sea to fish, as it would ensure that their fishing would be as good as any man’s. The brothers thanked him for the piece of parchment and tried to read the text, but couldn’t understand a single word. Therefore they came to the conclusion that it must be a magic spell. They valued the parchment highly and told no-one of its existence.

They took over the running for the farm after the old man was dead, and rarely forgot to keep the parchment about one or other of their persons, believing strongly in its ability to draw fish to their boat. When they brought it with them out to sea, the fishing would be better than anyone’s, but when it got left behind the catch would be small or even none.

Word got around how lucky the brothers were when it came to fishing, and indeed their luck was considered to be remarkable at times, since sometimes when many boats set out to fish, they would be the only ones catching anything. This led to rumours of magic and people even hinted at this to the brothers, but although they believed their neighbours were right, they would not speak of it to anyone.

Eventually the local minister heard the rumour and spoke to the brothers about it, asking them to tell him in God’s name if they were using any kind of cursed superstition to increase their yield. At first they were reluctant to speak, but as he was their friend they finally told him the truth.

He asked to see the parchment and showed it to him. When he handed it back to them he told them: “That’s no magic, it’s only the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.”

“Ah, so that’s what it is?” they answered.

But after this their fishing was no better and no worse than anyone else's.

Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Year of publication: 1915
Series and no.: Richard Hannay # 1/5
Genre: Thriller
Setting & time: England and Scotland, contemporary

Richard Hannay, having grown up in Rhodesia and now living in London, is bored to distraction by his life in England and seriously considering going back to Africa when his neighbour seeks his help. The man, it turns out, is a spy or an associate of spies, and has important information that will be of no use until a certain date. Until then he must stay alive. This he fails to do and Hannay finds him murdered in his apartment and has to go on the run, under suspicion for the murder and chased by the police and spy gang who killed his neighbour.

This is one of the early espionage thrillers in the modern mold, and as such, one can recognise many of the traits of the modern spy thriller in it.
A review or discussion I read of this novel said that in modern retrospect Hannay comes across as somewhat of a cliché, so I took care to read the book as if I was not deeply familiar with the genre. I found the story remarkably fresh considering its age, although some attitudes come across as old-fashioned – but then again they don’t really: prejudice against the Jewish people is as strong as ever, if slightly more hidden than it seems to have been then, and there still exists a version of the story the neighbour tells Hannay at the beginning, about a Jewish-anarchist plot to start a war, although it has of course changed into something more modern in the interval.

The story is very much plot-driven, but that is not to say that Hannay isn’t a rounded character – he’s such an archetype of the strong, silent and resilient man that some might read him as a stereotype, but his reliance on others and certain other qualities prevent that. Even the people he meets briefly on the road don’t come across as cardboard figures, which is no small feat in a plot-driven story and bears testament to Buchan’s writing skill.

The plot is, of course, wildly improbable, and no-one can accuse Buchan of belonging to the realist school of espionage writing. The plotting can be directly traced to its antecedents which are the adventure tale and the mystery. The story is fast paced and short and makes a fast, breezy and entertaining read. Altogether a very nice ‘boys own’ adventure that will fit nicely on the shelf right beside The Riddle of the Sands. 4 stars.

18 November 2010

The Dante Game by Jane Langton

Genre: Thriller, cosy
Series and no. : Homer Kelly, # 8
Type of detective: Professor of literature, lawyer and former policeman
Year of publication: 1991
Setting & time: Florence, Italy, contemporary.

Harvard Professor Homer Kelly is invited to teach for one school year at a new school for American students in Florence, Italy. One of the teachers has been in prison in the USA for murder, another one is a boring creep, the students are the usual mixed bunch, including one socially-inept stalker type and a ravishingly beautiful female student with issues, and the school secretary really works for the city’s top drug baron, who is planning to use a religious fanatic to assassinate the pope, whose anti-drug campaign is affecting business.

I picked up this book mostly because of the title. I haven’t read The Divine Comedy, mostly because I couldn’t decide which of the many English translations to choose, but I did wish I had the one quoted in the book on hand – I believe it was the Sayers translation. However, it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have it, since it isn’t that important an element in the book. The titular Dante game is a game devised by the man who teaches the Dante course in the book, where he gives the students a list of clues and they have to recognise which passage from the book it refers to and find an object connected with it. This game is utilised as a diversionary tactic by the story’s criminals to cast suspicion on the students and staff of the school by stealing some of the objects the students were meant to find.

The main plot concerns a drug baron’s plans to use a man who is a fanatic for religious reform to assassinate the pope, because he has declared a holy year against drugs, which has seriously eroded the business for the drug lord.

The characters are mostly well-developed but none are sympathetic, not even the beautiful young woman who is one of the central characters or the teacher who is half-paralysed with love for her, and there is no mystery because the author lays all the cards on the table for the reader. The only bit of detection anyone does in the book is one teacher’s desperate search for a missing student he has fallen in love with, and the series detective is reluctantly drawn into that search. The pace is slow and steady until the last 50 pages or so, when it starts rolling and picks up the pace. The thriller plot is pretty good, but somehow things don’t quite come together. It may have been the pacing, or possibly the characters, and definitely the lack of detecting had something to do with it.

What really makes this story an interesting read is the combination of Dante, Florence and the author’s drawings of the city. The author expresses her love for Florence very clearly in the background narrative and makes it come deliciously alive for the reader, which is why I am giving it 3 stars and keeping it – but on the travel books shelf and not with the crime books.

17 November 2010

The Complete Steel by Catherine Aird

Genre: Police procedural
Year of publication: 1969
Series and no. : Chronicles of Calleshire, # 4
Setting & time: Calleshire (fictional place), England, contemporary/timeless

A naughty boy on an outing at a stately home makes a gruesome discovery: someone has murdered the estate archivist and stuffed him into a suit of armour. The Calleshire police, in the persons of Detective Chief Inspector Sloan and his assistant, Crosby the speed demon (who I think is still a constable in this book). It is soon revealed that the man had recently made a discovery that could be a threat to the cosy existence of the family who own the place, but is that really why he was murdered?

I have written before of the timeless quality of Aird’s Calleshire books, which seem to exist in a kind of mid-to-late 20th century time vacuum. The last Calleshire book I read, Little Knell (which I didn’t review) was an exception of sorts, mainly because of its theme, which was hard drugs, but this, one of the early books, is one of the timeless ones.

The upper-class characters are the types you meet on the pages of books by Agatha Christie and especially Georgette Heyer’s mysteries, with the exception of two, who seem to have been cut from the same cloth as the sisters from Gormenghast, and I really wish they had played a bigger part in the story because they were great.

Sloan and Crosby are their old selves, Sloan a slightly harried but generally calm and thoughtful little man, and Crosby mad for driving. The writing is more colourful than what I remarked on in my previous review of Aird’s books, and the story has some clever twists and turns and red herrings, and bravo! Aird has managed to break one of The Rules without enraging the reader. This is the best of Aird’s books I have read so far, and I love the title, which is a quotation from Hamlet. 4 stars.

16 November 2010

Meme: Top Ten Villains, Criminals & Degenerates

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To see more villains, criminals and degenerates, why not head on over there and click on some of the other entries.

I am dividing my gallery of villains and monsters into two groups: the possible and the impossible:

  • Count Dracula from Dracula by Bram Stoker. A monster capable of turning his victims into monsters.
  • Dorian Grey from The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. All the more evil for being so charming and innocent-looking. Comes under this heading because of the painting.
  • The Queen from various Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, especially The Wee Free Men and Lords and Ladies. She knows people think she is evil and she doesn’t care.
  • The Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. A totally loony, creepy villainess.
  • The Snow Queen from 'The Snow Queen' by Hans Christian Andersen. Creepy and completely evil.I found her terrifying when I was a child.

The possible:
  • Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (I haven't read the rest). The guy nobody wants to meet in a dark alley – or have dinner with.
  • Tom Ripley from the books by Patricia Highsmith. Even more dangerous than Lecter, this charming sociopath will charm and befriend you before he kills you. But at least he will not eat you. Probably.
  • Iago from Othello by William Shakespeare. Possibly the slimiest villain in all of classical literature.
  • Humbert Humbert from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I haven’t even read the book, but I have a special loathing for pedophiles, so he is included here.
  • The Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Does what she does because it amuses her, and enjoys watching the consequences.

Possibilities I considered as well:

Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; Mr. Teatime from Hogfather by Terry Pratchett; Carcer from Night Watch by Terry Pratchett; Lily Weatherwax from Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett; Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith; Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L. Stevenson; Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle: Lady Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare; The Grand High Witch from The Witches by Roald Dahl.

15 November 2010

The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Icelanders

Originally published in November 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 41 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Richard Sale
Year published: 1994
Pages: 64
Genre: Humour
Sub-genre(s): Travel guide
Where got: Public library

I was thinking about reviewing a full-fledged guide book about Iceland, but realized I would never be able to finish one in only a week (actually I could, but it would not be much fun). Instead I picked up this slim volume that contains a humourous profile of the Icelandic nation. It remains to be seen if it’s accurate…

This is basically a brief portrait of the Icelandic nation, its behaviour, sense of humour, traditions, beliefs, food, drinking habits, etc. Don’t expect a deep analysis of the national psyche – this is purely humorous and on the surface. Apart from a few small errors and atrocious spelling of Icelandic names and words, I would say this is a pretty accurate, if rather exaggerated, description of Icelanders as a group. The outsider often sees things that a member of a group does not, but in this case there is hardly anything in the book that Icelanders have not said about themselves over the years. The edition I read dates back to 1994, and so is somewhat dated, but there is a newer one from 2000.

Rating: A tongue-in-cheek description of Icelanders as a group that is guaranteed to make you smile. 3+ stars.

P.S. Mr. Sale, next time you update the book, you might want to reconsider the turkey joke - it doesn't work in Icelandic.

12 November 2010

Friday night folklore: The Gold Coin

Once upon a time there was a man who was very avaricious and would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. He was likewise so miserly that he could not bring himself to do good for any man. His pastor often reprimanded him for this, asking him where he thought this behaviour would eventually lead him, but the miser ignored his pleadings and reprimands completely.

Finally the miser died and upon hearing of his death the pastor became so very worried for his eternal soul that he could hardly sleep. The next night when he finally fell asleep, the pastor dreamt that he saw, in the sky above the dead man’s farm, a huge pair of scales. By one side there were angels who were putting the dead man’s good works on the scales and by the other demons who were piling his misdeeds on their side of the scales. Those were many and weighed heavily, but the good works consisted only of a piece of bread the miser had once given a poor and starving man out of pity. The demons started bragging about the weight of their end of the scales, but the angels only said: “Let us wait for the Judge to decide.”

Everything became very still and quiet, and then the pastor saw where a tiny gold coin tumbled down from the heavens to fall beside the piece of bread. It tipped the scales over to the side of righteousness and the demons crept away with sour faces and their tails between their legs while the angels shouted with joy, and that’s when the pastor woke up. After this he was certain that the gold coin meant that the Lord Jesus had approved the man’s entry into Heaven, and this made him easier in his mind.

Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran

Genre: Women’s fiction, foodie book
Year of publication: 2006
Setting & time: Small town in Ireland, 1980s

Sisters Merjan, Bahar and Layla, refugees from the Iranian revolution, arrive in the Irish village of Ballinacroagh and open the Babylon Café. Chef Marjan prepares mouthwatering Persian food in the kitchen and serves it with the help of their sisters. But while most of the villagers welcome them, some disapprove of their presence, especially small-town kingpin Thomas McGuire, who wants to buy the house where the café is to open a disco. Aided by the town gossip and his loutish older son, he begins a campaign against the foreign ‘sluts’. But his younger son is dating Layla, the village priest is the sisters’ most faithful customer and the café seems set for success.
Each chapter begins with a Persian recipe and the food is incorporated somehow into each chapter.

It’s no secret that I like to read foodie books, so when I came across this novel in the library, I took it home with me in the hope that this would make a satisfying read, and it was everything I have come to expect from this kind of fiction: full of the joy of cooking, a little romance, a bit of conflict, some humour, a dash of magic realism, small souls who disapprove of the the exotic strangers in their midst, and the healing power of time, love and good food. Very much like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, in fact, but it must be said that Mehran is not as good a writer or storyteller as Harris.

The story just has too many flaws. The sisters are relatively well fleshed-out and realistically different from each other, and the descriptions of their ordeal in Iran are terrifyingly realistic, but the descriptions of most of the Irish people and the village come across as a bit twee, as if cut out of a tourist brochure or gleaned from a superficial viewing of an episode of Ballykissangel. The friendly Italian widow from whom the sisters rent the café, the jolly village priest, the paunchy villain, the nasty village gossip, and in fact most of the supporting cast, are glaring stereotypes. A couple of women are, unbelievably, described in terms of the nymphomania of one and the frigidity of the other. The prose is often purple, sometimes embarrassingly so, and the attempts at spicing things up with magic realism are more parsley than pepper. Both Joanne Harris and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni have done food related magic realism better, Harris with chocolate and Divakaruni with spices.

This is a quick, easy read, and rather disappointing. In the end, all that kept me reading was the recipes (which are the best part of the book) and descriptions of food and food preparation, which are, admittedly, cleverly woven into the narrative. Too much time is spent on building up a conflict between the sisters and McGuire, considering that it turns out to be so one-sided that the sisters hardly seem to notice it. This ends in a climax that parallels a funny and pathetic scene in Chocolat. Unfortunately here it just feels contrived and the resolution fizzles rather than sizzles. 2 stars.

P.S. The recipes really are tempting. I plan to try one or two before I return the book to the library.

11 November 2010

Late to the party as usual: Discussion of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Disclaimer: I don’t think I really need to summarise this one, since it is so widely known. But in case you haven’t read it, be warned that the following discussion is full of SPOILERS and should not be read by persons who wish to be surprised by the book. I don’t want to call this a review, but there are some review elements in there nonetheless.

When a book gets as hyped up as Twilight I tend to recoil from it rather than jump on the bandwagon and read it right away. This is not because I don’t like hype, but because I hate buying books at full price and then discovering I don’t like them. I’d much rather wait until I can read a book and then decide if I want to own a copy, which I can, by that time, probably get second hand. Foreign bestsellers don’t arrive immediately in the libraries here, and I don’t know a lot of people who read foreign books, so unless I buy them, I can’t read them right away.

I had decided, as much as a couple of years ago, that I wanted to read Twilight, mostly because of the hysterical reactions to it. So many young readers, especially girls, thought it was the best thing ever, and then the inevitable backlash came: it was anti-feminist, Edward was a creepy stalker and Bella a perpetual victim, it was badly written, it was trash, etc. etc. Flame wars erupted on reading forums and anti-twilighters told stories about being menaced or even attacked by rabid Twilight fangirls, who vehemently denied the accusations. I watched all of this from a safe distance and thoroughly enjoyed the show without getting involved.

What really captured my attention and aroused my interest was the statement I heard from more than one adult reader saying – in different ways – that it was trash, but the kind of trash that sucks you in and keeps you reading until you finish it, and then you get a reading hangover, recover from it and immediately want more, sort of like junk food or candy. Now that I have finally read it, I tend to (guardedly) agree with this. This is quality trash, eminently readable much in the same way as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, the books of Sidney Sheldon or those of Jackie Collins.

These are books you don’t read for the prose – you read them for the story, and Stephenie Meyer, using Bella Swan’s voice, is one hell of a good storyteller. The writing may be somewhat clunky and over-descriptive at times, and some of the themes may indeed be anti-feminist and some of this stuff is just over the top (sparkly vampires, anyone?), but the story is a classic one about a love so breathtaking and (to the lovers) perfect that it can only be experienced once in a lifetime. Of course it adds complications and tragic overtones that the male half of the loving couple is a nearly immortal vampire and the female is mortal, but what drives the story is exactly the conflict this causes: the what-ifs and the hows and whys. Then Meyer adds a thriller element and off we go on a whirling ride, full of teenage angst and hormones, which Meyer captures perfectly.

For the people who think these books are giving girls a bad example of what a romantic relationship should be like I have this to say: trust the girls and young women who exclaim on Edward’s hotness and the perfection of his relationship with Bella to know the difference between fiction and reality and what they can and can not have. After all, most people who read serial killer stories at that age have the good sense to not become serial killers, so why should you think girls are going to strive for the kind of relationship Bella and Edward have and be disappointed just because they end up in relationships that don’t echo that relationship?

I have to add that while Bella is a believable character (I can find aspects of her in most of my friends and myself), Edward is just too much of a Gary Stu to be likable. There seems to be no end to his physical perfection and he seems to be able to do anything better that anyone (except I bet he can’t cook). He is even ready to sacrifice the relationship to keep her safe, even if she is the most delectable thing he has ever smelled. In short, he is the kind of boyfriend teenage girls and even grown women like to fantasise about, because we know damn well they don’t exist in reality. This gets annoying after a while, but then I remember that this is not necessarily how Meyer has envisaged him, but how her narrator, Bella, who is head-over-heels in love with him, sees him, and I begin to wonder if Bella isn’t an unreliable narrator? I guess I’ll have to read the other books to find out.

Readers, if you have thoughts or comments you would like to share with me, please post them below.

P.S. The movie is okay, follows the story quite faithfully except for a few details.Both Bella and Edward seem to be pouting most of the time, and on top of that he is just very, very creepy.

10 November 2010

Making time for reading

I can’t count the times I have been asked how I find the time to read so many books. The asker will sometimes add that they never have time to read, or say they envy me for being able to find so much reading time, and so on. Sometimes the non-readers radiate an unspoken assumption about my nerdishness or my lack of a social life, but for the most part these questions come from other readers who want to know my secret. Well, guess what? There isn’t a secret.

If you are determined enough you WILL find time to read, even if you have a spouse and kids, high-maintenance pets, lots of friends, a busy job and an active social calendar. It’s just a matter of planning your time, prioritising and grabbing every opportunity you can. Here are some tips – just choose the ones that apply to you and you’re on your way to reading more:

  • Any time you find yourself with your hands empty and nothing to occupy your brain, read. If you have no such moments, create them. If this means taking the bus to work instead of the car, go for it if you really want to make time for reading.
  • Always carry a book with you so you can use the small gaps between tasks to read. For example, I can read a page or two in the time it takes my computer to start up in the morning, and when I find myself alone at lunch-time in the coffee room, I pick up a book.
  • Multitask. For example, it is perfectly acceptable and easy to read while you eat (as long as you are alone and don’t have to observe polite table manners). Take a book with you to the bathroom and read while you are in the tub. If you have small children and are staying at home with them, train yourself to read with one eye and one ear on the kids.
  • Buy or download audio books and listen while you exercise or take a walk; while you cook or do the housework; during your commute to work; or, if your job allows it, while you work.
  • If you are the planning type, organise some time for reading in your schedule. It doesn’t have to be much: You only need 30 minutes a day for a week to finish a short novel.
  • Subscribe to a book in daily e-mails through DailyLit.com. The instalments are are quite short so they can even be read at work without anyone being the wiser, and before you know it you will be subscribing to a second book.
  • Turn off the TV. Rather than watch something just to have something to do, pick up a book instead. If you find it hard, ask yourself if it’s really a matter of life and death whether you miss one episode of the Tonight Show (to take a random example).
  • Join a book club. It will give you a reason to read, and in your discussions with the other club members you may find out about other books and authors.
  • Read books that interest you, not books you think you should be reading. You shouldn’t reject a book just because you think Harold Bloom and co. wouldn’t approve of it.
  • If a book turns out to be bad or boring, don’t feel obliged to finish it. Life is too short to waste it on reading bad books.
  • Find a reading habit that suits you. If juggling multiple books isn’t your cup of tea, just concentrate on finishing one at a time. If the opposite is true, juggle as many books as make you feel comfortable. 
 And now, Dear Reader, I would love to hear how you make time for reading.

09 November 2010

Meme: Top Ten Most Unfortunate Character Names

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. For some more unfortunate character names head on over there and check out some of the other linked entries.

I didn’t participate in last week’s meme because I couldn’t remember the last time I cried over a book. Books do occasionally move me, but they rarely make me cry, and when I do cry over a book, it’s usually because I have reason to cry anyway and something in the book sets me off. I didn’t even cry over Marley and Me, and that was pretty sad.

This week’s theme is a good one, because it will allow the participants to blow off some steam about names in literature that are ridiculous, absurd, inappropriate or funny-in-a-bad-way. I tried to stick to major characters in my choice, not necessarily central characters, but important ones. This is because even authors who give their protagonists sensible names often give minor characters the most ridiculous monikers, and going for those would enlarge the pool to much.

I can understand why an author would give a character an unusual or special name, since there is a lot in a name. Charles Dickens was famous for giving his characters names that were descriptive or indicative of their character, and often authors employ names in a very conscious way, for example giving bad people harsh-sounding or off-putting names and the good people strong and attractive names. A modern example is J.K. Rowling, who clearly put a lot of thought into her naming of the characters in the Harry Potter books.

A special list could be made of only Bond girl names, which are often irritatingly sexist (as well as being bad puns), but I am only going to include the one really big offender, because her name is not just very, very unfortunate, but it also fails to accurately describe her character within the sexist framework of the books. But just consider this: Holly Goodhead, Honey Ryder, Jinx, Kissy Suzuki, Mary Goodnight, Octopussy, Plenty O’Toole, Tiffany Case, and Xenia Onatopp.

So without further ado, here is my list of unfortunate names in literature:
  • Pussy Galore in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. In the book, she’s a tough lesbian gang-leader who turns straight for Bond, but the name sounds more like a moniker for a brothel-keeper, or even a name for such an institution. Taken in the non-double entendre meaning it sounds like the name of a crazy cat lady. I predict this one will be on a number of lists.
  • Most of the dragonrider names from the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey. Authors: never, ever give more than one of your characters a name the majority of your readers have no idea how to pronounce.
  • The Weasleys in the Harry Potter books. It’s a good, old-fashioned English family name, but unfortunately it makes me think of weasels, which have an evil reputation, and the secondary meaning of a deceitful or treacherous person, which makes it a good villain name. Rowling can rationalise it all she wants (and she has) but it is not going to change my mind.
  • Anathema Device in Pratchett and Gaiman´s Good Omens. I know why she was named that way – naming blunders are a running joke not only in this book but in the Discworld books as well, but I stumble over it every time I read it.
  • Moist von Lipwig from Terry Pratchett’s Making Money. Another name I kept stumbling over – I kept seeing big, drooly lips in my mind, whereas the character himself is someone I quite like, in an arm’s length kind of way. On the other hand the naming of Adora Belle Dearheart was nothing short of brilliant.
  • Oedipa Maas from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Authors: just because you can think up strange names, it doesn’t mean you are obliged to use them, or give them to your protagonists.
  • Junebug Moncrief. I found this one in a Jordan Poteet mystery by Jeff Abbott. I gave up reading the book around page 50 (didn’t like the style), so I was never able to ascertain whether it was his actual name or his nickname, but either way, not a good name for a sheriff, especially not as he appears to be the Watson in the books and not a bumbling Lestrade-type.
  • Sookie Stackhouse from the Dead books by Charlaine Harris. Why is it that so many writers writing about the American South think they have to give their characters weird and unattractive names? PLUS it totally sounds like a stripper name.
  • Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita X. Dream), daughter of Terminal Nitt, from various Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. Even though the name is perfect for her, it makes my scalp itch whenever I read it. Margat Garlick might have ended up on here as well, but it doesn’t have quite the same negative impact.
  • Uriah Heep from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. He is a villain, so Dickens felt the need to spell it out by giving him an evil-sounding name, but I think he went a bit too far. While his first name was probably chosen for it’s biblical connotations, it makes me think of urea.
And while she isn’t a character in a book (except after the fact) the name of Buffy “the vampire slayer” Summers always makes me cringe. I think she must originally have been intended as a comedy character. 

08 November 2010

The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Originally published in November 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 40 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Unknown
Year published: this edition: 1985; original: 14th century
Pages: 141
Genre: Saga, medieval literature
Where got: Present from my parents

Today we Icelanders celebrate the Day of the Icelandic Language, and therefore I decided to read something in my native language for a change, and what is more Icelandic than a Saga? I chose The Saga of Grettir the Strong because I have special ties to it, having lived in Skagafjörður and visited Drangey, the island where Grettir spent the last years of his life.

The version I am reading is from a controversial modernised spelling edition of the Sagas.

This Saga is available in English for reading online: Saga of Grettir

Click here to visit my Drangey page. It contains a short summary of the Saga of Grettir, along with a couple of legends about the island.

The Story:
The life story of one of the greatest warriors in Icelandic history. He is thought to have really existed, although of course by the time the Saga was written everything about him had reached legendary status. I hesitate to call him a hero, because although he did many brave and heroic things, he was also a thief, a highwayman and a murderer who sometimes killed just because he didn’t like someone. Many of his misfortunes are entirely due to his own temperament, although some may be attributed to ongoing feuds or just plain bad luck. Grettir was a hunted man for nearly half of his life. First he was outlawed for 3 years for a killing, and then he was outlawed for life. The second sentence is blamed on his having been cursed by a monster that he fought and overcame. He is described as having been the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, and could only be overcome and killed by magic.

Not only is the Saga about Grettir alone, it begins with some history about his family, and ends with the story of how his brother tracked down his killer all the way to Byzantium to kill him (Icelanders in the Sagas were big on blood feuds and could be extremely tenacious and patient when it came to revenge).

Technique and plot:
The story is well plotted, but those who don’t like to read about the “begots” in the Bible may find parts of this (or indeed any) Saga equally uninteresting, as it contains a lot of genealogy and quite complicated family connections, which nevertheless are important to the story, as they explain the ongoing feuds, who gets compensation for whose death and who is bound to avenge whom, and so on. Other than the genealogical information, the structure and plotting of the story is quite similar to a modern novel, albeit one that rambles a bit and takes a while to get to the central plot. Once the central plot (Grettir’s life story) is reached, the story starts to move faster, and also becomes more fantastic, with Grettir coming up against not only human opponents, but also trolls, ghosts and a witch.

In his youth, Grettir is not at all a likeable person. He’s lazy, arrogant, impertinent, rude, violent, and cruel to animals. Not a very nice boy at all. As he gets older and his misfortunes start piling up, he becomes slightly more sympathetic, but only a bit. I know there are people who admire him and call him a hero, but I am not one of them. I think he brought his misfortunes upon himself, although he did not deserve to die the way he did.

Rating: A medieval Saga that should appeal to all fans of heroic literature. 4 stars.

07 November 2010

Short stories 281-290

“The Silence of the Sea” by Vercors. A powerful story of shattered illusions during the German occupation of France during World War II. Recommended.

“The State of Grace” by Marcel Aymé. A funny satirical fantasy about the desire for conformity. Highly recommended.

“The Women” by Pierre Gascar. About life in a WWII work camp. Recommended.

“The Adulterous Woman” by Albert Camus. A strongly metaphorical tale about emotional estrangement and alienation. Recommended.

The Secret Room” by Alain Robe-Grillet. An atmospheric description of a grotesque situation. Recommended.

And that concludes The Penguin Book of French Short Stories

Since the gloominess of autumn/early winter is upon us and it is now dark outside when I wake up to go to work, I have been reading spooky stories I have found in the Web.

"The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" by John Kendrick Bangs. Web. A humorous ghost story. Recommended.

"The Terror of Blue John Gap" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Web.A monster tale which is ruined somewhat by an attempt at scientific explanation.

"The Mass Of Shadows" by Anatole France. Web. Ghost story about a woman attends a spectral church service.

“The Tree”, by H.P. Lovecraft. A creepy paranormal story, one of his more subtle ones.

“The Mark of the Beast” by Rudyard Kipling. A story, rather sneering in tone, about the danger of disrespecting other people’s gods.

06 November 2010

Short stories 271-280

I have fallen a bit behind posting these lists, but here is one and I will post the next soon. I have been keeping to the challenge more or less steadily, except I have been concentrating on spooky stories and horror tales in the latter part of October. You will see some of them on the next list.

"Fear" by Guy de Maupassant. Web. About what it is to be truly afraid. Here is a quotation from the story that I think captures the feeling very well:

“Fear — and the boldest men may feel fear — is something horrible, an atrocious sensation, a sort of decomposition of the soul, a terrible spasm of brain and heart, the very memory of which brings a shudder of anguish, but when one is brave he feels it neither under fire nor in the presence of sure death nor in the face of any well-known danger. It springs up under certain abnormal conditions, under certain mysterious influences in the presence of vague peril. Real fear is a sort of reminiscence of fantastic terror of the past. A man who believes in ghosts and imagines he sees a specter in the darkness must feel fear in all its horror.”

"Dracula's Guest" by Bram Stoker. Web. A pretty good tale of supernatural threats, which some suppose to be the intended original opening chapter of Dracula. Recommended.
The next book is The Penguin Book of French Short Stories. I have left out the stories that also appear in Best Short Stories..., but I read them just the same, in order to see how the different translators rendered them into English.

“The World as it is” by Voltaire. A parable about how society works even if it is imperfect.

“This is not a story” by Denis Diderot. A rather clever story within a story, told in narrative form.

“Augustine de Villeblanche”,by the Marquis de Sade. A clever tale of disguise and seduction that proves that de Sade could turn his pen to other uses that writing pornography. The story is remarkably tolerant of homosexuality considering when it was written, even if in the end heteronormativity wins.

“Laurette, or the Red Seal” by Alfred de Vigny. A strong condemnation of the servility expected of military men. Recommended.

“A Woman’s Revenge” by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. A tale of the revenge of a proud woman against proud man, and how she found a way to injure him through his pride. Recommended.

“Adelaide” by Arthur de Gobineau. A tragi-comic tale of jealousy and love. Recommended.

“The Procurator of Judea” by Anatole France. A tale abour Pontius Pilate in his old age. Recommended.

“An Outing in the Country”, by Guy de Maupassant. About a moment of happiness.

05 November 2010

Friday night folklore: Dancing for the Devil

When Icelanders speak of something that seems to be merrily heading obliviously towards disaster they sometimes use the word “Hrunadans”, which literally means “the dance at Hruni”. I think there is hardly a word or combination of words that better describes the years leading up to the economic collapse of 2008. Here is the story behind the idiom:

Once upon a time there was a priest who served the Hruni parish in Árnessýsla. He loved all kinds of entertainment and parties, and it was his habit when the people had assembled in the church for the Christmas midnight mass, not to say the mass right away but to make merry with dancing, drinking, gambling and other frivolous kinds of fun for the first part of the night. His elderly mother, who was named Una, very much objected to her son’s behaviour and had often tried to reason with him and show him the error of his ways. But he persisted in having his fun and continued it for many years until the following event:

One Christmas night the entertainments lasted longer than usual. Una, who was psychic and sometimes had premonitions about the future, went to the church and asked him to stop the merry-making and say the mass. But the priest said to her: “There is still time for a little more fun, mother dear.” 

With that Una returned to the house, but returned a while later and asked him to remember God and stop the merry-making before it would end in disaster. Again he answered that there was still time for making merry, and again when she came for the third time. But as Una walked  towards the church door for the third time, she heard a voice say the following words, which she memorised:

“Loud is the noise in Hruni,
The people all hasten there,
Then they shall dance so merrily,
That all will remember.
Still there is Una,
And yet there is Una.”

When Una left the church, she saw a strange man outside the door and did not like to look of him. She was frightened of him and convinced that this was the Devil himself, come to make trouble, so she got on her son’s horse and rode like the wind to the nearest parish and met the priest there, begging him to ride back with her to prevent the impending disaster and save her son from danger. The priest went with her right away, taking with him many men, since his  congregation had not yet left after the midnight mass. But when they arrived at Hruni, they saw that the church and the churchyard had sunk into the ground with all the people in it, but loud screeching and wailing could be heard from the hole. 

There are still signs that a building stood on top of Hruni hill, from which Hruni farm and the church draw their name. But after this event a new church was built in the lee of the hill, where it has stood to this day. But there was never again any dancing in Hruni church 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.

Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie

Genre: Romance, paranormal thriller
Year of publication: 2010
Setting & time: Ohio, USA, 1992

Andie Miller is trying to tie up some loose ends in her life before accepting her boyfriend's proposal of marriage, but when she goes to see her ex-husband, North Archer, to return to him 10 years worth of uncashed alimony checks, he surprises her by offering her a hefty sum of money to go and look after his wards, two orphaned children, in an isolated house for a month. The children seem afraid to leave the house and the last nanny who went to look after them fled, claiming it was haunted.

Andie immediately clashes with the creepy housekeeper and discovers that there are indeed ghosts in the house. When various people, including North, a ratings-hungry TV reporter, a sceptical parapsychologist and a psychic, descend on the house with different purposes in mind, the ghosts get restless, and it is going to take more than just a séance to put things to rights.

This is not the best Crusie novel I have read, but it is not the worst either. As always, the writing is solid and skilful, but for some reason I was unable to connect with either North or Andie. North is not as well fleshed out as he should be - his cardboard content is a bit too high for my taste - and Andie is just a slightly better tempered, more stable version of Cranky Agnes from Agnes and the Hitman. The attractively ugly animals were getting a bit tired, so it was a joy to see them left out entirely. The ghosts are well-done and the story is full of the usual twists and turns and it gets truly spooky towards the end. This is a well written and interesting modern take on The Turn of the Screw, but for the reasons stated above I can only give it 3 stars.

04 November 2010

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

Year of publication: 2004
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Dr. Siri Paiboun
Type of investigator: Coroner/doctor
Genre: Historical mystery
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: The Lao People’s Democratic Republic; 1976

At age 72 and after a long service to the communist cause, Dr. Siri Paiboun had been looking forward to a nice retirement, but the newly installed authorities had other ideas and appointed him as the state coroner. With no experience of the work he is expected to do, no interest in the job and limited equipment, he tries to make the best of things, but it isn’t until a comrade’s wife dies mysteriously and the bodies of three dead Vietnamese soldiers turn up in a lake that things start to get interesting.

I think I have a new favourite detective. Dr. Siri is deliciously grumpy and sarcastic, but he also has the good detective’s curiosity and willingness to find out the truth no matter what, and combined with his healthy disrespect for authority this makes him a delightful character. The other characters are well-drawn as well, the book is funny and gruesome by turns, the descriptions of the Lao people and the country interesting and colourful,  and the supernatural elements add spicy note to the mix. It’s going on my keeper shelves. 4 stars.

03 November 2010

Progress report for October and tentative reading plan for November

Of the named books I planned to read in October, I finished We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett. Additionally, I read the planned-for 5 TBR books, plus one more, and one of the new books I mentioned last month: Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie.

I made a bit of headway with Simon Winchester‘s Calcutta , but didn‘t open a single Harry Potter book, which may be blamed on my brother who moved out of my spare bedroom and into his own space at the beginning of the month, taking the books with him. I‘ll need to visit him soon and see if he has unpacked them yet so I can borrow the next book and continue with Project Potter.

I decided to add a new reading challenge: to review one Icelandic book that has been translated into English and German, per month until the 2011 book fair in Frankfurt, starting in November. For this challenge, I may finally tackle Halldór Laxness‘ masterpiece, Independent People, either in November or later in the challenge, or I may start with something a little more contemporary.

In November I again plan to read at least 5 TBR books, of which one will be my next Chunkster challenge read: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I also plan to read at least two Top Mysteries Challenge books, of which A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin may be one and Innocent Blood by P.D. James another. I borrowed both from the library, and also a one-volume copy of Flora Thompson‘s Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy, which was highly recommended to me by a number of people after I told them I liked Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. I would like to finish at least the first book in November, possibly all of them.

I also borrowed Twilight from the library. I try to keep an open mind when I comes to choosing books to read and this novel has received so much praise and been the target of so much abuse that I decided I had to see for myself.

02 November 2010

Reading report for October 2010

I finished 15 books in October. 1 was a Chunkster Challenge read, 3 were Top Mystery Challenge reads, 3 were rereads, 6 were TBR challenge books, and 3 were neither rereads nor challenge reads.
8 of the books I read in October were mysteries or crime stories, which is a lot, even for such an avid fan of detective stories as myself.

One of the books I didn't review has such a strange title that I must mention it here: Do Ants Have Arseholes? and 101 other bloody ridiculous questions from the popular 'Corrections and Clarfications' [sic] page of Old Git magazine. This is, as astute readers may have guessed, a parody of popular trivia books like  Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? and Do Polar Bears get Lonely?. As such, it is pretty good, giving irreverent and completely fictitious (and often funny) answers to what are mostly perfectly legitimate questions.

Catherine Aird : The Complete Steel - mystery, police procedural
Margery Allingham : The Tiger in the Smoke - mystery, detective story
Jon Butler & Bruno Vincent : Do Ants Have Arseholes? - parody
Agatha Christie : One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - mystery, detective story
Susanna Clarke : Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - fantasy, alternative reality
Colin Cotterill : The Coroner's Lunch - mystery, detective story (review upcoming)
Jennifer Crusie : Maybe This Time - paranormal romance (review upcoming)
Christopher Dolley, ed. : The Penguin Book of English Short Stories - short stories
Shirley Jackson : We Have Always Lived in the Castle - psycho-gothic suspense
Elmore Leonard : Stick - caper story
Edward Marielle, ed.: The Penguin Book of French Short Stories - short stories
Dorothy L. Sayers : Clouds of Witness - mystery, detective story

The rereads:
Georgette Heyer : These Old Shades - historical romance
Terry Pratchett : Men at Work and Feet of Clay - fantasy, mystery, detective stories