30 June 2010

New name for the blog

I decided it was time to change the name of this blog to something more representative of what it's about. I haven't done a 52 books challenge for several years so the 52 books title was outdated.

As you can see, I changed the look of it as well. I finally found a bookish design I liked that didn't require me to stop using the gadgets. I may play around with it a bit in the following days, adjusting colour schemes and background images and so on.

Please let me know if you find it difficult to read because of the colours, and any other comments you have about the new look.

P.S. Maxine, I didn't reject your comment, it disappeared when I edited the post...

29 June 2010

Short stories 166-170

Now I have started reading the Italian chapter. The first story of the chapter that is long enough to fit the reading challenge is one I have read before, but I want to recommend it anyway, as it is fine example of a short story: “The Falcon” from The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. (different translation)

“Galgano” by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. Originally from Il Pecorone. A romantic tale about a lovesick swain and his cruel (and married) lady-love. A nice change from the bawdy tales which were so popular at the time.

The Two Ambassadors” (to read, scroll down to NOVELLA XXXI) by Franco Sacchetti. Originally from the Novelliero. A short, funny moral tale. Recommended. (different translation)

“The Cavalier of Toledo” by Masuccio Salernitano. Originally from Il Novellino. Another romantic tale, in which the lovers are separated by differences in social status. Nicely told.

Belphagor” by Niccolo Macchiavelli. A well-known theme from both oral and written literature about making a deal with a demon and then getting out of it by trickery. Rather misogynistic but well written with a nice twist. (same translation)

“A King in Disguise” by Matteo Bandello. Originally from the Novelle. An exemplary tale about a lucky man who meets his king in disguise and aids him in his distress and is rewarded for his kindness.

28 June 2010

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I went on a reading spree over the weekend and finished three books, all of which I started and read from cover to cover with only short breaks. One was the Katie MacAlister book I quoted from in the previous post, which turned out to be good, mindless fun, full of steamy sex, violence and hot vampires, and another was a Regency romance by Loretta Chase, Viscount Vagabond, which I enjoyed despite, or perhaps because of, the improbable plot. The last was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society , which makes it 7 books I have finished in the Bibliophilic Book challenge. Not only is it about a book club, but each member of the club has his or her favourite book or author, which they frequently mention.

Year published: 2008
Genre: Novel, epistolatory
Setting & time: London and Guernsey, Britain, 1946

Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, Dawsey Adams, telling her about a book he owns that was once in her possession and sparking her curiosity with a mention of the strangely named book club the book draws its title from. This is the beginning of a series of letters between Juliet and the members of the book club that, little by little, reveal details of the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II, and especially that of one very special young woman. Juliet ends up visiting her friends in Guernsey, which changes several of their lives forever.

I was ready to hate The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because I have a suspicion of books with long and/or cutesy titles. I freely admit that it’s a completely irrational suspicion, because they have sometimes turned out to be fine reads despite the poor choice of title, which doesn’t stop me from deploring someone’s title choices (e.g. Sex, Lies, and Vampires).

However, in this case it could have been worse. The choice of title could have followed directly in the footsteps of all those annoying “book club” titles that sprouted like mushrooms in the wake of The Jane Austen Book Club, like The Book Club (three that I know of), The Used Women's Book Club, The Romance Readers' Book Club, The Bronxville Book Club, The Mother-Daughter Book Club and even No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club (which I own and intend to read despite the cringingly bad title).

The reason I decided to read it (despite the title) was that several members of my online book group loved this book, and since I have learned to trust their judgment, I picked it up and took it home with me from the library on Friday. I did not regret my decision.

This is a delightful little gem of an epistolatory novel. The letters, going between a number of people but with Juliet Ashton as the central character, gradually tell two stories, one about the occupation of Guernsey and one about Juliet and the book club members. These people are a delightfully mixed bag of characters who originally got together for a secret dinner during the German occupation and ended up forming a book-club and forging lasting friendships through it. The ending is a little too inevitable and cute for my taste, but other than that, I enjoyed it. 3+ stars.

27 June 2010

Now reading: Sex, Lies, and Vampires by Katie MacAlister

Here is the opening line:

I blinked in surprise at the completely unexpected question. "I beg your pardon?"

"Imps? You are imp removals,
ja?" The woman who had answered the buzzer connected to an expensive cream-colored stone building didn't look insane, but how many people meet you at the door by asking if you were there to remove imps?

On it goes from there, a wacky, funny, sexy urban fantasy adventure that sometimes reads more like a parody of the genre.

26 June 2010

Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda (Global Reading Challenge)

Here is my African entry in the Global Reading Challenge, which marks the halfway point in the challenge for me. The author is South-African and the book takes place during the period of transition in the 1990s when Apartheid ended. I am not knowledgeable enough about the recent history of South Africa to be able to tell if it happens after or shortly before the racial segregation ended, but I am inclined to think it’s before.
Although this is a first novel, it was not written by a novice writer – the author had already published poetry and several award-winning plays when he wrote it.

Year published: 1995
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: South Africa, an unnamed city and a village, 1990s with flashbacks to the 1970s and 80s.

Toloki, a homeless man living on the street, has carved out a niche for himself as a professional mourner. Paid by relatives of the deceased, he goes to funerals and grieves for the dead. One day at a funeral he meets Noria, a woman from his home village, which he had left about 2 decades earlier. He has good reason to avoid her, but feels drawn to her and she to him, and as their stories unfold we see how people’s lives can turn out in the strangest ways, how people can change over time and the power of forgiveness.

We are also given a glimpse into the life of people living in an illegal settlement, with the threat of both official bulldozers and an invasion by an illegal militia hanging over their heads, and the casual violence of life in the shantytowns of South Africa. All around is death and the many ways in which it strikes, natural and unnatural, of children, women and men, old and young. Toloki mourns for them for a living, so in a way the story is as much about ways of living as it is of dying.

This is a beautifully written novel about two people living on the edge of great events and making a living as best they can. Both have been broken, in one way or another, but have picked themselves up and started over, and are determined to live their lives on their own terms despite the poverty and violence that surrounds them. Finding each other after a separation of many years begins a process of healing and coming to terms with past events for them both. The characters are well fleshed out, realistic and for the most part likeable and the story, while a simple one, is very readable.

What stands out most is the beauty of the language. It’s like listening to a unified group of storytellers , which is no wonder as the narrator is the collective voice of the community, composed of many voices speaking as one and falling into the rhythm of the traditional storyteller.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Mda’s novels and would quite like to watch one or more of his plays. 5 stars.

Awards: The M-Net Book Prize; The Olive Schreiner Prize for prose.

25 June 2010

Friday night folklore: Water to wine

Last Friday I posted a tale of how Öxará got its name. Here is another folk tale about the same river:

It was believed that the water in the river Öxará would turn to wine for one hour every year.

Once upon a time two priests were up and awake in Þingvellir on New Year’s Eve. One was a young man who was writing a sermon for the New Year’s Day mass, and the other was an old man who was keeping his colleague company.

Around midnight the young priest had become very thirsty and so he went out with a bottle which he filled with water from the river. But when he came back to his lodgings, he noticed that the water was wine-coloured. Upon tasting it, he found that it was indeed wine, and of good quality too. Both priests had a drink from the bottle and then put it on the windowsill and went on with their work.

A short time later they took the bottle, intending to enjoy the wine that was left in the bottle, but all they found was pure and clear water. This greatly surprised them, and was the basis of many discussions between them. The younger priest decided to see what the water in the river would be like on the following New Year’s Eve.

Time passed, and finally it was New Year’s Eve again. Both priests were up and about and around midnight the young priest took a bottle to the river and filled it with water. When he got back home it seemed to him that the water was blood-coloured.

He took a sip and tasted blood. He then put away the bottle for a while, but when he looked at it again there was only water in it.

Again the priests found much to discuss in this, and were unable to account for the change from water to wine to water to blood and back to water.

But there was a belief that the river would turn to blood instead of wine when a great many men would be killed during the assembly. The story goes that this was the case in the following spring, when a battle was fought with a large number of casualties.


New years Eve and Midsummer Night's Eve are traditionally times of unusual goings-on such as are related in the above tale.

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 June 2010

Short stories 161-165

The Last Lesson” by Alphonse Daudet. A symbolic, emotional tale. A little too saccharine for my taste, but well told and was, at the time of writing, undoubtedly effective for stirring up national pride and keeping alive the anger over a certain historical event. (This seems to be the same translation as the one I read).

The Fairy Amoureuse” by Emile Zola. Originally from Tales for Nanon. A Romantic transformation tale that would, in a simpler form, be at home in the Metamorphoses. A nice read, well written but a bit too treacly for my taste. (This seems to be the same translation as the one I read).

The Substitute” by François Coppée. A tale of self-sacrifice, well written but clichéd to a modern palate.

“Our Lady’s Juggler” by Anatole France. Originally from L’Etui de nacre. A beautifully told miracle tale about the power of faith. (Same translation).

The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. An excellent moral tale with a twist, beautifully written and does not try to stuff the moral down one's throat. Recommended. (Same translation - link is to a .pdf file).

Here ends the chapter of French stories.

21 June 2010

Et tu, Georgette!

Tsk, tsk! Blue eyes on page 87 and brown on page 125?

I had expected better from someone of your exactness in all matters historically correct. For that matter, I would have expected better proof-reading.

Please, someone tell me that this was not Heyer's mistake, but a dreadful proofing error and that it's one colour or the other all the way through the first edition.

Now reading: Faro's Daughter by Georgette Heyer

Rich, proud and respectable Mr. Ravenscar pays a visit to his aunt and finds her distraught over her son's plans to marry Miss Grantham, a young woman who works in a gaming-house (an illegal casino), a most disreputable profession for a woman at the time, just above the level of actress or courtesan. He goes to the gaming-house to check out the young woman and assess how much she will have to paid to make sure she doesn't marry his cousin. Of course, things aren't really that simple.

Like all Heyer's novels, this one promises to be full of quotable stuff, both conversations and descriptions, but I will stick to two (at least to begin with).

I am only on chapter three, and already I have found several echoes of Jane Austen. It certainly looks like the interchanges between Miss Grantham and Lord Ravenscar are going to be of the Darcy/Elizabeth type. Here is part of one - see if you recognise the Austen scene it echoes and reverses:

'Oh, I have been familiar with gaming-houses from my childhood up! I can tell a Greek, or a Captain Sharp, within ten minutes of his entering the room; I could play the groom-porter for you, or deal for a faro-bank; I can detect a bale of flat cinque deuces as quickly as you could yourself; and the man who can fuzz the cards when I am at the table don't exist.'

'You astonish me, Miss Grantham. You are indeed accomplished!'

'No,' she said seriously. 'It's my business to know these things. I have no accomplishments. I do not sing, or play upon the piànoforte, or paint in water-colours.
Those are accomplishments.'

This particular conversation ends in a duel fought at the card table, and I expect there will be a number of duels between them later on, ones fought with words.

Later on, Ravenscar shows that he can be both dangerous and ruthless, as he warns a man against fighting a duel of pistols or swords with his young cousin:

'Let me make myself plan, Ormskirk! You might have my cousin whipped with my good will, if that would serve either of your ends, but when you call him out you will have run your course! There are no lengths to which I will not go to bring you to utter ruin. Believe me, for I was never more serious in my life.'

I enjoy trying to figure out when historical novels take place, as often a year or even a century is not given but only alluded to, e.g. with the mention of historical figures or events. In this case I have narrowed it down to some time in the last 5 years of the 18th century, judging from the mention of a tax on hair powder, which was first levied in 1795 and had become obsolete by 1800 when wigs had gone out of fashion. This places the story era rather earlier than most of Heyer's other historicals, her favourite era having been the Regency.

20 June 2010

Just finished: Wash this blood clean from my hand by Fred Vargas


Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?
William Shakespeare: Macbeth Act II, Scene ii.

Short summary:
A chance sighting of a newspaper article sets Commissaire Adamsberg off on a chase for a serial killer he had given up trying to catch years before, but he ends up as a fugitive himself.

Teasers from the book:

'I did get into the FBI archives once, just for fun,' she admitted shyly.
'No need to looks so shy, Josette. It's no sin to do good for other folks.'
Adamsberg looked in even greater astonishment at this frail old woman, one-third society lady, one-third shy little creature, and one-third seasoned hacker.


Adamsberg speaking:

'These last few days, my life has been in the hands of magical women. They've been tossing me from one to another, and every time they save me from falling into the abyss.'

18 June 2010

Jóra in Jórukleif

There once was a girl named Jórunn, a farmer’s daughter from the south of Iceland. She was young and had a promising life ahead of her, but was considered rather temperamental. She kept house for her father.

One day a horse-fight was held a short distance from the farm. One of the fight-horses belonged to Jóra’s father and was a great favourite of hers. She and other women were present at the fight, but when it progressed, Jórunn saw that her father’s horse was beginning to falter. She became very upset and angry and finally went totally berserk, ran into the fray and tore the hind leg off the other horse.

She then ran, so fast that none could catch her, with the leg in her hands, until she came to where the Ölfusá river fell in a waterfall over some cliffs. There she tore a huge rock from the cliffs and threw it into the middle of the river where the waterfall was, and then used it as as a stepping-stone to cross the river. Since then the place of her crossing is called “The Troll Woman’s Leap” or Tröllkonuhlaup in Icelandic (interestingly, the link gives a different account of how the stepping stone came to be).

She then continued on her way, in the direction of Þingvellir, until she reached the mountain called Hengill, where she settled in a cave that came to be known as Jóra’s Cave (Jóruhellir), Jóra being the name she was called by after becoming a troll. She was the worst kind of monster and would kill both men and beasts.

It was Jóra’s habit to climb a mountain top in the mountain range and sit there for hours on end. It has since been known as Jóra’s Saddle (Jórusöðull). It is not far from her favourite lookout spot, from where she had a good view over the road that passed nearby. From there she would run down to the road to rob or kill travellers for her food. After becoming a man-eater he turned into such a horrible monster that she laid waste to all the nearby farms and people stopped using the road. Attempts were made to hunt her down and kill her, but to no avail.

Just as it seemed that there was no way of killing this monster, a young man from Iceland travelled to Norway to spend the winter there. He went to see the king and told him of this monster and the trouble she had caused and asked him for advice on how to kill the troll.

The king advised him to go to Jóra at sunrise on Whitsun morning, because
“there is no monster so evil nor a troll so strong that it will not sleep then,” said the king.
“You will find Jóra asleep, face down. Here is an axe I want to give you,” said the king and handed the young man an axe decorated with silver.
“Hit her with this axe between the shoulder-blades. When she feels the pain she will turn around and say: ‘Hands, stick to the shaft.’ To which you should reply: ‘Shaft, release the axe-head.’ Both of these things will happen. Jóra will then roll into the nearby lake, with the axe-head stuck between her shoulder-blades. The axe-head will later be found in a river that will be named for it, and that place will become the site of Iceland’s general assembly.”

Thus spoke the king. The young man thanked him for the advise and the gift of the axe, and returned to Iceland in the spring. There he followed to the letter the king’s advice and killed Jóra. The axe-head was found on the bank of the river that has since borne it’s name: Öxará.

The banks of the river became the site of Iceland’s general assembly, so the whole of the king’s prophesy came true.


  • Jóra is pronounced Yora.
  • The meaning of the name Þingvellir comes from “þing” = “assembly, gathering, parliament” and “vellir” = “large areas of smooth level ground”. It was the site of the Icelandic general assembly from settlement times until the 18th century.
  • I have left out most of the locations except the ones that matter for the telling of the story.

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.

17 June 2010

Just finished

Exit the Milkman by Charlotte MacLeod.

I love MacLeod’s turn of phrase. Here are a couple of examples:

Three minutes later she was fast asleep and didn’t wake up until the barnyard Pavarotti that belonged to the farm down the road let loose with a midday cock-a-doodle-doo that might perhaps have awakened the dead in the old town burying ground if he’d tried just a little bit harder.

Jim was eyeing those four pot roast sandwiches much as Romeo might have ogled Juliet before they’d been properly introduced. Which, come to think of it, they never were.

While I enjoyed the language and the storytelling style, the ending was not to my taste, as it combines two endings that I really, really hate. My regular readers will know about at least one of them and enough to suspect what the other is.

P.S. To any Icelanders and Icelandophiles out there: Happy National Day!

16 June 2010

Short stories 156-160

“Lausus and Lydia” by J.F. Marmontel. At attempt at a thrilling story of romance and antiquity. Well-written (or translated). Pity it’s also a piece of melodramatic drivel.

The Mysterious Mansion” by Honoré de Balzac. A very atmospheric and well told little horror story using a trope that readers of Poe will be familiar with.

Mateo Falcone” by Prosper Mérimée . An excellent and expertly told story about honour and revenge. Recommended.
(This appears to be the same translation as the one I read). Ages ago, a simplified version of this story was set reading for my last semester of French, but we never got further than the first few pages.

The Mummy’s Foot” by Théophile Gaultier. A beautifully told romantic narrative that proves that just because it features a mummy, a story does not have to be one of horror to be interesting. Reminded me of some stories I have read by Lord Dunsany. Recommended.
(Translated by Lafcadio Hearn - link is to the same translation).

The Torture of Hope” by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A fine horror story very much in the Poe spirit. Recommended. (Different translation).

15 June 2010

Now reading: Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda

Here, the narrators introduce themselves:

It's not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people's closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, 'They say it once happened ...,' we are the 'they'. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.

Toloki and Noria are the protagonists of the story.

14 June 2010

The Sanctuary Sparrow by Ellis Peters

Year of publication: 1983
Series and no.: Brother Cadfael, # 7
Genre: Historical mystery
Type of mystery: Robbery and murder
Type of investigator: Monk
Setting & time: Shrewsbury, England, 12th century

A young travelling jongleur and entertainer is hunted down by an angry lynch mob bent on administering justice after a goldsmith is attacked and - they think - murdered on the night of his son's wedding. He manages to reach the sanctuary of the abbey church and when questioned, adamantly denies having had anything to do with the robbery. The goldsmith has survived the attack, but a robbery of that magnitude is punishable by death, so the young man is no better off. Cadfael's impression is that he is innocent, and that indefatigable sleuth sets off to investigate the crime. As always, love rears it's shining head, and the mystery seems impenetrably tangled.

This is the best of the Cadfael books I have read so far. It not only has Peters' characteristic comfortable narrative style, excellent characterisations and good writing, but also a tight, flawless puzzle plot and a masterful treatment of universal themes that come together to create a near-perfect mystery. The whole book is not only a story of a crime investigation, but a treatment of how greed and parsimony can saturate not only the ones suffering from it, but also infect and/or destroy those around them. Is also about different types of love: love of material wealth stronger than that of one's family, love of self, sacrificing love, obsessive love, redeeming love. 5 stars.

13 June 2010

Dear Guillermo Martínez:

Were you aware, when you wrote Crímenes imperceptibles, that British police officers - even detectives - only carry firearms under very special circumstances, and that those circumstances do not include surveillance or off-duty tasks like going to concerts with their family?

Didn't think so.

Other than that little error, I really liked the book.

12 June 2010

Now reading: Veins of Ice by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Since this book has yet to be published in English, I have no way of confirming if Veins of Ice is the title it will be published under, but I found it on a reliable site on Icelandic literature. The Icelandic title is Auðnin (The Wasteland).

Here is a little teaser for the book, translated by myself:

They walked out of the shop, but Þóra stopped suddenly in the doorway when a familiar voice was heard from the direction of the security gate.
"If I can take one lighter aboard, why can't I take two?" thundered Bella. "What can I possibly do with two lighters that I can't do with one?"
Þóra turned back into the shop and headed in the direction of the strong liquor shelves.

Those who have read the previous books in the series will know that Bella is Þóra's secretary and the bane of her existence: a rude, crude young woman foisted upon her and her law partner by their landlord. In this scene, taken from early in the book, Þóra and Matthew are heading to Greenland on business and a very hung-up Þóra has just learned that Bella is going with them.

11 June 2010

Friday night folklore: The ghost's greeting

Iceland was unlit by street-lights longer than most other countries in Europe, and with the long winter nights, with more than 20 hours of cold, wintry darkness in December and the nearest farm often far away, it's no wonder that Icelandic folklore is rich in ghost stories.

We even have several different types of ghosts:
  • a svipur is the apparition of a person that will simply be seen but not heard or felt in any other way, often only once, and sometimes they are seen - usually by a loved one far away - before they are dead or at the moment of death;
  • a vofa is another harmless but more horrible kind, seen and heard but not felt;
  • a draugur can be benevolent, tricky or evil (or all three, depending on its mood) and is able, when fresh, to harm or kill;
  • an uppvakningur is a ghost deliberately raised, often for a specific purpose;
  • a sending is the worst of all: an uppvakningur awakened, sometimes after being deliberately murdered for the purpose, to be sent to harm someone;
  • a fylgja is a sending or uppvakningur that has become a family ghost; they will follow members of the same family for generations until their are either exorcised or they fade away.
Draugur is also a collective term used for all but the first of these ghosts. In modern times uppvakningur is used as a translation for the word zombie.

And now for the story of the ghost's greeting:

A man was walking down by the sea late at night. A ghost approached him, soaking wet and dripping sea-water, and forced him into the sea, where he waded along the shore-line. The man realised that the ghost was trying to drown him, and that he would have to take action to save his life, so he tried to stab the ghost with the iron tip of his walking stick. This was enough to make the ghost move off a bit so that the man was able to get onto the beach, and the ghost disappeared.

The man had not walked far when he met another man. He took off his hat and called out a greeting, intending to ask for directions, as he had become lost. But the other man returned the greeting by taking of not only his hat, but also his head. The walker then swung his walking stick between the head and the body, confusing the ghost so that it couldn't put the head back on and started turning around in in circles on the spot. The walker now saw where he was and was able to get home safely.

  • It is believed that when not only ghosts but also warlocks, seem to take off their head, they can not put it back on if something is passed over the neck.
  • Ghosts, as well as warlocks, trolls and the hidden people, have the ability to make people lose all sense of direction and think they are lost.
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.

10 June 2010

Short stories 151-155

“A New-Year’s Eve Confession” by Hermann Sudermann. A nostalgic little story with a twist in the tail. Recommended.

Here end the German, Austrian and Swiss authors and the French begin.

“The Divided Horsecloth” by Bernier. A prose translation of a verse original. A very old tale beautifully told. Makes me wish I could read Medieval French so I could see if the original matches the translation in eloquence.

The Lay of the Two Lovers” by Marie de France. A fairy tale about star-crossed lovers.

“The Pious Lady and the Gray Friar” by Marguerite de Navarre. Originally from The Heptameron. Another politely bawdy tale by Navarre that would not have been out of place in The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales.

“Memnon the Philosopher, or Human Wisdom” by Voltaire. A humorous tale of human folly. Recommended.

09 June 2010

Top mysteries challenge: Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Year of publication: 1942
Series and no.: Detective Inspector Mallett #4
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Threats, murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 1939-1940

A slightly drunk High Court judge hits a man with his car and thus starts a series of events that end in murder.

As a mystery this story should satisfy any reader who enjoys legal mysteries. It is full of twists and red herrings and it's a challenge to keep up with the detective.

The character descriptions and development are skilful and the interactions between the characters are complex enough to satisfy anyone’s demands for realism. There is a subtle, slightly mocking tone running through the whole narrative, so that one is constantly on the alert for a punch-line to crop up, but it never does.

The writing is polished and knowing that Hare was personally acquainted with the legal environment the story depicts, having been a barrister and worked as a judge's marshal on the circuit court, one knows that the descriptions of the legal proceedings and the points of law important for the plot must be accurate.

So far, so good, but the text could have done with some paring down. It is never a good sign when I start yearning for a book to be finished for reasons other than wanting desperately to know how it ends, and in this case it was a matter of wordiness and repetition that grated on my reading nerves and made me wish I was finished reading the book. For that reason I can only give it 3+ stars, and not the 4+ I might have given it had it been more streamlined.

Books left in challenge: 81

Place on the list(s): CWA #85
Awards and nominations: None I am aware of

08 June 2010

Short stories 146-150

“Eulenspiegel and the Merchant” by Anonymous . Originally from Eulenspiegel, the Merry Jester. A tale in which the prankster Eulenspiegel does literally everything he is told, and teaches (hopefully) a rich man a lesson. For those unfamiliar with Eulenspiegel, he is a character of central-European folklore, a trickster and joker who lives by his wits and exposes people’s vices and hypocrisy. Read more.

“The Story of Serapion” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Originally from The Serapion Brethren. A rather dull philosophical tale.

“A Legend of the Dance” by Gottfried Keller. Originally from Seven Legends. A saccharine little tale about one of those intolerably good girls who go to Heaven through martyrdom, which then turns into a strange muddled-up mixture of elements from Christian and Greco-Roman mythology.

“The Fury” (L’Arrabbiata) by Paul Heise. A rather good romantic story about learning to let go of your fears. Recommended.

“The Triple Warning” by Arthur Schnitzler. Originally from Masks and Miracles. About the cruelty of fate. Rather overdramatic, but has a nice mythological feel to it.

04 June 2010

Friday night folklore: Búkolla

The Icelandic word for a fairy tale literally means an adventure, which is of course just what they are. It is from these kinds of stories, along with myths and legends, that the modern fantasy genre has sprung, and they are no less imaginative than their literary offspring, albeit usually shorter.

There are some explanatory notes after the story, but first here is one you need to know before reading it:
The life-egg is a common theme in Iceland fairy tales. The life-power of monsters, especially trolls and giants, is stored in eggs, and if a monster‘s life-egg is broken (often on the monster‘s face or forehead), the monster will die.

Once upon a time there was a farmer and his wife. They lived on a tiny farm with their three daughters, Sigrid, Signy and Helga. They loved Sigrid and Signy, but cared nothing for Helga, who had to make her bed in the ash-pile. They were poor and the only livestock they owned was one cow. It gave a great deal of milk and was their most prized possession.

One day the cow disappeared and no-one knew where it had gone to. The farmer and his wife decided to send their daughter Sigrid to find the cow. The fitted her out with some food and new shoes and sent her off. She walked long and far and finally topped on a hillock, where she ate her breakfast. Then she called out:

"Give a moo, dear Búkolla, so I can find you!" But there was no moo, and so she walked on until she came to a second hillock, where she stopped to eat her lunch. Then she stood and called out loudly:
"Give a moo, dear Búkolla, so I can find you!" But no moo came back. She walked farther on, until she came to a third hillock, where she sat down to eat her supper. Then she got up and called out, as loud as she could:
"GIVE A MOO, DEAR BÚKOLLA, SO I CAN FIND YOU!" And then finally she heard a faint answering moo from far up in the mountains.

She walked towards the sound and climbed the mountain until she came to the mouth of a cave. This she entered and saw an open fire, a cauldron of meat cooking over the fire and bread baking in the embers. Búkolla was tethered with iron chains in a stall nearby. Sigrid took a piece of meat from the cauldron and ate it and then tried to untie the cow, but was unable to, so she sat down by the cow and soothed the animal by stroking its neck.

Shortly thereafter the earth began to tremble and shake and in came a terrible she-troll who said:

"Here you are, Sigrid farmer‘s daughter; you shall not live long, for you have stolen from me." With that she grabbed the girl, broke her neck with one quick twist and threw the body into a deep crack in the cave floor.

Time passed and the farmer and his wife began to worry about Sigrid, and finally they decided she must be dead. So they sent off Signy to search for the cow. The story repeated itself in all details, right down to her murder by the she-troll.

Now Helga asked her parents if she could go and look for Búkolla. They didn‘t think she could do much, since her more favoured sisters were unable to finish the mission and were probably dead. But Helga persisted and was finally allowed to go. She only got shoes of dried fish-skin to wear and her food was leftovers: slimy fish skin, fins and tails and pot-scrapings.

She walked far and long until she came to a hillock. She then said:

"My sisters have eaten here, and here I shall also eat." After she had gnawed some of the leftovers she called out:

"Give a moo, dear Búkolla, so I can find you!" But there was no answer. The same thing happened at the second hillock.

Finally she came to the third hillock and yelled out:


Búkolla gave a moo, and Helga followed the sound, climbed the mountain and found the cave. She spotted the cauldron over the fire and noticed the bread. She turned the bread over and stoked the fire, but took nothing, and sat down by Búkolla. Shortly thereafter she heard a noise outside, the earth trembled and in came the she-troll, huge and threatening. She spoke to Helga:

"Here you are, Helga farmer‘s daughter; you shall live, for you have not stolen from me."

The night passed and in the morning the troll fed Helga, and before going out to the forest to hunt, she told her:
"Today you shall do some work for me: go and fetch me the brooch I had when I was living with my sister, the Queen of the Vales."
"Where shall I find it?" asked Helga.
"That you must discover for yourself," said the troll, "and if you haven‘t brought it to me by tonight, I will kill you."

The troll left and Helga sat down and cried in her helplessness. Then a man came to her, ugly to behold, dressed in a wrinkly skin tunic that reached his ankles in the front but only to the middle of his shoulder-blades in the back. He had a slimy length of snot running from his nose all the way town to his toes. He asked her why she was crying and she answered that it was no use telling him because he would not be able to help her.

"I know what troubles you," he said, "and if you agree to kiss me tonight, I will help you to find the brooch." She agreed, and asked him his name and he said it was Dordingull. He led her away from the cave until they came to a small house. By the door were a spade and a shovel. He turned to them and said:
"Spade cut and shovel scoop." The tools began working all by themselves, and finally they had dug down to the brooch. Dordingull picked it up and handed it to Helga and asked for his kiss, but she said she couldn‘t bring herself to kiss him. Then she went back to the cave and put the brooch in the troll‘s bed.

In the evening the troll came home and asked for the brooch.

"It is in your bed," said Helga.
"You have done a good job," said the troll, "but I believe you had help."

The next morning the troll said to Helga:

"The task I have for you today is to fetch a chess-set I have at the house of my sister, the Queen of the Vales. I have wanted it back for a long time but have been unable to recover it." Helga asked where she could find the Queen, but the troll told her she had to discover that for herself, "and if you don‘t bring back my chess-set by tonight, I will kill you."

The troll then departed and Helga sat down and cried. Then Dordingull came back and asked her what the matter was and told he would help her if she would promise to kiss him that night. She said she would gladly do so, and more if needs be.

They then started walking, until they saw a grand palace some distance away.
"In this palace," said Dordingull, "lives the Queen. Go there, and she will greet you gladly and give you the chess-set. She will serve you food. Do not eat any of it, but take three pieces and put them in your pocket, and thoroughly cross the table-settings in front of you when you sit at the table. When you depart, she will send three monsters after you. Throw one piece of the food you save to each of them."

Helga now went to the palace and was well received by the Queen, who told her she knew what her errand was. When the table was set for the meal, the Queen said:
"Stab her, fork; cut her, knife; and swallow her, tablecloth." But they answered:
"We cannot, for she has crossed us too well."

The Queen the table for a short while and Helga used the opportunity to put three pieces of meat in her pocket, but ate nothing. The Queen then handed her the chess-set, and she set off back to the cave.

She had walked some distance from the palace when three monsters came running after her, and she thought they must be sent to kill her. She remembered Dordingull‘s advice and took the pieces of meat and threw one to each monster. They each ate their piece and all fell down dead. Helga continued on her way and put the chess-set in the troll‘s bed. Again she could not bring herself to kiss Dordingull.

In the evening the troll came back and asked where the chess-set was. Helga pointed to the bed.
"Good work," said she, "but I suspect you did not do it alone."

The following morning the troll told Helga to "cook my meal, make my bed and empty my chamber-pot, and be done by tonight or else I will kill you." Helga replied that this should be easy work, but when the troll had left, it turned out that the bedclothes were stuck to the bed, the cauldron was stuck to the floor, and the chamber pot was stuck under the bed, and none could be moved. So again she sat down in the mouth of the cave and cried.

Then Dordingull came and offered his help in exchange for a kiss. Helga agreed, and Dordingull went inside, made the bed, emptied the chamber pot and set the meal to cook, all with no problem at all. He also put a cauldron full of boiling pitch under the bed and told Helga that the troll would fall into the cauldron when she sat on the bed, because she would be tired and slow after eating a big meal. He also told her that there was a life-egg under the pillow. This he told Helga to break on the troll‘s face when she fell into the cauldron, and to call his name if she needed help.

When the troll came home she told Helga she had done a good job and remarked that she could not have been acting alone. She then sat on the bed and tumbled straight into the cauldron. Helga broke the egg on the troll‘s face and called out to Dordingull, who was there in a flash. The troll died and they set her on the fire to burn her up. The ground shook greatly three times, scaring Helga who then finally gave Dordingull his three kisses. He told her that the Queen was now in her death throes, because the life-egg belonged to both sisters.

They slept together in the troll‘s bed during the night and in the morning Helga noticed that a handsome prince was in the bed with her and the skin of Dordingull was on the floor. She realised that Dordingull had been a prince under a spell, took the skin and threw it on the fire and splashed water on the prince‘s face to wake him up.

They removed everything valuable from the cave, including Búkolla the cow, and they also carried away with them all the great riches from the Queen‘s palace. They travelled to his father‘s kingdom, where they were wedded and became king and queen after the old king‘s death. They lived long and well and happily ever after, and so this story ends.

  • Búkolla is a common cow‘s name. „Bú“ means „farm“, and „kolla“ refers to a hornless cow.
  • Shoes in these days were made of dried skin and didn‘t last very long, so giving someone a new pair before a journey was doing them a great favour. Fish-skin shoes lasted even less time and were used only by the very poor. Travel distances were sometimes counted in the number of pairs of shoes a walker could expect to wear out on the journey.
  • Dordingull is a name for a small spider, and is apt for someone who abandons his old skin for a new one. It is also a play on words: replace the D with an H and you have Hordingull, which means „dangling snot“.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to use 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.

03 June 2010

Reading report for May 2010

I celebrated my 40th birthday in May, and it wasn’t until after the fact that I realised that it would have made a perfect excuse for a reading challenge – possibly 40 books written in the year of my birth – but I think I have enough challenges to juggle already ;-)

Of the 11 volumes I read in May, 4 were TBR challenge books, 3 were Bibliophilic Book Challenge books and 3 (or 21, if you count them as books and not as volumes) were non-challenge books. Two of the last three mentioned are omnibus editions, one of 15 previously separately published Edward Gorey short books and the other is a selection of 1001 drawings from 5 books by Icelandic artist Hugleikur Dagsson. Since I have hitherto counted books in omnibus editions as separate entities, I will continue to do so. This makes for an impressive number of books “read” in May (29), even if some 1225 pages of them were mostly drawings with very little text. However, I must say that some of Gorey’s detailed drawings demand as much attention and scrutiny as would go into reading a page or more of text.

In addition I gave up on The Sibyl in Her Grave. All those letters were getting tedious. I may return to it later.

That makes 29 books read this month, but in 11 volumes (i.e. physical books). 3 were rereads.

The first-time reads:
Michael Cunningham: The Hours
Edward Gorey: Amphigorey (The Unstrung Harp, The Listing Attic, The Doubtful Guest, The Object-lesson, The Bug Book, The Fatal Lozenge, The Haplesss Child, The Curious Sofa, The Sinking Spell, The Wuggly Ump, The Insect God, The West Wing, The Remembered Visit
Masha Hamilton: The Camel Bookmobile
Georgette Heyer: Devil's Cub
Hugleikur Dagsson: 1001 okkur
Stuart McLean: Welcome Home
Ellis Peters: The Virgin in the Ice and The Sanctuary Sparrow
Terry Pratchett: Making Money
Ann Waldron: The Princeton Murders

The Rereads:
Edward Gorey: Amphigorey (The Willowdale Handcar, The Gashlycrumb Tinies
Georgette Heyer: Venetia

Tentative reading plan for June:
Of the tentative reading plan for May, I finished four of the seven books I mentioned. I have fallen behind plan with the Top Mysteries Challenge, in which I would like to read at least 20 books in 2010, but I plan to make an effort to finish at least Our Man in Havana in June, and perhaps also Time and Again by Jack Finney, which I got on my last trip to the National Library.

At the National Library I also picked up two possible contenders for the South-American book in the Global Reading Challenge. One is the Icelandic translation of Crímenes imperceptibles (En: The Oxford Murders) by Argentine author Guillermo Martínez, and the other an English translation of Pantaleón y las visitadoras (En: Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. I plan to read both, but it will probably be Llosa’s novel that I review for the challenge, as it takes place in Peru while the Martínez novel takes place in England.

I also have two library books that could become my African reads for the same challenge, but to tell the truth neither is very tempting as they both look like they could turn out to be very bleak reads, full of literary value but short on entertainment. Maybe I’ll just go and try to get The Yakoubian Building for my African read.

Some months ago I enjoyed a Commissaire Adamsberg TV mini-series, and now I am reading the book, Wash this blood clean from my hand, which I also plan to finish in June. When the writing is this good, I really don’t mind reading it already knowing how it ends.

02 June 2010

Recently finished

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. A reread.

'Don't waste a thought on any of the eligible suitors you've found for me, dear ma'am! There is more of my mama in me than you have the least idea of, and the only eligible husband for me is a rake!'
Venetia, to her aunt, on the subject of suitable husbands

Now, in real life, marrying a rake would probably be a huge mistake, but in Romancelandia you know they're going to live happily ever after, so it's allowed to give a sigh of pleasure as you close the book and reach for the next one.