30 September 2010

A librarian I admire, but don't agree with

The Librarian was, of course, very much in favour of reading in general, but readers in particular got on his nerves. There was something, well, sacrilegious about the way they kept taking books off the shelves and wearing out the words by reading them. He liked people who loved and respected books, and the best way to do that, in the Librarian's opinion, was to leave them on the shelves where Nature intended them to be.
Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms.

29 September 2010

Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 1934
No. in series: 10
Series detective: Lord Peter Wimsey
Type of mystery: Murder, theft
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: The Fens, England; contemporary

An accident strands Wimsey and Bunter for several days in a small Fenland village on New Year’s Eve. Several months later, when an unidentified body is found in a grave originally dug just after the new year, the parson asks Wimsey to come and investigate, which he does with his usual insight and tenacity.

This is another excellent mystery by Sayers, a well-written and dense puzzle plot. The plot features something that can be either a plus or a minus point, namely a gimmick few people know much about, in this case change-ringing. The (thankfully short) passages on change-ringing read like Chinese to me, and probably to most people, but other than this is an easy read, too easy perhaps, because I figured out just about the whole plot development way ahead of Wimsey, all except the final twist, which I must admit came as a shock. Incidentally, the cause of death is not a plausible one, but in the context of the story it is makes complete sense .The non-mystery scenes during the flood are nothing short of brilliant and show the strength of Sayer’s literary talent. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 77
Place on the list(s): CWA 17; MWA 28
Awards: British Crime Writers Association - 1999 Rusty Dagger award for best crime novel of the 1930s

28 September 2010

Meme: Top ten favorite couples in literature

Funny how the brain works. Yesterday I completed a post on something else to post today, because I had only managed to think of 3 couples I liked enough to put on the list, but this morning I had a list of 12 ready in my head when I sat down at the computer, without having given it a conscious thought. Here is the originating post, and here are my 10 entries:

  • Elizabet Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The ultimate romantic couple.
  • Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, from Emma by Jane Austen. Great chemistry and a good example of friends falling in love.
  • Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier, from Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. This is more for what they could have had than for what they actually had, but they were perfect for each other.
  • Min Dobbs and Cal Morrissey from Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. For their fast, funny and furious repartee and undeniable chemistry.
  • Nina Askew and Alex Moore from Anyone But You by Jennifer Crusie. A perfect fit. And Fred makes three.
  • Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane from the books by Dorothy L. Sayers (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and onwards). Such a wonderful long courtship. She really made him jump through hoops.
  • Eve and Roarke from the In Death books by J.D. Robb. An interesting, sizzling relationship that keeps developing new angles.
  • “Cesario” and Olivia, from Twelfth Night, or What you will by William Shakespeare. Technically not a couple, but the chemistry was undeniable.
  • Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. The perfect hate-turns-to-love couple, and the dialogue is fantastic.
  • Jules Cassidy and Robin Chadwick from three Troubleshooters books by Suzanne Brockmann (Hot Target, Force of Nature, All Through the Night). The books are over-the-top thrillers and the romance is tense, since one half of the pair is still in the closet for most of the first two books, but you want them to get together from the moment they lay eyes on each other.

27 September 2010

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Originally published in October 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 33 in my first 52 books challenge.

Cover and illustrations by Edward Gorey
A lot of people are familiar with Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats only through the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. Many probably don’t even know these delightful verses existed long before Cats was composed. Ironically enough, the most famous song from the musical is not in the book: “Memory” was apparently based on some notes Eliot had written for more cat verses that were never published.

As far as I know, these verses were originally written for the children of some friends of Eliot’s. They are often dismissed as being trivial and simplistic, especially in comparison with the sombre verses of The Wasteland.

To tell the truth, I have never much liked The Wasteland, even if I did manage to get an ‘excellent’ for my smarmy essay about it in a modern literature class I took when studying for my B.A. degree in English. I much preferred The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.

But back to Old Possum and his Practical Cats. The poems are light, often insightful into natures both feline and human, and generally funny. They never fail to brighten up a dark day (and I did need brightening up today – my car tried to run away from home and I found it smooching with my neighbour’s car in the parking lot when I came home from work. I hope this is not going to be expensive).

Delightful cat verses that will hopefully continue to make children and grown-ups smile for generations to come. 5 stars.

26 September 2010

Top Mystery review: A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Alternative title: The Mask of Dimitrios
Genre: Thriller
Year of publication: 1939
Type of mystery: Murder, fraud, espionage
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, France, the years between the World Wars

Story: By chance, mystery writer Charles Latimer comes across information about a master criminal, Dimitrios, and decides, out of curiosity, to trace the man’s career.

Review: This is well-written and Dimitrios’s ‘career profile’ is realistic but it’s oh, so bloody boring and predictable that it took me 4 months to finish because I kept falling asleep reading it. I can only conclude that it made it onto these lists because it was undeniably ground-breaking in its time.

Rating: 2 stars
Books left in challenge: 78
Place on the list(s): CWA # 24; MWA # 17
Awards: Booker Prize, 1988

25 September 2010

Chunkster Challenge and Global Challenge Review: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Here is my first Chunkster Challenge read.

Genre: Historical novel
Year of publication: 1988
Setting & time: England and Australia, 1850s and 60s
Page count: 520

In 1865 an English Anglican minister and an Australian heiress, both of them gambling addicts, meet aboard a passenger ship to Australia and this meeting leads to a strange and fateful wager. But before coming to that point, we get to see how they became who they are and how each became addicted to gambling and all the little things that brought them together.

This is one of those long, juicy novels that a reader can immerse themselves in without feeling compelled to read it in a single sitting. There is nothing inherently thrilling in it (until towards the end when the wager is made), but the slowly unfolding story and wonderfully realistic characters Carey has created and stocked the book with provide an entertaining and juicy read. 4+ stars.

Awards: The Booker Prize, 1988.

24 September 2010

Friday Night Folklore: The Parsimonious Farmer

Once upon a time there was a farmer and his wife. They were well-off and had many children but only kept a few necessary farm hands. The farmer was a terrible skinflint and it was his habit to guard the food supplies and hand his wife whatever food he wanted cooked each day, which was always too little to satisfy anyone. Likewise all his other actions were designed to save money and conserve supplies. His wife was greatly wexed by this behaviour, but there was little she could do, as he held the keys to the larder.

Once the farmer decided to test his wife and see if she would follow his instructions to save and scrimp when he was not there. He told her that he had to go away on some business for two days and gave her instructions on how much food to use while he was gone. As soon as he was out of sight the good woman ordered the shepherd to bring the sheep home to the farm so she could choose the fattest animal for slaughter, to relieve the hunger pangs her husband’s cheeseparing had given everyone in the household. This was done and the sheep was cooked and everyone was able to fill his or her belly that night, their first solid meal in a long time.

When the meal was over and everything had been put back in its place there was a knock on the door. The good woman was surprised, as she was not expecting any visitors, but hesitantly answered the door. Outside stood her husband with a sullen look on his face, and she remarked that his business must have been been finished sooner than he expected. He gave her no answer but pushed past her and into the common room and started sniffing around and looking closely at everything, but could find nothing out of the ordinary until one of the youngest children walked past, holding a well-gnawed sheep’s rib-bone. The farmer snatched the rib from the child, examined it closely and asked: “Wherefrom did this rib come?”
The good woman said she did not know where the child ad found it, maybe under the bed or on the trash heap, but the farmer said that no, this rib had not been in the trash for long, in fact it was brand new. The woman said she knew nothing about this, and simply offered him some food. He ignored this offer and repeated: “But wherefrom did this rib come?”
The woman asked him to stop blathering on about the bone, it was worst for himself if he refused to eat, and he should go and rest now. But he was upset and no matter what she offered him, all he would say was: “Wherefrom did this rib come?”
But finally she was able to make him go to bed to get some sleep.

The next morning he did not get out of bed, but lay there for several days, moaning and groaning, before finally he died. The good woman sent messages to the minister, the judge and a few more of the more substantial farmers in the neighbourhood to tell them her husband was dead and to ask them to come visit her to make the funeral arrangements.

The shepherd took the messages and the men she had sent for arrived. She invited them into the common room and asked them to help her get her husband buried as soon as possible because the house was too small for her to keep the body there for long. She also asked them to plan the funeral and spare no expense so that her husband would get a proper burial and that she would pay them handsomely for all their troubles and reimburse their expenses to the fullest, because “thank the good Lord we have enough money to do so.” They promised her their full assistance and made arrangements to have a coffin built and the body put in it and taken to the church.

The burial service was performed, the minister made a speech and the coffin was taken to the grave.
When the coffin was in the grave the good woman walked to the open grave and said: “What the hell are you thinking man, to let yourself to buried alive?”
A faint answer came from the coffin: “Then wherefrom did the rib come?”
The coffin was then pulled up and opened and the armer given a restorative, because he was very weak. The minister and the other men then had a word with him and told him not to let his stinginess continue to make his own life as well as those of his loved ones miserable.

This adventure caused a change in the farmer for the better, and never again did he try to meddle with his wife’s duties or tell her how to portion out the food. They lived happily and prosperously after this, and to his second and real dying day the farmer never again enquired about the rib-bone.

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.

23 September 2010

A quotation for today

The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, sometimes one forgets which it is.

Sir James M. Barrie (1860–1937)

22 September 2010

List Love 1 (updated October 14, 2013)

Updated in August 2016, to show changed status of books. Books are shown in red.

I have a mania for lists, especially lists of books, films and travel destinations. I enjoy reading them and either agreeing or (sometimes violently) disagreeing with them. Sometimes I check these lists against my own lists, and sometimes I check myself against the lists:
How many of these books have I read or want to read?
How many of these films do I own on DVD?
How many of these travel destinations are on my bucket list?

While I don’t look at “best of”, “greatest” or “must see/do/read/watch” lists as absolutes, I do consider them to be indicators, if not of quality then at least of taste and popularity within certain demographic groups. I decided it would be an interesting feature for this blog to take a look at book lists and how they relate to myself: how many of the books I have read or want to read, how many I am not interested in reading, and so on. This looks set to be an endless task, because the lists keep accumulating and there is plently to choose from.

For someone who loves lists I am remarkably unorganised, so this is not going to be a regular feature, but I do plan to post a list with my statistics and possibly thoughts on it every now and then, and since I am suffering from a bad case of the travel bug right now but have very little money for travelling, I am starting with:

This is an aggregated list, published on the World Hum travel website. I recommend heading over there and taking a look at the lists used to make up the aggregated list and the criteria used. The criteria were a bit iffy, because in my opinion bestsellerdom is not the best criteria for a book’s endurance, but what the he**, this is only for fun!

I have linked to my reviews of the books I have read and reviewed, or noted that a review is upcoming when that is the case.

I would love to hear about your take on this list: Do you agree with it, are there books you would add or remove, how many have you read, etc.? Please leave links if you like. 

Starting with the top 10 most often listed books, in order of popularity:

  • In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. Status: TBR
  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. Status: Read, permanent collection. Theroux is a grumpy old git, but he sure can write!
  • A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Status: Read, permanent collection. Very enjoyable, contender for my favourite travel book of all time.
  • Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. Status: Read, permanent collection. Eenjoyable and insightful, contender for my favourite travel book of all time.
  • Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Status: Read, permanent collection. Very enjoyable, contender for my favourite travel book of all time.
  • The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron. Status: Read, permanent collection (looking for an edition with photos)
  • A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Status: Read, permanent collection
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Status: Read, wishlisted. Review (blast from the past) will post in December 2011.
  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Status: TBR
  • Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer. Status: Read, permanent collection

Hmmm, I only have 2 books to go to finish this list! Maybe it’s time I did something about it.

As for the others,

I have read and have in my permanent collection:

  • Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron. Another contender for my favourite travel book of all time.
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee.
  • City of Djinns, by William Dalrymple. So much history and information, and well written too.
  • A Dragon Apparent, by Norman Lewis.
  • Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. Another contender for my favourite travel book of all time.
  • In Siberia, by Colin Thubron 
  • Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl (I have both the English translation and the Norwegian original)
  • The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart.
  • Road Fever, by Tim Cahill
  • Slowly Down the Ganges, by Eric Newby
  • Travels With Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn. A very uneven travelogue, the African chapter is too long and frequently boring but with interesting observation in between.
  • Two Towns in Provence, by M.F.K. Fisher (I have now read both books)
  • Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes.

I have read and do not own:
  • Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, by Lawrence Durrell  
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing. (I want this for my permanent collection). My favourite survival tale.
  • Full Circle, by Michael Palin. (I want this for my permanent collection)
  • Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O’Rourke. I didn’t like his politics, but found the essays interesting.
  • Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson. Frequently whiny and the self-deprecating humour was lame. Would remove from the list.
  • Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris. A well-written but uneven “finding-myself” book. Would remove from the list.
  • Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). Another contender for my favourite travel book of all time.
  • Roughing It, by Mark Twain.
  • Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer. I read this as a teenager and remember hardly anything about it. Maybe it’s time for a reread?
  • The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton. This is more about travel philosophy than about travel and I would say it doesn’t really belong on this list.
  • The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain.
  • The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson. I found this somewhat mean and didn’t like it much. Would remove from the list.
  • The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Bought, read and donated.
This makes 33 out of 100 that I have read.

To be read:
  • Balkan Ghosts, by Robert D. Kaplan 
  • Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming 
  • Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
  • Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenso. Discovered that it was more or less fiction and decided not to read it. Donated.
  • West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
  • Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer  
  • Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin
  • Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy 
  • The World of Venice, by Jan Morris 

-not owned:
  • A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
  • A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
  • A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
  • An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul
  • Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
  • Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
  • A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul
  • Baghdad Without a Map, by Tony Horwitz
  • Beyond Euphrates, by Freya Stark
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
  • Coasting, by Jonathan Raban 
  • Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee  
  • Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux
  • Golden Earth, by Norman Lewis
  • Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
  • Hunting Mister Heartbreak, by Jonathan Raban
  • Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
  • Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
  • Riding to the Tigris, by Freya Stark
  • River Town, by Peter Hessler
  • Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence
  • Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler
  • The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, by Eric Hansen
  • The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux
  • The Pillars of Hercules, by Paul Theroux
  • The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
  • The River at the Center of the World, by Simon Winchester
  • The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
  • The Size of the World, by Jeff Greenwald
  • The Soccer War, by Ryszard Kapuscinski
  • The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
  • The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  • Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue, by Paul Bowles
  • When the Going was Good, by Evelyn Waugh
  • Wrong About Japan, by Peter Carey

Need to find out more before I decide I want to read:
  • A House in Bali, by Colin McPhee
  • Chasing the Sea, by Tom Bissell
  • Down the Nile, by Rosemary Mahoney
  • Facing the Congo, by Jeffrey Tayler
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Four Corners, by Kira Salak
  • Great Plains, by Ian Frazier
  • In Trouble Again, by Redmond O’Hanlon
  • Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta
  • No Mercy, by Redmond O’Hanlon
  • Old Glory, by Jonathan Raban
  • The Lady and the Monk, by Pico Iyer
  • The Log From the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck
  • The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz
  • The Muses Are Heard, by Truman Capote
  • Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

Decidedly not interested in reading:
  • Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

And, finally:

12 books not on the above list that I would put on a list 
of my favourite travel books:

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell (if Under the Tuscan Sun belongs on the above list, so does this book). My absolute favourite travel book ever.
The Whispering Land, by Gerald Durrell
Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron
The News from Tartary, by Peter Fleming
Crusader, by Tim Severin
My Journey to Lhasa, by Elizabeth David-Neel
Eight Feet in the Andes, by Dervla Murphy
Touch the Dragon, by Karen Connelly
Empires of the Indus, by Alice Albinia
The Roads to Sata, by Alan Booth
Coming Home Crazy, by Bill Holm
Travels on my Elephant, by Mark Shand

21 September 2010

A quotation that made me laugh

"If you're pretty nasty when you're twenty and just as nasty when you're forty and nastier still when you're sixty, and a perfect devil by the time you're eighty—well, really, I don't see why one should be particularly sorry for people, just because they're old. You can't change yourself really. "
From By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie

20 September 2010

Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting

Originally published in September and October 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 32 in my first 52 books challenge.
Edited out some non-review stuff.

Author: Robert McKee
Year published: 1998
Pages: 466
Genre: Non-fiction. Story structure, screenwriting, practical film theory
Where got: Student book store

This is apparently one of the best books available to people who want to learn screenwriting, and is required reading for many courses on the craft. And no, I’m not about to run off to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. This is one of two set books for the university course I’m taking on media translation. Since a lot of media translation consists of translating movies and TV series the teacher thought it would be a good idea if we were well acquainted with the way such material is built up. In order to become a good screen translator, one needs to be aware of the extra-linguistic content of the story one is translating, not just the linguistic aspects. This is why I’m reading the book.

Reading progress, week 32:
Story is proving to be a harder read than I thought it would be. It is educative, but unfortunately it’s also about 100 pages too long. McKee seems to be the writing equivalent of those talkers who drone on and on, using 10 words where 2 would suffice, loving the sound of their own voices. Even though I’m learning a lot about screenwriting and story structure from reading the book, I can only read about a chapter before my thoughts begin to wander and I either start to yawn or become filled with a longing to skim, which is something that does not reflect well on the writing style.

I have therefore decided to give this book another week before I review it. Tomorrow I will nominate a book for this week, but it will be something short. I’m considering a collection of poems.

Screenwriting. Story structure. Things to keep in mind when attempting to write a good movie script. The author delves deep into the subject of ‘story’, and lays out the basic principles of movie storytelling. This is not about the practical sides of screenwriting, how the typed manuscript should look like, how to submit a manuscript, finding an agent and so on, but rather about the necessity of knowing the craft and knowing your story well enough to tell it to others in an impressive way. Movie scenes are analysed in order to deepen the reader’s understanding of the subject, and scenes from many movies are mentioned as examples of what McKee is talking about.

My impressions:
I have no doubt that to someone truly interested in screenwriting, this is a very useful book. I even found it useful, and I have never seen myself as someone who could (or would) write a movie script. My interest in the subject is twofold: one is the interest any moviegoer has in the mechanics of movie storytelling, and the other is as a student of translation. Should I ever go into translating for subtitles or dubbing, I will have to be familiar with this subject, because screen translation is not just about the words, it’s about a lot more than that. Screen translators do not earn a lot of money for their craft, and being familiar with story structure enables them to translate better and faster. But I digress.

I have already stated that I found the reading slow going. That is not to say it was boring, but the text is wordy. Not only does McKee like to see his words on the page - the more the better - he is also fond of overstatement, and his self-confidence is such that it borders on being arrogant.

Good guide to the principles of movie storytelling and script structuring, with a little bit of advice on working methods thrown in for good measure. Will not attempt to give stars.

19 September 2010

Short stories 241-250

From Brazil:
“The Attendant’s Confession” by J.M. Machado de Assis. A sordid tale of murder and greed.

From Peru:
“The Legend of Pygmalion” by Ventura García-Calderón. A poetic and tragic interpretation of the Greek legend of Pygmalion and Galatea.

From Venezuela:
“Creole Democracy” by Rufino Blanco-Fombona. A rather brilliant little story about vaqueros summoned together for an election. Recommended.

From Nicaragua:
“The Deaf Satyr” by Rubén Dario. An idyll, a tale spun off from two Greek legends. About the cruelty of fate.

The remaining tales in the book are all by authors from the USA.

The Specter Bridegroom” by Washington Irving. An entertaining and subtly satirical little ghost story in the form of a fairy tale. Recommended.

Mrs. Bullfrog” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A funny little tale about the choice of a spouse.

Journalism in Tennessee” by Mark Twain. A typically Twanian funny tall tale.

The Man and the Snake” by Ambrose Bierce. A chilling psychological tale. Recommended.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat”, by Bret Harte. About the fates of people on the fringes of society in a mining settlement in California in the mid-1800s.

The Story In It”, by Henry James. An interesting story-within-a-story.

18 September 2010

Looking at multiple covers for the same book: Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors

While looking for covers to include with my recycled review of this book (scheduled for re-publication in the distant future), I came across 4 different ones and thought it might be fun to do a comparison of them. I didn’t specifically check, but they will be either from different countries and/or different editions, although they actually look like they were designed with slightly different reader demographics in mind.

The first thing you notice on the first cover is the title, which is good. The title and author’s name are nicely balanced with the focus point of the image (the candle) leading from one to the other with a vertical line. This is a gothic-style cover with swirling smoke and a candle in an old-fashioned candle-stick reflected in a multi-faceted mirror and thus manages to convey not only the title with imagery, but also a hint at mystery and possible horrors (the slightly “off” appearance of the candle and stick), and even romance, because it’s so soft. It blends into the black background utilise the whole cover area, leaving no big empty spaces. The old fashioned title lettering suggests handwriting, the cover is quite well balanced and while the overall cover is rather generic it is also elegant and simple. It’s also the only cover on which the title is bigger than the author’s name. Judging from the absence of blurbs on the front, I am guessing this could be the dustcover image from the first edition hardcover.

Verdict: Somewhat generic but well-designed, well-balanced and effective. Seems designed to appeal to romantic goths and fans of horror and supernatural fiction.

Looking at this second cover, we see a solid black background with distinct blocks of text and a jumbled, centered image that contains a preview of what one can expect upon opening the book. The wavy surface of the ornate mirror frame and the way all the elements of the “reflection” blend together suggest a dreamy, perhaps even nightmarish, quality. This cover is not as unified as the previous one, containing not only advertising (on the red stripe), but also a blurb, and colours in the image and the red stripe clash with the black background. The cover image looks a bit lonely with all that solid, empty black around it. The title has been shunted to the bottom of the cover and is almost like an afterthought compared with the author’s name, which is incidentally in bigger lettering than the title. The image is the first thing the eye lands on, followed by the author’s name, and lastly the title. The big letters at the top and the red stripe make the design a bit top-heavy.

Verdict: Eye-catching but not well-balanced. Seems designed to appeal to fantasy fans.

Here we have another cover with a solid colour background, but this time in purple, which makes it less heavy than the previous one. The playful Monty Python-esque cover image with the suggestion of tentacled horror takes center stage, and while the title is in smaller letters than the author’s name, it is more prominent because of its location and colour – the title is in white while the author’s name is in black and blends into the background. The lime-green background of the image clashes in an almost eye-watering way with the purple and ensures that the book will be noticed from a distance. The black-clad man in the image leads the eye towards the elongated frame with the title, and reading the the rest of the cover text then comes naturally to the observer. This cover has even larger swaths of solid colour than the previous one, and no text above the image, making it somewhat bottom heavy.

Verdict: A cover that stands out. Seems designed to appeal to fans of paranormal fiction and alternative history literature.

 The fourth and final cover exists in two variations - let’s call them 4a and 4b. Here we again have a black background, but it isn’t separated from the image by a frame like the black in the second cover and the purple in the third cover, which makes both versions look like one image with text rather than a background with an image and text. This makes for a more unified look. The uneven lettering suggests both a reflection in moving water and text seen through swirling smoke, thus subtly mirroring the title. The ornate but empty candelabrum seems to suggest the the contents might have to do with history or antiques, and also gives it a gothic flavour.

These covers utilise the negative space and the uneven text to balance out the design. Without the blurb (incidentally not the same one on both covers) there would have been too much negative space, but the blurbs lend balance, especially the longer one on cover 4b.

Cover 4a has a clean but disordered look, whereas 4b has some added elements to make it look not only disordered but scuffed and worn and goes better with the scuffed lettering. It also gives an illusion of the book being old and much read.

Verdict: Well-balanced and understated compared with the others. Seems designed to appeal to fans of historical fiction, gothic thrillers and even classics. 4b is my favourite.

17 September 2010

Friday night folklore: A Kindly Offer

Many Icelandic folk tales warn against offending the hidden people. This is one of them:

Once upon a time a teenage boy was herding sheep far away from the farm, way up in the mountains. The weather was hot and sunny and he was both tired and thirsty but nowhere did he see any water he could drink.

He was passing by a large cliff face when he heard a sound that seemed to come from inside the rock and thought perhaps there might be water trickling down the cliff face, so he started looking around. He could now clearly hear a sound as if of a butter churn being worked and suddenly it seemed to him that there was an opening in the cliff. Inside he could see a young woman who was churning butter. This sight startled him, but he couldn’t help looking at the girl, who was scantily dressed and very pretty. 

The girl looked back at him and said: “Are you thirsty? Would you like a drink?”
This frightened him and he ran away as fast has he could. When he got home he told the story to a wise man who lived at the farm, who told him: “I would not have done as you did; I would have accepted what was offered to me.”

The next night the boy dreamt that the girl came to him and asked him: “Why didn’t you accept the refreshment I offered you? It was kindly offered.”

The boy answered: “I was too frightened.”

Then she said: “Had you accepted the drink from me you would have become a man of fortune, but now I will it that you shall never be anything but a shepherd.” Then she was gone.

The next spring the boy left the area for fear of the girl. He never saw her again, but her words came true and he lived out his life herding sheep for others.

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

A quotation for today

Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill up its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.

Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

16 September 2010

Now reading: M.R. James

I am reading Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary by M.R. James during my lunch hours and coffee breaks at work, and I came across this funny and somewhat acid quotation which reminded me of similar sentiments expressed by numerous writers, especially those writing in and of the 18th and 19th centuries:

Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his time the Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir Richard had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and, having more money than his predecessors, he determined to leave an Italian palace where he had found an English house. So stucco and ashlar masked the brick; some indifferent Roman marbles were planted about in the entrance-hall and gardens; a reproduction of the Sibyl's temple at Tivoli was erected on the opposite bank of the mere; and Castringham took on an entirely new, and, I must say, a less engaging, aspect. But it was much admired, and served as a model to a good many of the neighbouring gentry in after-years.
From the story "The Ash-tree". 

P.S. I'm not including these stories in the short story challenge.

15 September 2010

It’s okay – someone else didn’t like it either

Scenario 1: It’s a book so wonderful that all the critics and reviewers are falling over themselves to praise it to the skies, it’s been shortlisted for several awards, and your highbrow cousin who teaches college literature can’t recommend it highly enough.

Scenario 2: Everyone is reading it, it has a budding cult following and a Hollywood movie is in the making. 6 people have recommended it to you already because oh-my-God it’s their favourite book in the whole world!, and it’s been on top of the best-seller lists for months.

Outcome: You acquire a copy of either book, open it and by page three you’re wondering what everyone sees in it. Because you don’t like it. Not after 3 pages, not after 20, not even after the last page is turned. The reasons vary. It may be the writing style, or the story, or that indefinable something that makes a book come alive for you, but you just couldn’t get into it. It might be because you found it boring, or because you thought it was trying too hard, or the characters were unsympathetic, soulless or flat (or all three), or it was drowning you in a flood of words. The story might be good but the writing atrocious, or the writing may be lovely but the story-line may reveal serious lack of research, or it may be over-researched with more back-story than actual plot. It might be any of a hundred other things, but the end result is the same: you think it’s not that great or even good a book.

Saying so about book 1 is going to make you look like an ignorant pleb who doesn’t understand Literature. Saying so about book 2 will antagonise the fans and make you look like a literary snob.


Believe me, I’ve been there too. If you really do care what people think about your reading likes and dislikes, the best solution I can offer for the first dilemma is to be able to put into (preferably three+ syllable) words why you didn’t like it, giving examples and substantiating your opinion.

As to the second instance, a dedicated fan of, say, Twilight or The Lord of the Rings, is not going to be amenable to listening to an analysis of what you see as the novel’s faults, but saying it’s a matter of taste is generally a safe bet.

Then there is the cop-out: listen to what the other person thinks about the book, and then agree with them. This is the best way if you are trying to impress someone who is not likely to be impressed by your real opinion, however well articulated, but you had better be careful not to accidentally reveal your real opinion or to agree too effusively, or you will be labelled a sycophant.

But – and this is what I really recommend – the very best way is to develop a thick skin. If a person is shallow enough to judge you on the basis of what kinds of books you like or don’t like, it’s their problem and not yours. If it still bothers you, you can always fall back on the fact that you can’t possibly be the only person who didn’t like that particular book, and where better to find those others than on the Web?

14 September 2010

Reading journal: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

I am at the half-way point of this long novel. The titular characters have only just met for the first time, aboard a passenger ship to Australia. Lucinda is returning home after a visit to England and Oscar is leaving England to serve as an Anglican minister in New South Wales. The back-story leading up to each of their embarkations aboard the Leviathan has been unfolded over more than 200 pages and numerous short chapters, but I would be hard put to say exactly when the actual main thread of the story appears.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator parading as a descendant of Oscar's. I haven't got far enough in the story to know if Oscar and Lucinda end up having descendants in common, but the narrator refers to Oscar as his ancestor but not Lucinda, so I doubt it. The story, up to the embarkation aboard the ship, is an unfolding of the influences that have made the titular characters as they are. Both are socially awkward and find it difficult to read people, but whereas Lucinda is fully aware of her awkwardness and is often ashamed of not knowing how to behave and acutely conscious of people's opinion of her (actual or perceived), Oscar seems to think himself a perfectly ordinary fellow and simply doesn't understand that there could be anything the matter with his behaviour or appearance.

These formative experiences that are described in the first 200 or so pages of the book are important for an understanding of what has made Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier the way they are, and some of the events described therein may also reflect on later events. In any case, I wouldn't have left out a single word, because although I generally don't much like long back-stories, it really doesn't matter when they are as much fun to read as this one.

The titular characters both stand on the fringes of society , Lucinda because of the combination of her gender and her unconventional behaviour, and Oscar because he is just plain weird. While they have this fringe position in common, they are in other ways clear contrasts to each other, and not just because of the most obvious difference. She appears to be an atheist while he is quite religious, she is rich while he is poor, she always seems to be well-dressed while he dresses like a scarecrow. What brings them together is gambling. Both are addicted to games of chance, Oscar mostly to horse-racing and Lucinda to card-games, but both bet on other games of chance as well. Knowing a little bit about the story, I know that they will enter into a big wager, but not the outcome.

I am now at a point in the story where Oscar has, quite innocently and unwittingly, ruined Lucinda's reputation (according to the ship's crew, anyway), by staying in her room to play cards.

13 September 2010

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories

Originally published in September 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 31 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Luis Sepúlveda
Original title: Un viejo que leía historias de amor
Translator: Peter Bush
Year published: 1989, 2002 (translation)
Pages: 128
Genre: Literature
Where got: Any Amount of Books, London (second-hand bookshop)

The Story:
All Antonio José Bolívar Proaño wants to do is to live his life quietly, read the love stories the itinerant dentist brings him twice a year, and be left alone. Then a hunter is stupid enough to kill some baby ocelots (a protected species) and the enraged mother ocelot begins killing every human she can find. The village is threatened, and the mayor sends out a search party, forcing Antonio to come along. Antonio is saddened by the whole situation, but has no choice but to follow orders and hunt the creature down.

Translation, technique and plot:

The translation is well done and the story has no translation flavour.
The narrative has a flowing, lyrical quality that critics have likened to the style of Hemingway’s early works. On the surface it is a simple story of man against nature, but on a deeper level it may be seen as a parable for the way the Amazonian rainforest is being depleted and its native inhabitants (aborigines and animals) hunted and driven ever deeper into the forest. Civilized man, in the guise of Slimy Toad the mayor, the gold prospectors and the white hunters are pitted against nature, symbolized by the ocelot and the natives. In the middle stands Antonio, who comes from outside like the mayor, hunters and prospectors, but has adapted himself to the life in the rainforest.

This book is going on my keeper shelves, and I will definitely read it again.

This is a beautifully told story about sad but inevitable events. 5 stars.

12 September 2010

This one goes in the “strange, unusual and more-likely-to-fail-than-succeed murder method “ file

Q: What is one of the first things a rational person would think about when planning a cold blooded murder?
A: Choosing a fail-proof murder weapon and method. Right?

Q: Mysteries abound in strange and unusual murder methods, and risky ones can be found in quite a number of them, but when you combine the three, what do you get?
A: A murder that defies even suspended disbelief.

In this case of The Irish Manor House Murder by Dicey Deere the method is so unlikely and so likely to fail that it is just ridiculous. The killer has no way of knowing that shooting a piece of knitting needle into a horse would kill the horse – it was just as likely to have simply made the horse rear up in pain and gallop off uncontrollably, and even then the rider had a good chance of surviving a fall off the horse. Besides, I find it hard to believe that a pop gun is powerful enough to shoot an approximately 4 cm piece of knitting needle – which by the way have blunt tips – so deep into solid muscle that it sinks completely out of sight. Even if the gun is capable of shooting pellets a whole 15 feet.

When, oh when, are mystery writers going to realise that the tried and tested methods are usually the best and that novel methods need to be at least plausible in order for the story to work?

11 September 2010

Global Reading Challenge: Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Genre: Literary novel
Year of publication: 1987 (English translation: 1993)
Setting & time: Rural China, mostly in the 1920s and 30s

This novel takes place in Shandong Province in eastern China, mostly before and during the second Sino-Japanese war. The narrative jumps back and forth between times and characters, but at the heart of it is a dramatic family story that begins in the 1920s when a greedy father sells his daughter into marriage with a leprous wine distiller and one of the men who escorted her to the wedding falls in love with her. The story is told by a narrator, the grandson of the central couple, who recounts their histories before and after they met, and the consequences of their meeting as they echo down the years.

The story is about tough, resilient and passionate peasants who are repeatedly driven to extremes by internal and external situations, during a tumultuous time in Chinese history. The descriptions of the war are often grotesquely and viscerally realistic, and the people are often ruled more by their passions than by rational thought, but they are always true to their character and as you eventually begin to know what drives them they become sympathetic and very real. Witness to all the events and weaving like a red thread through the whole story is the red sorghum grown in Shandong, from which the narrator’s grandmother brews her famous wine.

The novel is beautifully translated by Howard Goldblatt and, well, I don’t really know what else there is to say without resorting to superlatives, of which it is more than deserving, but which I am not fond of using (much). Let’s just say that this is a cracking good read of a literary novel that I heartily recommend. 5 stars.

Now I only have the Oceania book left and the challenge will be finished!

10 September 2010

Friday night folklore: North and down to Hell

There is an idiom in Icelandic that is used as a mild form of swearing: “Farðu norður og niður!”, which literally means “Go north and down!”, meaning simply: “Go to Hell!”. This story is an attempt to explain the genesis of that idiom.

Once upon a time there was a man in the north of Iceland who went fishing alone in an open rowboat whenever the weather allowed. One day when he was finished for the day and began to row home, a strong wind started blowing and pushed him out to sea, farther and farther away from land, so that he feared that he would be blown out to open sea. He was also very worried because the farther away from land he drifted, the darker it became, until finally he could hardly see from one end of the boat to the other for fog and darkness.

Eventually he struck land, jumped ashore, pulled up the boat and made it safe. But when he touched the land with his hands in the darkness, he could feel that instead of sand and gravel the beach was made up of ashes and coal. He didn’t like this at all, but knew he had to find shelter until daylight so he could try to find his way back home, so he began to walk, heading due north. The going was all downhill and very steep and dark. He walked like this in the blinding darkness for a long while until he glimpsed a red glow some way ahead of him. 

He walked towards the glow and finally came to a fire so large that he could see no end to it. He looked at it and noticed that inside the fire there was a mass of something that looked alive. It seemed to him to be a swarm of midges. In front of the fire stood a huge, terrible giant with a fearsome iron gaff in his hand that he used to stoke the fire and to make sure no living thing could get out of the fire.

But one midge was able to escape and flew over to the man. He asked the midge its name and what this place was, and the midge told him that he was looking at the fires of Hell itself and that the giant was the Devil. The midges in the fire were souls condemned to burn there for all eternity. It said it was happy to have escaped, but just then the giant realised that a soul was missing from the flames - because the Devil keeps count of his own – caught it with the gaff and threw it back into the heart of the fire. 

This frightened the visitor, who ran as fast as his legs could carry him up the steep slopes of Hell. As he got further away from the fire the darkness began to recede, until finally he could see where he was going. He followed his track back to the boat and made it home.

This is why, when people wish someone or something ill, that he or she or it should go north and down, because that is where Hell is.

It is fun to speculate about the origin of stories like this one - my guess would be that once upon a time a lone fisherman stumbled upon a small volcanic island and climbed ashore and into the crater to find glowing lava at the bottom. Of course this could simply be a completely made-up tale. Who knows?

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.

The great National Geographic bathwater disaster

This post by Matt reminded me of the worst book (magazines actually, but they are as precious to me an any of my books) disaster ever to befall chez Bibliophile.

I was living in the first apartment that I owned, a large one-bedroom place with a huge south-facing balcony and a stunning view of Skagafjörður. My apartment was on the first floor of a three-storey apartment building and one Sunday morning my upstairs neighbour decided to take a bath. As people will do, she left the tap running and went to do something else while the tub filled. The water must have been running pretty fast, because the bathtub overflow drain couldn’t handle the flow, and the water filled the tub and flowed over the side and continued to do so for some time while my neighbour was busy elsewhere in the apartment.

The first anyone knew about the accident was when water started dribbling, flowing, and finally gushing, through the outlet in my ceiling where the hall light was connected to the electricity supply, which by some miracle didn't short out. Then it started raining down through the top of the bedroom door-frame. By this time I had alerted my neighbour, who quickly turned off the water, but the damage was done.

I mopped up several litres of water from the floor and gave a silent prayer directed at any passing deity that the ceiling paint wouldn’t develop water blisters and the water wouldn’t get under the parquet.

As I was finishing the mop-up, I got an evil suspicion and went to check the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom. Yep, water was coming in from the top – as far away from the upstairs bathroom as possible, and into the southern end of the wardrobe where I was storing 10 years worth of National Geographics. Cue lots of swearing and a panicked retrieval of the damp magazines. Fortunately I had been storing some old clothes up there as well, and most of the water had been absorbed by those, but water had got into about 30 issues of the glossy magazines. As anyone knows who has had to deal with this kind of disaster, glossy paper is the worst for getting wet, because the substance used to coat the paper and make it so smooth and glossy turns gluey when wet. It is therefore imperative to separate all the pages before they dry together into a fused lump.

I went to work with bath towels, dish-rags, paper towels and a hair-dryer. First I spread out all the damp magazines on the towels, and then leafed through each of them, drying off the surface moisture from between the pages, and going to work on each individual magazine with the hair-dryer, until they were dry enough for the pages not to stick together. Then it was just a matter of letting them air-dry completely. I got out more dry towels and spent the rest of that Sunday turning the pages every 30 minutes or so, to let them dry evenly. I still ended up with buckled and wrinkly pages, but these have smoothed out somewhat over time, through being stuffed tightly into bookcases. Amazingly, there were a hardly any pages that stuck together.

In retrospect I should have just dumped the whole pile in the trash and had my neighbour’s insurance pay for the damages, but it didn’t even occur to me at the time. As it was, I was just glad it didn’t happen on one of my frequent weekends away from home, because the magazines would have been unsalvageable by the time I got back.

If this happened to me today, I would use this method.

09 September 2010

Short stories 231-240

From Croatia (as part of Yugoslavia):
“The Neighbour” by Antun Gustav Matoš. GSS. A rather melodramatic story about a cultural misunderstanding.

From Slovenia (as part of Yugoslavia):
“Children and Old Folk” by Ivan Cankar. GSS. About the strange wisdom of children, the sorrows of the old, and about war. Recommended.

From Serbia(as part of Yugoslavia):
“At the Well” by Laza K. Lazarevich. GSS. About a young woman whose behaviour disrupts the family she married into and how the wisdom of the old redressed the problem. Recommended.

From (what was) Czechoslovakia (when the collection was published):
The Vampire” by Jan Neruda. A charming tale that turns chilling. Recommended. (This appears to be the same translation).

“Foltýn’s Drum” by Svatopluk Čech. An entertaining little tale of servants and gentry and moral differences. Recommended.

From Greece:
The Priest’s Tale” by Demetrios Bikelas. A sad tale about a man with rabies. (This appears to be the same translation. The plain text file is an uncorrected OCR scan, but still fairly readable. I was unable to open the pdf-file to check it).

From Romania:
The Easter Torch” by I.L. Caragiale. A well written tale of terror that unfortunately gets rather overly melodramatic towards the end. (This is the same translation).

What Vasile Saw” by Marie, Queen of Romania. A beautifully written miracle tale. (This is the same translation).

From Bulgaria:
“The Commissioner’s Christmas” by Dimitr Ivanov. An entertaining trickster tale. Recommended.

From Costa Rica:
“Chivalry” by Ricardo Fernández-García. A tale of honour and chivalry.

Botswana Time by Will Randall

Genre: Travelogue, memoir
Year of publication: 2005
Setting & time: Kasane, Botswana; early 2000s

Will Randall went to South-Africa to attend a friend’s wedding and maybe do some travelling, but eventually found himself volunteering as a teacher at a small school in the town of Kasane in Botswana. He ended up being the class teacher for the first grade class and also coached them in football, taking them on outings and to football matches with teams from other schools, and making friends with their parents.

This is a funny and mostly positive book, told with typically British self-deprecating humour. The descriptions of the people and places are delightful and make one want to visit Kasane. While the book is mostly light-hearted, Randall does mention and is clearly displeased with, the racist attitudes of some of the white people he met in the country, and he also does not shirk away from mentioning the HIV/AIDS problem that is decimating the adult population of Botswana, which he witnessed first hand. Mostly, though, this is a description of his adventures and occasional misadventures as a teacher and eventually temporary principal of the school.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is planning on visiting the area. 3+ stars.

Here is a sentiment expressed by Randall that reflects his travel philosophy:

“As I had noticed on other travels so many times, the vast majority of people who visited foreign countries on holiday were happy to observe, even occasionally to sample, the day to day life of the local population, but it was a shamefully small minority who actually wanted to participate in it. To watch, record, but not actually engage in the culture was unfortunately the norm. There seemed to be an invisible wall of mistrust that kept the two sides apart so that the visitor remained in a comfort zone. Of course, it is perfectly understandable that people should have a fear of the unknown, but that is hardly the fault of the unknown."

08 September 2010

Top Ten Feel-Good Books

I found this Top Ten Picks meme over on the Random Ramblings blog and decided to participate.
This could just as well be titled My top ten perennial reads. These are books I return to time and again when I need consolation, familiarity, comfort, relaxation and/or guaranteed entry into the story world. In no particular order:

  • Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals. Memoir. This is a cosy, comfortable and occasionally very funny read that is perfect for those chilly winter afternoons. It will transport the reader to sunny Greece and into an eccentric family with an oddball cast of friends and hangers-on. Abounds in wonderful descriptions of nature, people and animals. First encountered when it was published in an Icelandic translation when I was about 10.
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables. Coming-of age novel. A good soother for frazzled nerves. Another book I first read in translation, and re-read over and over throughout my teenage years, along with books two and three in the series. Especially nice when I want to read about a more innocent time and place.
  • J.R.R. Tolkies: The Hobbit. Fantasy. The first full-length fantasy book I read, I think when I was about 9 years old. Never fails to transport me to Middle-Earth and into the company of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves on their trek to the Lonely Mountain.
  • Michael Ende: The Neverending Story. I discovered this as a teenager, and found in it a perfect escape from the stress of being bullied.
  • Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens. Fantasy, alternative reality. Full of dark humour and wonderful characters, this is a book I always take with me when I go travelling, because it never fails to deliver comfort and distraction from the annoyances and discomforts of the getting-there phase of travelling. I’m on my second copy and looking for a hardcover edition.
  • Jennifer Crusie: Bet Me. Contemporary romance. A perfect modern fairy tale with a couple I can relate to. Perfect for when I need a little romance in my life. Excellent bath-tub read.
  • James Herriot: All Creatures Great and Small. Memoirs, novelised. This omnibus edition of his first two semi-autobiographical books never fails to cheer me up.
  • Elizabeth von Arnim: The Enchanted April. Novel. Perfect escapism into a romantic world of perfect weather, good food and friendship. I can't think of a better rainy day book.
  • Terry Pratchett: Moving Pictures. Fantasy. Always good for several laughs: a perfect pick-me-up after a bad day at the office. (I could actually have chosen a number of Pratchett’s novels, e.g. Small Gods or Guards! Guards!).
  • Georgette Heyer: These Old Shades. Historical romance/adventure. The perfect historical romance and boredom reliever: spirited heroine, bad-boy hero, abductions, swashbuckling adventure, revenge and a happy ending.

When is a book worth reading from start to finish?

I decided to rework this old essay from my original 52 books blog and re-post it, because this subject seems to be on people’s minds right now, at least considering how many of the book bloggers whose blogs I regularly visit have written about it in the last couple of months.

Everyone has different criteria for deciding if a book is worth finishing.
Some will read any book to the end, slogging through piles of tripe or suffering endless boredom just so they can say they have read it. Several people I know of did this with The DaVinci Code and/or The Name of the Rose. (Please note that I am not belittling either book. It just so happens that many people think the former is tripe and the latter is boring).
Others will give it a couple of chapters (or 50 pages or so in the case of “chapterless” books like those of Terry Pratchett) before deciding.
Still others will read the reviews, read the blurb, skim the book and read the ending, and then decide they’re not interested.
Each method has its merits.

As for myself, I have occasionally finished badly written books because the story or concept was interesting in spite of the bad writing, or there was something I just had to find out (usually the resolution, but sometimes some small detail). More often, I will just stop reading.

If a writer's style annoys me, I stop reading if it continues to annoy after I have read about 20-25% of the pages. This means about 50 pages of an average length novel. One example is Elizabeth Peters. I started reading one of her Amelia Peabody mysteries and found the style very annoying, so I stopped reading. However, I tried again and loved both of the books in the series that I have read so far.

If a book is dull but well written, I give it about 100 pages, because some stories start very slowly, especially long novels that need to explain a lot of background before the actual story starts. If it has not picked up by then, I stop reading (unless the book was recommended by a reliable reader, in which case I may read another 100 pages). This happens mostly with long novels and non-fiction, especially travel books.

Sometimes I come across books that tell a good story and are, for the most part, well written, but there is something missing, some spark or soul that would make an average book into a good one and a great one into a masterpiece. Those I usually finish. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde are good examples.

Sometimes books are spoiled for me by other books. Those I put aside to read at a later time when I have forgotten the book that did the spoiling. I stopped reading Gail Anderson-Dargatz's book The Cure for Death by Lightning because I had recently read The Secret Life of Bees, had not liked it much, and found too many similarities in the first chapter of Cure (both are about girls from dysfunctional families). I am assured by people who have read both that Cure... is far superior to Bees..., but I need to distance myself before I can enjoy it.

I am always ready to give authors whose books I have not liked in the past a second chance, and have usually not regretted it. Even the best of writers sometimes write bad books.

07 September 2010

New challenge for me

Looking at the books I posted in the Top Ten Books I Can't Believe I've Never Read meme, I realised that they all have something in common: these are all long books, or, in the case of Brennu-Njáls Saga, relatively long.

Since I have finished the Bibliophilic Book Challenge and am on the verge of finishing the Global Reading Challenge, this meme provides me with a new challenge: to finish the year with some of these big, fat books. To that end I have signed up for the Chunkster Challenge.

I figure I can read one chunky book per month in addition to my shorter reads, and since there are four months left in the year, I am signing up for the intermediate level: Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big? I will choose three books from the abovementioned list, and the fourth will be my final Global Reading Challenge book, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.

Now reading: A Hovering of Vultures by Robert Barnard

A suspected con-man starts up a literary society to honour two little-known authors of the Edwardian era, but gets murdered. Among the suspects are a number of fans of the authors and some literary poseurs out to profit from their reputations.

Here the two main investigators are discussing the murder:

“Maybe,” said Mike Oddie, as they walked back to the car, “we shouldn’t be concentrating too much on the people at the Conference. Maybe we should be asking ’cui bono’?”
“And what does that mean?” asked Charlie.
“It means ‘Who gets his hands on the loot?’”
“I always heard that Latin was an economical language.”
“It is. Multum in parvo. ‘A lot in a little.’”
“It’s like being sidekick to Lord Peter Wimsey,” Charlie complained.

06 September 2010

Review: Anne of Green Gables

Originally published in September 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 30 in my first 52 books challenge.
Slightly edited for clarity.

Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery
Year published: 1908
Pages: 280
Genre: Literature, classic, coming of age story
Where got: Amazon.co.uk

I was quite young when I discovered L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books. The first four books were translated into Icelandic a long time ago and my mother had all of them. I loved reading about Anne’s escapades and her growing up on Prince Edward Island. I was only allowed to read the first three books as a child, as my mother considered the subject matter of the fourth book to be too serious and beyond my childish understanding. I only got to read that book when I was in my teens and found it to be rather melodramatic.

This will be the first time I read any of the books in the original English, and it will be interesting to see how it compares with the translated text. In the past, some Icelandic translators and/or publishers had an unfortunate habit of removing blocks of text from translated books, and some translators even went as far as altering the text and even making some up. I dearly hope the Icelandic translations of the Anne stories are not among those books.

Part 2:

The Story:
Middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Green Gables farm decide to adopt an orphan boy to help them with the farm work. What they get is Anne Shirley, a red-headed girl with an overactive imagination, a temperament as fiery as her hair, and a flair for getting herself in trouble. The book tells of Anne’s first years with the Cuthberts, the scrapes she is continually getting herself into, her friendship with Diana Barry and her war with Gilbert Blythe.

Technique and plot:
The book is full of wonderfully evocative descriptions of Prince Edward Island that make it sound like a paradise on earth (for all I know it may well have been at the time of writing). Anne’s exploits and other people’s reactions to her are described with gentle humour. The only thing I don’t like is Anne’s long speeches. They are certainly very funny at times, as Anne uses a rather literary language that is often inappropriate to the occasion and uses words you would not expect an adolescent girl to know, but I found myself skipping some of those passages because many of them are really just empty speech.

I last read this book about 10 years ago, in Icelandic. When I began reading I couldn’t remember a thing, but as I got into the story things started coming back to me and since the chapter headings are indicative of what happens, I sometimes would think ‘ahhh, here comes the time she got Diana drunk, here comes the time she broke her ankle’, etc. Rereading a much-loved book after so long a time is like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years, and finding she is still the same wonderful person you remembered.

A wonderful classic story that has enchanted generations of readers, young and old. 5 stars.

05 September 2010

Miss Silver Comes to Stay by Particia Wentworth

Genre: Mystery (cosy)
Year of publication: 1951
No. in series: 15
Series detective: Miss Maud Silver
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: England, just after WWII

Miss Silver arrives in a small village to visit a friend and a few days later is asked to discover the truth in a murder case. A man who has just returned to the village after an absence of 20 years has been found murdered, and right at the top of the suspect list are his former fiancé who broke off their engagement 20 years earlier, and her nephew, but there are also at least two others who could have done it. The former fiancé happens to be the love interest of the Chief Constable of the district who is an old friend of Miss Silver’s, a fact that guarantees that she is given full access to all evidence and testimonies, enabling her to unearth evidence that the police has overlooked, solve the case and unite two sets of lovers.


This is an unusually good and well plotted Miss Silver book, with a complicated puzzle plot and interesting characters, but it gets pulled down near the end by one of the endings that I loathe, which in this instance is sillier than most. 3+ stars.

04 September 2010

Useful website of the week: When you don't know what to read

Do you ever have this problem? Your TBR may be overflowing and your library card recently renewed, but you just can't find anything to read?

In my case it's a matter of having too many books to choose from, so I decided to try a truly random way of choosing my next book to read. You see, I am trying to read at least 5 of my TBR books each month and I plan to use this method to choose my next book from the TBR stacks whenever I run into this problem. Since my books are all entered into a spreadsheet and I keep a separate list of TBR books and rough genre lists as well, choosing is a simple matter of deciding if I want to read from a specific genre and opening that spreadsheet and then numerically eliminating the books I have read, or opening the TBR spreadsheet if I don't mind what genre I read and choosing at random.

But how to make it truly random? Pointing a finger is hardly going to work, and while closing my eyes and deciding on a random number could theoretically work just fine, I chose to use the Random Integer Generator on the Random.org website. It is very simple: you choose the number of return numbers you want - in my case 1 - and enter it into the "Generate X random integers" box, and then you enter a range of numbers into the "Each integer should have a value between X and Z" ('X' and 'Z' stand for the boxes), which in this particular case was the exact number of books in my TBR spreadsheet.

I decided beforehand to reject any results that indicated:
a) a book I have owned for less than a year, because the principal rule of this challenge is to read books I have owned for over a year, and
b) a book over 300 pages long, because I am already reading one chunkster and I don't like to juggle more than one long book at a time.

The generator returned the number 199, which is a cosy mystery called The Irish Manor House Murder by Dicey Deere. Since it's under 300 pages, I didn't have to choose again.

Besides randomly picking your next read, the random numbers generator is very, very useful for other kinds of random drawings, and I know that many bloggers who hold contests and giveaways on their blogs use it to choose winners at random.

03 September 2010

Friday night folklore: Son of a Ghost

Once upon a time there was a man who greatly desired to marry the daughter of a local clergyman, but was not permitted to do so. Whether this was because of her objections or those of her parents the story does not say, but he swore that he would have her when he was dead if he could not have her while he was alive. Shortly afterwards he died of anger and resentment and was buried in the cemetery next to the church where the girl’s father served. This happened just after Midsummer.

Not long after this a young man, about 20 years old, was watching over the fields around the farm to make sure that no sheep or horses could come in and eat the grass that was to be cut for the winter feed. In the middle of the night he noticed the figure of a man, dressed in a shroud, sneak from the graveyard and enter the farmhouse. He went and peeped into the cemetery and saw that the grave of the man mentioned earlier was open and empty.

The young man had heard the story of the man’s oath. He had his knitting* with him to while away the time while he watched over the fields. He took the ball of yarn and tied a knot around it so it wouldn’t unroll and he could pull it to him. He then dropped the ball into the open grave and sat down and waited by the grave with the end of the yarn in his hand. Shortly afterwards the ghost returned and was unable to re-enter the grave**. The young man told him that he would have to tell him everything if he wanted back in, and the ghost agreed to do so. 

He said the has just returned from the minister’s daughter and had gotten his way with her while she slept, that she was pregnant and would give birth to a boy who would become a minister like his grandfather. But the first time he would turn towards the congregation in front of the altar and hear the congregation answer his “The Lord be with you “ with “And with your spirit”, the church would sink into he ground with everyone in it, unless someone was brave enough to run the priest through with a knife when he turned around. The young man now gave the ghost permission to enter the grave and pulled up the ball of yarn.

Nine months later the minister’s daughter gave birth to a boy and was unable to name the father. When the boy grew up he showed himself to be intelligent and thirsty for learning and so he was sent to school, where he quickly distinguished himself. He took orders as soon as he was old enough and returned to his grandfather’s parish to say his first mass. By that time the young man who had met the ghost had become a well-off farmer in the parish. He had never told anyone what had happened that night.

On the day when the new minister was to say his first mass the farmer sat near the front of the church and when the minister turned around to say the prophesied words, the farmer stood up and pulled a knife from under his shirt and stabbed the minister in the chest. There was immediate uproar in the church, but the farmer calmly told the people to examine the vestments, which lay in a pile in front of the altar. All that was found inside was a shoulder-blade and three drops of blood that were all that the creature had from his mother. 

The farmer now told the whole story and the congregation thanked him for saving all their souls.

There are several variations of this story. In some, the girl is a clergyman’s daughter, in others a farmer’s daughter, and in some she later marries the farm hand who kills the ghost’s son. In one variation the ghost tells the man that if he tells anyone about their meeting, he will come back and kill him.

*The knitting: it was not uncommon when people were doing jobs like this for them to be expected to knit something while they were doing it, like socks or mittens.
**To prevent a ghost going back into its grave, you had to put something into the grave and it would be unable to enter it until the thing was taken away.

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.

Progress report for August and tentative reading plan for September

Of the books I named as possible August reads I finished Time and Again and two of the travelogues I brought home after my library visit: Gecko Tails and Botswana Time. Two of the others are going back to the library unread, but the third I would like to read this month. Additionally, I finished the Dickens biography and met the goal to read 5 TBR challenge books, but only 1 of them was a Top Mysteries Challenge book. I find myself losing interest in the Top Mysteries Challenge but I am too far in to stop now and will soldier on. The next time I follow a fixed list as a challenge, I will definitely make it a short(er) list.

As for my plans for September, there is the travelogue I mentioned above, written by an Icelander who spent many years travelling around south and central America. In the Global Reading Challenge I am at the halfway point of the Asian book, Red Sorghum by Chinese author Mo Yan. This only leaves the Oceania book, which will be Oscar and Lucinda by Australian Peter Carey. I had planned to read Potiki by New Zealander Patricia Grace, but it turned out I had already read it several years ago before I started keeping a reading journal. As a matter of fact, I had been trying to remember the author and title but had been unable to, even with help from the World Wide Web. Since I have found it, I may re-read it in September, but only maybe. I also have lined up We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson.

I would also like to finish A Coffin for Dimitrios, which I have been reading little by little for several months, and Our Man in Havana, which I started reading months ago and then put on hold. Both are Top Mystery Challenge reads. In the TBR challenge I would again like to finish 5 books.

I have finished uploading a large number of "blast from the past" reviews ahead of time, one of which will be posted automatically at 9 o'clock every Monday morning until mid-January 2012. However, that doesn't mean I will not be posting anything else on Mondays - I may still post other stuff later in the day, if I have reason to. I decided to update the other stuff from the blog and will use it for fillers whenever I don't have a review or other new stuff to post.

And finally, I have a new challenge lined up, but more of than anon.

02 September 2010

Reading report for August 2010

I finished 15 books in August. Of those, I had started reading two more than a month ago – one in June and one probably at some time near the beginning of the year.

I had an attack of reader’s block in the middle of the month. I would begin a book, only to abandon it after only one reading session in order to begin a new book, or I would read a chapter here and a chapter there in the books I am reading "at leisure", never reading more than 10 or so pages of each book each time. I finally did find a book to settle down with and then it was as if a reading machine had been turned on and I read 5 books in three days, all of them around 300 pages long.

4 of my August books were rereads:
  • Jennifer Crusie: Getting Rid of Bradley (contemporary romance)
  • J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (fantasy)
  • J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (fantasy)
  • J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix (fantasy)

These were the only books that did not belong to a challenge of some sort.

As to the rest, all 5 non-fiction books are part of a mini-challenge to read more non-fiction; 5 books were part of the perpetual TBR challenge; 2 were Top Mystery challenge reads; 2 were Bibliophilic Book Challenge reads; and 1 was a Global reading Challenge book. Since this comes to a total of 19, it should be obvious that some books were part of more than one challenge.

The books:
  • Connie Brockway: My Dearest Enemy (historical romance)
  • Jack Finney: Time and Again (time travel)
  • Peter Haining: The Classic Era of Crime Fiction (literary history)
  • Carol Livingston: Gecko Tails: A Journey through Cambodia (travelogue)
  • John D. MacDonald: The Dreadful Lemon Sky (mystery thriller)
  • Ellis Peters: The Devil's Novice (historical mystery)
  • Will Randall: Botswana Time (travelogue) - will post review in September
  • Rannveig Tómasdóttir: Andlit Asíu (travelogue)
  • Ernesto Sabato: The Tunnel (Spanish: El tunel) (literary novel)
  • Jane Smiley: Charles Dickens (biographical study)
  • Patricia Wentworth: Miss Silver Comes to Stay (mystery) - will post review in September