31 March 2011

Weekly Geeks: Movies and books

The Weekly Geeks blogging prompt is a juicy one this week:

“Do you have a best list? a worst list? Perhaps a why-oh-why list? Which movies (based on books) would you recommend most? Do you always compare the book and the movie? Or are you able to enjoy each separately? Does a film have to be faithful to the book to be good? Are there any films that you like better than the book? Has a movie ever inspired you to pick up the book? Are there any books that you'd love to see as a movie? Do you have a music playlist--soundtrack--for a book?”

I already did the “best” list as a Top Ten Tuesday meme, but this happens to be a subject I can talk about for hours, because it is part of my field of study (translation). As a matter of fact, I considered writing my thesis about book-to-film adaptations as translation.

Translation isn’t just the rendering of a text in one language into an equivalent text in another language. Translation studies also cover interpretation of the spoken word and the adaptation of one form of communication into another. This includes the adaptation of a written text – a novel, for example – into an audiovisual form, e.g. a play or a film or a TV mini-series. There are so many things that one has to keep in mind when adapting a text into audiovisual form and, just like in text-to-text translations, there are different approaches:

  • Do you stay faithful to the story and risk irritating the audience with stuff that works on paper but not on film?
  • Do you tweak the story and prune the plot for the sake of making it look better on the screen?
  • Do you take the tweaking and pruning further and just use the basic premise or central plot of the book and discard the rest, and risk the anger of the book’s fans?

I have seen all of these approaches used, and I have seen them both succeed and fail, but as a general rule, the second method is usually the most successful one. Even the most ardent reader/fan has to agree that some stuff that looks marvellous on paper or affects us deeply when we read about it simply cannot be reproduced audiovisually with the same effect. This is partly because technology hasn’t yet caught up with the special effects we are able to produce in our imaginations, and partly because by its very nature the audiovisual form can not adequately make us feel certain things in the same way as we do when we read about them. One of the reasons is that in audiovisual form some things happen faster than they do on the written page, so we don’t have time for the slower processing that is needed to produce certain feelings. Another is that the audiovisual form is ill-equipped to take us right into the thoughts and feelings of the characters like a text can. Writers can show you how a person feels by going straight into their mind and reproducing their thoughts while also showing their reactions from the outside, but in audiovisual form it must be shown more or less completely externally and perhaps in spoken words, which simply doesn’t affect us as deeply.

I think that whichever approach is used, the key to success will always be respect. Respect for the material and story, respect for the author’s intention, and/or respect for the prospective audience. For example, Stanley Kubrick took Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, stripped it down and twisted it around so much that the author loudly objected, and had a hit. Hardly anyone liked the author-approved version that was made years later, but that might be because Kubrick hit upon the right kind of respect out of the three: that for the audience. The latter version may have followed the story and respected the author, but it just didn’t respect the audience, which was expecting something spectacular and didn’t get it.

Dear Reader, what are your thoughts on this subject? 

30 March 2011

Wednesday night video: Dance of the books

I recently came across this wonderful time-lapse video of book-case reorganisation. It doesn't hurt one bit that I love the music they chose.

Quotation from a book I'm reading

...I began to fear it might happen to me as to certain translators, and imitators of Shakespeare; the unities may be preserved, while the spirit is evaporated.
Clara Reeve (1729–1807), from The Old English Baron

This is indeed a problem for many translators, especially those who translate literature. They manage to render the story faithfully, but lose the spirit of the original.

29 March 2011

Gothic Reading Challenge Review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

This is my third Gothic challenge read and the first classic Gothic novel I read for the challenge.

Genre: Gothic novel; historical
Year of publication: 1764
Setting & time: Medieval Italy, during the  Crusades

Conrad, son of Manfred, Prince of Otranto, is crushed beneath a gigantic helmet on the day he is to be wed to the Princess Isabella. Manfred, determined to secure a replacement for his only son and heir, decides to divorce his wife and marry Isabella, who objects and seeks sanctuary in a nearby church with the aid of a mysterious young man. These events are only the beginning of a convoluted and suspenseful story.

This, the very first Gothic novel, is a defining novel of the genre, with its air of perpetual menace, supernatural events, gloomy setting, driven villain, missing heirs, convoluted plot, thrills, shocks and revelations, noble heroes and damsels in distress. It is highly entertaining, although to me, a modern reader, probably not quite in the manner intended by the author. I found it very funny in parts, mostly because of all the melodrama involved.

The story is wonderfully plotted and convoluted and delivers one thrilling revelation after another. The characters are mostly flat, puppets to be controlled by the narrator and made to do his bidding, but it doesn't matter because the story is very much plot driven. The plotting is masterful, with every plot point resolved and all the threads tied up at the end, and a neat but not entirely happy ending (which rather surprised me).

Many of the plot points and the settings were, I believe, quite new to readers of the time, and would have seemed to them to be fresh and new, whereas to a jaded modern reader (like myself) nearly two and a half centuries after it was first published, it seems slightly worn, somewhat dusty and very melodramatic. This was undoubtedly a ground-breaking story, and one can see in it so many plot conventions and themes that are still used in modern genre literature.

I would have adored this story had I read it as a child. As it is, I respect it for being what it is, and recommend it to anyone interested in the beginnings of the sensation novel, the horror novel, and the suspense story (not to mention urban fantasy, which often reads like a Gothic novel removed from lonely castles and ruins to dreary urban settings). 3 stars.

28 March 2011

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Originally published in July 2004, on my original 52 Books blog.

Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Year published: 2002
Genre: Literature, detective story
Where got: Public library

The story:
The agency has got some competition and Mma Ramotswe and her assistant/secretary Mma Makutsi are both worried about the future of the business. In order to make some extra money for herself, Mma Makutsi starts the business the book takes its title from, giving evening classes in typing to men, and one of her students falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe takes a case investigating whether a husband is cheating on his wife, and makes a disturbing discovery. Another client asks her to track down some people he hasn’t seen for about 20 years, so he can make restitution for things he did to them. Both cases present their own unique difficulties, but with her common sense and philosophical way of looking at things, Mma Ramotswe solves both cases to the satisfaction of all involved (except the cheating husband).

A fourth instalment in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and just as good as the others. 5 stars.

26 March 2011

Buchmesse challenge review for March: The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson

Icelandic title: Sendiherrann, ljóð í óbundnu máli
German title: Der Botschafter (2009)
Danish title: Ambassadøren (2008)
Genre: Literary fiction
Year of publication: 2006
Setting & time: Iceland Lithuania; contemporary

Bragi Ólafsson is an Icelandic poet, playwright and novelist (and former member of the band The Sugarcubes). This novel was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize and the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 2006. It was published in English in 2010.

The novel tells the story of Sturla Jón Jónsson, a middle-aged Icelandic poet who has just published what he intends to be his last book of poems. He is on his way to a poetry festival in Lithuania when the story begins. Once he is there trouble starts piling up, starting with a man back home in Iceland who accuses him of plagiarism and escalating from there.

This novel is full of very subtle humour and observations of Icelandic society and Icelanders, and specifically of what it‘s like to be a poet in Iceland. It is also a story of a middle-aged man who has come to a turning point in what doesn‘t seem to have been a very productive life – apart from a handful of poetry volumes (copies of which have only sold in the low hundreds) and the five children he managed to have with his wife before she divorced him. Sturla gets into one scrape after another, is not fully understood by anyone, and does some things that are never fully explained in the story.

The narrative is rambling and Sturla is the kind of hopeless, colourless character whom authors love to propel into unusual circumstances. I didn‘t find him particularly sympathetic, and I don‘t think he is meant to be – he is rather firmly an anti-hero. The themes of theft and poetry run through the whole narrative and each instance introduces a turning point in the adventures and character development of Sturla.

The narrative, while tied together by these themes, is nevertheless somewhat rambling and it is sometimes difficult to see just why certain elements are included in the story. Another reviewer mentioned narrative dead-ends, and I agree that there are certain things that seem to be leading somewhere but then just disappear, never to be mentioned again. But somehow one doesn‘t get overly annoyed by this, as these details are usually insignificant enough not to make one want to know more, even if one had hoped they would lead somewhere interesting. It isn‘t really until the last third of the story that the plot begins to thicken, and then the narrative suddenly becomes more streamlined and to the point, presenting the reader with a crime story and injecting romance into the narrative.

Taken all together, this isn‘t a bad novel, but neither is it likely to have you writing to the author to demand more of the same. It‘s too rambling to be solid and too wordy in the wrong way to be brilliant, but it does have some merit, not least the humour and the dead-on realistic description of a man whose dead-end life takes an unexpected turning. 3 stars.

25 March 2011

Friday night folktales: The Mountain Man

Tales of the unknown abound in Icelandic folklore, and they teem with stories of mysterious strangers, elves, trolls, outlaws and other strange folk. Here is one:

Once upon a time there was a couple living on an isolated farm on a high moor in Iceland. They had one young child. They were poor but self-sufficient for food. They never closed the house for any reason or in any season. The house was an old-fashioned building with a loft where the people slept and a cow-byre on the ground floor. The loft was closed off from the byre with a hatch with a handle on top for opening. 

One night they were sitting up in the loft with the hatch open. Suddenly a very big man came up the stairs and sat on the edge of the opening. They had never seen such a large man, but he did not look like a troll for all that. No-one spoke to him and he sat there in silence the whole night without speaking a word. They were frightened of him but tried not to show it. When bed-time came the woman put her already sleeping child to bed. Then she took a large askur (a traditional wooden food container) and went past the man down into the byre where she milked one of the cows into the askur, filling it to the brim. This she brought to the visitor without saying a word. He accepted it just as silently and drank it empty before leaving the house. 

The next night he returned and the story repeated itself: He sat there silently all night, accepted an askur full of milk and left in silence. On the third night, when he had drunk his fill of milk he finally spoke, saying, “Thank you, good people, for the milk. I have nothing with which to pay you for your kindness, except I foretell and hereby spell that you shall always enjoy good luck and never want for anything. But take my advice and do not let the house stand open all the time as you do now, especially not when the nights are dark, for there are many hereabouts who are worse visitors than I. Remember the old saying: Many are those who dare enter an open door.”

With that he gave them a friendly look and then departed. They believed he must have been a giant or a half-troll of the better sort. But from that night onward they always kept the house locked at night and were never again visited by any strangers or uninvited visitors.

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.

Bonus post: Lovely link

Wasted Talent is one of the online comics I follow, and there is a lovely book-related strip today.

Quotation for today

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?"

Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887)

24 March 2011

List love: 10 more bookish pet peeves

Thursday’s meme only gave me an opportunity to list 10 of my bookish pet peeves, but I have many more, so I decided to make a list of an additional 10 that irk me just as much as the first 10. Here it is, in no particular order:

  1. Introductions or prefaces to novels that give away important plot points or endings. Especially prevalent in modern editions of classic novels.
  2. Mary Sues and Gary Stus, i.e. characters so perfect that the sun apparently rises out of their exquisite arses. Perfect characters give no leeway for character development and because they are perfect, problems aren't really problems for them, so there can be no real conflict in the story.
  3. Reading a book and only discovering at the end that it’s the first in a trilogy or series and the story will not end for several more books. I have no problem with series books if each book is a self-contained story that can be read out of order of publication.
  4. Writers who give their books happy or perfect endings when it is clear that an ambiguous ending would have been both braver and more suitable to the story. The opposite is just as annoying - an unhappy or ambiguous ending when a happy ending would be better.
  5. Interchangeable characters. Annoying when they are supporting characters, intolerable when they are lead characters. Seems to happen a lot in fantasy.
  6. Deus ex machina endings or plot point resolutions. This is a lazy, cheap and nasty way of resolving things.
  7. Characters who are Too Stupid To Live, i.e. rush headlong into danger again and again and then have to be rescued and never learn from their mistakes.
  8. Historical characters as protagonists, behaving out of character or doing things that history tells us didn’t happen. I don’t mind so much in genuine alternative reality fantasy/sci-fi, but in real-world settings I detest it, especially when I know the characters well. All in all, I just think it’s lazy to grab a historical character instead of making one up. I do love seeing them as supporting cast, except I think that George, Prince of Wales and Prince Regent of the UK from 1811-1820 has been overused in Regency set romance novels, as has Beau Brummel.
  9. Authors who don’t respect my intelligence. Comes out in any number of ways, including telling me the same thing over and over and over again, explaining things that are self-explanatory and talking down to me.
  10. Authors who change history to suit their purpose. This is something I totally enjoy in speculative fiction but not in novels that are presented as based on historical fact. This is why I only got a couple of chapters into The Other Boleyn Girl before I gave up in disgust, but was able to enjoy Temeraire.
This was just a sample. I have enough for at least two more lists, but I have a couple of reviews I want to post first. Maybe next week.

23 March 2011

Wednesday Night Video: Librarians do Gaga

The singing may be a bit off at some points and the lyrics a bit stretched in some places, but this video still kicks ass:

Weekly Geeks: Ten things about books and myself

This is the first time I participate in a Weekly Geeks theme.This week it's a meme:

Tell us ten things about you with regard to books and reading. Let your imagination run wild!
 Here goes: 
  1. I collect bookmarks and I match them to the books I read.
  2. I have never read 40% of my books. That’s not counting books that are not meant to be read from cover to cover. 
  3. I read, on average, about 160 books a year. Generally only one or two will have been published in that year.
  4. Since the year 2000 I have cut my rereading from about half of all the books I read in a year down to fewer than 10.
  5. About 70% of my books were bought second hand.
  6. I have about 150 cookbooks and regularly use 3 of them.
  7. I am usually reading 4+ books at a time.
  8. When I was a child and young teen, I would go deaf when I was reading.
  9. I would love to own an e-reader.
  10. I think people who highlight words, dog ear or tear out pages, smoke or apply perfume while they are reading library books should be put in the stocks and pelted with rotten eggs. Same goes for people who think it’s okay to sell or trade such books.

22 March 2011

Meme: Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Bookish Pet Peeves

The meme Top Ten Tuesdays is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. If you want to see what irks other readers, go visit the mother site and click on some of the links to the other participating blogs.

I have so many bookish peeves that I decided to just pick a random sample of 10 from my long-list.

  1. Movie covers on books. When a book has been adapted into a movie and they put the actors on the front to increase sales of the book.It rarely looks good and it spoils my perception of the characters - I like to imagine them myself rather than be told that this person looks like this actor, and so on, thank you very much.
  2. Errors on book covers. Here is a doozy.
  3. Too many spelling mistakes, typos and bad grammar. This makes me wonder if a book was self-published, or if both the editor and the proof-reader were having a bad day.
  4. Too much information on the back cover - especially when an important plot twist is given away.
  5. Perfect bound hardcovers. Why? The  book will fall apart at the same speed as a softcover. Hardcovers should be stitched, because people don’t just buy them for the way they look on shelves, they also buy them in the expectation that they will last longer than paperbacks. It also means that if you want to re-bind a book, it is going to be very hard to do in such a way that you get a nice copy out of it.
  6. Too many blurbs. Open any Nora Roberts novel and you will find at least three pages of them, not one which sheds any light on the book itself. A waste of trees if you ask me, since I don’t know anyone who actually reads them.
  7. Authors who sprinkle their text with foreign words and phrases just because they can. I am still, after several years, annoyed with Lord Dunsany for a phrase in ancient Greek that he used in one of his short stories, which was supposed to shed light on a plot point. I haven’t found a translation of it either.
  8. Factual errors of all kind, in books that are otherwise accurate. However, I do enjoy an alternative reality narrative, where an author speculates what could have happened if...
  9. Dangling plot threads. Includes characters that disappear (or change names), side plots that aren’t resolved and questions that are left unanswered.
  10. Infodumping. This includes both necessary information all given in one passage instead of being sprinkled throughout the narrative and too much unnecessary background information that bogs down the story with long passages that perhaps contain one or two snippets of information that is really important to the story while the rest is just stuffing. And authors: the long descriptions of weather and landscapes and the inner monologues are best left to the literary fiction crowd and out of genre novels.

21 March 2011

Face Down Upon an Herbal

Originally published in June 2004, on my original 52 Books blog.

I went to explore the new location of my favourite second-hand bookshop (which I approve of, although some of the mystery is gone - along with the mustiness) and came home with this book. It’s the second in a series, with all the books titled Face Down “something” .

Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson
Year published: 1998
Genre: Mystery
Sub-genre(s): Historical
Where got: Second-hand book store

The story:
Susanna, Lady Appleton, is sent to Madderly Castle, ostensibly to help Lady Madderly finish a book on herbology, but in reality to provide an excuse for her husband, Robert, to come there to investigate the murder of a man who was apparently involved in a conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth I. Shortly after arriving, the body count starts to mount and Susanna’s young protége, Catherine, falls in love with of one of the prime suspects. Solving the crimes takes the combined efforts of Susanna, Catherine, Robert and a couple of other people working together.

Technique and plot:
I have to admit that I have yet to come across a historical mystery series that equals Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, but this will do nicely.

This is a cleverly set up murder mystery that relies upon the premise so favoured by Agatha Christie and many other Golden Era mystery authors: all the primary suspects being still present at the scene of the crime when the investigation takes place. It takes the investigators almost the whole book to discover whether the murders were politically motivated or not, the first victim having been suspected of treason and the murderer possibly an accomplice. An experienced reader of mysteries will have guessed the killer’s identity before too many chapters, but will still be kept in doubt as to the motive and correctness of the guess nearly until the end. The inclusion of a romance is a nice touch, especially as the reader is given ample reason to believe that the man Catherine falls in love with might be the killer. Emerson does not fall into the trap some mystery authors are wont to, namely to make the reader dislike the killer (one of the few things I don’t like about The Cat Who series).

The narrative contains some unnecessary but mouth-watering descriptions of food and likewise unnecessarily detailed descriptions of herbal remedies. Being that so much is made of the fact that Lady Appleton is a herbalist and an expert on poisons, I expected this expertise of hers to be in some way related to the investigation, but it was merely used as a device to bring her to the murder scene.

This is quite an interesting mystery - Emerson has found a niche in the mystery market by choosing a era not many mystery authors seem interested in. The language seems genuine enough, with a suitable sprinkling of archaisms and old-fashioned word order, which unfortunately sometimes leaks out into the narrative.

An interesting mystery that will keep fans of historical mysteries occupied for an afternoon. 3 stars.

20 March 2011

Mystery review: 120 Rue de la Gare by Léo Malet

This is both a TBR challenge book and a What’s in a Name challenge book – the one with a number in the title. That leaves only one book in that challenge.

Year of publication: 1943: English translation: 1991
Translated by: Peter Hudson
No. in series: 1
Genre: Detective story
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Series detective: Nestor "Dynamite" Burma
Setting & time: Lyon and Paris, France; 1941.

Former private detective Nestor Burma is released from a POW camp in Germany and sent home to France. At the train station in Lyon he spots an old friend and former employee, who is shot before his eyes and mutters the words “120 Rue de la Gare” before he dies. Having heard the words before, from another man who died shortly afterward, Burma becomes curious and begins to investigate. It immediately becomes apparent that he is in the trail of a ruthless killer, but the more the killer tries to stop Burma, the more Burma becomes determined to discover his identity and discover why he has been killing people.

This is just the kind of detective story that I regret not being able to read in the original language, because however good a translation is – and this is a good one, if I’m any judge – something always gets lost. In this case it’s the French period slang that Burma slings around. How I know this? Simple: I read up on Malet and Burma before I wrote this review.

However, the translator has made a good job of making the story sound as if written in English.

The plotting is tight and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the readers on their toes, and even a couple of red herrings that lead Burma himself astray. Nestor Burma is the first-person narrator of the story, and he sometimes keeps things from the reader, to be revealed only when he reveals them to other character. This is therefore not a fair-play story, but it is nonetheless entertaining and a good, suspenseful read. There is humour that lights up what could have been a dreary story, because it takes place during World War II in German-occupied France (written at a time when there was no foretelling how the war would end). Burma comes across as a likable character, just as hard-boiled as his American colleagues Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but less cold-blooded and with a stronger sense of humour. Other characters are mostly well-fleshed out and  I have a feeling that several of them will become recurring features in the books that follow. Now I just have to see if I can get my hands on more of Malet’s books. 3+ stars.

18 March 2011

Friday night folktales: The Last of the Bakki-brothers

Once the brothers decided to go and fetch firewood. In the old days this was either done by collecting driftwood or by finding some shrubs and tearing them up by the roots and drying them. The brothers went for the latter option. 

The shrubs were situated on a steep mountain-side. The brothers tore what they thought they needed and tied the wood into bundles which they planned to roll down the mountain. Then they started thinking and worrying that maybe the bundles would break apart on the way down or maybe they wouldn't be able to find them at the bottom. 

Therefore they decided to put one of the brothers inside one of the bundles so he could keep an eye on the bundles on the way down. So Eiríkur and Helgi took Gísli and packed him into one of the bundles with only his head sticking out and rolled all the bundles down to the bottom of the slope. 

But when they came down to check on the bundles they found that Gísli could not report on the trip down the mountain, because his head was missing. Although there were only two brothers left, they still called each other “Gísli-Eiríkur-Helgi”.

The last thing we know of the Bakki-brothers, Eiríkur and Helgi, was that they once saw a full moon shining in the sky and couldn’t understand what it was. 

They went to the next farm and asked the farmer what that huge, bright, shiny thing in the sky was, and he told them it was a battle-ship. This frightened them so much that they ran all the way home and hid themselves in the cow-byre, covering both doors and windows so that no light could get in, and there they starved to death for fear of the battle-ship. And that was the last of the Bakki brothers.

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.

16 March 2011

Wednesday night video: Book helpdesk

My second book video of the week is that hoary old classic: the Norwegian Medieval helpdesk skit:

Direct link.

15 March 2011

Gothic Reading Challenge review: Evermore by Lynn Viehl

I hadn’t planned to review this book, but then I realised that not only was it a perfect fit for the Gothic reading challenge, but also that I had already reviewed the previous four books in the series, so why stop there?

It fits the Gothic theme because much of the story seems to happen at night, in a medieval style castle (even if it does have electricity and hot and cold running blood water), parts happen on a medieval battlefield which is pretty damn scary, there are vampires involved and supernatural threats, there is considerable angst, and there is cloak-and-dagger villainy that threatens the heroine (who, however, is no shrinking violet and is fully capable of defending herself).

Intro, necessary for understanding of some of the below. Cue a bad Christopher Lee vocal imitation doing the starting voiceover to an episode of The Dark and the Dangerous:
"The Darkyn were once people, but centuries ago they became infected with an organism that stopped their ageing process and turned them into the nearly immortal beings humans call vampires. At some point, they stopped being able to make more of their kind by infecting humans, but now they are again able to do so, albeit with great difficulty. They gather together in clans, called jardins, each under the leadership of a Lord. They are hunted by an evil sect, the Brethren, who will go to unspeakable lengths to eliminate the Darkyn. And now we return to Florida, USA, sometime in the recent past or present..."

(Broadcast technician removes her headphones and remarks to another tech: Darkyn: aka “my vampires must be unique”. Both snigger and exit left stage. ) (See footnote)

Genre: Urban fantasy, paranormal romance
Year of publication: 2008
No. in series: 5
Setting & time: Orlando, Florida; contemporary
Sex scenes? Yes, several, ranging from icky to sweet and tender.

Scottish Darkyn lord Aeden mac Byrne owns a medieval-themed restaurant in Orlando, Florida, where the Darkyn entertain unsuspecting humans with jousting, swordplay and medieval style feasting (for the humans – the Darkyn are strictly forbidden from feasting on the guests). Not only is the place a money spinner that allows him to keep his people safe, but it is also a way for the Darkyn of his jardin to live as closely as possible like they were accustomed when they were mortal.

His servant, Jayr, is the only female suzerain (second-in-command) of a Darkyn lord, and has been since the day of the battle of Bannockburn, when she came upon a wounded Byrne, who turned her and bound her to him when he fed off her blood. She has loved him deeply since that day, but the rules of conduct and their differences in social status forbid a union between them. But when Byrne decides to retire and renounce his role as lord of his jardin and name a new lord, passions explode among the candidates. Someone among them isn‘t playing fair and is prepared to use Jayr for his own nefarious purposes...

This is the first of the Darkyn books where the Brethren are hardly mentioned at all and the first to feature a romantic relationship between two of the ancient Darkyn and not between a Darkyn and a human or recently turned half-human/half-Darkyn. This makes it more self-contained than the previous four books, but knowing Viehl, it will probably turn out to be important for the later books.

Taking place as it does almost entirely within a self-contained realm of the Darkyn where humans only have limited access, this book delves deeper into the world of the Darkyn that the previous ones do. It contains several flashbacks to the battle of Bannockburn where Jayr and Byrne first meet, and gives an interesting twist to the story of Robin Hood.

This is a type of romance I enjoy but also sometimes find it hard to accept: the kind where the heroine and hero have loved each other close to forever but never suspected that the other felt the same. It does make for great tension-building, but when the charade has been going on for over 600 years, it becomes not just strained, but stretched as well.

Apart from that, the story is well-constructed and tightly woven, but there are several points where I was somewhat icked-out, points that involve, among other things, what I can‘t call anything but rape, which is, however, not called by its true name, or rather the mention of the word is carefully skirted by people who know damn well that‘s what it was. Other parts are interesting, especially being shown the Robin Hood legend in a whole new light, so that eventually the good and the bad points almost balance each other out, but only just almost. The way the rape issue is handled by the characters is a Huge Red “WTF!!! NO-NO!!!“ for me, so I can only give the book 2 stars where it would otherwise have deserved 3+.

Footnote: Just because I enjoy them it doesn‘t mean I can‘t look at them clear-eyed ;-)

14 March 2011

The Merciful Women

Originally published in June 2004, on my original 52 Books blog.

Original Spanish title: Las Piadosas
Author: Federico Andahazi
Translator: Albert Manguel
Year published: 1998 (original), 2000 (translation)
Genres: Fantasy, gothic horror

Where got: Public library

The story:
In the wet summer of 1816, five people arrive at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Leman: Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori, Byron’s secretary. Upon arriving, Polidori finds a mysterious letter in his room, written by a monster who proposes a deal with him: something of his in exchange for literary fame. Polidori, who has suffered much humiliation at the hands of his employer, accepts the deal, but not before further humiliations and events that convince the others that he is going mad.

Technique and plot:
The translation is fluid and beautifully done and the book comes across as if it had been written in English. The style is reminiscent of Poe and Lovecraft, and the “monster” is indeed something that Lovecraft could have created. The mixture of third person narrative with the first person epistolatory form gives a nicely balanced account of, on the one hand, Polidori’s despair and irrationality in the company of those so much more accomplished than himself, and on the other, Annette Legrand’s story which is full of horror and strange self-satisfaction. The narrative is darkly humorous, grotesque, cheeky and disrespectful of the main character’s literary and personal aspirations. Andahazi is not kind to his poor protagonist!

I loved the ending, which is something of a twist and would advise anyone who habitually peeks at the ending of books to resist the urge with this one, at least if there is any intention of reading it. But of course the ending isn’t funny unless you have read the entire book...

I have always had problems with authors seizing historical characters and writing novels about them - why can’t they invent their own characters? For example, I hated Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound where he writes about the fantasy of fucking Mary Shelley, but I did find this story rather good, perhaps because it is about a person who is more of a footnote in literary history than any kind of contender for real literary immortality (he did write what has been acknowledged to be the first vampire novel, but it isn’t very good).

A dark and cheeky vampire story with a difference. 4 stars.

12 March 2011

Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Apparently, Edgar Wallace was a very famous writer in his day, but I must admit to never having heard of him before starting this challenge.

Genre: Thriller, crime story
Year of publication: 1905
No. in series: 1/3
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: London, contemporary

The British foreign secretary is trying to pass through parliament a bill enabling the government to send back to their home countries people who, for one reason or another, have fled to Britain. A group of men, three conspirators and one recruit, calling themselves the Four Just Men, threaten to assassinate him unless he withdraws the Bill, which they see as unjust, as it would enable the extradition not only of escaped criminals, but also of political dissidents who would face certain death upon their return home. The four have already carried out several other assassinations/murders of people who they judged to be worthy of death on grounds moral, criminal, or both, but were beyond the reach of the law. This threat starts a great hullabaloo among both police and press, and as the wall of protection around the minister gets ever denser, the reader wonders if the Four will be able to pull it off.

Here is a story that stands on shaky moral ground: the one in which the ends justifies the means, however bad the means. Here, four self-appointed judges and executioners threaten to kill a man, not because he is a bad or immoral man, but because they believe that the bill of law he is pushing through parliament is unjust. It very quickly becomes apparent that the plot is about an impossible, closed-room murder, but the story is more about the reactions of the various characters to the situation that develops around the plot.

This is a deft social satire that deals especially harshly with the press, but neither does it spare the police or the intended victim of the crime. The only time it loses the satirical tone is when showing the viewpoint of the Four, who are supposed to be the heroes of the story. The writing is straightforward, neither good nor bad, the plotting is hardly intricate but the author does manage, with a handful of simple twists, to create suspense around the question of whether the Four will be successful or not. The story is written, deliberately I think, in such a way as to make it possible for the reader to be on either side or even to equally support both sides. There are no bad guys in the story, but neither are there any good guys, not unless you are able to look past the fact that the Four are threatening to kill a man who is not inherently a bad or immoral person or a criminal like some of their previous victims, but is merely about to do something they perceive as immoral because of the consequences it will have.

The flaw in the whole plot is of course that killing this one man isn’t going to stop the Bill from going forward. His vote is just one of many, and in the text it is stated that there is a majority in favour, so the point of killing him is merely to show what the Four are capable of, which begs the question: how many others are they prepared to kill to stop the Bill?

I think this story may best be looked at in historical context. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge there were no international agreements back then on the rights of refugees and rules governing who could and could not be extradited or sent home. We have such agreements now, and while they are hardly perfect, they are supposed at least protect political refugees from being extradited or sent back (if they can prove they are political refugees). It may be because I take such things for granted, or that I am too simple a person to understand what is supposed to make the reasoning of the Four so just and moral, but I simply can not agree with the reasoning that in this particular case the end justifies the means. To me, these men are terrorists who are trying to prevent a legally elected government official from doing his job, however bad the consequences are going to be.

Looking at the story in context of the history of the mystery and the thriller/suspense story, I can see several things that would be developed further in both genres, and acknowledge the importance of this novel in the crime novel family tree, but I can still only give it 2+ stars, because it fails have on me the intended effect: admiration for the cleverness of the Four and agreement with the moral argument.

Books left in challenge: 67
Place on the list(s): CWA # 100
Awards: None I know of.

Click here to download a free ebook of this novel.

11 March 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and the Foot Problem

Read part seven.
Read part eight.

This is the only Bakki-brothers tale that is likely to make anyone laugh:

The brothers had been told that soaking their feet and legs in hot water was very beneficial for their health, but since they they usually only had enough firewood for cooking they didn’t often heat water to bathe their feet.

Once when they were on the go they came across a hot spring and immediately decided to soak their feet in it, since they could do it for free. They all removed their shoes and socks and sat side by side with their feet and lower legs in the hot water and enjoyed the heat.

When they decided they had had enough, they realised that that they had got their feet mixed up and none of them dared stand up for fear of accidentally walking away on his brother’s feet. So they sat there until a traveller came by and called to him to come and help them. He asked what the problem was and they explained. He laughed and said this was an easy problem to solve. He then raised his walking stick and hit the tangle of feet and legs in the spring. This hurt, and then the brothers each recognised his own feet and removed them swiftly from the water.

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 March 2011

Quotation for today

I came across this funny description of illusions getting shattered in Louisa May Alcott's  Little Women that I want to share:

Miss Norton had the entree into most society, which Jo would have had no chance of seeing but for her. The solitary woman felt an interest in the ambitious girl, and kindly conferred many favors of this sort both on Jo and the Professor. She took them with her one night to a select symposium, held in honor of several celebrities.

Jo went prepared to bow down and adore the mighty ones whom she had worshiped with youthful enthusiasm afar off. But her reverence for genius received a severe shock that night, and it took her some time to recover from the discovery that the great creatures were only men and women after all. Imagine her dismay, on stealing a glance of timid admiration at the poet whose lines suggested an ethereal being fed on 'spirit, fire, and dew', to behold him devouring his supper with an ardor which flushed his intellectual countenance. Turning as from a fallen idol, she made other discoveries which rapidly dispelled her romantic illusions. The great novelist vibrated between two decanters with the regularity of a pendulum; the famous divine flirted openly with one of the Madame de Staels of the age, who looked daggers at another Corinne, who was amiably satirizing her, after outmaneuvering her in efforts to absorb the profound philosopher, who imbibed tea Johnsonianly and appeared to slumber, the loquacity of the lady rendering speech impossible. The scientific celebrities, forgetting their mollusks and glacial periods, gossiped about art, while devoting themselves to oysters and ices with characteristic energy; the young musician, who was charming the city like a second Orpheus, talked horses; and the specimen of the British nobility present happened to be the most ordinary man of the party. 

Before the evening was half over, Jo felt so completely disillusioned, that she sat down in a corner to recover herself. 

Gothic Reading Challenge review: Sex and the Single Vampire by Katie MacAlister

Click image to read about the challenge
My second Gothic Reading Challenge book, but the first to be reviewed. I’m working on the review for the other one.
Fits the Gothic theme because: a lot of it takes place at night, there are vampires, ghosts and demons involved, there is angst, the heroine shows some genuine Too Stupid To Live behaviour (a required plot element in the Gothic novels of old), and the hero is tall, dark and dangerous, and was alive during the Gothic era.

Genre: Urban fantasy, romance
Year of publication:
No. in series: 2
Setting & time: London, UK; contemporary

Inexperienced Summoner Allegra Telford is in London to prove she can summon and bind ghosts when she begins to have dreams about a wounded, bleeding man. Coming across him for real wasn’t in the bargain, but she does and is swept into an adventure involving ghosts, demons and Moravian Dark Ones (aka “my vampires must be unique” by any other name). There are hardships to overcome and the reward is one Christian Dante, the nearly hero of the previous book in the series, A Girl’s Guide to Vampires. But Dante is a very masterful man Moravian Dark One (why do these nomenclatures always have to be capitalised?) and Allegra was hurt badly in the past by a domineering man, so getting her to trust him may be even harder for Christian than overcoming a demon.

I found this story better put together in many ways than the first book in the series, but didn’t like the hero and heroine as much as those of the previous book. As before, the sex is scorching but fortunately there are no gratuitous sex scenes - they all serve the purpose of bringing the heroine and hero together and strengthening their bond. This time it’s not a serial killer that provides the suspense, but an actual demon, but it was never really clear to me why he needed Allegra to complete his nefarious plan (maybe I read it too fast and missed an important detail?). There are genuinely dark and creepy horror elements to the story, but they are offset by humour so it manages to just skirt the borders of horror territory. But, as in the first book, the heroine does some truly stupid things which earn her a TSTL blue ribbon and that alone was enough to lose the book a half star. 2+ stars.

Quotation for today:

I think the following may just be the most unromantic proposal of marriage scene I have read:

     'So Mrs Van Hopper has had enough of Monte Carlo,' he said, 'and now she wants to go home. So do I. She to New York and I to Manderley. Which would you prefer? You can take your choice.'
     'Don't make a joke about it; it's unfair,' I said; 'and I think I had better see about those tickets, and say goodbye now.'
     'If you think I'm one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast you're wrong,' he said. 'I'm invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.'
     'Do you mean you want a secretary or something?'
     'No, I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool.'
From Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
It's no wonder she had to ask what he meant.

And in case you were wondering: It doesn't get any better.

09 March 2011

Wednesday night video: Library Week (Ireland)

I'm trying out  new feature on this blog: weekly book videos. I often come across interesting, funny or informative videos about book-related issues and I would like to show them to my readers. Since my own weekly video night usually takes place mid-week, I decided to designate Wednesday night as video night on this blog.
If I don't find a worthy video some week, I will simply skip it, so it's not going to be a regular-as-clockwork feature like the Friday Night Folktale. Videos will post at 8 p.m.

The first Wednesday night video is a promotional video for Library Week in Ireland, which started last Monday and ends on Sunday. It's a lovely and simple idea, but if they did this all by hand and not digitally, then it must have taken hours to set up:

Reading report for February 2011

I finished 15 books in February. 2 were rereads, both of them by Terry Pratchett. One was a Top Mysteries Challenge book, 3 were What's in a Name Challenge books, and 8 were TBR challenge books. I also reviewed a Buchmesse Frankfurt challenge book that I didn‘t read during the month.

I discovered a new author, or rather author team, that I want to read more books by: Brahms and Simon, whose mystery, A Bullet in the Ballet, was the funniest book I have read in a long while (and I definitely needed some cheering up in February).

The best read of the month was A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, a perfect little gem of a novella. Now I want to find the movie and watch that.

The Books:
Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon: A Bullet in the Ballet. Murder mystery, very funny.
Suzanne Brockmann: The Unsung Hero and Into the Night. Romantic suspense.
Nancy Marie Brown: A Good Horse Has No Color. Travelogue and memoir.
J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country. Literary novel.
Jean Hager: The Grandfather Medicine. Murder mystery.
Georgette Heyer: No Wind of Blame. Murder mystery.
James Mayhew: Ella Bella Ballerina and the Sleeping Beauty. Children‘s picture book. Read for a little friend.
Ed McBain: Even the Wicked. Murder mystery/thriller.
Terry Pratchett: Thud!. Fantasy. Reread.
Terry Pratchett & Melvyn Grant: Where's My Cow?. Fantasy, children‘s picture book, reread.
Mary Jo Putney: The Would-be Widow,. Historical romance.
Nora Roberts: Cordina's Crown Jewel. Contemporary romance.
Various: A Little Book of Irish Verse. Poetry and art.
Lynn Viehl: Evermore. Urban fantasy/romance.

08 March 2011

Meme: Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Dynamic Duos

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Please visit the mother blog and click on some (or all) of the participating blogs to see more dynamic duos.

After I drew up this list, I realised to my amazement that I had only put one romance supercouple on my list. This is perhaps because I decided to not include duos who are “just” great lovers, but who are also a great team in other respects.

  • Eve and Roarke from the In Death books by Nora Roberts. Not only are they a sizzling couple, they also work well together solving crimes.
  • Rincewind and the Luggage from the Discworld series. Together they can get into more trouble than a troop of street urchins and cause more mayhem than a reasonably large army of monkeys, but they always land on their feet again.
  • Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg from the Discworld series. One is sharply intelligent, openly powerful and intimidating, the other comforting and friendly and possessed of no less strong but much more subtle magic powers, they make up for each other faults and make one hell of a working team.
  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories. A perfect combination of brains and brawn.
  • Tommy and Tuppence Beresford from the books by Agatha Christie. Another dynamic crime-fighting duo, this one secret service/private detective/nosy parker types.
  • Jeeves and Wooster from the books by Wodehouse. One is an expert on getting into trouble, the other on extricating people from trouble and so they make a perfect match.
  • Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser from the books by Fritz Leiber. The sneak thief and the barbarian hero perfectly compliment each other, and the stories are just incredibly funny and inventive. If you want to read some of the best stuff ever written in the “sword and sorcery” fantasy subgenre, try the Swords series by Leiber.
  • Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from Don Quixote by Cervantes. I haven’t even read the book yet, only watched a TV series based on it, but I still feel I must mention them.
  • Merry and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. Their relationship is no less strong that that of Frodo and Sam, but it’s a relationship between equals and thus the dynamics are different. In the movies they are comic relief, in the books the war might well have been lost without them.
  • Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Two great comic characters. Ostensibly the servants of Above and Below, but in reality champions of humanity and after 6000-something years on earth they have become rather more human than angelic or demonic.

Honourable mention:
Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. A perfect example of a master-servant relationship turned into strong friendship.

A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse by Nancy Marie Brown

Genre: Non-fiction, memoir/travelogue
Year of publication: 2001
Setting & time: Iceland; 1996 and 1997

Nancy Marie Brown and her husband, writer Charles Fergus, came to Iceland with their young son to spend the summer of 1996 while still reeling from a family tragedy. Fergus recounted the story of their stay there in Summer at Little Lava, which I reviewed some years ago. I reposted the review yesterday.

When I became aware that Nancy was also a writer, I decided to read one of her books and of the two available in the National Library, I chose this one, as to me it’s the more interesting of the two. In a way it picks up from where Fergus left off, showing how Nancy fell in love with the Icelandic horse breed and returned to Iceland a year later determined to buy a couple of horses of her own and take them home to Pennsylvania. She recounts her adventures and experiences among Icelandic horse people (a unique breed in themselves) and her search for the perfect horse (for her) and sprinkles in references to Icelandic folklore, Nordic mythology and the Sagas.

This is an honest and very readable account by a woman who feels very much like a fish out of water among people who have been riding horses all their lives, some since before they could walk, and some of the pitfalls of horse-buying. There are a few cautionary accounts of crooked horse-dealing in the book (including a couple of quite funny ones), but she seems to have been able to avoid most of the pitfalls, even the one the book’s title refers to: the temptation to buy a horse because just you like its colour. Most of all this is a story about self-discovery and learning.

Quite apart from being an enjoyable memoir/travelogue, this book could make interesting reading for a person studying business since it covers, in detail, the entire classic model of the consumer buying process from beginning to end.
3+ stars.

Click here to read a short excerpt

07 March 2011

Summer at Little Lava: A season at the edge of the world by Charles Fergus

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

I chuckled when I first came across this book. The title, plain and serious as it is to an outsider, is unintentionally funny to an Icelander. Little Lava is the abandoned farm in NW-Iceland where Charles Fergus, his wife Nancy and son William spent the summer of 1996. But Little Lava, or Litla Hraun as it is known in Icelandic, is also a prison in southern Iceland. In fact, it’s THE prison - the one where the majority of Icelandic criminals are sent to serve out their sentences. Fergus even mentions it in the book, and it is probably the reason why he chose to translate the farm’s name into English, in order to distance it from the prison image. I can’t say he has quite succeeded, but gives the reader who is in the know something to smile about.

Fergus’ original plan had been to write a simple nature study, but when he found his mother murdered in her home, the plans changed. Instead of becoming just a place to stay for the summer, somewhere to live and take notes for the book he was going to write, Litla Hraun became a refuge from the world, a place where he could heal in peace and work to distance himself from the shock and his anger over his mother’s death.

The book is not what I would really call a travel book, and neither is it one of the “good life” books. The “simple life” would be nearer the mark, but even that doesn’t quote describe it. It a combination of nature observations and the story of a psychological healing process, interspersed with observations on Icelanders, their language, literature and folklore. It has some of the best descriptions of Icelandic nature and weather that I have read by a foreigner.

Rating: Recommended reading for anyone who wants to see a side of Iceland foreign visitors don’t often see. 4 stars.

Note: I recently discovered that the author's wife also wrote a book about their stay at Little Lava, which I am planning to read.

04 March 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and the Cow

One summer one of the brothers’ cows had no calf*. The brothers wanted to fix this and find a bull to mate with the cow. The next time the cow was in heat, they took it to a neighbour farmer who had a bull and asked him for permission to bring the cow and bull together for mating. The farmer gave his permission and told them where to find the bull. 

The brothers brought the cow to the bull and were gone a long time. Finally they came back to the farmer, saying that the bull wasn’t interested in the cow. The farmer asked them what they had done, saying it wouldn’t surprise him if they had done something foolish, as was their wont. They explained that, “Oh, no, we laid the cow on her back and held her in place for the bull.” 
“That’s what I thought,” said the farmer. “You three are no ordinary fools.”

* Explanation for city kids: This means that the cow wasn’t producing any milk, which could be disastrous for poor farmers.

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.

03 March 2011

"Dearest" Spammer

Yes, you. I realise you probably have a very good reason to want to spread your muck love as far and wide as possible, but please, not on my turf. I already have all the fertiliser love I need, and I don't want any more. Not even if you disguise your crap message as a genuine, pertinent comment on the greatness of my blogging skills.

If you are wondering how I found you out, wonder no more: it was the link to your incredibly ungrammatical website. Although you were only trying to direct traffic to it and presumably hoping someone would be desperate enough to do business with you, I really don't appreciate it. So just stop it. I am not going to use the "P" word.

02 March 2011

Quotation for today

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."
Ray Bradbury (1920 - )

01 March 2011

Isn't this ironic?

My irony levels shot up when I read that Reykjavík has applied to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

According to the UNESCO website, a city needs to fulfil the following criteria to become a City of Literature:

  • Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;
  • Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;
  • Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;
  • Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;
  • Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;
  • Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;
  • Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.
This is ironic for a city where the public libraries have had to cut down on book buying and shorten the lending time from one month to three weeks due to budget cuts (and where another independent bookstore just bit the dust).

Read the whole story here.