29 April 2011

Friday night folktale: Boat-talk

I probably should post a tale today about a girl who gets her prince, but since I am by now thoroughly disgusted with all the royal wedding talk, I'm not going to.

Sometimes you can hear wooden boats and ships creaking even if there is no wind and they are standing on dry land. This is because the boats are talking together and only a few people can understand their speech.

Once a man who understood the language of boats came to a place where two fishing boats lay in the sand side by side. He heard one of the boats say to the other:

"Long have we been together, but tomorrow we must part.“

"We shall never part,“ said the other. "We have been together for thirty years and have grown old together, but if one of us is to be sunk, we both shall be sunk.“

"It will not happen. Tonight the weather is good, but tomorrow it will be different and none will go out to sea except your foreman, but I and all the other boats shall stay behind. You will go and never return and we will never be together again.“

"It shall not be and I will refuse to budge.“

"You will have to budge and this will be our last night together.“

"I will not budge without you.“

"Nevertheless it will happen.“

"Only in the name of the Devil himself!“

After that the boats spoke so quietly that the man heard no more of their conversation.

The next day the weather looked very ominous and no one was willing to set out to sea except one foreman and his crew. They walked down to the sea, in the company of many others who were not going to set out.

"Put on your oilskins in the name of Jesus our Lord,“ said the foreman, as he was wont. This they did.

"Launch the boat in the name of Jesus our Lord,“ said the foreman, as he was wont. The men heaved, but the boat wouldn‘t budge. The foreman then asked all the other seamen who were present to help, but the boat still couldn‘t be budged. Then he asked every person present for help, but the boat could not be budged for all that. 

The the foreman yelled: "Launch the boat in the name of the Devil!“ Then the ship finally could be moved and slid out into the sea so hard that it nearly slipped out of the grasp of the men who were launching it. The seamen boarded her and rowed out to sea and out of sight. But the ship has not been seen since and none who were aboard. 

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.

28 April 2011

Cover rant - a very mild one, but still warranted

Dear Reader, does it bother you when the cover design of a book doesn’t fit the contents of the book?

I have occasionally mentioned book covers and how important I think they are for the appearance of a book. One of the things that annoys me about cover images is when they show something that is either wrong or not in the text. Here is a good example:

I had one of these books recommended to me but I couldn’t find the single volume edition, so I bought a reissued volume with both novels in it. The cover image is that of a typical Regency romance cover, with a handsome man gazing into the eyes of a beautiful woman, their body language and facial expressions suggesting that kissing is about to commence. So far so good. Then I read the first novel, Viscount Vagabond, and found out that the hero of that novel has dark blond hair and the brown-haired heroine only comes up to his chest. While the original cover is wrong about her height, at least it gets their hair colours right:

 When the gentleman on the cover did not resemble the hero of the novel I just assumed that the image was of the hero and heroine of the second novel. But no, the heroine in The Devil’s Delilah has black hair, so that didn’t fit either.

 As a matter of fact, the man in the first cover image could be the hero of the second book posed with the heroine of the first book. Now I was curious, so I googled both titles and found both covers, neither of which was the cover on the book in question. The original covers had people who fit or nearly fit the descriptions in the respective books. It’s a small thing, but annoying nonetheless. It makes me feel that the publisher doesn't care enough for the potential book buyer to get the cover right.

27 April 2011

Wednesday Night Video: Poetry reading about reading

Taylor Mali reads "Reading Allowed".
Not only does this guy have a sense of humour, but he knows how to capture the attention of an audience and the poem is not one of those high-brow odes that only the poet and two other people can understand.

26 April 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays: Mean girls in books

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Please visit the host site and click on some of the submitted links for more mean girls.

They are the characters who can be the source of anything from minor twists to major plot complications. They are the bitches we love to hate, the women who can't help being nasty, the meanies who make life interesting and unpleasant for the protagonists, the wicked, the spiteful, and often the most memorable characters in literature: The Mean Girls.

Jane Austen wrote some very realistic mean girls, including:

  • Fannie (Mrs. John) Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility,
  • Maria Bertram from Mansfield Park, and
  • Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice
Other mean girls and women I'd like to slap around:
  • Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
  • Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (love her or hate her, you must admit she is both mean and spiteful at times)
  • The Snow Queen from H.C. Andersen’s novella, “The Snow Queen” and her literary descendant:
  • The White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
  • The Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (she should be at the top of the list)
  • Milady De Winter from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (although ultimately a pathetic character, wholly controlled by her passions, she is neverhteless an archetypal mean girl)

BTW, I am reading Rebecca and I think Mrs. Danvers is shaping up to be a massive bitch.

25 April 2011


Originally published in August 2004, on my original 52 Books blog. Edited to remove spoilers.

Couldn't find the original cover
Author: Georgette Heyer
Year published: 1965
Genre: Romance, historical (Regency)
Where got: Public library

The cast:
Him: Vernon, Marquis of Alverstoke, 37.
Her: Miss Frederica Merriville, 24.
Others: Her siblings: Charis, Harry, Jessamy, Felix; Lufra the dog; Alverstoke’s secretary, Mr. Trevor; Alverstoke’s 3 sisters; Alverstoke’s heir, Mr Endymion Dauntry & his mother and sister.

The story:
The Marquis of Alverstoke is known for his perfect dress sense, impeccable manners and self-centered lifetyle. It is therefore as much a surprise to him as to everyone else when he decides to answer a request for assistance from Frederica, the daughter of a man distantly related to him by marriage, to whom he is by no means beholden. Frederica’s sister, the exquisitely beautiful, airheaded Charis, needs to be launched into society and as Frederica knows no-one capable of this, she writes to the Marquis for assistance.

The Marquis decides to help, mostly in order to piss off his sister, who constantly tries to sponge off him, and whose less-than beautiful daughter will pale in comparison with Charis. But as he becomes better acquainted with the Merriville family he begins to feel some regard for them, especially the two youngest, Jessamy and Felix, and for Frederica, who is the eldest and responsible for the family.

Technique and plot:
Written in Heyer’s easy, witty style, this is a very funny and delightful story. The dialogue is great and the characters well-rounded (for the most part) and mostly likeable, even the ones not liked by other characters, like Lord Buxted. There are no villains in the story, it’s simply about circumstances that bring together two couples.

Another delightful stoy from the queen of the Regency novel. 4+ stars.

24 April 2011

Reviewing slump

Just checking in to let you all know I'm alive. I had some vacation time left over from the summer that I wanted to enjoy and I used it in combination with my Easter holiday to take 10 days off from work.

I have been reading a lot, but not books I have felt like reviewing, and I only had a few blog posts prepared ahead of time, so I haven't been very active lately. However, I will be back in business on Tuesday.

22 April 2011

Friday night folktale: A Little Trip to Heaven

I wanted to post an Easter tale today, but the only one I could find in my small collection of folktales is a variation of a story I have posted before, so here instead is a tall tale. 

Tall tales are a favourite among most societies, and Icelanders are no exception. I seem to recall a Munchausen’s tale that has some elements in common with this one.

Once upon a time there was a king and queen who ruled over a small country. They had one daughter.There was also a widow who lived on a small farm. She had one son. 

The king had sworn to give his daughter‘s hand in marriage to the first man who would tell him something he did not believe. Many had tried, but all had failed. The widow‘s son now decided to try his luck and went to the palace and offered to tell the king a tale. His offer was accepted and he began his tale so: 

"Once I was with my mother in her kitchen and she was whipping some milk and doing it with such gusto that soon a solid column of whipped milk rose up into the air and went up through the kitchen chimney and reached all the way to Heaven. So I took my mother‘s kitchen poker and used it to poke holes in the milk column and pull myself up it until I reached Heaven."

"What did you see there?“ asked the king.

"The Saviour was carrying hay, Saint Peter was taking the hay home on the back of a skewbald mare, and the Virgin Mary was baking bread. She gave me one loaf. 

I then turned back and when I got to the edge of Heaven I sat down to pick lice off myself. I took the intestines from all the lice, tied them together into a rope and fastened it to Heaven‘s edge and then I climbed down the rope.

The rope didn‘t reach quite all the way down, and when I reached the end I saw below me a heard of bulls that were drinking water from a brook. I was then ten arm‘s lengths from the ground. I let go of the rope and when the bulls heard my fall, they all looked up and I landed in the mouth of one of them, the very biggest. They were all your majesty‘s bulls.

The bull swallowed me up and when I reached its stomach I saw such sights, such beauty! There was room after glorious room and I walked from one to the other, going deeper into the bull‘s guts, until I reached the most glorious room of them all. There I saw twelve people sitting at a table, with your royal majesty right at the end of the table.“

"That‘s a lie,“ said the king. "I have never been inside a bull‘s arse!“

And that is how the widow‘s son won the hand of the princess.

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.

20 April 2011

Wednesday night video: Library Day (Iceland)

Last Thursday was Library Day in Iceland. The day was celebrated with many events in libraries all over the country. This video was made by staff of the Municipal Library of Akureyri, which was my local library for the four years I was at school there.

The theme of the day was "The Library - Gym for the Mind" and the message of the video in English is "Exercise your Mind - Visit the Library".

19 April 2011

Books in the living room: A grand old Icelandic tradition

A view of my TBR shelves from when I was experimenting with colours.
Displaying the finest volumes of the family library in the living room is a good old Icelandic tradition.  Visit an Icelander of my parents’ generation or older, and it is likely that there will be books in the living room, even in the humblest of homes. It might be one shelf, incorporated into a unit also displaying such dust catchers as crystal, ceramics, family photos, small stuffed animals and the family stereo system. On the other hand, it might just be a whole book-case. The books on such public display will generally be nice-looking ones, bound in leather or faux leather, with gilded spines and always looking suspiciously new. There will often be whole oeuvres of works by particular authors, all from the same publisher and in the same identical bindings. You will in all likelihood spot the name of Halldór Laxness on book-spines on such shelves, as well as those of Jónas Hallgrímsson, Davíð Stefánsson and Gunnar Gunnarsson, along with the Sagas and Tales of Chivalry, and possibly some Guðmundur Kamban and Stephan G. Stephansson and collections of Icelandic folk-tales and chronicles, not to forget the family Bible and possibly some acceptable translated works of world literature, including Shakespeare and Dumas, in tasteful brown, green or black faux leather bindings.

Suspicion as to whether these gleaming volumes have ever been read might rear its head in the mind of the onlooker, but it is unlikely that the owners will ever admit to not having read every single volume. Comment that they certainly have a fine taste in literature, and they may give you a cheeky grin and lead you into one of the rooms usually not shown to guests. This may be a bedroom or an office, or even a designated book-room. This where they keep the translated thrillers of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Jack Higgins, Ken Follett and Sven Hassell. You may find an entire collection of translated Sherlock Holmes books and the lovely tan volumes containing the translations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (although these are just as likely to be found in the living room), nestled between the potboilers of Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins on one side and the romance novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Sigge Stark, Danielle Steel and Ib H. Cavling on the other.

There will be other translated foreign authors, such as Régine Désforges and Agatha Christie, probably a complete or partial set of the translated Time-Life History of the Second World War and possibly a tastefully dust-cover free and well-thumbed translation of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, in addition to Icelandic authors not considered respectable enough for the living room, such as suspense author Birgitta Halldórsdóttir, romance author Snjólaug Bragadóttir, and that epic chronicler of country life and coffee-drinking, Guðrún frá Lundi. All of these books will be in handsome hard-cover bindings showing various levels of wear.

There may also be row upon row of much-read, wrinkly-spined paperbacks, some Icelandic but most foreign, including possibly a couple of rows of Norwegian historical fantasy author Margit Sandemo’s series The Legend of the Ice People in translation (belonging to the lady of the house) and some Morgan Kane books by Louis Masterson (belonging to the man of the house).

These days younger people are less concerned than the older generations with being judged for having foreign books and/or genre literature on their shelves, and many will happily display all their hardcover books and the nicest-looking of their paperbacks in the living room, regardless of genre or author.

Visit a person of my generation, and you may find some of the same authors in the living room, if there are any books there at all, but they will probably be sitting side by side with the handsome black bindings with silver lettering that contain the hard-cover versions of the books of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and, if the person reads translations, hard-cover editions of the translated works of Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. The back room will contain more paperbacks than hard-covers in both Icelandic and their foreign language(s) of choice. The Sherlock Holmes books will probably be in the original English, as will the collected works of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie.

I am an atypical Icelandic book-lover in this respect. I have no bookshelves in my living room and the only books you will find there are the ones I am reading at any given moment. This is mostly due to the fact that I have a south-facing living room and I don’t want to expose my books to the sun, but also because my bookshelves are old and ugly. However, I am on the verge of making the leap. I would dearly love to put up built-in bookcases along one of the walls in my hall, but until I have the money to make a good job of it, I will probably put the overflow from the office and bedroom in the living room. I have my eye on the second-largest of the Ikea Expedit shelving units, because it is deep enough for double stacking and can be used to make a tasteful room divider with the spines of books looking out from both sides.

Inspired by this display of Icelandic home libraries

18 April 2011

A Man of Many Talents

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

Author: Deborah Simmons
Year published: 2003
Pages: 320
Genre: Romance, historical (Regency period)
Sub-genre(s): Mystery
Where got: Public library

The cast:
Christian is a hero to die for: handsome, charming, witty and talented, with a self-depreciating sense of humour and oodles of sex appeal.
Abigail is a bit harder to figure out - until you discover what drives her and why she is so repressed.
The secondary characters are unfortunately flat - pretty much the standard usual suspects found in many mysteries. But they don’t really matter that much, they are just there to provide suspects in the haunting, which, while an important plot element in bringing together the hero and heroine, nevertheless takes second stage to the love story.

The story:
Former lady’s companion Abigail Parkinson has inherited a country mansion that she doesn’t want, but the sale of which will bring her financial independence and enable her to buy the small cottage she has always dreamed of. But a ghost - which she herself has never seen - is driving away prospective buyers, so she writes a letter asking the assistance of Christian Reade, Viscount Moreland, who has a reputation as a “ghost router” because he once uncovered a false haunting.

Christian is loath to come to her aid, having been inundated with such requests, mostly from mothers of eligible ladies or the ladies themselves, bent on entrapping him into marriage because of his money and title. His grandfather insists that he go, and so Christian sets out to Sibel Hall, fully expecting to find another marriage-mad lady waiting for him. Arriving there, he is coolly received by Abigail, whose stern manners and dowdy appearance makes him nickname her “The Governess”. Also at the Hall are her three cousins, who seem to have the remarkable ability to always be in the way whenever he wants to be alone with Abigail.

In spite of her stern and dowdy outer appearance, Christian is quite taken with Abigail, who has a heady scent of lilacs about her which drives him to distraction. Also, he can see that underneath the governess guise there is a beautiful and interesting woman who becomes more and more attractive to him as the days pass.
As Christian conducts his investigation into the haunting, he and Abigail begin to fall in love, neither being much inclined to admit it to themselves and certainly not to each other. Christian suspects that there is a person behind the haunting, and that it is connected to a treasure that is supposed to be hidden somewhere in the house or grounds. But proving it and catching the perpetrator is going to be hard work, especially when all he wants to do is win the heart of the delectable Abigail.

Technique and plot:
The book is well written and funny, with sparkling dialogue, a gripping mystery and a believable development of the relationship between hero and heroine. The house Abigail has inherited is large, gloomy and mysterious and full of hidden passages and walled-off rooms, just the sort of place you would believe to be haunted. The plot suffers somewhat from scenes that could have been left out of a non-romantic mystery - specifically the wine cellar, the priest’s escape and the lover’s tunnel episodes. They slow down the action, but are nevertheless necessary for the development of the romance. I just wish Simmons had made them shorter and more to the point.

A delightful Regency romp, a satisfying love story and a mystery with an interesting twist. 4- stars.

15 April 2011

Friday night folktale: The Soul of my Dear John

This is a story known to most Icelanders, if not through the folk-tale, then through the poem Davíð Stefánsson wrote based on it, or the play Gullna hliðið (The Golden Gate - that's the Icelandic name for the Pearly Gates) he also based on this tale. It’s a story about worthiness, sacrifice and love, and is unusual in being quite critical of Christian morals.

Once upon a time there was a couple, an old woman and an old man. The old man was rather unruly and unpopular, and in addition he was lazy and did not do his share of the work that needed doing in the home. His wife didn’t like this one bit and kept nagging him and saying that all he was good for was to waste and spoil all that she contributed to the household, but she was always active and working to get what was needed, and was a shrewd businesswoman who was not easily tricked. 

Although this disagreement existed between them the old woman still loved her man very much and made sure he wanted for nothing. This went on for a long time, until the old man fell seriously ill. The old woman sat constantly by his bedside and when it was clear that he was weakening it occurred to her that he was not very well prepared for his own death and that it was doubtful whether he would be given entry into Heaven, so she decided that maybe it would be best if she were to take care of that herself. She took a small bag made of leather and when he breathed his last breath she held the bag open over his face and captured his soul as it left the body and immediately tied it firmly closed. She then walked all the way to the Pearly Gates and knocked on the door. Saint Peter opened the door and asked he what her business was. 

“Greetings,” said the old woman, “I have brought the soul of my dear John; you may have heard of him. I want to ask you to allow him into Heaven.”

“Well, well" answered Peter, “unfortunately I cannot do that; as a matter of fact I have heard of your John, but it was nothing good.”

The she said: “I didn’t think, Saint Peter, that you were so hard-hearted, and you have clearly forgotten what happened to you way back when you denied your Lord.” Upon hearing this, Peter went back inside and locked the door behind him, but the old woman stood outside, moaning and sobbing.

A short time later she again knocked on the door, and this time it was Saint Paul who answered the door. She asked him to give entry to her dear John’s soul, but he did not want to hear about it and said her John did not deserve such grace. This made her angry and she said:

“So tell me, Paul: I suppose you were more worthy of grace back when you were persecuting God and all good men! I will ask no more of you.” Paul turned around quickly and locked the door.

When the old woman knocked on the door for the third time it was answered by the Virgin Mary herself. 

“Greetings, my dear” said the old woman. “I hope you will let my dear John inside even if Peter and Paul will not.”

“I am sorry,” said Mary, “but I dare not, for your John was such a rascal.”

“I do not blame you for that,” said the old woman, “but I thought you knew that other people besides yourself can be frail, or have you forgotten that you had a child and could not name his  father?” Mary would hear no more and shut and locked the door as fast as she could.

Now the old woman knocked on the door for the fourth time and this time it was Jesus Christ himself who came to the door. She humbly spoke:

“I wanted to ask you, dear saviour, to let this wretched soul inside the door.” 

Jesus answered: “It’s that John – no, good woman, he did not believe in me.”

As he was shutting the door, the old woman moved quickly and flung the bag with the soul in it in through the doorway so that it flew far into Heaven, before the door slammed shut. It took a heavy weight off the old woman’s heart to know that her dear John had made it into the Holy Kingdom, and it was with a light step that she returned home. How she fared after this we do not know, and what became of the soul of dear old John is anybody’s guess.

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.

14 April 2011

A chilling and memorable opening paragraph

"There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy. The breathless scream, the wildly gyrating arms and legs pumping into thin air, the rush of leaves, snapping branches, and the sickening thud, followed by uneasy silence. Listening to that silence, I reflected on how plant collecting can be an unpleasant sort of activity."
From Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy, by Eric Hansen.

This would make a thrilling start to a novel, but since it's the beginning sentence of a non-fiction book, it's just horrifying. Fortunately we learn that the man survived the fall, but the author takes more than half a page to get to that fact.

13 April 2011

Wednesday Night Video: Book-speak translated into techno-speak

This could have been made even funnier with a less ironic delivery, but its pretty good:

Congratulations, Gyrðir Elíasson!

The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2011 goes to Icelandic poet and author Gyrðir Elíasson, for his book of short stories, Milli trjánna (Between the Trees). He is the seventh Icelandic author to win this prize.

12 April 2011

Meme: Top Ten Tuesday: Ten books I'd like to see made into movies

The Top Ten Tuesday meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Today's meme is about books we hope will be made into movies. To see more lists, visit the hosting blog and from there visit some of the other participating blogs.

Hearing that a beloved book has been optioned for a movie can be both cause for anticipation and anxiety. Anticipation because when Hollywood gets it just right, you can add another movie to your favourite-movies-based-on-books list, and anxiety because when they don’t get it right it can range from mediocrity to disaster and, worse yet, discourage people from reading the book. Here’s a list of 10 books I’d like see made into movies - books I think would make fantastic movies if only they’d get it right.

Since The Hobbit seems to finally be in production, it seems fairly certain that Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is going to be made into a TV mini-series, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is listed on IMdb as being in production, and Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is being filmed and the rest of her books have been optioned with a high probability of getting made into movies, I can strike those off the list.

Since there are authors whose whole oeuvre I’d like to see filmed, I have limited myself to only one book by any one author, so as to include more variety in the list. I have also avoided the temptation to include books that have already been filmed, be it for TV, as movies with less than satisfactory results, or so long ago that an update would be ideal. So no Dorothy L. Sayers, although I would have loved to include Strong Poison or Gaudy Night.

  1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Actually, I don’t think anything under a three-hour movie would do it justice (there’s so much detail), so I would prefer this one to be made into a big-budget TV mini-series.
  2. The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey. Of all the books in that series, I think this one and the three books in the Harper Hall trilogy are the most filmable.
  3. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. I’d love to see all that wonderful wackiness on the big screen.
  4. The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. I don’t think I need to explain this one.
  5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I was only about a third into the story when I began thinking how cinematic it was, and I think it would make a great psyhhological thriller/horror movie.
  6. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. In fact I would like to see just about all of her books made into movies, but apparently she put a note in her will that she didn’t want them to be filmed, so I will probably have to wait for them to pass into the public domain before I’ll see a Heyer movie adaptation.
  7. Naked in Death by J.D. Robb. A wonderfully gritty futuristic police procedural combined with a scorching romance, I think this could look darkly wonderful on the big screen.
  8. Grafarþögn (Silence of the Grave) by Arnaldur Indriðason. It’s time for another movie adaptation of Arnaldur’s books. Preferably made in Iceland, by Icelanders.
  9. The Murder of the Maharajah by H.R.F. Keating. I think this would make a wonderful murder mystery with an ensemble cast, in the same vein as Death on the Nile or Gosford Park.
  10. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. This is so full of all kinds of wonderful literary references (starting with the title), and it’s just so funny. With David Tennant as Ned.

11 April 2011

The Quiet Gentleman

Originally published in July 2004, on my original 52 Books blog. Edited to remove spoilers.

Author: Georgette Heyer
Year published: 1951
Genre: Romance, historical (Regency period)
Sub-genre(s): Mystery
Where got: Public library

The story:
Soon after Gervase arrives at Stanyon castle to take up his duties as the Earl and landowner, it becomes apparent that someone wants him dead. The most likely suspect is Gervase’s passionate younger brother and heir, Martin, but Gervase is not ready to believe that without further evidence. Complicating the matter for the would-be killer is Drusilla, a practical young lady who is staying with the dowager Countess, and who always seems to be there when Gervase needs protection from the would-be killer. 

Technique, characterisation and plot:

The book is absorbing and funny, not just chuckle-chuckle funny, but laugh-aloud funny.
The romance was subdued - in fact neither hero nor heroine gave any indication of being in love until the last 20 pages or so, and the romantic antics were left to the support cast, whose escapades provided an interesting counterpoint to the phlegmatic relationship between hero and heroine.

The book is well written and the use of language is brilliant. The description of Stanyon castle and all the additions to it over the centuries had me laughing out loud, so wonderfully evocative and sarcastic was it.
The mystery is engaging and the hints very subtle, although an experienced mystery reader will see the villain a mile off (I had the villain and his motive figured out long before anything bad happened.)

Most of the main characters are believable, well-rounded and three-dimensional, with the exception of Drusilla, who comes across as flat. This is unfortunate, since she is the heroine of the book. Gervase is a seemingly calm and submissive dandy, but underneath his placid demeanour there is a will of iron, a quick intelligence and a great sense of humour. His brother, Martin, is equally well written, a young man who has never learned to check his temper or his passions and is quick to anger, but can also be compassionate and caring. His love-interest, Marianne, is a shy, retiring and immature girl who learns a lesson about the dangers of flirting. The least interesting characters are Drusilla, the practical and seemingly unemotional heroine, and Theo, the aloof cousin who is the financial manager of the estate and always seems to be hovering in the background without taking direct part in events.

The love between Drusilla and Gervase is not at all believable - it just appears suddenly near the end, even though Drusilla has supposedly been enamoured of Gervase ever since they first met right at the beginning of the book. It’s almost as if Heyer suddenly realized “hey, I forgot there’s supposed to be a romance between those two” and tacked it on as an afterthought. Other than that, I liked this book very much, so much that I have ordered another of Heyer’s books from an online bookstore, and fully expect it to be just as good, if not better than this one.

A charming mystery and romance. 4 stars.

08 April 2011

Friday Night Folktales: The Money Ghost

Once upon a time, long ago, there was a rich farmer. He was believed to have great riches in coins as well as property, but when he died and the estate was divided between the heirs, no money could be found. After he had been buried the people of the farm where the church was located noticed that there was something haunting the cemetery.

One of the farm-workers was a fearless man. He decided to spend a night in the cemetery and see if he could find out more about the haunting. He wanted to blend in if there really were ghosts there, so he wrapped himself in a white linen shroud and rolled himself in consecrated soil and took up a position near the cemetery gate.

The sun set and it was getting dark when he saw the earth above the farmer’s grave begin to stir as if it were being shovelled from the grave. Soon the farmer came out of the grave, dressed in his shroud. He noticed the farm-worker and walked up to him, saying, “Are you one of us?”

“Yes, I am” answered our man.

“Then come with me,” said the ghost. “We shall have some fun together tonight.”

They set off together and the ghost moved much faster than the living man, who couldn’t keep up. Then the ghost said: “Your are strangely slow for one of our kind.”

The other answered: “That is because I had bad feet while I was alive.”

“I had better carry you then,” said the ghost and took the man on his back. They were now able to move very fast and were soon before the doors to the storehouse belonging to the farm were the farmer had lived. People had noticed that it was haunted and much had been broken in there, but nothing had been taken.

The ghost kicked up the door to get in and entered and started rooting around, throwing and breaking things. Then he slid under a large chest and started digging in the dirt until he finally pulled out a cask full of coins. While he was doing this his companion had closed the door and covered all the windows so no light could be seen, but when he looked at the money it was as if it shone in the dark.

The ghost emptied the cask on the floor and spread the money around and then started picking it up again, but the man delayed him as much as possible. Three times the ghost filled the cask. The man knew that the sun was rising and said: “Soon the night will be over.”

“The night is not over yet,” answered the ghost, “while it is but half-finished. I usually empty and fill the cask four times each night, with time to spare for getting home and back into my grave.”

Again he emptied the cask, but didn’t realise how much the man had delayed him. The man now opened the door and daylight flooded in. The ghost was startled and ran out, but the man got out first and ran ahead of him, since the ghost was now weakened by the daylight.

Finally he reached the grave, but the man had got there before him and and had tied a string around his mittens and was dangling them into the grave, effectively stopping the ghost from entering it. He said to the ghost: “I will never let you back in unless you promise never to stir from it again.”

“You have betrayed me,” said the ghost, “but I must promise you this so I can return to my resting place.”

The man then removed his mittens and the ghost went into the grave, which closed up after him. The man immediately went back to the farm, which was not far off, and had arrived before the people were up. He told his story and was rewarded by being allowed to keep the money. The people considered it well-earned, and besides they thought the ghost would come back for it, but the ghost kept his word and never stirred abroad again.

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.

Quotation for today

No poet or novelist wishes he was the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

07 April 2011

News: New book by Arnaldur Indriðason due out in English

Myrká, a police procedural by Arnaldur Indriðason that was published in Icelandic in 2008, is due out in an English translation in June, the 23rd to be precise.

The English title is Outrage and the translator is Anne Yates.

06 April 2011

Wednesday Night Video: Book comes to life

Here is a wonderful example of how a book can be brought to life:

Laurie Lee's first sight of London

A few mornings later, coming out of a wood near Beaconsfield, I suddenly saw London at last - a long smoky skyline hazed by the morning sun and filling the whole of the eastern horizon. Dry, rusty-red, it lay like a huge flat crust, like ash from some spent volcano, simmering gently in the summer morning and emitting a faint, metallic roar.

No architectual glories, no towers or palaces, just a creeping insidious presence, its vast horizontal broken here and there by a gasholder or factory chimney. Even so, I could already feel its intense radiation - an electric charge in the sky - that rose from its million roofs in a quivering mirage, magnetically, almost visibly, dilating.

A little later he continues describing his first impressions of the city:

My village, my town, each had a kind of duck-pond centre, but London had no centre at all, just squat little streets endlessly proliferating themselves like ripples in estuary mud. I arrived at Paddington in the early evening, and walked around for a while. The sky was different here, high, wide, and still, rosy with smoke, and the westering sun. There was a smell of rank oil, rotting fish and vegetables, hot pavements and trodden tar; and a sense of surging pressure, the heavy used-up air of the cheek-by-jowl life around me - the families fermenting behind slack- coloured curtains, above shops and in resounding tenements, sons changing their shirts, daughters drying their hair, waistcoated fathers staring at their tea, and in the streets the packed buses grinding nose to tail and the great night coming on. 

From chapters 1 and 2 of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the second volume of Lee's memoirs.

05 April 2011

List Love: More bookish pet peeves, detective novel and mystery version

Since I am not participating in the Top Ten Tuesdays this week, I decided to continue with my literary pet peeves list, moving on to specific genres. First up is detective novels and mystery fiction. My top peeves for that genre appear below in no particular order, except that no. 1 is my absolute favourite pet peeve.

  1. Suicide endings, especially when it is out of character or not necessary to avoid the death sentence. Can be found in a number of Robert Barnard novels and the works of many other authors.
  2. Sub-intelligent or useless sidekicks. I much prefer teams that make up for each other’s faults to a star detective and a side-kick who is useless except as a dumb stand-in for the reader. I feel that the side-kick must be a developed character of at least normal intelligence and able to contribute to the investigation on other ways than just being a sounding-board for the detective. She could, for example, be the brawn to the detective’s brains or he could be the one with common sense even if lacking in detection abilities. This is why I like Watson - he might be rubbish as a detective, but Holmes would have been killed many times over if not for his side-kick's bravery.
  3. Technobabble and psychobabble. Don’t go into long, involved explanations of how something technical works or why someone is so screwed up – just give a brief explanation and let that suffice. If you show the reader that it is so and explain why in broad terms it is not necessary to go into tiny details of how or why.
  4. The following as the murderer: neurotic spinster, repressed lesbian, slimy homosexual, grossly and unattractively fat character.
  5. Overly complicated solutions/murder plots. John Dickson Carr is a big offender, and one or two books by Dorothy L. Sayer also fall into this category.
  6. Detectives who appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner as well as accuser, and kill people left and right with seemingly no consequences.
  7. Far-fetched murder methods combined with far-fetched motives. If you have to have the murderer use a hitherto unknown poison or a remote-controlled gun, the motive had better be a simple and straightforward one, and if the motive is far-fetched, the method had better be straight-forward.
  8. Murder victims who were so evil and so hated by so many that the murderer was doing humankind a favour by eliminating them. Victims who are sympathetic on some level make for a much more thrilling plot.
  9. Ordinary people, who, when faced with murder for the first time in their lives, act as if it was something perfectly normal and don’t seem affected by it. 99,5 % of all detective novelists are guilty of this.
  10. Dysfunctional detectives whose troubled private life invades the story with monotonous regularity. I don’t mind reading about detectives’ private lives, but do they all have to be divorced or almost divorced alcoholics with children and/or exes who hate them?

04 April 2011

One Pair of Hands

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

I’ve been on a reading spree lately - a book per day on average - mostly books I'm too lazy to review, but here’s one I recommend:

Author: Monica Dickens
Year published: 1939
Pages: 140
Genre: Autobiography, memoir
Where got: Public library

The story:
This is Monica Dickens’ memoir of her one-and-half years as a cook general and housemaid in the 1930’s. She started this work because she was bored and didn’t have anything to do with herself, rather than from any real need for money. This is quite a funny glimpse of a profession that doesn’t exist any more in Britain. Dickens mostly worked for respectable middle class families that today would at the most have someone come in to do the cleaning, but she also got a taste of working as a cook at a country manor. She tells of her own kitchen accidents, sloppiness and incompetence with good humoured sarcasm, and doesn’t spare her employers or co-workers either, but also gives praise where she feels praise is deserved. She gets fired when her first employer's boyfriend gets grabby, resigns from her country manor job when the butler tries to blackmail her, and goes through many misadventures which can’t have seemed funny at the time, but certainly gave her material for a very entertaining book.

Written in an easy, humorous style with a light touch of sarcasm. Dickens' character studies are funny and well-drawn, and she has a good eye for the absurd.

Quite a funny look at life in service in 1930’s England. 4 stars.

03 April 2011

Reading report for March 2011

I read 16 books in March, several of which I started reading in a previous month. 6 were TBR challenge books, one a Top Mysteries challenge read, 2 were Gothic Challenge reads, and one a Buchmesse read.

One was an audio-book, Unseen Academicals, which was also a re-read, if you can call listening to audio-books "reading". I suppose you could call it "absorbing", because it is actually more than just listening.  Shortly before I listened to it I had read The Rules of Association Football 1863, a tiny little book that contains a short overview of the history of football and the original rules of the modern game, which  enhanced my enjoyment of Unseen Academicals because quite a lot of that book is taken up by a football game, although it isn‘t, per se, about football.

It looks as if April is going to be another month of finishing up books I started in a previous month, because in the last week I have started reading something like 9 books, and lost interest in all of them once I took a break. I occasionally go through such attention-span problems, but it never lasts very long. Until this one ends I am focusing on short stories so I will at least finish something in each reading session.

The Books:
  • The Rules of Association Football 1863.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women or, Margaret, Jo, Elizabeth and Amy. First time I read this classic from beginning to end in an unabbreviated version. Lovely writing and good storytelling, but a bit too moralistic and preachy for my taste.
  • M.C. Beaton: Death of a Nag. Murder mystery.
  • Bragi Ólafsson: Sendiherrann, ljóð í óbundnu máli (The Ambassador). Literary novel. A disappointment.
  • Daniel Defoe: The King of Pirates. Epistolatory novel that glamorises piracy.
  • Agnès Desarthe: Good Intentions. Literary novel.
  • Neil Gaiman: M is for Magic. Short stories for kids and young adults.
  • Katie MacAlister: Sex and the Single Vampire.Urban fantasy.
  • Léo Malet: 120 Rue de la Gare. Noir murder mystery.
  • Ngaio Marsh: Black as He's Painted. Murder mystery.
  • Ngaio Marsh: Last Ditch. Murder mystery, police procedural.
  • Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals.Fantasy.
  • Sanders, Girling, Davies, Sanders: Would You Believe It? Useless information you can't afford to be without. Book of trivia, much of which is out of date, when it isn't plain wrong.
  • Edgar Wallace: The Four Just Men.Thriller.
  • Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto.Gothic novel.
  • Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan : Beyond Heaving bosoms: The Smart Bitches‘ Guide to Romance. Literary handbook.

02 April 2011

Bookmarks redux

I haven’t done a bookmark post in quite a while, but since I have found a number of good printable bookmarks online since my last bookmark post, I’m going to post some links. First, here are links to a selection of my other bookmark posts:

These include my own bookmark designs:

And now a dozen new links. Some of these are promotional, but nice nonetheless.

01 April 2011

Friday night folktales: The Lagarfljót Worm

An old folk belief explains the gold-hoard of dragons thus: When a lindworm lies on top of a piece of gold, it makes the dragon grow bigger, and the gold hoard will grow as well. 

In the east of Iceland there is belief in a serpent or dragon that is supposed to live in the Lögurinn, a long lake through which the Lagarfljót river flows. It takes its name from the river and is known as Lagarfljótsormur or the Lagarfljót Worm. It is Iceland’s best known monster, sometimes referred to as Iceland’s Nessie. This it the story of its origins:

In ancient times there was a woman living on a farm near the Lagarfljót. She had one teenage daughter, who she loved very much. She gave this girl a gold ring.

The girl asked her how she could profit the most from the gold, and her mother answered that she should take a lindworm and lay it on the gold. The gold hoard would grow with the worm and thus increase and make her rich. 

The girl got herself a tiny lindworm and laid it on top of the gold ring inside her linen trunk and left it there for a few days. When she next looked inside the trunk, the worm had grown so big that it was about to burst out of the trunk. The girl got scared, grabbed the trunk and threw it into the river with the worm and all the gold. 

A long time later people started seeing the worm in the river, grown huge, mean and monstrous. It would attack, kill and eat people and animals that were trying to cross the river. Sometimes it would stretch itself upon the river banks and spew poison.

This was very troublesome and people feared crossing the river, but none knew any way of stopping the beast. Finally two Finns – Finns being considered among the greatest of sorcerers – were hired to see what could be done. They dived into the river but quickly surfaced again, saying that the worm was very powerful and neither could it be killed nor the gold retrieved to stop it growing bigger. They added that there was another worm under the gold hoard, and that one was even bigger and meaner than the first. They dived back down and were able to bind the worm down into the river bed, by putting one bond around its middle, just behind the flippers, and another one just above the tail. 

Because of these bonds the worm can no longer kill or attack, but sometimes it hunches up its back so that it rises up from the water. When this happens it is usually an omen of great tidings, usually of the calamitous kind, such as a draught or a hard winter. 

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.

Continuing yesterday's Weekly Geeks post...

... here is an interesting blog entry and discussion of book-to-film adaptations I spotted on The Guardian website.

Quotation for today

All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality -- the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.
Arthur Christopher Benson (1862 – 1925)