30 June 2011

Weekly Geeks: Technology and reading

Here is my contribution to this week's Weekly Geeks:

The future.
I consider myself to be open-minded when it comes to the format of the books I read. Give me audio books, pop-up books, books with upside-down, spiraling or variable text, books like The Dictionary of the Kzars which you read out of order of the pages, or books like the Griffin and Sabine trilogy which are told in a series of letters and postcards, some of which are removable or stuffed inside envelopes – if it can be read or listened to, I’ll read it or listen to it as long as the subject interests me.

The immediate past.
E-books are no exception. I have been reading them on my computer since I discovered Project Gutenberg way back in the mists of the 20th century and I knew that with the advent of portable computers it would only be a matter of time until someone came up with a dedicated device for reading books on a screen. As a matter of fact it surprised me that it didn’t happen sooner.

Reading books on a computer screen has the drawback of tiring the eyes more quickly than by reading from a printed page, because of screen glare, flicker and/or backlighting, although I personally don’t feel much of a difference. This is perhaps because I have had the sense to change the standard brightness and lightness and sometimes also the hue settings of the computer screens I use, so that there are no brilliant white surfaces on the screen to dazzle my eyes, and I also take care to make sure there is no reflected glare.

I want one! (maybe)
E-readers, with their e-paper/e-ink technologies that make the text on the screen feel like regular paper and ink to the eye are a leap forward in e-book presentation. When they first appeared on the scene they were really more like nifty toys rather than serious contenders for popularity against physical books, but fast advances in the technology have turned them from nice gadgets into seriously useful devices.


I am not only a reader but also a traveller. This means that when I travel, I take books with me, usually too many of them. Carrying the weight of all the books I have brought along plus the books I have bought during the journey can lead to physical strain. At the beginning of this year I was considering buying an e-reader just to ease my burdens when travelling, but now I am determined to do so, not only for travelling but also for reading books I know I want to read but can’t borrow from the library and don’t particularly want to add to my physical library. E-books also have the advantage that I can buy them from abroad directly over the Internet without having to pay the value-added tax, import tax and handling fee involved in importing physical books through the mail. It only remains for me to do the research needed to decide which device I would prefer and to decide whether perhaps I should really splash out and get an iPad which can act as more than just an e-reader.

Soon to be no more for this reader?
Whichever e-reader I do choose, it will have to have the capacity to show images – if only in black on white – because the biggest use for me besides the purely recreational will, at least to begin with, be to replace the brick-thick guidebooks I have been lugging around on my journeys and give me the ability to carry around a whole library of Lonely Planets and Rough Guides – if I so choose – in one book-sized device and enable me to use the maps and write notes and comments to my heart’s content. (When they start offering an e-reader with a built-in GPS system I will definitely be among the first in line to buy it).

For a person like me, who grew up with the smell of books in my nostrils and the texture of them under my fingers, physical books will continue to be a more enjoyable sensory experience than reading e-books. E-readers will therefore never completely replace my physical library but they can and will, in time, supplement and even replace parts of it. There are lots of books I would like to keep for later re-reading but don’t feel the need to keep on my shelves, and also books that I know I will only read once and can therefore dispense with the buying of physical copies that need to be lugged, post-reading, to wherever it is I choose to donate them (they sell for so little that it isn’t worth the effort to try). Then there are those 600+ page novels that I occasionally get the urge to read but are really too heavy for my hands to hold for long.

Part of my unruly library.
Right now, I have around 2000 books on my shelves. With an e-book reader in my possession this great dust-catcher of a library could be pared down to about 600 books: my favourite volumes, large format photography and coffee-table books, comic books and graphic novels, cookbooks, beloved old childhood favourites, beautiful bindings, favourite covers, reference books not available online or in e-editions, and valuable books, all displayed to advantage instead of crammed double-deep into the overflowing shelves and whirling up dust whenever I pull one out.

The current situation.
While I have yet to actually try out an actual e-book reader, I have already become acquainted with the Kindle set-up, having installed Kindle for PC on my laptop. So far I haven’t bought any e-books, but I have downloaded a considerable library from Project Gutenberg and a few promotional freebies, in addition to what has been gifted to me for reviewing. It has been mostly nice so far. The controls are intuitive and easy to figure out, but already I am becoming unhappy with the lack of mobility. It isn’t exactly easy to read a book off a laptop while eating breakfast, at least at my tiny kitchen table, and taking it with me to the toilet is out of the question, whereas I could do both with an e-reader; although I would like to stress that (lest you take me for a complete slob), just as I do with physical books, I would never do both with the same item.

28 June 2011

Top Ten Bookish Websites/Organizations/Apps, etc. (aside from book blogs)

The Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To see more lists of useful and fun bookish resources, please visit the hosting site and click on any or all of the links to the participating blogs.

Here are the 10 bookish places/resources I use the most, that are not blogs:

  • Project Gutenberg: Thousands upon thousands of free e-books. Read them online or download them and read them on your computer or your e-reader. All books are in the public domain. If you want to read a classic and you don’t mind e-books, why buy them from Amazon when you can have them for free from Project Gutenberg?
  • BookMooch. Actually I don’t go there so much nowadays, because there are very few Icelanders active on BM and fewer people abroad are sending books outside their country or continent because postal charges seem to have gone up everywhere (here too), plus customs regulations have changed here and I now have to pay customs for every book I receive. When people forget to mark a book as second hand with a low price on the customs declaration, I get to pay a 24% VAT and 10% import duty on the combined postage and suggested retail price printed on the books, plus a handling fee, so I have stopped mooching as much as I used to and now only mooch hard-to-get books or several books from the same person in one go, with strict instructions to the moochee on how to mark the customs declaration.
  • The Guardian book website. Besides reading the blog, I go there for reviews and articles on book-related matters. Try as I may, I just haven’t been able to find another newspaper book page that I like enough to check daily, although I must make an honourable mention of The New York Times book site, which occasionally has interesting reviews and articles.
  • Fantastic Fiction is a site where you can look up author bibliographies. If it’s been published in English and it’s fiction, it will probably be there (although I have found some authors who are not represented).
  • Stop, you’re killing me. Another bibliography site, but this one is dedicated to mysteries and detective fiction. Apart from author bibliographies you can also search for characters by name, ethnicity and occupation and books by genre, location or time period. There is also a section on read-alikes, reference works and book awards, and new releases. It’s pretty complete (but like FF dedicated to books in English only), but you may not find some authors represented.
  • I recently discovered The Millions and haven’t even finished exploring the back issues yet, but I already think it’s awesome. This is an online magazine that covers books, arts, and culture.
  • The Book Depository is a great site to shop for books, and they ship for free, which is a consideration when you have to pay VAT and customs on not just the price of the book but on the postage as well. The only drawback is that they send each individual book in a multi-book order as a separate package so I pay a customs handling fee for each one, but it’s still cheaper than buying from Amazon, even if they do ship the whole order all in one package.
  • The Reykjavík City Library. If I wasn’t concentrating on reading my own books right now, I’d be in there a couple of times a week. There are several branches and I visit at least four of them on a regular basis.
  • The book-shop Iða. In my opinion currently the best indie bookshop in Iceland. Situated in Lækjargata in the heart of Reykjavík, it’s just the right distance from my place of work for a good work-out walk during my lunch break.
  • The second-hand bookshop Bókin. Situated in down-town Reykjavík, I visit it often. It’s so full of books that they overflow along the floor and are sometimes stacked up to the ceiling in a tottering tower that I am sure has collapsed more than once.

Honorable mentions:
  • All About Romance, for back issues of At the Back Fence. Technical problems prevented me from being able to register on the discussion forums after they changed the format, so I rarely go there any more unless I remember something I want to reread in the (now defunct) column.
  • Heroes and Heartbreakers. Macmillan’s romance website is chock full of recommendations, news, excerpts from new romances and original short stories.
  • The book and game shop Nexus. Located near where I work, it’s THE place to go for a fix of comics, manga, fantasy and science-fiction and all their sub-genres, DVDs of the same, as well as role-playing games and board games.

27 June 2011

84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff

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

84 Charing Cross Road has been described as a “love affair between a woman and a book-shop”. For 20 years, Helene Hanff conducted a business correspondence with a second-hand bookshop in London that developed into a friendship between her and the bookshop staff, especially between her and Frank Doel (and later his wife and neighbour as well).

The two main correspondents, Hanff and Doel, quickly seem to have reached an understanding of each other, and one sees in their correspondence a pair of people with a similarly witty sense of humour, although Doel is more restrained (for obvious reasons).

This is one of those books in which nothing much happens on the surface, it is just a little slice of life, as is the companion story, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff’s journal from her visit to London. She had been planning the visit for nearly 20 years, but always kept getting put off, usually because of financial troubles.

84 Charing Cross Road was made into a charming movie, which is how I first learned about it. I had planned to include the book in my original reading challenge, but it is a popular book and it was never available when I went to the library. Now that I have finally read it, it seems almost amazing how such a good movie could be made from so little material, but when I started thinking about it, there is actually plenty there to work with, and of course the movie was fleshed out a bit (e.g. the scene where Hanff gets arrested).

Rating: A great book that should especially appeal to bibliophiles. 4+ stars.

24 June 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Devil Takes a Wife

Stories of people who have made a deal with and then beaten the devil exist all over Christendom and even in literature. Here is a typical one:

Once upon a time there were a mother and daughter who lived together. They were rich and the daughter was considered a great catch and had many suitors, but she accepted no-one and it was the opinion of many that she intended to stay celebrate and serve God, being a very devout  woman.

The devil didn’t like this at all and took on the form of a young man and proposed to the girl, intending to seduce her over to his side little by little. He insinuated himself into her good graces and charmed her so thoroughly that she accepted his suit and they were betrothed and eventually married.

But when the time came for him to enter the marriage bed the girl was so pure and innocent that he couldn’t go near her. He excused himself by saying that he couldn’t sleep and needed a bath in order to go to sleep. A bath was prepared for him and in he went and stayed there all night.

The next day he got out of the bath and wandered outside the house, deep in thought as to how he could get himself out of this mess. He met a man in passing and made a deal with him that he should take his place and have the woman fro his wife. The devil then gave the man his disguise and in return the man promised to pay him back by giving him his oldest child when it reached the age of seven, leaving it in the same place they had met. 

The man then went to the woman, who believed him to be her husband and they had a good marriage from then on. They had one son whom they loved dearly. But when the boy reached his seventh year his father became very depressed and quiet. His wife wanted to know the reason for this and asked him why he was so sad, and he told her the whole story. She said that this had been hidden for too long, but she had an idea of how things could be set right and the boy saved. 

On the boy’s seventh birthday his father took him to the appointed meeting-place and made a circle around him, consecrating it by singing psalms. He stayed with the boy until night-fall and then left him, telling him that whatever he saw that night he should not exit the circle except to go with the person who could reach into the circle and give him his hand in the name of Jesus. 

When the boy’s father was gone the boy first saw various of his friends and acquaintances who tried to tempt him to exit the circle by offering him sweets; then he saw his parents who alternatively cajoled and ordered him to come to them. Next he saw children who were playing with all kinds of toys and asking him to join them. But the boy was steadfast because none of these people would reach into the circle and offer him their hand in the name of Jesus. Now he started to see sparks and flames, horrible visions and strange sights which frightened him very much, but he still stayed within the circle. 

At dawn his parents came for him and reached into the circle and spoke the name of Jesus, and so the devil lost his prize. 

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 June 2011

The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter

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

Year originally published: 1976

Read this a while ago.

The story: A basic coming-of-age story. In 1930, Little Tree, a boy who is part Cherokee and part white, becomes an orphan at age five. He is taken in by his Cherokee grandparents who bring him up in close touch with nature and teach him the ways of their people. He is briefly taken away and put in an orphanage where he is mistreated, but is able to return to his family after a while.

Technique and plot: The book is written in the simple, straightforward first person narrative style of a memoir, and sounds so honest that it’s easy to see why so many people believe(d) it to be non-fiction in spite of some rather unlikely events. Spellings reflect the speech patterns and accents of the people, but not so much that it makes the book difficult to read. Little Tree is very much a child of nature, and from it he learns lessons, both harsh and gentle, at the side of his grandfather. At times the book is very, very funny, other times uplifting and still other times sad. Parts of it ring so true that you whish it wasn’t a novel and the people were real, which is one of the things that have made this book so popular.

Rating: A lovely and somewhat fantastic coming-of-age story. 4+ stars.


Disclaimer: Sometimes knowing too much about an author can spoil the reading of a book. This is one of those books, so if you want to research Forrest Carter, do it after you read the book.

19 June 2011

I'm on holiday

I am off on holiday until next weekend. 
The only posts during the next week will be the regular Monday Blast From the Past, the Wednesday Night Video and the Friday Folktale.

18 June 2011

YA review: Boys That Bite by Mari Mancusi

This is my fourth Gothic Reading Challenge book.

I read a review of this book on one of the blogs I subscribe to through my blog feed or one of the blogs I follow on Blogger, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one, so I don’t know who to thank for the recommendation. It was definitely a blog that mostly focuses on young adult fiction, urban fantasy or romance (or any combination thereof), which narrows it down a bit, but not enough for me to go to the trouble of checking which one it was.

When I came across this book on one of my random trawls through the public library the title looked familiar and I recognised the story and remembered it had got a good review, so I checked it out and took it home with me to read.

Genre: YA urban fantasy
Year of publication: 2006
No. in series: 1
Setting & time: New Hampshire (I don’t recall seeing a town name), USA; contemporary.

Identical twins Rayne and Sunny McDonald are polar opposites in everything except looks. Goth Rayne has decided to make her dream of living forever come true and has been undergoing a strict training course to prepare her for becoming a vampire. The vamp chosen to turn her is the delectable Magnus, second-in-command to the leader of the local vampire coven, who is to become her blood mate and companion for eternity.

On the night he is to turn her she takes her identical twin Sunny with her to the rendezvous and Magnus makes a mistake and bites the wrong sister. The vivacious Sunny has absolutely no interest in being a vampire and did, in fact, not believe they existed until Magnus bit her. He is as distraught as she is, and discovers that Sunny’s transformation into a vampire can be reversed. Together they seek out the cure, but love intervenes and Sunny has to make a tough decision.

One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of YA fiction is that I have often found it to be too full of pain, ugliness, despair, horror and angst for my tastes. This book, however, is like reading a story from the Buffyverse narrated by Mia from The Princess Diaries. The narrator, Sunny, is a typical teenage girl with typical teenage concerns: her appearance, her crush on the cutest boy in school, her grades and the prom. She isn’t exactly shallow, but just believably self-centered like all teenagers. She makes an endearing and believable conflicted narrator, albeit one quite capable of delivering a sarcastic punchline or two when needed.

Like in Buffy, there is a slayer, one girl in every generation, etc., but in this case the focus is on the vampires, and unlike the Buffy vamps, they are good guys. They operate under strict rules, pay their “donors” for their services, and keep a low profile. Magnus is a typically hot romance hero, but is sawed by several flaws from being a total pain-in-the-neck Gary Stu. The story is not all sweetness and roses – there is just enough angst to make it interesting but not a lot of pain or ugliness. Most of all it is funny and takes the piss out of the Buffy stories in an affectionate way. All in all, quite an enjoyable gothic-lite read. 3 stars.

I am now reading the sequel, Stake That, in which Rayne becomes a slayer.

17 June 2011

Icelandic folk-lore: Crossroads

Some say that cross-roads are where you can see four churches, all in a different direction. The oldest cross-roads belief is that you should stay out by a cross-roads on Christmas Night, because that is when the new year begins, and even though the new year is now celebrated a week after Christmas, people still speak of having lived for a certain amount of winters when they have lived that number of Christmases.
When you sit at a cross-roads elves will come from every direction and flock around you and ask you to come with them, but you must not answer. Then they will offer you all kinds of treasures, gold and silver, cloth, food and drink, but you must not take any of it. Then elf-women will come to you in the guise of your mother or sister and ask you to come with them and all sorts of other tricks. You must not respond, whatever happens.
But when dawn breaks you should stand up and say “Thank God, the day brightens all the sky.” Then the elves will disappear, leaving behind all the treasure, which you can keep for yourself. But if you answer or accept anything from them, you will go insane and never be the same again.
Once a man named Fúsi sat at a cross-roads and withstood the offers for a long time, until one elf-woman brought him a large piece of tallow, skimmed off the top of a cooking pot and offered him a bite. Then Fúsi answered: “I have not been in the habit of refusing this treat,” and took a bite and ended up mad and witless.

Note: The hardened fat skimmed off a pot of in which meat had been cooked was considered a tasty treat and often used in place of butter on bread.

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.

Good thing I wasn't drinking anything...

... when I read this viciously funny review, or the drink would now be sprayed all over my computer screen.
For added fun, also read the comments.

16 June 2011

Simon Winchester’s Calcutta by Simon & Rupert Winchester

Genre: Non-fiction, portrait of a place
Year of publication:2004
Subject: Calcutta (India) at various times and through various eyes

Simon Winchester is one of those authors whose books I love to read. He is a good writer and chooses interesting subjects to write about, whether he is writing about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of its most prolific submitters, or about his own walk through South Korea. Therefore I was pleased to discover that he had edited and partially written a book about Calcutta, a city that brings up various images on one’s mind: of impressive mansions and sprawling slums, wide boulevards and narrow, rambling alleys, of fancy cars and human-powered rikshaws driving down the same roads, of splendid riches and grinding poverty existing side by side.

I haven’t been to Bengal yet, and so haven’t had the opportunity to visit Calcutta and form my own opinion of the place, but the viewpoints presented in the articles, essays, poetry and excerpts in this book combine to bring the city to life in one’s mind and give an idea of what it is like, although I expect the actual experience will be quite different (and a lot smellier).

The authors whose writings appear in this book include the Winchesters and authors I am familiar with, like William Dalrymple, Rudyard Kipling, James (Jan) Morris, V.S. Naipaul , Paul Theroux and Mark Twain and also authors I have heard of but nor read anything by, like Rabindranath Tagore, Günter Grass, Geoffrey Moorhouse and Dominique Lapierre. Authors I wasn’t familiar with include N.C. Chaudhuri, Buddhadev Bose, Peter Holt and Alan Ross.

None of them are indifferent to Calcutta. Some love it, some dislike it, most have a sort of love-hate relationship with it. The portrait that emerges is that of a place so intense and so full of contrasts and contradictions that it is impossible to be indifferent to it. People who know Calcutta could doubtless point out writings that should have been included but weren’t, and might pick out errors or mis-statements, but for someone who hasn’t been there, it presents an interesting and colourful portrait of this mega-city.
4 stars.

13 June 2011

Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb

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

I borrowed this book from the library because I liked the title, which put me in mind of a wacky 60's sci-fi story, or rather a parody of one (I was actually looking for another of McCrumb’s books). The title comes from the fact that all of the characters that matter are in one way or another connected with science fiction, either as authors, failed authors, or fans, and some of them might be described as metaphorical zombies. Fandom plays a big part in the story, and is described in humorous terms, and although I have never been involved in fandom of any kind, I have spent enough time participating in Internet book discussion groups to know that the descriptions are accurate.

As a mystery, the book is not what one has come to expect of the genre: the death occurs more than halfway through the book, and is not revealed as a murder until 30 pages from the end, so the whodunnit part of the mystery is solved very quickly. The where-was-he-and -what-was-he-doing part takes a bit longer to solve. The identity of the murderer and the main twist will be obvious to most experienced mystery readers, the second twist is slightly more surprising (his motives), and the final one was transparent - at least to me - although I dare say it will surprise many less cynical readers.

The book is well written and funny, and I enjoyed it in spite of the long lead-up and the weak mystery. Looking forwards to reading the prequel, Bimbos of the Death Sun, which takes on sci-fi conventions. 3+ stars.

10 June 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Virgin Mary and the Ptarmigan

Next Sunday is Whitsunday, so here is a story that mentions that holiday.

This story sounds very much like it might have first been told about some goddess and then transferred to the Virgin Mary.

Once upon a time the Virgin Mary called all the birds in the world to her. When they came she ordered them to walk through fire. Knowing she was the Queen of Heaven and very powerful, they dared not disobey and all of them jumped into the fire and waded through it, with the exception of the ptarmigan. But when they got to the other side of the fire all the feathers on their legs had been burned off and only the bare skin remained, and so it has been to this day. 

As for the ptarmigan, whose feet remained feathered because she didn’t wade the fire, her disobedience made Mary so angry that she laid a hex on the bird, saying that she should henceforth be the most harmless and defenceless of birds and likewise so persecuted that she would always live in fear, except on the Whitsun. Furthermore, the falcon, who was her brother, would henceforth hunt her for food.

However, Mary was not completely without mercy and gave the ptarmigan the gift of being able to change colour according to the seasons, turning all white in the winter to bland in with the snow and grayish brown in the summer to blend into the shrubs, so the falcon would not find her too easy a prey.

So ti has been ever since. The ptarmigan is harmless and persecuted by all, especially the falcon who kills and eats her every chance he gets. But when he gets to her heart, he knows she is his sister and becomes so overcome with grief that whenever he has killed and eaten a ptarmigan he will cry out in grief for a long time afterward.

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

"To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry."
Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962)

09 June 2011

Review: The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer

Such drama! Such romance!
I must admit to having gone through a bit of a crisis with Georgette Heyer a couple of years ago. I love her historical novels but I got so thoroughly fed up with a couple that prominently featured silly-beyond-suspended-disbelief young females making trouble that I was filled with dread every time I tried to pick up a Heyer novel I hadn’t already read. You might say I was suffering from a surfeit of farce.

This weekend, however, I finally got up the momentum to read The Spanish Bride, which I knew was based on a true story and took place during the Peninsular War and the battle of Waterloo, but beyond that I had no clue. The cover for it is pure romance, but what I discovered was actually a history of certain battles the male protagonist, Harry Smith, took part in, tied together with the story of how he met his wife, Juana, and their first four years of marriage.

The military theme may be daunting to some, who like me are not particularly interested in military history, but rest assured: Heyer manages to make it interesting. This novel is, like all of Heyers historical novels, thoroughly researched and well written, but also more serious in tone. She so cleverly intertwines the Smiths’ story with the military history that one never has time to grow bored by the descriptions of military maneuvers, and by giving the viewpoints of individual soldiers in the midst of battle she brings a human dimension to the war that makes it an interesting read. Knowing that what she is writing about is at the root a true story makes it an even more interesting read.

Recommended to anyone who likes a good historical novel with a dash of romance.
4 stars.

Now I think I am just about ready to read An Infamous Army, which covers the battle of Waterloo and the events leading up to it, but first I plan to read Regency Buck, which is a prequel to that. An Infamous Army is also a sequel to Devil’s Cub, which I have already read, so I will be meeting with some old friends.

08 June 2011

Heigh-ho and a bottle of rum!

This is a Weekly Geeks post. I didn’t write it specifically as such, but I had it on hand and it fit one of the two themes for this week.

Dear Reader: Are there any subjects or themes or sub-genres you avoid reading about in a literary genre you otherwise like?

I have a few of these red flag subjects, and one of them is pirates, specifically pirate protagonists. Since there is actually a pirate sub-genre in the historical romance genre, which I periodically turn to when I get tired of reading mysteries and non-fiction, I come across them often. I enjoy reading about the lives of real pirates, and will pick up a book where pirates are the bad guys without a second thought, but to me pirates and privateers always invoke the image of violent murderers and robbers and therefore I have never been able to suspend my disbelief sufficiently in order to enjoy a tale in which a pirate is the hero.

I have yet to come across a pirate protagonist in a story where the piracy is neither prettified nor justified, which tells me that at least some authors feel uneasy about the subject. I somehow simply cannot bring myself to believe that a pirate can be the good guy, because the job description is, in itself, one that involves violently robbing people of their property and either taking them hostage (or even enslaving them, depending on the time period) or taking their lives in the process, which is something I can not, however much I might want to in order to enjoy a good story, reconcile with heroism.

Take a book I tried to read recently. It is the third in a historical romance trilogy taking place at the beginning of the English civil war and features three young women who find love during those tumultuous times. I had been looking forward to reading about the youngest of them, a bookish creature who is so wrapped up in a book she is reading that one day she tumbles off a cliff and into the sea. She is knocked unconscious and wakes up aboard a ship that turns out to be a pirate vessel. Cue immediate justification: they take a Spanish ship full of galley slaves and free them and give them the ship, which in reality spells out certain death of the slaves, who are all emaciated and weak and can hardly be expected to be able to or even know how to use sails or steer the ship to a safe harbour, because had the officers and seamen been allowed to live, they would immediately have taken back control of the ship. Their deaths are not explicitly stated, but a realist knows that this would be the necessary thing. Up went my red flag, the book went “bang” on the wall and I got rid of it in my next cull.

This was one of my red flags. What are some of yours?
Also, do you have a pirate book you think could change my mind about loathing pirate heroes?

07 June 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Settings In Books

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To see more lists of weird and wonderful places people would like to visit after having read about them in books, please visit the hosting site and click on any or all of the links to the participating blogs.

There are so many places I would have liked to mention, but I am going to stick to ten places. However, next time I don’t participate in Top Ten Tuesdays, I just might post my alternative list of top ten settings instead...

  1. Middle-Earth, especially the Shire and Lothlorien. From The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. In real world terms this means New Zealand, because since the movies it is Middle-Earth.
  2. The Discworld, esecially Anhk-Morpork and Lancre. From the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. Mind you, there are areas of Ankh I would rather avoid, but I would love to visit Unseen University and take a tour of the library in the company of the Librarian. I would also like to climb the Tower of Art and have a drink in the Broken Drum and avoid having a meal off Dibbler's tray, before heading to Lancre and paying a visit to Nanny Ogg.
  3. Arches National Park as described in Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. He saw Arches in the 1950s, before it was really developed and he saw it in winter, and as a park ranger he went to places within the park that are closed to visitors. I would love to do that.
  4. Prince Edward Island as described in the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery. It is just so wonderfully idyllic and golden.
  5. Gormenghast castle in the books by Mervyn Peake. All those forgotten, dusty old rooms and strange people are fascinating. Definitely before Steerpike.
  6. The lands beyond the wall, in Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Dangerous and charming.
  7. Brekkukot and environs in Brekkukotsannáll (English title: The Fish Can Sing) by Halldór Laxness (pre-World War I Reykjavík). Another golden and idyllic place, but mostly I would like to see what the area looked like before the urban sprawl began.
  8. Xanth in the books by Piers Anthony. The books have long since gone sadly down-hill, but I thoroughly enjoyed the early ones with all those wacky puns brought to life.
  9. Fantastica from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Another potentially very dangerous place, but full of endless places to explore.
  10. Regency England, but only among the aristocratic classes and as described in the books of Georgette Heyer. She manages to make it seem so unutterably romantic and dashing, while the truth of course was somewhat different.

From Arches National Park

06 June 2011

Excellent review for Sjón's From the Mouth of the Whale

Guardian book review by A.S. Byatt

The Secret Life of Bees

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

Just finished reading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. For the sake of all the people who recommended it to me I wish I could say I liked it, but I didn’t. It was one of those books that I found to be okay, but nothing more than that. It was too predictable, often superficial and sometimes felt contrived, like Kidd felt she had to show the whole range of human emotion and just didn’t know when enough was enough.

There are redeeming points, however. The characters, narrator Lily, her surrogate mother and best friend Rosaleen, and the Boatwright sisters, especially August, are rounded and real. The story, of Lily’s coming of age in the American south during a hot summer in the tumultuous 1960’s, rambles somewhat, and could have done with a little sprinkling of magic realism. The tone it is told in screams out for something like that, and you kind of expect it from a book with such a mysterious title.

Added March 4th: On deliberation, I guess I could say that the story had potential which was not fulfilled. Kidd has the potential to become a great writer, and although I didn't like this book (her first novel), it will not stop me from reading her next (if there is one).
2.5 stars.

05 June 2011

Reading report for May 2011

I finished only 7 books in May, just over half of my regular monthly intake. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least that several things conspired to make my myalgia flare up so that it got worse than it has been for several years. This brought on tension headaches which have started getting better since I joined a gym and started taking fitness classes with consist of deep stretching in a hot room – not very pleasant while it is happening, but feels very good afterward.

I’m not worried about reading so little – it’s finally summer and I have my new camera to learn and the season to enjoy.

The Books:
  • Laura Childs: Death by Darjeeling: Murder mystery, cosy.
  • Trevor Corson: The Secret Life of Lobsters: History, popular science
  • Jennifer Crusie: Bet Me: Romance, contemporary
  • Ngaio Marsh: Grave mistake, Photo finish and Light thickens: Murder mysteries, police detective.
  • Amanda Quick: Mischief: Romance, historical

Reading plan for June:

I don’t have one as such, only that I will continue to work my way through my TBR stack. While the end-of-year goal is currently at 820 books, the way I am going now will have the TBR number going down below 800 books for the first time in several years.

04 June 2011

Refreshingly politically incorrect and funny (and just a bit ignorant)

"Calcutta takes its name from [Kalikata], which in turn was named after the black Hindu goddess Kali. The dreadful Kali is the wife of Shiva, and is portrayed as a bloodthirsty, axe-wielding psychopath, dripping in blood, with the heads of her victims hanging on string around her neck. In normal circumstances the likes of Kali would be taken in for police questioning. But in Calcutta she is revered as the city's patron goddess. The similarly evil appearance of Calcutta must be more than mere coincidence. The forces of Hindu destiny at work again?"
Peter Holt, from In Clive's Footsteps, reprinted in Simon Winchester's Calcutta.

03 June 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Laughing Merman

Icelanders not only believed in the existence of selkies, but also in mer-people. The mermaids were said to be very beautiful, while the mermen were supposed to be ugly as sin but very wise and able to see things others did not.
Once upon a time a farmer went out fishing and pulled up a merman. He tried to get the merman to talk to him but he would not answer, except to beg him to release him back into the sea, but this the farmer refused to do.
The farmer rowed back to land, taking the captive merman with him. When he pulled up the boat on the shore, his wife came to him and greeted him with tenderness and kisses, which he received with pleasure. This made the merman laugh.

Then the man’s dog came to him and greeted him tenderly in the way of dogs, by jumping up to him, but the farmer hit the dog. Again the merman laughed.

Then the farmer walked up towards his house, but on the way he tripped over a tussock and hurt himself. He got angry and gave the tussock a good kicking. Then the merman laughed for the third time. 

Each time the merman laughed, the farmer asked him why he was laughing, but the merman kept his mouth shut and would not answer.

The farmer kept the merman with him for a year but was never able to get a word out of him. When approximately a year had passed since he caught the merman the merman asked him to please take him back out to sea and let him go home. The farmer said he would do that if he would tell him why he had laughed three times when they were coming back from the sea. The merman said he would do that, but only when they were out at sea and he was free.

The farmer agreed and rowed out with the merman to the area where he had caught him. When they arrived the merman said:

“The first time I laughed was when your wife greeted you so tenderly, because she is false and has been cheating on you. 

The second time I laughed was when you hit your dog, because he greeted you with sincere faithfulness and love.

The third time I laughed was when you kicked the tussock, because there is money hidden in it that you knew nothing about.”

The merman dived back down, but the farmer rowed back to land and dug up the tussock and found a great deal of money and became a wealthy man.

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.

02 June 2011

The oldest book I own

When I was about 12 years old I read, for the first time, a classic Icelandic novel titled Sagan af Heljarslóðarorrustu (the title translates as The Battle of Hell's Domain) by Benedikt Sveinbjarnarson Gröndal (1826-1907). It is one of the earliest modern-style novels written in Icelandic, and possibly the first humorous Icelandic novel, written in a deliberately grandiloquent satirical style and telling the story of the Battle of Solferino as if it were an Icelandic Saga.

My grandmother owned a copy of the book and promised to give it to me when I was older. Much later, having forgotten her promise, she gave a copy to someone else, but I knew she had another one because the one I read didn't have illustrations like the one she gave away, so I knew all hope was not lost. Then, recently, she decided to get rid of most of her book collection and gave the family the go-ahead to take whatever books we wanted.

Lo and behold! This book came out of the first box we opened. It wasn't the edition I had read - I remember that as being bound in buckram - but an old, tattered second edition of the book inside a battered leather cover. When I showed the book to granny, she told me it had belonged to a good friend of hers, a man who was very good to me when I was a child and who was like a second grandfather to me. He died when I was a teenager. This of course makes it even more precious to me, but it's not a reading copy. This one is fragile and liable to fall apart in my hands if I try to read it, and there are a couple of pages missing. I might rebind it, but I think it looks quite charming in its current well-thumbed condition, so I may just end up making a clam-shell box to store it in.

Shortly afterward I acquired a reading copy, a  library discard of the most recent re-issue with wonderful illustrations by Icelandic artist Halldór Pétursson (the artist whose illustrations of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky world chess championships were reprinted in newspapers all over the world) that perfectly compliment the story. Due to copyright reasons I can't post any of his drawings, and in any case I didn't find any online for this particular book. You can click here to get a general idea of his style.

01 June 2011

Review: The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson

Full title: The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favourite Crustacean
Genre: Non-fiction, popular science (marine biology, anthropology)
Year of publication: 2004
Setting & time: Mostly in Maine, USA; 1970s to 1990s

This is a fascinating book, full of weird and wonderful details and discoveries about the life of the Maine lobster. But it isn’t just about lobster biology, it’s also about the people who study the lobsters and the people whose livelihoods depend on catching lobsters. Corson has cleverly woven together these three narrative threads into one very readable and absorbing book. He spent a couple of years working as a lobsterman in Maine and conducted interviews with lobstermen and scientists and thoroughly researched his subject, and it shows. There is a lot of detail, but Corson manages to deliver all those fascinating facts and tit-bits of information in a remarkably readable manner. He also manages to keep himself out of the story he is telling, only once mentioning himself and then not by name and we only find out in the author’s afterword. He is the narrator, of course, but does not intrude as a participant in the events he describes.

This book is everything a good popular science book should be: readable, informative, well-written, well plotted and fascinating without being dry or pedantic.

The narrative is more or less chronological, only deviating from it when it is necessary tell the story more clearly. The people the book follows become like characters in a novel to the reader and even the lobsters come alive on the page. Corson is careful never to focus for too long on any one of the three strands of the narrative, instead shifting frequently between the three, and thus preventing the book from ever becoming boring because of too much science or too much focus on one person or group of people.

Some readers may find the author too sympathetic towards the cause of the lobster fishermen, even to the point of presenting the government scientists as the bad guys, but to my mind the sympathetic slant of the narrative only makes it more readable. A knowledgeable and sensible reader will realise that it would have been just as easy to show the story from the viewpoint of those scientists who believe that lobsters are being overfished, and that there really are no bad guys in the story, just people with different opinions.

Finally, lest I forget: The stars of the book are of course the crustaceans themselves, and I promise you: After you finish this book, you will never look at a lobster the same way again.
5 stars.

Click here to visit the author’s website and find out more about the book.
And here is another, more detailed review of the book.