30 July 2011

Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Genre: Science fiction, romantic
Year of publication: 1996
Setting & time: Boulder, Colorado, USA; contemporary

Sociologist Sandra Foster is deep into a research project studying fads: how they begin, evolve and fade out. HiTek, the company she works for, has high hopes of the results, hoping that they can learn to start and control fads if they can just discover how they begin. Chaos theorist Bennett O’Reilly is reduced to studying monkey group behaviour – that is if he can ever get the corporation to acquire the monkeys. An incompetent office assistant called Flip brings Sandra and Bennett together by misdelivering a package and while she tramps through the company like a colourful, sullen cloud of poison gas or the Plague, leaving chaos and destruction in her wake, Sandra and Ben find their research fields converging and things getting stirred up more and more by Management, fads, the prospect of a large research grant, a flock of sheep and Flip. The book’s title comes from the name for a sheep that leads the other sheep without actually seeming to lead them, and it is also, not at all co-incidentally, the name given to a trend leader.

No sooner had I written Thursday’s announcement than I chanced to pick up this book, which had been languishing in my TBR for a couple of years and turned out to be not just eminently readable, but eminently reviewable as well. Why I hadn’t read it before is a mystery, as I highly enjoyed both the Willis books I read earlier, so much so that I re-read the delightful To Say Nothing of the Dog earlier this month and then added it to my perennials shelf. Perhaps it was the old fear of having chosen the author’s best book first, but I needn’t have worried: Bellwether is every bit as entertaining as To Say Nothing of the Dog. Both have the same sense of chaos and a narrator who wryly observes it swirling around them before getting swept up in it, a scientific discovery waiting to be made, love to be found and a quest to be finished, but while To Say Nothing of the Dog is genuine speculative science fiction, complete with time travel, Bellwether is fiction about scientists. The theories in it may or may not be realistic – to me at least they are, and while I have not studied science myself, I do have a bit of knowledge of the social sciences and find Sandra and Ben’s bellwether theory quite plausible.

The writing is the same mixture of wry humour and tongue-in-cheek social observation and satire found in Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog and the short stories in Miracle and other Christmas Stories, interlaced with obvious and not so obvious literary references and peppered with book titles (Sandra being actively trying to prevent classics in the library from being culled by checking them out). The otherwise unnamed and faddist Management is the butt of the iciest satire, while Flip would actually be rather pathetic if she weren’t such a trial to the protagonists. The story is tightly plotted and intricately woven and the characters of Sandra, Ben, and Shirl are believable while the people around them are more or less caricatures of faddists everywhere. Flip is somewhat exaggerated, but not that much – I have met her, or someone a lot like her, on several occasions.

Each chapter starts with a short, succinct and entertaining paragraph about an actual real-life trend, like the hula-hoop, miniature golf and marathon dancing, which would make a very funny mini-dictionary if collected together.

Verdict: An excellent read that would make a good starter book for someone who wants to get into science fiction but doesn’t want to jump right into full-on futuristic speculative techie sci-fi. 4 stars.

P.S. I have started reading The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby and I expect there might be another review in the offing soon.

28 July 2011

Slowing down the blog

I know I haven't been a good blogger lately. I have been neglecting the blog and not posting much, and very few reviews. In the past when the blog has gone into semi-hibernation it has often been because I was away travelling or because I was going through one of my depressive episodes, but not this time. I have been focusing on my photoblog and on photography in general, and I haven't been reading much, and all of this has led to me neglecting the book blogging.

Photography and reading are the two hobbies that have stayed with me the longest. I read my first novel all on my own at age 7 (not counting the readers we had at school), and I got my first camera when I was around 12.
I would just as soon give up reading as I would eating - it is that important to me - but there have been years when I didn't do much photography. However, I find it gives me something reading doesn't - like almost all the other hobbies I have tried through the years (which include quilting, rock painting, origami, book-binding and cooking) it gives me a creative outlet.

When I invested in a DSLR a couple of months ago it was the first time in several years that I wasn't shooting with a compact camera (not counting the occasional use of my father's EOS because I always used the A program on that). The compact I was using before that is a temperamental little beast that burns up batteries faster than I can buy them and that took all the fun out of photography. The DSLR (a Nikon D7000, if you must know) on the other hand is a dignified machine with so many different settings and buttons that I feel as if I'm back in elementary school. It really is like I'm learning photography all over again, and I am enjoying  exploring my creative side. So you'll just have to excuse me if I only check in sporadically for the next several weeks.

I am reading a brand new crime thriller I was asked to review, and there will be a review of that some time in August. I am also reading a couple of older books I may review as well. The Monday blast from the past will continue to post and I will try to remember to post the Friday night folktales and a few Wednesday night videos, but other posts will be sporadic.

26 July 2011

How many words do you know in English?

According to the results of this test, I know 36,900 words in English. How they can calculate that number by testing a person's knowledge of about 50 words, I don't know.

25 July 2011

Bimbos of the Death Sun - Sharyn McCrumb

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

I just finished reading this prequel to Sharyn McCrumb’s Zombies of the Gene Pool and I think it’s a really good story. Not only is the mystery strong, with several interesting suspects, a likeable hero and a loathsome and rather tragic murder victim, it is also a very funny description of people one is likely to meet at a sci-fi and fantasy “con” (“convention” to the uninitiated, although “gathering” is perhaps more descriptive). The title itself, just like that of the sequel, is a parody of the kind of titles you’re likely to come across on a pulp sci-fi novel. 4 stars.

Warning: slight SPOILERS ahead

The story: Jay Omega has written a sci-fi novel, and his girlfriend, Marion, thinks he should do more to promote it, even if he is deeply embarrassed about the title which the publisher gave his novel. So he goes to a local sci-fi and fantasy convention, where he runs into all sorts of weird and weirder members of the “fen” (slang for “fans”). When the other featured author and star of the con, the miniature and malicious Appin Dungannon, author of a series about viking hero Tratyn Runewind, is murdered and Jay is asked to be Dungeon Master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons featuring Tratyn, he sees an opportunity to draw out the murderer whom he has decided must be either one of the many who hated the dead author or a rabid fan out to rescue Tratyn from being killed off by the author, who hated his creation more with every published book (don’t you just love long sentences?).

22 July 2011

Icelandic folklore: Finnish Breeches

Time for a bit of folklore for a change.

Dead Man’s Pants or Finnish Breeches were believed to be a useful item for a person who wanted to always have money. To make them, you had to make a deal with someone you knew, allowing you to flay off their skin when they are dead. When the person in question had died, you had to go by night to the cemetery and dig up the body. Then the whole of the skin between ankles and waist had to be carefully flayed off in one piece and put on like a pair of pants over bare skin. The skin had to come from a man because the money would be drawn into the scrotum. 

In order for the pants to work their magic, the owner has to steal a coin during mass on one of of three big Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter or Whitsun), in the time between the reading of the epistle and the gospel, and put it in the scrotum of the pants. The coin will draw in more coins and the scrotum will never be empty when one needs money, but the original coin must not be removed or the magic will fail. 

Dead Man’s Pants are difficult to get rid of, because it is impossible to be rid of them unless you can find someone else to take them and wear them. The wearer must slip his leg out of the right pant-leg and the new owner must put it on while the other still has his left leg in the left pant-leg. Once the new owner has put his right leg into the pants, the left will follow automatically. In this way, the pants can be passed on indefinitely.

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

Forgotten books, stacked into a sculpture at the Reykjavík city library.

"Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered."
W.H. Auden (1907 – 1973)

21 July 2011

Links galore: Romance book covers and titles

I have sometimes mentioned book covers how important they are. I may also have mentioned the standardised covers found in genre literature, and especially romance novels. As individual artwork, some romance covers are beautiful and evocative, but taken as a whole, the genre suffers from some terribly cheesy artwork that occasionally makes one wonder if the artists are all copying each other's work. I have especially noticed this in traditional Regency romances, serial romance and historical bodice-rippers. Sometimes the covers really invite you to have fun with them, and that is just what these people have done:

I am thinking about bringing back to life an old feature of this blog: the cover snark/analysis/discussion. Actually, I would like to do more than just criticise bad covers. I want to discuss covers in general and showcase some examples I have come across. I have started updating three posts I made on the subject on my ancient book blog and I have a number of covers lined up for discussion. We shall have to see what happens after that and whether I have the stamina to keep it going.

20 July 2011

Wednesday night video: Obsessed with mysteries

Disclaimer: Although this video is a Barnes & Noble production, I would like to state that I am in no way affiliated with them and the video is here merely because it shows a pair of really serious book lovers who concentrate on one of my favourite genres: the mystery.

19 July 2011

List love: Another 10 bookish pet peeves, travelogue and ex-pat memoir edition

If you are a regular visitor to this blog you will know that I love reading travelogues and count them as my favourite non-fiction genre. Having read so many, I have naturally discovered things that I like and dislike about them, so here is a list of 10 things that annoy me in travelogues. Not all of them are annoying enough to make me stop reading, but some of them have sufficed to make me never want to read another book by a particular author:

  1. Authors who went on long trips to find themselves and then wrote at length about the process, disguising it as a travelogue. I much prefer the ones who travel because they're curious or because they love travelling or adventure or who travel “because”. Got-to-find-myself books tend to be too much about the author's internal struggles and feelings and not enough about the places they visit and the people they meet. Such books should really be shelved as self-help or general memoirs rather than as travelogues.
  2. Authors who write patronisingly about the natives. This includes waxing lyrical about their innocence, quaintness or simplicity.
  3. Hypocritical authors. For example, an author who writes disapprovingly about the rapacity and greed of, say, Indian street merchants, and then turns around and boasts about how their haggling skills saved them a few paise when dealing with them. Those paise could well be the difference between a meal and no food at all for a small businessman. One travel author, who shall remain nameless, would go on for paragraphs about how evil and useless the Catholic church was, but then didn’t hesitate to seek help from the very same church when she was in trouble in a foreign country. In the following passages I searched in vain for any sign of gratitude for the help rendered.
  4. Those who judge a whole gender, tribe, race or nation on the basis of a few bad or good individuals.
  5. Those who come across as overly smug about their lovely life and home abroad in expat memoirs.
  6. Authors who moan about how tourism is going to spoil some particular place and then go on to contribute to its ruination by telling the world about its wonders in their writing.
  7. Quirky is fine, but don’t overdo it.
  8. Books that read like a long version of a “what I did on my [dead-ordinary] holidays” essay.
  9. Those who clearly consider themselves to be above the people they meet, on grounds of nationality, race, gender, education or perceived moral superiority. British writers of yesteryear were particularly prone to this.
  10. Authors who clearly didn’t travel with an open mind. How are you going to learn anything if your ideas and opinions are carved in stone before you set out?

18 July 2011

2 mystery reviews: The Flanders Panel and The Man on the Balcony

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

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte is a murder mystery tied up in a chess-game in a painting and in reality. The painting is a 15th century panel by a Flemish master, which the heroine, an art restorer, must clean and restore before it can to be auctioned off. She discovers a hidden inscription in the painting, and when her ex-lover is murdered and a mysterious person starts leaving cards with chess moves on them where she can find them, it looks as if the two events are connected. She receives assistance in solving the mystery from a chess-player, and from her two best friends, an art gallery owner and a slippery antiques dealer.

This is a good, spooky, twisty mystery with a chess game at its heart. Even if you know nothing about chess, you can still enjoy it - I only know how the chessmen move around the board, and I liked it.
3 stars.


The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a totally different kind of crime mystery. It is a police procedural, the third in a series, and features Martin Beck and his co-workers at the Stockholm CID. The story is bleak and gloomy, but thrilling, and describes the massive search for a serial killer of children who is on the loose in the city. The story is all the more chilling for the realism in the narrative, and could easily be a true account of a real crime.

This is an especially good read for lovers of realistic and true crime stories. 3 stars.

15 July 2011

Friday night folk-tale: Gunna’s Fumarole

The Icelandic word “hver” can refer to different kinds of geothermal phenomena, such as a hot spring (hver), a fumarole (gufuhver) or a mud pool (leirhver). The fumarole in question is located in Reykjanes, in an area with several other attractions like the old Reykjanes lighthouse and one of several places in Iceland where the continental divide between Europe and North-America is clearly visible. 

There was a judge or lawyer named Vilhjálmur who lived near the current location of the town of Sandgerði in the last half of the 17th and into the 18th century. He had a standing feud with an old woman named Guðrún, nick-named Gunna, over a cooking pot he had taken from her, probably as payment for a debt. The old woman was so angered by this action that she made threats and promised she would get revenge.

Guðrún died and Vilhjálmur attended the funeral and headed home that same night, but on the following day he was found dead in Reykjanes. His body was all broken up and covered in purple bruises. 

The body was taken to his home in Kirkjuból and the local minister was asked to keep watch over it at night because everyone was certain that Gunna had become a draug – a very powerful ghost. This proved to be correct, and the minister had a hard time preventing her from taking the body. 

The ghost got more and more powerful and now the widow of Vilhjálmur died suddenly and Gunna was blamed for it. Then people who were passing through the area would find themselves getting inexplicably lost, and some went completely out of their mind, all because of the ghost of Gunna, who was now so strong and powerful that she was visible even to those who did not possess second sight. Soon she had become such a monstrous nuisance that neither man nor beast could stay unharmed in the area.

At this point the local people decided that enough was enough, and as none of them could handle the ghost they sent for a minister named Eiríkur who lived in Vogsósar. He was a benevolent sorcerer and knew how to handle ghosts and supernatural monsters, but didn’t like to display these talents. Since they suspected that he would be loath to help them, they sent him a supply of brennivín, which he was known to like.

The men who were sent to ask Eiríkur for help gave him the brennivín and humbly asked for his help in ridding them of the ghost. Before they started on their way back, he gave them a ball of yarn and told them to trick Gunna into taking the trailing end of the yarn and then the ball would take her where she could do no harm. 

They returned and did what he had told them to do. Gunna readily grabbed the yarn-end and immediately the ball started rolling and pulling her with it. The last that was seen of them both was when the ball plunged into a large fumarole, pulling Gunna in with it. Since then the ghost of Gunna has not done any harm, and the fumarole has borne her name. 
Gunna's Fumarole
Some say that the ball plunged into the fumarole but the trailing end was long enough to not pull her completely in, so she walks in a half-crouch in circles around the edge of the fumarole, as she doesn’t want to go into its fuming depths. 

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.

13 July 2011

Wednesday night video: How to read a book you don't want to read

Chances are you are here because you love reading and don't have the problem this video is about, but hasn't even the most avid reader and book lover come across a book they have to read but don't want to? This video offers one very good solution:

Incidentally, for the part beginning around 6:20 - I recommend always using post-it notes, but that's just because I hate untidy books with writing in the margin.

12 July 2011

Reading retreats

I came across this article about reading retreats on Salon.com. It was no news to me that people actually pay to go on book tours/reading retreats, but what the article did do is give me an idea: when my parents go on their trip to the USA in September I am going to offer to house-sit for them. Then I will pack my pets and a load of books and head up north to have myself my very own budget reading retreat.

The family summer house might be a better idea, as it has no internet to distract me, but since it's only about 10 km. away from my parents' house and my uncle, my aunt and my cousins and their kids are liable to drop in at any time, I really don't see the point of going there, especially not since my parents have an electrical bed with adjustable mattresses that are perfect for reading in bed. I'm looking forward to it already.

Yet another 10 bookish pet peeves, romance novel edition

I'm not participating in the Top ten Tuesdays meme this week, but here is one of my own lists:

These come in addition to the general peeves that I dislike in all fiction (list 1, list 2).

  1. Heroines who need rescuing by the hero all the time. Come on, authors, can’t she solve the problem herself or rescue him for a change?
  2. Alpha jerk heroes. Take-charge is one thing, bullying is another altogether.
  3. Forced seduction”, i.e. heroes who rape or “forcibly seduce” the heroines. Extends to heroines who get Stockholm syndrome and fall in love with the alpha jerk heroes who raped/”forcibly seduced” them. Authors, if you make the heroine fall in love with her rapist I am going to make a voodoo doll with your name on it and stick pins in it until you stop writing that crap. Never, in any set of circumstances is this ever right. Not even when the heroine discovers halfway through the ordeal that she likes it.
  4. Pirate heroes. Read my essay about this subject for the reasons why.
  5. Characters in historical romances who behave like the cast of The Young and the Restless in costume, i.e. historical characters who are so modern in opinion and behaviour that I feel as if I am reading a contemporary novel with all the characters dressed up as lords and ladies of past times. I don’t mind it a little - after all, we can’t know for certain that such opinions and attitudes didn’t exist in olden times - but too much of it and the story becomes unconvincing.
  6. Unnecessary sex scenes. I like it when a sex scene strengthens the bond between heroine and hero or furthers the plot in other ways, but I detest sex scenes for the sake of sex. Especially when they are clearly padding and go on for chapters.
  7. Jealous, evil skanky ex-mistresses, sisters, step-sisters, mothers and stepmothers. Puh-lease, that is so Barbara Cartland.
  8. Lust = love. Authors, if you can’t make the falling-in love development convincing, you have no business writing romance.
  9. Virgin heroines in 98% of modern romances. Of the remaining 2%, the majority are Amish and Christian/inspirational romances, which I, heathen that I am, don’t read, and the remainder are the ones where the author actually managed to make it plausible for a modern heroine over 20 to be a virgin. Virgin heroes are even less believable, but they are so rare that reading about one is refreshing rather than off-putting.
  10. The sassy gay friend. He is funny and endearing and we love him, but he is woefully overused in modern romance novels. How about a cranky lesbian best friend for a change, or how about this: can the heroine actually have a heterosexual male friend, or even just a couple of normal, supportive female friends? I find romance heroines in general to be woefully lacking in friends, which is perhaps why I love to read Jennifer Crusie (who incidentally did write a novel with a hero who had a lesbian friend) and Nora Roberts’ books, because their heroines always have friends.

11 July 2011

Circus of the Damned - Laurell K Hamilton

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

This is the third installation in the Anita Blake - Vampire Hunter series. Blake is an Animator whose job it is to raise zombies from the grave, along with other duties: the occasional execution of murderous rogue vampires and work as an adviser to the police in cases where her expertise is needed. In this case, the action starts when Blake is called out to a murder scene where a man has been attacked by a pack of vampires. Blake herself soon runs into them and has a narrow escape. She soon meets an ancient vampire who wants to return vampiredom to the old order: no integration, no citizenship, just a few clever and powerful vampires against humanity, with the weak and the stupid destroyed. She plays an important part once the battle for the city - between the “civilised” vamps and the “wild” vamps - begins. Her hate/desire relationship with master vampire Jean-Claude continues to intensify, and she meets a living man in whom she is more than a little interested, except there is one not so tiny problem that may get in the way of their relationship.

The books in this series just keep on getting better and bloodier. Because it’s a series, you know Blake is always going to come out on top, and the fun comes from finding out how she does it, not if she will do it. I do have one gripe with the stories so far: Hamilton seems to be obsessed with the Nike brand of shoes. I didn’t count how often she mentions and describes the Nikes Blake and other characters wear, but it was too often. After the second mention it starts to read like not-so-subtle product placement.

Rating: A fun and gory action story with a tough as nails heroine who doesn’t take shit from anyone, be it a sexy-as-hell master vampire, an immortal and unkillable monster, a snake the size of a truck or the oldest living being on earth. 3 stars.

Note: The last book in this series I read was The Killing Dance, which completely and finally put me off reading the Anita Blake books. Afterwards I wrote myself a memo to devote a blog posting to the phenomenon of when a book series or an author jumps the shark, but I never got round to writing it. Maybe one day...

08 July 2011

Icelandic folktale: The Farmer's Daughters

Here is an interesting thing – of the three young people in this story, only the girl is nameless, and guess who the hero of the story is? Tsk-tsk.

Once upon a time there was a well-to-do farmer who had three daughters and lived a little way off from the castle of the king of his country. The eldest of these girls was twenty and the others were younger, but all three were of marriageable age. 

One day the girls were walking outside their father’s farm-house they saw the king riding past with two of his men. One was a scribe and the other a shoemaker.
The eldest sister spoke: “All I wish for is to marry the shoemaker.”
The middle sister then spoke, saying: “I would have the scribe.”
Then the youngest sister said: “And I wish I could have the king himself.”

The king had heard them talking but had only heard a little of what was said. He became curious and said to his men: 
“Let us go to these women and hear what they have been discussing. I thought I heard one of them say “the king himself”.”

The men replied that they had probably not been discussing anything important, but the king insisted they go and talk to the girls, and so they all rode together towards them. The king asked what they had been talking about and the girls told him. He was a whimsical man and those were pretty girls and so he said that what they had wished for should become true, and so it became.
But when the youngest sister was queen the other sisters became resentful and envious of her and plotted to take away her title and glory any way they could.

The queen became pregnant and when her time was almost come her sisters arranged it so that they would serve as her midwives. When the baby was born they arranged for it to be taken away, intending for it to be thrown in a ditch outside the city where all the ordure and filth from the city was dumped. But the person they sent to do the deed couldn’t bring himself to drown the baby in the muck and left the baby on the bank of the ditch, where it was found by an old man who was passing by. He took the baby home with him and brought it up as his own.
The sisters replaced the baby with a puppy they smeared with blood and said the queen had given birth to it and not to a baby. This very much saddened the king, but he was able to stay his grief and treated the queen just as well as he had always done. 

The same thing happened when the queen gave birth for the second and third time, and both those babies ended up with the same old man, altogether two boys and one girl. He named them and called the older boy Wilhelm and the younger Sigurd, but the name of the girl is not known. However, since she has a part to play in the following events, we shall call her Helga.

When the queen had apparently given birth to a puppy for the third time, the king could no longer contain his grief and anger and ordered for her to be thrown into a house where a lion was kept, intending for the lion to eat her. But the lion must have sensed that she was an innocent, because instead of making a meal of her, it did her no harm and always shared its food with her. In this way she was able to survive without anyone knowing she was alive.

Meanwhile the old man who had taken in the babies would ask everyone he met if they knew anything about these babies, but no-one knew anything. 

The children grew up and all showed good promise, but the old man was becoming decrepit with age. Before he died, he advised them to do as he had done and ask everyone they met if they knew ought of their provenance, and so they did.

Once an old man came to them and they asked him the same questions they had asked everyone else. He said he did not know who they were or where they came from, but he knew who could. 
He told them that some distance away there was a large rock and on top of the rock there was a bird which both understood and spoke human language. He thought they would be best served by seeking out this bird, but there was a problem: many people had gone to find the rock, but none had ever returned. Among those who had gone there to find out what the future held in store for them were princes and princesses, but none of them had had what it took to do so. Anyone who wanted to climb the rock would have to be so steadfast that they would not look back during the climb, no matter what they heard, because they would be turned to stone along with everything they had with them. This, he said, had been lacking in all those who had previously tried, but anyone who was determined enough could easily make it to the top. But should someone reach the top of the rock, they would be able to bring back to life everyone and everything that had previously been petrified. On top of the rock there was a well with a lid on top, on which the bird sat, and the bird would allow anyone who came to it to take some water and sprinkle it on all those who had been petrified and thus bring them back to life.
This did not seem like much of a challenge to these brave royal children, especially the two brothers, who boasted they could easily do this. 

They thanked the old man for what he’d told them and shortly thereafter the eldest brother, Wilhelm, set off to find the rock. Before he left, he told his brother that should three drops of blood appear on his knife when he was eating his meal, then he should come to the rock, for this would mean that he had failed like the others. 

He set off, following the route the old man had described, but after about three days, which was about how long it took to reach the rock, Sigurd saw the blood on his knife. He was shocked and dismayed, but told his sister Helga that he must be off and told her to watch for blood on her knife just as Wilhelm had told him. 

He then set off, but three days later Helga saw the blood appear on her knife, so she set off. In three days’ time she arrived at the rock and looked around. She saw an immense number of smaller rocks of all shapes and sizes, some shaped like travelling chests, others like wardrobes, and so on. She started climbing the rock and soon she heard many human voices behind her, among them those of her brothers. But she was steadfast and did not look back and finally made it to the top of the rock.

The bird congratulated her in the warmest terms for her determination and promised to tell her everything she wished to know. Before hearing the bird she wished to bring the rocks back to life, and this it granted. It especially pointed out one rock and told her that if she knew who this was, she would especially want to bring him back to life. Then she sprinkled the water over all the rocks and everyone was very glad to be free of the spell and thanked her for saving their lives. 

Her next move was to ask the bird where she and her brothers came from and who their parents were. The bird replied that they were the children of the king and told her how the aunts had acted when they were born. He also mentioned that their mother was still alive in the lion’s den, but that she was near death from grief and want of good food. 

The rock the bird had especially pointed out to Helga turned out to be a splendid young prince who immediately fell in love with his rescuer and she with him. The chest- and wardrobe-shaped rocks turned out to be boxes full of treasure he had brought with him. 

Whe the bird had told them all they wanted to know, the siblings and the prince set off towards the royal city. Once they were there, they looked for and found the house where the lion was kept and broke a hole in one of the walls. Inside they found their mother. She had fainted with fear whe she heard the noise of the wall breaking. They were able to bring her to her senses, brought her nice clothes and then all five of them went to the palace and asked to see the king. This was granted, and they came before him and the siblings told him they were his children, come to see him after rescuing their mother from the lion’s den. They then told him all the bird had told them.

The king ordered his sisters-in-law brought to trial, where the truth came out. Their judgement was to be thrown in with the lion, which tore them apart and ate them. 

The queen was reinstated on her throne beside the king, princess Helga married the prince she had saved and they became king and queen of his country when his father died. Wilhelm took a wife and ascended to the throne after the death of his father, and Sigurd married a princess from another kingdom and became king after her father had died. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

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

06 July 2011

Wednesday night video: Night of the Living Books

I think we can all agree that the best thing about some books is the cover - especially when it comes to old pulp novels. Here artist Thomas Allen has taken this assertion to its logical conclusion and created art out of the covers:

05 July 2011

Travels in a Stange State: Cycling Across the U.S.A. by Josie Dew (a sorta-kinda not really a review)

I don’t feel like writing a full review of my latest read, but would like to recommend this book to anyone who would like to read about a refreshingly normal person travelling without any attempt at finding herself or using travel to heal old wounds or discover deep truths. It’s just travel, with lovely descriptions of nature and places, of nice people, strange people and not so nice people, very short historical snippets when she feels they are needed and the occasional observation on the differences between the USA and Britain.

I also recommend it to people who like to read about cycling adventures, since it’s about her bicycling journey around the Hawaiian islands and across the continent from California to Nova Scotia. It’s funny and well-written and told in short episodes so it’s a good book to keep in one’s purse or pannier for a few minutes reading on the bus or while catching a breather. 3+ stars.

04 July 2011

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasi

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

This is a wonderful, sweet memoir about mature love, between the author, a divorced American food writer and chef, and Fernando, a Venetian bank worker who fell in love with her from afar but only found the courage to approach her when she returned to Venice a year later. Within a few months she had tied up her life in the USA and moved to Venice to be with him. The book tells of their first three years together, getting to know each other, marriage preparations, their life together, adjustments to a new culture, and Marlena’s other love affairs, namely with Venice and food.

At the end there is a chapter of recipes for some of the food she mentions in the books, with some truly mouth-watering recipes.

Rating: A lovely, tasty combination of true romance, travel and food. 4 stars.

03 July 2011

Review: The Last Great American Housewife by Staci Greason

Disclaimer: Ms. Greason was kind enough to offer me a review copy of this novel. I am not being reimbursed for the review other than by receiving this free copy.

I started reading the book right after I got the copy and then something came up and, typically for me, I forgot all about it and the deadline I had given myself (and Ms. Greason) to finish it. Anyway, I finally did finish it.The book is published as an e-book only (to begin with).

Kate Miller is a stay-at-home mom and housewife with two kids and a husband who takes her for granted. When her mother dies, Kate‘s seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. Her first effort at breaking out of the monotony ends in disaster, but leads her to meet a mother and son who, although she at first thinks they are both weird and crazy, become her friends. The indirect result of this friendship is that Kate leaves her husband, and the direct one that instead of going to a hotel to stay while she figures out her next move she ends up tree-sitting in order to save a ponderosa pine tree from being chopped down to ease the construction of a parking garage. She has never really taken a good, close look at her own life, always having been too busy being the perfect housewife, but sitting on a platform 40 feet (about 12 meters) above the ground in increasingly nasty weather gives her a time to evaluate her life and examine her priorities and come to understand herself and grow as a person.

I didn‘t know what to expect when I began reading this book. The cover image suggested chick-lit, a genre with which I have a love-hate relationship, but the description suggested there might be more to it than that. What I found was the tale of a woman who discovers that she isn‘t really happy, just settled-in. Shaken out of her complacency by her mother‘s death, Kate discovers she is somehow unfulfilled, but can‘t quite figure out how until she meets bold and brash Ruby who makes her see the light. How she ends up a tree I will not reveal, but Greason manages to make her journey both believable and interesting, from complacent housewife with a fear of heights and no particular interest in the environmental movement to a strong, bold, self-assertive woman ready to take on a building company to save a single tree.

This is a story about self-discovery, resolutions and forgiveness. It is funny in parts but serious at heart, well-written and makes for a nice read. The characters, even the frontsman for the bad guys who at first seems to be a typical card-board cut-out villain, are (eventually) realistic and those characters who need to be fleshed-out, are. Kate is a realistically flawed but endearing protagonist who goes through a transformation and finds a new lease on life and inner peace. The story moves a bit slowly at times, especially in the middle chapters, but never gets too drawn-out. All in all, a quite satisfying read. 3+ stars.

There are some problems with the appearance of the text, mostly to do with indents and text alignment, which I hope will be corrected in an updated edition.

02 July 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This is one of those books where I saw the movie first, so comparisons were inevitable. It’s funny, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what Delysia LaFosse looked like in the movie when I started reading the book, but Miss Pettigrew will forever look like Frances McDormand to me.

First Published: 1938

Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged gentlewoman who works as a governess-for-hire, is down on her luck and reaching the end of her tether. Almost broke and desperate for a job she really has nothing to lose and so when she is sent to the wrong house for a job interview and discovers her prospective employer going through a crises, she steps in and saves the day.

This so endears her to the young woman that she is soon called on to solve more problems and gets whirled ever more deeply into the social circle around Miss LaFosse, who, it turns out, is an actress and night-club singer with serious man trouble.

Miss Pettigrew, over the course of a day and a night, undergoes a transformation from a dowdy governess to a bold, assertive woman (at least on behalf of others), breaking many of the rules she has always lived by and thoroughly enjoying herself, perhaps for the first time in her life.

I suppose Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day would nowadays be classified as chick-lit, but back in the day it was probably labelled as women’s fiction. It was well-nigh forgotten when Persephone Books reissued it some years ago and then a movie was made and the book took off and now everyone seems to be reading it.

This is, at heart, a Cinderella story, with the unlikely duo of glamorous Miss LaFosse and her friend Miss Dubarry playing fairy godmothers to Miss Pettigrew and allowing her to blossom. It is also, in a way, a coming-of-age story. Although Miss P. is forty, she still blindly follows the rules of conduct drummed into her as a child, and discovers to her delighted surprise when she starts following her own rules that the world doesn’t end just because she’s had an alcoholic drink (or two) or told a lie (or several). She has, in effect, grown up.

The story trips lightly along, full of sparkling dialogue, witticisms, funny incidents and wonderful characters, major and minor. I had intended to read a couple of chapters on Saturday, before turning my mind to cooking a complicated meal for myself, but I got swept along by the story and ended up reading it straight through without stopping (fortunately I then got asked to dine with family, so it all turned out all right).

While the movie had a more decisively happy ending than the book does, I actually prefer the book’s ending, because while it is a happy one it is also more realistic and gives the reader leeway to imagine the rest. I am glad this wonderful book got rescued from obscurity and reissued and I only wish there were more books out there that can sweep a reader so completely off her feet like this one does.

4+ stars, a definite keeper and reread.

01 July 2011

Friday Night Folk-tale: The Jug of Milk

The theme of pouring a bottle of scotch (or vodka or brandy or gin or sake or whatever) over a drinking man’s grave is well known, but some ghosts don’t crave alcohol but something softer:

Once upon a time a passing traveller stopped by a farm where there lived a prosperous farmer and his wife, a hospitable and generous woman. The visitor exchanged pleasantries with her and she offered him some refreshment, but he refused and said he was in too much of a hurry to accept. Nevertheless she went and got some milk in a jug and offered it to him, but he said he didn’t want any, but would have some on his return journey. He then took leave of her and continued on his way. 

The traveller's destination is not known, only that he needed to cross a treacherous river on the way there but was drowned in the attempt. His body was recovered and buried in the graveyard of the church next to the aforesaid farm. 

The night after the funeral he came to the farmer’s wife in a dream and asked for the milk he had been promised, but she paid him no heed, thinking it was just a dream. The next night she again dreamt he came to her, but this time he looked very threatening and ugly and demanded to be given the milk.

The good woman wondered what she could do to stop this haunting and finally she had an idea. She filled the jug with good, fresh milk and carried it out to the graveyard and poured it over the man’s grave. After that she had no more dreams of him.

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.

Reading report for June 2011

June was another slow reading month for me, with 9 books finished. I love reading and ideally I would like to read a book a day, but when one suffers from chronic myalgia it is easy to read oneself into a state of pain, stiffness and headaches that take far longer to get rid of than to acquire. Therefore I have been taking it easy with shorter reading sessions (except for one book, which I simply couldn‘t put down once I had started reading it). The fitness class paid off as well – I feel less stiff and the headaches are gone, but I need to be careful. The time I would otherwise have spent reading has not been wasted, however. I have been watching some of the dvds I acquired over a number of years but never watched, and I have also been doing a couple of crafts projects, also taking care never to overdo it.

The books were the usual mélange of genres, although my consumption of mysteries has dropped dramatically lately. This is a bit alarming because more than half of my TBR books are mysteries and as you may remember I am trying to deplete some of that pile. However, I just haven‘t felt like reading one for a while, so that‘s that.

Two of the month‘s books were rereads: the Father Brown books. Several years ago I acquired e-book editions (text files actually) of that whole series and printed them out and bound them into books as part of my bookbinding class. I had recently read them when I did this, so they stood unread on my shelves for a number of years until I decided it was time for a reread. I have been reading them while I eat my breakfast and dinner, and usually finish 1-2 stories per day.
Books I may finish before the end of the month include The Last Great American Housewife by Staci Greason, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and Stay the Night by Lynn Viehl.

The Books I read in June:
  • Michelle Berriedale-Johnson: Food Fit for Pharaohs: An Ancient Egyptian Cookbook. Historical recipes.
  • G.K. Chesterton: The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown. Mystery short stories.
  • Josie Dew: Travels in a Strange State. Travelogue.
  • Georgette Heyer: The Spanish Bride. Historical novel.
  • Mari Mancusi: Boys That Bite. YA urban fantasy.
  • Lynn Viehl: Twilight Fall. Urban fantasy.
  • Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Novel.
  • Simon & Rupert Winchester: Simon Winchester's Calcutta. Portrait of a place.