28 February 2011

Buchmesse Challenge review for February: The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Icelandic title: Brekkukotsannáll (Literally “Annals of Brekkukot”) 
Genre: Literary fiction, historical
Year of publication: 1957
Setting & time: Reykjavik area, Iceland; beginning of the 20th century.

This novel by Iceland's only Nobel prize-winner, the first he published after winning the prize, boasts what is the most memorable opening sentence I have ever read in a novel:

"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."



Álfgrímur (the narrator of the story) is a young boy abandoned by his mother and raised by his foster-grandparents at Brekkukot, a small house in what is now nearly the center of Reykjavik but was, at the time of the story, one of a small cluster of buildings separate from the commercial and administrative center of town. The house is a haven for people who are down on their luck and acts as a sort of social center for the community and a counterpoint for the bakery which becomes the other centre of Álfgrímur’s life. His plans to become a fisherman begin to change when Garðar Hólm, a world-famous Icelandic singer (who may or may not be anything of the sort), returns to his homeland and awakens Álfgrímur’s interest in singing, but also brings about his inevitable loss of innocence.

I vacillated between reviewing a new (to me) Laxness novel and one I had read before for this challenge, but finally I decided to choose one of my two Laxness favourites, Iceland’s Bell (Íslandsklukkan) or The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll). I eventually decided to write about The Fish Can Sing, since it takes place during an era of history that I am interested in. The belle epoque was in full swing in Europe, but while it covers a belle epoque of sorts in the life of the narrator the story of The Fish Can Sing couldn't in other respects be farther away from the grand flowering of culture and science that was taking place across the sea.

The Fish Can Sing is first and foremost a lovely coming of age novel with all the contrasting of experience vs. innocence (and the loss thereof) that this entails, but it is also a mediation on the difference between the pastoral and the cosmopolitan and a somewhat nostalgic snapshot of a less complicated era that is forever gone. On the surface it is a simple story, but there is much going on under that surface. The narrative is more character-driven than plot-based, the prose is simple, beautiful and unpretentious (which can unfortunately not be said of all of Laxness’ novels), and while it hasn’t received the attention that Independent People has, it is thought by some to be Laxness’ true masterpiece. 5 stars.

Below you will find a list of languages it has been translated into,latest edition given in all cases. Some are lamentably translations of translations, but at least the German and Scandinavian editions are translated from the original Icelandic.

Arabic (Hin Tghni Ala'smak; Lebanon, 2010)
Bulgarian (Letopis Na Stopanstvoto Brekukot; 1964)
Czech (Rybí Koncert; 1978)
Danish (År Og Dage I Brattekåd; 1973)
Dutch (Het Visconcert; 2004)
Finnish (Lapsuuden Maisema; 1960
German (Das Fischkonzert; 2002)
Greenlandic (Aallartup Allattugai; 1984)
Hebrew (Gam Ha-Dag Yasir; 1976)
Hungarian (Az Éneklö Hal; 1962)
Italian (Il Concerto Dei Pesci; 2007)
Norwegian (Brekkukotkrønike; 2000)
Polish (Czysty Ton; 1966)
Portugese (Os Peixes Também Sabem Cantar; 2010)
Russian (Brekkukotskaja Letopis, 1954)
Swedish (Tidens Gång I Backstugan; 1967)


The Cat Who Blew the Whistle

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

Author: Lilian Jackson Braun
Year published: 1995
Genre: Mystery
Sub-genre(s): Whodunit
Where got: Public library

Of the Cat Who books I’ve read, this is probably the most mysterious mystery - although in the end it turned out I had guessed correctly the identity of one of the criminals, I did get another one wrong and was uncertain about the other right until the denouement.
Unlike the previous books I have read in the series, this one definitely hints at Koko the cat being psychic rather than merely very intelligent, which is fine by me but may detract from the enjoyment by some readers who don’t like cats.

Rating:
Another great mystery from Lilian Jackson Braun. 4 stars and 5 purrs.

27 February 2011

Obituary for an independent book shop

The independent book and stationery shop Bókabúð Máls og menningar has just closed its doors, probably for the last time.

This shop had been situated on the corner of Laugavegur and Vegamótastígur, in the heart of Reykjavík's shopping and entertainment district, for as long as I could remember. It had, in fact, been there since the year I was born, but had been in operation elsewhere since 1940. It was a regular stop for book lovers who were taking a stroll up or down the Laugavegur, and for the last 15 or so years you could sit down in a cosy café on the first floor and enjoy your coffee and Danish while reading a book or a magazine from the book shop.

The shop suffered a serious injury in 2009, when the operation was taken over by new management, and it had been slowly bleeding to death ever since. When the owners of the shop decided to move to a new location due to the extortionate rent being demanded by the new owners of the building, the building owners decided to continue to run a bookshop there, and acquired the rights to the Mál og menning name. However, they failed to realise that the key to running a successful indie bookshop in Reykjavík is to offer a big variety of books. You can get Icelandic books and foreign best-sellers in every bookshop and some supermarkets, but if you are independent you have to sell the Icelandic books at a little bit higher price than the chains and supermarkets can do, so you need to focus strongly on foreign stock. This the new owners failed to do.

The old shop had a large section of foreign books and was famous for its sales, when it unloaded excess stock, but the new shop had a relatively small foreign section, mostly expensive art books and best-sellers. It was still a nice place to visit for a cup of coffee and a browse, but when you wanted to find the latest novel by someone not on the best-seller lists, you went to Iða or Bóksala Stúdenta, or you visited the big Eymundsson shop (aka the Icelandic Barnes & Noble) in Austurstræti. So the shop had really been living a kind of half-life since then, neat and welcoming and full of books, but sorely in need of more visits by more serious book-buyers and fewer by casual browsers.

I am still sad to see it go - it has been such a feature of my book-buying life that it is going to leave a hole. I do hope they have a closing sale so I can visit it one last time.

25 February 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and the Home-improvement Project



The brothers had noticed it was always colder outside in the winter than in the summer and also that houses were colder the more and bigger windows they had. Therefore they drew the conclusion that all frost and cold was due to houses having windows. 

They decided to build themselves a new house, and did not include any windows. Consequently the house was very dark, which they considered to be something of a fault, but it was a consolation for them that it would at least be warm in the winter. 

In order to get some light into the house they waited for a bright and sunny day in high summer, took their caps off and started carrying the light into the house in the caps. Others say they used buckets. These they carried inside and overturned them inside and then went back outside for more. The were looking forward to sitting in their brightly lit house that night, but when they came inside after a long day’s work, the house was as dark as ever. 

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.

24 February 2011

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Genre: Literary fiction
Year of publication: 1980
Setting & time: Yorkshire, UK; 1920

The first of the short novels I have been reading, A Month in the Country, describes a summer the narrator, now approaching retirement, spent in a small Yorkshire village when he was a young man, restoring a medieval church mural. He is a southerner himself and is at first suspicious of the northerners he has been cast among, but soon comes to be friends with a local family and develops a complicated relationship with the local vicar and his wife. Suffering from a nervous stammer and a twitch after his experiences in the war and further traumatised by the behaviour of his unfaithful wife, the idyllic surroundings and gentle people he meets have a curative effect on him and he returns home to London in a much better mental state than when he left.

This is an idyllic novel that deals with happiness, which is quite unusual for a literary novel, a genre better known for wallowing in misery and pain. There is something in it, perhaps a nostalgia for a time long gone, that reminds me of sections of Cider with Rosie and Lark Rise. It touches on complicated themes, e.g. faith vs. religion, love in its various guises, war and peace, country and city. The central theme is self-discovery and healing, with the narrator arriving twitchy and uneasy and leaving, reluctantly, twitch-free, content and at ease with himself, feelings we know, from hints dropped by the narrator about his current situation, will not last. It’s a perfect, uplifting but ultimately bittersweet little novel. 4+ stars.

P.S.
There is a movie, made in 1987, starring Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson, and was an early film for all of them - in fact it was Branagh’s first movie and Firth’s first lead role in a film. It's going on my "To Watch" list of movies based on books.

Below are links to a couple of other more detailed reviews. Both reveal some plot elements, so they are perhaps best read after the book.

A Year with Short Novels: J.L. Carr’s Chance for Renewal

Review from Albion Magazine

23 February 2011

Challenge progress report

I am doing quite well so far in the reading challenges for this year.

I have finished 3 Top Mystery Challenge books, which puts me right on schedule.
I have finished 4 out of the 6 books in the What’s in a Name challenge and have the remaining two lined up and am already reading one of them.
In the Read-a-myth challenge and Gothic Reading challenge I have not yet read any books, but I am reading my first Gothic book and have the two mythology books lined up.

It is the TBR challenge I am proudest of. Two weekends ago I met the goal of my TBR reading challenge for 2011: to get the number of TBR books in my stack below 850. This was cause for celebration, because I don't think I have ever finished a reading challenge so quickly.

I only did this partially by reading. I have finished 11 TBR books this year, which alone would not have been enough to reach the desired goal. However, the rules were that the reduction of the TBR list could be done by reading or by culling. What I did was to review the list, removing from it any books I had forgotten to remove in the past couple of years after I had read them, culling a few books, and removing some reference books that I know I will never read from cover to cover. This brought the number down from 865 to 848.

However, last week I received a package of 4 books I ordered from The Book Depository in January. I also paid a visit to the charity shop where I get most of my books from, to discover that someone had donated a number of books by Michael Innes and Patricia Wentworth, two authors whose books I enjoy reading, plus there were a couple of my wishlisted book available as well. This was too good an opportunity to miss, so out came the wallet.

Consequently, the TBR count rose again to 860 when I added these books to the list, so I again have something to work towards. However, 10 books is not a lot, and to put a check on my book buying I have decided to reset the goal to 840 books, which will give me something to work towards but still give me some leeway for book buying should I find books from my wishlist for sale cheaply.

22 February 2011

Meme: Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Book to Movie Adaptations

This meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To see more favourite book-to-movie adaptations, head over there to see which movies the other participants have nominated.

I am going to cheat and interpret ‘movie’ as ‘film’, so I can include television adaptations.

  • Oscar and Lucinda, from the book by Peter Carey. Apart from the changed ending it is an incredibly faithful adaptation, with every character perfectly cast.
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, from the book by Stieg Larsson. This one actually improves on the book, which is well plotted but badly written.
  • Cold Comfort Farm, from the book by Stella Gibbons. Perfect casting and quite faithful to the original.
  • High Fidelity, from the book by Nick Hornby. Moving the story to America didn’t hurt it one bit.
  • Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Café), from the book by Fannie Flagg. Perfect casting and faithful to the story.
  • Pride and Prejudice from the book by Jane Austen, the latest BBC adaptation. Incredibly faithful to the story, apart from the “wet Darcy” scene, which didn’t hurt it at all.
  • The Princess Bride from the book by William Goldman. One of the rare instances where the film is better than the book, but perhaps that’s just because I saw the film first... nah, it’s just better.
  • The Color Purple from the book by Alice Walker. Amazing movie based on an amazing book.
  • Emma, from the book by Jane Austen. This is the one with Gwyneth Paltrow (the only movie I have ever liked her in, but that’s another story...)
  • Coraline, from the book by Neil Gaiman. An excellent dark fantasy for children that may actually be scarier for adults than for kids.

Honurable mention:
  • The Enchanted April, from the book by Elizabeth von Arnim.

21 February 2011

The Cat Who Played Brahms

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

Author: Lilian Jackson Braun
Year published: 1987
Genre: Mystery
Sub-genre(s): Whodunit
Where got: Public library

This is the fifth Cat Who book, and just as enjoyable as the other ones I’ve read in the series. These delightful mysteries are short enough to make a nice diversion for a couple of hours, and they never fail to entertain.

The story:
Chicago journalist Jim Qwilleran has decided to write a novel and has accepted the offer of a country cabin somewhere “up north” for the summer. The owner is Aunt Fanny, an old friend of his mother’s. Once he arrives with his cats, mysterious events start happening, a neighbour is murdered, Qwilleran may have witnessed another murder, and the locals aren’t about to let an outsider dig any deeper than necessary. Just when the mystery is solved, Qwilleran has to make a choice between going back to Chicago and accepting a job as an investigative journalist (something he has always wanted to do), or to become very wealthy and spend the next five years living in Moose County.

Technique and plot:
As with the other Braun books I’ve read, this is written in an easy and flowing style, with wonderful descriptions of people and places. The plot is well laid out and not too predictable, and, this being the oldest Cat Who book I’ve read, it explains quite a number of things I had wondered about when reading the other books.

Rating:
A delightful little mystery with especial appeal to cat lovers. 3 stars and 4 purrs.

19 February 2011

Reading and so forth


I am going through one of my reading phases right now, one which is characterised by a short attention span and a need for getting things over with quickly, which translates into only wanting to read short books and short stories. I have also become bumbling and graceless in my movements, always moving too fast and bumping into things and people, dropping and breaking stuff and I am generally in a hurry without quite knowing why.

At work, my fingers fly over the keyboard but I can’t concentrate for longer than 20 minutes at a time, so the productivity is the same as when I plod along all day. I suppose I could say my sap is rising with the lengthening of the days and it's making me restless, but the fact is that I feel more like I am plunging into one of my depressions. This means I have a psychological wrestling match ahead of me. It hasn’t ever got bad enough that I have needed medication, but there is a very specific set of things I need to do to pull myself out from under the cloud. This may mean a break in the blogging, but we shall have to see if that happens or if I manage to keep up the routine of at least one post per day.

18 February 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and the Bishop




Once when the bishop of Hólar was riding between farms and visiting his flock he came to Bakki. The brothers were at home and wished to offer the bishop some refreshments, so they asked if he wanted something to drink and he said he did. The very best container the brothers owned was a new chamberpot, so this they filled with cream and offered it to the bishop. 

The bishop refused to either touch the container or drink from it, which made the brothers exclaim: “Gísli-Eiríkur-Helgi, he will not drink the cream from Bakki, so let him drink piss instead.”

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.

Taken out of context...

... the following quotation seems like wonderful praise of reading and books:

"I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library."

 Taken in context, it of course means quite the opposite: 


Darcy took up a book; Miss Bingley did the same; and Mrs. Hurst, principally occupied in playing with her bracelets and rings, joined now and then in her brother's conversation with Miss Bennet.

Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, ``How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.''
Jane Austen (1775-1817). From Pride and Prejudice.


17 February 2011

The Grandfather Medicine by Jean Hager

Here is my fourth What’s in a Name Challenge read, the book with a life stage in the title. It is also a TBR challenge read.

Genre: Police procedural
Year of publication: 1989
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Police Chief Mitchell “Mitch” Bushyhead
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Buckskin, a fictional small town in Oklahoma, USA; contemporary

A promising Cherokee artist is found murdered in his house with two of his fingers missing, the first murder to take place in Buckskin for 10 years and Chief Bushyhead soon finds himself on the trail of a cold-blooded killer. Pressure for results and information by the town council does not sit well with him and he knows his job may well be on the line, but he still investigates the case methodically, carefully sifting through evidence and clues and questioning witnesses to discover who could have held enough of a grudge to kill the victim.

This is a police procedural/murder mystery with a half-white, half-Native American protagonist, and like in the Tony Hillerman novels that undoubtedly inspired it, it gives some fascinating glimpses into Native American traditions, in this case of the Cherokee. The writing is plain and the plotting solid and deftly woven and the side story about Bushyhead’s private life is fortunately neither long-winded nor dysfunctional to the point being ridiculous like in some detective novels I could mention. It’s a nice little mystery, nothing earth-shattering, but interesting enough that I wouldn’t mind reading another of Hager’s books. 3 stars.

16 February 2011

Want to do somehting really heinous? Shut down a library

Watch and listen to a group of concerned people enumerate all the reasons why libraries should be kept open:



My local library has had to face cutbacks, but they responded by trying to increase the turnover by shortening the lending time. It will hopefully allow them to continue buying new books and keep the stock updated.

15 February 2011

Meme: Top 10 literary love stories

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. For more lists of unforgettable love stories, head on over there and visit the other participating blogs.

When faced with the challenge of coming up with my 10 favourite love stories from books, I sat down and thought about the love stories that have affected me, that I remember and that I like to read about over and over. To my surprise only two of them are from romance novels, or three if you think Jane Austen's books are first and foremost romances. These are today’s choices - they many change at any time.

  • Robin and Marian from any number of retellings of the Robin Hood myth.Probably because it was among the first love stories I came across in a book.
  • Odysseus and Penelope from the Greek myths.
  • Anne and Gilbert from the Anne of Green Gables books. Classic "enemies become lovers" plot.
  • Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth from Persuasion by Jane Austen.A classic "return to love" plot.
  • Viola and Orsino from Twelfth Night, or What You Will by Shakespeare.Just barely won out over Much Ado About Nothing because of the deliciously homoerotic elements.
  • Venetia Lanyon and Jasper Damerel from Venetia by Georgette Heyer.
  • Nina and Alex from Anyone But You by Jennifer Crusie. 
  • Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, spanning four books by Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • Jean Paget and Joe Harman in A Town like Alice by Nevil Shute. I read this ages ago and saw the film, but the only thing from the story that has stuck with me was the love story and the crucifixion scene.
  • Helene Hanff and the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road in the book of the same title.

14 February 2011

Coraline

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

Author: Neil Gaiman
Year published: 2002
Genre: Horror, thriller, children’s
Where got: Public library

The story:
One day, Coraline Jones opens a locked door inside her parent’s apartment and enters a world where she has another, oddly different, set of parents waiting for her. At first it’s wonderful, but it quickly becomes apparent that her other mother has no intention of letting her go. Coraline must use all her ingenuity and imagination to free the other children that have been trapped in there and rescue her real parents from this strange world and its evil ruler.

Technique and plot:
Wonderfully written in the flowing lyrical style that made Stardust such a joy to read.
The story is simple but good and everything is very matter-of-fact, which is why the dark subject matter never becomes too scary.
Coraline is a very practical child, unlike the very silly Alice from Alice in Wonderland, to which this book has been likened by reviewers.

Rating:
A wonderful, scary story for children that is destined to become a classic. 5 stars.

13 February 2011

The annual reading report, part 2

Continuing from yesterday´s post:

Breakdown by genre:

This is by dominant genre, so that, for example, the urban fantasy novels I read all go in the romance category, because they are romances first and foremost, although they happen to take place in fantasy/alternative reality setting, whereas the Discworld books go in the fantasy category even if they are all also detective stories, because fantasy is the dominant genre.

Crime, mystery and thrillers: 54 (31,2%), down by 10,65%
Romance: 49 (28,3%), up by a staggering 21,15%
Fantasy, sci-fi, fairy tales, myths and supernatural: 20 (11,6%), up by 6,5%
Miscellaneous fiction: 32 (18,5%) up by 1,65%
Non-fiction: 18 (10,4%), down by 16,6%

My reading seems to have been more homogeneous in 2010 than it was in 2009, which I blame on the decrease in my reading of non-fiction, down to 10% from 27%.

I did not read enough travelogues and ex-pat memoirs to warrant a separate category in 2010, but I plan to remedy that in 2011, when the travelogues I accumulated in 2010 become eligible for the TBR challenge.


Authors:

I haven‘t tallied the number of books by the gender of the authors before, but I thought it might be interesting to take a look. Such numbers can, however, never be completely accurate, since for one reason or another authors sometimes assume noms de plum belonging to the other sex, or they have names or pseudonyms that are gender neutral.

Several books were by more than one author, including some short story anthologies, so I counted by the number of books rather than the number of authors.
10 (5,8%) anthologies with short stories by both genders ended up in a mixed category. As for the rest:

Female author(s): 107 (61,85%)
Male author(s): 56 (32,35%)

This is nearly twice as many books by women than by men, which actually surprised me (in a nice way). I'd had the impression that I read more books by men than by women.

Author list by number of books read:

As usual, Nora Roberts takes the trophy for the most books read by one author, with Lynn Viehl coming a close second and Jennifer Crusie a close third.

Nora Roberts: 11
Lynn Viehl: 9
Jennifer Crusie: 7
Terry Pratchett: 7
Georgette Heyer, Ngaio March and Ellis Peters: 6 each
J.K. Rowling, Hugleikur Dagsson: 5
Agatha Christie: 4
Edward Gorey, Lori Foster: 3 (the last books I shall ever read by Foster unless someone can point me in the direction of romances by her that do not have virgin heroines)
Dorothy L. Sayers, Halldór Laxness, Jane Feather, Julia Quinn, M.R. James, Sharyn McCrumb, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: 2 each.

Of course, if I were to count all the little Gorey books collected in those three above-mentioned anthologies, he would win hands down with 47 books in total.

Publishers:
In my last annual report I switched to counting imprints rather than publishing houses, since smaller publishers are continually being swallowed up by bigger ones and what is a publishing house today may tomorrow be one imprint among many belonging to a big publishing house. I did count all the imprints bearing variations of the Penguin and Signet names as one.

As in 2009, Penguin won, but only by 1 book.

Penguin: 10
Signet: 9
St. Martin‘s Press: 8
Jove: 7
Bloomsbury: 6
Berkley Books, Fontana/Collins, Harper Collins, Project Gutenberg, Silhouette Books, Victor Gollancz, Vintage: 5 each, and
15 others with 2 books each, and
47 with 1 book each
Furthermore there were 6 self-published books, all of them e-books.

12 February 2011

The annual reading report for 2010, part 1 (finally)

2010 was a little above average for me considering the number of books I read per year in the last 5 years, or quite a bit higher if I count separately all the little Edward Gorey books collected together in the three Gorey anthologies I read. If they are counted as three volumes, I read 173 books, but if they are counted as separate books, I read 221 books. This makes a weekly average of 3,3 or 4,25 books, respectively.

If I continue with two numbers I‘ll have to come up with two sets of most of the numbers, so for the calculations below I have used the lower number.

I have no particular plans in terms of either the total number of books or the total number of pages I plan to read in 2011. I have several short novels on my TBR list which could push up the number of books read, but I also have some monster books I plan to read, so it will probably even out.

I don‘t remember any unfinished books in 2010, only books put on hold to be finished later.

Breakdown:
Fiction: 155 (89,6%), up by 18,7% since 2009.
Non-fiction: 18 (10,4%) down by the same percentage since 2009.

My non-fiction percentage is down from 2009, showing a definite preference for fiction in 2010. I would like to read more non-fiction in 2011, at least 20% of all the books read.

Total no. of pages read: 50092, compared with 49672 in 2009.
Average number of pages per book: 290. This is 37 pages more pages per book than in 2010.
Number of books 300+ pages long: 63 (36,4%). This percentage was 29% in 2009 and 51% in 2008, and accounts for the higher number of pages read in fewer books.
Number of books of 100 pages or less: 8 (or 55 if you count the Goreys separately)

Re-reads: 8 (4,6%). This is twice as many as in 2009, but still not a lot. I find I rarely grab a book to reread it any more because I feel compelled to, but rather I do it because I have made a conscious decision to do so.
Library and loan books: 48 (27,75%). This is 10 fewer than in 2009, but the difference in percentages is only just under 2%.
E-books: 11 (6,35%). This item has more than doubled, both in number and percentages.
Audio books: 0. I listened to parts of several audio books, but finished none in 2010.
Translated books: 10 (5,8%). This is slightly fewer than in 2009, but not by much.

Books published before 1900: 3, including one from the B.C. era. I have definitely been focusing on modern literature.
Books published after 2000 (that year not included): 57, or 33%, compared with 26% in 2009.

The year I read the most books from was 2007.
I read a total of 3 books published in 2010.

Average rating per book (out of a possible 5+): Still 3+. In 2009 the actual average was 3,6 stars, but in 2010 it went down to 3,35 stars, so the average rating is ever so slightly down.
Most common rating (out of a possible 5+): As in 2009 the most common rating is 3,5 stars (representing 29 books, or 16,75%).


In 2010, no book got a score of 1, but 11 got a score of 2.
10 books got 5 stars versus 12 in 2009, and 5 got 5+ stars, which is the same number as in 2009.

Languages: I read 160 books in English in 2010, which is more than in 2009, both in numbers and percentages. The percentage in 2009 was 75,5% of the total but in 2010 it was 92,5%.
I read 13 books in Icelandic in 2010, out of which 3 were translations from 2 foreign languages. This makes a total of 7,5%, which is a lot less than in 2009, but that was an exceptional year for Icelandic books due to my book-a-week Icleandic literature challenge.

Continued tomorrow.

11 February 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and the Barrel



Another time the Bakki-brothers bough a large barrel in Borgarfjörður, which is in southern Iceland, many days travelling from Bakki. They took the barrel apart to make it easier to transport.

When they got home they put the barrel back together and started filling it (it doesn’t say with what, but presumably whey or brine for preserving food), but the barrel started leaking. The brothers examined to barrel to find out what was causing the leak. Finally one of them said: “Gísli-Eiríkur-Helgi, no wonder the barrel leaks, the bottom is still in Borgarfjörður!”


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.

Top Mysteries Challenge review: A Bullet in the Ballet by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon

Genre: Murder mystery
Year of publication: 1937
No. in series: 1
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: London, UK; contemporary

When the lead dancer in the ballet Petrushka is shot dead on cue for the final death scene, everyone thinks it’s a one-time event, but when a second dancer is shot while waiting to go on stage to dance the same role, the police begin to think there must be a madman on the loose who is fixated on this particular ballet and character. The police have to deal with a large number of witnesses and several potential killers, all of whom are so steeped in ballet that they can think of hardly anything else, and none of them seems to have told them the truth when first questioned.

This is a wonderfully chaotic and funny mystery, full of eccentric characters and twists and turns. The humour is refreshingly politically incorrect but always affectionately so. The story is full of Russians with strange and funny names, the ballet terms confuse and befuddle the reader but can generally be understood through context, and the characters are the biggest collection of eccentrics I think I have ever come across in a novel. Add to this that it’s a stage mystery – my favourite sub-genre of the cosy – and here is a mystery I enjoyed very much, even if I did figure out the killer and motive around half-time. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 68
Place on the list(s): CWA # 70
Awards: None I know of

10 February 2011

Cordina’s Crown Jewel by Nora Roberts

This is my third What’s in a Name Challenge book, the one with jewelry or a gem in the title.

Genre: Romance, contemporary
Themes: Big Secret, Big Misunderstanding, Royalty
Year of publication: 2002
No. in series: 4
Setting & time: Vermont, USA and Cordina, a fictional kingdom in Europe
Explicitness and number of sex/love scenes: Several rather purple ones

Princess Camilla de Cordina is teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown and decides to take a break from her duties. Keeping a low profile, she goes on a road trip and enjoys being just another young woman. A mishap with her car brings her into the company of grumpy archaeologist Delaney Caine. Being short on money, she accepts a temporary job from him while she waits for the car to be fixed. Since he lives in a rustic cabin in the woods, they are together in close company and as she cleans his house, cooks him proper meals and types up his notes, they begin to fall in love. But he doesn’t know who she really is…

I know pretty much what to expect when I pick up a Nora Roberts novel to read. There will be a couple who fall in love almost despite themselves, some kind of obstacle to overcome, instant falling in lust and/or a gradual falling in love, a falling-out, and a satisfying coming-together at the end. In fact, this formula applies to most romance novels, but the enjoyment in reading them is all in the execution and the settings. I know I can always expect a few purple love/sex passages from Nora, along with solid, unpretentious writing outside of the love scenes, and a story well told.

Roberts is also very good at creating great characters, but in this particular case I found neither character that great, just passable. I also grimaced at how contrived the whole “lacking in funds” plot element was. It says in the story that Camilla dare not use her credit card for fear of her name being recognized by a store clerk. 30 years ago this would have been a perfectly acceptable plot element, but not in this day and age (or indeed in 2002 when it was first published) when there are ATM's on every other street corner. I know the story takes place in a time-frame with ATM's, because e-mail and websites are mentioned, and I was using ATM's a good 5 years before I had ever heard of e-mail, way back when the Web didn’t exist. This, however, is a minor detail that can be overlooked.

What I couldn’t overlook was that I couldn’t sink myself into the story like I love doing when I read any book. When the book is a romance novel this means that either I become the heroine or the hero, or I fall in love with the hero for the duration of the book. Neither happened here. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but perhaps it was the sweetness of the story and the relative ease with which the falling-out was mended and the obstacles overcome. I do know that I generally like Roberts’ romantic thrillers better than her straight romances, so maybe I just need a bit more darkness and complications for her novels to really resonate with me. 2 stars.

09 February 2011

Quotation about writing

I came across this lovely description of a budding author's behaviour when writing:

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and 'fall into a vortex', as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her 'scribbling suit' consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, "Does genius burn, Jo?" They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo.

She did not think herself a genius by any means, but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh. Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The devine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her 'vortex', hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent. 
From Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

I'm reading Little Women for the first time in an unabbreviated version, and enjoying seeing the familiar storylines unfold in fuller detail than the previously read shortened version or the films could ever show.

08 February 2011

Reading report for January 2011


I made good progress with the challenges in January, finishing 7 TBR books, two Top Mystery Challenge books, and one What‘s in a Name Challenge book, and furthermore I reviewed a Buchmesse Frankfurt challenge book.

Of my two rereads, one I read to re-familiarise myself with a story that began in a book I read in 2008 and the other was my final reread in the Discworld Watch sub-series. Now I am ready for Snuff when it comes out in October. Both non-challenge books were what I like to call „memoirs of place“. One is an account of a stay in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the 1950s, and the other is a mixture of a memoir of place and a conventional memoir.

The books were:

  • Suzanne Brockmann : Hot Target (reread) and All Through the Night. Romantic thrillers
  • Elias Canetti : The Voices of Marrakesh. Memoir of place.
  • Raymond Chandler : The Big Sleep. Detective novel.
  • Jennifer Crusie : What the Lady Wants. Detective romance.
  • Hugh Greene ed.: More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Short stories about detectives.
  • John Grisham : The Firm. Thriller.
  • Bill Holm : The Windows of Brimnes. Memoir of place.
  • Ed McBain : Shotgun. Police procedural.
  • Pete McCarthy : McCarthy's Bar. Travelogue.
  • Terry Pratchett : Night Watch (reread). Fantasy detective novel.

The annual report for 2010 is ready and will be posted some time in the next few days.

07 February 2011

Tears of the Giraffe

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

Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Year published: 2000
Where got: Public library
Genre: Detective story, literature

Had a sleepless night and rather than allow myself to be frustrated over it, I decided to read a book and picked Tears of the Giraffe, the second of Alexander McCall Smith’s books about Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady private detective. The first one was the wonderful The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

The story:
Precious has been handed her most difficult case to date: to find out what happened to a young American who disappeared on the edge of the Kalahari desert 10 years ago. In the meantime, Mr. Matekoni gets talked into taking in a pair of orphans, and his maid plots to get rid of Precious so she can continue to meet her male “friends” at Mr. Matekoni’s house during the day. Last, but not least, Precious’ secretary, Mma Makutsi, gets promoted to assistant detective and gets her first case.

Technique and plot:
As in the previous book, there are multiple plots in this one, although not as many. The previous book was a collection of stories with only a vague narrative thread. This one has a clear narrative thread with the occasional independent story thrown in. The narrative is written in the same beautiful, fluid and simple language as the first book, and there is a good deal of philosophy in the story. I love how, without going into too many details, Smith can make the reader feel as if she is in Africa.

Rating:
Another great Precious Ramotswe story, even better than the first. 4+ stars.

06 February 2011

I'm thinking about getting the words in the refrain of this song put on a T-shirt

I love clever parody songs and novelty music, but this is not just a brilliant parody, but also a pretty catchy tune:



On second thoughts I think I'll just embroider it and hang it on my office wall.

05 February 2011

Desert Island Books, 2011 edition

Back in 2008 I posted a list of my Desert Island Books, and now I think it’s time to do another one. Just to make sure I do this right, I didn’t look at the old list before drawing up this version.

Rules:
There can be more than one book in a volume, but I can only choose10 volumes plus a book of national importance to my culture and one religious book.
Since there is no electricity on my fictional desert island and I can only take a limited number of batteries with me – all of which I will need to power my flashlight and an emergency radio – I can not take an e-book reader.


My culturally important book is the Icelandic Sagas and the religious book is the Koran.

If only allowed to take 10 volumes (plus the above two) I would choose:

  • The collected works of William Shakespeare, because I want to finish reading the plays and, frankly, I need seclusion in order to concentrate on the historical plays.
  • Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory. I love Arthurian legends and have only read a few chapters of this.
  • One of my Terry Pratchett omnibuses (three books in one volume).
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White (all the books in one volume).
  • The Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, in one volume.
  • The Arabian Nights, a contemporary translation. I read an old, cleaned-up version as a teenager and now I would like to read an unexpurgated one.
  • Dalalíf (an Icelandic multi-generational family epic) by Guðrún frá Lundi. Something I have always wanted to read but never got round to.
  • South Wind by Normal Douglas, because I want to read it and because it takes place on an island, albeit not a desert one.
  • Nostromo by Joseh Conrad. Another TBR book I have been putting off reading.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce. I am not ready to sacrifice one of my other choices for a book of annotations for Ulysses, so I will only choose this one if I can find an annotated version (it probably doesn’t exist, as the resulting volume would weigh in at about 2 kilos or have type so minuscule as to require a magnifying glass to read it). If the above is unavailable I would instead choose Sjálfstætt Fólk (Independent People) by Halldór Laxness.

Taking a look at the old list I see that only three of my previously self-chosen books made the cut (White, Guðrún frá Lundi and The Arabian Nights) and the culturally important book was the same. I guess that tells me what I should be reading in the course of the year...

Dear reader, do you have a list of desert island books?



04 February 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and the Cat


Read part one.

Read part two

Read part three.

Once when the Bakki-brothers were out and about they met a man who was carrying an animal inside his shirt, the like of which the brothers had never seen before. They asked what this wondrous beast was called and what it was for and were told it was a cat and that it killed mice and kept them out of the houses. The brothers thought this was a splendid beast and asked if the cat was for sale. The man answered that they would have to offer him a grand price for the cat if he were to sell it to them, and they ended up paying through their noses for the beast.

They then took kitty home and were full of joy over their new house pet. When they got home they remembered that had forgotten to ask what the cat ate, so they went to the seller’s home. It was late at night and one of them knocked on a window and woke up the man, calling to him: “What does the cat eat?”

The man answered carelessly: “The damn cat eats everything.”

Upon hearing this the brothers returned home and thought deeply about what the man had said. Suddenly one of them said: “The cat eats everything, and my brother too,” and the others repeated this after him.

They decided that the cat was maybe not such a good beast after all and rather than having it eat them all, they paid a man for killing the cat and so made a loss on that purchase.

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

03 February 2011

Even the Wicked by Ed McBain

Finishing this book combines two of my challenges: the TBR and the book with a word meaning “evil” in the title in the What’s in a Name challenge.

Genre: Thriller
Year of publication: 1958
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, USA; contemporary.

News commentator Zachary Blake returns to Martha’s Vineyard one year after his wife drowned in the sea off the island’s shore. Ostensibly there for a holiday, he is really investigating whether there is any truth in a letter he has received which claims his wife’s death was not accidental.

SPOILERS ahead.

This is the first McBain book I read that isn’t part of the 87th Precinct series. In terms of quality it is not on par with those Precinct books I have read, but it’s not bad either. Mediocre is more like it. The writing and characters are, as always in McBain, well done, but I have issues with the story, especially the TSTL behaviour of the hero, and I don’t just mean bringing his daughter with him when setting out to investigate a potential murder on his own, but really just about everything he does. His behaviour does create some nicely thrilling scenes, but I am sure the story could have been made thrilling without having him act like he only has half a brain. Additionally, there is a highly unconvincing romantic thread in the narrative, which seems to have been included a) to add a few pages to the book and b) to provide Zach with a helper in the final showdown with the bad guys. 2 stars.

02 February 2011

A quotation, apropos of yesterday's post

In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.

Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001)

01 February 2011

Books that change lives

People who read often talk about life-changing books, books that gave them an inspiration or an understanding that changed the course of their lives. The change can be of any kind, but especially common seems to be the one that made the reader decide to pursue an occupation or a calling that they had not considered up to then, the one that made them rethink an issue and/or take a stand, and the one that awakened a longing or strengthened an idea into the resolve to do something specific.

These books are responsible for people veering off the path of least resistance that their lives have taken up to then and cause them to make important life changes, like to go into the church, change college majors or drop out, start charities, run for office, vote differently, move to another country, change their lifestyle, give up high-paying jobs that were killing them in order to pursue their real interests, to travel around the world, to find themselves and a million other things, big and small.

While religious and inspirational books feature heavily on most lists of life-changing books, it isn’t just those that change lives. Any book has this potential, even the worst kind of dross, although where those books are concerned it is admittedly usually only to make someone think “What a load of crap! I can do so much better than this!” and then go out and do it.

There are a few that have affected me like this. Whether they wrought any big changes in my life is debatable, but they affected me all the same. I have not encountered such a book since I was a teenager, but I remember them clearly.

The first and most memorable was not one book but a series of them: the Dr. Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting. They made me want to become a veterinarian, a resolve I held from age 8 until I was about 16 years old, which is when I fainted when watching a common veterinary procedure - one I had often seen performed before - being carried out on one of my father’s horses. It was an attack of vasovagal syncope triggered by the sight of blood, a condition I have suffered from ever since. Fainting at the sight and even just the smell of blood is a serious problem for anyone considering a career in medicine, so that dream was shattered. I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t developed this condition, I would now be a practising veterinarian.

The other books that inspired me were ones I read in my teens that had to do with adventure travel. Because of these books I travelled to India, have plans to travel to Egypt in the next few years, and will one day travel to South America. They turned a minor travel bug infection into a raging fever that, much like chronic malaria, recurs at odd times and causes me to drop everything else and start planning trips to various corners of the world. Money matters often prevent me from actually buying a ticket and setting off, but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming and planning.

How about you? Has your life been changed by a book? Please tell me which book, and how.