31 May 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Books That Should Be In A Beach Bag

This meme is hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. To see more suggestions for holiday reads, please visit the hosting site and from there you can go to any or all of the other participating blogs.

I do not sunbathe and therefore I present Top Ten Books that should be in my carry-on bag (or on my e-reader when I get one) to ensure enjoyment and variety on a long flight or an even longer bus or train ride. Also useful, in combination with an mp3 player, when you want to be left alone for any reason:

  1. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. My all-time first choice for a travelling book. I know it so well that I can open it at random and begin reading on any page, yet I never grow tired of it. I am on my second copy, having read the first one to tatters. Alternative: Any of Pratchett's Discworld books.
  2. A travelogue of the place I am visiting. Preferably historical so I can make comparisons and annoy my co-tourists with useless trivia.
  3. One Georgette Heyer novel, because sometimes it’s just nice to escape into a whole different time and place. Also because I like to spread the Heyer gospel.
  4. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, as an antidote to the strains of modern travel. Alternative: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.
  5. A book of short stories, journalism or essays. Because it’s nice to have something that can be read in short instalments.
  6. The latest romance novel from Nora Roberts.The perfect escapism.
  7. A juicy piece of popular science. Stiff might not be the best book to read on a plane, lest you scare your seat-mates with the cover, but The Secret Life of Lobsters or Orchid Fever could be interesting conversation starters.
  8. One classic I haven’t read before. Preferably one under 350 pages long. I know a guy who took The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with him on holiday, with disastrous results. I have no intention of repeating his mistake.
  9. One serious piece of non-fiction or literary fiction to be ignored in favour of the more frivolous books on the list. Afterwards I can always say “I tried, I really did!”
  10. And last, but not least: My travel journal, because, in the immortal words of Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train."

Charity shop book haul

When I visited the charity shop on Friday I knew they must be getting in a lot of new books because they were giving away books, which is what they always do when they still need shelf space after having had a book sale. I was strong and didn't pick up anything, but when I was coming home from work yesterday my "book sense" went all prickly when I drove past the charity shop, and so I stopped by. And look at what I got (gloat, gloat):

I decided to only buy books I knew I wanted to read or own, and so I bought noting on speculation (which is what made my TBR so epic in the first place). This meant passing over several tempting YA urban fantasies, a couple of mysteries and half a dozen other vegetarian cookbooks.

The Madhur Jaffrey book alone is worth 6 times what I paid for the whole lot. I generally don't read celebrity biographies, but the Gene Simmons book was irresistible - Kiss was my first favourite rock band and still has a special place in my heart. As for the others, I collect historical cookbooks, like sewing, and hate borrowing big, thick books from the library since they shortened the lending time to 3 weeks.

The Mexican cookbook (bottom) is in such a condition that it really should be declared a health hazard, but I couldn't pass it up because of all the lovely, lovely Mexican recipes. It has clearly been much used and is stained and spotted and just a little bit greasy. I may photocopy it before I start using it, or I might take it apart and encase the pages in plastic pockets to prevent any contamination from spreading from the book to the food. I will also have to store it in a plastic bag so it will not get grease and possibly bacteria on my other cook books.

30 May 2011

Persepolis: The story of a childhood by Marjane Satrapi

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

Persepolis is a memoir, a look under the veil and behind the high walls and shuttered windows of post-revolution Iran. Parts of it are very shocking, parts are funny, and the stark black and white graphics make it play almost like a movie before your eyes. The drawings are dark - there’s a lot of black - and simple, but they are simple enough to appeal to they eye and the emotions and there are no unnecessary details to draw the eye away from the main points.

Rating: A stark, strong, insightful memoir of life in Iran in the years after the revolution. 4 stars.

I'm hoping the library will also get part 2. I want to know what happened next!

Since writing this, I have also read part 2 and seen the film. All are recommended.

29 May 2011

Dear Nikon Iceland,

When you're selling a camera that costs a cool quarter of a million krónur, could you at least make sure that the instruction manual is translated into proper and correct Icelandic?

The proof-reader in me is at her wits' end reading that thing. Your translator uses "skera" for "cut" when it should be "klippa", consistently uses "sé" when "er" is called for, and has made numerous grammatical errors and committed other translation crimes too heinous to describe. Some are so bad I smell Google Translate all over them.

The good news, Dear Reader, is that I finally bought a new camera. I realised I didn't need to wait for my tax refund, so I went ahead. It's a Nikon D7000, and I have a feeling we are going to have one hell of a good time together despite the crappy translation of the manual. I am, in fact, firmly trying not to huddle over it, stroking it and hissing: "My preciousssssss!"

I think my father is a bit upset that I didn't get a Canon camera, because he had dreams of being able to swap lenses and accessories with me, but I liked this one better than the equivalent Canon model (the EOS 60d) because that's made of plastic while this baby is built of magensium alloy and is shock-proof, damp-proof and dust proof, none of which can be said of the Canon 60d. I might have got a Canon 7d, but the Nikon appealed to me more. Besides, the 7d costs considerably more.

28 May 2011

Publishing woes

As those of you know who have been visiting this blog for a long time, I have a degree in translation studies and work as a translator.

Part of my final thesis was the translation, into Icelandic, of the book Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, by Umberto Eco. Just after I finished it and received my degree my supervisor applied for and got a grant to get the book published. The book would be an interesting addition to the small number of books on translation available in Icelandic and thus useful for translators wanting to study the theory behind their art. 

I recently met with my supervisor and he told me that he had been trying to discover who owned the publication rights to the original book, since permission must be sought from this party in order to legally publish the translation. This is where it gets complicated: no-one seems to know.

The book was written in English and published in Britain and thus the logical place to start was the British publisher. The British publisher pointed at the Italian publisher of a subsequent Italian edition, but when applied to they pointed right back at the British publisher. It's like some hellish Catch-22, but I for one am not laughing, since the publication of the translation is likely to be good advertising for my translation skills.

I am considering writing to Professor Eco to ask for his permission to publish, but where does one begin to search for contact details for someone who has very good reason to not want his contact information made public, lest he drown in fan mail?

27 May 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: Trunt, Trunt, and the trolls in the mountains

For most of Iceland’s human occupation people lived in farming communities near the coast and the interior of the country was an uninhabited non-man’s land, only visited by humans when travelling from one place to another and during the annual sheep and horse round-ups. No wonder then that belief in elves, trolls and outlaws was ripe. Trolls were believed to kidnap both men and women for breeding purposes. They were heathens and could not tolerate the sound of church bells, so they lived in the very remotest parts of the country.
Apart from travelling and round-ups, another thing that brought people up into the wilderness of the highlands was Iceland moss, which is actually a lichen. The Icelandic name for it means mountain grass, and I will be using that name in the story. It was a valuable commodity that was gathered to be used as food and to make medicines and to make a dye for wool. It only grows above a certain height above the sea-level, and groups of people would head into the highlands and mountains to pick it and perhaps spend several days camping out. This story tells of lichen-pickers who come into contact with a troll:
Once upon a time two men who went to pick mountain grass in the highlands. They spent one night there, sleeping in a tent. One stayed awake while the other slept. The one who was awake saw the sleeper crawl out of the tent and set off towards a distant glacier. He followed the sleep-walker but could barely keep up, the man was going so fast.
Suddenly the pursuer saw that a great big troll-woman was sitting on a pinnacle of ice up ahead. She made repeated beckoning gestures with both her hands and was clearly using magic to draw the man to her. He ran straight into her arms and she picked him up and bounded off with him.
A year later a group of people from the area the man had lived in came to the same place to pick mountain grass and the man came to them, looking grave and solemn and so quiet that they could hardly get a word out of him. The people asked him who he believed in and he answered that he believed in God. 

A year later the same people returned to pick mountain grass, and again he visited them. This time he looked so trollish that he frightened them. Even so, the asked him who he believed in, but he gave no answer, and stayed with them a shorter time than the previous year.  

The third year running he came to see them and had by then become a full troll and was extremely mean-looking and very frightening to behold. Still, someone dared ask him who he believed in, and he answered “Trunt, Trunt, and the trolls in the mountains”. With that he walked away. 

He was never seen again, and for several years afterwards the people dared not go to the area to pick mountain grass for fear of trolls. 

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

The time to read is any time: no apparatus, no appointment of time and place, is necessary. It is the only art which can be practiced at any hour of the day or night, whenever the time and inclination comes, that is your time for reading; in joy or sorrow, health or illness.
George Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948)

26 May 2011

Online reading: Comics, part II

Here are some of the comics I like where you can jump right in and quickly figure out the story (if there is one):

Questionable Content. My favourite online soap opera. Exploring the lives of a group of twenty-somethings in a world with some resemblance to our own. Updated Mondays to Fridays. It's better to have read the whole thing from the beginning, but you can quickly catch up even if you don't.

Kevin and Kell. The adventures of anthropomorphic animals in a world that mirrors our own. It is better to have started from the beginning, but the "About" and "Cast" pages will fill you in on some of the details and help you catch up if you don't feel like reading the whole thing. Updated daily with an extra large strip on Sundays.

Toothpaste for Dinner. Random humour. Updated daily.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Random humour, sometimes not funny, sometimes very much so. Updated daily.

Nickyitis. Often quite funny. Updates weekdays. Three days a week it's a comic about the titular Nicky, and two days it's single panels.

Cat versus Human. Cat humour. updates irregularly, but usually at least twice a week.Posted in blog form.

Wasted Talent. Updates once a week. Glimpses of the artist's life (she's an engineer and drawing is a hobby). You can jump in anywhere, but it's better to have read from the beginning.

xkcd. Billed as "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language". Sometimes you need to be a science geek to understand it, but more often you just have to understand sarcasm. Updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Piled Higher and Deeper. Academic humour. Updates irregularly, but worth waiting for, especially if you're a grad student slaving away in teaching assistant and grant refusal hell.

24 May 2011

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

I am skipping the Top Ten Tuesdays meme this week, so here instead is some list love:

I came across an old post of mine that reminded me of three pet peeves about mysteries that I completely forgot about when I drew up the original list. That was quite a feat, since I actually react more strongly to them than I do to suicide endings, but I forgot about them because I haven’t come across any of them recently, so my ruffled feathers had settled sufficiently for me to have forgotten about them.

Here is the original list, and below is the new one, with new items in blue:

  1. Suicide endings, especially when it is out of character or not necessary to avoid the death sentence. Can be found in a number of Robert Barnard novels and the works of many other authors.
  2. Sub-intelligent or useless sidekicks. I much prefer teams that make up for each other’s faults to a star detective and a side-kick who is useless except as a dumb stand-in for the reader. I feel that the side-kick must be a developed character of at least normal intelligence and able to contribute to the investigation on other ways than just being a sounding-board for the detective. She could, for example, be the brawn to the detective’s brains or he could be the one with common sense even if lacking in detection abilities. This is why I like Watson - he might be rubbish as a detective, but Holmes would have been killed many times over if not for his side-kick's bravery.
  3. Technobabble and psychobabble. Don’t go into long, involved explanations of how something technical works or why someone is so screwed up – just give a brief explanation and let that suffice. If you show the reader that it is so and explain why in broad terms it is not necessary to go into tiny details of how or why.
  4. The following as the murderer: neurotic spinster, repressed lesbian, slimy homosexual, grossly and unattractively fat character, and especially the froth-at-the-mouth insane person whom the villain uses as an instrument of murder. Come on, authors: when someone is that insane they are generally unpredictable and incapable of avoiding detection as well and just as likely to turn against the person who is using them as they are to do exactly what they are expected to do.
  5. Overly complicated solutions/murder plots. John Dickson Carr is a big offender, and one or two books by Dorothy L. Sayers also fall into this category.
  6. There is no closure or no justice, in a book where the detective is the hero. There can be justice even if the killer escapes the clutches of the detective, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth when the killer gets clean away with it and pays not the smallest price, doesn’t have to escape or make any sacrifices. I can name exactly one book where this didn’t make me scream, and that was entirely due to the author’s brilliant writing and handling of the device and not because the character was in any way sympathetic. The item I listed in the original # 6 actually ties in with this: I hate it when detectives, especially when they are not police officers doing their jobs, are able to kill people left and right in cold blood with seemingly no consequences. In books where the criminal is the hero their eventual escape is of course to be expected and doesn’t annoy me nearly as much.
  7. Far-fetched murder methods combined with far-fetched motives. If you have to have the murderer use a hitherto unknown poison or a remote-controlled gun, the motive had better be a simple and straightforward one, and if the motive is far-fetched, the method had better be straight-forward.
  8. Murder victims who were so evil and so hated by so many that the murderer was doing humankind a favour by eliminating them. Victims who are sympathetic on some level make for a much more thrilling plot.
  9. Secret societies as the villain. To quote what I wrote in a particular review: “I don’t mind having a member of a secret society doing their thing independently of the society or a leader of such a society being taken on with the understanding that their capture will destroy the whole organisation, but several members acting on orders from mysterious untouchable higher-ups takes away the one-on-one struggle between the detective and the villain and reduces the story to one about a hopeless struggle against an unbeatable enemy, which is not what I want to read about in a mystery.” Authors, save this device for the literary fiction.
  10. Dysfunctional detectives whose troubled private life invades the story with monotonous regularity. I don’t mind reading about detectives’ private lives, but do they all have to be divorced or almost divorced alcoholics with children and/or exes who hate them? (This is why I really like Steve Carella - he has a happy family life).

23 May 2011

A Cook’s Tour in search of the perfect meal

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

Author: Anthony Bourdain
Year published: 2001
Pages: 274
Genre: Travel, food
Where got: Public library

I’ve wanted to see the TV series ever since I read about it on a cooking website, but for now I will have to make do with the book.

This is the story of Bourdain’s round-the-world journey in search of interesting food and eating situations. This was first just supposed to be a travel-foodie book, but then Television got involved, and he ended up traveling around with a TV crew in tow. Some of the visits yielded plenty of delicious food, like the visit to The French Laundry in California, others were nostalgic and unfulfilling like the trip to France, and still others pointless, like the journey to Pailin in Cambodia.
The dining experiences were sometimes exotic, often delicious, at other times scary or just horrible. Some brought the intrepid chef face to face with his food, still on the hoof, or swimming, crawling or slithering around, others brought him into situations where he whished he had never ordered the dish in question, and still others where he had to eat something he never wanted to eat in the first place but had to because it made good television. 

Bourdain is still as profane, self-deprecating, straight-forward and likeable as he was in his previous bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential. The style is somewhere between a hard-boiled detective novel and a regular travel book, full of hyperbole and good humour. Unlike Kitchen, the narrative does not jump from one subject to another, which makes the narrative more structured.

Rating: My two favourite non-fiction genres - food and travel - combined in one great book. 5 stars.

20 May 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Black Skirt

People who do not conform to what is considered good and normal by society have a much better time of it today that they did back in the old days. Reproductive freedom is now considered to be a human right, but back then people who didn’t wish to have children were considered abnormal, even evil. Consider this story:

Once upon a time, log ago, there were a middle-aged couple, rich and respectable, who had one daughter. She was an attractive, lively girl and had many suitors, but turned them all down. Finally the parish minister, a young man with good prospects, came to ask for her hand. The parents were all for the match, but the girl absolutely refused to giver her consent. Her parents asked her how she could turn down such as wonderful prospect but she answered that she was so mortally afraid of the terrible pain of childbirth that she couldn’t possibly consent to marry anyone, however good the prospects were.

“There is a way out of that, my daughter,” said the woman. Then went her clothes trunk and opened it and pulled out a black skirt that she handed to the girl.

“If you wear this as your underskirt, next to your skin,” she said, “and never take it off, neither by night or day, you will never suffer the pangs of childbirth.”

After this the girl accepted the proposal and married the minister. They lived well and prospered, and the young wife turned out to be a hard worker and a good housekeeper and was liked by everyone. 

A few years passed and the young couple continued to prosper and grow rich, but they had no children even though their love-life was active and good. The young husband suspected that this had something to do with his wife’s black underskirt but although he asked her nicely and ordered her by turns to take it off she absolutely refused to do so and persisted in wearing it. He was disturbed by this but there was nothing he could do about it.

One summer, on Midsummer’s Eve, he got a visit from an old school-fellow and childhood friend of his who lived in another parish. He was a knowledgeable and wise man who had ken of many mysterious things. The young couple received him gladly and the two friends had many things to discuss and remember and news to tell. The visitor asked the young husband about his children and watched his friends’ spirits sink as he answered that they had none. The visitor said it was a pity that such a handsome couple had no children and asked if there was any particular reason for this. The young husband then told him, in confidence, about his misgivings about the black skirt that his wife wore night and day would not on any account take off. 

This made the visitor thoughtful. He was quiet for a while and then spoke: “I can try to fix this situation to the good for you both. Tonight is Midsummer’s Night. Go around midnight and say a mass with only myself and your wife present. Then we shall see what happens.”

The young minister agreed to this and that night they suggested to the young wife that she join them for a midnight mass in the church. She was willing and just before midnight the three of them walked to the church. The minister took up his position before the altar and the visitor and the minister’s wife took seats on each side of the altar. They then sang the mass loudly and clearly. 

After a while a little boy came walking down the aisle. He stopped at the woman’s knees and looked at her with sorrowful, accusing eyes and said: “You did ill by me, my mother, when you denied me life. I was to have become a bishop.” Then he turned around and walked back up the aisle. The woman was quite startled and turned pale, but continued her singing. 

A short time later another boy came to her and said: "You did ill by me, my mother, when you denied me life. I was to have become a sheriff and a judge.” This startled her even more than before and she broke out in a sweat, but was still able to continue singing, albeit with difficulty.

But then a little girl came to her and spoke in a soft child’s voice: “You did ill by me, my mother, when you denied me life. I was to have become a minister’s wife.” This was too much for her and she fainted away and fell from her seat as the child turned away from her. The visitor and the minister immediately jumped up and whipped the black skirt off her and then carried her into the farm and laid her in her bed. The skirt they took and burned. 

These events did not make the minister’s wife any more unwell than this, but the young minister felt that a burden had been lifted off him and was deeply grateful to his friend. Following these events fortune favoured the young couple: they had three children, each more promising than the last, two boys and one girl. The elder of the two boys grew up to become a bishop and the younger a sheriff and judge, and the daughter a minister’s wife.

Note: The greatest office any man could hope to achieve in Iceland back then was to become a bishop, a sheriff and judge, or a minister, and to marry one of these was the best most women could expect.

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

The following quotation is probably the source for a particular incident in one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. I love it when I discover the source of some particular nugget of intertextuality.

"A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us."
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

19 May 2011

Online reading: Comics, part I

There are several on-line comics that I follow almost religiously. They appeal to me for different reasons, but mostly I like ones that are humorous or ones that tell a compelling story, even if the artwork is crap. I am still catching up with the back issues of some, others are already finished, and some I am current on. Some are episodic, some are single stories, and others can be enjoyed at random. I am posting links here to the ones I enjoy the most.

I'm splitting this up in two posts, one about the ongoing stories that need to be read from the start and where a whole page is posted at a time, and the other about comics where each strip or image is either a standalone or you can easily get into the story without reading it from the start.

In no particular order:

Scary Go Round's Bad Machinery. About a group of English school kids having spooky adventures. Shares a background and some characters with Scary Go Round (link to first strip) which has run its course (and with which I am still catching up). Updated Mondays to Thursdays.

Gunnerkrigg Court. Fantasy/sci-fi strip about children and teachers at a mysterious boarding school and spirits and creatures in the forest outside the school. Since it is an ongoing single story it really needs to be read from the beginning to understand what is going on. Updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

FreakAngels. A steampunk comic that speculates about what could have happened if the children from John Wyndham's novel, The Midwich Cuccoos, had survived and grown up. Needs to be read from the beginning. Seems to be drawing to a close. Updated on Fridays.

Darwin Carmichael is going to Hell. Fantasy comic about a man with very bad karma. Goes through fairly short story arcs, but better to have read from the start. Updates Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The following have run their course but are still online:

The Phoenix Requiem by Sarah Ellerton. Dark fantasy set in a vaguely Victorian setting. 

Sarah Ellerton, the author of The Phoenix Requiem has two other comic books/graphic novels on-line that are also finished: Dreamless, which I haven't read yet, and Inverloch, a fantasy which I enjoyed very much.

Dear Reader: Do you have favourite free online comics you would like to recommend to me and my other Readers? Then please leave a link in the comments. (Spam and links to pay-for-access sites will be deleted).

18 May 2011

17 May 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Favorite Minor Characters

( you know... all those great supporting character or a VERY minor character that might have been only in there a page or two but had an effect on you)

Top Ten Tuesdays is a weekly blogging meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Please visit the hosting blog to see more lists.

These are only the minor characters I could remember from off the top of my head, so if I were to do this list again it might look totally different.

This very nearly became a Terry Pratchett only list, but I was able to restrain myself (but only just).

In no particular order:

  • Fred from Anyone But you by Jennifer Crusie. The archetypal lovable ugly mutt with a personality.
  • Davy Dempsey from Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie. Sharp and dangerous and very probably a criminal but also a loving brother who will do anything to protect his family. I’m glad he got a book of his own (Faking It).
  • Jemmy from Viscount Vagabond by Loretta Chase. My favourite lovable urchin.
  • Greebo the cat from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. He is such an epitome of evil felinity that it’s hard not to love him. My friend used to have a cat just like him: evil, smelly and crazy, and father and grandfather to most of the feline population in our village.
  • The Luggage from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. I wish I had one.
  • The Librarian from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. Ook, ook!
  • The Death of Rats from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. He’s always there for the rats (and some humans), has strong opinions that don’t always agree with those of Death and acts as a conscience and guide to some of the characters. I’d like to think he came for one particular character from the Harry Potter universe...
  • Theodore from My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Theo was an actual person, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, and a remarkable man:scientist, doctor, translator, historian and acclaimed poet. I would have loved to have met him.
  • Hagrid from the Harry Potter books. I actually did a random drawing here, between several characters. I expect to find him on a number of lists.
  • The bums from Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. A lovable band of rogues. The frog hunting chapter is one of the funniest passages in any book I have read.

16 May 2011

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

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

Year published: 2004
Genre: Fantasy, humorous
Where got: Amazon.co.uk

The story:
When Lord Vetinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpork, gives con artist Moist von Lipwig a second chance at life if he will take over running the city’s disabled Post Office, Moist knows there has to be a catch. Finding tons of undelivered mail is nothing compared with finding out that four of his recent predecessors died in mysterious “accidents”. It looks as if the job will be simple: get enough postmen and deliver the mail, even if it will take decades, get the service up and running and print some stamps. Then there is Miss Dearheart, who renders Moist quite speechless with her icy cold manner and severe mode of dressing, and whom he would like to get to know a lot better. The plot thickens when the operators of the Grand Trunk Semaphore Company decide the Post Office is a threat, and begin a campaign to get rid of the competition, and Moist finally meets a man who is a bigger crook than he is.

Technique and plot:
The story is a blend of Pratchett’s usual humour, parody and allusions, combined with a very good story about beating the odds. The plot is unusually streamlined for a Pratchett story: there is only one plotline, and it’s divided into chapters, a first in the Discworld series (I’m not counting the Discworld-set children’s books). Several characters from the previous books make their appearances, such as Lord Vetinari, Captain Carrot and Sacharissa of The Times, who appears to have finally dragged William to the altar (read The Truth if you want to know more). If there is any complaint, it is that Moist is too similar to some of Pratchett’s previous heroes and heroines, especially in his feeling that others can see straight through him and uncover the secret he is hiding, and his capacity for unexpected nastiness when cornered.

Another great story from the master of funny fantasy. 4+ stars.

13 May 2011

Icelandic folktale: Death Diverted

This is one of many Icelandic miracle tales:

When the Black Death raged through the Skagafjörður area in 1403 the angels of death travelled the land by day in the form of a blue mist, but at night they looked partially human. 

One night the farmer of Fornu-Vellir woke up to the sound of sheep grazing on the roof of the farmhouse. He got up to drive them off and when he had done this he noticed through the dark that two of the angels of death were standing by the gate to the home pasture. He suspected that they had business at the farm that they were discussing. He listened in and heard one of the angels say: 

“We shall visit here and here we shall visit.”

The other replied: “We shall not visit here and here we shall not visit.”

The first one then said: “We shall not visit here and here we shall not visit, for the light of the sainted Mary shines from a tussock and we shall leave as soon as can be.”

After that the angels departed, and the Black Death never came to the farm. The farmer gave thanks to the sainted Mary for her act of grace. After this the farm’s name was changed to Skinþúfa (Shining Tussock). 

The farm’s owner changed the farm’s name to Vallanes in 1908. By that time the name of Skinþúfa had become garbled to Skinnþúfa (Skin Tussock), and the farmer was unfamiliar with the origin of the name.

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.

12 May 2011


Here is a marvellous new word I just learned: omphaloskepsis = contemplation of one's navel as an aid to meditation.

I have been involved in a bit introspection lately and one of the the things I have been examining is my reading habits and bookish likes and dislikes. I have come to the conclusion that I have some very fixed, if not positively staid, reading habits.

When I originally started this blog, or rather the blog that spawned this one, which was hosted on tblog and titled 52 Books, I did it in order to shake up my almost fossilised reading habits. I used the blog to keep myself on track with the book-a-week challenge I had set myself, with the aim of reading one book a week by an author or in a genre new to me, and getting off the reread carousel I had been on for the last several years leading up to the challenge. Not that rereading is in itself a bad thing, but when nearly half the considerable amount of books (in my case 150+) one reads in a given year is rereads and there are thousands of books on the TBR list that you haven’t read, something needs to be done. And I did it.

The result was that I now reread fewer than 10 books a year, have added several new authors to my “read more by” list (including three new contenders for my top ten favourite authors list), and I started reading romances again after a hiatus of 15 years.

Now I again feel like my reading habits are getting fossilised. The last time around I rushed headlong into a reading challenge in order to shake things up. This time I am going to sit down and analyse the situation more thoroughly and decide whether I need or even want to change things. I am going to be periodically posting some of the resultant musings to try to analyse why I like or dislike a particular genre or theme. I might even try to overcome some of my dislikes with targeted reading, but some of them are so deeply ingrained that I doubt I’ll be able to budge them. I call these my red flags, for obvious reasons. I think I should be able to deal with the subjects that merely make me uncomfortable, given sufficient analysis, but they may prove to be just as stubborn as the red flags.

11 May 2011

Wednesday Night Video: P&P

A bit of irreverence here, and funny in a juvenile kind of way:

A quotation for today

Books that have become classics - books that have had their day and now get more praise than perusal - always remind me of retired colonels and majors and captains who, having reached the age limit, find themselves retired on half pay.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907)

10 May 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Jerks In Literature

Or, as they put it on the hosting blog: "( all those jerky guys in books..those who truly WERE asshats and those who just acted like one but could be quite loveable)"
Please visit The Broke and the Bookish to see more lists of jerks in literature.

There are no loveable jerks on my list, although some of them are protagonists (which, as we all know, is no guarantee that we will like the guy. Just witness Humbert Humbert in Lolita (who I couldn't include as I haven't read the book yet).
  1. Professor Snape from the Harry Potter books. He may have been a troubled hero, but he was also a huge jerk with a huge chip on his shoulder against Harry’s father that he took out on Harry.
  2. Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books. Some people are just born mean. Add jealousy to the mix and you get Draco.
  3. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The worst kind of jerk: a whiny one.
  4. Hamlet from the play by Shakespeare. Another whiny jerk I wish would get over himself. Drove his girlfriend to suicide.
  5. Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A sanctimonious, obsequious, stupid jerk.
  6. John Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. A hypocritical jerk.
  7. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. A batshit crazy jerk.
  8. Rochester from Jane Eyre. A selfish jerk who tries lure Jane into a false marriage so he can keep her as his mistress.
  9. Dorian Grey from The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. A narcissistic, pleasure-seeking jerk who uses his beauty as a blind to fool peple.
  10. Mr. Wednesday from American Gods by Nel Gaiman. An evil jerk who tricks the hero, Shadow, into making a great sacrifice.

09 May 2011

Legally Blonde

Originally published in September 2004, on my original 52 Books blog. My comments in different type.

Author: Amanda Brown
Year published: 2001
Pages: 272
Genre: Chick lit
Sub-genre(s): self discovery
Where got: Bought in Prague

The story:
For those who have not read the book or seen the movie and don’t want to know the ending or of either, please stop reading NOW!


Those who have seen the movie are already familiar with the basic plot of the book: Bel Air princess Elle Woods is rejected by her boyfriend and follows him to law school to show him that while she is a blonde, she is not dumb. All kinds of funny chaos ensues, Elle defends Brooke, a former sorority sister in a murder trial, gets sexually harassed by her supervisor, and finally rejects the ex in favour of continuing law school and being with the cute lawyer she met.

That was the movie.

The book has the same basic plot, but with important differences. One is that instead of heading east to Harvard and losing all connections with her friends, Elle heads north to Stanford, meaning that she still has relatively easy access to her social network, which is what gets her the internship on the Brooke Vandermark defence team. Another is that her supervisor is actually quite nice and there even seems to be some mutual sexual attraction between him and Elle. The third is that the trial is not about murder, but an inheritance dispute. Brooke Vandermark has been sued by her husband’s daughter and ex wives for the inheritance and stands to lose everything if she is proven guilty of the murder. There is no Emmet, and Elle is happily single at the end of the book. Elle gets somewhat annoying at times because she is so perfect: so beautiful that even movie stars stare at her, and so kind that everyone who gets to know her beyond the superficial can’t help liking her. Internally, though, she’s a mess and quite human (which is what saves her from being a total Mary Sue).

Technique and plot:
The book drags a bit at times, especially the middle section, but for the most part it moves along well. Elle’s culture shock, coming from her pampered Bel Air environment, to the harsh and competitive law school where everyone instantly assumes her to be a stereotypical dumb blonde, is not quite as funny as it is in the movie, but a lot more real (I speak from experience, having suffered culture shock myself).

Interesting read, good support to the movie. 3 stars.

The unavoidable book/movie comparison:
All in all, I think many of the changes to the story from book to movie were well warranted, especially the expansion of the character of Paulette, played by Jennifer Coolidge, who steals every scene she is in. In the book Paulette is just a sympathetic French manicurist who is mentioned a couple of times in passing. Changing the trial from an inheritance case to a murder trial did make the movie story more thrilling. Elle in the movie is a lot more assertive than Elle in the book, and gets ahead on brains and hard work, while Elle in the book, although clearly smart (she wouldn’t have stood a chance in law school otherwise) is constantly struggling to keep up with her schedule, skipping classes and generally slacking off. Elle in the book is trying to get Warner back by dangling herself in front of him all the time, while Elle in the movie is intent on proving to him she is smart enough to deserve him. In spite of the differences in portrayal, Reese Witherspoon’s Elle is still recognisable as Amanda Brown’s Elle, and I think that reading the book gives one a better understanding of the turmoil that is supposed to be going on beneath Elle’s sunny smiles and sulky pouts in the movie. Reese Witherspoon is quite a good actress, but she has not mastered the subtlety needed to express finely nuanced emotions. I’m not saying she mugs, but her face is expressive in a big way, rather than subtle.

I didn’t quite understand why they changed the schools from Stanford to Harvard. Perhaps they wanted to make sure the audience really understands how alone Elle is once she starts law school? And since they had to add a romance element, why couldn’t they have made it sizzle a bit? I mean, Luke Wilson’s Emmett is cute, but that’s just it, he is just another cute guy around campus and there is no tension between them, it’s all just sibling-like banter and no apparent attraction.

Since I am reading a book about scriptwriting, I can’t help adding that I am now beginning to understand better why the plots in books are so often altered in screen adaptations. Books have different dynamics from movies, and while we will patiently slog through a slow middle section of a book in anticipation of a good climax and ending, we want a movie to keep up a good pace and entertain us throughout. The middle section of the book is about Elle’s problems fitting in, her struggles with her studies, legal stuff and internal struggles that would have bogged down the movie had they been shown in full. In a movie the short and snappy scenes of her interaction with her teachers and co-students serve much better to show this, even if it makes her loneliness and isolation seem a bit trivial compared with the book. But, after all the movie is supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, while the book is an occasionally funny story about self discovery.

06 May 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Seal Wife

Icelanders share a belief in selkies with their cousins in the Faeroe Islands, Scotland and Ireland. This is the most commonly told selkie story:

From Vík í Mýrdal

Once upon a time the was a man in the Mýrdalur area who was walking along the sea-shore at the foot of some high cliffs very early in the morning, before most people were awake. He came to a cave and heard the sounds of revelry and dancing from inside. Outside he saw a large pile of seal-skins. He took one of the seal-skins with him as he went on his way, took it home with him and locked it in a trunk.

Later in the day he returned to the cave and found there a pretty young woman. She was nude and crying. This was the seal to whom the skin belonged. He gave her some clothes, dried her tears and took her home with him. She was shy and aloof with everyone but him, and would often sit and look at the sea. 

A while later the man proposed to her and was accepted. They had a happy marriage and had several children together. The man kept the skin firmly locked away in the trunk and carried the key with him wherever he went. 

Many years later he went out to sea for some fishing but forgot the key at home under his pillow*. The woman took the key and opened the trunk and found the skin. She was unable to stop herself from taking the skin, so she said goodbye to her children, put on the skin and disappeared into the sea. Before she left she said: 

“Oh, pitiful me,
I have seven children under sea
and seven on land.”

The man was struck with grief when he came back and discovered what had happened. After this, often when he rowed out to fish there would be a seal circling the boat that seemed to be crying. His catch was thereafter always big and many useful things were cast upon the shore below his farm. 

Often when the children from this union walked down by the sea there would be a seal swimming in the sea near them and it would throw them colourful fish and beautiful shells. But their mother never came ashore again.
*Another version of the story claims that he went to church at Christmas with the rest of the household, but his wife was ill and unable to join them. He had forgotten to remove the key from the pocket of his everyday clothes and when he returned from church the trunk was open and the woman and the seal-skin were gone.

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

Sunset, taken from my parents' front yard. 3 image HDR merge, tonemapped.

"To me, the light of the sun, the day, and life itself, would be joyless and bitter if I had not something to read."
Leo Allatius (1586-1669)

05 May 2011

Orchid Fever, by Eric Hansen

I just realised I got through the whole of April without writing a single review, and yet I posted something nearly every day of the month. This has to be a record for me. Of course there were reviews, but they were recycled ones that I wrote years go.

Full title: Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy
Year published: 2000
Genre: Non-fiction, travel, history, flowers

I came across this book at a second hand shop a couple of years ago and was intrigued by the title. I then stuck it in the dreaded TBR stack and forgot about it, until last month when I was browsing my TBR for something to read. I promptly picked it up, started reading, and was soon engrossed in the world of orchids and orchid people.

Hansen immersed himself deeply in the orchid world, interviewing collectors, breeders and horticulturists, and obsessively hunting down some collector/breeders who had run afoul of the catch-22 of the CITES convention: in order to own and sell orchids on the CITES list, you had to have CITES papers, but if your orchids were acquired before CITES, when no papers were needed, you would be treated as a criminal, just in case you had acquired them illegally. He points out some major flaws in the CITES convention as regards flora (especially that it makes things hard for scientists and forbids the rescue of plants from habitat that’s about to be destroyed), and relates his attempts to get a handle on the apparent idiocy of some of the CITES rules, but seems to have run into obstacles everywhere. The part of the book that deals with this does drag somewhat, as Hansen gets repetitive and even ranty on the subject at times, but it is enlivened by the portraits of the people he met while researching that part.

Interestingly, the people who were most inclined to talk to him about this situation and answer questions were the people one would have expected to not want to talk: people who had been “made examples of” with confiscation of orchids, fines and jail sentences for possession of illegal orchids, apparently in order to scare others, whereas the people most closely involved in CITES couldn’t or wouldn’t give him much information.

Therefore the book gives a rather one-sided view of this subject. I would love to see something on this subject from the point of view of the CITES people, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

But Hansen doesn’ just write about the apparent idiocy of CITES, he also gives a lot of interesting information and historical tidbits that he peppers the text with in such a way that it never gets boring.  The highlights of the book are the portraits of orchid people and orchids, some of which are very funny and always entertaining, even if sometimes in a “goodness me!” kind of way. I would have liked to see colour photos of the orchids he mentions, as there are only line drawings in the book, and I spent quite a lot of time searching for photos on the Web so I could truly understand what he was describing when discussing orchids. This disrupted my reading somewhat.

This book is well written and gives a look into a world that seems to be inhabited mostly by eccentrics and fanatics (quote: "I don't want to give the impression that perfectly normal, healthy, thoughtful and balanced people are not drawn to orchids. I am told they exist. I just didn't have much luck finding them."), some lovable and some not. It is also interesting to follow his development from interested observer to full fledged fanatic through the course of the book, although in his case he didn’t start collecting orchids, but orchid people. 4 stars.

04 May 2011

Wednesday Night Video: Writing a romance

I loved this when I first saw it. Clearly these ladies (or whoever wrote the skit) know their romances:

Reading in Reykjavík on Scene of the Blog

My blog is being featured on Kittling Books in Scene of the Blog today.
 Every Wednesday, Cathy, the Kittling blogmistress, shares another book blogger’s blogging space with her readers. Book bloggers from all over the world have sent her photos and descriptions of the areas where they do most of their blogging from. This has proved to be a very popular feature and a great way for bloggers to connect. I’m thrilled to be included in the group.

 Kittling Books is an award-winning book blog which features reviews, author interviews, announcements of upcoming titles and other interesting features.

03 May 2011

I just got a new pair of glasses

This is not really news, but a year ago I started feeling that my eyesight was changing and I went to my  opthalmologist to get a check-up. He told me I would soon be needing bifocals and added that I was 10 years early for those. Great.

When I went for my check-up last April I got a prescription for multifocals and since my father had good experience buying his mutifocals from abroad, I placed an order with the company he has used. The glasses arrived yesterday. I have been wearing them since I got up this morning, and I can see they will take some getting used to. It's somewhat like having your head underwater. Using them is going to involve more head movements and more eye movements while my physical memory gets to grips with the gradually changing focal lengths of the lenses, but hopefully it will only take a few days to get used to. It will be a relief to not have to peer under the rims when I am doing my crocheting or sewing while watching TV and to not have to take my glasses off when I need to read product labels at the supermarket (I always take them off for reading books, but the way my eyesight has been changing, in a couple of years I am probably going to start needing reading glasses). 

The best part? By ordering them from abroad I only paid about 1/5 to 1/4 of what I would have paid had I bought them locally.

Reading report for April 2011

First I want to report an error in the report for March – I forgot to enter two books into my reading journal. One was Gigi by Colette, which I reread after having first read it many, many years ago. The other was a webcomic, The Phoenix Requiem (click on the link to start reading it) by Sarah Ellerton, which I discovered last year but which had then been running since 2007. Ellerton finally finished it in March, and is now working on a print project. I had already read another of her webcomics Inverloch and enjoyed it very much, and I was saving a third comic of hers, Dreamless, for later. I guess I'll read that now. And now we resume our regular programming:

I finished 18 books in April, which is pretty good considering I began the month while suffering from a very specific kind of reader‘s block: the inability to finish what I had started. I would grab a book, read the first few dozen pages and then I would need to go cook a meal, or go to work, and when I would return, I would have lost interest in the book. I solved it by devouring four volumes of short stories, which can easily be finished in one reading session, then moved on to a novella and finally a short novel.

At this point I realised I needed a change of genre and chomped my way through several romances, beginning with a chick lit book, moving on to supernatural romance and finally historical romances.

13 of the books were TBR challenge reads, which, along with some culling, brought the number of TBR books below my target for the year: 840. I am now going to raise the bar and aim for 820. I finished no other challenge reads in April.

The Books:
  • Mary Balogh: First Comes Marriage. Historical romance.
  • E.C. Bentely: Trent Intervenes. Short stories, mystery.
  • Agatha Christie: 13 for Luck, Parker Pyne Investigates and Problem at Pollensa Bay. Short stories, mystery.
  • Colette: The Cat. Psychological thriller.
  • Jennifer Crusie: Tell Me Lies. Romance, contemporary.
  • Eric Hansen: Orchid Fever. Non-fiction, flowers.
  • Emily Hendrickson: Drusilla's Downfall. Historical romance.
  • Georgette Heyer: The Reluctant Widow. Historical romance.
  • Tove Jansson: Moomin - The Complete Comic Strip. 5 complete comics in one volume.
  • Brian Lane, ed.: The Murder Club Guide to South-West England and Wales. History, true crime.
  • Erica Orloff: Spanish Disco. Chick lit.
  • Amanda Quick: Deception. Historical romance.
  • Julia Quinn: An Offer From a Gentleman. Historical romance.
  • Nora Roberts: The Sign of Seven Trilogy ( Blood Brothers , The Hollow, The Pagan Stone). Supernatural romance.

02 May 2011

The Guy Next Door

Originally published in September 2004, on my original 52 Books blog. Slightly edited for length and to remove spoilers.

American title: The Boy Next Door
Author: Meggin Cabot
Year published: 2002
Pages: 392
Genre: Chick lit/romance
Where got: Public library

This book was recommended to me by an online friend. It was written by the author of The Princess Diaries.

The story:
Gossip columnist Melissa “Mel” Fuller is in danger of losing her job because she’s always late for work. As the book begins, she is late again, but this time she has an excuse: her elderly neighbour has been assaulted and Mel has had to call the police and then take care of the old lady’s pets, two cats and a Great Dane. Getting hold of the old lady’s heir, playboy photographer Max Friedlander, is hard, but finally she tracks him down in Florida where he is cavorting with a supermodel and has no intention of coming to New York to take care of his aunt’s pets. To make sure he doesn’t lose his inheritance if the old lady wakes up from her coma, Max calls in a favour from college buddy John Randolph Trent who reluctantly takes on the role of Max, moves into the old lady’s apartment and begins investigating the attack. He is immediately charmed by Mel, and before too long the two begin to fall in love.

Technique and plot:
This is an epistolatory novel, but, this being the age of computers, it takes the form of e-mails rather than the traditional letters. The form gets to be somewhat annoying at times, especially when it takes more time to read the to/from headers than a short message.

Although the book is nearly 400 pages, a lot of space is taken up by headers and spaces between e-mails, and it makes a fairly quick read. I estimate the reading time at about 3 hours, which is pretty good for such a long book.

The story falls somewhere between chick lit and romance. It starts slowly, but builds up speed quickly. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the first half of the book, but the second one makes up for it. There is an especially funny revenge scene, and and the the inter-office banter between the co-workers at the paper where Mel works is also quite funny. Most of the characters have distinctive voices, and the fashion reporter and the gay co-worker get some very funny lines, as do John’s pregnant and sex-starved sister in law and Mel’s mother with her old-fashioned advice.

Complaint #1:
OK, what is with Amazon? They classify this as a children’s book! The classification is probably based on the books that the author writes as Meg Cabot (the Princess Diaries), but sorry, the book is about people in their 20’s and 30’s doing adult things, including having sex. Fine for teenagers, but children – I don’t think so.

Complaint #2:
The Boy Next Door? Excuse me, he’s 35 years old!

3 stars. Would have got 4 if the e-mail form had not annoyed me so much.

01 May 2011

Challenges, schmallenges

I’m sick and tired of reading challenges. Whenever I fail to reach a certain goal within a given challenge, my conscience acts up and makes me feel guilty for not reaching the goal and indeed for reading other books. This is not good, because when it comes down to it, reading is supposed to be fun.

The only one of my challenges that hasn’t become a chore is the TBR challenge, and I have already reached the goal I set myself for that one for 2011: to reduce my TBR stack to below 840 books.

The Buchmesse challenge is a chore because the books that have been translated into both English and German are mostly literary fiction and crime novels and I really need to be in a very specific frame of mind to enjoy the former, and the latter I have already read and reviewed all of those that fit the criteria, in some cases several years before the translations came out.

The Top Mysteries Challenge is throwing in my path some books that I just don’t want to read at this point, e.g. political thrillers and espionage novels, and I have come to the conclusion that having a reading schedule for it (two books from the list every month) just isn’t working.

The three outside challenges aren’t really challenges for me, because since I read over 150 books in any given year, it is statistically highly likely that I will read books belonging to them anyway.

What I am going to do is to drop the Buchmesse Challenge altogether, put the Top Mysteries Challenge into low priority mode (it was never meant to be finished in a given length of time anyway) and not specifically try to finish the three outside challenges, although I am, for the reasons stated above, fairly certain I will finish them. I will continue with the TBR challenge, because I have realised that while it feels good to be surrounded by books, the knowledge that I haven’t read 40% of them is annoying. I may become active in the challenges later in the year but right now I prefer to just read whatever strikes my fancy.