30 September 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: Dead Man's Skull

Cruentation was accepted as proof in murder cases in several European countries well into the 18th century. It was an accepted belief that the wounds of murdered people would start to bleed in the presence of the murderer, and here is an Icelandic variation on the theme:


Once upon a time a grave was being dug in the graveyard of an Icelandic country church. As will often happen in old graveyards when graves are being dug, some bones from an old burial came up with the soil, and among them was a skull. This particular skull had a knitting needle stuck right through it. 

The minister took the skull into his keeping and the next time he said a mass the took it to church with him and when the congregation had all entered the church, he put it on a shelf above the church door. After the service, he and his helpers exited the church ahead of the congregation and observed the people as they left the church. 

Nothing unusual happened, but when they checked to see if anyone was still inside, they found a very old woman covering behind the church door, and they had to force her to leave the church. As she walked through the doorway, three drops of blood fell from the skull and onto her head. She then said: “All dark deeds must come to light in the end.”

She then confessed to having murdered her first husband by thrusting the needle through his head. She had been very young when they were married and had been forced into the marriage against her will. She had prepared the body for burial herself, and no-on else had examined it. Later she had married another man, but he was now dead. 

Her punishment for this deed was death by drowning, as was the custom in those days for women who had killed their children. 

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.

27 September 2011

Do you recognise the place?

I am reading a book about it right now, and hope to post a review before long.

I took the photo the weekend before last, on a trip to London?


Taken at the Natural History Museum in London.

Because of the neo-Gothic architecture I thought black-and-white suited the subject better, although it did look pretty good in colour as well, because of the colours of the stone.

25 September 2011

Reading report for August 2011

I suddenly realised I hadn't posted a reading report for August, so here it is:
The reading slump continues, although things are slightly better this month than they were in July. I re-read 5 books and reduced the TBR stack by 4 books, and read the last page of one of the online comics/graphic novels I was reading online. 2 of the re-reads were audio books and it was the first time I have listened to them. I an becoming ever more enamoured of audio books – with my myalgia long reading sessions have been getting ever more difficult and painful, and being able to just listen while I do other things, like cook or tidy up around me, is very nice.

The first-time reads were:

Catherine Aird : The Religious Body . Murder mystery, police procedural.
Warren Ellis (writer) & Paul Duffield (artist) : Freak Angels . Graphic novel, steampunk.
Nick Hornby : The Complete Polysyllabic Spree: The diary of an occasionally exasperated but ever hopeful reader . Columns, reading.
Laurie Lee : As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning . Memoir.
Norman Lewis : Voyage by Dhow . Collected articles, travel.

And the re-reads:
G.K. Chesterton : The Secret of Father Brown . Short stories, mysteries.
Georgette Heyer : Devil's Cub . Historical romance.
Terry Pratchett : The Truth . Fantasy.
J.K. Rowling : Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets . YA fantasy. Read by Stephen Fry.

23 September 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Whale of Whale Lake

Geirfuglasker (Great Auk rock) is a small island off the coast of Reykjanes in southern Iceland, that was one of the last refuges of the great auks before they were hunted to extinction. 
Hvalvatn is a lake in western Iceland, situated in the highlands above Glymur, the country’s tallest waterfall.
Power poets (kraftaskáld) were people who could do magic with their versification, and were thought very highly of.

Once upon a time some men sailed out to Geirfuglasker, presumably to hunt great auks. Due to high breaking waves they had to leave one man, whose name was Gísli, behind in the island when they left for home, and it was believed that he must have been swept off the island and drowned.

A year later another expedition went out to the island and found Gísli there alive and in good health. They brought him back to the mainland, but although he was asked about his stay in the island, he would not talk about it much. However, someone was able to get out of him that he had been staying with two women, and that the younger of them was expecting his child.

A short time later he attended a church service in Hvalsnes, with many others. When the service was beginning a woman came into the church and put down a cradle with a baby in it, covered by a red cloth. She then walked out of the church.

After the service the minister asked everyone in the church if anyone was familiar with the baby or of anyone was willing to have it christened, but no one came forward. The minister then turned to Gísli and asked him straight out if even he did not know the baby and if he wanted to have it christened. He denied this adamantly.

At that moment the woman came back into the church, looking very angry. She told Gísli severely off, saying that he owed her his life, had been with her for a year and had this baby with her and was the worst kind of scoundrel for pretending not to recognise the baby and for refusing to have it christened. As punishment for his caddish behaviour she laid on him a curse, saying that he should become the worst sea-monster in Faxa Bay.

The minister wanted to speak to the woman, but she grabbed the cradle and left with the baby and no-one could stop her. She was never seen again in those parts, but the red cloth from the top of the cradle got left behind and was thereafter used as an altar-cloth in the church.

Gísli became disturbed and ran straight into the sea, where he turned into an evil whale-monster and attacked boats in Faxa Bay, causing a great deal of damage and distress. Finally the people there asked a power poet to draw the whale up on dry land with some power verses. He did this and drew the whale up the river at the bottom of Hvalfjörður (Whalefjord), up the waterfall Glymur and up into Whale Lake (Hvalvatn). There he is still but is only seen as an omen of hard winters or great events.

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.

19 September 2011

The Cereal Murders by Diane Mott Davidson

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

This is the third in a series of mysteries that combine cooking and crime, as amateur sleuth and professional caterer Goldy Bear serves up one delicious dish after another while sleuthing on the side. In this installation, Goldy has been hired to cater a series of events at an expensive prep school. The peace is disrupted by two murders (a third appears to be connected), and someone starts harassing her and her son. Through it all Goldy serves up one delectable dish after another (recipes included) and observes the graduating students and their parents battling it out over who deserves to go to which exclusive university. It’s a matter of touch and go whether Goldy will manage to solve the mystery in time to prevent a fourth murder.

As in most amateur sleuthing series, the murders and the murderer’s methods are highly unlikely - especially how it is Goldy who finds two out of three bodies - but the characters are rounded and the surroundings realistic for the most part. The descriptions of the cold and snowy weather, for example, are positively chilling. There is a touch of realism in this book that I have not seen in many others of its kind, in that Goldy actually feels wretched after finding the bodies, has difficulty sleeping and is offered therapy by the police at the end of the story. Her relationships with her son, her lodger/assistant and her lover, are realistic - things are not always sunny, but neither are they always bad. 

The title, in my opinion, stinks. It’s a good example of a bad title: cutesy, punny (to say nothing of cheesy) and not much connected with the story. If the rather clumsy homophonic pun is ignored, it doesn’t even make sense. Which cereals were murdered? Was cereal involved in the murders somehow? (it was not). Someone, I hope not the author, deserves to be flogged with a wet noodle for inventing such a lame title. Some of the other titles in the series are just as offensive, while others actually manage to be quite clever.

Rating: A nice, slow murder mystery to cool you down on a hot summer’s day. Don’t let the cheesy title deter you from reading it. 3+ stars.

13 September 2011

List love: 10 animal books I enjoyed, part 2: Anthropomorphised animals

I am not participating in the Top Ten Tuesdays meme this week, so here is a list of my own making:

Last week I posted a list of books about animals being animals. Now it’s time for animals being more or less human.
We have a strong tendency to ascribe human emotions, rationality and morals to animals, sometimes to the point where they really come across as little more than humans in animal suits. Often these are moral tales or fables, although occasionally an author is able to avoid that and simply write an entertaining tale. This list contains some of both.


  1. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Although each chapter is in itself a moral tale, it never gets preachy or sentimental and it is at heart not a moral tale but a tale of friendship.
  2. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. As a child I was enchanted by the tale of the The Cat That Walked by Himself, and later enjoyed reading the rest of these whimsical children’s tales.
  3. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Another Kipling book, this one for older children and adults.
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell. Possibly the greatest and most stinging animal tale ever told, and it isn't really about animals at all.
  5. Aesop’s Tales by Aesop. They are fables, but (at least in the edition I have) are not preachy but attempt to teach by example.
  6. Watership Down by Richard Adams. A tale in which that unlikely animal, the common rabbit, gets the literary treatment with enjoyable results.
  7. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Written as a condemnation of the ill-treatment of horses, this is an often harrowing story about the life of a horse, told by the horse himself in his old age.
  8. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett. Made intelligent and able to speak by magic, Maurice the con-cat and his rat companions travel around re-enacting the Pied Piper rat plague and making money off it, until one day they enter a town where they can’t play that game and have to fight to survive.
  9. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.Whimsical, fun and just a little bit creepy, he shows kids that it's all right to have some messy fun if you only clean up after yourself when you're done.
  10. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, specifically the edition illustrated by Edward Gorey. Whimsical and enjoyable verses about cats, some of whom are anthropomorphised and other who are not. I enjoyed the musical, but I love the book.

12 September 2011

See Jane Score by Rachel Gibson

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

I read this funny romance over the weekend. When journalist Jane Alcott is asked to cover the ice hockey beat while the regular reporter is on sick leave, she jumps at the chance. Not only is it a better paying job than writing her monthly “sex and the city” type column, but it is a step up the journalism ladder for her. She is expected to cover all the Seattle Chinooks’ games, and it quickly becomes clear that her presence on the team plane and in the locker-room is not wanted. She meets with hazing that might discourage a less determined woman, and open hostility from sexy goalie Luc “Lucky” Martineau, whom Jane secretly fancies. After an incident where she is first fired for bringing the team bad luck, and then rehired for bringing them good luck (by barging into the locker room and giving them a goodbye speech) a ritual develops between Jane and the team that gets funnier and funnier as the story progresses. The incident also serves to show Luc that she is a real person with feelings and a strong character, and he becomes attracted to her in spite of her being nothing like his usual bimboesque "girlfriends". But love’s journey doesn’t run entirely smooth, and Jane’s moonlighting job just might put a boulder in their path.

With plenty of funny verbal sparring, interesting details about ice hockey, and believable characters, this is a good book to spend an afternoon with. 3+ stars.

Here’s a more detailed review from All About Romance (with slight SPOILERS).

09 September 2011

Friday night folktale: Idle hands doing the Devil's work

Here is a moral tale that applies to all work, not just farming:

A young and inexperienced farmer was out in the hayfield, cutting the grass with his scythe. The weather was hot and the farmer liked to take it easy, and was in fact very lazy by nature.

Suddenly a man came walking up to him and said to him: “Rest awhile, resting is good.” He then left.

No-one knows what the man looked like or how the farmer liked the look of him, but he took the advice he had been given and took it easy for the rest of the summer, with the result that when autumn came around he only had one haystack with which to feed his sheep and cows over the winter.

Then and only then he realised that he had not acted very sensibly during the summer and blamed everything on the stranger.

One day the stranger came back and grinningly said to him: “Lazy man, little crop,” and then disappeared.

This was really no consolation to the lazy farmer, who had become convinced that he had taken advice from none other than the Devil.

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

06 September 2011

List love: 10 animal books I enjoyed, part 1: Animals being animals

I’m not participating in Top Ten Tuesdays this week, so here instead is a little List Love:

Animals appeal to a lot of people for different reasons. They bring out in us both the hunting instinct and the mothering instinct, and to some of us they are the best friends we have ever had or the thing we are most afraid of. We have a strong tendency to anthropomorphise them by ascribing to them human emotions, abilities and personalities.

I have read my share of animal books and I have come up with some lists based on my reading. The one below covers books I have liked that are about animals or feature animals in pivotal roles as themselves without attempts to anthropomorphise them. Some time or other I will post the others.

  1. Encounters with Animals by Gerald Durrell. Essays. Animals: Various. As much as I would have liked to put My family and other Animals on this list, it simply is not enough of an animal book to count here. I could actually have named several other Durrell titles, but this one is almost entirely about specific animal characters and not about one of his expeditions with animal characterisations thrown in.
  2. The Cat Who Covered The World: The Adventures of Henrietta and Her Foreign Correspondent by Christopher S. Wren. Memoir. Animal: Domestic cat. The Wren family took their pet, Henrietta, with them to postings all over the world, including Paris, Moscow, Cairo and Beijing. That she managed to reach the age of 18 after being an outdoor cat in all of these places (even living as a stray in Cairo for several weeks) is testament to the resilience of cats.
  3. Rosie is My Relative by Gerald Durrell. Novel. Animal: Elephant. Durrell claims that this is a “nearly true story” which he has merely embroidered, but whatever the truth of that statement might be, it is highly entertaining. About a young man who inherits a circus elephant and sets out to find her a new home.
  4. Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North. Memoir. Animal: Raccoon. I loved this book as a kid and am therefore putting it here even though I remember almost nothing about it except some snippets about the eponymous raccoon.
  5. My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara. Trilogy of novels. Animals: Horses. A coming-of-age story about a boy on a farm in Wyoming and his horses.
  6. All Creatures Great and Small and its sequels, by James Herriott. Novelised memoirs. Animals: Various pets and farm animals. Describing the life of a vet in the Yorkshire Dales, these books are based on the author’s life as a vet in Thirsk (named “Darrowby” in the books).
  7. The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson. Popular science. Animals: Lobsters.I couldn’t resist putting one science book on this list. He manages to make these crustaceans as endearing as cats or dogs, which is quite feat considering they’re primarily seen as food.
  8. Born Free: A lioness of two worlds by Joy Adamson. Memoir. Animal: Lion. Another book I dearly loved as a child. About the a pet lion and her eventual release into the wild.
  9. Travels on my Elephant by Mark Shand. Travelogue. Animal: Elephant. Shand bought an elephant in India and travelled around on her back in southern and central India.
  10. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. History. Animal: Race horse. Seabiscuit isn’t just about Seabiscuit the race horse. It is also a portrait of three men – his owner, his trainer and his jockey - and the era they lived in, with the horse tying everything together.

Honourable mention:
Jaws by Peter Benchley. Novel - thriller. Animal: Great white shark. The shark is off-stage for most of the book, but when it does make an appearance - wow! Even when off-stage it permeates the book from beginning to end.

Why Marley and Me by John Grogan isn’t on the list: Because of all the maudlin “beloved pet as a teacher of life lessons” twaddle in the final chapters. I greatly enjoyed the book right up to that point but can’t really recommend it on this score.

An animal book I’d like to read:
Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter.

05 September 2011

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis

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

This book had been sitting in my TBR pile for nearly a year, so it was about time I read it.

I love these old pulp covers!
In short, the book tells of the escapades of the narrator’s aunt Mame, his legal guardian. Mame is offbeat, outrageously fashionable, adventurous, and a sucker for a sad story. She is the kind of woman who throws herself wholeheartedly into all she does, including her relationships with men. She becomes a southern belle for the millionaire from Georgia whom she marries, Irish for the Irishman whom she falls for, and so on. She seems unable to recognise when she is being played for a sucker until the facts stare her right in the face, but when realisation dawns, she is quick to act and can extricate herself from all sorts of situations. She also has a knack for getting her nephew involved in her adventures.

The book is told like a biography in the form of snapshots, seen from the point of view of the nephew, who draws a portrait of a woman who is totally unprepared for the responsibility of rearing a young boy, but who rallies magnificently and manages to retain her free and easy lifestyle while still being a loving, if a trifle eccentric, parent to her orphaned nephew.

This is a funny book. It’s charming and was probably a bit risqué when it was first published, with its allusions to sex, single motherhood, its unconventional heroine and her hedonistic lifestyle. It’s easy to see why it was made into a movie, because it has a very charming heroine, who, in spite of her unconventionality, has a heart of gold, an opportunity for dozens of costume changes, and is allowed to be sexy without being bad - a perfect role for the right actress (I haven’t seen the movie, but I plan to). The comedy is by turns satire and slapstick, and through it all, Mame never loses her dignity (except for a brief dunking in a river, but even that turns into a victory).

The book is well written, and the author has a good eye for comedy, although he does go a bit over the top in the chapter with the British war orphans, but then he did need a good climax to top everything that happened earlier in the book.

Funny and irreverent, satiric and slapsticky, this books gets 4 stars from me, and a permanent home in my library.

Note: I still haven't seen the movie. I can get a copy of the musical with Lucille Ball, which is by all accounts dreadful, but not one of the Rosalind Russell movie, which is supposed to be quite good.