It’s time for me to say goodbye to Tblog. I like the easy user interface, but the downtime and “issues” have been annoying me for a long time. Now I am unable to access even the FAQ when I need it, and that is just too much. I’m moving over to Blogger. Visit me there for a new challenge, more reviews and short essays on reading and books.
I will continue to keep an eye on comments posted here.
Everyone has different criteria for deciding. Some will read any book to the end, slogging through piles of tripe or suffering endless boredom just so they can say they have read it. Several people I know of did this with The DaVinci Code and/or The Name of the Rose. (Please note that I am not belittling either book. It just happens to be a fact that many people think the former is tripe and the latter is boring). Others will give it a couple of chapters (or 50 pages or so in the case of “chapterless” books like those of Terry Pratchett) before deciding. Still others will read the reviews, read the blurb, skim the book and read the ending, and then decide they’re not interested. Each method has its merits.
As for myself, I have occasionally finished badly written books because the story or concept was interesting in spite of the bad writing, or there was something I just had to find out (usually the resolution, but sometimes some small detail). More often, I will just stop reading.
If a writer's style annoys me, I stop reading if it continues to annoy after about 50 pages. One example is Elizabeth Peters. I started reading one of her Amelia Peabody mysteries and found the style very annoying, so I stopped reading. I will try again, however, as soon as I get my hands on the first book in the series.
If a book is dull but well written, I give it about 100 pages, because some stories start slowly, especially long novels that need to explain a lot of background before the actual story starts. If it has not picked up by then, I stop reading (unless the book was recommended by a reliable reader, in which case I may read another 100 pages). This happens mostly with long novels and non-fiction, especially travel books.
Sometimes I come across books that tell a good story and are, for the most part, well written, but there is something missing, some spark or soul that would make an average book into a good one and a great one into a masterpiece. Those I usually finish. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde are good examples.
Sometimes books are spoiled for me by other books. Those I put aside to read at a later time when I have forgotten the book that did the spoiling. I stopped reading Gail Anderson-Dargatz's book The Cure for Death by Lightning because I had recently read The Secret Life of Bees, had not liked it much, and found too many similarities in the first chapter of Cure… (both are about girls from dysfunctional families). I am assured by people who have read both that Cure... is far superior to Bees..., but I need to distance myself before I can enjoy it.
I am always ready to give authors whose books I have not liked in the past a second chance, and have usually not regretted it (in spite of what I said in my review of The Eyre Affair, I did read the sequel, and liked it better). Even the best of writers sometimes write bad books.
It is interesting to note that most of the books I loved best when I was a child were fantasies. Some of these I still occasionally pick up and read.
Fantasy by Astrid Lindgren: The Brothers Lionheart. About 2 brothers who are reunited after death in a fantasy world where an evil warlord armed with a dragon has part of the land in thrall and is trying to invade the free parts. Mio, my Mio. About an orphan who discovers that he is really a prince. He ends up fighting an evil knight who steals people and animals from his father’s kingdom. Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter is a more lighthearted story about a girl who grows up as the only child in a group of rowdy robbers, and finally finds a friend when she meets a boy, the son of the leader of another group of robbers. All sorts of mayhem ensues when the two robber kings start fighting for territory and the children decide to teach the adults a lesson. I was never very fond of the Pippi Longstocking books, perhaps because I was already in my teens when I first read them.
The Village that Slept by Manique P. de Ladebat. Two children who have survived a plane crash in the Pyrenees have to make it on their own for about 8 months, in an abandoned village. I borrowed it repeatedly from the library when I was a child and teenager, and have been looking for a copy to buy for several years. Since I wrote this, I was able to re-read it, and although it’s an enjoyable enough story, I don’t think I will bother to try to find a copy to own, unless one day I have children I can read it to.
A fantasy novel by Peruvian author Carlota Carvallo de Nunez, for which I have not been able to find an English title. In Spanish it’s Rutsi, el pequeno alucinado. It is the story of an immortal jungle spirit who wants to experience being human, so he takes on the form of a young boy and has all sorts of adventures as he travels from jungle to village to city and back to the jungle. It transported me into a world full of wonder and magic.
I am David by Anne Holm. I was about 12 when I read this beautiful story of a young boy who escapes from a prison camp in Greece and makes his way across the continent to Denmark, finding his destiny along the way. I still pick it up occasionally when I want to read something that will make me feel good.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Another favourite that I discovered at the library and borrowed over and over again. About a young orphan girl who finds a hidden garden and discovers she has a hypochondriac cousin. Together they make over the neglected garden and bring joy and happiness to themselves and the boy’s father. I didn’t read A Little Princess until I was an adult, but would probably not have liked it as much as a child – Sara is so incredibly good and perfect, and I hated such characters in stories.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Fantasy. Another book belonging to my brother that I wanted for myself. It’s just as related to fairy-tales as The Hobbit is, and an added bonus is the echoes of one of my favourite tales by Hans Christian Andersen: The Snow Queen. I also recommend the rest of the series.
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Fantasy. About a boy who is transported into a fantasy adventure through the book he is reading. A wonderful story about the power of a good book. Later, when I was in my teens, I discovered Momo, which I like even better, and will discuss later.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I read it and two of its sequels as a child and loved them all.
Readers: Please post your favourite children’s books in Comments. I still like to read children’s books and I am always on the lookout for new ones.
Added Wed. 28 September: I have just realised that I need to make a third post of favourite children's books, as I completely forgot Hugh Lofting and Enid Blyton.
This is the first in a trilogy of loosely connected stories about three marine buddies who find love when they least expect it. I have already reviewed the second book, Getting Lucky. The third book is Hot and Bothered, hardly a title I would want to be seen reading on the bus, but which will no doubt give me a couple of hours of enjoyment once it’s delivered (I’m getting it through a TitleTrader swap).
James Cooper Blackstock has come to this half-brother’s hometown to investigate the murder of his former sister in law. His brother is the prime suspect, and has gone on the run. The dead woman’s sister, Veronica Davis, returns as well, to take care of her niece and to sell the family business, a bar where Coop is working undercover as bartender, in the hope of picking up some useful information about the murder. Sparks fly when they first meet, and continue to fly as passions rise and they become lovers. But Coop has not told her who he really is, and the murderer is lurking, waiting to see how things develop.
This is in some ways a better book than the sequel and in some ways not as good. Coop is a much more human and likeable hero than Zach (not as much of a testosterone jerk), but the interchange between Coop and Ronnie is not as funny and sparkling as that between Zach and Lily. The story sags a bit around the middle, but fortunately picks up again to provide the reader with some action and a satisfying ending.
The glimpses we get into the mind of the killer get annoying after a while. They are very obviously meant to show that he is not as clever as he thinks he is, but yet it is pure coincidence that leads Ronnie to realise his identity and a chance comment that leads Coop to the same discovery, not any kind of clever detective work. This makes the mystery weak, weaker than the one in the sequel.
In 1886, Edgar Drake, a specialist in tuning Erard pianos, is sent by the British War Office to the wilds of Burma to tune an Erard for Surgeon-Major Carroll, a man who has managed to become perhaps the most important British officer in the whole of Burma, by making himself indispensable for the peace negotiations between the British and the Burmese. The piano plays some mysterious part in all this, but has unfortunately reacted badly to the extremes of the climate and is out of tune. Drake, shy, thoughtful and eccentric, finds in himself an unexpected adventurousness as he sets off from England to tune the piano. Once he gets to Carroll’s stronghold in Mae Lwin, he is enchanted by the place, charmed by Carroll, and seduced (not in the physical sense) by a mysterious local woman. All of these unite in holding him there, and he loses all sense of time and sinks into a kind of dream. When reality finally invades, it becomes doubtful if he will ever return to England and his beloved wife.
This is a beautiful and melancholy story. Mason has a talent for describing landscapes and people in flowing and evocative prose, and it has been a long time since I read anything as cinematic as this book. In some strange way I can not quite define, I felt this was a very English book, although the author is an American. He perfectly describes the attitudes and arrogance of the British towards the Burmese people, for example in the chapters about Drake’s journey and the British officers he meets – especially a very tragic tiger hunt he unwillingly joins. The first half of the story is about Drake’s journey from England to Mae Lwin, and the second is about his stay there and the tuning of the piano. The story is very slow and flowing, right down to the last chapters, when it suddenly picks up, with unnecessary suddenness, and becomes a thriller. There is hardly any build-up to the action, and the ending, although apt, is too abrupt. I did feel that I couldn’t quite sympathise with Drake, or indeed any other character. They are all described from the outside, as if the author was describing something he was seeing on a movie screen in front of him, rather than actually being there. There is always a distance between the reader and the characters, a distance you want to bridge, but can’t, because there is something lacking in the telling of their story. This distant, at times almost clinical viewing of the characters, is a big flaw, and prevents the book from making my favourites list.
All in all, I would say this is a very good first novel, but has flaws that Mason will hopefully not repeat in his next novel.
Rating: A beautiful and tragic story of one man’s adventure of a lifetime. 3+ stars.
This is a humorous tribute to that much maligned hairstyle, the mullet (ape drape, mud-flap, neck warmer, etc.). For someone who remembers when it was actually cool to sport one (yep, I was a teenager in the 80’s), this was a great discovery. The book manages to be both affectionate and mocking, and I had a good laugh at all the pictures of famous people that I once thought were incredibly cool and cutting-edge but now, in retrospect, just had really bad hairstyles and a lousy dress sense.
Rating: A funny book for both admirers and enemies of the mullet. 4 stars.
Also read:The world of perfume, by Fabienne Pavia, a short history of perfume, with an overview of the sources for scents and processing methods, an introduction to some of the most famous perfume manufacturers and perfumes, and a showcase of collectible perfume bottles. This is a coffee-table book, full of gorgeous photography and interesting information. 4 stars.
These are the books that moulded my reading habits and affected my future reading preferences. Some of them are still favourites, others I haven’t read in years.
I first read all of these books in Icelandic, and later some of them in the original languages. Most were originally written in other languages, and nearly all of them are available in English, in some version. I haven’t bothered with most of my favourite Icelandic children’s books because very few (if any) of them have been translated into English, although several have been translated into German and one or more Scandinavian languages.
The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Fantasy/adventures/parabl es. I was given these before I could read (I think they were a christening present) and loved to have them read to me. Later, when I could read for myself, I devoured them and got to read the tales my parents thought were too dark for a little kid. Still later, when I got a copy in Danish, I discovered that the Icelandic translator had taken all sorts of licences with the tales. I have long been planning to finish reading them in Danish, but somehow never got round to it.
Aesop’s Fables. Fables/parables. I enjoyed reading these delightful tales long before I knew what a fable was. The edition I have is full of pictures and enjoyable to look at as well as to read.
The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat comes back by Dr. Seuss. Picture books. How I envied my brother those books when we were children! The Cat in the hat was able to make as much mess as he pleased – and able to clean it up and make it look as if nothing had happened. Being good little kids, we rarely did anything destructive, but that didn’t mean we didn’t want to. It was fun to sit and read the books to him while we both looked at the pictures and dreamed...
The Moomins books by Tove Jansson. Fantasy. Probably the first pure fantasy novels I read. These are wonderful books about the Moomintroll family and their friends and neighbours and their adventures.
Enid Blyton’s Adventure books (and to a lesser extent, the Five Find-Outers). Mystery, adventure. My favourite was The Valley of Adventure. I always disliked how wimpy the girls in those books were, and always identified myself with the boys. I loved the exotic locations these kids would find themselves in, and these books are possibly the beginning of my interest in both travel literature and mysteries.
A children’s version of the first two books of Gulliver’s Travels - that’s the ones about Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Fantasy. To my knowledge, the full novel has never been translated into Icelandic, and the children’s versions have had most of the satirical bite taken out of them by well-meaning editors who have reduced them to simple tales for children.
Norse and ancient Greek myths. The books I first read (and still own) are wonderfully illustrated versions for children that are (sadly) long out of print, but for adult reading I recommend the perennial Bulfinch’s Mythology, especially for the Greek/Roman myths. I also read and loved the Gylfaginning part of Snorri’s Edda, which is the main source of the Norse mythology you find in modern books on the subject.
The Mary Poppins books by PL Travers. Fantasy. I read at least four of them and loved them all. Mary is such a wonderfully proper and yet wacky character that you can’t help liking her.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. Fantasy. I was 8 when The Hobbit came out in Icelandic, and it cemented my lifelong liking for fantasy. I had cut my reading teeth on fairy tales, legends and myths and this was a natural continuation of that process. Although there are no children in the stories, both hobbit and dwarves are no bigger than children, and their behaviour is rather childish at times, which makes them appealing to children. An added pleasure is Tolkien’s style which is simply sparkling with good humour. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Hobbit.
When rich Lord Rule offers for the hand of the eldest Winwood sister, she knows she must accept, even if she loves another man. Her brother has sunk the family into debt and the only way of extricating them is for one of the sisters to marry a rich man, and Elizabeth is by far the prettiest of the sisters. However, the youngest sister, 17 year old Horatia, is determined that her sister shall marry her beloved Edward, and so goes to Lord Rule to explain and offers herself in her sister’s place. To the family’s surprise, he accepts. It appears to Horatia that Rule does not love her (he has a mistress), and that bothers her, especially as she begins to fall in love with him. This leads to several misadventures, especially when Horatia becomes determined to conquer the heart of Lord Lethbridge, an old enemy of Rule’s, and thus make her husband jealous. The plan misfires and Horatia finds herself in deep trouble. Lord Rule, however, has an ace up his sleeve…
Most of Georgette Heyer’s historical romantic novels are Regencies, i.e. they take place during the years 1811 to 1820. It is therefore refreshing to find one that takes place in the 18th century (more precisely in 1776), when fashions were – to our modern eyes – rather silly: wigs, hair powder, towering hairdos, panniers, beauty spots, etc. Those fashions play a part in the story: Heyer’s attention to detail is amazing and she describes clothing styles, hairdos and accessories with gentle mockery of both fashion and wearers. The cant and slang expressions are probably genuine, considering how thoroughly she researched all her books. The story is deliciously frothy and silly – not that there is anything silly about the plotting, but the story is a farce that hinges on characters being silly.
Rating: Another delightful confection from Georgette Heyer. 3+ stars.
This is the account of Bill Bryson’s (broken up) journey around Australia, to visit its biggest cities and some interesting sights, natural and man-made.
Bryson is obviously an australophile. This book is a virtual love letter to Australia, especially its natural beauty, and in a lesser way to its people. Even though he writes in his usual humorously mocking style, and criticises certain things, especially environmental policies and the less than helpful staff at hotels in a certain city, the book is for the most part a very positive and affectionate, sometimes glowing, account of this interesting country. Besides covering his impressions and travel experiences, Bryson gives some account of Australian history and the country’s attractions, and the book can, in fact, be used as an informal guide to some of the places he visited. He seems to have been very diligent in hunting down and exploring unusual little museums and sights, some of which may not even be mentioned in guide books.
I have previously read four of Bryson’s other books: Made in America and Mother Tongue, both of which are about the history of the English language, and two travel books, Notes From a Small Island and The Lost Continent. I liked the language books – they were funny and good reads, even if some of the etymology was a bit suspect, but I didn’t particularly like the travel books. Notes… I found to be so overloaded with Bryson’s signature self-deprecating humour that it went over the top and started sounding like whining. I would also have liked to read less about him and more about the country he was supposed to be writing about. There was something, some spirit or spark that was missing from The Lost Continent (not to mention the hostile, almost sarcastic, undertone) and I had to force myself to finish it.
Here, finally, is a travel book from Bryson that deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him as a funny travel writer. He writes about the country and people and has toned down the self-deprecation to an acceptable level so that it is actually funny instead of “here-he-goes-again” tedious, but it is rather sad that he should feel the need to make some rather mean-spirited comments about people who are supposed to be his friends. Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes couldn’t help laughing, but I still think they are mean. Of course, I don’t know what the people in question are like – maybe they are mean right back at him, but it doesn’t feel very friendly to me. But these are minor faults in an otherwise good book.
Rating: A great and sometimes funny introduction to Australia, its people, cities and sights. 4 stars.
When a conniving and secretive young housemaid at the Maxie mansion is murdered, the local constable immediately calls in the Scotland Yard. The Yard’s representative is Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who goes about his job of investigating and interviewing suspects and witnesses, in a thorough, calm and apparently unemotional manner. He uncovers seething emotions, hatred and passions that bubble just under the surface, and finds that most of the people who were at the mansion the night of the murder had good reason to dislike or even hate the murdered woman.
This, the first of P.D. James’ popular Chief Inspector Dalgliesh books, is a rather Christiesque story. Dalgliesh uses Hercule Poirot’s preferred method of gathering together the suspects to unveil the killer, and the story is a country manor mystery in the Golden Age style, as so many of Agatha Christie’s books were. The characters of the main witnesses and suspects are developed in depth before the crime takes place, only the victim’s full character is left to be uncovered as the story progresses. Dalgliesh is very much in the background all the time, and it is his implied rather than actual presence that drives much of the latter part of the story.
Just as I kept seeing George Baker in my mind when reading the Inspector Wexford book I reviewed on Wednesday, I pictured Roy Marsden, who played Dalgliesh on TV, in my head whenever Dalgliesh was mentioned. This is the unfortunate thing about knowing a character from the screen before ever reading about them – you find it difficult to separate the on-screen representation from the character on the page. Not that it mattered, Marsden was the perfect choice to play Dalgliesh.
Rating: Another good beginning to a mystery series that I plan to pursue further. 3+ stars.
Margaret Parsons, a dowdy housewife, disappears from her Kingsmarkham home, and is found murdered the next day. During the investigation, suspicion fall on several people, including her husband, a former boyfriend, two former school friends, and their husbands. Finally, when Wexford and Burden discover a cache of inscribed books from “Doon” to “Minna”, they begin to piece together a story of obsession and desire, going back more than a decade, and make a startling discovery as to the identity of “Doon”.
This is the first book in the Chief Inspector Wexford series. Like many other readers, I first became aware of Wexford as the leading character in a series of very good TV films based on the books, starring George Baker as Wexford. For some time I wasn’t even aware they were based on books, and even when I did realise it, I still was not very interested in reading them. Then I started becoming interested in crime mysteries again, literature I had mostly given up reading in my late teens. Now that I have finally got round to reading the first in the series, I definitely plan to continue.
The book is deftly written, has some interesting and intriguing characters, and presents a motif that is common in Rendell’s other stories: obsession. (I may not have read any of her other Wexford books, but I have read some of the non-series books). I quickly figured out certain relevant facts about the killer, and if I had not had to divide my attention between the book and other matters, I would in all probability have realised who the killer was rather sooner than I did.
Rating: A good beginning to a series that promises hours of reading pleasure. 3+ stars.
My first introduction to chick lit was the much praised Bridget Jones’ Diary, which I frankly hated. IMHO, the movie, for once, was better than the book. It didn’t stop me exploring further, however, and I have read several books belonging to the genre: good, bad and indifferent. I’ve even reviewed some in this blog.
Two very different couples’ lives begin to interweave when they move to a small village in England. They are the practically broke illustrator Rosie and her ill-tempered columnist boyfriend Mark, and filthy rich actress, evil stepmother and bitch queen Samantha and her husband, Guy the financier. Also involved are a noisy family of slackers who live next door to Rosie and Mark’s cottage, a farmer who becomes attracted to Rosie (who seriously considers dumping Mark for him), a reclusive rock star, a former Bond girl and Guy’s teenage daughter, who has every intention of breaking up her father’s marriage to Samantha.
This frothy concoction is a combination of satire, seriousness and slapstick, and tackles, among other things, relationships, pretentiousness, social climbing, and the bleak future facing some farmers. Parts of it read like a slightly more sophisticated print version of a Carry On movie, and many of the supporting characters are broadly drawn stereotypes, while others are more three-dimensional. I only wish I could say that about Rosie’s big love interest, the rock star, but unfortunately he is a cardboard cut-out of the reformed bad boy type, and his infatuation for Rosie is, frankly, unconvincing. If Holden had used up a hundred pages more in giving him a more rounded character and developing the relationship between them and a hundred pages less in showing the reader just what a social-climbing bitch Samantha is, this might have been a good book. As it is, it only just rises above mediocre by virtue of its sparkling humour and the delicious descriptions of Samantha’s decorating mania and her big party.
Rating: A so-so book, recommended for some delicious comic passages. The love story is weak, but if you have fantasies of being swept off your feet by a rock star, by all means go ahead and read it. 2+ stars.
This slim volume is a collection of essays by journalist Anne Fadiman, originally published in a literary magazine, but adapted and in some cases rewritten for the book. It was recommednded to me by several people who know I love reading, and I would just like to say thanks to them for the recommendation. I have been trying for ages to find the book – according to the library database it was always in, but I couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be shelved. I finally came across it where it had been filed on the wrong shelf, probably by some browsing library patron.
The book is basically about several different aspects of reading and owning books, and an analysis of the author’s reading habits. She discusses, among other things, the problems of uniting libraries, her addiction to collecting books about doomed polar expeditions, her habit of proofreading everything she reads, those pesky gender pronouns that turn everyone into a man, pokes fun at plagiarists and plagiarism, and other subjects related to books, etc., all in a personal vein.
Rating: Fun reading for bibliophiles and an insight into the bibliophiliac mind for non-bibliophiles. 4 stars.
I am an avid tea drinker and have been ever since I drank my first cup of tea around age six. I enjoy tea in many of its incarnations: the sweet, spicy chai of India and Pakistan, the minty green tea of Morocco, strong and sweet Turkish tea, delicate Darjeelings, robust Kenyans and iced tea with slices of orange and lemon, to name some examples. I have never been much fond of fruit teas or plain green teas – the first I can tolerate iced, but the second tastes to me like freshly mown grass: the smell is nice and refreshing but the flavour is less than pleasing. I guess it’s an acquired taste and no doubt I will learn to drink it if I ever visit Japan or China. I am not what you would call a tea snob – you are just as likely to find me slurping sweet milk tea made with a tea bag (oh, my!), from a chipped and stained old mug (horror of horrors!), as you are to find me sipping milkless FTGFOP Darjeeling from a bone china cup. Each has a suitable occasion. Maybe tea nerd would be a better description of my relationship with the beverage.
But let’s turn to the book. It’s a large-format book of the kind often referred to as “coffee-table books”, although in this case maybe “tea room book” would be more appropriate. It features some gorgeous photography and artwork, and has chapters on tea growing and processing, tea history, tea drinking habits the world over, types of tea, statistics and even recipes for food such as tea sauce and tea ice, and a list of tea houses and tea shops in the USA, London and Paris. It was published in France, is a translation from French.
It is a lovely book for tea enthusiasts and foodies who want to have some knowledge of the subject but do not want to become experts. For those interested in more information, there is a bibliography of books they can turn to for more in-depth reading.
A touch of snobbery surfaces here and there – one author suggests that it is criminal to use either milk or lemon in tea, and that sugar is only acceptable in a few types of tea (as if it wasn’t simply a matter of personal taste). All skim over the subject of flavoured teas – you get the feeling they do not approve of anything beyond Earl Grey or Russian citrus tea, and those only because those blends are old enough to count as traditional. Tea in bags is universally denounced – which is perhaps not surprising as it is a fact that many tea companies use sub-standard leaves to fill their tea bags, but it is also true that you can get quite decent bag tea if you know where to look. Minor snobbery of this kind is forgivable when you really don’t care what others think of your tea drinking habits, but it is unfortunate that it may influence impressionable people who are new to tea drinking and liable to think they must follow the rules implied by the book in order to enjoy their tea.
Rating: A lovely book for tea enthusiasts. 4 stars.
Finally, here is a tea that I often enjoy, especially on cold winter’s evenings when I want something warming.
Pakistani cardamom chai:
3 bags black tea, or 3 level tablespoons of robust black tea leaves. The best tea for chai is broken leaves, dust or fannings (the kind used in tea bags), as they make stronger tea. 6-8 green cardamom pods 1/2 litre water 1/2 litre whole or condensed milk sugar to taste
Bring the water to the boil. Bruise or lightly crush the cardamoms and cook in the water for 5 minutes. Add the tea leaves and cook for about 2 minutes (I prefer using tea bags - it's less messy). Add the milk. Remove from heat when the mixture boils, strain out the cardamoms and tea leaves and serve with sugar to taste. If you want a more intense cardamom taste, pour the chai into a thermos flask with the cardamoms and leave it to steep for about an hour (do not steep with the tea bags/leaves as it will make the chai bitter).
These are the first two books in a long-running series about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Bernie is a cool character, perfectly immoral when it comes to other people’s property, daring, professional and charming. The books are a light-hearted blending of the traditional cozy mystery and the rogue genre, because the sleuth is a criminal. Being a criminal, he has obvious problems. The only cop likely to take him seriously is bent and needs to be bribed before he will do anything for him, and in both these books Bernie is a suspect in the murders, so has to go not only undercover to solve the murders, but on the lam as well to avoid being arrested for them.
I have read a fair number of rogue stories (e.g. Raffles, Arsene Lupin) but Bernie is the first of the rogue heroes I have really liked. I hated the Raffles stories – Raffles is mean and Bunny such a wimp that it’s a wonder anyone likes them at all, plus the stories are badly written, and several other rogue heroes are into tricking and taunting the police who of course are always dumber than jellyfish. Bernie is the first I have come across who seems to simply make a living off crime without wanting to attract attention or taunt the authorities, and the stories do not hinge on anyone being unnaturally stupid.
In Burglars can’t be choosers, Bernie is hired to steal a small box that’s supposed to be hidden in a desk. He doesn’t bother to peep into every room of the apartment before he starts to look for the box, which turns out to be a mistake, because when two cops rush into the apartment, one of them finds a recently murdered man in the bedroom. Bernie manages to make a quick escape, and spends the next several days hiding out and desperately investigating the murder, which looks very much like a set-up.
In The burglar in the closet, he is again hired to perform a burglary, and is actually in the apartment when the owner comes home unexpectedly, lets in someone she knows and is murdered. Suspicion falls on him when his (innocent) “employer” is arrested for the crime (the victim was his ex wife), and decides to save his own skin and give Bernie to the cops as a possible suspect. Again, Bernie has to hide out and investigate in order to avoid going to jail. The Whoopi Goldberg movie Burglar was lightly based on this story.
Rating: Light-hearted and entertaining murder mysteries with a likeable “hero”. 3+ stars.
A clever killer sends taunting letters to Hercule Poirot, telling him dates and the names of towns where he intends to strike. The towns and the victims are alphabetical, A in Andover, and so on. Poirot agrees with the police that they are dealing with a psychopath, but he can not but feel that there is something wrong about the letters, something that doesn’t fit the profile of the killer they have deduced from his methods and choice of victims. So begins a cat and mouse game, but who is which? Regular Christie fans will be in no doubt as to who is the cat and who is the mouse, but may be surprised at a deviation from the Christie formula. Whether it is real or a red herring, I leave up to the reader to find out.
I admit to not being a Poirot fan – he annoys me too much, and I need to take breaks between the books about him, but this is quite a good Christie story. It is perhaps unfortunate that I have read so many of them that immediately upon reading the back cover blurb I figured out certain facts about the main plot twist, and knew who the killer was as soon as he appeared.
Rating: Christie dishes out murder with her usual gusto, Poirot annoys the reader, Hastings blunders on as usual. 3+ stars.
This is the final book I needed to read to finish the Miss Marple series. I managed to read (and in some cases reread) them in order of publication, all except this one, which was not available at the library last year when I was reading the rest. It is a classic country house mystery, and as usual, everyone underestimates the sweet and innocent looking little old Miss Marple, who solves the mystery without much trouble. So will a clever reader – Christie supplies the usual clues (and a few red herrings), and even includes a map of the house, which in itself is an indication of the killer’s identity. 3 stars.
Third of four books about former private eye, now actor, Michael Spraggue, scion of one of Boston’s moneyed families, who prefers to live on his own rather than at the family mansion and to earn his own living instead of living off the family riches. The city of Boston is just as much a characters in this book as the people are, which is cool, because so often places are just used as interchangeable backgrounds for stories that could happen anywhere.
This book was published in 1984 and appears to be out of print. Best place to find it would probably be a library or second-hand book store (or abebooks.com).
The story: Collatos, a former cop, now a bodyguard, and a friend of Spraggue’s, asks him to help him find the writer of anonymous threatening letters that his boss, a US senator, has been receiving. When the senator and bodyguard take part in the Boston marathon and are poisoned by a “woman” who gives them water laced with an overdose of speed, with the result that Collatos dies, Spraggue begins to investigate the death. He leaves no stone unturned, and discovers an insurance scam Collatos was investigating before he left the police force and which seems connected to his death. This leads him to think it was Collatos who was the target of the poisoning, and not the senator, and the anonymous letters were either a subterfuge or unrelated to the murder. But how did the killer know Collatos would have an allergic reaction to amphetamine?
I have previously mentioned how I hate books that are so dependent on other books in the same series that they can’t be read without having read the others first. I wouldn’t exactly go as far as to say this is one of those books, but it did leave me with several unanswered questions about Spraggue’s background that the author obviously assumed the reader would know about. It would therefore be a good idea to read the first two books in order, before reading this one.
Rating: An entertaining crime thriller with a twist in the tail. 3+ stars.
Kate Malvern is left alone in the world after the death of her father, and discovers she is too young and too pretty to get work as a governess. Her former nursemaid, Sarah, writes to Kate’s estranged aunt, telling of Kate’s misfortunes, and the aunt soon arrives and sweeps Kate off to her mansion. It soon becomes clear that aunt Minerva has ulterior motives in bringing Kate to Staplewood, and Kate’s sense of uneasiness is increased by the erratic and often violent temper of her very handsome cousin, Torquil. When Torquil’s cousin Philip appears on the scene, Kate’s feelings are thrown into an oproar: she sees that he despises her, but she still feels attracted to him, and when his misconceptions about her are cleared up, he starts showing interest in her. But her aunt has other plans, Torquil’s behaviour keeps getting stranger and stranger, and it looks as if Kate and Philip may not be able to be together after all…
Up until I read this book, I had considered Georgette Heyer to be a skilful and diverting writer of funny historical novels with romances at the centre. This book, however, is not a comedy at all. There are no misadventures and silly secondary lovers, and romantic feelings crop up much sooner in this book than in the others I’ve read. It is, in fact, closer to being a typical romance than the other Heyer books I have read. But it’s about much more than romance. It’s a psychological thriller, a gothic novel with the supernatural element removed (gothic lite perhaps?), with its theme of a (seemingly) helpless female, isolated and trapped in a big house with people who are not all what they seem, and its atmosphere of menace and danger. Torquil’s mental illness is handled skilfully and with compassion, and he is not made out to be a villain (as would have been very easy to do), merely a poor sufferer who can not help himself. It is his mother who is the villain of the story, and her “madness” or rather obsession, is of a completely different and altogether more subtle sort.
Rating: Very good romance with gothic touches. 4 stars.
Sat down after work on Tuesday and can't say I looked up much until I had finished At home with books: how booklovers live with and care for their libraries. It's a gorgeous, big book with oodles of pictures and chapters on various millionaires, aristocrats, collectors and designers and their libraries, interspersed with advice on how to care for and display books. The libraries range from small and cosy to huge and imposing, but all the owners are real bibliophiles who read their books and obviously love them. The only thing that was missing, in my opinion, were the libraries of some ordinary people. Cool coffee table book.
I was inspired by this book. My library only contains about 1200 volumes at the moment, but I can foresee it getting a lot bigger – maybe even as big as my grandmother’s library which at it’s biggest contained at least 10 thousand volumes. This means that one day I will have to seriously think about getting fitted floor to ceiling bookshelves. When I do, I can definitely look to this book for ideas. I was also inspired to make a reading nook for myself. At the moment, I either lie in bed when I read, or lounge in the living-room sofa, but what I really would love to have is a big, chunky upholstered chair and an adjustable reading stand, preferably attached to the chair.
Rating: Big and gorgeous, perfect for the coffee table, but don’t be surprised if you guests actually start reading this fascinating book. 5 stars.
I found the first book in this trilogy at the library on a Friday, liked the title, read it on the following Saturday, and went back to get the second book on Sunday. Now I’m waiting and hoping they will buy book three, Pure Dead Brilliant.
These are fantasies for children and teens (but quite readable for adults), about a family that reminds me strongly of the Addamses. The live in a huge old castle that is guarded by a yeti, a dragon, a gryphon and a giant crocodile, all of whom speak like humans. In Pure Dead Magic, the father has disappeared, leaving behind a worried family who think he has abandoned them. While he struggles to let them know he has been kidnapped, hired killers converge on the castle with evil intentions. In Pure Dead Wicked, he has returned, and they must move out because the roof of the castle needs replacing, causing consternation among the staff of the hotel they move into for the duration of the repairs. In both books, unscrupulous people are trying to cheat them, in the first book it’s an evil relative who wants to get hold of an inheritance, and in the second it’s a builder who wants to tear down the castle and build houses and businesses on the valuable land.
Rating: Harry Potter meets Artemis Fowl and the Addams Family, with a nod to Terry Pratchett and lashings of toilet humour. Entertainingly gruesome and messy. 3 stars.
I chuckled when I first came across this book. The title, plain and serious as it is to an outsider, is unintentionally funny to an Icelander. Little Lava is the abandoned farm in NW-Iceland where Charles Fergus, his wife Nancy and son William spent the summer of 1996. But Little Lava, or Litla Hraun as it is known in Icelandic, is also a prison in southern Iceland. In fact, it’s THE prison – the one where the majority of Icelandic criminals are sent to serve out their sentences. Fergus even mentions it in the book, and it is probably the reason why he chose to translate the farm’s name into English, in order to distance it from the prison image. I can’t say he has quite succeeded, but gives the reader who's in the know something to smile about.
Fergus’ original plan had been to write a simple nature study, but when he found his mother murdered in her home, the plans changed. Instead of becoming just a place to stay for the summer, somewhere to live and take notes for the book he was going to write, Litla Hraun became a refuge from the world, a place where he could heal in peace and work to distance himself from the shock and his anger over his mother’s death.
The book is not what I would really call a travel book, and neither is it one of the “good life” books. The “simple life” would be nearer the mark, but even that doesn’t quote describe it. It a combination of nature observations and the story of a psychological healing process, interspersed with observations on Icelanders, their language, literature and folklore. It has some of the best descriptions of Icelandic nature and weather that I have read by a foreigner.
Rating: Recommended reading for anyone who wants to see a side of Iceland foreign visitors don’t often see. 4 stars.
Psychic Vivian Kineally is surprised to find three terrified women knocking on her door and claiming to be the Fates, on the run from a mysterious power that is trying to capture them. The Fates have given up their magical powers in order to fulfil some new job specifications, having been fired and told to reapply only when they can show that they have the skills to do their job in today’s multicultural society. In the meantime, they will be replaced by three Valley Girl types, daughters of Zeus. They send Vivian to find Dexter Grant, a mage who they think can help them. There is an instant attraction between Vivian and Dexter, who becomes determined to save her from whatever power it is that is now trying to get to her as well as the Fates. They seek help from two other mages, but ultimately, it’s up to Viv and Dexter to save themselves and the Fates from the enemy (who, by the way, is shown to the reader from the start).
When I picked this book up at the library last week and read the back cover, I thought to myself: “Hmmm. Magic, characters from Greek mythology, humour AND romance. Should be good.” Unfortunately it falls short of expectation. There are just too many things to complain about in connection with this book. My first complaint is that there is no indication that this book is part of a series. In fact, I didn’t realize that until well into the book, when characters popped up from a previous two books, characters the author obviously expected the reader to be familiar with. My second complaint is that this is not a complete novel. The romance and the threat to the Fates parts are completed, but the story of the Fates’ problems is obviously just beginning, making it altogether obvious that you are expected to buy who knows how many other books to see that storyline resolved. Again, there is nothing to indicate this until the book suddenly ends without resolving the storyline. My third complaint is that the romance feels undercooked, like a meal served up in a hurry. In addition to the main complaints, there are some other faults I would like to mention. There is a lot of potential for good jokes that is mostly wasted, although I did laugh at the names of the new Fates and their obvious teenage shallowness and inexperience, and at the Superman connection. The middle part with the other mages feels unnecessary, and reads more like a reminder of the books they originally appeared in. And the villain, a supervillainess no less, is, in the end, just too easily defeated, with the author resorting to a deus ex machina device to get rid of her.
Rating: Easily resistible. Resisting the sequel(s) will not be a problem, although I may pick up the prequels to satisfy my curiosity about the other mages. 2+ stars.
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What this blog is about:
Reading and books.
If you’re wondering about the name 52 books, it stems from a book-a-week reading challenge I set myself. The challenge is over, but I'm still reading, and will continue to blog about the books I read and my reading experiences, and other stuff connected with books and reading.
I rate the books (if I feel like it), giving them stars ranging from zero to 5.
Note: Some of the entries are linked to the months the reviews appeared in, because I made several entries for each book. I have marked those reviews with an asterix (*). If you want to read the whole review from beginning to end, you must scroll down and read from the bottom up (but you probably already knew that ;-) >