“Let us read, and let us dance;
these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Land of Fire, Ice, annoying volcanos...and a great literary tradition

I made this: BookElf at 6:10 pm 0 comments Links to this post
Now I know that Iceland isn't massively popular at the moment. For one thing, they've just banned lapdancing clubs full stop, so that's another load of stag parties' plans scuppered, then they go an elect a woman as Prime Minister who is not only a massive environmentalist and feminist (you'd have never guessed by the attitude to stripping!) but is also a *gasp* lesbian.

And then they personally are responsible for blowing up the sky. The whole sky has been destroyed. There is no more sky, and the world is over...bring on the locusts Lord the End is Nigh...

...but I don't want to talk about that because I think Iceland is amazing. I have been once (when it was a lot more expensive) for a long weekend (because I literally couldn't afford to be in the country for a longer period of time) and completely fell in love with the place; granted I was only in Reykjavik and the surrounding areas, but the people are lovely, friendly, scarily cool without being unwelcoming and self-involved like the cool kids in Britannia. The country is just so beautiful it has to be seen to be believed, and the history of the country, the language, the customs that hearken back to the fist Viking settlers are just so quaint and yet so utterly relevant, oh I would move there tomorrow if I could!

Icelanders, for a start, are bonkers. 67% of them truly believe in elves. Elves are a Big Thing in Iceland: the main motorway connecting the capital city to the major airport was re-routed by about four miles because they realised that the original, straight, road would go through a rock where an elf lived. This all harks back to the glorious Icelandic oral folk tradition, that is partly responsible for the countries independence.

Iceland was discovered in about 870 AD by Viking from Norway. And I don't mean 'discovered' in a America way, there was literally no one there. The land was completely virgin, a real New World of the dark ages. The Norwegian Vikings that settled there were lords of their own farms and vales, they fished, farmed (there are no indigenous trees in Iceland, and indigenous plants are few and far between so the first few winters must have been tough) and fought over a island that is covered in natural disasters waiting to happen. The people had no over-all ruler, one of the earliest Parliaments, the Althing, was held once a year to share news, bring criminals to justice, and decide on new laws for the whole country.

This is the time of the Sagas. Icelanders hold their ancient legends in the highest regard, as well they should. As part of the 'Once Upon A Time' Reading challenge, I have been reading the Laxdale Saga, a great historical romantic epic that tells the story of the people of Laxriverdale, inpaticular two families, that originating for Dalla-Kollson, and that originating from his brother Bjorn the Easterner (its all a bit confusing because Icelanders don't use family names, your father's name (or your mother's if you don't have a dad) forms your surname, and you are known by your first name- so I am Ms Michaelsdottir, which I quite like. This does, however, make the Sagas quite hard to follow, I did find myself jotting down a little family tree as I went along). The story is a sweeping epic that follows the fortunes of the families, from their first settlements in Iceland to the tragic love-triangle that surrounds Gudren Ostif's-daughter (possibly one of the earliest romantic heroines) who is forced to marry the best friend of the man she loves. The two rivals end up killing each other, destroying the happiness of their father/ foster father Olaf Hosskuldson, who is the 'hero' for the first part of the book, as was cursed by a Norwegian wizard. This is their literary tradition; Shakespeare eat your heart out.

The Sagas were composed in the early half of the 11th century, and are studied and more of less worshipped by Icelanders and Icelandophiles today. Modern readers who are not that into Viking history will find them not so easy going, but as an example of the history of a people they are fascinating and highly recommended (especially Laxdale Saga and Njal's Saga, which features one of my favourite historical characters, the nymphomaniac Gunhild, wife of Eric Bloodaxe (and sister of Harold Bluetooth, who united Denmark) who seduces the gorgeous (and much younger) Hrut Herjolfsson (who is Olaf Hosskuldson's uncle...I think..told you it was complicated!) and then curses him when he goes homes to his prissy wife Unner.

The Icelandic language has not changed that much in the last 1500 years, teh original transcripts of the Sagas are kept in Reykjavik University and can still be read by the modern Icelander. Icelandic language, and its lack of evolution, is one of the key points in Icelandic nationalism. The country was taken over by Norway when internal politics between the farmer-lords resulted in a weak economy. This was not helped by the Little Ice Age that fell over Europe in the 14th century (read Company of Liers and The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland for really good books set in England at this time), though the expansion of the cod industry after Church rule dictated that fish should be eaten on the Friday helped a lot. Denmark then took over, and ruled Iceland for 500 years before the Independence movement, led by Jon Sigurdsson became popular in the 1880s and Iceland regained some of its powers to rule itself. Full independence was granted in 1944.

Jon Sigurdsson used the Icelanders nationalism, their attitude towards their history and their Sagas especially, to round up support for his independence cause. Especially important to this was the promotion of the Icelandic Oral Tradition- which exploded from myths passed down from the mother's telling stories round the fire at night to a publishing phenomenon in the same way Grimm's Fairy Tales did. Icelandic fairy tales features elves (the little people, who often interact with humans whilst having their own political system underground), ogres, who might lurk under bridges and near fjords, ghosts, giants and other supernatural elements, but also mix religion with the supernatural. A priest is often called for to get rid of a problematic ghost, for example. This comfortable relationship that the 'new' religion of Christianity has with oral traditions shows how Iceland is a nation of people who are quite happy to worship God, but will still leave offerings to the little people, just in case...or, in the modern world, will re-route a motorway, just in case...

Iceland also has it's fair share of excellent modern literature. Although, most people will know Iceland for it's music, Haldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 (The Atom Station is brilliant, a story of the old Iceland of Sagas vs the New Iceland of nuclear power and political intrigue- the old Icelander comes out on top for me every time!). Another highly recommended Icelandic text is 101 Reykjavik, set in the capital of 25,000 people in the early naughties. The dark, funny novel of a man-child living with his mother and her girlfriend in the coolest postcode in the world rings so true with the state of mind of the wonderful, if tragically so, people that I met (the world is dying, the winters are hard, I am a mortal, so lets drink some more vodka and dance! To really great music! That we make! Seriously, a man tried to chat me up after puking on my boots- apparently this is completely normal. I have never met so many people who can drink as much as the Icelanders do!)

If you have spent the last week sitting in an airport, or an empty Book Fair, then I understand you quite hate the place right now, but please don't judge a book by it's country- it's not their fault! It's the elves! They wanted the motorway all along, it would has brought prosperity to the area! They could have set up a little cafe by the side of the road..little Bobby could have sold apples..they could have afforded shoes this year..think of the elves, won't someone please think of the elves!

Ahem, sorry about that...

This month, I've tried to read Shirley by Charlotte Bronte but gave up after 70 pages because it was just so endless. Also reading the fantastic Bess of Hardwick biography by Mary Lovell, which I am loving. Highly recommended of those of you of a history-buff persuasion.

Happy Reading!

Once Upon A Reading Challenge

2011 - Book 02 - The Borribles
2011 - Book 01 - The Looking Glass Wars

2010 - Book 03 - Reading the Greats
2010 - Book 02 - The Land of Ice and Fire
2010 - Book 01 - Percheron it!
2010 - The Challenge

Book Club the Fifth

I made this: Avid Reader at 6:04 pm 0 comments Links to this post
Book Club the Fifth - BOOKN00B - 18-04-2010
Agreed on: The Island by Victoria Hislop (BookN00b)
- Firman by Sam Savage

SPECIAL GUEST STAR - Lela - who is now 100 pages into The Book Thief!

  • hated the first chapter, which enraged her, resulting in her casting aside the book for about a month. 
  • eventually went back to it, and ended up quite enjoying it!
  • particularly liked the relationship between Norman and Jerry. 
  • thought the idea was really clever, and thought the whole environment was very well researched.
  • liked the history
  • thought the character was a bit up himself, though he was a thinking reading rat, so fair enough really. 
Neither would search out Sam Savage again, but would certainly read something of his at another point in the future.

  • loved the book references throughout.
  • thought the world created was very well described from the perspective of a rat
  • found it very sad
BOOKELF - 6/10
BOOKN00B - 7/10

Agreed that the next book would be The Island by Victoria Hislop, a book that felt was of great interest to BOOKN00B as she had visited the island in question, and seen the featured sanatorium. 

Original LBC

Meeting 08 - A Chat
Meeting 05 - Firman - Sam Savage

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Bloody Men - Wendy Cope

I made this: Avid Reader at 9:39 am 0 comments Links to this post
Bloody Men

Bloody men are like bloody buses —
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,

Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destinations,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.

Table Of Contents - Poetry

Monday, 12 April 2010


I made this: BookElf at 5:08 pm 1 comments Links to this post

N loves Sci-Fi (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) and fantasy. I don't. The last sci-fi fantasy read N lent me I rather rudely rejected after about 50pages because I literally couldn't tell what was more annoying, the characters or the dialogue between them, which was so contrived and far-fetched not only did I not care about the people saying it, I couldn't actually tell them apart...

So when I decided to take part in the Once Upon A Time spring reading challenge of reading a fantasy, fable, myth and fairy tale before June, I decided to take the plunge of re-visiting N's vast collection of tripe she has somehow managed to foist on me (joking, joking, especially after the lovely post below on my books, how could I call any of N's anything but sublime? They are wondrous, challenging books, all of them, right up to the 17th Anita Blake vampire sextress multi-special shagathon I was not bored once! Honest!)in order to expand my horizons in the fantasy genre.

To be fair, the Percheron series of books (Odalisque, Emissary and Goddess) by Fiona McIntosh have been sat on my TBR shelf for a good six to eight months, I just 'haven't got round to them'. The covers, for a start, put me off; anything with embossed statues of ancient gods rearing up towards a big purple sun with a font so serif it is almost making a political statement tend to scream 'this is shite' at me from a distance. But I am not judging books by their covers this year (see earlier postings) so I couldn't use that as an excuse.

The blurb didn't fill me enthusiasm much either, to be honest. Mostly because it had the words 'golden beauty' in reference to the title, 'odalisque'. Ah yes, I thought, Fiona McIntosh may be a woman, but here heroines still have to be physically pleasing.

The Odalisque is Ana, but this is not her story entirely. The book opens with the gripping descriptions of the city of Percheron- loosely based on the Constantinople of the ancient Ottoman empire (that was only 500 years ago...but never mind). The introduction introduces one of the highlights of the book, Spur Lazar (this being a fantasy set in the "East" all names must be two to four syllables long and contain at least one Z). Laser, sorry Lazar (Laser) is muscular, dirty, gritty, fighting desert animal man who would be almost sexy if he wasn't so f-ing wet. This defect does not become apparent, however until after he meets the Odalisque Ana; a heroine so boring, effecting and predictable I almost had to go back in time, drag the racehorse off Emily Davison and scream 'it's not worth it, Emily, we might as well stay disenfranchised, eighty years later we're still going to be wasting our precious tax-free time reading about and looking up to people like this (illustrate minds-eye view of Ana, who is possibly wearing some sort of see through sheath that not only illustrates her impeccable beauty, but her understanding nature and mighty wisdom) at which point Emily sits up, cries 'by Gods, you were right' and starts an incredibly successful career lecturing on the problems that come with a hymen at the Women's Institute.

The books, to their credit (and believe me I'm not giving them much) are set in an amazing world, which would have been about 100 times more amazing if McIntosh had just done the right thing and actually written about Renaissance Constantinople. She describes the city beautifully, the markets and the temples are reminiscent of old town Marrakesh and the made-up customs of the people are so intricate they can only have been based on those of a real, non fantastical world. The most favourable part of the whole book has to be the description of the cities power house, and the harem. I know a fair bit about harems and her depictions of how the women and children of an old ruler were treated after the Ascension of a new one are completely true (apart from the women were also killed by being throne off cliffs, in bags) and her writing of them is both simply horrific and moving. If McIntosh had stuck to writing about the life within a Ottoman palace from the perspectives of say the eunuchs, the concubines and the normal people it would have been a lovely, moving, captivating, stimulating read.

But it wasn't. It was just fantasy. I read all three books because I wanted to finish the series, because I did enjoy parts, but by the end of the third I was actually laughing aloud at the clumsy phrasing, the cliche-d love story and the frankly ridiculous subplot involving a ancient battle between two opposing deities, representing the male and female consciousness, of which the male god Zareb (Zzzzzzz) is currently worshipped. The history of religion being gender specific is long established, and I get that McIntosh was trying to say something about a possible return to matriarchy, I just couldn't tell what. Every now and then some ancient Roman or Greek myth would come hurtling out of the pages, which clashed so oddly with the early-modern Persia setting I had to wince. The subplot and the main plots were so interchangeably dull I couldn't be bothered to follow them and the overall conclusion seemed tacked on at the end, as if McIntosh had suddenly realised that she had about fifteen loose threads to tie up, but hadn't a clue how to do it.

I wouldn't recommended these books, that saddens me because I really WANTED to recommend these books. I wanted to come out of this experience loving fantasy, and wishing that every book could be make believe. N confessed she didn't see me reading them, I guess every one's tastes differ. The first of the trilogy definitely has it's good bits, but it is so unendingly dross (the second book took literally 315 pages to become anything but tube-home interesting, and then suddenly jumped from situation thriller to Lawrence of Arabia style epic so quickly I had to rewind myself) that not a lot can be said for the series as a whole. The characters are shabby, and the overuse of dramatic irony (the demon's in the Vizier, get over it) so overplayed, I did not feel like I had wasted my time on these books; rather McIntosh had in fact wasted hers.

Better books I have been reading this month include 'The Owl Killers' by Karen Maitland (a vast vast improvement on 'A Company of Liers' we read for book club last month) and 'Spirit Walker' by Michelle Paver, book 2 of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness- excellent reading for children that can be enjoyed very much so by adults, going to read the rest of the series hopefully this month, high contender for Series of the Year this one!

I am also about 50 pages away from finishing The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova (again, read her first with book club- see how useful and brilliant sharing your reading can be?) which I'm not going to say anything about because N hasn't read it yet (except that it is wicked).

Happy Reading!
BookElf xx

Once Upon A Reading Challenge

2011 - Book 02 - The Borribles
2011 - Book 01 - The Looking Glass Wars

2010 - Book 03 - Reading the Greats
2010 - Book 02 - The Land of Ice and Fire
2010 - Book 01 - Percheron it!
2010 - The Challenge

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Borrowed Books

I made this: Avid Reader at 2:27 am 0 comments Links to this post
Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other people have lent me.
- Anatole France

One of the best things about being friends with other book lovers, is that you invariably start to swop books. And usually not just the best or intellectual, books from childhood and guilty pleasures are often the most fun. In fact, at a recent book club meeting, BookElf pulled out a copy of the Milly Mandy stories to squeals of delight!

I have finally had a quiet few weeks, and have set myself the task of working through the mountain of books that I have been lent (mostly by BookElf) in the past few months.

The first set to catch my eye were written by Carola Dunn, the first three books in her Daisy Dalrymple series, of which 18 books have been released.

  1. Death At Wentwater Court
  2. The Winter Garden Mystery
  3. Requiem For A Mezzo

Meet The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple. The war is over, and this enterprising young woman has a living to make. Ostensibly, she is a photo journalist who travels around post-war Britain, taking pictures of grand houses and families - most of whom she happens to know socially.

However, in a very Jessica Fletcher type of way, Miss Daisy finds herself confronted by all sorts of intrigue, from jewellery thefts, to identity theft...to murder! Where ever she goes, crime seems to follow. And being a naturally inquisitive sort of person, Daisy usually finds some 'need' to get involved.

And by pure coincidink, Chief Detective Alec Fletcher, a rather dishy widower, always seems to get sucked in. All to try and dissuade and protect Daisy of course...honest...

Ok, so high art, these books probably aren't. But they are sweet, and gentle, and if predictable, not totally so, and not to the detriment of the story. Far more interesting are the insights in behaviour, and the social settings. And the author is not afraid to paint in, with a deft and light touch, aspects not often found in books from this era, such as homosexual pairings, and the snobbery inherent within the time period.

The next short sweet read to catch my eye was William Taylor's 1989 young adult book Paradise Lane.

This is a beautiful story about a young teenager growing up in a small town in New Zealand. Rosa 'Rosie' Perkins has always been a bit of an outsider. Her mother is an alcoholic, and her overbearing father is becoming over-attentive.

At school, she tends to be a loaner, drawing only jeers from her classmates, particularly from her nearest neighbour, Michael Geraghty. Things reach a head after she adopts a possum, and is cruelly bullied by Michael and his friends as a result.
Shocked by his own behaviour, and Rosie's angry outburst, he sets out to make amends by becoming her friend - an action that Rosie treats with understandable suspicion.

The actions unfolds slowly, with an undercurrent of tension building up throughout the book until the final dramatic scenes. However, the emphasis is, rightly, focused on the developing and growing feelings of the two protagonists, on how they see the world, the events unfolding around them, and observing their first faltering steps towards buildnig trust, and romance is a lovely warm enveloping feeling.

I read this book in one three hour stretch. I found the characters to be very realistic and natural, with particular mentions to the mothers involved. The cold detachment of the one, is countered by the weary but firmly maternal responses from the other. And, once again realistically, the teenagers find that while they can resolve the dramas unfolding around them to a certain extent independently; there is also a time when parental or adult intervention must be sought.

As with all the best reads, I was sorry to finish this book - I wanted a Harry Potter style epilogue, promising a happy ever after. Of course, it is better to have the moment captured with the future unrealised. Much more true to life.

A friend from back home also lent me a book called The Twins, by Tessa de Loo.

This is an intricate and complicated tale of twin sisters, separated by fate, and reunited some 70 years later by chance.

After the death of her parents, Lotte is adopted by an uncle and taken from Cologne, Germany to the Netherlands. She is raised in a rowdy, eccentric yet loving family, who take in Jews during the second World War. Her twin sister Anna, however, was taken in by her austere Grandfather, and remains in Germany, ending up working as a nurse in German hospitals during the war.

The pair meet, quite unexpectantly some 70 years later in a spa, where both have ended up due to arthritis. Lotte is taken aback by her much more outgoing twin, and only reluctantly agrees to interact with the other. Anna, on the other hand, is delighted to be able to reconnect, and finally clear the air of the over-whealming, and oft misunderstood past.

This book is emotional, revisiting a by now familiar era from a different perspective. While not in the slightest apologetic for the actions of the Nazi's of the time, it does however present a neglected view of the everyday working class German, and how they fared during that time. The twins differing positions allow for an in-depth view of both perspectives, and there is a weary acknowledgement from both sides that the bitterness that remains is too deeply rooted to ever be excised completely.

I had been a little sceptical before reading, that this subject matter would either be trivialised, or made ponderous; it was in fact deftly handled. As I personally related better to Anna (the one who remained in Germany - which actually gave me a slightly uncomfortable feeling for a few moments), her experiences seemed very realistic, and her desperate need to set the record straight and reconnect with her estranged sister felt very poignant.

Yet I could also completely understand where Lotte was coming from. How much she wanted to be left alone, in peace, without the raking unnecessarily up of the least comfortable period of her life. Her totally relatable fury at Anna, while simultaneously feeling drawn to her, and at least passively interacting with her is also presented in a plausible light.

A great read, I'll be recommending it to everyone!

I have also tackled a second set from BookElf - a series written by Patricia Wentworth, about a private detective (and ex-Governess) Miss Silver. There are 32 books in total featuring this most efficient of knitting detectives. Now, way back when, these books were as popular as contemporaries Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, by Agatha Christie.

I don't know whether history hasn't been kind, or if I've just been very obtuse, but I'd never heard of these lovely little books till I was handed them. And they are delightful!

They feel just like an episode of the Gilmore Girls, where the action occurs so slowly that the primary storyline seems almost surprising in its reveal next to the character development and the seemingly essential star crossed lovers. Though IRL I am fairly sceptical, I love these sort of eyes meet in a crowed room/lightning bolts that typify books like these.

Miss Silver plays almost a secondary role, back seating to the 'victims' and the paths that the murder/theft/bosh on head sets in motion.

She works with the Police, having once taught/mentored a now successful Scotland Yardie (all a bit ra!!) Frank Abbott, who is both loyal and has complete faith in her wry observations.

This series seems to reside in the same world and class as the Daisy Dalrymple series, and offers certain social insights, though I personally found them to be a little 'safe'. This is perhaps an unfair observation, after all, I've only read a very small sample of the series.

I have to admit, I am not interested in purchasing or collecting these books (unless I receive an unexpected windfall, and finally get to compile some sort of library!!), I would definitely get them out of the library...in a while, I have to admit, I kind of fancy something a little grittier at the moment.

Anyhow, tomorrow, I'm looking to start another of my borrowed books pile, and will let you know what I think soon!


Hard-covered books break up friendships. You loan a hard covered book to a friend and when he doesn't return it you get mad at him. It makes you mean and petty. But twenty-five cent books are different.
- John Steinbeck

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Libraries Table of Contents
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