30 November 2016

List love: 12 foods/dishes I discovered or want to try thanks to books other than cookbooks

I haven't written a List Love post in ages, but while going through some of my files I found a fully written post from several years ago and decided to post it, with a few minor adjustments. 

Note that it was written before I was diagnosed with diabetes, so I would have to make certain adjustments if I was planning to make some of the recipes today. 

This really should go on my cooking blog, but I thought it would be fun to do a cross-over post.

It’s no secret that I like to cook and eat and discover new recipes, and thanks to my reading of all kinds of novels and non-fiction over the space of 40+ years I have come across lots of different interesting foods and dishes.

I am not counting stuff I have come across in actual cookbooks and recipe collections and I am not including any books deliberately written as foodie books, but only books that made me take notice of some particular dish. However, I might do a post on mouth-watering foodie books later. Goodness knows there are enough books to choose from.

For an example, there are plenty of foodie mysteries out there, in series like the Goldie Bear books by Diane Mott Davidson in which the sleuth is a caterer, the three Charly Poisson books by Cecile Lamalle where the sleuth is a chef (and so is the author) and the tea shop mysteries by Laura Childs with a sleuth who owns a tea shop. There are also stand-alones, e.g. Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Cruise & Bob Mayer, where Agnes is a food columnist, and as part of other series otherwise not food-oriented, like Too Many Cooks from the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout where Nero is a serious foodie and the victim and some of the suspects are chefs. But that's enough about a possible future post. Let's get to the books and dishes/foods:

  1. Chicken Marsala. Min, the heroine of Bet Me, a romance novel by Jennifer Crusie, becomes enamored of this dish after Cal, the hero, takes her out to dinner and orders it for her, breaking the diet her mother has imposed on her. Min has a culinary orgasm whenever she tastes it, whereas I can’t say the earth moved for me. It was okay, but maybe I just haven’t found the right recipe yet. Possibly it was not sensible to use Marsala marked as cooking wine.
  2. Damper bread. Jeannie Gunn’s description of making her first damper, in We of the Never-Never, is funny, and I want to try it - but not to bake in an oven but using coals like the genuine article.
  3. Fried green tomatoes. The book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg is full of mentions of different kinds of U.S. southern food, but it was the fried green tomatoes that stood out, and they proved to be quite good once I got the hang of getting the coating to stay on them.
  4. Mayan hot chocolate. Discovered in Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I am yet to try this, but it sounds delicious.
  5. American pancakes. I can’t pinpoint the exact book where I read about American pancakes with butter and maple syrup, but I do remember I was itching to try them. I now make them occasionally for brunch.
  6. Seed cake. This is mentioned in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and in such terms as to make it sound like a delicacy. It’s quite a nice cake, not too sweet and a nice change from chocolate cake.
  7. Treacle tart.This I encountered in the Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling. Harry helps himself to a slice of treacle tart at least once in each book (except, I think, The Deathly Hallows). While listening to Stephen Fry reading The Half-Blood Prince one day I suddenly found myself filled with curiosity to try it. I did, using this recipe. It was more like a heavy pudding than a pie/tart, came out stodgy with a weird texture and the two small slices I ate gave me a bellyache. I might try a modernised version as I think the addition of eggs and cream would make it lighter. Gordon Ramsay's recipe looks tempting.
  8. Cassoulet. First heard of in Gigi by Colette, although I suspect it’s more the movie than the novelette that awakened that longing in me. Still haven’t tried it.
  9. Beef tongue. I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton as a kid, and when the Famous Five were having one of their picnics it usually included boiled tongue. This I have tried and liked. It makes a nice alternative to ham in sandwiches.
  10. Tuna noodle casserole. I can’t remember the first mention of this, but it seems when someone dies in American novels, movies and TV shows, the neighbours inevitably bring the mourners this dish. I tried it and either the recipe was a bad one or the whole comfort thing is a joke, because it turned out disgusting.
  11. Macaroni and cheese. Another American comfort food I can’t remember where I first read of. Tried it recently and found it nice, if a little bland, definitely the kind of food you have to discover as a child to fall in love with. However, it has much potential for experimentation and improvement and I intend to try adding different stuff to the basic sauce, like Parmesan, mushrooms, ham and bacon. (The Icelandic equivalent would be macaroni milk).
  12. Durian fruit. I’m not sure where I first read about this, but it may have been in Michael Palin’s travelogue Full Circle, or Anthony Bourdain’s A Chef’s Tour. It’s supposed to smell like a combination of sewer sludge and rotting meat, but taste delicious.

25 November 2016

Friday links, November 25, 2016

Last week's first link was to a Roundworld reference in a Discworld book. Here is another one: Treacle mining. Treacle Mine Road is frequently mentioned in those Discworld books that take place in Ankh-Morpork, and treacle mines are mentioned as well.

Do all those books with "girl" in the title annoy you? Me too. Someone decided to investigate and came up with this: The Gone Girl With The Dragon Tattoo On The Train.

Love France but can't afford to go there? Try this:
Food-and-Book Pairings in Lieu of Travelling to France. 

A useful blog for writers, full of cautionary tales exposing less than ethical (and sometimes illegal) practices in the publishing industry that writers should be aware of: Writer Beware

The book list:
The 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time. Why 86? Why not the usual 100, or 17 or 42? 
I rather think it's because these are ones you can buy through the website. But don't let that disturb you: there are some great reads on that list. I've read 16 of these books, own another 7 but haven't got round to reading them yet (although 2 are currently on the monster "books with bookmarks in them" list), 22 are on my wishlist and one I gave up on reading.

Book I'm thinking about ordering:

24 November 2016

Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre: Urban fantasy police procedural.
Setting: Modern London.
Themes: Violence, death, crime, gods, magic, ghosts.

Constable-in-training Peter Grant is facing a career at a desk, writing reports for other policemen, at the end of his probationary period, due to being easily distracted. Things start looking up when he meets a ghost at a murder scene he is guarding. Next thing he knows, he's been recruited into a special branch of the London police that deals with paranormal and supernatural crime, has become a wizard's apprentice and is learning how to use magic. However, finding out he's able to see ghosts and do magic is soon the least of Peter's worries as a series of bizarre acts of violence and murder sweep the city. To add to the confusion, the river gods of London seem to be heading into a turf war.

I first heard of this book when I was browsing the Discworld discussion forum on Reddit, where it was recommended as something a Discworld fan might like to read. So I did some googling and decided it sounded like my cup of tea and ordered it.What I found was nothing like Pratchett, but still funny, intricately plotted and well-written, with an engaging narrator and an interesting supporting cast.

Aaronovitch draws on the tradition of classic whodunnits and police procedurals and mixes it with magic, but magic that follows scientific principles, many of which were discovered and codified by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. Therefore magic is not just a matter of doing some spells and poof! you have magic. The power for the magic has to come from somewhere, and Peter discovers that doing a spell will fry any nearby electrically connected device containing a microchip. This means he has found a reliable, solid way of knowing if magic has been done, but it also means he ends up having to replace his cell phone several times throughout the book.

There is murder, mayhem and violence in this story, but also plenty of funny incidents and interactions and interesting characters, and I have already ordered book number two, Moon over Soho, from the Book Depository.

Highly recommended for fans of both urban fantasy and whodunnits.

23 November 2016

Last week's book haul

I acquired four books last week.

  • Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities was written by Ian Stewart, who I am familiar with as one of the co-authors of The Science of Discworld books, and it will be interesting to read this as I have been wanting to study maths again. I had my interest and joy in maths severely maimed by bad teachers when I was a teenager and I have always wanted to go back and study maths without the pressure of having to get passing grades.
  • Rivers of London is an entertaining urban fantasy police procedural. I will post a review tomorrow.
  • I was very happy to get my hands on a lovely, illustrated hardcover edition of Mark Twain's Diaries of Adam & Eve. I've already read both diaries, but it will not hurt to read them again in such a lovely book.
  • Why Not? looks like a nice loo book - I am beginning to see an end to my current toilet book (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die) and need something totally different to read.

22 November 2016

Review: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway.
Genre: Historical novel.
Themes: Mathematics, science, travel, human interactions.

Kehlmann's novel is about two great men of the 19th century: Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrick Gauss.

Von Humboldt is best known as a naturalist, geographer and explorer, and Gauss is considered to have been one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Both were pioneers in their respective fields and what Kehlmann focuses on in his book is that both men measured the known world - one travelling far and wide to do so and the other doing it all inside his own head, rarely leaving his home state.

The narrative jumps around with alternating chapters about each man, going back and forth in time a little and showing the reader both men at various ages and stages of their careers. We also get to see parts of the story through the eyes of von Humboldt's long-suffering travel companion and collaborator, the French physician and botanist Aimé Bonpland, and those of Gauss' son, Eugene.

We are shown two vastly different but equally driven men, one from a family of high status, the other the son of illiterate labourers, both of whom were young men when they began to attract attention for their brilliance.

The narrative style is funny and occasionally poignant and always sparkling, and the translation is smooth and readable.

Well worth reading, especially if you like narratives of travel/exploration and historical figures.

21 November 2016

Weekly Monday Round-up (November 21, 2016)

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Kathryn at the Book Date and is "a place to meet up and share what you have been, are and about to be reading over the week."

Visit the Book Date to see what various other book bloggers have been up to in the past week.

Books I finished reading last week: 
  • Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann. Historical novel. I'm working on a review.
  • Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Fantasy police procedural, set in modern London. I'm working on a review.
  • What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem by E.S. Turner. This is an informative account of life in service in England (and America) and a look at the upstairs-downstairs dichotomy. 

Books I acquired last week:

I will discuss them in more detail later in the week.

Weather report: 
We had the first frost in the Reykjavík area last week, with a little snow, which then melted and re-froze. The slippery pavements are preventing me from walking at my usual speed on my daily walks. Instead I am sort of shuffling along, trying to stay on my feet. If this keeps up I will either have to lengthen my walks from 5 km to 7 km a day to get in the same exercise, or join a gym so I can use a treadmill. Or maybe I'll start swimming instead. The hot pools here are a lovely, lovely way to end an hour of exercise.

Other things I did last week:
A meringue so shiny it looks like a blob of mayonnaise.
Baked sugar-free meringues. I'm diabetic and therefore sugar is EVIL and I wanted to try a recipe I found for sugarless meringues, using sucralose (Splenda). They were the whitest, shiniest meringues I have ever seen, but tasted horrible, metallic and nasty, and ended up in the trash. Next I'm trying with erythritol, which has less of an after-taste.

Ordered three books from the  Book Depository - the follow-up to Rivers of London and a later book in the series that was on sale, and a hardcover edition of the Science of Discworld IV. I figured it might not be available in hard covers for much longer and since my copies of volumes I-III are all in hard covers I decided this one had better be as well.

Ordered two new pairs of eyeglasses. My eyesight finally seems to have stabilised after getting messed up by the diabetes and I decided to order one pair of progressives and another single vision pair to use as sunglasses.

Booked a flight to Frankfurt, Germany for a long weekend in December. I'm taking my mother with me and we are driving to Heidelberg and staying there and going to the Christmas market.

18 November 2016

Juicy Friday links, November 18, 2016

I decided to make some changes to the Friday links. There will no longer be a fixed number of links, but any number up to 10, depending on what interesting stuff I have discovered during the week's web surfing. I will also start posting links that are not related to books and reading, or only indirectly or marginally so, because I often find interesting, fascinating or funny links related to my other interests that I want to share. I will continue to post one link to a book list per week, and I am considering putting in links to books on my TBR wishlist. Here are today's links:

  • Link the first relates to Terry Pratchett's Discworld, specifically to the resograph, the "thingness-writer" in Moving Pictures that measured disturbances in reality. It was made from a large vase and expelled steel balls from an aperture in the direction of the disturbance. It has a Roundworld counterpart, an ancient Chinese seismometer.
  • Link the third is about a bit of literary history. Whatever you might think of the writings of the Marquis de Sade, his story and that of his books is fascinating:‘The most impure tale ever written’: how The 120 Days of Sodom became a ‘classic’. 

Today's book list:
10 Books to Know and Celebrate Leonard Cohen. I didn't cry over Bowie or Prince, but I came close with Leonard Cohen. I have loved his music for years and can always find a song in his song catalogue for any mood I'm in.

In honour of Cohen, here's a video related to the last link - a live performance of his tour de force prophetic song, The Future:


That's enough for today.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy reading!

17 November 2016


Why is it, now that I can finally glimpse a hope that I'll be able to finish the bedspread - the one I started making three years ago - before this Christmas, is it that I feel no interest in continuing with the task of crocheting it all together and instead am plotting to make myself a Hogwarts scarf to wear this winter? And I'm not even a Harry Potter megafan.

Reading Report for October 2016

I finished 13 books in October, of which 5 were rereads. 8 were fiction in 5 genres and 5 were non-fiction in the same number of genres.

The stand-outs were  Not on the Label and Dragonology, the former because it is a very thought-provoking book and the latter because of its gorgeous design. I also enjoyed getting reacquainted with Charlotte MacLeod's writing - I had forgotten how good she is at writing funny characters.

The Book of General Ignorance was like having Stephen Fry speaking in my head throughout the reading.

The Mystery of Swordfish Reef turned out to be one of Upfield's more far-fetched mysteries and I got the feeling he had got to thoroughly hate his detective by the time this book was written.


  • A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh. Regency romance. 
  • The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie. Murder mystery. Audiobook.
  • Appleby's End by  Michael Innes. Mystery. 
  • Whose Body? and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Murder mystery. 

 First-time reads:
  • Rhine Valley From Cologne to Mainz by Berlitz Guides. Guide book (charmingly outdated).
  • The Boy's Book of Survival by Guy Campbell (text) & Simon Ecob (illustrations. Self-help manual.
  • Ride Like Hell and You'll Get There: Detours into Mayhem by Paul Carter. Memoir.
  • Not On the Label: What really goes into the food on your plate by Felicity Lawrence. Expose of the food industry and food retail industry.
  • The Book of General Ignorance by John & John Mitchinson Lloyd. Trivia.
  • The Odd Job by Charlotte MacLeod. Murder mystey.
  • Dragonology by Dugald A. Steer. Cryptozoology.
  • The Mystery of Swordfish Reef by Arthur Upfield. Murder mystery.

16 November 2016

Book haul for last week and the week before

I acquired 4 books in the week before last: 3 non-fiction books and one novel, and have already read two of them.

  • The big red book is a richly illustrated history of the Vikings. It was fist published back in the 1960s, so I expect some more stuff has come to light since it was written, but it's a gloriously beautiful book worth owning.
  • Common Grounds is a book on the natural history of a small area of land in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Click on the link to read my review. 
  • Alice is about what might have happened to Alice after her adventures in Wonderland.  Clink the link to read my review. 
  • The Devil in the White City is another history book.I expect I will read it soon, as it has been on my TBR list for several years.

Then I acquired 12 books last week and have already read 2 of them and started reading a third.

First photo:

  • The book in the top left corner is titled Deutschland, and is a photo book about Germany. It was published in 1964 and all the photos are black-and-white. As I have mentioned before, I am going on holiday to Germany next year and I have been gathering reading material, mostly guide books, to prepare for the trip. There is some text in this book, all of it in German, and I plan to read it in order to prepare for the trip. I studied German for 4 years when I was in my teens, but have not used it much since. My vocabulary has therefore become sadly eroded and I want to beef up on it before I set off.
  • Animalwatching is a gorgeous natural history book by zoologist Desmond Morris. It will go nicely on the shelf next to my David Attenborough books.
  • Historic Costume in Pictures is a Dover Publications reissue of a series of sumptuous costume plates originally published in Germany in the 19th century. 
  • Leonardo da Vinci's Machines is full of da Vinci's drawings of his inventions, with explanations and discussions. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching TV shows where people have built some of these machines, and was fascinated by an exhibition of scale models of some of them that I visited some years ago, so the book is a happy addition to my library.
  • Live Alone and Like It is a guide to the single life for women. It was first published in the 1930s, so I expect some of the advice will be out of date, but it will be fun to read. I just wish I could return the photograph I found inside it to it's rightful owner.

Second photo:
  • Top left: An Icelandic translation of The Joy of Sex
  • Centre, top: An old book of crochet designs. I crochet quite a lot and this book contains several classic designs.
  • The Man Who Loved China. Simon Winchester is among my favourite authors of history/biography books and this is one I have not read before.
  • The Long Earth - I thought I had a copy of this, but I couldn't find it in my library database, so when this appeared on the exchange bookshelf at work I pounced on it.
  • Nótt is an Icelandic  translation of Eli Wiesel's classic book about life in a German concentration camp during World War 2.
  • A Dubious Legacy. I was delighted to discover a Mary Wesley book I had not read before. 
  • The Solace of Open Spaces. This one I have already read and thoroughly enjoyed. (See the Weekly report).

15 November 2016

Top Ten Tuesday (November 15, 2016)

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created and hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Visit the hosting blog to see lots of other lists.
Today's topic is a movie freebie, and I chose to list my 10 favourite musicals and music movies. 

I love musicals, especially the song and dance kind, but I also love a good music movie. The difference between a music movie and a musical is that while the former contains music that’s integral to the plot, it is presented in a realistic manner, i.e. with musicians performing, while in a musical people are liable to burst into song (and often dance as well) at the drop of a hat and no-one blinks an eye. In fact the spectators often join in. I am only including fiction, i.e. no documentaries or concert movies.

I think I’ll start my list with one of my all time favorite movies:

The Commitments. Music movie. To me, this is the ultimate “let’s get a band together” movie, and one of the things that makes it so good is that it could have happened. Familiar songs: Just about every song.

Með allt á hreinu. Music movie. This is an Icelandic cult film about two rival bands, one all female and one all male, battling it out in the small live music market in Iceland. It was made in the eighties, but nearly all of the music is still frequently heard on Icelandic radio, and several catchphrases from it are still used, even by people who have never seen the film.

The Band Wagon. The ultimate backstage musical with a theatre setting. A has-been Hollywood hoofer played by Fred Astaire is paired with a prima ballerina played by Cyd Charisse. Many good song and dance numbers ensue, both in a stage setting and as fantasy scenes. Most famous song: That’s Entertainment.

Singin’ in the RainAnother brilliant backstage musical, this time with a movie industry setting, that mixes stage-produced music scenes with fantasy scenes. Stars Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds as the love-birds, Donald O’Connor as the best friend, and Jean Hagen as the villainess (stealing every scene she’s in). Familiar songs: Singin’ in the Rain, Good Morning, Make ‘em Laugh.

Gigi. A rather wonderful musical based on a questionable story. Leslie Caron is luminescent as the titular character. Familiar songs: Gigi, It’s a bore.

Guys and Dolls. Musical starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons as one pair of love-birds and Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine as another. Familiar song: Luck be a Lady.

High Society. Musical. Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm star in a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. Most famous song: True Love.

Yellow Submarine. The classic Beatles album as a surrealistic, psychedelic, mostly animated movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas. Great story and wonderful characters and you can watch it as a cheery Halloween movie or as a dark Christmas movie.

Fantasia. Wonderfully imagined and animated scenes set to famous pieces of classical music.

14 November 2016

Weekly Monday Round-up (November 14, 2016)

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Kathryn at the Book Date and is "a place to meet up and share what you have been, are and about to be reading over the week."

Visit the Book Date to see what various other book bloggers have been up to in the past week.

Books I finished reading last week: 
I seem to be out of the reading slump and am reading at full pace. The trick seems to be to not hesitate when choosing the next book, and to get reading right away and read enough to get yourself hooked. (Or maybe I have just been lucky in my choices).

I finished and reviewed (links lead to my reviews):
  • Common Ground by Rob Cowen. Natural history and meditation on man's place within nature.
  • Alice by Christina Henry. Fantasy. Dark spin-off of Alice in Wonderland.

I finished and haven't reviewed: 

  • The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. I may review this one, but in case I don't get round to it, it is a memoir of sorts about the US state of Wyoming, where Ehrlich first started visiting in the 1970s. She first came there to make a documentary about sheep farming, but kept returning and learned both shepherding and cowboying before she eventually got married and settled down on a ranch with her husband. It's the kind of book about a place and the people and animals that occupy it that I love to read.
  • The Pillow Book: An Illustrated Celebration of Eastern Erotica, edited by Charles Fowkes. This is an anthology/sampler of erotic writing and art from India, China and Japan that I acquired at the same time as The Perfumed Garden
  • The audio book of A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie, read by Rosemary Leach.   
  • Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis. Self-help and etiquette, humorous. A tongue in book of advice for single women on how to enjoy their singledom.
  • Single Female (Reluctantly) Seeks by Dixie Browning. Romance.

I am currently waiting for one book to arrive in the mail: 
  • Rivers of London by Ben Aaranovitch. This is the first book in a fantasy/alternate reality detective series and was recommended to me as a book that other Terry Pratchett fans have enjoyed.
...and dithering about whether or not to order another:
  • Red Queen by Christina Henry.

I forgot to post about the books I acquired the week before last, so here is a double dose.
I have already read four of them and have started on a fifth.
Click to enlarge the photos so you can see the titles.
I'll be writing about them later in the week.

12 November 2016

Review: Common Ground by Rob Cowen

Genre: Natural history, memoir
Themes: Seasons, births and death, man and nature, animals, history.

Books about intimate natural history appeal to me almost as much as travelogues do. These books usually deal with one person's view of a single place, natural phenomenon or animal and can offer one both a very narrow and a wide view of the subject, often delving deep into history, anthropology, zoology, botany and geology. Others skim along the surface and present us with a glittering snapshot of a place frozen at a point in time. My favourites of this sub-genre of both the memoir and of popular science are The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin and Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

This book is not quite at the level of excellence as those three, but it is enjoyable and makes for a nice, slow read.

Cowen began gathering material for his intimate study of the natural history of a bit of edgeland in his home-town of Bilton, a suburb of Harrogate, Yorkshire, just after he moved back there after living in London for many years. He was feeling uprooted and confused and wandered out into this edgeland in the darkness of a winter‘s evening (it was New Years Eve, as a matter of fact).

The place seemed to call to him and he kept returning there and eventually began a naturalistic and historical study of the area and of man‘s place in it, observing it from that day and on into the following winter. Chapters are devoted to different animals and to the landscape, and he imagines the place from the viewpoint of several different animals and people, some through their own eyes, imagined or quoted, and some in the third person. We also get to follow him and his wife as they navigate impending parenthood and experience the birth of their first child.

The whole book is charming, but Cowen is at his best in the fictional chapters, for example where he gives us the first-person narrative of a tramp he meets on the edge of the river that delineates one side of the roughly triangular edgeland or puts himself in the place of a roebuck running for his life from hunters and their hounds. 


11 November 2016

Review: Alice by Christina Henry

Genre: Fantasy.
Themes: Madness, amnesia, power struggles, magic, facing your fears.
Warning: Possible triggers and definite spoilers.

It was the cover of this book that first caught my eye. With a cover and title like this, I realised it must have something to do with Lewis Carroll's Alice, the girl who went to Wonderland. However, I have on several occasions read or tried to read spin-offs or "takes" on classic literature, and rarely have they been satisfying reads. So, I passed it up. However, I kept thinking about it and when I returned to the charity shop a couple of weeks later, it was still there, and so I bought it. It lay on the floor by my bed, silently screaming "read me!" for the whole time it took me to finish Rob Cowen's Common Ground, and once I was done with that book, I immediately picked up this one. The only reason I didn't pull an overnighter to finish it in one session was that I had a meeting in the morning and needed to be alert.
But enough about that, let's turn to the book:

Alice has been in the madhouse for the last 10 years, haunted by vague memories of violence done to her and by her and a man with long, furry white ears. On the other side of one wall of her room lives her friend Hatcher, so called because he killed a number of men with a hatchet. He also suffers from amnesia, but can feel the threat from the Jabberwock, a monster that is imprisoned under the madhouse. One night a fire breaks out and Alice and Hatcher escape the asylum. As does the monster. They all escape into the Old City, a dirty, dangerous place ruled by five men: Cheshire, the Caterpillar, the Walrus, Mr. carpenter, and the Rabbit. Alice is told she has the ability to destroy the Jabberwock and must find a special sword that can kill it, but first she must find it, and for that she must deal with the rulers of the old city. And so begins a quest to find this magic object, but most of all to find herself and dig up her memories of her previous, fateful visit to the Old City she and Hatcher go deeper into the Old City. Hatcher also some memories of his own to dig up.

This is an original, twisted story based on what might, in another reality, have been the true, horrifying story behind the children's tale of Alice in Wonderland, complete with various characters from Carroll's tale, including the Caterpillar, Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter and not just one, but two, rabbits, all of them skewed and twisted around in some way.

The story follows a basic quest plot with bildungsroman and revenge themes. Alice's development from teenager to adult was halted when she was put in the madhouse at age 16, 10 years before the beginning of the book, since she as not only locked up with little human interaction (and most of it bad), but also drugged for all of that time to make her pliant and keep her calm. Once she has escaped, she has to grow up very quickly and come, in a matter of hours (or even moments) to realisations and conclusions that most people take years to reach. The quest is twofold: on the one hand it's a quest for a magic sword - a typical macguffin - and on the other it's an inner quest for both her and Hatcher. Hatcher needs to regain his memory and discover how he came to kill all those men, and in order to be able to grow up and start healing from the past, Alice has to regain her memory, find her powers and discover why what happened to her did happen.

It is clear from the start that her inner quest will end with her facing her worst memories and her worst enemy in the Rabbit's warren, and the physical one with her confrontation with the Jabberwock.

And now come the spoilers (click the button to reveal):

This is a brutal, dark book, but it ends on a note of hope for Alice and Hatcher, who are clearly poised on the brink of another quest. One wants to believe that Alice's revulsion at being intimate with a man will ease enough to allow her to have a normal relationship with him.

I can see myself rereading this book down the line, so it's going on the keeper shelf. Now I just have to go and order the sequel, Red Queen.

Trigger warnings:
Contains scenes of murder and serious violence. This includes sexual violence, implied sexual violence and violence done by both Alice and Hatcher.

10 November 2016

Review: The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen describes the adventures of the Elizabeth of the title, on a holiday on the German island of Rügen, which is situated in the north-east corner of Germany and was already a popular holiday destination at the time of her visit. The author visited Rügen near the turn of the 19th century - the publication date is 1904, but in the opening chapter she writes as if this holiday had been taken some years earlier. At first it was to be a walking holiday, but she could not get any of her friends to accompany her, and so ended up taking a small horse carriage and driver, and a maid to serve as a chaperone, as her husband would not let her go alone. They circumambulated the island, following the shore as much as possible. This makes it a road trip story, a genre I love, both in fiction and non-fiction.

I decided to read it because I have booked a fare on the Norröna ferry the European mainland and will be taking my car on a journey around Germany next summer, with Rügen as one of the destinations.  I like to read about places I am going to visit, or have visited, not just as they are, but as they were. In the case of Rügen, it has been a holiday destination for a long time and it will be interesting to see how much it has changed since von Arnim was there.

After reading it, I am very much in two minds about this book. On the one hand I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the sensations the narrator enjoyed on he journey around the island of Rügen, and on the other I was frustrated at not finding a single person in the book whom I could like. Empathise with, yes, but not like.

Elizabeth von Arnim
This book is classified as a travelogue and a memoir, but I rather think it is the same kind of semi-fiction as two of the loosely autobiographical books by the same author I read some years ago, Elizabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer. This also means that she can not be trusted as a narrator, because the narrative is presented as non-fiction when it in fact has fictional elements, and so it is not the real Elizabetn von Arnim who is the narrator, but a partially or perhaps wholly fictional one.

This is important, because while this "Elizabeth" is clearly supposed to be a sympathetic character, she is such an arrogant, selfish person and class snob that it‘s hard to like her. She seems to give no thought at all as to the comfort of her servants, and in fact it is revealed at one point that her driver, Augustus, has had to sleep in the stable with the horses. This may well have been quite acceptable treatment of servants back in those days, but comes across as callous to a modern reader (to me, at least). Early on in the book she also ponders whether the Gertruds of this world (that‘s the maid‘s name) have any feelings or appreciation of beauty, and by the very act of pluralising her name casts aspersion on her right to individuality:
"...in the sober presence of Gertrud. I have observed that sweet smells, and clear light, and the piping of birds, all the things that make life lovely have no effect whatever on Gertruds. They apparently neither smell, nor see, nor hear them. They are not merely unable to appreciate them, they actually do not know that they are there. This complete unconsciousness of the presence of beauty is always a wonder to me."
She comes across the Harvey-Brownes, an English mother (a bishop's wife, no less, and very high in the instep) and son who are visiting Rügen, and to her vexation their paths keep crossing. Even more vexatiously, she then comes across her cousin Charlotte, a young, highly educated woman married to a much older man who is a leading light of the German intelligentsia. Charlotte is dogged by the aforementioned son, Ambrose, because he and his mother are great fans of her husband, but what they don‘t not realise is that she is estranged from him - and no wonder: he‘s one of those men who treat women like stupid, mindless creatures and values them only for their level of decorativeness. He, however, is also one of those men that can be described as an „old dear“, and so gets forgiven for it.

Photo taken at a hunting lodge in Rügen that I plan to visit.
Charlotte decides to join Elizabeth (against the latter‘s will, but courtesy stops her from protesting), and it is during their subsequent conversations that I really got to dislike Elizabeth. Charlotte is an ardent feminist who wants women to be free and break out from under when she sees as the yoke of marriage and childbearing, while Elizabeth is of the opinion that the status quo should be preserved and wants Charlotte to return to her husband.

Charlotte is rendered especially ridiculous on one occasion, when her argument for women freeing themselves from childbearing and -rearing is shot down by circumstances, and one almost hears Elizabeth‘s snigger. I rather felt that Charlotte has some valid points about women‘s rights, however stridently expressed, but she is shown to be an even more arrant class snob than her cousin when she makes derogatory remarks about servants in general and Elizabeth‘s maid in particular, without offering any solution as to what they are to do with themselves should their services no longer be required – another example of her class snobbery which shows that when she talks of women‘s emancipation, she really means just the women of the educated classes and not, for example, the servant class.

The tone of the book takes on a gently deriding, satirical tone whenever Elizabeth encounters the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte and eventually Charlotte‘s husband, the Professor, but it is uncertain just who is being satirised: them, or her, or all of them. I hope it‘s the last, that she is satirising all the different types of people they represent, because if she intends for people to feel empathy for Elizabeth the narrator, she fails to do so.

However, despite the drawbacks and my dislike of the characters, I found it worthwhile to read this book for the descriptions of nature and places and of people in general, especially the German middle class who were holidaying on the island at the same time as Elizabeth.

P.S. I was looking at a map of Rügen, and I rather think it looks like a wondrous kind of fantastical winged beast: