Flash Reviews: Book Trivia

(I’m back! Sorry for the lack of new entries last week — was on a business trip up north, and there simply wasn’t time to blog. Here’s an entry I’ve wanted to do for a long time now, and will (hopefully) resume regular blogging this week.)

If you’re joining a book trivia contest (like I did), or if you’re a sucker for trivia (like I am), or you simply love books (like I do), trivia books about books are great for cramming in some literary trivia and finding more good books to read.

In the couple of weeks leading up to the Ultimate Book Geek finals, I managed to pore through a bunch of literary trivia books, and they were a big help in the contest. Here’s a quick run down of the books I read, in capsule reviews, as they’re just too many to review individually!

1) The BBC Big Read Book of Books, softcover

The 411: It’s the book form of the famous BBC Big Read List, in full color glory. The List comes from a survey done in the UK in 2003, which determined the top 100 books as voted by the UK public (over 750,000 survey respondents). The top 21 books have extensive feature spreads that showcase plot summaries, author features, original art, movie adaptation photos, and other fun facts. The rest of the 100 books also have single page features.

The top 10 are:  The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling,  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

In the top 100, Charles Dickens has 5 novels; J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, and Jacqueline Wilson have 4; Jane Austen has 3; and Thomas Hardy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Leo Tolstoy have 2 each.

My take: A lot of people have contentions about the list, but well, it’s their list, and anyone can go ahead and make their own. I love the book features in this compilation, because they provide a lot of background information without giving any spoilers, and the list has made me want to read everything in it!

My rating: 5/5 stars

2)  Literary Trivia: Fun and Games for Book Lovers by Richard Lederer and Michael Gilleland, trade paperback

The 411: A trivia book made of lists, anecdotes, and quizzes, classified into authors, titles, works, mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare. Under each classification are a variety of topics, and answers are revealed at the end of each section.

For instance, under Authors, there is a section that gives anecdotes about the authors and the reader is tasked to identify them; a section with to match the author with their alternate profession; a section about three name authors where only the middle name is given and one has to fill in the rest; a section identifying pen names, nicknames, and titles; a section identifying autobiographical titles; and a section on groupings: collaborative works, literary groups or movements, and  literary husbands and wives.

My take: One of the best literary trivia books on my shelves, that’s for sure. I like how the information in the book is challenging enough to make a bookworm think, but not obscure enough that it’s irrelevant. The variety of challenges in the book — not all question and answer: anagrams, matching tests, fill in the blanks, etc) — also make it more entertaining, and sustain a trivia fiend’s interest until the very end.

My rating: 5/5 stars

3) Trivia Mania (Literature) by Xavier Einstein, mass market paperback

The 411: Part of the Xavier Einstein Trivia Mania series (which also has movies, television, history and geography, science and nature, and sports), the book challenges the reader “to be or not to be tops at literature trivia.” This is pretty much a straightforward question and answer trivia book, with over 1,000 literary questions covering Shakespeare to Sidney Sheldon and Kafka to Judith Krantz. Each page contains a set of questions with the answers printed on the page right behind.

My take: Back in June last year, I actually went through all the questions in this book while I was sick in bed with an upper respiratory tract infection. It’s an 80’s book, published before I was even born, and I couldn’t answer half the questions in the book, or even identify the context in the questions. The questions are also randomly enumerated, as opposed to being classified by topics, making it difficult to gauge what’s being thrown at you.

But by any standards, the questions are really challenging, involving identification of lines from certain works (e.g. “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”– Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”), and particular details about characters (e.g. What did Bartleby the Scrivener reply to all entreaties? — “I should prefer not to), plot (e.g. In which Tenessee Williams play is one of the characters killed and devoured by a mob of starving children? — “Suddenly, Last Summer”) and authors (e.g. first name of D.H. Laurence’s wife — Frieda).

Because of the publication date, the contemporary literature questions are also outdated, making them quite obscure to today’s readers, although it should be a help to those who really want to go hardcore on literary trivia.

My rating: 3/5 stars

4) Barron’s Whiz Quiz Series: Who, What, When, Where, Why In the World of Literature by Ceil Cleveland, mass market paperback

The 411: Part of Barron’s Whiz Quiz Series (also has American History, Geography, Politics, Music and Art, and History), this book focuses on everything about literature. Although this book is similar to Trivia Mania (above) in terms of straightforward questions,  this book is divided into topics, like literary trivia: The Bible, mythology, Shakespeare (these three seem to be quite popular), plays, poetry, fiction, fictional characters, famous writers, quoted works, and nonfiction.

My take: Barron’s does great reviewers so I knew I had to get my hands on this one for the contest. I like the mix of questions in this book too, the questions are wittily composed and entertaining in themselves, and challenging but not so hard that practically no one can answer them. I think this book is great even for playing games even with general trivia lovers, and the answers section helpfully gives not only the raw answer but some background information as well (e.g. What is the full name of F. Scott Fitzgerald? — Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, he claimed to be the related tot he writer of the words to our [US] national anthem).

My rating: 4/5 stars

5) Penguin Classics: A Complete Annotated Listing (2005 update), trade paperback.

The 411: This is actually some sort of free catalog for Penguin Classics, but it contains some pretty useful information about Penguin’s over 1300 titles. Classified by author, each title has a one-paragraph entry that gives the reader a background of the book, the number of pages and ISBN, translation information, as well as the time period and nationality of the author. Capsule biographies for some featured authors also appear around every other page of the book. The back of the book also contains a useful listing of the books classified by subject, a list of readers guides, Nobel Prize winners, and a title index.

My take: Yes, I know, reading a catalog sounds absurd (along with the fact that I bought it at a bargain bookstore, when it’s marked FREE on the cover) but it did come in handy for matching titles with authors and getting an idea about what each work is about. An added bonus is the fact that  I could check off books on the catalog to add to my wishlist — woo hoo!

My rating: 4/5 stars

6) 501 Must-Read Books, hardcover with dustjacket

The 411: A book in the 501 series, this book is a comprehensive guide to books from different genres: children’s fiction, classic fiction, history, memoirs, modern fiction, science fiction, thrillers, and travel books. Each book entry features an essay on the book that covers the characters, setting, plot, theme, and the book’s impact on the reading public. Book-related photos and information about the author are also featured on each entry.

My take: This book is actually a birthday present from my usual literary (and otherwise) partner in crime Dianne, because she knew we had to study for Book Geek, and she knew I’d love this book nevertheless. And I do love this book, a hefty hardcover with glossy full-color pages and a mouth-watering listing too! The books are reviewed by academics and book lovers and the book makes me want to run out and get those books I don’t already have. Like the BBC Big Read Book of Books (above), the features don’t contain any spoilers, so there is just enough information about the book to get you interested, without ruining it for you.

My rating: 5/5 stars

7) The Nationwide Book of Literary Quizzes compiled by George Smith and Terry Hunt, trade paperback

The 411: Another quiz type book, showcasing seventy tests for pure literary pleasure. The questions are classified into subjects this time, e.g. Animals in literature, Funny things people do in books, Change of names, Literary murders, Travelling tales, First Lines, etc. The quizzes are varied as well – basic question and answer, matching type, identification, fill in the blanks, multiple choice, and many more.

My take: Because the book is prepared by serious quiz makers, the tests are pretty well-constructed,  and the  questions were  picked well, as a lot of them are still relevant even though the book was printed in the 80’s.  The introduction explains, “The ideal quiz question is one where you half-know the answer but have to rack your brains before stuttering out” and states that most readers can score about 40 percent of the quizzes without too much difficulty, bookish types 60 percent, and hardcore book geeks can strive for 80 percent and up. I like that concept, and trivia quiz makers should really keep that in mind. This is one of the better literary quiz books I’ve encountered, and it was pretty useful for reviewing for Book Geek.

My rating: 4/5 stars

8 ) The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J.A. Cuddon, trade paperback

The 411: A handy reference for over 2,000 literary terms, encompassing technical terms, forms, genres, groups and movements, key phrases, -isms, motifs or themes, personalities, modes and styles, objects, concepts, and literary theory. More encyclopedia than dictionary, the book gives an in-depth explanation of each term, from etymology to the origin of the concept, applications,  examples, and cross-references.

My take: While I didn’t have time to read this very thoroughly for the review (read: looked up a bunch of terms and that was pretty much it), I couldn’t help thinking how useful the book could have been for all the literature classes I had ever taken. It’s pretty comprehensive and easy to understand, and I imagine a lot of students have found this book a godsend in their studies. But even to the random browser, the entries are quite interesting for pleasurable reading, and the trail of cross references across the book lays out a fascinating adventure in literature.

My rating: 4/5 stars

9) Who’s Who in 20th Century Literature by Martin Seymour Smith, hardcover with dustjacket

The 411: A doorstopper of the book that provides the general reader or the literature student with an A-Z guide to classic and modern writers (circa 1976). Each entry (and there are about 700 of them) contains the author’s timeline, nationality, and information about the author’s life, writing style,  themes, major works, and other relevant information.

My take: I like the extensive list of authors covering a variety of genres and nationalities. (American and English, but also foreign authors considered classics in their countries).  Most compendiums focus on titles, and this one is a refreshing change. A lot of the writers in the book  are still spectacularly famous or by now have gained classic standing. Those that are little-known in this day and age are the real winners, though, as the entries on them shed light on their work and bring them out of the woodwork, generating interest from the modern reader and saving them from obscurity.

My rating: 4/5 stars

10) Cyclopedia of Literary Characters by Frank Magill, hardcover

The 411: Another doorstopper of a book, this 1963 volume is a reference for over 16,000 characters from important works of literature, allowing readers to get profiles of both famous and lesser-known literary personalities. Entries are arranged alphabetically by book title, with translation information, author’s name and time period, date of publication, genre, setting, and plot. The characters are then arranged by order of importance in each entry. Cross references, title index, author index, and alphabetical character index are also available.

My take: This hefty tome is another helpful reference, as character questions often come up in trivia contests. It’s great for recalling the characters in the classics — some do have an extensive cast, and remembering the important names can be pretty tricky. It’s also great for remembering particular plot details directly connected to a specific character (e.g. in Twelfth Night, Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and enters the Duke of Illyria’s service). Since the 1963 edition, it’s expanded to a five-volume set in 1998, featuring in-depth articles on over 29,000 characters — that sounds absolutely interesting!

My rating: 4/5 stars

11 -12) The New York Times Parents’ Guide to the Best Books for Children by Eden Ross Lipson and The Essential Guide to Children’s Books by Anita Silvey, both softcover

The 411: Both books are directory-thick volumes of listings of well-loved children’s books, authors and illustrators. Lipson’s book is arranged into titles, divided by age range into six sections, from wordless picture books to story books and on to middle readers.  Silvey’s book, on the other hand, are arranged into alphabetical entries covering authors, illustrators, genres, publishing trends and more. Covers and illustrations from selected titles add visual interest throughout both volumes.

My take: In terms of literary trivia, my strongest spot would be children’s literature, probably because of the sheer volume I’ve read and the special interest I take in the subject. I’m an avid children’s book reader and collector, and I just live for books like this, where I can tick off the books I don’t have and set about to adding them to my collection. I like how they focus specifically on children’s literature and give an encyclopedic resource for anyone interested in the field.

My rating: both 4-5 stars


Books 36 to 47 of 2010


11 thoughts on “Flash Reviews: Book Trivia”

    1. thanks Ge. Hahaha, I panicked at the thought of all that book money up for grabs so I went on a literary trivia book frenzy ever since I won the semis

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