Monday, 19 December 2011

Les éveilleurs by Pauline Alphen - review

One of the perks of my job is being asked to read books I'd otherwise have been very unlikely to come across, and this is one of those... Les éveilleurs, Tome 1: Salicande is a fantasy novel, the first in a series aimed at older children or teenagers, although there is probably enough of interest to adults that it could be successfully sold as a "cross-over" book.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carlofiglio, trans Antony Shugaar

First of all, I should say that I won this book from the publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, which predisposes me to like it... That out of the way, I loved it.

Although I came in at the fourth book in the Guido Guerrieri series, I found it worked well as a stand alone novel. Guerrieri is a defence lawyer in Bari, southern Italy who takes on an unusual case: a young girl named Manuela has been missing for some months and the police investigation is closed. Now her parents request him to look through the files and see if there is anything to suggest the case should be re-opened. Despite his initial reluctance, Guido agrees, eventually managing to solve the case himself.

The author, Gianrico Carofiglio, is a member of the Italian senate and a former anti-Mafia prosecutor, also in Bari. This means that both the legal details and the sense of place have genuine authority. The translation by Antony Shugaar was also very assured. As I don't read Italian, I'm unable to comment on its accuracy, but I felt that he succeeded very well in conveying the Italian-ness of the text and setting, without over-foreignising the English, which risks alienating the reader. Having said that, there were a few minor niggles with phrasing, particularly in the early chapters - just a few occasions where something jarred. This seemed less of an issue later on; whether the translator got into his stride, or I became accustomed to his style, I don't know. Then again, there were also some tricky little moments where I thought: "yes, that's a good solution."

I found the story gripping, despite my own slow start at reading it, and the characters well developed. Guerrieri is an appealing hero, aware of his own shortcomings without being insufferably navel-gazing, and I wanted to learn more about his past as well as caring what happens to him next. The investigation is almost a side issue and the case not particularly complex, so it is the atmosphere and Guido's musings and memories that really carry the reader along. I understand that the previous three novels are more legal thrillers than detective stories, while this falls somewhere between the two genres - a lawyer almost playing at being an amateur sleuth.

All in all, then, a cracking read and I have asked for the first three books for Christmas, which seems a pretty fair recommendation...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Das Kindermädchen (The Nanny) by Elisabeth Herrmann

Here's another old review from my archives, this time of a thought-provoking crime novel, Das Kindermädchen by Elisabeth Herrmann, published by Rotbuch Verlag in 2005. 

It sets out to raise awareness of a little-known aspect of the Second World War – the abduction of girls from Eastern Europe for use as forced labourers in private households, as nannies, housemaids and so on. Herrmann succeeds admirably in combining this serious political subject with a well-constructed plot to produce a gripping and witty thriller, without becoming preachy.  It is based on her research as a journalist and her interviews with survivors of this period in Ukraine.

The lawyer Joachim Vernau seems to have made it in life: he is about to marry the Berlin Senator Sigrun Zernikow, be made a partner in her father’s old-established law firm, and set up his office in an up-market area.  Only his friend Marie-Luise, also a lawyer but on the left-wing and working in less well off districts, reminds him of his radical student days.  However an old Ukrainian woman turns up at the offices one day demanding that Sigrun’s father Utz von Zernikow sign a piece of paper.  As nobody can read the Cyrillic script, they send her away again.  But when her body is found in a canal, Joachim’s life turns upside down at a stroke.  He and Marie-Luise start investigating and discover that Natalia Cherednichenkova was Utz’s nanny during the Second World War, and now her daughter Milla is demanding compensation for forced labour for her mother, who can no longer travel.  As Natalia has no proof, she needs confirmation from the Zernikows that she worked for them, but they are reluctant to admit it. When Vernau finds himself threatened, assaulted and shot at, he knows that there’s more to this than a skeleton in the Zernikow family cupboard.  Perhaps the young Natalia saw more than she should have done during the air raids and, sixty years on, somebody is still prepared to kill to protect their secrets.  Joachim soon finds that he must chose between loyalty to his future in-laws and finding out the truth.

The characters are well developed and, although there are recognisable types, they never descend into caricature. There is Sigrun, the rather cold, ambitious and career-dominated politician; Utz, her father who is confused and guilty about his role in past events but too conservative to admit to them; Joachim trying to do the right thing but with conflicting loyalties and surrounded by dominant women; Marie-Luise, the radical left-wing lawyer, fighting for minorities and seeing oppression everywhere; Milla who is furious about what was done to her mother and will stop at nothing to get justice.  The author recognises human weakness and the desire to hide past mistakes, whether in Joachim’s relationship with his mother, or the Zernikow family’s Nazi past.  Herrmann has a light tone and precise and humorous style, and strikes a fine balance between informing and entertaining the reader.  The pace starts relatively slowly as we are introduced to the characters and their lives and then builds rapidly in the second half of the novel as events intensify towards the dramatic conclusion.

This book is thoroughly enjoyable and well worth reading, both for the crime story and the political and historical insights it provides.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Our Current Favourite Dr Seuss Book

Fils cadet has just discovered his big brother's box of Dr Seuss books. Or, to be more precise, he has discovered two of them: Fox in Socks and Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? I now find myself reading one or the other, if not both, to him once or twice a day.

As Fox in Socks is pretty well known, I'd like to introduce Mr Brown to anyone not previously aware of him. Mr Brown is a rather unprepossessing little man, but clearly a very talented mimic. He can copy a whole host of sounds from the everyday, such as a ticking clock, to the rather more obscure - a goldfish kiss perhaps, or a hippopotamus chewing gum. Of course this means that an adult reading the book has to be prepared to make lots of silly noises, but it also encourages participation from a very young age. Fils cadet is still rather young for most of the Dr Seuss canon but he can now anticipate every sound from Mr Brown.

Another point in this book's favour from my point of view, is that I don't need to put on an American accent to make it rhyme... All in all then, good fun all round and a book that I'm not sick of after such intensive reading! Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Nea Fox, Private Detective

If you'll forgive a little self-publicity, I'd like to share the project I've spent the last year on: Nea Fox by Amelia Ellis.

Nea is a gutsy and conscientious detective, based in London. It has been a lot of fun to work on these books and to follow Nea's adventures and romantic entanglements, and I've been enormously lucky to have a brilliant working relationship with Amelia. She has always been ready to answer my questions, and has done a lot to help make the translations as polished as possible. At the moment, the books are only available on Kindle, but it is hoped that they'll be released in other ebook formats and paperback soon.

Thanks for reading, and here endeth the plug.

Judging a book by its cover?

I recently stumbled across When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline), and Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel Zadok (Pan). Both books had intriguing titles and appealing covers - enough to catch my attention at any rate.

Although I hadn't heard of the second of these books, they both had good reviews. There are certain similarities between them, as each deals with the world through the eyes of a troubled child, growing  into adulthood. Each is also sprinkled with a dash of magical realism. They both tackle big topics, from abuse and violence to apartheid South Africa and 9/11.

They were both enjoyable to read, once I got past the opening section of Gem Squash, which I found rather off-putting. Each book succeeds very well in getting inside the mind of its narrator, Ellie in England and Faith in South Africa, and showing us the place and time in which she grows up. I felt that Gem Squash rather skated around the issue of apartheid, however, as Faith is too young to understand in the early section, leaving things implied rather than stated. By the time she is an adult, the regime has come to an end. In WGWAR, on the other hand, the author seemed to feel that because her timescale included the year 2001, she had to include the attacks of September 11. To me it seemed a little contrived.

Personally, I could also have done without the talking rabbit and the South African fairies. Surely it must have been possible to confirm the already-telegraphed events of Gem Squash without the intervention of a malevolent fairy... Still, as I said, they were both enjoyable to read and each had some very funny moments. I don't think they'll be ones for re-reading though. Pity.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Review of Vaterflucht by Carmen-Francesca Banciu

This is a markedly autobiographical novel by the Romanian author Carmen-Francesca Banciu. It was first published in 1998 by Verlag Volk und Welt and was her first novel written in German. 

It begins with the un-named narrator and her young son arriving back in Romania for a visit to her father, having lived for seven years in the west. None of the narrator’s family is ever named, the only named characters being minor ones - school friends, party officials and so on. The narrator looks back over her childhood and recounts her difficult relationship with her parents, her upbringing in a “model Communist family” and the repression and oppression that she experienced both internally and externally. Her father blames her for the destruction of his political career and for many years he refused to speak to, forgive or acknowledge his daughter. The seven years that have now passed are a magical, fairytale time span, allowing for reflection and a measure of forgiveness so that father and daughter are able to meet again on amicable terms.

The style of writing is unique, using abrupt phrasing, with sentences broken off, apparently at random, and seemingly haphazard punctuation. However, this is in fact carefully crafted and, combined with the author’s use of punctuation, it gives the novel a bitter, yet lyrical quality, emphasising the points that she wishes to make. It would be challenging to translate as apparently simple phrases convey complex layers of meaning - the title itself is a case in point as it could mean "flight from father" or, as two words, "father curses".

There are also quite a few untranslated Romanian words and phrases, not all of which can be deduced from knowledge of other Romance languages, and the text assumes a certain level of knowledge of Romanian and East European political history which I occasionally found confusing.

Despite its brevity, this book requires a sustained level of concentration. This is partly due to the repetitive, almost hypnotic, style, which can make it easy to lose track of where you are, and also to the political/historical allusions, which can easily slip past. It was extremely interesting and gripping, but not an easy read.

This review was originally written for New Books in German.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Favourite picture books

Both our boys love books and, as with all children, there are a few that become big hits, to be read and re-read, sometimes three or four times in a row. Here are a few of our current favourites:

Two books that wonderfully demonstrate the effectiveness of simple vocabulary combined with expressive illustrations are Banana by Ed Vere and Jez Alborough’s Hug. Who’d have thought that just one or two words could be so much fun?

Banana officially belongs to fils cadet (age 2), but it has them both in fits of laughter, and hopefully sneaks in a lesson about asking nicely and sharing, too…

Hug is the story of Bobo, the little chimpanzee looking for his mum. It gets a less uproarious response, but fils cadet has always loved joining in with “Mummy!” when Bobo finally finds her again.

Also encouraging sharing is Pip and Posy and the Super Scooter by Axel Scheffler of Gruffalo fame. Although it was originally fils aîné (age 4) who borrowed it from the library, this sweet story has been firmly adopted by his little brother. As usual from Scheffler, there’s a wealth of detail in the illustrations and the story seems to be pitched perfectly for the age group.

Two cat-related stories that are going down a storm with fils aîné are There Are Cats in This Book by Viviane Schwarz and Colin and the Snoozebox by Leigh Hodgkinson. Admittedly, he is particularly fond of cats, but I don’t think you’d need to be to enjoy either of these. There Are Cats… is superbly interactive and fils aîné loves to turn the pages, lift the flaps, blow on the page, talk to the cats… Colin, meanwhile is a homeless Siamese (implausible, maybe?) on the search for a nice quiet place in which to have a snooze. Unfortunately, the box he picks is rather less dull than he expected and it takes him all over the place. Again, it is inventively told and illustrated, and is as popular with us parents as with the boys.