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.