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?