Category Archives: History

Murder Most Unladylike

Who doesn’t like a good murder set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s? I mean, it ticks a lot of my boxes. What about you?

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

13-year-old students Daisy and Hazel set up detective agency Wells&Wong at Deepdean school, and it’s not long before ‘luck’ strikes, when their science teacher Miss Bell is found dead. Only for a while though, as the body disappears pretty swiftly and no one knows Miss Bell is a bit more dead than the head teacher makes out she is.

Daisy is rather bossy, not to mention fearless, while Hazel, who comes from Hong Kong, is more conventional and careful. A good detective agency needs both to succeed.

And you know, it’s rather hard to check people’s alibis when you are not the police and when there is no body or even a public acknowledgement that the corpse is indeed a corpse. But Daisy ferrets out where everyone was, and they work out what the motive might have been. Would you kill for the post of deputy head?

The detecting isn’t made any easier when you are a relatively innocent young girl, who doesn’t quite understand the undercurrents between the adults. Wells&Wong do work out who did it, and it puts them in more danger than expected.

As for me, I kept thinking it was turning out a little Midsomerish. When you deduct the number of dead people and the murderer, you’re not left with a whole lot of characters for a sequel. And I hope author Robin Stevens won’t kill more teachers and students in every book. Even a fairly dim parent would surely take their child out of a school like that?

Shoot to Kill

This was just like the films! I must admit I have not read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I do seem to have watched ‘a few’ Bond films, however (when Offspring did, obviously), so I knew what to expect.

Steve Cole, Shoot to Kill

Steve Cole has got young Bond down perfectly. There is not a single break for the poor boy in the whole book. He jumps and climbs and runs and is shot at or otherwise attacked, and when he is not, James drives cars illegally (he is 15 years old), fights grown men and dallies with pretty females.

I wasn’t sure I’d like it, to be honest, but I do, I do. Shoot to Kill does what it says on the cover; with the shooting being both of the gun variety, as well as the film kind of shooting. Starting off at a new school for James, in Devon, he is soon stumbling over corpses and travelling on board a Zeppelin all the way to Hollywood, where there are a lot of bad guys. This is the heyday of bad guys, and power crazy, rich types have the support of rough men from Chicago and other bad places.

James does most of the tough guy stuff, but is ably assisted by a few new school friends, a couple of whom prove very worthy accomplices. One of them I’d love to meet again, so I hope Steve is on my wavelength here.

This is classic Hollywood gangster stuff, with cars to die for (or worse) and beautifully dressed, beautiful people with too much money. And there is James. Lovely boy.

‘A land frightful to live in’

Not content with what Nordic-ness I could get at the conference, I decided to add a few more ingredients to an already busy, or potentially full, day. So, by skipping the morning conferency bits again, I went to church instead. The same church I walked past on my way to Nicola Morgan’s Brain event a couple of years ago, and decided I really liked. By some coincidence it hosted a Swedish service, ministered by God’s right hand – Swedish – man in London, who is up in Caledonia for a couple of days. (I omitted mentioning I belong to the militants from Liverpool. Just to be on the safe side. But he, and his wife, seemed very nice.)

Religion was swiftly followed by lunch at the pub round the corner, which is Swedish owned (Edinburgh is being taken over by Swedes). Lots more people there, enjoying meatballs or salmon. I sat with three friendly ladies, who knew how to discuss the rolling of meatballs. One of them even has a friend in common with me. Before a double chocolate dessert I wasn’t going to eat, I offered my apologies and left.

I had more things to do. The very kind Nicola Morgan had asked me round for Earl Grey – well, coffee, really – seeing as I was in the neighbourhood. (You know, I could do a blog post on authors and their kitchens.) My aim was to be out of there in 30 minutes, so that Nicola could go back to doing all that work she needs to do, and I almost succeeded. It was more like 35.

Pietari Kääpä

Managed to find the no. 5 bus that would take me from there to George Square and more conference and its very last session on Nation and Identities, chaired by Stirling’s own Pietari Kääpä.

Essi Viitanen

First out was Essi Viitanen with an interesting piece on film-makers Aho&Soldan: Filming a Modern Finland. Essi showed us snippets from films from the 1930s on subjects as varied as lumber and Helsinki beaches.

Marja Lahelma

Marja Lahelma was next, talking about Nordic Art and Mythical ‘Northernness’ Around the Year 1900. Back then there was a lot of thought on whether the cold climate makes us much more intelligent, or much more stupid…

William Norman

Third we had William Norman’s Savages and Slaves: Scotland in the Icelandic Family Sagas. That was surprisingly interesting (to me), considering it was about kings and heroics and treachery. The Scots were ‘fleeter of foot’ which seems to have been a bad thing. And William mentioned the ‘black hole for Scandinavian settlement’ in Central Scotland. (I don’t know what he means! I settled just fine.)

Ersev Ersoy

Finally Ersev Ersoy has a soft spot for Ossian, and she talked about 18th Century Epic: Nation in Ossian and Kalevala. I was intrigued by the notion of early ‘reviews’ and translations of Ossian.

And there I left, narrowly missing Son’s closing speech. (Sigh.) Not content with one children’s author, I had agreed to have drinks with another one, at Hemma, the day’s second Swedish owned bar and restaurant, where the conference had booked in for their celebratory meal. But I was stood up… (Sigh.) Two Swedish meals in one day might appear excessive, but it sort of made up for the sandwiches I lived on the previous day.

I had a good time (I don’t always), chatting to one of the people who is less blonde than my imagination made her, but very nice. And someone from close to ‘home’ who is looking into the way Gothenburgers and Stockholm people pronounce the letter ‘i’ and which meant she has no – professional – interest in me, despite the Resident IT Consultant doing his best to offer me. He had to say ‘sausages’ instead.

The ‘public’ sandwiches having been chauffeured enough, he was also available to drive me all the way home.

That just leaves today!

Bookwitch goes to a conference

Some people didn’t look anything like I’d imagined them. But then why should they? I went to a conference at the University of Edinburgh yesterday. Along with some similarly minded colleagues, Son has spent some time organising the Nordic Research Network conference, and the embarrassment factor of having your mother there was one I didn’t want to deprive him of. Both parents, actually, as the Resident IT Consultant had been roped in to chauffeur the sandwiches for lunch.

Ian Giles

And I did feel that this was my kind of thing; language, literature, translation. As I said, I’d been in contact with or heard of some of the people before, and you have a mental image of them, but they were generally less blonde than I had expected. Being realistic, I decided not to go to everything (it’s on today as well), but swanned in towards the end of the day when Son chaired the Translation session.

Charlotte Berry

Charlotte Berry talked about Chatto & Windus and their British Translations of Maria Gripe. It was based on notes the publisher had kept on how they discussed and decided what to translate, and that was really quite interesting. Basically, it was all down to networking, with an editor chatting to the right person somewhere else, trying to interest them in their book. And after that it was a case of organising the translating. One translator had been judged likely to be all right, because she was a mother herself… Charlotte said it was a hard topic to write about, since she didn’t want to offend anyone.

Agnes Broomé

Agnes Broomé talked on the subject of In the Wake of the Crime Wave – How to Publish Scandinavian Fiction in Translation in the New Millennium. Swedish books account for something like just over 1% of translated fiction in the English speaking world of books. Of 2000 fiction titles a year, 600-800 are translated, which is pretty good. The Nobel prize and the Astrid Lindgren award raise Sweden’s profile. (Astrid has been translated into 98 languages, coming after Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, but before Dickens and Plato.) In the past Swedish books went abroad via Danish or German, but now it is all through English. In the 1970s most translations were of children’s books, while in the last decade it’s been mostly crime. The risks with crime possibly becoming less popular are that because people have concentrated so heavily on crime fiction, other genres have suffered and are less active.

Nichola Smalley

Finally, Nichola Smalley told us about Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Swedish Literature, and what translators do to make it work. The ways to do it are Compensation, Replacement, Representation, Adaptation or Standardisation. And the advice is not to translate dialect, though of course some do, as it’s integral to the plot in certain cases. Nichola’s conclusion was that translators work hard to avoid standardising texts, and that the finished work is often down to more than the named translator, who has probably discussed solutions with many people. She gave examples from a couple of recent Swedish novels.

There was a Q&A afterwards, with questions of the kind you’d expect from a more expert kind of audience than I usually encounter.

After coffee the first day ended with a keynote speech by Mads Bunch from Copenhagen, on the subject of North Atlantic Literature in a Scottish Context – Iceland, Faroe Islands and Orkney. (Privately I wondered what dear old Shetland had done to be excluded, and as though he’s a mind reader, Mads began by explaining why not.)

Mads Bunch

I was surprised that he mentioned fairies, until I worked out that they sound much the same as the Faroes. The Faroese are descended from seasick Vikings; those who felt so bad on the way to Iceland that they asked to be allowed to stay on the Faroe Islands.

According to Mads the peripheries (I think that’s the above islands) don’t tend to influence each other in literature, as they are sufficiently similar, and have less to give. The good stories come from the contrasts between modern westerners and the isolated islands. Mads told the story of Edwin Muir from Orkney, who travelled 150 years in the two days it took him to leave Orkney and arrive in Glasgow in 1901.

These days there are plenty of new things in Icelandic and Faroese literature, whereas Mads reckons there is little change in Orkney. They continue with their sagas, while the Icelanders write about the economic collapse, and the Faroe Islands have a thing about Buzz Aldrin…

In the Q&A session, an Icelandic reader pointed out how tired she is of hearing only Laxness mentioned all the time, and talked at length about her own favourite author (whose name I didn’t catch) who is quite excellent. And apparently they have a lot of bookshops in Iceland.

After suitable thanks, Son sent us upstairs to an evening reception with music and Lidl rye bread and cheese and olives, washed down with wine and IrnBru. Thinking of today, I made my excuses and hobbled in the direction of my train home (the sandwiches need chauffeuring one more day), instead of joining the others for dinner somwhere.

Cover Your Eyes

There’s not as much romance in my life as there used to be. By that I mean I don’t read romance as frequently as I once did. (Nothing else. What did you imagine?)

But when I do, there is no one I trust as much as Adèle Geras. She gives me romance the way it’s meant to be. And here, specially for Valentine’s Day, I give you Adèle’s latest, Cover Your Eyes.

Adèle Geras, Cover Your Eyes

There are several love stories interwoven here. We have a new – failed – one for journalist Megan. She has interviewed elderly fashion designer Eva, who came to England on the Kindertransport in 1938. Eva’s heyday was in the 1960s, when she also loved, and also not as wisely as she should have.

These days Eva mainly cares about her beloved home, Salix House, which her daughter is wanting to sell. That’s her tragedy. That, and the ghost who stalks the house and makes her think back to 1938 and what she did…

Megan can sense the ghost, and she has her own tragedy, and not just the newly broken affair. These two women meet again and their lives are shared briefly, and things happen. There is more love and more possibilities. And we eventually learn about what four-year-old Eva did, and what the ghost wants.

Me, I quite fancy the ramshackle Salix House.

The Track of the Wind

The tone in Jamila Gavin’s The Track of the Wind, the final book in her Surya trilogy, is a lot darker, and a bit more hopeless. You’d think that moving closer to a conclusion, things would be allowed to look up a little. On the other hand, real life doesn’t work like that, so why should a realistically intended novel set in India and London in the 1940s, and now into 1951 be all roses and happiness?

Jamila Gavin, The Track of the Wind

Marvinder and her younger brother Jaspal have returned home to India with their father Govind, and as by a miracle, their mother Jhoti isn’t dead, and they are together again. But because Marvinder has been abroad, she is seen as less pure than a girl ought to be, and there are no offers of marriage. Just as well, when her heart is still in London. And then someone does want to marry her and she can’t go against her father’s wishes.

Jaspal goes the way of many angry young Sikhs, and learns to fight for his own country. Relations with his one surviving childhood Muslim best friend are not good. And then Marvinder’s love Patrick turns up from London…

There is yet again a mystical element to what happens. There is a ‘Watcher’ who watches, and acts, hidden from the world. But what does he really want?

Because Jamila does not make this end – completely – happily in the expected western way, the story feels much more real. You can sense the despair of young women in forced marriages – like Jhoti – and the feeling of anger against the British. There is so much beauty, but also cruelty, and rules which must be obeyed.

Jamila counters this very Indian setting with letters from friends and family in Britain and America, which shows that they are light-years apart. But also that there are surprising similarities.

This has been a very enjoyable and educational trilogy. And I’m western enough that I’m really grateful for that epilogue.

I can’t wait

It usually annoys me when people say that. Because it’s usually about some thing that you do have to wait for. So, you obviously can wait, because you must.

At the moment I must. Don’t want to, but I must.

It is Elizabeth Wein’s next book. New book. Soon book, but not soon enough. Black Dove, White Raven is the title, and I feel as if I’ve been waiting forever, after my erroneous understanding it was going to be here last summer. I believe it’s ‘only’ a couple of more weeks now, but still. That’s long. I suppose it won’t be when we get there, but right now I feel a wee bit impatient.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, and as you can tell, I am mentioning it again now. Before I’ve read it, I mean. If it were to replace my second most favourite book, Code Name Verity – also by Elizabeth – I’d be surprised. But I wouldn’t mind, because it would mean it’s a truly marvellous book.

Sometimes a tremendously good book early in the year makes me nervous, in case there is nothing to match it for another ten or so months. On the other hand; you will know the year has offered you something special. Although this year already has, in the shape of Sally Gardner’s The Door That Led To Where. Elizabeth will have to fight it out with her.

But then fighting might not be hard for a woman who thinks nothing of spending a summer strapped to the outside of a small plane, for research purposes. I think we can expect the aerobatics in Black Dove, White Raven to be realistic, as will the flying. We already know Elizabeth writes well about pilots, as both her two recent novels feature girl pilots. The new book – set in the 1930s – will give us two more, one of whom will set out for Ethiopia and a new life there, with two small children, to become part of the Emperor’s new air force of imported black pilots.

I have no idea where this book will be going, but I’m convinced I’ll want to tag along.