Category Archives: Languages

Hills, and snow

In just over a week I have reviewed three books, all with things that connect them – at least in my mind – in that odd way I find when randomly selecting books to read. Or is it so random? Maybe the books tell me to pick them? Because in some cases I know so little about plot or setting that I can’t subconsciously be choosing the snow theme, or the computer theme, or the mermaid theme. Or the anything else theme.

The books on my mind today are Belle and Sébastien, Orphan Monster Spy and Astrid the Unstoppable. On top of that, there is the snow we had more than we wanted of.

Belle and Sébastien had lots of snow in it. An avalanche and more. Astrid skis and sledges in snow, and she even had lots left, high up, after Easter. That’s Norway for you. I don’t know that there was snow in Orphan Monster Spy, but because I had snow, and the setting of southern Germany made me think Alp thoughts – possibly incorrectly – it took me back to Sébastien’s Pyrenees.

Yes, those mountains. Lots in the Pyrenees, lots in Norway, and presumably some in Germany.

Two of the three books are translations, which is unusual enough for it to stand out. And the third was set in another country, with plenty of languages being mentioned and used.

I myself had plenty of language to use when looking out my windows too.

But at least the good thing about being marooned by snow and having several excellent books to read, is that the two combine so well.


Above, my personal avalanche, waiting to happen.


Astrid the Unstoppable

You probably haven’t read Maria Parr’s Astrid the Unstoppable yet. In which case you are very lucky indeed, for what a glorious story this is! I felt so happy, having access to Astrid’s never-ending adventures. (In real life I might have got wiped out by the unstoppable-ness, but in fiction? Never!)

Astrid is the only child in the Glimmerdal valley, somewhere in northern Norway. It almost doesn’t matter, because 74-year-old Gunnvald in the nearest house is her best friend. They have a very special relationship.

It’s a story about kindness and [super-]energetic behaviour, about absent parents, and about belonging to a community. This is so wonderful. I thought Maria’s first book Waffle Hearts was special. Well, Astrid the Unstoppable is even more special.

Eventually there are a few more children, and Astrid even learns to cope when it turns out Gunnvald has been keeping a big secret from her all her life (almost ten years). If you want the perfect children’s book, look no further! Here you have courage and friendship and fiddle music, and as much madcap sledging and skiing as you can digest.

It’s more than refreshing to have a story where the children can go about on their own, with no need to kill or otherwise remove the responsible adults. I never lived in a place like this or did what Astrid did, but I still felt this was a return to my childhood.

And I cried when reading the piece about Astrid’s aunts.

Maria Parr, Astrid the Unstoppable

‘Astrid thought that God must have been having a good day when he made her aunties.

“Today I’m going to come up with a surprise,” said God, and then he started putting together an auntie.

He made her skinny and freckly, and decided that she would crumple up like a concertina when she laughed. Then he stuffed her full of noise. He’d never put so much noise in an aunt before, Astrid thought. God decided that she would like everything that was funny, everything that made loud bangs, and everything that moved fast. When he’d finished, he took a step back and looked at that aunt. He’d never seen anything like her. He was so pleased with her that he decided to make another, so by the end of the day, God had made two aunts who looked exactly the same. To put the icing on the cake, he took an extra fistful of freckles from his freckle bowl and sprinkled them all over both of them, especially on their knees.

“Knee freckles are my favourite thing,” said God.’

(Beautifully translated by Guy Puzey)

Belle and Sébastien

Feeling enthusiastic about Cécile Aubry’s Belle and Sébastien (newly translated by Gregory Norminton), and with the Resident IT Consultant claiming he’d watched it on television as a child (something he rarely admits to), I set about finding out why I only recognised it as a classic book title, but had no recollection of reading the book or being offered it as small screen entertainment.

It made me want to weep. First, because this mid-1960s French children’s novel shows up as a recent film; not even the 1967 television series. Second, because someone has changed the plot so much that they might as well have written a new script about a boy and his dog. And I can find no trace of the book having existed in Swedish translation. I could be wrong, but they are only enthusing about the 2013 film…

Cécile Aubry and Helen Stephens, Belle and Sébastien

This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Helen Stephens done with a real 1960s vibe. Maybe, just maybe, the story is set before the 1964 mentioned in the book, but there are no nazis or fleeing jews and Sébastien’s adopted grandfather does not want to kill the dog Belle. Any nastiness comes from the villagers in this southern Alps French community. That is what the book is about; a boy finding a dog to love, and the ignorant, and scared, villagers wanting to kill the dog they believe is dangerous.

I was thinking that this kind of group unpleasantness would be hard to have in a modern book, and that it clearly shows the passage of time. It works here, though. The period feel is similar to that of I Am David, except this is set almost exclusively in a quiet backwater where the Mayor and the Doctor are the men people listen to.

Sébastien was born in the mountains and his mother died giving birth, so the local gamekeeper brings him up, alongside his own grandchildren. Belle, the dog, was born at the same time, and ends up escaping into the wild when both are six years old. It’s as if they were meant for each other. It’s an easy love to understand. They ‘just’ have to win over the mistrustful villagers who don’t want their children eaten by this ‘beast.’

Really lovely story, which again goes to prove you can have lots of different tales about a boy and his dog.


Read in Geneva

I have trained her well. If Daughter sees something she feels could make a blog post, I might discover she has emailed me some photos that I can use. In this instance it’s the Geneva bookshop she happened to walk past a couple of weeks ago.

Booked in Geneva

Having time on her hands, she entered, and found they had a largish section of books in English. These are the teen books, so I’m guessing that were we to add adult books and picture books, there would be a great deal more of them.

It would be unfair to compare this kind of offering with the equivalent French section in Waterstones. I mean, I don’t even know if they have a French section. But books in English are easier to supply anywhere in the world, as they can be bought and read by many more people than are native English speakers.

I’d still say this is a good selection of books, for those who can afford them. I understand they were quite expensive. Whether this was with domestic UK book prices in mind, or what Swiss residents can afford on their higher salaries, I’m not sure.

Booked in Geneva

It’s good to see this kind of thing. Even if the shelves do seem to be bending over backwards.



We simply had no idea how out of touch we were.

The Swedish ladies of Manchester used to meet roughly once a month, usually on a Friday evening, at each other’s houses. There would be a lot of noise, because when 15 to 25 ladies have something to say, you can hear it. We would eat sandwiches – the classy, Scandi sort, obviously – and cake. Lots of cake. And there was coffee with that, until the day I joined and quietly asked for tea. There were moans, because Swedes drink coffee.

Within a few months most people drank tea.

Anyway. At some point a few younger, more recent arrivals joined us. I had been at the younger end until then, with our oldest member having arrived in England the day after Prince Charles was born… So, these were younger still, and several of them were married to Swedes, which meant less mixing of traditions.

Basically, we were doing what had been natural a few decades earlier. The newcomers couldn’t possibly come to gatherings on a Friday! And they asked what to bring, and when told ‘nothing’ asked if they couldn’t at least bring wine. Wine with cake? Perish the thought.

But the Fridays were a problem.

It seems that they had to sit at home with their families every Friday evening, enjoying some Fredagsmys. Except we didn’t know what this was. It took me a long time to realise that it was the modern equivalent to eating special food in front of the television on a Saturday evening, as we did in my time.

So OK, I got it then. But how were we to know? After all, when most of us were still in Sweden, we went to school or worked on a Saturday morning, and any happy frolics had to wait until after that.

Apparently – and I have undertaken A Lot Of Research – these days they eat crisps, and/or tacos and watch bad television, en famille. Mother-of-witch and I ate either some tinned mushroom goo, or prawns in white goo, on toast or with crusty white bread, and maybe shared a 33ml bottle of fizzy drink between the two of us. There might have been a few sweets. We watched the ‘latest’ BBC children’s half hour instalment of whatever they had, followed by Hylands Hörna, which was the show everyone watched on a Saturday.

Hence, our newcomers knew what they really couldn’t do. It was just that us oldies had few inklings of how things had moved on.


The Roman Quests – Return to Rome

Who’d have thought, that time about 15 years ago, when I discovered the [first] three Roman Mysteries in The Book People’s catalogue (yes, sorry about that) and felt they’d be perfect for my young reader of crime, who also happened to love school subjects such as the Romans, the Egyptians, and so on, that there would be another 27 books from Caroline Lawrence (so far), or that my young crime-reader would meet her (after all, she was an American…), or anything else?

I certainly didn’t think.

But here we are, with the – surely – last of her Roman adventures, Return to Rome. I was glad to see my second generation Roman adventurers back home, and in the company of some of the older characters. I like things tied up, and I would say Caroline has tied pretty well, and I think she’d find it hard to untie and continue. It is very satisfying when you know what happens to all your beloved characters.

Caroline Lawrence, Return to Rome

And yes, this is a spoiler, but you didn’t think Caroline would kill everyone off, did you? What we get is more history, learning more about Roman times, both in Britain and on the continent, while seeing how our young friends act in the face of adversity, and how they discover who they are and what they want in life.

While Roman Britain was interesting – and I especially enjoyed seeing Caudex in his natural habitat – I’m sure we all agree that we like Rome, and Ostia. And luckily, not all emperors are bad. Even Domitian had some good points.

So, our ‘old’ Roman friends did what adults do, and our younger Roman heroes are growing up, falling in love. Personally I’m relieved that Miriam’s twins were found. But they will always be a reminder that Caroline does kill when she needs to.


The late interview – Maria Turtschaninoff

If I employed me to work on Bookwitch, I’d have to give myself the sack for slacking and being late.

But here, at very long last, is my interview with Maria Turtschaninoff, in English. The Swedes – and the Finns – got her ages ago. Well, like two months ago. Right in time for Finland’s national day. The only thing special about today, is that it’s the day before tomorrow.

Maria Turtschaninoff