Category Archives: Languages

Urban Legends

It’s not so much the ease with which Helen Grant kills in Urban Legends that scares me. It’s more how she scares me while she scares me. As it says on the cover of the book, ‘no one is safe.’ You’d better believe it.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

I read slowly to begin with, because I was that scared. Really. What’s worst with this kind of plot* is when no one knows anything, when no one suspects or realises they need to look out. So, once Kris and Veerle are aware that De Jager – The Hunter – is once again after them and that he’d quite like to kill them, and probably slowly and painfully, you can half relax as they at least know what they are up against.

I say relax, but I don’t mean that. Readers have been forced to sleep with the lights on. Because Veerle and Kris understand De Jager, and will recognise him if they see him (apart from the fact they thought he’d died, twice). But all those others, who walk like lambs to slaughter, or who maybe suspect they’ve made a mistake but can’t do anything to escape? Yes, them.

The first two brilliant books in the trilogy were ‘merely’ about setting up this final (?) one. You see the point of every detail from those books when you get to Urban Legends. And you rather wish you didn’t. The urban legends; they are the tales told by one of the group of people who regularly meet in out-of-the-way places to explore and listen to stories, before someone departs for the afterlife in ways recently described in these ‘legends.’

It would be easy to ask why I read Urban Legends all the way to the end if I was that frightened. The answer is that Helen writes so perfectly, that you just can’t not read. She knows precisely how to play on all your inner fears, and then some. (You do need to get past p 38, however.)

*As if there could be an archetypal plot where Helen is concerned. Read, and shiver. But first close the blinds.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die

How I have waited to be allowed to tell you about this new book from Marnie Riches! Her adult crime novel has been tugging at me behind the scenes for over a year, and what’s more, it’s so breathtakingly special that I can confidently say I remember all of it, even now.

This digital novel with the very appropriate title The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die (yes, I know what it makes you think of, and it’s not at all misleading), is Britain’s own answer to Scandi crime, a Euro crime thriller with a continental flavour. And to be honest with you, I wasn’t sure it would work. But it does.

Marnie Riches

That’s most likely due to the ‘write about what you know’ rule again. Not that I suspect Marnie of having a criminal background, but she’s got the languages, and the experience of the Netherlands and Germany, as well as the Cambridge student know-how.

Someone is going round Amsterdam blowing people up, for no apparent reason. We meet the victims just as they discover their predicament. And we meet George, an English girl, a student like many of the victims. She knows about crime, and that could make her a suspect. Or perhaps the next victim. We know someone is stalking her. Or are they?

Marnie Riches, The Girl Who Wouldn't Die

George can’t leave things alone. She insists on helping Detective van den Bergen, who is surprisingly accommodating, as well as intelligent. (I like detectives with brains.)

The story has a strong European feel to it, with plenty of sex, drugs, bicycles and canals. Some iffy Germans, naturally. And then there is the English subplot. We don’t know quite what happened, nor how it might tie in with the Dutch explosions, but we sense there is more than meets the eye.

Coming fresh to Marnie’s writing, I didn’t know what to expect, or how many characters would still be alive at the end. However, the novel’s fantastic new title sort of gives a little bit away. Besides, there are two more books planned.

Trust me, you’ll want to read them.

(The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is available on April 2nd. And please give us a paper book soon.)

Black Dove, White Raven

I was left with a warm glow of contentment on finishing Elizabeth Wein’s Black Dove, White Raven, and I would have started re-reading the book at that point if I could have. While the first pages didn’t set me off quite like Code Name Verity did, I was soon lost in the magic of flying, friendship and adventure.

Elizabeth Wein, Black Dove, White Raven

Like CNV it’s a story told through diary entries and flight log books, as well as the odd attempt at writing adventure stories by and about Black Dove and White Raven. I had imagined that they were the flying mothers of Em and Teo, but it’s really the children themselves who are telling this tale. Mainly Em, and sometimes her adopted brother Teo. Em’s voice is almost that of Verity’s. Almost.

Their mothers Delia and Rhoda are soulmates; they fly together, have babies together, live and work together, until the day Delia dies. This is America in the 1920s, so friendship between a white woman and a black woman was never going to be straightforward. Nor is the situation where Rhoda simply takes over as Teo’s mother, or when they all move to Ethiopia to live Delia’s dream.

As the book begins, Em has a problem, and the novel is her way of describing to Emperor Haile Selassie what has happened and why he must help her.

I knew very little about Ethiopia, and even less about the war in Abyssinia. It’s easy to think of that war as merely being far away and a long time ago, and almost unimportant, but Black Dove, White Raven brings it to life in a scary way. We simply have had no idea what Italy did in Africa back then.

It’s easy to say that you should write about what you know, or that fiction is about making things up, so you don’t have to. But if Elizabeth didn’t know Ethiopia, and more importantly, didn’t know how to fly, this story wouldn’t get off the ground. And it’s as well that she practised flying on the outside of planes too, or you wouldn’t believe what goes on in this book.

Black Dove, White Raven is a seductive mix of nostalgia and reality, with courage and friendship at its core. It leaves me wanting more.

Seeing the sewing

I managed to mislay a week so I nearly missed it. First I forgot to make a note of the start date for The Great Tapestry of Scotland in my diary, so I missed the beginning. And then I went and believed I had another week. But everything is fine, I discovered my error, and we went off to admire the tapestry yesterday, with all of two days left to run [at Stirling Castle].

So if you’re here, you can go today, or tomorrow. If not, you can go to Ayr in April and May. Or Kirkcaldy in the summer.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland at Stirling Castle

It was good. It was impressive. All those stitches to show the history of Scotland. I just wanted to reach out and stroke it, but you weren’t allowed.

There were quite a few books in there, and authors. Lots of other things, and people, including Elvis. The landscapes were breathtaking, and I found I quite liked the Cumbernauld panel, motorway junction and everything. Charles Rennie Macintosh and his roses. Scientists and other clever Scots. Sean Connery.

Suffragettes and witches and Vikings, kings and queens and murderers (not all at the same time). Education and golf, mines and car factories. I reckon it’s all there.

Ideally you should see it many, many times. Preferably without lots of other people to fight over the space with. But it’s good. We had two hours before closing. After an hour I noticed that the Resident IT Consultant had only managed to wheel the Grandmother round one third of the panels, so I told him to speed up, or we’d be thrown out before they got to the end.

So he did. And then we bumped the Grandmother along the steep cobbles outside back to the car, teeth rattling.

Second nature

‘You know that medium sized bird, all black, with an orange beak. What’s it called again?’ I asked Mr School Friend last summer. The reason I asked was I’d noticed we had several in our new garden, and I realised I’d forgotten the name, and Mr SF is the man to go to. Not a linguist, he will still be able to tell you bird names in Swedish, English and Latin. So he told me, and it was obvious. I knew that. I just forgot.

Thinking back to my childhood, I knew quite a few birds, and flowers, and other nature things. I like to think it’s because my brain was less choc-a-bloc with the rubbish I’ve since put in there, and perhaps that being shorter, a child is sort of closer to nature, and will notice it more.

Swedes seem to be particularly nature-minded, considering most of us are town dwellers. Like most children, I went to Mulleskolan. That was a kind of ‘evening class’ for primary school children, which took place in some woods, after school, probably once a week. A leader went round with us and taught us nature stuff, and each week we had a surprise visit from a creature called Skogsmulle, who would tell us more. (These days the most shocking aspect of it is that the seven-year-old me crossed town on my own, to get to the woods. We all did.)

OK, so Mulleskolan taught me about nature. But I probably knew some birds and flowers before then. Must have got the names from an adult. Maybe mother-of-witch, or the landlord’s children or an aunt? Whatever, I knew them. And when I learned to read and write I could read and write them. I could probably look them up in a junior dictionary.

That’s why I was so struck at the weekend, when reading Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian article about bluebells giving way to broadband in children’s dictionaries. The whole article is interesting, but it deals primarily with regional words for very specific things. But going back to the children who can no longer look up bluebells, I was thinking that you can only look up the spelling of this word, if you know the concept in the first place.

I wonder how much parents teach their children these days? Looking at myself, I’m painfully aware of having done far too little of this kind of thing. Bilingualism didn’t make it any easier, but still. I’d obviously forgotten black birds with orange beaks, and I no longer looked so much at nature in any detail. So, it stands to reason I didn’t teach Offspring a lot. And now, I don’t actually know what they know.

(I do know that age three, Son had very little idea of what a pussy was – as used by the staff at the local hospital when testing his eyesight – because I had always said cat or katt.)

The Great Big Green Book I reviewed yesterday shows us that we need to look after nature, if we want to survive. That means we need to know about the things we encounter, and it will be very hard to talk about keeping alive or saving some species we don’t even have a word or name for. We probably need to be more specific than saying tree or flower.

Who will teach today’s children? Do their parents have the knowledge, or do they leave it to teachers? Do they even know? Maybe they don’t, unless their parents made a point of telling them about nature.

(It was koltrast. Common blackbird. Turdus merula. And I need to point out it was the Swedish I’d forgotten… Which makes sense, because I am no longer surrounded by Swedish speakers, and when I do see people, I tend not to talk about birds so much. Unless needing Mr SF’s help.)

I can do bluebells. I recognise a British one. I also know that the Swedish for bluebell is blåklocka, which I also recognise. Because it is a different flower from the bluebell. It is a harebell. Which, having consulted my dear old friend Wikipedia, seems to be called bluebell in Scotland. I have come full circle. (Engelsk klockhyacint is what Swedes call the bluebell when it is not a blåklocka, or harebell.)

End of lesson.

Translating the Peripheries

Remember Maria Parr? I read her Waffle Hearts a couple of weeks ago, and here she was, at the NRN conference, along with fellow Norwegian (well, half, anyway, and a quarter Dane and a quarter Swede, unless I misunderstood the maths) author Harald Rosenløw Eeg and Danish Merete Pryds Helle. They had come to talk about their writing, as well as take part in the discussion on reading translated children’s fiction.

Maria Parr

Maria read from Waffle Hearts (with her translator Guy Puzey right there in the room) in English, and then in Norwegian. I didn’t understand a word of the latter (well maybe a little, since I had actually read the book) as Maria’s accent is very hard to understand.

Harald Rosenløw Eeg

Nordic mix Harald came next, saying how Jostein Gaarder paved the way with Sophie’s Choice twenty years ago, showing that you can do anything you want. He didn’t feel he wrote YA, but simply wrote to please himself, in a Catcher in the Rye way. He’s grateful for the Norwegian state support to writers, which in effect means they get a sort of minimum wage. Harald read from his untranslated Leave of Absence, a novel inspired by a forgotten rucksack on the Oslo underground, which he’d finished just before the 22nd July 2011. His book felt too close to reality, so he changed a few things after the Oslo bombs. He said he speaks Nynorsk (New Norwegian) but writes in ‘Ordinary Norwegian.’

Merete went from ordinary adult fiction to what she calls digital fiction for children. She has tried a variety of techniques or media, and has settled on apps for iPads. She showed us one ‘book’ featuring children from all the Nordic countries, where the reader would start by choosing their language, and then the characters would meet and talk to each other, and you could learn to recognise different languages.

Merete Pryds Helle

By asking an IT friend what you can do with iOS 8, Merete then wrote stories to fit the technical frames, which could mean (does mean) that the reader might need to shake their iPad violently in order to make the pine cones fall off the tree. Or you could light up the forest by showing your iPad something yellow. Very effective. She had a more traditional looking picture book, where the child can see themselves, and get to choose what happens next (like meeting pandas in China, or ending up on a pirate ship).

If you’d asked me beforehand, I’d have said this didn’t sound like anything that I’d be interested in. If you ask me now, I’d have to say it looked brilliant.

The discussion moved to films, and Maria said she was lucky with the Waffle Hearts film. Harald reckons you have to let others do their work, and that once there is a film, you will never get your characters back. Merete does choose the illustrators for her digital books, but not the voices. And her multiple choice advent calendar has four endings, but also two set days when the choices end up the same, to restore order.

As for language and dialects, that’s a big deal in Norway, while Merete reckons there are barely any regional accents in Danish. People use social accents more, and switch to mainstream Danish when it’s required. Maria is always asked if Nynorsk is important to her writing, which she thinks is strange, because it is simply what’s natural and normal. Harald’s children are better at English than the ‘other Norwegian.’

Guy Puzey

After a break for air – and more cake – we continued with the translation side of things, where the authors and Guy were joined by translator Kari Dickson, who volunteered that she has done ‘a lot of crime.’

Kari Dickson

Too few books in the UK are translations. 2% here as opposed to maybe 30% in Europe. And as Daniel Hahn discovered when he counted books in a bookshop recently, children’s books fare even worse. Kari feels it’s important to read foreign books to help a better understanding of other people and countries.

We were asked about the first translated books that we were aware of reading as children. Astrid Lindgren came first for many, and both Harald and Maria loved Saltkråkan. Roald Dahl is big in Norway. Merete didn’t read Lindgren, but Laura Ingalls Wilder and Agatha Christie (at age 7-8), and Dickens, and she feels Danish children’s fiction is too harsh and doesn’t like it. Guy enjoyed Babar, and discovered Pippi Longstocking at university.

Others mentioned more Lindgren, Paddington, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas. There was the young Swede whose mother made her her read books about Africa and Vietnam, with not a single Donald Duck anywhere…

And then the peripheries where we live re-appeared in the debate, except for Merete who pointed out that Denmark is the centre of the world, and how her characters dig all the way to China.

Translating picture books is like writing the book from scratch a second time, because the translator has to work out how to make the original shift into another language. Harald’s opinion was that the translator might as well write their own stuff, as he won’t be able to read it anyway.

Squeaking wet snow is a problem. A lot of Nordic fiction describes things that the receiving language and country might not have. London is well known to most, but what the hamlet in Waffle Hearts looked like will be almost unknown, even to people in Oslo.

The session ended with the Norwegian authors saying we need real books to relax with on long journeys, and Merete disagreeing and saying how she would have loved an iPad as a child.

So, we’re all different, but we would benefit from reading each other’s fiction, travelling in our minds, making us feel calmer.

It was a piece of cake

First, let me say that serving cake to eat during a book event is the most civilised thing in the world. Especially if you supply a ‘table’ surface on which to rest the cake as you take notes and photographs of said event.

Second, let me say I will say no more today. I’m done in. Tired. Pooped. The author talk and the translation of books talk on Friday afternoon, in conjunction with the NRN conference, were so good they need more attention than I can give them right now.

Nordic Research Network cake

Apologies for the napkin being a little bit upside down. This did in no way affect my enjoyment of the cake.