Category Archives: Reading

Best Scottish

Oh, how I wish I could have been there! Now that I’m finally here, I mean. But I gather that the 2015 Scottish Children’s Book Awards managed without a witch (this one, anyway) and celebrated the three winners in style on Wednesday, at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

With three categories, there were three celebrations, and three shortlisted authors for each (except Alexander McCall Smith who’d gone off to Dubai).

Ross Collins and Sean Taylor

The Bookbug Readers were lucky, in that picture books being relatively short, all three books could be read out on stage. There was also live drawing on stage, and singing. Very jolly. And the winner was Ross Collins, for his illustrations of Robot Rumpus, written by Sean Taylor.

Alex McCall

Robots are clearly the thing, as the winner of Younger Readers category, first time novelist Alex McCall won with Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens. He’s only 21, and looks, well, younger still… There was a book quiz to entertain an audience (and I’m sure I’d have won that. If I’d been there) of visiting school children from all over Scotland.

Cathy MacPhail

The winner of the Older Readers category was Cathy MacPhail with Mosi’s War, which didn’t surprise me at all. Cathy wins a lot, and for a good reason. Her audience were also treated to a book quiz, which I’m sure was great fun for all those involved.

I might as well say this again; I feel Scotland is very lucky to have the Scottish Book Trust.

The Great Big Green Book

The world needs trees. And water. And children need this book, The Great Big Green Book by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. I’d love to think that it can make a difference. The world needs people to do things that will make a difference. A positive one, obviously.

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, The Great Big Green Book

Children are nearly always very open to new ideas, and are far more prepared than adults to change their lifestyles. They just need to be told what they can do.

Words can change a lot, but I wonder if pictures – especially ones like these by Ros – do even more. You just need to see those polar bears on their shrinking piece of ice to understand.

Children do need words, though. I was reading just the other day that a children’s dictionary had got rid of a number of nature words, in favour of more ‘in’ terminology; out with the blackberry and in with the Blackberry. It can be hard to save a world of things when you don’t have words for what needs saving.

Recycle, turn the lights off, compost, don’t flush the toilet every time and share a shower. Well, actually, I might skip that last idea. Re-use, don’t fly everywhere and put another blanket on the bed.

And remember the world almost stands and falls with the bees.

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.

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.

Read, witch, read!

A most unexpected thing has happened. My blog admin was left by the wayside all week (no, that’s not the unexpected thing), what with me being out more than I was in. And as always happens when my attention is elsewhere, books flowed in. On Saturday morning I decided that since I was sitting down anyway (so very restful, after my week of Edinburgh ‘hills’ that had to be walked up, or down), I might as well prune the newcomers. That way I would at least get my bed back, as I had had to hoist the pile on and off it every day.

In my mind I arranged where the must-reads would go and where the rejects. The must-read pile grew. By the end of all twelve new books – six picture books and six ‘real’ books 😉 – I discovered they were all in the one and only pile.

Twelve books

Not sure that has ever happened before, that I’ve not managed to steel my heart against at least one book, even if it’s a reissue of something previously read.

This is a really weird feeling.

Sorry, I just felt like sharing it with you.

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.