A Litter of Bones

When I saw Barry Hutchison seemingly flogging someone else’s books, some chap called J D Kirk, I was concerned. Shouldn’t he talk more about his own? Turns out he was. He is J D Kirk. Too. He quite sensibly got himself a new name for when he writes adult crime fiction. Five books in the last year. Yes, five. The man’s unstoppable.

I caved in last week, and ordered the first of the five, A Litter of Bones. I played it safe and got the ebook, to make sure I wasn’t wasting my money on a paperback, in case I didn’t like it. (Wouldn’t have been a waste.)

We have DCI Jack Logan, somewhere in the Glasgow area. We meet him as he’s talking to some loony he put in jail for kidnapping and murdering little boys. Creepy type. The murderer, I mean.

Then Logan discovers there are more crimes just the same, happening now, when he knows for a fact his criminal is inside. Jack is dispatched off to Fort William to lend a hand with his expertise on these crimes.

It’s good. I wasn’t sure I was up to reading about child murders, but J D handles it as well as you can, when some depraved person does to small boys what this person does.

Jack puts together a team in Fort William. Well, he’s mostly handed a group of detectives, but they work well together, and he adds a constable who looks promising.

This being an admirably ‘not too long’ novel, progress is swift, and it’s all the better for it. Jack learns a bit about Fort William, and he learns that little boys are a lot better with smartphones than he is, and both Jack and his new constable sidekick drive really badly when the need arises.

I could see that things would go wrong when X said he’d do that thing, but it didn’t actually matter. Being forewarned just meant you knew something dreadful would happen, but the tension when waiting for the bad shoe to drop was quite something.

Even being quite sure from early on that YZ was most likely involved, was another thing that didn’t matter.

I might have to buy the next instalment.

Enigma reading

And for publication day of The Enigma Game, Elizabeth Wein reads a chapter of her book.

If you’re very worried about spoilers, maybe go straight for the actual book book. But if not, let this be an appetiser, complete with fake pub and everything.

The Enigma Game

By about page 4 of Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, The Enigma Game, I turned to the end to check that there really were another 400 pages for me to read. I knew there should be, but wanted to make sure. What is a witch to do when reading a prequel to her second most favourite book in the world? Other than explode with contentment, I mean.

This is so good. It’s a second prequel to Code Name Verity, taking place after The Pearl Thief. This is a book for meeting old friends. Jamie, aka James G. Beaufort-Stuart, is back, and so is Ellen, with a mention of her twin. They are doing their bit for the war, at an airfield up in the cold north eastern corner of Scotland.

And there’s Louisa Adair, nearly sixteen and a recent orphan. And half Jamaican. I only mention this because life is harder when you have brown skin, and you need a job. Louisa is an expert at identifying different kinds of planes by sound. She’s also into music, which is useful when she gets a job as assistant to an old German opera singer, Johanna von Arnim.

Once they’re all ‘gathered’ at the pub near the airfield, the action can begin. Well, Jamie and his pilots are kind of busy all the time, but then a German defector turns up with a stolen Enigma machine, which in their innocence they put to good use. This is more dangerous than you might think. But at least, it matters a lot less if you are brown-skinned, or a traveller or a posh pilot. Or German. They are in this together, and it being the early part of the war, you know that whatever happens ‘now’ there will be more danger later on.

Not everyone survives, even at this point.

I need more. Lots more.

Culture keeps us going

I don’t know about you, but writing is harder now. And it’s not as if I live off writing, or anything. But I know people who write, and they find they can’t, or at least not their usual stuff.

Sara Paretsky was bemoaning how she couldn’t get stuck in with writing, when she came across something Toni Morrison had said:

“I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, ‘How are you?’ And instead of ‘Oh, fine — and you?’, I blurt out the truth: ‘Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…’ I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!'”

Morrison adds, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”

I’m hoping now that Sara will be able to get started. Because we need her words, we need V I.

Within minutes of reading the above, I found myself watching a flash mob thing on YouTube that someone had linked to. It was a group of opera singers belting out Funiculì, funiculà in a Waitrose food hall. It was wonderful! I listened twice, and felt very cheered. I could tell it wasn’t recent, because people were standing too close, but it didn’t matter. I’ve since discovered it was from 2013, and had something to do with pasta sauce, but it was still joyous and fun.

I came to the conclusion that we perhaps appreciate these things more for being short and near and unexpected. Something to brighten up everyday life.

That bit of deep thinking reminded me of something the volunteer organist in church once said. Jan Wallin played double bass for the Liverpool Philharmonic for a living. It seems he, too, doubted whether what he was doing was of any use, when a doctor friend pointed out that it was hearing music like that, which made life bearable for people like him.

In short, we need ‘fripperies’ like culture to survive. Or, to feel better while surviving. Jan didn’t only play for the philharmonic and in church; he also wore the exact same shoes as Father Christmas.

Burn

I have to admit to a degree of surprise on hearing that Patrick Ness’s latest novel – Burn – would be about dragons. He just doesn’t seem like a dragon kind of author, I thought. But then, most of his stories are not of the entirely normal kind either, with space travel and hearing men’s thoughts, or any of his other books. So why not dragons?

Why not, indeed? Dragons are lovely. Or can be, in the right hands.

Here we are in 1957 and the strain between the US and the Soviet Union is growing. Things can only get worse.

We are back in Patrick’s part of the world, near Seattle, but out in the sticks, mostly on a farm, or in the woods. 16-year-old Sarah is finding life hard; she’s less white than her neighbours – except for the Japanese boy she rather likes – and her mother died and her father is struggling to make ends meet. That’s why he hires the services of a dragon to help on the farm.

Kazimir (that’s the dragon) is there for another reason. He knows that Sarah is the centre of an ancient prophecy, and he needs to help. There is a religious sort of assassin coming, and two FBI agents.

Whatever you think of these characters, they are both interesting, and mostly quite intelligent. (It’s the sheriff you need to keep your eye on.) This makes them a dream to read about, and you discover, yet again, that people can change, or that bad people can have good in them. And you just don’t know what fate has in store for anyone.

I need to shut up here, so I don’t give the game away. But trust me, it’s a good game.

And, well, I’ve not been told. But there could be a sequel. I’d welcome one. But there doesn’t have to be. This novel is perfect as it is.

More interesting than Sanskrit

After my earlier moan about there not being any events to attend, I did manage one yesterday. Not physically, obviously, nor ‘manage’ if by that you mean I could suddenly cope with IT issues. But after five or ten minutes of abject failing to connect to SELTA’s The Path Less Trodden: Different Routes into Translating Swedish Literature, Son sent me a clickable link, and there I was. So to speak.

As were they: Deborah Bragan-Turner, Rachel Willson-Broyles and Paul Norlen, chaired by Alice Olsson and ‘teched’ by Ian Giles. They were all lonely, and welcomed being able to talk to the world about their work. Admittedly, when it came to questions, Ian inadvertently dragged one questioner from the kitchen where he was doing goodness knows what.

One very important question was whether they had to have such impressive bookcases as their backgrounds. Or if they were even real. All five who appeared on our screens were backed up by books. Probably an unfortunate coincidence… Some tried to claim they had to be real because they were so untidy (but then I don’t believe they have ever seen untidy).

Translating is a fun job. All right, so sometimes an author might reckon they know best and have opinions on the English these people are paid to translate their books into, but it’s rare.

How they started was quite similar. Some early experience, maybe at university level, enthused them so much about Sweden and Swedish that they just had to learn more, which they did by spending time in Sweden, discovering how we live (I still don’t know) and having fun, and withstanding suggestions like why bother with a boring language like Swedish. Why not Persian or Sanskrit?

These days you learn a lot by attending the Gothenburg Book Fair, where you can speed date agents and make contact with useful people. There can be financial help with attending, too, from Kulturrådet. Good stuff.

Agents are the most useful. Not so much publishers. You might contact an agent, or more likely, they will find you. Sometimes an author finds you. There can be short – and fun – sample translations, and there can be full novels translated on spec.

Questions to authors are varied. ‘Lagom’ – not too many nor too few – is best. That way the author knows the translator cares, but is neither too unconcerned or too fussy.

Literary translations seem to be the norm with these translators, but they do get other work as well. It can be restful working on something different. But basically, this is a fun job. Maybe not so much the editing, but that is fun too…

You can listen to it here.

(There wasn’t so much as a ‘Hej, Mamma’ at any point!)

When it’s good

This will sound silly, but I’m currently reading a book that is so good that I don’t have to worry. It struck me as I was reading past my bedtime, that I had no idea where the plot would take me. But I knew I felt quite safe and I had no concerns, because wherever it went and whatever happened, it’d be fine. Not necessarily a happy ever after ending; but a more than competently put together story. Good content, using good language.

I don’t know Words Without Borders as an online magazine. Understandable perhaps, as I gather they hardly ever cover children’s literature. In the April issue they did, and Daniel Hahn was there to tell us about it. He, very sensibly, felt it wasn’t for him to select authors to showcase, as he doesn’t read every language in the world. (He almost does, I’d say.) He asked some translators for advice.

One of the authors chosen was Maria Parr, about whom Daniel had this to say: ‘If we didn’t have Guy Puzey to do the hard work for us, I would willingly learn Norwegian to be able to keep reading Maria Parr.’

So, it’s not just me. Except I don’t need Guy. At least, I hope I don’t, but even so his translation work is more than welcome.

And in the same issue of Words Without Borders there is a short piece by Maria, translated by Guy, about explaining Corona virus to your stupid younger brother:

“Corona is a ball with spikes,” said Oskar.

He was in the lower bunk, jabbering away as usual.

“Corona is a virus,” I said.

“It looks like a ball with spikes on,” said Oskar.

“Yes, but it’s a virus,” I said, feeling annoyed. I wondered if all seven-year-olds are that stupid, or if it’s just my little brother who’s particularly dense.

Oskar went quiet for just long enough that I thought he’d gone to sleep.

“It looks like a ball with spikes no matter what you say,” he said…

and if you want more, you click here.

If you want more still, just read a lot of children’s books, especially good ones like Maria’s and others. Like the one I’m reading now.

(I might tell you more about that later.)