Kat Wolfe Investigates

This was such a fun book to read! I loved it!

Lauren St John puts her heroine Kat and Kat’s vet Mum in a somewhat bad situation, after which they decamp to Dorset, the way you always do in a good ‘let’s start a new life’ crime story. In Dorset it is beautiful and friendly and they feel they have ended up in just the right place.

Within hours odd things start happening, and Kat is the kind of 12-year-old who investigates. She’s also an animal person, so meets ‘all’ the village pets immediately on arriving, gets to know the nice people of Bluebell Bay, and finds a best friend in no time at all. Just as well, since there is much to investigate.

Kat is someone most of us have at some time hoped to be, and this book is the story we wanted to write when we tried our hand at ‘a Blyton’ and Bluebell Bay is definitely the place we want to go and live in.

There are bad guys and there are seriously bad guys. We have the army nearby and the Minister of Defence plays his part, as do the secret services of several countries. And there are animals, a ditzy American professor and his computer geek daughter Harper, Kat’s new best friend and partner in crime [solving]. Wolfe and Lamb, they call themselves. And where would you be without a librarian?

I know I will have to wait until next year for book no. two about these clever girls. But I don’t want to.

Unusually, for a book for this age group, a great cover and chapter illustrations, by Beidi Guo.

Lauren St John, Kat Wolfe Investigates


The Emperor of Portugallia – Retranslating Classics

The Resident IT Consultant has been reading that well known feminist, Selma Lagerlöf, over the holiday. Here he is on The Emperor of Portugallia and translations now and then.

“There’s nothing like a fresh translation to invigorate a classic. When I read Austen or Scott or Dickens I’m usually prepared to accept the stylistic differences and obscure vocabulary that tend to accompany texts of this age. Publishers provide notes to help me to understand words that I cannot look up in the dictionary. But with a translation I’m less sympathetic. Why should I accept dated language when it’s not that of the original author?

If foreign language classics are to remain accessible to the ordinary English reader they need to be retranslated every generation or so: the last decade has seen enthusiastically received retranslations of, among others, Pushkin, Balzac and Cervantes.

Selma Lagerlöf, The Emperor of Portugallia

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) was the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the author of a succession of works, mainly novels and short stories, published between 1891 and 1932. Most are set in her native Värmland and share some of the same sense of place, and the tragedies of life, as Thomas Hardy’s Dorset. Her books were widely translated at the time of their first publication but there have been very few retranslations. It shows.

Norvik Press are to be congratulated for undertaking (with support from the Swedish Academy) the publication of a series of high-quality new translations of Lagerlöf’s most important texts.

I have just finished reading The Emperor of Portugallia, translated by Peter Graves. This relatively short novel, first published in 1914, tells the story of the relationship between poverty-stricken farm labourer Jan and his daughter Klara. At the age of seventeen Klara leaves home in order to raise the money that will enable her parents to remain in their home. She is successful, but never returns home herself, and Jan is driven mad by his grief at her absence. He comes to believe that he is the Emperor of Portugallia.

The novel focuses on the father/daughter relationship and the author herself saw it as a Swedish King Lear.

I found the text easy to read, stylistically straightforward and with generally accessible vocabulary. So I thought I would test the hypothesis that classics need retranslation by comparing with the original English translation by Velma Swanston Howard in 1916 (available on gutenberg.org).

Stylistically, perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be relatively little difference. Average sentence length, measured over a number of passages, appears to be about the same. The main differences are in the words and I here I far prefer Graves’ choices. Howard has translated some of the place names: Askedalarna has become Ashdales, Storsnipa has become Great Peak and Snipaåsen has become Snipa Ridge. I feel this loses some of the feeling of place.

In Swedish, Jan’s daughter is named Klara Fina Gulleborg, a particularly grand sounding name intended to celebrate Jan’s idea that his daughter has the sun as her godmother. Howard has translated this as Glory Goldie Sunnycastle while Graves has left it almost unchanged as Klara Fina Goldenborg. I much prefer the latter.

Howard’s ‘seine-maker’ is Graves’ ‘net-maker,’ her ‘spavined bay’ is simply ‘Brownie who was old and stiff-legged,’ her ‘senator’ is a ‘Riksdag man’ and her ‘rix-dollars’ are ‘riksdaler.’ Again Graves’ translations all feel more appropriate.”

Well, this is what new translations are for; making books better. And who better than Peter Graves?

Bone Music

To see two points of view can be much better, and fairer, than just the one. In her new novel Bone Music, about the young Genghis Khan, Katherine Roberts lets the reader see three points of view, which is even fairer.

Katherine Roberts, Bone Music

First we follow the young, future Genghis Khan, for twelve years from the age of nine, as he deals with the loss of his father, meeting his blood brother Jamukha, as well as his betrothal to ten-year-old Borta. He’s a bit of a charmer, and I was hoping that my understanding that Genghis Khan wasn’t a nice man was going to be proven false.

There are perhaps too many chopped-off heads for that. But he does seem quite nice.

For the same twelve years we see the world through Borta’s eyes and learn that there can be other truths for the same occasions already mentioned. And following her tale, we find that Jamukha has yet another version of the truth. The same things do happen, but it’s not all the same.

Sometimes we do things that look wrong, might even be wrong, for the right reasons.

Theirs is a world of blood and fighting, living in rough camps and always having to defend or attack. The power of shamans is great, and there is a not inconsiderable amount of the supernatural involved.

It’s never easy when two men love the same woman, and who she loves doesn’t matter much in a world where the parents arrange marriages.

I’ve never been terribly keen on Genghis Khan, presumably because of that streak of cruelty I sensed. But as I said, there are two, or three, ways of looking at any given fact. I now feel I know a lot more about these Mongol tribes, and while I don’t enjoy the rolling of heads, I can at least understand it. A little.

Hansel & Gretel

There are good witches. You knew that.

In Bethan Woollvin’s Hansel & Gretel we have the traditional fairy tale turned on its head. The witch is kind. The children are naughty.

Bethan Woollvin, Hansel & Gretel

This actually makes for a fun story. It makes you think.

Those children run amok, until the witch doesn’t know what to do. Well, she does. Really.


Wonderfully different illustrations in white, grey and black, with orange.

Starry Skies

I am a disgrace. I know very few star constellations, if by ‘know’ you mean that you definitely recognise them up in the sky, and remember every name for them, and can recall where you’d expect them in your part of the of sky.

After reading this – mostly black – board book by Samantha Chagollan, with illustrations by Nila Aye, I could, perhaps, remedy that ignorance. I have had the sometimes outlandish shapes explained in the past, but here there is a drawing of say, Pegasus, and the stars marked in the picture of this celestial horse.

I might still find Pisces a little farfetched, but Orion is always good. On the other hand, when it comes to stars I will forever get my dogs and my bears mixed up.

Samantha Chagollan and Nila Aye, Starry Skies

This is a book for a new generation of much cleverer stargazers.

Who needs librarians?

We all do.

There is a new CILIP Great Libraries Campaign, launching on June 6th, to ensure that every child in England has access to a great school library. This sounds so sensible and so basic that really, there should not be a need for something like it. But of course, we know that there is every need to shout about this. And it’s not just England; every child needs a library.

I have a Facebook friend I’ve never met, but who does a lot of work for libraries and children’s reading. Her name is Dawn Finch, she’s a past president of CILIP, and last week she put the following on her Fb page:

‘Waiting at the bus stop this morning and a handsome young man out running smiled at me and stopped.
“Hello,” says he, “you don’t remember me do you?”
“No,” says I, frantically trawling my memory for sons of friends.
“I remember you,” says he, “you taught me how to read. You sat with me with an atlas and said it didn’t all have to be about stories.”
“Wow,” says I, “I still love an atlas. So what do you do now?”
Him, “I’m a pilot.”

It is awesome, isn’t it? It shouldn’t make me want to cry, but it does. I realise all librarians won’t have time to sit down with every child, but it shows what a tremendous difference they can make. In this case to a young man’s life, and perhaps also to the rest of us who might fly on his plane.

And I feel slightly stupid, because it would never have occurred to me that you could learn reading from an atlas. It just goes to show that our needs are not necessarily the same as those of the person next to us. But we can [nearly] all learn to read.

I wish this library campaign will make it possible for many more Dawns to ‘get out their atlases’ and change lives.

The book inside me

Whenever I’m asked if I have a book inside me, I tend to say ‘no’ and joke a little about how uncomfortable that would be. All sharp corners and stuff.

Occasionally I feel it’d be fun to do a Bookwitch book, but that’s not what I’m here for today.

Some weeks ago I got almost angry when it dawned on me that there is a market not catered to; young, very young, mostly male, ‘readers’ who love trains. I love trains, but I know people who love them more.

When Toddler Tollarp paid us a visit earlier in the month, I wanted to have something to entertain him with. Something that wasn’t toy cars or Duplo. And you already know about Master Happy’s love for a good diesel train.

I reckon there are many more train fans such as these two. Tollarp is only two, but understands his trains. Happy is almost four now. They will love trains for quite some time, if treated right.

So what I would want are coffee table books with photos of trains, for younger readers. They should be proper books, with mostly good quality photos, and some informative text, but not too much. The book[s] could be a little smaller than a grown-up’s coffee table book, because they are heavy if made with nice paper, and large, with sharp corners, and could be awkward for short arms to handle.

Such a book should be thick, with plenty of pages. No board book, obviously, but perhaps more rip-proof paper than its older version. No need for a lot of explanation as to what a train is and all that. They know.

There would need to be new books for the grandparents to buy for each birthday and Christmas.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? When I’d got this far I looked online, in the hopes that someone already has acted on a similar idea. Doesn’t look like it. A few childish, and very short, books were what I found.

So I came to the conclusion that I’d have to make one myself. But even if I found someone willing to let me do this, or I suppose there is always self-publishing, I’d need to know stuff I don’t. Like how to source photos. And much more.

Young men need their trains.

DHR train at Darjeeling