Tag Archives: Bookwitch Foreign Reading Challenge

Best Scottish?

It came back to me, out of the blue, a few days ago. I had a Scottish Reading tag on Bookwitch. First, I had my one year Foreign Reading Challenge, which was tough enough. Not the doing, so much as the finding a new foreign published book every month for twelve months. And a different foreign every time.

Seemingly I wasn’t challenged enough, as I veered off onto a new tag, Scottish Reading. I believe I felt I should concentrate a bit more on a slightly ignored section of British books for children. But I just cannot remember what happened to it! The foreign challenge had rules; the Scottish was just supposed to happen.

Recently I have, for obvious reasons, read more Scottish again, but without tagging it or anything. My memory isn’t what it was.

The Resident IT Consultant pointed me in the direction of the the BBC’s 30 top Scottish books list the other day. It even made us argue a bit, en famille. What counts as a Scottish book? Who counts as having written one?

I had my opinion, he had his and Son turned up and said his bit. Can Harry Potter be Scottish? I think so, others are less sure. Does the author have to be Scottish, merely live in Scotland, write about Scottish topics or set their novel in Scotland?

England is full of wonderful authors who are American. But I think we tend to happily adopt these foreigners as homemade successes if they are successful. On that basis, English or American writers living in Scotland ought to qualify, whether or not they write about a wizard school that may or may not be in Scotland (never mind that the train there leaves from King’s Cross).

If a novel is set in outer space, what does that make it? If a Scottish born and bred author sets their novel in London or Cornwall, what then? In fact, it’s getting a bit Brexit. If anyone is supposed to go back to where they came from, the only true Scottish novel must be by a Scottish author, set in Scotland, featuring Scottish characters, who wouldn’t dream of stepping south of the border.

And that’s not right. Elizabeth Wein lives and writes in Scotland. Alex Nye likewise, entertaining us with what Sheriffmuir covered in snow is like. Helen Grant has so far killed the good people of Belgium from the comfort of her Scottish home. Philip Caveney has just joined the ladies here, after some frantic years commuting between Stockport and Scotland. The Scottish Book Trust have all four of these writers on their list of authors.

I have read three of the books on the BBC’s list, and watched another four on film. That’s not much at all, and the fault is all mine. I am overdue another Scottish Reading Challenge. Although it shouldn’t be a challenge at all.

But will it travel?

I was talking to Son the other day. He was reading a book, for money. This happens occasionally with foreign books, because how can the linguistically challenged publisher decide whether or not to buy a foreign book, even when it is a big seller in its country of origin?

You can’t be sure it will do as well in your own country, and better to pay someone a smallish sum for an opinion, than spend loads of money on publishing a book that won’t sell.

I remember my foreign reading challenge from a few years ago. Not only was it difficult to find the books; a new country every month for a year, but it can be hard to love anything too far removed from your own back yard. Even when you are the open-minded soul that – of course – I am…

It wasn’t actually the Swedish book I liked the most, or that I felt I could identify with. You’d think so, but I couldn’t.

The title was snappy and very catchy, and that goes for the one Son is reading now, as well. I can’t tell you which book it is, as that would be wrong. I had heard of it, and sort of admired the slightly ludicrous title, without feeling tempted.

What enraged Son were some facts that strained credulity. Unfortunately – for him – I could confirm that in this case it was actually pretty realistic. Strange and unusual, but it happens/happened in Sweden. As he’s not all that far from having been a teenager himself, his reaction is probably more similar to the intended readership here, than most older readers would be.

So the incredible facts, as well as some general loose living among the main characters, might make him give negative feedback. Maybe not. We both agreed that the gatekeepers who would ease or prevent British mid-teens from reading this book would not like the idea of what goes on.

While I’m not someone who believes in too much guarding, in this case I reckon the gatekeepers might save readers from a book that simply hasn’t travelled well.

Bridges between languages

Yeah, well, that didn’t go so well. I’d been gladdening for a couple of months because Fabio Geda was coming to Britain and I would see him a two events in the same day.

And then transport to Oxford, which was the first venue, didn’t so much dry up as become very dear, and there was ‘no room at the inn’ so to speak and when I’d decided to just go to London for the second event, the train fares had done that unpleasant thing again. And Son, my prospective events companion, needed to go off to Lund to listen to the bridging of languages across the Öresund, for purely academical reasons, even though the London event would also have been pretty educational in its own way.

So, my dears, I stayed at home. Thought about doing the ironing, but didn’t.

The Children’s Bookshow have organised two months of events around the country, and on Friday there was this translation panel event and workshops and reception in London, featuring Fabio Geda and his award winning translator Howard Curtis, and his publisher David Fickling. Kevin Crossley-Holland, translator Daniel Hahn and Nicolette Jones were also on the programme.

ACHUKAPHOTO: Found In Translation &emdash;

That sounded so very much like my kind of thing. I may not be able to tell you very much of what went on – except that apparently David Fickling arrived after his event – but can offer you some photos which the very kind Michael Thorn of Achuka offered to share with me.

ACHUKAPHOTO: Found In Translation &emdash;

The sad truth about translation is that only 3% of children’s books published in this country have been translated. Hardly surprising I found my Foreign Reading Challenge a few years ago to be so uphill. I’d thought all I would need was determination, but to read you also need books. And there weren’t many. But at least there was Fabio’s book, In the Sea there are Crocodiles, which was the Bookwitch favourite.

ACHUKAPHOTO: Found In Translation &emdash;

Until next time, Fabio…

Bookwitch bites #81

If you fancy listening to Eoin Colfer swear and curse you shouldn’t click on this video from the launch of Paul O’Brien’s debut adult crime novel Blood Red Turns Dollar Green. (No, I don’t know what that means.) It seems Eoin was looking forward to having left the children’s world behind (why?), when he discovered there were children present, so he had to clean up his act in praising his fellow Wexford author. Or he might have made that up. He’s also shorter than the first presenter in this clip.

The sound quality isn’t marvellous, and it sounds like it’s raining (it’s Ireland, after all), but you have to admire an author who uses his speech at someone else’s launch to talk about himself… Just joking. I still have to get over the beard.

Mentioning Eoin some more, I see the last Artemis Fowl is almost with us. July can’t get here soon enough. Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian. It sounds like a newspaper advert, but that’s OK.

Being Irish could be enough to enter the multilingual poetry competition run by the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. If you are lucky enough to be aged under 19, and you have a first language other than English you can enter this competition with a poem in your own language. English native speakers learning a foreign language can also enter by writing a poem in the other  language.

I have no poetry writing skills, so it’s just as well I’m old. For anyone else who is interested, go to Mother Tongue Other Tongue for more information. And write fast. The deadline is 28th May. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy will present the prizes to winners on 30th June.

That other award – the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – will be presented on the 28th May, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I thought it was going to be on the 22nd (for some obscure reason, not known even to me) and worried in case Crown Princess Victoria had double-booked herself, forgetting she has a baby that needs Christening. On the 22nd. But all is well, and Guus Kuijer will presumably be able to shake the royal hand after all.

Last year when I was searching for foreign reads I believed it’d be both easy and logical for me to read something Finnish. Not actually in Finnish. Obviously. Failed in my research and gave up. Then the other day the Resident IT Consultant (who clearly had nothing better to do than surf the net) sent me a link to an article about Finnish books (which had been translated – into Swedish).

Sinikka and Tiina Nopola are sisters writing books about a Finnish rapper by the name of Risto. I love the original title, Risto Räppääjä. You really can’t have too many äs in a word. Expecting great things I went in search of Risto in a more manageable shape. He’s out of print… So that’s that.

Räppääjä, Räppääjä!

The Grasshopper’s Run

I love it when a book I’ve not quite got to earlier, turns out to be unexpectedly really very good. Except I wonder about my own delaying tactics sometimes.

Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run is like an Alistair MacLean for teens, with India in its heart. And better. I didn’t realise before what kind of book it is. If I had I wouldn’t have waited. Although if I hadn’t saved it – however mistakenly – I wouldn’t have discovered it now. Now it fits perfectly with my Indian theme.

Set in Assam in 1944 immediately prior to the war in Burma escalating, it partly features MacLean style British military people, but mostly it is about the locals in this part of East Assam. The natives, who are not terribly highly thought of by either the British or the Japanese. It’s the cruelty – and stupidity – of one Japanese Colonel which is at the centre of this story.

Siddhartha Sarma, The Grasshopper's Run

The book begins with the slaughter of every person in a small Naga village, by the Colonel’s soldiers, and the rest of the story deals with the revenge taken by neighbouring native groups. They get together to cooperate on this, unlike how things used to be.

The main character is a 15-year-old boy, the son and grandson of someone important. His best friend died in the massacre, and they were clearly two remarkable teenage boys, well trained by their elders. This comes in very handy for finding one specific Japanese Colonel in the haystack of the Naga Hills.

Siddhartha has done a great deal of research and his knowledge of both the war and of the Naga tribes feels genuine. For any reader who might believe that ‘natives’ are simple, it’s time to think again.

There is something terribly satisfying about revenge, when it’s done for all the right reasons. This a truly exciting book, and most informative for the European reader. I knew nothing about Assam. And the mind boggles when you learn that the Brahmaputra river ‘here narrowed till it was little more than a mile across.’ That’s some river!

The Half Life of Ryan Davis

For a while there, you think you’re reading a fairly standard teen ‘angst’ novel, about a 15-year-old boy whose dead, older sister Mallory leaves a very long shadow over the lives of the survivors in the family. But after a while, you realise that you are up against something new and different.

It’s not only different because it is a New Zealand novel, with all the exotic-ness that comes from a ‘somewhere else’ that seems so British, but isn’t. Melinda Szymanik must have thought of the standard angsty plot, and then turned it around.

Melinda Szymanik, The Half Life of Ryan Davis

Ryan is trying to live his own life, but his by now single mother is scared that the same fate awaits him and his younger sister. Maybe they too will just disappear one day, snatched by some evil monster.

As both siblings find love and strike out more independently, Ryan is spooked by seeing their older sister in places when he’s out. And the phone rings, with silence at the other end. Could Mallory be alive?

The answer won’t be what you think. You’ve been lulled into this domestic drama of normal arguments, and then you find that in actual fact it’s…

(And it was only when I saw the cover image as a jpeg that I noticed the girl in the background…)

A challenge too many

I don’t think I’ll do it again. At least not this way. My two challenges for 2011 went well, but were far too hard to stick with. I didn’t give up, and I suppose I knew I probably wouldn’t, since it’d make me look bad. It’s rather like announcing you’re going on a diet. You sort of have to avoid giving up.

The Ireland Reading Challenge, where I joined in with bloggers everywhere, and where my goal was to read six Irish books, seemed dead easy. It was. Or would have been, had it not been such a very busy year. I still have plenty of Irish books to read, but it was the fitting them in every two months that almost did it for me.

And I kept forgetting to link to my reviews and I kept forgetting how to link. So, it was fun to take part, but too prescriptive for me. I will continue to read Irish books because I love them. Not because I ‘went on a diet.’

Then there was my own Bookwitch Foreign Reading Challenge, which I started in a fit to counter-balance someone else’s British challenge. At least it was my own. I set the rules and I didn’t have to do complicated links. And I did feel that one foreign book a month was doable. There are always masses of books being ignored by me every month, so one more, to give room for a stranger, surely wouldn’t hurt.

The end of the month came by far too early in certain months. I’m not sure how that happened. But it wasn’t time that was my greatest obstacle. It was finding books to read. I began by drawing up a list of likely countries. I contacted publishers to see if they had anything coming during the year. A surprising number said they didn’t. (Hence a real need for foreign challenges.)

I was surprised to find at the end that I had read no Australian* book and nothing from France. I had counted on those. On the other hand, I had not expected a Japanese novel, nor a Flemish one, to come my way.

In some instances I ended up reading something I might have avoided, had it not been for the fact that I needed another book from somewhere different. But none were bad, and most were as enjoyable as novels chosen in a more conventional way.

As with the Irish books, I will endeavour to read more imports, but without the strict framework of a challenge. I just wish publishers would take on more translations. I also wish more people knew more about what there is to read. I don’t want to be told that the children of a country read Harry Potter. That’s not what I asked. And I was sad to hear that there is very little besides imports somewhere like South Africa. And with Finland and Iceland, it’s the lack of translated books that prevented me. Although, I realised belatedly that Tove Jansson would have qualified for my challenge.

My Scottish challenge, which has no structure or rules whatsoever, will hopefully continue as and when I find suitable books. It’s mainly that I really want to read more writing from Scotland.

Other than the challenges, 2011 offered plenty of wonderful reads. I’m still hoping to find strength of character to read only the best, and to ignore some ‘average’ reads. Life is too short.

And life is too short to look at stats for the past year. Do feel free to go through all of Bookwitch 2011 and count the books for me! I’m often tempted to keep accounts as and when things happen, but I seriously doubt I will do it in 2012.

No New Year’s resolution is a good New Year’s resolution.

Fabio Geda: 'Yay! It's the Bookwitch!'

Above is Fabio Geda, the great surprise of the year. Italian book. Very unusual. Probably also the best on Bookwitch in 2011. So is Fabio’s smile.


* No sooner had I written this, and thought about it, than I realised I did read Australian books. At the time I just forgot they would fit in with the challenge. I kept remembering this and forgetting it again, several times. Like you do in dreams…

This Dark Endeavour

…and here is the Bookwitch, just crossing the finishing line of her twelve months of Foreign Reading Challenge. Not that a Canadian book is all that foreign, but it’s not British, and that was the whole point.

As you know, I like my main characters to be likeable. They don’t have to be good, but they need to have a certain something. Victor Frankenstein – yes, that Victor Frankenstein – is someone I didn’t particularly like. This prequel to Mary Shelley’s novel, written by Kenneth Oppel is a very exciting and easy to read thriller/horror story. Quite gory in places, but brave soul that I am, I only skipped about six pages towards the end. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have no trouble working out which pages.

Not being an expert on the original Frankenstein, I was fascinated to see how Kenneth has incorporated the necessary bits from the original novel with his own new ideas, including a Geneva address like Woolstonekraft Alley. The love of Frankenstein’s life is in the book, and so is the faithful friend.

Kenneth Oppel, This Dark Endeavour

Victor has also been furnished with a twin brother who is just like him, only that little bit nicer and more popular, so he is jealous of Konrad. They are teenagers and we see them at home outside Geneva, being taught by Mr Frankenstein the elder, and finding a library of forbidden books underneath their castle.

Then Konrad falls ill, and to save his brother Victor and the other two enter into a world of alchemy and deceit, hoping to find the Elixir of Life.

It’s adventure of the kind that almost makes me ill with worry, and it doesn’t always go as well as we’d like. I couldn’t foresee exactly what they would do, but it was easy to guess what must ultimately happen, and it did.


It was seeing the film that had me even less enthusiastic about reading Inkheart than before. Not that I found the film bad. It was great. I suspected the book would be all right, but felt less urgency simply because of that film. So my copy of the book went from pile to box to back of shelves. I wonder what Mo would say about that? He might be just a character, but one with strong opinions on books.

Before the film I also had totally the wrong idea of what the book was about, which goes to prove that blurbs can mislead. The real plot is much more attractive than the one I was ‘avoiding.’

It would still sit on an obscure shelf, were it not for the fact that I needed another foreign book for my challenge. I’d run out, more or less. But it is German, and I’d not done Germany yet. It was actually in my possession, so despite its 550 pages I began.

I minded dreadfully for the first hundred pages. It was too much like the film. I knew it all. But then, it stopped being a chore and became something nice. Very nice. I found myself wanting to sit there in my armchair and not stop. It’s like smooth chocolate. (The book, not the chair.) Nice. Comfortable. Just right. (That goes for both book and chair.)

Being the last person in the world to read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, I don’t need to tell you what it’s about. I find it quite natural that you can read characters out of books by reading aloud. Even that you can also have a real person pop into a book and disappear. What I found strange was that everyone could talk to each other. What language were they communicating in? I assume Mo and Meggie are German. Aunt Elinor must be Italian-ish. And the baddies are definitely Italian, and so is their author Fenoglio.

The book isn’t even too long. Or too short. It’s just right. And for a book with two sequels, it ends so that you don’t have to read on. I’ll probably want to, though. Won’t I?

It’s infuriating when it turns out that Cornelia’s fans have been right all these years. She’s a marvellous writer. What’s more, Inkheart has been translated masterfully by Anthea Bell. It’s so smooth (chocolate again, I’m afraid), it’s as if it had not been translated at all.

The Loblolly Boy

No, I didn’t know what a loblolly boy is, either. And to be honest, you don’t want to know too much.

This New Zealand novel is about an invisible boy who can fly. He can be seen by a few ‘sensitives’, but otherwise he leads a lonely life. It’s not much fun having no one to talk to, or never to be seen by others, or not needing to eat or sleep.

You become a loblolly boy by meeting your predecessor and swapping lives with him. You will do this because your own life is miserable. But it’s a frying pan into fire situation, and when you realise this it’s too late.

James Norcliffe, The Loblolly Boy

I almost got annoyed when reading one of the quotes at the front of the book, because I felt it gave away too much. But as I read on, I was quite comforted by the spoiler, and perhaps that was the intention. And to be perfectly frank, I would not have been tempted to pick up this book by either the title or its cover. But as we know, these things can be deceptive, and James Norcliffe has written a wonderful story about looking at what you’ve got before you leap. Things could be worse.


There are some truly horrible adults in this story, but one or two nice ones too. People aren’t always what they first seem. And I can’t point out often enough that you should think before you act.

The main loblolly boy is Michael. He is a nice boy, and that’s just as well. If it weren’t for him, then …

This foreign reading challenge continues to be interesting. Had it not been that I quite wanted to read a recent NZ book, I’d have ignored this one. I’d like to think that the whole exercise does broaden the mind. We must read books from the rest of the world.