February Reads

So I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked in February, but there were some exciting things all the same. I got to read Simone Buchholz’s Mexikoring, on which more later… Watch this space! Likewise, Zugmaus by Uwe Timm, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

My non-work-related book of the month was The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl, translated by Don Bartlett, having been lucky enough to be sent an advance proof by Karen at publisher Orenda Books.

In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

This stand-alone historical thriller is told with a split timeline that jumps between 1942, 1967 and the present day, skilfully weaving the threads together to reveal the chain of events that brings us eventually back to the point at which the novel began. It is tightly plotted with convincing characters and a compelling narrative that grips you from start to finish. And of course Don Bartlett’s translation is as skilful as ever, vividly conveying the voices and places we encounter along the way.

It’s such an interesting and shocking period of history that it offers endless possibilities to the novelist, of course, and Dahl is adept at showing how interrelated crimes of the past continue to send ripples, or even shockwaves, into the present. Highly recommended (unless you’re on public transport, in which case you might miss your stop – just saying).

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January 2019 Reads

I don’t know quite how it got to be 2019 when I wasn’t looking, and I don’t seem to manage regularly reviews any more, but I’m hopeful that semi-regularly round-ups of what I’ve been reading lately might be more doable…

So, January is a good month for reading as there are lovely piles of books accumulated as Christmas presents to work through.

The Night Circus  by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage) Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Mors, tr. Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin, 2017) Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Black Swan, 2019)

The Night Circus  by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage) – I don’t know how I missed this when it came out back in 2012. Apparently there was a massive hype around it, and it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. But miss it, I did. And I’m glad of that because I came at it without expectations. I’m also glad that the blurb I read isn’t the one that wound up a lot of earlier reviewers for being sort-of accurate yet misleading. Anyway, despite a few irritations with the overuse of certain phrases and shaky period detail, I loved this book. It’s atmospheric and slightly creepy and romantic and swept me up in its spell, leaving me slightly reeling at the end.

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Mors, tr. Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin, 2017)– this was shortlisted for the Man Booker International and is billed as a “bracing antidote to the cult of hygge.” It’s about a translator of crime fiction who suffers from BPPV – a form of vertigo that I have also experienced – so I possibly identified with Sonja rather too strongly! This style of book that meanders around for a while and then stops isn’t altogether to my taste though. I’d call it wryly amusing rather than hilarious, myself.

Sonja’s over forty, and she’s trying to move in the right direction. She’s learning to drive. She’s joined a meditation group. And she’s attempting to reconnect with her sister.

But Sonja would rather eat cake than meditate.

Her driving instructor won’t let her change gear.

And her sister won’t return her calls.

Sonja’s mind keeps wandering back to the dramatic landscapes of her childhood – the singing whooper swans, the endless sky, and getting lost barefoot in the rye fields – but how can she return to a place that she no longer recognises? And how can she escape the alienating streets of Copenhagen?

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a poignant, sharp-witted tale of one woman’s journey in search of herself when there’s no one to ask for directions.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Black Swan, 2019) – I already knew Lissa Evans could tell a story from Wed Wabbit and she is also very strong on characterisation. It’s an engaging look at the Sufragette movement and “women of a certain age” in search of a new cause. Very entertaining and I’ll be looking out for her other books all the more now.

Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women’s Suffrage Campaign she was a militant. Jailed five times, she marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing – nothing – since then has had the same depth, the same excitement.

Now in middle age, she is still looking for a fresh mould into which to pour her energies. …  but what starts as a brilliantly idealistic plan is derailed by a connection with Mattie’s militant past, one which begins to threaten every principle that she stands for.

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Attend by West Camel

First of all, full disclosure: West Camel is the editor of my translations of Beton Rouge and Blue Night at Orenda Books, who also publish Attend, and I was sent a PDF proof copy of by the publisher Karen a for review. This is my absolutely honest opinion of the book, though, and West submitted it to Karen under a pseudonym to avoid any potential nepotism.



So, to the book. Attend rather defies categorisation. A romantic, gangster novel with a touch of magical realism and a nod to Armistead Maupin. How’s that? As the cover image suggests, there are three strands to the story: Anne, Sam and Deborah.

Anne is a recovering heroin addict who is trying to rebuild her life and her family having got clean and escaped her abusive ex. Sam is a young gay man who has moved to London in search of a new life. They are both looking for new beginnings in Deptford, which represents a homecoming for Anne and an escape for Sam. Here they meet and become friends with the enigmatic Deborah, who has lived here all her life. But can she really be over 100 years old, and unable to die, as she maintains?

This is a novel of contradictions: gritty, yet beautifully written;  fantastical, yet down-to-earth; gripping and moving. I was instantly drawn in and could have read the book in a sitting if life and work hadn’t inconveniently intervened. There is brutal violence and touching romance, raw emotion and convincing characters, drugs, abuse, faith and the possibility of redemption. I felt for Anne, working through such a challenging situation and sometimes put in impossible positions by her family and best friend Kathleen. Sam’s relationship with gentle yet thuggish Derek also felt very real.

Yet it is Deborah who holds the whole thing together, telling stories, weaving spells and providing the literal and figurative guiding thread that brings things to a conclusion. I loved the way needlework runs through the book, and the firm grounding of its setting in Deptford.

Highly recommended!

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5 Questions: Recommended German Books and The Freer Use of ‘Scheiße’

September is #WorldKidLit month – here I am doing a Q&A for Marcia Lynx Qualey at the World Kid Lit blog!

September: World Kid Lit Month

Rachel Ward of Forward Translations (forwardtranslations.co.uk) is the translator of several books for young readers as well as the original translated kidlit listicle-maker over at her blog, “A Discount Ticket to Everywhere.”

She translates from the German and answered 5 questions about her work, German kidlit, and her recommendations.

Can you tell us about the book you’re translating now?

I’m currently working on “Zippel” by Alex Ruehle for Andersen Press. It’s about a boy called Paul who finds a little ghost living in his keyhole, and it’s for age 6+ and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, which is very exciting. There’s a lot of wordplay and silly rhymes involved which makes it both fun and challenging to translate. I still don’t have a good solution for the biggest of these challenges.

How do you discover new German kid lit? Do you discover great new kidlit differently from…

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#WITMonth: Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger


August is Women in Translation Month, the reasons for which are discussed by Katy Derbyshire here on the Freeword Centre site, and elsewhere.

soft in the headSo it is a fitting moment to write about Marie-Sabine Roger‘s joyful novel Soft in the Head, published in 2016 by Pushkin Press and translated by Frank Wynne.

Germain has been looked down on and insulted all his life, by his mother, his teacher and his so-called friends. He’s left school functionally illiterate and thinking of himself as an idiot, and he lives in a caravan at the bottom of his mother’s garden. When he’s not working or in the bar, or whittling wood, Germain likes to sit in the park, counting the pigeons. One day, as he arrives at the park, there’s “this little old lady who looked like she was the type to throw breadcrumbs to get them to come to her” sitting on a bench near the pigeons. Germain’s heart sinks, but the old lady doesn’t act as he expects.

She didn’t stare at me out of the corner of her eye the way most people do when I count.
She stayed very still. But then, just as I was about to leave, she said:

This is the start of an unusual and touching friendship between Germain and the 86-year-old Margueritte that changes both their lives for the better. Margueritte is a retired scientist with a deep passion for books. She begins reading to Germain, first from Camus’ The Plague, and then from other books. At first he only thinks of it as “not unpleasant”, something to keep your ears busy, but soon he is hooked. Margueritte tells Germain that he is “a true reader” because reading starts with listening. This is the first time that anyone has taken him seriously, and as a result, he comes out of the defensive persona he has adopted, and slowly blossoms.

I loved the relationship between the two of them, which is gruff and warm, all at once. And I particularly appreciated Frank Wynne’s achievement in capturing each of their distinct voices. Germain is rough and, initially, crude, while Margueritte is clipped and precise, or as Germain puts it:

She had a complicated way of talking, with more frills and laces than a tart’s knickers, the way posh people talk.

There is also word-play of the sort where the apparent effortlessness of the translation shows just how much work has gone into it. And personally, I enjoyed seeing little bits of Irishness come through in words such as “banjaxed”.

There is sadness in this book – loneliness, cruelty and a soul starved of affection – but there is so much joy too. In words, in language, in books, and in friendship.

Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. Whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.

Apparently “up lit” is a thing now. So there’s a fancy term for books like this, that make you feel better about the world without sugar-coating it. I’d love to see more of them in translation. The world is grim enough without always having to read miserable books. When I tweeted my enjoyment of this book, Frank Wynne replied that it had been a “joy to translate” and that joy really shines through. Lovely.


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Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

After Death on the Cherwell, I have checked out a few more of the British Library’s Crime Classics series and Alan Melville‘s books really stand out among the bunch for the quality of their writing. Melville wrote a few crime novels in the 1930s before turning his hand to writing for the theatre and TV. He went on to appear as a panelist on various television programmes as well.

The first of his books that I read was Death of Anton and I have just finished Quick Curtain (1934), in which Melville satirises the theatrical world.


‘Don’t talk bunk!’ said Mr Douglas. ‘You can’t carry on with the show with a man dying on stage. Drop the curtain!’

When Douglas B. Douglas—leading light of the London theatre—premieres his new musical extravaganza, Blue Music, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star, Brandon Baker, on stage in the middle of Act 2. Soon another member of the cast is found dead, and it seems to be a straightforward case of murder followed by suicide.

Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard—who happens to be among the audience—soon discovers otherwise. Together with Derek, his journalist son, Wilson takes charge of proceedings in his own inimitable way. (see: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25571844-quick-curtain)

The plot of Quick Curtain is in many ways as slender as that of “Blue Music”, although I note that it predates Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer by a year in having an actor shot on stage with a real gun at the point when his character is meant to be killed in the play.

The introduction by Martin Edwards quotes a contemporary review by Dorothy L. Sayers, who thoroughly disapproved of Melville’s refusal to take the genre seriously. She exclaimed disgustedly that he is interested only in “light entertainment” and “a fig for procedure!” Sayers was quite correct – Quick Curtain isn’t even trying to be a police procedural, but despite her misgivings, it is all the better for that.

Melville was writing about a world he knew through and through, and this shows (contemporary readers apparently enjoyed spotting famous theatrical figures in the novel). Similarly, his talent for dialogue shines through (despite the usual period inability to convey the speech of the “lower orders”), particularly in the relationship between Inspector Wilson and his son. There are plenty of good one-liners and a wealth of witty description, which sometimes put me in mind even of the great P.G. Wodehouse. The whole thing is played for laughs, and it gets them. “Light entertainment” and “a fig for procedure!” it is, and I say hurrah for that.

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Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson

I was fortunate enough to win a signed proof copy of Mark Watson’s novel Hotel Alpha just before it was published by Picador in 2014. For one reason or another, the book languished on a TBR pile (although my husband read and enjoyed it), then we moved house and it got filed on a shelf, and with one thing and another, I never got round to reading it. But the other day I was having a “what shall I read?!” crisis, and the book came back to mind and finally got read.


Three decades ago, the charismatic Howard York built the empire of his dreams: the Hotel Alpha. It was once the finest in London, but over the years, as the world around it has moved on at an ever more dizzying rate, the hotel has struggled to keep pace.

Graham, the Alpha’s concierge, has been behind the front desk since the day the hotel opened and has witnessed every stage of its history. Chas, Howard’s blind adopted son, has almost never ventured outside its walls. Both of them view the Alpha as their sanctuary, the place that gives them everything they need. But both of them must now accept that the Alpha no longer offers them the life they most want, and that Howard’s vision has been built on secrets as well as dreams . . .

The novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Graham and Chas, and their stories are interwoven with those of the hotel itself and other characters in and around it over the years. It offers moments of comedy and of tragedy, and I found it engaging and moving. I also enjoyed the contrast between the two voices and their differing perspectives on the same events. There is also a website, Hotel Apha Stories, which tells more stories of the hotel, further fleshing out some of the characters and events – warning though, there are some spoilers!

I think part of why it appealed to me is that Chas and I are pretty much the same age, and so his experiences of politics and changing technology throughout the novel pretty much match my own. Obviously this little trip down memory lane helps build a connection with a character.

Mark Watson is a great story-teller and now I will look out for more of his writing.




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