I Love it When You Read to Me*

Small ReadersAs I post this, it’s World Book Day. It’s a time to celebrate the joy of books and reading and (at least for me) particularly, a day to share that joy with children. All of the research I know anything about suggests strongly that children who grow up in a print-rich environment are more likely to become lifelong readers themselves. And that makes sense.

Of course, I’m sure I don’t have to convince you of the value of reading with children and pre-teens. You probably do that already if you have children and/or grandchildren. And I’ll bet you remember what it was like to be introduced to reading when you were young.

There are of course many timeless books out there, and lots of them are mysteries. I’ll just mention Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as one example. This story of a supposed family curse and the way Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve a puzzling set of mysteries and murder has been immensely popular with readers for more than a hundred years. There’s one major challenge with such books, though: they sometimes contain language that young readers find very difficult. There’s nothing wrong with children being a bit challenged when they read. In fact, research suggests that reading something that makes you think actually improves reading skills. But that said, some passages of those great novels we’ve loved can be demanding. Here’s just one example from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘…several people had seen a creature upon the moor which corresponds with this Baskerville demon, and which could not possibly be any animal known to science. They all agreed that it was a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral. I have cross-examined these men, one of them a hard-headed countryman, one a farrier, and one a moorland farmer, who all tell the same story of this dreadful apparition…’ 

Even a motivated young reader might not know several of these words, and that can be discouraging.

Some publishers have addressed this issue by rewriting some of the classics in easier and more modern language, so that young readers can more easily immerse themselves in the story. Here, for example, is the same passage with more updated and simplified language (This is from Oxford University Press’ Oxford Bookworm series):

‘Several people have seen an animal on the moor that looks like an enormous hound. They all agree that it was a huge creature, which shone with a strange light like a ghost. I have questioned these’ people carefully. They are all sensible people. They all tell the same story. Although they have only seen the creature far away, it is exactly like the hell-hound of the Baskerville story.’ 

As you can see, the message is virtually the same (although we could debate about whether it really is the same!), but the language is simplified.

There are other publishers who’ve adapted this story (and others) as graphic novels, again with the goal of introducing young readers to Conan Doyle’s work without the barrier of difficult or outdated language. There’s even one publisher, Hicklebee’s, which has adapted some of this novel as a picture book with one or two words on each page, to help the youngest readers learn how words correspond with sounds. One page, for instance, says Gates, and includes a simple illustration of an old gate. The next page has the word Screech. You can well imagine how appealing this adaptation was for me when I was looking for a book to read with the youngest reader in my family…

There are many other examples of books, such as this one, that have been adapted with different, more contemporary language, or with easier synonyms. Some people argue that any time one changes the language of a story, one also changes the message. And there’s truth to that. There are subtle shades of meaning that really can be lost if words are changed. That’s why, for instance, translation can be a challenge.

Others argue though that the whole point of adaptations for young readers is introducing them to the joy of books. Stories that are written in clear, simple language are more likely to attract young readers, who will then develop reading fluency and (more importantly) interest in reading.

What do you think about adapting classics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles for young readers? If you have children or grandchildren, do you read adapted stories with them? Do they read them?

One final point is in order here, I think. We can debate about adapting books. There’s a lot of rich ‘food for thought’ there. But one thing seems certain. The more we read to and with children, the more likely they are to become lifelong readers themselves. And in case you were wondering, those benefits start pretty much from birth. So even parents of the very youngest infants are helping their newborns ‘hook into’ reading when they read aloud. What’s more, reading together gives young people a reading role model, and that’s extremely valuable. And reading together helps cement family bonds. But I probably don’t have to convince you of that.

So today, I invite you to share your love of reading with young readers. There are lots of ways to do that, even if you don’t have children or grandchildren. I’d love to hear your ‘reading together’ stories.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Book of Love.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle

I Read It in the Paper Today*

Untrue CrimeSometimes, the crime stories that capture our imagination most aren’t fictional. It’s interesting to think about the way crime writers are inspired by those stories and sometimes use them to spark their own work. Today, I am honoured and so pleased to be visiting Sue Coletta’s terrific crime writing blog, where I’ll be talking about just such stories. Please come pay me a visit there, and share your thoughts about what’s been called ‘untrue crime.’

And while you’re there, do have a look around Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fabulous resource for crime writers, and includes some terrific posts on lots of different aspects of writing in that genre. If you write crime fiction, you want to learn from Sue.

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Fogerty’s Headlines.


Filed under Uncategorized

Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?*

Mice and men in SpanishOne of the things that can make a story memorable, even great, is the language that’s used in it. Language can be used to set a context and to give depth to characters. It can also place the reader both geographically and culturally.

And that’s the challenge when it comes to translation. Anyone who’s ever translated something from one language to another can tell you how challenging it can be to preserve not just the story itself, but the nuances of communication. And if you’ve ever read a translated book and found it uninvolving or ‘clunky,’ you know how important translation is.

So what, exactly, does need to be preserved when a story is translated? There are several answers to that question, because any story is composed of a lot of elements. I’ll just touch on a few, using John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to show these elements.

Why Of Mice and Men? For one thing, it’s a classic story that many people have at least heard of if not read. For another, Steinbeck used dialect and aspects of the narrative to place readers at a certain time and among certain people. So (at least to me) it’s a clear example of a novel that would have to be translated with special care to preserve those elements that make it unique. And (this is a crime fiction blog after all) it’s got elements of the crime novel.

The novel tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their previous employment and are heading to their next job. Lennie is of limited intelligence, but he is strong, hard-working, and absolutely devoted to George. Steinbeck uses dialogue to show both Lennie’s limitations and his loyalty to his friend. At one point, for instance, the two stop by a stream, and Lennie gets some water:

“That’s good,” he said. “You drink some, George. You take a good big drink.” He smiled happily. 

Throughout the story, Lennie needs to have things explained him more than once, and repeats things to himself as well to help him remember. Any translation of this story would miss an important aspect of it if those subtleties weren’t there.

When George and Lennie get to their next employer, they check in with the boss and are assigned places to sleep. Then they meet the boss’ son Curley. A short time later, Curley’s new bride makes an appearance:

“Oh!” She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. “You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”
 Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little. She looked at her fingernails. “Sometimes Curley’s in here,” she explained.
George said brusquely. “Well he ain’t now.”
“If he ain’t, I guess I better look some place else,” she said playfully.

This bit hints strongly that Curley’s wife is flirtatious, perhaps dangerously so. But Steinbeck uses nuances that could easily be lost if the story were translated without preserving those gestures and the tone of voice.

That flirting turns out to be central to what happens in the story. So does Curley’s arrogant, rude nature. So the language that expresses these things is just as central, and would need to be translated deftly.

The characters in Of Mice and Men are largely uneducated migrant workers and their supervisors. Steinbeck uses their dialect to depict both their social status and their educational levels. Here, for instance, is the way George describes Lennie to a new workmate:

“Sure,” said George. “We kinda look after each other.” He indicated Lennie with his thumb. “He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.”

Those nuances – of the uneducated, but not stupid, worker – would be a challenge to capture effectively in another language.

This is arguably a crime novel, so tragedy does befall the farm where George and Lenny are working. That aspect of the story would likely not be particularly difficult to translate. Even so, the tragedy is impacted by the culture and socioeconomic status of the characters, and the context during which the story takes place. So a translator would have to be very much aware of those factors, since they play roles in what happens.

Steinbeck also uses precise language that describes the farm, the barn, and so on. For example, here is what he says about the harness room:

‘On the wall by the window there were pegs on which hung broken harness in process of being mended; strips of new leather; and under the window itself a little bench for leather-working tools, curved knives and needles and balls of linen thread, and a small hand riveter. On pegs were also pieces of harness, a split collar with the horsehair stuffing sticking out, a broken hame, and a trace chain with its leather covering split.’
It’s descriptive, but not ‘flowery.’ A translation would need to capture both the precision in the language

and the fact that Steinbeck doesn’t get wordy in this story.

This is, of course, just one example of a novel in which the subtleties of language add to the story. There many, many others. In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say that just about any well-written novel includes nuanced language that would need to be carefully preserved in translation. Which of your top-rated novels comes to your mind?


Late addition…

I’ve been remiss in not thanking Smartling Translations for inspiring this post. We had an interesting email conversation about translations, and it really got me thinking….

ps  The ‘photo is one of the few on this blog that I didn’t take myself. Thanks, Amazon.es.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.


Filed under John Steinbeck

In The Spotlight: Ekaterine Nikas’ The Divided Child

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, Greek islands are exotic places. And they have enough mystery about them to make them very effective contexts for crime stories. To show you what I mean, let’s take a close look at a mystery that takes place on the island of Corfu. Today, the spotlight shines on Ekaterine Nikas’ The Divided Child.

Christine Stewart is a Greek-American who’s spending a few weeks on Corfu both as a holiday and to connect with her past. She’s visiting the Old Fortress one day when she meets a young boy, Michael Redfield. They have a conversation and Michael, who lives on the island, takes her on a short tour of the fortress. While they’re there, a piece of stone falls from the building. Christine sees it just in time to shove them both out of the way. They escape with minor injuries, and Christine insists on making sure the boy gets safely back to his home.

Very soon, Christine learns that in helping Michael, she’s put herself in the middle of a highly-charged custody situation. Michael lives with his stepmother Demetra Redfield and Demetra’s brother Spiro Skouras, and both are determined that he’ll stay with them. But Michael also has an uncle, Geoffrey Redfield, who says that Michael isn’t safe with them. To make matters worse, neither Demetra nor Geoffrey trusts Christine.

In the meantime, Christine and Michael have gotten fond of each other, and of course, Christine doesn’t want any harm to come to the boy. So she’s concerned about his situation. She’s even more worried when she learns what’s really behind this custody battle. Michael’s father (and Geoffrey’s brother) William was a very wealthy man who died in what may or may not have been an accident. Michael is therefore set to inherit a fortune, and if he dies, so will whoever has custody of him. So Christine fears that he may have more ‘accidents.’

And she doesn’t have long to wait. Michael has another brush with death, and now it seems that whoever is after him is also after Christine. Then, Michael disappears. Not long afterwards, his governess/maid Helen is found dead. Now, Lieutenant Ari Mavros of the Corfu Police and his team begin to investigate. It’s mostly likely that someone in the family has spirited the boy away, since so much is at stake. If so, he has to be found as quickly as possible because his life is quite probably in danger. And even if Michael chose to run off, there’s a serious and obvious risk of danger or worse.

Little by little, Christine finds out bits and pieces of the truth about William’s death, about Michael’s family history and about the various roles played by the members of the family. And the more she learns, the riskier it is for her. In the end, she does learn who’s behind the deaths and the attempts on Michael’s life.

One of the important elements in this story is the inter-relationships among the members of the Redfield family. On that level, this is an ugly custody battle that’s all about money; and for some people, Michael’s simply a pawn in the game.  In that sense, this is a sad story.

That said though, as Christine gets to know the other characters, we see that they have some complexity. She finds that some of them are more trustworthy than they seem on the surface, and some cannot be trusted. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, as Nikas uses the ‘slow reveal’ strategy to add tension to the plot. Suffice it that not everyone is what she or he seems to be.

There is an element of romance in this novel; readers who do not like love stories woven into their crime novels will notice this. Christine has more than one admirer, including Geoffrey Redfield and Spiro Skouras, and one of the plot threads concerns her relationships with these men. That said though, the ‘love angle’ falls out naturally from the plot. As an aside, readers who prefer their novels not to be explicit will be pleased to know that as far as the romance sub-plot goes, the story is more or less ‘family friendly.’

So is the mystery plot. There is violence (it’s a murder story), and there are some dangerous situations. But the violence is not brutal. What’s more, readers who are tired of the ‘female in jeopardy’ plot element will be pleased to know that although Christine does find herself in more than one very risky situation, she is quite capable of taking care of herself.

This is a very sad story in some ways. A family is torn apart because of money, and a young boy is in the middle of it all. And there’s even deeper sadness when we learn the truth. But at the same time, this isn’t a bleak, noir story. Readers who prefer their crime fiction to be dark and very gritty will notice that this story doesn’t ‘go there.’ It’s not a ‘jolly romp,’ though.

The story is told in first person from Christine’s point of view, so we learn quite a bit about her. She’s had her own sorrow in life, but she’s trying to get past it, and she doesn’t indulge in self-pity. She is intelligent and observant, but she knows that she’s not a professional detective. She’s willing enough to let Mavros and his team conduct the murder investigation, but she is determined do make sure that Michael will be all right. In fact you could argue that that’s her primary motivation in getting involved in the case in the first place.

The story takes place on Corfu, and Nikas places the reader on the island in several different ways. The physical and geographical descriptions, the culture and lifestyle, the food, and the language all reflect that part of Greece. Readers who have been to Corfu will find the setting very familiar. Readers who haven’t will get a sense of what it might be like to visit.

The Divided Child is a domestic drama that plays out in a distinctive setting. It features a protagonist whose interest in a child’s welfare gets her more than she bargained for, and a mystery that connects family past with the present. But what’s your view? Have you read The Divided Child? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 9 March/Tuesday 10 March – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Alan Bradley

Monday 16 March/Tuesday 17 March – Through the Cracks – Honey Brown

Monday 23 March/Tuesday 24 March – The Nameless Dead – Brian McGilloway


Filed under Ekaterine Nikas, The Divided Child

Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall