In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?

The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times

Writing Historical Fiction

A review of the book Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion
by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott
published by Bloomsbury

My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
During February, I have been reading Writing Historical Fiction with interest and pleasure. Although it is more of a book for dipping into than for reading from cover to cover, it does repay reading all the way through. However I think most readers will find, as I did, that some parts seem more relevant and useful than others.

The book is written to inform, to encourage and as a handbook for potential and practising writers of historical fiction and is structured in three parts. The first “Historical fiction”, presents the authors’ perspectives on their subject and a potted history of historical fiction. The second part, “Tips and tales”, is a collection of short essays or extracts by a selection of authors of historical fiction reflecting on the subject or on their own writing. The final part, “Write on” is a combination of practical tips, exercises and encouragement for writing as well as a compendium of possible sources for historical background and detail. Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott are both themselves authors of historical fiction, and in the first part of the book they each present some personal reflections on their subject – what it means to them, how they regard historical fiction.

There is a sense in which all fiction (with the possible exception of science fiction) is historical, that you cannot not write historical fiction. The argument goes: even when you set out to write about your present-day, as soon as you have written it down it is already in the past. Even science fiction is frequently a commentary – conscious or not – on the author’s present day, which is why many works of cutting-edge SF can feel remarkable dated when read a generation later.

“Historical fiction” is a genre, and genre is a product of the market place and the expectations of readers rather than anything that has to do with the core of creative writing. Some authors are comfortable writing in a genre, others are offended to be categorised as “genre writers”. There is a certain chip-on-the-shoulder quality about authors who find it important to establish the breadth, ancient pedigree and/or superiority of their genre. Brayfield and Sprott tackle this issue well, even entertainingly, but I still detect a faint whining sound when I read the section “On being not quite proper” (pp16-18).

To be fair, there is a prejudice against “historical fiction”, so if the authors did not confront it they would open themselves to charges of ignoring the elephant in the room. They take the perspective that historical fiction is as old as story-telling itself and present an outline history of historical fiction that starts with Gilgamesh and Homer and reaches to the very near present.

The middle of the book is given over to “guest contributions” by twenty-eight practising writers from Margaret Attwood and Tracy Chevalier via Philippa Gregory and Hillary Mantel to Rose Tremain and Louisa Young. (And despite the gender range of those examples, ten of the twenty-eight are men.) Each guest is given a page or two to present a few thoughts about historical fiction, meditate on their own process of authorship, or offer tips and encouragement to would-be authors.

I imagine readers will be drawn to the authors whose work they already know, and as most of these pieces seem to have been written specially for this volume they may find something new. Reading them all one after the other, though, I was struck by the amount of repetition. For example, three or four cannot resist referencing LP Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (I’ve done this myself.) To be fair, the writers don’t all take the sentence at face value, but seeing it come up again and again made me realise how much of a cliché it has become. Unless I can riff a new slant on it I resolve not to use it any more.

Another observation about the guest authors section: all but two are from the English speaking world. The two exceptions are Orhan Pamuk and Valerio Massimo Manfredi. All the rest are British (most of them), Irish (2), Canadian (1), American (4) or Australian (1). This betrays a tendency in the book. Although Brayfield and Sprott do try to be inclusive, they are writing in the first case for a British audience.

The book’s bias to its anticipated audience is particularly noticeable in the final part, “Write on”, in the compendium sections. Here the authors make an effort to present sources for historical research. They do include some pointers for New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA and Ireland, but the bulk of their suggestions focus on Britain. I count only six out of a couple of hundred references made to sources in other languages than English. I don’t want to beat them up about this. The book does not set out to be comprehensive and it could be a guide to people working with sources in another country, in the sense that it gives a framework of the sources one might find in Britain as an example. One could reasonably attempt to carry it over to a foreign context.

It would also be fair to say that non-British authors who are researching an historical novel set in Britain will find the suggestions valuable.

More generally useful, though, are Duncan Sprott’s sections in the final part (Planning, Beginning, Drafting and Troubleshooting) and Celia Brayfield’s writing exercises in historical fiction. In particular, Brayfield’s suggestions for finding historical voices, settings, objects and seeing the “street view” are excellent and I can definitely see myself using them. The suggestions for working with classes of would-be authors are more aimed at established writers who have the opportunity to run courses for others. As a former teacher I can see how these would also be useful, though they are not for me at present.

Apart from the exercises, the part of the book I most expect to be revisiting is the section of Celia Brayfield’s “Reflections” sub-titled “Heroine addiction: women as protagonists in historical fiction”. My own novel-in-progress has a woman protagonist and a largely female cast, so I find several of her observations valuable and thought-provoking. In this section’s conclusion (p57) she writes “the consensual image of a prominent female figure will almost certainly be at odds with the historical record, and also with contemporary expectations of a woman” (emphasis added). Overcoming those parallel barriers successfully would be a great trick to pull off.

In conclusion, Writing Historical Fiction is a book with a lot to recommend it. It will be most useful and interesting for wannabe authors of historical fiction in Britain and the English speaking world, but has information, advice and encouragement for many people beyond this (after all) not so very narrow audience. I’m happy to have bought it and read it and will certainly keep it handy on my bookshelf so I can dip into it again.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Also published on Good Reads.

As yet unbound

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about discovering Unbound, the British-based crowd funding website dedicated to book publishing. I thought I might give this week’s entry over to a review of the three publishing projects I pledged to support. They are Springfield Road by Salena Godden, The Nine Lives of John Ogilby by Alan Ereira and I Will Pay One Pound for Your Story by Michelle Thomas. I chose these three first and foremost because they all looked like books I would like to read, but I had other reasons for picking each of them.

You can get much more information about these books and their authors by following the links to each book’s Unbound campaign site as they come up below and viewing the authors’ pitch videos, but here’s a potted account of each and an explanation of my reasons for supporting them.

I Will Pay One Pound for Your Story

Michelle Thomas
Michelle Thomas from her Unbound video pitch

Let’s take the most interesting book first. Facing a period of unemployment, Michelle Thomas decided to start a “performance research project”. (She says the term’s her own invention and probably doesn’t mean anything: “I made it up because I’m not sure what to call the project”.) What she seems to do (and it must take considerable nerve) is stand around in public with a sign offering to buy people’s stories for one pound.

People who accept tell her their stories and she records them (in return for the pound). She then transcribes the stories as closely as she can to the way they were told – including hesitations and slips. And that’s it. She’s published a few of the stories on her blog and has started the Unbound campaign in order to find the cash to publish a book with 100 of the best stories.

I think the project – whatever it’s called – is a brilliant idea and I look forward to reading the book when it’s completed.

Apart from wanting to read the book and wanting to help it get into print, I chose to pledge (for a signed, first edition hardback copy) because Michelle Thomas had only recently launched her project and I wanted to follow an Unbound book all the way through its cycle. I pledged when the book had just 7% support, and now, two weeks later, it’s got 13%, so I’m excited to see how the campaign develops.

I encourage you to support Michelle Thomas’s campaign too! The criticism I expressed of Unbound in my earlier blog entry (that they add 50% for postage and packing outside of the UK) does not apply to e-books, so if you can afford it, why not pledge £10 (that’s about 115 Skr) and help this interesting indie effort? Pledging also gets you access to the author’s “shed” – her Unbound-dedicated blog (not the same as her Blogger blog linked above) where she’s posted some of the original recordings along with links to her transcriptions.

Springfield Road

Salena Godden from her Unbound video pitch
Salena Godden from her Unbound video pitch

The second book I chose to support is Salena Godden’s Springfield Road. “Support” may be going a bit far as the book was already fully subscribed when I signed up, but the autobiography of this stand-up poet and her memories of growing up as a child in Hastings – just along the coast from Brighton, my own home town – sounds like something I’ll enjoy reading.

I was also interested to sponsor a funded project in order to see how it develops from full funding to published. I paid the minimum (£10) for a copy of the e-book and while I wait for publication I can follow Salena Godden’s Unbound blog (in her “shed”) and also get pointed to other events she’s involved in. (Interviews on the BBC, public readings of parts of the autobiography, her earlier books and her poetry.)

The Nine Lives of John Ogilby

My third choice fell on Alan Ereira’s The Nine Lives of John Ogilby. This will be a history book about a fascinating 17th century character. John Ogilby, says Alan Ereira, went through nine careers in his long life…

He was dancer, poet, publisher (the first crowd-funding publisher), Master of the Revels in Ireland and impresario. His final project, when he was over 70, was to create from scratch a new kind of map, the first national road atlas of any country in the world. Until this old man accurately measured 20,000 miles of roads, maps simply did not have roads on them.

The road atlas was called Britannia and was published in 1675. Alan Ereira’s projected book, though, will tell more than just the story of this extraordinary man, it will interpret Britannia and reveal (we are promised) a coded secret – a plot to invade Britain and re-establish an absolute monarchy.

I chose to support this project (by pledging for the hardback) partly because I’m interested in Ogilby’s story. In part I also chose it because Alan Ereira has been involved as co-author with Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) in writing three earlier history books (Crusades, Medieval Lives, Barbarians). Alan Ereira’s professional presentation of the book in his video, backed up by Terry Jones who endorses the book, and the fact that they seem to be planning a TV series together based on the book, also swung me to pledge.

Alan Eriera
Alan Eriera from his Unbound video pitch

I confess, I thought there was a better chance that Alan Ereira’s book would end up fully funded than that Michelle Thomas’s would.

I’m less sure now.

Having pledged and gained access to Alan Ereira’s “shed” I realise he has been looking for funding at Unbound for at least a year. His Unbound blog has exactly two entries, the last dated August 2013. Which, sadly, isn’t promising.

However, if I decide that John Ogilby’s story doesn’t look as though it’s going to get told – or not through the help of Unbound – then trying to disengage myself from supporting it will also be part of my learning experience as regards crowd funding.


After signing up to support Unbound two weeks back I was in two minds about the site. I’ve since read through their legal documentation (the small print), which makes some things a bit clearer. Also, I’ve been in communication with them – and I’m hoping for some answers (which I’ll share in a later post).

There’s more to crowd funding for publication than at first meets the eye. (And isn’t that true of all indie publishing?) It’s a learning experience, but it’s a fun learning experience.

The next blog entry will say something more about FundedByMe.

Till then, cheerio!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Crystal clear

A review of
The Story of English in 100 Words
David Crystal
Profile Books, London, 2011.

If you have had anything professionally to do with the English language over the last 40-odd years, David Crystal will be a familiar name. Perhaps, like me, you will have come across him first as the knowledgeable, wise and eminently readable author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987) or the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995). Or you may know him from one of his more abstruse titles like Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English (1969), or Introduction to Language Pathology (1980).

The Story of English in 100 Words
My copy of The Story of English in 100 Words

On the other hand, you may know him from his more popular writing on language use and history. The Story of English in 100 Words is one of the latter sort. For Swedish readers (I am writing this as a long-time resident of Sweden), David Crystal is like an English combination of Sture Allén and Fredrick Lindström. He marries effortlessly the erudition of a lifetime’s study of linguistics with wit, humour and an ease of communication that most of us can only aspire to.

In this book, David Crystal picks just 100 words from the English dictionary, and uses each as a jumping off point for 100 short (1-3 page) essays. Each essay discusses the word, its history and context, but goes further by using each word to explore all sorts of interesting linguistic and etymological byways.

The book follows a more or less chronological sequence. The first word, roe (rådjur), is the first known example of an English word in writing (from the 6th century). The last word, Twittersphere, is a coinage from the first decade of the 20th century. In between Crystal takes up, for example, loan words (street, skunk, trek), place names (lea), abbreviations (and, DNA, rep), grammar (ain’t, grammar), spelling (debt, music), word-play (riddle, Strine), neologisms (doable, ink-horn, doublespeak, muggle), pronunciation (garage), taboo and swear words (cunt, arse, bloody) – and a good many other topics. Along the way the reader is enlightened about the use of and to start sentences (perfectly acceptable), the alternate spellings of jail/gaol (both are correct in British English and have been for centuries), and the true origin of OK.

Of course you can read The Story of English in 100 Words from cover to cover, but it’s also a great book for dipping into and a fine source of trivial (and not so trivial) facts. Did you know, for example that the word matrix comes from William Tyndall’s 1525 translation of St Luke’s Gospel? Or that the difference in the two senses of billion (it means either 1,000,000,000 or 1,000,000,000,000) is down to a dispute between the British and the French, and that the British lost the argument and officially admitted defeat – in the House of Commons no less – in 1974?

And of course there are nods of acknowledgement to all the many languages that have contributed to English over its 15 centuries of development, both the obvious ones like Latin, French and Greek, and all the many others including Old Norse – the parent of all the Scandinavian languages.

If you are interested in English specifically, or languages in general – where they come from, how they develop – and you’ve never read anything by David Crystal before, then The Story of English in 100 Words is a great introduction. And if you already admire David Crystal but have not yet read this book, you have a treat in store.

(Note: All the words in bold in the above are among the 100 head-words in the book.)

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales by Ursula K LeGuinA reveiw of Orsinian Tales by Ursula K LeGuin

It takes a certain skill to write short stories. It takes a different skill to write novels. Some novelists are dreadful short story writers and some short story writers can’t write novels for toffee. Ursula K LeGuin falls into that slim category of writer who commands the skills of both the novelist and the short story writer – and much else besides

Although she is better known for her science-fiction, LeGuin has turned her hand to many different genres and forms over the years. In her stories from the imaginary central European country of Orsinia she focused her talents on historical fiction. The 11 stories that make up the Orsinian Tales are each set in a different historical period from 1150 (“The Barrow”), by way of 1640 (“The Lady of Moge”), to 1965 (“The House”). However LeGuin’s interest in politics and recent history, and her romantic vision, lead her to focus on the 20th century.

The book opens with “The Fountains” of Versailles in which Dr Kereth, a cytologist, without planning it, finds himself with the opportunity to seek political asylum in France, escaping from the communist state that Orsinia has become by 1960. His choice is typically Ursuline – by which I mean not obvious, but one hundred per cent believable. The book closes, appropriately, with “Imaginary Countries”, a lovely little account of the last days of a summer holiday that resonates with warmth and a nostalgia for childhood.

In between, the stories visit people in different classes of society, in different periods, but all struggling with universal human issues. Birth and faith in “The Barrow”, love and longing especially in “Conversations at Night” and “Brothers and Sisters”, sanity and murder in “Ile Forest”. There is a search for freedom in many of the stories, perhaps most in “The Fountains” and “The Road East”, loyalty and betrayal figure in “The Lady of Moge”, exclusion and inclusion in “A Week in the Country”, the art of knowing and being oneself is another theme of “Brothers and Sisters”. In “An Die Musik” the focus is the creative impulse itself: Why write (in this case music) in a world where creativity has dubious economic value and bestows no material power?

Although each story contains indications of the period of time in which it set, each story also concludes with a year, and sometimes if you’re not sure exactly when the story is taking place coming across the date at the end can cause you to re-evaluate what you’ve read. For me in particular “Imaginary Countries” is made all the more poignant by discovering at the end that the story is set in 1935. Immediately I find myself calculating: Stanislas is 14 so he’ll be called up to the army in three or four years and find himself fighting perhaps against a German invader, perhaps alongside German allies in the Second World War. And what will happen to Josef and his future at the seminary? What will happen to Paul and Zida and the Baroness?

Although at least one of the stories, “An Die Musik”, was first printed as early as 1961 (it was LeGuin’s first published short story), the Orsinian Tales were collected and published in 1976. Of her science fiction, LeGuin has said she often writes a short story as a lead-in to writing a novel, or as a pendant piece to a novel completed. On first glance, the Tales fit this scenario, preceding by three years the 1979 release of Malafrena. Malafrena, LeGuin’s first published historical novel, is also set in Orsinia, sometime in the middle of the 19th century.

But appearances can be deceptive. In her essay “A Citizen of Mondath” (Foundation #4 1973), she describes the Orsinian stories as her way into creative writing, the means by which she learned her craft. By 1961 she had written four novels set in Orsinia, none of which she could publish. Her shift into writing science-fiction, which took place in that same year proved the door to publishing success, but she never forgot Orsinia, and I for one am glad of that.

The Orsinian Tales are a good read, and good to re-read. I’ve just re-read them now after a break of at least 10 years – and I first read them in 1980 – and I testify that they hold up. At the end of “An Die Musik”, the protagonist Ladislas Gaye thinks about music in a way I believe it is relevant to think about writing.

What good is music? None… and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘You are irrelevant’; and, arrogant and gentle as a god to the suffering man it says only, ‘Listen.’ For being saved is not the point. Music says nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses men build themselves, that they may see the sky.

I like to think that good writing does that too. And by that criteria – as by many another – LeGuin’s writing is good writing.

Visit Ursula K LeGuin’s own website here

Back to Pompeii

Back to Pompeii - coverBack to Pompeii by Kim Kimselius is the first in a series of novels that follow the adventures of Ramona, a schoolgirl, and her boyfriend Theo in different historical periods and places. The series has been a success in Sweden and some of the earlier volumes have been translated into other languages. Back to Pompeii is the first English translation (by Jennifer Lee), and was published in 2013.

Ramona, a Swedish schoolgirl, is taking part in an educational trip to the ruins at Pompeii with the rest of her class. Plagued by a headache, she steals away from the tour to rest in the cool shade of a bakery. She falls asleep, and wakes to find herself 2000 years back in time, in a very lively Pompeii on the eve of the volcanic eruption that will bury the city and its people in ash.

Ramona is torn between delight and fear. Delight at finding herself in ancient Pompeii among the living people whose plaster death-casts she has seen in the museum, and fear of the coming destruction. More, as she has no idea whether she will be able to return to her own time, she fears even if she survives the eruption that she may be stranded in this ancient world for the rest of her life.

One theme of Back to Pompeii is the value of friendship. Ramona’s fears are quietened when she meets and is befriended by Theo, a boy of her own age. Theo is an upper-class Roman who is first beguiled by Ramona’s bare legs. (She was transported back in time dressed exactly as a modern teenager on holiday in Italy.) Theo borrows appropriate clothes for her from his rather haughty sister Livia , and then presents her around as a cousin from Rome. In Theo’s home Ramona is welcomed as his friend.

The story is an enjoyable and easy read (it is quite a short book – about 50,000 words) and it wears its historical costume lightly. By this I mean the book conveys a deal of information about life in Pompeii – about dress and custom and what may have happened when Vesuvius erupted – well integrated with an exciting story.

Ramona is a believable teenager, and for the most part so is Theo. If Theo’s family and friends seem surprisingly laid back about Ramona’s sudden appearance and Theo’s friendship with her, then that is perhaps explained away by the conventions of the genre. This is a time-slip novel that isn’t interested in the how or the why of the slip. It is neither science-fiction nor fantasy (no time machine, no magic), the slip in time is simply a vehicle to put a modern girl into an historical milieu.

Ramona’s attempts to explain certain things modern kids would take for granted are quite funny. An aeroplane, for example.

“Airplanes look almost like that bird… but they have engines… An engine is like a donkey… It gives power to the airplane so it can fly. Just like the donkey gives the stone power to grind the corn.”

“A donkey on a bird? … Anyone can see there’s not enough room for a donkey on a bird!”

Kim Kimselius is rather good at pulling her readers up short, making them reconsider their assumptions about their own time and about the historical period her characters are living in. Speaking for a moment as a teacher, I can see a particular value in the novel as a teaching tool to introduce the idea of prejudice and to give concrete examples to debate without personalising the issue.

The book highlights one particular aspect of ancient Roman society: slavery. To begin with, Ramona fears she may be sold as a slave, a fear that recedes as she gets to know Theo and his family. But the presence of slaves as a class in Pompeii is never allowed to fade away and at a critical moment Ramona’s early fears are made real again when she and Theo are separated. The threat of violence and sexual abuse that Roman slaves must live with runs like a cold current just below the cheerful surface of this novel.

The impending doom that hangs over Pompeii is another undercurrent that takes a dramatic centre stage in the latter part of the novel. In good disaster movie fashion, Ramona sets out to save the lives of the people she has met – and the reader cheers her on. But she is frustrated at (almost) every turn. No one believes her. How is it possible that Vesuvius, green with vineyards, is really a dormant volcano about to blow its top?

Yet it does, and the choking ash that finally and inevitably lays a suffocating blanket over the city is frighteningly described.

Obviously, Tillbaka till Pompeji was written with a Swedish audience in mind. How would it work with an English audience? I imagine a frisson of curiosity when a young English reader realises that Ramona and her fellow school children think of and talk to their teacher as “Elisabeth” rather than, say, “Ms Andersson”. However, most of Ramona’s other assumptions would, I think, be shared by English-speaking girls of her age.

The translation is generally good and appropriate, though at times the vocabulary seems to hover between British and American. For example, the school children “queue” for ice-cream (rather than “stand in line”), but Ramona talks about “airplanes” (rather than “aeroplanes”). Still, I don’t suppose these uncertainties would be disturbing for most readers in the target audience.

One language point that caused me confusion – at the most dramatic point in the story – are the references to flying “chunks of lava”. To the best of my knowledge, lava is molten (liquid) rock, and as such cannot form “chunks”. The rocks spewed out by explosively erupting volcanoes are better described as hot rocks, surely? If a technical term is called for then they are pyroclasts or tephra. (Yes, I looked that up!) I am not sure whether this slip is the responsibility of the translator or the author.

However, these small quibbles aside, Back to Pompeii is a good read and a book I would happily put in the hands of any 12-to-15-year-old. (And it wouldn’t bore the pants off their parents either.)

Kim M. Kimselius is the author of Back to Pompeii. Visit the author’s website to contact her or learn more about her books (English). Or visit her blog (Swedish).

Buy copies of Back to Pompeii from AdLibris or Bokus.

Read reveiws of her other books (various languages) on the GoodReads website.

This review was written as a contribution to the Swedish Egenutgivarnas Recommendation Tree project.