on 31 May 2009
In a nice small German town, young girls start disappearing. We experience the growing unease in town through the eyes of 11 year old Pia who is determined to unravel the mystery.
My summary may make this seem as a children's book on an adult topic. Actually, the suspense and adult writing style make it more suitable for both adults and older teenagers, who are less naive than Pia about the bad things that might happen.
This is actually a really good page-turner, far from being a generic pulpish thriller it is rather an endearing story that makes us reflect on how we perceived the world as a child, for example Pia's worry that her only real friend is the least popular boy in school, is more tangible than how she experiences the disappearances as something abstract, or an event from a cruel fairy tale. The story gets more intense, thriller-like towards the end.
The style is remarkably confident for a debut and utterly readable, with good dialogue, great filmic suspense, and several funny details (again often linked to Pia's perception), yet also poignant in the depiction of the slowly disintegrating marriage of Pia's parents: the father being a friendly level-headed German, while the British mother who never adjusted to life in Bad Münstereiffel being both manupilative and caring. This is actually a real city, and when you google it for pictures you may well conclude that the mother should do more effort to adjust, as it looks really nice. Another amusing detail is the sprinkling of a few German words throughout the text, and it's never a burden as the context or a short glossary at the end keep things clear - I think it adds character to the text. All the above make it an interesting and original work, that I think could well be translated to the screen.
In short, a recommended suspenseful book that strays from the beaten path.
Set in a small German town in 1999, this novel could be enjoyed by both teens and adults. Katharina is the first young girl to disappear in broad daylight on a chilly day in February. The atmosphere of unease is heightened when more girls vanish mysteriously and some of the townsfolk are keen to point the finger of blame at one eccentric individual.
The story is narrated by Pia, a bright ten year old who finds herself alienated at school when her grandmother dies in rather unconventional circumstances -
"My life would have been so different had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded. And had I not been born in Bad Munstereifel. If we had lived in the city - well I'm not saying the event would have gone unnoticed, but the fuss would probably only have lasted a week before public interest moved elsewhere."
Poor Pia finds herself shunned by former friends and her only remaining ally is another pariah, StinkStefan. The two pair up and focus their attentions on discovering who is responsible for the abductions. At first they suspect faery or occult involvement but then they toe the party line and zoom in on the town gossips' preferred target, the unconventional Herr Duster.
Unusually, for a children's book, the writing is quite adult in style, very lyrical at times. There is an air of menace throughout the novel with frequent references to folklore in the style of the grim Brothers Grim rather than dainty Disney. Perhaps this fits in with the age of the narrator, Pia at 19 recalling the events of 9 years before and she reinterprets invents through a more adult viewpoint. The author has a great sense of place, vividly recreating the small town German setting complete with festivals and traditions. I do wish I'd been aware of the glossary of German words and phrases at the back of the book before I reached the end as it would have saved a lot of guesswork on my part! There is a lovely section where Pia spends time in England with her maternal grandmother and experiences the difficulties of being a stranger in a strange land. Indeed there are quite a lot of adult themes which would be beyond the average 12 year old's understanding, so yes, it's a book for more sophisticated teens and adults.
I really enjoyed this, Helen Grant's debut novel - it surprised me with its many layers and richness of language and Pia and StinkStefan are a memorable duo. I'm looking forward to her next novel The Glass Demon.
on 11 June 2009
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden By Helen Grant
An enjoyable read from end to end - full of rich details and beautifully written.
The setting seems to truly come alive, with references to local customs and folklore alongside a real sense of place - this is not a fictional location but so real that you can almost feel the stones of the old town.
The characters are a blend of both the traditional German townsfolk, reserved and presenting an outward face of civility while harbouring long held suspicions, fear and resentment, alongside a splash of Englishness that seems to throw both cultures into contrast.
Although a child at the time of the story, the main characters narrative is told from an adult perspective, looking back at the dark events that occurred in the quiet town. This allows the language of the story to be told in a more adult way with fascinating description and wonderful detail.
The story itself touches on a subject that is truly relevant today and highlights the fear that so influences parents views of our children's safety but as it is told from a child's perspective it is all the more frightening and dark. While the adult characters struggle with truth and justice, the children challenge their fears and seek more direct answers with terrifying consequences!
Let's hope there are more books from this talented new author!
on 3 March 2016
As good as I expected, based on how much I enjoyed Grant's Forbidden Spaces books. This one is aimed a little younger (although I'd hesitate to call it a children's book), but if anything it's even more atmospheric and creepy than the Belgian thrillers.
Characters are well drawn, and local myths and legends are well integrated into the story, informing Pia's view of events. It's a real page-turner, especially towards the end, although the ending is a little strange, with the climactic scene deliberately leaving out some explanatory detail that a more conventional storyteller might have included in order to tie up all the loose ends with a neat bow. But in a way that's more interesting than spelling everything out, and perhaps is a more accurate reflection of the point of view of a ten year old protagonist who has already admitted earlier in the book that she often doesn't understand adults' motives and behaviour.
I just wish I had the edition pictured here. I ended up with a more recent Penguin edition which is covered with inappropriate pink and silver sparkles, as if this were a book about fairies or ponies or something.
on 25 January 2010
This book is much more than your regular children's mystery thriller. It intertwines the almost-contemporary mystery with Grimm-like tales, and the domestic situation of the narrator (a 19-year-old looking back on her 10-year-old self), to produce a rich narrative. The grimness, indeed gruesomeness, of the story is counterbalanced by a wry observation of character interspersed with humour.
In some ways it could be compared with Anne Cassidy's 'Looking for JJ', and it is much more mature than you would imagine from the cover, in the same way that the real Grimm stories are earthy and unsettling.
I think adults would enjoy this book as much as teenagers. I note that is published under the Penguin imprint rather than the Puffin.
on 5 September 2015
This starts out really well, with the typically claustrophobic small town setting in the middle of nowhere, populated by people who seem to know everything about each other (and what they don't know, they're quick to make up). It's a safe town, where parents let their children wander freely round the streets, happy in the knowledge they are out of harm's way. That is, until one, then two, then three girls go missing. And no one can work out how it's happening or who is doing it.
Sadly, once the first girl went missing I found the story going downhill quite quickly, both in terms of how engaging it was and the style of writing. Grant describes everything, from protagonist Pia putting her rucksack on her back to go to school, to the meal she had for lunch and all the endless minutiae in between. As a reader, I'm not interested in all that. I'm interested in following Pia and her friend Stefan as they discover more about what's going on in their once safe town, and who's behind it. Everything else is inconsequential to the main event and not necessary to know in order to keep things moving. Unfortunately Grant doesn't appear to feel the same, with pages and pages given over to endless description, including the quite frankly boring folktales that Herr Schiller tells the children when they go to visit him.
Another gripe is the old fashioned feel of the whole novel. For a story that's supposed to be set in the late '90s, it feels more like it's stuck in a tired 'On the Buses' style film from the '60s. There's the trusty old police sergeant, dutifully making his rounds; lots of gossipy old women wearing flowery dresses, standing about trading malicious rumours whilst simultaneously berating the children for making a nuisance of themselves; old men who stroll aimlessly about the town, waving to everyone whilst people watch and comment on how 'lovely' or 'kind' they are; and lastly in Pia's house, a chauvinistic father who won't let his wife go out to work because being at home is 'her place'. Something that's further supported by the fact that Pia's mother never seems to leave the kitchen, wanders about with a tea towel permanently stuck in her hand, and is typically found cooking, cleaning or washing up.
Even though the town and the book are full of people, you never get the feeling you really know any of them. All of the old men and women are interchangeable; Pia's relatives are either really nice (the German ones) or really horrible (the English ones - her mother is English); the school children are all bullies who blend into one long line of characterless faces; and everyone else is just on the edge of the action. Which makes it a very frustrating read.
As for Pia, I gave her the benefit of the doubt as she's only ten years old. She's a social outcast after losing her grandmother through a freak accident, an incident which is repeatedly mentioned throughout the book, lest we forget. She loses all her friends, who shun her because they are scared they'll 'catch' whatever it is that made Pia's grandmother 'explode' (a rumour that quickly becomes fact thanks to some particularly vicious small town gossips). As a result, Pia is befriended by Stefan - or StinkStefan as he's unkindly called - a fact she repeatedly declares as awful and unwelcome. However, for all her declarations of disgust at having Stefan as her only friend, he remains a devoted companion, despite Pia being a bit of a wet sap.
I have to confess I stopped reading this at around chapter 19, skim reading the rest just to find out 'who dunnit'. I was surprised to discover who it was, but not interested enough to read through to the end to find out why they did it or what becomes of them.
I'm glad I read Grant's second novel 'The Glass Demon' before reading this, which is her first offering. On the basis of my experience with this one, there's no doubt in my mind I would ever have bothered seeking out more of her work. If you're looking to introduce yourself to Grant's writing, I would definitely suggest reading 'The Glass Demon' above this one - it's far more engaging, has characters you can actually warm to and there's far less descriptive text to wade through before you get to the real story.
on 10 February 2012
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is Helen Grant's debut novel, which, ironically, I read last after The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead. So for me it was a return to Bad Münstereifel and some characters I'd met before, such as Frau Kessel and Frau Nett and familiar locations. Reading the book also once more underlined how much I enjoy Grant's writing. It only took me about twenty-one pages to fall in love with this book's protagonist, Pia.
Pia is a lovely narrator, cleverly set up to narrate the story several years after what happened in the book. This gives the author the possibility to combine the ten-year-old perspective on the happenings in the village with the added observations of the older Pia. I found this approach a refreshing one, as it shows the complete innocence and fearlessness ten-year-olds possess and at the same time give a good reason for Pia to be able to narrate her story in a grown-up manner.
I loved the combination of Pia and Stefan, or StinkStefan as Pia sometimes refers to him. While I can understand Pia's resentment of being stuck with the most unpopular boy in her class, at the same time I wanted to shake her and tell her to be grateful to have found such a steadfast friend in Stefan. He never even asks her about her Oma Kristel's accident, which is commendable. Oma Kristel's fatal accident is both tragic and hilarious and it's easy to see why it holds such fascination for both the children and the adults of the town. But Stefan never mentions it, he just accepts Pia for who she is. At the same time, I really felt for Stefan, who doesn't seem to have a very happy home life and seems to be able to do as he pleases, even once the girls start disappearing. This is contrasted by Pia's mum's reaction to the situation, which is the desire to move back home to Britain immediately. I can completely understand Pia's English mum wanting to go back to Britain to keep her daughter safe, but at the same time I understand her dad's reluctance to leave his home town.
The frantic atmosphere the girls' disappearance causes in this small town is palpable and well-drawn. While Pia is more fascinated by what happened to Katharina and the others, we feel the adults' anxiety in the way they keep the children at home, need them to check in whenever they are out and by the excessive security measures during large town events, such as St. Martin. In addition to the large scale drama of the disappearances there is the more domestic drama of Pia's parents' marriage breaking up. While this might not be totally due to the disappearances and the consequent tensions, as mum seems to not have been that happy in the small town of Bad Münstereifel, it does reinforce the impact of such events on a small community.
What was fun, was spotting little details that return in Wish Me Dead. When Frau Kessel appeared I groaned; she's a totally despicable old biddy who thrives on gossip and is super malicious in spreading rumours. One such rumour mentioned concerns Magdalena Nett, which connected directly to Wish Me Dead's narrator, Steffi Nett. She also has opinions on who exactly is the culprit in this book and isn't afraid to tell anyone who'll listen. This in turn leads to somewhat of a lynch mob mentality in the townspeople, who besiege the home of the person she accuses. This re-enforces the dangers of gossip, especially in small towns, a point that is also made in Wish me Dead.
The mystery in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden was well done - at some point I had my suspicions as to the true culprit but didn't want to believe it - but at the same time was almost secondary in the narrative to the emotional consequences of the events of the book. The book is a strong debut, but having read Grant's following novels you can see how she's grown in her confidence as writer. Still this is a wonderful story, which makes turning pages for far longer than you planned very, very easy. If you like mystery and YA, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is a lovely book to read. Meanwhile, I'm impatiently looking forward to Grant's next book, Silent Saturday, which will be released next year.
on 27 July 2010
THE VANISHING OF KATHARINA LINDEN reminds me of the PBS Mysteries set in a rural English village. The sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, and where there is not much that goes on that is private. Except in this case the setting is not Northampton or Derby, but a small village in Germany. And point of view is that of a child of 10, instead of an inquisitive older lady.
The story begins right off with a death, but it isn't the one you might expect. As the first line says: "My life might have been so different if I had not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded!"
Certainly one of the most intriguing first lines I've run across lately. But the death of Pia's Oma Kristel is really unrelated to the tragedy that strikes the Linden family. Instead it serves as an event that allows the author the opportunity to set the stage and familiarize you with the characters. It isn't until later that the school girl, Katharina Linden, goes missing, and that under the most difficult of circumstances. For you see she vanishes in the middle of a huge event featuring everyone in town that is-and-isn't in a parade. And in a small town like that, you can well imagine the shock and concern. Is there some monster that has come into our community? Or worse, is it one of our neighbors that gone crazy? Concern and grief naturally lead the people to search their town's history for clues as to what could possible have happened. And try as they might to protect her, little Pia learns more than she should, and it's through her eyes that we see the mystery evolve.
o-- I liked the setting of this book and the little bits of German that are used throughout. I thought it help anchor the story to Germany and made the events more real. (Having a daughter the age of Pia and Katharina made for a edgy read at times.)
o-- There were delicious moments when I was left wondering whether Helen Grant was going to take the book off into the realm of mystical events; which may have had something to do with Schwarzwald-type setting, complete with ruins and legends of dark deeds, or with the fairytales that were told to Pia.
o-- I think this book is best read when you're in a mood to savor a place and it's history and people. The story unfolds at a pace more reminiscent of the old Agatha Cristie books than one of the 'edge of your seat' modern reads where there's never a quiet moment. Well written.
on 30 July 2011
Helen Grant is a very good writer who had, before trying to write so-called 'Young Adult' novels, established her credentials in her ghost stories and stories of the supernatural, published in the niche magazines like Ghosts & Scholars and Supernatural Tales. When I had purchased this book, and started reading it, I was expecting to encounter horrors from those angles. As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong. Yes, her characteristic humour shines in certain passages. Yes, Pia is loveable, and you feel like walking with her in the quest for the girl who had vanished in a small town where everybody knows others. But, that's where the "Young" component of this book ends. It deals with a very grim & disturbingly real horror which can indeed desttroy lives of others, and often entire comminities, since its source is neither "from-beyond-the-grave" nor "mysterious persons bent on world-domination". To describe more would be spoiling the book for any future reader, so I stop here. It is a very good and disturbing thriller, but definitely not for the young!
on 10 December 2011
I read this in 3 days; in bed, at school, in assembly, in the supermarket - even on a walk! So addictive!
10/11 year old Pia Kolvenbach lives in Germany with her British mother and German father and young brother Sebastian. She has no friends at school since her grandmother - Oma Warner - 'exploded' at Christmas, and is always asked questions about it. However, StinkStefan - as Pia used to call him - who is the most unpopular boy in the whole school, becomes a close friend. One day, Katharina Linden, a girl in the year below Pia, suddenly disappears at the parade. Pia and Stefan are determined to discover how, why, where, who and what has happened. But then another girl vanishes.......
A tale of friendship, slight horror, and pure curiosity. An excellent read for older children, teens and adults too. I enjoyed this so much that I read all other Helen Grant books on the market! Try it - you won't be disappointed.