Twenty years of writing reader reports for NBG

NBG reader Feline Charpentier looks back on two decades of writing reader reports for New Books in German.

I recently unpacked my many boxes of books. We’ve moved house a few times in the last few years, and now we are finally settled, in a small town in Devon. It is hard to overstate the excitement I feel over the fact we are getting bookshelves built, and my piles of beloved books will finally have a proper home.

It was in one of these boxes that I found my stack of old NBG magazines, a little faded and dog eared, but a treasure trove of memories. It made me reflect back on the many years I have been reading and writing reports for New Books in German.

It was my mother, Annette Charpentier, who first got me the gig. She’s a translator and author from Hagen in North Rhein-Westphalia and moved to the UK in 1980, when I was two years old. My mother continued to build her impressive portfolio of translated works, currently totalling over 250 books. In 1996, a colleague recommended she get in touch with Rosemary Smith, together with Tanja Howarth, who was setting up a new group, to champion German language writing.

It was a couple of years later that Mum suggested I apply to be a reader too. Twice a year we would eagerly call each other to discuss what book we had been sent (in those days we were sent the original book or manuscript in the post) and what we thought of it. Sometimes, if we loved it enough, we would swap books, just for the pleasure of it. We’d write our reviews, and a few months later we’d receive the magazine in the post, impatiently leafing through to see if our books had ‘made the cut’.

I don’t think I am a ‘traditional’ book report writer. I work in education, initially as a teacher, and now in postgraduate student support. My passion for literature got me the job (as well as a little nepotism I guess…) and in a way, the reviewing and assessing these books is what helped me reconnect with my own writing. For the last few years, I have been writing short stories and essays, and I am currently working on the edits of a novel. Doing the reports requires the ability to read a work of fiction, as a straightforward reader, but also with a critical eye, and then boil it down to a few hundred words. Anyone who’s ever had to write a synopsis will know how painful this process can be! The reviews have certainly given me lots of practise.

Over the years I have learned a lot about what makes a good report, so that the jury has all the information it needs to make a judgement on the book’s suitability for the English-speaking market.

While reading, I constantly remind myself to view it not just through the lens of my own reaction. How would this read if it were in English? Is it very specific to a German-language reader, or would anyone else be interested in this too?

Feline Charpentier

Once I have read the whole book, I jot down my initial gut reaction. Did I love it, hate it, feel indifferent? And then, if I can see the skill that’s gone into the book, and its impact on me, can I imagine it being read by an English speaker? Are the themes universal enough to be translated? While reading, I constantly remind myself to view it not just through the lens of my own reaction. How would this read if it were in English? Is it very specific to a German-language reader, or would anyone else be interested in this too? Would there be particular challenges for the translator? Are there books with a similar topic on the market? Are they finding a readership? Have books by this author been translated into other languages?

I can remember getting it wrong once, and how I had to learn the hard way that the best reviews are personal, honest and clear-cut. In 2016 I reviewed a very literary, philosophical novel, so sophisticated that from the first page to the last I had almost no idea what was actually going on. Set on an imaginary, otherworldly cruise liner, the protagonist didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t, all the characters he met kept changing, the locations shifted and blended into one another, and over the 300 or so pages nothing really happened. I didn’t even know where to begin with my review. Instead of writing this honest appraisal, I waffled on and tried to make some sense of what I had read, assuming I was just too stupid to really understand. Needless to say, the assessor couldn’t use what I had written, questioning whether I had read the book at all, and in the end the book did not make it past the jury anyway.

These days we are only sent books from genres we have expressed an interest in, which is a recent and very welcome development. I personally like literary, historical fiction and stories with broader themes means, which means that I feel better able to review books in that category, than, say, a more commercial novel or abstract philosophical work.

Looking through those old NBG magazines, the themes of the books don’t seem to have changed that much in all these years. German literature has, in my view, always been introspective in nature – it is essentially character-led, is often about identity and nationality: What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to be German?
I think one of the reasons we are seeing a rise in German work in translation in the UK and the US is that those themes have become more universal. We have all been forced to look inwards, to try to understand ourselves, and our place in the world.

I have lived in the UK so long, and speak English naturally, that I often forget my German roots. I still have some family in the ‘motherland’, as my sisters and I call it, but I haven’t been able to go back for a number of years now. Life is too busy, too expensive, too tiring. One of the great pleasures of reviewing for NBG is the access to German literature, and therefore a path back to my past.

Little compares to the enormous satisfaction that comes when your book is selected! I still feel a thrill, and a sense of pride, when my report of a title is chosen and features on the website. I have hope then that a translator and publisher will be found and that the book might get a wider audience.

When we chatted about our memories, standout books for Annette were a dissertation work on the German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s time with contemporaries in Italy because it was so decidedly an absolute minority subject. Another one was Aus unseren Feuern, by Domenico Müllensiefen, an intense and heart-breaking story about young people in the ex-GDR, after the fall of the Berlin wall – which she would have loved to translate.

Being a reader for NBG has introduced me to some incredible authors over the years.

Feline Charpentier

Being a reader for NBG has introduced me to some incredible authors over the years: Zsuzsa Bank, Raphaela Edelbauer, Doris Knecht, among many others. After finishing their books and writing my reviews, I immediately ordered more of their work. I was excited to learn that Edelbauer’s ‘Das flüssige Land’ was translated into English by Jen Calleja, a previous NBG editor. My hope is that Edelbauer’s book ‘Dave’, a remarkable dystopian science fiction novel about the horrors of AI, will soon follow suit.

Another recent standout which I had the pleasure to review was Ulrike Draesner’s ‘Die Verwandelten’, which also made it to the jury selection. This incredible story, of inter-generational trauma, and hope in the face of unimaginable adversity, told through the lives of three different women, has stayed with me, and I keep hoping to see the ‘rights now sold’ banner under the title on the website.

It is a genuinely exciting time to be a reader, with literature in translation finally getting more recognition and a market focus it deserves.

Feline Charpentier

It is books like this which remind me what an absolute privilege it is to be able to read new literature, to be able to have some small part in a book’s journey. It is a genuinely exciting time to be a reader, with literature in translation finally getting more recognition and a market focus it deserves. When my mother and I were talking about this article, we both agreed: we hope we get to keep doing this for a good while yet!


Feline Charpentier was born in Germany but grew up in the wilds of North Wales. She has lived in Berlin, northern France, Cornwall and London. Feline has had many jobs, from river surveyor to pizza chef. She has three children, and recently moved to South Devon.

Feline has a number of fiction and non-fiction pieces due out in print, and she is currently working on edits for a novel, spanning three generations and set in the mountains of Snowdonia.


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