Asterix and the Chariot Race – Jean-Yves Ferri

This is not the book I was planning to post about this week as I am aiming to do a fuller story of the Asterix books later this year but I was doing a quick scan read to get my head round what I wanted to say and this book came up as extremely pertinent to the current world news, so I have added this short review.

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Now you may wonder why a book set during the time of Julius Caesar featuring a small tribe of Gauls would be so relevant to the present day and I will get to that but first a little bit about the series. The Asterix series of books started with ‘Asterix the Gaul’ written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo in 1961 and now run to 38 volumes although now no longer by the originators. Goscinny  worked with Uderzo on the first two dozen titles until he died in 1977. Uderzo then wrote and illustrated a further ten books until 2009. In 2013 the first book written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad appeared and this team have so far produced four titles of which this is their third (overall book 37) and was published in 2017. All comments below relate to the English translation of the text which was done by Adriana Hunter, this was her first time translating Asterix and overall I think she does a good job having taken over from Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell, who between them translated the first 36 books.

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The story starts with complaints about the state of the roads with potholes everywhere throughout the network in Italy. Consul Lactus Bifidus is challenged in the Roman Senate to do something about it as he is in charge of the roads but instead announces a chariot race to prove how good the roads are. The race is to be open to all comers and will start in the north of the country in what is now Lombardy and speed down to the south with a cup for the winner. Asterix and Obelix decide to enter even though neither of them are charioteers mainly because as the chief of their village, in the English translation he is Vitalstatistix, says

It might be fun bothering them on their home turf for once

A lot of the names are changed in the English translations but I need to point out at this juncture that the significant one from this book is the same in the original French edition ‘Astérix et la Transitalique’. The route of the race can be seen on the flyer shown below.

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Lactus Bifidus is visited at home by the Emperor Julius Caesar and it is made quite clear to him that a Roman has to win or he will be personally fixing the roads in Libya which can definitely be seen as an incentive so he finds a great champion. Now this is where the book becomes a bit weird for those of us reading it in March 2020 as the name of the great charioteer is revealed and he is subsequently cheered on in very large text through the rest of the book.

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Yes you read that right, the person racing down Italy starting in Lombardy, for the honour of the Roman people, in a book published in 2017 is Coronavirus.  To prove that this is the original name and not one which Adriana Hunter came up with below is the original French panel.

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Stay safe everyone and let’s hope that things improve soon.



The Unadulterated Cat – Terry Pratchett

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One of Terry Pratchett’s least well known books, The Unadulterated Cat is an odd mix of cat lovers companion, a parody of the Campaign for Real Ale, and a heavy dose humour about the joys (or otherwise) of owning a cat. It is illustrated by Gray Jolliffe whose style completely fits in with the text and as discussed below is one of the reasons why I would recommend the later editions over the first. So what is it all about then? Well the opening lines give a pretty good guide.

Far too many people these days have grown used to boring mass-produced cats which may bounce with health and nourishing vitamins but aren’t a patch on the good old cats you used to get. The Campaign for Real Cats wants to change all that by helping people recognise Real Cats when they see one.

Hence this book.

The Campaign for Real Cats is against fizzy keg cats

That last line is a definite reference to CAMRA which as an organisation prefers ‘proper’ cask conditioned ales over anything in a pressurised keg. That used to a reasonable position but nowadays a lot of craft brewers are producing some wonderful keg beers. However on with the review, or at least Pratchett’s idea as to what a Real Cat is…

For example: real cats have ears that look like they’ve been trimmed with pinking shears; real cats never wear flea collars… or appear on Christmas cards… or chase anything with a bell in it; real cats do eat quiche. And giblets. And butter. And anything else left on the table, if they think they can get away with it. Real cats can hear a fridge door opening two rooms away…

Anyone who has ever owned a cat, or gained a cat they didn’t intend to, or indeed have been owned by a cat will recognise most, if not all, of the situations described in the book. Just a selection of chapter titles will give a feel for what is covered.

  • How to get a cat
  • Types of cat
  • Naming cats
  • Illnesses
  • Feeding cats
  • Training and disciplining the Real Cat
  • Games cats play
  • Schrodinger cats
  • The cat in history


That types of cat includes ‘Black cats with white paws’ and ‘Boot faced cats’ is a hint that this is not a book that regards pedigree highly. Training cats is also not something that can be done well apart from using a litter tray anyway as Pratchett points out

You think it’s the cat turning up obediently at the back door at ten o’clock obediently for its dinner. From the cats point, a blob on legs has been trained to take a tin out of the fridge every night.

If you have a sense of humour and own a cat, or frankly even if you don’t then read this book, it will definitely give you a laugh.

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Note of variations between editions

I have two distinct versions of this book. The original first edition was a paperback published by Victor Gollancz in 1989 and is shown at the top of this review. I also have the first hardback edition, also published by Victor Gollancz, but not until 2002, pictured above, and this, along with two intermediate paperback editions, Gollancz in 1992 and Vista in 1997 are all described as ‘revised editions’ so what is different?

Well the initial obvious difference is the covers and the sizes of the two books I have, the first edition is 242mm tall by 172mm wide and the revised hardback is 185mm by 120mm. Partly due to this size differential the first edition is 96 pages as opposed to the 159 pages in the hardback. It appears the text is unchanged, unless there are minor corrections that I haven’t spotted, but the illustrations are significantly different between my two editions. There are a lot more of them in the later edition, which also adds to the page count, and those carried over from the original are sometimes in different places in relation to the text. There is one example of a mirrored version being used. Original version of what can happen if you accidentally leave your real cat in the house when you think it is outside is first.

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Another where the text is amended, apparently to clarify a joke that I think was already quite clear, original to the left

And two illustrations are dropped altogether, along with the front cover of the original which didn’t make it into the revised edition. In the first case the mink coat cartoon was replaced

In the second example there is no illustration at this point in the text in the revised edition.

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Moomins: The Comic Strip

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Tove Jansson wrote her first Moomin book ‘The Moomins and the Great Flood’ (original Swedish title Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen) during WWII and it was published in 1945, Småtrollen translates as small troll. By the second book ‘Comet in Moominland’ (1946) the original Swedish title has Mumintrollet rather than Småtrollen and the Moomins had truly arrived. Interestingly those of us reading the Moomin stories in English didn’t get the first book until 2005 as a 60th anniversary limited edition which is a distinctly odd way to have it’s first English translation.

My younger brother read the Moomins in the early 1970’s as a child but they somehow passed me by, I remember the covers of his books but I don’t think I ever opened them. The first time I really became aware of the Moomins was when I lived in Stockholm whilst subcontracting on IT systems for Swedish company Dagab in the mid 1990’s. By then in Scandinavia you could hardly turn a corner in a shopping area without encountering the familiar white characters and a recent visit showed that the interest is even greater now.

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My interest was taken by the comic strip versions rather than the books, these were originally written and illustrated by Tove from 1954 for the Evening News in the UK and this gave them a huge following. By 1957 however workload from what Tove regarded as her ‘real’ career as an artist meant that she got her younger brother Lars involved and from 1960 he took over as sole writer and artist until the strip finally ended in 1975. Despite not really being a fan of comic strips or graphic novels I love the simple drawings and the tightness of script imposed by the comic strip format to the Moomin tales and if anything I prefer the work by Lars to Tove as there is more humour although the drawings are not as precise. Suggesting this however is probably heresy to true ‘Moominites’. The first strip was published on 20th September 1954, but before that the Evening News ran teaser panels for a week such as the one at the top of this blog.

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Since 2006 Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly had been issuing collections of the cartoon strips at the rate of roughly one a year, although volume 10 came out in August 2015 and nothing since. Emails and attempts to contact the company via their facebook page regarding further volumes have been ignored. After all they have still only reached 1964 of what was described as ‘The Complete Lars Jansson Comic Strip’ and there would still need to be 8 to 10 (difficult to tell how they would choose to split the cartoons into the books) more volumes to complete the set. It is important at this point to emphasise that the comic strip stories are not retelling the nine books by Tove, what we have here is 73 more Moomin tales, 14 of which are by Tove, 7 by the brother and sister in combination and 52 by Lars, so there are 32 Moomin stories written after 1964 that are not currently in print and therefore not available to purchase and read.

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Although I have tagged this essay as “children’s books” and certainly they can be, and are, read by children it is easy to forget how dark a lot of the subject matters covered are, not just in the books but also in the comic strips. From the very first comic strip story where it becomes clear that Moomintroll believes himself to be an orphan and is being put upon by lots of other characters taking advantage of his good nature it is clear that this is not just a simple tale for children. After the end of the series of strips making up ‘Moomin and the Brigands’ he finds his parents when they rescue him whilst he is trying to drown himself to get away from the hordes of people making his life miserable that have eventually driven him from his own home.

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Charles Sutton from Associated Newspapers recognised the more adult possibilities in one of his letters to Tove before the strips were finally commissioned and it is clear that she took this advice to heart when she signed the contract for 7 years worth of cartoons.

It has come to my mind, that your “Moomin” family could make an interesting comic strip, which would not necessarily be aimed at children. It is obvious that the Moomin family appeals to children, but we think these wonderful creatures could be used in comic strip form to satirise our so-called civilised lifestyle.

The Moomin cartoon feature film ‘Moomins on the Riviera’ released in 2014 was based on the third comic strip tale written and illustrated by Tove in 1955, rather than one of her books. This meant that the story was new to most of the people who saw it, as the books are far better known, even though the comic strips were syndicated widely through Europe. In line with the less childlike cartoons Moominpappa at one point has a terrible hangover and Moomintroll himself becomes extremely jealous of Snorkmaiden’s admirers and is not impressed by her tiny bikini which actually looks very daring despite the fact that normally, like Moomintroll, she doesn’t wear any clothes at all. You can see the trailer for the film here.

As an example of Lars Jansson’s work the cartoon below shows Moominpappa being as selfless as ever and willing to put himself out for the good of the family…

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This story has him become totally obsessed with the television and it controls his life (along with all the family as they have to do what he sees as correct according to the adverts) for a while until he finally is brought back to reality.

Hopefully Drawn and Quarterly will eventually start issuing the books again, but until then at least we have access to 10 volumes covering 41 tales. As an aside to this blog, there was a fascinating documentary about the life and work of Tove Jansson which includes an interview with Lars and also his daughter Sophia, who now controls the vast Moomin empire, made by the BBC in 2013. At the time of writing this blog it is still available on youtube.