Tag Archives: Doubleday

Transcription by Kate Atkinson: ‘Can I Tempt You?’

Cover imageRegular readers will know that I’m an ardent Kate Atkinson fan, always keen to put her novels at the front of any queue for literary prizes although more often than not left discombobulated by the judges’ seeming determination not to hand them over. Perhaps Transcription will buck that trend although it was conspicuous by its absence from the Man Booker longlist. It follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940.

Eighteen-year-old Juliet is a bright young woman plucked from her dull government department job and given what appears to be a similarily prosaic task by MI5: transcribing conversations between Godfrey Toby, posing as a Gestapo agent, and a collection of disgruntled fifth columnists, pleased with themselves at being singled out. Juliet proves adept at her work, her only frustration the puzzling behaviour of her boss, Perry, who seems bent on little more than hand-holding and dry pecks rather than the seduction she’d welcome. Soon, Juliet graduates to full-blown spying in an operation to infiltrate a far more influential ring of Nazi sympathisers than the everyday anti-Semites who meet with Godfrey in Dolphin Square. Flush with success, although chastened by the consequences of overreaching herself, Juliet and the rest of Godfrey’s team continue with Dolly and co until their cover is blown with disastrous results. Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC when she spots Godfrey who refuses to acknowledge her. Resurrecting her old spying skills, Juliet becomes embroiled in paranoid speculation as all sorts of faces from the past pop up. Things may not be entirely what they seem, including Juliet.

Transcription switches between 1940 and 1950, telling Juliet’s story from her own perspective. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from underneath her readers several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. Even the apparently straightforward ending is ambiguous given the convolutions that have come before.

‘Oh, my dear Juliet,’ he laughed. ‘One is never free. It’s never finished.’

As ever, with Atkinson there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy, particularly in Juliet’s observations of Perry:

A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir’ she said.

‘You were missed.’ (Oh, be still, my beating heart, she thought.) ‘No one makes as good a pot of tea as you do, Miss Armstrong.’

Comedy aside, Transcription has some serious points to make about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. I loved it. Bring on all the prizes.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans: Votes for women, all of them

Cover imageI’d heard lots of good things about Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart but hadn’t got around to reading it by the time Old Baggage turned up. Given that it’s a prequel I thought I’d give it a miss but Ali’s review persuaded me it could happily stand alone for which I’m very grateful. Evans’ new novel tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie.

Mattie lives with Florrie, affectionately known as The Flea, in the house she bought with her inheritance. Mattie and Florrie were comrades in the fight for women’s suffrage, undergoing forced feeding in Holloway, abuse from the public and brutality from the police. At the beginning of 1928, Mattie can vote but Florrie cannot. A privileged member of the upper classes, Mattie is forthright, free with her opinions and utterly determined she’s right while Florrie is tactful and quiet, a hard-working health visitor who understands poverty and deprivation at first hand. A dramatic event on Hampstead Heath brings Ida into their lives. Poor, bright and sassy with it, Ida finds herself dragooned into Mattie’s new endeavour: a club for young girls which will educate them in preparation for voting while teaching them practical skills and physical fitness, a counterpoint to a fellow veteran campaigner’s Empire Youth League which reeks of fascism. Agreeing to a competition on the Heath, Mattie is determined that the Amazons will trounce the League but an error of judgement leads to lasting repercussions.

Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. Set in 1928, the novel never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they are the battle will still be far from won. Evans is a sharp, witty writer with a keen eye for characterisation. There are many very funny moments throughout her novel – most provided by Mattie, undoubtedly the star turn and at back of the queue when tact was assigned – but these are balanced with poignant moments the sweetest of which was Florrie’s congratulatory card, opened on the day of the 1929 general election, the first in which she’s able to vote. The end sets up readers who’ve not yet read Crooked Heart nicely for Mattie’s new project. I loved it. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Appearances can be deceptive

Cover imageI read Curtis Sittenfeld’s The American Wife on holiday quite some time ago and found it hard to drag myself away from. Those who’ve read it will know that the titular wife is loosely based on Laura Bush which certainly added spice to the reading but the quality of Sittenfeld’s writing would have kept me riveted regardless of that. The same acute social observation and smartly delivered writing marks her first short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It.

In the opening piece, ‘The Nominee’, Hillary Clinton wonders why a journalist to whom she’s extended kindness in the most humiliating of circumstances insists on describing her as unlikable. ‘Do-Over’, which caught the Sunday Times Short Story Award judges’ attention, nicely bookends the collection with its examination of gender in the Trump/Clinton contest seen through the lens of two competitors for a student post. Now middle-aged, their reunion takes a surprising turn for the male candidate. In ‘Gender Studies’ a recently single professor finds herself in an unexpected encounter with a cab driver while ‘The Prairie Wife’ sees a woman driving herself into a fury, constantly checking the Twitter feed of an old acquaintance whose online persona is at odds with her past and longing to spill the beans until a very public revelation touches her. Unusually, rather than referring to a story, the collection’s title is the name of a game devised by a man who encourages his colleague’s wife to disparage their friends for his amusement leading to an embarrassing misapprehension on her part in ’The World Has Many Butterflies’.

The overarching theme of these stories is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong: the apparently confident girl from high school days turns out to have been wracked with shyness; a naive young student makes a string of social misjudgments happily corrected in later life; a journalist is surprised by a TV star’s apparent assumption of intimacy between them. Often a relationship which begins with suspicion or downright dislike turns into something else so that we re-examine our own prejudices. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores – all deftly and effectively handled. Sittenfeld’s last novel, Eligible, was a twenty-first century take on Pride and Prejudice which seems entirely appropriate. Her acute observation, neatly skewering modern social mores with sly, occasionally waspish wit, is a match for Jane Austen’s in this intelligent, satisfying collection.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Love, loss and connection

Cover imageI’ve a somewhat chequered history with Donal Ryan’s writing. While I enjoyed The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December I couldn’t work up the ecstatic enthusiasm so many other readers were voicing. Then I read All We Shall Know which made it on to my 2016 books of the year list. It’s early days, but I’m pretty sure From a Low and Quiet Sea will do the same this year. Ryan’s carefully crafted, moving novella tells the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end.

Farouk watches his wife through their kitchen window, resenting her apparent flirtation with a people trafficker. Martha had not wanted to leave Syria but as the casualties pile up in Farouk’s hospital she’s been persuaded, telling their young daughter they’re off on an adventure. Lampy helps out at the local care home, driving the minibus, changing the sheets and listening to the residents while trying not to think of the girl who’s left him. He’s already let fly at his sharp-tongued, pleased-with-himself grandfather at breakfast, calmed by his mother, the only parent he’s ever known. John is making his confession, the first honest one he’s made since childhood. He’s a big wheel in the town, a fixer, deeply scarred by the loss of his golden brother who died when John was thirteen. There’s much to confess, from the systematic corruption of good men to the murder of his lover’s boyfriend. These three come together in a surprising way in the book’s fourth and final section.

It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does in this novella which explores love, loss and connection. He’s a writer who excels at characterisation. Each of his main protagonists has a very different voice: the sober melancholy of Farouk; the quick-to-anger stream of consciousness of Lampy and John’s shocking yet deadpan confession. Even the bit-part players are acutely observed. Ryan’s characteristic sharp ear for speech is often accompanied by a pleasing humour: the ceaseless litany of the old men’s complaint on the bus and their shouting of advice at Lampy when it breaks down is a fine example. His prose has a lilting rhythmic beauty, particularly in Farouk’s story, offset by the colourful vernacular of Pop’s self-regarding anecdotes. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few of my favourites:

He flipped onto his back and looked at the long ragged tear of the galaxy, like a wound in the sky, weeping

Talking to herself in a way that would seem strange to anyone not used to hearing her; laughing here and there at some recollection, some good story she’d been told and had kept to herself, for times she was without company

His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two

Now I understand what all the fuss was about.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan: Redemption in spades

Cover imageI ended my review of Donal Ryan’s last novel, The Thing About December, by quoting Litlove’s idea that the higher your expectations for a book, the greater your disappointment when they’re not met. Both Ryan’s novels had been praised to the skies and although there was much to admire in his second, those raised expectations had not been met. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded or perhaps it’s because Ryan has ventured into different territory. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman.

After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Hardly in a position to criticise given his visits to prostitutes and his predilection for porn, Pat storms out at the news that his wife is carrying the child of a man she supposedly met online. In truth, the father is a seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As Melody’s pregnancy progresses she looks back over her life: the loss of her mother, her betrayal of her closest friend and the soured passion of her marriage. She visits the Travellers’ site, hoping to catch a glimpse of Martin but finding herself drawn instead to a young woman sitting on the steps of her caravan. Mary is caught up in a feud between clans. Unable to conceive, she’s left her husband so that he can find a fertile partner, bringing dishonour upon her own family. Retribution must be exacted and Melody finds herself caught up in Mary’s story in ways she could hardly imagine. By the end of this slim, intensely moving novella, redemption on a Shakespearean scale has been served.

Ryan structures his story in brief chapters, each one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. She’s an involving narrator, unflinchingly honest in her confession of guilt at her treatment of others, from her father whose eager concern has been rebuffed for years to the betrayal of her dearest friend in exchange for the approbation of the ‘cool girls’ and access to Pat. ‘I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me’, she says. Ryan’s writing is both clear and clean yet lyrical – ‘we insisted on marrying each other, and lowering ourselves onto a bed of terrible, scalding, comfortably familiar pain’ – and his ear for dialect is superb. He summons up beautifully the claustrophobia of living in a small town where everyone knows your business and no one is afraid of loudly judging you for it. All these are characteristics familiar from Ryan’s previous novels but what stood out in this one was his story telling: a seamless interweaving of both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris: Only connect

Cover imageI was looking for something a little more straightforward after the literary fireworks of Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower® which is why I turned to Barney Norris’ debut – that and its Salisbury setting. I live an hour’s train journey from Salisbury with its famous cathedral, mentioned often in Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, and there’s something very enjoyable about reading a novel set in a place you know well but not well enough to become hung up on niggling inaccuracies. The novel’s premise is an attractive one too. It explores the lives of five people involved in a car accident in the centre of town over the months after the crash.

There are three witnesses to the crash: a sixteen-year-old boy in the grips of first love with all its attendant pain and joy; a desperately lonely middle-aged woman married to a soldier who confides her thoughts to her diary and a worker at McDonald’s, left rootless by a bad break-up and divorced parents. We also learn about George, the elderly man driving the car, and Rita, the victim whose rackety life has landed her in trouble with the law. Each of these characters already has huge challenges to deal with, each of them approaches those challenges in different ways. One way or another their paths intersect just as they’ve intersected before in the way they so often do in a small town.

Norris handles those little overlaps beautifully. As the characters  tell their stories – each in slightly different ways – it becomes apparent that they have all been a presence in each others’ lives, sometimes merely as a bit-player, sometimes playing a significant role without realising it. Each of them is battling with loneliness, sadness and regret and each of them comes to the conclusion that life is about connecting with others, about living now not in some perfect future which may never happen. Norris is adept at catching the voices of his characters – Rita’s defiant anger, George’s grief and guilt, Sam’s painful diffidence are all vividly conveyed. I wasn’t at all sure about the book at first – there’s an introductory section which was a tad too lyrical for me, bordering on the whimsical – but I’m glad I persevered. Altogether an absorbing read which would make an excellent TV drama with its cinematic setting, beautifully described by Norris. It made me want to pop down to the station and get on the next train to Salisbury.

The Ballroom: Both chilling and humane

The BallroomAnna Hope’s debut was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction set around the First World War back in 2014. Set in 1920, Wake stood out for me as being a cut above the others with its exploration of the way in which women’s lives had been affected by the war. I enjoyed it very much and was eager to read Hope’s next book, ever mindful of that tendency for second novels not to match excellent debuts. Thankfully, The Ballroom bucks that particular trend with its story of Ella and John, two inmates in an asylum, and the doctor who oversees their care over the course of 1911.

Charles Fuller has been employed more for his musical than his medical abilities. Sharston is run along progressive lines for its time. Its superintendent believes that a regime of self-sufficiency, gender segregation and music will help improve the mental health of his patients. Charles and his small band of musicians provide the accompaniment for the weekly dance in the beautiful ballroom on the only occasions that male and female inmates are allowed to meet. Ella has been newly admitted by Charles, having smashed a window in the mill that employed her as a spinner. Furious at her incarceration, she seems entirely sane soon realising that the only way to prove it is to keep her head down. Illiterate yet bright she strikes up a friendship with Clem a young woman of an entirely different class, committed by her family after her refusal to eat as a protest against their marriage plans for her. When finally picked for Friday’s dance, Ella feels awkward and clumsy but it is there that she meets John, admitted for ‘melancholia’ after the loss of his family and livelihood. When John learns of Ella’s yearning for freedom he offers to record what he sees in his work in the fields. These two find their way to a relationship which will have profound repercussions, not only for them but for Clem and Charles.

Hope alternates the narratives of these three characters, gradually unfolding their stories against a backdrop of national strikes, George V’s coronation and the genesis of what became the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Her descriptions of the asylum and its poor benighted inmates are both chilling and humane. Running through this compassionate novel is society’s perception of sanity and insanity, as relevant today as it was in 1911. Hope succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathies for Charles whose initial embracing of the more progressive theories of his beloved Eugenics Society is eclipsed by his tortured personal experience until he’s brought to unthinkable actions. It took me a little while to find my way into The Ballroom despite its dramatic opening but once I had I found myself gripped by it, not to mention horrified at times – the Eugenics Society’s more moderate views felt uncomfortably close to today’s tabloids’ strident voices. It’s an engrossing novel, sobering in its revelation of the theories surrounding mental illness not so very long ago and made all the more so by the author’s note which tells us that it was ‘inspired by the true story of her Irish great-grandfather’.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: What Teddy did

Cover imageYou could be forgiven for feeling that you’ve read enough about Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it is, after all, everywhere you look in the reviews pages – so do feel free to skip this. I’ve been looking forward to reading A God in Ruins since I first heard about it: for me, it’s one of the publishing events of the year, as I’m sure it is for many others, and can’t be ignored. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this new novel is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads.

We first meet Teddy in 1925 when he’s eleven years old, gently quizzed by his Aunt Izzie about what he gets up to and what he enjoys. She’s the author of the Adventures of Augustus series, and Teddy is her Augustus. From there Atkinson jumps to 1980 and commune-dwelling Viola, Teddy’s daughter, a hippie after her time who tetchily scolds her two children, Sun and Bertie, while their father swims out to sea, leaving her to it. Atkinson’s narrative crisscrosses the twentieth century telling Teddy and his family’s story: his years as a Second Word War bomber pilot; his life with his beloved wife Nancy in Yorkshire – she a teacher, he writing nature notes for a local journal; Viola’s misadventures and her career as a successful novelist; Sun and Bertie’s ragtag childhood and its consequences. The novel takes us to 2012, the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the end of Teddy’s story.

Hard not to gush about this extraordinary novel. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative: it’s all beautifully stitched together. I began noting down particularly choice quotes for this review but had to give up, there were so many. Here are just a few: gazing at a photograph of her son ‘Sylvie ran her finger over the silver frame, intending fondness but finding dust’; ‘A tempest brewed in his squally heart. He might explode. That would serve his mother right’ (what child hasn’t thought that?); ‘”Almost as good as Jodi Picoult”, Mumsnet.’ was my favourite of the many barbed little quotes about Viola’s novels. It’s peppered with bracketed laconic asides – ‘”I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight,”, the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)’ – and is often very funny but its central subject is a deadly serious one. The passages devoted to Teddy’s bombing raids are played straight – graphic, gripping and extraordinarily believable, they’re based on Atkinson’s readings of many first-hand accounts and they are the guts of the book. It’s something that Teddy never talks about, just as Nancy never talks about her Bletchley days, but they have made him the man he becomes: gentle, reverential of nature, a loving grandfather, a man who wants nothing more than to sit quietly on the sidelines of a life which sometimes puzzles and perplexes him. Ursula is there, of course, with just one life: ‘a single professional woman in post-war London’. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end and must surely be awarded a multitude of prizes.

The A-Z of You and Me: A lexicon of love

The A - Z of You and MeI wasn’t at all sure about James Hannah’s debut when it arrived. The press release claimed it was for David Nicholls fans of which I have been one since the immensely enjoyable One Day but I’ve been suckered by that kind of comparison before. Having decided to give it a try, I was distracted by another arrival then picked it up again a week or so later. Half-way through, having completely forgotten the press release, I made a note ‘David Nicholls school of commercial fiction’. So there you are – that’ll teach me to be so cynical, although I doubt that will last.

Forty-year-old Ivo lies in his hospice bed. To help him combat his distress and occasional panic, his nurse has suggested he names parts of his body starting with A, working through the alphabet telling himself stories about each bit. He must use respectable anatomical terms, though, no vulgarity allowed. Despite his scepticism, Ivo decides to take her advice and begins with Adam’s apple and a funny little anecdote from his childhood. He decides to tell his stories to his still-beloved ex-girlfriend, unfolding his life to us as he recounts them to her: the loss of his father when he was six; his friendship with Mal, rebellious and smart; his diagnosis with diabetes and the times he and Mia shared, good and bad. As each letter is dispatched it becomes clear that there is a good deal of unfinished business in Ivo’s life with little time left to finish it.

Adopting an alphabetical structure could have easily backfired if stuck to rigidly but Hannah knows when to use it and when to let the narrative flow. Each story reveals telling details about his life – sometimes small, occasionally delivering shocks with a punch which comes out of the blue. Hannah has a sharp ear for dialogue, using it to bring his characters to life as Ivo remembers scenes with those who have meant most to him, for good or ill. You need a strong vein of humour to balance the melancholy in a book like this and Hannah delivers it beautifully: ‘how many die of politeness’ unable to decide if they’re ill enough to bother the nurse nicely sums up the not wanting to make a fuss attitude, typical of the British. There’s a sense of life carrying on in plain sight as Ivo gradually recedes from it but an urgency about what he needs to do. Altogether an accomplished piece of fiction, both entertaining and thought-provoking. I won’t be so sceptical about Hannah’s next novel.

The Days of Anna Madrigal: Where we learn the secret of her name

Cover imageIf you’re a Tales of the City fan the very title of this novel will have you salivating with anticipation so without further ado – it’s lovely. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Tales of the City is a collection of novels reflecting the life and times of their author which originally ran as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle beginning back in the ‘70s. It features a group of young people – Mary Ann Singleton, straight as a die and fresh from Cleveland; Michael Tolliver, the complete opposite; Mona Ramsey, a hippyish bisexual; and Brian Hawkins, a little older and very much the ladies’ man – all living in the bohemian confines of Barbary Lane under the loving eye of Anna Madrigal who offers her guests beautifully rolled joints alongside the nibbles.  They’re a delight – each one is like meeting up with old friends for a long overdue gossip. In this, the ninth instalment, Anna Madrigal is ninety-two years old, frail but still the wise old bohemian bird, cared for by the transgendering Jake Greenleaf who lives with her in Noe Hill, Barbary Lane having been taken over by stock brokers. Jake and his new squeeze are off to the Burning Man festival for which Jake has built a tricycle in the form of a monarch butterfly to honour Anna. Michael and his husband Ben are off to Burning Man too, albeit with a degree of reluctance from Michael who’s feeling his age. After eight years travelling the country in his RV, Brian has found himself a wife and is bringing her home to meet Anna, the nearest he has to a mother. Anna comes up with a surprising request – she wants them to take her back to Winnemucca, home of the Blue Moon brothel where Anna, née Andy, spent the first sixteen years of her life. She has some unfinished business to settle.

As you might expect from its title, there is a good deal of Anna’s back story interwoven with the Burning Man shenanigans which are often very funny. Slipped into the narrative are reminders of the characters’ backgrounds, updates on what they’re doing now and cameo appearances. Shawna, Brian’s adopted daughter, is much more to the fore. It’s a bit like the Archers with the older generation giving way to the new, but a lot more fun. And the story behind Anna’s name? Obviously I’m not going to tell you – suffice to say that it’s a poignant one and, sadly, still relevant today – but I will say that the anagram of Anna Madrigal is spelled out for those of us too dense to have figured it out already. I’ll leave it to you to work it out but while we’re on the subject of Maupin anagrams, here’s another to think about: I watched a documentary on him many years ago with the puzzling title Armistead Maupin Is a Man I Dreamt Up. Make of that what you will.