Transcription – Kate Atkinson (2018)

 

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Kate Atkinson’s previous two novels have been outstanding achievements based around the time of World War II.  The first, “Life After Life” played with structure in a way in which I (and many others including awards committees) found glorious and the second “A God In Ruins” had a more traditional narrative using characters from its predecessor.  Here, the author has kept pretty much within the same time-frame but produced a stand-alone novel.

 We meet main character Juliet Armstrong in two concurrent narratives ten years apart.  In 1940, as a young typist she is recruited to work for MI5 to produce transcripts of conversations between German sympathisers and in 1950 she finds she hasn’t fully escaped her wartime past whilst working for the BBC as a producer of Schools Radio programmes.  Atkinson gets the feel of London in both the war and post-war years perfectly, perhaps unsurprisingly as this is her third consecutive novel set in a period she must have certainly immersed herself in over the last few years.

 Juliet is involved in spying so the elements of who is finding out about who and who can be trusted provides a mystery element to the story which drives both narratives.  As always, characterisation is very strong and is written with the confidence, authority and playfulness that I have come to expect from this author.

It is a strong novel but I don’t think there is quite enough in the plot for me to consider it an excellent one, so no unprecedented three five stars in a row for Kate Atkinson.  I do very much like the juxtaposition of the war-time MI5 and post-war BBC and both work convincingly within the plot.  It does provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the secret service during the war, here involved in tasks which seem mundane but which can suddenly turn to the life-threatening and chilling and it is great to have Juliet’s back-room girl’s valuable contribution to all this given some limelight.

fourstars

Transcription was published by Penguin in September 2018.  The paperback version is due in  March 2019

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2018 – What I Should Have Read

I am fairly certain that I am now reading my last book of 2018.  This is because I am just mid-way through the massive “Count Of Monte Cristo” which I have never read before and the Penguin edition amounts to 1276 pages of pretty small print.  If I get through these it will end up being perhaps the longest book I have ever read.  I’ll let you know how I get on but that will unlikely be before the new year.

With newspapers, bloggers, websites coming up with their favourite books of the year I thought I would delay my choices until the very end of 2018 but look at some of the books I have missed out on reading this year.  So here is my Top 10 what I should have reads.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)

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The first popular crime novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize but it seems not even the presence of huge fan Val McDermid on the judging panel could get this onto the shortlist.  I read Bauer’s dark debut “Blacklands” in the year it was published and enjoyed it but have not read any of her others.  Luckily, I found a copy of this on the library shelves and have borrowed it so Alexandre Dumas-willing I will get round to it before hoards start reserving it because of its regular appearances on “best of the year lists”

Chalk Man – C J Tudor (Penguin)

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Another one I have out from the library.  This debut has been compared to Stephen King and is set in 1980’s Britain. Now out in a paperback edition featuring high praise from writers of the calibre of Lee Child, John Boyne, Celia Aherne, Kimberley Chambers, Julia Heaberlin and King himself.  Can’t wait to read this one.

Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (Raven)

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Another much praised debut.  Val McDermid had it as one of her books of the year.  The little I know about it sounds a bit like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” in structure (an all-time favourite) within a classic murder mystery frame.  I saw this going cheap one day as a Kindle Daily Deal so it is sitting there waiting for me.  This has been shortlisted for the first novel Costa Awards, a National Book Award and scooped the independent booksellers Books Are My Bag novel award.  Not sure why there is an extra half of a death in the American title.  Suppose I will have to read it to find out.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)

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A Booker shortlisted roller-coaster of a novel and the only one that made me feel sorry I did not read the shortlisted titles before the winner’s announcement this year as I have done the past couple of years.  I do have this Canadian author’s earlier novel “Half Blood Blues” unread on my bookshelves and I may just have to start to this but I am certainly looking forward to discovering her writing in 2019.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

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A book which is certainly popping up on best of the year lists.   It was championed by Kamila Shamsie in “The Guardian’s” look back on the year.  I have never read any of  the Sri-Lankan born Canadian novelist Ondaatje’s 8 novels before, not even “The English Patient” (nor have I seen the film version) but this novel set in London in the aftermath of World War II seems to me to be a tempting place to start.  I had this as one of my 2018 highlights at the start of the year.

From A Low And Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan (Doubleday)

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I loved, loved loved this Irish writer’s debut  “The Spinning Heart” and was published in NB magazine citing it as one of the best books of the 21st Century, but since then, amazingly I have not got round to reading any of his three subsequent novels.  This was championed by Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian and is on the shortlist for the Costa novel Award.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

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This British author’s “A God In Ruins” is well in the running for being named my best read of 2018.  I wanted to read her Jackson Brodie series of novels next but then I borrowed this as a library e-book.  I’ve not noticed it much on end of year lists and a few people I know who have read it have been a bit lukewarm about it but she is one of our greatest living novelists so I really should find out for myself .

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

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I’ve read all the others so of course I’m going to get round to this but I’m a little put off by the sheer size of the hardback so may need to wait until it arrives in paperback.  It does seem to be generally getting the thumbs up but most seem to mention that it is too long.

Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

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Admittedly I’ve got the odd Gale gap in my reading history but he is one of my Top 10 most-read authors.  I would imagine that this is a quieter, understated, less showy novel than some on display here so I might need to get myself into the right mood for that.  He can absolutely blow me away as a writer but this does not happen every time.

My Love Story – Tina Turner (Century)

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My pick of all the non-fiction I’ve missed this year.  I was a little concerned that this autobiography might have been a little air-brushed but reviews seem to say that this is not the case.  This living legend and performer of one of my 100 Essential CDs got huge publicity for this publication as it was her version of what has been an incredible life.  I haven’t rushed to buy this because I did read “I, Tina” written alongside Kurt Loder and I wondered how much of this was a rehash of that.  But I will get round to it.

Anyone looking for a last minute Christmas present for this reviewer could start here….!

 

 

 

100 Essential Books – A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson (2015)

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I thought Kate Atkinson’s previous novel , the Costa Award winning “Life After Life” (2013) was terrific.  I’ve recommended it many times but the feedback I get back can be mixed.  Some readers find the author’s structure off-putting.  Main character Ursula meets with many deaths on her way through the book, reliving parts of her life in different ways in a novel where “practice makes perfect” is an underlying theme.  I personally loved the structure, the rich and memorable cast and the superb sense of the era, especially the years of World War II.

 These years also provide the main focus of this novel, more of a companion piece than any kind of sequel as we revisit the lives of the Todd family through Ursula’s brother, Teddy.  This time, structurally, it’s far more straightforward.  It moves around chronologically but Teddy, unlike his sister in “Life After Life” has one life to live.

 During the war Teddy is a fighter pilot and it is the author’s recreation of his everyday battle for survival which packs a potent punch.  He is a wonderful character and I love the way the author has developed him with this outing.  He really comes alive on the page, especially as a caring grandfather when his war heroics are barely ever discussed by the family.

 I did feel that it was the unusual structure that helped the last book to sizzle and I was concerned initially that this more conventional approach but using some of the same characters might pale in comparison.  It is different but it certainly does not disappoint.  I was totally involved throughout and taken aback by the novel’s depth and richness.  It stands alone from its predecessor and those who like Atkinson’s writing but found its stop-start technique wearying are urged to give this a go.

 Within both of these novels Kate Atkinson has taken pains to remind us that we are experiencing fiction and there is a bit of toying with us as readers to bring this home.  What we have here is a writer in superb control of her craft.  Her next novel, due later this year, will take us in a different direction and it would be good if, in the meantime, I could catch up with her four books featuring detective Jackson Brodie (of which I’ve only read the first so long ago that it will need revisiting). 

 With “A God In Ruins” Kate Atkinson also won the Costa Novel Of The Year.  On the evidence of this pair of celebrated novels she is one of our finest living novelists writing at the height of her powers.

 fivestars 

A God In Ruins was published by Doubleday in 2015. I read the 2016 Black Swan paperback edition.

Top 10 Books Of The Year -Part 2 (The Top 5)

Without any further ado here are the five books that did it for me in 2015.  To find the full reviews please click on the titles

5. Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves (Scribner 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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This is the one that should have made the progression from the Booker longlist to the shortlist.  An astonishing debut.  It’s 1920s Alabama and a plan to bring electricity to Roscoe Martin’s farm goes badly wrong.  It’s the second tale of rural survival on my list but is imbued throughout with hope -throughout the darkest moments there’s hope and Reeves conveys this beautifully.

4. His Bloody Project – Graeme  Macrae Burnet  (Saraband 2015) (Read and reviewed in August)

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My pick of the Booker Prize shortlist.  Published by a tiny Scottish independent this was one that would have slipped through my net had it not had the Booker nod.  A historical novel that reads like true crime is an interesting concept but what makes this special is the real feel of the crofting community of the Scottish highlands in 1869 through  a prison journal, witness statements, official documents and court transcripts. Sold well after its Booker recognition but a win would have turned this into one of the year’s big books.  It is certainly a big book in my opinion.

3.Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden (Virago 1939) (Read in June and reviewed in August)

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Love the film but have never actually got round to reading the book.  Neurotic nuns up a mountain – what’s not to love?  I wasn’t sure if Godden would have been able to convey the technicolour lushness of the film but she certainly does.  Hopefully in 2017 I’ll be able to seek out more by her.

2. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson  (Doubleday 2013) (Read in April and reviewed in May)

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2013 Costa Novel award winner. I am the last one around to read this?  Structurally superb, risking accusations of style over substance but producing a novel which is both technically surprising and first class. “Practice makes perfect” is a theme of the novel and Atkinson here gets close to perfection.

Time for the long silence before the winner is announced (oh, can’t do long silences on a blog so I’ll get straight on with it .The reviewsrevues Book Of The Year 2016 is……….

1.  Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016) (Read and reviewed in May)

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In any other year there could have been as many as three Wieringa novels in my Top 10 as the other two I have read are hovering outside the Top 10 and are both very good.  This is also how I felt last year with his “These Are The Names” published by Scribe and which saw them embarking on a programme to of bringing out his earlier Dutch novels translated by Sam Garrett. A 2009 debut this was apparently the biggest ever selling Dutch debut in his homeland and it deserves a huge audience here.  A coming-of-age novel about Frankie, who has survived a horrific accident and becomes swept up by the antics of newcomer Joe Speedboat.  Like all the best books it provokes a myriad of emotions- it is touching, unpredictable, outrageous and laugh out loud funny.  Scribe have been a great support to this blogger this year, but there’s certainly no favouritism.  This book has reached my summit on merit.

This is the second year I have gone for a book in translation for my top pick.  Last year’s Top 5 can be found here.  I have probably read more translated novels this year but that is because of authors such as Tommy Wieringa.  If there is a pattern, and I wouldn’t have said there was, but looking at my ten titles I can see that there may very well be one, it is to make my top 10, authors, set your novels in the past.  I wouldn’t have said I was a great historical novel fan but this list suggests otherwise… We’ll see what 2017 conjures up.  Bring it on!

As I read a lot more books this year than I normally do there are a number of titles that I feel bad about missing out on my Top 10 – so here are a few special mentions for recent publications.  The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale, Hot Milk-Deborah Levy, The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh- Marina Fiorato, Eileen -Otessa Moshfegh, Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeliene Thien,  Rembrandt’s Mirror- Kim Devereux, Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker ( incidentally a nominee for the newbooks Book Noir book of the year) , Angel Of Highgate – Vaughn Entwistle, Himself- Jess Kidd (the last four authors I have had the great pleasure of interviewing this year- always one of my personal highspots of reviewsrevues.com)

In my next post I’ll honour the re-read that gave me the most pleasure this year.

See my Top 10 Books Part 1 – numbers 10-6 here

100 Essential Books – Life After Life – Kate Atkinson (2013)

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I don’t know how this book has passed me by up to now. It won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 and features some of the same characters as her 2015 Costa Novel award winning (and equally prestigiously the Nudge Bookhugger Book of The Year 2015) “A God In Ruins.”  I chose not to read that from The Bookhugger shortlist as I hadn’t read this.  Now I have I cannot wait to pick up a copy of her latest.

I have very much enjoyed the Kate Atkinson novels I’ve read to this point but she hadn’t really blown me away to the extent that I thought she would but she’s put that right as this is a mind-blowing book.

The little I knew about it concerned its structure, spanning in time from 1910 and the birth of the main character Ursula.  I knew it stuttered along and when tragedy befalls Ursula it begins again.  I had one of my “style over substance” concerns and I have friends who told me they just couldn’t get along with it, but, open-minded as ever, I thought I’d give it a go as I sensed that with this and the follow-up I could be missing out on something very special.

I loved the structure.  I’m not plot-spoiling by saying in Ursula’s first incarnation she is still-born so the story starts again with a slightly different aspect for her to survive childbirth and then fall foul on a day at the beach.  It inches forward in time and it is always a surprise when Ursula prematurely meets her maker.  As the perils of childhood diminish this happens less frequently but then there are the way years to contend with.  Ursula senses some of these repeats as “déjà vu” which leads to attention from a psychiatrist who tells her a little about reincarnation.  “Practice makes perfect” is a theme underlying the whole novel.

Disregarding the structure, this book has in place everything needed for an excellent novel.  Atkinson is in total control of events and her characters and there is such a rich and memorable cast that it is no surprise she decided to revisit through the eyes of Ursula’s much-loved brother Teddy in “A God In Ruins.”  There’s a superb sense of the era, particularly in the war years section.  The sheer relentlessness of the Blitz and the nightly tragedies witnessed brings home that survival really was just a matter of luck and throughout the novel one small change in actions can bring about very different outcomes- also largely down to luck.  If I were a more philosophical person I feel I could really get down with analysing all this, nevertheless, for a general reader the whole thing is extremely entertaining.

I didn’t want it to end and which is the real ending anyway?  Ursula’s choices can be as small as opting to approach a frightened do to having world-changing significance.  I loved the way the seemingly trivial and world-shattering go along side by side.  I’m going to give no more away but if you like tales that span over decases and are prepared for the author to play with time then you are likely to love this as much as I do.

fivestars

“Life After Life” was published in 2013 by Doubleday.