Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kinds strangers around her, as sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere of the road, to satisfy the need for pump and circumstance. Union Jack straight everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

‘This England,’ she murmured.

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, like her previous two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, shifts deftly through a series of different time frames.  In this instance, quite literally bookending the story in 1981 and internally moving between 1940 and 1950.  Like its predecessors, it is also primarily concerned with the Second World War and raises questions about earlier women who might possibly have been seen as sacrificial victims in the name of patriotic duty.

In the world of 1940, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 to work under the auspices of a number of men as a transcriber.  It is her job to make a copy of the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, supporters of Hitler, hiding in plain site and making plans to welcome the Third Reich should its troops manage to cross the Channel.  As Juliet becomes further integrated into the Service, she is also sent to infiltrate The Right Club, a group formed initially to rid the Conservative Party of perceived Jewish control but later boasting that its main objective was to oppose and expose the activities of organised Jewry more generally.  The names of the members of the club are inscribed in the Red Book and it is Juliet’s task to get access to a copy of this.

As an author’s note makes clear, not only did both such groups exist, but the former were tricked into revealing their intentions in just such a manner as Atkinson depicts; the transcripts of their conversations are still in existence.  However, as anyone who has worked extensively with transcription knows, it isn’t always easy to be entirely (or even moderately) accurate. It’s difficult enough when your recording is being made in the same room as the conversation takes place and with the agreement of the speakers.  When you are working from hidden equipment, trying to listen in to people who won’t obligingly target their comments in the direction of the microphone, errors and omissions will abound. In such a situation it is understandable that misunderstandings as well as mis-hearings will occur and questions will be raised as to just who can be trusted.  Are the fifth columnists and the Right Club the only non-patriots hiding in plain sight?

Moving forward to 1950, Atkinson takes us into another bastion of the British Establishment, the BBC.  I loved these sections of the novel, mainly because Juliet now works for Schools Broadcasting and I am of a generation who was brought up with regular radio programmes providing a welcome break from the typical Maths before playtime, English after, routine that was such a part of a 1950s primary education. Armstrong’s apparent fear now is that she will never be able to escape the legacy of the war years.  The secret service will keep popping back into her life with their requests for just one last job and people she thought she had left behind forever develop an annoying habit of turning up and threatening her peace of mind, both mentally and physically.  Hitler may no longer be a danger, but there are other forces at work trying to undermine the British way of life and Juliet is well aware of the role she is expected to play in relation to them.

I have been relatively late coming to this novel, given that I would normally read a new Kate Atkinson as soon as it hit the bookshelves, so I am aware that it hasn’t received the general acclaim normally afforded to her work.  I have to say that I found the book eminently readable, gulping it down in just two sittings, but I can perhaps understand why there has been less praise than normal.  While the author appears to be intending to deal with the same sort of ideas as in her previous two novels, ideas to do with the deepening perspectives offered by time and the shifting viewpoints a greater understanding of events can bring about, I don’t think she makes this as clear in Transcription.  Neither do I think she gets the tone quite right.  There were times when I felt that I was more in the world of Jackson Brodie than in that of Ursula Todd. However, none of that stopped me enjoying it immensely.

As a footnote for anyone who hasn’t seen the announcement:  there is a new Jackson Brodie to look forward to.  The fifth in the series, Big Sky,  is due for publication next June.





Born in a Burial Gown ~ Mike Craven

I wish I could remember who put me onto Cumbria based The Puppet Show by M W Craven.  I owe them.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how much I had enjoyed this first novel by the writer under this name, especially the chance to meet the analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, with whom I felt a certain kinship.  So much did I enjoy it that I went in search of other novels by the same writer and found Born in a Burial Gown, the initial  book in an earlier series, also set in Cumbria, featuring DI Avison Fluke as the lead protagonist.

Craven’s leading men share certain characteristics.  To start with, they have wonderful names.  On balance I think I prefer The Puppet Show’s Washington Poe, but Avison Fluke is good too.  They both live isolate lives in the Cumbrian countryside and, when we first meet them, they are both recovering from traumatic incidents which mean that neither of them should be working.  They are also instinctive coppers, with little time for the administrative niceties. This may make each of them something of a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they work, because they make for a good story.

And, Born in a Burial Gown is most definitely a good story.  It begins with an anonymous note, left on a building site, tipping the police off about a body dump.  Without the note the body of the unnamed young woman would have been buried deep in the construction foundations and lost forever.  Also, given that she is not only without any means of identification but also appears to have gone to extreme lengths to make sure that she cannot be recognised, she might not even have been reported missing. The investigation, handed over to Fluke and his team of FMIT misfits by his superior officer, DCI Chambers, looks as if it might never get past first base.  They don’t know who the victim is, they have no idea as to where she was killed and given the fact that she has changed her appearance they can’t rely on a public appeal to put a name to a face.  And then, they get a break, when a fellow officer recognises her as a woman who a few days earlier reported a rape but failed to follow through with the allegations. Has her rapist caught up with her and ensured that she cannot go through with her allegations in the most permanent way possible?  Or are the rape and the murder unconnected? Is it rather that whatever actions caused her to feel the need to drastically alter her appearance have finally come home to roost and her death has been some sort of revenge killing?  Fluke has to find out before his ever vigilant specialist drags him back into hospital and forces him to submit to the medical treatments necessary to save his life.

I very much enjoyed this book and will certainly be reading Body Breaker, the second in the series.  If it didn’t engage me quite as much as The Puppet Show that’s probably because it didn’t have a Tilly Bradshaw equivalent. I thought for a time that Lucy, ‘the bug lady’, might be going to fill the role, but it wasn’t to be.  Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a new go to crime writer and haven’t already read Craven’s work you could do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours in the company of either of his disfunctional DIs.

Six Degrees of Separation: From A Christmas Carol to Sophie’s World

Much as I want to, I am finding it difficult to get back into the swing of blogging after my enforced break, so I thought I would take part in some of the regular meme posts that are around, just to get used to writing regularly again.  The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.  Every month a book is chosen as a common starting point and each blogger then links to six other books to form a chain.  This month’s chain begins with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Despite being a Dickens fan, I have to admit to never having read A Christmas Carol.  I suppose I have always felt that I knew it well enough from the multiplicity of dramatised versions that there are around.  In fact, this year, even though I normally go to see whatever the RSC are offering at Stratford I decided to miss out on their seasonal production of the story just because I didn’t think I could take another re-telling.  Not the most auspicious of starts!

Nevertheless, it serves to put me in mind of Christmas and the beginning of one of my real favourites, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

It’s so dreadful to be poor! sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all, added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other, said Beth contentedly from her corner.

It is a really masterful piece of writing, summing up, as it does, in just a few lines, the characters of all four of the March girls as well as telling the reader a great deal about their situation.  There aren’t many years when I don’t pick up my battered copy for a re-read and I might just put it on my Christmas reading list for later in the month.

Little Women takes me to Geraldine Brook’s novel, March.  This tells the story of John March, the girls’ father, through from his earliest years to his meeting with Marmee and later his time spent as chaplain on the front line in the American Civil War.  This book, based to some extent on the life of Bronson Alcott, not only opened up for me the horrors perpetrated during that conflict by both sides but also sparked my interest in the intellectual world that existed around Concord where Bronson was part of a community that also embraced the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, who appear as themselves in the novel.

I did think about moving from March to the works of one of those worthy gentlemen, but instead decided to take a sideways step and think of March in terms of it being one of the months of the year and offer Elizabeth Von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April.  I don’t know about an enchanted April, but I have always thought that this was the most enchanting book.  How many of us haven’t fantasised at some point about just taking ourselves away from all responsibilities for a month and to Italy at that?  Lottie Wilkins decision to do just that, in the company of three complete strangers, (in my fantasies I am always on my own!) marks her out as a young woman determined not to be hemmed in by the conventions of society and so for my fourth selection I am going with another ‘modern’ young woman of the 1920s, Fleur Forsyte.

It is in the third novel of the Forsyte Saga, To Let, that we meet Fleur as she falls in love with Jon, not only the son of her father’s much hated cousin, but also of Irene, her father’s first wife.  Fleur is not prepared to let anything stand in the way of what she wants and what she wants is Jon, but Jon cannot put his own happiness before that of his family and so at the end of this novel he rejects Fleur and leaves England for Canada.  Of course, Galsworthy went on to write several more books about the same characters and this is not the end of the relationship between Fleur and her cousin but by the time they meet again they are both married to other partners and their lives are even more complicated than they were when they parted.

I am old enough to have seen the first (and best) televised version of these novels back in the 1960s, when the part of Fleur was played by the actress Susan Hampshire.  It wasn’t, however, the first television role I had seen her in, as earlier in the decade she had played the part of Katy Carr in a dramatisation of Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. This was another childhood favourite, although I think I enjoyed one of the sequels, What Katy Did At School, even more.  As an only child, I was fascinated by the motherless family of six being brought up by Aunt Izzy and their busy doctor father.  How did you ever find your place in such a menagerie?  However, I haven’t been back to it in the way that I have returned to Little Women.  Both have their pious elements but I’m afraid the heavenly visitation that turns Katy from rebel into angel proved too much as I grew older.  Perhaps I should give it another chance?  What do you think?

The opening sequence of the televised version featured Katy climbing onto that fateful swing, from which she will fall and damage her back. Another novel in which a swing features, albeit this time a long garden swing, is that journey through the history of philosophy that was all the rage in the early 1990s, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World.  The part played by the swing is hardly pivotal but it has stuck in my memory because in the English translation it was rendered as ‘glider’.  This made sense to an American audience but completely flummoxed me, as I had never heard a garden swing referred to in this way and therefore couldn’t understand why the two characters concerned had suddenly taken to the skies. Apart from anything else who keeps a glider plane sitting in their garden just waiting for the next time they want to engage in a bit of philosophical conversation?  It was only years later when I just happened to find myself sitting next to the person who had made the translation at a literary conference that I discovered what was really going on. Translation matters!

So, from an exploration of the philosophy of kindness to the history of the philosophy of the world.  Where has your six degrees of separation taken you?

Meeting the Second

Tonight is the second meeting of our new book group and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm has carried over and we get as good an attendance this month as we did last.  I’m also looking forward to seeing whether people will be a little less conservative in the choice of books they bring for discussion.  The whole idea is that you talk about what you have read since our last meeting, but I was aware last time that some members of the group had selected on the basis of what they were prepared to admit to having read rather than what their real preferences might have been.  With that in mind, I am going to take along two very different books in the hope that it will encourage wider tastes to emerge as the group grows in confidence.

One of these is the first in a new crime series, The Puppet Show, by M W Craven, a writer who has previously published as Mike Craven.  This is one of the best police procedurals I have read this year and I am already looking forward to Black Summer due out next June.  His chief character, who goes by the wonderful name of Washington Poe, is called back from suspension from the National Crime Agency to help in the investigation of a series of particularly nasty killings in the Lake District, an area of the country he knows well.  Prominent people are being burnt alive in prehistoric stone circles, but other than their standing in the community nothing else appears to link them.  With no evidence left after the immolations and without any obvious connection between the victims, it is difficult for the police to get a lead on who the murderer might be or to predict where he or she might strike next.

Poe has many of the features readers have come to expect in the protagonists of crime fiction.  He has little regard for authority, the rules or those who stick too closely to them when he feels a short cut might catch the villain of the piece sooner, so I suppose you could say he is a bit of a cliché.  But, you know, clichés are clichés because they work and I liked Poe’s style.  I also loved Tilly Bradshaw, the young statistical genius, who has never been out of the office before but who, finding herself carted off to the Lake District to crunch the numbers and try to predict the killer’s next move, comes good in a big way.  Tilly does literal like nobody else and given my Aspergers I really appreciated that. Reassuring her after a particularly nasty occurrence in a bar, Poe praises her reaction and advises her to look on the whole incident as a glass half-full kind of thing.

Bradshaw removed her glasses and polished them with a special cloth she kept in her bag.  When they were back on, she tucked some hair behind her ear and said, ‘The glass isn’t half full, Poe. And neither is it half empty.’

‘What is it then?’

She grinned. ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’

Oh yes, Tilly Bradshaw is my sort of person.

The other novel, I’m taking along is very different; it’s Pat Barker’s Costa nominated The Silence of the Girls.  What with moving house and bouncing in and out of hospital over the last few months, I’m late coming to this, but managed to give it my full attention over the weekend and I have to say that I am in two minds about it.  I’m sure anyone reading this will be aware of the premise behind the book.  It is a retelling of the same time period as is covered by The Iliad, but in this instance narrating the story of the last two years of the Trojan Wars from the point of view of the women involved, with Briseis, the nominal source of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, as their mouthpiece.  It highlights the way in which women were treated as spoils of war and passed out to their conquerors like any other captured asset.  And, although I’ve used the past tense there, as I read it always in the back of my mind were those instances where school girls in various parts of the African continent have been kidnapped and taken captive by militant forces opposed to the education of women.  What happened in Troy should not be seen as history.

The point that Barker appears to be trying to make is that that is precisely what the Trojan War always has been – his story and that this is her attempt to set that straight.  My trouble with the novel was that despite her foregrounding of the horrors that Briseis and her fellow captives face what moved me most was still the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the horror of the killing of Hector.  I simply didn’t engage to the same degree with any of the women.  Is this a fault in me?  Is it because if Barker had written in the same sort of detail about the evil handed out to those women the book would have been unbearable?  I don’t know.  I just know that for me, while the book allowed the women to have a voice it still wasn’t the voice that came through loudest.  As soon as this is available in paperback it will be up for discussion in one of my other book groups, probably both, and I am looking forward to having a reason to give time to read it again and to the opportunity to discuss it with others who have read it in detail.


Desert Island Authors

At a recent book group meeting someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives. This is, I hope, a hypothetical question that sometimes comes into my mind if I happen to catch the end of the radio programme, Desert Island Discs, where a guest is asked to chose not only the eight pieces of music they would take with them were they to be castaway on said desert island,  but also to nominate a book to sit alongside The Bible and the Collected Works of Shakespeare.  (As an aside, people often ask for a specific translation of The Bible, but I have never heard anyone ask the, for me, far more important question concerning which edition of the Collected Works; believe me, it matters!) Sometimes the castaway tries to cheat by asking for a group of books by an author, say all the Barchester Towers novels, to be bound together in one volume.  I sympathise, but it isn’t really playing that particular game.  It does, however, raise the question of which author I would chose, a question that we found ourselves discussing at our last meeting.

In the time that we had it was only possible to give just a snap answer, with writers like Trollope and Dickens springing immediately to mind, but coming away and giving it greater consideration later I began to think rather more seriously about the criteria I ought to be bringing to bare. Just from a practical point of view, I suppose the more books they have written, the better.  However good the work might be, I can’t see me opting for a one hit wonder.  But, being prolific doesn’t necessarily walk hand in hand with producing work that will stand the test of time. Which is going to be more important?

Having put to one side for the moment the temptation to choose an author simply because they are on that list of classic writers who have stood the test of time, I found myself considering popular, but rather more light-weight candidates: people to whose work I turn when I am having one of those days.  Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St Mary’s, come to mind. (As a second aside, do you know that you can now get St Mary’s merchandise?  I am so definitely having a mug with an honour and a privilege on it.). There is also a 60s and 70s writer, Jane Duncan, who wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in the Highlands during the early part of the twentieth century and her time living in the Caribbean during the 1950s, when her husband’s work took them out to one of the last great sugar plantations in private ownership. Neither of these authors is likely to win prizes for great literature, but what they both do is create a cast of characters with whom I want to spend time.  I know that Taylor’s Max and Peterson and Markham aren’t real, and that however much I wish it wasn’t the case, Duncan’s Janet, George and Tom owe as much to her imagination as they do to the real life members of her family; none of that matters.  The characters these writers have created are ‘friends’.  There is an entire set of both series on the kindle that goes everywhere with me and if I find myself with just five minutes to spare and don’t want to simply pick away at whatever I happen to have currently on the go, I will select a favourite episode and relive a much loved moment.  (Aside the third – there was an article in one of this morning’s papers about boots with soles that heat up in cold weather and I automatically found myself asking if their design was based on Bashford’s testicles.   Most of you will have no idea what I am talking about, but anyone who has read Taylor’s What Can Possibly Go Wrong will have raised exactly the same question.  Has Professor Rapson finally got it right?)

I found the fact that I was being drawn to writers whose work is at least as much based on character as on plot surprising, because I have always thought of myself as being a plot driven reader but perhaps a writer who appeals just because of their plots isn’t the one to choose in this scenario.  You can only mine a work for its plot just so many times.  However, neither Taylor nor Duncan are using fiction to ask penetrating questions about the human personality and the way in which society works and perhaps over time I would need that.  Choosing an author with those criteria in mind is going to take greater thought and a second post.  Do you have any suggestions?

Catching Up

Well, it is a fortnight since I last wrote and you were all so enthusiastic about the new book group, so first of all thank you for such positive comments and my apologies for not coming back sooner to tell you how it went.  I do have a legitimate excuse for my tardiness, having been in and out of two different hospitals three times in the intervening period. These have been my first hospital visits since I moved and so a whole new set of medics have had to get used to the idiosyncrasies of my body. I spent last Sunday reassuring the nurse who was monitoring my vitals that if you were me a pulse of 53 was perfectly normal and the following day engaging in a round of that ever popular parlour game, Hunt the Kidney, with a radiographer who needed a lot of reassuring that if she looked round the back and under the rib cage she would eventually find my left one.  As Joe Gargery would have said, ‘What larks!’.

But, back to the book group.  I wasn’t certain how many would turn up and was only definitely expecting three but in the event nine people arrived.  As I think we can only really accommodate twelve in the time that we have and as I have already had at least one more enquiry there is a possibility that the group may very soon be oversubscribed.  It seems that there are a good number of people who are very keen to talk about books but who don’t want the discipline of having to read a specific text each month.  I think I can stretch to a membership of fifteen because not everyone will come every time, but if it rises above that then I shall look to start a second group, because apart from the actual meeting time it wouldn’t demand anything else in the way of preparation and commitment.  For the most part people had brought what I might label ‘safe’ books to talk about, books that they were happy to be seen reading, but I got them to talk more generally about what they liked to read, admitting to reading a good number of crime novels, fantasy works and some children’s fiction myself and I think we will probably have a truer sense of what they each enjoy next time round.  Inevitably, given my teaching background, I have already begun to pick up on a couple of people who will need to be ‘encouraged’ to be more aware of group dynamics. There is the one (there is always one!) who is ‘right’ about a book and won’t brook any opposition and the one who wants to take more than her fair share of the time.  The latter is easier to work with than the former, but it is more important to keep an eye on the first of those two because someone like that can discourage less confident members from voicing their opinions or even from coming at all.

Because of the way the dates fall, our next meeting isn’t for another three weeks. It will be interesting to see if anyone has read something as a result of hearing about it at the last gathering.  I did have an email the following day from someone who had attended and then gone out and bought the new Shardlake novel, Tombland, first thing the next morning because she couldn’t wait for the library copy to be available.  I take that as a success, although I’m not sure how the library would feel about it.

New Book Group

Having settled into my new surroundings one of the things that I wanted to do was expand my circle of local friends.  I chose where I was going to move to quite deliberately because I already knew a good number of people living here, but they are all  from within a certain circle and I thought it would be good to broaden that out.  The obvious way forward was to join a(nother) book group, but there were certain problems with that.  Firstly, the local library group already has sixteen members, which I consider too many for a decent discussion, and secondly, I belong to two groups which read and discuss specified novels and having two books a month dictated by other people’s tastes is quite enough, thank you.  So, I approached the library about starting a different sort of group, although one that I have had experience of before, and this evening we are to have our first meeting.

The idea is very simple.  We (no more than a dozen or it becomes impractical) will meet once a month to each talk briefly about what we have read since the last time we got together.  There are all sorts of benefits to this sort of group.  No one feels any pressure to read something they are not enjoying.  There isn’t the problem of everyone trying to get hold of limited library copies of the same book.  (The librarians particularly like that aspect!) You can come along even if you are still struggling with whatever you were trying to read last month and simply comment on your progress or lack thereof.  It doesn’t matter how you have accessed the book; there is one young woman interested  who is blind and always uses audiobooks. And, perhaps most importantly, you get to ‘meet’ new authors that you might never otherwise have thought of reading.  This is how I first came across writers like Patrick Gale and Richard Russo, now both ‘must reads’ as far as I’m concerned. This latter point can mean that even though we don’t set out to be a discussion group discussion will often arise because over time a number of people will have read the same book and inevitably have a variety of views about it.  (Note to self: don’t damn anything outright, it might be someone else’s favourite ever book and you may never see them again.)

I have no idea how many are going to turn up this evening.  We have advertised the group in the library and in the local newspapers.  (The Bears were very aggrieved that only my picture turned up in the Bromsgrove Standard; they thought it would have been much more effective if they had been included as well, probably quite rightly.) I am expecting at least four but the librarians say they have had several enquiries from people who haven’t spoken to me so it could be that we are full from the word go.  I shall just have to wait and see.  Further reports as the week progresses!