Transcription by Kate Atkinson #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

transcription

 Transcription opens in 1981 when Juliet Armstrong is involved in an accident. As she lies on the ground, injured, her mind goes back to 1940 when she started work in the offices of MI5 and then to 1950 when she was a BBC schools programmes producer. A witty but unemotional protagonist she seems to be recounting events as they happened, but there are omissions, and can we really trust her testimony?

I loved this book, much preferring it to Life After Life. The story of how MI5 monitored Nazi sympathisers and the account of  the amoral social life of 1940 are fascinating. Juliet’s observations on a woman’s role, always making the tea but also sent out to risk her life on potentially dangerous missions without any training, reflect reality. At times, this novel made me laugh out loud, at others, it is tense and thrilling and always slightly puzzling. There are so many intriguing characters, from Peregrine Gibbons, so dapper but resisting her charms (Juliet’s naivety is believable) to Godfrey Talbot, the likeable double agent, via delightful Cyril, her hard-working companion in Dolphin Square and the tactless Daisy who is supposed to assist Juliet at the BBC.

As Juliet listens in to meetings between Godfrey and a group of fascist sympathisers her transcriptions are sketchy. Words are missing when the dog barks and we don’t have a complete picture of what is happening. This reflects Juliet’s story. She has the ability to lie easily, making her an effective spy and yet she cares deeply about the fate of a young maid who briefly helps her and who, like Juliet, is an orphan.

This is a deep novel with a light tone. It is interesting to read from the context of today’s politics and society. And if you are wondering, the flamingo on the cover is explained towards the end of the story. There has been criticism by some reviewers of the denouement in which we are told in a rapid summary how threads in the story linked and we learn more about Juliet’s motivation, but I am on the fence on this. It satisfied my queries but possibly could have been revealed more subtly. However, the texture and quality of the writing is so delightful I could happily read it all over again next week.

 Transcription is available atAmazon UK

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Friday Bookshare #AmReading

This week I’m reading Harry Leslie Smith’s account of his early life. I was prompted to do so by Terry Tyler who reviewed his three autobiographies on her blog

A great depression

Harry Leslie Smith died on 28th November 2018 at the age of 95. He grew up in Yorkshire in great poverty and found wartime an escape from a life of hardship. After he retired he began to write about 20th century British social history and contributed many newspaper articles. In the last few years of his life his public appearances, such as his speech at the Labour party Conference have brought him to the attention of the wider public.

Reading this moving story about the sad childhood of Harry and his sister reminded me of another true story from the same era which I read many years ago.

Twopence

Helen Forrester came from a prosperous family, but after her father lost everything, the family moved to Liverpool, where her experiences of starvation and growing out of her clothes mirror that of Harry Leslie Smith.

Both these books are essential reading for anyone who thinks that hardship ended in the Victorian age.  Despite their dreadful experiences, both books are compelling and take you into their world.

The Lost Letters by Sarah Mitchell #BookReview #RBRT

Lost

 What if keeping your loved ones safe meant never seeing them again?

Norfolk, 1940: Sylvia’s husband Howard has gone off to war, and she is struggling to raise her two children alone. Her only solace is her beach hut in Wells-Next-The-Sea, and her friendship with Connie, a woman she meets on the beach. The two women form a bond that will last a lifetime, and Sylvia tells Connie something that no-one else knows: about a secret lover… and a child.

Canada, present day: When Martha’s beloved father dies, he leaves her two things: a mysterious stash of letters to an English woman called ‘Catkins’ and directions to a beach hut in the English seaside town of Wells. Martha is at a painful crossroads in her own life, and seizes this chance for a trip to England – to discover more about her family’s past, and the identity of her father’s secret correspondent.

The tragedy of war brought heartbreaking choices for Sylvia. And a promise made between her and Connie has echoed down the years. For Martha, if she uncovers the truth, it could change everything…

My Review

Martha, overcomes her terror of flying in order to discover more about her father’s past. Having written about his life in Canada, he was about to return to his roots in East Anglia when he suddenly died. Martha also wants to see her estranged daughter, Janey, who is studying at Cambridge, but first she must solve the mystery of the beach hut he father had rented and the file of letters on his computer to someone called Catkins.

The novel takes us back to World War Two and a friendship between two young women, Sylvie and Connie.  Each is hiding a secret and their unexpected friendship gives them courage to take a bold decision.  We are shown a vivid picture of life in wartime Britain, where women had important roles doing their best for their country in the Women’s Voluntary Service, against a background of bombing and fear.  Relationships between men sent off to fight and their worried wives at home are severely strained and they can easily grow apart.

Martha is an engaging character, whose story, written in the present tense, involves us actively in her compelling adventure, while Sylvie, distanced by the past tense, makes us fear for her future happiness.  Threads are gradually gathered, connecting the women together and enabling Martha to forge a more positive future where she is reunited with her daughter and finally understands her father’s past.

The Lost Letters can be purchased at Amazon UK

S Mitchell

Sarah Mitchell

THE LOST LETTERS in my first novel, inspired by a visit to Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, where there is a row of iconic beach huts. Some of them looked very old to me, and it made me wonder for how many generations they might have been in the same family and handed down over the years…

I didn’t become a writer until I was in my forties. I studied law and after that practised as a barrister in London for nearly 20 years. For a long while I wanted to write a novel – inspired by my mother who used to write children’s stories for a radio programme called ‘Listen with Mother’ – but it took me a long while to take the plunge and actually make the dream happen. As well as the beach huts, THE LOST LETTERS draws on the decision my grandparents almost made to evacuate my mother to Canada at the start of the Second World War. So much has changed since then, and yet so much – the bonds within a family – are the same. I wanted to explore that in my writing.

I now live back in Norfolk, where I grew up, with my husband and three almost-grown-up children. Norfolk is an extraordinary county and I feel incredibly lucky to live here. I hope THE LOST LETTERS captures a little bit of the beauty of Norfolk, as well as the horror and hardship of war.

You can follow Sarah Mitchell on Twitter at @SarahM_writer

The Long Journey Home by Wendy Robertson #BookReview

Long Journey

The arrival of the Japanese army in 1942 marked the end of colonial life in Singapore.  The pre-war round of parties, games of tennis and servants, disappeared overnight as the British women and children attempted to escape by ship, while their menfolk were unable to defend the island and were quickly imprisoned in Changi jail.  Meanwhile many of the Chinese population were murdered or tortured.

Ten-year-old Sylvie has had a privileged life despite her mother’s coldness.  Tutored by Virginia Chen, a Eurasian graduate in her late 20s, she is able to meet many other people in the multiracial city.  When her father takes his family to the docks to board one of the last ships, an aerial attack causes confusion and she is left behind.  Eventually finding Virginia, the two of them try to survive the rest of the war together.

This thrilling and very credible story relates the horror, comradeship and continuing racial tension.  The deep friendship between Virginia and Sylvie helps them to endure the hunger and cruelty but peace threatens to divide them forever.  There is a hint of romance for Virginia and we wonder whether Sylvie will ever see her beloved father again and there are some pleasing family connections to be discovered.

I have read many other books about the fall of Singapore, since so many true stories of endurance and suffering can be told, but this was a book I could not put down and the stratas of social behaviour and need for racial equality make it a novel worth reading in the 21st century.

Wendy Robertson

W Robertson

Scatty and disorganised about most things except my writing and reading I drift through life in search of the next idea, the wonderful next story. I have been living this life for the last twenty years after a career in teaching up to degree level. I embraced teaching as a creative enterprise but was always a writer who happened to teach, publishing three books while I was still working as well as some short stories and journalism. After that I surrendered to the writing goddess and published a range of novels and short stories as well as the occasional article.

Oh, and I have a Master’s Degree in Education. Some of those insights thread through the novels too, I suppose.

I have written spasmodically about my life in my short volume A Life In Short Pieces, and in The Romancer: A Writer’s Tale.

I’m fascinated by creativity history, identity, imagination, equality and myth. Recently, on looking through my novels I realise that – although not with any conscious purpose – these themes seem to be threaded through my writing.

In the middle of my writing career I spent five years as Writer in Residence in a women’s prison. This was a life-changing experience for me – broadening my view, deepening my empathy and my understanding of the whole of society. One outcome of that experience was my novel Paulie’s Web This, while fictional, tells some truths about the varied lives of many of the interesting and wise women I met in prison.

The Long Journey Home is available here

Island in the East by Jenny Ashcroft #FridayReads #BookReview

Island in the East

This is a book of two stories 44 years apart, both telling of romance and tragedy on the island of Singapore.  In 1941, Ivy Harcourt, a brave young servicewoman, arriving in Singapore a year before the Japanese invasion, meets Kit, the love of her life, but she discovers that her grandmother Mae has been keeping a secret.  She too had lived on the island as a young woman, with her twin sister, Harriet, but what has happened to her sister since then?

 

The stories are gradually revealed in parallel, Mae’s predicament intensifying as danger approaches Ivy and Kit.  This is a thrilling and intriguing book with authentic characters such as Alma, Ivy’s lively American friend and Alex, a warm elderly gentleman who knew her grandmother so many years earlier.  It is difficult to put down as there are so many questions to be answered, unscrupulous characters harming our heroines and the Japanese occupation to be endured.

 

Having lived in Singapore during the 1960s I am fascinated by its history, especially during the second world war, but I was also impressed by the familiar feeling of the heat, the lush vegetation and the colonial style buildings described in the text.  A perfect setting for a mystery, a story of wartime heroism and two enduring romances.

Island in the East is available at Amazon UK

Jenny Ashcroft

Jenny Ashcroft

Jenny Ashcroft is a British author of historical fiction. Having spent many years living, working and exploring in Australia and Asia – a time which gave her an enduring passion for stories set in exotic places – she is now based in Brighton where she lives with her family by the sea. She
has a degree in history, and has always been fascinated by the past – in particular the way that extraordinary events can transform the lives of normal people.

Her first book, Beneath a Burning Sky, was a 2017 kindle bestseller, and Island in the East is her second novel. She is currently working on her third, set in 1920s India.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Kate A

A God in ruins is a slow boiler. It tells the story of Teddy, a beloved son and brother whose comfortable life changed so dramatically when the second world war began. Moving back and forth through his life, we see him as a gentle, loving grandfather, a much-respected pilot and a dutiful husband. But it is a life full of quandaries; should he marry his childhood sweetheart, how can he communicate with his wayward daughter and how can he defend bombing Germany?

Looking through Teddy’s eyes the juxtaposition of different eras flows logically. I was more at ease with this book than with the artifice of “Life After Life.” Once immersed in the story I could read it forever, but there is a finale and that is both a surprise and yet absolutely right.

There are so many facets to this book such as the delightful stories of the mischievous child, Augustus, written by Teddy’s aunt with him as a model, the awful behaviour and total lack of empathy of Teddy’s daughter, Viola, and the very British, stubborn manner in which Teddy’s wife, Nancy, deals with illness.
I tend to ignore essential words at the beginning of a novel, so it is important to return to the quotes Kate Atkinson begins with, especially the source of her title:

“A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.“ – Ralph Waldo Emerson – Nature

I could write so much more about Kate Atkinson’s descriptive prose, her pithy comments, her understanding of humanity and the savage consequences of war, but it would be much better for you to read her book.

Woman at the Front: Memoirs of an ATS Girl by Sylvia Wild #TuesdayBookBlog

 

ATS

I chose this autobiography because Sylvia’s experiences during the second world war mirrored those of my mother, but the story of those years in France, Belgium and Germany is fascinating for anyone interested in 20th century history.

 
Sylvia joined the ATS, as the women’s section of the British Army was called, in 1943. She decided to volunteer for overseas service and as a shorthand typist was sent over to France as one of the few women soon after D-day. Her time billeted with French families was a revelation to her, but despite their initial resistance, she made friends. In Brussels she was reunited with friends and found more luxury and entertainment. Returning to London on her very first flight was alarming, and she was shocked to discover that her family were still suffering from the effects of the wartime bombardment.

 
The women of the ATS were given little credit, being dismissed by Montgomery as nuisances but their role was essential in the establishment of the British Army Over the Rhine bringing peace to Europe. Anyone who enjoys reading the minutiae of social history of a time almost still in living memory would enjoy this book.

 

The paperback version, including illustrations is available at Amazon UK