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Has Kate Atkinson lost the plot?

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.

 

 

Reading Horizons: Episode 18

Reading Horizons, 22 May 2019

What are you currently reading?

TheFranchiseAffair

Cover of the first edition. Creative commons licence via Wikipedia

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey  was named one of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time in 1990. It’s obviously stood the test of time since the Sunday Times culture magazine included it in a similar list just two weeks ago. Published in 1948 its about a Scotland Yard investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a young girl. I’ve read only one other book by Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time – which was a fictionalised investigation into the deaths of The Princes in the Tower.  A very different kind of novel but I liked her style of writing so snapped up a copy of The Franchise Affair when I spotted it in a second hand bookshop.

What did you recently finish reading?

transcription

The book club chose Kate Atkinson’s Transcription for our May meeting,  Having disliked Life after Life to the point where I abandoned it part way through, I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the kind of books by Atkinson I used to love in the past. Transcription was definitely an improvement in the sense that I did make it to the last pages but otherwise this proved to be a seriously disappointing novel. The premise was promising – the past life of a woman who was recruited into the world of espionage, assigned to an obscure department of MI5 where she helped monitor the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers. But it never lived up to its promise.

I keep seeing this novel described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy.” I don’t know who wrote that description (her publishers presumably) but it’s anything but a work of depth and power…. I’ll explain why when I write my review in a few days.

What do you think you’ll read next?

In theory my next read should be Evelina by Francis Burney since that was the result of the latest Classics Club spin. But having read a few pages I’ve decided I’m not in the mood for eighteenth century epistolary novel so have put Miss Burney on hold for another time.

Ghostbird

I’m much more interested in the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer 2019 challenge. I’m aiming to read 15 between June 3 and September 3, all of them set in or written by authors from different countries.

I’ll be kicking off with a book written by Carol Lovekin, an author from Wales, that has been sitting in my bookcase for a few years. I do love the cover….

Ghostbird is set in a small Welsh village and the house called Ty Aderyn (the house of birds), home to generations of the Hopkins family.  It’s a house of secrets, secrets that young Cadi Hopkins is determined to uncover.


WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Best selling novel or a classic? What I’ll read next

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

I’m almost at the end of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.  This was one of the books I received as a present last Christmas having heard about it via one of the national newspapers in the UK. It’s proving as superb as their review indicated. It’s the true story of a couple in their fifties who lose their farm, their home and their business after an investment in a friend’s company went belly up. Then they get told the husband (who labours under the strange name of Moth) has a serious brain disease for which there is no cure. Homeless and penniless they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path – a trail of 630 miles, camping wild as they tramped. It’s a fantastic tale about courage but also makes some insightful comments about the way in which homeless people are viewed in the UK.

I’m also reading Punch, a collection of short stories by Kate North, one of the authors from Wales I’ve highlighted in my Cwtch Corner feature. Kate described the book as “A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.” I’ve read two so far and they are definitely strange – one involves an author who takes a rental cottage in France to complete her latest commission but has to share the premises with a very unfriendly mask. Another is about a man who develops a weird growth on his hand….

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Mary Barton was the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell although her authorship was not known at the time of its publication in 1849. It’s set in Manchester and is partly a romance but, far more interesting, is that depicts the problems experienced by the working class in the city and the growth of trade unionism. The final sections do become a little heavy on the message of redemption and the need for increased understanding between workers and employers but otherwise this was a beautifully written and constructed tale.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t have to think too hard about this for once. We have a book club meeting at the weekend and I haven’t yet opened the chosen novel – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.  My last experience with Atkinson via Life After Life wasn’t a good one so I’m hoping Transcription proves to be more akin to the earlier Atkinson novels that I loved.

 

After that comes Evelina by Francis Burney which was the novel I ended up with as a result of the last Classics Club spin and which I’m *supposed* to read by end of May. But I won’t feel compelled to read it if I don’t feel in the mood at the time. I keep eyeing all the books I’ve bought in recent weeks and they’re calling to me more than Miss Burney.

 

Reader preference – Single or multiple narrators?

This week’s Bookends features a new novel from an author in Wales, an article and podcast about narrative voices and an article about the value of creative writing courses.

Book: Crushed by Kate Hamer

I enjoyed Kate Hamer’s debut novel, the disturbing, psychological The Girl in the Red Coat last year. She’s just published her third novel which sounds just as dark and intriguing. Crushed is about an obsessive friendship between three girls. Over the course of one long hot summer, they find their friendship pushed to a breaking point as one of them convinces herself that her thoughts can influence events in the world around them.

Podcast/Article: Narrators Singular, Plural and Vanishing

Narrators have been much in evidence this week. Early in the week, a Tea or Books? podcast episode on the topic helped make a treadmill almost a pleasure.  Simon (Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (Book Snob) discussed their preferences for multi-narrator novels or single narrator novels. Some interesting points about the desire for nineteenth century writers to use devices like diaries and letters designed to give added credibility and authenticity to their fiction. You can listen to episode 71 here In the same week I read an article in The Publisher newsletter about “vanishing narrators” – novels where the narrator is not the main character, such as The Great Gatsby or The Name of the Rose. Just be warned that reading/listening to these will have you scurrying to write down the titles of yet more books to read/buy.

Article: Value of Creative Writing Courses Questioned

You can rely on Will Self to create a stir. This time he’s done it by questioning the value of creative writing graduate programmes. In an interview for the BBC’s Radio 4 prime time news programme Today, Self said today’s students are unlikely to make a living from literary fiction, suggesting their courses might instead give them a career writing video games. “The people coming out of these courses are never going to make a living as novelists, certainly not in literary fiction though that’s a somewhat suspect term. Basically writers are chasing too few readers at the moment,” he said. You’d expect the universities who provide such courses would reject Self’s views but the publishing industry has also weighed in. More details are available via The Bookseller.

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Bookends #13: April 2019

This week’s Bookends features an article about Faber and Faber as they mark their 90th anniversary, a blog post about reading those books that regularly appear in those “100 books you must read” kind of lists and a book set in the Australian outback

Book: The Lost Man by Jane Harper 

A friend has been raving about this new novel from Jane Harper. I waited impatiently while she finished it and was looking forward to getting my paws on it yesterday. But it was not to be ….her husband has got in first and snaffled her copy. If he turns out to be a slow reader I know I’ll be too impatient to wait and will end up buying my own copy.

This is the third novel by Harper. Her first two – The Dry and Forces of Nature – were best sellers and this new one looks to be heading in the same direction. It begins deep in the Australian outback at the location of a lone grave, a memorial to a stockman who died 100 years previously.  Curled up beside it is a more recent body. How he died is not a mystery. The more difficult questions are why and how.

Although this sounds like a fairly typical crime thriller, everything I’ve read about Harper’s work indicates this is too simplistic a description. it’s a tale about family relationships saga that has crime and thriller elements woven in and tackles head on issues of sexual and domestic abuse. It also apparently brilliantly evokes the harsh beauty of the Queensland landscape.

The Sydney Morning Herald calls her “one of the most interesting Australian crime writers to emerge in the past decade.”  Not surprisingly she’s been longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. If you’re tempted, this review by Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes could tip the balance for you.

Blog Post: The Stupid Classics Book Club

A few weekends ago The Sunday Times in the UK published a list of their top 100 contemporary classics. Cue groans from around kitchen tables throughout the country when readers tally up how many of these “should read/must read” books they abandoned in frustration or had no inclination to even open.

The solution devised by Elisa Gabbert, her husband and two friends was to create the Stupid Classics Book Club. The idea was “to read all the corny stuff from the canon that we really should have read in school but never did “. In a piece she wrote for Paris Review she freely admits it started as a joke but in the process she, and her fellow club members, found some of their pre-conceived notions were turned upside down. Other books they anticipated they wouldn’t enjoy did indeed prove tiresome. But it was still a useful exercise to read them says Gabbert:

I find these lists incredibly tiresome. Of course, you don’t have to read anything. Some books will be triggering or make you deeply unhappy; there just isn’t enough time. But if you want to speak or write knowledgeably about them, you really do have to read them. You can’t just assume you know what they’re like. I’m glad I read Fahrenheit 451 even though I despised it. Now I know exactly how it’s bad, and I can hate it for the right reasons.

I can go along with that to a certain extent: reading only what you know you enjoy means you never challenge yourself. Staying within your comfort zone can be limiting. But I don’t completely buy the idea:  if I start reading a book I suspect I won’t like and do indeed find I absolutely loathe it, I see little point in persevering to the bitter end just to be able to say I read it and now I know why I hate it.

What do you think -do you agree with Gabbert? Read the full story here 

Article: Faber and Faber

Faber and Faber is marking its 90th anniversary this year, a landmark which triggered an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph this week. I never realised that there is only one Faber – the company was formed by Geoffrey Faber but the “and Faber” was supposedly added following a suggestion by the poet Walter de la Mare (whose work the company went on to publish) to add a second Faber into the company name ‘because you can’t have too much of a good thing’.

Another piece of useful/useless information I gleaned from this article was that the company turned down a number of books that went on to become mega hits: Paddington Bear; Down and Out in Paris and London; 1984. Oops….

To their credit though they have spotted some outstanding talent over the years: thirteen Nobel Laureates and six Booker Prize-winners  (including the most recent Milkman by Anna Burns) isn’t to be sniffed at….

I wish I could add a link to the article but the Daily Telegraph operates a pay for view/subscription model…..

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Bookends #12 December 2018

This week’s Bookends features an article about reading African women writers, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.

Book: Blue Sky  by Kate Atkinson

Big SkyKate Atkinson used to be one of my favourite authors. But we parted company when she brought out A Life after Life in 2013. I abandoned it half way through. I know I was in a minority in saying that I didn’t enjoy this novel (it won the Costa Book of the Year) but sometimes that happens.  Her next book, A God In Ruins picked up some of the same characters and themes so it didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve yet to catch up with her most recent novel Transcription which features a young woman who is recruited by an obscure wartime department of the Secret Service.

But now, thanks to Susan at A Life in Books I discover that she already has another book in the pipeline. Big Sky will be published in 2019 and will mark a return after a nine year absence to her detective series, featuring the ex-Cambridge Constabulary private investigator, Jackson Bodie.

The publishers Transworld will not release details of the plot until next year so until then we’ll have to make do with the cover image….. I’m hoping however that these two books will see the return of my love affair with Atkinson.

Blog Post: Books of the Year

This is the time of year when many publications and bloggers reflect on the last 12 months and decide what titles make their ‘Books of the Year’ list. The Millions newsletter has been running a series of articles on this theme for the past few weeks – you can read them here 

If you don’t have the time to read through all these lists, help is at hand via Kate at Books are My Favourite blog who has amalgamated multiple published lists into her Top 50 Books of 2018. This is a great resource because it shows which books which most regularly appeared in “Best of ….” lists. Judging by this, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is the outstanding hit of this year since it appears in 17 separate lists.

What I found interesting about Kate’s list was how few of the 2018 Booker Prize contenders are included. Only 11 lists included The Booker winner Milkman by Anna Burns. It actually rated lower overall than three other candidates: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, The Overstory by Richard Powers and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.

Here is Kate’s post 

Article: African women writers

reading-africaGuardian journalist Gary Younge was embarrassed by how few women writers from Africa he had read. Though he was familiar with many of the big names like Chimamanda Adichi and Nadine Gordimer, there were many more countries about whose literature he knew nothing. So he decided to do something about it by making 2018 his year of reading African women writers.

He’s now read 19 books by authors from Morocco, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Guadeloupe.

As a result his perceptions have been turned on their head. When he began his project he expected that reading African women would be “self-improving but not necessarily enjoyable.” But to his surprise it’s been “mostly the latter and often both.” He’s read books that portrayed ordinary domestic scenes and love between Africans, books that dealt with migration and books set against a background of political upheaval.

I recognised a few of the author names he mentions but there are many more who are new to me. These will be great additions to the list of books to read for my World of Literature project. 

If you’re thinking of making a 2019 resolution to read more broadly, this article could gie you some good pointers about authors to explore. Read Gary Younge’s article here 

 

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

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