Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionThings are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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Review 1354: Weekend at Thrackley

Cover for Weekend at ThrackleyOccasionally, I have been reading the British Library Crime Classics published by Poison Pen Press, so I was delighted to find one on the shelves of my local library. I had not heard of the author, Alan Melville, but I was pleased to find the novel one of the most enjoyable of this series that I have read so far.

Jim Henderson isn’t getting ahead in life, but he’s doing it cheerfully. He has a room in a rather seedy rooming house, but he likes his landlady. He hasn’t been able to find a job in years, but he has managed to keep his membership to his club.

One morning, he gets an unexpected invitation from an Edwin Carson, who claims to have known him as a child, for a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim knows nothing about Carson, but when he visits his friend Freddie Upton to borrow evening clothes, he finds that Freddie is invited, too. Freddie tells him that Carson is a jewel collector with an amazing collection, and he has asked him to bring the Upton diamonds so that he can look at them. That doesn’t explain why Jim has been invited, however.

Before the two men arrive at the house, Freddie knocks over a charming girl on a bicycle. That girl, Mary, turns out to be Carson’s ward. Jim thinks things are looking up.

When the men arrive at the house, Jim is even more perplexed about why he is invited. The four other guests have only one thing in common: they all own famous jewels. Jim does not.

The house itself, although luxuriously and tastefully finished, is gloomy and built like a fortress. Jim soon finds that both his room and Freddie’s have been bugged. Just what is Carson up to?

This novel has an engaging hero and is written in a pleasantly jaunty style. It also has some witty dialogue. As is common in the genre, Carson’s plots are ridiculously complicated, and the chapter at the end where the police inspector explains everything seems unnecessary. All in all, though, I enjoyed this light novel.

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Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

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Review 1336: The Great Fortune

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Great Fortune is the first book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy called Fortunes of War. I didn’t know quite what to think of it but am interested enough to continue.

Harriet and Guy Pringle are newlyweds on their way to Bucharest in the autumn of 1939. War is on the horizon, but Guy is in a reserved profession as a teacher at a university. It is his second year in Bucharest, and Harriet realizes very quickly that, while she is a stranger, Guy has already made a place for himself there among the English expatriates and diplomatic staff, the university staff, as well as other groups.

Harriet is not always a fan of his friends, particularly Sophie, a Rumanian student who would like Guy for herself, and Prince Yakimov, an English-born son of a Russian expatriate. Yakimov was once the companion of a wealthy woman and has been left destitute upon her death.

Although everyone is interested in the worsening news from Western Europe, they are also oddly detached. For example, Guy has been warmly welcomed into the home of the Druckers, he a Jewish banker whose son is Guy’s student. When the king’s mistress wants his oil rights, both Drucker and his son are arrested for pro-German sympathies, the son because the father’s Swiss bank accounts are in his name. Although the agriculturally rich Rumanians are supplying much of the German food, he is not released, nor do we hear much about his fate.

I thought Harriet supercilious and Guy totally oblivious of the results of his actions on others, particularly Harriet. Still, I found this period and setting interesting.

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Review 1335: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Cover for Killers of the Flower MoonDavid Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon details a past that was once infamous but now almost forgotten except in Osage country. In the 1920’s, the Osage nation in Oklahoma was the richest population per capita in the United States. This phenomena was a result of wise decisions by the tribal leaders during the 19th century land grab by the whites. They voluntarily moved from their homelands, purchasing land in Oklahoma that they thought white men would deem worthless. Then oil was discovered on their property. Because the nation had purchased the property, it couldn’t be taken back.

However, the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, deemed the Osage unfit to handle their own money. So, they appointed white guardians for them. As you can imagine, there were many eager to cheat these people out of their headrights, as were called their shares of the tribal fortune.

The Osage began dying. Grann centers much of his book on Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Ernest Burkhart. One by one, her family started dying. First, her sister, Annie, was found shot in the head. Then her mother, Lizzie, died of a mysterious illness, believed by many to be poison. When her sister Rita’s husband, Bill Smith, tried to investigate, he and his wife and servant girl were killed one night when their house exploded. Other Osage were dying, too, and investigators either came up with nothing or were themselves murdered.

As the FBI was in its infancy and trying to figure out its own jurisdictional powers, new director J. Edgar Hoover decided that the Osage murders, which were becoming infamous as indicators of failure and corruption, would be good ones to solve. So, he sent out a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate.

Grann follows their investigation, and it is a fascinating one. This is a shameful period in our history that should not be forgotten. Grann goes further than the FBI, though, by looking into other deaths that were not investigated.

This book tells a mesmerizing story about a shocking time not so far in the past.

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Review 1324: All Done by Kindness

Cover for All Done by KindnessMy friend Deb recommended that I read All Done by Kindness based on a post she read by Furrowed Middlebrow. Such is the power of the web, though, that by the time I looked for it, the few copies available were expensive. I had to borrow hers.

Caper books and movies were popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, and All Done by Kindness fits the description, telling the story of a crime committed with worthy motives, a light-hearted caper with a dash of romance. It begins with a visit by Dr. Sandilands to an elderly patient, Mrs. Hovenden. Mrs. Hovenden’s family has been wealthy, but since the war, Mrs. Hovenden has fallen into hard times. She tells the doctor she is badly in debt for the first time in her life.

Dr. Sandilands offers to lend her the money, even though he can hardly afford it, but Mrs. Hovenden is too proud to take it. Instead, she offers to sell him some boxes of clothes and linen from her attic, including a box of pictures. When the Sandilands family opens the boxes, the results provide Beatrix Sandilands, the doctor’s sharp-tongued daughter, with a great deal to say, for everything is either worthless to begin with or is mouldering away. About the pictures, however, daughter Linda suggests that they consult her knowledgeable fellow librarian, Stephanie du Plessis.

Stephanie thinks that the paintings might be quite valuable, even Old Masters. She does some research that indicates they may have been removed from an Italian villa. Beatrix thinks they are worthless and wants them out of her house. Finally, the family agrees to consult Sir Harry Maximer, an art expert who has the reputation for integrity.

Here, the plot thickens, for Sir Harry recognizes the paintings as Old Masters, but he tells Dr. Sandilands they are only good copies. Why? Because he intends to have them in his own collection.

This is a charming little novel, a delightful book for when you want to read something light.

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Review 1323: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Cover for The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the novel that made John Le Carré’s name as a master of espionage fiction. His introduction to my edition tells just how much he resented the attention he got for it. Even though it is one of his earlier books, having been published in 1963, it is one I hadn’t read.

At the beginning of the novel, Leamas watches in anger from West Berlin as his last good agent, Karl Riemeck, is shot crossing the border from East Berlin. Leamas is fairly sure, on his return to England shortly thereafter, that his career as an operator is over. Instead, he is offered a dangerous last mission. He is to appear to have been retired to a desk job, to go to pieces and lose his position and continue to go downhill with the hopes that he will be approached from the other side. The objective? To take down Mundt, a ruthless official on the other side of the wall and the man responsible for Karl’s death.

All goes according to plan, and Leamas is approached shortly after he gets out of prison for assaulting a grocer. Only, if you are familiar with Le Carré, you know that things will be much more complicated than they seem to be. And Leamas has one weakness. During his descent, he got involved with a young, naïve girl, Liz, a member of the Communist Party.

Le Carré is a master of suspense and a plotter of labyrinthine plots. In addition, his novels always have more going on in them that just action, such as raising serious issues of morality. This novel is rightfully a famous member of its genre.

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