Sunday, 28 October 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson.

            London, 1940.  Eighteen year-old Juliet Armstrong is an orphan following the recent death of her beloved mother.  Fortunately, she has been raised to be resourceful and self-reliant, and her mother worked hard to provide her with the best education that she and various scholarships could achieve.
            Now Juliet is alone, but has landed herself a job – albeit a menial one – with a branch of MI5:  she will be transcribing secret recordings of the meetings of Hitler sympathisers and Fifth Columnists in an adjoining flat;  
those who admire the Third Reich and think it only a matter of time before England is invaded by the triumphant German Army.  Imagine them goose-stepping along the Mall:  what an uplifting sight!
            The clandestine meetings are conducted by Godfrey Toby, an MI5 operative posing as a Gestapo agent, and the darling of the little cabal of traitors who meet with him for tea and biscuits, imparting snippets of news of troop movements, industrial build-ups, and any gossip they may hear or can contribute to that may sow seeds of rebellion and dissent:  they are the Nazi version of the French Underground, and Juliet would find their treachery (artfully orchestrated by Godfrey) quite shocking – if only it weren’t so pedestrian, and frequently interrupted by a barking dog, for traitor #3?  4? Dolly always brings her dog Dibs along, and he seems to have as much to say in his little canine way, as the other plotters.  It is very hard to transcribe secrets when a lot of what she types is ‘conversation inaudible.  Dog barking.’
            Life starts looking up, however, when her shadowy bosses decide that (apart from continuing her daytime transcription duties – ‘it doesn’t matter when you type them, just as long as they are done.’) she is now ready for some field work:  because of her fresh prettiness and higher education, she may be able to penetrate the upper echelons of society to provide evidence of Far Right thinking amongst the Aristocracy.  Surely not!  The Great and the Good could never harbour such vipers to their bosoms.  Could they? 
            They could, and no-one is more horrified than Juliet to discover that various pillars of the Establishment are not marble, but crumbling clay.  And who spies on the Spies?  It becomes impossible to know which side her most trusted colleagues are on, as evidence mounts of betrayal in the most unlikely places. 
            Prize-winning author Kate Atkinson takes the reader on a heady ride through twentieth-century wartime history, shifting the action via flashback through a forty-year period.   Her characters are ordinary, flawed but always appealing and, as we expect with a writer of Ms Atkinson’s calibre, a rich vein of humour is threaded throughout, thanks to Juliet, who is singular and unforgettable.  There’s a twist to the tale, too, that I never saw coming:  that Juliet – who would have thought!  FIVE STARS.       

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)

               This is the fourth novel in the series featuring Cormoran Strike, former soldier, amputee and now private detective, and Robin Ellacott, his recently married business partner – and this is the best, despite its mighty size (650 pages) and predictably complex plot, not to mention the usual raft of characters that initially are hard to keep track of:  well, fear not!  Galbraith/Rowling is too good a storyteller to let the reader wallow in confusion, and apart from having to have strong wrists the page-turning proceeds at a satisfyingly high speed, as we would expect from a writer of this calibre.
            Due to recent successes Cormoran has gained something of a media reputation – not that he is enjoying the spotlight, for his M.O. depends on his anonymity and the ability, despite his size, to blend into the background.  Fortunately, he is able to hire new staff for various surveillance jobs, and Robin is invaluable as always, despite a severe case of PTSD caused by their last case – a condition about which her new husband is spectacularly unsympathetic;  he is hounding her to leave ‘that shitty job’ – not because it is dangerous and obviously stressful, but because he is jealous of her good relationship with Strike.  She should stay at home and be a good little wife.  Not a good start to a marriage, but hardly surprising:  Robin’s husband and Strike have never hit it off.
            Thanks to Strike’s enhanced reputation, a Minister of the Crown comes calling.  He is puffed up with privilege and self- importance, especially considering his aristocratic background:  Strike will get onto his problem, find out why some anonymous bastard is trying to blackmail him out of forty thousand quid – which he WILL NOT PAY!  And do it right away.  And it’s none of Strike’s business what the blackmailer knows:  suffice to say that in days gone by ‘it used to be perfectly legal’.  So get to work.
            Reluctantly, Strike does, sending Robin in to the House of Commons undercover;  she will be the Minister’s Goddaughter, come to assist his daughter Izzy who is snowed under with Admin – and to plant a bug in the office opposite of a man who plainly loathes the Minister and would be thrilled if a scandal surfaced that would see him retire in disgrace;  in fact that sleazy little man could be the obvious suspect as blackmailer – until the Minister is found dead shortly after in his townhouse, supposedly a suicide.  Really?
            The plot thickens nicely and in the process we meet a great cross-section of London Society, from its rarefied heights to its scummy depths, including various members of the Minister’s family -  all damaged to a greater or lesser degree, and a poor psychotic homeless man who is convinced he was witness to a murder at the Minister’s country home twenty years before.
            Apart from an overlong and fruitily melodramatic unveiling of the blackmailer/murderer (poor Robin is in the hot seat again – her PTSD will never leave!), ‘Lethal White’ is unputdownable, even though it weighs a ton.  FIVE STARS.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi       Young Adults

           On a scale of one to ten for the Fantasy genre hit for this year, ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ has to be an eleven.  Ms Adeyemi’s tale has it all:  heart-stopping action, almost unbearable suspense, and characters that, despite their magical skills, we can all identify with – especially lead protagonist Zelie Adebola.
            Zelie lives with her father and brother in a fishing village on the coast of a mythical African country called Orisha.  She is always getting into trouble thanks to her short temper, and her older brotherTzain is always there to rescue her – whether he wants to or not.  Their small family is still suffering from the loss of their mother, a Maji cruelly murdered eleven years before by the ruling family of Orisha – for her mother was part of one of the ten magic Clans that used to rule Orisha until they were overthrown in one terrible night of bloodshed:  magic is now outlawed throughout the country and those who survived who are gifted with the control of Healing, Air, Wind, Fire, Spirit, Water, Darkness and Light, Animals, time, and Life and Death, are now oppressed and enslaved, their powers weakened or non-existent – unless …..
Unless someone is brave enough to make a hazardous journey into the unknown and still sacred parts of the country to regenerate the power of the Clans, to bring back the Magic that will free them all from oppression.
            And that person is Zelie;  impetuous, rash, prickly and bad-tempered – but blessed (or cursed) with the gift inherited from her mother of Life and Death.  She is a Reaper and her power is so great she is frightened of it, but the mission she has been given is vital:  she MUST succeed, or her people will never be free.  She will die for them if she has to.  Failure is unthinkable.
            Accompanied as always by the furious but loyal Tzain and a na├»ve escapee from the Royal Palace, the princess Amari, Zelie sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, intent on bringing Magic back to Orisha – but pursuing them with deadly efficiency is Crown Prince Inan, charged by his ruthless father the King to bring back his silly little sister, and to eradicate like vermin any Maji in his path. 
            WHAT A STORY!  Ms Adyemi herself has magic powers, the power over words and how to transform them into a story so gripping that it is impossible to put the book down until it is finished – the very best kind of story.  And it’s being made into a movie as I write:  Magic!  FIVE STARS
            And once again I thank my darling granddaughter Ava for recommending this book:  she knows what’s good!