Northern Reader

A book blog by Joules Barham

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – three stages in a woman’s life – secrets of War and beyond

Transcription by Kate Atkinson | Waterstones


A novel of wartime in the hands of Kate Atkinson becomes a message that the effects of the Second World War lasted a long time, and the effects were not obvious. The novel is told by Juliet Armstrong in three different time periods – 1940, at the beginning of the war, 1950 when Juliet works for the BBC, and 1981, when Juliet is involved in a road accident.  The book moves around between the two earlier periods, when in both times Juliet had secrets and told lies. The book is told from her point of view, but not in Juliet’s actual voice; apart from not telling the complete truth to any person she keeps vital things from the reader. This novel unusually has a bibliography and the author notes the sources of her inspiration, and the novel is full of the sort of research that conveys a real sense of the times. The writing is incredibly vivid, full of the sights and sounds of a London at war and then in post war austerity. There are several themes which run throughout the book, of Juliet’s continual conflicts between her actual life and her dreams. That is further confusion beyond the various roles that Juliet is pressed into, the secrets that she keeps. This is an ambitious book written on several levels, and adds up to an intense historical thriller and character study.


In 1940 Juliet is requested to become involved in clerical work relating to a secret department attempting to deal with fifth columnists, British people who were followers of Hitler and his plans from within British society. She has a tragic background which means she has no family herself, and few real friends. Two of the men she works most closely with have their own agendas; Peregrine Gibbons is a man with a big secret, and Godfrey Toby is the man who attracts the suspects and finds out what they are actually plotting, but he is in turn suspected by at least one other person. Juliet, innocent of relationships cannot or chooses not to see what is going on, as witnessed by her inner dialogue which the reader is given. She is asked to undertake a further role of subterfuge, which brings with it additional problems and even danger. After the war there are still suspicions, still dangers, in memory and potentially more. Despite the black comedy of the BBC children’s programme Juliet must oversee, there are currents of activity beneath the surface. 


This novel has a certain level of humour alongside the confusion and some brutal moments. Juliet is a complicated character, as there are implications of what she really knows and intends. As she goes about her life we do not really find out everything there is to know, and we are always left unsure about what she really understands. Atkinson is a very realistic and intense writer in this book; managing to find the humour in everyday speech and cliches, as well as describe a setting of fog and certain lifestyles such as the fancy sofas, the problems of typing from recordings and the problems of working out what people really mean. It is a complex read, and ultimately a satisfying one, and is a picture of a complicated character in a range of difficult situations. I recommend it as a strong read with much to admire in the construction of a marvellous series of characters.


I think this is the first Atkinson book I have actually read, although I admit to owning a few! I believe her well known first book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” features on our book group list later in the year, so I must read it at some point. I remember seeing a couple of episodes of a Jackson Brodie  television series a few years ago, so I will see if I can find one of those to read as well!

A Southwold Mystery by Suzette A. Hill – a cosy mystery with added humour in 1955

A Southwold Mystery (Rosie Gilchrist #3) by Suzette A. Hill


This is a mystery set in Suffolk, 1955, with lots of characters chasing around in the beautiful countryside around Southwold. On the surface this is a genteel society, with its obsessions with gardening, flower festivals and tea rooms. The local gentry live in a large house, or are successful and only waiting for their knighthood. However, when Rosy Gilchrist accompanies her friend Lady Angela Fawcett for a visit to the latter’s old school friend’s country house, they discover that their hostess has come to an untimely and extremely dramatic end. Lady Delia Dovedale has left her son Hugh, butler Hawkins and two unlovely pugs, Bo and Peep, as she dies in mysterious circumstances. When Rosy and Lady Fawcett discover that their friends Felix, florist by royal appointment, and Cedric, Professor of geology were at the scene, they decide that staying on to find out more would be a good use of their time. Thus the scene is set for investigations set amid the beauties of Southwold, Dunwich and other towns as both the local police and the four friends try to work out what has been going on, and exactly why Delia died.


I think the great strength of this book is the marvellous characters that are described, each with their own preoccupations. Even though dead, we get a fulsome picture of Delia, and much about why she was targeted, or at least died so publicly. All of the characters are given a full description, even a secretary who uses her new lipstick when being interviewed by a hapless police officer; “rather jammy” is his verdict. Jennings is an enthusiastic young detective, who keeps being told to go through the telephone directories by his boss. Felix, meanwhile, is excessively proud of his royal warrant, and carefully constructs anecdotes of the Queen Mother on the chance of being able to impress an audience. He has some difficulties on one memorable night, however, and is placed in a quandary regarding a second body. There are eccentric locals, and Hawkins expresses his devotion to the family as befits an old retainer. Rosy, meanwhile, tries to put together the clues she seems to stumble on, including photos and notes of a rather specific nature. Lady Fawcett meanwhile maintains a certain level of panic about her absent daughter Amy, while worrying about suitable hats for each occasion. It is in a dramatic denouement that  all is revealed, and the peaceful coast of Suffolk can return to its normal peaceful self.


This is a quiet comedy which depends on characters in all their individuality and dialogue which emphasises their eccentricity. The murders are dealt with in a suitably unusual way, and the plot is worked out in a convincing if not entirely usual way. I enjoyed the descriptions of the area, and the quiet alternative to a bustling London. There are some interesting set pieces, including a tea in the church hall which rations the food, and revelations which are made in unusual ways.  Although this is the third novel which features some of the characters, it definitely works as a standalone novel. As a historical “cosy” murder mystery with added comedy it works well, and I particularly enjoyed the setting. 


I picked this book up a while ago while browsing in the excellent Crime Fiction section of Heffers book shop in Cambridge, a place I am missing greatly. While technically now part of Blackwells, this excellent bookshop has been selling books on that site for many decades, and specialises in the many books the students need – especially in pre internet days. When I have been more recently there has been an amazing secondhand section now on the ground floor – and it certainly stocks a very different range of books! I have been abandoned in there for many hours by Northernvicar and others, and still ask for more time. The joys of bookshop browsing!

The Saracen’s Mark by S. W. Perry – Dangerous times in Elizabethan London and beyond


This is the third book featuring Nicholas Shelby, Bianca Merton and Elizabethan London, which is basically a third character. Nicholas is an unconventional physician who is frequently regarded as suspect because of his refusal to accept standard medical practices of the time. Bianca is from Padua, and has a lot of experience in herbal and other remedies, as well as a certain ambiguity of her faith. The novel begins with events in Bankside, a notorious part of London, popularly considered to be the home of thieves and other dubious characters. This is a really well set up context, full of details and local colour which reveals a huge amount of research which is beautifully understated. The dialogue is lively and realistic, with small surprises and revelations. There is a little interdependent community in this book, and there are many references to previous events, but this book can definitely be read as a standalone novel. In this book the range of Nicholas’ travels exceed those of the previous two novels in the series, as he feels obliged to travel to Marrakech. Neither Nicholas or Bianca find life easy, as challenges crop up for them in many ways. I found this a really enjoyable read, and I am pleased to be able to review it.


The novel begins with Nicholas being summoned in the middle of the night to attend Sir Robert Cecil, son of Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser. He has been at Sir Robert’s service for a few years, always on the edge of danger from the machinations of the cunning spymaster. Initially he only wants to consult Nicholas as a physician, but it soon becomes obvious that he is interested in something more complex. When a celebration ends with a young man going missing, both Nicholas and Bianca are deeply worried; there are all sorts of dangers to a man of foreign background. A terrible discovery both frightens and intrigues Nicholas, and soon he finds that he is in contact with the rather demanding Cecil once more. As he feels forced to leave the country on a mission he does not fully understand, both he and Bianca feel that they have left much unsaid. Meanwhile, Bianca has to deal with a terrifying plague that threatens everything she has built up over the past few years. In addition, it seems that a rich and influential man has several designs upon Bianca that go beyond physical attraction.


 This is a fascinating book which has its brutal moments, and there are moments of high drama and risk. It has much to say about the religious differences which separated people in London and internationally. The other big issues of the time, such as slavery and medical developments play their part in this novel.  The writing is so good that vivid sounds, smells and more are conveyed. The female characters play a strong and independent role in this novel. I found it very exciting and enthralling, a real page turner. I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys lively historical fiction, with more than a hint of suspense.    


I really enjoyed this book; historical fiction is a favourite of mine and this is particularly good at featuring a brave and resourceful woman or two. It is set in a popular historical period but takes a very different view, with a subversive doctor and a suspect tavern keeper. It is a very different read from some of the others reviewed here! 

Written From The Heart by Trisha Ashley – a funny novel of a writer’s life

Written From the Heart: Trisha Ashley: 9781784160883 ...


A novel of a writer, who writes and critiques other writers, is often an interesting read. This book contains much more – humour, ballet and innuendo, literary festivals and friendship. Trisha Ashley has created Tina Devino who tells her story very much in her own words, and with her own suggestive tales of her regular lover, partner and friend, the retired but still active ballet dancer Sergei. There are letters throughout addressed to Tina’s agency for aspiring writers, where for a certain sum a range of individuals send their manuscripts of varying quality for Tina’s scrutiny and advice. She replies with humour and discretion and I enjoyed these insertions into the story very much. Meanwhile we see Tina’s interactions with various people in her life; her publisher, Salubrious Press with a surprise, her agent, Miracle, and her good friend Linny. She has local friends in the seaside town of Shrimphaven, who help her with diverse things as computers, as the internet was a new thing for her, and her pet mouse Minnie. This is a very funny book, with Ashley’s usual cast of characters and a plot that is far more than a straightforward romance. Tina is a wonderful creation, with a lot of determination to make the most of her career as a “mid list author”, and this is a most entertaining book.


The book opens with Tina receiving a dictaphone so she can make notes for her novels, which Linny confidently predicts will be bestsellers. That would certainly relive the financial pressures  on Tina, but meanwhile she will keep producing her novels of gardening and passion and supplementing her income looking through the novels sent to her, often too long, beyond definition and not even in convincing English. They make for funny interludes, as she copes with Linny’s random behaviour and Sergei’s regular phone calls. Her brother is convinced that the family is from an Italian gangster background, and his family are all that is left of Tina’s relatives. She is no longer in contact with her ex husband, Tim, but her long term part time relationship with Sergei is quite exhausting. She becomes determined to save her career in the face of blonde debut writers, and decides that as her publisher will not spend anything on publicity for her book she must get some herself. Happily, that may not be too difficult with Sergi on her team.


This is a most entertaining novel with some very funny incidents, all seen through Tina’s remarkable point of view. Her clothes and her concerns are always funny. Her experiences at literary events have a certain ring of truth, especially when she is trying to lead a writing session. There are plenty of imaginative events involving Sergei, who embraces celebrity with great flair. The letters that are sent by the would be writers are very funny, as they reveal their great hopes for success and fame despite their frequent misunderstanding of genre and writing altogether. Every part of this book gives a picture of an unusual woman with a great sense of fun.   


This book originally appeared in 2008 as “Happy Endings”, which explains why the attitude to computers and the ignorance of such things and mobile phones may be noticed. This novel, like the other Trisha Ashley books I have enjoyed and reviewed, features women who are forced to reassess their lives for various reasons. This one is a lot lighter than some. I think it is one of a great variety of books that have come my way recently, and is very different from the book I hope to review tomorrow.

Eve’s War – The diaries of Evelyn Shillington from the Second World War, edited by Barbara Fox

Eve's War: The diaries of a military wife during the second world ...


Diaries of real people have a certain appeal, and when those people live in interesting times they are fascinating. They have an immediacy that is valuable in many ways, an honesty without the benefit of hindsight and self editing. When they are well written as this volume they reveal a lot about the experience of the author and those they have contact with, people relevant to the overall story. This volume has been edited really well by the talented Barbara Fox, who has an excellent record of using people’s memories to construct a narrative. This book is the record of Evelyn, who is married to an army officer, from 1935 to 1946. She actually moves around a lot, in Britain until July 1946 when she arrives in Italy. It is the story of a woman who is deeply in love with her husband, and determined to follow him wherever he is stationed. She has the happy talent for making friends wherever she goes, despite frequent moves when her housing becomes unavailable or unsuitable. She is a meticulous diarist, writing about her feelings, the setting, her clothes and what else is going on. Not that she is self centred; she is a keen recorder of what is going on for herself and others in the context of what is happening with the war as well as locally.


When the diary begins Evelyn is in her early forties, and is happily married to Rex, a popular and effective army officer.  She is returning to Britain from Hong Kong where he has been stationed as the diary starts. Barbara has supplied a list of Evelyn’s most significant relatives, friends and acquaintances, which is useful as the friends in particular can only be mentioned briefly, or be a constant reference point. As the book begins Evelyn is grieving for her mother, a successful playwright, who has died while Evelyn has been abroad. Evelyn makes frequent reference to attending productions of the shows which have a popular appeal. 


The diaries are valuable as a record of what happens as the peace breaks down in Europe and elsewhere. There are moments of hope as war seems to have been averted for a while, but then it becomes a reality. Evelyn is not ever in direct danger, which is fortunate as she evidently hates going into shelters. Rex has to work long and difficult hours ensuring supplies are being dispatched to the army units which need them, especially as the Normandy landings are in preparation. Evelyn is sometimes involved in the duties of being a senior officer’s wife, presenting prizes at games and other events. Not that it is always straightforward, as early in the diaries petty jealousies among the army wives make her life miserable. She also volunteers for the war effort in many ways, not limiting to herself to gentle tasks but such heavy tasks as cleaning guns for the Home Guard and sorting out vast amounts of clothes for those who have lost everything in bombed areas. She also sets up an advice centre, and is naturally irked when someone else takes the credit. She records holidays and dog walking, setting out the progress of the seasons in the plants, trees and gardens where she is living. Some places are better than others, where she has to eat the meals provided or cook whatever she can obtain in difficult conditions. When confronted with a personal maid in Italy she worries about underclothes that have been made to last. In the end of the book she is able to observe a war trial, and writes very movingly about the experience.


This is a lively and excellent read. Never dragging but always moving on, as it is well paced and interesting. These are deeply personal records, yet this book does not feel like prying or invasive notes of a sad woman, but instead the positive writings of love, involvement and interest. This is a really good read, fascinating to anyone with an interest in the Second World War Home Front, and the role of women who did not serve in the forces. I recommend it to the specialist and general reader as a well constructed book that deserves a wide audience. 


This is the second book that I featured in my “Three for V.E” post last Friday, and was a really good read. The final one is Kate Atkinson’s “Transcription”, so i hope to read and review that over the next few days.

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym – Anthropology and London life in the 1950s

Less Than Angels (Virago Modern Classics): Barbara ...

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym


Some of Pym’s books deal with clergy in all their variation and even absurdity, whereas in this book many of the characters are anthropologists, a strange breed of people in many ways. With their ambitions to be in the “field”, living in Africa, noting obscure behavioural passages, exploring unknown languages, even looking at the arcane rules for land tenure in one case. 


This is Pym, so there are women who follow these men, or live alongside them, and who only have the slightest idea of what anthropology really is, and what obsesses these men. Even Deirdre, a young student of anthropology, does not seem that interested in the formal study of the subject, preferring to watch those around her in an informal way, wondering about why they behave as they do. Those women who are actually anthropologists are often concerned with the process, the sacred offprints, or the provision of grants. As with all of Pym’s books, the characters feel so real in all their diffidence, their habits, their loves and so much more. The main female characters are younger than many of Pym’s, and their attitude to the men around them are somewhat different. Catherine understands certain men and is not beyond hope of loving one or two of them, whereas Deirdre falls in love quickly and completely. There is gentle humour, both obvious and understated, and I found it enjoyable and memorable in a positive way.


Rather like the opening scenes of a film, the book begins with Catherine Oliphant, a young woman looking out of her window, seeing people passing by in a slightly disinterested way. “Her present love, Tom” is an anthropologist, at present in Africa, but his occupation means that she recognises others, making their way to a building. The reader is introduced to “Felix’s Folly” , a new anthropological library and research centre, provided by the largesse of a rich widow, Mrs Minnie Foresight as persuaded by Professor Mainwaring. The view goes onto reveal Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate, their concerns with the reception they have organised for Mrs Foresight and other notables. The scene highlights some of the students, Mark and Digby, a pair of friends whose dialogue is always entertaining. Deirdre Swann is followed to the suburbs, where she lives with her mother and aunt, whose domestic routines are painfully well known. The neighbours include Alaric Lydgate, who proves to be yet another anthropologist disappointed in his researches, who writes reviews of articles with his favourite phrase “It is a pity that…”. 


Just how all these characters become interlinked by love, common obsessions, tragedy and more is at the heart of this clever novel. The relationship between Catherine and Tom is different, ill defined, and becomes changed through the novel. I found this a gently funny book, which introduces and explores characters right until the end. In a way my favourites are Mark and Digby, looking for food, discussing their concerns, expressing views on those around them, worrying in a half hearted way about their possible chances of grants to go into the field.  All the relationships are carefully described, small ambitions examined, meals enjoyed or otherwise. This book is gently and subtly enjoyable, and fits well into Pym’s books about the oddity of people.  


So I continue to work my way through Barbara Pym’s books, and trying to find them . I think I have two more left to read after this one. I am so pleased that her books have been reprinted by Virago in their Modern Classics series, home of such middle century writers as Angela Thirkell over the last few years. While not the traditional green Virago covers, they certainly look good and perhaps as importantly are robust. I certainly enjoy collecting them!

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