’Transcription’ is the latest stand-alone novel by Kate Atkinson in which eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited straight out of school by MI5 in 1940 not long after her mother has died. Initially given secretarial tasks as well as the roles usually left to women such as making the tea, she soon begins transcription work monitoring the conversations held in a flat in Pimlico between Fascist sympathisers and an undercover British agent named Godfrey Toby who poses as a member of the Gestapo. A decade later, she is working as a radio producer of children’s programmes at the BBC believing that her wartime activities now lie in the past. However, a chance encounter with Godfrey (also known as John Hazeldine), some threatening notes and a sense that she is being followed remind her that the world of espionage is not one easily left behind and there are some who want Juliet to know that her actions have had far-reaching consequences. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Historical
‘Little’ by Edward Carey is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud who founded the famous waxwork museum in London that bears her name. Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761 and orphaned as a young child, she is employed by Swiss wax sculptor, Doctor Curtius, who makes anatomical models in his studio and names his young apprentice ‘Little’ on account of her small stature. When Curtius’ financial difficulties finally catch up with him, they move to Paris where they take rooms with widow Charlotte Picot who helps transform the business and set up popular exhibitions displaying wax replicas of the heads of noblemen and famous murderers. She banishes Marie to work in the kitchen out of jealousy but following a surprise visit by Princess Elisabeth, the youngest sister of King Louis XVI, Marie is invited to become her wax modelling tutor at the Palace of Versailles. However, with revolution on the horizon, nobody associated with the Royal Family is safe from the threat of the guillotine. Continue reading
Set in eighteenth century Britain, ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar tells the story of Jonah Hancock, a middle-aged widower and respectable Deptford merchant who discovers that the captain of one of his ships has sold his vessel in exchange for a stuffed “mermaid”. Although initially horrified by this transaction, Mr Hancock is later persuaded to profit from the rare curiosity he has acquired and loans the mermaid to Mrs Chappell for display at her infamous high society parties and Soho brothel. Celebrated courtesan Angelica Neal is tasked with entertaining Mr Hancock which she sees as an irritating distraction at first. However, as the display becomes the talk of London, Angelica decides she wants a mermaid of her own and Mr Hancock does whatever it takes to find another one. Continue reading
One of the first events I went to at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month was a discussion at the Spiegeltent with Francis Spufford and Dilys Rose chaired by Lee Randall. Spufford and Rose are the respective authors of ‘Golden Hill’ and ‘Unspeakable’, two of the most widely acclaimed historical novels of recent months. Continue reading
‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry tells the story of Thomas McNulty, a young Irishman who emigrates to Canada and later the United States in the mid-19th century after his family perished in the Great Famine. He befriends and falls in love with John Cole when they are teenagers and they work at a saloon where they dress as women and dance for miners. They later enlist for the US army fighting in two wars and adopt an orphaned Indian Sioux girl who they name Winona. Continue reading
‘The Valentine House’ by Emma Henderson is set in the French Alps at Arete, a large chalet built by Sir Anthony Valentine in the late nineteenth century and used as a summer house by the family across several generations. In 1914, Mathilde, a local girl from the valley, is selected by Sir Anthony’s wife Lady Charlotte to work as a servant at Arete on account of her being one of the ‘uglies’ and therefore less likely to catch Sir Anthony’s wandering eye. Mathilde gradually becomes acquainted with the quirks of this strange English family until she is betrayed by Sir Anthony’s granddaughter Daisy. Decades later in 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with his cousins, continuing many of the Valentine traditions such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘paideia’. With Mathilde’s help, they finally uncover the mystery surrounding the fate of Sir Anthony’s daughter Margaret. Continue reading
‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue tells the story of Lib Wright, a widowed English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war. She is sent to a rural village in Ireland to independently observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl whose parents claim has not eaten any solid food for four months, subsisting purely on “manna from heaven” and a few teaspoons of water a day. While the community accepts this claim without questioning it and visitors travel from afar to witness the miracle, Lib is immediately sceptical and expects the medical surveillance to be over in a couple of days once the fraud has been exposed. She alternates her shifts with a local nun Sister Michael and considers every possible way food could have been secretly smuggled to Anna. However, as more time passes, Lib starts to doubt her own beliefs and realises that there is more to Anna’s case than meets the eye.
‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry tells the story of Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist and recent widow who moves to Colchester in the 1890s with her servant-companion Martha and son Francis and meets the local vicar Reverend William Ransome. There are rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent which once stalked the Blackwater estuary has been spotted again near the coastal village of Aldwinter, and some mysterious deaths have sent the local residents into panic. Cora and Will are both sceptical of the rumours surrounding the return of the beast but for very different reasons with Cora believing the creature could be an undiscovered species whereas Will’s concerns lie in his parishioners’ apparent lack of faith. Yet despite these differences, they start to form a close and intense bond. Continue reading
I’ve had mixed views about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels in the past. I was baffled by ‘Never Let Me Go’ but enjoyed it, I was even more baffled by ‘The Unconsoled‘ and enjoyed it much less. I liked ‘When We Were Orphans’ but thought it wasn’t quite as good as ‘The Remains of the Day’ which I think is a modern classic. My initial thoughts on his latest novel ‘The Buried Giant’ definitely lean more towards bafflement than enjoyment.
‘Dominion’ by C. J. Sansom is an alternate history of what could have happened if Winston Churchill had failed to become Prime Minister in 1940 and Britain had signed a treaty with Germany ending the Second World War. In 1952, David Fitzgerald is a civil servant hiding his Jewish identity and secretly working for the British Resistance movement as a spy. His mission is to rescue his friend, Frank Muncaster, from a mental hospital before the Gestapo discover his terrible secret which could potentially change the balance of world power. Continue reading
Whilst wondering last month when I was ever going to read ‘The Luminaries’, a thought suddenly occurred to me: what better time to start reading an 800+ page book than the beginning of up to five days of London Underground strikes? I have an eBook copy of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning epic novel and I tend to use my Kindle when bad weather, industrial action or some other disruption is likely to severely delay my commute to work. An e-reader is easier to hold on a crowded train than a large hardback book and if I get stranded somewhere for a long time and I finish a novel, I have several more to choose from right there and then. Continue reading
‘Little Egypt’ by Lesley Glaister tells the story of twin siblings, Isis and Osiris, and their childhood in the 1920s. Living in a large family home called Little Egypt, their eccentric parents, Evelyn and Arthur, set off to search for the fabled tomb of Herihor, leaving the twins in the care of their housekeeper Mary and their uncle Victor. Many decades later, Isis and Osiris are now in their nineties and still living in their derelict house which Isis cannot sell for fear of someone discovering what happened there all those years ago.
‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of murder and was the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830 at the age of 33. Sentenced to death along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Sigga Gudmundsdóttir for killing Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour, Agnes is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their daughters Steina and Lauga while she awaits execution. However, it is gradually revealed that her story is more complex than the original version of events presented in court. Continue reading
I was fascinated by the original premise of ‘Red Joan’ by Jennie Rooney which is based on the true story of Melita Norwood who was famously unmasked as the KGB’s longest serving British spy at the age of eighty-seven in 1999. In Rooney’s fictionalised version of events, Joan Stanley, an eighty-five year old woman living in the suburbs of south east London, receives a visit from two British intelligence operatives who have come to question her about her past after so many decades of silence. The story is cleverly told through a series of flashbacks as the links between Joan’s past and present are gradually revealed.
Firstly, I must thank F. C. Malby for her patience as she sent me a copy of her first novel ‘Take Me to the Castle’ several months ago and I have only just got round to reviewing it. Set in the Czech Republic in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, ‘Take Me to the Castle’ tells the story of a young woman called Jana and how the tumultuous political changes in her home country are affecting her life following the recent death of her dissident father. Much of the story also focuses on a love triangle between Jana and her two potential suitors, Milos and Lukas. Continue reading
I won a copy of ‘Paris’ by Edward Rutherfurd through Waterstones who offer free copies of recently published books to cardholders through a prize draw in return for an honest review. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to copy my official review in full on my blog so you can read it here instead (not sure why my name hasn’t appeared next to it yet but it’s the 3 star review by the anonymous 23-year-old under the customer reviews tab). Continue reading
I read ‘Wolf Hall‘ nearly a year ago and to be honest, I can’t remember a great deal about the actual content of the story and had to force myself to finish it. Although the book was undoubtedly a quality piece of historical fiction, my main gripe about it was that there were too many characters and unless you have studied early sixteenth century British history in considerable depth then it is very hard to keep track of exactly who is who. However, although ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ also has a large cast of characters, this instalment of the trilogy is set over a much narrower time period (one year rather than three decades) and the story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall is likely to be much more familiar to readers than Thomas Cromwell’s early years (at least it was to me anyway). The fact that it’s over 200 pages shorter than ‘Wolf Hall’ also helps a lot. Continue reading
I tried. I really did. But I just couldn’t finish ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell. The whole concept/plot was just too damn weird.
I’m quite proud of the fact that there are very few books which I have never finished but this one definitely defeated me. ‘Cloud Atlas’ interweaves six different stories which include the 19th century Pacific journal of Adam Ewing, the letters of Robert Frobisher living in Belgium in the 1930s, a thriller set in the 1970s, a comic story about someone who gets trapped in a nursing home, a futuristic dystopian world… and this is the point where I gave up after nearly 200 pages. Each of the first five stories are interrupted half-way through and are then resolved in reverse chronological order (although I didn’t get far enough to read these conclusions). Continue reading
Set in Scotland in the 1860s, ‘The Observations’ by Jane Harris tells the story of Bessy Buckley, a feisty Irish girl who is taken on as a maid at Castle Haivers by Arabella Reid. Bessy has a number of secrets and is keen that her shady past doesn’t catch up with her. But it turns out that Arabella herself also has a dark history and her obsession with her former maid, Nora, who died in tragic circumstances, proves to be a catalyst for even more mystery. Continue reading