Review | Transcription, Kate Atkinson

38496986I had mixed feelings about Life After Life and A God in Ruins, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy her new book. Possibly it’s because it’s the most linear Kate Atkinson novel I’ve read so far, but I absolutely loved Transcription. The novel is about Juliet Armstrong, a producer of historical dramas on BBC Radio who is afraid her past as a transcriptionist and undercover agent at MI5 during WWII is catching up to her. The novel goes back and forth between the excitement of Juliet’s life during the war, and her more mundane reality of the present.

This book was so much fun, and the perfect story to lose oneself in. Atkinson recreates the world of WWII espionage so vividly that we are drawn into the adventure and glamour of that life as viscerally as Juliet herself is. War itself is horrific, but there’s a comfort in the effectiveness of the work Juliet and her MI5 colleagues are doing. For example, an MI5 agent creates a fake award that he bestows on his contact purportedly from powerful Nazi officers for her service to the cause, and it feels very satisfying to see such a hateful person be exposed as being so gullible. Such victories may be minor, even petty, but like Juliet, we can feel like they’re all contributing to an important larger cause, and we can understand why Juliet so badly wants to play a part.

Unlike other recent war-time books I’ve read that, honestly, felt a bit depressing at times, Transcription is entertaining and even funny at some points. For example, the code phrase MI5 uses for agents to recognize each other — “May I tempt you?” — often leads to hilarious misunderstandings in the novel, and Juliet often wonders why they couldn’t have picked a more distinct phrase.

The humour doesn’t mean that Atkinson shies away from the harsh realities of war. In fact, when things go wrong later on, and Juliet has to confront the violence — sometimes to innocents — caused by her actions, the horrific reality of war feels even more potent. Like Juliet, it’s all too easy for the reader to get caught up in the glamour, and lose sight of the true extent of the risks involved.

The story of post-war, radio producer Juliet is somewhat less compelling, mostly because it starts off with the more mundane reality of a dissatisfying job. The pace picks up somewhat when Juliet realizes someone from her past may be targeting her (for reasons we won’t learn until late in the book), but even then, it feels a pale shadow to the excitement of what was happening during the war itself. In a way, I think this may be a deliberate move on Atkinson’s part, and a testament to her talent at prose, that she’s able to use her tone to capture the youthful excitement of Juliet at MI5 and the more adult, somewhat disappointed Juliet who can’t quite find her footing after the war. Even as Juliet fears her pursuer, the challenge somehow gives her a sense of purpose, and we realize how much the work at MI5 has influenced her approach to life.

Transcription is a fun novel, perfect for fans of historical fiction and espionage. It doesn’t quite have the clever plot tricks of Life After Life and A God in Ruins, and I think that made me enjoy it so much more.

+

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | No Place for Wolverines, Dave Butler

36652592Book 2 in the mystery series featuring park warden Jenny Willson, No Place for Wolverines features the classic standoff between big business and the environment. Jenny goes undercover at Yoho National Park in British Columbia and investigate the plans to turn the park into a ski resort, and inadvertently gets pulled into a murder investigation when a wolverine researcher in the area is killed in a mysterious fire. It turns out the plans for a ski resort also involve larger scale plans about a highway and the oil industry, all of which will have a majorly negative impact on the environment, particularly the wolverines who live in the area.

Wildlife conservation is something I’m personally passionate about, and so I loved the environmental stakes in this mystery, and the awareness it raises on issues of conservation and responsible land use. I also like the parts about Jenny’s relationship with her mother, and particularly how her mother’s depression impacts both their lives. I found their scenes together very moving, and that subplot had an intense emotional payoff at the end.

Overall, the mystery and Jenny as a series heroine were solid, but not particularly memorable. Jenny also didn’t quite strike me as tough or badass as some of the other characters said she was, though I did like how deeply she cared about her mother and about her community. I also wish there was a bit more nuance in the characterization — the profit-hungry bad guys felt almost one-dimensional in their villainy. Even though Jenny does make an effort point out the personal toll of debates such as that over the ski resort in turning neighbour against neighbour, I thought the different perspectives could have been explored more deeply.

Still, overall, it’s a solid mystery and a good, easy read. With the debate of big business versus the wolverine habitat, Butler does raise some important issues about the environment, and the often negative impact of industrializing a space for profit.

+

Thank you to Dundurn for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review | Okay Fine Whatever, Courtenay Hameister

35397338Okay Fine Whatever is a funny, unflinchingly honest, and deeply relatable collection of essays by Courtenay Hameister about the year she decided to look her anxiety in the eye and basically tell it to fuck off, as she embarks on challenge after adventurous challenge.

Most of her challenges end up being in her romantic life, and linked to her body image issues. Hameister’s stories, about losing her virginity in her 30s, then making up for lost time by diving into online dating (meeting dozens of men and keeping track of them on a spreadsheet) and experimenting with a variety of sexual adventures all the way into her 40s, are a welcome addition to the bookshelf. Most books about romance and dating tend to feature only women in their 20s, or older women who’ve already been married and had kids, and very rarely are they plus-size. So I found Hameister’s adventures — and her courage in pursuing them — inspiring, and I love her candour in sharing her experiences.

Beyond the stories about dating and sex, Hameister also talks about her career, and the difficult decision she made to move on from being the host of her show. I love these chapters, because they’re an important alternative perspective on how to be successful in our careers. So often, we’re taught to go for the big promotion and go for whatever helps us make the biggest splash in our industry. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong with what Hameister realizes — that because of her anxiety, she was actually miserable being in the public eye, and would be much happier behind the scenes. And later, when she realizes she’s no longer quite the right fit for what the show has become, she makes what I consider a truly brave decision — to pursue a new career path. Again, I found her experience to be inspirational, and I’m glad she shared these with us.

More than the impact of her experiences is the fact that her essays are just plain entertaining and fun to read. Hameister has a clever writing style that somehow pokes fun at herself without ever being fully self-deprecating. I think I was expecting more about anxiety itself in the book, but perhaps that’s a sign of my own biases that, because I haven’t myself been diagnosed with anxiety, I didn’t expect the book to be so relatable. Yet it is.

The book isn’t perfect. Some parts dragged, and even the dating adventures felt a bit drawn out after a while, and I began to wish she’d move on to other topics. But overall, it was a good book, and I think Hameister’s experiences will likely resonate with a lot of readers.

+

Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.