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Book Nook - 22-10-2018

Monday, October 22, 2018

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Cloak And Dagger
There was admittedly some reluctance in picking up yet another World War II novel, but Kate Atkinson’s deliciously twisty Life After Life and its sequel (or companion piece as she called it) A God In Ruins, were such favourites that one could not resist a new book by her. And it turned out to be fast-paced, suspenseful and very readable.

The protagonist is 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong, who is newly orphaned, and hoping for a better life. She gets the excitement she wants, but not in the way she expected. She is suddenly summoned to the offices of MI5, Britain’s security services, to be recruited, along with several young women, including the aristocratic Clarissa. For reasons she cannot fathom, she is picked by the enigmatic and handsome Peregrine ‘Perry’ Gibbons to move in next door to a flat where fifth columnists (British Nazi sympathizers) have their secret meetings. They do not know that their handler, Godfrey Toby, is not the Gestapo agent that he claims to be, but an MI5 spy.

The walls of the flat have been fitted with recording equipment—even then the techie was a clever teen-- and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the tapes. It would have been terribly dull work, were it not for her infatuation with Perry, and her involvement with the more dangerous job of taking on the fake identity of the posh Iris Carter-Jenkins and infiltrating the circle of the traitorous Mrs Scaife.

Juliet discovers that not only does she have the imagination to fill in the blanks in the conversations next door, but also the courage to survive the lies, deceit, the cloak-and-dagger of the spy business.  

After the end of the War, when she is working on a children’s radio programme with the BBC, she suddenly runs into Toby, who refuses to recognize her. Characters from the past, that she thought she was done with when she ceased to be spy, tumble out, and she starts getting threatening letters (“you will pay for what you did”) and people following her. It turns out that the warning about the work of the secret service never getting over, was right.

Juliet tries to find out just what is going on, and gets embroiled in events beyond her control. It is impossible to tell if people are who they claim to be (is the pesky assistant a spy?); whether a double agent is actually a triple agent, and why she is being targeted for her actions during the War, which were, after all not of her own choosing, and were meant to be for the benefit of her country.

Transcriptions is a wonderful book, based on some true characters and events, about how multiple identities, crime, punishment, the conscience and, of course, the political choices people make, trace the course of their lives. It reads like a spy thriller, but sprinkled with wry British humour and ruminations on what constitutes patriotism. Poor Juliet’s love for Perry brings the pages some of its funniest scenes and lines; like when he takes her on what she believes is a date, but turns out to be a hilariously unromantic outing.

Juliet Armstrong, caught though she is in the web of history, is a girl for all times— intelligent, intrepid, and calm in a crisis. This novel is begging to be turned into a movie.

Transcription
By Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 352

Excerpt of Transcription
Juliet came up from the Underground and made her way along Great Portland Street.  Checking her watch she saw that she was surprisingly late for work.  She had overslept, a result of a late evening in the Belle Meunière in Charlotte Street with a man who had proved less and less interesting as the night had worn on.  Inertia – or ennui perhaps - had kept her at the table, although the house specialities of ‘Viane de boeuf Diane’ and Crepe Suzette had helped.

Her rather lacklustre dinner companion was an architect who said he was ‘rebuilding post-war London.’  All on your own? she had asked, rather unkindly.  She allowed him a – brief – kiss as he handed her into a taxi at the end of the night.  From politeness rather than desire.  He had paid for the dinner after all and she had been unnecessarily mean to him although he hadn’t seemed to notice. 

The whole evening had left her feeling rather sour.  I am a disappointment to myself, she thought as Broadcasting House hove into view. Juliet was a producer in Schools and as she approached Portland Place she found her spirits drooping at the prospect of the rather tedious day ahead – a departmental meeting with Prendergast, followed by a recording of Past Lives, a series she was looking after for Joan Timpson who was having an operation (‘Just a small one, dear.’).

Schools had recently had to move from the basement of Film House in Wardour Street and Juliet missed the dilapidated raffishness of Soho.  The BBC didn’t have room for them in Broadcasting House so they had been parked across the road in No 1 and gazed, not without envy, at their mother-ship, the
great, many-decked ocean liner of Broadcasting House, scrubbed clean now of its wartime camouflage and thrusting its prow into a new decade and an unknown future.

Unlike the non-stop to and fro across the road, the Schools’ building was quiet when Juliet entered. The carafe of red wine that she had shared with the architect had left her with a very dull head and it was a relief not to have to partake of the usual exchange of morning greetings.  The girl on reception looked rather pointedly at the clock when she saw Juliet coming through the door.  The girl was having an affair with a producer in the World Service and  seemed to think it gave her licence to be brazen.  The girls on Schools’ reception came and went with astonishing rapidity. Juliet liked to imagine they were being eaten by something monstrous, a minotaur perhaps, in the mazy bowels of the building, although actually they were simply transferring to more glamorous departments across the road in Broadcasting House.

‘The Circle line was running late,’ Juliet said, although she hardly felt she needed to give the girl an explanation, true or otherwise.

‘Again?’

‘Yes, it’s a very poor the service on that route.’ 

‘Apparently so.  (The cheek of the girl!) Mr Prendergast’s meeting is on the first floor,’ the girl said.  ‘I expect it’s already begun.’
‘I expect it has.’

‘A day in the working life,’ Prendergast said earnestly to the rump assembled around the table.  Several people, Juliet noticed, had absented themselves.  Prendergast’s meetings required a certain kind of stamina.

‘Ah, Miss Armstrong, here you are,’ Prendergast said when he caught sight of her. ‘ I was beginning to think that you were lost.’
‘But now I am found,’ Juliet said.

SHORT TAKES
The synopsis of Achala Upendran’s new fantasy novel, The Sultanpur Chronicles: Shadowed City, reads:“A darkness looms over the Sultanpuri Empire…From the freezing mountains of Firozia to the high waves that break on Karizen’s rocky cliffs; from the cities and souks of Dastakar to the djinn-filled Eastern Desert, the Sultanpuri Empire, a rich collection of kingdoms and states, has lived in peace for over 300 years. Formed after the end of the Human–Rakshas Wars and ruled with an iron fist by the Imperial family, it has reached the pinnacle of influence and prosperity. “All of this, though, has come at a price: the restriction of magic among a chosen few, and the banishment of the powerful rakshasas.  But when a forbidden spell releases a rakshasi in the empire’s capital city, Sultanpur, the darkness that has been lurking below the surface comes bubbling forth, threatening to plunge the empire into chaos and envelop everything in its murderous embrace…”

The Sultanpur Chronicles: Shadowed City
By Achala Upendran
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 341

Nadeem Zaman’s debut novel, In The Time Of The Others, is set during the 1971 war that ended with the independence of East Pakistan and and the formation of Bangladesh. According to the summary, “Imtiaz Khan arrives at his uncle’s house in Dhaka for what he thinks will be a quick visit, only to be held back when the Pakistan Army makes a surprise attack on the University, murdering students and professors in cold blood. As the smell of sulphur and gunpowder become a part of their lives, young pro-independence fighters – the Mukti Bahini – find a haven in the home of Imtiaz’s uncle and aunt, Kamruzzaman and Aisha Chowdhury, and they are swept up in the tide of freedom that drives them all.

“On the other side, Fazal Shaukat – a young captain in the Pakistan Army with a family name to live up to – finds that the war he has signed up for isn’t going away anytime soon. There are things bigger than him or his family at stake, even as Pakistan finds itself torn asunder, Jinnah’s dream turning into a nightmare. Set against the backdrop of a monumental historical event, In The Time Of The Others is about what it means to live during violent times. Fierce, searingly honest and revealing, this powerful debut explores how lives intersect during a time of war and upheaval, and how violence changes all that is human.”

In The Time Of The Others
By Nadeem Zaman
Publisher: Picador India, Pages: 312
 
T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki, won the 2017 Vayalar Award and the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. Translated from Malayalam by Priya K. Nair, the synopsis states, “When Peter Jeevanandam arrives in Sri Lanka to shoot a movie about a human rights activist ostensibly murdered by the LTTE, the government is more than willing to help. What they don’t know is that he is also searching for Sugandhi – an LTTE member, and the love of his life. As Peter stumbles upon and becomes part of a plot to kill the president, reality, history, myth and fiction collide in explosive, illuminating ways. Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki is a daring novel that portrays the violence inherent in both fascism and revolution.”
 
Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki
By T.D. Ramakrishnan
Translated by Priya K. Nair
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 260
 

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