Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

As a particular fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other pieces by Mark Twain, I thought that this would be a particularly good book to which to listen, so I down loaded it from Audible and my wife and I started listening to it.  She lost interest almost immediately, but I carried on to the bitter end.

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clements, (1835-1910), an American writer humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer.  His obituary in the New York Times, called him “the greatest humorist this country has produced”, and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been called “The Great American Novel”.  He worked as a miner in California and as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  His pen name is the call of the leadsman on a riverboat reporting two fathoms beneath the keel of the boat – a safe depth of water.

Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee begins with the protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up after being hit on the head in early medieval England near Camelot, the mythical King Arthur’s kingdom, in an environment of chivalry, knighthood, slavery, serfdom, domination of the Catholic Church, and an autocratic ruling class.  Hank competes with Merlin, King Arthur’s great sorcerer, using nineteenth century technology to win the kings favour and become ‘The Boss’, the second most powerful man in the kingdom.  Secretly, Hank introduces gun powder, the telephone, hydraulic pumps, electricity, etc. behind the scenes in Camelot.  The average citizen of Camelot is depicted as a gullible illiterate, ready to believe the most improbable presentations.  Knights are hardly chivalrous, kings are tyrants and magic is everywhere.  Hank is challenged to joust with various knights and he defeats several by lassoing them, and the rest by shooting them with a pistol.   Eventually the church causes a revolt against Hank which results in a war of knights with swords and spears against Gatling guns and electrified fences, where the victors, except Hank, succumb to disease; Merlin puts Hank under a spell for 1300 years and then is electrocuted.

The novel is a satire of the romanticised views of chivalry in the middle ages; it is also an attack on the mysticism and the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  The concept of time travel as a sub-genre of science fiction is significant in that it was followed almost immediately by several other novels.

I found the novel boring, probably because I have no romantic notions of knighthood and chivalry or misconceptions about the role of the Church which require correction.   There is one passage which lists just the names of a large number of knights.  I found it beyond credibility that a single nineteenth century engineer could build a ‘modern’ infrastructure in the iron age in only a few years.  Twain also mistakenly refers to steel armour well before it was invented.  Apparently Twain had a falling out with Sir Walter Scott who wrote romantic novels about chivalry and on whom he blamed the start of the American Civil War for Scott’s promotion of distinctive titles.  The story seems to have no unifying plot, but meanders from one set of circumstances to another at the whim of Hank Morgan.   The characters are largely one-dimensional, with the exception of ‘Sandy’ (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise).  I found myself asking repeatedly, “What’s the point?”

Forget about the Connecticut Yankee; go with Huckleberry Finn.

 

Review: Me Before You

My wife and I listened to this audio book on our way back to London from Sicily.  I had selected it because I thought my wife would like it, and because its author, Jojo Moyes, contributed a lot of money to a program to help illiterate adults to read.  (My way of saying ‘thank you’!)

Jojo Moyes was born in 1969 on Maidstone, England.  She attended Royal Holloway, University of London and City University for a post graduate course in journalism.  She worked for The Independent newspaper for about ten years.  She wrote three manuscripts of novels that were all rejected.  With one child and another on the way, she was writing her fourth novel, which she decided would be her last if it were rejected.  Wikipedia says. “After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published. She continues to write articles for The Daily Telegraph.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin.”  It has sold fourteen million copies world-wide, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.  Moyes would later write two sequels starring Louisa Clark, the protagonist of Me Before YouAfter You in 2015 and Still Me in 2018.  “Moyes lives on a farm in Essex with her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, and their three children.  She enjoys riding her ex-racehorse, Brian, as well as tending to the numerous animals on her family’s farm, including Nanook, or ‘BigDog’, a rescued 58 kg female Pyrenean mountain dog.”

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a romantic novel, but it is also a tragedy on a serious, controversial subject: euthanasia.   The protagonist, Louisa Clark, aged 27, an attractive girl from a small, historic English town and an ordinary, lower middle class family, is laid off from her job working in a cafe and takes a job as a carer for a quadriplegic 35-year-old man, Will, who was injured in an accident, is wise, good-looking, worldly and was enormously successful in business.  He isn’t sure he wants to continue living in his present state.  There are many other characters: Louisa’s parents and sister, Will’s parents and sister, Louisa’s boyfriend, Will’s girlfriend, and a medical carer.  It is a long book: 512 pages, and the listening time is 16 hours.

The book is certainly addictive; it is difficult to put it down.  Apart from the first chapter which begins rather slowly, the book is electrified with wave after wave of emotional crises, all quite real and believable.  There are job crises, romantic crises, existential crises, financial crises, personal crises.  The dialogue and the scene-setting is very good indeed.  Also impressive is the medical research that Ms Moyes must have done to make this novel as believable as it is.  The central characters are all clearly defined, and their development is entirely credible.  The only criticism I can offer is that one becomes somewhat emotionally fatigued reading the novel.  Could it have been a little bit more memorable and effective if it had been a hundred pages shorter?

If you’re a reader who likes emotional roller coasters, this one is definitely for you!

Review: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

This book was recommended to me by an Italian friend of mine, who particularly likes non-fiction.  It was written by Penny Le Couteur, PhD, who, the back cover tells me, “teaches chemistry ad Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada.  She is the winner of the Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, and has been a professor for over thirty years.  and

Jay Burreson, PhD, who has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for chemical compounds in marine life.  He is also general manager of a high-tech company.”

The title of this book is based on the unproven belief that the clothing of Napoleon’s officers and soldiers in his Grande Armée may have fallen apart during the extreme cold of the winter of 1812, following its retreat from Moscow.  One observer of the army’s retreat noted that it appeared like “a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes”.  The buttons on the uniforms of the Grand Armée were made of tin, a metal which changes into a crumbly, non-metallic grey powder at low temperature.  Could crumbling buttons have led to the defeat at Moscow, and the extreme hardships of the retreat?  If the army had been equipped with brass buttons, might it have been victorious at Moscow, and moved on east, capturing all of Russia?  If so, Russia and all of Europe would be a different place today.  In 1812, 90% of the Russian population were serfs, who, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, could be bought and sold by their owners.  Might Russia have been recreated in the image of France?

There are seventeen chapters in this book: one for each special molecule or group of molecules.  In each chapter, the elements making up the molecule are identified, as well as the structure of the molecule.  If the molecule occurs in nature, the efforts made to synthesize it are discussed.  But, most interestingly, the impact of the molecule on human history is described.  Here is a partial list of the molecules: pepper, nutmeg and clove, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glucose, cellulose, silk and nylon, dyes, the Pill, molecules of witchcraft, salt.  For example, in the case of the spice molecules, they stimulated an enormous growth in world trade and exploration.  Ascorbic acid prevented scurvy, making long voyages possible.

While there are plenty of chemical formulae and equations in the book, one does not have to be a chemist to understand the evolution of each molecule.  The text is user friendly, understandable and clear.  The authors are at their best when they describe the impact of each molecule on history, using facts, examples and statistics.  In the introduction, they confess that they had to narrow a larger list down to seventeen.  One has to wonder what they left out, but it doesn’t really matter because the general point about the power of chemistry on humanity has been made. One must wonder what the future will bring.

As I read the book, some of my high school chemistry came back to me, and in this sense, I may be an atypical reader, but I would have liked a brief chemical tutorial on how the structure of a molecule is determined, and on how individual molecules work on human beings.  There are excellent discussions on salt and soap, but for some other molecules, this is discussed only superficially.

Review: Jesus: A Pilgrimage

This book came to me by a trade.  I traded Stoney the Road, about black reaction to Reconstruction , and its aftermath, in which my son-in-law had an interest, for a book he was reading that I thought was Jerusalem.  But the book he was reading turned out to be Jesus: a Pilgrimage, by James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest.  Nonetheless, it turned out to be a fair trade, because I enjoyed Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It was also a New York Times bestseller and Christopher Award Winner.

Father James Martin is a prolific writer having authored thirteen books.  He is also editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine, America.  He was born in 1960 and grew up in Plymouth Meeting,  Pennsylvania, United States (near where I grew up).  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1982 and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years.

Dissatisfied with the corporate world, he became more deeply involved in the Catholic Church and decided to enter the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits) in 1988. During his studies to become a Jesuit priest, he earned a M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago in 1994, an M.Div. from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 1998, and a Th.M., also from the Weston School, in 1999. He was ordained a priest in 1999.

Father James Martin

In Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Father James describes a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land to view the many historic places associated with Jesus in Jerusalem and vicinity and in Galilee.  He describes the site, his reaction to it, reveals what other religious writers have said about it.  He includes the New Testament verses that relate to the events that are though to have taken place there, and he offers theological commentary on the significance of the events.

But this book is not a heavy theological tome, because Father James also covers the joys and difficulties of journeying through the Holy Land.  His touch is light, his prose in simple; the journey is spiritual, but also light-hearted.

I found nothing to criticize in this book.  At 465 pages, it was lengthy, but it progressed naturally from site to site, following Jesus’ time line.  To have abbreviated it, would necessarily have made it more superficial or more theological.

The book was particularly interesting for me as my wife and I toured Israel several years ago and visited many of the sites mentioned.  Since our interests were secular as well as religious (we wanted to learn more about Christianity, Judaism and Islam), we missed some of the iconic places mentioned.  It was good to draw a mental and spiritual picture of them.

Those of you who have read my books know that I am a committed Christian. I was entirely comfortable with nearly everything Father James said; his spiritual beliefs tended to confirm my own.  But what advice can I give to those potential readers who consider themselves adherent of other faiths, or agnostics, or atheist?  My view is that Jewish and Muslim readers, who may have some curiosity about Christianity, would find the book interesting in that it clearly defines what Christianity is about, without any reference to other religions.  Agnostics may struggle with the intensity of the evidence that Father James presents.  It is difficult to be ambivalent about it.  Atheists will almost certainly put the book aside after reading, at most, the first four pages, and declare: “this book isn’t for me.”

Review: Another Country

I bought this book at an airport bookshop in May, because I’ve never read anything by James Baldwin.  I’m glad I did, because Another Country is like no other novel I’ve read.

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, NY in 1924.  His mother left his biological father because of his drug abuse.  She then married a Baptist preacher, David Baldwin, with whom she had eight more children.  Young Baldwin was treated harshly by his step father, but he followed in the elder Baldwin’s footsteps to become a junior minister.  He later described himself as not religious, but his church experience clearly influenced his world view and his writing.  In 1948, Baldwin emigrated to Paris, discouraged by the racial prejudice in the US and aware that he was gay.  He spent most of the rest of his life in France, returning to the US a number of times to participate in the civil rights movement.  He wrote six novels, of which Another Country is the third, two plays, nine collections of essays and one collection of poems.  He died in 1987.

James Baldwin

Another Country begins with Rufus, a young, black drummer from Harlem who has fallen on hard times, with drugs, too much alcohol, too few gigs.  Rufus meets Leona, a poor, white, Southern girl in a bar.  They go to a party, have sex and she follows him to his place, where Vivaldo, Rufus’ only friend, a failing writer, who is white meets them.  The three of them encounter Cass who is married to Richard, Vivaldo’s friend and high school English instructor, who is about to publish a novel he has written. Rufus drifts into a homosexual prostitution encounter, and losing his self esteem, beats up Leona and self destructs, committing suicide.

The scene then shifts to Ida, Rufus’ adoring sister, who becomes Vivaldo’s lover, but there is constant friction between them over their respective identities. They meet Steve Ellis, who is a promoter working with Richard.  Ellis senses singing and sexual talent in Ida.

The scene shifts to France where Eric, a bisexual friend of Vivaldo and Cass is making arrangements to travel to New York to take up a lead role in a play, and must take temporary leave from his young French boyfriend, Yves.

In New York, Cass, who has become estranged from Richard, has an affair with Eric, and Vivaldo who is desperate with suspicion over the affair between Ida and Ellis, also has a fling with Eric.

Richard learns of his wife’s infidelity with Eric; he had suspected Vivaldo; he is enraged but they are talking.  Ida confesses her unromantic affair with Ellis, and they, also are talking.   Yves and Eric meet at Idlewild airport.

This novel has a beautifully crafted, credible plot.  It delves into a nether world of drugs, music, self-gratification and self-deception. It deals with perceptions of racial identities on both sides of the divide in the US: neither blacks nor whites are happy, to the detriment of society generally.  It also deals with the gaps between actual and longed-for identities, and masculinity, which can lead to self-destruction.  As such, it is a portrait of a dysfunctional society.  One cannot help but feel that in the 1960’s when Another Country was published the portrait was accurate for some.

The only criticisms I have of Another Country are that some of the dialogue, while realistic, is just chit-chat and does not add value for the reader.  Similarly, some of the narrative about the perceptions and feelings of characters can be lengthy, complex and therefor loses some focus and clarity.  Finally, the environment of the relationship between Cass and Richard isn’t clear enough to support either Cass’ disappointment or Richard’s outrage.  I can only theorise that Baldwin did not have experience of long-time heterosexual relationships.

If you haven’t read Another Country, I highly recommend it.

Rules for Acquiring Editors

Publishers Weekly ran an article 10 Rules for Book Editors by Jonathan Karp on 20 October 2017.  I’ve rediscovered it and I think it’s worth sharing here partly because of what he says (interesting) and partly because of who he is.

Simon and Schuster’s press release dated 6 March last year says: “Jonathan Karp has been promoted to President and Publisher, Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing, effective immediately.  In this new role, he will have overall responsibility for Simon & Schuster’s New York–based adult trade publishing, which includes Atria Books, Gallery Books, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone and their associated sub-imprints and lines, and he will report to President and CEO Carolyn Reidy. Mr. Karp will also continue to serve as Publisher of the Simon & Schuster trade imprint.”

Jonathan Karp

His article is excerpted below:

” I’ve been acquiring books for 25 years, and there are times in the acquisitions process when I don’t even agree with myself! With that caveat, here are some general rules for thinking about trade acquisitions.

1. Love it

This is the most common advice given by acquisitions editors, but it raises questions. Is it possible to love many books at the same time without winding up in a polyamorous predicament? Would it be easier on the editor’s heart to arrange a few marriages of convenience? Some editors fall in love too easily. Others withhold their love with such discipline that it’s an event whenever they want to buy something. The inescapable truth is that each new acquisition marks the beginning of a relationship, one in which you will be reading an author’s work closely and engaging in what is usually an extensive conversation and collaboration. If you don’t begin that relationship with enthusiasm or desire, the project is likely to become a grind or a burden.

2. Wait for Authority

Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, readers respect authors who deeply understand their subject. It’s apparent when a writer is in command, and this command is the surest justification for asking readers to devote hours of their time to a book. It’s possible for someone who deeply understands a subject to write an authoritative book in less than 12 months, but it’s unlikely. The 2015 and 2014 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Anthony Doerr and Donna Tartt, each took about a decade to write their books. Editors should learn to recognize when a book will be worth the wait, contractual due date or not.

3. If You Cry, Buy!

I once asked publisher Jamie Raab why she had the confidence to spend a vast sum to acquire a first novel. She responded, “I cried at the last page.” Her reaction was purely emotional, and she was right not to overthink it. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks went on to become a phenomenon. Often the books readers most enthusiastically embrace are the ones they experience emotionally, not just intellectually.

4. Make a Promise, Have a Purpose

Some altruistic readers out there might hope to better the world through their book purchases, but many potential consumers are probably asking, “What’s in it for me?” The works most likely to appeal to them are the ones that make them the most direct and appealing promise. In 2015 the nation’s number-one nonfiction bestseller was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—an inspired promise, because it is within every lazy slob’s reach and does not strain credulity.

5. Resist the Urge to Acquire in Slow Periods

One of my colleagues, when asked by strangers what he does for a living, tells them, “I read bad books so you don’t have to.” But what happens when the book isn’t bad? What if it’s good but not great? The most frequent comment I hear from less experienced acquisitions editors is “I’m on the fence.” If you’re on the fence, get off, don’t buy it, and find something else to read.

6. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Chris Matthews always used to end his Sunday-morning TV show with a segment called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” in which his guests had to offer one piece of news. On an elemental level, books serve the same purpose. On some hot topics, such as abortion or gun rights or immigration, readers can’t be told anything because they’ve already made up their minds. Other topics aren’t urgent enough to require attention. An agent once sent me a proposal for a book on procrastination. I decided readers would never get around to buying it.

7. Know the Audience

One reason editors tend to specialize in certain categories is that they become familiar with the tastes of the most active buyers in those categories. An experienced editor of crime fiction may sense that a novel is too wild or too mild for the intended audience. A history editor will know whether a “new” Lincoln biography on submission says anything distinctive enough to spark commentary. Conversely, an editor who really knows her market may spot a niche that hasn’t been filled.

8. Have Your Own Ideas . . .

Great acquisitions editors are always thinking of books they’d like to publish. Ann Godoff suggested to her author Ron Chernow that he write a biography of John D. Rockefeller. At Random House, Kate Medina pursued Tom Brokaw for a long time before he wrote The Greatest Generation. In the early 1980s, Simon & Schuster editor Alice Mayhew was sharing a cab home with a young magazine reporter. She asked him to write a group biography of the men most responsible for America’s international leadership after World War II. The writer was Walter Isaacson, and that conversation marked the beginning of an editorial relationship that has lasted more than 30 years.

9. Don’t Be Cynical

There are certain books for which there is almost always an audience, but they have to withstand scrutiny. Maybe there’s an author capable of convincing me that The Macaroni and Cheese Diet will reduce my waistline while also boosting my productivity, but the evidence would have to be compelling. Don’t assume that a book will sell because the author is famous or well connected. A personality in search of an idea is a waste of time. Be wary of sequels, too. A literary agent once tried to convince me to pay a large advance for an author’s second memoir. When I asked him to name one author whose subsequent memoir had outsold the first book, the agent’s only response was . . . “Proust.”

10. Have Conviction

Great editors push hard for the works they want to publish. At Simon & Schuster, Editor in Chief Marysue Rucci felt such conviction about a novelist named Matthew Thomas that we did not hesitate to make an offer for his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves. She knew the audience (readers of sophisticated fiction who love books with a strong female protagonist). She had a purpose (to give voice to an indelible portrait of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a family). And to top it all off, the novel made Marysue cry, so she was certain of its emotional power. Upon its publication, We Are Not Ourselves was an instant bestseller and one of the best-reviewed books of 2014. If you’re a new editor, your fresh perspective is the one advantage you’ll have over the weathered veterans who have been evaluating manuscripts for years. If a new voice speaks to you, persist in your crusade on behalf of that writer. The lack of a successful precedent is often used as a reason for not publishing a book, but it can also be the reason that a book will connect with the public: precisely because no writer has ever done it quite this way, and quite this well, before.”

All of this, for me, makes sense, except that I would entitle number 9 “Be Cynical Sometimes”.

Review: Transcription

This is the new novel by Kate Atkinson.  I signed up for it last autumn, six months before it was published, because I very much liked A God in Ruins, her Costa Book Award winner in 2015 – her third time to win the award.

Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951; she studied English Literature at Dundee University, winning her MA in 1974.  She went on to study for a doctorate in American Literature, but she failed at the oral examination stage.  She has written five Jackson Brodie novels, six other novels (three of which won the Costa Award or its predecessor, the Whitbread Award), two plays and a collection of short stories.  She lives in Edinburgh currently.

Kate Atkinson

The central character in Transcription is Juliet Armstrong, who, at age eighteen, becomes the typist in 1940 for the Security Service, MI5.  Her role is to transcribe the conversations a British agent has with German sympathisers: the Fifth Column.  Her boss thinks well enough of her that he gives her the assignment of getting close to Mrs Scaife, a German-sympathising British socialite, the wife of an admiral who has been interred for his pro-Nazi views.  Juliet succeeds rather well in this deception, arranging a meeting between Mr Vanderkamp, an American official opposed to war with Germany and who has access to US secrets, with Mrs Scaif, who intends to pass the information on to the Third Reich.  The pair are arrested as the information is passed between Vanderkamp and Scaife.  Juliet is also involved in the death of a pro-German woman who accidentally discovers that her conversations with the man she thought was a Gestapo are actually being recorded by the British.  Toward the end of the war, Juliet becomes sympathetic to the Russian cause, and an attempt is made to recruit her as a double agent for the British.

As usual, Ms Atkinson does a splendid job researching her subject matter, from the identities of the real-life players, to the settings, to the actual events and messages.  One is transported back to a blacked-out, war time London, where there was much going on in secret, well-lit places.  The principal characters: Juliet, her boss, Perry Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, the fake Gestapo, and Mrs Scaife as well as some of the minor characters are all distinctly drawn and entirely credible.  Ms Atkinson’s writing is confident and authoritative, leading the reader deftly into unexpected turns of events.  This is not a heavy, sinister novel; it has moments of humor and irony.

For me, there are two serious problems with this novel.  First, Juliet’s assignment as transcriber of the conversations is relatively unimportant in the war effort: nothing of significance is learned that will remotely affect the war’s outcome; and second, a large portion of the book is devoted to Juliet’s transcription efforts.  The novel would have been more interesting if it had more to do with Juliet’s spy persona, Iris Carter-Jenkins, and with more of the identity intrigue and double-dealing going on at high levels in MI5.  There were also some details that didn’t seem right to me.  For example, does it make sense for the man who has the power to force Juliet into a double agent’s role to bother sending her anonymous ‘You will pay for what you did’ messages?

This long-anticipated novel is not up to Kate Atkinson’s usual standards.

Review: The Immortalists

This novel attracted my attention because it has good reviews.  It also has about five pages of glowing blurbs; how can I go wrong?

The Immortalists was written by Chloe Benjamin, who also wrote The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.  She is a gradate of Vassar College (which was a happy hunting ground for dates when I was at university) and she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin.

Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists is set in 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Four Gold children, aged between seven and thirteen, are looking for a travelling psychic who can tell them the date of their individual deaths.  The first to die, on the forecast date, is Simon, the youngest, in his early twenties, of AIDS in San Francisco.  Klara, two years older than Simon, and a magician, who not only wants to entertain her audience with her magic and her death-defying feats, but wants the audience to believe in magic, dies on schedule of an apparent suicide in Las Vegas.  Klara’s older brother, Daniel, a doctor, becomes involved with a policeman who is investigating the psychic in connection with Simon’s and Klara’s deaths.  He is shot by the policeman as he tries to kill the psychic, whom he has tracked down; he, too, dies at the appointed time.  This leaves only Varya, who is expected to die at age eighty-eight.  Varya is involved in experimental work with primates to prove that lifespan can be increased by severely limiting the intake of particular foods, but at the cost of a comfortable life.  Varya leaves the experiment and the novel ends with Varya, at least thirty years before her appointed death, accompanied by her mother, Gertie, and Klara’s daughter, Ruby, while Ruby puts on a memorable magic show.

Ms Benjamin does a good job in persuading the reader to suspend disbelief regarding the reality of the psychic: we are not surprised when the first three siblings die, nor are we surprised that the police would be investigating.  What I particularly liked about this novel are the emotional connections between the siblings: love, regret and sorrow.  The character of Simon is extremely well drawn: his sense of urgency to experience his homosexuality at the expense of self preservation is clear.  Klara is also a unique character for her fascination with and commitment to magic.

For me, Daniel and Varga are not as clearly defined.  For example, what drives Daniel to confront the old woman mystic with a gun, and what drives Varga to be so preoccupied with her stringent diet when she has little to show for it except longevity.  I am also not clear as to why and how Klara chose suicide, or the character and motivation of Eddie, the policeman.  There is a valid attempt to suffuse the novel with an air of mystery and magic: a very difficult task, which I think is only partially successful.

This is a unique story with potentially very interesting, diverse characters; it has mystery and emotional content; it has great promise.  I’m afraid the editor let the author down slightly.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal