Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Read by Fenella Woolgar
Published September 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever. 

Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

My Thoughts:
Let’s just start with the reading, shall we? Fenella Woolgar is marvelous and deserves to be recognized and if I wait to tell you about here until the end, you might have already stopped reading. This is the second of Atkinson’s books that I’ve listened to her read and, while I’m certain I would have been impressed with the books in print, Woolgar’s reading adds so much to the books. So much so that I’ve placed a hold on Tracy Chevalier’s latest, A Single Thread, for the sole reason that Woolgar is reading it.

Now, on to the story.
“Juliet had stopped going to that school, stopped preparing for that bright future, so that she could care for her mother—there had always been only the two of them—and had not returned after her mother’s death. It seemed impossible somehow. . . . That girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never really come back.”
Without any attachments, Julia is just the kind of girl MI5 is looking for. Young, naïve, and alone, she is easily scooped up into the world of espionage. Initially recruited into the secretarial pool, Julia is soon part of a “high tech” surveillance team. Her job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between an MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby who is posing as a German government agent, and a group of Fifth Columnists (“a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders” – I had to look it up and thought you might not know that phrase, either). It’s dull work in the beginning and, as the only woman on the team, Juliet is often called on to do the kinds of things the men think of as “women’s work.” Our girl Juliet is keenly aware of the slight.

But let’s not to be too hasty in calling Juliet a feminist. To fill her days, young Juliet spends a lot of time fantasizing about a romantic relationship with her handsome boss, Peregrine Gibbons. Perry shows an interest in her that, as it turns out, is not in the least bit romantic. Instead, Perry has chosen Juliet to act as a double agent. As Iris Carter-Jenkins, Juliet is handed a gun, an imaginary fiancé, and very little in the way of training. In no time at all, “Iris” has befriended Mrs. Scaife (a wealthy anti-Semitic) and the Fifth Column. She takes to it like water. It turns out all of the women in the book are masters at assuming whatever identity is needed at the time, a trick we women all now only too well.

After the war, Juliet is working as a producer on “that other great national monolith,” the BBC. Ironically, she is in charge of a program called “Past Lives.” It’s her own past life that is haunting her so badly that she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past have returned to punish her. As it turns out they have… in more ways than one.

The review of this book in the New Yorker suggests - no, out and out says – that Atkinson’s style “isn’t terribly distinctive.” Yet, if you’ve read any of her books, I’d bet you’ll disagree. She has, to my way of thinking a very distinctive style that sucks me into her books and which I think is marvelous. Her, as in her other books, there is both a nostalgia and a sense that the blinders are off and she sees the truth behind the façade. Was this my favorite of her books? No. Life After Life still holds that spot. But I enjoyed this one from the first and loved the way Atkinson bounced me around and then turned everything upside down.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll

The Bullet Journal Method: Track The Past, Order The Present, Design The Future by Ryder Carroll
Published October 2018 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
For years Ryder Carroll tried countless organizing systems, online and off, but none of them fit the way his mind worked. Out of sheer necessity, he developed a method called the Bullet Journal that helped him become consistently focused and effective. When he started sharing his system with friends who faced similar challenges, it went viral. Just a few years later, to his astonishment, Bullet Journaling is a global movement.

The Bullet Journal Method is about much more than organizing your notes and to-do lists. It's about what Carroll calls "intentional living": weeding out distractions and focusing your time and energy in pursuit of what's truly meaningful, in both your work and your personal life. It's about spending more time with what you care about, by working on fewer things. His new book shows you how to...

• Track the past: Using nothing more than a pen and paper, create a clear and comprehensive record of your thoughts.

• Order the present: Find daily calm by tackling your to-do list in a more mindful, systematic, and productive way.

• Design the future: Transform your vague curiosities into meaningful goals, and then break those goals into manageable action steps that lead to big change.

Carroll wrote this book for frustrated list-makers, overwhelmed multitaskers, and creatives who need some structure. Whether you've used a Bullet Journal for years or have never seen one before, The Bullet Journal Method will help you go from passenger to pilot of your own life.

My Thoughts:
Does this picture help you understand how much I loved this book? I mean, it's a book about creating a book to help organize your life. How was I not going to love it?

I'm on my fifth year of using a bullet journal and it's been an evolving process. In the beginning, I was working hard to be as creative as possible with my journal, carrying around a box of colored pencils and then markers, along with washi tape and stencils. It didn't take me long to figure out that, as much as I admire journals that are colorful and creative, it was more work than I wanted to put into my journals. So I went back to Carroll's website to really get a feel for the process (

This book reinforces the process but also dives deep into the reasons it works and the ways it can be customized. If you've never used the bullet journal method, this is a great starting spot. But it's also a great resource for those of us who've been using the method for years. I knew the process but I didn't necessarily know why Carroll had developed each piece of it. Knowing the why is really going to help me use my journal better and help me develop what Carroll calls "collections" for more parts of my life and in a better way. All of those sticky notes have turned into ten legal pages of notes since I have to return the book (someday, when the libraries reopen) and there is some homework I still want to get to.

Don't be scared off by all of those sticky notes and the mention of homework, though. The beauty of the method and this book is that it is entirely up to you to make of it what you will. You can do as much, or as little, as you want. If you're like me and need paper and pen to keep things on track, this is definitely the way to go to help you stay on track without a lot of little notes all over the house!

Let's be honest, this book is right up my alley anyway. But right now, it was exactly what I needed to help me refocus on reading.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Life: It Goes On - April 5

Because I'm a person that can sometimes go a whole weekend without leaving the house anyway, while I've been home this weekend, it's been easier to pretend that everything is perfectly normal. Except that part where the other people I live with never. leave. What's a girl who needs her alone time to do???

On the other hand, Thursday I started working from home. That will be my new normal for at least a month. Already I miss that routine. And the people. It was my last real chance to see other people. It's weird working from home.

Of course, the people I really miss are my people - my family, my besties, the people I hug. Friday afternoon, I happy hour'd via Zoom with my besties. We talked for two hours. I may have drank the better part of a bottle of wine. I felt so much better when we were done, so much lighter. Then Saturday, we "zoomed" with almost everyone on my side of the family. I got to see all of my brother's grandkids and hear them talk and see my great-niece walking (she just recently started). It's not the same as getting a hug but, for now, it helps.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Tracy Chevalier's A Single Thread on Wednesday and don't have a new audiobook available right now so I've been bouncing around with different kinds of music. Without a commute, it's hard to listen to podcasts. I'm not sure how I'm going to listen to a book when my next library hold becomes available.

Watched: We're trying to avoid too much of the news. We want to be informed but not overwhelmed. So we leave the t.v. more than usual.

We also took advantage of the first weekend of free Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals; Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was available on YouTube. We watched for 45 minutes but couldn't take it any more; it was released straight to video when it came out and it showed. Next weekend is Jesus Christ Superstar; I'm really looking forward to that one!

Read: I'm struggling with The Book of V. I'm about half way through it but it's taken me most of the week and it's a short book. It may be a rare DNF for me. There are three stories within the book and I'm having a hard time getting into any of them. I'm not blaming the book; it's probably, more than ever, a case of wrong book, wrong time.

Made: Salads, beef stroganoff, enchiladas, Miss H's favorite goulash - we've been making good meals this week. One benefit of working from home is that I'll have an extra hour every day so I'm hoping to cook even more in the coming weeks.

Red Cedar Works - one of
fave small businesses!
Enjoyed: Miss H went into Lincoln this week and socially distance visited my parents. I wish I could have seen their faces when she surprised them! She came back with a little gift for me that my sister had sent to my parents' house (along with the rest of their order) to congratulate me on my new job. She calls these "conversation boxes" and this is now my second one.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On finishing up 40 Bags in 40 Days this week. I'll definitely get my 40 bags out (although "out" is a bit of a misnomer since I can't get anything to Goodwills or shelters). I just haven't done a good job of hitting the area that needed it most, my basement. When the sun is shin gin, I don't want to be downstairs; when the sun isn't shining, I can't seem to get motivated. 

Thinking About: The two nurses in our family, and all of the other health care workers, who are on the front line of this thing.

Feeling: At the moment, I'm feeling eager to get past the last freeze. The Big Guy got worried that we wouldn't be able to get vegetable plants and flowers if we went to shelter in place so my kitchen table is now covered in plants. We cannot use the table but I'm going to be so happy when my yard is full of color come summer time.

Looking forward to: It's supposed to be almost 80 degrees on Tuesday so my friends and I are planning a social distancing appropriate dinner party. One of them has a really big patio so we can all stay far enough apart to be safe and we'll all bring our own meals. It will be very different (and so hard not to hug them!); but at least we'll be together.

Question of the week: Have any of you started making masks? I ordered material to make some and will give that a shot this week. BG has done a lot of research so we think we'll be able to make masks that will at least allow us to go out for short periods relatively safely.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro
Published July 2012 by St. Martin's Press
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Nola Céspedes, an ambitious young reporter at the Times-Picayune, finally catches a break: an assignment to write her first full-length feature. While investigating her story, she also becomes fixated on the search for a missing tourist in the French Quarter. As Nola's work leads her into a violent criminal underworld, she's forced to face disturbing truths from her own past and is confronted with the question: In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?

My Thoughts:
I wish I were better at remembering or recording where I first heard of books. I know I've been wanting to read this one for several years. I know when I saw Castro at the 2015 Omaha Lit Fest I was hoping to be able to pick this book up then (unfortunately, they didn't have it). Because I can't remember where I first heard about the book, I also can't remember what drew me to it so I went into this one completely blind. Even so, it was not what I expected.

I thought I was going to get a straight mystery with a colorful setting. That's not what I got.

There is a mystery piece to this book - who is kidnapping and killing young women in New Orlean's French Quarter? But that is almost a backdrop for the real stories here.
"In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?"
In Hell or High Water, that piece of the summary isn't just talking about New Orleans, post-Katrina. It's about those who suffer from sexual predators, who become the subject of an assignment Nola is unexpectedly handed that might make her career. Mostly, though, it's about Nola.

Nola is one of the most interesting characters I've read in a long time. Her mother was a Cuban refugee, her father left them when she was little after moving them to New Orleans, and she grew up in the Ninth Ward, in the projects. To give her a better education, Nola's mother sent her across town to a private school, a place where Nola felt even less like she fit in.

Now, she's feeling stuck and desperate for the kind of story that will allow her to get out of New Orleans, away from her past and away from her mother, an alcoholic who requires Nola's help every Sunday to keep up her place. She has a group of friends that gets together weekly but none of them know about Nola's past and none of them struggle to make ends meet. Even with her closest friends, Nola doesn't feel like she fits in and she can never entirely let her guard down. There's a dark side of Nola that even her besties don't know about and that's the part of her that makes her such an interesting character. And that's the part that's going to make this book really blow up.

The second most interesting character in this book? The city of New Orleans. I'm not sure I've ever read a book where the setting played such a big role in the book. From the French Quarter, to the zoo, to the food, to the nearby plantations, to culture and food. Once in a while it felt like too much, like Castro was looking for ways to get more of New Orleans into the book. But mostly, it really rooted the story and the people in the story.

Trigger warning: When Nola finally gets an assignment she hopes will really launch her reporting career, it's a piece about the sexual predators that went off the radar after Katrina. To get a full story, Nola interviews a number of convicted predators and a psychologist who talks about the effects on their victims. It's a tough read and if it's something that you have experience with, it might be too hard to read.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
Published January 2020 by Random House Publishing
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
A solitary ship captain, drifting through time.

Nia Imani is a woman out of place. Traveling through the stars condenses decades into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her. She lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.

A mute child, burdened with unimaginable power.

The scarred boy does not speak, his only form of communication the haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and otherworldly nature, Nia decides to take the boy in to live amongst her crew. Soon, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself. For both of them, a family. But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy.

A millennia-old woman, poised to burn down the future.

Fumiko Nakajima designed the ships that allowed humanity to flee a dying Earth. One thousand years later, she now regrets what she has done in the name of progress. When chance brings Fumiko, Nia, and the child together, she recognizes the potential of his gifts, and what will happen if the ruling powers discover him. So she sends the pair to the distant corners of space to hide them as she crafts a plan to redeem her old mistakes.

But time is running out. The past hungers for the boy, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart.

My Thoughts:
I requested this from Netgalley but for the life of me I can't remember why. It's not entirely uncommon for me to not remember what a book is about when I start reading it but I when I started reading this book, it wasn't even something that I would normally choose. Sci-fi? Me? Still, I have read and enjoyed sci-fi and Jimenez pulled me into his story immediately. Or, should I say his first story. Because The Vanished Bird is not so much a novel as a series of closely connected short stories that Jimenez will bring full circle by the time the book ends.

For a while, though, we're not so certain where the book is going. The book begins on the planet Umbai-V, where we first meet Nia when she arrives there to pick up a harvest and she first meets young Kaeda. Her ship arrives on the planet every 15 years, although only a few months has passed for her between visits. He is smitten and when she returns 15 years later, the two of them make love. It feels like we're reading a love story; and we are, but not the love story we're expecting. Because, of course, Kaeda is aging more than 15 times as fast as Nia. And Nia's heart will soon belong to the young boy.

So when Fumiko makes her a job offer, Nia chooses trying to save the boy over the crew which had become her family and sets out with a new crew. Fumiko thinks the boy make have a power she is certain the corporation she has spent her life working for will exploit for profit. While she has spent 1000 years helping the corporation dominate the universe, she will not stand by quietly and watch them destroy the boy.

Now, as a person who hasn't read much sci-fi, I can only guess as to how true fans will respond to this book. But I believe it will give them everything they want in a sci-fi novel - space travel, world building, time travel, a whole lot of science, and a lot of action. But the book's strength is in the fiction part of that genre name, in its characters and their relationships. It's a book about incredible greed and incredible love. About the power of one person and the power of connections.

So while I can't remember what made me request this book, I'm certainly happy that I did. It's reminded me that it's good to go out of your comfort zone; there are good stories to be found everywhere.