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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Spying on London in WWII

Kate Atkinson's new novel, Transcription, is about a young girl at the start of World War II who is hired by the M15, the British intelligence agency, to transcribe secretly recorded conversations between a British M15 agent posing as a Nazi sympathizer and other British Hitler supporters. The Fifth Column was the name for the network of Brits who supported the Nazis and the German cause. 

This fictional story of Atkinson's is based on real transcripts recently released by the M15. Atkinson became interested in the Fifth Column and fascinated with the unnamed "girl" who transcribed these conversations. The book moves from 1981 at the end of the life of this "girl," whom she names Juliet, to 1950, when she is working for the BBC post war, to 1940 during the time Juliet is working for the M15 as a transcriptionist.  We learn that Juliet is a naive orphan learning about life and love while negotiating layers of intrigue in the early days of WWII.  Juliet has her own secrets which we don't learn until the end of the novel. I am certainly not posting any spoilers here, but the book is another winner by one of my favorite novelists. I highly recommend!

Monday, August 20, 2018


It's been a long hot summer in America. Watching Trump lie daily.  Seeing racism and sexism out in the open. But the worst sight was seeing children being separated from their parents on our border with Mexico. Living on the border. Border line. Bordering on insane.  Borders, boundaries. Arbitrary lines created by governments.  Protecting whom from what?  More Mexicans are leaving this country than entering. MS-13 gangs started in Los Angeles, not Mexico. Who are we kidding?

In late June I got to meet Jose Antonio Vargas at the American Library Association meeting. He told his story. His mother sent him to America from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California when he was 12.  He didn’t know he was not a legal resident until he was in high school. He found out when he couldn’t go with his school choir on a trip to Japan because he had no passport. Later he couldn’t apply for scholarships to go to college. He ended up getting a special scholarship to go to college and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Washington Post on falsified papers.  He’s 37 years old now and has "come out" as an illegal alien. He said it was harder to come out as illegal than to come out as gay, which he is also. He has spent time in detention in McAllen, Texas. He has not been deported. Yet. 

Vargas has just written a book called Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.  This will be released in September. He said he might not be living here then. But he still considers himself an American citizen, even though this country thinks of him as an alien. The book was eye-opening and instructive. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Stay Warm with Winter Book Recommendations

People are always asking me for book recommendations and I often refer them to this blog, but I haven't written a list post in a while. So here are some of my favorite books from the last six months with very brief reviews.  The ratings were given immediately after finishing the books, but pretty much still hold true in comparison.

My recent five-star books:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - Searing is a good word to describe this book. Ugly, hard life to read about, but so gorgeously written. The afterlife is the only bright spot in this dark book. This is a great novel. Jojo is now one of the Great American characters and is a redemptive figure in a land of despair. I even had sympathy for his flawed mother Leonie by the end. Well done, Jesmyn Ward. You are truly a genius.

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama - I had to give this five stars because I got to hear Barack Obama's voice in the middle of this Trumpian madness of threatening nuclear war and supporting white supremacists. I got to listen to Obama read his story about being the son of a multi racial couple - a foreign Kenyan student and a white midwesterner. He used different voice and accents as he read this book, maybe not the best written, but definitely the best read and the best story. Even though I've heard the story over and over, I'd never read the book. It tells his life story (and ancestors) until just before he started law school. The book made my heart smile and gave me hope in the midst of this Trump darkness. And surprise of surprise, at the end, the book had the bonus of Obama's 2004 Audacity of Hope speech at the Democratic Convention. I cried. I will listen to it over and over. There is hope for this country. The whole book on Audible is a must listen!

My recent four-star books:
The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst - Wow! An beautiful book. This Katrina story is searing and heartbreaking. Babst gets so much right about that time and about New Orleans and the people that call it Home. Since we are moving back in a few months after 11 years in Houston, I found it heartbreaking but also redemptive. A few things didn’t ring true to me but mostly it was agonizingly realistic and beautifully written.

The Spare Room By Helen Garner – This was a wonderful novel by a beloved Australian writer. I plan to read more by her. I was blown away by her description of the feelings of a woman who offers to host a friend with cancer in her home for three weeks. The friend is undergoing a controversial treatment and while the hostess starts with loving, generous feelings by the end she is filled with regret and fury. Honest and accurate.

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving - I slowly read this important nonfiction book over several months and learned so much. I would not have called myself racist until I realized all the ways my privilege makes me totally unaware of what people of color face every day. I now want to learn more and do more for racial justice. This book was easy to read and written in a way that a white girl like me can understand. I hope more people will read this book.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – I started reading this book for the second time and didn’t realize it for a few pages (like you do sometimes on your Kindle) but I kept reading because I love her books so much. This is #12 and one of my favorites. I also devoured #13 in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books, Glass Houses, one of the greats.. These Canadian mysteries are simply the best. My favorite is still How the Light Gets In, but this is my second favorite. I can’t wait for #14!

Incendiary By Chris Cleave - Wow! I read in this in one sleepless night during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. It was as terrifying as the weather. Written as a letter to Osama bin laden from a working class mother who lost her husband and four year old son in a bomb attack in London, it was spell binding. Funny and tragic and plot driven, this book made me cry several times but I couldn't stop reading it. I highly recommend this great novel by a favorite writer.

I read many other books that ranged from entertaining to dull and worthless. Here I am listing the better books I read since mid-August.  Insider scoop: The only way I can remember what books I’ve read is to look back on my Goodreads Books Read. I love Goodreads and try to quickly post a short review of every book I read just as I finish on my page there. Follow me – I think you just look up my name, Harriet Riley, to find me. I’d love to know what you are reading as well!!! Next week, I’ll share my three-star books, an excellent reading list on its own.  Some of these might make your five-star list because taste is subjective. Happy reading!