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Posts Tagged ‘Jackson Brodie’

Sorry, I forgot to put out my “Gone Reading” sign at the first of the month, but I’ve been reading so much there hasn’t been time to write. Let’s catch up.

“It’s not what it looks like,” says P.I. Jackson Brodie on the very first page of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Little Brown, digital galley). It never is with Atkinson, the most wily of writers, or with Jackson, my favorite book boyfriend. Returning for his fifth outing after a too-long absence, he’s tracking an errant husband in an English seaside town, sometimes in the company of his 13-year-old son and an aging Labrador, when things get complicated. They always do. This time, it’s a circle of sex traffickers, a murdered wife, a missing hitchhiker, a pair of young coppers working a cold case, assorted villains and innocents. Atkinson uses multiple points of view and quirky characters, zigs when you expect her to zag, and expects readers are smart enough to keep up.

I miss the Sorensons. They’re the Midwestern family at the center of Claire Lombardo’s immersive first novel The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had (Doubleday Knopf, digital galley), which I binged like a favorite Netflix series. So good. David and Marilyn Sorenson live in her childhood Oak Park home, two peas in a pod ever since they fell in love under the ginkgo tree in the backyard in the mid-1970s. This is surprisingly hard on their four grown daughters, who joke about the “magical albatross” of their parents’ love for one another. The bar is set so high, and each tries to measure up — or not — in singular ways. At book’s beginning, the oldest, Wendy, a rich widow, stirs the sisterly stew of rivalries and resentments by introducing a teenage boy into the mix — the child secretly given up for adoption by one of the sisters 16 years ago. Uptight lawyer and stay-at-home mom Violet can’t deal, college professor Liza is coping with an unexpected pregnancy and a depressive boyfriend, and the youngest, Grace, is off in Oregon, supposedly acing law school. The emotionally resonant narrative follows family members over the course of a year with frequent flashbacks to fill in everyone’s past, and Lombardo deftly orchestrates the chorus of perspectives. The book’s maybe a little too long, saggy in spots, and it’s Sorenson-centric — the tumultuous times don’t intrude, although the family is not immune to misfortune and regret. Real life is rich and messy, and The Most Fun We Ever Had feels real. It reminds me of Sue Miller’s classic novel Family Pictures or Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and I was sorry to see it end.

I’ve read some other good books, too. Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything (Atria, digital galley) follows two sisters over 50 years, and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, digital galley) features neighboring families tied together by the profound connection between two of their children. In Michael Parker’s atmospheric and lyrically written Prairie Fires (Algonquin, digital galley), the bond between two sisters on the Oklahoma frontier is tested when they both fall in love with their schoolteacher. Kristen Arnett’s morbidly funny first novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House Books, digital galley) is set right here in swampy Central Florida, where Jessa-Lynn Morton tries to keep the family taxidermy business going in the wake of her father’s suicide. Arnett examines grief, loss and love with the same skill that Jessa dissects and rebuilds a raccoon. If that’s not your thing, Denise Mina’s thrilling Conviction (Little, Brown, digital galley) stars a woman whose obsession with a true-crime podcast collides with her secret history.

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atkinsonMy friend Dean recently banned the use of  the old Yogi Berra saying “deja vu all over again” because it is  misused and overused, cliched and redundant.  But when I first started reading Kate Atkinson’s kaleidoscopic new novel Life After Life (Little, Brown, digital galley via NetGalley), I kept thinking of it, especially when Ursula Todd’s mother says of her daughter “she has a kind of deja vu all the time.”

Not surprising when Ursula lives and dies multiple times over the course of the novel, which is so much more than a narrative parlor trick, a literary Groundhog Day, or an episode of Dr. Who. (Come to think of it, though, Ursula appears to be a kindred spirit of the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, who has died at least twice already that viewers know of.)

Ursula first is stillborn on a snowy February night in 1910. A few pages later, the umbilical cord is cut from her neck and she breathes. But her seemingly idyllic Yorkshire childhood is filled with perils: crashing waves, slippery roofs, Spanish flu. “Darkness falls” is Atkinson’s signature cue for Ursula’s demise so another scenario can be played out, events slightly altered and leading down different roads. Not to spoil things, but in one life Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher; in another, she marries a German lawyer and has a child. In that life, she also knows Eva Braun and is caught in the bombing of Berlin. But in other lives, she both dies and survives the London Blitz several times as “darkness falls” over England and Europe. Eventually, the book circles back to its 1930 prologue when an English woman points a gun at Hitler because, of course, if you could go back and “get things right,” you’d want to kill him, too.

The Blitz, as Atkinson says, is the “dark beating heart” of the novel and her set pieces are accordingly horrific as to the damage inflicted on people, animals, birds and buildings. Again and again, the story returns to a subterranean cellar of a house on Argyll Road, where residents shelter during air raids. “It was a maze, a moldy, unpleasant space, full of spiders and beetles, and felt horribly crowded if they were all in there, especially once the Millers’ dog, a shapeless rug of fur called Billy, was dragged reluctantly down the stairs to join them.”

Atkinson surrounds Ursula with a fully realized family: banker father Hugh and faceted mother Sylvie,  obnoxious brother Maurice, bohemian aunt Izzie, beloved brother Teddy, reliable sister Pamela. Their fates, too, change, depending on which of Ursula’s lives you’re following at the time. Then there’s the memorable supporting cast, including heroic air raid warden Miss Woolf, married naval officer Crighton, childhood friends Millie,  Nancy, Fred, Ben. Like some details — a piece of costume jewelry, or a small white dog, or gold cigarette case — they keep showing up in different plotlines. 

You might wonder as to the point of all these pluralities, other than Atkinson stretching the storytelling envelope. Those familiar with her Jackson Brodie crime novels such as Case History or the semi-time-travel tale Human Croquet know she’s already a deft and inventive writer. I’ll read anything she has written. But Life After Life, both playful and poignant, strikes me as her best book yet, “bearing witness” to lives gone before, yet reimagining life’s possibilities. I can’t wait to read it again.

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Remember your first encounters with a car GPS? It was a bit disconcerting having some stranger telling you which way to go, when to turn, etc.,  especially if you were on familiar ground. Turn left? But won’t that take me into a lake? (Every other street in central Orlando leads to a lake.) Ok, I’ll go that way, but I don’t think — oh, a shortcut. Who knew?

In Kate Atkinson’s terrific — and terrifically intricate — new novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, reluctant private detective Jackson Brodie sets his GPS for his boyhood home in North Yorkshire. “The voice on Jackson’s SatNav was ‘Jane,’ with whom he had been in a contentious relationship for a long time now.”

No surprise there. Over the course of three previous books, Jackson’s women invariably inspire, disappoint and confuse him. Now he’s ostensibly looking for his second wife Tessa, who disappeared with his money, but he’s really “looking for a peg to hang his hat on, an old dog looking for a new kennel, one untainted by the past. A fresh start. Somewhere there was a place for him. All he had to do was find it.”

Meanwhile, he’ll see if he can find an Australian woman’s British birth parents. This new quest will eventually intersect with other stories playing out both in the past and present. In one, Tracy Waterhouse, a retired cop working mall security, impulsively buys a little girl from her abusive mother and prepares to reinvent her life. This is the same Tracy, who in the book’s beginning scene in 1975, is a rookie who discovers a toddler in horrific circumstances. Then there’s Tilly, the aging actress who has a bit part in a TV detective show and whose wig and memory keep slipping.  Jackson’s former lover Julia appears in the same popular series, which Jackson despises for its its “neat sanitized narrative.”

Atkinson’s narrative is hardly that. By all appearances, it’s a hot mess, lots of jumping around in totally different directions. But wait. Trust Atkinson’s GPS.  She knows exactly where the book is going as she turns left, right, left again, doubles back, then straight on to the roundabout as the characters try to save others and themselves.

Jackson comes into possession of a winsome border terrier after punching out its cruel owner. Tracy, determined to protect young Courtney, confides in her former partner, who is grieving his own great losses. A gray car with a pink furry rabbit drooping from its rearview mirror shadows Tracy, then Jackson. Linda the social worker keeps missing appointments. Hope McMasters texts Jackson from Australia: Any luck finding her parents?

Luck, coincidence, fate. Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The old refrain, “for want of a nail.” These are among the coordinates Atkinson maps with such acuity.

She has used this same narrative technique to good effect in the previous Jackson Brodie books, but she’s brilliant in Started Early, Took My Dog. Tricky plot. Memorable characters. Perfect ending. For fans, she’s certainly answered the title of her last novel, When Will There Be Good News

Open Book: I bought my hardcover copy of Started Early, Took My Dog (Little, Brown) when it was first published a couple weeks ago and read it immediately. Then I read it again.

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