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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Atkinson’

I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 

 

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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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Lately it seems as if everything I read reminds me of another book or author. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it often leads to playing a favorite game of “This and That.” You know:  “If you like this, then you should read that.” Or vice-versa.

To wit, if you like Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction, then you should read Emily St. John Mandel’s elegantly constructed new novel The Lola Quartet (Unbridled, publisher’s galley). Mandel offers episodic scenes with no readily apparent connection — a young woman with a baby on the run, high school seniors playing jazz in a truck bed in the hot South Florida night, a New York reporter fictionalizing facts. At the center of this jigsaw-puzzle plot is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl that resembles reporter Gavin’s adult sister and has the same last name as his high-school sweetheart. Returning to Florida’s suburban sea of foreclosed houses and lost dreams, Gavin’s search for the little girl leads to encounters with his past and the other members of his student jazz ensemble, all now coping with degrees of disappointment. Mandel’s noir tale is both perceptive and evocative as Gavin plays gumshoe in the sultry heat, not realizing that his well-intentioned quest has unleashed dangerous consequences.

If you enjoy Kate Morton’s historical novels such as The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden, then check out Katherine Webb’s The Unseen (Morrow, paperback review copy). Inspired by the infamous British fairy photograph hoax of 1917, Webb’s engaging tale unfolds as dual narratives. In 1911 Berkshire, the Rev. Albert Canning and his naive wife Hester welcome two strangers to their home — Cat Morley, the new maid with suffragette leanings and a tainted past, and Robin Durrant, a spiritualist looking for dryads in the nearby water meadows. In 2011, reporter Leah travels to the village while researching the identity of a World War I veteran who saved two mysterious letters hinting at 1911’s secret tragedy. But of course . . .

Now, if you can’t get enough of the true-life story of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and/or the lush period details of  Downton Abbey or The King’s Speech, historian Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley) may be just the thing. As the royal romance unfolds in 1936, Nicolson focuses on fictional characters caught up in the wake of the manipulative Wallis, “a woman with an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and a perfectly enormous head.” Evangeline Nettleton, a clumsy American spinster, is a girlhood friend of Mrs. Simpson, and her attempts to fit in with the royal entourage are cringe-inducing. In stark contrast, 19-year-old May Archer, recently arrived from the West Indies and living with Jewish relatives, forges an independent path as the chauffeur of a MP. No wonder she is attracted to a leftist Oxford student. Nicolson is a better historian than novelist, so her sudsy plot plays out against a fascinating factual tapestry.

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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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I didn’t make a year-end list of recommendations for 2009 because I was too busy trying to get this blog going. (And it was the holidays, too). But now several of my favorite books from last year are out in paperback. I see that that they are all mysteries of one kind or another, but each is so different from another. Still, they all surprise.

When Will There Be Good News?  by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown): A great title for a great literary mystery that begins with a scene of shocking violence in the English countryside, then skips ahead 30 years to catch up with the 6-year-old witness and survivor. Her happy life intersects in unusual ways with a cast of well-drawn characters, including motherless mother’s helper Reggie, police inspector Louise Monroe and the always intriguing detective Jackson Brodie.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Random House): Agatha Christie meets Harriet the Spy in the personage of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who as an aspiring chemist has a familiarity with plants, potions and poisons. But her experiments with a rash-inducing face cream for her older sister can’t compete with her discovery of  a dying stranger in the garden. When her father, the stamp-collecting Colonel, is implicated in the man’s murder, Flavia is not above picking locks, eavesdropping on her elders and figuring out clues, including a dead bird on the doorstep. Clever girl! 

 

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Grand Central Publishing): This sequel to The Poet, one of the best serial killer novels ever, finds LA Times investigative reporter Jack McEvoy forced to not only take a buy-out but also to show the ropes to his attractive rookie replacement. The two think they’ve found a good story when a drug-dealing teen supposedly confesses to a horrific murder, but that’s just the beginning of the bloodletting as Connelly unravels a twisty tale that also pays homage to the struggling daily newspaper industry and its ink-stained wretches. Give this to your favorite reporter, or former reporter as the case may well be.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill): In chilly 1907 Wisconsin, a wealthy widower sends for a mail-order bride, “a reliable wife.” But what he gets is a woman with her own secret agenda — and he knows it. “This begins in a lie,” he says. More lies follow, as does treachery and desire in a downright shivery novel. A good winter’s tale. 

 

 

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Atria/Simon & Schuster): Combination family saga and English Gothic, Morton’s follow-up to the very good The House at Riverton reveals its secrets slowly. On her 21st birthday, Nell learns that her Australian parents adopted her as a 4-year-old left behind on a ship from England in 1913. No one ever claims the child with the small suitcase containing a few anonymous items and a book of fairy tales. Eventually, Nell travels to England’s Cornish coast and Blackhurst Manor in quest of her true identity. But it is left to her granddaughter Cassandra to finally link Nell to the mysterious Montrachet family, “the forgotten garden” and the enchanting book.

Open Book: I received a review copy of The Good Wife from the publisher, checked out The Scarecrow from the library, and bought copies of the other three.

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